Open Secret 1
Part 1: The TOM Awakens
A stiff finger jabbed a button and a “ding” resounded. One half of a normally cheerful, rarely sounded “ding-dong” at nondescript 1156 Lancaster Avenue. But as the finger continued to depress the ringer, the “dong” emerged unrecognizable, and hikaslap knew something was wrong.
The now bottom-pitched “dong”, slow and macabre, filled the entryway of hikaslap’s house with a preposterous loudness. The sound hung in the air, oscillating nitrogen molecules as well as the surface of his skin. But that was the only part of him that moved, for he found that he could not so much as flick his eyes around. No. That couldn’t be right. It couldn’t, because he knew that in some inevitable future less than two seconds ahead, his eyes would (had?) indeed flicked to the side. His entire head would turn, in fact.
But then why was he so aware of this one instantaneous moment? Why did he feel frozen in time, despite a conscious nagging feeling that he was not? He felt drugged.
“I’m coming in,” said a beautifully soft voice, rising above the bass “dong” like a rounded wooden flute. It did as it said it would. In the next moment the bass had disappeared, his head had turned, and his cheek had smacked right into something soft, warm, and clothed in thin pink cotton.
Then with a smack, he was on the floor, and that same cheek stung like a bitch.
“Hey, that’s grounds for sekuhara, you know,” whined the voice. His eyes found a girl with arms hugged over her chest.
“Sekuhara…?” Her outfit: pink and sleeveless with a red skirt. Her eyes: way too bright. Her skin: tan to contrast with her hair. Oh god, her hair: it was downright azure, so azure that he wouldn’t be surprised if the sun, clouds, or a flock of birds would pass over it.
But then he blinked and it was brown.
“Sekuhara? You know? Sexual harassment, but in like, Japan?” She smoothed down her shirt and pretended to shudder. “Aren’t you supposed to be some sort of perverted otaku, hikaslap, you should know this.” Her words had a melodic lilt, particularly the word “perverted”.
No. No no no no no. They had finally come for him. He had moved safe houses five times in as many months, trying to conceal his activities, and they had still found him, they were still going to murder him. She was evidence enough – a girl cuter than any other 3D female with the ability to make time stop, not to mention his heart.
He got up. He had to get out of here. She was cute, but there were lots of really cute girls in real life that probably would not want to kill him. She was going to kill him. She was going to kill him!
Wait, wait. Don’t be afraid. You can handle this.
“Who are you?! Did he send you? What do you want from me, why are you here, and actually I don’t care, you’ve wised up to my abilities, but I’ve been prepared for this, this is my chance, I will beat you motherfuckers!! Yeah, yeah now I’ll show you what you get for overestimating yourself, ‘cause you have just walked into my trap, bitch!”
All perfect, pertinent things to say, except none of them were actually said. hikaslap had no trap and was not prepared for anything in the least.
“Um.” He raised his hand. “So, are you going to kill me? And, why do you think I’m a perverted otaku.”
“No!” she gasped, in mock horror. “No, no, no, no way, buddy. I’m here for more important things than killing you. You forget or something? And for why you’re a perverted otaku, need I remind you of this?”
She twirled her finger in the air, and the monitor of his computer screen rose up into the air and, for lack of a better word, nodded. Yes, the monitor gave a massive, cartoonish nod and came to float between them. On screen was displayed a certain webpage.
Shit, she knows my second best-kept secret. “Isn’t that right, H_____?” Shit, she knows my first best-kept secret! “Yes, hikaslap, I know your real name, all thanks to my employer.”
She cleared her throat and assumed a business-like expression. “Anyway, no time to dally. We’ve got some stuff to talk about, so we should go do that, now…”
Her thin, unclothed arm brought itself around his shoulder. It must have looked a little lopsided since she had to reach up to do it, but being 4 inches shorter than him had no doubt been engineered on purpose for cuteness. “My employer,” she had said… TOM’s whims were always mysterious, but he (if he even could be called a “he”) had always liked the cuter points of the mortal world.
But TOM had never sent something like this before. Never a sentient, breathing facsimile of a human being. hikaslap had to be on guard. He began breathing heavily, and his face ran cold.
Up until now, hikaslap had received all sorts of messages from the dark spirit. Blood on walls, unsettling dreams, physical letters that lit on fire after the last word was read. Kuro-pi and Ayumi had had their own share of difficulties with protecting the Grimgal project from the more dangerous pieces. But here, just when they both were on vacation on the Christmas holidays, TOM struck again with a stupidly cute girl he had never sent before. No one could save hikaslap now.
But if it was sentient…
“Y-you’re not…” hikaslap gasped, his breathing now ragged as he saw the floor, the ceiling, the whole world being sucked into a single point of space. Except, of course, for those two that stood in the rapidly encroaching darkness.
“I’m not,” she said, sounding for all the world like a wooden flute, contoured and breathy. “I’m not the demon you’re searching for.” She put her hand on his cheek, and time froze again. He could not move his eyes, let alone his mouth, but she could move, and she brought her face close to his.
“Don’t you wish I were, though?” she said, and her voice was unslowed, her eyes drooped affectionately, like she really was human, no not affectionately she is a piece of crap demon, goddamn it hikaslap she wants to kill you tomorrow if not today get it TOGETHER
Time unfroze, and the world became dark.
Part 2: Ame-something
They emerged in a palace of stone. Not that hikaslap could see the outside, but just from the room he found himself, it looked palatial. A circular place, spacious and empty except for thick carpets, thick pillars, four gigantic stone doors, and a roaring fire in a… a gourd? A stone gourd, fire dancing inside, hung right above their heads.
hikaslap had been in a place like this before, when he explored the Labyrinth back in May. Kuro-pi had rescued him then…
The girl was already crossed-legged on the floor. She patted the space in front of her enthusiastically. There was a laptop there, too, its screen facing hikaslap. He went over and sat uneasily.
“Hi!” she said, grinning widely. “This is where I live!”
“Uh, great,” he replied. A long moment passed while hikaslap stared at the laptop, open to Microsoft Word. “So. Uh. I’m not going to die and you’re going to talk.”
Her arms shot up in the air, palms showing. “Yes!” she exclaimed(!!!) “Yes, WE are going to talk, because it is downright boring here. You’d think that a little conversation would be part of my job, but noooooo.” The girl harrumphed.
hikaslap shrugged. The emotions of TOM’s minions mattered little to him, especially because they were not real emotions anyway. He touched the laptop keyboard. “And this?”
“Well, you’re going to take notes, of course. Right? Normally you don’t have the opportunity, so you have to document the encounters by memory! But now we are giving you a laptop, we are letting you take notes. This is good! Yes.” She beamed.
Didn’t this girl say melodramatic crap like “don’t you wish I were” literally 2 minutes ago?
“Okay then. What are you gonna talk about.”
“WE, hikaslap!” She slapped the floor. “Come on! This is not a one-sided lecture, even if TOM wants it to be. Now, let’s do introductions. My name is Ame—”
“No. Wait. Pause.”
“Is this—” hikaslap struggled for a moment. “Is this a joke? Is TOM screwing with me again?”
“Um… no? What do you mean?”
“I mean is this a fucking joke is what I mean.” hikaslap sighed. “Look, don’t you know who I am?”
Ame-something clapped her hands together and nodded. “Of course I do! You’re hikaslap! Grimgal blogger and used-to-be editor! You’re famous!”
“No…” hikaslap scratched his cheek. “No, that’s just a cover story. Can’t believe I have to explain this. Listen. This is important. I’m actually—I’m a hero,” he said, and his voice trembled at the significance of the statement, the meaning of his life.
But all she did was smirk. “Are you now?”
Be unmoved. Remember your training. “Yes, in fact. I’ve been training my whole life for the time when I will face the enemy. Just watch.”
He stood up and executed a little roll from a standing position back to a standing position. The hard stone floor hurt his shoulder, but hikaslap remembered his training and did not say “ow”. The girl applauded politely. hikaslap said, “Now do you know what you’re up against?”
She giggled. “I’m up against a hero, huh? I know heroes. I’ve met them before working with TOM, but none as funny as you just yet.” She put a finger on her chin. “Normally they throw lots of bombs at me instead of doing cute rolls. Well, before they had bombs and guns, they had swords, and before that, clubs…”
hikaslap had never held a bomb or gun in his life. But his ninja cosplay sword was his most prized possession.
“Why don’t you just forget all that hero stuff?” Ame squeaked. “It never works out. Trust me. I’ve met heroes before, and they don’t last long. We should just hang out and have fun conversations. You can show me what it’s like on the surface world and stuff, and I can show you—”
“Are you crazy!?” yelled hikaslap. What a ridiculous thing to say! “You can’t be allowed on the surface! Who knows what horrors you’ll wreak?! I ask you again! Is, this, a joke?!”
“WHAT?!” hikaslap was very loud, and the girl shrunk back.
“N-No, because, I really do want to be friends with you—”
“If you fraternize with me any longer I will put you first on my ‘to be eliminated’ list.”
hikaslap sat back down, and Ame reached out her hands, imploring. “At least… we should finish introductions, at least! Right? My name is Ame-”
“No! Stop!” hikaslap shook his head. “God, what’s the matter with you? I do not care about you or your name!” He pointed right in her face. “Listen here, you crazy bitch. My life is devoted to erasing TOM and, as you’ve discovered, harnessing his power to update Grimgal in the meantime. I don’t need anything else, especially conversation with you, Evil Enemy Demon Girl!”
She frowned, and her shoulders slumped a little, but hikaslap knew this wasn’t enough. He had to do more, or otherwise she would continue her advances and attempt to sway him again. She and TOM—she and TOM wanted to destroy everything! The injustice of their evil fueled hikaslap’s vitriol.
“Ugly!” he squawked. “And you smell! And you live in a dump! Who the hell wants to live in a place made out of rock?! Your idea of a good time is conversation with a perverted otaku? You must have no friends to be stooping that low! Oh, wait, you don’t! Well, that’s what you get for working under an evil monster!”
hikaslap stopped and caught his breath. In her cross-legged position, Ame-something slouched. Her hands fell, lifeless, despite their earlier slapping and gesturing.
Looking down to his right somewhere, Ame said, voice low and mocking, “You really are just another one of his heeeroes. They’re aaall the same.”
“Fine!” she roared, sounding nothing like a flute. Her hair was ablaze with azure light. Ame looked him in the eye and her irises were blue, too. “Forget ‘we’! I will talk, I will finish, and then you can go back to your dinky little world saving, even though TOM is the loveliest, harmless-est creature in the planet! He wouldn’t hurt a fly! And you’re just going to die like all the rest of them! You know?! They always die, TOM always kills them. because they never care about anything really important.” The light of her hair was intensifying, and she affected a scathing sing-song tone. “They’re always so focused and so righteous. I used to like it, but now I realize it makes me sick.”
hikaslap tried very, very hard to be unmoved. Remember your training. Remember your experiences. Don’t let her sway you, it’s just a trick. She and TOM will destroy the world.
“You done yet?” said hikaslap. He successfully kept his face expressionless.
Her mouth pulled to one side, and hikaslap blinked to find her hair brown again. “Almost. I was just gonna say, you’re just like some Grimgal readers I know. Don’t care about TOM, don’t care about me. They don’t care about you either.”
“Even I don’t care about me,” said hikaslap. Solid like a stone. You can do this. “As long as the people of the world can live an uncursed existence. Naturally I don’t care about TOM. And, demon, hear me. I will never, ever have a reason to care about you.”
She was quiet for a long time as she looked at the floor. Have I defeated her? thought hikaslap. Then she shrugged. She looked back up at him, impassive and resigned. Unreal emotions, all of them. “Care about whatever you want, I guess. Let’s do what we came here for. TOM asked me to tell you that…”
Finally, thought hikaslap, as he stretched and pulled the computer into his lap.
T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the castle, you could hear a voice complaining, courtesy of the asshole.
“Okay, look,” said the asshole, whose name was hikaslap. “I’m tired. Can we take another break?”
“The more breaks you take, the more I’m going to talk,” said the girl dismissively. “TOM’s orders, can’t question ‘em.”
hikaslap found it highly unlikely that TOM’s orders also included longwinded analyses and occasionally emotional rants on the Winter 2016 anime line-up, the Winter 2015 anime line-up, the Spring 2006 anime line-up (“The very best”, Ame had said, wiping a tear from her eye) as well as more general statements about the anime industry, the light novel industry, and their place in translation.
And if hikaslap asked Ame-something to stop, it was just going to get worse? Fine, she could just go on by herself, then. No one said he had to listen. hikaslap closed the laptop and stopped taking notes; he’d had quite enough of this, and naturally Ame didn’t notice anyway.
Time to get out of here. hikaslap got up.