Interlude 1 – Sakura Matou
Sakura cradled the bag of obanyaki that she picked up at the Edomaeya Bakery in Miyama, having eaten one along the way home as dessert after their lunch at a small restaurant. There was something about the way that they made it that stood out from other stands and shops, between the cream-filling with a nice and soft interior and fluffy exterior from the heat that gave it a unique blend of sweetness. She had tried to replicate it in her free time, but as far as she knew there was something in the batter that gave the moist texture something extra that she couldn’t pinpoint.
Though they were such simple things, sweets were one of the few things that Sakura found joy in since her old family sold her to the Matou. For the first few days after Zouken had thrown her into the pit, she had a faint hope buried deep within that someone would come and save her. But the death of Kariya, a nice man that her mother was friends with, made it clear that there was no escape, so she resigned herself to it.
Then she met Shinji. He was a bit cold to her at first, but he at least tried to be nice. It was clear that he had been kept in the dark about so many things in his own family, including his own role in it. She couldn’t help but pity him for it.
But, at the same time, she appreciated the little things and kindness he offered her in those dark days. Sakura had next to nothing aside from that. She wasn’t being trained as a magus like her sister, but a tool to carry the Matou Magic Crest in the form of worms that have turned into nerves. They fed off her magical energy should she activate her circuits and triggered through feelings of arousal. With such things defiling her body and soul, she had given up on being accepted as a person until he showed her some semblance of familial affection.
Then Zouken told him the truth and Shinji turned on her. Another connection to her humanity severed, another person who treated her as a human gone. He only became worse as time went on, treating her as a tool to satisfy his lust and take out his aggression. But, as bad as that was, she held onto a faint hope that he could go back to being nice to her again.
And he did.
It took him undergoing a traumatic incident for it to happen, but her Senpai and sister had brought her brother back. Though a part of her resented that her father had sold her to Zouken and her sister had never even tried to talk to her or save her after his death, as if silently condoning what was being done to her, Rin had given her brother back. Even better, Shinji had killed Zouken while in control of the Golden Servant and she was free to try and be happy for once, and look forward to the future….
“Tch.” Her attention snapped back to the present when she heard her brother scoff after unlocking the door to their manor. His hand was held up to his face.
Looking over his shoulder, Sakura spotted crimson on the tips of his finger. The Student President’s words came to mind. “Nii-san, you should lie down. I can bring you anything you need to your room.”
“I don’t need you to baby me over a nosebleed.” He opened the door and stepped inside. “I’m going to the Library to look something up. Don’t bother me unless it’s really important.”
A knot of worry formed in her chest as he left. The Library contained the knowledge of magecraft accumulated by their Grandfather. After the incident with the Holy Grail, Shinji had avoided the room entirely. So why was he going there now? Had his nightmares and health been getting worse enough that he was resorting to the Art to treat them now?
Rin was the only one who would be qualified to help him if that was the case. But Shinji would never accept it. Her brother was dreadfully prideful in some ways and loathed when someone could do something better than him. And there was no one as perfect as Rin, whether it was in magecraft, martial arts, school or love…
Her silent envy ended when she heard a loud thump from the corridor that Shinji disappeared to. Leaving the bag of obanyaki behind, Sakura hurried towards the source of the sound and found her brother on the floor. He was unconscious, blood pooling around his head from his nose that seemed to ceaselessly discharge.
Looking at the spreading crimson, Sakura couldn’t help but feel that in some way her hope to have her brother back led to this. That her wish came true at the expense of his health. That meant it was her responsibility to see that he got well again.
So, if the nightmares continued or it looked as though he was getting worse, Sakura would go to Rin. She would go to her and beg her to help him where she couldn’t. Shinji would never forgive her for trampling on his pride in doing so, but that was fine.
Better that he hated her and be alive than losing him because of her selfishness….
Six Months Ago
I stare up at the fluorescent lights and count ceiling tiles of the hospital room to pass the time.
Being stuck here alone is a quiet sort of Hell. But I can’t leave the hospital until they finish monitoring me for any changes in my body after having the albino brat’s heart shoved into me. The memory of the pain that followed makes me clench my bed-sheet and grit my teeth.
My head turns to the tray by my bedside. On it are two slices of apples cut into rabbit-shapes, with one on its side and the other with a tooth-pick in it. Leftovers from when Sakura was here.
The ears are perfectly shaped, like something out of a magazine. She even coated the flesh with a light and sweet glaze that I liked when I was a child. She put a lot of work into them, overstepping her bounds as someone who was sold to the Matou family.
I still remember the day I was told her family sold her to mine, when I came back from my study abroad after the last Holy Grail War. The thought of an outsider in my household, in my world, made me sick. But a part of me felt bad for the girl, having been sold into being a possession of our family by her own. Then again, I expected as much.
I learned early on that there were two types of people in this world: those that were special and those that weren’t. The former stood on top, sacrificing and using those that stood on the bottom to move up in the world. Then you cut them out when they were no longer useful. Zouken taught me that at an early age, which was what happened to my mother.
Yet, I pitied Sakura.
She was supposed to be special, but was then cast out to become something less. The little girl with dull purple eyes and never smiled was meant to be a tool, but that was just so pathetic that I couldn’t stand it. So, as the heir to the family, I decided to take pity on her and treat her like my sister.
She would never be as special as me, who was to be the heir. But she would be better than everyone else outside of the family. As long as she was loyal, I would never sacrifice her like my grandfather and father did my mother.
Then the truth came out.
Sakura was there to be the true heir, not a failure like me. She knew the entire time and just humored me, laughing behind my back every time I said I would be the heir. I showed her mercy and kindness, treating her like a person rather than the tool to carry on the bloodline she was, and my reward for it was to be mocked.
She deserved to be slapped. To be beaten. To be reminded of her place. So I paid her back for every laugh and taking what was rightfully mine.
And she never fought back. She never claimed it was her right to be the heiress. She just sat there and took it.
At first I thought it was because she knew that she deserved it. The abuse was her atonement for mocking me. If that was the case, maybe I would have forgiven her as long as she served me sincerely. But then Zouken kindly informed me of what it really was:
She pitied me. Someone who was sold off by her own family because I wasn’t good enough pitied me. I was so pathetic that someone who lost everything from her old life and was then given away like a tool pitied me.
Things were a blur for a moment after that. I remember yelling, hitting, exposing her pale skin and feeling lust overtake me. A fleeting thought occurred, telling me that if she was mine to use as I pleased then why not do so in every aspect? Then I felt euphoria, an immense satisfaction flooding me to my core as I experienced the pleasure of being a man for the first time.
She didn’t complain. Zouken didn’t chastise me for it. Of course they didn’t. I hadn’t done anything wrong by the standards of the world we lived in. So our roles were set and life continued.
Then Emiya came into the picture.
He was an idiot. He constantly did things that other people didn’t want to, like he was a natural-born servant and enjoyed it. But he was useful, an honest idiot that I felt like I could tolerate compared to other people.
Someone who could never attain happiness outside of helping others was someone would always be willing to do what I ask without question. Someone who wouldn’t usurp me like Sakura did. Someone I could see as a friend and wouldn’t sacrifice like Sakura, before the truth.
Then he turned against me because of Sakura. He couldn’t understand that Sakura was supposed to be mine, a tool to be used in exchange for taking everything away from me as heir to the Matou line. He chose her over me and the thought of those two together filled me with a black flame inside my chest as I watched them.
Then came the Holy Grail War, a chance to prove myself to Zouken as the one who should have been the rightful heir to the family. Sakura not wanting to fight was so pathetic that he surely had to acknowledge me. Plus, if I won, I could have used it to fix my defective body and become a true magus.
That’s all I wanted in the end. To have been a true part of the world I was born into. Like my father, my grandfather, my sister, and… and my friend.
I couldn’t see the strings being pulled behind the curtain because I wanted to be special. And I got played for it… suffered for it…
I shudder as the sensation of worms crawling through my body and bloating my flesh from the grail came to mind. Was that what Sakura felt everyday for the sake of being a magus? If the stupid girl had said something, I would’ve….
No, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
I had lost my ability to feel sympathy for those I saw beneath me a long time ago. It was only because I had been placed into her shoes that I could understand everything she felt, after I regained my sanity. A moment of empathy towards someone who’d experienced years of a similar Hell silently with no one to save her.
Sakura treats me with sympathy after my ordeal, understanding the pain I’ve been through. She could have mocked me or thrown it in my face after everything I’d done to her. But she simply stayed by my side and cared for me.
Like a sister should.
That moment also made me truly realize why Sakura clung to Emiya despite the abuse I put her through for it. Having been stuck in a position where death would have been preferable, I too wanted someone to desperately save me. And though it was Tohsaka who pulled me from the prison that my flesh had become, she’d made it clear that she’d done it for him. Despite the number of times I’d tried to kill him after he sided against me, he still extended his hand by proxy to save me.
Like a friend should.
The only question now was what I should do when I get out of here. How do I face them? What should I aspire to become after losing my chance at being truly special, only to find that it wasn’t worth it in the end?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The knocking at the door turned my attention away from the ceiling tiles to the door. Through the slit that serves as a window, I can make out a familiar bed of brown hair and matching eyes. It was Ayako.
Once she notices me staring, she opens the door and enters of her own accord. She’s wearing a pink wind-breaker and a pair of jeans, rather than her uniform.
I sit up and turn so that my feet find the floor. “What are you doing here?”
“Sakura mentioned you were in the Hospital, so I thought I would drop in and check on my Vice-Captain.”
“Didn’t you say you were going to expel me from the club?” I distinctly remember that argument before I sent Rider after her. In hindsight, it… may have been going a bit overboard.
A slight pout forms on her face. “Well, you were starting to get out of hand. I had members on the verge of quitting because you were in a bad mood and decided to take it out on them. Unlike last year, we’ve got a shot at the Autumn Tournament and I want us to come home as the champions.”
After the summer of the first year we didn’t have Emiya anymore in the club, after I made a comment on his burn mark. Did she blame me for that too? “If you really want to win then why are you talking to me? You know where Emiya lives.”
She just stares at me for a moment, her lips pursed. Then she steps forward and gets in my face, looking me in the eyes. “Having Emiya back would make it easier, but I want you back in the club more than anything.”
“In truth, I’ve been doing some thinking about reorganizing the club since we’ve been doing pretty badly lately. I want your help to whip them into shape by the time I have to step down from the role of Captain and help your sister take the reins. I get the feeling that she’d be a good Captain, but right now she’s the type that stands back and quietly nods rather that assert herself, so it’ll take some time.”
She doesn’t sound like she’s joking. But it doesn’t make sense. “Why me?”
“Because we’re a lot alike, so I feel like I can understand you.” Her eyes look towards the ceiling. “You and I don’t like to lose, but Emiya was always better both of us. I admired and was jealous of him for that, yet he quit so easily that it was hard to believe it really even matter to him. How can someone like that drive others into giving it their all?”
“And you think I can?”
“Yeah, I do. As long as you keep your behavior in check, I think that you’re the only person I can trust to be my Vice-Captain. What do you say?”
I know the Archery Club means a lot to her, so hearing how earnest her words are only serves to make me feel uncomfortable. Of all the people she could place her trust in, I am the last one person she should. Not after everything I’d done to her.
Guilt rears its ugly head for the first time in a long time. “You shouldn’t forgive or trust me so easily. After all, I was the one behind what happened to the students and school. And with you in Shinto—”
Ayako’s response is immediate. She slugs me on the shoulder. The hit isn’t hard enough to do any real damage, but it does draw my attention to her face. She looks upset.
“Jokes like that are in bad taste, Shinji.” She crosses her arms. “You’re a jerk occasionally, but even you aren’t that much of an ass. I mean, could you imagine Emiya or your sister standing by you all the time if that was the case? They must see something good in you, right?”
… No, I am that horrible. Both of Emiya and Sakura know that. Even I’m not sure why they act so cordial to me, but they’ll never forget what I’ve done. Ayako’s so painfully ignorant that it hurts… but I prefer the way she thinks of me, a jerk with a softer side rather than a monster that reveled in whatever power he got.
I want her to be right. I want a second chance to start over, to live a normal life without the desire to be out of the ordinary pushing me to become a monster. A second chance to be the sort of person she thinks I can be, and someone who can face Emiya and Sakura without seeing everything I’ve done written over their faces, even if unsaid by them.
If this was the first step to doing that, then I’d do it. “Fine, I’ll straighten up and help if you really need it.”
Ayako smiles as the golden sunlight pours into the room, becoming a radiant scene that burns itself into my memories. “Looking forward to working with you then, Vice-Captain.”
My eyes snap open to find fluorescent lights hanging on the ceiling above. For a moment, I believe I’m back in the hospital room and the last few months have been a dream. That the future I’d seen was nothing more than a nightmare.
“So you’ve awoken then?”
Then I hear a familiar voice and turn my head towards the source. The Student President is sitting down in a chair a few feet ahead of the infirmary bed. His eyes are fixed on a book of some kind.
I sit up and become aware that I’m wearing my club uniform. But there are no signs of rips and tears. I lift my arms to see they’re still in one piece.
He glances up at me. “Mitsuzuri informed me about your abrupt trip to the future and the injuries you sustained. You’re fortunate that I arrived before someone noticed the wounds.”
I hold my head as the visions of that terrible future come flooding back. “So it was real after all?”
“Of course it was.” He closes the book and adjusts his glasses. “You pried where you shouldn’t and were brought into the fold as a result. Whatever your reasons for doing so, you involved yourself in this and the consequences of that are you have seen the future and are now responsible for changing it.”
I want to deny his words about prying, but a brief image flashes in my head at the thought. It’s the memory of that hospital visit from Ayako. The smile she wore when I accepted her terms. It’s stupid that such a simple request and smile moved me enough to make an effort to help her. But I was desperate for a new path to take and she offered me the way.
If Sakura was the hand that supported me, and Shirou was the hand that saved me, then Ayako was the hand meant to guide me towards a second chance—my redemption. So did that mean that this too was a part of what it meant for me to have a second chance? Was it worth it if I got hurt or killed in the process?
… No, it’s not my job to try to sort out that mess that could be set decades into the future for all I knew. I only got involved for one reason and one reason alone, and that wasn’t it. “Where is she? She was with you, wasn’t she?”
“I’ve already treated Mitsuzuri’s injuries and left her behind with Gotou. He had answered his phone while on the way to school and passed out on a sidewalk, so someone called an ambulance and they rushed him to the Hospital. After I had treated him, she remained behind to inform him of the circumstances of his current situation when he wakes.”
He frowns slightly as he looks down at me from over the rim of his glasses. “For the record, I didn’t appreciate your efforts to turn Emiya against me with baseless accusations. Please refrain from doing so again. I have enough on my hands as it is.”
Ah, he must be talking about what I told Emiya this morning. “You shouldn’t have made yourself so suspicious, Mr. President. Besides, you were with her.”
“Regardless, you had no evidence to support that theory. It was fortunate that I managed to cover it up on my way here by saying that she came over to the temple to spar with me this morning and suffered a minor injury that left her unable to attend.”
It would pass somewhat as an excuse. Ayako was the type of person who was into those sorts of things. Being a member of the family that ran the temple, it was natural that he would know some kind of martial arts to go with his attitude as well. In addition, she was also the festival committee chief for the upcoming cultural festival, meaning it wouldn’t be strange for the two to discuss matters in private.
He rises from his chair. “I’m sending word to your sister to escort you home now and informing her that within a few hours you will experience a fever and severe nosebleed that will leave you bedridden for the rest of the day. Don’t mention anything you’ve learned or gone through to her or you’ll risk her getting others involved in this as well. You’ve seen for yourself how unforgiving that world is.”
I don’t need him telling me that. Ayako mentioned that even knowing about what I do can draw Nemesis Q’s attention. Not to mention the bird-thing tried to kill me once before when I tried showing her the card. She’s been through enough as is and I’m not in a hurry to die.
Though I didn’t like what he said before all of that. “What do you mean I’ll be bedridden for the rest of the day?”
The Student President elaborates. “Upon returning to the past, all those that survive the first round undergo a transitional phase as a result of being exposed to that environment as far as we can tell. The body feels as though its melting on the inside as the change happens. Then, when the symptoms pass in the morning, you wake to find that you can perceive the world differently—to know that you have been changed in some aspect from the people around you.”
I think on it as he makes his way to the exit. It must be the abilities that Ayako used in the future. For a moment, my heart quavers at the thought of possessing that sort of power. Then I remember how the last time I yearned for it had earned me a visit to Hell every time I dreamed.
The only reason I didn’t this time is probably because of the displacement of my soul.
As he stops at the door, the Student President gives me a final glance. “When you wake up in the morning, come to the base of the mountain. Mitsuzuri and I will meet you there. Once you and Gotou have arrived, I’ll take you both to meet the other veterans in Fuyuki and they’ll inform you of everything and begin your training. Make sure your schedule for the day is clear.”
Nothing left to say, he leaves the room and gently shuts the door behind him.
I lie back down and just think on everything I just got myself into. It’s ludicrous to think that any sort of power that I can wield would be enough to change a future that has already come to pass. The abnormal sky and condition of the land and those Taboo creatures—how did something like that come to pass by the moonlit world of magi and monsters? Weren’t there safeguards in place to avoid things like that from happening?
Or were they the ones responsible for that future?
The door slides open and the thoughts fade as Sakura steps into the room while dressed in her school uniform. In her hands are my clothes and belongings. She looks slightly relieved as she comes over to my bedside.
“Nii-san, how are you feeling?”
“As best I can be for now.” I sit up and take the clothes. “You talked to the Student President, didn’t you?”
She nods her head. “He said that you would need to rest back at home for the rest of the day and we have permission to leave early. Though, Senpai suggested we should head back to the hospital so they can give you a thorough examination.”
I shake my head. No more hospitals. If I have to stare up at one more tiled ceiling I’ll start pulling out my own hair. “After the symptoms pass, I’ll be fine.”
“No, Sakura.” My tone is firmer this time to get the point across. “Emiya doesn’t have a say in this. I said I’ll be fine, so drop it. Understand?”
“…Yes, Nii-san.” Her eyes lower slightly, leaving her hair shadowing them from view. Without another word, she turns around so that I can change my clothes.
The feeling of kicking a puppy returns with a vengeance. I wish I could just explain that I can’t get them involved for both my sake and hers. That I would like nothing more than to push this onto Emiya since this is his sort of thing. But I can’t as things stand.
I sigh deeply and then look up to the clock again. “Sakura, you haven’t eaten Lunch, have you?”
“Not yet,” she replies softly.
“Then let’s go find a place in Miyama to eat.” I’ve got my wallet on me so it shouldn’t be a problem to treat her. “It’ll be my way of apologizing for getting blood on your uniform since I’m going to be busy tomorrow, so I won’t accept you trying to take a pass on it.”
She looks slight confused given my abrupt change in demeanor, but knows better than to refuse and nods.
We leave the school grounds minutes later and make our way to the district. The cool autumn breeze briefly blows past us along the way. The lack of biting chill and aftertaste of metal were something I couldn’t help but notice. The warmth of the afternoon sun caressing my skin felt almost foreign. And the people ignorantly walking along the side of the road and going about their day without any worries of what the future holds for them….
I do my best to ignore them all as we find a place to dine in peace.
The wind feels a bit colder as it whistles through the remains of Fuyuki.
I carefully peer around the corner of a half-fallen building and make sure the path is clear before I turn to Gai and gesture for him follow. Ayako is in his arms, still unconscious and feverish. He can carry her without being slowed down because he’s broader than me.
We were making our way back to the Shopping District, to the phone that served as the gate to the past. By my guess it’s been at least half-an-hour since we left the building that Ayako had brought us to. We were maybe a little over halfway to the district at the hurried, yet cautious pace we were going. It spoke wonders of just how fast Ayako had been when she brought me there in less than five minutes.
I had thought magecraft was involved at first. But I brushed it off on account of Ayako not being a magus. I confirmed as much when Rider drained her to the extent it took days for her to recover, and had a good laugh when Emiya brought it up back then.
Obviously, I’m not laughing now.
Besides, I’m not a magus. The Old Worm had pointed that fact out many times. I was a defect in the bloodline of the once proud Makiri, a failure without worth despite the effort I put forth in school and how I presented myself.
So if the requirement needed to gain a card was the presence of Magic Circuits, then I wouldn’t be here. Then there was the gauntlet with a crossbow she had earlier. Was it a mystic code of some kind that she could summon at will? Or was I just stretching for something—anything to make the facts line up with what I knew.
What exactly is this the power Nemesis Q spoke of to change the future?
The answer could wait. At until after we got back to our own time. But there was one thing I was absolutely certain of at this moment.
I am never going to wear this uniform again if we get pulled into the future.
It’s impractical for this sort of terrain and weather. And the only reason I kept the sandals on is because the alternative was dealing with bits and pieces of rubble wedging themselves into my feet. I can’t run away if that happens.
As we come to a stop at another outcropping several minutes later, Gai speaks. “I don’t think we have long if this fever gets worse.”
I feel her head. He’s right. She’s warmer than before. “I think we’re ten minutes—”
The words die when I hear a sound coming from the distance and peek around the corner. I see another one of those hounds that nearly dragged me off. But it’s not alone.
No, there’s a person there with it. Or at least what used to be a person before it got turned into Frankenstein’s Monster, lugging around some kind of giant vat or container.
The muscular torso gives me the impression that it was once a tall man, but certain body parts seem misshapen. The arms are elongated to a similar length of Nemesis Q’s arms, yet the legs are muscular and swollen. On its head is a mask of steel that left its eyes and nose hidden, and its ears are shaped like that of a bat’s.
I turn to Gai and press a finger to my lips before pointing over to the edge so he can see as well. His eyes squint before he pulls back. His voice comes out hushed.
“What is that?”
“I’ve run into the dog-thing before. It nearly dragged me off until Ayako killed it. But that other one is new.”
I think back to that time, before Ayako carried me off. She mentioned that the ‘Catcher’ would follow the sounds the Hound made before spiriting me away. I guess that must be it.
It looks fast. I couldn’t see us getting to the phone fast enough to save Ayako if we had to go around it. But going straight ran the risk of us being caught….
At least without bait. “Gotou, how fast are you?”
His eyes narrow at the question. “I make decent time on the track course. Why?”
I nod to Ayako. “Neither of us can run fast enough to avoid getting caught if we have to carry her. But we don’t have time to waste if we need to circle around. Not before that fever puts her down for good. You’re in better shape than me and are wearing actual shoes instead of these sandals.”
“So you want me to throw myself at them?”
That’s the gist of it actually. But he doesn’t need to know that. Instead, I shake my head and point to the right.
“No, I need for you to go that way while the wind is blowing towards the left. You’re going to circle around until the Hound catches your scent and then leave your shirt behind. That’ll buy you time to circle around again and get to the phone while I’ll take Ayako straight ahead.”
“If you’ve got this all planned out, why don’t you do that while I carry her?”
“You’re faster than me and, again, not wearing sandals.” I wiggle my feet for a moment and then tilt my head to Ayako once more. “It’s not about me or you. She’ll die if we don’t do it this way. Do you want to let that happen after she helped us out?”
He looks hard at me at that. Then Ayako. A sigh follows as he stands up and starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Works like a charm. “Run fast.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t screw this up, Matou.” That said, he runs off to the right and disappears around the remains of a building that way.
Honestly, I don’t expect him to get away from those two entirely. But I do expect him to distract them long enough for us to get to the phone. That’s what counts.
That container that the Catcher has looks big enough to house a single person. And, while the ears give me the impression that its hearing is sharp, I can use the wind and softer surface to mask my movements. I’ll live through this and get back to the past with Ayako.
… It’s about three minutes before I see movement on the other end. The Hound lets loose a sharp bark and the Catcher standing next to it rouses. They move off to the right and out of my view.
I reposition Ayako onto my back with some effort. Her fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest and she’s started mumbling something under her breath. Like I told Gai, I really do have to hurry and get her to safety before she dies.
No sooner than we pass by the spot where the Catcher and Hound had been did the winds shift, blowing towards the direction that the monster pair ran. I cling to a faint hope that our scents remain out of the Hound’s range as I push ahead faster. But that hope is snuffed out when I hear a barking noise.
Fear crawls up my spine. It’s coming. The Hound is coming. If it gets close enough to scream, then we die.
I seriously consider leaving Ayako behind for a moment, but that isn’t an option. She’s the clear condition and the reason I came here in the first place. I already threw Gai to the Catcher to buy us time, but doing that to her isn’t an option. I have no choice but to run.
But I’m not fast enough to get away before the Hound catches up. The moment it caught my scent, running stopped being an option. And, even if we hide somewhere, the Hound will just track us down by scent and sound. That only leaves one final option:
I have to kill it somehow.
I don’t know how Ayako killed the last one, but I knew that they could be killed. I can probably manage by bashing its skull in or something. But a frontal assault will just get me caught by the scream and leave me helpless again. I need to arrange an ambush then.
My legs burn while running until I come across the ideal battlefield—one of the buildings that looked as if the foundation shifted. This caused it to lean, tearing down one half of the building and exposing the gutted remains to the elements. I can see a spot where the second floor can be used as an ambush point, and the large rubble beneath it as a weapon.
I enter the first floor through the opening and set Ayako down against the mountain of rubble, beneath where the second floor collapsed. Then I remove the top of my uniform and set it down ahead of her feet. I don’t expect it to distract the Hound for long, but it should make it sit still for a second or two.
That has to be enough.
I grab the largest chunk of stone I can before I climb up the stairs. It’s… a lot higher up than it looks from the first floor, but I get into position as the Hound comes in. The moment it sniffs at the discarded clothing, I hurl the head-sized block down from the second floor.
It smashes down on the Hound’s head hard enough to shatter and makes it yelp. But it’s not enough to do more than crack the black orb on its head. And it knows I’m here now.
I freeze as its legs tense. My blood turns to ice at the knowledge that if I don’t do something, it’ll come after me now. I don’t want to be caught by that thing and dragged off. I don’t want to die for getting myself wrapped up in this, trying to be a hero like….
Something clicks inside of me when I think on what Emiya would do here? What would the idiot who went out of his way to help others do? The answer is stupid and obvious.
I leap down, screaming. I throw myself at the problem without thinking further. I ignore my heart leaping into my throat as gravity grabs my body and drops me down.
The Hound’s legs buckle under my weight and we collapse onto one another. The blood pounding in my ears acts like a war drum. It takes away my sanity.
I find myself screaming as the desire to survive takes hold, scooping up the largest chunk of what was left of the stone I threw. It was maybe the size of a baseball and jagged, the tip pointed enough to serve as a makeshift knife. I stab at the Hound wherever I could with it around the head, neck, and mouth.
I have to kill it. I can’t let it get a chance to recover or it’ll kill me. I have to kill it!
I have to kill it! I Have To Kill It! I HAVE TO KILL IT!
The Hound whines and redoubles its effort to throw me off at the pain. It succeeds. Then it opens its mouth to scream.
I don’t think. I react. My closest arm moves, sinking my fist into its mouth until it’s lodged in its throat. It closes its jaws on reflex and bites into my arm.
“AHH!!” It hurts, but it doesn’t break the bone. It can’t scream like this and it can’t get away. Something inside of me can’t help but giggle as I start hammering away with the stone in my other hand.
It tries to escape, but it can’t. So it tries to take off my arm instead. Pain surges through my body as it jerks its fangs to rip my arm apart, tearing into the flesh until blood began to cascade from between its fangs.
It hurts. It hurts! It hurts! But I can’t lose this chance or else it’s all over!
I drown out the pain with a scream as I keep hammering away, every hit causing the jagged edges to cut into my good hand. It tears at my flesh and leaves my blood to run over the pitch-black stone as the crack widens. Then something inside of the orb begins to pour out like steam.
The Hound’s fangs loosen. Its throat tightens with a whine that chokes on my arm. It’s dying. Good.
“Die! Die! DIEEEEE!” I keep hitting at its weak point until it collapses. Its body begins to soften as the stone buries itself into its head, whitening and loosening. I only stop when it turns to ashes and laugh as I pull out the bloodied limb coated in white powder. “That’s what you get for coming after me, stupid mutt.”
The pain hurts so badly that I don’t think I can use either of my hands again. But I’m alive. The thought makes me laugh again. “Hehehahaaha….HAHAHA— ”
The voice draws my attention. I turn to see that Ayako is awake. The noise must’ve woken her.
“Did you see, Ayako?” I gesture to the pile of ashes. “I killed it. Hahaha… you see, I killed it on my own.”
“Shinji… you need to… calm down….” She leans forward off the rubble, despite her face being red from the fever. “Take a deep breath.”
Ah, she’s staring at me with those eyes. My lips curl into a frown as I recognize those same pitying eyes that Sakura used to stare at me with. Those same pitying eyes that said she was laughing behind my back that I couldn’t use magic when she could. Those same damn pitying eyes that shows she thinks she’s better than me!
I hate them. I hate them! I HATE THEM! IHATETHEM! IHATETHEMIHATETHEMHATETHEMHATETHEMHATEHATEHATE!
“Stop staring at me with those eyes!” I try to rise up, but my body sways on my feet a little. Blood stains the ground as I stumble towards her to wipe those eyes off her face. “You should be grateful I saved you! You couldn’t even do anything and yet, I—”
My foot slips over my discarded top. I fall forward. She reaches out and grabs me before I can hit the ground.
Her body is uncomfortably warm. It stinks of sweat and ashes. But she holds me tight before I can struggle and doesn’t let go.
“Shinji, don’t let this place drive you insane.” Her tone is gentle. And her embrace soothes the burning inside of my chest. “I don’t want to see someone else like that. Calm down so we can go back to the past together.”
Her words bring back my sanity. I realize how close I was to doing something I would regret again to the person giving me a second chance. Shame comes with the pain in my limbs and an apology slips out. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She pulls back and looks me in the eyes. “What happened to Gotou?”
“He….” I struggle to find the words to say ‘I sent him off to die in order to buy us time.’ Yet, if I worded it wrong she would likely try to go out and find him. In her condition that wasn’t likely to work out and we’d die here stupidly. “The Catcher caught him and left the Hound behind. He’s gone.”
A tear streaks down her eyes at hearing that. A shuddering, lifeless breath leaves her mouth. It takes her a moment before she lets me go and pulls herself together. “I’ll get you out alive then, at the very least.”
The shame and embarrassment still lingers in my chest. I sit up on my knees. “Mitsuzuri, about a moment ago… I didn’t—”
She cuts me off with a slow shake of her head. “It happens. I’ve seen people go insane in different ways. One girl threw herself off a building when I first started out, before Issei could get to her. Another guy tried murdering others until…”
Ayako trails off. The message is clear enough for me to get the picture. Desperate people did stupid things. The pain in my arms lingers as proof of that. I don’t know what I was thinking…oh wait, I wasn’t.
Then again, Emiya probably would have done the same thing. He’s an idiot like that.
“We need to wrap those injuries before the shock wears off entirely.” She tears apart her torn clothes further to wrap strips around my bloody hand and arm. “Once we get back to the past, Issei will be able to heal your wounds.”
“He didn’t come with you?”
“No, he’s a Veteran Drifter.” She finishes and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm. “He went through his card’s value around the time I got started and helped me cope through it. Right now he’s taking care of my body in a guest room at the Ryuudou Temple, while I’m here. The wounds we sustain transfer over to our bodies once we snap back, so he stays nearby to heal them. I’ll tell him about you the moment I wake up.”
She rises to her feet and sways before steadying herself. “Did Nemesis Q appear?”
I nod and rise to my feet, letting her lean on my shoulder for support. “The clear condition is to get you to the phone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District. We’re not too far.”
“Then if we hurry, we might be able to save Gotou. If the clear condition is met, all surviving Drifters are pulled to the past as long as they don’t end up inside of the Tower.”
That’s convenient. “Then let’s go.”
We push ourselves to move, stumbling out of the building with our weary bodies. Now that the adrenaline isn’t coursing through my body, I feel like I’ve ran a marathon of some kind and my legs and arms ache. It takes effort to just walk while supporting Ayako.
I glance towards her. The fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest, but she’s trying to put on a brave face. Yet her eyes are half-lidded and straining to remaining open as she looks into the distance. She’s pushing herself too far just to see me to safety…
No, it’s not just me. She’s hoping that if we get there quick enough that Gai can be saved too. It’s a frail, fleeting hope, but enough to get us both to safety nonetheless.
The phone comes into view and I let out a sigh of relief at the thought of safety being only short walk away. But then Ayako freezes mid-step. “What’s wrong?”
She turns her head to the side. Her eyes furrow and close in. “I hear footsteps and hard breathing.”
“What?” I turn behind me and try to listen in. But I don’t hear anything until nearly ten seconds later, when a bloody Gai stumbles out from an alley. Just how sharp is her hearing?
“Gotou!” She releases me and tries to go to his side. However, her strength hasn’t returned just because she sees him. She nearly falls forward until I catch her, sending pain lancing up my limbs.
Gai sees us and yells, “RUN!”
That’s when the Catcher leaps out from the corner in a crouch. The vat it carries is on its back, strapped on like a backpack. In a motion too quick for me to see, it throws itself forward and pounces on Gai.
“AGH!!” He goes down with it on top of him like a feral beast, placing a hand on his head like it’s going to crush it. His strained voice reaches our ears as he yells again. “Hurry up and go!”
I don’t need to be told twice. Ignoring the pain in my arms, I pull Ayako forward with fear giving me the strength to run away. “Let’s go!”
She resists. “We can’t leave him!”
“The hell we can’t!” Why do women make this more complicated than it needs to be? Since I don’t have time to argue, I crouch down and lift her so that she’s slung over my shoulders like a bag of potatoes. The act causes blood to slip beneath the makeshift bandages and the muscles in my hands feel like they’re tearing apart.
Ayako doesn’t argue. Instead, she opts to say, “Brace yourself then!”
That sent up some red flags, so I turn my head expecting the Catcher to be lunging for us this time. Instead, I see Ayako raising her arm and that crossbow-gauntlet appearing on her wrist with a flash of light. There’s a bolt of pure white energy thrumming in it.
The moment she lets it loose, the backlash knocks me off my feet as an explosion sounds out. I end up falling on my stomach and then have the air knocked out of me as Ayako ends up mounted on my back. “Ow!”
In contrast, Gai is half-buried under ash. Confusion paints his face as he notes the absence of the Catcher. “What… happened?”
“Uhh….” Ayako’s body sways on top of me. Then she falls to the ground next to me.
“Hey!” I sit up and take a look at her. Sweat covers her face and blood runs from her nose as she desperately gasps for air. It’s clear she made her condition worse.
Yet, despite all of that, she gathers enough energy to just glare at me with barely-opened eyes. “You said… he was caught…”
I look away. “…I made a judgment call. The clear condition was to bring you to the goal. If he hadn’t been caught, then he would have been brought back to the present as well.”
I had no proof of that until she informed me earlier. But it’s the best excuse I can think of to appease them. A little white lie to avoid making it sound worse than it was.
The conversation died there as Gai came over and helped us to our feet. He’s rough with me and looks like he wants to say something, so I take it that he didn’t like being bait. Shame he couldn’t play the part properly, given I had to kill the Hound, but at the very least he seems to understand that now’s not the time.
Before anything else can jump us, we get to the phone. The moment Gai picks up the receiver, the world vanishes. We abruptly start falling through space again as Nemesis Q lingers above us and claps its hands like it’s giving us an applause.
A look of pure hatred crosses Ayako face at the sight of it. It makes the glare she gave me earlier seem tame in comparison. Then again, Nemesis Q ran her through this who knows how many times now.
Then everything goes dark as the bird that’s mimicking a person grows distant….
I rise to my feet as I breathe in the cold air that has the aftertaste of metal. It was cold, even for Autumn. Probably had something to do with the ashen sky, not a bird in sight.
Looking around, I find that I’m in a set of ruins of some kind. I want to say it’s the archery dojo, considering I see that the school is a broken pile of stone and rubble just across where I am. How many years into the future am I for all the wood to be missing, having rotted away?
I stumble out of what was left of the school grounds and head towards the road to my home. I had no idea if it is still around, but the state it’s in will at least give me some insight into how much time has passed. And it’s closer than going to the Church or the albino brat’s castle. If I have to admit it, a part of me hopes that the Tohsaka Estate has been reduced to rubble, but my priority is finding a way to get back to my own time.
The road feels softer than concrete and asphalt should be. Almost like the ground beneath it is quicksand or silt. The buildings made of stone are leaning as if exhausted, some half-broken and others toppled over. Those made of wood are missing entirely.
Looking at all of this, I can’t help but wonder if there are any people left alive in this environment. It feels too cold, the scent of metal lingers in the wind, and the only light is the silver rays that break through the clouds from above. I don’t think plants can survive in it.
The white-thing, Nemesis Q if I had to guess, had spoken before in my dream about embracing power to change the future. Assuming it plucked my soul from my body, displaced my existence through time, and then dropped me into the future, what did it expect me to do here to get back? What power did it mean that would allow me to change it?
Why is Ayako involved in this at all?
Too many question and not enough answers.
I keep walking until I spot something moving on the path ahead of me. It looks like an animal at a distance, a dog sniffing the ground with some kind of black growth on its head. I decide to walk through the rubble of another home that had been along the path to mine, leaving it to scrounge for rats or whatever it ate to survive for however long the world had been in this state.
No sooner than I walk through the rubble do I hear an inhuman screech that makes me jump. I look back to the source to see that the dog is closing in on me. What, is it hungry enough to try and eat me now?
I decide to run. I won’t be able to fight against it without some kind of weapon or rock. But I trip before I can make it three steps because I’m wearing the club uniform, and the footwear isn’t made for running through terrain like this. By the time I can climb back up to my feet, the thing I thought was a dog is close enough that I could make out the details better.
That thing can’t be called a dog anymore, even if it was once upon a time. It’s pale white, a black orb on its head in the place of where there should be eyes. There looks to be gills of some kind on the sides of its neck, with some kind of silvery build up crusting it. Its mouth opens into four parts like a peeled fruit as it faces me.
Then it screams.
The moment it does, I fall down again from what feels like being hit by something invisible that passes through me. The shriek did something to my ears and bones, leaving me hearing a ringing and feeling my insides shaking. I couldn’t get my bearings fast enough to run or even sit up straight as it trots over, grabs my hem, and starts to drag me with ridiculous ease.
It’s taking me away. It’s taking me somewhere and there’s nothing I can do. I… fuck that!
“Get off me! Let go!” I flail. I scream. I force myself to move however I could. At best I’m no different than a giant worm that’s struggling in the maw of the bird that caught it.
It still works. The dog-thing releases my pants from its grasp. Then it aims its mouth up towards my head, peeling it again into four parts. It’s going to scream again and scramble my brains more thoroughly this time, isn’t it?
I close my eyes on reflex and cover my ears in time for a muted explosion to sound out. The force of it washes over me and covers in a blanket of something like dirt or dust. There was so much, so abruptly, that I thought it had decided to bury me as I was. I cough violently, cracking open my eyes to see that the dog-thing was missing.
Instead, Ayako stands in front of me, covered in what looked like patches of ashes with her clothes ripped in certain places and damaged. On her left arm is a black-gauntlet of some kind with a wrist-mounted crossbow on it. She’s panting, her chest rising and falling quickly as she stares down at me with eyes that have rings of exhaustion around them.
Again, she looks pissed. “You called the number.”
It wasn’t a question. “I… may have memorized it.”
“IDIOT!!” she yells abruptly as the crossbow gauntlet vanishes and she mounts my stomach. My body still feels out of sorts and I can’t move well-enough to stop her from grabbing me by the lapels and pulling my head up towards hers.
“Why? Why would you do that?” she demands, shaking me with every word. “I warned you! Do you know what you’ve done!?”
“I—” She lets my head fall down before I can even get the words out to give her an answer. The ground hurts from the impact, driving my eyes to close on reflex. Fire pools in my chest at the abuse when I came here for her sake in the first place. “What’s the big idea….”
I trail off as something wet hits my cheeks and I hear the near-silent sobs. They quench the fire as I open my eyes to the sight of Ayako struggling not to cry. Sitting on top of me, with her head angled down and her shoulders limp, her eyes glisten with tears.
Her voice shakes as she softly whispers, “I don’t want to see someone I know die again.”
…She looks pathetic like this. Really pathetic compared to how she normally looks and acts. It doesn’t bring me any joy seeing her like this.
The sound of a distant shriek brings an end to her tears as her body stiffens in alarm. She twists her head towards the source, even with the half-standing walls and buildings in the way. Then she wipes her tears and gets off of me.
“We need to leave before the hound and catcher arrive.” She lifts me up with ease, hoisting me like a bride in her arms. “They heard the previous one shrieking and are on their way here.”
“Come on, this is just embarrassing!” Her arms feel like they can give out at any time and she still looks exhausted. “You’re going to drop me!”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ayako tells me with an edge in her voice. Then she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Her arms find new strength and she braces me tight against her body. It feels like she’s burning up on the inside.
Then she moves.
The world becomes a blur of short-lived colors and sights as they pass us by. The wind rushes past my ears and drowns out every other sound. This speed is foreign yet familiar, almost like I’m being carried by Rider.
She carries me through a web of ruined buildings and structures, the last remaining monuments to the people of Fuyuki for all I know. It’s only when we reach a district somewhere between the Big Bridge and the school, filled with more commercial buildings, that she jumps through a second-floor window without glass in it and sets me down on the ground.
“Okay,” she sighs. “Hopefully you’re the last one. I don’t think I can make another trip right now.”
“Last one?” I look around at that and see a shadow move around a corner. A familiar bed of blonde hair comes into view. It’s Gai Gotou from class. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s another idiot who got himself a card,” Ayako says as she leans her back against the wall to the left of me. “Straight from Nemesis Q itself.”
I can’t keep the surprised look off my face. “How?”
He scratches his cheek. “Well, I heard that Kane was looking for one and I thought that I could get one for her. But the one guy I found who had it wanted to charge a ridiculous amount for it that I couldn’t afford. So I ran around looking for any that may have been left around at the payphones when I got a card this morning, in a dream. The ringing wasn’t that bad for me though when I answered it on my way to school.”
“… Seriously?” The skepticism in my voice is thick. “That’s how it happened?”
“That’s the reason that I told you not to look or think about the card at all.” She massages her temples. “Just knowing about it can put you in Nemesis Q’s sight when it starts recruiting, and in this mission alone it invited around twenty people who had an interest in the cards or Psyren this time.”
“I take it they didn’t make it?”
She shakes her head. “The Taboo, creatures like the hound that caught you, killed all of them so far. I tried to help and warn them, but they didn’t listen and the number of Taboo have swelled compared to my last trip. The people who die here have their bodies drop dead back in the past and the card disappears, so it seems like Sudden Death Syndrome struck them.”
I frown at that. It’s only been a few hours since she went missing. “Your brother said you went missing this morning in the Club. The morning session hadn’t ended before the ringing nearly split my head in half.”
“Time moves differently between the past and the future,” she claims. “Or at least it feels that way. I left home this morning, an hour before I normally do, when the ringing started to grate on my nerves. Drifters who have been awakened get a warning ahead of time compared to new recruits, to put our affairs in order, so I knew it was coming since the club meeting yesterday.”
So that’s why she ran out yesterday. She heard the call coming in and went to make arrangements. The Student President being absent this morning likely had something to do with that—all the evidence points to him being involved in this too as a Drifter.
“And how long have you been here?” Gai asks.
“It’s been over three or four days on my end. It’s hard to tell since clocks, watches, and other electronics don’t work properly. I can only go by when it’s light out and when it’s dark, and since people keep popping in I have to stay alert and kill any Taboo I find so they don’t keep killing everyone.”
Ayako lets out a long sigh and her throat muscles shift as she takes a moment to just breathe. “Shinji, you said that it felt like your head was splitting, right?”
“Yeah.” The thought alone makes me want to take a migraine pill. “I didn’t hear anything before it just hit me all at once. It got so bad that I couldn’t stand and blood came out of my nose. I had trouble thinking straight.”
“Usually, when it gets that bad, it means that the time is almost up to answer the summonings.” She opens her eyes and stares at me with her brows furrowed. “Another minute or two and you would have probably had an aneurysm.”
So I went from assured death to nearly being dragged off by the banshee dog or whatever it was. Lucky me. But Gai said he answered just after he woke up, so does that mean the summoning has a priority even among the same group?
Or was Nemesis Q punishing me for skirting the rules with Sakura and telling Emiya where to look. “So how do we get home?”
“We have to complete the mission Nemesis Q gives us,” she says. “The objectives change depending on what Nemesis Q wants, and there’s no way of knowing that ahead of time. If it’s a recruitment mission like I think, then we have to stay until all of the people with cards answer their summonings or die from trying to ignore it. Then we’ll learn the location of the gate through a vision in our heads and have to make it… there….”
She slides down the wall as she trails off, until she’s setting against the bottom. Her legs are splayed out like she’s lost all strength in them, and her breathing hasn’t settled either. It looks like she’s about to pass out.
I crouch down next to her and grab her shoulders. “Don’t fall asleep yet, we still need answers.”
“I… I just need a few minutes of rest.” She grabs my wrist, but her fingers are so slack that they barely cling to them. She’s even struggling to keep her eyelids open, and failing . “Just… stay here until then. Don’t… try… and leave…”
Her eyes close. Her hand slips from my wrist and falls to her lap. Her head leans to the side.
She’s out cold. “Tsk. Of course you fall asleep now of all times.”
I take a seat next to her. She won’t be any good to anyone if she’s tired. I’ll let her rest for a while.
Gai goes to the window and stares out of it for a moment, his brows closing in while he works his brain to think about something. “I’m having trouble believing this is the future.”
“I bet the others who came here before thought the same,” I say. It makes sense if you didn’t know things like that were possible. If I hadn’t been part of the Holy Grail War, or combed through the library at home as a child, then I probably wouldn’t believe it either.
But, while it’s been a while since I’ve read that stuff, I know for a fact that there should have been some way for this sort of thing to have been avoided. How far into the future are we so that all the safeguards failed and magi allowed this to happen? Fifty years? One hundred?
What could have caused all of this?
I look back over to Ayako and see her ash-covered body lying defenseless. If she’s been here for days, she could have been hurt. I carefully run my fingers along her skin, where the patches of ash clinging to it are. They wipe away with some effort to reveal unblemished flesh.
Good, she wasn’t hurt after all. It would have been a waste to have gotten involved only for her to die next to me because of a wound I didn’t notice.
Gai clears his throat. I look up to see he’s giving me a disapproving look with a frown. “Not cool, dude.”
“I was checking her for injuries.” I really was.
“Right, and I—WHOA!” His words turn into a surprised shout as Nemesis Q appears out of thin-air in the middle of the room.
This is its doing. This is a sick game of some kind that it’s putting me through. When I think about all the pain to this point, my body moves on its own to grab it and force it to take us back.
It ignores me as I pass through its body. There’s no physical presence at all. While I tumble onto the floor, it goes over to Ayako and gives her that same inquisitive look that it gave me, as if judging her worth.
It points towards her and the world zooms out until we’re further in the air, overlooking the ruins of what was once Fuyuki. A quick glance behind me reveals the Shinto district looks almost like a desert of silver sand. Then an image appears in my head of a payphone half-buried beneath the remains of a building and sign.
“Escort the Drifter to the checkpoint to clear this round and be rewarded with the power to change this future.”
Then, as abruptly as we were taken away, we were back in the same spot. Had we even left in the first place? Or was it something like remote-viewing? Nemesis Q is gone before I can even ask.
Gai shakes his head to clear it. “That…. looked not too far from the school grounds. I think I’ve seen that payphone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District.”
“That’s in the direction we came from and a little north.” If that’s the case, Ayako can get us there in a matter of minutes. I gently shake her shoulder to wake her up. “Rise and shine, we need to go.”
She doesn’t move.
A pang of worry stirs in my chest and I try again. “Mitsuzuri, wake up!”
Her only response is heavy and labored breaths.
I reach for her face and feel her cheeks burning. Her forehead is the same. It clicks and my chest tightens when I realize why it appeared now. “That son of a bitch!”
Gai comes over. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s burning up.” I had thought her movements before was from using Magic Circuits and figured the activation caused her body to feel so warm while she carried me and afterwards. But I was wrong. The sweat and her breathing being so labored while she’s unconscious say otherwise. “She’s got a fever and it probably won’t settle while we’re here.”
He tenses. “Seriously?”
“The words it told us were ‘Escort this Drifter’ weren’t they? If she could move on her own, Nemesis Q wouldn’t have phrased it that way because she could just run with the both of us given how easily she carried me. It was addressing us. And she said that Nemesis Q had been recruiting this round and we’re likely the last ones left.”
“So… it’s testing us?” he figures.
I nod. “With her life on the line as the wager. Either we get her back in time or she dies and we remain stuck here.”
The moment I touch it and feel the glossy texture covering the surface, I can’t deny it’s real. The dream had been real. That… white-thing and its words were real. What did I get myself into?
I pick up the card and turn it over, expecting to see the same number as before. Instead, there’s a list of rules to follow:
1.) Those that possess this card and traverse time are known as “Drifters”.
2.) Those that still have a value on their card are known as “Active Drifters”. It is best for Active Drifters to keep their cards on them at all times.
3.) Active Drifters are required to respond in a set amount of time if they hear the ringing in their heads. The intensity determines the urgency, and failure to respond in time will lead to death.
4.) Active Drifters that die in the future have their bodies die in the present.
5.) Drifters that attempt to speak of matters directly related to their mission to non-Drifters will be judged by Nemesis Q to deem if they are allowed to. Any further attempt after the initial warning will be considered a violation and lead to instant death.
6.) Drifters are still bound by the rules, even if their value is used up.
7.) Rules may be changed over the course of time.
Who came up with these rules? How is it even possible to travel through time?
Damn it, I need to get this to Emiya. But if it was a violation of the rules then would I really die? Maybe I can just slip it into his bag at school? Before I can think on it further, a soft rapping noise comes from the door.
A softer voice follows. “Nii-san, are you awake?”
“Yeah.” I put the card under my pillow as Sakura takes that as a cue to stick her head inside of the room. I see she’s dressed to go to Emiya’s place already. “You’re heading to that idiot’s place this morning?”
She nods. Good. Then I can give her the card to hand to that idiot and have her tell him to look it over carefully.
I reach under the pillow to pull out the card. But the moment the words begin to come out of my mouth, my mind and body freezes in terror. The thing-in-white is standing there now, right in front of my eyes, like a semi-transparent ghost.
“Nii-san?” Sakura’s head tilts as she looks at me. “Are you okay?”
It’s standing right in front of her, yet she doesn’t notice it. Can she not see it?
The white-thing raises a finger. It waves it back and forth. Then the barbed wires around my brain and heart shift, digging the points that had settled into place deeper into them.
“Nnnghhh!” I release the card to hold my hands over my head and heart, fingers digging into them as though to pull out the wires. They’re hurting me in warning, telling me that death is the result of what I plan on doing.
Sakura enters the room and stops by my side at the sight of my pained face as they tighten further. “Nii-san, are you okay?”
I lie to her. “…I’m fine. It’s just heartburn from the restaurant.”
The white-thing lowers its finger. The pain stops. Then it vanishes, its message delivered well-enough.
I breathe easier once it disappears. But my fear remains. How did it get into my room? Didn’t the Old Worm have some protections into place around the manor?
Sakura reaches out and touches my head, feeling the sweat that dotted it from the fear.
I brush her hand away. I couldn’t be sure if it judged giving her the card, speaking to her about the card, or having her deliver the card was a violation, but it’s safe to say that those options are off the table. She’s useless to me here. “I’m fine. Just leave me alone and go to that idiot’s place.”
Sakura looks like she wants to say something again, but falters when our eyes meet. She merely nods silently and then walks out of the room. The door closes softly behind her.
The hurt look on her face at the end makes my stomach churn, like I’ve kicked a puppy. But I have to be careful, even if it means not putting up with her misplaced gratitude. I can’t go into this blindly. I don’t want to die for someone else’s sake like this after everything—especially not because I decided to try and help someone else for once.
…I need to find Ayako. She has to be a Drifter since she has a card as well. She’s the only person I can be certain has one, so I need to find her and have her explain everything to me.
Ayako isn’t on the school grounds by the time the morning session of the Archery Club is about to end. Not only that, but the Student President isn’t here either. The card feels heavy in my pocket when I think on how the connection couldn’t be more blatant.
Then Ayako’s brother forcefully opens the door to the Club Captain’s room. He’s still in his school clothes, so I assume he just arrived. Without any preamble, he marches over, grabs me by my lapels, and shoves me into a wall.
The impact causes several of the pictures and certificates to fall to the ground as he yells, “Where’s my sister!”
“That’s what I want to know!”I try to push him, but apparently monstrous strength runs in their family. “What are you blaming me for!?”
“She didn’t say a word when we went home last night because of whatever you said to her. Then she was gone by the time I woke up. What did you tell her?”
“Nothing that would have done that,” I tell him. “Now let me go!”
He doesn’t. Instead, he pushes me against the wall even harder and the back of my head feels the sting of it. That’s when a firm hand grasps his right wrist and pulls it away from me.
It’s Emiya. He’s standing there in his school uniform, with Sakura in the doorway. He must’ve been coming to see her (or she told him about this morning) when the commotion caught his ears, and now he’s playing the hero always. Not that I’m complaining this time.
“That’s enough,” he says. “Picking a fight based on assumptions doesn’t solve anything.”
Ayako’s brother lets me go in order to pull himself free of Emiya. He doesn’t get free even with both hands. Not until Emiya willingly loosens his grip of steel.
Then Sakura steps just past the frame of the door. She still has that look on her face from this morning, but this time it’s directed towards him. He looks away from her and then storms out of the range itself.
I rub the back of my head. “Honestly, he just comes in and blames me for it without any proof….”
“Shinji.” I turn my attention towards Emiya when I hear the undertone of sharpness in his voice. The last time I heard it was months ago, but I remember it as clearly as I do the piercing look he’s giving me now. “Do you know what’s happened to her?”
I catch the underlying inquiry. He’s not asking ‘Do you know what’s happened?’ but ‘Did you do something to her?’ instead. I should’ve expected that much.
My teeth grit as fire rises in my chest. “I don’t! The talk I had with her was about her slacking off in getting Sakura into shape to take over the club. She said that she was going to talk about it with Fujimura today before she ran out. That’s all!”
His eyes make it clear that he doubts me, despite being someone who usually believes whatever he’s told. He remembers what happens with Rider and the lie I told him back then about Ayako. But he doesn’t say anything with Sakura there. He still believes that she’s not involved in this side of the world.
I temper the fire inside my chest, speaking softer this time. “It’s the truth… I wouldn’t do anything to her after she visited me in the hospital. I’ve been different since then. You’ve seen that much, haven’t you?”
I can tell he wants to believe it when his expression softens slightly. But doubt is still there. The past doesn’t go away. Whether or not he’s forgiven me for what I did back then, he hasn’t forgotten it.
He puts his hands into his pockets. “Just to be safe, I’ll ask Fuji-nee if she’s heard from her, or if her parents have called in her absence. If she has gone missing, we should start looking into it. Keep an ear out in case you hear something.”
I struggle not to pull out the card in my pocket and hand it over as he turns to leave. This is the perfect chance, but I remember the pain and warning a few hours ago. I can’t tell him about the card, the white-thing, or the message I heard….
But, if I recall what the rules on the card were, then I might be able to give him something else to work with. “Try asking the Student President.”
He turns back to me at that.
“The Student President might know something,” I explain, crossing my arms. “He’s been hanging out with her in their free time from what I’ve learned, which is a bit off since he shies away from women. I was going to ask him if he knew why she was so tired all the time myself today, but he hasn’t shown himself. When you consider he’s normally one of the first ones through the gate in the morning, and the fact that they’re both missing at the same time….”
Emiya regards me for a moment. Then he nods in silent agreement before heading back out of the range. He’d look into that much.
That left me alone with Sakura like this morning. Only this time the white-thing doesn’t appear to finish what it started. It looks like my guess is on the money. It’ll only appear when directly related to the matter of the cards and the future.
I notice Sakura staring at me for a moment. Did she doubt me too now? It wouldn’t surprise me. She’s been the main victim when I was at my absolute worst. There’d be something wrong with her if she didn’t have doubts.
“I’m trying to be different, Sakura,” I tell her. “I won’t go back to how I was. Not to you or him or Ayako. I promise.”
Her eyes soften, and a small smile forms across her face. “I know, Nii-san.”
That’s when my head starts ringing.
No. Ringing is too soft a word. It’s more like a piercing shriek that drags the tip of a dagger across my brain.
The point digs into the brain matter, radiating pain instead of blood. It takes away my breath, takes away the ground, and leaves me staggering as the world tilts beneath me.
Sakura reaches over to catch me. “Nii-san!?”
I break her hold on me and lean against the wall. At least I think it’s the wall—no, I’ve slid down the wall. I’m on the floor, barely upright with my back against the vertical surface as Sakura looks down at me.
My eyes catch crimson staining her outfit where my head had been briefly. I reach up to feel something wet coming down from my nose. Blood stains my fingers when I pull back.
The sound intensifies again. A cry feels like it escapes my mouth. Sakura’s mouth moves as well, but no words can be heard over the noise.
I can’t think straight like this. It feels like if the pain gets any worse my brain will explode too. I need make the call or else I’ll die, but I can’t with Sakura here.
I feel my mouth move and hope that I’ve told her to go get the nurse. She looks uncertain for a moment. Then she gathers herself and runs out the club room to do so. Good. That buys me a few minutes.
I pull out my phone. The number is still saved in the Contact’s list, so I have to assume that’s the one to call. Before my brain splits open from the pain, I press the Call button when the Psyren number is highlighted.
The white-thing abruptly appears in front of me. It leans down like a bird scouring the ground for a worm, peering at my downed form with its head craned. Almost like it’s judging me. Its head nods and it reaches down and digs its talons into my brain—into my soul.
Then it pulls.
The ringing stops. My head clears. My eyes stare up at the ashen, cloud-covered sky.
So this is the future.
I descend into Hell as I dream. My sins crawl up my body in the form of tenebrous hands, reaching up from the ichorous slurry to drag me into the abyss. No matter how much I struggle, I can’t break free.
(No, stop! I’ve changed!)
They pull and the world becomes black. The punishment begins. The stygian mud drowns me in the evils of Man for the indulgence of rape—gifting the accumulation of sins with the violation of the mind, body, and heart.
(I won’t do it again! I swear!)
The body is kept intact to bleed endlessly, oozing out acrid curses to consume the world in ink and paint the canvas of Earth into a portrait of Hell. Sitting atop a throne of bulbous flesh, I become the king of a world of sludge beneath a blood-red sky—a kingship that has no worth in a world without humans.
I find myself committing the most heinous acts of depravity born of Man, my body reenacting the worst sins of humanity as the victimizer, imbibing the twisted pleasure they feel. Then I take the place of the victim, and learn what it means to be defiled and tormented. Like that, the mind is bombarded by the whim of an angry god that pays evil unto evil, but is never allowed to break and gain the reprieve of insanity.
(Stop, stop, stop—!)
I suffer from a pain that transcends flesh and bone for the sin of being human. The filthy soul is exposed to All the World’s Evils, but not blackened by it. That ensures the horror can never be accepted with oneself, thus the suffering remains endless.
It hurts. It hurts! IT HURTS! HELP ME! SAVE ME! KILL ME!
(Just let me die! Please… just let me die…)
No. The suffering must continue. The path to salvation is nowhere to be found in the pitch.
Atonement starts in the pits of Hell, an endless suffering that eclipses death as the penalty for violation in the name of respect.
“Bear witness to the crimes of humankind, and never know the ignorance of their sins again.”
That is the decree of the one who oversees the cursed world, Angr—
I wake up screaming as the rays of the morning sun burn away the vivid nightmare. Then cascading purple hair blocks the light. It frames Sakura’s face as she hovers over me.
“Nii-san! Can you hear me!?”
Her eyes are wide with worry. Her hands are clutching my sweat-soaked shoulders, fingers tensed. Had she been shaking me awake?
I stop screaming and start gasping for air, blinking away the tears that sting at my eyes.
She speaks softly as her eyes continue to peer into mine. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” Please… just let me die…“I’m fine… just a nightmare.”
Her hands drift back to her lap as I sit up and rub my throat. It feels raw on the inside. I must’ve been yelling for awhile—longer than usual.
“But I couldn’t wake you up for over five minutes this time.” Her right fingers find their way onto my head, feeling the cold sweat on the hot surface. “Your nightmares are getting worse.”
I move her hand away. “I just need stronger sleeping pills then.”
Her eyes turn to the nightstand by the bed, where she sees the bottle. She reaches for it and inspects the label and contents. Her frown of concern deepens. “You’ve already gone through this many in two weeks?”
Of course I have. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep ever since that damn Gilgamesh shoved that albino brat’s heart into me, claiming it would give me the Holy Grail. I can’t remember that time clearly, but when I dream it returns. The sleeping pills help, but the moment I enter the fringes of the waking world, the crimes of humanity stand at the gate to pull me back.
“I’ll just get more later.” I shove aside the covers as Sakura sits up from the edge of my bed. “Anyway, what time is it?”
“Around 6 in the morning, Nii-san.”
I groan softly as I take her place on the edge. My T-Shirt is clinging to my body and my pants feel heavy as well. I feel filthy in general, but I’ve become accustomed to that. Still, my sheets are soaked and will need to be washed. The last thing I need is to come home and find out the stench has seeped into the mattress.
Sakura is dressed like she’s ready to leave the house. No sense in asking her to take care of it then. “I’m taking a shower. If you’re going to that idiot Emiya’s place for breakfast then get going.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I said go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
She nods her head. “Then I will see you at school, Nii-san.”
I wait until she leaves and shuts the door before I muster the effort to get onto my feet. I have to get to the Archery Club soon and open the range for the other early-risers. Ayako used to handle that, but over the last few months she’s been late coming in. And then she sleeps in the club office most of that time anyway.
I don’t know what kind of game she’s running, but what was the point in visiting me in the hospital six months ago if she was just going to start slacking off instead? She asked me to help with getting the club back into shape, so things would be smoother for when Sakura took over as the Captain. At the time, I didn’t think that meant I would do everything.
I shower and clean myself up, putting the sheets in the wash afterwards. Then I slip into my uniform, grab a can of coffee from the refrigerator, and head out the door.
The streets are quiet as always as I walk them alone to the school. There aren’t really all that many people up at this time. Yet, somehow, the Student President ends up walking up to the gate at the same time I do.
“Early again, Matou?” he asks, while looking as bland as ever.
I shrug. “Well, someone has to open up the club. Since Fujimura-Sensei isn’t in yet and Ayako has been slacking off, it falls onto my shoulders. Honestly, the women of this school leave a lot to be desired when it comes to getting things done.”
He makes a slightly unpleasant face before schooling his features. Then pushes up his glasses by the bridge and says, “I suppose you are entitled to your opinions.”
“…What was that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with.”
I watch as he walks off. It feels as though I’ve just been slighted, but I don’t have the energy to say anything back or deal with him. Not before the canned coffee kicks in.
I fight down the displeasure in my chest and just get things at the archery range ready for the morning.
By the time homeroom is about to start, there’s still no sign of Ayako. She didn’t even show up at the range this morning, despite her brother saying she went out ahead of him. Is she running off and leaving all the work to me on purpose?
As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the door into Class 3-A is blocked by two people I don’t want to see at the moment—Emiya and Tohsaka. They had gotten more cordial over the last few months, so them having a deep conversation wasn’t a surprise. But I’ve been trying to keep my distance since the end of the war, something that is incredibly hard when they are blocking my way.
Emiya is the first to notice me. “Good morning, Shinji.”
“I don’t see anything good about it.” I ignore Emiya for a moment and turn to the other one. “The bell is about to ring. If you want your standing in the school to remain on point, you should hurry up and get to your homeroom.”
She brushes her hair over her shoulder in a conceited manner. “I’m merely conversing with a fellow classmate. There’s no crime in that is there, Matou-kun?”
“It is when you’re blocking the way. Hurry up and move.”
“I’m about done anyway.” A small, smug smile comes onto her face. “Speaking of standings, you should work on pulling up your grades. I’ve heard if they slip any lower you’ll be forced out of the Archery Club.”
I grit my teeth as the smug bitch walks off. I don’t know what I ever saw in her. Or, judging by the look that Emiya has, what he sees in her.
He turns to me. “Shinji, are you actually okay? Sakura has told me that you’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
Why did Sakura even feel the need to run her mouth about my issues to this idiot? I doubt it’s something he can help me with, even if he was the type of idiot who would try. I need to have a word with her about that later on. “I just built up a tolerance to the sleeping pills I’ve been taking. That’s all.”
Emiya’s expression shifts to a more serious look. “Shinji, whatever you still have against Tohsaka, if it might an after-effect of what happened that day then—”
Stop, it hurts! It hurts! It’s growing! IT’S GROWING! HELP! HELP ME!
I push past him as the memories threaten to surface because of his words. I don’t want to remember that time. I don’t want to remember that pain of having countless worms violating me from the inside out as the grail turned me into a swollen mass of flesh.
That gorilla, Gai Gotou, laughs about something loudly in the seat in front of mine as I sit down. I actually listen to his jabbering for the rest of homeroom in an effort to repress the memories of that night. I glare at Emiya the entire time from the corner of my eyes.
Damn him for reminding me.
I walk towards the range to find Sakura after class ends. We need to have a talk about her bringing up things that don’t concern her to others. Of all people, she should understand the desire to keep things hidden away.
“I’m sure I saw Mitsuzuri-san with one today—”
Ayako’s name being mentioned grabs my attention as I near the entrance to the range. The voice came from the side of the building, so I look over it to see three girls from the track team. The one speaking is Kane Himuro, the daughter of the mayor of the city, if I remembered right.
“—the red card with rumors floating around about people suddenly dropping dead after they use it. I saw her from the window looking down at it.”
Now that she mentioned it, there have been several cases of people suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome over the last few months. There was no official explanation, but, according to her, there’s some urban legend going around that receiving a red card marks you for death. It sounds ridiculous, but Himuro is a bit of a rumormonger—despite acting otherwise a lot of the time.
“I don’t think that’s really true,” says the mousiest of the bunch, Yukika Saegusa. “If that was really the case, there would be a public announcement given how there’s been an increase all over the world.”
Kaede Makidera, the loudest of the trio, rounds out her argument with logic. “Yeah, I don’t think she’d get involved with something like that either way. You might be taking these rumors too seriously.”
They both have a point. But there is a case where the public wouldn’t be informed—if it has something to do with magecraft or that side of the world. Even so, while that might work on a small scale, like with Caster and Rider, I don’t think that it can operate on a global scale for this long. Not when it attracts this much attention.
Not to mention Tohsaka would be all over it given she and Ayako often talk to one another. If she really is incompetent enough to let that slide under the radar, it’d be an embarrassment. Not that I wouldn’t love to rub that in her smug face, but it’d be just as embarrassing for me if I point her in one direction and it turns out to be nothing.
I deal with her enough as is every time I see that smug look on her face after that day.
The trio leaves toward the track field after that. There’s nothing new I can learn from just standing there, so I go inside.
The constant sound of arrows pelting targets blend into the background as I enter the range for the second time that day. It’s a lot livelier than this morning. That normally meant more work for me, but Sakura acts as my proxy for the time being to gain more experience. That way, when Ayako finally passes over the title of ‘Captain’, the transition will be smoother.
She’s still too passive compared to Ayako when it comes to keeping people in line. But she’s improving with every club meeting. And, if anyone gives her trouble like they did when she joined up, I’ll step in.
Right now she’s helping Ayako’s younger brother with his aiming. The kid’s not bad. I’ve seen him on his own and he’s a decent shot, so he shouldn’t need help. Then I catch the glance he gives Sakura while she helps him lineup a shot and see that he’s more interested in her….
I make a note to deal with him at a later date as Sakura looks in my direction. I silently gesture for her to come to me.
She excuses herself to do so. “Yes, Nii-san?”
“Is Ayako in today?”
She nods and looks towards the door where the Captain’s room is. “She said that she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be left alone. If there was an emergency then I was supposed to get either you or Fujimura-Sensei.”
If that was the case, then she probably wouldn’t be awake any time soon. I’ll use the chance to search around for that card, if it really does exist. Even if I can’t use magecraft, if there’s something magical about it then Sakura or the idiot could peg it—which reminds me of what I wanted to talk about in the first place.
“Sakura, don’t talk to Emiya anymore about what’s going on with me. It’s not something he or Tohsaka needs to be involved with, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Understand?”
Her expression shifts between wanting to say something and then returning to her submissive state. “I understand.”
“Then go back to what you were doing.” I watch as she turns away silently and goes back to the range, leaving me to my thoughts on what to do next. If Himuro was right, then Ayako has the card with her today. If that’s the case, I guess it’ll be best to start with the changing room.
I walk into the men’s section first to change for the club myself. Then I knock on the door of the women’s section to make sure no one is inside. Getting caught rummaging around in Ayako’s belongings isn’t something I feel like having to explain.
Once I was sure it was clear inside, it takes me less than a minute to go through her belongings. There’s no card to be found. I do, however, find what looks to be a makeshift survival kit. There’s some survival bars, water-bottles, a half-filled bottle of the same brand of sleeping pills I use, a pocket-notebook, two pens, and a black matchbook with the words ‘Copenhagen’ on it.
Copenhagen… Copenhagen… where have I heard that name before…
Ah, Emiya works there from time to time. It’s a bar, if I remember right. Why does she have this?
I look into the pocket-notebook to find it filled with dates and scribbles about something called ‘Taboo’ with inhuman descriptions—like something out of a fantasy story or a nightmare. Is she having nightmares and recording them? Or is it something else…
I need more information… and I know just who to ask.
I walk out of the women’s room and back to the range. Ayako’s brother is standing alone now that Sakura is elsewhere, nocking an arrow. If there’s anyone who knows about this, it’ll be him. I just need to be smart in how I approach it.
I wait until he fires his shot before I call him. “Mitsuzuri. I need to have a word with you about your sister. ”
He stares in my direction with a look of disinterest. “What about her?”
“There’s rumors flying around that she’s been hanging around at an unsavory bar these days. And when you consider her behavior lately, on top of the earlier rumors, it paints an unpleasant picture.”
His look of disinterest turns into a glare. He acts all uncaring and distant, but it looks like I struck a nerve after all. “What exactly are you implying?”
I smirk. “I’m not implying anything. Rather, I’m offering to clear up this mess if you can tell me where exactly it is that she’s going to. What you say could decide if things are better for her or worse if it reaches Fujimura. It’d be terrible if she ends up being forced to retire from the club in her last year, if not leave the school entirely.”
He hesitates for a moment, but he talks. “She’s been going to the Temple at the top of the mountain for the last few months to train in the martial art they practice. If you don’t believe me, ask that Ryuudou guy on the Student Council.”
A picture starts to form in my head when I recall what the Student President said earlier. He knew about whatever is going on with her. That’s why he said what he did. There’s something connecting him, Ayako, and the Copenhagen together. But the only solid link between them is…
That’s the main link I can think of. But I can’t imagine him having anything to do with involving ordinary people in events from the other side of the world. That idiot’s line of thinking falls in the other direction.
So that leaves the card that Himuro mentioned. “Now that you mention it, I have seen him talking to her and showing her a red card of some kind. Does she have it?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Proof,” I tell him. “If she has that card on her then, when it comes up, it’ll lend credibility to her alibi.”
“Then yeah, I’ve seen her with a calling card. She never leaves the house without it and usually keeps it on her, but she doesn’t like me looking at it.”
If she keeps it on her then it’s probably with her now in the room. I can go check while she’s asleep. “Well, if that’s the case then I’ll go tell Fujimura when I get a chance. It’d be a shame if she ended up disappointed in one of her favorite students because she got caught up in rumors like that.”
Leaving him behind, I make my way to the club room and find her asleep with her head on the desk. Her body rises and falls in a rhythm, undisturbed as I close the door as quietly as I can. Then, light as a feather, I wander over to the shelf next to the desk.
From there I eye the pocket of her hakama, spotting something red peeking over the edge of it. That must be the card Himuro was talking about. I keep my attention on the shelf as I inch closer and use two fingers to pull it out, bringing it to my face.
It’s a calling card of some kind, the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in some kind of cheap, English, gothic text. The red color abruptly turned black like paint being chipped off or worn away by weather to reveal what was underneath it in the top corner. Turning it over showed a phone number.
I barely finish running my eyes over the number before the world spins and I’m on the floor. My arm is behind my back, a calloused hand holds my face to the ground, and the card is away from me. I struggle to turn my head and catch the look Ayako is giving me with half-bloodshot eyes.
She looks pissed. “I can’t believe you actually went through my—”
I cut her off, my own voice louder. “I just picked up your card off the floor and this is the thanks I get?”
Her expression wavers and her hand eases up on my face, relieving the pressure. But she’s still on top of me. She didn’t buy it completely.
“What? You think I’m lying?” I struggle to get up, but it feels like I have a bunch of cement blocks on my back. “What about a stupid card is so important your first reaction after waking up is to throw me on the ground?”
She grits her teeth and her body tenses. But she doesn’t say anything. She just gets up and grabs her card, shoving it back into her pocket. “Don’t look or even think about it again.”
“If it’s so important to you then don’t leave it lying around like that.” I get back to my feet and dust myself off. There’s an ache in my arm and shoulder where she put me in a joint lock. “And why the Hell are you sleeping on the job anyway? You’re supposed to be out there helping the First Years.”
Her lips purse and she rubs the bridge between her eyes. “I’ve been tired lately. It’s nothing that you and your sister can’t handle. She’s supposed to be taking the reins in a month or so anyway. That’s what everyone agreed to with Fujimura-Sensei.”
“That’s not the point.” I let my anger at the pain in my shoulder bleed into my voice. “You told me that you wanted to get the club back into shape and begged me to help you. Remember that?”
She glares at me again. “I didn’t beg, I asked.”
“I’ve been doing more than my fair share, opening up and closing while you’ve been slacking off. And I put up with it until now. But if this is how things are going to be all the time, why don’t you just stay home instead of coming at all?”
Her head tilts down and her hair cascades over her eyes, obscuring them from sight. Her fist clenches like she wants to take a swing, tensing so tight her body trembles… then her hand goes slack and her body still.
“…Maybe I should….” Her voice carries a note of defeat in it so thick that it’s sickening to hear. There isn’t an ounce of competitive spirit left in her. “I’ll talk to Fujimura-Sensei about it tomorrow.”
I stare in silent disbelief. Ayako always put up a fight when she thought I overstepped my position before. Now she crumbles without a fight. I expect that from Sakura (something we were supposed to be trying to correct), but not her.
Had this been just a couple of months ago, I could see myself laughing at her being bought so low she’d give up everything without a fight. But after what she said when she visited me in the hospital, and the events that led to my extended stay… it just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to see her like this. Whatever her deal is with the calling card, it managed to do what Rider didn’t that day.
I really don’t like the thought of someone succeeding where I failed.
If this has something to do with a magus then I should leave it to Tohsaka. It’s her job in the first place. But, given how long Ayako’s been like this, if Tohsaka hasn’t found anything yet then she must be either blind or ignoring it.
The card is the key. If I could get my hands on one of those calling cards, then I could take it to Emiya instead. He can play the hero, Ayako can get help, and I can rub it into Tohsaka’s face all at once.
Ayako stiffens abruptly, as though a jolt of electricity went up her spine. A flash of fear crosses her face, and then her expression hardens. She looks me in the eyes. “Shinji, I’ll say this once more: forget the card and everything about it, otherwise you’ll regret it.”
After that vague warning, she walks out without another word and briskly heads for the changing room. Not five seconds later, she runs for entrance of the range with her belongings without even changing out of her club clothes. She ignores everyone who greets her as she leaves with a serious look on her face, and the other members of the club start staring at me like I’ve done something wrong.
I shut the door and pull out my phone. I have seconds at best her brother or Sakura comes to ask me what happened. No one else has the courage or concern to do it otherwise. So I dial the number while it’s fresh in my memories—
“The number you have dialed is not accepting calls at the moment. Please try again later.”
—and get an automated message right before there’s a gentle series of knocks on the door. It’s Sakura. It’s too soft for the alternative.
I save the number into my list of Contacts, under the name ‘Psyren’. I could call or try looking up the number online later on. For now, I do damage control….
The scope of my dream this time is a black canvas, dotted with vibrant stars. Something moves through the darkness, past the stars and Sun, sailing towards me…. no, it’s not heading towards me. I’m merely in the way.
(Is this outer space?)
Standing between the approaching mass and the Earth behind me, floating in the void, is a vaguely humanoid…thing that appears to be mimicking a human. It towers over me at seven feet tall, elongated and bone thin limbs drifting down to near the hem of a white coat with red fur trimming. Its bird-shaped, head-covering helmet is crooked at an angle as it observes me in curiosity.
(What are you supposed to be?)
Its limbs bend, bringing its hands up. It extends one towards me. There, in its talon-like fingers, is a calling card with the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in black on red—ink on blood.
(Oh… right, I finished that long-ass questionnaire while I was out eating and it said the card would be delivered to my house the next morning, even though it didn’t ask for an address.)
I reach out and grasp the card, only for crimson chains to emerge from it. They coil around my heart and brain like barbed-wire, anchoring them into place under the threat of tearing them to shreds.
(It hurts! STOP! STOOOOPPPP!!!!)
The thing-in-white grasps my head, grasps my brain—grasps my soul. It pulls it close until it’s touching the helmet covering its own. Then I hear its desire.
“Those who risk their souls to traverse time, bear witness to the future. Hearken the summoning’s toll, know despair, and embrace power to change it. Such are the terms of the contract.”
Too inhuman to register, yet clear as a cloudless sky, the message is burned into my brain by its pointed fingers. Then the thing-in-white releases me, and I fall to the Earth below.
I wake up at the sensation of falling down, despite being firmly on top of my bed sheets.
My head aches. My heart aches. They ache like the dream, the chain and barbed wire coiling around them within my body—within my soul.
It hurts, but I force myself to sit up in the bed. Then I catch a glimpse of something red on my nightstand. My heart stills and my mind freezes.
I want to label it as a dream. The moment I look at it is the moment it stops being a dream. It becomes real—the pain, the words, the white-thing that violated my mind and heart to bind them in chains and barbed wire, and the words themselves will all become real.
But if I lie back down and close my eyes, it’ll all be a dream….
The alarm clock goes off at full volume. The sudden noise draws my eyes to the nightstand on reflex, a hand already moving to hit the snooze button. The red calling card is there, between an empty glass and near-empty bottle of sleeping pills.
It ceases to be a dream.