Power is but a means

To fulfill one's obsessions

When fear is the guiding light

One will find oneself in the dark

There will be nowhere to escape it

VVVVV

Chapter 3: Agents of Fate

A middle-aged man stood at a heavy wooden door, a manila folder tucked underneath his arm. He looked up to see the camera above, pointed down at him. He heard the mechanism buzz, saw the lens turn just a little. He gave a slight nod, and the door latch clicked. He pulled it open and stepped inside.

The door closed by itself behind him, the latch catching with a pronounced snap. Without a word he stepped forward toward the large desk, placing the folder onto it directly in front of the woman seated there. She had long, dark red hair that flowed from her head down past her shoulders, the only break to her otherwise stern demeanor. Aside from that one deviation, in her suit and stony expression she was all business.

The woman leaned forward, opening the folder. Within was a single thin sheet, with a seemingly random assortment of colored designs on it. She slid it into a slot in the surface of her desk, and after a few seconds a display appeared on her desktop with the words:

Authorization Required to decode this file

Self-destruct is armed

She laid her hand directly onto the words. After a few seconds, the display disappeared from her desk and was replaced with a three-dimensional computer desktop, suspended above it. She shifted her position in the seat so she could see it fully. The words "Authorization Accepted" were in the center, with an "OK" button beneath. She tapped her finger in the air and first page appeared. She read through it briefly. "He took it to Inaba," she said, her voice smooth and emotionless.

"Yes," the man said. "To a dojo called 'Harumagedon'."

"'Armageddon Dojo'," the woman said. "He brought it to her, then." She swiped a finger across the holographic display several times, flipping through several pages.

"The dojo itself is a front, as you suspected. The sensei teaches self-defense to a few dozen students per week, but she has a special class of six. One lives at the dojo with her, and the others are between nineteen and thirty-six. Their dossiers are included in the file."

"The target is one of them."

The man nodded. "He volunteered for the dig at the first opportunity. Within twenty-four hours of his arrival, the talisman had been uncovered. As you expected."

The woman continued flipping through holographic pages. "Persona-users."

The optical properties of the holographic display made it invisible to all but the person sitting behind the desk, but the man presumed she was browsing through the student dossiers. "We have detailed information on all her students save one: the one who lives at the dojo with her. He is a young man of unknown nationality and age. Appears to be in his mid-teens, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, but he has no records with the government, no biometrics on file. We've linked him to a physical check-up performed in Inaba back in 2011, but the evidence is contradictory, and the medical information completely abnormal. Our conclusion is that he may not, in fact, be human."

The woman, apparently oblivious to the man's verbal tangent, said, "She preaches that the end is coming, and that her students will help her fight for humanity."

"Yes," the man said, not skipping a beat despite the shift in subject. "Her inner circle has been nearly impossible to infiltrate, but her students have, outside her class, been known to preach about the end of humanity. There is no apparent connection to SEES or to The Fall, but the similarities are striking."

He waited for the woman to interject, and when she did not, he continued, "Our agents followed the target after he retrieved the talisman. There was a Persona-user there. At the dojo. This correlates to the results of our ongoing investigation." He straightened, crossing his hands behind his back. "Based on the evidence so far, we've confirmed that the sensei herself is indeed either a current or former Persona-user. She may have an ability to see the potential in others." He tilted his head down, gazing at her over his glasses. "Like you once did, Kirijo-sama."

"Which is why she's drawing so many to herself." Mitsuru Kirijo, chair of the Kirijo group, flipped once more through the holographic pages, and then leaned back in her chair. "Thank you, but this changes little for us right now. You know what to do."

The man nodded once, took two steps backward, and then turned and left the room. As soon as the door snapped shut behind him, Mitsuru leaned forward again and started flipping carefully, deliberately, through the pages in the folder. "Nanako Dojima," she muttered. Born and raised in Inaba, the daughter of a police captain. She was present twenty years ago during the fog incident, and then seven years later during the freak storms that had afflicted the region, along with the random reports of mysterious, temporary memory loss that had trickled out of the district.

Over the years she had devoted whatever resources she could spare, and sometimes more than she could spare, on investigating strange phenomena across the globe. Inaba was one of those places that most piqued her interest. She had concluded years ago that it was some center of supernatural activity, most specifically Persona activity. The file before her may well represent the culmination of that work, and the final link between the incidents of years ago and her primary goal. It couldn't be any coincidence that Nanako Dojima, whose name had come up so many times in her reports from Inaba, was seeking out the fourth piece of the talisman.

She turned around to the small clear case on the shelf behind her. There were two small objects glittering under a tiny lamp. A matching set, found together in the dunes a month ago. There had been three at first, but the third had been divided for testing, and was now being put to other use. "Pieces of the Moon", so dubbed by a Kirijo employee far more poetic than herself.

They were found in roughly in the same area where the talisman had been uncovered last night. Her advisors had questioned the logic in allowing the university rights to the dig, but Mitsuru had been sure it would get the attention of other Persona-users. It seemed she was correct.

"So what are you planning to do with the talisman, Nanako Dojima?"

VVVVV

Nanako examined the stone one more time, gazing into the tiny eyes, before zipping it away in her jacket pocket. She then snatched up her phone and hooked it onto her right ear.

"Where are we going, Sensei?" Teddie asked as stepped out of his room, pulling his shirt over his head. "How're we gonna find those guys?"

Nanako glanced to Kaz, who was watching her with expectation. She winked at him. "I think they're going to come find us."

"You mean like an ambush?" Teddie said.

"Or a trap," Kaz said. The excitement of finding the stone, and of fleeing with it to his sensei, had passed. Now he was left with the disbelief that he had actually done what he did, that he had actually been followed, and was now here with her, getting ready to go find the men who had been following him. He almost felt like he was detached from himself, watching a movie with himself as the star. He couldn't even begin to guess how the plot would play out.

"Here's how I see it," Nanako said. She held up two fingers and ticked off one. "Either they want us to follow them so they can catch us, which'll maybe make them cocky enough to slip up. Or," she ticked off the other finger, "they aren't expecting us to follow them, and we'll catch them off-guard." She patted Kaz on the shoulder, which she always did when he was feeling nervous. This was more serious than facing off against a highly-skilled opponent in a training match, though he did feel a bit comforted by her confidence. "Either way we'll find them, won't we?"

"Should we call, you know, everyone?" Kaz asked. "I mean, for backup?"

"No, not yet," Nanako said. "This all might be...nothing."

"Nothing?" Kaz stepped around to face her. "You said that stone was what you were waiting for. What else have you been waiting for, other than..." He trailed off.

"Other than what?"

"The end. The harumagedon!"

Nanako offered a calm smile and took Kaz's hand. "Kaz-kun, you've been with me for a while now. You've placed a lot of trust in me. Please trust me just for a little longer."

He wished it could be that easy. He wanted to trust her, but he couldn't silence his nerves. Sensei had told him many times about her adventures into other world, fighting monsters for the fate of humanity. He believed her, but it was one thing to hear the stories, but another to live them.

She let his hand go, turned away from him, and headed down the stairs. Kaz glanced at Teddie. "Don't worry, Sensei knows what she's doing. You've never seen her in a real fight!" Teddie went after her, leaving Kaz alone in the apartment kitchen. He closed his eyes and sighed. She trusts you. Time to trust her. He walked briskly down the stairs.

At the bottom he saw Nanako standing at the front door, watching something through the glass. He could tell the morning sun had risen in the sky, that the shadows outside had shortened noticeably.

"Sensei." She glanced back at him. Kaz continued, "I'm sorry. I do trust you, Sensei. I just...I never expected..."

"You never expected the things I talked about would actually happen," Nanako said. She looked away from him, eyes going distant as they often did when she was, as she called it, "listening to the world". "It's all right to have doubts. I did my first time, too." She turned to him, her eyes both kind and serious. "You don't have to come if you don't want."

"No. I mean yes." Kaz took a breath. "I do want to come with you. Whatever happens." This was what he'd signed up for, and he wasn't going to let nerves stop him from seeing it through.

"Good," Nanako said. She gave a sly smile. "Because you're the only licensed driver here." Kaz couldn't help but smile back.

Teddie poked his head in between them. "Um, if we're going after these guys, maybe we shouldn't bring the stone. If they're really here to get it."

"It's probably safer with us than if we leave it here." She rapped on the glass of the doors. "The last thing I need is a bill for replacing these if somebody breaks in looking for it." She unbolted the door and stepped out, the two young men following her, and closing and re-locking it behind them. The morning mist was already burning off, leaving a pleasant warmth to the morning. "Well then," she said, turning to the beat-up compact car. "Let's go spring a trap."

VVVVV

They had driven around town for the better part of an hour before anything happened. Teddie had been the first one to become restless, though he had done his best not to show it. Kaz did his best to concentrate on driving enough to avert both nerves and boredom; Nanako hadn't given him any particular directions to follow, so he just made a meandering tour of Inaba, exploring all the main arterials and side streets. This kind of tactic was new to him, though he doubted they would be mistaken for a trio of lost tourists if they were found.

Nanako was the only one to truly keep her patience intact. Part of it was her self-taught discipline, though the rest was her ability to stretch her mind beyond the confines of her skull, beyond the car. She would be the first to admit it was cheating, if just a little, but in the same breath would proudly admit it. Fairness was a concept she rarely had a use for anymore. The virtue of pragmatism meant that, if you had an advantage, you were perfectly justified in using it.

Her tactic proved to be sound. Finally, the third time they passed the Junes parking lot, she felt the sedan pull out from behind two parked cars. Of course it'd be Junes, she thought with a bit of irony. She chouldn't get a clear read on its passengers, but they were definitely aware of the trio. She glanced in the side mirror and saw it pull out into the road, a couple cars back. Following them. "Here they are," she said, having to speak loudly over the rumbling from the rusted out exhaust pipe beneath the floor.

"Where?" Kaz said. He started looking frantically around in front, to the sides, and in the mirrors. She could feel the stress from him, and placed a hand on his arm. He jumped slightly, causing the car to jerk to one side before he corrected.

"Hey!" Teddie said. He rubbed the spot on his head that he's bumped on the door.

"Be calm, Kaz-kun. Don't forget, you're in control of yourself. Everything will be fine, I promise."

Kaz took a few deep breaths, and his heartbeat started to slow to a more reasonable pace. "Ok, I'm...I'm better now. Sorry about that, Sensei."

"It's all right," Nanako said. "They're behind us. A few cars back."

"I-I think I see them," Kaz said, eyes darting between the side mirror and the road ahead.

Before she could tell him not to, Teddie had spun completely around and was staring out the rear window. "Teddie, face forward. Don't let them see you or they'll know we know they're there."

Teddie dutifully turned back around, but from his fidgeting Nanako could tell he really wanted to look again. "Hey, I just thought about something," Teddie said. "Uh, what if they've got guns and stuff? I didn't bring any weapons."

"I've got a couple things in the trunk, and a pocket knife in the glove box." Kaz glanced to Nanako. She opened the glove box, fished around the variety of papers and junk, and pulled out the knife. It was more of a mini-tool and looked to have gotten little use in its lifetime, but she supposed it would be better than nothing. She handed it to Kaz and he tucked it into his pocket.

"So, uh, what'll Sensei and me use? How're we gonna get to the trunk if they're right behind us?"

"We'll be all right, Teddie," Nanako said. She slid her hand into her front jeans pocket, feeling the flat rectangular object that always followed her. It was always where she expected it to be, whether or not she had thought to bring it with her, even though it had no power other than to remind her it had once had the power to manifest her Persona. That both comforted and concerned her. She did not want to go into a potentially dangerous situation without her Persona, but she knew the danger of what she could do, what she could become, if she had to summon it again under duress. She also knew, if Amaterasu was to be believed, that it might well re-start the Civil War between her and Susano-O, and rain destruction upon humanity.

She had never truly come to terms with having that choice, that responsibility thrust upon her. It was far too late for second thoughts, though. Especially not when they were in the middle of springing a trap.

"Um, what're we going to do?" Kaz said, glancing again in his mirror. The black sedan was now directly behind them and closing.

"They're trying to decide the same thing," Nanako said. There was more, she was sure, but it was clouded from her view. For the first time in years, she found herself wishing she had her full power back. Trying her best to clear her head, she focused everything she could on them, trying to pick up something-

"So do I just keep driving, or-"

"Yes," Nanako interrupted. "Quiet for a sec." She was getting something else. She just wasn't completely sure what that was. Just push a little harder. Concentrate. Concen-

The car jumped underneath them, knocking her out of her focus. "What the-"

"The engine just died!" Kaz said. "Dammit to hell, of all the-"

"They did it," Nanako said, now feeling the satisfaction in the car tailing them. "They expected this." She looked down at the dashboard. All indicator lights were out, as were the digital odometer and clock.

"EMP!" Teddie said, far more excited than he should have been. "It fries electronics! I saw something about it on TV before. The police were trying to-"

"Teddie!" Kaz shouted.

"Calm down, both of you," Nanako said. Kaz reached for the ignition and turned it. Nothing happened, not even the sound of the ignition motor clicking. "Relax, Kaz-kun," Nanako said. "It'll be all right." She thought for a moment. "Pull over and park as safely as you can. Make it look like you think it's just a regular break-down."

"A-all right," Kaz said. "I'll try." He looked around in several jerks, his nerves trying to get the better of him, and then pulled over toward the left and decelerated. The car responded sluggishly; both steering and braking required more force than usual with the car's power assist systems out, but he was able to manage well enough.

The sedan slowed as well, but not at the same rate. It was gaining on them. As soon as they stopped, the black sedan surged forward and struck them. All three cried out, snapped backward into their seats as the car was thrust forward, jumped the curb, and struck a concrete post.

Nanako did her best to recover her senses as the two men jumped out of the car behind them, ran up to Kaz's car, ripped open the locked doors with seemingly superhuman strength, and yanked them out. Nanako and Teddie were both pulled out the passenger side by the same man, while the other tore Kaz out from the driver's side. Kaz and Teddie struggled, but Nanako kept calm as they were quickly dragged away from the street into a thicket of bushes. Brambles tugged at Nanako's hair and jacket, but she took the opportunity to observe what she could about the men. The one distinct difference between them was that one had black hair, and the other blonde. Otherwise, they were both sturdy-framed and athletic but not particularly bulky, clad in plain nondescript black suits, shirts, and ties, and wearing dark glasses. Their suit jackets were closed and she could see the outline of something under their arms when the bushes tugged at the fabric.

The two men threw them into a pile on the other side of the bushes. One stood on either side, blocking their possible paths of escape.

"Are you agents?" Teddie said, once he'd recovered enough to roll onto his back. "Like the 'Men in Black'?"

"What do you want with us?" Nanako asked.

"We ask the questions, you answer," the one to her left, with the blonde hair, said.

The black-haired one turned to Kaz. "Last night you were at a dig in the Tottori Dunes. You picked up an object and brought it back here. Where is it?"

"What're you-" Kaz started.

"She's got it," the blonde one said, pointing to Nanako.

Nanako snapped her gaze to the blonde one. How could he have known? The tilt to Blonde's head told her he saw the surprise on her face, and knew he was correct.

"Hand it over," Black said.

"Go to hell," Nanako said.

Blonde stepped over her and leaned down, reaching for her jacket. She leaned back, faking fear at his approach. Her years of training kicked in, time slowing down as she plotted her next move. Just as his fingers brushed her jacket she snapped her left fist upward, deflecting his reach and starting a roll to her right. At the same moment she kicked up with her left leg, her shin connecting with his right ribs. She struck solid muscle and no ribs were broken, but it was enough to knock him off balance. Her right shoulder struck the dewy grass and she snapped her elbow down into the spongy earth, engaging enough momentum to put her back onto her feet.

Out of the corner of her eye she saw Black take a step toward her. He didn't make it further than that; Kaz swung his legs around in a scissor kick, trapping Black's rear leg and yanking it out from under him, making him fall backward.

Teddie, likewise, jumped to his feet and snapped his fist forward, connecting with Blonde's cheek and snapping his head into his right shoulder. Taking advantage, Nanako sprang forward, one fist low and the other high guarding her face. Her lower fist connected with Blonde's abdomen seconds after her upper fist hit his chin, knocking him backward onto his buttocks. Teddie clenched his right arm and dropped hard, elbow down, onto Blonde's chest. This time there was a crack, and Blonde cried out. He crossed his arms over his chest and rolled, apparently protecting his injured spot.

Keeping her arms up and rounding the fight scene slowly, Nanako saw Kaz punch Black, still on the ground, square in the face. There was another crunch, and a spray of blood that got onto Kaz's jacket. Black covered his face and rolled over. Kaz was rolling his fists and dancing around him, readying another blow.

"Stop, that's enough," Nanako said. Kaz looked at her and then immediately complied, backing away from Black but keeping his fighting stance.

There was a click, metal-on-metal, and Nanako looked back down at Blonde. Somehow he had managed to roll onto his back and pull a gun from under his jacket. It was trained directly on her. She knew she hadn't looked away for more than a second. If he was fast enough to do all that in that short time, she couldn't understand how he'd been so slow during their fight. Unless he was looking for an excuse to pull a gun...

"I don't want to kill you but I will," Blonde said. He glanced at Teddie, who was almost on top of him. "Back off right now."

Teddie looked from the gun to Nanako, and back at the gun. He took a step back, a second, a third. Another click, and Black had his gun out, pointed at Kaz. How could she not have read their intentions? Had she been too distracted, too out of practice? Or was there more to these "agents" than there appeared to be?

"The talisman. Now." Blonde pushed himself slowly to his feet, wincing and bringing his hand over the rib Teddie had broken.

Nanako forced herself to remain calm. The situation had gotten bad quickly, and she needed to find an out before they got even worse. "What is it?"

"That's not your concern," Black said.

"Yeah it is!" Teddie said. "How do we know you're not gonna do something evil with it?"

"You know nothing about it or us," Blonde said. He tightened his grip on his gun. "Now hand it over. You have no idea how dangerous it is."

"Actually I do," Nanako said. "It's dangerous enough for you to stalk and threaten to kill us. Maybe the fact you haven't killed us already means something, but something like this – you don't know me. I have no intention of letting someone I don't know have it."

"We know more than you think," Blonde said.

"Who are you guys anyway?" Teddie said.

"Who we are isn't important," said Black.

"You've left us no choice," Blonde said. He straightened his arm, pointing the gun square between Nanako's eyes...and then in a flash turned it toward his own head and squeezed the trigger. Nanako stepped back as his head exploded, not into bone and brain and gore, but with a sound like smashing glass. His head remained fully intact. A creature appeared overhead, mostly human but emaciated, with sallow skin, dark, deep-set eyes, and pointed ears. It raised its clawed fingers over its head and dove at her, swiping downward. She brought up her arms to block just as the claws struck, tearing strips of flesh from her forearms. Not allowing the pain to distract her, she jumped back, trying to get out of the creature's reach.

The Persona's reach.

Nanako continued backing away from the creature, surprise and horror filling her. "No, no, it's not possible!" she said.

A hundred questions surged through her head, centered around the "who" of these men and their employer, and the "how" of their Personas and their being able to summon them in the real world.

Another small explosion shot through those questions. Black had also fired his gun into his own head, and his own Persona appeared above him. It was a blue-haired woman, draped loosely in white and black cloth swirling around her in the general shape of a yin-yang. In place of her stomach was what appeared to be a wagon wheel. She spun in place and raised her hand. Flames erupted around them. Kaz and Teddie were both at the ready, but the fire scorched them and sent them reeling. Nanako felt the heat from the flames, but they didn't seem to reach her skin. The real burning she felt was from within. Something felt like it wanted out, and she was afraid she knew exactly what that was.

"Give us the talisman!" shouted Blonde. He pointed to her and his Persona set upon her, once again slashing viciously. This time the attack did not seem to reach her, though she felt some sting from it especially in the open wounds on her forearms. The burning within her grew more intense.

"Stop it!" shouted Nanako.

Black's Persona waved its hands, and this time a wave of cold washed over her, the air solidifying into ice. The heat from within her melted the ice almost instantaneously. "S-stop!" she begged, her legs becoming rubbery and unstable. The burning was so intense she felt as if she would explode, spreading flames everywhere around her. The Personas continued their alternating attacks, and the fire in Nanako's chest was almost white-hot. She clenched her arms around herself. "Stop! Please stop!"

"Give us the damn talisman!" Black shouted. "It doesn't have to be like this!" Despite his platitude, the two of them intensified their attacks, apparently throwing every possible at her and ignoring Kaz and Teddie completely.

"Stop!" Nanako cried as another slash struck her. "Stop! Stop it stop stop STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT!" Nanako cried in vain. The attacks did not relent. She gave one last desperate attempt to curb the power within her, but then finally the control slipped from her grip. She screamed wordlessly as the air exploded around her, and then she shouted one, clear word:

"Persona!"

Blue flame flew from her body and wind whipped around her. Her card flew from her pocket, suspended in front of her face. The image on it, which for twelve years had been all but invisible, reappeared into a vivid depiction that spread across its face like flame. Then the card vanished completely and, in its place, manifested a giant of a being. It looked human, clad in gold and silver armor, with giant white feathered wings on its back. It's gauntlet-covered hands wielded a spear over its head, as if in a war cheer.

Zerachiel. Defender of Earth.

Nanako roared. It brought the spear down in a wide swipe, slashing through the two lesser Personas as if they were rice paper. The two agents screamed as their Personas were torn apart, and they collapsed to the ground. Nanako roared again, arms outstretched, and she lifted off the ground, carried by the wind she was generating.

The power. She'd forgotten what it felt like. How good it was. She turned her head down, glaring at the two agents now cowering from her. How dare they attack her? They had no idea whom they were messing with. She would teach them. Teach them, and whoever sent them. She would teach them all.

She opened her mouth. Zerachiel wavered, and pieces began tearing away, pulled toward her. The remains of the agents' Personas, lolling in the air, also began to disintegrate, the fragments all being drawn into her.

Yes. Yes! I will take their power! I will have it all, and I'll...and I'll... She opened her eyes and looked down. Kaz and Teddie had gotten to their feet and were staring up at her, horror written onto their faces. She flashed back to twelve years ago, to that beach in another dimension, where she held all the power of her Big Bro's Personas, which paled in comparison to the power from his and Naoto's very souls. She had craved more, just as she did now. She could have taken all the souls in the world, and then maybe, maybe she would have had enough power to destroy Susano-O. And Amaterasu. And any god who dared cross her. She looked up into the sky, which was rumbling with lightning and thunder despite the lack of clouds.

It was just like then.

"Nanako-chan! No! You've gotta stop!"

"Nanako-chan! Stop it!"

"You've gotta let them go! Sensei and Nao-chan'll be trapped forever if you don't!"

"Sensei! Stop, please! You beat 'em already. You're gonna turn into that – that thing again!"

Teddie. His voice from the past, and his voice from the present, both begging her to stop. He was there the first time, with the other voices. He saw what she almost became...saw what she was becoming now.

She's almost lost herself then.

She turned down again, seeing Teddie and Kaz staring up at her. She felt the heat from her eyes, a sensation all too familiar despite the years since it had last happened.

She was on the verge of losing herself again.

"No..." she said. "Let it go, let it go..." She sank toward the ground. "Let it go, Nanako-chan." She felt the heat within her subside. As soon as her feet touched the ground they gave way, and she sank to her knees. The bright spots of Persona that had been drawing toward her vanished. The agents' Personas also vanished.

The heat within her disappeared, leaving a coldness. The coldness of fear. Her rational mind finally returning to her, she reflected on what had just happened, and why she had fought for so long to prevent it from happening.

"S-sensei?" Teddie said, rushing to her side.

"Nanako-sensei?" Kaz said, though he kept his distance.

Nanako fell to her hands. Zerachiel hovered over her for a moment longer before it finally disappeared, leaving behind a spinning tarot card. Nanako looked up at the card and, as if the string suspending it in the air were suddenly cut, it dropped to the grass. That same string had been holding back her dread. The enormity of all that had just happened, what she had done, struck her like a dagger in to her heart. The fear took her.

If you re-power yourselves too soon, war will quickly follow. She could now hear Amaterasu's voice, the warning that had colored the entirety of Nanako's life since that day. Innocents will die before it is done. Innocents will die.

And it's my fault, she thought. She told me what would happen, and I let it happen. What have I done?

She pounded a fist into the ground. "No!" she shouted. She jumped to her feet. The two agents were still on the ground, struggling to get to their feet. She clenched her hands to the side of her head, pulling hard against her own hair as she trembled uncontrollably. "You did this! Do you have any idea what you've done? Do you?"

Either from their injuries or out of fear, the agents did not answer her. Nanako let out a cry of despair and then said, "You just killed us all!"