It draws a blank no matter how many times I try to recall the name.
I haven’t heard or seen it before. But it does sound like a name that would belong to a Magus. That’s a clue towards unraveling the mystery of why we were being dragged into the future, and I can get more information by playing on the assumption that we were sheltering her from these dolls.
But, out of the corner of my eye, I spot Gotou tensing to move. His fists clenching tight meant he was ready to attack. Better stop him first.
‘Gotou, I’m trying to get more information. Don’t attack until I say so.’
His head twists in my direction and his mouth opens to speak. For a moment, I worry he’d say something careless. But he catches himself, turning back to the enemies in front of him and keeping his eyes on them. ‘If you tell them anything, Nemesis Q will kill you.’
‘I’ve got that handled.’ Ideas on how to lead the conversation were already filling my head. How hard could it be to fool a couple of dolls? Really, the biggest problem was that eventually the fighting would resume and we’d be outmatched as things stood, unless Ayako hurried up with the mission or my Mind Jack reached her.
He scowls but doesn’t say anything else. Now for the Homunculi.
I address the one with the halberd since she seems to hold more authority. ‘I’ll consider your terms since we have non-combatants here and I don’t want more unnecessary deaths. But not unconditionally. What guarantee do I have that you’ll abide by the terms of surrender if we submit to them?’
“We only desire Atlasia, who has evaded us since the Day of Rebirth,” she said. “Should you surrender her we will promise you both safety and shelter.”
Presuming that’s the day everything went wrong from context, Atlasia must be a survivor from then. If that’s the case then she’s the ticket to figuring out what happened and how to change this future. Considering the timing right after Nemesis Q gave us that mission to kill the worm, and the fact that time moved faster in the future… it couldn’t be so simple, could it?
‘One of ours was a Burst-user that was torn to pieces and killed, looking like he was mauled by a vicious animal. From what she told us, you killed him and the other three that surrendered. There’s not much of a reason for us to stop fighting if that’s what we have to look forward to in the end.’
“She’s deceived you,” the halberd-wielding doll claimed. “While the Outriders faction’s sub-leader does have prejudice against this country’s people, the Burst-user escaped with Atlasia as his allies bought time. As members of Akshayavat’s Life Propagation faction, our primary duty is to protect the Terraformer so that once its work is done life can flourish once more. Should you surrender her to us, you have it on our Master’s honor that you will be brought in alive and unharmed.”
So that’s what happened. Nemesis Q sent the other group to protect someone who survived from the beginning, but they failed and died. Their failure meant that we were called in ahead of schedule to save this Atlasia. Most likely they believe that the Drifters have been training under her tutelage and becoming a threat. It was only a hypothesis, but it made sense—
…Wait. Why were they being so patient in waiting for me to make a decision? The longer the questioning continued, the easier it would be for their target to get away. Even if we agreed to the surrender. Unless…
My head turns in Gotou’s direction just slightly, but my eyes pull to the corners where I can spot something just at the edges. Of course, they were planning an ambush all this time through their hive mind.
‘Gotou, it’s ambush! Take out the halberd one!’
An electric current surges through my body as I send the warning out and fighting begins anew. In an instant I move two-fold, flinging the makeshift knife towards the ambusher in the distance while kicking off the ground into a side-roll in time to avoid the halberd sweeping around to hack off my legs. I then bounce back up as she closes the distance faster that Gotou could.
My foot lashes out. The kick catches her in the stomach and her body buckles before she’s sent back several meters, bouncing off the ground violently a single time. Then she digs her halberd into the weathered asphalt and uses it as a brake, coming to a stop and using it to support herself.
“Grk… ugh!” A blood-tinged cough follows, leaving streamlets flowing down the corner of her lips. It joins with the crimson from where her flesh had been torn and uniform ripped from the contact with the ground as her legs quaver.
I… I didn’t use Rise. I didn’t have time to activate it. So how did that same doll that had been giving us trouble before suddenly get knocked back by me?
Wait… that sensation from before. What if that was my PSI at work? Slowing down my perception was an abnormal stopgap in the first place, but if our powers got stronger over time maybe it finished adapting. Yeah, that had to be it. That sensation I felt had just given me a longer-lasting Strength-Rise effect. If that was the case…
My head snaps up as the homunculus attacking at long-range lays down cover-fire to give the one I’d hit time to recover. Gotou barely manages to throw himself out of the way and into an alley while I hop back and to the sides, putting a great deal of distance between us in time for something to land by my feet with a thump.
It was a male homunculus. Or rather, his corpse. The knife I’d thrown had beautifully pierced his skull and destroyed his brain. Unlike the Taboo, these dolls needed their brains to operate on a higher level of intellect. So he’s dead, the clatter of steel arrows spilling from his quiver being the last sound he ever makes.
Without glancing up, my empty hand reaches up and my fingers find their way around the grip of a bow before I even realize it. I just knew that it was there from how his body fell. But a bow needs two hands to use, so my broken arm frees itself from the sling and I scoop up three arrows to use.
There’s no pain as I nock an arrow, even as my broken arm draws back the string until it’s taut. Is that part of my PSI as well? It’s really…
No time to worry.
No, I shouldn’t dwell on it. My body is moving great and my instincts are bordering on pre-cognition. If those are caused by my PSI, I shouldn’t question it right now or try to slow down my perception of time. I don’t want to risk losing these benefits or interfering with the Mind Jack while it was still seeking out Ayako.
I can sort everything out later after I kill these dolls.
I loose the arrow as I escape another flurry of ranged attacks and fire it towards the caster-homunculus. Her arm comes up and a ring forms, stationary like a shield. The arrow disappears as it enters the center, but the rim of it shrinks.
Does that mean there’s a film of some kind within it? Does it work somewhat like Ayako’s power in that it destroys what it touches at the expense of itself? Or is it something like disintegration?
Either way, I can work around it. My hands nock the second arrow as I run towards her while Gotou emerges from the alley to take on the halberd-user. The shots close in to keep me at bay, but she’s slower than me. Worse, she’s easy to read.
There’s a pattern to her attacks. A maximum radius and rate of fire she’s maintaining to face me. It’s almost as if I can predict them, allowing me to slip past them and close the distance.
“Look out!” Gotou shouts.
I look back to see that he’s failed in distracting the halberd-user and she’s on my back, chambered to swing for my head as the caster tries to get some more space between us. I slide to a stop and duck down as her blade comes scything for my head. At the same time, I flip the arrows in my grasp around to use them as a stabbing implement, thrusting for her head.
She pulls back to avoid being killed, but my leg sweeps out to catch hers and she ends up falling backwards. While she catches herself into a back-roll quickly, she’s too late to distract me further.
I nock an arrow mid-spin and fire it towards her companion. She naturally raises her arm and conjures another ring of destruction to eat it. But she doesn’t see the third arrow I’d fired right afterwards until it was too late.
Predicting the rate at which the rim would shrink, I fired it just over that point for a kill-shot. The arrowhead pierces her skull as a result, the momentum throwing her head backwards and leaving the corpse to fall backwards. One down.
But I don’t have time to focus on the clean kill though. The other one is coming for me again, using her halberd like an axe to bring the blade down with enough force to split solid stone. It’s predictable though, so I manage to get off-line by twisting my body and then—
A flash of steel sends me staggering back. There’s a knife in her hand, the other still on the halberd. She’d kept it concealed until now, so I didn’t see it until it was too late. And it was stained with blood.
She’d cut my throat. She’d cut my throat!
That thought enters my mind as Gotou shouts, but I dismiss it. The lack of pain meant I couldn’t even tell if it had been one of the major arteries she’d sliced. I had to draw back, leave the fighting to Gotou and keep my heart rate slow to avoid bleeding out.
It’s only at that moment I realize that I can’t move my body at all.
Instead, my body moves on its own as she comes for me again. Her killing thrust is faster than before, forcing the use of the bow as a makeshift shield to try to keep space between us. It’s cut into two by the knife as my body then rolls out of the way and then starts bounding backwards.
She comes for me with the halberd again, but my body twists and my leg flares out to kick the halberd-wielding homunculi in the chest. She blocks with the shaft of her weapon, but the impact struck where it had been previously bent by Gotou’s blow. As a result, it breaks apart and she’s sent her stumbling back as Gotou finally catches up.
“Raaaggh!!” He leaps over me and smashes the ground where she was standing, forcing her to deal with him as it sets in that all this time it hadn’t been me moving and acting with such precision. Someone or something else moved my body even better than I could, like a puppet dancing on the strings of a marionette.
If I had to guess in relation to Magecraft, they’ve taken control of my nervous system. Since my own mental commands were being ignored, it inhibited those as well. So the only thing I had control over was my thoughts and nothing else—I was a prisoner in my own body.
The Homunculus, now deprived of her polearm’s lower-half, still fights on against Gotou with ease. He’s too slow so she’s landing several cuts on him with the knife, his strengthened flesh being parted by opposition with strength equal to his. In the end, she manages to drive the head of the halberd into his thigh to pin him into place before thrusting the knife towards his throat.
“Agghhh!!” He screams as he brings his arm up. There’s a scraping sound as the knife goes into the arm and comes to a stop. With his face twisted in pain, Gotou’s scream of pain turns into a roar as he brings his other fist around.
She blocks it with her arm, but I can hear the bone breaking as the blow knocks her away. At the same time, her grasp on the halberd’s neck jerks it out. The blood that comes from it as he falls over makes it clear he’s going to bleed out in minutes at best.
Realizing the same, the Homunculus goes for me again. She throws the blade towards my body with a spin that probably would have sawed clean through me if it connected. But the puppeteer moving my body must’ve had some form of precognition because my head was already moving so that it missed as I was forced to lunge.
She grabs the other half of the shaft as a bludgeoning weapon and uses it to knock away my outstretched arm. I can hear the bones breaking but not feel any pain as my other fist comes around and smashes her face in to send her staggering backwards. Even so, the blood from my neck continues to fall relentlessly.
Damn it. At this rate, even if we kill the homunculus, we might bleed out in the end and there’s nothing we can do about. Was I… was I going to die like this?
Some puppet on strings to be thrown away?
A fool being played by someone else again until the bitter end?
No, I just need a little more time.
I need more time for—that’s not my thought. The ambush, the cut’s depth, disregarding my PSI, not questioning the shift in my abilities—those weren’t my thoughts. I should have guessed that you can interfere with mind, violating it as I dance to your tune.
I’m trying to help you! You’re trying to change the future, I’m just—
I don’t care anymore. I don’t know how you’re controlling me. I don’t know where you are either. But I’m no one’s puppet.
NOW GET OUT!
Electricity floods my mind. My blood feels like its bubbling in my veins. The world blinks in and out as static fills my existence as the PSI does its work. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I focus only on redirecting my PSI towards any solution that it can make work. I just want control of my body back—consequences be damned.
It’s agonizing. Blood pours from my mouth and nose and eyes as I collapse to my knees. The pain is too much, my body feeling like its burning within my skin and the world is wavering around me.
I can barely register the homunculus getting back to come for me again, only to be stopped as something invisible binds her at the arm. Her mouth moves but whatever’s being said doesn’t reach my ears before Gotou throws himself forward despite his leg’s injury.
The last thing I see before my consciousness fades is his face twisted in disgust and pain as he smashes in her face with his fists and drives it into the ground, crushing her skull…
…The world swelters as awareness returns to me. My throat feels dry and barren. My head feels like it’s in a haze too. Everything’s so hot and heavy.
I force open my eyes. It takes herculean effort to do so, but the ceiling of the temple comes into view when I do and the blur settles. This is the room where we’d began our trip to the future. I made it back somehow.
Ugh. Then the stench of sweat reaches my nose and I cringe. Disgusting. At least that explains what the heavy feeling is. The futon I’m in has been laced with sweat. I try to throw it off, but my body isn’t responding.
“Ng-ngh!” I struggle for a bit to no avail. The best I can do is twitch my nose and facial muscles. Don’t tell me that removing the control Atlasia had over my body did permeant damage!
Damn it! I thought the Student President had a healing power, so why didn’t he heal me!? “Nrhh…haaa…”
Okay. Okay. I’m not going to panic. I just need to reach out to him or someone else first of all to let them know I’m awake. So I close my eyes and take a deep breath, focusing on my PSI through the haze.
A tugging sensation swaddles my brain as the Mind Jack is woven from the energy draping it. It spools out from the back of my head and phases through the floor to appear within my sight. Then I send it out, visualizing that pompous and uptight face, the glare of the lenses shadowing his eyes ever so slightly.
The cord extends silently, passing through the wall and out of my view. Hmm… it’s at least easier to make the Mind Jack than before, when I was at the mall. Not as easy as in the future, but still to a noticeable extent. That being said, I don’t think it’ll be able to make it very far so if he’s not on the mountain then I’m just wasting—
‘Have you woken up?’
That’s the Monk’s mental voice. He must’ve spotted it then. I redirect the Mind Jack towards him and feel it connect. ‘Yes. Where’s your brother?’
Footfalls prelude the sound of the door sliding open and he appears within my vision. Then he settles for speaking with his mouth to expedite things. “He’s at the school. You’ve been asleep for over a day now, and we do have to keep up appearances.”
Over a day? Damn it. Leaving aside school, because I have bigger problems now, I didn’t come up with a suitable excuse for Sakura since I didn’t expect to be down this long. She’ll ask questions and if they tell her the wrong thing she’ll probably go get Tohsaka involved.
‘What did you tell my sister?’
“Mitsuzuri said she’d make up a suitable excuse, so I left it to her.” He took a seat across from me. “You’re lucky that she managed to complete the objective when she did though. Both of you really would have been dead if not. When Issei told her that, she took it pretty poorly while the others were with the kids you recruited from your school.”
Because of course he did, the tactless oaf. Not only did he fail to heal me properly, but he compounded the guilt on her and undid my earlier effort. So more damage control later on. ‘What happened to my body?’
“Issei said that your nervous system had suffered severe damage. Sensory nerves, motor nerves—he stated that they had basically been fried and that it was a miracle your brain and the nerves that handle the unconscious things like keeping your heart pumping were still intact. He managed to regrow them, but said that your body has to readjust to the sensations and functions. If it’s anything like when I’ve lost an arm before, it’ll probably be a few more hours before you can move at all, and a few more days before everything feels as close to normal as possible.”
Fantastic. Just fantastic. It’s going to be a pain to deal with this, but at least it’s temporary. That’s something.
“What happened there?” He asks with a tone lacking the usual casualness from before. “Gai mentioned that you tried using Telepathy with the Soldier Taboo and that afterwards you were fighting like a different person entirely. He also mentioned that they wanted someone and that they were part of an organization, but he couldn’t recall the name well.”
Not surprising, given he’s about as smart as a gorilla.
I take a deep breath before telling the Monk, ‘My body wasn’t under my control. The person the Taboo were after took control of it before we were ambushed. The way they were manipulating it leaves me to believe that they had either wide-scale Clairvoyance or some form of precognition. But it wasn’t perfect. They ended up getting my throat slashed, so I willed my PSI to get control of my body back. The next thing I know, I’m waking up here.’
I don’t bother to try and keep the disdain out of my mental voice. It was simply too hard, given she had the audacity to take over my body and read my mind. I let Ayako trying to do so slide, but only because it was her. I’m not so nice as to risk my life for or spare some stranger—Nemesis Q’s intentions be damned.
Once we got enough information to affect the past, she was dead.
But I keep that line of thinking to myself. ‘She’s the reason that we were sent on this mission prematurely in the first place. The Taboo were hunting for her specifically because she survived the Day of Rebirth, as they called it. I think she knows why the world was in that state.’
His eyes narrow as he lowers his head, deep in thought. Probably questioning the validity of my words. Not surprising given how many trips he had gone through without that knowledge beforehand, risking his life towards bettering the future through survival. Yet I managed to figure it out in an instant.
Still, he doesn’t dismiss it. He can’t on the off-chance that its right. Not if it’s a chance to save the others and the future. “Can you give me the reason you think that?”
I give him my working theory. The other group of four had likely been dispatched to stave off the pursuers after the person who took control of my body. They met with resistance and were slaughtered to a man, with the guy who they all knew being the one meant to return to the past and inform us. He died from his injuries before he could get back, but bought enough time for her to flee into the city.
Then we were called in. Not just us. But a swathe of people who had calling cards. They were bait and potential soldiers, meant to buy time and get us into position.
“It sounds plausible,” he admits before looking up. “And if it is true, then we can bring this all to a close soon. But there’s still something I’m not certain of that leaves me with doubts.”
‘And that is?’
“How did you know that there were three others with Tatsumi?” he asks. “The number of Drifters chosen each time can vary depending on the circumstances, so we can’t really give an exact number unless we’re in contact with one another. That’s part of why we group up and jump into the future at the same time.”
…I can’t give him an answer. Because I didn’t know. We only know that one guy died in this mission because of his sister. So the only way for me to know the exact amount of that group is if that knowledge had been planted into my mind.
That person wasn’t just controlling my body. She was inside of my head and masqueraded her thoughts as my own until I got injured and put the pieces together.
“I’m concerned that this trip may have had more implications than we realized,” he continues. “This person having all the answers we’re looking for right after his group had died supposedly defending her, so why didn’t Nemesis Q just drop you into her lap so she could tell all of you everything and then pull you back when the goal is the change that future?”
…Damn. Damn, he’s right! There has to be something we’re missing; some reason Nemesis Q didn’t do just that. If she had been reading my mind, she must’ve known about our mission. Nemesis Q didn’t kill me for it, so it had to be okay with her knowing of the mission since her knowledge could change the future.
So why not let us meet together?
Likewise, if she really was in that city all this time then she had to notice us when we were going about saving people. So why did she wait so long to try and run interference? Why didn’t she approach us before the homunculi arrived and why didn’t Nemesis Q direct us towards her the moment we dropped into the city? What was the point in wasting so many potential assets as a diversion that would attract more attention in the end when Ayako is more than capable of dealing with the threats? Why send us after the worm?
The only reason I can think of was if the meeting between us would have been disastrous somehow. Nemesis Q isn’t something I can understand, but that person had some kind of precognition with how she was manipulating me—even if it not perfect. Did she foresee that the meeting would be disastrous enough that she turned me into a goddamn answering machine to parrot her thoughts as my own?
Now that I think of it, those homunculi didn’t tell us why they were after her to begin with. Only that wanted her badly enough that their faction was willing to spare us, if they weren’t lying. If she’s been around since the Day of Rebirth, it’s entirely possible that she knew and prepared for it—or could have been responsible for it as well somehow.
This Atlasia could be as big of a threat as Akshayavat. And, even if not, whoever was chasing her killed a group of near-Veteran Drifters. There was no doubt in my mind we’d be deployed soon to run interference since we were sent there this time.
At this rate, we’d meet the same fate as them.