Chapter 1: Prologue
Fair warning, this first chapter is a prologue, which means little exposition. It's going to be somewhat confusing, because I deliberately didn't write in exactly what is happening. First couple scenes in the next chapter are going to be much, much clearer.
"My son, wherefore seek'st thou thy face thus to hide?"
"Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?"
"My son, 'tis the mist rising over the plain."
- Erlkönig, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Welcome one, welcome all,
To my stage beneath the water fall,
We begin our tale of fools,
Now counted among ghouls,
Who don't know how good they had it.
A world we gave,
If they'd only just behave,
But they left us behind,
Quite heartless, I find,
These runaway servants to a world unfit.
Were we not gracious?
Were we not polite?
No, they were noxious,
No, they were a blight,
A malediction, to them I will fit.
The First Phantom's a scoundrel, wily and kind,
But in the Joker's honor, doom did he find.
"We grow tired of your promises, lord of light and thunder."
"Can this wait? I'm still recovering from that arrogant brat making my headache even worse."
"We do not care for your idle festivals. We grow irritated at our lack of knowledge."
"Urgh...fine, fine. What-ahem, what do you want of this humble man, noble scholars?"
"Your tone is noted, but we shall grant you benefit of patience. Samples. Beyond your home environment."
"What? I do respect you, my lords, but reports of disappearances outside such a populous area-
"Are not our concern. The data requires stratified sampling. You will give us a sample, or we will consider the benefits of breaking the oath."
"You appear amused. Is there a problem?"
"No! I-Not with you. It's just that-how many samples do you need?"
"One will provide ample data for a year or so, should we have a control to compare to."
"Then, you can track people through sympathetic connections, then? Will this piece of a coat do?"
"... It will be difficult. But it is adequate for our purposes. Our complaints are currently satisfied with this offering."
"Heh. Damn brat gave that day a silver lining after all..."
The Second Phantom's a brute, strong and carefree,
But within the Skull's bondage, so shall he scream.
Another day, another school period of avoiding Kamoshida. Another month, another part-time to support his mother.
This was Ryuji's life now. Damn it.
In all fairness, that last part was likely whether or not that pervy sack of shit permanently injured his leg or not; his mother, while the definition of a dedicated working parent, was still only one woman stuck in a fairly low-paying job. So, to help supplement her income and help reduce his own financial burden on her, he regularly juggled jobs from people who didn't mind minors helping. Such as delivery, janitorial work, or in this case, dock work.
Ryuji, to be frank, hated that one the most. It wasn't even anyone's fault (and in truth he got along with the boss there the best, because he didn't seem to be actively looking for reasons to not hire the proud delinquent again), it was that a lot of it involved heavy lifting. And that involved leg work, and his bum foot really was not a fan of that. Mom could always tell when he was done with a dock job because he was hopping home.
And of course, the fact that, recently, he couldn't help but feel it was the creepiest. The boss got his cargo late at night, and he preferred it was moved to a secure space as as soon as possible, which usually meant Ryuji was out late at night. Normally, that wouldn't be so bad, except for the fact that the last couple months had been riddled with reports of mysterious disappearances with no set profile for those who vanished, which his mother usually watched, which she then related to him...
Quite simply, Ryuji worked a bit faster in the present jobs. Of course, today he felt relatively safe given how he was working close to the water. Wasn't like any serial kidnappers would jump out of the sea to drag him off. So, it was with a bit of ease that he hoisted this latest crate-
Funny, he could have sword he heard clicking-
"Thiiis one. Thiiis one shhhe wants."
The last thing he knew was a rubbery tentacle being wrapped around his mouth and nose as he felt something sharp and metallic jab into his jugular.
Ryuji Sakamoto was not the sixth reported missing person that month. He never vanished. But then again, neither did most of the twenty taken; secluded places gave the abductors time to replace them.
The Third Phantom's a minx, gorgeous and sly,
But as the Panther suffers, shall she wail why.
This was wrong. This was all wrong.
"It's... It's okay Ann. It's just... It's just a bad start, that's all." The kind of smile Shiho was sporting would not be out of place on a mummified corpse, and was somewhat less genuine. "K-Kamoshida is just tough, that's all. I-It's not anything to be concerned about."
That bruise did not look like "just tough." But Ann simply smiled back in about as an equally genuine way, and made an empty platitude about it getting better, something she barely processed and certainly didn't remember afterwards. She was too busy running down exactly how her first, best, and almost only ever friend could have gotten that bruise, and none of it involved "just tough." "Just tough" did not involve Shiho shying away from touch, or nearly lame from a limp, or the hidden looks of pain that were hurriedly covered up as she passed the other volleyball team members. Or Ann getting a strange message from Kamoshida about discussing Shiho, only to have him grow upset and demand she do it in person when she called him back.
But what was the use in admitting to a problem she couldn't do anything-
Ann Takamaki was not a person who was, strictly speaking, involved in the occult. But being an outcast seemed to have a way of drawing the strangest people towards you, and giving you a perspective on the world that wasn't limited by the need to fit in. Her other friend (and occasional rival for gravure photo shoots), for example, considered herself something of an occultist hobbyist between shogi matches, and because of that, also had discovered websites that she said had actual basis in real occultism.
Admittedly, the thing that was springing to mind, the Liber Nihil, was something that Togo had called "likely right by accident", but it was the only site that offered a ritual to save those closest to you in return for loss of your soul to demons for a year and a day. And as Kamoshida made it clear exactly what Ann would have to do to keep Shiho happy, letting someone borrow your soul for a while sounded ever more appealing. So, a month to the day she thought that, Ann Takamaki cast her first and last ritual, and found exactly what she was asking for.
Of course, the writer of the Nihil, besides being what could be termed politely as an edgelord, more accurately wannabe Satanist death metal musician that the actual religious Satanists and rock musicians who threw him in prison for his spreading of unclean lore that tapped into realms of existence that should not be tapped thought was trying too hard, was also a poor scholar. He never found out it wasn't truly a duke from Hell that ritual would summon, or that for him, "selling your soul" was synonymous with "taking a work contract." Or the real mechanism behind the people losing their souls had a different personality.
The part where Shiho was not protected in other ways than just from Kamoshida bullying her as a volleyball team member was largely Ann's oversight however. When dealing with a being of smokeless fire who arrives with all the splendor and terrifying majesty that title deserves, it's hard to remember to specify the letter of the deal so no one may violate the spirit.
The Fourth Phantom's sprightly, starry-eyed and wry,
Mona's dreams shall be crushed, as he lives a lie.
He didn't know who he was.
It wasn't a sickening lurch, like it should have been. He simply noted that when he thought "I", he didn't tie his past into that concept. In fact, thinking of his past, it seemed infuriatingly present but unreachable, like something that hadn't been remembered enough to commit to reflexive recollection. Like a long-ago visit to a theme park, or... Damn it, there was something that made him sad, but that was part of the haze. Damn it.
In fact, the more he thought about it, he wasn't sure how he got "here" in the first place. He distinctly remembered seeing a luxurious mirror in a bedroom he was not supposed to be in suddenly fold in on itself, revealing a forested place with the rose made of blue diamonds and painted mahogany he was now carrying with him. He remembered being suspicious and freaked out, then he took a good look at the rose and realized it could probably buy him shelter and rent for weeks, no matter how fake the jewels were. So he dived in, just far enough to grab it without actually stepping through-then as soon as he touched the rose, the edges of the mirror suddenly manifested again, and he found himself slipping in before they closed. He remembered getting scared, then realizing that the only way out was finding that gate. Or another gate back, because he doubted that was the only one, a place this large.
Pity gates weren't apparently very frequent. It was also so large, he gradually discovered, he never encountered somewhere familiar. Even when he was doubling back on his own trail. Not that he'd know how to navigate the woods(?), he was very much a city cat.
A city! He lived in a city! That was something! Okay, city, where would a gate to a city be in a...
Was that a car?
He darted to a tangle of vines, looking out into one of the weird pathways he kept finding-
That was not like any car he remembered. In fact, he got the sense it was more someone's idea of a car, and who wasn't actually trying to replicate what he heard about these horseless carriages thing exacrly. He had slept in an art gallery once, and this thing reminded him of some style that had been exhibited at the time, "Art Deh-koe" or something like that. The fine wire mesh for a frame indicated whoever designed this was probably someone exhibited.
But the back was open, and that meant he could get in. The owner was probably a resident of whatever cities existed in this weird crazy place, but he could adapt. Sure, he'd probably be beaten senseless and thrown in juvie hall for a while, but he was a stowaway. Maybe that life would be better than what he left behind, even if he couldn't remember it.
In time, and after the fifth time he was pronounced legally dead and rebuilt to go straight back to his post distilling dreams (that regularly fought back) the owner of that car mined into dyes in colors that he didn't think normally existed, he decided that no, whatever he left couldn't have been worse. Probably being torn apart by whatever lived in that crazy world, as opposed to the Factory-Cathedral's insane one, was probably a step up.
The Fifth Phantom's quiet, eccentric and witty,
But as the Fox is ensnared, his life becomes a pity.
He thought it'd be harder. It should have been harder.
Not because it was complex. His "nest-egg" was complex. Replicating a painting exactly was complex. But this? This was not complex. Four steps was not complex.
Step 1: Admit that you have been an awful master. You have known this for a long time.
Step 2: Compliment your student on being leagues better than you. You feel this is a lie, but you can swallow your pride.
Step 3: Reveal that you have a different teacher in mind, one who has no motive to take your student's name from his own artwork.
Step 4: Give proof that student accepted deal to new employer.
Of course, Madarame hated the term "employer." It implied the relationship between him and his security ticket wasn't strictly case-by-case and professional. Yes, the very existence of a particular Oath meant that Madarame also didn't have to spend half his life looking over his shoulder and the other half dreading a messenger from his newest archenemy, but really, it wasn't anything about love or loyalty. Madarame hated the Patron, hated all of his kind - but it was a rational hatred, one founded in full experience of how powerful they were. One could hate a particular criminal outfit and recognize that they protected you and your street from worse criminals, even if it was only to interfere with the competition.
That really wasn't a good metaphor either, because criminal outfits were generally not involved in the current state of your residence being the local plane of existence, and without a whip at your back. But the metaphor was something that helped Madarame deal with the fact that Yusuke was now in the same hell Madarame had been for five years. Who knew, maybe Yusuke would escape, and in that case, it's not like he did anything in the first place. But he felt he should have had to agonize more over what he had to do to survive.
In the end though, and something he would never let himself admit, there was a simple reason it was so easy: Better Yusuke now than Madarame for eternity.
The Sixth Phantom's stoic, brave and strong,
As the Queen is broken, she wonders what went wrong.
Panic brought a kind of clarity with it.
Not the test anxiety Makoto was used to. That was sheer fear in all directions, and helped nothing. But the actual evolutionary mechanism panic was supposed to be for, ie running the hell away, made panic a welcome thing in this situation.
"Wound her! Tear her! Make her beg!"
The gibbering barks combined with more literal animal sounds may have been getting closer or farther. Makoto did not care. All she knew is that she had to keep moving.
"Hurt! Take! Savage!"
She did not know where she was running through, or how the familiar grey buildings with neon highlights of Tokyo suddenly became leafy, green, and shaded with flowers, but she did not care. All she cared about was a pack of what she supposed could be called rabid dogs, if dogs had human eyes, hands, and instead of baying they gibbered in Japanese to each other. So not very much like rabid dogs, although given the content of the gibbering the "rabid" part probably fit.
"Run her down!"
Why were they chasing her, anyway!? She was just bringing take-out home to Sae, since neither of them wanted to cook tonight. But she threw them the food, and they kept coming.
"Tire her out!"
Every scratch from the thorny plants she ran through brought a new thought. Was it a shortcut she took? Was it something she said? Was it something she did? Was she bad?
Was that light?
"... Keep her away!"
Who cared? The dogs didn't want her to go there, so she dived and-
Slowly, Makoto turned to the wrist that was the source of the pain, and what little part of her mind that was still capable of coherent thought idly noted that the armored hand holding the spiked chain reminded her of an ornate ceremonial armor from Europe she saw once.
In the coming weeks, she would also remember something else - the reason she thought those eyes were human wasn't because they had recognizable shades, colors, or even that close to being human in structure.
It's because they were intelligent.
The Seventh Phantom's reclusive, peppy and wise,
But as Oracle's enslaved, tears shall she cry.
[<Alibaba> has joined the room]
Alibaba> I come in peace. >ALL
Alnitak> Welcome, <Alibaba>.
Alnilam> It is surprising how much company is in here.
Alibaba> Well, when you're desperate, any port in a storm, right? LOL
Alnilam> Indeed. Any help at all is welcome.
Alnitak> Though, this chatroom was difficult to find. How did you?
Alibaba> Well, to be frank, you probably know my history. I didn't come here for depression buddies.
Alibaba> Really, for me, depression buddies doesn't work. I can't deal with people in meat space casually, at all. So all I have is a bunch of pills that, TBH, work, but only to the point I can will myself out of bed in the morning.
Alibaba> At least I feel sad now, instead of nothing.
Alnitak> Theory: Then you started looking for alternation solutions.
Alibaba> N duh? They don't exactly advertise this place on evening news. 9_9
Alibaba> But yeah. I heard that there were rumors of a chatroom where they were running drug trials for a better antidepressant. Actually take the rainclouds away rather than thin them slightly.
Alibaba> Though seriously, that was a weird password. It was like a tour of the most obscure references there was. I want to select myself for a better medicine, not play an ARG! Gah!
Alnilam> Must be frustrating. But it does select for the well and truly needy of people.
Alibaba> I guess. Still, was pretty hard overall!
Alibaba> Though, I guess when the trials start, we use the registry here to crack into the random sampling list? The stuff I found really wasn't clear.
[<Mintaka> has updated their profile: At Work.]
Mintaka> No need. We will be right there.
Alibaba> shit don't take this from me I need
Alibaba> BRB, weird sounds and lights outside my house.
[<Alibaba> has been logged out.]
[Do you really want to delete all records, <Mintaka>, <Alnitak>, <Alnilam>? Y/N]
The Eight Phantom's proper, elegant and prim.
The Noir's taken by gods, forced to every whim.
"And the real trouble is, you raise them to be prim, proper, and mature - then you realize they got in in their heads that this means they're all independent and the like, ergo 'screw the family, I'mma feminist!'" Haruto Hibiki, president of Raiden Television, shrugged, causing the tea within his cup to slosh around a bit. "Kids today. They don't know what goes into the sausage, and they don't want to know. If they did, then they might have to cut back on sausage, and that'd be terrible."
Internally, Kunikazu Okumura winced, but he knew there was a time and a place for criticism of quaint opinions. "I know how you feel. My Haru's a good girl, dutiful and strong, but she can't see that we're a rich family, almost still nobles. We can't afford to be feminists up here, not in public. Not if we want our name to be regarded with any respect." Especially if I'm going to have any shot at being an MP, he pointedly did not say.
"Ah, yes, Haru. How's the little spitfire doing?" Hibiki said, leaning back in his seat in a manner it took all of Okumura's willpower to not mock for bringing a high school delinquent to mind. "Still fearing your sandwich is going to be bacon, lettuce, and belladonna one of these days?"
Spitfire? Haru? Apparently Hibiki had a much different idea of what made a girl "too shouty" in his eyes than the vast majority of people Okumura met in his life. Still, he was the president of a TV network notorious for being somewhat trashy and sensationalist, and that was just the news half. The other half was all soap operas and game shows, all the time (though at least he hadn't succumbed to having more reality shows, the rot of the media). To Hibiki, if a girl was described as stubborn, she was obviously TV Stubborn, headstrong and loud; of course, Hibiki had never bothered to actually meet Haru, and thus all his information on her was a combination of raw facts, assumptions, her picture, and Okumura's semi-drunken ramblings and complaints. So he couldn't really be faulted. "Probably not me, but I suspect she'll give Sugimura the special fugu after enduring him for a while."
"All the better! No charges, no legal fees!" Hibiki gave what Okumura internally termed his "mob boss" laugh, a strong har har har deal from the depths of his lungs. Okumura knew better than to not laugh along. "Seriously, though; that girl needs a sense of proportion. She's part of the family; she should really consider how her feelings impact everyone else."
"Don't I know," Okumura replied, finally relieved to talk honestly. "It's like, to her, I may not even exist; I know Sugimura isn't the best person in the world, but please - this is the kind of thing high society is built from, and has been for generations! Love has nothing to do with it; marriage is, and has always been, a business transaction, a way to make two families aligned with one another. Your sacrifice is making both of us all the better for it!"
"And if Sugimura's really that repellent - well, it's not like he's ever sober enough to tell what he looks like. In fact, I'd say a bit wider sampling would be a service to the gene pool!" Hibiki broke into the mob boss laugh again, and it physically hurt for Okumura to join in that time. The things he did to sell himself.
So did it continue for about an hour or so, with Hibiki making "jokes" that Okumura didn't dare to call him out on, and occasionally making business arrangements between the small talk and eating. Still, Okumura felt he hadn't wasted his time; he got to make a better impression on the source of the PR shield between him and the jackals also known as investigative reporters, and he didn't have to pay for the dinner, anyway.
As for Hibiki, however?
Hibiki was ecstatic. Sensei had his eye on Okumura for a while, and that meant Okumura coming to him. He wanted to sell the Lord of All Burgers a miracle, all he needed was something subtle.
Changing an errant daughter to be less of a migraine? It would probably take a little prompting for even her dear old dad to notice.
Eight Phantom Thieves, Eight Displaced Slaves,
The journey's afoot, in an unjust game.
But no matter the stage, this Fool says,
All will suffer, and will die insane.
the true fae lie to everyone.
Chapter 2: Running Out From The Clock
Gentlemen, ladies, those of other parts of the gender spectrum, behold! Actual coherent answers to what is going on! Repost due to glitch.
There is more than one world.
Not another planet, mind. Other planets are ultimately part of the same mortal world, if a bit distant and hostile towards life adapted towards the environs of Earth. They have the same set of physics and internal logic, even if the end effects are rather different.
No, the language of other worlds is the language of different forms of existence. Some only slightly different from the mortal world humans know, far more vastly different. Of these, however, many are intimately linked to the mortal world, however. The Astral World, for instance, formed of the thoughts and dreams of every single thing in the universe, even inanimate matter, though wise travelers in the Astral learn to separate their thoughts from those of concrete, insects, and oak. The Underworld, realm of the dead and yet unquiet, is another, an endless cavern formed of the regrets of its denizens, who have unfinished business that will not let them journey beyond the veil, but have nothing to guide them back to the living world and so end up wasting away the centuries in endless attempts to recapture their memories of flesh.
And then there is Arcadia, realm of the fae. Not just its own world, but a collection of universes built upon the Wyrd, the wandering child of the laws of Narrative and Dream. It is a strange place, terrifying and wondrous in equal measure. So vast is its endless, trackless lands that the very border between the mortal world and the fae world is itself a world, a great Hedge that many humans mistake for the true homeland of the fae, but even the Hedge itself is but a mere shadow of the realm it borders; where the Hedge contains everything that can be imagined, Arcadia has no such limits. For in Arcadia, the only limitation is a promise, and what you will give to fulfill your every wish. All is the Wyrd, and the Wyrd is all.
Perhaps once, it was utopia, a pastoral forest where all could find what they truly wanted, and perhaps even stay there away from a world that may seem so banal and cold. No longer. There is a reason why many fae dwell in the Hedge now; Arcadia is no longer theirs.
Where the True Fae, known among themselves as the Gentry, came from, nobody knows. Perhaps they were humans who decided what they wanted to do was rule anything at all, and were willing to pay their own souls to have that desire. Perhaps some Arcadian woodsman broke a promise that allowed his home to exist free, and to fulfill his punishment the Gentry were let in from other, more hostile worlds. Perhaps they are simply what happens when some fae grew too powerful, too proud, and too estranged from their own basic compassion to be anything other than god and monster. Perhaps it is all of the above at different times, for Time itself is subordinate to Narrative and Dream in Arcadia. No matter. The Gentry are, and they rule Arcadia now as deities and kings, authors and dreamers of the fabric of Arcadia's very existence. For some, perhaps, the term Kindly One isn't bitterly ironic, but no True Fae recognizes that he is not the center of the universe, that her wants are not the only thing that matters. To the Gentry, all the world's a stage, and they are the star actors and playwrights. So long as it amuses or entertains them, it is good.
But the very solipsism of the Gentry means they have a hunger no lesser or saner fae has; as the center of their own narrative universes, True Fae cannot imagine conflict or separate characters on their own. To do so means that there is no drama, and with no drama, a world based on Narrative cannot support their existence; they need others to test their own stories against, to provide actual stakes, lest the story become hollow, unsatisfying, and ultimately forgotten by Arcadia itself, leaving the Gentry to dissolve. Many, probably most, test this against other True Fae, eternal Legend-contests of competitive narrative, cabals of beloved enemies who bet bits of themselves in friendly life-and-death struggles that inflict lasting harm that ensures eternal death is put off another day.
Some Gentry, called Keepers, do not want this struggle. A fair contest is precisely that, fair, and with honest stakes being part of the very promise of Legends, they stand to lose something they have. As all fae are wont to do, however, they found a loophole; slavery. Slaves, after all, are their own independent characters in the drama the Keepers set for them, but by nature they ultimately must play to their master's pen; they may resist, but the True Fae stands to lose nothing to anyone but themselves, as the slave lacks any agency.
Perhaps invariably, Keepers also discover something very important about the species on the other side of the Hedge; while the hobgoblins of the border world (which is a descriptor so vast as to lose use; a hobgoblin is any being who primarily dwells in the Hedge, even creatures born of an Earthly pedigree) have imaginations, they are ironically limited by the fact that the Hedge is shaped by desire and passion; nothing is apparently impossible, so they do not think to imagine the impossible, and so do not supply as potent dreams to their Arcadian estates. Humans, familiar as they are with cold, hard physics, however...
The unfortunates so taken by the Keepers and their minions are called changelings, both for the myth of the fae child left behind by fairy kidnappers (though naturally they are the captives rather than the replacements, and can be of any age), and because to help them survive Arcadia better, the True Fae have won a promise from their stolen home world; those who dwell in Arcadia are fae, no matter what they were beforehand or how willing. No matter the method, no matter the actual cause, no matter how intentional it was on the part of the Gentry, to dwell within Arcadia is to change into something stranger.
Stranger, wilier, and more powerful. For the Keepers did not anticipate that their changelings, being fae, would also fall into the category of being that can ask the Wyrd to obey ancient promises to do favors for them, the mystical agreements known as Contracts. Or that human imagination, lasting and being enhanced by a newly fae nature, could themselves understand that, and how to use those Contracts to escape. Yet they did. And still do. All the time. When you're the center of your universe, you have a hard time learning, even as the slaves Lost to you form entire monarchies of equals, kingdoms of former serfs and outcasts.
And so, we focus on two changelings Kept by the same Keeper, or perhaps Keepers; three cold and alien scientists with the same shape, personality, and desire to know all that is - but occasionally those who forget they are not the only ones who can fly their ships back into the Hedge...
"ERROR, ERROR, GRAVITY WELL APPROACHING AT-"
"Yes, yes, we know, we don't care!" The orange-haired girl smashed the squishy bulb she knew was the "silence alarm" switch, the semi-organic sphere taking a second to resume its proper shape. "I'm just glad there is gravity!"
The messy-haired boy bit back on the "stress snark" he felt coming on; of course the Three Androgynes had made their world-portal to the Hedge as accurate as possible to an actual planet; it wouldn't do otherwise as a baseline, and besides that meant they could steal gravity from oath. Efficiency before all else. "So, we're landing!?" Okay, he let that slip out.
"No, we're going to use the slingshot effect to hit Mintaka in the center of his stupid forehead what do you think!?" The girl occasionally wondered where he got the habit from. Then her own voice hit her ears. "Brace!"
It was only about ten minutes for the eldritch starship to penetrate the atmosphere of the world-portal, hit the abundant plantlife of the Hedge, and skid to a stop, but it felt like hours. The Three, especially Alnilam, had brought them into battles with the stellar phenomenon of their domain on occasion, wrestling with sentient supernovas and the spontaneously generated issue of white holes that were byproducts of the Androgynes entering the realms of other, less blatantly alien Fae. It reminded them both unpleasantly of that, except here, the shaking of the ship was constant and the noise of metal tearing was added in the symphony of destruction, eventually ending long before either realized it had.
Gradually pushing through the protective shell of the two cockpits they had taken over (out of three-apparently this was meant to be a ship used by the Androgynes themselves or their favored direct creations), both of the test subjects and occasional press-ganged crewmen of the grey-skinned sociopaths were briefly blinded. It took them a minute to realize why; even in the green-choked environs of the Hedge, they hadn't seen a bright yellow sun for a long time. The cockpits had been thrown clear of the crash site and into the thick underbrush of the Hedge, possibly as deliberate escape pods (definitely crewed by the valued servants, then).
Slowly, the girl began to cackle, more out of hysterical relief than anything else. "We're free! Holy shit, we are free!" She clawed out of the remains of her cockpit, sniffing the strange flora, tearing off leaves and sniffing the long-forgotten scent of chlorophyll rather than fungal chitin. "Hahahahahaa! Suck on it, you wannabe conquerer bug-eyed anal-probing jer-ow!"
Looking back, the girl rolled her eyes. Right, she still had a tail. And attaching that tail to her, along with the furry ears swiveling around her skull, was Alnilam's expert stitchwork. Though said new limbs had long since been assimilated into her nervous system and even skeleton (the Androgynes wouldn't allow them to become limp body mods), it getting caught on the pod and pulling still irritated the scars. At least it wasn't dead weight, as she was able to lift it out of the tight space without her hands.
The boy noticed, a grin of sympathy being mixed into his wince of pain. "You too, huh?" He adjusted an off-kilter mask, the (he supposed) mystical nanotech in the face melded with his skin recognizing it was not being used, and stopped attempting to reshape his skin to something else. "You'd think they these adapted for space travel. Including crashes."
"Yeah, I don't think they ever wanted us to, y'know, be able to travel unsupervised. Less money to spend on zoos, or... Whatever they have here." The girl slowly got to her feet, the nausea of herself adapting to a gravity she was born in being the most welcome stomach problem she ever had. "But we did! Ha! Oh, you have no idea; if we find the wreck I'm gonna graffiti my butt on there, just to rub it in that we gave them the slip! Ha!"
"Actually, no, we should use our numbers," the boy said, cracking his neck as he broke into a smirk. "Really beat it in that the guys who stole their little saucer were just little nobodies, nothing but Subjects... Strategos and... Luminary..."
The smirk faded, and the girl's mood fell. "You don't... You still don't know your name either, do you."
It was stupid, in hindsight. Really, probably just a hallucination brought on by occult brain surgery, how they perceived their names being ripped from them after the Androgynes had finished with softening them up, making them beg to be experiments and test subjects if only to survive their throne-planet's nearly dead and hostile ecosystem. Part of "unbiasing" the experiment, apparently, cutting all ties of identity to their Earth selves; for a while, they were only academically aware they were once human. They had no names, simply designations - the girl was Tactical Analysis Subject (Strategos)-88341 and the boy was Infiltration/Inspiration Factor Subject (Luminary)-24813. The only difference between them and previous iterations of their respective experiments, the Three had confirmed, was the string of numbers.
Even free of them and knowing there was something else, they had no names, only titles.
But titles could be close enough. Strategos' ear twitched up, and she scanned the sky. "No time to morn, Lumie. We pissed off the Terrible Trio something fierce." She pointed at silvery saucer-shaped dots in the air.
Luminary nodded. "Got it. Let's go home."
"I swear that's the same eggplant thing we passed an hour ago."
"Amaranthine," Strategos replied, feeling a guilty relief at her lessons from the Androgynes during her brief excursions as a lab assistant and occasional handywoman. "It heals critical organ damage, and only critical organ damage." After a second, she pocketed it. "Just in case, or if we find a guide to pay."
"That's a pretty big if, Strats," Luminary muttered. "Looking around, I'm pretty sure we made a big-"
"SHUT IT!" Strategos brought a finger to her lips in panic. "The Hedge is psychoactive, remember!? We think about it, it will happen! Remain caaaaall..."
Slowly, she became aware of a nearby tree starting to smoke and sprout literal thorns. "Right. Own advice, don't panic."
"Way ahead of you," Luminary said, wincing. "Be the breeze... Be the breeze...."
Fittingly, the smoke was blown away by a sudden gentle wind.
"... Is it always this reactive?"
"Well, not while I was with the Bug-Eyed Chorus, but-" She realized a problem with that. "Yeah, sad to say, I have no idea. They don't do much other than smug or irritation."
Luminary rubbed the eternally-itchy skin around where his original face was unconsciously. "Yeah. But back to the point," he said as he inspected what appeared to be a cherry tree covered with butterflies, if cherry trees couldn't make up their minds about what color blossoms they had, apart from some shade of blue. "I think we passed this already."
"Are you-augh!" Strategos groaned, and pulled out a crystalline stylus. "Fine. I'll mark this so that we can - whoa!"
The "bark" of the trunk she was tapping an "x" into fell away, revealing a metallic door gleefully out of place in the forested setting. The butterflies froze, turned to the two escapees, and flashed their wings, revealing patterns that looked like pictogram lettering in an unknown language.
"Sorry!" Strategos grinned sheepishly at the insect hobgoblins as she darted back. "I didn't realize this was a house! Not triggering that aggro, sorry!"
The butterflies didn't move. If it was possible for bugs to look skeptical, they probably would be.
"Our apologies," began Luminary, bowing deeply and politely. "We mean no offense and humbly request that you forgive our transgression against you and the area you guard when-"
A gunshot rang out over the Hedge, followed by alarmed crow calls. A gunshot that would have sounded more like a cheap sound effect to those not familiar with the Three.
And just like that, being lost in an eldritch forest stopped being a fun excursion away from the cold, sterile laboratories of the Three. "...Lumie?" Strategos began after a short while. "We need to get in that tree. Now."
Please let the owner be the 'warn us and exact a pledge for being rude' kind of fae. Luminary reached into the nothing between the law's letter and spirit, and from it retrieved a silver flute. And, holding it carefully in his teeth while "flapping" with his free hands, blew.
The agreement of the Pipes of the Beastcaller recognized his ritual invocation, and willed the butterflies to obey. One by one, they stilled, folding wings and standing at attention. "Everyone, go off and delay the hunting party somehow." Understanding the orders by the clauses of the Contract, they took off and towards the site of the gunshot, their simple minds already planning a distraction.
Meanwhile, Strategos briefly considered the full ritual to invoke the power of the Hidden Reality, but given how acting out being surprised took a full minute, and it didn't tax her that much, she just drew on the inner reserves of power she had to recompense the Wyrd, and willed that the door had a hidden compartment with a key. And so it was.
"In we go, in we go!" Both rushed in, and the compartment with its key vanished back into the what-ifs they were born from. Certainly not enough to track.
Unless, of course, you were already watching. And waiting patiently.
There was something Strategos felt she loved that had exact words for the situation she found herself in.
To be frank, the interior of the tree did not seem to be inside a tree. Or "inside", for that matter; it looked almost like a garden under a night sky. The two both checked back to discover that yes, there was indeed a wooden wall with an almost absurdly normal door in it, growing so high that the top or the roof was unseen in the soft luminescent mists in the area, a slight curvature in the wall the only thing that indicated that they were inside of a circular trunk. Here and there, the carpet of green was broken up by bits of machinery, usually merged with the flora in some way. Here, a vine was entangled artfully with a series of multicolored wires from which hung a blinking set of button controls. There, a tree grew gears on its leaves that meshed together and turned, driven by a crankshaft in the ground, producing a low mechanical hum.
It would have been quite pretty, if strange. Unfortunately for the duo, it was also familiar; the meshing of organic life and inorganic parts reminded them of an occasional rival of the Three Androgynes who they would occasionally rent Luminary out to; he had stone and flesh instead, but the sheer scale was definitely one of his trademarks. He was not particularly kinder than they.
So, both found them seriously considering if just greeting the forces sent to retrieve the Three's test subjects was the lesser of two evils. It was quite a sterling debate, for one where no words were exchanged, only facial expressions that gradually turned to resignation when they realized it was possible a hostile master would simply kill them. Needless to say, they stayed in the tree.
Nothing said they couldn't hide among the leaves of the grove, however. As quietly as possible, they made their way into what appeared to be the thickest, densest, and darkest part of the wood-
"You know, this place can be reshaped at will by the will of the master. The moment it comes time to check anywhere, all you've done is tire yourselves out."
Both of the subjects had not thought it was possible to jump so high.
The golden-eyed girl sighed, holding her baton to her head as the back of the hand holding it rested on her forehead. "What? You've never looked in the mirror before while on Earth, skychildren? I think there's a term for that kind of phobia. Apart from, y'know, wuss."
She looked all the world like a child on Halloween dressed as a nurse. Apart from her eye's color (singular, the left one was covered by a dark eyepatch), and the fact her costume was a dark blue, there was almost something distressingly mundane about her. She seemed almost perverse in her mundanity, a final bit of seeming normality to complete how strange the environment was.
Truth was, she was actually kind of adorable, if terrifying in her implication.
Somewhere, Luminary remembered how to be polite in front of the upset demigoddess. "Our apologies for our sudden and unwelcome intrusion, but-"
"Save it!" The baton cracked against one of the mechanical parts, releasing a bolt of electricity. "The sheer amount of bootlicking is not only disgusting, but completely insincere! Treat us like adults, Kage!"
Luminary's mouth closed. At least she seemed only irritated, and not murderous.
Then he realized what he heard.
"Kage? ... Is that my name?"
The girl's expression froze as her eyes widened. "Um, you heard, uh, nothing," she said as a furious blush came to her face. "Just, kage, a kage verbal, tic kage. That works. Er, kage."
"Caroline, don't lie." Both escapees whirled around to the new voice.
"They are going to find out soon," the new golden-eyed girl said. She and the first were obviously sisters, by choice if not by blood relations. Apart from which eye her eyepatch was over, a ponytail instead of twin buns, and a clipboard in place of a baton, this girl was the other's spitting image. "That is why Master let them in, is it not?"
"Justine, I'm trying to stop a paradox here!" The sister now known as Caroline had a somewhat whinier tone in her voice. "You know we're allergic!"
"You need to have more faith," Justine replied, evenly and stoically. "I trust they will complete the loop by their own desire to do so, soon enough."
The escapees were not sure whether to be more confused or terrified at the hobgoblins apparently expecting them, as was their Master.
"And they're about to hide in the underbrush, again," Caroline replied, sourly glancing at them. "They're changelings who haven't even been back to Earth! Are we even sure if they want to, or if they're fine looking at amaranthine all day?"
"Perhaps with you providing incentive for them to do so," Justine replied, a note of irritation getting into her voice. "Such as an overdue need to introduce ourselves."
Caroline paled slightly, though how anyone could notice given her skin tone was anyone's guess. "Stop teasing me!" With that, Caroline attempted to assume a more military pose and recoup her dignity. "Welcome to the Glade of Aeons, children of the sky. I am Caroline, this is my sister, Justine. Our Master has requested we show you to him. Please come along."
"... Justine wrote that, didn't she?" Internally, Luminary winced at the stress snark, and winced even more when Strategos had to suppress a giggle.
"S-shut up, skychild! I rehearsed it and everything!"
"My sister's attempts to impress and intimidate our guests aside," Justine cut in, "We, nor our master, mean you any harm. We wish to simply examine you at the start of your journey, and to ensure a future not overcome by ruin comes to pass."
"Oh really?" Strategos tried to look fierce, teeth barred and ears pulled back. "How can we assume you aren't lying?"
"We, Justine and Caroline, do swear that if we or our master brings intentional harm to you, or by our own gross negligence, swear that every drop of blood will be paid for by all three of us sevenfold, and if both you are injured, seven by sevenfold. Should you meet our master, we guarantee the return of your true names, and with them a beacon to find yourselves back to the world of your home."
Instantly, both could tell the weight behind those words, the kind of eldritch tone the Androgynes used when they felt they must be honest. To the letter alone, but that oath seemed to close its own loophole by indicating all three of them as being punished. The kind of oath Arcadia itself enforced, and inflicted the pain for betraying.
Caroline heard it to. "Sis! Don't Pledge without warning like that! Master isn't up to a sanction that severe!"
"Did you, perchance, have a counter-Pledge?"
Caroline's finger rose before she awkwardly lowered it. "... No. Fine, I agree to all that, see the above, and so on."
"Excellent." Justine nodded at the two. "Shall we begin the journey?"
"This seems an awfully long and circular route to get to your boss'," Luminary said, frowning. "Does he live at the edge or something?"
"This route does not fully exist within space alone," Justine said, stepping over vines daintily, not even looking at her path. "He lives at the center, but also the center of time for this sacred place."
"Tip for the future, skychildren." Caroline continued, pointing at hands of a clock embedded in a branch, circling randomly. "Time in the Hedge obeys the Wyrd; rules for how it flows differ from locale to locale. In the Grove, the time depends on where you're standing. Master lives both beyond the future we can reach and behind the past."
Strategos caught on. "We're walking clockwise, so we're going into the future?"
"Well, seems not all of the skychildren are wet behind the ears." Caroline smirked pointedly at Luminary. "Watch her example, newbie. You could learn something."
"Indeed. We are passing through the definite now. Moments in time that are certain to occur," Justine said, and in that moment the changelings knew just how much being enslaved by little gray men who lived in Fairyland changed their definition of what was normal. They were curious, not confused.
The landscape itself did not change, fittingly for such a place with an odd relationship with causality. Still night, still misty, still the same partly mechanical plant life.
What did change, however, was the noise. As in, there was other sounds than the hum.
"GET THE HELL AWAY FROM ME!" There was a great "crunch", presumably from sound and metal being flattened.
Justine seemed nonplussed. "Ah. The next guest."
Before either changeling could react, a muscular humanoid covered in tattoos tore through the woods from the side facing the inside of the woods, charging through a couple trees.
"Hey, watch where you're-" Strategos' message was cut off by him running into her. And passing through her.
Luminary watched as the short-haired youth tripped over a branch, revealing an oddly-bend leg that seemed to be more than just alteration by his own masters, seemingly completely oblivious to the small party he had just phased through. "... He's not here yet, is he?", he guessed. "This is a phantom image of what will happen once he's here."
"Quite astute," Justine replied, nodding at something behind him. "This is a definite event in our future, our initial meeting with him. Thus, it appears here as a phantom, a snapshot in time."
"And believe me, I'm not looking forward to this bozo," Caroline cut in. "He's going to be so stubborn."
From behind the youth, another phantom of the future appeared; a scowling Caroline, with one of her hair loops knocked loose and her hat askew. "Will. You. Stop. That!?"
"Screw you, Thing 2! I did not effing swim through about a mile of sea water, that was on goddamn fire, for you to pull me back into the service of some puffed-up gardener with a nurse fetish!"
Justine glided out from behind her sister, seeming as calm as ever despite the bruise on her cheek and a bit of shattered tree perched in her hair. "We are not asking service. We simply wish to provide you with information that will help guide you back to Earth-"
"Don't need it, if it's from another damn True Fae," the demonic-seeming youth growled. "I heard my mom and got my name back, and that's all I need..."
The phantoms, all three, dissolved into the mist. But the memory of his message was clear.
"He knows his name!?" Strategos sounded legitimately angry at that, one of the few times Luminary saw her get genuinely irate over something other than the way the Androgynes acted.
"Of course he does," said Caroline in the most matter-of-fact tone possible. "It's one of the ancient pacts of Arcadia that any changeling still owned by the True Fae may be called home by a loved one. Those who enter the Hedge in search of those taken by the Keepers instinctively call for them, and a way out opens. Since they took his name, he heard his name." She thought for a second. "Not a lot of them take it, but he did. Will. Whatever, I don't keep up with the exact chronology of Random Slave Number Whatever."
"Yet it did not happen for you, despite being bound in the same way," Justine began, softly. "Nobody called for you; could that be because that nobody looked?"
And in a brief lurching instant, it became very clear that neither of the two changelings had a clear recollection of Earth. Something about that question seemed ridiculous to Strategos though, so it was only an instant. Not to Luminary.
"Let us continue."
Five more times did they encounter phantoms of the future.
(Five more times were they asked a question.)
The first was a blonde girl with fire for veins, with eyes that sparkled like sapphires and obsidian fingernails. She growled at the two in annoyance, muttering something about "well, I sold it for a year and a day already," but when she heard the Pledge they made, she suddenly became much more friendly - to haggle.
"We cannot promise anything involving your friend."
"But if she's still hurting-"
"We will help you to her," Caroline said with a note of finality. "We do not influence the wills of others except to defend this Glade."
"Can't or won't?"
"Yes," Caroline replied, and that was the end of that.
("She gave herself over to the Keepers for a year and a day to save another. Is what she had slavery or honored duty?")
The second was what looked like a cat from a distance, but resolved itself into a highly changed boy with a bandanna around his neck, looking into a pool.
"... I don't remember any of it," he said, despairing. "I don't even know if this is my memory or someone else's."
"It is your Icon. It can only be known by you," Justine said, as gently as it seemed she could.
"But none of it's familiar!" The boy-cat swiped at the water, knocking out what looked like a monochrome fish. "It should be, but it's like... It's like it's in a different language or something! I can tell it's a memory, but none of it makes sense."
("His mind is more fae than human now, and no longer recalls mortality enough to make sense of his old life. Can one without memories of humanity ever live among them?")
Third was a blue-haired boy with skin like paper, with cracks in said skin that occasionally blinked.
"... He sold me," he said, apparently slowly remembering something. "He sold me to his former masters."
"A privateer," Caroline said, sounding genuinely sympathetic. "A changeling who sells others to the Keepers to guarantee they remain safe from their own."
"But I was not a changeling!" The boy sounded almost desperate, attempting to make sense of 'his' actions. "What could they want with me!?"
"'Others' is a vast category. Changelings are simply more valuable overall, but sometimes they just feel a need for special talents."
("They will never stop looking for you, and they will prey on the fear of others to turn them traitor. Is a life of paranoia worth living?")
Fourth seemed at first to be a dog, and was. At least when she was still trying to bite Caroline.
"Do I look nearly protected enough to deal with you!?" The great red-eyed hound had switched tactics and was busy trying to steal her baton.
"Bare your neck," Justine stated, plainly. "You know this."
"But she's-" The retort died after the baton was pulled out, and before the black beast could break it in her maw, Caroline lowered the collar of her shirt and exposed her neck.
The dog froze, looking around confused before it melted away, revealing a black-haired girl with a tail not unlike Strategos', but ears and a wet nose that appeared grown rather than sewn. "They... They never let me win. Why aren't you striking me?"
("She no longer feels herself human, and now thinks as a pit dog does. Can what was made inhuman understand the human?")
Finally, there was a girl in the remnants of a pink sweater, with small tusks and skin a dark blue hide.
She was sobbing. "Why!? I did everything right! Wasn't I good enough!?"
"She can never be satisfied," Justine replied, sitting next to her. "The Gentry never can be."
"Not her," the girl replied between sobs. "My father. He wanted someone who was happy to be married off to that-to that monster."
"And the old model," Caroline said, none of her usual fire present, "Was the payment for a perfect daughter."
The girl nodded, and shrank into a curled-up ball.
("The father preferred a doppleganger left behind so no one would notice she was missing. Does the world even have a place for the ones taken?")
And then, at last, the party came to a great gate, covered in arcane sigils that shifted and glowed.
"Here it is," Caroline began.
"The home of our Master," Justine finished. "Step through, and you will retrieve your names."
The exit gate from Fairyland, in other words. The Hedge and Arcadia both.
Of course, by this point, the questions had done their work. Both changelings stood for what felt like a long time, but what was probably only a great many seconds. Maybe even a minute.
"What's the problem, skychildren?" Caroline's brow furrowed. "Big ol' compass pointing home right there."
A longer pause.
"Do not tell me," Justine said, sounding not at all surprised, "That my questions unnerved you."
"It's just that, er," Luminary began, stopping. "We... Didn't consider that."
"I mean, you know, the story's supposed to end," Strategos continued. "We escape, get back home, and we are stronger people for it eternally free from the horror of what happened."
Caroline sighed. "And who again did you learn that from?"
... Oh. "The Three. Occasionally the people they'd loan us to."
"For the True Fae, that may be true. But they weave their stories as ways to keep themselves alive," Justine said, without trace of emotion. "But their stories are meant to feed them; the Wyrd is far greater than they. Wherever there is the Wyrd, there is fae; wherever there is stories, there is the Wyrd."
"The very reason you can even go back and escape is because humans have stories," Caroline said, more bluntly. "If you didn't have stories, you'd shrivel up and die soon as you set foot on Earth."
The implication made it's mark. "Am I... Are we always going to look like this?" Luminary adjusted one of his masks.
"Yeah, pretty much," Caroline said, bluntly as possible.
"Those who do not perceive the Wyrd cannot see or feel your fae parts, but to become fae is to be fae forever," Justine finished. "Mortal humanity is no longer your normal."
"Ah," Strategos said, thinking for a bit on the summary version of her opinions on this new bit of information. "... Shit."
They stood for a while more, contemplating lost humanity and a suddenly uncertain future, before Justine suddenly cleared her throat.
"Did you detect the loophole I left in that Pledge?"
Both changelings whipped up at warp speed. "Sorry?", they asked simultaneously.
"She said that you would not be harmed if we had anything to say about it," Caroline began, a note of resignation in her tone. "Up until you met Master, letting the True Fae anywhere near you would be considered 'gross negligence', and all three of us would be facing a lot of pain in our near future."
"But if you do not pass the gate, and chose to remain here," Justine continued, "Then we will be obligated to keep you safe for as long as you live."
"You will dwell in the Glade, safe and secure, neither knowing know caring of a life on Earth," Caroline said, sounding completely unenthused at the prospect.
"So, the question is," Justine finished, looking at the two directly. "Do you finally sleep, or do you finally wake, knowing you do not know what the day brings?"
This question did not warrant nearly as much consideration.
"Screw. You," Luminary began, tone as cold as the depths of space.
Caroline's head shot up, looking shocked - and a bit hopeful.
"We are not going from one captivity to another, thank you," he continued, nearly shaking with rage. "We did not suffer what felt like years of hell just to work under the 'nice' master."
"What he said!", Strategos cut in, far more passion and fire. "I don't care if I'm going back to a medieval household where the hobby was to kick me in the face, I'm not goddamn free here! Not even a person, just an animal hiding in the brush because she's too chicken to live her own life!"
Both sisters were silent for a second, blinking.
And then both broke out into genuine smiles.
"Hot damn," Caroline said, sounding genuinely happy. "Apology given. With interest."
"I told you that the best way was honesty and to teach them of the dark side of their new being, did I not?" Justine, on the other hand, almost seemed to be gloating.
"I-" Strategos blinked. "Uh? Whaaa? They're happy we called them out?"
Luminary, however, was slightly quicker at reading people than his companion. "... This was a test. A way to make sure we were certain about going back."
"Very perceptive, skychild," Caroline began, her old taunting demeanor reassumed. "Newbies like you all too often were just escaping from Arcadia with rose-tinted glasses what they were coming back to, or because their Keeper just got bored and threw them into the Hedge. They usually end up hobgoblins, or broken because they can't deal with Earth as Lost."
"And being perfectly honest," Justine said, her smile turning into a more serious expression. "We had to make sure your motives were, at their core, for rebellion and freedom, not simply escape."
"Another tip, you're a politician, and so is every other changeling who wants the bare minimum of stable magic juice," Caroline deadpanned. "You're going to use people, like all politicians; good politicians simply see the board as backgammon, not chess."
"Uh..." Luminary could have sworn he heard a whoosh from the metaphor flying over his head.
"... Is it because you need to save your pieces in backgammon? Get them out safely?" Strategos had no idea how she knew that, but she felt right saying it.
"Correct. It is not a bad thing, to move pieces around for mutual gain. As we are doing now," Justine admitted. "We do not intend to infringe upon your freedom. But we also believe our goals and fates intertwine, just as they will with those who we have shown you."
Oh, so they were real, Luminary thought to himself, mildly and pleasantly surprised.
Caroline looked... Uncertain. "Come in. It is easier to show you than to tell you."
On the other side of the gate, there was a room. A very blue room, perhaps edging toward black in places. But also a very tasteful room. A couple pictures, here and there, artfully placed windows, but no furniture that was not in some way functional. This was the first indication to Strategos and Luminary that this was not the abode of a Keeper; even the emotionless Androgynes had a great deal of decoration in their cabins, various arcane mechanisms of unknown purpose and walls covered in alien runes to impress their wisdom upon all those within their thrones.
The second was the state of master of Caroline and Justine.
Or better, what was left of him.
He was probably intimidating, once. Large eyes, large teeth, and a large nose that reminded both escapees of a predatory bird (or perhaps a toucan). But those days were long gone. Now, he was confined to a bed, nearly covered in bandages, blankets, and metal casts. Behind him, several machines constantly beeped and hummed, showing a constant flow of data both familiar (heart rate, temperature, breath intake), and unfamiliar (one had a constant loop of strange pictograms, some of which were split in two, that flowed across the screen like a river), reading data from the various wires running over and through him. An IV bag filled with something mottled and shifting hang over him, feeding the strange potion within it into his arm. Whatever had happened to him, this was a creature who was once whole and was at least partly broken. No, not broken; shattered.
While both changelings were utterly frozen in the doorway, Justine knocked on the open gate. "Master Igor? Your guests have arrived."
Igor's eyes shifted from his monitors to his guests, those giant white teeth curved into a surprisingly kind smile. He nodded at Caroline, who silently pushed the dumbstruck two in over the threshold before shutting the gate, leaving only light from the windows and the ceiling lights to illuminate the room, a dim and sleepy ambience.
Those teeth opened, and a refined, cultured voice came out, the reedy quality of a grandfather or perhaps a charismatic occultist-
Who didn't speak Japanese. At all. The language that came out of Igor's mouth was a strange, twittering set of chirps and phonemes, sounding more like birdsong, the turning of old pages, and some vague idea of a long-dead language.
"'Welcome to the Glade of Aeons,'" Justine translated. "'My name is Igor, keeper of the grounds. I am delighted to make your acquaintance.'"
Caroline winced and sighed. "You'll have to forgive Master. The injuries took his ability to speak human languages, though he can understand you perfectly fine." Her eyes narrowed. "So, yeah, he can hear you badmouthing him. Don't think about mocking him. And stop staring, it's rude!"
It took a second for Luminary to realize that he was doing just that. "... Sorry," he said looking away. "Pleased to meet you as well, Igor. We don't know our names yet, but the Androgynes called me Luminary."
"Same, except it's Strategos for me." The other changeling smiled apologetically. "I, um... I like the decor!" she said, feeling increasingly ashamed of herself for thinking he was some kind of slave catcher.
"'Be at peace, child of the sky,'" Igor said, his expression unchanging. "'I am not offended in the slightest; you have every right to be upset with myself for making you doubt yourselves. It was my own paranoia and desire for certainty, not any fault of your own.'" Of course, given how it was Justine's voice saying that, it was hard to tell how sincere he was being, but he was already unlike any True Fae the duo had yet known; he was willing to be seen as being at all at personal fault.
"Master has been injured a very long time, you see," Caroline replied, stroking his hand gently. "He feared being injured further, and it's easy for the Lost to fall into a trap of thought that puts destruction of the Keepers before all else, and from there poisoning the dreams we put in this bag." She gestured at the IV. "The distorted hate and spite they feel towards all that tells stories injures Master further, for they deny his existence too."
A darker-than-black joke involving Peter Pan came to Strategos' head, but it remained unspoken out of taste. Caroline still shot her a dirty look, leading her to wonder how exactly she knew they were planning on hiding in the Glade after they first met.
"'You may wonder why I let you in the Glade. Two reasons,'" Igor began again. "'The first is that the fates of the future guests of the Glade that you have beheld as you traveled to me are entwined with yours. They will find you, and you will find them; they will be your companions in your quest to secure your freedom.'"
"Consider it a way to make destiny more efficient," Caroline said, a bit of her smugness returning. "You know what they look like now, and when they come around, they'll know what you look like. Mystical contact information."
"Well, if nothing else, it's less cliche than dreams," Luminary replied, earning a brief snort from both Twins, though Caroline quickly covered it up with a frown.
"'The second is to warn you,'" Igor finished, though his expression still didn't change. "'Your abductions, and those guests you have met, was not an accident. There is something, a dark storm of desire, gathering in Tokyo, something that chains all it touches and brings ruin to all that it has chained. I am forbidden from saying more, but I can tell you that it is directly linked to what left me in the state you see before you. It will seek to take your freedom again, and so I felt it necessary to tell you of our mutual enemy's existence. You will discover the truth of its nature, in time.'"
"We can tell you that all storms are part of the sky," Caroline said, looking sly. "Sadly, we literally cannot say anything more concrete. An Oath that was forced upon us prevents it."
"I get it," Strategos said, nodding. "You think that we can help beat this thing."
"'Weaken its hold over your home, at the very least,'" Igor replied. "'Simply by treasuring your freedom, and the freedom of others, you have become the storm's mortal enemy. All that is free is a rebel against it, and all that is a rebel is a mortal foe, a thief that seeks to steal its might.'"
"Though, changelings do make excellent thieves," Caroline finished. "Simply becoming one is an act of removing property from its legal owners."
It took a second for said thieves to get the analogy. Now it was their turn to snort.
Igor turned to the baton-wielding sister and said something in his strange, fae language. She nodded and opened a cabinet, revealing a deck of fantastically decorated cards.
"'If you will indulge me for a second, I wish to use Tarot to tell your fortune. I believe it will give you some idea of the days ahead.'"
"Though, another tip; just because magic exists doesn't mean con men don't," Caroline cautioned. "There's a lot of superstition that just isn't properly true."
Not seeing any reason not to, both changelings nodded.
Surprisingly, Igor did not need the twins to shuffle and deal the cards himself, using an extendable table. Six were dealt, six were turned over.
"'The first card, representing you, is Temperance, indicates "balance," "harmony," and "patience." You seek to balance your lives after the chaos in your past, and are on the right track to doing so. This will require patience, however, and to restrain the first impulse that will come to you as you settle into your new lives. This supports the card of desire, Judgement, representing "absolution," "revelation," and "rebirth." You both desire a way to use your new state of existence to start anew, and forge a new life away from the old. This is good, for you do not dwell on a past you cannot change.'"
"'Reasonably, the third card of fear is the Tower, "catastrophe" and "cataclysm." You feel that despite all this, you may end up worse than you were before due to inability to adapt, and your own lacking knowledge. This a wise thing to fear, for this fear guides both Temperance and Judgement from the errant path. You currently walk under the fourth card, the Sun, "vitality" and "joy," as a most dark chapter in your life is ending. You will have at least a chance to relax and plan for the future.'"
"'Sadly, that time will not last. The card representing your opposition is Strength, "self-control" and "fortitude." As your opposition, that indicates the card is reversed in regards to you, instead becoming indicative of indulgence and self-doubt. Your passions, while noble, can and will be led astray and so upset your sense of yourself in the world; beware recklessness and the whispers of the id. Finally, the card of the outcome and your most likely future is the Hanged Man, "growth" and "sacrifice." There will come a time you are asked to give greatly of yourselves, and to mature very quickly. This will be painful, and you will be tempted to turn bitter and lash out at the world for your pain. This will do nothing but bind you even more, and will lead only to more suffering; learn the nature of the pain and how you met that pain, and you will find transcendence from it.'"
"And that is how you tell the genuine article from a phony psychic, skychildren," Caroline finished. "A real psychic gives you some hard truths, and believe me, Lost get a ton of pain. We'll be honest, it's a long and hard road ahead. No cushions."
There was a long pause. "... Reckless?" Luminary asked, feeling skeptical.
"Yeah, I'm gonna take your word on that. Took months of planning to pull that escape off." Strategos grinned. "But if I suddenly get any job offers for hacking a nuclear submarine, I'll keep that in mind."
"There are more forms of recklessness than inability to plan," Justine said, finally speaking for herself. "But they are often unknown until hindsight shows them for what they are."
"And when it does happen, don't come crying to us. We warned you," Caroline said, looking annoyed. "But Justine promised you something, didn't she?"
Igor reached under his blankets and pulled out something, one something in each hand. Simultaneously, both the twins turned to receive the things in outstretched palms before gliding over to the changelings.
In Justine's hand, presented to Luminary, was a small bird, made of wood, that nonetheless moved and jumped like a living thing, with what seemed to be a mask covering its face.
In Caroline's hand, presented to Strategos, was an orb decorated with digital code and hieroglyphic designs, with the etching of a woman that looked oddly familiar to her.
Both took them and-
d amn brat! i'll sue! i promise, as soon as i'm done we'll go on a trip.
Shinobu Hattori and Futaba Sakura blinked, and the Glade was gone, revealing instead the Hedge - just where they had left it, the path within it finally obvious.
"Farewell, children of the sky. We will meet again."
Slowly, they processed the flashes of what had to be their memories, bits of their souls, now occupying their minds.
"... My name. My name's back!" Futaba laughed more genuinely than she had for a while. "Futaba Sakura! It was something else before, but fuck it, I'm Futaba Sakura! Ha!"
"Shinobu Hattori," the other changeling replied, far more subdued. "I guess my parents liked ninjas."
"... Do you know what this means?" A mischievous grin came to the shorter changeling's face. "One's a ninja, the other's a hacker - see where I'm going?"
"I mean, think about us being thieves for a second - actually you know what, I'll tell you. We're a pair of shonen villains! Bwahahahahaa!" She rose her hands. "I mean, me, I'm the reality warper who can hack existence, you're the shapeshifting assassin who - actually, while I'm at it, Luminary really doesn't suit you."
"Yeah," Shinobu replied. "I mean, it's awkward enough your title sounded like a guy's name, but now? Now it just seems ironic."
"Yeah, but a good villain or dark brooding antihero needs a nickname, one that sounds cool, like Masque or Scars or Kage-" She froze. "Oh my god."
Shinobu turned just as wide-eyed. "That 'tic'."
A moment passed in silence before both said exactly the same thing in unison.
"I hate time travel."
And both laughed, just as much out of relieved hysterics as humor.
At last, they were people again.
Chapter 3: Gazing Unto A Mirror
And now, back at the ranch...
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
If Sojiro Sakura had been asked, he would have said that day was a good day.
This had nothing to do with his day, mind, it was honestly pretty banal. He went to work, sold coffee in his shop along some other items, went home. There really was not much variation in his life, and he was glad for it. Variation meant something unexpected, and his old bones did not adapt to the unexpected very well.
Most unexpected things did not bias him towards considering every day a good day.
"Hey Sojiro? We need a reload on whipped cream in a few days!" A short figure with long orange hair poked her head out of the kitchen.
Unexpected things like your adopted daughter spontaneously recovering from depression for instance. And becoming far more outgoing. "Already?" Sojiro smirked in mild amusement. "Well, cappuccino has been getting more popular lately...maybe I should make different flavors of it?"
"Oh, maybe curry artificial flavoring! ...Somehow. I think you'd have to mod the concept of chemistry for that to work."
Unexpected things like that were the kind of thing that made it seem like Sojiro was the luckiest son of a bitch in the world. Even if he had to adjust somewhat.
"Hey, I don't know what you get up to in there. It's entirely possible that you're up to some weird manga crap." Sojiro smiled dryly.
"Believe me, if I knew how to do that, you'd be seeing a lot more symbolism," Futaba replied, making a smirk as equally as dry. "Maybe Gnostic imagery on my door, or maybe I arranged the Featherman action figures to represent the desire realms. Oo, maybe we should check the coffee rinds, see if the image on the bottle of the cup is a cross!"
Sojiro bli'nked. "I... I don't think I've noticed any of that, but truth is, I think it's because I have no idea what you just said. But no coffee-cup crosses."
"Yeah. I-" Futaba was cut off by a wince. "Ack! Migraine's back!"
Initially, Sojiro had been concerned about the sudden stabbing pains in her skull that Futaba would feel only to have them immediately dissipate. He initially supposed it was her adjusting to being without screens, but they went as suddenly as they came. As they would, occasionally, throughout the month or so.
"Sure it's not your brain revolting at the quality of the joke?" Sojiro smirked.
"Ha ha, very funny. Apparently there was a peaceful protest, because it's gone now. So-"
There was a knock at the door.
Sojiro jerked up. "Wha-? At this hour? Somebody has a caffeine addiction."
The knock grew insistent.
Futaba rolled her eyes, not even bothering to put down her cup. "Alright, Mr. Impatient, buffering's done, I'm coming, I'm-"
The cup hit the floor.
The voice was almost feral, a hate-filled growl Sojiro thought belonged more to an animal more than a person.
The owner did not do much to dispel that impression, grabbing the scruff of Futaba's sweater and rushing her against a cabinet, slightly cracking the glass.
Sojiro's mind, his heart, wanted desperately to believe this was a burglar. Then he could fight off the danger to his daughter by instinct.
But his eyes and ears were not in agreement.
"Give. Him. BACK!"
Because the voice, face, and dirt-covered hand holding Futaba Sakura in a chokehold all belonged to Futaba Sakura.
One and a half months earlier.
Futaba sniffed the air, her ears perked and alert.
"... Okay, now I'm starting to get worried," Shinobu replied, raising an eyebrow. "You've done that five times over the past thirty minutes."
"Trying to convince my paranoia we actually escaped," she replied, sniffing the ground. "The Androgynes; they always screwed up something subtle."
"... But you don't have enhanced-"
"No, but I'm running out of potential flaws." It was at this point Futaba simply pulled grass out of the ground and sniffed its roots. "It's just that... It's almost too good to be true, you know?" She rolled back on her back, feeling the grass make a satisfying crunch. "Green. It's green and concrete grey I missed most." She realized she was saying, and laughed. "Funny thing for the shut-in, to miss."
"And being able to enjoy ground without 'stress measurements.'" Shinobu shivered.
"Hey, at least you were always the prey, Kage." Futaba said, rolling back and smiling darkly. "They'd switch my role up, keep my skills 'adapting.'"
A long-healed bruise from where a sharpened fungal tree branch had been removed, the Androgynes cheerfully mocking Shinobu while picking out chitinous splinters, felt the memory of pain. "They might've had a point," Shinobu said, wincing. "You're quite good with a trigger trap."
"Mwehehee. Should have looked for the nylon." She sighed, her smile vanishing. "It's weird though... I don't think all of my memories are back. I know where I live, I know Sojiro Sakura is my stepfather... But I can't remember who raised me before him. I know Mom's name was Wakaba, but not if that was her given or family name." Her brow furrowed. "Was she ever married to him? I don't think so, but I can't remember if my last name was originally Wakaba, so I'm not the FAQ to consult."
"Same for me," Shinobu said, crouching. "I mean, I remember this drunk jerk I pulled off, I dunno, his date? Point is, that's clear as day, and I still can't figure out what the hell that was about." He looked up, sadly. "But my parents? My home? I've got faces, some words... Nothing else. Far as I know, they could be Hawaii natives or something."
"Well, if nothing else, I can find a good pipe outside to - oh, shit." She shot up, eyes widening. "My house. I'm a missing person. For months."
It did not take long to realize exactly what kind of hell a single stepfather would be going through upon realizing his daughter was missing, even if it was way shorter than the time she experienced in Arcadia; a small blessing, but one she was thankful for (nobody wanted to be Rip Van Wrinkle). Quietly, Shinobu shifted one of the nanotech masks over his face, and his body reshaped into a generic-looking salaryman's.
On two levels. If Futaba blinked, she could instead not look directly at Shinobu's real appearance and instead at the wild-haired boy who, apart from an oddly pale face, looked completely normal. Experience they had with hitting a homeless shelter for food after spilling out of the Hedge portal told her that the "normal" appearance was what people saw, including hers. That explained why fae weren't a known ethnicity/ruling the world, at least. Also helped them blend in.
But that was besides the point, as now the fake appearance matched his real one exactly, as he put his arm around Futaba "protectively." "Second verse, same as the first verse." Futaba nodded, and, making sure her clothes looked extra raggedy and dirty, curled up and pretended to sob.
People were hearteningly willing to buy stories about needing quick money for transportation given a sad girl and her close relation protecting her. And sure enough, a passerby on the park's sidewalk stopped, looking alarmed. "Sir? Are you okay?"
"My daughter," Shinobu began, in his best "exhausted, scared dad" voice. "She fell in the pond and hit a few rocks; she's not injured, but she's cold and traumatized, and I lost my wallet pulling her out - I need some cash for two subway passes."
Wordlessly, the blonde woman fetched out about 1700 yen from her long blouse and handed it over. "Be careful; that pond has needed cleaning for weeks. Better see a doctor, if she came down with something." And with that, she walked off.
For two seconds, then she rebounded and shoved a crystalline-looking rock into a surprised Futaba's hand. "There. So you don't suffer a worse accident. You take care now, I think you'll have more dark surprises pretty soon." And then she walked off.
"... I am sincerely hoping," Shinobu began. "That was just a superstitious hippy."
Futaba had not lost her memory of her mother's death.
Or rather, she had lost the exact moment of death itself. However, she always remembered grieving, and how she was tricked into summoning the Three. Ironically, that kept her sense of self; the Androgynes had pulled out all the memories relating to her identity out except what they apparently thought would entice her to stay. It didn't; she remembered how they betrayed her, kept to the rage she felt when she realized she had traded complete lack of motivation for complete lack of agency. That was her rock, and even in the initial testing where all she knew was the procedures she was programmed with, the fact that she was promised something better kept her more than just an orange-haired machine. Like a pearl, her mind reformed around that rage, and sorrow, and hatred, enough to know she wasn't always Strategos, and she was originally a human.
There was more than one reason she immediately leapt to "supervillain" upon recognizing she was a reality-altering hacker now. She was totally expecting some hot-blooded spike-haired dude to interrupt her one day and try to lecture her into letting go of her anger, that there was more to life than her hatred of the Androgynes and seeking ever greater XP to enslave the world before it did the same to her. (Did it count if she remembered the good stuff later because of the bad stuff, though? Get on own feet now, ponder meaning of life and own motivations later.)
Still, she remembered trauma. She remembered loss, and fear, and sorrow.
It wasn't enough.
It could never be enough for the sight of Sojiro happily conversing with his daughter, live, completely oblivious that his daughter was hiding in a nearby storefront.
"They replaced me," she may have uttered. She didn't register it. "They replaced me."
Shinobu, for his part, simply collapsed into a chair, gaping at the doppleganger. "... How?"
"Dunno. Maybe she's a robot or something," Futaba replied, dully. "Not that it matters, for them."
A faint memory of his own abduction came to Shinobu's mind, unclear but concrete. "I saw them make mine," he murmured, distantly. "I think they wrapped my old glasses in spiderwebs and then threw it into a vat of their nanites. I never knew what they were doing but..."The symbolic logic was clear, he didn't need to say.
"Heh. Spider-glasses. Maybe she's that too, glasses for her robot mind," Futaba mumbled.
A small, nasty voice that sounded a bit like the cold, contemptuous tone of Mintaka echoed in Futaba's skull. Maybe she is the original, and you are just a byproduct of our science; a price to pay for being free from your irrational feelings. Futaba's brain promptly told that voice to shut up, slapping it with the logic that Occam's Razor applied to the Fae, too. She recalled too much, and really, that Icon would have to be deliberately placed for her and new memories copied, for one thing. Then she realized how much thought she was giving it, and fell against the ground, curling up.
"Why?" she choked out, beginning to tear up. "The story's supposed to end here. I'm back from over the Oz desert, vanquished the dragon, gone home. I'm supposed to be happy." She sobbed. "Fuck you, you grey assholes. Fuck you."
Shinobu sat beside her. "It's okay. Sojiro's happy, isn't he? That's a silver lining; he never lost a daughter, too."
"But he did!" she nearly shouted. "I'm me! Not her! She... She stole him from me!"
Shinobu, always the calm one under pressure, nearly pointed out that the fake Futaba was the tool of theft here, not the thief. He thankfully realized this wouldn't help, and he remembered the actual myths, where changelings were cantankerous old fairies who took the place of human children. This may have been the Baroness of Tortured Harmonies on holiday, he supposed.
Instead, what he said was; "Maybe you can take him back? Show that you're the real one somehow?"
It had its intended effect. Futaba stopped crying.
When she looked up, her face had been split into the least pleasant smile Shinobu had ever seen in real life. "You're right. I can, can't I?""
Shinobi realized he could have probably phrased that better.
For the next month, the only things that consistently existed for Futaba were herself, Sojiro, and her doppleganger. Shinobu occasionally figured in, but for the most part, Futaba busied herself with plans, intel for new plans, and creating materials for plans, discarded plans existing only as a growing pile of various materials spun from junk.
To be honest, it was more than a little terrifying to witness. The obsession, not spinning new materials from junk.
Admittedly, that could be terrifying, too; Futaba had been, in effect, a "student" of the Three Androgynes. Shinobu did not envy her; the Three could have been called perfectionists and slave drivers, except perfectionists and slave drivers had limits; when they first met, Shinobu had initially confused Futaba for one of the biological robots the Three made as menial labor. She had nothing except her task, eyes empty and unfocused between missions. He didn't begrudge her either; they were both machines at first, sterile and dead inside as everything else in their Keepers' holdings.
Just because she escaped didn't mean her knowledge of the occult sciences, as much chemistry and physics as it was alchemy and willworking, didn't come with her. He learned a lot, listening to the Androgynes chatter both amongst themselves and other, less science-fiction obsessed Keepers. Arcadia was a world held together by legal precedent and agreed-upon rules, but the base form of those rules chose to not fix what wasn't broken; Faerie's natural laws looked a lot like Earth's, just with more obvious loopholes. Loopholes, it seemed, that followed Futaba home; diamond, metal, sawdust? They were all just atoms and quarks in the end, easy enough to change from one type of matter to another. A charge of Glamour, and it didn't even take specialized tools; a cheap fan so charged provided an excellent spinning wheel for turning string into electrical wires, a hammer and anvil didn't even need to be heated to turn a plank of plyboard into a functioning motherboard. Combine that with the fact she was already a skilled computer engineer before she was abducted...
It took a lot of Glamour, a week, a bit of charm and no small amount of petty theft, but Futaba had gained access to a computer and a table of tools. The only problem was that said computer did not belong to her.
"You know," Yuuki Mishima began, glancing at the ever-mounting pile in his basement. "I don't know much about changeling biology, but that can't be healthy."
The two had nearly jumped out of their skin when the messy-haired, almost painfully ordinary-looking teenager had introduced himself via the click of a gun as they were observing the other Futaba through stolen binoculars. One swarm of angry mice later, and several dosages of allergic medication to the rash-covered student, it was discovered said gun was airsoft. ("I keep that for intimidation purposes. Mostly so I have a chance to hit the panic button and run.") After seeing a photo of the other Futaba, Mishima had all but laid himself prostrate on the ground and begged for forgiveness. "I had no idea she was your fetch! I know it's stupid, given you're her with furry ears, but I panicked!"
When he slowed down a bit, Shinobu and Futaba learned almost as much as they had when they were still captives of the Androgynes. "I'm, well, a monster hunter. To film!" he quickly added when he saw Shinobu reach for something (actually a juicebox he swiped from the supermarket). "I'm part of, I guess you could call it a guild, called Network Zero. We're citizen journalists, gathering data on the supernatural. Actually how I saw what you really looked like," he said, pointing at his bruised digital camera. "We've figured out a way to see past mystical illusions with the right hardware, including what I think you guys call the Mask."
Futaba had briefly returned to normal at that to talk computer tech with Mishima for a bit, which Shinobu understood about 5% of. Eventually, they came back to changelings, though - and the fact that Mishima was little help. "Look. There's a reason we're the Secret Frequency still; supernatural beings don't want any of their secrets getting out, least of all the Lost. I think they fear the Keepers could find them by watching YouTube or something no matter how many mosaic filters we put up. They can get, I guess, violent if we try to interview or write about them."
The two changelings felt ashamed for their new kin for the roughly two seconds it took to remember their own personal masters replaced Futaba with an android as a matter of course.
"So... You can't lead us to said other changelings?" Shinobu asked, glumly.
"... No," Yuuki admitted. "You're honestly the first I've met. Or the first I know I've met; I'd have to look through my camcorder all the time if I was looking for changelings, and even if I wasn't afraid of them cursing me, I don't want the scrutiny that comes from looking weird." He smiled apologetically. "I'm still a student, after all; this is my hobby and service after I admitted to myself vampires existed."
That rose further questions, but Mishima refused to answer. To be more accurate, he would dodge awkwardly before looking distant and going "There are things I won't ignore any more." And that was that.
Still, there were two things the new Lost learned to be very grateful to him for. One was the fact that, while he wasn't sure about letting them into his house, even over the summer months where his photographer parents were often absent ("We can't provide for a lodger, much less two,") he did give them spare mattresses and reveal a safe and warm place to sleep in; the alleyway behind his apartment building, and the attendant pipes. "Nobody ever checks them," he admitted. "Keep it clean and they won't even know you're there."
The second was a series of unintentional self-discoveries about changelings, despite the paranoia of Mishima's usually English-speaking friends. The archives of Network Zero were notoriously well-guarded until the leaders felt it safe to publish their findings ("About 85% of the 'definitely true' stuff never sees the light of day, because we can't make it fit into a coherent and supported theory of what it means"), to the point where Mishima admitted up front he didn't feel safe relating any more information than absolutely necessary. This was more than what Futaba needed for her more coherent plans.
The first one was that the other Futaba was called a "fetch", and was indeed a robot made to replace her - or more accurately, a golem powered by a bit of her shadow. "We know what you call Keepers are behind a lot of alien abduction myths," Mishima explained. "We're not sure if your Three look like grey aliens or the other way around, but we do know that, when a fae that looks suspiciously like a person who 'survived' an abduction experience without escaping appears, the 'human' version disintegrates into whatever was nearby the site of their abduction when they die, no matter the circumstances; we think the Fae can use anything to make them, it's the spell and the shadow core that makes them clones."
"So, she's a bunch of action figures, pillows, and/or spare computer parts held together by something that also belongs to me," Futaba muttered, paying more attention to the scribbles of a concept map indicating "how to suss out fundamental inhumanity" in front of her. "Got it," she said, adding a few bubbles about "afraid of fire? can download malware? nt check."
The second was an almost complete coincidence, when Mishima named his price for continuing to help them; "We've been trying to crack Lost society for years," Mishima admitted, up front. "I know the True Fae are hunting you, and they can use computers too, but Network Zero can't help you until we have a good idea of even basic changeling biology. I can't help you unless I know what's going on. But I know you can make deals that inflict curses on those who break them, and so I'm offering one of my own." He held out a hand. "I know she's planning on a confrontation with her fetch; let me film that, let me follow you and see your world - maintaining your anonymity of course - and I'll help in whatever ways I can. Give you information, maintain your website - maybe even put you in contact with hunters who actually know how to use a gun."
Futaba looked at the hand in what would seem to be hesitation to other people. "In... Any way? Even things that put you at risk?"
Mishima gulped. "There's not a lot of ways that putting me at risk could help you, but if it's not a clear suicide mission, sure."
She didn't need to be asked twice. Like a man lifting his own arm, she willed her Glamor to cannibalize her Mask, tuning its own connection to the Wyrd to support her own personal magic, and shook his hand. "You have yourself a deal!"
Then she willed the Mask back into being, and shook.
A few seconds later, his brow furrowed. "Er, I can guess why you dropped it, but why isn't it going back up?"
Futaba blinked, then looked at her arm, unfocusing her eyes. Yep, the shimmer of her human form was still there.
"I mean, isn't that-WHAT THE HELL!?"
Futaba whipped around to see Shinobu with a full box of instant noodles, looking just as shocked as Mishima.
"You-masks, I-Wait a minute." A look of understanding came to the student occult cameraman. "... 'See your world,'" he said, a slight smile coming to his face. "Well. That makes finding other changelings easier."
Third was about an hour afterwards, when Shinobu (who had been complaining about going to the Hedge to look for Glamour-restoring goblin fruits) revealed that while he had felt startled at Mishima's reaction. what really surprised him was the sense of pleasure - and the electrical sensation of new Glamour rushing through his veins. Mishima paused at that. "Hold on about thirty minutes, let me try something..." With that, he turned on his own computer, and switched on a stream of Grave of the Fireflies.
At that exact half-hour mark, a puffy-eyed Mishima turned to Futaba. "Think about food, please," he choked out.
The shorter changeling had lost her appetite around minute number five, but did so-
Whoa, she thought. I can see stars. Very blue stars.
Mishima, for his part, did not react - in fact, he was reacting less, his expression having turned to "glum" from "utterly despondent."
Shinobu caught on. "You feel your Glamour tank filling?"
While Futaba was still coming down from her three second high, she nodded, a silly grin on her face.
"So that's how it works," Mishima said, looking very proud of himself. "Everyone on the Frequency says fae are psychic vampires. I feel fine!" he hurriedly finished when he saw the looks of horror on both faces. "Just a bit tired. Actually, I feel less sad now; my guess is that feeding on people for Glamour just takes some of the strength of the emotion."
Futaba, feeling no small amount of skeptical dread, rose an eyebrow. "Finish the movie."
About an hour later, her worries about permanent emotion loss had abated. Mishima made her dry the desk, though.
And thus, a daily routine began; Shinobu would play house-elf in return for letting the changelings continue to eat at his house, Mishima would occasionally follow Shinobu around to safer areas (not the Hedge, never the Hedge) and take furious notes on his life and unique challenges, and Futaba made enough of a mess for Shinobu to have constant work.
Such as today, when Futaba, Shinobu swore, had not slept for a week.
"It's... It's reeeeaaaal important work, Kaaaageeee! Er, Nishimaaa!" She slurred. "Just... Just wait. I dink...I dink I got her now!"
Shinobu looked at the bizarre scribbled at Futaba's desk. "O...kay...?"
"See, see dhis thing, she's, she's made of pillows, riiight?" She laughed or possibly hiccuped, causing Mishima to wonder if 'blood ferments into alcohol' was a symptom of changeling sleep deprivation. "So... So she's afraid of, of being infeasted by bedbugz, and, and wow. Dhis sounded wayyyyy better in my head." Sanity having penetrated Futaba's sleep deprived state, she unsteadily got to her feet.
And tripped over her own tail. "Whooops. Kage, hand? Friends don't let friendz walk... in-som-ni-ac. Heeeee...." Shinobu didn't realize it was possible for someone to crawl unsteadily, but the condition of being Lost held many wonders. "Th... Thansks. You know, did eyyyeeee, did I ever tell ya... I like your normal face moooore?"
Wow, she was really out of it. "Yeah, off to bed. Vengeance in the morning."
"Nuh, no, serioszly... All your masks, you make 'em so cute, 'scept it's not you. Kage, lookin' at you... S'like I've got a tie-dye shirt teddie. A real hot tie-dye teddie. 'S not like me. I've jus'... I've got a pair of ear'z that ju' get in the way, and a tail that hurtz when ya pull on it, and magic dat can't help, and a Sojiro that didn' even know I was gone and a fetch dat's better at a bein' a daughter and-"
And now she was crying. Not a scenic, restrained cry too, this was curled-up-on-the-floor, snot-leaking, painful crying. The kind of crying it made both boys feel dirty for seeing.
"... My parents aren't coming home today," Mishima cut in, more to stop the tears than anything. "You and Shinobu can sleep on the bed, I'm fine with the couch."
Futaba sniffed. "Thuh.... Thanks Nishima. You'... You'ra gud frund. Hee, I'm wurst monster... Furst hunter I zee and I'm roomin' with him... Sleep now, fail at horror movies later. Ar' we his monster gurl-er, persun harem, Kageeee? Hee, lookit uz, all progrsessive and... And..."
Thankfully for Mishima's remaining dignity, the last once of energy keeping her awake faded out, and she started to snore.
Unfortunately, this led to self-discovery number four, when Shinobu awoke to a surprised squeak from Futaba.
His anime-savvy mind already anticipating a slap, Shinobu bolted up-to find that Futaba was still nowhere near him, and had an expression of utter wonderment on her face. That was quickly replaced by "evil."
"Kage," she began. "I can dive into her mind." And then she fell right back to sleep, the evil grin still on her face.
... Laws of comedic misunderstanding, Shinobu's thoughts screamed out into the empty void, Why hath thou forsaken me!?
"Well, it's more her dreams, but they're close enough for government work!" Futaba, having finally awoken for more than the minimum needed to supply her body with food after two days, looked not unlike a feline celebrating a recent victory in the pursuit of a specimen of Serinus canaria, a fact helped by her ears and swishing tail (though not overmuch; those were not cat parts).
"Futaba please," Shinobu said, trying to somehow put out this fire before she burned anyone else along with it. "Not over breakfast, we can talk about it-"
"So, was it a sudden transition, or did you perceive a, guess you could say, a gateway between you and your fetch?" Mishima interrupted, furiously scribbling.
"Well, to be frank, it started when my dream went lucid; it's pretty common for me and Kage, though I don't know if it's normal for me and changelings, so I don't think you should write that down yet - whoops, side fetch quest, not important. Anyway," she inhaled. "I was just, you know, enjoying a recreation of my old life, pre-Androgynes, when I realized I was bored. So, I'm thinking, is there anything I can do and whoa when the heck did this door spawn in? I opened it, and then I get the sense that I'm pushing into a bubble, then it looks almost like I'm in the Hedge now. Except it's weird; it's midnight despite the fact it's evening where I'm sleeping, and I can't Hedgeweave like I normally can..."
So did Futaba launch into an explanation of a bizarre, liminal landscape where everywhere that wasn't an obvious path almost seemed proto-formed, not really there, but also not really not there. When she checked behind her, she saw Sojiro and her house, guarded by strange humanoids that looked like a combination of herself, Wakaba, Sojiro, and the Featherman actors, who nodded at her before returning to their posts.
"So, I look around, and I realize - I'm not in my dreams any more. I'm still asleep, I know that, but I know what my mind looks like, and this isn't it. There are things here I can't even properly describe; is there a word in Japanese for 'not real enough to see'?"
A dark impulse in Shinobu told him to contest that point, and stop her from making further mistakes. The common sense that remembered it was largely her ability to guess at spaceship controls that led to the escape plan even being possible slapped it with an iron pan, leaving only shame he considered the idea.
"So, I explore a bit, since I know I'm still asleep, but hey, I can probably wake up if I need to escape quickly - this only works if I can't pinch myself awake. So, after about ten minutes, I think I've gotten turned around, because there's my house again, except now I look closer, and I see Cafe le Blanc over the door, and then I get closer and holy shit the guards are clowns."
Mishima's pencil suddenly went through his pad. "C... C-Clowns?"
"Yeah, bad experience with Dead Rising; there's a reason games are rated for certain ages and up." She shivered. "Anyway, these guards, they looked normal, then they saw me looking curiously at the door and they grew these... Makeup patches, and... Can we not talk about this? Guh."
Mishima nodded a bit more forcefully than needed.
"Right. So, I decide being in there is the safest way out, because it's easier to lose them inside of what has to be another dream - which sounds stupid, because I was panicking - so I imagine a door into being, and suddenly, I'm in what looks like my dream, but... Different," she said, looking away. "Mom's there, for one."
"No, no, it's fine. You don't have to go into more," Mishima said. "So, what tipped you off is that..."
"Well, I met her," she said, bluntly, causing Shinobu to deeply regret drinking tea at that the exact moment.
"Are you- Are you serious!?" He said, choking on the inhaled tea. "Isn't that a good way to, I dunno, tip off the person you've been stalking for-"
"She wasn't aware she was dreaming! Shaping dreams isn't that different from shaping the Hedge, so I made a mirror," Futaba said, looking slightly offended. "She looked suspicious for a second, but then she just wondered what was up with her glasses. Still,' she admitted, "Dream-Sojiro started looking at me strangely, so I willed myself into waking up."
"Interesting," Mishima said, pulling up his phone. "Some of the more obscure reports of the other Frequency members says there's more than a few ways to dive into dreamscapes, and that from there, the living parts of it serve as an immune system. It also explains why fae always seem to have their ears to the ground about people; even a slim minority of dream divers can find out a lot."
Futaba grinned darkly. "And now, I don't even need to leave my bed to collect data."
The sinking feeling that Shinobu felt would soon prove to be prescient.
Which is why, a few weeks later, Sojiro found himself in the alarming position of watching his adopted daughter being thrust against the wall by herself.
The cleaner Futaba's color drained, mouthing silently in utter shock and terror. "I... I don't-"
"Sojiro! He doesn't belong with you! He belongs with me you fake!" The dirtier Futaba had a lot of the same fashion sense as the clean one, but her clothes were definite salvage from second-hand sources and were apparently slept in. Her glasses were just as big, but smudged and damaged in ways that spoke of a rough, subsistence lifestyle more concerned with survival than comfort. "Show yourself!"
Futaba-against-the-cabinet choked slightly, looking desperately for an exit. Sojiro suddenly remembered he was supposed to do something.Thankfully (though given how the clean Futaba looked at him with utter terror, you'd be forgiven for thinking otherwise), a similarly disheveled boy, who looked to be slightly older than either Futaba, got there first, pulling away the dusty Futaba even as Sojiro was attempting to pull both iterations of his adopted daughter apart. He glanced momentarily at Sojiro before yanking his (Sojiro supposed) Futaba off the other one, spinning her to face him. "Are you okay!?"
Futaba struggled against his grip. "I will be as soon as I-"
"Then what the fuck were you thinking!?" he began, throwing her away from the other Futaba and placing himself between them. "Sudden, much!? We tell each other these things before they happen, not 'suddenly get text from Mishima stating 'she said be ready'!"
"You don't know what I-"
"A tiny man, made of water, watching the house with you?"
The dusty Futaba blinked.
"I know what it is because I made it! I texted you to tell you I couldn't make it for lookout duties, I was sending that thing in my stead! That was the new Contract I mentioned!"
The dusty Futaba considered this for a bit, then narrowed her eyes. "Well, gee, sorry, it's not like I keep the phone on silent or anything when being stealthy-"
"I showed you the homonculus-"
"Made of fire, and you didn't say you could do more-"
"Because I didn't know then-"
"It's been two weeks Kage I'm available for updates-"
"Um!", said a new voice from the doorway. "I hate to interrupt, but uh..."
Slowly, both dusty Futaba and her companion turned to Sojiro, apparently just realizing he was there.
"... Well." The tall boy (Kage, his name was Kage) scratched his head. "This is awkward."
"... Can I just say I thought you were in danger and load a save file?" Dusty Futaba gave a smile Sojiro instinctively winced at, that was the "oh crap I screwed up," smile, but he shook out his recognition.
"Wha-" he began, only to be cut off by a somewhat expected source.
"What the hell are you!?" clean Futaba screamed as she pointed at the two. "Werewolf!? Demon!? Cameraman!?"
Oh, the third voice was an average-looking boy with a camera just by the front door, busy watching and recording. Sojiro did not have the clarity of thought needed to shoo him off.
"What are- What are we!?" Dusty Futaba spun around. "What are you, you... Trash golem!? Dust mites? Spiders? Printed fanfiction? Do you even know!?"
"I- I don't-"
"Yeah, yeah, I've heard it before," she said, striding up to Sojiro. "Let's get this out of the way-this doll is not your daughter, Sojiro."
Sojiro did not dignify that with a verbal response, instead simply staring at the weather-beaten girl with utter skepticism at something so ridiculous. Well, it was more like "utter bafflement," but he could be afforded his expression given how local reality had apparently decided that sanity was overrated.
"Futaba," Kage began, making it official that what was rational had left the building, "I don't think she knows."
"She- Did we have the same Keepers!? What part of that makes sense!?" Dusty Futaba whipped around to face Kage with an expression of utter disbelief. "If you're going to send an evil robot spy, you need to set up dead-drops for whatever data it takes for the invasion, or the abduction, or-"
"Why do you think she was made to spy, Futaba?" Kage said softly.
"Of course she was, she-" Dusty Futaba's rant stopped mid-beginning. "She... She... It's ridiculous..."
"Forgive me, but, it makes sense," the camera boy said. "The True Fae... Nothing we have suggests they're curious about the world. They just want servants. Props. Some may be replaced by agents, but everything else? You in particular, what makes you think they'd be curious about a coffee shop?"
"She doesn't know, Futaba," Kage finished. "We know from her dreams she doesn't know. She was made so that nobody knew you were gone; ask yourself what is a better replacement than someone who isn't in on it?"
"They... I..." Dusty Futaba's voice turned weak. "I... He didn't notice... That's what they... Dad didn't notice..."
Huh, Sojiro's still stunned brain thought. That's a new term for me. Wait, why does she think-
"Futaba," Kage began, suddenly sounding a lot more severe. "That isn't your fault. It just means they've been at it for a long time, and they're good at it. They're still the ones who took you."
Dusty Futaba fell silent at that.
She was still silent even when clean Futaba suddenly snapped out of her paralysis and-
Where did she get a knife?
Why was it made of glass?
How was she holding it to her counterpart's neck so well?
Kage growled only for dusty Futaba to hold up a hand. "In a sec. I think... I think I've got this."
"What," clean Futaba growled, "Do you want. With Dad?"
The dusty Futaba just laughed, the bitter, hollow laugh that was indistinguishable from a sob in intent and purpose. "Heh. You know, now I remember. It was vague before, but, I think this is a work-around."
The glass knife tensed a bit against dusty Futaba, who didn't react.
"There's a reason why I don't call him 'dad.' I thought it was rude, because we knew each other long before I was adopted," she continued. "But there was another, wasn't there?"
"Uncle Youji made me call him father," clean Futaba continued, before her eyes widened.
"Yeah. That term... It's only recently it's gotten less poisonous. I know he wants me to call him Dad, but it's so close to father-"
"I have to remind myself it isn't offensive." The knife grew less steady.
"Getting over that, getting over my past, and that piece of shit's," dirty Futaba all but spat, "Transferred mommy issues, I wanted so badly to leave it all behind-"
"But I couldn't. So I looked for help." By now, the knife had all but tumbled from clean Futaba's hand.
"But... There was a reason I looked for help." Dirty Futaba looked at Kage. "Remembered when you followed me, Shinobu? Remember how you shaped dreams better than me, and I got so jealous?"
The boy also known as Shinobu gave a brief chuckle. "Yeah, you told me to look for something different, but I found nothing-" A look of understanding flashed over his face. "Until I compared her dreams with yours."
"Tell me, other me," dirty Futaba began. "When we-I-you were at Mom's funeral, what did you feel?"
"I wanted to die," clean Futaba said, sounding like the world's loudest whisper. "I was all but screaming, sobbing-"
"That's not what happened," Sojiro said, feeling the bottom of his heart drop out, leaving a feeling too dark and fearsome to be called 'dread.' "I told you that you were strong, you were brave, because your face didn't change at all, but you said-"
"'I can't show what I'm not feeling,'" both Futaba's said, one with growing horror, another with bleak nostalgia.
"The Androgynes, they don't have empathy, but they have emotions," dusty Futaba said. "They just don't let themselves feel strong ones. They have joy when they succeed, anger when they don't, sadness once or twice when we didn't live up to their mission statement. But they don't get what it's like to feel nothing. Not a lack of compassion, not apathy, nothing. Having less feeling than a corpse, to the point where being a corpse doesn't feel that different. You... I get it now, you're perfect. But that's your problem; they don't know how to copy the ways in which I broke."
"And when I helped Futaba sculpt her memory dreams, every time we reviewed her grief," Shinobu said, looking down, "It was barren. Static. Dead. Not even the piercing pain we found in your memories, it didn't even seem real."
"Yeah. I didn't want to admit it, but I felt better after seeing her-your-memories of it, because I finally had feelings to put to that memory." She inhaled. "But, if that doesn't convince you-Shinobu, a little boost here-"
"Okay," Shinobu said, and Sojiro felt something flow off Shinobu and into dusty Futaba-
"Where did you get that knife from?"
As if she finally noticed, clean Futaba jumped, dropping both her doppleganger the knife and staring at it in utter horror. Slowly, she reached for the glass doors of the cabinet she was near-
Something shifted within the glass itself, flowing into her hand like transparent, shifting mercury. In a matter of moments, the shape resolved itself into a perfect clone of the glass knife now on the ground.
"I... I remember."
When clean Futaba looked up and towards Sojiro again, it was hard to see her eyes for the tears.
"Sojiro... She's right. I'm... I'm not real. I never have been."
And with that, the girl who wasn't fell over in an unconscious heap on the floor.
Perhaps that was the shock needed to drive Sojiro out of his paralysis, diving for the new knife and holding it what he hoped was a defensive position. "What did you do!?" he said, even as his mind processed every moment of the night. Wasn't her recovery a bit improbable, his damnably logical brain thought? Wasn't it interesting that this Futaba had all of her other's memories? Didn't he find it a bit convenient that Futaba suddenly became happy, and outgoing, and less of an issue?
Like Wakaba was an issue? Like how he didn't want to believe her?
"I don't think they did anything," the camera boy said. "I know their Contracts, and-I'm not helping. Guys? I think it's time you showed him."
Shinobu nodded, and walked towards Sojiro-and his body fell away.
Well, to be more accurate, the body Sojiro had seen cracked, and fell away, like a bit of reality was nothing but porcelain. In its place was something...
Sojiro had long been amused by the English term awful. He knew enough about the language from work in the government that, while it was generic term for something terrible, it sounded more like "awe full." As in, "there is awe here, and this is full of it." A little digging revealed that was precisely the case: "awful" was originally a double-sided compliment, the term a hero from one of Futaba's games would describe the sight of a magnificent dragon stirring from its slumber atop a mountain of gold, inspiring awe even as it reminded said hero of his own mortality.
The true face of Shinobu (Sojiro realized later he could have thought it was an illusion, but his mind realized that was impossible), was that kind of awful. Where the boy before had simply been a tall youth with an interesting discoloration around his face, the creature he saw now was a work of art, perhaps literally; multicolored biomechanical parts, like HR Geiger painted violet, scarlet, and black(er than what the Swiss painter normally worked with) was visible where his form was not covered by masks, some colorful ceremonial affairs not meant to deceive anyone, others so close to the human form they would have been horrific were it not for the artfully placed lines of circuity to stay firmly away from the uncanny valley, all of which seemed grown from his internal wiring and artificial flesh rather than attached. As he watched, a couple masks switched positions, sliding around his body like a great puzzle.
As for his face? Shinobu's face seemed like it should be another mask, what with the visible biomechanisms around it seemingly covered up by its presence, except there was no indication of falsehood. If anything, it seemed even more real than when he had been wearing an illusion, every expression almost achingly perfect on a face tattooed with characters in an alien language, every subconscious twitch a soulful celebration of the human capacity to express. The only facial features truly inhuman were a pair of gently pointed ears, reminding Sojiro the word "eldritch" once meant "elven."
Here, standing before him, was the edge of everything Sojiro did not know. And he looked good.
"Ebbwuh," he said, putting his thoughts as coherently as possible.
"Yeah, he can be a bit startling," the camera boy agreed.
"I'm only going to say this once, because I'm not sure how many of these Futaba can hold; We will show you the truth, should you promise to keep it a secret, and believe us when we tell you what happened to us."
There was something heavy in that, but the growing awareness of Sojiro that there is something I need to know, combined with I don't know who my daughter is made him not question. "Show me," he said, as much demand as plea.
Something in the air changed, as his quiet words suddenly became something final, something solid-
The world changed, and suddenly, Sojiro became aware the still-conscious Futaba was wearing a false face too. Because now said illusion had become insubstantial to him. To the point where he had to look to see it.
The real face of his daughter wasn't quite as, well, awful as Shinobu's had been. That had an aggressive beauty to it, a fantastic terror that seemed almost deliberate. Futaba appeared far more mortal, to be frank. She still looked pretty striking; most of her was still human, but here and there the same alien script was tattooed across her, especially on her forehead. But it was hard to miss the fact she no longer had human ears, but round, twitching ones covered in white fur, or that poking out of her shorts was a long, fluffy tail with a pelt somewhere between brown and orange. That would have been shocking enough, except the more Sojiro examined her, the more he realized the animal parts were not a natural part of her body. The ears were surrounded by faint, straight scars left from stitches, and within both ears was something silvery and metal. As her tail swished about, Sojiro could also make out that same silvery substance, along with what looked like bundled fiber-optic wires and instruments of stranger provenance. There were claws on the hand that was reaching toward him as well, but ones that shone with the oily sheen of plastic and the biomechanical chitin Shinobu had for his body.
In fact, looking closer, there was a lot more in common between the two than at first glance. There was something under her skin that looked like veins at first, but were the wrong shade of blue, more like Ethernet cables than veins. Her ears, while definitely organic, had patches of skin that had been torn off to reveal a much finer mesh of the biomechanisms, unpainted and grey under the possibly synthetic, possibly grown skin. As she reached towards him, her "claws" opened up to reveal an array of sensors and fine manipulators composed of the same biomechanical substance. Overall, Sojiro got the sense that someone had tried to disguise Futaba's true purpose to a cursory glance, a skin of something harmless over a hidden danger - or perhaps, camouflage for something very valuable.
But all that was secondary. The primary concern was that someone had done something to his daughter, something that brought to mind a tool more than a person.
And he had no idea.
The last bastion of his mind that desperately screamed this was all a trick, all a dream, heaved and coughed, a mortal blow inflicted over a mortal blow, but kept alive by sheer denial, and perhaps the understanding the moment he accepted this, that would be the moment he-
"Hi Sojiro," Futaba began, that same shy smile he had seen for all of her life on her face. "I've been gone away a while, and while I was gone, I think I stopped being human. But I'm back now. I got frustrated and panicked, and I'm sorry I scared you."
He realized he didn't protect her.
She was in an embrace before anyone in the room, even Sojiro, realized what was going on. He wanted to say so many things, most of them apologies, most of them self-recriminations, but in the end, he went with "What... What happened?"
Slowly, the embrace was returned. "It's... A long story. I was tricked, I was sold a miracle, and I should have realized that kind of miracle doesn't happen."
Sojiro could almost swear the glass knife was being shoved into his stomach. Perhaps it would have been better that way.
"But I made a miracle, Dad. I'm back now, and I have so much to tell you."
Behold, the benefits of being a Kickstarter Backer for Second Edition changeling; I can use mechanics that aren't out-of-date!
Technically, Pledges were debuffed a bit in 2E, but given how developer chatter says the only reason they're less flexible is page count, and because it'd get annoying to constantly bring up the fact nobody can see what fae look like, I've decided they can Ensorcell, ie infuse with enough Glamour to ignore the Mask, as part of a Bargain.
Still, another benefit of using 2E rules? Kith is no longer bound by Seeming! So many combos, so little time.
For those of you who aren't versed in terminology:
Seeming: One of six basic roles a changeling was forced into while still a slave to a Keeper, then spun to their advantage in order to escape, which effects an ability unique to each Seeming and the development of their Contracts. They are Beast (animal), Darkling (spy), Elemental (part of the environment), Fairest (icon), Ogre (warrior), and Wizened (skilled labor). There is, however, a lot of wiggle room, which is why we have...
Kiths: Specific jobs a changeling was reshaped into, leaving them with special abilities that require Glamour to power and a specific talent at doing one precise thing.
Shinobu is a Fairest Mirrorskin, meaning he can mold his body into superhumanly good disguises and is good at slight of hand while in a disguise. As a Fairest, this is represented by him being the Three Androgynes' idea of the perfect actor, charismatic and memorable even in his base form but able to own any role he wants to play. He's also good at helping with production errors; as a Fairest, he can give buffs to his friends to improve their skills, making him quite vital when he wants to be (Fairest usually become politicians and celebrities among the fae for a reason).
Futaba is a Wizened Gameplayer, her natural abilities as a gamer and hacker amplified so she can rapidly react to tactical data and making her an ideal planner for the many, many fights the True Fae have amongst themselves and anticipate rebellion. Glamour enables her to control for chance as well; gaming against her in an area where you purely rely on luck is a fool's game, because she can make perfect predictions about where the dice will fall or the wheel will land. It's better to fight her in things like poker, which requires some skill and thought on the part of others and cannot be accounted for/hedged to her benefit. As a Wizened, she can turn any mundane material into any other with some craftsmanship and grit, and with Glamour she doesn't even need proper tools; perfect for getting gold to buy into a table, or to bait the greed of a rival into making a mistake.
Also, there's a reason Fetch Futaba realized she wasn't the original when she did that knife-creation trick; that's an Echo, a unique ability of Fetches caused by their changeling counterparts returning to Earth awakening their own inherently fae nature, and with it a natural affinity for mirrors, shadows, and illusion. Her migraines are a side effect of her awakening to her powers, especially the universal Echo that allows fetches to sense the presence of fae and see behind the Mask, and her skills with a knife are part of a Keeper failsafe giving her the subconscious awareness of how to defend herself. That was Summon Shard, a basic Echo that allows reforging a reflection into a bladed weapon, and when Fetchtaba became consciously aware of it, the programming the Three Androgynes put in to make her forget her nature became irrelevant and she, well, remembered her first actual memory of being built and told to become Futaba, without actually consenting to serve essentially as a placeholder to avoid suspicion, or even knowledge she did so.
Yes, fetches are often traumatized and embittered when they realize what they are, why do you ask?
Chapter 4: Flop of Souls
Woo, Summer Caculus 1 is over, I can actually write again!
And before you ask: It's a poker reference.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
What does one do, when one's world has ended?
It's actually not a rhetorical question. Worlds end all the time. The planet survives. The planet has survived for longer than organic life, and organic life is a close second-placer for survivability (ask any cyanobacteria). But worlds have ended for as long as sapience has existed, because sapience conceives of worlds that end.
The world where Futaba Sakura was a normal, if shy and uncommonly brilliant human girl, ended twice. The first time was when the original was abducted and remade into a somewhat furry living chess program. The second time was when the girl made in her image realized there was an original to begin with. That was actually more devastating, because that was the end of multiple worlds.
Currently, the survivor of a world more directly destroyed was sitting unconscious on the floor, as the survivor of an indirect one squatting over her, trying to understand the new world he found himself in.
"So... She's a robot," he said, trying speak it into something sensible.
"Golem, technically. But a 'magic-powered robot' is a pretty good simile," the camera boy, who had introduced himself as Yuuki Mishima, said. "She's a surrogate body for a bit of Futaba's own shadow, and with it, a clone of her soul. But not a perfect one."
Depends on the definition of perfect, Sojiro bitterly thought to himself. "... Was there any way to know?" Best get that self-loathing out of the way.
"Probably... Not really," Mishima begins, thinking. "And I know what you're thinking, but I'm being honest here. Everything Futaba-my Futaba-learned from stalking her suggests depression was the only thing her Keepers couldn't replicate. Otherwise, she is Futaba."
"... Not that I'd notice," he not so much said as sighed. "I... I should have been there. If I didn't ignore her, then she'd... She wouldn't need to look for that damn chatroom."
He looked up, where the real Futaba has collapsed into a couch seat and fallen asleep, head and tail resting on a similarly dozing Shinobu.
"They..." Added awkward to injury, but that wasn't too bad. "I hope they didn't make a mess," he said, grinning ruefully.
Contrary to popular opinion, Mishima was not socially blind. Near-sighted, definitely, but he could pick up on implications, especially when he was wondering if that would ever happen himself. "They... Owe each other freedom," he said, plainly. "I think the only reason they haven't realized it yet is because they've been too busy fleeing for their lives; they haven't had a chance to think about what they are to each other. Truth is," he admitted with some consecration, "I think the only reason he was helping her stalk Fetchtaba is because he's head over heels."
"Heh. I'd call him a moron, but I've lost money to a face I'm sweet on and who didn't share my feelings, so yeah, he's only a quarter as bad." He stood up, deciding to make small talk now, stew in self-loathing later. "So," he began, "Monster hunter? I thought you people had, er, eyepatches. And swords. And, no offense, muscles."
"None taken. I'm really more of a monster vlogger," Mishina began, sheepishly smiling. "Network Zero, we don't like how supernatural beings hide just how strange the world is. We think that kind of system is ripe for abuse, and I've... Seen proof of that. Please don't ask," he finished as Sojiro opened his mouth. "I figure that since the volleyball team was screwed over by a budget crunch, I should focus on the thing that I actually find fun. Both of them."
"I wasn't aware my daughter had a thing for polyamory," Sojiro said, smirking.
"Gah! It's not-wait. So that's where she gets it from." Mishima groaned.
"Heh. You learn to deal. I'm quite proud of my younger days as a hellraiser, and she knows it." Sojiro chucked, then frowned. "Though... I suppose I should say 'both' know it." He looked down at the unconscious... Fetch, she was called? The unconscious fetch. "I... I want to hate her. She was there to hide the fact that Futaba, my Futaba, was... Gone. Taken away, to be some evil fairy's science experiment."
"But..." He sighed. "It's not like she knew that. And it's not like..." It's not like she wasn't made vulnerable by me, he left unspoken.
"I'd say it's also because... Futaba's right. She is Futaba, just... One that was never abducted." Mishima thought. "Or needed antidepressants. Which is a pretty big change, but not one that would impact her personality too much."
"Yeah... That's the problem." Sojiro sighed. "I wanted it to just... Go away. And I wanted it so much, I convinced myself it would, all on its own." He leaned over the fetch again. "Having her back... It was like Wakaba never died. She was... Herself, again. I don't think I heard Futaba laugh once ever since the funeral, and when she was... Taken," he choked out, determined to not avoid the truth of the matter. "I could pretend I moved on too."
"If it makes you feel better," Mishima said, leaning back. "I don't think she's depressed now, because I don't think changeling minds work like they did as hu-as before," he hurriedly corrected, wincing at the obvious potentially bigoted term. "She had to think like a fairy to even comprehend how those Contracts work, much less use them outside of reality. I've heard her muttering to herself about what role she fills in, archetypal character-wise; beyond her revenge, I think she may have honestly thought that the plot wouldn't let you not believe her when she finally confronted you with the truth."
"That's kind of a big assumption, I'd say," Sojiro began, raising an eyebrow.
"It's the only one that makes sense to me. I'd find a new life somewhere else." The camera boy thought for a second. "I don't know what that says about me. But what I'm trying to say is, she says how she got her mind back was through rage; the Three wanted her to be an emotionless machine, so she learned how to feel, and feel very strongly."
"So, what you're saying is," Sojiro began, smirking bitterly. "She's on Earth, only because her slave drivers didn't want her to be. Yeah, that makes me feel better, knowing the primary thought in her mind was screwing over her bullies rather than the power of love, or memories of home, or-hang on, did she just twitch?"
Instinctively, Mishima looked at the dozing Futaba, only to remember the being Sojiro was looking at.
"She... Is. Ahem, I'll go wake up the couple. I'm thinking they and she have a lot to talk about."
Funny, this didn't feel like waking up.
To be fair, Futaba spent much of her life unconscious; if her head was vaguely horizontal and wasn't on air, she could sleep. The question was how long it took to get there, not if she could. Long experience with the hard floors of her pre-Sojiro guardians taught her to ignore discomfort.
But waking up was, well, fairly instantaneous. One moment you were dreaming, the next you were aware you had been and that now you were in a world far more stable, hard, and less languid. Perhaps it took a minute to shake off the dream, but generally, there was no liminal space between "sleep" and "awake"; you knew you were awake even before the dream stopped seeming real.
This though? This seemed like Futaba was actively fighting off the dark, and there was no twisting thoughts left over from REM visions. Just darkness, pain, and... Sadness?
Why would she be sad, she wondered as she forced her eyes open. She should be scared, upset she just had a blackout on the floor, she really needed to see a doctor, huh that tail looked kind of cute-
Belonging to a different orange-haired girl perched on a stool close to her,
Her own spitting image, except for the obviously inhuman parts. Or maybe the other way around.
Shit. That bought a lot back.
Instinctively, Futaba (was that even her name, did she even have one?) reached for the glass knife (the Shard, a space between thought and flesh said) or an instance to draw a new instance of it from, only for the other Futaba (invader, thief, flawed prototype, the space hissed), to raise her hand. "Hey! Cutscene time, other me; not gonna kill you, we haven't crossed each other's paths enough for a boss fight."
Three distinctly masculine sighs echoed from out of her vision. Futaba-no, the fetch remained motionless, staring at her counterpart. Not glaring, staring.
The other Futaba inhaled and got to her feet, nodding at someone behind her. A semi-porcelain hand made of biomechanisms with a mask for its back helped her up. The "demon," she called him.
"So," the other Futaba began, smiling a grin that somehow the fetch knew was even more fake than it appeared, having used that same expression herself. "I guess you know who you are know."
(Better. Deserving. She envies you.) "Shouldn't the proper term," the fetch began, with a bitter giggle, "Be what?"
"Nah, you're more of a person than some hobgoblins I've met, and they're all 'who', so 'who' works here." The other Futaba shrugged. "I should know. I've been in that brain."
(Spying. Sabotage. Gathering information needed to replace you.) "Well, at least there's only one of them." The fetch laughed again, though she was sure this was more of a hidden sob. "Bet it's nice. Being a person," she all but spat. "Being unique. Being not a thing."
"Futaba," began the one person who the fetch wanted to be anywhere else right now. "Don't talk about yourself-"
"That's not my name," the fetch snapped. "It doesn't belong to me."
"Then what do you have?" the demon-boy asked. "Last I checked, they don't really give names out."
(Not hers. Your name. Yours alone, take it back.) "Nothing," she choked out. "I... Have nothing. Nothing... Mine."
"..." Suddenly, the other Futaba yanked out the camera boy's phone (huh, he was pretty easily missed), and typed something in. "H-Hey! What-"
"Looking up... Ah." The changeling she was meant to replace looked up, smiling in a strangely comforting fashion. "Does 'Agasa' sound good?"
"Well, it sounds weird, calling you my name or 'the fetch', given we're talking to you." The other Futaba shrugged. "We don't live in a world where people are described as the Manager of the Royal Beth or the Wry Functionary. And it fits our theme."
It took a second for the fetch-Agasa to get the pun. "Bud from a leaf." She chuckled, slight but more genuine.
"Yeah, thank you English alphabetization," she said, absentmindedly tossing the phone back to the camera boy, who nearly dropped the camera itself catching it. "Point is, Agasa," she inhaled. "I'm sorry."
(Lies!) "Sorry?" That wasn't exactly what she expected. "Why? I'm the one that-"
"The very fact you're beginning a thought with that is why I'm sorry." Futaba sighed. "Because... Because I wanted someone to blame. Someone I could hurt."
"Futaba," Sojiro began from behind Agasa. "Don't talk about-"
"It's been even longer than a few months for me, Sojiro," Futaba interrupted again. "I didn't even remember the name Isshiki until you told me. I've become a deeply angry person, and that's the only reason I'm still capable of lucid thought is because I followed the beacon lifted by my middle finger back to coherent, linear thought. I'm not pretending I'm not used to the anger."
Agasa could hear Sojiro wince.
"Point is, I wanted to hurt my Keepers in some way. So, I wanted to believe you were some kind of evil alien cyborg out to do something to let them take over the world, or hurt Sojiro, or corner the market on Let's Plays and send out subliminal messages that hamburgers are objectively better than ramen, or something." She shrugged. "Point is, I wanted to believe you were their willing agent, because then, I could at least ruin their day, make it clear that I hadn't forgotten them, that I..." She paused. "That I was stronger than them." She shook her head. "But that was stupid. More likely if it worked, they'd just zap me for being an annoying prick and move on to their next Strategos. I was lost in my own vendetta, and you didn't deserve being swept up in it."
(She's dropped her guard. Insinuate yourself, worm into her mind.) "But I don't get it," Agasa said, not sure if she was following the voice or not. "I... Am the thing that took your life. Why don't you hate me?"
"Because they're too good at their jobs," Futaba said, bleakly smiling. "They did clear up the depressed rainclouds, if only so I could hurry up and work better rather than soak in my own angst. If I hated you... I'd be hating myself for being less crazy than I was." She thought. "To a degree. I can't tell what's going on in your brain right now, but I can't imagine it's the tutorial level."
(She fears you, hates you. She knows that you-Quiet, you.) Agasa chuckled slightly. "Yeah. I think I can hear the 'fuck you too, you ungrateful bitch' protocol they put in my brain."
"Wha-" The demon-no, Shinobu-leapt into view, tensed but still trying to look non-threatening. "What do you mean?"
"There's some kind of voice in my skull," Agasa continued, grimly. "It's telling me to hate the original, fear her, destroy her-now that my memories of..." Being created by creatures who looked more bored than anything. "Them, are back. I think it's a failsafe."
"Yeah. Sounds like them." Futaba leaned back, looking at the ceiling. "But if you're expecting me to be afraid of you-I murdered Kage multiple times on their orders. They praised him every time he turned the tables. I'm pretty sanguine about being ordered to kill people-really, I appreciate the honesty."
"Uh..." both Sojiro and the camera boy said in unison.
"Believe me, there is far worse that happened," Shinobu said, a dark grin on his face. "Futaba just killed you; any pain was due to her being busy keeping herself safe."
"Yeah, and it was my fault when he did flip the script on me. Made things more fun," she said shrugging. "But the point is..." She inhaled. "I'm asking you for my life back."
(What's her angle?) "Why are you asking me this?" Agasa leaned back, staring at the ceiling.
"... Because I want my life back?" Futaba repeated, raising her eyebrow. "I don't want to murder you for it, but... I don't have much else to go to. And Shinobu has even less. Doesn't have the save files that let him even remember his own parents..."
"Just faces," he said, bleakly. "Faces and longing."
Agasa tilted her head back, looking quizzically at Sojiro.
"It's not like I have a choice," he said, closing his eyes in mild irritation. "But, it's also not my decision."
It took a second for Agasa to catch on. "...Oh."
"I can find an apartment, if you like," Futaba continued, looking away. "It's really not that hard for me to get money; I can turn straw into gold, literally. I won't say I'll exit your life but-"
"What's the point?" Agasa all but sighed.
Futaba looked confused by this. "Sorry?"
"What's the point? Sojiro knows. I know. I'm..." (Better than her.) "I'm someone else. And everyone close to me knows it. I... I can't be you any more." She smiled sadly, tears pricking her eyes. "So what's the point? Can't even keep the life I stole any more; my stepfather's a stranger now; he doesn't know me, except a-as the thief wh-who stole-"
"No, the Three stole me. You were just the dupe they put in place," Futaba replied sharply. "But... Yeah, I can see how that's a problem."
"But..." She looked down. "Where do I go?" (Nowhere! There is nowhere in the world for you except here, take it now-)
"I think," the camera boy suddenly interjected, grinning. "I'm way ahead of you."
"Monster-hunting vloggers, now monster-hunting therapists?" Sojiro laughed despite himself. "What next, lawyers? Truly the most feared and deadly of all those who stand up to the night."
"Not here, but I heard America has a group called the Barrett Council, or something like that," Mishima said, his dead serious tone completely ignoring Sojiro laughing even louder. "We're pretty close to the scientists, too."
"The scientists!?" Sojiro suppressed his laughter for a second. "How many kinds of hunters are there!? There can't be that many people willing to take on unpaid work to risk their lives for no reason they can explain-"
"You'd be surprised," Mishima interrupted, lightly smiling. "Enough people do to the point we have a fairly wide spread of... Well, eccentrics."
"I'd imagine," Sojiro said, laughing dying down as his serious face returned. "So... A foster home?"
"I'm surprised I didn't have to promise more favors to find a stable home," Mishima said, shrugging. "Apparently Yuri's Group is starting a 'fetch re-homing' initiative to help changelings back into their lives without killing their counterparts. I know the guys who are taking her in, great with sports and interpersonal relations."
"I'm just glad they don't think fae are the source of all madness, or something," Sojiro replied, leaning on the table with a pensive look. "... Can I still visit her?"
"They'd have to create a cover story first, but yeah. Agasa is your daughter too, when it comes down to it. She's there for her and your protection, not keeping her from you."
Sojiro still stared at the tastefully-white van pulling into his driveway, as Agasa looked on pensively, still on the sidewalk. The front doors opened, revealing a pair of well-groomed men who looked for all the world like normal young men in well-maintained casual clothing. One, a brownish-haired sort in a hoodie, smiled shyly at Agasa, waving. The other, a red-haired, punkish youth, grinned wildly and shook her hand, sounding inaudible to Sojiro from the other side of the front door.
"It still feels like..." Sojiro inhaled. "Feels like I failed. She's being placed in a foster home, because I can't-"
"Let me stop you right now," Mishima said, a note of annoyance in his voice. "Stop making yourself the victim. It's what I do, and believe me, you don't want to be me. I'm nothing and no one."
Sojiro rose an eyebrow. "Every damn journalist in the world would disagree with you."
"Because I forced myself to into not being the victim for once, and now I feel like I'm not allowed to stop. I'm only getting more accolades among the Secret Frequency because a pair of sources fell in my lap. You have a moment to make a difference, and I'm not letting you squander it." To emphasize the point, Mishima motioned at the door. "So. Are you going to let her last moments here being you being too afraid of yourself to say goodbye?"
Sojiro blinked. "Wow, you're a cynical kid. That something you pick up from other hunters?"
"Let me put it this way; keeping the supernatural secret isn't nearly as hard as it sounds," Mishima began, a bitter smirk on his face. "It's about providing any other explanation, because to accept monsters exist is to accept that it's omnipresent, and that means it's always your problem. That's kind of hard to admit."
Sojiro broke into a wide grin. "So, you want to make some extra money? We could always use more baristas, even if Shinobu's gonna be working for his rent."
"Priorities," Mishima said, looking meaningfully at the door. "But yeah, I live around here. Seems like as good a job as any."
"Right." And with that, Sojiro strode out the door. Mishima decided not to listen to a very private conversation.
If someone asked Shinobu what the most perverse aspect of being a changeling was, it was that there was something a changeling could call a "daily routine." Being mundane most of the day when you were a shapeshifting mutant that resembled a supermodel from the World of HR Giger centerfold edition seemed like a very intentional and pointed insult at the concept of rationality.
"You know," Sojiro began, wryly smiling at the shirt Shinobu had forgotten to take off. "If you're going to work for a competitor, I'm not going to help you dust your attic."
"Sorry sir," Shinobu said with equally joking tone, "The beef side of the force is quicker, more seductive-though not easier. I swear, the owner has a phobia of hiring more than one guy at a time."
"Well, with as much Mishima seems interested in raises, can't say I blame him," Sojiro replied, shrugging. "Anyway, I'll pay you extra if you clean the counter. Futaba's been bugging me about playing games with her, and you know I'll be late if I try."
"On it, sir. The Keep of Dust needs a new book or three. I'll just go get the duster from up there."
Of course, it wasn't perfect. Wasn't hardly perfect. For starters, it was awfully hard to provide legal living arrangements a minor who all but literally fell out of the sky one day (and had a few intervening steps through an alternate plane of existence, but at that point it's rather redundant), without legal proof of his existence and quite possibly with a doppleganger who would object strenuously to the idea of him having legal identity, and thus taking his own.
Thus, the Keep of Dust, the unused storage attic of the house that became Le Blanc. Which, it seemed, had a will that actively resisted being cleaned. This theory was only partly a joke - once one accepted that fairies, fairy-made robots, monster-hunting vloggers, alternate dimensions, alternate dimensions born from the interaction of dimensions, dreamwalking and (assuming Mishima was telling the whole truth in one word) vampires existed, a room with the personality of a slob really wasn't a big stretch.
Why it was called the "Keep" was beyond even Shinobu; it felt right, to think of his home as his castle, and call it as such. Fae instincts, he supposed; maybe his new subspecies was inherently territorial, he had thought.
Of course, he didn't expect that to be ever tested, directly.
"Greetings. I beg forgiveness for the intrusion, but... Are you... Like me?"
When it rained, apparently, it poured.
The blue-haired boy did settle a question, though; whether or not other changelings looked as weird as he did. Admittedly, he seemed more human, even if from what Shinobu could see from his Mask he looked fairly ethereal even in his human identity. But generally, "more human than the Giger Supermodel Mask Robot" was not what people would think upon seeing the intruder. They would more likely thing "OH DEAR SWEET MERCIFUL HEAVENLY ENTITIES HE'S COVERED IN EYES!" Or, at least, bloodless, dark depressions in his skin that twitched and blinked suspiciously like eyes scanning the area constantly. Shinobu would think "rips", except the jagged edges looked more like fleshy eyelashes to him.
The description, though, is a second priority. The first, though, is that a strange boy hasdsomehow snuck into his room and asked for confirmation of kinship. There is only a couple proper and possible responses to that.
"WHO THE HELL ARE YOU!?" Shinobu shrieked, and in the future he would count his lucky stars Futaba was nowhere near there to hear the pitch-perfect simulation of a nine-year-old female after inhaling helium.
The blue-haired intruder winced. "Ah, yes, sorry. I have been living in what I believe you call the Hedge primarily, and was so desperate for contact that I-"
Whatever he was about to say was cut off by about a hundred or so pounds of old man traveling at twenty miles per hour. The boy could barely squeak before a painting Sojiro was sitting on him, literally.
"Don't move," he growled as he pulled out his cell phone-
"No cops," Shinobu said, something deep in his memory being jogged. "He's a changeling, too."
It was at that point Sojiro got a good look at his impromptu cushion.
"... Does sitting on those things hurt?"
"As far as I am aware, they are not actual eyes. A shame, I would have liked to paint in 360 degrees. They're just odd organs I occasionally make use of when transmuting material or eating magic to power my other abilities."
"Ah. No offense, but it's still disturbing as all hell though."
"I suspected as much," the boy said, sounding depressed, but not offended.
"Ok, let's start again. Pretending you didn't break into my room," Shinobu said with more than a little growl, "I'm Shinobu Hattori. You?"
"Yusuke Kitagawa. I am..." He winced. "I was a student at Kosei studying art, until..." He sighed. "I do not wish to speak of this at the moment. Suffice to say, I was taken by... Something, and became the creature you see before you before I had a chance to escape my captor."
So far, so similar. But... "Why did you think I was another changeling? I could be what a fetch truly looks like or some weird variety of hobgoblin slumming it on Earth for a while."
"What is a fetch?" Yusuke asked, utter confusion on his eyes (all of them).
"Long story, probably worth explaining after I decide to not press charges," Shinobu said, deadpan but internally relieved. He hadn't been a changeling for long, but he picked up a lot between his and Futaba's ears listening in on the Three Androgynes and stealing glimpses at their data archives. This guy seemed genuinely clueless, which meant he probably was just desperate enough to talk to someone. "Point is, why me?"
"... Promise me you will not laugh?" Yusuke sounded uncertain and embarrassed.
"I've seen way too much to find anything laughably ridiculous. Go ahead."
"On my escape from my captor, I must have fallen asleep, for I remember being approached by two girls in a forest inside a tree-"
"This forest," Sojiro said as his eyes lit up. "It wouldn't happen to be ruled by a bedridden man with a huge schnoz and filled with clock parts?"
"You had it too?" Yusuke asked, sounding more curious than anything.
"No," Shinobu said as his memory rebooted. "It wasn't a dream. We met the girls too, and they took us on a tour-"
"Where they showed us images from the future and past, and said they were potential companions," Yusuke said, smiling as his ultimate sanity was confirmed. "I knew I recognized you. You and the redheaded girl. But I had to be sure, so I watched you for a few days to make sure-"
"You did what!?" came a familiar piercing scream from the front door.
In the near future, Shinobu would later admit he was proud of Sojiro for installing a panic button for fae-related crises on his phone, and Futaba's willingness to answer it. In the immediate future, this resulted in Sojiro being in the awkward position of stopping his stepdaughter from beating her destined friend(?) and current interloper senseless with a laptop. It wasn't that changelings were territorial, Shinobu would later muse. It was that "home" was just that important-and "home intruders", when dealing with people who had inherent paranoia about safety, were pushing a proverbial big thorny red button. In this case, a button with a sign above it saying "GREMLIN ON GUARD."
After calming down from her IT slap-happy rampage, it turned out Futaba was enough a believer in destiny to grudgingly give the newly-discovered changeling the time of day.
Not that she was ready to forgive him by any stretch of the imagination.
"So, Peepers," she began, rubbing her forehead. "Remind me; why did you think that stalking us was okay?"
"I was making sure you were not other illusions, or worse, beasts that dressed themselves in such," Yusuke replied, matter of factly. "My... Former employer was quite fond of those. Helped to set the scene, in her words."
Absolutely no one decided to press.
"So," Shinobu said, awkwardly disentangling himself from the sudden cloud hanging over the room. "Artist?"
"My whole life," Yusuke replied, obviously relieved to talk about something that he was quite fond of. "I am, or rather was, one of the students of Ichiryusai Madarame."
"The all-styles painter?" Sojiro asked, surprised and curious. "Anything like me? I'd sure hope not."
The first indication his joke fell flat was Yusuke flinching, and both Futaba and Shinobu wincing a half-second later. "Uh, Sojiro, um, what do you remember from the Great Exposition Dump of the Fairy?" Futaba plastered a sheepish grin on her face.
"That you encountered people, one of which is him. You kind of glossed over it,"
She told him exactly what she picked up from Yusuke's own temporal phantom, and more specifically, by who's permission he was abducted. Sojiro had to take a break to nearly wash his hands to bleeding at that point, and his self-depreciation suddenly became a prayer to whatever powers were listening that was always true.
In the meantime, Futaba and Shinobu kept up their small talk, discovering more about paint and the use thereof than either of them thought existed. Or really, could remember, but it let him relax a little more after recovering from one of them coming very close to attacking him.
"... So, the trick to using a pastel is-greetings, Mr. Sakura. I hope I did not offend you by the accidental comparison."
Sojiro internally winced. What kinds of things did The Slime Known Also As Madarame teach this kid about social interaction? Not good things, given how he was apologizing to Sojiro. "Nah, it's me. Shouldn't have made that joke."
"But it was in jest. I behaved terribly rudely with that reaction." He smiled apologetically and bowed.
Wow, Futaba thought to herself, with no small amount of horror. They trained you pretty well. "Oh, come on, we aren't offended! Contrary to the beliefs of some imageboards, comedy is not the art of being a total jackass! Come on, we can take a little criticism!"
Yusuke blinked. "Where was the topic of equines raised?"
... Or maybe he was just an oddball. That was entirely possible. "Okay, different metaphor," she more sighed than said. "Point is, we really, don't want to bring up... Your former master, either of them... So please, tell us if you're uncomfortable speaking about them."
The blue-haired changeling's eyes widened in understanding, then smiled, a little more genuinely. "Thank you for your understanding."
Shinobu cracked his knuckles. "Right, there's this guy I want you to meet. Think you and he have a lot to talk about."
Yusuke's brow furrowed. "And my appearance will not disturb him?"
"DO THEY HAVE ANY OTHER USES!? DO THEY HAVE ANY LINK WITH PERCEPTION AT ALL!? CAN I TOUCH THEM!?"
"Well," Sojiro began, watching the black-haired blur examine his new acquaintance from every possible spatial direction, "That explains why they're close to the scientists."
Things got more interesting after that.
For one, after Mishima had finished his "new information frenzy", and Yusuke had a chance to form coherent thought uninterrupted by constant questions, it suddenly occurred to the other recent escapee that he had nowhere to sleep. He had a clearing in the Hedge, but after waking up with his room having changed color, configuration, and the direction of gravity more than once, he decided that a bench was something of an even trade.
He punctuated this by proving that having more than two did not stop you from making puppy-dog eyes at Sojiro.
"No!" began the victim of obvious emotional manipulation in question. "Absolutely not!"
"While I cannot guarantee I can pay the rent immediately, I can certainly sketch a few portraits for tourists-"
"I already have two dependents!"
"And he's not living at our house!" Futaba added, her eyes widening a bit. "I'm still trying to reclaim it from Agasa, and he'd disrupt the progress bars!"
"I'll let him crash in the Keep," Shinobu said, glumly.
"WHAT!?" Apparently, both Sakuras had the same tenor of disbelief.
"You know what being homeless is like, Futaba," Shinobu said. "And about a week in, we got a sympathetic landlord." ("Hi", Mishima interjected awkwardly.) "We had blankets and actual mattresses to sleep on, he has... A bench. I can let him sleep on a futon for a bit while he figures out better living arrangements."
"Thank you!" Yusuke all but shouted. "I promise, I will not be-"
"Ahem." Sojiro stepped forward. "I feel I should mention the room you broke into is the Keep of Dust in metaphorical parlance-aka, my shop's attic."
The implication was not lost on Yusuke. "... Ah. I promise, sincerely, that I will repay you in whatever way you want; I will work for free, give you some degree of the proceeds from my sketch business, magical aide... When I understand the mechanics of it, but-"
"Relax kid, I'm giving you permission," Sojiro said, pointedly smirking at Shinobu. "You're not my responsibility."
"My most sincere thanks!" Yusuke all but threw himself prostrate before Sojiro. "You have my most sincere gratitude-"
"Relax, Peepers, we know it's nice being rained on and all, but you don't have to go full-scaled sycophantic minion," Futaba said, raising her eyebrow. "He can make those himself."
"Uh, technically I just subcontract a hobgoblin for a mission or make a homunculus..." Shinobu replied, sheepishly.
"Whatever, you summon them, they come. And I'll bet Mishima's thrilled to have a new... Mishima? What are you doing?"
The cameraman hunter looked up from his cell phone "Tracking a lead," he said, smiling. "I think I have reports of other people who visited the Glade."
Yusuke, Shinobu decided after about a week, was a terrible roommate. A good friend, but oh god, was he a black hole of food.
"You do realize," Shinobu said through clenched teeth, "That someone has to make the curry?"
"Yes, I am truly sorry. I will add that to my debt for the material," the artist said, slumping. "I realized that my budget for bean sprouts would have dug into my budget for blue shades, and-"
"Who needs blue when doing park portraits?" Shinobu cut in, sounding curious.
"Hair dye is extremely popular these days. That, and I do plan on making a self-portrait someday, after my financial situation has stabilized."
"Ah. Well, more accuracy or not, you've still wasted a time investment. I'll forgive you for that barrel only if you help me make the replacement for it, so-"
A familiar ring signifying a text interrupted the declaration of needed penance, with a familiar screenname and rather more pressing priorities:
Y_Mishima: I found one.
"... This isn't over, by the way." Shinobu shot up, typing out a response.
H. R. Masker: Where are they?
Y_Mishima: Currently? Glaring at me from across the room. She wasn't happy when she realized I could see her.
H. R. Masker: What does she look like?
Y_Mishima: Fire elemental. Supermodel made of lava. Her human face is blonde, she's got blue jewels for eyes in fae form, probably not entirely Japanese. Looks kind of like a valkyrie as a human.
Y_Mishima: Don't quote me though. Point is, I just managed to convince her I'm not some Keeper agent seeking to wring more service out of her, so could you come immediately? I don't like the look of her fireball. I'm near Shujin.
Huh. That did sound like Ms. Firey Veins.
H. R. Masker: On my way, bringing Y.
"Well, Yusuke, you've just been saved by our newest destined roommate." Shinobu got to his feet. "If I remember right, she was the one worried about a friend, so I'm saying approach her by focusing on her, and we recruit her by offering help to her friend."
"Her... Friend?" Yusuke's eye-patches widened along with his real ones. "You mean the goddess of flame, willing to enslave herself again to protect another? I have been meaning to ask her as my latest painting model as soon as we met in reality!"
"No!" The sapphires that served as Ann Takamaki's eyes narrowed. "I'm not being anyone's decoration, ever again! I don't care if you're my destined soulmate or something, I'm not your model!"
And it was going so well.
As it turned out, Ann was certain her visit to the Glade was not a dream, and thus, when Shinobu cleared his throat (and ducked what could be indeed described as a fireball from a lighter she was holding), Ann rushed over and quickly examined his and Yusuke's faces, giving them an utterly relieved smile as she made sure she recognized them. "... I'm not crazy," she whispered. For a second, she nearly hugged them-
Then she apparently remembered they were still strangers, and conjured another fireball from her lighter. Unlike with Mishima though, she wasn't holding it directly at them, which Shinobu took as a sign that she was feeling a bit less nervous than she was with Mishima alone there (ironically, given how he was purely, and merely, human).
This was accurate, and Ann really didn't need prompting to start talking about her past, and why she was doubting her sanity until recently.
"I had to exile myself from my house," she said, with the expression of someone who couldn't quite believe what they were saying. "You can't help but wonder if that's a metaphor your brain is coming up with for a nervous crackup and growing schizophrenia."
"There were reports of the same model quitting her agency suddenly after she had already shown up for work," Mishima confirmed. "After I got two descriptions of the same girl from two different Glade visitors, I realized that they may have been describing a certain changeling and her fetch."
"You have that problem too?" Ann said, eyes widening in surprised.
"Friend of ours did, it's really common," Shinobu dodged. Best not to bring up his own lack of a home.
The fact that Ann wasn't homeless was part of why things seemed like they were going well; it helped that she apparently wasn't strapped for cash, though she let her fetch have a large loan of it ("I figured that forgiving a phantom of my imagination was erring on the side of caution; can't risk that I've just thrown out an attractive girl onto the streets," she explained, a bleak grin on her face)-and then Yusuke, completely innocently, kicked a beehive.
"I-I apologize, profusely!" he quickly stammered out. "I had no idea that your Keeper-"
"Yeah, I don't care," Ann cut in, fuming. "You want a model? Ask the one who hasn't been a goddamned living ornament for a year! I'm done!" She flared her fireball to emphasize her point, the light refracting off her eye-gems to make her, well, completely terrifying.
Shinobu quietly slotted into "teach Yusuke quitting a job is a sign you're not fond of it any more" into his internal schedule. Time to play the last card. "We can help you with your friend!"
Ann, who had been striding towards the door, stopped dead in her tracks, before turning around, seemingly marble teeth grit together in rage, fear, or more likely, both. "How," she began, voice a volcanic rumble. "Do you know. About Shiho?"
Thankfully, the unvarnished truth here worked pretty well. "The Glade," he answered, motioning for Yusuke to be silent. "That was what the Twins showed us. We didn't even know her name, just that you were worried about her."
Ann kept the fireball flared, but some of the tension left her. As Shinobu suspected, she knew Igor and his nurses were at least trustworthy enough to honor a deal in letting her back to Earth. He neglected mentioning that it sounded like her Keeper cheated her; best not to make the already suspicious fire elemental feel like you were insulting her for buying into a slaver's lies.
"... Why do I need your help?" she asked, voice less of a rumble and more of a human warning growl. "I can find a way to help her from my house."
"... Do you know how to dive into the dreams of others?" Mishima finally spoke up.
She blinked, whirling around so fast she dropped her fireball. "Huh!? We can do that!? Eek!" She flinched from the fireball exploding into embers next to her.
Shinobu mouthed a quiet thank you to the vlogger. "We've explored more of our powers than you, and we know different spells. We can cover what you don't know."
He would later say that was the exact moment she was sold on cooperation. Biting her cheek, she sighed and turned around, still looking suspicious. "... Still not gonna model. That's... That's something I don't think I can do any more..." A downcast tone came to her voice.
"Yes," Yusuke finally said, still looking guilty. "I can only imagine the pain associated that makes you forswear your gifts. Again, I am sorry for impinging on you."
"You're fine. Just don't do it again, okay." She smiled, apparently genuinely. "Let's try this again. I'm Ann Takamaki, and you two are apparently my destined phone contacts. Your names are?"
With the declaration of a Pledge against betrayal, the growing circle of changelings found itself slightly bigger. Albeit, with the latest link in that particular chain being somewhat distant from the other three.
("I'm sorry, but let's face it; fate and causality declares we're buddies, but I literally met you because a monster hunter walked up to me in an alley and said he knew I was a changeling. I'm still kind of peeved about that." To which Mishima had turned nearly as red as her veins.)
To the surprise of absolutely nobody, Ann wasn't a fan of one of Futaba's more recent ideas, the "Kitagawa Carousel"; a way of dealing with the frustration of having the bottomless stomach attached to a certain painter being passed around to share the burden by making him stay at different places-which was to say, the Keep and Ann's own (rather large) house, as Sojiro was extremely clear that Yusuke was not to be sleeping under his roof after he got a whiff of the kind of paint the other changeling boy used (and, Futaba suspected, "boy under roof" would be a quality shared with "stepdaughter you feel extremely overprotective of after certain events under roof"; why Peepers was tripping that alarm was beyond her, but oh well), so for the moment, Shinobu was trying to somehow make curry faster than Yusuke could eat it. This was a problem compounded by Yusuke discovering a way he actually could pay off his debt for food; he had learned how to harvest Glamour from emotions a long time before the other three had, and with that experience came a strategy. More bang for his buck, in a way only he could provide.
("Intriguing, isn't it? How these portraits, however mass-manufactured for the benefit of tourists, result in such a reaction? I feel fully empowered no matter how much I expended the day before.")
So, due to Yusuke's artistic talents, the Glamour flowed, and Shinobu found himself glumly realizing he had been played a bit. Still, being full on magic juice was never a bad feeling. More chance to resort to magics if cornered, even if the changelings were too busy trying to rebuild their lives to really practice; Futaba was trying to reclaim her screenname from Agasa, Ann trying to catch up on a missed year of school, Yusuke was slowly building a new career, and Shinobu was trying to enroll in the local high school, Shujin, despite lack of legal documents proving his existence. Over the course of another week, they settled in-and then discovered how distant Ann remained. And how unwilling she was to volunteer information.
("What do you mean, you knew one of the Glade visitors already!?")
"You know," Ryuji Sakamoto began as he looked at the eclectic mix of changelings, one hunter, and one guardian in his house, "I honestly expected to meet you when you saved my life and I helped kill some big monster or wife-beater-wearing killer thug. I feel kind of cheated."
"Sadly for you, happily for everyone else, life isn't a shonen," Ann said, smiling genuinely. "God, I think I'm going to have nightmares of you being the main character, and me being the traditional childhood friend."
"Yep. Still, ain't all bad; then my dad may have actually been a bastard to 'protect me' or some mushy crap that makes my mom a non-entity. Really kind of insulting, given how, well..." Ryuji shrugged at the middle-aged, portly woman currently pouring water into a teakettle.
"Well, I was the one who started to suspect my son was, well, not my son, when he came back one day an unashamed hooligan," Ryuji's mother interjected, looking somewhat downcast. "I'm not sure what that says about me."
Better things than me, Sojiro thought bitterly.
"So, let me get this straight," Futaba began, disbelief and jealousy obvious. "You actually walked into the Hedge, and your son heard you!?"
"I... Suppose," Ms. Sakamoto replied, shrugging. "Honestly, I don't know how it happened; I was fretting over how I knew that somehow, his other self just wasn't the son I knew, and, well..."
Ms. Sakamoto walked over to a closet, and rapped on the door in a precise manner before opening it three times.
The last time, it opened up to reveal the Hedge, causing the changeling guests to nearly jump out of their chairs.
"Huh. Looks... Inviting," Sojiro said, raising an eyebrow.
"I assure you, it's not," Ms. Sakamoto said as she closed the door, locking it with a mundane key. "I'm still amazed I figured out how to bargain for a way back without getting more obligations than making the free complimentary nooleaf tea for a paid purchase from Suzaro's Fish and Chat for the next four years. Though I must say, it's strong, but it really helps with long-term memory recollection-I'm rambling, sorry."
"And I heard her coming through, somehow," Ryuji finished. "That helped jog my memory of Earth, and I sailed a lifeboat back to shore, and from there the Hedge. Gave Mom kind of a shock, because, well, she can see through Masks now and-" He gestured at himself, heavily tattooed, muscular, shark's teeth, and with a pair of stocky horns; he was also slightly red, though that may have been a tan (even if it was his natural skin color as well).
"What I don't get," Futaba said as she snuck an annoyed glare at Ann, "Is why we weren't told we already knew him."
"I was planning on hiding out with him if it turned out you were lying," Ann said, matter-of-factly. "I know him well enough to know he wasn't working for the Keepers for some reason."
A chorus of amicable ahs followed, much to the humans in the room's confusion.
Then- "Hang on, I just discovered you became a changeling too. I didn't know you were planning-"
"I.. May also have only realized what your human identity looks like after I met other changelings and knew what to look for," Ann said, sheepishly. "Sorry, I just don't look at your real face and think, well, runner's physique. And your hair was black back then. So... Yeah, sorry for not consulting you."
"Oh, we would have let you hide in the closet," Ms. Sakamoto said, smiling-until her expression changed to a pensive one. "The, uh, one that isn't a Hedge door."
"Yeah, that'd be..." Ann shivered. "Hazardous."
"What I'm wondering is," Mishima began, "What happened to his-"
"Hey ma, hey bro, the money train is here! I got my latest pay check, and you're not gonna... Believe... This...?"
All sets of eyes turned to the leather-clad boy with spiky blonde staring right back at the party, jaw just as slack as his (with two facepalming exceptions).
"... I think I just found inspiration for my next personal work," Yusuke began, slowly. "I will call it, The Fortunate Reflection."
"Which is the lucky one, Peepers?"
After a bit of a stand-off quickly ended by Ms. Sakamoto brandishing a fire extinguisher and snarling at Ann and her lighter-fireball (which ended when Ann realized she was actually preparing a fireball and quietly put it out herself in the sink), the double also known as Ryouchi Sakamoto formally introduced himself, and pulled up a chair to examine the group more closely. This...
Was surprisingly lacking in tension.
"Yeah, I don't see what's the fuss about this whole clone thing," Ryouchi said as he scratched behind his head. "It's not my fault, it's not Mom's fault, and it's most definitely not his fault that things turned out so weird."
"Uh," Futaba began, desperately trying to register this despite the past ten minutes still existing. "It's not... Weird?"
"It probably is, but my original is a freaking pirate demon and I can absorb shadows if I need to heal up quick. Weird is a relative term." He sighed. "Besides, the moment I remembered being born, that was the moment I felt... Whole, I guess. It's not a pleasant feeling to know you once felt guilty about something, but don't anymore." He grinned. "And hey, I'm a robot superhero now! That's pretty dam-darned sweet," her corrected, grinning sheepishly at his (whatever the closest concept to was) mother.
"Boy, that was scary when I met him, though," Ryuji said, looking found. "He knows how to brood menacingly like the best of them."
To prove his original's point, Ryouchi leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and frowning as he glared at the room.
"... Right," Shinobu said, shaking off the chill creeping off his back. "Glad you, uh, decided to be brothers-wait, how did you get the paperwork-"
"I didn't," Ryouchi interjected. "Rather, I'm cruising the Goblin Markets for a legal identity I can assume. Until then, it's dock work for me to support both of them; between us, Ryuji, Mom, and me managed to scrape enough to fix the sink, finally."
Both Shinobu and Futaba winced. "Goblin Markets?" Futaba began. "You sure about that? I trust them as far as I can throw them. By that, I meant the entire Market square, by the way."
"Yeah, but they're the only things I know of that sell things like legal identities we can actually use," Ms. Sakamoto said, sadly. "And, as much as it shames me to admit it; they value things it's easy enough to sell without tapping too much into hard cash."
"Er, pardon my interruption, but what is a Goblin Market?" Yusuke interjected, clearly confused.
"I'll second that," Ann continued. "They run by goblins, or do they sell goblins? Hell, what's a goblin in this context?"
Shinobu blinked. "... Wow, they kept you isolated," he murmured. "Okay, well, inhabitants of the Hedge are called hobgoblins, no matter the origin. A briarwolf is a hobgoblin, so is a mirror person or even a tumbleweed of gumwort, since a mature plant moves and hunts for insects under its own power."
"Hence, Goblin Markets are trading posts they set up for quest hubs, social spaces, and auction houses," Futaba continued. "Thing is, something about founding a Market makes it possible to buy and sell abstract things like memories, emotions, or, as seen here, legal identities and pasts. What's more, certain items like family heirlooms or treasured photos have more emotion, and thus inherent ability to conduct Glamour, in them, which makes them really valuable if you want to make magic items out of them."
"And because hobgoblins don't trust outsiders, they regularly try to screw over customers and con out more profit," Ryuji unexpectedly finished.
Both other changelings, the hunter, and the adoptive father looked at the trio strangely.
"The Three liked to take us along for lab assistants," Shinobu said, sheepishly.
"Me, I got crewed on a merchant ship a lot of the time, and the Daimyo wanted me to handle the haggling a lot." Ryuji said, deep in thought. "I have no idea why; wasn't any good at it, and I was a freaking deckhand and early boarder when she wanted to sink a ship."
Ann apparently took a moment to process this, then sighed sadly, looking wistful.
"It is indeed a shame," Yusuke said in reply, picking up on this. "The inspiration we missed out on-"
"I was thinking more 'allowed to do anything at all,'" Ann replied, still downcast.
Futaba opened her mouth to point out that Kage and herself weren't allowed to do anything on their own either, only for Shinobu to bring up a shushing finger. Don't try, he mouthed. It'll make her feel worse. She nodded in response.
They sat like this in silence for a few seconds, before Sojiro awkwardly coughed. "So," he began. "Does one of you think being a barista will pay better than your current job? Three sets of hands will really help with the Starving Beast of A Thousand Eyes here."
And if things had remained like that, the five of them would have been fine. For about two weeks thereon, they were fine; they were troubled by still missing three guests of the Glade, but their lives, such as they were, were stable. As Ryuji settled into his new part-time job, Yusuke discovered a talent for dream-diving and made a new, much-appreciated source of income as a seller of peace of mind and a new mine of inspiration, Futaba explored her own abilities with transmutation and began to research the Hedge a bit more to help the nice single mother avoid getting screwed over, Ann got ahead of her missing year, and Shinobu started working on ways to train Contracts subtly, in case their old masters came looking. Mishima rolled in the accolades found with his new access to sources, his peers in Network Zero following the lives of his new friends with rapt attention, while the fetches found their way to new lives that belonged fully to them; Agasa acclimated to her new home and fathers, Ryouchi made good on his word and became a terror of petty criminals, and a blonde golem not given her own name found the life of a liberated minor actually suited her, perhaps a Fae instinct spun to her own use, though she still frequently asked for money and tips.
It was not the happiest life, but to four people who had known nothing but chains for so very, very long, it might have well have been Heaven.
Fitting, that a woman who looked like a demon would shatter it all over again. And it really wasn't her fault.
Honestly, I don't like how much of the personal development of the other changelings I'm skipping to fit this all in one chapter. I'm seriously considering one-shots that show their initial escape to Earth and establishing themselves before they meet the rest.
And yes, the fact that they're dealing rather peacefully with fetches is rather strange for changelings. This will be important later.
As for character builds, Yusuke's a Wizened Artist (his eye-patches are a thematic choice on the part of the Empress), Ann's an Elemental Bright One (she just doesn't use her illumination a lot because she's not in a situation she needs it), Ryuji's an Ogre Bloodbrute. Two of three are based on Japanese yokai, and I'll let that be a hint.
EDIT: Now that I've had a chance to collect my thoughts, here's an edition of Under the Hood!
Yusuke, like Futaba, is a Wizened, and has both her natural transmutation ability and affinity for Jewels Contracts of illusion and matter manipulation (since worth is both an inherent property and a total figment of sentient imagination). As an Artist, he is unsurprisingly skilled at his chosen craft, in this case painting (though other Artists may be carpenters, sculptors, or even engineers), and can use Glamor to think high quality tools into being for an hour; in his case, his eye-spots warp reality by inspecting whatever he's working on, allowing him "notice" new elements of the painting like brushstroke or fine details into being. Sadly for him, there's only so much you can do without actual paint, and it tends to freak people who can't see past the Mask if materials come out of literally nowhere (not to mention he likes having an actual Glamour reserve, thanks), so he's still bound by his material budget. At least he doesn't need as many brushes.
Ann's Bright One kith means she is essentially made to light up a room, literally. She's naturally good at being the center of attention, but given how literal Arcadia can be, this also means she naturally generates an ambient light source on her own; if she supercharges it with Glamour, she can become a living flashbang so bright it actually hurts her enemies who look at it physically and makes it difficult for them to focus or fight (she has enough control to avoid hitting people she doesn't want to). As an Elemental, she is a living embodiment of nature at its most wild; she has a natural affinity for offensive Sword Contracts (they resonate with her Seeming and its loathing of being bound-raging elements destroy stuff), and by touching a bit of fire, she can control it like her own limbs, only paying a Glamour surcharge if she's fatigued (her fireballs are products of the Elemental Weapon Contract, though-it's cheaper, since she can Loophole it into not using Glamour, and it's honestly better for offense, since fire acts as her limbs do-until she relinquishes control, she can't actually burn people with the fire, though she can certainly spread it).
Ryuji, as a Bloodbrute, is essentially a pit fighter (and a 1E kith updated to 2E; he won't be the last); he gains his kith bonus for melee combat meant to glorify another, and with a bit of Glamour, he doesn't need a real weapon; any improvised object becomes just as effective as an actual club or sword in his hands, nor does it slow him down. As an Ogre, he has a natural gift for defensive Shield Contracts (Ogres are meant to carry burdens, even those meant to be thinkers rather than fighters, and the burdens of carrying others and enduring assaults isn't a stretch), and is, well, an utter badass in combat. An Ogre inflicts a slap on you, or really any kind of damage, they can will it so that you are debilitated with pain for a few seconds-and given how brutal CofD combat is, that means they've already hit the "You Lost" button. If he's fighting for someone else, it doesn't even cost Glamour.
As a side note, Fairest like Shinobu are masters of Crown Contracts of command; as idols, Fairest naturally find it that they say "jump", the world asks "how high?" This also makes Crown Contracts the summoner's art; he's only made homonculi so far, but Shinobu can and will summon minor hobgoblins to help him in the future. Yes, this is a deliberate tie-in to him being the Wild Card, why do you ask?
Chapter 5: A Royal Turn
Behold, the problem of many fanfics: You have other priorities to update!
Ah well, we're back.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shinobu wondered when his life had become mundane. Blessedly, normally, mundane.
From the admittedly small sample size of the changelings he knew, it seems everyone learned to regard a minor thing as a luxury. Futaba missed green. Ryuji missed being dry. Yusuke missed his dust allergies (he felt the unpredictability helped him break his occasional paint obsessions and look at things from another angle).
Shinobu really missed being bored.
The Three never really stopped working. That didn't mean there weren't lulls, but anticipation really didn't give you a chance to relax, or get tired of relaxing. Dread was the great driver of thought in downtime; Shinobu never stopped planning, never stoped anticipating whatever experiment was taking them that long. Generally, the only time Shinobu felt safe enough to start feeling like he wasn't getting anything exciting was during the constant "field tests" against Futaba; occasionally, she would withdraw to fix some of her traps or probe defenses on the occasions he managed to somehow get the more intelligent fauna on his side, and most of that was light sleep. The pain became routine, banal, but never boring; like a repetitive video game, the experiments forced him to stay intense and alert, never being able to default to routine.
Actually feeling bored because his life had become predictable... it took a little while for him to remember what the sense of general emptiness and desire to think about anything else than what he was currently doing had been.
Such as what he was feeling making the coffee refills, when Futaba suddenly burst in.
"Kage!" Already, Shinobu could tell something was up-for one, Futaba didn't generally arrive unannounced after closing period, let alone at top speed and nearly exploding with exciting. "I was skill grinding oneriomancy but then I found a weird dream that looked like someone was inside-apart from the dreamer, duh, but that's obvious but then-I was scared but she's nice and she knows a lot and-dang it, let's just say I found something! Come on, come on, come on!"
Alarmed, intrigued, and long since tired of the monotonous brewing (a novel experience, monotony), Shinobu followed her out, seeing that despite the fact Le Blanc was closing for the day, there was one last customer.
"... Huh. I never realized the Others were into science fiction beyond Frankenstein. I'm a little jealous!"
Said customer was also apparently able to leverage the fact she was a changeling for one off-the-books cup of coffee.
She was definitely the oldest fae escapee Shinobu had encountered thus far-though in all fairness, that was not a high bar to clear. She seemed to be around her twenties in both her true form and the flickering shade of humanity. Said shade looked like she had never quite put her teenage years behind her-a skinny, punky-seeming woman in jeans and a tee shirt over a longer-sleeved shirt with a band logo on it. The face was harder to see, ironically because it was easier to look at and thus hard to see the might-as-well-be-nonexistence disguising magic, but what Shinobu got was the impression of a dark-haired, sharp looking woman in orange sunglasses and honestly a bit thick on the lipstick. Or maybe her mouth was naturally that red. It was hard to tell from a disguise that didn't exist for him.
The real face, on the other hand, looked... Well, Shinobu wondered if the Keeper that took her was a Westerner, because she looked pretty classically diabolic. Skin shaded a rich ruby, thick black claws dripping with something dark, eyes with black scleras that glinted with starlight, and a pair of small, white, delicate horns jutting from her forehead; Shinobu was almost certain that if she had a pitchfork and skimpier clothing she would not be out of place tormenting the damned or beguiling the corruptible. As he looked closer though, he noticed the black liquid twisting into letters and characters of various languages as it dripped onto the counter before evaporating. In fact, distinctly Gentry script was written in white lettering at various places across her body-Shinobu was still put in mind of the infernal, but a scribe cataloging the various sins of its denizens and earthly treasures used to inspire sins. As grinned, Shinobu noticed her canines were enlarged and fang-like, completing the ensemble.
Well, it would, except for two things; one was that she smelled not of sulfur and ash, but wildflowers and recent rain. There was a heat coming from her, but it was a pleasant, warm heat that brought to mind a campfire or perhaps a cozy home. The second was the thin, intricately woven band of silver and vines that sat on her true face's forehead, the wood brimming with buds; the crown was hibernating between blooms.
The changeling snickered. "What? Never seen a seasonal monarch before? Yeah, we really suck the air out of the room, don't we?"
Shinobu realized he had been staring for half a minute. "Sorry! Sorry I'm staring, it's just that... Wow. You're... You're a..." Shinobu trailed off, realizing her appearance may be a sore spot.
"A succubus? I'm not offended, really," the woman said as she leaned back with an amicable shrug. "When you were a secretary for the Keepers for years, not even being allowed to touch people without being punished for indecency, being the living embodiment of indecency is liberating." She grinned even wider. "Ichiko Ohya, former journalist, current Queen of the Spring Court for the Freehold of the Crescent Moon-not that that means anything right now, but I think that's going to be one of the questions you're going to ask, along with Ms. Badger Kemonomimi over here. On a side note, I'm changing my phone number-no offense, Mr. Sakura, but your daughter texts waaaay too much."
Oh. Sojiro was there too, nodding wordlessly with the long-suffering expression of someone who was still trying to process life in general.
"Hey, it's not my fault if I find it easier to read what I'm saying before I say it!" Futaba looked mildly annoyed. "And I call him Kage, but his real name's Shinobu Hattori, because someone liked ninjas a bit much." With that, she all but yanked her fellow changeling and friend out from behind the counter. "Ohya here's the local leader of a quarter of the local changelings in the tri-prefecture area! ... And before you ask, there's not a royal family or anything, monarchs are chosen through means personal to the freehold. So yeah, she's a democratically elected Queen. Finally, something realistic in the prequels!"
Shinobu blinked, then realized exactly what she implied. "There are others!? More than us!?" It wasn't something that had crossed his mind, really-but you didn't hunt for signs of other changelings for weeks and not find any without wondering if there was any-especially given how tightly the True Fae gripped their toys.
Ohya apparently got it. "Yeah. Dozens in my-sorry, the freehold's-territory alone, hundreds in Tokyo. We've been having a bit of a population boom too, which is why I missed you guys. Trust me, we normally have our ears kept closer to the ground." Her smile faded. "The reason you didn't find us is also because we didn't want to be found. Any human who knows of us is a risk, and sadly, memory-altering magic ain't nearly as common as you'd think it'd be."
"H-hey!" Sojiro said, looking angry. "That's my daughter over there, you'd think I-"
"Not intentionally, sorry!" Ohya quickly corrected, grinning apologetically. "But... You don't need consent to invade dreams."
"... Oh," Sojiro said, remembering he thought the same exact thing after having oneriomancy explained to him. "Touche."
"... You corrected yourself," Shinobu said, his initial amazement being replaced by the series of questions he had quietly rehearsed. "And given you're the Spring Queen... I'm assuming there's a Summer King who's ruling now?"
"On the occasions we can find him. Kiritani's... Weird, and more than a bit, er, creepy. Coming from a Darkling, that's really saying something too." Ohya shrugged. "But yeah. In mundane political speak, I'm the Prime Minister in Spring, just a member of the Diet in the other seasons." She grinned. "I'm equally as annoying year round, though."
"Which is actually something I wanna know," Futaba said, coming up. "Why seasons? Is it kind of a Seelie/Unseelie thing, where the nice ones rein half the year, the assholes the other half?"
Ohya's smile fell before she gave the bored sigh of someone who has heard this exact thing before, and never got excited to explain why it was wrong. "Firstly," she began, rubbing the forehead between her horns, "Seelie and Unseelie are something from Irish mythology and culture. It has never been a thing in Japan, in Korea, in the United States, in the rest of the United Kingdom even, until the idea was exported. Secondly, it's not a thing. Like, at all. A changeling's a person, like a human's a person. Or sentient hobgoblins-they can be real jerks to some people or when they're mad, heroes to others or when they're calm. Me, I can be your drinking buddy or that annoying party girl who thinks she knows more about politics than you, and you may be right. It's humans trying to put fae in easy categories because they don't know enough and want things to be simple. The Keepers are pretty much always assholes, but they're assholes 'cause of what they do, not what they are." She paused. "Though maybe what they are figures in to what they do. I left my curiosity about them behind with My Esteemed Lady," sarcasm dripping from every word of that title.
Shinobu really did not hold that against her.
After she finished what had to be a little rehearsed by now. Ohya cheered up a bit. "As for why the four seasons, I could go into a long myth about how the first Kings and Queens forged a pact with the four children of Time, which the deathless Others could not comprehend-but really, the practical reason is because of food."
Sojiro looked up, raising an eyebrow. "What, you all farmers of that weird Hedge thing? You got any coffee beans? I'd like a secret ingredient."
Ohya started to look a bit uncertain. "Okay, um... You guys ever feel a bit, uh, energized when you're around people feeling powerful emotions?"
Realization dawned on both fae teenagers' faces. "The psychic vampire thing? Yeah, I like to use dreams to fill my mana bar-or goblin fruits, I'm still not good with strangers," Futaba confirmed.
Relief shot through Ohya's face. "Great! I was really not looking forward to drying behind the ears-see, the Courts are basically organized by an emotion we're good at provoking, and then using a bit of a personal Contract we have at time, we get better at harvesting the emotion whose Court we have an agreement with. The more respected and understanding of the emotion we have, the more of a Mantle we have of the season, and the higher rank. Also gives us some unique magic, which is why-wait, getting ahead of myself." She pointed at her crown. "As I have the largest local Mantle of Spring and people like me enough, I'm the Queen of the local freehold's Spring-which is to say, one of the quarter of rulers of the local micronation of the Lost." She paused. "Uh, that's a poetic term for changelings. Three guesses why, first two don't count."
A bleakly humorous smile appeared on all four faces.
Suddenly, Shinobu realized something. "Er, what emotions?"
Ohya tried to cover up a wince. "Uh, sorry?"
"You said each of the Courts focuses on an emotion. What're those?" Shinobu began to frown, mildly suspicious.
The suspicion was confirmed when Ohya chewed on her cheek. "... Well," she began, sounding embarrassed and awkward. "Can I preface this by asking, has any of you seen Inside Out? I like the subtitles better, but you know how it turns out that-"
Thankfully for Ohya, it turned out at that exact moment that Shinobu was not the only person Futaba texted.
"Alright, alright, what the hell were you-HOLY SHIT DEMONS ARE REAL!"
"Um, you're a changeling, right? No offense, but I, uh, am not exactly a fan of merchants bargaining souls..."
"You... Please hold still for a minute, I must sketch you to properly capture the juxtaposition of a queen of darkness inside a place of safety..."
"Dammit, I need to get my camera! Please hold while Kitagawa sketches, please!"
As his friends streamed in, one by one, to a bemused fae Queen, Shinobu began to wonder why Ohya was scared of her feelings.
"... So that's pretty much what I told them," Ohya finished. "I'm the largest fish in a quarter of a small pond, and share my pond with other large fish. How large depends on the school we lead, but I'm beginning to stretch my metaphor."
"Okay, so," Ryuji began, having accepted that no, Ohya was not a literal succubus (as far as she knew), and having started hanging on her every word. "What I wanna know is-did you have a fetch? 'Cause I got the sense most of us, er, Lost do."
Ohya winced. "Yeahhhh...I still do. Never could work up the will to kill her even if she is shallower than a birdbath," she added under her breath. "I'm not moving until she attacks me."
"Really?" Ryuji rose his eyebrows. "I figured you came to a truce or something. That's what we did."
There was a silent beat as Ohya apparently processed this information. "... 'We?'" she asked, disbelieving.
"Not myself or Hattori," Yusuke added. "We have not met ours yet. But Sakura, Takamaki, and Sakamoto came to a peace with theirs. Sakamoto's is even now his... Brother, in a sense."
Ohya's jaw dropped, hanging in the air silently.
After a few seconds of this, Ann awkwardly cleared her throat. "Is that... Rare?"
"Um, yes? You ask any of us, we don't exactly like a robot taking over our lives." Ohya shook her head, disbelief obvious. "Especially not the kind of robot that tends to be, uh, psychotic."
Now it was everyone else's turn to look a bit baffled. "Uh," Sojiro began, tilting his head. "No they weren't."
"You're all really lucky, then," Ohya said, shrugging. "They were all missing something, right? Something you considered part of your identity?"
Everyone who had a fetch nodded. "Actually, mine just hated sweets, which was really weird, but go her," Ann said.
"Well, that seems to be a part of the fetch-making Contract; it's literally impossible to replicate someone perfectly. There has to be something missing to make it meaningful." She grinned darkly. "The Keepers also need time to make a fetch well enough to remove something minor like a sweet tooth, so if they're feeling lazy they just go for the largest thing that not one of them sees the inherent point of-empathy."
A chorus of aaahs and wincing came from around the table. "... That explains some things," Mishima muttered to himself from behind his camera.
"... That unfortunate thing aside," Shinobu said. "You never answered me about the emotions business."
Ohya's face fell. "... Ah," she began. After a few seconds, she inhaled, steeling herself. "Okay, I want to preface this by saying no emotion is purely bad. Hatred is an entirely rational response to being hurt for no good reason, panic helps you move away from danger, and the one mental state that truly has no positives, depression, really isn't being an emotion, it's the complete lack of them-"
"Please stop dodging the question," Shinobu said, feeling a headache coming on.
Ohya sighed. "Fine. It's easier to induce negative emotions, okay? The Summer Court specializes in Wrath, the Autumn is the Court of Fear, and Winter specializes in Sorrow. Spring has the nicest specialty, and we use Desire. That can get real toxic, real fast. Happy now?"
There was a second as Ohya's audience processed this.
Then, Futaba slowly rose her eyebrow. "That's it? Your mana potion stores are around loan companies, political forums, movie theaters, and emo bands? No children sacrificed to appease Time with the taste of youth? I'm feeling almost ripped off!"
Ohya, Mishima, and Sojiro gawked at her in unison.
"Uh," Sojiro began. "Didn't see say 'induce'? So isn't it more like when she wants to do some major hocus pocus-"
"She has a night on the town and flirts with drunks for a bit. Sounds like it's embarrassing, not evil," Futaba finished, shrugging. "Still not seeing how dark it is-might actually help them."
Mishima opened his mouth to object-then closed it as he thought of something. "That is... A point. I know from experience being fed on takes the edge off an emotion. Being delicately fed on by Winter Courtiers could help with, say, grief."
"And as shameful as it is to admit it," Yusuke began, looking introspective, "I believe my sense of frustration and dread of being forgotten at being unable to show my art to more than my Keeper was part of why I decided to take my leave."
"Yeah, I came back because I missed Mom, so yeah, Sorrow's not bad either, to be honest," Ryuji continued.
"And... I think Futaba's explained how spiting the Keepers got her mind back together, so I'll defer to her," Ann finished.
The pause lasted for a few seconds.
"... How long did you say you were back?" Ohya asked, a bemused smile on her face.
"Month or two," Shinobu said, shrugging. "We've had nothing to do except explore our powers."
"Huh. Had to happen eventually," Ohya said, a distant gleam in her eye. Just for a second though. "Anyhow, there's actually something I was leading up to," she said as she stood up, reaching into her pocket.
Sojiro caught on before she fully drew out the letter of invitation. "No. You are not recruiting my daughter into some kind of conspiracy to fulfill some weird quota-"
"First, it's closer to a support group-slash-trade guild, and once you join, you're also under our protection," Ohya cut in, rolling her eyes. "Second-read the invitation please?"
All did so, Mishima being careful to ensure his camera could read every word clearly-
And groaned as Ohya's hand flew in front of it. "Hey! I'm letting you know what our culture is, I'm not letting a hunter group know where we meet. You can read, but I am swearing you to secrecy for the next month. You want me to be okay with me with you making a documentary, you only show the stuff we, meaning me and at least a majority of the monarchs think isn't a security risk. You let me overview what footage you're going to put up before you do so, though I promise not to cut out things that make the film incoherent."
Mishima got the message. "Got it. I don't blame you." In truth, he was somewhat frustrated, but also relieved that his luck had a limit-that meant it was actually luck.
The camera out of the way, everyone clustered around the invitation, and began to read (in flowery, cursive font:)
Esteemed Brethren of the Crescent Moon,
The Summer Court is Pleased to Present
(In association with the Magistrates of the Wax Mask)
The 14th Quarterly Regal Summit
And Introduction of the Wanderers To the Lost
"The 'Introduction' is kind of a formalized induction to the Courts we do,'" Ohya clarified. "Ever since the population boom, we figured it's probably easier to introduce people and build trust if we have definite dates for a meet and greet. Best to know the faces of people whose backs are newly against the wall, especially given how Pledges work."
And a way to ensure they join, Sojiro sourly thought to himself. Peer pressure and political games are alive and well among mutant part-fae I see. But he remained silent, since the cover story sounded like actual internal reasoning.
Meanwhile, Shinobu was doing some internal math. "Three and a half years? That's how long the boom's been going?"
"No, it's been going on for five years. We, by which I mean the Crescent Moon, is about three and a half years old; the larger Freehold of the Moon Princess split itself up to deal with the growing population, since Courts start to malfunction when a single freehold's trying to cover as many people as an actual large town." Ohya shrugged. "I'm ambivalent. On the one hand, three cheers for Queen Ichiko and that means more people are escaping... On the other, that means more people have something to escape from..."
The last word hung in the air like a hovering hawk.
"... Suddenly I understand why so many people are disappearing these days," Ann said, even the lava in her veins turning as white as a sheet.
"And if they're looking for new slaves-well, let's just say the Keepers can be... Clingy," Ohya said, grimacing. "So, that's the main reason I have a recruitment quota-it's easier to protect each other as a Court, especially given how you'll become part of an ancient Contract that protects everyone in a freehold."
There was more discussion, but at that point, Sojiro himself was already sold himself, and the actual words were relatively unimportant.
Except for one, critical request.
"Forgive me for the intrusion, but can we show each other phone numbers? It's more convenient that way."
And for the next six days, things were looking up.
Yes, it was rather sudden for another changeling-and not just that, but a member of Lost royalty, however easily a title among them was gained (relatively)-and discovering a plague of Keeper kidnappings was occurring in Tokyo for at least five years, but to be frank, that bit of information was a dark sort of appreciated. After all, ignorance may have been bliss, but knowledge was power-enough power to know to keep an eye out for old masters, sore over a loss. The benefits of knowing they weren't alone, concrete (an entire society to learn from, and Contract lore to access) or emotional (that they were not on their own) outweighed the downsides of remembering to be on by quite a bit.
(Sojiro was still not particularly happy about lending his daughter to people who he had met precisely one of, but he admitted he was still only human; saner and with less concerns regarding magic, but frail and unable to be enrolled in Contracts as far as Ohya knew.)
That wasn't to say that nothing happened. There was no small amount of correspondence between Ohya, the changelings, and Mishima, with Sojiro frequently offering suggestions on what to ask. Most of it was clarification, basic facts about changeling existence. Apparently both Futaba and Yusuke were two of the same "Seeming" (much to the former's mild horror), the Wizened, those made to craft and those who escaped through mastering that craft (Yusuke was quite proud of himself upon discovering that factoid). Ryuji was an Ogre, a warrior who found freedom by rediscovering peace (which he found touching, considering who reminded him) Ann was an Elemental, made into a force of nature who escaped by remembering forces of nature were not inherently controlled (which she found confusing, since she thought of herself as primarily having been a statue). And Shinobu was a Fairest, a living icon who escaped by learning how to lead personally instead of as a prop (which he found embarrassing, because Ohya mentioned that a term for Fairest in general was "Unicorn." Neither Futaba nor Ryuji stopped giggling for the rest of the day). Futhermore, that each Court's own agreement with the Season led to a unique series of Contracts based around both their focus emotion, and their duties in the overall Freehold ("Summer is the army, pretty obviously given their emotion. We Springers run social events and help changelings integrate with their lives. Autumn studies what scares people-which is to say, all magic, really, but also the True Fae and Hedge. Winter helps us hide and runs the spy networks, and no, I don't know how it's linked to being sad. They'll explain better").
On other things though, she was frustratingly vague. To be entirely fair to the Spring Queen, she was largely about the reasons she was vague ("It's a spy network. It wouldn't exactly be happy if I told you what it looked like before you were actually part of the network's clients, would it?") But there was one sticking point that, on the sixth day, Futaba and Shinobu had just about enough of-to the point where they finally sought her out in person to voice the question, and with it, their displeasure.
This did not move her especially far. Especially not given how, given how they encountered her outside a bar in the seedier part of the city, she didn't seem entirely sober. "Oh sweet merciful kami, God, and Tuatha, this is literally the fourth time you have asked me this," Ohya said, rubbing the flushed skin under her horns. "Again; you don't want to know how the Keepers will come for you. You will know when the Three are seeking you; right now, it's better not to know."
"And therein lies the problem," Futaba said, gritting her teeth. "I'm not especially comforted by, uh, not knowing what's going to happen if one of the Keepers decides they really want their old equipment back"
"And I'm telling you, you aren't targeted yet," she said as she inhaled. "Look. You've had a thing many Lost would kill for-a chance to relax. I'm telling you, the moment I explain what Huntsmen are is the moment you stop relaxing." She paused, and winced. "Dammit. Okay, okay, I can tell you a bit if it calms you down. I'll let you know a bit-Huntsmen, in short, are goons the Keepers send in their place because they're lazy and can't live on Earth very long. Huntsmen are also very honorable, so when one who's been roped into hunting you personally show up, they'll send a herald to warn you and tell you to come peacefully. You refuse, they start the hunt."
"Thank you!" Futaba said, throwing up her hands. "That's all I wanted to know! I feel more happy now that I know that they... Warn..." She trailed off. "Wait. That... Sounds dumb."
Shinobu nodded, brow furrowing."Futaba's got it right. Why don't they send the 'hit refugee over the head and run' henchmen? The Three are way smarter than that, and I doubt-"
"See, this is why I didn't tell you!" Ohya said, equally exasperated. "Look, Autumn may all be about how knowledge is power, but I'm a Spring Courtier for a reason! I'm here to make sure people live rather than survive! This..." she said as she vaguely gestured around her. "Life? This is your reward; the whole point is to find everything we want here so Arcadian can't trap us with honey and lies! You know how rare it is to be at peace with your fetch? You have a few days left before you meet the Freehold and join! Give yourself a gift and stop worrying!"
"I'd worry less if I had a full quest log and objectives," Futaba muttered.
Shinobu brought up a finger-then paused. Come to think of it, discovering that Huntsmen were allowed to be honorable was something taking up a lot of his mental space now. "... Uh, actually, how long does it take for Huntsmen to be sent out?"
Futaba got the tone. "Oh come on, Kage! Back me up here?"
"I'm not agreeing with her, I'm saying I get her reasoning-"
"I don't! She's hiding some rules from us, like a crap tutorial that forgets to inform you about damage resistances-"
"But isn't it more like not front-loading the game? I mean, if you don't have elemental attacks yet-"
"The problem is we do-"
(Off to the side, Ohya sighed, looking around-and stopped as she looked into the sky. Something in her Clarity tugged at her, a sense of something's hidden here...)
"Except we still don't get how they work, really-"
"So it's best to know what situations they apply in-"
(Immersing herself in her Clarity, a technique often called a kenning, the notorious sixth sense of the fae; there was something there, beneath the skin of the world, shifting as though it was fighting something. Alarmed, she quietly reached for her purse and her supply of goblin fruit, and a particular set of grapelike berries.)
"Which means that it's probably a good idea to actually learn first-"
"Funny, that's exactly my point OUCH MY EAR WHAT THE-"
"Shhh!" Ohya kept hold of both of her prospects very tightly as she rushed under an overhang, deserted and secluded (not as hard to find as it could have been in Tokyo) before spinning them around, an expression of controlled panic on her face. "Sorry! Sorry-I needed to get your attention and out of view, so not that sorry, but it hurt and-dammit, I ramble when I'm drunk."
The annoyance both Futaba and Shinobu felt drained away into a widening pit of pure dread, as Ohya's face split into a forced grin that reminded both of the Grim Reaper trying to suppress nauseous retching. "I have good news, and bad news," she began. "The good news is, I'm going to explain what Huntsmen are! Bad news is..." She withdrew some more of the translucent berries from her purse. "Eat this, please? You're going to need the effects."
Silently, both did so-and frowned as the odd, watery juice went down, feeling nothing different.
"Okay-look up, and behind you."
Slowly, they turned and-
Futaba put her fist in her mouth to repress her scream, as Shinobu jumped back, producing a knife.
Flying-or rather, floating-over the exterior of the bar was a figure that looked like the a mummy born from nightmares of an ommetophobe. Wrappings completely covered and hid a sender humanoid, arms and legs bound in a tight cocoon. Six trails of smoke wafted from its back and flickered like moth's wings as it turned, ethereal pinions of fog.
But what struck them were the eyes.
Dozens of eyes.
Eyes placed around outright randomly on the figure's body.
Some small, some large. Some pinpricks only noticeable because of the break in the generic grey-white of bandages, with vivid greens and pale blues. One large enough to bisect the figure's back, that one a rich brown. Worst of all, all were human. No matter the size, all the sensory organs in question were distinctly human; no shades outside of normal colors, no structure that would be more associated with an animal; all around pupils, all pupils surrounded by a colored iris of mostly unbroken color, all irises placed in a sclera of white, and all occasionally blinked to avoid drying out between scanning the area languidly as the figure itself twitched and writhed.
".... The hell is that thing?" Shinobu whispered, unbidden memories of the stranger lifeforms in the Three Androgynes coming to mind.
"That," Ohya said. "Is what we believe is a Huntsman. We don't know who for. Or why this one keeps to the same planes of existence ghosts do. Most of them are pretty physical, the physical world being reliable is one of the few things they enjoy about Earth.
"But fun fact about Huntsmen-they hate changelings in general, not just their quarry. Call your friends-if this thing finds one of them alone..." She winced. "Well, I still have nightmares from the last person it found alone."
Shorter than average, but I wanted to get this done earlier, and there's some important plot points coming up I don't want to be lost.
For this petite edition of Under the Hood; Ohya is indeed a Darkling, a changeling reforged by secrets who escaped by understanding those secrets. As a result, she's a slippery one-it's a bit hard to explain the mechanics in the time I have right now, but essentially their Seeming Blessing is teleportation. Not over long distances and the circumstances need to be right, mind, but so long as something like smoke, water, or even light is moving somewhere, Ohya can hitch a ride. Her Kith is Notary; that liquid coming off her nails is ink. Her kith essentially allows her to make free Pledges; if multiple parties come to her, seeking a Pledge, she can make it official for free, rather than spending precious Glamour and Willpower. She also has an eidetic memory for these Pledges, as more than one person who thinks they could trick the Spring Queen when drunk has discovered; the memory of the rest of the night is gone, but that idiot who thinks he could meta-legally claim ownership of a house without anyone but the victim of his defrauding is engraved in her skull.
As for why the ghostly figure was struggling... Well, I'll leave that to next chapter. Believe me, there's more than a few sympathetic reasons Huntsmen really, really don't like being on Earth.
Chapter 6: River Flight
The hardest term I've ever done in college is over. Thank God.
And now, the rest of the party! With some... Changes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
HoneyBadgerDontREE: So, you know, no pressure, just the invisible bounty hunter here to drag us all back to hell!
It wasn't a very good shelter, but it was hidden from the ghostly figure and its myriad eyes. Mostly because it was a thankfully empty dumpster, recently cleaned but still with some distinct scents of decay.
Wasn't nearly half the worst the changelings had gone through, though. So it fit.
While Futaba was busy sending out red alerts, Shinobu was busy scribbling notes into his own cell phone.
"So, basically," he said, wincing. "Huntsmen are immortal."
"Technically they're more like liches from a fantasy game; their hearts have been stashed in a mortal's dream, and with it their life force." Ohya winced, remembering her own tangles with previous agents of the Wild Hunt. "Kill his body and not his heart, he'll fully heal in about two weeks by his soul fleeing back to Arcadia to recuperate and regenerate."
"Got it. Can't beat this thing until we find where he stashed his heart, got it." Shinobu nodded. "So, to recap, I've got the part about them being mostly shapeshifters, and they're usually using iron weapons, which breaks all other fae magic."
"Yeah, except for one thing," Ohya said with a bleak smile. "Technically, I shouldn't tell you this, because you'll end up pitying him, but-"
"Pity him!?" Futaba's head shot up from her phone, looking baffled and somewhat offended. "I'm sorry, I'm in danger of pitying the shiner version of Nemesis? Is this a Spring thing, or-"
"It's an Autumn thing, actually. You learn about something, anyone who actually cares to understand learns empathy with it." She paused, thinking. "Sometimes that empathy makes you hate it more, which they say is good, since that means you actually understand why it is a malevolent thing, but - agh, priorities, Ichiko!"
She inhaled. "It's not that thing that ripped out his own heart. It's the Keeper who sent him."
There was a brief pause. "Uh... Okay," Futaba said, ears and head tilting quizzically. "I don't get the point, but-"
"Ripped," Shinobu said, catching on as he felt a pit settle in his stomach. "You said ripped. Not removed."
"Point goes to masky," Ohya said, her smile turning into a grimace. "The reason it looked like that thing was struggling against his own bindings was that he likely is. Huntsmen, you see... They're changeling versions of native Arcadians."
There was a longer pause.
"... Say what," Futaba said, flatly. "Are you... Are you saying that... Beneath that mummy wrap, is a hu-"
"Before you ask, no. I mean to say that Huntsmen were the native people of Arcadia before the Gentry conquered everything." She inhaled. "But if anything, they're treated worse than we are. That heart-removal? It's a completely unnatural existence for anyone, fae, human, or half-fae. By all rights, that guy should be a corpse, but he's kept animate by True Fae necromancy and a bit of his, quote, 'employer's' unquote, soul. I don't think he's even truly self-aware right now; that spell that makes Arcadians into Huntsmen also means he's more or less possessed by his master. The reason they get so dogged pursuing is because existing like this is torture for them. They sooner they drag their target back, the sooner his pain and inability to tell between his own thoughts and that of a slaver can end."
As Ohya's explanation had gone on, Futaba's expression had gone from baffled, to understanding, to utter horror as her tail drooped between her legs. "... Okay then," she said, a bit quietly. "Objection withdrawn. And yeah, I think I hate the Keepers more now. That's kind of amazing."
Shinobu, on the other hand, had turned very quiet. "... Is... Is there any way to save-"
"Yeah, find his heart, steal it out of the vessel's dreams, and put it back. His life force will return to his body and he'll turn back into a normal Arcadian." She grimaced again. "Of course, it takes weeks under the best possible conditions to follow reports of strange dreams and link them to a Huntsman's form and manifestation at the best of times, so right now it's killing this guy, tricking him into a Pledge to stay back, or my preferred option, stay out of his goddamned search radius lest he decide to make himself feel less in pain by lashing out at you. We've never heard of this guy even acknowledging speech, so, yeah, avoid and stay quiet."
With that, she handed over more of the clear grapes. "These goblin fruits are Orphean Tears. They allow you to see into Twilight for an hour or two, the phase of existence spiritual beings like ghosts exist on when they're invisible. Before you ask, there's no inherent downside like getting drunk or morose, but ghosts are really damn perceptive when they're looking for people who notice them; if they know you know they exist, they will never leave you the fuck alone. They get kind of stir-crazy being unable to talk or even be acknowledged by the living, especially given how most of them can't even get far enough from their anchors to talk to other ghosts."
Both younger changelings nodded, putting a small supply of Tears in their packs. "Okay," Futaba said. "If we meet anyone who looks a bit life-challenged, we'll tell you." She paused. "Actually, do ghosts look like people or are they more in the screaming masked monster type of-"
"People," Ohya said, automatically. "Those other kind of ghosts are found only in the Underworld unless something really weird is happening."
There was a very long pause as Shinobu and Futaba processed the implications of what word just hit their ears.
"Uh," Futaba began. "Underworld? As in, the afterlife?"
"I'll explain when we're not dealing with a pseudo-ghost here to make us all suffer on behalf of an old god of thistle," Ohya said, looking more than a little annoyed. "Summary is that the Underworld's actually the afterlife's version of the Hedge, ghosts who lose their anchors but haven't actually resolved their unfinished business get stranded in it."
Futaba gave an "Ah," and nodded, feeling relieved her internal system of spiritual beliefs wasn't due for any major blows in that same situation.
Shinobu himself wasn't quite as relieved, given the discovery of what had to be a truly large amount of the unquiet, frustrated, and sometimes monstrous. "Right. Ghost Hedge. I'll deal with that later." He inhaled. "Everyone alerted?"
"Yep," Futaba said with a quick glance. "We're going to meet up at this abandoned tech warehouse in Akibahara, then make our way over to, uh, Shinjuku? Your bar's there, right?"
"It's not my bar, but yeah, Crossroads is a safe house. We've got a bunch of hiding spots and security checkpoints there. The bouncer, huge guy with dragon tattoos, ex-Yakuza who goes by Kenta, knows I've been on recruiting duties, so when he asks you for your ID, tell them it's impolite to ask VIPs; he'll ask for being proof of VIP, tell him freedom makes everyone important. He'll buzz you into the waiting room while we run some routine checks." Ohya then proceeded to climb out of the dumpster, into a light. "Keep in touch, I'll see you there!"
"Uh," Futaba began. "Why are you making your alert level-"
"I'm not! This light is also hitting under the sewer grate." Despite the situation, Ohya grinned proudly. "Darkling trick!"
With that; Ohya stuck her hand in the light-
There was a sudden flash as for a half-second, there was no Ohya, but an Ohya-colored pattern of light.
And then she was gone from sight, as the sound of something landing echoed up from the grate.
"Good luck!" Ohya's voice came up before her footsteps echoed away.
Both newbie Lost blinked very slowly at the grate.
"... Suddenly, my ability to transmute things without equivalent exchange seems kinda average," Futaba said, looking unsure whether to be envious, impressed, or just baffled.
"So," Shinobu began, taking off the face-concealing raincoat he had been using on his flight. "All accounted for?"
"Here," Ann said, taking off her own coat, firey veins burning at a lower brightness due to fear. "And I was just getting used to my old room again..."
"Look on the bright side," Ryuji said as he massaged his leg from the repeated quick dashes he was doing, wincing. "At least he's not after us. 'Course, he's also an abomination in constant agony, relieved only through venting some of it at everything he blames for his state that he can actually hit, so maybe that's not a good thing."
Yusuke willed one of his own Contracts, one he seemed to remember from Arcadia, to end and let others actually remember perceiving him, seemingly stepping out of thin air as everyone else finally remembered him enough to register his existence in the first place. "Hm. If I saw this creature, then perhaps his agony would... Never mind. I recognize that my profession is secondary."
"First time for everything, Peepers," Futaba muttered as she pulled out the supply of her Tears. "Okay, I got the key items. You read my summary on what they do, right?"
"Yeah. Look out for winged mummy with eyes on his everywhere, anything else tell we can't help at the moment but we'll be sure to make it first priority if they distract that first thing," Ann nodded. "Sounds good."
"Right. I'll tell you if I meet my gramps," Ryuji said as he passed a spare grape to Yusuke.
Naturally, the starving artist was the first to chew on his. "Hm. Interesting taste. Almost like flavored water and... Nostalgia? I did not know that was a flavor."
"Weird. Don't feel any... Any..." Ryuji blinked. "Uh. Why is there a car in here?"
"Dunno, but we know what it is," Futaba said as she waved her hand through the beat-up old van. "We texted Ohya; she says that powerful memories of destroyed objects can form ghosts too, so I'm guessing the someone liked these wheels. Strange you don't see more, given how salty people get about their cars."
"It's a nice car, if a bit homey," Ann admitted, still looking completely baffled at the presence of the spectral automobile. "...Think we can call dibs? I don't think legal ownership lasts for the... What would you call this, untotaled?"
"If you ever figure out how to enter it, sure," Shinobu said, grinning despite the situation at the mental image of someone driving it to work (whilst it was still invisible). "Right, okay. Yusuke, you've got the invisibility thing, you're our advance scout. The Huntsman probably sees in all directions, but even he can't perceive what he can't actually register."
"A reasonable suggestion," Yusuke said, thinking. "But my power does not discriminate, so how will you know?"
Futaba held up her phone. "I need to develop a better app, but right now, keep your phone on silent, and text if you see it or not. We're trying to blend in with other people right now, but they won't notice teens checking their cells-"
"Speaking of, it's weird," Ann said, furrowing her brow. "You'd think the crowds would thin out as the day goes on, but it's barely nine, and I had a hard time finding about five people to blend in with - thirty minutes ago. It's like they're clearing the streets."
"Probably the Keepers," Futaba growled. "Ryuji wasn't kidding, there's been a lot of disappearances lately when they just didn't bother with fetches."
"Actually, she's got a point," Shinobu said, looking pensive. "I get why people are scared, but Akibahara isn't exactly a secluded area. You'd think people would huddle out here; safety in numbers and all that."
Futaba opened her mouth, but paused as her own brow furrowed, one ear going down as she chewed on it. "That's... A really good point, Kage. Unfortunately, I think it's a mystery right now."
"Indeed. Shall I begin to operation?" Yusuke asked, already in a shadowed area to provoke his Loophole and save on Glamour.
Shinobu nodded, and with what Yusuke's friends perceived as a strange visual distortion, the Light-Shy Contract settled over him once again, and their eyes could no longer recognize his presence, apart from the sight of the door leading outside open.
And about three minutes later, a text:
Yusuke_Kitagawa: He's here. Unless there is another eye-covered creatures who look like they're wearing a straightjacket?
There was a long pause.
"... Shit," Ryuji said, putting the general mood into words.
Quickly, Shinobu brought his finger to his lips, a quick shh coming out. After a minute, he pointed at the back of the abadoned store. Look for back exit, he mouthed. Else, tell Yusuke to wait-
The phone buzzed with a new message again.
Yusuke_Kitagawa: Odd. His patrol pattern has changed. He's stilling, eyes swiveling rapidly.
Yusuke_Kitagawa: Checking everywhere except myself.
Yusuke_Kitagawa: Now he seems to
There was a strange, quiet sound like a whistling wind-
Something flopped to the ground in front of them. Something covered in linen with six trails of smoke trailing behind it.
"Hrrrrnggrkkk... krasiteeeaaaahh... ann-gknow... iiiiiizooooohhhh...."
About five of the eyes, the one closest to the figure's head as the Huntsman rose, moving jerkily and unsteadily like a puppet being pulled slowly upwards by its strings from lying its side. At no point did its hands move, bound as they were over its chest and neck.
Nobody half-fae breathed or moved, paralyzed.
As the figure stood upright, the eyes stilled, and then all swiveled to face all four present changelings.
"Hrrrrnggrkkk..." The figure bent back as it inhaled.
The sound that came out of the the creature was not quite a scream, not quite a warcry, not quite a screech of utter torment. But something was listening for it.
Then there was the sound of doors crashing open, as light streamed into the complex; the greenish-tinged light of Hedge gates.
"Dammit! We've been played!" Ryuji pulled out a pipe with some nails driven through to make and impromptu spiked mace, wielding it as expertly as you could hold a pipe. "Alright, you fifty-eyed bastard, ya want some of this!? I'll be happy to... Uh..."
The Huntsman was already ascending by now, smoke wings flapping asymmetrically before it phased through a window.
Meanwhile, shadows were escaping the Hedge gates, displaying canid shapes on the wall, clear shadows that started bipedal before dropping to all fours and dashing off. Canid shapes Futaba and Shinobu realized.
"Oh, you shitty little cheat," Futaba swore as she lifted her nightstick. "You spawned in briarwolves? Fuck you!"
"I take it briarwolves aren't exactly nice doggies?" Ann said as she conjured a fireball.
"Try 'hobgoblin version of a movie werewolf,'" Shinobu said as he spun around into a defensive perimeter. "They can't infect you, but they need their prey to be saturated with Glamour in order to get as many nutrients from the meat as possible. In a word, they're instinctive sadists. Good news, they won't kill us until they're sure they've broken our wills and made as much Glamour as possible, but that's also the bad news."
"Yeah, and the assholes can stand and walk on two legs if they need opposable thumbs or to slash," Ryuji finished, growling. "I can freaking guess what happened to the last guys this sicko let them loose on."
"Ok, serial killer werewolves," Ann said, a grimace coming to her face. "Serial killer werewolves. What else?"
There was a crunch sound as several dark forms landed on the top of nearby aisles, causing the dusty computer tech beneath them to break.
"... Jump good," Futaba finished, ears pinned even further back.
The figures looked, fittingly, like fairytale illustrations of wolves rather than actual wolves. Their muzzles did not look like they could completely close, even when not snarling; too many teeth, too large. Mangy fur covered in something dark and disturbingly organic curled in dark patches around their skin, barely disguising grotesquely ropey muscle. Disturbingly human eyes glared out from narrowed lids, making them seem even more psychotic from the spark of intelligence and recognizable emotions other than hunger. Worst of all were the front paws - or rather, the hands. Furry, clawed, hominid hands with dried blood and dirt on nails and fingers wrapped around the aisles, gripping them like climbing monkeys. Or strangling ones.
The largest, a silver-furred creature with reddened teeth (not quite the shade of blood - paint, maybe), snarled, tensing on its perch as its two packmates loped across their own, surrounding the four changelings as they growled, torso low to crouch in preparation for another pounce. By all rights, it was probably more tactical to have done so already - but then again, they weren't biologically looking for a quick kill. No fear, no meal.
"Okay," Shinobu said, trying to will himself into not feeling the building rush of adrenaline. "Breathe. Deeply. Remain. Calm. They don't kill... What isn't afraid..."
In response to that, the leader briarwolf snarled again, lips curving into a very un-canid smile-
And then something furry and even darker leapt out from the far side of the isle, grabbing the predator by the leg in its teeth, and yanked it off.
All parties, Lost and hobgoblin, stared at the empty space in a state of not-quite-comprehension. Long enough for the area to suddenly erupt in brown, woody brambles that reached for the remaining briarwolves and looped themselves into bindings, to their surprised yelp.
"They can't hold long! Go, go!"
Not questioning the source of the new, female voice, all changelings charged towards the door, not thinking, just moving.
They heard snapping from behind them as the briarwolves tugged at the brambles.
"Front door! Hedge gate next to it!"
It didn't tale much of a tilt to see the access-door-turned-portal to a twilit forest of thorns, and the blue hand that was reaching through, making frantic motions.
"Single file, single file!" Shinobu said as he helped Futaba through the door, then the other two, before himself, with the help of the hand's owner, who slammed it shut against the briarwolves, leading to a couple thunk sounds.
The girl breathed heavily as she held the door (here leading out of a sheer cliff), heavily breathing as she listened to the slavering hobgoblins in the other side. Tangled hair that may have once been quite fluffy spilled around her eyes as she gripped the door handle in a death grip.
Then, there was a loud, pained yelp, and scrambling from the other side. The girl opened the door again, and made a gesture with her hands like she was yanking something out of the ground. Which, she might have been - the entire warehouse was briefly covered in cracks like a hundred Hedge gates before great rows of bushes covered in white flowers erupted out of nowhere, creating a thorny maze that divided the briarwolves. "Now!"
The black shape - revealed to be a truly enormous dog, almost more of a small bear - jumped over a small, thorn-less divet walls and struck the closer briarwolf, taking off a significant portion of its flesh with a powerful bite. The other lesser briarwolf started scrambling through the far more solid wall separating it from its packmate, but it was clear the hedges were objecting pretty greatly to that, seemingly twisting specifically to ensure it cut itself on the thorns.
"Can I help? Duck!" Ann tossed her fireball over the blue girl, hitting the attempted shredder of the maze on the chest. It yelped, drawing back and allowing the black dog to continue attacking its compatriate, downing it and wrapping its jaws around the far more abominable canine's neck-
"Mako-chan, hold!" The blue girl held up a hand, causing the (apparently female) dog to stop closing its jaws mid-bite, but still keeping a full grip on the briarwolf's neck.
The girl looked down, lips drawing to fully reveal a pair of small tusks. "Now, I assume that yelp was the alpha no longer having a good leg?" The dog nodded, and the already terrified briarwolf's eyes shrunk to pits. "Good. Now, I know you three are likely looking to lick your wounds and have realized these aren't easy prey, so why don't you be a dear and leave, along with your packmates, before Makoto crushes your windpipe, and don't hunt us again?"
The briarwolf whined and frantically nodded.
"Good." The girl looked at Makoto, who looked almost disappointed as she relaxed her jaw. The briarwolf made a couple of plaintive cries, answered by its packmate and a very hurt sounding leader, before dashing off as fast as its four legs could carry it to its brethren and presumably another one of the Hedge gates the Huntsman opened.
"Okay. Holy shit," Ryuji said, slowly clapping as he came up behind the girl. "That was cool."
"Kinda anticlimactic, but yeah. Woo, we needed that DPS," Futaba said as she texted Yusuke.
A second later, a familiar voice from the nearest part of the blue girl's maze answered the text. "Ah. Unfortunate that you did not send earlier. On a related note, I believe I have a thorn in one of my pseudo-eyes, and it is causing a great deal of discomfort."
The girl and the dog winced. "... Apologies," the girl said, grinning sheepishly. "I can't cancel the Hedgewall yet, but if I think of you as a friend, you'll know how to navigate it."
"That would be good, yes - oh. You did not skimp on design, it seems. Perhaps we could compare notes." There was a brief grunt of pain as the Hedgewall shook slightly from Yusuke extracting himself.
"See you in a minute!" The girl turned around, both she and the group taking each other in fully.
Both parties gasped as they realized they knew each other before. "Why, you're-"
"Yep!" Futaba strode forward, bowing dramatically. "Destined party members! I'm Futaba Sakura, by the way!"
"Oh! Um, Haru. Haru... really, just Haru now, I think," she said, looking down. All present quickly remembered her scene in the Glade.
Futaba's smile shrunk a few teeth. "... So," she began, awkwardly. "Your dog's pretty smart, and really badass! She a hobgoblin?"
"'M not her dog."
All jerked over to the sound of the new voice, and Makoto.
The true form of Makoto.
The tall, red-eyed girl shrunk back from the place she had been sitting in dog form, furry black ears flattened back to her skull with her tail tucked thoroughly between her legs. She didn't move so much as creep, keeping Haru thoroughly between her and the other changelings, edging closer to the muscular girl with a timid expression.
Speaking of which, Futaba's own ears drooped a bit, as a shamed blush came to her face. "... She didn't exactly, uh... Have a good time, did she."
Haru, seemingly automatically, reached out and let Makoto into a hug, even as the dark-haired girl refused to break eye contact with the other changelings. "In as polite language as possible; no. No, she did not."
"So," Ann began, pausing in her removal of thorns from Yusuke. "You live in a sewer."
"It's surprisingly spacious!" Haru said with a cheerful smile, revealing her tusks and other teeth were preternaturally white for someone who lived in a bunch of sanitary mains. "It also doesn't smell that bad in the upper alcoves, just close to places where there's breaks in the pipes."
"Says you," Makoto said, a bleak smirk on her face as she tapped her nose, which even in her human form was wet and dark. "But it's dry and spacious enough to lose pursuers in."
That particular idea of a worthy qualifier sat in the air for a bit, before Shinobu coughed awkwardly. "I guess that thing might be for one of you? You showed up awfully fast after that scream."
"What thing?" Haru asked, raising an eyebrow.
Makoto cleared her throat. "Would this be that ghost, covered in eyes?"
"He's a Huntsman, but-wait," Something occurred to Futaba. "I got the sense knowing what a Huntsman is is common knowledge among the Courts, so, uh, you're not part of them?"
"... No?" Makoto said, tilting her head. "You part of the Courts?"
"Actually, on our way to sign up," Ryuji said. "We get the sense that it's pretty good to have have others watching your back, and with that thing siccing crazy briarwolves on everything, well..." He shrugged.
"... Oh. Never heard of them," Makoto admitted. "Too busy looking for money and food."
"Which, I didn't exactly help with," Haru said, wincing. "I, uh... Unless it's cooking or gardening, I don't have many manual labor skills. Mostly economics."
"I understand very well what you mean," Yusuke said, looking sympathetic. "Though, I had a Hollow to sleep in, at least."
Haru tilted her head. "That is...?"
"A bit of the Hedge shaped into a stable area like a house," Ann replied. "Apparently Yusuke's Keeper had a lot of them to store her 'pretty things.'"
"Oh! So that's what they're called! I'm sorry, Grandmother never let her 'children' know what was inside of her woods or what was beyond." Haru looked around at the bit of the sewer where she and Makoto had taken the other changelings. "Though, honestly, I prefer sleeping here. I wouldn't want to wake up with my front door having changed sides."
Makoto sighed. "Not me. I like the Hedge. It helps me know what's me. But it's farther from Arcadia here."
Haru grimaced. "Mako-chan, my offer stands, if it helps make you happy-"
"No. I'm fine. It's fine here." The other girl said this without any tone at all.
"... So," Shinobu said, wanting very badly to change the subject. "That Huntsman isn't after one of you, so how did you know?"
"Someone came down here," Haru said, brow furrowing. "Someone who looked like a demon."
Understanding came to the other group's faces. "Did this demon happen to have a wood crown, wear a funny t-shirt, kinda weird sunglasses?" Ryuji guessed.
"Yes, but how-"
"Yes, that would be Her Majesty," Yusuke finished. "Queen of the Spring Court; has the ability to translocate herself, it would seem."
Makoto blinked. "She... Doesn't look like a Queen. She... Nice?"
"Eh, apparently it's really easy to do the quests to become a monarch in the changeling quest hub. She's nice, don't worry, just really, really stingy with info," Futaba said.
"I... Suppose," Haru said, looking a bit confused herself. "She startled us, and then Makoto used her special gift to sniff out that there was something there that shouldn't be. So we, uh... Followed you." A blush came to her cheeks. "We weren't trying to be frightening, we just wanted to know what scared you!"
"Wait, wait, back up," Ann said, holding up a hand. "How did you know they were worried about what scared them?"
"Contract," Haru said, automatically. "You want me to show you? Focus on something of a goal to you, and I can tell you the most important memory or near future event-"
"We believe you," Shinobu said, interrupting. "Don't waste Glamour when we're running from something. Though, continue."
"All right then," Haru said, continuing. "Anyway, Mako-chan saw and heard that creature summoning brairwolves on you, so she and I came out to prepare the battlefield a bit and help you. It felt like the right thing to do!"
"Didn't want someone else fighting goblin dogs. Not alone," Makoto replied, looking distant.
"... Which is all well and good, but that reminds me," Futaba said, looking intense. "We're still trying to get to Crossroads, and I really don't think that thing's gonna be happy when it learned you cheesed its minibosses."
"... Ah. Yes," Haru nodded. "Do you wish to use my abilities for that?"
"I do not see the issue," Yusuke said, nodding. "Though... I suppose that a better desire would also be how to deal with the Huntsman in the long term. Focus on me; I have a good idea of what I wish."
"I see," Haru said, turning to the artist with an intense expression.
Futaba's eyes widened. "Uh, I don't think Peepers might be the best-"
"Escape-defeat-heal-art-paint-permanence-loss-feeling-seeking..." Haru started to mutter.
"... Word association?" Ann asked, bemused.
"I don't know," Makoto replied. "But hold about a minute."
All did, silently as Haru murmured words, clearly and yet quicker than anyone should be able to without slurring.
"... completion-destiny-vision-friend ah!"
With the final word, Haru's eyes turned a solid white, glowing softly in the dark. Even without visible pupils, it was clear they were moving quickly.
As the glow faded however, Haru's expression changed to mild confusion. "Er, are you sure that's-"
"Is there any possible way it could not relate to the Huntsman, our most pressing concern at this moment?"
"... No. It's on the way to your destination anyway. And Mako-chan knows a way to Chiyoda and Shinjuku through the pipes!" She nodded at the other girl, who sighed before crouching oddly.
A flash of fae magic later, and where there was Makoto, there was instead a red-eyed brown rat, who sniffed the air before making a couple motions with her head in an impatient gesture.
Shinobu rose an eyebrow "... I thought she hated the smell?"
"She does, but she doesn't use Glamour to turn into a rat when near other rats."
"Near... Other rats?" Ann looked far more pensive about being in the sewer than before.
Ryuji rolled his eyes. "Dude, it's a sewer; be glad we have native guides."
"I know-I just don't want to round a corner filled with mats of them."
"Not funny, Futaba!"
The moment they came out of a loose grate in Chiyoda, where Haru said she saw them coming out, was the moment they understood the seer's trepidation.
"It's... an apartment building," Futaba said, blinking. "It's a normal apartment building." Her gaze narrowed. "Peepers."
"My subconscious has enough sense to focus on survival!" Yusuke protested, before pausing. "I think. I can see the fundamental tragedy of the disturbance of the mundane and domestic with the strange and horrific. If I put our pursuer here-"
Futaba growled, shutting him up.
"... He always like this?" Makoto asked, looking a bit annoyed herself.
"Nah, normally he's worse," Ryuji said, merely disappointed. "He knows when to get serious, but he's always muttering about inspiration."
"You get used to it," Ann quickly butted in, trying to defend the artist. "But... Yeah, he's distractible."
"Well," Shinobu began, "It's a nice building."
And indeed, the apartment building was abnormally nice. It looked like more of an art piece than really something to live in. Very upscale, with a distinct entryway with an entryway that seemed to deliberately evoke Classical Greek architecture, with a top that bared more resemblance to a shiro castle than modern boxiness. It even had a small lawn with more mundane kind of hedges. But it was clearly a five-floor apartment building.
"Yeah, and I'm sure the people there are nice, but seriously, I don't think they'll be particularly eager to have six weirdos - no offense, guys - to use it as a checkpoint!" Futaba said, even more exasperated. "Haru, it's time to try someone else, who cares about their life more than architecture! ... Haru?"
The blue-skinned girl was tapping out a rhythm with her hand. "She turns to me... Five seconds. Then a light goes on the leftmost side-"
Everyone guessed at what she was getting at, and dove to the right, just as a small light clicked on in the third floor.
Everyone that is, except for Haru. "Then there's a news van that goes by..."
And at that, a large van turned the corner, with the changelings turning to see the Raiden Television logo emblazoned cheerily upon it as it passed.
"Then Ann notices him."
Curiously, Ann poked her head up. "Notices who?"
Shinobu had to admit it, he jumped. As did everyone not Haru.
How the young boy was able to sneak up in the time it took for him to sneak up when they were looking at the van was beyond him. It was entirely possible he just rounded the corner, given how he had approached from a side they had never looked, or it could be that he was crouching behind a hedge. The latter of which was a different kind of disturbing.
"... Uh..." Ann began. "Hi! Um, is this your home?" She stretched her mouth into the brightest smile she could.
"... Yeah?" The boy lifted up the baseball hat to reveal his dark eyes, completely devoid of fear, only mild curiosity. "What's it to you?"
"Uh, it's a, uh," Futaba said, stumbling. "It might be! We're, uh, looking to buy an apartment for, uh, college! Yeah, I'm short, but I'm actually seventeen! Just... short!"
"They aren't selling, and they aren't big enough for six," the kid said, eyebrow raised, looking for all the world like a slightly disaffected middle schooler. "There's a much crappier one down the block, one that has more open apartments and isn't in the price rage of 'stinking rich'."
"Oh! Uh, okay, we'll, uh, just be heading down that way!" Ann said, reaching out as far with her legs as possible to technically walk rather than run, followed by the rest.
Except, again, for Haru. "Then he-"
"Remembers to tell you," the boy said as a feline head poked out of his backpack, "I forgot to tell you, that place has a lot of pure iron fencing. It's probably not a great idea for, uh, guys like you."
Huh? Shinobu began, Why would iron be a problem for us? I mean, fae are allergic and all, but-
"He can see us," Makoto said before Shinobu could, turning white.
"... Uh," Ryuji began, "Hiiii. Um, we, uh, I know look like the things under the bed, but uh, we're actually total bros and-"
"Relax," the younger boy said as the cat jumped out onto the shoulders of his varsity jacket. "Masks are pretty strong magic, actually; I couldn't see past it without help."
Everyone looked at Haru for direction, who shrugged. "I'm sorry, my vision ended at this point. This is new to me too."
The boy rose an eyebrow. "... You do realize that reading the strategy guide doesn't make you an expert, right? Tips only go so far, you need skill to really play the game right."
Now it was Haru's time to look startled. "I, um, what? I mean, uh, we found you, and I know you're a friend-"
"First tip: your field of view is lacking," the boy said as he jerked a thumb at his cat. "Not one of you have noticed his eyes."
The cat's blue eyes.
The cat's unnaturally blue eyes; besides the fact this particular feline was black minus white boot patterns, muzzle, and tip of the tail - not a coloring associated with blue eyes - they were dark blues, more like gems than the paleness of normal felid blue eyes. It wouldn't be something too out of the ordinary, but it was something that didn't match cats at all.
Nor did the fact that, apparently, the cat was frowning.
The boy saw the growing comprehension on the others' faces and turned to the cat, smirking. "Morgana, you can turn back now."
The cat jumped down to the street, and sat, a strangely human smirk on its face.
There was a flash of magic.
Another boy, distinctly cat-like in appearance, drew up into a bipedal stance, and tried his best to look tough.
A very familiar cat-like boy.
"... Well," Futaba said, nonplussed. "I think I owe Yusuke an apology; that's one sidequest we don't need to do."
"Okay," Morgana began, chewing on a bit of sashimi. "I get where you're going, but uh, why do we have to join the Courts' club? Doesn't it seem kinda... Convenient, they show up out of nowhere?"
As it turned out, the other boy, Shinya Oda, was three things; One, he was pretty loaded, going by his fifth floor apartment suite in the building and the fact he had a sushi platter just lying around. Two, he seemed to be a fan of Gun About, given how he had the proper arcade cabinet of the tactical light gun RPG shooter in his bedroom, which he was currently practicing on with an intent expression.
Third, as evinced by both his demonstrated casual acceptance of changelings, various old books in the suite's bookshelves that looked suspiciously like tomes of eldritch lore, and Morgana's account of his life as a lodger, Oda was very knowledgable about the occult. And possibly clairvoyance in general, given how neither he nor the cat-eared and tailed boy (tails were apparently a major thing, Morgana even had two of them) were overly surprised.
Which definitely had its benefits, but also had the problem of complacency. As was being demonstrated.
"Seriously? Uh, I mean, I get wanting to be independent and all that jazz, but seriously, doesn't it get kinda lonely being the only Lost you know?" Ryuji looked both a little saddened and baffled. "I mean seriously, I had my fetch and my mom, but I still caught myself wondering if there was anyone else out there?"
"Fetch? Ah yeah, those robot replacement things. Shinya told me about them." The boy brushed away a bit of fur to reveal his red hair. "I don't think I'm exactly Japanese, so if I have one, he's probably a continent away."
"... Your accent," Ann said, dawning comprehension on her face. "I don't mean any offense! I'm mixed myself! I just noticed Dad has the same overemphasis on vowel sounds. You're a native English speaker, aren't you?"
"English and Gaelic," Morgana confirmed. "Combine that with my hair and I'm probably Irish by birth. Which is the problem," he said, a look of irritation and sadness coming to his face. "I... I only know where I come from because of my tongues."
Shinobu winced in sympathy. "Right. You were having trouble remembering who you were in the Glade."
"Ugh. I'm saving my complaints about how creepy those three are for later. But yeah," he said, looking down. "All I have are my languages. Those are the only things that tell me who I used to be. I didn't even know what the other tongue in my brain was called until Shinya looked up the lettering!" He pulled out a phrasebook. "So, Shinya's been teaching me Japanese; I'm better at reading it than writing it, but at least I can talk to people now."
"But before then, you were in a place that seemed almost familiar, but didn't know how to even ask for help," Makoto said, looking into space. "I know how you feel."
"... Anyway," Haru said with a bit more force than strictly needed to derail the subject. "That still doesn't explain why you're so reluctant to join the Courts."
"Well, I'll start with just how weird it is when you've spent years under people who call themselves all fancy titles like 'Duke' or 'Baron', and the first thing you can think of is 'we should call the boss the King'? It's kinda asking for it."
Futaba opened her mouth before her brow furrowed. "That... Is a legit point. I mean, they were formed back in the European High Middle Ages when the King was the guy in charge, but at some point... Huh."
"Still, I don't think it's a sign of hidden infiltration or something akin to that. If only because it'd involve trusting minions for no other reason than to repay a favor," Haru said, a sour expression and tone on her face as she remembered Grandmother's controlling nature. "I think it may just be tradition and, given how Contracts work, it would be far, far too much work to negotiate a new agreement just for a better title for the local leader. Also they trade off the crown fairly regularly, so they're not a traditional aristocracy by any means... And I am rambling. Excuse me."
"Which leads into my second and more critical point," Morgana said, looking at Oda fighting a boss. "Look. When I came here, all I had was a couple of languages from the other side of the planet, and a memory of being human once Big Nose and Pals gave me. I couldn't do much of anything apart from steal food, try and find shelter. Shinya... Well, he found me, nursed me back to health, taught me to actually communicate with people, gave me a sweet pad to crash in, a name... Here, I know what I am. Just not... Who I am."
"I don't see how that-" Shinobu began.
"Look, there's a lot of things about Shinya I don't know, and what I can I promised not to tell until he gives the okay. But he knows a lot about finding memories, and retrieving them. If I leave, and I join your club..." Morgana drooped a bit. "Well... What can I find there that's going help me find my memories? How can I live on my own if I don't know who I am?"
Absolutely no other changeling had a good response to that.
"I dunno. More than I can do?"
Oda, however, was not a lost. Also, he moved really fast, and Gun About apparently had a pause function modded in.
"What the-" Ryuji blinked at the boy he was internally calling the Amazing Teleporting Gamer. "How the hell do you do that!?"
"Practice," Oda said, without a change in expression. "Also you were all looking away from me."
This hung in the air for a second, before Oda coughed. "Back to what Mona was on about - I kinda think that actual changelings might know more than me about memories."
"Oh come on, Gunner! You too?" Morgana looked outright mildly betrayed.
"Yeah. Me too," Oda said, leaning in the doorway. "Because let's face it, you've been eating a lot of fish - sooner or later my mom's gonna wonder where all of it is going."
"... Actually, where are your parents?" Ann said, suddenly realizing how late it was. "I realize that people work late, but this is ridiculous."
Oda paused for a moment, apparently considering the answer "... Traveling," he said, a bit quietly. "And one parent. Divorced, but with a... Lot of friends."
That sounded very vague, but Shinobu let it slide, since even at this early state it was clear Oda really had a lot of secrets and wasn't keen on revealing them. Best to earn his friendship first before pressing.
Morgana seemed to pick up on the hint. "But she won't be back for a week! We can find a better way to store me!"
"She checks the credit purchases," Oda said, bluntly. "She knows what I've been buying, and if you stay here, when everyone's in the building? You're gonna be found out, and they're gonna want you to work for your place."
"Hey, I don't mind!" Morgana said, jumping to his feet and striking a pose. "Globetrotting adventures! Investigating treasures! Stealing them right from under the noses of-"
"Hey!" Oda's eyes narrowed. "Getting awfully close there!"
"Wait," Futaba began, "Your mom's a Tomb Raider?"
Morgana tensed, and held his arms over his face. There was a sound like a whip-crack and a small lash appeared on Morgana's cheek.
"... Sorry," Morgana said, rubbing the proof of a broken Pledge gingerly. "I got overexcited. We doing the same deal, but we mean it this time?"
"It's cool, and fine," Oda said, resealing the pact. "But since you revealed enough... It's not nearly as fun as it sounds," he said, looking down. "Nothing resembling freedom, and I've been part of it since the start. And since you're an outsider..."
He trailed off, leaving it obvious.
Mona didn't seem entirely satisfied. "But... Come on, Shinya. I don't know what I'm joining, here! They could be even worse!"
For a moment, Oda blinked at his friend, apparently processing it, before he... Laughed.
Not a child's mischievous chuckle, but a bitter, cynical guffaw, one that belonged to a much, much older man. The kind that had seen the worst of the world had to offer, and was laughing at the naïveté of people who were convinced they had at half his age. Or younger.
As soon as it was there, it was gone, leaving Oda looking serious. "No. No they are not. And besides, it's what Fate asks."
"Oh, here we go," Morgana said, cradling his head. "You know, I'd be a lot more comfortable with Japanese if you didn't waste time with Greek for crying out loud-"
"The stars said you'd need it," Oda said, matter-of-factly regardless of the implication. "Better to know the words of an enemy as they speak in ciphers they do not know you've broken."
A slowly growing headache told Futaba she should be glad for Ohya shutting things down rather than being cryptic; at least got the shady mentor figure who spoke plainly.
"I..." Morgana grit his teeth, apparently trying to find a way to overcome Oda obviously putting his foot down. "... Gah! Fine, you win. I'm coming with you guys."
"I usually do," Oda said, looking proud of himself. "So, yeah. If whatever's chasing you is gone, I'd start going to that bar of yours. I'm betting they're wondering why you're so late."
With that, the changelings slowly got up-
But not before Futaba asked a rather salient question.
"Hey, um, could I have a hint at the main plot though? You a vampire? 'Cause, I get the sense you may be three hundred years old."
Oda looked at her, smiled, and shrugged. "I think me and the sun play too nice with each other for that to be the case."
Though, Futaba noted, he didn't actually deny his age.
"Okay," Morgana said as he shook himself (on all fours, even in his true humanoid form; apparently cat behavior was something fundamental to him). "Next time we need to get somewhere stealthily and in a hurry, we're getting a car. My poor nose..."
"Can't say he's wrong," Ann said, slowly withdrawing her hands from her nose. "What was in that last section!? Are we gonna hear about mass food poisoning tomorrow!?"
"And this is why Mako-chan and I are looking for money," Haru said, last one to scurry out of the sewer grate. "Even I could pick that up."
"Sewer aside," Shinobu said, pulling up the map to Crossroads on his phone. "I think we're here."
And indeed, about a block away was a big lit sign with "CROSSROADS" printed in big friendly kanji over a humble-looking storefront with a small line leading up to a burly looking man who had to be Kenta.
"... Huh," Futaba said, leaning back. "I was kinda expecting... A nightclub, I guess. Not a cozy little bar. You know, sort of like that one in the Hellsing anime; all ostentatious and yet foreboding. Hunting grounds for night people."
"Well, it is a safe house," Shinobu said. "I don't think you're supposed to draw attention to those."
"Yeah, point." Futaba hoisted herself up. "Well, I told Ohya earlier that we had three extras so-"
"Not to be rude, but," Makoto said, stepping forward. "I know we're meeting her here, but, um, are we sure we want to bring a preteen into an alcoholic bar?"
Morgana, for his part, looked somewhat taken aback. "Uh, hello? For one thing, I think I can take care of myself-"
"Which I don't doubt, but I'm also concerned for my classmates," Makoto said, smiling politely. "If we are recognized, that would result in disciplinary action, and that wouldn't be good for any of us."
Off to the side, Haru's eyes widened before she winced.
Morgana didn't notice. "Second," he began, a bit peeved, "I think our survival is kinda... Kinda..." He trailed off, as he realized a certain word used. "Wait. Classmates?"
"Er, yes. I mean, we are in... Shujin, together," she said, haltingly as if not quite sure of it. "I... Found it a lucky coincidence we all met over summer vacation," she said, growing more and more confident, and with it her tone becoming more matter-of-fact and descriptive.
Not coincidentally, Joker noticed something weird about her posture; it was straighter, less timid and closed, whereas before she kept herself small and unobtrusive. Less nervous, more... Normal.
Haru suddenly walked up. "Yes, um, sorry, but if we're... Good examples, it falls to us to keep an eye on him, right?"
Yusuke, looking completely lost, opened his mouth, only to be hurriedly shushed by a gesture from Haru.
"That's true, but - Haru," Makoto said, looking at Crossroads with an uncertain glance, "I'm not sure anyone we'd meet in a bar is a person that should be associated with the student council."
Now everyone was looking lost. Ryuji mouthed his complete disbelief as Ann looked around, perhaps for a camera on a hidden prank show.
"That may be so, but Ohya is... In the social circle of the principal!" Haru fished for. "She may be able to help Morgana into Shujin!"
"Oh... Really?" Makoto's eyes unfocused for a second, before she resumed her normal stance. "I... Don't exactly condone this quid pro quo, but I can understand the motive..."
"... Uh..." Futaba began. "Student council? Morgana joining? What does any of this have to do with anything?"
Haru winced as Makoto looked at Futaba like she had grown an extra head.
Shinobu decided to act, a growing pit in his stomach as he began to have a dark feeling of what was occurring. "... Yeah, sorry about this, Futaba. I know you're not there yet, but we're trying to go on the student council in Shujin, help Makoto with her workload and get over some issues she's been having with her life."
Futaba's eyebrows flew up in understanding before she paled. "Uh... Yeah! Sorry, you know how I am! Recovering shut-in, still trying to reintegrate with the world! Fwehehehe...."
A look of... Understanding(?) came to Makoto as she smiled politely and sympathetically. "Oh. Well, I think I can contact the counselor's office if you feel you qualify as having a disability, I'm sure we can work out something."
Haru mouthed a thank you at Shinobu before taking up Makoto's attention again. "Why, yes, yes that would be a good thing. Speaking of, how's that, er... Wolf problem doing?"
"The Wolves? Still being a nuisance, but I... But I..." Makoto blinked as her postured sagged back into something timid. "I... How did I get here? I was standing at the grate after changing back, I was going to say something about having to live with that smell..." Her eyes flew open as an enormous blush came to her cheeks and her ears and tail drooped. "Oh no. Oh no no no no! How long was I-"
"Five minutes, maybe six," Haru said, relief on her face.
"Did..." Makoto glanced at the other Lost. "They... See?"
Haru's look of sympathy and reluctance was all the answer Makoto needed. "Oh God," she said, covering hands her eyes with her ears. "Oh, this is so embarrassing. Why now? Why can't my brain work for a week? Just, one week without me losing it again..."
Understanding dawned on the faces of the other changelings. "I take it that... Makoto..." Yusuke began, carefully. "Didn't come back... Entirely whole?"
Makoto peaked out between her ears. "We... We think it's dissociative identity disorder. That... That woman you just saw? She's... She's me if I was never taken. When she's awake, she doesn't know she's a changeling. She doesn't recognize anything that tells her she's a changeling."
She hid again. "Every day after I came back, I'd wake up with bruises on my tail, and not realizing how I got somewhere, and then I'd black out again, and I'd be somewhere else and then when Haru found me I'd wake up panicked and not know why just because Haru was trying to figure out what was going on because that idiot was scared and I'm trying so hard but it keeps happening-"
Haru cut her off with a hug, rubbing her ears as Makoto hyperventilated. "There... It's okay. Nobody thinks any less of you..." She shot a dark glance at the others. "Do they?"
The others simply shook their heads, feeling dirty for having seen the other changeling at their most vulnerable.
"... Uh." Shinobu began. "If she needs some help, I think we can duck into another store for a bit, maybe get a coffee, or-"
"No... No, I'm fine," Makoto said, inhaling as she broke the hold. "Just give me a second..." She rubbed her forehead in a strange way, more dragging her fingertips across her scalp. "Okay, okay, I'm fine now. She only wakes up when I'm reminded of how hard my life is as a changeling, but she needs the right situation to reinterpret into whatever narrative she's convinced herself is her having a normal life. Plus, there's less of her now; she only shows up after a particularly hard day, so I think I can go in and not lose it again. I'm meeting people who understand, after all. I think." She inhaled, forcing a smile. "So. Shall we meet our peers?"
Ann forced a smile back, and nodded a bit forcefully. "S... Sure! Yeah, let's uh... Think about that later."
And as Shinobu walked up to Kenta to give him the code phrases, Futaba pulled Haru over. "Um, question?" she whispered. "I did some DID research for an RP once, and, uh... Does Makoto have more than one alter? The uh... people like her usually do."
"One other," Haru whispered back. "But she and her core share memories; you saw her fighting the briarwolves."
"Ah," Futaba whispered back. "We'll talk later," she said as Shinobu came back with Kenta.
Kenta, for his part, looked rather skeptical, an easy thing when one was a human wall stuffed into an immaculate suit. "You had the time to pick up three on the way down here?" he asked, looking them over suspiciously.
"I swear I am, and it has something to do with fate - rats will bite me if I'm lying to you about circumstances," Shinobu said.
"Then - you were telling the truth," said Kenta, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes. And yeah, it is kind of unbelievable."
Kenta paused for a minute, then grunted. "Wouldn't be the weirdest that happens among you," he said as he waved them over to a door in the building right next to Crossroads. "This leads to a covered backdoor, bookshelf in the back is really a door. Go around and you'll be in the back of the storage room, which is where we do security checks. Have a nice day," he said, opening the door for them.
"Well," Morgana said, following in at the back. "Time to meet our secret club."
Yeah. Every changeling motley needs someone who really was broken by the True Fae; Makoto got the short straw here. For the record, we refer to her personalities as the Prisoner, Innocent, and Grimhound.
And now, time for Under the Hood!
Haru is an Ogre, like Ryuji, but her Kith is Witchtooth, the folkloric witches and mystical monsters of myth (think Baba Yaga and Loki, who is in fact a frost giant). Another updated Kith from 1E; I have it she has an easier time learning about forms of magic (she can't tell you much about the wizard, but she can talk for days about the contents of his spellbook), and her full Blessing is the Black Hex; by spending a point of Glamour she can unleash a curse of truly horrible luck on an enemy for a turn, causing a severe penalty to one of their skill rolls and, should they fail, it's a botch; in effect, they suffer such klutziness it actually leaves a long-lasting effect. She can only do it so often, one use per one character per day, but it's part of why she and Makoto were able to trounce the briarwolves. Those hedges were part of the Hedgewall Shield Contract, something Ogres have a natural affinity for (for Ogres, that maze can last until sunset), while her word association was the Portents and Visions Contract, part of her favored Contracts, Mirror - normally a Darkling thing, Mirror Contracts govern perception and self-transformation (though not animal shapeshifting, which is under Steed; she can mold her features like clay, though).
Makoto's Seeming is Beast, a changeling remade into a supposedly nonsentient animal who freed herself through embracing instinct but balancing it with intelligence, becoming a Lost who is fundamentally about being in tune with her id, and unmatched agility; Beasts are extremely quick on their feet and with their reflexes, and they can use their natural weapons to inflict major damage even with unarmed attacks, though if she's scared she regularly needs to power through her stores of Glamour to keep that ability running. She also has an affinity with Steed Contracts (her shapeshifting is part of one of them, Chrysalis), which govern motion and the capacity to take animal features for oneself. Kith-wise, she's a Gravewright, a changeling embodying the close relationship fae stories have to ghost stories (and yet another 1E updated kith); she has an easier time learning the stories of the undead, and she can spend Glamor to invoke the Blessing of the True Medium; the ability to either help ghosts manifest in the physical world or alternatively force them further into Twilight. She also can percieve Twilight as fundamental facet of who she is, hence why she saw Mr. Eyeball Mummy screaming for goons.
Morgana: Another Beast, and a Lurker (the last updated 1E Kith, I swear), a changeling remade into the perfect thief. He finds it easy to sneak when the objective is to steal something. His Blessing is the Thief's Bag; if he spends Glamour, he can stash anything he can pick up into a spatial pocket for up to about an hour, allowing him to hide it and move it a lot more easily, since he's not actively lifting it. And by "anything", that means anything; even if he's just part of the people lifting it up, tick, tack, into the invisible sack. The real cost is that he needs more Glamour if he's hauling out an entire chest, but still. His looking and acting like a feline is a bad joke on the part of his Keeper; as you could probably guess from the prologue, he wasn't exactly born into the life of luxury, so his Keeper made him a literal alley cat (burglar).
Chapter 7: The Phantoms of Arcadia
I'm making this to see if I can't update this story within two months. Having checked the date, I barely failed. Which is better than other delays I've had!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"You know," Futaba said as she stretched out her arms. "This doesn't tie in with the whole 'fantasy royal court' thing you got going."
The hobgoblin waving the (what appeared to be a) metal detector over her did not dignify that with a response beyond a quick glance with all four of his eyes half-lidded in a "really?" expression, simply removing a pocket knife to put on top of her laptop in a growing pile with his lower pair of arms.
"... Okay, that's getting ridiculous," Ryuji said, gawking at the pile. "How do you carry all that?"
Futaba shrugged. "Practice. And not having a good place to put it for weeks."
"... How did you, uh..." Makoto winced. "Pay for the computer?"
Futaba blushed. "... Let's just say I went for the cheapest model there I could do my magic with, and I was homeless. Bit of, uh, self-selected charity. Sojiro and I paid it back, no worries!"
Haru leaned over the laptop, frowning. "... That's a Deva Garuda 450. Isn't that one of the most recent and high-end models?"
"... The magic, here, being a computer I could easily swipe back into the Hedge." Futaba grinned apologetically. "They were displayed in the heart of the store, and they're skinny."
Makoto looked downcast. "... Didn't mean to upset you. Just... Don't steal what you don't need, okay?"
And now Futaba felt bad. "Hey, hey, I'm not mad, it's just that I didn't have much opportunity to stay to the nice ends of the karma meter-"
"Next!" The hobgoblin pushed Futaba to the cleared area and grabbed Yusuke, yanking him in front of the spider-like security guard.
"Oof! Watch the coat, I have sketching supplies!"
"He has a point, y'know," Ryuji said as he rubbed a spreading bruise. "You could, uh, kinda give more of a crap about personal comfort."
"I was not summoned to care, sir. Just keep the area safe," the hobgoblin monotoned as he removed said sketching supplies and put them in a new pile. "Okay. Nothing else hidden on you, no hidden potential as weapons - please collect your items and enjoy your stay." With that, the fae hit a few numbers on a keypad, opening a far door.
It was also at that point that the reality of the situation hit Futaba. "Holy crap, we're going to meet a secret underground society of monsters! We're going to have secret handshakes, and passwords, and rules to hide our secret powers, and secret histories of the world, and fights with evil demons, and-"
"Wow, this is cramped."
Crossroads, as it turns out, was a pretty large and upscale bar and restaurant, despite its relatively humble interior. It wasn't quite a big, neon, laser-lights nightclub that you would expect to be looked over by its vampiric patrons as they brooded on their next political move, but it was definitely capable of holding more than a couple parties at once, albeit smaller ones. The phantasmagoric factor that would have been supplied by fog machines and neon was more than substituted for by the fact that the party of changelings could see beneath the Masks of at least half the patrons. There, a man with silver scales and whose hair ended in tail fins chatted up an older woman whose limbs rotated 180 degrees on metal joints to grab a drink. There, a younger woman with hair that seemed to actively block a clear line of sight to her face made motions like she was awkwardly flirting with a boy her same age with a divot in his head containing clear water and a turtle shell on his back. A pair of crow-faced women chatted up an apparently completely human one, the younger-looking crow face offering a drink. In the air, the bar danced with embers, flower petals, snowflakes, and red leaves.
The problem was, the bar also seemed to have been built to contain about a fifth less people than there was.
That didn't mean there wasn't space, of course. There was still more than enough room for the patrons to walk about to their tables, to the bathroom, and out the storefront, and likewise an overworked-seeming staff, but absolutely nothing else; even as the newbie Lost watched, at least three people had to walk in front of the waiters just to let them through the milling people. Every table had at least two people sitting at it, and as soon as one left, the staff starting cleaning it for the next patron.
The people who left, naturally, were never the changelings; as they watched, a man with a fox's ears and expression was led to the secluded area in the back where the other end of the checkpoint was, and an older man with a truly enormous forehead was led out, while the fox-face pulled out a phone and apparently started playing a game on it; the illusion of different patrons leaving and entering while the safe house was still being used.
All in all, it looked... Chaotic. A weird hybrid sense of covering up chaos of a minor evacuation with the chaos of an over-extended bar.
"So," Ann began, "I guess we just stay in the back? People are going to wonder what teenagers are doing in a bar with sake being served." She pointed at massive plastic containers of rice wine hidden carefully out of view.
"Yes; please wait until the man in the melted wax mask escorts you to the royal table. Have a nice day." The spider-goblin shut the door closed, undisguised from the bar side.
"You'll have to excuse him," the bartender said with a shrug as she retrieved a bottle. "He wasn't expecting to work tonight, and there's a Hedge fencing tournament he's missing. Not a major one, but he's still grumpy. That, and he's not summoned to be courteous, just effective. I'm Lulu, by the by."
"Yeah, I don't think the Beast With a Thousand Eyes out there cares about sports that much." Ann smiled bleakly. "Though... Everyone seems uh... Not panicky? Was kind of, y'know, expecting a trap-filled underground barracks, not a... Party."
"Ichiko came up with this whole fall-back," Lulu said. "You're new here, so quick explanation; this is how the Spring Court doubles back. They don't hide, they interrupt their lives for a mutual back-watching celebration with a bunch of mortal witnesses. So long as somebody can watch the entrance, Ohya doesn't see why you can't stop kicking back."
Ryuji's head bent about 90 degrees to the right as an utterly baffled expression came to his face. "... The briarwolves he summons being eager to eat those witnesses, maybe?"
"A valid point, but she thinks of Huntsmen as, well, hunters. They don't bother with huge herds of people who could stampede them. I have my doubts, but what do I know? I'm just the owner." She motioned to a long-nosed, red-colored changeling sitting near the end of the bar's seats, who nodded back. "Anyway, lots of drunks, pure mortal and otherwise, so I'm gonna hand you off."
It took a couple minutes, likely for security reasons of not alerting the mortals, but eventually the long nose left, heading towards the restroom. About ten seconds later, he came around a left hallway in the back room, donning a mask that indeed looked like a melting wax version of a theater mask. "Greetings," he began, bowing politely. "I apologize for the delay and the lack of pomp. The recent aggression by the Huntsman has forced us to jump the Quarterly Summit and Introduction forward a bit. I am Magistrate Doe of the Wax Mask, a member of an international society of cultural ambassadors dedicated to the proper calendar and decorum of the various rites and rituals Freeholds have. Might I ask if you are the newfound Lost that Ohya wishes to introduce?"
There was a brief pause before Shinobu coughed politely. "You know, you don't have to butter us up. We were going to join anyway."
"My apologies, sir; I am a Chatelaine, a kith made into perfect servants. It is difficult for me to act rudely, and I feel some amount of decorum is needed for this momentous event." He smiled apologetically, an oddly creepy expression given his mask.
A bit of guilt crashed over Shinobu as he realized the implications of that. "Sorry, I didn't mean anything, just breaking the tension."
"Thank you, but I am not offended. This tendency to know my manners more often ends up making good impressions, sir." Doe rose, putting his arm out in front of himself and hanging a handkerchief over it, looking for all the world like a butler in a mask and casual wear. "Please, follow me. It is throw a back way to avoid scrutiny from mortals, but I believe you will find the royal room a bit more spacious."
With that, Doe began to walk in front of the group, briskly but calmly. The hallway he showed them was also on the left, next to what had to be the secret way to the main bar area (Morgana suppressed a chuckle when he quietly realized that the vaunted Kings and Queens of the Crescent Moon had to pass the by the bathroom to get to their royal court, earning a weird look). From there led to a stairwell, and from there the second floor - as well as two large private tables, each one decorated tastefully minimally.
Only one had any people at it - but it felt like there was more than six, given the pressure emanating from it. Perhaps due to the mystical strength of the four royals at it, perhaps an illusion caused by them being royals, but probably the former given how one of them had a halo of bright golden fire around his head, and the others weren't exactly lacking in special effects.
The overall effect was definitely ruined by the presence of a certain plain-looking high-schooler excitedly doing an interview with an increasingly awkward-looking King, though.
"Mishima!" Futaba said in a deliberately effected cheer, trying not to laugh as he squeaked and nearly knocked over his tripod in surprise, much to the relief of the darker-skinned man with clockwork hands. As Mishima spun around, the changeling wiped his brow, causing the bright red metal wings sticking out from his temples to twitch as the cybernetic apparatus built into the left side of his face adjusted, with the glass iris he had for a left eye to adjust along with his organic one. A blonde woman behind him casually tossed him a hand towel to wipe sweat that glistened like oil off a small diadem that seemed made of paper covered with arcane diagrams and a brass eye for a centerpiece.
After he recovered, Mishima gave Futaba the most harsh glare he was generally capable of - which if looks could kill, might have caused some of her hair to smoke, briefly. "You know, I was in the middle of an interview," he began testily. "I was just about to ask His Highness about the delineation between titles-"
"Which I think we can leave for tomorrow, okay?" The blonde swiped the tripod away, hiding the camera under her sunshine-yellow sweater (to the extent she could). "I think Zen needs a good meal before he continues the interview! ..Please? I really wanna try the sanctuary curry special, and the Jarmyn Fruit you need to make it is really rare; they only serve it when you need to stay awake for an extra day or so..."
"... Doesn't that knock you out for a day when it wears off?" The man, now known as Zen, looked at his apparent aid with concern. "Rei, isn't a day from now a work-"
"Oh, I've saved up a bunch of sick days!" Rei smiled mischievously. "I'll pretend I'm coming down with something tomorrow and say I was too sick to reach the phone the day after! ... The day after," she awkwardly corrected. "But, new curry flavors! Professional life will not stop me from my dreams!"
The other man at the table, the man with the fire crown, gave Rei a side-eyed glare which she apparently didn't notice - apparently, because when half your body was purple and had a goat-like eye on that same side, it was hard not to notice stink eye. "Zen, tell your secretary to treat the situation with something resembling seriousness?"
Ohya paused in the middle of getting up to give her own stink eye to her fellow monarch. "You know, Kiritani, it wouldn't kill you to smile occasionally. Try it! We just found eight foundlings and they kicked briarwolf ass!"
"I don't know which story Kenta related to you," Kiritani said as he switched objects of ire. "But two of them saved the rest by weird coincidence and even then it was an ambush-"
"Please... Stop fighting." The final person, a pale, young-ish woman in a dark dress with gently pointed ears poking out of a bob of white hair, looked like she could have been sleeping were it not for the soft voice that came from her mouth. She adjusted her own crown, a crystalline structure that looked to be either made of sapphires or tears, before tilting her head up to reveal orange-red eyes. "Not good first impressions..."
Kiritani grunted while Ohya blushed.
"Right. Where the hell are our manners." Ohya finally came out from her seat, smiling broadly. "Hey! Heard you had some, uh difficulties." Her smile became more obviously forced. "Honestly, that was... My bad. I have no excuses, just the reasoning I thought he wouldn't even be looking for less powerful changelings. I'm surprised he even saw you; thought you had a Bargain or two going on."
Shinobu shrugged. "Eh, we're alive. And we got more, uh, foundlings in the process. Can't really complain."
Ann frowned. "Uh, doesn't foundling mean... 'abandoned child?'"
Haru and Makoto winced.
The white-haired monarch apparently picked up their discomfort. "Sorry... It has nothing to do with parental status. It comes from how a foundling is... Found recently, if you'll excuse the pun. It's a term we use for changelings that haven't been offered the initiation into Courts and haven't... You know, blown us off."
"For the record, we didn't choose it; it's something left over from the original Freehold of the Moon Princess," Ohya said with a shrug. "Though... This is the first time the word's upset someone. And... Tell the truth, it's kind of patronizing to call someone who just dragged themselves out of Hell an abandoned child." She turned to the other monarchs. "Everyone in favor of finding a better word for recently escaped changelings, raise your hand."
All four monarchs' arms went up, though Kiritani prefaced his with a proclamation of "after the crisis is over."
"Right. Okay, priorities. Please excuse the formality, it's a magic thing." Ohya nodded at Doe, who backed out of the area while she inhaled. "I formally present, for the consideration of my fellows and peerage, eight Wanderers from the wilds of distant, despised Arcadia, long gone from home and after a great pilgrimage, and only recently returned to freedom. They seek the right of refuge among us, the Kings and Queens of the Crescent Moon."
Kiritani nodded, standing up. "I see your entrance and bid that for as long as summer lasts, that the arms of Yohei Kiritani will guide wrath against those who would chain you." He bowed, apparently sincerely.
Zen stood up. "When summer ends, know that the sorcery of Zhn will let your oppressors know terror of those they would enslave." He bowed himself, ignoring a suddenly curious expression on Morgana's face.
The fourth monarch stood up herself. "When autumn becomes winter, be at ease, for the guile of Hikari Maeda-"
"Wait, who?" Ann suddenly interrupted, looking utterly shocked and disbelieving. "Hikari Maeda? That Hikari Maeda!?"
"You know my work!?" The Winter Queen was snapped out of her otherwise neutral expression by a look of shock. "I... Um... Well..." She blushed, but still broke into a broad smile. "Thank you!"
Yusuke tilted his head. "Pardon my lack of familiarity, but... Who?"
"Oh come on, don't tell me you don't recognize the director of Aerial Lexicon?" Ann didn't exactly seem displeased to talk about a favorite of hers. "Hikari Maeda is one of the youngest directors to produce a serious drama and hit gold! She's a rising star in the TV miniseries world, ever since she... She uh..." Ann trailed off as she realized something. "And that... That was your fetch, wasn't it."
There was a flash of something in Maeda's eyes before she grinned wider. "Actually, you're wrong. The Hikari that works for Fujin Media is very much the Hikari you're looking at. Really, I don't think Aerial Lexicon was that good, but it's won me some brownie points to produce a full series, and-"
Kiritani cleared his throat, a sound like crashing thunder.
Hikari blinked, before blushing and closing her eyes in embarrassment. "Oh dear... The ritual. Ahem." She inhaled, resuming her poise. "Be at ease, for the guile of Hikari Maeda will blind those who seek you with sorrow." She smiled, a bit sheepishly, and bowed.
"And spring comes around, rejoice, for the festivals of Ichiko Ohya will eclipse those who would trick you and show this world has all you desire." She bowed herself, before all four monarchs rose simultaneously.
"For our patronage, all we request is that you do not betray your kin to their Keepers lest your weapons betray you, and that you salute us at this one moment." Kiritani finished, rounding out what was obviously a Pledge of some kind. The mystic tone was obvious, but... weightier, somehow. Permanent.
Though, a quick glance around confirmed that not one of the "Wanderers" was that reluctant.
"... Seems fair," Futaba said, bringing her hand to her head in an awkward salute.
"Kinda basic, but that's actually pretty cool with me." Ryuji mimicked the motion.
"If it is a mutual promise, I see no issue in it," Yusuke said, checking the both of them before mimicking Futaba's exactly.
"Huh, no duties. I... Wasn't expecting that, but okay!" Ann was the third saluter, a distinctly more practiced motion.
"Um, I don't think you actually need to do that, but... Okay," Morgana said as he did his own gesture, eyes never leaving Zen.
Haru nudged Makoto. "Mako-chan? You think they can help us getting a home again?"
Makoto said nothing, but slowly nodding, both girls saluting at the same time.
Shinobu shrugged. "Well, the people have spoken." He stood forward, hand on head. "We accept your gifts, and your terms."
From the moment he did so, everyone in the room felt a shift. It was like the aftershock of a mild earthquake, the crashing of a great wave, the sense of a law being finalized and made into the code of the land.
Everyone. Including the people who weren't changelings.
"Uh..." Mishima looked around. "Did, uh, everyone else feel that?"
"Relax, that was an oath," Ohya said with a shrug. "You literally can't be part of it, in the same way you can't breathe water."
"... And those are?" Shinobu asked, feeling a headache coming on.
There was a thirty second long silence before Kiritani leaned over to Ohya. "How long ago did they get back again?"
"Month," Ohya said, a blush coming to her face. "Maybe two."
"And... how long were you talking with them?"
"... Nearly a week."
"And you didn't tell them what a goddamned oath is!?"
Ohya did not answer, the fact she looked about ready to crawl into the Hedge and feed herself to briarwolves was enough of an answer.
"... Idiot. Thank God we were the first to make an actual oath instead of, I dunno, a promise to their Keepers go back into slavery or something!" He held up his hands. "This is why I don't smile more often! Ugh!"
"I hate agreeing with him..." Maeda didn't look mad, just disappointed. "That was... Ill-advised."
"This is why we don't allow you more responsibility, Ohya," Zen said, shaking his head. "We appreciate your abilities with interacting with others, but you're a terrible mentor."
"Okay, guys, hit pause!" Futaba said, making a time-out gesture with her hands. "Before you give her whole nine yards for not explaining what an oath is, could you give us the tutorial first!?"
Ohya sighed. "The most ironclad and permanent form of Pledge, only capable of being sworn in free will between fae. It's possible to disobey, but the oath is warped, not broken; the Wyrd hates fae who make their most sincere word worthless, and thus the oath becomes a permanent curse unless you're willing to scour the world for some really powerful, and usually unholy, magic."
Almost immediately, the young Lost felt their bodies tense, Morgana's hand even leaping towards a sword.
If Ohya could have burst into flame out of embarrassment (or from Kiritani's glare), she would have done so.
It was Rei who stopped the confrontation from escalating, stepping in. "Um, I get the takoyaki's a bit undercooked, but that's kind of why the acceptance oath is kind of, um, loose?"
Slowly, Shinobu shifted out of his fighting stance. "That's... A point. Guys, I think a ward against betraying people to their Keepers is quite possibly the most generic duty there is; it's sociopath-proofing."
The others soon relaxed as well. "Still kind of a jerk move to hit us with a lifetime promise without warning," Morgana muttered.
"We apologize, but it is the only way to share a Mantle." Zen held his hand to his head, apparently deep in thought. "If you want the power of the four Seasons, you must swear an oath to their representatives, the Courts. And in all fairness, we had assumed you had sworn a motley oath already, and knew what we were asking of you."
"Whoa, whoa, whoa, slow the eff down." Ryuji rose his fist, frustration growing. "What the hell is a Man...tle.." He trailed off as he fully took a look at the back of his hand. "The eff? Where'd this come from?", he said as he turned his hand over to show the other changelings.
Specifically, the bright gold sun tattoo that had suddenly appeared on his right hand, throwing off angry red flames.
"Your first Mantle effect, the mark of those who have forged an oath, by proxy, with the living concepts of the four seasons," Maeda said, calmly. "My first one was that I kept kept leaving small patches of frost when I touched something."
Kiritani smirked fondly. "Looks like one of mine, though. That sun is definitely an angry one."
A brief check revealed the traces of other Mantles. Ann brushed the hair on her forehead aside to reveal a dark red jewel that seemed to burn with an inner heat. Makoto saw her breath fog slightly with a long exhale, drifting out languidly and carefully. A pair of Yusuke's eye-spots on his shoulders developed pupils of blue crystals and seemed to narrow in a wistful expression. Haru felt a pair of tiny horns jut out of her forehead, and a look in a nearby mirror showed new markings that combined to give her the potential for having a face that truly looked like an oni mask. Futaba looked there likewise to find arcane letting in glowing ink written on her ears, which she suspected would look disturbingly like glowing eyes in the dark. Morgana felt a new scarf curl into being around his neck, dotted with colorful floral designs. Finally, for Shinobu, a small contingent of vines curled out of the gaps between the plating on his hands, giving them a more unearthly and yet less disturbing appearance.
Naturally, it was Futaba who had a simile for the situation. "Guys, I think we just got our first monster rank up. Imma High Badger now!"
That caused a round of groaning from Mishima, Shinobu, and Ryuji, and a confused look from the everyone else.
"... Seriously? Nobody? It's kind of a big thing in RPG mechanics universes." She looked somewhat miffed and frustrated.
"... References aside, you're not that different," Maeda said, shaking her head. "You just have access to the less flashy of your Court's magic now."
"You will have to develop a better understanding of your new emotional focus before you access the Royal Contracts," Zen said, calmly. "However, even now you're able to tap into the Mantle to invoke the roles of the Courts."
"Spring influences, Summer intimidates, Autumn investigates, and Winter instigates incredible intrigues," Ohya said, looking cheekily proud of herself as Kiritani sighed.
"But, right now? That's something you can ask your actual instructor," Kiritani said, deciding to stringently ignore his fellow monarch. "It's kind of traditional for us to pay for at least a week of survival strategy, useful for the Hedge."
"Great," Morgana said, rolling his eyes. "Boot camp. Yeah, please ignore the fact that one of these guys isn't even thirteen yet-"
"The training includes ninjutsu."
"When do we start!?" Morgana bounced on the balls of his feet.
"The instructor's free in two days, last time we checked," Maeda said, shrugging. "We also don't exactly want you to go out after that thing already attacked you, so... Please. Make yourselves at home. There's some sleeping bags in the back, if you need them. Lulu's offering what food she has on the house, though you can't legally show yourself in the main bar."
"Meanwhile," Ohya said, grimly. "We've got the task nobody wants, but everyone gets when dealing with new found- ahem, the newly escaped."
Shinobu rose an eyebrow. "Which is?"
"Forging legal identities." Ohya grimaced. "You try getting a driver's license when someone with your exact name and appearance has it."
And just like that, the meeting and initiation was over.
"Vile samurai, sworn to the daimyos of chaos! I am Oboro Morgana, and I have come to punish your master!" The two-tailed boy held up his arms in what Makoto supposed was a fighting stance, albeit a completely wrong one for any Japanese martial art.
Futaba, of course, did not care. "Fwhehehehee! Foolish ninja, you dare face the dark magics and fierce techniques of the Leaf clan? Kneel before the beauty of Eternal Bridge Dwelling Malcontent style!"
Morgana paused. "... 'Malcontent'?"
"Someone angry and generally being a jerk."
Morgana's eyes brightened as he got the joke. "You fiend! Your endlessly repeating memes and insults are indeed strong!"
"Um, I thought we were eating?" Haru lifted up a bit of ramen from her bowl to emphasize.
"We are! I'm just defending my fish from the dishonorable cur trying to get my curry," Futaba replied, using the opportunity to slide her own plate away from Morgana.
"Hey, I'm supposed to be the dishonorable ninja! You stop cheating so I can cheat!" Morgana pouted.
"You should study up on your history," Futaba said with a savage smile. "Ninjas were generally the ones who didn't stab you in the back!" To emphasize her point, she took off a large bit of it and threw it in her mouth.
"Alright, kids, you're done playing with your food," Ann said, stepping over between them. "Also because I just finished, and I'm trying to let it settle."
Everyone looked at their remaining, at least quarter-full plates.
Ann shrugged. "It's okay, I just eat fast when I'm celebrating."
"You had the extra large bowl," Mishima said, shaking his head.
"... Mako-chan?" Haru said, nudging the other changeling. "You've barely touched yours."
"Hm?" She bolted up. "Oh. Oh yes. Sorry, I just find it hard to concentrate given... the Huntsman."
That bought the mood down, quite fast.
"... A valid concern," Yusuke said, suddenly not quite as interested in his food. "Evading the attentions of that entity... Is not a task I look forward to."
"There's only so many of these grapes we have," Futaba said, frowning as she pulled out her remaining supply of Orphean Tears. "There's a lot on a branch, but only so many before we have to dive back into the Hedge, and - have any of you tried to keep a lot of Goblin Fruits on this side of the Hedge?"
Everyone except Shinobu and Ryuji looked curious.
"... I remember this," the fake blonde said, furrowing his brow. "Your connection to the Wyrd, um, I think keeps them fresh?"
"Ohya explained this to us, actually," Shinobu said. "Goblin Fruits have a lot of Glamour in them, and that's food for a lot of Hedge fungi. In an environment as saturated as the Hedge, the fungi just sits there, but it starts starving as soon as you take a cutting of Fruit out; normally, your connection to the Wyrd invokes a Contract that forbids the spores in it from sprouting, but..."
"Basically, if Kage and I try to take too much of this stuff outside, I'm going to have nothing but inedible mushroom-infested slime in my pockets." She smiled to hold back the retch of the time she tried to take too many the universal organic machine parts known as Cogleaves out with her, only to reach into her jacket to find slightly metallic slime molds.
Ann, sadly, was intelligent enough to catch on to the implication. "... Those grapes have mushroom seeds in them?" she said as she turned a bit green.
"Fungal spores," Haru corrected. "And given how frequently they're eaten, they likely aren't any more toxic than any other spore you accidentally inhale every day."
This was the exact wrong thing to say to Ann, whose very lava-red veins started to look a bit pallid, or Morgana, who started leaning away from the Tears as far as possible.
Makoto suppressed a small smile at this.
"Basic facts about biology aside," a completely nonplussed Yusuke said, "We do have Makoto's ability to see into Twilight, but there is only one of her as well, and the Huntsman can see her as well. Odds are it will likely summon more beasts to finish the job the briarwolves could not."
"And- Ah hell," Ryuji said, holding his head. "I just remembered something. The, uh, population boom."
Morgana blinked. "What does a bunch of babies have to do with anything-"
"Not of humans, changelings," Ann said as she cradled her forehead. "Escaped changelings; the original Tokyo Freehold had to split up to manage all of them. Which means they're escaping, which means they were taken..."
Makoto caught on, eyes widening and ears going back before she held her hands in her fact. "... Why? Why can't they leave us alone..."
Haru pat her on the back despite her own paling at the news.
Morgana simply looked angry. "Are you kidding me!?" he said, jumping up. "We spend who knows how long getting away from them, and they're still looking for new slaves!? What kind of... Distorted monster does that!?"
Shinobu's eyes rose in mild surprise that Morgana knew what "distorted" meant, but shrugged. "Someone who's never satisfied," he said, simply. "Someone always trying to fill a hole inside."
"And they keep on taking humans away to do it!" Morgana crossed his arms and hissed, before the snarl left his face. "I just... I just wanna live my life. Get my memories back. Is that so bad?"
"Because you aren't doing it for those assholes?", Futaba asked, ears pinned. "I'm guessing."
There was a long pause while everyone tried to resume eating.
Then, Mishima spoke up. "Sometimes I wonder why I ever became a hunter. I hate solving mysteries."
"Hm?" Shinobu looked up.
"Ever hear of Shujin Academy? Maybe a scandal that led to a teacher quitting?"
Now, everyone except Yusuke, Morgana, and Futaba were leaning in. "Which one?" Ryuji asked.
"Mr. Hiruta," Mishima said, causing a look of incredible disappointment to appear on Ryuji and Ann's faces. "They say it's because he was fired for predatory behavior towards his students, but really, it's because I found out he's a ghoul."
Haru blinked. "Um. The undead, corpse-eating monster?"
"Not that kind of ghoul. I mean he's a person who's addicted to vampire blood."
Now Futaba was leaning in. "Really?"
"It's a bit of a trick known by hunters that vampires use to create servants who don't mind the sun. The blood a vampire drinks becomes supercharged with lifeforce; if she feeds blood that's already been in her system to someone who's still alive, that person becomes stronger and unaging, but also fanatically loyal to that vampire." Mishima had switched tones to a more lecturing one; it was quite clear he enjoyed explaining this topic. "I've heard ghouls described as addicts who are in love with their dealers, and given how I saw Hiruta-sensei acted around his master, I don't see any problems with the description."
"Hmm..." Futaba took out a notepad. "And... How did you find out?"
"I'm getting to that. When I was preparing for the volleyball tryouts, I noticed the team always looked haggard and tired, all the girls always seemed subdued and scared." The enthusiasm had vanished. "I was worried, and as part of my attempts to be a team player, I decided to look into it. Long story short, that's how I found Network Zero, and not coincidentally, also found Hiruta leading a prostitute to his master as, uh, take-out, before his master bled him a glass."
Pretty much everyone shivered at the mental image of that. After he recovered, however, Morgana looked confused. "So, you stopped the Dracula of Shujin from feeding on any more volleyball team members after you got his way in fired. Don't see why you're unhappy about it, you're a hero to them!"
"If the volleyball team had anything to do with Hiruta, I'd agree," Mishima said. "But, in truth, I should have looked for more mundane explanations. Mundane ones that I didn't want to see..." He looked down. "Hiruta had a distinct moral code against feeding on anyone still in school, I think. The real reason everyone was acting abused was because the coach was, is, and remains a predator. The sexual kind."
Everyone's eyes widened. Everyone's, that is, except two.
"Asshole pervert," Ryuji muttered, gritting his sharp teeth.
"I knew I was cheated," Ann said as her veins sparked and her gem gave a dull, threatening light.
"Yeah. Point is, first thing I did was to tell the rest of the Secret Frequency, and they, thinking I was a good investigator not blinded by my own refusal to believe anything bad about Kamoshida, helped me forge evidence that was circumstantial enough to interest Principal Kobyakawa and at least get the mundane authorities involved. What I didn't realize was that the principal was looking for a scapegoat to direct suspicions of abuse after an incident about a year ago onto, as it was a month or so after the scandal forced the volleyball team to disband. He didn't even bother, he just publicly humiliated an innocent man and just let Kamoshida back out of probation and into his coaching position, and now Hiruta-sensei's going to be having that as a shadow hanging over him his whole life even if he finds another job." He paused. "Or he fakes his own death, but I suspect vampires not his master are going to look at him with disgust now. Which is worse, because that means he's expendable to the undead and ruthless now."
Everyone let that information soak for a bit. Then Shinobu realized something. "Hang on, didn't you say that Hiruta was the ghoul, not the vampire?"
Mishima winced. "I did. I forgot to mention his master is his little brother - the other hunters think that he made Hiruta-sensei a ghoul so that he could share immortality without the bloodthirst, the sunlight allergy, or the damnation. Also the fear that his brother would stop loving him if he didn't ghoul him, but I prefer the former. It's less creepy."
Shinobu blinked. "... Oh."
There was another long silence as everyone took that in. Haru was the first to comment. "That's... Sweet?"
"If it makes you feel any better, I saw the way the younger Hiruta was acting when he was giving Hiruta-sensei a dose. I don't think he realized the kind of mind-whammy it would do to him until it was too late." Mishima sighed. "I swear, because I'm here, I guarantee the reason people are disappearing is that Tokyo was going to be annihilated by zombies five years ago, but the True Fae suppressed the plague in return for their pick of the servants-"
"Wait!" Futaba held up a finger. "Back up."
Mishima blinked. "Um, I don't know much about vampires apart from the basics, but-"
"Later than that." Futaba steepled her hands. "You're saying this started happening five years ago?"
Mishima caught on. "Yeah. It was covered up at first to prevent mass panic, and because the True Fae left more fetches, but Secret Frequency chatter says they've gotten lazy about it lately. Tokyo's had at least a dozen reports of Keeper replacements or abduction a year for the past five." He looked thoughtful. "There's something about the timing that's off, isn't it."
"Yeah, because that population boom of changelings?" Futaba's hands began to dance as she mimed sorting through computer files. "It started happening five years ago."
Everyone caught on. "Something happened," Haru began. "Something happened that made them start taking people in droves."
"And is still effing happening!" Ryuji hit the table. "Dammit, I knew things were getting eerie! I should have taken that indoor job!"
"Wouldn't have helped," Makoto said, sadly. "Hounds chased me out of gymnasium, into Hedge."
Shinobu looked pensive. "... Is it really anything we can affect, though? Could be it's just more fashionable to take slaves this decade."
Futaba stared at her fellow ex-slave in quiet disbelief. "... And this has nothing to do with Big Nose and Pals?"
Mishima blinked. "Uh... Who?"
"It's how we knew we could trust each other," Haru began, calmly. "I don't want to lose ourselves to a tangent, but we met someone who told us about each other and-ah!"
"Okay, hands up. When he said a dark storm of desire chaining everything it touches, who here that's a coincidence that the otherworldly slavers have something to do with it?" Futaba put her hands under the table for emphasis.
"... Point," Shinobu admitted. "And even if we can't do anything, we still have a homicidal undead pseudo-ghost chasing us because we're there." He sighed. "I so sincerely wish I could think of a coherent objection to this. I really just want my life to be safe and normal again, but..."
Makoto nodded sympathetically.
Ryuji looked less sympathetic. "Dude, seriously. You're protesting the ability to punch mad gods in the face. Possibly literally!"
"Well," Morgana said, wryly. "They can punch back. Usually harder. No, you want to have an escape plan first." He jumped up, posing. "Which means I'm in - someone has to teach you to save you people from karma!"
"So long as the Keepers are abducting people, nobody's safe. Not Shiho, not Sojiro, not my parents." Ann stood up. "Even if it turns out we can't do anything, I'd like to know why."
"To say nothing of what it is supposed that Igor and his caretakers want of us. I know my myths, you trust in what the supernatural mentors have to say." Yusuke joined the other two.
"... There's no one here I especially want to save," Haru began, sadly. "But if Makoto thinks that she can stay here, I'll be happy to save the people you want to save."
"'M not staying," Makoto began, before shooting up, a strange fire in her eyes. "I'm joining. This city needs protectors, and if the police can't stop them, then it's my duty to help."
Futaba blinked, before giving an impressed whistle. "Nice. Real Hero of Justice talk." She paused, then giggled. "Sorry, sorry, I just imagined us as Phoenix Ranger Feathermen. Kneel before me, Feather Swan!'
"Wouldn't you all be the Corvus Knights?" Mishima suddenly said.
Everyone turned to him, curiously.
"... Thanks for the vote of confidence, Nishima," Futaba said, cocking an eyebrow.
Yusuke, naturally, looked completely lost.
Thankfully, Ann noticed. "The Corvus Knights are, uh, the spirits of dead Feathermen. They're the ones the original main villain, Velarz, killed only for them to possess their old suits and show up as allies in season 6."
"Which you already were but-" He inhaled. "Let me start over. I just noticed how similar a lot of changelings are to ghost stories."
And now he had lost everyone. "Um..." Shinobu began.
"Think about it. You were off happily living your life, when some day, a tragedy you didn't see coming whisks you away and changes the nature of your existence forever. You drag yourself back to the mortal world, only to discover you can't resume the life you had, and that time hasn't stopped for you. Only special people can see your real faces, and a lot of the time, it's like you never left; you're stuck observing your loved ones and wondering if you should make yourselves known." Mishima paused. "Well, you would if you didn't deal with your fetches."
Futaba leaned back, thinking on this.
"... It's completely different," she said. "We don't come with bedsheets or long dark hair. Everything else thougBOO!"
She lunged slightly at Morgana, who actually jumped slightly, before laughing.
"... Actually," Shinobu began, looking thoughtful. "Didn't we hear something about a motley oath?"
"Yeah," Ann began, looking thoughtful "Didn't Ohya tell us that changelings can become an adventurer's party of sorts?"
"What I'm thinking." Shinobu got up, walking to the center. "We're destined to be at each other's backs. Why don't we make it official? If we're ghosts, let's combine our grudges, make our own little pocket of the netherworld."
Mishma fumbled for his camera, pulling it up to film as the others walked over to Shinobu.
"Sounds good to me, Kage!" Futaba held her hand forward in a fist. "You're pretty much the male lead in this story anyway; really, we needed to see more people, it's not healthy for a party to have only two members."
"Effing rad, man," Ryuji said as he held his own fist forward. "You screw with one ghost, you screw with all of us!"
"We're alive, so technically we'd be Phantoms," Morgana said as he held his fist up. "Sounds eviler and cooler anyway."
"Hee. Does this mean we get to wear black and gloat?" Ann next. "If so, I'm really in. I liked the villains better!"
"I fail to see the appeal, but I will follow this thread of destiny to its conclusion," Yusuke said, holding his own arm forward after checking the others.
"... Not the way I expected a friendship pact to go, but then again, very little of my life has." Haru came forward.
"For everyone that's been hurt," Makoto said, softly as she came forward.
Shinobu grinned, an oddly mischievous expression on his own face. "Yep. We're the Phantoms of Arcadia, and we protect each other-we know when one of us has been hurt, because you've hurt all of us. We'll find out why the True Fae have been taking so many people, and if we find we can stop it, we'll make the cause regret life."
The collective bumping of fists did not cause a thunderclap, but the shifting in the air might as well have been one.
The sense of victory may or may not have been spoiled by Mishima giving a small clap before trailing off as the others looked at him.
"Yeah, sorry. It's just a good bit for the ending of the footage I'm taking." After a pause, he gave a rueful smile. "I'm just glad Futaba wasn't making the oath."
Said redhead suddenly broke off from the inaugural team circle, looking peeved. "And that's supposed to mean-"
Mishima paled. "I just didn't want it called the Harem Squad or something."
If there was any sound in the area, it itself was struck speechless by the comment.
"Um..." Ryuji blinked. "What."
"It's something she said when she was living with me. With Shinobu and me!", he hurriedly corrected, turning redder. "She wondered if she and Shinobu were my monster person harem."
A longer pause, before Futaba awkwardly coughed. "I, uh... Don't recall that."
"It happened," both Shinobu and Mishima said, with the former being shot a look of mild betrayal by a now red-faced Futaba.
"So..." Morgana said. "It grew? What?", he asked as the others turned to him. "I'm young, but I know what a harem anime is."
"... Yep," Futaba said, popping the "p" sound. "It did."
There was a very long pause before Ann inhaled and walked over to Mishima, who flinched.
"Relax, I'm not going to hurt you. It was a stupid joke," she said. Her words did not match her expression, which remained stony, and... Hurt?
Mishima blinked, before holding out a hand, comfortingly. "Hey, hey, I didn't mean-"
"Yeah, yeah, you didn't mean anything," Ann said, bringing her hands to her eyes and sniffing. "You don't mean a lot of things. Like, how long you've known this woman... Or your compliments... Or your promises..."
Mishima blinked. "Uh..."
"But you know what?" Ann said as she whipped up, completely dry-eyed and with an angry expression. "That's fine. Because I didn't mean anything either. You are less than me, and don't you forget it... Baka."
It took all of three seconds for it to sink in why Ann had used that exact turn of phrase. And for Mishima to pale. "Oh no."
It took all of three and a half before Ryuji couldn't keep a straight face. "Pfft. Pbbbbt! AHAHAHAHA! You- AHAHAHAHA!"
Mishima tried to vanish behind his hands. "Please, no."
"Please no... what, senpai?" Smiling in a sweet fashion one generally associates with the complete loss of any sanity, Haru picked up a butter knife, wielding it not at all subtly behind her back (and ignoring the baffled expression of Yusuke at her) and glided gently behind Mishima. "Is this girl bothering you? But it's alright, I'll take care of her. After all, you wouldn't dare cheat on me..." She took the knife out, holding the blade to his neck. "Would you?"
Ryuji laughed louder, as Mishima sank deeper into his hands.
"Uh..." Yusuke gazed upon this with utter bewilderment.
"... But onii-chaaaan!" Futaba said in an unnaturally high squeak as she rushed over to Mishima and tugged on his shirt with a pout. "You promised me it was my day! I know I'm adopted but I'm still your little sister. I deserve all your focus. Waaah!"
(The "waaah" was literally spoken as "waaah" as opposed to fake crying.)
"What!?" Ann said, standing up straight and looking imperious. "But I'm the one he wants to focus on! It says so right in the style guide! ... N-not that it m-matters, i-it's not like I l-like you or anything..."
"Oh, but this is a dark series, that means he's going to end up with me," Haru said as she played with her knife. "I'm his sweet guardian angel who strangely never gets around to killing rivals..."
"Oh, oh! Can I be the dumb wingman!?" Ryuji strode forward. "Quick, tell me any physical features you don't mind me leering at so I can get into character! Or- Hey Makoto, you be the cold professional girl!"
Makoto simply stared at him before silently shaking her head, backing off slowly.
"... What?" Yusuke said, looking desperately to the one girl who apparently hadn't gone insane. "What in the name of art is going on here?"
"... A complete lack of art," Makoto said with a sigh. "Apart from that, I have no idea."
"All right, kids, you've had your fun," Shinobu said as he politely but firmly shoved Futaba off of Mishima's clothing. "We get it, I think Mishima's learned his lesson. What lesson that was, I'm not sure, but..."
"Boo," Ann said as she relaxed, resuming her actual personality. "We were having fun."
Haru looked meaningfully at the knife. "Though... I suppose I could be quite intimidating with a real one. I'll safe this pose for, shall we say, future use."
"But, all games end eventually," Futaba said with a sigh. "Though-he left his camera on! Yes!" Before Mishima could react, the small changeling grabbed his camera, hugging it like a teddy bear.
"... Well," Mishima said, feeling safe to come out from behind his hands. "That was... Mortifying."
"Yeah," Morgana said, nonplussed. "I'm guessing fae mischief isn't just a cultural meme."
"But, yeah, you left yourself open for that one," Shinobu said with a shrug. "And, let's face it, you kind of look like a generic harem lead."
Mishima sighed, lowering his hands. "Yeah. Don't remind meeEEEK!"
The "eek" was from Shinobu suddenly taking the hunter vlogger by the hand and whirling him around into a tango pose, a shocked Mishima suddenly bending backwards as Shinobu leaned over him with a smirk, meeting his eyes directly.
"Besides," the Fairest said in his huskiest, most debonair voice possible. "We know the real reason you don't focus on them is that you aren't exactly batting for their team, are you, sweetling?"
You have no idea how ecstatic I am for that brick joke to finally land. Also, since it's not out in the US yet, Hikari Maeda is Hikari from Persona Q2; her surname is my own invention, since nothing I see gives her one. I'll change it if someone finds a new last name for her.
And now, for Under The Hood:
Mantles: The merit representing rank in your chosen Court, except as mentioned it's less about how fancy a title you have and more about how well you understand the emotion the Court feeds on, and from there how acute your link is to it. Ohya's alliterative saying is a summary version, but at basic levels a Spring Courtier can use it to better seduce someone (which I interpret as more temptation than lust, because it allows more creativity), Summer makes you scarier when trying to intimidate someone, Autumn guides any mundane investigation of the True Fae or Arcadia's magic itself, and Winter makes you harder to see when you're spying. They also provide extra ways to get Glamour, but I'll get into that later. Technically all the monarchs should have as flashy special effects as Kiritani, but to save on time I say their Mantles only go into UNLIMITED POWER mode when it's their ruling season or they get pissed off - the Crowns are good enough markers as is. Speaking of, having the Crown of a monarch for a freehold gives you a special and unique power only useable (or loanable to someone who's better at a particular job) during your Season or special circumstances that even the Wyrd gives you some leeway; Spring lets you or a recipient harvest a lot of Glamour quickly, Summer makes it impossible for you to be surprised by a duel and heightens reaction times, Autumn lets you access a store of Glamour meant purely for Contract or other magic use, and Winter lets you redouble your will by absorbing your Glamour.
Pledges: Are a lot less varied in 2E due to less book space, but there's three basic types:
Sealings, which are light promises; these are the ones you need to be afraid of accidentally agreeing to around the fae, because the punishment's pretty lenient and so the Wyrd doesn't have much criteria by which one can be made. The direct sanction for breaking one is more annoying than actually threatening, even a "greater sanction" that a fae (any fae, actually) invested a bit of Willpower into, can at most make you very unlucky for a specific task, very tired for an hour or give you a mild laceration. The real problem is that should a sealing be broken, the other party knows it. As a side note, it's actually possible and encouraged to trap Huntsmen in sealings, since enough force of personality forces the Huntsman to actually turn the sealing into a greater one due to their nature as being animated by a Contract; this forces the Huntsman to decide between playing by changeling rules or enduring a nasty curse that said changeling is eagerly planning an ambush for.
Oaths, lifelong promises. As noted, these are the ones that can only be made between fae of their own free will and with conscious agreement, and forming them actually gives involved parties supernatural benefits like bestowing a Mantle (for Courts), or the ability to share Glamour pools. Betraying an oath is an incredibly dumb idea; the Wyrd itself develops a lifelong grudge for those who pervert lifelong promises, guaranteeing the previously upon consequences for breaking an oath will occur - or if there weren't any explicit ones, it gets sadistic. It's possible to use powerful magic to erase an oath, but even finding people capable of doing that is worth a saga or three and the obligation those beings request may be worse than the original problem (the safe option in the sourcebook Dancers in the Dusk involves accepting a quest from a Fate-hating eldritch horror).
Bargains, terms of service between fae and mortals. This is at its core a work contract, a changeling agrees to do a certain task for a mortal and gets something in return. Whatever the mortal promises is actually a bonus; the real benefit is that every bargain intertwines the Lost with the mortal world, which really screws with the senses of Huntsmen and Keepers. Arcadians can tell Lost with bargains are fae, but not that they're changelings, instead thinking they're completely Earth-native parts of the supernatural ecology and unable to make the connection between the brownie cleaning a house and the escaped fugitive without other clues (yes, this can be as hilarious as it sounds). Ohya assumed that since the Phantoms had one with Mishima, they wouldn't have been noticed enough to be even recognized. The "horror movie monster" of changelings comes in when you realize that while a Lost has no particular sanction apart from losing protection, the Wyrd balances out a mortal breaking a promise by hanging an occult "ABDUCT ME" sign over them.
Chapter 8: Training and Tribulations
And spring term is finally over!
Summer term is in full swing, at the time of this writing, but it's a simple class. So should be able to keep up with this.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Really, Shinobu didn't know what else he was expecting from a professional ninja trainer.
"It's... A house," Morgana said, blinking. "... Shouldn't it have sliding doors?"
Really, if you were to look up the platonic idea of "generic urban household," it would be 392 of the Meguro Ward. About the only thing notable about it was its coloration, a solid blue with white highlights. Otherwise, it seemed to be a fairly generic dwelling. A two-floor box with windows on it.
Internally, Shinobu had bet it would be Futaba to point out the obvious, but Ryuji was a bit quicker on the draw. "Uh... Isn't this lady a trainer in stealth techniques?"
It took a second for the younger to catch on, furiously blushing. "S-shut up! I knew that! I just, well, it's Japanese and run by a master in traditional techniques, you'd think, well, tradition!"
"And most of Japan keeps sliding doors on the inside," Makoto began, gently. "It's probably the house she could find."
Futaba, meanwhile, had not reacted at all, staring intently at the house, tail twitching like an agitated predator's.
Ann noticed. "...Um, what are you doing?"
"Looking for traps," Futaba muttered out of the side of her mouth.
"We are approaching a trainer. For ninjas," she growled, sounding somewhat annoyed. "Ninjas, it should be noted, who are supernatural creatures in a perpetual shadow war."
An ah came from Ann's mouth, shortly before she dove right next to her behind a trash can, peering over cautiously. Makoto was quick to follow, stretching out her claws and leaning down to pounce or jump back.
Haru, sweet summer child that she was (though... Not literally), looked confused. "Is... There a reason we should fear traps?"
"Have you ever watched a shonen show?" Futaba said with disbelief. "Or a martial arts movie? She's probably deterred three assassins since last month!"
"Not to mentioned, she knows we're coming." Ann said, getting out her lighter. "I'm betting ambush by bodyguards, or maybe-is she above us right now!?"
"Open air, nothing to cling to," Makoto said. "I checked."
Ann breathed a sigh of relief, but still wove the lighter threateningly.
"... Okay, this is ridiculous," Ryuji said with a groan. "Look. I get the fear, but seriously, this is kinda dumb. I don't think land mines are -"
"We can literally walk into a spirit world by knocking on a door!" Futaba hissed. "Who knows what graffiti is really saying, in fluent Arcadian, 'I prepared Explosive Runes this morning'?"
"And how the hell is she supposed to make sure she doesn't blow up everyone on the street with that?"
After a moment of considering this, Futaba grumbled, coming out of her crouch. "Fine. But we're sending you in first. Her house has less collateral damage potential."
"'Taba, I get the nervousness, but seriously, not everyone's out to get us." Ryuji said, walking forward. "Really, I'm betting she's a nice lady, trying to hide in plain sight by moving on with her life, and she'll be perfectly normal-"
"Yeah?" Ryuji said, sheepishly as he could when groaning on the ground.
"Way ahead of you, Mona. Want me to cut you down, soon as I can.. Urgh, stand?"
"Honestly, this is kind of fun," the boy said as he tried to hoist himself upright to reach the rope around his leg. "I mean, all the blood's rushing to my head, but it's not that uncomfortable."
"Hey, if he's fine, can you help me up from under this seat?" Shinobu mumbled from under an upturned sofa. "You make a good dead body, by the by."
"Thank you. Really, I was wondering why you were taking so long," said the deceptively small woman idly stretching as her "killer" cleaned off what ketchup remained on her. "But for other reasons I must thank you! It let Kaidan here set up the traps to full humbling potential."
"Really," Futaba muttered from within her cage, sulking. "I'm glad you appreciate it."
On one level, Shinobu was relieved. Having Ryuji's commentary cut off by a horrifying scream was bad enough, as was finding the supposed teacher lying face-down, heavily bruised, in a pool of "blood," as was the mummified monk with a mouth in his chest that had introduced himself by stringing Morgana up when they had actually entered the house. As was the demonic monk later known as Kaidan unleashing a screech that sounded like the hunting cry of death itself. Then grabbing Morgana in the rope trap now stringing him up. Then he and Haru being pinned under the sofa. Then Kaidan proceeding to kick the wind, and possibly the shit, out of Ryuji.
On the other hand, at the end, Kaidan had cornered Yusuke - then suddenly the mouth in his chest turned to a mischevious smirk, and he whispered "Boo" in a soft, cultured voice. Shortly followed by the "corpse" of the mentor sitting up, and bluntly asking everyone why they hadn't run towards the open door. That was... embarrassing.
"So. Apart from us ignoring the obvious solution..." Haru began, sheepishly. "How'd we do for uh, the preliminary round?"
"Good approach - apart from the fake blonde here losing his patience to ego - good teamwork, poor fighting and strategy, terrible instinct when fighting an unknown entity, in that you fought - but fixable!" The woman clapped a fist to her palm. "Far from the best students I have had, but hardly worthless! In any case - I am indeed your Sensei, and that is all you will call me! I'm not having some degenerate, egotistical wizard use my real name as a way to beat me without a fair fight he'd lose!" She drew her breath in, posing and letting the green in a pinwheel bow on her back flutter as she posed, like wings.
"... Yes, she's perfectly normal, Ryuji," Futaba began, sourly. "I don't small the craters left by exploding graffiti at all eek!"
The "eek" was provoked by Kaidan and his ninja-training friend stomping their feat in unison right by Futaba, without anyone having seen the Sensei move.
"Ego!" The Sensei's glare might well have set Futaba on fire. "Enough with the tongue! He is humbled enough, to ride him further is a sign of degeneracy! Joking is fine, passive-aggressive sarcasm is the refuge of an egotistical weakling!"
"Okay, geez! Sorry lady-"
"Sensei!" Another stomp. "While you are here, you are my students, so 'sensei' or 'master' are the only terms allowed! And you will apologize to me and him in a formal manner!"
"Yes ma'am-master! Sorry, sensei, sorry Ryuji, hut!" Futaba awkwardly saluted, white as a sheet.
"Good!" And just like that, the Sensei had gone back to normal. "As you may suspect, I am not a changeling. In fact, I'm the teacher for the Crescent Moon precisely because I'm not one of you - helps with being outside of your comfort zone. Even if I'm the only Bound you ever meet, the Hedge has some weird, weird things in it, and Huntsmen need no consistency in powers!"
"Um..." Haru rose her hand. "Pardon me, sensei, but what's a Bound?"
It was Kaidan who actually answered that question - by dissolving into a whispy shadow and flowing to the Sensei, where upon he proceeded to settle at her feet - and in a flash, became her shadow (did she have one before? Shinobu didn't check).
Apparently amused by the sudden stares, the Sensei grinned. "Someone with a ghost turned kami bound to them. Kaidan's a geist - Western term for a shinigami - of death in the process of transcending personal limits."
"... Huh," Makoto said, staring at the shadow-that-was-also-a-symbiotic-ancestor-cum-death-god. "... Never seen human ghosts who... Do that."
"They don't generally show up in the living world, not unless they're looking for someone to Bargain with and make a Bound. They really aren't good at... Talking in general. They need the proper discipline of a living partner to be calm and transcend the degenerate ego of the Underworld!" She posed.
... Somehow, Minoru found herself agreeing with Futaba's snark. "So, you're a... Death shaman, I guess," he said as he squirmed out from under the couch. "Is there a secret art to summoning them? Because Kaidan seems really useful, wouldn't mind one of him-"
"No!" The Sensei whipped around, mad again. "You are obviously very new to the shadow world, so I'll let this slide just this once, but I don't teach Ceremonies for summoning geists for the sake of ego! That's going beyond being a medium and into dark necromancy! Ghosts, even geists, are people, and I think you have a very strong opinion on people who bind other people with magic!"
... Ouch. Right for the jugular.
"Sorry," he murmured, more ashamed of himself than anything.
"Besides, it's not possible. Geists make the Bargain themselves using a very specific set of circumstances that, shall we say..." The Sensei undid her collar. "Is a little hard to learn by practice."
Morgana covered his mouth to avoid a scream as Ann reared back. Right on her neck was a massive scar, one that looked like the relic of attempted beheading by an unsharpened blade.
"... Yeah," she said as she buttoned it back up. "I'm really lucky I somehow got refunded the ultimate price the last time I was egotistical and incautious. If Kaidan wasn't there, looking for a new host, I'd be practicing Akido with the ancestors right now."
"Make no mistake," the Sensei said as she helped Morgana down. "I'm not here to be your friend. I'm here to help you not make my mistakes, because you don't have a shinigami hoping to hop in the moment you screw up and restart your heart - and really, I don't think they can anyway. Glamour and plasm are way too different to work in harmony." She inhaled. "I only have a few weeks to train you, unless you can somehow fit me in to the school schedule and can pay for new lessons, but make no mistake; I'm not an easy teacher. I will cheat, make unfair moves, unannounced tests, and generally be an enormous asshole, because that's the only way to make up for the fact that, unlike everyone else you'll fight, I'm not aiming to kill, mug, or enslave you. The ambush Kaidan unleashed on you? That was the first lesson."
The worst part was, the Phantoms didn't need much thought to realize exactly what she was teaching there. It was something they had learned when the Keepers reached out of nowhere to yank them away.
"Point taken," Shinobu said as he put the couch back up.
"Still..." Morgana said as he shook off the disorientation. "It'll be worth it in the end! Ninjas!"
"... Owwww..." As it turns out, Morgana did meow.
"First - congrats to Nijima, for that spectacular ambush!"
Makoto, still rubbing her knee from where the pad that had just smacked Morgana from above had abraded her, smiled shyly. "Really, it's nothing. I just remembered my rat form can slip through areas unseen, and then climb on the rafters."
"That's what I'm praising! Good environmental use! Second - congratulations to Haru for winning this round."
"Har-" Makoto was cut off by a sudden strike of soft, non-damaging thorns grabbing her foot and pulling her over with a surprised squeak, before Haru came over from the "loser zone" and teasingly hugged her girlfriend.
"That, right there, was also good. I secretly approached Haru to serve as a 'traitor' this round of Last Trainee Standing. Which she did admirably! Her one waived rule was 'no standing in the loser zone if you haven't lost', so..." The Sensei shrugged. "I make the rules, including which one is waived."
"... have we ever beaten the traitor?" Ryuji murmured from his couch.
"Ego speaking, trainee?" The Sensei smirked. "You've beaten the traitor half of the time. Admittedly, that was because you chose rules to waive like 'no using thrown objects' or 'needs to down and then touch opponent to send out'; obvious, and everyone ganged up on them to remove the unfair advantage. It's why you hide your true abilities, they can be overcome easily."
"And sometimes," Ann said, casting a reproachful glance at Shinobu. "The traitor makes rules like 'the traitor and Futaba, if both standing, both win.'"
"Hey, that was a legal play, and you know it!" Futaba interjected. "Maybe the secret sinister backers think I could be flipped if extracted!"
"Yeah, but I don't think the traitor is supposed to tell people-"
"Wrong!" Shinobu smirked. "There's nothing in there about what the traitor can't show. I just let her peek at a photo I took of the paper, she figured out the rest!"
"... I would like to lodge a complaint," Yusuke said, looking vexed. "Why are we in a hunting game with two others who spent their entire Durance in worse-"
"Because it's useful skills, that's why!" The Sensei puffed out her chest. "They have a leg up on you! Which is fine! Some people just have the circumstances that let them get the skills without training; given how this is ninjutsu, the fact you don't is..." She trailed off, realizing something. "... Well, to be honest, any Durance isn't lucky at all. It's a different kind of awful no matter what it is. But still! You don't learn survivalism from a happy past!"
"... I get it," Morgana said, rolling upright. "But, you know, I'd thought we'd be learning karate, secret magics, keeping to the shadows-"
"This is keeping to the shadows!" She stomped again, which caused Morgana to go on his feet really quickly. "Why do you think I decked out a warehouse as a training ground? Combat, real-world combat is the art of environment control and winning before you fight! If I wanted you to learn how to fight fair, I'd be teaching you Akido! As it is, I'm teaching you how to win as the underdogs; say it with me:"
"Ninjutsu is the art of survival, not a martial art," everyone recited with her, dullness born of repetition.
"Very good, class!", the Sensei chirped. "Now, back to improv! We'll be trying them out with disguises today, in a couple days, so I expect you to be on your best acting! Remember, the goal is not to hide your true face, it's to show off your character!"
Groaning, the Phantoms forced themselves up, and trudged over to the back rooms, where a dizzying array of costumes and makeup awaited.
For all of her pretensions, the Sensei's training did not cause the greatest consecration in the waning days of summer.
It was Ohya's conference call to all of them.
"Hii... Um," she began, awkwardly. "Has the Sensei trained you in document forging, maybe?"
"... Whyyy...?" Futaba began, suspicious.
"Oh, nothing really important I... Am fooling nobody, am I?" Ohya gave a nervous laugh, before sighing. "Let's just say, uh... Guys, it's kind of hard to sign up five people for school when none of them legally exist, and/or have perfect copies going to school in the same area already."
"... I wish I could say I was surprised," Haru began, sadly. "But it's all right-"
"The hell it's not!" Ohya cut in. "Do you know how hard it is to do things when you don't have a normal school education? Absolutely nobody is going to take you seriously - especially not employers! I mean, we can get money though the right Bargains, there's a really huge black market for tokens and goblin fruits, but it takes some real effort for the first and making the acquaintance of some seriously bad people! Sorry, but being Lost doesn't give you a get-out-of-mundane-problems free card." A pause. "It really should, but them's the breaks."
"Are you shitting me!?" Ryuji growled. "My day has been studying when it hasn't been occupied by a frickin' drill sergeant, and now you're telling me-"
"There's eight of us," Yusuke interrupted. "Why is it a problem for five?"
"Because Futaba's replaced her fetch, you haven't got one, and Morgana's got more time. Since he's an elementary-"
"Hey! I'm pretty sure I'm twelve!"
"Middle schooler, we have time to pursue normal channels that would allow him to sneak into an exam room. The problem is - well, teenage escapes aren't supposed to be that frequent. The Halfies - the Freehold of the Half Moon, they're the ones who usually run the mundane bureaucracy issues - they're kind of stretched thin given how many - neophytes, we're calling then neophytes now? Ah. Thanks, 'Kari - neophytes there are already, and it takes a lot to forge an ID, especially for a school background check. I mean, we kinda have the advantage in that we can claim that issuing the needed documents is really more of a charity case, it's an easier sell when bribing people who are not corrupt enough to stab us in the back when the Huntsmen are a-knocking, but there's still a lot of red tape that nobody has the resources to just pay away."
"So..." Ann began. "We've officially dropouts now."
"Unfortunately, unless we - excuse me."
Ohya's end of the line went quiet for a bit, with some muffled chatter indicating she was talking with her fellow monarchs. "... Kiritani, we... I know but... Wonder why his leg... I get it, but... No, it's a huge damn problem that-... Okay, point, but... Alright... But only as a last resort. Glad we agree."
With that, her voice came back in. "Well... There is one person we can deliver a huge bribe to, the kind of thing bigger than money... But see the part about black markets. He's... An enormous asshole, and given the circumstances, we'll have to owe you all an apology if he's the route we chose." Even the term "he" was laced with utter venom. It was clear that Ohya would prefer not having known this person at all.
"... What kind of asshole?" Shinobu said, suspiciously.
"The kind I think says some pretty bad things about me as a person. Here's hoping we never have to bring him up. See you in a bit." And with that ominous note, the phone clicked off.
"So, students," the Sensei said as she perched on an alley ledge. "We're going to wrap up the pro-bono part of your instruction in a week; while I don't have exams, you should at least have some kind of inkling where your talents are, at least! So, for your final training, we're going to have a bit of a mix."
She tossed the group a series of small stamps, and pointed at a medium, rickety-looking building. "See that? That's a minor base; it's been stocked with a bunch of people the Courts use to keep track of... Well, actually I don't know. Goblin fruits, I think. It's really not very interesting, they're accountants. For our purposes, it's a live-fire training ground. At the fourth floor, there's a bunch of green marbles that are sitting on a table in the middle. You'll have succeeded wildly if you take those marbles and escape. The people in there know I send my students against them regularly, that's how they train for actually important guard jobs. They don't know when you're coming, but they do. You apply a stamp to the neck, they're considered out, and need to retreat to the bathrooms, as are you if they hit you with their own stamps. So long as you don't seriously injure, kill, or disable someone getting the marbles, anything goes."
"Um, question?" Shinobu rose his hand hand. "If there's actual records in there, why is it a training ground? Seems like that's a get-out-of-jail free card for an actual thief; just claim to be your trainees and be let go."
The Sensei pulled out a notepad, making a mark on it. "Ego tends to make people miss that. Mostly, it's because all the discipline and skill in the world won't buy extra buildings for minor functions. Don't worry, I warn them when there's a training exercise coming up to a week in advance; to do that, you'd have to know when I was gearing up students, and someone would quickly find out if the real lying degenerates were caught. They know you're changelings, being ensorcelled or changelings themselves, but that's it. "
Shinobu nodded, pulling the other Phantoms together. "Okay. Brainstorming session, start."
"Okay!" Morgana clapped, leaning in. "Not to brag, but my kith makes me quite the thief - just find me a good air duct to slip in, and I can get the marbles!"
"... Problem," Makoto began, looking more intense than she normally did. "We don't know this place's layout. Or even if you'll fit, or if the closest thing we have are steam vents; that's a no-go."
"Point goes to the brawler," Futaba said, chewing on a nail as she thought. "Okay, so; first thing to do is to learn the controls, get an idea of what the building looks like. Looks like an old office building, so I'm guessing there's a fire exit."
"Yeah, but these guys know we're coming, just not when. Hands up, who here thinks someone's used that exact fire exit before and there's a guard at door?" To emphasize his point, Ann held up her own hand.
"... But they know what changelings are," Yusuke hummed. "Perhaps we could pretend to be painters here to assist with the ergonomics of their dwelling? I can't help but think they are quite cross living in such a... Decayed area."
"If they haven't set a quest for a painter, we're going to be made, but..." Futaba hummed. "What if Kage disguises himself as a surprise inspector? That works in the movies; he can hide his age with his Kith, and then he can use his glasses as a quick disguise."
"Don't see why we just can't use the freakin' alternate dimension to sneak in," Ryuji rumbled, looking bored.
Shinobu opened his mouth, then paused. "... Point. But I don't think we can predict where a gate out ends up, and these guys still work for our friends. I think the Courts will get a little angry if a base is suddenly a maze of Hedge gates."
"Not that Ryuji is good for much else other than the distraction," Morgana said with a smirk.
"Better distraction that getting stuck in the air system, kitty," Ryuji snarked back.
"Okay, enough with that," Haru began, finally speaking up. "I think everyone is forgetting we have Contracts. I say we look for a fire escape, then we can disable a guard on the way up."
"Won't work," said an unfamiliar voice from behind the group. "The standard is two guards and an emergency button; if you don't take out both of them at once, they'll radio an alert, and someone's going to notice the lack of reports every three minutes."
"Thank you! Okay, so maybe instead the... Inspection...?"
Slowly, all the Phantoms turned towards the young woman in a bob cut wearing a lab coat and choker, a cross dangling next to a pill on her necklace, as she played with a stamp. "Lovely night for exercise, wouldn't you agree?"
Shinobu blinked "... Uh."
"... Hi!" Ann giggled. "We're playing marbles! With marbles we totally already own!"
All individuals present gave Ann a look.
"... Damn it." Makoto sighed, putting her hands behind her head and kneeling. "What gave us away?"
The woman gestured to the second floor of the building. And the pair of binoculars peering out.
"... Yeah, I'm feeling really stupid right now." Futaba winced. "Right, for future reference; plan in private area."
"And also away from site, which was part of the lesson; this was meant to show the difficulty of charging in without a plan." The Sensei dropped down. "On the other hand, that's also a lie, Dr. Takemi. They don't post a spotter unless they're already on high alert."
"I assure you, it was a complete coincidence," Takemi said with a shrug. "An azeban managed to sneak into my supply, and I was doing my civic duty to warn the accountants of pests before restocking, when I noticed some odd people congregating out front and asked them if something was going on. I am quite relieved it was merely you, Sensei."
"Eh. That was a good instinct." The Sensei turned to the Phantoms. "Students, Dr. Tae Takemi, effective Court doctor for the Freehold of the Crescent Moon when trying to avoid official channels of medicine. Dr. Takemi, the Phantoms of Arcadia."
Takemi nodded politely. "A pleasure. I heard you had some difficulties with a Huntsman and some briarwolves. I do hope you cleaned the wounds properly, they are known to scavenge for rancid meat."
Makoto paled. "They what!?"
"I'm kidding. They eat fresh meat alone, long-dead matter isn't rich in the fear Glamour they need to digest properly." She gave a small smile. "I run a clinic in Yogen-Jaya; I'll recognize you if you come in."
"Really?" Shinobu rose his eyebrows. "... I guess you, Futaba, and me are neighbors then."
"Hm. How delightfully convenient." She turned to the Sensei. "I assume your coming out is a belief that the exercise is over."
"Unfortunately," she replied, annoyed. "I don't think my students would be dumb enough to attack a real building on high alert?"
A chorus of affirmations.
"So, yeah, a mild failure," she said with a shrug. "Though only a mild one. To be honest, this is probably on the better side of first times attempting this on the whole."
Morgana shot up, looking surprised and hopeful. "Really?"
"Egotistical people tend to think they can sneak in and learn patrol patterns like it was some degenerate Metal Gear game." (Futaba bristled a bit at that, but cut back on her reflex.) "You actually realized you were at a huge disadvantage, offered plans that played to your strengths, and were only busted by interference from a black swan."
"So. While I really hope you find the resources to continue our classes beyond the raw basics..." The Sensei smiled. "You passed!"
Morgana looked like it had just been declared that his birthday fell on Christmas.
"All right! Go Phantoms!" Ann pumped her fist.
"Official novice ninja Futaba Sakura on the case! Achievements, here we come!"
And for a moment, it felt like everything was perfectly all right.
"... Come again?" Ryuji leaned forward. "I have to be deaf here, because by the sound of it, you want us to go to where?"
"Wanting has nothing to do with it," Kiritani said, looking actually guilty. "It's the only place we could find."
"... Shujin!? The only place you could find was Shujin!?" If Ryuji looked pissed, Ann looked outright murderous. "Shujin, land of... him!?"
"I want to preface this by stating that we believe you completely," Zen said, holding his forehead. "We do not find it out of character that Kamoshida is having his reputation protected by Kobayakawa."
"Well, I'm so effing glad that Kobayakawa is batting three for three in being just as much of an asshole!" Ryuji slammed his fists on the counter, causing the monarchs to flinch and Rei to nearly drop the takoyaki she was nervously chewing. "That man is singlehandedly responsible for Ann's Durance! Or does the name 'Shiho Suzui' not ring a bell!?"
"Even leaving aside me - which is a pretty big deal - what about Haru and Makoto!? Their fetches still go there! Or do you think there's going to be long-lost twin siblings coming in!?"
"'M sorry," Maeda said, shrinking back. "But... Kobayakawa was... The only one we could... We could, um..."
"You can say it. He's the only goddamn person we could bribe." Ohya sighed. "It's at times like this, and only times like this, that I wish there was more asshole wannabe occultists in the world."
"He's an occultist!?" Ann's eyes widened, then narrowed. "... Should have known. Probably gave her the summoning ritual. Get a compliant fetch. Maybe they're-"
"Would-be occultist," Kiritani cut in, cutting off Ann's rambling. "I'd be very surprised if his knowledge extends beyond a good bullshit sensor." He paused for a second. "I'd be impressed if it's that far."
"Indeed. Kobayakawa knows just enough to know he desires more, and where to find it." Zen hummed. "Which is the only reason we could entice him to avoid a background check on new students."
"Basically, we sold him a Token. A Book of Things Strange and Wondrous, with instructions, for getting slack on your papers." Rei swallowed her takoyaki, before immediately starting on a new one. "Really, that kind of thing's mass-produced, we were planning on getting you one as part of an apology gift, it's basically an almanac of everything that has to do with a particular enemy of yours, like a guide to allergies in a buffet-"
"Stop! Stop. I don't wanna hear it." Makoto sniffed. "What you're saying is... Haru and I... can't go back."
There was a long pause.
"... We're working on new identification papers for you," Ohya said, determinedly looking anywhere but in Makoto's eye. "But... Not to Shujin, and it's going to take until next school term, at least. These things... We can't speed them up."
There was another long pause.
Finally, Makoto let out a breath. "I... I think I need some time to myself." Slowly, dejectedly, she slumped into the back room of Le Blanc, followed shortly by an equally dejected Haru.
"... Dammit," Ryuji muttered. "So. Pervy teacher and accomplice it is. What else."
"Well," Shinobu began with a strained smile. "Should we mention said accomplice knows we're Lost and can call the Keepers on us if mad?"
"Actually, that isn't the case," Maeda said, looking up for the first time. "All he knows is the Book is a magic item that responds to normal humans in a specific situation. He thinks of Zen and Rei as simple occult dealers."
"To be honest, we're doing everything in our power to not have him find out." Kiritani's eyes glittered dangerously. "Understand."
"You don't have to use the Intimidate option on us, geez!" Futaba rose an eyebrow. "But, since I'm going too... 'Pervy?'"
Ann's expression turned hard. "Don't. Ask. All you need to know is I made a wish to stop him. That's why I was taken. Payment for services."
"Well, that's a bright side," Sojiro said, finally. "Kosei's a separation from her friends, but I am not putting Futaba in with the same school who has someone nicknamed 'pervy.'"
"If it makes you feel any better, Kamoshida has a taste for older girls." Ann's expression somehow turned even more foul. "You have about a year before she's mature enough."
"For the record, while I am obligated to tell you to use your powers responsibly, 'responsibility' is not 'sitting down and taking it,'" Ohya said with a sniff. "If it turns out whatever the True Fae did to him didn't stick... The Spring Court saw nothing."
"I'll hold ya to that," Ryuji growled.
Shinobu sighed, holding his head. "Dammit. Freedom was supposed to be easy."
"Welcome to life," Futaba said, gloomily. "The game with the most arbitrary difficulty setting in existence."
And, well, this is a fusion fic. Difficulty slider here is more like the Risk of Rain rising scale (the one where the top three, above Impossible, are I SEE YOU, I'M COMING FOR YOU, and HAHAHAHAHAHA).
Fun fact: The Sensei here is actually one of the cameos from other series I like to throw in as minor characters. Kenta, from a couple chapters ago, was a nicer version of Lung from Worm (he's just a bouncer here instead of a rage-powered draconic supervillain), the two that took in Agasa are Leon Kuwata and Majoto Naegi, from Danganronpa (and a cheerful reference to Sporting Hopefuls, another fic I'm a co-author on) the Sensei is Tenko Chabashira from Danganronpa V3, after about ten years of maturity and near-permanent-death experiences applied. This honestly doesn't matter to the plot (she's had her interesting story), it's just a way to help envision her.
By the by, Sensei Tenko qualifies as a Sin-Eater, a Bound who protects the dead from being permanently stuck in the Underworld (the dead plane tries to absorb ghosts in it into its walls if they run out of Essence) in her own way. She just doesn't use the term, because not all Bound are Sin-Eaters; about half aren't, generally because they're concerned with their own returned lives more than great power/great responsibility, even if they have an evolved ghost in their heads who knows exactly how terrible the Underworld can be. Some of those are less partners in life and death and more master and slave - with the geist being the slave. So-called "Tyrants" are not good people.
For today's Under The Hood:
Tokens: Fae-tuned magic items. Rarely they're bits of Arcadian gear stolen from the Keepers, but more often they're Earthly items that have been allowed to soak up the power of the Hedge (guiding the process directly is called Hedgespinning), or has had several oaths sworn upon it, taking a new power from the various participants. All of them look like common or worn-out items when inactive, but thats their Mask; when fed Glamour or a creature of sufficient Wyrd wills it, they reveal an always spectacular Mien and their true function; the aforementioned Books look like airport fantasy or harlequin romances, but when awoken reveal their true forms as lovingly embossed and densely informative grimoires that always seem to have relevant information on the topic consulted. Uniquely, they also have Catches, rituals and situations in which they will work for anyone, supernatural or not; a Book will reveal its grimoire form to anyone consulting it for information pertaining to someone with a significant advantage over the reader. There's a price though; all Tokens have a Drawback, a mild curse that affects any user without prejudice to make the Token's story more interesting; a Book's curse is that it grows bookmarks that show the next separate reader exactly what the previous one was looking for each time consulted; this resets per reader, so sharing it with friends sneaks out of the issue, but if an enemy gets a look at it... Well, the Book is happy to answer your inquiries about related topics.
Ceremonies: the most common form of mortal magic in the world, in that you've probably been part of one at some point if you've been to a festival or funeral at all. Certain symbolically infused actions resonate with the Underworld and deathly Essence, influencing ghosts for good or ill. Bound, being both dead and alive, have an intuitive understanding of them and are master teachers of them, but literally anyone can use them if shown how, becoming a medium. This is also where necromancers (read here, a medium who does things a Sin-Eater does not approve of) come from; while most Ceremonies are neutral or unambiguously good for ghosts (the classic is the one that shows them the way to the afterlife beyond the Underworld), a power-hungry, desperate, or just ignorant person can learn Ceremonies like the Shattered Bone Binding, which seals a ghost in an area - and then horrifically psychosomatically tortures them with the sensation of their femurs being cracked and reset constantly until they escape, with their distress causing some bad haunted house effects. Really good for scaring people, really bad for anyone concerned with human rights.
Azeban are actually my personal creation - hobgoblin raccoons, named after a trickster spirit in Abenaki mythology. Raccoons (not raccoon dogs, which are actually canids, raccoons are their own thing) are an invasive species in Japan; I figured that if the mundane procyonids are going over, their mystical versions aren't far behind.
Chapter 9: Prison School Term
The chapter title took way too long to think of...
(Forgive me if you saw two notifications, I screwed up the date and had to repost.)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Of course it had to be literally the next day. Of course he had to go to school to sign up literally the day following the discovery he would be going to the same school that made Ryuji and Ann's lives a living hell. Couldn't even sleep on it.
The sound of the phone alarm going off jolted Morgana, who had replaced Yusuke as roommate for a couple weeks, awake first. This quickly made it impossible for Shinobu to ignore said alarm, as he walked over to poke the older changeling awake. "You should really wake up now. It's not healthy to leave without having eaten first."
"Mmmmrrr..." The Fairest slowly opened an eyelid, form shivering from leftover dreams. "... Don't tell me this is going to be a thing..."
Morgana shrugged. "Seems like it's the right thing to do! ... Especially 'cause I can't turn off the phone."
Gah. Lazy cat fae. Stupid password protection. Idiotic school certifications. Groaning, Shinobu forced himself out of the Keep of Dust, to find-
When the situation failed to vanish, he blinked again, and slapped himself. Then, just for good measure, tried to turn his phone into a brick.
When the phone remained completely unaltered, nor did he find himself waking up, he finally decided to react. "Uh..." He paused. "You need some help with that... Panda, Haru?"
Haru looked up from the hind leg she was trying to push. "Um, hi, this is awkward, but, can you please help us with moving her? Just a little closer to the back room, we can hide her with a tarp then."
So, the piebald bear currently occupying all of the back Le Blanc's counter, dozing, was female. Good to know.
"OK." Slowly, he descended, before deciding he likes knowing what the hell was going on. "Er, why-"
"Apparently, Makoto decided she wanted the accurate Buchimaru costume," Sojiro grunted. "Apparently, she's also a heavy sleeper!"
Ah. That made... More sense. Not all the sense, but at least it wasn't inexplicable pandas.
Thankfully, four people (admittedly, Futaba really couldn't lift beyond getting stuff out of the way) was enough to move the great shapeshifted bear enough of a corner to cover, with at no point Makoto giving any hint she noticed being moved apart from some ursine sniffs.
Once the tarp was placed (and everyone awake prayed to whatever gods were listening that nobody decided to break in on a Sunday), Sojiro turned to Haru, looking exhausted. "Not... To pry, but why is your girlfriend... A bear?", he panted.
Haru suddenly looked very uncomfortable. "Um... Wellll, she has a library of forms... She has a fae hound for fighting, a pigeon for scouting, and-"
"You know, I wouldn't know if you were dodging the question if you didn't begin with an 'um'", Sojiro interrupted, rubbing his head. "Be honest."
"... It actually is Buchimaru-kun. She becomes him when she can't... Forget she's a changeling, but really wants to."
Futaba's eyes widened, before she made a surprisingly good attempt at hiding in her own shadow "... I, um, may have chuckled slightly at the concept of panda blocking. I'm... Sorry."
"It's fine, I just need to be here when she wakes up!" Haru said with a forced smile. "So, um, if you don't mind... Can I crash here? Just until she comes to."
"... You didn't need to ask," Sojiro said, a little quietly. "... I'm not prepared for this, and..." He trailed off, realizing exactly what caused this.
"It's fine! It's fine. I know how to be there. You... Sign up. It'll only be a year before everyone can transfer out, maybe to Kosei." Haru wove. "And, um, I hear the traffic is bad anyway, so, um..." She shrugged.
Sojiro let that all sit for a minute, then motioned awkwardly towards the door. "Right. Er... It'd cost a bit to ride the subway to Aoyama, so... Just this once, I'm taking you two and Yusuke over there."
And, somehow less enthused than before, did Futaba and Shinobu set off.
Of course it had to be her class. Of course she had to greet the new students that were literally introduced to her in email the night before. Couldn't even enjoy the capacity for sleep for once.
Sadayo Kawakami took the opportunity granted by the fact the three new students sitting at Principal Kobayakawa's desk had their attention held by him to rub her temples, trying to hypnotize herself into ignoring the desire to sleep standing up. Stupid transfers. Crap principal. Hell school.
"To reiterate," Kobayakawa said as he finished the last bit of paperwork in their orientation, "Just so we're clear, you will be immediately expelled if you cause any problems."
Wow. Really showing faith in your students there, principal. I can't possibly see why nobody respects you. Sadayo suppressed a groan. Kobayakawa was known for being something of a hardass when it came to new students with known disciplinary problems, but the last scraps of Kawakami's idealism that hadn't died out yet rolled their eyes. This was a pretty good way to help them retain whatever delinquent attitudes were there; she grew annoyed with Sakamoto as much as the next instructor, but it wasn't like they were criminals or anything.
"Understood completely," the short girl said, giving the world's least genuine smile. "I understand how much of an honor it is to be here, and will do my best." The tone was dull, rehearsed - possibly something she memorized on the way down here. Sign of an introvert - good, that meant if she was in her class next year, that meant less of a disruption.
The blue-haired boy bowed, of all things. "You do not have to impress it upon me again. It would speak poorly of me and how seriously I took my craft and studies to waste what I have been given." Okay. Either someone was an excellent actor, very traditional, a total weirdo (a brief wince passed Sadayo's eyes when she realized she just internally called a student that), or more likely some mix of the three. Strange that his guardians weren't here - Sakura-san didn't exactly seem like the type to raise that kid.
The glasses-wearing tall boy simply nodded. So, introvert or poker face. Damn, this was one of her two future students, she should get an early read on him.
Kobayakawa, his ego apparently stroked by the tall boy's manners, smiled somewhat, which on the rather overweight man gave his features a jolliness that was completely illusionary. "Excellent, I'm glad we agree; I am given to understand your circumstances are problematic, and while I understand your issues, we cannot treat you any differently from other students that misbehave."
Sadayo's brow furrowed. Okayyy... When did his heart grow a size and a half? Are these people celebrities? ... No, he'd brag about it in the email. Maybe he's grown a soul? ... Pfft. Good one, delusional optimism.
"Ah, I almost forgot to mention," Kobayakawa lied, "this is Hattori and Kitagawa's teacher for homeroom."
Sadayo gave a start, snapping out of her theorizing. "I'm Sadayo Kawakami," she recited, recovering quickly as she drew out the new cards. "Here are your student IDs. Be sure to read the school rules, any violation will result in an immediate trip to the guidance counselor's office, and I can't protect you from any problems."
As Hattori and Kitagawa took their cards, she took the opportunity to blindside Kobayakawa. "Though, I must ask why we have a first-year student here? You're not taking my class until next year."
"Um, I'm considering taking an academic acceleration program, actually," the orange-haired girl (who by process of elimination had to be Futaba Sakura - not that she expected either boy to have that name) began (so she was what Kobayakawa was so chipper about). "And I'm also a recovering hikkomori, so I'm a little nervous about easing back into life without my... father," she finished with an odd tone.
Ah. That made sense. Sadayo forced a smile through the tired haze - make the shut-in feel welcome. "And I assume you'll be taking my class as part of it?"
"Yeah. I'm great with math and hard sciences, but social studies are my weakness. So, I'll be here with Kag-Shinobu."
Sadayo nodded. So she wanted to be close to her brother, that made-
"Um, if you don't mind my asking," Sadayo said as she turned to the elder Sakura. "Why don't Hattori or Kitagawa share your last name?"
Sakura-san looked slightly taken aback. "Uh... They aren't actually my kids, I just drove them here."
Sadayo's brow furrowed, she not even bothering to hide it. That's weird. Wouldn't their own guardians drive them here? "Then-I'm sorry, I'll ask later-"
"Kawakami," Kobayakawa said, jovial tone having suddenly turned cold and stern. "Aren't you being a bit unprofessional?"
Geez. Forgive me for knowing the background of my students so I can modify my teaching style, Mr. I-Haven't-Read-A-Journal-Since-The-70s. "I apologize, Principal Kobayakawa, I'm simply trying to develop a background. I'll consult them later-"
"You'll have to forgive Kawakami," Kobayakawa interrupted. "She is an extremely involved teacher, but she can be something of a gossip."
... Fuck you too, you self-absorbed egg.
"It is also the policy of the school to avoid biasing teachers by interacting with their students' families outside of school hours, so if she bothers you, please tell me."
Sadayo's eyebrows shot up. She was awake now.
That was very much not a policy.
Sakura-san, apparently not having noticed the shock on Sadayo's face, looked up at her with sympathy. "It's fine. I'd actually enjoy talking to you once school starts, if you have time."
"... Uh... Yes. Yes, that would be good," Sadayo said, automatically, still processing what just happened.
Kobayakawa grunted, then returned to his false cheer. "Now, while I do not extent the full extent of the special circumstances around your past, I will note that Shujin Academy gained its reputation for excellence through remaining above chaos and providing a safe place; we care very deeply for the welfare of our students, all of them. While what you do at home is your business, you will behave yourself here."
Inwardly, Sadayo's mind, having freed itself from the mental clutter of her own issues, noted the strange emphasis. What 'circumstances', and why did he cite Shujin being 'safe'?
... Wait, 'all' the students?
"... Understood," Shinobu finally said, sounding a little tense.
"Excellent! I look forward to seeing you in the future. Ms. Kawakami?" He gave her an almost imperceptible glare.
Oh, right, 'happy little minion.' "I hope we will have a productive term!" she said, a bit too enthusiastically to be real.
"We look forward to it, Kawakami-sensei," Kitagawa said, looking a little lost in thought.
"If you're done explaining things, mind if we get going? I have a store to get back to," Sakura-sensei said, a bit stiffly. Kobayakawa, apparently not noticing, nodded
And with that, the strange four went out the door, as the principal turned to Sadayo with an annoyed expression.
Knowing she couldn't win a battle, Sadayo looked away, a comical situation when the other person was rotund and sitting. "I'm sorry, Kobayakawa-senpai." Must. Mollify. Boss.
Thankfully, the honorific worked wonders to let some of the building scolding fade. "I understand. But I must advise you to avoid looking into this, otherwise I will take some form of disciplinary action. I really don't want to escalate the feud between you and Chouno, but I must consider the school first."
Which of course translated as 'piss me off again through this and I'll make sure you're properly seasoned for that harpy', to Sadayo. But it worked. "I understand. I'll go finish my side of the paperwork."
"I'm glad we agree," Kobayakawa said as he got up and opened the door for her.
As Sadayo walked out with as much meekness as she could muster, she internally viewed her options.
On the one hand, something was fishy here, and the last time something was fishy, there was that massive scandal that led to Hiruta being fired, one she knew for a fact was a complete joke. That, and Kobayakawa kept his files in his office - not really a problem to go and check what the 'special circumstances' were with him being none the wiser.
On the other hand, Sadayo had to consider the moral implications of stabbing her employer in the back. You know, the man who had interrupted her day off, forced her to stand there while he did most of the work, humiliated her in front of others because she tried to do her job, and may or may not have been letting yokai into the school, given the particular phrasing of 'all' and pointing out Shujin was 'safe' compared to 'chaos.'
... So, the lock to Kobayakawa's office was still a simple mechanical one, good, she could pick those in her sleep, his safe combination was likely changed by now but she only needed to sneak in to plant her spy, her retrieval could be this Wednesday, she didn't think his office had security cameras...
"I'm beginning to think," Futaba began, icily, "That Makoto and Haru dodged a bullet there."
"I started when we met the slimeball. Seriously, you do not talk to anyone with such a dismissive and cockamamie attitude. For God's sake, it only justifies the cynicism people have with society nowadays!" Sojiro agreed, taking the fact everyone was stuck in traffic at the moment to talk.
"Dropping out is looking like a good option right now," Shinobu said, rubbing his forehead. "Think Ryouchi could set me up with a dock job?"
"Hey, if I'm suffering through hell through a year, you're right there with me, Kage!" Futaba said, lightly slapping him. "You're not leaving me alone under the control of Dr. Eggman's cousin that he doesn't like to talk about!"
"I am attempting to remind myself this will only last for a year," Yusuke said with a frown. "Then we can all transfer to Kosei, where we do not have that... Misshapen materialist and his lustful second."
"If I get into a government database, it can happen in six months." Futaba rubbed her forehead. "This is what I've been reduced to; I'm considering more felonies just to get a transfer."
"More felonies!?" Sojiro turned to Futaba with an alarmed expression.
"... Uh... So, what'd you think of the teacher?"
"... Honestly would not be surprised if she was a vampire, finally," Shinobu admitted. "Dead woman walking."
"Yeah. Behold, the reason I quit government. Remember the face of that woman, kids; that's what it looks like when your job's eaten your soul." Sojiro tapped the wheel. "A part of which is waiting for days in traffic."
"Seriously, what's causing the lag here?" Futaba checked her phone. "It's been, what, more than half an hour, and we're still in Aoyama? What's the-"
Her comment was cut off by the radio suddenly breaking to a news jingle. "A special alert has been issued," the newscaster said with calm professionalism, "A subway has derailed in Shibuya, greatly affecting travel times across the city; traffic jams are expected, and citizens are recommended to walk if at all possible."
The entire car went silent, processing this.
Yusuke opened his mouth. "There's... Something of a poetic irony in this. What was meant to be convenient for all of us has-"
"Peepers, stop." Futaba held her ears shut, tail curling between her legs. "There's no silver lining to this. Not even artistic. What'd you even title this, 'Wonders Bound By Traffic'?" She paused. "If you actually use that, I'm calling royalties."
"... That's the third one this month," Shinobu muttered, raising an eyebrow. "What're they maintaining the tracks with, glue?"
"It's not that, it's whatever they're putting in the coffee." Sojiro sighed. "I've been following this; apparently around a couple years ago people started falling asleep suddenly and without warning. It's been compared to narcolepsy; one moment you're awake, the next you're dreaming standing up. It tends to happen during a stressful situation, too; so the moment people aren't quite active anymore..." He motioned at the radio.
Futaba's ears perked up. "Sudden sleep, you say?"
Sojiro turned to her. "No. I can tell what you're thinking, and you're not getting involved. Either of you," he said, shooting a glance at Shinobu.
"Oh, come on Sojiro!" Futaba sat up. "I mean, fae are natural dreamwalkers, this happened after the disappearances started-"
"He means not getting involved, Futaba," Shinobu said with a sigh. "Before you get on my case, I want to point out this is something that's been happening for years, and is being powered by something that may be the True Fae. If we find out what's causing this... What can we do? Ask them really nicely them to stop? We need to be stronger before we even think about taking that on. If at all."
Futaba frowned. "Kage-"
"Futaba, think of it this way," Sojiro said. "I get the sense that Autumn Courtiers are like the wizards, so - how do you expect to do anything than park a big ol' target on your backs without the proper spell to use against whatever curse they're using."
Futaba opened her mouth, but no sound came out. "... Fine. We'll let them rampage," she spat, crossing her arms.
Wisely, nobody decided to poke the gremlin, and the rest of the drive passed in an awkward silence.
Any hope Haru had of her returning motley-mates being an end to emotional issues for today was dashed upon seeing the sour expression on Futaba's face.
"... I take it it didn't go so well?"
The redheaded Wizened grunted, then very intently strode over to a booth to settle in, looking furious.
Makoto, having finally gone back to human form, looked up from perhaps the largest bowl Sojiro had, still steaming with curry. "Should we... Go?"
"... I think you're fine," Shinobu said, gloomily, before taking his own booth - back facing Futaba.
"... Argument?" Haru guessed.
"That, including the... Rather remarkable corruption on display," Yusuke said. "If it comforts you... You are at least free of Kobayakawa."
"Mmm." Makoto didn't look especially comforted, her eyes still red beyond their natural hue.
"... So!" Haru tried to smile, which looked even more strained through her sharp teeth. "Given how late it is, I suppose the shop remains closed?"
"... More or less," Sojiro muttered. "Damn accidents."
Futaba opened her mouth, then looked guilty and shrank into her chair.
"... I'll, uh, go sweep up my fur," Makoto said, shrinking back from the time bomb she sensed, back behind the counter.
Haru quickly followed, leaving the four former inhabitants of the car to simmer.
Shinobu broke it. "Futaba-"
"Don't talk to me right now," she said, with a slight growl.
"... Can I, though?" Sojiro said.
The small changeling gave a noncommittal grunt and crossed her arms defensively.
"... Look. To preface this... I want to say I don't know why you feel you have to do this-"
"No, Sojiro, I want to do this," Futaba said, a bit more icily than what anyone nearby was used to. "There's a difference."
"Okay, I'll accept that." Sojiro sighed. "But... I get it. You have every right to hate them. And if this is linked, I can see why you want to stop them. But there's no point fighting a dragon with a butter knife. It's brave, but it's... Pointless."
"Better a butter knife than leaving people to die." Futaba sniffed. "Unlike some of us," she said with a dirty glance at Shinobu, "I'm not the person who's going to let everyone suffer because I'm scared."
Shinobu shot up, looking shocked, hurt, and then angry. "Scared!? I'm trying to keep us all alive!"
"Yeah, by letting the Keepers kidnap half of everyone - truly, they won't leave 'check for escaped slaves' as a bonus objective. Pull the other one, it's got bells on."
"It certainly will be if we start poking them-"
"Oh yeah, let's just lie down and take it, that worked wonders when we were-"
"I'm sorry, I wasn't aware that we could avoid the Three-"
"If I may interject!" Yusuke began. "Aren't you being a bit-"
Both changelings shot their friend a glare that made him very glad they didn't know the Contract that regulated the ability of looks to kill.
"He's right, you know," Sojiro said, beginning to feel a bit frustrated himself. "You two are acting really childish right now-"
"Well, excuse me for giving a damn!" Shinobu said, looking pissed.
Futaba laughed, disbelieving and bitter. "Do you even listen to what you say!?"
Sojiro grit his teeth. "You are really pushing it-"
The forming argument died instantly as Futaba fell out of her chair from spinning to face the bark.
The great dog turned back into Makoto, who stood up with a furious expression. "All three of you. Stop it. Now."
It suddenly occurred to all four of them that, if all things had gone normally, Makoto would still be the Student Council President of Shujin - and student disciplinarian. "Yes, ma'am," Shinobu squeaked body rigid.
"Stopping," Futaba squeaked.
Sojiro lowered his hands from the guarding. "... I could handle it," he said, lamely.
"It sure didn't seem like it," she said with a skeptical glare. "And to put this simply - I appreciate the attempt, Sakura-san, but you weren't abducted by the Keepers. We were. I have a bit more empathy than you do, so please, let me handle this?"
Sojiro took a step back, not especially ashamed of being cowed by this teenage girl.
"Thank you. Now," she said, turning to Yusuke. "What happened? I believe you to be an unbiased source. Just the facts, please"
Yusuke coughed. "... We believe that there's some coma incidents caused by the Others," he said, matter-of-factly. "Futaba wishes to investigate, Shinobu doesn't."
Makoto's expression softened. "... I see." She turned to the two aforementioned. "... Is there a reason for this?"
"... They sleepwalk, suddenly," Shinobu said. "Futaba thinks it's because of oneriomancy."
Makoto nodded, and turned again. "And... any reason for this? Just sleepwalking? No reports of vicious dreams?"
Futaba's eyes widened, as her expression softened. "... No." She looked down.
Makoto nodded. "See? That's the point. You don't know. I... Really like the fact you care enough, but right now, it's just a rumor. You can investigate it all you like, but it's not Shinobu's fault for being a little reluctant to chase what's really one of your hunches. Not when we already have mundane responsibilities; you have school to worry about, remember? And one that's in a fairly dangerous school - the imminent danger right now is Kobayakawa and Kamoshida. If you're looking for threats, start planning for the ones you know are there first, right?"
"... Yeah, you're right," she said, guiltily.
"At the same time," she said, turning back to Shinobu, "She's right in that we're the only ones who can see this. It's not a responsibility we wanted, but we have the power to stop these things. Which on some level, means that we should, if we can. We can't just pretend the... K-Keepers aren't out there, and leave the world to rot."
Shinobu tried to answer, but looked away.
"... I'm glad you see it my way," she said, curtly. "Now, I think you owe each other something?"
"... 'M sorry," Futaba said, ears and tail drooping. "It was a long car ride... But that's no excuse."
"I'm sorry too," Shinobu said. "I lashed out, when you were trying to do the right thing." He walked over to the other changeling, and hugged her. "Still friends?"
"Kage, we argued," Futaba said, a playful tone in her voice. "You killed me a couple times, I did it way more; I think we'll manage." Then she returned the hug.
Makoto smiled. "I won't tell you to not fight, that's stupid. It happens. But you're both people. Recognize that when the blood cools, okay?" She bowed to Sojiro, before returning to behind the bar.
Sojiro blinked, and whistled. "... That was new. I'm - well, I'm impressed. You don't think she's got spirit in her, but... Wow."
"As a personal aside," Yusuke said, sliding up to Sojiro. "Let it be known that if she really was made into a meek instrument of darkness, it's more than likely she wouldn't be here to be normally timid."
Sojiro nodded. "Point taken." He sighed. "I just... Months later, I still don't know how to deal with this. I want them to be just normal teenagers, but..." He motioned at the eyespots.
Yusuke shrugged. "Then you are more like us than you fear." The, after a pause. "Though, I think the process of recovering would be smoothed over by some curry..."
Sojiro rolled his eyes. Many eyes, one-track mind.
It was when she was slowly opening the closet door that Sadayo was fully how ridiculous this whole thing was.
Is this really happening?, she mouthed to herself. I'm not dreaming, am I? ... No, I'd be feeling unnaturally cozy or cold, depending on where I was. Score one for my sanity. Should offset the five I deducted from breaking into my own school.
At least the night janitor was gone now. Breathing a sigh of relief, Sadayo quietly locked the door behind her, checking for any disturbed objects before dashing to the next safe hiding spot - which, to her eternal relief, was right next to the principal's office. After a final glance, she pulled out a paperclip-turned-lockpick and got to work on the tumblers, them giving in about a minute (Wow, I'm rusty. Budget for new practice locks shouldn't be that high). Really, remembering to be quiet when sneaking in was the harder part.
"Okay, in," she murmured out loud as she took a well-decorated wooden tube from her back pocket. "Let's see where we put you..."
Still not risking noise, the incognito teacher stalked over to the safe, internally mapping a bunch of good hiding places from the closest on. Hm. The shelf underneath the plant seemed good-
There was a loud scratching sound from inside the tube, nearly causing the startled Sadayo to shriek. Certainly to drop the tube.
"What the hell are you doing!?", she hissed as she retrieved the tube. "You do realize that-"
The tube rumbled with another scratch - and then two more, followed by a tap, a scratch, two more taps, scratch, and two taps.
Sadayo frowned, internally translating the Morse. "Old..." she began, as the silent message resumed. "Code?", she finished, frowning. "I really don't think that he'd be stupid enough to-"
A sniff came from inside the box, causing Sadayo to roll her eyes. "Fine," she said, tapping out the day Kobayakawa got his job.
Click. The file safe spat open its drawer like a cash register, revealing a row of active student files.
Sadayo stared at this, blankly. "... My boss is an idiot," she groaned, flipping through the transfers with a sour expression. "Hattori... Hattori... Hello, my friend," she said, pulling out the envelope and opening it in one fell swoop. "Let's see what - huh!?"
Sadayo Kawakami was not one for school bureaucracy. It wasn't that she was especially adverse to paperwork (she avoided it like anyone else, but not like the plague), but she didn't really have the time with all of her jobs. She did, however, know what an academic history looked like.
More importantly, she knew that they were not made of standard print-out paper. A quick glance at an angle under the light showed the stamp wasn't actually holographic, and a glance at the watermark showed a slight blur. This would fool people who didn't know what a school document was in its minutia, but not anyone vaguely experienced in education. This was a forgery, and a rushed job at that; one meant more as a stopgap to an actually competent job.
Brow furrowed, Kawakami took her pictures. So, Hattori's ID was a fake. Glumly, she realized "student yokai" was an increasingly plausible assumption; there was no way in Hell that Kobayakawa was fooled without something very shiny and valuable to "distract" him. But... Just him?
Kitagawa's file was more reasonable, right up until she got to the signature. And then more because of whose it was.
"Madarame?" she murmured. "Why does his name keep coming up when yokai are involved? And why wasn't he here?" She paused. "And why weren't you being rubbed in my face? You're famous enough to count as 'celebrity'..."
Sakura's file was the most normal - apart from a gap of supplementary materials for the previous year, then suddenly a bunch of high grades at the end. Cheating, she wondered. ... No, they're sky-high before the gap. They're average for you, just... Compressed. You seem like the 'honest error' category.
Sadayo flipped to the end, with the letter of recommendation section this kind of student was bound to have.
... Dated to before the day she personally knew that middle schools serving Yogen-Jaya would have their final exams. Which made no sense, a student could completely flub a final and have it reflect badly on the teacher. So, another fake.
So. Two students with odd context, and one who may have well have fallen out of the sky and purchased the speedy fake ID. Perhaps literally.
With that, she took the remaining pictures, and delicately replaced the files, puffing out her cheek. "... Why me? Why now? I'm working four jobs already..."
The tube scratched again, long and drawn out - more of a nonverbal Ooooh? than a message.
"No, I most certainly did not miss the Vigil," she growled at the tube. "I'm almost as bad at this as I am teaching. These kids don't deserve someone who can barely fit an hour to read these into a summer week." She stared petulantly at the tube, before she remembered where she was. "Right. I still want to know what they paid Kobayakawa. Thankfully, I don't need you to see the code now, so, you get the window view," she said, striding over to the petunias on the windowsill and screwing the tube open.
As the cap cape off, a tiny vulpine head shook out its yellow fur, before tiny black paws uncurled from its body and pulled a tiny, serpentine body out from the tube, about the size of a brown rat from nose to tail. After it stretched, an oddly mesmerizing undulating motion, the pipe fox dashed into the bush and curled up - and suddenly became very hard to see, Sadayo's eyes finding it difficult to focus on her familiar's body.
"You look for what they bribed Kobayakawa with, and you show it to me. Me, I'm going to see what the gimu think, any rumors of monsters seeking an education."
And so, careful to lock the door behind her, the teacher and sometime hunter of yokai stalked into the night, as quietly as she had come in.
Wow, I got another one out in about a month? What is this world coming to!?
Actually I don't wonder, it's because the plot was hollering at me to get moving. Finally, the first major arc can commence!
Forgive me for... Well, not knowing the first thing about document authentication; I just pulled a lot from Google. I have no idea if schools use the holographic stamp method.
For today's edition of Under the Hood:
Kawakami is a [SPOILER], [SPOILER], [MORE SPOILERS], which really [REDACTED].
... Yeah, exactly what she is is kind of a driving subplot of this arc. I will say that she's a hunter with a particular Endowment, not a mage or person with other Supernatural Merit. Her reference to the Vigil is a common terminology for a hunter's career, always lighting the dark and keeping watch against monsters. The reference to "yokai" doesn't mean anything in and of itself, as in Japan, anything supernatural that's not a kami and is alive in some manner is a yokai. Gimu is a bit of my own personalization of the Chronicles, inspired by an old draft for the Dark Eras (essentially a historical setting book for the Chronicles of Darkness, covering the dawn of civilization to the seventies in America) that sadly was a bit larger than the page count could be; gimu, which translates as "obligation" or "piety", is slang for the general community of Japanese hunters, particularly Tokyo ones. It's a convenient metaphor for how traditional Japan hunters see their lives duties.
This has been your Fictional Worldbuilding Aside for the day.
The pipe fox is also an original creation; more properly known as a kuda-gitsune, it is a yokai familiar of mystics able to keep their appetites and tendency to breed like rabbits in check, used as a spy and occasional tool of mind control via possession. It's called a pipe fox because, well, it's small enough to fit inside a short bamboo pipe for easy transport. Kawakami doesn't use hers to puppeteer people all that often, but occasionally, sometimes you really, really need to get something, and only someone else has it.
Chapter 10: Academy of Chains
And now: Unexpected character time!
Trigger warning for Kamoshida's perspective, however briefly.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"So, are you still on the volleyball team this year?"
Shiho Suzui, thoroughly average athlete, was jolted out of her reverie by the question. "Huh?"
"After last year, I know you had some issues with Kamoshida, though they seemed to clear up." Hifumi Togo looked up from the shogi piece she was removing from the board, her deep sea-green eyes furrowed. "Your troops are leaving themselves open to brutal routs and their blood is turning the river red. You're normally a much better general than this, and I'm concerned all is not well in the court - um, sorry, I'm still in roleplay mode."
"It's fine," Shiho said with a smile. "I am, it's nothing to do with that." I think. "It's just, well, Ann's been acting weird, and I'm getting concerned."
"Ah. You're not the only one who's been a little unnerved by her behavior recently," Hifumi said, her attention fully on Shiho now. "We don't shoot for the same agency, but I've heard she's cancelled most-to-all of her assignments, citing personal reasons. The photographers are panicking somewhat, they're worried she might be in rehab." She paused. "I'm wondering if it's because she realized the photographers believe her to be addicted to drugs and she's searching for a new company."
Shiho suppressed a cynical laugh. "Wouldn't surprise me. She's been a bit, um, withdrawn ever since the Hiruta scandal. I guess she realized just how unsafe both of us were and that really upset her. It's just... It's gotten really bad recently. It takes her a few seconds to answer whenever she picks up the phone, she's dodging questions about her personal life..." Shiho shrugged.
Hifumi's brow furrowed even further. "... Um, I don't mean to pry, but do you think she's hiding - sorry," she said at the somewhat offended glare.
"... To tell the truth," Shiho said as her expression turned guilty, "I thought that myself. But here's the thing, though; you'd expect if she was trying to hide from me, you'd expect her to go silent, try to push me away. Instead, what really set off her weird behavior was calling me, asking how I was doing - in the middle of the night." She frowned. "For the next week, she was texting me constantly, asking questions about my parents, wondering if we could eat lunch - it only stopped when I told her I was getting uncomfortable, and even now, it's like every conversation we have turns to my welfare, how I'm dealing with life. Then recently, it just... Stopped. She's always there if I'm texting her, but now it's like she's silent by default." She paused. "Did... Did the gossip say if anything happened to her?"
Hifumi shrugged. "Nothing that isn't obviously rumor-mongering. I did notice she suddenly got more intense about chatting with me about my hobbies recently, to the exclusion of everything else. What the current videos on CrypTube are, since I don't think she wants to search it herself to find an uncensored autopsy or vivisection."
Internally, Shiho sighed in relief. Convenient escape hatch from this topic, go. "Actually, did they ever do a video on Kuchisake-onna? I've always had a kinship to that story."
Hifumi took a couple seconds to answer. "... No, CrypTube focuses on mutant animals and other wildlife. She'd be a bit sentient and ghostly for their focus."
"Really? I mean, it is a community site, right? Surely they can have a few undead."
"No, and you'd get banned for it. It's not the universe they've made, and you'll just annoy the moderators. The Twilight Network's more their thing." She paused. "Unless it's Cymothoa sanguinaria. Still makes me afraid to go in hot springs."
Shiho's eyes widened a bit as she registered the name. "... That's the vampire lobster that replaces your tongue, right? I think I stayed awake for a week after I watched that video."
"The same. Actually, I've been thinking about adding my own ideas about sentient lamprey eels..." Hifumi trailed off. "Am I being creepy again?"
"A bit," Shiho said, looking a bit pale to the point of ghostly herself.
"... Sorry," she said, looking down. "I just can't talk about this stuff a lot, otherwise they'll think I'm outright scary instead of an otaku-"
"No, no, I really don't mind!" Shiho cut in. "I like your hobbies, really! Helps make the world seem a bit... less gray, I guess." She shook her head. "Sorry, being around Ann recently has made me a bit out of it myself. I know there's something happening, and it feels like I can't know it. It's... frustrating. At least your stuff makes some kind of sense, while I?" She sighed. "Am going back to Shujin on Monday."
"Ah." Hifumi looked downcast. "Does that mean our practice matches won't be happening any more?"
"Not for a few weeks. Kamoshida's gotten to be a bit less prone to outright torturing us, but he's making up for the fact he's been banned from using some of the more intense training with extra sessions on the weekends. I'm hoping he tires of it, because he has to be there too, but..." Shiho shook her head. "What can I do?"
The sea-green turned distant and dull. "Sometimes, the problem is the world."
Shiho sighed, putting her hand over the piece stand in the traditional shogi form of surrender. "... Yeah. It is."
"Hello, one-place reason to stay in a Durance." Ryuji glowered at the gates. "It's been a while."
"You think you dread going back?" Ann said, bleakly. "You aren't liked by the local creep king." She shivered.
"Point taken," Ryuji said without much reservation before turning to his motley-mates. "All right. Tip for the newbies, avoid Kamoshithead when possible, but when he yanks you aside for something, do it well, thank him for asking you - man loves to think that people are proud of working for him - then run the hell away. The principal has his lips thoroughly around his ass, so whatever the coach says, goes."
Yusuke rose an eyebrow. "That seems... A bit reversed in priorities. Doesn't he work for Kobayakawa?"
"Yeah. He's also an Olympic medalist, so Kobayakawa bends over backward to keep him working for him." Ann sighed. "Sometimes I wonder if that wish I made should have just been to kill him."
Futaba's ear hiked up. "Your what?"
Ann turned distant for a second. "... The thing I bought for a year of hell."
The younger changeling's eyes widened with understanding. "... Oh." She sighed. "Well, I checked the class assignments. I'm sitting in with you during Japanese and English, so at least we can plan aggro management over lunch or figuring out a sentence. If nothing else, we can summon a few rats to hunt a rat, eh Kage? ... Kage?"
Shinobu held up a finger. "... is the ponytailed girl looking for something?"
And indeed, a somewhat tall girl, her black hair tied back in a pink headband as standing by the gates, nervously chewing on a fingernail.
Ann suddenly paled, before looking away, hiding her face. "There's another gate. We'll go in that way. Don't ask how I know until we're through."
Yusuke's brow furrowed. "Is she a bully? She doesn't seem much-"
"No, she's just... She's just someone it's better for me not to speak to." Ann's voice cracked a little.
"Whoa, slow down!" Ryuji made a time out symbol. "It's better for you not to speak to Shiho? I mean, I get it's been a year, but she's your freaking-"
"No, by now she's my fetch's best friend," Ann said, flipping up her hood. "My fetch is halfway across the country by now, because I was too busy being a screaming harpy-"
"And you haven't-"
"I did, but I was talking to her before we got attacked by a Huntsman!", Ann hissed, before her veins lost their glow. "I'm sorry, but - it's safer this way. If we really do have a big destiny, big enemy? Shiho doesn't deserve to be hurt by it. Nobody... Nobody deserves a Durance. Especially not her."
Shinobu opened his mouth, only for Yusuke to hold his shoulder.
"Don't," the artist said, looking solemn. "Forcing her deal with this won't help, a clean break is better."
Ann inhaled. "... Thanks. I'll... I'll talk with her later. When I figure out... What the lie is going to be."
So began the school life of the Phantoms, pretty much the only surprising thing how early the gloom was.
One thing Sadayo did not miss about the Vigil was the paranoia.
Okay, that wasn't quite accurate. She was fine with the caution, the suspicion, the cold analysis of everyone and everything around her as possible threats. It wasn't good or bad, it just was. Really, it felt almost right, to think like a big, territorial predator recognizing a threat in her domain rather than a teacher, something she felt no small degree of ambivalence about.
No, it was the constant second guessing.
Adjusting glasses, what she imagined as her inner hunter saying in a mechanical tone as she observed Hattori and Sakura walk to the front of the class for introductions. Signaling? No, not looking at each other - right now. Hearing could be different. Maybe missed the glance? Need glasses or are they something else? No, no, Sakura's are too thick, and generally that kind of relic is prescription lenses - that's stupid, I know people who don't need glasses but wear them to observe Twilight. But those were always looking there, ghosts and spirits get in the way - but maybe he's the kind of yokai that likes that. Wait until I can get a convenient way to knock it off - unless need it to control powers, could switch, but - everyone is staring at me. Ahem.
"Before we begin with our first day, I'd like to introduce a pair of transfer students; Shinobu Hattori and Futaba Sakura. Well, actually, one transfer student, and one first-year who is taking advanced Japanese and wishes to homeroom with us, schedule permitting. Please say something to the class."
"... nice to meet you," Sakura squeaked, attempting to vanish into her uniform.
Hattori stepped foward, obviously trying to get attention away from the younger redhead (Definitely close, her being in on it even more probable). "Sorry for the odd seating arrangement. I promise, we won't be disruptive."
The students already there immediately noticed the term "we", and a very important difference between the two transfers.
"You think they're dating?"
"It makes sense. If she's with him, it makes sense she wants to watch her territory."
"Isn't the accelerated program for honor students? Lucky bastard; bet he reads off her notes when they're necking."
"Um, gross? She looks like a middle schooler..."
Well, if nothing else, that took "can walk thorough walls" out of the possible indicators of yokai type. If Sakura could fall through the floor, she probably would have. Sadayo resisted the urge to rub her nose, cursing the fact her students apparently didn't realize they weren't telepathic-
Hold on, why were Takamaki and Mishima glaring at the gossip contingent? They were good kids, but Mishima wasn't the kind to get annoyed like that, mostly keeping to himself.
... Time for a little experiment. "Um, so, Hattori's seat will be the one behind Takamaki's, and Sakura's will be the one to Mishima's right."
Jackpot. Takamaki's sour expression immediately brightened as Sakura looked relieved. They know each other, Sadayo thought as Takamaki gave the passing Hattori a rueful smile and Mishima scooted a little closer to Sakura's new desk.
Of course, nobody in said gossip contingent noticed the full context of the action.
"... Oof. Teacher-blocked."
"On who's side? Placing him next to Takamaki - is she already making doe eyes at him?"
"I'm more concerned for Mishima. Taking bets on how long it'll be before he gets a broken arm..."
Good news was, the continuing acid from the peanut gallery might get the suspected monsters to drop out of school. Bad news was, several of them would probably drop too - and Sadayo really couldn't blame the monsters here. "As a general announcement," she said, a bit loudly, "The volleyball rally is in two days. Everyone just changed classes, so take that time to get to know each other. I think Mishima's on duty today?"
As the awkward student rose, obviously glad to quiet the hecklers, Kawakami sank into her seat, already ruminating on this new information.
Ruminating, and planning.
"Well," Futaba began, staring at her lunch like it was going to bite her. "That was... Nightmarish. And you're talking to someone with personal experience in how nightmares work."
"No amount of horror I could forge from the subconscious could match that introduction." Shinobu rested his head in his hands, the masks on his body shifting as if reflexively attempting to shift identities. "Why didn't the teacher step in...?"
"Ms. Kawakami," Ann began, awkwardly. "Is kind of a pushover. Okay, that's a bit harsh, but a lot of the time, she seems kinda asleep at the wheel."
"She's never really been one to step in to stop the gossip," Mishima admitted, casting a wary glance at the chatting rumormongers from before. "She's just... Not involved until asked."
"Oh good, I'll ask her next time I have people wondering out loud if I'm past puberty. Trash mobs," Futaba muttered. "Someone please leak that Sojiro is his landlord, we just go to the same school, and... We are not a couple?"
"I vote for that action," Shinobu said, wondering why it came out a little strained, not noticing the raised eyebrows of either of his other friends.
"... Be as that may," Mishima said, noting the small blush that came to Futaba's cheeks, "It is a weird day when two transfers, including one in the fast track, come in. It's not hard to believe you two know each other. Especially given that save - not that I think that was a bad idea!", he quickly clarified.
"I get that," Shinobu said, shaking his head. "But why all the cattiness? You'd think we made out with each other and then you from the rumor mill..."
"Because you stand out," Ann said, bitterly. "Take it from me, all the fashion models in the world won't stop this school from hammering down the tall nails. No matter how little they can control how they're painted." To emphasize her point, she pointed at her blonde hair. "If you're not Standard Student Model B, you're obviously a stranger. Even if you've been here for most of your life..."
"Ugh. I just realized, I'm worried about Peepers, now." Futaba's head hit her desk. "See what this place does to people? I'm wondering if there's a chance to walk over there and check in on my favorite enemy, see how he's doing..."
"He's got Ryuji, thankfully," Shinobu said, sighing. "So he's not completely helpless before the mockery."
"Though," Mishima said, looking uncertain. "During volleyball practice, I noticed Shiho talking to Ms. Kawa-"
"Stop," Ann said, harshly.
"Um," Mishima said, spinning to face her. "I, uh, why?"
"I don't want to know," she continued as she huddled up.
Blankly, Mishima glanced at the other two changelings, who winced.
"She's afraid of, uh, a thorny issue relating to a mutual enemy," Shinobu said. "Namely spillover."
The penny dropped. "Ah." The hunter looked sympathetic. "I wish I didn't understand. But I - we'll talk about this later," he hurriedly finished as Ann's hood went up.
"Thanks," she said.
And nothing else could be spoken, the rest of lunch passing in silence.
Though perhaps, something about what Shiho talked about should have been.
Suguru Kamoshida quietly released a sigh of exasperated relief as he looked over the letter finally clearing him of wrongdoing in the Hiruta scandal. It was going to happen eventually, but holy shit did the inspectors take more time than they should have to conclude that. That was a year of his life, and a month of volleyball training, he wasn't getting back. Still, he finally had a chance to live a little again without those jackals breathing down his neck. The star should not be playing the bit part, not in movies, not in sports, not in schools.
"Mr. Kamoshida? Can I speak to you for a minute?"
Suguru was glad he was facing away from the door so he could still his rolling eyes. Speaking of extras...
"I don't have anything in particular," he said with practiced cheer as he wheeled to face Kawakami, smiling. "You worried about your new girl genius?" He was, kind of; the smart ones were often the really stubborn ones, he had to be sure his normal charm would work on wowing her if she or her boyfriend ever became interested in sports before they caused any trouble. Charmed students were way less of a hassle, especially now that he had to smooth over his reputation from any bad press caused by the circling scavengers. Cute as a button though, he internally admitted. That kid - Hattori, I think - he scored high. She'll probably be even prettier once she really hits a growth spurt.
"Yes, but that's not quite what I'm asking about," Kawakami said with her normal dour expression, but her dull eyes actually having some activity in them. "I was actually approached by Suzui over volleyball practice, asking if Takamaki had come to school today. She had, but I noticed that she seems to be deliberately avoiding Suzui. That's not like her, to say the least."
Indeed it wasn't - the two girls seemed bound at the hip. Suguru's brow furrowed. "I haven't heard anything like that," he said, honestly. "It does explain why she's been having some trouble with practice, recently, so thanks for telling me."
"I see..." Kawakami's hand came to her chin, which (in Suguru's opinion) would have made her look somewhat together, if she gave half a damn about her appearance. Given the rat's nest that was her hair and skull-like eye bags, Suguru was more put in mind of an overgrown shut-in venturing out of her room for noodles. "And how long ago did this slump start?"
"Three, maybe four weeks. Why do you ask? I didn't think you were that interested in volleyball."
"Oh. Oh, nothing, it's just, well, Takamaki seems to have warmed up to the transfers rather quickly, so I'm wondering if Suzui is feeling, I don't know, jealous."
Suguru nodded. "It could be," he lied, not having the faintest clue what went on in the head of a player of absolute middling talent. "She has been known to get, well, competitive." That part actually was true, and one half of the reason she hadn't been taken off the team yet. Suzui could give a mean spike if she felt she had something to prove.
"I see. If something happens with that, tell me. Best to get this off my plate quickly, and all." With that, the mess left Suguru's office, leaving him to reflect.
So, Ann had some new friends, did she? A part wondered if there was a bit of a love triangle going on between Hattori, her, and the brain. If so, that wasn't much of an issue; he could easily get her back to his side, as what should have happened before he had to lay low to pin the jackals on Hiruta for a bit. Cost him an easy way to influence gossip, too, when Mishima suddenly grew a conscience. Ah well, there were dozens of rats in the swarm. Had a silver lining of him quitting the team too, he had enough training dummies for the competent players.
And if Suzui was still under his thumb, well... Then he didn't really even need to change his plan for winning her. That half of the reason for keeping the mediocre player was still very much intact.
But really, best to work on that right now. Right, so Ann probably was probably relaxing a bit after he put on that year-long show for those self-righteous carrion eaters. Time to reintroduce himself, provide a helpful ear.
As the bell rang, he wrapped up typing his response thanking the investigators for their time and apologizing for the hassle they must have had (always paid to butter them up), and set out to start getting past her defenses.
Just as he thought, he saw the distinctive hood with its four-leaf clover, sticking behind in Kawakami's classroom to do some homework. As proven as the stereotype of blondes not having much gray matter under their hair had proven itself with her (at least from Suguru's perspective), she was an incredibly dedicated worker. That was good, he liked a willingness to please. But, to make her comfortable, he decided to let her come out to the starewell, hiding his real reason for being there with some practice stretches, with the students quickly realizing he was probably not to be bothered when training for the rally (and stringently ignoring Mishima when he passed by, just making silent eye contact before the former snitch's composure broke and he rushed downstairs).
And some more stretches.
And a few more.
Eventually, Chouno came by and gently reminded him that school was closing gates in ten minutes, startling him out of his stretch - and to full awareness that the hoodie had vanished, without any awareness its owner had left. All that was in there was the paper supply cabinet and desk.
Damn. Oh well, tomorrow was another day.
Leaning against the edge of the Hedge gate that her powers opened, Ann gave a reluctant thanks to whatever deity that put the paper closet at the back of the room, where her friends could block view from the one or two other lingering students while she infused its door with enough Glamour to lead into the Hedge. Reluctant, because of course the Creep Coach had to be blocking the stairwell. If there was a fully benevolent deity, said coach would have had a heart attack by now.
Praying Mishima's scheme to distract Kamoshida worked and he'd assume she just escaped when he was doing a stretch, Ann released her breath, and, head resting against the Hedge's version of the paper locker's inside, started her plan. Opening the closet again was out of the question; a teacher was likely still there, and thus, reopening the gate would possibly blow her cover. Even if nobody saw the green glow of the border world, she didn't exactly want to explain to Ms. Kawakami how she managed to fit into a closet filled with school supplies, and her escape route would likely be locked. So, that meant a brief excursion out to find another door. That was fine, her paranoia had led her to create a couple escape hatches just beyond the grounds of Shujin, just in case. So, easy enough to find a way back.
But first, calming down. She didn't exactly want the Hedge reflecting her feeling of being entrapped back at her when trying to get out.
Breathe in... She thought to herself, still bracing herself against the metal gate. Breathe out. Breathe in, stop staring into the metal, turn, breathe out -
The exhale was much faster, Ann sputtering in disbelief at the sight before her.
This was not the Hedge.
At first, she thought she had somehow got turned around and wound up back in the classroom, but no, a second glance revealed that no, the shabby wooden room was now appointed more like a manor's, with polished stone walls that spoke of sturdiness and careful architecture, the ceiling lights replaced with an ornate candelabra, and the windows covered by rich red curtains. The floor had been replaced with a stone checkerboard one, the tables entirely wooden desks that belonged more in a medieval study than a classroom, the door had been replaced by a big, imposing oaken one with gold designs that resembled odd, cuneiform lettering. The entire entire area was filled with a thin, magenta-hued fog that smelled of sweat, roses, and something Ann couldn't describe, but felt very... Foreboding. Like the smell of potential, or the fearful excitement before the end of a round of poker or roulette.
What threw Ann off, however, was that apart from the changed materials... It still looked like Ms. Kawakami's classroom. If everyone wore their best JRPG wear, Ann could easily imagine the perpetually frazzled teacher sitting upfront, showing the basics of Japanese and trying very hard not to doze off as the students copied down the lesson on their quills. Everything had an air of surreality that was almost like the occult wilderness of the Hedge, but... Wasn't. In fact, it kind of approached it from the opposite direction; while the Hedge wasn't lacking completely in civilization, she had been to too many Goblin Markets to think that, the Thorns always had primacy. The hobgoblins built what technology they had around the wild places of the border world, and even Hollows were more grown out of the dreamlike chaos and never let you forget they were just a rather stable part of a living, changing plane.
This? Apart from the mist, it looked... Mundane. If it wasn't for that, it'd honestly look like a completely normal museum exhibit, or an actual medieval idea of a classroom (if the printing press was a thing back then, Ann supposed).
Which is why, as she took it in, Ann started to feel even more nervous. Normality would have been comforting, except where she was supposed to go, the fantastic was normal.
Briefly, she considered opening the door, see what kind of place she was in - but no, this place may be inhabited, and she was the unintended intruder. Even the nicest inhabitant probably wouldn't believe her story - and besides, something about the door's designs creeped her out even more. Something about the way they were laid upon it - it reminded her of an eye, studying the sudden interloper with a calm disinterest. Combined with the weird smell of "potential" in the fog, Ann wouldn't have been surprised if it moved.
So, instead, opening up the curtains and-
"... what the hell?"
Finding... exactly what she should have, the twisting greens, browns, and shining sun of the Hedge. Just... Not where she should have.
"... Ok," Ann muttered to herself and the room. "I'm guessing you're a Hollow of some kind... But how'd you end up in the school?"
Thankfully, part of ninjutsu training involved learning how to pick open window locks (and Ann breathed a sigh of relief upon seeing the lock was something modern - finally, something obviously weird!), so in a minute, the window was more than open enough for her to climb through, descending on what was now obviously the stony bricks of a large castle, breathing in the air that smelled of wild flowers, pollen, and dreams.
And then she hit the bottom.
Specifically, what looked like a big, ugly black scar of charred plants, a crumbling black band that crunched as she jumped down upon it.
A quick brush confirmed it - the charred remains of the Thorns, a fire-blasted line of soot and ash that, with a quick shifting of a handful, she saw that it wasn't just the Hedge in a morbid mood; the ash left by her own practice with the Summer Court's signature passion left the Thorns completely burned and reduced to a gray pile. In this pile, there were pieces, stray petals and leaves, that weren't completely eaten by whatever hungry flame rampaged through the Hedge and left to rot.
Something this castle did left it not a growth of the Hedge and a bubble of order amidst chaos, but more of... An imposition of order, something that was forced upon the natural Thorns and didn't quite belong. Something deep within Ann told her that, the same part of her that found the Hedge comforting, the part that felt more rational when the world actually did respond to her internal state. The same mad intuition that, not too long ago, reminded her that Arcadia was not her home, and never would be.
But then, why a castle, and more importantly, how-?
Movement. A shadow cast be the candelabra still up in the room.
Ann was always surprised she could move that fast when she dived out of the fire line and into the thicket beyond, managing to situate herself well enough in the brush and turn around soon enough to see a six-fingered hand in dark armor closing the window, and then the curtains.
Phew. If the owner of the arm saw her, he obviously thought she was a hobgoblin of some kind, not worth raising the alert over.
Good thing, too, because she sure as shit wasn't going to just leave this be. She just wanted her friends to back her up before checking out what she guessed was a Keeper's vacation home. (Would explain a lot about Shujin, too.)
With that, Ann slunk into the Hedge, stealthy as a cat, sure to leave nothing behind.
Shiho was not an impatient girl, but the moment she realized that Ann wasn't coming down the stairwell, something inside her finally snapped.
She had been annoyed. Then she had been scared. Now she was just plain pissed. Not angry, pissed. That strange liminal zone between frustrated and scared where the two emotions had fed on each other in a cauldron of ineffectual action until they boiled over in a tide of pure elemental exasperation at the sheer refusal of the world to just sit down and explain what the hell was going on!
The "locker trick" was a strategy she had employed long ago to escape bullies, and later, teachers who wanted to kick her off school premises before she retrieved a bag she left behind (a big problem with her after a stressful day). She was a bit too large to hide in a locker at her age, but a laundry closet? That worked, so long as nobody wondered where she went - and the only people she knew who would wonder could be counted on one hand, and one finger the number on school grounds. After the initial janitorial sweep for dirty , it was easy to conceal herself behind the door and through a use of a vent, keep an eye on the stairs for a certain blonde (ex?) model.
When Kamoshida came down with no Ann in sight, that was what finally set off the bomb in her mind. The literal last teacher in the school leaving before Ann? Alright, unless she was writing a six-page paper months in advance, this was ridiculous.
As the coach disappeared down the stairs, a furious Shiho kicked open the door, ceasing to bother worrying about leaving evidence. Or keeping her noise level down as she stomped up to the classroom, to find-
For a second, Shiho stared at the situation, willing it to resolve itself and show some, any proof that Ann was present and had not spontaneously evaporated as soon as the bell rang.
When the situation failed to resolve itself, she felt the cauldron within her turn superheated, ready to explode as she took the empty room in totally-
Wait, was that her phone?
A quick rubbing of her eyes did not dispell the image. That was indeed the smartphone she had picked out for Ann two years at a sale, blue heart and cookie designs on the casing and all. Right down to a crack that split one of the hearts right down the middle due to a stray volleyball, but didn't damage the phone, and Ann thought it actually made the phone look better. So, she had physical proof that Ms. Kawakami wasn't just lying for whatever reason (When did that get so plausible? Oh right, waiting for thirty minutes for her to come down the stairs).
So, next question: Why, oh why, was she avoiding-
Ann's cell phone.
Filled with Ann's messages.
And with a password that Shiho could probably guess.
... So. On the one hand, that would be violating privacy to an incalculable extreme, and Shiho had no doubt if she did so, she would spend the rest of the month hating herself.
On the other hand, not looking would leave Shiho looking forward to a subjective eternity of being given the runaround for the foreseeable future.
And also in that hand? The knowledge of the disappearances that had been happening for the past five years, and her personal belief it was related to the mafia. The kind of people who disappeared people who disappointed them after isolating them from their friends. Also, Ann's strangely withdrawn temperament for the past year, which now Shiho realized could have been guilt over being suckered in by a scam.
Shiho was not the strongest athlete in the world, but she had a good set of arms. Mouthing an apology to Ms. Kawakami, she introduced the diamond-shaped door window to a baseball bat she swiped from gym storage (Kamoshida left it unlocked as he kept his favorite balls with himself), and, careful not to cut herself, unlocked the door from the other side, too focused on her mission to care she had just committed a break and enter. She strode over to the phone-
check the supply cabinet
Shiho froze, swearing she heard something.
Was it from the paper drawer?
... Was the handle moving?
... Was Ann in there?
The rational part of Shiho's mind cast a weird look at the rest of it, wondering how in the hell Ann could fit in there. But, if Ann needed to hide from somewhere... The motive made sense.
More to assuage her paranoia, Shiho took a detour from looking at the phone, reaching out-
That definitely moved that time.
Or... Did it?
... No, Shiho, wasn't imagining things, that handle had definitely moved - but in the past.
Which implied it could move again, if she just reached out and-
when time runs backward to the witching hour will the door to the other world open to all
Shiho blinked. She had a distinct sense of something being spoken in the past, but no actual present sound.
Something about the "witching hour"?
Hifumi said something about this.
Imagining the handle as the hour hand on a clock, she turned it counterclockwise to what, on the clock face, would be 3:00 AM, holding up her left finger as the minute hand straight up to 12-
Squealing in surprise, Shiho jumped back as the closet door flew open to reveal...
... another classroom?
Tentatively, against all proper sense, Shiho crept inside, noticing the oddly opulent space-
The door to the supply closet(?) behind her slammed shut, sending her tumbling into a curtain. Instinctively seeking balance, Shiho reached for the thick red fabric, tearing it off.
The rational part of Shiho's mind stopped screaming. In fact, it stopped doing much of all. Along with the rest of her brain, as she observed the green jungle beyond the window, and a chimeric beast with the head of a snake, the body of a great cat, and the haunches of a giant rabbit gazed at her with the exact same shocked expression, before making an alarmed sound like the barking of a dozen foxes and running off.
Slowly, Shiho remembered she could speak, and said the only fitting words for this situation.
"What. The. Fuck?"
Surprise, Shiho's a major character! And really, she always was supposed to be, and in fact she's a direct link to a major plot element of this crossover. I would love your comments on her specifically, though, since I don't think she's often a major character.
Not much to put in Under The Hood right now, as most of is has to do with Shiho, and I fully plan on you knowing as much as she does at the moment. But there is a couple things:
CrypTube: An actual thing, and one of Network Zero's affiliates. They are a footnote in Night Horrors: Wicked Dead (Monster Manual for Vampire: the Requiem, essentially), but they are directly related to Cymothoa sanguinaria, being the source of the picture of the beast. Speaking of...
Cymothoa sanguinaria: Is actually a species of water louse, but it does look like a lobster when fully grown. A relative of the real-life isopod Cymothoa exigua, the tongue-eating louse - so called, because a fish the thing parasitizes loses its tongue to the giant crustacean. That's not the gross part. The gross part is, the louse provides thanks to its host by permanently attaching to the severed stump and replacing it, feeding on scraps. The fish is fine, it just has a tongue with eyes and legs now. Would its cousin's hosts be so fortunate - besides the fact that C. sanguinaria prefers terrestrial mammals, not fish, it never really stops with the, uh, liquid diet; it just starts steering its host towards other sources via screwing with biochemistry. Yes, it can and does infest humans, why do you ask?
Hedge keys: A reason changelings don't open Hedge gates willy-nilly, preferring the ones already there; once created, they stick around. They just go inactive, until someone feeds them Glamour (a trick of the True Fae is that they automatically absorb and open for the Glamour produced when a mortal indulges her id, and only mortals), or someone does a specific ritual, deliberately or by accident, to bid them open. And the thing is, the key only works for one side of it; it's always the same on Earth, but for the Hedge, yeah, you're kinda stuck. How Shiho instinctively knew the supply closet gate's key is, well, under the spoilers making this a short Under the Hood.
Chapter 11: Mystery Of The Castle
Sadly, time waits for no one, and my school year starts up at the end of August. Still will keep up with this, but still.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Shinobu blinked. "Say again?"
"I'm telling you, someone blew a hole in the Hedge and put a castle in it!" Ann, for her part, had her claims helped by the disbelief at her own voice. "Or, at least, someone really liked the image of burning down part of the Hedge to make way for a big eyesore of a keep when building a Hollow."
"I..." Yusuke frowned. "I see your point. That does sound like a rather... Unique taste."
"Unique, and... Really freaky, given how it's attached to a school." Futaba tapped a spoon against her empty curry bowl (how she had made it empty in three minutes was beyond anyone at the table), thinking. "You think the monarchs have an idea?"
"Assuming, for the moment, maximum levels of backstab," Shinobu said, his fingers matching the tap, "I'm guessing the freehold would still tell us if they knew. There's literally no gain to be made from keeping it secret instead of 'oh by the way this is a secret base, this is how we are pursuing completely innocent projects in it.' So no, I'm thinking it'll be news to them, too."
"Kage's got it right. Ohya seems capable of tying her own shoelaces, so yeah, I'm going to have that as 'unknown castle' in the quest log." Futaba rubbed the bridge of her nose as her ears pinned back in frustration. "Which means it's probably pretty new and was built pretty fast; there's a lot of Hedge, but someone's going to notice the worker units carrying brick to Fort Shujin. Hollows don't come out of nowhere, take it from the Hedgespinner."
"And thus, our new school now has a castle attached to it." Shinobu mimicked Futaba's gesture. "We can't live in boring times, can we? Can't have just purely mundane problems."
"Welcome to my life," Mishima said over the video phone, rubbing his temples. "Once you see it, you can't not see it."
"It's a truly magical world," Sojiro agreed as bitterly as possible.
"I should not feel lucky for being unable to continue school normally," Haru said, rubbing her head.
"Yeah. Great." Shinobu rubbed his forehead. "We have enough with Kamoshida. Why can't this be something we could do after we got used to just... Normal lives?"
Ryuji looked distinctly uncomfortable. "... To be straight for a sec," he began, quietly. "I'm kinda relieved we have this problem too."
The entire table gave the muscular changeling a weird look.
"I mean, what can we do to Kamoshida?" Ryuji admitted, a very sour expression on his face. "He's still the star. Still the goddamn draw of the school. Yeah, he's an asshole, but there's nothing we can prove, especially not now that he's lyin' low."
Ann opened her mouth to object - then closed, looking perturbed as she processed what he said. "I..." She looked away.
Makoto sighed, looking defeated.
"Um, what?" Futaba turned the side eye to her now. "Wasn't he, y'know, the guy who-"
"He is," Ann said, looking away. "But... If people didn't believe me then, how will they now?"
The penny dropped, despite Futaba's desire for it not to. "... We can get inside his dreams..." Even from her tone, it was clear she saw the problem with gathering thoughts as evidence.
Ryuji sighed. "Yeah, those ain't gonna fly unless you're hoping to mount an insanity defense." He shrugged. "This way, it feels like we can... Do something."
Haru hummed, thinking. "If it turns out not to be hostile, then it is probably something to explore. If nothing else, we can bargain with the inhabitants for rights to use it as sneaking network when we wish to avoid teachers or scare annoying classmates."
"We could already do that," Shinobu said, flexing to make his masks shift.
"Scare annoying classmates with plausible deniability," Haru corrected.
"And if it's bad..." Makoto shrugged. "Could be class president I should be. Help people."
Mishima nodded. "I see your point. I'll see if there's any rumors about fae-related stuff around Shujin, then if there's similar rumors elsewhere."
Sojiro shrugged. "I can see I can't stop you. Just solve it before anyone gets lost there, alright? I don't want a news crew patrolling here for perspectives from the ground..."
I am so lost.
Shiho sank against a wall, sighing. After the initial terror wore off, and she rediscovered the ability to intentionally navigate to locations with an actual plan in mind, she realized she... Didn't have a plan.
But, that monster wasn't back, so at least she wasn't being chased by something hungry out of a JRPG. Probably that thing didn't want a confrontation or recognized she wasn't a threat to its territory. So, now she had time to look for the exit.
Or at least, an open exit, as the realization she was lost was provoked by checking the cabinet she had come in. Some part of Shiho's brain forced her eyes to stare at the cabinet a little more, trying to make the rack of medieval-era cleaning supplies and what appeared to be gold-leafed paper (okay, how gaudy can you get?) fall away to reveal the portal to its counterpart.
"Okay, Shiho," she muttered. "You are in a weird, fantasy version of your classroom inside a big castle. You have no idea what's going on, or what to go on. And someone desperately needs to put down some herbs; it smells like the locker room of a perfume store." She tried to fan away some of the fog, slightly gagging. "Your first mission; find a way out."
On the one hand, the window looked unlocked, but Shiho figured she was a couple stories up. No way she was breaking her legs like that, and besides, there was no guarantee of a portal back out there. There obviously was one here, even if the witching hour trick didn't seem to work from this side for... Whatever reason. Who knew, maybe there were friendly inhabitants who knew how to open it, or maybe there was another portal. Besides, Shiho had to admit, this was a fantasy castle; if she found a way to leap between this world and her own reliably, she was definitely exploring this place a bit, maybe show Hifumi. This was cool, just really scary to be thrust inside suddenly.
Exhaling deeply, Shiho dragged herself to her feet, giving the odd, ominous designs on the door a sour look before opening it, internally shrugging at how oddly cold the rusty door hinge felt, stepping out into the halls.
And right into a bunch of yellow police tape covering the way up the stairs.
Shiho blinked. "Uh..." She blinked again, checking to see if she was missing anything.
Nope. It wasn't a chord of cloth, or rope, it was yellow, plastic police tape with Japnese written on it saying CAUTION, NO ENTRY in big, commanding letters, like any other form of police tape.
Shiho's thought process about finding an escape was derailed as she took in the anachronistic scene. Not only did this place had modern police, with modern police tech, the very presence of this tape indicated something bad happened on the other side - and that the cops probably wouldn't be pleased if she went through. But on the other hand, it also meant there might be people on the other side-
"Aw, hell. Of course I get you..."
Startled, Shiho whipped around to discover one of said cops.
He seemed like, well, what would happen if a goblin became an officer of the law. Short, warty, and heavily wrinkled, with a woody skin tone that combined with a stout build that made it look like what would happen if a tree stump had grown a face, limbs, and then painted his leaves blue so he didn't have to change into a uniform. And yes, his blue vest and pants did seem made out of dark blue woven over a white shirt, and with a completely normal pointed cap.
After a second, Shiho found her voice. "H... Hi?"
"Hello, ma'am," the goblin officer said. "I need to get by you, so if you don't mind..." He jerked his gnarled thumb to the side.
Shiho nearly did so by instinct, but stopped. "Um, before that happens, uh... Do you mind telling me how to, uh, open the cabinet portal? Because, um, I'm not from around here and am not sure how to get back."
"I don't work here, I don't know how to operate the local gates," he said, brusquely. "You'll have to ask a guard. Move, please."
Shiho's mood started to sour. "All right-" The grumpy murmur stopped. "Wait. Why am I interesting?"
The officer blinked, staring at her silently, before clearing his throat. "Not many pure humans in the Hedge. Move along, please."
... That didn't sound right. "You said there's gates to the human world," Shiho said, feeling a strange certainty in her voice. "So not that weird. And you recognized me."
"No, I noticed a human. Move aside, now."
Shiho's brow narrowed. "If there's gates, there's protocols about getting back to the human world, and I don't see any guards. It could be dangerous, so why don't I stay with-"
"I don't have time for this," the goblin said, with a bit too much firmness to be entirely genuine as sap-like sweat beaded on his brow. "Just, don't come up here," he said as he tried to duck around her.
"Why not?" As immature as it was, Shiho moved to block the cop. "I'm not going to disrupt anything, just send me to your unit-"
"Will you shut up and let me solve your case!?"
As soon as the the cop processed what he just said, his skin paled.
Shiho stared at the goblin a bit, before, over the half-heard objections of the officer, she rushed through the tape upstairs, not sure of anything but needing to know what he meant.
As it turns out, the upstairs was occupied by several more goblin cops, not quite similar, but not quite dissimilar, to their fellow downstairs, all wrinkles and leaf uniforms. A detective with the head of a bird squawked in protest as he stumbled away from the door, knocked aside by Shiho rushing in. A pair of nurses swiveled from their positions next to a window in space leading to the inside of to an almost absurdly normal-looking ambulance, golden eyes filled with shock, dropping the stretcher between them.
Almost as much shock as Shiho had as the impact knocked the body from under the cloth, revealing the glassy, dead eyes of Shiho Suzui.
The plan was that the Phantoms would go to school, have a normal day, and then take a preliminary scout of the Hedge castle for the weekend.
This plan failed at step two, when they noticed the crowd staring at Kamakami talking with a policeman on the topic of a broken window. Specifically, the window in her door.
"... No, that's the thing. The lock's jimmied open, but nothing's been taken." Kawakami was gesturing at said window, looking even more dead inside than usual. "It's not much, just... Can my class be normal, just for a few weeks?"
The officer gave her a sympathetic look before tearing his notes off the pad. "I think you can at least use this room if it makes you feel better."
Kawakami gave something resembling a grunt of affirmation before opening the door, her class streaming in as the gossip about how the glass could have been broken, with the Phantoms in her class following behind at a close rate-
Which is why Ann nearly shrieked in surprise when her phone nearly smacked her in the face. "You forgot this yesterday, Takamaki," Kawakami said, apparently oblivious to to how violently she thrust the smartphone out. "Please keep an eye on it."
More weirded out by Kawakami's cold tone, Ann accepted it back with a quiet 'thank you', giving the teacher an uneasy glance.
Kawakami, for her part, didn't seem to notice, as she was focusing on Shinobu and Futaba, eyes following them as they settled into their seats.
She didn't break her stare as she made her way to the front of the class, gaze steely and somehow calculating.
Which is why that when she began her homeroom lecture with "First of all, you'll have to forgive the broken door," the changelings felt like there was an unspoken and the responsible parties will pay part.
Shiho did not think there was a description for the kind of emotion she was feeling right now.
Which was strange, because, after she regained the capacity to think in things other than screams and variations of ohGodImdeadImdead, she was pretty sure that seeing your own dead and brutalized body resulted in a kind of "acute existential horror", or in layman's terms picked up from Hifumi, "hearing your SAN dice rolling." If anything could result in making you fear that reality was never what you thought it was, it was that.
No, the emotion she was feeling right now needed to be described in simile, somewhere between shame, embarrassment, frustration, and bitter anger.
How else were you to describe that discovering the police investigating your own murder viewed you as an inconvenient complication?
"How's Ms. Spoiled Watcher over there?", one of the goblin cops said with a rude jabbing of his thumb. "She planning on becoming her own grandma or something?"
"Far as I know, she is fine with only the minor assault on causality, so I'm just not leaving her in proximity to any timejammers. If the dominant humanoid species becomes sauroid, I'll stop seeking the bonus this year." The crow-headed detective gave a cawing laugh before walking off to go back to the crime scene, careful to angle himself and manipulate the door so Shiho could see as little of her scene of death as possible before closing it behind them.
"You will have to pardon them," one of the golden-eyed nurses said, propping herself next to Shiho. "The victim of a murder knowing her own death can cause clues to become temporally unstable. The circumstances of death change, and thus, so does the evidence. They do not wish to have to overview this site twice."
"Doesn't help that they're lazy bastards," the other nurse said, crabbily. "Take it from me, they think a crime scene makes them royalty; if you aren't a cop, you're obviously a servant to Our Esteemed Duchy of Justice."
Shiho tried to laugh, a shrill, hysteric sound. "... So that's a future me? I'm going to be..." She mimed a stabbing motion across her torso.
"Well," the crabby nurse began with a deadpan look. "It could be you in the past, but given how you were surprised, I think that's less likely."
Shiho glared. "That's not funny."
The nurse winced. "Yeah, I'm not very good at levity. Intimidation and restraint, yes, levity... Eh." She shrugged. "Working on it."
"Yeah." Shiho tried to smile. "Truth is, I'd find it funny... Except I'm apparently destined to be... Chewed," she said, in the only way she could describe it.
"It would seem that way, yes," the other nurse said, her eye scanning the door to the crime scene. "Time is... Not like the human world's, here. It lives, and like any living thing, it changes and adapts to fit what stresses it. Occasionally, it gets bored, and so..." She gestured at the door.
"Mmm. How fun," Shiho said, sarcastically in spite of everything. "So - when is that going to happen?"
"In theory? Couple weeks, maybe within a week. Natural time anomalies tend to stick to a small window." The nurse puffed out her cheek, looking like someone who was mentally her apparent age. "Of course, that's about as much as we can tell you..."
Shiho sat up, the towel she was wearing falling away. "What?"
"Your presence here is... An irritant, to time," the calm nurse said, eye narrowing. "To give you even more foreknowledge would risk in this event becoming an impossibility, something everyone remembers, but did not actually occur. That variety of paradox invites chaos-"
The shock cleared, replaced by anger. "And for the sake of temporal order," Shiho growled, "I get to suffer. I'm so flattered, that my horrible mutilated death supports the inherent temporal order."
"Suzui," the polite nurse began, evenly (and not telling where it was she heard Shiho's name). "Time is greater than us. To claim that you know better than its natural course is immense pride."
"Do you mind writing that up? I'll be sure to tell Emma-O that I showed immense humility in being murdered." Shiho got up, turning to face the nurses with a snarl. "And I find it interesting how time gets to decide when it wants to change, and what kind of irritant is acceptable."
"... Do you mean to imply," the rude nurse said, eye widening, "That you would happily tear the time-space continuum itself a new one if it meant you would survive?"
"I would happily tear it several if I could stop any murder, but since this is my own, I'll just settle with the one," Shiho retorted.
There was a bit of a pause, before the polite nurse pulled out a pen to write something on her clipboard. "Why, Suzui," she began, mildly. "Such talk is sedition against the Department of Temporal Justice. Why, to imply that their mission of punishment instead of prevention is self-defeating it outright blasphemous to the Duchy."
"Hearing it, naturally, we have to report you for inciting rebellious attitudes that threaten the See of Agency," the rude warden said, smirking slightly. "Such a shame then, that you were too busy being in shock to say anything, and not find the Selkie Princess, who may or may not have an idea of what killed you from description alone, who may have an address on a business card that we completely forgot near you..."
Shiho's rage derailed, leaving her utterly dumbfounded as a paper with a strangely familiar address fell near her.
Eventually, she found her voice, having comprehended what was going on. "T... Thank you," she said, bowing as she swiped the paper.
"No. Thank you," the polite nurse said as she brushed her ponytail out of her face with her clipboard. "It's been a while since we were surprised like this."
"Yeah. Seeing what happens after this Play is going to be amazing," the rude nurse said as she tapped her baton on her hair buns.
In another life, another job, Sadayo had been called Sensei Escalation.
She hated that nickname. Leaving aside the fact it really wasn't accurate - yes, Sadayo did like to surprise her targets with overwhelming force, but that was to end things quickly, not make them more explosive - fate seemed to have taken it as a dare.
No matter what kind of quarry, no matter what situation, none of her monster-related problems seemed happy just being the monster problem; they either got worse, or they came as a set. Or both.
Today was an example of 'both."
It wasn't just the window, although it was certainly worthy of the string of profanity she gave upon its discovery; she didn't care that students may have heard, there was a hole in her door. That was worth at least a Category 3 Swearstorm (Sober Sailor). No, it was a selection of issues that began the day before.
First was completely mundane. Her night job regularly brought her into contact with some of the most disgusting specimens of what could still be loosely termed humans on a semi-regular basis. Yesterday was semi-regular. This already put her in an ill mood.
The second thing was, of course, the door. She knew exactly what it meant when someone broke into somewhere and took nothing valuable, that meant someone was looking for information. Which meant someone was on to her. What was it with yokai and the strange sense they had for hunters who were out for them, anyway? Even slashers, who... Weren't yokai, technically, just very nasty killers.
The third was that she had been listening in on Kobayakawa through the senses her pipe fox could share with her during homeroom, and found tantalizing hints going by the principal's nervous behavior. Not actual information, hints. The kind of hint you find when you knew that something interesting was about to happen or had happened, as shown by Kobayakawa anxiously tapping the phone, as if trying to decide if he should call somebody. This was more fraying her patience than anything, but it was something that compounded on to item number four:
The fact that, when exiting her class and the presence of the likely causes for the broken door, Kamoshida stopped her. "Um, this is going to be a sudden question," he said with an awkward grin. "Have you seen Suzui around anywhere?"
The growing fatigue she felt from the morning evaporated. "Suzui?", she asked, more to give herself time to get into character as 'teacher who is totally fine and not at all scared, thank you' than actual confusion. "Sorry, not recently. She's not in my homeroom, so I wouldn't notice."
"Yeah, the thing is, she didn't show up to homeroom today, and Inui is a little worried. It's not like her to skip school unless she's very sick, and when I saw her yesterday, she seemed..." He trailed off for a second. "Fine."
Except, of course, he sounded massively uncertain of that. Which confirmed an internal suspicion that she had that it wasn't just her that noticed Suzui seemed preoccupied by something. Nor that, quietly, she was in the direct social impact crater of someone who seemed near the core of this.
"I'll keep an eye out for her, thanks for telling me," she said without actually lying. She just didn't tell him she suspected there was a reason she vanished beyond just being a delinquent or having a cold.
As she walked off, Kawakami quietly muttered her particular interpretation of the gimu oath under her breath, focusing on her duties to understand what Hattori was and what threat he posed.
Duties, she now realized, were on a time limit.
"You know," Shiho said, looking at the green world around her, "You could have given me some landmarks."
The nurses, of course, did not hear her, not did Shiho expect them to. She couldn't even see the castle anymore, the winding earthy road having hidden it behind green, thorny plants. And they did say that if she kept walking until she found a natural emerald pool, she'd get to the Selkie.
The problem was... There was a lot of pools at the side of the road here. Most of which were tinged green from the light shining through the plants. As she walked, a depression gave way to fill with water from some underground spring, and a quick glance back confirmed it wasn't alone.
Somehow she was rolling with this.
Still didn't make searching for the true pool any easier though. As she turned a corner to reveal over a dozen of the pools, she sighed, and sat down next to a large one.
"Okay then," she murmured. "Let's think about you logically. Is the emerald just a shade, or is it the water itself? Or the lining. Hm..."
She looked at her reflection. "Maybe it's you?", she asked it. "Maybe the proper one has a different sheen?"
"Well, there is something off with me, but I don't think I'm the proper one you'd be looking for," her reflection replied in a light Scottish accent.
Shiho just... Stared, for a bit. The reflection, apparently feeling awkward, rippled slightly like it was caught in a funhouse mirror and used the distortion to wave at her.
If she survived this, she decided, she would just... Sleep, for a week. "... Hi," she said, eventually.
"Heya," the reflection said. "And uh, just leading with this: I'm not some time-displaced version of you or some bit of soul caught in a mirror in the rear end of nowhere, I'm a mirror person. I just borrowed your reflection here."
"Oh good," Shiho said, flatly. "Nice to know there's not yet another clone of me, it's just that light itself is being used as a costume." She sighs. "Look, sorry... Is it alright if I call you 'miss'? You could be a guy when talking with other... Mirror people."
"Whatever you want is fine. We don't really... Have that, when we aren't inside a reflection," the mirror person said. "Thanks for asking, though."
"Ah. Ms. Mirror Person, unless you've got a good idea on which pool leads to someone I need to talk to about a murder, I don't think I can deal with the distraction." Shiho was careful to leave out whose murder to a total stranger.
"Ah, see, way ahead of you. I got the feeling you need yourself a native guide to reflections, and really, who's one better to ask than someone who lives in them?" The mirror person held out her hand, not even bothering to follow Shiho's movements. "Come on, I'll show you around!"
Shiho nearly took it - then her brain kicked in, having processed the concept of a mirror person and having realized it saw this movie before when surfing Hifumi's recommendations. "... You're not planning on a switch between me and you, are you?"
The false Shiho's expression fell. "Damnit." She sighed and lowered her hands. "Ain't bothering to deny that. Mirror people - we don't have forms unless we're reflecting someone. Of any kind, even thought."
Despite the confession, Shiho felt a little pang of sympathy for the kidnapper. "I get it. You can't really exist unless someone's looking in your mirrors."
"Precisely. If I switch, though, then you'll always be reflecting, because you're inside the mirror..." The mirror person shrugged. "It was worth a shot."
"Which leads me back to square one," Shiho said, sourly.
Then, a thought occurred to her. "... Actually," she said, thinking. "Do you actually know what a mirror portal to somewhere would be like, if you were inside it?"
"Yeah, I would ken it. Why?"
"... I'll be straight with you, since you were with me," Shiho began, turning to the mirror person. "I'm going to find a Selkie Princess. That sounds like a person with a lot of magic, so while I'm there, why don't I put in a word for you? If nothing else, she can pay a servant to be in your place for a while."
The false Shiho's eyes widened. "... Is that a promise? Fair warning, promises here that get broken really piss off this world."
"It is," Shiho said. "I'd shake on it, but..."
"Yeah, don't blame you there. But it sounds reasonable," the mirror person admitted. "Though... I did just try to throw you inside a mirror so I could joyride in your face for a bit. Why are you helping me?"
The image of a certain volleyball coach appeared in Shiho's mind. "Because I know what it's like to be only able to act at the permission of another. And I know what I'd do to escape."
"She's what!?" Shinobu shot up from the door he was leaning on.
"Missing! You know; not here!", Ann hissed, more too panicked to control her thoughts than seeking to actually inform anyone. "I checked for her everywhere, and she's gone! Vanished! Might as well have turned into thin air!" Her veins sparked and the glow within shifted, red light shining out in an unhealthy mottled shine. Ever her hoodie started to smoke.
Shinobu turned to her, and put his hands on her shoulders, internally grateful she called him and Futaba to the roof away from the gossip contingent. "Ann. Ann, breathe. You have every right to be scared, you just need to think about what you're trying to say."
"I-" She paused, before inhaling, her internal biology stabilizing. "Right. Okay, calming down. Okay." She inhaled. "Before you ask, I called her home. Parents weren't there, which means that they're on a business trip, so, you know, the school isn't suppressing that a student never got back home. Small silver linings!" She gave a shrill giggle, then tried to breathe again. "But she's not in any of our meet-up spots, and nobody's seen her - well, nobody's told me they've seen her, but I don't see why they'd lie, and-I'm rambling, point is, given what the castle is, I'm worried that, you know..." She looked around. "We have... Others about."
Shinobu paled, realizing how plausible that was. "Right. Good point."
"And it sucks, because we can't leave school suddenly, that'll make Kamoshida suspicious, and-"
"Hey, Kage?" Futaba suddenly said. "Didn't Ohya teach you that Contract she uses to summon her bouncers?"
Shinobu looked confused. "Um, I'm not sure how that'll-"
"There's a lot of hobgoblins in the world," Futaba said. "It won't cost anything if the gambling minigame doesn't pay out."
Shrugging, Shinobu stepped to the they had come out of, inhaled, and slowly turned the knob, thinking about .
"I have a guest, who looks just like my Mask and will take my place in school for the rest of the day and whom I will pay for any meals he might want for the duration of his term in my service!", he intoned, opening the door.
And shrieked along with his two friends, when a very human(-appearing) Shinobu waved from the entryway.
"'Ello there, temp boss!" The copy smiled winningly, a bit too wide for his apparent humanity. "How may a mirror person help you with skimping on education this fine afternoon?"
The changelings looked at each other, suddenly reminded of how weird the Hedge was.
"... I'll stay behind, take notes on classes," Futaba said, evenly. "I'll borrow the pet class feature while you're in the Hedge."
"You think you can get one that looks like me too? Feels like if it's Shiho, I should look."
A few minutes later, hobgoblins in the form of two changelings and one actual changeling returned from lunch with instructions on how to be normal students, while the imposters' counterparts dove into the castle ahead of schedule.
In hindsight, Shinobu realized, maybe he shouldn't have summoned members of a race of strange hobgoblins. Else, he would have known how profoundly angry mirror people could be.
"So it was lined with emeralds." Shiho said, mildly, as she rose from the pool on the other end of the first pool. "I was confused about that."
"Wait, that was emerald lining?" The mirror person flickered into being in a nearby stained glass window. "Well, I guess it was. Along with silt, sand, mud, and quite possibly a layer of brown paint over some of them. Mostly mud," She sighed, before looking around the gray walls of the building, and the raised font of water Shiho had come out in front of the statue of a hunter with a lion's tail and a deer's antlers. "So, our bargain?"
"I truly promise," Shiho confirmed. "Though now where is that-ah!"
The tastefully decorated rows of wooden chairs were mostly unoccupied, save for a dark-haired girl in a silvery cloak, looking intently at a miniature field with rows of tiny people glaring at each other.
"Excuse me? Are you the Selkie Princess?"
The girl jerked back, spinning around with an expression of utter surprise in her dark, sea-tinged eyes. "Wha-? How-" She blinked, upper lip twisting so she could glance at her seal whiskers before looking around her.
After what felt like a minute of silence, the girl looked back, still baffled, but... Curious. "I suppose... I am. You wished to speak with me... Human?"
Shiho decided that her apparent confusion could be chalked up to another Weird Thing About This Crazy Place. "Okay, first of all, I had a guide that got me to you, a mirror person. She asked me to get a vow from you that you or someone you know could look into, and later assist, her in a way of getting out of her plane of being more often over the next week or so."
The Princess nodded. "I accept this term," she said, voice with a note of echoing finality. "But I doubt you would have trusted one of them unless you wanted to speak with me for a pressing reason. You may do so."
"Well," Shiho began, inhaling. "It's about my future murder."
The Princess stared at her for a bit, before leaning forward, brow knitted in concentration. "Start from the top. I believe we have more time than there is in the world."
The moment Sadayo saw Takamaki coming back from lunch, she knew something was off.
Her inner hunter was a person who developed a small profile of everyone socially nearby both for pragmatic early warnings, and to pass the time, and right now, said hunter was feeling quite smug for having pressured her to keep an eye on students. While Takamaki was not the least extroverted girl in the world, she did mostly keep a safe distance from the rest of the student body. Even more so after the start of term, for some reason probably related to Hattori. Which meant a rather subdued daily existence.
The blonde girl who came to the Japanese class did not so much walk so much as bounce, putting Sadayo in mind of a big blonde puppy stretching her legs, with a rather embarrassed-looking expression from Sakura, right behind her.
Trying not to make it obvious she was staring along with the rest of the class, Sadayo became very interested in neatening up her papers to absolute symmetry, snatching glances at her and Hattori's table.
After a bit of observation, it became clear Hattori was also slightly different, just not as blatantly. He seemed more relaxed, more casual, but also not as cozy with Sakura; it was just now she noticed that he didn't drag his chair closer to her, and she seemed less open around him, more like she was sitting next to a friendly acquaintance than... Whatever they were.
That was about the extent of the weird in the course of her class; Sakura keeping Hattori at a distance, Takamaki's oddly outgoing nature, and (she later noticed) the worried glances Mishima kept shooting at them when he thought she wasn't looking (thank you, easily concealable compact mirrors).
And then it ended, after which Kamoshida showed up.
This wasn't strange, in and of itself. The coach often came by on his walks, and often chatted up students. Given how Suzui was missing, it didn't strike her as especially odd for Takamaki to be asked if she knew anything. It wasn't a secret the two were close friends. Nor was it too odd that the door blocked enough sound that Sadayo couldn't eavesdrop without being incredibly obvious.
What was strange was Takamaki greeting the coach cheerfully, then looking downcast after he talked to her for a bit (did she just discover that Suzui was missing? Sadayo would expect she'd have figured it out).
And then Takamaki lost her temper for the first time Sadayo had ever known.
Sadayo still couldn't hear what came out of the coach's mouth as he closed his eyes in apparent sympathy, only that it caused Takamaki to go rigid, hands curling into fists before she spoke again, through gritted teeth. Apparently taken aback, a startled Kamoshida tried to steer the conversation back to whatever topic started it, only for Takamaki, in defiance of everything Sadayo knew about her, to look him straight in the eyes, rise up to be as level with the much taller man as possible, and even from the other side of the Wall of Silence, Sadayo could see she was outright hissing.
Needless to say, Kamoshida didn't take that lying down, eyes narrowing as he began to respond, only for Takamaki to grow even more enraged, at least until Sakura all but tackled her away from the fight, pulling her down to her level and whispering something that caused her to look absolutely mortified. The blonde student mumbled what was almost certainly an apology, bowed, and rushed through the gaping crowd that had gathered to watch the fight.
Looking absolutely furious, the volleyball coach stormed into the stunned Sadayo's office, looking just about ready to strangle someone. "... Before Takamaki leaves your class," he said in the same tone of voice one might associate with thunder at the beginning of a hurricane, "She is cleaning your classroom, and the classroom of every other teacher whose class she is a part of. Further disciplinary measures will be considered with Kobayakawa, and you will be there."
Sadayo mutely nodded, recognizing the impossibility of opposing the school athletic star on this.
"Cool. 'Has-been' my foot, I'll show her 'has-been', little..." Kamoshida muttered as he stormed out of the room.
... So. New symptom of Whatever Supernatural Thing Was Happening: Takamaki's sudden change of personality into someone who apparently got into arguments with teachers until calmed down by one of the prime suspects.
Whatever this thing was, Sadayo was sure, she needed to have more data on whatever was happening to her too. Thankfully, she had an excuse to retrieve her familiar now.
As she left her room, still a bit dazed, Sadayo could swear she smelled something that reeked of sweat and roses.
"You didn't tell us that guy had an in with the major honcho here!" The mirror person currently wearing Ann's reflection hissed. "I don't be knowing everything this place does!"
"Well, forgive us for thinking you could realize what a bad idea insulting a teacher could be!" Futaba hissed back. "Do you not understand the concept of 'hang on, this guy is way overleveled, maybe I should sneak by and not put a big target on my friend's head!?"
"Well, maybe he shouldn't be trying to blackmail me! Er, Ann!" The mirror person crossed Ann's arms, looking defiant. "She would lose it if she was told that spiel about being worried about, what's her name, Shiho's place on the team if I didn't intervene!"
"Yeah, and Ann probably would have choked back on it," Mishima retorted as he rubbed his forehead, already sick of the immature hobgoblin imposter. "That was underhanded of him, but you have to be realistic-"
"I am! And the reality is that I don't want my one day of living outside a damn glass being entertaining some gross pervert!" The imposter panted, then sighed. "Look, I know I'm being all dramatic here-"
"You don't say," Futaba groaned.
"Letting me finish, please!" The mirror person held up a finger. "But, the colony that lives around here, me included? We having had Kamoshida's reflection a lot recently, because he is grooming or checking his weight very often. So we knowing what he does with our faces when our faces are his? You'd be getting sick of doing what he wants a lot too!"
"I-" Mishima stopped, thinking on this. "Okay, I get it. But, Kamoshida's way too strong to take on directly. He's got the support of the principal."
"So you are telling me," she replied, looking down. "And I am being sorry I broke orders to not giving Ann some trouble when she is back. I am owing you a free favor as an apology."
"Good," Futaba said, anger having burned out and replaced with a general tiredness. "Should almost make up for the headaches caused when Ann has no idea why she's being disciplined."
"Hopefully Shiho's all right," Mishima agreed.
"Well," the Selkie Princess replied, mildly. "That's... Quite the problematic field. To be in check, and not even know the rules of the game..."
"Yes, and I have no idea when I'm going to get mate and, you know, die horrible. For all I know, it could be you that kills me." Even as she said it, Shiho winced. "No offense, I'm just very, um, frustrated right now."
"That's an odd way to pronounce 'scared for your life'," the Princess replied. "And if anything, I would think it would be rather rude of me to expect an apology, because you weren't stoically polite while aware you are going to be violently killed." She brought her hands down onto her lap in a gesture Shiho thought oddly familiar, biting her lip. "But... I think I recognize the beast you describe, and I think she might be the killer."
Shiho sat up. "Really? It didn't seem that-"
"It can be," the Princess interrupted, looking a little frustrated at being interrupted. "And it is what I can help you with."
"Sorry," Shiho replied with a blush.
"It's fine. Though - tell me, Shiho, are you familiar with Arthurian mythology?"
Shiho cocked her head. "... Does the Nasuverse franchise count?"
"So, not at all. That's fine, I don't think they've even gotten to this bit of the lore. In any case," the Selkie said, fishing a book out of her cloak to check. "The thing you describe sounds like the Questing Beast, the nemesis of King Pellinore, and later Sir Palamedes the Sacaren; she is a cursed creature, and the instrument of her curse, born of human perversity and twisted by vengeful magic. She is quite mad now; she attacks kingdoms and curses them with omens, to punish the world for the crime of her birth."
Shiho blinked. "... Okay, so why is she attacking me? I'm not exactly some queen-"
"Perhaps not. But perhaps your death will lead to the end of a kingdom, and among other things, she is a Moriae, a fairy who embodies Fate. She sees both present and possibility, and it could be that she saw a very distinct one branching from your murder." The Princess shrugged. "But I am not privy to the mindset of monsters."
"... Then can you at least explain why she hates kingdoms as a concept so much?" Shiho rubbed her head. "If I'm going to be a prop to lead to lead to some monarchy becoming a failed state, I'd at least like to know why she's so angry about being born she's decided she doesn't believe in kings?"
"You would be rather skeptical of kings too, if you were born of a frustrated desire for the blood purity of incest twisted into murder."
If one listened closely, one could probably hear the train of thought in Shiho's mind derail. "... Sorry?"
"Pellinore's ancestors were, in most polite terms possible, a predecessor of the Habsburgs," the Princess said with a sour, disgusted expression. "They were paralyzed with terror at the thought of rivals developing a lineage that would allow them to claim their thrones. In short, they decided to maintain power by, erm... Not allowing anyone else into their family lines. In time, they stopped caring how distant those branches on their family tree were in the name of maintaining their claim, and..." She shivered. "I don't need to tell you what issues this could produce."
Briefly mute (and white as a sheet), Shiho nodded, eager to get through this part of the story as quickly as possible.
"Excellent. The point is, eventually their line came to a brother and a sister," she said as she flipped to a relevant illustration in her book, which Shiho steadfastly refused to look at. "Now, the brother saw what was happening to his family, and knew even in those eras that his unhealthy ancestry was to blame. So, in time, he courted a quite unrelated noble of a distant kingdom, against the wishes of his family - and more pertinently to our tale, his sister."
"Now, the princess was a sorceress in her own right, not a gifted one, but one who knew of darker forces, who knew secrets she did not," the Princess continued, a distant look in her eye as she went into a tone of voice only describable as 'narrative'. "Furious that the power in her family may now have a different claimant, she summoned a great incubus who claimed to know of ways to transfer his affections to herself, in return for her offering herself to him first; the Questing Beast was the product of that union."
"Ah," Shiho grimaced. "So, she was collateral to force... That," she said, unwilling to say it lest the taste of the words lead her to vomit on the Princess.
"I haven't finished yet," the Princess grimly continued. "The princess forgot that the incubus was, by nature, both a cruel trickster and a creature of genuine desire, and he himself had grown ill with her domineering personality. So, he revealed his existence and scheme to the sheriff, but in a fit of malicious pique, claimed that it was the princes that summoned him. For this crime, the prince was condemned to be torn apart from dogs, knowing the reality behind his deaths, and he died cursing that her child would be just as much an abomination as that which his sister forced on him. She died giving birth to the Beast, and as a final humiliation, the line that led to Pellinore continued within his beloved - one that did not share the princess' last name."
Shiho sat there, processing this.
Then her brow furrowed. "Uh, if she didn't have his name, wouldn't the line of succession end given how that kid was born out of wed-"
"He had already proposed, that was considered good enough by the advisors for his son to be named heir. The advisors of his fiancee's family, admittedly, but by that point the Beast had killed most of his line, and none of his surviving advisors were particularly willing to explain why the title should be kept with the family whose devotion to blood purity created a half-demon monster that ate most of said family," the Princess deadpanned. "But that was a good catch. To see the plot holes in the narrative of history is a skill of the wise."
"Okay. So, I'm the pawn sacrificed in whatever scheme she has to bring down another country. Or will have," Shiho corrected, remembering the temporal shenanigans. "Any other clues, like where she lives so I can convince her to bring it down in a way that doesn't involve murder? Especially not of me?"
"She is a creature of the woods and rivers. While she moves where her prescience takes her, she always keeps to lake glades; there is a very large one to the west, though I recommend a carriage. I can call one, if you desire."
"Really? Um, thank you very much!" Shiho gave a polite bow. "Though, the mirror person?"
"Oh? Oh yes, sorry, I forgot. I suppose she is still in the font-er, the pool?"
"Excellent," the Princess said as she took out a horn. "It should arrive in ten minutes."
Ten minutes later, as Shiho was leaving for Inokashira Park, Hifumi Togo felt the pressure in her soul ease, and the world returned to normal, the semi-Medieval symbolic vision dissipating like the dream it was.
Already, Hifumi felt the slight wooziness from having suddenly realized how irrational the world was. Where did she get that book? How was she able to recall that bit of Arthurian legend perfectly? Why did she have whiskers and distinct memories of being a seal? The whole thing felt fragile in her memories, hazy and indistinct. Obviously, it couldn't be real; nothing real involved a frequent opponent in shogi rising out of a church's baptismal front and asking you to help her solve her future murder.
In normal circumstances, the shogi player supposed, she would promptly call the hospital to treat a hallucination, assuming she remembered the vision of the Arcadian shrine at all.
But Hifumi was never crippled by being normal. More than that, she knew that there was actually an extremely vast difference between what was "real", and what was True.
Very importantly, while she had never seen it before (and nobody, least of all her, expected it to happen in her presence), she knew what was happening - and that it wasn't happening to Hifumi.
After taking what felt like an hour to regain her bearings, but was probably closer to half a minute, Hifumi pulled out her cell phone, and dialed a particular number.
"Mr. Yoshida? Yes, I know you're working on a speech but - I think I was just given a role in my friend's Adyton. Well, I assume it was Arcadian, given how it revolves around solving her own murder, the fact I was cast as a fae princess, and I owe a supernatural creature a deferred favor. She's a student at Shujin - yes, Shujin, I'm surprised too..."
I've noticed that I'm actually a little better about writing when I feel pressured by school. Weird.
Also, it should be noted I don't hate the Nasuverse, but yeah, it's not exactly the most faithful adaptation of myth. That's the point, but still, it's going to be teased by someone who knows the myth.
As for today's Under the Hood:
You ain't getting much on Hifumi here, but there's a couple blatant hints as to what's happening. Note Important Capital Letters and the title.
Mirror people are not fetches, but a species of hobgoblin - and bare the distinction of being in the core of the CofD 2E. They are, as implied, a race of normally formless fae who possess the reflections of people in special mirrors, becoming clones of the reflected right down to the Attributes - with completely different personalities and a lot of anger about only being able to exist when reflecting other people, only having individual identity through their tells (like out-of-country natural accents). They're actors playing a role rather than custom-built, and not very good at acting when stressed or feeling spiteful. They're great for being in two places at once, though, as seen through use of the Discreet Summons Contract.
Speaking of, that's a Crown Contract that actually is very, very useful to a thief. Besides being able to summon a bunch of varied hobgoblin mercenaries if you're near an unlocked door, it can also steal items through hammerspace; the invoking changeling just reaches inside a bag and pulls out what was suddenly always in there. Yeah, Shinobu is going to have fun with that.