His fingers touched something hard. The moment he noticed it, he felt himself being pulled up. When he fell face-forward, out of breath, he felt the same sensation of something hard on his cheek. It was also cold to the touch.
Is it... rock?
The lighthearted chirruping of little mice. He felt the small animals scurrying over his back. Cravat and the rest would often scurry across his back like this, in their bold demands for food or play.
Shion got up carefully. He cautiously tugged the rope bound around his waist. The other end was secured tightly to a protruding rock. It was a strange one; there was a round hole bored into the tip. The mouse had slipped through this hole several times to bind the rope tightly. Maybe it had been trained to do this. If it was, then was this rock also a man-made object, placed like a moor for a ship? He untied the rope, and coiled it around his arm.
He tried to hand the coil to Nezumi, but Nezumi didn't look up from where he was squatting on the floor. His breathing was laboured, despite how athletic he was. It was no surprise. He had looked out for Shion, given him instructions, and supported him throughout their climb here. It had probably taken many times the energy it would have cost him if he had climbed up by himself. Shion's heart ached.
"Nezumi―I'm sorry. I―"
"Don't apologize." His voice, a little hoarser than usual, cut Shion off. "You apologize for everything. I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. What's apologizing gonna do to solve the problem? All it does is cut your delicate and injured conscience some slack."
"Don't use words to excuse your guilt. Treat them with more respect."
"Okay." He was right. No matter how many tens of thousands of apologies he lined up, he wouldn't be able to solve a single thing. From now on, he would swallow the words that threatened to spill all too easily from his lips. Before speaking words of apology, he would silently bear the weight of his guilt.
He watched Nezumi's profile, whose lips were parted in laboured pants, making his shoulders rise and fall.
Some day, I'll return the favour. You said you needed me. I'll live up to it. I'll put my life on the line to protect you.
"Shut up. I told you to stop apologizing."
"No, I meant to say... I can see your face."
"Idiot. Took you long enough to notice, didn't it? From here on, we'll have a light. It's a small one, but still a light. A splendid gift, don't you think?"
Shion looked around him. The place they were in was slightly more spacious than a bed. The ground and walls were cobbled with stones of all sizes, and a number of them glowed with a white light.
"These are... LEDs..."
"Yeah. Light-emitting diodes. I'm guessing familiar lighting for a No. 6 resident? It probably glows with a bit more flourish in No. 6, though."
"What are LEDs doing here―?" Shion said perplexedly. "The passage down there only had incandescent bulbs. Nezumi, this is inside the Correctional Facility, isn't it?"
"We haven't gotten inside yet, unfortunately."
"But―the wall we just climbed up was a natural one. It wasn't man-made."
"Oh, so you noticed?" Nezumi said with an impressed air.
"Even I could pick that up," Shion replied indignantly. "If it was man-made, I wouldn't have been able to climb it, even with your help. Either that, or it would have been much easier. But that wall was neither. It had handholds and footholds, but only just enough for me to manage the climb―not by myself, though."
"Are you still insulted that you couldn't climb up by yourself? Pretty sensitive, aren't you? Take injury to your pride easily?"
"My pride practically aches right now," Shion said. "Nezumi, what is this about? What is a natural cave doing directly connected to the basement of the Correctional Facility, an execution grounds?"
Nezumi stood up. A mouse had appeared on his shoulder without him noticing. It was grey and small. Its tail was a little longer than Cravat's.
"This place is a naturally-occurring series of caves, huge and complex. No. 6 decided to use part of it as its execution grounds. That's all there is to it."
"But these rocks aren't natural. This place is man-made too, isn't it? But it's completely different from the Correctional Facility. Which means it was made by the hands of someone else―"
Nezumi's hand reached toward him. Before he could utter anything, it clamped over his nose.
"You talk too much. Shut up and follow me."
"Okay. Right behind you."
"Shion, is your curiosity stirred just as easily as your pride? Your eyes are positively glowing."
Stir it certainly did. Curiosity thudded with a steady heartbeat inside Shion. What was there? Hell wasn't the only thing beyond this place. There was something else, a world different from the hideous inferno.
What is it?
Nezumi slowly walked down a steeply slanted slope. His back floated dimly in the darkness.
A passage had been carved out of the boulders. The ceiling was low, and it was impossible to get through unless you crouched. Nezumi stopped once in a while to catch a deep breath, his shoulders sagging. He looked like he was having considerable difficulty.
Just as Shion opened his mouth to ask if he was alright, Nezumi swayed, and leaned heavily against the wall.
He wondered if it was the same spell as last time. Nezumi would collapse suddenly, and lose consciousness. Shion thrust his hands out, expecting Nezumi to be overcome by the same fit. But Nezumi didn't collapse. Still leaning against the wall, he only murmured:
"It's come again."
"Can you walk?"
"Of course. I've got legs. And much better ones than yours at that."
Rejecting Shion's hand, Nezumi resumed his walk. Shion gave his hand, which had been dangling without anyone to accept it, a little shake, and moved forward as well.
He widened his eyes. They were, indeed, in the heart of a cavern. Rugged boulders protruded in some places, but it was considerably spacious. It was too dark to see into the corners. But it wasn't an inky darkness. Although dim, there were lights. But they did not come from light-emitting diodes.
"Candles?" There were a number of them lit in the crevices of the boulders. Shion had encountered these lights for the first time in the West Block.
Is this? he had planned to finish, but the words stuck in his throat. Nezumi's profile was rigid. His throat slowly contracted as he swallowed. It was rare to see Nezumi so on-edge.
"Something wrong? What's―"
"Shion, get down!"
Just as Nezumi yelled, Shion felt himself get shoved. He fell backwards on his bottom. A black shadow whizzed past his nose.
He heard a sound like rusty cogwheels turning. It was a voice.
Nezumi swung his hand. A black shadow bounced and splayed at Shion's feet.
"Whoa!" He bent over backwards. It was a grey rat, quite big. It looked like it had come from the sewers.
Screech, screech, screech.
One sewer rat after another attacked him. One leapt onto Shion's shoulder, opened its mouth wide, and attempted to sink its teeth into Shion's throat. He grabbed it and hurled it. The rat smelled dank. A dull pain raced through his arm next. There was a rat latching onto it. Shion's hands moved before he could feel fear.
"Damnit!" He battered his whole arm against the wall.
The rusty, creaking sounds echoed. The rats were crying out in alarm.
Countless red lights were winking at him. From crevices in the boulders all around, red eyes were looking down on Shion. He was being surrounded by several dozens of sewer rats. Their crimson gazes were directed unblinkingly at the two boys, as if they were waiting for the next opportunity to attack.
"Shion, you alright?"
"Just to let you know, imitating a cat isn't gonna scare these guys off."
"I figured as much. The cat would probably get scared off himself."
"That's some coarse welcome for someone they haven't seen in a while."
"Huh? In a while?"
Nezumi brought two fingers to his lips, and whistled. A variant melody, dancing high and low, flowed forth. It was a song Shion had never heard before. It made him think of a fog that drifted among a grove of trees in the dark. A black-and-white movie played in his mind.
A single sewer rat squeaked from somewhere nearby. It slowly approached them. Nezumi gently extended a hand forth, and the rat nuzzled his fingertips. Nezumi's fingers moved gently over its grey fur in a loving caress.
Scritch, scritch, scritch.
One more, then another, came down from the boulders. Nezumi's eyes flitted to Shion for a moment. Shion nodded deeply as a sign of assent. He crouched down, and extended his hand like Nezumi had done.
A slightly smaller rat rubbed against his hand. Shion scratched it between the ears.
Its red eyes narrowed. It was enjoying it.
Hey, he's not much different from Cravat.
The little mice used to love being petted between the ears as well. Every night before he went to sleep, they would always beg for it. Inukashi's dogs were the same. They were always ecstatic when he gave their fur a thorough brush.
"There there. There you go. Hey, wait. You want to be scratched too?" Shion looked down to notice several rats already sitting in his lap. They weren't as cute as the mice, of course. But they did not make him afraid. There was no trace of the aggression that they had showed before. More and more rats climbed into his lap, and it was starting to get heavy.
"Look at you," Nezumi said, cutting his whistling off to shake his head slightly, "you could give the Pied Piper a run for his money." Then he raised his chin, and glared into the air. "Is this the last of your welcoming procession?" It was a voice that rang out clearly. Nezumi's beautiful voice echoed off the ceiling of boulders, and rang out still further. It was like he was on a stage with top-class acoustics.
"Show yourself. Your sewer rats aren't gonna do any good."
A small rock rolled across the ground. The darkness bristled in the crevices. As if to tear through it, a black mass came falling down. It alighted without a sound.
The sewer rats scattered from Shion's lap. In a blink of an eye, they melted out of sight into the darkness.
Is it a human...?
It looked like a human clad in a black cloak. When the cloak flapped to expose what was underneath, Shion stood up and held his breath.
A tall man of sturdy build was standing there. Everything about the man was grey. The long hair that reached down to his waist and the colour of his skin was grey. The colour of his eyes which stared back at him were grey. But they weren't a lustrous dark grey like Nezumi's. They were the colour of sand. Grey was also the colour of the desert. It rejected life, and accepted the lives of others none too easily. It nurtured nothing, and changed its shape with the wind. A vast and fruitless land. Whereas Shion felt a vital energy from Nezumi, this man radiated an air of a barren world.
"What did you return for?" The man spoke, barely moving his lips. Shion felt a shiver run down his back, though he did not know why. He gripped his own arm tightly.
"You came back. That means you must die."
"Let me see Rou." Nezumi took half a step forward. "I have something important to discuss. Let me see him."
The man also took half a step forward. "You must die. Those are the rules."
He was the desert after all. There was no trace of life in him. Shion's chill got worse.
"You must die. Those are the rules." He felt an icy blast of wind coming from the man. Was it a hallucination?
Nezumi exhaled slowly. The darkness shifted above his head.
Shion couldn't catch the moment when the man moved, partly because it was dark. If they were immersed in inky darkness, the man's grey body may have been visible even just a little. But this dusky darkness, with only a candle as its source of light, allowed the man to blend easily into the background, and he was almost impossible to see with Shion's level of eyesight. But the man's movements would probably be difficult to follow even under the blazing sun of noon. He was that swift. His grey body glided and lunged at Nezumi. Nezumi rolled to the side barely a moment earlier. The man's leg followed him, swinging upwards in a kick, and Nezumi swatted it aside with his hand. The man only lost his balance slightly before regaining his posture and lunging at him soundlessly again.
A sewer rat clambered onto Shion's shoulder.
Screech. Screech. Screech.
It raised its voice shrilly, and rubbed its paws together. Whether it was merely spectating the fight between the two humans or cheering for one of them, Shion didn't know; but its voice was strangely excited.
"Can you see what's going on?"
"You can see, huh. Nezumi―is Nezumi okay?" Shion squinted desperately into the dim gloom. He could only squint. He could only watch.
It was always like this. It had always been like this. But―but I can't just let it end at that now. I have to do something―anything.
The man had said Nezumi had to die. It wasn't mere intimidation. Although the man's voice had been emotionless and flat, it had been full of murderous intent. He was really intending to kill Nezumi.
The sewer rat leaned forward and squeaked in an even higher voice. Simultaneously, he heard the dull sound of flesh hitting flesh. Nezumi sprawled at Shion's feet.
"Idiot! Don't come closer!" Nezumi curled up and coughed. He hauled himself up unsteadily.
"What's wrong?" The man asked from beyond the darkness, in the same flat voice. "Softened up a lot, haven't you, during all the time you've spent above ground?"
"Well, you might say I've―enjoyed my vacation a little―too much." He could hear Nezumi gasping for air. Shion stepped forward.
"Fool. It's no wonder you can't fight me; you can barely even stand."
"Of course!" Shion was shouting. He wasn't able to make out the man clearly. But he could still hurl words at him. "How much strength do you think Nezumi had to use to even get here? Try doing the same, whoever the hell you are, before acting high and mighty. Try climbing that wall―with a burden like me in tow."
He was met with silence. The sewer rat on Shion's shoulder flicked its long tail lazily.
"What is he?"
"Just a burden," answered Nezumi.
"Why did you bring him here?"
"I want to introduce him to Rou."
"And then, what?"
"I want Rou to hear the story out."
"No one here will lend an ear to a fool like you, who's come crawling back and doesn't even know to hide his shame."
"You don't know until you try." Nezumi drew up softly beside Shion. It looked like Nezumi could see properly. For him, this dim light was enough.
"Shion, listen," Nezumi whispered at his ear. "The gap in the boulders right behind us. Narrow passage there. Jump into it. And run."
"Never mind me. Go!" Shion was shoved on his chest. He ran.
"Not so fast." The man's murderous intent bore down upon him like a shockwave. Nezumi spoke a short command.
'Go'... or was it 'run'?
Shion stopped and turned around. Two shadows were wrestling with each other. He could see a blurry image through the darkness. He could definitely see.
The man was straddling Nezumi, and had both hands around his throat. Nezumi was writhing to get free. Shion breathed fast and shallow.
Nezumi is struggling?
He had never seen Nezumi this trapped, struggling this hard.
You must die.
That was what the man had said. He had definitely said it.
Shion lifted his wrist. The rope of special fibre was wound around it. He wasn't thinking. His body had been cut away from his soul, his brain, and was moving on its own. No―maybe it was his soul commanding him.
The sewer rat leapt off Shion's shoulder. It darted into the gap between the boulders that Nezumi had told him to jump into. Shion didn't follow it. He was going to turn his back on Nezumi's words.
The sewer rats screeched in every direction from their rocky perches. Their voices were wrung in apprehension and fear. The man's movements froze. His gaze scoured the area. His chin jerked upwards just slightly.
Shion leapt onto the man's back. He hooked the rope under the man's chin, crossed it, and leaned backwards with all his weight.
The man writhed. Shion dug a foot into his shoulder, and tightened the noose as far as it would go. Back when he had tried to strangle the wretched man in the room adjacent to the execution grounds, he had only had a vague notion of what he was doing, and his thought processes had been mostly numbed. But it was different now. He was completely alert. His conscious was crisp and clear. His intentions and thoughts were his own.
I'll kill him.
If you try to kill Nezumi, then you must be destroyed. You are destined to be destroyed.
He pulled tighter.
The man's body bent back like a bow.
"Shion!" A yell resounded. It was a scream. A strangled voice called his name.
"Shion! Stop―stop, please―" Nezumi pounced on him from behind. "Stop, I'm begging you. Shion."
A pair of hands cupped his face firmly.
"Can you hear my voice?"
"Let go. Hurry. Loosen your grip."
He did what he was told. The man rolled over, and tried unsuccessfully to get up. He remained on his knees, coughing heavily. The air whistled through his half-collapsed throat like a wind that whistled through a wasteland.
"Shion―I told you before. You're not made out to be an executioner." Nezumi picked up the rope, and gripped it in his hand. His lip was cut and painted with his blood. The pair of red lips moved. "―or are you saying this is salvation?"
"Then what? If you were trying to save me, it was none of your business. Shion, don't ever pull a ridiculous stunt like this again. This isn't something for you to do."
"This is punishment."
"Punishment―what do you mean?"
"That man tried to kill you. So he paid the penalty."
"I'll do the same thing again. If that man tries to kill you, I'll do the exact same thing."
The man sat squatting on the ground, still wheezing, clutching his throat.
This time, Nezumi didn't answer. He looked down at Shion silently. His fingers which held the rope were trembling.
"He choked me," the man said in disbelief. "And I didn't―I, out of all people―I didn't notice his presence."
"Yeah―you sure didn't."
"I was choked from behind, and I couldn't escape."
"Yeah. You were flailing about like a rabbit in a trap."
"The rats were afraid of his presence."
The man shuddered. "Who... is he?"
"He's a resident of No. 6."
"No. 6? ―What is a resident of No. 6 doing here?"
Nezumi exhaled shortly. "Let me speak to Rou. I'll tell him everything."
Shion sat listening to Nezumi and the man converse. His palms finally began to throb in pain, from where the rope had dug in.
"Let us hear your story."
A voice rained down from above their heads.
Shion raised his face and looked around. There was a dark painted space in the darkness where even the light of the candles didn't reach. The voice was coming down from there. Just a sentence―
Let us hear your story.
With those words, it disappeared. There was no human presence there.
"Much obliged," Nezumi sighed. The man stood up. He staggered and disappeared between the boulders.
"Let's go then, Shion."
"Oh― right." He stepped out into the darkness.
"It's probably useless to say this, but―"
"I want you to stay as you are, Shion."
"Huh? What do you mean?"
"The Shion I know would never commit a sin. Never." Fight it, Nezumi murmured. "I want you to fight with yourself."
It was a plea. His tone was strained and imploring. Wasn't this the tone of voice that Nezumi himself despised the most?
Shion closed his eyes.
Behind his eyelids, there was a darkness even deeper than the one that spread before his eyes.
Read Volume 6 Chapter 1.