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Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
Wed Dec 03, 2008, 01:24 AM (This post was last modified: Sat Dec 06, 2008 12:44 AM by nightPhaser.)
Post: #11
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
CHAPTER III : THE OTHER SIDE

"Gimme, gimme, gimme, a man after midnight.
Won't somebody help me chase the shadows away."
-- ABBA

*****

"Reports have confirmed that local celebrity and advocate of Christian values, Kristy Kew, is indeed pregnant. The identity of the child's father remains a mystery.

Kristin Lillian Kew, a Johor-borne talent, made her name as an actress in such films as 'Heart Full Of Porridge', 'The Thirsty Ghost' and the award-winning World War II epic 'White Orchid'. Last year, she recorded the jazz-pop album 'To The Key of Kew' that earned acclaim amongst critics, despite modest sales both locally and abroad.

Her pregnancy casts a shadow of controversy over her image as an inspirational Christian figure. She has so far refused to comment on the situation, but she has said she will make an announcement when she is ready. Some speculate that the father is none other than music producer Martin Loh, and her supporters seem keen on the possibility that they managed to marry in secret."

With a blip, the host of the afternoon TV show 'Melody' gave way to a soccer match between Malaysia and Japan. Soulie sighed a bit, as she placed the television remote onto the bar counter. "Hey!" said a man sitting on a swivel-chair at the bar. He was a young male squirrel in a T-shirt and jeans, with rust-red fur and a bushy tail that weaved about in the air behind him on its own. "Just looking out for you, hon." said Soul, as she wiped some spoons and forks with a fluffy hand towel. "Shouldn't be filling your head with that garbage, y'know?"

"Well, it's my head, so." he said, as he stirred the ice in an otherwise-empty glass with a straw. As he lowered his head to draw some melted ice water into his mouth, he paused and grimaced. Soul noticed this, and said: "Something wrong?"

"Nothing, it's just... I moved too fast."

"Rajan, I know you have a headache."

"No, it's..." He made a strange face as if a brick just struck the back of his head. "Yeah."

"Come here. And sit still." Soul put her hands up just in front of the squirrel's face, as he leaned forward slightly. "Close your eyes." Rajan did as he was told. She took a long breath into her lungs, held it in for several seconds, and exhaled. She did this several times, before she said to him: "You can open those peepers now."

"Wow. It's... gone." said Rajan, as his smoky, hazel eyes blinked several times. She smiled. "That'll be fifty ringgit. Cash."

"Soulie!"
"Just kidding. I know you could use another drink though."
"Mango juice. With one of those squiggly straws this time, though."
"Coming up."

Soul walked a bit to the fridge and popped out a bottle and a sliced half of mango. When she returned to the bar, she sliced pieces of the mango into the blender, splashed a bit of the bottle's contents in, and topped it up with ice. The hard crushing sound of the blender's blades against the ice gradually became a sloshing buzz. She took out a tall glass, poured the concoction into it, and popped a purple squiggly straw into it. Rajan wasted little time drawing the drink into his mouth, and watched intently as the orange liquid travelled the straw's loops.

"Soulie, where's Danny? I haven't seen him in ages." he said, after smacking his lips. Soulie rinsed the blender in the small sink behind the bar, seemingly in thought, before she answered. "We're not seeing each other anymore." She looked up at the squirrel. "Or rather, I don't want to see him anymore."

"But... you guys are so cute together."

"Maybe. It seems that way." She made her way out of the tender's side of the bar, and sat next to Rajan on another swivel-chair. It was a weekday, in mid-afternoon, and the restaurant was empty. "Every time he looks at me, I know all he's thinking is what it would be like if he hadn't hooked up with me."

"You don't know that." said Rajan. She turned her head towards him. "Yes, I do. I just know."

*****

Near the main gateway into USTM was an artificial lake, where students would go for various activities such as kayaking or researching freshwater ecosystems. On the side of the lake closest to the University's administration center, Dobb snapped a picture of the opposite bank, where a young couple and their toddler child were feeding fish from a roofed jetty. He heard the deep rumble of an engine behind him, and turned to see someone dismounting from a motorbike at a roofed parking lot. He took a photo of the man and the machine.

"Nice bike."
"Thanks." the man said, as he removed his helmet.
"Hey, you're that guy Ezra talked to at the restaurant." said the doberman, as he offered a hand. "I'm Dobb."
"I'm Ryuu." said the cat, as he shook Dobb's hand.

Dobb continued to look over the lakeside and snapped a few more pictures, as Ryuumajin took off his jacket and locked up his ride. The cat noticed logo on on Dobb's bag, and asked him: "So you're from Singapore?"

"No, I'm Malaysian. I'm just studying there."
"Studying what?"
"Film."
"Are you going to make one?"
"Well, yes, I am."
Ryuumajin nodded. "What's your film about?"

"I can't tell you. I'd spoil it." said Dobb, to which the cat pouted and made big eyes at him. "Okay, okay. Please don't do that. You're a grown man."

Dobb went to one of the small wooden gazebos that dotted the side of the lake, and sat down. He laid the camera on his lap, and exchanged its battery with a spare one. "The original idea is mine, but a friend of mine, Shuraim, (bless his soul) helped me with the initial script."

He lined up the camera to the horizon, closed one eye, and looked through the viewfinder with the other. "The story is about a teenaged boy and a man who live in Singapore. They are both very close friends. One day, the boy dies, and is buried somewhere in Malaysia where he was born. The man got so sad, that the boy could feel it from outside the mortal plane. The boy then tries to get back to the world of the living."

"Meanwhile, the man ends up going on a journey to recover the boy's soul, meeting Chinese deities, Indian spirits, Malay monsters, and things like that. Many of them disguise themselves as people like you and me." Dobb inserted the camera into his bag, which also had a digital video camcorder and a few spiral-bound notebooks. "One of them is an angel that guards the Causeway between here and Singapore, who also knows the way to the land of the dead."

There was a long pause afterwards, as Dobb flipped through one of the notebooks. "And then?" asked Ryuumajin. "And then you buy a DVD of the film when it's finished." said the dog, with a smile. Ryuumajin stuck a tongue out, and laughed with his new acquaintance.

"Have you seen Ezra? I need to meet him about something." asked Dobb. Ryuumajin paused for a while, almost nervously, before he answered: "No, I haven't. I don't know where he is." The cat pulled out a cell phone from his back pocket. It was an ancient, black, plasticky thing, and creaked audibly when he pressed the buttons. "But my friend probably does."

*****

After a particularly frustrating time convincing the Science Faculty's Dean to extend the project deadline for his research paper, Yaali was tempted to call an end to his work day when he passed Ezra's office and noticed a female student waiting in front of it. She seemed like an easily-flustered kind of person, who fidgeted a lot and knocked on Ezra's office door repeatedly.

"Is something the matter, miss?" he asked her. Partly out of concern, partly because she was blocking the corridor.

"Oh! Uh, nothing. Really. Nothing." she said, before quickly adding: "It's Professor Ezra. He hasn't been to our classes since last Tuesday, and didn't turn up for our exam earlier today." Yaali looked thoughtful for moment, and told her to come again tomorrow, and that he will find out how her lecturer is doing.

The goat considered it very significant that a person like Ezra would miss classes, or even a exam. Despite the wolf's temperament, he was a man of his word, and as far as Yaali knew, he had never passed the opportunity to watch his students grumble and sweat over his exam questions.

As Yaali walked over the courtyard in front of the Faculty's main office, he took out his cellphone, a slim silver thing which was absolutely without stains, scratches or fingerprints. He tried calling Ezra's number on the phone. All three of them. He was diverted to the voicemail answering system for two of them, and got no reply on the other, after thirty rings.

As he wiped down his phone, he noticed the time. He was reminded of a package delivery waiting for him at his Faculty, and started walking a little faster. As he went, he passed by the first floor of block C10, and instantly recalled Ezra's complete class schedule, from the one he saw in the wolf's office two weeks ago. It seemed to Yaali that the wolf had been absent to at least 12 hours' worth of classes.

After a few steps, he was then on second floor of another block. He passed by the letters "C13" painted in large black letters on an external beige wall. Tall, white pillars that propped up the roof three floors above him were dotted evenly along the curved building. The Science Faculty's buildings were designed around the center of the University, where the grand mosque, the library and the main convention hall was located.

The sky was overcast that day, with purple-grey clouds billowing over the misty Mount Pulai, as Yaali observed when he walked across a bridge that connected the curved block with another one, a building under the Faculty of Management and Modern Languages. A number of pipes ran along the roof of the bridge, carrying coolants, hot air and data cables. Half-way across the bridge, he heard the rumble of a student commute bus passing underneath him.

The letters "D05" were painted on the outside wall of a stairwell of the opposite block. Upon reaching the end of the bridge, he made his way to another, smaller bridge and ended up being on the fourth floor of block D06. This sort of shifting with the floor numbers was common near the center of USTM, where the terrain curved sharply downwards away from the Sultan Ismail Mosque.

He went down the stairs to the ground floor, making a consistent and rhythmic clatter with his shoes as he did. He went down another set of stairs going down the side of a steep hill face to the Computer Center building, which was built as two connected parts with a river in between. He went in, past the computer labs and a bridge over what is now a murky creek rather than a river.

Just outside the repair labs, he saw a small pile of cathode-ray tube monitors and television sets. In some time in the past, most of them displayed faculty news and upcoming events. Now, they have been detached, brought down onto the floor, and only awaited proper disposal.

A melodic chime sounded from his pocket, and Yaali quickly flipped open his phone to answer. He was putting the device to his ear when the largest amongst the damaged displays, the one that used to be in the building's lobby, flickered into life. It showed a jagged, black- and white-striped spiral that spun slowly, and also started to emit a sound, like dead channel noise stretched out, squeezed tight and mixed together until it came out reminiscent of desperate whispers and moans.

Two technicians passed by him, a tall one and a fat one, and Yaali ventured to ask them what was wrong with that particular television. "With what?" He pointed towards the unsettling piece of electronic equipment. "That."

"It's... broken?" said the fat one. Yaali realised that the reply, in combination with their expressions, indicated that they could not see nor hear the things he did. He kindly thanked them, also realising that further inquiry would make them question his sanity. He was already starting to question it himself.

He also heard mumbling coming from his hand, but this was no hallucination. Yaali held up the phone to his ear, and finally answered the call. "Hello?"

"Yaali, it's Ryuu."
The goat glared at the swirling screen, as he spoke. "Yes? What do you want?"
"I got a guy here looking for Ezra. Y'know where he is?"
"I'm trying to find out as we speak."
"So you don't know."
"I'll call you when I get to him."
"Alright, thanks... uh, Yaali, what the heck is that awful noise?"
"Y... You can hear it?"
"Yeah. Sounds bad."

Yaali pondered for a moment, before he said: "Come over to the Computer Center, there's something I need you to see. It's urgent."

*****

"And it's been that way since...?"
"Since I got the call from Ryuu."

Three figures were gathered around the large screen that showed a jagged, striped spiral and emitted a macabre, modulated noise. It was late afternoon, so the public computer labs and repair center were closed. There was no one else to see a young doberman kneeling in front of the monitor and patiently scrutinising its surface, which rippled under his breath like water.

Dobb held out a pinky finger and began moving it towards the screen. He paused half an inch before reaching the surface, then scoffed before he touched the screen. His finger sank into the surface, and to him it felt like pushing into the surface of a pool of corn syrup. He extended more of his hand into the screen.

"It's not too hot or cold on the other side." he said, as he pulled his hand out again. It was in exactly the same condition as it came in. "And it's not melting the flesh off my hand or anything like that."

"You did it knowing that was a possible outcome?" said Yaali, with his arms folded across his chest.
"Note that I started with a fingertip."
"So it's safe to stick our heads in there?" said Ryuumajin, who kneeled next to Dobb.

Yaali, who had been standing the furthest away from the screen, tapped his shoes nervously. He held his palm over his mouth when he wasn't speaking. "What if it leads out into a bottomless hole?"

"We could try throwing a rock in there and listen for it to land." ventured Ryuumajin.
"Listen for it to land? No. Even my ears can't get past this awful noise." said Dobb.

"I think we should leave it alone." Yaali said, as he paced the floor in a tight circle. "It won't do anything to us if we just walk away and leave it alone."

"It isn't going to 'do' anything." Dobb said, as he stood up and Ryuumajin took his place in front of the screen. "It's just some sort of doorway."

"Doorways let things in... and out." argued Yaali.
"We've been here more than an hour and nothing's come out. I am curious about what's in there, though, so whether you like it or not, I'll just go stick my head in there."

"You can't be serious...!" said Yaali. As Dobb started turning towards the portal, the goat moved to grab the dog's shoulders and perhaps convince him against it in a better way. This gesture was interpreted by Dobb as a form of unwelcome assault on personal space, so he took a large step backwards to avoid it. As he did so, his foot knocked against back of a kneeling feline who was bent close towards the mesmerising patterns on the screen.

"Haaa...?" was the last thing Ryuumajin said as he bowled over forward and into the large screen. The only thing left of him was one of his shoes, which sat on the floor in front of the screen without a partner.

"f---." said the dog, who felt that was a remarkably appropriate expression. As a response towards this development, Dobb and Yaali stood there doing very little. Yaali had begun twisting and twirling his blue tie in his hands, while Dobb kept a severe expression on his face. This went on for a long while.

At least, until the head of a cat with grey-streaked hair popped out of the screen with a wide smile on his face. "You guys have to see this! Gila banget sih!"

*****

On the other side of the screen was a space very similar to the one they came in from. It was the exact same building, in fact, though the pile of broken monitors were on an opposite side. Other examples of reversed features, like the stairs and the location of the doors, implied that everything was a mirror image of the way it was on the other side of the screen commonly referred to as the real world.

"I'm expecting a bunny to show up sometime soon." said Dobb.
"What?" said Ryuumajin.
"It's a Lewis Carroll reference." said Yaali.
"Who?"
"Nevermind." said both the goat and the dog.

Unlike another piece of fiction, there was a thick, white mist around them which obscured their vision past a dozen meters. However, it did not feel damp at all, and Yaali considered the fact that it was not humid enough to give him a fit of wheezing fairly comforting. But not by that much.

"No poisonous fumes. Check." said Dobb.
"Maybe it's slow-acting." mumbled Yaali.
"You didn't have to follow us, y'know."
"My curiosity wrestled with my survival instincts."
"And?"
"Curiosity killed it."
"No regrets then, Yaali."
"I am very sure I will acquire some, eventually."

Ryuumajin ventured a few meters into the fog, and squinted his eyes. He saw a spot of light breaking through the fog, and started walking towards it. "Where are you going?" said Dobb. "There's a light." he answered. "It's coming from over there."

"Those are the academic offices." said Yaali, before he realised that Dobb was already following the cat. He was stunned by fear and indecision for a few seconds before braving himself to run after the other two while making strange gurgling noises.

Ryuumajin arrived to a door which was typical in every way except that it was glowing like a fluorescent tube and it emitted a low, persistent hum. He cautiously grasped the doorknob, found it to be no more different than a normal metal one, and twisted it. He pushed the door in, gently, and took a peek inside through the small open gap.

Not that he needed to, when Yaali ran into him from behind and pushed them both into the opposite side. Dobb calmly stepped in, without touching the glowing door, and shook his head when he saw the mound of cat and goat on the ground.

They found themselves in a long hallway made of polished black and white marble, with golden trimming. Above them was a ceiling made of glittering opal. Electric lights encased in glass and copper, attached to arches in the hallway, illuminated the space in both yellow and cool white light. As Ryuumajin and Yaali set themselves upright, Dobb walked a bit into the hallway.

Punctuating the corridors were carved reliefs and stone statues of muscular men, many of them completely nude and well-endowed. They were all done in various poses ranging from the Classical forms of the Greeks and the Renaissance, to the blatantly titillating, to the questionably complex. As Dobb took a closer look, he saw that the figures had nondescript faces and species, as if they were moulded from the idea of masculine beauty rather than any real person.

Dobb turned around to put something against the door, just in case it closed. He raised an eyebrow when he found that the doorway had changed into a wall with an Atlas-like figure holding up a globe full of scantily-clad bodybuilders and smiling back at him.

Yaali did not take to this new fact very well. "It's... ya Rabbi! It's a trap! I knew it! I knew it!" He began clawing at the inexplicable wall, being careful enough not to get his hands on any sculpted crotches.

Ryuumajin walked up to the goat, grabbed his shoulders, turned him around, and shook him. "Oi! Calm down!" he said, as he stared down the goat. "It's okay. It's alright. Let's just figure this out. You're great at figuring things out, remember?" A reasonably less twitchy Yaali nodded a reply.

Dobb, meanwhile, was staring down the hallway. He smiled slightly, remembering a feeling he had several years before, when he was faced with a similar predicament. He also remembered what he did in that situation, and decided that it might turn out just as well this time.

"Hey, Dobb! Where are you goi... wait up!" said Ryuumajin, as he dragged a disheveled Yaali by the arm.

As they moved through it, the hallway twisted and turned many times. There were several places where the paths branched into two or three ways, in which case Ryuumajin took out a permanent marker from his pants pocket and marked out the paths they chose through the grueling process of Rock, Paper, Scissors. For the first hour they spent in the maze, they never encountered a dead end nor any paths marked with black ink.

As they walked through yet another hallway full of lurid displays of male physique, Yaali paused and glanced behind him. "Guys... didn't we turn right into this path?"

"Yeah, we did." said Dobb, with his eyes locked forward, like a hound.
"So how come the junction behind us splits forward and to the right?"

All three of them stopped, and looked down the way they came. "We... w-w-we're lost, aren't we?" Yaali said, before he laid down, curled himself up, and started mumbling quietly.

"What is wrong with... what is he doing?" said Dobb, with a degree of exasperation.

Ryuumajin dropped to his knees, and carefully placed a hand on Yaali's shoulder. He started saying things to the goat in heavily-accented Indonesian. After some time, Yaali nodded to the cat, and rose up slowly. "Let's just keep going till we find a way out." It was uncertain who the cat was trying to reassure.

A few minutes passed before Yaali saw something at the end of the hall. With a slight feeling of hope, they quickly walked through the hallway and to what seemed to be a doorway. When they went through it, they found themselves in a wide, open space under a twilight sky of searing reds, warm yellows, and vibrant blues. "We're free! We're... free?" said Yaali, as he ran in circles on a large marble platform.

The platform was one of many, set high above what looked like a vortex of a dozen staircases that lead down to a circular hole. Beyond the perforation, they could see a clear night sky with bright, scattered stars and ghostly nebulae. "We're not going down there, are we?"

"It's the only way we got." said Dobb, as he started going down the steps.

Up until the time they were three-quarters of the way down, Yaali had been feeling like they were in a labyrinth, the kind where virgins were sent into, and something big and meat-eating was waiting for them in the center of it. He decided that this might be a primordial fear experienced by his ancestors. He couldn't quiter decide, however, if the fears were completely unfounded.

When they reached the bottom, Ryuu laid down flat on the floor and panted. The cat raised an arm and said: "Time out! Kitty needs break!" Yaali sat next to him, and hugged his knees.

Dobb smirked at the two, and made his way to the edge of the circular hole, which had actually been big enough to allow an olympic stadium to be dropped through it. He went down flat on his belly, scooted to the edge, and examined the area just beyond the hole. He held both hands onto the edge, and swung his upper body over it. On the other side was the same vortex of staircases, but upside-down. Peculiarly enough, his hair seemed to be falling in the wrong direction.

He pulled himself back from over the edge, and walked towards the Yaali and Ryuumajin. "Either of you have anything you don't want returned?" Yaali shook his head, while Ryuumajin gave some thought before he handed Dobb an HB pencil. The dog motioned for them to follow him, and laid down flat at the edge of the pit. He told the others to do the same.

Dobb took out the pencil and casually threw it, at an angle, into the hole. "Hey!"

"Shh! Look at it."

The pencil fell through the hole, as expected. Then it slowly curved upwards, and 'fell' onto the surface on the other side.

"Holy Muhammad on a tricycle. Weird."

Dobb stood up, took a few steps back, looked at the two still on the floor, and grinned. With no warning, he started running towards the edge, bent down, and did a somersault into the pit. "Dobb!" A look of terror went across Yaali and Ryuumajin's faces, before they looked into the pit.

Dobb had rolled onto the other side and stood up, which looked to the other two like he just decided, on that single day, to start walking on ceilings. "Whatever you do, don't jump in straight down!" he shouted, as he patted imaginary dust off his pants. The other two followed him in similar fashion. Yaali landed with a gymnast's dismount. Ryuumajin landed on his bottom.

With this bit of business done, and with nowhere else to go, they started going up one of the staircases, though this time under an incredible expanse of inky space and astronomical objects.

At the top, past a marble platform, they went through a doorway, and into another network of corridors. It seemed to be darker than the previous maze, only because the lights were fewer and farther in between. The statues and reliefs were also becoming a more common sight. Their poses were almost exclusively erotic and explicit, involving dozens of males in various tesselations with each other, some more intimate and vulgar than the rest. "Not that I'm being rude or anything." said Ryuumajin. "But this place is really... gay." The remark made Dobb burst out into laughter, despite everything. "And how!" He caught himself thinking that Shuraim would've loved to be here, screwed-up maze aspect aside.

Along the way, one of the depictions caught Ryuumajin's attention, only because the man in it was all by himself. He stopped to look at the figure, which was curled up into a strange position. "What is this one doing?"

Yaali took a step back and looked at the carving. Then, as if realising something, he tilted his head to one side and smiled like a kid who finally figured out why everyone giggled at the bathroom graffiti. Ryuumajin noticed this, and tilted his head as well before looking at the artwork. His eyes opened wider, his ears reddened, and his mouth was stuck agape.

Dobb, who did not need to tilt his head to see what was actually being depicted, nodded sagely. "Quite a limber guy for a meathead, isn't he?"

"Funny you should say 'meathead'." said Yaali, as he continued forward into the maze.

As they went down the corridors, marking down branches and questioning their masculinity, Ryuumajin said: "This is creeping me out."

"What exactly? The nonsensical architecture? The incredible amount of literally-chiseled, muscular, naked men? The fact that we might be hopelessly lost?" answered Dobb. "Okay, all that too. But don't you guys notice that there's nothing else that's alive in here except us?"

They've noticed the silence, a hollow sort of quietness with no trace of ambient noise. Their steps echoed down the hallways and disappeared forever. Ryuumajin could've sworn he heard the blood moving through his veins, but he wasn't about to mention it.

After a while, they encountered an wide, open space similar to the one they entered earlier. However, the staircases did not spiral down into a pit, and instead lead toward a large geodesic structure, the colour and look of ivory. As they went down the steps, they saw that the structure was covered in ornate carvings and etched reliefs of more scantily-clad men. There was a giant archway, lined with gold and purple velvet, on the structure that lead into a large, circular hall. The three walked along the purple carpet laid out before them, through the archway and into the building.

The inner sanctum evoked a cathedral, with light of undetermined source pouring in through stained-glass windows in varying shades of grey. On the walls were more statues of muscular males, though clad in briefs and standing at nearly eight feet tall with almost military discipline. At one section of the wall was a twenty-foot-tall marble statue of an incongruously heavy-set male, nude but for a stream of sculpted cloth over modestly-sized privates. Though the statue's head had broken off, it seemed to be the focus of the room, and if indeed it was a cathedral, this would be the thing being worshipped.

There was also an old, wooden-boxed television in the middle of the purple-carpeted room. Its screen flickered and jumped in between showing video noise snowstorms. In front of the television laid an unconscious black-furred wolf in a crimson-red shirt. "Ezra!" said Ryuumajin, as he shuffled across the floor and sat himself beside the wolf.

As soon as the cat touched the wolf's bloodied face, two of statues in the hall creaked, and shifted slowly. They eased themselves off the wall with a deep crumbling sound, emitting puffs of stone dust. Twin halves of red, wrought-iron masks came out from behind their heads, and clacked together over their faces. Colours were blooming over their polished marble surfaces into patterns of purple and gold. The figures shambled towards the party, looking like immense luchador wrestlers poised to crack some headsin their strong, sinewy arms. One of creatures wagged a long, salivating purple tongue at Yaali.

As the goat screamed, Dobb was struck with a terrible familiarity about the two creatures.

He quickly shouted at Yaali and Ryuu to stand back, then started walking towards the demonic wrestlers, keeping Ezra between him and the other two. This seemed to Ryuumajin to be both an insane and ballsy thing to do. Suddenly, Dobb began to hit the back of his neck at specific positions with his fingers. He did this several times, each attempt accompanied with a grimace of pain and the creatures getting one step closer to him.

As one of the giants reached out to wrap its stone fingers around Dobb's head, the pure sound of shattering crystal rang through the hall. As he was surrounded by a glowing blue cloud, Dobb's eyes rolled back and he shouted at the top of his lungs: "Persona!"

Immediately, a mirage of a man made from electrical cables and copper coils, with reversed feet and a crystal canine skull for a head, emerged from his body. It raised a hand towards the giants, and unleashed branching bolts of lightning from needle-clawed fingers. Then, as fast as it appeared, the figure faded away, while the roar of thunder reverberated in the hall. Dobb's ears started ringing, but he knew he did not have to do it again.

Taking a direct hit to their heads, the musclebound pair shattered like glass. The shards quickly melted into pools of black liquid, which then evaporated into the air.

"What in Jahannam was that?!" said Yaali, while grabbing at his horns. Ryuumajin went back to Ezra, and checked him for injuries. Dobb snapped his head left and right, and stretched out his arms and body. "How is he? Anything broken?"

"I don't think so, but he's bleeding. We have to get him out of here."

As Dobb passed close to the television set, the flickering of the screen stopped, and it started showing a familiar jagged swirl of black and white stripes. "I think... that's our exit." said Yaali, pointing towards the screen.

Dobb tested the portal with his finger, then his hand, followed by his head. "Alright, it's definitely an exit. You go out first, Ryuu, and take Ezra's feet. Yaali, help me carry him through." Ryuumajin climbed into the television screen, as Dobb and Yaali propped up the motionless wolf. They carefully brought Ezra through the screen, and then climbed through it themselves.

They all found themselves at the Computer Center, coming out of the same screen through which they entered the strange world. Dobb and Ryuumajin laid Ezra carefully on the floor. Yaali turned around and saw the portal disappear in a single, quiet blip. The screen now showed nothing but darkness, and a reflection of four people in the glass.

"Unh, Wh... aaaargh, damn, ah, shit."
"Ezra? Can you hear me?"

The wolf's forehead was bleeding, and he had deep cuts on his sides and hips. The blood had already started matting into his dark fur. "Damn. Get me... to Puteri Specialist." Yaali pulled out his phone and began calling for an ambulance. Ezra watched the goat dialling through half-lidded eyes, and snarled. "No! No General. Get me to a private hospit... nngh."

"Yaali, stop calling." said Dobb.
"What? But I must..."
"Ryuu, take him where he wants to go."

Ryuumajin looked at the wolf, who could do little but wince and snarl. He took a set of keys out of his pants pocket and nodded back to Dobb.

*****

After putting his dark-blue Proton into park, Yaali stepped out of his car and brought out a decent-sized tote bag from the back seat. Dobb emerged from the passenger seat, and looked about the parking lot. They walked towards a tall, grey building, which had a red-and-blue logo upon it set above the words: PUTERI SPECIALIST HOSPITAL.

The automatic doors slid apart as they both entered the private hospital's lobby. Yaali asked young female receptionist some question, while Dobb slung the tote bag over his shoulder. They took an elevator to the tenth floor, after which they followed a corridor while looking at the numbers on the doors.

When they found the room they were looking for, Yaali placed a forefinger to his mouth while facing Dobb. Then he opened the door, turned to one of the hospital beds, and said in an excited voice: "Get well soon, Ezra!" He found himself raising his arms joyfully at a leonine woman lying on the bed while reading a book, who stared back at him without saying a word.

"Over here... doofus." said a wolf at the other side of the room. Ryuumajin was sitting next to the wolf's bed, and happily waved at the two visitors. Ezra was lying on a slightly-raised bed, dressed in pale turquoise hospital clothes. "I asked to be changed to the window-side bed." He grabbed the bit of cloth at his chest, looking at it with disgust. "Since they couldn't do anything about the shirt."

The black wolf was bandaged around his head, and patches of white material were stuck onto his arms and legs. An intravenous tap was stuck into the crook of his arm, attached to a saline drip beside him.

"So, who put you up to this?"
"To... what?" said Yaali.
"Coming over. Bringing stuff like it's my fiftieth birthday."
"For someone whose life we saved, you're being rather awful to us." said Dobb.
"What, me? I'm already being nice as it is, letting you come up and see me like this."

Ezra tried to get himself up, but only managed a few inches before he winced. He carefully laid himself back down onto the bed, and started panting slowly. "f---, that smarts." he said to himself.

"The nurse said not to move too much." said Ryuu, as he pulled a sheet back over Ezra's midsection. "I know what the freaking nurse said." Ezra said, and sighed. He turned his head towards Yaali. "So, what do you have there?"

Dobb parked himself near the window and leaned against the wall, while Yaali sat on one of the small wooden chairs and opened up the tote bag. He brought out a box, and lifted the cover to reveal a cake inside. In response, Ezra looked at him funny. "Don't worry, it just looks like chocolate." Ezra looked at him some more. "Oh, fine." said the goat, as he set the box on the table next to Ezra. "You can eat it later, when you're less grumpy." Ryuumajin craned his neck, trying to look at the baked treat. "Can I have some?" Ezra took the reached for the box, and handed it over to the cat. "Yes, actually, you can. I have to control my sugar intake, anyway." said Ezra.

For a few minutes, the room was devoid of conversation. Ezra did not seem to want to talk much, and the others seemed unsure about broaching a particular topic. The wolf reached for an empty glass and a pot of water, then poured himself a drink. As he did, his shirt bunched up, revealing the bandages wrapped around his side.

"How many stitches did you need, Ezra?" ventured Yaali.
"Seven."
"That's not so ba..."
"Seven places I needed stitches."
"Oh." The goat's mind scrambled to find a diferrent thing to talk about.
"Severed a tendon, too. They sewed it up, but it's likely I'll have a slight limp in my right leg for while, if not for the rest of my life."

Dobb stood up and sat himself on the bed, near Ezra's feet. "Let's not pretend what happened two days ago didn't." he said. "I don't know what you mean. I got injured when I accidentally drove my Kancil into the River Chat in downtown J.B."

"You don't have a Kancil."
"Not any more! It's at the bottom of a river!"

There was another bout of silence, and Ryuumajin fiddled with a slice of the cake, which turned out to be coffee-flavoured, using a plastic fork inside the box.

"If you're done being a complete drama-mutt, could you shed some light on how you ended up... in that place?" said Dobb, with his eyes placed squarely on Ezra's. The wolf frowned at this, then conceded with an irritated huff.

"I was on the way to class at the North lecture halls, when it suddenly started raining really bad. Now I'd usually just grin and bear it, but there was a lot of wind to go with it, and I almost slipped off the ground. I was taking shelter at the Computer Science building when this weird thing happened to one of the monitors there and..." Ezra raised a hand and held the side of his head. "...I don't know. I think I passed out."

Dobb noticed something as Ezra spoke, but he was not sure what it was, not exactly. "Something's different about you."

"Yeah, he's injured."
"No, it's..." Dobb paused, and shook his head. "Nevermind."
"I'd rather not discuss this... place you found me right now."

Yaali turned in his seat, and looked up towards Dobb. "How did you do... what you did back there? When you shouted something. Parsi, or Purses, or..."

"Persona." Dobb started rubbed the back of his neck. "I wasn't certain if it would work, but it did." He placed his hands in his lap. "Three years ago, me, Shuraim, Andy and a few others spent very late nights fighting those things you saw, while everyone else was... asleep. With special tools, we were able to call upon... a being, a manifestation formed from a facet of our psyche, to destroy them." He clenched his hands into fists. "But we took care of it. Those things aren't supposed to exist anymore. It cost us so much..." Dobb seemed more ponderous then. He suddenly stood up, and walked towards the door. "I need to go see Andy about this."

"Wight wow?" said Ryuu, with a mouth full of cake.
"But Dobb, I drove you here." said Yaali.

Dobb cast his eyes downward. "I'll call a taxi." When Yaali reached for the bag, Dobb raised a hand towards the goat "No. Don't. Please, just... keep him company."

Ezra scoffed at the suggestion that he needed any, though when the dog went out the door, he gave the dog a slight nod. Dobb took this as his way of saying thanks.

*****

It was the end of a rather interesting class, and Andy put away his notes and stationery into a backpack. Before he left the classroom, he stopped to say thank you to the middle-aged lecturer, who wished him the best for the coming exam, and told him to come see him again about Andy's project proposal. When he got out, he saw Dobb leaning against the wall near the door.

"Hey, Dobb."
"Hey, Andy. Have a seat, I've got a story to tell you." said the dog, as he motioned towards one of many benches and table set up along the corridor.

After Dobb finished reiterating the events up to the present, Andy blinked a few times, looked away at the distance, then back at Dobb. "Okay, let me get this right: You went inside a TV, navigated a very gay maze, and destroyed some Shadows." Dobb nodded, saying: "What do you think?"

Andy made a face. "When are you going to let go of this, Dobb?! It was all over. Lalita's sacrifice made sure of that."

"Don't make this be about me, okay?"
"But it IS about you, Dobb. We all moved on. You need to do that, too."
"Fine, but before you brush me off, you better call Ezra at the hospital and wish him a fast and full recovery."
"Ezra's in...?" Having made his point, Dobb stood up and walked away before Andy finished the sentence.

As Dobb waited for the public bus to Taman Universiti, he took out his phone, a slider with a proper flash and decent camera, and made a call.

"Hello?
Yeah, Tommy, it's me.
You know where the old gym is?
Uh-huh.
Well, I need you to do me a favour and get something from my locker.
Yeah.
And send it to me here in Johor, ASAP."

*****

As he sat next to the hospital bed, Ryuumajin smiled gleefully while typing a text message on his creaky handphone. Ezra was eating a modest lunch, while Yaali was reading a book with pages already aged pale yellow. In a moment, the goat closed his book and tilted his head towards Ezra. "I had been wondering about something since we got you out of that place, Ezra."

"Spill it." said the wolf, as he forked a slice of hospital-made steamed fish into his mouth.

"Are you gay?"

Ryuumajin immediately fumbled with the handphone he was holding and accidentally dropped it. It landed with a solid, plastic thud. Ezra stopped chewing, swallowed his food, and stared at the goat for a period longer than natural. "What do you think?"

"I don't mean to offend you, but it's a simple question." said Yaali. Ezra took a napkin from the side of the plate and wiped his mouth. "No." said the wolf, quite plainly. Ryuumajin pursed his lips for a moment, before he picked up his phone from the floor, and continued text-messaging.

"I see." said Yaali, as he touched his chin with a forefinger. "It's just... the place we rescued you from..."
"What about it?"

"It was really gay." said Ryuumajin , without looking up from the phone. Yaali shot a glance towards the cat, who just realised something and covered his mouth with a hand. "We... I mean, I just assumed all of it had something to do with you. That's all." continued Yaali.

"What would you have thought if I said yes?" said Ezra, with no hint of jest.
"I was going to say that I'm completely fine with that."
"Really?"
"I have a friend back in Jakarta. He has a lover, who is also a man. I didn't think there was anything wrong with it, as long as they were happy together."

The wolf responded with a slight nod, and picked up the plastic fork the rested against his plate of half-eaten fish and rice. He paused, looking as if he was considering a billion things at once and finding them all unsatisfactory. Ezra grabbed a piece of the bed with his left hand, as if to test that it was real. "Is it too late to change my answer?"

Yaali's ears perked as he heard the wolf's words. "Wait, you mean..." Ezra licked his lips, slowly sat himself up despite the pain, and started rubbing his face. It was as if he had been preparing for something like this for years.

"Yes. I'm a faggot, a queer, a pee-elle-you, a one-point-five, bou li, si faat gwai, sotong, pondan, kaki liwat, peraga buntut, bapuk berbulu. I bat for the other team and have a wrist limp as a wet sock." The way he spoke was like reading off a secret list gathered over the years, as if each term was a single ounce of weight off his chest. Finally, he got quiet, and suddenly very calm. "I'm gay." he said, before he exhaled a sigh of relief.

For the second time, Ryuumajin dropped his handphone onto the floor.

As if just realising it after the fact, Ezra looked at the leonine woman in the bed next to his, and found that she was fast asleep. He then turned his attenion toward Yaali, whose face was unusually calm. "I suppose I should have suspected it earlier. No straight man would wear such a very red shirt to work." said the goat. Ezra responded with a scornful stare. "I'm sorry." said Yaali, who looked downwards. Ryuumajin, who had just picked up his handphone off the floor, looked like his mind was still chewing on a large, rubbery slab of information.

"There is something else I've been curious about."
"Shoot."
"Where we found you, there was a huge statue."
"Gigantic." added Ryuumajin, unhelpfully.
"The head had broken off, but the person depicted seemed rather tall and... uhm..."
"Big. Chunky." said Ryuumajin, a little less unhelpfully.
"Husky. The adjective, not the noun."
"He was also naked."
"Everyone was naked in some measure there, Ryuu."
"Not us!"

The latter exchange was lost to Ezra, who was looking out window at the wind making tree branches with yellowing leaves bob and rustle. He turned his attention back to his two visitors. "He's... I think that was supposed to be my boyfriend."

"You have a boyfriend?!" shouted Ryuumajin, who seemed to have wrapped his head comfortably around the concept, yet just now realised he should have been more discreet. "You have a boyfriend?" he said, a little quieter.

"How come I've never seen him?" asked Yaali.
"I... don't like bringing my sex life to work."
"But he's your boyfriend." said Ryuumajin, as if it made perfect sense.
"Well, you could have just said he was a very good friend of yours."

Ezra leaned back onto the bed. "That's the problem. He isn't just a good friend." He picked up a plastic cup and poured himself some water. "Anyway... I'd hate to answer questions about him with lies."

"Does that mean you've done... it... before?" ventured Ryuumajin, with the tone of a curious yaoi fangirl. Ezra rolled his eyes, and scoffed. "Let me finish."

"I met him on-line, at an art community. I'd been posting some of my artwork there, little geometrical things and fractals. I met him face-to-face at a small meet-up. Since then we'd been together for two years." Ezra's eyes went lower then, and he spoke a little softer, as if he was struggling to put the words together. "It's been four months since he disappeared. One day, I'd waited for him at our... I mean, my house. I figured he wasn't back from college yet. The next few days, I called his numbers, sent him messages through the phone and on-line and got no response. After a week, I went to the police."

He was quiet for a while, before turning his head towards Ryuumajin. "I... want to apologize to you, Ryuu, for the way I snapped at you the other day. Someone forwarded me a snapshot of a car accident in Kuala Lumpur, and a victim had the same name as him. Turns out it wasn't the same person at all." He moved his eyes between Ryuumajin and Yaali. "I would've gone up North to find out for certain, too, if I hadn't been dragged into..." He suddenly grimaced, and his eyes stared into the air in front of him.

"I actually remember some of it." Ezra closed his eyes, and imagined himself somewhere else. "That... place was Hell. Everything in there pushed my buttons." His hands were clenched into fists. "I was alone, and all I saw were these images, these men, that remind me of all the lies I told everyone I cared about just so I could look normal."

"It's not the first time I've told someone I was gay, but it's the first time that I'm telling someone I wasn't sleeping with." He let out a breath, which was almost a sigh of nostalgia. "And it only took several flesh wounds for me to come out. Damn."

Ryuumajin cleared his throat, and seemed to be thinking carefully before he said: "There is a rumour going around about a ritual using the TV that grants wishes. I tried it out." He held his handphone a bit lower, and set his eyes on Ezra. "It didn't work out the way it was supposed to... but I saw you on the TV, getting hurt by someone. When I saw you in that place inside the TV, I thought you were already dead."

"You guys think the weird thing with the TV, and Ezra being hurt, could have something to do with the wish ritual?"
"But who would wish for you to be dead, Ezra?" asked Yaali.

Ezra shook his head, then stopped himself for a moment. He grabbed a small pouch-bag on the side-table and took out a phone a with large touch-screen. He clicked a stylus out of its side and started tapping and scribbling on the screen with it. After a while, he handed it over to Yaali. On the screen was a website loaded into the 3G web browser. A banner in it had the words MATA-MATA KAKI LIMA under a logo of two eyes, one opened and one closed. "This is a forum run by Andy. It's a community where people analyze rumours, discuss blog news and run independent investigation into undisclosed police cases. They also cover what the mainstream media doesn't. Sort of like a peer-to-peer detective network. I do evidence correlation analysis on any theories they put up."

Yaali raised an eyebrow, as he slid the stylus point over the screen to scroll down the list of forum threads. He wondered if the stylus he was holding was clean. "Okay, so why are you showing me..." Ezra jabbed a forefinger downwards in mid-air. "Check out the forum thread for last week, with the username Eee-Zee-Sol." The goat tapped on the aforementioned link. It was a multi-page argument for a hypothesis on a local celebrity. "I discussed the flaws of this guy's theory on Kristy Kew, the pregnant actress." He paused. "Well, more 'mercilessly disgorged' than 'discussed', really."

"Would anyone want to kill you for that?"

"It's the Internet, of course someone would."

*****

Death of a Blogsman: Jonny Sizzle-writer

Author: Chevron-HT
Date: 23/07/2010
Time: 11.50pm

Many of us have been told over evening news about the untimely death of Hock Boon Tat, better known as the notorious weblogger 'Jonny', last Friday. Police are reluctant to release further details about the incident to the media, so that's where we come in. Jonny lived close to where I am studying now, so I will see what I can dig up. The last entry on his main blog, 'Reach Out To The Truth', mentioned him taking some time off blogging to work on a new book, which would no doubt stir as much controversy as his report on the cover-up of arsenic-tainted Siamese noodle products last year and his expose' of underground sex clubs catering to local politicians in late 2007. The contents of the book might have something to do with his death as well.

Some forum members are already seeking more information about the case. Meanwhile, let's hear your thoughts, case helpers and street eyes.



>> Basically, Ezra's "dungeon" is M.C. Escher x Cho Aniki.

>> Dobb's Persona is (Death) Xolotl, which is an upgrade from Garm. It's powerful in the "game" to start with, but doesn't upgrade like the other characters' Personae and retains weakness to Light-type magic.

>> I think several places in (RL) UTM could pass off as RPG dungeons (you can also ask Delta-HT) with its shifting floor numbers, dead ends and long, cramped corridors. If I ever do a Devil Summoner story (probably featuring my shamanic jungle cat Ridhuan Mizan) it would have a series of dungeons for each faculty, with associated boss battles.

>> I should probably mention that it's a PG-13 to R-rated story, but there's nothing truly explicit going on that can't already be seen on TV.

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Sat Dec 06, 2008, 12:46 AM
Post: #12
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
>> I held off posting the bit about Ezra coming out of the closet because the initial draft had him being really brash and defensive about it. The new version shows his vulnerability and insecurity, making for a marginally better scene.

>> Mata-Mata Kaki Lima translates to Eyes/Spies On The Street. Andy is the admin of the Johorean chapter of a loosely-run national network, which has some associations with the Mizan Detective Agency (which will probably get its own Devil Summoner style spinoff, heheh).

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Sat Dec 20, 2008, 01:26 AM (This post was last modified: Sat Dec 20, 2008 01:28 AM by nightPhaser.)
Post: #13
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
>> I'm not a big fan of M'sian songstress Siti Nurhaliza, but I happened to listen to Seindah Biasa and can't get over how nicely it fits with the story and P4. (Weather effects and all.) Probably as an ending theme.



Jangan pernah takut ku tinggalkan,
Saat bintang tak mampu lagi berdendang,
Saat malam menjadi terlalu dingin,
Hingga pagi tak seindah biasanya.

Takkan mungkin kita bertahan,
Hidup dalam kesendirian,
Panas terik hujan badai,
Kita lalui bersama,
Saat hilang arah tujuan,
Kau tahu ke mana berjalan,
Meski terang meski gelap,
Kita lalui bersama,

Ku tak bisa merubah yang telah terjadi,
Tapi aku kan menjanjikan yang terbaik,
Agar kita tak pernah menjadi-jadi,
Meski beza dermaga untuk kita berlabuh,

Pernah kita jatuh
Mencuba berdiri
Menahan sakit dan menangis
Tapi arti hidup lebih dari itu
Dan kita mencuba melawan

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Mon Jan 12, 2009, 01:22 PM
Post: #14
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
>> Augh, I realise it's been a long time since I've updated the story, and it's mostly because the academic year's started and I'm having to work, do my thesis and study at the same time. The upcoming Chinese New Year break will a much-welcome opportunity to catch up.

Nevertheless, I've got some stuff you can look and read on my LiveJournal:

http://mussawyr.livejournal.com/277573.html
http://mussawyr.livejournal.com/282762.html
http://mussawyr.livejournal.com/283012.html
http://mussawyr.livejournal.com/283286.html

I already promised a few people (including myself) I'd finish this novel, and it'll definitely go on. Just... really, really slow. x_x


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Thu Feb 12, 2009, 06:40 PM (This post was last modified: Sun Feb 15, 2009 03:46 PM by nightPhaser.)
Post: #15
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
CHAPTER IV : MASKS

"There's a dark secret in me.
Don't leave me locked in your heart.
Set me free."
-- Kylie Minogue

**********

"Oh, and don't forget the quiz next Tuesday. Since I like you all so much, I'll include today's lecture on factor groups in it." said a wolf clad in a crimson batik shirt to about sixty pairs of ears.

A symphony of groans rang throughout the lecture hall, accompanied by the clatter of stationery and rustling of bags. Ezra carefully placed several items into his briefcase, including his favourite green laser pointer, and switched off the LCD projector.

"Good to see you again, Prof." said a young and fresh-faced male canary as he passed, to which Ezra nodded and said his thanks. It was one of very few greetings he'd received since he returned to work, despite the fact that it had only been nine days after he was admitted to the hospital.

He was the one who insisted on the early discharge.

A lithe female Siamese cat sidled up next to him, close enough for him to smell her perfume. "Couldn't wait to get back on the horse, could you?" she said, in a breathy voice, smooth as caramel. The woman was Dr. Chan, a middle-aged widow dressed in an incredibly formal yet revealing purple suit, and a fellow professor coming in for the next class session in the hall. "I like a man who's too stubborn to lie down all day." She placed her notebook computer, a pink and white thing, down onto the dark wood grain of the table and switched it on.

"Hmmm, is Professor Shamsir on leave today?"
"No, he's not, Dr. Chan. Why do you ask?"
"Because he's supposed to be teaching the class you just lectured to for the last two hours."
"I think I'd know which class I'm supposed to..." A thought crossed his mind, and showed up on his face for a moment. "I'm not teaching them anymore, am I?"

She stroked his shoulder with a hand gloved in brown fur. "Didn't get the memo, huh? Well, you'd best go check with him later. You were away for a long time, dear."

"It's only been a week."

"Not just that. Checking out of the hospital so early, and a private hospital at that... it gets people talking, you know? Doesn't help you at all." Ezra made a face, as he noticed that his superior did not spare a beat out of her wry smile. He grabbed his briefcase and started walking towards the door.

That is, if his forearm hadn't been gently grasped by Dr. Chan, as she said: "Hang on a sec, Ezra." With another hand, she pointed to a grey-and-white rabbit girl still putting things into a tote bag. The girl seemed to be sheepishly stealing glances in Ezra's direction. "See that sweet little kitten over there? She went to my office the other day to get my signature for course registration. Guess what else she wanted?"

"What?"
"Your handphone number."

Ezra sighed, and closed his briefcase with a snap of the brass locking mechanism. "Dr. Chan, I distinctly remember that you promised not to try to set me up with anyone, anymore."

"Did I? Must have... forgotten." she said, as her smile grew into a grin. "Still, a young man like you is at just the right age to look for someone to call a wife."

She leaned in for a final whisper before she addressed her students. "Heads up, Professor E. You're the apple of someone's eye." He only smiled politely in reply, as the young lapine approached him. "Prof, is there a time when I can see you? I have trouble with the section about cosets."

"You are... Kelly, right? Uhm, uh, I'm free Tuesday afternoon. After the quiz. You can see me then."

"Okay, thanks a lot." She held her bag and a clear plastic folder full of notes close to herself, and smiled to him.

Ezra walked out from the lecture hall rather quickly, despite the limp in his leg.

He wasn't too far from the hall when he saw a brown cat with grey-streaked hair leaning against his motorcycle. Ryuumajin noticed him as he swept dust off his biker's jacket, and smiled as he lifted a bag of gado-gado in his hand for Ezra to see. Seeing he was without any huge books to throw at the cat, he smiled and joined Ryuumajin for lunch.

They tucked into the food at one of a few gazebos dotting one side of the courtyard in front of the central mosque, well out of the glaring afternoon sunlight. As he chewed on a tender piece of squid, he noticed a thin scar running across Ezra's forehead, and a small slash of discoloured, brownish fur over it. He felt it was best he did not mention it, trying hard to resist his curiosity.

"One of my friends, Koku-kun." he ventured. "He said he'd done a wish on the Midnight Channel before and..."

"Midnight Channel?"

"That's what his girlfriend calls it."

"His girlfriend?"

"She didn't try it herself, she saw him do it. Anyhow... Koku-kun didn't know what to ask for, so he just looked at the pretty face on the screen for a while. Then it just disappeared."

"And this is relevant how?"

"I really want to know why I didn't see what he saw. Why I saw you getting hurt instead."

Ezra went quiet, as he thoughtfully chewed and swallowed a piece of peanut-sauce-smothered tofu. "What exactly did you see?"

"A strange wolf-guy was choking you with his hands."

Ezra nodded approvingly.

"Ezra, I just think we should look into this thing with the Midnight Channel a little better."

The wolf fiddled with a slice of boiled egg in the polystyrene carton, then set the plastic fork down. "Before, I'd've considered you a buffoon for even attempting it, but things are... different... now." He raised his head, and there was a sincerity on his face and in his voice. "If it rains tonight, or any night, I'll check the TV as well."

He looked over the table.

"Ryuu... didn't you buy any drinks?"

"Uhhh."

**********

Two men were walking on the side of the street, under the glaring sunlight, holding plastic bowls of cold cendol. The taller one, who wore a pale beige dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up, stirred the coconut milk in his bowl with a plastic spoon, bringing the short green noodles and red beans to the surface.

"Wait, that old makcik just left her purse at home and forgot?" said the larger one, who wore a shirt one size too small, and seemed to be sweating heavily. "Uh-huh." said the other.

"So the guy wasn't actually a pickpocket."

"Yep."

"Then why did you book him anyway?"

"When I went with him to his car, the license plate on it was the same as the one reported stolen three days ago."

"Masha-Allah."

Ahmady was quiet for a bit, before he started laughing. Hawkfeather gulped down some more of the ice-cold dessert.

They arrived at a small police station situated next to a school. In the early afternoon, children in uniforms were both coming out of and going through the school gates. Cars and vans were parked just outside, with parents and guardians waiting to pick up their young ones.

A pair of white police Kancils (tiny cars with wheels the size of watermelons) were parked at the station, with yellow and blue checker stripes on their sides. Ahmady gestured towards Hawkfeather, who held his bowl as the panda unlocked one of the cars and picked up a large envelope from the front passenger seat.

Inside the station, they made their way to their desks, both laden with stacks of reports and various folders. Hawkfeather adjusted his black tie while looking into a small oblong mirror, and turned on his computer. Ahmady sat down and carefully opened the envelope, marked as sent from the Johor State Police Department. In it was a formal letter, which Ahmady scrutinised as Hawkfeather typed up a report of the earlier arrest.

"I've got good news and bad news. Which one do you want first?"

"Bad news."

"Maria, Khairil and Jonny. Those three."

"What about them?"

"State P.D. is taking over. They say it's taking too long, and they have better facilities to handle stuff like this."

Hawkfeather held a stoic expression on his face, but his disappointment broke through. It's true that they haven't made any progress with the murders, but having the cases pulled out from under his feet was something he did not like at all. He rubbed the side of his head with taloned fingers. "So what's the good news?"

"To me, that was the good news." Ahmady stood up and placed the letter on the bird's desk. "Come on, Hawk. Did you really think we'd actually get anywhere with those cases?" Hawkfeather sighed, and nodded.

"It would be nice to see those big city cops get as much of a headache out of them as we do, wouldn't it?" he said, with a sly grin.

Hours passed at the station. Policemen went in and out, dropping reports and bringing in people for processing or testimonials. A few of them passed by Hawkfeather's desk and dropped off case files, but they never seem to try to make eye contact with the bird.

At close to half-past-three, Hawkfeather slammed a door closed when he overheard two officers discussing the latest exploits of The Raven, who had broken the jaw of a man who tried to rape a five-year-old girl under cover of rain and fog the week before.

Twilight came, and Ahmady returned to his desk from his Maghrib prayers. "Oh goody, you're still here." he said to the bird at the desk just across his own, who was scrutinising some photographs with a magnifying glass. "Are you free next Friday? I want to ask you to dinner with with my folks and my sis. They're picking her up from USTM for the mid-semester break and..."

"Sorry, can't."

Ahmady was taken aback, but said nothing for a while. "Look, I'm not cozying up to you, but I'd appreciate it if you told me what it is you actually do so late at night, every night?"

Hawkfeather raised his head, and calmly looked at the panda. "Do you really want me to tell you? Because it involves going downtown late at night and getting comfy, and I mean really close, really intimate contact with a couple of nice..."

"Okay! Alright. Fine, don't bother telling me. Aku tak nak tahu pun."

As Ahmady went back to his own business, Hawkfeather held up the picture he had been examining to the desk lamp's light. It was a blurred security-camera capture of a three-man team that had knocked off two banks in downtown Johor Bahru in the past month. The group was too well-armed and efficient to be in it purely for the money. They're under scrutiny by the state police department, and the case is well beyond the capabilities of a suburban gumshoe. Nevertheless, Hawkfeather had a feeling this is something the mystery vigilante would love to stick his arrogant little beak in.

He pinned the picture onto a corkboard beside him, near various articles related to the murder cases that was once his responsibility.

**********

"Damn, this is the best sangria I've ever tasted." said Dobb, as he put an empty glass onto a table. "Without any actual booze in it."

"I eased up on the pomegranate juice this time, for your sake. I'm a sucker for the red stuff." Ezra fished out a scrap of orange from his glass and chewed on it.

"It's really weird to be drinking this stuff while it's pouring sheets out there."

"I know, stupid timing."

Dobb chuckled. "On whose part?"

"It's way too late to discuss religion, I think."

Outside, the raindrops drummed against the aluminium awning over the front porc. When the shower started, Ezra promised Dobb he would drive him back as soon as it let up.

"Where were we again?"

"I was telling you about the thing in KL."

"Huh, yeah. What happened next?"

Dobb twirled a finger in the air, and pouted. "That's... it. I think. We went our separate ways."

"It's quite a story."

"It's what happened, that's all."

"So nobody but you, Shuraim, and the others know?"

"What would be the point of telling people about it? All traces of what we did went away after Lalita gave herself up to protect the city." The doberman poured himself another glass of the citrusy drink. "Well, except the parts that couldn't be repaired." he said, as he took a sip. "She made her choice, and part of her choice was to let us remember it. To let everyone move on."

Ezra stared at the half-filled pitcher. The condensation made it look like it was sweating through the glass. "Shuraim died because he was involved in it, didn't he? I mean, he gets sick all the time, but he's the kind who'll work through any pain."

"How close were you to him?"

Ezra refilled his glass, but for an inch from the top. "Close enough." He added ice from a transparent bucket beside the pitcher. "But ultimately no cigar."

Dobb stopped, and sniggered. "What?" said the wolf.

"You. Chasing cigars."

"Oh please, you're far past your quota for potshots on the gay guy."

Dobb raised a hand in silent apology. His eyes moved towards the television sets placed along one side of the living room. "Oh, hey, why do you have two TVs?" he asked, as he took a gulp of the sangria.

"The small one's for the satellite channels. The big one's for all my hardcore manporno."

Some of the punch Dobb was drinking went down the wrong way, and he coughed and sniffled. "God, you're easy." said Ezra, with a light snigger.

After taking some time to recover, Dobb leaned back on the sofa and glanced towards the window. "Would I be right to think that there are no neighbours living next door to you?"

"That house hasn't been occupied since last year. The house behind is a rental. A gaggle of students stay there during university year, mostly just to sleep in, and it's vacant during the holidays."

"So this house is a bit isolated."

"It's nice and quiet."

Dobb held up his mostly-full glass at eye level. "And discreet."

"I value my privacy, Dobb." The doberman set glass down on the table. "Look, Ezra... I knew Shuraim. I can tell when somebody's keeping things down low."

Ezra puttered with the glass in his hand for a while, before he spoke. "Contrary to popular belief, I don't really get much... experience. Not that I'd expect to. This town... it's not like KL or Singapore. I swear, if I hadn't studied well enough to spend time overseas, I'd never have known."

The black wolf drank some of the sangria, and made a face like he just swallowed acid. "Besides, I deal with young, impressionable minds almost every day, Dobb. They'll never live it down if they know."

"Who're 'they'?"

Ezra took another sip, instead of answering.

"You don't know."

"Yes, I do. 'They' will see to it that no one will ever trust me with another student. 'They' can make sure I never work again. Everyone else is 'they', sooner or later."

Just then, a strange noise rang through the living room. Both of them followed their ears, and their eyes landed upon the source of the sound: the smaller television set. "Do you have a timer on or something?" said Dobb. Ezra blinked a few times. "Actually, that set is broken. It's not even plugged in."

The screen flickered into life, showing the familiar snowstorm of a dead channel. The noises gradually transmuted into voices, and an image was forming from the initial visual chaos.

Shown on the screen was what seemed to be a sitcom. There was a room with a dining table, where people dressed like a prim and proper 1950's family sat. A tall and commanding father, a delicate mother, a charming girl. All of them looked exactly the same: brown-furred housecats with black, grey-streaked hair.

At the head of the table, however, sat a young male cat with the same face, dressed in a Rockman T-Shirt with spots of blood on it. His eyes were lowered, and he looked extremely weak and pale.

"Thank you for that lovely recitation of the do'a, dear." said the mother.

"You're welcome, Mummy. I am so thankful to God that I have such a nice family." said the daughter.

"Now let's begin carving the meat, shall we?" said the father, as he raised a scalpel that glinted under the light.

"Not with your little butter knife, honey!" exclaimed the mother.

The family laughed, in a proper and polite way.

A laugh track is heard.

With a blip, the screen returned to the black of a switched-off television set.

"Oh Hell, no."

**********

Dobb hummed a tune from an old cartoon series as he readied his bag, and wore a pair of earphones attached to a player inside it. "Another day of picture-taking?" said a black-furred cat coming down the stairs. "Mmm-hmm."

"You were out the whole night."

"Don't worry, I wasn't doing anything bad." said Dobb, who paused thoughtfully for a bit. "Unless you consider spending time with Ezra to be particularly squicky."

"Overnight... with Ezra?" Andy pushed the bridge of his spectacles up, and kept his eyes on the dog. "Stop looking at me like that."

"What? Oh, sorry, I just... nevermind. Forget it." Suddenly realising something, Andy went back up to his room and returned with a carboard box the size of a hair dryer.

"This came in the mail for you yesterday. I signed for it."

Dobb nodded, and placed the box onto the dining table. Using a blunt claw, he tore through the cellophane tape and opened the package. In his hand, he held up a leather-like collar with an attachment that looked vaguely like several acupressure massage heads. The doberman seemed a bit sad as he examined it.

Andy only had a severe tone to offer. "I thought you handed over your Evoker, like the rest of us. You know they're not ours to keep."

"I gave them the one I broke on the sixth full Moon. If they really wanted it back, they would have asked each one of us for it, and they didn't do that, did they?" He placed the object back into the box, and started to carry it back to his room. "I wanted to keep a souvenir. I really didn't expect to have to use this again."

Dobb glanced back towards the cat. "I know you're not convinced, but it's not up to me to prove things for you."

"If you're saying I'm just like everybody else, living in my own bubble of..."

"I'm not. I'm saying that I am doing what I will do. That's all."

Andy sighed, and nodded once. "Just don't end up getting hurt or anything like that, okay?"

The feline watched as Dobb said goodbye and closed the front gate. "Lord knows we've had our share of it last time."

**********

Ezra listened as the ringing tone went on for about ten times before the voicemail system kicked in. "Nope, still nothing on his cell."

"What about his home phone num..." said Yaali.

"Handphone. Home phone. Instant Message. E-mail. Even a Note through his DefiantArt gallery."

It was relatively calm at the Student Union cafeteria, where a black wolf, a tall goat and a doberman sat at a table with various drinks and a few plates of food. Ezra placed his phone on the table, next to a serving of spring rolls, and rubbed his face.

Yaali raised his head from his cup of green tea, and noticed the scar on the wolf's forehead, and a V-shaped segment of discoloured fur over it. "That mark on your head is from your injuries, correct? It makes you look angry all the time."

"He isn't?" said Dobb, as he popped a fried squid ball into his mouth.

"As much as I would like to be a provider of your daily lools..." said Ezra as he broke a spring roll in half and dipped it in ginger-chilli sauce. "There's the matter of Ryuumajin showing up in the Midnight Channel, and his apparent disappearance."

"So you say." ventured Yaali. "There is the possibility, not entirely discountable, that he is just fine. His phone credit ran out, or the battery died. Or simply that he's very busy, or is away and forgot to tell you. It may very well be that the thing with Ezra had nothing to do with the Mid... what... Midnight Channel... rumour."

"Just humour me here: the worst case is that he's in that world you found me." said Ezra, as he chewed on a crispy, beansprout-filled spring roll. "From what happened last night with the unplugged TV, this is something that's beyond physical laws."

"And those, hm, Persona things." Yaali interjected. "Are either of you aware that 'persona' is Latin for 'mask'? In psychology it is a reprentation of ourselves we put out for other people to see. It's not a facet of yourself. It's a facade."

Dobb shrugged. "All I know is, a Shadow gets wasted when a Persona gets out."

Ezra placed a hand over one side of his face. "Just because it's a mask, doesn't mean it can't tell the truth. We try to appear smart or beautiful not because we want to lie, but because we want to feel better about ourselves and worry less about doing the things we want to do. The mask is power."

"Huh. Anyway, you're still unconvinced about this whole thing, Yaali?" said Dobb.

"I am fully convinced that what happened to the four of us in the past was very real. Uncomfortable, but very tangible nonetheless." He sipped some of the tea. "My doubts lie in our assumption that we know what we're doing at all. There is no evidence that the same thing with Ezra is happening to Ryuu."

The wolf set his eyes onto his tall glass of milk coffee. "It's instinct, Yaali. I've got a gut feeling about this."

Yaali made a face. "In...stinct? Guts?"

"I'm not sure about this touchy-feely stuff Ezra takes to so easily, but we should act on what little information and speculation we do have." said Dobb, as he stirred a milky, purple-coloured drink with a straw. "Whoever sent Ezra into that place probably figured out we saved him after Ryuu discovered the Midnight Channel and saw him. There's a chance that person can tell who've seen the transmissions."

"Assuming it was a person who did it. It could all be some poorly-understood non-sentient anomaly of reality." Yaali added.

"About that..." said Ezra, as he wiped his fingers with a paper napkin. "I heard a voice before I was knocked out and brought to that other world. Didn't know what it said, but it sounded like a young woman."

Dobb drummed the table with his fingers. "The Midnight Channel rumour involves seeing a beautiful person's face. Y'think it's..."

"You never mentioned that." said Yaali, with a tone of disappointment.

"Well, I just did. Take it what you will." Ezra replied, and We have to find him." - "He's in there because of me."

"We do not know that for certain." said Yaali.

"No, we don't, but even if you two aren't going to find out, I will."

"I... didn't say I wasn't going to help." said Yaali, quietly.

"Count me curious as well." said Dobb.

For a moment, Ezra had a genuinely warm and grateful smile on his face.

"How did you find the way in last time?" Dobb pointed a finger towards Yaali. "I just came across a television monitor with the strange sound coming out of it and saw the screen with the swirls. Ryuu was calling me at the time."

"I was waiting there for the rain to let up. It's on my route to the Computer Science lecture halls. So a portal like that should be somewhere Ryuu's been before."

"Where's the last place he went that you guys'd know?"

"Doesn't he work at a design studio?" Yaali suggested.

Ezra nodded. "Last time I saw him, I was visiting him at Awan Larat. Brought him fresh mee rebus."

"So, a visit is in order?" said Dobb, as he slurped the last of his purple drink.

"I know where it is. Meet me at the Library parking lot, around five. I'll drive us all there." said Ezra, as he swept a finger across his plate and licked crumbs off it.

**********

The Awan Larat Design Studio was actually the second floor of a shophouse lot in Taman Pulai Indah, adjacent to Taman Universiti. More accurately, it was the illustration branch of an advertising company which turned a decent profit most of the time, even then through its 3D animation work, but was otherwise unremarkable. Three men walked past the door in between the shuttered shops, and went up the stairs to a door with a stylised logo for the studio, complete with an oriental Monkey King cloud puff.

Inside it was several desks with computers and light-tables, arranged in some semblance to an arcane pecking order, with the more important staff members indicated by nicer nameplates getting places closer to the window and air-conditioning.

"Lots of monitors here. No TVs, though, except for the one at the mamak coffeeshop downstairs." said Dobb.

Ezra's eyes landed on a section labelled DIMAS. It was a small cubicle in the corner of the office space, equipped with a computer, a bulky CRT monitor and a basketful of drawing tools. It didn't have its own a waste basket. Various doodles and comics were pinned onto the foam board attached to a wall, and a blue Rockman figure was poised to unleash a devastating blast towards Doraemon at one side of the table.

The wolf received an elbow-nudge from Dobb, when a dark-furred sun bear walked up to them. He was a large man wearing an olive-coloured polo shirt, and he smelled like tobacco and cinnamon. "You people here for something or other?"

"Ah, you look like someone important here. My name is Ezra, and these are my associates, Yaali and Dobb." Ezra said, and held out a hand. The bear made a face, and shook it.

"Name's Badrul. Head of the 2D artsy things we do here. It's probably something important some time or other. Hah." The bear took out a pair of spectacles from a pants pocket, and put them on. "What can a guy like me do you for?"

Yaali stepped up to the plate. "We would like to inquire on the presence of Ryuuma..." He felt a bump just above his feet. "I mean, Dimas. We would like to ask if you possess knowledge of his whereabouts."

"Damn, you talk funny, tall guy."

"Yaali. It's Yaali."

"I apologise for my friend here, but what he means is that we'd appreciate it if you could tell us about Dimas, or Ryuumajin, as some of us call him. You do have the look of a well-informed man." said Ezra, with an absolutely dashing smile.

The bear looked sideways and back, and scratched his headfur. "Ryuu... he's a nice guy, y'know, but we can't afford guys who are just nice here. We need guys who can meet deadlines, and do what they're told to do. I like ol' whiskerface, sure, but the other guys can't seem to stand him. Now he's skipping days, and I dunno what I can do for him anymore."

"He didn't come to work? Since when?" asked Ezra, who had thought things were going well for the cat.

"We were all supposed to present our individual ideas to the head honcho, for next year's potential projects. Yet he hasn't clocked in since Friday."

"Any idea where he could be?" said Dobb.

"If there's anywhere you should look for him, it's his house. Is all I can say. He comes in with his bike, he leaves with his bike. Most of us don't see him stopping by anywhere. Sorry I can't be more help to you all." said the bear, as he started walking back to his section of the office.

At half the way, Badrul stopped, and turned to the three for a few last words. "Hey, if you see him, tell him Sathish's proposal got the pick for the main production flow." He paused, and frowned sadly. "...and tell him he's fired. I fought for him, but that didn't do any good. He ought to get his stuff out ay-sap."

On the way out, they passed by Sathish's desk. It was decked out with a laptop and two LCD monitors. Various highly-detailed illustrations were pasted on the board nearby. A few of them looked a little too much like recoloured Gundam robots. Other drawings involved curvaceous buxom female beauties in shiny, tight clothing. "Huh, Liefeld perspective." said Ezra. Yaali paused and stared at the certain figure thoughtfully. Dobb walked in reverse back to the others, and scrutinised the artwork. "And Mechaboobs."

They went down the stairs a bit slower than they did going up. "Hope you lay it down on Ryuu easy when all this is over, Yaali."

"Me? He told you to do it."

"Hello, my back was towards him. Big guy's obviously saying it to you."

"You had your back to him so you could wag your posterior at the man."

"Uhhh, ex-cuse you?" said Ezra, with one raised eyebrow.

"You were unusually polite to him the moment you laid eyes on his belly and tight jeans." Yaali observed, with no trace of vitriol in his voice.

The wolf scoffed and folded his arms across his chest. "I would remind you that if I hadn't played nice with the big lug, we wouldn't have learned very much."

"True." said Dobb, amidst the exchange, with his hands stuffed in his jacket pockets. "Though... you were giving out some vibes there, man. I know mister teddy's got an interesting package, but come on."

Ezra remained quiet until they all reached his car. "Now what?" said the goat.

"You heard the man. We go to Ryuu's house." said the wolf.

**********

Ryuumajin's house was sandwiched between two other houses, both heavily renovated and with gaudy paint schemes. The porch area was home to a few flowerpots with wilting bougainvilleas and several overturned plastic buckets. A motorbike sat silently in the shadows, its previously vibrant green detailing looking murky under the half-light. Clotheslines were suspended between a wall and the front grill, with a few shorts and a T-shirt still suspended on them.

A silver car was parked in front of the gate, and three figures stepped out of it. Dobb carried a heavy knapsack with him as he went to the front gate and examined the lock.

There wasn't any on it, though. Dobb slid the deadbolt open, and the three allowed themselves in.

"Man, this neighbourhood got really quiet since last time I came. Used to have all sorts of indie gigs around here." Ezra remarked, as he turned to see the grassy fields near an empty yellow-lit playground.

Though the external lights were on at full blast for the next-door neighbours, the insides told a different story. It was clear that the residents were asleep.

"The front door's locked. There's also the grill with a padlock on it. Too thick for the cutters." said Dobb. "Less talking, more doing." said Ezra. "Slavedriver." said Dobb, as he lowered his knapsack to the ground and poked around in it.

Yaali wrapped his arms around himself very tightly. "Why? Why are we doing this?"

"What if the portal is at the TV in his house?" said Ezra, matter-of-factly.

"What if? What if?! Why don't we break into all the electronics stores in this entire housing estate while we're at it!"

"Keep it down, hooves." Dobb said, as he kneeled in front of the padlock, and slipped a metallic rod into the keyhole. Yaali mumbled under his breath: "I can't be arrested. I can't. They'll take away my permit. I'll be thrown out of the country. I'll be heaped on a boat and..."

"Again. You. Didn't. Have. To come. With us." said Dobb, as he brought out a small canvas parcel filled with things that made clinking sounds.

"I had to make sure you didn't get into trouble." said Yaali, softly.

The padlock loosened and Dobb removed it from the door grill. He stood up, opened the grill, and began work on the door's lock. With a tension wrench and a narrow pick in his hands, the doberman did it like a seasoned expert. "We're lucky there's nothing here more complicated than a cylinder lock."

"Nooo, we're lucky you're such an accomplished housebreaker." said Ezra, as he examined the T-shirt hanging on a clothesline.

"A little respect for the craft, please. Is that too much to ask?" After a satisfying click, Dobb was able to twist the doorknob open. "There."

The interior of the house, with little surprise, was very obviously a bachelor's pad. A set of faded, orange sofas were arranged against a wall, only a few footsteps away from a dining table with unopened packets of wheat-and-seaweed chips and cartons of pineapple juice on it. A ratty pink towel was draped over the back of one of three similar dining chairs.

Ezra kneeled down to examine the stacks of manga volumes and anime DVDs sprawled over a low, Japanese-style coffee table. He picked up a crumpled ball of paper from the table, and opened it up. It was a scrunched-up letter of rejection for his comic proposal to another studio.

The living room television's large screen showed something disturbingly familiar: a swirling pattern of jagged black and white stripes.

"Th-that's... the doorway is actually here?" said the goat. Ezra slid his eyes towards Yaali and made them smaller.

Dobb noticed a game controller lying on the floor in front of the television, attached to a dusty black videogame console. "Looks like he was playing something when he got pulled in."

The canine opened his knapsack and took out a collar-like item. He fastened it around his neck, and winced slightly when he pressed a button on it. Ezra noticed this, and merely have him a nod. "What are you wearing?" Yaali asked.

"An Evoker."

"Again, what are you wearing?"

"You'll see."

"What now?" said Ezra, staring at the screen with hands on his hips.

"We go in." said Dobb.

"Where? Through that? Is it safe?"

Dobb groaned audibly, and went on to dive into the screen by himself.

Ezra spent some time looking at Yaali. The goat shrugged, and calmly eased himself past the screen.

Alone, the wolf crouched down and scrutinised the flickering portal. He touched the surface with a finger. "Nice." he said, before he climbed in through the screen.

**********

On the other side was the same house and the same living room, though all that was left was now right. A familiar thick fog, obscuring vision to but a few feet ahead, permeated the air, but did not saturate it with moisture or substance of any kind.

"Hm, it's not real fog is it?" said Ezra, waving his hand in front of himself. "Nope, it's just there so we can't see anything." said Dobb. "I was worried that I'd have to bring my inhaler." replied the wolf.

As they surveyed their surroundings, they noticed a light coming from under the door leading to Ryuumajin's drawing studio. "Grab something heavy." said Dobb. "Will this do?" Yaali held up a rubber doorstop. The doberman opened the door and carefully slid the doorstop under it. Ezra led them as they walked into the light.

**********

The sheer brightness was due to the fact that on the other side it was a clear afternoon. The three of them found themselves coming out of a grassy knoll. A gently-sloping path of low grass went down over the knoll towards a valley cutting into a rocky ridge. Above them was an expanse of blue sky with improbably-stylised clouds marching across it. Streaks and patches of flowerbeds went along the bottom of the knoll. Dobb noticed a cherry blossom tree right next to the cave they emerged from. It was in full bloom.

Yaali turned, and flinched a bit when he saw a lion-like creature over the cave, carved from stone.

Ezra smiled a bit at the cherry blossom petals floating around him, fondly remembering the time he spent in Japan.

"And this is the time I forget to bring my camera." said Dobb as he moved closer to the tree. As he observed the blossoms, he noticed a flock of birds circling high above them.

Something caught Ezra's attention. He walked farther from the cave, and noticed someone standing on a path through the grass. It was a feline boy with black hair, in a pair of shorts and a lime-coloured T-shirt. He seemed no older than twelve.

"That's..." The teenaged Ryuumajin turned and started running off towards the valley, disappearing quickly past the high stone cliffs. "Hey, wait!" The moment he reached a hand out, a terrible screech fell upon him from up high.

The 'birds' circling over the party began to dive towards him. It didn't take long for all of them to realise they were Shadows that looked like papery harpies with purple iron masks. Each one of them was graced with an Indian Maharajah crown over its head, and had massive, rough, ink brush-stroke feathers, as if they were painted under an intense rage.

Yaali shouted and waved his arms towards the wolf, as Dobb began running towards him. Ezra could only watch as great wings descended upon him.

At this moment, a blue glow began to surround him. He heard the goat shouting his name. "No. I'm... fine." he said, and looked at his hands, which started emitting a glowing mist. "What is... this...?" As the monster's talons reached out to dig into his cranium, he heard a single bell-chime from somewhere deep in his mind. Time seemed to slow. He could've sworn he saw a golden butterfly escape his chest.

A deep, echoing voice began speaking inside his head. 'I am thou, and thou art I. I am Steppenwolf, highest among men and beasts, standing alone. By my own will, I lend thee my power.'

He held his head in both hands, and snarled.

Masks. Power. Truth.

"Persona!"

A burst of blue light escaped from his body. Just above Ezra, the mirage of a canine man dressed in a black suit made of leather straps, with half his body and face concealed by a warped pearl crescent, emerged. The mirage unfurled its arms and gestured with hands made of large steel scissor blades. Narrow ice spikes immediately burst forth from the ground around Ezra and impaled the flying Shadows.

The beasts crumbled into black, oily pieces. Soon they evaporated into nothing.

The wolf went down to his knees and bent himself over the ground. He was panting heavily, as if he had just remembered how to breathe.

"f---." said Dobb, as he touched the apparatus around his neck. "You didn't even need one of these!"

>> I'll edit this chapter as I complete each section. The main ideas are already there, but as always it's about fleshing them out. If things get too bad, I'll consider paring them down to smaller Japanese-style storytelling.


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Sun Feb 15, 2009, 04:01 PM
Post: #16
RE: Persona: Shattered Dreams [NaNoWriMo]
>> I apologise for taking so long, but here it is finally. Hope you guys haven't given up on me yet. =3

For the uninitiated: in my Persona 3 fiction, the Evokers were changed from guns to, well, exploding dog collars. Go figure.

The Midnight Channel starts to ruin some of our characters' lives.

Ryuumajin's dungeon is, well, an Okami manga. I assure you, things will get nasty later.

I'd like to take the opportunity to mention: if this story was a game, each Persona-summoning character is also the other characters' associated Social Link. Higher S-Link ranks means that the characters gets EXP multiplier boost based on the total average Rank. Other effects include the ones in Persona 4 (receiving fatal blows, heal ailments, special moves) and combination skills that are only possible on a minimum shared Rank. E.g. Rank 2 on Dobb and Andy enables Shadow Quake (medium Almighty damage on all enemies, with small chance of Dark-based instant death).

In other words, a team that knows each other well, will kick Shadow ass pretty well too. Other combo skills: Rank Max on Ezra and Yaali gives the skill Doom Fractal (severe Almighty damage to all enemies, high chance of inflicting random ailments and -nda debuffs). Rank Max on all seven characters gives Last Pantheon (9999-damage all-target Almighty attack, drains all SP for the casting character) the most powerful move in the game, which may be plot-relevant as well.

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