“Are you really okay, Nii-san?”
The question coming from Sakura grates on my mind. Part of it stems from not wanting to repeat myself for the third time today. But the other part stems from the fact that walking such a short distance shouldn’t be so difficult.
Ayako brought Sakura to pick me up yesterday after school. She had been told we were hashing out the final details of the Training Camp for the Archery Club when I’d taken a bad fall on the mountain and they were keeping me to see if there was any serious damage done, since I insisted that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. The shoddy lie meant that I couldn’t stay any longer without drawing suspicion, so we went home.
Now it was the day afterwards and, while I can move better than before, walking fast just isn’t happening.
Sakura’s slowing herself down to keep pace with me. Another form of pity that I’m not fond of and she knows it. But it’s like she just can’t help it, so here we were.
“The lingering pain will pass in a few days and I’ll be able to move fine again, so stop worrying,” I tell her.
“But you shouldn’t be putting this kind of stress on yourself just to attend a half-day.”
She’s right. Or she would be under normal circumstances where I wouldn’t have made the effort. But, because the rest of the active Drifters in Fuyuki are attending school today, it makes for the most convenient meeting place for us. And, once school ended, I could head right back home to focus on finding a means of dealing with the more important issues—like finding the Einzberns.
I don’t know what why they played a part in the end of the world, but those were their homunculi. Since they’ve been involved with the Holy Grail War from the beginning, there’s no way the Old Worm didn’t have ample information on them. Once I pinned down a location, I’d send the Veterans to go deal with them.
And once we killed them in this time period, they’d cease to be a problem in the future. If we were lucky, it would be just the thing to save the world—breaking our contracts and setting us free.
The thought of being done with all of this was enough to make me smile until I noticed Sakura still staring at me.
“Sakura, you should be more worried about yourself. Arranging this Training Camp is the last thing Mitsuzuri and I will do as the leaders of the Archery Club. The rest is on your shoulders like it should have been, so you’ll have to assert yourself. You can do that much by now, right?”
Her expression falters at having the discussion become about her instead of me. But she schools her features and nods resolutely. “Yes. I’ll do my best, so please don’t worry about me.”
The talking tapers off there until we make it to the school minutes later. Out of all of the students walking about, Ayako stands out. She’s waiting against the wall next to the entrance with her eyes closed and her head leaning back. Did she fall asleep on her feet?
‘You shouldn’t sleep in front of the school.’
Her eyes snap open at the wake-up call and she addresses us. “Morning, Sakura. Shinji. Are you both doing well?”
“Nii-san is still having a little trouble moving his body, but other than that we’re both well,” Sakura says, giving her a slight bow in greeting. “Thank you for watching after him until now, Mitsuzuri-senpai.”
“If I’d been a little more careful it wouldn’t have come to that, so it was the least I could do for him.” Her eyes shift to me and a telepathic message follows. ‘I was speaking with Issei about something important. Head to the rooftop and I’ll explain it later with the others.’
‘Got it.’ I turn to Sakura briefly as I walk past them. “I’m not doing anything physical today, so you two’ll have to handle opening up the club.”
“Have a good day, Nii-san.”
‘Shinji… about Gai…’
I stop and look over my shoulder in Ayako’s direction. ‘What about him?’
‘He’s been a lot more reserved after what happened. To save you, he ended up having to kill one of the Soldier Taboo and he took it pretty badly.’
From what I heard, he developed a Burst that caused a layer of crystalline material to jut up from the bones in his arms and form a shell around them as he crushed the Homunculus’ skull. It was desperation act. He wanted to accomplish something, and his PSI just filled in the blanks.
‘He does realize they would have killed us if he didn’t, right?’
‘…It’s easy to say that, but….’ There’s an undercurrent of melancholy as she trails off. ‘Look, I’m just letting you know so that you don’t set him off by accident. We talked to him about it when we got back from the future, and he said he just needs to have some time to come to terms with it.’
‘Fine. I won’t say anything to him.’ I wouldn’t really be able to relate to him on the problem anyways since I had no issue with killing anything that tried to kill me. Better to leave it to the people who can do that. ‘Anything else?’
‘The Trio will be coming back after missing school yesterday, so—’
‘Right. Right. Be nice to them too.’ I start to walk again into the building and climb the stairs until I get to the rooftop entrance. Past the door I find six chairs and desks facing one another, arranged for us to take a seat and converse. Energy bars and canned drinks on top of each of them makes for a poor substitute for breakfast, but it’s better than nothing to start the day.
I take a seat on the left side and lean against the backrest while staring up at the sky, trying to get my thoughts together. We have a reprieve for now, during which we needed to train the Track Trio. But I also need some way of dealing with that body-snatcher before we get called to the future again.
Last time she managed to connect directly to my central nervous system, taking over my body and tampering with my memories without me knowing. I can’t presume that I’d be able to detect her the next time. And I can’t just rely on my PSI to reject the connection like before.
It was pure luck I made it back in time to be healed when the damage was linked to my brain. The brain acts as the anchor-point of the soul. I don’t know how our souls get shunted into the future, but if the brain gets severely damaged then it’s over.
Likewise, I didn’t understand enough about the method she used to develop a countermeasure. If it was a Trance or Mental Interference ability, I could probably find some way to shield myself from it. But only if I could detect it coming.
I raise my hand to the sky and just look at it. I can still feel some of that energy permeating me like in the future. Thrumming beneath my skin mildly compared to when in the future. If this is what they meant by PSI getting stronger over multiple trips, then it’ll be less strenuous to come up with something to help me out for the next time.
No one will make a puppet out of me. Never again.
The door to the rooftop opens with a loud sound. It causes me to fall out of my seat in surprise, leaving me to hit the rooftop with a painful crash. I suck in a sharp breath before glaring daggers at the one responsible.
Makidera’s face cringes for a moment before she looks away, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. “Ah, sorry about that.”
Remembering Ayako’s request, I force myself to breath out slowly and vent my agitation harmlessly as I get back to my feet. “Just take a seat.”
She hurries over to the other side, wisely putting distance between us while Saegusa comes out next. Her soft, brown eyes pass on a silent apology as she follows the first one to the other side of the table. Himuro is the last, giving me a slight nod in greeting as she takes her place between the two.
I return to my seat opposite Saegusa and grab the can of coffee on the desk. I need the caffeine to deal with the loud-mouth this early in the morning. Unfortunately, the milky taste ruins the coffee entirely and leaves me even more agitated as the uptight one starts a conversation.
“First, let me offer my gratitude for aiding us in that situation,” she states. “Had you and the others not been there, it’s very likely none of us would have woken up in the hospital. There is likely nothing we can do to repay that debt, but we shall make an effort if it is reasonably possible.”
“I’ll just ask you take this matter seriously so that you can keep surviving from here on. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been any different than if we left you to die there. Aside from that, I trust there weren’t any complications when you woke in the hospital, were there?”
“There were minor tests to try and grasp what happened to us after we all denied having done anything other than attend our club before we fell unconscious. Ultimately, the doctors labeled exhaustion as the likely cause since there were no more physical changes and made rather generic recommendations to prevent it in the future.”
“Those hacks even suggested that we quit,” Makidera loudly complains amid tearing open an energy bar. “Like that’s going to solve anything when it isn’t even the problem.”
“You know you’ll still probably be asked to sit on the sidelines. If not retire, right?”
I thought it was obvious, but it seems she didn’t expect it from the look of surprise that blossomed on her face. “Wait, what?”
“You passed out after a practice in the locker room on the same day that more than a few hundred died from similar cases around the whole of Japan, and people who have recovered from said passing out in the past have either committed suicide or died at a later date, despite not having any sort of commonality between them. The fact that the cause is still unknown has left people scrambling for answers, and since we can’t give them the truth without dying they’re not going to get them.”
“So the school will have to attempt to avoid accountability by minimizing the risk of it happening again.” Himuro nods in agreement. “Yes, I suspect before the day is done our club sponsor will be having words with us. Even if they didn’t, the matter of our survival means that we’d have to cut down or retire from the club in order to properly train our abilities.”
Indignant at having to give up something she’s worked hard for over the last few years, Makidera leaps up and points to me. “But that’s not fair! He and Mitsuzuri get to remain in their club, so why should we get benched when they don’t?”
“Our circumstances are different enough that it doesn’t even apply.” I’d been suffering from sleep deprivation and was manhandled by Ayako’s brother, while she wasn’t even on the school grounds when it happened. “If it’s any consolation, Mitsuzuri and I have basically retired from leading the Archery Club as of today under the excuse that my deteriorating health and her studies have been piling up. So, we’re in the same situation.”
She visibly looks somewhat relieved until Himuro gives her a subtle tap with her elbow that passes along the message that it’s not a good thing. She then clears her throat and tries to play it off. “Y-Yeah, it sucks for all of us.”
I tamper down on my urge call her out on being petulant. Partly because Ayako ask that I play nice today and partly because I had the feeling this was her way of trying to cope. After all, she was the closest of these three to dying and one of her ties to normalcy was taken away from her. Misery loves company.
So I move the conversation away from her and turn my attention to the last of the three. “Were you able to put your family’s worries at ease, Saegusa?”
“Oh… umm… I think so.” She fidgets a bit while gathering her thoughts. “I was actually surprised when I woke up to find my brothers all around me crying. Kouta said he was more upset about dinner and now I owed him a double day on both that and breakfast, but his eyes were the reddest.”
“Well, a child wouldn’t be honest with their feelings. But why were you surprised to find that they’d be worried? You basically take care of them when your parents can’t, so isn’t it natural that they would be happy to see you’re doing well now?”
“I was always worried about them, so I didn’t really take the time to think about how they’d feel if something happened to me. Just that I wouldn’t be able to take care of them if I was gone.” She looks to the desk while wearing a somewhat soft frown. “But… there’s still a chance that’ll happen the next time, isn’t there?”
I don’t sugarcoat my answer. “Until we change the future, or we reduce our count to zero, we’ll have to go when we’re called. The best we can do is make it so that you have the best chance possible of returning so that they don’t have to experience that sort of worry or pain anytime soon. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
There’s a lull of silence at that. What happened before can happen again, and if they’re not up to the challenge then they’ll die. I won’t try to soften that fact because it’s the reality of the situation.
In an effort to raise the mood that I’d intentionally crushed down, Makidera puffs out her chest and says, “Don’t worry so much, Yukicchi. Just leave all the fighting to me and we’ll clear it in no time. I mean, if even Matou can become so tough after only one trip, then imagine just how much stronger we’ll be too?”
I’m pretty sure those words were just meant to be for Saegusa’s sake rather than insulting me, but that’s three strikes in less than five minutes. If I don’t get back at her somehow now it’d rankle me for the rest of the day. “Then you can take my place fighting the next time we get there.”
A short-lived look of pure shock dawns on her face. “Huh?”
“I’m not suited for the frontlines to begin with, so if someone more qualified steps up then I can focus more on a supporting role and handle the logistics to make sure everything goes smoothly. Mitsuzuri will probably be a bit harsh in her training to get you up to par in short order, but anything short of death can be healed away by the Student President easily enough.”
The way her body stiffens despite her effort to hide her nervousness gives away her façade, but her pride won’t let her back out so easily. “S-sure, leave it to me!”
“Excellent.” The way I see it, either she’ll fulfill the role suitable enough or die trying.
Himuro politely clears her throat before I can savor the moment though and pulls out her calling card out. “Can you show us how many points were deducted now?”
I pull out my own from my pocket and press it to my forehead. “Do like this and that’ll be enough.”
The other two pull their cards out to copy Himuro as she does so. Her eyes slightly broaden before she pulls it away from her head, no doubt experiencing the same sensation I did my first time. Then her brows compress as she bears witness to the corner of the card eroding into black and the number appears.
“Mine’s Forty-nine,” Makidera states with a frown while looking over to the other two. No doubt they had the same count. Then she looks over to me with an expectant glance, wordlessly pressing me for an answer.
“Forty-two. I lost five in this trip and three in my first trip.”
If I had to guess, losing five points was probably because of the nature of the mission. It started out as a Recruitment Mission, or at least it appeared to before it turned into an Extermination Mission. Not to mention we learned of Atlasia, who likely has the key to unraveling what brought that future about.
If anything, I think that we should have lost more points given everything that happened. But, for now, I’ll take what I can get.
Unfortunately, Makidera’s petulant side rears its ugly head again in the wake of the information. “Why did you lose more than us for your first trip?”
“Because Gotou and I had been given the task of escorting Mitsuzuri to the checkpoint after she ended up too exhausted to fight our first trip, whereas you three only barely managed to survive until we found you. It couldn’t be helped given how you and the other survivors didn’t know anything and weren’t capable of fighting back, but that difference between our circumstances still applies.”
She doesn’t look all that pleased at the explanation, but it’s the reality of the situation in the end.
‘Gai’s here now, so we’re coming up.’
The telepathic message from Ayako rings in my head. Theirs too judging from the reactions it caused. They’re not exactly used to having a voice other than their own in their heads, despite the explanation that I gave them in the future, so they’re a lot less calm about it and it takes them a minute to settle down.
That’s when the door opens and Gai steps out of the entrance first. He takes in the sight of all of us until his eyes meet mine. It makes him pause in place for a moment. Then he takes a breath and steps over towards my side of the table.
Ayako follows behind him, sparing him a sympathetic look before her expression shifts to one more amicable as she meets the gazes of the Track Trio and shuts the door. “Sorry for taking up your morning like this, but it’s important that we meet up when we can now. More so considering the circumstances aren’t better to start your training this afternoon.”
I… don’t like the sound of that. “Did something come up?”
“Issei and his brother will be heading up further north once school ends to discuss things with the Veteran I mentioned having worked Tatsumi’s group in the past. That means we won’t be able to use the temple or have someone who can heal us until they get back, while Neko’s place is on the other side of the city.”
Oh, come on. I could understand the Monk leaving, but the other had more use to us here since he provided us with a place to train, a method of getting there discreetly, and the ability to heal if any of us got injured. “Do both need to go right now?”
“If the circumstances were a bit different, no. But some of the people we saved got in contact with us, and we can’t have a situation like with Tatsumi and the others dying without any of us being aware. So Issei is going to use his power to set up a network and try to keep the peace between his brother and Ryougi-san, since the talk yesterday over the phone didn’t go so well.”
I can only see a handful of the people we saved following up with the training, so I don’t have much hope for a new wave of Drifters to help us out. But, if there’s an issue between the Veterans then that’ll be problematic. They’re the most experienced ones and the most important assets we have to deal with external threats.
“Do you suspect it’ll turn violent?” Himuro asks, inserting herself into the conversation in an effort to mine for more information.
Ayako crosses her arms and closes her eyes in thought for a moment. “Mmm… I don’t think it’ll get that far with Issei there. Supposedly the two have an easier time understanding one another and he has a level head. But if she’s the one there instead, it’ll be troublesome.”
“There are two of them?”
“No, I mean his other half,” she clarifies. “I never witnessed the change myself but from how Neko put it, Kaname Ryougi is two people in a single body and their specialty with PSI changes depending on which personality is in charge. The male personality specializes in Rise and Burst but is incapable of using Trance. The female personality specializes in Trance and Burst but is incapable of using Rise.”
“A split-personality?” Himuro brings her hand to her chin in thought. “From what you’ve told the three of us in the future about PSI, the power uses the brain in order to process and manifest the abilities. If there’s a preexisting mental disorder, I suppose it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that such things could also affect how their power is expressed.”
I don’t discount the possibility either. Some magi do develop dual personalities to help them blend into society better or use magecraft in different ways. But that’s usually a form of self-hypnosis, not an actual disorder.
Ayako continues on regardless. “Whether he had it before he got there or suffered a breakdown afterwards isn’t something I know, but the male personality is the one they interact with the most and he doesn’t really help past teaching basics.”
It sounds to me like he’s apathetic to the situation of others because they’re not his problem, which is understandable under normal circumstances. But, since we need the survivors to pad out our numbers or these trips to the future will keep happening more frequently for our group, that’s going to have to be dealt with. “And what about the other one?”
“Terrifying enough that they feel the need to send two Veterans instead of just one,” she states. “Through a combination of Trance and Burst, she basically makes whatever illusions she projects into the target happen in real life. So, in theory, she can pretty much kill anyone she wants to with a thought.”
I don’t buy it. You can’t just wish someone dead and make it happen. There’s a system to these things, even if we can’t see it. Most likely this Ryougi person lied about her PSI’s true nature in order to conceal its weakness.
Even so, Himuro seems intrigued by the prospect. “Could it be some form of psychosomatic hallucination?”
Makidera holds up her hand to stall her from going further. “Hold on. A psycho-what now?”
“It’s when the brain believes something is happening to the body and that gets reflected. I’ve heard about an experiment where something similar happened with people who were allergic to poison ivy being blindfolded. One arm was rubbed with an ordinary leaf and told it was the poison ivy, while the other arm was rubbed with the actual plant and told it was harmless. Most of them ended up breaking out in rashes on the arm that was rubbed with the harmless leaf instead.”
“Maybe,” Ayako states. “Maybe, but the mechanics of her PSI is secondary to how she uses it. According to the others, when the male personality does the fighting he uses Rise to raise his physical abilities while wielding a sword and then Burst to fire it off as an extension of his swing, hitting their cores for a clean kill. But when they faced the Soldier Taboo, she’d come out and use that her PSI to torture them slowly with a smile on her face, rather than destroying them off right off the bat.”
The information unsettles the others to an extent, but I can think of a pragmatic reason for the torture while they stew on it. Most likely it’s conditional on using Trance to project the hallucination and using the brain’s response to have the Burst make it a reality. That limits it to the Homunculus, since they’re capable of actual thought and human understanding, and the act of building up is a means of strengthening the effect of her PSI until she can kill with a thought.
Or she could just like relishing the act of killing something that looks humans. Or both. They’re not mutually-exclusive.
Either way, Himuro doesn’t accept the information without scrutiny and makes it known. “Are you certain that information isn’t being exaggerated by biases?”
“Well, there might be some, since its clear Neko and the others don’t exactly like how hands-off he is,” Ayako concedes. “But I don’t think they’d lie given the seriousness of the situation, so I’m taking the warning seriously and passing it along.”
“Umm… c-can we change the subject?” Saegusa asks, a slight tremor in her voice. This is clearly not how she saw this morning’s discussion going and now she’s uncomfortable.
“I guess we did get a little off-topic in how it directly affects us,” Ayako admits. “Anyway, since they’re gone we need to address the issue of where we’re going to be teaching you until they get back on Monday evening, so…”
Her eyes turn to me as she trails off. Then she smiles in a way that tells me I won’t like what’s coming next.
“Shinji, you don’t mind if we use your place this afternoon, do you?”