Once in a lifetime – Chapter 12

Thursday after school, before Louise and Davis even began their trek to the mines, the twins Dom and Clarice had arrived at Kirino’s home.

She had only spoken once to them all school day, an outlier with their usual friendship.

It was at lunch, she approached them;

“I need your help with something extremely important. The future of this town hangs on it all. I’ll have somebody pick you up after school.”

The driveway and helipad were empty, the front door invitingly left open.
The twins walked in, side by side. This hadn’t been the first time they were invited over, but Dom was still shuddering at what Kirino’s words meant.

“You don’t think that girl in the library is threatening her or bullying her?”
Clarice scoffed. “I already told you, no way Kirino can be bullied around by anyone. If she’s this serious about something, though, I really don’t know what to expect.”
Dom shirked back slightly. “This is gonna be dangerous then, huh?”
“We don’t know that just yet. Have some trust in her.”
Repeating that in his head, Dom sucked in a deep breath, pushing away the stress.
They walked through the foyer and into the living room, where Kirino had pushed out all of the furniture. She was sitting in a single chair in her flowy outfit she fought in before. In front of her was a coffee table with a greatsword and what looked like a backpack-stove hybrid sitting upon it. The greatsword itself was longer than the table, hilt and tip hanging off the edges. The backpack had a stone-lined hole in the center of it, looking like a furnace opening. In the corner was Scott, leaning against the wall, smiling. On his waist was an ominous looking oil lamp. It looked like a small brass cage, the glass to contain the flames shaped into a disfigured skull.

He waved to the two. Dom waved back nervously, Clarice staring at the setup.

Kirino nodded her head.
“Thank you for coming up here. Please, take a seat.”
She motioned towards the couch, which was set up across from her. The two complied, sitting down.

“So, what do you mean the fate of the town hangs on what you’re doing? You’re not pulling us into something illegal, right?” Clarice questioned.

“I want to ask you something first.” She stared back coldly. “Do you believe in being able to take control of your destiny with your own two hands?”
Clarice stared back confused. Dom opened and closed his mouth a few times, before finally speaking up.

“That’s how it’s supposed to be, right? We work hard to get to uh… A nice job, and continue from there, right? As long as the job is good enough and aligns with your passion.”

Kirino nodded. “Yet that is not a constant in life. Your success and goals are always going to depend on somebody above you, rather than your own work.”
She stood up, beginning to pace back and forth.

“If a student or worker shows more ambition and effort than their superiors, that is taken as a threat, instead of respected. Yet despite how threatening that ambition is to them, all it takes is malicious ignorance for a superior to ensure their security, and the stagnation of their peers.”

She paused, returning to her seat. 

“Considering my parents’ positions as tech CEOs, I’ve seen their status overshadow so much ambition and talent, mine included. My work is more than just the fate of this town. It’s ensuring that concept will change, so in the face of greater ambition, one will have to acknowledge it, and step aside.”

Clarice shook her head. “Kirino, be serious. I know you’re competent at everything, but how do you even expect to pull off such a feat?”

She stood up again, this time revealing a katana at her hip. 

“There’s an entirely unseen world out there, that’s ready to meet with ours. It’s unbelievable, but I’m sure this is to help convince you.”
She walked out the back door, and beckoned the duo to follow.
They obeyed, and Scott tagged along behind them.
He nudged Dom with his elbow.

“You’re gonna love what she’s gonna do.” He muttered silently.

As the others watched, Kirino walked near a tall oak tree, planted far from the property. Scott pulled a pair of sunglasses from his jacket, putting them on.

She reached for the katana, causing Dom to lurch back in fear, Clarice watching intently.

The most they could catch was her barely pulling the blade from its sheath.
A flash of light blinded the two, and a thunderous CRACK shook the ground.

As they regained their vision and hearing, Kirino was standing on the other side of the tree, sheathing the blade. Scott put his glasses away, smiling at the spectacle.
The plant itself looked like it had been struck by lightning; Bark peeled downwards in a zig-zag motion, revealing a smoldering inside.
“Wh-what just happened?” yelled Dom.

“Kirino, this has to be some test right? Like trying to figure out how you did this… trick or something. Yea?”

Scott giggled to himself.

“What I have here is called the Dragontail Katana. It’s an artifact that allows me to turn into lightning, for either attacking or maneuvering. It has been essential in my recent work.”
Clarice squinted. “You’ve gotta be pulling my leg…”

Dom ran over to inspect the tree closer. He slowly reached near the smoldering cracks, finding it was indeed hot, and not any sort of visual trick. He scanned all around the tree, searching the grass for any sort of hidden cables as well.

“This can’t be…” He turned to his sister. “The only way a tree can really look like this so…” He waved his hands around. “Specifically, is like she said, if lightning struck it. I’ve read about this happening before.” He turned back, running his fingers along the lines. “Unless she had hidden some high-powered generator or discharged a bunch of electricity from a battery… but even then I don’t think it’s something she can just so easily replicate…”
Kirino smiled at the boy’s hypothesis. “I can promise you, this is no trick. And there’s far more than just this.”

“So magic is real?” The twins said in unison. 

Dom said it with excitement, while Clarice in disbelief. Scott grinned.

“Fill em in on the rest of it!”

Kirino glared at her rowing partner for a moment, then turned her focus back to the twins.

“For several months now, with this katana I have been both hunting UMA, unidentified mysterious animals, and these powerful artifacts. These UMA are aberrations of nature, monstrous, and threaten humans as well. They can be as simple as a massive winged humanoid who abducts people from their cars late at night, to house-sized monsters capable of flight. I have been working for a very secretive employer, one who’s entire relationship I’m risking even speaking to you two.”

“So you’re like some secret agent?” Dom spoke.

“Or a huntress protecting the world from monsters?” Clarice added.

“Neither. My goals are beyond my employer’s understanding, and it’s for changing the world as we know it. Ambition should be rewarded, not stifled, and these artifacts.” She held up her sheathed blade. “They’re the key to them. However, I need his utmost trust for any of this to happen.”

They nodded.

“Now, it wasn’t until recently that I began having some problems…”
She stared off in the distance, towards the rest of Tomahawk Hills.

“In the past few months, more and more UMA have been approaching this town. This wouldn’t be an issue, if their proximity to the town didn’t invite a new interference.”

She turned back to the twins. “You remember that girl from the library?”
Their eyes widened at the mention.
“Louise Palrick, and her friend Davis Foster have also taken up trying to hunt these UMA. She managed to get her hands on an artifact: A pair of gauntlets that grant her strength and durability. The boy also possesses one as well, though I don’t fully understand it just yet.”
“Shouldn’t that make your work easier if you work with them?” asked Dom. 

She shook her head. “I wish it were so, but there are major issues in the way. Her methods of hunting are immature and wild. She is not qualified to work with me, and would cause far more trouble than help.”

She gritted her teeth at the memory with the Hydra.

“Not to mention, her actions go directly against what my employer wishes.”

She leaned in closer to the two.

“And being on good terms with my employer is far more important than anything else right now. If I lose his favor, the entire future of this town would be put in jeopardy.”
She took a step back, exhaling. The two shuddered at the statement.
While Kirino was strict with study and schoolwork, they had never seen her this intense before.
“And because this is all secretive, you can’t really seek anywhere else for help?” questioned Clarice.

She nodded. “It should have been my responsibility alone to carry this out, but I cannot keep it up. I repeat myself for seriousness’s sake: I cannot fail.”

She took a deep breath, relaxing herself.

“But you two, along with Scott. I trust you all as equals, and know your potential. So I ask: Knowing all this, and the potential danger that entails, will you assist me in hunting UMA, and dealing with Louise?”
Scott piped up. “If you say yes, she has something neat she’ll give you!”
“Quiet Scott.” She barked. “Continuing, I will not let you both go into this unequipped. I will provide you with artifacts of your own, and assist you with learning how to utilize them. But even so, your lives will be at risk.”

“But your whole revolutionary plan, about the meeting of this unseen world with ours. Are you going to elaborate more on that?” Clarice questioned.

“If you do not wish to be a part of this world, then I cannot inform you of my plans. But I hope with our long friendship, you can trust me; I want to take this new world by the reins to ensure no chaotic fallout, and improve society as a whole with that power.”

Clarice pondered for a moment, before standing up. “I trust you. If this world does exist, of UMA or monsters or whatever they’re called, and they’re beyond our control, we need to figure out how to do so. Plus, that Louise girl always seemed like a big troublemaker. I’ll be more than happy to help deal with her.”
Dom slowly stood up. “I…” He swallowed. “We don’t have to seriously kill Louise, right? Or commit any other sort of crime? This is secretive stuff, I know, but I really don’t want to do anything terrible.”
She nodded.  “The only killing you will assist me with would be UMA, and they pose an undeniable threat to this town. For Louise, I only hope at most to confiscate her artifact. With her means of combating UMA gone, she would no longer interfere.”
“Okay… I think I can help!” Cheer returned to his voice. “It’s gotta be a nice change of pace than studying all day I guess?”

She smiled, sighing.

She was happy even with such a wild story, her friends believed and supported her.

She beckoned the three to follow her, returning to the living room.

“From my work, I have been able to keep a few artifacts for myself, unbeknownst to my employer. I could have been paid lucratively for delivering them, but they will have so much more value in your hands.”

She stared at both of them, standing in front of the table.

“Before I give you them, I need to warn you: NEVER use them in public, be far out of sight of anyone when you wish to practice with them. Never fight with them for personal squabbles. If any word about these artifacts gets loose, you’ll be in serious danger. Last, regarding Louise: Be wary. Do not seek her out, nor should you seek any conflict with her just yet. If you are ever forced into a confrontation with her, even if it seems advantageous, stay vigilant. There is a lot about her and her friend I do not understand fully, and that is the most dangerous fact of them.”

She turned to Clarice.

“For you, I have an artifact from the late 1400s, Queen Isabella’s Inquisition. It’s made of an unknown, super durable material that can change its sharpness and density at will. To its wielder, it will always feel as light as a feather. I have read records about how knights christened by the blade fight with unwavering bravery. I’m not sure how it works, but I trust you can figure it out.”

She motioned for the girl to pick up the blade.

The sword was more ceremonial than practical. The pommel and hilt were made of gold. The blade was embossed with strange gold symbols, and a winged golden cross protruded near the tip of the blade. 

She picked it up, feeling it around. It was as light as a pen.

Kirino pointed out the back door. “I have a few training dummies set out back for you. Please, test it out, and get comfortable with it.”

She hurried out, testing a few swings on the dummy. It nicked the wood, but no clean cuts.
“How does this density changing thing work?” She yelled at Kirino.
She tapped her head. “Most of these artifacts are controlled by thoughts. Simply think and use it enough, and it’ll become innate.”
Turning back to her wooden foe, she imagined the blade being as dense as uranium as she swung downwards.

The blade smashed straight through the wood like it was nothing. It slammed and embedded itself into the concrete patio, cracking the foundation. Her eyes bugged out of her head.

“This is incredible…”

To another dummy, she imagined the blade as sharp as obsidian, and swung horizontally. It passed effortlessly through the wood, the top half falling to the ground.

She stared at the massive blade in amazement.

Still, I’d need to learn more proper swordplay if I’m to fight properly with it. 

Her amazement began to fade.

What if I’m to fight a monster which would overwhelm me? A simple sword can’t protect me well enough? 

Thinking about protecting herself, her sword reacted. She felt it shake, and it sparked. Wings of metal jutted out of the side, the guard expanded and metal shrieked. Metal expanded out of seemingly nowhere, filling out the wings and more, the screeching ringing out.
Her blade had now become almost twice as wide as she was. 

She grinned. Holding the artifact in front of her, she imagined the blade launching out at a distant foe.

Nothing happened. She huffed.

Still, with practice, I can make up for its range issue.

Staring at the weapon, she then realized what she could do: With this and the ability to change its density, she had an immovable, unscratchable shield. 

With its form change, she had another idea: She imagined the blade to become more portable. Metal shrieked, and the blade returned to its regular size, and then the blade retracted into the guard. The guard itself clamped shut, and shrank down more, until it was the size of a pen. She smiled as she fit it perfectly in her front pocket.
“Kirino, you are going to train us with these more, right?”

“Soon. For now, I want you to build a proper connection with your artifacts. Then, we can work on swordplay.”
She turned to Dom, who had been watching his sister’s feats in amazement.
“As for you, Dom, your artifact is known as a Wonderbuilder. This pack contains a set of ancient, yet magical construction equipment. With it, you will be able to cut through and move around chunks of earth and stone as your imagination will permit. It also has powerful built-in armor, which should keep you safe as well. Like your sister, I want you to practice with it, until you build a connection with it.”

Dom nervously put on the pack, clicking together the strange bark-like straps around his chest and waist. Nothing happened, but there was a valve-like switch in the center of it all.
He twisted it, and the device began to shake and sputter.
He felt it grow hotter, and a plume of smoke shot out of the iron pipes.

Green vine-like cables crept up his arms, and a pair of bronze gloves grew around his hands. Two harpoon launchers popped out and mounted themselves on his shoulders. His mind was panicking, but it was offset by the sheer wonder he had over the artifact.

He clenched his fist.
An image formed in his mind about how to utilize the gear he was now wearing.

Making a gesture with his right hand, a stone saw made of wood and steel popped out of the pack, following his arm movements. 

He laughed nervously.

“It’s like… Weird. Does this thing have some brain interface? I think I get how to use it…”
He sheepishly smiled. “I don’t really want to ruin your home or yard however…”
“There are plenty of abandoned places around here to practice, but for now, I ask to work on understanding each of the tools without using them. Wonderbuilder runs on raw iron, wood, and stone, and these materials can run out. I promise you, I am looking for a new source of these.”
Dom smiled, nodding. “I promise Kirino, we’re going to do our best for you!”
He turned to Scott.

“Wait… What did you get Scott?”
He chuckled, shaking his head. “I’d show off, but I don’t wanna waste his time.”
Kirino stepped next to the two. “Once you finish practicing, I will fill you in on the rest: Louise, Davis, the monsters, and everything you will need to know. Then soon, I’ll have a mission for you both.”

  “Not only are you trespassing, you’ve caused irreparable damage to a historical landmark, and who knows what else!” Clarice’s shrill voice ripped through the abandoned town. 

The sun was lighting the sky a bright red, long shadows from the surrounding forest being cast upon the group. Clarice stared down at the two, hands on her hips. Dom stuck close behind her, wearing Wonderbuilder, while Scott strolled closer.

Louise scrambled to her feet, yanking Davis up with her.

“Well I don’t see your badge or anything. What are you gonna do? Arrest me?” She grinned smugly.

“I thought this area was off limits for everyone, you included.” Davis muttered back.

Clarice’s face flushed more red. “Unlike YOU two, we at least got proper permission to be here! Permits and everything”
Scott stepped between the two duos.

“Now now, you two must be Louise and Davis, right?”
He held out his hand.
“My name is Scott Felice. I’ve heard about you two quite a bit from Kirino.”
Davis reached out his hand to shake, but Louise swatted it down.

“He’s in league with her too?” she grabbed her head. “Why does everyone I meet end up being in that brat’s pocket!”
“Woah woah, that’s a bit rude!” Scott said, holding his hands in front of him. “I’m simply her friend, and here to help her out with a few favors, all right? No need to get angry at each other.”
She still glared daggers at him.

“Y-yeah…” Dom stepped from behind his sister. “I’m Dom! Dom Castillo! That’s my sister, Clarice, and I don’t really wanna fight or anything.”

She gave her brother a death stare.

“See, now we all know each other, cool? All I’m saying, is that we can just walk away from this little meeting fine. No need to get angry and fight, we can go about our business separately.”
“Are you kidding me?” Clarice groaned. “First, they interfered with Kirino’s work, now they’re causing needless damage here! We can’t sit around and do nothing about this!”
“Hey, this wasn’t done lightly!” Davis piped up. “I don’t know what Kirino said, but whatever was down there is best left buried.”
“What was down there then?” Dom questioned.

Davis paused, thinking how to word it.

“A lot of gold, but it was evil!” Louise interjected.

He squinted at the two. He leaned close to his sister. “I trust Kirino in this monster stuff, but evil gold doesn’t really fit anything she told us about…”

She nodded, whispering in turn. “Sounds like a lie they’re using to cover up something. We really can’t let them start blowing stuff up because they think it’s haunted.”
From her front pocket, she pulled out her blade’s hilt. With a thought, it snapped open, expanding into a blade as tall as she was.

Dom turned Wonderbuilder’s valve, feeling the ancient piece of equipment wrap around his body. It sputtered and spewed out a burst of smoke.

“The crimes committed and all the disruption you caused, I’m not gonna stand here and do nothing about it!” Clarice boasted. 

Dom stood as firm as he could, but even with Wonderbuilder supporting him, he was shaking. His heart was racing and stomach cramping from the nerve of it all.

“I-I… I really don’t want to hurt you two! So please surrender!”

He winced to himself, thinking he didn’t sound intimidating at all.

Scott hung his head in disappointment. “Are you two really sure about all this?”

Davis stepped back in fear, Louise taking a step forward.

“So not only does Kirino think SHE gets to be the main hero for hunting cryptids, but she’s also hoarding artifacts for herself, huh?” She punched her hand into her fist. “Bring it on then!”
Davis ran between them.

“I seriously don’t want to fight any of you, could we just take Scott’s offer and-”
Clarice stabbed her sword into the ground, cracking the packed dirt. The blade began to shimmer. Keeping a hand on the hilt, she pointed at the two.

“Dom Castillo, I christen thee as my knight! Fight with a spirit as unwavering as my blade!”

Dom felt energy rush through his body. He stopped shaking, straightened his back, and shifted his legs to take on a stronger stance. He took a powerful stomp forward, his mind growing more clear on who the two standing in front of him were.

Sure, they were his classmates, but more importantly, they were troublemakers that needed to be subdued and disarmed.

The worry on his face transformed into a smirk.

He gestured with his right hand. A pile-driver looking device popped out of the pack, held by a wooden arm. 

He leapt forward unexpectedly fast, aiming for Louise.

She tackled Davis to the ground as the boy soared over them. The driver struck the rubble of the collapsed mineshaft behind them.

The explosive force shattered several of the stones, and even dug out a small indent. The impact shook out fresh rubble from the cave, burying him.

The duo scrambled to their feet as Clarice stared dumbfounded at her brother’s actions. 

Scott sighed. “Look, if you cause TOO much trouble, I’ll intervene. But you two are on your own on this one.” He simply walked far out of the way, leaning against a building.

There was a sudden flood of smoke from the buried Dom, and Davis grabbed Louise, ghosting with her in tow. Dom managed to punch his way out of the landslide, sending a flurry of rubble and debris to where the two previously stood. 

Seeing her brother again, Clarice sighed, regaining her confident expression.

The duo re-materialized a few inches to the side, Davis coughing on his knees. Louise patted him on the back. 

“Take a quick breather, I think I have to handle Dom. You try to figure out a way to deal with miss wannabe cop over there.”
“Wait, we should really just run-”
Dom was above the two of them, this time with a sawblade aimed right at her head. She managed to catch the device with her hands, shooting a flurry of sparks and letting out a horrendous screeching noise. 

Each tooth of the blade eventually snapped off as it struck her armored hands. 

She gripped the dull disk as tightly as she could and pulled, yanking the arm right out from the pack. She tossed it aside, and tackled the boy.

Davis shook off the shock and got back to his feet, though quickly noticed:
Where did Clarice go?
He spun around, finding her sword’s handle closing in on his face.

  After the tackle, Louise turned tail and blew into a full blown sprint. She checked behind her as Dom leapt back to his feet, beginning pursuit. 

She smiled to herself. 

Pretty dumb of you to leave your sister out to dry like that!

Traversing through the dirt streets long enough, she spun around to face her opponent, skidding to a stop.

Dom made a gesture with his hand, launching a cabled iron spike from the shoulder mounted harpoon. It zoomed past Louise, missing her by a few feet. She turned to see where it flew. It pierced the walls of an old home, and the cable sprung taught.

She turned back, finding the boy being towed towards her through the harpoon. He clotheslined her, knocking her down to the ground. He cut his momentum, detaching the harpoon from the wall and skidding a few yards from the downed Louise.
Another quick motion of his hands, and the pile driver popped out. He sprinted towards her as she tried to get back onto her feet, rearing back and striking Louise in the chest.

She gritted her teeth as the pole slammed her into the floor. The spike didn’t break her skin, but the force behind it shook every bone in her body. She didn’t know what it would feel like to be hit by a truck, but this would certainly be comparable.

She reared back her feet and kicked towards his chest.

When they struck, a force pushed back.
The Wonderbuilder roared, spewing out fire from behind. A blast of steam expulsed from the vines that protected his chest. He smirked, unphased by her attempt, rearing back another blow with the pile driver.

She lunged up, grabbing the tool and wrestling it to the side.
The pole shunted downwards, striking the air to her side. She could feel a rush of air to her side from the tool’s power.

She flipped Dom to the ground, and quickly stomped at the shaft of the driver. 

It splintered off, and she wasted no time kickin it away from her opponent.

“Come on, keep showing me your toys! Lemme smash every single one of them!”

Dom still kept his confident smirk, leaping up to his feet. Seeing an opportunity, Louise threw a punch straight at his chest.
Her fist met with with another blast of steam, just barely stopping her from making contact. More flames and smoke spewed out of the artifact on his back.
He responded by grabbing her arm, and swinging her into a nearby brick building. She slammed against the stone walls, cracking the material.
She fell off the wall, dazed, as he prepared a new motion with his hands.
A small voice in his head caused him to freeze. It was Clarice’s voice.

Dom! Watch what you’re doing! It should be obvious, but we’re not to stoop to their property-destroying level!

He nodded to himself. When he returned focus to Louise, she had tackled him, wrapping her arms around his waist.

She noted that there was no steam in response to her attack.

Still gripping onto him, she looked him in the eye.

“I think I’m getting the tricks of this dumb suit you got here. I don’t suppose you have anything that can deal with good old fashioned grappling, huh?”
He made a motion with his hand, and another sawblade popped from the pack.
It grazed against her shoulder. Feeling the sting of the high-powered tool, Louise pushed herself off the boy. She skipped back several feet, panting.

Time seemingly slowed down for her as she processed how to deal with her foe.

Her thoughts were cut off when Dom abruptly fled.

“What, you too scared I figured out your…”
She realized he was returning to where Clarice and Davis were.

  Davis had barely rolled out of the way of Clarice’s attack, and the two were staring each other down. She was sizing up the mysterious boy, watching for any sort of twitch that would indicate an attack. 

Davis’s brain was racking how to most effectively flee.

Clarice rested the blade on her shoulder.

“If you’re just going to keep on standing there, you might as well surrender!”

Davis’s eyebrow twitched. “Hey, you’re the one who started this!”

Sure, he had caltrops but they would be too obvious. Any of his bombs could hurt Clarice pretty badly, and he didn’t want to think about that. 

The most he could use was his smoke bombs, but that wouldn’t do much on it’s own.
He heard a crash in the distance behind him. His heart shook, thinking about how his friend was faring. 

An idea sprouted. If she was willing to talk…

“Just call your brother off, he’s gonna kill Louise! Are you really going to kill somebody just for some property damage?”
Clarice scoffed. “I’m already very well informed about you two. Kirino with her Dragontail was barely able to come on top.” She pointed her blade menacingly. “If either of us is to stand a chance, we can’t show any restraint or hesitation.” 

Dragontail? Her katana? These weapons have names? I wonder if that could be a lead.

“Yeah but… I’m not as sturdy as she is! I mean, I can turn into a ghost… But not actually dead! I’m not a ghost, but like that you cant see or hurt me! Outside of that, I’m only as sturdy as a regular human. If I screw up dodging, I’m as good as dead!”

She sighed, shaking her head. “Perhaps you should think of that more when you play around such dangerous UMA. Lucky for you, I’m more considerate ”
She focused on her blade, imagining it to be as hefty as a wooden baton, and dulling the edges. 

“Now this shouldn’t kill you, but it WILL still hurt. If you hand over your artifact, I’ll let you go without bruising you up!”

“Artifact? I don’t have any to give! I swear I was born this-.”
She lurched forward, swinging the blade horizontally towards him.
He stumbled backwards, avoiding the attack but landing on his bottom.
Clarice grinned. She raised the weapon up, and swung down at his head.

With no way out, he ghosted. The blade struck the dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust. She quickly brought the blade up close to her, scanning her surroundings.

He became corporeal once more several feet behind Clarice, hoping to sneak away. His lungs however, were burning and begging for air. He held his hands to his mouth, trying to stifle the coughs, but they still burst through.

Clarice whirled around to his direction, swinging horizontally.

Out of instinct, he ghosted again. 

His lungs continued to burn and his eyes were watering. Still incorporeal, he reached into his jacket.

Clarice, meanwhile, was patiently keeping her ears and eyes open, trying to anticipate where her opponent would re-appear.
Right behind her, she heard a hissing.
She spun, seeing a canister spewing smoke.

Her eyes widened, and she willed her blade to grow denser. She planted it in front of her, and the wings of metal jutted out. Metal shrieked as the blade expanded in width, entering its shield form.

The canister exploded, thankfully not with fire, but with a plume of pitch black smoke. 

She pulled her sword from the ground, returning it to its regular size and baton-like state, and covered her mouth with her shirt..

It didn’t smell or seem toxic. 

If it was, Clarice mused that the boy would have done this trick immediately.
She heard a hacking and coughing from beyond the smoke, followed by a sniffle.

Then, Davis’s voice.

“I wouldn’t move from there if I were you…” He cleared his throat. “I’ve scattered caltrops all around where you’re standing. I don’t want to hurt you at all, so please don’t move until the smoke is cleared. Let me leave peacefully, all right?”
She clenched her teeth. 

He could be bluffing… But even if he is, I’m stuck. I can’t charge blindly out of this smoke… He could counter if I do so… I need help!

Davis was not too far outside of the plume of smoke, leaning against a building trying to recover his breath. His chest felt like it had been freed from a hydraulic press. There wasn’t much wind, so hopefully his gambit would last just long enough for him to regain his breath and get out of there.

A voice spoke from within his jacket.

It was the walkie talkie.


He perked up, adrenaline flooding his system. He whipped around to find Dom barreling towards him. He got tackled to the ground as the boy pinned him to the ground.

Dom and the magical piece of equipment on his back created an inescapable weight. He struggled, instincts screaming to ghost and escape. Attempting, his body refused, knowing that attempting to would result in asphyxiation. 

Something was tugging Dom from behind.

Louise had grabbed onto the Wonderbuilder itself, attempting to pull it off from the boy. The straps around him held tight, pulling the boy up with the pack. 

He wiggled, trying to loosen from Louise’s grip. There was just enough leeway for Davis to squeeze out of Dom’s grip.

Seeing her friend free, Louise instead shifted her weight, swinging Dom by the pack and tossing him away. He tumbled through the air, but still managed to land on his feet, skidding to a stop. He turned to where his sister was.

The smoke was beginning to dissipate, and a gust of wind blew the rest away.
She had returned the blade to its shield-like state, and was swinging it like a giant fan to dissipate the smoke.
There were caltrops scattered around here, but nothing too densely set to be threatening. She leapt over the traps, reunited with her brother.

Louise was dragging Davis further from her opponents.

“I need like, a minute…” He wheezed. Louise grabbed him by the arm, pulling him back to his feet.

“Just push on a little bit more. That thing on . Let’s try and switch targets, maybe that’ll work out better.”

Davis gulped down as much air as he could, his heart still pounding against his chest. 

Clarice was patiently watching them, Dom standing guard in front.

Staring at the bizarre piece of machinery mounted on his back, Davis thought for moments.

“I really don’t think I can reliably phase in or out anymore.” He coughed, sucking in more air. “If I do I feel like I’ll choke myself out!”

“Just try and think of something, I’m gonna try and fake out the boy and go for the brat.”

She charged forward as Davis still wheezed for breath. She reared back a fist at aimed straight for Dom’s face.
He braced himself, holding his arms out to grab the girl when her blow inevitably would be repelled. 

She instead dropped down to the dirt, sweeping the boy by the feet. Him and the weight of his equipment brought him down with a crash, but he rolled to quickly get back to his feet.

Even then, Louise had made her opening. She launched towards the lone Clarice, ready to hit her with a blow that would knock her out. 

Clarice didn’t panic, in fact she smirked. She deftly moved the shield-like blade right where Louise’s fist was going to connect.

The gauntlet struck the blade, and Louise twinged. She could feel the blow vibrate throughout her body, feeling as if she punched a solid block of lead. Her opponent hadn’t budged in the slightest.

She was paralyzed as the vibrations slowly faded out. Before she had entirely recovered, Dom had grabbed her from behind.

She struggled, wiggling around and trying to find any sort of way to loosen the boy’s powerful grip.

She was staring face to face with a smug looking Clarice. 

“You’re such a simpleton! I should have assumed as much from a troublemaker like you.”

Clarice’s expression shifted to annoyance, and Dom released Louise, spinning around.

Davis was holding a steaming smoke bomb in his hand, and with an almost embarrassed expression on his face. 

He hoped maybe throwing something into the open flames of the pack would jam a mechanism, giving him and Louise enough time to escape.

He struck Davis in the stomach, and he coughed out all the air from his body, crumpling into a ball.

Louise swept the legs of Dom again, hurrying to scoop up Davis and putting some distance between them.

“Dude, you all right?” She muttered to him, still running.

“Urgh…” he winced, taking in a few breaths. “Ok, I’m completely beat here… We should really run…”
Louise looked ahead, finding a cabled harpoon soaring past her and embedding itself in a rock. She skidded to a halt and hit the deck, watching the boy soar over him. 

He turned around, making a new hand motion.

Instead, his artifact sputtered, spewing out less smoke. There was a grinding coming from inside the device. His confidence turned into concern. He paused for a moment, leaving the two friends enough time to get onto their feet.

“I’m afraid that Wonderbuilder isn’t going to work too much longer.” He spoke. His tone was deeper, and more authoritative than the shaky boy from before. “If I continue to fight, there’s a good possibility that girl could breach my armor.”
Clarice stared at her brother, and back at the duo.
“Davis there is no longer a factor in this fight. He didn’t disappear when you tried to strike him. Unless it’s a trick of his, we still have the advantage. I’ll take the lead, incapacitate the girl, and you just make sure the boy doesn’t use any more tricks or traps.”
He nodded silently. As she took a few steps forward, something landed right in front of Louise and Davis.

It was like a black silhouette, a person wearing a black hoodie, long black pants, black boots, and they were on all fours. They turned focus to Clarice and Dom, revealing themselves as a girl.
Her face was deathly pale, and her hoodie was unzipped at the front, revealing a red and black camo patterned shirt. Her blood red eyes glared at the two, showing off a set of inhumanly sharp teeth.

Clarice took a nervous step back, holding her blade defensively in front of herself. Dom stared at the threat curiously, circling around to stand closer to his sister.

Louise’s heart quickened, trying her best to keep a strong front.

Davis stared in shock at the newcomer.

Scott, who had been watching far in the back, raised an eyebrow.

“Leave this forest. Do not hurt my friend.” She spoke in a monotone, yet threatening voice.

Clarice tightened her grip on her blade, ready to try and launch the first strike before the stranger could react.

Skidding between the two groups, Scott held out his hands.

“Woah woah woah, now. We agree, we’ll get outta here, all right?”
Clarice’s face flushed red. “Scott, are you kidding me? We got them on the ropes!”
He ignored her, turning to the stranger. “You’ll let us go as long as we stop this fighting, right?”
She nodded, still glaring hostility at the man.

He turned to the twins, smiling. “See, we’re all fine now. Let’s just get going.”
“But Kirino-”
“We’ll talk about this later. Come on, I really don’t want to force you two to come along with me now, right?”
Clarice sighed angrily. She returned her sword to its hilt. 

Dom’s confident expression and strong stance melted away. His arms and legs abruptly felt sore. He stumbled, nearly falling over. Clarice caught him before he hit the ground.

“You all right? Nothing serious, I hope?”
He nodded. “Yeah, uh… Soreness. When you christened me, it’s like all my fears washed away. I just kept going on more and more fearlessly, and I felt stronger too! I think… Is it adrenaline? Maybe? It’d explain why now I’m feeling all that exercise…”

Clarice sighed. “Well for now, rest up. Let’s not pull any muscles or anything.”
She glared back at the duo and the stranger. 

We’ll stop you two… But maybe we aren’t ready. Not just yet.

Scott waved. “We’ll probably meet again soon you two! I promise, next time I’m sure I’ll be all set and ready to duke it out with you two!” He spoke cheerily. 

He motioned for the twins to follow along, and the three marched away from the abandoned settlement. 

The stranger turned to the others. Louise put her hands in a fighting stance.

“Look, I don’t know who you’re calling friend, but.”
She rushed forward, grabbing Davis’s hands. She stared at him for a few moments, before hugging him. Louise froze, dumbfounded.

“Davis, I need your help again.”

His eyes widened. Her form looked familiar… The eyes, colors… His brain pieced together the rest.

“You’re… That monster… the shapeshifting one!” He sputtered.

Louise took a step back, clenching her fists.

“Why are you-”
She turned to the other girl. “I don’t want to hurt you. I promise.”
She returned an angry glare.

The monster let go of Davis.

“Do you need more money or something again? I wish you could have picked a better moment.”
“No. I am being hunted.”
His heart skipped a beat.

“What’s got a cryptid like you so scared?” Louise butted in. “Can’t you turn into a tree and hide?”
“Louise, please. Just, we’ll hear you out. First, we should probably leave here. That Clarice girl did kinda have a point. It is illegal to be here, and the fighting may have attracted some attention.”

Louise’s eyes beamed. “Finally, I got a good excuse to show you my hideout!”
She glared back at the cryptid.

“Though I’ll be keeping an extra close eye on you.”
“I don’t understand. You are already tired and weak, and so is Davis. Putting one of your eyes on me would not do anything but make you more weak.”
She frowned. “Don’t you know figures of speech? Just nevermind, and don’t try anything sneaky or else I’ll kill ya!”

  Clarice was fuming as they trudged through the woods.

“We were so close! What the hell was that thing anyways? I thought there were just two of those troublemakers to deal with?”

Scott shrugged. “I don’t know at all, and that’s why I chose for us to retreat. I mean, we were lucky that it still gave you two a peaceful way out, right? Hope you two at least got some good exercise and practice out of it.”
Dom cracked a smile. He was still wobbly while walking. “Yea… How do you deal with the soreness anyways? You’re big into sports stuff, right?”
“Rest and some good food! You basically just ripped a bunch of muscle fibers and you gotta let them repair. The nice part is that the more you exercise, you’ll be able to push your body further and further before getting sore. It’s simple stuff!”

Clarice closed her eyes and shook her head. “Still, it was the first task from Kirino, and we couldn’t even complete it. This isn’t gonna make a very good impression on her.”
“Hey, don’t sweat it!” Scott said, patting her on the back. “We’ll wait an hour or so, return, and get those materials like she asked. Those two were already leaving anyway.”
Clarice stared out in space, processing how she even missed that fact.

“That’s why I wanted to just move on without fighting in the first place.”

“Yeah, but you saw what they did to that old mineshaft. We couldn’t just let them get away with that!”

Scott waved his finger. “What we got there was a prime opportunity to learn about them, without getting too dirty. You just decided to learn the rough way. Dealing with all this is just a bit like a game. We’re still feeling out all these rules, tricks, and caveats. On the other side, we’re also trying to figure out how our opponents work and ‘play’ as well. We gotta keep learning more about them, so when we get forced into an inevitable conflict, we can REALLY cut loose!”

She rolled her eyes. “Of course YOU of all people would be saying that… This is a bit more dangerous than a game.”

“You got football and rugby where you can get pretty badly injured, so I think it’s still comparable here. Now, don’t mention our little scuffle with those two. I’m sure Kirino doesn’t want to be bothered by those details.”
“No.” Clarice retorted. “I’m going to take responsibility for that. It was my call to fight, I failed to make anything of it, so I should suffer the consequences.”

Dom peeked over. “Well, it was at the very least… Fighting experience I guess? I hope Davis is all right…”
She smiled. “Experience, and not only that, I got some very important information about Davis’s powers.”
Scott nodded. “We could have figured that out from playing friendly…”

She pulled out her cell phone.
There wasn’t too much reception out in the woods, but just enough to make a call. She pinned Kirino’s number. Scott rolled his eyes, and Dom stared nervously.

It buzzed, and the girl answered.

“Completed with your task already?”
“Somewhat delayed. I ran into Davis and Louise, and those two were causing complications.”
“I’m assuming they fought with you?”
“Yes, but I started it. They had set off some explosives inside the town, and caused undue damage. It’s not something I could just stand around and let them get away with!” She took a deep breath.
“We were unfortunately forced into retreat.”
Her leader sighed. “I understand the need to do something, especially with all those two have done. However, did you not understand my warning about them?”
“I did not then, but with how tenacious they were, I think I understand now.” 

“I am at least happy that you understand my orders without any injury, and that you chose to retreat. I know for you, that must have taken a lot of will.”

Scott shot a dumb smile, and winked.
“I understand. Despite    my retreat, the fight was not a waste of time. I managed to learn more about Davis’s powers. Not to mention, they seem to have a third person assisting them.”

Kirino’s eyes widened. “A third? Did you recognize them at all?”
“No idea at all. We chose to retreat when she appeared.”
Kirino tapped her chin. Every moment she saw the girl, Louise didn’t seem to have any other friends. 

“Finish gathering those supplies for Wonderbuilder, if you’re able to. If not, let me know. Regardless, we need to meet, and train in case you encounter the three again…”


Once in a lifetime – chapter 11

The entrance to the mines was bizarrely well kept, and even modernized in some aspects. Cables ran across the walls, connected to dimmed electric lamps. Between wooden supports were ones made out of concrete. The minecart rails were rust-free, and built on top of a solid concrete foundation. 

Davis felt relieved at the fact that even if the mines allegedly were driving people insane, people were still sane enough to make it safe to enter.
Slipping on headlamps, the duo entered. They moved slowly, side by side, eyes scanning over each and every support beam. 

They moved deeper and deeper in until no more sunlight could shine in. The only noise was the light footsteps each of them took, and the passive sound of wind entering the cavern.

Not too far ahead, their headlamps lit up a clearing. 

They  two scanned around, finding a large cart elevator at the heart of it. Scattered crates and overturned minecarts were shoved against the surrounding walls.
Louise glared around, finding the cables connecting the lamps all converging to one point. She followed them, finding the source: It was an old looking panel, with a big red button, a big green button, and a few switches. The panel itself was connected to a gas generator, thankfully with an exhaust hose leading into the roof. She smiled, hovering her hand over the switches.

“Uh, I don’t think that stuff will work now…”

She glanced over to her partner.
“You saw those trucks out there though. It’s not too old, maybe this stuff still has some gas left?”
She pushed the green looking button, and the generator sputtered and shrieked. Cogs and wheels spun within, slowly grumbling to life. The rough noises from the generator smoothed out into a familiar hum of an engine.

All the lamps clicked on, one by one, the last one flooding the clearing. 

Davis gasped, pointing towards Louise.

“Behind you!”
She turned around, finding a skeleton. It was buried underneath debris, most likely from above, only its chest and skull visible.

It was missing some ribs where its heart would be.

She scratched her head, staring at the corpse.

“Strange… You don’t think this could have been one of the missing truck miners?”
“W-what do you mean by that?”
“Maybe whoever smashed up the car died here. Or maybe this is where he hid a body of whoever he killed?”
Davis stood silently, thinking about the possibility.

“You’re jumping to conclusions. For all we know this could be a century old corpse, that nobody bothered to touch.”
“I mean, if I were mining I wouldn’t want old bones here staring at me every time I’d have to turn the lights on.”

Davis stared silently.

“You don’t think it could have been gas? Like maybe some pocket of gas drove everyone in this town crazy.”
He rolled his eyes. “Conspiracy about this place aside, I think it would be the easiest thing in the world for cops to mention “Warning, toxic gas!” about this town. I don’t think they’d gain anything from hiding that fact.”
“True, true… But they could always still be lying.” She shook her head. “Why are we theorizing, the answers are down below!
She walked over to the cargo elevator, stomping her foot on the edge of it.

Dust kicked up from the floors, but it still stood firm. She stomped a few more times, watching the iron cable that held it. 

“The elevator seems safe?”
Davis walked over, investigating closer.

He followed the cable through the pulley system it was attached to. The system was well bolted down, and as far as he could tell, nothing was rusted.

“Yeah… Though I still don’t trust it all too much. What if we missed something?”
Louise pushed a switch on the elevator. The pulley motor let out a clang, and it creaked as it slowly spun.
The elevator continued to sink down until it was no longer visible. The pulley motor continued to spin. Following a clunking at the bottom of the cavern, the machinery stopped.

From there, Louise took the length of rope she took from the car. She tied it to a concrete support, and threw it down into the elevator hole. She heard the rope slightly bump against the elevator platform, and smiled.

“There, now we have some backup plan in case it breaks. Isn’t rope just great?”
Davis sighed in relief. 

“Yeah, I guess this is good. But remember, we’re turning around the second ANYTHING looks structurally funny. All right?”

Now on the machinery, the two rode it to the bottom of the mines. 

To Davis’s delight, the mines were pitch black. There were no lamps or electronics visible at all. 

Finally, a place he could cut loose with his power and not hold back Louise.

From the elevator shaft was a straight tunnel, barely big enough to fit three people in, with a decent amount of headroom. A minecart track ran right down the center.

Davis slipped on his goggles, Louise with her headlamp, and they ventured forth.

They went down the tunnel, sticking to the cart tracks. Support beams were evenly spaced, which helped reassure them of the cave’s safety. Louise was still taking the front, only slowed down thanks to the uneven surface of the cave floor. Davis lingered further behind, still scanning for any sort of warning sign that the place would cave in. 

The flat surface of the tracks soon became a slope, leading deeper into the earth. Louise slowed down even more, now to the pace of Davis, for the safety of her footing.

The minecart tracks came to an end, and they entered an area splitting off into two crude looking tunnels. They were only half as wide as the tunnel they were currently in,, but still had tracks running through them. 

Davis felt his heart beating faster than normal. He took a breath, and his eyes widened. He grabbed Louise’s sleeve.

“I’m not sure if we should continue. I don’t think this mine is well ventilated enough.”
Louise picked the path on the right, and continued to move.
“I’m breathing just fine, don’t worry! We’ve fought several cryptids together, and it’s a cave that’s got you cowering?”

“None of those monsters could just asphyxiate me. I really think it would be better if we turned around.?”
“Then where will our investigation leave us? There’s nothing on the surface that can help us.” 

“Well we can always find another lead, this one might not be worth it.”
She scrunched her face. “What if the cave was alive and begging for your help? Maybe then you’d be a bit more motivated, huh?”
Davis clenched his teeth. “Seriously just… Piss off!” he shouted.
Louise flinched.

“Sheesh all right… Just trying to tease a little bit.”
“If you’re going to tease, don’t take stabs at my feelings like that. It wasn’t easy letting that shapeshifter go like that! It… Just forget it, and don’t mock me about that!”

Louise shrugged, staring into Davis’s annoyed eyes for a few moments. Davis took a few deep breaths of the thin air, looking away from her.

Now’s not the time to get worked up. Just stay focused, don’t waste your breath.

“Fine, we’ll continue. Let’s just find out what’s going on here as soon as possible then get out.”

The tunnel grew more craggy as they continued deeper. Several bits of rock and dirt jutted out of the walls, and the flooring was becoming more uneven. There were fewer and fewer support beams, and the slope seemingly grew more steep.
Louise was glancing at Davis’s heavy boots, thinking his style was actually helping him out for once.

They eventually came across another fork in the tunnel;

The passages looked more like aggressive gashes in the walls of earth, forced open for greedy miners to crawl through. There was only enough room for some tracks, and barely enough room to squeeze between a cart had one been on there. 

The path on the right immediately caught Louise’s eye as one of interest.
It led to a dead end, and at it was a tipped over rusted cart. Above it, however, was a vein of quartz, gold glinting from her headlight. 

Louise rushed in through the gap, Davis stumbling behind.

She moved right up to the ore.
Calling it gold quartz was not aptly descriptive. It seemed more like a giant chunk of gold with bits of quartz within.

“No way this can be real…”
She ran her hand across a nugget that was jutting out of the wall, grabbing and pulling.

It popped out with barely any effort. She stared close, making sure it wasn’t pyrite.
She continued to investigate the precious metal, as Davis walked to the end, staring at the minecart. He squatted down, trying to lift it with no effort.

Out of the corner of her eye, something within the ore moved.
She dropped the nugget and wiped some of the dirt off the ore, staring carefully.

It was a skeleton.
“Yo Davis, take a look over here! Something is IN this gold! It looks like a body!”

Davis shot to his feet and ran over.

The strange object inside the rock dissipated as Davis arrived.

“Where is it?”

He put his eye as close as possible to the mineral.
He turned to her, squinting.

“Are you just trying to mess with me or something?”
“Did  I lie to you about the moving mannequins in the factory?”
He thought back to his close call. “I suppose not…”
“It just disappeared, I swear!”
He stared at the ore, and back to her.

“So, there’s corpses trapped in the gold. We’ve confirmed the place is haunted. We should probably turn around, report our findings, and never look back.”

“We can’t just leave! This is just the surface of this. If it’s something that could threaten the town, we have to figure out WHAT it is and deal with it!”
Louise started pacing back and forth.
“I mean like, what if the mines are like some kinda giant creature! Maybe it uses mind control or pheromones, or something to make people crazy, then it eats them after they’re dead!”
Davis shone his light around the walls and roof of the cave.
“Then why hasn’t the mine eaten us yet? You’d think it’d be really hungry after a few decades or something.”
Louise shrugged. “I’m just hypothesizing here! Where’s your theory on what’s going on, huh? Why are there skeletons in the walls?”
“Maybe just like the reports said, they could be lost spirits? Maybe we should investigate further before jumping to conclusions.”

“Well then. There’s only one way we can go: Deeper.”

They slowly continued their spelunking, creeping further down the cramped tunnel. The minecart tracks abruptly came to an end a while back. The walls grew more and more narrow, ranging from packed dirt or bedrock, to sometimes smooth cuts of quartz. The path was no longer a straight slope, but a jagged stairway, continuing lower and lower.
Though the air was still very thin, they would come across few, but just enough air ducts.
It had felt like they were trudging through these caves for hours, mostly thanks to their slow pace. Every breath of outside air was a literal breath of relief for Davis. 

They continued down the tunnel, finding more and more gash-like passages in the walls every so often. Most of them ended inches past, but others went far deeper, too deep for their headlights to shine down at least.  With the constant branching paths and haphazard structure to everything, it was more comparable to an ant farm rather than a wealthy gold mine. 

Louise still took the time to shine her headlight down each and every one. One of them, however, did have a surprise for her.
Shining into another innocuous gash, her light lit up the dusty bones of an old skeleton.
Her eyes widened, and she scuttled into it to get a closer look.
Davis gasped, and then huffed.

“Louise, are you going to deface every corpse you find?”
She squatted close, finding that the skeleton had a pickaxe in its ribcage, the aforementioned bones shattered. In its hand was a rusted flask. To its side was a rotting crate, containing a few sticks of dynamite and a roll of fuse.
“Jackpot!” Louise grabbed the sticks without hesitation. Davis took a step back.
“You can’t seriously just be grabbing those! They’re ancient, who knows if they even still work? What if the fuses are busted? Plus, dynamite is really dangerous.”
She turned back to the boy with a smug grin. “How potent are those fireworks you carry again?”
He shut his mouth, uttering no more protest.
His head hurt again. He heard something speak.

Help me.

It was incredibly faint, and he whirled around, trying to figure out where it came from.

He shook his head, chalking it up to the lack of air.

Back onto the main path, Louise continued to diligently investigate any crevice that wasn’t too deep.

The deeper they went, the more bizarre the tunnel began to shape, and the more strange the splits became. For the most part, it was a short, thin tunnel only one of them could fit down, but other times it would splay out into larger areas, connect to other sudden tunnels above their head via ladders, sometimes have smoothed out paths and walls. SOmetimes there were even lines of tracks just randomly placed on the floor.

She shuddered, thinking back to the factory’s shifting maze-like interior. 

If deadly mazes are all this town offers, maybe we should just give everyone a bunch of emergency candy wrappers.

One room they came across was flattened and smoothed, with some supports set up on the walls. There was a minecart, flipped over in the center of it.
Louise pushed the cart over, revealing a skeleton in the fetal position underneath.
She squinted at it, as Davis looked in despair.

She saw that there were scratches on the inside of the minecart. 

She looked closer, finding the scratches were actually writing.

“It’s fool’s gold. We’re all dying for nothing.”

Louise scratched her head.
“You think the mine conditions were this bad? And that gold didn’t LOOK like fools gold or anything like that…”

The deeper they got, the more clutter they found in the tunnels. There was a variety of garbage and tools left behind: Rotting crates, paper, torn up clothes, thoroughly rusted pickaxes, and even some smashed oil lanterns. There were more skeletons as well. Louise took time to investigate the first few, only finding that they had some trinkets on them like rings, some rotting paper money, coins, or other jewelry. But as they continued to appear, she opted to keep moving on, not expecting to find any clues from them as they were. She wasn’t a criminal investigator, she thought.
However deep they were, Davis only assumed that the more modern prospectors certainly hadn’t come down where they were. Perhaps they would have at least thrown the corpses into a pile or at least cleaned up everything? Maybe build some better supports. There were still old wooden ones that seemingly stood firm, but he couldn’t entirely trust them.
The cramped tunnel finally gave way to a larger room. It was cylindrical, with more of the gash-holes randomly dug through the walls. There was a large pit in the center, with a wooden ladder running across it.
Also glinting in the dark were several textbook-sized chunks of gold and quartz embedded in the wall, divided by packed dirt and rock.

The two cautiously approached the ore. 

Louise glared hard, trying to find any skeleton or body trapped inside.
Davis’s imagination pictured a miner being sucked into the ore. He stood back a few feet.

Louise took her pickaxe and swung it against the wall with all her might. Davis jumped at the BOOM echoing through the caves. A big clump of dirt was knocked off the wall.
Louise kept hammering away, gold nuggets plopping to the floor.

Behind the wall was another large vein of gold-quartz, and a skeleton perfectly embedded inside of it.
“I guess you can say we struck gold here!” Louise said with a grin. “I knew it wasn’t just me, how the heck did this get in here?”

Davis felt faint again, hearing something again.
“Pl ease, h elp m e.”
It was still in a hushed voice, but it was a lot more clear. It was coming from the quartz.

“Please tell me you heard that.”
Louise cocked her head.
“What now?”
“The skeleton in there, it spoke to me. It needs help!”
He ran up to the quartz, forgetting his previous fears, and placing his ear up against it.
He could hear the whispering very clearly now.

“Please help.” Spoke a somber voice. “We’ve been trapped for centuries. Free us.”
Louise placed her ear against the quartz, scrunching her face in confusion.
“Please! Please…”
The whispering faded away.

“You heard them, right? Come on, we gotta get them outta there!”

He tried to grab her pickaxe. She held tightly.
“Hold on hold on, I didn’t hear anything! Davis, the heck are you talking about?”
“Seriously, you gotta trust me! Whatever is in there, this cave, maybe it is trapping people’s souls or something!”
“I mean that’s the legend, but I don’t think freeing a skeleton is gonna do anything. Don’t demons or something trap souls? Don’t we have to kill that?”
“Look, I know some things about ghosts, and we just have to get it out! Hurry, before-”
The skeleton faded away slowly into the quartz.
Davis huffed. “Why didn’t you just believe me? You know for a fact I don’t make this stuff up…”
She slung the pickaxe back to her pack. “Hey I’m sorry, just I was… Really confused.”
Davis took a deep breath, trying to relax himself.
“Yeah, maybe… Just…” He grabbed his head. “I hope we didn’t screw this up for good…”
“Well then… What did the voices tell you exactly?”
“It was whispering. Like, they were asking for help, saying they were trapped for centuries.”
Louise’s eyes lit up. “Oh, please tell me you understand what’s going on.
He stared at her, confused.

“Whispering, hello? Did you forget the name of the mines? So the miners talking about gold whispering to them were actually dead spirits calling for help! Whispering leads to gold, therefore this gold is haunted! I’m willing to bet it’s a classic tale of cursed gold! Maybe it’s like an anglerfish, using trapped souls to lure more victims…”
“I mean, I guess that makes sense.” He rubbed his chin. “But then what caused all the accidents and that stuff? Are there vengeful spirits among them? Possession maybe? And there’s so much death outside of these veins too. Whatever this thing is, it clearly wants these skeletons inside of it for… whatever reason.”
“I dunno, you’re the ghost guy here right?”
He frowned. “I told you I’m NOT a ghost or part ghost or anything like that! But… “
He stared at the floor. “I kinda know a bit. I read once that spirits are typically bound to corpses, and how if they’re not properly put to rest, they’ll stick around and do.. Ghost things I guess? Maybe the gold absorbed these people and stopped their spirits from resting properly…”
“So we just gotta get these corpses outta the gold and that’ll fix this stuff?”
“That’s just a theory, but it’s something?”
She nodded. “So we’re lookin for gold! If only we could get rich off of this while freeing the trapped souls too… You think cursed gold would sell for extra? It’s more rare than normal gold.”
“Let’s just, not? Let’s find the bodies, put them to rest, and be on our way home.”
He felt chills run across his body. “Something still feels up about this place, and I’m not liking it at all.
Scanning the rest of the room, the only outstanding feature was the pit in the center.
Davis continued to stare at the quartz as Louise casually walked over, shining her light into it. Her eyes bugged out of her head.
“Hey, uh, just found some! So how do we put them to rest?”

The pit was around twenty feet deep, and at the bottom were dozens of corpses. Some still had rotting flesh and bone, while a good majority of them were bleached skeletons. 

The pit was full of stalagmites, which some skeletons rested against in desperation.
Davis grabbed his head. The whispering began again.
It was a whirlwind of “Help me, free us, won’t you free us, please help! I can’t take this! Free us free us free us free us”
A non stop barrage of whispering that began to drown out his own thoughts. He shook them off, hurting over to his friend.
She was pushing him back, gripping the pickaxe tight. From the hole, three of the corpses climbed out. 

Their decayed flesh looked embedded with the rocks and gold quartz, and their exposed, skeletal joints were still fused together by rock and mud. Their heads were missing, replaced by a large, skull-sized nugget of gold.
Across their body were mouths made of a stony material, constantly chattering and twitching.
Every step, they twitched around erratically, swinging their arms wildly.

“Save us save us save us save us”
The whispering continued through Davis’s head.

Louise, however, felt more empowered. Whether it was a just need to put these spirits to rest or keep her friend safe, she felt emboldened. All she needed was a means to harm what were presumably ghosts.

Continuing to back up, Louise picked up a rock, and threw it at one of the monsters. It soared like a professionally thrown fastball, the wind swishing behind it. The monster dodged out of the way, and the stone crossed the gap, shattering on the wall behind it.
Louise grinned, preparing to charge. Davis grabbed her sleeve, stumbling.
“You’re really going to charge in?”
“If it avoids a rock, it thinks that a rock is a threat. That means, I can physically beat up these ghouls!”
The whispering turned into screaming. It sounded like dozens of people, all screaming in unison for help. They all yelled over each other, hoping for their pleas to individually be acknowledged.

That was the only plea he could make out of the chorus of cries.
She charged forward, pickaxe high above her head. Davis screamed.

“Please, stop! Don’t do this to them!”
Louise hesitated, skidding to a halt, and turning to her friend.

One of the monsters swung. A blow from one of its heavy, stony appendages struck her on the side of the head, knocking her over. She lost the grip of her weapon as she hit the floor, dazed
Another monster scuttled over, outstretching an exposed bony arm. The bone split open, several gold tendrils wrapping around her.
By the time her head stopped spinning, she was restrained. Even with her enhanced strength, she still struggled to break free from the stony bindings. The monster began to drag her to the pit.

Davis watched fearfully, still hearing the screaming. With whatever willpower he had left, he sprinted forward, swooping up the dropped pickaxe. Then, he vanished into darkness.

The voices had stopped. He moved to where he saw the figures of Louise and the other monsters, and re-materialized.

The voices screamed into his head again. He grimaced and swung the pick.
Davis had shattered the bone of the monster. The gold tendrils dissolved into nothing, freeing Louise.
He grabbed her by the hand and tugged her to her feet.
“Sweet, now let’s-”
“No, we gotta run now, we can’t fight!”
“What do you mean?”
The three monsters moved closer, attempting to encircle the duo.

“I gotta explain later, let’s just move!”
He yanked her back to the tunnel they entered from, fleeing as far as his body could manage. Louise glanced back at the monsters, staring daggers at them.

In one of the roomier, smoothed out tunnels, he sat against the wall, gasping for breath. Louise stood over him with a cross look on her face.

“Seriously, you better have one heck of a good explanation why you just wanted to bail like that. Not to mention, almost getting me killed too!”
He took a few more heaving breaths.
“We can’t just kill those monsters.”
“Well why not? They clearly want us dead.”
“They’re like… the spirits of the dead miners! They were screaming in fear when you were about to attack them…”

“I mean, yeah. I’m glad they understood I was gonna pummel them to dust.”

“No, but the pummeling was the issue. If you killed those monsters, who knows what kinda damage you would have done to innocent spirits.”
Louise rolled her eyes. “Oh COME on. I thought you just said that if we put those corpses to rest they’ll be fine and dandy?”
“I said that was a THEORY. One that is wrong, if these spirits are right.”
“So how are we going to put a bunch of violent cryptids to rest then?”
“I don’t think they’re violent by choice, maybe they’re still possessed somehow? Something is forcing them to do bad, they don’t want to do it, and they need our help to free them. Maybe they can tell me how to help or something. We need more information. I need to find them, and speak with them or something.”
“No, look, we can’t take this risk again.” Louise shook her head. “We can’t just have a chat with things that are trying to kill me. Are you just going to start feeling sympathy for everything that’s out for my blood?”
“They aren’t bloodthirsty! They’re innocent!” Davis clenched his fists.  “We can’t just kill them and doom them to this mine forever!”

“You don’t know that for sure! How do you know they aren’t like those vengeful spirits, trying to manipulate you so they can kill you easier? If they’re trying to kill me, I can just destroy them. The town isn’t threatened, and I don’t have to needlessly risk my life.”
“You can’t just punch away every problem you know!” Davis shouted. “We don’t know what we’re dealing with here! We could be making these mines far worse by just, smashing everything up.”

“I don’t see any evidence against my methods so far.”
“But we haven’t dealt with like, ghosts before?”
She groaned. “Yeah, you’re right, but the only difference I see is that these ghosts are speaking to you, and leaving me out of the loop. Why didn’t they ask me not to pummel them?”
Davis scoffed. “Not like you would have listened to them.”

“Well then before that? Why are they only talking to you and not me? If these ghosts were nice, they’d be like ‘Oh hey there, evil monsters trapped us here. If you kill the monsters, we’ll suffer more, please do something about it!’”

“Look I’m not an expert on ghost stuff… I don’t think any actual experts on ghosts exist. Like qualified ones… That’s beside the point. I wanna at least trust these spirits, and not cause any more suffering.”
“Well you know what matters more than some old dead miners? Us, the living, and the safety of Tomahawk Hills. We can argue all we want later, but right now the town’s safety comes first.”

“Don’t these spirits get a say in safety too?”
Louise gave a frustrated glare. “Why should we give safety to the things that ARE the safety hazard?”
“But not all of-”
“I don’t care. If they don’t want to be trapped forever or whatever, perhaps they can, you know, not attack me?”

She walked back to the tunnel.

“Look Davis, I trust you that you’re hearing these ghosts n stuff, but unless you can figure out how to exorcize them and save them, I got another plan.”
She pulled out a stick of dynamite.
“We know there’s plenty of those corpses trapped and rotting in that pit, so I’m gonna blow them all away. Hopefully that’ll put them to rest, right?”
Davis began inhaling, harder and harder. He turned away, pounding the wall with his fist.
“Just go. Doom a bunch of innocents to hell or whatever. I want none of it.”
“Hey, just at least… Stick around here for me, at the very least, all right? I just wanna make sure both of us leave these mines together. You and I are still priority number one here.”
She left the tunnel, leaving her friend behind.
Davis curled up, cursing Louise. He had to think of some kinda method to both stop those creatures, and how to actually save their spirits. It could even be some kinda lie, but he had to think of something.

“If you can hear me…” He spoke out into the caves. “Please, just could you give me a hint or something?”


He called out again.

Still nothing. 

He rested his head against the cave wall, pounding his fist into the earth. His heart was racing in a panic, trying to fathom the fate that these spirits were doomed to.


A minute later, voices began to scream in his head.


A continuous cacophony of desperate cries flooded his brain. It sounded like an arena of innocents, meeting an untimely doom.

He grasped his head as the voices continued to scream. He clenched his teeth until they began to ache.
He stood up, and broke into a sprint down the tunnel.
He passed through twists and turns, following the screams. It wasn’t the same path to the large room with the hole. Instead, he came upon a new clearing.
Entering a larger room, there were several bones, chunks of stone-like flesh, lumps of gold, and pickaxes strewn across the place.
One of the monsters was still alive, writhing.

“Please…” He heard whispering inside of his head, coming from the barely-alive monster. He walked over, crouching down to it.
“You need to stop her. Before she dooms the rest of us.” It pleaded, sounding like the last of its life was escaping its lips..
It stretched out a bony arm, a small spike of gold ore forming.

“This is a binding. It won’t kill her, but it will restrain her. Please. Stop her, and then you can save us.”

It grew limp, and the voices went silent. He grasped the golden spike firmly, staring deeper into the tunnel.

Louise was lost.
She had turned down a few tunnels here and there, expecting to return to the giant room with the pit, but the path there was most likely the more straightforward one.
Her mind was still preoccupied with Davis. His stupid thoughts and ideas nearly got her killed, and now he didn’t want to stick around anymore.
I can handle just a simple dynamite drop on my own at least.

She kept thinking back to Davis’s actions, and that thought.
She stopped walking, and remembered.

If her dynamite caused a cave-in, she would be in severe trouble.

Her thoughts began to simmer down, as she continued to think about what Davis said.

Maybe there was some better way to handle all of this.

You can’t just punch away every problem.

She remembered back to the mysterious Von Chad.

Maybe a kick for him, but certainly not a punch…

She groaned. He had some points. She should apologize, but at least draw the line that she’s not gonna let the cryptids walk all over her. Maybe just, find a less explosive way of dealing with all of them. Punching was still going to be an option, however.

She turned around, following the tunnel that led back upward. That would at least lead her back to where he was.

Though, she encountered him much sooner than expected.

Davis’s face was flushed red, and stained with tears. He wore an incredibly distressed look, gripping the gold spike tightly. He ran his thumb over the tip of it, confirming that it was a blunt edge. It wouldn’t hurt her.

Louise was looking away nervously, taking deep breaths.

“Okay, so I should start off by saying… Ugh…”
She looked back up, seeing Davis on top of her, spike reared back.
“I’m really sorry, but I have to do this.”
He plunged the spike onto her shoulder. To his relief, it didn’t pierce the skin, but it expanded outwards. Golden tendrils spread all over her, forming a binding cage around her body. Her eyes widened, all this happening in a flash.

“Davis you ABSOLUTE MORON!” she screamed in terror. 

“Don’t worry, I’ll get you out of here safely. But, you just can’t cause all this suffering without consequences.”

She wriggled around, and in a fit wormed her legs to sweep his legs. He fell over crashing against the cave wall.

“Get me out of here before something happens! You’re being insane! Are you seriously going to backstab me like this for some ghosts you don’t even know?”
“If it’s to stop you from just being so cruel to them, yes! You can’t just be so awful-”
He staggered as the surrounding tunnel began to change form and shape. It turned from a rocky brown, to glimmering gold.
Then, the two began to sink into it.
Louise started screaming violently, trying to break free out of her bindings as the ore began encroaching her body. Davis began to panic, staring around. His feet were stuck in the floor, still sinking like he was in cement. He leaned forward.

“I… I’M SORRY. I SCREWED UP, BUT I CAN FIX THIS!” He screamed. “JUST GRAB MY HAND!” He reached over, outstretching his hand towards hers. Even bound, she could still grab ahold of it, but only if she wanted to.
“You serious?” She screamed in return. “How am I supposed to know this isn’t some other ploy for you to sell me out to these dumb ghosts?”

Louise huffed, and grabbed it. Not like anything could be worse than this, right?
Then, nothingness.
At least for Louise, that’s how it looked. She couldn’t make out or feel a single thing. She knew she was lying down, but she couldn’t feel what it was. The only tangible thing she could feel was the warmth of Davis’s hand.
“I’m just, really sorry. I completely screwed up here.”
He tugged her across the shadowy terrain. She knew she was moving, but she still couldn’t feel what she expected to be dirt and gravel scraping against her shorts. Her head spun, and she felt sick.

Davis was wheezing with each tug of the girl.

After they were far enough, they re-materializing several feet away from the shifting gold pile. 

He fell to his knees, coughing and gagging for breath.
Louise’s head was spinning, feeling the coarse dirt ground. She felt like if she stood up before her body re-adjusted, she would puke as well.
The two of them recovered around the same time. 

Davis’s face was flushed red, and stained with tears.
Louise had a look of murderous intent in her eyes.

“I just didn’t want anyone else to suffer… or any spirit. It just sounded so real and,”
She punched him hard in the shoulder.

“ARGH, ow ow ow ow…”
He stopped crying, and rubbed his shoulder.

“Just, save it for later. You got a lot more making up to do too!”
She yanked him up to his feet.
“But we still got a job to do, yeah?”
Davis stared, pouting his lip. He burst into tears, hugging the girl.


She smiled, patting him on the back.
“Hey, come on now, I only half blame you. It’s clearly the work of manipulative spirits, AS I THOUGHT. So you better not give me any ‘what if they’re good’ talk for the rest of the day.”

“But it’s the gold that’s evil, not the spirits-”
She smacked him on the back. He coughed.
“They’re evil until they prove they aren’t. Like maybe they should save our life first before asking for our help. Now, if it’s the gold that’s evil, I’m still set on blowing it up with dynamite. Let’s find that thing and-”

His eyes lit up.
“Actually, I got something better. But let’s get moving before it catches us. I can explain.”

The two turned, now moving up the winding tunnels. 

“You only got a few sticks of dynamite, but we don’t know how many things of gold are around. We know it’s the gold that’s evil for sure. It whispers and lies, then eats them after luring them in. So what if instead, we use that dynamite to seal the cave entrance? Nobody can get into the mines, nobody can be at risk, PAIN can’t discover what’s here, we all win.”

Louise opened her mouth for a second, but closed it, pondering.
“That’s… true. Sealing away cryptids that can’t be killed is a good long term option. But someday, I’m gonna come back with more dynamite, all right?”
Davis nodded. “Don’t know how you’ll get all that, but if we can do it without killing ourselves, I won’t object.”

They hurried up, swerving through tunnel after tunnel, but at least knew as long as they were going up, they were getting back to the entrance. 

Adrenaline kept both of them moving. Loose dirt caused them to constantly slip and fall onto their arms, but as soon as they hit the floor, they flung up more dirt to push themselves back onto their feet. They miles of cave tunnel they entered to begin with, that they so carefully trekked down over hours, was being covered in over half the time. 

It was much much later, their clothes covered in small cuts and dirt stains, they found the minecart tracks. 

Nothing but flat, even ground ahead. Nothing could impede their escape.

They broke into a full blown sprint until they found the elevator. With Davis on the platform, Louise smashed the button and hopped on.

The old motors revved to life once more, and they slowly ascended, back to the rusted entrance of the mine…

    Louise had set up dynamite near the two concrete supports near the entrance, and set up as long a fuse as she could. It was still short of the mine entrance, but it was a sprint she was positive they could make. 

Taking one of the flares, she turned to Davis. He was sitting against the wall, drenched in sweat and panting.

“We’re going to run together, but if you lose any ground on me, I’m going to pick you up again, all right?”
Davis’s face flushed. He shot up to his feet. “Oh you BETTER NOT DO THAT AGAIN!”
“Or what, you’ll die from embarrassment, Or will death by landslide be better.” She said with a smug grin.

“Look, I don’t need to be picked up again! I can keep up just fine!”

“321-GO” Louise yelled, lighting the fuse and breaking into a sprint. Davis stumbled, nearly falling over trying to break into his. Louise ran back, and scooped him up, to his dismay.

Halfway out of the mine, she heard a massive BOOM, followed by a gust of wind from behind.
She increased her running pace as she felt the ground shake. She didn’t need to look behind her to know hundreds of tons of soil was hot on her trail.
Light was soon literally at the end of the tunnel, and the collapse sounded close on her tail. She threw Davis ahead of her, and dove out the entrance of the mines. They tumbled, swallowed up by a plume of dust from the shaft. 

The dust slowly settled, and Davis coughed. Louise laughed.
“Guess we can call that another job done, yeah?”
“Guess so…” Davis coughed again.

“Now, you still owe me for that literal backstabbing back there…”
Davis gulped. “What did you have in mind exactly?”
“Do you two realize you aren’t allowed to be around here?” A shrill voice cut in.
Louise stood up, finding three others standing not too far from the rest of them.
They were the boy and girl who were with Kirino, Dom and Clarice, along with a boy she had never seen before.

Once in a lifetime – chapter 10

All the joys and anticipation of the end of the week was replaced with anxiety and dread for Davis. His brain still racked over his split-second decision to let the shapeshifting monster run away free. The more intimidating matter was how Louise would treat him after that act.

He lay still in bed for several moments. His stomach felt like it was tied into a giant knot. He couldn’t close his eyes or sleep, his brain was far too amok to even think about sleep.

He clenched his teeth and forced himself out, slowly getting ready for the school day.

Louise woke up as energized as ever, but below the surface she was still fuming. As she got ready for school, she was running all the ways that she would scold Davis when she saw him in-person again. After several minutes of imagining the scenarios, she sighed to herself.
Perhaps it was better if she just kept to herself for the day.

When lunchtime arrived, she sat down at the usual spot, but Davis was nowhere to be seen.

He had picked the lock to an empty classroom, munching on a candy bar. This time, at least, he made sure to properly dispose of his garbage.

A day of studying and classwork passed on by, normally for Louise, but agonizingly slow for Davis. It felt like his stomach was going to cave in on itself every moment, especially the few classes he shared with his partner. He tried to focus as much as he could, avoiding trying to even look at the girl. Every now and then, he’d jerk his eyes towards her desk.
She seemed bored, looking everywhere but the front of the class.

After the final bell rang, Davis wasted no time in blending in with the school crowd, hoping his fashion wouldn’t give himself away to the girl. 

I’m just gonna sleep this day off. 

Davis’s avoidance for the day was annoying, but to her, not too serious of an issue. It was at least an issue she could confront him about if he continued. 

With the library open, she thought that was a good place as any to continue searching for leads.
Plus, the government wouldn’t know it was her on that public computer. Maybe the school would get in trouble, and get closed for a day or two.

Just hop on some sketchy conspiracy sights, try to find anything local, and hope she’d come across some sort of lead.

Though her plans were a bit disrupted as she saw three familiar figures standing outside the doors.

It was Kirino, and the red and blue haired students that were with her last time.
She stood there, hands on her hips, talking to them. She spoke with a strong, and somewhat authoritative voice. She was also fairly loud too.

Loud enough to almost make out what she was saying from Louise’s distance.

Louise dove behind a nearby hedge, glaring at the trio. 

It was a perfect storm of luck; The library was already quiet, most of the students had cleared out, so she was able to catch bits of her conversation.

“This is important…”
“Whispering Mines…”



“Do not…” 

The Whispering Mines. They were an old settlement deep in the woods of Tomahawk Hills, and she vaguely remembered some ghost stories connected to them. Perhaps they had some merit to it.

She snickered to herself. She should have thought of this sooner. Kirino was rich; She probably already paid somebody to give her all sorts of secret info. 

She thought about looking up thieving or spy techniques, and just spy on Kirino whenever she has free time. Or perhaps Davis could stalk her? She’ll have to ask him about it. 

Helping save their town was one thing, but foiling Kirino’s plans on top of it? It was perfect.

The three split up, Kirino walking one and the two students the other direction. With the coast clear, Louise bolted into the library, keeping her mind on the strong lead.

Davis had been lying in his bed for the past few hours. He hadn’t eaten since lunch, and the anxiety was still overpowering his mind and stomach. 

He thought to himself how he had to at least do something, maybe some research of his own to make up for his mistake to Louise. 

But where to even start? I don’t want to go to some site and get noticed by PAIN. Or a trojan virus, or something else. 

His phone buzzed, lurching him out of his unresponsive state.

It was Louise.

His stomach churned as he opened it.

“I found a huge lead, but we gotta act on it soon. I’ll be at your place first thing in the morning. Be dressed to head out into the woods too!”
The knot in his stomach undid itself, feeling the release of relief rise through his chest. He smiled, thinking that things were going to go back to usual.

The pangs came right back as somebody knocked on his door.
Could that be Louise? But she sent me a text message… or maybe it was delayed… Or maybe…

He sucked in his breath and hurried over to the door. He cracked it open, peeping at who it was.

It was himself, standing at the door at first glance. He was almost shocked, but then he remembered:
The shapeshifter.

At second glance, he realized it didn’t look all too like him. Sure, it still had his outfit, hood, pale face, but there were significant differences.

His face was looking more childlike and innocent, with bigger eyes and somewhat poutier lips. Not to mention, the body was certainly not the same as his.

The clothes beneath the jacket hugged tighter, and the body shape was looking curvier.

“Hey…” He spoke to his admittedly cuter doppelganger. “Is everything all right? You’re not here to kill me or anything, right?”
It shook its head.

“Money. I need money.”
He scrunched his brow in confusion, before realizing what she meant.

“You ran out already?”
“I wanted lots of food, but they got mad. I gave them the money, but they said it wasn’t enough.”
He stared for a few moments. “How much did you order?”
“I pointed at all the pictures.”

Davis sighed, giggling a bit. “All right, well hold on a second.”
He pulled out his wallet, taking out a $100, along with two $20’s.

He held up the $100. “See this? This should give you enough to feast on to make up for yesterday. And with these two, try to not order everything at once. Pick one food a day, and these will last you four days.”
It nodded, scanning the faces, numbers, and details of the cash.

“I can trade one for more food, and this one, I trade for less?”

“Yup. I uh, don’t think you know how to count.”
It shook its head. “Does it involve these?”
It pointed at the numbers at the bill.

“Yeah. Then there’s change. Oh uh, just, also when you give them the money, tell them to keep the change. At least until you figure out how it works.”

“Thank you. I will do my best.”
“If you ever need more money, just stop back here, okay? I can help out.”
“I will try. My master is still looking. I don’t want to endanger you. I should leave.”
It glanced around, before sprinting away. Davis reached towards the creature.
“Wait, what about your…”
He sighed. Still, most of the anxiety had washed away. His previous decision didn’t backfire horribly, and more importantly, he was still friends with Louise.

Saturday morning, Davis was rudely woken up by a pounding on the door.

Still dressed in his big jacket and baggy pants from the previous day, he leapt out of bed and shuffled over to the door.
There in the doorway stood Louise, with a dumb smile on her face, all dressed up in her cargo shorts and alien t-shirt. This time, the alien was purple.

“You know, I was gonna comment about how you’d need to prove your dependability to me.” She said, “But you actually got up when I asked, all dressed!”
He yawned. “I… Didn’t just get up. I swear…”
She rolled her eyes. “Yeah yeah. Now, before we get to business, I do need to address something.”
The pit in his stomach began forming again.

“Just, when I’m about to kill a cryptid, let me, all right? We can’t really afford to have any sorta debate in the heat of battle. Honestly, we’re really lucky the thing didn’t ambush us on our way home alone. Unless it’s still planning one…”
Davis opened his mouth for a brief moment, thinking back to yesterday afternoon. He closed, holding his tongue.

He didn’t want to cause any issue.

“Fine. Just before we get too deep into fights, I’ll just, try to let you know if something feels off.”
“There’s nothing wrong with that. There is something wrong with freeing a creature that’s trying to kill me.”

He nodded. The stomach pangs dissipated.

“So…” He paused. “What’s the lead you found?”
“Ever hear of the Whispering Hills?” 

From her backpack she pulled a few scans of news articles. Each one had constant mentions of ghosts, mass hysteria, riches in the mine, and so on.

“This stuff is like, prime paranormal material.”
Davis raised an eyebrow at her research. “You actually found a good source that wasn’t just a random forum poster?”
Louise nodded enthusiastically. “Oh, my guarantee that something HAS to be going on here is that I found out Kirino is interested in this place too!”

Davis squinted. “You don’t think we’re gonna bump into each other again, are you?”
“Well why do you think I wanted us to leave so early?”
She cleared her throat, picking up one of the articles.

“So basically, some people claimed to hear ghostly whispering calling them to some hills, located deep in our local woods a few centuries ago. They followed it, and all of the sudden they come across some hills that are chock-full of gold! A bunch of miners then holed up there to try and get really rich.”

“So rumors about a ghost voice is all there is?”
She picked up another one of the papers. “Whispering Hills settlement disaster, Whispering Hills colony established, Law Enforcement bars visitors from Whispering Hills Settlement. There’s like, so much misfortune around this place. Did you know there were four attempts to keep this settlement running, and all failed? All due to mysterious accidents and mass hysteria.”

Davis nodded.

“Survivors, and yeah I do mean SURVIVORS, who fled the settlement kept complaining about a constant whispering, trying to call them back into the mines cuz of all the riches down there.”
“So we’re gonna find out what’s causing the whispering, beat it and go home?”
“Yup, that’s the plan!”
“And what if you can’t just punch it? What if it’s like an actual ghost?”
“That’s no biggie. There’s always some way to kill a ghost.”
“But aren’t ghosts already dead?”
Louise shook her head. “Then banishing it? Exorcizing? We can figure something out, like we always do.”
Davis huffed. “I do know a few things about putting spirits to rest, maybe we can try it out if it comes to that. But if we’re threatened, and we have no clear way to deal with them, we’ll run. Got it?”
Louise shrugged. “I mean I guess…”
Davis picked up one of the papers, with the headline mentioning the police.

“Also, are you sure we won’t get in trouble for trespassing there?”
“Psh.” Louise almost laughed. “If they actually bothered to assign police to watch the middle of nowhere, I’d willingly ask them for help on our mission!”

After preparation, the two were all set to head out.
The hills wouldn’t be too hard to find; They were even visible off in the distance. They simply needed to head off in one direction, hit the hills, and follow along the side until they reached the settlement. A simple journey.
That was, until their trek through was interrupted.
Decently deep in, they saw a lone figure standing, staring into the sky.

His outfit was too unique to be forgotten:
It was Von Chad.

The two didn’t waste any time to dive behind a pine tree, barely peeking out to stare at the mysterious man.
He held up a hand towards them, motioning for them to stand still.
The two froze in place. Davis grasped Louise’s wrist tight.

Moments later, he sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Not today… You two can come on out. I think my target has     eluded me.”
Louise walked on up to the man, towing Davis along with her. She stared up to the sky, before looking back at him.

“What exactly were you looking for?”

“I’m sure somebody as educated on the supernatural as you is aware of the Thunderbird, correct?”
“Yeah, I’ve heard of the myths. That’s real too?”
The man laughed. “Oh, yes! And there’s so much more I would love to tell you about, that’s if I could however.”
Louise narrowed her eyes. “Oh, so you come around, make demands to me, but telling us about all the cryptids around here is too far?”
“Yes, unfortunately. I’ve been around for well over a millenia, and the stories I could tell!”
“Hold on,” Davis interjected. “You don’t mean an ACTUAL millennia, you’re just exaggerating, right?”
He broke into laughter again. “Do I seem like the type to lie?”

Louise and Davis instinctively took a step back.

“Don’t tell me…” Louise took a deep breath. “You’re one of those secret shadow government elites that happens to eat babies to live forever?”
Davis coughed out a laugh, eyes bugging out of his head.

“Louise, WHAT?”

 She turned frustrated at his friend. 

“It’s a thing! Like look at him! He’s fancy, well spoken, ultra powerful, immortal? Like isn’t that all the criteria for being a secret evil ruler of the world?”

He shook his head. “No, no. Ruling the world is too easy. Such a weak ambition. I prefer collecting birds.”
Louise had to hold back a snort. “You gotta be kidding me… Too easy?”
“Well, if you don’t lie,” Davis pitched in, “Why DON’T you rule the world. You’re implying you could if you wanted to. Not to mention, bird collecting would be easier with the world’s resources under your control.”
“Ask yourself this: What’s the difference between a caged human and a caged bird? A caged bird will love you for providing everything it needs to live. A caged human with everything they need will always be left wanting more. Don’t you already understand this Louise?”

She stared at the immortal in utter disbelief.
“What do you mean, I’m not caged!”

“Now then, thank you two for respecting the avians. I must continue my search!”

In the blink of an eye, he became a blur, dashing into the thicket of the forest. A gust of wind followed him, causing the two to stumble.

Davis sighed in relief, and Louise huffed. She turned to her partner.

“No way in heck he’s that old…”
Davis jabbed her in the side. “I told you it was a good idea we shouldn’t have messed with that guy. Immortality, super strength, super speed, what else do you think he’s hiding?”
“He could still be lying!”
Davis scoffed. “Does his age really matter? You saw how fast he was!”
“Well, we can figure out some plan of attack later. You don’t think silver or garlic would work?”

“What do you…” The gears in his head clicked. “Oh. I mean, you can try? But if it DOES work but doesn’t kill him, you might be in a lot of trouble.”

She put her hand on her chin. “True… If he doesn’t lie, maybe we can ask what his weakness is?”

As the explorers continued a light fog descended upon the woods. The moist, chilly air was thankfully repelled well by their warm clothing, but Davis wasn’t a big fan of the atmosphere it was creating. After reaching the hills and following along the edge of it, they came upon a clearing.
A massive expanse of dirt, mud, roots, dead leaves, stretching to the size of a small neighborhood block. In the center of the clearing was what they were looking for.

The Whispering Settlement.
It was a bizarre mix of structures;

There were some made of stone, others wood. They ranged from well-kept to rotting away. Some looked like they were picked straight from a wild west set, and others built like medieval stone huts. Off against the hills were some old structures, most likely for processing and refining ores. 

On the outskirts of the settlement were frames and foundations, set up for homes that would never be built.

Louise smiled at the sight.

“See, told you there’d be no cops. Come on, let’s hurry up and-”
Davis tugged her on the shoulder.
“Just, before we run in, let’s avoid the buildings. Some of these buildings could be centuries old. There’s no telling how their condition could be, or what could be nesting inside.”
Louise nodded, slipping on her gauntlets. 

“I don’t think it’ll be that bad. If asbestos is what gets me at the end of all of this, I’ll leave you a million dollars in my will!”
Davis gave her a disapproving glare. “First, I don’t think you can get asbestos from buildings this old. I’m thinking some like, poisonous mushrooms, or maybe hallucinogens. Just before we do ANYTHING involving those buildings, let’s both agree on it. No rushing in like a buffoon.”
“Ahhh, fine fine. But I have a feeling you’ll be wanting to crack open some of those houses soon enough!”

For the next few hours, the two thoroughly scanned the town, hunting for any supernatural clues.

Slowly but surely, plant life was starting to crawl back in, the outermost paths having a tangle of leaves and weeds. The frames of buildings were victim to the creep as well. One of the saloon buildings had several holes either pecked or smashed through its walls. Others which looked like shops were most likely looted. Most of them seemed fine at first glance, but each one had a not so subtle hole smashed into them somewhere.
The only buildings that were still standing strong were made of stone or brick, but even then vines were growing up the walls and overtaking them. 

Other than rubble, dirt, and uninteresting plant life, the town had nothing to offer.

Amidst the ruins, there was one more stable looking building built of bricks. It was a single story, single room building. It had a chimney, but no windows. 

Its door was made of solid wood, and hadn’t begun yielding to nature. 

“This one at least looks safe enough to pop open.” Louise mentioned, sizing it up. I’m gonna see if I can open the front door, all right?”
Davis nodded.

She walked up to the door, pushing.

It budged forward only slightly. Something was stopping it from the other side.

She gave the door a powerful kick, and it snapped off the hinges, but still stood upward. Davis winced, hoping she didn’t wake up any sort of wild animals living inside.

She pulled at the heavy door, removing it from the frame.
Stacked up against the doorway was a bedframe, heavy dresser, a chest, and thoroughly rusted mining tools. 

She carefully pushed away the barricade, getting a better view of the building’s interior.

It was a very small house, soaked in dust. Whatever furniture wasn’t put up against the door was overturned or smashed into splinters. 

The fireplace was totally charred black, and in front of it was a skeleton, sitting on top of some chest.

Louise crept over, heart racing in fear and excitement. Davis stared in disgust.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to…”
She shoved the skeleton off, bones clattering against the floor.

“Only way to figure out why this guy literally died, you know? Come on Davis!”
She opened the chest, which was unlocked, to find…


She scratched her head, peering around the dusty container.

“There’s nothing in here…”
“I just hope you didn’t disturb his spirit for nothing then…”
As she shut the chest, she noticed a leather booklet to the side of it. She picked it up.

Every single page was torn out, except for one. Shaky writing was scrawled on it.

“Everyone has gone mad outside. I have enough food and kindling, and my door will hold. If they all starve, I can return home with my earnings safely.”
Louise opened the chest a second time, hoping for some kinda secret contraption to reveal some hidden treasure. Still, it was empty.

She turned back to Davis, holding up the booklet.
“So the newspapers weren’t lying. This guy mentions everyone outside going mad, and how he tried to wait them out.”
She walked out of the home, showing her partner the journal. He scanned the single page.

“I mean, how do you know he’s not lying? What if he went mad, barricaded himself inside, and starved to death?”
She shrugged. “I mean his “earnings” was an empty chest. Unless some rats stole what he wanted and slipped out?”

She glanced back inside the building. There were no holes or any way any person could have gone in or out, other than the chimney. Even then, it was too thin for an adult to fit through.
“I doubt they were digging cheese up here. Let’s keep hunting around.”

All the paths that ran throughout the settlement connected and routed their way to one point: The mines themselves. It was an old-timey looking mineshaft entrance that still looked pretty well kept up. The wooden beams were still solid and standing, the exterior had fresh minecarts lined up, ready to carry more slag or valuables out. The tracks were rust-free as well, suspiciously leading into a charred wooden building that Davis assumed was some kinda depot.

Not too far from the mine entrance was a serious outlier to the rotting structures: Pickup trucks and trailers attached to them.

They were rusted, but compared to their surroundings, their wear seemed quaint. 

“You don’t think there’s police in there, do you?”

“Oh yeah” Louise scoffed. “Let’s just send some police officers to sleep in some rusted trailers.”
“Oh yeah, good point…”
“I’m gonna go check em out. I mean… We should go check them out. You agree?”

“I mean, unless they’re booby trapped? But they’ll still be much safer than checking out the buildings.”
Louise hopped on over to the trailer, Davis tagging behind. She tried the door.

Without hesitating, she grabbed it with both hands, yanking.
The handle popped off.
Grabbing the indent from where the handle was, she yanked again. She huffed and pushed one of her legs against the wall. The entire door popped off, and she staggered back a few steps, still holding onto it.

“You know, I coulda just like… lockpicked it?”

“Yeah, but this is a bit more fun.”
The inside of the trailer was coated in dust. There were empty cans of soup scattered on the floor, and shredded remains of ramen cups strewn about. 

There was a map of the US tacked against the wall, a red mark over Tomahawk Hills, and a red line connecting to highways across the entire country.

Louise didn’t hesitate to begin rummaging as Davis stared nervously.

“You uh… Realize this is vandalism right? Or thievery? Interfering at a crime scene?”
Louise turned around, giving him a dumbfounded stare.
“Since when did you start caring about the law so much?”

“I mean, if somebody did still live here, they could trace the crime back to us… It just feels wrong rummaging through somebody’s stuff like this.”

“Well, you saw that dust. Nobody’s been here for a while, and I don’t think that fact is gonna change. We also gotta find some sort of clue!”

She turned back and continued to pull open drawers and cabinets, finding nothing but more food, utensils, tupperware, or random tools. She did manage to find some supplies of note:
Flares, a long length of rope, some pickaxes and sledgehammers, along with cables for power tools. She also found a set of car keys.

She hopped out, pushing the unlock button.

The truck towing the trailer honked in response.
She popped open the driver’s door and quickly surveyed the front seats..

The dashboard was smashed up. The display screen in the center looked like somebody drove a pickaxe through the center of it. Several frayed wires were left loose underneath the steering wheel, and the steering wheel itself was smashed apart.

There were also stains of dried blood on the seat. 

Louise felt her heart race. Her imagination raced at what could have caused the scene.

She left the seat, turning to her partner.
“Now I know for a fact we’re not gonna see the police. There HAS to be some sort of cover-up going on.”
Davis’s eyes bugged out. “Wait, did you find a body in there or something?”
“No, just dried blood, and quite a bit of it. With the car all smashed up like that too, I don’t think it was an accident. You think if the police were actually watching this place, they’d find these trucks, the dried blood, and make a report about it, right? It’d be in some sort of newspaper!”

“Or maybe you missed something during your research?”
She shook her head. “If there’s a few things I can be sure of, it’s that aliens are real, and my ability to research into this stuff. I checked every lead online I could, and there was nothing from the past few decades related to it.”
Louise turned towards the hills, where the mine entrance was located.
“It’s a safe bet that whatever is driving everyone who comes here insane, HAS to be in the mines.”

Before entering, Louise took some time to gather a pickaxe, some flares, and a bundle of rope from the trailer. 

They were going into a mineshaft, so some of these supplies were bound to be helpful, she thought.

“Just before we take a step in” Davis spoke up, staring at the mine entrance. “Let’s just have some ground rules before going in there, all right?”
Louise silently nodded.
“At any sight of structural instability, like a cracked beam of wood, we should turn around instantly. A cave-in is no joke, probably more dangerous than monsters. Besides, didn’t you say something about wanting to die to a monster rather than something lame, like asbestos, or a cave-in?”

“Oh yeah, I’m with you there. Not the uh, dying to a cryptid part, but the landslide. I don’t think these gauntlets were meant for power mining out of caverns.” She chuckled to herself.

“Also, let’s say the worst case scenario happens and a landslide does happen. You’ll be stuck, but I can still escape. I’ll ghost through the rubble and call the authorities for some help. You’ll just have to sit tight, but I promise I’ll do whatever I can to get you out.”
Louise frowned. “But that means the police will catch us… There should be some alternate exit, right?”
“I don’t think mines work like that. Plus, if you went exploring after a cave-in, you’ll end up getting more lost. If you stay put, it’ll be easier for a rescue team to find you.”
Her expression changed to a smile. “Then, I trust you on that front! Just at least come down and visit if it’s gonna be a few days before they can get me out, all right?”
Davis grinned in turn. “I think authorities will be all over the place, and won’t let me back near. But I’ll definitely try.”

In his mind, the small fight they had a few days ago no longer mattered.

Davis had Louise’s back, and he had hers. This exploration would go solidly.

Once in a Lifetime – Chapter 9

“We don’t really need to split up, do we? Maybe just one or two classes I can sit somewhere near, I don’t think the teachers will notice-”
Louise groaned. “Just come on, you know what you said about cryptids avoiding broad daylight and all that stuff.”

They were once again near the bustling entrance of their school. Chatters of students intermixed with cars pulling up to the curb.

“Yeah but, we weren’t actively hunting them. Animals aren’t dumb, and I think cryptids are less… dumb. What I’m saying is, we’ve never attacked one and let it leave alive.”
Louise rolled her eyes, still smiling. “I’m also sure they’re not dumb enough to attack a big school in broad daylight.”
“Yeah, but-”
She held her finger in front of his mouth. “No butts! Let’s just get through the school day. If we AREN’T attacked in broad daylight, we can go somewhere populated after. Like a shopping center or something, do some stuff there.”

She stared at her friend with a warm smile.
Davis was still shaking, holding his hands close to his chest. He kept glancing to his sides, occasionally turning around to watch his back.

She shook her head at him. “I’m goin off to class, just don’t act crazy, okay?”
She waved, running off into the building. He looked behind his back one last time, before sprinting into the building as well.

How many more periods until I can stop being alone…
Davis was constantly fidgeting his leg, glancing all around the classroom. He was only two classes through, and his mind was all over the place. This class in particular was especially agonizing, as he was seated right next to a large window.

It displayed an unassuming line of suburban houses, but his mind still raced with paranoia.
Anyone, or anything, could easily stare in and watch him.
His eyes would zip from the window, to anyone who fidgeted amongst the teacher’s lectures. Every creak of the classroom’s heater drove his senses crazy, fearing that eventually something would sprout from the vents to kill him, and flee before anyone could realize what had happened.
Everyone probably thought he was some kind of tweaker, he worried to himself.

In reality, the few students who cared about him thought he was undergoing some caffeine withdrawals.

He tried to bring his fidgeting under control, but he still couldn’t shake the thought of more monsters beginning to attack him, as some kinda punishment for messing with the forest.

He glanced over to the window and saw something, standing casually on the front yard.
It was a deer.

All it did was stir his paranoia more.
First, deer were incredibly uncommon to come anywhere near suburbs. At least for Tomahawk Hills. Deer themselves were pretty rare too, which Davis addressed to the town’s monster populace.
Then there was something he couldn’t properly word other than a gut instinct.
The deer looked wrong.
The fur of it looked like plastic. He thought if he were to walk up and stroke it, it would be hard and prickly, rather than soft deer hide.

The worst part was that the animal was staring straight into the classroom. It was slowly scanning its head, until it met its eyes with him.

The period bell rang, and he flinched. Looking back at the window, the deer was gone. He waited for everyone else to get up, trying to blend himself within the crowd of students.

  Lunch had rolled around, and Davis was further crouched into the corner of the cafeteria. Food wasn’t even on his mind, his stomach churned too much. He thought even a simple bite out of one of his sweets would cause him to puke.
He kept quietly glancing around, until Louise arrived, two sandwiches in hand.

“Hey, how you holding up?”
He nearly jumped out of his seat. She glared at him.
“Do I need to chuck this at you again?” She wagged the wrapped sandwich around.
“No no no no, just…”
He grabbed his head.

“I can’t shake the thoughts of that monster. Like, did you see that thing? How are you staying so… calm???”
“Well, I seriously doubt it left that factory. Second, I got my gauntlets on me at all times.” She motioned to her backpack. “So if it does rear its ugly mug, I’ll beat it in.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have the magic gauntlets. If that thing surprises me, I’m toast.”
“Yeah but you can be like, a ghost or something? That’s gotta count for something, even if it DOES attack.”
His brain paused to try to process her statement.

“Can you give me like, an ounce of that self confidence? Or somethin? We could be in so much more trouble than we ever imagined-”
Louise threw one of the sandwiches at his face. “Try eating for starters. A full stomach will probably help you out a bunch!”
His anxiety paused just to give a stare of death back at Louise. “When will you stop doing that…”
“See, the food got your mind off that cryptid, right?”
His eyes widened, and he went back to fidgeting. “Yeah I’ll just, skip lunch at least.” He pushed the sandwich away. “This nerve is gonna make me puke…”
Louise sighed, sitting down and beginning to eat her lunch.

“Come on, if it hasn’t attacked now, it won’t attack at all. Just eat up.”
“Maybe it’s just being really patient… Like, I think it’s been watching me!”
“Psh, what? You think it’s attending school with us?”
“I mean if it can turn into a mannequin, what’s stopping it from turning into a person? Or a deer peeking through the window? Or maybe a bird watching-”
“Good, let it turn into a deer! That’ll be a lot easier to beat up than… whatever it was last night.”
Davis put his head face down on the table. “Oh jeez… I just realized that I’m missing all the class content today too. I’m gonna be so behind on everything.” He gripped his head again.
Louise shrugged. “What, is one day’s worth of school gonna kill you or something?”
He glanced up. “Academically, yes. Especially when some of this stuff is test and quiz prep. A quiz which I ALSO have next period too.”
Louise shirked back a bit. “Oops… uhh… good luck? Maybe just imagine me beating up that cryptid for you if you get nervous and distracted, I don’t know.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, I guess.”
“Only a few more classes to go. We can spend the rest of the day at a mall.”
Her expression brightened.
”OH actually, how about we go to a restaurant? I know a place that serves some KILLER burgers. We can get some and then do… Something I guess. Group research? Maybe plan some defense strategy for your home?”
His heart lightened at the thought. “Yeah, that would be kinda nice.”

He took a deep breath, unwrapping the sandwich.

“It’s not gonna attack in broad daylight, right?”

  After a terrible quiz with questions he couldn’t recall, the last few periods of the school day, Davis shared with Louise: History and English.

Simply having her in the same room was somewhat reassuring. If he was attacked in broad daylight, no doubt it would provoke some response from PAIN. Hopefully not the whole town quarantine response. His nerves soothed as his brain thought more rationally about his potential monster stalker.

Even with his good friend near, it didn’t do much to quell his wandering mind. Instead of paranoia, it was more focused on planning what to do if he were attacked at that very second. Obviously, he didn’t have any of his gadgets with him. Maybe he could use pencil shavings as some kinda makeshift blinding powder? Pens and scissors were decently sharp. He wasn’t sure if they were sharp enough to pierce the monster’s hide, but if his knife did the job, scissors should work too.

Oh right… I lost my knife…

Still, he kept thinking back to anything he could possibly do, anything to not be useless.

When the final bell rang, he was snapped back into reality. Looking down at his desk, it was a shameful reality.

He hadn’t taken any notes, and the teacher was already wiping away what was written on the whiteboard. No doubt, the stuff was essential testing information. He sighed in despair, walking over to Louise.

“Hey, can I copy off of your notes? I kinda dozed off today.”

She stared back blankly. “Wait, you actually waste time taking notes?”

He returned with a stare of disappointment.

“We’ll… I guess I know what we’re gonna be doing when we go out to get some burgers. Study.”

“Hey, whatever was covered today isn’t that big a deal-“

She paused, gears in her brain processing what was said at lunch.

“Oh. That stuff was test prep wasn’t it.”

He squinted his eyes, nodding.

“Yeah… We probably should huh…”

  Davis stuck close to Louise as they streamed out of the school with a river of students. He was holding tight to her arm, like a frightened child, glancing at all the students surrounding them. She would glance over to keep an eye on her friend, making sure to keep trucking onward.

It was a ten minute walk, but they arrived at a shopping plaza. It was a large parking lot, lined by various fast food places, a few restaurants, department stores, and some smaller shops for miscellaneous needs. Outside the front of the restaurants were dining areas, lined with flowered hedges and fountains.

There were plenty of teens and adults, some students of Tomahawk High, eating, chatting, or just enjoying the nice scenery.

Davis was totally unfamiliar with it all.
She turned to the terrified boy.
“You can relax. If someone literally tries to jump us, I’ll throw em in front of a moving car.”
“I really doubt you can throw that big of a monster out into the streets.”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m telling you, I SERIOUSLY doubt that monster will reveal itself to everyone after staying hidden for so long.”
“I already told you, this thing is different-”
She tossed her backpack open, slipping on her gauntlets.
“There. Feel better?”
His heart rate slowed down at the sight.
“Wait, won’t that draw suspicion?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Who the heck cares if I’m wearing gauntlets or not?”
He glanced around at all the students. “Well, they might find it weird and talk about it.”
His heart slowed down more. “Don’t you care about how you look to others?”
“No need to when I constantly look this cool.” she spoke with a grin. She struck a pose, reaching out her hand in a taunting motion.
Davis put his hand on his face.
“Stop it, you look embarrassing…”
“Fiiiinee. Now, for lunch, you GOTTA try Royalty Burgers if you haven’t.” She grabbed his arm and tugged him across the parking lot towards the restaurants.

“It’s not a chain or anything, they grill them there with fresh meat and everything. It’s AMAZING!”
She was skipping along with excitement.

“They also got so much more in case burgers aren’t your thing, like maybe some chicken tenders, ooh and KILLER milkshakes as well. The fries there are kinda pricey but it’s totally worth.”
Davis took a deep breath, eyes darting side to side. Nothing seemed suspicious. “I haven’t eaten out in like forever. It sounds like a nice change of pace from frozen food.”
Louise continued to march towards the food, stopping in front of one of the department stores.
“Oh yeah, I also gotta use the bathroom real fast.”
Just the mention reminded Davis. He felt a cramp in his stomach, and he grasped it.

“You gotta use it too?”
He groaned. “I can hold it. Ugh… Ok maybe not.”
She stared at him for a few moments, putting together what had happened.
“Don’t tell me… You’ve been holding it in all day?”
“The bathroom would be a perfect place to be ambushed-”
She grabbed him by the arm, tugging him towards the store entrance.
“It’s a packed department store, there’s tons of people around, you’ll be just fine. Just scream like a maniac if you see anything funny, all right?”
She continued tugging until they reached the bathrooms.

  Louise finished first, waiting right outside the door for her friend. It didn’t seem too busy, as not too many people went into the bathroom. Minutes passed, still no sign of him. She began tapping her foot as she saw people continuing to leave.
“Sheesh, this is why you don’t hold it all in…” she silently spoke to herself. Finally, a minute later, Davis emerged.

Louise stared at him, concerned.
“Jeez dude, you all right?”
He looked even paler than before, and was shivering as if he had a cold. His back was hunched, and eyes incredibly baggy.

“Y-yeah.” He spoke in a very hushed voice, chittering his teeth. “I’m j-just… still really s-scared.”
She put his arm on his shoulder. “Sheesh, I didn’t know you were gonna be this much of a baby about it. Probably should have found a family bathroom or something.”
He simply stared pathetically at her.
“Well, come on. Let’s get us some burgers, that’ll warm and cheer you up.”

  It was a horrid eight minutes on the toilet, both thanks to holding it in for so long, and the paranoia of being attacked at his most vulnerable. Every time somebody came in and out of the door, his heart began beating into overdrive. He continued to heavily breath in and out, trying to relax himself and push through his terrible digestion as fast as possible.
Granted, after it was all done, his stomach cramps were mostly gone, and he felt significantly less stressed out.
Not to mention he felt absolutely starved.
He washed his hands, and grabbed the door handle.

It didn’t budge.

His heart accelerated as he yanked again and again.
It still didn’t even move an inch.

He banged the door, yelping.
No response.

He banged more, and turned around.

All of the stalls were slightly ajar, and nobody.
He unbuttoned one of his jacket pockets, searching for his phone. It wasn’t where he usually put it

He opened every other pocket, scrounging through several pieces of candy, unable to feel the rectangular shape of his phone.

There’s no way I left it at home, did I? I didn’t take it out at school at all…

He continued to bang on the door, yelling. Between screaming, he glanced behind him, still finding absolutely nobody.

“…I’m sure this place will serve SOMETHING you like. Just promise me you won’t be picky!”
Louise kept prattling on as she pushed the doors to the restaurant open. It wasn’t too crowded, but there were still a fair amount of customers inside.

Davis was still shivering like a terrified animal, keeping hands close to his chest. He glanced at every customer as if they were planning to lunge out and attack him.

“Plus maybe we can come here after excursions. They’re open real late into the night too!”

Davis nodded. He sniffed the air, and straightened out his back. He took in a whiff of the scent of grilled beef patties, fries, chicken, and a mix of various other foods.

“Smells good, huh? I told ya, you’re gonna LOVE this place.”
She bounded over to the cashier, staring up at the menu.
“Just give me a Royal combo with some water, and…”
Davis was staring blankly at the menu. His mouth was slightly agape, looking at the pictures of the delicious-looking food.

“Need a few moments?”
He pointed at a picture of a thick, double burger. “That one.”
Louise chuckled. “Feeling hungry now, huh? Isn’t food just the best? Ah, wait one second. Do you mind if I take these off?”

She held up her gauntlets.
“I don’t exactly wanna be eating with them and all. I haven’t washed them properly yet and uh… Yeah.”
He nodded, still staring at the picture of the tasty looking burger.

Davis had been kicking at the door for several minutes, and was now lying on the floor exhausted. Every now and then, he’d hear somebody shove the door, trying to get in. Sometimes it was a light tap, other times it felt like somebody was trying to kick it down. If he was lucky, somebody would complain about the locked bathroom, and a manager could unlock it.
Unlocking, maybe? He had picked locks before. It was a good way to get into classrooms where he could hang out and be alone during lunch.

He searched around his jacket pockets. Through lint and small bits of garbage, he at least found a paperclip in there. He sighed in relief, bending it into a straight metal wire, and hurrying over to the bathroom door.

He paused in despair, realizing there was no lock on this side.

“Could… You get me another.”
Louise had barely touched her fries as she glanced at Davis.
The burgers served here were definitely not average. The “Royal Marriage” he had just finished were two quarter pound patties, each with two slices of cheese, and finished with lettuce, tomatoes, onions, ketchup, and mayonnaise.
In the time that she had just taken a single bite of her burger, he had demolished his.

“Wow… Have you ever had burgers before? Like, once in your life?”
“No… They’re amazing…”

A big smile grew across her face.
“See, man I KNEW you’d love this place. Just hang tight, do you want a shake too?”
“Shake?” he cocked his head, staring inquisitively.

She paused. “You’re a frozen food hog and you’ve never had a chocolate shake either? Man, you’re missing out on SO MUCH GOOD STUFF. It’s a good thing I dragged you out here!”
She walked over to the counter, making a new order as he sat, staring at his polished plate of food. He looked up, gazing at Louise’s barely eaten burger and fries. His mouth began to water, and he reached over, snagging a handful of fries and shoving them into his mouth. He glanced behind, seeing Louise was walking back.

“Just give him a few minutes, and you’ll have some more food…”
She saw a bunch of her fries were noticeably gone, and glanced at the boy.
She squinted her eyes with disgust.

“You coulda just asked if you wanted me to get you fries too.”

She sat back down, and moved her food further away.
“I gotta keep an eye on this till your next order, huh?”

  Minutes later, after Louise finished her meal, she ran over and brought the second helping over to Davis. She kept her eyes on him as he dove straight into the burger again. He tore into it like an animal, shredding it down to nothing but crumbs.

Grabbing the shake, he took off the lid and chugged. His eyes bugged out at the first gulp, and he coughed up the shake, spilling it everywhere.

Louise instinctively ducked, avoiding the projectile shake-spit.
He coughed and gagged, still spitting out little bits of melted ice cream.

“Guess you have a selective sweet tooth, huh now?”
He glared at her. “It doesn’t taste good. Could I get another burger?”
“Seriously? Well, even if I wanted to, I got no more cash left.”
He glared. “So?”
“Do you got some money to help pay too?”
She gave him a wry look. “You’re gonna be paying for one heck of a lunch for me in the future for this. Now, are you feeling better?”
He stared at the empty plate again, before staring back at her.
“See, a good meal will help your nerves a bunch. Now let’s get on home.”

  Davis had been staring at the door for a long while, trying to figure out any way through. Help clearly wasn’t coming anytime soon. It couldn’t have been a coincidence the one time he split off from Louise this all happened.
He looked up to the ceiling, lost in trying to figure some way out of this hopeless situation. Maybe there was some kind of air duct he could crawl through.

The only duct he could see was only small enough for a rat to fit through.

He squinted as he stared at the wide, fluorescent lights.
If only there was a way to turn out the lights, then he could phase through the wall without any issue. There was no light switch he could find.
Though, the switch wasn’t the only way to turn them off.

His heart raced and he gulped.

“I really hope I don’t get in big trouble for this…”
There were no cameras in the bathroom, but most likely some watching outside. There was only one way he thought out.
He ran over to one of the toilet stalls, grabbed a handful of toilet paper, and unscrewed the seat.

Wrapping his face in the paper to (hopefully) hide his identity when he broke out, he proceeded to throw the toilet seat at each of the lamps. One by one the bathroom dimmed, until he smashed the last one, submerging himself in darkness. He felt his way along the wall, until he could feel the door handle.
He held his breath, and turned incorporeal, rushing through.

On the other side of the door, he felt the gut-punch of entering a lit area. He stumbled down onto his knees, and materialized back into reality.

A few shoppers leapt back as they witnessed a person whose face was wrapped in toilet paper appear out of nowhere.

They were completely frozen in place, not out of fear, but sheer confusion.
He scanned the people waiting quickly; Louise was nowhere to be found. He scrambled up to his feet and sprinted out.

As he ran, his mind was preoccupied with two things:
Finding Louise, and hoping to god nobody would ever find out this was him.

Running through a crowd of shoppers, he tore away the toilet paper off his face. He threw his hood back over his head, and glanced around.
Not too far off was Royalty Burgers.
She wouldn’t abandon him without good reason, right?
He sprinted towards the restauraunt.

He shoved open the doors, glancing around.
She was nowhere to be seen.

His heart began pounding against his chest.

He ran outside, whipping his head all around, trying to find her.

Not too far off, he saw not her, but an all too familiar style of dressing.
It was his style, somebody wearing a big black school jacket with the hood up. And next to him was Louise.

He broke into a sprint.

“LOUISE!” He screamed.

She turned to him, pausing in confusion. The hooded figure turned, revealing that it was a near perfect looking copy of him. She looked at the Davis near her, and then back to the other in the distance.
The closer Davis screamed in terror, grabbing Louise’s wrist and fleeing.

The other Davis reached out, yelling for his friend.

He gave chase, running across the parking lot of the shopping center, cars slamming on their brakes to avoid hitting the students. He dragged her towards downtown, where the city streets thinned into more clustered general shops and small apartments.
The doppelganger slowly was putting more and more distance between the two, pushing past pedestrians, and sometimes shoving them into the pursuing boy. The constant obstacles, combined with Davis’s endurance, caused his breath to shorten. His sprint turned into a light jog, and then a full stop as he hunched over. He gasped for breath, staring horridly as his friend disappeared further and further away.

  Davis kept running with Louise, until he could no longer see their pursuer. He took her to an alley between two shops, free of any pedestrians or passerbys, and sat down behind a dumpster. He was heaving heavily, eyes shut tight.

Louise was panting, but it was more from the adrenaline of the situation than the long run he just tugged her through.

“I’m… Sorry…” he heaved out. “That…”
“The monster from before?” She finished his sentence.

He nodded. He began to cry.

“It’s been after me… all this time…”
He buried his head in his knees, curling up.

“And now it stole my skin. It knows me too well…”
“Hey, it’s just got your looks. I doubt it’s got your personality too. Plus, now that we know that it’s near, we just gotta get a quick plan and pummel it. Just give me a second.”
She turned around as she slung her backpack to the ground.
The gauntlets. She’s getting the gauntlets.
She opened it up, squatting down and shuffling through her pack.

From his jacket sleeve, he procures a knife, the same one he had lost at the factory. Without hesitation, he lunged forward with it, aiming straight for her back.




Louise nonchalantly stepped to the side, letting him crash into the alleyway wall. She scoffed as she slipped on her gauntlets.

“I told you, it ain’t got your personality. I mean, eating a bunch was one thing, along with liking the taste of mustard too. But not enjoying ice cream? I KNEW somethin was up then!”
He turned around, his face now deformed. His mouth had widened considerably, growing terrifyingly large teeth. The sounds of bones cracking and skin stretching emanated from him as his jacket turned from a fabric into a carapace-like material.

Louise gasped, but clenched her fists tight.

He tossed the knife aside as he stretched out his arms and legs. His fingers fused together and sharpened themselves into razor sharp claws.

In a matter of seconds, the cryptid now stood a head over Louise, looking like a stretched out, horrifying mockery of Davis.

“The least you coulda done is stop wearing my friend’s skin before I beat the snot outta you!” She yelled.
She shoved her feet off the pavement, slightly cracking it as she dashed forward.
She tackled it in the stomach, pinning it against the wall. There, she proceeded to punch it twice in the chest.

It reacted with a screech, but grabbed the back of her shirt with both of its elongated arms.

It tossed her away to the back of the alley, and leapt towards her.
When she was still getting back up to her feet, it slashed at her chest. She felt the sting of the scratches, and gritted her teeth.

She returned with a punch aimed at its face, but it dodged.

It leapt back and swiped again, but she was barely able to leap to the side. The very tip of its claws grazed her thigh.

She gritted harder, trying her best to endure the pain.

I’m not gonna win this if it keeps out-reaching me…

She turned and grabbed the dumpster, shoving it at full speed towards the cryptid.

It merely leapt over the improvised battering ram, and landed close behind Louise, preparing to grab her.

“Got ya close enough!” she yelled as she turned around and grappled the hands of the beast. She bent her knees and pushed towards the cryptid. It was one shot, and she had to just out-muscle the monster and pin it down.

The two were at an impasse, barely making way over each other’s strength.

Very slightly, she was being pushed back thanks to the creature’s increased weight, but still held strong. The brawler dug her feet into the ground, noticeably cracking the pavement, as she braced to stop its approach.

They continued for several more seconds, locking eyes and matching strength. Neither dared to break the grip and risk giving the opposing party a potential upper hand.

She began to lose more ground as the monster continued to push down on top of her.

She willed all she could to try to shove back, but she was outclassed. She glanced around, staring at its legs. They seemed open, so maybe if she was fast enough she could sweep it then pin it to the ground again.

To her surprise, the force pushing against her suddenly released, and the monster screamed and recoiled.

Something sharp had shoved into its ribcage.

Louise screamed triumphantly as she shoved forward, pinning the massive beast to the floor by its arms, and she wasted no time getting her knees on top of its legs as well.

It flailed wildly, claws just glancing the girl. Each scratch only felt like a small pebble was bouncing off of her skin. She managed to get behind it, trapping it in a headlock and wrapping her legs around its abdomen, holding down one of its arms.

She caught a jacketed figure walking up to the side of her vision.

It was the real Davis. She grinned.

“Ngh… This is why… I say a little bit of cardio… won’t hurt!”

The monster struggled and screamed, attempting to stretch out its arms more to try to break free.

Davis walked behind and pulled his knife out of its chest, and stared at the disgusting imitation of himself.

“Come on Davis, I can’t hold it down all too long. Go for it’s throat, or heart, or whatever! Just make it quick!”
Davis nervously crouched down, reaching for the neck of the beast.

It yelped out again, but this time it wasn’t a monstrous shriek. It was a cry of a girl.

“Please, spare me! I don’t want to do this!”
Davis was taken aback. The creature ceased struggling, and Louise looked angrily at him.

“Hurry up, don’t let it trick you!”
“Hold on. What do you mean?”
“I don’t attack humans. If I do, they seek me out for revenge. But here I had no choice. If I didn’t hunt you, they would hunt me.”
“Who’s they? What do you mean?”
“Davis, quit this, seriously!”
Louise gripped the monster tighter, pushing down harder. It winced more.

“I want to listen to it. I didn’t know that monsters could be intelligent enough to like, communicate with us.”
“Who cares, they’re still a threat and need to be dealt with!”
“I’m not a threat! I’m trying to live! I will be starved if I return!”

“Wait, you mean you’re fed? Like somebody’s pet?”

“If I don’t do what he wants, he starves me! And he threatens far worse!”
“That… doesn’t justify… your actions!” Louise yelled, as she gripped the monster tighter. It was now whining like a dog in pain. Its long limbs were limp, and wasn’t even bothering to put up a fight.

Davis grimaced at the sight.

“Louise… I’m sorry but this isn’t right!”
He put his knife in his pocket, staring pathetically at the creature.

“Davis, you absolute MORON!” Louise screamed. It caused his heart to skip a beat, hearing her genuinely angry.
Her grip loosened at the shock of betrayal. The cryptid, seeing this opportunity, broke free from her grip.
As it ran to the back of the alley, it shrank its limbs back to human proportions.

It re-took Davis’s form, staring pathetically at the two.

Louise glared daggers back at it. “Look, you’re lucky my friend here decided to spare you. But if you ever try anything again, I’m going to make you pay big time. Far worse than not eating anything. I’ll cut your stomach right out!”

It nodded.

“I don’t want to starve though… How can I eat without him?”
She turned her head away dismissively.

“Maybe you can beg your master for some scraps of food if finding a wild deer is so hard, huh?”
“Deer… There is no more prey to eat. I will starve in days.”

Davis shuffled forward, wallet in hand. He handed it a $20 bill.
“Louise, did you eat with it at that burger place, right?”
Louise nodded.
He turned back to the monster.
“Just when you’re too hungry, go to that place, and hand them this, and ask for food. Do you understand? Just, copy how Louise ordered. I’m sure you’re smart enough to figure it out.”
It nodded. It turned around to the alley wall, and climbed up it like some kind of insect, disappearing onto the rooftops.

Davis sighed in relief, and felt something smack him from behind the head. He winced in pain, rubbing the spot that was whacked.

“Davis, did you want to get us both killed or something?”
He turned around, and Louise looked absolutely furious. He shrunk back.

“It…” He put his fist against his mouth. “It felt wrong torturing it like that.”
“Oh, just because it speaks, that means you should feel bad? Would you have said the same thing if the wendigo started begging for mercy?”
“It’s not just speech, it’s like… intelligent! It’s creepy that it can shapeshift but like, if it can act and behave like us, and if it’s being forced to go after humans, then we can’t just kill it, right?”
“Oh let me think, YES. For all we know, you just let some shapeshifting monster run out to go kill some more people, and get PAIN’s attention. This was an assured win and you just botched it all.”

“Excuse me…”
They turned to find the monster, still imitating Davis, had returned.

“I need to return this.” It walked forward, handing Davis his phone back. He was somewhat surprised, but surprise changed to joy.

“Thank you!”

It scurried to the roofs once more.

He turned back to Louise.
“So why was it nice enough to return this to me after I took it? It’s desperate, and needs our help too.”

“Or it’s building fake trust with the only two who can kill it. I’m done here.” She grabbed her backpack, and stormed out of the alleyway. He groaned to himself, feeling the pangs of anxiety in his stomach once again.

  The two had returned to their respective homes, and Davis was lying down on his couch. He still had an ache of guilt in his stomach, and wasn’t feeling up to do anything for the rest of the day.

He took deep breaths, and tried to reaffirm himself that what he did was right.

His phone buzzed. It was a text message from Louise. He stared at it for a few seconds, heart racing about what it said.

I’m sorry for hitting you and yelling at you Davis. You’re my friend, and I should have trusted your instincts. If you’re right, maybe we can find that cryptid again and ask more questions, like who its owner is, and maybe that could lead to more discoveries.

Another one buzzed in.

That’s at least like, a best case scenario. But don’t think I’m entirely fine with this. I wanna do whatever it takes to keep our town safe. If I even get a hint of that shapeshifter causing trouble, I’m going to break it’s neck.

The image of the monster taking his own shape, with its neck broken, sent shivers down his spine .

It was intelligent, it could communicate.
He never expected any of these monsters to be innocent, hoping to live peacefully with humans, but he could only hope this was one of the few exceptions.

once in a lifetime – Chapter 8

 To Louise’s delight, the detective wasn’t there to track her down for running away from that officer days ago. To Davis’s delight, the detective also offered to give them a ride home.

His car was a few decades old, but still decently kept. The body was still well painted, no obviously visible dents or scratches. The interior was pretty clean as well, still smelling fresh, courtesy of a tree-shaped car freshener. Davis was slumped over, fading away to sleep as Louise stared out the window, looking into the endless darkness of the passing fields.

“Is urban exploring really popular with kids nowadays?” Gold spoke back, still keeping his eyes on the road.

“Yup yup. Well, actually, I don’t know too well about others. But Davis and I like it a lot.”
Davis wheezed. “It takes way too much out of me…”
The detective chuckled. “At least your friend there was willing to carry you out! A little bit of

exercise every day never hurts for endurance.”

Davis shrank back into the seat as Louise rolled her eyes. “That’s what I’VE been telling him!”
“See, you got a good friend there kid. Anyways, back on topic, you sure others your age haven’t been goin out to places around there?”
“Nope, not that we’re aware of. Sometimes I see people online posting pictures of abandoned stuff, but no idea if they’re our age.”

The man sighed. “Well, if you do, tell them to at least not do it anymore. The same goes for you two.”
Louise clenched her fist, grimacing to herself. “We’re not doing anything illegal though!”
“Well, what you were doing is against the law, but there’s something a bit more to it. You wouldn’t know anybody who’s disappeared recently?”
Louise tensed up further. “No, not really?”
Davis nervously shifted in his seat, looking away.

“There’s been quite a few. An abnormal amount in the past few months. I’ve been hired by a few folks to see if I can find anything about their missing kids, and in my investigation, that opened up a whole can of worms to a plethora of missing person cases around her.”
Davis gulped. “H-how many people are gone?”
“The details don’t matter. The only consistent found between a few of them is that they were last seen wandering around the outskirts of town or the woods. So either there’s a serial kidnapper, a very stealthy mountain lion, or something else entirely. But as long as you stay at home and stay safe, you all should be fine.”
“Well, don’t worry about us! We’re a very capable team! Plus, I’m sure soon you’ll find some big break in your case!”
He raised an eyebrow, still focused on the road. “What do you mean by that exactly?”
“It’s just, hoping for the best.” Davis interjected. “I’m really worried for those people too.”

“With how things are looking for me, I guess a little bit of luck doesn’t hurt. I’m not gonna get paid until I find some lead to where those missing kids ended up.”

  Several minutes later, the detective’s car pulled up in front of Louise’s home. He put it into park, turning back to the two teens.
“All right then, here we are. You two just, take my advice, all right? I say this outta compassion: I really don’t want to add you two to my case file.”
Louise nodded vigorously. “We’re not gonna go anywhere anytime soon!”

He smiled. “All right, but I WILL be talking to the police again if I see you two out there again, all right?”

“We won’t, I promise.” Davis chimed in.

The two got out of the car, Louise waving as the detective drove off into the night. Davis stared at Louise’s home for a few moments, realizing he forgot to ask the detective for a lift to his place.

“Uh, shoot.” He glanced down the dark street, barely lit by streetlamps. His thoughts briefly went back to the monster that stalked them in the factory.
“I think I should walk home, I don’t want to be a bother-”
Louise grabbed him by the arm. “Are you seriously going to take such a huge risk going home alone?”
“N-no. It’s just that I don’t want to cause any problems-”
“Nah, don’t worry! My parents might be home, but they won’t mind! I think.”

“You think-”
Louise tugged him along to the front of her home, unlocking the door. Davis’s skin turned white as she slowly opened the door, peeking in.
“Hey, uh… anyone home? I’m back…”
There was nobody near the entrance, though a light was on in the living room.

“LOUISE!” A feminine voice cried out. Louise recoiled. She slowly walked in, head hung low. Davis still stood just outside the doorway, shaking and staring at her.
From the living room came Louise’s mother. She put her hands on her hips, staring down at the teen with a stern expression.

“Where have you been all night? Did you check your phone at all? I was worrying so much I’ve got more gray hairs!”
“Well… I was kinda…” She looked down at the floor.

Davis ran through the door. “We were doing some urban exploration and stuff, checking out abandoned buildings and… things. We’re safe, we didn’t get in trouble or anything, please don’t be mad!”

Her mother’s face suddenly changed to surprise with the appearance of Davis.
“Oh uh, I haven’t mentioned him yet. This is my friend, Davis.”
He sheepishly waved.

“His house is kinda far away, and it’s already pretty dark out. Is it okay if he stays for the night?”

Her mom sighed. “Honey, you could have at least called if you were going to drag along a friend. Now I have to get some place set up for him.”
She turned to Davis. “You can go and have whatever you want in the fridge, I’ll get an inflatable mattress ready for you. Hurry along, I need to have a quick word with Louise.”

Davis nodded and went to the kitchen. With only the two women left in the entrance, her mom focused on Louise with a hawkish gaze.
“First of all, if you’re going to be out this late, PLEASE at least send me a text or something. It’s happened too many times already, and every time I’m seriously worried for you.”
“Yes mom…”
“And second… You used protection, right?”
Louise’s eyes widened and face flushed straight red. “WHAT?”
“Come on, you can’t fool me. You meet a new boy without telling me about him, and not coming home until late at night over and over? Plus, urban exploration? Who even does that?”
She buried her flushed face in her hand. “Godddd why did you have to bring this upppp…”
“Really? Then why all the secrecy with him?” She grinned. “Are you afraid your mom is gonna embarrass you in front of your new boyfriend?”
“Mom PLEASE we’re just friends!”
She continued to grin. “Fine, fine, as long as you two aren’t doing anything illegal, or too dangerous. You’ve got tetanus shots and everything, but you still gotta watch for broken glass, pipes, rabid wildlife-”
“Trust me mom, we’ve been fine. If I get seriously hurt, I’ll let you know. I promise!”

She smiled compassionately. “That’s good to know then. Now come on, get something to eat. I wanna hear more about your ‘friend’.”

   It was a new, very early morning, the morning mist still present in the air. From the northeast of town, a river ran down from the foothills, pooling into a lake further down the line. There was a small rowing club set up at the shore, where both students and adults could take out a boat to row on the lake.

Every morning on the way to School, Kirino would refuse to be driven by her parents or housekeeper, and instead opted to walk all the way from her foothill home to the nearest bus stop. If only she could do the same when it meant traveling to the lake early in the morning..
The week had been harrowing, so taking time in the morning to row would at least help burn away some of the anxiety.

She went into the boathouse, changing into a unisuit and taking out one of the single sculls. She carried it down to the water, setting up her oars, and pushing off. She began rowing towards another one of the single sculls, occupied by an oranged haired boy. With a big grin on his face, he waved at the approaching girl.

“Yo Kirino!” He yelled across the quiet lake. She smiled slightly at him.

Despite all her discipline, even he was still on the water earlier than she was.

She lined up her boat next to his.

Scott Williams was a good friend of Kirino’s. She typically was a coxswain for a school rowing team, but she would constantly see him on the water, typically alone on a single scull. He approached her randomly one day, and the two became friends. Though for Kirino, there was one deciding factor that secured their friendship.

“So, how about some simple warmups for this morning? You ain’t lookin too good, so we should relax-”

“I’ve warmed up enough. I want to race.”
He shrugged, still keeping a smile on his face.
“All right. Let’s make it simple, first one to the end of the lake. Count down from three, aight?”
Kirino stared in front of her, focusing on the distance ahead. Her vision locked, tensing her muscles.
“One… Two…” She inhaled. “THREE.”
She started with a powerful stroke, pulling the oars back and accelerating the boat. In seconds, she could feel the air blowing against her face and hair.
She put every muscle into stroke after stroke; Arms pulling as hard as she could, legs shoving, and back leaning back as much as possible. She wanted to completely exhaust herself, and kept pushing herself harder and harder.
Even with her entire mind dedicated to rowing and winning a simple race, her failure from the night before still wormed its way between every stroke.
She grunted harder to herself, rowing harder and harder. The wind was blowing so hard in her eyes she began to squint.

“You’re never going to beat me with form like that!” She heard scream across the lakefront.

She broke out of her trance, finding that Scott was already waiting at the end. He was waving with that same goofy smile, barely looking even winded from the race. She huffed to herself, slowing her boat down to a stop. She looked down, staring into her reflection in the water.

“I’m just never gonna be able to outdo you, huh?”
He chuckled. “Not with that attitude. Even racing, it was easy to see what was up. Your form wasn’t exactly the best. You’re putting your all into every stroke, but not only were you rushing too hard, you were all out of balance.”
She looked up, listening to her friend.
“Like you’re pushing way too fast on the legs, a good amount of arm strength, but you were barely actually putting your back into it. I mean that literally. You were going too fast before you could get the most oomph out of it, you know?”
“I know that, I know the basics of rowing you know.” She snapped. “I’m no amateur when it comes to this.”
He sighed, cocking his head and still smiling. “Then you should be above these mistakes ya know. Come on, let’s just casually row up and down the lake together. I can help you with your form.”

The two had spent half an hour on the lake together, Scott keeping up and commenting on her rowing form. He constantly encouraged her, simply going “Come on, more to the back” or “Push your legs out more, you’ve almost got a good balance of everything!” and “Don’t forget, back, legs, then arms when rowing! You got this Kirino!”
She couldn’t help but feel like she was being patronized. Yet, every time she focused on him giving that dumb smile, all those thoughts washed away. He was simply better at her than him in rowing.

It was at least something she could afford being worse at.
After all that, the two docked their boats, carrying it back up to the house together.

“You really went crazy during that race, you know. This isn’t some movie or something where you can just grunt and power your way through everything.”
“Yes, I’m aware… Honestly, I just needed to relieve stress. There’s been some issues plaguing me as of late.”
“Really? What’s goin on?”
She thought to a few nights before. After a full debrief, her employer seemed understanding that it was inevitable that other supernatural elements would interfere. He even seemed intrigued in the artifact Louise wielded, and instructed her to steal it if at all possible.
To her, it was still a complete failure of her mission. The first one in several she had done.
“It’s… my job. I failed big time on an assignment.”
“You’re working a job too? Sheesh, how do you find any time to relax or anything?”
“I’m here rowing for a reason, no?”
“Fair point, fair point. But hey, you gotta chill out a bit. Mistakes happen and you can’t be perfect at everything.”
She clenched her fist. “This job isn’t something I can afford to make mistakes in. Especially since this screw up was- Nevermind.”
The two arrived at the boathouse, racking their sculls.
“Hey, come on. What exactly happened at your job?”
She thought similar thoughts from when she was with the twins. Scott was incredibly strong and talented, but even this job might be too much to get him involved.

“I can’t. This job needs to be my responsibility, and I need to work harder. I can’t afford to screw up here, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to do something historic.”
“What is your job even that’s so important? Isn’t college or that stuff more important?”
“I told you this problem should be something I need to handle alone. It might be too much for others-”
He held up his hand.
“You can’t just go like that, say this is something you need to handle alone and vent to me about it. You really need help with this work, don’t you?”
She stared at him, squinting her eyes. She inhaled, keeping a stern expression locked onto him.
“And you obviously want help from me, of all people?”
“You’re one of few I can talk to about this.”
“Whatever it is, I’m sure I can help with your burden. It’s no fun seeing you all worked up like this. You’re gonna die at 45 or somethin from a heart attack if you keep stressing out.”
She stared at him, thinking. He continued.
“As a coxswain, you should really learn to accept others’ help sometimes. It’s like a rowing boat, you know? If we all row together, we all benefit. Kapeesh?”
She racked her brain. She thought about herself, her mission, the twins, her friend. She stood still for several moments as she let all the factors swirl around in her mind.

“Perhaps there is something you can do… If you truly want to help, get a lift from somebody after school today, and meet me at my home.”
She checked the surroundings around her. Nobody was nearby.
“We can discuss things further there. But what you’ll be getting into isn’t going to be any fun or games.”
Scott felt an eerie amount of pressure radiate from her, and his smile turned into a more focused expression.
“I do incredibly dangerous work, and your life will be at risk if you accept.”

He silently nodded, a grin sneaking its way back onto his face.
“If it’s really that dangerous, all the more reason to extend out an arm to help ya. A little bit of danger sounds like it’ll spice up life too”

“Take this with careful thought before you meet. That is the very least I will ask.”

  It was around 6AM when Davis was rudely shaken awake off the inflatable mattress. He cracked his eyes open to see Louise’s face. She was already dressed for school.
He turned to his phone, squinting at the clock.

“Don’t tell me you live an hour away from school…”
“Fifteen minutes away. Your home is fifteen minutes away in the opposite direction, however.”
He pulled the blankets tighter around him, turning away.
“Why do we need to go to my place…”
Louise tore the blanket off, revealing he had slept in the clothes he wore from yesterday.
“You kinda stink. The LEAST you could do is get a fresh set of clothes. Also, you need a uniform jacket too. ALSO, a place to put all your fireworks, unless you want to bring them to school. No, you can’t really put them here because I don’t really wanna risk my mom coming across them. She doesn’t have work today.”
He grumbled. “Fiiinee… just five more minutes?”
She opened the side of the inflatable mattress, letting out all the air. “Nope. Plus, when we get home we can make a quick report to the benefactor. I think we’ve done enough good that we can turn in our report.”

   To double up on Davis’s dismay, not only was he forced to get up earlier than ever before, but now Louise was going to stick the strange USB stick into HIS computer. He didn’t have a desktop like Louise, but had a laptop that he’d typically keep in the garage. He only really used it when he had trouble building stuff, or for the occasional school project.
He had booted it up, and Louise grabbed the drive.

“Are you sure we couldn’t, like, test this out on a library computer first or something? If this is a virus, you’re going to buy me a new laptop.”
“Come on, the benefactor already gave me the gauntlets. WHy shouldn’t we trust them?”
“I dunno, what’s this guy’s name even?”
Louise shrugged. “Benefactor I guess. Well, I mean also, if he lied about the USB stick, then we’re kinda screwed in saving the town too.”
“Here’s hopin for the best then.”
Louise popped in the drive.
His computer screen glitched out, before turning to static snow.
A familiar computerized voice spoke out.

“Louise Palarick, Davis Foster, please state your report.”
Davis spoke up. “Well for starters-”
“We got a lot of good work done the past week! We’re on a serious roll! First, we managed to kill off both a wendigo and a giant turtle looking hydra. They’re also entrapped in place nobody can easily find them!”
“Very good. Is that all?”
“There was also this factory owned by G. Brand in the outskirts of town. We broke in, and it had some weird… extradimensional? I think that’s a good word for it.”
“If you have the address for this location, inform me of it.”
“Wait, there’s more.” Davis butted in. “We didn’t really do anything to contain or stop it, we couldn’t really do anything about it. It was a massive labyrinth, that like… physically didn’t make any sense. Not to mention, there was a kinda monster in there that disguised itself as a mannequin, and attacked me.”
“And don’t forget the giant brain at the end.”
The voice crackled. “Elaborate more on the brain.”
Louise tapped her chin. “Well, we didn’t get a complete look at it, since we were running for our life when we came across it. It was like, this big brain-like thing, with all sorts of wires and computer stuff plugged into it.”
“Strange. I do not recall the previous agent encountering this.”
Louise’s eyes beamed. “HAH! I knew we were destined for this stuff!”

“I want to hear more. Continue on about the factory.”
The two both took turns explaining the entire endless night they spent at the factory. The weird machines, the trucks, the strange warped space, and how they managed to barely escape the monster.
“That will be all. You two have made very good progress with your work. I look forward to your next report.”
“HOLD ON!” Davis shouted. “About that monster, you wouldn’t happen to know anything about it? Like, anything related? I get this suspicion that it wouldn’t let us leave the factory so easily…”
“I am unable to disclose any information. Doing so would risk my position.”
“But you can talk to us and stuff? Come on, we’re in serious danger.”
“There is nothing more I can do, I can only receive information you give. I trust in your capabilities to see this problem on your own, however. Now, I must disconnect. Good luck.”
The computer screen flickered back to the desktop, and Davis sighed.
“This is really a one sided kinda deal, isn’t it?” Davis grumbled.

“You heard her, and you should be more confident now. A wendigo and hydra are nothin to us. What’s the worst that cryptid can do to us?”

That was indeed a very good question, Davis thought. What truly was the worst that monster could do to them?

Kagerou and the Sukusuku – a touhou fic

Tonight would be a problematic night for Kagerou.

Full moons were never really the best for her. The extra strength, danmaku ability, and agility was nice, sure, but there weren’t too many people willing to have a danmaku fight randomly, especially if it was a werewolf on a full moon.
There was also the issue of how her hair grew longer, becoming a disorganized mess that she’d have to fix in the morning.

She sighed to herself, wandering boredly through the bamboo forest. She ran her fingers through her hair, hopelessly trying to keep it straightened out. 

Her foot caught on something, and she slammed face-first into the floor. 

Shaking off the impact, she flipped her hair back, and turned to see what she tripped over.

It was a creature she never recognized before, standing unfazed and staring right into her eyes.


A small, rotund, horned beast that came no higher than her ankles. The top half of its fur was green, the bottom half white. It didn’t make a single sound, but stared longingly at the werewolf.

A smile grew across her face.

“Aw, aren’t you just the cutest creature I’ve ever seen!”
She picked it up, finding it to have a pillowy texture.

“Just what are you… You look kind of familiar…”
Her eyes brightened up. She finally had something to do tonight!

Her voice echoed across the lake and beyond, slightly stirring a sleeping Hong at the gates of the Scarlet Devil Mansion.

Waiting at the shores, the surface began to bubble. The mermaid Wakasagihime elegantly breeched the water, landing in front of the werewolf. She yawned, rubbing her eyes.

“I know you have a bunch of energy, but can’t you just wait until…”
The sleep gone from her eyes, she could clearly see Kagerou was carrying a strange creature.

“Aww… Did you bring me a little gift?”
She reached forward, placing her hand on it. It moved its head (Or what could be considered its head) against it, nuzzling. She retracted her hand.

“Oh, it’s alive??”

“Yeah, uh…” She rubbed her head. “Sorry about making you think I got you a gift… Shoulda been a bit more up front.”
“Well, what exactly is this creature?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, and that’s why I wanted to ask you! I wanna figure out where this strange beast came from!”
Wakasagihime stared close at the smiling creature, illuminated well by the moonlight.
“I swear, it looks kind of familiar…”

“THAT’S WHAT I SAID! We’re like, on the same wavelength!”

“Maybe somebody in the human village knows. You could-”
She stared at Kagerou’s elongated, messy hair, and stared at the moon.
“Oh. Oops.”
“The first person I WOULD ask would be miss Keine, but I think I’d spook too many villagers like this.”
“Well, there is one other person who can go into the human village for us!”

Just on the outskirts of the human village, slightly off the path to the town gate, was a small shack. It was pretty small, only enough to house one person, and it had all the amenities one needed inside.

Kagerou marched up to it, with Wakasagihime floating alongside. The mermaid had a big smile on her face as she carried the creature, happily stroking its fur.

The creature closed its eyes, snuggling further against her chest.

The werewolf pounded at the door excitedly.

There was a clattering inside, and their friend and third member of the Grassroots Youkai Network, Sekibanki, answered. Her iconic clothes covered her mouth, but her eyes were stained with exhaust and frustration. Even at the sight of her friends, they did not change.

“Ugh… I was having a really nice sleep too…”
“Emergency meeting!” said Kagerou. “We have a little mystery on our hands!”
She presented the strange creature. Wakasagihime was still lost in a trance, petting it.

Sekibanki stared at it, unamused.

“So Wakasagihime got a new pet?”
“No, well… It might as well be. She hasn’t let go if it since I showed it to her…”
“She’s so loving and sooooooft!” The mermaid beamed, giving the creature a long, gentle rub on the back.

“Well, I don’t know anything about it. What do you need me to do exactly?”
“Out of everyone in the village, I thought that Keine might have some kinda idea. She knows a lot about history, and maybe she has an idea on what it is?”
“Can’t this wait until morning? I always hear she has a bit of a short temper, and I don’t want to wake her up…”
“But what if it’s some new youkai discovery or something? I’m sure she’d be thrilled to learn about something new!”

Sekibanki sighed. “Well, I suppose there isn’t any harm in trying. I hope.”
She reached out her hands, taking the creature from the mermaid.

Feeling the fluffy fur, Seki felt her stresses and worries begin to melt away.

“Woah… It’s so… Soft…”

“It’s the best thing ever!” Wakasagihime exclaimed. “I really hope it isn’t secretly evil. That would just be too cruel!”
From beneath her coat, Seki cracked a smile. “We’ll figure this out, and I’ll get her back safe and sound. Don’t worry gals!”
The dullahan departed, entering the gates of the human village. 

The mermaid and werewolf waited outside the gates for several minutes. Kagerou paced back and forth, wondering what was taking Sekibanki so long
Wakasagihime could not wait to get her hands on the creature again: Literally.

Kagerou was halted as the ground shook.

A plume of smoke blew up in the center of the human village.

“Oh dear…” Waka spoke. “I really hope that’s not related to Seki…”
From the village gate, they saw Sekibanki sprinting out as fast as she could.

“RUN! KEINES REAL PISSED OFF TONIGHT!” she screamed to her other friends.

The other two simply stared in shock as she approached closer and closer.
A massive plume of dust pursued their friend.

Seeing this, the two turned to run, but before they could, Seki had caught up, and crashed into them. They all tumbled together, falling into a pile of each other with the creature sitting soundly on top.

The plume of dusk caught up, standing right in front of the toppled youkai.

It was Keine, but she looked different. She sported horns, her dress was green, and her once blue hair had changed to a light green as well. She also has a large, fluffy tail.

She looked down at them with anger in her eyes, glaring at the creature.

“Wait a second…” Kagerou said, gears beginning to turn. “The creature looks like you miss Keine!”
Keine paused for a moment, taking a deep breath in, and out. Her demeanor became more relaxed, as she picked up the creature.

“Yes, it’s no coincidence. These are… part of the Hakutaku part of me.”
“Wait, you’re a youkai too?”
“Technically, one-thirtieth youkai. I only transform during the full moon, like you Kagerou. However, I have been having some troubles recently…”

She held up the creature, as the pile of youkai got back up to their feet.

“As is the case when I become more youkai-like, my hair becomes a bit uncontrollable.”
“Ugh, tell me about it!” Kagerou grabbed her hair. “This stuff is impossible to deal with, even the morning after.”
“This creature, what I call the Sukusuku, comes from my fur. Every morning after my tail sheds or loses fur, if too much of it clumps together, they form into… these. They’re becoming more of a pest than anything.”
Wakasagihime looked aghast. “How DARE you call such a precious creature a pest! Have you tried caring and petting them?”
“Yes, they are cute, but I need you to come with me…”
The trio followed Keine into the village. “Don’t worry, the villagers are aware of my hakutaku state. They will not panic if they see you together, too. I do business with youkai here all the time.”
They neared Keine’s schoolhouse, and she invited them in. Walking in and up to the bedroom, Keine opened up a sliding closet, revealing dozens upon dozens of Sukusuku. They were all stacked together in the closet, staring happily at the guests. 

Wakasagihime shrieked in joy, as the other two stared in awe.

“They don’t need to eat or drink anything, they’re friendly, and I’m glad the one you found was friendly to you too. But they have been multiplying quite a bit every full moon. I think exponentially, the more together, the more my fur is attracted to them.”
“Why not just release them?” Seki asked. “Seems like an easy enough thing to do.”
“Because that would be wildly irresponsible. I’m unsure what flooding Gensokyo with a new creature would result in. I still would hate for anything bad to happen to them, and that lousy shrine maiden might just do that if she spots them en masse.”

Wakasagihime had leapt into the closet, snuggling with every sukusuku. Her joy rivaled all the celestials in Heaven.

“I think I got a good idea.” Said Kagerou. “Why not give them away to the humans?”
“That’s still irresponsible! I doubt they know how to properly care for a pet!”
“Well, you said they don’t eat or drink anything, they just… Vibe. Why not offer them, and give a teaching course on how to if needed?”

“Hmm…” The teacher tapped her chin. “They are very low maintenance… As long as the humans treat them fine, I don’t see any issue!”

    The following morning, the Grasroots Youkai Network had set up a small booth in the market, and had a large basket full of sukusuku.


Once in a Lifetime Chapter 7

After spending some time cleaning up the mess Von Chad had caused, the two prepared to head off to the mysterious G. Brand factory. Davis geared up in his typical large jacket and night vision goggles wear, and Louise not really bothering to change out of her school uniform.

They passed through a small few neighborhoods before hitting an area sparsely populated with shops.
The south of Tomahawk Hills was less developed than the north, so it was a combination of homes bordering small malls of shops and grocery stores.
As usual, Louise was trailblazing while Davis lingered behind, seriously considering buying a moped or electric scooter, some kinda vehicle if they were going to go out this far so consistently. 

The neighborhoods and well-maintained streets soon paved way to scattered singular homes surrounded by farmlands, only connected to a cracked highway via dirt road.
Several minutes of travel later, those singular homes vanished, now replaced by endless grassy fields with an occasional abandoned farm in the middle of them. This landscape stretched on endlessly, nothing but grass and small hills all the way to the horizon.

The sun was still fairly high in the sky by the time their destination was in sight. It looked exactly how they expected it to look on the satellite map; A dilapidated, crumbling factory surrounded by overgrown grass. The walls were crumbling, along with graffiti tags on one point of the walls.
Despite its nature, there were still clean looking semi trucks parked at the loading docks. From the loading docks to the road, there was a path of dirt and flattened grass.
The two hid in the tall grass at a distance, Louise putting on her gauntlets, and Davis pulling out a pair of binoculars from his jacket.

The first thing he noticed was that these trucks were currently in use. Fumes spewed from their exhaust pipes, and they slowly vibrated with their running engines. The windows were tinted, hiding if it the truck had any occupants. Other than the trucks still running, there was no sign that the factory was even still open. No workers or managers or anyone to be seen at all.

There was one ramp to the very left of the loading dock that connected to an entrance platform, with a single completely rusted over door.
“I see nobody who could stop us if we snuck into the factory” he said, putting away the binoculars. “Unless those trucks actually have drivers having a bad day or something. Let’s just, creep through the grass and sneak through one of the doorways. I could probably pick the lock if it is sealed or something?”

Louise silently nodded, and the two slowly crept through the grass. One of the trucks pulled out from the docks, haphazardly bumping across a mud road to the freeway and heading away from the town. Minutes later, another truck pulled into the empty dock.
At the edge of the tall grass near the platform, Davis peeked around, still finding absolutely nobody. He turned and nodded to Louise, before sprinting up to the building.

Louise took the lead, the two flattening themselves against the wall. They creeped across it, turning a corner and approaching the rusted double doors of the platform. Davis jiggled the handle, finding it wouldn’t budge.

“It’s stuck, though I could ghost through. It’s dim enough here-”
Louise held up her hand, took a few steps back from the door. She did a shoulder check to the door, knocking it clean off the hinges and inward a few feet.

“Don’t waste your energy, I can handle this simple stuff, easy!” She said with a smile. Glancing inwards, however…
The inside was totally abandoned and rusting away.

There were several metal tables and machinery caked in mud and decay. Multiple pipes running up the walls and across the roof were cracked at best, and shattered at worst.. Weeds and grasses pierced the concrete flooring, growing through every possible crack. Metal shelving off to the side were completely collapsed. Various rotting wooden crates were rotted or smashed open, packing peanuts scattered across the floor like the innards of a dead animal. The entire place reeked of wet mud and rust.

Louise turned back to her partner. 

“You got your tetanus shots and everything right?”
“I uh… I’ve been too nervous to go see the doctor in a while…”
“Then just wait out here, I’ll look around the area a bit closer. We’d kinda have to ditch everything right now if you got scratched by something rusty without noticing..”

She spent fifteen minutes creeping through all the dilapidated machinery and furnishings, some so out of shape she could easily bend with her normal strength.
Absolutely nothing of value could be found.
No secret hatch or still-operational machine, no alien autoforge creating products endlessly, no monsters nested up among all the scattered packing peanuts, nothing. She huffed at the end of her search, but excitement still resided in her mind; Those trucks were parking into the loading dock for some reason, right?

Opening the doorway that led to the docks, it was the same sorry sight as the rest of the factory: Destroyed, decaying machinery and debris all over the place. The metal shutters connecting to the trucks were still shut as well. She slipped back outside, meeting with Davis.

“There is one hundred percent somethin goin on here.” She whispered. “I saw the loading docks, they’re completely abandoned, not to mention the shutters aren’t even open!”
“So what are the trucks pulling up for?”
Louise glanced around, before staring Davis in the eyes.

“How about you like, ghost on in one of the trailers?”
He flinched. “That’s trespassing! Plus we don’t know what’s in those, you know? What if it’s a trap? Or maybe some monsters in the truck? Or what if I’m seen and reported to the police?”
“Then you can ghost out, you dummy! Come on, it’s the only way we’re gonna figure out what’s up with this factory!”

Davis sighed. “Well if you hear me screaming over the walkies, could you punch a hole in the wall of the trailer or something?”
“I’ll do my best to get you outta there, so don’t sweat!”

He nodded in response, her confidence easing his worries.
Glancing around, still finding no other workers, he left the building and crept up to the side of the truck, phasing into the shadows. Putting on his goggles, he passed into truck.

What came next felt like a bowling ball slamming into his gut. 

He phased out immediately, reeling on the floor of the trailer. A blinding amount of light shined through his goggles, forcing him to yank them off.
He groaned, still holding tight to his stomach and moaning in pain. After several seconds, his walkie started to crackle with interference. He climbed back up to his feet, still gripping his stomach, and squinting his eyes.

The interior of the trailer was seamlessly white, lit up with small, yet powerful, lamps.
Behind him were a stack of white crates, each one only blemished by a barcode on the side.
The stacks went all the way to the top of the roof, and were large enough that they had to have been moved by forklift. Turning around, the gleaming semi trailer led to an equally bright room. He crept in, finding it was also a sterile, all-white room, this one connecting to all of the docks. There were several conveyor belts protruding from the wall, occasionally a large white crate moving on through and being dumped on the ground. Multiple mannequins wearing hardhats and safety vests stood near every docking gate. They were utterly motionless, but still a bit creepy to Davis. 

A pallet jack, which was thankfully colored yellow, moved on its own across the floor to take the crate, loading it into one of the trucks.

His radio crackled again, and he grabbed it, pushing the talk button. A mess of static came on through.

Walking along the wall, he found a dock at the very end that was closed. He pressed a switch on the side of the door, opening the shutters. The outside air blew into the loading dock, facing out to the same endless fields and old road.

Louise hurried on over to the opening shutters, and skidded to a halt at the blinding white light that was coming out. 

“Holy… Okay I think we just hit a TREASURE trove of paranormal ongoings here!”
She giddily climbed up through the dock, accidentally tipping over a mannequin. She jumped back as it toppled to the ground, head popping off and rolling across the ground. She glared all around at the contrast from dilapidated, vandalized exterior to clean, lab-like interior.

“This has to be like, haunted! Maybe this factory is a dimensional portal? Or what if it’s a secret government lab! Or aliens?”

“It would probably be the world’s emptiest government lab. You think they’d have like, a hundred security guards running around to shoot any trespassers.”

“Ooh, then perhaps this one is abandoned? Maybe they have some robots maintaining everything, but they just forgot about it or something!”

“They can’t be that stupid, can they?”

Davis glanced around the shining white walls of the factory.
“Let’s just make this quick. I’m kinda useless in all this light. Passing through that wall hurt a lot.”
Louise held up her fist. “Hey, I’m still here too! Plus you got your smoke bombs n stuff. Give yourself some more credit!”
He smiled. “Yeah, I can do some stuff I guess. But no splitting up, all right?”

Passing through double doors from the docks, they now stood in an impossibly large warehouse. The size was comparable to a mall, steel shelves several stories high climbing all the way up to the roof. Height wasn’t all, as the shelves even stretched from wall to wall. 

Each shelf was packed to the brim with the same white boxes found in the semi trucks. Conveyor belts were next to every shelf, allowing only a small amount of walkspace between. Each belt funneled towards the loading dock, but others went through the walls of the facility. Clawed machines rode up and down the beams of shelves, grabbing boxes and placing them on the belt during seemingly random intervals.
The room was filled with the noise of clanging of boxes and mechanical whirring.
Even with the sheer scale of everything, it was impeccably lit.

With all this complex machinery, the only attendants were a few mannequins standing in the walkways.

Louise took the lead, glancing at each and every mannequin, while Davis jolted around at every action from the claw machines.

They stuck to walking straight, through another push double door at the opposite wall to the dock.
Passing through, the clanging of machines faded away instantly, the only remaining noise sounding like a computer humming.
They now stood in an ultra-sterile hallway, extending forward endlessly. There were also two more paths to the immediate left and right. Far forward, there were some intersections, with two open doorways across from each other placed between these junctions. Following her curiosity, Louise followed the path to the right. It turned right, and then right again, where she found an expansive hall running through where the warehouse should be. She backed away.

“I don’t really get a good feeling from this path, let’s just, keep going straight?”
The two continued until they hit the first intersection. To the right was a small room, made of the same blinding white sterile walling. Only an air duct broke up the pure white walls. A conveyor belt running through one wall to the other with mechanical arms assembling some type of plastic object. Four mannequins sat near the belt, seemingly observing the arms doing their work. Louise crept up, peeking at the assembly line.

Even up close, she still couldn’t tell what the objects were. She reached out to grab one, Davis grabbing her hand in response.

“What are you doing?”
“I dunno, wanted a closer look at this stuff? Like, genuinely, is this stuff a weapon or just some fake product or something?”

As she plucked an object off of the belt, one of the mannequins suddenly turned its head towards her. She shrieked, punching the thing’s head right off. It bounced across the floor, the mannequin itself tipping over.

“Louise, the hell are you doing?” Davis had leapt back in response to her scream, and was hiding near the doorway.
“I saw it, it moved! These things are alive or something!”
Davis walked up to another mannequin, waving his hand in front of them. “They’re just plastic. As bizarre as this place is, I really think I would have noticed if they were haunted or anything.”
She sighed, her heart still throbbing. “It wasn’t just my nerves, I swear!”
“I think we’ve stuck around here long enough, we can come back later-”
“No no, I’m fine.” She shook her head. “I wanna find something more, there’s gotta be something around here! More than just… Cheap plastic!”

Heading out and looking to the right, the hallway seemed to go on forever and ever in a straight line. It seemed even more distant than the endless fields they had passed by. She looked back at the path she previously observed, her head hurting at the thought of it.

“Just follow me, that paradox hallway has to lead somewhere.”

    Louise tried her best to ignore how everything worked as the two headed down the impossible pathway. There were no signs, the room placement was all evenly spaced, and no furniture or appliances of any sort to differentiate any of the halls from each other. The only anomalies in scenery that came up were a metal framing to the walls, along with an air duct randomly placed somewhere.
The rooms themselves changed from time to time; Some were meeting rooms with a long table and several mannequins at the seats, there were mini offices with a single unplugged computer and coffee machine, and some rooms had only a single water cooler. They had been searching around for what seemed like an hour, and Louise still was determined to at least glance through every room for some hint on where to go.
When she was scouring through another room, Davis groaned, sitting against a wall.

“I really think we shouldn’t overstay our welcome here. Everything about this place is just setting off alarm bells in my head.”

She popped out of another water cooler room.
“What if we return and the factory vanishes because we figured out the secret behind it?”

“Well then PAIN won’t find it either then.”
She peered at the never-ending, twisting hallway behind her.
“I shoulda left some string or something…” She muttered to herself. “Fine, I guess we gotta find the exit too.”
“Find the-” Davis put his head in his hands, realizing he didn’t keep track of where they were either.

They went down a hall they think they entered from, and continued, winding down turns, passing more vents and metal framework, and passing by the seemingly same clusters of rooms over and over. 

After fruitlessly continuing to search for an exit, even Louise sat herself against the wall, huffing.

“Trying to process where the heck we are is killing my brain a lot.”
He sat next to her.
“Same. How many of those cooler rooms does this place need?”
“Maybe they have really thirsty workers here?”
Davis snorted. “Yeah, we all know mannequins need a gallon of water a day from standing around like that.”

Louise giggled. “You don’t happen to have some more candy on you, do you?”
He sighed. “Just one, all right?”
He unzipped his jacket, pulling out and handing a blue lollipop to her.
“Thank you, I just need a little treat to keep the mood high.” She unwrapped it, tossing the wrapper on the floor. As she stuck it in her mouth, her eyes widened at the garbage.

“Wait, how much candy do you got on you right now?”

He lurched back. “Come on, don’t be greedy! You can buy some candy for yourself every now and then.”
“No, see candy is at least non-essential, so we can use the wrappers and maybe bits of it to mark where we’ve been!”
Davis glared at her. “It’s essential to ME.” He slightly shrank back.
“But, if we have to, I got like, pieces of gum, lollipops, some hard candies, individually wrapped chewy ones, chocolate bars, uh… I don’t think enough to make a proper trail.”

“We just need simple markers at every intersection.” She took out her phone, opening a notepad app. “Then we can make some kinda map, based on the candy. Like, blueberry lollipop wrapper here, connects to this from here. Maybe we can at least bring a bit of sense to how this place works.”
He nodded. “Wait, I wonder?” He opened up his jacket again, pulling out a small compass. Thankfully, it was working properly. 

“We still need a frame of reference for direction whether we’re going north, south, east, or west.” He also pulled out a brown lollipop, unwrapping it and sticking it in his mouth. “ Also, we’re going to finish every piece we litter. I don’t want to waste any!”
Starting with the first intersection, they dropped a blue wrapper, following the compass south. Then, a brown wrapper, continuing south. Louise finished her candy, leaving a blue-tinted lollipop stick, and continued south. The path led to a left turn. Continuing through it, they found themselves at a blue wrapper. Turning around, the hallway had turned into a straight pathway. Davis smiled, pumping his fist to himself.

“So this place is just all messed up, it isn’t my brain. We can actually find our way outta here!”

    The duo continued for thirty minutes, marking areas and trying to find their way out of the labyrinthine factory. They had gone through five lollipops, five different flavored hardened candies, and two different chocolate bars. For the chocolate wrappers, they decided to tear it at different letters of the logo, giving each bar seven uses each. Thanks to Louise taking notes on what direction led where, they were finally starting to get a hang of where they were. She at least remembered the hallway they entered: It was a long, doorless stretch that ended in a left turn. It was just a matter of trying new paths until they finally found it.

Their new method of marking not only helped them get their bearings, but now they came across new clusters of rooms. Some rooms had more computer setups, some stacked to the roof with file cabinets, and more assembly rooms putting together bizarre products, though this time with no robotic arms doing any work.

With another four-way hallway marked, Louise sat down, wanting to take a small break. She had more than enough energy, but her stomach was starting to ache from all the candy she was eating.

Davis was about to sit down as well until he heard something.

“Is anyone there? I’m lost!”
It was incredibly subtle, no louder than a fly, but it caused him to perk up. Louise glanced over.

“You all right there?”
“I-I… I heard somebody calling for help!”
She rolled her eyes. “How do I know it isn’t in your head? This place isn’t haunted or anything.”
He squinted his eyes. “Yeah, but what if somebody here is stuck and needs some help?”
She shook her head. “Again, I didn’t hear anything.”
“I’m just gonna check out this hall. I won’t go too far, I swear.”

He turned to where he thought the voice came from: A hallway with more of the weird metal framework. He slowly began walking down, constantly glancing behind him to make sure Louise didn’t vanish right behind him.
The moment he crossed the framework, a loud buzzing occurred. A massive slab steel slammed down the metal, perfectly blending in with the walls as if it had always been there. He ran up, smacking the wall.
It was solid all the way through.

The wall shook slightly, and he could hear a muffled moan from the other side. His walkie talkie crackled to life.

“Ugh… You okay in there? That wall that shut between is is… really hard.”

He sighed, glad the walkies at least worked with each other in here. “Yeah, just got split off. I literally didn’t do anything, and this just happened.”

“What about your fireworks or something? Could they blow the wall open?”
“They’re fireworks, not military grade explosives.” He glanced behind him, noticing the hallway was all of the sudden much shorter, connecting to a larger room than before. From what he saw, the room was lined with several desks side by side, like an office building’s.

“Just stay here, there’s a weird kinda room up ahead. Lot’s of computers and stuff. I’m hoping there’s some kinda control panel or something there?”
“Are you sure you’re gonna be all right? I can keep punching away till this thing opens up.”
“Yeah, it’s just, I CAN ghost through the wall, but it’s going to hurt like absolute hell. If there’s any hope of a button to open up, I’m taking that.”

He turned around, and walked into the office space. 

Every single computer was turned on and running, cables running across the floor plugging into one bigger cable in the wall. Several of them were on some real time chat software, automatically responding to any customer request or questions. At least, what he could only assume were from actual customers. He came across a few that were stuck on a default login screen, asking for a password. Davis stopped at one of them, trying to type in “password” and hitting enter.
“Incorrect, please try again.”
He sighed. It was at least worth the try.
Further down at the corner of the space was a separate hallway, this space with several nicer looking offices with glass windowed walls.There were other bizarre sites in the hall, and it stretched on endlessly. He hurried on over, opening the fancy wooden door that led inside. 

The office was small, had a shelf with a few medals and scattered out books, a big oak desk, puffy rolling armchair, and desktop computer all set up. He pulled the chair out, finding a mannequin was sitting in the seat. It was dressed up like a generic businessman, black tuxedo, fancy pants, dress shirt and tie. He shoved the chair away, and tapped the computer keyboard. It lit up, already being logged in, but the only programs on it were a spreadsheet application, email, a web browser, and a customer support chat app. He glanced through the files, still finding nothing. He started tearing through the desk to search for any secret button or anything, but something else caught his eye: There was a disassembled mannequin stuffed under the desk, along with a crumpled tuxedo and dress pants next to it.

He turned to face the mannequin on the chair, dressed in the exact clothes that were stuffed under the desk.

He inched slightly closer to it.

It launched out of the chair, the surface of its skin bubbling.
He fell backwards, the mannequin flying over his head and crashing through the window. He scrambled back to his feet, kicking the office door open and running for the hallway. There, the mannequin continued to grow larger and larger, towering over him and all the computer desks. 

Its body changed from white plastic to a lite gray, carapaced material, with black fur over its back, and a mixed red and black camo plate of carapace on its chest. Its legs had extended into powerful beast-like appendages, with clawed feet. Its arms stretched out and put on muscle, fingers growing longer and pointed. Out of its mouth protruded a set of deathly sharp teeth.

Its crimson red eyes locked onto the fleeing boy. 

Nearly at the hallway, he pulled out a smoke bomb and tossed it in front of him, spewing out a thick black cloud. As he leapt through it, he pulled out a handful of caltrops dropping them among the smoke. 

The beast charged on forward, legs propelling it far faster than any animal Davis had seen. As it stepped through the smoke cloud, it shrieked, stepping on all of the sharpened bits of metal. It lost its footing and crashed onto the floor, the full force of its weight shaking the ground. Davis didn’t even bother to look back, keeping his focus on trying to get as far away as possible. He sprinted past the large office space, hearing crashing and crackling from behind him. There was another ghastly war that sent a pang of fear through his heart. The smashing of cubicles and machinery kept growing closer and closer.
Eventually, he saw the door that rapped him. He pulled out his walkie. 

“Louise, there’s a freaking monster in here with us! I’m ghosting on through the wall RIGHT NOW!”
He shut his eyes, running at full speed at the wall. He vanished into black dust.

The last time he ghosted into a bright room was like a punch to the gut. Becoming non-corporeal when it was this deathly bright was like he was being squeezed by a hydraulic press. All of the air instantly left his body, his ears popped, and his eyes felt like they were bulging out of his skull. 

He phased back in, crumpling to the floor. Louise ran over, shaking him.

“Oh my god, are you alright? Come on, you are, right?”
He weakly smiled. “Just a bit.” he croaked. “I uh…” He attempted to move his body, to no avail. “I kinda need you to carry me again?”
She hoisted him up. From the wall behind them, there was a terrifying thud, followed by a screech. 

“You mind telling me what the heck that is?”
“Monster, please, we really gotta pick up the pace before it finds a way outta there.”

Holding him up with one arm, she brought out her phone.
“There’s like, ten hallways I think we haven’t checked yet.” She clenched her teeth. “We just need a little bit of luck and we’ll get out just fine!”

She hurried down halls, turning at various wrappers and lollipop sticks. As she continued down a new hallway, it was extremely long like the one she entered, but this one had a few more rooms. She hurried down, her heart racing hoping she got lucky on the first pick.

She suddenly slowed down, making little noise with her footsteps.
There was a new noise among the constant hum of machinery.
A lot of clanging, and it was getting louder.

She picked up her pace, now passing by two of the rooms. From one of them, the monster sprung out of the vents. The grate hit Louise in the face, and the monster followed suit. It tackled her, knocking the duo into the opposing conveyor room.
They crashed into the conveyor belt, Davis sliding to the corner of the room with a fearful expression. Louise was pinned to the belt by the beast. She was able to grab the monster and swing it around, throwing it into one of the mechanical arms. It snaped apart with a bone-like crack, but the monster landed on its feet, now with a bit of blood staining its black hide. 

An alarm began blaring in the room.

The monster slashed downwards towards Louise, and she sidestepped the blow. It cut cleanly through the conveyer. The belt began squirting out fluids, and ceased all movement with a violent clunk. Some of the fluid spurted onto Louise’s face, and she recoiled. With that brief moment of hesitation, the monster was able to tackle and pin Louise to the floor.
It wasted no time in slashing across her stomach. She yelped in pain, feeling a burning sensation with every strike. The monster paused for a few moments, wondering why its blow didn’t disembowel its prey.

It suddenly felt a horrible stinging pain from behind. 

Davis had crawled from his position and stabbed it in the back.

It swatted away Davis before retreating back to the vents.

Louise quickly got up, lifting up her shirt to check her stomach.

There was a red mark across her stomach, her skin slightly frayed. She sighed in relief, thankful there was nothing too serious.

“Thanks Davis, don’t know where I’d be without you!” She said, dropping her shirt and scooping him up, rushing down the hallway. 

“Agh, yea, don’t mention it…” He wheezed out. “I just wish I… Didn’t have to lose my knife…”

They turned left, which led immediately to double doors. Louise openly smiled at the sight.
Finally, actual doors in this facility.

Pushing through, the temperate factory interior now changed to a refrigerator-like cold. She stood in a massive, cylindrical room that stretched up into a funnel. The room itself was full of strange tower-like devices, akin to old computers from the 1940s. The entire floor was made up with electrical and computer wiring, all running up towards the roof.

Near the top of the funnel was a brain-looking organism, the size of a house.
Multiple wood-like stems jutted out of it. Several were embedded into the wall, smaller root-like appendages splitting from the stem and digging further down and around.
Other stems were attached to antenna and satellite dishes, rotating and jolting with electricity. The duo looked up, unable to process the size of the organ, or creature. Whatever it was, they couldn’t exactly fully process what it was.

“I think we’re well out of our league right now…” Davis whispered to Louise.

“Agreed. You need to build some stronger bombs.”
The brain began to pulse. At the end of the hallway, a door with a large EXIT sign seemingly grew into the wall. The duo glared at it.

“I also think it wants us out of here.”

“The monster it sent my way was probably a good enough hint.”
Without hesitation, Louise sprinted towards the door, pushing it open.
It was fresh, nighttime air. She wanted to scream in joy, just sing. She felt like a prisoner locked in isolation for decades, finally free. She was so happy to be back outside she could cry.

But for all she knew, that monster could still be on her tail.
She continued her sprint, and didn’t intend on stopping until she got all the way back home.
She had left the factory in the dust, still sprinting full force down the road. Up ahead, a car was slowly approaching. It slowed down as she approached, the man inside rolling down the window. Louise bolted right past it, until she heard a voice yell out.

She froze up. She heard the engine turn off and the click of the door opening.

“Oh no not again…”

She turned around, this time finding a normal looking man calling out to her. He wore a brown leather jacket, jeans, and a nice button up shirt. 

She sighed as he walked closer. From his back pocket he pulled out a badge. Her eyes widened and her heart sank.

“I’m Detective Gold, and I have a question for you.”

Once in a Lifetime Chapter 6

The duo had returned home safely, and for once Louise agreed to take a break. Davis spent Sunday making up for all the lost sleep, and resting from the constant exercise he did. In the evening, he at least made sure to wrap up his work for school before returning to bed. For Louise, however, she stayed in bed late. It was sometime in the afternoon that her door flew open, and her mother came in with a smile on her face.

“Hey honey, are you doing all right?” She walked next to her bed, staring down. “You’ve been in bed for a while, you missed breakfast!”
Louise groaned, rolling to meet face to face with her mother.

“Just real tired. I was up way too late last night.” She cracked out a smile.

“You sure that’s it? No fever or anything?” She put her hand on Louise’s forehead, feeling a normal temperature. Louise wriggled at the action, pushing her mom’s hand away.

“Please mom, I’m fiiiine. Give me half an hour more.

Her mom put her hands on her hips. “If you say so. I wrapped up some breakfast for you in the fridge at least. And remember, if there’s anything wrong, you can tell me about it and I can help.”
Louise nodded, before pulling her blankets tighter around herself.

“Thanks mom…” she said in a drowsy voice, letting sleep overtake her again.

Louise spent most of the Sunday in bed, sore beyond belief, hoping that all the aching would stop.

By the time Monday rolled around, Louise was still feeling too sore to get out of bed. She had perfected the art of sleeping in just enough to not be late for school, avoiding tardiness for years, but now, her streak was now broken. She didn’t know the exact time, assuming it was sometime after 7.
If she was late, Davis would call her though, right?
Slumping out, she decided to skip making lunch and just be the most bare minimum of presentable. Several minutes later, arriving at school, she noticed that there was nearly no student activity out front. She groaned, yelling at the sky.

She bolted into a full on sprint, ignoring her body’s soreness.

The rest of the day ended up outright embarrassing for her. She got the eyes of everyone in class for coming through the door late, a short beratement from her teacher, and got the added embarrassment of not even having her weekend homework all wrapped up. She slinked to her desk, grabbing her hair in embarrassment.
The teacher continued with the lesson, and her mind wandered. Everything he talked about was akin to white noise, no thanks to how busy she was the weekend. She groaned to herself, plopping her head face-down on the desk. 

Her teacher called her out to the entire class once more, this time for putting her head down.

At lunch she bought a sandwich and chips, and sat down at the usual table with Davis. He was at least taking her diet advice, and was eating a simple PB&J.
She was taking bites of her food amidst rushing through pre-calc homework. Davis looked over at her work.
“Trying to get ahead of the curve with homework so you got more time for our monster work? That’s not a bad idea.”
She grumpily looked up at him.
“I’m not ahead of anything at this dumb school.” she muttered in a quiet voice. “Can’t we get at least reduced school hours because we have a job now?”
Davis shrugged, and stretched out his arms. “What would you even tell the teachers? That you stayed up too much hunting some kinda giant flying turtle?”

She rolled her eyes. “How about, ‘I’m too busy working to save all of your butts from becoming lab rats, give me time off.’”

She paused in the middle of solving an equation. “Why am I even doing pre-calc, what is pre-calc going to ever do for me?”
“Get you a high school diploma and help you have a chance at any sort of career?”
She glared at Davis for a few moments, before rushing to finish her work.

He sighed. “Unless you want this happening every day, maybe we can do homework tomorrow in the library after school? We can get ahead of the curve and stuff so you have time for… Whatever you’re doing for all this monster stuff.”
She grumbled. “I have a lot of research to do after school tomorrow, and I won’t be able to get it done with all this dumb school catching up I gotta do.”

“Well I got my stuff to do after school too, like uh…” He let out a yawn. “Make some more pepper bombs later tonight, but I can still make time to help you out. Seriously, working together can make everything go much more smoothly. So tomorrow, after school at the library, okay?”
She threw her hands in the air, groaning. “Ugh, fine- ow ow ow.” She winced, quickly lowering her arms. “Dang soreness… Seriously, we work for the government or something, what was it the benefactor said?”
Davis rubbed his eyes, standing up from the table. “Good luck with your work for now at least, I’m gonna head to the library for a short bit. There’s a quiz next period.”

Louise glared at him as he walked away. 

You could have at least helped me a bit more before going off to study.

The rest of the day for Louise was turning in a bunch of half-baked homework that she barely understood herself, and having to re-do some of it because of how terrible it all was. She cursed her teachers and school, spending all her time at home jumping between homework, and paranormal message boards for any sort of sightings. It was past midnight when all of her homework, past due and current, was finally done. She shoved all of the finished work into her backpack, wasting no time to dive into bed. She hadn’t even bothered to take off her uniform, but everything ached. It was time to sleep.

The following morning, she was at least feeling physically well enough to get up on time, and resume her usual morning routine. Hurrying over to school on time, she kept as focused as she could through the rest of classes. Lunchtime rolled around faster than she expected, and ended. Neither really had anything to talk about, so they just silently ate with each other, before splitting off to do their own thing after they finished eating.

The school’s library was right next to the cafeteria, and decently populated with students. There were plenty of desks, medium sized square tables, computers, and most important above all, books. There were a few large lounge chairs next to smaller tables where some students were sitting down, reading novels or textbooks. There were other groups around the room as well, but it was mostly silent, other than hushed mutters of students trying to solve troubling work. The duo sat at a square table, splaying their textbooks and soon-due homework on the table, along with future textbook assignments. Louise stared worryingly at all the work in front of her. Davis put his hand on her shoulder.
“Hey, it’ll go twice as fast with two of us, right?”
“But isn’t half of this work like, yours and half mine? We only have share a few classes-”
“It’ll go twice as fast, like, just trust me on this. Please.”

An hour of intense (at least for Louise) schoolwork went on. Starting off on individual work first, Davis worked at a fine pace, while Louise ended up asking dozens of questions for help. Eventually, her work went smoother the more Davis was able to explain how trig calculations worked, or showing how to solve questions on physics.
It also helped a lot that they were both basically math.
Every time she began to understand how to apply each formula, she swore she could feel two wires connect in her brain, followed by her audibly going “OOOOOOHHH, THAT’S HOW IT WORKS!”

Davis would smile a bit at her making these revelations. It felt nice doing such a simple nice thing for her.
“Hey, uh…”

Louise stared at him.
“You wanna do this more often too? It’s kinda ironic but, it makes homework a bit more fun.”
Louise vigorously nodded. “Yeah, same here! I dunno how the math works but it’s nice to not be like, stumped on one problem for like five hours!”
Davis’s smile grew wider. “That sounds like a lot of fun then. Thank you!”
“Nah, I should be thanking you. What jerk is making us do all this confusing mathstuff anyways? Math is gonna do NOTHING for me.”

“Well math has done a lot for me to be honest. You need to know some of this stuff to make all my bo-… my gear to work. Also, as a tip, don’t just stew over some problem you’re stuck on. You’ll just waste time. There’s no shame in returning to it later.”
“You sure? It’s much nicer to like, punch on through that stupid problem. It feels really nice too.”
“Yeah. Your brain might figure it out when working on other problems too!”

Having moved onto history and wrapping up with reading for the entire week, she would constantly mutter to herself over the decisions of governors and generals from the past.
“You couldn’t see that coming? Come on.”
“How did you really let that happen…”
“Why did they elect you? What was wrong with everyone back then…”
Davis glanced over. Maybe she thought she was thinking to herself instead of speaking out loud. It was getting quite annoying.
Somebody tapped her on the back of her shoulder, knocking her out of her reading trance. 

Turning around was a girl, staring angrily with her hands on her hips. She had bright red hair, wore a dress jacket and a nice button up shirt, along with a pencil skirt. If it weren’t for her height, Louise would have assumed she was a teacher.

“You’re going to have to keep it down.” She spoke in hushed anger. “Your constant muttering is causing too much noise, and it’s against the library rules!”

“How about you keep your voice down first. I wasn’t doin’ anything wrong!” she exclaimed. She was about to turn back to her book, until she noticed a familiar face behind the girl.

Kirino, sitting at a table not too far off from where she sat. She sat with a boy wearing a yellow sweater, stiff but soft shorts, and fluffy blue hair, and had a puffy jacket tied around his waist. Kirino was talking with him briefly, but as if she knew Louise was staring at her, she changed focus and locked eyes. The red haired girl’s voice had increased in volume, but Louise processed none of it.

There was no way she was going to do anything here, right? She’s crazy, but is she that crazy?

I hope you’re smarter than I assume. This is no place for a fight.

“CLARICE!” Kirino yelled, her voice dominating the library. She zipped her mouth shut, and turned towards Kirino. “We still have work to finish. Quit bothering them.”
She ran back to the table with the other two. She grumpily stared at Kirino. “You probably just bothered far more people here than that girl for the past hour with that you know.”
“A library is no place for any sort of fights. If somebody is being slightly noisy, it should be easy to ignore them. If it bothers you this much, we can find somewhere else to work.”
Clarice nodded. She turned to the boy. “Come on Dom, get everything packed. We’re going.”
He nodded, slipping a big stack of textbooks into his backpack. The two got up, ready to go. All that was left was Kirino, still sitting, eyes locked with Louise.

“Kirino? We’re all set.” The two turned to stare at Louise as well.

She nodded, standing up and turning towards the library exit.

With her gone, Louise whipped over to Davis.

“You saw her, right? What an absolute brat! I bet she sent over that one girl to distract me so she could find some moment to sneak attack me!”

Davis shook his head. “It’s obvious she’s not that dumb.” 

Louise huffed. “She isn’t fooling me with how ‘smart’ she is.”

“If she started a big fight with you here, she’d be suspended. Her parents would get mad, she’d probably get suspended from sports activities, and word would spread fast about her fight. I should know, you shouldn’t cause trouble if you wanna keep a cool reputation.”

“Suspension is something I never really thought about… Maybe I should be the one to get the jump on her-”
Davis grabbed her by the wrist, staring her in the eyes. “Please, just like, don’t. Don’t even THINK of anything related to getting yourself suspended.”
“It means more time to work on the cryptid hunting, right?”
“You do realize being suspended doesn’t make you free from homework or schoolwork right?”

“I could always do it later… but…” Louise took a deep breath in. She looked at Davis, smiling. “Yeah, you’re right. My parents would prob ban me from leaving the house if I ever did that.”

Davis threw his head back, sighing. “Seriously, don’t recommend anything that stupid again. It’ll suck a whoooooole lot to be suspended man.

Kirino and the other two had moved to a small office space in the library. It was nothing but a small room with a four-person table in the center, with roller chairs surrounding it. With the door to the space shut, Clarice glared at Kirino. 

“You can’t just back down like that if somebody is causing issues like that. Don’t you usually stand up for yourself?”
“Trust me, I know. That girl there, unfortunately, causes far too much trouble than it’s worth.”

Dom had been unloading books and binders onto the table. He paused at the statement.

“She didn’t hurt you or anything, right?”
Clarice rolled her eyes. “Did you see that girl? Kirino could break her in two if she wanted to start a fight.”
“It’s complicated. All I can say is that she’s trouble, and the best path is avoidance.”
Clarice flipped an english textbook open to a bookmarked tab, and opened a notebook to a fresh page.
“That doesn’t sound right at all. Are you sure there’s nothing you can do? Like no teachers or something to report her to? Or maybe your parents-”
She held up her hand. Kirino had opened her English textbook, staring at the book.

“I don’t need them to help me. I’m sure an opportunity to… deal with her will come very soon. I just need to be patient.”
Dom scooted closer. “I think Kirino has the right idea. It’s not like that girl is actively seeking trouble, right?”
She shook her head, still reading. “I’m not completely sure, but I hope she’s not as stupid as I think she is.”
Dom shrunk back. “Oh, that’s not good…” He brightened up again. “There’s nothing we can’t figure out some solution to, right? Just let us know what she’s doing, and we can help! Like all this AP homework stuff. 3 heads are better than one, right?”
Louise looked up from her textbook, staring at the twins. 

The two of them were what Kirino considered her only intellectual peers. They once kept to themselves, with minimal social activity and mainly focusing on studies, until she extended a hand first. They had accepted without hesitation, as who would deny being friends with her? As academically successful as she was, without them, she wouldn’t be able to perform as well as she currently could.
Yet, the trouble with Louise wasn’t academics. It was her entire future, and the future of everyone on her shoulders.
Could she really bring her friends in to assist her with such a crushing responsibility?

She turned back to her textbook.

“Perhaps later. It still might be too much for you two.”

Clarice groaned. “Next time I see that girl I’ll give her a good whack on the head for you then, how about that?”

“Please don’t…” begged Dom. “It’s really stressful when I go to school alone with you suspended.”
Kirino continued to try to bury her thoughts into the reading, but her thoughts were still preoccupied with the troublesome girl.

Leaving the library with current and future schoolwork done and all prepared for, the two split off and returned home. It was the cusp of night, and Louise’s parents were home sooner than expected. She waved to them, saying quickly she was gonna hang in her room for the rest of the night, and hurried off. She powered on her computer, pausing as she stared at the black reflection of the screen. 

The thoughts of her encounter with Kirino from earlier took over her head. She remembered how she was beaten not once, but twice in a row by the student. There was no doubt Kirino was clearly using all sorts of tricks and stuff, but was there something more she could do?
She turned around in her chair and got onto the floor, beginning to do pushups. 

Kirino was bound to surprise them in the future, but she wasn’t going to let herself lose so embarrassingly again.

Exercising for the next hour until she was sore, she slumped onto the computer, slowly browsing through a few different threads and local mysterious sightings. Fading from exhaustion, she caught sight of something slightly interesting. She wrote it down on a post-it note before crawling into bed.

G. Brand.

The following day during lunch, Louise bolted over to the table where Davis was sitting.

She slid into place across from him with a sandwich in hand. 

“Before you say anything, I gotta make this quick. I ran into a sudden bit of inspiration from browsing last night, and may have found a potential lead. I’m gonna run down to the library and finish the research there, and I’ll meet at your house after school. Got it?”
Davis looked at her stunned for a few moments. “Could you like, run that by me again? You spoke way too fast.”
She sighed, rolling her eyes. “I’m going to the library for lunch, I’ll meet up at your house after school, all right?”
“Yeah, sure. I’ll uh, try not to get too sleepy?”

Louise nodded, getting up.

“Hold on hold on,” Davis held his hands up towards her. “You do realize you can’t bring food into the library?”

She looked at the wrapped sandwich in her hand. “Oops, no I didn’t. Well-”
She noticed Davis had only brought an energy bar and energy drink to the table. “What about your lunch?”
“Oh, I forgot. It’s fine-”
She threw the sandwich at his face. “No skimping on meals, you hear?”
Davis gave her a stare of death. “You know you could have just HANDED it to me instead of throwing it like a jerk or somethin.”
“That’s what you get for trying to skip out on meals! Now I can’t waste any more time, be right back.”
She bolted off.

“HOLD ON, what about your lunch-” He yelled. He noticed a few other students looking his way, and he shrunk back in response.
“I don’t wanna look weird to the others…” He muttered to himself.

Louise arrived at Davis’s home later that day, with a fat folder in hand.

Davis sat on the couch, cracking open and sipping on an energy drink. Louise plopped right next to him, opening up the folder. He peered over, finding a bunch of text along with a big logo for “G Brand Co.”

“This company was something weird when I glanced over a few posts. It’s registered as some nation-spanning company, with factory locations everywhere. I coulda sworn I’ve seen a few trucks of theirs, have you?”

“I… Don’t really pay attention to trucks? I don’t think they’re allowed to drive on small neighborhood roads.”

“Well uh…” She paused, staring at her paper. She flipped it to the next, showing a few images of objects:
One was a blanket with some kind of water sack and straw attached to the side, some plastic face masks with a bunch of iron pegs stuck on the other side, and platform shoes with the soles suspended by rubber bands.
“Look at this stuff they make. A drink blanket? Some de-wrinkling mask? Jumping shoes? I know if I went out shopping I’d at least notice ONE thing by this company for sale, especially with how many products they have.”

Davis looked at the products. “Are you sure this just isn’t some prank or photoshop? These could easily be TV scam products.”
She shrugged. “I dunno, but if it’s true, it just proves how sketchy this company is. PLUS-”
“What’s so mysterious about selling phony products?”
She flipped to the next page, revealing a cluster of pins on a map of the United States.
“Look how many factory and distribution locations they have everywhere. Not to mention, there’s one that’s local!”
She flipped another sheet of paper. 

“You know you can just save all of this digitally?” Davis inturrupted. “How much in printer fees did this even cost you?”
“Five bucks or something, it’s no biggie.”
“Saving it to your phone and sending it to me is free though.”

“Hush you, and just look. There’s a factory right near town.”
It was a satellite image of the factory. There were a few trucks parked in front of it, but the building itself looked dilapidated. Most curiously, was the location: It was in the middle of abandoned farmland, with several more abandoned buildings scattered not too far away from it.

“Well, it’s kinda far out, but that’s nothing really too strange.”
“Do you SEE the picture? It’s like falling apart! It’s a registered location and everything, with hours and a number and all that stuff. There’s GOTTA be something going on over there, and we gotta get going ASAP!”

“You can’t be serious. It’s a school night, and we’re gonna trespass on private property owned by some weird company.”
“It’s only a 30 minute trip if we pick up the pace, so we can be back home before it gets too late. Better to beat PAIN or Kirino to it first, right?”

Davis groaned, getting up. “We’ll just check it out, and leave. If it looks even slightly normal for a factory, we’ll turn around and head back. That, and you’ll owe me… Something. I don’t know, I’ll think of it later.”

“What do I get if I’m right?”
“I guess the fact that you didn’t waste my day? It’s very disruptive when you spring this stuff on me at the last second.”
“Well what other plans do you have for today? Napping till the sun goes down?”
He stood still for a moment. “I mean… I could have done something OTHER than napping, like doing some research stuff too, right?” 

“Haha, where do you research? Dreamland?”
He stared grumpliy at her. “I mean, you could tell me a few sites to look at, and then I could help. And stuff.”

A knock comes from the door. Every hair stands up on Davis’s neck. Louise curiously turned to him as he slowly turned to face the door. His face was stricken with panic.

“Are you expecting anybody?”
He shook his head fidgetly.
“No, and that’s exactly the issue.” He spoke in a hushed tone. “Literally nobody visits me but you, and I’m always informed if packages are supposed to arrive.”
A voice spoke from beyond the door. “I know you two are in there. If you would be nice enough to invite me in, I could tell you something urgent.”
Neither of them recognized the voice. Louise reached into her schoolbag, pulling out her gauntlets and slipping them on.

“Grab your stuff.” She mouthed to him, and he hurried into the garage. She cracked open the door, finding a very tall man standing there.

He wore a fancy gray designer shirt and red pants, along with pricey looking dress shoes. His hair was long, nearly growing over his eyes. Still, he kept it well brushed and maintained. He stared down at the girl, wearing bizarre looking red-tinted glasses.

“There’s no need to be so afraid. I’m not here to start any fight. Now, you are one of the two new monster hunters around here, right?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Please, I know what happened to the Wendigo and Cofrinii Hydra, and I know you two want to kill off more. I have some simple terms to establish with you regarding your hunts.”
Davis came back, holding a pepper spray bomb. He froze seeing Louise had opened the door.
Why did you let him know we’re here?

“Who are you anyways? What makes you think you can tell me what to do?” Louise yelled back, gripping the door tighter. She felt a bad feeling running up her spine. 

“Well, to put it simply, I have a special relationship with some of these creatures. I can’t have you just, up and murdering all of them.”

Murder. Louise’s blood boiled at the use of that word in response to man-eating cryptids. He really thought of them that highly, that their lives were the same as humans?   

“You have no right to tell me what to do!”
She threw the door wide open.

“They all need to get out of our town or die!”

She threw a punch forward, striking the man square in the stomach. A force of wind followed with the blow, rustling the grass and kicking up several dead leaves behind the man.

The man himself, however, stood there totally unfazed.
He sighed, softly hitting her with the back of his hand. This gesture sent her flying back into the home, crashing against the wall and cracking it.

Davis looked in terror at the man, and back to the dazed Louise, who was shaking her head clear. He dropped the bomb and ran up to the man, hands in front of him.

“I’m sorry for that please, we’ll listen to your terms!”
Louise stumbled back to her feet. “You can’t just let him-”

He turned to Louise with a look of total fear in his eyes. He turned back to the man, who was silently nodding.

Louise yelled “We’re hunting these monsters because-”
“I do not care why, simply follow my terms, and I won’t have to punish you two. You can hunt monsters as you please, but do avoid any birds of any type. That should be easy to follow, correct?”

Louise pushed forward past Davis’s shoulder, giving a glare of rage to the mysterious man.

“T-That’s fine! We can do that sir!” Davis spat out.
The man smiled. “It’s Von Chad. Last, What are the names of you two?”
“I-I’m Davis Foster, and this is Louise.”
“Hey, don’t give him my name!”
He nodded. “Well then, Davis and Louise. I hope we won’t have any trouble in the future!”
He turned and walked off casually, and Louise leapt forward, slamming and locking the door.
“Davis, what the HELL was that? You can’t just let somebody bully us around!”

“I’m sorry, did you see what happened? You didn’t even phase him, he flicked you away like a twig, and now one of my walls is all screwed up too! What else could he have had up his sleeve?”
“Maybe he just does a lot of sit-ups and planks or something, I don’t know. But I would have tried punching his head next. That would have been a bit better, right?”
Davis put his hand on her shoulder, gripping her tightly.
“I’m going to be more honest with you than I’ve ever been before. After he just brushed off that punch, every single instinct screamed that that man could very easily kill both of us if he really wanted to.”
“And that’s why we should have dealt with him sooner, we coulda won out like the last few times-”

“I’ve felt so terrible in the past, seeing so many people enter the woods and vanish, or worse, watching helplessly as they were attacked by a monster. All those sights paled in comparison to the absolute doom I felt coming from him. There’s absolutely nothing you could do to convince me he could have killed you in a millisecond.”
Louise still stared angrily, eyes burning with a need to chase down that man.

“By some stroke of luck, he simply doesn’t want us to kill any birds, and was nice enough to TELL us that before we found out the hard way. So let’s just, be happy we’re that lucky, and alive.”
She sighed, a few tears streaming from her eyes. She plopped down on the couch, lowering her head into her hands. She breathed heavily, sniffling.

“It’s not fair… We shouldn’t be bullied or ordered around like this!”

She put her hands on her head, grabbing her head and throwing it back, letting out a groan of anguish.

“It’s just such… BULL. This SHOULDN’T be happening! This isn’t how all this is supposed to go! We should be able to defeat him like anyone else.”

Davis merely stared as she continued to sob. He slowly walked towards her.

“Hey, well, it beats getting…” He thought back to the mysterious visitor. “Punished? I don’t wanna think what he’d do.”
“I told you, I could have taken him.”
Davis sighed, now staring in frustration.

“I really don’t think so.”
She looked up, glaring angrily at him.

“Even if you could, there’s still me too. It’s bright out, I’m not too useful like this. All it takes is one bad bit of collateral damage and I could like… you know. Die.”
Louise wiped her eyes. “Yeah, true… Maybe I should train you or something? So even you can be handy without needing your gadgets.”
“Hey, I’m still perfectly handy, even without my powers. Watch this.”
He held his hand out towards her. “Come on, you look like you need a hand getting up.”
She giggled to herself. “I’m fine, just.. Agh screw it. She grabbed his hand, and he pulled her up. She sniffled.

“Hey, I don’t think it’s a bird factory or anything, right?”

Davis nodded enthusiastically.
“And, one thing I know will help a bit… Could you share a bit of candy? I’m not picky but if you have anything chewy like gum that would be cool.”
He squinted his eyes, exhaling out of his nostrils. Reaching into his jacket, he pulled out a piece of taffy, offering it to her.
“Don’t push your luck here. My candy is limited.”

Once in a lifetime chapter 5

“I recognize you. You’re always the one constantly in a hurry to get home, no?”
Kirino spoke in a very stern tone. She locked eyes with Louise, crossing her arms like a disappointed parent.

“It’s Louise! My name is Louise!” She shouted, annoyed. “Surely you’re high and mighty enough to remember other students when they all know you, huh?”
“Well then, Louise. Now is your time to leave. I have a job to finish here.”
Louise took a step forward.
“Hey no, I’m here for the same thing! I didn’t think I was the only one who wanted to save the town too.”
Kirino raised an eyebrow, giving a scowling yet stern look. “My work is none of your business. Leave now, and tell no one of this.”

“How’d you summon that lightning like that? Is that sword of yours an artifact that does something like that? I have one similar, and I didn’t realize you were like me a bit.” She held up her hands, showing her gauntlets. “These give me some real neat strength and-”
Kirino dashed forward, drawing her katana slightly and slamming the butt of her sword into Louise’s nose. She stumbled back, clutching her face while looking annoyed. Kirino cocked her head.

“Durability too, what was that-”
Kirino lurched forward again, attempting to jab her in the stomach. Louise leapt to the side.

“Oh I see how it is!” She grinned, cracking her knuckles. “You think you’re too good for help, miss prodigy!”
She stepped forward, rearing back her fist and throwing her fist forward. Kirino sidestepped it, grabbing her arm, flipping her over, and slamming her on the ground. Louise practically rebounded from the impact, hopping back up to her feet.

“I can do this all night you know! All your fancy expensive karate classes can’t help you now!”
Kirino gave a look of disappointment. Louise charged forward with a punch, which was sidestepped, followed by a kick, which was ducked under. She continued to throw several punches, each one effortlessly dodged by her opponent. Following another dodged blow, Kirino body checked her, knocking her back and stunning the brawler. Trying to follow up with another to her stomach, Louise was barely able to dodge, only for her dodge to be read with a kick to the side of her stomach.

Despite her bullet-proof body from the gauntlets, it still wasn’t doing much to dampen the impact. She could feel her stomach churn from what that blow could have been had she not been protected.

Seeing the black-haired girl come in for another blow, Louise stomped into the ground, kicking up a plume of dirt and dust. Kirino leapt back, but Louise lunged through the cloud, fist aimed at Kirino’s face. As if she could sense the intense force of the oncoming blow, Kirino elegantly ducked under it. Louise flew forward until she skidded to a halt, whirling around.

Kirino’s look of disappointment changed to be more stern.

Sprinting through the fields, Davis stumbled to a halt, bending over and gasping for breath. He was pretty sure this was the way where the lightning came from, but nothing in his mind was processing except for “sit down and rest a bit more.” Between breaths, he took a swig from his water bottle, and looked ahead.

Several yards away was a massive turtle shell, and two figures fighting each other in the moonlight. One of them was constantly tumbling and getting back to their feet.

It was clearly Louise, and she needed help.

A few more deep breaths, he redoubled his sprint, adrenaline filling his system with the urge to save his friend. He got close enough to the point he could distinguish who the two figures were. While Louise was still being punched and thrown around, the other figure was… Kirino? He stood still, observing the dueling girls, trying to give his brain time to process everything.
His thought process was interrupted when he noticed the turtle shell shift slightly.

He froze, shifting his focus on the monster.

Louise was feeling she had pissed off Kirino big time or something, because now she was attacking unrelentingly. Every time she attempted to throw a punch or kick, Kirino was two steps ahead, following up with a blow of her own. When Louise found some windows of opportunity, it was as if Kirino read her mind, and would grapple and throw Louise onto the ground. Constantly being knocked around like that was beginning to get exhausting, and Kirino clearly had way more endurance than she had.

If only these gauntlets gave me extra weight or something was all that was on her mind.
But maybe I can use this durability a bit better… I only need one solid blow.

She kicked back, launching herself far away. She slumped over, and began panting hard. She hacked, and spat a wad of spit in Kirino’s direction.

“Come on… hoo… Your fists are like flies! Aren’t you on roids or something to get a body like that?”
Kirino lurched forward, throwing a kick to Louise’s side.
Louise didn’t even bother trying to dodge, tanking the hit. She felt her insides shudder from the blow.
She increased the ferocity of her attacks. Louise constantly recoiled, acting like every hit was doing more than it actually was.
Then, Kirino tried to go for another gut punch.

Louise took it, but lunged forward, bear-hugging the girl.
“Gotcha! You can’t read when somebody’s faking their pain, huh? Told ya you aren’t good at everything!”
The girl firmly in her grip, she lifted her up and decided that a suplex would be a fitting move to knock her out.

Louise yelped, releasing her grip and backing off. Something fairly painful had stung her hand. The pain subsided quickly, but her opponent had already broken free. Kirino quickly backed off, clicking her sword back into its hilt.
Her expression changed, to something more intense. She reached for her sword and dashed forward, closing the distance between the two in seconds. Louise leapt back as the sword was drawn, the blade slicing across her leg.

She groaned in pain, feeling like the blade cut her skin. She stumbled on the landing and fell on her butt. Across her leg, her compression pants were cut, and a red mark across the exposed skin. It hadn’t broken the skin, but it still burned terribly. She clenched her fists.

“Oh you’ll pay for that one! Need your fancy rich toys in order to keep in the game, huh?” She screamed, charging forward.
Kirino stood firm, keeping her hand on her blade. Seeing the moment her sword was being drawn, Louise leapt into the air, grazing the edge of the blade. She smiled to herself, seeing Kirino’s expression change to that of surprise. Landing behind, Louise tried to grab her from behind again.

Then, a flash, followed by a crack.

She felt her body seize up, a buzzing, burning sensation overtaking every limb. She fell to her knees, realizing Kirino was no longer in front, but behind her.
Just barely shaking off the feeling, she got back to her feet.

Then another flash and crack.

Kirino was now in front of her again, stumbling and almost falling to her knees. She fell to all fours, holding steady and looking like she might puke. Louise, however, was flat on the ground, unable to move or feel anything. The only things that she could move were her eyes, glancing around in a panic.
Kirino stayed on the ground for a few moments, heaving and trying to keep her stomach under control, before getting to her feet. She walked to Louise, placing her hands on her gauntlets.

“You’re in over your head. I don’t know what your job is here, but it ends tonight.”

She tugged, the gauntlets slipping from Louise’s hand. She twitched her hands, trying to grasp.

“Hey, uh this turtle is moving again!”

Kirino spun around, sword in hand, to the sight of a masked boy pointing at the beast. The turtle was now floating in the air, with four heads popping out of each leg hole. A head from behind began sucking in air, the tall grass visibly being pulled towards it. Kirino leapt out of the way as the opposing head let out a blast of air at her, propelling the entire beast away. Louise’s limp body tumbled into the tall grass from the blast.

Kirino huffed, dashing after the escaping monster.

Davis hurried over to the downed Louise, pulling a small first aid kit out of his jacket. He got to his knees, examining her.

She was still motionless and twitching. There was a red mark across her leg where Kirino had cut, but thankfully the skin didn’t look broken. Her eyes were open, staring straight at him.

He opened the kit, staring at the mix of bandages and ointments. He sighed, closing it.

“I don’t think I got anything for paralysis in here.” He at least took out some antibiotic ointment, rubbing it over the burn. “I think this might help-ish?”
He took out his phone, hoping to quickly search what to do, but groaned when he noticed there was no service.

She twitched again, this time a bit more aggressively. Then she let out an agonizing roar, as if somebody terribly stubbed their toe.

“YEOW.” She wriggled her body, feeling the numbness dissipate. “that hurts all over the place…”
She shakily stood up, but fell back down to her knees. Davis offered her his shoulder, bringing her up.
“I always knew she was a big show-off. That lightning was NOTHING!”
“You sure you all right? You honestly look kinda terrible.”

Her outfit and skin were covered in smudges of dirt. Her skin looked somewhat pale, and she was still shaking. She stood up free from Davis’s support, stretching out her arms.”

“I think I can handle-” She winced, stumbling on her leg a bit. “You got any painkillers in there or something?”
He opened up the kit and handed her a few tabs of ibuprofen. She downed them with water.

“Hoo, thanks. Now come on, we can’t let her get that turtle! The pain should be gone by the time we catch-”
He grabbed her arm before she could run off.

“Hold on, first off, what was Kirino doing with that turtle? Did our benefactor recruit more people without us knowing?”
She shrugged. “No clue, she said she was doing a job, but she didn’t want me involved. It can’t be any good.”

“Second, no offense, but she was kinda… kicking your ass. Hell, she didn’t even have to draw her weapon! Could you imagine what it woulda been like if she actually used that sword?”

Louise pouted. “Well could you imagine if I actually used MY sword? I had to hold myself back for her safety.”
“I don’t think that would have made a difference.”
She shook her head. “Besides, two things are different. First, I know what she’s capable of. I get her fighting style, and that weird lightning trick. I doubt she can use that frequently if she saved it for last.”
Davis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like your style of blindly punching and letting yourself get beat up is gonna help.”
“Hey, I’m sure I’ve practiced fistfighting more than you mister sleepyhead!”
Davis smiled and shrugged. “I mean, why do I even need to know fistfighting? It’s not cool to get into fights.” He paused. “Wait, do you fight anyone at school? Why DO you practice fistfighting-”

“As for point number two, if we make it a two on one, she can’t possibly win, right?”
He shook his head, forgetting the previous question he asked.
“True, just one pepper spray bomb and I don’t think she’d do too well, right? I just hope it won’t hurt her too badly…” He took one from his jacket. “This is my last one though, so I’ll hang tight till we really need it. We have both her and that turtle to deal with.”
“I’ll think of more when we get there, but we gotta hurry! I think they went this way-”
She tried to run, but found Davis was still holding her arm.

“I had a little bit of foresight. That turtle was waking up when you two were fighting. I really couldn’t fight it alone, so I duct taped a tracker to it. Just in case it fled while you two were fighting.”
Pulling open an app on his phone, there was a small blue dot heading close to the foothills, entering the blotted off area.

“That’s genius! I didn’t know you knew your way around programming too?”
He scratched the back of his head. “I kinda don’t. It’s a GPS dog collar actually… I wanted to… Nevermind.”

The duo trekked back to the roads and resumed their journey to the hills. Walking up the jagged dirt road didn’t prove to be too much of an issue, but trouble arose when they had to begin hiking off-trail in order to get to the GPS ping. Louise’s trailblazing pace was brought to a crawl as she struggled to search around the dark for proper footing, along with avoiding spiked plants or dead brush. Davis eventually was able to overtake her and begin leading, mostly thanks to the fact he could see better with his goggles. As they continued their climb, the foliage died out and the hill became abruptly steep, impossible to continue straight up any longer. Moonlight was clearly beaming down, much to the joy of Louise. They walked along the slope until they found a small set of footholds which they could climb up.
Peering over the steep edge, Louise’s eyes bugged out, and she sunk back behind it, turning off her headlamp. Davis did the same, crouching next to her.


“What did you see?” He whispered.

“It’s like a big crater over there, a nest for the turtle! It was awake too! I think it knows we’re coming.”

“All right. Did you see Kirino anywhere?”
She shook her head. “I only got a quick glance, but I think that cryptid would be a bit more active if she was down there too.”
“All right. Got any ideas on how to beat it?”
“Well I saw how it sucks in air and spits it out as a weapon and form of movement, so I think maybe throwing something like a firework inside of it when it sucks in will be our best bet? Hopefully we’ll wound it enough that it can’t run away, and just keep repeating that strategy till it dies.”
“And if the fireworks don’t do anything?”
“I’ll improvise something. But if he runs, we got the GPS, so we can track him another night. Hopefully then, Kirino won’t be bugging us.”
Davis nodded.
“Let me sneak in ahead since I have these.” He pointed to his goggles. “Just in case Kirino did beat us here and is waiting for us.”
Putting on his goggles, he peered over the ledge into the crater.
There was the monster, nested in the center with four heads scanning the area.
The crater itself was pretty large, around the size of a parking lot, and thankfully not too sloped. Davis could only assume that the monster had leveled the top of this hill ages ago for a well hidden nesting spot. He creeped closer to the monster, his jacket quietly jingling from all the gear. He took great care to make sure not to slip on the slope, ducking from rock to rock to get as close as possible. He stopped at the last rock he could, only a few yards away from the monster. He could hear it breathing and snorting, and the movement of each of its patrolling heads. He peeked several times, finding nobody but the turtle. He took out his walkie.

“All right, it looks-”
A light was shining on him from somewhere behind.. He turned around to find Kirino standing there with a flashlight mounted on her chest.

“I’ve already told Louise that this job is mine, and I expect no interference. Leave now.”

He held up his hands in front of him.

“Hold on, I’m not a threat to you or anything, let’s just… talk it out or something?”
She cocked her head. “If you’re not a threat, why are you willing to face off against that UMA? Clearly if you’re confident in your ability to kill such a beast, I should be no issue to you.”

“It’s because… That’s beside the point. You want it dead too, right? I want it dead, you want it dead, so why don’t we work together?”
“I can assure you that our interests don’t align at all. Now leave, I don’t wish for you to get hurt in the middle of our battle-”
She stood up straight and her eyes widened. She whirled around with her sword drawn, holding it up to block. Louise came soaring towards her, leg outstretched, hoping to get one solid kick.
Her foot collided with her sword, a blast of sparks blew out from the impact, and she was sent flying backwards, landing on her feet.

“You’re absolutely pathetic thinking stalling would work.” She said with a grimace on her face.

“What’s that saying Sun Tzu said or something, All’s fair in warfare?” Louise yelled with a grin.
The turtle behind the two shrieked, and all of them felt a rumbling. Chunks of debris were flung towards the trio as the earth around them shaked, followed by a terrible grinding. Louise and Kirino leapt out of the way, as Daivs turned to see the massive turtle, skidding across the ground at the speed of a truck. He turned intangible in a nick of time as the shell of the monster slammed into the slope, kicking up a torrent of rocks and dirt. Splinters of wood from felled tree stumps sprayed everywhere, and trees near the edge of the wall collapsed in from the impact. Davis re-materialized, crashing to the ground as if he dove out of the way. He turned back, seeing three heads of the turtle staring right at him.

“All on my own again?” He muttered to himself as he got back to his feet.

After dodging out of the way, with dust still in the air, Louise charged on through where she expected to find Kirino. Seeing a silhouette, she slid on the ground, hoping to sweep her leg and pin her down, only for Kirino to leap over her attack, swiping at her with her blade.
It nicked her shoulder, giving the same stinging sensation, and she rolled back to her feet. The dust cleared, she caught sight of Kirino standing silently, sword in front of her.

“Come on, don’t you wanna do that lightning trick again?” She stuck her tongue out.

Kirino charged forward in response, slashing straight at her. Louise ducked under it, but Kirino quickly followed up with an elbow strike to her back, knocking her to the floor. Louise bounced back to her feet, throwing a punch that was deftly dodged.

“The nice thing about these gauntlets is they don’t need some cheap trick like that sword or whatever you do with the lightning. They keep on working no matter what!”
It was a boldfaced lie. She felt herself getting more exhausted the more she got knocked around. The more tired she got, the more each blow hurt.
Any moment she could take another hit and collapse to the ground for good, and then the gauntlets were as good as gone.
If she couldn’t use that lightning for whatever reason, there was at least some chance for victory, if she could land one solid hit…

Davis was glad this time around they were fighting in the dead of night with no flare or anything to hinder his ability. Every attempted attack from the turtle was evaded effortlessly, thanks to his ability. He had never used it in succession this much, but he was glad he wasn’t too physically taxed. The monster was slowly being drawn away from the wall it slammed into, hovering eight feet in the air with its star-filled belly.
Davis continued evading until he caught one of the rear heads beginning to inhale.
He lit a firecracker and broke into a sprint, sparks flying out of his hand. He hurled it across the crater, getting sucked into the intake. The eyes of the monster widened, and one of the heads coughed up the still-lit firecracker towards the dueling girls. Davis glanced over, clenching his teeth as he watched Kirino instinctively leap away, and Louise stand and brace for the blow.

In a colorful explosion, Louise felt stinging all over her body, ironically feeling like she was splashed with ultra cold water.
She was feeling even more tired, covered in little red marks over her arms from clashes with Kirino, and let out a huff. There was still a lot of smoke in the air from the explosion, and in a rush of adrenaline, she launched herself forward, rearing back her fist at the Kirino-shaped silhouette once more.

The turtle let out a deafening roar, attacking more ferociously at Davis as a result of his attack. Multiple times, he had to wait incorporeal as the monster devastated where he once stood with a flurry of attacks. After re-materializing, the turtle seemed winded from its latest flurry. He glanced around for anything just to hide behind to re-plan.
He dove behind a few boulders that were upset from the rampage. It wouldn’t be perfect cover from the rampage, but maybe it would give him enough time to recuperate.

Kirino’s eyes were watering from the firecracker. She took a single second to rub them, still keeping her focus on where Louise was standing.
In her mind, she was hoping that the blast would at least stagger her long enough to recuperate.
As she lifted her head, Louise was an arm’s length away, staring straight into her eyes and fist reared back.

She threw her fist forward, and Kirino quickly lifted her blade, the gauntlets clashing with them. A blast emanated from the impact letting out an incredible surge of energy from the clash. The two were engulfed in mysterious light, feeling an overwhelming amount of power pushing against each other. The strange metal of the gauntlets held strong against the mysterious blade, but kirino shook to even hold firm against such force.

The two locked eyes intensely. Louise pushed as hard as she could and Kirino’s feet ground against the dirt, barely holding against the power of the gauntlets.
Beneath their feet, the ground began to crack from the sheer clashing power. Realizing she wouldn’t last against these forces, Kirino broke her sword free from the clash, swinging upwards to deflect the oncoming fist. She kicked Louise in the stomach amidst her retreat, and then flashed into lightning, electrocuting her. Feeling the electricity rage through her body, Louise yelped in pain, falling to the ground. Kirino stood firm only for a second before falling over on all fours. She began to heave and puke.

Davis was caught off guard by the crack from the lightning, almost missing the turtle preparing another air-burst attack. He ghosted as a blast obliterated his position, kicking up a plume of dust.
Phasing back in, he lit his pepper spray bomb and tossed it, a cloud of red mist engulfing the monster. It inhaled again, sucking up all the spicy particulate. It gagged and coughed, crashing down onto the crater floor. All of its heads were coughing up red clouds of pepper spray, and Davis knew this was the only chance he had to do some kinda deathblow. The sound of lightning meant Louise was in trouble, so he had to try something new. He gulped and closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind. He lit a firecracker and de-materialized with it still in his hand.
He opened his eyes and ran forward to where the turtle was.
He felt his heart begin to race faster as he stood there, waiting for the fuse to burn out just right.
He focused on his hand, managing to re-materialize only his hand, inside of the monster.

It was incredibly warm, fleshy, and his hand felt like it was on fire.

He clenched his teeth tight, moaning in agony, and released the firecracker. The second he let go, he returned his hand to the immaterial world.
He gripped his hand and put distance between him and the monster, re-materializing in full. His hand had a big gash in the back of it and was bleeding, he yelled out in pain and grabbed it tight.

Then an explosion, followed by what sounded like a rockslide and a shriek.

All four heads of the monster looked to the sky, screaming in pain. The top of the shell had been blown off, revealing a pulsing, fleshy inside. Davis grit his teeth again, lighting a cherry bomb. Davis phased out, leapt up into the air, and phased back in, landing atop the shell.
He stared in disgust at the writhing mess of internal organs this strange beast had. He couldn’t tell if they were intestines, lungs, a stomach maybe, or some weird organ for storing air.
Soon, they would be nothing but married, charred flesh.

With another explosion and another shriek, the four heads of the monster fell limp.

Hearing both of the explosions, Louise could only internally smile, as her face muscles were totally numb.

Good job Davis, we got both Kirino and the monster

Her joy dissolved when she noticed a stumbling Kirino walk into her vision. She grabbed her gauntlets again.

“No matter how many times we encounter each other, the outcome is always going to be the same. This work is mine, and mine alone. Stay out of it.”

“I think that’s only true if we’re one on one…” Louise mumbled, her mouth regaining feeling.

Davis re-materialized and leapt at Kirino, knocking her over. Her stern expression was broken, replaced with shock.

“What the-”

“Whatever your dumb job was, we did it way better! The monster is dead!” Davis yelled, pointing to the corpse of the beast.

She turned, seeing all of the limp heads of the monster. Davis leapt down and grabbed hold of Louise, dematerializing with her.
Kirno turned back to find the two had completely vanished.

Louise saw nothing but complete darkness.
Davis’s voice spoke to her.

“Just hold on tight, I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how long I can hold you in here.”
She gripped him tighter as Davis looked around with his goggles. He saw the shadowy outline of Kirino investigating the corpse of the beast. She glanced around at the mess of exploded organs. She strutted away, climbing out of the crater. Now that she was gone, he re-materialized with Louise, rolling onto his back and gasping for breath.

“We… Really need to stop relying on luck for all this stuff…” he said between deep breaths.
Louise giggled, wiggling her recovering limbs.
“I think I fought just fine. I fought Kirino there to a draw, and still didn’t need to use my sword!”
“I saw you on the floor and her on top of you. Again.”
“Well she was down and out for a while too!”
Davis stared back at the stars. “Still, weird knowing that she’s in on all of this stuff too.”
“She’s the last person I’d want involved with all this stuff.” Louise grumbled to herself. “Such a stuck-up tryhard. She’s probably getting paid to do it or something dumb like that, nothing noble. Maybe I can jump her after school or something.”
David whipped his head towards her. “Louise, do you WANT to get arrested?”
She shrugged, sitting up and stretching out. “I dunno, what if she jumps me first?”
“Because we could report her to the police? Sure they won’t believe ‘she’s fighting us over monster hunting’, but they will believe us if she attacks us. With a sword. I mean they won’t believe the lightning but… You get the point right?”

She grumbled. “Fine, fine-” She caught sight of his bleeding hand. “Oh god, you got hurt? Quick get some bandaids or something!”
He looked back at the cut. “Oh yeah, uh got this doing something really stupid against that turtle.” He took out the first aid kit, quickly wrapping the wound in gauze. “This should help at least for now.”

Louise got up to her feet, wincing. “Hey Davis?”
“I think I definitely need to take a day off tomorrow.”

Far from the crater, Louise was speaking on a satellite phone.

“I was unable to complete the job. Two others interfered, and now the UMA is destroyed.”

“Are you aware of who the interferences are?”
“Yes, but I will be unable to do anything to them directly, as they are aware of my identity as well.”

“That’s fine, I have other methods. I want everything you know about them reported in full.”

Once in a Lifetime Chapter 4

You can also check out and follow the series on Royal Road and Scribblehub!

A thin fog rolled over the foothills of the titular Tomahawk Hills, leading to a gray Saturday six AM. Throughout the hilltops were fancy, modern-style homes. One of these homes belonged to the Yorogami family. It was a small, gated single-family home, connected by a paved driveway winding down towards the base of the hill. Most notably, of course, was a helipad installed right next to the home’s garage. 

Kirino’s parents had already left an hour earlier, leaving her to her own devices for the rest of the day.

Her alarm clock rang out, blinds to a wall-sized window automatically opening. The light seeped in, and the girl calmly rose from her sleep. 

She slept on a large futon atop a wooden frame. To the right was a kotatsu surrounded by cushions, and topped with a cup full of pens and pencils. By that was a door that led into a closet.
To the left of the bed was the window, a plush carpet, coffee table, armchair, and two bookshelves.
The bookshelves were filled with a mix of books, but mostly comics and manga, neatly organized into “Complete” and “Incomplete” categories.
Mounted over her bed was scroll art depicting a raging storm, and mounted on the opposing wall were models of feudal japanese weapons.
She went into her closet, revealing a spacious area, full of a mix of uniforms, gaudy dress clothes, and more traditional Japanese wear. She changed into a simple skirt and a custom made purple kimono top, along with straw slippers and socks.
From there she walked down an exuberant hallway, decorated with modern art paintings on the walls. Through the hall and into the living room, fine oak tables topped with exotic ornaments sat in without a speck of dust. She entered the kitchen, where a housekeeper was awaiting her. He presented her with a meal of scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, toast, and milk. She took her time eating, chewing every bite thoroughly and not leaving a single scrap of food on the plate. She nodded to the housekeeper, audibly thanking him for the meal, and walked towards the backyard.
Through the door, hanging on the patio wall were two sheathed katanas. She grabbed one, slinging it around her waist, and took her top off.

Her body was ripped.

Wearing nothing but a sarashi and a skirt, it proudly displayed all of the constant hard work and exercise she put into her own body. She closed her eyes and took several deep breaths in and out, enduring the cold sting of the morning air. She stepped forward onto the lawn, as a new servant set up a wooden dummy a few yards from where she stood.
Taking a deep breath, she lunged forward, closing the gap in a second. She drew her sword out slightly, ramming the hilt into the stomach, then followed up with a punch to the nose.
The wood of the dummy slightly splintered at each blow, the heavy weight of its base being the only thing stopping it from being completely knocked over.
She turned, walking back to her starting position, and continued to practice. She varied the moves little, occasionally sidestepping to anticipate an imaginary counterblow, or sometimes going straight for the nose instead of aiming for the stomach first. For fifteen minutes, she continued practicing acts of closing distance and going for non-lethal yet incapacitating blows, varying in distance. With one final thunk of the butt of her sword to the dummy’s stomach, she stepped back.
The dummy was terribly cracked in several places around the chest and stomach. The face was hammered inwards, the cracked wood beginning to flatten.
She would consider upgrading her dummy material for better longevity, but she couldn’t help but enjoy how beaten up they looked after her assault.
It was a testament to the fruits of her rigorous exercise.
Still, this dummy was of no more use to her.

She turned around to walk back inside. A few yards away from it, however…

She spun around in the blink of an eye, katana drawn. In half a second, she was in killing distance, cleaving the dummy in two across the middle with a perfectly clean cut. The top half fell over with a clunk as it bounced on the lawn turf.
She sheathed her sword, exhaling. Her housekeeper hurried over, handing her a towel and began cleaning the destroyed dummy. She wiped her face of little sweat, and re-dressed herself. She passed the kitchen and walked down a stairway to a home gym in the basement.
Her cell phone began ringing a peculiar violin tone.

She pulled it from her pocket, answering. “You need me?”
“We have eyes on a beast. It’s a flying type, so we need your expertise to bring it down.”
“You can brief me on the details when I prepare tonight. However, I’ll do it alone. I’m sure you can understand why.”
She hung up, putting her phone to the side as she prepped for her morning workout.

Saturdays were an utter blessing for Davis, this one more so than usual. Following the wendigo’s defeat, he barely managed to stumble his way back to the camp with Louise. After helping with packing, he walked her back home, saying he at least wanted to spend the night at his house alone.
That, and he didn’t want to sleep on the couch again.
After being up into the dead of night, he was going to sleep in until 1pm and nobody was going to stop him. He had woken up around 10am, but he was intent to continue embracing the coziness of his bed.

His eyes flew open upon hearing a crash from outside.

He closed his eyes tighter, heart racing. It was a racoon or something. Monsters didn’t come out this early.

Somebody was yelling.

“Davis, you up in there? I kinda need a bit of help out here!”
His heart returned to normal, all the anxiety turning into frustration.
He groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Throwing off all the blankets and letting the morning cold sting him awake, he slipped on slippers and shuffled to the front door.
Opening up, he was met with Louise and a mess she brought along. She wore the same shorts and jacket, with a slightly different alien-faced t-shirt, combined with some compression pants.
Next to her was a tipped over wagon, formerly full of papers, charts, stands, books, and posters. Its contents were scattered across the front yard, and she was chasing after a scattered stack of papers as poster tubes continued to roll across the sidewalk. She snatched up a few stray sheets, smiling sheepishly at Davis.

“What are you doing with all this stuff this early?” He rubbed more sleep from his eyes, letting out a yawn.

“Hey, uh…” She stared at the mess. “I was gonna bring some stuff over since your place is going to be our base of operations, remember? So I have all this research and stuff that would be handy for finding more monsters and-”

He yawned again, combined with a frustrated huff. “Fine, as long as you think It’ll help.”
He walked to the wagon, tipping it back onto its wheels. “Could you also call me in advance if you’re going to come on over? And come when I’m not sleeping-”

He realized Louise wasn’t anywhere near him. She was already in his living room, hanging up an “I WANT TO BELIEVE” UFO poster.

“I’ll just bring the other stuff in…”

Davis’s once decently kept living room was now transformed into something similar to Louise’s bedroom. Charts, papers and books were scattered across the floor, making walking across a hazard. The walls had even more charts hung up on them, an occasional poster mixed in. Davis crashed on the couch, panting from the past hour of setup while Louise was pacing in circles. He closed his eyes, trying to drift into another nap.

“You know, knowing all this stuff actually exists just opens up way too many places to start! There’s all these alleged sightings around here as well, but I can’t deny them COMPLETELY as hoaxes now. There’s one I personally hear gossip about. Did you know there’s a ghost that haunts our school?”
Davis raised his head, cracking open one eye towards her. “I told you to stop calling me a ghost.”
She shook her head. “No, like really! I first heard of some teachers mentioning that somebody kept getting into locked utility closets, classrooms, and locked rooms all around the school, constantly leaving garbage and wrappers around.”
Davis stared more intently as she continued.
“All the school master keys are in check, so unless somebody is a talented lockpick, which there aren’t because why would somebody lockpick a classroom just to leave garbage behind a desk or something, it clearly has to be some frustrated ghost or spirit!”

Davis sunk deeper into the couch. “No it’s not a ghost. That would be uh… me. I really don’t like being bothered eating lunch. You’re just, stretching way too much there though…”
Louise threw her hands in the air. “WELP. There goes one definitive lead. Well what about you? You said you saw a bunch of monsters in the woods!”
“Keyword here being ‘saw’. I really don’t know how to draw them out, and the wendigo was the most aggressive of the bunch I’m aware of. I really really REALLY don’t want to stake out in the woods every night waiting by happenstance to bump into one. I gotta keep up with schoolwork too.”
Louise huffed. “Saving the town is a bit more important than schoolwork!”
“I still want to have somewhat of a future after this is all over. Hero work is fun, but I’m not getting paid for any of it. I don’t think heroes ever get paid at all?”

“I mean they have to get paid for their good deeds right? How would they afford food? Once we save the town, we tell everyone and get a big reward from the mayor or something.”

“I don’t think that’s how things work…”
“Fine, I guess I’ll have to pick up the extra slack since you care so much about school.”
He shot an annoyed look at her, before glancing at all the charts. He darted from bit to bit, trying to find any bit of relevant, or at the very least comprehensible, piece of information. “Wish that the benefactor gave us some sort of lead or whatever to follow.”
Louise snapped her fingers. “You just reminded me, I nearly forgot all about it. I was browsing a few forums before I came here, checking for any cryptid sightings.”
She scrounged around the room, pulling a brown folder from off the floor. She opened it, handing a piece of paper to him. 

“This is a satellite image around the outskirts of town, in the foothills. Notice something funny?”
Davis squinted at the image. The farmland, dirt roads, and occasional abandoned structure showed up fine, but closer to the foothills it was blotted out, as if somebody went wild with the blur tool in a paint program.

“You printed this straight from maps, and didn’t download it straight from any forum, right?”

She nodded. “Verified it myself! My bet is PAIN blotted it out way back when, but when their files got wiped they forgot all about it!”

He sat up more straight. “Hey, a lead is a lead, right? It’s not often people blot out big swathes of satellite images.”
“Yup! It’s a long walk, so I should prepare some food for the hike!”
“Wait, walking?”
She ran over, opening his fridge and pausing at the sight of microwaveable meals. “Oh yeah… I guess we can grab something on the walk over?”

“What do you mean we’re going to hike over there today?”

    With Louise carrying a backpack with supplies and a sword at her hip, and Davis with his night vision goggles and jacket full of gear, the two began their trek to the foothills. They paused at downtown to get some sandwiches before continuing on, past scattered small shops and groups of offices.
During the entire walk, Louise kept a good pace, happily skipping a good distance in front of Davis. He had a constant look of death on his face, constantly calling for her to slow down. Louise would slow her pace only briefly, before leaving him in the dust.
Soon, the well paved suburban roads and sidewalks made way to less kept backroads, dotted with cracks and bumps and surrounded by farmland.

The sky began to darken as they passed the normal farmlands and stretches of grazing lands, leading into undeveloped territory. No more well-grazed fields or stretches of crops, but swathes of unkempt land hosting waist-high grass. These fields stretched on endlessly forward, only cut off by the foothills up ahead. Every so often, a dirt path would cut through the tall grass, connecting to long abandoned homes or barns. The only maintained man-made structures were streetlamps, along with utility poles running up to the hills. With what little sunlight was left, the foothills looked a little bit less than a mile off. Louise turned to Davis, who was panting and even further behind. She waved, pointing at the the roads that ran up the hills. 

“Hurry up, we’re almost there!”
“Could we sit down for like, twenty or thirty minutes?” He held up a half empty water bottle. “You’re moving so fast, I’ve barely had any time to simply take a sip of water these past few hours!” He gasped between words.
“Sure sure!” She bounded over. “We’re almost there, so I don’t think it’s an issue.” She took off her bag, pulling out a blanket, laying it on the grass next to the asphalt. She took one last sip from her now empty water bottle. Davis stared at her.

“Are you some kinda machine? How am I supposed to keep up with you?”
Louise grinned. “A little bit of exercise in the morning every day never hurts. No, snoring in bed doesn’t build muscle!.”
“I don’t snore! Plus, exercise stuff isn’t for me. I’m too busy to make time.”
She shook her head. “When winter break rolls around, I’m gonna make my new exercise walking over to your place and waking you up on time. I can’t have you out of shape.”
Davis sat on the blanket carefully, lying down. “Please don’t wake me up early ever again. Both times, you nearly gave me a heart attack.”

Louise dropped a packaged sandwich on his face. 

“Eat a bit, it’ll help you wake up a bit.”
He flinched and lurched up. He stared, annoyed.
He unwrapped it, took a bite, still staring at the darkening sky. Bite after bite, he slowly laid back down.
Louise followed, lying down right next to him. She exhaled.

“Okay, maybe I’m a bit more tired than I thought.” She giggled, stretching out her arms and legs.

The two took their time eating, watching as the sky slowly turned pitch black. Thousands of stars popped in overhead, becoming more and more clear as the sunlight receded. It wasn’t long until a beautiful sea of stars dominated the sky.


Davis stared at the sights for several minutes, mesmerized. He glanced over to Louise, who was eating another sandwich.

“You know, uh, a fun fact about the stars?”
“Hm?” She looked up to the sky, chewing her food. “Oh uh, I know constellations a bit? Tell me!”

“You don’t really get a view like this here like you do in cities. All the lights there cause a bunch of light pollution. I mean, this isn’t even the full amount of stars we COULD be seeing. I think?” He looked back where they walked, as some streetlights began to light up.

“I think you need to be completely isolated from any sort of lighting to see them all.”

She stared at the sky a bit more intently. “I never knew that. I thought everybody got to see the same starry sky.”

“I’ve lived in a lot of places when I was younger. My parents were constantly moving around, so I got to see a lot of different skies.”

Louise lurched up. “Is this talk going where I think it’s going? Don’t tell me you’re going to move again soon?”

“Hey hey uh, no? At least I don’t think so. I mean, my parents got sick of moving ME around so much despite having work that moved them around a bunch. So they just still work a lot in other places, but at least send money back to me so I can care for myself and that stuff.”
She sighed in relief, lying back down next to him.
“Okay that’s at least good. My family just works late into the night a lot of the time. Though I do get paid an allowance for doing yardwork on the weekends-” Her eyes widened.
“Oops. Well, I hope they don’t mind me cleaning up the yard a bit late.”
“It’s like, hard to get this view over at my place though with all the trees. I never really thought about appreciating the night sky too much.”
“Mhm. I never stargaze, but it’s real pretty.”

The two laid silently side by side.

Davis scrambled through his brain, thinking of something else to talk about. He took his attention to the stars, thinking back to what he just said. Every night was marred with monsters because he wanted to do something with this ability, every other night committed to it so much he didn’t have time to simply look up and enjoy a starry night. Did he really have to do this all? What was his place in everything, did he really have to use his strange powers? Was he actually doing any good killing one or two monsters despite there being so many? He turned to Louise.

She was simply very happy to be out gazing at stars with a friend.

He took a deep breath, trying to quell his swirling thoughts. He stared back to the stars, trying to drown his anxiety with the beautiful sight.
He caught something odd amongst the stars.
He squinted his eyes. He stood up.

“You see that?”
He pointed at a small distortion in the sky. It was small, but looked as if he was viewing the stars through a misshapen glass. 

“Oh, like constellations? I think that’s the big dipper.”
“No, I see something moving in the sky.”
Louise sighed. “Oh don’t get your hopes up. Trust me, 100% of the time it’s just a helicopter or airplane. I could tell if it was a ufo-”
“It’s not a plane, it’s like some bubble-”

The horizon erupted into a blinding flash, a bolt of lightning surging through the air. Davis fell onto his bottom and Louise shielded her eyes. An explosive CRACK resounded through the air. Then, another flash, another bolt of lightning, and another CRACK. 

Louise quickly took the gauntlets and headlight from her bag, putting them on. Davis slowly got back to his feet. 

“I’m gonna run on ahead to figure out what that is, keep up as best as you can!”
She bolted into the grass, as Davis yelled out for her to slow down.

“Hold on, argh!” He stretched out his hand towards her, before wading in behind her.

After sprinting towards the lightning for a few minutes, there was a flattened clearing of grass, several blades of it cleanly cut and charred where a large, trailer truck sized object had crashed.

It looked like a giant armored shell, with six spherical protrusions evenly spaced from each other. One protrusion was three times bigger than the rest. It had a rugged, rock like texture. She creeped closer, her heart racing.

Second day doing this, first cryptids now a UFO? This is amazing!

She put her hand on it, running along the bumpy surface. It had an unnervingly smooth texture kind of like polished granite. Passing over the larger protrusion, it opened up, leading to a deathly dark interior.

She shined her headlight into it, finding two black glassy eyes staring back at her. It was the face of a tortoise.

Aw man, it’s just another cryptid!


The cryptid opened its mouth and exhaled a blast of air, knocking up a billow of dirt and sending her flying away. She tumbled through the grass but regained her footing, charging straight back. It only took a few moments before she skidded to a halt.

The monster began to float, several feet off the air. The stomach of it was pitch black with shifting, glowing specks that imitated the night sky above. Three more heads emerged from the cryptid’s shell, a total of four staring her down. Four trunk-like legs sprouted from the shell, and a bizarre tail with a starfish-like end swung outwards. It floated towards her, all four heads rearing back. 

She leapt back, covering her face as the heads smashed into the ground in front of her. Dirt, grass, and dust exploded outwards, creating a thick cloud of dust. She tumbled back again, bumping her head landing on her belly. She dazedly tried to shake off the blow, prepping to get back to her feet. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do, but she had to do something.
Running was probably the best option, but maybe the monster had some kinda weakness?

By the time the dust cleared, the cryptid had retreated back a significant distance, with a fresh cut on one of its heads. There was a new, long-haired figure between the two of them. They glanced back to look at Louise before returning focus to the monster.
She wore what looked like a modified version of a shrine maiden’s outfit, alongside tough looking boots. The outfit was pitch black with purple trim, and a blue and red gradient skirt. There was a water-like insignia on one of her detached sleeves, and on the opposite shoulder was a red, black, and white patterned sash. At her hip was a katana in an antique, yet futuristic looking sheathe.

The beast turned two of its heads to the side, and they began to inhale air. It landed on the ground with a quaking crash, the two other heads locking gazes with the maiden. 

The small quake caused Louise to fall over, but the mysterious figure stood firm, placing her hand on her sword’s hilt.

She dashed forward in a full on sprint, the cryptid let forth a blast of air.

Then, a crack and a flash of purple light.

All four heads of the beast stood straight up in the air, twitching around for several seconds, before retreating into the shell.

 On top of the shell stood the figure, katana drawn and outstretched. She calmly re-sheathed her sword, still standing and staring down at the beast. 


She hopped off the top of the shell without even stumbling on the landing.

Louise got back to her feet, and ran up to the figure to thank her. Closer up, she recognized her face.

It was Kirino Yorogami.