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Thread: Persona: The Beautiful

  1. #41
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLI. The Scourge Jormungandr

    That giant serpentine space-worm from the asteroid belt had shown up again, one of its fins slicing through the string above, and it opening its maw wide open looking to swallow this falling moon whole. Taking a stand against it this time was still impossible, especially as you were now separated from Kikuko. Needing that speed, you were inspired by Astolfo to switch to Orlando, whom with you promptly ran like Hell. As you kept running along this inner curve of this moon, little green aliens who you didn't have time to analyse popping out of it.

    Once again, you found another one of those space guns at the other tip of this moon, inserted right below the surface of that tip. Not knowing what else to do, you slotted yourself into the space gun's barrel, and only then noticed it was already loaded and ready to fire.
    You switched to the Gun-immune Hideyoshi and braced yourself, as you were then fired along with the bullet out into the distance, thankfully just before the star-worm could devour that moon whole.

    You then splashed down into what seemed like a river, a river floating in the middle of space, somehow. You could see little glowing star-stones bobbing along on top of it, so you hoisted your soaked self up into one and looked down to see Kikuko again having done the same... below you, standing upside down at the bottom of the river.

    "Kikuko, you okay? Er, why are you upside-down?" you called down to her.

    She furrowed her brow, "From where I stand, you're the upside-down one", which made you flinch on hearing that.
    "Anyway, some Shadow stopped by me and offered to guide me to you again, looks like he was being truthful" she then said, which made you turn around and see there was indeed another Shadow floating above you, er, below you, whatever, gravity was hard.

    This Shadow had tiny, pearly clouds floating just above him, and hellish flames emerging from his feet. He wore a white toga that glimmered and glistened like the Milky Way, as if it'd been made out of the same substance. He had no less than a twenty-sided die for a head, which may've explained why he was hiding his face behind a book cover, and a laurel wreath on top.
    You had PITT scan him, which told you this Shadow was Fortune Virgil, who resisted both Bless and Curse... but other than that his elemental affinities seemed to be random, though at least weakness to Physical wasn't among them.

    This wasn't the extent of Virgil's surprises, as the Shadow then condensed into the form of...
    "Hotaru?" you exclaimed.

    "Well, I'd still be 'Jack of Pentacles' here," Hotaru's Shadow said, before he waved and dissolved into a haze of velvet blue mist, a tarot card flickering briefly in your hand. This moment so distracted you... that you didn't see this river in the heavens was about to reach a waterfall.

    A bizarre waterfall at that, given that it seemed to swirl inward like a black hole to... somewhere. As you and Kikuko were too late to not get sucked into it, who else but that giant space serpent burst out from within it.

    Luckily, you instead fell on the outside of it, your hands grabbing onto one of its giant fins. Although you had to wonder if being swallowed by it would've been for the luckier, as at least in its innards it wouldn't be able to knock you off back into the void.

    <<BGM: World of Warcraft - Nightsong>>

    "Honoka!" You then heard Kikuko call out to you, her now standing on the other side of this fin, "I've had enough of being chased by this creature, it's past time we stood and fight!"

    "What?" came your first reaction, "You seriously think just us two can take on a Shadow of this, this size?!" Of course, it looked like Kikuko would rather die than retreat or whatever, so you sighed and just called on PITT to analyse this thing.
    "Okay, Judgment Jormungandr, absorbs Nuclear, immune to Ice. Wait, it's specifying the thing's gills?" you read out but then took a step back, realising PITT was only listing the health and power of a single part of this monster.

    "Good enough for me!" Kikuko roared, having Tsuruhime unload a shrapnel volley right into one of Jormungandr's gills, before hacking at them with her sword. You yourself realised you'd need something with AoE attacks what with PITT showing multiple parts to this monster, so you switched to Orlando, had them trumpet out a War Cry to weaken Jormungandr as much as you could, before you then cast Megido.

    Kikuko's and your combined assault did since to get a reaction out of this monster, as it roared and shook the both of you off into the void. Your helpless fall upwards into nothing was prevented though when Astolfo suddenly returned to catch, before helpfully throwing you back onto Jormungandr. Kikuko seemed to get similar support from a dark-skinned star-riding woman Shadow who caught her in a rope and lassoed her back.

    You then returned to attacking that fin of Jormungandr's while Kikuko assaulted its gills, but you soon found that the sheer force of its size was not the only thing this serpent had going for it, as it lifted up some of is scales to spout forth an irradiated poison wave at you. You had to switch to Octobriana to take this toxic deluge, but the force of it still sent hurting hurtling back along the serpent's body, leaving you hurriedly casting fire spells to leap back to where you were.

    Kikuko meanwhile was actually making progress, as she finally sliced this set of gills right open, the resulting eruption from inside its body shot out several chunks of asteroid, and what you figured were also pieces of that moon. As Kikuko jumped between all those, she then hopped in a space cannon that'd emerged from Jormungandr's guts, which she then used to fire itself right towards of the serpent's eyeballs.

    As for you, you approached this ripped-open hole to peer into Jormungandr's insides, which looked like a whole river of radioactive ooze. Breathing deep, you then entered inside this monster with Octobriana's radiation immunity, making your way across the stomach sludge until you climbed aboard a fragment of the exploded star ocean liner. It looked like you'd have to move fast, as a Decarabia parasite or antibody, you didn't stop to check, was gaining on you.

    Using what remained of your SP to propel the ship with Octobriana's fire spells, you rocketed all along Jormungandr's innards until you reached his mouth. Hearing Kikuko hacking and casting at his eyes above, you decided to turn your attention to this thing's tongue. Remembering what you knew about Jormungandr from mythology, you used up all of your SP by having Gretchen shock the tongue with Zionga. That was enough to do the trick, as it then left the serpent howling in pain, you having to hook yourself with your tonfas onto the tongue as he recoiled.

    But your grip was only so strong, as you then found yourself falling upwards... onto what looked like the other side of Jormungandr's other eye. Not having any more magic, you instead opened fire with every single bullet you had onto it, and when you'd run out of ammo, continued to strike at the inside of the eyeball with your tonfas, Bastet's strength and speed supporting you.

    Both its eyes being struck out of their sockets was at long last the final blow to Jormungandr, as his jaws crashed down on a lone, Voyager-esque satellite. You and Kikuko both hopped off onto it as the entirety of Jormungandr gradually dissolved into darkness.

    Entering the airlock of this Bakelite satellite, both you and Kikuko couldn't help but see that each of you was completely covered in eyeball gunk. "The moment we're off the Gameboard, your first task will be to give me the most thorough bath possible" Kikuko shuddered.

    You then saw that this satellite came equipped with an escape pod, even though it otherwise looked unmanned. the pod was positioned at a ringed gas giant, which you guessed was your way further into this Empire, but the door to the pod wouldn't budge. Stepping back, you almost tripped over two prone puppets that had apparently been spat up on the satellite by Jormungandr, one a wooden carving of Mary Queen of Scots again, the other of Virgil.

    "-Virgil-," came the creaky voice of the Mary puppet, "For your services to the Student Council, you've more than earned the title of Jack of Pentacles".

    "Er, thank you -Mary-, but really it was nothing," the wooden Virgil said, "I just was acting like any helpful student would".

    Kikuko then pointed out something else in this satellite, an old-timey screen who static shifted to a sepia new report. "This just in, folks, there's been a murder at Bouquet Academy, a murder I tell you! That dastardly Student Sheriff," it panned to an image of Hotaru, "Has murdered the lovely Council president!" it flashed to show Rin's corpse being carried out in a coffin, "We'll give you the whole story later tonight!" The screen then switched off.

    Kikuko was then quick to declare "So Rin's murderer was none other than Hotaru all along. Plenty of students were quick to blame him after her death, but until now there was no actual evidence to back that up".

    "Hold on, there still might not be," you had to speak up, "I mean, if people enough thought that, this being a cognitive world you know, then that report could just be broadcasting what all those students think happened, not what did".

    "Or maybe it is in fact broadcasting the inner truth that lay concealed" Kikuko shot back with.
    Not that you had much more time to ponder here, as your entire field of view then, out of nowhere, started breaking down into static...

    * * *

    When you came to, you'd appeared straight back in the Velvet Room. "Where's Kikuko?" you blurted out, seeing her nowhere.

    "Not to worry, you'll find her again the moment you return to the physical world. For now though, my attendant has requested an audience with you," Igor said.

    "Thank you, Honoka," Lauryn then said, "With the defeat of Jormungandr, one of the great Scourges that has festered within my Empire is defeated. I cannot thank you enough".

    You sighed, "Yeah, he really took a lot out of us. But ugh, now Kikuko's thinking Hotaru was the one who killed you or something", you seemed hardly reassured.

    "...I find that very unlikely," Lauryn then said, "I cannot think of a single motive for him, and if he was acting out on some dark emotion, I would've spotted it within him sooner. Well, rash impulses aren't unlike Kikuko, so it's something I can see her leaping to".

    "What happened we came across some news report in your Empire, out of nowhere too," you explained, "Which accused Hotaru of being the killer".

    "Hmm, well the Empires didn't spring up from the Aces' minds, they come from everyone's perceptions of them too," Popo then spoke, "So I reckon what 'appened was all those thoughts about Hotaru being the killer got all mixed up in Lauryn's Empire, hence well, that guff you saw".

    "So, Honoka, has delving into my Empire... changed your own perceptions of me any?" Lauryn had to ask, a shiver running through her as she did so.

    "No, not really, mostly I now know that you had to put up with a lot of the same crap I did," you ultimately said, "I did already figure that from what the other All-Aces are like, but only now did I see confirmation of that, what with those clockwork dolls. Also, er, no offence, but Jormungandr kinda got me wondering if you had an undiagnosed tapeworm or something before you died?"

    Lauryn just winced at that, saying "Er, pretty sure the Scourge symbolised something else. Regardless... you've now seen right into my memories, huh?" She then took a step back, before she coughed and continued "Guess I can't help but be embarrassed, even though you did help me out a lot just now".

    You tensed, "Sorry to say this, but even with Jormungandr gone, your Empire does seem to be falling apart. Like, you've got spaceships exploding, the Milky Way or whatever falling into itself, and of course that black hole at the centre's still slowly sucking everything in" you went over.
    "Oh wait, I'm not gonna have to jump into that black hole or something at the end of this, am I?" you suddenly exclaimed.

    "...I think you'll see when you get there," Lauryn cryptically stated, nervous at telling you the answer.

    "So that's a yes, then?" you had to say.

    "Anyway, Miss 'Onoka, your venture into the inky beyond has netted you quite the Personae," Popo then said, "And phwoar, these two are some real big lads, scary lads too I'll add".

    I am Fortune Virgil, the imperial poet," Hotaru's Shadow then manifested, "With I as your guide through the Inferno, you need not leave your fate to the dice alone.Virgil
    [Fortune X]

    Elements: Resist Curse and Bless, all other resistances and weaknesses randomised (except Physical)
    - Strength: |
    - Cognition: ||||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||||
    - Endurance: |||
    - Agilao, Bufula, Garula, Zionga, Psio
    - Fortune Bonus: Makakaja

    I am Judgment Jormungandr, the serpent encircling worlds," rasped that titanic Scourge, "On the last battleground shall both our sagas conclude.Jormungandr
    [Judgment XX]

    Elements: Null Nuclear and Ice, resists Curse, weak to Electricity
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: ||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: ||
    - Endurance: ||||
    - Mafreila, Mabufula, Stagnant Air, Poison Breath, Cruel Attack

    [ ] Select Virgil
    [ ] Select Jormungandr
    [ ] Select both
    [ ] Store both
    [x] Fuse both? (Tower Heracles)
    [ ] Write-in

    If selecting:
    [ ] Write-in Persona(e) to exchange

    I am Tower Heracles, god of ancient heroism," bellowed a giant man with a lionskin cloak above a girdle, a quiver of snakes for a feather-stained bow, a bracelet of bull horn and boar tusk, a bronze or brass belt buckle, and a necklace of five dog heads, "You face a trial beyond strength? Hah, intriguing tale, sister.Elements: Null Physical and Bless, resist Electric and Curse, weak to Nuclear and Psy
    - Strength: |||||
    - Cognition: |||
    - Agility: ||
    - Luck: |
    - Endurance: ||||
    Skills: Power Charge, Herculean Strike, Mazionga, Bolt Shot
    - Inherit: Makakaja, Stagnant Air
    - Tower Bonus: Poison Arrow, Tetrakarn

    "I suppose it's not you I should worry about seeing my Empire, but rather Kikuko..." Lauryn then started muttering.

    "Um, yeah, well I only brought her along because, ah, she's my Ace now, so I felt I kinda had to," you then told her, "She kinda went ballistic when we stumbled upon an old conversation you had being replayed, and wrecked a bunch of your clockwork dolls. Er, sorry about that".

    Lauryn simply sighed at that, but she then added, "Yeah, I recall you saying Himawari got expelled... something I have no idea how could ever happen. Still, form your words, she seemed a much better fit for you than Kikuko".

    "Oh yeah, Himawari's expulsion. Guess that had a lot to do with Nightshade," you said, "Still says something when even her 'criminal' side is still the nicest of the surviving Aces".

    "Nightshade?" a confused Lauryn had to ask.

    "Right, er, that may take some explaining," you said, with you now wondering if Nightshade has come about as a result of Himawari processing Rin's death.

    "Either way, you'll be waking up soon, so I'll have to cut this meeting short," Lauryn then said, "But all the same, thank you Honoka, and once you return to my Empire, you should find the way further in opened. That said, you'll want to wait until you head deeper, conserve your energy, as it'll be no smoother sailing past that satellite".

    - Death has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    * * *

    "Nakamura... Nakamura, wake up!" you could hear loud and clear Kikuko shouting at and shaking you.

    "Okay, okay, I'm up!" you said, fortunately just back in the Lounge that same night, and not having woken up in the sick room the next day again.

    Kikuko just nodded at your recovery, but then had to say "Empires remain after death, as one's legacy lives on though they themselves may be gone. We weren't just exploring the shattered fragments of Rin's psyche... those were the scars left on our, the Aces', own minds that we witnessed and fought in. You could've never known Rin, so I have no clue what everything there meant for you".

    You kept quiet on knowing Rin, and instead said "I think I got the gist of it".
    "Oh wait, I've gotta give you a friggin' bath now or something, right?" you then realised.

    "Do not dismiss the godliness of cleanliness, Honoka. We have just been through the legacy of a dead girl made manifest. After coming that close with death, purification is a necessary" Kikuko was swift to state, "I would usually do so beneath a waterfall... but right now, I think an onsen would be easier on you".

    All this talk with Kikuko did remind you of one thing. "Oh yeah Kikuko... I guess you would've prepared that new place I'll be moving to by now, huh?"

    "You guess correct. We'll need an auspicious date for your relocation to happen thought," Kikuko then said, "Hmm, the 1st of June, also being the first of Summer, I feel would be a natural choice".

    "That's this Wednesday, huh?" you reacted, which on top of the move, also got you thinking about what to prioritise next week:

    [ ] Drama Club, you should stand up to Azuma.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club, you'll be seeing a lot of Kikuko anyway.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [x] Rehearsing for Nightshade.
    [ ] Keeping on with Cricket Club.
    [ ] Studying with friends.
    [ ] Seeing what's with Computer Club.
    [ ] Doing your part-time job at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Taking that part-time job at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Maybe doing that modelling thing.
    [ ] Training yourself physically.
    [ ] Traversing the Gameboard without needing to sneak in.
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Silent Hill 2 - Theme of Laura (reprise)>>

    "One more thing, before we leave," Kikuko then said, "Have you heard the name Yoneyama Ikue anywhere around?"

    You nearly froze, but then said, "Er, kinda. Heard she's a skier who was offered a position as All-Ace, or at least a Jack, but turned it down".

    "Good, you have been keeping alert of the goings-on at our school," Kikuko nodded, before she explained, "We assumed that pretend European had been pushed into disgrace and obscurity after refusing us, but I've heard mentions of her name increasing around school since the Sports Festival.
    As my Jack, I am giving you the responsibility of eliminating her Shadow," Kikuko proclaimed, sending a chill through the air, "Hermit Skadi, that is its name, a former subject of Eitaro's Empire now claimed by me. I will give you to the end of June to execute her Shadow, that should be generous enough, take any longer and I shall have to step in".

    Sheesh. Well, best case scenario is I'll have a new Persona waiting for me, out of this, you glumly thought, only saying, "Fine, I'll see to her".

    "Also, as Ikue now has the shame of being on the cricket team, that reminds me. I've also heard their batter is a silver-haired girl. If you will, find out more about her and execute her Shadow too," Kikuko said to your amusement.

    Well, that was something of a ray of sunshine, learning your disguise had worked. "Yep, alright then, I can totally kick her loser arse," you replied, hiding your internal laughter.

    "Do not mock me," Kikuko stated, before you two left.

    * * *

    Talking with Megumi in your flat that morning over instant coffee, one of these last days it'd be 'your' flat, you decided to bring up the good news to them first.

    "Hey, Gumi, you know that whole 'get a date' thing we were talking about?" you began with, as you flicked through your phone until you found a picture of you with Colette, "Well, here she is! Her pen name's Colette Claudius, we've known each other a while but we've only just started dating".

    "Oh, I remember her! That goth girl from when we went to see Nightshade," Megumi smiled in recognition, "I mean, after all this Ace stuff and your low Sports Fest turn-out, it's good to hear something's finally going right in your world".
    "We're gonna have quite the start to our relationship too, our plan's to try and get all the way down to Tokyo for the day, probably via a train and, ugh, plane combo," you went on.

    "Wow. Normally I'd make a crack about rent, but well, you're being 'relocated' so I guess that's no longer an issue for you," Megumi's expression shifted to being downcast.

    "Yeah, about that," you then had to address, "Kikuko hasn't said anything about me forking over money for my new place, but I definitely know the All-Aces demand payment in, er, other ways," you gulped. "Oh, guess I should bring this up. First of June, that's when I'll be leaving".

    At first, Megumi only nodded, but then said "At least you don't have to worry about me being lonely here. Ryouko was having troubles at her place too, you can tell by the extra jobs she was working, so we've arranged for her to move in here. I mean, I suppose a high-schooler and a college student sharing a place always looked a little weird".

    "Hey c'mon, don't say that," you told them, "And like you said, I know where you like to hang out, so this is hardly the end for us".

    "And on the bright side, I also shouldn't have to have to worry about those Aces snooping around here anymore," Megumi leaned back and grinned, "So um, what's Colette like? What makes you totally into her?"

    You bit your lip, "Wow, that's quite the question. Hmm, I suppose it's..."

    [x] -How she exudes confidence, even when the world should've otherwise beat her down".
    [ ] -How she noticed I was going through grief and was there for me, at a time when most students would've said nothing."
    [ ] -That, while others look up to me or I look up to them, Colette and I see each other as equals."
    [ ] -Okay, to be shallow, I love how her aesthetic sense, how she looks and what she's into"
    [ ] -Um, does it have to be any one specific thing? Can't you just like someone?"
    [ ] Write-in.

    Megumi didn't say a word, but still smiled along.

  2. #42
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLII. Abyssa and the Lady Devils

    "Seriously, we have a Cricket Team?"

    "-God, Mid-Term results are in. Please, be gentle."
    "That was, er, an odd cheer routine at the Sports Festival-"
    "-Wait a sec, a Jack scored higher than an Ace?"

    Entering school again to check the publicly posted exam results, you indeed saw that you'd landed in the top 200, more than above-average given the Hanataba student population of around seven-hundred, and probably the highest you'd ever scored in one of these exams. Azuma and Kikuko had predictably scored leagues ahead of you, but you did see you were the highest-scoring Jack, just ahead of Shinsuke... and even ahead of Melissa, who'd come in at about 300th, and this was after you'd intervened from her changing her score.

    "No way!" one of the tanned blonde kids here exclaimed, "Melissa was outscored by Honoka?"

    "Honoka? Oh, I know her, that redhead who hangs out with the All-Aces," another student near you said.

    "Well, then she's gotta be an Ace herself! Cause like, what else could she be?" was a comment you'd particularly picked up on.

    You felt the need to step in. "Ah, you guys are all talking about me, right? Yeah, I'm Nakamura Honoka... and no, I'm not an All-Ace," In more ways than one, "Just some Jack," you clarified, smiling and shrugging.

    "Come on, Honoka, no need to be modest," Suzako then came up and smiled at you, "You did pretty good, if not great. But hey, Yuuya and I both got past the halfway mark, so even if we could've scored higher, we're proud of that".

    "Okay, what the Hell is everyone talking about, that Honoka beat me or something?" Melissa was quick to storm in after hearing all the hubbub.

    "Ah, er, we were just talking about test scores," you were quick to explain.

    "Ugh, I need a sec to process this. Okay, so Honoka here did better academically than me... and people are liking her for it?" Melissa said, having to clutch her head.

    "Well, yeah, people respect you for scoring well on tests," Yuya entered and told her, "Kinda thought that'd be obvious".

    Trying to move on and not make more of a scene of yourself, you were soon thwarted in that as a crowd of students started following you, whispering their impressions of you all the while.
    "You're a Class Rep too?"
    "That red hair of yours is really striking!"

    You felt so relieved once you were in class away from that crowd.

    * * *

    Hurrying out at the end of that school day, the only thing on your mind right now was finally getting around to meeting up with Nightshade again.
    Calling her up on your phone, you nervously began with "Ah, hey there Himawari! Hey look, I'm sorry, I've really been meaning to catch up with you, see how, y'know, you've been getting along..."

    "Oh Honoka, hi there! And please darling, you can just call me 'Nightshade' now, that's who I've been 24/7 since all that shit went down," you heard the voice of indeed her as Nightshade, "You're still up for rehearsal though, right? Your bass thumping hasn't gotten rusty on me since, has it?"

    "Yeah, 'course I'm up for practice," you told her, "But really, you haven't been 'Himawari' at all since? Like, wouldn't that make stuff like conversation, um, difficult?"

    "I don't know what you're talking about, last I checked it still said 'Aoyagi Himawari' on my birth certificate, I haven't jumped bodies or anything," she said with a wink, but then got more direct, "I get it, what you mean is whether I've acted like a spineless little good girl like school made me do? Hell no, 'cause now the world has to accept me for who I am, and they can't do a thing about it!
    Like, yeah okay, objectively my life's not looking good right now," she did have to admit, "But personally, I've been feeling great since having to ditch that school!"

    As that sank in for you, the two of you then agreed to meet up back at the garage beneath your apartment block... which was another thing you'd have to talk with her about.

    Entering your old rehearsal space and setting up your bass and amp, Nightshade then approached, with you seeing for yourself that her vibrant neon twintails weren't a wig anymore, and said to you, "Prompt as always, Honoka. Colette says she'll be arriving soon, but uh, for Ryouko..." she then bit her lip, "Yeah, um, I've had to let her go".

    "Huh, whaddya mean?" you then shot up.

    "Hey, nothing against her, like she was one of the few people to stick up for me that day, save me from prison," Nightshade began, but sighed, "It's just, her rep's gonna be in the gutter if people hear she's been hanging out with an expelled girl, so I can't drag her through all that just for my own sake. I tried to warn Colette of that, but heh, she said she couldn't care less. Well, least I've still got my rhythm section, eh?"

    "Yeah, I guess," you murmured, "Well, I suppose I should fill you in on all the crap that's been going down at school, right?"

    Nightshade tilted her head at you, then folded her arms and crossed her legs. "Ugh, I'd rather not be reminded of that dump... but I suppose you're gonna tell me anyway, huh?"

    "Heh, I'll keep it short. The main thing is that I was made to choose another Ace, and er, I settled on Kikuko, but only because of who the alternatives were" you put it simply.

    Nightshade couldn't help but snarl. "Whatever, like, if you're anyone's Jack you're mine, no matter what anyone says," she put it bluntly.

    "But anyway, I should really be asking how you've been going," you said to her, "I mean, it can't be easy be expelled and all. Part-time jobs have to be a problem too, since well, er, no offence but-"

    "-Most places won't accept employees with dyed hair, that what you were gonna say?" Nightshade filled in for you, before she chortled and said, "Believe me, there's still opportunities if you know where to look".

    "Oh God, don't tell me you're a dealer," you said on impulse.

    Nightshade just laughed at you and said, "What? Oh God no, it's not drugs or anything," before she came clean, "I've been doing sex work, dominatrix stuff and that, like I am of legal age after all. It's probably the highest paying thing for someone like me, and I mostly stick to online stuff too, if you're like super-worried. Who knows, maybe I can graduate to hostess if I work hard enough or some shit".

    "Right, I can see," you just mumbled.

    "Ah hello, I hope you can forgive me for being fashionably late," Colette then said as she arrived, "Oh Nightshade, Honoka and I were planning to make the long trip down to Tokyo this weekend, I do hope that doesn't conflict with your schedule".

    "Hey, that fits perfectly!" Nightshade then grinned, "Like, I've already booked us in for a show in Hakodate on Saturday, don't worry, it's at a fancier venue than the one in Susukino, so we could squeeze the two in together".

    "Err, think that'll be a bit little tight, but... okay," you muttered, hardly thrilled at being booked to perform somewhere before you'd even gotten back to rehearsing, "But er, Nightshade, there's um, something about me and Colette you should know..."

    As you became lost on how to break the news, Colette stepped in for you and said, "Well, I first thought to keep this a secret, given they say, like work, that romance should be kept out of bands... but I admit it'd be simpler to be open about this. Honoka and I," she beamed and threw her arm around your shoulder, "Are now dating! True, only since yesterday, but that Tokyo trip is to be our first real date".

    Nightshade was taken aback, but then said, "Oh, er, yeah, that's cool. And like, y'know, between my lead singer duties and, er, other stuff, I'm gonna be drowning in genitalia anyway. But hey, Honoka, the two of us can still be like... friends with benefits, can't we?"

    You blushed bright red as she said that. You looked to Colette expecting her to be fuming, but instead your new girlfriend just looked amused, stifling a giggle.
    "Er, sure, if you insist," you sighed, before you added unenthusiastically, "Maybe a threesome too, who the hell knows?" Nightshade still took that better than you were worried she would...

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 6! -

    "Great!" Nightshade smiled, as she hugged the two of you. She then said, "Uh yeah, so I did tell Colette that we can't have Ryouko around anymore, which is a total shame. Yeah, she had zero guitar skills, but that's just how I liked it, ya know? Anyway, um, does mean we're gonna have to get a new guitarist quick..."

    "More like a new drummer," Colette interjected, "If there's another instrument open, I'm taking it".

    [ ] Colette can have guitar, and you'll just get a drum machine.
    [ ] You'll do guitar, Colette can have bass, and a drum machine will do for now.
    [ ] If Nightshade likes zero skills, can't she just take guitar?
    [ ] Teach Nightshade bass, shouldn't take long, and you'll do guitar.
    [ ] Doesn't Megumi play music or something?
    - [ ] Get them on guitar.
    - [ ] Get them on drums.
    - [ ] Get them on keyboards even.
    [ ] Er, Reina's not doing much, and she likes music and hanging around Colette:
    - [ ] Write in instrument.
    [x] The Sakurazuka family did say Tomomi needed to get involved in society more:
    - [x] Write-in instrument: Tomomi on drums and Colette on guitar
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Oh, and I guess my band should have a name," Nightshade then said, "I mean, it's been weird just referring to you as the 'backing band', so hmm, how about Nightshade and the-"

    [ ] Arcanettes.
    [ ] Arcanoids.
    [ ] Street Demons.
    [ ] Flowers of Brimstone.
    [ ] Chain Girls.
    [x] Lady Devils.
    [ ] Apocalettes.
    [ ] Goddess Reincarnation.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Wait, Azuma's sister?" Nightshade had to flinch.

    "Oh come on, you've met Tomomi before, you should know she's nothing like him" you told her, then had to mutter, "She can keep to herself for starters".

    "Indeed, we had a slumber party together, with... others. My point is, I can confirm these two apples fell on different sides of the tree" Colette added on.

    "Hmm, okay, if you say so," Nightshade shrugged, "Your judgments are the most trustworthy I know. I just don't want goddamn Azuma of all people snooping in on our rehearsals", she crossed her arms.

    "Oh, believe me, if Tomomi's with us, then Azuma's gonna be too disgusted to even look our way," you had to smile, before you then brought the other thing up.
    "By the way, Nightshade, er..." you slowly began, "Since I'm Kikuko's Jack now, that means she wants me to move in under her roof".

    "Ugh, yeah, I figured," Nightshade spat out, "Reason I didn't offer you the same is that, well, I seriously didn't want to put you through introducing you to my parents" she shuddered.

    Colette seethed upon hearing that, "The Aces just have to keep on confirm all my worst suspicions about them, don't they? On top of that, I suppose this means we'll have to relocate our rehearsal space".

    "The Sakurazuka Mansion's got more than enough room, but eh, I don't think Tomomi's folks will be the easiest to convince" you said, "Little out of the way too".

    "Well this garage wasn't the only option we had back when," Colette brought up, "The abandoned temple, the town hall, the record store, the space behind the game store, these were all options we considered".

    "Game store's out. If we're trying not to drag Ryouko into this, we can't drag in Hotaru" you had to say.

    "Wait, the Student Council President works at a gaming store?" Nightshade couldn't help but give a devilish grin, "Wow, I always took the guy for a spineless wimp, and I guess he still is, but I wasn't expecting that. Gotta compliment him on even having space for a part-time job, what with all the Student Council shit.
    But yeah, anyway, where to rehearse?"

    [x] The abandoned temple.
    [ ] The record store.
    [ ] The town band hall.
    [ ] The Sakurazuka manor.
    [ ] See if that local bar, Darkest Desires or whatever, makes room for rehearsals too.
    [ ] Your parents are pretty open, maybe you can practice at their place?
    [ ] Write-in.

    After that, you were left practicing all day, using a metronome for a beat right now. On Tuesday though...

    God you did not feel comfortable being back in the Sakurazuka manor so soon, but the problem with Tomomi was that she wasn't exactly easy to get a hold of. Luckily Shinsuke came to personally escort you to her room, you'd been dreading Azuma for a second there, with you then knocking on her door.

    "What?" was all Tomomi said through the door.

    "Hey there, Tomomi, it's me Honoka. Himawari and Colette are with me too, 'cause we kinda need your help something," you tried to get through to her.

    "Himawari?" Nightshade hissed at you.

    "Look, she doesn't know about your whole identity thing, we can go over that later," you said back to Nightshade.

    Slowly Tomomi opened her door, and mumbled, "Wow, okay, what did you drag yourselves all the way out here for?"

    "Hmhm, why don't we really introduce ourselves?" Nightshade smirked and strutted up, "You can call me Nightshade now, and I want you to join the Lady Devils".

    "Oh cool, didn't know you were into LARPing," Tomomi just went along.

    "What? Er, look, Nightshade's a singer and she's asking you to join her backing band," you had to explain, "We were hoping for a drummer, actually, but we'll settle for a guitarist".
    Colette outed at you for that last line.

    "God, kinda don't know anything 'bout either," Tomomi had to tell you, "Like, I was made to go to music lessons as a kid, cello and oboe and stuff, definitely not drums. I did sneak over to bang on the timpani when I could, so er, I guess that counts? What kinda stuff you play?"

    You selected the recording on your phone you had ready and then held it up to Tomomi's ear. She gradually started nodding along with it and said, "Okay, yeah sure, I'll help you out. My wrists will hate me for it, but eh, it's not like I've got anything else going on right now".

    "Great, all taken care of!" Nightshade grinned, then said, "Alright, we now hold rehearsals at-"

    "Quite some nerve you have, showing your face around here," Azuma's voice was swift to interrupt Nightshade, as he strolled over, "You and Colette, but let's focus on you for now, Miss Aoyagi. I'd honestly forgotten you were even still around, I had to remind myself you hadn't died along with Eitaro and Gakuto," he laughed.

    "Get off her, Azuma. Nightshade's no longer at Hanataba, you have no power over her," Colette raised her voice.

    "Y-yeah, that's right. Plus I've got one thing you don't, Honoka actually wanting to hang out with me," Nightshade steadied herself and rubbed that in.

    Azuma hissed a little at that, before he looked you straight in the eyes and pleaded, "Honoka, I beg you, what does Himawari have to offer you? Drugs, crime, and the low life may appear glamorous in their own way, but are far more interesting for the spectators than the performers. Head down her path, and you may well be destined for an early grave".

    "Drugs and crime? Woah, sounds friggin' badass," Tomomi had to pipe up.

    "You realise you're sounding like an after-school special, don't know?" you had to say to him.

    "Also, Himawari..." Azuma then went onto say, before he suddenly grabbed her by the shoulders, and said to Tomomi and Colette, "Ahem, I would prefer if us Ace-affiliated persons could have the following conversation in private".

    Colette just snarled, while Tomomi just shrugged.

    "Good. Now, as I was saying..." Azuma said, leading you away, "About having 'no more power over you', Himawari, I beg to differ. Last I checked, the remains of your Empire are still very much on the Gameboard in our Lounge. While it is there, it's now ours to do whatever we'd like with".

    Nightshade stood up and snarled, "You wouldn't fuckin' dare!"

    "Oh, but Kikuko, Melissa, and I would. Also, while you're here, 'Nightshade'," Azuma said as he gestured finger-quotes, "Drop the rebel act, would you? Your actress abilities wouldn't convince a Second Tree role, let alone me. For beneath all your bluster, I can tell you're still the same scared little girl I've always known you as".

    Nightshade took a step back for a second, but then roared, "How dare you... you're asking to settle this with a Duel, aren't you, huh?!"

    Azuma smiled and shook his head, "Your Empire now counts as dethroned, Himawari, I'm afraid that's not possible. You're out of the game".

    As opposed to me? you instantly thought.

    "Yeah well, I've still got Anastasia, and my own two fists!" Nightshade raged. Before she could say anything more, she was interrupted by yet another voice.

    "Oh. My God. What the Hell is that 'Colette' skank doing in here?" Melissa suddenly emerged, apparently having just finished meeting with Rurina, before she set her eyes on Nightshade. "Wow, okay, apparently someone didn't tell me it was a whole skank parade in here right now".

    "Er, Nightshade, Colette, and I will just be going right now," you then said before tensions could escalate even further, taking Nightshade by the arm, And before the Principal or whoever suddenly shows up here.

    "We ought to seriously start looking into some better security around here," Azuma snarled on seeing Melissa, "This isn't exactly a public space".

    * * *

    "Well, we've told ourselves not to think of this goodbye, right?" Megumi said to you, at least helping move your stuff.

    "Yeah, I still plan to keep in touch," you tried to give a smile, "Despite how some people say I should act".

    They gave one last wave to you as you entered into the All-Aces' limo, with you looking back at your old apartment for as long as you could, and being silent the rest of the drive there.

    <<BGM: Okami - Sei-an City (Aristocratic Quarters)>>

    "Er, we're here!" Na-rae at the wheel said once you pulled up near the slopes of Mount Yotei, it being no surprise that Kikuko would base herself by the foot of the most Fuji-looking mountain in Hokkaido.

    Kikuko's place was pretty much what you expected, an old townhouse that looked like it'd been air-lifted straight from Kyoto. "Huh, didn't know they built machiya this far north," you had to remark, as it did look like a nice place... if you could ignore who lived there.

    "Actually, this residence was recently constructed to my demands, after I planned my transfer to Hanataba years back," Kikuko then said, her suddenly appearing right next to you the moment you got out of the car.

    "Okay, okay, rub in how rich you are why don't you?" you mumbled, as you then asked, "Er, so where will I be staying?"

    Kikuko just pointed to... one of the earthen storehouses? "I have set you up there as part of your learning experience. I've stored many great artifacts of culture in that shed, it would pay for you to get acquainted with them" she then told you.

    A storehouse? you thought, but just said, "Ah, okay then..."

    "It is quite trusting of me, truly, to give you that room. I don't place just any random object in there," Kikuko went on to say, before instructing, "Yomogi, help my apprentice with her luggage".

    You entered that storehouse, your new room, with Na-rae to set your all your things up, unfolding a futon alongside. Well, you could see Kikuko was at least honest when she said there was some real historical stuff in there. A lot of cracked tea ceremony equipment and ornate scrolls mostly, but what stood out the most were all the weapons. Not just swords and muskets, but spears, naginata, daggers, bows, war fans, tetsubo clubs, and so on. There was even a set of old armour lying around.

    "...Some place, huh?" was all your feeble self could say to Na-rae.

    "That it be, Miss Honoka. Um, a mere maid like me knows a top place like this doesn't exactly feel like home to most people, but believe me, we'll- I'll do my best ta make you feel as welcome as possible here," Na-rae smiled at you.

    "Hey, thanks," you smiled back, with you then saying, "It's great to know I can still find a friendly face all the way out here. But, um, 'Tsubasa'," you took a deep breath before you continued, "Now that we're both Jacks of Grails, well, there's something I ought to let you know".

    Na-rae had to take a step back, "Jeanie Mac, Miss Honoka, whatever do you be meaning by that?"

    You sighed. "I know your name's not 'Yomogi Tsubasa', it's Seol Na-rae. I learned that from Kikuko," you revealed, that last bit technically being true.

    Na-rae stumbled back all the way to the wall after you said that, "...You know? B-but, that does sound unlikely, Miss Honoka, that Mistress Kikuko would tell you somethin' like... that," she stuttered out.

    "Saw it in her room at school," you improvised, but you had too snarl, "I've learned people take names quite seriously around here, so what right does Kikuko have to do that to you? I mean, you're her servant, not her slave".

    Na-rae crouched down, hugged her knees and said, "That's true, my name is Seol Na-rae... no matter what anyone says. Like, just two years ago, I would've been sixteen, I had an online 'job' being an ulzzang over in Busan, posted some fitness pictures and the like, guess you could tell from the gym. Got a fair bit o' attention too, but 'fifteen minutes of fame' employment like that's awful precarious, Miss Honoka. So when I got a job offer working for the wealthy Maeda, I had to accept, but then..." she buried her face in her hands and started crying, "I learned the only reason they wanted me was because they could pay a Korean worker less than a Japanese one".

    You then knelt down to try and help her up, and you said to her in an embrace, "Look, Na-rae, it's okay. You don't have to feel ashamed for you are, not now, not ever".

    Na-rae then looked at you with her tear-strewn face and said, "Thank you, thank you so much, Miss Honoka," before then correcting herself, "No, Mistress Honoka ma'am. If I have ta be anyone's servant, I'd rather be yours, even if I have to say I'm Kikuko's in public and to her. Like, I can set you up with a fitness routine, I'll drive you anywhere, you name it!"

    Er, think you're getting a bit carried away, you thought, but said "Hey, thanks" as you two hugged again.

    - The Hanged Man has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    "Honoka!" Kikuko called to you from outside, "Your lessons are to begin immediately! We shall start with equestrianship".

    "Oh good Lord, horse-riding's not easy on first-timers," Na-rae muttered.

    "Eh, how hard can it be?" you tried to add some cheer.

    * * *

    Turns out, pretty hard actually, as you swore you could still feel the chafing days later. Right now you were backstage at a venue in Hakodate called Sixth Heaven, still trying to pick out a costume for Tomomi. Well, you were, Colette had to change a broken string.

    "Eh, I'm fine with whatever" Tomomi muttered, not really helping.

    [x] How about a vampire girl? Might as well take advantage of being Azuma's sister.
    [ ] Hokkaido's real snowy, so maybe the blue wig and the white yukata of a Yuki-onna?
    [ ] The name of this backing band is 'Lady Devils', so maybe some styrofoam horns, wings, and sharp facepaint?
    [ ] She's your drummer, so why not a bunch of lightning marks to look like Raijin?
    [ ] You're kinda Harlequin-y, so maybe she could be a Pierrot sad clown?
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Okay, you girls ready?" Nightshade burst back in, having finished setting up all the 'effects', and grinned, "Since you're all dressed, then -ahem- as your Queen, I demand you perform your last rehearsal before the show, er, bloodbath!"

    The second Colette had her new guitar all fixed up, the three of you immediately shuffled into formation and went through your opener.

    <<BGM: Falkkone ft. Rena - Splatter Party>>

    "Ah, right, good job there. satisfactory enough for peons, I would suppose," Nightshade smirked and put her hands to her hips. "Ooh, one last thing, I was thinking when I introduce the band, I could give all you stage names. Like, it's gonna look weird if I go 'I'm Nightshade Queen of Hell, and here's Honoka, Tomomi, and Colette', you see?"

    "Uh, did you have to make us decide at the last second?" you had to question her, before you got into a huddle with Colette and Tomomi over this new development.

    [ ] You'll be Jesterca, Colette will be Eclipse, Tomomi will be Imperatrix.
    [x] You'll be Abyssa, Colette will be Volta, Tomomi will be Chronomena.
    [ ] You'll be Fiend, Colette will be Aliceph, Tomomi will be Yuriko.
    [ ] You'll be Tarocchi, Colette will be Zodia, Tomomi will be Bones.
    [ ] Just 'the Lady Devils will' do.
    [ ] You'll let Nightshade decide, it is her band after all.
    [ ] You'll let the others decide.
    [ ] Write-in.
    "Great, then let's get out there!" Nightshade exclaimed.

    As she pushed the three of you out onto the stage, she herself entered in what looked like a spinning iron maiden prop, bags of fake blood squeezed inside. Nightshade then cartwheeled up to the mic and cried, "People of Hakodate, your hearts, your souls, your darkest secrets, are all forfeit to me! Hit it!"

    After plowing and fumbling all the way through your setlist carried over from back in Kuchinashi and Susukino, you then got a chance to launch into the number you'd just practiced, as Nightshade roared to the crowd, standing up on an amp, "By my command, you shall bow down before my fellow noblewomen of the night! The Lady Devils, Volta on guitar!" she gestured to Colette, who didn't know what else to do but bite into the strings, "Abyssa on Bass!", you gulped and sweated on being called up as you tried a little slap-bass routine, "and Chronomena on Drums!" Tomomi just shrugged and did a rimshot.

    As you later headed backstage, you assumed you were all done, with there being a bunch of other bands booked to play that night... but the Nightshade took a hold of you again and said, "Oh no, we're not done yet, we're being called for an encore!"

    "Oh, an encore. Great" you muttered, as you got back out on stage once again to practice a number Nightshade had reserved specifically for this moment.

    "...We're all addicts, in a way," Nightshade then said to the crowd, "All of us damned souls here are. So, for those dead hearts who know the sweet thrill and bitter aftertaste of desire, this one's for you".

    <<BGM: Falkkone ft. Rena - Full-Course for Candy Addicts>>

    You felt just about ready to collapse now, your hands now had more blisters than normal skin. As you stumbled back into your dressing room, you then spotted Nightshade talking with someone which, as you approached, soon escalated into arguing.

    "Ah, yeah, you think you Sendai girls with your friggin' gun-guitars can just waltz up here and take over our music turf!" Nightshade then burst out, "Your drummer couldn't even keep a waltz time!"

    "...What the Hell is this?" you could only mumble.

    "Pathetic. You're on the frontlines, maggot, this ain't the place to be playing dress-up parties!" said that militia-dressed singer who Nightshade was in a shouting match with.

    "Apparently this girl's the lead singer of Corpse Corps, a war-themed band who mainly sing about historic battles" Colette explained to you as she approached, "Not personally what I would listen to, but at the same time, I don't really see Nightshade's sudden problem with them".

    "I see," you nodded, before you turned to grab Nightshade, "Okay now, time to go, Nightshade. We'd like to do some sightseeing around Hakodate before it gets too dark, y'know".
    Once you were in private, you then groaned at Nightshade and said, "You just got expelled you know, is now really the time to be getting into another fight?"

    "Grr, that girl accused me of lying about my expulsion to look tough!" Nightshade exclaimed, before saying, "Yeah, well, whatever. Their music still sucks though" she folded her arms.

    "Oh, some band vs band rivalry? Yawn, whatever, I'm going to have groupie sex while you little girls have your tantrums," Tomomi mumbled as she walked on through.

    "Er, okay, you do that," you said, before looking back at Nightshade.

    "Hmhm, I'll say you hadn't stopped me there, my little 'disagreement' with Corpse Corps would've gotten real nasty. I'd be throwing amps and instruments at them and everything, see how they do in a real showdown" Nightshade kept smirking.

    "Wait, oh come on. Wouldn't that only get us kicked out of the venue?" you asked with a raised voice.

    "That's exactly the point!" Nightshade chirped and grinned, "It'd be perfect for increasing notoriety, 'No Nightshade' signs and all".

    "Nightshade..." you facepalmed, "If you're gonna keep acting out like this, couldn't you at least target your rage at something that genuinely deserves it? I've had enough of that petty shit from Kikuko and Melissa, I really don't need it from you".

    Nightshade then hesitated and bit her lip for a second, but ultimately said, "You're a real killjoy, you know that Honoka? Ugh, what I am saying, I know I know, you're just trying to look out for me..." she breathed out and slumped against the wall, "And I guess I should be grateful at least someone is".

    "God, Nightshade- Himawari," you then said sternly, "I know you're not trying to hurt me, or Colette, or anyone else... except yourself. Admit it, this is all some elaborate form of self-harm, isn't it?"

    Nightshade sighed, then slowly said as tears started trickling down her face, "Couldn't have said it better myself. Damnit, where is my wretched little life going?"
    She then breathed out and said, "When I was a little girl, I saw, well, a lot of old paintings of pain and martyrdom. Beheadings, old-time firing squads of archers, barbed wire across the tongue, you name it. I think that scared me- scared Himawari, out of her mind, conditioned her to be the polite little good girl she is. At the same time though, it sure as hell gave me a lot of inspiration for stagecraft and lyrics, so y'know, you take the good with the bad".

    "...What are we going to do with you?" you had to chuckle.

    - The Devil has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    "Honoka..." Nightshade breathed in, then said "Remember what I said about being friends with benefits? Well, I know officially you're with Colette, but while it's just us tonight..." she started to purr and fiddle with your collar, "You wanna make love? Oh, I'm not asking you to cheat on Colette or anything, I wouldn't do something like that, you can tell her beforehand if you wanna get down with me, I don't mind.
    Oh, and Himawari doesn't mind either, if you're worried about that, in fact she's quite excited," Nightshade started nuzzling you.

    [ ] "Er, sure, Colette's pretty understanding."
    [x] "I'll ask Colette first, but I'm okay if she's okay."
    [ ] "Yeah no, it's too soon to do that do Colette. I'm sorry..."
    [ ] "Even if Colette's okay with it... I don't really think I'm up for it personally. Sorry, Nightshade."
    [ ] Write-in.

  3. #43
    Cruciforme NailsInYourFeet's Avatar
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    XLIII. Tokyo Trip

    "Ah yeah, I see," Nightshade nodded, drawing back to give you some space to speak with Colette.

    Gulping, you slowly approached Colette and said, "Er, hi there, Colette. Ah, kinda have something I need to talk to you about..." you bit your lip and started twirling your hair.

    "Hmm? Go on," she had to prod you.

    "Well, you know how Nightshade kinda let out that she wouldn't mind doing 'friends with benefits' stuff with me?" you began, starting to quiver, "Yeah, that. But we both thought we should ask you first, if you're okay with me being, uh, intimate a little with her? D-don't worry, I assure you, you're still the number one girl in my life!" you stuttered out.

    Colette stared at you blankly at first, but then had to laugh and said, "Ah, so you'd like to experiment with polyamory, then? By all means, go ahead, and personally I find it, well, empowering you could say, knowing that the object of my affection is also desired by fellow women. Although, I do have one condition," she raised her hand.

    "Ah, okay then. Uh, w-what would that be?" you asked, relieved but still anxious.

    "That, should I desire, you will be reciprocal in letting me simultaneously pursue others as well" she told you, before smiling and clasping her hands, "Do not fret, I am not particularly interested in anyone else but you at the moment, but you never know".

    "Oh yeah, okay! Uh, I wouldn't really describe what Nightshade and I have as a 'second relationship', this was just supposed to be casual and stuff. but sure! That seems fair," you said, letting yourself breathe out.

    As Colette curtseyed and left you be, you looked back and nodded at Nightshade. A sultry grin spreading across your lead singer's face, she sauntered up to you and began stroking your face with her nails.
    "Whenever you're ready, Honoka," she rasped.

    * * *

    <<BGM: Pokemon Ranger: Shadows of Almia: Volcano Cave Mix>>

    You had to wake up early to catch the ferry that sailed over to Mount Osore, well technically over to Cape Oma, the northernmost point on Honshu, and then catching the bus up to Osore, specifically the Bodai-ji Temple by Lake Usori. So yeah, quite a lot this early on.

    You then stood with Colette and Nightshade upon the bridge over the Sanzu, staring down into the acidic volcano water. "So ah, reportedly one of the gates to the underworld, huh? Er, how does it compare to Jigokudani back home, Colette?"

    "Hmhm, well it's certainly taller," Colette remarked, staring up, "Older too, given Bodai-ji here dates back over a millennium. Guess we're used to most of our buildings being only a century or two old back in Hokkaido, huh? Well, the Ainu would have much older constructs, but uh, yeah, we kinda destroyed most of those, didn't we?" she had to twitch.

    "Still, I have come up to Osorezan before, hmm, although that still leaves at least Yomotsu-Hirasaka to visit," she then changed the topic, "Though that's quite the journey, being all the way down in Chugoku".

    "All the doors we have to Hell, huh?" Nightshade had to remark, her hair let down but still dyed pin, "Really puts perspective on things, doesn't it?"

    Too much fucking perspective, you thought, leaning your head on your raised hand, willing yourself not to come up with a pun on the word 'fucking' given last night.

    "Oh, but I would recommend you visit Yomotsu-Hirasaka someday, even if that day is the one of your passing," said a voice belonging to a grey-haired woman wearing a white yukata, leaning on the bridge's opposite railing, "Hmhm, do forgive my little joke".

    Noticing this woman's yukata was folded the wrong way around, an amused Colette had to smirk and joke back "Ah, would we have a phantom in our mist? It would make this outing perfect if we did".

    You had to stared at Colette, before groaning "Oh God, you can't just ask people if they're dead, Colette".

    "Actually, your friend is correct," this woman then said, you thinking she had to be seriously bluffing, as she introduced herself, "I'm currently employed as the Sanzu Ferrier, my card", she then produced a blank business white card with four coins embedded into it.

    Seeing this, you hesitated before saying to this woman who had to be employed for the tourists, "Oh, well then, er, do the names Rokudo Rin, Tsutsuji Eitaro, and Momoi Gakuto ring a bell?"

    "Why yes they do. I can confirm both Tsutsuji and Momoi have passed to the other side, wherever that may be given the last judgment upon them. Rokudo however has eluded my grasp, there's still quite the tether tying her to this world" this woman in white said, making you take a step back.

    "Er, okay, enough of that! Ah, been nice meeting you, but we've gotta get going" you rapidly said, taking Colette and Nightshade by the arms and shepherding them away, regardless of their thoughts on this woman.

    One last thing, that woman said, you turning pale as you realised she was communicating with you without speaking, If you happen to run into my gun-toting associate, he simply calls himself 'the Reaper', do take caution.

    As you still had a bit of time here, despite your words, you stopped at the local hot springs at Nightshade's insistence. Your own hair fully down and Colette's extensions unclipped, Nightshade had to lean over ask you, "So, our Honoka, after last night, which of us would you say is the better in bed?"

    You immediately turned beet red as you were left quaking at that question. "Well, um, that is, um, I really don't know what to say in regards to that-" you kept stumbling over your words.

    You were still worried to Colette would react, but instead your reaction just put a sly grin on her face. "I am still pre-op, so I assume that'd make a difference, wouldn't it?" she then asked, playing along with Nightshade's game as she watched you squirm.

    "Okay, maybe too, how do I say, piercing a question?" Nightshade then had to admit, but then asked instead, "Okay, something more primal, which of us two has the best body? Be honest, I'm sure neither of us will mind your answer".
    Utterly embarrassed, your dizzy self eventually fainted right there, collapsing into the onsen pool as your two bandmates then had to drag you out.

    * * *

    A little while later, you were on the plane to Tokyo, Nightshade and Tomomi having gone back to Kuchinashi to leave you two on your date. At least this time you weren't forced to sit by the window seat, Colette nobly taking it for you.

    Colette naturally had quite a few books already packed for the domestic flight, freeing you from the agony of choice a little. She'd brought along both Clive Barker's Books of Blood and a tankobon of The Poe Clan, with you having just enough time on the flight to read a good portion of both of them, nodding along with Colette's tastes.

    "Reading literature though does raise an issue I've... had on my mind a little while," Colette then said, sighing, "My pen name's 'Colette Claudius', but other than that I'm 100% Japanese. Well, maybe I have some Irish ancestry, what with how many people over the world do, but anyway. I did never intend for my pen name to ever be anything else, especially with how many times I've had to keep explaining that it is my pen name, but..."

    "You're still having trouble choosing what you want your actual name to be, right?" you picked up on.

    "Why yes, nailed it! It is quite a momentous choice, after all," Colette smiled at you, then added "I won't pressure you for ideas right now. Think it over if you will, I certainly have," she giggled a bit.

    <<BGM: SMT Nocturne - Large Map Real Universe>>

    The plane finally touched down in Haneda Airport, with you noticing it was coming up to midday. The Airport on its own had enough outlets that you felt you could've spent the rest of the day here if you wanted, but that would've been a bit of a waste given everything to do in this city.

    Pulling up an electronic map, you went "Okay, so Destinyland's to the northeast, although that may be going a bit over-budget, while Tokyo Tower's some distance straight north of here".

    "Tokyo Tower? Please, like I have any patience for that Eiffel wannabe school trip-bait," Colette brushed that idea off, before pointing to a district just northeast of the Budokan, "If anywhere, Kanda-Jinbocho is the place I had in mind, the beating heart of Tokyo's literature scene, containing books I could only ever order online, if find at all, back in Hokkaido. Let's go!"

    You did have a quick stop in Ginza as it was on your way up there, but given the area's notorious prices, you were pretty much stuck with window-shopping. Not that much of the clothes were exactly to Colette's liking, Ginza not quite being Toyo's Gothic Lolita hub, but you certainly had to fantasise about trying more than a few of the Parisian trenchcoats and ballgowns on.

    Being way too late for the nearby Tsukiji fishmarket, you did sight see at both the Kabuki-za theatre and Godzilla statue while you were there, which then made you think that Lake Toya could have its own Deathdemona statue, heh. Your last side-trip before reaching Kanda Jinbocho was Taira no Masakado's grave in Otemachi, as naturally Colette would want to visit a grave on your date together.
    Masakado was of course one of the first samurai and the first known rebel leader against the Japanese government, which had ended with his head being sent down the river to what would become Edo then Tokyo, so naturally the capital would move here. He was deified out of it, so maybe it wasn't a complete loss for him. You did fell a... strange sensation while you were there though, but you then asked Colette about it and she said she felt nothing.

    At last, you reached the neighbourhood Colette was so obsessed with, you could see her almost jumping with joy. there was certainly a selection here, with Japanese bookstores specialising in the US and UK, Western bookstores specialising in Japan, bookstores where you could also perform music (might be a good place to sneak in some extra practice), and on and on.
    "Hmm, looks like you'll probably spend most of your money here, so maybe I'll do the honours of getting coffee and tea" you said to her, neither of those being in short supply in this book district.

    "Ah, why thank you, Honoka," she did another curtsy.
    Colette soon returned from one of the shops, Nagiuri Bookstore, straining as she tried to hold the sheer number of books she was now carrying. You quickly grabbed a hold of the pile and moved them onto a table before Colette could lose her balance. She then smiled at you as she straightened herself up, dusting her flowing dress, as she said, "Well Honoka, as a privilege of our first date, you are free to peruse any one of my latest purchases during our time here. I trust you well enough to not get coffee stains and biscuit crumbs on the pages".

    [ ] The Heart pierced by the Black Rose: An Epic Romance, 1st Edition. [+Perception]
    [ ] A History of the 19th Century. [+Etiquette]
    [x] A Psychological Analysis of Occult Systems. [+Education]
    [ ] An Anthology of Horror's Greatest [+Resolve]
    [ ] Write-in.

    Afterwards, Colette's formerly delighted expression suddenly turned to frustration, then gloom, as you stepped up to ask "hey, what's wrong?"

    She sighed, covered he face with her hand, and with the other pointed up at a nearby publishing house. "Shikigami Books, the first publisher to ever reject one of my manuscripts. Sorry, but it simply stings to see the place in person. Yes, I've been rejected many times after, as is typical for an author, but well, the first cut is the deepest, as they say".

    "Oh, I see then," you mumbled.

    "Well, time is fleeting, so let's move on before my self-pity consumes me, hmm?" Colette said, gently pushing you further along the street, "I've certainly spent enough time hogging our date so far, but now, Tokyo is all yours, at least for the afternoon. So, where are we off too, then?"

    - The Moon has Journeyed to Rank 7! -

    [ ] "If you weren't impressed by Tokyo Tower... how about the Skytree then? We can pass through the old town and Senso-ji too"
    [x] "They say Shibuya's meant to be the centre of youth culture, don't they?"
    [ ] "Lotta stuff in Shinjuku, isn't there? Kabukicho, Nichome in our case, oh, and I guess the train's probably gonna pass through its station anyway"
    [ ] "Aren't girls like us usually recommended to go to Ikebukuro?"
    [ ] "Kichijoji's meant to be the number one place in Japan, according to statistics anyway. Might as well see what all the hype is about"
    [ ] "Kinda hard to choose, really. How 'bout we just stroll about, see who we run into? Think that's recommended for checking out a city"
    [ ] Write-in.

    <<BGM: Shin Megami Tensei I - Law Theme>>

    While you were in the Kanda area though, you did at least stop at the Holy Resurrection Cathedral though. Apparently, the old priest had recently been replaced with a relatively younger man, and by 'younger' you guessed he'd be in his forties, named Yoshio.
    Colette certainly had to admire the aesthetics of the place, but said she personally wasn't into any of the outright religious stuff like confessions. You however, well, felt you had a lot of sins weighing you down, which you explained to Colette as just you being around the All-Aces (technically true). As you sat in the booth though, your otherwise not-that-religious self delved more deeply.

    "...Father, I- I feel I ended up with the completely wrong crowd. Like, I kind of had no choice but to join them, being pressured into it, yet at the time I also felt ecstatic, like I was finally being noticed. Until..." you drew a deep breath, "People started dying around, they did nothing, and I ultimately felt responsible for all it, even though I didn't know what I was doing at the time."

    "I may be jumping to conclusions, but it sounds to me like you got coerced into a criminal gang," Father Yoshio assumed, "Then again, I myself once had a friend in the same situation. His name was, well I'll call him 'Waruo', he felt like he wasn't strong enough to face the world, and so to feel more secure about his place on society, started to associate with increasingly more brutal people for protection. Yet I turned down the same temptation, so my long belated point is, do not ever feel like you have no way out, that you're beyond redemption".

    "Wait, so do you still meet up with this 'Waruo' guy?" you had to ask of Yoshio, "Ah, sorry for telling you how to do your job, but being a priest it's your responsibility to help sinners out, right?"

    "Hmm, our relationship is... complicated. Of course, friend circles change over time, the people you once thought closest to you can drift quite far away. Though I suppose that may be a positive in your situation, given the dregs you say you've fallen in with," Father Yoshio skirted around the answer.

    You had to sigh, before telling him, "That's the thing though, the people who've been a bad influence on me aren't the dregs of society, they... pretty much are society".

    There was stillness in the air a moment longer, but Yoshio did reply with, "Well, that complicates the issue".

    * * *

    You had one last encounter on the train to Shibuya Station, as you and Colette found yourselves sitting next to an occidental-looking woman with a reddish-brown pixie cut who wore a dark blue yukata with little wing designs, who sat beside a black-haired man wearing a hoodie over his business suit. They were certainly eye-catching, but it wasn't until you could see some strange tattoos flash for a second on the man that you took real notice.

    The red and blue woman, clearly the more social of the two, was first to introduce herself, "Oh hi, guess I should say something to break the silence, huh? I'm Yosei-Kashima Kushiko, and this here's Naoki," she grinned, patting him hard on the back, with her husband more casually giving his name.

    "Nakamura Honoka," you bowed your head "I'm, ah, currently wondering what I'm doing with my life, just come back from confession after all".

    "Hmhm, and I'm Colette Claudius, charmed I'm sure," your now girlfriend stood up on her seat in order to curtsey.

    This Yosei had to giggle a little, but explained herself with "Ah Nakamura, it sounds like you're in a very similar situation as my Naoki here. Though in my beau's case, he probably spends a bit too much time thinking about what he could've done differently, how things could've been".

    "Ah, the most useless of thoughts," Colette put a bit too bluntly, but said, "Granted, being a high-schooler I'm somewhat biased in that case. Still, I take it you've heard of the Many Worlds Theorem, of course it's everywhere in pop culture these days? Who knows, perhaps your Naoki did do things differently in another reality, and perhaps still felt regret?"

    Yosei had to grin at that, "Whoo, neither of us are exactly quantum physicists, though my Naoki does have some interest in the field, but you could say we're more than well acquainted with Multiverse theory, aren't we, Naoki~?" she nudged him.

    You talked a little longer, her Naoki spending most of your chat in his own thoughts, before you got off at Shibuya, the other couple going on to Ginza.

    <<BGM: The World Ends with You - Deja Vu>>

    You soon felt overwhelmed with things to do here, likely because Shibuya may be one of the most overwhelming parts of an already overwhelming city. Of course, once your head felt clear enough, your first instinct was to check out a few of the fashion stores here, which made you regret not bringing Reina or Suzako along, even if this was meant to be your date with Colette. On the plus side, at least you weren't being dragged around here by Melissa, though you imagined Ginza was more her scene.

    Of course, Shibuya had far more than a 'few' fashion boutiques, as your choice to go clothes-shopping was still near-paralysis through choice, what with 109, Omotesando and Takeshita Street. You and Colette did narrow things down by coming to the agreement to only check out independently owned stores, though at times it could be hard to distinguish what was independent and what was a chain.

    Ultimately you did come back with something of a haul, to the point where you had to start worrying about your plane fare back to Hokkaido:

    [ ] What looked like a Gothic Lolita take on a Jester's uniform, with a lot of diagonal checkers and a free marotte.
    [x] A cutesy fairytale-looking dress, decorated with half-bitten 'poison' apples, thorns, and 'mermaid' scales.
    [ ] Something more androgynous, with epaulettes, sharp trousers, a double-breasted jacket, and neckerchief.
    [ ] A neat-looking school uniform, which was apparently what was worn at a nearby academy called Shujin.
    [ ] Write-in.

    Colette though, while coming back with a haul of her own, had an odd, somewhat melancholic expression on her face.
    "Feeling the overload?" you had to ask her.

    "Well yes, I'd be lying if I said all the stimulation wasn't affecting me, but also," she sighed and looked around her, "I figure you've already noticed more than a few girls dressed like me, haven't you? I suppose this should make me feel like I belong, and it does, but in a bittersweet way. Back in Kuchinashi I was one of the few who dressed like this," she said tugging at her skirt, "And because of that, I stood out. Which yes, led to a lot of harassment, or at least telling glances, but at the same time... did make me feel like an individual. Here though, I'm but a grain of sand on the shore".

    "Well, ah, don't look at it like you're losing your individuality or anything," you tried to tell her, lifting her chin up, "Think of it like you may have a community here, beyond just the Occult Club, people who've likely gone through the exact same things you have, and can talk just as passionately about what you're also into".

    Colette's mood lightened, with her then saying, "Thank you, Honoka, it does help hearing that. Though I certainly don't think I'll ever make the money to move to Tokyo or anything, being on an author's wage and all".

    You were then interrupted by some impromptu fashion taking place in an open store. With you both having to squeeze through the crowd to get a good view of anything going on, you could see this was mainly advertising men's fashion, mainly aristocratic wardrobes, butler uniforms, and er some oddly boy-like outfits with puffy breeches that more androgynous models were showcasing.

    "Oh my god, I'd love to meet a man as elegant and gentlemanly as that!" a girl in braids right next to you blushed furiously.

    "...Er, you sure about that?" you were driven by instinct to comment, before coming forth to explain to her "It's just that, well, I actually do know guys like that, an actor actually, and well, their treatment of women is just as Victorian". Of course, Azuma probably only qualified for the gentleman aesthetic and speech patterns.

    "Yeah yeah, I know," this girl sighed, "But hey, for the moment, just let me dream and have my fantasies, y'know?"

    * * *

    You couldn't stay the whole night as you had to be at school tomorrow, which meant an evening plane, but while you were in Shibuya and exhausted from wandering, Colette and you did book yourselves into a love hotel for a couple of hours. On the more spiritual side, you did feel this stay might help replace that... one time with Azuma in your mind.

    At first you were gonna let Colette choose the room, but she insisted you have your pick instead. Curiously, the place did have enough gothic-themed rooms to give the both of you options:

    [ ] A plush, dark-red vampiric chamber with a large coffin bed.
    [ ] A moonlit werewolf room with bed posters like gnarled trees, furry blankets and, er, dog collars.
    [x] An Egyptian tomb with a sarcophagus bed and bandages to wrap around each other, plus some wandering cats.
    [ ] A 'black lagoon' room complete with fish tank and deep sea wallpaper.
    [ ] Write-in.

    After all that, you time came to an end as you got on the plane back to Hokkaido. Colette at least had brought more than enough books to read on the flight back, and you also found yourself sitting next to none other than that Japanese businessman you'd briefly talked with back in Vladivostok.

    "Oh, what a surprise meeting you again here," he reached out and offered his hand and card, "Nanjo Kei, the #1 Man in Japan, of the Nanjo Group naturally. I was just bound for Sendai myself".

    "Ah, I'm Nakamura Haonoka, er, Jack of a bunch of Aces, Vice-president of Occult Club, and batter on the Hanataba Cricket Team" you said after thinking how you could ever respond to that. "Er, Nanjo Group you say?"

    Nanjo had to sigh, "Yes, I am fully aware our business is... not as illustrious as it once was. I can't deny the departure of the Kirijo Group and the Okumura scandal wasn't a serious blow, even all these years later," he muttered.

    "My, is that why some CEO like you is stuck in economy class with the rest of us workers, hmm?" Colette had to tease him.

    "What? Oh no, not that all. My principle as Head of the Nanjo Group is not too segregate myself from the common man, I've even slept on some quite cramped trains before!" he had to smile, adjusting his tie.

    "I see," Colette mumbled, not entirely buying it.

    "Wait, from what I remember back in Vladivostok, you know Kikuko's fath- er, Maeda Iemitsu, right?" you spoke up, "I, ah, was just curious to know, um, what he's like".

    Nanjo had to laugh, before frowning, "I can certainly see why his daughter didn't just tell you herself, Teradaya's Iemitsu may possibly be the man I most regret ever having to work with," he scowled. "He's basically everything I ever feared becoming, although, well, I will give him that the death of one's wife is surely quite the blow for any husband..." his angered expression turned to a sigh.
    "Still, some of my associates in Russia I suspect have mafia ties, and I will confess I've had to negotiate with yakuza types before, so that should tell you something about old Maeda" he felt the need to add.

    Sheesh, imagine him finding out about Personae, you had to think of Kikuko's father, Hell, imagine the yakuza and bratva finding out about Personae.

    "Just one thing, would your group happen to have ties with any publishing houses?" Colette asked, handing him one of her manuscripts.

    As Nanjo flipped through it, he went, "Er, I have spoken with them in the past, then again I've spoken with basically every major company. I must warn you, I'm hardly that skilled in pitching any book that isn't a management guide, but hmm, I'll see what I can do," with him then saying, "Anything to help an associate of Maeda's daughter, Lord knows you need a bone thrown your way".

    That's putting it mildly, you thought.

    * * *

    As you at last got off the train to Kuchinashi, your fortune came to a head when you ran into yet another familiar face from Russia.

    "Huh, Kujikawa Rise?" you exclaimed, as you saw you'd gotten off the platform with her, "Um, what brings you here?"

    "Who?" Colette had to ask, before promptly apologising.

    "Oh hi there, you're the girl who crashed my dressing room, right?" Rise said with nevertheless a bright smile, "Well er, I felt a little gross having to play the hits for a bunch of Russian oligarchs, so while my career's... er, on hold, I thought I'd really get back to my roots by doing a little investigating! My cover story's is that I'm the new Choir and Concert Band teacher around here, of course".

    "Investigating?" you shot up with.

    "Ah yeah, well whenever I'm not idoling, crime and amateur sleuthing are, ahem, something of side-interests of mine, teehee. A dear detective friend of mine told me about, well, all the alarming and curious deaths that've been happening at a high school called Hanataba, so I thought I might try to crack the case!" she beamed.

    ...This isn't a game, you thought, but politely offered to her, "Er, well what a coincidence, both Colette and I attend Hanataba, so maybe we can help you out?"

    You then immediately regretted that offer when she said, "Oh, you will? You'll be like my junior detectives? A-ha, finally, I've been Naoto's assistant so long, now finally I'm giving myself a promotion!" hyping herself up.

    - Rebirth has Journeyed to Rank 4! -

    "Well, I can certainly tell you'll be quite the ray of sunshine in our drab little school," Colette then said, Rise missing her sarcasm.

    Oh yeah, you should probably start making plans for how to spend your next school week. Hmm...

    [ ] Drama Club, you should stand up to Azuma.
    [ ] Tea Ceremony Club, you'll be seeing a lot of Kikuko anyway.
    [ ] Class Rep duties.
    [ ] Rehearsing for Nightshade.
    [ ] Keeping on with Cricket Club.
    [ ] Studying with friends.
    [ ] Training yourself physically.
    [ ] Seeing what's with Computer Club.
    [ ] Doing your part-time job at the tabletop store.
    [ ] Taking that part-time job at the sweets shop.
    [ ] Maybe doing that modelling thing.
    [x] Traversing the Gameboard without needing to sneak in.
    - [ ] Azuma's Empire.
    - [ ] Eitaro's Empire.
    - [ ] Gakuto's Empire.
    - [ ] Himawari's Empire.
    - [x] Kikuko's Empire.
    - [ ] Melissa's Empire.
    - [ ] Rin's Empire.
    - [X] Write-in: First Makoto, now Rise? That's two people you randomly met who are now at Hanataba investigating the murders, and that's too much of a coincidence. Bring them to the Lounge and drop the word 'Persona', see if that gets a reaction. Maybe they'll be the help you need.
    Last edited by NailsInYourFeet; September 27th, 2022 at 06:54 PM.

  4. #44
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    XLIV. Phantom Investigation

    "Yeah, the deaths of three elite students in quick succession is eyebrow-raising, I'll give you that, but I'm surprised that news about our high school is spreading so quickly around Japan- Oh, that's right, that friggin' documentary thing!" you then realised.

    "Huh, what documentary?" Colette had to ask.

    "Oh right, you weren't there that week. Don't worry, that was a blessing in disguise," you sighed out to Colette, "An NHK documentary crew came over to film for an upcoming look at high schools, us being the designated Hokkaido school. It basically was a whole week of stage-fright and 'just act natural' on our part. Then, y'know, Gakuto died immediately after, but I guess they thought they had the footage anyway..." you figured.

    "That's basically how Naoto, detective friend of mine, found out about what's going on here," Rise told you, "It made watching that whole documentary feel a lot eerier than normal, I'll say. So I figured I oughta get up here before the cops close the place off to everyone else".

    You meant no disrespect, but still had to restrain yourself from laughing, "No need to worry about that, our Principal's been bribing the police 24/7 to look the other way, lest our beloved's school reputation, and attendance numbers, go kaput. Though it sounds like word's getting out anyway" you put it.
    "You aren't the first new teacher to show up because of the All-Ace deaths though, I'll say that. Probably the biggest lead I can give you would be to check out their personal lounge, but I guess that'd naturally be one of the first places you'd look... so what I just said was kinda pointless, I guess," you mumbled out.

    "Oh no, not at all, every little bit of help counts, definitely when it comes to, ah, matters like these," Rise knelt down to smile at you, "So, ah, since I'll be your Music Teacher, do you sing at all?"

    "Ah, not really," you gulped, recalling the last few times you'd done karaoke, "Just some backing vocals. Oh, I do play bass though".

    "Guitar," Colette was quick to smugly insert herself, before she grumbled, "Oh right, drums too I suppose".

    "Oh yeah, and Tanizawa-sensei, my homeroom teacher's, also plays guitar," you added, Well, she moves her hands over it at least. "She's out of a gig right now, so hey, maybe you'd get along?" Hopefully better than she did with Makoto.

    "Hey, that's still great to hear! Although, um, I did hear the Choir's Leading Singer got, well, you know, so I guess they probably a lot of recovering to do," Rise went on, her bright tone fading at the end.

    "...Yeah, she was our friend, too," you spoke up and looked down, "And since you're gonna find out anyway, yeah, she was an All-Ace though. Still perfectly alive, so hey".

    "Okay, I guess I'm taking up quite a bit of your time, but you don't mind me asking one last question, right?" Rise piped back up, leaning in a little closer, "Have the deaths been punctuated with any, like, strange disappearances beforehand?"

    "Nope. Okay, Gakuto's a little, but that was just for like the morning," you said.

    "Huh, I see," Rise muttered, stroking her chin, "Well, I guess investigating that lounge tomorrow's the only lead I have right now, but I'll take what I can get. Hey, big thanks to the both of you, see you tomorrow!" she gave one last smile to Colette and you.

    "Huh, these deaths elude me too, yet even I worry that our new teacher has no idea what she's getting into," Colette had to remark upon rise leaving, hand on her hip.

    "I know, but... can't you have a little faith in her, Colette? She used to be a nationwide celebrity, so she's probably had to handle much bigger egos than the All-Aces," you came to Rise's defence.

    "Hmm, I'll just say that I hope for the best... but have to expect the worst," Colette was frank with you.

    Her words also did remind you, maybe she did have the right to know by now about the Gameboard? If you had to tell anyone out of the loop about its true nature, Colette made the most sense, having one foot in the occult world herself, and her own Shadow having once been targeted on it.
    That still didn't mean you knew how to break the news about it at all to her...

    * * *
    <<BGM: Nick Holder - Summer Daze>>

    "Another new teacher this soon? Kinda suspicious-"

    "She's cute though. Hope she really is that perky and doesn't turn out like Himawari..."
    "Hey, that documentary finally came out, at like, the most inappropriate time-"

    "-Oh boy, just found out the girl who attacked Gakuto's back. Way to honour his memory."

    You were now dressed in your more streamlined, white summer uniform, the choice of colour to reflect the heat you assumed. Despite yet another new face in the faculty the day progressed as normal, like it was still the season before.
    One thing you noticed though was Ryouko coming off as oddly put out, like there was just something bugging her all the time with the way she kept muttering.

    "Hey, Tanizawa-sensei, you're not bothered by something are you?" you asked her once the rest of class had left. "...This isn't about you being let off the band, is it?"

    Ryouko didn't say anything then, but did nod. Eventually she came out with, "Yeah, like I can get why Nightshade did it, wanting to make sure I still had a teaching career after this. It's just, well, it's not like I was ever super-invested in teaching anyway..."

    That definitely made you take a step back, but you at least had to ask, "Hey wait, aren't you like, at least grateful for some of the students you've had? Like Suzako, or Colette," You tried not to look self-centred by saying 'and me'.

    Tanizawa-sensei laughed a little at your words, then said with a smile, "Yeah, maybe I am getting a bit carried away. Like, I could do musician stuff I guess, but that's hardly stable, so I'm forced to admit..." that defeated tone of hers crept back in, "If not this teaching job, well, I'd probably have nothing now".

    That did make you think, with you then saying to her, "You know, as a student I kept hearing about 'education should be fun' programs and stuff, especially when I was little. But like, they're always talking about how the students feel, not the teachers, then again I guess school is there for the students above all- Ugh, I'm getting tongue-tied".

    "So, you're basically wondering how to make school 'more fun' for me, is that it?" Ryouko tilted her head and grinned at you. "Hey, Honoka, I appreciate the concern, though I'm afraid you'd have to pull off something real special to accomplish that for me," she chuckled again.

    "Hmm, although, Tanizawa-sensei, have you met Rise-er, I mean Kujikawa-sensei yet? She's more than upbeat, and you do have some shared interests, so I think maybe you'd get along?" was your offer.

    "Oh, the new Music Teacher, right? It's a bit soon for me to really say anything about her, though at least she sounds less uptight than Niijima's been. Eh, who knows?" Ryouko shrugged, "Fail to see how she could make things any worse".

    "Yeah, while she's friendly and all, I gotta admit I still don't know much about her," you said, "Like, I dimly remember she used to be a big star, but that's long past now, at least in pop music time, so I don't think we'll get many students going 'Oh my god, our teacher's Risette?!' or whatever. Still, she does kinda remind me of, well, not who Himawari... Nightshade actually is, but rather what people thought she was like. Oh, except Kujikawa's older, so I guess it's the other way around?" you awkwardly finished on.

    "Ah, well I totally bet my music tastes are way too intense for her," Ryouko gave a devilish grin, as then said snuck out her guitar from beneath her desk, plugged it in where the projector would otherwise go, and gave a windmill strum.

    "Er, don't you think that could wait till after school?" you had to flinch.

    "Hah, thought I was the teacher here," Ryouko smirked.

    Been a while since you had a heart-to-heart with Tanizawa-sensei like this though, despite your Class Rep duties...

    - The Priestess has Journeyed to Rank 3! -

    * * *

    Once you got some free time at school, you soon found Rise was too busy that day, it being her first day there. Peering to the music lessons she was giving just to check up on her, you did pick up on a bunch of students sighing "Man, 'hip' teachers are always so out of date". You could see that comment didn't escape Rise's ears either from her split-second flinch, though from there she tried to act like she hadn't heard that.

    You were able to get a chance to talk to Makoto though, with you two arranging to meet up in the Prized Pupil Lounge once the All-Aces were busy elsewhere. Sitting down on one of the plush chairs there, teacup in her hand, Makoto had to gawk at the opulence of the place. "Wow, it's just at my old school, we would've never spent this much on students, it'd be an extravagance. On the teachers, maybe," she took it all in.

    "Well, the All-Aces as an institute here fund a lot their stuff privately, given they mostly come from wealthy families. It's one of the reasons why the Student Council can barely touch them" you told her, sitting down opposite, trying to resist the temptation to spin around on this one chair.

    "...That bad, huh?" Makoto muttered, but then brought up, "You know, I've been hearing all these positive things about your All-Aces from the moment I got here, yet every word you've said about them has been downcast. Then again, maybe I'm the one projecting my personal experiences onto them... or not, I'll give you that Lilian's been insufferable every time I've met her," she laughed a little at her words, you smiling along with her.
    What stopped your smile though, is when she said, "Sakurazuka Azuma though has been quite courteous, like I think he's been the second guy in my life to compliment me on my beauty".

    You could've froze up, but instead said, "Yeah well, appearances can be deceiving".

    "...I see. That, and perhaps I gush too easily, being flattered like that. I mean, growing up it felt like my Big Sis was the one getting all the guys' attention, though true, she mostly seemed exhausted by it," Makoto went on.

    You felt like groaning. "You look perfectly fine, Niijima-sensei," you had to tell her straight up.

    With you standing up, you were now close enough to the circle around the Gameboard, that the burning blue tarot card flashed in your hands.
    "Wait, was that a tarot card?" Makoto exclaimed.

    "You were able to see it?" you gasped back.
    Eyeing the Gameboard, Makoto stood up and moved closer to it, with your eyes widening as a tarot card flared up suddenly in her hand too.
    "The Priestess..." you read out.

    Makoto nodded, then peered down to see what Arcana you had... the instantly took a step back. "Yours reads Fool so, God, does that mean-?" she put her hand over her mouth.

    "You- you know about the Wild Card?" you asked, as several other Arcana shuffled themselves out from behind the Fool.

    "More like I know about a Wild Card," Makoto said, "The point is, you can use Personae, but where? In my experience, you can't summon them just anywhere".

    You pointed straight down at the Gameboard, as you told Makoto, "Lay your card down on the board, and I'll show you where".

    Within seconds the two of you had appeared in No One's Land, with Regalia of Makoto's own appearing on her, as a red scarf wrapped around her neck to extend into an entire flowing cape, a silhouette chitin-like corseted black silhouette fitted itself onto her body, sleeves cut off to show her musculature, and an iron insectoid goggle-mask covered her eyes.

    "My suspicions really were true," she stated, looking down at herself to then say, "My outfit's changed a bit, but I suppose I can't wear the same clothes forever after all, even cognitive ones".

    "Well, we just call this place the Gameboard," you said to her as you threw out your arms, gesturing at this dark expanse, "I've heard a whole bunch of explanations about what it's supposed to be, but you know the phrase 'this town ain't big enough for the both of us'? Yeah, it's basically the collective unconsciousness embodiment of that".

    "Like... an arena where humanity's strongest wills are set to clash?" Makoto got the impression.

    You shrugged, "I guess that sums it up. Don't know if I'd call the All-Aces 'humanity's strongest wills' though, well maybe around here they are," you gave it some thought, "Each of them has an Empire, even the dead ones still do, the incarnation of not just their willpower, but the power their will has on others".

    "Even the dead ones?" Makoto took notice of those words, "You're saying a person can die and they'd still have a Pala- er, Jai- er, Empire?"

    "Well yeah, like there's historical figures who've been dead way longer, yet still influence us. guess it's the same concept here" you figured.

    "Hmm, well I have come across one situation like that before, on the complete other end of Japan though" Makoto remarked.

    "The thing about this damn Gameboard is, only one Empire can hope to rule all of it at a time, for what prize I don't know," you snarled, "You wanna know what's been causing the murders? That's basically it". Well, not 'basically', but anyway.

    "Huh, didn't expect to get something of an answer so fast," Makoto folded her arms and grinned, "Would've made my old job much easier if they, er, Shadows we fought were all at each others' throats instead of ours".

    "Shadows?" you caught that word, "I mean yeah, there's Shadows on the Gameboard, but all the Empires are held by Persona-Users. Er, were held, in the dead ones' case".

    Makoto suddenly went quiet. "Each of these Imperials have their own Persona? Well, ah, that complicates things..." she got around to saying.

    <<BGM: Persona 5 vs Justice (pluffaduff) - Last Surprise vs Phantom>>

    Speaking of Shadows though, one of them immediately swooped down from high above, bursting out into a sphere of flame as it neared the ground. You were now confronted by a crow with wings of smoke, its furthest feathers still on fire, with a beak and talons of coal, white dotted patterns adorning its body, and flickering stars for eyes. rather than swoop at you directly, it instead flew around you two in a circle, creating a ring of roaring flame.

    A quick scan from PITT showed this Shadow was Magician Wahn, and you'd have little success using Fire and Wind. "Okay, so not the Morrigan, though I can't rule out her being involved" you noted.

    "Morrigan? Well okay, that can wait, let's just deal with whoever this is first," Makoto spoke up before, rather than drawing any kanji in the air, instead just removed her mask, "Anat!"

    One second you saw a motorcycle appear, the next it'd unfolded into a flaming blue mech whose limb movements synced with Makoto's. Rather than attack immediately, Makoto cast a red Marakukaja barrier upon you and her, which proved helpful as the crow Shadow tried to divebomb her with his beak, her blocking the attack with two spiked bracers around her hands.

    With you ready to move, you then switched to Theodora to Sukunda Wahn, the Shadow then not able to dodge an oncoming left hook delivered by Makoto, knocking it back up into the Gameboard's 'sky'. The burned crow then started casting Garu spells down, not at either of you, but at the fires to feed them. You had Personae who could let you walk through the blaze, but you couldn't say the same for Makoto.

    So you then had Theodora cast Megido upon Wahn, the raw power of the spell sending the crow into spiral, leaving it free for Makoto to play target practice with it after drawing her revolver. Switching to Octobriana let you run through the fiery ring, drawing your tonfas to strike back at Wahn in person.
    However Wahn, taking one last look at the two of you, then fled through unleashing a heavy smoke cloud, leaving no trace of itself upon vanishing other than two flaming talon-marks.

    "You really are a Wild card then, huh?" Makoto muttered, before she strode up to you and said, "You were about to say something about a Morrigan?"

    "Oh yeah, the Morrigan. I'm told sees the one who oversees this Gameboard, the judge and referee you could say. She's also where the All-Aces' and my Personae came from, through her messenger anyway" you told her.

    "Hmm, fascinating you learned the name of the entity behind this already," Makoto observed, "Perhaps she's more careless than... others, or she feels less of a need to hide herself".

    You paused as her swords sank in, but you then said, "Don't know about that, I feel she would've shown up already if the latter was the case. Niijima-sensei, you make it sound like you got your Persona from elsewhere... so maybe that's why she or one of her subordinates sent that Shadow after us, as a scout".

    Makoto smirked at that, "So she thinks I'm an invader, huh? Well, a little alarming to know I was spotted so quickly then," she said, before bringing something else up, "But the way, even if I'm not with my usual team, I have a request. While we're here, rather than 'Niijima-sensei' or 'Makoto', I'd like you to call me by the codename Queen. Helps draw less attention to me, from my experience".

    "Er, okay," you shrugged, "Guess I'd be Jack then. Or 'Jack of Hearts', which isn't my current title, but I'd take it over Jack of Swords for, er, reasons and stuff. It's complicated," you said.

    "You 'guess'?" Makoto smiled, "It's simple I'll give you, but it looks like you'd prefer a different codename".

    You hesitated, but you then came up with:

    [x] Mirror.
    [ ] Dragon.
    [ ] Saint.
    [ ] Lancea.
    [ ] Shroud.
    [ ] Marotte.
    [ ] Actually Jack's fine.
    [ ] Write-in.

    "Alright, so do you have any plans heading forth?" Makoto then asked, before groaning, "Ugh, also looks like we're gonna have to walk all the way on foot here".

    That comment flying over you, you said, "Well, everyone at Hanataba has a Piece, a Shadow usually, on the Gameboard, except us Persona users, we're 'Players' or whatever. What Kikuko, the All-Ace I'm assigned to, wants me to do is beat up this girls' Shadow to 'neutralise' her, basically a hit, and if I don't do it by the end of June, she will. yeah, so obviously I'm not going through with that, but I will try alerting her Shadow about all this instead. She's all the way in Kikuko's own Empire though, so well, I wasn't planning to go there with just me and another".

    "Ah, you want to increase our numbers first, is that it?" Makoto picked up on.

    "Yeah, like there's one other teacher here I'm beginning to suspect might have something to do with Personae, she's clearly trying to solve the murders at least," you explained.

    "I know someone who, well, doesn't exactly have a Persona, but she's certainly got a strong Shadow," Makoto had to say.

    [ ] Wait till you can recruit Kujikawa Rise.
    [ ] Find out who Makoto's referring to.
    [x] Maybe both? Safety in numbers.
    [ ] Maybe bring Nightshade in, though that's not easy to do in a school week.
    [ ] Actually, you reckon Makoto's tough enough that you can take on Kikuko's Empire already.
    [ ] Write-in.
    Of course, finding a time that week when Rise, Makoto, and whoever Makoto had in mind could all be in the Lounge at once while the All-Aces were out, er, was not easy. Still, you were eventually able to arrange something.

    "Okay, so we're all here to solve the mystery! Woo, already making great progress, gang!" Rise beamed, spinning around in one of the All-Aces' chairs.

    Makoto's older sister Sae, however, was certainly in a less cheery mood.
    "Kujikawa, is it? Would you mind acting like a professional, or at the very least your age? This isn't one of your concerts or whatever we're throwing, lives are on the line here," she hissed.

    Rise's eyes twitched, with her retorting, "Hey, I've been in life-or-death situations before y'know. And I also know how what an emotional toll they can take on you, so forgive me for at least trying to cheer people up", she crossed her arms and looked to the side.

    Makoto groaned, as she said to you on the side, "Knew something like this was going to happen. Don't get me wrong, I can't deny the talent Big Sis has in legal affairs, but... ugh, you can see she's not exactly a people person".
    She then turned to her big sister and Rise and asked, "Ahem, perhaps you two would like to inspect this little antique board game they have in here? With Nakamura's assistance, I've managed to uncover some, er, telling marks on it".

    "Hmm, I don't really see what a board game could possibly have to do with the string of deaths, but I do suppose we can't rule out any evidence" Sae said and approached.

    "Well er, I've seen heaps of things used to kill people with, oh boy that came out wrong," Rise said then tensed, "So I wouldn't say a board game is too out of the blue".

    The two froze as they approached, with the requisite burning blue cards appearing in their hands, Rise's reading Lovers VI and Sae's reading... Judgment XX.
    "Alright, awesome!" Rise exclaimed, before she then took her card and crushed it in her hand... only for nothing to happen. "...Funny, that usually works," she mumbled.

    You had to facepalm for a second, "Try laying the card down on the table," you stated.

    * * *

    The four of you then warped down onto the Gameboard, with the usually resolute Sae sent clutching her head at the shift. You also noticed she was still in her regular outfit.

    "Huh, I thought she'd be used to leaping into cognitive worlds?" you asked Makoto.

    "Er, not exactly," Makoto had to admit, "She was more, how do I put this, involved through second-degree".

    Rise however now donned a fur-lined red robe with a golden crown on top of her head, her holding a microphone stand like a sceptre and dressed in a black, pink-frilled flamenco dress beneath. "Yes, woo-hoo, this is comeback tour material!" she exclaimed, but quickly correcting herself with "Er, not getting all excited due to the deaths and stuff like that, just getting to use a Persona again. That's all".

    "Huh, I've only heard of these things you call Personae, yet even I suspected their presence here," Sae deduced.

    "Uh yeah, so we might want to get going, before the Morrigan gets alerted again and sends another of her scouts down to us," you said, looking around.

    It turned out you didn't have even that long, as already a figured had swooped down right in front of you. This new Shadow looked like a cross between a woman and an airplane, a cross between organ and exhaust pipes decorating her hair and legs, though some of them mounted on her shoulders you could see were brass instruments. She held up a lily in her right hand, while in her left she brandished a giant mask like a shield.

    <<BGM: Persona 4 - Reach out to the Truth (Eurobeat Remix)

    "Okay, let's do this! Kouz- er, Kouzeon?" Rise flinched as she saw her Persona mutating right above her, her telescope becoming a planet-smashing laser rifle with the head of a dragon, her skin now made of stars and clad in a blood-red gown, the solar system around her now a Milky Way, and her now riding atop a blazing orange eagle-like phoenix using wispy cloud-reins.
    "No, I know you... Jiutian Xuannu," she realised, before she said, "Okay, Analysis now".

    "That's strange," Makoto mentioned, "Anat came forth same as always for me..."

    Sae meanwhile clutched at herself and collapsed on her knees; a spiked helmet having materialised on top of her.
    "Hmm, it looks like something is has at least loosened that mask's grip on you, compared to, er, before," Makoto observed, before she bit her lip and said, "...Forgive me for this, Sis, it might hurt a little".

    Makoto then wrenched that helmet right off of Sae, her face now cast in shadow and her eyes glowing gold.
    "I art thou... thou art I," you could hear her reciting, before she stood up again and proclaimed "Sovereign!"

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