It was a beautiful early fall morning. The sky was clear, the air was just ever so slightly crisp and cool, and nature was just giving hint to the color changes that came with the season. A perfect day for the Investigation Team to take a laid back training session in the TV World, then plan on a nice hot pot dinner at the Dojima residence.
To the group of eight, it was a good way to spend time reuniting. It had been four months or so since they’d been all together, what with Souji and Yosuke taking college courses in the city, Yukiko helping her family inn and taking night courses at the community college, and Chie taking prep courses to join the police academy. Rise was balancing being an idol and finishing her last year of high school alongside Kanji, Naoto, and Teddie. Naoto still worked on cases, but was also staying as close to Inaba as she could to finish her last year. Teddie was split between tutoring to keep up the facade of having been home-schooled –Dojima and Naoto pulling strings to forge records for him so he legally existed–, working at Junes for his adoptive parents, playing with Nanako and her friends, and school itself. And Kanji was split between school, learning to take over his family business, and helping out Teddie.
Of course, there was also the occasional meeting with Mitsuru and her Shadow Operatives, but those were way too short for proper catching up time. Thus, taking a day to train in the TV World while everyone was in Inaba for a few days was perfect.
…Or, it would’ve been, if not for a teeny, tiny, mishap…
“Hey, Teddie? What’s with the advertisements everywhere today? And all the TVs are showing video games…,” Chie questioned as the group strolled into the Junes electronics department, looking around in curiosity.
Teddie, in his human form of course, giggled a bit. “Ah, Hanamura-tousan said that all Junes stores are running a special on games that use to feature bear-y prominently in arcades. There’s been a surge of popularity for classic arcade games lately.”
“Oh yeah, he did mention that the other day,” Yosuke mused before grinning at Souji, playfully elbowing his partner. “Maybe we can find a copy of that platformer you were talking about a while back, Partner.”
Souji shook his head with a fond smile, elbowing Yosuke back as he habitually led the group to their usual entrance to the TV World. “I doubt it, since the console it was on isn’t produced anymore. Nice thought though.” He did pause a moment, taking in the game being featured on their TV and motioning to it in curiosity. “Speaking of games, which one is this? I don’t recognize it.”
Surprisingly, it was Kanji that answered. “That’s the most recent version of that dungeon-crawler series, Gauntlet Dark Legacy. It’s got good character selection options, a variety of dungeon aesthetics, and pretty easy controls. It’s not terrible in the story department either, though you gotta rely on the manual and stuff that was officially published to get the whole thing.”
“Huh, never would’ve pegged you to like dungeon-crawlers, Kanji. Fighting games, sure, but not stuff that’s more RPG,” Rise commented, getting a snort and blush from the taller teen.
“Ah, shut it, Rise. I can like something with a little more story to it.”
Smiling a bit himself, Souji held up a hand to stave off any teasing. “Okay, let’s not rag on Kanji. Everybody ready to go?”
Getting affirmatives from everyone, and Naoto helpfully confirming there was no one nearby to see them, the group stepped through one after another. The fall was the same as always, white light with black TV outlines passing around them like a tunnel…until everything turned black and everyone jerked to a halt midair.
“Wh-What the heck?! What’s happening?!” Chie demanded, trying to whip around to check their surroundings but ending up flailing as she couldn’t get any momentum.
“Something feels bear-y strange, Sensei!” Teddie called out, already in his bear-form and looking deeply nervous. “I can’t really smell anything, but I can feel something interfering with the natural energy of the TV World!”
Before Souji could say anything, his mind snapping through ideas and possibilities a mile per second, a booming voice sounded around them. “Heroes of the realms, you have been chosen!”
“Hey, that kinda sounds like-–AAAAAAAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH!” Kanji was interrupted, screaming with everyone else as they were yanked through the air sideways, bluish-white light enveloping them.
Two of them felt like they were squeezed through a tube, not noticing the physical changes that occurred along with the sensation. But all of them felt something shifting against their bodies, catching faint glimpses of their clothes changing before the light around them brightened to near blinding levels.
A split second later, the light vanished, and the group fell to the, regrettably, hard stone floor. On the plus side, they didn’t land in a pile, but that seemed to be the only positive for the moment.
“Welcome, heroes, to Sumner’s Tower.”
Everyone looked from where they were pushing themselves up into sitting positions, meeting the shadowed gaze of what could only be described as the most stereotypical wizard they could’ve imagined. Layered, loose robe-like clothing in yellow and orange. A well-worn, wide-brimmed wizard hat. A long, slightly bushy, white and grey beard. Honestly, aside from the color choice, most of them would say they were looking at a portrayal of Merlin from Celtic legends.
“Please, rise. There is much to do, and little time if we are to save the Eight Realms.”
“Now, hold on one darn minute!” Chie snapped, planting hands on her hips and not noticing the wide-eyed looks she received as her friends took a double take at her. “First of all, where are we? And second, how did we get here, ‘cuz this sure isn’t where we were trying to go!”
The Sumner tipped his head toward her, and his voice was perfectly calm as he replied in that booming voice that apparently had no volume control. “This place is known as The Mythic Tower or Sumner’s Tower, and it serves as one of the gateways into the Eight Realms, as well as my home. You are here because I used my magic to summon forth heroes, one representative of each realm, who would be able fight and save us all from the demon known as Skorne.”
“Then you should get your magic checked, because you grabbed the wrong people! We’re not from these realms you’re talking about!”
“Chie, enough,” Souji stated with a firm look, Chie grumbling but subsiding so Souji could take over the questioning. “I’m sorry for my friend’s yelling, but we’re very confused. Only one of us is familiar with what you’re talking about, and only in the form of…well, a story.” Souji almost said ‘game’, but stopped himself, believing that would’ve been tactless. “And Chie is correct in that we’re not from the realms you speak of.”
The Sumner laced his fingers together, his hands pressed against the top of his podium as he leaned forward slightly. “That would explain the oddities among you. For example,” the Sumner nodded toward Souji himself, “Valkyries are normally female. A male Valkyrie is so rare that it is nearly unheard of.”
Souji looked down, attempting to take in his appearance, while everyone’s attention turned toward him. Kanji, the only one familiar with all the character appearances for the game, couldn’t help but muse over his senpai’s appearance. The overall style of Souji’s armor was that of the Gold Valkyrie, though the top was slightly adjusted so it came up around Souji’s neck in a small mandarin collar, and from Kanji’s view it was partly backless, leaving Souji’s shoulder-blades in view. The color scheme, however, was deep blue accented in bright steel grey and dark gold, like the Blue Valkyrie. Surprisingly, Souji was just slim and lean enough to pull the look off, though it still was a touch awkward with his broad shoulders. The diadem-style helm, again of the Gold Valkyrie model, even slightly resembled Izanagi’s mask in a way, and looked surprisingly fitting since Souji had grown his hair out a little bit the past year.
“Huh, you kinda make that work, Senpai,” Kanji couldn’t help but comment, glancing over at Yosuke when he heard the burnished-brunet squeak slightly. He couldn’t help but grin when he realized Yosuke couldn’t take his eyes off of Souji, not saying anything even as he mentally laughed at the blush staining Yosuke’s face.
The silver-haired teen was a bit bemused with his change in appearance, but shrugged and rolled with it. It’s not like was the first time he had cross-dressed. “I can see how this is a little odd. What else is off?”
The Sumner obliged his question, motioning now to Chie. “Female Dwarves never leave the Ice Domain, as their responsibilities either as defenders or caretakers are too important to them to even contemplate traveling. To even suggest it would be the equivalent of stomping on their pride and earning a fist to the chest or jaw.”
“Dwarves…? Wh-What the?!”
Everyone once again looked at Chie, some trying very hard not to laugh a little bit. She had shrunk, quite a bit in fact, and was more muscled than before. There were a couple small braids in her hair now as well. Aside from that, Kanji was able to identify her armor as that of the Green Dwarf, though it included a small, slightly frayed, midriff-baring vest in green leather for modesty. The bandana for the set was tied over her hair like a headband, instead of around her forehead like the male counterpart. Otherwise, she was wearing an exact replica of the Green Dwarf armor. It wasn’t like it was a bad look for her, but it was clear Chie was not thrilled.
“Wha–?! I’m short! My legs! How am I supposed to fight like THIS?!”
That was all poor Yukiko could take, devolving into one of her laughing fits even as she tried to console her best friend. “Snrk–! A-At least, heeheehee, th-the clothes suit you!”
Chie groaned, dropping her head into her hands as Yukiko leaned on her, obviously trying to control her laughter. “That’s not even the point, Yukiko…”
“Ah, she is also a bit unusual.” Most attention returned to the Sumner at that, who was looking at Yukiko in contemplation. “While clearly one who specializes in magic, she appears to have taken the Wizard’s path, rather than the Sorceress. Unusual, though not unheard of.”
It took a second, given that Kanji didn’t normally play the two magic classes, but he was able to recognize Yukiko’s robes as modeled after the Blue Wizard. The colors were bright red, with bronze and dark blue as her accent colors, but still recognizably the Blue Wizard’s garb. Her hair was partly loose, the ends pulled into a small couple-inch braid to keep it neat, with her normal red headband replaced with a bronze one made of scale-links in place of a helm or skullcap. Good thing the robes were modest, since Kanji doubted Yukiko would keep laughing if they weren’t.
“Is anyone else particularly unusual?”
The Sumner was given almost full attention again at Souji’s question, and the man nodded. “Indeed. Knights,” he motioned over to Naoto, “opposite to Valkyries are almost exclusively male. And the elven Archers,” he gestured at Yosuke, “in recent decades have all been female.”
Naoto didn’t look too unusual, though Kanji couldn’t help an instinctual blush as he studied his friend and crush. The armor was definitely modeled after the Green Knight, nearly identical in fact. However, her colors were blue and copper, and she wore a long-sleeved, midriff-baring tunic top with loose black leather lacing, bandages for modesty visible beneath to bind her chest. To Kanji, she was both dashing and beautiful, as normal, though he didn’t dare say that out loud, especially as she was blushing and shifting with some discomfort.
“I…don’t supposed I could ask for a less revealing shirt?”
“I’m afraid I am not responsible for your appearances. I believe that the guardian spirits each of you possess are the ones who influenced your attire once the realm you would represent was chosen by the inherent magic of my summoning spell.”
“Wait, does that mean I’m stuck in this?!”
Kanji turned at Yosuke’s demand, actually taking in his appearance this time, and he tried valiantly to hold down a laugh. Yosuke’s outfit was a complete replica of the Gold Archer, with the added relief of a pair of shorts beneath the wrap-like skirt. And it was a darker golden color than the original character, with some accents of orange-red here and there. Honestly, it wasn’t a bad look for Yosuke; he wore it a lot better than the dreaded school-girl uniform from the school festival. And admittedly, it was likely to get him less teasing than if he’d been made a Jester, like Kanji could’ve expected.
Souji seemed to have similar thoughts, given he placed a calming hand on Yosuke’s shoulder and smiled as reassuringly as possible. “It’s okay, Yosuke. Think of it this way, this is actually something that you can move and fight in, unlike the you-know-what outfit from the festival.”
Yosuke devolved into quiet grumbling, and Kanji was sure he heard the words “Susano-o’s laughing at me,”, but he did nod grudgingly to Souji’s attempt to console him. That done, Souji retuned his attention to the Sumner again.
“I suppose the rest of our group is normal in comparison?”
The Sumner nodded, settling back again. “Quite. Your Warrior,” he motioned to Kanji, “Jester,” and a wave toward Teddie brought attention to the fact that he was in human form, not bear form, “and your Sorceress,” and he lastly gestured at Rise, “are far more in line with what is expected of those they mirror.”
And Kanji had to agree with that assessment. Teddie, though brighter and far less menacing-looking than the actual Jesters, fit the role and outfit just fine. His clothes were modeled after the Blue Jester, though the hat was clearly from the Green Jester, and were primarily dark red with bold blue and bright silver as his accent colors. Rise wore the exact outfit of the Green Sorceress, though the color was a little more on the pastel side than the acid shade that was normal, and was fairly at ease with it even with the amount of cleavage revealed. Her hair was also held in an artfully messy, high ponytail that worked with the outfit. As for Kanji himself, a quick glance down confirmed he was wearing the Red Warrior armor, but in yellow with grey furs. While he wouldn’t have minded some kind of shirt, he wasn’t all that bothered by the lack of it.
“I see.” Souji was quiet for a second, sweeping his gaze over his team again before looking at the Sumner again. “In any case, back to the problem at hand. We’re not from the realms, so I’m not sure if we can be of any help. Is there any way for you to try your spell again? And send us back to our world?”
The Sumner seemed to wilt ever so slightly, though his voice was as strong as ever. “I am afraid I cannot give you a positive answer to those questions. I only had the materials and strength to cast the summoning spell once, and I greatly risked allowing Skorne to breach the defenses of my tower to do so. Even should I recover and gather materials soon enough to try again, Skorne will be ready and I would not be able to stop him while casting. As for sending you home, I dare not risk it while Skorne exists outside of the Underworld. Were I to try, it is nearly a guarantee that he and his forces will follow the corridor to send you home, and invade your world.”
“That’s bad.” Kanji met Souji’s gaze solidly as the team leader looked at him askance. “Remember, Senpai, I’ve pl––ah, read this story a few times. Skorne is no joke, and if he follows us home…it could actually end up worse than the mess with Adachi, Namatame, and Izanami.”
Worry settled on everyone’s faces at that, even Souji’s, but it was Rise who voiced it. “Then…we can’t go home until Skorne’s beaten? But…how long could that take?”
Kanji flinched at the question, rubbing the back of his neck as he tried to answer in a way that wouldn’t sound absolutely horrible. “Well…we have to get to where Skorne is, which means beating the major bad guys he’s put out to rule each realm… But we have to get to them first, which means going through several areas per realm…”
“Lay it out Kanji, there’s no point in sugarcoating it,” Souji encouraged, concern bright in his eyes.
“I agree with Senpai. Say it plainly, Kanji-kun,” Naoto added, and Kanji could never refuse her.
So he sighed and said bluntly. “Considering how long it could take us to get through some of the places in the TV World? Even if I was nice and said we could get through the realms in a week each, plus a day or two for where Skorne is, that’s still over two months. But thinking over all I can remember…I’d be generous saying we could do it in four months.”
There was silence as the team contemplated that, dread and worry palpable between them. Yukiko’s voice was shaking a bit as she spoke the obvious observations.
“If we’re gone for that long…What will our families think? What will the police think?”
“Considering four of us were known missing persons during the murder case…and we’re all associated with the ones who investigated or faced charges for it… They could reopen that case assuming either the real culprit wasn’t caught or a copycat is on the loose,” Naoto immediately deduced.
Souji had another concern on his mind. “Ojisan knows the details of what was going on since I told him and Adachi-san collaborated during his confession. Even if he doesn’t fully believe it, Ojisan would investigate if he finds out all of us are missing.” Souji swallowed nervously. “He may even pull Adachi-san from jail and make him take him into the TV World to look for us.”
“And if they don’t go through the Junes electronics department, they could end up lost and killed in the TV World, since they might not find the exit,” Yosuke finished for him, taking and squeezing one of Souji’s hands automatically.
“And if we do beat this bad guy and get sent home… How are we supposed to answer questions about where we disappeared to?” Chie asked, without expecting an answer.
As the group started to despair, the Sumner cleared his throat to draw their attention. “Put your minds at ease, heroes. I said I would not risk sending you home while Skorne exists outside of the Underworld, not that I could not do it. Aid me in banishing Skorne from the realm and destroying him within the Underworld to prevent him from rising again, and I will be free to gather the strength and materials necessary to send you home just moments after you were summoned here.”
There was a beat of silence before Chie tried to throw herself at the man, Yukiko and Teddie automatically grabbing hold of her to keep her back. “YOU OLD GEEZER, YOU LET US GET UPSET AND WORRIED OVER NOTHING!!”
“Calm down, Chie-chan! Punting our one way home is a bear-y bad idea!”
“Teddie’s right, Chie! Please settle down!”
Apparently not threatened by Chie’s attempts to beat him up, the Sumner addressed Souji again. “Do we have an accord, Blue Valkyrie?”
Souji nodded, looking much calmer and relieved now that he didn’t have to fear the consequences of missing for months, and got to his feet at last while pulling Yosuke up with him. “Yes, we do. Please, lay out the situation for us in full. While Kanji is aware of the story, you likely have details he might not.”
“Very well. Gather around, heroes, and I will explain.”
Once Souji firmly told Chie to control herself, the eight teens gathered closer to the Sumner’s podium, watching in curiosity as he conjured a large glass orb to float beside him. As the Sumner began to talk again, they watched the images that played through the orb, displaying what Kanji recognized as the opening cinematic for the game.
“Not long ago, my…foolish and power-hungry younger brother, Garm, tried to summon and shackle a demon lord into his thrall. Even using the power of the thirteen runestones to boost his considerable ability, he was unsuccessful. The demon, Skorne, broke free and crushed him, imprisoning his soul within the Underworld. He then released his minions upon the lands, shattering the entrance to the now Desecrated Temple and granting a shard each to the most powerful of his army. Finally, he scattered the runestones and the weapons that could defeat his shard guardians, so they might never be assembled and used against him…”
The Sumner banished the orb, looking at them solidly. “Those who have survived the invasion of the realms are doing all they can to protect those who cannot defend themselves, leaving few able to try and do what needs to be done. Thus, I used a summoning ritual to call on heroes to aid us in this dark time. You must gather the runestones, and find the eight Weapons of Legend first and foremost. Then, defeat the eight monstrosities that guard the shards we will need to access the Desecrated Temple. Only then can you confront Skorne and banish him back to the Underworld, the only place where he can be destroyed once and for all.”
“Straight forward enough, I suppose, though likely not as easy as it sounds,” Naoto murmured softly.
“To begin, we must arm you appropriately.” The Sumner flipped open the book on his podium, chanting in a language none of them recognized before brief flashes of light occurred behind them. Turning around, the team was greeted with the sight of eight weapon sets floating idly before them.
“Blue Valkyrie, before you is the blade and shield of one of the forgotten heroines of ancient times. Freyja was known as an intuitive tactician, but always underestimated due to the depths of her compassion for others. They should serve you well.”
“I will treat them with respect. And please, my name is Souji.” Souji reached out to the tapered long sword, griping the blue wrapped handle firmly before sliding his other hand through the straps of the silver and gold heraldic shield. He stumbled a bit as the levitation spell broke from the armaments, the weight different than he was used to, but otherwise stepped to the side to get a feel for them.
“Gold Archer, the bow before you is a newer weapon, crafted by one of the most skilled wood-shapers among the elves in the last three decades. It is light, but nearly as hard as tempered steel. The mechanisms for automatic firing allow for you to have six arrows notched at once, and a rune-scheme within will duplicate and notch arrows as needed. You need only aim and pull the trigger.”
Yosuke looked very unsure, glancing back at the Sumner over his shoulder. “No offense, but I’ve never used any kind of bow before. I don’t suppose you’ve got some daggers or knives I can use instead?”
The Sumner shook his head. “None in serviceable enough condition to be relied upon for the trials ahead. You will need to learn quickly.”
Glancing over and receiving an encouraging look from his partner, Yosuke sighed a bit and took the bow, holding it carefully as he joined Souji off to the side. The silver-haired teen immediately set his new blade against the wall so he could help Yosuke figure out how to use the bow.
“Red Jester, the bag before you is one received by all Jesters when they first begin training. As your mind and creativity is your greatest weapon, once you reach in, it will form the scepter, bombs, and other items that suit you best.”
“Okay!” Teddie cheerfully took the bag in hand, immediately reaching in and rummaging around until he pulled out a foot-long scepter. The handle was striped with spiraling red and blue, and the top featured his bear form wearing a closed-eye smile. “Perfect!”
Teddie skipped over to the side, slightly away from Souji and Yosuke so he didn’t accidentally hit them as he figured out how to use the scepter.
“–the hammer before you is from two centuries ago, the last forged by the oldest living smith remembered even today. It has been tempered and re-tempered every year as instructed by its maker, and thus is one of the most durable hammers in existence.”
Chie, after glowering over her shoulder at the Sumner, huffed. “I’m a hand-to-hand kind of girl. Just give me some armor for my legs and I’m set! I don’t really need a weapon.”
“Chie, take the hammer. Your new height is going to hamper your normal fighting style badly, so having a weapon will be good for you.” Chie turned her glower on Naoto, who remained unimpressed and impassive until Chie stomped forward and took the hammer.
She did nearly fall over under its weight, but was quick to recover and moved out of the way, sulking against the wall as she started some practice swings to get used to it.
“Blue Knight, as your stature indicates you are not a wielder of heavy weapons, I have called forth a lighter, more tapered mace than is normal among Knights. Made of the hardest wood of the Forest Realm and capped in tempered steel, it should serve you well without hindering your movement. The shield belonged to the youngest Knight Lord of the Sky Dominion to ever lead their order, who passed on a decade ago.”
“Understood. Also, please, my name is Naoto or Shirogane if you prefer.” Naoto carefully took hold of the foot and a half, densely studded mace first, adjusting to its weight before taking the reverse teardrop-shaped shield. She then joined those near the wall, taking some slow practice swings like Chie.
“Gold Warrior, the axe–“
“Uh, can I just say something? I’d probably be better off with a heavy shield or a mace or something. Blunt weapons are more comfortable for me,” Kanji interjected, looking a little sheepishly at the Sumner.
The Sumner was silent for a second, but apparently decided to oblige him, a wave of his hand replacing the large battle axe with a wide oval shield and a set of dark iron knuckle covers. “Very well. This shield was once used by a Knight known for defeating the largest Rock Golem ever seen. It should withstand any punishment you put it through. The dark iron knuckles were a gift from a Dwarven Lord to a traveling Warrior who saved his family from a monstrous Ice Worm. That Warrior passed just a few years ago, and left them in my possession.”
“I can definitely work with these, thanks!” Kanji didn’t even stumble under his new shield’s weight, taking his new armaments off to the side so he could help Chie and Naoto get used to their weapons.
“Red Wizard, you have a choice before you.” Yukiko watched in curiosity as the tall bundle before her unraveled to reveal seven wooden staves. “Every Wizard trains with a staff made of a wood that accepts their magic. Touch each one, and take which ever one feels right to you.”
Yukiko hummed as she brushed a hand over each staff, quickly grabbing hold of one that seemed to be a meld of deep brown and red. “This one!”
“Hm, made from the redwoods of the Mountain Kingdom. Known as the best wooden fuel when raw, and being completely impervious to fire when lacquered. Your magic must mirror the very essence of Fire.”
Yukiko giggled in response, choosing not to answer as she joined Chie.
“And finally, Green Sorceress, the scepter before you was given to me by the current leader of the Coven of the Province. She is known to receive visions when exceptional Sorceresses are due to come into their powers, and told me I would meet the one this was meant for before she would.”
“Huh. Heck of a coincidence. Also, please call me Rise or Risette.” Rise gingerly plucked the scepter out of the air, admiring the very faint embellishing on the steel and the glow of the emerald focus.
“With your arms now in hand, I shall now explain how you will travel between the realms.” The group stopped what they were doing, watching as the Sumner called a few lines of glowing, orange crystals into existence just beside him. “You will find crystals like these throughout the realms, their colors indicating which realm they correspond to. To access the portal sanctums for each realm, at least two among you must possess enough crystals to removed the barriers that erected as a defense mechanism, preventing travel in or out to protect the tower occupants.”
“Can’t you just lower the barriers yourself? It’s your tower, right?” Chie asked, scowling as the Sumner shook his head.
“No. These are defenses that were weaved into the very foundation and walls of the Tower, when the very first Sumner built it over a millennia ago. It is up to the Sumner in residence to be able to summon enough crystals through the defenses to open one of the realms, after which the defenses tighten again to prevent such summonings and risk enemy incursion. While troublesome, it will keep us safe from Skorne and his forces while we occupy the tower.”
With no other comments forth-coming, Sumner motioned to the orange crystals. “I have called on enough crystals to access the Forsaken Province. Decide which two shall carry them.”
Souji tilted his head in consideration before asking. “Is there a particular reason you recommend two people to have the crystals?”
“The portals themselves can only carry groups of four, and I do not recommend more than a party of four within the realms at once,” the Sumner explained. “Large parties will naturally result in large enemy responses, while smaller parties will be underestimated. For safety and subtlety, until we are prepared to dispatch Skorne’s strongest monstrosities, I ask that you divide into two parties of four.”
After sharing a look with his team, and getting a nod of confirmation from Kanji that this was inline with his knowledge of the game, Souji agreed. “All right. Give us a moment to deliberate.”