Fine, I will! I'll get on that train! And which woman do you want me to protect, huh?


True Voice

A Shadow Hearts novelization

By Maiji/Mary Huang

Chapter 1: A wind which blows from the dark


Rouen, France, 1913 …

Dim edges of lamplight, only the largest objects discernable in the cobbled streets. Overturned crates lie cracking and rotting in black puddles. Odd lighting casts shadows strange and obtuse, gnawing on an alley littered with splinters.

Splinters of wood.

Splinters of bones.

A darkening redness on the wet ground, seeping into the rotting crates, mingling with the dirty water. A coagulating redness splattered onto the carved back door of the church.

A travelling priest, brutally murdered before sunrise!

The bold, black type screams silently from the newsprint sea of letters, shocking in the message carried by its arrangement. The accompanying photograph is relentless in its monochrome capture, vivid detail drawing the eyes away from rivalling stories in the paper. Forcing readers to stare, to stare and wonder at what is not visible, at what is hidden from view in the heavy shadows of the scene.

His body lay scattered in pieces, as if savaged by a beast!

His daughter, believed to be travelling with him, is missing…

Days pass without incidence, without leads. Rats skitter off with minute pieces of overlooked flesh; rain washes away the remaining blood.

Days pass. Horror fades, sympathies remain. One man's death becomes another man's conversation fodder. "Do you remember that terrible occurrence in Rouen …?" "Yes, terrible, just terrible. What do you suppose of the girl …"

Days pass.

-

South Manchu, autumn, that same year …

A moonlit night in the Chinese countryside.

The still air was punctuated by puffing smoke and rhythmic chugging: the mechanical gasping and wheezing of a train sweeping through the darkness, travelling quickly over tall grass and water, a strong lamp illuminating its way. Outside all hard and polished nuts-and-bolts metal, inside sturdy woods and blue-cushioned seats. But while the Trans-Siberian Express was, for the most part, sparsely furnished, it was a dependable vehicle and its general cars still maintained an air of functionality and simple elegance.

Elegant: like the clean-shaven, white-haired gentleman who made his way through each of the well-furnished – but mostly empty – passenger cars Decked out in fine black tails complete with top hat and glove, he courteously stepped aside and gestured for a hunched, elderly lady to pass.

Hidden by the curve of the furniture, a third figure lounged, apparently asleep. The young man's body leaned sideways against the cushioned back of the seat, his own back turned to the aisle. A worn, leathery trench coat was pulled tight around his head. An odd talisman dangled from thin black cords draped about his neck: a rough, pearly shell-like pendant with a round stone setting. The stone itself was the same colour as the midnight sky outside.

As the gentleman in tails strolled softly past him in the aisle, the sleeper's lids slowly opened. Crimson eyes silently followed through a slitted, lazy gaze as the gentleman stepped into the next car.

Near the head of the train, the door to the rich, padded salon car was guarded by two stern Japanese soldiers, backs straight and alert. Inside, two riflemen were being briefed by their superior.

"It's already past 23:00, and it's a long way to Fengtian." The major sighed, shaking his head. It had been a tiring, confusing day.

A girl sat quietly in the corner, a complete contrast to the military men accompanying her. Her hair was blonde, so pale it seemed white. The thick, flaxen strands were plaited neatly and tightly, braids held in place at the back of her head by a velvety turquoise bow. Her dress was buttoned up white at the front, blue skirt and tight long sleeves adorned with lacy, ruffled cuffs. One hand cupped her delicate face as she gazed out the window, thoughtful and sad eyes reflected in the glass. The other hand rested on a small, closed bible in her lap.

"Major Tsugi, what's this all about?" One soldier glanced at the other, leaning forward and lowering his voice. "Why this special train in the middle of the night to escort this girl to Japan?" He squinted in her direction. "She looks pretty ordinary to me."

The major snorted. "Hell if I know. There's no telling what the big shots in Tokyo were thinking." He shook his head, as if to clear it of disloyal thoughts. "Next time I see you-know-who I'll ask her, okay?"

A strangled scream came from outside the door.

The riflemen sprang from their seats while Major Tsugi glanced up. "What's going on?" he demanded, getting to his feet. The girl gingerly rose from her seat as well, tucking her book away.

The door slid open, and the men watched the lifeless body of one guard topple against the doorframe, then fall back onto the seating in the other car. His neck hung at an impossible angle. The second guard was already on the floor, his face ragged red: an unrecognizable mass of tissues dangling. The two soldiers levelled their rifles at the open door.

The gentleman in tails walked through the door, smiling. He nodded approvingly at the riflemen as the door slid shut behind him. A strange silvery form shimmered in the air beside him, trailing a wispy haze.

Major Tsugi's eyes narrowed. "Shoot!" he commanded, gesturing harshly. The riflemen complied, firing at the gentleman.

Silver shadow darted left and right, metal ringing in the air as it deflected each bullet. The gentleman continued towards the group with calm and purposeful steps. Something flashed on the shadow, reflecting the lighting in the salon car. The two riflemen collapsed, sputtering blood: in that brief second, their chests had been slashed to ribbons. The major gaped in horror and disbelief; the girl covered her mouth with both hands.

Major Tsugi pulled his pistol from its holster, cocking it and firing wildly. "Die!" he screamed repeatedly, his frustration mounting as reality defied logic.

But his bullets, too, proved useless against the lightning-fast shadow. Soon his gun was empty. Incredulous, the major stared at his weapon, but continued pulling the trigger mechanically.

Futile clicks. Behind him, the girl widened her eyes, then shut them tightly, cringing, as his death-cry echoed in her ears.

When she opened them again, the gentleman stood in front of her, friendly smile still on his face. She gasped.

"It's you!"

The smile widened. Silver fluttered in the air around his head. "Yes …Roger Bacon. I'm honoured that you remember me so well." The shimmering haze sliced through the air towards the girl, severing a lamp stand before spinning to a stop in front of her face. She screamed and shrank back in fear. "You can't escape. Come along quietly, sister."

There was a creak as the door between the cars slid open again. The young man entered, hair dishevelled, eyes crimson and wild, a languid smile playing on his face.

Bacon turned. "Ah …" he sighed theatrically. "A new actor in our play." His silver shadow darted towards the newcomer, another flash distorting the air. The smooth, sickening sound of cleanly severed flesh and bone as the youth's left arm fell to the ground.

But the young man only grinned sardonically; his right hand shot out, and the shadow emitted a squeal as strong fingers gripped it tightly around the head. No longer free-roaming, the creature's actual form was revealed: a grotesque, misshapen gremlin with gangly limbs. The scythe it wielded dropped to the floor with a thud.

Red eyes never leaving Bacon, the young man squeezed. Pressure built up against the monster until it exploded, splattering blood and demonic brain matter.

Bacon shook his head sadly at the headless corpse on the ground. "I was fond of him."

The youth kicked his severed arm up from the ground, catching it in his other hand and reattaching it to his gushing stump. Muscle tissue, nerves, blood vessels and bone from each end grew rapidly to meet its matching twin, fusing together. The young man flexed and swung his arm around experimentally, then grinned at the gentleman again. If Bacon was surprised, none of it registered on his face.

The girl glanced at the back of Bacon's head nervously, sidling towards the door at the opposite end of the car. Instantly Bacon whirled around, grabbing her by the wrist. "Ah, ah," he said, as though speaking to a naughty child. He raised one gloved hand to her eyes, pale blue light glimmering from the center of his palm. The girl slumped forward into his arms, and he easily tossed her over his shoulder.

Behind him, the young man charged.

Bacon turned his head, his eyes igniting with a burning white flash. An invisible wave of energy ripped through the air, sending the youth flying backwards, smashing through three cars before finally demolishing several rows of seats and coming to a tumbling, skidding stop.

The young man sat up amidst the planks and rubble, shaking his head free of debris. He chuckled lightly to himself.

In one fluid motion, the youth flipped to his feet. He quickly made his way back to the salon car, past the mangled corpses of the guards, the riflemen and the major. The car was otherwise empty; the door at the other end was untouched.

Hearing thudding footsteps on the roof, he glanced at the ceiling.

Up there?

A grating crash, and a sizable hole appeared in the top of the car. Naked air whistled through it as the youth leapt, gripping the sides of the opening, swinging himself onto the roof of the still-moving express. As he landed, he spotted the warlock's finely-dressed back, the girl dangling over his shoulder, making his way to the tail end of the train.

Bacon stopped as he heard the running steps behind him. He turned and sighed, facing the figure that caught up to him. "You're a persistent little rat, aren't you?"

The young man laughed, shifting his feet as the roof rattled unsteadily with the train's movement. "You ain't getting away, pops!" The young man put up his fists – then paused, reconsidering. The trip through the passenger cards had not been a soft one.

As Bacon watched bemusedly, the youth straightened, an erratic glint in his eyes. Intense pain flickered briefly in the crimson irises. He lurched forward with a sudden, sharp gasp, clutching his head.

Bacon raised an eyebrow in surprise as a bright, blinding light radiated from the young man's body, the human outline contorting into a macabre shape: limbs thinned and lengthened, hands became long, curved skeletal claws, flesh stretched at the back into leathery red wings.

A searing crimson glow trailed from the depth of sunken eye-sockets, the winged cadaver raising its grinning skull to face him. A single horn crowned its forehead.

Understanding dawned in Bacon's mind.

A Harmonixer?

Fusing with a demon spirit – a Death Emperor, no less – The warlock's eyes were alight with interest as he lowered the girl to the ground. A most intriguing development …

The deathshead reared forward, hissing a toxic black smoke. The smoke attacked Bacon's senses, stinging, but was not enough to hinder his powers. The warlock dissipated the smog with a wave of his hand – and grunted in mild astonishment as the fusion monster delivered a flying attack to his stomach, wings flapping hollowly in the night air.

The warlock stood his ground, repelling the demon with a quick incantation. The Death Emperor was driven back a short distance, but remained hovering in the air, glowing eyes on him.

"Such a shame it ends here,"Bacon said apologetically. "I really would have liked to see what else you could do." He raised his hands to the sky, chanting gutterally. Kabbalic runes carved themselves into the air, then rained a burning torrent against the fusion monster.

It was more than the demon could endure, and the Death Emperor collapsed on the roof of the train. A light engulfed the form again, outline compressing and condensing back into a human shape. The young man lay on the ground, breathing heavily.

"You're stronger than I expected …" Bacon shook his head regretfully.

The youth tried to bolt up, but fell back on one knee. "Agh …!"

"Now, foul monster …" Bacon raised one hand towards the crouched figure, fingers curled in a cryptic gesture. "You shall cease to be!" Power crackled in the air, tension mounting and making it difficult to breathe as energy built up at the focal point of his palm.

A glimmer at his feet, then a strong, gentle glow.

"W-what?" Bacon stopped and looked down, dumbfounded.

The glow was emitting from the girl on the ground; no, from the cross at her neck. Soon her body was bathed in the light. The cross, as though lifted by its growing strength, slowly rose, floating in the air; the unconscious body of the girl followed. The warlock raised his arms, shielding himself from its brightness, speechless.

There was a scuffing sound, and Bacon looked up.

Just in time to see an incoming fist.

"Wha-"

A pulpy crunch on impact; the warlock's skull caved in around his left eye. His hand flew to the damaged area and he cursed weakly, staggering backwards. The young man scooped the girl up and leapt off of the train without a backward glance, a shadow against the full moon.

As the train travelled off into the distance, Bacon remained standing; the hand against his eye glowed greenly, bones clearly visible beneath the skin. A sizzling mist, and he lowered his arm, bones and flesh reconstructing themselves.

The gentleman smiled wanly and shook his head.

The young man watched until the train had disappeared from view.

He laid the girl gently on the ground, then took in his surroundings. This part of the tracks ran over a river. The waters carried a wavering interpretation of the full moon overhead; wind blew lightly through the tall rushes on the bank, rustling grass, hair and fabric.

He glanced back, contemplating the unconscious figure. The wind stirred up loose white strands of hair about the girl's face, and the soft moonlight cast her features in a pale glow.

Well, this ain't too bad, the youth reflected, smirking. When the voice talked to me earlier, I thought it was goin' to be just another ol' run …

Lately he had become tired of the repetition, the mindless exterminations. Literally. The travel – and the fighting as well, but he would never admit that – left him restless and more listless than ever. And sleepless as well, but that was nothing new, of course. His dreams – when he had them – had never been a source of comfort. Ever. He thanked any god handy for his dreamless nights.

Recently, however, those nights had occurred with diminishing frequency. The last few days had reduced the young man to the same thoughts he had had in the beginning, lying awake in an endless darkness when he could do nothing but wonder, Am I getting anywhere?

But this … this was turning out to be a more promising outing.

A muffled moan came from the ground, and the girl began to move. She sat up, rubbing her eyes groggily.

"Yo there." The girl glanced up, surprised at the sound of the young man's words. She quickly rose, and he walked over. "Finally comin' to, huh? If you're looking for the train, it's long gone." Her wide blue eyes followed his extended thumb to the empty tracks. She opened her mouth, then closed it, silent.

"Heh heh … pretty exciting, huh? You getting a tingly feeling?" He smiled lazily, stepping towards her, hand reaching out. "Right about here-"

"N-no!" The girl jumped back, terror in her voice. "Stay away!"

"Stay away!" The young man was taken aback. "I haven't even done anything yet."

"Stay … stay away, please …" Her hands shook uncontrollably. "I … I can't. No … I … I can't do anything. I, I, I-" She broke off, turned, ran away.

"Huh!" One hand outstretched after the fleeing figure, lingering in the air. "Uh … Where do you think you're going?" The youth smacked his forehead. "I'm telling you, it's not safe that way." He shook his head as she rounded a bend in the makeshift road, immediately out of sight. "Aw, give me a break … Hey, girlie! Don't run off like that!" He took off after her.

Three steps was all he got before it came.

A jarring screech filled his senses, bringing the young man to his knees. He felt as though a thousand nails were being hammered into his skull, and he gripped his head tightly, trying to keep it from splitting.

The voice spoke to him: a mysterious voice of unknown origin, but intensely familiar to him for years.

"Dark … and Ligh … reun … ed … Prote … a … find yo … reas … fo … living …"

And it was gone.

"AARGH!" The youth rubbed his temples as remnant humming faded. "That hurts …! Not that damn voice again …!" He scrambled to his feet, not wanting to give it another reason to contact him again. "Stupid voices! Okay, I got it … I'm supposed to protect her, right …?" He hurried after her.

Now where did she go …?

He rounded the same bend, and saw no one. How the hell did she run so fast?

"Yoo-hoo, where are you? I don't bite or anything, really!" He laughed to himself, then his expression grew serious. Okay, damn it, this isn't working. He trudged along the trail, growing more and more exasperated.

Great, don't tell me I completely lost her …

"Girl!" he called again, his voice dying away in the emptiness. The only answer was the beating of many small, leathery wings. Bats, he thought. As he pondered his next move, he heard a lonely, hungry howl from far-off. A pack soon joined in.

A human shriek pierced the air.

The youth raised his head instantly, turning towards the direction of the sound. He took off again, trampling tall grass and completely ignoring the path. He soon wandered into a small alcove by a bend of the river, hidden by rushes, short trees and stacked rubble. The girl lay in the midst of this grove, alone and curled up on the ground.

He tittered in relief, pausing when the girl remained motionless.

"Hey! What are you doing?" he muttered. "Wake up! Were you attacked or something? I told you it was dangerous, didn't I …" A gleam entered his eye. "Looks like I'm the one who's getting all tingly inside. Maybe I should make a move. Heh heh …" He inched closer. "Um, hello?"

There was no reply.

He knelt down, bringing his face near hers. He could see no blood, no wounds. Her breath tickled his cheek. "Wonder if she'd mind if I …" He trailed off.

She didn't stir.

The youth stared at her, then abruptly stood up, impatient. He scanned the fields briefly, then turned back to the limp figure at his feet. He cupped his hands to his mouth.

"Hey! Girl!" he hollered. "Don't just lie there like a dead fish! Get up!"

Her eyes flew open, shock plain on her face, and she scrambled to her feet, mere inches away from him. He laughed at her reaction; she darted backwards as soon as she realized how close he was, and nearly stumbled.

The youth eyed her irritably. "I bust my hump savin' you, then you take one look at me and run off …" He swiped the air with one hand, palm out. "Then you faint?" He waggled a finger at her. "You got no manners, y'know that?"

Wide sapphire eyes. Stammering "A … A monster just suddenly …"

The youth nodded understandingly. "Yeah." He turned to contemplate the scenery again. "There's lots of hungry wolves and bloodsucking bats around here. You're probably attracting them. You smell pretty good, y'know."

He heard a gulp from behind and turned back. "Anyway, don't run off like that, okay. 'Cause if I don't do like the voice says, my head's gonna split open!"

The girl blinked. "… Huh?"

"… Don't 'huh?' me," he snapped. "Someone, or something, is pretty damn insistent that I protect you."

She seemed to have a problem grasping the concept. "Protect … me?"

"That's right." The youth sauntered to the edge of the river. "It's always 'Go protect that person!' or 'Go to that town!'. Stupid voice jumps into my head all the time. And now," he faced her again, "it's orderin' me to protect you." A shrug and a smirk. "Anyway, at least I'm never bored. Wherever it tells me to go, there are always plenty of monsters."

She kept her eyes on him as he moved. "So that's why you were on the train?"

"Yup." He leaned against a stout tree, one hand clasping the side of his head and the other a fist on his belt. "But thanks to that voice, I'm changing from your ordinary bad-boy type into a real psycho. What about you?" He straightened, as if something had just occurred to him. "Hey, are you psycho too? Do you see weird things?"

She looked startled at his bluntness, then slowly nodded.

"…Maybe."

The youth looked her up and down. "Well, you don't' seem quite like me, but … whatever." He shrugged again. "We can't just chat all day. First, we've got to find a place to rest. And I'm getting hungry." Glancing at her to see what she would do, he began to walk away.

The girl hesitated, then slowly followed.

"Whoa." The youth stopped suddenly, remembering something. He turned around again, scratching the back of his head. "Almost forgot. My name's Yuri Hyuga. You can call me Yuri." He smiled.

The corners of her mouth lifted uncertainly. "Yuri …" The girl tested the foreign, unfamiliar name. "I'm Alice Elliot. Please, call me Alice."

He chuckled. "Alice, huh? Even your name's cute."

Alice stared at him.

"Okay!" Yuri quickly raised his hands in surrender. "I got it! I won't touch you!" He spun on his heel, turning to face the opposite direction. "Right, we're off!"

They started off slow, Alice a few steps behind and Yuri constantly turning his head to check her presence. Soon, however, they settled into a brisk pace, side by side in an awkward silence, save for several entertaining encounters with frisky bats and oversized spiders. Yuri thought so, anyways, after making short work of most of them. Alice clearly felt otherwise, tossing him looks that could be considered withering while she wiped her bible clean on the grass.

Eventually the path diverged. The closer trail seemed to lead somewhere into the distance – but it was blocked by the edge of the river.

Yuri considered the water briefly. "Nobody's gonna be crossing this," he decided out loud. Alone, it would simply have been a matter of time to swim across, but with Alice … he wasn't sure how much she trusted him just yet, in any case. She didn't argue with his judgement, so they continued upon the other route.

Rounding a bend, they found themselves facing a path that looped down to a patch of lower ground, ratty wooden planks serving as rickety bridges across small sections of the river. Three rust-covered gates, equipped with similarly flaking valves, had been installed in a triangular organization across the length of the looping path.

Yuri cursed mildly. "Tsk, a dead end."

"Um …" Alice eyed the nearest rusty contraption. "Maybe if we do something with this sluice gate, we'll be able to cross the river."

"Huh?" Yuri looked back at her, blinking. "Ah, of course! Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing."

She stared at him again, her expression unreadable.

What? I wish she'd stop looking at me like that … He scratched his neck, discomfited. "Er, anyway, let's have a little search, then." As he turned to examine the workings of the gate, Alice shook her head, a slight smile of amusement tugging at her lips.

Yuri grunted, tugging and twisting at the device without success. "No good," he concluded. "Damn thing's rotten. We'll never get this gate to move."

"The other two …" Alice suggested.

"This sluice gate?" Obligingly, Yuri crossed the wooden planks and inspected the second gate. "It looks like it'd work if I had a handle." He grinned, hopping across the diminutive bridge to check the last without her prompting.

"Yeah, the gate itself is all rotten, but the handle might work," he reported. After wrestling with it for several minutes, Yuri finally jerked the handle off with a hollow, metallic squeal and pop. He raised it triumphantly.

"Aha!" cheered Alice, smiling.

"Hah! Not bad, eh!" he gloated, bringing it back to the second gate.

Despite squeaks of protest, the handle soon slid right into place. "Okay! Perfect!" Yuri cranked it noisily, and the air was filled with the sound of sloshing, draining water. He wiped his brow and scrutinized the burbling river. "It looks like it'll take a while for the water to drain …" He scoped the area, spotting the burnt remnants of a hut, disintegrating barrels and boxes stacked against it.

"Hey, I say we take a rest over there." He pointed.

"R-right." Alice nodded. They made their way to the sad-looking structure.

Searching among the ruins, some salvageable items were found; the sorry but useable remains of a tinderbox, in particular. Together, they gathered wood and loose planks, arranging it into a small pile.

Yuri crouched on bent knee: scraps of tinder in front of him, fire steel gripped in one hand and flint in the either, trying to strike up a sufficient spark. There was a slight sniffle behind him, and he glanced back at Alice. She perched uncomfortably on a half-crate, rubbing her palms together as she watched him.

"Here, you can use this." He took off his long trench coat, holding it with both hands and shaking it. He kicked aside loose pebbles with one foot, then laid the coat down on the ground.

"T-thank you." She sat down gratefully as Yuri picked up the flint and steel again.

Moments later, a strong campfire burned, tongues of flame dancing amidst the darkness. Alice lay curled in a fetal position, the hard ground beneath her cushioned by Yuri's coat. She sighed, pulling one of its loose sleeves over her head, and continued to doze.

Yuri was hunkered down across from her, one elbow on his knee and supporting his head, the other hand apathetically uprooting bits of grass and tossing them into the fire. Every so often the handful would include dry leaves and snapped twigs, and he watched the fire pop eagerly as it accepted these tidbits.

He inclined his head towards the slumbering figure.

She's already asleep.

What's that all about! She's got some nerve …

"Yeah, to hell with it," Yuri announced to the night air. "I'm just gonna …"

Alice gasped, startling him out of his immoral reverie.

He stared at her, not daring to move or breathe. Crackling of campfire was the only sound.

"Father …"

"Wha … you talkin' in your sleep? Don't scare me like that!" Yuri stood up. "Boy! Why am I stuck protecting this damn girl?" He knelt down beside her, checking to see if she was truly asleep. Alice gasped again; he could see the rapid, darting movement of her eyes behind her closed lids. It gradually slowed, and her breathing evened out alongside it.

"Oh please. Don't tell me she's dreaming about her dad." He got up again, and found himself yawning. "Whew … I'm getting a bit sleepy myself." He squatted down, picking up a stick, and poked at the fire inattentively.

Abruptly, the flames sputtered, flickering and growing dim. The air, already cool in the night, chilled palpably.

Yuri dropped his stick. "Wh-what the? This aura, it's …" He rose nervously.

A shadow faded into reality, a well-built frame dressed in the trappings of a colonel in the Japanese army: long, olive green military trenchcoat and heavy, laced-up boots. The face was fully obscured by a clay mask, bold red and black markings creating the primitive, childlike impression of a smiling fox.

Yuri jumped back, eyes widening at the familiar figure from his dreams.

Fox Face laughed. "At last we meet …"

"F-father …!" Yuri swallowed. This can't be real … "What … what are you doing here!"

"I've come to visit, boy." The fox stepped towards him ominously; the permanent smile on the mask seemed to widen. "The souls of the monsters you've killed are quite lonely, you see …"

Bewilderment.

This can't be real. "Souls of the … monsters …?"

Fox Face paused, then turned his head to gaze at Alice still sleeping on the ground. "What a lovely face. And yet, I must show proper courtesy." He gestured and bowed mockingly. "It is thanks to this woman's power that I am even here."

"Her power! What!"

I must be dreaming …

Brightly painted eyes fixed back on him. "Haven't you noticed? This world overflows with the ghosts of the monsters you've slain. The gate of eternal darkness was closed until now, you see … this woman is causing it to open! The ghosts sealed inside the darkest depths of your heart …"

The fox mask seemed to lick its clay lips hungrily. "… they call to me, boy. And they demand that I devour your very soul!" Fox Face laughed again, vanishing, then reappearing between Yuri and Alice.

"Stay away!" Yuri cried, stepping back. He clenched his fists, his entire body shaking. The fox disappeared again.

"STAY AWAY!"

Smiling fox face sprang forward, a breath away from his own. The polished features dissolved away, then reformed in the gruesome skull of the Death Emperor. It cackled, the stench of decaying, maggot-ridden flesh filling his nostrils.

No. No-

The skull collapsed, fox mask re-emerging.

God damn it, this can't be real – His eyes widened as the fox grabbed him forcefully by the neck, exercising a horrible pressure. Automatically, Yuri raised his own arms to grasp Fox Face's wrists, struggling to wrench away the death-grip. His eye fell on the talisman around his neck, cords tangled up in the fox's fingers, pendant dangling.

The stone was now the sinister hue of dead blood, red and black.

Damn it! Wake up, you moron!

The stranglehold tightened, unnaturally strong fingers digging at his throat, pressing down against his windpipe. Wake up, damn it! Damn it damnit damnitdamnit-

Malice burned hellishly behind the smooth, thin slits of the foxhead mask. Yuri's bloodshot eyes turned glassy and grew ever more sightless, shadows closing in and extinguishing the campfire to faint, dying wisps in the background.

Damn it …

A scream was throttled down to a watery gurgle.

Darkness flooded his consciousness.

He thought of rotting fruit and dead flowers.

The first thing that extended a tendril to Yuri's numbed senses: a musty, saccharine smell that conjured up images of overripe apples fermenting in the soil. Or crackly petals, pink and yellow-brown, crumbling to powdery dust at the lightest touch.

Something sweet and dead and decaying.

The second thing he became aware of was the frigid hardness of the ground, and how uncomfortable it was against his ribs and face. Yuri groaned.

"What's goin' on …"

The gentle, pure jingle of wind chimes tickled the air. He felt no breeze.

Where am I!

Gritting his teeth, he pushed himself off the ground, slowly rising onto his knees. As the dull ache within his bones resentfully subsided, he scanned the landscape.

A ghostly haze permeated the atmosphere. At the skirts of the drifting fog, he saw dark, twisted forms: trees, gnarled of branch and root. A number of them were impaled by – and nearly indistinguishable from – the tall fence that engulfed the entire lot, imprisoning everything behind its thick iron bars. Beyond the bars, all he could glimpse were endless, cadaverous outlines of more trees.

Ahead, he could make out the front of some massive ancient building. To the right, steps led up to a double gate, chained and closed. Directly behind him was another, smaller gate, each side adorned with a pale, flickering blue lamp. It opened into what seemed to be utter void.

The steps he had been lying on extended to a cracked footpath, heading off to these ends and elsewhere – to many small plots of grass and mounds of dirt, all bearing tombstones of varying shapes and sizes: large, small, chiselled, unfinished.

A graveyard.

He was in a graveyard.

This is just like in my dreams!

He inhaled sharply, and the sudden pang at his throat reminded him of the struggle from undefined moments before. His hands instinctively clenched into fists, moving into an offensive position.

Where's …?

Where is he!

There was no one else.

Yuri lowered his arms and laughed nervously. "So he didn't come with me, eh?" He looked around again to be certain.

"Damn!" Right fist slammed into open left palm. "I can't believe this. Honestly, this is a pretty lame illusion.

"If," he reconsidered, "If … it is an illusion." He pondered for a minute, then marched up to a cluster of tombstones, eyeing their arrangement and design. He reached awkwardly out to one, brushing off a thin, filmy layer of dust.

A symbol was painstakingly etched into its face: oval seed-shape, guarded on each side by a ribbonlike curl, the bottom a curved diamond. Like a person with arms raised and bent at the sides, or a stylized flower taking root and ready to bloom. A dusky memory told him: This is the Seal of Earth.

Yup, this is it all right .The graveyard from my dreams.

Abruptly, he clutched the sides of his head with both hands. "Aw, man, I don't want to be remembering this! Now's the part where I get lost, then wake up in a cold sweat just as a monster's about to eat me." He glanced about uneasily. "No, no, NO! Nothin' but trouble ever since that freakin' voice showed up!"

Yuri exhaled, his entire figure slumping.

Maybe I've lost it completely.

He tried to compose himself: rationalize his thoughts, his recent experiences.

"Okay …" He methodically ticked each item off on his fingers. "First, Dad jumps out of my nightmare and shows up right before my eyes … and now I'm in the dream!" He grew more and more agitated, a flood of emotions and thoughts distracting each other. "I save that girl and don't get so much as a smile. C'mon, aren't they supposed to get all dewy-eyed-" He clasped his hands together against his cheek and batted his eyes. "'Ooh, Mr. Yuri! Thank you ever so much!' SMOOCH!"

He stood in that position for several minutes, surrounded by deathly silence.

".. Ain't that how it's supposed to go …?"

The silence became deafening.

Oh man, now I'm all depressed.

Yuri sighed. He turned to look at the open gate. Did I get to here … from there? Could he leave, just like that?

He tried to step out into the void, but something intangible grabbed him: holding him, freezing him, refusing him exit into the nothingness no matter how much he strained.

Eventually Yuri gave up, feeling exhausted, though he hadn't budged an inch. He exhaled loudly in frustration and settled down onto the steps. His eye fell back on the cluster of graves.

"Yeowch!" he exclaimed, trying to fill the unbearable silence. "Aren't these tombstone thingies freaky? Almost like they're alive." He snickered masochistically to himself. "Wouldn't it be hilarious if all the monsters I've killed started crawlin' out of these? Heh heh …"

Yuri trailed off as the rune he had examined earlier began to glow: a wavering green sheen, eerie and bright against the cold stone.

He looked around worriedly at his seating area, wondering if he had touched something. Finding nothing, Yuri approached the headstone again.

"Seal of Earth, huh …?" He poked at it.

A blazing white flash.

Huh!

An enraged roar ripped through the atmosphere.

Yuri stumbled backwards, practically blind and deaf. He shook his head vigorously: glaring pink and yellow spots filled his vision, and his ears felt warm and muffled. Through his limited line of sight, he made out a tall, man-like form.

A solid swipe; something slashed across his head, sending him tumbling against another tombstone and crashing to the ground.

Yuri gripped the edges of the tombstone, pulling himself up. He squinted over it, his sight gradually returning, and winced as the movement drew more blood to and out the deep gashes on the side of his face. Another roar filled his ears, and a blurry movement made him instinctively dive to the side, rolling out of the way. A jarring screech carved the surface of the headstone. He scrambled up, facing his attacker.

It was crouching, hunched and balanced on the headstone, withdrawing its sharp black claws from the gouge it had made. A lean man-tiger of a creature, at least a good foot taller than Yuri, covered with mossy, black-striped fur. Bristling, thick white hairs ran along its back and framed its head. A long, snake-like tail flexed and curled. Its mouth was the most striking feature: rows upon rows of thick, gleaming teeth set in a vibrant blue maw.

Long whiskers quivered as it craned its neck to glare at Yuri. Intense cats-eyes, livid and red, met his. He could see the muscle tissues twitching beneath the fur, sending ripples through its upper body as it twisted to face him. Long limbs and muscles bunched up together, then released with explosive power as it lunged at him.

Yuri dived again; a low, forward flip, then swivelling on his knee and leaping to his feet. Arms stretched out and forward, fists ready. "Come and get me, you flea-bitten mousetrap!" he growled.

The tiger-demon fixed its burning eyes on him, then raised its head to the sky and let loose an unearthly howl. A tremor shook the ground as thousands of glowing lights emerged, hardening into sharp, jagged rocks. With blinding, vicious speed, the swarm cut through the air towards him.

"Agh!" Yuri crossed his arms in front of his face, attempting to shield himself from the barrage. The rocks sliced into his arms, hands, body, their multiplied force pummelling him back.

An angry feline-human shriek; a bound, and the tiger was on top of him, snarling, gaping blue jaws spitting acidic saliva at his face. Yuri struggled under its mass, working to free his arms.

"You-" he gasped, feeling its heft crushing him.

Fist connected just under its right eye. The tigerhead roared in pain.

"Need-" Another fist drove deep into its thick, soft neck, sending the monster choking and sputtering. The tiger wheeled backwards off of him, sprawling and hacking in the dirt.

"- to lose weight," Yuri wheezed, back on his feet. He wiped his face on his sleeve. "And stop drooling, damn it!"

The tiger swung its head towards him and lunged again, roaring madly. Razor-sharp claws glinted at the end of extended arms. Yuri ducked quickly, spun around, and delivered a forcible kick to its chest – all his pent-up frustration, anger and fear behind it.

Ribs cracked distinctly. The momentum of the attack sent the tiger flying back, spine colliding savagely with the corner of a headstone, shattering on impact. A stifled, bubbling heave of a breath escaped from its throat.

The torso folded over and toppled to the ground. Saliva and blood dribbled frothily from its jaws, its pupils contracted and unseeing. Yuri's breath was heavy, rapid, caustic.

He laughed painfully at the lifeless husk. "Yeah, I knew you'd show up! But it didn't quite go as planned, eh?"

To his astonishment, the corpse withered, fading into nothingness, and the glow on the Earth gravestone died away. Without warning, his stomach wrenched, bringing him down to his knees.

What the ...? Suddenly I feel … awful …

In the base of his gut, a violent impulse welled up. He felt something opening inside, something else settling into place, a fraction of his consciousness and will supplanted by the feral, fiery presence of a raging tiger.

And the soul imparted its name: Tigerion.

A new spirit to fuse with …

Is this … my power?

Dizzy, Yuri leaned against the Earth gravestone to catch his breath. He rubbed his cheek absently, then stopped with a start. He looked at his hand.

No blood.

He stared blankly at the Seal of Earth. Perhaps it was due to his inattentiveness or his jitteriness, but the headstone now seemed slightly larger … He hastily backed away from it

His eyes scanned the graveyard; he still wasn't any closer to getting out.

Yuri trudged over to the double gate and grasped its bars. He pushed and pulled with all his might, but it stood firm. Dismay crossed his features.

"What the hell!" Yuri grumbled. "It won't budge." He peered through the bars, seeing dim red shapes through the fog. "But it looks like we can get to the other side …"

Not today, I guess.

Finally, wearily, Yuri raised his gaze to the phantasmal building in the distance. A dim, wraithlike memory stirred in the back of his mind, but slipped away before he could grasp it fully: only a sense of leaden fear, a fear that had been with him for as long as he could remember.

Bet I know what's there. Something ugly. With trepidation, he followed the footpath that led to the foreboding structure.

As he neared, he could see familiar detail emerging from the mist. It was an ornate mausoleum, the steps decorated with brass and bronze statuettes. The entrance was a heavy, shut door plated with swirling, golden motifs. Aging patina ate at its surface, all of it crowned with dead vines and twigs.

That door …

Yuri narrowed his eyes.

"Now I see," he said to the empty air. "So it was you all along pulling the strings, eh?"

In response, four wraithlike shapes condensed into visibility.

Four masks, two on either side of him, animated by glowing smoke that billowed and writhed behind lifeless eyeholes. On his right, a golden bird-face elongating into a thin blade, head bearing a crest of radiating feathers, spun to face him and opened its parrot-beak.

"We are pleased to see you, boy …" The low, maddening caw of the Sword Mask was like a hoarse wind. "The detestable young Harmonixer who damned us to eternal hell …"

Yuri smirked in spite of himself. He shrugged modestly. "Heheh, no need to thank me. But to be honest, I really haven't missed you guys at all."

On his left, a flat, barked face with ragged, flame-shaped horns, fuelled by searing orange smoke: "Ho ho ho," the Staff Mask chortled with wicked delight. "Your pathetic bravado can't hide your fear."

Yuri raised his fists angrily. "Keep laughin'!" he snarled. "I'll slice that stupid mask in two!"

Left: stony wolf-bear, wide-sweeping bull horns, green smoke vivid behind gaping jaws. Gold Mask laughed mockingly. "Your mind may not comprehend this place, but your heart understands it full well." Its breath was earthy and mildewed. "Yes. This world is a reflection of your own mind's darkness, darkness you have created yourself."

Yuri lowered his fists, eyes at his feet, silent.

Right: tarnished silver fish head, white patches and dangling fins, the gilded chalice on its head engulfed in azure smoke. Grail Mask chuckled. "The more of our brethren roaming about the world you strike down, the more you shall become saturated with venomous Malice, born of their bitter vengeance …" It wobbled drunkenly in the air, shaking in anticipation. "And when the limit is passed, so then shall he be reborn into the world of the living."

It cackled. "The man, the very thought of whom makes you shrink in terror …"

In the darkness of the mausoleum, a faint and fleeting visage.

Somewhere in the shadows, a fox laughed.

Yuri jumped back, then caught himself. "Enough!" he screamed. "Shut your stinkin' mask face! That's enough!" His eyes darkened to the same blood-red as the poisoned talisman. "You think I'm scared? Don't make me laugh! I've been huntin' monsters for over ten years. I can handle one or two of those guys with the flick of a finger! You got that, you bodiless freaks!"

Sword Mask laughed in black amusement. "Don't get so excited," it replied without concern. "You loved your father so much that now you're wandering aimlessly in search of him." The voice dripped mock compassion.

Yuri shut his eyes tightly, its words stirring up a fountain of memories inside him. In a dusty corner of his mind, he felt the rays of a warm, red sunset. A tall tree with bowing branches, big enough for three. The terrene smell of rich soil.

Say, Dad … Will you have to go away again in the fall?

Will you be back soon?

Dewy, rustling grass, alive beneath bare feet.

Come back soon, okay …?

Yuri opened his eyes. He knew, no matter how he dwelled on them, the memories would always lead to the same conclusion.

"Stay out of this," he finally answered: a warning, but there was a plea in his whisper. "Look, I'm just out for revenge for my parents. It's none of your concern!"

The Staff Mask paused: the air around it shimmered as though it had shrugged. "Heh. Strange words for someone who still desperately wants to believe his father is alive somewhere …"

I'll try to come back before winter …

A fox mask nestled in a box, bright and colourfully painted.

What a storm … It's not too long now …

A scream, and red splattered the white clay.

"You …" Yuri clenched his fists again, tightly: his nails bit into his flesh, drawing blood. "Now you're really starting to piss me off! Say another word and I'll smash your smirking faces in!"

The Gold Mask convulsed with laughter. "Ha ha ha! Slow down, boy. Worry not, we have a proper opponent for you!" Its empty, bestial eyes gleamed, and Yuri shivered as he felt the air grow cold, churning.

At once, a fierce, bitter hatred emerged from all the graves around him, drawn out by the power of the masks. Hostility, resentment, loathing from all of the monsters he had killed: pure, unbridled hate weighed down on his shoulders, his lungs, nearly suffocating him. It coalesced, gaining matter and form: the form of a pair of immense, conjoined skulls: eyeless and screaming, trailing a ghostly fog of a tail.

He dodged as it shrieked past his head, its teeth clattering noisily, and turned to watch it swerve in the air behind him, returning like a boomerang. Hinged jaws swung open wide, aiming for his neck. Yuri raised his arm reflexively and winced as one skull champed down on his wrist, blood welling up at the laceration.

Taking advantage of the proximity, Yuri bashed at the Malice monster with his free fist. Soon enough, the jaws released, and he quickly stepped into position to attack. To his surprise, after a brief series of punches, the skulls clattered to the ground, dissolving away.

Yuri clasped his bitten wrist, bending and testing the joints. Compared to Tigerion, it had been nothing. "Hah," he sneered. "C'mon, at least give me some sort of challenge!" Wild eyes darted from left to right. "Who's next? You guys!"

The Grail Mask shook its head calmly. "Ho ho ho … Well done." Yuri felt a slight sickness inside, wondering if the battle had only been for show. It continued: "Your victory has swept aside the vengeance of our brethren. And it appears that the reaction of that cursed talisman you hold have vanished as well."

Startled, Yuri looked down at the stone around his neck. Indeed, the dark crimson was fading, reversing, shifting through orange, yellow, green, blue, and finally darkening to its original murkiness.

Sword Mask giggled. "It's too early to get cocky, boy. This purification is only temporary."

"What's that supposed to mean!" Yuri demanded.

"Ho ho ho …" Staff Mask danced in the air. "When you return to your world, killing our compatriots will only result in increased Malice. Then you will come back here to lower it." It leaned forward towards Yuri's face, eye-slits glinting. "No matter how many you slaughter, this hell will continue."

"Then, in due time, he will be resurrected …" Gold Mask guffawed, as though it had a tremendous punch line. "The man you fear more than Death itself!"

All four masks howled manically. "Do you intend to keep running forever …?" Grail Mask taunted.

"How much easier it would be for you if you'd simply come here in death," Staff Mask jeered.

"Enough!" Yuri turned away sharply. "Shut up!"

Sword Mask wheezed, winding its laugh down. "Ha ha ha … Be gone with you, boy! Return to the world of the living!"

Gold, orange, green and blue smoke dispersed, dissipating into the rest of the graveyard's fog.

He was alone again.

I don't know what's worse, their damn cackling or this silence …

Yuri cast his eyes around the graveyard: sweet scent of death still hanging, slight chimes of wind ornaments, the gloom of the mist and shadows of trees and headstones. The double gate was still locked. But something was different.

A weak, wavering light now began to emanate from the open gate.

The way out?

Hopeful, he strode purposefully towards it.

ease! Wa … up!

"… Huh?" Yuri stopped, glanced about for the source of the faint cry. "That voice …?"

It grew more audible. Yuri …! Please, open your eyes!

A stinging pain.

"Aargh!" Yuri collapsed, gripping his head. … My head again …

The air darkened around him. Beyond the gate, the light through the void flickered like a flame, then slowly amplified in intensity.

Louder, clearer: "Wake up! Wake up, please!

"Yuri …!

"Please, open your eyes!"

He awoke with a start.

Alice looked down at him, concern clouding her eyes. Past her, he could see stars twinkling merrily. The sky was clear and cool; a slight breeze carried the scent of embers and faint smoke.

Yuri blinked several times, then groggily sat up. The campfire was completely out.

He thought of the masks, the tiger, the graveyard, and Fox Face's visit in the darkest hours of the night.

So … he's back.

"Are … are you all right?" Alice bit her lower lip, her hands clutching her skirt as she knelt beside him. "You were having a nightmare … Mumbling about masks … and 'Malice'."

Yuri looked away.

"… None of your business," he replied curtly; as soon as the words were out of his mouth, however, he became contrite. She's only worried … "My head's really starting to hurt," he said, trying to excuse himself. "That's all." He got to his feet; dusted himself off, wiped his brow. "Whew … How long was I out?"

Alice rose. "Only two or three minutes since I found you." She hesitated. "But you seemed to be in such pain."

He waved her off. "Nothin' to worry about. I always have nightmares. Ever since I was a kid." He pulled his coat up from the ground, shaking it free of debris, and slid his arms easily into the sleeveholes.

"… C'mon, let's go."

They walked to the edge of the bank, side by side. The trip was a brief, uneventful one, with not even a whisper of a wolf, bat, or giant spider. The river was now completed drained of water, and the two crossed the bed easily.

The muddy path soon gave way to the grassy hills and fields of the countryside. It was still dark, but time became nothing but the pauses between cricket chirps and fluted calls of night-loving birds, their songs riding on soft breezes.

They came to the edge of a field, the grass turning short, stubbly and yellow. It was bordered by a small road that seemed to have been fairly well-used at one time or another. "Hey!" Yuri exclaimed, pointing. "Look at those lights! It's a town." Indeed, a pair of fiery staffs guarding a heavy, bolted gate could be seen even at this distance.

Alice followed his gaze, quiet.

He furrowed his brow. "Why the long face? We'll have food, and a bed to rest on!" Yuri fairly skipped towards the village, spirits lifting immensely at the thought of a good, full meal.

Then the voice spoke again.

He crumbled to the ground, clawing at the gravel as the cacophony assaulted his skull. Alarmed, Alice scurried to his side, then paused and looked about in confusion.

"… Be caref … … … Gua … ian … Purg … tory … man … eater … tr..p … wai … s … you …"

And it vanished, leaving him on his knees, panting. The throbbing in his head melted away.

It's … gone …?

"Aaaargh!" Yuri leapt to his feet. "Leave me alone, damn you!" he shouted at the sky, shaking his fists and buffeting the air. "Leave me ALONE! I'm not a damn marionette, you hear me!" He kicked viciously at the ground, sending small pebbles flying.

"Um," Alice murmured, reaching her hand out to touch his shoulder. "Yuri … That voice."

He halted his tirade and turned his head to glower at her, instantly on the defensive. "Yeah, what about it?"

The hand left his shoulder. "I heard it, too …"

He fully turned, facing her completely, and stared, gaping.

"R-really!" he finally stuttered.

Alice nodded. "Yes," she answered softly. "I don't think it means us any harm." She tilted her head slightly, her gaze suddenly unfocussed. "I didn't sense anything evil about it. I think …" She blinked, and drew her eyes back to his. "It feels like it just wants to tell us something."

A pause.

He found his voice again. "… Oh yeah?"

Alice nodded again, and turned away. "Let's head for the village." She walked off in the direction of the village lights. Yuri stared wordlessly at her back.

That Alice …

She hears the voice but it doesn't bother her!

Why?

He blinked and realized Alice was a good distance away. "Hey, wait up!" he called, trotting after her. "Don't leave me here!"

One dark figure scrambled to reach another, soon easing into a matching, unhurried pace. Endless cobalt sky, blue-black as ink, stretched over their heads.

The same hue, in a more finite form, swung lackadaisically from the talisman around Yuri's neck. But this colour pulsed like a beating heart, like a silent metronome, marking the intervals of time until dark souls would be fed to it: itching to inch closer to a thick, coagulated red.


Author's notes: I apologize for some of my unnatural sentence structure; I'm more used to writing fragmented poetry xD;; /poorexcuse

This was my attempt at novelizing Shadow Hearts from over the summer last year (July 2004), before Shadow Hearts: Covenant came out North American-side. I lost momentum after this chapter though XD and I don't know when or if I'll continue it (even though I know it says "chapter 1" ...). Others seem to be doing similar projects anyways. I didn't deviate much from the game script, but it was still a good exercise just in terms of getting some writing done. I tried hard to capture the atmosphere of dark humour, horror, mythology and Yuri-snarkiness that I loved so much about the series. Don't know if I was successful, though. xD;

Feedback very much appreciated!