Three votes for Sou. Four votes for Kanna. Two votes for Sara.
If we survive that Main Game thing, I’ll tell you.
“Well then… I’ll announce the results…” the doll’s wispy voice echoed throughout the chamber. “The Keymaster was Keiji Shinogi. The Sage was Q-taro Burgerberg. The Sacrifice was Sara Chidouin…”
Ahh, thank goodness… if you were really the Sacrifice, I’d have been pretty worried.
In the suffocating hush that ensued, Keiji gazed upon Sara. Her skin was ashen, eyes glassy with clotted fear; her chapped lips trembled as shallow breaths shook her shoulders.
Doesn’t sound too bad to bet my life on that.
Two votes for Sara. She’d voted for herself. If Keiji had given her his vote, who would she be escaping with right now? Gin? Kanna? Sara didn’t offer a deal to anyone, but if Keiji had to bet, he wouldn’t be her top pick. If he were the winning sacrifice, he’d choose her in a heartbeat… but now, that was neither here nor there.
I’m sayin’ trust in your friendly policeman.
Sara’s eyes slid up to meet his. He anticipated a wet glare of wounded betrayal; instead, her flickers of pleading hope slashed him like a knife. He dragged his palm down his face and looked away.
Hoo boy. Hurts to see you make that face, Sara.
Did she believe that he was going to pull some sort of deus ex machina and save her, that there was yet more to his master plan beyond self-preservation? If he were going to do something, he’d have traded away her Sacrifice card when she received it from Sou. As the Sage, he witnessed the transfer happen, and he had fifty tokens ready to go. But those tokens weren’t for Sara’s life—they were for Keiji’s. He spent his last trade on the ultimate insurance, the Keymaster card.
Cause we’re… gonna make our escape.
“Big sis Sara, no!” Gin seized desperately at Sara’s waist, and she embraced him in a numb, stilted motion. Panicked tears spilled freely down the boy’s cheeks. “I won’t let them hurt you, meow!” Even in a situation like this, Gin didn’t think twice about spouting his eccentric speech quirks, and it jarred Keiji to realize that the shtick wasn’t contrived. Gin actually was just that meowing, babyish child.
Trust, huh… What do you have to do to earn it, eh…?
“I’m sorry, everyone.” Sara’s voice was weak amidst the heaving ruckus of Gin’s cracked sobs. Her gaze panned the group, scanning across each person yet connecting with none. “I couldn’t lie to you all. But I just… I only wanted to live. Please understand me.”
Are you going to be our goddess of victory… or our angel of death?
“It’s not your fault,” Nao croaked, wringing her hands. With just one more vote for Sara, Keiji was sure that Nao would sing a different tune. “Any of us would have done the same…”
…Can I trust my life to you, Sara?
“Shut up!” Sou’s snarl cracked the air like a whip, and Nao shrank back between the silent shadows of Alice and Q-taro. “Forget Sara! You voted for Kanna, and that is your fault! What the fuck is wrong with you?!” Nao said nothing. Sou’s knuckles clenched bone white over his beanie; he remained rooted where he stood, wild-eyed and bristling. “I voted for myself! I asked to die! You all knew Sara was the Sacrifice, so why—“
Reality’s not only what comes to the surface.
“Sou!” Kanna clutched his arm, and he fell abruptly silent. Her small mouth spread into a wobbling smile, and her eyes glistened as she reached up to brush her fingertips to his cheek. “Please, it’s okay… this is what Kanna wanted. Kanna wanted to be useful… even if she couldn’t save Sara, she saved Sou… so Kanna is happy…her life had value…”
I’m always on your side.
Sou choked, words tangled in his throat, before exhaling with a raspy sputter. He brushed away Kanna’s hand like a piece of tissue paper.
…Would you die along with me?
“You don’t have to die to have value! Everyone here is garbage for letting you think that!” Sou turned, stumbling, and locked upon Keiji with a blistering blue stare. “Fuck you, you think I’ll help you?! You should have killed me—I’ll make you know HELL—”
Adults with bad intentions… are scarier than you can imagine.
Keiji felt nothing. The surrounding upheaval ceased to touch him, muffled by internal static and walled behind invisible acrylic. There was nothing to be done now. He watched Sara hug Kanna and Nao, and his heart knocked when she stepped tentatively towards him, yearning for some last comfort in his tainted embrace; her expression was earnest, lips parted with a grieving goodbye, and sick relief trickled through him as the doll pulled her away.
Could you be mad at me, Sara…? Don’t mess up that cute face.
Did she realize he’d deserted her? Or did she simply accept the end and choose to forgive?
Now there’s the partner I know.
Sara kept her jaw clenched as her wrists and ankles were locked into restraints. A gruesome metal corset was snapped around her waist, and she raised her chin with trembling dignity; Keiji watched as she flexed her limbs experimentally, glancing about for some opportune method of survival.
Any other questions, cute little detective?
Sara met his eyes, and Keiji realized that he and Sou were the only two spectating. The others had winced away—Gin bawled into Nao’s apron while Q-taro and Alice spoke quietly to Kanna. Blood roared in Keiji’s eardrums. He looked down with numb acknowledgment when the doll approached and pushed a cold metal tube into his palm.
It’s an awful thing, when the person you’re looking at could die by your hand.
“It’s an instant death switch,” the doll murmured. Keiji wondered why the hell she—no, it—was crying. It had no right, really. His throat tightened at the farcical sight, and anger thrummed somewhere deep in his chest. “If you want to end her suffering, you only need to press it.”
See ya. You can always depend on Mr. Policeman.
Keiji lifted his gaze to Sara. Fear clouded her vision, and with the deluge of tears dripping down her face, he wondered if she could even see him, or if he was nothing more than a blurred smear. He swallowed dryly and opened his mouth.
…Real sorry I can’t live up to your expectations.
He was as fraudulent as the doll. He didn’t want her to die, but if he were sorry enough for that to matter, he would have prevented this entirely. But when had he ever cared about telling the truth? That part of him was long dead.
Truth is… maybe you’re better off not trusting me after all… huh.
“I’m sorry, Sara,” he said hoarsely. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
‘Cause you’re cute.
Damn. He was sorry…
Just… wanted you to trust me.
“Don’t kill me,” she begged, voice strangled as the device ratcheted tighter, steady and merciless. “Don’t!” Her pretty face contorted with agony; bright crimson began to soak and trickle down her scrunched jacket. “Keiji—listen—I don’t—“ Keiji’s ears rang. He couldn’t breathe. “I don’t deserve a quick—“ Her ribcage was bending, crushed to its limit. Sara’s wrung cry was ragged and high. “I need to—how he felt—“
I’ll lend you a shoulder. Rest just a little more.
Keiji’s thumb clicked down in a spasmodic squeeze. Sara broke with a ghastly crunch, and gushing blood splattered the ground below. Her body crumpled limp. A toy dog keychain dropped from her slack palm, and Keiji’s hands were empty to match; the cylindrical switch rolled away with a fading metal clatter.
That person was someone precious to me.
Sara was dead. Nearby, Gin was screaming and someone was retching. Keiji almost wished he could vomit. He was trapped somewhere remote beyond his skull, weightless with the adrenaline vibrating his veins, deafened by his sledgehammering heart. Time warped in on itself. His vision pulsed and swam; lurid vines twisted and unfurled before his unseeing eyes. He breathed a stable rhythm of metallic stench and floral perfume.
Don’t want you to end up like Mr. Policeman…
By the time he returned, everything was over. Kanna was dead too, and the executed girls were cooled and congealing. Keiji stared at the surreal scene of Kanna’s tiny corpse ensconced by creeping plants, abloom with flowers like a grotesque fairytale princess; he didn’t really want to see, but of the two bodies, hers was easier to look at. Sou was hunched motionless beside her.
I’m a killer.
As though detecting Keiji’s gaze upon his back, Sou turned. Behind his rumpled bangs, his shining glare was wild with hate. He wiped his eyes and bared his teeth.
…A true piece of shit, burdened with my sin for life.
I’ll kill you,” Sou rasped, fingers clenched in the fabric of the dead girl’s sleeve. “I’ll kill every one of you who killed Kanna!”
Well… so that’s the kind of guy I am.
Keiji lay motionless atop his bedsheets, fully clothed in the darkness. His hands were folded upon his chest, and his long legs stretched splayed. His breathing was slow and steady as he stared unblinking at the ceiling.
His hair remained slightly damp; he’d bathed hours earlier, scrubbing mechanically at his skin with near-scalding water. His clothes were a fresh set. Even his mouth was meticulously clean. Yet the air of his sleeping quarters reeked with the hot miasma of blood.
Sara’s voice was girlish gossamer. She hung high above him in the gloom, dangling from metal restraints like an acrobat’s ghost. Her mangled midsection was stained scarlet, and tears dripped down from her dead, lidded eyes.
“I deserved this, didn’t I?” she whispered. Her tears splashed his cheeks like warm raindrops, lacing his nostrils with bitter salt before evaporating from reality. Keiji’s heart thudded and ached. “I killed Joe… I made him suffer…”
Keiji said nothing. He couldn’t. Sara began to whimper, soft and breathy amidst the scraping crunches of her shattered ribs. The sound perforated the bedroom’s silence like dry twigs.
“You didn’t hug me goodbye.” She shook with a sob, and her broken spine rattled. “It’s okay… I know I didn’t deserve it… Keiji, I’m just like you…”
A lump swelled in Keiji’s throat. Of course, Sara wasn’t here. Sara was dead. And that noise wasn’t her crackling bones—it was Sou on the other side of his door, furtively attempting to pick the lock with a piece of wire. For what he lacked in skill, he made up in sheer tenacity, and Keiji must have been listening to the quiet onslaught for at least ten minutes now.
A final click sounded. Abruptly, the door groaned open, and Sara vanished from the ceiling. Keiji remained still as Sou padded inside, bare-foot and stealthy as a shadow. Something was clutched in his hand; it looked to be a jagged chunk of glass.
Sou crept closer to the side of the bed, and Keiji could hear his uneven breathing. The trembling panting grew louder as Sou loomed in hesitation, arms raised and weapon clenched.
How satisfying would it be for Sou to plunge that glass into Keiji’s gut? Would it feel cathartic? Righteous? Empowering? Somehow, a mere arm’s length away from being stabbed, Keiji couldn’t bring himself to take this seriously. He was too tired, too hollow, too finished to care.
Sou was sniffling—did he want to be heard?—and Keiji disengaged from his jaded musings. Weary or not, he wasn’t here to die for anyone’s catharsis.
“If you were lonely, you could have just knocked,” he said.
Sou stiffened. His breath hitched, and with a choked snarl, he swung the shank—Keiji grabbed his arm and yanked him tumbling to the mattress. Even in the darkness, subduing Sou was no harder than snatching a scrawny cat, and Sou’s grip was like scotch tape when Keiji wrenched away the glass. His palm stung, and wetness trickled as he hurled it across the room; it shattered against the wall with a tinkling crack.
“Fuck you, die—“ Sou was writhing on top of Keiji like a rabid animal, scrabbling to choke his neck. He clearly hadn’t cleaned up like Keiji had, and his clothes were saturated with the musky scent of his skin. “You murdered Kanna, so die! Lying, shit-eating, dead-eyed dirtbag—“ Sou straddled Keiji’s waist, and he thrashed to free his hands from the larger man’s iron grip, spitting vitriol between ragged huffs. “You even killed Sara—schmoozed all over her like a sleazy pervert and then left her for dead—“ Sou’s mirthless laugh was a scratchy rasp, and cold anger crystallized like frost in Keiji’s chest. His fists clamped Sou’s wrists hard enough to sprain. “Ahh—you’re a real sick predator—“
“And what about you, huh?” Spite burned Keiji’s tongue behind gritted teeth. “Sharing a bedroom every night with a naïve schoolgirl?” Sou froze, squinting down. His eyelids were blotched and swollen. “Smelled fishy to me, and I know I wasn’t the only one. She did whatever you told her to. So tell me, did you—“
“SHUT UP!” Sou screamed. “SHUT THE FUCK UP! FUCK YOU!”
Sou was shaking, gasping for air, and he pried his hands free to claw at his own head. Keiji stared. He never questioned that Kanna merely watched him. But…
It’s easier if I can hate you.
“We all do bad things, huh?”
“SHE WAS A KID!” Sou’s shout was hysterical, and he sobbed and crumpled over as though impaled on a knife. “Ugh! You disgusting piece of trash—“
A distant thump sounded from down the hallway. Out of the remaining participants, Keiji wondered if any of them would come to check on the commotion. Q-taro, maybe. But even he kept to himself now.
“Crying isn’t going to help, you know,” Keiji said, still supine beneath Sou. “You’re tired… just go back to bed. Drink a glass of milk and kill me in the morning.”
Sou breathed heavily, skinny frame shaking as he collected himself. His hair was a wild mess beneath his askew beanie, and his pupils were dilated in the gloom. For a brief moment, Keiji wondered how old the guy actually was—purportedly at least twenty, but he looked like a teenager.
“You’re really something, know that?” Sou leaned down close, voice pitched low. Keiji was unfazed. “Are you even real? Or are you just one of those dolls?”
“Dunno. You think I’d know if I was?”
Sou’s fingers curled in Keiji’s shirt, slender and frail like a pair of pale spiders. He blinked, eyes shining wet; his chapped lips parted, and Keiji waited.
“Why did you do it?” Sou asked hoarsely. “You said you hated me… so why did you kill Kanna?”
Keiji sighed. Tired… he was so damn tired. “We need to break out of here,” he said flatly. “You’re the only one who can hack the computer system. What’s the sense in saving Kanna, only for us all to get trapped and killed anyway playing more of these death games?”
Sou’s face contorted. “Don’t you get it?” His fists wrenched tight, nearly hard enough to tear the bunched fabric. Keiji didn’t care; he had endless replacements in this fever dream of a place. “There’s no way out! We already tried. We’re all going to die here no matter what!”
“Then… Kanna’s death didn’t matter, did it?” Keiji’s voice was dull. He couldn’t pay lip service to insincere regret, and Sou only glared. “It’s the difference between yesterday and tomorrow.”
“You should have voted for Sara,” Sou spat bitterly. “She’d have picked you.”
Keiji barked an empty laugh.
Sou’s brow creased, and he bent closer still, nose nearly brushing Keiji’s. His narrowed eyes were colorless in the dark. “I don’t get you. That’s what you were setting up for with her, wasn’t it? You got her to like you. She trusted you.” Keiji’s swallow was audible; the cartilage in his throat bobbed beneath his death collar. “Whatever you were pretending to be, that is.”
“Sara… wouldn’t have taken me.”
“Bullshit,” Sou hissed, and Keiji resented his irrelevant opinion. Sou was preferable as a disingenuously mild-mannered wallflower. “Why do you think she voted for herself? She was waiting the whole time for someone to cut a deal, hoping until the very end! All it would have taken was her shady mister policeman offering to screw everyone over, and then she’d drop the virtuous act and grab the lifeline—between dying with honor and living with none, I know what she would have picked.” Sara was dead, yet Sou still seethed with paranoid fear of her. He seemed comforted by his borderline superstitious hatred, but deep down, surely he knew it wasn’t rational. “She just wasn’t shameless enough to ask. Shameless was your job.”
“Sara didn’t want to kill anyone,” said Keiji coldly, even while he ignored the sinking in his stomach. If Sou couldn’t emotionally afford to reevaluate his cynicism regarding Sara, Keiji couldn’t admit the opposite. The retrospective hypotheticals would crush him.
“Anyway, she’s gone,” Keiji continued. Dead and gone, because Sou sent her Q-taro’s Sacrifice card. Dead and gone, because Keiji watched and did absolutely nothing. “What more do you want? Drop it already.”
Sou swallowed, and his grip loosened. “Aren’t you upset? How are you so…” The tension in his voice sagged hoarsely, and the question nearly sounded more concerned than accusatory. Keiji knew better, though. “Don’t you feel anything?”
If Keiji could laugh again, he would. It struck him with sudden dry disconnect just how absurd their situation was—Sou was clinging to him like a needy cat, thighs pressed tight around Keiji’s waist, hunched and huddled close in a mockery of intimacy. In the wake of their fight, the touch barrier had shattered alongside the glass shank, and Sou’s fingers now probed thoughtlessly along Keiji’s jawline as though searching for the hinges to remove his face. Hanging locks of his teal hair brushed Keiji’s skin like feathers, and the heat of their breathing mingled in the space between their lips.
If Keiji felt anything, it wasn’t hate. He knew why Sou was here, even if Sou was too insecure and turbulent to admit it to even himself.
“Answer me.” Sou’s demand was strained and breathless, and hostile desperation welled in his puffy glare. “Keiji…”
Unfortunately for Sou, Keiji had nothing to give. He hung a sheep’s head and sold a dog’s meat, as the saying went. Something deep inside him ached with regret.
“You can sleep in here, you know,” Keiji heard himself say. The word’s spooled out of him easily, coated by languid, reassuring authority. “It’s fine by me. I’m not going to judge you.”
Sou’s mouth snapped shut, and he drew back to stare at Keiji. For a split second, his expression resembled Sara so uncannily that it curdled the blood in Keiji’s veins—but then Sou blinked, and the suspicious yearning was iced with hard contempt. His hands flinched away to pull up his scarf and tug down his beanie.
“Oh, I almost forgot. I saw a funny video,” Sou said suddenly, ignoring Keiji’s offer. A quaver weakened his lofty tone. “Well, not ha ha funny. I saw a recording of your first trial, with… Megumi Sasahara, right? Your ex-boss?”
Keiji lay stiff and numb. Fuck this—and fuck Sou, perched atop him like a shitty little sleep paralysis demon, running his paws all over Keiji literally and figuratively, searching for some open wound to slide in under his skin.
“Miss Megumi was a pretty lady,” Sou remarked, tilting his head. Keiji’s jaw clenched. It would be so easy to tear off that security blanket he called a scarf, grab his toothpick neck, and squeeze the volume off. But something told Keiji that was just what Sou wanted.
“She was tied up in chains. She looked so scared. She was begging you, but you were so cold… sheesh, just watching made me shiver.”
Keiji’s fingers twitched. Violence roared within him. They both already knew he was a monster, but he wouldn’t give Sou the satisfaction of losing control. What would it really accomplish, anyway?
Sou’s eyes narrowed to a squint. “What score did you have to settle so badly? Why did you just stand there while she got ripped apart alive? Poor Miss Megumi…”
“Megumi didn’t deserve to be saved.” Keiji’s reply shook like his fracturing composure. He could hear the iron chains rattling in his skull, smell the steaming stench of her blood, see her prim face unhinged with terror, and something vicious stirred and throbbed inside him. Sou’s heated weight shifted across his hips.
“Deserve? Huh.” Sou’s voice dripped with scorn. He gripped Keiji’s shoulder and began to lean close once more. “But that didn’t matter to you when you killed Kanna, did it?”
“Nope. Guess it didn’t. Got me there.”
Sou was relentless, and Keiji didn’t care to keep going in circles on this miserable carousel with him. He was at his limit; his heart felt threadbare, each heavy pulse threatening to burst and spill.
“And what about Sara?” The room shrank tight at the sound of her name. “Did she deserve to die?”
The air in Keiji’s windpipe hitched audibly; Sou’s pupils widened to black holes. He licked his pale lips like a ghostly epicure.
“Her begging was so sad. Please, Keiji! Don’t kill me!” Keiji shuddered at Sou’s girlish, breathy imitation. His strangled exhalation was nearly a groan. “Brave Miss Steelmind was crying like a damsel in distress… ahh, it was pretty hard to watch… is that why you did it? Even though she asked you not to?”
“No,” Keiji choked. His vision of Sou above him was blurring to a wet smear. The bridge of his nose prickled, and his mouth trembled around his lead tongue. “That’s… not why.”
“You’re funny, Keiji.” Sou spoke with the quiet violence of a carving knife. “When a lady asks you to press a switch, you ignore her. And when she tells you not to, you do it right away! I get why you didn’t vote for me, now. You just don’t like anyone telling you what to do, huh? I guess a cop would have authority issues…”
“I didn’t want Sara to suffer,” Keiji sobbed. His own cracked voice registered surreal in his ringing ears. It was the sound of another man’s guilt, another man’s grief; his gasping huffs wracked the long silence, and Sou’s palm pressed against his broad, shuddering chest. The touch rested there like a stethoscope as Keiji broke down in the dark.
How long had it been…? It seemed like a lifetime ago, but Keiji warped back in time with a single heartbeat—and suddenly he was that boy again, shoes sinking into the muddy riverbank, crying uncontrollably as his mother’s bicycle disappeared beneath the water. But the man who’d saved the day and dried his tears was never coming back, because somewhere between then and now, Keiji had shot him dead.
I’m a killer.
His face was streaming like a cracked stone dam; he blinked, and hot tears trickled down behind his ears, soaking his bleached hair and the pillow behind him. Sou traced his fingertips like a paintbrush over Keiji’s wet cheekbone. Keiji couldn’t see him anymore, nor did he even care. He was drowning in blood that wasn’t his own, and Sou was lost far beyond the clotted torrent.
“I take it back,” Sou whispered. “Living is what you deserve.”
…A true piece of shit, burdened with my sin for life.
The bed creaked, footsteps padded, and the door clicked shut. Keiji’s chest was cold and weightless as he remained immobilized on his back, tears pouring from his eyes like ichor from a festering wound. He stared straight up with bleary, swimming vision; a metallic tang flooded his nostrils, and on the ceiling, Sara began to writhe.
“Keiji…” she cried out. “Keiji, please…”
Keiji lay still. He said nothing.
Well… so that’s the kind of guy I am.