Chapter 7: Give Or Take A Century     By Sabina Tang

"Some more sponge cake, Miaka-san? Chocolate-almond croissant? Melon? Scones?"

"Waahh! Oishii!"

"This is getting to be an abusive relationship," Sukunami muttered.

Imonoyama Nokoru beamed. "Don't worry," he said. "Akira loves to feed people."

"That's what I'm afraid of."

I hid a smile behind the rim of my teacup. The brown-haired girl had been munching non-stop for the last half-hour, aided and abetted by the boy introduced as the student council treasurer (CLAMP Campus, Junior High Division). The offer of high tea would have been an unbearably precious touch in any other setting, but in this palatial suite it seemed common courtesy.

And the company was certainly intriguing.

We'd had a round of self-introductions in the waiting room. As happened often enough, there had been swiftly-hidden double-takes at mine, and I doubt Miaka-san bumped into me at the door by accident. Not that I blame her: she could hardly come up and grope me outright.

I am used to the reaction.

(Kuwabara, of all people, had once asked why I'd chosen such a body, and wouldn't something like a ningen version of my youko form have made a helluva lot more sense? To which I could only reply that it had seemed fitting at the time. The reason had little to do with logic, after all, and I'd rather not give Kuwabara the idea that I had a mystic streak. He already thinks I have a sentimental one, and he may be right.)

As for the Imonoyama…

I glanced at Sukunami Taka, as he'd given himself out. He'd obviously recognized the surname - anyone who kept up with the financial scene should - and been startled, but I doubted the family's present representative rang any bells in his head other than the obvious one of age. Imonoyama Nokoru, however, was something of a legend in circles dealing with gifted children's competitions and study streams, in which I'd participated fleetingly. His was also the ultimate signature of consent to a technology stock transfer my firm had brokered over the past year, along with - a glance at the other side of the table - Takamura Suoh. No mean student council, this.

Why was I here?

The Yuuki girl swallowed the last of her jam pastries and turned to the head of the table. "Excuse me for asking, Imonoyama-san -"

"Nokoru, please."

"-Nokoru-san, but why are we here? I thought we were going to talk to someone in charge of the library."

"I'm afraid I have to second that," I said. "I put in a request for a book, and they told me to come here." Sukunami and Yuuki exchanged glances at 'book'. Interesting.

"Yes, these were security measures we took some weeks ago," said Nokoru with an apologetic smile. "I should explain… We heard about the unfortunate attack you suffered on Saturday, Miaka-san; it was in the media of course. However, the police has probably not informed you that the culprit, Watanabe Futoshi, was reported missing over a month ago. It seems you are aware that he was a librarian here at CLAMP Campus?"

Miaka nodded.

"At first it was assumed that personal problems caused his disappearance, but then certain… irregularities… in the material under his care was discovered." Nokoru turned to Suoh.

"Part of my family's collection was on loan to the school library," the latter said. "There was a book missing."

"Oh!" said Miaka. Akira looked at her curiously.

"Quite an unusual target for theft, actually," continued Suoh. "A first edition but not old enough to be interesting to collectors, and the subject matter is obscure - folk traditions and paranormal anecdotes in the greater part. However, by tracing Watanabe's network access, we soon discovered that he'd been engaged in intensive research of his own on those very subjects. Not to mention-" Suoh smiled briefly - "that the security system at this institution is excellent. In fact, it's supposed to be impermeable, and any intimation that it is not is subject for concern.

"So we started an internal investigation - and then Watanabe was apprehended by the Tokyo police for attempted murder. It may be a coincidence, but it may not. At this point we're looking to gather information on both crimes, and any insights you may be able to provide us with would be greatly welcomed.

"As for Minamino-san, you're involved simply because you inquired after the book in question. That is all."

A startled glance at me, and then at each other. "And… what was the book called?" asked Sukunami too-casually.

"Legends and Demon-Worship of Proto-Nippon," said Suoh. "By Takamura Nobuhiko."

I'd seen it coming as soon as theft had been mentioned. But from the blank looks of the couple across from me, they'd been expecting another tome altogether.

Curiouser and curiouser…

"Paranormal, huh." Sukunami rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "Um, this may sound wei-"

"It wouldn't happen to be a magic book, would it?" said Miaka. "Like it sucks you into another world with animal gods and empires and stuff. Mikos." Pause. "Ancient China?"

We stared.

"Perhaps it would better if you started at the beginning," Suoh suggested. "Yuuki-san?"

***

"Leave it."

Masada had sketched a movement to kneel by the body. He looked up, confused.

"You won't find any wounds. I thought I was playing for time; he was as well. It's his strength." Phones were ringing; someone was calling for the chief, for an ambulance, but an eerie quiet hung in Saitoh's immediate vicinity. He was scanning the hurrying officers and secretaries, golden eyes cold. For all as if he expected the suspect to be among them.

"Saitoh-san?"

The lanky detective cursed under his breath. "Outside," he said, elbowed past an office lady and ran. Masada gaped as the service stairs door across the hall swung shut, then did something he would remember as atypical.

He ran after Saitoh.

He was just in time to hear the girl scream.

She clung, half-crouched, to the short banister that fronted the door to the building's basement parking; her sailor blouse and skirt marked her as a highschooler. Masada had a fraction of a second to wonder what she was doing there, then shots rang out to his left and the girl shrieked again.

"Shuu-kun! Iyaaa!"

There was a different, more muffled bang, as if a container of compressed air had burst. Masada flattened against the wall, naming himself fool a dozen times for having left his gun upstairs in the drawer. How did an afternoon of paperwork at headquarters segue into this? He risked a glance around the corner.

First he saw Saitoh, pulling himself to his feet behind a concrete pillar. Then the boy. Another highschooler, once again by the uniform; he had dived and rolled with Saitoh's shots, coming up behind a cream-colored Honda sedan Masada recognized as the section chief's. Saitoh fired again, keeping his body behind the pillar, and sparks flew from the car's paintwork.

Masada opened his mouth to yell a protest - he was shooting at an unarmed child! - then the boy swept his arm out in a pitching gesture, and the sound died in his throat.

The very air picked itself up and threw itself at them.

The only warning he had before impact was the sudden swirl of dust on the asphalt. The wall took the brunt of it, but Masada was knocked backwards onto his seat. Dimly, his eyes watering and ears ringing from the doppler-roar, he saw Saitoh fly through the air and land heavily on his side. He was struggling up almost as soon as he hit the ground, but his gun had flew out of his hand on impact.

The boy did not push his advantage. He took out the driver's-side window of the sedan with a well-placed high kick. Two seconds was all it took for Saitoh to retrieve his gun, but by that time the boy was behind the wheel. Masada watched in astonishment as the car started immediately, all lights coming on, and sideswiped the vehicle beside it backing up. Saitoh fired twice more, and took out a tail light when the car swerved. Masada caught a glimpse of a pale, childish face, eyes too wide for control - then the sedan had passed by in a squeal of accelerating tires.

Saitoh took three steps of a stumbling run after it, then pulled up short. There was a silence, during which Masada clambered to his feet. It was broken by the dim cacaphony of car horns on the street above them.

"Saitoh-san," he began, then stopped. He intended to say, who was that kid and should I put the word out on him, but before the words left his mouth he realized they were ridiculous.

Who was he?

What was he would be a better question.

The girl was weeping softly now, hugging herself. "I thought it was me," Masada heard her sob. "He wouldn't tell me why he came here. I thought it was me. I thought he didn't want to be with me…"

Saitoh barely glanced in her direction. "It's beginning," he said, and there was an edge to his voice that made Masada want to step back. "He's shown himself; he won't delay it any longer."

***

"A picture is emerging," Nokoru said two hours later, thoughtfully.

I leant back in my chair, considering. I'd told my usual edited truth: one that didn't name either Reikai or myself for what we were. Makai intuition said the young couple had told the truth as well. And the Student Council were much less fazed than I'd have expected.

A Priestess? One of the prophesied Nine?

I looked Miaka over. Again. She was perched on the edge of her chair, fiddling with the cuff of her jumper sleeve and looking childishly worried. Or uncomfortable, which would not be surprising given how much she'd eaten. I decided that I had seen more unlikely in my life, but not often. On the other hand, how many were there who could claim her extended experience in world-saving on their spiritual resumé? I felt a smile coming on. It was an exclusive field. Fate could have done worse.

"So it hinges on this prophecy," Sukunami Taka summed up. "Except we don't know exactly what it says, because someone - Watanabe probably - has gone to the trouble of systematically removing all the books in which it's mentioned. All we know is that something called Mukage is after Miaka and possibly eight other people."

"And that the world is returning to chaos," I appended drily.

Taka winced. "Right. And that."

Akira glanced from one of his companions to the other. Nokoru tapped a small closed fan against his wrist, seemingly in a brown study. Suoh was frowning. "So what do we do now?"

"Find some way of questioning Watanabe, I suppose," I said, thinking of loopholes past the police.

"But this book of yours has been around for years," Miaka said. She hugged her arms to herself. "This Legend of Demons thingummy. There must be tons of copies. Surely someone would have read it? I mean, remembered at least a little of what was written in it?"

"That's part of what puzzles me," said Suoh. "I've read it, you see. Years ago, but I'm confident of my memory."

"You don't recollect a prophecy?" I hazarded.

"Not exactly, no. But I do remember about the Lay of Nine." Suoh glanced up at us. "Perhaps I should explain… Legends and Demon-Worship was a scholarly book with a limited print run, and I wouldn't be surprised if in fact the National Library's and my family's copies are the only ones still extent." He smiled. "The author was one of my relatives, you see. We're a rather old traditional family."

"The Edo Takamuras," I said. Suoh inclined his head.

"During the Meiji era my family contracted an alliance of marriage with a Kyoto ninja clan, the product of which was the scholar Takamura Nobuhiko - the clan's first to benefit from an overseas education. His mother, Omasu-dono, is I believe listed in the appendix as one of his sources of various legends and oral traditions. Family records have it that she was responsible for the section on the Lay of Nine."

I considered. "So the prophecy had been passed down orally in her clan?"

"Our knowledge would be more concrete if it were so." Suoh shook his head. "My family practices such teachings rigorously. But no. As far as we know, Omasu-dono never saw or heard the exact contents of the Lay. The story set down in Nobuhiko's book is in fact that of an exorcism or, more exactly, a sealing. One performed in Meiji Tokyo, by 'trustworthy allies of the Oniwabanshuu clan.'"

"Of an evil spirit named Mukage," I said slowly.

"Precisely. Apparently according to a method dictated by the prophecy, if not using the power of the text itself. Omasu-dono's account ran that the awakening of said evil spirit had actually been predicted in the Lay - give or take a century." Suoh shrugged.

"Journalism of the period does refer to widespread cases of demonic possession and cults," said Nokoru, "which most scholars now dismiss as hysteria. We have to assume the sealing was an act of protection against such phenomena."

Taka said, "So you mean this Mukage's a demon-"

"More than a demon."

"A god, then," said Miaka in a tone too hard for her girlish voice. "Or a demon that thinks it's a god?" I looked at her in surprise. Her face had paled somewhat, but her expression was set.

"Would you like some tea, Miaka-san?" Nokoru asked. "I know this must be difficult for you."

"Thank you, I'm quite all right," Miaka replied, but it seemed automatic. Her fiancé shot her a worried glance and took her hand.

"Whatever it was, they were apparently only able to seal the nexus of its powers," continued Suoh. "For all we know, it was able to retain a conscious presence in this world."

"Well, if that's so, then it's not all that hard to reconstruct what must have happened," Taka said. "Takamura-dono's treatise makes Watanabe curious, so he pinpoints the exorcism plot and does a bit of digging. Ends up breaking the seal and getting possessed himself. Steals the books, and here we are."

"It doesn't explain everything," I said. "This may sound like hubris, but I doubt Watanabe could have been able to perform the theft I referred to. If he had had the spiritual power it would have required, the police would never have been able to capture him."

"Maybe the Shadowless left him for a new host," Akira suggested.

"Maybe," I said.

"Or perhaps Watanabe was involved in a different manner altogether." Nokoru shook his fan open with a practiced flick. "How much do you know about the Sennin Group? Minamino-san? Sukunami-san, Yuuki-san?"

Miaka and Taka glanced at each other and shook their heads. I took a moment to collect my thoughts before I answered.

"Some. Financial matters. They are a… privately-held angel investment firm, aren't they?"

"Something like that, yes. Legally. The registered version of Sennin is a holding company, though, and certain of its operations are entangled in shady dealings."

"Like the yakuza?" asked Taka.

"Among others. Nothing flagrant, of course; the corporate culture is known for discretion, and in any case many of Sennin's connections are long-standing enough to have acquired the status of pseudo-institutions. Like the Imonoyama, the founders of the Sennin Group made their fortunes at the beginning of Meiji, but their organization is in fact much older." Nokoru gestured with his fan. "Imonoyama information networks being what they are, it's been known to us for quite some time that the core decision-makers of Sennin keep a stable of spiritualists and espers. It's been suggested that they are charged with carrying out the true mission of the society, whatsoever that might be. I don't know if you were at all aware of this, Minamino-san-"

"There were rumors." I was very well aware. I'd heard of Sennin not as part of the company ledgers, but as a regular minor-league sponsor of the Ankoku Bujuutsukai. There was no real need to get into that, though. "Are you… suggesting that Watanabe was researching under Sennin's aegis?"

"That was our working theory before you contacted us," Nokoru said, and smiled his charming smile. "But you are going to ask what evidence I have for such a supposition. It is a purely-"

Miaka stood up, and her chair clattered to the ground.

"Miaka-san, are you all right?" Nokoru asked, almost at the same time as Taka's "Miaka, what's wrong?" Miaka shook her head from side to side, quickly.

"I don't know," she said. "I don't know. I've been feeling… something's wrong." She took a step backward and stumbled on the overturned chair, almost falling. Taka caught her in his arms.

"Tell me, Miaka," he demanded.

Her eyes widened, and she pushed him away. "Don't touch me," she said.

That was when I felt it.

Akira was the only one to glance my way when I came to my feet as well, but he must have seen something in my face, because his eyes widened. "Minamino-san?"

"There are mystic conduits on this campus," I heard myself say. "Aren't there?"

"Miaka," Taka said in a stunned voice.

Suoh looked back at me quickly. "Yes. There are shields. But there's no reason for them to activate. Unless-" He glanced about the room suddenly, a change coming over his features.

"I'm sorry, Taka," Miaka said. "But… don't. Don't come near me."

"Miaka!"

"Something's happening to me…"

I grabbed hold of the edge of the table. So there were shields - which meant that there was no point in running. It would only be worse outside. The air was swimming in energy, and a foreign pressure bore down on me irresistably, like a vacuum bent on ripping me out of my skin. I'd known this sensation before, but it was so incongruous it took me a few seconds to remember from where.

"Fruit of past life..." I whispered, then shook my head. "Chigau… it's as if…"

"The ki lines," Suoh said. "Kaichou, the school-"

"Everything's tearing apart," I said. My legs were wavering. Miaka backed up against the wall, her eyes wild. Of course it would be she and I. Of course. The blood-red rose born twice… oh, I understood quite well.

I'd been the only other one attacked by a minion of Mukage.

"It's coming from outside the grounds," said Nokoru, and ran to the window. "Where did the sealing happen, Suoh? Do you remember?"

"It would have been somewhere in the old Edo district…"

"Minamino-san? Minamino-san! Kaichou-" Akira was shaking my shoulder urgently. I'd gone to my knees.

"Get away from us," I gritted from between my teeth. The discontinuity was physical, even if Miaka and I were the only ones who could feel it. "Just out of the immediate vicinity. Just to the next room."

"Miaka, please!" Taka pleaded. "Let me help you!"

"Get away," I whispered again, but my tongue felt thick and I wasn't sure I even got the sound out. It was hard to breathe. I was going to shatter. "You-"

"Suoh, the light!" Nokoru cried. "Look!"

And indeed, there was light. White light.

Darkness followed.

 

<= Lay of Nine Index | Email Author =>