Makoto felt her focus being tugged on by myriad stimuli. The hole in her stomach smoothing over. Her skin hardening. Steam blasting from the cracks in her newly grown armor. With each moment she parsed, the pains of her metamorphosis clawed at her, and that was without acknowledging the crushing burden of her memories, good and bad, all trying to take center stage in her mind at once.
She paid none mind more than they forcefully took, for any pains she knew, past or present, would be shriveled mockeries of the fate that the Reaper would inflict on her and those she loved.
She and it locked gazes, searching for and failing to find kinks in their opponent’s presence, some sign that the strength they perceived was all charade. The Reaper was distracted enough to let Joker retreat with a heavy flap of his wings. The wind of his retreat blew the Reaper’s dense robes, but still it stared, unconcerned by the enemy it had already traded blows with. While it was folly to discount any Thief, it was perhaps wise to be wary of Makoto, as even she couldn’t tell just how much strength she held now. All she could say for certain was that it was staggering, quite literally.
If there was any one signal her body bombarded her with that she took heed of, though, it was at the microscopic level. The magic infused into her body dwarfed any she had held before, but the parts of her that remained human weren’t designed to contain it. The nuclear energy diffused through her as heat, enough to bring water to a boil. Her cells were being cooked. That’s where the steam she put out was coming from, the rupturing of cells like firecrackers. They were replicating at an increased pace to compensate, ensuring that she wouldn’t eat herself away, but there was no telling how division thousands of times faster than the norm would affect her in the long run.
She had to finish this quickly. Not that she would have suffered the Reaper to live any longer than strictly necessary. While lesser memories fought for dominance, one was locked at the forefront of her cognition, where Makoto refused to let it budge from.
This bastard hurt her Haru.
She made to dash forward, her fist drawn to meet it head on. As she leaned forward, she heard a high-pitched whine at her back, and then an eruption. Her back was lined with long, open-ended chambers, though she couldn’t tell what they were until just then. She was apparently jet-propelled.
At the thought of moving, they fired up and blasted her ahead. Her heart jumped into her throat. With her thinking mind preoccupied by the momentary disaster, her body switched to instinct, and it knew what she intended. When Makoto returned to control, she had a fist buried in the Reaper’s stomach. The force that closed the distance between her and her mark in the span of a heartbeat carried over, sending the Reaper flying off at the same speed as she arrived, though it had no means of stopping, unlike Makoto. She twisted her legs to the side, grinding herself against the ground to bleed off speed as the Reaper soared over Joker and Noir’s heads.
“ God damn! ” Ryuji scuttled back, as if pushed by her contrails. Though fearful at first, understandably so considering the margin of mere feet between him and the semi-human rocket that passed by, a look at the Reaper actually taking a measurable hit buoyed his spirits immensely. He swung from terror to shakily cocky. Makoto took it as approval. “You were already effing metal, but this is ridiculous.”
She nodded in agreement. The corner of her eye caught on the floor beneath her, which was melting at her touch. The surface of the pool was slightly reflective. This let her get an eyeful of herself. Her skin wasn’t just harder; it was entirely metallicized. She looked like a variant of Anat crafted in her own shape. To her surprise, the horns on her head didn’t feel all that heavy .
“Guys, big emergency!” As though everything else that just happened wasn’t enough of a crisis, Futaba had yet more bad news to pile on from her all-seeing cockpit in Prometheus. “Okay, two emergencies, but still.”
Makoto looked up from her makeshift mirror in time to see the heap of bloody robes, guns, and malice pulling itself back together from her winding blow.
“ That’s one of them, right? ” Makoto’s voice was odd to her ear. It was echoing, partially like it was being put through a filter. Her vocal cords must have been metallic, too.
“Yeah, but believe it or not, that’s not the big one.” A green screen opened in front of Makoto, like an internet window on a computer. There was a line graph on it, and whatever it was monitoring was riding high. “This floor is flooding with radiation! You should be fine, Queen, but the rest of us need to GTFO, ASAP!”
There was little doubt as to the source. On top of cooking herself, she was giving everyone near her a nuclear wash. It was her fear from when her magic first manifested come to life. Their magic should have protected them in the short term, just like when they took nuclear attacks from Shadows, but long-term exposure would surely erode that thin barrier.
“ Run. ” Makoto strode ahead, again staring down the Reaper as it raised its head to watch her. “ We know it can feel what I’m putting out now. That means I might stand a chance in this form. I’ll hold it off while you escape the radiation zone, then I’ll follow once you’re safe. ” It was a clean plan in her mind. She could, at the very least, distract it for that long. Once they were gone, her unexpected thrusters should have been sufficient to flee, if its inability to react to her approach was to be trusted.
“ No dice.” As defiant as ever, Joker took aim with his pistol, looking to put a bullet between the Reaper’s eyes. “I don’t abandon my teammates, ever. Ever . If I let you die down here, I would never forgive myself.”
There was a thin crack in his confidence. For once, Makoto saw clean through it. She saw the tumult that drove him to keep fighting. He was desperate to stand by his word despite his vulnerable position. He was a proud individual, and that pride would tear him apart with guilt if he didn’t appease it.
Makoto could relate.
That’s why, once she passed Joker and Noir, she raised her hand to the ceiling. Before either they or any of the others could react, a pulse of pure radiation hit the ceiling like a grenade. The decrepit, liquefying tunnel groaned, and then it collapsed. Noir lunged towards her, but it was too late. Brickwork slammed the route shut. The only thing to make it across was Haru’s snap realization of what was happening, a sickening horror that seared itself into Makoto’s memory.
“Mako-chan! What are you doing!?” Haru was trying to claw open the wall. It would have been quicker to find an alternate route. That was Makoto’s plan, to take another route if she could hold out for long enough. She had the agility and resistance to do so. The other Thieves didn’t, the growing lethality of the floor pinching their options shut. Without that, she knew they would have been quick to follow her.
That was one of the things that made her team so great. If she hadn’t made it physically impossible, they would have come after her, risking their lives for her sake. After all she did to them before joining their team, after threatening to see them locked away if they didn’t obey her, she couldn’t find any other way to express her gratitude.
“ Paying back my debts. I owe all of you this much. ” Warm nostalgia fluttered by. She let the memories linger at the periphery of her vision. They kept the knowledge of why she was going through with this fresh in her mind. “ Get going. Something tells me the radiation will be intensifying shortly. ” She raised a hand and clenched it into a fist, the steel of her knuckles glowing hot red.
“...Only if you promise to come back to us.” A heavy strum of guilt echoed through Makoto as she heard the defeat in Haru’s voice. The clawing at stones stopped, but this sounded more painful. It was for her safety, but it still hurt to push Haru away like this. If she made it back… No, when , she swore to make it up to her.
Heh, exchanging one debt for another in a fit of hasty guts. That sounded like Queen alright.
“ I swear it. ”
There was an uneven inhale, and then a steady exhale.
“Come. We’ll fall back to the next safe floor and wait there.” The order didn’t come from Joker, but it was respected nonetheless. A steady march tapped away, and, one-by-one, others began to follow as their pace raised to a run. Among them, one came closer to the wall.
“ You are every bit as headstrong as your sister, Niijima-san. I expect you to pull through as she would as well, unless you intend to remain in her shadow.”
Despite the grim atmosphere, Makoto hissed out a spiteful snicker. Of course Akechi’s potential last words to her would tread the line between supportive and antagonistic; he could never make it easy on her.
Akechi took her hiss as an affirmation and fell in line with the rest. As their footfalls trailed further and further away, all that remained were Makoto and the Reaper. Her muscles were tensed, ready to spring at any moment. Its fingers laid heavy on the triggers of its revolvers. Neither rushed to make the first move. Was this some sign that it respected her as a threat rather than a soul to be harvested, or did it have some grand strategy in the caverns of its unknowable psyche?
Whichever the case, Makoto couldn’t afford to hold this standoff forever. Every moment saw millions of her cells rupturing and replicating in an agonizing orchestra of apoptosis. Every bubble that burst rang like a grain of sand tumbling down the hourglass. The timer was ticking, and she had no means of saying how long it would be until it struck midnight.
Fortunately, she already had a plan forming. If she was to be sprinting away, it would serve her well to cut off its ranged attacks.
The second firing of her rockets was more manageable than the first. She thrust herself into the Reaper’s midst, and before collision, she twisted her body to the left, kicking up at its hand. It moved before she could strike the body of its gun, instead taking the blow to its wrist. Its arm was launched aside, throwing it into a spin.
It would have been a grand opening to deliver a second kick to its head, but she had no means of reversing her trajectory, and by the time she made a full spin, it would have regained its balance. She let her momentum carry her through her kick, propelling her out of its reach.
She couldn’t make a clean fall back in that direction, though, not with a wall in the way. Of course, the line between wall and floor could be negotiated, as she knew well. She flipped around, landing feet-first on the brickwork. It cracked on impact, and it would begin melting shortly. If she remained in that spot, or any spot, she would find herself planted in place. Even a momentary break in mobility wasn’t permissible.
She had somewhere else she would much rather plant her feet anyway: directly in the Reaper’s face.
The force of takeoff cratered the wall behind her, and her new body had the means of keeping her end of the energy from bleeding out before she could use it. She took a sweeping kick with both the Reaper’s head and a hand in the predicted arc.
It swung at her, clipping her side with one of its barrels. It couldn’t bring all of its strength to bear in the hasty attack, though, only managing to redirect her. Otherwise, she didn’t feel a thing, her armor soaking up the attack. She hit the opposite wall, and, even faster than before, she sprung again, counting on her barrage to eventually overwhelm the Reaper enough to give her a clean shot.
Instead, the Reaper snapped around, exhibiting a speed it hadn’t displayed before. She was only halfway to it when she found herself staring down its barrel.
Time stopped with the click of its trigger. It started again with the bang. Makoto was pushed to a halt, and then backwards. She felt like a piece of cloth being wrapped around the bullet. If the initial hit didn’t wind her, being embedded in the wall did.
This was the first chance Makoto had to properly analyze her new form’s power scaling. Unlike the first time she was shot, the bullet didn’t manage to pierce her. It fell from the dent it made in her chest as soon as it lost momentum, and her internal magic pressure, as painful as it was, pushed her armor back into shape.
That didn’t mean it was just a peashooter to her now, though. She was expending precious energy undoing the damage, pushing her closer to a death by fatigue. Moreover, her attack run was canceled out, giving the Reaper a chance to reclaim control of the arena. She couldn’t let a brutally strong, relentless enemy like it set the pace of battle. That would be one advantage too many.
She threw herself from her crater before it could take another potshot at her, but she didn’t go directly at it again. Straight lines were a gunman’s best friend. Instead, she sent herself deeper into the tunnels, ricocheting between walls as she retreated. The Reaper aimed as though to fire again, but when it became clear that she wasn’t giving it a clean opening, it made to pursue her. It still tracked her with its guns, just waiting for her to slow down.
She noticed, though, that its movements were stifled. The left arm failed to follow her as well as the right, particularly when she was to its left side.
That’s when she remembered its handicap; Haru’s ax was still stuck in its upper arm. It hadn’t tried to remove it yet, as distracted as it was with hunting Makoto down. It was a single-minded killer, and though that was a terrifying concept, a one-track mind was easy to exploit. If it was too focused on her, it wouldn’t think too hard about its environment.
With that in mind, she began to pool power towards the ends of her limbs. She tried to make it manifest in her hands, but the form it took alone was too loose for her purposes. It would dissipate before she could use it. She knew her body was a strong conduit for magic now, though, and that her bodily regeneration was considerable. The magic was redirected again, now into the very tips of her fingers and toes.
When next she landed on a wall, she dug her ring finger into the brick, and, before it could melt at her touch, she flicked her hand away. Oddly, she didn’t feel her finger tearing off too clearly. All she registered was the deposit of stable magic left in her path.
Her finger was back by the time of her next landing, and the toe she left there reformed before she hit the ceiling. She laid her trail in clear sight, but still the Reaper followed. When it passed her first divided digit, she was pleased to see it none too interested in a single, seemingly lifeless finger.
Her idea could work, and now, she just had to make sure the Reaper would stay in the blast zone.
Only one bait would lure it, which fit into her scheme cleanly. She flipped around and leaped behind the robed reprobate. As expected, it followed her on a stunningly swift swivel. It didn’t stop to question her running off towards the blocked corridor. It only saw where she was, and it would follow. This let her slip around it and fill a few gaps in her net.
In whole, she must have lost two full compliments of fingers and toes before she was satisfied. She knew not if she would regret this move in the morning, but then, she wouldn’t reach morning if it didn’t pay off. She shot behind it again, slipping under its arm to add to the confusing spontaneity of her path. This slowed the Reaper down by a few fractions of a second, enough to let her find a smooth spot on the floor to land and remain.
It aimed its gun at the now stationary target.
Queen drew faster and snapped her fingers. A sharp metallic twang reverberated through the tunnels. She could hear the mythical cocktail in her mines sizzling as her trigger touched them.
If Makoto hadn’t been made of metal, the scalding hot air from the blast would have killed her well before the shrapnel. The whole structure beneath her feet whined. It dropped, then torqued back to rigidity. It was like the spine of Mementos crumbled, leaving its ribs to stack on top of each other.
As much as this new form hurt Makoto, the pain she inflicted with it was more severe.
She had a feeling it wouldn’t be enough to put the Reaper down on its own, though. Behind her, it had fallen to what passed for its knees. At long last, its robes showed signs of damage. Swathes of cloth were burnt black, and several folds of it hung loose from blasted strands where they weren’t torn clean off. The burlap sack over its head was torn, too, revealing a white layer beneath it.
Makoto only spared these cosmetic details a once-over. What mattered to her was the state of its weapons. The barrels remained unscratched, a testament to their sturdy build, but the guns they were attached to were on the verge of shattering with webs of cracks barely holding the frames together.
With no greater opportunities available, she bolted in, bringing her hands up to the Reaper’s. One more concussive blast of nuclear magic pushed the monster. Its arms were harshly forced back, and with a sound like rusted wind chimes, its precious revolvers scattered like ashes. Only the barrels remained to clatter to the ground.
The enemy was unarmed, and the field was Queen’s. She unleashed a flurry of blows into the Reaper’s stomach, opening with a knee and following through with an elbow. She kept attacking from there, her hits coming faster and faster, the movements flowing like raging rapids. She kicked until her boots were spattered with dark blood. She punched until she could feel bones crack under her knuckles. Each contact boomed like a bomb, and she hoped it hurt just as much.
She hoped it bled like Morgana.
She hoped it felt as hopeless as it left Haru.
She hoped it died with gnawing horror in its putrid heart.
The steel of her body cracked in her assault, though it healed as quickly as it was inflicted. It hurt terribly all the same, like breaking her bones over and over again. She had no idea if the human body she returned to would be as mangled as she felt it was, nor if she even could return to flesh and blood. But she didn’t stop. To stop while it still had blood to spill would be to risk its return, and she would never allow it to threaten her friends, her family, ever again.
Suddenly, the Reaper fell forward. Fearing a counterattack, she leaped to the side. From there, though, she saw that it was only slouching over. Its battered hands gripped the floor, holding up its limp body like a bag of hay. With it kneeling before her in defeat, head bowed, there was only one appropriate finisher.
She raised her leg, and like the hammer of Thor, she brought it down. Ribs were well and good to break, but there was a certain snap to the spine that made it uniquely satisfying.
Only, the snap wasn’t entirely bone. In fact, the click that came with it sounded more like metal. She lifted her heel, and beneath it, she saw that she had guillotine kicked a small chain link pierced into the Reaper’s neck. As she observed it, the chain’s surface toiled and bubbled before dispersing, like a pouch of fog.
Suddenly, the tunnels groaned in distress. Makoto just barely felt the pressure shift, as if she was being lowered into the ocean.
When the Reaper began to shudder, she retreated for fear of what was coming. The further she got from it, the less intense the pull inflicted on her. It was as if the Reaper had become a gravity well. The walls were bowing inwards, and the roof was pacing steadily towards collapse. The tracks around it were warping, tearing apart as weaker lengths bent to the new magnetic north.
The only matter not beholden to the shift was the Reaper itself. Entirely unimpeded, it rocked back, though the hem of its robe remained draped across the ground. Its movements were methodical, voluntarily slow. Its neck must not have been as broken as Makoto had hoped, as it was able to rear back and stare up. Its posture almost appeared to be meditative or worshipful.
Though the discovery of Shadow religious practices would be a great stride in understanding them, it also ran the risk of allowing this font of power the chance to tap into a spiritual second wind, if not a new source of magic at the other end of its prayer. Makoto would risk neither, especially not if this newly awakened Reaper would continue to roam Mementos after she fled.
Sprinting towards it was easier than before with the gravity-like pressure it exuded. Using both that and the rockets at her back, she accelerated to her greatest speeds yet and spun that force into a sweeping kick. She aimed to take its head all the way off this time.
For all her speed, the Reaper’s reaction was faster. It grabbed her leg as she closed in, soaking her attack without the slightest hint of discomfort, let alone pain. Its grip was vice-like. No matter how Makoto turned, or how much magic she drained into her rockets, she couldn’t build up enough force to break free.
Dread. There was no other word for the visceral recoiling of her soul at the sound of the demon’s voice. The dread only grew as its free hand reached for its head. Bony, wraithish fingers pinched at the burlap sack it wore, and with a tug, it came loose. The Reaper’s head still wasn’t freed, but the white, silken mask underneath appeared easier to wear.
There was a hole in the silk mask, a singular hole through which it stared. The eye beneath was shrunken, fixated on something. Makoto couldn’t say what, but she was certain that it wasn’t revering just the ceiling with its gaze. It was looking up at something else.
“Life slips away, thread by thread. The body unravels until it no longer binds the soul, a soul that yearns for release.” Its head rolled towards her lazily, its eye now on her. Its gaze was not hateful, as she expected. Rather, it was peaceful, loving in a twisted way. “You felt before what I feel now. The final gasp at the precipice. Alive and dead at once.” Its hold on her tensed as it pulled her closer, as if to embrace her. “Blessed be this gift. Come, let us embrace the end together!”
“Screw that!” With its arm folded, the leash was loosened, and Makoto found the room she needed to work. She leaped on her remaining leg. From there, her thrusters fired, twisting her around at the end of its arm. A swift kick across the face and the torque of liftoff forced its hand open. She lashed out with both legs as soon as she was able, kicking off of the Reaper as if it was a wall.
From a safe distance, she saw the arm she escaped from now dangled limply at its side. Unfortunately, it was the already damaged limb from which Haru’s ax jutted, meaning it only lost a tool that was already restricted. The Reaper didn’t pursue her immediately, instead staring at her in genuine befuddlement.
“Are you not in pain? Life claws at your back, denying you the embrace of rest. Aren’t you tired?”
Tired? It felt like exhaustion was all Makoto knew anymore. Even beyond these tunnels, life assaulted her from every direction, tearing her down whenever she had the gall to stand. The very act of standing now burned like the heart of the sun. How much easier it would have been to give in and rest.
“For all that living hurts, there are things here worth living for.” It didn’t realize it, but the ax in its shoulder was all the reminder Makoto needed of that. She crouched with her arms in front of her, the energy inside her, physical and magical alike, coiling in her joints. “I will not surrender them, and I wouldn’t recommend taking them from me.”
Like a switch going off, the Reaper’s gaze hardened. As it rose from the ground, the blood in its robes pulled from the cloth, trailing it as a sanguine miasma.
“You speak just as He did.” Its hand shot out to its side. Just when Makoto suspected an attack, she saw that the discarded barrels of its guns were glowing red. They lifted into the air on unseen strings, each hovering before the Reaper.
“You cling to the suffering of life, and in doing so, deny the Mistress’ vision.” Slowly, like the turning of a clock, its hand twisted, and with it went the barrels. “I am Her hand on this withering earth. By my contract, she shall guide a new soul to peace this day.”
The rods were getting closer to each other. As the space between them reduced to inches, sparks leaped between them, lightning cast in a foul violet. Off to one end, that same energy burgeoned at a tip, weaving together into a more solid form. It looked to be a long, curved blade, and it would be complete soon.
Queen blasted forward, a fist aimed for the shrinking divide between the halves. On contact, the bubble of lightning burst open, sending dozens of bolts racing up and through her arm. It felt like countless fangs were tearing at her flesh, inside and out, but her idea was working. She was the ground, draining power from the incomplete weapon. The blade receded into the shaft, and the strings holding them midair were wavering.
“Your convictions are strong, human.” So distracted was Makoto with breaking its weapon that she lost sight for the Reaper itself. It was a brief lapse in attention, but it was enough. Her reminder came as a fist to the side of her head. The Reaper displayed great strength before, but with it all concentrated into its knuckles rather than a swinging pistol, it was enough to send Makoto skidding into the ground. “But mine are stronger.”
She saw its shadow getting closer, and she fought to pry herself from the dirt. She saw chunks of her facial steel left down there, the inside of the mask drenched red. A new layer of metal skin was already forming over her, but the blow proved that the Reaper’s change was in more than behavior. It was stronger, much stronger.
When she was up on her arms, the now molten stonework lapping at her elbows, the Reaper hovered over her, its two staves held together as a club posed to strike.
“Let them go, and be at peace.”
It was already bringing its might down on her. A hundred plans flew by, but she had the time for none of them. Her body was mobilizing all of the magic she had left in her, which wasn’t much.
She had found a second wind, but it came up short. She should have fled while she had the chance. Ever bullheaded, it would seem, and Death was persistent.
Still, Makoto wouldn’t roll over and accept it. She had a promise to uphold, a promise to return. If she broke it while there was yet a single drop of strength in her, she would never be able to face Haru again.
She lifted her left hand. At best, she would catch the bludgeon and stop its attack. At worst, she would sacrifice a limb to give what was left of her more time to act. The latter was more likely. At least she was right-hand dominant.
Then, there was an explosion.
A bright flash of fire blew over the Reaper’s back, staggering it before its strike could land.
Next came the chain. Four strands thick, a twisted rope of iron descended on the Reaper, wrapping tight over its throat. On its back stood the one responsible. Joker’s skin was sheet white, and his face was twisted in unbridled hatred.
“Queen, now’s your chance!” That was Futaba’s voice. It was faint and thick with static, transmitted from a great distance, but it was enough to jump start Makoto. The situation had changed. The Reaper was distracted.
And as it turned, its good arm reaching up to try plucking Joker from its shoulders, it exposed to her its weak spot.
She fired her thrusters, letting them and them alone launch her. With so little energy left, she had to conserve as much of it as she could. One quick blast was enough to get her out of the stone and on the Reaper’s broken arm. It roared in pain as her knee dug into its twisted flesh.
It all but screamed as she fired again. Her hands were clasped around the haft of the ax in its shoulder, and when she launched herself straight up, she tore it harshly from the Reaper’s skin. Crimson blood spurted from the wound.
Her head was throbbing. Her body was heavy. She knew, as her vision began fading white, that what she did next would be her last shot.
Joker saw her raising the ax, and, struggling against the Reaper’s flailing and dodging its grasping hand, he twisted it to the side, putting its head right beneath her. He was saying something. She couldn’t hear him through the ringing in her ears, but she could barely read his lips.
Aye aye, Joker.
Her body shuddered as the last of its strength was diverted, pooled to her back and arms. She almost blacked out as her thrusters kicked, but she held on. A little more, just a few seconds more.
Joker yanked the chains tighter, forcing the Reaper to heel in place. It was stuck looking up, and it saw her coming down. Its eye locked on hers. She heard its voice echoing in her head.
‘Is this… Death?’
Makoto’s answer was curt. With a battle cry that made Mementos quake, she brought the blade down. Its edge was burning white, and it cleaved through the Reaper’s skull. The shaft cracked. So did the gauntlets over her hands. Her blood splattered over the Reaper’s face, mingling with its own.
Her head throbbed again, and her vision paled. When it returned to her, she was on the ground. She tried to push herself up, but her body didn’t respond. She couldn’t move. She didn’t think she could so much as blink. She couldn’t tell if she was breathing or not.
All she knew was that she had won, because sitting in front of her was the fallen body of the Reaper. Or, rather, half of it. Its head wasn’t the only thing split down the middle. The whole beast was now in two. The half she found herself looking at was that with the eye, and she saw that nothing remained in it. No malice. No rage. No search for the end.
It was still, and peaceful. Its last moments were spent in serenity.
There was a hand on her. No, multiple. Four hands. They were pulling her up, some on her shoulders, some wrapped around her stomach. Her skin bent to their touch. As her head rolled limply down, she saw that she had shed her Cowl. Her mission had concluded, and her body was finally allowed to rest.
Rest. That sounded… nice. Her eyes slipped shut, and a white mist rolled in. Somewhere in the distance, she heard a harp and someone humming with it.