Sage for reposting - noticed a BAD error.
Hope nobody else did. Previous votes still count.
Perhaps being a loner would be my undoing one of these days, is what I thought at the time, considering my options and examining the woman from afar. Was there any particular reason for me always refusing any assistance on my missions? Perhaps there was some sort of inferiority complex - wanting to prove myself as capable despite my youth, that sort of thing. Perhaps I still hadn't gotten over my bout with misanthropy, though at that point I felt more apathetic towards people rather than outright hating them. Why did I even continue such a job, you might ask? A sense of duty? Revenge for the death of a loved one? Who knows... Can you ask the Sun why it continues to rise and fall every day? No, you can't; it simply does this because it doesn't know anything else. Neither did I.
I approached the bars, the woman still not turning her gaze to me, as if I weren't even there. Examining them, they felt unnaturally cold to the touch, glinting darkly as the torchlight hit them. Normally, bars enchanted in such a manner would be nigh-unbreakable... Fortunately for me, I wasn't a particularly normal intruder. Earlier, back in the storage rooms, I had found some empty bottles and water, and expanded my supply of Holy Water by splitting some bottles in half, filling the rest with normal water. I did say Holy Water combusts upon contact with oxygen, but this only happens when it's fresh; if your movements are slow and careful, you can pour it from one container into another after it's stood for a while, and it'll only burst into flames upon receiving a strong impact; such as, say, being smashed against the ground. As this action diluted the strength of the substance considerably, I left a handful of bottles as a higher concentration, for extreme cases - such as this one. Taking a step back, I pulled out a bottle and hurled it at the bars, the bottle shattering and covering the jet-black metal with sacred flames.
The woman finally raised her head to gaze in my direction, holding up a slender hand to shield her eyes from the bright light that suddenly engulfed her cell, the metal bars that once imprisoned her falling apart as if exposed to a particularly caustic acid. This had better have been worth the cost of that bottle, I thought, getting a better look at the captive in the light – an attractive, young-looking woman with short blonde hair with red hairband, wearing a light blue dress and black boots. How unladylike, I thought at the time when my eyes stopped on the boots, yet how practical. At least I wouldn't have ended up having to carry her up stairways. On her shoulders was a white shawl held in place by a pink frilly ribbon around her neck; a matching ribbon was tied around her waist, like a belt. Around her fingers were strange metal rings, clearly not for decorative purposes. The most indescribable feature about this woman, however, were her eyes. Even today I can't quite remember what color they were... Golden? Dark blue? Dark green? Orange? Light green? It was as if they were somehow different each time you looked at her, or changed with her mood...
"Hmph. So, you've come to torture me some more? Would it truly amuse your mistress to such a degree to hear me cry out in torment? I will not give her the pleasure." In hindsight, maybe a heroic vampire hunter would not be the first thing that comes to a prisoner's mind, when a person brandishing many, many knives and a whip suddenly busts into their cell, covered in blood and other filth here and there.
"Actually, I've come to break you out of here."
"Is that so?" Her voice sounded utterly distrustful, the look on her face supplementing this. She stood up slowly, dark green eyes fixated on me at every moment, before gently brushing most of the dust off her dress with her free hand, the other still hanging onto what looked like a small doll. Strange, white cured lines seemed to flicker through the air around her now and then, although I didn't know what to make of it at the time.
"And you would be... who, then? Not yet another witless minion of the lady of the mansion?" I felt a little insulted.
"On the contrary, I'm a vampire hunter."
"Ah, a holy warrior, then? Even worse... Your kind would sooner have me burned at a stake, before rescuing me."
"And you would be..?" She took a polite bow, sending a bitter smirk in my direction.
"Alice Margatroid, the Seven-Colored Puppeteer. Magician."
"A witch, then. As a matter of fact, the church has employed several witches in the past, providing them amnesty for their sins..." This was true. While black magic was considered an evil art, witches were far lower on our threat scale than vampires and the like; at times, one must fight darkness with darkness. I reached out a hand, trying to seem welcoming and non-threatening, her eyes still focusing on the whip on my belt.
"In return for your freedom, I would ask that you join me on my quest to defeat Remilia Scarlet. Do you not wish to have revenge against the one that imprisoned you here?"
"You don't understand, child." What did she just call me..!"
"I am not merely a magician by trade, I am a magician by species." Ah. Like Patchouli Knowledge, then? On the upside, this would mean that she'd be an even more powerful ally than I had anticipated; on the downside, though...
"I know you carry weapons that were designed to slay those of my kind. I can sense them."
BGM: "Tower of Dolls" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3FsKZZvUPQ
Suddenly, several small objects blasted out of the corners of the cell, flying past me in a blur, clouds of dust erupting from the weapon racks on the walls behind me; before I could react, I was surrounded by several small dolls brandishing a variety of weapons and torture devices. Sharp-looking ones, too...
"I'm afraid I can't quite trust you; surely you can understand this. I do appreciate you clearing the path back to the outside for me, though... Well then, I suppose this is good bye." Having said this in an inhumanly casual manner, she pointed her hand at me, icy blue eyes staring right at me in a cold and unfeeling manner as her palm began to glow, the dolls keeping me pinned in place.
A bright beam of light erupted from her hand, vaporizing all in its path, including a few of her own dolls; it nearly punched a clean hole right through the wall opposing her cell, too. Unfortunately for her, I had drawn my dagger and sliced through the near-invisible strings connecting the dolls closest to me to the rings around her fingers, the puppets falling to floor lifelessly. So that's what the little white lines were...
Sliding across the floor, right under the destructive beam she had fired at me, I attempted to sweep her legs from under her; she saw me just in time, hovering into the air to avoid me, in response to which I leapt back to my feet, anticipating another attack at any time.
"Talented, aren't you. No matter." Though the cell was small, it was also rather high, allowing her to float just out of reach; behind me, the dolls I had cut down exploded into flames, the noise and shockwaves catching me off-guard as the woman produced more dolls seemingly out of nowhere, manipulating them all at the same time with her magic. Cleavers, swords, some were even holding poking irons which they had managed to heat up somewhere; it made me wonder if the dolls had any degree of autonomy, or if she was truly controlling all of them individually, by herself.
"And yourself? The doll thematics being somewhat childish to a degree, I must say I'm impressed with your ability to multitask..." I said this as I cut the head off a doll that gets too close, narrowly avoiding the attack from its own pair of daggers. As I stepped back, another attempted to cut the legs from under me with an axe that looked far too heavy for the small thing to be wielding with such ease. A quick jump, landing on top of the thing and crushing its delicate frame, kicking it aside. Two more latch onto my arms, the scent of smoke alarming me to the lit wicks on their heads, rapidly burning; remembering the ones that exploded earlier, I ripped them off, tiny fingernails leaving scratches on my skin - they certainly were detailed, weren't they? - and flung them back at their own master, who gracefully avoided the small explosions in mid-air.
"...Hmph!" More dolls with bladed weapons came from all sides; I drew the whip, delivering wide, arcing lashes all around myself, made more difficult by the tight space and the whip itself getting tangled in the doll strings occasionally; looking up at the dollmaster, I saw neither the rage of battle nor the amusement of sadism on her face, but simply a focused expression, eyes concentrating on me and me alone, her control of the dolls being all but subconscious, as if they were extensions of her own limbs, of her will. Each doll that fell was quickly replaced, though I knew she would have to run out eventually... Fighting small, flying objects like these was incredibly tiresome and difficult, especially in such a tight space. I would have to go for their master, again. Putting away the dagger and pulling out a throwing knife, I spotted what I thought was an opening and hurled it at the woman; a doll sacrificed itself, diving in front of the blade which impaled it, the puppet falling to the ground, now useless. On the upside, this distracted her; apparently she hadn't anticipated how incapacitating the effect of silver weaponry would be on her dolls, powered by black magic. As her eyes darted from me onto the falling doll, I reached my hand into a pocket, clicking the button on the stopwatch.
Just before it hit the floor, the doll froze in mid-air, as did everything else aside from myself. The effect would not last long, however - I would have to make use of this window of opportunity immediately. Leaping as high as I could, I kicked off one of the floating dolls to propel myself higher; high enough to catch the woman by the leg with my whip. Just as it coiled around her ankle, time resumed, that low crashing sound threatening to burst my eardrums once again just as my weight yanked the witch down from the air, sending her crashing against the floor with me in a rather painful-seeming manner.
"...Agh... Alright, alright. I yield, you're more capable than you seem at first. I'll go quietly..."
"I already told you I wasn't here to kill you. I need your help."
"My help?" She looked at me, incredulous, her eyes a light green in tone this time.
"I already failed against the vampire once. A second time, and she'd have my head - I'd rather you either let me go or put me out of my misery before lady Scarlet takes her sweet time torturing me to death."
"Well, you'd have me to fight with, this time... Come on, let me help you up." I offered her my hand, which she didn't hesitate to accept, standing up and cleaning off her dress once again.
"So, how did you even end up here in the first place? I thought Remilia Scarlet only antagonized humans."
"Then you are naive and a fool. As for myself... I came here to offer the lady of the mansion my services."
"Your services?" She nodded, a grim look of hatred on her face as her eyes turned nearly black in tone.
"Her minions would ransack my dwelling in the forest along the way, whenever she sent them to gather victims from the village. Knowing myself to be no match for the vampire and her servants, I thought I could get in her good graces. She contracted me to construct for her a guardian - an unstoppable golem."
"So what happened then?" I asked, my back turned to her as I stepped out of the cell to look around, trying to decide which way to go.
"Tch. What do you think?" Her voice sounded understandably annoyed and frustrated, light footsteps approaching me from behind.
"I finished my greatest creation, my magnum opus
, and my usefulness to her reached its end. I've been locked up in here ever since." She walked up beside me, glancing the other way, towards the stairs leading out of the dungeon, whereas I was more attracted to the large metal door in the distance; I heard some strange noises from behind it, I was certain of it.
"I do wonder how she intended to animate it, though... Even I have no completely figured out how to create an autonomous artificial lifeform just yet. Controlling such a creature through willpower alone would be quite a burden for the mage in question."
"There's a rather talented wizard in Remilia Scarlet's service, you know. Have you met her?"
"Patchouli Knowledge?" She turned to face me, eyes now a warmer, more neutral golden tone, no longer studying me as if I were a rat or some other form of vermin.
"I have heard of her, yet I've never seen her. Nor do I look forward to the prospect of meeting such a being, either..."
"Too bad. Apparently, the vampire's inner sanctum has been sealed off with five keys. I already have one, which I looted off the gate guard, yet I suspect the four others are kept by her other servants, Patchouli Knowledge among them."
"And what does all this have to do with me? I never agreed to help you, did I?" I sighed, tiredly.
"Look. Leave now, and the vampire will eventually find you and kill you, this time. Stay and help me, and we have twice the odds of destroying her for good. Then you can go home, I can go home, we'll never see each other again, and your life will be a whole lot less stressful. So... what do you say?" I extended my hand toward her as a friendly gesture. Youkai or not, inhuman or not, I did not sense the taint of evil upon her, that radiated from the lady of the mansion when I first met her in the foyer. She matched my earlier sigh, shaking my hand, her delicate hand having quite the firm grip. Unusual for a spellcaster, her skin had the feel of a person who works with their hands, probably from assembling those exquisitely made gunpowder-filled puppets. The attention to appearance for something meant to be sacrificed in battle seemed somewhat wasteful, though.
"The enemy of my enemy is my friend... I suppose. Fine then; lead the way, hunter." The lightest hint of a smile spreads across her lips, the coldness in her orange eyes all but vanished.
"Do you have any idea where we'd find these keys, then? I didn't have the opportunity to become awfully familiar with the layout of the mansion during my stay, aside from the library..."
"The library sounds like as good of a place to start as any, I suppose; but first... That door in the distance. Something about it is just..." Trailing off, I walked towards the door; it sounded like something sharp, like knives, was being dragged across the metal surface on the inside. No, not knives... Claws. Something, or someone, was locked behind that door, and it was compelling me to investigate. As I got closer, I noticed some sort of golden seal with a keyhole in the middle; the seal was patterned after a bat, with two snakes entwining themselves uner it in a helix pattern, the three creatures centered around the keyhole. Out of curiosity, I tried the key I got off the gate guard, to no effect.
"Strange, she didn't mention another sealed door... This one only has one, though. I wonder what's behind it?"
"Curiosity killed the cat, you know. Perhaps it would be wiser to focus on the vampire you're here to slay? Let's just-..."
"Hang on already. I just..." I pressed my ear against the door, leaning against it with my hands; I swore I heard a voice from inside. Another prisoner, perhaps? It sounded like the voice of a young girl, chanting something... It sounded like some sort of perverse nursery rhyme.
"...Lizzy Borden took an axe..."
More scraping and clawing.
"...gave her mother forty whacks..."
A childish giggle interrupted the rhyme for just a moment.
"When she saw what she had done..."
Silence; in hindsight, I should have pulled away right then and there.
"...she gave her father forty-ONE!"
The last word came out as a crazed shriek, but I couldn't recoil fast enough; something impacted against the door, sending me flying past Alice, falling onto my back and adding several more bruises to my already impressive collection. What was worse, however, was the fact that the top layer of skin on my left hand was marred by a serious burn wound; where it was leaning, there was a dent in the door, glowing a dim red from heat, as if someone had been taking a blowtorch to it. Good thing it wasn't my whip hand, I told myself in a vain attempt to cheer myself up, grasping my wrist and staring at the still sizzling skin of my palm.
"There, you see? I told you not to poke around places you have no business with. Hang on..." Alice grabbed the shawl around her neck, ripping out a strip of cloth and wrapping it around my hand, making me flinch from the pain.
"Don't be such a child about it, now..."
"You try saying that when you're the one with a second-degree burn on your palm." She merely smirked in response, eyes turning a calming shade of light blue. This woman, who just tried to kill me, was now radiating some sort of motherly warmth, tending to my injury.
"Maybe we should head back to the village and have that looked at..."
"No time. Just remind me to look before I leap, next time." Rolling her eyes at me, she followed me out of the dungeon, and the basement. What was that weird nursery rhyme about..? And what could've possibly caused the impact producing such a dent in the door, and that heat? I figured I might find out soon enough, but for the moment I was more interested in examining the door to Remilia Scarlet's inner sanctum. Alice and I headed up the stairs, walking down the long hallway illuminated by nothing but candlelight in silence, eventually coming to a stop before a magnificent large set of double doors, an elaborate system of locking mechanisms keeping it shut. Five seals similar to the ones on the door in the basement, with keyholes in the middle.
A star, with a lion and chinese dragon grasping it and looking at one another with furious faces.
A pentagram, with six bat wings sprouting from its sides, three on each side, and a heart in the middle.
A halfmoon suspended above an open tome.
A clock dial.
And two large hands suspended above a humanoid shape.
"Can you make heads or tails of this?" I asked the witch accompanying me, studying the door just to make absolutely sure I couldn't just ram through it and skip the vampire's obstacle course. Yep, it was sturdy enough to endure a nuclear explosion.
"Obviously, the vampire wants you-..."
"...-us to defeat her servants and gather the keys. The images on the seals should hint at who the respective servants holding the keys would be..." She pointed at the halfmoon above the tome.
"This would be Patchouli Knowledge, the master librarian. I don't know about the others..."
"The star is probably the gate guard, Hong Meiling. I already have her key, but I doubt it'd be of any use without the other four."
"Well then," she responded, eyes shifting back into a golden tone as she peered at me from the corner of one eye, "where should we start?"
"Tell me again, how much do you know about the layout of the mansion?"
"Not a lot." Turning away from the door, she pointed back down the corridor we just came through.
"The hallway to the left on the first floor leads to the Alchemy Lab, where I constructed the golem. I don't know where the hallway to the right goes." Turning to the left, pointing down another hallway heading off into the distance, she continued. "This way is the library. Speaking of which... I wonder if my grimoire is still in the lab, or whether that wizard has taken it for her book collection by now. Hmph."
"A magical tome of mine; without it, my powers are somewhat limited." I felt even more impressed at this woman; if she was fighting me in the dungeon without being at full strength, I didn't dare imagine what she would be like if she had that grimoire of hers.
"You're the leader, here, so the choice is yours."
 I had her lead me to the library.
 We headed back down, taking the left hallway to the Alchemy Lab.
 We headed back down, taking the right hallway.
 I noticed more stairs heading upward, at the end of the hallway heading opposite of the library.
----------- System message:
Alice has joined your party. Alice is a magician, specializing in magical offense, and a manipulator of dolls. She can also fly. Dolls may allow you to trigger traps, interact with switches too far to reach yourself, or scout an area safely. The dolls are filled with gunpowder, and may blow up weaker walls, or even reveal secrets. Naturally, they may also blow up enemies. Alice's personality is somewhat cold and collected, though she is not a completely heartless being. Her goal is to recover her mystical grimoire and escape the mansion with her life; gaining revenge on Remilia Scarlet and dismantling the golem she created would only be a bonus for her.