June 14th 20xx
“Here's the list of names you asked for” Akechi was surprised to see Ren push forward a crumpled notebook paper, with the names of 20+ female students over the past 10 years who had to drop out of Shujin Academy due to financial trouble.
He could easily rule out the ones who left due to a legitimate collapse in support. However, what he wanted was most certainly here as well. Drawing a connection between the small private school and the underbelly of Shibuya was never going to be an easy feat. Scum like Kaneshiro can’t build an empire as expansive as he has overnight. Still, Akechi couldn’t help but be a tad impressed with the young man in front of him.
He studied Ren as he nervously played with that mop of black curls he called hair. Fully concentrated on the game of chess in front of him despite the outcome being inevitable. So unassuming, a boy who could easily vanish within a crowd and no one would so much as bat an eye.
“Well done” Akechi beamed. “I’m curious though, how did you manage to get something like this in a short amount of time” Akechi moved his white rook forward. “Nothing illegal I hope”
“Wouldn’t dream of it” Ren replied softly. “I just had connections is all”
‘Connections’ what a vague and deliberate choice of words. Akechi raised an eyebrow. “Keeping your sources close hmm? I can certainly understand that” he mused. “Still, I’d be able to move forward with my looking into of Kaneshiro, and for that, you have my thanks”
Ren seemed to stir at that. “Don’t mention it”
“It seems our suspicions may be correct, just at first glance, I recognize some names of former trafficking victims,” Akechi noticed Ren’s fingers tense around his black piece. “How do Kaneshiro’s men know who to target? After all teens from troubled homes make excellent prey for schemes such as his but it’s impossible to have such precision without information. I suspect that he may have an inside man”
“I think it might be the principal”
“Most of the teachers there have only been around for 5 years or less. They would have had no contact with most of the people on the list”
“That’s certainly a plausible theory” He offered. “A principal certainly would have access to all the necessary records, however without proof-”
“I’ll find it” Ren declared. “Just leave it to me”
“Remember, evidence obtain illegally is immiscible in court” Akechi sang. “And don’t overdo it. You look exhausted. Have you not been resting?”
“Just studying for exams is all”
Akechi resisted the urge to roll his eyes. ‘Studying’ was underselling it. Ren’s pale features and cold sweat didn’t go unnoticed by him. He suspected if he had checked that he may have also been running a fever. “Without sleep, your focus and attention severely decrease so your method is hardly effective. While I appreciate your efforts, best get some rest. You’re no good to yourself exhausted”
“It’s not that” he’d start in a low voice. “..I’m missing a couple of lecture notes so I spend half the time trying to figure out what I missed. I don’t exactly have a lot of clues so it takes a while”
Missed classes? He hadn’t mentioned that before. What had the boy been doing that he missed that many notes?
“Why not ask your classmates or teacher for what you missed?”
Ren’s shoulders fell. “..yeah well, nothing’s ever that easy ” He laughed it off but avoided Akechi’s gaze. “Do you want a refill of that?” He asked referring to Akechi’s empty cup.
“Oh would you? I’d appreciate that”
Ren nodded and ducked behind the counter of the café, dawning a green apron over his white shirt and jeans. “House blend, right?”
Akechi confirmed and studied the boy as he moved. He enjoyed the scent of coffee and spices that lingered in the air. Overall, Akechi quite liked the atmosphere of Leblanc. The wood finish, antique furnishing, collection of crossword puzzles, and overall small space felt like something special. He had been more than happy to refuel his caffeine fix here after Sae-san had recommended it so highly. Ren working here part-time only added to the drive to explore.
Still Ren’s environment continued to baffle him. He could find classified information in less than a week’s time but couldn’t get missing notes from his classmates? What an interesting situation.
He hardly found Ren to be a troublemaker or that imposing. They were similar in height, but his permanent slouch killed any intimidating factor about him. To put it simply, Ren Amamiya was an enigma to him. A seemingly unremarkable boy in every regard with far too many part-time jobs to count, and obvious trouble at school.
Yet, he never failed to impress Akechi with his insights, or actions. He had thought that his silent depressed nature was simply another mask he wore so that others could underestimate him. However, he already knew that to not be the case. Unlike those glasses on his face, Ren’s depression was certainly real.
“Here you go, one house blend. Sorry if it’s not as good as Sakura-san’s but I did my best”
Akechi took a sip of the bitter drink. “I could hardly tell the difference” Ren rubbed the back of his neck as he sat down to resume the game. “And since you’re doing such a lovely job making me coffee. I have an offer for you”
“If you wish I can let you borrow my second-year notes. I still have them in pristine condition of course for college entrance exams. I can’t promise they’d be 100% of a match but it should be close enough to give you an idea. How about it?”
Ren shot him a genuine look of surprise. His hand was frozen over the chessboard as he took an uneasy breath. “You don’t have to do that”
“I’m aware but I want to. I’ll be expecting them back of course and I trust you’ll take care of them. “ Akechi pulled his phone out to make a few notes. “I’ll bring them by tomorrow. Take your time with them and get some sleep tonight”
“Thank you” Ren exhaled. “..I don’t know what to say”
“No thanks needed” Akechi affirmed. “Can’t have my lovely assistant keeling over on me after all. We can suspend our other investigations until after exams”
“Including the Phantom Thieves?”
Akechi suppressed an involuntary twitch of his hand. “I imagine our little troublemakers have exams as well, is that right?” Ren nodded. “Then it shouldn’t be a problem”
“I’ve been thinking about that actually,” Ren said with a little more confidence as he moved his knight. “They’ve been looking for a new target after Madarame. We can tip them off about Kaneshiro. It’ll least give us a chance to learn their methods”
“Quite perceptive of you. If only that helped you in other affairs” Akechi captured the black king on the board and laid back. “Checkmate” Ren’s sour look of frustration amused him. He scowled laying back against the seats. “You did better than last time at least. A couple more games and you might actually win one”
“Was that pity?” He grumbled.
“Not at all, but I never pegged you to be so competitive”
“I’ll win next time” Ren affirmed.
“I look forward to it” Akechi adjusted his tie as he glanced at his watch. “Well, I suppose I better get going. I have a lot of interviews and exams myself after all. I’ll be busy for the next few weeks but I’ll contact you when my schedule opens up”
“Oh” Ren practically deflated in his seat. His eyes clouded behind his glasses as he looked down at the board. “Of course.” What kind of reaction was that? Was the boy actually enjoying their time together? Akechi could hardly believe Ren enjoyed it when Akechi rattled off about unrelated topics or constantly beat the boy at chess.
It seemed that the boy had no other friends to speak of. He had clung to their interactions a tad harder than originally anticipated. Whether this was good or bad, he couldn’t decide. Still, watching him pout in the booth brought a bit of frustration to him that he couldn’t quite pin down.
“Tell you what, when we do meet up again. I’ll teach you something new that we can play”. Ren perked up almost instantly at that. “I have a favourite little place out in Kichijoji. We can spend some time there and unwind after exams. Sounds good?”
“Yeah,” He said. “Se-see you then”
“Get some sleep” He waved off, letting the café bell announce his exist. Walking through the quiet backstreets of Yongen-Jaya at night really gave him space to think. The dewy fresh smell of fresh rain, remnants of coffee, and the cold air helped him focus.
Buzzing of the lights and late-night radio still echoed Madarame’s sudden confession through the lonely streets. It irritated him beyond measure.
The Phantom Thieves, naïve upstarts who decided to take a hand at world reform using the metaverse. It would be completely laughable if it wasn’t so damn frustrating. Two years Akechi spent traversing the metaverse and he hadn’t found any concrete way to manipulate a person’s physical mind through its shadow.
His traipsing through Shido’s palace confirmed that much was possible. The information, the knowledge was there. He just had to seize it for himself. Shido refused to let the method out. Burying that information and the people along with it.
So how then did a couple of high school brats figure out what Akechi himself couldn’t after so long? Was it a specific persona-ability like call of chaos or thieves’ entry? Were they trained by someone with knowledge of cognitive pscience? Or were they simply better than he was?
He felt that they were mocking him and that alone gave him the sole desire to crush them. He had gone too far and fought too long to be bested by high school trash.
He clicked his tongue as he headed to the station. It’s true he had exams and interviews to focus on, but when he had time, he wanted to investigate the spot where Madarame’s palace once stood, but he figured that might have been a fruitless endeavor.
After all, his investigation of the site of Kamoshida’s castle using thieves’ entry had certainly yielded some valuable information. Though he doubted he’d find something as promising as last time.
The past month had been quite the curious mystery for him. First, the phantom thieves had discovered a way to brainwash their victims with minimal experience in the cognitive world. Switching Akechi’s plans to uncovering their methods at all costs.
This train of thought led him all the way back to revisiting that deplorable castle that stood on the grounds of Shujin Academy.
Thieves’ entry felt like a second sense to him at times. As it generated a feeling of walking through sludge. A disgusting ooze-like wave crawled on his skin alerting him to a palace’s presence without fail.
Whether it was due to the stories backing Robin Hood’s mythos or a completely unrelated power that he had been blessed with. He had the ability to enter that space, once. No keywords, no names, no distortion. After that, he had 12 hours to get in and out.
Any subsequent visits required research on his part as to the palace ruler’s identity but given the nature of the palace itself, that was hardly a difficult feat.
Still, it hadn’t been his first time in Kamoshida’s den of sweat and perversions. It didn’t take long for him to conclude that the suggestively dressed female students and abused male students suffered a similar fate in reality.
Akechi was impressed that Ren had ascertained the true nature of the principal in that school. Back in April, he had thought that by investigating the area, he’d find some information from one of Shido’s associates. However, no such luck. Only a filthy place that brought up undesirable memories.
He certainly wouldn’t have complained if Shido had ordered him to bury a bullet in the eyes of such a man. It’d be no loss of sleep for him. After all he had killed many who were certainly far less deserving.
It did surprise him though when the man had confessed all he had done. He knew immediately that had to do with the state of his palace. However, what surprised him more wasn’t the confession but rather the chilly air that snaked down his spine when he got close to the academy gates.
It made his palms sweat as he swallowed hard. If Kamoshida had confessed, if his shadow had returned to him then there shouldn’t even be a distortion here much less one he could feel so prominently in reality.
He hesitated for a moment, wondering if it was best to try again on another day. Perhaps the unwanted attention had changed the cognition of the area in a more drastic way than he had previously thought.
If this change had come about from those, phantom thieves they call themselves? Then he had to see it for himself. This was valuable information- and it ‘s not as if his life was something he hadn’t already put as leverage for his mission.
‘Suguru Kamoshida. Shujin Academy. Castle’
[CANDIDATE NOT FOUND.]
Akechi narrowed his eyes at the app’s response. It was impossible for there had been another a palace in such a short amount of time. It was only late-May after all.
Yet, that was exactly what had happened that night. When he used thieves’ entry, he was instantly met with a series of unforgettable moments. A palace of chill and misery, a black circular building made of polished obsidian that emitted bright red lights at the top. The building stood center of a small island beach. Black sand sunk into his shoes and his breath fogged at the entrance.
It was fucking cold . Far colder than the past two winters in Tokyo had been.
Still, nothing had prepared him for what he would see inside.
He couldn’t get the sight of it out of his mind even if he tried. Frozen at the very pits of that damned place, at the lowest level. While standing on a frozen lake. At first Akechi had thought what he saw was nothing but a mountain of pure steel. He contemplated whether climbing it would reveal the final exit.
The reality of the matter was far more horrifying. The guardian shadow besides him could only laugh as he directed Akechi to look below his feet. Beyond the solid block of ice that he had barely managed to keep footing on.
There he saw it. The steel mountain had rather been connected to a head. Two protruding golden horns that vastly outsized any building in Tokyo. They hadn’t been mountains at all but rather more horns for this winged monstrosity.
Akechi felt the blood drain from his face. What was this?
This couldn’t have been a shadow.
He’d fought shadows before that were large, grand abominations that easily fell at his hand but it was nothing like this. To call himself an ant next to this thing would be generous.
“What is that thing?” he demanded from the shadow that hovered just slightly above him. A lad dressed in short red jacket and French attire. Adorned in black and red from head to toe. The shadow's jet-black feathered wings matched the black curls that adorned his face. His crimson top hat had similar horns to the multi-winged creature beneath them.
Those distinctive yellow eyes of a shadow peered down at him in amusement. “That? Why it’s me of course”
That was inconceivable. No one could, should have a shadow like that so it had to be- “Lies” he hissed.
“I suppose such an observation is technically also true. A thing that is both true and false. Reality and lies. That is the nature of our imprisonment” The fuck were these riddles? Akechi was beginning to lose his patience.
“You wish to leave do you not dear prince?” The shadow said. Then what he had to fight that thing to leave? Akechi felt his heart leap into his throat. He could not believe the fucking luck he had. “Then how about we make a deal?”
“What kind of deal?”
“As it stands now, we’re both trapped in this place. Unable to move forward and will likely die here”
“Is that some sort of threat? You think I’m gonna let you kill me you piece of shit?!?”
“Kill you? No no, but I can’t imagine the temperature has been to your liking” Akechi was beginning to get sick and tired of that shit-eating grin of his. “As it stands, we need each other. If I let you leave here..seek me out and if you do. If you manage to free us from here. You can consider this power. Our power, yours. You’d have my gratitude and I always repay my debts.”
Akechi froze still in his tracks. The wheels of consideration turning in his mind. On one hand, he could never trust a shadow to be truthful about a damn thing. On the other, agreeing seemed to be the only reasonable plan forward.
“Why help me at all? You can simply force my hand can you not? Why bother making a deal like this when the cards are stacked in your favor?”
“Are they?” The shadow asked somberly. “stacked in our favor?” The sound of shackles echoed through the cold air as he lifted the silver chains that adorn his arms. “As it stands, this place will not hold much longer. Consider it a last-ditch effort on our part. We have nothing to lose by attempting this, and everything to lose if we fail to gain your favor.”
Akechi had spent an ungodly amount of time in this palace. The constant puzzles, the seemingly one-way exit. He had enough information to conclude that this palace belonged to someone with a poor outlook on life and their future.
It also alarmed Akechi that if the owner chose to expire before he found another way to get out of there, then he really would be fucked.
“Even if I seek out your counterpart. They’d have no knowledge of the deal we just made”
“You have awakened to your own shadows have you not?”
“You want me to induce an awakening?” Akechi wouldn’t know the first thing about that, much less how to do it to someone with a full-blown palace.
“We want you to free us.” He stated. “Then we will do the rest”
“And exactly how is that different from a bloody awakening?!”
“You’re a detective are you not?” He’d say.
“But I’m not a therapist and by the looks of things, that seems to be exactly what you need”
“Hmm” the shadow hummed in agreement. He cocked his head to the side holding his chin. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t help to know that we already have a therapist?”
“I want you” Akechi hissed “to get to the god damn point”
“Hn, fine. I’ll be frank. We’ll let you leave. Obviously, we cannot control what you do from that point onward. However, our capacity for a grudge is immense. If we happen to break free from here without your aid it will not be pleasant for you”
“But if I help you then you’ll be in my debt?”
The biting cold really put a damper on Akechi’s thought process. The only thing that drove him at that point was equal parts spite and rage to get the fuck out of there. Though the shadow was right- he wasn’t sure how much longer he could last. Repeated healing to stave off hypothermia could only last so long.
“Fine” he snapped. “I’ll find you but I won’t hesitate to destroy you if you don’t keep your word. Are we clear?”
“Hn” The shadow’s lips widened to a cocky smile. ”I expect nothing less dear detective” The shadow snapped his gloved fingers and blinded Akechi with a harsh white light. The sudden change in temperature almost made him dizzy.
The warm air of the streets wrapped around him. He stepped back- catching himself before he slumped to the pavement.
[You have returned: Welcome to the real world]
Akechi didn’t even have time to contemplate the last few minutes before realizing that the shadow had left a gift for him on his phone.
There in his search history, lay the information he needed.
Ren Amamiya. Shujin Academy. Colosseum .
Now a few weeks later, he still had no idea how to move forward. No ideas as to why this ordinary boy had such power buried inside of him. It infuriated him how empty he came up at his analysis of him. What the hell made him so special? So unique? It was maddening.
Still, he was useful.
A simple check and he knew that his palace still stood. He had no intentions of going back in as it seemed the shadow was genuine in believing that nothing in there would help ‘free him’ or he would have had no reason to let Akechi go.
All those mysteries swelled painfully in his chest. He was running out of time and at this point. He didn’t care who the fuck he had to use.
A deal with the devil was nothing compared to his ambitions. He would succeed at all costs and if Ren had to pay the cost for that then, so be it. Ren would only have himself to blame in the end after all.