Standing firm with my feet planted on a mostly-intact rooftop, I peer towards the west as a low rumble reaches my ears. Another series of buildings just collapsed, their long and vigilant stance that weathered the end of the world finally coming to an end. It was far off enough that I couldn’t feel the tremors, but the fact that it was the third time I’d heard that happening left me curious as to what the cause was.
Not curious enough to check though. I was already an uncomfortable distance away from the others, who actually could fight effectively with their powers. Going to check it out alone was just putting myself in danger for no reason.
I look over my shoulder to see that the argent cords stemming from the base of my skull were still intact out of habit, rather than necessity. I could still feel the connection of my mind to theirs. It was strange how natural it felt, but these PSI powers seem instinctive to begin with.
The cord linking Ayako’s mind to mine stretched further back and to the left, far into the distance beyond what my eyes could see. At the best I could make out a sliver of light streaking through the sky from that direction as she shot down distant Taboo. Her last message was that she’d managed to take out the majority of the flying Taboo and thus the most dangerous ones, but she couldn’t hit the further ones since her trade-off limited how far she could aim and back with enough power for the shots to count.
As for the idiot, his cord was lower to the ground and moving a bit. There were at least seven or so blocks between us and the husks of buildings stood as barriers to obscure our view. But Gai stated that as long as the cord remained intact he could reach me if something happened by simply plowing through them.
It’s still crude though. Since I’m the central point connecting the other two, any messages that need to be sent have to go through me. I’m basically a glorified phone operator, but it does allow me to control the flow of information and stay up-to-date with how we’re progressing.
Between the two of them and my own ability, I could probably get out of trouble if need be. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t all that eager to even run into any Taboo. So I decided to play it safe by focusing on searching at a slower rate through the use of my enhanced hearing, with mixed success.
I wasn’t sure how many hours it had been since we left the present behind, but it was getting darker now and there was a lot less noise than when we started searching. If we couldn’t hear them or see them, then we couldn’t guide them to the location where we’d arranged for all the survivors to stay before we moved the pods there. Maybe the smarter people still around were hiding quietly to avoid the Catchers and Hounds, but most likely everyone else was dead.
I try not to think about it as I keep moving towards the entrance of what looks to be an entertainment district. The standing buildings are all tightly packed with their displays in various states of disrepair, while some of them had fallen onto the streets below and blocked off the path.
That’s when Ayako contacts me. ‘Shinji, you find anyone else?’
‘Not yet. I don’t think we’ll find anyone else beyond that nervous guy from Sasayama that refused to move unless Gotou walked him back to the others. Speaking of which, it looks like the range for the pool of people they’ve pulled from encompasses half of Japan as a whole if we take his word. Do the recruitment missions usually pull from that many places in Japan?’
‘No. Until now the furthest I’ve been within Japan is from is the Shimane Prefecture when it comes to recruitment missions. It might be that there aren’t any Drifters left in the lower-half of Japan, so they pulled us in for it.’
‘Is that possible?’
‘The death rate for the missions that pitch us against Soldier Taboo is pretty high, so it’s very likely. There aren’t that many of us to start with and we’re lucky in the fact that there are three Veterans to teach us in Fuyuki.’
She’s mentioned those Soldier Taboo a few times now. I really wasn’t looking forward to meeting one of them from how she was describing them, but first I needed to prioritize surviving this mission. We’ve saved a few people but Nemesis Q hasn’t declared the method to finish what we need to do here.
My spine stiffens as a scream rings out, just further beyond the blockade and debris. It’s followed by a Hound unleashing its scream that scrambled the mind and prevented victims from being able to move. Looks like I spoke too soon.
‘Mitsuzuri, I heard a woman screaming and a Hound howling. Do you have eyes ahead of me?’
‘No, it’s a blind-spot for me at this distance with the buildings that tightly packed and I’m lining up a shot to deal with the last of the Carriers before it gets too far away. Can you get eyes on them to see if you can do something before I change targets?’
‘I’ll try.’ I run along the edge of the building I’m on towards as quickly as I can and then jump over to the next one. The buildings that were close together make it easy enough without expending power, but my stamina isn’t the best to be doing something like this without it. In the end, I’m panting by the time I reach the top of the building next to the one that collapsed and get eyes on the screaming person…
It’s the mousey member of the Track Trio from school, Yukika Saegusa. She’s wearing her tracksuit and sitting against the rubble, eyes tear-stricken and wide in fear as she holds the body of Himuro in her arms tightly. It looks like she collapsed over her when she got caught by the scream, but I don’t see the third one.
Stupid of me, I should have suspected they’d be called in eventually. I heard them talking about the calling cards the very day I got caught up in this. Damn it, I don’t have any choice but to act so I jump off the rooftop.
In midair gravity takes hold of me as I use the slowed perception of time to line up my fall and make sure I don’t end up landing short. The world continues to move in slow motion in the process, allowing me to see the surprised look on the Saegusa’s tear-stained face and the Hound turning to face me after picking up my scent. Once I’m sure that I’ll land properly, I redistribute the Rise energy to strengthen my legs and feet to withstand the landing.
I come crashing down on the Hound’s body, carried by my momentum and weight. The result is what you’d expect from a dog ran over by a truck, visceral fluids of some kind splashing over my pants and the girl’s face. Then I stomp on the Hound’s head and core, grinding into it and making sure it’s dead, before I wheel around on Saegusa.
“Where’s the loud one?” I ask right away. If something happens to them then Ayako will have my head for not mentioning it earlier. “You three are never that far apart. Did she get caught?”
Saegusa doesn’t speak. All she does is shake her head as her and cry, eyes red and swollen as tears keep falling. It seems like the shock of everything left her too stunned to get a word out at the worst possible time.
Fortunately, Himuro is conscious and speaks from within Saegusa’s grasp. “A large creature caught her before we crossed the alley to the right.”
“Fuck!” I close my eyes and focus on listening in that direction. The energy threading my body focuses on my ears in response. Sound sharpens. Clarity follows. I can hear bestial panting and scraping of claws against asphalt, a set of larger and heavier footfall, and Makidera’s voice as she demands it let her go.
“You stay here and wait for Gotou or Mitsuzuri! Yell as loud as you can if another one comes close!” I tell them before I start running down that alley Himuro mentioned while sending a message to them both. ‘Mitsuzuri, Gotou, the screaming girl was Saegusa from the Track Club. She’s with Himuro who was caught in a Hound’s scream and can’t move. I left them behind the fallen building in the middle of the road to chase after another Hound and a Catcher that caught Makidera before it can get away!’
I ignore the surprise and loud responses that they give me to focus on the task at hand. I’m not all that fond of Makidera, but when I remember how Ayako mentioned not wanting to see someone she knew die again, I know for a fact that letting something happen to her will send her spiraling the emotional drain again. I did not condemn myself to this nightmare trying to help her just for some idiot to ruin that.
As I run down the alley and come to a stop at the end, I peer over the edge to see that Makidera is slung over the shoulder of the Catcher. It looks like a standard model, the kind that Ayako and Gai would have no trouble with. But it has a Hound a few feet ahead that’s sniffing the ground, no doubt ready to unleash a scream and paralyze her again if it wears off.
If a fight starts then she’ll likely be thrown around, which could prove fatal given how fragile people are in comparison to Taboo, so I should prioritize her rescue. But that Hound is a problem that needs to be dealt with or I won’t be able to get away with her, even if I do manage to snatch her out of its grasp. So my first step is to shut it up.
I look around for something that could pull that much off. The alley is pretty long and narrow, barely more than twice my width. But there’s a set of double door with a rusted chain threading through the handles a couple of times and bound by a lock. PSI-enhanced strength takes root in my arms a moment later and the chain snaps easily under my enhanced strength. Part of that is likely due to the rust, so I doubt I’ll be able to use it to plug the Hound’s mouth for very long. But if it can work for even three seconds I think that I can manage this.
Chain in hand, I ran back over to peer over the side again. They were further away and getting ready to turn to the side of the road. I couldn’t delay it any longer. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I channeled Rise into my legs and leapt out of cover.
The Hound turns my way the moment I land. Either it picked up my scent or heard my footsteps. But it turns my way and the Catcher does the same. No turning back.
I visualize the chain wrapping around the Hound’s mouth, tight enough that it acts as a muzzle to keep its mouth shut. I don’t know the exact mechanics of how it works. I just want it to work. So I pour as much determination and desire as I can into that vision to will it to work, counting on my powers to make it happen.
My vision goes to static for a moment and I feel my connection with Gai and Ayako sever. My mind instead dedicates everything towards my immediate desire, the energy permeating my body converting into something that allows for physical interference as it sinks into the chain. It frees itself out of my hand towards the Hound.
The chains wrap around its muzzle, clamping it shut and sticking there for as long as the energy sinking into it can maintain it. The cost felt heavy just to do that much. Burst really isn’t my specialty after all, but it creates the opening I need to rush forward.
The Catcher’s priorities shift the moment it registers it’s under attack, halfway there. All at once Makidera is thrown into the air as it abandons her to confront me, legs tensing to move with the inhuman speed its kind was so fond of.
I assess the situation. The way it threw Makidera will result in her landing headfirst into a building. She’ll die on impact at how fast she’s going. I have to grab her before that happens. So I sink everything into my body and strengthen it to survive.
Then kick off the ground, diving for her with my arms outstretched. Her weight and momentum buckle my arms and slams into my chest. Then I feel something hard hitting my back before the effects of my Rise-Strength fades, sending pain shooting through my body and knocking the breath out of me—
—and I don’t have time to fight off the pain before Makidera screams as the Catcher lunges towards us, having jumped in the air at some point during that brief moment. Instinct takes hold and ditches the dead weight in my arms to the side. Strength surges and brings both my free arm and the blade up as the claws descend like a guillotine.
My mind flares red, my lungs and throat burn as a scream comes out. One of its claws narrowly misses my head. The other broke my free arm, bone snapping as the flesh was torn into. In exchange for my arm though, my tanto pierces its core.
I bite down the pain and scream to twist the blade, widening the gap as I push it off the side. The blade snaps as the corpse falls to my left, pulling the claws free of the wound and exposing it to the air. It hurts, pulsing with pain with every beat of my racing heart as my lungs start working again to take in deep breaths of the metal and copper scented air.
But at least I’m alive…
…and no sooner than that thought crosses my mind, metal snaps and sends a chill down my spine.
I whip my head around towards the source and see that the chain broke. Now freed from the muzzle, the Hound opens its mouth to scream again when there’s a rush of air and its head falls off. It was severed by the neck as a pole-mounted blade buries itself into the pavement, and the naginata’s owner lands a second later to crush the Hound’s core beneath her foot.
Ayako’s panting as she stares at me. Stray strands of her brown hair cling to her glistening brow, and her chest rises and falls at a frantic rate. She must’ve rushed over to get here on time.
“The cords…cut… I thought that…” She doesn’t finish as her voice turns raspy for a moment. Swallowing saliva to cool her burning throat and taking a deep breath, she asks me, “Are you both okay?”
“WILL SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON!?”
Oh right. Makidera’s here too. Forgot about her for a minute.
I turn to see she’s got a scrape on her head from where I pushed her out of the way. It’s leaking a trickle of blood that runs in a streamlet down her closed eye, and she looks like she’s on the verge of tears from either the pain or the fear. But she was largely unharmed.
Throb. Unlike me.
Ayako notices the wince on my face and crouches down in front of me. “Show me your arm.”
I hold my arm up, showing where the claw hand dug into the coat. A deep scarlet color was staining it. “The Catcher got my arm while I was saving her.”
She looks it over carefully. “I can tell it’s broken at a glance, but not how deep it is. I’ll need to get the sleeve off.”
A hot lance of pain surges through the wound as she slowly peels back the sleeve, freeing the coat’s material from the wet flesh. I suck in a sharp breath to deal with it. “How bad is it?”
“It’s shallow and the break will be easy to set, so you won’t bleed out if we get it covered up and put pressure on it.” She unzips her coat and starts to take it off. “All our supplies are back near where we left them. I should have at least brought the bandages or pain medication or—”
“What about Yukicchi and Himuro?” Makidera interrupts. Her body is trembling, so I assume she’s struggling to regain the ability to move.
“Gotou’s got them both.” Ayako takes a moment to look over Makidera. “How did you even get here anyway?”
“They were chasing down rumors of the calling cards,” I say. Her eyes turn to me for a moment, showing I had her attention. “Himuro’s the type to chase rumors, so once she heard about it there’s no doubt that she would go out and search for it. And Gotou found his card because he was searching to give her one as well. Nemesis Q must’ve caught them in a sweep this time when it started pulling people from all over. ”
“Damn it!” Her fist balls up in anger for a moment. Then she regains control of herself, faces Makidera, and holds up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Okay. Now how bad does this hurt?”
Her face scrunches up as Ayako gently touches the wound. “A lot. Now can you explain what’s going on? And what’s with this crazy place and those monsters!?”
“Let me deal with Shinji first and then I’ll get you all somewhere safe and explain everything.”
She rises to her feet and heads over to her naginata, pulling it out of the ash-covered pavement. Then she grabs it with both hands, separated about the length of her shoulders, and turns away from us as a pair of explosion blows it into three pieces. She gathers the broken pieces, crouches down in front of me, and exposes her pink undershirt once more as her jacket comes off.
“What are you doing?” Makidera asks in shock, one eye open and wide in surprise at the situation.
“I need to make a splint for him,” Ayako says factually before she tears the hem of her shirt away and uses two of the broken pieces of her weapon to do so. “Shinji, you’ll probably need a sling for the arm once we get back, but it’ll have to do for now.”
It still hurts, but not as bad as before. “Got it.”
I rise to my feet as she tears another strip of her undershirt off, leaving her midriff exposed as she uses the strip to create a temporary bandage for Makidera’s head. Once it’s patched up, Ayako puts her jacket back on, picks Makidera up, and leads us through the alley towards the other members of the Track Trio. There we find Gotou holding Himuro in his arms, while Saegusa looks terrified as she clings to his shoulder.
Relief briefly crosses their faces when they see one another. It lasts for three seconds before another rumble from collapsing buildings in the distance breaks the moment. Then we head back as the night sets in.
Fomorians are truly the most hated Alters, aren’t they? Enough to call a truce.
The following is a commissioned mini-interlude focusing on the staff (specifically, Nevada) both before and after dealing with the Fomorian situation back at Thanksgiving.
The soothing sound of Dick Haymes’s classic rendition of Buddy Kaye and Ted Mossman’s 1945 song ‘Til The End Of Time’ filled the almost-empty Stranger Truths classroom while Nevada lay on her back underneath a motorcycle that was parked just in front of her desk. An open and clearly thoroughly used toolbox lay beside the buxom blonde, and her grease-covered hands were busily working at the bike’s half-assembled engine before she noticed the arrival of a newcomer.
“I’m surprised that you can stomach listening to this kind of music,” Risa Kohaku announced from her place near the doorway. “Wasn’t this the…” She paused, stepping into the room before closing it behind her. Still, before continuing, the security chief went through half a dozen procedures…
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