Chapter 50: Shadow of the Tragic Self


July 26th, Junes, Late Morning

The first day of summer was often a much more exciting part of life for young kids. To enjoy themselves by doing everything they wanted to do without sitting in a classroom. Even in a country town like Inaba, there were plenty of ways to pass the time and have fun.

More than a few teens would have liked to enjoy those simpler times, but they didn't have the luxury of that. Not after what they saw on the Midnight Channel last night. And what they must do.

"You can't be serious," Naoto said, dismayed. "You plan to actually fight a vampire?"

"We were always gonna have to fight her, Naoto," Kanji said to his ward. "I mean, she killed like four people now."

"And do you have any sort of countermeasure to fight her off?" Naoto pressed. "At least to fend off the hypnosis?"

"I have a plan for that, sort of," Shirou assured, already planning a visit to the Velvet Room before heading to the castle. Or what did Satsuki call it? A Palace? "But I suppose we should get more medicine from Shiroku's."

"And some stakes!" Chie added.

Rise tilted her head, gazing at the empty plate in front of the other girl. "I thought you ate already, Chie-chan," she asked.

"Wha-no! Wooden stakes, the kind you stick the sharp end down to pitch a tent. Or in this case, a vampire's heart!" As she eagerly explained her intended plan, Yosuke winced at what that action would entail.

"Oh, and we need garlic bulbs too!" Yukiko added. "Vampires hate the smell of it!"

"Got one right here!" Kanji smiled, fishing out a white bulbous vegetable from his jacket pocket. As everyone looked at his hand, their faces looked dubious and concerned, which he noticed right away. "What?"

"Kanji-kun, that's an onion," Taiga told him.

"Oh," the bleached-haired teen muttered, as if noticing the food for the first time. "I always get those two mixed up."

"So that's why you asked me to take you to the grocer," Yosuke deadpanned. "Did you at least pay for that?"

"Uh, one of your clerks told me to just take it, actually," he explained. "I think part of it was that he looked scared to see me, but it was damaged goods anyway. I thought it would be more potent to use. Or at least to throw and see what happens."

"Why would you think throwing an onion would help?" Naoto asked incredulously.

"Hey, it might work. The other day fighting Shadows, we threw some pinwheels at 'em and they went off like one of Yosuke's wind spells."

Naoto's eyes widened, and one could see his brain briefly turn off for a moment. "'Went off'? Are you… are you suggesting that if you throw an onion in that world, it will explode?!"

Kanji shrugged. "TV world's weird, man."

Yosuke angrily swiped the vegetable from his hand. "You are not tossing a rotten onion bomb at my girlfriend!"

Chie glared at him, instantly livid. "Seriously? She killed someone right in front of you and you still call her your 'girlfriend'?!"

"W-well, we never officially broke up," he argued weakly. Seeing that it had done little to assuage concerns, he added, "We also saw the Midnight Channel, right? Sacchin's Shadow was there, alone and locked up."

"What difference does that make? We will probably still have to fight it. Wouldn't surprise me if Vampire Satsuki used her Shadow as an attack dog."

"Maybe that won't happen. Just hear me out: we all faced our Shadows-" He glanced towards Shirou and Naoto. "Well, most of us, but you know. They weren't bad guys. Just our bad traits and baggage, and able to become our Personas. I know Sacchin is bad now as a vampire, but what if her Shadow is what's left of her good side?"

It was a sound theory, all things considered. Persona and Shadows were concepts connected to Jungian psychology, so it wasn't like the terms here were thought up from no basis. They were two sides of the same coin, and if one could hide their bad traits in the mask of a good façade, the opposite should hold just as much merit.

"It's mostly likely what's left of her humanity, suppressed as it is," Shirou considered.

"Right?" Yosuke said excitedly.

"But it doesn't change the fact that Satsuki Yumizuka died," Naoto informed. "Nor the fact that she has harmed and killed others. And if her words are to be believed, she feels enough guilt to ask for death."

Yosuke's hopes fell, but he kept a stern face as he exhaled his sorrow away. "I get it, okay? We need to stop Sacchin, maybe even… put her down," he whimpered somewhat. "But I would rather exhaust all options and find out the truth about her before doing something I regret. Like find out if any of it was real or not."

The others all felt sympathy for him. It was not often someone you thought you liked turned out to be a monster. It was one thing to feel that the first girl you had crushed on actually hated you, but a second girl who was indirectly responsible for her death? It wasn't unlucky, just plain cruel.

Still, Yosuke showed a strong enough resolve to see this through, even through a glimmer of hope. He had a personal stake in the case, after all.

Smiling, Shirou walked up and patted Yosuke on the shoulder. "We'll be there to back you up, Yosuke."

Others shared their sentiment with nods and smiles. Yosuke was moved, quickly wiping his sleeve over his nose and eyes. "Thanks, guys."

"Right! Let's get to work! Go team, go!"

The blond-haired young man at the far end of their table shouted and cheered. He was just as committed to the case as it was personal. Most of the team knew this. Except for Taiga who stared at him blankly. "Who are you again?"

"Gaack!" So shocked at her words, he immediately curled into a feeble ball on his seat and turned away from the group. "You're so cruel, Taiga-sama."

Immediately the group was confused about his choice of words. Taiga in particular was just as confused, as well as flattered. "Wait, Taiga-sama? I mean, that sounds nice, but why call me that?"

Like a switch, he turned towards her with a smile and his knees crossed. "You're the sensei to Shirou-sensei. It would be redundant to call you sensei twice, as you are the master to my teacher. So, Taiga-sama!" He blinked owlishly and then turned to his hero. "Ah, no offense, Shirou-sensei."

"It's fine, Teddie."

Taiga's eyes widened. "'Teddie'?" She forcibly grabbed his face, turned it around as if looking for some veil or hidden trick, and then stared at his impossibly blue eyes. "TEDDIE'S HUMAN?!"

The screech caused the others to flinch. And they cringed inwardly as they realized she had never seen or had been told of his recent transformation, either. "I knew I was forgetting something," Shirou lamented under his breath.

"I thought you said there was nothing in his suit!" she demanded, pointing at the humane bear she now held firmly in her grasp. She turned his face around for good measure, ignoring his aching puffs of pain through his scrunched lips. "This doesn't look like nothing!"

"Hey, we were just as shocked about this, okay?" Chie defended. "It happened right after you beat up his Shadow!"

"And you didn't think to tell me?!"

"We're sorry, Fujimura-san," Yukiko apologized. "But you were resting when it happened, and we were trying to get him settled in first. Naoto-kun only found out by chance himself."

"You told Naoto-kun before me?! He's not even a member of the team! Next I suppose you're gonna tell me the fox knew, too!" Taiga expected the accusation to be an exaggeration. But she was dismayed as the girls looked away sheepishly, and that Tama was staring at her, smug. "I can't believe this!"

As the arguing ensued, Yosuke laughed. It was odd to feel this relieved, but weird moments of levity were comforting. Especially when he wasn't the only one on the receiving end.

Even if the worst came to pass, he'd get by somehow. He knew it in his heart.


Moon Voidania, 1st Statum

Even before the Investigation Team arrived, the 8-bit castle felt like a fitting end to what they hoped would be a final showdown. A dreary, pixelated castle placed at the end of a long bridge over a deep chasm, all straight out of Transylvania.

All that was missing was a dramatic thunder effect to hit home that it was a haunted castle, but the cascading black and red colors of the sky were spooky enough.

Yosuke was the first to enter the castle, running ahead from the group and cupping his hands as he yelled. "Sacchin! Sacchin!"

"You idiot!" Chie chided, her voice barely a whisper. "We're trying to sneak up on her!"

"A little too late for that, Chie-chan," Teddie told her, a worried frown over his expressive bear-suit. "I think the vampire knows whatever goes on in this castle, like when we enter or leave it."

"Good, I want her to know I'm coming for her," Kanji boasted. "I owe her a Take-Mikazuchi-sized beat-down for that hypno-shit the other day!"

"I'm looking forward to giving her a good hit, myself," Taiga said. She held her shinai over her shoulder, glancing up to the gaping ceiling hole. "Now that I'm here, she's not gonna be so lucky anymore."

As the others voiced their thoughts and converged into the hall, Shirou walked to Yosuke's side and clasped his hand over his friend's shoulder. The action jolted him, even though he didn't glance back right away. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just… a little anxious I guess," Yosuke admitted. "We should find Sacchin's Shadow first."

"Good plan," said Shirou. "Rise, can you find her?"

"I think so. Just give me a second."

It was more than a few seconds really, but it felt quick enough that Rise dismissed Himiko as quickly as she summoned her. "So, I picked up two readings in this place. One is further down where we last saw Satsuki, and the other is further down from her."

"Wait, down where?" Chie asked, looking around the room. Most of it had been ruined since the fight with Teddie's Shadow. "This is as low as we can go in this building."

"No, I mean down down," Rise explained, pointing to the floor. Or rather beneath it. "Like basement-down."

"Of course, the basement," Yosuke said excitedly. "Sacchin's Midnight Channel showed her inside a cage so she must be in a basement cell!"

"Yeah but, where would the basement be?" Kanji asked. "We didn't see any other stairways before."

"I think… over there!" Rise pointed to the center stairway that led to the upper floors. "There's a ladder going down the lower floors just behind the stairs."

"Ooooh, a literal dungeon crawl!" Yukiko smiled. "How exciting, isn't it Chie?"

"Y-Yeah, sure," her friend answered, decidedly unenthused. She still put on a brave face and puffed her chest with a fist to her breast. "I-I'll protect you, don't worry!"

"Sure!"

With Chie (or rather Yukiko) leading the vanguard, the Investigation Team started their descent. The pixelated décor was dimmer and opaque, with flickering candle lights less luminous and more like the abyss or a demon's maw. By the time they climbed down to the bottom, everyone was more than a little frazzled and tense. Yukiko was beside herself, but in a more eager manner than her classmates.

Suddenly, the room echoed with a retro chiptune chime, and words appeared, like the first time they started exploring the castle. A familiar text screen appeared.

Bonus Level! New Life Plus!

Gained Vampire Blood! Gained Mana Sight!

Where do you want to go?

_ Stay in Misaki Town
Find new home

Found Mitsuo Home! Greeted by Mr. and Mrs. Mitsuo!

Accept Hospitality.

Suddenly the screen shook violently, changed to red, and the selected option was changed.

MURDER AND FEAST

No one said anything, all but numb and suspicious at the implications. "Huh," Yosuke joked mirthlessly. "Been a while since we saw one of those things,"

No one knew what to say to that, despite aching to do so. Except Kanji, who remembered the last time 'those things' appeared. "Hey, that reminds me. Ted, do you know what that was about?"

"Huh?" The bear blinked. Kanji looked at him expectantly, while tilting his head towards Yosuke. "OH! Well, they sort out filtered noises – or in this case, words – that the people that run these Palaces have. The Shadows react based on those words, and take forms based on those words and feelings."

"So the Shadows get stronger because more baggage gets thrown in?" Chie asked.

Teddie shrugged. "I can't say for sure. This never happened until recently."

"I'm more concerned about the implications than the origin right now," Shirou said. "Let's find her Shadow first. We can worry about this later." The rest of the team nodded, motivated to tackle the hurdle before them.

Rise did a quick search through Himiko before she turned to Shirou. "So which do you want to hear first, Shirou-senpai? Good news or bad news?"

Shirou frowned. It was never a good thing to hear good or bad news. Well, if they were going to hear both, might as well rip the bandage off first. "Let's start with the bad news."

"Okay. So, the bad news is that there are some powerful Shadows down here. Like three… no, four of them. Not Shadow Kanji-kun strong, but Tough and Nice Guy strong."

"Midbosses, of course," Yosuke grimaced.

"Nah, if they were middle, they'd be between us and Satsuki, right?" Kanji argued. "They're in the basement so they'd be... ah, Bottom Bosses!"

Yukiko chortled, a puff of air escaping her puffed cheeks. The other all flushed, which seemed to alert Kanji that they knew something he didn't. "What?"

"Just be glad your chaperone wasn't here to hear that, Kanji-kun," Taiga said cryptically, which confused him even more.

Their amused responses did remind Shirou that Naoto had to stay behind, as he lacked a Persona. He was upset and adamant that he should go with them, but if the worst-case scenario did happen, he'd be the only one who'd know the truth. It wouldn't come to that, but at the very least they wouldn't have to worry about keeping him safe in a fight.

"And the good news?" he asked Rise, to get their minds back on track.

"Oh. Well, it's faint but I think Sacchin's Shadow is here-"

Yosuke bolted down the corridor before she could finish. "SACCHIN!"


It was dark in here. The entire room was thick and blocky, from the cell bars to the bed bunk. There were sludge sounds oozing and moving like excreting bowels, but by now they were just white noise. Or was it brown noise?

Either way, she didn't care to look. Just taking comfort in the small corner of her cell, black and furthest away from any sort of light.

It almost reminded her of that one time, stuck in a room. Only this time she was truly alone, with hideous monsters just lumbering around. If they found her, they'd kill her, she knew.

The gurgling noises were enough to make her cower and hide away… but wait, why did they sound agitated now? Had they found her?!

More sounds echoed out. The singing of steel across flesh, the whipping gales of a spring day, and dozens of clattering shoes. There was talking. Yelling. But she couldn't make out the exact words. Most of them were deafened by the fighting.

She huddled closer to her corner, scared. Something big was happening. Were those monsters hunting each other now? Found someone else like her to loom over as guards? The fighting only intensified for a scant few minutes, even though so much of the action made her think it went on longer than that.

Honestly, with all the sounds going on, it felt like something out of a western cartoon. Toon… something.

Things changed when the sound of a water balloon bursting happened, with a lot of excited fervor. Then another happened, as the fighting clearly became more one-sided and the growling sounds lessened in volume and intensity.

And then… it was over.

Curiosity finally winning over, she pushed against the cell door. It barely made a beep as the pixelated door flashed in two quick frames to swing open. After all, it wasn't meant to keep her in, but those creatures out.

She peeked around the corner to see the fading dark-red mist of what used to be the wardens. All that remained were people (plus a fox and some round thing). They were… familiar. Like visions she saw in a dream. The one she recognized immediately was the young man in the center of the battle, his back in front of her, as he stood tall and caught his breath. In each hand was a small blade (knives?) with knicks on the edges. He wore a pair of headphones and a scarf around his neck, and there seemed to be a pair of glasses over his eyes. He looked so familiar.

Shiki? No, that's not Shiki, that's-

"Yosuke-kun?"

The entire ensemble flinched and looked her way. Yosuke in particular turned so fast that his scarf and hair whiffed somewhat. A myriad of emotions danced across his face, but they were forgotten as he ran to her and hugged her.

"Sacchin! Thank goodness you're all right!"

Sacchin. Yes, that was her name, wasn't it? But not quite right. She hesitantly returned the embrace, feeling a desperate need for his warmth.

"Uh, Yosuke?" one of the other girls – a brunette with metal boots – called out to him while looking at her funny. Like she was scary. Or a monster. "Are you sure you should be that close to her?"

Yosuke pulled away, but still kept his arms on her as he turned to the other girl. "Have you seen her? She looks like a wreck!"

"Yeah, but the other Sacchin was dangerous and nuts," the bleach-haired boy remarked. "And this one's that vampire bitch's Shad-OW!"

A pigtailed girl elbowed him hard enough to stop him, and hissed something through her teeth. Sacchin felt out of place here if that's what they really thought. She must have been dangerous to be located in a prison cell.

But… vampire? Why did that word shake her to her core?

"Actually, I think this one's fine," the cuddly creature said. "It's like Shirou-sensei said. This one's humanity has been suppressed so much, it's like her normal self before the vampire transformation."

"So, because she's a vampire now, her normal human self is the Shadow? But wait, what about her own suppressed self? Wouldn't the Human-Shadow have a Shadow-Shadow too? Is there a Shadow-ception?!"

The cuddly creature frowned at her. "It doesn't work that way, Chie-chan."

"Yosuke-kun," Sacchin gulped, trying not to tremble or crack as she asked. "What are they talking about?"

Yosuke frowned, opening and closing his mouth several times but no words came out. Until finally, he asked back, "Well it's a bit hard to explain. What do you remember, Sacchin?"

What did she remember? That shouldn't be too difficult, right? "Well, we've been dating for about a week now. You showed me around the Junes store you worked at, and-"

She gasped, as a wave of memories flooded her all at once. Being killed. Trying to kill Shiki. Leaving home. And all the things she had done. All the people she killed.

And how deep down she loved feeling this merciless.

"Sacchin!" Yosuke cried out, leaning closer. "What's wrong?"

"GET AWAY!" she snapped, shoving him. It only made her fall backward and shuffle away in case he tried to help her again. A courtesy she didn't deserve. "Don't come near me! I-I'm a monster! I hurt Shiki! I killed people! I DRANK THEIR BLOOD!"

"Sacchin-!" Yosuke was too nice, to look at her with pity instead of fear. The others looked tense and ready to fight with brandished weapons.

"We know," another boy told her, stepping up next to Yosuke. His red hair, white glasses and amber eyes were all easy to make him stick out. "We know you've been turned into a vampire."

That admission did little to assure her. If anything, it really hammered home how out of her depth she was. But she nodded and waited for him to continue.

He knelt down to her level. "And we're here to save you, Sacchin."

"…you mean kill me."

"I prefer not to go down that route if possible."

She refused to make eye contact, but she was calmer now than a moment ago. "That's why you're talking to me then. The Shadow, or what's left of it."

"Ah, so you know," the brunette said. "Most Shadows we've met tend to be preeetty self-aware when they have a face."

"I was just hiding and suppressing my fears, for what good that was doing. I knew I had some dark thoughts but… to think they'd just pop out and switch places with me."

"So you did have a hand in killing our teacher."

"For what it's worth, I'm sorry."

"What about Saki-senpai?" Yosuke asked her. "And Ms. Yamano?"

Shadow Sacchin turned to him, bewildered. "Who?"

"A student from our school, and the late TV announcer. They died here last April."

"April?! B-but I wasn't here until last month!"

Again, conflicting emotions shifted over his face. Mostly relief. Even if his voice cracked trying to be confident. "S-See?! Sacchin couldn't be the one responsible!"

"Yeah, but who killed the other two? And why?"

"One thing at a time, Amagi," the red-haired boy told the black-haired girl. Then he turned back to the Shadow. "Do you know what your vampire half is trying to do?"

Sacchin frowned. "I think… she's trying to move this castle over to the real world."

"What?!" Understandably, the teens were all aghast and dismayed.

"But why?" the pigtailed girl cried out. "Don't vampires want to stay in dark, gloomy places? She could hide out here and no one would ever know!"

"Not to mention all the prana-erm, magic energy, around here," the boy added.

"That was the idea at first. But I learned the hard way that vampires can only sustain themselves for so long without blood. It's as necessary to survive as air and water. But this world only has Shadows, who lack blood for sustenance."

The bleach-haired teen scratched his scalp in wonder. "But couldn't she, like, just leave this place like the rest of us? And steal us like Taiga or Mitsuo?"

The woman in a tiger-striped shirt and sundress huffed. "Haven't you forgotten, Kanji-kun? I was the one who pushed her in, not the other way around! Erm, no offense, Sacchin."

"It's fine. I'm glad you are well, ma'am."

The other girls looked concerned, as did the bear. "But wait, does that mean-!"

"Yeah. It means that she can't be the culprit after all, because she doesn't have the power to push us into TVs," the redhead confirmed aloud. "Satsuki's Shadow being here proves that."

"Huh?!" the punk boy yelped. "But she was trying to get Mitsuo to awaken his Persona, right?"

"That's just it. I was trying," Shadow Sacchin said. "I was shocked at how you all were able to come and go as you pleased, and when my other-self saw myself, she didn't try to understand. Not that I could even think of how to address her, either."

"I don't think vampires could begin to understand humans," Shirou added. "They're more monsters than anything-urk!" He felt a smack at the back of his head, delivered by the irate pink-haired girl, pointing to Yosuke and Sacchin. He flushed in realization. "Uh, sorry."

"Then wait… isn't this a good thing?" the brunette asked. "Like, she's trapped herself in here, right? Then we don't even have to fight! We can just leave her here and she'd starve to death!"

The group of teens looked at her bewildered, shocked and surprised. There was indeed truth to her words; a vampire with no one to feed on would quickly perish. But were they so eager to stop a vampire by leaving? Shadow Sacchin was terrified of being alone again, to a fate she probably deserved but still deep down didn't want. And looking at Yosuke, she could see more emotions flare up in tandem. Dismay, horror, and anger. He opened his mouth to retort.

"Not anymore, I won't."

Everyone froze. It wasn't Yosuke who'd said that. Nor was it any of them. That was Sacchin's voice, spoken aloud all around them, but without the reverberating filter. Before they could do anything else, a blood red circle of fairly intricate writing appeared on the floor beneath them. The resulting flash blinded them to their surroundings…


Moon Voidania, Throne Room

Kanji didn't know how his eyes were hurting; he was wearing translucent lenses for crying out loud! Still he was rubbing them for all their worth as the light didn't seem to dim. "Gah! Shit, what just happened?"

"I apologize for the irritation, Kanji-kun. My teleportation spell needs some work, I suppose."

Everyone gathered their bearings and noticed they were indeed in a new room. Nearly everything was dark and damp, with a handful of candlesticks all burning on posts. A dark red carpet led from the closed doorway to an elevated set of steps. Before them was a bronze throne, made tall and sharp, and situated just in front of a large skeletal dragon head as if it was hunted and set up as a taxidermy trophy. And sitting on the throne, lax with her pale skinned legs crossed and a wine glass in her hand, was Satsuki Yumizuka the vampire.

She smiled down at them, an expression of amusement and confidence. She was completely relaxed and yet her presence ebbed fear into them. No one said anything, nervously keeping their weapons ready at a moment's notice.

Tama's not here, Shirou noticed. The fox always did keep her distance from the group, so she wasn't within their proximity when the transport happened. He just hoped she could manage on her own, maybe find her own way out.

"I know we're doing this out of order," she said in a sultry voice. "But I've humored your antics long enough. Avoiding me, training right at my castle doors, taking away my bear butler, the loss of my brother…" she actually looked sad upon mentioning it. Which might be true as her Shadow croaked a sob. Satsuki sneered at her other self. "And now you went and dragged my skeleton out of the closet? I expected more from you. Especially you, Yosuke-kun."

"Spoken like someone who is hiding from the truth," Yosuke spat back.

"Oooooh, still got some bite in you after all! Guess it was a good thing I let you leave after all." She grinned as she watched her wineglass spin in her hand. "But we're ending this little game today. Right here. Right now."

"Damn right we are! Teddie! The Diorama!"

"On it, Chie-chan!" Teddie clapped twice, cupped his hands… and nothing. Blinking, he clapped again. Slowly to make sure it stuck. Then faster, and faster with each frantic insistence until he was giving a thunderous applause. "AAAAAH! WE CAN'T GOHO-M!"

"What?!"

"Hahaha, the looks on your faces!" Satsuki laughed and reclined over the arm rests. "I've been practicing too, you know. Learning how to manipulate all floors of this castle."

"It's just like what your Shadow said, then," Shirou surmised. "You're trying to figure out a way back to the real world."

Satsuki pouted with extended cheeks, looking away. "She just had to go and blab out the surprise. I was really worried too, you know, having her say I was close to starving. Mitsy's blood alone isn't enough, and I felt I was on a time limit to meet the next rainy day."

"But~," she coyly smiled, pointedly looking at Chie. "Little miss Tomoe over there reminded me you could just leave again. If I keep you trapped here, then I don't have to worry about starving! You'd serve me as thralls, willing or otherwise, as I can move freely between worlds for more victims."

"We won't help you eat more people!" Yukiko yelled.

"We won't fall for your brainwashing tricks, either!" Taiga added.

Satsuki shrugged. "Then I'll simply feed on you. Eight warm bodies will help satisfy me more than one."

"Eight?" Teddie blinked. Then he started counting the group. "B-but I don't taste good! You said so!"

"Yes, but you've seemed to have gained a human-shell filling since you awakened. I'm extra curious how you taste now."

"Eep!"

"Way to go, loudmouth," Yosuke seethed at Chie. She felt guilty and responsible, but really didn't like being blamed by Yosuke of all people.

"I get why you wouldn't like it, but all things considered it was a good plan!"

"It was a horrible plan that you just thought up! I sure as hell wouldn't want to resolve this case by running away!"

"And you won't," Satsuki promised. "I will break out of here through the power of this Palace, or by breaking one of you to be my thrall. I've survived an executioner and a boy who could cut anything to death. Between the two of them, you're just gnats."

She rose up and stepped away from her throne. "As soon as I'm done with this glass, we're doing this. So best make your final prayers or decide whether you want to serve me." Then she started drinking.

Shirou knew this would be their hardest fight yet, but perhaps it wasn't entirely hopeless either. She had been stuck in Teddie's world long enough without sustenance that she was weaker than normal. But how long would it be until she figured out how to bring her whole castle over as her personal Bounded Field?

There might not be a better opportunity to defeat her. Unfortunately, it didn't look like his classmates were able to fight. For all the talk of preparation, it took all their nerves just to keep standing in her presence. She hadn't let out the full extent of her killing intent or hypnosis yet either. But those that could fight…

"Fuji-nee, can you fight?"

"Damn straight," his guardian boasted. She swung her shinai twice to amp herself up. "I still owe that brat a rematch for when she trashed my apartment."

"Teddie?"

"I-I'm here, Shirou-sensei!" the bear assured. His costume might look soft and unimposing, but the grip on his claw was indeed holding fast.

"Good. Everyone else, stand back and keep Rise safe."

The remaining classmates turned to him in dismay. "What?!"

"This isn't up for discussion," he said firmly. His eyes stayed firmly on Sacchin and her dwindling drink. "We don't know the full extent of her power, so it's best to have some strength in reserve."

"At least let me fight too, man!" Yosuke cried. "This is important!"

"I know it is, Yosuke," Shirou said. "Which is why I'm trusting you to keep her Shadow safe."

Yosuke grimaced, looking between Shirou's imposing back and the vulnerable Sacchin still in his arms. Taking one last look at the vampire, he cursed his weakness and ran behind a pillar. The others watched on, torn with indecision.

"*gulp* Ah~ that's the good stuff." SMASH! A moment later, the glass was tossed aside and shattered on the floor. Satsuki smiled. "I've always wanted to do that."

Shirou had his eyes on her the whole time, sword steady and ready to block at a moment's notice. Which was why it was so baffling that she seemingly vanished from her position one moment and was crouching low in front of him the next.

Her attacks were unrefined, thrashing arms and scratches instead of refined martial arts. But they had power and speed behind them. Despite her small frame, Sacchin had the ferocity of a berserker, matched by her coy smirk as she spun on her heels to strike Shirou with both hands as if swinging a bat.

BOOM! Shirou collided with a support column with enough force to crack and crush the foundation.

The team stared at his prone form in mute horror, then back at the smiling vampire. "I forgot how squishy you hu-"

"HIYAH!" Taiga roared, swinging her shinai ferociously. Interrupted but not deterred, Sacchin stepped aside as it sailed in front of her, before rearing back her hand flat and thrusted out for a stab. Taiga pivoted her bamboo sword diagonally to parry the arm away, and then swung horizontally. A flurry of smacks of wood meeting hardened skin echoed in the chamber. And yet the Yasogami students still watched on, entranced by the level of fighting in front of them.

Teddie was not idle, though, as he summoned his faithful folk-hero Persona to cast healing light on their leader. "Guys, either shape up or ship out!" Teddie cried out. The rebuke snapped them back to their senses.

Kanji moved forward, pulling out a small fist-clenched item from his pocket. "Eat this!" He threw it as hard as he could.

Sacchin reacted instantly without looking; she grabbed Taiga's weapon with one hand enough to crush it, and then lashed out with her cutting fingers with the other to intercept the missile. However, as soon as it was cut, it detonated akin to a smoke bomb, covering her in white dust that felt itchy and smelled…

Oh God, what WAS that smell?! It was enough to make her retch and cough into both her hands.

Hands that were no longer stopping the shinai, so Taiga stepped away before summoning Kaihime, which zeroed-in on the vulnerable vampire.

As if in unison, Teddie and Kintoki-Douji channeled their prana for a joint attack. Shirou, bruised but still conscious, focused intently on his Persona card for a do-or-die maneuver.

"Bufudyne!" Teddie acted first, casting the strongest of ice magics that his Persona could muster. Not a shard, nor a block, but a frigid tree akin to the likes of the Bifrost formed from beneath Sacchin. The tree pierced her limbs, freezing her already dead body from the inside out.

"Tempest Slash!" It was Taiga's turn, willing the Princess Persona to swing her sword down hard and fast to bisect the tree, top down. A three-tiered explosion followed; one from the ice breaking, another from the force of the 'kamitachi' second strike, and the last from the sword proper making a devastating impact from its blue-aura prana charge. Ice, wind, and stone scattered all around.

"Trace Power!" Shirou rushed in through the storm, grafting his new light Persona into a partisan with a red shaft. He closed the distance and shoved his lance into Sacchin's heart. As for the finisher-

"Reinforce!" He poured all his remaining prana into his weapon, and light pierced out her body all over. Harder, sharper, longer, stretched to the absolute limit-!

BOOOM! Just like with that Yomotsu demon back in Golden Week, his projected weapon detonated from the overflow. He learned from his mistake though, reinforcing his body armor and maintaining distance with his polearm, and quickly projecting another part of Power into his free arm to form a tri-pointed shield with an octopus emblem.

The shield definitely helped with the blowback, allowing him to land on his heels with barely an injury. He peeked over his shield, looking at the explosion dust covering the throne. Everyone else maintained their position and watched too, hoping for an upset victory.

"Are you all right, Power?" he stage-whispered as he waited.

"You are as reckless as my ward forewarned," the gray-skinned, red-armored angel said in his mind, most likely frowning and folding its arms. Yet he nodded in approval. "But you made good use of the power granted, as it is intended for risk. I recommend against that tactic a second time, though."

Shirou nodded. He was still getting a handle on Tracing his Personas, but the power harnessed in them was beyond measure. There was no better chance to strike Satsuki with its full might than that moment.

"Did we do it?" Yukiko asked aloud. Everyone hoped that was the case, but Shirou knew deep down it was a false hope.

"Not yet," Rise said, looking through her Persona's lens. "Her vitals are low though and… growing?!"

The dust settled, and the vampire was still standing. Her silhouette was distorted as if part of her body had been cleaved off. But it was reforming at a rapid rate as red prana sparks swirled within her. A low rumbling echoed throughout the halls, growing into maddening laughter.

"You've gotta be shitting me!" Kanji paled.

"How-?!" Chie choked. The fear and reality were setting in that they were facing a true monster.

"AHAHAHAHAhahahaha!" Satsuki whipped her head back in a full guffaw, wiping her brow and hair back with her arm. Her skin unblemished, her wounds gone, even her clothes were remade down to the last fiber. "Man, I was worried you guys would be pushovers, but I might actually have to work for my meal after all! This is gonna be fun!"

Fun was the last thing Shirou was thinking about, and he might have to resort to his Plan B sooner rather than later.

Because the fight against Vampire Satsuki Yumizuka was just beginning.