Author Topic: Fire and Shadow  (Read 275 times)

Offline Meliran

Fire and Shadow
« on: October 09, 2017, 08:56:49 pm »
Hello! So, some of you may know, but I've been working on a light novel for the past year. This isn't related to any RPGs here (sorry!) so may not be of any interest, but I figured I'd publish it here in case anyone wants to read it. This novel is pretty close to publication - needing layout done in inDesign when I have more time, proofreading, and official publication.

If you do read it, I really appreciate it! Please, if you see any typo's or errors, let me know! :)

All pictures were made by my lovely illustrator kogane, at


Front Pictures

Title Page Chibi

Chapter 1
Chapter 1: The Road to Darkness

When travelling the road of life, we inevitably come to a series of crossroads. One way leads forward, and your life continues unchanging. Another leads astray, but you can experience all sorts of new and exciting things you’d never be able to see otherwise. Some roads are darker and scarier. Others may even be brighter than the road you’re on.

I wish the road of life would work like a real road. At least then, if you turn astray, you could turn back.

My fingers wrap around a tree branch and I give it a tug. It’s certainly stable enough to hold my weight, but I don’t like the looks of the twig near the trunk. It’s far too likely it’ll catch my uniform skirt and flip it up, or even worse, rip it.

I choose a smoother branch to climb up onto and take a seat. Wow! What a view! From this height, I can see the entire city down the hill. White houses and buildings speckle the landscape, split only by one of Kochi’s many meandering rivers. Beyond them, light shimmers off Urado Bay. April’s still too cold to think about swimming, but the warm breeze reminds me of summer’s rapid approach.

In the distance, a small train rushes toward its station. Right on time. Japanese trains are never late.

The wind picks up and makes my skirt flutter. I’m holding tight, or I’d be falling for sure.

Students emerge from the station and climb the hill—each one of them in the same red blazer, red-and-pink-checkered skirt, and white thigh-high socks as mine.

A pair of girls with yellow neckties jabbers as they pass below me. Red for a first year—like me—yellow for second, blue for third, according to the introductory letter.

“Think we’ll be in the same class again this year?” asks one of them.

“Don’t bet on it. Too many students. But at least we’ll have breaks together, right?”

The wind picks up, shaking the sakura flowers. A few break off and flutter through the open air to join the sea of pink littering the road. This isn’t an isolated incident, as the trees stand like soldiers all along the street, dressed in their pink uniforms. I never knew April in Kochi is so beautiful.

I take my left hand off the tree to wipe a stray brown hair out of my eyes. This is a bad idea, as my weaker right hand slips, along with my balance. It is only by a split-second reflex I manage to steady myself—but not my racing heart. Careful! Don’t want to the start the school year with an injury!

The students trickle away, which only makes my heart race more. She is going to come, right? I could grab my phone and give her a call, but no. I need to trust her.

The steady howl of wind is interrupted by a soft click-clack of crutches. Light flashes off their owner’s black glossy hair as she struggles up the hill. Her cute ponytail bounces with every step, accentuated by that adorable flower.

My skirt’s not caught in a twig, is it? No? Good. I launch myself out of the tree. “A-YU-MI!”

She lifts her head in time to see my fall. This’ll be perfect! I spread my arms out and, with all the grace of a gymnast, land on my feet.

Pain shoots up my legs from the force of the landing, but I refuse to show it. I need her reaction first.

She giggles.

I break my pose and rub my sore legs. “That’s a ten, right?”

She lifts up seven fingers.

“What? A seven? But I stuck the landing so nicely and got you to giggle. Oh, forget it. I missed you!” I throw my arms around her, not caring anymore.

She returns the favor. “It would’ve been an eight, but I had to deduct a point for its corniness.”


“A Sakura falling out of a sakura tree? How corny can you get?” Curse my name! Why does it have to be Sakura?

“But it made you giggle, didn’t it?”

“Well, fine. I’ll bump it back up to an eight.” She brushes off her clothes and resumes her ascent.

We pass by more pink trees as we approach the school. “Maybe you should surprise me sometime. I’ll grade you a lot easier than you do me!”

Ayumi taps a crutch on the ground. “Hard to surprise you when you can hear these from a mile away.”

The school gates come into view, and he is leaning against them, arms folded. What the hell? We’re nine hours away from Tokyo!

Hopefully they haven’t seen each other yet. “We should use the back entranceway.”

Ayumi cocks her head. “Didn’t you say we should walk together through the front gates to our new lives?”

I step in front of her. What am I trying to do? Stop him from seeing Ayumi, or stop Ayumi from seeing him? But when she starts shaking with fear instead of skipping with joy—as much as one can skip on crutches—I know I’m too late. “Why is he here?”

“I don’t know, but he hasn’t noticed us yet. Turn around naturally, and when we’re out of sight, run to the back gates.”

She gestures to her knee brace.

“Unable to put any weight on it?”

She puts her bad foot down and winces.

“I guess not. Just pretend you didn’t see him and he might not notice.”

As natural as we act, we’re too late. The click-clack of Ayumi’s crutches are a dead giveaway. He’s approaching at a breakneck speed.

“Come on.” But it’s too little, too late. He catches us and places his hand on Ayumi’s shoulder.

“You really thought you could run away.”

Ayumi doesn’t respond.

“After all I’ve done for you, you think you can get up, run away, and all your problems will be solved?”

Ayumi takes a deep breath. “You know full well what I’m doing. This isn’t your choice to make anymore.”

His grip tightens. “It certainly is, so long as you’re my daughter. We’re going home. Couple of months of physical therapy, and you’ll be on Fuji North’s tracks by summer!”

She winces from the pressure. “I already told you—”

“I don’t care. You will listen to your father. Understood?”

Come on, stand up to him. Tell him no.

She slouches, defeated. “Yes, Dad.”

I can’t believe him. Even after all my threats, he’s still acting like this? I can’t break my promises to Ayumi.

I pull out my phone and tap a few buttons, making it painfully clear to her father what I’m doing.

“You wouldn’t dare.” He releases her shoulder and redirects his anger at me.

I tap another button. “I would. Ayumi is under my protection from now on. If you disagree, I’ll have the police here at the touch of a button.”

“You have no proof!”

His tune changes when I show him the picture I snapped moments ago. “I’m sure the police will believe your word over my picture of you assaulting her.”

He’s cornered. “You’re no daughter of mine!” He spits on her shoe—one last act of hatred before storming out of sight.

Ayumi’s a stone. “Are you all right?” I ask.

She dabs her face with a tissue and rolls her shoulders. “Nothing more than a bruise.” I pull her collar back to get a better view, but she flinches away as if to say, it’s as bad as you think it is.

“No, I mean, do you need a shoulder to cry on? I’m here—”

“I’m fine.”

She stays quiet as we pass through the gates. I fumble to start a conversation, but the most I can get is an “I see.” Seriously, if he ruins our first day of school together, I won’t forgive him. No, I never could forgive him in the first place.

“We’re in the same class!” I point to the listings in the front of the school.

She barely lifts her head. “That’s nice.” After a month of texts worrying about this, that’s all she can say?

“Isn’t it great? Combined with all our time in the dorm, we’ll always be together!”


I have to do something to lighten up the mood, and fast.

This school certainly lives up to its reputation as the largest school this side of Tokyo. Its three floors—one for each year—stretch back as far as the eye can see, straight to the dorms. I wonder how many years it took to build this thing, considering how it’s built entirely out of brick. It certainly isn’t lacking in windows, with them forming stripes across the surface. The school and the dorms form a U-shape around a large courtyard. But I know on the other side of the buildings are the sports fields, and beyond them, the forest.

“Look at the size of this thing!” The atrium is filled with shoe lockers which seem to go on for kilometers in either direction.

She stands in silence, her ponytail fluttering from the fans set up in the entranceway. It’s too tempting.

I grab it and give a small tug. “Ding dong~ Anybody home?”

“Ouch!” She swats my hand away, and grabs ahold of her ponytail to hide it.

I chase it as a dog chases its tail. “I hope I get to sit behind you and play with it all day. It’s too adorable to leave alone.”

Ayumi tucks it in her blazer. “If you like it, why don’t you put your own hair up in one?”

I grab a strand of my messy hair and twirl it in my fingers. “Well, I would, but then I’d never be able to leave it alone. I’d play with it, perfect it, get bored, and then remake it over and over and over! You remember how in junior high my grades nearly slipped a full mark because I kept getting so distracted by it! You wouldn’t want me to flunk out of high school, would you? Think of my life! Think of the children!”

“So, in other words, you’re too lazy to bother.”

I throw my hands up in the air. “You know me too well.” If this has broken the ice, I’ll take it.

Under a banner reading “Welcome to Kochi Girls’ Private High School,” a member of the student council directs us toward the auditorium.

“How long do you think it’ll be until we figure out where everything is?” Ayumi asks.

“Maybe a month.” Maybe even longer.

Ayumi takes one last look at the shoe lockers. “I used to always dream of the day when I’d open my locker and a love letter would tumble out. But that’s impossible in an all-girls school.”

“Girls can like girls too, you know.”

Ayumi giggles. “I meant a boy. But school’s for studying, not for love.”

I grab my skirt. “Look at the bright side. When’s the last time you got to wear pink to school?”

She pulls at her socks. “The socks are a bit weird, though.”

I tug at my own, which stop a couple of centimeters below my skirt. At least I’m tall enough to make them look good. Poor Ayumi. They seem to add two kilos to her thighs. “Yeah,” I admit. “I guess dealing with mandated thigh-highs is the price we have to pay for getting to wear pink…”

“Why would they mandate thigh-highs anyway?”

We pass by a portrait of the school’s founder. “Maybe the principal is some sort of pervert. Doesn’t matter. We’ll get used to them soon enough.”

After a boring opening ceremony (except for the part where the student council president slapped the principal for staring at her chest), the third-year students gather us up by class to lead us to our rooms. As per tradition, the teacher has us go around and introduce ourselves.

“Aya Nakajima, Kochi Middle School,” says the girl in front of Ayumi. “One thing to know about me, I really love tennis and hope to join the club! Pleasure to meet you all.”

We all clap, hearing the same old stuff repeated over and over. At least Ayumi will be a little different.

Ayumi steadies herself against the desk and winces while she struggles to get up. The students wait patiently, if not also curiously, as she rebalances herself on her crutches. “Ayumi Okanawa. Tokyo North Middle School. For my one special trait, I like baking. Pleasure to meet you all.”

We clap as she sits down. “Tokyo?” asks the teacher. “Isn’t that a bit far?”

Ayumi struggles up again to answer her. “Yes, ma’am, it was over nine hours in the train.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, what made you choose Kochi?”

Ayumi shifts uncomfortably as the teacher waits for a response. I need to step in before she says something problematic.

I stand up. “She chose it, because I chose it.”

Not like I can give our real reasons, but at least I’ve bought Ayumi a little bit of time.

“…and you are?” asks the teacher.

“Sakura Okura. Tokyo North Middle School. For my one thing to know, I’ll answer your question. I chose to come down here because it’s got a good view of the sea. Pleasure to meet you all.”

The teacher motions for us to sit back down after a moment of awkward silence. “Well? Next?”


I stretch after the endless first day. From our introductions to the teacher introductions to receiving our books to the general tour of the school, I’m exhausted!

“Thanks.” Ayumi leans on my desk. “I don’t know what I’d have done without you.”

I finish putting my notebooks in my desk. “That’s what friends are for. Besides, you saved me too.”

“Humor me. How did I save you?”

“For my one unique thing, I was stuck between ‘My favorite dessert is a cookie,’ ‘I’ve had my freckles since I was two,’ and ‘I’m left-handed.’” I stick my tongue out and follow the crowd.

She hasn’t moved. “Where’re you going? Aren’t the dorms more toward the woods?”

I put my arm around her shoulder. “Dorms? Come on. I’m joining a club, and you’re joining with me!”

“I’ll pass. Going Home Club sounds fine, and I’ll need to spend some time in physical therapy if I want to walk again.”

My arm moves like a bullet as I snatch Ayumi’s crutch.

“Give it back!” She hops on one leg like a distressed flamingo.

I hold it out of her reach. “Only if you come with me!”

Ayumi puffs out her cheeks. “Fiiine.”

Every club in the school has set up a booth somewhere in the courtyard, with the student council sitting in the gazebo to oversee the activities—if you can call sitting around sipping tea overseeing. The only person who seems to be doing any work is some young dark-skinned girl with bells in her hair. She has to be somebody’s sister, since she can’t be much older than ten. But judging by how quickly students react to her commands, her sister must be somebody important.

There’s no way I’d join the student council. Three years of paperwork and spreadsheets sounds like misery. The other booths are much more appealing.

The basic setup is standard—a cloth-draped table and a sign identifying the club. Though, why is there a butterfly drawn on every sign? Yet those setups didn’t stop the members from adding their own flair. The archery club has an arch of arrows over their table, while the art club is actively painting a mural on theirs.

Ayumi takes a brochure from a member of the newspaper club distributing them. “Let’s see, there’s the knitting club, the bowling club, the baking club… What do you want to check out first?”

My eyes involuntarily wander over to the track club’s booth. They have a whole bunch of smaller trophies on their table—probably for things such as finishing 45th at the national meet. I know they don’t have any particularly special trophies. If they did, we’d never have chosen this school.

I snap out of my daydream. “Sorry. Anyway, you like baking, right? Why don’t we go there?”

Ayumi doesn’t buy it. “I don’t mind if you want to join the track club. My knee’ll heal soon enough. I could do statistics or set up or something in the meantime.”

I place both hands on her shoulders. “We only have three years of high school. I don’t want to waste a single minute of it doing busy work. We’re going to find a club we’ll both enjoy all year.”

“Then you join, and I’ll find something else.”

“Do you think I value the club more than you? The club is fun because you’re in it; you’re not in it because it’s fun.” I flip through her brochure. “How about we start with the Garden Gnome Club?“

“Garden Gnome Club? What would they possibly… Why do they even exist?”

I grab a brochure of my own. “It’s a big school.”


Ayumi and I collapse on a bench after hours of visiting club booths and jotting down thoughts. We pull out our brochures to compare out impressions.

“Whoa, you’re interested in the French club?” she asks.

Oui, oui! I’ve always been interested in French culture and pastries.”

Ayumi leans in and frowns at my notes. With her red pen of death, she crosses the French club off my list. “Let’s get rid of the ones you put down because they give you food.”

“Fiiine.” There goes half my list. I glance at Ayumi’s brochure. “Oh, the School Care Club? What do they do?”

“Oh, they care for all the animals on campus. They feed them, take them for walks, groom them, etcetera.”

Back in elementary school, I had volunteered for a similar duty. But one thing still traumatizes me. “And scoop up their dung.”

Ayumi freezes. “Yeah, let’s not.” She crosses it off her list.

We go through each club, finding the goods and bads of each and comparing notes. “Then baking?” she asks.

My ears perk up. I had crossed it off earlier because of the food, but this time she’s the one suggesting it. “Why not? You like baking. I like eating what you bake. What could possibly go wrong?”

Ayumi pokes my stomach. “You’d put on a little more here.”

“Come on, you know it all goes to my chest!”

“Some girls have all the luck.” She puffs out her own rather flat chest. “But, yeah, I agree. Baking club it is!”

We get up off of our bench to go sign up. Wait, where did everyone go?

“Were we really chatting that long?” Ayumi asks.

I check my phone. “Wow, it’s almost seven. We’ll have to join up tomorrow.”

She stuffs her brochure in her bag. “How do we get to the dorms?”

“They’re supposed to be in the building connecting the other two, so over there.” I point down the courtyard.

“Is our luggage there too?”

“Yeah, the student council brought it up yesterday.” The student council really does a lot here, from organizing days like today to managing life in the dorms. Then again, not many high schools in Japan even offer on-campus dorms, so somebody has to run it.

Something darts in front of us. “What’s that?” asks Ayumi.

“A cat or something. I’m sure there are plenty of strays around here. When the residence committee catches students with cats and makes them get rid of them, it’s not like all of them actually follow through.” My stomach grumbles, begging for dinner. “Let’s go.”

As we approach the building, we find something far more disturbing. “Blood?” I ask. There’s a trail of it crossing the sidewalk.

“Aw, the poor kitty! It’s hurt!”

“Or the mouse in its mouth is. I’m sure it’s fine. Let’s get to the dorms. It’s getting cold.” A cool breeze ruffles my skirt.

Ayumi follows the trail, paying no heed to me. “You go ahead. I want to make sure the cat’s all right.”

I can’t accept her answer. Even if this is a girls-only school, it’s not like there aren’t weird men in Kochi who’d pounce at the chance of finding a girl all alone. With her crutches, it’s not like she can even run if worse comes to worst. “I’ll come with you.”

The trail meanders aimlessly. “You sure it went this way?” I ask as we follow the blood splatters.

“Yeah. It was running away from the sakura trees over there.”

“Lot of blood for one little cat…”

Before I realize it, the school grounds have faded into the background, replaced by tall buildings and shops. The warm lamplights illuminating the campus disappear, giving way to cold and dim streetlights. Their dark shadows hide the unknown, be it dangerous people or animals. Several stores seem to have been boarded up long ago, graffiti freshly plastered as if to warn us to leave. “Ayumi…I think we better turn around.”

“But we haven’t found it yet!”

My blood pressure rises when a man sitting on the side of the road gives me a toothless grin.

“We’re not supposed to leave the grounds without permission. Come on, Kochi’s a big city. I’m sure somebody’s picked it up by now and cared for it.”

Ayumi clenches her fists. “No! We’re not stopping until we’re sure it’s all right.”

She’s beyond hope. Any time she clenches her fists, she’ll ignore all reason and stubbornly continue until she gets her way. Arguing with her is going to get us nowhere. “Lead on.”

The blood trail turns down an alleyway. “Here, Kitty,” Ayumi calls as we pass a dumpster.

My unease increases with every step. On the main street there are a few people around in case something bad happens. If anyone is hiding in the shadows here, they certainly don’t have our best interests in mind.

Yet Ayumi remains oblivious. “Kitty~”

The trail ends abruptly, and we see the cat curled up on the lap of a hooded figure. The cat itself is fine, save a small cut on its leg. But the figure hardly moves.

“Hello?” I ask.

There’s no response. Ayumi gulps. “Do you think they’re…”

“I don’t know.” I tap its shoulder. “Um, miss?” I venture a guess by the general shape of their body. “Or sir, sorry if I’m wrong.”

No response.

“Do you think we should call for help?” Ayumi’s crutches rattle as she shakes.

“Yeah.” This person needs a professional, not us. I reach down with my right hand, keeping my stronger left in reserve in case I need it. “We’ll be getting help. You keep your hopes up, all right?”

The person’s limp hand shoots up and grabs my wrist. Her nails bite into my skin, creating a burning sensation.

Ayumi shrieks.

Even if it hurts, I have to stay calm. Latching onto a rescuer is a natural response. “At least we know you’re alive now. So why don’t we calm down and get an ambulance here?”

I pull on my hand, but the figure holds firm. Is this some sort of joke?

“Come on, let go!” I tear my hand away, which causes the person’s hood to fall back. If you can even call it a person.

There isn’t a single distinguishable human feature there. Its eyes are fleshy bumps, and its un-nostriled nose holds flat on its face. There isn’t a single hair on its head. Despite that, it has a mouth—a gaping chasm filled with spiraling rows of sharp teeth sucking in like a lamprey.

“Um…S-Sakura…” Ayumi hobbles back on her crutches and away from the figure. The cat mews as if nothing special is happening and bounds off into the darkness.

The person rises from the ground, casting an even darker shadow on the road than the one from the building. No, this creature isn’t human. Not even close.

I point to Ayumi’s crutches. “How fast can you move on those things?”

“Fast enough.”

“Then let’s move.”

It’s just in time too, for the instant we take off, the creature gives chase.

I assemble a plan in my head. We got here by following a trail of blood, so if we follow it back, we’ll get back to the school. But then what?

At the end of the alley, there are five more figures, draped in tattered clothes instead of cloaks.

So much for that plan.

“On second thought, let’s go a different way.” I skid to a halt. More creatures pour into the alleyway, blotting out the light from the main street and creating an unnatural chill. My mouth goes dry while my wrist throbs from my scratch. While trying to pivot, Ayumi stumbles to the ground, but I catch her just in time.

There’s only the original figure waiting for us the other direction.

“Let’s go,” I say partly to Ayumi, and partly to encourage myself on. We bolt past the original figure, and turn down the street at the end of the alleyway.

This street is even darker than the last, but darkness doesn’t seem to hinder them. “Are they still back there?”

Ayumi looks back. “We gotta go faster! They’ll be on us soon!”

No sense in stopping and letting them kill us. Might as well give them a run for their money.

“Help!” Ayumi yells. “Somebody! Anybody! Help!”

Her words fall on deaf ears. We’re too far away from the main street, and I have yet to see anyone in these alleyways. Ahead, there’s a long fence and some sort of grassy field beyond it. I might be able to get over it, even with my bad arm. But Ayumi’s another story.

“Left!” We turn onto quasi-road running parallel to the fence. The pavement has fallen so far into disrepair from disuse, we might as well call it gravel.

Bad move. At the end of the road, a chain link fence blocks our escape. I pivot, but it’s too late. The creatures have blocked all other paths.

I’ve led us astray. There’s no turning back.

I back up to the dead end with Ayumi.

“I need to borrow one of your crutches.”

“What? Why?”

“Trust me.” I don’t have time to explain.

Ayumi grudgingly hands me the crutch. I grab its handle with my left hand and the top with my right. As soon as I touch it a jolt of pain shoots through my body, originating from the scratch on my wrist. So much for just a scratch…

I let my right arm go limp, and rely on the strength of my left hand.

“You couldn’t possibly be thinking of fighting them.” A massive horde approaches. I can’t even count how many there are now.

I get in position with Ayumi behind me. “What other choice do we have?”

I swing her crutch at the closest one. It goes flying on contact and crashes into the wall in a mess of blood. Ayumi covers her mouth.

But as I get rid of one, two more take its place. Not only that, but it seems like the one I hit is getting up off the ground again, coming back for more.

Ayumi cries as I smash a few more. But I can’t look away from my battle. “Are there any on the other side of the fence?”

“I don’t see any…”

“Good. I’m gonna smash a couple back, grab you, and throw you over. You call for someone to pick you up from there.”

“And what about you?” she asks.

Yeah, what about me? “Well, if this is the end, at least I did it for you.”

“No! You climb. I can’t go without you.”

I smash another one of them with the crutch. Even if I were the type of person to abandon Ayumi, it isn’t physically possible. My right arm is dead, and my left is sore from swinging this crutch around.

“Get real.”

“I’m telling you to go!” Ayumi grabs her remaining crutch and tries swinging at a creature. It won’t work. She can’t get enough force behind her blows, balancing on one leg.

It’s a good thing I didn’t throw Ayumi over. The creatures are crawling on the walls and getting quicker. They would have crawled past the fence to grab her if I had.

My right shoulder is numb now. I glance at the scratch on my wrist. Besides appearing darker, it doesn’t look too different. But it feels as if somebody were sticking needles into my skin. “So much for escaping.” I steel my hold of the crutch.

When I was on the track team in middle school, the more I worked, the warmer I’d feel. But now, it’s almost the opposite effect. My body grows colder with every swing of the crutch, and every breath I gasp for sends ice through my veins. I feel weak. My vision blurs, and I stumble to the ground.

I can’t stand up. Those creatures swarm, and soon they’ll be on top of me, eating my flesh. I’m sorry, Ayumi. I can’t even protect you.

A flash of blue light flies across the sky. The creatures stop approaching us to check it out, and it’s the last thing they ever do. The blue light descends, and they burst into flames. I can’t tell what it is, or what’s happening. All I know is something sharp pokes through my chest.

I squint to refocus my vision. “Oh, it’s a sword. But why is it all bloody?”

That’s my blood, you dolt. The sword is sticking through my chest.

My body falls limp, giving in to the world of darkness.

Chapter 2
Chapter 2: A New Light

I awaken to a world of pain. Exhaustion keeps my eyes shut like lead weights. Every part of my body burns like it’s on fire. “Oh, you’re back,” says a man’s voice. “I was wondering how long you’d be out for.”

I open my mouth to speak, but my throat is as dry as a desert.

“Go back to sleep. I’m hardly done with you.” My alertness fades like the sunset, falling below the horizon.


I was shielding my eyes against the setting sun’s glare with one hand, and gripping onto the baton with the other. A few more steps and the sun would sink behind the large “Tokyo North Middle School” banner flying off the track. My footsteps pounded against the hard red surface as I gained some distance from my competition. We had to get this handoff perfect.

“Ayumi, incoming!” I shouted. What a flawless pass! Ayumi took off like a bolt of lightning, sealing our victory. The other team should have given up at this point. When you had the fastest girl in the prefecture as anchor, they had no chance to catch us if we had the lead. Which, as the second fastest girl in the prefecture, I never had much difficulty giving to Ayumi.

A short minute later, the four of us were celebrating our victory and jumping up and down—or we may have been keeping warm because it had begun to snow.

“How do you run so fast?” asked Kanae, our lead. “You must be breaking all sorts of records.”

“Not really…” Ayumi checked the stands, where a man stood up and pointed at his watch. “I need to talk with my dad a bit. You start the party without me.”

This was all typical routine. “Go get ’em.” We all knew how tough of a critic her dad could be at times, and today was no exception.

“So, what’s next?” asked Yuki as we left campus. “Prefecture championships?”

I checked my phone’s calendar. “We’ve got two weeks until it. Tokyo East’s first. They’ll be tough unless you two can win the sprint events.”

Yuki kicked at a snowdrift. “We really did try! You saw how hard we worked this week!”

“I’m not criticizing you. I’m telling you how it is.” Ayumi and I could carry the distance events fine, but without a strong 2nd and 3rd place finisher behind us, we’d always lose against the larger schools. Unless, of course, we could sweep all the races.

“Have you started studying for the entrance exams?” asked Kanae. “I keep looking over the notes for Narita Private, but it’s so hard!”

Yuki snickered. “Narita? Would they even let an idiot like you take the exam?”

“You’re so mean!”

Kanae and Yuki led me to their dorm room. This had been designated as the after party room back when we were first years. My single room was too small, and Ayumi still lived with her parents.

Nothing ever changed in there. The same track star posters plastered their walls, and their desks were still a mess. We threw down our bags, grabbed a fresh pair of clothes, and headed for the showers.

“I haven’t really started studying,” I admitted.

Kanae dumped her fresh clothes in the basket. “There’s only a month until the exams! You aren’t planning to skip high school, are you?”

“Of course not. What I mean is, a guy from Fuji South High School approached me.”

“Fuji South?” they both exclaimed, almost in equal shock.

“Yeah, I was surprised too, but he liked my form on the track. He said he’d make sure I got in, no matter what. Told me to skip studying and focus on my training.”

Yuki flipped on her faucet to test the water temperature. “It’s like a dream come true. I wish I could run on that new track under Coach Chihawa’s guidance.”

Kanae followed suit. “She worked hard for this. You, on the other hand, have been sitting around eating dumplings.”

She squeezed Yuki’s waist, who burst into a fit of giggles. When she calmed down she asked, “Are they going to take Ayumi too?”

“Yeah, they came to her a month before me.” If they were taking me, they’d obviously take her. She had been the national champion in the 400 for two years running.

After we took our showers and changed, we sprinted back to their room and shoved our weary legs under the heated table.

“So, what’s the plan for this weekend?” asked Kanae.

“Well, we have practice first thing on Saturday and—” Bzzt. Yuki checked her phone. “Oh, Ayumi’s here. I’ll go let her in. She said she’ll take a shower first.”

Kanae and I broke out a deck of cards while we waited. Something seemed missing. Yuki had just come back when I put my finger on it.

“What’s wrong?” asked Kanae.

I pulled out my bag and looked inside. Nope, they weren’t there.

“I forgot my bloomers in the shower. Take my place; I won’t be back. My bed’s calling me.”

Kanae laughed. “Never change.”

Yuki folded her arms. “You better do your math homework tonight. I’m not going to let you copy tomorrow.”

“What, seriously?” My heart dropped to my feet. “What if I did half?”

Yuki smirked. “Sixty percent. And exactly sixty percent.”

“Wait, how many problems out of twenty is sixty percent?” I tried to count on my fingers.

“Figure it out. It’s math homework.”

“So mean.”

My bloomers weren’t too hard to find. I don’t know how I stepped over them on my way out of the shower room.

Ayumi’s soft humming filled the steamy room. A wicked grin spread across my face. I’d really surprise her this time. Maybe she’d give me the ten out of ten I had wanted for so long. Jumping out of closets wasn’t earning me much more than a three nowadays.

I tiptoed in and verified she was in the second stall from the end. If I lay low, she’d never be able to see me approaching. The moisture in the air dampened my clothes as I crept closer, but who cared? Water would dry.

I crouched in front of Ayumi’s stall so I could see her cute little legs behind the curtain. Ah, perfect, she was facing away. There’s so much more surprise factor when you can’t see your assailant.

“A-YU-MI!” I sprung up and threw open the curtain. Ayumi’s humming stopped as I got a fleeting look at her back. Were my eyes playing tricks on me?

She spun around, giving me a full view of her frontal nudity while hiding her sides with her arms. Something was going on. Girls hide their fronts, not their backs.

“S-Sakura? What the hell are you doing?!”

“I-I thought I’d surprise you… We’re both girls and…”

“Get out!” She pressed her arms closer to her body. But the damage was done. I had seen it. And it wasn’t like she was doing a very good job hiding the marks around her ribs.

“I refuse.” I couldn’t obey her. As team captain, I had to ensure the health of my teammates. But this was beyond a captain’s duty. This was the duty of a friend.

“Do you want me to call the police? Don’t try me. I will!”

“Show me your back.”

Ayumi clenched her fist. “I told you to leave.”

“You can hit me if you want. I’m not leaving until you turn around. There’s no use hiding it.”

She relaxed her fist and lowered her head. “Why did it have to be you?”

Despite her protests, she turned, unveiling the full horror of her life on me.

Her entire back was discolored. Blacks and blues interlocked, sometimes interspersed with reds from open wounds. Some bruises were smaller and older, while others were inflamed and raging, as if they had occurred recently.

I didn’t want to believe it. “Wh-what is this? Who, or what, did this to you?”

Ayumi spun back around to hide her shame. “I…I fell off my bike this weekend. If you could’ve been there, you’d have seen how much it hurt!”

“Don’t lie to me.” Ayumi never lied before, so this was a very serious matter.

“I’m telling you, it was a fall from my bike and—”

Enough of this. “Finish your shower and meet me in my room.”


When I wake up again, the weight has disappeared. A solitary fan spins on the dark ceiling. The rafters obscure the hanging lights in the room, making it dark and dusty. “Well, aren’t you a light sleeper?” A man leans over my body.

He’s a scruffy fellow, as if shaving is too much of a bother. Wrinkles litter his face, and his nose bends unnaturally as if someone had broken it. Despite the age marks, his visible hair is still mostly-brown. The rest of it is hidden under a baseball cap. “Where’s Ayumi?”

“Ayumi?” The string around my heart tightens. Don’t tell me she didn’t make it. “Oh, you mean the girl who followed me all the way here? She’s sleeping on my couch.”

Hundreds of questions roll through my head as I remember the events of the past couple of hours. What happened? What are those things? Why am I here? But, above all, what happened with Ayumi? “Is she all right?”

He grabs my head and forces it around so I can see her. “Are you deaf, or are you stupid? Do you really think she could follow me all the way here and not be all right?”

“Thank God.” She’s lucky to have that couch under the bookshelves. I’m stuck with a desk, by the looks of it.

“Shouldn’t you be worried about yourself? She wasn’t even touched, thanks to you.”

I examine my wrist. There’s hardly a sign of the wound anymore. “It’s a scratch, nothing crazy. But how am I alive? They drove a sword through me.”

“No, I did.” He lays the still-bloody sword next to me.

Trying to process this gives me a headache. Why would he drive a sword through me? “If you wanted me dead, you should’ve finished the job there. Why bring me back here? Do you want to torture me? Are you some kind of sick sadist?”

He grabs my wrist so hard, I have to cry out. “Why don’t you listen instead of asking questions, Miss Freckles? Or even better. How about I ask you a question? How’d you find yourself in that situation?”

Miss Freckles? My friends called me Saku in elementary school, but are freckles my only defining feature? Fine, if I’m Miss Freckles, I’ll call him Baseball Cap Man. Too long. How about Cappy?

“I’m talking to you.”

I can’t meet his cold black eyes. “We saw an injured cat and it sort of led us there.”

“A cat?” He drops my wrist and chuckles. “So her shades are active again.”

“Shades?” But that was Ayumi, not me, asking that.

Cappy snickers. “Glad to see you awake, Princess.”

Ayumi ignores his comment. “Um, I ought to thank you for saving our lives and all, but…”

“Saving your lives? Hardly. Yours, maybe—though you should be thanking Miss Freckles here for that. But it’s too late for her. She’s already dead.”

“Huh?” I sit up. “But I’m right here. I’m not dead.”

“Just because you’re here doesn’t mean you’re not dead,” he sneers. “Do you think those shades were among the living? No, Miss Freckles, you’re dead, just like them.”

Ayumi loses it. “Shade, shade, shade. What the hell are you talking about? Who are you, and where are we? Can you give us some answers already?”

Cappy glares at her. “I would if you two would shut up and listen for once. You’re like all the other kids I’ve had in here, asking question after question. It drives me mad!” When he sees Ayumi isn’t about to back down, his expression softens a bit. “Listen, Princess, a shade is a kind of undead. They would have killed the both of you if I hadn’t interfered.”

According to him, they did kill me. But I keep my comments to myself. He might be a jerk, but he did save Ayumi’s life…

“Now, where are we? This would be my office, and your friend here happens to be lying on my desk. It’s going to be really nice explaining to the government why I have blood all over my tax forms, but we all have to make do with what we have.”

Cappy sits back in his chair and pops a cigarette into his mouth. He never bothers lighting it and instead chews on the end. “As for the thing you care about most, no, I didn’t save your lives. Princess—”

“Ayumi,” she interrupts.

“Didn’t I tell you to shut up?” he slams his hand on the desk, mere centimeters away from me. “Or would you rather I not tell you about your friend, Princess Ayumi?”

Ayumi shuts her mouth.

“So, Princess.” He reverts to his favorite name for her. “You’re fine, thanks to your friend. On the other hand, your friend’s life force drained out the instant the shade touched her. Had I been even a minute later, she would’ve turned into one of them. That’d be pretty bad for you too, wouldn’t it?”

I refuse to believe him, and for that matter, neither does Ayumi. She asks, “She seems fine, doesn’t she?”

Cappy grabs her hand and puts it on my forehead. “Does she feel like one of the living?”

Her hand jolts at the touch. “It’s cold, but what does that matter? It was pretty chilly out there.”

Cappy scowls in frustration. “Here.” He puts her fingers on my wrist. “Do you feel anything?”

“What did you do to her pulse?”

Cappy lets go of Ayumi, who grabs a crutch to steady herself. “I keep telling you, I did nothing to it or her. It was over when the shades scratched her. I only preserved her life for a little longer, thanks to the sword.”

“What do you mean?” I’m still having a hard time believing all this.

He pushes the sword closer to my face. Does he have no caution? That’s still sharp!

He pulls it back “You’d better get used to it. That’s your life from now on.”

“My life? But you said I’m already dead.”

He puts his palm on his face. “Did you not listen to anything I said? Look, I bound your body and consciousness to the sword. Now you won’t turn into a shade. As long as this sword exists, so will you.” It’s a bit weird, but I’ll live. I’ll have to keep it safe in a bank, or bury it or something.

“But don’t get your hopes up. This sword is for the living, and you’re dead. It’ll corrupt and eventually break under its own weight. Then, you’ll be dead for good. Not a shade, just dead. You can keep it until then. It’s useless for me.”

My heart twists. How could I go from my dream high school life to dead in a matter of hours? No, he’s lying. I’m not going to die. I feel perfectly fine, after all.

Soft sobs fill the room. Ayumi is on the ground crying, a total mess. I told myself I’d never let her cry again, and here I am letting her down.

I get off the desk and sit down next to Ayumi, putting my arm around her. She leans her head on my shoulder.

“How long?”

He arranges some papers. “Really? You’re just going to accept it?”

No, I’m not. I don’t believe him at all. Then again, I don’t believe what I saw in the alleyway earlier, either. Yet, it happened.

Stay strong, Sakura. “How long do I have?” I repeat.

He looks at me and then lets his hard expression leave his face for a moment. “I’d give you five days. A week at most.”

A week? He says I have a week to live? All my hopes, all my dreams, gone just like that? I want to crumble to the floor and cry. But, no. I need to be strong. I need to show Ayumi I can make it through this. After all, if I can’t make it through this, how could she? Besides, he’s lying. I feel perfectly fine. I can push his words to the back of my mind.

He shoves some papers from his desk into his briefcase. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to head back home. If you want my advice, enjoy the time you still have together, and don’t worry about this shade business. You already lost one life; don’t throw away the other. It’s not like you’d be willing to do anything about it anyway.”

He deliberately turns his back on us and almost gets to the door when Ayumi shouts, “Wait!”

Cappy heeds her command. Is that a small grin buried within his scruffy cheeks? If it was, it’s gone already. “What, Princess?”

“I’d be willing to do anything to save her. If there’s something, can I do it? You know, like how you saved her life with the sword, couldn’t we get more swords and do something similar?”

“No, you can’t. You’d better start arranging the funeral.”

Ayumi reduces herself to a bundle of tears again. Cappy grabs the door handle.


Ayumi’s chokes on her tears. “Unless?”

“Well, I doubt you’d want to do it.”

“Please! I’ll do anything if it’ll keep her alive.”

He releases the handle. “You could always summon a familiar. Princess could perform a ritual, get a familiar, and they’ll take care of supplying the life force to whoever you choose. Not only would Miss Freckles get to live indefinitely, but Princess could live forever too. Her time would freeze. Any future damage or aging will quickly reverse itself, and her body will revert back to her present state. You could lose a limb and wake up the next morning completely whole again. Ayumi, if you do this, you could save Sakura.”

“Please let me! Tell me how to do it!”

“Wait.” I’m far too suspicious. This personality change is too quick. And what’s with calling us by our real names? But for now, let’s check the obvious. “You said her time would freeze, didn’t you?”

Cappy puts down his bag. “No matter what injury, it’ll heal itself right back up, and she’ll be as good as new.”

“What about her knee?”

The room falls dead silent, outside of the soft hum of the fan. “Pre-existing injuries are not affected by summoning.”

“Answer my question. Will her knee heal or not?”

Cappy’s shoulders slouch. “She’ll return to exactly how she is right now. If she summons a familiar, she’ll never walk again.”

I knew it. There’s always a cost for a miracle. I shoot a glance at Ayumi, but I can’t read her thoughts in the slightest.

The man switches back to his cheery demeanor. “But a knee for a life? I’d take that trade if it were up to me.”

He places his hand back on the door handle. “Take a card from my desk. If you’re interested, come visit me whenever you want. I’ll be here whenever you come; no appointment necessary.”

He’s not going to have the last word. “What is your name?”

“The hell does that matter?” He slams the door behind him.

We sit in silence until Ayumi pipes up, “Listen, Sakura, I think—”

I pick myself off the floor. “Let’s get back to the dorm first. Then we’ll talk.”

Darkness still blankets the streets of Kochi as we arrive back on campus. The dark sky extends all the way to the sea, where there’s no hint of a sunrise. Good. At least we can get a couple hours of sleep before breakfast.

When I slide my key card to get into the dorms, the loud beep of recognition nearly gives me a heart attack. A large clock hangs over the entranceway informing us how long we’ve been gone.

We sneak up to our rooms as best we can—there’s no way to muffle the sound of Ayumi’s crutches—and enter our dorm room. On one side of our room are our closets, which create a small hallway leading in. On the other side is a large window above our desks. At the corners are our beds, and on top of them, boxes stuffed full of our belongings.

“Let’s leave them for tomorrow.” Ayumi pushes her box off onto the floor and collapses in bed.

“No. If somebody on the residence committee inspects our room, we’ll arouse suspicions. Come on, it won’t take long.”

I break open the box, hoping nothing got damaged when it got shipped. First order of business—my poster of Silent Circular Infinity, my favorite idol group. This belongs in the spot of honor over my bed.

I pull out my spare uniform. “Guess this isn’t a spare anymore.” I laugh, poking at my healed chest through the hole in my blazer.

Ayumi doesn’t join in. In fact, it seems she’s doing all she can to avoid collapsing in tears again. “Here, can you help me with mine?” She pulls out a poster of some boy band.

“Yeah, no problem.” I stand on her bed and apply some sticky tack to the back of it.

“You know…” says Ayumi finally.

“Don’t even think about it.” I pat down a corner.

Ayumi drops the notebook she has taken out of her box. “But, I mean, it was my fault anyway! If I wasn’t so stubborn, then we’d never have run into the shade.”

She can’t keep blaming herself forever. “There are a lot of things worse than death.” For example, turning into a shade.

I pat down the last corner and sit next to her on her bed. “I don’t trust him. Do you?”

She stares at me for a moment before shaking her head.

“If he knows about shades, he has to be involved with them somehow. He’s no knight in shining armor saving innocent maidens from demons.”

Ayumi shrinks down. “But, if it’s my only chance to save you.”

I hold her hands and force her to make eye contact with me. “I might not even need to be saved. I think he’s lying about the whole thing.”

“And what if you’re wrong?”

The stone wall I’d put around my fears shatters. “Then that’s the end. But how do you know he’s not trying to hurt you? Then we’d both be dead, or worse.”

Ayumi’s fists clench. “Do you think I could live with myself knowing I could’ve done something for you and didn’t?”

“Do you think I could live with myself if something were to happen to you?”

“You might not even be alive in a week!”

Ouch. “Thanks for reminding me.”

She covers her mouth. “I’m sorry… I didn’t mean…”

There are far worse things to hold a grudge about. “Don’t worry about it. I know you didn’t.”

She stays silent, as if she might say something she doesn’t want to again. “I won’t lie, if my life really is in danger and you saved it, I’d be happy.”

I grab one of her knee braces from her box. “But, are you sure you’d want to become a cripple for me? You’d never be able to walk again.”

“Of course.” No hesitation. “I deserve what happened to me. You don’t. If that’s the price I have to pay, I’ll accept it.”

“You don’t deserve that.”

“Whether I do or not isn’t the point. I’ve been on crutches for a couple of months now, and I’m getting used to the pain. I can deal with it forever if it means getting to spend it with you.”

I can only hug her, and she hugs me back even tighter.

Ayumi breaks the embrace first. “Then we’ll go to him tomorrow and do it.”

I have half a mind to tell her yes. I shouldn’t keep denying this. I am going to die in a week.

And then I spot the sword lying on my bed. Already it seems as if it doesn’t glimmer quite like it used to. It seems a little older, a little worn.

There’s something important he hasn’t told us.

“Why did he save me?” I ask.

“Why wouldn’t he?”

I grab the sword off my bed and hold it up to the light. “If I’m dead anyway, and he could dispose of shades so easily, why would he want to prevent me from turning into one? Why save me?”

Silence returns.

I open up my closet and lay the sword down on the floor and throw some dresses I’ll never wear on top of it. “Can’t have the residence committee confiscating this as a dangerous weapon.”

“You ought to name it,” she says. “If it’s going to be important, it’d be a shame to call it ‘your sword.’”

“Twilight. It’s the Twilight of my life.”

She doesn’t respond to the morbid name. We finish unpacking before wordlessly crawling into bed.

It seems like I wake up the instant my head hits the pillow. But I must have slept somewhere in there, seeing how orange beams of light flicker through my window, and my alarm shouts for me to wake up. Weird. I can’t remember the last time I had a dreamless sleep.

“Good morning.” I yawn. Ayumi remains a stationary lump underneath her blanket. “Ayumi~” I sing. I pull off her blankets and give her a shake. “It’s time to get up.” She stays still, aside from her chest, which inflates with each breath.

“Guess we’ll have to do this the hard way. Try and sleep through this!” I jump on her bed and tickle her stomach.

She bolts upright and laughs uncontrollably. “Please! Stop!”

I jump off her bed. “Good morning.”

She rubs her sides. “How’re you feeling?”

“Fine.” I stretch my achy joints. “Maybe a little sluggish? Like, I’m awake and all, sure, but it’s like my body can’t keep up with my mind or something. Actually, wait. Are you sure you’re feeling all right?”

She pulls her covers over her head. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

I pull them right back down. “You’re clearly not. You’re all bloodshot, and there are bags under your eyes darker than coal! Did you sleep at all?”

She unbuttons her pajama top. “Not too well—Oh, wow, look at the sun out there! It’s gonna be a gorgeous day!”

Don’t hide it. I’ve known her for far too long to not know what’s on her mind. But I also know not to push the subject.

I thrust my hand into the closet to pull out my uniform. I get dressed and head down to the cafeteria for breakfast.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m starving!” Ayumi beckons to the worker to put a second serving of rice on her plate. Really? After yesterday’s excitement, I don’t have much of an appetite.

I check out the various dishes in the serving line. There are quite a lot of options for a high school cafeteria. Then again, this isn’t a public school like Tokyo North. They can afford a little bit more variety.

“Next,” calls the worker. I move to the front of the line and place my tray down.

She pays me no heed and stares at the person standing behind me. “I said, next!”

“Um, I’m right here.”

“Ah, sorry dear, I hardly noticed you.” She places a few plates of food on my tray. “Next!”

After paying for my food, I search for Ayumi. There she is! She’s found a nice isolated table and is eating without me.

“Weird.” I sit next to her.

“Oh! Sorry, I forgot you were coming or I would have waited.” Ayumi shovels down her rice.

“Am I short?”

“Huh?” she cocks her head. “If you’re short, I might as well be a grasshopper. No, you’re kind of average. Why?”

“The serving lady didn’t notice me standing right in front of her.” I take a bite out of my bread. “But everyone’s tired in the morning.”

After we finish our meals, a trio of girls approaches our table. “Hey, you’re Ayumi, right? The girl from Tokyo?”

Ayumi looks at them almost defensively. “Yeah. Why?”

“Oh, we saw you eating alone over here, and thought you might want to meet new people. We’re from the chess club, and we eat over by the window. We’re looking for new members if you’re interested in joining.”

Ayumi bows politely. “Thanks, but I think we’ll probably join the baking club instead. And I’m sort of done eating anyway.”

“Ah, shame. Well, if you change your mind, let us know!”

I help Ayumi out of her chair as they leave. “Am I that unnoticeable?”

“What do you mean?”

“They didn’t notice I was here with you and acted as if you were eating alone.”

Ayumi thinks for a second. “Yeah, it was sort of strange.”

I know I’ve never had the biggest presence, but why would they ignore the only other girl sitting at the table? Unless I’m somehow disappearing.

Ayumi hums quietly to herself as we head to class. She looks so peaceful. I wonder if she’s forgetting—oof!—I collide headfirst into a rather heavy girl.

“Oh, sorry,” I say. She continues on without so much as an acknowledgement. This is too much. I have to find out for sure if these are mere coincidences, or if I’m really getting ignored.

“Welcome to the second day of school,” our homeroom teacher—a short lady with blue eyes who could be confused for a student if she were wearing our uniform—says as she stands in front of the room. “We’ll take a little extra time today to elect a class representative and vice rep. But first, attendance. Asaka?”

After the long and droning process of calling the roll, the teacher folds her arms. “Now, I know none of you wants to be the class rep, but somebody has to fill the role. So I’ll give you the choice. Either you all agree on who you want to be the class rep in the next ten minutes, or I’ll pick a name out of a fish bowl and say you voted on it. Your ten minutes starts now.”

I jump out of my seat. “I nominate Ayumi!” Ayumi gasps. I really surprised her there, didn’t I? But this is perfect. If she’s head of the class, she’ll learn how to build her own confidence. The best way to destroy somebody’s fear of water is to throw them in with the sharks.

The teacher taps her foot and surveys room. “Nobody has a nomination? Or better yet, wants to volunteer?”

How can she not hear me? I’m screaming on the top of my lungs! The hell is wrong with this school?

Ayumi raises her hand.

“Yes?” asks the teacher.

“U-um… I’ll do it.”

The teacher pumps her first in the air. “Excellent! Do we have a second?”

Ayumi stutters. “B-but, I thought I was the second…”

“Who nominated you?”


The teacher picks up her seating chart to examine it for a second and then checks my seat. “Seriously, Sakura, you need to speak up! I thought you were absent.” She called my name during the roll!

“It’s nothing.” I slouch back down into my seat. How could she ignore me? How could everyone forget about me? Do I matter that little to them?

It is at this moment I come face to face with reality. Cappy was not lying. I am disappearing and will be dead in a week. So why am I wasting this precious time in school?

The class gives their affirmative votes for Ayumi, but I hardly notice as I organize my thoughts.

“Good. Let’s fill out the other class positions.” By the time we finish, our first period teacher is already setting up for his lecture.


The bell rings for lunch after a grueling morning. At the cafeteria, a bunch of students huddle around a table with sandwiches set out by the staff. “I’ll get you something to eat; you sit down,” I say. Ayumi had a lot of difficulty balancing her tray this morning, thanks to her crutches, so it’s easier like this. Ayumi hands me her lunch token absentmindedly before heading off to get a seat.

“Sorry.” I push past a girl in the middle of the serving area. “Excuse me, pardon me.” But I might not have said anything, as they don’t notice me. I grab two premade boxed lunches off the counter and hurry to check out.

Where’s Ayumi? Knowing her, she’s probably sitting at the same table as this morning. No, she’s not—some dark-skinned girl has taken her place.

Oh, it’s the short girl with the bells again. Her sister must have brought her again. Why’s she alone?

A couple of third year students giggle and make a remark about her legs not reaching the floor. She stabs at her rice with her chopsticks until I think they’re going to snap. I take a step toward her, but then I see Ayumi out of the corner of my eye.

She still hasn’t found a seat. She flips out a skirt pocket, grumbles, and puts it back. Did she drop her phone?

“What’s wrong?” I ask.

She flips out her other pocket, and her phone pops out with it, disproving my hypothesis. “I can’t find my lunch token.”

Her too? “You gave it to me and I told you to find a seat.”

“I did? Well, you have two meals, so you’re probably right.” She wanders over to the nearest empty table and takes a seat.

Even someone as close to me as Ayumi isn’t immune to this. I should have seen it coming. She had started eating without me this morning, after all.

Ayumi sniffles. “I’m a terrible person…”

“What do you mean? What did you do?”

“I forgot about my best friend. I…I didn’t even notice you!”

“It’s no big deal. You just forgot about your lunch token.”

“Yes it is!” she slams her hands against the table. “It was like you didn’t even exist anymore. What’s wrong with me?”

“There’s nothing wrong with you. It’s a coincidence and—” I cough, choking on my words.

“It’s no coincidence.”

I poke at the food on my plate. “You’re right. I’m fading away, and I hate it. I hate every bit of it! Sure, it’s a bit annoying to have to yell to even get heard, but who cares? What hurts is when I’m gone, it’ll be like nobody ever loved me. I’m sorry. I told myself I’d be strong for you. I told myself I’d give it my all so you could live on happily when I could not. But it’s too hard. I can’t take it anymore!”

She grabs her crutches. “I’m gonna go summon a familiar. It’d be best for both of us.”

Sakura, you idiot! You know you have to be strong for her. You know how rash she is. Yet here you are, letting her know how much your life is upsetting you. “Don’t. It’s too dangerous.”

“I don’t care if it’s dangerous. If I can’t take a risk for my best friend, what kind of a friend am I?”

I set down my chopsticks. “This is your life we’re talking about.”

She slams her hand on the table. “No, this is yours. I don’t know why you’re so against it. And I don’t care anymore. Hate me if you want, but I can’t sit around watching you die, knowing I could have done something. I’m going to do it now, before I forget you even exist!”

I sink down in my chair. “What makes you think I’d hate you for something like that? If you did it, I’d think it a stupid move, sure. But I’m your friend. If you did something with my best interests in mind, how could I hate you? Think about it logically. Do you trust him?”

“Not really.” She grabs her ponytail in her hand and squeezes it tight. After all these years, she never let go of her nervous tic.

“His personality changed so quickly from arrogant to hopeful. He’s obviously hiding something.”

“Maybe he was frustrated with the situation and wanted us to understand.” She always tries to find the good in everyone.

“No. He wants you to summon a familiar for a specific reason. There’s something for him to gain in this. He’s using you as a pawn.”

“He wants to save your life! There’s good to be found in everyone, even someone as suspicious as him!”

I’m not getting through to her. “He has no reason to help us.”

Her anger turns to tears. “He had no reason to save your life either. But he did, didn’t he?”

“He had a reason. He didn’t want me to turn into a shade.”

“But why?” she asks.

The same question from last night. “He didn’t want any extra work.” I pop an octopus sausage into my mouth. A poor excuse, but I’ll take any excuse to keep Ayumi here. “Let’s give it some time and thought. We have a week to decide.”

Ayumi sits back down in her chair. Losing our tempers isn’t going to help us out of this situation. If only we had more time…

“I’m heading to the nurse.” Ayumi picks up her tray.

“Is it the knee?”

“Yeah. She’s going to help me develop a physical therapy program.”

“Do you want me to come with you? I have no reason to go to class.”

She puts her garbage neatly in the can. “I’ll be fine. If I’m not back in time, make sure to sign me up for the baking club!”

The afternoon speeds by. I spend the entire time sitting in the back of the room reading comic books while the teacher lectures about something I had learned last year. She calls on every student in the class at least three times apiece, including the still-missing Ayumi, but passes over me whenever it is my turn to solve an equation. Maybe there are a few benefits to this situation.

When the final bell sounds, Ayumi hasn’t returned. I pull out my phone and punch in her number.

“Hello?” she asks.

“Hey, it’s Sakura.” I put my cheeriest voice on. “Was wondering how you’re doing, since you didn’t come back to class.”

Ayumi gives an awkward laugh. “I’m fine. I overexerted myself, so I need to rest in the nurse’s office a bit. Can you sign me up?”

I think I hear fans in the background. Does our nurse’s office have fans? “Yeah, sure. I’ll see you at the dorms after dinner, all right?”

“Of course! See you then!” The phone clicks, leaving me with a dial tone.

The club officers are still recruiting new students in the courtyard, but unlike yesterday, there are only two people in each booth. The rest of their corresponding clubs are already hard at work at their activities.

“Come join the baking club!” calls out a short girl with bright orange hair tied in two low pigtails and bright green eyes. She waves a flyer. “We have cookies!”

I try my best to avoid giggling at the last sentence. “I’d like to sign up if I can.”

Of course, they ignore my fading existence. “Bake the cake of your dreams!” Her dimples really stand out on her cheery face.

“Hello!” I yell.

The girl stops waving and turns her attention to me. “You don’t have to shout.”

If only she knew. “I’d like to join the club.”

She jumps with excitement. “See, Kyouko, I told you we’d find someone today!”

The purple-eyed girl, Kyouko, adjusts her blue tie. That makes her a third year student. Given her mature persona and well-defined jaw, she fits the role well. “You said you’d find two people today, Nami.”

Nami shrugs. “Well, I’m halfway there.”

I hold up a second finger. “Actually my friend, Ayumi, wants to join too. She’s recovering from physical therapy right now.”

Nami flashes a peace sign. “I win.”

“Have you ever baked before?” asks Kyouko.

“No,” I admit.

Kyouko undoes her long black ponytail. “Congratulations, Nami. You recruited a novice and a cripple. As your reward, you can bring her to the room.”

Nami grabs my hand and, after a brief comment on how cold I feel, leads the way to the club rooms. “Oh, you’re going to love our kitchens! We used our club funds last year to get a brand new oven, and it’s absolutely spectacular! No more dirty charcoal sort of a taste in your breads… Of course, the other ovens aren’t great, but it’s not like we use them all every day. What did you say your name was? I’m Nami. Never really liked my name too much, but my mom said it came to her in a dream. Did you know the school’s founder also dreamed about this school? To think, if he never went to sleep that night, we’d be somewhere else! But for him to think of an all-girls school is quite fascinating, do you think?”

And so it goes. For the entire trip, she never stops talking.

“Well, here we are!” Pleasant aromas of cookies, cakes, and confectionaries float out of the room, tickling my nose. “I better get back to the courtyard! If you need anything, just ask!”

“Sakura,” I say.

“Sakura? Do you need their flowers for a garnish? A bit unique, but I like it!”

“That’s my name. Sakura.”

Nami beams her priceless smile that never seems to leave her face. “Pretty name. Keep it.” She skips down the stairs and out of sight.

The club has about ten other girls working in groups of three or four. One group looks to be decorating a cake while another is cutting out cookies. I don’t have the slightest idea how to bake, but I’m here for Ayumi’s sake.

They all seem friendly, and I’m sure Ayumi will fit right in. She’s always talking about the newest recipe she found online, so I’m sure with all of these ingredients around she’ll be in heaven. I’ll introduce her and then fade away, letting her personality take over.

Of course, nobody is going to notice me. Best not fight it and catch up on some sleep. I lay my head on a table and close my eyes.

No way! I can’t sit around bored! I only have a few days to live, so I have to live life to the fullest.

I sneak over to a platter filled with freshly baked cookies. My stomach growls at their sweet chocolate aromas. They won’t miss one, right?

I reach over and wrap my hand around the delicious holy grail.

“What do you think you’re doing?” asks a girl covered in flour.

That’s obviously not directed at me. I pick up the cookie. “Hey, I’m talking to you.”

How can she notice me?

There are only two possible answers. First, all the events of today are coincidences, and people actually have noticed me.

The second, more likely answer, is I’ve gained some life force. Which would mean Ayumi did something horrible.

“Come on, if you want some cookies, bake some. I’ll show you how.” She pulls me away toward another oven and begins an explanation on sifting flour.

“I can’t be here. I’m sorry! My friend’s in trouble!” I sprint out of the room. I have to find Ayumi.

I fling open the door to the nurse’s office. The beds are empty, and the nurse is gone. A gentle breeze blows into the room, fluttering the curtains. There is no sign of Ayumi.

She must’ve returned to our room. I did tell her I’d meet her there after dinner.

I run out of the building and across the courtyard. Several students dodge out of the way.

My dorm room is like the nurse’s office—empty. She hasn’t come back.

I lie down on my bed, not knowing what to do. Ayumi could be anywhere in the world right now, or, she might already be beyond this world. I tuck my legs in my arms and bury my head. “You idiot.”

The door creaks open. “Anyone here?” asks a girl.

She comes through the entranceway, a nervous wreck.

“Who are you?”


“No you’re not.”

She has Ayumi’s body, with her flat chest and thin arms. She even has her hair tied in the same cute little ponytail with the flower in the front. But her hair isn’t black. It’s silver, with hints of yellow throughout. And her eyes aren’t the same comforting sea blue. They’re blood red.

She kicks at the ground “I’m sorry I…I couldn’t bear the thought of life without you, so I made up an excuse and ran to the man in the cap.”

“I know.” I do my best to keep my voice level. I want to run up to her and hug her, thanking her for my life, but I can’t reward her for rash behavior.

“You’re not mad…are you?”

“Mad? No, not at all. You saved my life. I don’t know if I should hug you, thank you, or chastise you for acting like a big impulsive idiot. But beyond everything else, I’m afraid. Your hair and your eye color can’t have been the only cost.”

Ayumi grabs her now-bleached ponytail and gives it a squeeze. It’ll take some getting used. “You know I’m scared, too. But what could be worse than losing you? I was too afraid to go on alone. That makes me a coward, doesn’t it?”

“You risked your life for me. That’s not cowardly at all. But why didn’t you wait for me?”

“If I did, I might have forgotten you existed, or you might have talked me out of it.” She seems tired. “But now you have my life force flowing through you. Losing the lively colors of my hair and eyes is a pretty small price for the contract.”


She shows me a small cut on her finger. “The contract to summon a familiar. The contract so you may live.”

I sit in thought for a bit. “Well, what happened, happened. We can’t turn back from reality and return from whence we came. We have to make our decisions based on what’s already happened.”

Ayumi taps her knee brace. “Like me not needing to waste time in physical therapy anymore?” There’s a silver lining in everything.

“Now, you summoned this familiar, right? Where is it? And what is it? A dog? A cat?”

A girl peeks out from behind her shoulder. It’s no wonder I didn’t notice her before. I can see right through her.

Ayumi moves aside. “Go on. This is Sakura, my friend. Go ahead, introduce yourself.”

The girl scurries in front of Ayumi, her hands shaking. “M-my name is H-Haruka. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Chapter 3
Chapter 3: Rekindled Flame

The instant she finishes introducing herself, Haruka hides behind Ayumi again. I wonder if ghosts mature differently than humans. She has the body of a high school student, but acts like a kid.

“You summoned a ghost?” I ask.

Ayumi nudges her. “Come on, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Sakura’s very nice, and I’m sure she’ll be happy to meet you. Go on, let her get a good look at you.”

Haruka timidly steps back in front of her. When she stands upright, she’s taller than Ayumi. Her auburn hair is tied in a braid which she keeps over her shoulder, and her gray eyes stare blankly into space. All she’s wearing is a simple white peasant’s dress.

“Pleasure to meet you too, Haruka. Thank you for saving my life.” What else can I say?

Haruka’s hand shakes. When she can’t take it anymore, she asks Ayumi, “C-can I do anything for you, master? I’ll leave you two to talk while I make s-some tea, or t-take a walk, or something…”

Ayumi sits gingerly on her bed. “You don’t need to call me ‘master.’ I want to be your friend.”

Haruka shuffles her feet nervously. “What would you command me to do, ma—Ayumi?”

Ayumi pats her bed. “Take a seat. Join in whenever you feel like it.” Haruka floats over next to her.

Ayumi places a small plastic bag on her desk. “To answer your question, she’s not a ghost, she’s a familiar. We’re connected, though it’s not like I really understand any of it.”

“Why’s she transparent?”

“He said they all look like that.”

I don’t need to ask who he is referring to. “Tell me your story from the moment you left the cafeteria.”

Ayumi folds her hands. “I didn’t stop at the nurse’s office and instead followed my GPS straight to his office.”

“I figured as much.”

Haruka inspects our room, taking more interest in everything than a small child.

Ayumi bows. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to lie to you!”

“Stop apologizing. But promise you’ll never lie to me again. No secrets, no judging.”

Haruka scoots to the edge of the bed, and reaches for Ayumi’s closet. But she can’t make it and falls to the floor. In a fit of embarrassment, she scrambles back to Ayumi’s side.

“What happened next?” I ask.

“When I got there, he was in the middle of some intensive paperwork. He stopped the instant I walked in. He was Mr. Friendly again, calling me Ayumi and all.”

She holds up her finger with the pinprick. “He gave me this strange incantation to say and took the ‘blood offering to the first familiar.’ He gave me a bottle of black hair dye and colored contacts.” She holds up the bag from earlier. “I didn’t think about why I’d need those until it was too late. I said the words and felt tingly all over. A black void opened in front of me, and the girl you see now came out of it.”

Haruka crashes onto the floor again. Judging from her position, she had tried to reach for the closet again. She scrambles back to the bed.

“If you want to open it, stand up,” Ayumi says.

“But you told me to sit.”

“Use your head,” she says. It’s a bit of a surprise when Haruka casually pulls the door open. She takes everything so literally, I thought she would’ve head butted it.

I ask, “What happened then?”

“We introduced ourselves, and I told her why I summoned her.”

Haruka closes Ayumi’s closet. But when her eyes catch mine, she dives behind Ayumi.

Ayumi moves aside. “Sakura and I are together a lot, so you better get used to her.”

Haruka crawls out from behind her. “Do you mean, as in, you’re more than just friends?”

She’s not the first person to make that mistake. I say, “No, just friends. Nothing more.”

Haruka’s fear breaks, to be replaced with excitement. “Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of your way. You really are a cute couple. You’ll definitely go for a traditional wedding, with kimonos and stuff, and there’ll be lots of guests and flowers!”

Ayumi comes to my bed as Haruka fantasizes about our wedding. “Let her dream. Better this than scared.”

She grabs her ponytail. “I freaked out when I saw this. But Haruka assured me all necromancers have silver hair and red eyes.”

“Necromancer?” Quite a scary word to use casually.

Ayumi drops her hair back in place. “Well, I’m flirting with death to give you life, which is pretty much the definition of necromancy.”

“Isn’t necromancy evil?”

“I thought so too. But if it’s nothing more than summoning a new friend to save another, it can’t be.”

It’s still a scary word. Ayumi seems to think the same thing, as a tense silence falls between us.

Haruka is still in dreamland. “Ayumi should totally wear sea green to match Sakura’s eyes, though what kind of color is green for a wedding?”

That’s enough to break my tension. “Do you need help dyeing your hair?”

Ayumi folds her hands. “I think I’ll leave it like this. Sort of separates Kochi Ayumi from Tokyo Ayumi, don’t you think?”

I place my arm around her. “Thanks for what you did for me. But, please, don’t do something so reckless alone again. I’d have gone with you if you had asked. Do you have any idea how much my heart ached when I didn’t know whether you were dead or alive? I don’t think I could bear life without you.”

Haruka puts her hands to her heart. “That’s so adorable!”

“Not like that!” we exclaim.

I measure up Haruka’s body. “What size do you take?”

Haruka cocks her head. “Size?”

“Well, you’ll need a uniform to go to school with us.”

“Um, about that…” says Ayumi.

A sharp rap comes on the door and a young voice shouts, “Are you girls coming to dinner or what?” She must be part of the residence committee.

The door flings open. There’s no time for us to hide Haruka. We’re going to get in so much trouble for bringing an outsider in. More than that, we’re going to get so many questions about why she’s transparent.

The dark-skinned girl storms into the room, the bells in her hair singing with every step. Wasn’t she the one helping the student council?

She scrutinizes every centimeter of our room. When she passes Haruka, I nearly jump out of my skin. Yet she doesn’t pay her any more heed than our fish bowl and finishes her examination.

“Come on, you two. Up!” she lifts her hands. “The cafeteria’ll be closed by the time you get there!”

I lean over to Ayumi and whisper, “She sure spends a lot of time in our school for a kid.”

“What did you say?” She places her hands on her hips.

“Nothing.” When she verifies we’re up, she storms out of the room.

When the doors slams, I ask, “Two of us?”

“Most people can’t see Haruka. In fact, you’re the first person I know who can.”


“I don’t know. I didn’t think you would either.” Not wanting to risk the further wrath of that kid, we head to the cafeteria.

We sit at our normal table. “Do you want to go investigating after dinner? Like, you have to have some cool powers now, right?”

Ayumi squeezes her ponytail. “Not really. I’m just an ageless human.”

“Then how about we search for more shades?”

She turns pale. “I’d rather not.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shades are terrifying. I don’t want to deal with them again.”

“But how’re we going to get any more information about them if we don’t face them?”

She sets her chopsticks down. “We don’t need any more information about them. You’re alive because of Haruka, and I’m alive because I summoned her. Nothing else matters. So let’s enjoy high school and forget shades exist.”

I don’t know what to say. She’s not running away from her fears again, is she? Then again, she did confront death itself to save me, so who am I to judge?


When we return from dinner, Haruka is nestled in Ayumi’s sheets. Ayumi pulls a blanket over her body. “So even spirits need rest.”

Haruka bolts up. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Just conserving my energy for when ma—erm, Ayumi got back. What would you command me to do?”

“I don’t command you to do anything. You’re our friend.”

“As your familiar, I’m bound to do what you ask me. I am yours to command both now and forever. Anything will be done without question,”—she gives the slightest hint of a grin—“unless you command me otherwise.”

Ayumi undoes her ponytail. “If you need an order, fine. I order you to think for yourself, and tell me when you disagree. I order you to do what you feel is best, even if it’s different from what I want. I order you to never request an order from me. I order you to take anything I say as a suggestion, not a command. And I order, no, request you become our friend if you want.”

She has no way of refusing. “As you command.”

Ayumi throws a towel over her crutch. “If you don’t mind, I’ll take the first bath. I’ve had a long day.”

“Do you want me to wash your back?” asks Haruka.

“I’ll be fine. Stay with Sakura and get to know each other a bit.”

When Ayumi leaves, Haruka lies back on her bed and studies the ceiling. I wait for her to say something, but no such luck. I’ll have to start.

“Hey, Haruka.”

Her head bolts up. It’s still freaky how I can see Ayumi’s boy band poster through it. “Yes?”

“If you really want to wash someone’s back, you could always wash mine.”

Haruka waves me off. “I’d never take that right away from Ayumi. Oh, and if you want to sleep together tonight, I’m perfectly fine sleeping alone.”

I don’t feel like correcting her right now. “Never mind.”

After a brief silence Haruka asks, “Can you tell me a bit about Ayumi?”

“Didn’t she tell you anything on the way back from the office?”

“She more told me about you and how she’d do anything to save you. But I really want to know more about her. What’s she like?”

Haruka leans in like a small child waiting for an ice cream cone. Well, describing her can’t hurt. “She’s a little bit stubborn, and sometimes doesn’t think things through. But she’s fiercely loyal to the people she cares about, and wouldn’t leave them for the world.”

“I see. And what about her parents? Where are they in this picture?”

She traces the cracks on the ceiling with her finger. I have to be careful—these are dangerous waters. “She doesn’t get along with them. She’s much happier with them out of the picture for now. As for why, that’s not my story to tell.”

Haruka stops her finger at the end of a crack. “I see. I won’t pry any further.”

Ayumi hobbles back into the room a few minutes later. “Did you have a good chat?”

Haruka sits up. “Yeah, it went great. Sakura told me all about you and your parents and—”

She did what?!” Ayumi glares at me.

The blood’s draining out of my face. “You’re getting the wrong idea! I only told her you didn’t get along with them.”

A good ten seconds pass before Ayumi calms down. “Sorry. I should have known you wouldn’t do that.”

She collapses on her bed. “Even from nine hours away, they haunt my thoughts. I wish they were gone. I wish they were dead and buried, so I’d never have to worry about meeting them ever again.”

Even with all the horrible things her parents did, they don’t deserve to die. Every life is precious, even if we don’t know how yet.

Ayumi rolls over. “Go take your bath. The water’ll get cold.”

I grab my towel. “If you ever need to talk, I’m always here.”

When I return, Ayumi and Haruka are already asleep in her bed. Thankfully we have these wide beds, or Haruka might have wound up on the floor.

My thoughts race as I settle in bed. Her parents are the easy part. I just need to be the loving mom and dad Ayumi never had.

The hard part is everything else. I’ll have to give Haruka a tour of the school tomorrow. She doesn’t seem like a bad person. She’s just a little curious. Ayumi, on the other hand, I don’t know what to think. She’ll never walk again because of me. But that was her choice, so who am I to judge?


As far back as I can remember, when I slept, I dreamt. No, I should clarify. Every single night without fail, I would have a dream. My doctors called them lucid dreams, since I could control everything consciously. When I lived in the elementary school’s dorm, I’d rush to bed to get to sleep so I could ride on the back of a unicorn again. In middle school, I’d run in the Olympics. But in high school, so far, I have yet to have one.

One time I can excuse as chance. But to have this happen two times in a row, I have to conclude my days of dreaming are finished. The dead don’t dream.

“Good morning.” I stifle a yawn. Even if I can’t enjoy sleep anymore, I’m still tired in the morning.

“Ah, morning.” Ayumi is already brushing out her hair. My hairbrush is somewhere in my closet, as clean as the day I bought it. I’ll need to find a new excuse to avoid using it, since my old excuse of “runner’s hair” won’t hold up anymore.

“Where’s Haruka?” She doesn’t seem to be in the room.

Ayumi struggles through a knot. “Probably went for a walk or something. I’m sure she’ll be back after dinner.”

“You mean she’s not coming to school?”

“Nah. We decided it’d be best if she stayed behind.”


Ayumi finishes brushing and ties her ponytail. “So we can have some ‘alone time.’”

“I see.” We finish changing and leave, my hairbrush still untouched.

Ayumi hands me her token in the cafeteria. “I’d like an extra serving of rice if you could.”

“You’re gonna get fat.”

She makes air quotes. “My body’ll always revert to its original state.” Is that true? More importantly, do the same rules apply to me?

I’m able to walk right up to the serving line, thanks to how early we are. “What’ll it be?” asks the cook. My heart flutters. Being noticed is so wonderful!

I carry our trays back to our table, where Ayumi reads her biology book.

I pass her a tray. “So diligent. I was gonna wing it.”

Ayumi splits her chopsticks. “Have to keep my grades up. I couldn’t imagine what my father’d do if—”

Her chopsticks drop onto her tray.

I dig into my rice. “He’s nine hours away. Don’t worry about him, all right?”

Her hands shake as she picks them back up. “I’ll try…”

I try changing topics, but nothing changes her mood. I need something to bail me out here!

As if answering my prayers, the girl with orange pigtails skips to our table and waves. “Heya!”

After all the events of yesterday, I have some difficulty putting a name to her face—until I see her bright green eyes.

“Hey, Nami.” I take a celebratory sip of miso soup for getting it right.

She gives me a thumbs up. “Why don’t you come sit with us? You’re part of the baking club now, so no point in sitting alone! Bring your friend with the cool hair along, too. Is she interested in joining? I’m sure we can save a spot for her. And she’s so cute too, like a doll, Does she like nicknames? How about Sugar? It’d go with her hair.”

“Ayumi’s fine.” She props herself out of her chair. “And I’d be glad to sit with you guys, as long as there aren’t too many stairs.”

“Oh dear! What happened there?” Nami finally notices Ayumi’s knee.

She laughs it off. “My knee was in the wrong place at the wrong time when a tool cabinet collapsed. The doctors don’t know if it’ll ever heal, but I’m used to it by now.”

Nami pats her shoulder “Well, you’re part of us now, so follow me!”

Nami chats incessantly as we head toward the windows. “Look at the view!” Ayumi exclaims, seeing Kochi from a different angle. The foot of the Washio Mountain meets the water beneath us. To our left is the city center, where the buildings hug the Kagami River so tight, it’s a surprise they don’t fall in. The alleys are much closer, near the port.

To our right, the Kagami and Kokubu rivers merge into the Urado Bay, which then meanders past lush greenery and houses. Way in the distance is the Katsurahama beach and the ocean. It’s a bit too cold for it now, but come summer I’m sure we’ll make daily pilgrimages there.

“I know, right?” Nami takes her place next to the black-haired student—what was her name again? There are only the four of us at the table, but judging from the bags under the other seats, the other girls will be here shortly.

Nami pokes the black-haired student. “Kyouko, can you pass the soy sauce?” Oh right, that’s her name.

“At least say good morning,” she gripes before passing the bottle.

“So, tell me a bit about yourself.” Nami smiles, not acknowledging Kyouko’s remark. “What’re you good at, what’re you bad at, are you any good at baking, what’s your favorite thing to bake, who’s your favorite band, do you like guys or gir—”

Kyouko slaps her hand over Nami’s mouth. “What kind of a question is that?”

She takes a slurp of her soup with her free hand. “Sorry for my rambling friend here. She’s just curious. Can’t say I’m uninterested either. Tell us a bit about yourselves.”

Ayumi swallows her rice. “I’m Ayumi, and this is Sakura. We’re from Tokyo North Middle School.”

Nami breaks free of Kyouko’s hold. “Tokyo? Isn’t that really far?”

After the near disaster of the first day, I had rehearsed an excuse. “Of course it is. But this was the only school with a seaside view.”

Nami holds her hand out toward the window. “Everyone has their own reasons for choosing a school, so who am I to judge? Did you know the founder chose this spot for building a school for the same reason? Imagine, building a school on the side of a mountain. The costs had to have been enormous! But enough about him, we’re talking about our reasons. For me, I chose this school because it was close to home and—”

Nami’s mouth isn’t about to shut itself, so Kyouko’s hand does the job for her. Kyouko motions for us to continue as more students take their seats. “How long have you been baking?”

It’s Ayumi’s turn to answer. “Eh, as long as I can remember. We never really bought sweets in my house, so I usually had to make them myself if I wanted them.”

She knows my experience from yesterday, but I don’t want to feel left out. “I mainly ate what she made. I’ve never touched a wok in my life.”

Nami sticks her mouth through Kyouko’s fingers. “Well, not like you need experience. I wasn’t that great at it either. But you get the hang of it. Lesson one: You don’t use a wok for baking.”

Kyouko shuts the gap. “How about bands? Do you listen to any music?”

“Well, I’m a big fan of Silent Circular Infinity,” I say.

“Really?” Nami leaps out of her chair. “Me too! You have to come over some time so I can show you my alarm clock and—”

Ayumi knows to cut her off this time. “I like Johnnie’s Boys.”

Kyouko folds her arms and gives an approving nod. “But you better not be too into Kazuto. He’s my reserved property.”

Ayumi giggles. “You can keep him. I’ll take my chances with Makoto.” A stab of jealousy pierces my chest. Over Makoto? Nah, he’s not my type. But, then what am I feeling?

The other girls trickle in and join in our chats. But they all wear yellow ties. Ayumi and I are the only first-year students, so the rest are second-year students.

When we arrive at class, a third-year student calls for us before we can put our books down.

“Can I help you?” Ayumi asks.

“The student council would like to see you at lunch today.” As class president, that’ll probably become a normal thing. “And bring your freckled friend too.”

Wait, me? I’m innocent, I tell you! You’ve got the wrong girl!

I hardly pay attention in class as my mind stays on the meeting. What can it be? We can’t have broken any rules yet. Well, no, we haven’t been caught breaking any rules. I’m no closer to figuring it out when the bell chimes for lunch.

“What do you think they want?” I pick up Ayumi’s bag for her.

She carefully balances her weight on her crutches. “Probably wants a profile on the new members of the baking club.”

On the trip to the student council room, I help Ayumi prepare with suggestions like “Smile a lot” and “Let them hear what they want to hear.” But nothing could’ve prepared us for the room itself.

“What’s with all the butterflies?” The entire door is covered with cardboard cutouts, save for the sign in the middle which reads “Student Council” decorated with butterflies drawn with crayon. Didn’t the club booths have signs like this as well?

“They must get bored.” I tap on the door, taking care not to touch a single butterfly.

“Come in,” responds a soft voice.

When I open the door, I expect a table filled with girls wearing armbands signifying their ranks and neat stacks of papers in front of them. But life is never what we expect.

The room is mostly empty. There is a table with papers on it, but they seem to all belong to a single unorganized pile. Nobody is in the room, except a girl sitting at a computer near the window. Oh, she’s the kid I’ve seen around campus the past couple days.

“Where’s the student council?” This is a pretty normal room, with a clean chalkboard on the right wall mirrored by metal bookshelves on the left. Empty folding chairs are set up around the table, each with a name taped on.

“You’re looking at it.” the girl stops clicking around. “You must be Ayumi and Sakura, I take it? My name is Erica, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Charmed,” I say. “Now, where’s your sister? I’d like to get to lunch before the cafeteria closes.”

“Sister?” Erica cocks her head. “I’m an only child.”

“Then who bought your uniform?”

“I did.”

“Who brought you to school?”

“I woke up and walked here myself.”

“Whose job are you doing?”


She’s good at this game. But it’s time for it to end.

“Who paid you to pretend to be a high school student?”

She slams her hand on the table and stands up, even if it doesn’t add much height for her. “The quotient rule is, the derivative of a over b is b times the derivative of a minus a times the derivative of b, all over b squared. The sine of x over 2 is plus or minus the square root of 1 minus the cosine of x over 2. The Black-Scholes model is the partial derivative of…”

My eyes spin from the bombardment of math. Is she even speaking the same language? My head hurts!

Ayumi, my savior, breaks up the evil onslaught. “We get it. You really are a student here. Sorry, you look kind of—”


We both nod.

“I know.” She sinks back in her chair.

Did we hurt her? “I’m sorry.”

“Do you think I could have made it this far looking like this if I let something like that upset me?” She leans back in her chair—the only swivel chair in the room. “Now, take a seat. The speech-makers won’t be joining us today.”

“But you said you were the entire student council.” I sit down in one of the folding chairs. These are really low to the ground compared to Erica’s.

“I’m the treasurer. The other members make their speeches, sign papers when I tell them to, and go home at the end of the day. I’d run the entire thing alone if not for the speeches.”

“Stage fright?” Ayumi suggests.

Erica mumbles, “I can’t reach the microphone…”

We both stifle a laugh. Erica slams her hand on the table again. “Enough of this! The reason why I brought you here is because of that.” She points at Ayumi.

“I have a name, you know.”

Erica slams her hands on the table yet again. “I mean, your hair! Why is it silver?”

So somebody else noticed it. Ayumi bites her lip. “This is my natural color.”

Erica folds her arms. “It was black yesterday.”

Ayumi is visibly shaking. “Um, well, um…”

“Hair dye,” I cut in.

“Excuse me?” Erica’s flabbergasted.

This’ll work. “She wanted to dye her hair black to blend in, but it washed out in the bath yesterday.”

Ayumi gives me a wink. “It’s so itchy when it’s in, too! I think I’m allergic to it. I’ll keep it like this from now on.”

Erica’s can’t argue that point. “I’ll let this incident slide, but you must promise to follow the rules. You will not leave the school ground outside of weekends again, and you’ll be back in your beds by curfew. Understood?”

“Wait. How did you know?” I ask.

A sinister smile creeps across Erica’s face. “By your confession.”

Ayumi blinks. “Confession? What confession?”

Erica’s bells jiggle when she leans back. “Sakura just said, ‘How did you know?’ That’s a confession. I don’t need any further proof.”

Did I really get outwitted by a quasi-ten-year-old? “Fine, you win. We won’t leave without permission. Do you need anything else?”

Erica reaches in her bag and pulls out a stack of boxed lunches. “Why don’t you stay here and eat with me? I made enough for three.”

“I don’t see why not—”

Ayumi’s grabs my sleeve. “I really wanted to eat the Katsuo Tataki on the menu today.”

Erica’s already setting out boxed lunches at three of the empty chairs. Her sunny face radiates her joy. She’s nothing like the girl yesterday, eating alone while a couple of first-year students made fun of her.

“They’ll serve it again. We might never get to eat in here again.”

Ayumi sits down. “I guess you’re right.”

We pick through our meals. Erica apparently has some sort of fondness for pickled cabbage, which takes up at least a fourth of our boxes. But like most kids, she saves her favorite for last.

She takes a sip of water before talking. “This doesn’t have to be the only time if you don’t want it to be. You seem nice enough. I could use some help here, so why don’t I nominate you for membership?”

Ayumi stares at me. Don’t worry, I know what you’re thinking. “Thanks, but we already joined the baking club.”

Erica stabs a slice of her salmon. “I see,” she mutters to the table.

“By the way, we’re not going to go out without permission again, but why do you care? You’re a student too.”

She reaches into her bag again. “Because I’m also the head of the residence committee.” She pulls out an armband so large, I can’t help but giggle.

“What’s so funny?” she asks.

Now it’s time to show her I can do math too. “That armband makes your arm look like a twig! Its diameter is like double your arm’s radius!”

She groans and covers her face with her hand. “You know that means it’d fit, right? Two radii make one diameter.”

After we finish our lunch and spend a mundane afternoon in class, Nami introduces us to the baking club. Then she stands on a table. “I got word from the Tosa Retirement Home about their spring party on Saturday. They’d like cookies to feed two hundred, and I know just the girls to bake for them.”

We cheer and get to work. Well, most of us. Kyouko keeps her arms folded and frowns.

Ayumi and I are grouped with Kyouko and Nami. Nami hands out assignments. “I’ll make the batter, Kyouko can cut out the cookies, Sakura, you handle the oven, and my cute little silver-haired doll—”


Nami sticks out her tongue. “Ayumi can decorate.” As long as Ayumi can stay seated, we’ll get this done no problem.

Kyouko hands me the first tray to put in the oven. “Is something wrong?” I ask as I slide it in.

“Oh, it’s nothing.” She rolls the batter out like a pro and presses her cookie cutter into it with her nimble fingers. But she remains as gloomy as ever.

I grab her new tray and place it on the other rack. “I know we barely know each other, but if you want to let something out, I’m a great listener.”

Kyouko jams a cookie cutter into a fresh sheet of dough. “Fine, I’ll let it off my chest. I wish we were doing this for an orphanage instead of a retirement home.”

Nami drops some more batter in the bowl and asks “Do you want to arrange another event?”

Kyouko scoops the cuts on a sheet. “No. To be honest, I don’t like the elderly. They have absolutely nothing left to contribute to society except their wisdom, and it’s always veiled in sarcasm and nastiness. I know I’m supposed to respect them, but it’s hard to when they always seem to treat me like dirt.”

“Ow!” I pull my hand back when I touch a hot tray fresh out of the oven.

Kyouko grabs my hand and thrusts my finger into a pot of cold water. “You can’t touch those directly!”

I wince at the pain. By the time I’ve been medically aided, I can’t remember what we’re talking about.

Kyouko’s blue tie reminds me of something. “Do you know a girl named Erica?”

“Erica?” She pauses to think for a bit. “Oh, the Filipino girl? Yeah, she was in my class last year.”

“So she really isn’t just a smart ten-year-old.” If I was outwitted by a real ten-year-old, I don’t know if my pride could ever recover. I take the now-cool trays off the stovetop and place them in front of Ayumi.

“No, she really is seventeen. Don’t let her looks fool you. She’ll be as tough as leather if you try to pull one on her. That’s why we elected her treasurer.” She hands me some oven mitts for future trays and then goes back to cutting out shapes.

“Oh my God!” Ayumi shrieks.

“What?” We ask. I half expect to see her in a pool of blood.

There’s no blood. Instead, there are only tears. “The poor cookies! They’re burnt!”

Today, I learned three important lessons. Lesson One: Never touch a hot tray with your bare hand. Lesson Two: If you don’t keep track of your cookies, they’ll burn. Lesson Three: Ayumi goes to tears over a burnt cookie.

After a quick dinner, we return to the dorm room. “I wonder if Haruka’s all right,” Ayumi asks.

“I’m sure she’s fine.”

“But she was by herself all day and we didn’t leave her anything to do.”

“Maybe she went exploring. It’s a large campus.”

I pull open the door to find Haruka lying prone on my bed with her feet in the air. She leans her head on one hand and flips through one of my manga comics with the other. “Welcome back.”

A high stack is piled next to her. How many volumes can you go through in a day? “Did you read all of this already?”

She flips the page. “Most of it. Never would have expected you to be the type to be into magical girls and—”

I jump on my bed and put my hand over her mouth. It goes right through her, but at least she shuts up.

Ayumi stifles a giggle.

“Seriously?” My blood’s rushing to my face.

“Who am I to judge? We said no secrets, no judging, right?” She turns to Haruka. “Though, you really shouldn’t go through Sakura’s stuff without her permission.”

Haruka closes my manga. “Fiiine. But, isn’t there anything else I can do? I’m bored.”

Ayumi puts her finger to her chin. “You like reading, don’t you?”

“Better than nothing.”

Ayumi pulls her tablet out of her bag. “There’s a service on here to read as many books as you want. My credit card should be saved in it. Sign up for it, and you can download anything you want.”

Haruka carefully holds the tablet and inspects every centimeter of the unfamiliar tool. “Thanks.”

I place one of my books on the shelf. “By the way, why isn’t the tablet going through you like my hand?”

She touches a button on the tablet and jumps at its response. “You initiated the touch. Only another familiar can forcibly touch me, but I can touch anything I want. Or not touch, for that matter.”

“Makes sense.” I place another book to the left of the first.

Haruka hits a few more buttons. “It says there’s no connection.”

“It’s a bit windy out, so maybe the Wi-Fi’s weaker inside right now. Try outside.”

Haruka leaves the room. Not even five seconds pass before Ayumi bursts into a fit of giggles. “Seriously, magical girls?”

I drop the book in my hand. “I wanted to see what the fuss was all about and got hooked. Is it so weird?”

She sticks her tongue out at me. “Let me borrow one of those books one day.”

The door slips open. “That was fast.” But when I get up to greet Haruka, I remember she’s still outside. Our homeroom teacher is at the door.

“Can I help you?” asks Ayumi.

“Would you mind coming to my office? I have something to discuss with you.” But she’s not angry. Rather, her wrinkles show concern.

Ayumi looks back. “Can Sakura come?”

The teacher gently places her hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “This really is a private matter, and you can discuss it with her later if you choose to.”

“Go ahead,” I say. It’s best if she does what the teacher asks. No need to create a conflict when there’s none in the first place. She leaves the room, and I’m all alone.

I open my closet door and pull away a few dresses. Twilight lies there, untouched by any would-be thieves. Then again, who’d look for a sword in the back of a girl’s closet?

Despite that, rust marks are already appearing on the blade. If Ayumi hadn’t summoned Haruka, those rust marks would be my fate. Could I even look at it like this if it was?

Fifteen minutes later, Ayumi stumbles back in with barely a sign of life on her face.

I rush over to her. “What happened?”

She stares into space. “My parents died overnight.”


I don’t know what to say. I doubt she does either. Her eyes are dry, remaining fixed on our window.

She doesn’t move. She hardly even blinks. She remains stationary, consumed by her thoughts. She can’t stay like this.

“I’m sorry.” But am I really sorry? I did say her life would be better without them.

She lifts her finger to wipe her eye, and stops when she makes contact. “Why? I should be crying now, so why are there no tears?”

I throw my arms around her. “You can cry on my shoulder if you prefer.” Even then, she doesn’t cry. She buries her head and lets me embrace her.

When she finally lets go, the setting sun has turned the room a bright orange. “Thanks. I’m feeling a lot better now.”

I stroke her ponytail like I used to do back in middle school on her bad days. Sometimes, it’s all she needs to calm down. “I know it’s hard, but remember, I’m here for you.”

We sit together on the edge of my bed. “I’m a horrible person, aren’t I? I can cry over a burnt cookie, but I can’t cry over my parents. I was their only child and I abandoned them.”

“Who could blame you after what they did?”

She grips my comforter. “All of it’s my fault! Yet here I am, not feeling the least bit sad they died. What kind of a selfish piece of dirt am I?”


It’s enough to bring her out of her self-pity. “Sorry. I know I should be sadder. But I keep thinking how relieved I am. I don’t have to go back ever again. I’m free.” She starts to smile, but catches herself. “I’m a horrible person. I deserved to die in their place.”

There are no words between us, because we both know how wrong she is.

“How did they die?”

“Murder. They were on a walk in the park when some stranger stabbed them.”

The room darkens as the sun sets behind the school building.

“Did they catch the culprit?”

“No, and I don’t think they ever will. According to all witnesses, no one saw the culprit. My parents were walking, and suddenly they started bleeding from the neck.”

She coughs viciously—as if it’s the only thing she can do to not throw up.

Haruka bursts through the door with the tablet. “What’s your password?”

Her hair has gone rogue. In fact, is that a sakura petal trapped in her braid?

Ayumi grabs her crutches and gets off my bed. “I’m going for a walk.”

“But your password?”

“Forget about it. Come on, I want to see what Kochi’s like at night.”

Ayumi leads us to the roof. Now I can see why Haruka’s hair is so disheveled. It’s so windy!

The city sprawls out below us, with lights shimmering through hundreds of tiny windows. In the distance we can see the mountains which make up the rest of the prefecture.

Haruka runs to the railing. “Whoa!” Sakura trees run as far as the eye can see, coloring our world pink.

Ayumi takes the spot next to her. “Quite the city, isn’t it?” She turns to me. “I’m glad you convinced me to come here.”

The wind ruffles Haruka’s braid. “But, you’re from Tokyo, aren’t you? Why’d you come here?”

I recite our line. “It was the only school with a view of the sea.” I point over the other railing to where Kagami River flows into the bay on its journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Ayumi sighs. “Tell her the truth.”

“Are you sure?” It’s not really my story to tell.

She leans on the railing. “I need to remind myself of it too, at times.”

I don’t like opening up old wounds, but I know this time, I have to. I admire the setting sun, recalling my room back in middle school, the day Ayumi came over.


I was sitting on the edge of my bed, waiting for Ayumi to finish her shower. The room had already sunk into darkness thanks to the dreary winter months.

The snow was really piling up fast out there. Maybe I could convince Ayumi to stay over for the night instead of braving the weather to get back home.

A cold wind blew through my broken window. I folded a blanket around my legs for some sort of warmth, but it hardly did anything.

The clock ticked, and with each passing minute, my heart beat faster. Did she really not want help? If she didn’t, should I force help on her? I had just laid my head down when my door slid open.

“S-Sakura?” Ayumi peeked in.

I picked my head off my pillow. “Turn on the light, will you?”

Ayumi flipped it on, and sat at my desk. “Look, I’m sorry if I overreacted. I give it a 9. But I’m being honest, it was nothing more than a fall off my bike and—”

“You know, I’ve lived in dorms since kindergarten, and even before then, I’d spend the entire day at a childcare center, only coming ‘home’ to sleep. Do you know why?”

Ayumi shook her head.

“They were siblings. My grandparents couldn’t let them raise me, but they weren’t willing to take care of me themselves. They hired somebody to watch over me at night and as soon as they could get me into a dorm, they locked me up.”

Ayumi’s jaw dropped. “What?” But her shock was ephemeral, and receded back into her stubborn crevices.

“I’ve decided I want no secrets between us. No lies. We’re friends, right? Don’t hide anything from me. I can support you if you tell me the truth, but if we keep lying, how are we supposed to solve our issues?”

Ayumi admired the busy streets of Tokyo below. “I think I’d like that. Yeah, I definitely would, if you’re all right with listening to me. Not like I could even keep a diary without my mom discovering it.”

I grabbed the withered remains of my attempt to grow a sea-lavender plant on my windowsill and plucked off its sole flower. “Here.” I affixed it to her hair. “This is a symbol of our promise. Always wear it as a reminder.”

“Won’t it wilt?” She touched it gently.

Oh, right. “We’ll need to get you a cloth one tomorrow.”

Her stubbornness seemed to be fading. “But, what about you?”

“I’ll wear my freckles.”

“Those came with you!”

I ran my fingers through my hair. “You know I can’t. I’d pull it out the first opportunity. Besides, I don’t want to spend an hour doing it up in the morning.” I stuck out my tongue at her, which at least made her laugh.

Then it was time to turn somber. “I want to help you. I know you didn’t fall off your bike, or you wouldn’t have come up here. Who did that to you?”

She grabbed ahold of her ponytail and gave it a squeeze. “My father,” she whispered, barely audible.

I took a moment to let it seep in. I had pretty much concluded it from her behavior, but hearing it from her lips hit me a bit harder than I expected. But I had to remain calm. It was the only way she could trust me. “How long has this been going on?”

Ayumi grabbed the hem of her skirt. “Ever since I entered middle school, when I joined the track club.”

“Why haven’t you told anyone?”

“Because I deserve every mark I have. He says I don’t put in the effort, so I can’t beat my fastest times. I go for the gold, but sometimes winning isn’t enough. If I’m a few hundredths of a second slower, what use is it? I’m not getting any better.”

I’d loved to have hugged her, but she might not take it the right way. “Nobody deserves what’s happening to you.”

She jumped up and clenched her fists. “What would you know? You’ve never had anyone there to criticize you or applaud you! You’ve never had to impress anyone in your life! You do what you want because you want to do it!”

“Do you think I wanted that?” It was hard to stay calm. I had to remember: she was the victim, not me. “Listen. Everyone should have someone to cheer for them. But if you want someone to cheer for you, let me. Don’t rely on him.”

Ayumi glared for a few seconds. But as soon as the fit of anger came on, it passed, and she sat back down. “Sorry. I said too much.”

“I don’t think there’s such a thing as too much from you.”

She paused for a moment. “I want to get better, but it hurts.”

As much as I wanted to pretend she wasn’t going through this, I knew if I didn’t take her situation at face value, she’d never get better. “What are you going to do to make it stop?”

Ayumi squeezed her ponytail hard. “There’s nothing I can do, save grin and bear it.”

“You could always report it. They’d find a nice guardian to watch over you.”

That set her off again. “You think I want my parents thrown in jail? Don’t you know how they treat the children of criminals? Fuji South? Forget it! And forget any other high schools in Japan. I’d have to live as a sewer rat.”

As awful as it was, I knew she was right. There wasn’t much choice in the matter.

I sat in thought for a while. Well, if we couldn’t end the abuse, then the only solution was to lessen it. “Why don’t I come over to your place tonight?”

Ayumi seemed to be taken aback by my sudden question. “Come over? He wouldn’t really like a surprise visitor.”

I’ll have to work with the hand I’ve been dealt. “Then tomorrow. And every day after.”

“For what?”

I folded my arms to give off a strong appearance. “If I’m there, he can’t hit you.”

“He’d never let you come over for no real reason until I move out.”

Of course, it wouldn’t be easy. “Don’t worry. I have a good excuse.”

“What?” She folded her arms to mirror mine.

I wasn’t about to lose to the situation. “We have entrance exams coming up, right? We’ll study until he goes to bed every night. I don’t know of anyone who’d say no to having a diligent student helping their daughter.”

Ayumi stifled a laugh. “You? Diligent?”

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him. Besides, it’s not like we’re going to be fooling around. We’re going to study for real.” I winked.

“You know, Fuji South’s entrance exam really isn’t hard.” It was intentionally created like that so all athletes could pass.

“What he doesn’t know can’t hurt him.” I repeated.

Chapter 4
Chapter 4: Extinguished Flame

We’re back in Kochi, standing in silence as a cool evening breeze kicks up. Ayumi shivers, but I don’t think it’s from the cold.

“Are you all right?” I ask. She’s doing everything possible to stay upright.

She wobbles and her crutches fall with a dull wooden clunk. Thank God I catch her before she hits her head.

“Heh, sorry,” she says soft enough for a whisper. “It felt like I was there again.”

I check her forehead for a fever, but when I remember she can’t get sick anymore, I pull it back.

“Sorry, Haruka. We’ll have to finish this story some other time.”

Ayumi only needs a couple of minutes to recover. When we arrive in our room, Ayumi takes a seat at the edge of her bed. “Was it the right choice to come here?”

“Of course it was. You remember what he did to you.”

She folds her hands together. “He didn’t hit me hard. I was exaggerating.”

“Don’t lie. I saw your back.”

Ayumi flinches, as if she feels his cold hand on her. “But was it worth their lives? If I was there I could have done something. I could have warned them in time or blocked the blade or—”

“—wound up the victim yourself.” Haruka finishes her sentence and flops face-down on her bed.

“Are you all right?” Ayumi asks.

“Yeah, I’m a little sleepy. Had a long night.”

“Familiars get sleepy?” I wonder aloud.

“It’s not like we’re machines. Nevertheless, we’ll keep going so long as our masters need us.” She lets her hand go limp as she falls into a slumber.

Water collects in the corners of Ayumi’s eyes. I can’t tell if they’re from grief or her confusion over what she should feel.

“Do you want to sleep with me tonight?” I ask.

Knowing her emotions have betrayed her, she crawls into my bed.

I lie next to her, running my fingers down her ponytail, like I had done on her worst days months before. Ayumi grasps my other hand. “You know, my mom used to play with my hair when I was a little girl. Sometimes, it’d be the only thing that’d get me to sleep.”

“Do you want me to stop?” I don’t want to bring up bad memories if I don’t have to.

“No. Keep going. I want to remember the times when we were a family. The times before he turned into a monster…”

I don’t stop until I hear her voice replaced by the soft rhythmic breathing of sleep.


I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I must have somewhere since the morning light now filters through our window.

“Good morning, sunshine.” Ayumi’s already finished putting on her uniform and is working on her hair.

She grabs a spare hair tie from her desk. “Need a tie?”

“As if I’d ever take the time to do my hair in the morning.” Her giggles are all I need to know she’s feeling better.

At the cafeteria, Nami has already reserved our table and waves. “It’s good to belong somewhere.”

In the corner of my eye, I spy Erica, sitting alone again, swaying her short legs in the air. A couple of second-year students pass by her table, glance at her, and giggle.

“Sakura?” asks Ayumi.

“You go ahead. I’ll be right there.”

I can almost see the question marks on Ayumi’s face, but she hobbles ahead and leaves me alone.

I take a seat across from Erica. “Don’t they bother you?”

She stabs a slice of salmon to put in her mouth. “I’ve lived my entire life with insults and mockery. They don’t bother me. Though I’ll need some excuse to cut their club’s funding now.”

She really is scary. “Do you want to eat with us? We’re sitting with the baking club and—”

“I’m on the student council. I can’t join a baking club.”

“You don’t have to. Club member or not, anyone can sit with us.”

“Pass.” She cleans up her tray and hops off her chair. “My ears can only handle so much rambling from Nami in a day.”

She darts out of earshot before I can counter.

Nami beams as I approach her table. “I was getting worried you’d stay alone over there.”

“Is there some problem between you and Erica?” I ask.

She cocks her head. “Not really. We’ve been in the same class since elementary school, but we never really speak to each other. We don’t hate each other, if that’s what you’re asking. We just have different friends. Well, I have different friends. She’s kind of a loner, kind of like the Japanese hare—only bothering to mingle when necessary. They really are fascinating creatures though. Did you know they’re like this reddish color and only socialize to mate? Not to mention…”

I dig into my rice and let Nami ramble all the way until the end of breakfast.

In class, the same third-year student as yesterday summons us. “Erica wants to see you again.”

I scowl. “Understood.” What rule did we break now? It isn’t against the rules to go to the rooftop, right? I pull out my student handbook and skim through the school’s policies. By the time I finish, the lunch bell chimes.

Ayumi can barely keep up with me as I storm through the butterfly-covered door. “We were back way before curfew, and we didn’t even leave the school grounds! And don’t even go on about the rooftop. There’s no rule against us going up there! What was so egregious that you couldn’t tell me at breakfast?”

Erica keeps her composure despite my outburst, and folds her hands. “Do you think I only wanted you here to yell at you?”

“Why else would you need us?”

Her eyes water. “You’re so mean.”

She wipes her face and shifts to Ayumi. “I heard about your parents. You have my permission to leave campus for their funeral. I’ll even come with you if you—”

“I’m not attending,” Ayumi interrupts.

Erica’s still as ice. It’s natural, of course, but Erica doesn’t know her story.

Erica claps her hands together. “Oh, you mean you’re not attending school while the funeral is going on. Don’t worry, I can arrange it with your teachers.”

“No, I’m not attending their funeral,” Ayumi counters.

Erica collapses in her chair, mumbling something to herself. I can only catch “Everyone’s different…not you…doesn’t have to love…”

I ask, “What? I can’t hear you.” Erica ignores me.

Ayumi taps her crutch on the ground. “I’d like to get to lunch before they run out of the good stuff.”

Erica cradles her head in her hands, deep in thought.

“Thanks for the concern.” I bow and follow Ayumi out the door.

“Wait!” Erica breaks her trance and runs up to us.

She really is a pest. “Now what?”

She grabs Ayumi’s arm. “Um, I made some extra food again. You’re welcome to have some if you want.”

Ayumi pats her head. “Sorry, but we promised the baking club.”

Erica tears herself away, obviously unhappy being treated like a child. “Then go ahead and have fun with your friends.” We close the door, leaving her to her mumbling.


After an incident at the baking club involving a milk spill, a bag of flour, and my shoes—obviously not non-slip shoes—Kyouko, Ayumi, and I rush down the courtyard toward the cafeteria in hopes of getting their famous curry rice.

I brush some flour off my uniform. “Give Silent Circular Infinity a try. I’m sure you’d like it.”

Kyouko coughs as a bit of the powder goes airborne. Oops. I better wash this. Kyouko clears her throat. “Do you think I haven’t? Well, I don’t listen to it willingly or anything, but Nami plays it all the time! That stupid alarm of hers picks a random song every morning.” She shudders. “To hear so much cute, high pitched squealing first thing in the morning…I swear, rooming with her is a complete nightmare!”

Ayumi nearly trips over a crack in the sidewalk. She steadies herself and asks, “Why don’t you move out then?”

Kyouko stops to put her hands on her hips. “I told you to come at your own pace. You’re hurt, so let me help you. Give me your dinner token. What do you want? Udon? Ramen?”

“I don’t want to be a burden.”

Kyouko heaves a sigh. “You’re being a burden right now. Come on, let me help you. You’re a nice enough girl to deserve it.”

Ayumi’s furrowed brows tell me all I need to know about what she wants to do. Despite that, she reaches in her skirt pocket and gives Kyouko the token. “Curry rice, please.”

“Now answer my question. Why don’t you move to another room if Nami annoys you?”

Kyouko slips Ayumi’s token in her pocket. “Because she’s not a friend to me.”

I had sort of suspected that. “Why do you always volunteer to do things with a person you hate, then?”

“Hate? No, the exact opposite. She’s a lot more than a friend to me.”

It’s hard to believe. A girl liking a girl is natural, especially in this school. But most wouldn’t admit it in the middle of the courtyard.

“Why am I telling you this when she doesn’t know herself?”

Ayumi adjusts her blazer. “Maybe you wanted help. But if there’s anything we can do to help, let me know!”

A girl emerges from the school building “Oh, speaking of the devil.” I smirk. Nami, who had to leave the club early to fill out some paperwork at the student council, skips along the path toward the cafeteria.

“Hey, Nami! I’ve got something important to tell you!” Ayumi shouts, holding her hand over her brow to block out the setting sun.

“I didn’t ask for your help,” Kyouko snarls beneath her breath.

But Nami isn’t alone. Out of the shadows emerges another shadow, creeping close behind her. I can’t make her out in this blinding sun.

Nami stops to wave back at us, ignorant of the figure sneaking up to her. But when I see the figure more clearly, my tension breaks. It’s just Haruka.

Didn’t I tell her to stay in the dorm room? Ayumi wanted to give her a little bit more freedom to roam the campus, but it’s too dangerous. We don’t know enough about familiars to be comfortable with the idea yet.

Haruka tiptoes to Nami’s front and leans in. What is she doing?

And then she kisses her.

I drop my bag, and Ayumi puts her hand over her mouth. Kyouko waves at Nami and runs toward her.

Ayumi touches her lips. “I’m going to have to tell her about the sanctity of a first kiss.”

I reach down for my bag. Was my first stolen by a familiar too?

And then, in a flash of orange hair, Nami collapses to the ground.

“Nami?” Forget my bag. I run over to our collapsed club president. Kyouko kneels down and lays Nami’s head on her lap.

Kyouko brushes Nami’s hair aside. “You idiot. How many times have I told you to take care of your body?”

Nami chuckles lamely. “I’m fine, really.”

“You certainly don’t look fine.”

Beads of sweat form on her forehead and drip down her pallid cheeks. “Kyouko, I’m cold.” But even in the midst of an obvious fever, she’s still cheery.

“Don’t worry, colds come on quickly. They go away just as easy.” She flips Ayumi a dinner token. “I’ll take care of this idiot. You go to dinner.”

“But idiots don’t catch colds,” Nami laughs, before it turns into a cough.

“Is this the time to be joke around?” Kyouko demands. But Nami hasn’t stopped coughing.

“Seriously,” Nami manages between coughs, “I’m fine. It’s…it’s like all my energy disappeared.” She coughs again, and a clump of hair falls out. She closes her eyes and they seal together, as if there were no lids.

What the heck?

Wait. Hairless… Eyeless…

“Get away from her!” I grab Kyouko and pull her back. Nami shakes as if she is having a seizure, tearing at her clothes in the process.

Kyouko swats my hand away. “What are you doing?”

But Nami isn’t Nami anymore. Her skin is pale to the point where every vein is visible. Her smile has become a cold, dark abyss complete with spiraling rows of teeth.

“A shade?” Ayumi’s gasps.

“Shade?” asks Kyouko. She stumbles as the shade, formerly Nami, rises off the ground. “What is this? What happened to Nami?”

The shade’s takes menacing step after menacing step toward Kyouko. Horrified, she keeps her distance. “Nami, it’s me. Kyouko. We’re friends. Remember?”

She might as well be talking to a brick wall. Nami continues her approach.

“Who did this to you? I’ll take care of them for you, and then we’ll get you back to normal. I promise.”

The shade is way too close to her. Another step or two and she’ll be within scratching distance. She’ll become like me.

I throw my body between them. “You’re going to have to go through me, first!”

But the shade walks around me. It doesn’t notice me?

Of course it doesn’t. Shades feast upon life. I may have been given a second chance by Ayumi, but I’m still nothing more than an animated corpse.

Kyouko backs up more erratically. “No. No, no, no, no, no.” She doesn’t realize she’s heading straight for a lamppost. She crashes into it and falls on the ground.

The shade closes the distance between them. Kyouko’s cornered. It bends closer, only a hair’s breadth from destroying her humanity.

“Don’t go near her!” Ayumi cries.

The shade jumps away from Kyouko with the nimbleness of a cat.

“Wait, what?” Ayumi holds her crutch out like a weapon. Yet it doesn’t approach her, staying in its place.

“It wants an order,” says a voice.

Haruka has moved behind us without either of us realizing it.

Ayumi keeps her defenses up. “Order? Why would it obey me?”

“It’s your shade. Give it an order, and it’ll do what you want, if it can.”

“What do you mean, it’s mine?”

Haruka touches her lips. “It’s a gift for you to do with what you will.”

Kyouko struggles to her feet. “Nami…” She stares as long as she dares at the shade. But soon she reaches the end of her rope and flees.

Ayumi points at the shade. “I order you to turn back into Nami.”

Nothing happens.

“Its life force is gone,” Haruka states matter-of-factly. “It’ll never be a human again. Not even necromancy can save it now.”

Ayumi clenches her fist. “Then I order you to destroy yourself.” The shade bursts into blue flames—the same blue flames which engulfed those shades the first night.

“What’s going on?” I demand. “What happened to Nami? What do you mean her life force? She was perfectly full of it before. What happened to it?”

Haruka points to me. “It’s in you now. I took it from her for you.”

Ayumi collapses to the ground, her crutches beside her. “What? Haruka, I never…why would you…”

“Because you asked. You told me to save Sakura, so I did.”

Ayumi moves her mouth wordlessly, as she tries to grasp what happened. But I know.

I was right about Cappy. He tricked us.

Something cold trickles down my cheek. “Huh?” I touch my fingers to it, and it turns damp. It’s my turn to cry now.

I collapse next to Ayumi and let my tears fall. What am I crying for? Myself? Nami? This world?

Ayumi’s throws a crutch against the lamppost. “A life for a life, is it? Well then, thank you for your service. You’ve outlived your usefulness, so I order you to destroy yourself.”

“Don’t be rash,” I say. Last time she listened to her emotions instead of reason, I “died” and she became a necromancer. I don’t want a repeat of it.

Her eyes burn with the fires of hell. “Haruka seems to think human life is a tool. An object to get what you want. So, she’s the same to me. A tool. When you’re done with tools, you put them away.” She grits her teeth. “I’m done with her! Haruka, destroy yourself and take your pitiful existence off this planet!”

Haruka’s pleasure with herself disappears as Ayumi rants. “You’re not done with me yet, regardless of what you think.”

“What the hell do you mean?” Ayumi demands, pushing herself up on her remaining crutch. “You gave Sakura life, even if you tricked me and killed my friend to do it.” She nearly collapses as Nami’s fate becomes a reality to her. “Your job is done. Leave!”

It’s Haruka’s turn to be angry. “How was I supposed to know what you wanted? When you told me to save your friend, I thought you knew what it implied! I chose a random girl and did what you asked. And now you’re blaming me because it was your friend?”

She’s mere centimeters from Ayumi. “This is your fault, so take some responsibility for once in your life.”

“I thought I told you to destroy yourself.”

“You also told me to think for myself.”

“Then I’ll destroy you myself!” Ayumi swings her crutch while balancing on one foot, which obviously makes her fall.

Haruka scoffs. “As if you can even touch me. Familiars exist until another familiar or a magical artifact destroys them. But, no matter. I care about you. Everything I did, I was doing for your happiness. From getting life force for Sakura, to giving you shades to work with, to doing anything I could to make you happy. Why else would you think I took care of your parents?”

Ayumi’s jaw drops. “Took care of…”

“You said you wanted them dead and buried. So I killed them, and now you never have to deal with them again—neither in life nor as a shade.”

Ayumi can only glare at her.

Ayumi closes her eyes and turns away. “Go away. Don’t talk to me anymore. I don’t want to see you ever again.”

Haruka turns to the woods in back of the school. “Like I want to see you, either.”

She stops after a few steps. “If you include Nami, the life force I took from Ayumi forming the contract, and the sword, I’d say Sakura has eight days to live. If I were you, I’d spend it as best you can before losing her, too.”

She storms off toward the woods in back of the school.

My heart feels like someone has wrapped a thread around it and tied it tight. “A week?”

Ayumi crawls next to me and embraces me. I bury my head in her shoulder. Dark thoughts cloud my future. Darkness will take me.

It’s amazing how sometimes the role of the comforter and the one receiving comfort can switch. My mind goes back to those days in Tokyo, when our friendship changed.


Back then, it was Ayumi’s head nestled in my shoulder.

I played with her ponytail, as I had come to learn she enjoyed. “What’s wrong?”

When we first started studying together, she’d have these outbursts frequently. But each day we studied, the less she cried. She opened up more about her life, and even in the track club she became friendlier.

She sniffled. “I was thinking about what happens when we’re actually in Fuji South. We can’t say we’re studying for entrance exams.”

“We could say we’re doing homework.”

She pulled off of my shoulder, but her fears remained plastered on her face. “What about breaks? What about weekends? What about days we don’t have homework, or ones where we only have a little bit?”

I put up my hand to stop her. I had granted her a reprieve from her father. But how could we make this permanent?

“I’ll think of something.” It was the best I could offer, given the situation.

The answer came to me in a dream. The next day at school, I went to the teachers’ office to ask for a bit of information.

My teacher raised an inquisitive eyebrow. “Didn’t you want to go to Fuji South?”

“It’s not for me.” The teacher seemed a bit perplexed why my “friend” didn’t come to see him herself, but he had no choice but to give the pamphlets I requested.

I jumped in front of her desk before class. “A-YU-MI!”

She went back to fidgeting with her hair. “Not even a one. No surprise at all!”

“Then this is a ten.” I dropped a pile of pamphlets on her desk.

“What’s this?” She picked one up and pulled it open. “Kochi Girls’ Private High School?”

“It’s a residence-style school down in Kochi.”

“Kochi? Isn’t that like nine hours away?”

I pull open an identical one. “Exactly. You could stay there during breaks and holidays, and it’d be too far for anyone to really visit you or anything. It’s perfect!”

Ayumi put the pamphlet in her bag. “Sorry, I can’t. He may be bad, but a life with no friends would be worse.”

There was no turning back from here. “I’ll come with you.”

Her jaw dropped. “You’d give up Fuji South for me?”

Fuji South was always my dream school. I really did want to go there, even as I gave Ayumi the pamphlets. But my dreams were dreams. Ayumi’s situation was real.

I searched the recesses of my mind for any excuse. “Yeah, but if I went there, I’d be average and maybe come in like 4th or 5th place every meet. I want to win. Besides, if it comes with the reward of being with you, why wouldn’t I?”

“People are going to think we’re lovers if you keep it up.” She grabbed the pamphlet out of her bag and gave it a closer read-through. “Application deadline tomorrow, exams on Saturday. But how would my dad accept this?”

It was as if her dad was always breathing down her back. Those days were over. I’d protect her and take responsibility. “He won’t need to. I’ll cover your application fee with my New Year’s money, and we’ll go down for the exams together. Tell your dad we’re going on a study retreat.”

The week flew by, and come Saturday, we were on a train down to Kochi.

Ayumi shook like a mess on the train. “I’m so nervous!”

I put my arm around her. “Don’t be. We’ve worked hard for this.”

“But what if I pass?”

“Don’t you mean fail?”

The train zoomed into a tunnel, blocking the natural sunlight. “No, what if I pass? How am I going to explain to my dad about wanting to go to Kochi instead of Fuji?”

I hadn’t thought of that. Lacking a real answer, I came up with some comforting words. “You’ll do so well, you’ll get a scholarship. He won’t have any right to make your decision for you.” She didn’t respond.

The exam didn’t seem hard. But when I got to the last section, I realized these were the same problems I had struggled with a month ago. The test wasn’t easy. Rather, our studying had paid off.

Ayumi and I boarded the train back home. “Well, how was it?”

Her beaming face was all the answer I needed. “I think I got every one right.”

The train zipped along as night fell. Ayumi and I fell asleep on each other’s shoulders as we traversed the country side.

By the time we woke up, we were at the far reaches of Tokyo. Ayumi pulled out her phone and a grin spread across her face. “I passed!”

I checked her phone and great weight lifted off my shoulder when I saw my number. “Looks like I did too.”

Ayumi scrolled through to her email. “And they’re giving me a scholarship!”

I hugged her, not even bothering to check to see if I got one too. This couldn’t have gone any better. I’d have to sell off most everything I owned to attend, but I really had no attachment to a couple of pots and pans. As long as I could be with Ayumi, all was right in the world.

Or so I thought. The Monday after, Ayumi limped into the classroom, completely distraught. Nobody would notice it but me.

“What happened?” I feared her answer.

“My mom found my train ticket.” She burst into tears.

Her mom? This was the first time I had heard her mention something about her.

The bruises this time were not limited to her back. She had worn thigh-highs to cover up most of the bruises on her legs, but there were marks on her neck, as well.

“We’re going to the nurse’s office,” I said loud enough for the class president to hear.

Ayumi backed away slowly. “No, if someone sees me there…”

I whispered, “There’s an empty classroom at the end of the hall.” She got the hint and held her stomach.

A minute later, I sat on the teacher’s desk. “So, what happened? Where does your mom come into this?”

Ayumi took out her hairband, but didn’t bother to retie it. “She was searching for my homework grades and found my train ticket. You can see the results.”

“She hits you too?”

Ayumi winced. “She does, but not as bad as he does. Her slaps don’t even hurt, to be honest. At least, not physically. But those aren’t the deepest wounds.”

“What do you mean?”

She buried her head in her hands. “When my dad came home yesterday, and she revealed it to him, he burst out in a fit of rage and hit her, calling her a lousy mother for letting me become like this. But then do you know what she said? She said ‘Do it to Ayumi! She’s the one who went there!’ And this isn’t the first time it’s happened. She always does this. If he hits her, she blames me. She never stands up for me.”

Tears leaked through her fingers.

“I can’t blame her for being so upset. She just wants me home. But is it because she loves me, or because she wants to use me as a shield against my dad?”

I had no words to say, so I wrapped my arm around her until she stopped sobbing.

“I’m to take the Fuji South entrance exam, and if they take me, go there. They left me no choice in the matter.”

I held her tight. “Did they make you reject Kochi?”

“My dad is considering it a fallback.”

I flicked Ayumi’s hair playfully. “Then it isn’t hopeless. You can study with me in the meantime and then we’ll intentionally bomb the exam.”

Ayumi didn’t even pick her head up. “There is no intentionally bombing the exam. This is Fuji South we’re talking about. Everyone knows they manipulate their entrance exam results so their recruits always get in. And do you really think my parents’ll let you in the house again?”

As much as I hated to admit it, she was right. We were top-ranked recruits. There was no way they would reject us.

The date of the exam approached, and with every passing day Ayumi withdrew a little more. I did what I could to spend time with her, but her dad always got in the way. At most, we could get an hour after school, with Ayumi pretending she had an off-season captain’s track practice.

And then one day…

“Hey, Sakura, can you get my history book for me? I left my history handout in it.” Ayumi asked as I closed the door to the maintenance shed on campus. We had adapted this as our temporary study room and a way to avoid her dad’s attention.

I put my hands on my hips and made an exaggerated stern glare. But nothing those days would cheer her up. “I’ll be right back.”

I was halfway to the school when I realized something was wrong. History handout? We didn’t have a history handout today.

Ayumi wanted me gone for some reason. That couldn’t be good.

I raced back to the storage shed and flung open the door.

Ayumi stood upright, holding a sledgehammer in her shaking arms.

“What are you…?”

She let the sledgehammer swing. It moved in slow motion like a pendulum until gravity took over and handled the rest. With a sickening crunch, it slammed against her knee. My lunch tried to escape my stomach as her knee contorted to a terrible, unnatural position. Ayumi crumpled to the ground with a horrifying shriek.

Ayumi!” I cursed my stupidity. She screamed and cried, a total sloppy mess, holding onto her knee as if to stabilize it. This was bad. Her knee swelled at a rapid rate, and some chips of bone had cracked through the skin. It didn’t even look human anymore, turning into some mangled lump of skin and bones. “The hell are you doing?”

She struggled to breathe. “That hurt more than I thought it would.” She tried to smile, but it didn’t last long as an obvious jolt of pain rushed through her body again.

“This is nothing to smile about! Why would you possibly think this was a good idea?”

She tried to sit up as if nothing was wrong, but fell down, screaming in pain. She took a deep breath of air to regain her composure. “At least now Fuji South won’t want me to run for them.”

“Run for them? You’ll be lucky to ever walk again!”

Ayumi was going pale. This was bad. I’d heard about shock in a first aid seminar I had taken, but I never thought I’d see my best friend going through it. I had to get an ambulance here, now. I grabbed my phone and dialed emergency services.

“Who are you calling?” Ayumi asked.

“Please state your emergency,” said the operator.

“Yes, this is Sakura, and I’m at Tokyo North Middle School’s supply shed. I need an ambulance sent right away.” Slower, Sakura. She can’t understand you if you panic. “My friend shattered her knee.”

“How did this happen?” the operator asked.

Ayumi shook her head vigorously. I knew what she was saying. “Don’t tell them I did this to myself.” She’d have to go through a lot of psychological help if they found out what happened.

“A cabinet collapsed,” I made up on the spot. “A hammer struck her knee.”

“We’ll be right there. Don’t move her until we arrive,” said the operator. “Can you stay on the line?”

“Sorry, she needs me.” I pressed the “end” button.

I grabbed the tool cabinet and pushed it, spilling its contents all over. It felt like I had become a framer in some mystery film.


“I did what any friend would do,” I said as Ayumi lost consciousness. “Even if my friend is a colossal idiot.”

She was rushed into surgery. Her parents came about an hour in, and when her dad saw me, he gave me a glare of death.

“What did you do to her?” he snarled.

I put my hands on my hips. He might have been taller than me, but I felt a lot bigger than him. “I did nothing. But maybe you want to tell me about what you do to her every night instead.”

“What do you mean?”

I smirked. “Don’t think I don’t know where those bruises on her back came from.” His glare turned to nervousness as he realized what I was saying, before renewing his glare with increased intensity. “So I’ll give you two choices. Either you’ll let her attend Kochi, or I’ll ignore her request and report you to the police for child abuse.” I’d had it. If a man could drive his daughter to do something like this, he had no right to be near her anymore.

The surgery went on for hours. In the end, they managed to stabilize the knee with a few screws, but it was going to be a long recovery period—at least two months for stabilization. After that, she’d still need another surgery to repair a ruptured ligament.

“How’re you feeling?” I asked as I peeled an apple for Ayumi. Her parents left after my threats, giving me some time alone with her.

“Awful,” she admitted.

I flicked her ponytail, as she seemed to like. “I talked with your dad. You don’t have to worry about him anymore. You’re going to live with me in my dorm room. You can take my bed, I’ll get a futon. We’re going to go to Kochi.”

Tears welled up in her face. Before I knew it, her head had found its home buried in my shoulder.

“Now, now, there’s nothing to cry about.” I put my arm around her.

“Please, let me stay like this for a bit…”


“Please,” I say now as Ayumi puts her arm around me, “let me stay like this for a bit…”

It has been months since she shattered her knee. After she broke it, I hardly ever saw her outside of school, since she spent almost all her free time in the hospital rehabbing. Come March, she returned to the hospital again for further surgery, and I didn’t see her again until the day I jumped out of the sakura tree.

A sakura petal falls down besides us—its time beautifying the world complete.


Kyouko isn’t at breakfast the next morning.

“Kyouko?” asks Yukine, a rather short and stocky second-year girl in the club. “You didn’t get her text? She has some emergency to take care of in town.”

“I see.” Grief takes all sorts of forms. If a little bit of alone time will help Kyouko get over Nami, it’s for the best. Considering how much I cried for Nami last night, even though I had only known her for a few days, I can imagine how much pain Kyouko has to be in.

“I miss her,” I say aloud.

“She’ll be back Monday.”

I gesture to Nami’s now empty seat. “I mean Nami.”

Yukine scratches her head. “Nami? Who’re you talking about?”

Ayumi nearly chokes on her food. “You know, our club leader?”

“Oh, right. She really needs to speak up more, or we might forget she even exists.”

The last thing Nami ever had to do was speak up. She’s just like me, then. Her life was drained from her, so people are forgetting she exists.

The bell rings, signifying the start of the school day.

For the first time all week, we get to enjoy a normal day of school. No introductions, no dealing with everyone forgetting I existed, and no pestering from Erica to eat with her at lunch. As a result, the day drags on with no end in sight. By afternoon, I’ve given up on paying attention and doodle on a piece of paper. My eyes grow heavy with every passing word.

Ayumi taps on my desk. “Are you all right? School’s over.”

I must’ve fallen asleep. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Hey, what’s that?” She reaches for the paper at my elbow.

I try and shove it into my bag before she can read it, but her hands are too quick. She reads the title: “Ten things I want to do before I die.”

“That’s private!” I grab at thin air in an attempt to retrieve my sheet.

She tosses the sheet back to me. “Why’s it blank? Well, besides these cute magical girl drawings.”

I jam the sheet into my bag. Let’s ignore the magical girls and get to what she really cares about. “Anything I thought of was either too grand or too boring. Nothing really special.”

She pulls up a chair and leans on my desk. “I’m sure there’s something. What was too grand?”

“Going into space.” I pull out the most ridiculous idea I had.

That brings a smile to her face. “Only a little. Though if you landed in front of me after falling from a spaceship, you’d definitely get a 10.”

But a bucket list is never an easy topic. She asks, “How about the boring ones?”

I might as well give them to her. “They’re nothing special. Stuff like wanting to look at the sakura trees in the park. Things we could do any time, any year.”

“No, they are special, because we only have a week to do them. We can’t do it any time, any year.”

She taps her chin. “How about we skip school for a week and do what you want?”

I slouch down. “When I first learned of my impending doom on Monday, I had the same thoughts. But right now, I’m a student who’s going to die. If you take out the student part, then what’s left?”

Ayumi’s furrowed brows tell me all I need to know about how much she disapproves of my plan. “I won’t push you any further. When do you want to go sakura viewing?”

I check the weather on my phone. “How about Sunday? It’s supposed to be warm.”

“I’ll search for a park after dinner tonight.”

I pack up my bags. “Does Kochi even have a park?”

Ayumi points to the sakura trees outside the window. Another petal detaches, floating down to the sidewalk below. In time, they will wither and nobody will remember them. “We live in a town filled with sakura trees. Worse comes to worst, we could walk around town and do the exact same thing.”

Ayumi and I walk right past the baking club, continuing on to the school library.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” Ayumi holds her hand on the door, as if we are about to take the biggest steps forward in our lives.

“Aren’t you curious about Nami and the other girls in this school who might have turned into…those things?” I can’t bring myself to say their names anymore. “Come on, if nothing else, at least we could pay some respect to her memory.”

Ayumi silently turns the handle, as if in agreement. A bespectacled girl with hair in a tight black braid and tiny arms sits behind the counter, flipping through a book. All students know Kotori the librarian, whether they’ve met her in person or not. Some say she never goes to classes and spends all day in here, reading.

“Can I help you?” she asks.

“I’m Sakura and she’s Ayumi of class 1-7. Can we borrow last year’s yearbook?”

“Follow me.” She leads us to the reference section. As expected of such a giant school, the bookshelves tower above us, requiring a ladder to reach the top. She doesn’t need it, however, as the yearbooks are on the bottom shelf. “Here you go.” She hands us a bright blue book with a picture of a sakura on the front. “Put it on my desk when you’re done.”

We settle at one of the tables in the front of the library, where I flip through the pages. “Let’s see. Aino, Aizakawa, Cedori… Here we go!” We can’t miss Nami’s picture. Not many people have her bright orange hair, and nobody could smile as bright as her.

“What’re you looking at?” Kotori peers over our shoulders.

Of course she’d be curious. “We wanted to see what our friend looked like last year.” That was the truth. Neither Ayumi nor I could remember her as anything more than a horrifying creature, so we came here for a reminder of who she used to be.

Kotori points to a space in the yearbook. “I wonder why there’s a blank space here.”

She points to a picture of the student next to Nami: a blue-eyed, black-haired girl with a ton of baby fat still in her cheeks. I blink to make sure I’m not seeing things. “But there is a girl there. Rin Cedori?”

Kotori cocks her head. “Who? Never heard of her.”

Ayumi and I give each other a look. I flip the page for Kotori. “Do you see any blank spaces here?”

She points to various parts of the yearbook. “Here, here, and here.”

Each place has a picture of a girl Ayumi and I can clearly see, but Kotori cannot. They do seem sort of faded compared to the others.

“Thanks.” I close the yearbook and stuff it in my bag.

“Wait! Reference books can’t be checked out of the library.”

“Oh, we’ll bring it right back. Don’t worry.” I wave her off with my hand. “Tomorrow sound good?”

Before she can answer, we’ve already left.

We retreat to the privacy of the abandoned club room next door. “What does this mean?” Ayumi asks.

I flip through page after page of faded photographs interspersed with vivid ones. “Most likely they were more victims. But to think there were this many is frightening.”

Ayumi squeezes her ponytail. “I want to know more.”

I can hardly hear her. “What was that?”

She takes a deep breath. “I knew there’d be more to it than just summoning Haruka. But I was too scared to ask. I did what he told me to, believing everything would work out somehow. I mean, I didn’t think anything could be worse than losing you.”

Ayumi gets up so she can move around a bit on her crutches. “When you mentioned looking into shades and all, I got scared. What if necromancers and shades were connected in some way? I couldn’t bear the thought. But I never thought it’d be like this.”

The wind blows outside, breaking off another bunch of sakura petals from their branches. They pass along, dotting the air with tiny pellets of pink. “It’s not too late to start.”

“Start what?”

“Let’s find out more about these shades. If we know more, maybe we can stop people from turning into them. We’ll start with Cappy.”

I stuff the book in my bag. “Let’s bring him this book, too. Maybe he can explain about what happens to people when they turn. Let’s go on Sunday.”

“But what about your sakura viewing?”

That seems so trivial now. But some selfish part of me doesn’t want to become the only girl in the history of Japan to not take an afternoon to go sakura viewing. “I’m sure visiting him won’t take all day,” I say both to Ayumi and myself.


Saturday morning arrives, and we gather at the club room with our collection of cookies. The club really did a nice job making every bag look extra pretty, even going so far as to put glitter on the outer plastic.

“Everyone here?” asks Ayumi as the van from the retirement home pulls up to the door.

“Well, except Kyouko.” I take a mental roll call of the club members. I really need to learn their names better so I don’t accidentally call them “Tall girl” and “Birthmark-on-left-leg girl.”

“What do you mean, except Kyouko?” asks a familiar voice. Her hair is tucked under a perky chef’s toque, and she’s wearing pure black sunglasses like in the movies, but there is only one girl with that voice.

“Kyouko!” the club members throw their arms around her in a sort of flash group hug. My body tenses up, half expecting Kyouko to lash out at Ayumi and me for what happened with Nami.

“Where’ve you been?” asks Yukine.

Kyouko puts her arm behind her head and gives an awkward laugh. “Sorry, I was visiting the four universities around town. I don’t know why, but I had an urge to tour them yesterday.”

Tour universities? Why would she lie about grieving for Nami?

Ayumi cocks her head. “But there’re only three universities in town.”

Kyouko grabs some folding chairs to load onto the van. “Fine, you caught me. I was originally going to visit the shrine, but when I got there, I couldn’t remember why I was there. Since it was too late for school, I thought I’d tour the nearest university.”

“Because of Nami?” I suggest. Why would you remind her of that? It’s like you want her to get mad at you.

Wait. If Ayumi could forget me, why couldn’t the same happen to Kyouko and Nami?

Yukine shoves a box in the van. “You keep going on and on about this Nami person. If you want to make a club mascot named Nami, go ahead. But there are no Namis hiding amongst us.”

Kyouko enters a sort of a daze when I mention Nami’s name. “Yeah…”

“Kyouko?” asks the girl with the birthmark on her leg. Oh, right, she’s Nagisa.

Kyouko closes the back doors. “It’s nothing. Just a familiar name.”

“You knew this Nami person?”

“No. I had a childhood friend named Nami. Come on, let’s get going.”

We hop into the van, which drives off. “Can you tell us a bit about Nami?” Nagisa asks as she settles into her seat. “What was she like?”

Kyouko adjusts her sunglasses. “I don’t feel like having story time. Let’s play Shiritori instead. I’ll go first. ‘Sakura.’”

She points to me, indicating my turn. I’ll need a quick response if I want to change the subject. “Ra…ra…” She ended with ra, so what’s a word beginning with ra? “Radio!”

Ayumi understands my urgency. “O…o…Ayumi!”

“Ayumi doesn’t start with an O!” Yukine interjects, to our laughter. I relax, knowing the topic of Nami is out of the picture.

We somehow manage to keep the game going all the way to the retirement home. We’d have kept going if not for the nurse knocking on the window.

“Thanks for coming!” She pulls open the double doors at the back of the van. “Normally, we’d have asked you to ship these cookies to us, but they really like seeing young people when they can. If they ask you a question, please be friendly with them.”

She leads us past some empty rooms and down to the ballroom. Not like most of the residents here can actually dance—seeing how all but maybe four of them are confined to wheelchairs. I don’t know how many of them are even able to eat our cookies, considering they don’t have teeth.

The nurse closes the door and engages the electric lock, signaling for us to disperse around the room. “Let me know if you need to leave. I’m the only one with the code to unlock the door.”

We join the elderly at their table in pairs—two girls for eight seniors. “Thank you so much,” says one of the ladies as I hand her a bag of cookies. “I really appreciate you girls coming out here for us all the time.”

“It’s nothing. We’re glad we can be here.”

It’s a slow process to hand out our cookies, as everyone wants to talk with us. I’m talking to one lady about her fascination with cheese when Yukine shouts.

“Nurse! We need help here!” At her table, one of the patients is slumped over, his skin as white as snow.

“Over here, too!” Nagisa calls out from the next table over. She checks for signs of life in the limp body next to her.

The nurse makes no move to assist. Instead, she wobbles in front of the entranceway, growing ever more pale, before collapsing in a heap.

Everyone in the baking club not preoccupied with another patient runs to her aid. “Did you trip?” asks one of the girls.

“Are you all right?”

She pants. “I’m fine. It’s…it’s like all my energy disappeared.”

I’ve heard these words before. Don’t tell me…

The nurse closes her eyes, and my horrors return. Clumps of hair fall out of her head as she shakes. The girls back up, unaware of what’s happening. But it’s too late. The former nurse rises, her gaping mouth with its spiraling teeth begging for blood.

They all scream. The shade lashes its hand out, scraping Yukine’s back. By the dots of blood seeping through the rips in her uniform, I know she’s done for.

Nobody else fares any better. At each table, several elderly are moving around much better than when they were alive, spreading their death. I stifle a cry as two second years rise up and swarm the lady with the cheese fascination.

I run over to Ayumi, who is as still as the death around us. “What’s going on?”

“I…I didn’t…” Of course she didn’t. Haruka isn’t even here.

The screams die out—not because the horror is ending, but because most of the room has already turned. A shade approaches Nagisa, Ayumi, and I, trapped by a serving table.

“Stop!” Ayumi begs. “Come to your senses!”

“Do you really think you can command my shades?” A voice asks behind us. She steps in front of the table, revealing a wide grin spread on her face.

“Kyouko! We need to get out of here! It’s dangerous!”

She pulls off her chef’s hat and sunglasses. A long white ponytail cascades down her back. “I have someone I love who I want to bring back. These ancient wastes of space will be perfect food for her.”

Nagisa’s eyes tremble. “Who…who are you?”

Kyouko glares at her. “This is a private matter, and you’re getting in the way. Take her away.”

The shade grabs Nagisa’s arm and drags her away screaming.

Ayumi stares into Kyouko’s eyes, her beautiful purple eyes, which have been replaced by the fire red of a necromancer. “Do you think Nami would want this?” Nagisa’s screams die away, signifying her fate.

Kyouko tosses her hat and glasses away. “No. But I’m a selfish person. I want her back, so I’ll bring her back.”

Ayumi grips the handles of her crutches. “Come on, wake up already. We’re here for you. We can help you get through this. You don’t need to take innocent lives.”

Kyouko cackles. No, this isn’t Kyouko anymore. She has been replaced by someone broken to the point of insanity. “Like you did?”

“Haruka did it on her own. I asked her to save Sakura, not kill people.”

Kyouko slaps Ayumi across the face. “Lies, lies, and more lies. Tell me, why did you choose Nami? Was it because you wanted to become club president? Don’t think I didn’t hear you ordering the other members around this morning.”

She puts her hand to her brow and makes an exaggerated motion of surveying the ballroom. “Oh, look, nobody’s ahead of you now. They’re all dead!”

Kyouko taps on the table. “Come on, Chizu, it’s your turn. Sakura hasn’t turned yet, as planned. Go show Ayumi what it’s like to lose a lover.”

A girl slinks up from under the table. She brushes her hand past her blue bob of a haircut, which only accentuates her transparent bony shoulders. “With pleasure.” The familiar lunges at me and brings her mouth close to my lips. I try and push her away to no avail.

Kyouko gasps. “You can see her? But you’re not a necromancer!”

Chizu pulls away from me. “She’s an animated corpse. She has no life force to extract.”

Kyouko grabs a broken plate and throws it at Ayumi “You liar! How many thousands have you killed to bring her back?”

Ayumi barely dodges the throw. “Nami was the first, and will be the last, as well.”

Kyouko leaps off her feet, crashing into her. “Liar!

Ayumi slams into the ground, her crutches clunking on the floor. “How many have you killed already? How many hearts have you crushed? How long has this been going on? Why don’t you understand how I feel? Why don’t you understand how Nami felt? Why? Why?”

I grab Kyouko by the waist and tear her off Ayumi. It’s only for a moment, as she swats me away with an inconceivable force. I slam into a table.

Kyouko wraps her hands around Ayumi’s neck. She gasps for air and reaches toward me.

I pick myself up, ready to charge, but my legs give out on me. They are going to be so bruised tomorrow. Chizu blocks my way, eliminating any chance at another attempt.

Ayumi closes her eyes. “Haruka, please help me… Please… I command you…”

The air ripples, and Haruka materializes next to Ayumi. She’s confused as ever, but when she sees Kyouko strangling Ayumi, she knows exactly what to do. Kyouko smashes into a table from Haruka’s kick, breaking it in two.

Kyouko wipes a dribble of blood off her lip. “You finally showed up. At least I can see you now.”

Haruka pays no attention to her, and instead circles around the other familiar. “My name’s Haruka.”

The familiar circles her. “Chizu. Charmed.”

Kyouko throws a broken bowl at Chizu. “Don’t introduce yourself, you idiot! Kill her!”

“As you wish.” Chizu reaches above, where white light coagulates, forming a sort of portal. She draws a long sheath out of it, followed by a slightly curved blade. It looks almost like a katana, but most katanas aren’t perpetually on fire.

“Well?” asks Chizu. “Where’s your sword? I hope you’re not going to ask me to dishonor myself by killing an unarmed familiar.”

Haruka picks up a knife, holds it like a sword, and tosses it away. “I don’t have one.”

Chizu lunges at Haruka, who leaps out of the way. “Don’t be ridiculous. All familiars have one.”

Before Haruka can answer, Chizu lunges yet again with inhuman speed. Haruka jumps behind an empty wheelchair, and not a moment too soon, as Chizu crashes into it.

“If I had one, you’d be in two pieces already.”

“You’re a lot of talk. Fine, if you won’t pull out your sword, I’ll dishonor myself for the sake of my master.” Chizu summons a host of shuriken and throws them in one impossibly fast second.

Haruka’s eyes glow a cloudy white and sparks of electricity burst out of her hands, diverting the shuriken away from her body and into the wall.

Chizu’s dodges a bolt of electricity. “So that’s why you don’t have a sword. I thought mage-type familiars were nothing more than a legend. No matter. My master says you need to die, so you die.” She jumps onto a table, sending the centerpiece crashing to the ground, and lifts her sword high. Yet when she thrusts down, it sparks, hitting a blue barrier coursing with lightning around Haruka.

That doesn’t stop her. She hacks at the barrier, causing sparks to fly. The barrier flickers, weakening with every swing.

Haruka’s eyes glow again, and with one swift motion of her hand, she lets several bolts of lightning fly. Chizu jumps back behind a walker and lets it take the brunt of the attack.

“You can forget hitting me. I manipulate time itself, so your attacks are a snail’s pace to me.”

When the walker collapses, Chizu leaps toward Haruka, who jumps out of the way. Chizu laughs. “Oh, you’re good. Shame we couldn’t be allies. We could turn the entire town into shades together!”

Haruka darts around to dodge her blows. “Is that all you two want to do?”

“She asked me to bring back some girl named Nami.”

“Nami’s a shade, not dead. You can’t bring her back.”

Chizu smirks. “What do I care? I’ll obey my master, even if her request is impossible.”

Kyouko shrieks, nearly bursting our ear drums. I had been so absorbed in the fight, I forgot about her. She collapses to her knees and stares at her hands. “You’re lying. Nami’s not gone. She can be brought back still. She’s dead. He told me I only needed to collect the bodies. Nothing more, right? Right?”

The distraction is all Chizu needs. She cracks right through Haruka’s electric shield and teleports behind her. Haruka barely dodges the blow. No, she didn’t. She staggers a bit from a blow to her arm. Blue fire flashes out of the wound. “Too slow,” smirks Chizu.

“Or too fast.” Haruka fires off another fork of lightning. Chizu absorbs it yet again with her sword. She swings it down, unleashing the bolt. Haruka leaps away from the explosion on impact.

Haruka takes a couple of deep breaths. Chizu flicks her sword, sending a spark of fire off it. “Getting tired? Such a shame. I could go all day.”

Chizu lunges toward Haruka, who leaps over her. By the time she lands, Chizu’s armed and ready again.

“Haruka!” shouts Ayumi.

Haruka’s eyes glow. This time, instead of casting a bolt of lightning at Chizu, she casts it straight up. The ceiling cracks from the impact, making the room shake. The chandelier swings back and forth until gravity takes control and dislodges it. It crashes to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.

What happened? Did it miss her?

The cloud clears to reveal Chizu inside the chandelier’s chains. “You idiot, I’m a familiar. Did you really think a physical object would hurt me?”

Haruka smirks. “No, but this would.” She lets out another bolt of electricity. Chizu throws up her blade to block it, but Haruka isn’t aiming for her. Instead, the electricity courses through the chandelier, right through the very chains still draped around her. Chizu lets out a sickening scream as her body turns into a light bulb, extruding a noxious smoke. The smoke replaces itself with a bright blue flame coursing through her body, consuming it to nothingness.

Chapter 5
Chapter 5: A Tiny Spark

I survey the carnage in the ballroom. Another ceiling tile collapses, shattering to pieces a few feet in front of us. Tongues of fire lick across the ceiling, originating from the chandelier’s old wires.

“We gotta get out of here!” I toss Ayumi’s crutches to her.

“We can’t! There’s still shades!” She’s barely audible over the tripped fire alarms.

“We can deal with them later! Let’s go!”

We dash toward the glass doors barricading our escape. Bloody handprints are smeared across the door, each a testament to some girl who couldn’t get out.

Something flashes in front of me. Ayumi screams as Kyouko lands on her and pins her to the ground. “You thought you could forget about me?”

“Kyouko, we can talk this out later. We gotta get out of here or we’re going to—”

“Die? What do I care? Nami’s dead, isn’t she? You heard her. There’s no way to bring Nami back. He lied to me. But what do I care? I got to get rid of some pesky ancient leeches in the process, and I managed to make your girlfriend’s life miserable in the process. Good luck finding somewhere you belong now, you piece of trash.”

Girlfriend? “It’s not really like that.”

“Shut up. You’re dead. Nothing more than a walking corpse. You don’t matter.”

She grabs Ayumi’s knee and, in a heart-wrenching moment, twists it, making her cry out. “Feels bad, doesn’t it? Now imagine that pain on the inside and—”

Lightning courses through Kyouko’s body. Haruka lowers her hands, the glow in her eyes fading. “Leave my master alone.”

Kyouko picks herself up. “Or what?”

“I’m not afraid to kill you too. I’ve done it before.”

Ayumi shouts, “No! Don’t hurt her!”

Kyouko spits. “Totally different story than Thursday, isn’t it?” She kicks Ayumi’s knee, who shrieks out in pain. Even more ceiling tiles crash, crushing a few shades in the process.

I take a timid step toward Kyouko, testing my sore leg. “Enough of this! I thought you were stronger than this. Look, I know you loved Nami. But think of her for once! Don’t take the wrong path just because it’s easier. We can help you navigate the harder one, no matter what your problems are.”

She glares at me. “Who the hell are you to tell me what to do, you incestuous swine!”

I back away from her, hand on my chest. “I don’t know what you mean.”

Kyouko saunters toward me. “You want to know what I really did yesterday? After I visited the man in the cap to summon Chizu, I went to the library to find out every way to make your lives as miserable as you made mine. It’s quite interesting what you can find by putting someone’s name into the internet. Did you really think you could run away from your family problems, Sakura?” She spits again. “Take the easy way out? Navigate the harder one? You could’ve stayed in Tokyo to find your parents, but instead you ran down here hoping your life wouldn’t follow you.”

“She did nothing wrong,” interjects Ayumi.

Kyouko glares at her. “Acting like little miss innocent, aren’t you? Yet the day after you formed your contract, your parents mysteriously died from an ‘unknown assailant.’ Was ordering their deaths really your first command?”

“I didn’t—”

Kyouko doesn’t give her a chance to speak. “People always called me strange when I told them I loved another girl. But after meeting you two, at least I know I’m not even brushing the tip of the iceberg.” She lifts her hands as another ceiling tile crashes. “Animatus. Gloria dia Bayonne. Gloria dia Nami. Gloria dia Arallia!

A circle forms beneath her, complete with intricate designs and patterns of letters.

“No!” Ayumi yells.

A hand reaches out of the portal. “Come on, my new familiar. Show these girls a lesson.”

And then its fingers wrap around her ankle. Kyouko glares at it. “Do you really need help coming out of there? You weak piece of trash.” She pulls at it with her leg.

But it doesn’t budge, causing Kyouko to trip and fall flat on her chest. The circle’s lettering spins faster and faster, until it is a complete blur of black.

“Let go of me!” Kyouko struggles to get away from it. But the hand is too strong, and pulls her in. She grabs fruitlessly at the ground, as if holding onto a cliff. “Stop! I don’t…I don’t…I’m scared! Nami!

She reaches out for help, but finding none, falls into the abyss. The circle fades, returning to the cracked floor from before.

Ayumi, Haruka, and I stand dumbfounded.

“What was that?” Ayumi reaches for her crutches.

Haruka taps her foot where the circle had been. “I have no clue.”

More tiles fall down. I ask Haruka, “Are you able to teleport?”

Haruka answers with a blast of electricity at the door lock. It explodes, and the door itself shatters.

Haruka lifts Ayumi off the ground, whose crutches clunk on the ground. “Sorry. We need all the speed we can get.”

I grab her crutches and sprint out of the inferno with Haruka. We aren’t a moment too soon, as the ceiling collapses behind us.

By the time we’re outside, the entire building is ablaze. Sirens howl in the distance, rushing to get here.

I gasp for air. It’s not like we can stop here. If we stop, we die.

“S-Sakura!” Ayumi points over Haruka’s shoulder to the retirement home.

Out of the remains of the ballroom, figures are crawling over the walls. Even from here I can make out their cavernous mouths. “If those get loose, the first responders are done for.” Not only them, but the city itself.

“Then Ayumi needs to command them to stop,” Haruka says.

“What?” Ayumi really seems uncomfortable, cradled in Haruka’s arms. “Those are Kyouko’s shades, and she’s gone.”

Haruka stops running. “The shades of a defeated familiar go to the victorious familiar’s master. They’re yours now. They’ll do whatever you ask.”

Ayumi motions for Haruka to put her down, and steadies herself when I give her crutches back. “Then I need to destroy them.”

“Familiars are able to destroy shades too, if you—”

“—No.” Ayumi holds her hand up. “These are my responsibility, so I’ll take care of them.”

Very few shades are recognizable anymore, due to the fire coursing through their bodies. But here and there is a checkered skirt hanging off of some poor girl’s tarnished body, or the remains of dentures resting in a cavernous mouth.

Ayumi stares down the hill. “These are our classmates. They did nothing to deserve this. Yet they must be punished for our mistakes. They’re left like this because of the girl who killed you, killed Nami, killed Kyouko, and killed all of them. All because she couldn’t face her fears of reality.”

She bows her head. “Please, find peace. Destroy yourselves, and let your spirits rest.” The orange flames of their bodies dissolve, giving way to a bright blue color. They blur through my tears—memories soon forgotten by all.

“I’ll remember them,” I say when the last flame snuffs itself out. “Even if I only have a week left, I’ll always cherish them, and know they did no wrong.”

Ayumi places her hand in mine. “Agreed.”

We grab a ride on a bus back to Kochi, but there are no words between us. It’s disrespectful to talk about the routine or the mundane. My thoughts turn to those girls and their families. What would life be like for them from now on?

Ayumi and I collapse on our beds back at the dorm. Haruka turns to leave.

“Where are you going?” asks Ayumi.

“I did what you needed. Your tool has served her purpose, so she’s going back into the shed.”

Ayumi sits up. “Wait.”

Haruka stands still and silent.

Ayumi gets on her crutches and hobbles over to her. “If I hadn’t asked you to save Sakura at all costs, would you have still done what you did?”

Haruka lets her shoulders droop as the tension leaves her body. “No. I wouldn’t have done anything to your parents, either, had I known. I should have been more straightforward. I’m sorry.”

Ayumi drapes her arms around Haruka in as much of a hug she can give to a person she can’t touch. “And I should have been kinder to you. I said a lot of things I didn’t mean. Can you forgive me?”

Haruka turns around to return the hug. “As long as you can forgive me.”

After they break their embrace, I place my hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “What do you want to do from here?”

“What do you mean?”

“We can’t go back to the baking club, so what do you want to do now?”

Ayumi casts her head down. “All I’ve done lately is destroy people’s lives. Yours, Nami’s, the members of the club, the residents of the retirement home, and Kyouko’s. I know I’ve chosen this path, and there’s no going back. So why don’t I turn this dark and gloomy path into a cheerful one for anyone else who might pass by?”

She clenches her fists. “I’m going to make sure this never happens again. I won’t join another club. I’m going to devote all my free time to finding out about this world and put an end to shades.”

“Then I’ll join you, while I still can.” It still hurts to say it.

“Haruka, we’ll start with you. How much about all of this do you know?”

Haruka sits in Ayumi’s chair. “I only know what my instincts tell me. Like, the stuff about shades and all, and to who they belong; it sort of was like I knew it when you asked me, even though I never knew it before you asked.”

“Do you know what happened to Kyouko?” I ask.

She twirls a pen between her fingers. “It seemed familiar, but I don’t know anything about it.”

Ayumi returns to her bed. “Then we’ll have to ask the man in the hat about it.” She flips off the light and wishes me goodnight.

With Kyouko gone, we won’t have to deal with shades again. With any luck, Ayumi will find out those are the last shades in the world. But I know I’m wrong, as another thought sneaks in my head. “Who controlled those shades the first night?” I whisper.

As I fall asleep, I think I hear a bell jingle in the hallway.


Ayumi puzzles over some outfits in her closet. “Good morning. Sleep well?”

I stumble to my own closet. “If you call placing my head on my pillow ‘sleeping.’ I haven’t felt refreshed since I stopped dreaming.”

She pulls out a yellow sundress, takes one glance at it, and shoves it back. “Stopped dreaming? I thought you had a lucid dream every night.”

I reach my hand into my closet and pull out the first thing I find. A blue skirt and a white blouse with blue trimmings? Sure. “I used to, until I ‘died.’”

Haruka is slouched in my chair, reading one of my manga (of course, without my permission). Ayumi holds a yellow blouse with a darker yellow patch in the front, and Haruka gives an approving nod.

Ayumi pulls out a red skirt to match. “I always hated how bad this outfit matched my hair. But as a ‘silver-haired doll,’ it’s really not bad.”

She always worries about the silliest of things. “I thought it looked cute on you before.”

Haruka swings her legs in the air. “You have similar tastes.”

“Huh?” Ayumi brushes her hair. “Unlike Miss Reach-in-the-closet there, I actually care how I look.”

Haruka isn’t listening. “It’s like you two were meant for each other, bound together by the red string of fate.”

Ayumi and I shout, “It’s not like that!”

The three of us head into the city. As we pass by an electronics store, the local news flashes on the television screens: “Electrical fire burns down abandoned retirement facility.” It wasn’t abandoned. It had plenty of elderly, and school girls with them, passing out cookies. But they wouldn’t know.

“Is this the place?” Ayumi stops in front of a rather tall building.

She hikes herself up the stairs as best she can. “Oh right, it’s your first time seeing it in daylight. He’s on the third floor.”

But he doesn’t answer the doorbell, and his door won’t open. “It’s locked.”

“Maybe he doesn’t work on the weekends,” Ayumi says.

Doesn’t work? No, this isn’t a job. I slam my fists on the door. “I know you’re in there! Open up!”

“Shush!” Ayumi grabs my hand. “Somebody’s going to see us!”

That’s all I need to calm down. Anger won’t get us anywhere. “I’m not leaving without getting inside first. If he’s not here I want to confirm it.”

“Haruka, can you check?” Ayumi asks.

Haruka, who’s been examining a directory on the wall, springs to action. “Physical barriers mean nothing to a familiar!”

She passes through the door and into the room, as if she’s a knife passing through butter. The lock clicks and the door pushes open on its own—which would be eerie for anyone passing by.

“You didn’t need to open it,” says Ayumi.

Haruka beckons us in. “There’s something you ought to see.”

Her words could not have prepared us for what’s inside. “What is this?”

This room seemingly hasn’t been used in years. The desk I woke up on is completely clear of papers, writing instruments, or really anything we saw a few days ago. In its place are cobwebs so thick, they can’t have been made in a week. The shelves are empty of all their various reference books, instead hosting a small family of lizards. Despite the changes, everything else is laid out exactly how we had last seen it. Only older and dirtier.

Ayumi wanders around the room. “Hello? Is anybody there?”

A stray cat curled up in the corner of the room lets out a yawn.

“What’s that?” Ayumi jumps back.

How could I have forgotten the cat from the first night? But it did drag us into this, right?

But when I see its color, my tense body relaxes. “This cat’s white. It’s not the same one.”

“Was the cat the first night just a stray? It couldn’t have been.”

Of course it wasn’t. “More questions we need answers for.”

Haruka squats down to pet the cat. It shrieks, its head darting around in an attempt to find its assailant. “Shush, shush.” Haruka’s voice would’ve soothed the dead back to sleep. “It’s all right.” It couldn’t have heard her, but it seems to calm down and purrs.

While Haruka plays with the cat, Ayumi and I open every drawer, searching for clues as to where he could’ve gone.

“Forget when he went. Who even is he?” Ayumi pulls open yet another empty drawer. “I doubt he’s your everyday human.”

“A necromancer, maybe? He couldn’t have known about shades and familiars otherwise.”

Ayumi slams the drawer shut in frustration. “He gave me the incantation word for word. If he were a necromancer, it’d summon a familiar for him, but it didn’t.”

“What if he had one already?”

“We’re not limited to one, but he did warn us about how much strain even one puts on the body. A second could be fatal.”

I sort through an empty file cabinet. “What if he lied?” She can’t keep making excuses.

Ayumi flings her ponytail back around to the back of her head. “I know you’re right. But if he really is a necromancer, then those shades would’ve been his own. Why would he destroy them instead of telling them to stop? Wouldn’t he want your life force to bring back his most treasured person? I don’t get it!”

She has a point. “Those shades couldn’t have been his. Nobody would destroy scores of their own personal army to save one girl who’s practically dead.”

“Then why?”

We aren’t anything special to him. We’re a couple of girls who got involved in something beyond their understanding. I have to think like him. He’s not “just a nice person,” so there has to be another reason.

I close the file cabinet. “Was his only goal to make you a necromancer?”

“It’s possible, but what does he get out of it?”

“I don’t know. Those shades weren’t his, or he’d have ordered them to stop. But then, whose were they?”

We give up finding answers and grab a bus uptown. How did we leave with more questions than we had before?

The bus drops us off at the park. It isn’t exactly a big park, but what space it does have is filled with trees. We can see all the way down to the sea, thanks to its location on top of a hill.

There are plenty of picnics already set up, but it’s nothing like Tokyo. Back there, it was so crowded you couldn’t find a spot to put down a blanket. I tried going there a couple times with friends in elementary school, but we never could get a seat. More recently, I’ve been too lazy.

“Ah, here we go.” I place the blanket down under the shade of two trees. “Haruka, you have our sandwiches?”

Haruka hands over the small basket of food. Ayumi winces a little as she stretches out her leg.

“Are you all right?” Considering what Kyouko did yesterday, I’m surprised she got out of bed.

She waves me off. “It healed already.” I suppose he didn’t lie about her natural healing.

I open Haruka’s basket and ask her, “Other people can see this basket. But they can’t see you. So, wouldn’t they see a floating basket when you carry it?”

Haruka grabs a sandwich. “Whatever I touch follows my rules. Like, if I took off my gown they’d see it falling out of thin air.”

Ayumi giggles. “Yeah, let’s not. Though, do you have any other clothes?”

Haruka takes a bite out of her sandwich. “Not really. We’re supposed to dress like this to show our servitude.”

Ayumi folds her arms. “Well, I’m your friend, so I won’t have it. We’ll buy you a school uniform for tomorrow.”

“You don’t have to. I could wear something in your closet. Don’t waste money on me.”

“No, you’re going to wear the uniform. It goes hand in hand with going to school.”

“But I don’t go to your school. Wait, do you mean—”

Ayumi’s ponytail flutters in the breeze. “If we’re going to be in this, we’d better be in it together. I don’t want you to leave my side for even a second from now on. If you hadn’t heeded my plea yesterday, who knows what would have happened.”

A glimmer forms in Haruka’s eye. “I’ll be sure to do it.”

We finish lunch and sit back to enjoy the cool spring breeze. Even if I survive beyond next weekend, this is still the only day we can do something like this. The sakura petals are already past their peak, and their withered remains fall in droves as we eat. Next week, we’ll be left with green leaves.

I brush a couple petals off of my hair. “Haruka, do you ever need to eat? I don’t seem to recall bringing you anything before.”

Haruka, who has taken an interest in a particular blade of grass, perks up to attention. “Nope. I like to, but I don’t need to.”

A few kids run around the park, chasing a ball. Ayumi follows their legs—particularly their knees which bend at will. “I miss competing,” she says to no one in particular.

The cool breeze makes me shiver. Wasn’t it supposed to be warm? “I’m sure you could get into wheelchair sports if you wanted. You don’t have to stay on the sidelines.”

Ayumi pulls her good knee to her chest. “It doesn’t matter. It was my fault I wound up this way, and it’s going to be my fault I stay this way. I’ll leave wheelchair sports to the people who are actually unfortunate.”

“No. If you were born to a better family, you’d be competing right now. So stop blaming yourself, and look forward.”

Something jingles.

A Filipino girl runs along with a net, chasing a butterfly. With every step, the little bells in her hair dance. Her hair bounces around her dark-skinned neck.

She’s heading straight toward us, not paying attention to anything but the butterfly.

“Whoa!” Ayumi shouts.

“Huh?” That moment of hesitation destroys her rhythm. Her feet tangle up and she plummets to the ground.

I help her up. “Are you all right?”

She dusts off her skirt. “I’m fine, but look at my clothes!”

Ayumi’s mouth drops. “Erica?

I can’t believe it. “You didn’t realize it earlier? How many Filipinos do you know?”

Ayumi turns aside. “I wasn’t paying attention.”

Erica readjusts her suspenders. “Well, if it isn’t delinquent one and delinquent two.”

She’s still going on about that? “It was one night. We’ve been in bed by curfew ever since.”

If she wants people to see her as a high-school student, she should pick out better clothes. With a polka-dot top and a skirt held up with suspenders, it’s no surprise everyone’s confused at first.

“I’m kidding,” she says.

Ayumi pats a spot on the blanket. “Have a seat. We have plenty of sandwiches.”

Erica moves to sit where Haruka is lying down tracing clouds with her fingers. Haruka barely manages to roll off the blanket before Erica sits on top of her.

“What are you doing out here?” I ask. Haruka, displaced, wanders into the park.

Erica finds a sandwich she likes and takes a bite out of it. “Wa woufn’t I be ouf her?”

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Ayumi lectures.

Erica swallows. “Sorry. I mean, why wouldn’t I be out here? Just feel the warmth of spring!”

“Don’t you have student council work?”

She waves her net in the air. “What kind of a life do you think I lead where I can’t even take Sundays off to catch butterflies?”

Ayumi lies back. “It just seems a bit, well—”

“—childish?” She sure likes to complete our sentences. At least she’s aware. “Sure, it’s childish. Then again, there are a few advantages to being me.”

She stands up and spins around, giving us a full view of her body. “Who’d question someone in my youthful body for catching a butterfly? It’s fun, so I do it.”

I’m not sure what to make out of this. “Did you come with anyone else?”

“Nah, I never bother. Nobody’d agree, even if it was a normal high school activity.”

“That’s kind of—”

“—sad? I know, I’m a loner. So what? I’m happy with what I do, so does it matter if I have friends or not?”

“What about your parents?”

The smile is wiped off her face. “I can’t.”

“Oh, are they still in the Philippines?”

She fiddles with a blade of grass between her fingers. “We moved to Kochi when I was five. They died a few years later, so I’ve been living by myself ever since. Even my court-ordered guardian mostly stopped talking to me once I entered middle school.”

“Oh.” I’ve apparently hit a soft spot. “I’m sorry.”

She stops twirling the grass. “It was a long time ago.”

Ayumi jumps in. “If they passed a long time ago, and you moved here when you were five, how old are you exactly?”

I can almost see the vein popping in Erica’s head. “I said seventeen how many times already?”

Let’s not turn this into a fight. “Do you want us to walk you to the bus station? It’s really not safe at night.” I can imagine her catching butterflies until dark and then running into some immoral people.

She slings her net over her shoulder. “Sure, if you want. I won’t complain.”

Ayumi whispers to me, “Where’s Haruka?”

I jerk my head around. Where’d she get off to? “I’ll be right back.”

Erica puts her hands on her hips. “And skip on cleaning? Look at all these crumbs on the ground. You need to do your fair share, you know!”

“It’s important.”

She scowls. “Typical delinquents. Never want to pitch in and help.”

“You have the wrong idea,” says Ayumi.

“Then what could it possibly be?” demands Erica.

I say the first thing I think. “It’s my special time of the month.”

Erica’s mouth stops moving, and her dark skin shifts to a perfect shade of red from head to toe. “Why the hell would you tell me that?!

“Well, you did ask.” I thought only kids got embarrassed about that.

“Go,” is the only thing she can get out.

Haruka isn’t too far from our picnic area, playing with some withered sakura petals between her fingers. When we return, the sun has already begun to set. Erica gives a big yawn. “I can’t wait until it’s sunny in the evening.”

“It’ll be soon enough.” But not soon enough for me.

Erica points ahead. “Let’s go!” I give the park one last check before following her lead.

We take the bus back to the alleyways north of the school. Erica wastes no time navigating the streets, turning confidently from one alleyway to the next. With each step, the little bell in her hair laughs.

“Why do you wear your bells?” I’m finally curious enough to ask.

“Oh, this?” she touches a bell, making it dance again. “My mom gave them to me when I was little because I kept getting lost. They’d help her find me. I keep them in to remember her. Though I need to be super careful they don’t go off during ceremonies.”

“It’d also serve as a warning to predators,” I say to myself.

“What predator? Let me at ’em! I’ll take care of them.” She makes a tiny muscle with her bicep. “Bear, tiger, lion, they’re all no match for me!”

I don’t mean that kind of predator.

“You really seem to know where you’re going.” Ayumi struggles to keep up with Erica’s pace. “Do you study a lot of maps?”

“Nah. I spend a lot of time in these alleys, so I know all the shortcuts. Like see, here’s the little opening in the fence.” Erica pulls back a bush to reveal the opening. “And then we walk up the hill to get back to the school.”

I lean over to get a better view. “Amazing. We’d cut off at least thirty minutes on the road back.”

Erica winks. “You’ll know all these secrets by the time you graduate. Trust me.”

There’s no way Ayumi can make it through the fence with her leg. Not to mention, crutches really aren’t meant to be used on grass.

“I think we’ll have to take the long way around.” I motion to Ayumi. Erica understands immediately.

“Well, I’ll see you in school tomorrow!” she waves goodbye and runs up the hill.

When she’s out of sight, Haruka finally speaks up. “Did anything about her seem strange?”

“Besides the usual? Not really.”

Haruka peeks through the fence, even though Erica is long gone. “I thought she noticed me.”

Ayumi checks after her. “Probably a coincidence. She did almost sit on you.”


The following morning, my muscles are on fire. I try to sit up, but my body won’t let me. My head pounds, forcing me to groan.

“What’s wrong?” Ayumi helps me sit up.

The world spins as I get out of bed. “The date’s getting nearer. Nothing you can really do.” My strength returns as I put on my uniform.

“Now that we’ve gone sakura viewing, what else did you have on that list of yours?” Ayumi asks.

“Nothing much. Going to the beach, although it’s probably still a bit cold, seeing Silent Circular Infinity live, or having my first kiss…”

Ayumi walks over to me with a smile. Her soft lips draw close, locking them on mine, closing her eyes for just a second.

I jump back as soon as I realize what she’s doing. “A-A-Ayumi! What are you…?”

Her cheeks flush. “Now you can cross that off your list.”

“Ayumi, do you really feel—?”

“No. I’m a friend helping a friend finish her list.” But my heart’s beating fast. My brain races. Is there more to it? Or is it just a friend helping a friend?

Haruka bursts through the door, breaking my train of thought. “Looking good there.” Ayumi makes an “okay” gesture.

Haruka fidgets, adjusting the red tie of her new uniform. “Do I really have to wear these socks? They feel weird.”

Weren’t we saying the same thing last week? Most of the time I forget they’re there. “After going barefoot all the time, they probably would. Nobody’s going to see them, so if they’re uncomfortable, I don’t see why—”

“Nope.” Ayumi sticks her hand up. “Haruka’s going to attend our school, maybe not in name, but in spirit. So she has to wear the uniform—including socks. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.”

I know from her tone of voice not to argue.


Haruka takes a spot at the back of the classroom to watch the lecture. Our science teacher drones on about Mendelian inheritance, and how brown eyes are a dominant trait. I feel a nap creeping up on me. If I’m this bored, how bad must this be for Haruka? At least I gave her a sketchpad for entertainment.

“It’s recessive!” Haruka jumps out of her seat to answer a question. Of course, the teacher doesn’t hear her, so she returns to scribbling down every word in her sketchpad. At least she’s excited. But her vigor can’t possibly keep me awake through this lecture.

Ayumi taps on my desk, waking me up for lunch. “Hey, can you do me a big favor?”

I stretch. “Sure, what is it?”

“You see that big stack of papers on the teacher’s desk? Could you bring it to the student council for me? I really can’t with these.” She taps a crutch.

“Yeah, sure.” As I pick up the papers, Haruka runs over to Ayumi. “I never knew there were so many different types of people! Do you think I’m more recessive or dominant? Is auburn hair a dominant trait?”

These papers are heavy! Maybe nominating Ayumi as class president wasn’t particularly responsible. She’ll always need help for these kinds of tasks, and the vice president is a bit of a delinquent. Who’ll she ask when I’m gone? I don’t want to think about it.

I knock on the student council’s butterfly-covered door. “Pardon the intrusion.” I push the door open, knowing full well who’s on the other side.

Erica nearly jumps out of her chair to meet me. “Thank you so much! And thanks so much for the sandwiches yesterday. They really were something. I made some extra lunch for you and Ayumi if you’d like. Go get her, and we’ll have a great time!”

I have a feeling she would. Unlike Friday, we don’t have a baking club to eat with. To everyone else in the school, it never existed.

“I can, but Ayumi’d never make it in time.” Erica nearly jumps with joy as she pulls out the extra boxed lunches.

After calling Ayumi to let her know what I decided, I take a stab at my copious pickled cabbage.

“Do you usually eat—”

“—alone? Of course. Who else would eat with me?” She scoops some rice into her mouth.

“Did you have fun eating with us yesterday? We could save you a spot in the mornings.”

Erica thoughtfully chews on a grain of rice. “Yeah, I could. I have a meeting tomorrow, but maybe after? The two of you don’t annoy me like some other people in my class.”

Wait, wasn’t Nami the one who bothered her? Does she remember her? Then could she really see Haruka?

I’ll have to test her. “Sorry there wasn’t enough food for the four of us.”

Erica cocks her head. “Four? You, me, and Ayumi. Unless, are you saying you have two stomachs?”

My suspicions are alleviated. “Sorry, I miscounted. Math’s never been my strong point.”

“Want me to help you with it? It’s my best subject.” She raises her chin in pride.

The warning bell sounds for the end of lunch. “I’ll think about it.”

Math tutoring would really help, but I’ll never be able to take her up on that offer. I only have a few days left to live.


Ayumi types on her calculator, working diligently on her homework. Well, as diligently as you can while lying on your bed. She asks, “What do we do from here?”

Haruka perks her head up from my homework and raises an eyebrow. I feel guilty about letting her do it for me, but she kept insisting until I had to give in. A little extra time to play video games never hurts.

When she realizes Ayumi is talking to me, she returns to her, or my, work. I flip my game console closed. “We play it by ear. Like, maybe if we visit Cappy every day we can catch him.”

“You saw it yesterday. The place is deserted. It’s like it hasn’t been used in years.” She puts her pencil down. “Listen, you only have a few days left. Let’s focus on what you enjoy for now, and I’ll deal with this after.”

I box up my console and slide it in my desk drawer. “Come on. Are you going to let all their lives go to waste? Yukine’s? Nagisa’s? Kyouko’s? Nami’s?”

“All right, all right, already! I get it!” She throws her pencil at her closet. “I’m trying to be strong like you, but this is too much.”

“I’m not as strong as you think.”

“What do you mean? Here you are with a couple of days to live and yet you haven’t missed a beat.”

I put my hand on my closet door. “I didn’t just pull out the first thing I could yesterday because I was lazy. Simply put, I couldn’t bring myself to look at the sword.” My closet has turned into a thing of horrors for me since Nami passed. That sword serves as a constant reminder of how much time I have left.

Ayumi buries her head in her pillow. “I hate this. If only we had known about shades earlier, we wouldn’t have these problems.”

I have to agree. “If we had known about it earlier, we could’ve done something about it. Even something minor could have prevented a tragedy.”

Ayumi blinks.

“What? I’m just rambling.”

“You said something about a minor thing.”

I sit back down on my bed. “Yeah. I mean, I doubt it could’ve worked, but what good is life if you don’t try?”

“That’s it!” Ayumi jumps up on her bad foot and promptly falls back onto her bed with an “Ow…”

“Careful there. But what’d you realize?”

“You’re not doing anything right now, are you?” she asks.

“Not really. But why? What are you planning?”

Ayumi grabs her crutches and throws her blazer back on. “Trying.”

Ayumi doesn’t tell us her plan until we’re outside. “Haruka, I know you can take care of familiars. Can you take care of shades as well?”

Haruka raises an eyebrow. “I said I could before. But why?”

Ayumi nearly sprints—if you can call walking fast on crutches “sprinting”—straight to the front gates of the school. “A cat lured Sakura into the alleyway where she was attacked, right?”

“That was you.”

Ayumi holds her hand up. “Not the point. That cat, and those shades, have to have been commanded by someone. Odds are, if they did it once, they’re probably doing it again. We can’t have anyone else go chasing after cats and getting killed.”

“Then what’s your plan?” I can barely keep up. What’s happened to my running legs?

Ayumi stops to let us catch up. “We’ll head into town and search for shades. When we do, we’ll get rid of them and make Kochi safer. And if we can find that cat, even better.” She flashes a peace sign at me.

“Do you realize how big Kochi is? Getting from one side to the other would take all night on foot.”

Haruka puts her hand on Ayumi’s shoulder. “She’s right. We need a strategy.”

Ayumi thinks for a moment. “Well, it’s a shot in the dark, but the alleyways aren’t the nicest of places. Maybe the necromancer placed his shades in seedy spots. How do the warehouses by the river sound?”

She really is ambitious. “There’s almost a hundred of them,” I say. “We couldn’t cover all of them in a night.”

Ayumi taps her bad leg gingerly on the ground. “And I’m slowed down by this, so it’s not like we can cover too much ground. I’m getting used to the pain, and I sometimes forget it’s injured, but it only takes one stupid move, like jumping up off of bed earlier, to remind me how bad it is.”

She lifts her chin up and turns to the city by the river. “But if this stops someone from dying, isn’t it worth it? Wouldn’t it matter to him or her?”

She always has been the kind of person to see things properly. This isn’t about solving the situation. This is about making a bad situation a little bit better.

She clenches her fists, but not in stubbornness. “I plan to do this every night when you go to bed. We’ll do something on your list while you’re awake, and then I’ll sneak out to patrol the streets at night. I don’t want to steal any of your last hours with me for this.”

She’s so determined, I can’t think of any idea other than to go along with her. “No. If you’re doing something like this, I’m not going to leave you alone.”

She winks, as if she expected that answer. “I appreciate it.”

I follow her out the gate. “We better get going, then. Haruka, you have any leads?”

Haruka raises an eyebrow at me. It’s like she’s just learned how, and is snatching every opportunity to do so. “Me? Why would I?”

“I don’t know; you’re a familiar. I was thinking maybe you had some sort of little radar telling you where the nearest shade is.”

Haruka thinks for a second. “I don’t think I do. It’d be cool if I did. But, no such thing.”

Ayumi speeds down the hill on her crutches. “Come on, let’s go.”

It’s dark when we arrive. Many stores have closed their doors, while a few shopkeepers clean up inside. The few people we bump into on the street hardly seem friendly. “It’s probably busier earlier,” I say.

We cross the alley where I had first been attacked. I half expect to see another hooded woman there, but lightning doesn’t strike twice.

The warehouses are a lot larger than any of us expected. Even a single one would take an hour to search. “Should we split up?” asks Ayumi.

I shake my head. “It’s too dangerous.”

“Dangerous? But I’m immune, you’re a corpse, and Haruka, do they even see you?” Haruka is too busy reading the graffiti on the walls to hear her.

I slide open the door to the first warehouse. “There’s more danger in this world than shades.”

“What do you mean?”

I point to her legs. “You might be a necromancer, but you’re also a girl on crutches. If some pervert saw you, do you think he’d pity you or see you as an easy target?”

Ayumi lifts the end of her crutch. “I’m also a girl with a weapon.” She swings it around like it’s a sword.

A bead of sweat forms on my forehead and I narrow my eyes. I can’t figure out the words to explain how wrong she is. “Yeah, no.”

Ayumi follows me into the warehouse. The waning moon doesn’t provide much in the way of light in here. “Do the lights work?” she asks.

I flip the switch, but darkness remains. “No electricity.”

Haruka lifts her head to the large lights hanging from the ceiling. “Electricity?” Before we can stop her, she shoots a bolt of lightning upwards. The lamp bursts into light, momentarily blinding me.

Ayumi trembles. “Careful. You already burned down one building this week.”

We search behind the various boxes for any signs of a shade. While the lamp above provides good illumination directly underneath it, it also creates giant shadows off each box.

“There!” Ayumi points down a hall lined with boxes for walls.

Like the first night, there’s a figure hunched over with their face obscured by a hood.

I have half a mind to run screaming, and take up Ayumi’s offer to spend my last days doing fun things. But the slight throb from the scratch in my right wrist reminds me why we’re doing this.

Haruka’s eyes glow, and sparks crackle around her. Give her another few seconds, she’ll roast the shade.

“Wait,” says Ayumi.

“Wait?” we ask.

Ayumi leans down. “We don’t even know if it is a shade or not. It could be some poor person in a hood.”

But when she falls over backwards, I know it’s not “some poor person in a hood.”

The shade rises from the ground, its cover blown. Ayumi’s hands shake, but she knows she can’t back off now.

“Do it,” Ayumi says.

Haruka’s eyes glow again, and lighting cracks around her.

“Wait,” I say.

Haruka stomps her foot. “Make up your mind already! Magic is tiring.”

Ayumi cocks her head. “Why did you want to wait?”

“We wanted to know more about shades, right? This is our time to find out about them.”

“How?” Ayumi backs up next to me.

“I dunno. Maybe we could test to see what their weaknesses are.”

Haruka shrugs. “That’s easy. They’re unable to do much more than run on autopilot unless they’re within range of the familiar who created them.”

Ayumi and I drop our jaws. “What?”

“Why didn’t you tell us before?” Ayumi demands.

Haruka tenses up from the accusations. “Actually, I didn’t know until I said it.”

“What are you talking about? How could you not?”

“I told you, I didn’t know anything when I came here. When I see a shade, it’s like I have instincts. Maybe if you prompt me with questions, I might have answers.”

I point at the shade. “What are its strengths?”

Haruka relaxes a little. “A shade, for the most part, is indestructible. Only its master necromancer’s command, a familiar, or total body annihilation can truly destroy it. It also gains superhuman abilities, like the ability to climb on walls and ignore injury.”

I think back to the first night. “So then when I smashed them with Ayumi’s crutches—”

“—you did nothing,” Haruka finishes. “Leave the shade hunting to me. You two enjoy your last moments together.”

“I refuse,” Ayumi says.

“Why?” I ask. “If we’re only going to get in the way, why bother?

“I’ll explain later.” Ayumi’s clenched fists tell me all I need to know about her stubbornness. We’ll deal with it later.

Seeing this topic going nowhere, I point at the shade. “Whose shade is this?” The shade has already settled back down. With no target, it isn’t about to attack.

Haruka taps on her chin. After a moment, she says, “I don’t know.”

Ayumi’s had enough. “I can’t take it anymore. Get rid of it.”

“You won’t stop me this time?”

“No. Do it.”

Haruka spreads her hands apart, and after a burst of lightning and blue flame nothing remains of the shade—not even ash.

Ayumi staggers for a bit. “Are you all right?” I ask.

She steadies herself. “Just a little surprised there are still shades this close to home.” She pokes around with her crutches to make sure it’s gone. “Let’s keep going.”

We check every corner of the warehouse, but there are no other shades. The next warehouse we search in the dark, since Ayumi has forbidden Haruka from lighting another lamp. But this shade is positioned right next to the entrance.

“Do you want to check if it’s a human?”

“No, I know what it is. Destroy it.” Haruka lets out the burst of lightning. But the lightning reflects off the shade, forcing us to duck.

“W-what is this?” Ayumi watches the shade rise.

Haruka checks her hands “Did I miss?” She puts her hands on the ground, causing tendrils of lightning fly out of the ground. They wrap themselves around the shade, which bursts into blue flame and disappears.

Each fight after becomes harder. What kills one shade doesn’t kill the next, and Haruka is forced to create new ways to destroy them. Before long she’s stuck having to physically fight them.

“Do many people come into these warehouses in the first place?” I ask as Haruka tries to catch her breath. Why are these fights getting harder?

Ayumi taps the ground incredulously. “I-I don’t know. But if they did, we’d have a pretty big problem on our hands.”

Haruka still hasn’t caught her breath. If she keeps fighting like this, she could injure herself—if such a thing is possible for a familiar. Hurt or not, I can’t let her continue. “Let’s head back.”

Ayumi taps her crutch faster. “And leave these things here? What if somebody came in here and got attacked? I can’t have their lives on my hands.”

I step up next to Haruka. “There’s only so much we can do. We have to sleep, or we can’t do this tomorrow. Or, judging by the time, today.”

Haruka struggles to her feet. “She’s right. There isn’t anyone around to attack. We’ll continue tomorrow.”

Ayumi clenches her first. But just when I think she’ll insist on going on, she throws her hands in the air. “Fine.”

By the time we get back to the dorm, it’s already two in the morning. Hopefully, Erica’s in such a deep sleep, she’ll never know we were missing.

Chapter 6
Chapter 6: A Fading Light

“What do you want to do today?” Ayumi cuts into her fried egg. We have taken to sitting at the baking club’s table, as if to honor their lost lives.

I poke at my omelet. “Aren’t we going shade hunting after school?”

Ayumi swirls the yolk of her egg. “You only have a few days left. Five, was it?”

Haruka, who has been nibbling off Ayumi’s rice, butts in. “In fact, the rest of the life essence will probably die out today, so it’s really the sword keeping you intact.”

The sword always comes up. Why can’t I avoid it and live a happy life? I do my best to ignore her grim analysis. “Aren’t you afraid they might do something?”

Ayumi puts her chopsticks down. “Truth be told, I’m always scared. But if they were to do something, I don’t think they’d do it in broad daylight.”

“Kyouko certainly did.”

“Kyouko was a different person. She was not only trying to bring back Nami, but also enacting her revenge. She attacked everything I cared about. You, our club, and our purpose. The person who controls these shades isn’t expecting anyone in particular. He’s probably like a spider: weaving its web and catching any prey unfortunate enough to fly into it.”

She hobbles up on her crutches. “Can you bring my books to class for me, Haruka? I’m stuck on morning duty today.”

“Yeah, sure.”

Ayumi exits. I never told her what I want to do today. Not like I have any sort of idea in the first place.

We barely get into class when that same annoying third-year student summons us again. She doesn’t even need to ask for us—we know who she wants.

She leans on the doorway. “Erica wishes to speak with both of you at lunch.”

When she leaves, Ayumi asks, “Do you think she caught us?”

“Doubt it. She’s probably lonely and wants someone to eat with.”

“We’ll have to see.”

I check over at Haruka, who has her head buried in our English novel. I lean to Ayumi and whisper, “Why didn’t you want her hunting shades alone?”

She whispers back, “There’s still a lot about her we don’t know. I don’t want to let something like Nami happen again.”

“So that’s why you wanted her at school.”

“I want her near me. Always.” The break bell rings, signifying the start of the day.

The morning passes by fast enough. Ayumi meets me by the doorway for lunch. “Hopefully this is quick. The cafeteria’s a long way from the student council.”

“This is Erica we’re talking about. As long as you like pickled cabbage, you’ll be fine.”

As usual, Erica waits alone for us, sitting in her swivel chair with her feet dangling.

“Ah, thanks for coming. How are you today?” Naturally, she doesn’t notice Haruka, who is studying the hundreds of butterflies on the doorway.

I don’t really care much for the small talk. “What did you call us in here for?”

Erica reaches into her bag and throws a couple of photos on the table. “Do these look familiar to you?” We lean over to check them out. There we are, in the dead of night, wandering around the alleyways.

“Th-these aren’t us!” Ayumi stutters.

Erica folds her hands and leans on them. “There’s only one girl who’d wear this school’s uniform, has your color hair, and use crutches. Don’t lie to me.”

How did she catch us? I made sure nobody followed us. “How did you get these?”

“None of your business. Why were you out there?”

“None of your business,” I mirror.

“Actually”—she attaches her residence committee’s arm band to her sleeve—”it is my business.”

Ayumi would fall to her knees and beg if she physically could. “We’re sorry! There’s a good reason why we were out there!”

“Which is?”

Ayumi wipes the sweat on her brow. “We can’t tell you.”

Erica puts her feet up on the table and leans back. “You won’t have to. I have eyes everywhere in this town, so I’ll find it out eventually.”

I slam my hand on the table. “What’s it matter to you? I’m sure we’re not the first students who broke curfew.”

“The residence committee is responsible for enforcing the curfew among students, and in cases of extreme misbehavior, recommend expulsion from dormitory privileges.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

Erica pulls her dangling armband back up. “I would if the need arose. But, I’m not the big goody two shoes you think I am. I only want you to help me out here.”

Ayumi stops her hysterics and steadies herself. “Help you out? What do you need us to do?”

Erica pulls a large stack of papers out of her bag and places them on the table. “I dropped all the student surveys this morning, and they’re all disorganized. I’ll be here until midnight fixing this mess. That is, unless a couple of delinquents want to make up for their transgressions so they aren’t expelled from the dorms.”

She’s sly as a fox. “You know you could’ve asked us before threatening us.”

“So you’ll do it? Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Ayumi throws her hands up. “Not like we have a choice.”

Erica’s stomach growls. “Well, I’m hungry, and I’m sure you are too, so we’ll do this after school, all right? And we’ll get to know each other so much better too!”

“After school?” Ayumi and I gasp.

Erica cocks her head. “When else would we? Not like members of the ‘going home’ club have much else to do. In fact, that offer to join the student council is still open.”

She pulls a couple of boxed lunches out of her bag. “Come on, let’s eat.” She doesn’t even ask us if we want to this time.

When the warning bell rings, Haruka darts back to the classroom. I’ve never seen anyone so keen to learn. As for me, I take the long way back to class with the complaining Ayumi. “She had hours’ worth of work there. Forget going somewhere fun with you, I don’t know if we can even go on our patrol tonight.”

I keep thinking about all those photos. They’re taken from so many different angles, they can’t be from the same photographer. “Would we even be able to, given our tail? She may seem young, but she’s dangerous.”

Ayumi ascends the stairs one step at a time. “We probably could if we disguised ourselves. Like, sure, the crutches are a dead giveaway, but I’m sure I’m not the only girl in Kochi on crutches. Maybe if I hid my hair she wouldn’t notice me.”

It’s a stretch. “I don’t think Erica cares about curfew. She only wants company.”

“But what about you? Are you sure you want to spend your last days doing paperwork?”

“Why not? You need a place to belong when I’m gone, so why wouldn’t the student council work?”

Then it dawns on me why I had been going to school despite my impending doom. “There’s only one thing I want to do. I want to make sure you’re happy even when I’m gone. A good place to start is having you belong somewhere.”

She wipes some tears away, but not before I see them. “Thank you…but I’m not sure if I’ll be all right without you…” She’s going to have to be, whether she wants to or not.

After a mundane afternoon, Ayumi and I race to the student council room. We can’t waste any time. Every moment we spend working with Erica is a moment we can’t spend hunting shades.

Bag upon bag of junk food lies on the table. “Ah, thanks for coming. I brought snacks.”

My stomach grumbles. After our hurried lunch, I’m glad to have some extra food available.

Haruka admires the layout of the room while we work.

“What kind of music do you listen to?” I try and strike up a conversation.

Erica thinks for a moment. “I don’t really listen to much. But I suppose I like classical.”

Ayumi holds up two surveys, looking back and forth between them. “How eloquent.” She puts the surveys down, grabs a Taiyaki from the table, and breaks it in half. When Erica returns to her computer, Ayumi holds the other half of it under the table for Haruka. She’s a familiar, not a dog. Then again, how else would she do it?

“What do you do for fun?” I ask.

Erica types along. “I collect butterflies.”

“Collect? You mean you raise them?”

“No, I collect them. You saw me with my net Sunday. The park is a nice change of view from the woods in back of the school. It’s so open and fresh!”

I think back to middle school biology. “Don’t they die young and then decompose?”

“Yep. So I preserve them and mount them. I told myself I was going to stop after one batch, but I couldn’t help myself. Right now I’m exploring using resin to make jewelry out of them.” She drops another stack of papers in front of Ayumi.

Ayumi puts her hands to her head in agony. We’ll get there, Ayumi, keep working. “Have you been doing it long?”

“Of course. Ever since my mom taught me. She knew I loved butterflies since I could talk—it was my first word, after all—but her paintings never did it for me. I wanted to see the real thing. We used to raise them in little mesh cages, but I’d get too sad when one of them died. So she taught me how to preserve them and display them.”

Erica’s face goes dark. “That was the last thing she taught me before she died.”

By the time we finish sorting through the papers, the sunset’s orange rays shine through the window.

Erica puts a staple in the corner of the last pile of surveys. “Hey, you’ve been a great help. And sorry about the whole blackmail thing. I wasn’t expecting you to be so willing to cooperate.” A low beam of light shifts her attention out the window. “Ah, darn, it’s already late. Cafeteria’s probably closed by now.”

“Yeah, we’ll grab some snacks for dinner. We’ll see you tomorrow.”

Erica throws out her hands to block the exit. “No, I can’t do that to you. This is my fault, so I’ll have to compensate. How does a pizza sound?”

She won’t let us refuse. She pushes us to her dorm room with one hand, while with the other, she talks to who I presume is the pizza man on her phone.

As part of the residence committee, Erica gets a private dorm. While it’s significantly smaller than our room, it has a lot of extra floor space since she only has one bed and desk to fit in there.

But this room isn’t at all like mine. “You weren’t kidding about the butterflies.” The walls are filled to the brim with displays of all sorts of the creatures, each mounted perfectly and displaying a multitude of colors on their wings.

She carefully lifts up a paper with several drying specimens. “This is the one I’m working on now. I think it might be my best yet.” Where is she going to put it?

Ayumi checks out a wall hanging. “Have you tried selling them?”

Erica settles in her chair. “Selling? Why?”

Ayumi moves on to a hanging with a blue wing theme. “You probably could get some good money with this. Back in middle school, I had a friend whose father would pay close to ten thousand yen for something like this.”

“Oh no, I could never sell these.” But she won’t elaborate why. “Anyway, let me order the pizza.”

“What? Then who were you talking to before?” I ask.

She drops a pair of tweezers. “I wasn’t on the phone.”

“We saw you.”

Erica stammers. “It wasn’t anything important.”

Ayumi sits down on Erica’s bed. “Sakura and I keep a rule for friendship. No secrets, no judging. So who was it?”

She puffs out her cheeks. “Fine! I was telling my guardian I finally had ‘friends’ to hang out with after school!” She holds her breath until we respond.

“I’m glad you feel like that.” I check her clock. “You should get the order in soon.”

Erica leaves us alone for a bit. We pass the time watching Haruka, whose fascination with the butterfly collections is entertainment enough.

Erica comes back soon after, and we discuss her collections more. But every moment increases my heart rate. Seven at night already, and the pizzas won’t arrive until seven thirty. By the time we eat, it’ll be close to eight, and then we still have homework to do.

“Maybe we could skip homework,” I mutter.

“Did you say something?” asks Erica.

“Oh, it’s nothing. Just talking to myself.”

She stands, and despite her short stature, really seems imposing. “I’m sure I heard you considering skipping your homework.”

I lean back. “Just an innocent thought.”

“I can’t have you skipping homework on my behalf.” She blocks the exit from her room.

Ayumi brushes it off. “I’m sure she wasn’t serious.”

Erica flips the lock. “You’re not leaving here until every last bit of homework is done. I’m not going to let you fall delinquent because of me!”

Ayumi and I both know what that means. “I’m just kidding. We’ll do it right after pizza.”

“You don’t want to stay with me?” It’s as if she drove a knife through my heart. It’s sad enough to hear a high school girl say those words, but to hear it from a quasi-ten-year-old is downright depressing.

Ayumi pulls out a textbook. “Fine. We’ll do our homework, and then we really have to get going, all right?”

Erica leaps for joy. “Thank you, thank you, thank you! Let’s see, Sakura, are you all right using the floor as a desk? Here, Ayumi, you can use my desk. Let me clear it off for you.”

I pull out my math problems, trying not to be distracted by Haruka. She sticks her fingers in the resin to examine it. But resin hardens, and before long, she’s desperately trying to get it off.

I refocus my attention. If we finish by nine, we can manage to escape and destroy a couple of shades.

I rush through my problems, and judging by Ayumi’s determined expression, she’s doing the same thing. Who cares if they’re right? If we can satisfy Erica and get away, I’ll count it as a victory.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa!” Erica returns with the pizza and peeks over my shoulder. “What’s this?”

I cover my work. “You said to do homework, so we are.”

“You call this homework?” She grabs my notebook. “Look at all these mistakes! Why would you use a sine here? Why would you divide by two here? What’s with this sketch of a puppy?”

“I need to wait for the teacher to grade it.” I pull out my history book to save some time.

Erica tears out the page. “No way. We’re going to work together and get these things right. Leave it to me. I might not look like it, but I’m the top math student in my class. Like, number two here: sine (pi/2 – theta). Why’d you make it sin (pi/2) – sine (theta)?”

“You’re supposed to distribute, right?”

Erica puts her palm on her face. “No, you can’t. It’s a trig identity, and gives you cosine (theta). Study these until you have them committed to memory.” She points to the list of identities.

Ayumi and I let out a collective sigh, watching the minutes tick away on the clock.

When we finish all our homework to Erica’s standards, the clock strikes ten. “Aw, it’s curfew. Sorry I kept you here so long, but you’re going to have to stay over now.”

“Stay over?” we demand.

“Can’t have you breaking curfew on my behalf.”

Ayumi gets up off the ground. “You’re the residence committee. We did a lot for you today, so can’t you let it slide?”

Erica sniffles. “Was spending time with me that bad? You know as an only child and an orphan, I’ve been stuck in dorms for years. Nobody ever wanted to have a sleepover with me before. Night after night in this dark room with nothing but a teddy bear to keep me company…”

“All right already!” Ayumi throws her hands up, not for the first time today. “We’ll stay!”

Erica sniffles. “Really? Then Ayumi can sleep on the bed with her leg, and Sakura and I can share the spare futon.”

This can’t be happening. How can we lose an entire day to the routine and mundane? I think of someone following a cat like us and getting attacked.

“I don’t have my pajamas.” Please let us go. I’m out of excuses now.

Erica holds a hand out. “Give me the keys to your room and I’ll get them for you. It’s the least I could do for a friend.”

Our options disappear with those words. “I’ll be right back!” she says.

When the lock clicks, Ayumi grabs my hands. “Should we leave now?”

It seems too tempting. “We could. But how are we going to get in our room after? She has your key.”

Ayumi sighs. “Let me guess. You left yours in your desk like always, since you knew I’d be with you.”

Haruka continues her attempt to free her fingers from their resin prison. “I always could go in your place. Or I could unlock your door from the inside.”

Ayumi lays back. “No, let’s stay here. Erica will make us repeat this farce again tomorrow if we leave her.”

I hold up the resin bottle. “By the way, can’t you desolidify to get the resin of? You know, like what you did with Cappy’s door?”

It falls off Haruka’s fingers. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” she cries.

Erica returns with our stuff soon after. There’s nothing else we can do but go along with the sleepover idea.

“Sleep well.” Erica flicks off the lights.

The last thing I hear before I fall asleep is the soft lullaby of the bells still tied into her hair.


I pick my bag up off Erica’s floor. “Thanks for the help last night. See you around.”

So many rays of happiness radiate from her. Maybe she really is just lonely. “Hey, are you doing anything after school today?” she asks.

Ayumi’s crutch strikes the ground a little harder than usual. “Sorry. We have something important to attend to.”

“What is it? Can I come along? I promise I won’t get in the way.”

Poor Erica. “You’d probably get bored.”

At breakfast, Ayumi and I really aren’t hungry (thanks to all of Erica’s food yesterday), so we skip the fancy foods in favor of strawberry jam and toast.

We’re sitting at the baking club’s table, as usual, when we hear some girls snickering.

“There’s that runt, sitting alone again.”

“Maybe if she didn’t treat us like kids, she’d have some friends.”

“Or she could go back to the Philippines where she belongs.”

I get up from my seat. “I never knew blackmail could lead to friendship.”

Ayumi follows suit. “Is there anything in particular you want to do after school?”

She’s not asking if I want to go to karaoke or an arcade. She’s making a suggestion. I couldn’t be happier. “Let’s help out Erica. She’ll appreciate it, and then you’ll have a friend after I’m gone.” I should be a little more afraid of my impending death. Haruka had given me just over a week to live, but there’s no way to know exactly how long I have. Well, no, there is. The sword looms in my closet, beckoning to me.

It doesn’t matter how little time I have left. It’s about what I do with that time. I need to make the most of it. And if the most I can make of it is doing paperwork to help Ayumi, so be it. She’ll be on the path to making a friend and staying happy long after I’m gone.

I sling my bag over my shoulder. “But we have to be straight with her. We’ll help until six, and then we’ll leave.”

“Yeah, we’re not losing another night.”

We head to Erica’s table. “Got a seat or two to spare?”

Erica’s cold wintery mood turns to a warm spring day. “Take any you like!”

Ayumi takes the seat next to her, and I take the one across. Haruka settles in next to me, making me jump. I hardly noticed her all morning. Given the bags under her eyes, her constant yawns, and how she drags her feet, she can’t have gotten much sleep.

Ayumi spreads some jam on her toast. “Now, we were talking a bit and decided we want to help you. Not only today, but every day.”

If Erica had been a warm spring day, now she’s a hot day in mid-July. “Oh, this is great! I’ll get you both on the student council, and maybe we could move into a room together! From dawn to dusk with my new friends, what else could I ask for?”

I hold my hand up to stop her. “No. We’d love to join you on the student council, but we can only be with you until six each day.”

“You don’t want to do homework with me?”

Ayumi swallows her toast. “If you help us with our homework all the time, how will we ever learn? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always learned by discovering my own mistakes and fixing them.”

Erica doesn’t back down. “What if we go to the library and do it there? I won’t barge in unless you ask me for help, but isn’t it more fun doing it together?”

I need to be firm with her. “Sorry. We really can’t.”

Clouds cover her sunshine. “Then there’s no real point.”


“No, it’s fine. If we only have a few hours together, then I’ll have to enjoy the time we have. I’ve got morning duty today, so I’ll see you all after school.” She grabs her bag and scampers to the courtyard.

“Did we do the right thing?”

Ayumi finishes the last bite of her toast. “She’ll be fine. Wounds heal.”

After school, at the student council, Erica acts as if nothing has happened. She hands us a huge spreadsheet and points to the various headings. “This is a list of all the clubs in the school. I need you to note down all their expenses and incomes, and flag any strange expense. For instance, why does the theater club need to buy baseball bats?”

I give it some thought. “Do they need them as props?”

Erica circles the expense with a bright red pen. “Those kinds of excuses will drain our funds by summer. You need to be cynical about everything if you’re going to make it here. They’re extorting us until they prove otherwise.”

As promised, we work until six. She stops us right before we leave.

“You sure you don’t want to hang out? It doesn’t have to be for homework if you don’t want. How about a night at the karaoke parlor? Or what about the arcade and we get our photos taken at the sticker photo booth? Or what if—”

Ayumi doesn’t let her finish. “We can’t. End of discussion.”

Any friendly disposition disappears. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then.” She pounds away at her phone’s screen, as if to say she no longer cares about us.

For the first time in nearly two days, Ayumi and I are free. There’s no time to waste. We sprint to the cafeteria (which is more like a fast walk for me, given Ayumi’s crutches), scarf down some curry (Ayumi’s face from eating so much hot stuff at once is priceless) and skip changing our clothes before heading into the city. Won’t make much of a difference, since Haruka is the only one fighting.


“Haruka!” Ayumi yells as Haruka crashes into a tree. The shade runs in a serpentine pattern until it’s on top of her. It peels her off the tree and throws her in the air.

I can’t believe it. Last time we were out here, these shades were bumbling idiots. But now they’re almost as fast as her!

The shade leaps at Haruka, who kicks at it. Inertia does the rest of the work, and it smashes to the ground.

She jumps back and places her hands on the ground, sending lightning through the sidewalk. But unlike the last shade, this one rolls away and flies at Haruka, smacking her face. She lands hard, collapses to one knee, and pants to catch her breath.

“Forget the shade. Let’s get out of here!” yells Ayumi. The shade rises back to its feet.

Haruka grabs her shoulder. “I’m sure I can finish this thing off.”

Ayumi’s ready to bolt. But she lowers her crutch. “If you can without hurting yourself, give it one last shot. We’ll run otherwise.”

Haruka wipes her chin. Her uniform has several tears in it, and blue fire erupts from every injury she’s incurred. Even so, she’s as motivated as ever. Lightning courses around her body.

The shade charges at her, and she releases the built-up electricity. It shrieks in a high-pitched wail as the lightning covers its body. After an agonizing moment, the blue flame engulfs its body, consuming it.

Haruka crumples to the ground and gasps for air. Ayumi and I stand stupefied.

“What the hell?” I stare where the shade had been mere seconds ago. “How did they become so—”

“—strong?” asks an unfamiliar voice. My heart thumps when I hear its mocking tone.

Laughter fills the park. “So you’re the girls my master told me about.”

I can’t find the source of the voice. “Who’s there?” The park and the adjacent street are completely empty.

“Look up.” A girl stands on top of a telephone pole, her blonde curls blowing in the night wind. Her bare feet stay together with all the grace of a dancer, emphasizing her prepubescent body. Her yellow eyes shine against the moonlight, highlighting the rest of her rather transparent body.

“A familiar,” Ayumi concludes.

“Good. You might be dumb, but you’re not blind.” She jumps off the pole, flips in midair, and sticks the landing. Unlike my jump from the sakura tree, she doesn’t show any hint of pain.

“Don’t even think of touching Ayumi.” Haruka throws her arms in front of Ayumi. “I killed a familiar four days ago, so don’t think I won’t do the same to you.”

The girl flicks Haruka’s forehead. “Hurt me? In your condition? You really are as dumb as you look.”

Haruka glares, but this girl has already forgotten about her. “Sakura and Ayumi was it? It’s been a while.”

“Do I know you?” asks Ayumi.

“Oh, right, you’ve never seen me like this before. My name is Michiru.”

“What do you mean, like this?” Is she trying to make us lower our guard?

Michiru lifts her arms. “What’s she doing?” Ayumi asks.

She shrinks, and little black hairs poke through her skin. Her ears move upward, and her nose extends, sprouting black whiskers. She can no longer be confused for a human. She’s a black cat.

“Now do you recognize me?” she asks.

“You’re the one… The first night…” Ayumi grips her crutch.

Michiru returns to human form while we organize our thoughts.

“Yeah, sorry. With my master so close to her goal, I needed to lure you there. Considering you’re both teenage girls, I could get so much more life force out of you than those drug addicts stumbling around there. Not all lives are equal, you know.”

Ayumi clenches her teeth. “I can’t forgive you. You’re the reason Sakura’s dying.”

Michiru leans on the telephone pole. “I don’t need your forgiveness. All I need is for you to leave my master’s shades alone. She needs them.”

“Are you insane? These are human lives! Forget your master. I’m going to be out here every single night destroying her work. There’s no way I’ll let her succeed!”

Michiru holds her hands out. “I’m just a messenger. My master ordered me not to harm you tonight, so I won’t. But if you’re out here tomorrow, don’t think I’ll let you go so easily.”

She turns her back to us. “Piece of advice. If you want to destroy somebody’s shades, go for the familiar. You’re only making them stronger. What one of them learns, all of them learn.” She takes a step away from us.

“Wait,” I say.


“Can all familiars transform?”

She smirks. “No, just me. All familiars come into this world with three things: Our dresses, our swords, and our special abilities. I’m sure you saw Chizu’s ability to manipulate time. My ability is to transform. Haruka’s, well, let’s just say mages are special enough.” She leaps up on a telephone pole and then out of sight.

Haruka, sensing the danger has passed, collapses to the ground.

“Are we really going to keep going?” I extend my hand to Haruka.

She ignores it and attempts to stand on her own. “I’m sure I can! Don’t worry about me.”

Ayumi shakes her head. “I hate to say it, but we better head back. Save it for fighting Michiru tomorrow.”

“Are you sure—” I stop myself. She’s her own person. She can make her own decisions. Haruka’s attempts at standing fail, and she collapses again. “Do you really think you could take her on?”

Haruka takes my outstretched hand, initiating contact, since I can’t touch her on my own. She’s so cold. “I don’t know,” she says. “I can’t tell how powerful another familiar is. All I know is this one seemed different than Chizu and me. She seemed old.”

“Old? She can’t be much older than twelve.”

Haruka steadies herself on her feet. “I don’t mean her appearance. Familiars have a sort of freshness to them. This one wasn’t like Kyouko’s, fresh and ready to go. She’s experienced, probably a matter of years.”

I survey the park. “It’d take quite some time to get so many shades.”

Ayumi takes off after Haruka. “Well, let’s leave tomorrow for tomorrow and get a good night’s rest.”

By the time we sneak back into our rooms, it’s already after two in the morning.

“Wow, I’m beat.” I collapse on my bed without bothering to change into pajamas. Even though I didn’t do much, the cold sapped the energy right out of me.

“Do you think Erica’ll blackmail us again?” Ayumi diligently undoes her hair and slips out of her uniform.

“Why would she need to? We’re de facto student council members already.”

I check my phone for messages, and catch the date. “Thursday, eh? Hey, Haruka, do you know how much time I have left?”

“I couldn’t say,” Haruka mumbles into Ayumi’s pillow.

Ayumi brushes her hair while sitting on the edge of her bed. What’s the point? It’ll tangle again the first time she turns over. “Is it like a certain amount of time granted per life taken? Like, you took Nami’s life, so does she get exactly three days from it?”

Haruka rolls over. “It depends on the person. You heard Michiru, not all humans are equal. With a girl full of life like Nami, Sakura’d get a couple of days. But with someone like those elderly patients, she wouldn’t get much more than an hour. In any case, Sakura used her time earlier today. She’s only living because of her sword now.”

Haruka stares blankly at the ceiling. “Listen. There’s plenty of dirty rotten people out there. Rapists, murderers, kidnappers, you name it. I’m sure if I went to the local prison, I could get her some more time.”

“No,” I say, definitively. “I’m not going to have anyone else die on my behalf. I don’t care who they are, they’re still a person. There is a value in every single life, even if we can’t see it yet.”

Ayumi lies down in her bed. “She’s right. We can’t judge people without knowing the full story. As much as I want her to stay with me, I’m not going to turn into Kyouko.”

“But what about—” Haruka sits up.

I wave her back down. “It’s all right. I’m prepared. I’m happy. Don’t worry about me.” I understand my fate. Death comes to all of us eventually. “Though I do wish I wouldn’t have to get all ignored again.”

I place my hand on my closet’s handle.

“What’re you doing?” Ayumi asks.

“You’re brave enough to live without me and face up to the shades by yourself. It’s time for me to face up to my own fears.” I pull the door open and see Twilight’s hilt in the far back, poking through those ugly dresses. Well, I said I’m not afraid to die. Let’s meet death face to face.

I pull the sword out for everyone to see. Ayumi cries out, and Haruka holds her hand over her mouth.

The sword can hardly be called a sword anymore. It’s a bundle of rust attached to a handle.

My lips quiver as I meet my doom face to face. When I touch the tip, a piece of it snaps off and crumbles to dust. I definitely won’t make it to the weekend.

This must be how someone feels when they see a scan of the tumor growing inside of them. Even though they feel fine, it’s physical proof there’s something horribly wrong with them.

I want to cry. I want to fall into despair. I want someone to come over here and comfort me.

But no. I have to be strong. I can’t show weakness to Ayumi. She needs me. She needs—

Her arms wrap around me. I don’t know when she got out of bed and over here, but somehow, she’s behind me, embracing me. “Shh. It’s all right. I’m here for you.”

So much for staying strong. “Is it really all right?”

“Let it go.” Ayumi holds me tight, and I let my tears flow.

I wake up some hours later, and Haruka’s already up and pacing. I check the time on my clock. Yeah, Ayumi should probably get up by now, but I can probably give her a few more minutes. “Stay strong, Ayumi,” I whisper, “because it seems I no longer can.”

Haruka stops pacing to look out the window. “Hey, Haruka,” I whisper.

“Yeah?” she whispers back.

“Ayumi’s always been rather special to me. I wanted to do a lot more with her. We were supposed to enjoy our life by going to the movies together, going to the beach, doing each other’s hair, and enjoying each other’s company. But I’ll be gone, and you’ll be all she’ll have left. I know it’s going to be a bit awkward. But can you take my place? Let her know there’s somebody out there who truly cares about her, maybe as a bit more than just a friend.”

Haruka gives me a soft smile. “I’ll do my best.”

Ayumi wakes up a few minutes later as I button up my blazer. “What are you doing?”

I stop mid-button. “We have school today, don’t we?”

She gets out of bed. “You look hideous.”

I don’t know what to say. I’ve been called many things in my life, but never ugly. “Thanks for the compliment.”

Ayumi pulls out a handheld mirror. “Look at you! Your hair’s a tangled mess, your tie’s crooked, and your blazer’s full of dust. It’s like you don’t care.”

Oh, she doesn’t mean my body. “Nobody’s going to notice.”

“Not allowed. Sit down, and let me take care of you.”

I don’t have the energy to resist. Ayumi tears through my hair with her demonic hairbrush, every knot sheer agony, and uses a lint brush on my jacket. It’s like I’m a little kid again, when the elementary dorm mother used to do this to me.

After her torturous routine, we make our way to breakfast. Judging by the scowl on Erica’s face, she’s not pleased.

“So your important thing was to go out into the streets and break curfew again? What are you doing, and why can’t you tell me about it?”

So she did find out. We’ll have to be straight with her. “Look, as much as I want to tell you, I can’t. You’d be in a ton of danger if you knew.”

Erica stabs her salmon with her chopsticks. “Then that’s even more reason to tell me. Friends stick their necks out for each other.” She examines the back of her hand for a second before putting the salmon in her mouth. “‘No secrets, no judging,’ right?”

I hate when people use my own words against me. “This is different. It’s far too dangerous.”

She isn’t buying it. “Then let me guide you. I know the city far better than you, and you’d be safer with me.”

“She said no.” Ayumi takes a bite of her breakfast, closing the conversation.

Erica’s face goes dark. She ignores us in favor of her breakfast, not wanting to argue the point any further.

After school, Erica waits in the student council room alongside another mountain of work.

“Good afternoon,” I cheer.

“Hey.” She doesn’t even look up from her computer to acknowledge our existence.

The silence is deafening. We take our seats and get to work on the various forms slotted for approval.

I attempt to strike up a conversation. “Do you like magical girl manga? I have one you might like.”

“Sure.” I swear the temperature dropped five degrees from her voice.

Ayumi slams her hand on the table. “Look, I’m sorry we can’t stay past the meeting. But we’re doing something very important. Don’t you want to have fun with us when we’re here? When you can?”

Erica stops typing for a moment. Is that a glimmer of hope? Even if it is, glimmers are always ephemeral. She returns to her computer. “This is the student council. It’s work, not a game. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.”

What’s going on? Yesterday, she talked about wanting to spend the entire evening with us, and now she wants us to leave?

An idea pops in my head. “What if I spend the night with you?”

Ayumi’s hands tighten around a form.

I whisper, “You need to go, but I think it really is important for me to stay here tonight.”

Her hands shake from how tight she’s holding that form. But when I give her a reassuring smile, her grip relaxes. “It’s for the best.”

Erica keeps typing. “It’s fine. I believe you. You don’t have to tear yourselves apart for me.”

I stand up. “Stop being so stubborn. Do you really want to be alone? Am I not enough to keep you company?”

Erica stops typing. “That’s not—”

“Erica!” we shout.

Erica slams on her keyboard and grabs her bag. “Suit yourself. You know where my room is.” She storms toward the door.

“Where are you going?” asks Ayumi.

“I have to check on a few clubs. Have a nice night.” She slams the door behind her.

Ayumi shakes from the slamming door. “Did we make the right choice?”

“I think so. You handle the familiar. I’d really only get in the way. Besides, you need to get used to working with Haruka some more,” because I won’t be here in a few days hangs in the silence between us.

We finish our work, and Ayumi sets off with Haruka. “I’ll meet you in front of the main building tomorrow, all right?” Ayumi asks.

I tap the flower on her head. “It’s a promise.” If Michiru manages to stop Haruka, will she do something to Ayumi, as well? Without Haruka, Ayumi can’t hunt shades, so Michiru shouldn’t care. Then again, Ayumi could always summon another familiar.

At the cafeteria, Erica’s already found a seat. But even though she’s sitting alone, she doesn’t seem lonely. She stares into space while thoughtfully chewing some curry.

“Mind if I sit here?” I ask after I grab my meal.

She doesn’t notice me.


She breaks her trance. “Ah, sorry. Um, yes, feel free.” She returns to her meal and pays no attention to me whatsoever.

Little beads of sweat drip down her face. I can’t discern whether they’re a reaction to the spicy food, or something else. “Did something happen?”

She scoops up another bite. “No, it’s nothing. Just worried about a friend of mine.” She has a friend?

I sneak in a bite of her curry. Nope, totally mild. “What’s going on?”


“I won’t push it if you don’t want to tell me. But sometimes it’s better to let it all out.”

She stacks her plates together. “It’s really nothing. I’m being stupid. She’s in a little competition tonight for her club. I’m sure she’ll win. She’s always won before.”

So we’re in the same situation. At least Erica’s friend is only playing a game. “I’ll pull for her. Can we watch? I’m sure she’d be happy if we cheered her on.”

Erica watches the sun set outside the window. “She’s off campus, or I’d be there with her right now.”

We take care of our dishes and head up to Erica’s room. This time I make sure to grab my pajamas before we go inside.

Erica has hung up yet another butterfly display in the room, this one filled with red wings. Even more are drying on her desk.

“When’d you catch these?” I pick a butterfly up between my fingers to examine it.

Erica slaps my wrist. “Don’t touch that!”

“Sorry.” I gingerly return it to its proper place.

“To answer your question, I get bored during breaks and go outside with my net.”

Breaks aren’t long enough to catch anything. But to each her own. Erica sits down, spreads out a dried butterfly and expertly pins it to a sheet.

She’s so passionate. She takes so much care not to damage the wings as she locks in the pins. Her walls show her progression over the years. Some of the lower and more out-of-view specimens have small tears and smudges. But when you get to the more visible ones, like the ones over her bed, they are so perfectly symmetrical and undamaged, you’d think a professional made them.

“You can get good at anything if you do it enough.” There aren’t many spots left on her walls for more.

Watching Erica’s passion may be entertaining, but it’s hardly interactive. “Do you want to do anything?” We should try to be friends for my last day or two.

Erica puts her tweezers down. “Don’t you have homework?”

“I suppose.” It seems stupid to do homework when there’s no way I’ll last past the weekend. But maybe we can do something fun after I finish.

I crack open a book. Two pages into the assignment, I’m already bored.

I lean my elbows on her bed and kick my legs in the air. “Say, how did you get those pictures of us?”

Erica dips a wing in resin. “What good does it do you?”

“It doesn’t. I’m just curious. It does no good for you to keep your methods secret, either. You already have enough evidence to blackmail us the entire year. I’ll keep it a secret.”

“Why should I?”

“Because we’re friends, and friends let each other know their secrets. No secrets, no judging, right?” Why did I repeat that? Now she’ll remember us hiding our shade hunting from her again.

Just when I think she’ll bring it up, she puts down her tweezers. “Fine, but you can’t tell anyone, all right?”

“Pinky swear.” I hold out my pinky.

Erica scoffs. “How old do you think I am? Ten?”

She slides open a drawer and pulls out a laptop. “I have cameras set up throughout town to keep tabs on delinquents. All their feeds come to this screen.”

I crouch behind Erica as the computer boots up. She pulls up a program, and a multitude of views from all over the city populate her screen.

“How many cameras do you have?” She flips through several pages, showing not only the alleyways, the warehouses, and the park, but also the houses on the other side of the hill.

She flips to another page, changing views to a different set of streets. “About three hundred.”

“Three hundred? How could you possibly afford all of this?”

Erica taps the screen to change to another set of cameras. “We’re a private school. We have a lot of money to spare.”

In a corner view, I find Ayumi and Haruka. They’re laughing it up as if they don’t have a care in the world.

“I guess they won,” I conclude. From Haruka’ slight limp, I imagine it wasn’t an easy battle.

“Who won?” Erica’s hand slips and falls on a drying butterfly, which splits in two. She bites her lip, and in a fit of frustration rips the butterfly up and throws it into the trash.

I whip out my phone and come up with an excuse. “I was looking at a sports score.”

She returns to her laptop. They’re in another view, still joking around. Erica sniffles.

“Are you all right?” I ask.

Erica breaks out of her daze. “Oh, huh? Sorry, it’s my contacts. Must’ve left them in for too long.”

“You wear contacts?” I remind myself how not all of us are blessed with perfect vision. “Well, take them out.”

“It’s fine. I’m blind without them.”

“Don’t you have glasses?”

She jumps out of her chair. “I said it’s fine. I’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine. I-I need to wash my eyes out. You finish your homework!”

Erica flees to the bathroom sobbing. She really is a strange girl. Then again, maybe she’s the person Ayumi needs in her life to replace the strange old me.

“I wonder if she ever uses her desk for homework.” Given all the newspaper clippings, pins, and broken butterfly wings about, she couldn’t possibly fit a textbook on it. Though Ayumi used it a couple nights ago, so maybe she clears it off every night.

I notice Erica left a drawer open when she took out her laptop. I make to close it, but when I lean over, I catch some yellowing newspapers inside. Curiosity overcomes me, and I pull them out.

The papers seem random, turned to specific pages with articles circled. This article is about a bus crash twenty years ago. A whole bunch of girls in our uniform stand around crying.

I’m about to put it away when I see something, or rather, someone. It’s only a passerby, but he’s wearing a baseball cap to cover his slightly graying hair.

No, that can’t be Cappy. His hair had been slightly graying a week ago, so how could it be the same back then? “Just a coincidence, right?”

I turn to the next paper. This one is from forty years ago with an article about a tsunami. Standing behind the mourners is the same man in a baseball cap, again with slightly graying hair.

I pull out the next article. This one’s about a mass murderer, and he’s surveying the carnage. Next one’s about a bridge collapse, and there he is again. It doesn’t matter what year the article comes from. Each one has a disaster, girls in our uniform, and the guy in a baseball hat focusing in on one of them.

Erica runs in while I read an article about a train wreck. “What are you doing?” She grabs my wrist.

I wince from her grip. How is such a tiny girl this strong? “I was just curious.”

Erica snatches the papers from my hands and shoves them in her drawer. “Don’t go through somebody’s things without permission!”

Her reaction only mounts my suspicions. “Are you somehow related to the man in the hat?”

“What man in the hat?”

“The one in all the articles you circled.”

Erica shuts the drawer. “I had to do a report on Kochi’s history last year. That’s all.”

She pulls open another drawer filled with games and DVDs. “Let’s play some cards.”

“Cards?” She’s dodging the topic too quickly. “But what about those news—”

When I see her scowl, I know the conversation is over. I’ll have to let Ayumi know about them tomorrow. We may have our first clue.

“Are your butterflies finished?” I don’t know how they can be. One was only half pinned up.

She deals our cards. “They don’t matter anymore.”

We play until the clock strikes midnight, chatting about Silent Circular Infinity. She hasn’t heard anything they’ve ever written, so I pull up a few songs for her to listen to. It might be me, but she seems to enjoy them.

Before we go to bed, I check her cameras one last time. Ayumi and Haruka are nowhere to be found. They have to be back by now anyway.

She pulls out a futon and grabs her teddy bear. “I’ll be gone early tomorrow, so you take the bed. Don’t want to wake you up.”

“I’m a heavy sleeper. You sure you don’t want to sleep together again?”

“No, it’s fine.” Something’s bothering her. But if she doesn’t want to talk about it, I know better than to press the issue.

I lay my head on my pillow. “Good night, Erica.” As I close my eyes, a scary thought crosses my mind.

This might be my last night. If I manage to survive tonight, there’s no way I can survive past tomorrow. What if I die at three in the morning? I want to be awake to at least say goodbye.

Chapter 7
Chapter 7: Inferno

Erica’s gone when I wake up. My life force is probably so weak, she didn’t even notice me lying in her bed.

I slouch in front of her mirror. “Wow, I’m a mess.” Memories of Ayumi’s lectures come to surface. My hair has managed to tangle itself into a ball, and my eyelids droop so low, I might as well still be asleep.

I could trudge my way to class like this, as I’ve done every day thus far. But this is the last day I’ll ever see Ayumi. She likes to see me prim and proper, so why not look good for her?

I wash off Erica’s brush by the sink. “Sorry, Erica, I’ll be borrowing this.” She probably won’t even notice.

Ten minutes later, I’m checking out my body at different angles. Pulling my hair back in a neat ponytail really doesn’t take much work, and it does look good. When I move, the two bells I attached to my hair tie rings out. I promise I’ll return them when all’s done, but again, I doubt she’ll notice.

When I get to my dorm room, Ayumi is lying on her bed. Her cute chest rises slowly with every breath.

“Ayumi~” I shake her.

She grumbles. “I don’t even give it a one.”

“Even though it’s my last day?”

She lets a small smile creep onto her face. “Specifically because it’s your last day.”

We laugh ourselves to tears, causing the bells in my hair to dance.

Ayumi flicks one to make it dance even more. “They look good on you.”

At breakfast, I don’t even bother grabbing the cafeteria worker’s attention and leave our food tokens in front of her. She, like everyone else, doesn’t notice me anymore.

“So, what happened last night?” I ask as I down my double serving of rice.

Haruka answers. “We handled the problem. Nothing else matters.”

Ayumi gives Haruka a light bonk to the head. “You did a good job out there. You don’t have to be so humble.” Ayumi’s brows lower. “It was a hard fight. Michiru turned herself into a swarm of hornets and attacked Haruka from all angles. Not only did Haruka have to find the queen, but hornets are naturally resistant to electricity.”

“I’m just lucky I hit the right one early.” Haruka takes a bite out of some toast. “Though, even as the blue flames consumed her, she wouldn’t name her master.”

I finish my rice and get to work stacking my plates. “Going out again tonight?”

Ayumi’s furrows her eyebrows. “You know, it’s most likely your last night. Are you sure you don’t want to do something special? Maybe a dinner and a movie with me?”

Haruka perks up from her food at the suggestion of a date, but she knows better than to play matchmaker now.

“What could be more special than making other people happy? I’ll keep Erica happy, and you’ll keep people alive. I’m sure she’d be happy to leave the door open for you.”

“I suppose you’re right.” Her heart isn’t agreeing with her mouth. I know she wants to spend more time with me, but there are more important things to do today.

We had the entire last day planned. But plans can change by something as small as opening a shoe locker.

“Wh-what is this?” Ayumi stares inside it. She double checks her name to make sure it’s hers.

I pull on my shoes and take a peek in. “An envelope. All pink and glittery with hearts on it.”

“I have eyes. B-but what does it mean?”

“It means you have a lover.” My heart clenches, thinking of Ayumi with another girl. This isn’t jealously, is it?

Ayumi turns bright red. “But how? I barely even know anyone here! Are you pulling some sort of prank on me?”

Would it be a prank if I did it? “No, I had nothing to do with it. Go on, open it.”

Ayumi pulls it out with shaky hands, turning redder by the second. She reads, “Ayumi, I have something important to tell you. I’ve wanted to for a long time now, but I can’t hold myself back anymore. Please meet me after school in class 2-10. Please come alone. I want you, and you alone, to know my true feelings.” She looks up at me. “It’s unsigned.”

My heart beats faster. “Looks like you’ve got yourself a girlfriend.”

Ayumi drops the letter. “I-I can’t accept something like this! It’s from another girl!”

“What’s it matter? You had no problems kissing me the other day, so it should be fine.”

Ayumi leans down to pick up the letter. “That was different. It was to help you.”

I’m not sure why my heart hurts so much. Why am I feeling like this? Why is it beating so fast?

Ayumi stuffs the letter into her bag. “Besides, I know you! I have no idea who this person is, and to be honest, I don’t like it. If they can’t sign their name, then they’re obviously too shy to be with me.”

“Why not? You’re shy too.”

Ayumi turns one shade of red darker. “So what? I already have someone I like.”

That catches my attention. “Oh? Who is it?”

“It’s a secret.”

“No secrets, no judging, right?” I wink.

She’s as red as a fire engine. “That doesn’t apply here!”

Students pack the halls on the way to class. “Well, it’s your choice. You’ve come a long way since I first met you, so I’m not going to interfere in your decisions anymore.”

“Don’t say stuff like—”

I put my finger on her lips. “It’s a fact of life. We have to accept it as it is. But I will say this. I think you should see her, even if it is just to say no. She’ll be waiting for you, and it’d be cruel to leave her hanging.”

Ayumi sniffles.

“Oh, Ayumi.” A tear drips down my cheek. No, you have to stay strong for her. I fling my arms around her not only to comfort her, but to hide my own anticipation of death. “It’s all right. I’ll be here for you as long as you need.”

“But what about tomorrow?”

“Forget tomorrow. Think of me when you’re at a crossroads in life. Think about what I would do. If you do that, I’ll always be there for you.”

Ayumi runs her fingers through my ponytail as we embrace each other. It’s a long time before we let go. “Wow, your face is a mess.”

I wipe my tears away. “Speak for yourself.”

Ayumi settles in her seat. “So then you’ll go?” I ask.

She pulls out her notebook. “Yeah, and I’ll do what the letter asked. She wants me alone, so I’ll answer her feelings alone. It’s only right. I’ll meet you two in the student council room once this is all done.”

“No,” Haruka says.

She has been waiting patiently for us, leaning on a wall. “No?” Ayumi asks.

Haruka folds her arms. “Ever since the retirement house, I promised myself I wasn’t going to leave Ayumi’s side for a single moment. It’s a dangerous world out there, and she needs me to protect her.”

Ayumi waves her off. “Look, it’s only for a few minutes. She doesn’t want any sort of awkwardness, so it’d be rude to barge in and—”

“How do you know it’s not a trap?”

“A trap from who? You’re the only familiar around here.”

Haruka isn’t having it. “It’s too risky. Unless you command me not to, I’ll be there. Don’t worry, I won’t pay attention to what you’re saying.”

Ayumi realizes she isn’t going to get anywhere with her. “Fine, you win. Not like she’d see you anyway.”

It has to be someone in the class. Nobody really knows Ayumi outside of here. “Asaka maybe?” I wonder.

“Who?” asks Ayumi.

“Oh, I was thinking maybe Asaka is behind the letter. She puts all those glittery decorations on people’s phones.”

Ayumi leans on her elbow. “She also has a boyfriend. I’m guessing Hana.”

“Hana? But everyone knows she’s in love with Yume from class 3-4.”

“It might be a prank anyway.”

“I kind of doubt a prank would put so much glitter on and—” The teacher arrives, forcing me to scramble to my seat.

Ayumi and I don’t discuss the letter again until the end of the day. Every time I bring it up, it gets too awkward.

When the day ends, Ayumi checks in with me. She’s visibly shaking. “Wish me luck.”

I put on my best coaching face. “You don’t need luck, you need confidence.” Ayumi leaves class dazed, but amused.

I pack my books in my bag and wait around until the students on duty come in with their mops. Once I’ve given it enough time, I tiptoe to class 2-10. I won’t miss this, even if they want to be alone. If I can’t be with Ayumi forever, I want to know who’ll take care of her from now on.

I position myself outside the door. I can see Ayumi clearly, but the confessor is out of my line of sight.

“Surprised?” Wait, I know her voice. Oh, so that’s why she’s been all fidgety these past few days.

Ayumi hesitates. “I didn’t think it’d be you.”

I lean by the door to get a better view. “Then you received my letter, I take it?”

Ayumi folds her hands. “Well, it did catch me a bit by surprise to find you here. And I appreciate your feelings, I really do! It’s just, I can’t accept them. There’s someone else I like.”

I can’t figure out who her secret crush is. It’s someone in her boy band, I’d have to assume. But even she knows those are dreams.

The other girl doesn’t cry. Not even close. Instead, she laughs. “Doesn’t matter. The important thing is I asked you to come alone.”

“I did come alone! See, it’s just me!”

“No, there’s someone else. Send her away.” How does she know I’m here? Can she see through walls or something?

“Sakura, if you’re out there, go away!” yells Ayumi. Did the bells in my hair go off? I knew they’d be a problem! It’s too late. She knows I’m here.

“Sakura?” she asks. “She’s here too? No, I mean your familiar.”

My jaw drops. She can see Haruka? Then she’s a…

I peer in a little further to see what’s happening. She sits on a desk with her legs crossed. It can’t be.

A bell jingles in her hair.

“Erica?” Ayumi steps back. “How can you see her?”

Erica hops off her desk and approaches Haruka. “Because I’m a necromancer. How else?”

“But I’ve never seen your familiar.”

“Yes you have. You saw her as a cat and as the third-year student asking you to come to my office. You killed her last night. You and your stubborn insistence on destroying my shades killed my only true friend in this world.”

Ayumi narrows her eyes. “So you are—”

“Yeah, I’ve been the one creating shades in the back alleyways for the past ten years.” She lifts her chin proudly.

“Erica, those are people! Why would you possibly kill other people?”

“Because butterflies weren’t quick enough. Two hundred butterflies or one human? The choice should’ve been obvious. Besides, you don’t get shades when you attack non-humans, and you need shades to create a body for the resurrected.”

Ayumi’s slams her fist on a desk. “They’re people! They’re not food for you. They’re people with friends and family!”

“You mean the scum who hang out in the back alleys? The murderers, the rapists, the delinquents, and the drug addicts? Do you really care about people like them?” She paces around the classroom. “Sure, there were a few slip ups, and I’m truly sorry about what’s happened to your friend. But those are the sacrifices we have to make to get what we truly want in this world.”

Ayumi stares hard at her. “Every life is precious, even if we don’t know how yet.”

“Oh, really?” The red of her eyes almost peek through what I now know are blue contacts. “How about Ryuu Osaka, the man who raped and murdered my mom right in front of me when I was ten? Mind telling me how his life has any value?”

Ayumi stays somber. “I’m sorry to hear that.”

Erica hops back on the desk. “It’s fine. He’s a shade now, and his sacrifice will bring my mom back tonight. Funny how the world works.”

Ayumi keeps her head bowed. “Then, did you only call me out here to reveal this?”

“You’re really stupid, aren’t you? What’d be in it for me to reveal everything?” Her bells jingle as she adjusts her position on the desk. “I’m here to make a deal. I’ll forgive you for hunting my shades and killing my only friend, and you stop your little ‘patrols.’”

Ayumi and Haruka check with each other and realize they’re thinking the same thing. “We refuse,” Haruka says.

“Then you’re favoring the rapists, murderers, and thugs over the victims. I’m disappointed in you. I thought you might’ve been different.”

Despite her aura of confidence, Ayumi’s hands shake. “No. I’m favoring innocent people like Sakura over somebody who died ten years ago. Besides, if you have all the life force you need to bring her back, why would you still have shades hunting people?”

Erica leans back on her desk. “I’ve never had a normal family. My mom was murdered, and my dad died before I was born. If I could bring back my dad as well, maybe we could live a happy life. But with your meddling, I better start with my mom before you destroy everything.”

Ayumi clicks her tongue. “Why do you care about your parents so much? What good are parents when all they do is hurt you?”

Erica grinds her teeth. “Hurt you? My mom loved me!”

“Oh, maybe she did when times were better. But when things get hard, watch her cast you aside for her benefit. Watch her tell your father to hurt you instead of her. What good are parents when they do nothing but cause you pain?”

“Don’t you dare!” Erica screams. She jumps off her desk and grabs Ayumi by the collar. “She’s a loving mom who’d always care for me! She’s going to be happy about what I did for her! She’s going to love me more than anyone ever could!” She wipes her hand across her eyes, removing the contacts to reveal her true red irises. “And now you’ve got me all worked up. Forget it. It was a mistake trying to talk reason into you. Come here, I command you.”

Quick as a bolt of lightning, something flashes into the classroom. I can’t take any more of this. I run in and thrust my arms in front of Ayumi.

“Sakura?” she shrieks.

“Sorry. I was too curious.”

Someone stands next to Erica. She has a long black ponytail and purple eyes. It’s a familiar, obviously, but more than that, it’s familiar to us.

“Kyouko?” we ask simultaneously.

Erica wraps her arm around Kyouko’s waist. “Oh right, you did know each other. That’ll save time on introductions.”

Her sword flashes, shining the setting sun in my eyes. “She was our baking club leader. Why is she a familiar now?”

Erica smirks. “You really are new to all of this. Where do you think familiars come from? This is the fate of a necromancer.”

Ayumi drops a crutch. “No!”

Erica whisks a stray hair off her face. “It’ll happen to both of us some day. Eternity is quite a long time. You’re bound to summon another familiar one day. Maybe you’ll find one like I did here. But one day, you’re going to try and summon one when there’s none available. And then you’ll be the one donning the peasant’s gown and obeying your master.”

Kyouko approaches Ayumi. “Pleased to meet you.” She flicks the sword in her hand in threat.

“Stop!” I thrust myself between them. “We were friends, remember? You don’t have to listen to her!”

“You think she remembers you? Familiars forget everything about their former lives. All she remembers is she needs to do what I ask. Right?”

“Of course,” she says without so much as a hit of emotion.

Erica points at Haruka. “Now, take care of that pesky familiar so we can deal with her master.”

“No!” Ayumi shouts, but Kyouko’s too fast. She charges at Haruka. She can’t even react before Kyouko’s sword slashes through her waist. Haruka staggers back, clutching at the point of contact. Horrified, I wait for the blue flames to erupt through her.

But they never do. In fact, it’s as if Haruka wasn’t touched.

“Did she miss?” I can’t figure out what happened.

“I don’t know,” Haruka replies.

“Please, fight back!” Ayumi begs.

“Oh, right.” Haruka puts her hands toward Kyouko to fire a bolt of lightning, but not even a spark comes out.


She falls to the ground, unconscious.

Kyouko checks Haruka for signs of life. Erica grins in satisfaction. “Enjoying Kyouko’s ability? It’s called Familiarslayer. It removes any other abilities from familiars, and slowly drains them until they disappear.

“Though, I have to admit it is a bit annoying. Michiru used to be able to kill familiars instantly.” The mention of Michiru makes Erica tear up. “Such is life. We’ll have to wait a few hours for Ayumi’s shield to go down.”

“Shield?” I ask. “What shield?”

“Don’t you know anything? So long as Ayumi’s familiar exists, nothing can kill her. But, doesn’t matter. It’ll be gone in a few hours. Then we can kill her, and we won’t have to worry about her killing our shades anymore.”

I clench my fist. “I’m not going to let you do what you please!”

Erica lifts her chin up. “Not like you have a choice. Kyouko, take us away. We’re done here.”

“Where to?” asks Kyouko, grabbing Haruka under one arm and holding on to a struggling Ayumi with the other.

“The place with all the butterflies.” Erica grabs onto Kyouko’s shoulder.

Kyouko’s eyes flash. A wind gusts through the room, blowing the blinds haywire and throwing papers everywhere. I lunge forward, but they’re already gone. Ayumi’s crutches crash to the floor with a clang.

My hands shake, and I drop down to my knees. How could this happen? How could I have been such an idiot to think there wasn’t anything suspicious about Erica? The bits and pieces of the past couple of days are coming together. She didn’t want us helping her with student council work at all. She wanted to keep us from going shade hunting. She set up her cameras around town to keep tabs on her “collection.”

I want to wallow in despair. All I’ve done for Ayumi’ll be gone. Haruka’ll disappear, Erica’ll kill her, and I’ll be dead by the end of the night. What’s the point of all this? Why did I even try to make Ayumi happy, if this is how it ends?

I stay there for what seems like hours, trying to make sense of everything. Yet hunger breaks through my despair, and I force myself to the cafeteria.

It’s not like I can figure out where they’ve gone. The place with the butterflies? Where would that be? Besides, even if I find them, what can I do? Haruka had said that only a familiar can fight another familiar.

“Yakisoba bread, please,” I say at the serving line. The person behind the counter doesn’t respond to the sound of my voice. Of course she doesn’t. Nobody even knows I’m here anymore. I grab a piece of bread myself and leave my token at the cashier.

I wonder what’ll happen at the end of all this. I’ll die, and everyone’ll forget about me. My grandparents would’ve stumbled across some extra money, and my parents would happily be brother and sister. No, they’d be a lot more, and there might be more abominations like me in this world.

I return to the dorms eating my bread. I take a peek in Erica’s carelessly unlocked room in case she means the butterflies on her walls, but of course, she wouldn’t choose somewhere so obvious. Where can she possibly be? In fact, since when can familiars teleport? Haruka certainly couldn’t teleport us out of the retirement home. But she had to teleport in to get to Ayumi, right? I trudge back to our dorm with these thoughts in my head.

I examine my drained face in the mirror. What was the point in all our efforts? Why did we try so hard these past two weeks if it’s going to come to this?

There’s no hope. Ayumi’s lost, and she’ll be killed soon enough. Even if I knew where she is and get there in time, there’s no way I can save her. There’s no point to trying.

My own words from the start of the week echo in my head, as if to answer. “What good is life if you don’t try?”

“That’s it!” Ayumi had shouted, before she jumped on her bad foot.

“But why?” I had asked. “What are you planning?”

Ayumi had acted so nonchalant about it back then. She replied to me with one word. “Trying.”

We had been so motived back then. Yet here I am, moping about my situation. What kind of an idiot am I? Ayumi wouldn’t stand here moping if something happened to me! I might be an idiot, but I’m a friend first!

The first thing is to find Ayumi. Where’s the best place to start? If I were to hide someone, where would I go with butterflies? No, let’s forget the butterflies and think in general. I’d want somewhere hidden from view, yet close enough to the rest of society to divert suspicion. A place like those abandoned warehouses.

No, those are where Erica’d expect me to search, and there are no butterflies there. The park? That’s too open. She did say she caught butterflies on breaks. The school grounds are too busy to catch them, but what about the woods behind the school?

It only makes sense. The woods are thick enough for her to be completely obscured, and close enough for Erica to walk back to school when it’s all done, even if something happened to Kyouko. I can start there, and check the warehouses after, if my hunch happens to be wrong. That’s assuming my sword survives that long.

“Well, no use waiting here.” I pull open my closet and grab a coat, which reveals the remains of my sword.

I pull it out by the hilt and examine what’s left of the pathetic blade. Save for a rusty sliver, it’s all gone. But, when I touch that sliver, it seems sturdy enough. It flakes, sure, but it won’t collapse if I breathe on it.

I put it back in the closet. “Guess this is the last time I’ll see you or this room, Twilight.” But I’m not sad. What I’m doing will be for the best. I’ll either die fighting a familiar or from the sword falling apart before I can even reach my goal, but at least I’ll have tried.

As I put it down, I hear Haruka’s voice in my head. “Familiars exist until another familiar or a magical artifact destroys them,” she had said days ago.

I pick the sword up again. A magical artifact? Could this be one? Normal swords don’t keep people alive.

I stuff the sword in my jacket. Maybe I’m being stupid, but what does it matter? I only have one chance left to be stupid.

I run out to the woods. I don’t really have so much as half an idea where they might be, but nothing fazes me anymore.

After half an hour of searching, I can’t find anything. Of course not. Erica’s too smart to hide where I can find her in half an hour. She’ll want to hide somewhere nobody could ever find, unless they were lost and stumbled upon it.

Of course! I’m trying too hard to find them, and not hard enough to lose myself. I’ve kept my general bearings the entire time, but that’s my downfall.

I close my eyes and spin myself around and around until I’m too dizzy to spin anymore. When I open them, the world keeps spinning.

Sakura trees are all around me, most of their beautiful pink replaced with green. They’ll be all green tomorrow. But they don’t really matter. The important thing is I have no idea how to get back to the school now.

I hum happily as I wander into the woods, the bells in my hair bouncing to the tune. Maybe this is insanity. Losing everything and, instead of panicking, you hum and take strolls in the woods. I hardly notice as stray brambles and branches rip into my clothes, leaving patches of bare skin exposed to the air.

I keep wandering, not really hoping for much. I’m about to give up when I hear a rustle from a bush.

“Caught you.” I throw my jacket off and hold my sword out.

The bush spreads, and out emerges a creature I’ve seen far too much of these past few days—a shade. It seems to be a bit more disoriented than the ones I’ve seen before. I steady my sword, ready to fight, but it passes me by, as if it doesn’t realize I’m here. Of course it doesn’t; I have no life force.

I think about destroying it right now to see if my sword will work, but then I’ll lose my only lead. Instead, I stalk it, moving slow so as to not catch any unwanted attention.

More and more shades appear in the corners of my vision with each step, all going the same general direction. My blood flows with anticipation. They have to be going where I want to go. There’s simply no other explanation.

There’s a small clearing ahead, where the shades congregate. Meter by meter we approach it until, finally, we burst through.

The entire clearing is crowded with shades, all moving toward a large rock in the center. At the base of the rock, a black portal spirals into a dark abyss. One by one, the shades walk into it, causing it to shudder and expand ever so slightly. On top of the rock, Kyouko holds on to Ayumi, though I highly doubt she could escape without her crutches in the first place. Haruka lies unconscious next to them, and Erica stands over them, watching the unfolding events.

“Pretty amazing, isn’t it?” she asks. “All these shades are at my beck and call. Tonight, they’ll give up their existences to create a body for my mom. Pretty neat, isn’t it?”

Ayumi keeps her fists clenched. “Your mom wouldn’t want this! She’ll kill herself as soon as she finds out what a terrible thing you—OW!” Ayumi’s words are cut short as Erica kicks her bad knee.

“Didn’t you learn to not talk bad about my mom?” Erica snarls. She points down at Haruka. “How much longer does she have?” she asks Kyouko.

She makes a motion as if checking a watch, despite not wearing one. “I’d say ten more minutes.”

“Good. Make sure to take care of Ayumi as soon as possible. I can’t have her interrupting my mom’s return.”

I have to get to the rock. But there are so many shades all over the place, I can’t get through. I charge at their blockade, but they don’t budge. They stand in line to enter the portal, completely ignorant of me. Well, it’s more of a horde than a line.

“Well, here goes nothing.” I steady my sword, prepared to slash my way through. Gripping it with all my might, I slash at the nearest shade.

It erupts in blue flames, as I hoped. But at the same time, the sword suffers the recoil. The little bit of rust remaining cracks and falls onto the ground, leaving me with nothing but the hilt in my hands.

A great faintness spreads over my body. Unable to support myself, I fall with the sword hilt lying next to me.

Is this what death feels like?

“Sakura?” Ayumi notices me. My vision blurs, but through the fog, I can see all the shades turn and stare at my pathetic body.

Erica hops up off her rock and heads toward me, the shades moving out of the way for her. “Sakura, Sakura, Sakura. Why’d you bother coming here?” My vision grows darker. “You could’ve been happily in bed now, maybe still alive, reflecting on all the good things in your life. You could’ve spent your last moment listening to your stupid idols while reading about your stupid magical girls. But you chose to die in the woods, surrounded by the dead. And it was all for naught anyway.”

She stops a few meters away from me. I can barely see her anymore, much less think. It’s like I’m floating, losing connection to this body. My vision turns to black as my muscles lose their strength.

“It wasn’t for naught,” Ayumi shouts down from the rock. She tries to break free, but Kyouko’s grip is too strong. “She came, so I’m happy. Nothing else matters.”

A light flashes ahead of me. Is this the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel? I reach for it. My time has come, so it’s time to go.

But when I wrap my fingers around it, they instead feel something cold.

My eyes flicker open.

Erica backs up. “It can’t be. Why would he give you that?”

My strength returns to my limbs as my vision clears. I’m still holding onto the sword, but the blade’s no longer rusted, missing, or even metallic. Instead, it’s forged with a silver fire, which courses along its edge.

“I’m alive?” I flex my hand to verify my life.

Erica shakes. “Why do you have Shadebane, the sword which turns death into life for the user?”

I stagger to my feet. “Cappy gave it to me. You know, the man you circled in those newspapers.”

Erica stays petrified.

“So tell me. Who is he? Why did he want Ayumi to become a necromancer so badly? Why did he use this sword to keep me alive?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know?!” she screams. “He turned me into this thing and then abandoned me! Why do you think I’ve been searching for him all these years?”

She jumps back up onto her rock. “Don’t stand there! Kill her!” she shouts to the shades below.

The shades creep toward me. It’s like I’m in the alley again. I have the weapon, and they have the numbers.

I separate my feet to make up a fighting stance. I take an unstable swing with Twilight, which causes three of them to burst into flame. Who needs skill? Twilight slices them like a hot knife through butter.

I swing the sword around again, carving a path to the rock. I have to get to Ayumi and protect her like I did the first night.

“Behind you!” Ayumi screams.

A horde of shades close in behind me. My sword’s too heavy! I can’t get it around in time!

“DON’T HURT HER!” Ayumi shouts.

And to everyone’s disbelief, they stop dead in their tracks.

“What are you doing?” screams Erica. “I told you to kill her, so kill her! Don’t listen to this—”

“—Master.” This time, I finish her sentence.

“What do you mean master? These are my shades. I’m the master here!”

Ayumi smacks her forehead. “How could I be so stupid? When a familiar kills another familiar, dominion of their shades passes to the victor. Since Haruka defeated Michiru, they’re mine.” She points at the horde of shades. “I command you all to destroy yourselves.”

“No!” yells Erica. But Ayumi’s right, and they burst in flame.

The entire clearing empties so that not a single shade remains. The portal shudders, emitting a horrifying shrieking noise before collapsing on itself. Erica falls to her knees. “Mom… I was so close and then…she…”

She clenches one of her hands into a fist and points at me with the other. “Kyouko, take care of her!”

Kyouko drops Ayumi and, in the blink of an eye, jumps off the rock. She charges at me, sword in hand. I barely get my own sword up in time to block it.

“You’re really not a sword fighter, are you?” she sneers. “Let me teach you something before you die. The right hand goes on top.” She breaks contact with my sword and takes a jab from the side. I nearly tear a muscle when I reposition my sword to block it.

I don’t take her advice. “Look at me. It’s Sakura. We were friends, remember? We baked cookies together.”

Kyouko doesn’t listen and takes another hack. “You’re a person my master told me to take care of. Nothing else matters.”

I block her sword again. “Really? Do you not care at all about who you were when you were alive?”

She moves faster with her attacks. “Nope. All I care about is this girl who won’t switch her hands properly. You can push a lot harder than you pull. See, I strike, you block. But I expend a lot less energy because I’m pushing with my right while you’re pulling with your left.”

I spin around and swing at her sword. She’s pushed back by the force of my blow. “Or I can continue to hold my sword like this because I’m left-handed.”

Kyouko repositions herself. “Oh? I see. In any case, I don’t know what you mean by alive. I’m a familiar. I’m in this world to serve my master. If something happened before then, I really don’t care about it.”

“So you don’t care how we were your friends? We would’ve been there to support you, no matter what happened. We could’ve helped you through your grief. We couldn’t replace her, no, but we could’ve at least softened the blow a little bit.”

“Who the hell are you even talking about?” She takes a swing. “Replace who?”

I block her blow. “Her name was Nami. You loved her.”

Kyouko staggers for a bit. An opening! I swing my sword with all my might, but somehow she manages to parry it in time. As she dodges, I notice the same pulling motion I had used.

Of course! When a leftie fights a righty, the one on attack is at an advantage. So long as I’m the one swinging, she can only block.

“Nami? I didn’t know a Nami.”

“Really? You didn’t know the girl who ran the club with you, roomed with you, and recruited with you? You didn’t know the girl who’d talk incessantly, but would always listen when you had something to say? You didn’t know the girl you loved? The girl who loved you?”

Kyouko staggers again. That gives me enough time for my sword to hit its mark. Kyouko goes flying and drops her sword on the ground near my feet. Blue flames erupt from her side as she collapses to the ground.

I kick her sword away. “If you still can’t remember her, it’s fine. But at least say you would’ve liked her. Let her memory be happy.”

Kyouko bows her head. “I-I would’ve liked her. No, I did like her. I did love her.”

“What are you doing?” Erica jumps off the rock and races to give Kyouko her sword back.

The blue flames spread through Kyouko’s body. She smiles. “Thank you, Sakura. I’m going to meet my love, now.” The flames consume every bit of her body until she disappears.

“Kyouko,” Erica murmurs.

I turn to face Erica. Haruka sits up and stretches on the rock, as if she just awoke from a long nap. Ayumi crawls toward her, every centimeter a struggle.

My sword’s blaze casts shadows on Erica’s face. She narrows her eyes and says, “Well, stop beating around the bush and do it. You’ve ruined my plans, and now my mom is never coming back. You might as well get it over with.”

I stare into her red eyes. “Don’t you care about anything else?”

She fumes. “Of course not! You never knew my mom. She was so caring, so kind. She knew everything! I don’t care what I have to do, and if you don’t kill me now, I’ll do it again. I’ll keep killing until I reach my goal. Hell, I’ll even set off a catastrophe in the middle of the school day. Wouldn’t that be fun to watch?”

“There’s so much more out there.” I turn my head up to the glittering stars in the sky. “This is a wide open world, filled with hopes and dreams. Maybe I don’t know what I want to do now. But when you almost lose everything, you realize what you could’ve lost. There’s so much more to the world than the past. Let your mom go, Erica.”

Erica clicks her tongue. “Easy for you to say. At least you’ve had more people care about you. Nobody’s come close to even talking to me before!”

“Before us?” asks Ayumi, cradled in Haruka’s arms.

“You? How the hell did you care about me? All you did was kill my hopes and dreams!”

“So I chose to spend my last night with you instead of shade hunting with Ayumi because I didn’t care about you?” I ask. “Because I wanted to see you suffer?”

Erica has no words.

I put down the sword and hold out my hand. “Let us help you. We’ve all lost family, and we’ve lost quite a few friends as well. We know what you’re going through. We can’t be your family, but we could at least be a shoulder to cry on, and an ear to listen. Beyond all that, can’t we at least be friends?”

Erica looks at both of us, her lips quivering like a child who had been caught stealing a cookie. She reaches out, not sure whether to take my hand or swat it away.

And then she clasps onto it.


“I can’t take it anymore!” groans Ayumi. “Seriously, Erica, why didn’t you tell us this would be so much work!”

I sort through what seems to be the thousandth paper of the day. “She kind of did.”

Ayumi pulls on her new armband signifying her rank in the student council. “But what do we even get out of it? It seems like all I get for doing this is more and more paperwork!”

Erica stops typing to let out a laugh. “Don’t worry, soon enough you’ll go insane and enjoy it.”

“Do you think I’m some sort of masochist?” Ayumi slams her fist on the table.

“Sure you are. You volunteered for this job.”

“I hate my life.” Ayumi squeezes her ponytail.

I place yet another survey in class 3-1’s pile. “Been a while since you did that.”

“Did what?”

I flick her ponytail. “Squeezed it.”

Ayumi freezes in place. “Why are my hands up here?”

I blink. “You mean you didn’t know you do that every time you get flustered?”

Ayumi drops her hands. “Why didn’t anyone tell me?” she cries. Erica and I burst out in laughter.

The warm breeze of late April blows in from the open window. The sakura trees ruffle their leaves—their pink petals nothing more than a memory. For when a sakura petal falls, it’s not meeting its death. It’s starting a new life.

Erica checks the clock. “Looks like you’re in luck, in any case. We’re out of time for the day.”

“Oh, thank gosh.” Ayumi grabs her crutches. “I’m absolutely starving! Sakura, can you get me an extra serving of rice?”

“Again?” I grab her meal token.

“I’ll take one too.” Erica flips me hers as well.

“Get your own food!” I toss it back at her, to laughs all around.

After the incident in the woods, life has calmed down, becoming a routine of school, student council work, and homework with Erica most every night.

Erica, for her part, came all out to us about everything she had bottled up for her life. After she had been given some time to cry, she went into a rambling confession back in the woods.

“I was ten when I became a necromancer,” she had said. “Though you probably figured that much out, seeing how my body hasn’t aged a day since then. My mother died, and I was the only one at her funeral, outside of a friend and the man in the baseball cap. When I thanked him for coming, he offered me the chance to bring my mom back. Of course, lost in my emotions, I agreed to his terms without question.”

She had lain back to look at the stars. “I don’t know much more about him. I found him in those newspaper articles, sure, but like you, I’ve never been able to meet him since. But I didn’t care. If I could bring my mom back, that was all that mattered. Soon, I was using my familiar and my shades to attack everyone who made my life miserable.”

I waited for her to finish. “What are you going to do from here?”

“I think I’m going to find your ‘Cappy’ and give him a piece of my mind. And if more shades pop up, I hope you won’t mind me tagging along to help you destroy them. I know a bit more about them than you.”

“It’d be an honor.” I had reached over to her, which made the bells in my hair ring out.

That had brought Erica’s attention to my new hair tie. “Hey, Sakura.”


“I don’t recall ever giving you permission to use my bells. Give them back.”

Back in the student council room, I touch the ribbon I’ve started to use as a hair tie—sans bell. It’s cute, but just not the same.

Even with Erica’s change of heart, she refused to give up most of her habits. The bells in her hair still sing, and she still spends a lot of time with her butterflies.

But it’s not like Erica hasn’t changed at all. For one, she stopped dyeing her hair. Her dye has washed out to reveal a pristine silver—even more than Ayumi’s. She also stopped pinning her butterflies up, focusing entirely on dipping them in resin and fashioning them into jewelry. To top it off, even her room’s changed.

“Oh, looks like I sold another one.” Erica glances up from her phone, takes down one of her butterfly collections, and places it on the stack labeled “to ship.”

I tap the now-bare wall. “It’s really looking better in here.”

“Because of the Silent Circular Infinity poster?” Ayumi gestures to the poster I bought for Erica, hanging on the wall.

I place my hand on it defensively. “It adds to the room, to say the least.”

Erica giggles. “I can’t help it. After Sakura lent me a couple albums, I was hooked.”

Ayumi throws her hands in the air. “You’ll never understand me.”

But our banter is interrupted by Haruka.

“Shade sighting in town.” She points at Erica’s laptop.

We break off what we’re doing and rush to the screen. On one of Erica’s cameras, we spot the shade waiting for its next victim. They never hide themselves as well as Erica’s used to, but any shade is still a threat.

“Which camera is it?”

“The zoo. It’s about two kilometers from here. It’ll take about an hour on foot,” replies Haruka.

Erica groans. “If only you could teleport other humans like every other shade I’ve met.”

Haruka places her head on Erica’s desk. “No sword, no special ability, and no teleportation ability. Why do I have to be special?” None of us have the answer. It’s something we’ll ask Cappy if we ever find him.

I pull open Erica’s closet and grab Twilight. “Eh, getting a little rusty again.”

“Well, it has been a week since you last used it,” Ayumi says. When we asked Erica about the sword, she had explained to us all she knew about it. It was an ancient blade of unknown origins, appearing time and again in history. It killed the undead without exception—so shades would never learn how to avoid it. If it was used against undead, it would absorb the magic used to create the undead and recreate itself. But if it were to be used on a human, they would become its new master. The sword and its master were intertwined, such that neither could live if the other died.

I thrust the sword into the sheath Ayumi had sewn into my blazer. “Since we have a new shade, I suppose that means we have another necromancer to deal with.”

Haruka gets up from the computer. “Can I destroy one? It’s so boring watching Sakura do everything.”

“Well, she’s good at it,” Ayumi says.

“But I can be good at it too!” she whines.

I put my hand on Haruka’s shoulder, at least where it would be if I didn’t go through it. “We need you to fight the familiar. Shades’ll become harder to deal with otherwise.”

“Come on, we have to run!” Erica races to the door. “It’s waiting for us!”

We all know she’s right. We set off for our next task together. For in the road of life, sometimes, there are paths you cannot turn back on. But if you follow it, you’ll never run into a dead end, so long as you don’t believe it to be one. For there is always a tomorrow.

Back Cover Chibi
« Last Edit: October 09, 2017, 10:24:04 pm by Meliran »

Offline BlackStarLine

Re: Fire and Shadow
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2017, 09:34:41 pm »
Oh yeah, I remember reading part of it months back... Looks like I can now read the whole thing.

Offline Meliran

Re: Fire and Shadow
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2017, 10:24:28 pm »
Added a pdf for easier reading if you prefer it that way~ :)

Offline Deeox2

Re: Fire and Shadow
« Reply #3 on: October 13, 2017, 04:20:07 am »
Okay, I downloaded this entire thing to my phone. Gimme a week and I'll have it all read.

Maybe I'll even take notes like a smart person this time.