(Belated warning for some violence and gruesome imagery in this one.)
Naoto woke to heat, darkness, and the taste of iron and dirt in her mouth.
Though her head felt clogged, panic quickly set in. Something was weighing down her limbs, pressing against her skin, pushing down on her eyelids. Instinctively she tried to free her arms, fingers scrabbling at whatever she was covered—no. Buried in. It was soil, that was the where the taste came from. There was dirt in her mouth and nose and her lungs were burning, her breath ragged and frantic and—
Yamato Takeru. His voice was like birdsong, different to Sukuna-Hikona's buzz and yet the same. The soil was loose, so logically, there had to be air pockets. She clawed at it urgently, working her arms upward, searching for the surface, swallowing the urge to scream.
Finally, her right hand broke through to warm air. She groped around for something to hold on to and found what felt like the edge of a heavy stone. Gripping it was difficult from this angle, but the panic was building again, and with a strength born of desperation Naoto slowly dragged herself up through the dirt. She lunged through the surface, scattering it around her, and crawled out of her makeshift grave.
She'd expected to see light, but her surroundings were only dimly lit. Her body was torn between coughing violently and gasping for breath, and it took several minutes before she could register that she was in some sort of cave. Stalactites hung from the ceiling, and she'd grabbed on to part of a jutting rock formation. The only light came from a fiery torch about two meters above her, too little to tell how large the cave was.
Where was she? Why weren't the others—
Everything rushed up behind her, all at once. The fight. Izanami, skeletal arms reaching as she'd reared back. The dark pool that had appeared beneath Souji, and how Teddie had been the first to—
He'd been first, but he hadn't been the only one. Chie had been next. Then Kanji. Naoto had gone after that, and then most likely the others, Souji included. The thought gutted her, leaving behind a raw and bitter ache far too familiar to the one she'd felt eleven years ago, when Yakushiji had called her from her grandfather's study and haltingly explained what had happened to her parents. Then, as now, it seemed like the only sensible answer was to stop. To give up.
…Which her parents would never have condoned. Nor would the team.
Naoto pulled herself to her feet.
The watch was more conspicuous than Naoto had anticipated during construction. It could still be hidden under her jacket sleeve though, and the others had so far been polite enough not to mention that Kanji now wore an identical model.
Up ahead, Rise and Kanzeon were leading them along a path of red tile, through the fog toward Izanami. The fog swallowed all sound, muffling even their footsteps.
"Not much further, guys," Rise said.
"This place is—" Souji hesitated. "Familiar, I guess?"
"Duh, Senpai. It's foggy. That's pretty familiar to all of us."
Rise was trying to keep her voice light, but there was an undercurrent of tension that had been present since they'd entered the TV world. Kanzeon had instantly picked up on Izanami's presence, as strongly as if hundreds of Shadows were bearing down on the group. Factor in the dreams they'd all almost certainly had last night, and...well. Rise might be a good actress but she knew better than all of them exactly what they were going to face - which, Naoto reasoned, was precisely the reason she was trying and failing to sound optimistic.
Souji was walking alongside Rise, one hand resting on her shoulder. Teddie was trying to do the same with Yosuke, who kept shrugging him off. Off to the side, Chie and Yukiko were in quiet conversation. Finally, on the opposite side of the group, Kanji was walking in silence, metal shield tucked under his arm.
Naoto glanced at her watch. 3m.
She looked back at Kanji, caught his eye – earning a nod and a lopsided smile – then turned her attention back to the path ahead.
The cave's corridors were maze-like and difficult to navigate. Yamato Takeru floated obediently beside Naoto as she walked, casting enough light for her to see three or four meters ahead and more than enough to illuminate the insects crawling the rocky walls. The air was warm and smelled sickly-sweet, yet tasted sour.
Izanami had killed them, and while mythology was not one of Naoto's typical areas of knowledge or interest, she'd done some research following the awakening of her Persona. Given the circumstances, she could guess where she had been sent. If she was dead, yet still aware, then presumably one or more of the others would be in the same predicament. It seemed like a long shot, but right now she was not above clinging to futile hopes. She continued walking, carefully checking for signs of other presences, until one of the corridors opened up into a large chamber. There were only two torches, both placed far higher up, meaning she still had to rely on Yamato Takeru for light. As she and her Persona moved further inside, she caught sight of a figure. Its head was tipped down and Yamato Takeru's light glinted off silver hair.
She quickened her pace. "Souji-senpai? Are you—"
Souji raised his head. Yellow eyes glowed in their sockets. "Hey, Naoto-kun."
The orb in Souji's hands was glowing, its brightness rapidly increasing. He threw it into the air above him just as it split in two and spilled out brilliant white light.
Izanami lurched back, white robes flowing with the motion – then burst open. Dark red claws tore out of her chest, the colour of dried blood and attached to skeletal arms draped with rotting skin. The sharp vertebrae of her spine followed, ripping through her body as her shredded robes fell to the floor around her. What was left of the cloth hung limply around what appeared to be her neck – and above that, hair splayed out in tendrils, was a gaunt figure in the rough shape of a human, visible only from the torso up.
"I...am a god," she said, a sound that reverberated through Naoto's skull. "I will teach you the truth of your miniscule existences."
Kanji had been on the floor, taken down by a powerful Bufudyne. Breathing hard, he stumbled to his feet. "...A god, huh? Bring it on!"
"You cannot defeat me with strength alone. Soon, you will understand."
Naoto readied her pistol out of habit; what use would it be against a god? Yamato Takeru was depleted and unable to cast Megidolaon, reducing him to a string of physical attacks that had left her exhausted. And now they had to fight this? Kanji's nerve was more absurd than commendable.
"We can do it, guys!" Rise's voice, via Kanzeon. "We'll prove she's wrong about us!"
Rise didn't sound convinced. She wasn't the only one; they were hopelessly outmatched. It had been easier to be brave when they first encountered Izanami in her semi-human form, easier to insist she was wrong and that she had no right to recreate their world. But she was a goddess. One who had created the Midnight Channel and wrapped Inaba in fog, all to satisfy the unquestionable demands of humans. One who, according to myth, was involved in the creation of an entire country, and many of the gods and goddesses that followed.
How could a gang of teenagers stand against that?
"So, you finally got here," said Souji. "Had to dig yourself out, huh?"
Naoto tensed her jaw. "You knew I was there?"
"Yep." He tapped his temple. "I know everything about you. You spilled the whole deal to me, flaws and fears." He let out a laugh, casually cruel. "And then you died for me. Was it worth it?"
...It wasn't Souji. It was his Shadow. Except Souji had never had a Shadow, Yosuke and Teddie had both confirmed as much, so why was—
"You all try so hard for me. And you – you love me, don't you?" He tilted his head. "Poor Kanji-chan just gets off on you trying to be a guy, but me – I'd be different. You'd be someone different."
"I'm not trying to be—" Naoto cut herself short, fists clenching at her sides. This might be Souji, but only a facet. And while she did love him, enough to die for him, it wasn't in the way his Shadow claimed. She'd been in love with the idea, the thought that her courageous, intelligent, competent Senpai might view her in the same terms.
But in a different world, perhaps she would've—
No. Thinking along those lines would leave her vulnerable. Yamato Takeru chirped at the edge of her mind, encouraging her, reminding her of the gains she'd made. "You're wrong," she said, forcing her voice steady. "I do not feel that way, and Kanji's opinions are none of your concern."
Souji's expression hardened. "Always living in denial, Naoto-chan. Disowning your thoughts, your feelings, your very self."
Souji – the real Souji – had helped her work through her feelings, or so she'd hoped. It had felt clear-cut at the time – she was a woman, and a detective – but after the fact she could see the issue was far more complicated. The difference was that she was now willing to face it head-on, rather than throwing herself into a single identity. She was male and female, adult and child, with all the complexities that went with that. "I do not deny who I am," she said, forcing herself to leave off the Senpai. "Your true self helped me acknowledge the many facets of my own."
"Really?" Souji folded his arms. "You knew we had no chance against Izanami, right from the start, and yet you followed me here all the same. If that's not denial, what is?"
"You're right. I believe we all knew our cause was potentially hopeless." Naoto straightened her back. "But we have no choice. If we fail to stand against Izanami, if we aren't willing to take that risk, then our world will be lost in the fog."
"You speak like it isn't already."
"Whether or not I am alive, I remain aware. And while one of us remains standing, there is still hope."
Souji let out an exaggerated sigh. "While you remain standing, huh?" A card flashed into his palm. "Let's see if we can fix that."
Izanami rose above them, decaying flesh and too many limbs. Her voice echoed through Naoto's bones. "Accept the reality of your death."
Darkness welled up at Souji's feet. It stretched upward in long fingers, a hand ready to clench around him. He lifted his sword as if to slash his way out – and was shoved to the side, landing on his hands and knees. In his place stood Teddie, the thin black claws almost absurd against the red and blue of his round suit. He turned to Souji, opened his mouth to speak, just before the hand clamped shut.
Souji scrambled to his feet, lunging forward with a cry as the fingers dragged Teddie down into the dark. With nothing to grab, he stumbled, and another black pool appeared at his feet.
Chie was closest. She went more loudly than Teddie, yelling and cursing as the darkness wrapped around her legs and she desperately tried to kick her way out. The fingers climbed up and she launched a volley of vicious swipes and punches – all of which stopped when a thick tendril grabbed her head and sharply twisted sideways, snapping her neck. Souji was on his back and watching as she fell lifeless into the dark.
Again the darkness welled beneath him. Kanji was already barreling toward him, one elbow raised.
Even in the chaos of the fight, their deaths were almost orderly.
At first, Naoto had been grateful that Souji's Shadow only seemed able to use Izanagi – but Ziodyne after searing Ziodyne had left her reeling. Yamato Takeru's abilities were made for clearing Shadow mobs, not a straight-up, one-on-one duel. He flickered with static above her, both of them weak from the physical attacks she'd fallen back on using. The Megidolaons had worked, but they were designed as a last resort: powerful attacks that hit hard but sapped her Persona's energy far too quickly.
Izanagi angled its spear and lunged forward. Yamato Takeru's small size made him a difficult target to hit but the tip of the spear still came perilously close. He darted sideways and upward, and used the last of his magical power to slam down a final Megidolaon. Light blazed, the cavern rumbled – and when Naoto's vision cleared, Izanagi had lurched back, Souji on his knees in response. She thought then that she might be victorious – until Izanagi threw out another Ziodyne, this one strong enough to blast her into the cavern wall.
She hit the ground convulsing, blood in her mouth from where she'd bitten her tongue. Yamato Takeru floated in front of her, shielding her from further attack; either she'd called him back subconsciously, or Personas instinctively protected their other selves. As the shock effect wore off, she sent him shooting forward, sword drawn. He dodged a swipe from Izanagi's spear, darted behind the other Persona, curved up and around its back – and sliced Izanagi's mask in two.
She hadn't known what to expect underneath the mask. A pair of shades and a spiral of red hair wouldn't have made the list. "S-Susano-O?"
And if Susano-O was here, then she was fighting… "Yosuke-senpai! Stop!"
Ahead of her, Souji had shifted into Yosuke's form, or perhaps the illusion that he was Souji had been dispelled. Naoto wasn't sure. She was more concerned by the fact that Susano-O appeared to be gearing up for another attack. "Yosuke-senpai!"
Susano-O paused, the winds of a budding Garudyne swirling around its hands – then vanished. Grimacing, Yosuke grabbed his head. He rubbed his eyes – why wasn't he wearing his glasses? – blinked, then stared at her. "W-Wait a sec - Naoto-kun?"
Naoto couldn't summon the energy to stand, instead using the rocky wall to pull herself into a sitting position. "Yes. P-Precisely."
Yosuke stumbled toward her. "Why were you—crap, I'm sorry! I thought you were Souji!" He winced. "And I know that sounds really, really bad, but I can explain."
"No need. You thought his Shadow was attacking you, correct?"
"After he said a bunch of crap I wish I hadn't heard, yeah." He crouched down beside her and evoked again. Naoto closed her eyes as a Diarama breezed over her, gentle and cool. She opened them to see Yosuke cast the same magic on himself before Susano-O disappeared a second time. "When did you learn Ziodyne?" he asked.
"You were using it the whole time!" Yosuke protested. "I'm stronger to it now, but dude, it still seriously hurt."
"I used Megidolaon and physicals. You were the one using Ziodyne."
"How would I do that? All I've got is wind magic." His brow creased into a frown. "Unless – we just imagined it, because we thought we were fighting Souji?"
Naoto shook her head. "The electric shocks had physical effects. Convulsions, muscle spasms and the like. Something may well be twisting our energies to mimic Souji's attacks."
"…And by something, you mean Izanami?"
She swallowed, leaning her head back against the cavern wall. "I don't know."
Yosuke looked her up and down, frowning. "Dude, you're covered in dirt. What were you doing?"
"Nothing. Have you seen Ka—any of the others?"
Ideally, Yosuke would have been decent enough not to mention the slip. This, however, was Yosuke. "Haven't seen Kanji yet. You're the first person I found." He hesitated, watching her carefully. "What you said to him, before he went. I think he—"
Naoto stood, grabbing the rocks for support. "Let's keep moving. We need to locate Souji-senpai."
The moment he pushed Senpai away, one of the dark tendrils was already snared around Kanji's leg.
Naoto launched herself forward without thinking, evoking as she raced toward him. Yamato Takeru sliced the tendril in half but two more spiraled up and latched onto Kanji's thighs. She pulled out her pistol – useless against the goddess, just like everything else – and fired again and again, severing the shadowy fingers that kept sliding up from the darkness. For every one she sliced or shot through, two more appeared, then three more, then four.
She lunged forward and grabbed Kanji's hand.
"Let go!" He tried to jerk away, but the tendrils held him in place. "Get outta here, Naoto!"
Please, Naoto-kun, don't, don't, Rise kept pleading. Naoto pulled hard, hard as she could, the muscles in her arms burning with the strain. Kanji was sinking further into the darkness, she knew she couldn't drag him out, she'd always been too weak, but what else was she supposed to do?
"Shit, I told you, let go! Why won't you just—"
"I love you," Naoto blurted. Her eyes were stinging (always too weak) and there was nothing she could do, he was in the pool up to his waist and the fingers were reaching for her now and—
Kanji freed his arm just long enough to lash out at her calves and send her tumbling backward. Naoto hit the floor, rolled over, watched as he twisted and thrashed. He grabbed one of the tendrils, tried to push it away – then lost his grip. The tendril reared back and plunged through his chest.
Blood sprayed over the tiled floor. Far behind her, Souji was screaming.
Movement was impossible. Kanji had disappeared into the dark but she couldn't tear her eyes away. She didn't register that Souji was yelling her name until the fingers curled around her. Rise was sobbing, the sound merging with Yamato Takeru's desperate squawks in Naoto's mind. She snapped back to awareness. She'd dropped her gun at some point, but she fought all the same, jerking in the tendrils' grip, struggling against their pull, Kanji's death hadn't been useless, she just needed to—
"Senpai!" she yelled. "Leave! Senp—"
One of the fingers speared through her throat, severed her spinal cord. Everything stopped.
Yamato Takeru led the way, their one source of light in the cave's dark corridors.
"Hey...Naoto," Yosuke said quietly. "Do you think we actually died?"
As yet, Naoto hadn't settled on an answer. Prior events and Izanami's role as a goddess meant they were indeed most likely dead. Then again, she'd been desperate for oxygen beneath the dirt. Had that been purely psychological? Their glasses were gone, so perhaps they were no longer in the physical world – but she'd still been able to hear and summon Yamato Takeru. She shrugged. "It's difficult to say."
"Yeah, I don't know what to think either. We'll ask the others. They have to be here somewhere," Yosuke said, though he didn't sound confident. "I'm seriously worried about Souji."
"Do you remember what happened to him?"
"Nope. After you – went, I tried to save him and those hands got me," he said, a tremble at the edge of his voice. "I remember one of them broke my leg, then my arm. Then nothing until I woke up here, covered in freaking maggots." He let out a weak laugh and ran a hand through his hair. "Dude, I am having a really shitty day."
"You aren't alone, Yosuke-senpai."
"Yeah. I know." Yosuke paused. "That stuff Souji said. It wasn't you saying it, right? I mean, you didn't hear it or anything?"
Naoto shook her head. "No. I heard only what he said to me."
"So it was probably Izanami getting inside our heads again? Or Souji's Shadow?" Yosuke groaned. "I don't know which is worse."
"You said yourself that Souji never had a Shadow. Given the evidence so far, I think that—"
Naoto-kun? Is that you?
Naoto stopped walking. "Rise-chan?"
"Wait, you heard her too?" Yosuke asked. "Hey, Rise, where are you?"
Oh, man...I knew I could hear you guys! I'm so, so glad you're okay! I don't know where I am, but Kanzeon says you're pretty close by.
"Don't worry." As usual, Naoto felt slightly absurd speaking out loud to someone who was nowhere to be seen. "We'll search the surrounding area."
Without knowing where they were, Rise was unable to provide firm directions. She could only tell them whether Kanzeon sensed their presence being closer, or further away. The improvised game of Hotter, Colder went on for quite some time before Yosuke and Naoto emerged into a small chamber, lit by a single torch on the wall. Chie was lying on the ground inside, her head resting in Rise's lap.
Yosuke cursed under his breath. "Is she okay?"
"I-I think so," Rise said. "Kanzeon doesn't sense anything wrong with her. It's like she just hasn't woken up yet." She pointed to the rear of the chamber. In the dim light, Naoto could make out two stone coffins side by side. "We...we were in those."
Yosuke let out a low whistle. "Okay, so that's creepy."
Rise bit her lip. "Well, the lids were pushed aside, so I got myself and Chie-senpai out okay, but...yeah." She looked down at Chie. "I didn't want to leave her behind, so I was waiting for her to wake up."
"Let me try a Diarama," said Yosuke, card already in hand. Susano-O appeared, barely able to fit in the small cavern, and Chie's body was bathed in a blue-white glow. Nothing happened.
At a loss, Yosuke and Naoto both sat on the ground, and waited. Long minutes passed in silence before Chie finally stirred in Rise's lap. Her eyelids fluttered, then snapped open, and she stared up at Yosuke, eyes wide. "S-Souji? What're you—no, wait, you're—" Then she was rolling out of Rise's lap and scrabbling shakily to her feet. Immediately she fell into a fighting stance, gaze firmly on Yosuke.
He stood and raised both hands, palms outward. "Hey, hey! What's wrong?"
Rise leapt up as well. "Chie-senpai! Stop!"
Chie watched Yosuke warily but made no move to attack. "Rise-chan, trust me. That isn't Souji, it's his Shadow!" She shot Yosuke a look of contempt. "Say what you want! I'm not listening to any of it, got that?"
"Chie-senpai, please!" Rise stepped forward and tentatively laid a hand on Chie's arm. "It's Yosuke-senpai!"
Chie's eyes flickered toward her, then focused back on Yosuke. "...Then why am I seeing—" She glanced at Naoto, who was standing off to the side. "And the real Souji's here too? Did I wake up halfway through something?"
"No! Well, okay, yes, but—they aren't actually—"
"The same thing happened to us," said Yosuke. "Naoto and I had to throw down because of it."
Rise squeezed Chie's arm. "Souji-senpai isn't here, Chie-senpai. C'mon, of all people I'd be the one to know, right?"
Chie hesitated, gaze shifting between Yosuke and Naoto, then took a deep breath. "...Okay. You – you've got Kanzeon and all, so let's say you're right. How do I make the Shadow shut up?"
There was a long pause, as if Rise was uncertain how to answer. "Just...ignore him, I guess?"
"It isn't working! The stuff he's saying, none of it's true but he won't stop talking, and—"
Naoto darted forward, drew back her fist, and swung a right hook into Chie's face.
Chie yelped and staggered to the side, but didn't fall. She grimaced, blinked repeatedly, shook her head - then finally looked at Naoto. "...Wow, Naoto-kun."
"Your punches suck. You and I need to do some serious training together, okay?" Her smile looked more than a little forced. "But thanks. No more Souji-Shadow."
Yosuke let out a breath. "Cool. Glad to hear it. Please don't threaten to kick my ass again?"
"No promises." She eyed him carefully. "It really is you, huh?"
"Sorry…I should've realized earlier. It was just really convincing, you know?" Hands on hips, Chie looked around the cave. "Anyway, where the heck are we? What happened to—" She stopped, immediately paling. "Oh. I—right." Another smile, this one even weaker. "...So we died, huh?"
"It would appear so," said Naoto. Given Izanami's role in events, it seemed most likely they were in some representation of Yomi. But her theories were still embryonic, and, in a rare display of tact, she elected to focus on encouraging the others. "However, confusion over Souji's potential Shadow aside, we remain aware of our surroundings and events occurring within. If we keep clear heads and continue to think logically, and do not—"
"What Naoto-kun's eventually going to get around to saying," Rise cut in, "is that we might be able to get out of here."
"What about Souji?" Chie asked. "I mean, I got myself killed trying to save him, so is he okay?"
Rise shook her head, one hand clutching her opposite arm. "Once you guys were all...gone, there was nobody left to help him. The darkness dragged him down. After that, it got me." She shivered. "I remember feeling so cold it was painful, and then nothing until I woke up here."
"Suggesting Souji-senpai is most likely here too," said Naoto.
"I don't know. I can't hear him with Kanzeon." Rise hesitated, with a nervous glance at Naoto. "I – can't hear the others, either."
"Yukiko's fine," Chie shot back, as if on reflex.
"Yeah. They all are. They're probably just out of range or something." Yosuke nodded back toward the corridor. "Let's go find them."
"So, you ready to go kick a god's ass tonight?"
Naoto shot Kanji a sharp glance. "It isn't as simple as that. Izanami is a powerful goddess, and yet you make it sound as—"
"I know, I know." He shrugged, then leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Just trying not to get too down 'bout it, I guess."
She looked at her watch, and switched it from distance to time. "We need to leave for school."
He stood from the sofa. "You wanna go in separately, right?" he asked quietly.
If they didn't, others might assume they'd come from the same place, or at the very least would notice them walking together. Though she had many more important considerations right now, Naoto couldn't help cringing at the memory of what had happened inside the TV the previous evening, and the realization that the entire team knew about her and Kanji. Yet if they already knew, there was no purpose in continuing to hide. Logically, she understood that. Putting it into practice was quite different – but increasingly vital.
She paused, biting her lip. "We…don't have to do that."
He glanced at her, then stared at the wall. "I don't wanna make you uncomfortable."
He didn't, and neither did he embarrass her. He was unconventional, but then so was she. Nor did she wish to be with Souji instead. Kanji had missed the real issue again and again, through no fault of his own; Naoto understood well enough the instinct to look for flaws in oneself when in truth they lay with those around you. He was simply blinded by his fears, just as she lacked the language to explain her own.
They were teenagers, she had told herself, and both burdened by interpersonal failings. There were bound to be difficulties – but knowing this did not ease her sense of guilt.
Kanji stood in the doorway, hand held out. "You ready?"
In retrospect, they should have been more cautious – should have realized that nothing here was simple – but the moment Rise first located Souji, the real Souji, they all surged forward. Yamato Takeru and Naoto took the lead as they ran through the cave, Kanzeon and Rise directing them and mapping the layout.
The first clue that something was wrong came when they reached the final chamber, the place where Souji was meant to be, and saw fog spilling out into the corridor. Something's weird, Rise said through Kanzeon, I think the others are there too, but—
But they didn't stop. That was the mistake. Naoto was the first to enter, clear-headedness and logic both forgotten. Inside, Yamato Takeru's light barely pierced the mist – but on the floor ahead, just visible, was an outstretched hand. She dashed forward and dropped to her knees. Kanji – it was his hand, he was lying motionless on the ground, and behind her Chie was yelling Yukiko's name. They needed Yosuke, the only one among them with healing magic, and Naoto glanced over her shoulder to call him for help.
He was staring straight ahead, eyes wide.
Electricity seared through her body, threw her across the chamber, and her vision went dark.
The problem was multifaceted, but came down to the element of risk.
Allowing herself to rely on Kanji was challenging enough, but to have others observe her doing so was to advertise a weakness. Emotions were a weakness. They put her very sense of self in peril; how could she be strong and capable with such a glaring vulnerability? If the relationship was open knowledge, so was this failing, and Naoto could no longer present the same self, could no longer define herself in the same terms. Worse, to acknowledge their relationship would be to make a public confession of something she was barely ready to admit to herself. It would make their connection real – and if that became real, so did the risk of loss. People always left, whether by will or otherwise, and Kanji would be no exception. It had always been safer to keep people at a distance. Easier.
...As was this endless rationalization of her thinking.
She glanced at Kanji as they walked side by side to school. She hadn't anticipated him visiting her last night, hadn't fully acknowledged she wanted him to until he'd knocked on the door to her apartment. He'd been there all the same, and today they would face down a goddess together. But before all that, before they left this morning, he'd again offered again to walk a few minutes ahead of her – and she'd refused.
There were times when risk was unavoidable.
Naoto moved closer, and wished she had the courage to take his hand.
Kanji was pinned against the cavern wall, blood trickling from the ice spikes speared through his hands and feet. Yukiko was beside him, in the same condition; next to her, Chie and Teddie. Above them, Naoto and Yosuke both hung horizontal, suspended in ice shards, impaled on the rocky ceiling.
…The ice should be melting, Naoto thought. Body temperature. Did that apply here? She tried to turn her head, but the spikes piercing her shoulders flared like fire. Below her, Rise was sobbing.
Blood loss. She should be dead from that. It was falling in fat drops, splashing on the stone beneath. But they were presumably already dead, meaning they could all be stuck here indefinitely, or as long as—
Electricity arced out in a bolt, slamming into her and the others. Naoto cried out on reflex, wrenching against the ceiling, but the ice spikes remained in place.
"Stop!" she heard Souji yell for a third time.
The Ziodyne lasted another long, agonizing moment before the magic finally dissipated. She opened her eyes to see Souji kneeling on the ground below. Dark tendrils restrained him, so similar to those that had dragged them down to this place. From this strange angle she couldn't see his face, but his shoulders were heaving – and ahead of him in the fog, white robed and silver-haired, stood Izanami's human form.
"You can spare them, Izanagi," she said. Bufudyne, cast without raising her hands: a flurry of snow and ice that missed Naoto and Yosuke but hit those pinned to the wall head on. Ragged cries sounded through the chamber, Kanji's the most sickening of all. Naoto needed to help him. He was injured, in pain - but so was she and she still couldn't move and all this was Souji's fault, he'd brought them to face Izanami and gotten them killed, Souji was responsible. Naoto had only dimly registered what the goddess had been saying to him – Izanagi, she'd kept calling him, Izanagi, you left me once before – but it made horrible sense. She'd claimed to be fulfilling humanity's desires and the team, like insolent children, had insisted otherwise – but this was a deeper, older story. One Souji should have foreseen.
He twisted against the shadowy hands. "Why are you doing this?"
"This is my domain, the place where you abandoned me."
He stopped. When he spoke again his voice was cold. "That wasn't me. Y-You gave me Izanagi, same as Adachi and Namatame." He was breathing hard, whether from exertion or emotion. "Stop hurting my friends."
Izanami ran a finger along his jaw. "Remain with me, and I will release them."
"I – I can't."
Her voice was soft now, almost gentle. "Why?"
"The rest of the world. You've already told us what you're planning to do. I – have to stop you."
"We're all going to stop you!" Rise cried. She was kneeling on the ground, unrestrained yet as helpless as the rest. What could she do against a god?
"Everything was for mankind's sake - to create the world humans so wanted. A world where you see only what you want to see…an existence shrouded in fog," Izanami said. "You cannot deny humanity's true desires."
The freezing spikes burned hot in Naoto's flesh. Blood continued to drip. On the wall, Chie was struggling to break free, and earned a violent Ziodyne for her efforts.
Souji struggled in the tendrils' grip. "Stop! I won't give in!"
Izanami paused. "You insist on defying me?"
"Yes. I insist," Souji spat.
"Then I will take back what was given."
Blinding light. The fog was lost and the chamber seemed to tip at angles, Naoto's stomach lurching with the motion. Souji was groaning – no, screaming, now – as the raw hum of magic throbbed through her bones. It grew louder, louder, seemed to shake the ceiling above her – then died away.
Suddenly the ceiling was no longer at her back but in front of her, her body pressed against cold hard tile in place of rock. She shrugged her shoulders experimentally; the spears of ice were gone. For a brief moment she could still feel the spikes in her hands and feet and stomach, but even that sensation soon faded.
Naoto pushed herself up onto her elbows, and opened her eyes to an expanse of fog.