Anyway, greetings. I did just sort of vanish like I promised not to do. Apologies for that, it WILL NOT happen again - in the event that I have to leave again, I will make sure you all know about it in advance.
That said, I'm ready to start things up again. And to that end, you can expect a continuation to the story to be up sometime within the next few days, hopefully by tomorrow.
I need to see this through to the end. I hope you're all still willing to accompany me. Until then, have a Merlin.
No. No way. You aren't letting her go, not now, not ever. Doesn't change the situation though. You still don't have a clear shot, and those things are getting closer with each passing second. Shit, there really isn't anything you can do...except...
Oh this is gonna suck.
You take a deep breath and run straight at the beast. There's really no other way. But now, every move has to be precise, everything you do has to work perfectly. Otherwise, she'll die. Otherwise, you'll die. No second chances here. But if you can grab her, if you can get a hold of her, pull her away...maybe it'll work itself out somehow. At least, that's what you tell yourself as you get closer to the hell that'd been chasing you not too long ago.
You ignore the cries of protest coming from the others the best you can. All that matters is getting Merlin out of this situation. The look on her face...it's terror, pure and simple. You can't stand that. You can't accept that. You have to free her. The creature holding her spots you coming and lets out a loud hiss, glaring at you from under the brim of her hat. The sense of fear that simple action instills in you is almost indescribable, but you can't falter here. There's no point in turning back. You've already come too far. So, you steel yourself for what you're about to do, closing the gap with one final push. You reach out to Merlin...she returns the favor...
You have her.
And you have a gash in your arm.
The second you grabbed hold of her, the creature on her back sliced your forearm, sending a wave of pain cascading through your body. Fighting back the urge to scream in pain, you pull Merlin with all your might. It's enough. She's free and in your arms, a little shaken, but none the worse for wear. But this is no time to celebrate. You accomplished the first part of your task, now you have to get through the next - getting to safety.
"God dammit, everyone open fire! Give them some cover!"
The voice behind you signals the release of a mass of light bullets, and the creatures that had appeared shortly after you stopped fall back, their numbers thinning out a bit as various projectiles crash into their bodies. Again, they leave no corpses, they simply vanish into nothing when struck, but for every one that's put down, five more spring up in it's place. This is a losing battle, and you've held everyone else up. They're closing in on you, and there's really no escape. Maybe you should have just kept moving...
"Fall back! Fall back!!"
The new orders snap you out of your stupor, and you comply, raising your uninjured arm and firing as many shots as you can with your own weapon. Your accuracy leaves something to be desired, but under the circumstances, you're not doing that bad. Slowly, the five of you work your way back, continuing down this corridor. However, salvation is still nowhere in sight, and you aren't sure how much longer you can keep this up. Wave after wave descends upon you, getting far too close for comfort...if they grab you, they'll tear you to shreds, of that you have no doubt. But you have to press on...god, it's getting hard to think...
"Here! In here!"
Music to your ears. You whip around in time to see S---ya directing traffic, indicating an open door. Relief washes over you as you all flood into the room. Y--mu and Ci-no slam the doors shut behind you and whip up a hasty barricade. It's not sturdy, but it'll do for now. But you just barely have time to worry about that. The instant you've got your bearings, they're shaken again as an extremely pissed off S---ya steps up to you and hits you with a right cross. The impact sends you reeling, and you collapse to the floor, unfortunately landing on your injured arm. This time you do scream out in pain, and the world swims before your eyes. For an instant, you think you might be on the verge of passing out, but you manage to maintain consciousness, at least enough to hear the white haired woman direct someone to tend to your wound. Then, she rounds on you again.
"You fucking idiot!" she screams, not holding anything back. "Are you incapable of following orders? I told you to leave her!"
That does it. An anger you've never quite felt in your life wells up in the pit of your stomach, and before you know it you're on your feet, ignoring the pain in your arm and jaw the best you can. This is all too much - how could she be so heartless? Wasn't Merlin one of her friends? One of her soldiers? You set your jaw and meet her gaze, resisting the urge to return her punch, with interest.
"You were going to abandon her!" you scream back. "What kind of leader are you, leaving one of your own to die!?"
"If it were me I'd expect my people to keep themselves alive! Merlin expects no different of us!"
"That's life! That's war! And make no mistake, kid, we are at war with those things. In war, there are casualties. I can't count how many people we've lost fighting them, and we almost lost two instead of one there...if you think you can save everyone, you're an idiot."
"No...I can save everyone...I'm the only one who can..."
Now why did you say that? There was no reason to, was there? God, it's like a memory you can't quite recall. If only your head was working right...you still feel like you're forgetting something really important...seems like you get a flash or two from time to time, but nothing cohesive, nothing you can make sense of. Your head spins briefly, partly due to the sensation associated with a memory surfacing, partly due to the fact that you've lost a bit of blood due to that gash. Exhausted, you fall back to the ground, giving Merlin a chance to treat your wound. Sak-ya glares at you briefly before spinning on her heel and walking to the other two. They're being quiet, so you can't really make out what they're saying, but you assume they're working on some kind of plan. Hopefully to get out of this mess in one piece...
The voice is small and a little feeble, but anyone would be after nearly being choked to death. You turn your attention to Merlin, giving her a soft smile. "Any time...are you okay?"
She nods weakly, trying to return your smile. She's trying to be brave, but you can tell that it's all a front. She's scared. Can you blame her? Not really, you're scared too. Everything about this place was insane, and she's been here a lot longer than you have. It's a wonder any of them are still alive, now that you think about it. Are there any others out there? Any others fighting against these things? As if to answer your question, Saku-a turns back to you and Merlin, apparently having decided on a plan of action.
"We're moving. Bravo and Delta squads should be at the rendezvous point by now. We'll meet up with them and decide on a course of action from there. With any luck, this will all be over soon. But listen," the tone of her voice changes so naturally that it shocks you a bit, "if I tell you do something, then you do it. No questions. And if that means someone will die, so be it. Their sacrifice won't have been in vain, not once this is over. Am I clear?"
"...Yes ma'am..." You're barely containing your hatred for this woman, but if you want to get out of this alive you'll have to do as she says. She seems satisfied, if a little miffed, with your answer, and gives you a nod, urging you to your feet. You hop manage to get vertical again, and a few minutes later, you're all moving again.
The trip was mercifully quiet. Only some token resistance from the creatures. Eventually, you reach your destination, a large room with an even larger set of doors opposite of the ones you just walked through. As predicted, two other groups are there - one consisting of a blond girl with a large M painted rather haphazardly on the chest of her armor and two extremely similar looking black haired girls, the other made up of a tall girl with a horn sticking out of her forehead, a green eyed girl, and a red head with two tails attached to her somehow. You dismiss the tall girl's appearance as nothing to worry about and instead focus on what Sakuy- is saying...
It's then that it occurs to you. You know them. You know all of them. Names and everything. But you can't remember them. That part of your memory is blocked. But there is one girl you do know for sure. Merlin. You weren't aware of it until just now but you've been calling her by name for some time. What does that mean? Hell, it could mean anything...it could mean nothing. It could mean you know how to bake a pie, there's no way to tell. Still, it's a start, and if you can recognize all of these girls, then maybe, just maybe, you're onto something...
"Good, you're all here," the white haired woman says, looking around the room. "Are we all set?"
"Good to go here, ze!" the blond one calls. What's her name? Mar-...something. Maybe it'll come to you. "Ready to blow the hell out of her!"
"Ready to clear this place out, boss." That's the horned girl...Yu---dammit, it's right on the tip of your tongue...
"Very well. Make your final preparations. We begin in five minutes."
Everyone sets to work. Everyone but you, that is. You don't really have a place here, it seems. All you can really do is stand around and watch. Terrific. Way to make yourself needed...
After a minute of idleness, you break down and turn to Sakuya...another name, good. Anyway, you turn to her and start asking questions. "So what's the plan here?"
She eyes you incredulously, but offers an explanation after a few seconds. "This building is where she's located. The cause of all of this. We're here to end her and end this war in one fell swoop. Delta," indicating the blond and her group, "is going to infiltrate her base and set explosives at strategic positions. Bravo," indicating the horned girl's group, "is our assault team - they'll be cleaning up any opposition we run into. Our group, Alpha, has the most important job - we are to get in and hack her system, learn everything we can about her, and hopefully find a way to make sure this never happens again."
Well, that makes about as much sense as you expected it to, which is to say it made none at all. All that really did was raise further questions - who is 'she?' How did she cause this? How can hacking her system prevent these attacks? Too many questions, not nearly enough answers. You want to ask more, but before you get the chance, Sakuya announces it's time to commence the operation. Looks like they'll have to wait.
"Tch..." You follow the woman, listening to her give some final instructions. It looks like everyone's clear on their plans, but when they notice you hanging around, they ask some questions. Namely, who you're going with. A good question, to be sure. Where would you be the most useful? Alpha, Bravo, or Delta? Sakuya looks over at you, apparently awaiting your decision. Who do you go with?
If you think about it...there's no reason to blow up the building once it's hacked/cleared by alpha team and bravo teams respectively. Wouldn't the mission have a much higher success rate if the people on delta squad joined up with the squads who actually have a relevant mission?
No point in changing a winning formula. "Guess I'll just stick with you," you reply, looking at Sakuya and the rest of her group. "Besides, I'm not very handy with a gun...and I'd probably blow everyone up if I went with them," indicating Delta. Indeed, Alpha is the best option for you. The matter settled and final preparations complete, everyone moves to the set of doors you haven't entered yet and awaits their final orders. Upon receiving them, everyone bursts through in one quick motion and splits off to handle their respective tasks. Delta goes off on their own, while Alpha and Bravo move down a long corridor.
You stick close to the others, trying not to get in anyone's way. That proves pretty simple, really - they move like a well oiled machine, like this is the most natural thing in the world to them. All you have to do is stand back and watch them work as they clear room after room with ruthless efficiency. It's beautiful in a way, the way they're working together. Bravo is definitely what you would classify as 'heavy assault' - their weapons work in ways you'd never imagined possible. Their bullets are absurd, and in a good way, especially the horned girl. She's firing lasers. Lasers that curve and hit multiple targets in a single pass. It's a sight to behold, but you can't be too in awe of all of this. You still have a job to do, after all.
After what feels like an eternity of fighting through hoards of...whatever the hell it is that's been attacking you, you finally reach your destination. Another set of doors. Christ, how many doors are you going to run into? However, these definitely feel different. They look like any other set of doors, sure, but when you put your hand on them to push them open, you fell a faint hum and an eerie heat that seems to creep up your arm. The experience is more than a little unsettling, so you decide not to touch them again until everyone else is ready to move.
"Bravo, stay here," Sakuya commands, turning her attention to the doors. "Youmu," hey, another name, "if you would."
With that, the white haired girl, whom you now recognize as Youmu, moves into position, producing some kind of device from somewhere on her person and placing it on the doors. A few button presses later, and they swing open effortlessly, revealing what lies beyond. It's...almost beyond description. The room itself is absolutely huge, almost impossibly so. The fact that it's inside a building is mind-boggling to say the least. However, what's more impressive than that is the amount of stuff that's contained within. At first blush, the contents of the room are nothing but computers. Computers as far as the eye can see. And in the center of it all, hanging from the ceiling which you can't even begin to see from ground level, is a multi-faceted monitor - screens face all around the room, but you can't even imagine for what reason. They're all blank, after all. Every screen in the room, as far as you can tell, has absolutely nothing displayed on it. That's a little strange, you think, considering the sheer amount of equipment contained inside.
Fortunately, before you can dwell on this any longer, Alpha squad brushes by you, snapping you out of your thoughts long enough to convince you to get your feet moving again. You step into the room behind the girls, leaving Bravo standing watch out in the hallway. Sakuya is giving orders, as usual, directing her squad to their appointed positions. It seems like everyone has much the same mission - secure a section of computers in the room and wipe their memories. You're given the same job as the others. Sakuya hands you a CD and points off toward a somewhat distant section of the room.
"Get over there and put this in the central computer for that section. You can't miss it, it's bright red. Go, we don't have much time."
What in the world...a bright red computer amongst all the black ones? That just seems silly to you. However, you don't question her orders, at least not verbally. Securing your disk, you jog off toward your sector, reaching your destination without encountering any sort of resistance. As promised, your target is plain as day. Hell, you spotted it a good fifty yards before you even reached your section. You're in front of the computer before you know it, and you fire it up easily enough. The CPU hums to life, the monitor switches on, and the system boots up. However, what you see now isn't something you're accustomed to seeing on a regular computer. It's a progress bar, that's pretty standard, but what's puzzling is what progress it's tracking. It simply states "Corruption" and gives it as 35% complete, rising a bit with each passing second.
"...the fuck?" you mutter to yourself, trying to work out what the hell that means. After failing in that endeavor, you turn back to where you left Sakuya, giving her a shout. "Hey, what is this?" you call across the relative silence of the room. "What's it corrupting?"
Why, it's corrupting you, of course.
The voice isn't Sakuya's, and it isn't coming from one of the other girls in the room. No, it's coming from right behind you. You whirl around, gun at the ready, only to find yourself looking not at a person, but at a face on the screen. On all the screens. Every single monitor in the room has come to life, even the ones on the ceiling, and they all show the same image. The face of a girl with purple hair that covers one of her eyes. Her face is familiar, yet distant at the same time, much like the sensation you felt with the others earlier, before you started recalling their names. However, you are certain of one thing - this cannot possibly be good.
"Shit, she's onto us!" someone shouts. You think it's Cirno, but you're so transfixed on the screen before you that you don't bother to check. What was just said is stuck in your mind. Corrupting...you? What does that even mean?
Oh come on, you're smarter than that.
Wait, can she read your mind?
"...What do you want," you finally say, lowering your weapon slowly. That earns you a laugh from the girl, a laugh you already hate.
It's simple, really, but you just keep fighting me...really, you're a lot stronger than I thought you would be. Seriously, give yourself a round of applause, I never expected to have to reveal myself like this. What kind of mental training do you have, anyway?
"Answer my question!" you shout, unable to contain your rage any longer. However, as tempting as it is to just shoot the shit out of the monitor, you know that won't actually accomplish anything, so you keep your gun lowered.
My my, anger's bad for your health, ya know...okay, fine, I'll make it simple. I want you to kill Hakurei Yume.
Yeah, it's that easy. Buuuut you keep on resisting me. Really, it's a pain in the ass. Why couldn't you just fuck those two girls I gave you earlier?
Maribel and Renko? ...Of course, that makes sense now. Temptation at it's finest, but you resisted somehow. If you hadn't...well, this'd all be over, wouldn't it?
Yes it would. But now, I'll just have to work a little harder. Your little 'mental defenses' can only do so much against me.
Mental defenses...could she mean...
Yup, your little harem over there. They've kept you safe for now...but I'm through playing games. This is the end of your little trip. It's been entertaining, kiddo, but now...well, take a look.
You'd been so transfixed on screen that you barely noticed everything going to hell around you. Somehow, in all of this, the creatures had swarmed the room and were closing in from all sides. Alpha squad is busy shooting everything in sight, and Bravo seems to be following suit as they've fallen back into the room, unleashing their lightshow of bullets into the blackness of the mob before them. Shit...this is really bad.
Have fun. It'll all be over soon.
You whip around to face the screen again, only to find that it's showing the progress bar again. It's on the rise, faster than before. 40%...45...50...you hesitate to think about what will happen if it reaches 100%. However, you can't even think of a way out now. There really doesn't seem to be any sort of escape...
Wait, you were supposed to do something over here...
"Kid! The disk!"
The disk! Right!
You fumble with it a bit before finally managing to insert it into the computer. However, it doesn't seem to have any apparent effect...the progress bar is still there, and it's still rising as fast as before. Did it work? Did you do something wrong? Shit, there's not enough time to think, you need to get moving back to the others! You stare at the screen for a few more seconds before giving up hope and turning on your heel, preparing to sprint back to the rest of the group. However, as you turn, you realize that there's something new in the room, something that wasn't there before. Underneath the central screen grouping, there's another machine, colored almost icy blue. Even from where you're standing, you can make out the message on the screen.
S A L V A T I O N
P R E S S E S C
The meaning couldn't be more obvious, but the trouble comes from the decision you now find yourself facing. From where you are, it would take quite a bit of time to get to the machine, and you'd be more or less going it alone, with creatures closing in from all sides. Your other option is to hook up with Alpha and Bravo before moving for your new goal. Safety in numbers, sure, but the amount of time it would take to reach the machine would be significantly extended, and over the din of gunfire you make out Sakuya saying that if something didn't happen to change things soon, she'd give Delta the order to blow this place to smithereens, and you along with it. You could make it there faster on your own, but is the risk worth the reward?
And there's yet another option. The machine could easily be a trap. If you're right, this place is all an illusion of some kind, something happening in your mind. The girl responsible for all of this is clearly quite powerful, enough to block bits of your memory and cause you to kill someone against your will. It would be trivial for her to alter this reality to suit her needs, based on what you've pieced together. Maybe, just maybe, that's not the way out. But really, you don't have that much time left here. If you linger too long, you'll definitely die from the onslaught of shadows that are coming your way.
Now's the time to choose.
[ ] Go it alone
[ ] Hook up with the others before moving on
[ ] Ignore the machine, seek another way out
No time to think, only time to act. You have a fairly clear shot at the terminal, all you have to do is run. Everything is going to hell around you, and to say it's distracting would be an understatement, but you have to maintain focus. You're on your way before you know it. It's a little surprising how easy all of this has become for you. In the face of unspeakable odds, you don't give up...you get the feeling that before all of this started, you might not have been so determined. Now, though...well, there's something out there for you to fight for. something in the world beyond this reality that you've been trapped in. You need to get out, and that terminal ahead of you is your exit.
Movement beside you. One of the creatures, the wolf looking thing, managed to flank you while you were focused on running. You react on instinct, pointing your weapon and pulling the trigger. A light bullet exits the chamber, striking it dead center and dispersing it. Christ, that was a one in a million shot. You make a note that, if you get out of this alive, you'll work on your aim. There have already been too many close calls here today, and that was probably the closest of all.
Expanding your focus, you keep on moving, getting closer with each passing second. Every so often, a shadow gets close to you, only to be put down by one of your allies. Even though they're doing their best to keep themselves alive, they're also protecting you. Incredible. They must really like you. Another mental note, this one reminding you to thank them if they exist in the real world, and you keep pushing forward. On and on...it's close. So close.
And you're there.
You don't waste time considering what might happen, you just hit the ESC key. The transition is instantaneous. Gone are the endless miles of computer banks, replaced by an alien yet familiar location. Your head is still spinning, but you think your recognize this place as the Underground...that's right, you're in Gensokyo. Everything's starting to clear up now. It takes you a few seconds to recall everything, but once you do, you remember everything that happened up until you were trapped by the purple girl.
...The purple girl.
You look up, you look around, trying to spot her. She was right there when all of this started, and you expect her to still be in the area. Unfortunately, your search is fruitless. She's vanished. Dammit, if only you could have grabbed her, made her answer some questions...but then what? It's not like you can fight or anything, and she already proved that she can take your mind away from you. Cursing your own weakness, you take another look around, trying to spot Sakuya or Merlin or anyone friendly. Off in the distance, you can see the lightshow that is the danmaku battle they'd found themselves engaged in when you were separated from them. You're just about to head off in that direction when it stops, completely.
"What in the world...?" you mutter, wondering what could have possibly happened. You don't have to wonder too long, though. Before you know it, they've found you. That didn't take too long. Sakuya, Merlin, Parsee, Yuugi, and Orin are all in front of you scarcely ten seconds after the fireworks ended, bombarding you with questions, and in the case of Merlin, hugging you so tight you fear you might pass out. It takes some time, but you manage to sort everything out and give them a brief rundown of what happened while you were separated. Then, you turn their questions on them, trying to figure out what they were caught up in. Apparently, they were attacked by the person who'd taken you away from everyone with that wind. So there are two of them...that doesn't sound good.
Once things have more or less settled down, you start talking again. "Okay, look, we haven't really anything new here...everything we do just seems to end badly. We need to get back to the shrine before anything else happens."
The look on their faces says it all. Everything you've done has ended in failure, and this expedition has been no different. All your efforts, both alone as and a group, have been for naught. Nothing seems to be going your way, and you can practically feel the blame falling on your shoulders. For all your bravado about saving everyone...what has it accomplished? Not a damn thing. You're no better off than you were when all of this started. Christ, it's frustrating, but you honestly can't work out a real plan anymore.
So, broken and defeated, your little group floats out of the exit and back above ground. It's a little surprising that it's still daylight out, actually, given that it felt like you were trapped in that illusion world for something like two years. Apparently, it was only about five minutes in the real world, but that fact did very little to fix your perception of time. For all you know, you could have been lost for a week, maybe more. That's a little frightening, and when you think back on what the purple girl almost made you do...you shudder a bit, causing the poltergeist sitting in your lap to turn back and give you a look.
"Are you okay?" Merlin asks, genuine concern shining through on her face.
"...I don't know...it just seems like we're spinning our wheels here. Everything we try just ends like...this. We go somewhere, fight someone, and leave empty handed...and what makes it so damn frustrating is that I can get answers, but every time I try, all I get is some cryptic answer and then she vanishes again! I swear...I hate her, I really do..."
You give a heavy sigh and decide to focus your attention on Merlin in an attempt to get your mind off of this situation. That's actually pretty effective. You hold idle conversation during the trip, not really talking about anything, just trying to fill time on the way back to the shrine. Parsee occasionally chimes in, mostly to turn the topic of your discussion into a chastisement of your failure, but you simply tune her out, which only serves to piss her off further. Just as planned, as it were. She gives up before long.
"...Now what," you mutter to yourself during a lull in your conversation. "Where do we go from here? We haven't learned a damn thing, and I get the feeling we're running out of time to figure all of this out..."
"Don't sweat it, kid," Sakuya replies, flying in close to join in on the chat. "Gensokyo goes through these kinds of things all the time, and we always come out on top somehow. This time won't be any different."
You wish you could share her confidence, but you aren't entirely certain you feel the same way. After all, all of this is your responsibility, isn't it? Being the only person here who can perceive what's happening puts an awful lot on your shoulders, and when you think about all the people who are counting on you to find the people they care about...when you think about Merlin and her sisters, it just makes you feel that much worse. Right now, though, your only hope is that one of the other groups has discovered something.
The shrine is in view now. Won't be lo...
Your entire group just pauses in midair, dumbstruck by what they're seeing. The pressure in the air is palpable. You aren't even a resident of this place and you know what you're witnessing cannot possibly be good. Not that it would be good if it happened anywhere else in the world, but still, here? Yeah, you certainly didn't expect to see this.
I did that thing I said I wouldn't do. Here's an explanation.
Past few months, life has decided to just beat me down. Won't go into specifics, suffice it to say that things have sapped my creativity and desire to sit down and write. I may return to this again one day, but I'm putting it on the shelf right now.