Silence looms within the room at the Temple.
The call came in. The message clear. It’s time to play Nemesis Q’s game again.
Too soon. That thought lingers at the forefront of my mind. It feels too soon since the last time. There hasn’t been enough time to train. Then again, I suppose there’s never enough time when you’re being coerced into fighting for your life—no matter how much you prepare for it.
I look over to see Ayako leaning against a wall with her ridiculous polearm next to her. She seems like the perfect picture of calm just standing there with her arms crossed and eyes closed. But, even without reading her mind, I can tell she’s deep in thought about how to make the best out of this situation now that she has to look after another three people.
Meanwhile, Gotou is pacing back and forth while absentmindedly rolling those oversized knuckledusters in his hands. Ayako said that he can work out his issues with killing the homunculi on his own. But I have doubts he’s made any significant progress on that front.
If he hesitates at the wrong moment it might bite us in the ass…
“Maybe these?” Makidera muses as she plucks yet another weapon from the cabin—a pair of metal tonfa this time.
She wraps her hands around the handles and then moves them around to get a feel for them. The long ends were just past the length of her elbows. The short ends stick out past her knuckles by the length of her longest fingers. They should be simple enough to use that she won’t need to fry her neurons thinking when she has whatever is waiting for us in that ashen wasteland trying to rip out her throat.
In contrast to her, Himuro went with a more complex choice by choosing a sickle and chain. I can’t pretend that I knew what was going through her mind when she picked it out, but I don’t think she intends to make much use of it. Since that discussion a few days ago she’s been focusing on refining her Burst more than anything, isolating herself from both her friends in the process from what Saegusa mentioned to me in private.
Speaking of the mousy one, she finally appears when the Student President pops into the room using his Teleportation Marker. Unlike the others, she insisted that she had to go home first and changed out of her school uniform for something akin to winter wear. Casual but practical at a glance, with lots of pockets.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says apologetically. “I know it was asking a lot, but—”
Makidera quickly brushes off her apology before she can even finish. “It’s not a big deal. You had a lot to do, right?”
“I just had to check my brothers, make sure they knew what would be for dinner, tell them not act too naughty while I was out, and a few other things…” She finishes counting off on her fingers with a deep breath and nods. “But now I’m ready.”
…No one really buys it. Not when none of us are ready to go die in some distant future. Fighting for a cause none of us signed up for willingly. All of us can see she’s just putting on a brave face, but none of us can call her out on it when she still came knowing that there’s a very real chance she won’t be coming back.
That none of us will be coming back alive.
“Don’t worry about anything!” Makidera says boisterously while giving her a pat on the back, showing off the tonfa in her hand. “We’ll keep you safe.”
That was the wrong thing to say. It might have been meant to be reassuring, but she was more terrified of them dying for that very reason given their last trip. Not that the loud one has any way of knowing that as Saegusa puts on a nervous smile before staring down at the ground.
I float a thought her way before she dwells on it too much. ‘You didn’t tip your family off too much, right?’
Her gaze turns to me. ‘I… um… just told them I might be a little late. And that my brothers should be good for our parents. And that…’
She bites down on her lower lip and looks at me somewhat guiltily. ‘And that if anything happened to me… I wanted them to know I love them.’
Another mistake. The reason we pretend to have normal lives is to avoid anyone getting suspicious about these little excursions. So that they don’t end up getting sucked in like how I did with Ayako’s situation.
But she just can’t separate herself from her family. Not without at least letting them know how much she cared. Even if she can’t tell them why to avoid wrapping them up in this, it’s just not in her nature to not do that.
Oh well. Damage done. Another matter for another day. ‘You can pass it off as just wanting to reaffirm things after the hospital visit, so it isn’t a big deal. Just remember to apologize for worrying them later, okay?’
She lets out a small breath in relief and gives a slight nod. Then she makes her way over to me, leaning against the wall next to me. ‘Umm… what did you tell your sister?’
‘I didn’t tell her a thing,’ I confess unashamedly. ‘I don’t have any intention of dying, and if I came out of nowhere and said something like that Sakura would undoubtedly start worrying that something was up. No sense in winding her up about nothing.’
And, even if by some chance something does happen to me… well, the paperwork for her to get everything has been in place well before now considering my condition. She’ll never have to work a day in her life, so Sakura will be just fine financially speaking. Emotionally…
I push the image out of my mind.
Meanwhile, Saegusa looks down to the ground. ‘Oh… I see… I wish I could be so sure like that. Even Maki-chan and Kane-chan are so calm, but I’m still so nervous that my stomach feels like it’s turning in knots.’
Again, not a surprise. But rather than trying to calm her down with empty platitudes, I decide to take a more practical approach. ‘Make a Mind Jack.’
My sudden request catches her off-guard. But after a moment she closes her eyes and weaves a Mind Jack into existence. It flows from the base of her skull and connects our minds. ‘How’s this?’
‘It’s well-made,’ I tell her truthfully. While the shell feels thinner than my constructs, so the amount of information that can flow through it might be bottlenecked, it feels smooth. And she constructed it rather quickly.
Despite my praise, she meekly brushes her fingers against her arms and keeps her eyes on the ground. ‘It’s nothing special. I know that Mitsuzuri-san and Kane-chan can make them as well—’
I place my hands on her shoulders before she goes on. ‘Saegusa. Look at me.’
Her head shoots up and her soft, brown eyes meet my own.
‘It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t even do basic Telepathy. The fact that you can do the same thing as someone as experienced as Mitsuzuri and as competent as Himuro means that you’re just as capable as I thought you were.’
‘But… that’s only because you spent so much time helping me…’
True, I might have spent more time grooming her to be a capable Trance-user so she doesn’t get herself killed. But she legitimately did put in the work to get this far despite having obligations to her family, and never once complained. Yeah, she needed the talent to get this far. But she worked to make something of that talent.
I let the sincerity of that paint my thoughts as I continue. ‘Even so, you’ve never disappointed me. That’s why, while I expect you to be terrified and make mistakes, I know you’ll do the best you can and make up for it. So, stop underselling yourself already.’
‘Matou…kun…’ She only catches her slip up after the fact and it leaves a crimson blush that paints her cheeks.
I only give her a small smile before gesturing my head over to the weapons cabinet. ‘Now let’s get you armed for the trip.’
She nods meekly and mutely, following me to take stock of the arsenal. She isn’t suited towards strengthening her body for combat, so heavy weapons are out. She has no practice with anything that requires dexterity or skill, so a staff is out of the question as well. And I don’t trust her not to hit someone in close-range combat if we gave her a long-range weapon either, so we might as well go with the practical choice then. ‘Take this.’
Her slender fingers curl around the Tanto within its sheath. It’s the same one I used before, so I know it can get the job done. Ideally, she won’t need to use it. But if she does need it then she’ll have it.
She looks it over for a moment. ‘Won’t you need it?’
‘I’ve got my own packed away, plus I bought a couple of weighted chains and some metal stakes used for camping to serve as ranged weapons. The chains can be used to bind the mouths of any of those damn hounds to keep them from screaming at us. As for the stakes, I can program them to seek out and strike the cores or brains of the Taboo, so it’ll be more efficient to support everyone.’
She winces, probably imagining what the latter would look like. The casual way I mention impaling spikes into the brains of the homunculi probably doesn’t help either. The rest of the preparations are understandably done in solemn silence.
Then we jump back into the future.
The steel-grey sky welcomes us for the third time with a lonely whisper in the breeze. The chill riding it digs past my flesh and muscle to caress the bones. It’s enough to stiffen my spine as the tang of metal on the wind lines my tongue on its way down my throat.
“Is… it always like this?” asks Saegusa as her small body shifts around uncomfortably in the wind. It’s not the sheer cold she’s talking about. It’s the thrumming going on inside of her from feeling her powers grow stronger.
“Even with forewarning, it’s still an unpleasant thing to experience,” Himuro notes while adjusting her glasses with one hand. To her credit, she hid whatever abnormality she felt with her neutral expression.
The same can’t be said for Makidera, currently rocking back and forth on the ball of her heels, I won’t be surprised if she starts sprinting laps around the half-eroded road that we’re on from how energetic it’s making her feel. Thankfully, common sense seems to be doing its job and keeping her feet still.
“You adapt quicker to it over time,” Ayako states with a shrug. “But it’s best that you wait for it to settle down before trying any PSI. We don’t know what’s out there or what mission we have, so the first thing we should do is find a place to hunker down in for the moment.”
We scan the roadside for shelter immediately. Standing out in the open like this is just begging to get us spotted before we can properly fight back. Not to mention how cold it is. We manage to spot a place among the bones of what were once massive buildings that’ll suffice and shuffle into it.
After slipping on the winter clothes and ensuring the supplies made the transition without any problem, Ayako heads for the entrance with her weapon in hand. “I’ll go scouting for a bit.”
She nods. “Getting a better understanding of the situation will make things easier in the long run, and I’m used to doing this sort of thing whenever I arrive.”
“Then I’ll make a Mind Jack so we can at least—”
“I can handle that. You just focus on waiting out the adjustment period,” she states before spinning out a Mind Jack. The tip angles towards me for a moment before suddenly swerving and connecting to Gotou. “I’ll let you know if I find anything, but until then don’t broadcast or give away our position.”
I stamp down on the feeling gnawing in my chest as she closes the entrance. The rational part of me can recognize that she’s being considerate considering how little time we had to adjust the last time. We were only a trip ahead of these three and the sensation was still moderately distracting, so not wanting us to attempt even something as simple as creating a Mind Jack is understandable.
But looking at the construct, and whom she chose to link it to, the realistic part of me concedes she’s still wary about letting me in her head after that last time. She has no assurances it won’t happen again when the best I can tell her is that I’m handling it. Gotou is the safer choice at the end of the day.
Whatever. I shift my focus onto helping Saegusa. “Just close your eyes, calm your breathing, and focus on everything slowing down and closing in until you’re in the state of mind we normally practice in during our sessions.”
Her eyes close. Her shoulders relax. Her chest rises and falls in time with her breath, matching the rhythm that we practiced together. Good.
I look towards the others and catch them doing the same. Breathing exercises aren’t exactly foreign to members of the Track Club, so they can copy the physical motions easily enough. And Gotou will likely adapt quicker than them simply due to previous exposure, so there’s no need to worry about him.
So that just leaves me.
I put myself through the motions and mindset. The storm settles within me soon enough. Then I test out my limits by preparing one of the safeguards I have planned for when we inevitably run into Atlasia.
It’s based on the principles of a Mind Jack. Specifically, the exterior shell designed to keep the more sensitive Trance waves inside of it. I use the construction as a foundation and let it expand slowly so that it encroaches over my body inch-by-inch, until it forms a membrane wrapping around me from head-to-toe.
I breathe out and open my eyes once it was done to see Saegusa staring at me with her head quirked to the side. “Has your PSI settled down now?”
She nods. “I should be able to use it now without any problems.”
“Then spin out a Mind Jack and try to connect with me.”
Her brows furrow slightly in concentration for a moment. Then out comes the wired connector in roughly the same time that it took back in the present. Not a surprise since being able to program the process is above her skill level at present—foundation first, efficiency afterward.
It slithers towards me and curves smoothly around to the back of my skull, intending to sink into the base and connect us. Then the tip stops as it catches on the membrane. The familiar touch of her mind remains absent.
Her brows arch. “You… found a way to block me?”
“In light of what happened the last time we came here, I thought I should try out some anti-Trance techniques.”
Specifically, I wanted a method to avoid having my mind read wantonly or my thoughts influenced by an outside force. The simplest method of doing so is to shut them out before they can get to my brain. Ideally, it’ll work on even non-Trance methods of mental interference as well.
“Try to force it in until I say to stop.”
She seems mildly uncomfortable about using her PSI in such a manner, but she ultimately does attempt to force the Mind Jack past my defenses. The membrane manages to hold up, but it feels like it’s being grounded away as her own Trance construct pushes against it. Probably because the Mind Jack has more density to contain the regular telepathic transmissions.
A dense enough Trance construct could simply erase it. Then again, being composed of Trance energy means that it won’t offer any sort of protection from physical interference. But what about regular Trance waves?
“Try with regular Telepathy now,” I instruct her.
She does so. Or at least I think she does by how her expression shifts for a few moments before she gives up. “It looks like you couldn’t hear me.”
No signs of any notable degradation within the membrane. I can only presume that any thoughts she tried to float my way ended up breaking against it—like water splashing against an umbrella. However, if it shuts me out of all thoughts other than my own, it’ll effectively render me deaf and mute to telepathy.
It’ll be a gamble to keep it active at all times in that case. Telepathic transmission happens to be our primary means of long-distance communication. I can probably key it to allow for specific people to circumvent it if there’s a specific frequency or signature to an individual’s Trance waves…
No, I’m getting too far ahead of myself right now. I need to focus on what it can do for me in the short-term. It’s a safety net against having Atlasia and other trance-users getting into my head unwillingly. But if that does happen, I’ll have to resort to the other two methods I have on hand.
But I push that aside for the moment to address the others once I notice them listening in. “You three finished adjusting as well?”
Makidera opens her eyes and crosses her arms. “The shakes have settled down enough. I’m ready to go.”
In lieu of a verbal answer, Himuro holds out her hand with her palm facing upwards. Then something proceeds to take shape, similar to how Gotou created a simple ball to knock down the cards in a demonstration of how Burst could manifest. Only in her case what formed was an almost glass-like octahedron.
It floated above her palm for a moment before her gray eyes peered to the wall on the opposite side of the room we were in. Then it shot towards it as if it was thrown at the speed of maybe a fastball. It shattered upon hitting the wall, but not before leaving a rough indent that was a quarter-inch deep.
“I believe I’ve acclimated well enough,” she finally answers while adjusting her glasses. “It seems like my Burst has more physical substance than when I practiced back home. But it’s still too fragile to be of use against anything with a hard exterior.”
“A simple answer would have been fine, but whatever.” I turn to Gotou last. “What about you?”
He looks down at his hand from his perch against the wall at the prompt. Then he closes his eyes and forms it into a fist. “…There aren’t any problems from what I can tel—”
Gotou’s head snaps up and his words die as he looks towards me. Makidera takes a step back and bends her legs. Saegusa nearly falls off her makeshift seat in surprise. And Himuro grips her weapon tighter.
That’s when I turn around to see what set them on high alert.
And come face-to-face with Nemesis Q.