The cave was pitch-black and crushingly silent. Such places often had the relentless drip of water or the rustling of animals to fill the empty echoing gaps between rock walls, but this one was seemingly dead. Its emptiness was why Kaim and Sarah had come here, for they had wondered what caused it and why nothing else had moved in since. They had been fine initially with Sarah's magic to light their way, but she had stumbled and the flame went out. Kaim called her name, but she did not answer. He reached for her and found nothing.
He remained still, knowing she would call out for him and he would be able to find his way to her. He had been waiting for much longer than he had expected when he heard a thin, sharp cry followed by a menacing growl. He hurried toward it, placing his feet as quietly as he could and tracking the sound--a difficult feat when every noise bounced off the walls and multiplied a hundredfold.
The cave narrowed, and the passageways began to twist. Kaim put out a hand to guide himself, and it came away damp. He brought his hand close to his face and sniffed. It smelled of copper and iron.
He could only hope it wasn't Sarah's blood.
Ahead of him, the growl echoed again. He tried to move faster, but the painfully uneven floor of the cave hampered his stride. He took another step forward—
The floor crumbled away beneath his feet in silence.
He grabbed for the wall, but his hands slid too easily across blood-slick stone. He tried to grab at the floor as he fell, but it ran like blood through his fingers.
The fall seemed to go on forever, yet when he landed it wasn't as painful as it should have been.
The first thing he noticed was that there was light, though it was eerie and green-tinged and more luminescence than light. The second thing he noticed was a mass of writing black reaching out to strike him.
Kaim leapt to his feet and drew his sword as the mass divided into three lesser black heaps, each wearing a purple mask in lieu of a face. He struck at the nearest, and it shrieked and crumpled in on itself at the first touch of steel. Encouraged, he slashed at the other two. When all of them were shriveled into tiny heaps, he took the precaution of hitting them again. They dissolved into a mist of black fluid.
Kaim kept his sword in hand and looked around him. He stood upon a street covered in some kind of black material, smooth but clearly embedded with tiny rocks that glistened in the sickly green light. There were buildings in neat rows along the sides of the street.
It took him a moment to realize what was wrong, with the way that the green light distorted his perceptions, but after a moment it came to him.
Everything was smeared in blood.
Kaim had seen strange things in his long life—his "immortality" not least on the list—but never before had he fallen through the floor of a cave into what appeared to be a city street.
"You there!" The voice was clear, commanding, and definitely feminine. Kaim turned and saw a red-haired girl in a short black skirt, white blouse, red armband, and high-heeled boots striding toward him. She bore a narrow blade that looked to have little use beyond stabbing, but suited her slight build.
He shifted his weight so that he stood in a defensive stance, but made no move to attack her. She paused some twenty feet away. "Who are you?" she asked.
"Kaim," he answered curtly. "And you?"
"Kirijo Mitsuru," she said, and then fell silent.
Silence was no foe to Kaim. He waited her out.
Suddenly, she startled, and spun to her left. Kaim heard the noise as well, and turned. Another writing black mass was crawling across the ground to them. Kaim readied his sword.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mitsuru raise a gleaming metal object to hear head. A loud sound erupted from it as she shouted, "Penthesilea!" He saw, superimposed over her, the image of what he could only describe as a goddess. The goddess turned and huge ice crystals rained down upon the black mass. It gave a horrifying shriek and disintegrated.
Mitsuru sheathed the metal object in a leather pocket affixed to her belt and turned to him. "Did you have any traveling companions?" she asked briskly.
"My wife, Sarah," Kaim answered. "She fell when we were exploring the cave, and I need to find her if I'm going to have a hope in hell of finding my way back."
Mitsuru nodded, her eyes narrowed in thought, and examined the area around him. Then she tapped the metal headband she wore. "Yamagishi, I need you to search for someone."
Kaim heard a blurred impression of speech, and wondered about the mechanics of the device. It would be useful on a battlefield--or to keep himself and Sarah from getting separated in the future.
The tinny, blurred speech paused, then picked up again a moment later. "Thank you," Mitsuru said, and turned back the way they'd come. "This way."
Kaim took two long strides to catch up with her. She had not sheathed her sword, and nor did he. He could hear the growls of the shadowy creatures that circled around them.
"Avoid engaging them if you can," Mitsuru said quietly. "There is little point in spending our strength when they can be avoided." Kaim nodded.
As they moved through the silent streets, he began noticing scores of glossy black coffins, gleaming faintly blood-coloured. They were standing upright clustered in groups all along the street. He caught Mitsuru's eye and tilted his head toward them.
"In the Dark Hour, those without potential Transmogrify to keep them safe from Shadows," she said.
"What do the Shadows do?" Kaim asked, since that was the one part of her explanation that he clearly understood.
Mitsuru hesitated. "They devour your mind," she said. "Those attacked by Shadows merely sit, moaning occasionally. They do not respond, do not speak, do not take action. We call it Apathy Syndrome."
An icy shiver raced down Kaim's spine, and unbidden, the image of Sarah sprang to mind. He shook his head to dispel the picture of her sitting lifeless and unresponsive. "What did you mean, potential?" he asked instead.
"The potential to summon a Persona," Mitsuru answered almost absently, scanning the street ahead of them. "It is how we fight the Shadows." She tapped the headband again. "Yamagishi, are we getting close?"
Standing this close to her, Kaim could almost make out the other girl's words. "Ahead . . . but Shadows . . . be careful."
Mitsuru picked up her pace, the heels of her boots clicking briskly on the pavement. "We should hurry," she said. "Yamagishi says that there are Shadows gathering where she senses someone."
Kaim moved a little ahead of Mitsuru, looking around for Sarah. She had been wearing dark green. Of course, with the eerie light, everything looked green, but that was no deterrent.
"There!" Mitsuru broke into a run and passed by him. Kaim saw the mass of writhing black closing in on a small heap of green, and charged.
Over and over again, Mitsuru's tool blasted noise and light as she called upon Penthesilea to rain ice down upon the Shadows. Kaim waded into the thick of the battle, trying to reach Sarah and slashing at anything that came near him. A few of the Shadows seemed able to deflect his own attacks back onto him, and he grimaced as his own sword dug deep gouges into his leg.
Penthesilea sprang into existence once more, only this time she pointed at Kaim. Pure white-gold light coalesced around him and sank into his skin, mending the wounds he had taken as easily as he breathed. He shouted his thanks to Mitsuru and slashed at the next Shadow.
Fire blossomed all around him.
Sarah was huddled on the ground, bleeding profusely, but an expression of fierce concentration lit her face as she raised her hands to call down magic. All around her, Shadows screamed and died. More of the white-gold light rained down on Sarah, and the wounds closed.
Kaim ran his sword through the last Shadow. Even before its death-cry had faded, he knelt next to Sarah, checking her for other wounds.
"I'm all right," she assured him, reaching up to brush back the strand of hair that always fell into his face. "Where are we?"
"Port Island," Mitsuru answered. She offered a hand to help Sarah up.
Sarah frowned. "I can't recall reading of any Port Island in the histories," she said to Kaim.
"I think we must have stumbled out of that world to this one," he said.
Sarah shivered faintly. "How will we get back?" she asked.
"I don't know," Kaim answered honestly.
"You'll need to hurry," Mitsuru said. "The Dark Hour will be ending soon, and the landscape will alter. In addition, it will be difficult to explain your armaments to the public when the Dark Hour ends."
"What's that?" Sarah was looking past Kaim's shoulder. He turned and saw what appeared to be an archway between two buildings, and a stone path leading away that looked very like the floor of the cave they had been exploring.
"Go," Mitsuru said. "You've got five minutes."
"Thank you for your assistance," Kaim said to her. "And please thank Yamagishi."
Mitsuru nodded and turned away. Kaim took Sarah's hand, and they walked toward the archway.
"We'll have to explore that cave again," Sarah said. "If there are more worlds . . . "
"Yes," Kaim said.
Sarah smiled. "I liked her."
"I did too."
They walked through the archway together, and found themselves back in the cave--and wrapped in pitch blackness.
Sarah sighed. "I should have remembered to do this first," she muttered. When she conjured the flame, they both laughed.
It had been an odd experience, Kaim thought, but not an altogether unpleasant one. Perhaps they could go back someday when their task here was done.