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Persona [X]: the Villain's Journey

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ORDINARY WORLD

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

The Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies, and Odds. Short hair and bright colors and a faint memory of grunge. Grainy CRT and new Star Wars and bombs over Kosovo. The wall fell and a new order of invisible arithmetics and international shipyards was born. This is the world of leathered demons and machine gods. It’s 1999, and the future is here.

Stephen Campbell is sure to enjoy the world they’ve inherited. Seventeen and proudly Canadian-born, the sharp-looking blond with an eye for Carleton walks the streets of Ottawa like Napoleon through Europe. He knows good from evil. He knows success from failure. Stephen knows to dream big, and dream hopefully. You can’t look back towards a past of misery if the future promises you first-row seats to a new frontier. Perhaps not exactly first-row, anyway… 

“Dude, get your head off your ass, please,” Buck asks him, half-snickering.

Stephen turns to his friend, equally as dorky if not as big-eyed. After Carleton, they’ll be business partners. They swore it over yesterday’s beer and salty snacks, the lights of Stephen’s parents’ Mercedes over their grassy spot making it almost a ceremony. For now, though, simply friends, and the best of them. Zoe and Vin and the others can fuck right off if they need to.

“Not my ass I’ve,” a playful shove later, “alright, dude! No ‘assing’ around.”

“Good,” he says, skipping ahead, “kinda gay if you were. Can’t have temptations for our king of the heartland! Especially if his grades keep dropping for every ‘bunny’ he spots…”

“Then keep me on the righteous path, my, uh… my vassal .”

“Oh, you’ll be the death of me, dude,” Buck smiles, “get a grip sometimes.”

They head off, the ancient, stony visage of the Ottawa Collegiate Institute framing the background. Within it, forgotten gears turn, a starving siren song making itself known. None can hear it, save for a man who none pay attention to. Kneeling on the grass, he feels the desperate whirr of what’s inside, and promises to make it right. Holding onto a badge in his hand, the man stands at once. His eyes hidden by a butterfly mask, he nevertheless makes contact with someone, and the promise of the future is renewed.


CALL TO ADVENTURE

???

“Welcome to the Velvet Room.”

Stephen wakes, head buried in a deck of cards. He looks up at his companion, a long-nosed, sinister-looking elder in a suit whose features defy the uncanny valley. The elder smirks, and the tavern lights flicker in synchrony. They’re all a deep, navy blue.

“What the fuck…”

“My arcana, if you’d please,” the man croaks, squeakily, to no less ease, before continuing:

“My name is Igor. This place exists between dream and reality, mind and matter, and so do all things within. Nothing is fixed.”

With hurried glances, Stephen looks around, wooden walls and pioneer-style table dressing meshing quite well with the blue curtains and foggy mise en scène of the place. The decorated counter by their side, nevertheless, remains empty.

“That’s why the place looks like some oldie spaghetti western? Is this… is this about me?”

“It’s all about you, my wild card,” Igor states, pulling out a card from below Stephen, “this is you, the Fool. A zero of infinite possibility. You have entered a contract,” he points at the badge on the side with his other hand, “and as such we must assist you in your journey to come. Have no fear, for you are more well-equipped than‒” 

“A contract? We? Wait,” Stephen bristles, panicking, “what chosen hero shit is this? What’d I do? Is this about that freaky pervert‒”

“Philemon, my master’s master,” another voice interrupts, “Earth’s protector. Your contractor.”

Someone who looks like a young man (but Stephen knows is not) steps into view behind the counter. Vigorous moustache, striking yellow eyes, doll-like features, he makes for quite a sight. Dressed in a blue bartender’s uniform, the new arrival stands behind the counter, preparing their drinks. Unreadable names, dreamlike colors, harmonica glasses. The two are served.

“Pardon my tardiness, guest,” the bartender begins, coldly, “but I’m here to serve you. My name is Henri, and I will be your attendant in this journey. Moreover, as you get comfortable, I would like to remind you that, in this establishment, we have rules, and rules of conduct as well, so I suggest you listen attentively to my master here,” he nods at Igor, “that is all.”

Sipping disappointedly at his soda, Stephen nods. Henri raises a menacing eyebrow as his slurping swells louder than the background track, but Igor, gently playing with his glass, waves a forgiving move with his spindly hands.

“Soooooo, anyway, ” the teen speaks up, “you all are in the business of what exactly? Cryptic speeches and shitty room design?”

“That,” Igor replies, shifting through the deck, “is something you’ll soon come to understand. Let us talk about terms.


REFUSAL OF THE CALL

The Endless Trenches

Sinking. The mud of the trenches drags him down as gunfire echoes over his ears. Blood and water and dirt up to his knees. Powdered, bleeding hands grasping to the hole’s fragile walls. He fell. He fell down the well, and now he’s inside. The haunting stretches around him far beyond his line of sight, and the enemy is unseen. Except, well, for himself. Grinning, yellow-eyed, evil.

“This is what they want of you, dude. The worthless life of a soldier, not a goddamned general.”

Insects climb inside his clothes, torn and bloodied and ashen, firebombs bursting atop the trenches. His… his shadow is unaffected by all this, business suit immaculate. The glimmer of his… of its ring reflects every sin of his. Every last one of them.

“You’ll dream up a fucktastic empire only to be consumed in someone else’s pitiful, mediocre campaign.”

Stumbling face-first into the venomous mud, he sees broken, failed technology - the dreams of a doomed millennium - and the bodies of all his friends, dressed for the occasion. Crawling and crawling through the smell of fallen soldiers and the noise of crashing systems, he rests on one end of the trench, head barely above the pool of waste that’s rising. The badge stays in his hand, held up until now by despair and inertia, as the shadow approaches from the other end, bloodlusted eyes like flashlights.

“There’s only cowardice in giving in to the madness of gods and the pit of darkness, Stephen.”

It’s in his head. The voice’s in his head. But it’s of the heart. A heart’s call. Smoke fills his eyes, leaking above.

“There are a great many Labors ahead of us, but we will wrestle with them to victory!”

The badge glows. It reflects hope and ambition and a dangerous drive. He rises out of the mud to face his shadow.

“Now dare on, walk towards the light and claim your Power! I am thou… thou art I…”

“COME, ALCIDES !” Stephen Campbell flashes the badge in front of him, light pouring from it as the insects gather round, shedding their forms to become like moths. His Persona rises, the eclipse of moths parting mud and smoke to reveal a herculean figure shrouded in a moth’s wings like the skin of a nemean lion. A torchlight staff in his hands, Alcides calls forth an agi spell. It burns the mud and sets the shadow ablaze. It screams in pain, convulsing, but Stephen steps on it, pounding his foot down.

“My… my labors will be my own… and no one… no one else’s… understood? No more shadows. No more hauntings.”


SUPERNATURAL ASSISTANCE

The Library of Souls

The Heroic Society is on patrol. Stephen, Buck, and Zoe walk through the Library of Souls, a place where memory and culture and consciousness mesh to construct a beautiful, endless palace to imagination. Their badges flash, guns holsted, roaming shadows driven away. The melodic whirring lends a final touch to the place, its gears turning endlessly. Above them, their Personas keep the peace. Alcides, the Prophetic Laborer. Gwydion, the Treeborn Trickster. Oya, the Mother of Storms. The three titans float peacefully over the pioneer-dressed teenagers, as they make way for Henri, in his duties as Stephen’s attendant, to guide them.

“It’s like a great magical network,” Zoe wonders out loud, “of all the great things we are and will be. Like grandpa’s church.”

“Heh, yeah,” Buck adds, “you can say so. Like a sky-scraping tower… pretty impressive. Hopefully it can outlast the Virus, though, otherwise…”

“A… a virus?” Henri frowns, “what can a human virus do to an ideal network? It doesn’t make sense.”

“Y2K, bar dude. Millennium bug,” Stephen explains, “we built our own network wrong, and it might fail. All the great big machines of steel and cable we built could crash down like they were shit to begin with. All because it was built wrong from the start.”

“If… if you allow me,” Henri suggests, “I don’t think your souls were built wrong. To the contrary. Or… or at least I hope so.”

“Thanks, Henri, you’re chill,” Zoe finishes the topic, flashing a smile at the attendant, who takes it in stride.

At last, the four reach their destination. A door opens where there wasn’t one. Looking at the hole in the wall, Stephen’s companions beckon him inside with a playful kick, Henri timidly waving at him when he feels the others aren’t looking. The lead stumbles inside, faking nonchalance at the gut-like chamber, celestial machinery seeming to come alive, pulsing and whirring. The masked man, already present, looks on at the struggling, echoing gasps and violent, kaleidoscopic imagery, impassive to it all.

“I was told you sought an audience,” Philemon states, gaze glued to the Library chamber’s internal workings, “not many opt for that route.”

“Oh, so there are ‘many’ of us, then,” Stephen questions, not able to swallow his anger, “and they’re all as baffled and scarred as we are by this fucking late night anime bullshit?”

“Oh, not at all, Stephen. You see, they usually understand purpose. Their purpose, the library’s purpose, yours as well…”

He finally turns to face the boy, unmasking alongside firework-like lights almost as if it was intentional, to reveal a face just like Stephen’s. Or just like Buck’s. Zoe’s. Father’s. Mother’s. Jean Chrétien’s. Keanu Reeves’. All of them at once:

“Humanity. That’s what I am. ‘I am thou, thou art I.’”

“You kooky fucking pervert, take that shit off. We’re… we’re flesh and blood, not sorcery and dream. All these hauntings, these shadows, this ain’t right. This isn’t us, you hear? We’re better, we’re… bolder, we’re right. It’s all… all this crap is just the fault of the likes of you and‒”

“The network was built wrong.”

Stephen gasps, confused, as Philemon, masked once again, appears behind him. His voice grinds and echoes.

“This great magical network of memory machines… this place built on human souls… it might fail. It has already. That’s the Hauntings. The desperate whirring, the well, the liminal fog, it’s all just yourselves bleeding wrong all over the world. Either you protect the Library of Souls and those who are trapped in its orbit… or you let it all end. This is your labor to bear.”

The noise begins to coalesce, a hostile cacophony of sound and fury, only to stop as Philemon snaps his fingers, and Stephen finds himself back where he was, surrounded by a very worried cadre of comrades.

“Man, you look paler than the blue man,” Buck comments, “sorry Henri.”

“Apologies accepted, visitor. What troubles my guest so?”

“I… I… it’s all on us… all of it, all over… to protect or to end… I…” he turns to the attendant, “Henri, you have to train us. You’re a Ruler of Power, right? All those slick fucking Personas and spells… teach them to us… now. Please‒”

“I am… I am sorry, guest. The contract stipulates that I only give you the resources to act within your threshold. Anything beyond that and we will both breach the sacred rules binding us together, and‒”

Stephen clutches Henri’s sides, holding back tears, and hugs him, to general bewilderment. Buck and Zoe lean on him as well, Henri forfeiting his detached demeanor to try and comfort his guest, to uncertain success.

“Man, whatever you saw in there, whatever it was,” Buck declares, “you’re not facing that shit alone, alright? We’ll be with you, dude, to the end. To the fucking end.”

“Buck’s right, Stephen. Take all you need from us. We won’t back down, no matter how far we’ve gone. None of us, yes? None of us , I promise it.”

For once, the Library’s cries are muffled out, as the wild card user lets it all out, plain to see. His friends stay with him, all three of them. Buck and Zoe have no idea what he could even have seen, but the sight of a broken Stephen is something they never thought they’d see. As for Henri, the Velvet Attendant knows the same dark secrets and more, but the weight of them won’t stop him from giving the comfort he can. The sentiment, the compassion, it burrows within him, within them all.


CROSSING THE THRESHOLD

The Campbell House

“You a pansy, man? C’mon!”

The floor creaks as Stephen and Buck spar in his room. They’ve pushed the furniture to the side, and Stephen uses it to lean on, making jazz hands as he provokes his friend. Buck takes the bait, charging with a raised elbow, but he’s met with the table, Stephen dodging to the side before grabbing him by the forearm and moving for a punch. It’s a faint, however, and he instead grabs the other arm as well, trying to shove him down. Buck retaliates, stretching one leg forward before crossing it around Stephen’s, and the two fall together. Stephen blesses his parents’ work schedule, as they struggle against each other on the floor, only for the former to block Buck’s arm with his elbow, and then use his weight to climb on top of him, one hand holding his arms crossed, the other one pressing at Buck’s forehead, pushing the musky hair and workout sweat from his face.

“...looking good, Buck. Pretty fucking… sharp, overall… we’re almost something to behold.”

“...it’s been… months of this… of course… shit, of course we’re good. Look at us, man: we have you, we have Zoe, we have Vin, we have Kitty… we have me, heh, of course we’re good. We’re the top dogs, Stephen. Literally the top of the top.”

Stephen rests his head on the floor, crushing a slightly curious Buck under his weight. Face turned away, he asks:

“We’re the top dogs of what, exactly, Buck? What do we have that’s kept us alive so long?”

“I… I don’t understand… shit, man, get off, please? Play couch cryptic with, uh, an actual couch or something?”

“Oh, sorry, yeah.”

They stand, Stephen gripping his friend firmly to get him up, and the latter moves to his work table, study books and swimsuit magazines and Forbes catalogues pushed aside for‒

“The Collected Works of Jung? Simulacra and Simulation by Jean ‘Bode‒’ Baud-ril-lard? Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse? What the FUCK is all this, man, what the‒” he grabs at the discs and comics mixed in the shelves, “The Invisibles? The Matrix? Best of psychedelic rock? Acid punk mix, buddhist tapes, pirated sci-fi flicks, the fucking tarot? Tell me what’s the point of all this garbage again? Is there a point?”

“It’s research. The kind that will save the world.”

Stephen skips over, grabs a fairly recent copy of Planetary issue #3, and opens it to page 14. Buck shrugs.

“A god-slash-computer-slash-universe made of archived ghosts. Hauntings, memories, markings in the collective mind. You think this shit’s made up? The same shit whose ass we’ve kicked over and over? Remember what we know about the Library: the machine is made of us. None of this, none of this is coincidence. We’ve dreamed up so many gods and monsters, look at it!”

He opens his cupboard, dragging out three large tomes of mythology books, and flips through them, calling out the name of Personas he’s recruited with ease. His badge flickers, each and every one of them perking up at being mentioned.

“Buck, it’s not that it isn't bullshit. It is very much bullshit. But we’ve… we’ve given the bullshit power… so much fucking power… and it’s a loaded gun. Like a boogeyman. Boogeymen that scare societies, that turn people vicious… like a virus.”

At that, Stephen turns the telly on, Lloyd Robertson’s baritone voice over the CTV news broadcast informing of the cost of companies’ spending to protect themselves against Y2K. Buck focuses on the large, caricatural bug image.

“So… even if it doesn’t kill all our technology or kick off millennial doomsday, we’re still fucked? Because we’ve all bet on death, we’ve made it real, is that it? That’s… that’s fucking scary, man. What can we even do at this point, Stephen?”

“I’ve heard rumors on the web. Dunwich, Northwest Passage, Mikage-Cho. There’s people like us everywhere, delaying the end for as long as possible. But I’d rather we just cut this knot at once. All these gods and monsters come from us, don’t they? That means they belong to us. They better learn some manners,” he holds his badge up, “or they’ll earn their fucking lesson.”

Buck smiles. Stephen looks undefeatable at this point, and he keeps up the facade long enough to receive a hug from his friend. Embracing him back, the blond boy blushes, the necessity of taming the Library of Souls eating away at his mind almost as much as his absence of a plan to do so. Nevertheless, this is nice. Stephen could use more of this.


ROAD OF TRIALS

The Dyson Swarm

Stephen could use less of this. He has Alcides cast maragidyne around the party, the ring of fire driving off the grey goo threatening to consume the Heroic Society. He gestures to Garrett, who’s already on it, having summoned Munchausen and stepped inside, operating the Man on the Moon. The observatory-like navigator Persona twists its loony gaze outside the orbital ring they’re standing on, focusing rather on the dwarvish sun they’re orbiting. With a flicker of his finger guns, Garrett has Munchausen identify their target within the flames: Apollyon, the Star Maker, a tentacled mold of star-stuff and nanotech with a devil’s eye at its center. It breathes in discontent, the Haunting ignoring the rules of space for more visual spectacle, then fires at their ring, bombarding it with a stream of shadows. The corrupted Kaiwans try to curse them fatally, but Stephen switches to Matador, nullifying their effect, before a combined makougaon from Alcides with Oya’s maziodyne makes quick work of them. Nodding at the streams, he gestures to Buck and Kitty, who get the message. They summon Gwydion and Mulan, respectively, and jump atop their Personas, swiftly climbing up the streams. All the while, Zoe’s Oya and Vin’s Bedan hop onto other rings, drawing attention away, with Stephen declaring:

“Get me his fucking head.”

Zoe loads her crossbow, electricity flowing through it as with Oya, firing like lightning. Shot after shot is success. Bedan, the Strongman Sun, is a sight to behold. The hulkish warrior, head a floating sun, is right at home, casting freidynes with each punch. Vin, for his part, wrestles with a Betelgeuse, driving its face to the ground repeatedly. The shadow hordes morph into grey goo, latching onto them, but Munchausen casts a protective tetrakarn, before Alcides’ maragidyne wipes them out. Garrett notifies them of a structural failure in their ring, and Vin politely gestures at Zoe, who has Oya strike it apart with a single blow. They jump into the next one.

Over their heads, Buck and Kitty approach superluminal speeds. Gwydion teleports rapidly between hotspots, protecting its user, whilst Mulan, the Bladed Petal, simply becomes one with the solar wind, garudyne clearing a path into Apollyon’s realm. The two slash through its shadowy tendrils, Gwydion’s mapsiodyne serving as cover fire, and reach the sun’s center, where the host of the Haunting awaits, transformed. Apollyon strikes out with megidolaon, but both Personas evade it with ease. Kitty, receiving the signal from below, nods at Mulan, whose edged robotic body shifts, before casting a panta rhei that wipes away the solar winds, leaving them wide open. Down below, Stephen, eyes glued to the scope of his sniper rifle, glints malevolently:

“Got you, bastard.”

He fires, enhanced bullets providing a little more bite, before summoning Seth and flying upwards. The solar winds begin to reform. With a flicker of his badge, Stephen switches to Baal, whose garula spells wipe them out. Apollyon casts megidolaon, desperate, but a buff from Gwydion tanks the almighty blast with ease. Siegfried’s blade slashes through the last tentacles with ease, and it’s back to Alcides. The eclipse of moths darkens the sun, Stephen’s gaze flickering. Switching from rifle to baton, he moves in unison with Alcides, and they crush the devil’s eye with a single bloody strike. The downed body of George Aubade, their science teacher, materializes, his shadow-self fading back inside. Stephen, resolute, grips it beforehand, painfully keeping it from returning to its host body with abandon:

“THE LIBRARY! You shadows infest it! TELL ME! Tell me how to control it… or I’ll rid it of EVERY SINGLE FUCKING ONE of you! Tell me now! NOW!”

“I… the Library is the World… you can’t… can’t control it like that… takes… control of the World, control of‒”

“Stop, Stephen,” Buck states plainly, the Heroic Society assembled, “he’s had enough. We’ve all had enough.”

Their leader reluctantly obliges, letting Shadow George return to his body, as the man awakes, helped up by Garrett and Vin, while Stephen nears Buck, fists closed, only to lean on his ear and whisper:

It had enough,” he mournfully concludes, “we have nothing. And we’ll all have nothing come the New Year…”


MEETING THE GODDESS

The Library of Souls

Stephen Campbell is on patrol. He doesn’t even need to have Alcides above him anymore; the clatter of his baton strikes fear into the roaming shadows. The eclipse of moths behind him sometimes brings him back to the trenches, to the Haunting’s shadow, and to Alcides’ voice. Sometimes he wonders if maybe Alcides can speak of his own volition, but Stephen quickly discards that rubbish thought. After all, his Persona’s just a projection of himself, right? A holographic avatar of his consciousness. It’s just a tool, given meaning by its use. Same with the other Personas he’s collected; their traces still echo in his mind from time to time, but he’s learned to shut out the noise. It’s no use, anyway. None of them know how to seize control. The Library of Souls remains untamed, the wild thing lacking guidance and working only to lash out in destruction. The destruction they’ve wished upon themselves. Like the stupid animals they all are. Maybe it’s not control over the Library that will save the World, but rather control over‒

“I have known your pain, hero child.”

The voice is not Alcides. It’s not any of his Personas. But it comes from inside as well.

“I would tell you not to be afraid, but you have all the reason to be. You’re running out of time…”

“Who the FUCK are you, bitch?” He switches baton for rifle, “I’m not taking any fucking chances!”

“It’s not you taking the chances, Stephen, and you know it. It’s him. It’s them. Humanity, or rather‒”

“...Philemon.”

He lowers the rifle, unsummoning it, before sitting down on the corridor floor. The moths surround him, blocking out all light.

“You’re right, Stephen. You’ve always been right. This is not the way any of you are meant to live.”

“W-what are you saying? What do you know that I don’t? Do you… do you know‒ who are you anyway?

“I’ve lived so long my name wouldn’t matter to you. Listen to what I have to say. The Library isn’t his, Stephen, it isn’t his to use and abuse and degrade. It’s always been yours, humanity’s gift to itself, locked away and forgotten. You know yourself, Stephen, imagine if everybody could say the same? You know what to do, don’t you? Seize the Library, restore it to its rightful owner, rid it of impurity , and shine your light where the boogeyman hides to make sure it never comes back to soil your future. History is yours.”

“History… is mine?”

The moths part, flickering out as if dying and fading, but Stephen pays them no mind. On the other end of the corridor, seated just like him, is the Goddess herself. She winks at him, waving timidly, then crawls to his side, ignoring his discomfort at the sight to lean on his shoulder, face to his ear, whispering from inside his head still:

“History has always been yours to take. I should know… I am history.”

She stands, enjoying every movement with a practiced grace, and helps him up, her shining touch like a thousand childhood memories. Caressing his cheek with her other hand, she lets Stephen walk through every memory of triumph he remembers. Every moment where he took charge, every bold adventure and every comforting moment and every story of the Heroic Society. Stephen has brought them this far, and another chapter is about to open upbuilt from all the blood and sweat he’s toiled. As is deserved.

“What… what do I do? How do I retake the Library?”

“The Mundus stands at its core. It must be cleansed and made right. Only then will the lies and the filth be washed away. Philemon might try to protect it, but if your teammates’ power stands behind you as one, then I believe in your victory.”

“...as one?”

“Whatever it takes, Stephen. Your power is great, but it will not be enough. You must join together… or die together.”


DESCENT INTO DARKNESS

The Velvet Room

“Henri… could I talk to you?”

The Velvet Attendant looks up, having been cleaning glass cups on the counter while listening to the aria of the soul. He looks at Stephen, disheveled, baggy-eyed, trembling, and can’t help but frown his moustache in worry. Gesturing at him to wait for a second, Henri turns back, looking over the velvety shelves behind him. Tracing the glass doors, fog leaking out of them, he opens one, taking out a musky-looking bottle. Sliding two glasses forward smoothly, he fills them up with a colorful substance, the liquid dancing to the aria’s tune. That done, he places the bottle to the side, and offers a glass to his guest, who takes it hesitantly.

“What’s the trouble, my guest?” He sips, words leaving his mouth warmly.

“I,” Stephen sips as well, surprised to find the drink alcoholic, “I don’t know what to do, Henri.”

They put their glasses down, Henri moving to refill them again, his eyes seeming to drive holes in Stephen’s psyche.

“So you seek guidance? That’s a service I can provide. What troubles you in your journey, guest? You’ve progressed along admirably so far. You’ve rescued dozens of hapless victims from their Hauntings the past nine months. Your party has grown considerably since its humble beginnings. You might even be on the course to reverse the negative effects of the new millennium on the collective unconscious. You’ve been my first guest, but gossip among my brothers and sisters is that no other wild card has done so much as you in so little time. If you doubt your current path, know that you’ve achieved success unlike any other.”

As the attendant sips again, Stephen glares at him, trying to parse out if he’s being genuine. The Goddess’ words fill an empty nest in his mind, building connections where there were none. As if on cue, a butterfly lands by his hand, its wings the same shade of the bar. Philemon’s face, his many faces, his many lies, they all rise up inside again, and his moths come, consuming the butterfly until there is but blood and remains, which he wipes away with his other hand. Henri pretends not to notice the scene.

“So… so if I found a way… a way to win the war forever… to end my path and all others’... I should take it? You agree?”

“I’ve heard that guests face enormous challenges in their journeys, both physical and… and mental. You have to make choices whose scale and scope you can’t even imagine. You are the Fool, nonetheless. Know your heart is right. If you trust in yourself, then I will trust in you as well. This is what my master refers to in the Arcana. The Fool’s journey to take the World. It won’t come in the way you believe it to come, but its inevitability will be… will be final. Like an outlaw’s last drink before his hanging.”

Stephen smiles, “so you’ve been watching the movies I handed over to you?”

Henri blushes in admission, filling the glasses once again, but Stephen refuses his, filling Henri’s instead, ready to leave.

“For you. I hope we see each other again, Henri. You weren’t too bad of a bartender, man.”

“Considering I was your only one, this might prove true. Nevertheless, be safe… Stephen. And be kind.”

The wild card looks back at him, unable to hide the despair in his eyes, but quickly makes his way out. The aria endures.


APOTHEOSIS

Ottawa Collegiate Institute / The Library of Souls

Garrett chokes up. Stephen tries to look away, but the moans reverb inside his head all the same. Taking Baal’s strength as his own, he tightens his grip, taking his other hand and dragging it down his navigator’s face, reaching the jaw. Opening it by force, he reaches inside, and pulls out Munchausen, its smoky, spectral form being absorbed by Stephen, leaving a catatonic user behind. Ashamed, unnerved, the wild card cracks Garrett’s neck, letting him drop in front of the five other members of the Heroic Society.

“W-what the FUCK have you done?!”

“I’m taking what I need, Zoe. I’m sorry, everybody, but it’s the only‒”

Zoe summons Oya, ziodyne fired right at his face, but a quick switch to Odin protects him. Stephen sighs, then unleashes a thunder reign, prompting the others to take cover and hide. She charges forward, firing her crossbow repeatedly, and he deflects some of the shots with his baton, though some are driven into his arms and legs. Switching to Cybele, he heals up, arrows popping off, and allows her to drive her bowie knife into his shoulder, screaming in pain. Zoe pauses at that, and he grabs her arm, holding her close as he drives his hand into her face. She struggles with her other arm, scratching at him, kicking him with her legs, but he drives the knife deeper, bringing her closer to him. Violently ripping out Oya from her, he lets her down gently, removing the knife and healing himself again. Taking her crossbow before it fades into cognition, he uses it on her, his Oya helping steer his grip.

“THIS IS BIGGER THAN ANY OF US,” Stephen shouts, “COME HAVE IT LIKE MEN, YOU‒”

He’s hit by a garudyne blast to the face, Oya’s weakness striking him double. Quick-switching for a heal, he looks around the halls of the school, the Haunting he built of it making for a familiar battleground. Summoning his Munchausen, he sets it to target and hunt the Heroic Society, whilst he lifts his sniper rifle and does the same. Stephen, eye on the scope, knocks down classroom doors, skipping through eerie empty rooms, catching only passing glimpses of Mulan. Whistling as he moves from room to room, he finally catches sight of Kitty and Mulan, raising his rifle to fire. At that, Munchausen blares. Ready, Stephen turns, throwing himself back, and avoids a sucker punch head-on from Vin. He fires thrice at the larger boy, making him stumble back, but Buck heals their bruiser from the side, while Martha has Bonduca restrain him with her hairy tendrils. Kitty approaches, Mulan at the ready, as Vin steps over their captured leader, Buck trying to address him. Stephen pays his ramblings no mind, simply saying:

“To the end.”

Alcides materializes above them, moths flocking at all sides, and casts mahamaon. The targeted bless attack cycles through the party, successfully neutralizing both Buck and Kitty. Bonduca fires a hail of diamond dust at Alcides, but Stephen smirks, as the makarakarn he had Lilith cast earlier reflects the ice magic everywhere. Freed from his restraints, he throws himself at Martha, gasping for energy, and drives his baton down on her, making peace with the cracking sounds and what’s spraying all over his face. He drives his hand down, trying to grasp Bonduca, the Cold Britannia, but Vin grips his shoulders, lifting him and knocking him back down, furious and traumatized and driving back tears.

“STOP IT! Stop it, Stephen, you killed her! You fucking killed her! You killed ALL OF THEM…”

“Not… not… done…

Rolling to the side, he crashes into what was Martha, finally grasping Bonduca, and taking her as energy, firing her hairs right as Bedan tries to drive a fist into his head. His Bonduca twirls and tightens its deadly embrace, Bedan’s sun-head changing colors, while Stephen, reinvigorated, charges at Vin fist-first. Vin, brass knuckles shaking, drives a punch right into Stephen’s face, knowing the blood on it now is not only Stephen’s. The sprayed wild card chuckles, making jazz hands, and Vin moves to strike again, only for Stephen to parry his hit, using Bonduca’s pressure on Bedan to slow his attacks. He retaliates with a flurry of punches, most of them avoided, and Vin has Bedan drop an atomic flare on them. Stephen switches to Kali, and stands passively as the attack is drained by his Persona. His adversary groans, losing his mind, while he switches to Trumpeter, who grants him a boost with a heat riser, then back to Alcides, who drives his torchlight straight into Bedan’s head. Vin chokes, feeling the damage, as Stephen calmly walks up to him, kicking him to the ground and stepping on his head, waiting for his Persona to float away from him, at which point he relieves the corpse of his weight. Cycling through Personas and landing on his Bedan, he looks back at Buck and Kitty, only to find them absent from the scene. Knowing what’s to come, he’s about to switch to Munchausen, when the psiodyne hits him full force.

“DIE!”

Both Gwydion and Mulan come in full-force, switching up wind and psychic spells to keep Stephen on his toes. Stephen, on his part, summons his rifle, letting Alcides tank most of the damage. Wiping some of the blood from his face, only to find more on his hands, he realizes that his grip is firm and steady once again, and he manages to take aim. Kitty notices. He fires.

“No‒”

Buck, thrown to the side by Kitty, can only watch as the shot hits her full-force. Mulan stumbles back, shook, by which point Alcides grabs her and rams her against Gwydion, trashing the two. Stephen fires again, and Buck moves to heal her, but Alcides points his staff at him, the threat of hamaon in plain sight. Stephen fires. Mulan convulses under Alcides, trying to tear herself free, but succeeds only in shattering herself. Stephen fires. Buck tries to cast a diarahan all the same, but Stephen steps on his hand. He fires, one last time, and leans on the body, taking Mulan as it floats out of her. His Mulan, switching, easily pins Gwydion, as Stephen turns to Buck, the former’s eyes wide and teary. He raises his baton, arms outstretched, as the two have their final words:

I love you, Buck . Truly. All of this… it’s because I love you. I love all of you, and this is the only way I‒”

“No no no no, shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up, you don’t love me. You wouldn’t love us then do… this. Get a grip, fa‒”

No further words are said.


MASTER OF TWO WORLDS

Parliament Hill

The closing hours of December 31st, 1999. Y2K Day. Thirteen thousand soldiers are mobilized all over the country. The network for Operation Abacus is fully operational. The Ontario provincial government huddles itself in a war room, the parliament’s cabinet ministers assembled at 24 Sussex Drive. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, for his part, wears a parka and a fur hat whilst celebrating the coming countdown with the people of Ottawa. Families cheer, mingling amongst themselves. Fireworks are promised. The end of the world as we know it or the beginning of a new one to be braved fills people with excitement. It’s very pedagogical for Henri, sipping on a soft drink he bought at the only corner store that would accept ancient coin. Not the drink, mind you, it’s awful.

He catches sight of Stephen in the crowd, his surly look making him stand out from the rest. Not so much for the officers searching the premises, who find it predictably hard to track down a blond white boy in a crowded place. He’s been linked to the disappearance of six other teenagers, but Henri knows the case will fade away, as all things connected to the Library do. If he simply walked back home, watched the fireworks with his parents like everybody else, he’d be able to live his life for decades more. Igor would cease to pester him, the world of cognition would hide away from his mind, and he’d be freed from his haunting forever.

That’s not what will come to pass, however, and Henri knows it. He watches from afar as Stephen glimpses Philemon in the crowd, wearing Buck’s face. His pace quickens, the Buck lookalike fading and reappearing further away, only to finally find the masked man himself, standing in front of the Peace Tower, ready. Stephen steps through the crowd, finding them slowly coming to a halt as time freezes and the fog settles in. Henri, predictably, is unaffected, but he still doesn’t make himself known. He watches.

“There was no Virus,” Philemon explains, “there never was. She was the infection plaguing the Library.”

“I figured that out already, buddy,” Stephen replies, stone-cold, “but you know what she told me?”

He flashes his badge, bloodied, and Alcides rises above him, an eclipse of moths covering the whole sky.

“The Library of Souls was never yours. If someone else, someone right, had been steering the machine, it wouldn’t have gone wrong. It wouldn’t all have gone wrong. We have a right to rule, Philemon, a right to be free and be clean and be better!

“This is how you plan to take that right, Stephen,” Philemon questions, hand raised, “by dying this moment?”

“If… if I have to. I’m not the first one, am I? I know I won’t be the last to rise…”

He summons his baton, pointing it at the contemptuous god, and sneers:

Do your worst.

“As you wish, Stephen Campbell,” the adversary states, closing his raised fist, “... armageddon.

The burst of Almighty energy spreads from his hand like the big bang itself. Atoms split and reality shatter as the wave of energy washes over Parliament Hill, annihilating everything in its path. The moths become like fractured particles, the sky’s color drained, the people becoming but ghosts, as the absolute attack tears through anything on its way for miles to come. Henri, almost blinded but otherwise unaffected, looks on at Stephen, his body become shadow, and can almost make out a… smirk?

The countdown begins. The crowd joins in the chanting, about to say goodbye to the current millennium. Parliament Hill stands intact, untarnished. Henri looks around, but finds no trace of Philemon, already lost in the crowd with another face. He tries to make out where Stephen should have been, but the glimmer of a broken badge is all he glimpses, quickly swept up in the movement of feet. Quiet, pensative, he touches his face, realizing there are tears streaming down his cheeks. He finishes his drink.

New Year arrives. The millennium day has come. Nothing changes. Any flicker of a street light would have made Henri suspicious, but nothing happens that would perk up his worry. He walks back, velvet key in hand, ignoring the celebrations. Crossing between streets and shortcuts few are able to see, the velvet attendant makes his way back home. As he finds a used backdoor and inserts the key, making it a passageway back to the Velvet Room, something lands on the back of his outstretched hand. He looks down, expecting the familiar sight of Philemon’s butterfly, but instead is greeted by a moth. A single, lonely moth, attracted to the glow of his key. He carefully takes it in his other hand, making sure it won’t fly off, then opens the door, walking inside with his companion, where the future awaits. Igor, seated as ever, looks up at him, and nods in silence. The dream perseveres.

Outside, in the real world, the Ottawa Collegiate Institute remains. Inside, folded into it, the Library of Souls screeches, desperate, unsolved, hungry. The Goddess stalks its corridors, searching for an ace in the hole. The dream… perseveres.

The dream perseveres… ?

TO BE CONTINUED IN

PERSONA [X]