"Jesus almighty Christ, Lord and Father in Heaven," I whispered weakly.
It wasn't just wrong. It went beyond that- beyond every comprehensible definition of wrong- because this could never be right. Not in even the most obtuse sense.
I didn't know where to begin. I've had my brothers and mates occasionally try to paint a picture of their mindfucktrips of lucy, esctasy and spotty shrooms (and sometimes all three rolled into one brain-damaging knot, the dumb fucks), but even the most bollocks-out insane dreamworlds they described to me didn't come close to this... this...
I shivered, feeling Grendel's forked tongue flicker out in anticipation, testing my reaction. The Evoker felt heavy on my belt.
Masterpiece wasn't too bloody far from the truth. While the tower looked beastly and monstrously massive on the outside, on the inside... it seemed as though it could hold its own sky. Its own stars. The floor went on as far as the eye could follow, tiled in a surreal, beautiful pattern, not exactly geometric (it moved, to begin with), or fully symmetric, either- like something M.C. Escher came up to amuse some psychology-student mates at the pub one boring night. Countless marble columns, just as intricate as the floor mosaic, rose from the tile, gently swaying (or was it my imagination?) into the great shining void above until they disappeared into the green.
And in front of us was a carpeted, wide staircase, leading to a door that lay beneath a massive clockface. It's hands rested at 12:00 exactly- or was it 12:01? I squinted at it- though I had the feeling I shouldn't think about it too hard.
Ikutsuki cleared his throat- an alien sound in the thick silence, making me jump- and grandly gestured to the world-within-a-world around us. "This is the interior of Tartarus," he declared. Well, no shit, Sherlock.
Grendel's familiarity with this sick rip in reality was the only comfort I had. I took a few bold steps forward, and immediately stopped, doubled over, gasping in fear and confusion and nausea. It was like a dream- you move your legs, but you go nowhere. But I had gone somewhere! I had gone just four steps, I could see it, I heard my footsteps (clack clack clack clack) against the floor, but something- something told me I had gone nowhere. Was that... ?
It is best to check your soul at the door, drawled Grendel in that guttural rasp of his. This is the den of desires, carnal and all.
Akihiko had stepped over, placed a strong hand on my shoulder, jarring me back to the physics I knew. "Take it easy. Breath. You'll get used to it." Glancing back, I saw Yukari having a similar reaction to the nightmare world's law of nonphysics- she had slumped to her knees, with Mitsuru only just helping her up.
"Shit fuck," I growled breathlessly, trying to steady my breathing. "You get used to this?"
With a shrug, Akihiko gave me a walk-it-off punch in the back. I straightened with a wince. "You do with time. And when you do, it's the best place to train you could ask for."
Great. Fucking great.
It was only then I noticed that Ikutsuki was carrying a large luggage-suitcase with him. "What's with-"
Ikutsuki freed the latch and let the suitcase fall open- pop open, more specifically- laying out a monstrous spread of weaponry. Swords, axes, a bow, arrows- melee weapons of all sorts from ages past.
"... That," I finished lamely. Mitsuru reached down, sorted through the suitcause-smithy and fetched up a short, curved sword- with a pang of anxiety, I realized it was the wakizashi from the night Grendel first... woke up, I guess. She walked over to me and held out the sword.
"This belongs to you, now." She did not blink as she stared at me. Not once. Her eyes brooked no argument.
I stared at the curved blade, the green light playing odd shapes in its reflection, like the surface of sickly bogwater and something lurking beneath- and doubt gripped me, harder than before. I could still run. I could still leave this nightmare, leave Japan, go back home, pretend that I'm just a normal punk like everyone else.
Once a hunter marks his lair, he may never leave.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Grendel- his voice, as guttural and untamed as it sounded, seemed so familiar. Almost as if it was mine, just... warped, scratchier.
"Scarborough-san." More persistent. Mitsuru knows I'm weak here, that this isn't the sixty minutes of power I had always kept as my plaything. She thought she can just prod me along...
Eyes open, chin up. My fingers wrap around the hilt of the sword, and I lift it from Mitsuru's outstretched hands. It's heavier than I remember.
I look to Mitsuru quickly, but she says nothing, simply turning and going back to the suitcase, drawing out a long, elegant rapier. Harrumph. Why was I not surprised... ?
A hard knock on my shoulder, and I find Akihiko standing there, his hands turned into bladed monstrosities by the gauntlets he's wearing. "It's all or nothing, life or death, win or lose. I know it doesn't make any sense," he says abruptly, cutting me off, "But it doesn't have to. Not now. Just fight with all you've got." He punched his fists together, making a frightful din. "You'll learn as you go."
As I go. Yukari was stringing a Japanese longbow- the same kind they used at that archery club, it looked like- and Ikutsuki had brought out a laptop and an assortment of other beeping, blinking equipment that looked like it belonged in a military bunker somewhere. I walked- if you can call movement in this bizarre world walking, it was more like a dreamlike teleportation, taken step by step- over to the chairman and peered over his shoulder.
They say (who 'they' is, I don't know or care to) the part of the brain concerned with dreams can't comprehend written language, and looking at the screen of the laptop, I believed them- symbols and colors and text flashed by so quickly I felt nauseated, like I was being brainwashed, but Ikutsuki's eyes flitted back and forth across the screen, pupils massive. I wondered how his persona worked...
"This is the essential piece of the command center," Ikutsuki said, not looking up. "From here, I'll oversee your actions, any Shadow activity, and try to map out the schematics of the Tartarusian tower. I'll be in constant contact with you," and on that note, he stuck out his hand, on it resting a small radio. I took it, though his fingers lingered a little too long. "So you have nothing to fear-"
"But fear itself?" Yukari was inspecting her bow, Mitsuru giving her advice and gesturing at the big door, Akihiko stretching without a care in the world.
"You're getting the hang of this." Ikutsuki chuckled. "Now, get ready. The interior of the tower is about to shift."
The other three were already at the base of the staircase. I gulped, said a few prayers over in my head, and followed them closely.
The door- well, it wasn't really a door. More like a clockwork portal; imagine five or so bell towers, mashed into one. Mitsuru held out her hand towards it, fingers hovering just above what appeared to be a lever.
"Now!" barked Ikutsuki.
Mitsuru threw the switch, and the portal opened with a great clanking clamor and deafening chime. I shielded my eyes from a sudden bright, green light, and Yukari gave a cry of surprise-
And suddenly we were within the halls of Gekkoukan. A more classical, if nightmarish version of Gekkoukan, anyways, given that the windows led out into a Lovecraftian green world that defied all description. And the floor was tiled in black and white... just like-
"Shadows at twelve o'clock," Ikutsuki's voice blared over our radios in unison. I jumped a little, sword nearly slipping from my sweaty hands- and then did drop it, as I clocked four of those ink monsters rounding the corner.
"Prepare yourselves!" shouted Mitsuru as Akihiko took the lead, fists up. Yukari was right behind Mitsuru, nocking an arrow.
I should've been afraid. I should've curled up and died right there. But an odd smile twisted my face, the wakizashi was again in my hand, the Evoker in another. All so naturally.
Behold, my world.
Behold, my judgement.
Grendel was the bone. I was the the flesh. Our blood ran together like seas that had only known storm, and I sprinted down the checkered corridor, past a shocked Yukari, past a grinning Akihiko- as the dark beast and I howled together, Evoker under my chin.
"LET'S GO, THEN!"
With those three words, the Dark Hour became my hour.
Had this file laying around, so I dusted it off and here it is. Not pretty, but it's there. Can't believe it took this many chapters to get to Tartarus.