13

The domino effect.

A teenager was shot Tuesday night for intervening in what would have been a deadly denouement to an abusive and toxic marriage.

The teenager fully expected to die that night, only to be met with an otherworldly observer who offered him a deal.

He accepted that deal, and from then on, his life would never be the same.

Nor those of Rakuen and its denizens.

Just as a serial domestic abuser had turned Furukawa Shugo’s life upside down, so too would the youth go on to upend his city as well as the lives of his fellow citizens, all while wreaking unholy havoc among those who would cause trouble in that little paradise.

And as one more troublemaker learned the hard way, the self-appointed avenger would spare no mercy for those who deserved none.

“Whoever did this to him made one hell of a mess.”

Detective Ashihara Riku merely grunted in agreement as he eyed the batterer whose hands his colleague had cuffed behind his back.

By the time the detective had returned to that alleyway after escorting the woman to his car, Shugo had been hard at work giving the criminal a taste of his own medicine and then some. As it turned out, in fact, Riku had returned just in time to intervene in the carnage, and to stop the youth in question from inflicting long-term and possibly even irreversible damage. And from the look of horror he saw in the criminal’s eye, he seemed very much aware of just how much worse things could’ve gotten for him.

Just what did you do, Shugo?

Between the severity of the criminal’s injuries, as well as the extent to which his metal bat had been deformed, it was evident to Riku that Shugo had somehow gotten hold of the bat and then proceeded to beat its owner senseless with his own weapon. Not only that, the criminal also bore bruises all over his body that suggested that Shugo eventually discarded the wrecked weapon in order to continue the beatdown by hand. And though he, Riku, had certainly seen worse even at this early stage of his career in law enforcement, what was truly disturbing here was his knowledge of just whose handiwork this was.

If I didn’t know better…

While Shugo admitted that he hadn’t exactly been possessed, Riku was unsure whether that knowledge made the carnage he left behind more or less disturbing. On one hand, the way Shugo worded the admission heavily implied that this wasn’t entirely his doing, which was congruent with the initial impressions he’d made on them the night he helped them get Taro back. And if nothing else, it was at least comforting to know that the extensive and downright vicious beating Shugo had inflicted on this man wasn’t something he did entirely of own free will. In that case, Riku could only surmise that the spirit bonded to Shugo was partly responsible.

Not that that was much better, of course.

If anything, that’s just a different kind of scary.

As reassuring as it was that Shugo hadn’t entirely been himself when he did this, Riku couldn’t ignore the disturbing implications this incident raised when it came to the spirit Shugo had contracted with. Even if she hadn’t taken direct control of him, that didn’t necessarily rule out the possibly that she influenced him to indulge in his darker urges. Even when the detective considered how the spirit would only point her contractor towards those who were truly guilty and deserving of punishment, he couldn’t help but think back to the warning the chief had given him after that one fateful operation that took place not long after he joined the RCPD.

Be careful when fighting monsters, thought Riku as he watched his fellow lawman finally take the batterer away.

You just might become one yourself.

——

By the time the criminal had been arrested and taken into custody, Furukawa Shugo had finally made it home.

Once Riku had looked over the batterer’s beaten and bludgeoned body, he took Shugo aside for a moment to scold him for his use of excessive force. “Was this your doing, or hers?” the detective asked in a tone of mingled disapproval and concern. “Because it looks like you went completely fucking berserk on the bastard.”

And then Riku pointedly suggested that Shugo should go on ahead. He assured the youth that he’d take care of the rest, but not before rebuking him one more time for having gone overboard.

As Shugo stepped out of the shower, he thought to himself that Riku wasn’t wrong. Up until now, both he and the spirit had been content to either knock the bad guys out, or otherwise give them a vision of their worst nightmares come to life. Even when they shot him and had every intention to kill him, the worst damage the youth had inflicted on them in return had been to crack their head open and potentially cause brain damage, and even that was a mere possibility rather than an outright certainty. When Shugo considered all those previous encounters, he couldn’t help but feel disturbed with himself over the utter thrashing he’d given the batterer an hour or so ago.

That was wrong on so many levels.

It wasn’t just the thrashing itself that he found disturbing, either. Apart from that, Shugo was acutely aware of how he not only didn’t regret his brutal beatdown the batterer had gotten at his hands, but that he actually enjoyed it. Every punch he landed on the miscreant gave him a rush, just as every scream of pain that followed sent a surge of vindictive pleasure coursing through his entire body. And just as he was about to land the final blow that could very well have broken the man’s neck…

“No,” Shugo told himself firmly, his voice projecting more conviction and self-assurance than he actually felt at that moment. “I’m not a sadist.”

“I’m not evil.”

“I’m not like them.”

“Correct,” the spirit chimed in as if right on cue. “Remember that ours is a crusade against the evils of this world, and that to be evil is to inflict needless harm on the undeserving. What you did was nothing more, and nothing less, than what needed to be done – and to those it needed to be done to.”

When Shugo said nothing, she continued:

“No true warrior or guardian has lived, or will ever live, without doubt in his own convictions; otherwise, he is no warrior, but a mere killer. But consider, if you will, what might have happened had you not intervened. Consider what would have happened to that child, or to the woman we found earlier, if not for you. Through your actions, you spared both from meeting a terrible fate. Through your actions, you taught their tormentors an object lesson in what happens to those who prey on the innocent, and of the punishment that awaits those who commit evil.”

“Your self-reproach is understandable, but no less unhelpful or unwarranted for it,” she finished. “Rest now, put your mind at ease, and let these stray thoughts trouble you no more.”

Shugo obeyed by turning off the lights and lying down on his bed, upon which he felt the comforting softness of pillow caressing the back of his head. He thought back to the spirit’s words, and as he did so, he couldn’t help but think back to her tone. She reverted to something closer to her usual monotone towards the end, but now that Shugo thought about it, there was something else there that made him wonder a little. It sounded almost like…

Nah, must’ve imagined it.

And with that, Shugo closed his eyes and thought no more.

——

Before Shugo knew it, it was Monday again.

…Already?

He went through his usual morning routine in mechanical fashion, such that an outside observer could tell just how little inclination he had to go to school that day.

What a drag.

Shugo barely managed to sleep over the past weekend. It was really late when he’d gotten home after that encounter in the alleyway, after all. Last night was a bit better – he actually fell asleep just before midnight, but he still wound up getting up at least once so he could use the bathroom. As he was finding out, exacting vengeance and punishing the guilty took a heavy toll on one’s energy.

And it hasn’t exactly done wonders for my sleep quality, either.

And now that he thought about it, it was the third time he had risked his life in less than a week, even if he did manage to avoid taking any hits the other night. Which was a good thing, too; while he had the accelerated healing factor afforded to him as part of the contract, Shugo didn’t know just how they worked or what their limits were, nor did he particularly care to find out. For all he knew, there might have been a limit to the amount of damage he could afford to take in a given time span.

Besides, those fancy regenerative powers don’t make me immune to pain.

Luckily for Shugo, he managed to get to school – and to their classroom – just minutes before the bell rang. Looking at Kaito’s empty seat told him that his friend had yet to arrive, which was a rare occurrence. Oh well.

The homeroom teacher walked in not long after the bell rang.

“Good morning, class,” he greeted, nodding at the students who had risen to their feet to greet him. “Please, sit down.

“There’s a few announcements I need to make,” the teacher began. “First and foremost, we’ve got a new student who’ll be joining us from now on. It’s his first time going back to school in 4 years, so I’m counting on all of you to make him feel at home.”

“That’s your cue, by the way,” the teacher added as he looked to the classroom’s front door after a half-minute pause. “Come on in already!”

The transferee walked in.

…Oh, you’ve gotta be kidding me.

And as he saw who it was, Shugo couldn’t help but do a double take.

The transferee was a young man not much older than him. He had dark, shaggy hair that stopped just short of his shoulders, which, together with the look in his eyes, went a long way in enhancing his resemblance to the ’emo kid’ archetype that had been in vogue a few years ago. Unlike most people who embraced the subculture, however, Shugo knew full well that there was a compelling reason for the newcomer’s seeming world-weariness and cynicism.

With that, the new arrival took a bow as he greeted his new classmates.

“Good morning, everyone,” he said. “My name’s Akizuki Ayato. It’s really nice to meet you all.”

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