Chapter 48: Hero
Before the team could gather their bearings, Shadow Mitsuo surrounded itself in a casing of hard light. As it solidified and became defined, the image of a giant 3D retro-themed warrior with a helmet, cape and sash, and sword appeared. The warrior was moving in place in two fixed frames. It rivaled the size of the Steel Machine Shadow and was no less a geek's dream realized.
"GAAAAH! He's all cubed up!" Teddie cried out comically.
"But didn't he just transform already?" Chie wondered. "What's that even supposed to be anyway?"
"Is that supposed to be a game character?" Yosuke asked. "Looks like something straight from 3D Dot Game Heroes."
"I am a shadow," a voice droned evenly, coming from the warrior. "I will bring everything into nothingness."
"Tch, and here I was hoping for an easy fight with the mutant space baby," Kanji growled. "Guess I'll make do with blocky here."
He didn't heed Shirou's warning, as he swung his wet floor sign at his Persona card. "Kill Rush 'em, T-M!"
The thunder god Persona flashed to life and swung his bolt-blade down in rapid succession. Blocks were pushed and struck, revealing the true Shadow from inside the shell. But only for a second before it reformed, whole again.
"That hurt," said Shadow Mitsuo, before adding mockingly, "My feelings."
"Your whole face will be hurting when I'm-!" Kanji froze mid-rant as a red light encased his body.
"Kanji-kun!" Yukiko cried and rushed to his side. "He doesn't look hurt, so maybe… Amrita!"
Konohana-Sakuya was summoned, dancing her floral wreath overhead as a sparkling shower of lights poured over Kanji. Amrita was a restorative spell learned after grueling days of training with Fujimura-sensei, capable of cleansing ailments like she hoped Kanji was under.
Except the Amrita did nothing to restore movement. "This cannot be!"
"Your waste of a turn is over, Yuki-chan."
And sure enough, she was trapped in a red glow as well.
"Dammit!" Chie snarled, half ready to charge at the shadow before Shirou stopped her.
"Hold on, we can't rush this. Let's wait until he makes a move first."
Reluctantly, they waited. They waited tensely, expecting something to happen as it stared them down with those black blocky "eyes". But as the seconds ticked by, nobody moved. Only the Shadow's 8-bit frame cycle as if it were a stoplight.
Between the fear of being frozen or waiting for some attack to happen, the Investigation Team fighters were growing worried. Yosuke turned and whispered to Rise. "So, uh… are those two, you know, okay?"
"I don't know," she whispered back. "They seem to be more in suspended animation than anything else. That's why Yukiko-senpai's spell didn't help Kanji. He was perfectly fine already. I don't even think the Shadow here had anything to do with them."
"Then why isn't he doing anything now?"
"Because it's not my turn yet."
The team was taken aback by the Shadow's casual answer, as well as the implications of it. "Uh… what?"
"Kanji used his turn to attack me. Yukiko-chan used hers to heal him. Their turns are done, so they are waiting until everyone else moves. Once all you fighters are done moving, I'll go, and then you can move too."
"Turns?!" Chie spat. "What do you think this is, some kind of game?!"
"Life is always a game."
"So if I understand this right," Shirou started slowly. "You won't do anything until we all make turn actions?"
"Correct," said Shadow Mitsuo.
"And you will just stand there while we talk and strategize?" he asked again.
"Talking is free action."
Teddie hummed. "In that case… HUDDLE!"
The remaining five members of the Investigation Team circled together in a group hug, leaning their heads in as close as possible.
"We're in a very unique situation right now," Shirou started. "The enforced rules might be a power by the Shadow's hero form and this world we're in."
"Not that other Shadows had their own gimmicks, but this one still feels scummy as hell," Chie complained.
"If our positions just freeze in place where we are, we might be better off spreading out so he can't hit us all in one shot," Rise reminded.
"But not being together is just as dangerous with Kanji and Yuki-chan stuck like that," Teddie reminded.
"It would be too much to assume that if we all attacked now, he'd go down," Yosuke told them. "He's confident enough to wait, after all."
"So that gives us time to prepare," Shirou said. "We all have buffing spells, so let's use them."
"Which ones?" Chie asked.
"All of them. Tarukaja for offense, Rakukaja for defense, Sukukaja for speed. After that, I'll switch to my other Personas and use whatever debuffs I have."
"A super-charged Persona battering ram? That's brilliant, Shirou-sensei!"
"Yeah, it gets my vote too, but which one gets the 'Heat Riser' treatment? We can only boost one of us at a time, and even without 'Mitsy' here playing rules lawyer, it would be a waste of time just doing the same for all of us."
"I volunteer," Chie grinned viciously. "I really want to break my boots over that bastard's face."
Shirou considered it, as she was their strongest fighter, and for a time the only one. But they had options now. "Maybe later, but I'd rather we boost Kanji first."
The others looked baffled but waited to hear his reason. "Right now we have to assume we're the only ones that know the rules of this fight. Knowing Kanji and his fighting style, he'd likely keep attacking whenever he can, so making sure he's as powered up as possible would be the best idea. He can cover for Amagi as well, who is a sitting duck out there next to him."
"So, we focus on Kanji first? Sounds good to me," Yosuke said.
"But I get the next round of buffs after him!" Chie insisted.
"Fair enough. Ready?"
"We're always ready, senpai. And—"
At Teddie's cue, the team took battle positions; Rise retreated a little further away by a bone pile while Shirou and his teammates formed a line in front of Shadow Mitsuo. As one, they summoned their Personas and invoked their attacks.
Three flashes of kaleidoscopic light enveloped Kanji, while a dull purple dimmed over the Shadow. Like before, the Persona users were stuck in suspended animation, with only Rise and Tama aware of what was about to happen next.
Before their eyes, after the usual growling glow of Shadow artes, a menu screen popped up with three action commands. ATTACK. SPELL. ITEM. ATTACK was selected, and a cursor floated over Kanji. The Shadow swung his sword… very rigidly giving the 8-bit nature, but it still caused a hefty blow on the delinquent that his frozen body was knocked over.
"Critical hit. One more."
"Hey, that's cheating!" Rise cried out.
The Shadow ignored her, picking through its menu again. This time he selected ITEM, and pulled out a blocky bomb item over Yukiko. Seconds later, it detonated and singed through her hair and clothes.
The red lights surrounding the team faded, but the damage on both Kanji and Yukiko cascaded over them in grunts of pain. Chie called out first, "Yukiko! Are you okay?!"
"I-I think so," she groaned, nursing her arm.
"Hold on, Yuki-chan! Rakukaja!"
Kintoki-Douji's defense buff now shrouded Yukiko as a spirit shield. The act of support left the bear's turn over, and was refrozen as quickly as he had gotten out. She hardly noticed as she moved away to keep the distance between herself and the Shadow.
Meanwhile, Kanji pushed himself up and stared the Shadow down with anger. "Oh, you're gonna pay for that, dammit!"
"Kanji, be careful! He's—"
"Yeah Rise, I know. Suspension animation. I was able to hear and see all that. And thanks for the boost, senpais!"
One could see Rise's popped blood vessel in orbit from how she screeched. "That's suspended animation, you Moronji!"
"Hey, you can correct me after we're done kicking this guy's ass!"
Despite herself, Chie laughed at their antics. She turned to express her gratitude for the bear's assistance, knowing he could see and hear what she was about to say. "Thanks, Teddie."
Kanji made another haymaker of an attack, boosted from the support of his teammates, as the others helped prep Chie. Before long, their turns were over, and Shadow Mitsuo began to move (as limited as an 8-bit character model could anyway).
He attacked with his sword, able to hit Yosuke despite the distance between them. "Critical Hit. One more." He followed up with a similar sword strike at Shirou.
"Again?" Rise frowned. One critical hit at the opening move was uncanny, but two in a row was ridiculous.
The battle was going through a sort of pattern now. Yukiko was on full healing duty as Chie and Kanji threw their hardest attacks at the shell. Shirou and Yosuke alternated on support and healing, and then Shadow Mitsuo would strike twice. Every time.
Every first hit was a sure strike on knocking someone off balance before following up with another swing. Perhaps it was because of his subdued personality, but the Shadow stood in place while retaliating. Sometimes he'd even wait and painstakingly choose which option to do.
After all, the urgency to hit it hard and true pushed them to make every action count. The Investigation Team consistently grouped up to choose a plan and then followed it through. For the most part, things were going well as the team prepared for their next round.
But was this really working? Shadow Mitsuo was still standing in his "Hero" shell and kept exploiting critical hits, so the turn count was in his favor. Rise had been in the idol business long enough to know what was a con (or at least have her peers in the industry tell her about them) and this whole turn setup felt like one.
Right now, Himiko was summoned and surveying the whole fight. The shell continued to rack up damage, but also steadily recovered as the team was forced to wait between attacks. And of course, the Shadow inside was protected and—
Wait, did a blip of prana go off? But it wasn't Mitsuo's turn yet!
Rise debated telling the others this. She almost called them out, but then thought of the implications of this battle. It was like a gimmicky trap, not unlike that room loop Shadow Teddie set up. The others couldn't do more than attack the shell in front of them because of the idea that doing so would eventually work. They were bound by the turn rules.
Except her, as she was just the clairvoyant support.
She slipped away from her Persona's range and sneaked around back. Right now, everyone was focused on the battle, and Himiko's presence gave them the idea that she was watching them. She could see through Himiko's shared vision, but she wasn't as hardy as the others. One sword strike or bomb could do her in.
Finally, as she neared the back of the giant Shadow, she saw it. A round opening of flickering pixels near the base of the feet, with Shadow Mitsuo's true form. It was constantly expelling a red smog that was a telltale sign of Shadows using prana, but it didn't seem to require concentration.
Then she saw the shell ripple in conjunction with Tomoe's glaive strike. It was only for an instant, but the shell rotated so the damage would overlap to where the opening was, while seemingly coming out unscathed. It was constantly healing and parrying while the team attacked it, seemingly waiting before retaliating.
He had a perfect defense ruse while free to attack in safety, and it was only because the bastard was cheating!
She picked up a long blocky femur from the floor (hesitating only slightly from how gross this was gonna be), hefted it over her shoulder, and leaped forward.
Crack! The pixelated thigh bone struck through the opening of the Hero, and had struck a sickening strike at the Shadow's head. Its cry of pain caused the whole shell to stutter and glitch, not unlike their Personas from a grueling critical hit. And she definitely impacted a sweet spot.
The Shadow noticed her and glowered at her, trying to pry the bone away from him. "You… cheater!"
"You would know, Mr. 'Talking is free action'!" she quipped, pushing harder on her weapon. She wasn't strong, but neither was the Shadow's true form, so she just needed to hold him steady until the others noticed.
…or in a grimmer alternative, until the Hero shell, partially erased, started to pick a battle action to use against her.
This time the option hovered on SPELL, and selected GIGADYNE. Suddenly the arena's monochromic sky was covered by blocky clouds and thick white lightning moved jaggedly down towards her.
If this is anything like Dragon Quest, she thought, this is probably gonna hurt.
Rise closed her eyes and waited for the inevitable, either too scared or stubborn to let go and run. A crash of thunder echoed like in old retro games, a sound effect to a loud raspberry up close to a microphone and blaring out a loud speaker. But there was no pain or numbness.
Did it miss?
Slowly, she opened her eyes and was surprised to see Izanagi hovering over her. He held his weapon aloft like a wizard's staff and channeled the Gigadyne through the blade like a lightning rod. The lightning still frayed his body in rippling sparks, but he successfully buffered the worst of the attack and kept her out of harm's way.
"Senpai!" Rise cried, equal parts amazed, glad, and dismayed by his aid. Shirou's Persona looked over his shoulder to gaze down on her, and she could feel his scrutinizing gaze through those eyes. A moment later, Shirou's hand clasped over her shoulder as he forcibly pried her away to safety.
"We'll talk about your little stunt later," he admonished simply. It was meant to be a lecture, but she swore she heard a ghost of a smile from his lips. Not unlike their little one-on-one sparring sessions leading up to this.
"Right," she nodded and smiled. She figured it was worth getting an earful from the team leader.
Meanwhile, Shadow Mitsuo was getting meticulously ganged up on and beaten down by the rest of the team, now having no restrictions from turn cooldowns. The Shadow cried helplessly, cradling his head in a feeble position with as much psychic force it could muster to protect himself. But the righteous fury of the team knew no bounds, and they dared not to let him get a second wind. The cries were drowned out by either the whipping gales, the blazing fire, or the screams of the users with each blow.
They were pragmatic, ruthless, and prepared. After many close calls with their own Shadows, they refused to give Mitsuo's another chance, especially when it altered the stakes against them to begin with.
And so… the fight was over. Mitsuo's Shadow, unable to handle the stress and pain, simply caved and regressed to human form.
The Team was on guard, staring at the Shadow with trepidation. Adrenaline left their bodies as the reality of their victory sunk in, even though they couldn't believe the fight would be so quickly one-sided.
"Serves ya right!" Kanji yelled as he flexed his free arm.
Exhaling a sigh of relief, Shirou (with a supporting shoulder by Rise) limped over to where the real Mitsuo laid. The danger was over, but there was the matter of what to do with him now as the others gathered around him.
"Let's get him out of here," he said.
"Whoa, hold on," Yosuke said. "Why should we help this guy? He admitted to killing Saki-senpai and the others!"
"He's only guilty for killing Morooka-sensei. Anything else was just bluster."
"Just because you asked his Shadow? For all we know, he was just lying to get a rise out of him."
"Yeah, but his Shadow seemed kind of regretful, didn't it?" Yukiko offered. "That at least felt genuine."
"So, we should just let him accept his other self?" Kanji asked, glancing between the two Mitsuo's with a skeptical frown. "Cuz somehow I don't think it'll go like the rest of us."
"His Shadow is docile now and won't agitate the others," Teddie explained. "But it's still up to the person to actually make peace with it to create the Persona."
"Then we can just leave it," Shirou reasoned, to which the bear nodded. "We came here to stop one of the siblings, and we did just that."
"Not that we want this sicko in our ranks anyway," Rise vehemently added. It was a unanimous decision no one needed to say, given how his delusion from what they saw in the castle told them how demeaning of a person he was.
"Can't we just… I don't know. Leave him?"
Yukiko gasped. "Chie!"
"Just a thought!" Honestly, Chie felt dirty even suggesting the idea, but she detested the boy ever since he tried to make a move on Yukiko. He looked slimy, he acted weird, and all his Shadow did was feel sorry for himself. She felt tempted to just let the very world that killed others do the same to him as others, if only for some sense of justice.
Shirou shook his head, resolute. "It's not our place to play judge, jury or executioner. That's for the police to decide."
"Oh," Chie said, relieved. "You were planning on turning him over, huh?"
"That was the intention, yes."
Yosuke and Kanji exchanged glances before nodding. As one, they knelt down and draped Mitsuo over each of their shoulders to carry. "If that's your plan, senpai, then I'm behind it all the way," Kanji assured.
"Yeah, same," Yosuke said. "I mean, bad blood aside, I wouldn't want to mess with anyone close to—"
"Oh, this won't do Mitsy. Won't do at all."
The gang flinched and turned around. Standing before them, further ahead from the downed Shadow, was a pale-skinned, auburn-haired girl in what appeared to be clergy robes. A red outer chasuble, a black inner alb cut by her knees, and an amice with an inverted cross symbol. Aside from her twisted choice of clothing, what struck the attention of everyone was her blood-red eyes.
"GAAAAH!" Teddie screamed. "It's her again!"
"Satsuki Kubo," Shirou whispered. "No… Satsuki Yumizuka."
The prana signature was overwhelming, causing Shirou's senses to scream as if hearing a deafening wail. It was different from the other powerful Shadows up to this point in that they didn't trigger such a flight or fight response until after they transformed, and nowhere close to this level.
This thing wasn't Satsuki's Shadow. It was something far worse.
"Sacchin?" Yosuke asked. He couldn't help but plead for some hope. "Is that really you?"
She ignored him at first, walking towards them with each deliberate step accompanied by the clicking of heels. Shirou and Chie moved in position towards her, guarding Kanji and Yosuke from her advance. The others also huddled close, anticipating the worst. She stopped just in front of them, her expression still blank.
They were floored when she just smiled at them.
"Good to see you guys again. Yosuke-kun, Teddie Bear, Shirou-san, Tatsumi-chan, and all your friends." She greeted them cordially with a nod to each named person, and then ended with a curtsy. She held no hostility towards them, but still they remained wary. Sensing this, her next words were less polite.
"I would like my brother back. Hand him over."
The effect was immediate; Yosuke and Kanji stiffened, eased their grip on Mitsuo, and even moved his arms out from over their shoulders. Everyone else either froze or moved aside so Satsuki could march through. Shirou barely was aware of his surroundings, but couldn't move, much less breathe, as the smug vampire carried Mitsuo away in her arms.
Like a switch, the pressure was suddenly gone and then everyone collapsed to the ground in exhaustion. "Wh-what the hell was that?!" Kanji yelled.
"Mystic Eyes of Enchantment," Shirou said dimly. "That's a vampire's hypnotism at work."
Yukiko strained to look up at the retreating Sacchin. "That was a vampire's hypnosis?"
She stopped short of the Shadow on the ground before letting Mitsuo down next to it. He finally stirred and saw her smiling face. "S-Sis?"
"I'm here, Mitsy, and everything is gonna be fine."
Mitsuo smiled, feeling the ease of his burden lighten and his mind clearing. His sister was here for him. His sister. No one else.
"All you have to do is talk to your Shadow here one last time. Then everything will be clear." She pointed to the lookalike, who was now staring between him and her, frowning.
"What is she doing now?" Teddie wondered.
"His words might have hurt you before, but you can overcome them, and be stronger for that. As long as you have me, things will work out, right?" Why was she saying things like that?
"Wait, does she know about how Personas work?!" Chie asked worriedly. But she couldn't have, unless she saw the fight with Shadow Teddie.
"Shit, we have to stop them!" Shirou said. He and the others hurried to stand and run-
Until Sacchin snapped her glaring gaze at them. "You stay out of this."
Again, the power of her command stopped them in place. Shadow Mitsuo's turn enforcement from the fight before simply couldn't compare. Was her hypnotism really so strong before? Or was the world around them empowering her somehow?
Satisfied, she then turned and smiled encouragingly to her "brother". "Go on, Mitsy."
Mitsuo, after staring at her mystified for a moment, chuckled; it was a raspy, painful sound, but it felt like sweet victory. He pushed himself up to stand over the fake, and grinned. "It's just like I told you, isn't it?"
The Shadow shook his head. "Don't do this," he pleaded. To Shirou's ears, it sounded more concerned for the real Mitsuo than himself right now. "You know this isn't right."
"Shut up!" Mitsuo yelled. "I… I hate you! You're just a waste of space, and you tried to take my sister away from me! I don't need a worthless nobody like you when I have her to prop me up! I'm the killer! I'm the one the police are after! I did all that without you!"
Again, the room was filled with a tense silence following his bluster. Even Sacchin was taken aback, as she never expected this side of him before.
Shadow Mitsuo, who was already weak and close to fading, suddenly flared up in darkness and popped, leaving not a trace left. Sacchin gasped and stared at where he once stood, disbelieving.
"Where did it go?" Rise asked, alarmed.
Yukiko gulped. "Did it just… die?"
Mitsuo giggled, a sudden euphoric feeling of adrenaline filling him. "He's gone! He's gone, he's finally gone! Take that you son of a… bitch…" Midway in his gloating, he collapsed down to one knee.
"H-Hey!" Kanji called out. He would have rushed over and helped the guy up, bastard or not, if it weren't for Sacchin's command still rooting him in place.
Speaking of Sacchin, Shirou was worried what her reaction might be. Her body language was rigid, and for a moment he swore he could see her fist clench. He couldn't tell what she was thinking right now, but that might be the norm for vampires. They lack the senses that helped define humanity.
Then she spoke. "You blew it, Mitsy."
There was no warmth in her words. She didn't even look at him, staring still at the spot his Shadow once occupied. Mitsuo, delirious enough to think he misheard her speak so coldly, turned to her in confusion. "Huh?"
"You could have done it. You could have gained the power to make yourself a hero like you always wanted. But instead, you were a coward. You failed to accept your Shadow, doubling down on repressing it until it was gone."
"W-What are… you saying, sis?"
"I told you, didn't I? I told you to accept it and try to work things though, but you messed things up. You messed up in a way I didn't think was possible, actually. You've effectively committed suicide through ego death. I'm both amazed and dumbfounded that you could do that." Sacchin frowned and scratched the side of her head. "But I guess I laid it on too thick with the suggestions. Didn't think you'd get so attached to me that you'd be jealous of your own psyche."
"Ego… suggestions? Sis, I-I don't understand."
"And you wouldn't understand even if I told you. You never were a bright kid to begin with." She shrugged casually, even though Mitsuo stared at her in shocked betrayal for being insulted. It went away as she reached over and hugged him. "Ah well, I guess I'll make do with your blood. Goodbye, Mitsy."
Before Mitsuo could even think, he felt his neck punctured from sharp incisors digging in, and felt his blood run dry.
He was already struggling to think since the Shadow went away, but now it was becoming harder with each passing second until… he ceased to be.
From the sidelines, the Investigation Team stared at horror upon seeing firsthand a vampire's daily meal. Mitsuo Kubo was hardly a pleasant person wanting to hurt others, but he was ultimately a lonely boy who was roped into a crime. Shirou felt in some way that he could have ended up like him had he not met his friends in Inaba, or even had the support of Kiritsugu, Taiga, and the others in Fuyuki.
So, it was so frustrating and nauseating to see his body drained of color and into her mouth as if he were a kid's juice pouch. Even though the pressure from her command geis had faded, they were still rooted down from another pressure altogether: fear.
After a long agonizing minute that felt like an eternity, she dropped the corpse. She licked her lips and wiped her mouth off with the back of her hand, and even let out a small belch from her feeding. She turned to the team staring at her with equal looks of contempt and dismay.
Sacchin blinked. "What? Is there still blood on my face?"
"How could you…?" Yukiko choked with a sob.
"How dare you!" Kanji yelled. "He was your brother and accomplice! And all you have to say for yourself is 'is there blood on my face'?!"
"I just decided to cut my losses," she explained. "He was no use to me without a Persona, and he would just rot in a jail cell to die with a mental shutdown. No one will miss him."
"'No one would-?!' Yosuke echoed in audacity. "He was your brother, Sacchin! And he still has parents!"
Sacchin tilted her head to the side. "I thought you guys would have figured this out by now, given how Shirou-san here called me by my real surname. I ate and disposed of his parents weeks ago. Mitsy just bought the excuse that they were out on a honeymoon and that I was his sister visiting from college."
Again looks of indignant rage filled the team, leaving the vampire somewhat miffed. "What? A girl's gotta drink to survive, you know. If anything, you guys should be relieved that he's with his family in the afterlife."
"How many, Yumizuka?" Shirou growled with a hardened glare. "How many people have you killed?"
"How many slices of bread have you eaten in your lifetime?" she asked. The team flinched, aghast and furious at such an analogy, but Yosuke was especially livid. Sacchin grinned. "Come on, I know you got the reference!"
"That hardly applies here!" he snapped. Yosuke then sobbed, fighting back tears. She was so jovial and friendly like before, but without an ounce of empathy due to being a monster. Was this really his girlfriend he had dated for the last month?
She turned around and walked off. Chie called out, "Wait a minute! Where the hell are you going?"
"To the end of the Palace, of course," she said. "It'd be no fun to beat you up here and now, so I'm giving you a chance to lick your wounds. And grieve, apparently, since you're hung up on that."
"What do you think this is, a game?" Rise yelled.
"Uh, yeah? This whole Palace is themed around a JRPG and a Metroidvania. Did you guys not climb the last eight stratums?"
She waited a moment longer, waiting for anyone else to question her or dare fight her now. When no one spoke or moved, she marched away again. Her clicking heels were the only thing remaining as she left the stage, before those faded too.
The tension was gone, and everyone collapsed into near mental hysterics. Rise and Yukiko puked. Yosuke hid his face in his hands as he cried. Chie fell down to her hands and knees, pounding the floor while yelling "dammit" over and over again. Kanji let all his rage out in a punch towards a part of the wall. Teddie hugged and petted Tama for some need of comfort that the fox allowed.
Only Shirou kept a vigilant sound of mind from that encounter, but he didn't blame his teammates for their reactions. Mitsuo wasn't a good person. Probably not a pleasant person at all. But they rescued him. Had rescued him.
Only for his life to be literally plucked out of their hands.
Some hero he turned out to be.
"Amagi," he said softly. "I know it's hard, but if you could help me…"
She followed his gaze to Mitsuo's corpse, recognition dawning. "O-Okay…"
After a cremation ceremony from Konohana Sakuya, the team left for home without a word.