Akiko Narumi stared up at the building in front of her. This was a billiards hall—was this really where she was supposed to be?
"Narumi Detective Agency," she read aloud off the sign on the side door. This was definitely it, even if it didn't look like it. She shoved the little map she'd drawn back into her pocket and took a deep breath. Time to get this over with.
The door opened. Akiko squeaked in surprise and ducked behind the corner, clutching her messenger bag tightly. When she took a peek around it and saw the man who'd come out, her heart just about stopped.
That was him, no question about it.
He carried a briefcase, and he was wearing a super-cool white suit and fedora, but his face was one she would never forget. This was, without a doubt, her father. Sokichi Narumi.
For a detective, he sure wasn't paying attention, she thought. He didn't even notice she was there as he tossed a leg over his weird-looking motorcycle and started the machine up. Of course he didn't see her, it was nighttime. And maybe he had somewhere important to be, so he wasn't paying attention.
As Sokichi revved his motorcycle, Akiko could see headlights shining down the street. A car was turning the corner. And not just any car... a taxi.
She grinned. Idea!
Sokichi's motorcycle took off into the night. Akiko jumped out in front of the taxi, waving her arms. "Taxi, taxi!" she cried. "Follow that bike!"
The taxi pulled up at a wharf in Fuuto's isolated warehouse district. Beside a pier was the back half of Sokichi Narumi's motorcycle.
Just the back half.
Akiko circled around it in confusion. Okay, so her dad had... cut his bike in half... and then gone where? This was a pier, so... out on the water? She glanced out, scanning the river, but it was dark. Even if he was out there, would she see him?
The first thing she did see was the island in the distance and the huge building built upon it. Even at this time of night, there were lights on. But they weren't strong enough to illuminate the water; she had to rely on moonlight for that.
There. What was that? A figure receding into the distance on... some kind of jetski? Did he take his bike onto a jetski? Why would he only take the front half?
Well, whatever. Akiko wasn't about to lose him. She looked around hurriedly and found a small motorboat tied to the pier, the sort one operated by pulling a cord. "Thank goodness," she breathed. She didn't know if she had it in her to hotwire a boat—whether it be because she couldn't do it morally, or because she didn't have the time to waste figuring out how hotwiring even worked.
"Sorry about this," she whispered to the boat as she started it up. She'd bring it back when she was done, though, so no harm done. Right?
She climbed out of the boat and started across the rocky shoreline, doing her best to remain just out of Sokichi's sight. When she came to where he'd left his ride she saw that it wasn't just a jetski; he'd somehow hooked up the front of his bike to it. Of all the ridiculous things— What the heck was this thing?
She didn't have the time to examine it in detail, though. She was losing him.
It was clear that his target was that building. There was nothing else on this isolated rock worth anyone's time. Not that she had any idea what was in there. Maybe some kind of lost object he was hunting down for a client. Or a cheating husband who happened to work here.
Sokichi circled around the building to a rear entrance. Akiko didn't follow him around the corner until he'd gotten the door open somehow—she couldn't get a good look from this vantage point, but whatever he was using made a weird noise and was way bulkier than your standard lockpick. Just what kind of weird business did her dad get up to these days?
Akiko counted to ten, then followed through the door. But once she was inside her heart sank. She couldn't see her father anywhere. Just a long, dimly-lit, branching maintenance corridor.
As she passed a branch, someone grabbed her and pulled her around the corner.
"Eek!" She struggled to pull her arm away. "What the—" When she saw the face of her captor, though, she went slack. It was him.
He looked half confused, half angry. "Why are you following me? Are you with the organization?"
"What organization?" She tried again to yank her arm away. When he tightened his grip, she said, "Jeez, Dad, you're hurting me!"
Instantly Sokichi released her and stepped back. His gaze turned downward to his hand, then to the sleeve-covered arm he'd been grasping. He looked spooked, like a man who'd just opened his eyes to find himself standing at the edge of a cliff. "Akiko?"
She didn't know what to make of that look on his face. Akiko sunk back slightly and nodded. "Dad, what's going on? It's been ten years and you haven't called once and now you have this weird bike and you're skulking around in weird buildings. I didn't hear about any of this!"
Sokichi pressed his finger against his lips. "Shh!" His voice was low. "It can't be helped right now... Akiko, stay close to me, but don't make a sound. And whatever you do, don't touch me."
Akiko blinked, confused. "What the..."
"I'll..." He sighed. "I'll explain later. Right now, I'm in the middle of a very important case."
"What kind of case?"
"I'm here to rescue a girl who's being held captive and used as a tool." A horrified look crossed Akiko's face, and Sokichi hurried to add, "She's called the Child of Fate, and... well, I guess you'll see for yourself."
What kind of name was "the Child of Fate"?
Akiko was starting to get the impression she was in way over her head. So she did as her father told her. She followed behind him at a safe distance, close enough that she wouldn't get lost but just far enough away that she wouldn't brush up against him accidentally. (Maybe he was worried about his suit? It did look expensive.)
Sokichi led her down so many twisting corridors that she started to get dizzy. She stumbled and caught herself on a support pillar.
When she reoriented her gaze, she saw her.
She was a girl about Akiko's age, wearing a long white gown. She had long black hair that was messy and tangled, and she would have been pretty if it weren't for the bags under her eyes. She didn't seem to notice either of the Narumis; she passed by quickly, walking along a perpendicular corridor.
Sokichi and Akiko met each other's gaze. They both nodded emphatically.
They picked up their pace, turning the corner to follow the girl. Sokichi stepped in front of her to block her way, while Akiko stayed behind her.
The girl stopped. She looked at each of the Narumis in turn. "Who are you?" she demanded snottily. "You don't work here."
Sokichi pushed up the brim of his fedora. "I was sent by a client who wants you out of here. Let's go."
"Why would I want to go anywhere with you?"
"You're being used, aren't you?" Akiko spoke up.
The girl looked over her shoulder at Akiko. "Eh?"
"I mean, that's what Dad said. So why do you want to stay here?"
Sokichi looked like he wanted to say something, but he remained silent to let the girl answer.
"I was told to," she said.
"Akiko," Sokichi said warningly.
Akiko shut her mouth.
The girl scowled. "I'm going back to work." But when she tried to walk past Sokichi, he grabbed her arm. Her eyes widened in disbelief. She struggled to pull away and called out, "Guards!"
A number of men in tailored suits flooded the hallway from both directions. In shock, Sokichi released the girl. She took off.
Akiko let out a worried whine. She drew closer to her father. "Dad? Um, what should we..."
Sokichi was quiet for a moment. Finally he spoke, handing her the briefcase he was carrying. "Go after the girl."
"And leave you here?!"
He nodded. "I can handle this. Go, Akiko."
She hesitated only for a second. Her dad had been doing this job for a long time. He had to know what he was doing, right? So Akiko nodded firmly and ran off after the girl in white.
The hallways were narrow and dim and twisty. Akiko had no idea where she was.
But the exposed piping of the maintenance area her father had led her into gave way to a hallway that looked more like that of an office building. The lighting was way off, though. Everything was tinted with an unnatural green hue.
Through a doorway at the end of the hall, Akiko could see her. The girl in white was leaning over a glass display case, examining its contents.
Akiko set her jaw and clenched her fists. She still didn't know what was going on here, but she knew her dad needed her help.
She stormed into the room. "Hey, you! 'Child of Fate' or whatever your name is!"
The girl looked up in shock. "The guards should have stopped you."
"Yeah, well, my dad fights bad guys for a living." Or something like that. That was what detectives did, right? He'd always made it sound like that back when she was seven or eight. "Why don't you want us to help you?"
The girl rolled her eyes. "I don't need any help. Now go away, I'm trying to work."
"What're you working on?" Akiko looked at the display case the girl was standing at. It was full of tiny, colorful stick-shaped objects with weird symbols on them. Curious, she set the briefcase down and tugged on the glass top. "It's stuck!"
"Don't do that!" the girl exclaimed. She grabbed Akiko by the wrists and shoved her away from the case. "I worked hard on these Memories. You'll mess them up."
The girl clicked her tongue against her teeth. "You don't even know that much? Worthless..."
Akiko's cheeks puffed up.
Seemingly losing interest in Akiko, the girl's eyes wandered. When they landed on the briefcase on the floor, she lit up. She crouched down and opened it up, heedless of Akiko's protests when she realized what was happening.
Inside was a strange, bulky plastic gadget of some kind with two slots on the top that looked just the right size to hold the "Memories" in that display case. Conveniently, the briefcase also held six of those Memories, too, but their design was different. They were translucent and had a less sinister vibe to them.
"What... are these?" Akiko asked in confusion.
The girl dropped the briefcase and scooted backward in disgust. "Who—who made those things?! That driver is—"
Akiko tilted her head. She picked up the bulky object and one of the Memories—blue with a white letter D on the label. The letter was broken up into several segments, apparently meant to represent a diamond's faces. Or so she guessed by the English word "DIAMOND" repeated over and over in the background. "I don't know. My dad told me to hold it. I guess I wasn't supposed to open it..." Oops. She set the Memory back down in its spot and closed the briefcase.
When she stood up and looked back down at the Child of Fate, the latter was curled in on herself. She looked downright disturbed.
"Are... you okay?" Akiko ventured. She leaned down and held her hand out toward the girl.
The girl slapped Akiko's hand away. She scrambled to her feet, hands clutching the fabric of her dress so tightly her knuckles were white. "Don't you touch me! I don't know who you think you are, but you can't just—Maybe I'm their tool, but I'm not going to be yours!"
"What are you talking about?!"
The sound of gunshots firing echoed down the hall. Footsteps approached. Akiko gasped and clutched the briefcase close to her chest, but the Child of Fate must have taken her motion as something suspicious. She grabbed the briefcase.
"I'm not going to let you become one with me!" She darted through the room to a tall, narrow cylinder in one corner—it looked like some scifi teleporter machine. Sure enough, when she stepped through she instantly vanished into thin air.
In the next instant, a number of combatants burst into the room. Several of the men wore black suits and could very easily have been the guards who'd ambushed Akiko and Sokichi, except for the weird-looking masks on their faces. One of them, though, was at odds with the others, and he looked very different. He was clad all in black with a helmet over his head that looked like a human skull. Around his waist was a belt with a buckle that looked like the gadget in the briefcase, but with only one Memory slot.
The skull man locked eyes with Akiko. He faltered and took a blow.
"Akiko, hide!" the man ordered her. That voice... it couldn't be.
Akiko's first instinct was to rush toward the teleporter booth or whatever it was the Child of Fate had disappeared into. But it didn't activate when she stepped inside. She slapped her hands against the walls and looked around for a control panel, trying very hard not to mind the sounds of gunshots and explosions in the background. Finally she settled for ducking and covering her head with her arms until it was all over.
Finally, the sounds of battle died down. When Akiko dared to peek, the skull man was standing alone in the middle of the room. The men in the masks were nowhere to be seen.
The skull armor broke away and there stood Sokichi Narumi, clad in white. He stumbled and fell against a computer console.
Before Akiko could take even two steps toward him, Sokichi held up his hand and sternly ordered, "Don't."
"Eh?" Akiko froze in place, an expression on her face like that of a wounded puppy.
Sokichi forced himself back to his feet. He looked Akiko over to make sure she was unharmed, but then he frowned. "Where's the briefcase?"
"That weird girl took it. She went through there—" Akiko pointed. "—and then VWOOM, she disappeared!"
Sokichi glanced at the teleporter. He sighed. "We have to go find her. Come on."
"Wait. Stop," Akiko insisted. "What's going on here?! Who is that girl? What were those things in that briefcase? What is this place, and what—what's that thing you turned into?!"
A pained look was evident on Sokichi's face. He turned and limped toward the door. "I'll explain along the way."
As they climbed flight after flight of stairs, he told her about the Museum syndicate and the Gaia Memories they distributed to the people of Fuuto. He told her that a friend had provided him with the Skull Memory, allowing him to fight back. He told her that the Child of Fate being held captive here was an amnesiac girl being used for a strange ability she had—she was the one responsible for the Gaia Memories.
"Who sent you to rescue her?" Akiko asked.
"The same friend who helped me become Skull."
Akiko's legs were practically screaming by the time they reached the top floor of the building. When they got there, she certainly wasn't expecting to see the Child of Fate suspended in a glowing crystal like something out of a weird fantasy movie.
Sokichi limped toward the crystal, but Akiko ran ahead of him. She looked up at it in awe. The girl inside was completely still, her eyes shut like she was in suspended animation.
But it was too late. Before her father could finish his warning to her, she reached out and touched her hand to the crystal.
There was a crack.
Akiko's vision went white.
When her vision reoriented itself, she was standing in the middle of a row of bookshelves that extended what seemed like forever in every direction, including downward. She wasn't standing on anything; everything besides the shelves was pure white.
Instinctively, she grabbed onto a shelf and clung for dear life. But she didn't fall. This wasn't some silly cartoon.
"...what the heck?" she muttered to herself. She let go of the shelf and looked around. "I didn't hear about this..."
She heard a gasp. She whirled around just in time to see the Child of Fate duck behind a bookshelf.
"Come back here!" Akiko ran after her.
The girl threw a book at Akiko. "Stay away from me!"
"I'm not going to do anything to you! I don't even know what this place is!"
"Tch." Akiko turned and saw the girl sitting on top of a bookshelf behind her. "You managed to get in here and you don't even know where you are? Ridiculous..."
"No, I don't! Is this where you make those Gaia Memories?"
The girl quirked an eyebrow upward. "You really don't know anything."
Akiko folded her arms across her chest and pouted.
The girl sighed. "No, I don't make them in here. How would I get them out to the real world? Nothing in here really exists." She hopped off of the shelf and landed on her feet in front of Akiko. Plucking a book off the nearest shelf, she added, "This is the Gaia Library. It's a collection of all of the Earth's memories."
"Memories..." Akiko repeated.
"I use the information I find in here to make Gaia Memories out there."
"But those things hurt people!" Or so Akiko's father had told her.
The girl frowned in confusion. "What do you mean?"
"They turn people into monsters, and sometimes people lose their minds. Those things are making the city cry!" Sure, Akiko didn't know the first thing about Fuuto, but that was what Sokichi had said. It was good enough for her to go on.
The girl scoffed. "What does that have to do with me? I'm just doing what I'm told to do."
"Why? Don't you have anything better to do?"
The girl's haughty look faltered and Akiko remembered the rest of what Sokichi had told her.
"...You don't have any memories of your own, do you?"
The Child of Fate glared furiously at Akiko. She shoved the book in her hands back onto the shelf and turned away in a huff.
The shelves started to shift and rearrange themselves. Some zipped out of view. A row interspersed itself between Akiko and the girl.
"Hey—" Akiko tried to squeeze between two shelves. They slammed together to block her way. "Just listen to me!"
Akiko started climbing up the shelf that was in her way. "I don't know how!" She poked her head over the top. "Coming down!"
And she launched herself over the top of the shelf. She tried to land in a cool pose in front of the girl, but wound up falling on her butt.
The girl laughed incredulously. "You're so annoying!"
Akiko got to her feet. She grabbed the girl's hands and shook them vehemently. "Me and my dad are here to help you out, okay? Do you really like being held captive here?"
"I... Do I like it?" The girl looked like she'd smelled something disgusting, but she didn't try to pull away. "That doesn't matter."
"Of course it matters! You don't have to stay here if you don't want to."
"But I was told..."
The girl extricated her hands from Akiko's and smoothed her gown. "Okay. Then why do I have to listen to you?"
"Um— well..." Akiko whined. "I didn't hear about this, I didn't know I was gonna have to argue logic with some weird library girl! I was just trying to find my dad! Look, I'm not trying to tell you what to do. It's not like you have to go with us once you're out or anything. But there's someone outside of this place who wanted my dad to find you."
Akiko nodded. "I don't know who, but they're someone who cares about you! Like maybe your family or something!"
"My... family?" The girl stared, but not at Akiko. Her eyes were blank. Slowly she reached one hand up and clutched at her hair. "Family?"
"H-hey, are you..."
"Family? Do I—" The bookshelves around them started to shift again, slowly at first, picking up speed until soon they were just a series of blurs surrounding the two of them. The girl fell to her knees and shrieked.
A flash of light blinded Akiko. She blinked and found herself back in the real world, hand on the crystal containing the Child of Fate. A crack expanded outward in the crystal from where her hand met it.
It broke apart and the girl came spilling out into Akiko's arms. The briefcase fell to the floor.
"Akiko." Sokichi nodded toward the stairway.
Before they could get far, lights began to flood the room. Bullets filled the air.
"Get down!" Sokichi grabbed the Child of Fate's shoulder roughly and pulled her, and by extension Akiko, closer to the floor.
"They found us? I didn't hear about this," Akiko moaned.
The Child of Fate stirred. She looked around with bleary eyes and reached for the briefcase.
With the windows shattered, helicopters flew close and unloaded their cargo: More of those guards in the masks—Masquerade Dopants—leapt into the building and stormed the position where Akiko, her father, and their charge were crouching. Leading them was another Dopant, a feminine figure colored red and black with gorgonesque yellow hair.
Sokichi got to his feet, Lost Driver in hand. "Akiko, get ready to take her and run."
"You're not going anywhere with Wakana!" The female Dopant lifted her hand and flung a ball of—Akiko could only describe it as energy. Akiko grabbed the Child of Fate—Wakana?—and skittered to one side, while Sokichi ducked and rolled in the opposite direction.
"Wakana?" the Child of Fate repeated blankly.
"Go!" Sokichi exclaimed.
Akiko grabbed Wakana's hand and ran for the stairs. She stumbled when she heard a bullet whiz past her ear, but Wakana redoubled her grip on Akiko's hand and tugged her forward.
"I thought you didn't want to go anywhere?"
"I don't want to die, either!"
Amidst the chaos, Akiko could hear her father's footsteps limping along behind hers. But then another bullet fired and she heard him crash to the floor.
Wakana tugged Akiko's hand. "Come on!"
But Akiko was frozen. "Dad? Dad!" She crouched beside him. His white jacket was soaked with red.
"Akiko... You have to get her out of here," Sokichi gasped out. "Sorry. You shouldn't have gotten... involved in this."
"Dad, get up!"
"He's obviously not capable of that," Wakana pointed out with a roll of her eyes.
Sokichi shook his head. "Please. Finish the case for me."
Akiko could no longer see straight. The tears blurring her eyes kept her from being able to make out his face. She was too numb to stop Wakana from dragging her toward the staircase. She turned to look back over her shoulder just in time to see the female Dopant finishing the job with another ball of energy.
They hadn't even made it down the stairs when Akiko tugged her hand away from Wakana's and collapsed. "No way. This isn't—No way—"
"What are you doing?" Wakana demanded.
"Shut up! Just shut up!" Akiko screeched. "You don't know anything! That was my dad! I finally found my dad again and now—"
Wakana stared down at Akiko blankly. The sounds of the enemy approaching grew closer. "You can't just sit here, though. We'll die too!"
"What are we supposed to do, then?!"
Wakana hesitated. "There's... a way. We can fight back. But..."
Akiko looked up. Wakana was biting her lip and looking down at the briefcase in her hands. "That thing... that was like Dad's Skull thing."
"It's called a Driver. It will give you the power to fight, but—"
Akiko sniffled. She wiped her eyes and got to her feet. "Fine. Whatever. What do I have to do?"
"Argh...!" Wakana stomped her foot. "I really don't want to do this!" She flung the briefcase open like she was ripping off a bandage and thrust the Driver toward Akiko's waist. A belt shot out from either side of it and wrapped around her, and with a flash of light, a matching Driver appeared around Wakana's waist.
"Eh?!" Akiko pointed at Wakana's Driver in confusion.
"Just take one of them!" Wakana grabbed a cream-colored Memory with a stylized C on the front and pressed the button on the front. A voice called out, CLAYDOLL!
"Um—" Akiko grabbed the Diamond Memory. "Okay, I'll try this one!" DIAMOND!
Wakana pushed the Claydoll Memory into the righthand slot of her Driver. It disappeared and reappeared in Akiko's Driver. "Push it down."
"Right. O-okay." She did so and followed up by pushing Diamond into the lefthand slot. The design was pretty intuitive. She pushed the two halves of the Driver apart and they opened up into a W shape.
CLAYDOLL! DIAMOND! A jazzy tune emanated from the Driver. Armor like Skull's materialized around Akiko's body—split down the middle, beige with maroon trim on the right and cyan with glittering white trim on the left.
And all of a sudden, Akiko wasn't alone. "What the—what's going on here?" She could feel a profound sense of disgust; of being violated. They weren't her emotions, but she felt them as keenly as though they were. She glanced over her shoulder and saw Wakana's body sprawled unconscious on the stairs.
"Let's get this over with," Wakana insisted.
The floating woman Dopant had reached the top of the stairs. It looked like they didn't have a choice.