Please excuse my, er, butchered attempt at British dialect... as long as you get the feel for what kind of people these are...
The rain let up before noon but the clouds still lingered, and the ground remained cold as dusk approached. Nezumi was walking briskly through the throng. Shion was doing his best to keep up behind him. He was out of breath. He was jostled, bumped, and yelled at; he felt the gaze of countless curious eyes raining down on his head; the smell of a dozen things reached his nose, so mingled and melded into each other that he couldn't tell what they originally were; the muddy ground tripped up his feet; a sprawl of barracks and tents lined the road, and from them, thick smoke billowed rudely into the passerby; in the air, angry bellows, seductive coos, and merchants' cries clashed clamorously. He felt dizzy.
The older district of Lost Town, which was where he took up residence after being forced from Chronos, was also bustling and lively. But compared to what he was seeing now, it seemed like a tranquil getaway.
In No. 6, there were designated roads and paths for both people and vehicles going in each direction, and as a fundamental rule, stopping suddenly or going the opposite way was prohibited. Everyone walked in the same direction, in the same orderly fashion. It was rare to ever bump into anyone, or be stopped by an acquaintance. Nothing occurred suddenly or unexpectedly. Everything was managed to prevent such things from occurring. No. 6 was that kind of place.
A roar of voices suddenly erupted close by. Shion was shoved violently aside. He lost his footing, and fell forward onto his knees in the mud. Several men thundered past him. Something fell from one of their arms, rolled, and came to a stop in front of Shion. It was an orange.
A man burst out of one of the shops in the barracks, holding a gun. He was towering, and very fat.
"Them thieves!" he roared. "Someone catch 'em!"
No one moved. Some smirked as they looked on, others showed no interest at all, others were shouting unintelligibly; and all the while, the so-called thieves were retreating further away into the crowd.
Shion's breath caught in his throat. The gigantic man was taking aim with his gun. Passers-by who saw him squatted hastily to the ground to take cover.
Is he nuts? Shion couldn't imagine this man being in his right mind to open fire into this crowd of people. But the man's face was set in determination. The long muzzle of his outdated firearm was pointed straight before him. The fleeing men bumped into an old woman and pushed her aside as they continued running. She yammered something at them, then returned to hobbling down the centre of the road. She was oblivious to the gun that was pointed her way. The giant's thick finger wrapped around the trigger.
Shion threw himself at the man just before his hairy knuckle jerked to fire the gun. With as much strength as he could muster, he knocked the muzzle of the gun upwards.
He felt a heavy impact slam his hand, and a shot blasted in his eardrums. The muzzle of the gun spewed fire into the darkening sky. Shion staggered. His feet were swept from under him, and he was slammed to the ground. His breath died on his lips.
"The hell do you think yer doin'?"
The man towered over him with his gun raised, filling every inch of his vision. Shion rolled quickly to the side. The giant moved nimbly for his appearance, and Shion was met with a firm kick in the ribs.
Shion grunted in pain. He couldn't speak. His stomach lurched.
"One of their little friends, eh?" the giant snarled. "Little fucker, takin' a swipe at my merchandise."
The man's boot gave off a greasy, animal smell. And it was swinging straight toward his stomach again.
"I'm not one of them!" Shion screamed, barely dodging the blow. I have to scream, or else he'll really kick me to death. There was no hint of hesitation in the blows that showered down upon him.
"I'm not― I'm not one of them," Shion persisted.
"Shut up!" the giant bellowed. "Now those bastard thieves 're gone. Thanks to yer gettin' in the way."
"If I didn't intervene, someone could have been killed," Shion protested. "Opening fire in a place like this ― what if you'd hit someone?"
To his astonishment, the man started laughing. Laughter rose from the crowd that lined the streets as well.
"And so what if I did?" the man roared, emanating his beastly odour. "What's that got to do with me, eh?" His expression suddenly darkened, and he roughly grabbed Shion by his hair. "You and yer strange mop o' yers. I don't like the looks o' you."
He was pulled to the ground forcefully. His scalp burned with pain, and it felt like it was being torn off. But even stronger than the aches on his body were the feelings of wrath and humiliation that seethed within him.
"Stop it!" Shion yelled.
Stop it. Let go of me. How dare you treat me like cattle.
Shion threw himself at the man again, and slammed his body into him as hard as he could. He felt his elbow dig firmly into the man's swollen gut. The man let out a muffled groan and fell on his knees. The crowd had formed a ring around them. Clapping, whistling and raucous laughter erupted periodically.
"That's the spirit, young'un. Give 'im what he deserves!"
"Kill 'im off, ol' man! There's no use wastin' time here!"
No one tried to stop them. Everyone was enjoying the spectacle from a safe distance. Shion searched the jeering crowd for a pair of grey eyes. He couldn't find them.
He heard a booming roar that sounded more animal than human. Then he felt a blow bludgeon his cheek. Sparks burst before his eyes, and his vision went dark for a short instant. Something warm was filling his mouth. Unable to bear it, he spat it out. Saliva mixed with blood splattered and oozed over the dirt.
"Playin' funny tricks!" The man's face was flushed red, and he was shaking in rage. His eyes were bloodshot, and his veins were raised and throbbing over his skin like a crimson web. The murderous intent that radiated from him was unmistakable.
"Yer gonna pay for this," he growled. The gun was aimed right between Shion's eyes. Shion couldn't close his gaping mouth. He felt like his heart was going to burst out of his chest. And still, no one stopped him. In this crowd of people that surrounded them, not a single one stepped in to stop the man. He felt nauseous. He couldn't tell whether the muzzle before his eyes was real or just an illusion.
"Hey," a deep voice punctuated the din. It belonged to a man who was roasting meat at the front of his store. Pieces of blackened meat covered the grill, which was billowing thick, sooty smoke. "Don't be makin' a mess in front of my store," he said.
"I en't makin' a mess," the man growled.
"You were 'bout to, you were. If you go blowin' brains and blood all over the place, everyone's gonna lose their appetites, they is. Take it somewhere else."
The giant scoffed. "No one's gonna have any appetite for yer half-rotten meat anyway."
"Whassat?" The man shot back. "Rotten meat? You's the one selling rotten fruits and vegetables, you's sure one to talk."
"Our produce is fresh."
"You must be kiddin' me! Even i' this season, theys flies swarmin' all over 'em. If they's not rotten, theys must be right withered."
"What? You little―"
The men lunged at each other. Shion raised himself off the ground and started running.
"Hey! Damnit, you come back 'ere!" The man bellowed angrily. Shion had no time to turn around to check. His body bristled in fear of being shot from behind at any second. He tripped.
He was grabbed by the arm.
"This way, quickly."
He was dragged into a narrow alleyway between two buildings. Shion leaned back heavily against the wall, and drew several deep breaths.
"Doing alright there?"
He lifted his face. A woman was smiling at him. Her red painted lips floated up vividly in the dim gloom. The lips parted wide again.
"Oh, dear. You've cut your lip, it's bleeding. Looks like you had a hard time back there. Poor thing."
The strong smell of her perfume filled Shion's nostrils.
"Thank you for helping me," Shion said to her, after his breathing had returned somewhat back to normal. There was a few seconds of silence, after which the woman suddenly burst into laughter.
"I wonder how long it's been since someone last thanked me," she chuckled. "It feels like years. By the way, you've got interesting hair, sweetie."
"Huh―? Oh... I've been through a lot of, er, things..."
"We've all been through a lot of things. And so have I, here―"
Despite the biting cold, the woman was clad only in a thin dress that bared her shoulders. She pulled her neckline down to show him, and a pair of voluptuous breasts appeared. Their whiteness stood out even more than her red lips. Shion's eyes stung.
"Look, you see there's a burn mark? A man did that to me with a hot metal rod, a long time ago. It was hell, I'm telling ya. But look, see, doesn't it kind of look like a snake? Like a snake is slithering over my chest."
I've got a snake too, and it's coiled around my whole body.
He thought so, but he didn't put into words. The woman continued giggling softly.
"Sweetie, don't you have any experience with women?"
"Shall I give you a lesson? My place is just up ahead. Why don't you come over, and we can have a good time. How's that sound?"
"What?" Shion repeated dumbly.
"I'm asking if you if you want to come over and have a good time." Irritation crept into the woman's voice. "I haven't got anything to do until nighttime either. Don't worry, it won't cost too much. So why don't we enjoy ourselves, hmm?"
The woman's arms reached around Shion's neck. He was pushed back against the wall. Her lips pressed firmly against his. The strong scent of her makeup washed over him. He felt faint. Her warm tongue glided in between his teeth and mingled with his own. Shion found himself reflexively pushing the woman away.
"What was that for?" she said indignantly.
"No, I― Well― this isn't..."
"What're you mumbling on about? I helped you, didn't I? Being my customer is the least you can do."
"Customer? But... I―"
"I'm not gonna force you if you don't want to. But you still owe me money for the kiss."
"What?" Shion asked incredulously.
The woman's lips twisted, and her voice turned sugary sweet.
"Now, don't be disagreeable," she purred. "You're a man, aren't you? Come on, let's take it easy. I'll make sure you have a good time, so come on over to my place, sweetie."
"N―No thanks, it's really..."
Her white arms came clinging onto him again. Shion was frozen rigid even more than when the gun had been pointed at him. He couldn't move.
"Would you mind?" a voice spoke. "That one belongs to me."
Nezumi was standing at the entrance of the alleyway. The woman furrowed her brow.
"He's mine. Could I get him back?" Nezumi extended his hand as if to beckon Shion over. The woman drew her chin up and smiled thinly in realization.
"I see. No wonder I was getting such a slow reaction. Sweetie here isn't interested in women."
"What? Actually that's not true, I'm―"
Nezumi pressed a hand over Shion's mouth and smiled at the woman.
"That's right. He's so head-over-heels for me, even the most beautiful girl couldn't attract his attention right now."
The woman hunched her shoulders as if to say 'oh well'. She glanced at Shion. "Money," she said.
"I don't care which way sweetie swings, but I still need payment for that kiss. One silver coin."
Nezumi laughed softly.
"One whole silver for that kiss? That's pretty expensive."
"That's how much it's worth. If sweetie can't pay for it, you better pay up for him. You're his lover, aren't you? Footing the bill once isn't gonna do any harm."
"I guess you're right. Yeah, sure. Could I get change, then?"
Nezumi leaned in toward the woman. He grabbed her arm as she tried to back away, and drew her close.
The woman's lips, parted in mid-sentence, were met by Nezumi's. It happened right before Shion's eyes. The woman resisted for a moment, then was still. Only her bare and exposed throat contracted slightly as she swallowed. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. A sewer rat scurried its way past Shion's feet and disappeared. Nezumi drew away from the woman.
"How was it?" he asked.
"Not bad," the woman replied. "But not enough to give you change."
"That's unfortunate," Nezumi said ruefully. "Then this here, for m'lady." Nezumi placed an orange in the woman's hand, and turned his back to her. He pulled Shion by the arm. "Right, let's get going."
The woman called after them with her arms crossed.
"Sweet-cheeks, don't let yourself get too involved with that man. It's a waste, you know. Make sure you get a taste of what it's like to have fun with a girl."
They weaved back into the crowd. The bustle and mixture of smells that had agitated Shion only moments before were now a source of relief.
"Why?" he muttered to himself. Nezumi drew up by his side.
"Why am I 'sweet-cheeks' when you're 'that man'?"
"Must be because I have more life experience."
"And she said I was slow," Shion grumbled.
"You are slow. And dense. Especially concerning women. I hope I didn't ruin your first experience by walking in on you," Nezumi snickered.
"How long were you watching for?"
"Probably sometime around when you started attacking the fat guy."
Shion stopped in his tracks. He was bumped into from behind, and yelled at angrily.
"Why didn't you come help me?"
"I did. You were this close to being eaten alive by a witch. Gobble-gobble, head-first, too."
"But before that, I was being held at gunpoint―"
"That's your fucking mess," Nezumi said scathingly. His grey eyes glittered harshly like the blade of a sharp knife. Nezumi's smile always seemed to fade instantaneously.
"Let me tell you something, Shion. If you're going to keep being naive and think that someone will always jump in to help you, you'll never survive here. Depending on other people isn't gonna keep you alive. You make sure you get that straight."
Nezumi turned his face away and started walking faster. Shion could feel the heat rising in his cheeks. Nezumi was right, he was being naive. He had thought it was only natural that Nezumi would come to help him. Shion had been leaning on him all this time, an insolent burden that was dragging him down. Here he was, hoping to be treated equally, yet at the same time expecting to be defended as if it was something he was entitled to. Shion was overcome with shame.
He trailed close behind Nezumi, who had his superfibre cloth wrapped around his shoulders like a cape.
"But you did manage to defend yourself back there," Nezumi said, slowing his gait slightly.
"With the fat guy. You waited for the right chance to get away."
"Oh, that," Shion said. "No, I was just desperate that time. He looked like he was seriously about to shoot."
"He probably was. If you were unlucky, you probably would've had half your head blown off, and you'd be lying there on the street."
"I don't even want to imagine. It's giving me the chills."
He really was shaking. There was mud smeared over the knees of his pants, and the hem of his sweater. He tried to brush it off, and tripped over something.
He fell forward, but managed to regain his balance in time to turn around. There were a pair of legs. Their feet were bare. The upper half of the body was lying face down, swallowed up by the darkness of the alleyway. Is he sleeping? Here?
"Um― hello? Can you hear me?" Shion called over to him. He was yanked from behind.
"Will you stop doing that?" Nezumi said in annoyance. "If we don't hurry up, it'll get dark in no time. Geez, do you have a thing for making detours?" Nezumi clicked his tongue.
"But this man― he's going to catch a cold if he sleeps out here like this."
"He isn't gonna get any colder than that. He's dead."
A woman called over to them nearby from her clothing shop.
"Oy, are ya two acquaintances with this here? If you are, mind cleanin' it up? It's blockin' the way, makin' a mighty nuisance outta itself."
Nezumi shook his head slightly.
"Of course not. I've never even seen this old man before."
"It's a woman, an old beggar lady. Out of all places, she bloody had to snuff it right in front of my store, the git."
"My deepest sympathies," Nezumi said solemnly. "Make sure you get her cleaned up."
"That's enough o' yer cheeky attitude, little bugger!" The woman bleated, swinging around a red piece of cloth. Her arm was as thick as Shion's thigh. I'd go flying if I got punched by that, Shion thought to himself.
He was yanked along by Nezumi. The sight of those legs, like withered twigs, overlapped with another pair of legs, wrapped in a fine pair of trousers and wearing leather shoes. They were the legs that protruded from behind the bench, in a secluded corner of the Forest Park inside No. 6. It was the first dead body that Shion had born witness to, and the first victim that it had claimed.
"He wasn't killed by it," Nezumi smiled wanly, as if to read Shion's thoughts. "That old man― or woman, was it? She wasn't eaten by any parasite wasp. It was either hunger, or the cold ― maybe a combination of both ― that carted her off to heaven. There's a whole season for that, and it's coming soon."
"Season for what?"
"Where people freeze to death. Old people, children, the infirm... the weak ones die out first. It's the season of Natural Selection."
"Natural selection..." Shion murmured the words. They were cold, like a frozen confection. But they were neither sweet nor delicious like one. They were just cold. The tip of his tongue felt numb.
"Shion, you said there would be lots of casualties in the Holy City when the parasite wasps become active again in the spring, right?"
"Well, here, people die every day, especially in the winter. Which one do you think is easier to go through, being devoured by a wasp, or starving and freezing to death?"
Shion had put a hand to his neck without thinking. There was a scar at the base of it, where the incision had been made. Underneath was the thing. It had failed in hatching, and was half-melted when it was found, but it had been struggling to eat its way out from this spot. The vicious pain, the suffering and despair from that time was still fresh in his mind. He never wanted to go through the same thing again. But he had no way of comparing this with the elderly woman's death. He had no idea what it was like to starve or freeze.
"Nezumi, what's going to happen to her?"
"That― body. It's not just gonna get left there, is it?"
"Of course not. It might get cold out here, but bodies will still rot if they're left out like that. Then wild dogs and crows will come to pick at them until it's impossible to do anything, so they usually get cleaned up before then."
"So there must be a communal cemetery, or something?"
"Cemetery? There's no land here that we can put aside for dead people. The Disposers come. See, over there. The guys that are sitting there eating meat. See them?"
In the direction where Nezumi pointed, there was a ripped tent under which there were several burly men sitting, talking loudly and devouring meat glistening with fat. A scraggly, pitifully thin dog was lapping desperately at the juices that dripped from them onto the ground.
There was a strange vehicle parked beside the tent. It was a bicycle, strapped to a flat cargo bed on wheels. Sitting on top of it was a large basket.
"They're the Disposers. In exchange for money, they get rid of dead bodies. It's people like that old hag back there that eventually cough up the money to get it done. They don't want a body lying around their store, but they're too disgusted to pick it up and toss it onto someone else's property, or they feel guilty about doing it. So they dismiss it as their unlucky day, and call up the Disposers to get rid of it. I hear it's a pretty lucrative business. I guess it would be, since there are people that die all the time on the road who have no friends or relatives."
"Do they bury the bodies properly?"
"They burn them. They gather them all in one place, and set them on fire. I guess you can call it some sort of cremation, if you want. They don't get anything fancy like a requiem or prayer of repose, though, that's for sure."
Shion's eyes met with a man who was in the midst of ripping a chunk of meat off the bone with his teeth. He grinned widely, and grease dripped from his sparse whiskers. Then he stood up, and started making his way toward them. He tossed the bone carelessly on the ground, and the scraggly dog pounced on it.
"Hey fellas, how'd you like to join us?"
His arm reached out, and before Shion could dodge it, he was grabbed roughly by his hair.
"So it's real, huh. I thought it was a wig. Pretty interesting hair you got."
"Stop it," Shion yelled. "Let me go."
"Hmm, not bad. I never seen this kinda hair myself. Kinda pretty, actually. You almost look like a doll of some sort, little fella."
Vulgar laughter erupted from his group of companions sitting behind him. Shion turned to look beside him. There was no sign of Nezumi, who had been there moments before.
"Let go," he repeated loudly.
"No need to make a ruckus, now. Why don'tcha join us for some drinks? We got meat too."
"I said let go," Shion said through clenched teeth.
The bulky man showed no signs of loosening his grip. Shion could feel the man's breath on his cheek, putrid with the smell of alcohol and meat. He turned his face away.
Nezumi. He bit his lip hard, and resisted the urge to call out his name. He had to try to defend himself first, or no one would come to help him. Shion let his body relax.
"I give in. I'll join you just for one drink."
"That so? There's a good fella. This way."
The man's arm relaxed just slightly. Shion lifted his leg, aimed at the man's groin, and kicked as hard as he could.
Ngh. The man let out a muffled groan, and doubled over as he collapsed to the ground. Shion leapt over his curled back and broke into a sprint.
Running away is all I've been doing today. The fleeting remark crossed his mind, but soon disappeared. He tore through the street as fast as his legs would carry him. There were less people milling about, which made it easier for him to thread his way through. No more alleyways for me, he thought, and concentrated on keeping straight to the road. If he stopped, he felt like he would be grabbed by the collar from behind.
His foot slipped, and his body floated up momentarily. Then he was slammed to the ground. The pain jolted through his body from head to toe.
"Whoa―" Now he was sliding downwards. He was on a slope of grey concrete, though now it felt like more of a steep slide. He hurtled downwards. Shion closed his eyes, and brought his arms over his head to protect it. The action made him lose his balance, and he tumbled forward in a somersault.
His vision went dark. Just as he was about to scream, the smell of moist dirt reached his nostrils. He was thrown out onto the ground. Clods of dirt flew into his mouth. Shion lay coughing for several moments, and then stretched out on his back. His heart was thudding frantically, and it was hard to breathe. Dull and sharp pains alternately throbbed all over his body.
The taste and sensation of dirt still remained in his mouth. He had never imagined that dirt could taste this sweet and fragrant.
He could see the stars: they were winking in the settling dusk. The sky was neither black nor blue, but closer to indigo, with a wash of purple― it was stunningly beautiful. He felt his soul getting sucked into its beauty. He had never thrown himself out on the ground like this to stare up at the sky. Had something as beautiful as this always existed above him?
He heard quiet footsteps padding toward him. A wistful whimper. A warm tongue slowly licked his forehead and his hair.
It was the dog, the skeletal dog that had been hanging about the group of men. It lapped at his head persistently.
"Are you worrying about me?" As soon as the words were out of his mouth, Shion noticed something else. When he had been grabbed by the man, his hair had been smeared with grease and meat juices. The dog was licking that spot with enormous concentration.
"Okay, that's enough, that's enough," Shion said. "I don't want your slobber all over my hair instead." Shion propped himself up off the ground, and stood up carefully. He didn't feel any severe jabs of pain. It looked like he had managed not to sprain anything or break any bones. He let his gaze take in everything around him. He inhaled sharply.
He was in the midst of a ruin.
Read Chapter 3.