17

April 28th, just an hour before midnight.

A cloaked figure stood at the edge of a billboard for a popular international brand of soda, their eyes fixed on a young man locked in combat with a gang, all of whom were clad in business suits and brandished swords and guns at him in equal measure, in the middle of a deserted alley.

So, this is where you’ve gone.

The stranger didn’t know who the youth in question was; they’d been led here after sensing the presence of a sworn enemy, only to be met with the sight of an unassuming young man who looked just like any other in this so-called paradise of a city.

Is this the latest patsy you’ve gotten your filthy hands on?

Sure enough, the next moment saw the young man manifest supernatural strength and abilities there was no reasonable way he could possess. The sharp-dressed gangsters emptied their magazines as they fired round after round into the youth, only to visibly freeze up as none of the gunshots appeared to inflict any real damage. He gasped, groaned, and screamed in pain whenever the blades struck home – hardly surprising, thought the figure, since immunity to pain wasn’t one of the powers he’d been bestowed with – but even those attacks weren’t much more effective as the wounds themselves healed in seconds.

Is he the latest minion you’ve bamboozled into doing your dirty work?

And when one of the sword-wielding gangsters stabbed the youth cleanly through the chest with a roar of mingled bravado, rage, and desperation, the young man responded by pulling his would-be vanquisher’s sword deeper through him so that their eyes were barely a foot apart. Not pausing for so much as a heartbeat, he then relieved the miscreant of his firearm and then used it to knock its owner out of commission with a wallop to the side of the head, just above the left ear. He then shoved the now-unconscious adversary backwards to the ground, before turning his glare on the rest of the gang.

It does look like you taught him a thing or two, at least.

The fight raged on, and the remaining gangsters fared little better. As the youth pulled the sword free from his own gut and brandished it at them, one of the miscreants charged forward attempting to whack him on the head with a downward strike from his steel bat, only for the young man to parry it with the sword he’d been stabbed with just moments ago. At least two of the gangster’s teeth were sent flying when the youth drove his forehead into his lower jaw, while the subsequent knee strike to his crotch caused him to curl up into a ball of agony on the concrete.

And this latest pawn of yours does appear to have a natural talent for combat.

The youth took a moment to discard his borrowed sword in favour of taking up the steel bat instead, before stepping over the gangster he’d just subdued and who was now whimpering in torment in order to advance on those remaining. One gangster tried to charge him with a desperate punch, only for the youth to whack him on the head with a steel bat in a manner not unlike that of a batter intending to hit a home run. Another followed suit, and was immediately sent sprawling with a savage strike across the stomach.

You’ve got an eye for useful thralls, if nothing else.

The last one standing was left paralyzed in fear as the youth walked slowly toward him after having literally gone through the rest of the gang one by one. While the young man left him untouched, he nevertheless did something to him that caused the last of those criminals to utter a piercing scream of unholy terror as he crumpled to the ground.

Very well fought indeed.

The mysterious figure looked on, but at that point, there wasn’t much else to see. The young man merely withdrew something from his pocket – something commonly termed a ‘smartphone’ in this modern era – before preparing to depart. The most the youth did was stop for several seconds in front of the gangster he’d all but unmanned, presumably considering whether or not to inflict more pain on top of what he’d already done earlier, before leaving altogether after clearly having thought better of it.

…Still very much in control, I see?

They watched, impressed, as the young man exercised enough self-control to refrain from tormenting his already-defeated and broken enemy. It likely hadn’t been long since the youth entered into the contract. Not only that, it was also possible that he’d somehow become aware of the side effects, and that he actively reined himself in from acting out too much. Or both, really.

On the other hand, the way he hesitated while standing over his foe’s battered and broken body strongly indicated that the young man was at least tempted to take at least one last parting shot, or maybe even torture him. While this possibility only increased the stranger’s awe at the youth’s refusal to do so, they wondered whether he’d be able to hold on to his convictions as he and the spirit bonded to him carried on their crusade against the evils that had distorted the world.

I wonder.

How much more, and how much longer, can this child endure until your rage and hatred finally consume him?

——

Two minutes later, Shugo was a block away from the alley where he threw down with those criminals.

That could’ve gone a lot worse, I guess.

He wanted to hit the sack extra early that night so he could catch up on lost sleep, but things didn’t go the way he wanted them to. As was starting to become a recurring theme as of late, the spirit woke Shugo up before he’d even managed 3 hours of sleep. More disturbingly, the manner in which she’d done so was a lot like her white-hot and almost blind rage when she sent him on the hunt that led to him bludgeoning that wife-beater to within an inch of his life.

“FIND THEM,” the spirit howled. “GIVE THEM A TASTE OF OUR WRATH.”

“I WANT TO HEAR THEM SCREAM.”

She led him all the way to that alley, where he walked in on those gangsters just as they were bragging about the material they’d filmed earlier that evening. And though he didn’t quite understand what they meant by that, the ambiguity wouldn’t be for long as they then proceeded to view said material among themselves. Even if he, Shugo, couldn’t the see just what they were watching, the disturbingly childlike moans and cries of pain issuing from the tablet those miscreants had huddled around raised some truly horrifying and revolting implications as to just what kind of ‘material’ the scum had produced.

And when he picked it up to see exactly what that ‘material’ was, he understood exactly why the spirit had all but gone berserk.

Fucking hell.

Now that Shugo thought about it, he may have let them off much too easily. He didn’t do to them what he’d done to that batterer from a few nights ago, for one thing. He didn’t kill them, either, even if what they’d done had been heinous enough that Riku and the chief probably wouldn’t have blamed him if he did. And while it was true that he’d been just a little bit rougher with them than he’d normally be, he didn’t go out of his way to inflict any severe or irreversible damage even then.

Though it wasn’t like they wouldn’t have deserved it.

Instead, Shugo took a deep, calming breath once all the gangsters had been dealt with. He pinged Riku using the app they instructed him to install on his smartphone, before going on to dial the detective’s phone number in order to explain exactly what he’d been up against.

“Take a look at what they’ve got on the tablet,” he advised before hanging up. “We didn’t kill them, but I hope you guys make them wish we did.”

Finally, Shugo had returned home.

…At least I made it back before midnight.

He stripped and stepped into the shower, after which he changed back into his sleepwear and got ready for bed a second time.

The moment his rear end made contact with the mattress, however…

“They deserved death.”

Shugo ignored this, but she was insistent.

And though her voice was calm and controlled, he nevertheless picked up on the cold, venomous fury it radiated.

“You understand that, do you not?”

He sighed as he laid down in bed. “You’d rather we killed them instead?”

“You and I both saw what they did to those children. A special place in the deepest level of hell exists specifically for their kind, and they all deserved to be sent there for the sheer, unwarranted torment and degradation they inflicted on those innocents. While I commend the restraint you showed, I insist that you dispense with such misguided mercy if they should ever cross our path again.”

She paused for a moment.

When his partner continued, her next words came in something that wasn’t just her usual monotone, but were instead delivered in a voice that was almost human.

“More importantly, your recklessness leaves much to be desired.”

“Recklessness?”

“Your overreliance on your newfound abilities,” she elaborated, chastising him as a teacher would her wayward student. “You are not invincible, however much the opposite may have appeared to be true. Ask yourself: what do you suppose fuels your powers?”

Shugo couldn’t argue. As uncomfortable as it made him, he had to concede her point. Up until now, he’d been getting an inordinately huge kick out of just standing in place as his enemies slashed, stabbed, and shot at him, the better to see the looks on his enemies’ faces when they saw the way his wounds regenerated mere moments later. And though he did suspect that the use of his powers came at an unspecified cost, it was only now that those suspicions were confirmed.

“You have earned your rest after all you have been through. However, I trust that you will strive for more caution in our future battles. As true as it may be that no mere human can kill you as you are now, do not forget that merely dying is far from the worst possible fate that can befall us in this world.”

With that, she finally fell silent, leaving Shugo alone to reflect on what she’d said, before he himself succumbed to his exhaustion and drifted off to sleep.

——

At long last, it was Friday.

And thank God, too.

Shugo barely noticed as his morning classes came and went, not least because everything else that had happened that week had left him drained.

He barely even paid attention to the lively discussion Ayato and Kaito had during their lunch hour, beyond giving uninterested nods and halfhearted one-word responses when prompted.

“You’ll have to excuse him. Rena’s not around, so he’s not really in the mood to talk.”

Ayato stifled his laughter at Kaito’s quip.

“Whatever,” Shugo retorted, rolling his eyes. “If the two of you have the time to make cracks at my expense, it’d be a lot more productive for Kaito to go on over to Ayaka’s table so they could get to know each other.”

He grinned cheekily as Ayato responded with his own eye-roll and Kaito shot him a look of reproach and betrayal at the comeback, before all three of them laughed out loud.

Finally, it was time for the Peer Counsellors’ club meeting.

“Settle down, everyone,” called the club moderator as Shugo and his fellow Peer Counsellors entered the classroom that had been assigned to them for that day. “We’ll be doing group counselling with some kids from the grade school department today. Be nice to them and do your best to help them out, okay?”

He nodded approvingly at the responding murmur of assent, before briefly getting up to stick his head out the classroom’s front door. “Alright kids, you can come in now.”

The children obeyed by walking into the classroom in single file.

And as they did, Shugo’s eyes widened as one of them in particular caught his attention.

Taro?

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