31 October, late afternoon
Gekkoukan High School, 2nd floor
“Halloween just isn’t the same without costumes!”
Mitsuru looked doubtful. “Arisato, I think we should enter Tartarus tonight, not waste our time on Halloween costumes…”
Minako grinned at Mitsuru’s disapproving expression. “Who said anything about not going to Tartarus?” she asked. “We still have to find the missing person Theo told me about yesterday, after all. But we still have hours until then…”
She could see Junpei practically bouncing from enthusiasm.
“She’s right, senpai! Just think about all the candy…” Junpei turned puppy-dog eyes on Mitsuru. It was about as ineffective as usual, and Minako stifled a giggle.
“C’mon, senpai,” she said. “I’ll get us costumes, Junpei can get the candy, and you and Yukari can find some ridiculous horror movies for us to watch until the Dark Hour starts. It’ll be fun!”
Mitsuru sighed. “Alright. But, Iori -“ she paused, and Junpei looked suddenly nervous. “ – don’t forget to get some caramels, please.”
Junpei grinned. “Yes, ma’am!” Mitsuru nodded and turned away, heels clicking on the laminated floor of the school corridor.
“‘I’ll text Yukari about the movies!” Minako called after her. She turned to Junpei. “This is going to be awesome.”
31 October, early evening
Iwatodai dormitory, Lounge area
It had taken Minako longer than she’d anticipated to find the perfect costume for everyone. In the meantime, Junpei had procured a mountain of candy and snacks, and Yukari and Mitsuru had rented three movies—although, as it turned out, Koromaru had been the most help in choosing them. Who knew that he was a fan of monster-themed B-movies?
She settled into a couch to wait for the others to come back down in their costumes, and scratched Koromaru under his chin. “Do you like your bat-wings, Koro-chan?”
Koromaru woofed, and leaned into her hand. “He says that he would have preferred to also be able to fly, but they are an acceptable costume,” Aigis said, entering the room. “But, Minako-chan, I do not understand why you purchased this costume for me? I am already a robot!”
Minako grinned. Aigis wore the kind of robot costume that small children usually made from cardboard boxes and silver paint, with wire ‘antenna’ sticking up from a TV-shaped hat, and shiny-looking buttons and switches on the front. “Believe me, it’s perfect.”
At that moment, Yukari came down the stairs, dressed in a tight, pink outfit and dragging Fuuka behind her. “Minako.” she said, venomously. “What, exactly, are we supposed to be?!”
Minako couldn’t help it – she started to laugh.
Aigis looked up at Yukari and Fuuka with interest. “Yukari-chan, I believe you are dressed as the character Pink Argus from the third generation revival of Phoenix Ranger Featherman R, while Fuuka-chan’s costume appears to be a frosted muffin.”
Minako choked back her giggles. “Not a muffin!” she said, trying not to hiccup. “A cupcake! Because you like to bake!”
Fuuka blushed, while Yukari groaned. “If Ken-kun comes home early tonight and sees me dressed like this, I will make you pay, Minako,” she said threateningly.
31 October, late evening
Iwatodai dormitory, Lounge area
By the time the clock began to chime midnight, the members of S.E.E.S. had managed to consume a small mountain of candy, and had survived all the jump scares that Mitsuru and Yukari’s movies could offer, without too much embarrassment.
(She did, however, wish that she’d had a camera out when Junpei had shrieked and leapt into Mitsuru’s lap. Especially for a close-up of his face when she’d whipped out her sword and threatened to execute him. She was still hoping that Aigis had managed to record it somehow...)
Minako sighed contentedly and popped in another mouthful of popcorn as the credits to the final movie rolled. Opposite her, Mitsuru glanced at the clock, her face turning serious. “Time for us to get to work,” she said, gesturing towards the door. “Who do you want to take tonight, leader?”
Minako looked around. Junpei was still groaning on the couch, and Koromaru had fallen asleep after eating a truly impressive number of treats.
Akihiko was still munching on a protein bar. “I’ll go,” he said. “I want to try out some moves from that last movie. And all that sugar has me pretty energized, anyway.”
Yukari grimaced. “Me too. Time for a workout!”
Minako had no idea which of the ridiculous moves he could possibly be talking about, but she grinned. “Sure. Then let’s make the first team the four of us,” she gestured to Mitsuru as well, “and Aigis, you come as backup in case someone gets tired.”
Junpei gave a tired thumbs up from the couch. “Thanks, leader! Uugghh.” He sank back in to the cushions. “Too much candy...”
31 October, the Dark Hour
Tartarus, entrance area
“I still don’t understand why we couldn’t change out of our costumes before coming here,” Yukari complained, tugging at her skin-tight pink jumpsuit.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Mitsuru replied, surprising Minako. “I find it quite refreshing to enter Tartarus in disguise. Perhaps we might convince the shadows that we are indeed creatures of the night, and take them unawares more easily!” She raised an eyebrow at Yukari and bared her vampire’s fangs playfully.
Yukari brightened. “I mean, I don’t think a Featherman character counts as a creature of the night,” she said doubtfully. “But I guess if it means they think I can kick their asses, I’ll take it.”
“That’s the spirit!” Minako said, straightening her eye-patch.
Akihiko glanced at her. “I don’t know about kicking anyone’s asses. You and I both just look a little...”
“Disgusting?” Yukari filled in, with a ‘helpful’ grin. “Where’d you get the idea for a pirate zombie, anyway? Or a zombie cop?” she added, raising her eyebrows at Akihiko’s costume.
Minako rolled her eyes. “You just don’t appreciate my genius costume ideas.” She looked back at Akihiko and folded her arms. “We both look awesome, just admit it!”
“Sure,” Yukari said. “...awesomely disgusting.”
31 October, the Dark Hour
Tartarus, floor 157
Minako was starting to think that the costumes had maybe, just maybe, not been the best idea. It had all been going so well until they finished the previous floor. They had just got lucky, got a bunch of gear from chests, and avoided the Reaper, when a strange cloud had surrounded them as they entered the next floor. Instead of the usual maze of corridors and rooms, they had found themselves in a large space, a little like the floors which held the stronger enemies that Akihiko called the ‘bosses’. That was when it had got weird. For one thing, Fuuka hadn’t had any clue that there would be a boss here - and for another, the boss looked like...
“... a pirate zombie!” Yukari yelled, ducking to avoid the splurge of disgusting smelling yellow slime that the shadow had, well, vomited in her direction. “Why are we fighting your costume??”
Minako leapt forward, aiming for the shadow’s blind side. “I don’t know!! But it’s pretty strong...” Her naginata bounced harmlessly off the shadow’s seemingly indestructible skull, and she narrowly missed being sliced in two by its cutlass. “Oof!” She grunted as she landed in a crouch.
“Fighting first, questions later!” Mitsuru said through gritted teeth, hissing as dia healed a thin cut across her thigh.
“What’s the plan, leader?” Akihiko took a swing at the hulking shadow, aiming for its eyepatch.
Minako took a deep breath, and reached for her evoker. There was only one spell type they hadn’t yet tried. “Archangel!” she called. “Hama.”
As the spell flew towards it, the shadow roared, bringing its heavy cutlass (which looked weirdly almost like Minako’s own weapon, just a little wider and shorter) down towards Akihiko. Yukari let out a frightened scream as the blade caught his shoulder, but at that moment, the spell hit, and the shadow disintegrated with a strangled gurgle.
“Akihiko!” Minako rushed towards him, seeing the blood begin to seep from the wound.
“I’m alright,” he insisted, face paling a little as he put pressure on the wound.
“Diarama!” Mitsuru’s voice sounded a pitch higher than usual, the spell pronounced with a little less than her usual cool confidence - but the wound closed up and Akihiko relaxed his hand.
“Okay, that one actually did hurt,” he admitted, flexing his shoulder.
“Guys, what was that?” Yukari asked.
“That shadow didn’t show up for me at all!” Fuuka chimed in. “I don’t know if something’s wrong with Juno or if something really weird is going on, but I can’t tell if anything else like that’s coming or not!”
Minako paled. “That’s not good.”
Mitsuru looked serious. “Indeed. I think it would be best for us to make it to the elevator as quickly as possible.”
“I’m not going to argue with that,” Yukari said, eyes darting towards the dusty remains of the shadow. “I definitely wasn’t counting on fighting creepy nearly-invincible versions of Minako-chan tonight!”
“Hey!” Minako protested. “It just looked a bit like my costume, that’s all!” Yukari raised an eyebrow at her, pointedly. “Okay... a lot like my costume.” She looked around at the others. “We should focus on getting out of here. Fuuka, can you sense anything on the next floor?”
“Nothing,” Fuuka said, nervously. “Aigis and I are trying to work out if there’s anything we can do from here... but be careful, everyone, please!”
Mitsuru nodded. “We will be. Yamagishi, please let us know if you sense anything at all.”
“Let’s go,” Minako said firmly. They headed to the stairs, sticking a little closer together than usual.
31 October, the Dark Hour
Tartarus, floor 159
They stopped running at the top of the stairs, panting heavily.
“We have got to get out of here,” Yukari gasped. “That one was even worse than yours, Minako!” Minako rubbed cautiously at her face, where a fresh bruise was blossoming across her cheek from the zombie-cop-shadow’s punch.
“Let me heal that for you, leader,” Mitsuru offered.
“No, it’s fine,” Minako said, grimacing a little. “We don’t know how far it is to the next exit, and you need to save your energy in case we need it for something really serious.” She couldn’t help but glance at Akihiko’s still blood-stained shoulder, and a sickly feeling rose in her gut. That one had been close...
Akihiko shrugged. “We’ve fought your costume and mine. I guess it’s Mitsuru’s or Yukari’s next.“
“Everyone, watch out!” Fuuka’s voice almost made Minako jump as it echoed off the blood-red walls. “A huge shadow just appeared on this floor, and it’s dangerous! I can’t get a read on any weaknesses, though... I’m sorry.”
“I bet it’s weak to hama again,” Akihiko said. “You should try that one first this time.”
Minako tried to give him a confident grin, but she could feel the energy sapping away from her. Sure, hama had worked on the pirate zombie shadow, but it had taken three tries for it to work on the zombie cop shadow... and she’d already used up a lot of her energy trying other attacks on the first shadow. If she needed the same spell for this shadow (and maybe even the next one as well, if Akihiko was right about the costumes) then she had to hope it worked the first time. If not, they would be in trouble.
She gestured to the others to follow, and peered cautiously around the next corner. Fuuka was right - the shadow was huge, with large, white fangs, a long black cape, and a deathly pale face. “Mitsuru’s costume,” she whispered to the others, stepping out from the wall to face it. Resolutely, she brought up her naginata, ready to strike. “Hey, fang-face!” she yelled. “Over here!”
Mitsuru and Yukari leapt into action as the shadow rushed them, striking it at the same time with a coordinated attack on the vampire’s sides, followed swiftly by Minako bringing her naginata down on its head. The shadow, however, simply laughed, and lunged for Akihiko, who quickly jumped out of the way.
“Missed!” he yelled gleefully. Minako grinned. Even through her increasing tiredness, she always enjoyed just how enthusiastic he got in a fight.
Pulling out her evoker, she crossed her fingers and called for Archangel. “Hama!”
The spell fizzled out.
“Damnit.” Minako muttered. Yukari’s and Akihiko’s strikes bounced off it as well, and as Mitsuru readied her attack, the vampire bared its fangs and hissed into Minako’s face, stunning her. She stumbled backwards, shaking her head to get rid of the ringing in her ears, and the shadow swooped after her.
“No!” Mitsuru shouted defiantly, and struck the shadow’s back with her sword. It spun around, fangs bared, and dove for her neck.
“Hama!” Minako croaked desperately, forcing her unwilling legs to move forward towards Mitsuru. Akihiko and Yukari were moving too, hitting the vampire with everything they could muster. Mitsuru sank to the floor, and as Minako made it to her, the effects of Archangel’s spell finally kicked in and the vampire vanished.
“Mitsuru!” Yukari cried, rushing to crouch next to her. “No, no, no....” she mumbled, pressing at the blood pouring from the bite mark on Mitsuru’s neck. The older girl’s eyes were closed, her face pale.
Akihiko looked pale too, his eyes fixed on his friend. “Here, quick,” he said, pulling out a vial of medicine and passing it to Yukari, who tipped the vial over the wound.
“Do you have any more?” Minako said, worriedly. “Because I’m out of items.” She leaned against the wall, trying not to let the others see how tired she was.
Akihiko patted his pockets. “I’m out, too,” he admitted.
Mitsuru groaned and opened her eyes. Yukari grabbed her hand, her face full of concern. “Mitsuru-senpai! Are you alright?”
Minako looked at Akihiko. It was obvious that Mitsuru wasn’t going to be up for evoking Artemisia any time soon, and she was the only one with any healing spells left. She pushed herself away from the wall, trying to stifle a groan, and grabbed Akihiko, pulling him away from Yukari and Mitsuru.
“I could manage a dia,” she told him, quietly. “But I’m worried I might need to cast hama again, if you’re right and we still have to fight Yukari’s costume.”
Akihiko frowned. “It’s the only thing that worked on the others,” he muttered. “But I think that was the only shadow on this floor. We could leave Mitsuru and Yukari here, and see if we can find a chest with healing items of some kind.”
Minako bit her lip. “We can’t stay here too long. The reaper might show up, especially since things have been so weird today.”
Akihiko shrugged. “No choice. Let’s do this quickly, then.”
Minako nodded, then went back over to Mitsuru. “We’re going to explore this floor, see if there are any chests,” she told them, trying to sound unconcerned. “Back in a few!”
Yukari nodded, understanding what Minako had left unsaid. “Be careful,” she said, worriedly.
“Just... allow me a few minutes to rest,” Mitsuru added, trying to sit up. “Then I can join...” She trailed off and grew even paler.
Yukari gently pushed her back down again. “Just stay there for a minute. And don’t you dare try and call for Artemisia!”
Mitsuru’s lips tightened, but she let go of her evoker. “Yukari...”
“Shh,” Yukari grabbed her hand to stop her from trying again. “Rest.”
Mitsuru looked surprised, but after a moment, she clasped Yukari’s hand with her other hand as well. “Takeba....” she coughed, and started again. “Yukari... I’m glad you’re here.”
Yukari blushed. “Me too.” Her blush only deepened at Mitsuru’s answering smile, and she slid down to lean against the wall with her. After a moment, Mitsuru leaned her head on Yukari’s shoulder, her long red hair standing out against the shiny pink of Yukari’s Pink Argus costume. She closed her eyes, and Yukari couldn’t stop herself from pressing her lips to the crown of Mitsuru’s hair.
They sat like that, hands clasped together, until Akihiko and Minako returned.
“Guess what we found?” Minako sang, sounding much more cheerful. She tossed a pouch of medical powder to Yukari.
“Thank you, Minako,” Mitsuru said, seriously, as Yukari packed the powder into her wound. She took a deep breath, and, still grasping Yukari’s hand, pulled herself to her feet. “I feel much better.”
Minako smiled grimly. “Then I think we’d better get off this floor.”
Akihiko nodded. “I’m pretty certain I heard chains already.”
“The Reaper!” Yukari gasped, her hands coming to her mouth. “Okay, we’d definitely better move on.” Then, clearly remembering what they were most likely about to face, she scowled, and tugged at her pink costume. “Let’s get this over with...”
31 October, the Dark Hour
Tartarus, floor 160
Mitsuru had regained most of her colour by the time they reached the next floor - and it was a good thing, too, because if Yukari’s costume-shadow was larger than any they’d faced so far. And, apparently, was not weak to hama.
“No!” Minako shouted with dismay, after the spell bounced off the pink-clad figure. “I... don’t think I can cast it again,” she admitted tiredly, gripping her naginata and willing her arms to swing it at the advancing shadow. It barely looked like anything from Featherman, really, since its dimensions and features were so distorted, but it was just as creepy seeing Yukari’s costume come to life as all the others.
Mitsuru, too, looked like she was having to convince herself to keep moving, but she swung her sword with determination. “We have to think about this logically,” she called as she aimed for the shadow’s legs. “The others were all creatures of darkness, n’est-ce pas?”
Akihiko grinned. “Right! And Yukari’s costume is different!”
Yukari cast garula experimentally, and rolled her eyes as it failed. “Right, because somebody apparently wanted me to look as ridiculous as possible!”
“Hey!” Minako disputed weakly.
“You look quite the opposite of ridiculous,” Mitsuru said firmly, a half smile curling the corner of her lips at Yukari’s repeated blushing. “But my point is that we have to work out what this shadow might be weak to. Yamagishi, do you have any ideas?”
There was no answer. Akihiko rolled out of the way of a barrage of arrows. “We couldn’t contact her from the last floor, either,” he grunted, rushing in to punch the shadow’s kneecap - without effect.
Suddenly, Minako knew what she had to do. “Phoenix,” she muttered. “Phoenix Ranger Featherman R.”
She could feel the exhaustion dragging at her limbs as she pulled out her evoker, the kind of bone-deep tiredness that only ever accompanied times that she had used up all her energy reserves on spells against shadows. “Parvati,” she whispered like a prayer. The persona twisted gracefully into view above her, bowing its head to her respectfully. “Bufudyne,” Minako said firmly - and the world went black.
Minako groaned as... somebody... shook her awake.
“Here, take this.” The somebody - Akihiko, her brain blearily supplied - shoved a round object into her hand. Without thinking, she put it in her mouth, although her arms felt impossibly heavy. As the bitter taste of the Snuff Soul filled her senses, she felt the heavy feeling dissipate, a little, and she blinked, looking around.
“Did we win?” she asked, suddenly remembering the shadow.
Mitsuru nodded. “Thanks to an excellent coordinated attack by Yukari and Akihiko... yes, we won.” Her eyes narrowed. “And that was quite incredibly stupid of you, to burn yourself out like that, when I could have easily cast bufula!”
Minako looked down. “I... it had to be bufudyne,” she said, a little sheepishly. “I don’t know how I knew that, but it did. It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”
“Hmm,” Mitsuru said, but she didn’t look angry.
Akihiko offered her his hand, and Minako stood up stiffly, still feeling somewhat as though a train had run her down. “Where’d you get the Snuff Soul from, anyway?” she asked.
He grinned. “Present from ‘Yukari.’”
Yukari scowled. “For the last time....”
She broke off as Mitsuru interrupted. “This shadow left us some interesting items, after we killed it. Not only the Snuff Soul, but also this.”
She held up a mask, and Minako took it, examining it with interest. It looked like something from a masquerade: white, large enough to cover only the eyes and nose, with pointed edges and black designs around the eye-holes, with a black ribbon to hold it on. “Do you think it has any special properties?” Minako asked, thinking of some of the other items they’d found in Tartarus.
“That’s the really cool part,” Yukari said, enthusiasm returning to her voice as she grabbed Mitsuru’s arm. Mitsuru glanced back at her, and blushed, and Minako couldn’t help but grin as she noticed Mitsuru reach up and fold one hand over Yukari’s.
“We think it’ll let us sneak past shadows without ever being noticed,” Akihiko finished, sharing a look with Minako.
“It’s our ticket out of here!” Yukari said, squeezing Mitsuru’s hand. “We can definitely make it to the next elevator this way, no matter how many floors it is!”
Minako examined the mask one more time, looking for traps or anything strange. Then she shrugged, and tied it on. “Then let’s go,” she said, and forced her tired legs towards the stairs.
31 October, the Dark Hour
Tartarus, floor 164
Minako had never been so glad to see an elevator. “Fuuka?” she said, experimentally, and her spirits rose even more when Fuuka enthusiastically replied.
“Minako! I was so worried when you couldn’t hear me, and then there was a huge shadow... oh, but you’ve found the elevator! That’s great!”
Minako grinned at the others. “We found a kind of... short cut,” she said, and pulled off the mask. To her dismay, though, as she ripped it off, it disappeared into a hundred small pieces, which melted into the air as if they had never existed.
“Oh no!” Yukari pouted. “Imagine how easily we could have made it to the top of the tower!”
Minako looked down at her empty hand. “I don’t think we were meant to be able to keep it,” she said. She looked up, taking in Akihiko’s bloodstained zombie cop costume, Mitsuru’s torn cape, and Yukari’s ripped Pink Argus outfit. “In fact, I think I’ll be happy to avoid masks or costumes of any kind for quite a while after this!”