A pained rasp leaves my parched throat. I wake up wanting to scream from the usual nightmares of the evils of man. It’s only because my throat is so dry that it comes out as a shrill wheeze instead.
A stabbing pain lances through my forehead from the light peeking through the blinds of a window meeting my eyes. My body reactively struggles to get away from it. I end up falling out of what turns out to be my bed. The tumble to the floor rids me of the lethargy and brings my mental faculties back to being fully functional.
I can guess that it’s morning judging from the dawnlight coming through the window. The entire night vanished the moment I reached for the door to the Matou Library. An overwhelming sensation of vertigo and nausea overtook me and then… nothing.
I look at the alarm clock and see that it’s just before seven in the morning. There’s a plastic basin next to the bed that’s filled with water tinged light-red. The washcloth hanging over the side has faded crimson stains on it.
The same goes for my bed. A chair is sitting next to it and there’s a towel on top of the pillow with a brighter shade of crimson on it. Dried blood lingers on the rim of a depression where my head was while I slept.
The door opens and Sakura enters. She looks tired, with the skin under her eyes slightly darker. Despite that, she only asks about me. “Nii-san, how are you feeling now?”
“Fine now.” It’s a partial truth. My entire body actually feels fairly heavy. My throat feels unbearably dry. My skin feels raw between my lip and nose. And the musk of blood, sweat, and fever suffocate my nose.
But she’s done enough.
Sakura smiles gently at the half-lie, relief expressing itself on her face. “That’s good. I was worried that you were getting worse.”
“I’ll be fine now. Go get some rest.”
She departs from my room without arguing, so I know she must be really tired. It hadn’t even been evening when we returned and she’s been stuck taking care of me since then. How embarrassing.
But I don’t have time to linger on it. I haven’t forgotten about the meeting with the others. I can’t go while smelling of fever and sweat. I have an image to maintain.
I go to the bathroom and take a shower, letting the hot water wash away the crusted sweat and rehydrate my skin. Inside of the cascading water, there’s a nagging sensation that something feels off in the back of my head. But I can’t put my finger on it.
It’s probably just that everything is catching up to me.
That sounds like the most logical reason. I can’t brush it all off as a dream or nightmare, and the time I planned to spend doing research disappeared when I came back home. I just need answers from Ayako so I can settle down.
I finish cleaning myself up, dress in my casual clothes since the autumn morning air is cold, and place my card in my pocket before I head out. The walk to the entrance of the mountain is boring for the most part. There’s hardly anyone around and the streets feel abandoned to a haunting degree. It leaves me feeling uneasy until I neared the base of the mountain and found Ayako sitting on the bottom stairs.
She’s wearing a pink windbreaker and a pair of jeans with zippers around the knees for pockets. Her eyes look distant as she brings what looks to be a snack-bar of some kind to her mouth with one hand, while holding a canned drink in her other hand. They only come back to the present when she notices me and swallows. “Morning, Shinji. Did you sleep well?”
“I wouldn’t know. A few hours after we got back to the present that fever and nosebleed hit me. The next thing I knew I was waking up in my bed an hour ago. Sakura apparently had to drag me to my room and spend the entire night watching over me.”
Her brows furrow in curiosity and her lips form a small pout. “That’s a pretty bad reaction. The only one of us I can think of that had it that bad was Issei from what I heard. I suppose I owe your sister an apology for adding to her troubles, and you over what happened that day. Minori told me about how he acted in the club. I’ve told him to apologize as well.”
An apology won’t save him from whatever I do to get revenge. I might have to be careful now that I know that Ayako is capable of exploding things, but I need the catharsis. But, for now I take a seat on the stairs opposite of hers and we wait in silence for Gai to arrive.
…Minutes pass. The silence permeating the mountain becomes unbearable as time ticks slowly. I fish around my thoughts for something to break it. But there’s nothing I can think of in particular that helps sort out the confusing mess that this has become.
Ayako looks up from her now-empty can and breaks the silence for me. “Feeling nervous?”
“Unsettled. Something feels… off after yesterday.”
Her expression sours. “I know the feeling. It’s surreal, going back to your ordinary life after everything that’s happened when you have to live with the knowledge that the future is a mess. It’s overbearing the first time it happens and you can’t help but think that something’s wrong, but you’re the only one who really knows it and you can’t tell anyone about it unless you’re willing to get them killed.”
I guess that’s one way to explain that nagging I felt earlier, but not exactly. I already know about the Moonlit world of magi and Servants, but those are… different. I’m not a part of that world, just someone who knows it’s there. Now I’m part of this and only a few other people know about it.
“Does it ever get easier?”
She closes her eyes and crosses her arms in thought. “Hmm… it depends on the person, I guess.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
She tilts her head up to the sky and opens her eyes. There’s a sort of resignation in them. “There’s not much else I can say. For example, Issei handles everything pretty well as far as things go. I usually do the things I did before I got involved in all of this, like visiting the game center in the Verde, attending the Archery Club, things like that. They help me forget it for a while and make me feel more… normal.”
Her voice is heavy on that last word. Thinking back to everything, I can’t help but remember how defeated she sounded when I told her to retire from the club. She had been deciding that she had to give up something she put her heart and soul into out of necessity to remain normal.
“If I had known you were going through this sort of thing, I wouldn’t have said anything about you quitting the club.”
“And if I’d done a better job of hiding it, you wouldn’t have had your ordinary life taken from you. I was screwing-up pretty bad for you to take notice enough to try and do something. That’s why you lied to Minori about those rumors about me ‘hanging around at an unsavory bar these days,’ the day before yesterday, right? ”
My brows rise unintentionally. There were already some rumors floating around from when she was hospitalized in February about that, and I may have had a hand in that, but they’d settled already after Rider’s barrier activated and things went back to normal. I make a note to make her brother suffer later on. “I can explain that. I just—”
Ayako lightly shakes her head. “I figured that you went through my stuff in the Locker Room and I was pretty mad about it. I spent a couple of hours planning on how I was going to punish you for it, but it got pushed back because of all the time I spent on the other side and doing my best to help others and kill the Taboos. Then when you showed up, I felt that it was partly my fault since the only way for you to have gotten so suspicious was because of that.”
Her eyes turn down and look at the ground, as though she still blames herself for it. It brings up the memory of her teary face and the warmth of her tears splashing against mine in that cold world of ash and sand. It bothers me.
“I thought you were being pressured into something and got myself tangled into it as a result of trying to help, but the Student President made it fairly clear that it was because I acted on my own that I have no one to blame but myself. And I did what I set out to do, so we’ll call it even for now.”
Her eyes look up and the corner of her lips tug backwards, forming a slight small. Gone is the weakness she showed before. “That’s fine. Just don’t violate my privacy again or else I’ll be mad.”
To prove her point, she crushes the can between her hands into a ball without any visible effort. The fact that there’s a muffled explosion and what looks like charred scraps of aluminum dust when she uncovers her hand with that same smile sends the message. The conversation as we continue to wait turns to more tolerable subjects until the third wheel shows up.
Gai is wearing black pants with white stripes and an opened red jacket with fur trimming around the collar. The black muscle-shirt underneath it reveals he’s surprisingly fit. “Yo! Sorry I’m late. I stayed up late after I got out of the hospital to catch a couple of shows I didn’t want to miss and ended up not realizing the time.
“Did you suffer from a fever and nosebleed?”
He laughs a bit. “Yeah. I didn’t really notice until I was getting yelled at for getting blood on the couch, but it came and went after I went to bed. I woke up refreshed about thirty-minutes ago, though my head feels a little tight in my skull.”
The fact that he sounds like nothing has changed despite seeing the future bothers me. In fact, I am reminded of a certain, honest idiot. No… no, he’s possibly worse.
Ayako just stares at him with a conflicted smile before turning her attention to the distant temple gate. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. After a moment, she nods and then opens her eyes. “We can come up now. Issei and his older brother are waiting.”
“How do you know that?” I ask from behind her as she starts to climb the stairs.
‘Because he told me.’
I nearly stumble back in surprise as Ayako’s voice resonates in my head clearly. Gai lets out a slightly confused sound, so I guess that he could hear it too. The small, playful smile I catch on the side of her face tells me that those were the reactions she wanted to see.
‘Come on. It’s time you two learn about just what you’ve gotten yourselves into.’
“You can read minds?” I became wary immediately. There are many thoughts in my head that I don’t want people to know.
‘No. It’s easy to push our thoughts out and into the heads of other people when we can see them or picture them in our minds. It’s like you imagine your thoughts being bundled up in a cloud of energy and then your push that cloud towards them. But reading the thoughts of others isn’t the same since the energy that we use to bundle our thoughts up belongs to us, not them. And then distance is a factor.’
That eases some of the tension running up my spine. She doesn’t have a reason to lie to us about it. “What energy?”
She turns her head around and looks me in the eyes as she keeps walking. ‘It’s hard to describe. It’s like since we were exposed to the atmosphere of the future, we can use this sort of energy in our bodies if we concentrate on something. It feels like it’s rushing out when you use it and using too much of it will make your brain hurt and your body tired, but it’s so mysterious that it’s hard to measure or really define when you’re just starting out. With time and training it gets easier, and in the future our abilities scale up.’
Is it magical energy? No, she doesn’t have Magical Circuits to draw it in. Then is it that she’s somehow processing her Od to… no, I’m over-thinking it. I need more information before I make assumptions, and even then my primary concern is getting out of this now that I’ve done what I needed to do.
“And we can do it too now?” Gai asks eagerly. He’s practically giddy at the thought.
‘That’s what we’re going to teach you today—the basics of PSI, the different types, and so on. We can’t let you go at it blind after all.’
Climbing the stairs to the top, we reach the temple that has been here for who knows how long and—
My brain trembles and static fills my vision as worms violate the flesh. Help me.
Chains bind and pull the swollen, pulsing meat before dropping it into a lake. Make it stop.
Flesh bulges, filling with the boiling, cursed mud as the golden Servant laughs. Make it stop!
It bloats to its limits. The pressure tears open the meat to spew it out for the first time. It hurts.
The nerves connecting me to every inch are set ablaze with pain. It hurts! It hurts! It hurts!
—“‘Shinji!’” Ayako’s voices ring loudly in my head and ears at the same time. It brings me back to reality.
“Huh?” I notice her face is close to mine, to the point our breaths mingle, as she stares into my eyes. The sudden proximity causes me to step back in reflex and I end up bumping into something. My head whips around to find Gai there.
His eyes are furrowed warily. “You okay?”
I swallow the saliva pooling in my mouth and nod. That memory it… it was after the grail had been planted inside of me. Long after the worms violated me. As I laid witness to all the evil in the world, was some part of my mind aware of what was happening to what became of my body? D-Does that mean I’ll start remembering all of the pain that I was in, on top of the nightmares?
Ayako leans forward and frowns. “What happened? You suddenly stared spacing out when you looked at the temple and broke out in a cold sweat.”
“Sorry, just… had a moment. It’s nothing.”
She doesn’t seem like she’s buying it, but she doesn’t argue. It makes sense. No matter how I’m actually feeling, it’s too important for her to teach us how to survive. She turns around and leads us towards the back of the temple.
There’s a path in the back of it leading into the mountain. Partway there, we find the Student President, wearing a sweater and beige pants, and a slightly older-looking monk dressed in black waiting.
The Student President welcomes us with a plain look. “I see you’ve all made it through the night.”
“Yeah, they’ve both stated that they’ve had the nosebleeds and everything. Though Shinji’s left him unconscious and he said he was bleeding for a long time. Can you take a look at him?”
“Very well.” He removes his glasses and stares at me for a moment. I don’t feel anything from the stare, but it’s uncomfortable in general to be stared at like that. A slight hum leaves his mouth before his gaze turns to Gai.
Then he places his glasses back on. “He does seem to have a slightly thicker aura than a nascent psychicer. It’s tinged with a faint darkness, a thin veil of malice that swaddles the edges of his potential. In contrast, Gotou is a newly-born sapling yearning to mature, the sounds of eager growth thrumming within.”
…Okay, I’m lost. That makes absolutely no sense to me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ayako turns towards me. “One of Issei’s powers is the ability to sense and read Auras, so he can interpret if someone has a power with his senses. The combinations tend to come out as strange though since he’s interpreting it through all of his senses instead of just one—including a sixth one.”
Gai seems rather enthused learning about that tidbit, but the Student President seems rather unbothered about it. “If someone possesses a power beyond that of the average person, then I can perceive it visibly. Likewise, when they are in the midst of using that power actively, then it becomes more vivid to all of my senses. It has limited utility in this time period, so I rarely use it outside of circumstances such as this.”
The Monk laughs slightly as he gives him a pat on the back. “He’s being modest. Out of all the veterans in Fuyuki, Issei possesses the greater variety of abilities in contrast to us.”
“Brother Reikan, your praise is misguided. They only permit me to remain on the sidelines. It is always you and the others who did the majority of the fighting.”
“Fascinating as this is, what are we doing this far out here anyway?” I point my thumb back the way we came. “I thought we were going into the temple?”
The Monk shifts his gaze towards the distant temple. “No, they’re doing something there this morning with the parishioners and we can’t risk being overheard. So we’re relocating towards the second meeting site in Shinto—the Copenhagen.”
I frown. “If we were going to walk that way, then we could have caught the bus. Not to mention it’s near the industrial district. It’ll take us ages.”
Ayako puts on a knowing grin that matches her eyes, furrowed with the knowledge of something that few others do. I know that glance given I’d put it on many times as well. “We have a faster way and back here no one is likely to spot us.”
The Student President steps towards us and extends his hand. A square of light emerged from his palm and then stretches around all of us before layering itself onto the ground. In an instant, the forest behind the temple vanishes from my view and a flickering sense of weightlessness overtakes me.
Then it feels like I’m suddenly heavy. My knees buckle before I regain my balance. I look around to see that we weren’t in the back of the mountain anymore. Instead, we were in what looks like a homely bar.
It had a rustic appeal to it, with wooden floorboards beneath our feet and a bar counter on our right. Most of the tables had the chairs on them, with the exception of one close to what seemed to be an antique stove.
It takes me a second to find my voice. “Wh… what just happened?”
While Ayako closes her eyes and tilts her head up slightly again, the Student President fixes his gaze to us. “I used my Teleportation Marker to bring up to the Copenhagen in Shinto. Since it is closed today, we can talk in peace.”
For a moment, just a moment, I can’t help but look at him with my brows raised at the sheer and casual way that he said that. Then I remember what I’ve gotten myself into and the moment passes.
Meanwhile, Gai looks around suspiciously as Ayako goes around the bar counter and turns on the lights. “Should we be in here right now?”
“It’s fine.” Ayako assures him as she starts grabbing bottles of alcohol off the shelves behind the counter. “I sent a telepathic message to Neko and she told us to go ahead while she’s on her way here. She’s just finished up a delivery to Fujimura-sensei’s place and is on her way back by truck.”
That name she mentioned brings to mind a discussion about this place I had with Emiya a long time ago. “She’s the one who hired Emiya for a part-time job here a couple of years ago, wasn’t she?”
Ayako looks up at me with a hint of surprise on her face. “I’m surprised you knew that. Weren’t you and Emiya on the outs?”
“We’ve known each other for around as long as he’s been working here. Even if things between us aren’t as close as they used to be, I do know more about him than anyone else.” Like the fact that he’s a magus as well. “I wouldn’t trust my sister going to his house every now and again to cook in the morning otherwise.”
The Monk, who had been silent until now, rouses after hearing Emiya’s name. “Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen Shirou-kun in sometime around the temple.” He turns to his brother. “How is he doing in his studies?”
The Student President takes that as a cue to chime in. “His grades remain as accomplished as always, but I fear that a certain wily fox has her claws in him now. I warned him that she would lead him astray, but it seems that my efforts were for nothing. Now I fear she will consume every ounce of goodness in him before long.”
I can’t help but nod my head, knowing the fox he’s referring to. “For once we agree. I warned him as well, but he’s made his choice. Really, he has no eye for women….”
Then I look over to Gai and recall how he got involved in this mess as well. “Then again, maybe he’s not the only one.”
He takes offense to that. “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just saying, that girl’s rather stuffy and her father’s in a rather high position in the government, so she’s probably not all that interested in commoners.” Honestly, she’s not a bad woman in terms of looks, but she’s so uptight that she wouldn’t be any fun. He’d have a better chance with nearly anyone else in the school—except Sakura or Ayako.
“Shinji, I don’t really think you have much room to talk.” A bemused smile comes across Ayako’s face as she says that. “Didn’t you constantly approach Tohsaka for the last two years? I remember you taking out one of her rejections on a couple of first-years. What does that say about you?”
“Geh….” Why did she have to bring up that? “My eyes were clouded back then. I’ve come to see through the mask she wears and have realized she’s not my type of woman. Emiya can have her.
“Oh, and what is your type of woman then?”
It’s worrying that she’s getting involved now, but I have no shame in my taste in women. Not that I’d tell her, of course. “Only an idiot would tell that sort of thing. Who do you take me for, Emiya?”
A slightly teasing tone laces her voice. “Then maybe I’ll just ask Emiya myself. If you were such good friends, I bet he’d have a good idea.”
My memories flash back to when I gave him a magazine some time ago that could be used as evidence. Surely he wouldn’t give it away on his own. But… but if Tohsaka really has her under his thumb then he might just do it.
She puts on a rather coy smile that makes me take a step back. This is revenge for her telling her brother about the Copenhagen, isn’t it? She’s embarrassing me in front of Gai, who is nearly doubled over seeing me back down, and the Student President, who has his eyes narrowed in faint amusement.
I will get them both later for this! I swear it! “N-now, Mitsuzuri, let’s not go that far.”
She sighs. The amusement passes from her face.“Fine, I’ll let it slide. But don’t bring up others tastes when it comes to romance. That sort of thing isn’t to be taken lightly.”
“Got it…” I guess she’s had her fun. “And stop laughing Gotou!”
Gai gets in a few more chuckles and then winds down a bit, looking back and forth between us and then sighing. “Still, I’m feeling kind of left out here. Everyone knows Emiya well enough for blackmail material, but I only talk to him every now and again in class.”
The Monk takes that as a cue to speak up. “Neko-kun attended school with Taiga-kun and I, so we were all familiar with one another to some extent even before we got involved in this. Our families too considering the rivalries from our old men and the fact that the temple has been Copenhagen’s best customers for a long time. That being said, Neko and Junior weren’t aware that he knew them both and only learned a year ago, when a fight nearly broke out between them over him working at the liquor store. It was an entertaining tale to tell over a drink of sake beneath the moonlight.”
“And here I thought monks were supposed to abstain from things like that.” I look over to the monk-in-training within our group to see his eyes are closed, a faint look of embarrassment on his face at how such dirty secrets of the temple were spilling out so freely. The corners of my lips turn up at finally having something to break the virtuous façade he wore. “I had no idea you were so worldly, Ryuudou.”
“I myself do not participate in such activities, but one must be willing to accept that others may not share the same virtues yet remain virtuous. Especially given the nature of the trials we face. However, as long as one is alive, they can strive towards shaking off the chains of the three temptations.”
“I’m not judging.” I walk up to him and set a hand on his shoulder like we’re old friends. “It’s only natural for everyone to have a secret or two and you’re still in-training for a little while longer. No one would blame you for deciding to experience the wonders of the world before settling down to live a virtuous life. I can even be your guide should you choose to take that path in life.”
He steps away from my grasp and glares. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t try to do so now or in the future. I have no desire to travel such a path.”
I can only shake my head. “A person should at least attempt to take in as much of the world into their soul as they can rather than narrowing it down to such an extent. You’ll only be wracked with regrets later on if you pass it up. Such a thing will deny you enlightenment after all.”
I take another step forward and extend my hand for the Student President to take. “Tell you what, I’ve heard of a party going on soon with some girls from Western High. I was thinking about asking Emiya to accompany me, but I’m feeling generous. I bet there’s one or two who would be more than happy to broaden your horizons. What do you say?”
He takes a step back again and warily eyes me. “I see that tint of darkness must’ve been reflective of your nature as a tempter. However, I will not be led down the path of evil by the prospect of meeting girls and will not let you do the same to Emiya.”
Before we can go any further, Ayako interrupts. “That’s enough Shinji. No more tempting us further with unwholesome desires. And while I’m back here, does anyone want to drink or eat while we wait? Issei, you want tea, right?”
“If possible, I would appreciate it, Mitsuzuri-kun.”
Gai takes a step closer to the counter. “Can I try something alcoholic? I’ve never tried anything before, but like Matou said I should take the world into my soul while I can.”
She taps her chin in thought for a moment. “Hmm…it’s too early in the morning for that and we have a lot to talk about. Maybe later, but we do have coffee or a couple of other things she has here for when I stop by, like energy bars.”
I take her up on the offer. “I’ll take my coffee with milk and two sugars. And one of those bars. I didn’t have breakfast.”
She ducks down beneath the counter, reaching for something, while I take a seat at the table close to the stove and turn to look at the different pictures on the wall nearby. One in particular that I do take notice of is a picture of what looks to be Fujimura and a brunette woman sitting around a table with what looks to be the Monk, all three rather younger and making a toast.
I take my eyes off of the wall of memories as the seats to the right, left, and across from me are occupied by Gai, the Monk, and the Student President. The latter pulls out a crimson calling card that’s slightly more worn than ours, but the biggest difference is that there seems to be a corner of it where the crimson has been peeled away to reveal a black patch.
“Let’s not waste anymore time while we wait. Both of you pull out your cards. It’s time you learned just what they’re capable of and how they tie you to this.”