Chapter Twenty-Five - Judge, Mirror
I was the Judge since I remembered the beginning of my existence.
I was holding the rulebook which never seemed to wrinkle and tatter with the passing of time.
I was watching countless memories of those who would pass into the light beyond, watching them laugh, cry and rage at the things that they had done.
Some were forgotten and cast away in the dusty storerooms of their subconscious, others were remembered and repeated like a video clip on rewind.
I was delivering sentences even before the mirror ended its display of their lives' reel. The book acted nothing more than a prop; I could recite each word and each clause, understand their implications and apply them to my decision-making.
No soul questioned me. The book was final.
My decision was final.
Perhaps my suitability of my role was an ironic one. Because I didn't care for any of these memories at all, let alone mine. Even if I could remember them down to the most trivial detail.
I didn't question how I came about doing this. I didn't question why I was even doing this.
It was simply something that needed to be done.
And I could continue this until eternity ended.
Yuriko leaned against the bars of the cell, closing her eyes against her fate which mocked her struggles. She forgot how long she had been languishing in that state, nor did she remember how long she had been shaking the bars, furiously shaking them before rationality overcame will and despair overwhelmed hope.
Was it four hours, four days, or four years even? Time had become a ghost without any indicators to measure its progress; the only source was the scene beyond the windows, where snow continued to rain on the dark cityscape below.
Did it matter? At the very end, she remained imprisoned in her damsel-in-distress role. Any progress that she had made in the previous months was nothing but a mere illusion.
Like her own memories that she was beginning to doubt.
"I must be going crazy like Ken-kun," Yuriko chuckled. "To be thinking stuff like this and talking to myself."
This imprisonment experience allowed her the unwanted luxury of reminiscence. Her trip down memory lane took constant detours to her moments she spent with Kenichi, but she eventually returned back to her childhood.
She barely recognized the images and sounds that she recalled. Like the moment when she rode her first bike and wobbled dangerously like a circus performer walking on tightrope, or the moment when she accompanied her father as they fed birds while delivering newspapers.
Or even the moment when she sobbed and begged her stone-faced mother not to leave home.
All these memories carried a surreal, flat quality that felt like a long-extended dream. They didn't seem to belong to her, and they were also rapidly fading away as dreams do when waking reality returned.
Like her infatuation with Hideaki.
Thinking about Hideaki lead to her thinking that he was going to exterminate Kenichi. That horrifying prospect fired up her will once more.
"I don't believe that I cannot break you," Yuriko gritted her teeth and gripped the bars. "Prepare for my Vibration Level 1000—"
"My little priest girl, you really must have plunged into an ever-lasting ebony of eternal despair if you are resorting to battle cries that sound horribly like bad innuendos."
Yuriko's ears perked up and she looked at the direction where the familiar voice originated.
Standing over her prostrate body, Masaru afforded a smile which resembled more of a grimace. A stranger accompanied him appeared incorporeal, her frock a glowing fabric of white. Her features were ageless; Yuriko couldn't tell if she was sixteen or sixty, but she couldn't shake off the growing feeling that she had seen her somewhere before.
"Morita-sensei, why are you here?"
"Your woeful performance as an imprisoned animal compelled me to ditch the word processor and probably extend my creative hiatus to four years," Morita sighed and scratched his head. "You are better off as a free spirit, pun intended."
"You are freeing me?"
"And risk my wife's unbridled wrath? Nah," Morita pointed to his companion. "She will."
The stranger levitated to the cage without preamble, her blank expression betraying an occasional wince of pain. She glanced at Yuriko, at the bars, and proceeded to close her eyes.
A few seconds later, the bars disintegrated into fragments which vanished into the air. Yuriko found herself hovering a few feet above ground and directly facing her rescuer.
"Thank you. You are?"
"I am unofficially your friend's grandmother, officially the soup lady of the spiritual world," the stranger said. "Your father contacted me a few times about the revolver."
Yuriko nodded in recognition and bowed her thanks. There was no time to ponder about the specifics. She needed to repossess her body and rush off to the battlefield.
The very same rescuer stopped her with an outstretched palm.
"But why?… Ken-kun is in danger!"
"And what would you do if you simply head there now?" The soup lady asked. "He does not recognize you. He does not even recognize himself."
Yuriko froze as the implication of her warning sank in.
The soup lady drew a circle in the air. The area within the circumference of her invisible drawing began to shimmer and darken. It sizzled and opened, revealing a void resembling space.
"I will guide you to the mirror," The soup lady grabbed Yuriko's arm and pulled her towards the void. "And you will understand."
Yuriko could not resist. Yuriko could not understand. And Yuriko found herself spinning and swirling into that gaping darkness where—
Takeshi stood before the Moritas' residence. He admired the modest affair of brown facade and gray roof. He imagined the simple comfort that the Moritas would enjoy by the heater as they watched the white beauty unfold beyond the windows.
Except they weren't home. Only a stranger remained, vulnerable and defenseless.
The soup lady's betrayal was surprising, but not unexpected. Since she was ready to pay the price, Takeshi was not about to begrudge her efforts.
Her efforts would be nothing more than a little detour, a pebble bouncing valiantly across the waters before sinking into its bottomless depths.
Besides, he was ready to pay the price himself with a few tricks of his own. Tricks that his skeletal disciples have learned, but the master of them he remained.
The waters would remain calm. The outcome would not change.
Takeshi pressed the doorbell. Above him, the snow continue to fall and shy away from contact. Above him, an octopus looking abomination clung to the tree branches, a travesty of a Koala's favorite pastime.
"You will see your dear friend really really soon," Takeshi chuckled as the pitter-patter of footsteps approached. "But first, you need to let her see your inner beauty."
In response, the Specthulhu's feelers wriggled in an excited frenzy.
"My sweet sweet Midori."
Hideaki ducked into cover behind the counter booth as a flurry of bullets showered overhead. Some punctured holes into the already ruined brick, others melted from the flames he conjured. A few found its target home, lodging deep in his chest and thigh.
The pain was excruciating, but beyond the pain, there was nothing else. If only, it allowed Hideaki to finally end his little gentlemanly play and be himself.
He was already damned. He didn't need a few stupid bullets to remind him.
He could finally stop pretending. Pretended that he was likeable when he utterly detested the existence of that adjective. Pretended that he liked that bitch when all he wanted to do was to burn and hear her scream for all eternity.
Like how he did with that annoying poltergeist.
Hideaki grinned, a ghastly grin that mirrored Zordandevis. He clenched his fists and grunted in exertion.
Bullet shells popped out and fell harmlessly from his bloodless school uniform.
He watched his human partner struggle under the avalanche. He watched as her charm-initiated forcefield begin to crack from the endless peppering. He watched as the gunslinger depressed the trigger again and again, his maniacal expression unwavering in its desire to destroy.
Might as well let her get hit and be put out of the game. End it with a classic Western one-on-one showdown.
He had a personal score to settle with Kenichi after all.
A stray bullet punctured his forehead. Hideaki yelped, more in surprise than in pain. A thumping headache ensued and forced him onto his knees.
"Come on out, Mister Judge," Kenichi cajoled in a singsong voice. "Aren't you the heartless one, letting Revolver-chan attack your lover like that?"
"You loathsome bastard!"
Hideaki leapt out from cover, rushing towards his opponent headon. He ignored the bullets attacking him like a swarm of bees. He ignored Hitomi gazing at him with a horrified wonder as he gathered the entirety of his rage and channelled it into a swirling fireball above his right palm.
All he wanted was to burn the amusement out of his face.
Fire danced and licked the cold frigid air. It singed Kenichi's fedora hat. It cast his face under an orange glow, reflecting the glint in his eyes.
His amusement remained. His bloody amusement refused to go away.
Fire trailed through the air like a shooting star, only to hit the snow-paved pavements where the gunslinger stood on barely a second ago.
Kenichi sat on top of an upturned bench and stuck out a tongue at him.
"Didn't your lover teach you not to play with fire? That could have killed me, you know."
Another fireball smashed into the bench and incinerated the splinters flung into the air.
"Stop pretending, Kenichi," Hideaki said as the somersaulting gunslinger landed deftly on the roof of a candy stand. "Stop pretending that you have forgotten. You will never forget things."
"Oh yes, I almost forgot about my mission. Thank you for reminding," Kenichi laughed. "I was supposed to escort you and your lover back to hell instead of playing cowboy with you~"
"I killed Haiiro with that fire."
For a moment, Hideaki saw the glint in Kenichi's eyes darken. Then it disappeared, replaced by a gentle chiding look.
"Now, now, That is not very nice of you, Judge. You are supposed to just deliver judgments and then send those poor little souls on their way. Not kill them."
It was Hideaki's turn to laugh, a dry and raspy laugh that counterpointed his handsome, mild features.
"You were cradling it and sobbing like a baby, Kenichi. Saying such sweet goodbyes and pretending that it didn't murder children."
There was that glint again. It remained, longer than before. Kenichi kept mum, no longer keeping up his cheery pretense.
Hideaki knew that he was close.
"How did it feel to lose someone you loved, Kenichi? How did it feel to have a feeling so familiar, that you have to pretend not to remember them? Hmmm?"
Kenichi trembled. And clenched his fists. And unclenched them.
Hideaki approached his prey, igniting fire on both palms. The Crimson King had been way too benevolent, treating that fool like a teacher's pet, giving him countless cycles and chances to return. For him to finally issue the extermination order, that was a personal triumph which Hideaki relished. He would slowly enjoy the moment like the sipping of fine wine, slowly admire the skin of his prey peel back and blacken as he—
He felt someone tap on his shoulder and turned back. Hitomi was staring at him like she never seen him before.
And it irritated him.
She was ruining his moment.
"Yamamoto-kun…" Hitomi stammered. "This isn't right. I'm sure Takeshi must have mistaken something. I'm sure there is another way."
"Yagami-sama's orders are final, Hitomi," Hideaki's smile was hideous, a baring display of gritted teeth. He had torn his mask and stomped off the stage where Hideaki Yamamoto still lived. The play had already ended, and yet his stage partner still continued acting out her pointless script.
His irritation burned. How it burned.
Hitomi cowered before his seething rage. Her fear didn't end her plea however.
"My name is Doliodevis, you stupid woman!"
Doliodevis's backhanded slap whiplashed Hitomi's head and sent her sprawling back. She collided with the charred and crumbling benches, rolled a few times beneath the wreckage, before laying completely still.
Kenichi remained motionless throughout the violent interlude. Doliodevis would have preferred his idiotic bravado to the living statue before him. But it didn't matter.
The statue would move once it felt fire eating it up alive.
"Why did you slap your lover, Judge?" Kenichi finally asked, his voice soft and disbelieving. "Don't you love her very much?"
Doliodevis snorted. Guess he had no choice but to pull that professional idiot off the stage where the curtains had already been drawn. A cruel mercy, as it was.
"I was never the Judge, Kenichi. You are."
Doliodevis' grin widened. Kenichi's eyes widened.
"Always have been."
Limbo. A red sea of floating logs, populated by souls who swam and received pitchfork jabs from bored demons on duty. Hell. A chamber replete with torture devices that stretched, broke and tore limbs; The sight of the mutilated damned and the echo of their hoarse screams haunted Yuriko's ears, stirring vague memories within her.
Why do you hurt them like this?
Memories? But this was her first time here, wasn't it?
Yuriko wasn't sure. Her feet kept up effortlessly with the soup lady, who was heading towards their destination with a hurried gait. Entering this spiritual realm didn't feel like exploring an uncharted island. It felt like returning home after a long long time.
And she still didn't understand.
"I'm sorry if I make a poor tour guide, Yuriko," The soup lady interrupted her reverie, her walking degenerating into a pained limping. "But we don't have time."
"Are you alright, madam?" Yuriko grew concerned with her savior's condition. Not only was she increasingly labored with her movements, she was flickering intermittently like a dying light bulb.
To this the soup lady made no reply. She continued on her way, and Yuriko followed.
They bypassed the soup queue which stretched and zigzagged on itself, its order maintained by dozens of Uggyuags. The awaiting souls watched them as they bypassed the unattended cauldron.
"Where are you going? We have been waiting forever!"
The lone soul who spoke up meant to continue, but the threatening slap of an Uggyuag's tongue silenced any further attempts.
To this, the soup lady made no reply. She continued on her way, and Yuriko followed.
They bypassed a chamber which bled crimson. The Soup Lady afforded a wave at the robed skeleton sitting on the throne. Yuriko glanced at the surreal sight of Uggyuags' tongues imprisoning it there, and wondered at the pensive look it showed.
It was almost sad.
"So you are really doing it, woman?"
"Yes, Bones," the soup lady replied. "I'll have to cut my farewell short so, it was nice working with you. Keep your ambitions humble and you will find yourself in less comical situations like these. And"
"Goodbye." They said their greetings in unison.
Somehow, Yuriko could hear those unspoken conversations in that single unified exchange. She understood that it was probably the first and last time they both agreed on something.
Her question remained unanswered. The Soup Lady was once more on her way, leaving the imprisoned skeleton behind.
They finally stopped before a room, its floors and walls a color of obsidian, its furnishings bare except for an oval mirror.
The silver surface reflected nothing as Yuriko approached.
You look so strained doing this. I'm worried that you are going to break down.
Yuriko shook her head furiously. It must be a hallucinatory side effect of being a soul, hearing and imagining things.
As though reading her thoughts, the soup lady answered.
"No, Yuriko. You are merely starting to remember who you really are."
An unseen pain paralyzed her into bouts of flickering. She doubled over and gasped as though being strangled. Before Yuriko could rush over and help her up, the latter stopped her with an outstretched palm.
"Last time I am going to stop you silly people from doing silly things," The soup lady said and comforted her with a wan smile. "The price that I have to pay for interfering in the spokes of destiny."
With trembling hands, she reached inside the pockets of her robe and fished out a revolver.
Kenichi's original revolver.
Yuriko ached seeing it. She ached even more seeing her savior fading with each suffering flicker.
"The Judge isn't here, but I guess I'll do as an adequate substitute," The soup lady aimed the revolver at the mirror, her grip steady and assured.
Yuriko closed her eyes. Five continuous gunshots rang, and accompanying it, the fading voice of the firer.
"Bring my grandson back, Yuriko."
Yuriko opened her eyes again to the sight of the revolver clattering onto the ground.
Before her, cobwebs of shattered glass crawled all over the mirror. They fell, fragment by fragment, revealing a surface which flowed like the river and glowed impossibly white.
And Yuriko saw.
Author's Note: I'm back from my writing coma. For those who are still around, I hope you enjoy this as much as I enjoyed writing it.