Once in a lifetime – Chapter 12

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

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

It was at lunch, she approached them;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused, returning to her seat. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott giggled to himself.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fill em in on the rest of it!”

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

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

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

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

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

They nodded.

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

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

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

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

She gritted her teeth at the memory with the Hydra.

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

She leaned in closer to the two.

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

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

She took a deep breath, relaxing herself.

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

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

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

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

She smiled, sighing.

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to Clarice.

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

She motioned for the girl to pick up the blade.

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

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

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

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

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

“This is incredible…”

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

She stared at the massive blade in amazement.

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

Her amazement began to fade.

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

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

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

Nothing happened. She huffed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed nervously.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She gave her brother a death stare.

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

Davis paused, thinking how to word it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worry on his face transformed into a smirk.

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

He leapt forward unexpectedly fast, aiming for Louise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She smiled to herself. 

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

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

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

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

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

She reared back her feet and kicked towards his chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her thoughts were cut off when Dom abruptly fled.

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

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

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

Clarice rested the blade on her shoulder.

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

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

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

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

An idea sprouted. If she was willing to talk…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarice whirled around to his direction, swinging horizontally.

Out of instinct, he ghosted again. 

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t smell or seem toxic. 

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

Then, Davis’s voice.

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

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

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

A voice spoke from within his jacket.

It was the walkie talkie.


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

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

Something was tugging Dom from behind.

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

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

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

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

Louise was dragging Davis further from her opponents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He turned around, making a new hand motion.

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

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

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

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

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

Davis stared in shock at the newcomer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Davis, I need your help again.”

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

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

Louise took a step back, clenching her fists.

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

The monster let go of Davis.

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

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

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

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

  Clarice was fuming as they trudged through the woods.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It buzzed, and the girl answered.

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

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

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

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

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

Once in a lifetime – chapter 11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis gasped, pointing towards Louise.

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

It was missing some ribs where its heart would be.

She scratched her head, staring at the corpse.

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

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

Davis stared silently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They eventually came across another fork in the tunnel;

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

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

Louise rushed in through the gap, Davis stumbling behind.

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

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

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

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

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

Davis shot to his feet and ran over.

The strange object inside the rock dissipated as Davis arrived.

“Where is it?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She looked closer, finding the scratches were actually writing.

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

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

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

The two cautiously approached the ore. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She walked back to the tunnel.

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

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


He called out again.

Still nothing. 

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can’t just punch away every problem.

She remembered back to the mysterious Von Chad.

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

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

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

Though, she encountered him much sooner than expected.

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

Louise was looking away nervously, taking deep breaths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis was wheezing with each tug of the girl.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

The two turned, now moving up the winding tunnels. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once in a lifetime – chapter 10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m just gonna sleep this day off. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This is important…”
“Whispering Mines…”



“Do not…” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Louise.

His stomach churned as he opened it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He didn’t want to cause any issue.

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

He nodded. The stomach pangs dissipated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What exactly were you looking for?”

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

Louise and Davis instinctively took a step back.

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

“Louise, WHAT?”

 She turned frustrated at his friend. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Louise smiled at the sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She walked up to the door, pushing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


She scratched her head, peering around the dusty container.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She hopped out, pushing the unlock button.

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

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

There were also stains of dried blood on the seat. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once in a lifetime chapter 5

“I recognize you. You’re always the one constantly in a hurry to get home, no?”
Kirino spoke in a very stern tone. She locked eyes with Louise, crossing her arms like a disappointed parent.

“It’s Louise! My name is Louise!” She shouted, annoyed. “Surely you’re high and mighty enough to remember other students when they all know you, huh?”
“Well then, Louise. Now is your time to leave. I have a job to finish here.”
Louise took a step forward.
“Hey no, I’m here for the same thing! I didn’t think I was the only one who wanted to save the town too.”
Kirino raised an eyebrow, giving a scowling yet stern look. “My work is none of your business. Leave now, and tell no one of this.”

“How’d you summon that lightning like that? Is that sword of yours an artifact that does something like that? I have one similar, and I didn’t realize you were like me a bit.” She held up her hands, showing her gauntlets. “These give me some real neat strength and-”
Kirino dashed forward, drawing her katana slightly and slamming the butt of her sword into Louise’s nose. She stumbled back, clutching her face while looking annoyed. Kirino cocked her head.

“Durability too, what was that-”
Kirino lurched forward again, attempting to jab her in the stomach. Louise leapt to the side.

“Oh I see how it is!” She grinned, cracking her knuckles. “You think you’re too good for help, miss prodigy!”
She stepped forward, rearing back her fist and throwing her fist forward. Kirino sidestepped it, grabbing her arm, flipping her over, and slamming her on the ground. Louise practically rebounded from the impact, hopping back up to her feet.

“I can do this all night you know! All your fancy expensive karate classes can’t help you now!”
Kirino gave a look of disappointment. Louise charged forward with a punch, which was sidestepped, followed by a kick, which was ducked under. She continued to throw several punches, each one effortlessly dodged by her opponent. Following another dodged blow, Kirino body checked her, knocking her back and stunning the brawler. Trying to follow up with another to her stomach, Louise was barely able to dodge, only for her dodge to be read with a kick to the side of her stomach.

Despite her bullet-proof body from the gauntlets, it still wasn’t doing much to dampen the impact. She could feel her stomach churn from what that blow could have been had she not been protected.

Seeing the black-haired girl come in for another blow, Louise stomped into the ground, kicking up a plume of dirt and dust. Kirino leapt back, but Louise lunged through the cloud, fist aimed at Kirino’s face. As if she could sense the intense force of the oncoming blow, Kirino elegantly ducked under it. Louise flew forward until she skidded to a halt, whirling around.

Kirino’s look of disappointment changed to be more stern.

Sprinting through the fields, Davis stumbled to a halt, bending over and gasping for breath. He was pretty sure this was the way where the lightning came from, but nothing in his mind was processing except for “sit down and rest a bit more.” Between breaths, he took a swig from his water bottle, and looked ahead.

Several yards away was a massive turtle shell, and two figures fighting each other in the moonlight. One of them was constantly tumbling and getting back to their feet.

It was clearly Louise, and she needed help.

A few more deep breaths, he redoubled his sprint, adrenaline filling his system with the urge to save his friend. He got close enough to the point he could distinguish who the two figures were. While Louise was still being punched and thrown around, the other figure was… Kirino? He stood still, observing the dueling girls, trying to give his brain time to process everything.
His thought process was interrupted when he noticed the turtle shell shift slightly.

He froze, shifting his focus on the monster.

Louise was feeling she had pissed off Kirino big time or something, because now she was attacking unrelentingly. Every time she attempted to throw a punch or kick, Kirino was two steps ahead, following up with a blow of her own. When Louise found some windows of opportunity, it was as if Kirino read her mind, and would grapple and throw Louise onto the ground. Constantly being knocked around like that was beginning to get exhausting, and Kirino clearly had way more endurance than she had.

If only these gauntlets gave me extra weight or something was all that was on her mind.
But maybe I can use this durability a bit better… I only need one solid blow.

She kicked back, launching herself far away. She slumped over, and began panting hard. She hacked, and spat a wad of spit in Kirino’s direction.

“Come on… hoo… Your fists are like flies! Aren’t you on roids or something to get a body like that?”
Kirino lurched forward, throwing a kick to Louise’s side.
Louise didn’t even bother trying to dodge, tanking the hit. She felt her insides shudder from the blow.
She increased the ferocity of her attacks. Louise constantly recoiled, acting like every hit was doing more than it actually was.
Then, Kirino tried to go for another gut punch.

Louise took it, but lunged forward, bear-hugging the girl.
“Gotcha! You can’t read when somebody’s faking their pain, huh? Told ya you aren’t good at everything!”
The girl firmly in her grip, she lifted her up and decided that a suplex would be a fitting move to knock her out.

Louise yelped, releasing her grip and backing off. Something fairly painful had stung her hand. The pain subsided quickly, but her opponent had already broken free. Kirino quickly backed off, clicking her sword back into its hilt.
Her expression changed, to something more intense. She reached for her sword and dashed forward, closing the distance between the two in seconds. Louise leapt back as the sword was drawn, the blade slicing across her leg.

She groaned in pain, feeling like the blade cut her skin. She stumbled on the landing and fell on her butt. Across her leg, her compression pants were cut, and a red mark across the exposed skin. It hadn’t broken the skin, but it still burned terribly. She clenched her fists.

“Oh you’ll pay for that one! Need your fancy rich toys in order to keep in the game, huh?” She screamed, charging forward.
Kirino stood firm, keeping her hand on her blade. Seeing the moment her sword was being drawn, Louise leapt into the air, grazing the edge of the blade. She smiled to herself, seeing Kirino’s expression change to that of surprise. Landing behind, Louise tried to grab her from behind again.

Then, a flash, followed by a crack.

She felt her body seize up, a buzzing, burning sensation overtaking every limb. She fell to her knees, realizing Kirino was no longer in front, but behind her.
Just barely shaking off the feeling, she got back to her feet.

Then another flash and crack.

Kirino was now in front of her again, stumbling and almost falling to her knees. She fell to all fours, holding steady and looking like she might puke. Louise, however, was flat on the ground, unable to move or feel anything. The only things that she could move were her eyes, glancing around in a panic.
Kirino stayed on the ground for a few moments, heaving and trying to keep her stomach under control, before getting to her feet. She walked to Louise, placing her hands on her gauntlets.

“You’re in over your head. I don’t know what your job is here, but it ends tonight.”

She tugged, the gauntlets slipping from Louise’s hand. She twitched her hands, trying to grasp.

“Hey, uh this turtle is moving again!”

Kirino spun around, sword in hand, to the sight of a masked boy pointing at the beast. The turtle was now floating in the air, with four heads popping out of each leg hole. A head from behind began sucking in air, the tall grass visibly being pulled towards it. Kirino leapt out of the way as the opposing head let out a blast of air at her, propelling the entire beast away. Louise’s limp body tumbled into the tall grass from the blast.

Kirino huffed, dashing after the escaping monster.

Davis hurried over to the downed Louise, pulling a small first aid kit out of his jacket. He got to his knees, examining her.

She was still motionless and twitching. There was a red mark across her leg where Kirino had cut, but thankfully the skin didn’t look broken. Her eyes were open, staring straight at him.

He opened the kit, staring at the mix of bandages and ointments. He sighed, closing it.

“I don’t think I got anything for paralysis in here.” He at least took out some antibiotic ointment, rubbing it over the burn. “I think this might help-ish?”
He took out his phone, hoping to quickly search what to do, but groaned when he noticed there was no service.

She twitched again, this time a bit more aggressively. Then she let out an agonizing roar, as if somebody terribly stubbed their toe.

“YEOW.” She wriggled her body, feeling the numbness dissipate. “that hurts all over the place…”
She shakily stood up, but fell back down to her knees. Davis offered her his shoulder, bringing her up.
“I always knew she was a big show-off. That lightning was NOTHING!”
“You sure you all right? You honestly look kinda terrible.”

Her outfit and skin were covered in smudges of dirt. Her skin looked somewhat pale, and she was still shaking. She stood up free from Davis’s support, stretching out her arms.”

“I think I can handle-” She winced, stumbling on her leg a bit. “You got any painkillers in there or something?”
He opened up the kit and handed her a few tabs of ibuprofen. She downed them with water.

“Hoo, thanks. Now come on, we can’t let her get that turtle! The pain should be gone by the time we catch-”
He grabbed her arm before she could run off.

“Hold on, first off, what was Kirino doing with that turtle? Did our benefactor recruit more people without us knowing?”
She shrugged. “No clue, she said she was doing a job, but she didn’t want me involved. It can’t be any good.”

“Second, no offense, but she was kinda… kicking your ass. Hell, she didn’t even have to draw her weapon! Could you imagine what it woulda been like if she actually used that sword?”

Louise pouted. “Well could you imagine if I actually used MY sword? I had to hold myself back for her safety.”
“I don’t think that would have made a difference.”
She shook her head. “Besides, two things are different. First, I know what she’s capable of. I get her fighting style, and that weird lightning trick. I doubt she can use that frequently if she saved it for last.”
Davis rolled his eyes. “Yeah, like your style of blindly punching and letting yourself get beat up is gonna help.”
“Hey, I’m sure I’ve practiced fistfighting more than you mister sleepyhead!”
Davis smiled and shrugged. “I mean, why do I even need to know fistfighting? It’s not cool to get into fights.” He paused. “Wait, do you fight anyone at school? Why DO you practice fistfighting-”

“As for point number two, if we make it a two on one, she can’t possibly win, right?”
He shook his head, forgetting the previous question he asked.
“True, just one pepper spray bomb and I don’t think she’d do too well, right? I just hope it won’t hurt her too badly…” He took one from his jacket. “This is my last one though, so I’ll hang tight till we really need it. We have both her and that turtle to deal with.”
“I’ll think of more when we get there, but we gotta hurry! I think they went this way-”
She tried to run, but found Davis was still holding her arm.

“I had a little bit of foresight. That turtle was waking up when you two were fighting. I really couldn’t fight it alone, so I duct taped a tracker to it. Just in case it fled while you two were fighting.”
Pulling open an app on his phone, there was a small blue dot heading close to the foothills, entering the blotted off area.

“That’s genius! I didn’t know you knew your way around programming too?”
He scratched the back of his head. “I kinda don’t. It’s a GPS dog collar actually… I wanted to… Nevermind.”

The duo trekked back to the roads and resumed their journey to the hills. Walking up the jagged dirt road didn’t prove to be too much of an issue, but trouble arose when they had to begin hiking off-trail in order to get to the GPS ping. Louise’s trailblazing pace was brought to a crawl as she struggled to search around the dark for proper footing, along with avoiding spiked plants or dead brush. Davis eventually was able to overtake her and begin leading, mostly thanks to the fact he could see better with his goggles. As they continued their climb, the foliage died out and the hill became abruptly steep, impossible to continue straight up any longer. Moonlight was clearly beaming down, much to the joy of Louise. They walked along the slope until they found a small set of footholds which they could climb up.
Peering over the steep edge, Louise’s eyes bugged out, and she sunk back behind it, turning off her headlamp. Davis did the same, crouching next to her.


“What did you see?” He whispered.

“It’s like a big crater over there, a nest for the turtle! It was awake too! I think it knows we’re coming.”

“All right. Did you see Kirino anywhere?”
She shook her head. “I only got a quick glance, but I think that cryptid would be a bit more active if she was down there too.”
“All right. Got any ideas on how to beat it?”
“Well I saw how it sucks in air and spits it out as a weapon and form of movement, so I think maybe throwing something like a firework inside of it when it sucks in will be our best bet? Hopefully we’ll wound it enough that it can’t run away, and just keep repeating that strategy till it dies.”
“And if the fireworks don’t do anything?”
“I’ll improvise something. But if he runs, we got the GPS, so we can track him another night. Hopefully then, Kirino won’t be bugging us.”
Davis nodded.
“Let me sneak in ahead since I have these.” He pointed to his goggles. “Just in case Kirino did beat us here and is waiting for us.”
Putting on his goggles, he peered over the ledge into the crater.
There was the monster, nested in the center with four heads scanning the area.
The crater itself was pretty large, around the size of a parking lot, and thankfully not too sloped. Davis could only assume that the monster had leveled the top of this hill ages ago for a well hidden nesting spot. He creeped closer to the monster, his jacket quietly jingling from all the gear. He took great care to make sure not to slip on the slope, ducking from rock to rock to get as close as possible. He stopped at the last rock he could, only a few yards away from the monster. He could hear it breathing and snorting, and the movement of each of its patrolling heads. He peeked several times, finding nobody but the turtle. He took out his walkie.

“All right, it looks-”
A light was shining on him from somewhere behind.. He turned around to find Kirino standing there with a flashlight mounted on her chest.

“I’ve already told Louise that this job is mine, and I expect no interference. Leave now.”

He held up his hands in front of him.

“Hold on, I’m not a threat to you or anything, let’s just… talk it out or something?”
She cocked her head. “If you’re not a threat, why are you willing to face off against that UMA? Clearly if you’re confident in your ability to kill such a beast, I should be no issue to you.”

“It’s because… That’s beside the point. You want it dead too, right? I want it dead, you want it dead, so why don’t we work together?”
“I can assure you that our interests don’t align at all. Now leave, I don’t wish for you to get hurt in the middle of our battle-”
She stood up straight and her eyes widened. She whirled around with her sword drawn, holding it up to block. Louise came soaring towards her, leg outstretched, hoping to get one solid kick.
Her foot collided with her sword, a blast of sparks blew out from the impact, and she was sent flying backwards, landing on her feet.

“You’re absolutely pathetic thinking stalling would work.” She said with a grimace on her face.

“What’s that saying Sun Tzu said or something, All’s fair in warfare?” Louise yelled with a grin.
The turtle behind the two shrieked, and all of them felt a rumbling. Chunks of debris were flung towards the trio as the earth around them shaked, followed by a terrible grinding. Louise and Kirino leapt out of the way, as Daivs turned to see the massive turtle, skidding across the ground at the speed of a truck. He turned intangible in a nick of time as the shell of the monster slammed into the slope, kicking up a torrent of rocks and dirt. Splinters of wood from felled tree stumps sprayed everywhere, and trees near the edge of the wall collapsed in from the impact. Davis re-materialized, crashing to the ground as if he dove out of the way. He turned back, seeing three heads of the turtle staring right at him.

“All on my own again?” He muttered to himself as he got back to his feet.

After dodging out of the way, with dust still in the air, Louise charged on through where she expected to find Kirino. Seeing a silhouette, she slid on the ground, hoping to sweep her leg and pin her down, only for Kirino to leap over her attack, swiping at her with her blade.
It nicked her shoulder, giving the same stinging sensation, and she rolled back to her feet. The dust cleared, she caught sight of Kirino standing silently, sword in front of her.

“Come on, don’t you wanna do that lightning trick again?” She stuck her tongue out.

Kirino charged forward in response, slashing straight at her. Louise ducked under it, but Kirino quickly followed up with an elbow strike to her back, knocking her to the floor. Louise bounced back to her feet, throwing a punch that was deftly dodged.

“The nice thing about these gauntlets is they don’t need some cheap trick like that sword or whatever you do with the lightning. They keep on working no matter what!”
It was a boldfaced lie. She felt herself getting more exhausted the more she got knocked around. The more tired she got, the more each blow hurt.
Any moment she could take another hit and collapse to the ground for good, and then the gauntlets were as good as gone.
If she couldn’t use that lightning for whatever reason, there was at least some chance for victory, if she could land one solid hit…

Davis was glad this time around they were fighting in the dead of night with no flare or anything to hinder his ability. Every attempted attack from the turtle was evaded effortlessly, thanks to his ability. He had never used it in succession this much, but he was glad he wasn’t too physically taxed. The monster was slowly being drawn away from the wall it slammed into, hovering eight feet in the air with its star-filled belly.
Davis continued evading until he caught one of the rear heads beginning to inhale.
He lit a firecracker and broke into a sprint, sparks flying out of his hand. He hurled it across the crater, getting sucked into the intake. The eyes of the monster widened, and one of the heads coughed up the still-lit firecracker towards the dueling girls. Davis glanced over, clenching his teeth as he watched Kirino instinctively leap away, and Louise stand and brace for the blow.

In a colorful explosion, Louise felt stinging all over her body, ironically feeling like she was splashed with ultra cold water.
She was feeling even more tired, covered in little red marks over her arms from clashes with Kirino, and let out a huff. There was still a lot of smoke in the air from the explosion, and in a rush of adrenaline, she launched herself forward, rearing back her fist at the Kirino-shaped silhouette once more.

The turtle let out a deafening roar, attacking more ferociously at Davis as a result of his attack. Multiple times, he had to wait incorporeal as the monster devastated where he once stood with a flurry of attacks. After re-materializing, the turtle seemed winded from its latest flurry. He glanced around for anything just to hide behind to re-plan.
He dove behind a few boulders that were upset from the rampage. It wouldn’t be perfect cover from the rampage, but maybe it would give him enough time to recuperate.

Kirino’s eyes were watering from the firecracker. She took a single second to rub them, still keeping her focus on where Louise was standing.
In her mind, she was hoping that the blast would at least stagger her long enough to recuperate.
As she lifted her head, Louise was an arm’s length away, staring straight into her eyes and fist reared back.

She threw her fist forward, and Kirino quickly lifted her blade, the gauntlets clashing with them. A blast emanated from the impact letting out an incredible surge of energy from the clash. The two were engulfed in mysterious light, feeling an overwhelming amount of power pushing against each other. The strange metal of the gauntlets held strong against the mysterious blade, but kirino shook to even hold firm against such force.

The two locked eyes intensely. Louise pushed as hard as she could and Kirino’s feet ground against the dirt, barely holding against the power of the gauntlets.
Beneath their feet, the ground began to crack from the sheer clashing power. Realizing she wouldn’t last against these forces, Kirino broke her sword free from the clash, swinging upwards to deflect the oncoming fist. She kicked Louise in the stomach amidst her retreat, and then flashed into lightning, electrocuting her. Feeling the electricity rage through her body, Louise yelped in pain, falling to the ground. Kirino stood firm only for a second before falling over on all fours. She began to heave and puke.

Davis was caught off guard by the crack from the lightning, almost missing the turtle preparing another air-burst attack. He ghosted as a blast obliterated his position, kicking up a plume of dust.
Phasing back in, he lit his pepper spray bomb and tossed it, a cloud of red mist engulfing the monster. It inhaled again, sucking up all the spicy particulate. It gagged and coughed, crashing down onto the crater floor. All of its heads were coughing up red clouds of pepper spray, and Davis knew this was the only chance he had to do some kinda deathblow. The sound of lightning meant Louise was in trouble, so he had to try something new. He gulped and closed his eyes, trying to clear his mind. He lit a firecracker and de-materialized with it still in his hand.
He opened his eyes and ran forward to where the turtle was.
He felt his heart begin to race faster as he stood there, waiting for the fuse to burn out just right.
He focused on his hand, managing to re-materialize only his hand, inside of the monster.

It was incredibly warm, fleshy, and his hand felt like it was on fire.

He clenched his teeth tight, moaning in agony, and released the firecracker. The second he let go, he returned his hand to the immaterial world.
He gripped his hand and put distance between him and the monster, re-materializing in full. His hand had a big gash in the back of it and was bleeding, he yelled out in pain and grabbed it tight.

Then an explosion, followed by what sounded like a rockslide and a shriek.

All four heads of the monster looked to the sky, screaming in pain. The top of the shell had been blown off, revealing a pulsing, fleshy inside. Davis grit his teeth again, lighting a cherry bomb. Davis phased out, leapt up into the air, and phased back in, landing atop the shell.
He stared in disgust at the writhing mess of internal organs this strange beast had. He couldn’t tell if they were intestines, lungs, a stomach maybe, or some weird organ for storing air.
Soon, they would be nothing but married, charred flesh.

With another explosion and another shriek, the four heads of the monster fell limp.

Hearing both of the explosions, Louise could only internally smile, as her face muscles were totally numb.

Good job Davis, we got both Kirino and the monster

Her joy dissolved when she noticed a stumbling Kirino walk into her vision. She grabbed her gauntlets again.

“No matter how many times we encounter each other, the outcome is always going to be the same. This work is mine, and mine alone. Stay out of it.”

“I think that’s only true if we’re one on one…” Louise mumbled, her mouth regaining feeling.

Davis re-materialized and leapt at Kirino, knocking her over. Her stern expression was broken, replaced with shock.

“What the-”

“Whatever your dumb job was, we did it way better! The monster is dead!” Davis yelled, pointing to the corpse of the beast.

She turned, seeing all of the limp heads of the monster. Davis leapt down and grabbed hold of Louise, dematerializing with her.
Kirno turned back to find the two had completely vanished.

Louise saw nothing but complete darkness.
Davis’s voice spoke to her.

“Just hold on tight, I’ve never done this before, and I don’t know how long I can hold you in here.”
She gripped him tighter as Davis looked around with his goggles. He saw the shadowy outline of Kirino investigating the corpse of the beast. She glanced around at the mess of exploded organs. She strutted away, climbing out of the crater. Now that she was gone, he re-materialized with Louise, rolling onto his back and gasping for breath.

“We… Really need to stop relying on luck for all this stuff…” he said between deep breaths.
Louise giggled, wiggling her recovering limbs.
“I think I fought just fine. I fought Kirino there to a draw, and still didn’t need to use my sword!”
“I saw you on the floor and her on top of you. Again.”
“Well she was down and out for a while too!”
Davis stared back at the stars. “Still, weird knowing that she’s in on all of this stuff too.”
“She’s the last person I’d want involved with all this stuff.” Louise grumbled to herself. “Such a stuck-up tryhard. She’s probably getting paid to do it or something dumb like that, nothing noble. Maybe I can jump her after school or something.”
David whipped his head towards her. “Louise, do you WANT to get arrested?”
She shrugged, sitting up and stretching out. “I dunno, what if she jumps me first?”
“Because we could report her to the police? Sure they won’t believe ‘she’s fighting us over monster hunting’, but they will believe us if she attacks us. With a sword. I mean they won’t believe the lightning but… You get the point right?”

She grumbled. “Fine, fine-” She caught sight of his bleeding hand. “Oh god, you got hurt? Quick get some bandaids or something!”
He looked back at the cut. “Oh yeah, uh got this doing something really stupid against that turtle.” He took out the first aid kit, quickly wrapping the wound in gauze. “This should help at least for now.”

Louise got up to her feet, wincing. “Hey Davis?”
“I think I definitely need to take a day off tomorrow.”

Far from the crater, Louise was speaking on a satellite phone.

“I was unable to complete the job. Two others interfered, and now the UMA is destroyed.”

“Are you aware of who the interferences are?”
“Yes, but I will be unable to do anything to them directly, as they are aware of my identity as well.”

“That’s fine, I have other methods. I want everything you know about them reported in full.”