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Persona [X]

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“In a world that has been thoroughly permeated by the structures of social order, 

a world that so overpowers every individual that scarcely any option remains 

but to accept it on its own terms, such naiveté reproduces itself incessantly and disastrously.”

-Theodor Adorno, Why Still Philosophy?


???

Cora turns the dial on her lock. The narrow locker-lined corridors surround her, devoid of the usual human stampede. A shiver runs through her, and she almost laughs out loud. She’s heard all the stories; Gabrielle and the rest of the soccer team can’t get enough of breaking in new girls. Every corridor of this ancient building has a ghost story of its own, from the eighteen fifties all the way to the two thousands. It’s almost… comforting. To know that she’d been watched over. A true believer makes peace with the unknown. Even if the unknown means leaving Sam… Ronnie… Jenny… no, why think of it. Out of mind, it won’t come to pass. Something’ll come up, surely‒

Fuck, she spun it too much. There, now, perfect. Strange. It’s not opening. Cora clutches at the lock, spinning it again, ignoring the fog that creeps at the corner of her eyes. Spinning, spinning, her field of vision seems to unfurl. Rather, it’s the lockers. The hallway. Falling away into reflections, unfurling as they spin, a thousand shadows lurking in the edge, until… beauty. Shining spires, glittering fountains, trees hung with jewels. It’s just as she imagined it would be. Cora proceeds down the cobbled path, turning it to yellow bricks with each step. Yellow-eyed, tarot-masked silhouettes watch from afar, while she strolls happily into the castle above. Now she is in.

Consumption begins.


SEPTEMBER 9, 2019

Monday morning

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

S&P/TSX: -40.24C$ / Temp: 15℃

Ronnie chomps down on a cereal bar. Mike winces at the crunchy noise, but disguises it with a louder mouth fart. Bonnie laughs, before a nod from Gabrielle makes them jolt out of the room together. Jacques watches them go, appreciatively, before a backhanded slap from Marietta puts him in his place. Dan pays them no mind, rambling to Sam and Tristan about something involving police boxes, the former eyeing Colin suspiciously. He tries to carve a hammer and sickle into his desk, but barely manages a scratch. Maryam sits atop it, chit chatting with Wilfred, who can’t hide his blushing even as Burt fumes‒

“You tend to survey all your surroundings, young girl. It is fascinating to witness.”

Jenny’s broken out of her spell. She knows Yacob’s in her head‒ is her head, technically, but it used to be not so chatty. Jack’s a bit more quiet, but she catches some ‘hee-hoos’ from time to time. The visor’s safe inside her bag, but if she were to pull it out, she’d be able to see the two of them. More than that, obviously, but her priorities lie elsewhere. Cora lies elsewhere, and that worries her alot‒

“Hee-hoo, that’s one loud bell y’all got there.”

The class quiets down as it rings, eleventh-graders taking their places, while Mr. Huxley adjusts his thick-rimmed glasses and scratches his impressive grey beard. Coughing a bit too fakely, he travels his sight from corner to corner of the class.

“Alright, then. Guess we’ll get started.”

“Wish I had a beard like that,” Mike whispers wistfully, “real philosopher-like.”

“All in good time, man.” Jacques states, while Huxley sets up his slides, grumbling much less philosophical words.

“I dunno. Look at my face - I’m no Childish Gambino. Think the most I’ll ever manage is… OG Shaft?”

“Dude? You’re complaining about THAT?! Look, I’m not Dan, but‒”

The actual Dan flips the bird with a push of his glasses, shushing them in time for Mr. Huxley to begin his lecture:

“Right! So… I’ve talked to you a lot last year about what these old guys in wigs had to say… and that’s great, that’s philosophy. But that’s not all philosophy is. Rousseau was never on Snapchat‒ or, you know, whatever‒ so you could say he doesn’t really say all that could be said about our age. This weird, crazy, paradoxical age all y’all are growing up in. How does philosophy work when you can search ‘me-ta-phy-sics’ in your Google machine and get the five minute Youtube explainer? Well, I’ll tell you it works just fine. But it’s not quite the same… in some respects, it’s quite different. You’ve heard of information overload‒ I mean, people haven’t shut up about this damn thing since y’all were fetuses. That’s not really the issue here, though. It’s the omnipresence of readily-available information. Got a question? Wanna know the answer? Search it up! That’s how we think these days. That’s how your generation’s been conditioned to. I mean, you could do it right now… on my prehistoric BlackBerry, even. Let’s say… who’s got a question?”

Terrified, awkward silence. Dan dutifully prepares for the sacrifice, when both Ronnie and Mike raise their hands at once. They stare each other down, Huxley slowly moving his pointing finger between the two of them, before settling on the boy.

“What was John Diefenbaker’s dog called?”

“Oh. Perfect.”

Laughter erupts. Mr. Huxley duly searches it, taking a little time to type it out.

“Happy, apparently. A Labrador Retriever. Well, if you learn one thing from today’s class, let this be it.”

“This man does not express himself in the clearest fashion… but it is clear his wisdom is great.”

Jenny nods along to Yacob, whilst the class’s raucous laughter dies down in time for the teacher to resume his lecture:

“Here’s the thing. When you’ve got all the wisdom you need right in your pocket… right there… so you don’t even have to think about it… then it gets very easy to take it for granted. To assume that knowledge and understanding can be acquired simply by seeking them. If you remember our friend Socrates, that’s what he warned y’all against. Sophists - the lifestyle gurus of fifth century Athens - might sell wisdom for a reasonable price, but not Socrates. He knew that wisdom wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t cheap. We’ve lost sight of our need for philosophy, of all it represents, funnily enough, by quoting it, and explaining it, and referencing it to no end. That’s just one of the paradoxes of the Internet age.”

“Say,” Jacques whispers to Sam, “couldn’t you say that Huxley’s commodifying philosophy just by discussing it? Whaddya say, Sammy?”

“You could.” She smiles. “But then you’d be an asshole, ‘Jacky’.”

He laughs his irrepressibly tinkling laugh, attracting Huxley’s attention. Jenny sighs deeply, Jack-o’-Lantern hee-hooing.

“It seems Jacques has something to say. Perhaps about the liberating power of jokes cutting through phony veneration?”

“Y-yeah… that. Sir.”

“Good. Skipping over the thought-provoking implications, we’ll resume our introductory class.”


Monday Midday

Ottawa Collegiate Institute [Cafeteria]

They agreed to meet up here. Most people their age usually eat out or elsewhere in school, so Jenny waits in line among a rabble of ninth-graders to get some lunch‒ or rather, for Ronnie to get some lunch. She clutches her ‘lunch bag’, yesterday’s leftovers in it, as Ronnie butts heads with the lousy line jumpers, who are all close to Jenny’s size, tragically enough. The woes of being shortest in class, you could say. The quest done, the two head on over to a nice table, scaring their juniors away with sharp glares, as Jenny peeks at Sam, who’s discreetly handing out flyers to the corridor people. Waving her over, the girl hops on, carrying her own lunch.

“Diefenbaker’s fucking labrador,” Ronnie whines, “I wanted the nuclear codes. Hey, lemme check sumthin’...”

She takes a bite out of Jenny’s lunch, humming appreciatively, before making for a conclusion:

“Yesterday’s food still fresher than the corner-cutting crap they feed the little rat fucks. What is this, vegan growth hormone?”

“Don’t tell Jenny or she’ll dive in,” Sam jokes, “but anyway, Cora didn’t come today, right? Swear I saw her this morning.”

“Trick of the eye, Sam.” Ronnie adds, “once thought I’d seen Jen, turns out it was fuckin’ Quentin of all people.”

“I find that… improbable,” Jenny interjects, seriously, “but fact of the matter is she didn’t come in. I don’t like it.”

“She’s probably helping… helping with the move. We’ll check on her tomorrow, don’t worry. You wanted to say something?”

Jenny quiets down, looking at the lunch table, thinking of what she’ll tell them, when Ronnie interrupts her train of thought:

“Quit with ya speeches. We know them, we like them, we won’t fuckin’ tire of them, but we don’t need them right now.”

“She’s right, Jenny. You already apologized back at Elgin. Things… happened, but intent still stands. Or is there…?”

“Yes… yes, there is. I… reflected on things yesterday, and I’ve gone at this all wrong. I thought myself sick, so I quarantined myself from others, tried to face down my own nightmare world alone. It felt like the right thing to do - to protect all of you, to make sure you’d never be hurt. But that was how I hurt everybody. I hurt my parents, I hurt you two, I hurt Cora… most of all, I hurt myself even more. I’ll still hurt you all more until it’s all over… if it will ever be over. But maybe that hurt is part of something more… something bigger… and if I open up, I can share all of it with you. The good, the bad, the ugly, you’ve more than earned all that there is of me. The world we’re in might be grey, but there’s so many‒ so many fucking shades, they need to be seen in full. Together. That’s… there it is.”

“She did the fookin’ speech again.”

“Yes, and it’s always music to my ears,” Sam states, thoughtful, “but it’s not what we need to hear.”

“It’s easy to speak of openness perched atop one’s fortress of solitude.” Yacob likewise admonishes.

Jenny winces at his remark, and Sam catches sight of it, continuing her calm, careful response:

“Rather, it’s not that we need to hear it, but that we need to see it. This isn’t the first time you’ve made amends, Jenny. Hell, it’s not the first time any of us fucked up good enough that we had to. This is routine. What we always did, and what you need to do now, is show us what those words are worth. After that time I broke Ronnie’s arm, I promised to be mindful of my forcefulness - fast forward to now, and when’s the last time I laid a strong finger on any of‒ Ronnie that doesn’t count don’t even fucking say it‒ anyway, to promise to be more open is always welcome, but we need you to open your castle doors, Jenny. That will be meaningful, worthy of yourself.”

“Just be a bit more open, girl. No need for a Gabriella Montez character arc.”

“Don’t. Trigger those memories.” Sam reflexively reaches for a cigarette, only to remember she’s out - and in school.

“I‒ you can count on it… Opening up. I will, Sam. Ronnie. I will try. You can trust me.”

“Of course we can. We’re the Superfriends. Also, I’m glad nobody’s breaking into song yet.”

“Ninth fooking graders. These fetuses prolly never heard of High School Musical.”

Some of them proceed to side eye the three girls from across the room, but Ronnie flips them the bird with a fork. They settle down and finish their respective lunches, swapping bits of each other’s meals, and stay seated together, letting the silence - and the noise of beeping phones - fester amicably over their rest. As the bell nears ringing, the three stand, moving for their lockers:

“By the way,” Sam starts, “gonna head on over to the Glebe after class. Pamphlet them a bit for the climate march next friday.”

“Those Glebeians?” Ronnie chortles “I’m comin’ with you. Not sure ya’ll get anything through their dummy thick skulls‒”

“Better me than Colin or the rest of the Gonzaloist LARP brigade. Are you coming too, Jenny?”

“I’m afraid I have some practice to look forward to. Wish me luck… and hopefully we’ll pick it up with Cora tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Sam wonders, as the bell overwhelms their hearing, “hopefully.”


Monday afternoon

Ottawa Collegiate Institute [Corridors]

“This doesn't look like practice, hoo!”

Jenny shushes her persona, sneaking inside an unused classroom. Leaving her bag by a corner, she zips it open, shuffling through her stuff. Visor in hand, she zips it back, then puts the glasses on. At once, the empty room is revealed to be full. She pays no mind to the formless shadows in each seat, crawling through the windows, grasping at her from below - the faint light of wisdom keeps them away. The fog leaks in from everywhere, and as Jenny opens the door, the once-packed corridor is now bare of people. She strolls through it, the smoky lockers of no attention to her but Cora’s, and stops by a window. The glass swirls with her touch, boiling as if to blow vapor at her, but, by instinct - or something more - she simply inserts her arm, grabbing an unseen doorknob and pulling the door open. Stepping inside the Library of Souls, Jenny finds herself in her suit once more, and flexes a bit too eagerly.

“The strength of your soul determines your strength here, young girl. What will you do?”

“Fighting’s like debating. It’s a skill that needs sharpening. I need to be prepared.”

Guiding herself by the wiring of the illuminated wing, Jenny arrives at the frontier to the untamed zone. Materializing weapons, she steps through, ready to rumble. Nothing happens. Looking around, she shrugs, then walks on for a bit, one or two stray shadows catching her sight from a distance. Stumbling onto a chest, she cocks her gun, then leans in, silently blowing it open. Shifting through its contents, Jenny grabs some smoke bombs, a yashichi, and a couple bill stacks of an unknown currency, which all fit comfortably inside her pockets somehow. Shrugging again, she opts to flip through the books arranged on the corridor shelves, not actually looking at any of them. The titles vary from mechanical - dates and locations - to ambiguous - a picture of a sunflower - but they all seem to describe… events? Memories? Yacob’s echo is about to ring out with a suggestion, when Jenny slips on a creaky wire. The book in her hand falls forward, but she’s caught in the nick of time. Catching her breath, Jenny realizes she heard no crashing noise, and finds the book now held by a tarot-masked crab. Confused and slightly worried, she then turns to the hand gripping her, finding it’s similarly masked. And also disembodied. As the shadow tightens its grip, she materializes her pistol, blowing a hole through the XIII in its mask. She does the same to the crab, its VI cracking as they dissolve into smoke, but the gas attracts a host of Deadly Hands, charging right at her.

Stepping on another Loving Pincer, she calculates her options - there’s no way she can face the horde alone. Touching her suit pocket, she grabs the smoke bombs, hoping their effect is as cartoonish as they look. She throws them to the ground, and the resulting smoke wall successfully halts the Deadly Hands. Looking back, Jenny sees herself covered, so she grabs at the yashichi, noticing its pinwheel shape, and winds it up at the wall. It runs itself out, the item vanishing, but a powerful gust of wind spreads the smoke, blinding the shadows. Taking a deep breath, the persona-wielder runs inside the confusion, stepping through the host, before arriving at the other end of the zone, free from the freaky sprites… and face to face with a cohort of four monstrous, unmasked shadows.

“Just got out of a handsy situation… no patience for the fucking monster squad beatles. Yacob!”  

The mosaic angel materializes above her, his ribbons lashing out at the stingray and goblin shadows. Simultaneously so, the plant-like screecher tries to pummel Jenny - she summons her staff just in time, parrying its strike. She unlocks the staff, splitting it into its three sections, then raises it vertically, hitting the shadow with the bottom end. A slash cuts through her shoulder, and she blocks the next attack with the top end, facing the daemon-like shadow. Yacob’s charged by the stingray, but protects himself with a ribbon net, trapping it and ramming it at the daemon. Freed, Jenny turns to the screecher, striking it forward and wrapping the staff around its head, strangling the shadow. The goblin shadow casts a spell, draining some of Jenny’s vitality, and she lets go of the screecher, panting. Grabbing her shoulder, she gestures to Yacob, who casts a kouha spell - the forthcoming blast of light knocks the shadow down, and Jenny finishes it off with a shot, dissipating the goblin. She fires a couple of warning shots at the stingray, freeing itself from the net, then gestures at the screecher - Yacob chooses to cast Hama, and it is as if time stops. Glowing card sigils surround the screecher, and a final howl can almost be heard before the light surrounds it, the shadow no more. The daemon strikes then, however, a cursed blast hitting Yacob dead-center. Jenny’s knocked back, Yacob unsummoned, and she grasps her visor, breathing faster. In it, another echo remains, and she summons Jack-o’-Lantern, giggling. The fiery persona concentrates, Jenny gasping harder, then launches a fireball straight at the daemon. The agi spell’s a success, burning through the daemon, and leaving nothing behind. Firing at the freed stingray, the flames do little, and it retaliates with bufu. The ice’s like a spear, piercing through Jack and leaving Jenny frozen in place, shivering and bleeding at its face. The stingray nears, charging to strike, but Jenny struggles against the ice, desperate. Right as contact between them is imminent, the ice breaks, and Jenny summons her staff, splitting it mid-attack to pummel the shadow twice. Having successfully avoided the hit, Jenny summons Yacob once again, his ribbons searing into the stingray, before Jenny runs forward and brings the staff down on its head, throwing herself above the shadow and knocking it down, holding it in submission below herself, panting in triumph.

“End ‘ME’ already. A great marquis like ‘I’ should not live with defeat by a merciful opponent in mind.”

“You… you can think of it… think of defeat, I think… think of an alliance. A meeting of strengths, if you will.”

“You’d have ‘ME’ by your side? ‘I’ would have killed you, human. Still… never forget Forneus’ might when it counts.”

With a puff, the new persona finds its way inside her visor, joining the two others. Taking a moment to recompose herself, she instead drops to the floor, leaning on a shelf, exhausted. Managing to summon Yacob, she has him cast a dia, but it only manages to heal the cut on her arm. Almost in delirium, she watches a two-dimensional claw emerge from between the books above, carving a hole into the wall besides. It crumbles, as if paper, and a sort of wheeled shopfront steps up instead. The two-dimensional claw retreats, and a gaunt, gigantic man steps wholly from it, bending back into full depth as he ties his bowtie with the manicured claws. Jenny can’t even muster a reaction at his nonexistent eyes or ears, as the giant pulls out a minuscule medicine-like bottle from his large patterned apron. Carefully unwinding the dropper, the giant lets some droplets fall into Jenny’s lips, reinvigorating her. She slowly stands, intimidated.

“Soul drops. Can’t have our regular dying before her first purchase, can we? He’s Loudovikos, I’m Vlachos. Nice to meet you.”

A petite copy of the giant peeks out from the shopfront. Despite being the talker of the two, their mouth has been stitched shut, arms likewise tied to its body, tastefully covered in a priestly garb. Loudovikos starts arranging the items from the back, as Vlachos watches Jenny approach the stand, very confused at this turn of events:

“You’re… you’re not shadows? Why did you help me?”

“There are a great many things in the Amala other than shadow and flesh, madam. We’re just traveling salesmen ourselves.”

“What could you have that would be of use to me… besides that?”

“A great many things, madam, a great many things. You won’t have time to plunder every chest in this place, so as long as you keep cleansing more and more areas, we’ll recuperate all that’s been scattered here, and sell it back to you at a fair price. You might think of us as parasitic, madam, but this is how we’ve made a living these past few aeons, and it’s been a profitable arrangement for all.”

Jenny simply grimaces, more at the uncanny salesmen than their offer, but Loudovikos gestures at the Library around them:

“He says you’ve already done more for the place than the previous dwellers from last whence we came here.”

“Previous…?”

“Oh, you are not aware. My bad, my bad, don’t mind me, it’s not our place to say. Just take a look at the catalogue, please.”

Groaning, she does so, sifting through the pages and carefully selecting her preferences, before realizing:

“Uh… do you take credit? I only have bus money on me… you work with loonies?” She shows the two a Canadian dollar bill.

“We work with Macca only, madam. It’s pretty multiversal, pardon the pun. You might have gotten some already?”

“Oh, I did,” she fishes through her suit pocket, pulling out the stacks, “how much does this get me?”

Loudovikos makes a pitiful frown, then brings out a bag of soul drops and a volt ring, and nothing more.

“Well, have this on the house, madam,” Vlachos brings out a homunculus, “it’ll do you good soon enough.”

She makes the purchase, attempts at asking further information on the cryptic items entailing but similarly cryptic addendums, and steps back. Turning to another switch, she moves to close it, still a bit strained from the fight, but Loudovikos volunteers, cleansing the area for her. As the lights fill this corner of the Library, Jenny waves the salesmen goodbye, palming at a door in the wall, taking her back to the empty classroom. Removing her visor, she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, and heads back home.


SEPTEMBER 10, 2019

Tuesday Morning

Ottawa Collegiate Institute

S&P/TSX: +42.25C$ / Temp: 17℃

First class of the day is history. Even well-rested, Jenny is not prepared for the sheer… volume… of Mr. Gorki’s ramblings:

“...so that’s how our dear old kraut Peter numero tres got yeeted out the throne. Getting a Prussian on the Russian throne, imagine that! Really, imagine that! Sure, he was pretty tight as leaders go - bit on the friendly side, could even jive with your queen Lizzie over on the other side of the Atlantic nowadays, but the point is… not so right a heir. Know who’d make an appropriate heir? Da, me, of course, with my Russian and all that. So, anyway, Catherine! The great, the enlightened despot, the empress regnant, all that pomeranian jazz. She was also a bit of a kraut herself, but girlboss got it right in going down on the people and making herself not only useful, but beloved. And loved that babe was! One of her favorites was a dude called Grigory Potemkin. Like a true simp, he’d helped her in her coup‒”

Feeling drained by the torrential submachine fire of cringe, Jenny instead turns her eyes to her phone, only to find notifications in Chaos. Discreetly tuning into it, she scrolls to “Ronnie’s Cabaret”, to be greeted by a dour thread:

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: CoRa’s missing.

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: MRs. AndeRson phoned me right before class.

[9/10 9:03 AM] AntiCisAktion: She said CoRa went to school but neveR came back.

[9/10 9:04 AM] AntiCisAktion: I told heR we didn’t see CoRa either. She didn’t hide out at any of ouR places.

[9/10 9:04 AM] AntiCisAktion: I think they’Re calling the police to seaRch foR heR.

[9/10 9:06 AM] dunkingdong: fuckfucfukuckfuckfckfuck wat we do ?

[9/10 9:07 AM] AntiCisAktion: We split up afteR class. The AndeRsons have ouR numbeRs if they need us to help them.

[9/10 9:07 AM] AntiCisAktion: We’ll do ouR own seaRch. Don’t tRust the fucking OPS to do this Right.

[9/10 9:14 AM] littlemisssunshine: Understood. We’ll get her back.

“So, miss Aubade, could you snap your thoughts on Potemkin villages our way?”

She masks her distraction with a cringy grimace, offset by a convenient coughing fit faked by Ronnie. As Gorki jokingly offers her his ‘personal vodka stash’, Dan has their row pass back a note detailing potemkin villages: ‘fake paradises built to impress the naive’.

“So, miss Aubade,” Mr. Gorki resumes, “got a story sent to us?”

“I understand the idea of illusory heavens, professor - it’s very useful to distract people with glitter and gold. If you pardon me, however,” Jenny insists, “I believe illusory hells can be just as effective, if not more addictive. Inaction by satisfaction doesn’t have to be positive - the spirit-breaking certainty that things will never change can be just as satisfying to justify inaction. Both are hopelessly naive, nevertheless… the Bastille as we know it was just as fictional as Camelot, in a way… castles of our own making…”

“That… erm… had nothing to do with what I asked…” Gorki explains, “but tee-bee-eitch, it was pretty cool, so I’ll take it.”


Tuesday Afternoon

The Library of Souls

Jenny pays her suit no mind as she steps into the Library once again. As predicted, Henri is already waiting by the side, compendium in hand:

“I must admit, Jack-o’-Lantern and Forneus are each classical starters, but together‒-”

“Where. Is. She?”

“...move rightwards, you won’t miss it. And, guest…” He looks to the side, “be careful.”

She’s too busy heading there to dignify the Velvet Attendant with a response, choosing instead to summon Yacob to light the way. A couple of warning shorts ward off any Deadly Hands or Loving Pincers or Priestly Wyrms who come on sight, and soon a locked door makes itself known. Gastric noise and a foul, cancerous smell are the only hint of what’s behind the lightly-decorated, remarkably pleasant-looking entrance, and Jenny’s frustrated, futile shots do little but add gunpowder to the palette. Yacob, for his part, flies down, extending a ribbon into the keyhole, and calmly unlocks it. He holds her hand, as if to silently warn her, before puffing back into nothing.


Stepping forward into the Haunting, she finds the putrid odor gone. Instead, what lies ahead is literally a yellow brick road. Pixies sing by the trees, whose wooden faces are strung out in bliss, its fruits seeming out of this world. Experimentally, Jenny strikes one with her staff - the high out of its mind tree is unaffected, but its falling fruits are converted into Macca for her pockets. She repeats this same process a few times, then notices a message literally written into the ground below her: ROAD TO CASTLE FANTASIA. Poking it, she seems to pierce the road itself, only to find that a life-size map has somehow been overlaid over the land. Looking up - and peeking at the sefirot-like collection of suns - Jenny glimpses the castle, and hurries to it, unaware of the sinister gaze directed at her from there.

 A short trek later, the moving castle is on sight, bridged to the ground by the same chains that bind it there. As she steps on, the gravity below her seems to bend, and Jenny is lifted right into the gate - or rather, gates. Two identical doors stand side by side, with two reddish, brutish shadows guarding each. They pay her no mind but to huff through their fangs, blades glistening in the cheery air, while a tarot-masked shadow, dressed in a brightly mismatched tuxedo, welcomes her aboard:

“Pardon my tardiness, Heroine, but many happy returns,” begins the Foolish Greeter, “I do trust you’re here for Princess Fantasia, from your concerns?”

“Heroine…? Look, I’m here to bring Cora home. If you’re as polite as you seem, tell me where to find her. Now.”

“The Princess lies in no other Castle, you’ll find.” The Foolish Greeter adds, “however, we must test your strength - that of your mind. One door leads to your friend’s breath - the other to certain death. One Oni always lies, another is always sincere. You have but one question to unveil it, hear?”

“Will they… will they rhyme in metric too?”

“No.”

“It is a rather classic logic puzzle, my dear. A moment of reflection will sort it out forthwith.”

Jenny looks up at the Onis, saliva brewing in their mouths, and wonders if they’re even capable of speech. Nevertheless, she decides to play along. She’s heard this riddle about a thousand times now, and the answer usually goes like…

“You,” she points at the leftward Oni, “would the Oni by your side claim the door you guard lead to Cora?”

“...He would not.”

“Then this is the one.” She smirks triumphantly: “Either he’d lie in his answer, or yours is incorrect - doesn’t really matter which.”

Determined, Jenny opens the gate, strolling by the shadows, and sure enough finds herself inside the castle, unharmed. With a snap of her fingers, she materializes Forneus, and heads on. Torrential blasts of bufu freeze most Magical Spooks in the way, shots from her gun shattering them in sequence. A maid-like shadow is immune to it, but a fiery agi from Jack-o’-Lantern takes care of her. Jenny’s rampage goes on almost unopposed, and she even picks up a Bicorn after beating it down with her three section-staff in retaliation for its psychic attack. Plundering some more Macca and assorted healing items from corridor chests, she’s on a roll.

Until, obviously, she comes face to face with her watchful stalker. White-skinned, blond, deer-crowned, the warrior-hunter shadow points its sword at her, handsome face soiled by a sullen frown:

“You seek the lord of this realm, do you not? I will bring you to her… on your knees.”

“Believe what you will.”

She has Jack-o’-Lantern fire at the shadow, but the agi has no effect on it. Shrugging, he easily dodges Jenny’s gunfire, and as she switches from Jack to Forneus to Bicorn, evades all their spells with swift ease. Materializing her staff, she barely parries his sword, managing to disarm him for a second. Summoning Yacob, she has him envelop the blade in his ribbons, before blasting the shadow. It shrugs his light like it did Jack’s fire, before charging straight at Jenny, knocking her down. It headbutts her repeatedly, their foreheads banging against each other, then rips the staff from her hand. The weapon fades like her persona, and it grabs its sword once more.

“I believe what my lord believes - that includes you, to your luck.”


Tuesday Afternoon

Castle Fantasia

Dragged on her knees, business pants scraping against hard tiles, Jenny comes to. The dome-like room’s ceiling is mirrored, as if to stare back at them: two rows of horseback knight shadows guiding the hunter and the captive girl to the castle’s ruler: Cora. The short, dark-haired girl’s dressed in flowing orchard robes that disguise her slightly uneven tilt. Plump, tender hands are perfumed and painted, but the rot in their tips is apparent. Her small, inquisitive eyes are perched where they should be, except they’re now a sharp, decadent yellow. She smiles softly, face hidden in graying bangs, and Jenny does her best not to grimace at the sight.

“You… like, you came! I didn’t know… is this possible? This is, like, happening, isn’t it? I’m so glad!”

“Cora… what… I came to… fuck, your shadow… I came to get you…”

“Whaaaaat? Look around you, Jenny! This is… like, this is all I could want! Every story of mine… here.”

“What… fucking hell, Cora, what about us? Ronnie, Sam, me?”

“If you found your way here… like, maybe they can do too. We can, you know, we can all be together.”

“Together… here? This place… this fucking place… it’ll swallow you up. It’ll swallow all of us into nothing. You can feel it.”

“Shut up shut up SHUT UP! This is… this is what you fucking do. You deny wonder to justify your misery.”

The mirror above seems to… shiver? Jenny looks back at Cora… or rather, Shadow Cora, who’s emerging.

“This is a treasured place, intruder, free from the grasp of a used universe. In here, you cannot deny beauty, you cannot deny wonder, you cannot deny truth. My truth… Cora’s truth. The glorious ember that blossoms into the riches of this realm. My mirror has seen you for what you are, Jenny Aubade - you are foul to the core. You would burn all that’s been built to feed your fantasies of realism. We will not allow this rot to fester within these walls. The castle will stand above pain, above decay, above the lies of the world. The labyrinth of the moving castle is now closed off to you, foreigner… forever.”

Dark energy flutters in her hand, and with a cursed, distorted voice, Shadow Cora speaks, the mirror raining below:

“Mudo.”

Sigils manifest around Jenny, turning in ever-increasing speeds. Yacob seems to choke up, gasps echoing inside her head. Cards flutter. The glassy droplets rain down on her head. Darkness seems to come from all sides, the shadow of death. It corners her, lashing onto her whole self, enveloping it. The curse seems to consume all within. A final, shrill cry agonizes over the whole room.

The homunculus dies, leaving a trembling, scared Jenny behind. The hunter-warrior is surprised, as are the other shadows in the room. Shadow Cora, for her part, simply laughs, stepping down her throne to meet with them, caressing both her and the hunter.

“Fate has made its decree. Fionn mac Cumhaill, my Hunter, it has fallen upon you to finish her… outside.”

The Hunter nods, solemn, then turns to Jenny, who screams back at Cora in despair:

“YOU CAN’T… CORA… I WON’T… WON’T LET YOU GO… WE WON’T LOSE EACH OTHER… NOT AGAIN…”

“I am found, Jenny. It is you who will always be lost to the world.”


Tuesday Afternoon

The Library of Souls

The two have stepped back through the Haunting’s door, a defeated Jenny letting the Hunter walk her back outside. It wields its sword, ready to strike, and Jenny, hand forward, asks herself if she should really try to parry its attack. Closing her eyes, she feels each of her companions opine differently - Jack is fearful, Forneus is resigned, Bicorn is panicked, but Yacob simply tells the ‘young girl’ to make her choice. She breathes in, and the choice is made - materializing her staff, she’s ready to defend herself to the last‒

“Go.”

Opening her eyes, she finds the Hunter leaning on the door, sword on its sheath. 

“You care for my lord much like I do. If you are truly worthy… you will find a way through the labyrinth… and we will face each other again. Fate made its decree, and I must let it finish its course.”

 “I will. I promise it will be so. For Cora.”

“For Cora. It is the wise thing to do.”

It turns back, entering the Haunting once again, and Jenny is left all alone.