Chapter 20:

The First to Fall

The Hollow

//tw: mention of imprisonment

The place that Shikai took them to the next day, after everyone had finished their daily norma, was a place that looked oddly familiar.

“Sendo, isn’t this…?”

Kiyashi saw the confusion on Sendo’s face. Sendo looked around, mouth slightly agape, then responded.

“This… this is the above the Marketplace.”

“Oh, you lot have been here?,” asked Shikai, as he passed the entrance to the Marketplace and circled around a short, round building, then stopping, his boots kicking up dust.

“This won't be my first time here, but it sure feels like it,” he continued.

Before them was a crumbling building of 2- to 3- stories in height, with a simple metal gate in front. On either side of the gate stood Hunters. Each shifted their weapons up as they saw the group approaching.

“State your business here.”

There was a tense silence as both groups laid their hands on their weapons, ready to draw at a moment's notice. Kiyashi could tell that Aruya was in full defence mode; her daggers were in her hand, glinting. Sendo stepped forward slightly, putting himself in front of Aruya and Mifu. Kiyashi stood shoulder to shoulder with Shikai, facing the two guards at the gate.

“Tell your boss that Shikai has brought company.”

As one of the guards nodded curtly and disappeared beyond the gate, Kiyashi felt the whisperings in the back of her mind sound louder.

Hunter, why do you hesitate?

Hunter, why do you stop?

Hunter, what do you seek?

Kiyashi grit her teeth, her temple throbbing. She felt Shikai’s glance as he looked over at her.

“We hesitate because we cannot do this alone. We stop because we must continue onwards. And we seek to leave this place for good.”

His response was muttered under his breath but Kiyashi heard it. Her eyes snapped up, but Shikai was watching for any sign of movement beyond the gate.

“Respond to them and the voices will be quelled,” he whispered. Then raised his voice, seeing a single figure approaching them at the gate.

“He finally shows his face, the slime.”

“Well, if you call me a slime, you must be a pile of dust,” came the dry response, in a subdued voice.

The speaker approached the gate. With a pair of round glasses perched on his nose, a grey coat hanging from a thin, tall frame, and dark laced boots on his feet, the man did not look much like a leader or a boss of anything. He had a slight slouch in his shoulders. His eyes even looked sunken, his skin pale, almost with a tinge of blue. But the air in which he carried himself was one of cool, collected command.

The gate opened with a slow creak and the guard pointed them inwards with their eyes.

“I am Taneru and this is my base of operations,” said the bespeckled man, with a wave of his hand at the building behind him.

“Base of operations?” Kiyashi hazarded a question, the voices seeming to tussle inside her head. She kept her hand near her katana, something prickling in the air, bothering her, keeping her on edge.

As she spoke, Kiyashi felt Taneru’s eyes fix themselves on her. They were a soft green, which didn’t seem to fit with the rest of his person.

“You are?”

“My name is Kiyashi,” she said, firmly.

Suddenly she heard a single phrase through the buzzing of the voices. It was not a question, like they usually were. It was a statement, even a command.

Hunter, listen, carefully listen.

Kiyashi did not betray her shock but she saw Shikai’s eyes dart to her face for a moment. He had heard it too.

Taneru did not notice and began to speak.

“This is the base of operations for the Renegades. We seek to escape this world and have worked day and night to find a way to do this. And I believe by your arrival here, you share the same goal?”

“And have you found a way?” Sendo spoke this time. Before Taneru asked, Sendo replied with his name. “I’m Sendo.”

“And I’m Aruya,” said Aruya. Mifu also chimed in, her voice ringing out like a small bell. “I am Mifu.”

“Welcome, all of you. Now, do come inside.” The man beckoned, ignoring Sendo’s question.

With a wave of his hand, Taneru turned and began walking towards the entrance to the building. When he turned around, Kiyashi realised with a shock that the weapon hanging across Taneru’s back was one very familiar to her: it was a katana.

Yamato’s words when she first arrived in the Hollow, came back to her. He had said her katana was the first he knew of to appear in the Hollow. But there, before her eyes, was another katana. The saya was a deep maroon, glossy like lacquer, and shone like blood. She hadn’t noticed it because instead of hanging from his side, Taneru had it slung across his back.

The group followed in silence.

As the doors closed behind and her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior, Kiyashi surveyed the space that they were now standing in. It looked like the interior of a cathedral, with a tall ceiling that arched upwards, and tall windows of clouded stained glass yawned upwards into points on both walls leading to the main altar area. Instead of an altar, there was a long table that stretched sideways, with chairs lined up neatly on either side. In place of pews, there was empty space, with various articles of furniture about; more a seating and mingling area than a place of quiet worship. The floor underfoot crunched with bits of rocks, dust, and even dull pieces of glass. The little light that shot through the clouded stained glass windows was supplemented by the orange flickering light from the metal lanterns hanging at different lengths from the ceiling, suspended by dark chains.

“Come, take a seat at the table,” said Taneru as he made his way down the aisle and took a seat at the long table. The others followed suit, a tense air lingering.

“But before we begin discussion, there is something I must share with your, how should I say, delegate. And I presume it is you, Kiyashi, my fellow katana wielder.”

Kiyashi had been just about to sit when Taneru spoke. She stopped and looked up. So he had indeed noticed as well.

Hunter, why are you silent?

The voices asked in unison and Kiyashi responded, in her mind. Because I need to see what this man is planning to do.

There was a rustle as Shikai came to stand near Kiyashi, nodding.

“Silence for the time being,” he said, under his breath. Kiyashi nodded in return. Then turned to face Taneru.

“Yes, I am the delegate.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Sendo nod. Mifu’s eyes widened but she fixed her eyes on Kiyashi, as if to acknowledge her support. Aruya’s blue tinged eyes glimmered, piercing, and she nodded as well.

“Ah, there is a consensus, it seems. And, I suppose, you can come too, Shikai.”

“Oh, I would be honoured,” replied the man, sarcasm hanging on every word.

Taneru stood, the chair sliding back on the cement floor, and he turned with a sweep of his coat, towards the side of the altar area. Then he rounded a corner and his head began to bob downwards, as he descended a stairway. Kiyashi started after him without hesitation, Shikai following with heavy steps.

The stairs continued down for a bit, the air became chilly and Kiyashi thought she could see her breath cloud white for a moment. Then the stairs came to an end and opened up on a room bathed in an eerie fluorescent green glow.

“Welcome to the Lab,” said Taneru, his sunken eyes looking even more sunken in the green glow.

The Lab was a room that had nothing but a machine made of metal emitting the green glow, the light softly pulsating like it was breathing. The machine looked like an egg with various wires and pipelines running from it like haphazardly tangled legs of a spider.

“What… what is this?” Kiyashi asked, her voice echoing in the space.

Whatever this was, felt, somehow, wrong. Something was definitely off with this machine but Kiyashi could not place a finger on it. It just felt wrong.

And strange. How could something of this advanced level of engineering exist in this world where guns did not exist in any shape or form?

“This? Oh, this is the device I used to pinpoint the location of the Citadel, as I am calling it. The so-called castle where the Old Gentleman resides.” Taneru seemed to spit the Old Gentleman’s name out with so much malice that Kiyashi felt her skin jump.

“You- you found it?”

This time Shikai’s voice echoed out.

“I thought it was impossible to. The clouds blocked anyone who tried to get up there.”

Taneru chuckled darkly. “Oh, but we were able to harness the Dark Angel’s tracking ability to find its exact location, as well as the exact route there.”

“The Dark Angel’s ability…” Kiyashi began then realisation hit her like a wave crashing down on her.

“Don’t tell me…”

“Ah, you are sharp, Kiyashi. I like that in a person. Yes, you are correct. We have our very own Dark Angel in this machine here,” Taneru said, and patted the surface of the egg-shaped apparatus.

“It’s not dead. Just sleeping. Something of a coma, I think.”

It took Kiyashi’s entire body’s worth of self control to stop herself from drawing her katana and cutting Taneru down right there and then. Her knuckle turned white as she gripped her saya, her eyes blazing, and the back of her nose sharply tingling.

Hunter, why do you hesitate?

Hunter, why do you stop?

Hunter, who is the Hunted?

The voices swam in her mind, overlapping. But Kiyashi did not respond.

“You- how could you-“ She could barely speak, the words leaving her mouth like shards of glass rolled thin. They fell to the floor, shattering. The image of Mifu and her raven filled her mind.

“You monster.”

Her words fell, suspended in the green glow.

Taneru looked up, the lens of his glasses flashing.

“Are you sure you have the audacity to call me a monster?”

Kiyashi’s mouth tightened into a line. She could not respond, as deep down she knew the answer.

“You, who have killed many with that katana of yours.

You, who have killed other human beings.

Oh wait, are we even human here? No, we are Hunters.”

The voices joined in, building in Kiyashi’s mind. She could almost see red in the green gloom.

Hunter, why do you hunt?

Hunter, why do you hunt?

Hunter, why do you hunt?

Kiyashi narrowed her eyes, pain building on her temple, and heard Shikai shift his boots near her.

“So, what will it be, my dear fellow katana wielder?,” Taneru asked, his words slow and deliberate, as though he were savouring every one.

“Will you join me as a fellow monster, or will you await your eternal death in this godforsaken world?”

With that, Taneru grinned wide, an eerie sight.

Kiyashi could feel a bile growing in her mouth but fought it down, swallowing and gritting her teeth to stop a cough.

Then, she opened her mouth.