And thus begins the talk.
(Please note that there was a bonus chapter on Wednesday. If you missed it, please use the previous chapter button, or you will have no idea what’s going on right now.)
“Koren!” I blurted in spite of myself. As worn out (not so much tired as… emotionally and mentally exhausted) as I was after the events of the past half hour, my anger shot to the surface. “You can’t do that. Don’t you get it? That piece of shit knows how to get past the shield. Everyone but us is vulnerable. You can’t just leave everyone else in danger by withholding crucial information like that.”
A guilty flush crossed the girl’s face before she retorted, “I—of course I know that! But my parents—what do you think I’m supposed to do when you people are keeping secrets from me that have to do with some mind controlling psychopath that…
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The wind feels a bit colder as it whistles through the remains of Fuyuki.
I carefully peer around the corner of a half-fallen building and make sure the path is clear before I turn to Gai and gesture for him follow. Ayako is in his arms, still unconscious and feverish. He can carry her without being slowed down because he’s broader than me.
We were making our way back to the Shopping District, to the phone that served as the gate to the past. By my guess it’s been at least half-an-hour since we left the building that Ayako had brought us to. We were maybe a little over halfway to the district at the hurried, yet cautious pace we were going. It spoke wonders of just how fast Ayako had been when she brought me there in less than five minutes.
I had thought magecraft was involved at first. But I brushed it off on account of Ayako not being a magus. I confirmed as much when Rider drained her to the extent it took days for her to recover, and had a good laugh when Emiya brought it up back then.
Obviously, I’m not laughing now.
Besides, I’m not a magus. The Old Worm had pointed that fact out many times. I was a defect in the bloodline of the once proud Makiri, a failure without worth despite the effort I put forth in school and how I presented myself.
So if the requirement needed to gain a card was the presence of Magic Circuits, then I wouldn’t be here. Then there was the gauntlet with a crossbow she had earlier. Was it a mystic code of some kind that she could summon at will? Or was I just stretching for something—anything to make the facts line up with what I knew.
What exactly is this the power Nemesis Q spoke of to change the future?
The answer could wait. At until after we got back to our own time. But there was one thing I was absolutely certain of at this moment.
I am never going to wear this uniform again if we get pulled into the future.
It’s impractical for this sort of terrain and weather. And the only reason I kept the sandals on is because the alternative was dealing with bits and pieces of rubble wedging themselves into my feet. I can’t run away if that happens.
As we come to a stop at another outcropping several minutes later, Gai speaks. “I don’t think we have long if this fever gets worse.”
I feel her head. He’s right. She’s warmer than before. “I think we’re ten minutes—”
The words die when I hear a sound coming from the distance and peek around the corner. I see another one of those hounds that nearly dragged me off. But it’s not alone.
No, there’s a person there with it. Or at least what used to be a person before it got turned into Frankenstein’s Monster, lugging around some kind of giant vat or container.
The muscular torso gives me the impression that it was once a tall man, but certain body parts seem misshapen. The arms are elongated to a similar length of Nemesis Q’s arms, yet the legs are muscular and swollen. On its head is a mask of steel that left its eyes and nose hidden, and its ears are shaped like that of a bat’s.
I turn to Gai and press a finger to my lips before pointing over to the edge so he can see as well. His eyes squint before he pulls back. His voice comes out hushed.
“What is that?”
“I’ve run into the dog-thing before. It nearly dragged me off until Ayako killed it. But that other one is new.”
I think back to that time, before Ayako carried me off. She mentioned that the ‘Catcher’ would follow the sounds the Hound made before spiriting me away. I guess that must be it.
It looks fast. I couldn’t see us getting to the phone fast enough to save Ayako if we had to go around it. But going straight ran the risk of us being caught….
At least without bait. “Gotou, how fast are you?”
His eyes narrow at the question. “I make decent time on the track course. Why?”
I nod to Ayako. “Neither of us can run fast enough to avoid getting caught if we have to carry her. But we don’t have time to waste if we need to circle around. Not before that fever puts her down for good. You’re in better shape than me and are wearing actual shoes instead of these sandals.”
“So you want me to throw myself at them?”
That’s the gist of it actually. But he doesn’t need to know that. Instead, I shake my head and point to the right.
“No, I need for you to go that way while the wind is blowing towards the left. You’re going to circle around until the Hound catches your scent and then leave your shirt behind. That’ll buy you time to circle around again and get to the phone while I’ll take Ayako straight ahead.”
“If you’ve got this all planned out, why don’t you do that while I carry her?”
“You’re faster than me and, again, not wearing sandals.” I wiggle my feet for a moment and then tilt my head to Ayako once more. “It’s not about me or you. She’ll die if we don’t do it this way. Do you want to let that happen after she helped us out?”
He looks hard at me at that. Then Ayako. A sigh follows as he stands up and starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Works like a charm. “Run fast.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t screw this up, Matou.” That said, he runs off to the right and disappears around the remains of a building that way.
Honestly, I don’t expect him to get away from those two entirely. But I do expect him to distract them long enough for us to get to the phone. That’s what counts.
That container that the Catcher has looks big enough to house a single person. And, while the ears give me the impression that its hearing is sharp, I can use the wind and softer surface to mask my movements. I’ll live through this and get back to the past with Ayako.
… It’s about three minutes before I see movement on the other end. The Hound lets loose a sharp bark and the Catcher standing next to it rouses. They move off to the right and out of my view.
I reposition Ayako onto my back with some effort. Her fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest and she’s started mumbling something under her breath. Like I told Gai, I really do have to hurry and get her to safety before she dies.
No sooner than we pass by the spot where the Catcher and Hound had been did the winds shift, blowing towards the direction that the monster pair ran. I cling to a faint hope that our scents remain out of the Hound’s range as I push ahead faster. But that hope is snuffed out when I hear a barking noise.
Fear crawls up my spine. It’s coming. The Hound is coming. If it gets close enough to scream, then we die.
I seriously consider leaving Ayako behind for a moment, but that isn’t an option. She’s the clear condition and the reason I came here in the first place. I already threw Gai to the Catcher to buy us time, but doing that to her isn’t an option. I have no choice but to run.
But I’m not fast enough to get away before the Hound catches up. The moment it caught my scent, running stopped being an option. And, even if we hide somewhere, the Hound will just track us down by scent and sound. That only leaves one final option:
I have to kill it somehow.
I don’t know how Ayako killed the last one, but I knew that they could be killed. I can probably manage by bashing its skull in or something. But a frontal assault will just get me caught by the scream and leave me helpless again. I need to arrange an ambush then.
My legs burn while running until I come across the ideal battlefield—one of the buildings that looked as if the foundation shifted. This caused it to lean, tearing down one half of the building and exposing the gutted remains to the elements. I can see a spot where the second floor can be used as an ambush point, and the large rubble beneath it as a weapon.
I enter the first floor through the opening and set Ayako down against the mountain of rubble, beneath where the second floor collapsed. Then I remove the top of my uniform and set it down ahead of her feet. I don’t expect it to distract the Hound for long, but it should make it sit still for a second or two.
That has to be enough.
I grab the largest chunk of stone I can before I climb up the stairs. It’s… a lot higher up than it looks from the first floor, but I get into position as the Hound comes in. The moment it sniffs at the discarded clothing, I hurl the head-sized block down from the second floor.
It smashes down on the Hound’s head hard enough to shatter and makes it yelp. But it’s not enough to do more than crack the black orb on its head. And it knows I’m here now.
I freeze as its legs tense. My blood turns to ice at the knowledge that if I don’t do something, it’ll come after me now. I don’t want to be caught by that thing and dragged off. I don’t want to die for getting myself wrapped up in this, trying to be a hero like….
Something clicks inside of me when I think on what Emiya would do here? What would the idiot who went out of his way to help others do? The answer is stupid and obvious.
I leap down, screaming. I throw myself at the problem without thinking further. I ignore my heart leaping into my throat as gravity grabs my body and drops me down.
The Hound’s legs buckle under my weight and we collapse onto one another. The blood pounding in my ears acts like a war drum. It takes away my sanity.
I find myself screaming as the desire to survive takes hold, scooping up the largest chunk of what was left of the stone I threw. It was maybe the size of a baseball and jagged, the tip pointed enough to serve as a makeshift knife. I stab at the Hound wherever I could with it around the head, neck, and mouth.
I have to kill it. I can’t let it get a chance to recover or it’ll kill me. I have to kill it!
I have to kill it! I Have To Kill It! I HAVE TO KILL IT!
The Hound whines and redoubles its effort to throw me off at the pain. It succeeds. Then it opens its mouth to scream.
I don’t think. I react. My closest arm moves, sinking my fist into its mouth until it’s lodged in its throat. It closes its jaws on reflex and bites into my arm.
“AHH!!” It hurts, but it doesn’t break the bone. It can’t scream like this and it can’t get away. Something inside of me can’t help but giggle as I start hammering away with the stone in my other hand.
It tries to escape, but it can’t. So it tries to take off my arm instead. Pain surges through my body as it jerks its fangs to rip my arm apart, tearing into the flesh until blood began to cascade from between its fangs.
It hurts. It hurts! It hurts! But I can’t lose this chance or else it’s all over!
I drown out the pain with a scream as I keep hammering away, every hit causing the jagged edges to cut into my good hand. It tears at my flesh and leaves my blood to run over the pitch-black stone as the crack widens. Then something inside of the orb begins to pour out like steam.
The Hound’s fangs loosen. Its throat tightens with a whine that chokes on my arm. It’s dying. Good.
“Die! Die! DIEEEEE!” I keep hitting at its weak point until it collapses. Its body begins to soften as the stone buries itself into its head, whitening and loosening. I only stop when it turns to ashes and laugh as I pull out the bloodied limb coated in white powder. “That’s what you get for coming after me, stupid mutt.”
The pain hurts so badly that I don’t think I can use either of my hands again. But I’m alive. The thought makes me laugh again. “Hehehahaaha….HAHAHA— ”
The voice draws my attention. I turn to see that Ayako is awake. The noise must’ve woken her.
“Did you see, Ayako?” I gesture to the pile of ashes. “I killed it. Hahaha… you see, I killed it on my own.”
“Shinji… you need to… calm down….” She leans forward off the rubble, despite her face being red from the fever. “Take a deep breath.”
Ah, she’s staring at me with those eyes. My lips curl into a frown as I recognize those same pitying eyes that Sakura used to stare at me with. Those same pitying eyes that said she was laughing behind my back that I couldn’t use magic when she could. Those same damn pitying eyes that shows she thinks she’s better than me!
I hate them. I hate them! I HATE THEM! IHATETHEM! IHATETHEMIHATETHEMHATETHEMHATETHEMHATEHATEHATE!
“Stop staring at me with those eyes!” I try to rise up, but my body sways on my feet a little. Blood stains the ground as I stumble towards her to wipe those eyes off her face. “You should be grateful I saved you! You couldn’t even do anything and yet, I—”
My foot slips over my discarded top. I fall forward. She reaches out and grabs me before I can hit the ground.
Her body is uncomfortably warm. It stinks of sweat and ashes. But she holds me tight before I can struggle and doesn’t let go.
“Shinji, don’t let this place drive you insane.” Her tone is gentle. And her embrace soothes the burning inside of my chest. “I don’t want to see someone else like that. Calm down so we can go back to the past together.”
Her words bring back my sanity. I realize how close I was to doing something I would regret again to the person giving me a second chance. Shame comes with the pain in my limbs and an apology slips out. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She pulls back and looks me in the eyes. “What happened to Gotou?”
“He….” I struggle to find the words to say ‘I sent him off to die in order to buy us time.’ Yet, if I worded it wrong she would likely try to go out and find him. In her condition that wasn’t likely to work out and we’d die here stupidly. “The Catcher caught him and left the Hound behind. He’s gone.”
A tear streaks down her eyes at hearing that. A shuddering, lifeless breath leaves her mouth. It takes her a moment before she lets me go and pulls herself together. “I’ll get you out alive then, at the very least.”
The shame and embarrassment still lingers in my chest. I sit up on my knees. “Mitsuzuri, about a moment ago… I didn’t—”
She cuts me off with a slow shake of her head. “It happens. I’ve seen people go insane in different ways. One girl threw herself off a building when I first started out, before Issei could get to her. Another guy tried murdering others until…”
Ayako trails off. The message is clear enough for me to get the picture. Desperate people did stupid things. The pain in my arms lingers as proof of that. I don’t know what I was thinking…oh wait, I wasn’t.
Then again, Emiya probably would have done the same thing. He’s an idiot like that.
“We need to wrap those injuries before the shock wears off entirely.” She tears apart her torn clothes further to wrap strips around my bloody hand and arm. “Once we get back to the past, Issei will be able to heal your wounds.”
“He didn’t come with you?”
“No, he’s a Veteran Drifter.” She finishes and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm. “He went through his card’s value around the time I got started and helped me cope through it. Right now he’s taking care of my body in a guest room at the Ryuudou Temple, while I’m here. The wounds we sustain transfer over to our bodies once we snap back, so he stays nearby to heal them. I’ll tell him about you the moment I wake up.”
She rises to her feet and sways before steadying herself. “Did Nemesis Q appear?”
I nod and rise to my feet, letting her lean on my shoulder for support. “The clear condition is to get you to the phone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District. We’re not too far.”
“Then if we hurry, we might be able to save Gotou. If the clear condition is met, all surviving Drifters are pulled to the past as long as they don’t end up inside of the Tower.”
That’s convenient. “Then let’s go.”
We push ourselves to move, stumbling out of the building with our weary bodies. Now that the adrenaline isn’t coursing through my body, I feel like I’ve ran a marathon of some kind and my legs and arms ache. It takes effort to just walk while supporting Ayako.
I glance towards her. The fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest, but she’s trying to put on a brave face. Yet her eyes are half-lidded and straining to remaining open as she looks into the distance. She’s pushing herself too far just to see me to safety…
No, it’s not just me. She’s hoping that if we get there quick enough that Gai can be saved too. It’s a frail, fleeting hope, but enough to get us both to safety nonetheless.
The phone comes into view and I let out a sigh of relief at the thought of safety being only short walk away. But then Ayako freezes mid-step. “What’s wrong?”
She turns her head to the side. Her eyes furrow and close in. “I hear footsteps and hard breathing.”
“What?” I turn behind me and try to listen in. But I don’t hear anything until nearly ten seconds later, when a bloody Gai stumbles out from an alley. Just how sharp is her hearing?
“Gotou!” She releases me and tries to go to his side. However, her strength hasn’t returned just because she sees him. She nearly falls forward until I catch her, sending pain lancing up my limbs.
Gai sees us and yells, “RUN!”
That’s when the Catcher leaps out from the corner in a crouch. The vat it carries is on its back, strapped on like a backpack. In a motion too quick for me to see, it throws itself forward and pounces on Gai.
“AGH!!” He goes down with it on top of him like a feral beast, placing a hand on his head like it’s going to crush it. His strained voice reaches our ears as he yells again. “Hurry up and go!”
I don’t need to be told twice. Ignoring the pain in my arms, I pull Ayako forward with fear giving me the strength to run away. “Let’s go!”
She resists. “We can’t leave him!”
“The hell we can’t!” Why do women make this more complicated than it needs to be? Since I don’t have time to argue, I crouch down and lift her so that she’s slung over my shoulders like a bag of potatoes. The act causes blood to slip beneath the makeshift bandages and the muscles in my hands feel like they’re tearing apart.
Ayako doesn’t argue. Instead, she opts to say, “Brace yourself then!”
That sent up some red flags, so I turn my head expecting the Catcher to be lunging for us this time. Instead, I see Ayako raising her arm and that crossbow-gauntlet appearing on her wrist with a flash of light. There’s a bolt of pure white energy thrumming in it.
The moment she lets it loose, the backlash knocks me off my feet as an explosion sounds out. I end up falling on my stomach and then have the air knocked out of me as Ayako ends up mounted on my back. “Ow!”
In contrast, Gai is half-buried under ash. Confusion paints his face as he notes the absence of the Catcher. “What… happened?”
“Uhh….” Ayako’s body sways on top of me. Then she falls to the ground next to me.
“Hey!” I sit up and take a look at her. Sweat covers her face and blood runs from her nose as she desperately gasps for air. It’s clear she made her condition worse.
Yet, despite all of that, she gathers enough energy to just glare at me with barely-opened eyes. “You said… he was caught…”
I look away. “…I made a judgment call. The clear condition was to bring you to the goal. If he hadn’t been caught, then he would have been brought back to the present as well.”
I had no proof of that until she informed me earlier. But it’s the best excuse I can think of to appease them. A little white lie to avoid making it sound worse than it was.
The conversation died there as Gai came over and helped us to our feet. He’s rough with me and looks like he wants to say something, so I take it that he didn’t like being bait. Shame he couldn’t play the part properly, given I had to kill the Hound, but at the very least he seems to understand that now’s not the time.
Before anything else can jump us, we get to the phone. The moment Gai picks up the receiver, the world vanishes. We abruptly start falling through space again as Nemesis Q lingers above us and claps its hands like it’s giving us an applause.
A look of pure hatred crosses Ayako face at the sight of it. It makes the glare she gave me earlier seem tame in comparison. Then again, Nemesis Q ran her through this who knows how many times now.
Then everything goes dark as the bird that’s mimicking a person grows distant….
Awww, the vicious man-eaters are friendly. Also, Koren, I get you’re scared, but now isn’t the time to be pulling this.
Eleven years ago
“But Mommy, what if there’s sharks?”
I was six years old, squinting up at my mother as the two of us stood on the edge of the lake. Me in my awkward little blue one-piece and her looking as beautiful as ever in a pristine white two piece with black piping. Her short hair was already wet, slicked back over her head as she smiled down at me.
“Well, sweetie,” she replied in a casual voice, “I know you’ve had some bad luck with animals lately.”
I lifted my arm to show the band-aid on my bicep while intoning flatly. “Mr. Raphardy’s cat is mean.”
“Well, you know what they say.” Chuckling, my mother leaned in a little closer, her voice lowering to a confidential whisper, as if her words were a secret just between the two of us. “Like owner like pet.”
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