A.N.: So almost a year since I updated. I am sooo sorry! It was kinda rough going in different parts, and the chapter didn't to end well, so I hope this will do. I'll try my best to be more prompt.

Also, I don't think I've ever thanked my readers and reviewers, which I think is actually kinda bad, so here's a shoutout to everyone who's read this fic, and any of my others, and a huge thank you for putting up with my lack of any kind of frequent updates! Thank you, everyone.


Two weeks had passed since that bloody night saving Ai, and since then, the violence and destruction had only gotten worse. The whole town of Inaba looked like a ravaged war zone, with cracked and crumbled streets and destroyed homes; rubble strewn about everywhere; rusted, torn up cars. Even the ghost lights were starting to get violent, hurting people, even possessing them.

Almost all the power lines were down, if not broken like snapped twigs, leaving the town mostly without electricity, and many were trying to make do with portable generators bought from either Junes, or from neighbouring towns.

Souji didn't understand why people didn't just pack up and leave.

The hellhounds were aided in their terrorizing of the clueless populace by the Abyssals, the fierce fliers with their metallic feathers that shredded through anything. A lot of people had been admitted to the hospital for ugly gashes and lacerations, gruesome bites from the beasts, and broken limbs, and a lot more were left as mangled corpses, chests torn open and pieces missing. But even with all the glaring evidence of the supernatural running rampant, people still walked about their daily lives, pretending like nothing was wrong with their world, ridiculously deep in denial, despite the rising tension levels in town, and it was starting to frustrate Souji.

Then again, he had never been one to tolerate willful ignorance.

Dojima was back on his feet, with only occasional twinges in his leg from his injury, and he kept Nanako home from school, keeping her occupied during the days with the Hermit Fox and her cubs. Since the revelation of his Social Link with Souji, he had, in not so many words, declared his home as a kind of headquarters, for the several meetings that Souji was holding to keep track of the escalation of the violence. It was also Dojima who stumbled across the fact that salt seemed to keep the wandering spirits away from the house.

Souji and Yosuke ended up patrolling during the evenings, long after the torn up streets had been abandoned for the relative safety for home. Often, they would shift into their Personas, using the superior forms to keep the hounds and Abyssals at bay, cutting through swathes of beasts on the Samagawa, and in the more populated areas of the shopping district.

For whatever reason, none of the schools in town had officially shut down yet, despite a greatly decreasing attendance record as most of the students were staying close to home where it was somewhat safer.

Not that Souji or anyone he knew bothered going to school any more, since it was basically just a waste of time now.

Another statue had been found as well, this time less than a block away from the police station, frustrating the officers and detectives on duty that night, as they had not heard anything. It hadn't lasted a day before being broken by the angry spirits manifesting in town.

The blood seeping out of the TVs was no longer restricted to the nights of the new and full moons anymore, but rather it happened at random, leaving behind a permanent stain behind by the time the sun rose in the dawn hours. Souji grew to admire Nanako even more, ever since he had caught her trying to clean up the stains before everyone else was up in the mornings.

Since he knew his cousin wouldn't just stop trying to get rid of the stains, he managed to dig up some recipes for stain removal for her to go over. It also gave her something to focus on, instead of being frightened by everything that was threatening her family. She wasn't stupid and Souji knew it.

Another thing that Souji and the others began noticing were the deep gouges appearing in the ground around the perimeter of the town, not yet deep enough to cut through the concrete, but there were more gouges every day, slowly widening into a trench with the potential of cutting off the town.

He really didn't want to think of the panic and chaos that would cause.

Hopefully, it wouldn't happen. Yosuke called him overly optimistic, and he was right, but really, Souji more hoped that it wouldn't happen any time soon.

It was in the afternoon close to the end of July, the 24th to be accurate, that Souji came across someone he hadn't expected to be outside in the less than safe environment. Shu Nakajima was walking down the Samagawa, baseball bat in hand, and he didn't seem to notice Souji walking towards him until the smart kid he had tutored almost walked into him.

"Oh! Souji-Senpai! I-I didn't see you! I'm sorry." Shu blushed a little, embarrassed by his lack of attention. Souji could only smile.

"That's alright, I understand. What are you doing out here? Being careful?"

"Yeah, I just got really bored today, so I went out to the field to practice my game."

"Oh, how is that going for you?"

"I'm getting better all the time. Senpai, I thought you were going back to the city?" The question was innocent, Souji knew this, but he couldn't help it as his smile turned a little bitter.

"I did go back, yeah, but my parents had an accident, so I'm living here with my uncle now."

"I'm sorry, Senpai. That was rude of me."

Souji shook his head. "No, it's alright. There's no way you could have known. Now Shu, can I ask you to do something for me?"

The kid shrugged, pushing his glasses further up his nose. "Um sure, yeah. What did you need?"

"You're a very smart kid, so I'm sure you've been noticing all the freaky stuff happening lately. I've been working on trying to stop it from getting worse, but I need your help with that. I want you to call me if anything really strange or scary happens."

Souji noticed that Shu's demeanour instantly turned more hesitant, but that could just as easily be from the tone of the conversation as from anything else, so Souji didn't press.

"Anything? Like what?"

"Strange sights and noises, or things appearing mysteriously out of nowhere that you have no explanation for. You'll know when you find something. I also want you to call me right away if you get attacked. I will come if you call, I promise." Souji had to save himself from saying 'when' instead of 'if'.

He knew Shu would be attacked, just like Dojima had been, and Ai two weeks ago.

Shu nodded fervently, and Souji let him go home, warning the kid once again to be careful and to not hesitate to call him. Shu agreed again and left Souji alone on the flood plane.

He stared after the kid until he was gone from his line of sight before leaving the plane himself, ever watchful of the predators sulking about the shadows.

It was only a day later when the call came. Souji was home cooking dinner with Nanako while Yosuke and Dojima lounged in the living room when his phone started buzzing from its current place on the table. He wiped his hands clean, moving into the living room as he flipped the phone open, bringing it to his ear. It hadn't even reached his ear before he recognized the terrified voice on the other end.

"Help! Senpai, please help me!"

"Shu? I need you to calm down and tell me where you are!"

"The library! I lost track of time and now I can't get out! The place is surrounded and I'm trapped and you said to call if I needed to and Sensei, I need you to help me!"

"Shu! Shu, I hear you! I'm here; I need you to calm down for me, can you do that?" He waited only a moment, waving his hand at Yosuke, silently demanding the brunet's phone. "Find a room, no windows if you can, and hide there. I'm sending help; a friend is closer to you than I am but I am on my way. Do you understand?"

He worked Yosuke's phone, sending a text to Kanji and Rise, since they were closest to the Inaba library, being merely a couple of blocks away. As he hit 'send', he was already halfway out the front door, pausing only long enough to grab his sword and the Evoker that sat on a low table by the door. Yosuke hurried after him, arming himself similarly with a quick goodbye to Nanako and a promise to be careful.

"Y-yeah, I understand." Shu sounded absolutely terrified, and Souji couldn't blame him. "Please hurry!"

His student hung up before he could say another word, but that didn't bother him. Instead, he focused on getting into town as quickly as possible, before it was too late.

Yosuke kept pace with him as they ran through the streets, transforming into their Personas in a now-familiar shower of glittering shattered glass. "Who is it?"

"Shu Nakajima, a very smart kid I tutored last year. He's my Tower." Already, he was getting used to the way their voices resonated with a double echo, and the ease of movement. It hadn't been hard to adapt to the transformation at all, and it made him wonder what it meant.

"Who did you send after him?"

At this, Souji smirked. He had to keep some secrets as a surprise. "You'll see."

He stared at his phone, glaring unblinking at the simple message on the tiny screen for a moment. "Ah, fuck it. Gotta do it sometime."

The Tarot card from his senpai was in his back pocket, and the Evoker that little shit Sanada had given them was shoved into the back of his jeans and he grabbed his weapon from its place near the door as he rushed out.

"Ma, stay inside! I'll be back later!" His mother knew to listen to him about the danger, thankfully, and there was Rise just up ahead, clutching her Evoker like a lifeline. Right, she was support only.

"Kanji! Come on, we have to hurry!"

He caught up to her and took the lead, cautiously navigating the seemingly empty streets. "I don't like this. Too quiet."

Rise nodded in agreement. "I know what you mean. I hope I can help you."

Kanji smiled at the smaller girl as they jogged around the debris. "Hell yeah, nothin' you can't do when you put your mind to it."

"Thanks, Kanji. Look, there's the library!" They ducked down behind a shredded car, stunned at the swarm of beasts and monsters surrounding the building. Abyssals casually flew overhead, and Hell hounds were scattered at the outer edges, keeping their distance from the hoard of massive bulls.

He'd never seen anything like it, not even in the apocalyptic RPGs he was secretly fond of. This new creature was massive, easily three meters tall, with huge horns like a pitchfork. Spiky scales covered its spine, fading into thick leathery skin, and each stomp of those iron hooves cracked the already broken concrete. Green fire floated between the deadly points, and in the dim, sickly light, Kanji was sure that those eyes sockets, on every single beast, was empty, a gaping and bleeding hole.

He had no idea how many of the demons were there, but he knew it wouldn't be long before the library collapsed under the pressure of those things constantly charging it.

"There's not much time," Rise whispered, as though the smallest sound would draw attention to them.

"I know. They better get here soon."

No sooner had he spoken that the Hell hounds began to snarl in their direction, and a few of the bull monsters turned away from the library. One of them snorted, pawing the ground with that massive hoof and Kanji felt all the blood rush from his face.

"Oh SHIT-!"

It charged, green fire trailing behind and Rise screamed as Kanji dropped his shield, pulling out his Persona Card and the Evoker, gun tip digging into his fingers where he held onto the card.

Eyes clenched shut, he pulled the trigger-

Time froze.

He blinked. This was new. He didn't know this street, it certainly wasn't anywhere in Inaba. The street kind of reminded him of... what was that place? Port Island, where they'd gone on their school trip last year, but why would he be here?

The lighting was strange, sickly from the ghastly full moon hanging high above him. But that wasn't right; the next full moon wasn't for another week, at least!

He had no idea why there were a few scattered coffins standing around, or the pools of blood that was everywhere, but he knew it wasn't good. It seriously creeped him out.

"You're not gonna believe this...! This thing is huge!"

What? What the hell was that punk doing here?

"Unfortunately, I don't have time to talk... It's chasing me..." Kanji whirled about just in time to see a younger Akihiko Sanada turn the corner at the end of the block, hands donned in boxing gloves, clutching at his arm as he ran.

"I wanted to let you guys know. I'm almost there." He sounded exhausted, and Kanji could see the blood beneath the glove, staining his otherwise pristine white shirt. Akihiko ran into the building in front of him, slamming the door just as Kanji slipped through. The boxer slumped down against the door as three other people ran towards the fallen boxer.

This Akihiko was so different from the one Kanji barely knew. This one was just a kid still.

Akihiko waved off the others' concern, grimacing from the pain of his wound. "I'm alright. Get ready to be surprised... it'll be here any second."

The dorm, for that's what it had to be, shook, rattled on its foundations by whatever was attacking, and the cold-looking redhead calmly informed Akihiko that he still had to fight.

The glare the boxer flashed was stunning. Kanji was able to see the fire he instinctively knew resided in Akihiko flare as boldly as his defiance, fierce and formidable despite his weakened state and the blood dripping down his arm.

"Like I had a choice."

It hit him hard, the realization. Kanji realized, in that moment, that Akihiko Sanada had struggled long and hard, through pain and insecurities, just like he did, to be strong enough to protect those around him. People depended on him, and right now, there was a kid depending on him to be strong enough to fight, to protect this world, and goddamnit but no monsters were gonna get in his way now!

The Evoker sounded like a cannon going off, deafening in the sudden silence, the blood shattering with a delicate sound, rising up to consume him. It surrounded him, and he could feel it hardening on his skin and clothes, forming into the bulky armoured plates that covered Rokuten Maoh. He grew in height, suddenly seeing the world around him from a lot higher, the weight of his helmet comfortable on his head.

The cocoon of glittering blood exploded away from Kanji as he swung his sword, the enormous fiery blade locking with the bull monster's horns, sliding back only a little as he stopped the angry charge. Pushing hard, Kanji threw the beast back, following up with a quick slash that cut right through the monster, blood splashing obscenely on the broken pavement.

"Enough with this shit," his voice had that double echo he remembered hearing from Souji or Yosuke in their Persona forms, but his was deeper, just barely perceptible. "Thunder Reign."

Great bolts of searing white lightning rained down from the sky, charring hellhounds to cinders and leaving destruction in its wake. In the newly formed chaos, Kanji leapt with his sword swinging, slicing through the beasts around him, making his way towards the library doors.

"Rise! Where's the kid? Can you find him?" He batted away another bull, stepping on an unfortunate hellhound. He mentally cringed at the sticky, prickly feeling of gore beneath his foot. This was going to give him nightmares.

Rise watched from behind her pitiful shelter, peeking around the decimated car to watch as Kanji flattened a whole bunch of the monsters. She ducked back just in time to avoid getting drenched with blood flung from Kanji's sword.

The guy could try to be a little more considerate. Blood was such a pain to wash out of clothes.

She hoped that Souji and Yosuke got there soon, because she was about useless right now, and there were too many monsters for even Rokuten Maoh's impressive strength. She knew she had to try, but Kanzeon was a long range support base more than anything. She really didn't know how she was going to help, even if she could transform.

Kanji's shout brought her out of her daydream, seriously, what was she thinking? And it hit her, Kanzeon worked like a satellite, searching over distance for the objective; in this case, Shu Nakajima. She would be able to find him inside the library, and direct Kanji to the kid.

She stared for a long moment at the Evoker in her hand. Could she do it? She didn't have a choice.

Rise held her Kanzeon Tarot card over her heart, closing her eyes as she placed the tip of the gun against the back of her hand, pulling the trigger before she could chicken out.

The Evoker went off, loud in her ears –

She opened her eyes, shrinking back at the sight before her. She was in a strange, kind of abstract room, a set of stairs leading to a door in midair, surrounded by people. She briefly recognized a younger Akihiko Sanada facing off against two monsters, no, these were Shadows when a girl her age walked into the middle of the standoff, dazed. A blue haired girl ran to her, pleading for her to run before turning to the Shadows and raising an Evoker.

"Wait! That's not a weapon!" Akihiko sounded so much younger, it was kinda strange.

"I know..!" The girl's, Fuuka's voice echoed in Rise's head just as the Shadows attacked.

The Persona that appeared, sheltering Fuuka inside itself was stunning, gorgeous, and it repelled the Shadows easily, and Rise watched as Fuuka guided her team to a stunning victory, much like Rise did with Kanzeon.

"Yamagashi, can you assist the others?"

"I'll do my best!"

That's what Rise had to do; she had to do the best she could to help her friends, to help Souji win this supernatural war. There was no other option, nothing than to just suck it up and fight with all her power.

Time resumed and Rise doubled over at the sensation of Kanzeon enveloping her in a glittering mass of blood-stained glass, transforming her into the being she could only be truly comfortable with as the antenna array materialized above and behind her. The surge of information was astounding, but she understood it all with ease, taking the information in her head and sorting it like she would with files on her laptop. It happened instantly, reacting with her subconscious.

She cast tetrakarn, protecting herself from the demons around her as Kanji went deeper into the crumbling building searching for Shu. Then she cast her senses out, past the monsters, past Kanji, and she found him, huddling down in a small conference room near the center of the library in the middle of the stacks.

'I see him. He's in the small room off the checkout desk. Hurry Kanji!'

As she had no mouth as Kanzeon, Rise spoke telepathically, and it startled her to hear her own voice inside her head and tinny as though coming through a speaker. She paid it no mind as a few monsters crashed into her tetrakarn shield, forcing her to recast it before it broke.

She cast her senses further, and heaved a mental sigh of relief as her scanners picked up Souji and Yosuke's life signs coming in fast.

Kanji barely flinched as Rise's voice echoed electronically in his head, instead focusing his attention on bashing another bull through the wall. He knew the room she mentioned; he was almost right on top of it. All he had to do now was defend it until Souji and Yosuke arrived, which he hoped was soon, because as strong as he was as Rokuten Maoh, it wouldn't last forever.

The library building was a mess, broken books scattered amongst the rubble he was creating, which was a shame, but not really important at the moment. "Primal Force!" A downward strike spilled blood and gore everywhere, destroying another monster. Damn things needed a name, just to keep 'em straight!

"Rise! Need a little help here!" It was all he could to hold them as the building fell apart around him, very few rooms left intact including the one behind him and Kanji sighed in relief as he felt the tingle of Tetrakarn being cast around the kid. "What's their ETA?"

'They're almost here, just a few minutes longer.'

He could handle that; he was Rokuten Maoh, after all. A powerhouse, built to endure and while his magic wasn't the strongest, his physical strength was. Besides, he had to beat this because he was long overdue for an actual conversation with the Sanada punk. He wanted to know the man that kid had grown into.

While he was at it, might as well admit (at least to himself) to the attraction he had for the guy.

"Come on, you bastards! I'll show you why you don't wanna mess with me!" Secure with the knowledge of Rise's shield around the kid, Kanji threw himself into the hoard of monsters with a warcry, sword swinging and stained red with blood.

Inside his room at the Amagi Inn, as he changed into casual sleepwear of sweats and a t-shirt, Akihiko shivered a chill running down his spine as his eyes darted around the room. Everything was normal, though; nothing was out of place. He frowned, only mildly worried but he dismissed it from his mind. If there was truly something to worry about, he'd know about it, or he'd be finding out pretty damn quick.

Maybe he should call Mitsuru. She was probably chomping at the bit for his next call anyway; it had been a few days since his last update.

And maybe, just maybe, she could help him figure out why he kept thinking about the Tatsumi kid. He had an idea, but didn't want to admit to it just yet.

She picked up on the first ring. "You're late."

"It's been busy here. Can't really help it."

"Things are escalating, I take it?" He'd been keeping her apprised of all the strange happenings in town, from the nightmarish moon he was familiar with to the blood-stained TVs to the patrols he and the others in Souji's team had taken up. Mitsuru approved of his involvement with these kids, these ridiculously strong kids, and had implied that Akihiko seemed more and more... content.

Like how he had been as a member of S.E.E.S under Minato's leadership.

He found that she was right and also that it no longer hurt to think of Minato and his sacrifice.

"Yeah, I'd say things are escalating. Like something out of Junpei's video games."

"Did you want me to call the others? It's something I have been contemplating and I know Yamagishi would come with me. Iori, too, and Ken is always happy to see you."

Akihiko shook his head, despite the gesture being useless on the phone. "No, they have their lives ahead of them, and they should be free to live them. You as well. Besides, this is Souji's fight and his friends will follow him anywhere."

"And what about you, Akihiko? You fought just as hard as the rest of us for the chance of peace, for your own life. You deserve to live your life as well."

"But Mitsuru, I am living it. I've always been a fighter, you know this. But I think maybe I'm happy here, fighting beside these kids. They're incredible, have I told you?" He relaxed against the windowsill, staring out into the night. "I don't think we were ever as good as they are."

Mitsuru's laughter could almost be called a giggle, were it anyone else. "You've mentioned it on several occasions, and now you're a part of this magnificent team."

"Yeah, I guess I am."

"But you didn't call just to reminisce. Something has been... well, not bothering you, but you do have something weighing on your mind."

Akihiko chuckled, not surprised that Mitsuru could pick up on that. "You're right, as always. Like I said, these kids are incredible; Souji's leadership is powerful, almost effortless; Yosuke's loyalty is on par with Aigis, and I feel... jealous watching them together. Yukiko's like a rock, a shelter in the storm, while Chie's all heart. Rise's like Fuuka, surprisingly down to earth for an idol, and Naoto's spirit reminds me of you, actually. Kanji is the team's strength."

Mitsuru was silent for a long time, but it wasn't an uncomfortable silence. Akihiko didn't mind at all; it gave him time to reflect on his time here in Inaba and his interactions with Souji and his friends. He still felt like an outsider, and rightly so, but there was a feeling of warm acceptance with he was with them, though slow with the Tatsumi punk but still there, and for that he was relieved.

"Sounds like you have a crush on him, Aki."

He blinked, surprised at both the familiar nickname and at Mitsuru's statement. "Where'd you pull that from? I don't have a crush on Tatsumi!"

He knew he should have kept his mouth shut right then; he could hear the smirk on Mitsuru's lips.

"Did I say your crush was on Tatsumi? But thank you for telling me anyway, although I had guessed from your tone when you speak of him. What draws you to him? From your observations, he sounds rash, reckless, foolhardy, and in general, a punk."

Akihiko laughed, a wry smile tugging at his lips. "He antagonizes me. He's irreverent, has no respect for anyone other than his friends and... he stirs up the fight in me. I want to take him on, to fight him one on one for the sake of the fight. He draws out my own strength, and he's strong himself. God, you should see him in action with that shield of his."

Mitsuru was once again silent, analyzing his words and the emotions fuelling them. To her, it sounded like Akihiko had finally found what he'd been searching for since Minato's death and the revelations behind the Abyss of Time.

She refused to allow him to waste this perfect opportunity.

"It sounds like more than just a crush."

She was right. With a sigh, Akihiko rubbed at his eyes with his free hand. "Yeah, you're right. Like usual."

"Go after it, Akihiko. Go after him. Get to know this kid first, be his friend first. I think you'll truly be happy and that's all I've ever wanted for you." She paused for emphasis. "I can tell you it's not going to be easy, but you never back down from a challenge. If you fail to take the initiative on this, I'll have to visit and execute you myself."

The order (and threat) was implicit and Akihiko had to beat down the sudden onset of nausea as nervousness roiled in his gut. He knew she would do it, without a doubt. The girl was... intense.

"Yeah, I got it. No need for threats."

Again, he could hear the smirk, could visualize it perfectly. "It wasn't a threat."

Very, very true. More of a promise.

"Ok, moving on. Inaba's a disaster, and the people are just as oblivious as with The Fall. I'm not too sure how much longer there'll be cell reception, with the state of deterioration here. If I don't check in, don't panic right away. I somehow get the feeling that you'll be able to know what's happening here anyway."

"I understand. I wish you luck, Akihiko. Do what you feel is right."

"I will. And... thank you, Mitsuru."

He knew she would understand what he meant.

The phone call finished shortly after and after Akihiko set his cell down on the table by the door, turning off the lights as he passed, he returned to his spot by the window, at ease in the dark. It was perfect for his wandering mind. He stared out into the night, taking in the stillness; he couldn't even hear the hellhounds that usually prowled at night.

He couldn't even try faking being optimistic and hoping it was a good sign. Something was happening tonight, but Souji must have it under control. The silver haired Persona User was always in the thick of things; then again, with his Social Links being targets, he was bound to be.

With his newfound knowledge of the Social Links and the ability to wield multiple Personas, Akihiko was certain that Minato had also forged Links, undoubtedly different from Souji's due to the different people in their lives. The Ebihara girl had been the Moon, and Detective Dojima was the Heirophant, meaning these Social Links followed the Arcana that had controlled the Shadows of the Dark Hour. He wasn't completely certain, not without asking Souji directly, but he did wonder who filled the other roles in the Arcana.

Minato had once called him the Emperor. Who was Souji's Emperor? He wondered if Kanji was the Emperor, it would suit.

God, how in the hell had he fallen for the kid? Hell if he knew, he'd figure it out later.

Maybe he should stop calling Kanji, or any of them, kids. They weren't really kids after all they've done, such as fighting, and defeating, Gods.

Hell, how old was Kanji? Akihiko would be 21 in September, and he wasn't even sure if Kanji was even legal. What did that say about him?

Suddenly disgusted with himself, Akihiko turned away from the window and crawled into bed. He did send a quick text to Mitsuru, informing her that she was encouraging a relationship (if possible) with a minor. She sent a fast reply telling him to do things properly or there would be an execution in his future.



Souji didn't hesitate; at the first sight of the monsters surrounding the remnants of the library, he swung his polearm, watching gleefully as the few hellhounds were eviscerated, Abbysals fell from the sky mangled and a few of the bulls simply fell to pieces in the ruins of the street. Yosuke followed his attack with a Panta Rhei, the massive cyclone decimating the rest of their enemies.

"Rise! Kanji!"

'Here, Senpai, I'm fine. Rokuten Maoh's inside with Shu.' He repressed his flinch at Rise's voice inside his head, seeing the girl-turned-Persona; it was kind of startling. She dropped her tetrakarn spell and glided over to them, the disks of her antenna flashing periodically.

"Thank you." Yosuke stayed with her as Souji made his way through the wreckage, spotting Kanji's distinctive red and black armour easily, even in the dark of the night. Only the small room Shu had taken shelter in was relatively intact and Kanji stood in front of it, sword drawn and surrounded by mangled corpses. The stench of fresh blood was thick and heavy in the air.

Souji dropped his Persona appearance, skirting around the large pools of blood and gore until he was in front of the door, standing next to Rokuten Maoh's leg. He absently noted that as a human, he only reached the Person's knee in height.

He knocked lightly on the cracked door to announce his presence to the boy inside. "Shu, it's me Souji. I'm here, like I said I'd be. Wanna let me in?"

He waited patiently, and after a few long minutes, he heard movement and the lock being disengaged. The battered door flew open and Souji barely managed to keep his balance as the kid lunged for him, throwing his arms around Souji's waist in a crushing grip, sobbing his little heart out. It tore at Souji to hear him, voice shrill with stark terror.

"Shu, it's ok. You're safe now, I'm here." He wrapped his arms around the boy's shoulders as a comforting gesture. "You're safe."

"I did what you said, but - so scared!" Almost every other word was punctuated with a gasping sob. "I was so scared! I could hear things... thought – I thought I was gonna die!"

"I know, but you did very good. I'm so proud of you, Shu. You were so very brave, and everything's going to be fine, I promise." He kept his words soft, soothing, like he did with Nanako when she was upset. He kept up a litany of calming reassurances as Shu slowly calmed himself down, guiding the boy around the blood and away from the mess, being careful to keep Shu's eyes covered. He really didn't want the kid to see the devastation.

Once outside, Souji guided the group away from the library ruins, just around the block and out of sight. He got Shu to sit on the curb, taking a seat right beside the kid with an arm wrapped around his shoulders and with gestures, had the others on guard duty for anymore nasties out there.

"Shu, doing any better?" There was a hesitant nod. "Ok, then I need to ask you something, if that's alright."

"Wh-what is it?" Shu kept his eyes firmly on his shoes, not that Souji could blame him.

"Have you noticed anything... different lately? Like an itch in a specific spot or a mark."

Shu stilled beside him, tense, and Souji had his answer. "Can I ask where it is?"

It was several long minutes before Shu moved, shifting away from Souji's side, staring resolutely at the ground as he lifted the bottom of his shirt, revealing a black lightning bolt on his stomach, just to the immediate right of his navel. Souji only saw it for a moment, long enough to recognize what it represented before Shu dropped his shirt, hiding the tattoo from view.

"When did that show up, the other day when I ran into you?" Another shaky nod. "It's ok, I'm not mad or anything. I'm just glad we got to you in time."

"What happened?"

Souji hesitated, wondering how much he should tell Shu. Maybe only a little bit of the truth. "There's something going on, and I'm trying to stop it. Sadly, because of that, everyone I know is a target. I'm sorry for that, and if I could prevent it I would. I need you to be strong for me, just like you have tonight and I will do everything in my power to make it all ok." He really didn't want to tell outright lies and he figured Shu would appreciate the truth better.

"Just take me home." The barely whispered words stung, but he knew how Shu was feeling right at that moment. The kid just needed time.

"Ok, I can do that." Souji signalled for the others to maintain a perimeter just out of sight as he walked Shu home, keeping his arm around the kid despite the apparent rejection. He would do anything to protect the people he was responsible for.

It didn't take long for them to arrive at the Nakajima home and before the kid could disappear inside, Souji held him back.

"I know you don't want to hear this right now, but if you need anything, you call me. No exceptions. I will always protect you, Shu, whether you want me to or not. I also want you to pack up and go to the Amagi Inn if you feel even remotely threatened. I can promise you that you'll be safe there." With those words, he released his grip on Shu and the kid bolted inside, locking the front door behind him.

He walked away, feeling a sense of defeat even though they had won this night. He didn't like leaving with that feeling of rejection from Shu, but there was nothing he could actually do about it. The Social Link was solid, their bond was unbreakable, but Shu needed time and all Souji could do was give it to him.

"Let's go, we're done tonight." He took a moment to pull out his Evoker, shifting into Izanagi. He could use a patrol right about now, if only to alleviate the stress of the night and his frustrations.

Souji called a meeting the next day, just to tell the others about Shu and the Morax, the name Kanji started using to describe the bull monsters. Apparently, it was some kind of bovine type of demon, which was fitting.

Shu hadn't called him, although Souji had stopped by the house to check up on the kid. He knew all this was overwhelming in a huge way.

The rest of the week and weekend passed in a flurry of patrols, ghost hunts, possessions and recovery sessions spent patching each other up in the Dojima household. Yosuke, Yukiko and Rise were getting quite good at stitching up open gashes and making bandages.

Souji was out on another supply run for the house, gathering medical supplies when he ran into someone he hadn't expected to out near Deidara's weapons shop. He stopped to watch as Sayoko stumbled along the ravaged street, a shocked and dazed look about her.

"Sayoko-san? I thought you were in Africa. What brought you back?" He asked when she was close enough to hear him.

"Souji-kun, what's going on, what's happened here?"

Since he could always finish his shopping later, Souji led the nurse away from the destruction of the shopping district to the less shock-inducing scenery of the floodplane. There, he explained the civilian-friendly portions of the events thus far, like the ghost sightings and the diminishing condition of the town.

"You're keeping something from me, I can tell." Sayoko said after she'd had some time to process all she'd heard from Souji so far. "You don't have to tell me everything, but don't spare anything due to some misguided notion of my sensibilities. I was a trauma nurse before I came here. There wasn't much I haven't seen before."

He nodded, considering the idea. "What brought you back to Inaba in the first place?"

"I received an urgent letter from my bank. Africa wasn't going to be a permanent gig, so I needed to have some place to come back to when I was finished there." She shrugged, relatively unconcerned. "But when I came back, my account manager was confused; no one at the bank had sent any such letter."

Hearing that sent warning chills down Souji's spine, and he made a decision to reveal to Sayoko as much of the truth as she could handle. This complicated matters, and he wasn't sure how just yet, but this meant that something had brought Sayoko back to Inaba, just as something had brought him back, in the form of his parents' deaths.

Everything that had happened so far, and everything that has yet to happen; it was all a test, for him, and for the others.

What it meant, he didn't know.

Not yet, anyway.

"Sayoko, you're in danger, for as long as you stay in Inaba." He staved off her protests. "It's true, because of your connection to me. I'm being tested and everyone I know is in danger and everyone I care about, and the world beyond will die should I fail."

She stared at him for a long time, ignoring the ghosts and wraiths around them, ignoring the remnants of the sluggish Samagawa behind her, ignoring the dead fish and the blood as she seemed to search his very soul for the answers she wanted.

She must have seen something in him because she smiled, although it was kind of sad. "Then I guess that you won't fail."

He laughed bitterly, feeling the weight of his burden surrounding him. "I wish I had your faith. But seriously, it's dangerous out here, and I need you to be careful. Get inside before dark, while the sun is still in the sky and stay there until morning. If anything happens, or even if you're just worried about something, I want you to call me, and I will come to you, ok?"

She looked down briefly at the card he handed her with his cell number written on it before tucking it away in her purse. "Of course. You be careful too, Souji-kun."

Sayoko left him standing there, on the banks of the desiccated Samagawa, heading in the direction of the Amagi Inn, where she would be relatively safe under the watchful eyes of both Yukiko and Akihiko.

Souji turned away from her retreating form, going back the way they came so that he could finish his shopping, because there wouldn't be too many opportunities to stock up before the end.

Yosuke woke up to the sound of a shrill beeping, the dawn only starting to come in through the window. He recognized the sound as Souji's cell phone, so he nudged his partner awake, his elbow catching the other's ribs.

"Dude, your phone; should probably answer it." He still hadn't exactly woken up yet so he huddled back down under the blankets, stealing Souji's spot as the slightly younger teen shifted and crawled his way to his phone on the desk.

Souji managed to get to it before it rolled over into voicemail. "Hello?"

Yosuke dozed as Souji answered the call, but he woke as his lover stiffened beside him in shock. He could barely hear the person on the other end of the line, shouting frantically about something. He sighed, dragging himself out of bed in search of clothes, grabbing some for Souji while he was at it.

"Calm down, we'll be there in fifteen minutes. Call the others and have them meet us where you are." He smiled gratefully as Yosuke passed him his clothes, scrambling into them as he ended the frantic call.

"Dude, what's going on?"

"Rise wants everyone on the edge of town; something's happened that she can't explain. Apparently we need to see it to believe whatever it is." Souji shrugged, tucking his Evoker into the back of his jeans. "It's not good, I know that much."

Yosuke scowled, clipping his belt around his waist, his ninja blades secured on either side. "Damnit, we're really screwed, aren't we?"

"Kinda looks like it, yeah."

They were out the front door minutes later, and Souji could already tell that something was wrong; the air was still, too still and very quiet, and the sky shimmered oddly in the morning light. Since the closest edge of town was out by the Amagi Inn, they headed in that direction, where the rest of the team was already waiting for them.

Souji couldn't say he was actually surprised by what was there; he'd been hoping that it wouldn't happen. He walked right to the edge of the new ravine, the gaping trench gouged out of the earth, so deep he couldn't see the bottom and far too wide to even think of crossing without a bridge.

Not that they could, since that odd shimmer turned out to be a barrier, mostly translucent but solid as tempered steel, shimmering with a multitude of colors, a vast array of golds, reds and oranges, mixed with blues and greens of all shades. He raised a hand to the barrier, ignoring the static charge that sizzled at his fingertips, sending tiny arcs of blue lightning outward in all directions.

"Souji, what happens now?" Akihiko asked quietly.

"What happens now?" He turned his back on the barrier, gray eyes hardened with resolve. "We're cut off, so what happens now is we survive."

Something, or rather someone, was testing them, testing him? Fine, so be it.

He would lead them to meet the challenge head on, without faltering and without failure, and nothing was going to stand in his way.

AN: As always, let me know what you think, what could be improved, glaring errors, stuff like that, I tried to catch it all. It's always appreciated. Again, thank you all for reading.