In The Fox-Witch's Wake, Pt3: Sword Raised High, Head Higher

tagnone

3

3

Chapter 9: The Heart, Reawakened

The sounds of running break the silence across Takachiho Juniour High. Panicked steps echo across deserted corridors before abruptly dying into silence.

A calmer set of muted footsteps slowly make their way through the hallways.

"I'll give you an advantage, Honoka-chan: Run all you like, I'll only walk."

The psychopath named Miyata Togai looks at the blade in his hand as if it were a hunting implement, its edge gleaming in the moonlight.

"That reminds me: Do you know why humans are classified as 'endurance predators'?"

Togai stops by a door, its door slightly ajar.

"Because we use only two of four limbs to move, our energy expenditure is halved to that of a quadruped. So all we have to do, is walk…"

His fingers slide slowly into the gap, gently pulling the door open.

"Might you be in here… My sweet Honoka-chan?"

Togai steps delicately into a dressing room; a central bench, lockers lining every wall. He presses the metal lips of the cutter against the lockers, sliding it across smooth grooved metal.

Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-

"You've gotten very good at holding your breath… At making no sound…"

Togai walks a circuit around the bench, staring into the darkness beyond each locker's slats.

"Or perhaps, you moved this door a little from outside without actually entering, to trick me into thinking you are in here…"

The psychopath finishes his circuit, standing back at the entrance of the room. He hmms and sighs, and the door slides shut. Barely illuminated as it was by the distant emergency light of the corridor, the room goes back to being drowned in darkness.

Silence.

A locker rattles into life, its door slowly swinging forwards with faint squeaks. Honoka steps out, gasping for breath. Fingernails press into her unbuttoned bosom, angry red welts raked across her chest.

Honoka gulps and weeps ragged breaths as her fingers resume their ritual of distress, their nails raking across her chest whilst seeking the safety of a charm no longer there. She takes a listless hobble and another towards the doorway, her fatigued mind arguing on the merits of seeking a better hiding place or staying in here until sunrise.

PLAP.

Honoka screams and jumps at the hand shooting out from beneath the bench, having just slapped the hard floor tile.

"Peekaboo."

"Aaaaah!" Honoka trips. BANG goes her head against a locker, collapsing straight after. Dazed in the small and dark room, she flails like an upturned, defenceless beetle as waking nightmares engulf her mind, drowning her in past traumas.

"Aaaah! Ah, ah… Aaaah!"

Thuggish tattooed arms brutishly seize and batter at her limbs and body, accompanied by thuggish laughter, sounds of tearing clothes.

"Noooo! Stop it! Don't touch me! Don't touch me!"

Camera shutters click and whirr away at the cruel spectacle, accompanied by pitiless giggles and whispers of darkly-plotting girls.

"But I haven't touched you at all, Honoka-chan."

"Aaaaaaaaah-?" Honoka fades back to reality, realizing she had been swinging and kicking at the empty air. Panting in tiredness, she sheepishly readjusts her glasses and looks ahead of her.

Togai's dark silhouette is halfway emerged from underneath the bench, reclining whilst observing her spectacle. He waves casually towards her.

"AAAAAH!" Honoka bursts out of the changing room, once more in all her panicked hysteria.

"That's not wise Honoka-chan, you're wasting precious energy by screaming…"

Honoka slams into a set of grilles and desperately pulls against it; the school seals its three floors apart with a single set of grilles in the middle floor.

Locked.

Honoka's breath tightens and she rakes her reddened chest in frenzied panic, on verge of drawing blood.

"Oh. I knew there was something I forgot to do once school closed for the day." Togai calmly approaches the grilles and rubs his chin in wonder, Honoka throwing herself to the side and scrambling away.

"…But I couldn't help it, you know? I was so preoccupied looking into your cute sleeping face… There!" He fishes into a pocket, pulling out a big fat key and slotting it into the keyhole.

Clack-chunk.

Togai grips the bars and throws his arms out, parting both grilles at once. He bows, gesturing towards the exposed staircase.

"After you."

Honoka stares incredulously as Togai coolly turns to walk off into the darkness.

"…What?"

He waves his hand without looking back. "You have full access to all three floors of the school. I've other matters to attend to, feel free to search for a way out in the meanwhile."

"You're… Not catching me?"

Togai pauses with his back towards Honoka, rubbing his chin once more. "I am, but it would not be a fair game to end so soon. I expect to win no matter what you do, but still…"

Honoka shoots up, gesturing frantically all over the place. "Then-Then what is the point of-of-all this?!"

"You are not sufficiently prepared. When the time is right, it will be you who comes to me."

Honoka allows herself to get outraged, the first time in a long while. "You're just screwing with me!"

Togai finally turns to face Honoka, serene features stretching apart into an icy smile that caused Honoka's anger to dissipate like so much smoke.

"Would you like me to catch you now, then?"

Silence. Togai jerks and shoots two hands forth.

"Boo."

Honoka promptly vanished from where she stood, her only remaining traces being a fresh set of stomping footsteps going down the steps.

"Aaah! Aaaaaaaah! AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH-"

Not to mention the screaming, but of course.

"Oh! Look at you go. The marathon team would have loved to have you."

Honoka hits the bottom of the steps, tripping in the darkness. She stumbles and slams against the billboard opposite the steps, slowly sliding to the ground. She catches her breath, panting blearily below coloured streamers and pinned art pieces.

Silence: He wasn't coming after her. Honka takes her glasses off to rub her eyes, trying to gather her thoughts. Escape. She had to escape above all else. But how?

Smashing a window and jumping out could work, but they're in the upper floors, and worse yet if she sprains her ankle or breaks a leg… What's to stop Togai from simply dragging her back in?

"Testing, one two three. Can you hear me, Honoka-chan?"

Honoka shrieks and jumps, running five meters before faltering. Something about his chillingly calm voice sounded grainy - was he using the PA? Almost as if he were reading her mind:

"Yes, that's right. I'm using the school's security broadcasting system, separate from the student-teacher system. Not only can I speak to you, I can see you."

Honoka looks about and sees a faint red light in the ceiling.

"Hello."

Honoka jumps, angrily scowling. She turns on light switches, bathing the corridor in light.

"Not trying to hide anymore are you, Honoka-chan? That's good…"

Honoka gets her bearings, hesitating at the darkness at the end of the lit corridor. Tricks of the vision and imagination played within her eyes.

"…It wouldn't have helped you even if you tried, really. These cameras can see in the dark, all the same."

Honoka trembles, walking down the lit corridors. Bereft of daytime noises, an eerie silence echoed across its hallways.

"All relationships begin with opening up to each other, do they not? There's a particular game that's quite popular as an icebreaker: 'two lies and a truth'. I'd love to give it a try! How about you?"

Go to hell, she wanted to say. For a moment, she began wondering how true those ghost stories of schools are.

"Since you are preoccupied as the rabbit, I'll start first."

Honoka silently chides herself and breaks into a run. Ghosts are nothing compared to the monster watching her every move.

"Statement one: I am an avid collector and enjoyer of old literature and media, back before this world descended into its culture of saccharine vapidity and cookie-cutter sheep-pleasers. I enjoy quoting lines that I feel give meaningful context and impact to the situation, but only when I feel comfortable to do so."

The ceiling-height windows in the toilets are too narrow to squeeze through.

"Statement two: As a little child I pushed my siblings into the swimming pool and held them down until they no longer moved. I then lied through it all just to see how long I could go on for until getting caught: my parents blamed each other to the very end, their divorce lead to my solitary life, and I was never found out."

The cafeteria's kitchen doors which lead outside are locked.

"Statement three: I was forming a genuine relationship with one of your friends, our interactions not masterminded by a contributing Saeko to gradually drive her away from you before targeting the last one. I was totally in love with her, and honest-to-Kamis not bored out of my mind."

Honoka grips her head in alarm. Someone she had forgotten in the panic of the moment came back to her mind's forefront. Mizuka!

"Oh! To tell so many truths at once, coming clean after so many years of living a lie… It feels so… Liberating!"

"You creep!" Honoka shouts at the cafeteria camera, "What have you done to Mizuka?!"

"Don't look so shocked. It's very understandable, given your predicament, that you've focused on rescuing yourself this whole time. You are merely, faithfully, adhering to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs… After all, does the airplane safety instructions not tell you to wear the oxygen mask first before helping a child? Your friend is fine! For now…"

Honoka thrusts a livid finger towards the camera. "You creep! You… Freaky, horrible wolf-in-sheep's-clothing! You should be in-in jail, or an asylum!"

"Oh! Honoka-chan! I know you're a bit upset by all this, but you'll have to save your beautiful voice for when I can hear it."

"And you need to shut up!" 'A bit upset'? I should-!" Honoka pauses. He can't hear her? She sighs loudly and leaves the cafeteria. With face buried in hands she reaches the school entrance, walking past shoe lockers to face the barred school entrance. She slowly grips the iron grilles and pulls.

Not a budge.

"It was certainly worth a try, no?"

Honoka spares her breath and fishes into her skirt pocket, pulling out a small handful of coins. 850 yen. Enough for a 1-minute call to, to anyone, really-

The old pay phones within the main foyer. She pulls out a thick old handset that's doubtlessly heard so many stories across its decades of service.

"Oh, a lifeline! I wonder, who you'd like to call for help."

Honoka angrily points at the camera as she thrusts one coin after another into the slot. "It doesn't matter! I've got more than enough evidence to have you put away for… FOREVER! I, I-?"

No line. The phone was dead, her coins tinkling their way back out in the change slot. The other phone, too, and the other. Honoka blankly stares at the foyer camera, then bursts out in agitation.

"WHAT DID YOU DO?!"

"Don't need to hear you to know what you just said. All landlines disconnected. Praise Saeko."

Honoka drooped. But of course.

But there is one last hope. That which she left in school. If it's still where she placed it…

"What are you doing, Honoka-chan?"

Togai observes a bench between foot lockers shifting, pushed from out of view towards a set of footlockers. He sees his 'darling's leg set foot on it, clearly reaching for something above the lockers. She gets back down and enters the camera's view, a particular object visible in her hands-

Clapping sounds ring out from the speakers. "Oh! Superb! So that's where you hid it all along! I looked in your desk and your shoe locker out of curiosity, but saw nothing."

Honoka gives him a filthy glare through the camera lens as she powers her handphone on. She draws a finger across her neck, clearly indicating one decisive message: "You're finished."

Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep…

"Oh~ So scary. Who are you trying to call, Honoka-chan? I just might have to concede defeat!"

…Beep-beep. Beeep! Beeep! Beeep!-

Honoka holds the phone to her ear for what must have been a minute. She checks her phone and makes a new call.

Beeep! Beeep! Beeep!-

Confidence gives way to confusion with one more call after another, then gives way to panic. Honoka furiously mashes buttons on her phone, checking every menu, call settings, blocked numbers, the reception…

Beeep! Beeep! Beeep!-

"No! Why? Why, why, why? Why is this happening?!" She knows she topped it up not even a week ago, the prepaid plan should have more than enough credit for half an hour of calls! Surely, Saeko couldn't be so influential enough to block even a telecommunications line?

"Have you finally realized it? No one will come for you. The police, your parents, your friends. Not even Oguchi-sensei, who did so much for you back then. You're all alone now."

Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beeep! Beeep! Beeep!-

She continues cycling calls through her contacts list to no avail.

"Still trying, Honoka-chan? Who else is there left for your voice to reach? Those mysterious strangers, perhaps? Those… 'Men in black'?" Togai's dark chuckles echo through the corridors.

Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

"Forget them all. I couldn't care less what they do to the town. Let them have their secrets! All that matters is that they've served their role well in bringing us together… Oh, and you should know this by now: They are the last humans in this town who would come to your aid… The last ones you should ever trust."

Beep-beep. Beep-beep. Beep-beep-*click*-

Honoka's heart jumps a beat. Someone picked up the call! She breathes hoarsely into the phone as she presses the receiver to her ear. Silence, but… Was someone listening?

"H-Hello…?" No response. Honoka listens as hard as she can for a sign of life from the other side; nothing… but then, the sound of a passing car! Someone did pick up the call! Someone is listening in! That can only mean-

"Hello?! Please! Please help! I know you can hear me! I know you've been tracking me through my phone, watching me all the time, driving past my home until Kami-forsaken hours! Please, please help! I'm trapped at Takachiho Juniour High School, please, please help-"

Nobody answered back.

"Please… Please…?"

*Click!* Beeep! Beeep! Beeep!-

Honoka's phone hand drops to the floor as she slides down against the lockers. Her phone falls from the grip, clattering inches away from her slumped palm.

"So you finally realize it now, then? The illusion of safety has finally been shattered. That is good. Now, go to the stadium. I've prepared a gift for you…"

Honoka cradles her head, weeping silently beneath the lockers. At long last she brings herself to wobble up whilst drying her tears, taking one listless step after another.

She reaches the double-doors to the school's indoor stadium, pushing her way through. A single spotlight in the center of the hall glowed dimly, highlighting objects scattered across the floor. Clapping in the distant bleachers indicated Togai's personal attendance.

"Move closer, Honoka-chan. Come see what I've made for you."

Dispelling flashbacks of being violated in the dark, Honoka reaffirms the emptiness of the room before stepping in. As she approaches the center, Togai adjusts the light knob. Adjusting to the sudden burst in light she finally makes out the details of the objects:

The Kendo club's wooden practice swords, all arranged to form the character of death: 死. In the center of it, a single raised bokken impaled through a doll bearing Honoka's likeliness.

Red stains dye Honoka's nails as she draws blood from her chest, pupils shrinking and stomach tightening-

"Hnn… Hmp! Hmmpplleerrrggggll!"

"Shi! A much maligned word! It does not merely represent mortal finality. What of the end of a concept, a persona, such that something new and better may take its place? Renewal, regeneration… You died once, long ago. Tonight, you as this doll shall die a second time. Be reborn anew."

Honoka wipes her mouth, wailing before all this twisted spectacle. "Why?! Why you doing this to me?!"

Togai spoke in an almost gentle, caring manner. "When I said I wanted to help you, Honoka-chan… I truly meant it. Have I not given you the means to your escape?"

"W… What?" She looked to the central sword, the raised bokken. Made of a single piece of wood, carved to bear a handle and a dull edge. Other than that and the doll, it did not have a key.

"You want me to take the sword?"

"Yes! Seize back your agency! Would you strike me down, and become more powerful than you can possibly imagine?"

Honoka rubs her temple in distress, jarring her glasses loose. "You-you planned all this, just for me to beat you up?! You're insane! Is this your idea of perverted fun? No! I'm not going to entertain your twisted urges!"

"You misunderstand."

Honoka freezes at Togai's sudden drop in tone. He is pressing the base of his palm into his own temple, grimacing as if the dissonant thoughts within his skull are actively causing him pain.

"Look at you, it's so, so… Frustrating! You have not realized what you have become!"

"What are you talking about?"

Togai jabs away into his head. "Introspection, Honoka-chan. Do you realize the common theme of all your actions?"

The boy lowers his hand and resets his posture. He resumes his gesturing, raising hands and stretching fingers out for the emphasis of grandiosity.

"You have done nothing but flee from your threats. You search for others to save you, to fight your own battles. Consider all that you've experienced, every action you've performed, from the moment you met the Fox-Witch until now. Now tell me this: Am I wrong?"

Honoka paused in genuine reflection. Twisted as Togai is, he speaks the truth. He does not wait for a reply.

"Whatever happened to Sarada Honoka, Servant of Justice? Did she truly die? Or have you, Sarada Honoka the Broken Husk, merely locked her away in the deepest recesses of your tortured mind?"

Honoka yells back, choking on bitter tears. "What I became after all that Saeko's gang did to me is none of your business! You have no right to force me to be something else I no longer want to be… Especially in such a messed-up way!"

Togai freezes mid-pose. He drops his hands to his sides silently. He falteringly swoons to a chair and collapses onto it, slumped over in a display of defeat.

"Perhaps I was wrong about you, Honoka-chan. Perhaps you do not have what it takes after all. What a disappointment…"

Togai's downcast gaze slowly turns to his right, looking at something tucked away beneath the seats. He reaches down to pick that thing up, hoisting a tightly wrapped bundle onto the adjacent seat.

"But what about another's opinion, I wonder? What say you, Matsuoka-san? Did you get all of that?"

Honoka's classmate and friend struggles, bound in rope across her arms, legs, wrists, feet.

"Mizuka!"

Togai delicately rests his hand beneath Mizuka's shivering chin, pressing her gagged cheeks together.

"Oh, Matsuoka-san. The way you've looked at me with those sickening puppy dog eyes all this while… Cravings for superficial beauty above all else… Vapid. Childish. Naive. Disgusting."

"Hngg-nng-nh!" Mizuka struggles in panic, Togai's grip upon her shoulders tightening with murderous spite.

"Just like the rest of them! But for tonight, you shall at least serve us well."

Click-click-click-click-click.

Mizuka writhes at the sight of Togai's extending box cutter blade.

"One less sheep to ogle me over, but… I wonder, I wonder! Where on your body should I cut you? The jugular? The femoral? Or maybe I should extract your offending oculars first…" Mizuka whimpers as the tip of the blade presses across vulnerable parts of her body.

"Where in school should I gut you? The showers to quickly, conveniently wash the mess away? Or perhaps, the class for a bold statement…"

"Let her go! Stop it! Please! She doesn't have anything to do with all this!"

Togai sighs wistfully. "Me? Stop? I'm not going to. I've gone far past the point of stopping, all for your sake. But you could stop me. Could you?"

Honoka stares once more at the swords. Her knees give and she collapses, shrieking and holding her head.

"No! I-I can't! Please, Togai-kun! I get it already! Just stop this game, and I'll do whatever you ask of me-"

Togai glares at Honoka in icy anger. "Game… A game? You still think this is a game?!"

He plunges his knife straight into Mizuka's right shoulder.

"NNNNRRG! MFFHIII-!" Ignoring Mizuka's muffled shrieks, Togai tears the blade out and admires the trace of red along its length.

"It's settled! Takachiho High gets its first murder case, I'll be gone before the sun is up, and you'll be found on school grounds with a dead body. Who'd ever suspect Sarada Honoka could be capable of such a gruesome betrayal?" Laughing away, Togai heaves a quivering Mizuka across his shoulders.

"Stop it, please!"

"You know I'm not going to. You stop it." Togai gestures to the swords one last time, making his way to the rear exit.

"No… No… Please, no…" Togai leaves with a sobbing Mizuka. Honoka herself weeps, collapsing further onto the floor.

"No… It's happening, all over again…"

Buried deep in the nightmares of her past Honoka could only bring herself to weep, surrounded as she was by the jeering specters of bullies, tormentors and abusers past. Their insults, hateful mockings of her and her failed beliefs…

"I can't do it! I can't do it… I can't do it… "

"But you can, you know?"

The voice of a not-too-distant memory cuts into her mind, pushing away all the torments. Honoka's breath seizes up, and she ceases clawing her bleeding chest. She looks to the sword patiently awaiting her grasp.

A quivering fingertip slowly, gradually extended forth. It brushed against the handle.

And just like that, the voices fell silent.


Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License