Shion felt a gaze on him. His eyes met with Nezumi's. He felt like he was being wrapped in an elegant grey cloth. The core of his body pulsated. All the thoughts that had been swirling around in his head came to a full stop.
It was strange. Just the kind of light in Nezumi's eyes was enough to make him feel like he was being pushed away or being embraced.
But now was not the time to be giving himself up to selfish and indulgent emotions. People were easily swayed once they ceased to think. They were too easily led along by the flow of other people's words and the mindset of the times.
Nezumi would never embrace and protect anyone who avoided thinking, who let himself simply be pushed along with the flow.
And besides, Shion thought as he lifted his chin. I don't want to be protected by him. I haven't abandoned my thoughts. I'll keep decoding the world around me and its workings in my own way. I will confront the world in its true form, and look reality in the eye. That's probably something you would call a battle, Nezumi.
Shion dropped his gaze from Nezumi, and meditated. He set his thoughts in motion again.
From the beginning?
Yes, from the beginning. Perhaps No. 6 had been removed from ideologies of peace and co-existence from the very moment of its birth.
On this land, there had once been a people that had lived here long before. No. 6 had invaded them. They had tried to dominate them in the same way a starving beast devoured its prey and gnawed on its bones. By doing so, it had expanded its boundaries, and established its foundations as a city-state. Peace? Co-existence? It had laughed contemptuously in face of these words, and with brute force, made the surrounding areas its own.
Just as it had destroyed the West Block. Just as it had massacred its people. Using overwhelming military force.
But still... what about the other thing? LEDs―light-emitting diodes. LEDs lit up when electric current was applied to the joint between two special semiconductors. They were man-made lights that didn't exist in the natural world. Scientifically manufactured lights. Were they not things that No. 6 had created? Or―or, rather, had some scientific civilization existed which was at par with, or even more advanced than No. 6? But if that was so, the civilization would probably not have been invaded so easily. He did know that science was neither all-solving nor almighty, however....
He didn't know. It was like walking in a fog. No matter how much he pondered and contemplated, no matter how far he stepped in, he never reached the truth. The more he thought, the further he ventured, the more lost he felt. He couldn't get out of the labyrinth. His thoughts wandered aimlessly.
He was frustrated.
The rat jumped down from Shion's shoulder. The little mice also hid themselves in the boulder cracks.
As Shion's gaze started to follow the little mice, he was suddenly attacked from behind. A shadow twisted his arm up behind him. His mouth was gagged. In the blink of an eye, he was bound up with rope. He was shoved from behind. He fell with his hands still tied behind his back. He rammed his shoulder on the ground.
"What was that for?" he shouted.
"Shion, keep quiet." Nezumi, also kneeling in ropes, shook his head at him. "Don't resist. Stay quiet."
"But why―ow! The rope really hurts!"
"Let your body relax. Breathe out and loosen up. It'll feel a bit better."
He did as he was told. Nezumi was right―he felt a bit better. Pretty amazing, though. Capturing and binding us in a matter of seconds―oh, but still―
"Not as good as you."
"You'd have a better handle on it. Whether it be a rope, or a knife."
"Why, thanks for the compliment. I'm undeserving of the privilege, really, to be complimented by you."
"I'm always in awe at your―gh." The rope dug into his neck. His breath caught in his throat.
"Do not speak." A flat voice hissed at his ear.
Was it that man? The man with sandy-grey hair, skin, and eyes?
"Any more idle chatter, and I will wring your neck."
The rope tightened. He really felt like his neck was being wrung. His airway caved in from the pressure. He felt like he was suddenly swelling from the neck up. He couldn't breathe. It was painful.
"Knock it off," Nezumi said quietly. "Revenge for what happened back there? Taking your frustrations out on an unresisting human? I see you've picked up some low habits while we haven't seen each other, Sasori."
The rope loosened. For an instant, Shion didn't know what was happening. He threw himself out on the ground, and dissolved into a fit of coughing. He heard the sound of flesh hitting the ground as if it were crawling across it. He raised himself.
Nezumi was crumpled beside him. The man's foot landed on his shoulder. He was wearing sandals that were woven out of what looked like thin strips of bark.
"You too, Nezumi." The man's voice grew leaden. "Enough of your insolent complaints. Do you not understand your place? Then it is only a matter of making you understand."
The man's foot moved to kick Nezumi's shoulder.
"You are the ones who have trespassed from outside. You have no right to protest if you get killed."
"Stop!" Shion twisted and yelled. Nezumi lifted his face, and shook his head as if to tell him to shut his mouth. But he could not.
"You coward! You're just as Nezumi says. Tying us up and making it so that we can't fight back, and then beating us―it's low, it's filthy!"
"Shion." Nezumi grimaced. Several streams of blood ran from his temple down his cheek. Shion clenched his stomach, and stared up at the man.
"What is this place? No. 6?"
"No. 6, you say?" The man's whole body quivered. His sand-coloured eyes glinted sharply. The light seemed almost murderous. But Shion was not about to be silenced. He was also trembling, but not with fear. It was with wrath. Wrath boiled within him.
"It's true. You're just the same. What you're doing is no different from No. 6. You oppress the weak by force. You inflict pitiless violence. How are you guys any different?"
"I'm not really weak, just saying," Nezumi shrugged with his hands still tied behind his back. "Shion, I get what you're trying to say. Just leave it at that. Say any more, and you'll be kicked to death. Kicking is this old man's specialty."
"I will kill you," the man growled. "You are a demon. A wicked bringer of misfortune. If I do not dispose of you now, you will only bring catastrophe upon us."
"A sharp eye, Sasori," Nezumi sighed exaggeratedly. "You're spot on. A catastrophe, indeed. Of the highest class."
"Nezumi, what do you mean 'catastrophe'? ...You mean I am?"
"You are," Nezumi chuckled lightheartedly.
"He is evil," the man continued. "He wears a demonic aura like a cloak, and carries misfortune wherever he goes. I can tell. Nezumi, you said he was a resident of No. 6."
"Former resident, to correct you. He was inside the city up until just recently."
"That must be why he is so evil. He is... like No. 6 itself."
Nezumi narrowed his eyes. The tip of his tongue licked the blood on his lips.
"No. 6 itself, huh.... I see. That's how he appears to you."
"I know," the man answered. "I can tell. I must kill him. I must dispose of him before it is too late. If not..." The man took a step forward. Shion shrank back without thinking. The man was radiating such a murderous intent that he could not help but recoil.
This man is serious about killing me.
The man took another step forward, but suddenly spun in a somersault and crashed to the ground. Nezumi had tripped him.
Nezumi was up in a flash. The ropes slid to the ground. It was like a magic trick. In his hand was a small knife.
The man tried to get up, but was stopped by Nezumi's knee digging into his stomach. The man let out a muffled groan. He bent backwards from the pain, leaving his throat defenseless; a blade was soon pushed up on it.
"We worked hard to get here. I won't have you disposing of him that quickly."
"Why... did you bring... such catastrophe?" choked the man. "Do you plan to destroy us all?"
"The opposite." Nezumi's lips curled. "I want to send No. 6 to its grave. That's why I brought him."
"No. 6? Does that boy have the power to?"
"Who knows. We don't know until we try. I can't let you kill him before we even test it out. That jealousy of yours, by the way: a little embarrassing, don't you think?"
"Yeah. You're jealous of Shion. He's got your rats in the palm of his hand like it's nothing. You're jealous. Am I right?"
There was a heavy grinding sound. The man was gnashing his teeth.
"Nezumi... just as unpleasant as you used to be. It irritates me. I will strangle you to death first."
"What a splendid promise. I can't wait. But before that―" The wan smile disappeared from Nezumi's mouth. A drop of blood that had slid down his chin dripped on the man's chest, and coloured it red. "Let's have you swear, Sasori. Swear that you'll never lay a finger on Shion again."
The blade of the knife jerked. The man's throat contracted as well.
The man fell stubbornly silent.
"That is enough." A gentle voice rang out. It even held a hint of a laugh. "You have not changed, Nezumi. Neither your skill with the knife nor your sarcastic way with words has deteriorated. I daresay it seems to have become even more polished."
The elder on the palanquin was smiling with the same benign air as his voice. The palanquin was lowered steadily.
"You have grown. I can barely recognize you. I would never have thought I could encounter you as a grown man."
Nezumi released the man and knelt down. The knife spun once in his hand before disappearing. This too, was like witnessing a magic trick. The man muttered something, and gnashed his teeth some more. Rats raced over Shion's lap.
"I believed that you had left long ago for a land far away. Did I not command you to do so? To leave this place behind, forget everything, throw everything away, and to live freely?"
"Rou, please listen to me."
"You should never have returned. Regardless of what happened, you should never have come back."
"I can't be free." Nezumi clenched his fingers hard. "As long as No. 6 exists, I can't be free. I can't forget it, nor can I throw it away."
"You should know. No. 6 still exists. It's still here. How can I be the only free one? It's impossible."
"I have told you not to become trapped. I have told you to live unfettered. If you did not, you would not be able to survive; I understood this well. That was why I released you into the outer world. But to think that you would come back..."
"I've realized your words were nothing but white lies."
The air wavered in agitation. Voices which were barely voices traversed between the people nestled in the rocky walls, looking down at them.
"Your words were white lies. False. There was no way I could live without being trapped. On the contrary, I had to be trapped. Even if I deceived myself, pretending I was free, I would still be in chains anyway. From now on, I'll acquire real freedom with my own hands. I'll set myself free. That's why I came back."
"Is this freedom you speak of fighting with No. 6?"
"It means fighting and winning. Erasing it clean from this land. The day I see the Holy City arrive at its end is when I'd be free for the first time. I'd be able to live a truly free life. I would be able to leave this place... of my own will."
"Nezumi!" Shion yelled without thinking. As he yelled, grabbed Nezumi's shoulder. "What do you mean by that? Leave this place? What―"
"Shion." Nezumi's eyes blinked rapidly. "The rope... how did you―?"
"The ropes. How did you get out of them? You don't have a knife on you."
"What? Oh, the rats chewed them apart for me."
"The rats? No way, you must be―"
Shion thrust an end of the rope to Nezumi, and waved it before his eyes.
"Look. They all chewed at it together. It happened in no time. Impressive, isn't it?"
Nezumi's eyes flitted to the jagged end of the chewed rope before furrowing his brow.
"You have that much control over those rats?"
"Me? No, of course not. I couldn't pull tricks like that. The rats did it on their own. They're all very kind and intelligent," Shion said proudly.
"Kind and intelligent, huh. So your rats chew apart the ropes their master has tied. He's right; they are kind and intelligent. You've trained them to be very well-behaved, Sasori."
The man―the sand-coloured man called Sasori―only fidgeted a little, and didn't reply. Instead, the elder let out a short breath.
"Enough sarcasm, Nezumi. It is a bad habit of yours. It seems your tendencies have not changed, despite how much you have grown physically. A problem, indeed."
There was warmth in the elder's tone. He was like a father smiling exasperatedly over his child's antics. His voice radiated with the source of its warmth―love.
This man felt tenderness for Nezumi.
Shion gazed at the elder on his palanquin. This is my first time, he thought. It was his first time meeting someone who expressed a peaceful and warm attitude to Nezumi.
Nezumi had always been alone. He had always lived alone. There was never anyone by his side. He didn't let anyone approach him. Shion yearned for Nezumi in his own way, and he was also entranced by Nezumi's resilience, litheness and beauty. He hoped to remain by Nezumi's side. These feelings certainly existed inside him as unmovable fact; however, it was also fact that he was uncertain of what name to give those feelings.
Admiration, friendship, deference, love.... He was uncertain; he couldn't help it.
But what he felt from the elder on the palanquin was definite affection. It was like a parent bestowing affection upon a child.
To think Nezumi had someone like this.
"Shion," the elder called.
"Wait," Sasori stepped forward and grabbed Shion's arm. "Rou, this boy is dangerous. He is cloaked in evil. You cannot let him near you."
"He is not just a boy. He is a demon. He will destroy everything. I can see it. Why can you not, Rou?"
It was hard not to get angry when this much was being said about him. Shion tried to shake off the hand that held his arm. Sasori's fingers showed no signs of moving, and squeezed even harder, choking its hold.
"I see no problem. Bring Shion here."
"I see no problem. Good and evil, virtue and wickedness, truth and lies―they are all very similar. So similar, in fact, that it is often hard to tell them apart. True, is it not, Nezumi?"
"I see what you're saying."
"It is a boy whom you have brought. Surely he is neither entirely wicked, nor entirely virtuous. Now, Shion: here, if you will."
The fingers drew away from his arm. Sasori retreated a few steps, growling lowly. His sand-coloured limbs blended into the darkness. Shion approached the palanquin slowly. Several rats scurried around his feet.
The elder had clear, dark eyes. They harboured a twinkling light as he gazed unflinchingly at Shion.
Shion felt like this man was younger than he had originally thought. He had assumed―from the man's name as "elder" and the white hair that framed his face―that he was an aged man. But the strength of the light in his eyes was not that of an ageing person.
The elder raised his hand. It was thin and pale.
"Will you let me touch your hair? It is a rather odd colour."
Shion crouched, and bowed his head forward. The elder reached and gently ran a hand through his hair in a circular motion. It tickled a little. Shion felt a little sheepish, like he was being patted on the head.
"Why?" the elder said, with added heaviness to his voice. His voice trailed off hoarsely. Its gentleness was gone; now it sounded tense.
"Why has your hair―"
"It's not only his hair." Nezumi strode purposefully forward. "Shion, show him your red snake."
"Huh? No way."
"I'd have to take off my clothes. I don't want to be naked in front of so many people."
"Dumbass," Nezumi clicked his tongue. "What kingdom are you from, Princess? This isn't the time to be a blushing maiden. Quickly! Show him what you've had to endure."
Nezumi's fingers flipped his shirt up. Shion hastily recoiled.
"I get it! I'll do it myself. I don't need help undressing."
"Is that so? I'm impressed. Worthy of praise."
Nezumi's eyes were not as buoyant as his voice. They were tense and sharp. Shion cast his shirt aside, and took another half-step towards the elder.
The elder drew a breath. His trembling fingers traced the crimson band that had scarred his chest.
"These... these scars..."
Nezumi jerked his chin as if to encourage Shion.
Can I tell him?
"These marks, why―" the elder said. "No, it couldn't be..."
"They're from a parasite wasp."
"Parasite wasp," the elder repeated.
"They feed off humans. They ultimately kill their host before hatching. I―was able to survive. The result of it are these scars, and my blanched hair."
The elder's mouth twisted. His eyes, set in his face among countless wrinkles, glittered unnaturally bright. Nezumi grabbed Shion's shoulder roughly.
"Rou, No. 6 will disintegrate. One day, it'll crumble not only from the outside, but from its own powers working inside. These are the first signs."
"A parasite wasp which lodges in humans... I see... they have begun to appear inside the city."
"Yeah. And apparently out of sudden coincidence. They appeared unexpectedly; even the guys holding the reins of No. 6 couldn't predict it. Several citizens have died in strange ways. The authorities haven't been able to prevent it. I don't see them desperately trying to, either. Maybe they don't have a grasp of how serious the situation is yet. They've become complacent."
"They're complacent because they think the world will run according to their plans. They're arrogant enough to believe that they can be a universal and omnipotent ruler... they've been blinded by their own delusions, and can't see the truth of reality. They're losing the eyesight to see through the facade."
Even when it seemed to scrape across the ground, Nezumi's voice nevertheless reached the ears of his listeners crystal clear. In the darkness, only his low, resounding voice filled the air.
"Things are still quiet inside the city. They're still managing to maintain peace and daily routine. But it's like a cup that's been filled to the brim with water, about to spill over any second. It's maintaining its balance, but barely."
"One has only to stimulate it slightly, and everything will spill over... is that what you mean?"
"It would burst. It would destroy the cup and come gushing out."
The elder muttered something softly. Then, he locked his fingers together as if in prayer.
"Let us hear it, then―everything, from the beginning."
A pair of glittering eyes trained steadily on Shion.
Read Chapter 2.