❯ Ritual – Chapter 2

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]

Disclaimer: I don’t own Akira, and stuff. The actual guy that does is Katsuhiro Otomo. I just write about it in my spare time. I didn’t make up the pool van either; some guys on a Japanese TV show actually made one (though I can’t seem to find their names).

 

Ritual
Chapter 2

Kaneda gave the photo a long, hard glare. Great. Just fucking great. They had pictures of him now. Did this mean every lunatic in the city was going to be showing up at his doorstep? Did they have pictures of Kei fighting Tetsuo too? Did she have to worry about them harassing her? Right now, he wished he still had that laser in the photograph; that way, if he ever found the idiot that kept taking all these pictures, he could drag him out into the street and shoot him!

He turned his glare to the monks. « Alright, ya got me, » he growled. « Now whaddya want with me? »

The monks, upon hearing the had the correct man, quickly got on their hands and knees. Kaneda just rolled his eyes.

« Forgive us for disturbing you, oh Noble One, » the first monk said. « We simply come to you with a humble request. »

« Noble One, » huh? « Disturbing » sounded like an understatement right about now. Still, he couldn’t help but feel morbidly curious as to what this « humble request » was.

« And that is…? » he really hoped he wasn’t going to regret this later.

« If it isn’t too much trouble, » the monk replied, sitting up, « we’d like to know if you could speak at the temple tomorrow. You can share with us your experience with the Devourer and Akira. »

« Devourer » was their code name for Tetsuo. They had a few fancier ones liked « The Great Red Fiend » and « He Whose Appetite Cannot Be Satisfied, » but « Devourer » seemed to be the most popular one. They used names like that because, quite frankly, they had no choice. No one knew his real name but a handful of people. Kaneda’s gang and Kei were pretty much it. Colonel Shikishima had refused to disclose Tetsuo’s identity in an attempt to distance himself from the Akira Project. Since the pictures just before the second blast showed him swallowing up everything around him, they came up with the nickname « Devourer » – as well as those fancier ones.

Kaneda gave the monks a withering look. « I dunno…, » he said. « I’m not really a religious type. That and you guys might not like a lot of what I have to say. »

« That is quite alright, » the monk said, shrugging a little. « We are not here to convert you. Just a chance to talk with you is all we ask. And if our perceptions are wrong, we’d love to hear about it. After all, none of us were there; you, on the other hand, were. »

The aged biker paused to think. These guys seemed to be a lot less loonier than he expected them to be. Still, he wasn’t sure about walking into a temple full of them. What if these guys were just the sane ones? He didn’t want to walk in and find out they really did have human sacrifices.

« If you are concerned about encountering zealots during your visit, have no fear, » the monk suddenly added. « Religious tolerance is important to us. We heartily encourage it amongst our congregation and frown upon scornfulness toward other denominations and non-believers. You will not have to worry about getting into any altercations with any of our members or being subjected to any ritual you do not wish to take part of. »

Kaneda actually jumped a little when he heard that. « How did-?! » he yelped. Then he remembered who he was talking to and grunted. « No, lemme guess…you’re psychic? »

« I’m afraid I am without the Gift, » the monk replied. « I simply guessed that’s what you were concerned about based on our conversation. »

« Oh…uh, right, » the middle-aged mechanic sighed, rubbing the back of his head. « I’ll…I’ll have to think about it. »

The monks stood up. The one that had done all the talking handed Kaneda a small card.

« If you do decide to come, » he said, « here is our address. We will be greatly honored by your presence, oh Noble One. »

« Uh, thanks…, » Kaneda replied warily, taking the card.

« No, thank you, » the monk responded. « Farewell. » He and his companions bowed deeply before leaving. They seemed to just disappear into the shadows. Or maybe it was just really dark and Kaneda’s eyesight wasn’t what it used to be.

The aged biker glanced at the card. Unfortunately, he couldn’t read it in the dim lighting; all he could see was that there was some kind of black flower printed on it. He wasn’t sure if he should really go there. Those monks seemed friendly enough, and they told him everyone else was too – but could he really take their word for it? Besides, they were asking him to stand up in front of a large audience and give them all details on something he had been avoiding talking about for a long time. He didn’t like to bring the subject up around his fiancée and old friend, let alone a crowd of strangers!

On the other hand, this was a great opportunity to set some of these wackos straight. He could tell them what really happened that night – that Akira didn’t just magically appear on his own, and that Tetsuo didn’t turn into a monster on purpose. He could also tell them Tetsuo’s real name and put an end to all the goofy nicknames they keep coming up with. Who knows, maybe afterward they’d all be a little less…wacky.

That, and he had to admit that avoiding the subject all these years was getting a little ridiculous. He was pushing fifty now, and he could hardly talk about it with two people who had practically seen the whole thing? Maybe it was time to stop pretending like nothing ever happened; it’s not like ignoring it had helped at all.

As he put the card in the pocket of his jeans, his eyes wandered over to the crater. Well, he had already done one insane thing today, why not another? It would at the very least be an excuse to close the shop early and give Kai that time off he had been oh-so-subtly needling him for.

With that, he started the old red bike’s engine. As he pulled away from the crater, he couldn’t help but feel like someone was watching him drive off.

« Oh, that is nasty! That is just nasty! »

It was the next morning, or rather, later that same morning. The day had been off to a good start. No sightings of black domes followed by massive explosions so far. It had been a rather slow day what with so many people out of town, but that just meant they had an extra day to finish all their current jobs. It also meant no more customers strolling in the door with more pool vans. Unfortunately, those good feelings came crashing down around Kaneda when he opened their current pool van’s filter system. There was a lot of green in the van’s filter cartridge. An awful lot. Both mechanics were currently sitting in the van’s empty pool area (where the back seats would be in a normal van) gawking at it.

« Uh…that can’t be cleaned, can it? » Kai asked.

« Oh, that’s beyond cleanin’, » Kaneda grunted. « We gotta replace it. » He quickly put on a pair of gloves. « Here. I’ll grab it, you get the new one! »

« On it! » Kai replied, climbing out of the van.

Kaneda gingerly reached into the small alcove in the floor of the vehicle where the filter was housed. Even with gloves on, he didn’t really want to touch it. He quickly pulled the filthy cartridge out, climbed out of the van, and threw the thing in the trash.

As he climbed back into the van he noticed something. Apparently, the cartridge was filthier than expected; the algae was clogging the intake and outtake pipes. Looks like they’d have to clean that out too.

He also noticed something else: it was taking Kai way too long to find a replacement cartridge. Kaneda glanced over by the supply cabinets and saw why. The younger mechanic kept taking the various boxes out and putting them right up to his face in order to see what they were.

« Oh Kai, just put your freakin’ glasses on already! » he barked.

« I don’t need no stupid-ass readin’ glasses! » Kai snapped back, defensively. Unfortunately, he was saying this while putting another cartridge box practically up to his nose. Still, if there was one thing Kai hated it was being reminded that he was getting old. People telling him to put his glasses on because his eyesight was going was one of such reminders. Well, at least it wasn’t a crack about him « thinning on top »; those were the worst!

Thankfully, the box he had in his hand was the correct size cartridge. « See? Toldja I’d find it! » Kai scolded.

« Well you’ll hafta lay it on a table for now, » Kaneda sighed. « The pipes are all clogged with that green shit. We hafta clean those out first before we put the new cartridge in. »

« What?! » Kai cried. « Aw, dammit! Why do these things always hafta be such a pain in the ass?! »

« Well, » the older mechanic said, smirking, « we could always put it off till tomorrow. »

« Whaddya mean? » the younger one said, raising an eyebrow. They had already finished all their other orders; this pool van was the only thing left to work on.

Kaneda looked at the clock on the wall. It was almost noon. « How ’bout we take the rest of the day off? » he asked.

Kai looked at him incredulously. « But Kaneda, you never close on this day. »

« Yeah, sure I never close. But I never said I don’t close early! »

« You sure? »

« ‘Course I’m sure! » Kaneda answered, climbing out of the van. « You go have fun over by that crater. I’ll lock up behind you. »

« Well, uh…thanks! » Kai replied, grinning. He tossed the box onto a random workbench and headed over toward his bike.

« Just watch out for them wackos over there, » Kaneda warned, as he grabbed his keys and started locking up the place.

« Aw, don’t worry about me, » Kai reassured him as he climbed onto his motorcycle. « I’ll be fine. And those guys are pretty harmless. A bit weird, but harmless. »

Kaneda took this as a good sign. « Well uh,…good luck then. »

« Later, Kaneda! » Kai started the engine on his bike and drove off.

The middle-aged biker finished up locking down the shop, but didn’t turn off the lights just yet. He took out the card he received last night from the pocket of his jeans. He could read it now that the lighting was better. Well, most of it anyway. Perhaps Kai wasn’t the only one that needed reading glasses now.

The place was called the « Temple of the Black Lotus. » Sounded pretty menacing. But, they did say they were harmless. Even Kai said they were harmless. He sure hoped he could take their word for it, because he was going there to practically tell them off.

He was really tempted not to go; he had a bad feeling about it. Still, the monk had practically begged him to come. He even called him « Noble One »! Kaneda grunted to himself. He was getting soft in his old age.

Well if he was going to go, he wasn’t going to drive there. These people saw him as living history – and he didn’t trust them not to try and take a part of history home with them in the form of dismantling his ride. He was going to take public transit instead. He didn’t particularly like the idea, but he liked the idea of getting one of his bikes vandalized even less.

He sighed and put the card back into his pocket. He then turned off the lights and stepped outside. As he walked toward the nearest bus stop, he hoped he wasn’t making a huge mistake.

« I can’t believe I’m out here. I must be insane! »

Kaneda was standing outside the gate of the Black Lotus Temple. Already there were several things about this place that made him want to turn around and run away as fast as he could.

The most obvious thing was that this temple was located near the scenic first crater. He thought people believed it was « bad luck » or « disrespectful » to build anything near a crater, but maybe that didn’t apply to temples. Also, the gate was the only thing out here. No temple in sight. Now Kaneda may not have been an expert on architecture, but he was pretty sure a temple gate was supposed to have an actual temple behind it.

The gate was completely painted black and made out of wood – rotten wood. The thing looked like it could fall apart at any moment. However, it also looked like it was made out of rotting wood on purpose. On either side of the rotten gate were two large, onyx bird statues. They had no features other than their eyes, which were made out of some kind of red rock. They seemed to be some kind of hybrid between a crane and a vulture. They had a stony, stern gaze – not like they were about to peck him to death at any moment, but as if they were waiting for him to give them a reason to do so.

Kaneda stepped up to the rotten gate with its creepy black birds. Knowing these people, maybe there was some weird trick where the place would magically appear before him when he walked through it. As he walked through the archway the ground suddenly went out from under him, and he nearly fell over himself. He stumbled around, cursing as he regained his balance. As he looked down to see why he tripped, found himself to be standing on a ramp leading down into the ground. So that’s why there was no temple behind the gate; it was underground. Well, these guys were certainly original.

He walked down the ramp into a dimly lit subterranean path. The only light came from small black lanterns that were inconveniently spaced far apart. Kaneda found himself running his hands along the walls so he wouldn’t crash into them when the path took a turn.

Eventually he came out into an enormous artificial cavern. Here was where he found the temple – though he had to admit he had trouble seeing it. The lighting in here was not much better than the path leading to it.

A few meters away was another gate and a fence made out of black, rotting wood, just like the one above. There was even a sign on it warning people not to lean on it, lest they break it. This second gate, as well as the doorway he was standing in, also had those menacing bird statues on either side. Inside the gate was the temple itself. All the buildings were black with a white trim. Thankfully, they didn’t appear to be made out of anything rotten. Outside of the second gate were various stands selling food and various items. All around the cavern, the temple’s namesake black lotus blossom could be seen either painted onto the floor or walls, or in various flower arrangements. The scent of essence filled the air – either that or somebody waxed the floor, because the « essence » smelled an awful lot like bleach. Just like the craters outside, the temple was chilly and had an eerie atmosphere. He almost felt like he had walked into a crypt.

The place was jammed with people milling around. The vast majority of them seemed to be dressed in black or a combination of black and white. He also noticed that many of them were wearing strings of black beads wrapped around their right arms. He wondered what that was supposed to mean. He also wondered what the obsession was with all the damn black and rotting stuff.

He walked across this reception area and through the gate. Well so far, so good. Nobody was following him around, shouting at him, or trying to pounce on him. No sign of human sacrifices either. In fact, everybody seemed pretty normal – well, except that they were all wandering about in a creepy cave.

He looked around. He wondered where he was supposed to go now. Was he supposed to find those monks, or what? Maybe he was supposed to meet them in one of those buildings?

Kaneda wandered over to the largest building, the main hall. There was a long line of people outside, waiting for something. He noticed they all seemed to be carrying large fish tanks or coolers. Curious, he peeked in the doorway. Looking past the equally long line inside, he saw an ominously familiar sight: a large stone chair. It was that throne from the Olympic stadium! It had taken quite a beating, but it had somehow survived the blast. Unless of course that was a replica, and he just couldn’t tell from this distance.

The throne looked like it had been painted red for some reason. He wasn’t sure why. But a moment later, he got his answer when the next person in line dumped a whole bucket of dark red paint on the chair. At least, it looked like red paint. The man then got on his hands and knees in some sort of prayer. Kaneda stood there mystified, wondering what exactly that was supposed to accomplish.

« Ah! Noble One, you came! »

The aged biker jumped a little when the voice rang out directly behind him. He whipped his head around to find that young monk from last night. The monk gave another deep bow once Kaneda made eye contact with him.

« Thank you very much for coming! » the monk said excitedly. « You will not believe how honored we are by your presence and-! »

Kaneda noticed the people in line were giving them odd looks and quickly shushed him. « Alright, you’re welcome! » he whispered loudly. « But keep it down, wilya? People are startin’ to stare! »

« Oh! Forgive my poor manners, oh Noble One, » the monk said, bowing again. « I guess in my excitement, I began to lose myself. Anyway, the correct building would be the lecture hall, which is right over there. » He pointed to a long building all the way across the cavern. « Follow me. »

« Uh…can I ask you a question real quick? » Kaneda asked.

« Yes, what is it? » the monk replied cheerfully.

Kaneda pointed inside the main hall. « Why…are they dumping red paint on that chair? » He was almost afraid to ask.

« Oh…, » the monk paused for a moment, looking like he was trying to figure out how to explain it. « That…that is not paint. It is blood. »

The mechanic cringed. « Okay then, » he said, trying to keep calm, « Why are they dumping blood on that chair? »

« That throne is the very spot on which Great Akira reappeared to slay the Devourer, » the monk explained as Kaneda tried not to roll his eyes at that nickname. « It is said that when one spills their own blood upon that throne, the Great One will appear to that person and answer a single question. That question may be anything, but only one can be answered per offering. As you can see, the more blood is offered, the higher the chance of the Great One appearing. »

« Uh…okay, » Kaneda replied warily. « They are usin’ their own blood…right? »

The monk nodded. « Oh, yes. The one making the offering must use his or her own blood. If someone else’s blood is used instead, there will be great consequences. »

« …Consequences? »

« It depends on how the offering one obtained the blood. If the person injured someone else, he or she will be injured in the exact same manner. If the person stole the blood from a hospital or blood bank, he or she will suddenly lose the same amount of his or her own blood. If the person killed someone else- »

« They die? »

« Correct! »

Kaneda was trying not to shudder. He was starting to feel very creeped out by this place. Sure, he had seen plenty of blood and gore before, but people willingly dumping liters of their own blood onto a chair in hopes that some freaky kid will show up?

« Uh…yeah. Maybe we should move along now…, » he said, quickly stepping away from the entrance.

« Very well then, » the monk replied, smiling. « Follow me. »

As the two of them walked across the wide cavern to the lecture hall, more questions started popping up in Kaneda’s head. He was a bit afraid to ask them; what if they also had creepy answers? Unfortunately his imagination was starting to run wild, trying to come up with its own frightening explanations. Maybe he should just ask before he drove himself nuts.

« So, uh…what’s with all the black? » he ventured.

The monk’s eyes lit up a bit at the question. Apparently, he liked talking about these kinds of things. « The Great One’s aura is black, » he explained. « Mostly black, to be precise – there is a small amount of white in it. That is why we made sure the buildings also have a touch of white on them. You may have seen the aura before – it is that famous black dome. »

Well, that wasn’t so bad. « How come you guys are underground? »

« The Great One’s remains were kept frozen inside a very large underground container, » the monk answered. « But there is another reason, though it is a bit more complicated. See, after the first incident occurred, the Great One left behind a dead body. Though he was not truly dead, those working on the project thought he was. Of course, it can be said that the Great One was not truly alive either without a body. Therefore, we had fashioned this temple much like a grave – that way, those who enter can experience the state of being neither dead nor alive. It’s also the reason our gates are made out of decaying wood. »

That didn’t sound too bad either. A little strange, but not bad. Kind of sounded like one of those deep thoughts one would have while high on something. Hey, there was a thought: maybe he should have come here stoned! Maybe the place would look a lot less spooky and make a lot more sense.

Along the way, they passed a small fountain. The circular onyx pool was in the shape of a snake biting its tail. Surrounding it were four more of those intimidating bird statues facing in what he could only guess were the four cardinal directions.

« Okay, now what’s those bird things supposed to be? » Kaneda asked, pointing to the fountain.

« Ah, those, » the monk replied, glancing at the statues. « Those are representations of the Shadowalkers. »

« …Shadowalkers? » The biker raised an eyebrow. They sounded like something out of a video game.

« Yes, » the monk nodded. « They are small segments of the Great One himself. They serve as his eyes and ears on this plane. At night, they are said to emerge from the craters and roam the city, watching over us. They are invisible to everyone except those who have the Gift. Those with the Power say that even though they can take the form of anything, they mostly appear as birds and serpents. »

Okay, now that? That was a weird answer. And things were just about to get weirder when a random follower walked up to one of the statues. The man casually took a large knife out of his pocket and, just as casually, cut one of his palms with it. He then placed his bleeding hand upon the bird statue’s head. It took all of Kaneda’s strength not to yell « What the HELL?! » in front of everybody.

He didn’t actually want to know what that was all about. Unfortunately, the monk it to him explained anyway. « That is known as ‘feeding’ the Shadowalkers. If one offers his or her own blood to one of them, the Gift may eventually awaken inside him or her. Unlike the other bloodletting ceremony, the blood must be fresh for this one. »

« In other words…you bleed on a bird, you turn psychic? »

« You may receive the Gift. It is not certain. But it is said that when the Gift is about to awaken within you, the blood spilt will begin to glow. »

« Riiight… »

« Oh, but there is more. If the blood turns black, it means that you have similar powers to the Great One himself! But, if the blood suddenly catches fire, it means you are cursed with powers much like the Devourer’s. »

« Okay, yeah…but does it have to be blood? » Kaneda tried his best not to sound too disgusted or weirded out.

« Oh, yes. Blood symbolizes the person’s life, » the monk replied, a bit too deep into his own lecture to notice his guest’s discomfort. « To sacrifice one’s own blood shows that the person is willing to give up their own life for a higher cause. That is also why the blood offered must come from yourself and not be borrowed from someone else. »

« Uh, sure… » The mechanic figured he just better stop asking questions now.

Moments later, they reached the lecture hall. Thankfully, nothing else strange happened on their way there. The monk offered Kaneda a seat on a small stage near a podium. He then hurried off to chat with the other monks. Needless to say, the other monks were equally excited at his appearance. They kept looking over in his direction to make sure he was actually the right guy.

The aged biker sat down and looked the place over. It was a typical lecture hall. Well, almost. There were generally a lot of seats – all of them painted black. Like the rest of the temple grounds, the place had deliberately poor lighting. Along the opposite wall was a large mural that spanned the room. It was basically a white circle on a black background that had weird, crystalline branches sticking out of it in all directions. He had no idea what that was supposed to be and had a good feeling he shouldn’t ask.

There were already a few people sitting around inside the hall. With the dim lighting and the dark colored chairs, he wondered how these people were actually able to locate a seat. Some of them looked like they were waiting for somebody, or waiting to see if anything was going to happen. Some looked like they were just in there because they couldn’t find anyplace else to sit. One guy had fallen asleep. Well, at least they weren’t staring at him or causing a scene.

Hold that thought. Standing against that mural were three guys – one old man wearing a dark robe and two muscleheads. They all seemed to be scowling at him. Yeah, this was going to be fun!

Kaneda tried to ignore them and think about more important things – like what he was going to say. Obviously, he was still going to disprove these silly rumors. After all, that’s what he braved coming here for. Maybe they wouldn’t be calling « Noble One » after this, but oh well. Other than that, perhaps he should just give them all a short recap of what he saw happened? That should be enough.

But he knew one thing for sure: he wasn’t going to mention Kei. He already had people hunting him down over a photo; he wasn’t about to let the same happen to her. Just for good measure, he wasn’t going to mention Kai either. Sure, the guy didn’t see as much. The closest he got to the action was the unfortunate incident in the bar. But that might be enough for some people, and Kai didn’t deserve the harassment. Besides, Kaneda was already worried about creeps hanging around the garage after this – better not give them another reason.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the monks run outside. Probably going to announce to everyone who was here. Sure enough, people came pouring in the doorways moments later. They were all staring at him in that same excited manner and practically tripping over each other trying to get a seat. The place became so packed, people had to stand around in the aisles and cram themselves in the doorways. Wow, he was really popular! He felt a bit embarrassed.

Kaneda got up out of his chair, figuring it was almost show time. One of the monks walked up to the podium to get things started. It was a different monk than the one he had been talking to. This guy was older and spoke in a much more dramatic tone. Apparently, he was used to whipping up the crowd.

« Dearest members of our congregation, » the monk began, « we have been gathered here today for a very special occasion. Not only is today the anniversary of the Second Fall, it is the thirty-first anniversary. Because of this, many people have fled the city this week, fearing a third one. We cannot blame them for being so worried. » He held out a hand. « But thankfully, all of you were brave enough to remain. On behalf of all of us at the temple, I would like to take a moment to thank you for staying and coming to visit us. »

The audience gave themselves a round of applause.

« But today is special for a third reason, » the monk continued. « Today we have a very special guest with us. I am sure some of you have heard of the Noble One who bravely challenged the Devourer and lived? »

The audience murmured an agreement. Kaneda found himself getting really annoyed at that stupid code name.

« That same Noble One is actually here with us today to share with us his experiences! » the monk said gesturing to the aged biker. « I am sure you are all excited to hear him. So without further ado, here he is! The Noble One…Kaneda, Shotaro! »

The monk stepped away from the podium, letting the « Noble One » step up. The audience not only applauded him, they gave him a standing ovation. And he hadn’t even said anything yet! As he walked up to the microphone, he was also greeted by a flurry of flashing lights courtesy of cameras.

Kaneda glanced over the crowd. He couldn’t believe he was doing this. Was he really going to talk about an extremely difficult subject with a crowd of friendly-looking but potentially dangerous strangers? Was he really about to dash their hopes and/or royally anger them by telling them a few things they probably didn’t want to hear? Maybe he really was insane – or going through a mid-life crisis at the least. But here he was; he couldn’t turn back now.

« Uh…hi, » he said into the microphone.

The audience responded by just staring back at him intensely. Some took more pictures of him.

« So uh, yeah, » Kaneda continued. « Name’s Kaneda. And I’m the guy with the bike from that picture. Or the ‘Noble One,’ as you guys keep callin’ me. The name sounds kinda silly to me – I’m not really that ‘noble.’ But whatever.

« Anyway, I was asked to come here to tell you all about what I saw. Now this ain’t a real easy subject for me to talk about. In fact, I been tryin’ not to talk about it for the longest time. So consider yourselves lucky – real lucky!

« I kinda thought it was time to stop ignorin’ it. Not like it was makin’ anything go away. But what I mostly came here to do was put an end to them stupid rumors floatin’ around! This means you’re gonna hear some things you’re probably not gonna like. So don’t say I didn’t warn you, got it?! »

He actually found himself pointing at the audience, as if he was scolding them. In reality, he was kind of scolding them. They didn’t seem to be reacting though; they just kept on watching him. Well, he figured they’d certainly react to this…

« First off, this ‘Devourer’ guy? » he went on. « He has a name. And it’s Tetsuo – Shima, Tetsuo! And he used to be a good friend of mine! »

There, he said it. What he expected next was chaos. He expected people rioting, people jumping out of their seats to throttle him, or at least a few angry jeers and at least one person fainting. But, chaos was hardly what happened. Instead, there was a just loud murmur amongst the crowd. Nobody got up from their seats, nobody shouted anything at him. There wasn’t anybody that even looked lightheaded, let alone about to faint. The majority of them did look shocked, but it wasn’t an angry or a horrified shock. They looked more interested than anything. Some of them were even writing stuff down as if they were taking notes.

At this point, Kaneda was probably more shocked than they were. He took a moment to get over that shock before continuing. « Now, that doesn’t mean I’m gonna defend anything he did here, » he told them. « He did some damn horrible things. I mean, he even turned on me! But at one time…he was a regular guy just like me and you. » He paused for a moment before continuing. « Poor guy never saw it comin’. Hell, he probably didn’t think any of this psychic stuff was real before all this… »

The topic was getting increasingly difficult to talk about. He figured he best change subjects.

« Anyway, guess I’d better get to tellin’ you all what happened. At least, best I can anyway. Everything was really confusing, and well…I’m gettin’ old. My memory probably ain’t what it used to be. »

There was a small laugh out of the crowd.

« Well, it all began late at night. Me and the guys were out ridin’ around. Got in a fight with a rival biker gang. Y’know, the usual.

« Then Tetsuo gets in an accident. We all run over to him to see if he’s okay. And that’s when I saw what he ran into. It was the damn weirdest thing I ever saw! » He almost shuddered recalling what the badly mutated test subject looked like. « It was this kid, but…but he wasn’t a kid! His skin was all wrinkled, and…was like, colored a grayish-blue, or something! I’d find out later he was actually one of Akira’s old friends. Poor kid…

« Anyway, right after that, a bunch of G-Men show up. They actually came for the kid, but they decided to make off with Tetsuo, too. The rest of us just got tossed in the pen for the rest of the night. I didn’t see Tetsuo ’till much later – when I caught him in the school parking lot, stealin’ my bike! »

This got a snicker from the audience, though Kaneda didn’t find it all that funny. However, he shrugged it off and continued on.

« So, me and a few friends chase after him. It was a good thing too, ’cause some of them rival gang members we ran into last night were beatin’ up on him pretty badly. We fought them off, and…that’s when I found out Tetsuo was really pissed off about something. Kept yellin’ about how he wanted to show us all. And then he had this weird seizure right there in the street! That’s when the G-Men showed up again and dragged him away for the second time.

« Well at time, I started gettin’ real sick of these government guys runnin’ off with my best friend and doin’ who-knows-what to him. So, I got together with…some of these Resistance guys I kinda knew. We managed to sneak into the place where they were keepin’ him. ‘Course by the time I found him…the bastard decided to turn on me! Yeah, you try to save a guy and that’s the thanks you get. Go figure, huh? »

The audience snickered again. Even Kaneda grinned a little this time.

« Well anyway, right after that Tetsuo flies off, leaving me to get tossed in the slammer…again. Thankfully, someone was dumb enough to leave the door unlocked. I just walked right outta there.

« So when I get outta the joint, I find out Tetsuo’s torn up half the city…and even killed one of my friends! » He pounded on the podium, his outrage growing. « Well at that point, I had had it with him. And since I was his former best friend – as well as the owner of the bike he wanted so badly – I figured I was the one who had to end it! »

The audience suddenly applauded him. Kaneda grinned wider this time and even gave them a short bow. He felt like he shouldn’t be enjoying this, but he was.

« …Thanks, thanks. Anyway, I managed to snag me one of those government issue laser rifles in all the confusion. Figured it might be the best weapon to use against him. I followed him all the way to the stadium. Pretty easy to find him; just follow the trail of destruction, right? Anyway, when I get there, he had somehow dug up this…huge machine right outta ground!

« So I go up there to confront him. He tries bein’ all friendly to me at first, but it doesn’t take him long to turn on me again. Then we get in a big fight. I come thiiiis close- » He demonstrates with his thumb and forefinger. « -to getting him right in the chest with that laser. But then the battery died on me. Figures. »

A chuckle from the audience.

« Well the fight had to be cut short anyway, thanks to an armed sattelite shootin’ at us. A couple friends helped me get outta there before I got fried. » He made absolutely sure he didn’t say who those two friends were.

« So I recharge the laser’s battery and go back to the stadium later that night to try again. When I get there, I find Tetsuo attackin’ the Colonel by doin’ this…freaky extending trick with his arm! »

Kaneda attempted to demonstrate by streching out his right arm. He noticed several audience members who were wearing those beads pointed to them or played with them. Did those beads have something to do with Tetsuo’s arm trick? He didn’t want to ask.

« I shoot at him to get his attention. Then we continue our fight. Right in the middle of it, Akira’s friends suddenly show up in the stadium. They just kinda…appeared there. I dunno how they did it. Must be a psychic thing. But I gotta hand it to the kids – they distracted my ol’ buddy long enough for me to get him right in the arm! »

He pumped his fist, quite satisfied. So did the audience, as many of them cheered and clapped. He hated to admit this, but this was kind of fun!

« But I didn’t get to celebrate, ’cause then something happened… »

The audience murmured, but Kaneda could hear a lot of people saying « uh-oh » to themselves. Apparently, they knew what was coming next.

« Man, I’ll never forget it as long as I live. After I shot him, Tetsuo’s arm just…exploded! And then the rest of him did, too! And then he turned into a…uh…well, you’ve seen the photos, right?

« Now here’s another thing you might not wanna hear: he didn’t do it on purpose. The guy looked really scared. I’m pretty sure he didn’t even know he could do that. I think his power got away from him, or something. And he was beggin’ me to help him! Not that…I could actually do anything… »

So far, so good. Nobody seemed surprised or fazed that Tetsuo didn’t just mutate himself on purpose. Some of them almost seemed to be expecting it. As he paused to watch the audience’s reaction, he beame lost in thought for a second. This trip down memory lane had brought him to the hard part. Those questions he had about that fateful night revived and were nagging him again.

« …Sometimes, I almost wonder if that was my fault. I mean, shootin’ him made him blow up, didn’t it? »

He never meant to say that out loud – it just a slip of the tongue. He wanted to slap himself now. He meant to tell them off, sure, but not incriminate himself.

Kaneda tensed. He wasn’t quite sure how the audience was going to react to that. They all seemed pretty accepting of everything he said up until now, but he had just practically admitted to turning Tetsuo into a monster himself. Were they going to let him have it now or…?

Thankfully, they did nothing. Nobody even looked angry. Instead, they were shaking their heads. They were…reassuring him. He heard one person in the back shout, « It would’ve happened anyway! » Taking that as a good sign, Kaneda pushed aside those nagging questions and continued on.

« Eh, whatever, » he shrugged. « So anyway, Tetsuo turned into that…uh, blob monster…thing. And he started eatin’ up everything around him. Not that he wanted to – he didn’t have a choice! He accidentally ate his own girlfriend. Poor girl was in the wrong place at the wrong time. »

He felt pretty sad remembering what happened to Kaori. While he didn’t know her all that well, she always seemed like such a sweet girl. He didn’t think she deserved such a gruesome end. He couldn’t imagine how bad Tetsuo must have felt about it. Still, he continued on with the story.

« I almost got eaten not once, but twice! He came close to eatin’ the Colonel and them poor kids, too!

« But that’s when Akira showed up to ‘save the day,’ so to speak. Now, I don’t think he just appeared like everyone says he did. I think his buddies had something to do with it. I just remember when they showed up, they sat themselves down in front of them canisters and didn’t budge. »

He hardly felt tense at all as he revealed the final bombshell. After all, everybody was doing such an amazing job of behaving themselves. And they still were – they simply talked amongst themselves or wrote stuff down like they did before.

« I got caught in the explosion myself. » Immediately, the audience snapped to attention. « I thought I was just gonna get burnt to a crisp just like any other explosion. But that’s not what happened. Instead, I was just…flyin’ around, or something. It was really weird. »

Kaneda figured he’d leave out the flashbacks. Nobody needed to know about those. Besides, the crowd seemed content just knowing he had seen Akira’s blast from the inside.

« But it didn’t last long. Before I knew it, I was on the ground again. Guess where ever they were goin’, they didn’t want me taggin’ along.

« That’s the last I saw of ’em. If you’re wonderin’ if I had any weird ‘experiences’ after that – like hearin’ messages or seein’ things – I didn’t. A few bad dreams probably don’t count, right?

« Anyway, uh…that’s my story. Yeah, I know it ain’t as glamorous as a lot of you were probably expectin’, but…eh, that’s life for ya. What can I say? »

Just like in the beginning, the enthusiastic audience gave him a standing ovation complete with loud cheers. He smiled, actually feeling a little touched. Caught up in the moment, he decided to add one more thing.

« Y’know, you guys were a lot easier to talk to than I thought. I came here thinkin’ you were gonna try to kick my ass for somma the stuff I was gonna say. Why don’t you give yourselves a hand? »

The audience went wild at his compliment, cheering louder and jumping around this time. Some people over in the corner looked like they were attempting to crowd surf.

Kaneda grinned to himself. Oh yeah, workin’ the crowd! he thought.

As he stepped away from the podium, the monks approached him. As usual, they gave him a deep bow. They looked almost excited as the crowd did. The young one he had been talking to earlier stepped forward to speak.

« Wonderful speech, oh Noble One! » He paused a moment. « Uh…if I may call you that… »

« Nah, it’s okay, kid, » the biker replied, still grinning. Since he was in such a good mood at the moment, the nickname hardly bothered him. « Call me whatever ya want. »

« Oh, alright then, » the monk replied. He looked over at the ecstatic audience. « Do you have time for any questions? »

Kaneda looked at his watch. It was past four o’ clock already. And seeing how riled this crowd was, he’d probably be there for days. Besides, he figured he said enough already.

« Nah, it’s gettin’ late, » he answered.

« That’s too bad, » the monk said. « But thank you once again for coming here! Your speech was very enlightening! »

« Ah, it was nothin’, » Kaneda replied. He idly wondered if he should be the one thanking them. It actually felt good to finally talk about the subject. Sure it didn’t change anything, but he felt a whole lot better about the whole ordeal. He wondered why that was. Oh, who cares? What mattered now is he was in a much better mood.

The monk who had introduced him earlier stepped back up to the podium. The audience quickly quieted down.

« Dearest members of our congregation, » he said, « unfortunately, the Noble One does not have time for questions. But let us give him another round of applause for taking the time to speak with us! »

The crowd looked a bit disappointed at first, but they quickly got over it. In fact, they went wild again. Kaneda gave them a quick bow and waved before stepping off the stage.

The exits were still jammed with the people who hadn’t been able to get a seat. Fortunately, they quickly parted to give Kaneda room to leave. They also showered him with compliments as he walked by – which he definitely enjoyed. Hey, as long as they weren’t trying to express their gratitude by tearing his clothes off as he passed them!

Kaneda then exited the underground temple and headed back to the bus station. Well, coming here didn’t seem to be a « huge mistake » after all. Everybody there really was « harmless. » Okay, they were a bit creepy with all that bloodletting and dark stuff, but still harmless. He was also in a much better mood than when he came here.

But despite his good mood, that sense of foreboding suddenly came creeping back. He had no idea why. After all, the hardest part was over right?

He tried his best to shake it off as the next bus pulled up, but for some reason it refused to go away.

Wonder what I should do for dinner?

It was later that evening. The sun hung low in the sky. Kaneda was now walking down the much quieter sidewalks, heading back to the garage. His apartment was actually located on the second floor of his auto repair shop. Sure it wasn’t much, but it sure made the commute to work very short.

He headed down the dark alley next to his garage, up to the metal staircase that lead to his apartment’s entrance. He dug through his pockets for his keys. Just has he was about to put his foot on the first stair step, he suddenly heard an unfamiliar voice behind him.

« So the Devourer has a name. That was a most impressive speech you gave back there… »

Kaneda whipped his head around. Behind him were those three creeps from the temple that had been giving him the evil eye. For some strange reason, they had followed him home. He had a feeling their reasons were none too good.

« Can I help you guys with something? » he asked, giving them a suspicious glare.

« Actually, you’ve already helped us out once today, » the old man said cryptically. « But there’s something else you could do for us. There’s a certain ‘errand’ we need done, and you would be best for the job. »

« Uh huh, » the biker replied warily. « Are you guys with the temple? »

« No, we’re not. They tend to question things a little bit too much for us. We’re a sect all to our own. »

« Riiight. And what’s this ‘errand’ you want me to do? »

« Just come with us. We’ll talk on the way. »

« There ain’t nothin’ you can tell me while walkin’ that you can’t just tell me right here. » Kaneda’s suspicion about these strangers had practically been confirmed. He had lived long enough to know that any « let’s take a walk » offers from eerie strangers were code for something horrible. These freaks were definitely up to something, but what was it?

The old man sighed. « I can see you don’t trust us, » he said. « Very well then. We were prepared for resistance. »

It was then that his two lackeys finally made a move. They stepped in front of the old man, still glowering at Kaneda. One of them slipped on a pair of brass knuckles while the other brandished a lead pipe. They didn’t seem to be carrying any guns or knives. Apparently, they wanted him alive and didn’t want to take any chances.

« Alright then, Mr. Kaneda, » the old one growled. « We can do this the easy way or the hard way… »

Kaneda just smirked at them. « Y’know what your problem is? » he said. « You think that just ’cause I’m an old man, it’s easy to kick my a- »

The middle-aged mechanic was suddenly cut off by the goon with the brass knuckles lunging at him. The bodyguard threw a punch, but Kaneda easily dodged it. The biker then stunned the guy with a punch to the gut before bringing him down with a subsequent kick to the groin.

« Still got it! » Kaneda gloated.

The other henchman looked absolutely stunned. He also looked quite hesitant to challenge the former gang leader. He looked to his boss for help, only to be met with a stony glare. The bodyguard reluctantly charged Kaneda, swinging his lead pipe wildly. Unfortunately for him, his swings were easy to dodge.

Kaneda continued to dodge the pipe, leading the henchman over to a rusted-out old fire escape attached to the building next door. He led the bodyguard right up the steps, which creaked under their weight. As Kaneda stepped on the first landing, the fire escape suddenly groaned and shifted, throwing the goon off balance. The biker then firmly gripped the rusty railing on both sides and kicked the guy square in the chest. The henchman fell backwards and right down the stairs.

« You guys should watch more kung-fu movies, » Kaneda sarcastically scolded the two injured lackeys. « You never take on the old guy! » He then turned to their boss in the alley below. « And you should learn to hire guys that can actually fight their way out of a paper bag! » He then addressed the group in general with a much more serious tone. « Now how about all of ya get your asses outta here before I call the cops?! »

It was then that they all heard a terrific groaning of metal right above them. Apparently the skirmish, although small, had been just too much for the old fire escape. It began to shift again, forcing Kaneda to grab the railings for support.

« Ohhhh shit…, » he cursed.

But before he could even make a move to get off the thing, there was another loud groaning noise. The first landing suddenly snapped off its brittle, rusty hinges and collapsed into the street. Kaneda was thrown backwards and over the railing. He landed onto a nearby closed dumpster. Unfortunately, the back of his head hit the metal doors, and he was instantly knocked unconscious.

For a moment, all the mysterious old man and his two cronies could do was just stare at the limp body incredulously. Finally, the old man gathered his bearings and broke the stunned silence.

« That was easier than I thought! »

Ritual – Chapter 1
Ritual – Chapter 3