This time, however, the main absence Kyle felt around him... was of sound. He couldn't hear any birds in the air, nor the whispers of a breeze; as though wildlife and weather alike knew to give the schoolhouse ruins a wide berth. Quietness was never a good thing when investigating the Secret World. He preferred the noise. Of a creature, of conversation, of anything. He didn't care what it was. This deathly silence - the absence of anything that wasn't made by him - was fundamentally wrong in his mind. Every so often, Kyle found himself idly playing with his ear with his right hand just to reassure himself that he hadn't suddenly gone deaf.
It had only been a few short minutes since he'd yanked the bullet out of his own arm but, already, he could feel the flesh inside the wound starting to knit itself back together. Hyperaccelerated healing was always an odd sensation; to actually feel what was, in essence, a time-lapse progression of the mending process working away inside his own body. What would have been a fixture of a mundane person's life for weeks, if not months was something that Kyle would see the end of in just a few hours. Despite the silence, however, he refused to have the nearest gun anywhere more than a few inches away from his hand at all times. Occasionally kicking at any wildflowers in his path as he walked, he began to slowly make his way towards the ruined school.
For something which had been abandoned for just over forty years, it was remarkably intact. The external walls hadn't yet crumbled and, while each and every window had at least one hole in it due to decades of vandalism, his cursory - if distant - glances through them that, despite most of the furniture being destroyed, stolen or missing, the inside of the school was at least able to allow people to carefully venture inside. He was no structural engineer, but the old Bibai schoolhouse didn't look like it was in imminent danger of collapse.
It took him a few moments of trudging around the building's perimeter before he located the entrance; a wise, six-and-a-half foot tall rectangular frame which had once housed a set of double doors. Now, however, one of the doors was missing completely while the only signs of the other's existence was a jagged section of half-rotted wood still somehow clinging to one of the metal hinges bolted to the frame. Even without some of the interior walls and most of the furniture, Kyle could tell that he'd found the lobby. To his left, sat what appeared to be a reception area; a low wall forming the beginnings of a counter at which a member of staff would have greeted visitors and students alike.
Although the walls had fallen apart in places and there was nothing covering any of the windows, the late hour meant that Kyle still needed help to see where he was going. Wincing as he spurred his injured left arm into action, he reached for his phone and, after some awkward fumbling with his thumb, managed to activate the light. Would space have allowed, he would have fitted an actual dedicated LED torch light to the back side of his phone for the task but, alas, the camera's flash bulb would have to do. With the phone held up, he could once again pick his way through the dilapidated ruin and, after double-checking the reception desk in search of anything useful to his investigation, he set off down the curved corridor towards the first set of classrooms.
Nudging open a door with his foot, Kyle - having travelled about thirty feet - decided to take a detour into one of the classrooms. Between the exposed sections of wall were a series of corkboard façades, each of them displaying remnants of a brightly-coloured display; pieces of paper either pinned or taped there for all to see. From the relative lack of kanji - or fragments of it, after forty years - and the once-vivid colours, he surmised that this was likely a room for younger students; first-graders, perhaps. Despite the classroom's size, many of the desks had been reduced to rubble, with only a couple still able to stand under their own power.
Despite the obstacles, Kyle still made an effort to search through the room. Whatever cabinets, drawers or desks he could reliably access and force open, he searched. Right now, the object of his quest was something he'd know once he found it. Any sign of the Dragon's involvement in whatever had caused the schoolhouse and the surrounding mining town to fall into abandonment and ruin. Anything that seemed out of place or abnormal against the backdrop of a 1960s-era school. Each drawer he searched was torn out and tossed to the floor; a more expedient way for him to keep track of where he'd already looked. Many of them were full of shrivelled, distorted textbooks, seemingly burned or exposed to a violent flameless heat at some point in the past.
Once beyond the first classroom, the preliminary leg of Kyle's investigation became somewhat monotonous. While the rooms had once been distinct and different from one another, the destruction had rendered them all a homogenous mess. There was no longer any way to decisively determine which room had served which purpose - for Kyle to tell the difference between a first-graders' classroom and the teacher's lounge - which left him with little more than guesswork to piece together the layout of the school. Unsurprisingly for a building left to the elements for forty years, no-one had thought it prudent to keep a floorplan to hand. And, having never thought to ask Kaito Miyamoto precisely where he'd caught a glimpse of the Dragon's emblem, he was somewhat at a loss as to where to look next.
Without foreknowledge of what he was expecting to find, Kyle was left with the options of what he would do were he in the shoes of this mysterious agent from forty years in the past. While he was far from an adept ritualist or versed in almost any kind of magic, the fact that many spells necessitated the building of some kind of circle was one so ingrained into the collective consciousness that even mundanes who watched television - binging on their Buffy The Vampire Slayers and their Supernaturals - were unknowingly privy to it. He hadn't found one yet. He hadn't found so much as a magical rune scratched into the wall or daubed on a desk in blood.
Around twenty minutes had gone by as he removed the last of the drawers on the teacher's desk. Having made it to his fourth classroom and turned up nothing, Kyle was beginning to think that he was going about the investigation the wrong way. He was trying to apply logic to a situation that, if his assumptions about the things discovered in his interview were true, the Dragon had created. They were a secret society that thrived on - and made use of - chaos, after all. Nothing they did, when viewed alone, made sense. It didn't make sense because, in the moment in which their acts were committed, it didn't have to.
Sifting through the drawer's contents, it was clear that, once again, he'd turned up very little of interest. The only thing in there that wasn't damaged or faded beyond recognition were the remains of what appeared to be a curriculum textbook; a plain-coloured cover with lines of Japanese detailing the content in a businesslike and altogether mindnumbingly boring font. A part of him was tempted to take it. It looked like any book in its situation would, having sat in a dark drawer in a destroyed classroom for four decades. The fact that it had been somewhat shielded from the elements had been instrumental in keeping it in one piece and, from flipping his way through it, just about all the pages were still legible. The potential interest in something like this wasn't insignificant: education historians and museum curators would both have appreciated a look back into how lessons might have been conducted in the 60s. He might even get some money out of it; certainly enough to buy his colleagues a round or two. It depended on the exchange rate.
But, as he dropped the drawer to the floor, a muffled banging caused his whole body to whirl around in the direction of the wall which shielded him from the corridor. Somewhere, back the way he'd come from, a door had slammed shut. On instinct, Kyle's right hand went for a gun while the left set the textbook down on the desk. If he remembered, he'd be taking it out of here with him. A part of him had expected something like this; for some sort of presence to show up unannounced and, with the potential for danger now escalating by the second along with his heartrate, his senses were training themselves on his surroundings.
. . . a o i k a m i.....n o.....o t o k o . . .
The syllables hissed their way through the air; a sing-song voice conveying the eight syllables in a strangely slurred fashion. Kyle's eyes widened as his mind processed the words. It was no coincidence that the three main words were all ones he recognised. It was also no coincidence that the three words in question were calling him out. The only way it could have been creepier was if the voice was doing so by name. He squeezed his eyes shut, just for a moment. He wasn't scared. Not yet, at least. He just didn't want an errant thought to give something any ideas.
Slowly reaching the door, Kyle raised his arm. The concept of hauntings and haunted places had worn somewhat thin over the years. More often than not, hauntings followed the same small collection of traits; various things which led someone such as himself merrily along the path from A to B. A was learning how the culprit was tethered to the mortal realm, while B was taking the swiftest option to extricate them from it. Normally, by focusing on what needed to be done, he evaded the whole idea of being scared. But this... was different somehow. Urban legends had always said that the old Bibai schoolhouse was haunted but, up to now, nothing had suggested that this even was one.
And then he opened the door.
For a split-second, Kyle thought that Mitsuko had somehow followed him all the way out here. The figure which stood motionless on the other side of the threshold shared a couple of physical characteristics with his interpreter; black hair, a slender figure. But, from the way it seemed to occasionally flicker as though caught on a broken videotape, Kyle knew he wasn't looking at a high school student. A pallid-skinned Japanese woman was standing before him, dressed in attire that appeared far too modern to be placed in the mid-20th century. Skinny jeans held around the waist by a studded belt, coupled with a military green croptop which had been paired up with a black, long-sleeved bolero. And, like many members of the Japanese public, the lower half of her face was shrouded in a surgical mask which almost blended with her skin.
"Aoikami no otoko." The figure spoke flatly, regarding him with a set of glassy eyes. With the mask on, it appeared as though she'd been frozen in place; as though it was a cardboard cutout that had just spoken to him. "Wata-..." Kyle's momentary theory compelled him to pull the trigger, the bullet cutting the figure off before the start of her next sentence. Where the wet sound of lead meeting flesh should have been, there was a blast of heavy air as though he'd landed a hit on a bag of flour. In an instant, the figure recoiled from the impact before losing all cohesion, fading away into plumes of smoke.
Even when the figure had gone, Kyle didn't move. He was frozen, slowly panting as he fought to harden his composure. A part of him had been expecting to see a yokai - a Japanese malevolent entity - at some point during this trip. But he hadn't prepared himself to have one stare him dead in the eyes without warning. Why was it here? Had it just drifted in at some point after the school's abandonment? Or had it been deliberately brought here? He didn't know. And, rattled for the moment as he was, he was struggling to think which was more likely.
It was a good few seconds - almost thirty - before his right arm started to retreat to his side. He didn't bother to holster the gun. Now that he knew that yokai were close by, there was no way that he was going to walk around unarmed. He needed to be prepared to open fire at a moment's notice. In hindsight, he knew that he'd already finished searching the room he was in. The only thing remotely interesting he'd turned up had been the old textbook in the teacher's desk; something which might have scored him some money - or, at least, some appreciation - from a museum curator or an antique store. There was nothing keeping him in that room. He knew he should have moved onto the next one.
But he turned around anyway.
"Watashi wa utsukushii desu ka...?"
This time, the loudest noise which rang out in response wasn't gunfire. It was Kyle's back as he flinched his way against the classroom door. With no warning - and no sound whatsoever - the same figure from a few moments ago had been standing behind him, waiting for the moment where he would pull an about-face to stare at her. Kyle's mind began to race again. This time, his mind leapt onto the inquiry. A normally innocuous question that just sounded eerie and unsettling coming from the woman before him. Five words. And, as he pieced them together, the pit in his stomach only grew.
Am. I. Beautiful.
Watching the figure slowly reach into its pocket and produce a set of large tailoring scissors - an implement that should not have been able to fit - only cemented the notion. The kuchisake-onna sounded like something out of a horror movie; so much so that it had been used for one. A masked Japanese woman would approach lone people at night, asking if they thought she was attractive. According to the legends, the victim was in for a violent death or mutilation regardless of their answer. There were, apparently, ways to at least confuse or distract her for long enough to make a getaway but, with his assignment requiring that he stick around, none of them were particularly viable. And, for the ones which required him to actually speak, Kyle didn't know enough Japanese to convey them.
So he shot her again.
And, when he ran out into the corridor and made it all of ten paces before she fizzled back into existence before him, he did the exact same thing. Having now been chosen as a potential victim, Kyle knew that he had to keep moving. He also knew that, with a kuchisake-onna breathing down his neck and able to teleport her way around the school on a whim, his ability to investigate was going to be hampered. But, despite all of that, his mind soon went back to his earlier thoughts about ritual circles. They were so prevalent in magical theory; the bigger the circle, the more powerful and more difficult the spell. They could be drawn to incorporate objects; candles, relics and the like; the designs giving each one its proper place.
But what if the ritual circle was the object?
What if, in a crazy idea to end all crazy ideas, the Dragon agent had built their ritual circle... out of the entire school?
It would have taken a lot of work and preparation just to get into a position to try and pull it off but, as far as Kyle knew, it was theoretically possible. The only variable which changed between the run-of-the-mill incantations found in spellbooks and this... was scale. In his mind, the theory was almost taking on the form of a scientific experiment. He'd conjured up a hypothesis; something which he believed might have explained everything he'd seen as well as compelling Mitsubishi to shut down their entire operation.
Now he just had to prove it.