“You shouldn’t have read her mind like that, Shinji. It’s one thing to do that to a potential enemy, but some things are private.”
In the silence of the room only the two of us occupy, Ayako chides me while wrapping the splint around my arm after I explained what I had seen in the woman’s memories. Being lectured was not something I wanted to deal with, even under normal circumstances. But I tolerate it in silence with my back resting against the headboard of the surprisingly comfortable bed, which only needed a good dusting despite years of disuse.
Part of that tolerance is because it was Ayako doing it, who gets a pass for a variety of reasons—one of which being that she was significantly stronger than me. The other part is that she’s controlling the distribution of both the pain-killers and sleeping medicine. Both of which I need right about now. It just isn’t smart to get on her bad side there.
Well, at least Gai isn’t here to strain my tolerance. He’s stuck on babysitting the other survivors at the moment as they eat our food. In all honesty, I still think we should have minimized what we’d given them. Or at least reserved the majority for us, since we’re the ones who had to do the fighting.
But no. Ayako had him divvy it out to them all equally while I held my tongue for the reasons above. Hopefully Nemesis Q will pop up and declare the mission done before we starve.
“As for what happened, if I had to take a guess, the fact that you actually experienced her emotions is probably due to your abilities being amplified while in the future. Instead of overloading your senses like before, you probably ended up diving too deep before you knew what you were doing. Stick with what you’ve been doing for now, and we’ll test your limits when we get back, okay?”
“Fine.” I didn’t plan to experiment at all to begin with here. It was only because they had pressed me that I even used the Mind Jack in the first place. I have no desire to risk drowning in someone else’s misery when I have my own to contend with.
Ayako nods, both in satisfaction at my response and her own handiwork as she finishes tying off the splint. “As for your arm, Issei will have to see to it after we get back. If you had a few trips under your belt then your Rise might be balanced enough so that you’d heal faster. Then again, at least we have that option. The others won’t be so lucky if they get any serious injuries.”
“Speaking of them, what will we do with them? We can’t feasibly train them all with how far away they live in the past.”
Ayako brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes as she mulls it over for a moment. “Makidera, Himuro, and Saegusa will work under us, but the others… most likely, we’ll see about having the Veteran who was helping Tatsumi’s group take over teaching them the basics. At least until Neko and the others set something up for them in the long-run.”
“If those guys and this Veteran are in contact, why didn’t he inform anyone of what happened before we got called back? We could have been walking into whatever killed the last group and had been clueless until it was too late.”
Her hair sways as shakes her head slowly and she opens her eyes. “He’s a far more distant teacher than Neko and the others, under the belief that holding their hands is pointless since everyone develops differently over time. I think they actually had a fight about that once, so he usually doesn’t contact us first. It may even be possible that he didn’t know that they were dead.”
That’s… going to complicate things in the long run. Ideally, it would be best if at least a third of them survived so we didn’t get called in to deal with another group’s mess like this. But if this guy is that neglectful, then I suppose our Veterans will have to manage somehow.
Ayako rises to her feet and stretches. Given that she’s removed her coat and torn her shirt for the makeshift splint, it displays more of her lower abdomen than proper. “You know, you weren’t actually all that far off on what you told Tatsumi’s sister.”
I look off to the side before she accuses me of sneaking a peek like before. “How so?”
“He was in the camp of people who believed they were doing something grand to save the world. That we were chosen and given this power to do so. It was oddly optimistic coming from a guy near his thirties, but considering the circumstances he was reliable.”
He sounds more annoying than anything, but there must be something to it if Ayako speaks highly of him and he had more than a few trips under his belt. “What exactly was he capable of?”
“He created bird constructs out of either Trance or Burst Energy depending on the situation. The ones that were Trance-made could pass through solid objects and be used as scouts by looking through their eyes. The ones made of Burst could take on different properties to attack Taboo, like becoming fire or electricity, or made big enough to be ridden on. He was also capable of paralyzing people and Taboo with a glance to a certain extent, but his ability with Rise was horrible.”
In order words, he basically creates familiars to fight and spy for him. Between that, the paralysis that was likely similar to a Mystic Eye of some kind, and his Rise being horrible, he likely fought at range or acted as support. “He sounds like he would have been useful to have around for gathering information.”
“He was.” Her tone shifts, becoming softer as her fingers curl up into fists. “And yet, Nemesis Q didn’t go out of its way to help him. It deemed him useless, otherwise it would have called me in and I could have done something. But no—instead it sends us on a recruitment drive to replace the losses, not even considering that the last thing Tatsumi would have wanted was for his sister to be pulled into this after seeing him like that.”
I can’t really say anything to that. If someone dies here, my guess is that their soul doesn’t return to their body in the past. They simply drop dead to all those unaware. For his body to be in that condition meant that whatever did it closed the distance and tore him apart just as he was being called back.
The silence stretches as Ayako stews on the loss of a comrade until she releases the tension with a deep breath and walks over to the door. “I’m going to go check on the others now. Get some rest.”
“Just remember to cover up or you’ll give the wrong impression to those survivors.”
She looks down to see her exposed midriff in mild surprise. Had she actually forgotten about that in light of everything? Either way, a telekinetic hand grabs her jacket and pulls it to her as the door shuts after her.
And just like that, I’m alone with my thoughts in the room. The previous conversation drags them back to that woman whose mind I delved into and the flood of emotions from when she saw her brother in that state. It was a poignant sorrow that still ate at me, unlike the fear-tainted terror for oneself that came from witnessing or being the target of a human malevolence that wafted off the memories from the grail.
It felt… pure, in a way. Such a raw emotion that made my chest ache and sucked all the hope from me. She had truly loved her brother and his death had stricken her in a way that I really couldn’t relate in terms of grief.
My father was drunkard and my mother had been disposed of shortly after she’d given birth to me. As for the Old Worm, I had Gilgamesh put him down without a second thought after he refused to acknowledge me. None of their deaths moved me in the same way that her brother’s brutal death had sank her heart, and as tempting as it would be to just separate it as a woman being emotional, the question lingers in my mind for a moment too long and a stray thought comes up:
Would Sakura grieve for me like that if I died here?
…A whisper in the back of my head tells me that, as forgiving as Sakura was, our relationship was far too tainted for the sorts of depth they had. Even if a part of her did grieve for me out of misguided compassion, she would undoubtedly feel some sort of satisfaction in it. Even if she’d deny with all of her heart, she would feel some vindication or justification for my death.
After all, I’ve done her wrong in ways that literally haunt my nightmares now and Sakura was still human. Rational and irrational, all humans bore the seeds of evil within them. Even the kindest person.
If they didn’t then they couldn’t be considered human.
And, upon drawing that dreary conclusion, I down the pills and lay down on the bed.
‘Shinji! Wake up!’
“—ggh!?” I awake startled. The horrors clawing at the fringes of my fraying consciousness retreat as the world bleeds in unfocused. Tears run from the corners of my eyes, stinging as a blurred shape gains definition.
My first sight of the day is Ayako’s eyes intensely peering into mine. She’s bent over from next to me, her fingers digging into my shoulders from the bracing grip she had. Her lips are pressed thin as her voice touches my mind again. ‘Are you awake now?’
“Yauu—” Pain claws at my throat when I try to speak. I switch to Telepathy as I sit upright. ‘How long was I screaming?’
“A while now.” The tension in her body slowly melts as she releases me and reaches over to the nightstand for the half-finished bottle of water that I had been drinking before I went to sleep. She hands it over and continues to talk. “You wouldn’t respond when we tried shaking you awake, and I had been calling for you telepathically for a while now. What was that about?”
I wait until the water eases my throat before I answer, since I didn’t think she’d let me screaming for that long go unanswered. “I suffer from night terrors on and off.”
A frown forms on her face. “Since when?”
“A few months ago, after I was hospitalized. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, so I just take sleeping medicine and move on.”
“Even if you say that, it’ll be a liability on any mission where we’ll be here long enough to need sleep,” Ayako points out as she flops down on the side of the bed next to me. “We may actually have to gag you in that case.”
“I’d prefer it if we just got back to our own time period f—” My words die as the building rattles. The walls and ground shake enough that we can feel it, with dust falling from the ceiling and sprinkling down upon us.
Gai asks the obvious question. “Was that an earthquake?”
Ayako rises to her feet and heads towards the door. “I’ll go check. You two stay here and keep an eye on the others. If they notice the shaking they might start panicking, but just assure them that they’ll be fine until I get in contact.”
I watch her leave and then sigh, knowing it wasn’t over. It’ll probably come up again, so now I have to think of an excuse for the nightmares. What did they have me hospitalized for again? I try to think of something when I notice Gai staring at me, hand on his chin in thought.
“Does these nightmares have something to do with that freak-out you had on the mountain?”
“…Drop it, Gotou,” I warn him, crushing the now-empty bottle in my hand. “There’s nothing anyone can do to help me, so there’s no point in bringing it up.”
He shrugs but doesn’t say anything, so I guess he gets the point.
Then the walls start shaking again. It was more noticeable than before this time. If it gets worse then we’ll have to abandon this building or risk being buried if it collapses. But the shaking feels like its reminding me of something. I think I’m on the verge of remembering it when I feel Ayako’s voice touch my mind.
‘Gotou, Shinji, get out here now.’
Gai heads towards the door, catching from her tone that these aren’t just earthquakes.
I take my time since there’s not enough alarm or urgency to indicate we’re under attack. Still, it can’t be good and I don’t have the full use of my arm that got broken yesterday either. If it came down to a fight, I’d be at a disadvantage.
Well, my ability allows me to work without needing to be close either way. So I can babysit the survivors if need be while they handle the fighting. If whatever it is they’re dealing with is tough enough to kill them, we’re all dead anyway since nothing I can do would change the outcome.
Just to be safe, I grab what’s left of her naginata from the nightstand and slip it into my splint. The flat of the blade is angled so that it doesn’t cut the cloth or skin, but I can grab what’s left of the handle if needed and use it as a makeshift knife. That done, I head out the door after Gotou.
Inside of the corridor, I see that the shaking did wake the others up. Since there were only so many room and beds, it was easier to station those who knew each other into the rooms together and let them sort their own business out, though we made some exceptions. That Kitano woman who was the sister of the guy Ayako knew was instead paired off with the Nami girl.
Of the survivors who were in the corridor, one was that tough guy who caused problems, one of the three girls from the high-school group, and Himuro. The latter in particular stands with her arms crossed and the same stern face she normally has as she questions him, no doubt on behalf of Saegusa, whose head is sticking out of the opened door to their room.
I leave him to it as I open the door to the bar section. Given the number of people and the number of rooms, some of them had to sleep out here using the sofa. The three idiots were among them, along with the Salaryman, Red Hair, and the creepy guy.
Only the latter was awake though, laying on the bar counter with his head propped up by his elbow. He gives me a lazy wave before covering his mouth to yawn. Then he closes his eyes as though to just listen to his surroundings.
I brush it off as just being weird behavior on his part and head out the front entrance. The rubble blocking the entrance has already been pushed aside. I take a step forward only for the ground to shake again, costing me my balance and leaving me to brace the wall with my good hand until it stops and I can clear the corridor to reach the street-level.
Ayako’s mental voice guides my eyes upwards, to an adjacent building. She’s standing on the rooftop, her gaze set out in the distance. I can’t quite make out her expression without enhancing my vision with Rise-Sense, but when I do I find her lips fixed into a frown and eyes narrowed.
Gotou comes out of the building then and comes to a stop next to me. He doesn’t bother with using Telepathy and just shouts, “What’s going on?”
‘There’s a large Taboo here that’s knocking down the buildings. It’s taken out a good chunk of the city ruins already.’
Ah, that’s what I was forgetting. I knew something was knocking down buildings at the edge of the city, but not what. Since it wasn’t important at the time and I’d just gotten through having my arm broken, I pushed it aside.
‘Shinji, connect us and I’ll try to send a mental image of it.’
I create two Mind Jacks connected to the base of my skull and send them both out. They connect. Immediately, Ayako starts sending what she’s seeing through it to me and I pass that information to him.
Her vision is sharpened, as if she’d zoomed into the distance. A building is falling down, concrete and steel collapsing in a domino as something moves within a cloud of stone dust while upturned asphalt and earth marks a trail. A shrill, inhuman roar follows as her vision sharpens even more to focus on the figure in detail.
“It looks like a giant worm,” Gotou says aloud, as to not interrupt the information transfer from me to him.
Calling it a worm is something of an understatement. It’s long enough that each segment was the length of a train car, with round protrusions that leaked some kind of acid that allowed to eat through the ground easily. The head was bulky, with a helmeted front serving as the pilot that allowed it to plow through whatever was in its way and direct them over to the sides for the acid to dissolve.
I also notice that argent sand is left behind in its wake. The same kind that covered half of Fuyuki during the last trip. If it did work like a giant earthworm, was it decomposing solid materials and then leaving the sand out as excrement of some kind?
I don’t have long to think on it before my consciousness is abruptly ripped from my body. The next thing I know, I’m getting an aerial view of the worm tearing apart another block. Every single person we saved is floating around with us as well as Nemesis Q stands in the air above us and looks down on us.
“Send me back home!” yells the Salaryman towards Nemesis Q with a frantic look in his eyes. It sets off a chain reaction as the other start voicing their complaints and desires. I can even hear some threats towards the thing, which probably wasn’t all that smart considering we were currently out of our bodies by its power alone.
Though I don’t think it cares at all considering it remains unmoving with its arms folded behind its back. If that’s the case, could I float a Mind Jack towards it to see if I can understand it… no, it’s a stupid risk right now. Not worth it.
“It won’t respond to any of it, so don’t waste your breath,” Ayako tells the survivors. The pure disdain in her voice makes it clear that her hatred of it hasn’t quelled since the last time it appeared before us, at the end of the last mission. “Just wait for it to give us the mission.”
It takes them all a minute to settle down despite her telling them too. Understandable, given the source of their current problems was right in front of them. But once they do, Nemesis Q finally moves, pointing a long finger down to the ground.
“Drifters—” its voice echoes in my mind as the Taboo continues to writhe around. “—destroy the Taboo to clear this round. Receive the power to change this future.”
So it wasn’t meant to be a recruitment mission after all, but an extermination one. The recruitment was simply due to the loss of the other Drifters who were likely supposed to do this in the first place. Two birds, one stone.
“You can’t expect us to really fight that thing!” one of the high-school girls shouts.
“That’s right!” another one backs her. “We just want to go home!”
Nemesis Q continues to not care now that the mission has been given. It merely waves its hand and a falling sensation overcomes me. My consciousness rejoins my body back on the street not a second later and it takes a moment to get used to having weight again. Once I do, I start to think on the assignment.
The others who hadn’t been exposed to Nemesis Q outside of their dreams are likely even more disoriented. An opportunity to leave this nightmare behind was in front of them, but they couldn’t do anything about it while they were powerless. Really, only one person here could kill that thing.
I look upwards to where Ayako stands and send a simple question through our connection. ‘Can you kill it?’
‘Yeah, but not with the bolts. I’ll need to use an arrow, which means charging time and trading off my Rise and Trace. And since I can’t just guess how dense it is or where the core is, I’ll need to make it powerful enough to level enough of the surrounding area that the blast crater could pass as a lake—’
Her thoughts still as her attention turns to a silhouette in the dust cloud thrown up by the collapsing building. Her vision sharpens even more as the cold wind blows and thins the obscuring veil to reveal… no.
No, it can’t be.
‘Damn it, it’s a Soldier-class Taboo,’ Ayako sends through the line. ‘One of the weaker ones, but having one here means more are around too.’
She’s wrong. That’s not a Taboo. The moment I lay eyes on it, I know what it is.
I know because I’ve seen it before in the past.
It was months ago. At that castle, in that courtyard, I witnessed the hair that was as white as untouched snow in winter become heavy and dyed with the blood of its owner. I’ve seen those eyes that resemble rubies without any flaws become clouded as the head they were attached to fell onto the ground and stared up as the sword-propped corpse it was cut from. Gilgamesh had once said that humans would be naturally incapable of such features that were so pristine that they couldn’t have been left up to chances through genetics.
No, it was made through artificial means. A tool that was just a magic circuit sculpted into a human shape. It was a…
A shuddering breath leaves my mouth as the forest comes into my view. Becomes my world as I run through it aimlessly. I’m not thinking about anything other than trying to reach the edge.
I can’t feel my right arm. It was such as small stab from Lancer’s weapon, yet it robbed me of an arm that dangles uselessly. Not only have my chances of becoming a magus have been lost, but my defective body has become crippled too.
I can only laugh as the pain hurts like nothing before as I come to a stop against a tree, at the edge of clearing that spreads out in front of me. Then Gilgamesh appears before me, mocking me for taking an injury he should have been protecting me from. He has the still-beating heart of the albino brat in his hands and says the words I never wanted to hear again.
“There’s another Master right here who can serve as an anchor, correct?”
No. No! N—
…A wet, piercing sound reaches my ears. I look down to see his arm is inside my stomach. The heart is inside of my body. “Ah…? Ahh… ghh?”
Then the agony of still-beating heart after violating my body blossoms anew. The black mud fills every cell with liquid curses—hatred distilled that cursed me for my very existence. It warps and stretches, swelling without breaking as it boils inside the decaying and expanding flesh.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!
Countless worms squirm, writhe, expand the flesh and blood vessels to become a lump of meat that grows from my center and back. They won’t stop spreading. They won’t stop violating me.
Ith—urts, ithu—rts, ithur—ts, ithurts!
They invade my chest, breaking open the rib cage with a crunching sound and swallowing my heart. They invade my throat and rob me of air to strangle me from the inside out. Only a garbled choking sound would leave my mouth as the world swirls black and red.
And then the visions come.
A woman being ██████ with a █████ in front of her child. A corpse being ███████ for all to see, ████ wretched between their teeth as the people watch in glee at the desecration.
██████████ shows me nothing but horrors.
██████████ shows me the horrors born of man.
The evils of man. Their sins. Their wretched desires. Their base nature.
██████████ basks in it as ██████████ straps me to the throne overseeing it and I’m ██████████████ unable to ████████████████ as ████████████████ laughs!
“HHAAAAAAHHH!!” I gasp as my vision clears. I’m staring into the ashen sky from the ground with Ayako’s face hovering above me a second time. She looks pale this time. “Haaaaahaaaa… hahaa…haaa…”
“Are you back?” she asks.
I open my mouth to speak but words don’t come out. I try to send a message through the Mind Jack, but we’re no longer connected. I can only nod and make a croaking sound.
She closes her eyes and shudders before looking up towards Gai. “Take him inside and watch the others. I’ll go deal with everything.”
“Wait, didn’t you say you don’t know how many of those Soldier-class Taboo are around?”
“Yeah, I can’t be sure.” She rises to her feet and looks out to the distance. “They’re like roaches. If you see one then there’s more. But they’re weak enough and if I kill enough of them I should get a clear shot eventually.”
“Then I should go with you at least.”
She shakes her head. “These kinds are like scouts and are stronger than ordinary humans, but after a trip or two strength stops being the problem and their numbers do. Most of them don’t really speak or have personalities, but they’re capable of thought enough to plan tactics out and have access to the base-level PSI just like us. It doesn’t grow in strength, but pitting a newbie against them would just end up with you being overrun eventually… though there are exceptions, where one will be stronger than the others and stand out, I can handle one of those easily.”
“Even so, you need all of your energy for the shot, don’t you?” he asks. “Can you deal with them alone and have enough strength to do that?”
She glances back to me and then looks away. “It can’t be helped. Shinji isn’t the type to fight up close even if he wasn’t injured, and you haven’t had to kill something that looks so human before, so you might hesitate and these guys will take advantage of it. I’ll just have to try and conserve my energy until I find an opening and kill the worm.”
Then she leaves without another word while I can’t bring myself to move. But I caught that look in her eyes. The gleam within it that came from witnessing something so horrifying that you can’t forget it.
The reason the connection between us was severed was because she rejected. She saw something so horrifying that she instinctively severed it with all her might to try to get away from it. The fact that Gotou still has his and is mostly fine means it must’ve been something done on her part to see the memories, but that doesn’t matter—only the fact that she had seen something does.
But I can’t worry about even that now. My thoughts are on a single thing. A single question I can’t help but wonder the answer to:
Why is a Homunculus here?