Chapter 1:

Chapter One: The Hedgehog's Dilemma

Twilight Butterfly

Have you ever heard of a paradox called the Hedgehog's Dilemma? I remember reading about it when I was a little girl, and I've never forgotten it since. It goes kind of like this- you've got a group of hedgehogs out in the cold, and they're drawn to one another to huddle for warmth. Unfortunately, they can't get too close, or else they'll prick each other with their quills. So in the end, all the hedgehogs have to keep their distance, being only slightly warm, but still ultimately cold.

It's a lot like people, really. We want to be close to each other, but our differences keep us from ever truly being one. Whether it's race, religion, politics, or even what video game you play, people have 'quills' to prick others with. Even the best of friends or the most loving of couples disagree on at least one thing or another. And because of our emotions, we end up pushing others away.

As I've grown older, I've seen myself a lot like those poor freezing hedgehogs. It's not like I don't have people I'm close's just that I feel I shut myself off from them. I lock up my emotions in a box and leave them to fester. I grew up in a lab, cut off from nearly all human contact except for scientists and a few of my fellow Cursed Children. Even though I have people all around me...I long for something more. Because of my longing for something better, something bigger than myself...I remain shivering in the cold.

The smell of seawater hung heavy in the air as Ichigo and I strolled through the dimly lit halls of the town aquarium. The tanks lining the walls filled the hallways with lurid bluish light. This wasn't supposed to be a leisurely outing, though. We were on a mission, but to Ichigo Murakami, it was pretty clear after we passed the clownfish exhibit that she had no intention of taking this seriously.

She pawed at the exhibits and pressed her face against the glass like a little kid. "Hey, Carol! Check this out! Don't those stingrays look cute when you can see their bottoms? They look like they're smiling at you!"

I begged to differ. Stingrays looked more like some kind of freaky familiar I'd see in the Twilight World than your typical sea creature. "Ichigo, focus. Remember what we came here for."

My friend brushed back her fluffy, loosely tied pink twintails. "Yeah, yeah, I know...let's just hurry up and find this Figment so we can go get some sushi already, I'm famished. After all, there's a place for all of God's creatures...right between a fork and a knife!"

She burst into chuckles, and I rolled my eyes. Admittedly, it was rather ironic that an aquarium would have a built-in seafood restaurant. I was convinced the fish on your plate were the same ones you passed by in the exhibits only hours before. Ah, how great it is to be at the top of the food chain.

It had been a rather slow day at the aquarium today, considering it was packed with screaming kids most days. But...that wasn't the most unusual thing, nor was it the reason why we were here. An abnormally high impulse of dimensional energy had been detected here, and most of the times, that only meant one thing- a Figment was on the loose.

Describing a Figment is a hard thing to do. I guess I can kind of explain it like this. Most kids have imaginary friends, right? Admit it, we all know you thought Cuddles the Pink Bunny was real when you were four. Most kids also lose said imaginary friends by the time they enter school and realize that those creatures known as human beings can actually be their friends too. But Figments are a bit trickier than that. They're invisible, hanging around you every moment of your life, even when you sleep, and yes, even when you take a shower. It may not share your face, but it's a mirror image of everything that you are. It feeds on your emotions. Your joys, loves, hates, fears, and insecurities- they all clump together to form a creature you'd never recognize as yourself, but is still intrinsically connected to you as a person. It's like an inner demon, an alter-ego, a spirit animal, or a doppelganger.

That is a Figment. And they're not always nice. When people are angry, upset, going through hard times, dealing with character flaws, or suffering from mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, their Figments shoulder the weight of those negative emotions, and it corrupts them. Corrupted Figments can possess their owners and force them to do terrible things, from murder to suicide. They abandon their masters and go running off on their own, casting their corruption upon others and draining their life force.

When these beings were discovered, the government saw opportunity. Psychological warfare could be waged this way. With the power of the Figments, entire armies could be made to surrender without a single shot being fired. One decision from one man could decide whether the world continues as normal, or gets razed into a hellscape by a nuclear holocaust. The most powerful weapon on Earth is the human mind...and that is why people like Ichigo and I, the Cursed Children, were created.

And now, it was time. I could feel it in the air. An icy breeze, a slight tingle. I couldn't see it, but I could hear it. Tick-tock, like a clock. When Ichigo and I entered the shark exhibit, there was a sudden silence, followed by a sharp temperature drop. My skin bristled. It had to be at least ten degrees colder here. I zipped up my jacket. A phantom wind ruffled my short, wispy blue hair. An odd prickly sensation danced through the air, like static.

"I'm getting the weird vibes around here, how about you, Carol?" Ichigo asked. She was right. The place was empty. Sure, the aquarium hadn't been the busiest today, but this specific area was devoid of human life. Not a single soul to be found. The silence was deafening, and being surrounded by glass tanks swimming with hungry deep-sea predators didn't lighten the eerie atmosphere.

Being close to a Figment is like what the heroines of those slasher movies feel like when they know the bad guy is there, somewhere, maybe even around the next corner, but they just can't see them. It's like being stalked, or watched through a one-sided pane of glass. Something's there. You know it. You can feel it in your guts, your bones, and your blood. And yet, it's out of your sight.

"It's here," I said, surveying the area. "I know why Dr. Hyness made this an urgent mission now. This's so intense. It feels like it's going to burst out...if only we can find where the ward is..."

A ward was, for lack of a better term, a portal into the Twilight World, into the mindscape of someone who was possessed by a corrupted Figment. It's basically a door into a person's mental landscape. Whoever this Figment belonged to had a strong connection to this aquarium. Perhaps it was someone who worked here. But at the end of the day, that wasn't our job. Our mission was to find the ward, enter the mindscape, and purify the Figment inside. We had a very specific task to perform, and we did it well.

As if I were being compelled by my own Figment, I wandered to the end of the exhibit, where I turned and stood in front of the last tank. I reached out to touch it, but instead of feeling hard, cold glass, the material warped and bent beneath my fingers. It had an elastic, almost gelatinous quality. This was the ward.

I nodded to Ichigo. "Over here. It's really strong. I'm heading in first, you follow right after me, okay? Don't leave me hanging this time. I'm still pissed at you about the cookie incident, you know."

Ichigo clacked her heels together and gave a salute. "Yes, ma'am! Sushi, here we come!"

Even after doing this for years, it never felt any stranger. I braced my body for the decidedly out-of-body experience. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and fell forward. The feeling was like falling into deep water. The liquid heaviness closed all around me. I opened my eyes to find my clothes stripped away. A new outfit took its place over my slim, naked form. Thigh-high ivory boots with pointed heels cast over my legs. A tight, leotard-like white suit clamped around my body, save for my front, where my chest and belly were partially covered by a pattern of crisscrossing ribbons that bound the suit together like a corset. It had flared-out sleeves where tendrils of lacy white ribbon adorned by ice-blue crystals flowed out from the sides. A thin, translucent pair of sapphire butterfly wings fluttered at my back. My short cyan hair flared up, and my golden eyes flashed as their color shifted into a vibrant orange. Finally, a beautiful silver scythe nearly the length of my own body materialized into my hands. The blade had a nasty serrated edge studded by glimmering icy gems.

This was who I had been created to be. This was my true self.

I only got a moment of quiet before Ichigo's sugary voice shattered it. "Don't you worry, Ichigo is here!" I could spot her bouncy pink twintails from a mile away. She was clad in a frilly two-piece outfit that consisted of a tight pink top decorated by large bows and a flowy skirt blossoming with white frills. Her midriff was openly exposed. Striped magenta stockings sprouted up from her strappy ankle-high boots. She wielded a huge white hammer composed of jagged pink crystal at the top. She reached out and grasped my hand to reassure me. "Let's get this done quick, Carol! This'll be a piece of cake!"

Together we fell through the void of the ward and crashed into an immense sphere of water. Despite being underwater, we could still breathe and speak naturally, so it did little more than slow our movements. It was just like swimming. Palaces of coral and pearls dominated the oceanic mindscape. It looked like something out of a fairytale. Most of the mindscapes in the Twilight World did. I had seen my share of nightmarish ones too, but just because it looked pretty didn't mean it wasn't dangerous.

A scream broke through the deep blue. A gigantic squid-like creature burst up from the coral castles. It had a somewhat human-like shape, with short, stubby arms, and its lower body resembled a flowing ballgown. A mess of tentacles writhed beneath it. Its head was broad and arrow-shaped, with a large pearl embedded in its forehead. The aura it emanated was almost suffocating. It was hard to describe at first. It was constantly crying for attention, demanding that the world knew how beautiful it was, and it wanted everyone to love it. Arrogance? Narcissism? Pride, maybe?

The Figment swam among the coral, bathing itself in pearls and basking in its own glory. "That'd make a lot of sushi," Ichigo commented. "Too bad we can't eat it. It seems like it really loves the spotlight, huh?"

At last, it snapped. My analysis of its aura was complete. "It's Vanity," I realized. "We're dealing with the Figment of Vanity. Whoever it belongs to wants people to love them, so they spend lots of money on expensive things to make themselves look beautiful to attract others to them."

Ichigo huffed. "Such a typical trait. Let's finish this quickly, then."

I raised my scythe and nodded. "Got it."

Ichigo and I split as the Figment of Vanity flung itself at us. I propelled myself through the water and circled around the creature, where I swung down my scythe and delivered a wicked blow to the pearl embedded in its head. Jagged cracks tracked across it like glass, and the Figment let out a bone-rattling shriek. It reared back and spit a harpoon-shaped arrow of coral from its dartlike mouth.

I spun back and raised my sickle just in time to block the attack, but the recoil sent me spiraling down. I jabbed out my blade and managed to tear across its gown-like body on the way, spilling blood that undulated into mist-like tendrils once it struck the water.

That was one of the strangest things about Figments. Despite being immaterial creatures in the real world, in the Twilight World, they felt pain and bled just as any other living creature. Thick, crimson blood, just like a human's. But we weren't here to kill it. We were here to purify it. And the only way that could be done was if we caused it enough pain to make it expel its Crystal Heart, the source of all its pent-up negative emotions. After using our weapons to purify the Crystal Heart, it would release a physical form of those impurities- a Crystal Shard. Our goal was to gather Crystal Shards. To the scientists we worked for, they were specimens to be studied- all for the peculiar trait that they were the only physical objects in the Twilight World that could be taken into the real world, and they possessed vast amounts of energy. They were the only link between our world and the realm of the Figments. Aside from that, there was hardly any way to distinguish it from a dream.

"Ichigo, slam it!" I shouted.

My friend zipped up behind the Figment, her body bent back and her arms raised, hoisting the immense hammer above her head. "Crystal Smash!" The impact of her strike rattled the fishbowl-esque mindscape. She slammed the beast in the back, sending it careening into the coral palaces below. It crashed down and flailed about. Its screams gave me a sharp, stabbing pain in my head. I shook it off. I couldn't let it take advantage of me. I had to constantly remind myself that I was the one in control, not it. If I allowed it to get control of would devour me alive.

To the untrained eye, a Figment sealing would look like mindless violence. But on a deeper, subconscious was a battle between souls. Attack the Figment too little, it will never expel its Crystal Heart, and it'll soon overpower and possess you. Attack it too much, and the Figment would die. If that happened...its owner would perish almost immediately due to internal hemorrhaging. No reason, no explanation. They simply drop dead within seconds. In truth, Figment sealing was a delicate procedure akin to surgery.

Ichigo and I met back up to join hands. "It's nearly at its limit now," I said. "Just a little more."

Ichigo nodded. "Ya know, this is a lot easier than I thought it'd be, considering it took us so long to find the damn thing."

The Figment of Vanity arose from the coral rubble, slower and more staggered in its movements. The pearl in its head pulsated a hot red. It lifted its gown and extended its tentacles, the tendrils shooting out and hardening into spear-like points. The two of us swerved and dodged the stabbing orifices, but that wasn't all it had planned for us.

All at once, the Figment retracted its tentacles. Its needle-esque mouth split open into a gaping maw, and a growing point of light boiled deep within. Ichigo squeezed my palm a little tighter. "Get ready, Carol! Here it comes!"

The currents in the mindscape fell still for a brief moment. The Figment of Vanity let loose a screaming beam of white-hot energy. "Light Screen Barrier!" Ichigo and I shouted. A swirling, translucent pink shield was erected in front of us, and the beam smashed it head-on. We pushed back with all our strength, resisting the force that threatened to tear us apart. With one last strong shove, we repelled the beam, reflecting it back onto the beast that inflicted it. After being pummeled by its own attack, the Figment of Vanity was rendered incapable of moving. It let out a horrible, gunky sound, almost like throwing up.

My orange eyes flickered. "It's time." I shot forward like a rocket, my scythe at the ready, and I slammed my blade into the pearl in its head once more. The glassy surface shattered, and at last, the Figment expelled its Crystal Heart. It looked how you might expect- a blue-tinted, heart-shaped gemstone that looked like it had been carved from an immense chunk of crystal. It was nearly the size of my head. But rather than sky-blue, this Crystal Heart was tainted by pure black.

I only had once chance at this, and little room to screw it up. I aimed my weapon at the corrupted Crystal Heart and shouted, "Purify!" I closed my eyes and focused my mind to speak to the Figment directly. My thoughts flowed into its psyche. "It's okay. You don't have to struggle anymore. You don't have to be afraid anymore. You are beautiful. You are loved, just the way you are. Calm your rage, cease your crying. Your tears flow no more, and by the strike of my blade...I SEAL YOU!"

The black miasma was drawn out like smoke. It clumped together and materialized into a spiral shell-like crystal swirling with rainbow colors that resembled opal. Here it was. The Crystal Shard. The Crystal Heart returned to its brilliant blue sheen, and it lowered back down into the exhausted Figment's head. I reached out to grab the Crystal Shard and claim my prize. I felt its tingling warmth flow into my fingertips, and then-

An unseen force plowed into me like a truck. I got torn away from my precious Shard, and I was thrown into a cliff of coral. I screamed out, my body numb. I couldn't even comprehend it at first.

I opened my eyes...and someone was there. Someone I did not know. A tall, lean and muscular young man with spiked blonde hair and eyes as blue as an untainted Crystal Heart. He wore a flowing white trenchcoat over a skin-tight black suit with metallic silver boots. In his right hand was a broadsword bearing a brutal edge and a hilt in the shape of a dragon's head...and in his left was my Crystal Shard.

I couldn't believe what I was seeing. No one had ever been in the mindscape with Ichigo and I. It was impossible. That only meant one thing...he was a Cursed Child. I pointed my scythe at the blonde-haired, blue-eyed stranger. "Who the hell are you!? Give that Shard back right now!"

He spoke in a British accent. "I don't think so. And for your information, my name is Luther Lancaster. You would do well to remember it."

Like hell. I wasn't about to take orders from a stranger trying to steal my Crystal Shard. I tackled Luther Lancaster, swinging my scythe to unleash a freezing crescent-shaped blade of energy. "Ice Blade!"

In retaliation, Luther's broadsword burst into flames, and in a single swipe, my Ice Blade evaporated into steam. "I'm afraid you don't stand a chance against my flames, little snowflake," he sneered. "You'd best step back before you get melted."

I clenched my teeth. "What makes you think you can break in here and take what I've rightfully earned?!"

"GIVE IT BACK, YOU DAMN THIEF!" Ichigo bellowed. She soared in out of left field, armed and ready to pummel the intruder. Her hammer smashed against Luther's blade, and I flew in from the side to take back the Crystal Shard. Neither of us got anywhere.

One slash from Luther's sword was enough to blast us away and send us crashing into the coral ruins. I arched my back, crying in pain at the impact of being thrust into a coral pillar.

"H-he...he's so strong!" Ichigo gasped. "B-but why...why would a fellow Cursed Child be doing this!?"

"Too bad for you, but your Crystal Shard is mine now," Luther snickered. "I admit, it's been a long time since I've seen any other Cursed Children myself. I thought they were all dead, but here you are. I'm certain we'll meet again...and I especially look forward to seeing you, Ice Queen."

When his cold blue eyes met mine, a shiver shot down my spine. It was as though he gazed into my soul. To be looked at in the eyes by another Cursed Child...he was analyzing my aura, just as I had done to that Figment. He tore away all my veils in a single glance. It was like being caught naked, and it froze me solid. Never had I felt so exposed. Just like that, in the blink of an eye, he was gone...and so was the Crystal Shard Ichigo and I had fought so hard for.

Then...I awoke.

I shot upright, free from the clutches of the Twilight World, back in my gray jacket, and back in the empty aquarium. wasn't so empty anymore. People came and went, passing me by even as my lungs heaved and I gasped for breath. Ichigo braced her arms around my back. "Carol, are you okay?"

I shook my head. "No. We need to leave."

We pushed and shoved our way outside, where I threw up in the parking lot. My stomach was in knots. Ichigo hunched over, clawing at her head. " brain feels like it's going to explode...make it stop..."

Suffering defeat in the Twilight World had horrible side effects in the real world. Excessive sweating, searing migraines, chest pains, vomiting, and tremors were typically the most common. It had been a long time since I had failed to retrieve a Crystal Shard, but the pain hadn't changed a bit.

"You wanna tell me what the hell happened back there?" Ichigo grumbled. "Getting the shit beat out of me by a British dandy wasn't exactly on my to-do list today."

I clenched my jaw. "What makes you think I know? I've never seen that guy before in my life. The Cursed Children were all split up once we reached thirteen, don't you remember that? I think I would have recalled someone like him. His was piercing...and cold. He looked at my aura. He could see into my deepest thoughts. It still makes me shiver..."

"Hey, please just try to calm down," Ichigo said. "He psyched you out, that's all. Now come on, let's go home. We've got some questions for Dr. Hyness..."

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