Kale simply stared at the apparitions before him, the Jackal and Lizard gazing upon him like he was some vaguely interesting insect that crawled its way from under some giant fridge-freezer. The furred one of the trio started to stalk around the young human, nostrils flaring slightly as it picked up his scent with its probing, elongated muzzle.
"Well now. It seems we have a guest..."
The Lizard somehow glided over the polished stone floor to accompany her more organic twin, traces of feathers on her wings and tail. Reaching out, she stroked Kale's face gently with a scaled hand, smiling to herself.
"... With an intriguing destiny... The air around him reeks of power."
For the briefest moment, Kale considered that perhaps out there with the tar beasts was the safer option, half rising out of his chair before the jackal pushed him back down, not roughly, but with a great deal more strength than Kale had. Gulping slightly, he decided to remain seated. Perhaps they would get bored with him and let him leave.
The jackal returned to his rocky perch, lounging over the stone on his side, head propped up in his hand, a faintly sinister grin on his face.
"I... Am Igor. Welcome." He gestured around the wide, luminous cavern, the lake seeming to glow brighter with his words, fragments of blue gemstones in the walls reflecting the ethereal light within the subterranean womb. Returning to her own, equally stony perch, the Lizard smiled more kindly than her counterpart.
"And I am Miranda. It's nice to meet you."
Kale stammered a quick "Nice to meet you" in return, glancing around the "Velvet Room" as he called it, opening his mouth to speak...
"Worry not. You're fast asleep in your world. We have summoned you, within your dreams..." The jackal, Igor, clasped his hands together and rested his chin upon them, hooked muzzle hanging over his elongated fingers, his eyes peering deep into the young human.
Miranda nodded once, a faint smile on her lips.
"Precisely. Though, of course, this does not make this a mere fantasy."
Still smiling that unnerving, knowing smile, the pair reached out to each other, palms flat, before tilting their hands forward to touch each other with the tips of their fingers. Below the point of contact, a stone slab rose up and a large blue and white tablecloth descended from the dark ceiling to drape over its flat surface. Pulling back, the two rested their hands on the "table" and a deck of cards materialised on the perfectly flat, unbroken surface, no more than twenty-four in total, and yet it seemed to draw Kale's attention to the large, palm-sized rectangular jewels.
Igor reached out, spreading his palm over the table. At once, the cards rose up, shuffled themselves, before laying down on the table one at a time, hovering gently above its surface.
"Do you know much about Fortune Telling?" He chuckled, brushing his snout carefully with his free paw. "Why don't we look into your future?"
Gripping something insubstantial in his fingers, he mimed turning a card over. At once, one of the cards near Kale's chair, the bottom right, turned itself over, revealing a glorious image of a sword pointing down.
"Dear, dear... The reversed Fortune. This is not a happy deck... Great pain and suffering awaits you, both in your past and in what is to come..."
At this, Miranda spoke up, crossing her arms over her chest and frowning slightly at Igor.
"But of course, after great pain, comes greater rewards. By overcoming the trials from your past, your own future will be made brighter..."
Preening a wing absent-mindedly, she crossed her legs and reached out, fingers dancing in that same mime Igor used. On the opposite corner to the Ill-fated fortune card, its counterpart revealed its face, a sorrowful smile gracing her lips.
"The upright Moon... A great mystery awaits you, in the very near future..."
Chuckling to himself, Igor leaned over slightly, staring at the Lizard with amused eyes.
"But the Truth of the matter will, of course, remain hidden for some time. He may never learn its secret..."
"I am confident."
Once again, the two reached out their hands, flipping the last, middle card before Kale. On the opposite surface...
Kale barely glimpsed the light that came out of the card before it burst into a blaze of blue flame, the card turning to meaningless ashes that blew away in the faint breeze... Igor and Miranda stared, blinking rarely, faces locked in serious contemplation. Then, weakly, Miranda raised her voice.
"A great power has been awoken in you, child. At the moment, it is weak. But with nurturing..." She leaned back, a smile once more brightening her face. Extending her hand, a book flew out of thin air, resting gently in her palm. Closing her eyes, she opened the book at a random page, reading the thin, spidery text contained within.
"I... Am the keeper of Power. Behold... Your power, made manifest..."
Flicking her palm towards the blue door behind Kale, the human twisted in the chair, watching as something was pulled through into the cavern. At once, he felt a great weight on his chest, like someone was tugging at his heart, causing him to cough, gripping his bed clothes over the dull ache in his breast. Finally, the figure was pulled completely though the opening, dropping to the floor and gasping. Picking itself up, shaking from the effort, Kale gasped...
As he stared directly into the eyes of his Vulpine self.
The fox-Kale grunted, forcing itself to its feet, using it's sword for support. Panting, it caught sight of the human before it, giving a faint smirk.
"Nice to see you made it in one piece."
His eyes flicked from Kale to the cavern, eyes turning steely as he swallowed hard. Taking a deep breath, he straightened up, glaring at the two watching the re-union with professional interest.
"The power of Persona. A true self that awakens when the mortal shell is in peril. I believe it has already sheltered you from one deadly encounter..."
Kale frowned slightly, glancing out at Mask from the corner of his eyes. Sheltered. Right. The fox had the decency to look mildly embarrassed, rubbing the back of his neck gently. Miranda grinned, her eyes twinkling as she read the invisible messages between the two connected half-souls and lifting up her heavy, leather bound book, flipping back to the page Kale's new partner dwelt.
"Sabre... Master of Blades."
Fox-Kale, that is, Sabre, grunted at Miranda's use of his true name, but said nothing, staring at Kale for some time. Then, almost unnoticeably, he nodded to the human before bending down on one knee.
"Thou art I. And I am Thou. From the sea of Thy soul, I cometh. I am Sabre, Master of Blades. In my greatness, I come to serve you."
Kale stared deeply into Sabre's eyes, noticing that they held more than a passing resemblance to his own, minus the swirling green deep in his pupils. He began to open his mouth, to ask Sabre what this was all about, however Igor interrupted him with a throaty, growl-like chuckle.
"Now... Time marches on in your world. In time, you will return here, and of your own volition. One rule however... You must never speak of this to anyone... Besides other Guests, of course... And you must abide by the rules of your contract..." Miranda stepped forward, pulling something out of the book and handing it to the bemused, stammering Kale.
"You will understand, in time. Where will your new power take you in life? I look forward to walking the road of your destiny, together..."
Glancing down at the object in his hand, Kale's head snapped back up to glance at the table, the cards on it nowhere to be seen. Turning round to ask Igor or Miranda about it, he noticed that they too were gone. Closing his eyes, taking a deep breath to calm himself, he glanced at the card in his hand.
The back was a dark, but strangely luminous blue, with a mask split in half between black and white, like those Yin-Yang symbols he saw here and there, the eyes an opposite colour to their half of the mask. Flipping it over, he felt a faint chuckle in the back of his mind from Sabre, eyes widening as he came across the foxy version of himself on the face of the card, a large broadsword resting on his shoulder, hooded sweater gone, to be replaced by a bronze breastplate. For an instant, he felt like he had seen this image somewhere before... Maybe... in one of his father's History books? Shaking his head, he went to push the card into his pocket, only for it to dissolve into blue light, flowing into him. At once the same tendrils of exhaustion that brought him here snared him again, his eyes growing heavy, his limbs lead-like, and in the back of his mind, a familiar voice...
I am thy Persona... Your True self. When thou hast needs of my services, call upon thy awakened power...
Maxwell pulled up outside the old factory he and many others had worked, grimacing as the night seemed to turn colder, breath steaming slightly in the still air. As he pushed his glasses further up his muzzle, he climbed out the door, walking round to the boot of the car and, with a furtive glance down either side of the car park, opened it slowly, hesitantly, as though some dark, foreboding secret lay within. Glancing around him once more, despite the lateness of the hour, and the severe lack of any possible reason to venture this deep into the decrepit area of the city, he then bent over, pulling up a small section of the carpet like material at the bottom, finding a separate lock. Reaching to his neck, he pulled out one of the various glow sticks he kept around as a sort of call sign to others he'd like to have fun with. Fun was the last thing on his mind however, and he twisted off the top, shaking out a small key. Lifting it up to his face, he stared at its odd, violet like velvet coating for a long time before sighing, eyes closing as he unlocked the hidden compartment of the car. Lifting up the new panel, the light from one of the street lamps shone off something metallic, even as a dull blue light illuminated his face. Grimacing, he tossed his coat over the object casting the glow, pulling out the metal the light reflected off from. Gripping the pistol in his hand, he felt both uneasy and strangely calm as the butt fitted neatly into his palm, the weight reassuring, but also nerve-wracking. He hadn't lifted up his weapon for over fifteen years, and yet some things couldn't be forgotten. Checking the clip, he thumbed on the safety, striding towards the main doorway of the abandoned factory.
His foot brushed against the broken glass as he peered at the window, glancing at the hidden recesses where cameras and other, more deadly, thief deterrents lay, noting that they didn't respond as he approached. Using the same key, he unlocked the door, disabling the security systems anyway, just to be on the safe side. Slipping into the building, feeling his unease rise as the dark interior shrouded the many secrets that this ancient place held close to its chest; Said secrets best left forgotten. Eyes unblinking, he reached out to the wall, fingers fumbling for the light switch, vulpine eyes stinging slightly as they adjusted to the bright, harsh artificial light. The floor was coated in a thick layer of dust, untouched after Seventeen years of being shut inside this tomb.
Apart from the single fresh trail leading from the door to the old freight lift. Its call button bore signs of someone pushing down on it, and recently too, though from the amount of dust, recently could very well have been a year ago. Thumbing off the safety, Maxwell cautiously stepped forward, ears twitching as they picked up the squeak of rats, the creak of old chains, the faint hum of power, the-
Hold on. Power? After this long?
Throwing caution to the wind, Max ran over to the lift, thumping the call button with a clenched fist, scowling as he watched it pull up from the lower levels of the complex. A breeze ruffled his fur as cold, expressionless eyes followed the lift up to his level, only closing them when they opened to reveal the scent of stale, dead air. Swallowing hard, pushing back the memories that haunted this place, he strode into the lift, flipping open the panel as it descended into the depths.
The dim light of the lab glinted off the silver barrel poking out of the lift before the fox himself followed suit, twisting quickly to cover both any threat that may be before, or behind him. Seemingly satisfied that there was no immediate threat, he lifted the gun up so it pointed to the roof, eyes scanning the area quickly. All around him the area lay in shambles; tubing draped from the broken ceiling, electrical wiring poking out the walls and here and there were huge holes in the floor, a death-trap in the dim light. The trail that he followed in the upper levels continued here too, heading deeper into the laboratory. Taking a deep breath to settle his nerves, he shuffled forward, careful not to place too much of his weight on the floor before he could test it. After this long, the thin flooring over the lower, more highly secure level was broken in places except for over the vault, the ten inch thick carbonated steel doing its job even this long after it had been abandoned. Max's heart rose up in his throat as the footprints made their way towards the access shaft for the Vault room below, one hand moving to his mobile phone, already calling up Cyrus's number from memory, finger hovering over the call button. Grunting as he climbed down with only one free arm, not daring to holster his gun for a second, he dropped the final few rungs onto the floor, bringing up his pistol to bear automatically. As his brain made sense of what his eyes were telling him, his veins seemed to flood with ice, his insides twisting and turning like they were struggling to erupt from him like in that old Sci-Fi film... The one with Sigourney Weaver...
There, just a few metres ahead of him, lay the vault.
Back peddling towards the ladder, he rammed his gun back, bringing the mobile to his lips, eyes flicking over every shadow, every crevice, anywhere anything could hide in. Ears flicked as he picked up sounds he dismissed earlier on as mere natural noises. Was that a rat, or was it something else scuttling within the air ducts? Could that be chains from packaging, or could they be the remains of restraints? Did that moan really come from outside, or was it somewhere much closer to hand?
"Come on, damn you... Pick up the damn phone..."
A clatter of pipes from behind made the vulpine snap his gun back up, twirling round sharply as the lights above began to cut off one by one. Snarling to himself, he holstered his gun once more, running headlong for the door as something rushed through the old construction area, knocking aside machinery, ancient pipe works and the occasional dressers dummy as a vast shadowy figure loomed up in the dark. Cursing his curiosity, Max ran headlong for the door, not daring to look behind him, knowing that the creature almost had him in his grasp as the light from his car headlights shone in through the grimy windows. Time seemed to slow: Dust motes twirling in the air like elegant ballerinas, Lights flickering softly, glaciers of light flowing down from the ceiling to the floor in sporadic intervals. Pipes, plaster, grilles and old cranes dropped to the ground all around him as a mighty roar rumbled up from the deep, a faint pressure wrapping around Max's leg just as he grabbed the door, pushing it open...
Time flowed back with a snap as the beast roared at the sudden high intensity light from Max's car, dropping the vulpine who, thanking whichever god granted him mercy for his mistake, scuttled forward, climbing up the car's rear bumper, reaching into his trunk as the beast recovered, smashing through the wall...
Max twisted round, holding out a small blue bauble, its glow growing more powerful as the creature approached. As the light struck the tar-like monster's flesh it reared back, bellowing in pain, liquid limbs scuttling over its face in a bid to protect itself from the cursed light.
Max panted, regaining his breath as he stepped forward, brandishing the light before him, driving the creature back. No one was really sure how the light worked... And he doubted anyone would ever find out. All he knew was that one of them was let loose, and all the others missing. What was odd, was that this one never made to leave. It was almost, and he shuddered at the thought, as if it was waiting for someone to come check up on the facility. But... That was impossible...
Shadows had no minds. They couldn't plan!
Max let out a low sigh as the beast gave Max one final glare before retreating back into the old factory, its form dissolving into the darkness which its kind was born from, the crimson soulless eyes glaring out at him before they too faded into the black. Max's chest heaved as his gun hand began to tremble and the pistol dropped from his fingers to thud into the gravel, his knees following suit. Slowly, he reached for his mobile again, flicking through the speed-dial, staring at the factory doors until the ringing was answered. Without bothering with the pleasantries, he barked out at Cyrus, not giving the mountain feline a chance to interrupt.
"Where the hell have you been? No, never mind that, look; Call a meeting of the old council... No, you can't ask why... Because I'd rather explain it once instead of a hundred times, okay? Just get a containment team down here... No, don't ask questions, just take my word for it, okay? Talk later."
Dropping the mobile, he finally sagged against his car's frame and as he glared through the darkened doorway, his paw reached out, grabbing the gun and cradling it in both hands against his chest. Right now, he really didn't want to be left unarmed until the containment team arrived...
Kale's eyes snapped open as a growling rumble from outside boomed through the hospital wards, swiftly followed by a flash. Relaxing slightly, he closed his eyes once more, letting the second lightning strike's boom wash over him. He always liked thunder, strange as it seemed. Sinking into the sounds of rain tapping his window, the growling of the thunder and the occasional flash of light over his face calmed him, easing his heartbeat back to normal. Once his breathing was under control, he slowly opened his eyes, watching the fan above him slowly spin, circulating the air around him, and carrying with it the stale, pre-eaten scent of hospital food mingling with the sharp, bitter tang of disinfectant in the breeze...
Thou art I...
Kale shot up in bed, groaning suddenly with his hand placed gently on his side. Panting, he glanced across the room, hoping that maybe someone had left a TV, or a radio playing something...
Although, as soon as he pulled his hand back, any hopeful ideas that it was just a dream shattered. The dark blue card, complete with bisected mask lay in his hand peacefully, despite the accusing glare from the young male. Grunting to himself, he flipped the card over, coming face to face with Sabre once more... In fact, he would swear that the image of the tri-tailed grey fox was winking at him before his body was bathed in blue light as the card smashed itself to pieces before his eyes. Shards of blue glass-like material flowed over his open palm before coalescing once more, this time into a vague, crystalline shape. It resembled a harlequin mask, with small indents for the eye holes and no lower jaw to it at all. Unlike most modern masks however, it never had the particular curve to it to cope with the current population's muzzles. In fact, if it were larger, kale thought it could be a perfect fit. Closing his hand over the cryst, the human felt a faint pressure push down some of the hospital bed's mattress on either side of Kale, before a ghostly, translucent image of sabre swam into focus before fading.
When thou hast needs of me, Call upon thy awakened power..
Under the circumstances, he was later proud of himself for only letting out a light "Urk" when his own ghostly twin self loomed in front of him. Right now though, his hands were twitching, clenching over and over again against the delicate crystal, feeling it start to shatter in his grip, until his heartbeat had returned to a sensible level; i.e. that of a dull buzzing in his chest. Flopping back onto the bed, he watched as the gemstone flared once, still unbroken, and spun in mid-air before it too faded from view. Grimacing, he rubbing his face, groaning between his fingers.
"Just... What have I gotten myself into?"
I guess you'll just have to find out...
Kale blinked to the empty room a few times before letting out a heartfelt moan.
"So... It's not bad enough I have to see you in my dreams..."
Silence answered him, although he did feel an overwhelming sense of achievement and self-satisfaction that he knew had never came from him. Flopping onto the bed again, ignoring the mild sting from his side, he closed his eyes. First thing tomorrow, he vowed, to go see his shrink again...
Sabre chuckled to himself before cocking his head to the side, sighing deeply. Kale, his "power", still only recently awoken, couldn't hear it, but he could. And he knew that the pair of them didn't have much time left. Turning his back on the sleeping image of his human host – He just couldn't admit to himself that Kale was another part of him- he strode out of the brighter, more lit up areas of their mind, walking into the darker side of their private area of the Sea of Souls... Come to think of it, wouldn't that make it a coast of Souls? A Bay? An Inlet? Shaking his head, Sabre glowered over his shoulder to the sleeping Kale. He's been stuck in here so long, he was even starting to pick up on some of his thoughts!
Taking a deep breath, Sabre stared into the darkness, feeling it form a shape somewhere, closer than he would like, but still far enough away to not be a considerable threat to his host. Out of the corner of his vision, he could see Ego staring at him with an accusing glare, arms crossed in front of his chest. Waving off the human-shaped figment, Sabre lightly rested his palm on the pommel of his sword.
Max and Cyrus stood impassive as the crowd of armoured Furres pulled out a large, glass-like container, even as the newer recruits flinched and paled. Closing his eyes, max let the dull, muffled roar of the beast within wash over him, through him, before carrying on into the ether. All things considered, he thought he handled the situation pretty well. The Shadow was re-captured, no casualties and, more importantly, no witnesses. The last thing they needed was a mass panic about inky, tar-like Monsters roaming the streets.
Cyrus' eyes followed the container until it was loaded into the transport vehicle, before letting out along, drawn out sigh. Glancing to his long term friend and colleague, he reached into his jacket pocket, pulling out a long, thick tube and wordlessly passed it over.
"I think you deserve it after keeping something like that in check...*
Max's eyes flicked to the cigar in the older, more sophisticated Furre's paw before snorting, shaking his head.
"Has retirement muddied your brain, or are you just trying to reassure me?" The mountain lion smirked to himself before slipping the cigar back into his pocket, clasping his paws behind his back.
"Not working I take it?" His gaze slipped over to the factory facade, tail tip twitching lightly. It must have been difficult for him... Coming here in the first place, then being forced to fight one of those, considering the history he had. A history they all shared.
Quickly, efficiently, the black clad, masked Furres made their way into the structure, guns trained on every corner, every pool of darkness that cold at any time rear up to reveal a horror straight from the dawn of sentient life. Set into their flared rifle barrels sat a large, bulbous torch, blue, ethereal light spilling out. While doing little to drive away the darkness at their feet, every soldier kept a far more watchful eye on their battery level than their ammo count. Bullets would only annoy the beasts. That torch was all that lay between victory and a fate possibly worse than death. Their black fatigues clung snugly to their bodies, padded out or reigned in over certain areas, until each of them was more or less a mirror image of the other. Large, flared out masks hid muzzles, snouts and flatter faces, while their goggles relayed information about the air content, the stability of the ground beneath their feet and the position of their comrades in comparison to themselves. As one swift, well oiled machine, they made their way to the lift shaft, the field leader – distinguished by a single white bar set into his suit over his heart – glanced down, grumbling to himself.
"No telling what could be waiting down there..."
Tapping the side of his gun a few time with a forefinger, he quickly jerked a paw at two of his fastest climbers, before gesturing towards the lift. Nodding once, the pair stepped forward, already stowing their weapons and retrieving their grapple kit. While they set up, the leader motioned for four of his men to stake the area, reminding them to keep their eyes on the shadows...
Max sighed wearily, watching the team's progress through the interior of the factory.
"I told you, this place is deserted..." Cyrus waved his vulpine friend down before leaning over the shoulder of the skunk sitting up front, eyes glancing from one screen to the next. Despite the lateness of the night, he still showed up in one of those damned suits of his, for once showing up the ill-prepared feline hovering behind him. When he got the call, he had to grab the first thing to hand...
The skunk left his screen-scanning for all of two seconds, flicking his eyes over the lion's attire with a smirk, reaching his face with a swift nod, returning to the array of screens with a speed that shattered the air of poise and grace he wrapped around himself, a steely glint to his eyes.
"Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Whatever the party was, we missed it..."
Cyrus stood up, absently smoothing out his clothes before turning to the door, nodding to the guard on duty.
"The area's secured. We'll move in, groups of three, five S.R.A.C.T. between us. We'll clear every lab, every bunke-"
"Wh-wait, it's not secur-"
"The base is secured Max, don't worry..."
Max opened his mouth to give several damn good reasons why the base isn't completely secured yet, but closed it with a dull snap, shaking his head with a shining, haunted look about his eyes. The S.C.R.A.T. teams were good, but they were... well, they were nothing more than children, comparatively speaking. Not one of them had ever seen a Shadow up close and personal, not outside training courses anyway. Once, Max listened into their posturing, their self-congratulating, ego-boosting, boasting and wished that once, just once, they could come face to face with a true Shadow, not those training Automatons the boys back in the lab whipped up. They made them out of jelly for crying out loud! They couldn't know the true horror, the all consuming grip of fear that the real deal exuded like some sort of psychic stench. Nor could they know all the nasty little tricks that they used to trap the unwary...
His eyes tripped up over themselves to the three black bags laid out near the APC, his mind back-tracking. And now... Three young, stupidly brave kids would never learn...
Cyrus stood before the portal into the land of dreams that had swiftly devolved into nightmares, fingers playing with the hemline of his wife's dressing down. Even he could feel the familiar taint of fear in the air, just as he knew Max could. And he also knew that Max wouldn't have dared set foot in there if he caught even the slightest hint of them in the ether. In his brief, verbal report, he said it waited for him... But that was impossible...
He flinched slightly as Max rested his paw on the feline's shoulder, following his gaze into the deep dark. Inhaling almost simultaneously, the pair released as they glanced one last time at the Shadow that was being loaded into the transport, ready to be incarcerated elsewhere. It rocked violently against its plasti-glass prison, pounding the inside with its gloopy fists, mask slipping over its form as it peered at the transparent barrier that held it in place. And finally, when it realised there was no way out for it, it rose its head to the sky, and howled a roar of pure hatred, fury and utter despair...
Max and Cyrus flinched as the roar washed over them, each shivering subconsciously, as they hurried within the factory, its stone walls and complex defence systems now looking much more attractive...
Kale's eyes flickered open, a dull roar on the edge of hearing washing over him like the lapping of waves on the shore, setting certain parts of him tingling. Glancing around him, he reached over for his wooden food tray that was laid down next to his bed, pulling it into bed with him in some instinctive need, returning to his slumber with barely a thought...
Bruce grunted in his sleep, twisting in his sheets as his tail slinked around his leg... Funny... He hadn't done that ever since he was a Pup, scared about the monster in the cupboard...
Well, there you have it for the second chapter. Hopefully, the next will come quicker, and will include the meeting of our current happy group, with the new bat character...