Sunburst and Ground Zero
The lightshow has an immediate effect, the soldiers falling back and filling into a defensive formation. Scared isn't the right word for it, the reaction time too fast...too trained...like they're used to fighting metahumans...cautious? On guard? Like they won't take you lightly once they recover...that's more accurate. Probably not a great feeling either as more fire from inside the building to try and push you back as well. Either way, what could have been quite a bad situation with armed and trained combatants on ground level has subsided. For now.
You see all this from your high vantage point Ground Zero, as well as Tsunami's drones zipping off after the van which you seem intent to follow spurred on by Hikari's words. Caution seems to be the consensus but the van's right there. You could take it out easily, damage be damned.
Elementals aren't much to you and your armor, razor sharp fingers clanging off your metal frame as you step in to take the brunt of their assault. That seems to give Tsunami enough time to jet off, literally, in a cloud of steam. The rest of the Guardians aren't so lucky, quickly finding themselves overrun. While there may be no love lost between you and Snow Fox he seems to have it the worst. Not even his own fellow Junior Guardians doing much to assist in the conflict as the civilians swarm as far and fast away as they can.
Of course there's also Sunburst, on her own. The light show might well have bought you and her some time but with Ground Zero taking off in pursuit it's really just the two of you now and no real telling when the armed forces will surge again. Or worse, go back into the building with the hostages. You've got a choice, you can't help both. Do you trust that Sunburst can handle this on her own? Do you just not care that much for Snow Fox you're going to risk him getting hurt? It's up to you. What do you do?
Hikari and Tsunami
The streets are cluttered as you weave through them on your bike Hikari, angry honks sounding as you zip between cars and trucks and the tram as it runs alongside your pursuit. More figures are quick to join you in the air, clearly the official Guardians that had been waiting in the wing finally making their move. Hannya's van seems to not really care they're much larger than you, pushing cars out of the way with loud crunches as they try to make their get away.
Tsunami's drones, and the hero himself, are soon to join as well. The van does its best to shake the automated robots to no avail and Tsunami's hopes are soon delivered upon though perhaps not quite the way he was hoping. One of the doors to the van slides open before falling into a platform of sorts. This of course hinders the van's ability to dodge around however serves as a perfectly good spot for one of the armed members of Hannya's team to step out and strap in before a large cannon like weapon is handed from inside. Moments later a powerful beam of energy lances the road ahead of you all, the street exploding in debris as they try to cut your approach short. What do you do?
Graveyard Shift: Gaiden Two
The job you were given wasn’t a simple one. Jin expected results, without question but this? Traveling to the ruins of Karakuri town? You knew the risks even before he asked you to go. Ghosts, and worse, lived in what was Karakuri Town, a sunken husk of hope for Bear Island and the wider city of San Fransapporo.
The boat ride over wasn’t hard to procure, for you. Few would take heroes to the remains of Karakuri. Fewer still would wait for you but this woman seemed fearless and more than eager to assist a member of the Weather Report (name her). So with her small boat you traveled across a stormy sea, the mad captain laughing at the surf and salt and storm until you found refuge in what would have been the sprawling docks of the once promised city.
Like the rest of it, the docks of Karakuri are bleak and well beyond ill-repair. The portions of the city that are above water are overgrown and decaying. Billboards with 80’s aesthetic are peeling and discolored, tall buildings have large chunks taken out of them as if a monster had taken them for lunch, the smell of fetid water hangs in the air and the unmistakable presence of someone watching you lingers. Your captain ties her boat to the dock and you’re off.
Asphalt streets are broken, disheveled like a giant had flicked its bedsheets up in a hurry. Small trees poke from these shattered roads, moss and lichen grow on most surfaces turning every step into a possible twisted knee. The presence only grows stronger the deeper you go. You are here for a mission. To find the lance of Stormsoul. Where do you begin?
Hikari wanders into Karakuri town, the mad captain cackling behind her. Probably just trying to scare her. Of course Hikari had heard stories about the tragedy that befell Karakuri Town. Scraps of what happened, bits and pieces. People didn’t talk about it much, and Jin
did, so it was difficult to get any real sense of it. A bad thing happened. People died. The city moved on. Anything more than that was just ghost stories.
When Hikari comes upon the city itself, it gives her pause.
What had once been a bastion of modern civilization now lies crumbling, slowly being reclaimed by nature. The scene is laid out before her in full sunlight, all the signs of superpowered struggle. Cratered pavement, demolished buildings, debris. But in San Fransapporo, the damage gets fixed in days, a week at most. But this place was...forsaken. Trees growing up through cracked concrete, waterfalls and streams from long-broken water mains, moss and ivy ensnaring whole buildings. Karakuri Town was like the Monsoon’s dark reflection. Nature and artifice in disharmony, locked in a struggle that nature would surely win, given time.
Her bold steps are tamed by the thick undergrowth, forcing her to trudge and fight for footing and purchase every step of the way. She’d always pictured Karakuri Town as, well, a town. Quaint, one-storey buildings and wooden fence posts or something. Instead, it’s a tangled labyrinth of glass, steel, and vegetation, sprawling out in every direction. Stormsoul couldn’t have chosen a better place for his spear. Traversing even a single block takes over ten painstaking minutes, and before long, Hikari has had enough. There was no way she was going to find it just digging through rubble. There has to be a better way. The spear was no ordinary weapon, and it would not be found through ordinary means.
Closing her eyes, Hikari pulls out a long strip of cloth from a pocket, tying it around her head like a blindfold. She slows her breathing, filtering out the impressions from her natural senses, and enters the Void Mind.
Jin’s technique, or the way he showed you, has always been a way to look through the world without your own senses gumming up the works. To remove yourself from the world and see it for how it is, plain and stark and free of bias. You’ve seen testing rooms and busy streets but Jin’s never taken you even as far as the Reserve to try it out. He’d say something about how it was too busy for your new sense. Too loud, too chaotic with everything living and growing. You weren’t ready.
That wasn’t a problem here. To be sure there was life here, the plants made their slow march in retaking what was always theirs. You could feel the slick moss beneath you, hear it in ways you otherwise couldn’t without the Void Mind but only because there isn’t anything else here to listen to. No life. Karakuri Town was well and truly dead, the wild animals that made Bear Island home leaving it just the way humans did. To rot, to be reclaimed, to be a scar on an otherwise beautiful island.
You can sense something else though, a power beneath your feet. Pulsing like a beating heart, screaming to be found. It was well known that Karakuri Town was to have their own Underrail network, its own shops and parking garages and all the other things a modern city has beneath its glittering facade. A perfect place to hide a spear. If that is what you’re sensing that is. Who knows what else might be here in Karakuri Town where nothing dares tread.
Focusing in on that pulsing energy, Hikari pushes outward, trying to feel the path. It’s no good. The cavernous tunnels and the city’s hollowed-out underbelly are still too dead and empty to get a clear picture of where the spear might be. But it’s down, that much is certain.
Picking her way across the urban junglescape. Hikari finds that the nearest entrance to the Underrail is caved in, useless, but not far off she finds a shopping plaza where something cracked open the ground, exposing jagged and uneven layers below. Climbing down vines and clambering down pipes and rebar mesh, leaping back and forth across the chasm, she makes her way into the subterranean layer to the rail tunnels below.
Standing before the yawning mouth, down the throat that stretches back into darkness, Hikari falters for a moment. Remembering Jin’s words about her second objective, she shudders. Giving rest to the dead. Ghosts. Surely he’d meant it figuratively, that finding the spear and removing its corrupting influence from the island would give those who perished in the cataclysm final peace. As she plunged into the darkness, leaving the safe and knowable world of light behind her, Hikari wasn’t so sure.
The touch of decay and the growth of new life has touched the subterranean realm beneath Karakuri Town. Water has made its way down the many flights of stairs leading to the Underrail, debris creating artificial rivers that one day may well become natural rivers in their own right. Vines and moss have invaded the gloom as well, some casting their own ghostly light though mostly just making your travels harder until you reach the bottom. The Black Tortoise Way, the Underrail, call it what you will.
You’ve had chances to see it back on the mainland as a member of A Banditry, the Underrail more than just an underground transit system. Each loading bay is its own small street corner with shops and accommodations for busy heroes who might not have a chance to shop or run errands above. Some lights still run, whatever power source far from the normal electrical systems which are long since shot. The trams here, at least, are empty but the all too familiar sense that you’re being watched. You know by what, even if it’s hard to face.
Ghostly wisps flit through your Void Mind. Echoes of tragedy, not even sentient. Here below the earth, in the darkness buried and forgotten, the tragedy is fresh. Businessmen who’ve long since sold themselves to the hero system embark on loud trams, their bells and chimes echoing off dark marble. Flits of faces, masked and otherwise, pass you by. For you, the tragedy at Karakuri Town is a history lesson, decades old but never forgotten. An enduring truth that helps prop the Warlord System up. Karakuri Town is what happens when villains aren’t regulated. Karakuri Town is what happens when you let villains do whatever they want, unopposed by their own number. But to these not-ghosts, the events that plunged their homes into the Pacific play out day after day and none are aware enough to lament.
That doesn’t mean that all of the dead here in Karakuri Town are similar. The hungry dead roam, twisted abominations, and hunger for the energy of the living. You’ve heard the news reports of daring urban explorers taking the chance of a lifetime, to explore Karakuri Town. You’ve seen the results, those same explorers returning to shore half mad and half alive speaking of the unthinkable. Now that you’re here, you can see why. The madness is almost palpable, like it could get stuck in your teeth, the magical energies course through the air and pervade the world around you with its perverted touch. It pulses in time with what you felt above, a dull aching throb. Thump. Pause. Thump. Pause. Thump. The air moves in this rhythm, gusts screaming down the empty tram lines.
Then you see her. She’s tall, elegant and translucent, flowing black hair and a hero outfit you can’t ever recall seeing. She’s beautiful even now, serene as she stands at the end of the platform. You see her clearly with your own eyes and with the Void Mind and perhaps worst of all, she sees you. A tense moment passes and then the spirit is off, off towards the source of that terrible energy.
Hikari stands on the platform, a single living person among the...others. There was no denying what they were. Invisible to her eyes, but unmissable in the Void Mind. They weren’t indistinct parcels of spiritual energy. Each one was as detailed and unique as a soldier in the terracotta army of old. These are the lost souls of Karakuri Town. The ones she was here to put to rest.
Her heart pounds in time with the pulsing from the energy source.The others don’t notice her as they go about their eternal business. The Void Mind is like a series of soap bubbles, their edges pressed against one another but distinct and separate. One might reach out, blend bubbles to put one of many of Jin’s long lectures into the crudest of analogies, but to what end? She goes back to not noticing them, too. She wants to close herself off from the Void Mind, to retreat into the safety of ignorance, protected from the creeping madness but the bubbles would remain.
But then another appears at the other end of the platform. She’s there, in both worlds. Even if she closed the Void Mind, there could be no escaping this one. Hikari finds her eyes drawn to the woman’s. Her mind reels back at the contact, primordial instincts threatening to take over. She reaches for her sword hilt, gripping it tightly. There is something unsettling in how unfamiliar the woman is. Like she should be recognizable, but isn’t. Like there’s something blocking her. The dark of the tunnels press in, a buzz in her ear growing louder, the confines of the walls growing ever closer the more her mind tried to process it. It was as if the world itself rose to combat her.
Then, a moment later, the woman is gone, off down the tunnel. Without even allowing herself to stop and think, Hikari follows after, as quickly as she can, outrunning the fear of what must come next.
The tracks have long since rusted, jagged fingers of steel jutting along a cluttered rail line. The ghost or phantom or spirit or whatever you might call it is not impeded but just as above, so below, the going is tricky even for a well trained member of the Weather Report. Ghostly laughter echoes across tiled tunnel rooves, the sounds of long gone trams clang and ring and buzz around you as lights dance along long abandoned trappings of civilization. The comforts of the dead you left at the station are gone, those caught in a fog of their own unlife are a lifetime ago. The deeper you travel after the spectral woman, the further into the realm your mentor warned you of. Demon infested. The electricity has long since abandoned this place with saner minds, the gleeful winds bluster and blow harder the deeper you delve down the tunnels.
The madness, too. You’re on the right path, the ghost ahead leading you ever further into the dark. What was a mere feeling has become part of the very world you travel. The tunnels seem to almost heave with each pulse of that terrible energy, shuddering to a stop with each pause only to rattle and pitch with its next haggard pulse. You can feel it on your skin as plain as the growing humidity as it seeks to soak into you, into your clothing and into your very being. Rivulets of water run down buckling walls, pools forming dangerous pits for your feet to catch in.
In the darkness, you are not alone. You’ve felt them for a while, how long have you been running down this stretch of track? Your guide pays them no mind, but they are all but homed in on you. They flit across your Void Mind, claws and teeth inching further and further into your senses until it all comes to a sudden and violent halt.
The tunnel ends and the Hungry Dead attack. You’ve come to the final station, a pile of trams slammed against a towering wall as if pushed by some uncaring hand, stand in a heap before the final platform. Your guide darts across them and into the platform beyond. You won’t have such an easy time.
They were human once, these spirits, but time and torment has warped them into something beyond saving. They are mostly mouth, distended knife filled maws from cheek to knee slathering for anything they can close around. Arms and legs atrophied to sticks albeit tipped with grasping tentacle light fingers each lined with yet more razor sharp teeth barely capable of movement, whatever unliving vigor all they have keeping them going. They’re not even capable of speech, sucking and wet screams all their body sized gullets good for. Like Elementals they feed on a living being’s emotions. Unlike Elementals they feed on the rest of the living being too. It’s rare for them to come in more than a dozen, aggressive even towards similarly pitiable beings, but you’ve attracted a swarm. Twenty, maybe thirty, spill down the tunnel towards you, sharp claws cutting at one another and driving the mass into a frenzy. A single one would be no danger, even a dozen would probably do little to cause you harm. This is something else entirely.
This is not good. Behind her, a tunnel full of slavering spirits. In front of her, a canyon of concrete and rusted steel. Practically a killing field. She had felt their presence every step of the way, growing in strength and number as she drew closer to the spear. These things had been following her, and would continue to follow if she didn’t put an end to it now. The mouth of the tunnel isn’t narrow, but it’s the closest thing she has to a chokepoint. The little voice inside her head simmers with panic, but she keeps a lid on it as best she can. Standing still in the mouth of the tunnel, she closes her eyes and pushes the panic away, emptying her mind again, reinforcing her Void Mind. The hungry maws draw closer every moment. She only has 1 second...2...3! Her eyes flash open, and she draws her sword in one lightning-fast motion, the blade cutting through the first rank of the mob as cleanly as if it were cutting air.
In an instant, they’re on you. Panels show the whizzing blade connect with the first of many in the horde and then...simply slide right through. The Void Mind ripples, a tremor throughout your sphere as your weapon phases through them.
Jin had warned you, had offered you one of many tools in the Weather Report’s arsenal, but here you are. Deep beneath a blighted place, swarmed by ghosts and you can see it as plain as day through the Void Mind. These things are more than mere elementals, more than the quiet dead that wander the vacant and crumbling halls you traversed through to finally end up here. They are the fear, the dread, the greed, the envy, the hatred of a buried and forgotten multitude. They hunger in ways you’ve never experienced but you can feel it now, pressing close to you with the stench of sweat and decay, musty and moldy and rotten. You can feel their sucker and barb tipped fingers press in upon you, draining you of what they need most.
Your hate, your longing, your need for someone...anyone...to just accept you. Images of your first training sessions with Jin flash before your eyes as the Hungry Ghosts call for them unbidden, you see through the Void Mind like you saw the ghosts before how it plays out. The more they feed, the longer you stay here, the weaker you can feel yourself. The more they draw from you, from the memories of your family, seeing them taken from you. You see the face of their killer, lurking there in the shadows just on the edge of the bubble. You feel his hunger, his desires for you just as strongly as you feel the Hungry Ghosts. His hate pulses with that terrible beat, looming larger with each passing moment.
You have to flee, you can feel that too. Animal and independent from any rational thought. If you can’t run, you’ll die here. You’ll join these dead, no one will come looking for you. No one would dare walk where you’ve walked.
The voice erupts in desperation as she swings her sword frantically. Her strokes lack any form or technique, driven only by animal fear, and makes no difference either way as it passes through the hungry maws each time without ever landing a blow. And each time she feels it as if she were taking the blow, her Void Mind shuddering from the assault.
Finally, the fear moves her, and she bolts out of the tunnel. In her fear-choked mind, reality has become distorted. The walls on either side of the track now loom above her like a canyon. Frantically, she bounds toward the trams at the far end, scrabbling her way up them, scraping her hands on the rusted metal handholds. Throwing herself over the top, she crawls onto the platform and rolls over, laying on her back with her chest heaving. In the pit below, the maws are collecting, filling the space with a roiling, writhing mass of spirit.
Getting a hold of herself, Hikari pitches to her feet, looking for the woman like the proverbial white rabbit. The pulsing continues unabated, seeming to match the quickened beat of her heart. She must be close. She almost can’t bear to go forward, but there’s no way she can go back. There is only one path - deeper still into the hellpit belly of damned Karakuri Town.
Before you a tunnel, long and sinuous with broken stairs to where you do not know. Beneath the spirits mill in a feeding frenzy as they devour their kindred like a school of piranha over a cow leg. That will keep them only so long and then the survivors will be upon you once more. Stronger. More hungry. Your guide, the graceful and beautiful woman, stands in stark contrast to the monsters you barely escaped from though she offers little calm to your frazzled mind. Her presence pulses with the same beat, mournful longing, regret, fear. Then she’s gone up the stairs, drifting through the rubble that breaks your stride.
You can sense her over the rest of the milling emotions all the same as you follow. Rivers of water stream down cracked walls once more as you climb and the verdant tendrils of moss return. As before they choke your passage, impediments to the swirling starving hunger that once more swells beneath your feet. The Dead are coming once more. Faster you climb, desperate and frenzied in your own terror, scraped and cut and bruised you eject from the long tunnel into a clearing. If it were anywhere but Karakuri Town you might think it beautiful. Some bygone tower has sunk beneath the ground, its smooth walls cracked and split by roots. Waterfalls fall all along its edge, pooling into a lake only up to your waist once you splash down into it. Your exit sits ten feet above you at least, the hard fall kicking clear and clean water into your filthy face.
The room is alight for above you, there is only sky and the sound of waves. An island of debris and dirt sits at the center of this strange place, trees having taken root though twisted like claws towards the sky. There is no peace to be found here, here at the heart of that dreadful beating. It takes no time to spot, moonlight filtering from above. There, caught between the trees, two twisted bodies locked in combat, skeletal and gaunt, and pieced between through them...the Lance.
As she spills out of the dead rail tunnel into the water, she flails around from the sudden shock before figuring out that the water is only waist-deep. The scene around her is surreal, but she takes none of it in. The woman is nowhere to be found, but the awful, dreadful source of Karakuri Town’s beating heart sits just ahead on an island of broken concrete and rebar and construction refuse, thrust between what she’s desperately telling herself are two statues. All she has to do is get to it and get the hell out and get back to the Weather Station and take a long hot shower and scrub away the memories until her skin is raw and slug back some sake or plum wine or whatever and never ever come back here or talk about here or think about here ever again.
She pushes through the water as hard and as fast as she can, both swords drawn because in this awful, dreadful place even the statues were liable to attack her, as if it even mattered because her swords probably wouldn’t do anything anyway because she’s a stupid, cocky, headstrong girl who should have listened to Jin and who shouldn’t have been so weak or flawed or pathetic that Chidori and Honoo rejected her and who should have been stronger or smarter to save her parents instead of sitting uselessly in the backseat while they were murdered in front of her eyes and who should have been important enough to at least get killed along with them instead of a pitiful afterthought who had to be rescued and coddled by Jin and who shouldn’t be so useless after all his training and wisdom and who should have listened!
They’re not statues. That much is clear once you’ve left the water for the shaky foundation of the island. They’re not human either, not anymore of course. Two long desiccated corpses locked in eternal combat. Any markings have long since decayed away as to who they were or how the Lance returned to such a position. But here and now, so close to it, you can feel its weight not just as a pulse in the air but a pulse inside you. Running deep, pressing into your heart and mind, the shivers in your body, your own heart beat, syncing with it. With that oppressive weight. The world around you trembles with it too, the water shuddering and splashing. Filling the air with mist until you can no longer see the walls. Until it is simply you and the island and the Lance.
“Is this what you were looking for?” A voice meeting the cadence of that awful beat behind you. The woman that brought you here dressed in whites and reds, youthful but vacant. A ghost.
More than a heartbeat, it feels like her whole being is pounding in time with the awful, dreadful thing. Tears she can’t even feel spill from her eyes as the whole of the rest of the world is blocked out by its presence and her proximity. As she pushes her arm out reaching toward it she feels a clawing feeling inside her welling trying to escape, like she want to reach up and grab herself on either side of her head and rip herself in two. Even her Void Mind judders and pulses with every beat, fraying and splintering and threatening to explode into a million shards and -
That voice. It comes from behind hear, but somehow it feels so much further away. For a moment it’s like a soft little light pushing back against the darkness, a teeny reprieve from the madness. Her arm still outstretched, Hikari cranes her head around to lay eyes on the woman with the voice of a memory that nobody could have. Tears still hot and wet on her cheeks, her voice is weak and tremulous as she responds. “Y-you know it is!”
“Then take it.” The ghost mocks, ethereal hand motioning to the Lance. “You’ve found it, the prize awaits. What holds you back? Take it and flee this place.”
Were it that easy? The Lance thrums in time with itself, a cascading resonance that distorts its form. Pops and flashes skitter down its length, a static film coats not only the weapon but the two forms caught between it.
“You came for something more, something you can’t find here. Something you won’t get when you leave. Who is it that stands so tall in your mind? A hero that isn’t yourself.” The ghost moves with the same static distortion, it’s image leaping and jumping with every step in reflections of past events. After images fall to their knees, leap across the mist covered walls, fall as if struck by a mighty force. A tinny whine peaks, trilling through the air as the image settles.
“There’s no escaping here, you’ll carry it with you.”
No longer capable of blocking it all out, the images and their psychic weight simply wash over Hikari, and there’s nothing she can do but press on toward her goal. Hikari’s arm feels like it’s pushing through a solid mass as she makes torturous progress toward grasping the spear. Nearly there, she tries to take it, only to find her hand is almost a foot off to the side of it. There’s no disbelief left in her world, just despair, and she turns again back to the voice, soothing even as it mocks her.
“Wh-what can I do? It has to end! What other way is there?”
“Cast it aside. Holding on to the past only clouds your mind. It feeds on it, the way out muddles. Or embrace it, make it your own and with all that pain take what you came for.” The ghost watches you in your futile attempt, tone mocking as its image grows black, like ink through a napkin. “Even then, you’ll carry it with you. This place is a stain and you’re part of it now. Hikari, apprentice of Jin. Part of the spell that keeps the world asleep. Decide, the walls are closing. You feel it, don’t you? Since you reached our shores. Your parents. Your disappointment. It feeds on you. The choice is hard but must be made. Hurry now. Before you join the rest. Another ghost, another memory.”
Tears can’t help her here. Swords can’t help her here. Not Jin, not the Void Mind, not her parents. Not even death. It was too late for her, she was too deep into this awful, dreadful thing. There was no walking away from it now, and to leave empty-handed would make it all for nothing. All this sacrifice, and nothing to show for it but Jin’s disappointment. The world was asleep. It wouldn’t remember her if she failed now. She would be no more than the woman, the memory who wasn’t. There was no choice.
Her head bowed, a portrait not of triumph but of doomed resignation, Hikari grabs the spear.
The moment your fingers touch the spear the pulsing heart beat stops. The world goes silent and motionless. Dark as all light leeches from the misty walls and the moonlight streaming down from on high. The darkness is like a torrential flood, sweeping in on you and the ghost and the spear. It sweeps away the bodies, exploding into dust even as the Lance bucks and shivers in your hands like some wild beast.
“The choice is made. We’ll see each other again Hikari.” The ghost is the last thing to be drowned out by the darkness, simply fading into it as its own black crawls up its form. The Lance continues its wild attempts to be free, lightning and thunder rolling in your hands even as the darkness moves to claim it as well. In that darkness it casts a shadow, long and sinuous like some vast serpent but this too is fleeting. The presence of the Storm King is nothing compared to the dark.
The black spirals about the weapon, winds around you with a midnight embrace and when the light returns you are on the island. It’s not the same as before, least of which are the missing bodies and ghost guide, but beyond that the world is cloaked in shadow. You can feel the ghosts once more, out there in the gloom. Not merely the hungry variety either, larger bodies drift through the shadows and an almost electric glee pulses in your fingers. Not from the Lance, it has long gone silent. No, from the long strip of cloth that wraps about it. A different hunger, a different pulse, one that still matches your own heartbeat.
As she grabs the spear, Hikari senses somewhere deep in her soul that it was the wrong choice. But she senses just as well that there was no right choice. The Darkness crashes over her, envelops her, drowns her, and whatever was left of her Void Mind well and truly shatters.
When the world returns, it isn’t the same as before. She’s broken through to the other side. The panels are colored in photonegative, the sun shining black light down from above. Black phantasms are picked out against the cloudy white darkness that cuts off the island from the world. The only color is a ribbon of red wrapped around the white spear.
Even as she notices the ghost woman’s absence, it feels like a foreign thought. She won’t remember the woman once she escapes this place. If she were luckier, she wouldn’t remember any of this crucible. The thought sends a shiver down her spine.
She’s near the beach, but wherever the docks and her boat are, they lie beyond the impenetrable cloud of white darkness. And those things are out there too, between her and her way home. The hungry maws, even more than she’d left behind in the tunnel. And other things too. She would have to go through them. She shivers again.
Carrying the spear, now wrapped in cloth, she makes her way toward that barrier. Toward the ghosts. Their presence is oppressive, needling her psyche. Her spirit is undefended, the broken armor of her Void Mind left discarded in an unremembered sunken tower that she can never forget. Last time, she had armor, but no weapon. Now there is no armor. But there is a weapon.
The assault is much like before, the ghosts swarming you in waves. The larger ones, their forms still muddy and dark, are wise enough to fear what you hold in your hand. Wise enough to let the weaker ones wear you down. The spear, the Lance, cuts through them like butter even as they strike against you. Piece by piece you feel them drain you but unlike before the numbers thin. You can feel what Stormsoul has undoubtedly felt in this place, the power and the madness that infects the very soil of the town even if it’s muted under the cloth. You can feel the ghosts ebb, not merely struck down to reform, their passage loud as they wail in despair as the final death takes them.
But that lasts for only a moment as the larger figures finally make their move. Towering beasts, their skin made of the midnight, claws as sharp as any sword. Their legs meld into the dark, a part of it, their presence in the Void Mind like monoliths. There’s more to them, amaglations of not only the dead but their hatred and fury. Spectres of the Will of Karakuri Town. The Lance and the Silk cut through them just as easily as the rest, light revealed in their wounds as color splashes in the photonegative pages. Glimpses of what lays beyond, some sanity in such a loathsome place. Beaten, the ghosts redouble. Merge. Draw in the darkness and with it the cloth sings. Not the terrible song of remorse that seeks to quell its voice beneath, a song of victory. A song of your loss and the Dark itself, triumphant. You can feel it as the beast looms larger, six large eyes gleaming down upon you. Your memories of the young lady are already gone, your memories of the island in the sunken tower, of the bodies blown away like dust. Of a small man, terrified, in the rubble of the city. Not one you saw, a memory that isn’t yours and lost to time. The creature bellows, surging forth for one last attempt to drown you in that slumber.
Her Void Mind too feeble and broken to offer any protection, Hikari can’t let herself pass out of it. In her state, in this place, she would never be able to return to it. And once gone, her perception of these horrors would be lost as well and she would be nothing but a defenseless doll of a girl, exposed to the invisible and unassailable horrors of Karakuri Town. She has no choice but to endure the needles and the slashes and the bites of the hungry maws as they try to devour her.
But now she can fight back. The Lance bucks and jumps in her hands like living lightning, wielding her as much as she wields it. Finding something akin to strength in this new place beyond fear and death, she whirls with the spear in hand and the maws explode into shreds whenever she stabs at them. They leave their spiritual contagion on her, every blow she takes showing on her body, scratches and bites and gashes of white maring her black flesh. With each one she grants final death, she feels the Darkness growing stronger, stoking a cold fire within her. The maws look more and more like her parents’ killer and she feeds the Darkness with hatred and loathing as she ends one after the other.
Finally, all that remains is a towering colossus. Through her fractured Void Mind, the monster grows ever larger. The panel is framed behind Hikari from a low angle, looking up as the monster towers over her. The next panel is framed in front of Hikari, facing her. Behind her like backdrops are the ghostly images shown in their true colors, contrasting harshly with the photonegative. As each one appears, the monster howls and roars, and the image shatters and then blows away like dust. First the woman, then Jin, then her parents. Hikari feels layers of her mind being blown away each time, like layers of paint ripped off by a sandblaster laying her soul bare.
The monster charges. Hikari braces the Lance in front of her, but the beast barely even slows. Instead of crashing into her, it blows past her. She howls in agony and despair, falling to her knees as it surges past her, through her. The Lance scrapes at it, leaving a long wound before it catches, ripped from her grasp.
Scrambling to her feet, she turns, new fear in her eyes. The Lance sticks out of the thing’s rump like a spear in a mammoth. The point of the spear penetrates freely, up to where the body makes contact with the red cloth The monster turns in place faster than anything that size should be able to and charges again. Hikari throws herself out of the way, reaching for the spear as it passes her by. She misses, instead catching the trailing end of the red cloth wrapped around the spear which unravels from around the haft. The creature turns again, a touch more slowly. The thing appears to be shrinking, as though the Lance were drawing the creature into itself like ink sucked up into a calligraphy brush.
As it prepares to charge once more, Hikari wraps the ends around her hand, letting the middle dangle loosely. As it lurches forward again with its head lowered, she steps aside at the last moment like a bullfighter, throwing the cloth out and catching the monster’s neck in a coil. She’s pulled forward with the creature’s force and she holds on tight. Pulling on both ends, the creature slows and stops in its tracks, rearing and bucking and trying to get free.
The end comes quickly. The choking seems to accelerate the shrinking and Hikari wraps another loop of the cloth around its neck and keeps pulling, suffocating it into submission. Before long, there is nothing left of the beast but for Hikari’s new scars, and the Lance lays on the ground, glutted.
With the creature dead, light pours from its many wounds and the sound of the sea and storm sweep through the panels. Spent, tired, you lay on the shores of Bear Island. Not far in the distance the skeleton of Karakuri Town. A single memory of you on a boat, of your task but nothing more. Not the fight, not the ghosts, not the woman or the beast in the darkness. In the distance you see your Captain, waiting for you still. A way home, a way away from this awful place. In the weeks after you might see glimpses in your dreams, nightmares really, of your trials. Hear the fury of the Storm King, the coming of its storm and its defeat.
Today though is a victory despite all odds. You’ve done something few have ever done. Escaped Karakuri Town with your life.