After she finishes her Lunch, Saegusa follows me down a corridor that leads to what was formerly the Old Worm’s study. She’s nervous as she trails behind me, eyes peering into every shadow. It’s like she’s expecting something to leap out and attack her.
‘We’re—’ She jumps the moment my mind touches hers. ‘—almost there. You need to calm down or it’ll be harder on you.’
Her short hair bobs as she drops her head, bringing her hands to her chest to settle her heart. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
More than a little. Not that I can say I’m surprised. It’s not just her mousy disposition at work, but how the Old Worm constructed this place.
The domain of a magus was one where they were most comfortable, and the place where they had the most power. The shadows hid countless cracks and crevices his familiars could fit themselves into. The walls were always watching and listening. Even now, the ghost of his presence persists.
“It’s just us here,” I tell her in as nice of a voice I can manage, trying to set her at ease. “Nothing will hurt you. I promise.”
Her eyes look up towards me for a moment and there’s relief in them. But then she looks away, casting her eyes on the walls again. “…Umm… I’m surprised that you don’t have any pictures here.”
“What do you mean?”
“Of your family,” she clarifies. “I just thought that a place like this would have a lot of pictures of your ancestors. To help you remember them since your family has lived here for a long. Maki-chan has a lot of them.”
The Old Worm didn’t bother with keeping portraits of the family members, including himself. They weren’t important to him beyond continuing the bloodline. And there was probably nothing he felt the need to keep around to preserve a memory, since he kept himself alive to remember it.
“I guess my family was never interested in that sort of thing.” We reach the door to the study at the end of the corridor. I enter first and flick on the lights, causing the room to brighten from absolute darkness to a subdued and dim brightness. Enough to read something without straining the eyes, but not enough to warm the room.
Saegusa sits in the chair in the middle of the room, about a yard away from the of the thick, wooden desk I sit behind. It’s large and cushioned, so she’d be comfortable for the next two hours. But a mixture of anxiousness and nervousness keeps her spine stiff on the edge of it.
‘Sit back and relax. We’ll be here for some time and you need to be comfortable.’
She slides back in the seat before settling in to listen as best she can. Her eyes never leave mine while I give her a larger overview of the nature of Trance than what I did when we were in the future, such as the factors that influence the telepathic waves, limitations, and so on. It’s only when I explain the concept of the Mind Jack that she looks lost. “So… it’s like those can-and-string telephones my brothers played with?”
‘Those work because sound waves cause the cans to vibrate, which passes through the string to do the same to the other one. Mine uses a hollowed-out channel for trance waves to pass through without interference through the active-use of psychicer’s power. We can go over the specifics another time, but for the moment you need to learn how to project your own thoughts to others. Are you ready to begin?’
She takes a deep breath. “I’m ready, Matou-san.”
I walk her through the basic steps and sit back to see if she can manage on her own for the next thirty minutes. In theory its relatively simple: you bundle your thoughts up and float them over like a cloud. Since Trance energy has a more ‘immaterial’ feel to it than Burst energy under normal circumstances, viewing it that way helps the unformatted energy inside of you take on that nature.
However, it… doesn’t go over so well with her in practice. Her soft pants pad out the isolated room and beads of sweat dot her brow. But, even with her appearing to try her hardest, her failures only continue to mount.
Once we reach the thirty-minute mark, I call it. “It’s been thirty minutes. Take a break.”
She refuses, shaking her head. “I can do it this time. I know it.”
“I said that’s enough, Saegusa.”
The message carries, and she stops straining herself needlessly at the slight rise in my tone. But her head hangs low with the weight of her failure and she takes a deep, shuddering breath. Don’t tell me she’s about to cry?
“I couldn’t get it,” she says in a small voice, barely above a whisper, while placing her hands on her lap. “I tried, but…”
“That’s fine,” I tell her. “The whole goal for now was to see if you could grasp it on your own enough to where I’d be confident that you could manage even if not under supervision. The fact that you couldn’t just means that I have to guide you with a more hands-on approach.”
Her skirt shifts as she clutches the fabric tightly. “But… if I can’t use this one, then I’ll have to…”
“If you can’t get it before our next trip then we’ll keep you safe and then try again afterwards. By then your abilities will have increased so we can make it work.”
“But I don’t want to be protected.” She slowly brings her hands up her chest and crosses them over her heart. “Maki-chan, Kane-chan, and even you… all of you got hurt helping me. I couldn’t do anything but watch. It hurts when I think about it, and I don’t want to just watch again as everyone else…”
Her voice cracks as she trails off. Not that I can blame her when I know that feeling. Or a similar kind of feeling—hers are likely a product of her caring nature, whereas mine stems from the need for personal independence.
To not be able to do something you should on your own eats away at you. Because not only did you lack the power to deal with a problem yourself, but you were completely at the mercy of someone else who saved you on a whim. Had it been anyone other than Emiya who saved me, albeit through Tohsaka, and Sakura who helped nurse me in my weaker moments, I’d never be able to live with the shame.
Taking that into consideration, it’s likely her mental hang-ups are also what’s stopping her from getting the hang of it. She needs to have a clear mind starting out if she’s going to do this. But if we’re going to fix that issue I need to know what’s going on in her head.
“Fine, we’ll try a few more times.” I construct a Mind Jack from the back of my neck. “Now then, with your consent, I’m going to try connecting directly into your mind with this.”
She seems a little skeptical. Not surprising given I had mentioned being able to read minds with it. Few people were comfortable with that and for good reason.
“It’s going to act like that telephone idea you mentioned. With it attached, you should be able to transmit your thoughts to me through it with less effort and feel it more clearly when my thoughts touch your mind. I’m hoping that between the exposure and connection you’ll be able to manage, but if you want to refuse I’d understand.”
She looks down for a moment in thought, biting her lower lip. Then she looks up anxiously and asks, “And you promise you won’t read my mind?”
“You have my word.” The lie comes easily and with a reassuring smile. “Do I have you permission?”
Saegusa buys it and meekly nods her head, giving consent. The Mind Jack connects into the base of her skull slowly and carefully, but the foreign sensation still makes her twitch in her seat. She reaches back to rub the spot instinctively, only to be surprised when her hand goes through it.
From my experimenting earlier, I can tell people who don’t have access to PSI can’t feel it or see it. Even then, unless she uses her own Trance or Burst she can’t remove it. ‘Can you feel my thoughts clearer now?’
“It’s hard to put it into words exactly, but it feels… delicate.”
‘That’s the Trance energy, or at least how you’re interpreting it. Keep this sensation in the back of your mind and then try to focus on wrapping your own thoughts in it that same feeling and sending it out through the line. Unless you push it through, it won’t come to me.’
She closes her eyes and tries again. This time I passively pull at her thoughts in the process, keeping the channel open and letting me hear her thoughts. If I feel her Trance energy starting to form then I’ll close it properly, but this is the best chance I’ll get to check right now.
He’s shown me how to do it. I just have to wrap it up like a present and send it to him. Matou-san, can you hear me? Am I doing it…?
No, he said I have to push it after wrapping it up in that sensation. I can do that much. Just wrap it up… why isn’t it working? I’m trying. I really am. You’re listening to me now aren’t you?
You probably think I’m a failure, but I really am trying. Please tell me its working.
—I keep my features entirely schooled when she eventually opens her eyes, unable to resist her doubts as they mount. There’s more than a little fear in her eyes that I heard all of that, but I pretend otherwise. “Nothing’s gone down the line yet. Try it one more time.”
She screws her eyes shut and tries to block out the paranoia that I’m listening to her inner rambling as it continues, but it doesn’t take. There’s also no hint of her own Trance energy in the thoughts she’s trying to project outwards. Her doubts appear to be actively hampering her.
If we don’t do something about that she might hit a mental block and it’ll force us to relegate her to something like a pack mule for our belongings to make her useful. And while she might do so without question, it’d probably only add to her doubts. But I can’t just tell her that everyone has doubts or some spiel like clearing her mind since she’ll think it came from me reading her mind.
I mean, she wouldn’t be wrong considering that’s exactly what I did. But she doesn’t need to know that. What she needs is one solid success to wipe away the doubts. She only has to succeed once today.
And to do that she needs a distraction. ‘Saegusa, I want you to focus on one of the happiest memories you have.’
Her eyes open at that. “A memory?”
‘Any that you’re comfortable sharing with me,’ I clarify. ‘I think part of why this isn’t working is we aren’t going big enough. PSI responds to strong emotions, so if it’s a really happy memory then it might work because you’ll want to share it. I’ll walk you through a visualization technique aloud to keep your thoughts uninterrupted by mine, okay?’
“I’ll do my best,” she says, her brows folding in determination. The sensation of my thoughts actively touching her mind seems to ease her doubts a lot that I wasn’t listening in since she didn’t feel it. That’s more so a lack of experience on her front, but whatever works.
I start guiding her through it. “Now close your eyes and pick out a memory that you treasure. The more vivid, the better. Immerse yourself into it as deeply as you can until it’s as clear as possible. Take as much time as you need.”
She closes her eyes and settles in to do so, shoulders rising and falling. It takes several minutes as she tries to find the right memory to use, thoughts flickering back and forth on the surface. Most of them are dreadfully boring at a passing glance, but eventually she settles on one longer than the others—a family moment that spreads a soft smile on her lips.
I take that as a cue to continue. “Since you’re smiling, I’m assuming you’ve got it. Now try to visualize that memory playing in front of you rather than being in the moment. Picture that you’re a separate person looking down on that memory.”
Her lips furrow slightly as she tries to do so. It’s not something most people do, looking at a memory from the outside in. But by pulling herself out of the memory she’ll be able to picture it as a separate object and thus have less compunctions about sending it my way.
She tries a few different methods of doing so, but it takes a long time for her to truly manage it. This memory is precious to her and she doesn’t want to part with it easily, so she’s starting to wonder if she should find a different one. But then she reasons out that I can relate to the feeling as an older brother of having a sibling, and part of her wants let someone else see her brother the way she does even when he acts naughty.
The last step is left now. “If you’re ready, I want you visualize that you’re sending that memory to me. Our minds are connected, so just picture it being wrapped up in that delicate energy you felt earlier and then picture it floating to me. The rest will follow naturally.”
I feel the prickling of Trance energy mere seconds after I go silent. She’s doing it. Good. I close the channel between us and ready myself to receive it since her PSI should push it through—
“Yuki-chan, we’re back,” Mommy says as she steps through the door to our home. “Did you miss us?”
I rush over to her side and stand on my toes to hug her. She’s been gone for days now, and she looked like she was in so much pain. Even though Daddy told me she’d be fine, I was worried the entire time. “You’re both okay now, right?”
“Better than okay.” She kneels down and I see that she has him wrapped up in a bundle of blankets in her arms. My little brother who was inside of her stomach until now. “Say hello to your sister, Kouta.”
He looks so cute as he lays there with his pacifier in his mouth, bobbing while his eyes remain closed. It’s almost enough to make my heart flutter in my chest. “He’s so little.”
“You were even smaller when you were born.” Mommy tells me, smiling as she gently rocks him back and forth. I lean on my toes to get a better look at his sleeping face and it seems like he’s sleeping well. “Do you want to hold him?”
My head bobs fast enough that I almost get dizzy. Then she carefully holds him out and tells me to support his head. He feels warm and smells nice, but he’s a lot heavier than he looks. I’m afraid he’ll fall so I hold him close to me.
“Nh…” His little arms shift around, and he starts to move in my grasp. Not enough to make me drop him, but it scares me enough that I might. Then his pacifier falls out of his mouth and his eyes open as they look around, glimmering. Did I wake him up? “Naahhh…”
“Nonono, don’t cry.” I rock him back and forth like Mommy did. “It’s okay, Kouta-kun. It’s okay.”
He stops crying as he looks into my eyes, staring at them. Long enough for Mommy to carefully put his pacifier back in. It bobs up and down slowly as he keeps looking at me until his eyelids get heavy and he closes them again.
I let out a sigh, but my heart is fluttering. “That scared me.”
“He normally cries a bit more before he goes back to sleep.” Mommy brushes his hair softly. “I think he likes his big sister even more than he likes me.”
—and barely manage to free myself before it swallows me up entirely. The smell of new baby lingers in my mind longer than it should as I disconnect the Mind Jack before there were anymore surprises.
“Did it work?” Saegusa asks, looking at me expectantly with somewhat tired eyes.
“A little too well.” I make a note to refine it before giving someone else a straight-line into my brain like that. Judging from how she’s swaying a little in her seat, her first time seems to have thrown her for a loop as well. “How do you feel? PSI tends to be overtaxing the first time it’s used, from personal experience.”
“My head feels really tingly and a little foggy,” she admits, wearing a soft smile flushed with success. “But I really did it this time?”
“That’s right.” Realistically speaking, it’s likely she won’t be able to use it unless we get her comfortable enough using Trance to get around how long that took. It’ll be incredibly hard to think happy thoughts during our little trips. But right now she needed a win and she got it.
That was what mattered.
Letting her bask in success for the moment, I look to the clock and see we’ve moved ten minutes past the hour mark. “Since you’ve done it successfully and I don’t want to burn you out for your next part, why don’t we take a longer break this time?”
We return to the Parlor once the two hours are up and find the others are already there since they were closer.
Gai sits next to Himuro and watches as she levitates a playing card off the point of her forefinger. It’s wrapped up inside of what looks to be a sleeve of energy and spins slowly in place as she twirls her finger. I think it’s safe to say she’s gotten through the basics of how to use Burst then.
On the other hand, Makidera is slouching over the arm of the sofa like a wet rag. There’s practically no energy left in her body. The pragmatic part of me notes that might be a bit of a problem in the long run and so I force myself not to smile.
Saegusa naturally rushes over to check on her. “Maki-chan, are you okay?”
She sloughs off the couch and into Saegusa’s arms, whereupon she starts whining. “Everything is sore… and I’m starving…”
Himuro offers no pity to her plight, only cold words as she sets the playing card down onto the table. “She was reckless once she learned how fast she could move despite the warning she was given and now she’s paying the price.”
“But she can still train, right?” That’s really all I care about now that my thirst for petty revenge has been sated.
Ayako nods. “It shouldn’t be too much of a problem for Trance or Burst training since those don’t really require her to move around much. Though she’s probably going to be sore until tomorrow.”
“Ahh… They’re all so cruel to me…” She nuzzles her head against Saegusa to wring out some sympathy from probably the only person here who would give her it. “Yukicchi, you’re not going to turn on me too, are you?”
Saegusa awkwardly brushes her back softly and assure her she won’t before deciding to help her get into the Dining Room so that she can finally get something to eat. Himuro follows after her while inquiring about her own training efforts. She smiles as she tells them that she succeeded on the way out, leaving the three of us to talk amongst ourselves.
I start the conversation. “Well, I can guess from that Makidera shot past the starting line and hit a tree along the way, but what about the other one?”
“She asked a few questions, but she mostly handed it on her own,” Gai answers with a slight smile on his face. “She’s really amazing.”
“It’s safe to say they’ve both got talent in those fields to get it in such a short time,” Ayako muses. Then she turns to me. “What about yours?”
I don’t want to sugarcoat it considering the stakes. But I also don’t want the Track Trio to overhear by chance and undo my efforts. I send it to their heads with Telepathy just to be safe instead. ‘Keep quiet on this, but she wouldn’t have gotten it on her own. Her mind is filled with so many doubts that she’s basically repressing her own PSI unless she goes to a happy place in her mind first. We’ll need to see if that’s the case with all of them or just Trance, but we’ll probably have to spend several days working with her when we can just to get decent results.’
Ayako’s mouth forms a slight frown at that. ‘You didn’t have another… episode, did you?’
Her question and the uncertain look on her face tells me enough. I guess now is as good as a time as any to address this whole issue. ‘Gotou, give us the room for a bit.’
Once he’s gone, I sit across from Ayako and look her square in the eyes before addressing the elephant in the room. ‘You read my mind.’
‘I did,’ she admits. ‘I was worried about you and I just figured I could help better if I saw what was doing that to you.’
‘I appreciate the sentiment, but you shouldn’t have done that.’ I’m not happy that she did it at all, but my priorities are increasing our chances of survivability and yelling won’t help right now. ‘Have you’ve seen the same things in your dreams since then?’
She shakes her head. ‘No. I can’t even remember it very well, but I know there’s an impression of something that’s—’
I cut her off. ‘Don’t try to remember it anymore. Your mind wants to forget, so just let it happen and you’ll be fine. But don’t do that again or you might not be so lucky.’
She breathes out a sigh of relief inadvertently and then looks upset at showing weakness. ‘What was that?’
‘It’s complicated, but I’m dealing with it. I know my condition better than anyone else, and since I’ve had time to think about it I’ve come up with a way to possibly stop it from happening again. But don’t tell the others what you’ve seen.’
‘Shinji, you flipped out when we were under attack. It’s a liability that can get you killed.’
‘Mitsuzuri, you told me you trusted me not to read your mind. I kept my word and stayed out of your head because I didn’t want to betray that trust. Can’t you do the same for me on this?’
She bites down in her lower lip. Thinking. ‘Can you at least tell me how you plan on handling it?’
‘I’ve been studying a couple of different solutions in my free time even before now with cognitive psychology. I’ll spare you the details, but the gist of it is that what’s happening to me isn’t something that can be dealt with by modern means. The best and simplest option I had was using sleeping medicine until I gained PSI.’
It isn’t a lie. Not entirely. I’ve been looking into the problem since it started. It’s just that there was nothing I could do about it until now.
‘Since then I’ve been experimenting, and you’ve seen some of the results. I know I can use Trance to influence my perception of time, so self-hypnosis isn’t out of the question. I can read memories on a surface level, but what about removing them? Rewriting them?’
She points out the obvious. ‘That sounds dangerous. Issei can fix physical damage to the brain, but there’s no telling what will happen if something goes wrong with what you’re doing to yourself.’
‘That’s why I’ve been working on it slowly while my attention is on stopping the body-jacker next time. I just need to be able to do so without being harassed or questioned.’
Ayako doesn’t seem quite that satisfied since I’m being vague about it. But unless she has an alternative she really doesn’t have a choice but to accept it. Eventually, she sighs in surrender and crosses her arms.
‘…Just promise me you’ll be careful?’ She gives me a gentle look not unlike those my sister does, which is annoying in its own way. ‘I know I’ve been quiet on my own issues, but you still stuck your neck out and got involved with all of this. If it’s making this worse, then it’s my responsibility to help you deal with it and if that means butting in then I will.’
That’s probably the best vow of silence I’ll get from her, so I accept it and we shelve the topic there.
Eventually, the ‘Study Club’ comes to an end and the results are mixed with the Track Trio.
In terms of Trance, Himuro has some degree of talent while Makidera is an utter failure. The former managed to send out her thoughts without the level of help that Saegusa needed. The latter didn’t even manage with help so she’s probably as bad as Gotou when he started out.
As for Burst, Saegusa saw success under Gotou’s tutelage while Makidera only barely managed to create a construct at all. Both of them were behind Himuro in that department as well. The Bartender and Ayako will be busy with them, but its good that they’ve all got potential there.
Rise is where the situation is reversed. Makidera had the strength aspect down without question, but Himuro didn’t seem able to use it for more than a short burst. Saegusa had no luck whatsoever. It’s possible that they might be more proficient in using the Sense or Healing subcategories, but we didn’t have time to check and our resident experts were already out of town.
Since tomorrow is our day off from school, Ayako wanted to use that for a little more practice. But since Makidera has obligations with her family store and Saegusa has to look after her brothers, they wouldn’t be able to do training that day. Himuro and Gotou did have time and the pub was closed on Sundays, so Himuro would study under Ayako and Gotou under the Bartender since they wanted to get him used to his new ability.
As for me, I’ll continue to work on finding the Einzberns by visiting their castle. I should be able to walk well enough to get back there and see if there’s anything left that I can use to locate them. I’m not eager to go there but I can’t pass up the chance while I have it.
After that I’ll head to the Church to speak to the old man there. Father Dilo introduced himself in the hospital while I was being checked out and had my condition made clear to me. He wanted answers about what happened to the former priest and the Master who had been dispatched by the Clocktower for the war but vanished.
Since Tohsaka and I both knew who had the Command Seals for Lancer it didn’t take much effort to put two-and-two together. And since the asshole priest murdered one Master, the old man didn’t really question me much when I said the Old Worm went missing along the way. Since it was only natural that he’d be eliminated to get the grail, Dilo went ahead with the paperwork to get the Death Certificate for the Old Worm handled so I could get everything transferred to me.
Since the Church was supposed to handle the flow of information, while the Association and Einzbern cover the cost of collateral damage for the Holy Grail War, he might know where they’re located. I won’t try reading his mind, since its likely he knows magecraft, but asking won’t hurt. Even if he doesn’t know or won’t tell me, as long as I can find out who repaired the damages and see who footed the bill I can get somewhere.
I’ll find a lead that’ll point me to them eventually.
“Why my place specifically?”
I ask the obvious question for clarity. After all, if I’m going to tell them I don’t want them there, I need a plausible reason for it. So, it’d be better to get all the facts first.
“Well, your place is also as big as Tohsaka’s—”
“Bigger,” I say, correcting her.
Ayako goes along with it, if only to appease me. “—bigger than Tohsaka’s, it’s closer, and we don’t have to worry about being overseen or overheard if it’s done while your sister is heading the Archery Club’s practice. It’s the best place to both train them up and discuss things while the Temple is off-limits with the brothers gone, and without heading all the way out to Neko’s place.”
Well, she’s not wrong. The manor can easily fit all of us inside and, with the Old Worm long dead, we can practice in private for the most part. The additional time may prove beneficial, given we don’t know when we’ll be pulled back into the future either.
That and I’m sure it’d be thrown back in my face that I was acting hypocritical after telling them to make sacrifices for their training. Besides, I can use the opportunity to try and steer the training in a different direction since I’m calling the shots. An experimental approach to go along with the established ones.
“Okay,” I say, sitting forward. If there’s no getting out of it then I might as well dictate the rules. Resting my elbows on my desk and folding my hands in front of my mouth, I continue. “If you can agree to my terms, I’ll go along with it.”
Her brows rise in curiosity. “Name them.”
“First, we need to run it by Sakura. We don’t know how long it’ll take, and I don’t want her walking in while we have them tied to a chair and gagged like you had us.”
Makidera nearly chokes on her snack with a look of pure shock on her face. In contrast, Saegusa’s eyes are cast down at the table while there’s a red blush painting her face. Between them, Himuro is staring with a half-puzzled gaze. It’s clearly not something they expected to hear this morning.
“It makes more sense in context for their training, and it won’t apply for you three,” Ayako assures them. She follows with a slight glare towards me. ‘You worded it that way on purpose, didn’t you?’
I only shrug and continue on. “Anyway, you and I will tell her that we’re doing a study session at my home. Since the newcomers and I missed yesterday due to being incapacitated, she’ll buy it if we tell her that you want to try and catch us all up.”
It honestly didn’t matter as far as getting her permission went. In terms of authority in the household, I call the shots. However, we have enough issues and Ayako has some level of trust from Sakura when it comes to keeping me in check. So if she’s vouching that it’s her idea, then Sakura won’t be needlessly worried now or in the future when we use this… study club as an alibi for psychicer business.
Ayako nods in approval. It’s a completely rational course of action, so there’s no reason to lobby against it. “Okay. What else?”
“Second, no one is allowed to wander around besides the areas I tell them to. I am a private person by nature and there are some things that need to stay private. If anyone violates that, no matter who they are, then whatever goodwill I’ve shown will disappear and everyone leaves. Understood?”
The rule is for obvious reasons. The Library and Basement are locked up when not in use, but psychic powers make opening them up a breeze. Since there’s no oversight and I can’t watch them all, I need to stress that the consequences will be dire.
Consent is given to varying degrees from all of them. Not surprising, considering my goodwill is why these five are still alive and not something they’d easily to throw away for curiosity. That’s good enough for now.
I move onto the final condition. “Last is that we divide up the training into rotations between the three of us. I think we’ll cover more ground that way and neither of them will feel pressured about the progress of the others.”
I really hated that Gotou managed to get ahead of me during Burst training. That frustration did not help the situation and, if I hadn’t managed to get Telepathy out of it while he couldn’t, there might’ve been some issues working with him so well in the future. Or at least to the extent that we had.
These three have known each other since their First Year so the chance is minimal that there will be long-term issues. But better safe than sorry. Not to mention it I’ll only have to deal with one of them at a time, meaning that I can test different approaches when it comes to Trance training to expand my options.
Ayako closes her eyes and tilts her head in thought as she sips her drink. Considering it. Then she nods. “Okay, no harm in that either.”
Excellent. “Then I’ll handle the basics of Trance, while you handle Rise, and Gotou handles Burst.”
“Why me?” Gotou asks. He sounds surprised by his role, no doubt expecting to handle Rise instead.
I count off my reasons with my fingers. “Rise is the field where they’ll get the most use in terms of immediate survivability, so we need the most experienced teacher. Mitsuzuri has more control than either of us, so she can minimize the chance of accidentally injuring one of them while the Student President isn’t available. And, while I’m the best Trance user so I have to be the one to teach it, you caught onto Burst faster than I did.”
He still seems reluctant but nods his head slowly in agreement. “Fine.”
Ayako follows suit. “Fair enough. We’ll go with your approach and see where it leads.”
That settled, I address the Track Trio. “I’ll need an hour or so to make sure everything is in order after we discuss things with Sakura, so you three use that time to handle the matter of your club attendance. Mitsuzuri knows how to get to my place after that. Oh, and bring your own Lunch.”
I need the hour to go through every room of the manor and make sure that there’s nothing that could give away the fact that we were more than a wealthy family that had been around for a few centuries.
The Makiri came to Fuyuki and established themselves as one of the families that reside in the Foreigner’s District after it had been built in the late 1800s, after the country’s isolation policy was forcibly made to change. It’s possible that the Old Worm managed to sneak into the country before then. But he wouldn’t have been able to have the manor built to his specifications until the influx of foreign blood allowed him to buy the land and have the construction done.
Even so, he had the manor built so that sunlight couldn’t enter inside easily despite the number of windows. Only lanterns and later artificial lights provide illumination. Things that wouldn’t degrade his form quicker and leave him constantly hiding down in the worm pit below.
The building itself is large enough that there are entire rooms that haven’t been used since I was a child. Those rooms may have once been used to house guests or the like, but now their opulence was left to be buried beneath dust and time since we got rid of the housekeepers as an unnecessary expense. No sense in cleaning them if they weren’t going to be used.
I don’t bother checking Sakura’s room before I shut the door to it. No one should go into her room under any circumstances, but she does have a right to privacy. And it wasn’t as though she had something to hide. After all, she has no interest in magecraft.
Besides, of the guests coming over, only Gotou would be tempted by the mundane secrets of a woman’s room. And if he had the guts to do that then he would have braved asking Himuro out already instead of trying to get on her good side and winding up involved in all of this. Not that it hasn’t proven helpful for my long-term survival, so I guess I’ll call it a fair trade-off.
My room, on the other hand, requires a little work to be presentable. It’s not as clean as it could be, given my frequent night terrors and the latest bout of health issues I’ve been going through. But, just in case one of them is stupid enough to tempt fate, I won’t have to gouge out their eyes to hide the shame now.
I make sure to place a particular book inside the nightstand drawer, a bookmark between the pages to mark my progress. It’s the Old Worm’s journal from over a century back. Given he’s been involved with the Einzbern for some time now, I’m hoping it has the location of where their main castle is. It’s probably unnecessary, since it’s in German and I doubt any them could read a letter of it even if they trespassed into my room, but better safe than sorry.
I lock up the Library next. A good number of the books are in languages other than Japanese, so it probably isn’t necessary either in hindsight. The others are pretty ignorant of the world outside of Fuyuki, after all, and even I can’t read the Church Slavonic text that trace back to our family roots in Russia. But again, better than them discovering something they shouldn’t.
The Basement… is a nonfactor. Since Zouken’s death, it hasn’t been unlocked at all. Neither I, the manor’s owner, nor Sakura have any business with it anymore as neither of us has the desire or ability to continue the Art. It died when he died.
Once I finish the rest of the preparations, I change my clothes to more casual wear and head outside to wait for the others. The autumn wind blows and scatters brightly-colored leaves as I lean against the left column. It doesn’t take them too long to arrive after that.
Ayako leads the front and Gotou follows next to her, a bag from the bakery in Miyama in his hand. Makidera is behind them, looking upset as she rants to Himuro about something I don’t care about while flailing a plastic bag with what I presume to be take-out. Saegusa follows behind them last while holding a handmade lunch box.
Ayako approaches the gate and greets me. “Sorry we kept you waiting, Shinji.”
“I’ll let it slide since we managed to convince Sakura without any problems and will have plenty of time.” Though, to be honest Sakura didn’t argue against going to Emiya’s place, and he was apparently entertaining Fujimura tonight as well. So that works for us.
Gotou whistles as he looks up at the manor. “You could probably fit our entire class in here.”
I scoff at the suggestion. “I suppose it wouldn’t be a problem in the context of having too little space or need of supervision, but I’m not fond of guests. Emiya’s place would probably be better suited for that sort of thing.”
“Oh yeah, it’s a traditional manor, isn’t it?” Ayako muses. “The kind that has a wide-open courtyard and tatami with sliding doors. The type of place where you’d stay to feel like you took a step back in time.”
Saegusa tilts her head slightly at the description. “That sounds sort of like Maki-chan’s home.”
Makidera tenses up as we all look at her, bringing her hand to her face and covering it to an extent. It almost seems like something she’s not proud of. “My family just so happens to have a place that they got a long time ago and transformed into a store that sells traditional kimonos and stuff. It’s not that great.”
Saegusa didn’t see it that way though. “But I think you look really elegant while dressed in traditional clothes. It really suits you.”
“…I can’t see it,” Gotou says. “I mean, the Black Panther of Homurahara in a kimono is just difficult to process.”
I agree with him. Not for a lack of effort on my part. But the thought of the energetic monkey dressing regally in a high-class kimono is just… beyond my ability to rationalize. And that’s saying something considering all I’ve seen.
“It surprisingly works on her,” Himuro vouches. “I had her model for me once for a portrait that turned out well.”
“Is that so?” Ayako puts on a cheeky smile as she faces Makidera. “Then I think I might stop by and check out the selection. Maybe you can help me pick something out?”
“…It’s not like I dress like that because I want to,” she states, fist clenched as she looks away embarrassed. There’s some actual resentment in her voice. “I have to dress like that at home because my family is strict. The only time I get to wear the clothes I want is when I’m heading out for track or casual stuff, and that’s because it’s impractical to wear one during then.”
Surprisingly, Ayako’s expression changes from teasing to sympathetic. “My family has a long history when it comes to martial arts, so I don’t think that we’re different in that aspect. They’re pretty strict when it comes to things other than that for me and my brother, so if not for the fact that Issei’s brother vouches for me I wouldn’t have nearly as much free time as I do. Though, I’m pretty sure that my place is smaller than yours from the sound of it.”
“You guys have it tougher than me,” Gotou admits. He’s rubbing the back of his neck as if ashamed of that fact. “I mean, I just live in a 2LDK place closer to the residential area and my folks have ordinary jobs, so I don’t really have anything I can or can’t do as far as rules go.”
“A three-bedroom in my case, but it’s the same for me,” Saegusa adds with a nervous chuckle. “I guess we’re just typical then.”
…Huh, she’s right. Myself, a wealthy bourgeois. Himuro, the daughter of the mayor. Ayako, the daughter of a line of martial artists. Makidera, the daughter of famous merchants. Whereas these two are just… normal.
Well, as normal as a group of time-travelers with psychic powers can get. I stand up straight and push open the iron gate. “As riveting as this conversation is, we should get inside since we’ll need about six hours to feel everyone out. Follow me.”
I lead them through the front door and through the corridors to avoid one of them getting lost. If you aren’t used to the place it can get pretty confusing. Or so Emiya told me before our estrangement. I’ve lived here my entire life, so I know the place like the back of my hand and lead them all to the Dining Room first.
“This’ll be where you can eat when you get a break in the training, or before you start with Burst or Trance training with Gotou or myself.”
“What about before Rise training?” Ayako asks. Not surprising given she’s handling that lesson.
“You won’t have an issue, since you won’t be the one straining yourself. But its best if whoever you’ll be teaching don’t since Rise is the most strenuous physically and you don’t want to try that on a full stomach. By the way, Makidera will be the first one there.”
She gives me an incredulous look, remembering this morning no doubt. It pleases me. “Why do I have to do Rise first?”
“You would be working out with the Track Club around now under normal circumstances, right?”
“…Yeah,” she mutters under her breath.
“Then, since you’ve been doing that for the last three years, it’s likely a habit. I don’t think that you’d be able to sit still long enough to handle getting down Burst or Trance while so restless. So it’d be better to have you burn off all that excess energy, eat, and then focus on one of the other two while you’re digesting. I mean, don’t you do the same thing during your practice while pushing the other members of the club hard enough to leave them in tears?”
“Nnn…” I can tell from the look on her face she wants to come up with an excuse, but it’d be unfair to not push the expectations she places on others on herself. So she follows the group in silence until we enter the Parlor next.
I open the thick curtains, giving them view of the backyard. The tree and bushes are dense since the Old Worm had cultivated them to house his insects. It’d serve to give them some privacy. “You can take that door by the clock to get to the backyard. Our property extends for some distance and there’s an opening in the greenery behind the tree-line. It’ll be a good training ground for one-on-one practicing.”
I take the time to float a message to Ayako as well. ‘Mitsuzuri, you’ll be able to push her the furthest because of how competitive she is and her own work ethic. Use that to your advantage, because the other two probably won’t have that same level of stamina.’
She nods. “Okay.”
That established, I lean over to a table that’s in the middle of the room, wood with curved legs, and pick up a group of fifteen cards set out from the deck. “The parlor itself will be used for Burst training. From what we’ve seen so far, Telekinesis manifests in either the creation of constructs or manipulating the physical object directly. But given the trouble I had with the former, I thought I’d present the chance to explore both with playing cards since they’re light and malleable.”
Since I managed to pull that chain trick in the future, and was stuck unable to move for a day, I had the time to better grasp how to use Telekinesis. Rather than attempting to make a construct like Ayako, it was simpler for me to saturate the object. Then I could visual how I want it to react—programming it, for lack of a better term.
Holding them between my hand, I breathe slowly and concentrate my own Burst ability into them. The process of construction and rules are established in my mind and then impregnate that energy saturating the cards. Finished, I extend my hand out to put on a show.
The cards flew off to the table. Six formed a group of three triangles to create the foundation. Two formed shelves. Four more formed the second floor. One formed the second shelf. Two formed the roof. A house of cards standing in the middle of the table, still saturated with some of the energy I dumped into them.
“Gotou. Knock it down with yours.”
He blinks before realizing where I’m going with this. Then he pulls the same trick he did when we were tied up, forming a simple construct ball that hit the house of cards. They naturally topple over before flying back up into a neat pile in the center of the table as the rest of the energy is expended.
Satisfied, I turn to Himuro and address her next. “Start small with just getting a card to move from a distance and expand from that when you get comfortable with it. If you feel you’re getting a headache then stop and just wait for it to settle. Likewise, Gotou has a trip on you, so he can put any theories you might want to test into practice better than your current ability if you explain it to him.”
Himuro briefly adjusts her glasses as she observes the cards, her mind no doubt working out the basics of what I’ve done. She’s smart enough to probably work things out on her own, so I don’t think she’ll need nearly as much handholding as the other two. A student who’ll be quicker on the uptake will help warm Gotou up for the others in his role as a first-time instructor.
And, well, he likes her for some reason. So if I reward him for saving me by allowing him to spend time with her, it might help him get over his issues quicker. If not, I still tried.
Last, I face the third member of the group. “Saegusa, you’re with me first. We’ll be heading to a study on the other side of the manor, further away from here since you’ll need silence to be able to concentrate. During that time, I’ll mostly communicate with you through telepathy, so you can get used to it. It’s not as physically strenuous as Rise or as taxing as Burst, but it’s essential to survival so you’ll have to focus. Understand?”
She consents with a nod and as determined of a face she can make. “Yes, Matou-san. I’ll do my best.”
“That’s all I ask.” Realistically speaking, regardless of what ability she gains, Saegusa’s a liability in direct combat due to how meek she is. I get the feeling she’d break if she had to kill anything during the next trip, so I’ll work her into a supporting role for the time being.
Looking at the grandfather clock, I take into account the time. If they have Lunch now, then we can begin around to 1:30 PM. “Okay, everyone who’s going to eat now feel free to do so. In thirty-minutes we get to training.”
Why are homunculi here?
That question turned over in my head again and again after Gai and I retreated back inside of the building while Ayako went to deal with the Taboo. Nemesis Q’s declaration had riled everyone up to an extent, which meant that everyone else was moving about now. Fortunately, I managed to pull myself together before we walked through the door, so at least I entered under my own power.
Still, I wasn’t really in the mood to deal with anyone, so I let Gai handle the crowd-control while I sat off to the side and went over the information I could recall. I had studied for the Holy Grail War, so I knew about the Einzbern a bit. They were a family that created the Holy Grail, while the Tohsaka’s provided the land and the Matou provided the control system. They were always guaranteed to have one of their own in the war, and while that albino brat was on the short side, the other two resembled the one Ayako had just pointed out to a greater extent.
Homunculus were artificial beings that looked humans, born complete from the start and lived short-lives within a narrow timeframe as a result. We don’t know how far we are into the future, though it must be far ahead given the drastic change in landscape and the advance weathering on the structures. But the most likely reason for the world being in this state is because of something to do with the moonlit side of things with their presence. The fact that homunculi can be found working to some extent with the Taboo also means that their creators likely share some sort of alliance, which means that the ones responsible have a potential army of artificial creatures under their beck-and-call.
I try to drown out the noise of the people around me to answer that question. They were all eager to go back to the Present. To go back home.
The Salaryman was pacing back and forth, anxious. I could tell he wasn’t coming back, so I’ve already written him off. Couldn’t care about the three idiots sitting near the front either, who still thought it was a movie or game or something. They’d learn or die. And I still wasn’t sure what the deal was with the creep with scraggly hair that was now sitting on the counter.
The Track Trio were sitting off by themselves, talking and remaining in their own world. Well, Makidera was doing a lot of the talking anyway. The others were just listening to her go on about what she would do with her power, intending to use it to give her an edge on the track. Not that I’m against it—after all, if you’ve got to be stuck with doing this you may as well use the power how you see fit. However, I get the feeling that the Student President would object to that.
As for the others in the backrooms… they’re Gai’s problem.
I close my eyes and turn my thoughts inwards, questioning again how the world itself was even allowed to get this badly ruined. Let’s assume the current situation was some Magus’ scheme went off the rails… or, more terrifyingly, planned. I don’t see how it would lead to any family attaining the Root of All Creation, so I want to believe it was more accidental than anything. But there were supposed to be organizations to prevent this sort of thing.
So, what happened to them?
“Ummm…” Before I can think on that dour topic further, Saegusa’s voice reaches my ears. I crack open an eye to see that she’s standing in front of me. She’s not looking directly at me, instead her gaze is to her fingers that are in front of her stomach, clasped together.
“What is it?”
“You, um, looked pale. So I thought I’d ask if you were okay?”
“That’s goo—” Her words turn into a startled shout as the ground shakes again, no doubt due to the Taboo still running around. She ends up half-falling into the seat across from me on the opposite couch, leaving the table between us.
The rumbling settles and she sets her hands on the table and takes a moment to calm herself down. “…S-So, do you think that Mitsuzuru-san will be able to deal with it on her own, if both you and Gotou-san are here?”
I shrug. “That worm thing isn’t only big. It was spitting out some kind of digestive fluid that melted the ground, making it easier for it to go through. There’s no telling what that would do to us if we made direct-contact with it, and she’s the only one who can deal with it at range.”
Now that I think about it, what was the purpose of that thing? If it was artificially-created, it had to have been done for the sake of being useful—logically speaking. Considering half of Fuyuki was covered in that sand it leaves in its wake, and it works on the manmade structures too… terraforming, maybe?
“I… see…” She’s fiddling with her thumbs now. The girl is clearly uncomfortable talking to me, and with the situation in general, so I don’t see why she feels the need to push herself by dragging it out. “I hope she’ll manage soon.”
“I’m sure she’s working as fast as she can.” More so considering the homunculi lingering about. If they were anything like the ones in that castle though, Ayako could take them easily from what I’ve seen of her fighting… at least, if she didn’t see something too traumatic in my head.
I know what kind of effect it has on me, and I have exposure to it. Before getting dragged into this, I doubt she’d witnessed anything as horrifying as human nature at its worst. She’s probably going to tell the Veterans what she’d seen, so I’ll need to think of a more fitting excuse for her and the others by the time we get back.
“Ah—I didn’t mean to be rude or anything!” Saegusa hastily tacked on in response. A nervous reaction more by habit, considering I didn’t showcase any anger or annoyance in my voice. “I’m just worried about things back home. It’s been almost an entire day here, so it must’ve been at least a little while back in our time. Someone must’ve found our bodies and taken us to the hospital, so our families must be worried we won’t wake up…”
“As long as you’ve got insurance, you can frame it as trying too hard during practice as an excuse and then check out right away. If you don’t have insurance, then just foot the bill to me and I’ll take care of it.”
The money isn’t a problem for me, all things considered. And better to handle something as trivial as that than having her worried when I needed her to survive. The more of us, the better off we’ll be—whatever power she gets out of it.
“All of us are insured, but thank you for the offer.” She tries to smile meekly with her head still angled down, looking up to me with those brown eyes of hers. “Still, I hope it isn’t too late in the evening. I don’t want them to be up late worrying about me, and I did promise to make Kouta-kun whatever he wanted for dinner…”
Her smile falters as she trails off and looks back down at the table. “It’s still hard to believe that this is our future. I never really thought much about what it would be like since I was focused on the present and taking care of my brothers. But… this’ll be their future one day, won’t it?”
“That’s what we’ve been drafted to try and prevent.”
“I understand that. But…” She sucks in a sharp breath and closes her eyes tight before she can start to cry. “Umm… your sister… if something happened to you, what would happen to her?”
I sit upright as the pieces fit together. She wants some kind of reassurance from someone who actually knows what’s going on. That means either me or Gai. And while Gai might be more sociable, he doesn’t have a sibling.
Worse, considering she overheard what happened to Kitano, she has some clue as to what it’ll be like for those who are left behind if she dies. “So, you’re afraid that if you die here it’ll affect your entire family, right?”
She nods her head meekly. “I… I don’t want my brothers to have to live in this sort of future. So, I want to change it for them. But, I’m afraid that if I die here… if I die then I won’t be able to help them, or see them. I’m… I’m scared.”
From how she acts and what she says, I gather she’s basically a dutiful daughter who looks over her siblings. Her family dynamic is completely different from mine, so that’s not something I can really relate to. Then again, it’s not like she needs to know that.
“Saegusa, that’s how you’re supposed to feel,” I tell her. “There’s no shame in not wanting to die because you’ve got other priorities. After all, I wouldn’t be here if I had that same option.”
I don’t think any of us would, barring those who felt like playing the hero just because they could. And heroes tended to die young. I didn’t have any intention of doing that if I could help it.
“You can think on all of that once we get back,” I continue. “But right now, your focus needs to be on simply surviving. If you try thinking on everything else, you’ll collapse under the pressure and be no good to anyone—and that could cost someone else their lives. Understand?”
“I… I’ll try.” She nods her head slowly and smiles again, which only further affirms that she’s like a puppy. “Thank you, Matou-san. You really are a nice person.”
Not nearly as much as you think. It’s really more that we can’t have her breaking down now or in the future. Either way, she’s satisfied with the conclusion and gets up to leave.
One problem down. Now back to this mess of a future. The easiest way to deal with it is to find out as much as I could about the ones responsible and… then what? I had no way of proving any of it, and even if I did bring it to someone who could do something, which was a stretch since the Matou had no connections to those places, there was no guarantee they would—not to mention we’d probably end up being turned into lab-rats.
Which means we’ll just have to kill them ourselves. Not a surprise. What good were powers like Ayako’s if not for that purpose? What was the point of conditioning us to kill things that looked human like the homunculi if not to ready us to kill the ones responsible?
Nemesis Q’s tools of war. Cruel, but to the point. The Veterans and Ayako have no delusions about they’ve become, so if I can get the proof I need then they’ll act on it to bring this nightmare to an end and get on with their lives. In other words, his most-effective weapons were already in place and battle-hardened—they just need a direction to be pointed in.
And outside of an actual magus or myself, how many would recognize homunculi for what they were? That had to be why Nemesis Q dragged me in. But, assuming that was the case, why did it not summon actual magus into the future to deal with it?
What am I missing?
I try to think on it further, but my train of thought stalls when the building shakes again. It’s not only closer in time to the last time, but somewhat more violent as well, knocking Saegusa onto the ground and leaving the others more startled than before. Just how long would the building last at this rate?
BANG! The door to the backrooms opens and the red-haired guy… Inui, I think he was called, emerges. He appears pale as he looks up at the ceiling before fixing his eyes to the front door and, not quite running, but hurrying over to it.
“It’s not safe to go out—” He’s out the door before I can even finish. Tempting as it would be to let him go, I rise to my feet and reach out telepathically to the person who should have been watching him and the others in the back. ‘Gotou, what happened?’
‘I have no clue,’ he states as he peeks his head out of the door. ‘I thought he was a little bothered by all the shaking, but after that last one he got this look on his face and took off. It reminded me a bit like you when you first came up to the temple.’
That could be a pain to deal with if that’s true. Still, we didn’t block off the exit so it’ll be troublesome if he gets picked up by one of them. Plus, last quake had riled up more than him. The Salaryman looked like he was ready to bolt next and, as much as I hate the thought of playing counselor for other people when I’ve got problems of my own, I’d rather deal with one person than a group.
‘I’ll go bring him back inside before he gets spotted. Keep everyone calm.’ Leaving out as he plays babysitter again, I walk down the corridor and find Red Hair just past the mouth.
He’s leaning against the wall with one arm outstretched, having finished vomiting when he spots me. He brings his hand to his head and shakes it. “I just need a minute, okay?”
“Look, I can tell from a glance that something about being in the building while its shaking triggered you, but you’ve got to come back inside.”
He naturally gets defensive. “I—”
I cut him off. “I’m not going to pry into whatever happened, but we spotted other Taboo following along with the worm and they’re stronger than me or Gotou, which is why we’re inside. If they spot you while Mitsuzuri is thinning them out, everyone is as good as dead.”
He looks down at the ground at that, silent in thought as clenches his teeth. Then he exhales sharply, straightens himself out, and turns towards me. But instead of taking a step forward, he takes one back as his gaze falls on something behind me.
I stick my head out of the corridor and into the streets to look in that direction.
Then my heart and lungs stop.
…Two homunculi are there. Both females with short white-hair and ruby eyes, dressed similarly to one another. One is hefting with ease a halberd that a grown man would struggle with, while the other is seemingly unarmed but has a robotic stare that seems to peer into my soul.
Just like the two from the castle.
The moment that thought comes to mind my stalled heart hammers at my chest as the world starts to warp. Blood pounds in my ears. Sweat beads on my face. Limbs go numb and tingle. It’s starting again. “Ah…ahhh…”
The unarmed one extends her hand out in our direction and my instincts start screaming for me to move. But I can’t feel my arms and legs. They’ve gone numb from the fear. I’ll die if I have another panic attack here and now, so I have to do something. But I can barely move anything except my mouth and teeth—
A sickening and wet sound of meat being torn joins pain flaring through my body as blood fills mouth. But it also brings clarity of mind, driving away the warping of the world. I spit out the blood and chunk of my inner mouth that I’d bitten off in desperation and fight through the pain to focus on my PSI so that—
—I can slow down my perception of time long enough to assess the situation. We were spotted and Ayako said they had some kind of hive mind so… well, hiding is out of the question. They all know we’re here now, meaning if Ayako hasn’t killed the majority off we’ll be overwhelmed soon.
Right, so I better call back Ayako. I can’t broadcast since I don’t know the distance and the atmosphere will erode the message, so Mind Jack it is. I don’t know the energy cost, but as long as it’s set to find her then it’ll seek her out and she’ll probably be able to deal with this at range.
But right now, I need to do something about these two before they kill us. The one pointing towards us has fired some kind of ring of Burst energy towards us while the one with the halberd is getting ready to move from the way her legs are positioned and her grip on her weapon.
I shift the Rise energy from my mind to my arms and legs to—
—grab Red Hair by his arm with my good hand and pull him behind me as I lunge forward. He falls down the small set of stairs leading down the corridor while I get out of range of the flying ring that’s roughly a foot around. It hits the building where he would have been and everything within that foot diameter abruptly gets destroyed—hollowed out entirely to reveal the interior of the club that we’d taken shelter in.
I can hear screams coming through. Did it go all the way through to the back? Did it hit someone? I can’t waste time wondering that, so I broadcast in that general direction. ‘There are two enemies! Get into the backrooms and keep your heads down!’
Then I send out the Mind Jack to find Ayako. The sensation of the cord being woven from the energy permeating my body and then flowing out feels grating. But becomes a secondary concern as I use Sense-Rise in time to hear a footfall by the mouth of the corridor—
—and, under my lengthened perception of time, I see the other one has already made it to the entrance, coming out of a leap. Damn, she’s faster than I thought to have crossed the distance in that span of time. Was she one of the stronger ones that Ayako mentioned?
I reach into my sling for the blade of Ayako’s naginata resting against my injured arm to do something when my sharpened sense of hearing picks up the words “Straße gehen” coming from the one at range. Shifting my gaze in that direction shows she’s launched another ring of destruction. A larger one that forces me to leap to the right as—
—time goes back to normal and the ring erases the section of asphalt I was standing at. The meter-sized diameter gap runs between me and the armed homunculus that disappears down the stairs, out of my view. Damn it, I won’t be able to reach her before she gets into the building to kill them all.
The sound of metal being struck rings out and a white figure is sent flying from below and into the air. It’s the homunculus, rebuked by some great force considering the dent in her steel halberd being held horizontally in defense. She ends up somersaulting backwards before landing in a roll and getting back to her feet in front of me as Gotou emerges from below.
I grasp the makeshift handle of the naginata-turned-knife and pull it free, cutting through the cloth that makes up the sling for my broken arm. There’s a slight pain as the arm falls free, though not as much as the pain in my mouth. But I ignore them both as I bring the knife around for the chance to cut off her head.
She twists her body and hands, bringing the section of her halberd that was dented around to intercept it. The blade slides off it with a grating sound, deflected. She then leaps back as I flick my wrist and bring it around from the other side, removing herself from danger and staying there for a moment to assess the situation from her end.
I try to speak, but the blood pooling in my mouth nearly chokes me. So I broadcast my demand to her as I spit the blood out in front of me. ‘Where are your masters hiding, Homunculus?’
A slight shift in her expression shows she heard me and her eyes glance over to the Mind Jack flowing out of my back. But her expression goes flat as Gotou rushes towards her. She jumps into the air as the German aria from the other one reaches my ears and I see the incoming attack, flying towards us in the blind-spot created by the armed doll being in front of me.
It’s slower than the last one but bigger, covering enough space that Gai will be caught in it as he lands. He might be able to strengthen his body to shrug off blows from physical attacks, but against that Burst attack it was too big of a gamble to risk. So I intercept him with a lunge that leaves us both falling in the center of the street just in time as the sidewalk and a segment of the building behind us were destroyed.
We get back onto our feet, only to find that they aren’t attacking us again just yet. The ranged one has her arm outstretched to fire again, but she hasn’t muttered a word. The one with the halberd is holding her weapon off to her side, resting the butt of it on the ground.
“Where is Atlasia?” she demands of me in a firm tone, standing maybe ten meters away. “If you surrender her location, we will spare your lives.”
Mid-Interlude – Ayako Mitsuzuri
A few months ago…
The pub was empty. Silent, save the crackle of the furnace. It had been closed for the night early at the behest of Otoko, a rare occurrence in the history of the Copenhagen as the regulars of the tavern would attest, so she could talk to Ayako without interruption or the fear of being overheard in a relatively safe spot.
The normally lively young woman was just staring into the half-empty glass in front of her. Watching as the ice floated in the alcohol with eyes that lacked life. Her first mission without Issei backing her, now that he had become a Veteran, had been less than two hours ago. She’d come back alive.
Her friend hadn’t.
Aika. The surface of the shochu rippled as a tear fell into it glass, knocked loose as she trembled from the memory playing in her head. She’d frozen. She’d frozen in fear and the one to pay the price wasn’t her, but her friend.
Aika was from Western High, not the school she went to. Ayako had met her in the Game Center at the Verde, and their friendship had been born from a competition at a shooting game that lasted longer than it should have. Now she was dead.
A shuddering breath left of her mouth as her grasp on the glass tightened. She lifted it to her mouth and tilted her head back, leaving the clacking of ice on glass ringing in her ears as the alcohol passed through her lips. The cocktail taste teased her tongue sliding down her throat in three audible gulps before it caught and she started coughing, having taken in air in her haste to drink away the bloody memory.
Otoko sighed, softly and dejectedly, as she watched the younger girl huddle over with the drink slipping through the hand she used to cover her mouth. “You’re not used to drinking, so don’t try chugging away at it.”
It was true. Before now she would have never considered so much as touching a bottle of alcohol. After all, her body was a temple—honed through a variety of sports and exercises that she’d experimented with over the years. Anything that dulled the mind and would hinder her was something she avoided, if only so that she would be able to put forth her best without any doubts.
She couldn’t care less about that at the moment as she set the empty glass down and wiped her hand on her jacket. She just wanted something to dull the pain in her chest. Anything was welcomed at this point.
Otoko refilled the glass and wiped the mess away before taking a seat next to her at the counter, a glass in her own hands. Silence followed as they both sat there and took a sip from their respective drinks. Then Otoko exhaled softly to the side before she faced Ayako. “It’s not your fault.”
It is. Ayako opened her mouth to speak those two words that summed up her shattered heart, crushed under the weight of her guilt and displayed in her eyes that had gone red from the last two hours she spent crying after Issei had brought her here. But only a hoarse and strained breath left out, tinged with the scent of the shochu.
The words, the admission itself, were caught in her throat and threatened to choke her. She reached for the rest of her drink and knocked it down all at once again. Another coughing fit followed, leaving Otoko to pat her on the back as her she laid her head down on her arm resting on the counter and cried anew. Aika died because of me.
Though the scenario differed each time, it was a common tale among the Drifters at this point. How a mission would leave friends and allies dead. How mistakes became chains that dragged them down to the abysmal void of self-loathing and misery.
In Ayako’s case, it came down to more bad luck than anything. How could they have known there would have been a sentry hidden in the snow, observing the location just out of their view? That she’d run into a Soldier Taboo for the first time and freeze up at the thought of killing something that looked so human?
It seemed like just another mission to her at first when she answered the call of Nemesis Q under the threat of death. Issei was watching her body in the Temple, so she figured it would be in good hands. She’d already been on the receiving end of his healing after her first blunder and knew what he was capable of, so anything short of death would be healed as long as she completed the mission and returned alive.
The moment she arrived, Aika already being there, Ayako noted the air was even colder than her first two trips into that frigid and barren world that was supposed to be the future—their future at some point. It was borderline freezing, with grey snow blanketing the scraggy, dark stones surrounding them. It took her a moment to realize they were in a mountain range, standing on a precipice that overlooked what she presumed was the target.
In what looked to be a crater, nestled at the base of a mountain, was a structure erected around it that resembled a circular arena to Ayako. Similar to one where they’d held the Archery Competition last year. But there was a cavity within the center that went down further than she could see with her Sense-enhanced sight, delving deep into the earth.
As expected, there were Taboo around it. Quadruped Taboo with bulky bodies that lumbered about on muscular forearms tipped with claws. She could make out a core on what would be their foreheads, the point she had been told to always target for a kill, and on their backs was what looked to be an organic pouch, filled with what looked to be stones of some kind.
It was a new Taboo for certain, at least to her. A strange sight, but not unexpected. What was unexpected was the fact they were being treated as beasts of burden by what looked to be people there.
They were all similar in appearance. White hair and red eyes, while dressed in some manner of fur-lined uniform and carrying polearms. They didn’t seem bothered by the cold in the slightest as they went about standing guard, with a few also pulling off the organic pouches and tossing them into a pod that the Carriers take off with once they were filled.
As other Drifters appeared, Ayako came to realize that she and Aika were the only Fuyuki Drifters. The rest were people she hadn’t met before, with only two others from Japan. Tatsumi was one of them.
Nemesis Q had waited until they had all gathered before announcing the mission: destroy the Illumina Mine.
Whatever Nemesis Q was, it was apparently omnilingual since everyone understood it. But they weren’t. That made coordinating much harder—borderline impossible, if not for the fact that one of Foreign Drifters was fluent in Japanese too.
Of the entire group, Ayako and Aika were among the most inexperienced. The others had more trips under their belts and a stronger foundation with their PSI. So the obvious reason that they were chosen to participate in the extermination mission was because their PSI happened to be among the most destructive available despite their inexperience.
Ayako’s Burst wasn’t as strong as it would become and had a limited range, but she could still do a lot of damage with it. Easy to see why that would be useful. And Aika had the ability to generate shockwaves strong enough to cause a localized earthquake.
Taking those facts into account, they came up with a simple plan. Tatsumi would fly them around the other side of the mountain where the mine was stationed beneath, and they’d use their PSI to cause an avalanche. That would bury the mine and everything in it under tons of ice and snow, accomplishing the task with no losses on their end.
However, no plan survives unscathed.
The howling, frigid winds obscured their hearing and sight as they flew. But not the Taboo. After all, there was no reason artificial creatures that were constructed to work in that terrain would have a need for ordinary eyes and ears. They were spotted by one that was nestled within the mountain and that alerted one of the Soldiers.
The next thing they knew, things had come to a boil in a hurry. Tatsumi’s construct bird was shot down near the mountainside, the man himself knocked out on impact with the snow-laden ground. That left Ayako to carry him on her back as she and Aika tried to salvage things while the others bought them time.
Ayako didn’t see the attack coming. Not until it was nearly too late. Her first encounter with a Soldier Taboo was when it tried to behead her with the blade of a halberd from the side, having managed to catch up to them despite the cover-fire being laid out by the others. She unleashed her PSI in fear and self-preservation, releasing it from her outstretched palm at a relatively close-range as strongly as she could.
In truth, she had been worried about her PSI since she first got it. She was afraid of what it could do to a person if she unleashed it. It was fine against ordinary Taboo, since they turned into ashes when killed and died with a good hit to their Illumina Cores. It was different with the Soldiers, who didn’t have cores to begin with.
The body burst as the explosion ripped through it. Like a watermelon exploding from the inside out, crimson blood and viscera painted the snow and Ayako’s body. Covered in the warm, viscous fluids, she found herself shaking on her knees in stunned silence as she stared at the mess of meat and cloth, feeling nauseous from the scent of the blood covering her.
That’s when the next attack came. Spearing out of the white veil of snow, something cut through the air with a whistling sound that was partially drowned out by weather. Another halberd thrown like a spear with superhuman strength that would have taken her head off if Aika hadn’t managed to push her aside in time, knocking her and Tatsumi onto the biting cold snow that robbed her of warmth.
A wet thump followed after another layer of blood was splayed onto both the snow and Ayako. She turned her head towards the sound to see that Aika was on the ground several feet from them. A pool of crimson spreading out beneath her and…
And the halberd was sticking out of her chest, the sharpened point running her through.
When she recalled that moment, Ayako couldn’t help but feel choked up as tears fell from her eyes as she remembered scurrying towards her fallen friend to see blood frothing out of her mouth as she struggled to take strained wheezes. A fatal wound that would claim her life in less than minute.
Her trembling lips moved to form words without being able to voice the words she wanted to properly. “Lu… ou…”
Ayako didn’t even realize It was a warning she didn’t recognize until the shadow was cast over her. The Soldier responsible was standing behind her, a knife raised and ready to descend for her skull as she looked up to him with tears trailing down her face. Then he froze in place.
It was Tatsumi, on his hands and knees in the snow. The stinging cold had roused him from unconsciousness and he’d fixed his gaze upon the Soldier, a single eye shining like a burning star. His Burst energy shrouded him before lunging forward in the form a massive bird the size of a delivery truck, pinning the Soldier to the ground with its legs before taking the head into its beak and pulling ruthlessly.
Ayako closed her eyes as a wet, meaty sound followed, only to feel the ground beneath her shake. It was Aika, using her PSI before she died. She was going to complete the mission so that Ayako could get back alive, sending shockwaves surging through the mountainside with the intent of bringing it all down as she drew her last breath. The rumbling of the mountain reached the point where ice, stone, and snow were wrench loose and started rolling down the mountainside, triggering an avalanche.
Tatsumi’s bird pulled Ayako and him away, leaving her to watch as the snow entombed her friend’s body before collapsing the mines, completing the mission.
“I-if I ha-hadn’t frozen up, s-s-she wouldn’t have died.” Ayako insisted in grief as she raised her head off the counter. Otoko’s expression softened as she gently guided Ayako to lean against her, offering her a shoulder to rest her head and keep crying on. From there it was a matter of waiting until Ayako simply had no more tears to shed before the conversation continued.
“It’s… it’s never easy the first time,” Otoko said in a measured tone. “Losing friends or killing something that looks human. But it does get easier, which is the worst part because one day you’ll see someone else forced into the same position. Then you realize just how much you’ve changed—what doing this has taken from you in order for you to survive, and that hurts you because it’s not something you would have chosen on your own.
“Yet, if you don’t, you’ll die,” she continued in a disheartened tone, grasp tightening as if clinging to her. “You’ll die and leave behind people who will miss you. That knowledge leaves you feeling the weight of their lives on your shoulders. So you kill to stay alive, pieces of who you were breaking off and leaving only sharp edges that serve as a weapon to Nemesis Q’s ends for one reason or another.”
Ayako sniffled as she listened and then pulled away slowly, trying to get a hold of herself. She wiped away the tears and spoke in a hoarse voice. “I just… want everything to be normal.”
“Hold on to that feeling,” she said. “Because the moment you give up everything that makes you normal, is the moment you’ve really lost it all. All that’s left is another living weapon for Nemesis Q to throw at its problems in the name of saving the future.”
They weren’t people to whatever Nemesis Q claimed to be. They were assets. Weapons. Resources. Some more valuable than others, but all ultimately expendable once they were broken or useless.
After a moment of silent contemplation, Ayako asked, “…Is a future where we have to send people to die worth saving?”
It was almost blasphemous to say, given that it was the future of their world. Not dealing with it would be the equivalent of leaving their descendants in that unknown year to suffer for their inaction. However, after losing her friend to that cold future, Ayako didn’t see the merit in a future that threatened to take everything from her in the present—including her life.
“Any future where I have to sit down with a girl like you and justify why you shouldn’t feel bad about needing to kill isn’t one that’s worth saving,” Otoko said as she traced the rim of her own glass. “All I care about is that all of you make it out of there alive, so that maybe when it’s all over you can at least try to put it past you.”
In the Present…
With a mechanical coldness, Ayako partitioned a pinch of the energy within her body and moved it to the gauntlet on her arm. The string pulled back and a bolt was forged, ready to fire. With her eyes sharpened, she kept her breathing leveled as she lined up a shot towards the Soldier Taboo that was combing through the streets.
Aiming wasn’t exactly necessary. Not when the shots were forged from her Burst and the amount of energy was minimal. Her ability to control the way it moved and hone it in on a target depended on just how much power was behind the shot, sacrificing power for precision.
With a thought, the string on the gauntlet on her arm thrummed as it was released. The bolt flew towards the albino head of a Taboo that looked human. Its head burst as the force of the silent explosion ripped it apart on impact.
That’s six. She exhaled and then moved again before another came to investigate that death. Once thing she’d learned though the different trips was that they had some kind of hivemind that allowed them to share information, so she had been careful to not be spotted as she executed them one after another. They probably already knew what she looked like from past trips, but because of how versatile Burst could be they didn’t know exactly what killed them—and wouldn’t unless she went all out since a full-powered shot was distinct.
As she leapt from the rooftop of one building to the derelict husk of another, she ignored the rumble of crashing earth as the giant Taboo continued its work. It was far enough away from where they had taken refuge that she felt comfortable killing it last and with the remainder of her power—but only after she’d made sure to have killed the Soldiers that would get in her way, since she’d only get one shot.
With any luck, they’d go back to the past and after that… well, there was no good way to handle it. Leaving aside the fact that this would probably be the largest party of survivors, she didn’t expect most of them to come back and try to survive. Maybe half. And those that weren’t killed on whatever mission they had next would be less.
She’d ensure that Himuro, Makidera, and Saegusa survived at the very least. And Tatsumi’s sister. She owed him that much for everything he’d done.
…Neko had been right, Ayako realized after a moment of thought. Even when she thought of Tatsumi’s death it only gave her a feeling of cold anger in her chest now, a pittance compared to the grief that overwhelmed her when Aika died. Seeing others die was common, killing others was easy here.
Her fist clenched as she thought about what would happen next. The trio from the Track Team were ordinary girls. One studious and responsible, one excitable and proud, and one sweetly nurturing and innocent. Even if she could protect their lives, this world would break them in different ways soon enough and there was nothing she could do.
That was part of why she had been furious with Shinji for following her into the future. Not just because he was risking his life for her sake. But because no matter what happened, he would come out changed in the worst of ways.
She watched him struggle to change over the last few months after their talk in the hospital and that had been a source of pride for her. Shinji was a difficult person to get along with given his confidence that bordered on arrogance, born from how naturally he seemed to grasp difficult things. But he was trying to change after whatever put him in the hospital and she had been proud of him for that.
Then she got involved with all of this sometime later and it began to take its toll on her. She slipped up and let her frustration and exhaustion of what this world did to her bleed over to one of the few bastions of normalcy she had. Shinji noticed and tried to do something despite whatever his own problems were, given his falling grades that had Taiga mention he would likely be forced to leave the club if he didn’t straighten them out at some point.
Ayako… couldn’t have really cared all that much at the time. Not since whatever his problems were couldn’t compare to what she was going through. It was just a matter of priorities—and she couldn’t put his ahead of hers when it involved her life.
Besides, Shinji was smart enough to pull himself together and she knew he hated people prying into his life, so she left his problems up to him to solve and focused on surviving. Even if he did get kicked out of the club, he’d been grooming Sakura to take their place as she should have at the start of the year. So, she thought it was fine for the most part.
How could she have known what was going on in his head?
She felt the warmth sucked out of her body as she recalled that momentary decision. Ayako knew what it was like to go through a waking nightmare at times. Having memories, traumatic moments of her past, intruding in her daily life by reminding her of her failures and the deaths that accompanied her.
People she couldn’t save.
Allies who died in her place.
Enemies who often tried to take her life.
Things that other people didn’t go through as they lived their lives day-to-day. Something she felt envious about at times. She knew that Shinji was going through something the moment he first stepped foot on the mountain temple the day after he’d gained his PSI, but said nothing since she couldn’t figure out what triggered him.
That morning was the second time, definitely worrying since it meant his issues followed him while he was sleeping. It would get them killed if he woke one morning like that and Taboo were around. She had planned on trying to coax him into giving them more details when they had time, in the safety of the present. No matter how stubborn she knew he’d be, she would have made him give her a satisfactory answer for his own safety.
Him having a moment right then and there, in the middle of the street, was the last straw. Ignoring a problem that actively interfered with him in the middle of talking, when he was acting as their means of private communication, was just asking for trouble. So she took a gamble and tried to read his mind since they were connected, despite the fact that she’d told him not to do so and that she trusted him not to do that to one of them.
Ayako expected him to be furious in the aftermath. But dealing with his temperament was better than letting him have another moment like that when they were getting ready to deal with a threat and cost all of them their lives. And maybe, just maybe, in helping him deal with his problem she’d find some measure of comfort in the fact that he was involved in this because of her.
She understood how the Mind Jack worked in principle. It was useful enough that, in the worst-case scenario, she wanted to be able to pass that knowledge along for the future. So she tried to manipulate the Mind Jack with her own energy to read his thoughts (pulling them, rather than pushing) and see what it was that was haunting him.
She regretted it.
Her mind came under assault by visions. Things that made her feel horrible in ways that were difficult to put into words. That she didn’t want to, even if she could recall any of it clearly beyond faint impressions and phantom sensations that would likely slip into the back of her mind and fade from her short-term memory in the matter of a day. But the fact was that she was terrified enough that her mind instinctively reacted by severing the connection between them just to escape it in less than a second.
After everything she’d gone through. After everything she’d lost. After everything this abysmal future had to offer. After all of that, what on earth was so terrifying in Shinji’s head that it caused her to reject it on every level as a human being?
In all honesty, she was afraid to give it too much thought. Just on the off-chance she would end up transferring it into her long-term memory and recall whatever it was her mind was so desperate to make her forget. It actually left her afraid of him using that Mind Jack of his on her again, which was part of why she left him behind.
The irony wasn’t lost on her either. She told him not to go around reading minds as it was an invasion of privacy. Yet she tried to look into his mind to see what it was that left him panicking like that, just to understand it so that she could help him. And now she was terrified of something she had no understanding of.
…An issue for later. Taking a deep breath, she continued her hunt with as much focus and mechanical precision as before. That was one positive that came from doing this. By putting all of her effort into it, she didn’t have to think about anything else beyond completing the mission.
Making an apology, getting an answer—everything else could come later once she killed the damn worm.
Lost in her own thoughts, she never noticed the Mind Jack slithering her way in the air from behind before it abruptly faded from existence.
“You shouldn’t have read her mind like that, Shinji. It’s one thing to do that to a potential enemy, but some things are private.”
In the silence of the room only the two of us occupy, Ayako chides me while wrapping the splint around my arm after I explained what I had seen in the woman’s memories. Being lectured was not something I wanted to deal with, even under normal circumstances. But I tolerate it in silence with my back resting against the headboard of the surprisingly comfortable bed, which only needed a good dusting despite years of disuse.
Part of that tolerance is because it was Ayako doing it, who gets a pass for a variety of reasons—one of which being that she was significantly stronger than me. The other part is that she’s controlling the distribution of both the pain-killers and sleeping medicine. Both of which I need right about now. It just isn’t smart to get on her bad side there.
Well, at least Gai isn’t here to strain my tolerance. He’s stuck on babysitting the other survivors at the moment as they eat our food. In all honesty, I still think we should have minimized what we’d given them. Or at least reserved the majority for us, since we’re the ones who had to do the fighting.
But no. Ayako had him divvy it out to them all equally while I held my tongue for the reasons above. Hopefully Nemesis Q will pop up and declare the mission done before we starve.
“As for what happened, if I had to take a guess, the fact that you actually experienced her emotions is probably due to your abilities being amplified while in the future. Instead of overloading your senses like before, you probably ended up diving too deep before you knew what you were doing. Stick with what you’ve been doing for now, and we’ll test your limits when we get back, okay?”
“Fine.” I didn’t plan to experiment at all to begin with here. It was only because they had pressed me that I even used the Mind Jack in the first place. I have no desire to risk drowning in someone else’s misery when I have my own to contend with.
Ayako nods, both in satisfaction at my response and her own handiwork as she finishes tying off the splint. “As for your arm, Issei will have to see to it after we get back. If you had a few trips under your belt then your Rise might be balanced enough so that you’d heal faster. Then again, at least we have that option. The others won’t be so lucky if they get any serious injuries.”
“Speaking of them, what will we do with them? We can’t feasibly train them all with how far away they live in the past.”
Ayako brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes as she mulls it over for a moment. “Makidera, Himuro, and Saegusa will work under us, but the others… most likely, we’ll see about having the Veteran who was helping Tatsumi’s group take over teaching them the basics. At least until Neko and the others set something up for them in the long-run.”
“If those guys and this Veteran are in contact, why didn’t he inform anyone of what happened before we got called back? We could have been walking into whatever killed the last group and had been clueless until it was too late.”
Her hair sways as shakes her head slowly and she opens her eyes. “He’s a far more distant teacher than Neko and the others, under the belief that holding their hands is pointless since everyone develops differently over time. I think they actually had a fight about that once, so he usually doesn’t contact us first. It may even be possible that he didn’t know that they were dead.”
That’s… going to complicate things in the long run. Ideally, it would be best if at least a third of them survived so we didn’t get called in to deal with another group’s mess like this. But if this guy is that neglectful, then I suppose our Veterans will have to manage somehow.
Ayako rises to her feet and stretches. Given that she’s removed her coat and torn her shirt for the makeshift splint, it displays more of her lower abdomen than proper. “You know, you weren’t actually all that far off on what you told Tatsumi’s sister.”
I look off to the side before she accuses me of sneaking a peek like before. “How so?”
“He was in the camp of people who believed they were doing something grand to save the world. That we were chosen and given this power to do so. It was oddly optimistic coming from a guy near his thirties, but considering the circumstances he was reliable.”
He sounds more annoying than anything, but there must be something to it if Ayako speaks highly of him and he had more than a few trips under his belt. “What exactly was he capable of?”
“He created bird constructs out of either Trance or Burst Energy depending on the situation. The ones that were Trance-made could pass through solid objects and be used as scouts by looking through their eyes. The ones made of Burst could take on different properties to attack Taboo, like becoming fire or electricity, or made big enough to be ridden on. He was also capable of paralyzing people and Taboo with a glance to a certain extent, but his ability with Rise was horrible.”
In order words, he basically creates familiars to fight and spy for him. Between that, the paralysis that was likely similar to a Mystic Eye of some kind, and his Rise being horrible, he likely fought at range or acted as support. “He sounds like he would have been useful to have around for gathering information.”
“He was.” Her tone shifts, becoming softer as her fingers curl up into fists. “And yet, Nemesis Q didn’t go out of its way to help him. It deemed him useless, otherwise it would have called me in and I could have done something. But no—instead it sends us on a recruitment drive to replace the losses, not even considering that the last thing Tatsumi would have wanted was for his sister to be pulled into this after seeing him like that.”
I can’t really say anything to that. If someone dies here, my guess is that their soul doesn’t return to their body in the past. They simply drop dead to all those unaware. For his body to be in that condition meant that whatever did it closed the distance and tore him apart just as he was being called back.
The silence stretches as Ayako stews on the loss of a comrade until she releases the tension with a deep breath and walks over to the door. “I’m going to go check on the others now. Get some rest.”
“Just remember to cover up or you’ll give the wrong impression to those survivors.”
She looks down to see her exposed midriff in mild surprise. Had she actually forgotten about that in light of everything? Either way, a telekinetic hand grabs her jacket and pulls it to her as the door shuts after her.
And just like that, I’m alone with my thoughts in the room. The previous conversation drags them back to that woman whose mind I delved into and the flood of emotions from when she saw her brother in that state. It was a poignant sorrow that still ate at me, unlike the fear-tainted terror for oneself that came from witnessing or being the target of a human malevolence that wafted off the memories from the grail.
It felt… pure, in a way. Such a raw emotion that made my chest ache and sucked all the hope from me. She had truly loved her brother and his death had stricken her in a way that I really couldn’t relate in terms of grief.
My father was drunkard and my mother had been disposed of shortly after she’d given birth to me. As for the Old Worm, I had Gilgamesh put him down without a second thought after he refused to acknowledge me. None of their deaths moved me in the same way that her brother’s brutal death had sank her heart, and as tempting as it would be to just separate it as a woman being emotional, the question lingers in my mind for a moment too long and a stray thought comes up:
Would Sakura grieve for me like that if I died here?
…A whisper in the back of my head tells me that, as forgiving as Sakura was, our relationship was far too tainted for the sorts of depth they had. Even if a part of her did grieve for me out of misguided compassion, she would undoubtedly feel some sort of satisfaction in it. Even if she’d deny with all of her heart, she would feel some vindication or justification for my death.
After all, I’ve done her wrong in ways that literally haunt my nightmares now and Sakura was still human. Rational and irrational, all humans bore the seeds of evil within them. Even the kindest person.
If they didn’t then they couldn’t be considered human.
And, upon drawing that dreary conclusion, I down the pills and lay down on the bed.
‘Shinji! Wake up!’
“—ggh!?” I awake startled. The horrors clawing at the fringes of my fraying consciousness retreat as the world bleeds in unfocused. Tears run from the corners of my eyes, stinging as a blurred shape gains definition.
My first sight of the day is Ayako’s eyes intensely peering into mine. She’s bent over from next to me, her fingers digging into my shoulders from the bracing grip she had. Her lips are pressed thin as her voice touches my mind again. ‘Are you awake now?’
“Yauu—” Pain claws at my throat when I try to speak. I switch to Telepathy as I sit upright. ‘How long was I screaming?’
“A while now.” The tension in her body slowly melts as she releases me and reaches over to the nightstand for the half-finished bottle of water that I had been drinking before I went to sleep. She hands it over and continues to talk. “You wouldn’t respond when we tried shaking you awake, and I had been calling for you telepathically for a while now. What was that about?”
I wait until the water eases my throat before I answer, since I didn’t think she’d let me screaming for that long go unanswered. “I suffer from night terrors on and off.”
A frown forms on her face. “Since when?”
“A few months ago, after I was hospitalized. There’s nothing anyone can do about it, so I just take sleeping medicine and move on.”
“Even if you say that, it’ll be a liability on any mission where we’ll be here long enough to need sleep,” Ayako points out as she flops down on the side of the bed next to me. “We may actually have to gag you in that case.”
“I’d prefer it if we just got back to our own time period f—” My words die as the building rattles. The walls and ground shake enough that we can feel it, with dust falling from the ceiling and sprinkling down upon us.
Gai asks the obvious question. “Was that an earthquake?”
Ayako rises to her feet and heads towards the door. “I’ll go check. You two stay here and keep an eye on the others. If they notice the shaking they might start panicking, but just assure them that they’ll be fine until I get in contact.”
I watch her leave and then sigh, knowing it wasn’t over. It’ll probably come up again, so now I have to think of an excuse for the nightmares. What did they have me hospitalized for again? I try to think of something when I notice Gai staring at me, hand on his chin in thought.
“Does these nightmares have something to do with that freak-out you had on the mountain?”
“…Drop it, Gotou,” I warn him, crushing the now-empty bottle in my hand. “There’s nothing anyone can do to help me, so there’s no point in bringing it up.”
He shrugs but doesn’t say anything, so I guess he gets the point.
Then the walls start shaking again. It was more noticeable than before this time. If it gets worse then we’ll have to abandon this building or risk being buried if it collapses. But the shaking feels like its reminding me of something. I think I’m on the verge of remembering it when I feel Ayako’s voice touch my mind.
‘Gotou, Shinji, get out here now.’
Gai heads towards the door, catching from her tone that these aren’t just earthquakes.
I take my time since there’s not enough alarm or urgency to indicate we’re under attack. Still, it can’t be good and I don’t have the full use of my arm that got broken yesterday either. If it came down to a fight, I’d be at a disadvantage.
Well, my ability allows me to work without needing to be close either way. So I can babysit the survivors if need be while they handle the fighting. If whatever it is they’re dealing with is tough enough to kill them, we’re all dead anyway since nothing I can do would change the outcome.
Just to be safe, I grab what’s left of her naginata from the nightstand and slip it into my splint. The flat of the blade is angled so that it doesn’t cut the cloth or skin, but I can grab what’s left of the handle if needed and use it as a makeshift knife. That done, I head out the door after Gotou.
Inside of the corridor, I see that the shaking did wake the others up. Since there were only so many room and beds, it was easier to station those who knew each other into the rooms together and let them sort their own business out, though we made some exceptions. That Kitano woman who was the sister of the guy Ayako knew was instead paired off with the Nami girl.
Of the survivors who were in the corridor, one was that tough guy who caused problems, one of the three girls from the high-school group, and Himuro. The latter in particular stands with her arms crossed and the same stern face she normally has as she questions him, no doubt on behalf of Saegusa, whose head is sticking out of the opened door to their room.
I leave him to it as I open the door to the bar section. Given the number of people and the number of rooms, some of them had to sleep out here using the sofa. The three idiots were among them, along with the Salaryman, Red Hair, and the creepy guy.
Only the latter was awake though, laying on the bar counter with his head propped up by his elbow. He gives me a lazy wave before covering his mouth to yawn. Then he closes his eyes as though to just listen to his surroundings.
I brush it off as just being weird behavior on his part and head out the front entrance. The rubble blocking the entrance has already been pushed aside. I take a step forward only for the ground to shake again, costing me my balance and leaving me to brace the wall with my good hand until it stops and I can clear the corridor to reach the street-level.
Ayako’s mental voice guides my eyes upwards, to an adjacent building. She’s standing on the rooftop, her gaze set out in the distance. I can’t quite make out her expression without enhancing my vision with Rise-Sense, but when I do I find her lips fixed into a frown and eyes narrowed.
Gotou comes out of the building then and comes to a stop next to me. He doesn’t bother with using Telepathy and just shouts, “What’s going on?”
‘There’s a large Taboo here that’s knocking down the buildings. It’s taken out a good chunk of the city ruins already.’
Ah, that’s what I was forgetting. I knew something was knocking down buildings at the edge of the city, but not what. Since it wasn’t important at the time and I’d just gotten through having my arm broken, I pushed it aside.
‘Shinji, connect us and I’ll try to send a mental image of it.’
I create two Mind Jacks connected to the base of my skull and send them both out. They connect. Immediately, Ayako starts sending what she’s seeing through it to me and I pass that information to him.
Her vision is sharpened, as if she’d zoomed into the distance. A building is falling down, concrete and steel collapsing in a domino as something moves within a cloud of stone dust while upturned asphalt and earth marks a trail. A shrill, inhuman roar follows as her vision sharpens even more to focus on the figure in detail.
“It looks like a giant worm,” Gotou says aloud, as to not interrupt the information transfer from me to him.
Calling it a worm is something of an understatement. It’s long enough that each segment was the length of a train car, with round protrusions that leaked some kind of acid that allowed to eat through the ground easily. The head was bulky, with a helmeted front serving as the pilot that allowed it to plow through whatever was in its way and direct them over to the sides for the acid to dissolve.
I also notice that argent sand is left behind in its wake. The same kind that covered half of Fuyuki during the last trip. If it did work like a giant earthworm, was it decomposing solid materials and then leaving the sand out as excrement of some kind?
I don’t have long to think on it before my consciousness is abruptly ripped from my body. The next thing I know, I’m getting an aerial view of the worm tearing apart another block. Every single person we saved is floating around with us as well as Nemesis Q stands in the air above us and looks down on us.
“Send me back home!” yells the Salaryman towards Nemesis Q with a frantic look in his eyes. It sets off a chain reaction as the other start voicing their complaints and desires. I can even hear some threats towards the thing, which probably wasn’t all that smart considering we were currently out of our bodies by its power alone.
Though I don’t think it cares at all considering it remains unmoving with its arms folded behind its back. If that’s the case, could I float a Mind Jack towards it to see if I can understand it… no, it’s a stupid risk right now. Not worth it.
“It won’t respond to any of it, so don’t waste your breath,” Ayako tells the survivors. The pure disdain in her voice makes it clear that her hatred of it hasn’t quelled since the last time it appeared before us, at the end of the last mission. “Just wait for it to give us the mission.”
It takes them all a minute to settle down despite her telling them too. Understandable, given the source of their current problems was right in front of them. But once they do, Nemesis Q finally moves, pointing a long finger down to the ground.
“Drifters—” its voice echoes in my mind as the Taboo continues to writhe around. “—destroy the Taboo to clear this round. Receive the power to change this future.”
So it wasn’t meant to be a recruitment mission after all, but an extermination one. The recruitment was simply due to the loss of the other Drifters who were likely supposed to do this in the first place. Two birds, one stone.
“You can’t expect us to really fight that thing!” one of the high-school girls shouts.
“That’s right!” another one backs her. “We just want to go home!”
Nemesis Q continues to not care now that the mission has been given. It merely waves its hand and a falling sensation overcomes me. My consciousness rejoins my body back on the street not a second later and it takes a moment to get used to having weight again. Once I do, I start to think on the assignment.
The others who hadn’t been exposed to Nemesis Q outside of their dreams are likely even more disoriented. An opportunity to leave this nightmare behind was in front of them, but they couldn’t do anything about it while they were powerless. Really, only one person here could kill that thing.
I look upwards to where Ayako stands and send a simple question through our connection. ‘Can you kill it?’
‘Yeah, but not with the bolts. I’ll need to use an arrow, which means charging time and trading off my Rise and Trace. And since I can’t just guess how dense it is or where the core is, I’ll need to make it powerful enough to level enough of the surrounding area that the blast crater could pass as a lake—’
Her thoughts still as her attention turns to a silhouette in the dust cloud thrown up by the collapsing building. Her vision sharpens even more as the cold wind blows and thins the obscuring veil to reveal… no.
No, it can’t be.
‘Damn it, it’s a Soldier-class Taboo,’ Ayako sends through the line. ‘One of the weaker ones, but having one here means more are around too.’
She’s wrong. That’s not a Taboo. The moment I lay eyes on it, I know what it is.
I know because I’ve seen it before in the past.
It was months ago. At that castle, in that courtyard, I witnessed the hair that was as white as untouched snow in winter become heavy and dyed with the blood of its owner. I’ve seen those eyes that resemble rubies without any flaws become clouded as the head they were attached to fell onto the ground and stared up as the sword-propped corpse it was cut from. Gilgamesh had once said that humans would be naturally incapable of such features that were so pristine that they couldn’t have been left up to chances through genetics.
No, it was made through artificial means. A tool that was just a magic circuit sculpted into a human shape. It was a…
A shuddering breath leaves my mouth as the forest comes into my view. Becomes my world as I run through it aimlessly. I’m not thinking about anything other than trying to reach the edge.
I can’t feel my right arm. It was such as small stab from Lancer’s weapon, yet it robbed me of an arm that dangles uselessly. Not only have my chances of becoming a magus have been lost, but my defective body has become crippled too.
I can only laugh as the pain hurts like nothing before as I come to a stop against a tree, at the edge of clearing that spreads out in front of me. Then Gilgamesh appears before me, mocking me for taking an injury he should have been protecting me from. He has the still-beating heart of the albino brat in his hands and says the words I never wanted to hear again.
“There’s another Master right here who can serve as an anchor, correct?”
No. No! N—
…A wet, piercing sound reaches my ears. I look down to see his arm is inside my stomach. The heart is inside of my body. “Ah…? Ahh… ghh?”
Then the agony of still-beating heart after violating my body blossoms anew. The black mud fills every cell with liquid curses—hatred distilled that cursed me for my very existence. It warps and stretches, swelling without breaking as it boils inside the decaying and expanding flesh.
It hurts, it hurts, it hurts!
Countless worms squirm, writhe, expand the flesh and blood vessels to become a lump of meat that grows from my center and back. They won’t stop spreading. They won’t stop violating me.
Ith—urts, ithu—rts, ithur—ts, ithurts!
They invade my chest, breaking open the rib cage with a crunching sound and swallowing my heart. They invade my throat and rob me of air to strangle me from the inside out. Only a garbled choking sound would leave my mouth as the world swirls black and red.
And then the visions come.
A woman being ██████ with a █████ in front of her child. A corpse being ███████ for all to see, ████ wretched between their teeth as the people watch in glee at the desecration.
██████████ shows me nothing but horrors.
██████████ shows me the horrors born of man.
The evils of man. Their sins. Their wretched desires. Their base nature.
██████████ basks in it as ██████████ straps me to the throne overseeing it and I’m ██████████████ unable to ████████████████ as ████████████████ laughs!
“HHAAAAAAHHH!!” I gasp as my vision clears. I’m staring into the ashen sky from the ground with Ayako’s face hovering above me a second time. She looks pale this time. “Haaaaahaaaa… hahaa…haaa…”
“Are you back?” she asks.
I open my mouth to speak but words don’t come out. I try to send a message through the Mind Jack, but we’re no longer connected. I can only nod and make a croaking sound.
She closes her eyes and shudders before looking up towards Gai. “Take him inside and watch the others. I’ll go deal with everything.”
“Wait, didn’t you say you don’t know how many of those Soldier-class Taboo are around?”
“Yeah, I can’t be sure.” She rises to her feet and looks out to the distance. “They’re like roaches. If you see one then there’s more. But they’re weak enough and if I kill enough of them I should get a clear shot eventually.”
“Then I should go with you at least.”
She shakes her head. “These kinds are like scouts and are stronger than ordinary humans, but after a trip or two strength stops being the problem and their numbers do. Most of them don’t really speak or have personalities, but they’re capable of thought enough to plan tactics out and have access to the base-level PSI just like us. It doesn’t grow in strength, but pitting a newbie against them would just end up with you being overrun eventually… though there are exceptions, where one will be stronger than the others and stand out, I can handle one of those easily.”
“Even so, you need all of your energy for the shot, don’t you?” he asks. “Can you deal with them alone and have enough strength to do that?”
She glances back to me and then looks away. “It can’t be helped. Shinji isn’t the type to fight up close even if he wasn’t injured, and you haven’t had to kill something that looks so human before, so you might hesitate and these guys will take advantage of it. I’ll just have to try and conserve my energy until I find an opening and kill the worm.”
Then she leaves without another word while I can’t bring myself to move. But I caught that look in her eyes. The gleam within it that came from witnessing something so horrifying that you can’t forget it.
The reason the connection between us was severed was because she rejected. She saw something so horrifying that she instinctively severed it with all her might to try to get away from it. The fact that Gotou still has his and is mostly fine means it must’ve been something done on her part to see the memories, but that doesn’t matter—only the fact that she had seen something does.
But I can’t worry about even that now. My thoughts are on a single thing. A single question I can’t help but wonder the answer to:
Why is a Homunculus here?
We make it back to the street where we’ve set up a safe zone just before nightfall. The sound of a sniffle draws my eyes behind me. The paralyzing effect from the Hound’s scream has worn off, so the three girls that stupidly got themselves involved in this are walking between myself and Gai, while Ayako takes the front as a vanguard should something pop out.
Saegusa looks like she’s on the verge of crying again. I don’t know what they’ve been through since they got here, but my attempt to find out was rebuffed by Ayako and Gai. They apparently have something against wantonly reading memories of people they considered friends and uninvolved.
Ayako looks over her shoulder to three of them and takes on a gentle tone as she addresses the crying girl. “We’re almost there. You’ll be safe then.”
Unfortunately, her words serve as the cue for the loud-mouthed one to start asking questions. “Can you guys tell us what’s happening here? Where are we? What was that exploding thing you did before?”
Ayako points to me. “Shinji will do the explaining once we get all of you squared away.”
I blink. “What now?”
“Your arm is injured and we need to get the supplies, so you’ll be watching them and the other survivors.”
Fear finds its way into the Saegusa’s eyes when she realizes that she’s going to be separated from the two heavy-hitters of our little group. “Y-You’re not going to be there?”
Ayako gives the girl a reassuring smile. “Between the two of us, it shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to get back where we started and retrieve our supplies. We’ll block the exit again so nothing will get in, just to be safe.”
The fact that she looks a little relieved when she finds out she doesn’t have to rely on me solely is a little insulting considering the pain my arm is in because I put myself out there for them. But, focusing on the more pressing issue, I shoot a telepathic message to Ayako.
‘So, to what extent am I telling them and the others?’
‘Give them the truth about the cards and their circumstances. But be gentle. People usually either try to deny it or panic in their circumstances since they just want it to end, and I’ve seen some commit suicide before.’
‘I’m more concerned with the fact that they saw us using our powers and will be just as afraid of us as they were the monsters when they settle down.’
Her expression shifts. Ah… I see, it’s happened before. ‘That’s why you’re going to explain about PSI too. They’ll be less likely to act that way if they understand they’re one of us as well. But if you need to defend yourself, I won’t hold it against you.’
“How many others have you saved?” Himuro asks, breaking into the telepathic discussion between us.
The number Ayako gives is about seventeen with them. Over half were the ones who managed to get themselves thrown into a pod and then freed by us, coming to about nine. The other five had been actively running like these three. We guided them to the very building we came to a stop at a minute later.
Ayako uses her telekinetic hands to move a large piece of debris that blocked the entrance, set into place when Gai brought the nervous wreck of a Salaryman inside. There’s a staircase going down into a corridor underground that ends in a steel door with an eye slot. It looks sketchy, but Ayako assures the others they’ll be safe here again and ushers us into the staircase before she shifts the rubble back into place.
“Is this an underground bar or something?” Makidera asks as she stares at the sign, trying to make it out in the dark as I knock on the door.
“It’s close enough. The building is mostly in one piece where it counts and sound-proof, which means it’s well-insulated. Given we don’t know how long we’ll be here, that’s a necessity since most of the Taboo we’ve seen so far track by sound and we don’t want to freeze to death.”
Plus, it looks like it would have been an elegant place of sorts. I can imagine a soft tune playing through the speakers as a hostess ran the bar for customers who just wanted to relax a bit and let the world outside of these walls drown out. Yeah, we can pass it off as an underground bar as long as they stay out of the back rooms until we can hide or destroy everything that said otherwise—though I personally think that they shouldn’t really care as long as the beds were still intact, since it meant they didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
The eye slot opens after I knock again. A pair of eyes look into mine before it closes and the door itself opens to reveal a tall guy with red hair. He reminds me a bit of a thug, despite the fact that he was cowering when we found him.
The stink of cigarette smoke slams into me like a wall when I enter. I trace the source to the three people off to one side, taken from one of the pods. There was an older girl clinging to a guy wearing sunglasses, both of whom seemed college-aged. Next to them was a tough-looking man who was in his 30s at a guess, sucking on the half-lit cigarette in his mouth.
I was not going to sit here and deal with that stench. “Put it out or get out. Your choice.”
He shifts the cigarette and steps forward like he’s going to cause problems. It would end poorly for him considering I’ve killed things bigger than him in the last few hours. Fortunate for him, the sunglasses guy places a hand on his arm to stop him from getting bounced.
“Just do it, Shibata,” he says to the man. “Don’t want to make things worse, do we?”
The tough guy grumbles under his breath about respect but listens to his younger companion and puts it out with his shoe. Sunglasses then takes a step forward. His hands are raised to show he doesn’t mean to cause trouble.
“Sorry, my friend here is just a little concerned about our situation and wanted to take the edge off a little. Not all of us are as… gifted as you and your friends seem to be, going by the stories we’ve heard from the others here, and we’re still confused. You understand, right?”
“Keep your friend in check then,” I warn him. “The other two are a lot more tolerant than I am, but until they get back I’m the one calling the shots here. Got it?”
“Crystal clear.” He gives me a slight bow of his head and then gestures to girl next to him. “My name’s Sakishita by the way, and this is my girl, Marina.”
Unlike him, who seems to be awfully relaxed all things considered, she clearly looks like she’s on the verge of having a panic attack. Her clinging to him is for security then. “Baby, I want to go home.”
“Just relax, babe. I’m sure this guy will tell us how to do that.” He looks up to me and gives me a smile that annoys me. “Right?”
“Yeah, I’ll explain that once these three get seated.” I direct the Track Trio over to a table with a long seat against the wall that could fit the three. “Get comfy, this’ll take a while.”
Himuro and Makidera head over immediately, with the latter sitting with her back straight and posture rigid. Even in this situation she remains uptight. On the other hand, the former just flops down ungracefully and exhales as though she’s relieved to get off her feet.
Saegusa is the odd one out. She hesitates, looking between the seat and me. “Umm…”
She bites her lower lip and grabs the hem of her track jacket nervously before she inhales and bows her head. “I’m sorry, Matou-san.”
I try to figure out what she’s done to warrant an apology, but nothing comes to mind. She’s too timid to do something like prank me or talk ill behind my back. “What for?”
She looks at my arm. Remorse colors her eyes. Guilt. “I always thought you were scary in school, but you still jumped in to help us and got hurt. So…”
“Oh that. Don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault.” If anything, it’s Makidera’s fault for getting caught. And really, I was more worried about what would happen with Ayako if I didn’t save them. “This isn’t even as bad as my first trip all things considered.”
“Even so, thank you for saving us.” She raises her head and gives me an appreciative, innocent expression that wouldn’t be out of place on Sakura’s face when she was younger. Before I knew everything that I knew and did everything I did….
I look away. “Fine, you’re welcome. Now go sit with the others, so I can get started.”
She scurries over to their side and takes a seat next to Makidera, who gives her a slight smile while she looks somewhat nervous at the attention she’s gained from the others—not all of it goodwill, given she was holding up the explanation. In particular, there was a group of girls across from this trio who looked annoyed more than anything.
I was fairly sure that were also high schoolers considering their clothes were somewhat standard of a uniform, though they weren’t exactly wearing them in the proper style with their coats tied around their waists. They were the ones from the first pod we saved and were less talkative given everything they went through, so they shouldn’t cause any problems for those three. Still, it did remind me that there was a somewhat varied mix of people that we’d saved to this point.
The last of the pod people were a trio of guys that looked college-age like Sakishita, sitting in the third row of seats against the wall. One of them wore a set of glasses and was fiddling with his phone, which wasn’t working. The second had a set of headphones resting around his neck. The last one of that group had a wool cap over his head.
At the edge of the counter, sitting on the bar chair, was a black-haired man in a suit that was sitting with his elbows propped up on the table and covering his eyes. He was shuddering, tear stains marking where he’d let his fear spill out. Clearly a salaryman in over his head.
A few seats from him was a woman maybe in her mid-20s. She wore a standard outfit I’d expect from someone who worked a part-time job at a convenience store chain. The majority of her attention was fixed on her own calling card, rather than her surroundings.
Then there was the black-haired girl with a ponytail, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans. She had a cloth pressed against her cheek from where she’d been injured, a slight swelling and bruising. Unlike most of the others, we found her actually attempting to defend herself when she ran into a Taboo. It didn’t work out, but it was clear she was a fighter.
Last was a scraggly guy dressed in a jump-suit that had paint stains over it. He looked like he didn’t care much about his appearance, and his hair was long enough that it obscured half of his face. He was sitting on the floor with one hand on his knee, watching all of us in a way that creeped me out.
I take a seat at the closer end of the counter and pull out my calling card, holding it up for them to see as I get started. “Since you’re here, you clearly have one of these. And if you’ve read the back of the cards and had the dream, you know that this is the future—”
“How much did it cost to set it all up?” asks Cellphone from his seat, interrupting me. He makes a flourish with his hands to our surroundings. “Where are the cameras?”
I raise a brow at the stupidity. And I’m not the only one, given that everyone shares the sentiment. Really, the only exceptions are Saegusa, who’s too nice, and the Salaryman, who looks almost hopeful at the thought of this being a set-up. Poor fool.
“Are you an id—” I catch myself before I call him an idiot. Not a good idea right now to actively antagonize someone else after the tough guy a minute ago. “I get you’re skeptical because you didn’t see the bodies before you got thrown into a pod dragged here, but it’s not. Otherwise, how do you explain everything?”
“Movie set. And some buff extras to throw us into the pods.”
Himuro tilts her glasses up as she peers through the lenses with a more refined look than the rest of us are giving him. She still sheltered the same thoughts as us though, just better masked. “I sincerely doubt that this is some elaborate movie set.”
“And those things weren’t human,” Ponytail adds, tilting her head over to me. “Didn’t react like one when I hit a nerve cluster, and I saw his friend tear one in half without so much as a scream. And it was still moving until he smashed it in the chest afterwards.”
She sets down the cloth and straightens her back as she addresses me. “Just Nami is fine.”
“Those things are called Taboo by the Veterans, and they can survive a lot of punishment unless you hit them in their core and smash it. Whatever they are seem to play into how the future became this way, and I believe that might be part of why we were summoned after the ringing began.”
“That ringing was a pain to deal with,” Sakishita says, tapping his ear. “I tried drowning it out with music and all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t stop. I thought I was going to go deaf.”
I shake my head. “It was on the back of the card that you had a set amount of time to answer or you really would have died. Anyone who doesn’t answer the summonings does, likely to keep it a secret and to enforce participation. It’s part of the contract and we haven’t found a way out of it.”
The Salaryman jumps out of his seat at that, as though offended. “I didn’t sign a contract! Even if I did, what kind would allow for this sort of thing!?”
“The kind that kills you if you don’t obey it. When you accepted the card, you established a contract with that bird-man thing that we call Nemesis Q to change the future.” I tap my head and then my heart. “That’s what that sensation of barbed wire coiling around your brain and heart and digging in was. You’ve all felt that, right?”
Surprisingly, they all looked at one another in confusion until Saegusa shifts in her seat and raises her hand. “Um… it felt kind of like a ribbon to me.”
“Mine felt like a silken cord,” Himuro adds.
“A kimono sash for me,” Makidera claims.
The others give their own descriptions. Not one of them had the barbed wire treatment, though there were gems like piano wire and chains. So Nemesis Q apparently just hated me that much.
“Either way,” I continue. “Once that happened you were bound to the terms of the contract you made, which was to change the future—this future. If you try to break the rules past a warning, those constrict and kill you. Those cases of Sudden Death Syndrome all over the world are likely the result of that.”
I pause a moment to let that sink in. I don’t want to rush in or give them too much information all at once. In fact, I’d prefer it if someone else took the reins, but Ayako is still a good distance out.
The silence breaks when Himuro’s curiosity gets the better of her. “Presuming that is the case, that we’re in the future, can you explain how we got from our time period to this one?”
“If I had to guess, that contract created a bridge that allowed for our souls to leave our body and be displaced them in time. Our bodies are still back in the past, unconscious but still alive. Once the trip is over, we’ll snap back to them.”
“So all those rules are real then?” asks the woman at the counter as she rises out of her seat. “If we die here, our bodies back in the past die too?”
“That’s right, Miss…?”
“Miss Kitano, the damage to the soul is reflected onto the body. Any wounds you sustain here end up hitting your real body all at once when it jumps back and if you die here, you die there.”
She lowers her eyes. “My brother had one of these cards on his desk the day he died. It looked beat-up and worn. Does that mean one of those monsters killed him?”
If his card was as beat-up as Ayako’s then the guy was definitely an Active Drifter. “…When did it happen?”
“It was a few days ago. I took the train to my brother’s apartment in Setagaya to find him slumped over at his desk with a beat-up calling card like this in front of him. I thought he was asleep since he was still breathing, so I didn’t try to wake him as I cooked dinner for him since he worked hard… and… and…”
Considering the fact that her body was trembling as she held her free hand to her throat and how the color drained from her face as she trailed off, I’m presuming he didn’t just drop dead either. Still, if it was a few days ago, that would explain why he wasn’t here now. There must’ve been a mission that we weren’t a part of.
I float a Mind Jack over to her and gently inserted before I pulled on her memory and—
The apartment is small overall, the sort of place that a part-timer could rent with a small section in the front to serve as the kitchen, with a few cabinets, a refrigerator, and pantry. She enters through the door at that end, her key jangling as she pulls it free of the lock. She shuts the door behind her as she calls out into the darkness. “Nii-san?”
There is no answer, even as her eyes take a moment to adjust and she spots his figure at the desk. It lies against the back wall, underneath the window, in the middle of the room. The futon is folded on the right and the television, a small thing on a stand, is on the left and turned off.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep while studying?” She huffs as she sets the bags of groceries down on the counter and goes over to his side. Lying with his head on the desk, the calling card is in front of him with his phone adjacent to it. She spots a traveling bag by his legs as well, leaving her to wonder if he planned on going somewhere or was waiting for someone when he fell asleep.
“You shouldn’t sleep at the desk,” she tells him as she tries to wake him by shaking his shoulder. When that gets no response, she tries harder. There still no response leaving her to get worried now. She checks his pulse and find that it’s still strong, so she brushes it off as him sleeping deeply and begins to cook.
As she cooks, she thinks of her brother fondly. She thinks about how he moved out of the house in Hiroshima when he was younger and how she often came over likewise, trying to see him despite him telling her not to since it was dangerous for someone her age to traveling alone on the train. He was a large part of her life, someone she cared about dearly, and so she didn’t feel a burden for helping him out like this since he tried so hard in her eyes—going so far as to make his favorite meal despite being a slight drain on her own budget.
Then there’s a crash. She looks over to the desk to see her brother had fallen out of the chair and was sprawled on the floor. Blood runs freely from beneath his clothes, a deep shade of crimson that spilled out from gashes torn in his flesh that she could barely make out. Then there was his throat, a visceral mess that reminded me of a piece of raw meat with a chunk torn out by a ravenous dog I once saw when I was overseas at the boarding school.
Despite that, he’s still alive. There’s a fleeting moment of life, a flicker in his eyes as he tries to move his mouth to say something. But that fleeting moment fades with the light in his eyes and his head turns to the side, leaving the blood pooling in his mouth to trickle out.
She’s stunned. Her mind takes a moment to grasp was truly happened in that moment as the card she eyed on the desk disappears from her view, crumbling from existence with the sound of shattering glass. The sound acts as a trigger and causes her to start screaming as the full realization sets in that her brother had died horribly, and a flood of emotions starts pouring in.
Nii-san! Be okay. Let me be dreaming. Nii-san! Wake up. Don’t leave me. Nii-san! Niisan! Niisan! Nii—
—I manage to pull myself out of her memories before I drown in her despair. It’s amazing she’s putting on a façade of being merely sad right now considering it had only been a few days. But what the hell was that?
For me, reading someone’s mind is different from reading their memories. When they’re actively thinking, it’s like listening to their thoughts or I can see what they see by actively reading what they perceive as it comes. But when it’s a memory, it’s like flipping through the pages of a book—though I could see glimpses of images if I really wanted to, sort of like taking a passage from the pages and turning them into a film.
That time was different. It was almost like I was there. Like in my… in my nightmares. Was it because the first time I was in the past, but this time I was in the future? I shelve it for later when I hear a startled gasp from Saegusa and notice how terrified she was as she listened to Kitano talk.
“—it was like some kind of large animal mauled him to death, the sort of thing seen on a nature show. The police originally thought I had done it and was in shock, until the autopsy showed that whatever it was that tore into him couldn’t have been done by a human. I wanted to know what happened so badly, then I was visited in my dream and told there were answers if I took it.”
Saegusa isn’t the only one looking horrified as she finished. Marina, the Salaryman, those three high-school girls, share in her terror. The rest at least looked disturbed by the implications of dying here without anyone realizing what happened. Except for the creep on the floor.
He was smiling even wider.
The Salaryman loses his composure at last. He rushes over to me, knocking both his chair and Kitano to the floor in the process of grabbing me by my shoulders and shaking me like a can of spray paint. “I can’t afford to die like that here! Get me out this instant!”
Nami helps Kitano up to her feet again and glares at him. “You’re the oldest one of us here at a glance, so why don’t you act the part and calm down?”
“Shut up!” he snaps at her. “I’m not like the rest of you. I have a wife and child and family and career waiting for me!”
“Let…go,” I warn him through gritted teeth. Leaving aside the fact that I liked personal space, he was hurting my arm. “Now!”
He doesn’t. He just keeps demanding that I get him out and that he didn’t care what happened to the others, making things worse by panicking. Not to mention he’s spitting in my face as he does so, which is disgusting and further pisses me off.
…Well, Ayako did say I could defend myself. I grasp his wrist with my good hand and get ready to use Strength-Rise to snap it like a twig. But before I could make it happen, the guy with red hair grabs him and pulls him away.
“You’re not the only one scared, but that doesn’t give you the right to act better than the rest of us!” He forces the older man to the floor and pins him into place. “You can stay like this until you settle down.”
The Salaryman struggles to get back to his feet, but it’s just not happening. Red Hair is clearly stronger and he’s got him pinned in a way to where he can’t get leverage. As far as I was concerned, he could stay that way for a moment.
Kitano takes a seat again with Nami’s help. She doesn’t look hurt, but she’s clearly still upset. I consider my approach carefully as I wipe the spittle away and sent a message to Ayako about her brother.
‘I knew him,’ Ayako sends back through the connection we have. ‘Tatsumi and I ran a mission or two together, but he worked with the other Drifters around the Tokyo area. When we get back I’ll have Issei check on the others, but if he’s dead then…’
They’re dead too. I had already come to that conclusion, but I can feel the bitterness in her mental voice as she trails off. Nothing I can do about that except keep the peace here for now by addressing these two first.
I start with Kitano. “Your brother was probably one of the Active Drifters who chose to fight because he wanted to change the future, so you didn’t have to one day wake up to a world like this. He has my respect for that. It won’t bring him back, but we’ll do our best to see that you get out of this alive.”
I then look over to the Salaryman, still writhing beneath Red Hair. “As for you, I get you too. You didn’t know what you were signing up for and it puts your livelihood and family at risk. But if you panic, you’ll die. If you want to get home, stay calm and listen to what I say instead of freaking out. Got it?”
His lips purse thin, but he nods and stops struggling.
“Flip out again and you’re going right back on the ground,” Red Hair warns him as he gets off of him.
The Salaryman rises to his feet and dusts himself off, silently looking disdainfully at the thug-looking high-schooler who’d pinned him down. The feeling was mutual, and not just between them. He hadn’t earned a lot of friends with that stunt just now.
My eyes span the room. They’ve seemed to calm down somewhat, or at least realize the situation better. “To get back home, we need to wait until Nemesis Q reappears. He usually assigns the Active Drifters some kind of task. If it’s to reach a location, we’ll escort you. If it’s to kill something, that’s our job. Either way, once we’ve completed it, we’ll go back to our bodies in the past. The moment you get back, you’re going to contact a number we’ll give you so that we can see about teaching you to control your powers.”
“You mean like what you and the others can do?” Sakishita asks as I take a seat on the counter again, his tone doing nothing to hide how excited he seemed at the prospect despite how much of an annoyance it was to the two next to him. “We get them too?”
“Yeah, that’s part of the contract. If you survive your first trip, you gain powers shortly after you wake up. It’s unpleasant and involves a fever, nosebleed, and more, but they grow in strength over time. We call these powers PSI.”
I decide to demonstrate just to get the point across for the skeptics. I don’t want to reveal that I could potentially read their minds, nor would I try again after that last time, so it’ll have to be telekinesis. I look over to the bar chair that was knocked over by the Salaryman and make a gesture for it to move while focusing my mind and energy enough to get results—I don’t need as much effort as I did with the chain for this.
It floats in the air and lands next to the man upright, startling him enough to jump. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy that reaction after he manhandled me. But I keep my expression schooled as I continue. “Take a seat, this’ll take some time to explain properly.”
Standing firm with my feet planted on a mostly-intact rooftop, I peer towards the west as a low rumble reaches my ears. Another series of buildings just collapsed, their long and vigilant stance that weathered the end of the world finally coming to an end. It was far off enough that I couldn’t feel the tremors, but the fact that it was the third time I’d heard that happening left me curious as to what the cause was.
Not curious enough to check though. I was already an uncomfortable distance away from the others, who actually could fight effectively with their powers. Going to check it out alone was just putting myself in danger for no reason.
I look over my shoulder to see that the argent cords stemming from the base of my skull were still intact out of habit, rather than necessity. I could still feel the connection of my mind to theirs. It was strange how natural it felt, but these PSI powers seem instinctive to begin with.
The cord linking Ayako’s mind to mine stretched further back and to the left, far into the distance beyond what my eyes could see. At the best I could make out a sliver of light streaking through the sky from that direction as she shot down distant Taboo. Her last message was that she’d managed to take out the majority of the flying Taboo and thus the most dangerous ones, but she couldn’t hit the further ones since her trade-off limited how far she could aim and back with enough power for the shots to count.
As for the idiot, his cord was lower to the ground and moving a bit. There were at least seven or so blocks between us and the husks of buildings stood as barriers to obscure our view. But Gai stated that as long as the cord remained intact he could reach me if something happened by simply plowing through them.
It’s still crude though. Since I’m the central point connecting the other two, any messages that need to be sent have to go through me. I’m basically a glorified phone operator, but it does allow me to control the flow of information and stay up-to-date with how we’re progressing.
Between the two of them and my own ability, I could probably get out of trouble if need be. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t all that eager to even run into any Taboo. So I decided to play it safe by focusing on searching at a slower rate through the use of my enhanced hearing, with mixed success.
I wasn’t sure how many hours it had been since we left the present behind, but it was getting darker now and there was a lot less noise than when we started searching. If we couldn’t hear them or see them, then we couldn’t guide them to the location where we’d arranged for all the survivors to stay before we moved the pods there. Maybe the smarter people still around were hiding quietly to avoid the Catchers and Hounds, but most likely everyone else was dead.
I try not to think about it as I keep moving towards the entrance of what looks to be an entertainment district. The standing buildings are all tightly packed with their displays in various states of disrepair, while some of them had fallen onto the streets below and blocked off the path.
That’s when Ayako contacts me. ‘Shinji, you find anyone else?’
‘Not yet. I don’t think we’ll find anyone else beyond that nervous guy from Sasayama that refused to move unless Gotou walked him back to the others. Speaking of which, it looks like the range for the pool of people they’ve pulled from encompasses half of Japan as a whole if we take his word. Do the recruitment missions usually pull from that many places in Japan?’
‘No. Until now the furthest I’ve been within Japan is from is the Shimane Prefecture when it comes to recruitment missions. It might be that there aren’t any Drifters left in the lower-half of Japan, so they pulled us in for it.’
‘Is that possible?’
‘The death rate for the missions that pitch us against Soldier Taboo is pretty high, so it’s very likely. There aren’t that many of us to start with and we’re lucky in the fact that there are three Veterans to teach us in Fuyuki.’
She’s mentioned those Soldier Taboo a few times now. I really wasn’t looking forward to meeting one of them from how she was describing them, but first I needed to prioritize surviving this mission. We’ve saved a few people but Nemesis Q hasn’t declared the method to finish what we need to do here.
My spine stiffens as a scream rings out, just further beyond the blockade and debris. It’s followed by a Hound unleashing its scream that scrambled the mind and prevented victims from being able to move. Looks like I spoke too soon.
‘Mitsuzuri, I heard a woman screaming and a Hound howling. Do you have eyes ahead of me?’
‘No, it’s a blind-spot for me at this distance with the buildings that tightly packed and I’m lining up a shot to deal with the last of the Carriers before it gets too far away. Can you get eyes on them to see if you can do something before I change targets?’
‘I’ll try.’ I run along the edge of the building I’m on towards as quickly as I can and then jump over to the next one. The buildings that were close together make it easy enough without expending power, but my stamina isn’t the best to be doing something like this without it. In the end, I’m panting by the time I reach the top of the building next to the one that collapsed and get eyes on the screaming person…
It’s the mousey member of the Track Trio from school, Yukika Saegusa. She’s wearing her tracksuit and sitting against the rubble, eyes tear-stricken and wide in fear as she holds the body of Himuro in her arms tightly. It looks like she collapsed over her when she got caught by the scream, but I don’t see the third one.
Stupid of me, I should have suspected they’d be called in eventually. I heard them talking about the calling cards the very day I got caught up in this. Damn it, I don’t have any choice but to act so I jump off the rooftop.
In midair gravity takes hold of me as I use the slowed perception of time to line up my fall and make sure I don’t end up landing short. The world continues to move in slow motion in the process, allowing me to see the surprised look on the Saegusa’s tear-stained face and the Hound turning to face me after picking up my scent. Once I’m sure that I’ll land properly, I redistribute the Rise energy to strengthen my legs and feet to withstand the landing.
I come crashing down on the Hound’s body, carried by my momentum and weight. The result is what you’d expect from a dog ran over by a truck, visceral fluids of some kind splashing over my pants and the girl’s face. Then I stomp on the Hound’s head and core, grinding into it and making sure it’s dead, before I wheel around on Saegusa.
“Where’s the loud one?” I ask right away. If something happens to them then Ayako will have my head for not mentioning it earlier. “You three are never that far apart. Did she get caught?”
Saegusa doesn’t speak. All she does is shake her head as her and cry, eyes red and swollen as tears keep falling. It seems like the shock of everything left her too stunned to get a word out at the worst possible time.
Fortunately, Himuro is conscious and speaks from within Saegusa’s grasp. “A large creature caught her before we crossed the alley to the right.”
“Fuck!” I close my eyes and focus on listening in that direction. The energy threading my body focuses on my ears in response. Sound sharpens. Clarity follows. I can hear bestial panting and scraping of claws against asphalt, a set of larger and heavier footfall, and Makidera’s voice as she demands it let her go.
“You stay here and wait for Gotou or Mitsuzuri! Yell as loud as you can if another one comes close!” I tell them before I start running down that alley Himuro mentioned while sending a message to them both. ‘Mitsuzuri, Gotou, the screaming girl was Saegusa from the Track Club. She’s with Himuro who was caught in a Hound’s scream and can’t move. I left them behind the fallen building in the middle of the road to chase after another Hound and a Catcher that caught Makidera before it can get away!’
I ignore the surprise and loud responses that they give me to focus on the task at hand. I’m not all that fond of Makidera, but when I remember how Ayako mentioned not wanting to see someone she knew die again, I know for a fact that letting something happen to her will send her spiraling the emotional drain again. I did not condemn myself to this nightmare trying to help her just for some idiot to ruin that.
As I run down the alley and come to a stop at the end, I peer over the edge to see that Makidera is slung over the shoulder of the Catcher. It looks like a standard model, the kind that Ayako and Gai would have no trouble with. But it has a Hound a few feet ahead that’s sniffing the ground, no doubt ready to unleash a scream and paralyze her again if it wears off.
If a fight starts then she’ll likely be thrown around, which could prove fatal given how fragile people are in comparison to Taboo, so I should prioritize her rescue. But that Hound is a problem that needs to be dealt with or I won’t be able to get away with her, even if I do manage to snatch her out of its grasp. So my first step is to shut it up.
I look around for something that could pull that much off. The alley is pretty long and narrow, barely more than twice my width. But there’s a set of double door with a rusted chain threading through the handles a couple of times and bound by a lock. PSI-enhanced strength takes root in my arms a moment later and the chain snaps easily under my enhanced strength. Part of that is likely due to the rust, so I doubt I’ll be able to use it to plug the Hound’s mouth for very long. But if it can work for even three seconds I think that I can manage this.
Chain in hand, I ran back over to peer over the side again. They were further away and getting ready to turn to the side of the road. I couldn’t delay it any longer. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I channeled Rise into my legs and leapt out of cover.
The Hound turns my way the moment I land. Either it picked up my scent or heard my footsteps. But it turns my way and the Catcher does the same. No turning back.
I visualize the chain wrapping around the Hound’s mouth, tight enough that it acts as a muzzle to keep its mouth shut. I don’t know the exact mechanics of how it works. I just want it to work. So I pour as much determination and desire as I can into that vision to will it to work, counting on my powers to make it happen.
My vision goes to static for a moment and I feel my connection with Gai and Ayako sever. My mind instead dedicates everything towards my immediate desire, the energy permeating my body converting into something that allows for physical interference as it sinks into the chain. It frees itself out of my hand towards the Hound.
The chains wrap around its muzzle, clamping it shut and sticking there for as long as the energy sinking into it can maintain it. The cost felt heavy just to do that much. Burst really isn’t my specialty after all, but it creates the opening I need to rush forward.
The Catcher’s priorities shift the moment it registers it’s under attack, halfway there. All at once Makidera is thrown into the air as it abandons her to confront me, legs tensing to move with the inhuman speed its kind was so fond of.
I assess the situation. The way it threw Makidera will result in her landing headfirst into a building. She’ll die on impact at how fast she’s going. I have to grab her before that happens. So I sink everything into my body and strengthen it to survive.
Then kick off the ground, diving for her with my arms outstretched. Her weight and momentum buckle my arms and slams into my chest. Then I feel something hard hitting my back before the effects of my Rise-Strength fades, sending pain shooting through my body and knocking the breath out of me—
—and I don’t have time to fight off the pain before Makidera screams as the Catcher lunges towards us, having jumped in the air at some point during that brief moment. Instinct takes hold and ditches the dead weight in my arms to the side. Strength surges and brings both my free arm and the blade up as the claws descend like a guillotine.
My mind flares red, my lungs and throat burn as a scream comes out. One of its claws narrowly misses my head. The other broke my free arm, bone snapping as the flesh was torn into. In exchange for my arm though, my tanto pierces its core.
I bite down the pain and scream to twist the blade, widening the gap as I push it off the side. The blade snaps as the corpse falls to my left, pulling the claws free of the wound and exposing it to the air. It hurts, pulsing with pain with every beat of my racing heart as my lungs start working again to take in deep breaths of the metal and copper scented air.
But at least I’m alive…
…and no sooner than that thought crosses my mind, metal snaps and sends a chill down my spine.
I whip my head around towards the source and see that the chain broke. Now freed from the muzzle, the Hound opens its mouth to scream again when there’s a rush of air and its head falls off. It was severed by the neck as a pole-mounted blade buries itself into the pavement, and the naginata’s owner lands a second later to crush the Hound’s core beneath her foot.
Ayako’s panting as she stares at me. Stray strands of her brown hair cling to her glistening brow, and her chest rises and falls at a frantic rate. She must’ve rushed over to get here on time.
“The cords…cut… I thought that…” She doesn’t finish as her voice turns raspy for a moment. Swallowing saliva to cool her burning throat and taking a deep breath, she asks me, “Are you both okay?”
“WILL SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON!?”
Oh right. Makidera’s here too. Forgot about her for a minute.
I turn to see she’s got a scrape on her head from where I pushed her out of the way. It’s leaking a trickle of blood that runs in a streamlet down her closed eye, and she looks like she’s on the verge of tears from either the pain or the fear. But she was largely unharmed.
Throb. Unlike me.
Ayako notices the wince on my face and crouches down in front of me. “Show me your arm.”
I hold my arm up, showing where the claw hand dug into the coat. A deep scarlet color was staining it. “The Catcher got my arm while I was saving her.”
She looks it over carefully. “I can tell it’s broken at a glance, but not how deep it is. I’ll need to get the sleeve off.”
A hot lance of pain surges through the wound as she slowly peels back the sleeve, freeing the coat’s material from the wet flesh. I suck in a sharp breath to deal with it. “How bad is it?”
“It’s shallow and the break will be easy to set, so you won’t bleed out if we get it covered up and put pressure on it.” She unzips her coat and starts to take it off. “All our supplies are back near where we left them. I should have at least brought the bandages or pain medication or—”
“What about Yukicchi and Himuro?” Makidera interrupts. Her body is trembling, so I assume she’s struggling to regain the ability to move.
“Gotou’s got them both.” Ayako takes a moment to look over Makidera. “How did you even get here anyway?”
“They were chasing down rumors of the calling cards,” I say. Her eyes turn to me for a moment, showing I had her attention. “Himuro’s the type to chase rumors, so once she heard about it there’s no doubt that she would go out and search for it. And Gotou found his card because he was searching to give her one as well. Nemesis Q must’ve caught them in a sweep this time when it started pulling people from all over. ”
“Damn it!” Her fist balls up in anger for a moment. Then she regains control of herself, faces Makidera, and holds up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Okay. Now how bad does this hurt?”
Her face scrunches up as Ayako gently touches the wound. “A lot. Now can you explain what’s going on? And what’s with this crazy place and those monsters!?”
“Let me deal with Shinji first and then I’ll get you all somewhere safe and explain everything.”
She rises to her feet and heads over to her naginata, pulling it out of the ash-covered pavement. Then she grabs it with both hands, separated about the length of her shoulders, and turns away from us as a pair of explosion blows it into three pieces. She gathers the broken pieces, crouches down in front of me, and exposes her pink undershirt once more as her jacket comes off.
“What are you doing?” Makidera asks in shock, one eye open and wide in surprise at the situation.
“I need to make a splint for him,” Ayako says factually before she tears the hem of her shirt away and uses two of the broken pieces of her weapon to do so. “Shinji, you’ll probably need a sling for the arm once we get back, but it’ll have to do for now.”
It still hurts, but not as bad as before. “Got it.”
I rise to my feet as she tears another strip of her undershirt off, leaving her midriff exposed as she uses the strip to create a temporary bandage for Makidera’s head. Once it’s patched up, Ayako puts her jacket back on, picks Makidera up, and leads us through the alley towards the other members of the Track Trio. There we find Gotou holding Himuro in his arms, while Saegusa looks terrified as she clings to his shoulder.
Relief briefly crosses their faces when they see one another. It lasts for three seconds before another rumble from collapsing buildings in the distance breaks the moment. Then we head back as the night sets in.
The first thing I notice when I arrive to the future isn’t the chill of the air or the taste on my tongue as it passes by. It isn’t the view of the land from atop the building I’m on. It’s not even the screams that I can hear in the distance before they’re snuffed out.
The first thing I notice is the difference within me—the power that thrums beneath my skin.
I feel invigorated and alert, every cell in my body carrying a charge of some kind. I feel like I can run a mile without ever getting tired. I feel like I can do anything—an unparalleled adrenaline rush.
“That feeling will pass once your bodies get used to it,” Ayako says without looking at us. Instead, her eyes are further ahead and down below. She’s scanning the surroundings and planning what step to take next. “But right now we don’t have time to waste. Put on your coats, grab your weapons, and leave your bags there.”
…I close my eyes and tighten my fists to squash the excitement beneath my skin and do as she says. The coat feels a bit big, but it stops the cold from biting at my torso through my other clothes. Armed and dressed, I walk over to the edge of the building and stand next to her while Gai does the same.
We’re in a city, or what was once a city. There are various buildings that have been weathered to the point they could no longer stand. Rust ate away at the steel and stone looked like it was eroded. It was a dead city for certain, a rusted skeleton of what it used to be sometime in the past. Yet there was life below, unfolding chaos as distant dots moved on the ground and in the air flying around.
The need to see and hear further makes my brain tremble slightly and my senses abruptly sharpen. Screams of terror, buzzing of wings, lumbering steps, resounding howls, the taste of metal in the air, the distant figures becoming detailed—it call comes so easily that the sudden change overwhelms me utterly.
I screw my eyes shut, clamp my ears closed, and hold my breath while willing the changes to go away. The tingling in my brain stops after a moment. Everything goes back to normal as I feel a hand on my shoulders.
It’s Ayako. “Ease into it next time. If you don’t set a limit then it’ll go for the peak of what you’re capable of before you’re used to it.”
“Got it.” I stand, rubbing my eyes. “I heard human screams, so I guess it’s a recruiting mission.”
“With Catchers, Hounds, Carriers and Crystal Wasps lurking around,” Ayako adds. “They’re carting people off in pods. Those that get too far from the recruitment zone or too close to a tower will be killed by Nemesis Q since they haven’t got a means of defending themselves until they’ve awakened like you two. That means we need to get over there and save who we can.”
Gai looks down. “It’s a long way to the bottom. You’d think it could have dropped us down close to the street.”
The distance means nothing to Ayako as she jumps. Not down, but across into the distance by at least two blocks. She lands on a rooftop without too much trouble and looks back our way.
Gai whistles, impressed, and stares at her in the distance with his eyes squinted. “Think she expects to make that jump?”
I couldn’t help but scoff at the suggestion. I knew I couldn’t make that jump. So I turn around and look to see if there’s a better way down.
That’s when the air around us wavers and congeals into a pair of giant hands like she showed us in the past, only more solid. They grab us. It’s not tight enough to crush us, but it’s a firm grip that leaves me feeling constricted as they lift us through the air. Like that, we’re literally carried for several blocks as she keeps making vast bounds until a scream is close enough to be heard unassisted.
The source is a girl who looks around our age, in the midst of a group of six Hounds and four Catchers. She’s dressed in a school uniform I don’t recognize, screaming her lungs out as a Catcher holds her over one of the pods with tears in her eyes. She isn’t moving or flailing about, so I’m guessing she got caught by the paralyzing scream. It drops her into a larger pod than the one we saw being carried during the last trip, where pained sounds could be heard from other voices within as she lands, and backs away after it closes the top.
Something descends from the sky. It’s as large as a bus, pale white skin with a helmet-shaped shell where its head should be. It lowers itself to the top of the pod, wraps its lower appendages around the container, and then begins to rise into the air with it.
That’s when Ayako stops holding back. As the hands lower us to the ground, she hops off the top of the building she’s perched on and then kicks off the side of it. She disappears from my view at that moment—
—and then an inhuman shriek bellows from the creature as it collapses over the pod. There’s a gash across its core, courtesy of Ayako. Not only did she deliver a killing blow to it in passing, but she’s also standing in front of one of the Catchers with her naginata punching through its chest and out of the back.
She pulls it out of the side hard enough that the top-half of the Catcher is ripped off in the process and sent askew. Then she aims her crossbow gauntlet towards the Hounds and opens fires. By the time we touch the ground, she’s killed half of the Hounds and the rest of the Taboo have realized they’re under attack.
A surviving Hound howls loud enough to reverberate throughout the area before its life is snuffed out by one of her crossbow bolts, cutting short the signal that still likely reached the other Taboo nearby and called for them to attack us. At the same time, one of the Catchers leaps through the air towards her unprotected back with the same speed that the last one possessed when it floored Gai our first trip.
Before we could shout a warning, she spins around and thrusts the naginata to intercept it mid-fall. Not only did she pierce through its core, but she managed to then pin it to the ground with preternatural strength. Then she used the shaft as a pole to spin around and then deliver a kick to the second one that tried to do the same, sending it crashing through the wall of the half-collapsed building next to us.
“I think she’s got this,” Gai says from next to me. His arms hang to his side with his weapons limply between his fingers.
I can’t help but nod. We really aren’t needed here. Let her handle the fighting while we kick back. As long as we make sure she doesn’t wear herself out too fast and end up like the last time, I think we’ve got this handled…
CRASH!! Of course, then the wall behind us explodes in a spray of stone chunks and dust.
We both turn at the sound to find that the Catcher she launched through the building just punched through the wall behind us. Its arms violently swing back and forth to clear away the stone dust, and it turns towards us. Then it roars and its thick legs began to tense like springs being coiled.
“Aw crrrraaaaaaappppp—” Gai’s words are drawn out as my brain quivers under my PSI-induced Tachy Psyche effect. Time slows to a crawl for me as the Catcher lunges for us, slowly drifting through the air towards us with its arms outstretched to grab us. I use the elongated time to consider my options and then channel that energy to my arms and legs, hastening time as I grab him and then dive out of the way. “—ooph!”
We escape death as it spears through the open space and crashes behind where we were, leading into a roll that carries it further out. I have no doubts now. That would have killed both of us if we were tackled at that speed without being empowered by Rise.
I hurry and get onto my feet and pull out my tanto while Gai hops up and gets into a fighting stance. The Catcher digs its limbs into the concrete with ease to slow itself and then throws itself at us again. Gai intercepts its tackle his body this time and he ends up sliding back from the momentum before he brings his fist down with a battle-cry on its unprotected head.
I don’t know if that thing’s skull is as durable as a human’s. But I do know that its head is half-gone from the blow as it falls to the ground. And it still wasn’t dead.
Even with half its head turned to pulp, the Catcher grasps Gai’s leg from its fallen posture and then rises, overturning him at the ankle like a hanged-man. Then it chambers its arm and swings down in act of revenge.
The only reason he doesn’t have his head crushed by the impact with the ground is that he instinctively guards with his arm before it’s too late. And the only reason his arm isn’t broken into pieces is because his Rise is still in effect. But there was no telling if he could maintain it under pressure.
I lengthen my perception of time to get out of the way as it prepares to try smashing his head into the building this time. Even if he could survive it, we can’t risk him losing any more brain cells since he’s the muscle. I decide on my course of action and, if there was a dial to turn up how super-human I was, then I visualize going from a ‘1’ to ‘5’, sink that power into my arms and legs, and bring the tanto’s blade down.
The first strike cuts through its wiry arm and liberates the idiot before his date with the wall. Then I bring it around again. My blade flows in an arc and cuts through the core this time, with enough force in my arms to tear out a deep gash from which vapor seeped out.
Its life spills out from the core like the sands of a broken hourglass. Perhaps because it’s bigger than a Hound it doesn’t stop functioning as quickly. But it’s dying and it knows it. So with whatever time it has, it makes a final and futile attempt to kill me by bringing its claws around.
My perception of time lengthens for a third time and I see the claws coming for my head, intent on tearing it off my shoulders. I lean forward to get out of the way and thrust the point of the blade into the gash I made to ensure the kill. It goes silent as I pull the blade free and let it finish falling forward, hitting the ground again.
I kick it with my foot just to make sure it’s dead this time. There’s no movement and the body is turning into ashes. It’s dead. I don’t even get the chance to breathe out a sigh of relief when a muffled explosion goes off above our heads and ashes fall like snow. Something had been there—keyword being had.
Ayako stands next to the pod, surrounded by dead Taboo that have begun turning to ashes, lowering her gauntlet after that last shot. “If a Crystal Wasp manages to tag you with one of its projectile needles, you’ll begin to crystallize unless you have some kind of Burst to protect you or have a strong enough Rise to avoid the needle piercing your skin. You’re especially vulnerable to that Shinji, so don’t forget to look up next time.”
She then goes from chiding me to leaping to the top of the pod. She inspects the bulb at the top and then lays a hand on it. It promptly explodes. “That should stop whatever signals it’s putting out to alert the Carriers for a pick-up, so the people inside should be okay right now.”
Gai cracks his knuckles as he approaches and eyes the pod, sizing it up. “I think I can open it up easy enough.”
I shoot the suggestion down before it can gain any traction by pointing out the obvious. “If we have to babysit a bunch of people in the middle of a warzone it’ll slow us down. If they’re safe in there, we can just shove the container as a whole somewhere else and come back for it later.”
Ayako consents, albeit hesitantly. “…We’ll just move them out of sight and then come back for them later. Right now we need to prioritize the people still active and being hunted down.”
We changed up our dynamics after that first scuffle once we had the basics down. That must’ve been at least an hour or two ago. And in these two hours, I had come further than I had back in our time period in the development of my power.
“We’re close to another group!” Ayako yells from further ahead. She’s faster than us by the sheer virtue of her body being well-trained, even when she conserves her power to avoid running dry. It was under Ayako’s guidance we followed the closest scream in this ruined landscape to attempt to save whoever we could.
Once we see a number of Crystal Wasps heading towards a certain direction, a switch of some kind flips in Ayako’s head mid-step. The moment her foot touches the ground, she’s gone. Muted explosions follow as Taboo start dying and Ayako blitzes forward to deal with any flying Taboo to stop the pod there from being carted off and get rid of the most troubling Taboo.
Those Crystal Wasps were the biggest threats out of all the Taboo we’ve encountered so far, even if they were the easiest to get around. They didn’t have eyes, making it easy to avoid them by standing still, but they can track vibrations in the air and were drawn to the screams. And with a lot of people screaming, they were drawn like moths to a flame.
Taking even a scrape of their stingers means losing a limb at least. And if it hit some place that couldn’t be cut off, it was a death sentence. Some sort of crystalline material forms from the wound and encroaches on the rest of the body, transfiguring flesh into crystal—as demonstrated on one businessman who didn’t stop screaming as he fled from the sight of us fighting, unsure of what was happening and forced to make a judgment call—the wrong one, needless to say.
However, they didn’t seem to have the same impact on the other Taboo. If anything, they seemed to avoid targeting people that were too close to them. Did their cores vibrate at a frequency that stopped them or emit some kind of signal?
Ayako didn’t have an answer for me when I asked. There just wasn’t enough research into it because we couldn’t take these things into the past with us and find someone capable of doing so. But she did agree that it was likely the same way the Carriers managed to find the pods despite lacking eyes because of the bulbs at the top.
As Ayako deals with them, Gai uses his Rise to surpass human limits and leaps into the fray with his fist chambered. The first blow manages to make impact and utterly shatters the body of the Catcher, breaking open the flesh to reveal crystalline-like bones while the core is broken in three large pieces.
I remain careful as I approach due to my limitations. I don’t have the desire to put myself on the line, but I do wish to test the limits of what I’m capable of. Even if I can use Strength-Rise in bursts, that’s still enough.
The assault continues from there. As white bolts leave explosions through the air and inhuman flesh breaks open against iron-backed fists, my cold steel cleaves obsidian cores. In less than a minute the group of Taboo was slain, broken bodies turning to ashes to be scattered by the cold breeze that tasted of metal.
“This is a lot easier than I expected,” I say as I inspect the weapon I borrowed. The blade’s chipped at certain points already. “Though I’m not sure this thing will last too long. I expected it to last longer.”
“They’re easy to kill because they’re not Soldiers,” Ayako says as she destroys the signaling bulb on top of the pod and rests her naginata on her shoulder. “These things aren’t meant to deal with Psychicers and they’re really only a threat if you let your guard down or you’ve exhausted yourself. Likewise, most of the weapons we get our hands on aren’t meant to be used by people as strong as us when we push past normal human limits.”
Gai follows my example checks his as well. I can’t tell how he knows but he frowns as he drops his arms and looks at the pod. “They probably won’t last long enough to save too many people.”
I shrug. “We wouldn’t be able to anyway. There are simply too many people being dropped in all over the city. And there are too many Taboo for us get to them all in time.”
So far we only managed to save a measly two more pods worth of people and five stragglers who were lucky enough to survive while being unlucky enough to see the people around them die. Realistically speaking, most of the people here were screwed. It’s a fact, unfair as it was.
But because he didn’t accept that as a fact, Gai suggests the worst thing he possibly could. “What if we split up? Mitsuzuri can get to the high-ground and use that to spot distant people and snipe Taboo, while we cover the ground and go in for the rescue.”
I am not splitting up here of all places, so I start listing off all the reasons it’s a bad idea. “We wouldn’t be able to remain in contact efficiently. Telepathy degrades over distances and there’s a delay. Plus, your Trance still sucks on sending out thoughts. Not to mention if she’s also shooting off her Burst, she’ll run out of energy quicker and it’ll possibly end up like last time.”
Ayako looks down at the ground as she listens. Then her head shoots up as if inspiration has struck her. “Shinji, what about that thing Issei said you were working on in our time? Couldn’t that work?”
Damn. I was hoping they wouldn’t remember that. “I haven’t tested it here, but I did manage to work out the basics.”
“But if it does work, can you link us together?”
“Theoretically,” I admit. “I haven’t tested it on another Psychicer yet and I’d have to link them to me, but if you do the same thing you normally do to send out your thoughts through it and send them to me it might be possible.”
“Then let’s do it. There’s no better place than this time period and I don’t hear or see anything that could threaten us.”
Okay, I didn’t want to do this. But if I’m going to stop this from happening, I’m going to have to play my hand. “I originally developed it to read minds and yours would be an open book to me. Are you really comfortable with me have that sort of power over you?”
Having someone who can read your mind and ferret your innermost secrets is terrifying. I’d kill to hide all the things I’ve done to this point—to her, to Sakura, and to Emiya. I’m willing to die before I speak of them, so it should give me an out and stop the idiot’s suggestion from gaining further ground…
“I trust you not to do that.”
Then she says seven words that takes the fight out of me… mostly because I’m staring at her with the same ‘are you an idiot’ look I give Emiya on occasion. “You’re serious?”
She smiles wryly, as though to reassure me. “I’ll admit the old you might take advantage of that sort of thing, but not in this sort of situation. And if it can help us save even a few more people, it’d be worth it.”
…Damn, when she says it like that it reminds me of that visit in the hospital. “Tch.”
“And she could probably make you suffer for it,” the idiot ‘helpfully’ chimes in.
I glare at him. “I’ll do it already, so don’t say things that don’t need to be said while I concentrate. It’s hard enough with all the distant screaming.”
He mimes zipping his lips and then keeps them shut. Good. Here we go then.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I visualize the cord to contain the thoughts, the connection to isolate them from the atmosphere. The image is clear in my mind. Good.
Exhale. Now for the tip, the connecting point—a jack to plug into their minds and link it to mine. The image takes shape in my head. Good.
Inhale. The origin point from where it stems. It has to be my own mind, the base of my skull at the brain stem. The image is perfect. Good.
Exhale. Last are the rules of how it works and why. I shouldn’t need to micromanage everything if I’m going to be doing this while playing search and rescue.
Inhale. Rule #1: Trance energy and effort is needed to pass through it for sending thoughts. That way there are no mind-reading accidents.
Exhale. Rule #2: They’ll be able to send their thoughts to me and receive thoughts I willingly send. But they won’t be able to pull at thoughts from me. I refuse to budge on that.
Inhale. Rule #3: The cord extends based on the distance. Trance shouldn’t encounter any interference from physical objects, so that should prevent it from needing to be excessively long and save me from expending excess energy.
Exhale. Three iron-clad rules are set into place and woven into the creation process as I will the constructs into existence. The energy permeating me is roused, heating up, boiling in my brain as the power tries to meet the criteria I set. I feel something emerging from the base of my skull, a strange sensation like thread being pulled from a spool slowly.
I open my eyes and look over my shoulders. Two argent, phantasmal cords with jacks on their end hang in the air behind me. I will them to move, putting effort and energy into them. They do as commanded. “Okay, I think I got it. You ready?”
Rather than saying anything, Ayako turns her back to me. Then unzips her shirt just enough so she can lower the collar and expose the nape of her neck. Her skin is somewhat glistening with sweat from the exertion to this point.
I focus on that spot and visualize a jack moving slowly towards it carefully, inching closer and closer. The tip meets her skin and I hesitate for a moment. Then I swallow and thrust it in slowly.
She tenses up as it sinks in and she rubs the spot tenderly with her fingers. The digits go through the cord and jack as if it wasn’t even there.
I feel the connection between us. Her mind and mine are connected now. I send a test message. ‘Does it hurt?’
She holds her head and leans forward, wincing. “Go a bit easier there. If felt like you were yelling inside my skull.”
Damn, did I put too much energy into it that time? I carefully wrap my thoughts up in as gentle a tone as I can, using as little energy as I can. ‘Sorry! I was nervous and overshot. Does it hurt where we’re connected? ’
‘It does just feel a little strange, but that’s probably just because it’s our first time doing this. ’ She turns her head and nods. ‘I’ll get used to it. ’
I breathe easier at that and relax. I didn’t want to hurt her, so I feel a little more confident about going on when she puts it that way. ‘Try moving a little to make sure it doesn’t come out.’
She moves forward a few steps. Then she jumps up and down a bit. ‘No problems so far. ’
‘Try jumping up on top of a building as fast as you can. ’
She looks up at the nearest building, a husk of what should have been an office from the design. In a blink she disappears. ‘Can you still hear me? ’
‘Yeah, and I can still feel us connected. ’ The cord is extending on its own like it should, more thread unraveling from the spool of energy within me. ‘I think it’ll do. ’
‘Good job for your first PSI creation. ’ Ayako messages before she lands in front of me. It’s then I take notice of the narrow view of her pink undershirt with a rather childish-looking teddy bear design, contrasting the fact that her bra’s outline could be faintly seen due to the sweat clinging to it.
I turn away and carefully word my next message. ‘You can zip your shirt up now. Your collar won’t get in the way. ’
Ayako looks down and notices the view she’s giving me. She zips up and then crosses her arms as she glares at me. ‘Really, Shinji? ’
Okay, I see what she meant by yelling. I suck in a sharp breath and hold my hands up to pacify her before she explodes in volume or worse. ‘I didn’t tell you to zip it down. I was just pointing it out. ’
‘This jacket holds insulation really well and using Rise heats up the body a lot, so I can overheat if I wear a thicker shirt. I keep those in the backpack until I need them. ’
‘I’m not judging. ’ I honestly didn’t expect pink tone or the teddy bear design from her though. ‘You don’t have be so defensive. ’
“Um—” The third voice reminds us that Gai is still here. “—is it my turn now?”
…Right, I forgot about him. Since it seems to be working, and this is his fault to begin with, I don’t need to go so slow or be so gentle. So I just have the jack thrust into the base of his skull all at once.
“Ow!” He swats at the spot where the jack connected like an insect bit him there. “That stung.”
I float a thought his way to test the connection. ‘The first time is the most painful. You’ll get used to it; just try not to use too much energy when you send your thoughts. It’ll be like screaming inside my head otherwise. ’
‘Got it. ’ He looks out towards the distance. ‘Should we get started then, huh? ’
His words shatter the little bubble we had lost ourselves in at that moment, sobering us up to the situation at hand once more. We had tested the Mind Jacks for a reason and they worked, so there were no more delays. Back to search and rescue it was then.
There’s nothing quite like looking into the eyes of a woman as the light fades from them. I didn’t know why they seemed so appealing as they slowly clouded over while frozen in fear. Not really. Only that they were hauntingly beautiful as they did while the scent of blood tinged the air.
I didn’t know the girl’s name or age. After all, it had been on a whim that I decided to follow her home. She was maybe between the ages of 16 and 20 if I had to guess. Her parents looked like they were middle-aged while they were sleeping, so that seemed about right.
I step back to admire my handiwork a little better and pull out my camera to take the photo of the girl bound to the headboard by her arms. Her long, dark hair was brushed behind her ears so they didn’t obscure her face. Crimson ran from the point where her throat was slashed, cascading down her pale skin in streamlets that ran down the bare and supple curves that were beneath her neck and tantalizing framed them in a way that was just picture perfect.
I snap the picture and save it to my collection when a muffled cry catches my ear and I—
I couldn’t keep my voice in as the man who broke into our house and killed everyone took a picture of my sister’s corpse. I had tried to pretend not to be there. To think it was a bad dream that I would wake up from, and my sister would be sleeping on the bed next to me. But the moment he turns and gives me the same smile that he wore when he put the knife to my sister’s throat and slit it, I knew it wasn’t a nightmare.
“Ah, I haven’t forgotten about you,” he says cheerfully as he waves the camera. “I just wanted to get this shot while the blood still had its luster. Blood dries surprisingly quick.”
My heart tries to escape where my arms and legs can’t as he walked over, bound to the bedposts by ropes that ate into my wrists and ankle and rubbed them raw. The gag muffled my screams as I look into the innocent-looking eyes of a monster that killed everyone without a second thought.
He places the camera in front of me and shows me the photo he’s taken of my sister’s corpse. “See? It looks great, doesn’t it? You don’t have quite the same appeal as your sister, but yours might be more suited for a more innocent look. Maybe with twin-tails?”
I sob as he plays with my hair, like a little girl would a doll. That’s what we were to him, toys for his amusement. Why was a monster like this allowed to exist? Why did this have to happen to us?
He pulls back when he’s finished with my hair, using his hands to create a frame for him to see through. He smiles and then reaches for the knife that was still covered in the blood of my sister. He forces my head back with his free hand and sets the sharp edge of the knife of my neck and—
The floor breaks my fall from the bed, jolting me awake and cutting my scream short as it forces the air out of my lungs. “Ha…ha…ha…ha…”
I lay there, panting and staring at the ceiling on my room as the morning sun begins to filter into it. It had been a dream. It was just a dream. Yet, it all felt so real.
I was that murder, down to my core. I knew why he did what he did. I felt the same joy he did as he opened up that girl’s throat after slaughtering her family, a smile on my lips at the chance to experience the pleasure that came from watching the luster of her blood spilling out over the supple flesh of a young woman. It was… art to him, with each victim being a different and unique work.
At the same time, I was the victim. I felt her fear. I felt her sorrow as she watched her sister, the closest person to her, die a meaningless death. I felt her last moments, up to the point where the knife opened her throat in a single, swift motion.
I reach up to my throat. My heart skips a beat when I feel something wet. I pull my hand away and find them glistening with sweat and not blood. It does little to bring me relief when I can still remember the phantom feeling of the knife and the scent of blood so richly.
It’s getting worse by a magnitude now. No longer content on catching me on the fringes of waking up, I can recall the nightmare from start to end… no, it wasn’t a nightmare. That happened somewhere, a real scenario engraved into the world under the definition of ‘evil’, and it was so vivid that it was inseparable from reality for me.
When I think about how many others await me, I can’t help but feel burning tears trail down from my eyes. “I just want it to end….”
The day only continued to get worse from that horrible awakening.
I had managed to clean myself up and head to school with my sister, who gave my pitiable looks when she thought I wasn’t looking. She must’ve heard me screaming again. There were no words to state how much I hated it when she gave me those sorts of looks, even if it was from concern.
But then, in the period after Lunch, I heard it. In the back of my mind, I heard the tolling of the bell that signaled it was time to return to the future. It was light, a chiming that could be passed as my imagination going wild. I may have been willing to pass it off as just that, if not for the sight of Gai abruptly stopping his chat with another guy in class to turn to me and open his mouth.
I raise a finger to signal him not to talk about it aloud and send a telepathic message. ‘I hear it too. ’
‘Aya… id…me?’ He tries to send a message back, but his Trance is horrible enough that some parts have holes in it. It must be the trade-off in exchange for his proficiency in other fields of PSI. Regardless, I understood what he was getting at—we were supposed to have more time before the call came in.
‘You guys hear that, don’t you?’ Ayako’s voice resounds clearly in my head.
‘I thought we had more time than this.’
‘There’s some room for error. But from the intensity, I think we have until nightfall before it gets too loud. After school, head straight to the Student Council Room.’
Her mental voice cuts out after that. So we’re heading back there, to that ruined future, in a few hours. The thought makes my hand shake slightly, no matter how much I try to keep calm as I look outside the window and away from Gai.
The last time we barely managed to get by. Even though we’re stronger now, I can’t say that I’m all that enthusiastic about returning to that land of death. But there’s no choice in the matter, as the slight toll in the back of my head reminds me. If I want to live, I have to do this. So, as time passes like grains of sand in death’s hourglass, I contemplate everything that I’m capable of and those around me to minimize the chances of me being killed.
Gai is strong when it comes to Rise-Strength. He’s proficient enough in practice to where I doubt he’ll have trouble fighting against the Taboo. But he had no practical experience in battle and his Trance ability is weak enough to where even close-range line-of-sight telepathy is hard on him in the present and he hasn’t discovered his limits in the future. Chances are he’ll make a mistake or freeze-up, and if he gets lost he won’t be able to maintain contact with anyone.
As for me, I’m the opposite of him. My specialty is Trance, with my secondary being in Rise-Sense. While I can transition from Sense to Strength, I can’t use them at the same time. That makes me frailer than the others and likely to fall into an ambush.
The only one of us whose better-suited to go it alone is Ayako. Not only is she experienced in having multiple trips under her belt and has all-around capabilities, but her Burst is capable of creating some kind of explosive energy that can destroy things with relative ease. However, she’s liable to throw herself against the enemy to save someone else and sticking with her will leave us wading into danger.
No matter how I look at it, we’re basically going to be tied to her waist the entire time. We’re too green and don’t know what to fully expect going in. As much as I loathe the thought of being so dependent on her to survive, there’s no other choice.
When the final bell rings, I head the opposite way of the Student Council Room and go down the stairs to the Second Year’s floor. Even if we need to go to the future, we don’t need another mess like what happened the last time with the club. I enter the hallway and see Sakura walking down the opposite end, heading towards the stairs. “Sakura!”
She turns towards me at the call and looks surprised to see me. As I approach her, she then changes directions and meets me halfway. “Is there something wrong, Nii-san?”
“Something’s come up. Mitsuzuri and I won’t be able to make it to the club today because we’re busy with something else and I need you to handle overseeing it alone. We’re going to be gone for a while and chances are you won’t be able to reach us by phone. Go over to Emiya’s place if you need to and don’t wait up if I’m not home after dark.”
Her expression shifts from confusion to concern. “Is everything okay?”
Not remotely close, but she doesn’t need to know that. “It’s just an obligation that needs to be seen through. Make sure everything in the club is running smoothly.”
She doesn’t look like she follows completely, but she obediently nods her head. “Yes, Nii-san. Just take care of yourself.”
With that out of the way, I head to the meeting room to find Gai and the Student President waiting for me. Ayako is nowhere to be found. “Where’s Mitsuzuri?”
“At her home, changing into something more suitable for the environment,” the Student President says as he locks the door to the room. “I have a marker set up in her room that allows me to send her there when needed. Once she gives me a call, I’ll retrieve her. For now, we need to head to the temple, where you’ll find your supplies and weapons for the journey.”
In his hand he cradles a luminous square, the manifestation of the boundary of his Teleportation Marker. It expands to cover all three of us and the world around us abruptly changes to a room in the temple, probably another guest room judging by the setup.
The Student President walks over to a pair of sliding doors and shifts them open to reveal a closet. Only instead of futons and winter bedding, there was a wall of weapons and camping backpacks and coats. He picks up two of the backpacks and shows them to us. “Come over here, you’ll need equipment for your trip.”
I walk over and he hands me one. It feels rather heavy and cumbersome. “What’s in them?”
“Survival supplies that we’ve gathered. You weren’t there for very long your first trip and Mitsuzuri-kun had expended hers before you arrived, but we normally prepare and provide them just in case the mission requires a prolonged absence. You’ll have food and water to last you for up to a week if you ration it well, sleeping bags, some minor camping necessities, and so on. You’ll also need to take a weapon or two from the wall as well to aid you if you encounter a Taboo.”
The weapons in the back of the closet are arranged by hooks in the walls, with the largest weapon being on the top and consisting of what looks to be a staff. From there they decrease in size, consisting of swords and other weapons you would find in a temple. However, on the sides are weapons that were harder to place. “Why do you have brass knuckles, a nail-bat, and butterfly knives in here?”
“These are essentially remnants of Brother Reikan’s misspent youth,” the Student President says with just a hint of shame in his voice. “In his school days, he would often get into fights with hooligans afterhours and on the way to the Temple. They occasionally brought weapons to the altercations and he kept them in the aftermath as trophies of sorts.”
Gai whistles as he looks the collection up and down, impressed by what he hears. In my case, there was one weapon that caught my eyes. It was a tanto with a familiar emblem on it. “This belongs to the Fujimura group, doesn’t it?”
The question grabs Gai’s attention. “You mean Taiga-Sensei’s family?”
“They’re Yakuza.” Not surprising he doesn’t know. Because of how she acts and she keeps her hands clean, few really understand just who she is and her connections. The fact that she’s so immature helps with that. I pick the blade up and unsheathe it. “Why is it here?”
“In the case of that one, I believe the story involves inebriation and perceived insults involving one of Fujimura’s associates, but they’ve since reconciled. We were planning on teaching you to use different weapons, but since the call came early I can only advise you to pick something you’ll feel comfortable with for—”
Bzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzt! Bzzzt!
His words cut off as his phone vibrates loudly and he answers. “…Very well. I’m on my way now.” He hangs up and uses his power to vanish from our view. I can only assume its Ayako calling him for a pick up.
I turn back to the wall of weapons. The first thing I do is rule out any of the temple weapons. I don’t have formal training in any sort of martial art or weapon-use. Trying to use one of the more exotic ones is suicidal considering that. I also stop Gai from going for the sword that hung around the middle section for that reason. “Pick something simple and reliable for a fight, not something you feel would work best from copying one of the shows you watch.”
“Simple, huh?” He looks for a bit more and then grabs a pair of what look to be a U-shaped piece of metal with a handgrip connecting the ends. He holds them like knuckledusters and then takes up a fighting stance. “Yeah, these might work best.”
They probably won’t contribute much to his combat potential considering that with Rise in effect he can punch through a body easy enough. But anything else would just be in the way. Keeping it simple and sticking to what he’s good at is the smarter call and if they break he’ll still be able to use his fists.
As for me, I decide to use the tanto. It’s basically a large knife with thicker metal, so it’s not as flimsy as the knives, nor as complicated as a sword too use. If I do get into trouble, all I have to do is stab my problem until it stops being a problem. I slip it into my pocket as the Student President returns with Ayako in tow.
She’s sporting a long-sleeve shirt that zips up in the front and looks like it’s made of wool, so it was possibly meant for winter weather. She also switched out her skirt for a pair of pants that look like they were made for outdoor activity, with a number of pockets. And her boots rose up her ankles and had fur around.
Not a bad look for her, but I have to question just why she has a naginata in her hands. “Don’t tell me you’re planning on bringing that along?”
“I’ve got a couple of years of practice with it, as well as some experience in using it against the Taboo.” Ayako perches the shaft on her shoulder and turns her head towards the Veteran of the group. “You’re going to be watching after us, right?”
He nods. “I notified Kirishima-kun that I would be absent due to Temple duties. Though I lament adding the burden of my work onto her duties as Vice-President, ensuring that I am here in the event of an emergency takes precedence.”
“I’ll see to it that they come out without too many scratches,” Ayako says before turning to us. “Do as I say the entire time we’re there. I don’t want to risk either of you getting killed, alright?”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” I have no intention of dying here after all.
That exchange aside, the Student President had us take a seat in the center of the room, back-to-back in a lotus position. The coats and backpacks were sat in our laps, cradled by one arm, while the other was used to make the calls to Psyren. Since each of us has our calling cards, they should allow us to bring copies of them with us to the future while the originals remain behind.
Doing my best to calm my heart by taking a deep breath, I clutch the phone tightly. The fear makes my hand shaky as I pull up the number saved in a list, but I have no choice but to do it if I want to live. So I close my eyes, I hit the button to dial it with all the strength I can muster, and put the phone to my ear…
Then I leave the present behind for the cold future once more.
The world flashes as I land on my back. The pain blends with the aches already driven into my flesh, leaving me as a mass of agony. If I knew this was how today was going to go, I would have stayed at home.
“On your feet, Matou. You can rest once you’ve shown improvement.”
The insufferable tone of the Student President’s voice makes me grit my teeth. I force my upper body to rise so that my glare shifts from the ceiling of the Guest Room of the Ryuudou Temple to the pain in my ass responsible for putting here. “Tell that to my aching back. You could have at least placed a mat down here.”
“The pain serves as motivation and I can heal most of the injuries you accumulate if there’s a need for it. Now rise.”
“Just because you can heal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.” The last hour has been nothing but pain with no end in sight. In all honesty, I shouldn’t be surprised after yesterday that their idea of training Rise was to beat it into you.
“Whoa!” A shout and then ‘thud’ draws my attention to the other side of the large room, where Ayako has spent the last hour manhandling the idiot when he rushes her. Again she’s sent him tumbling to the mat after a trip into the air. Unlike me though, Gai manages to get right back up no worse for wear since he’s already gotten good enough at Rise to strengthen his body to take the beating.
“Remember, visualization is the key.” The asshole lectures me when he sees me standing again. “Picture yourself being faster and stronger—needing to be. That desire will call to the energy within you and thread your body with it.”
I don’t need him to tell me that. Visualization isn’t the problem. I can do that just fine. In fact, the desire to be strong enough to punch him in the face has served just fine to kick-start the process, sending warmth coursing through my muscles to dull the pain.
He sees it with those special eyes of his, glasses set aside for the duration of practice. It serves as the signal for him to attack. He closes the distance and thrust his fist out like a spear.
I move to get out of the way, only for the warmth to fade from my body as quickly as it came. The pain returns and stalls my attempt to move. So I get hit and a fresh wedge of pain is driven deep inside of me like a hammer would a nail.
He doesn’t stop his assault. Even though he has to be able to see that I’m not using Rise with those eyes of his, he doesn’t stop attacking. Instead, he drives his other fist into my left shoulder. It causes pain to blossom and take root into the bones there.
“You have to maintain it! Want the pain to stop! Want your body to be stronger!”
“I’m trying!” I attempt to twist my body as he spears his palm towards my chest, warmth spreading and stopping the pain as it swaddles my muscles. It lasts just long enough to avoid his attack but falters when I try to swing my fist towards his face.
He does a half-turn to avoid it and then drives his fist into my stomach. When I go down, clutching the spot, he crosses his arms and looks annoyed. “You have to maintain the image. If I have to continue to drive pain into your body to get that lesson in, I will.”
I clutch my stomach and snarl at him through clenched teeth. “Never… took you… for… a sadist.”
“I take no pleasure in this.” That’s a lie if I ever heard one. “But I cannot coddle you as Mitsuzuri-kun did yesterday. Burst may hold the most offensive potential, but Rise is the most essential to saving your life. If you can’t strengthen your body then all it takes is one solid hit from a Taboo to kill you.”
“I keep saying that it’s not working like that for me.” He just doesn’t get it. I can start the process of using Rise and generate the energy to strengthen my body, but I can’t maintain it for more than a second. It’s like a car that you can start up but it stops working after a moment. The ignition and fuel aren’t the problem, it’s something else entirely.
Damn it. I hate this. I hate it because it only serves to reinforce what I thought earlier. I have no real talent in Rise as I didn’t in Burst and, as much as I hate to admit it, he’s simply too talented compared to me. Someone naturally-talented can’t teach someone who isn’t talented.
“I’d be better off training with Mitsuzuri again than you.”
Ayako takes a moment to look up from the arm-lock she’s placed on Gai to chime in at that. “It’s better if it’s him who does it. He can see the aura of your power, so he’ll be able to assess your progress better.”
A sharp breath fills my lungs as I try to stand again. I don’t think he’s fractured or cracked anything. Even I can tell he’s intentionally placing his strikes to avoid doing anything that’s fatal. But I really don’t feel like getting kicked around for the rest of the day.
“You all say that multiple trips will strengthen my powers. So why not wait until the next one comes and goes before we try again?”
He refuses to budge on it. “Even discounting that your chances of survival drop the less of the basics you have down by the time the next call comes in, it becomes harder to use them properly when they scale. That’s why we need to ensure that it sticks now.”
“Can we at least take a break until the pain stops?”
“The pain only hinders it if you allow it to.” He takes up a fighting stance. “Now, ready yourself.”
There’s no reasoning with him. His determination to apparently beat the lesson into me is unyielding unless I show results. I can’t help but wonder if gaining all those powers screwed with his head more than the others. The Old Worm didn’t have extensive research on them, but like any magus worth his weight in salt and mysteries he had enough for me to learn to get a solid grasp on it last night.
Psychic powers were the result of a mutation that gave one an abnormal perception of reality that moved away from what humans as a whole could perceive. And that very same abnormal perception, an unnecessary and cumbersome “extra channel” as it’s considered, often drove them away from society as a whole because they saw the world too differently from normal people.
Psychicers weren’t exactly psychics in the sense that we weren’t born with those mutations. But I’m willing to bet that on some level that those who had stronger or more varied powers had their perspectives warped to a greater extent than someone who didn’t. In his case, his ability to heal has probably twisted his understanding of what pain does to someone constantly exposed to it in the long-run and left him believing that the physical pain and suffering is worth the gains from it as long as you don’t die from it.
At this rate he’ll break me, only to fix me up and break me again until the end of the day. If I want the pain to stop, I need to strike him down first.
No sooner than I come to that conclusion does he come for me, kicking off the ground.
I swing my fist towards him, knuckles first aiming for the center of his forehead. He doesn’t dodge it. He doesn’t need to. He simply slams his other arm upwards, knocking mine aside. Then he delivers a vicious palm-strike to my chest.
“Urgh!” The impact spreads throughout the rest of my rib cage and stalls me with pain. Another strike follows. It hits me from below, slamming into my chin. Stars come into view as my consciousness flickers for a moment.
In the span of that blink in time, he disappears from my vision like magic. Then I feel a sledgehammer slamming into my back. He’d gotten around me and lowered his stance before sliding forward to drive his elbow into my ribcage from behind.
“Agh!” It sends me staggering forward a few steps, leaving me holding the spot with my hand. But he’s close enough to that I can hit him now. That thought catches my legs before they can give out. I remain standing for the sake of lashing out with my fist in an effort to take his head off, desire boiling down my spine and nerves before reaching the arm.
He lowers his stance further—no, he drops his body and spins into a sweeping strike that knocks my legs away and leaves me falling to a knee. The sensation of the other one crashing into the floor is painful enough that I wonder if it ended up turning to jelly. But I see his hand getting ready to come again.
I protect my face. My face is one of my best features as a person. I can’t afford to have him damage it, I don’t care if he can heal me or not. So I raise both my arms to will myself to be able to withstand it, strength coursing through my body to withstand the blow.
So he goes for a grab instead. Leaping over my shoulder while grasping the collar of the borrowed temple gi and one of my arms, he pulls me along his path. Then he slams me down into the ground with a hard ‘thud’ that adds to the pain I’m in.
The cycle repeats when I manage to get back up. The bruises pile up. The agony increases further.
But the message doesn’t carry to him that it’s no good, no matter how many times I say it. He’s intent on making it so that the only option for me is to weather his blows by forcing my entire body to harden like stone or strike as swift as the wind. A second of strength to attack will do me no good since he’ll only dodge it. A second of strength to defend will do me no good since he’ll time his attack to hit the moment it wears off. It’s like something out of those old martial arts films.
I force myself to my feet and try to hammer him again with a blow as hard as I can manage again. My drive to strike him down no longer stems from a desire to hurt him, but self-preservation. It’s the thought of being in more pain and suffering than I already go through every night over some idiot being unable to understand that just because you can heal physical pain doesn’t mean it won’t linger in the mind as a phantom sensation, that drives me to fight back.
It’s still no good. Even when he’s close enough that I can feel the heat coming off his body, he’s simply too fast for me to strike down. He avoids it and then grabs my forearm with one hand to pull me off-balance while chambering the other.
I try to raise my other hand to block as his muscles tense, but pain lances through it from the last blow it’d taken. It won’t move in time. I have to dodge it. But he has a grip on my other arm, limiting my movements. I can break free if I boost myself, but then there was a matter of timing.
Get the timing.
Too fast and he’ll have enough time to strike back when it wears out.
Get the timing!
Too slow and he’ll land the hit.
Get the timing!!
His muscles uncoil as his chambered fist fires forward like a bullet towards me.
I have to get the timing down perfectly!
A painful jolt surges through my brain in response. Everything slows down as a niggling warmth permeates my brain. His fist moves sluggishly, like the air’s density has turned to molasses. I try to move out of its way, but my body feels slow and numb. It’s no good if I can’t move fast enough, so I will my body to move.
The sensation permeating my mind sinks down further, threading my body. At the same time, things begin to move faster as the sensation lessens. I barely get my head out of the way and then pour all of my strength in striking him back in the face with a cross-counter as time returns to normal.
I’ve got him! I’ve—WHUMP!
“So, let me see if I have this straight?”
The Monk stands in front of us at a distance of a little over a yard, eyeing the damage done to the space between us. The floor between us had been caved in, the tatami and wooden floorboards beneath it splintered under the weight of my body. Apparently, his brother avoided my punch by twisting into where he had grabbed my arm and then threw me into the ground, while invoking his own Rise at the same time judging from the fact that there was a large hole in it.
I say apparently because I didn’t remember anything between nearly hitting him, a flash of pain, and then waking up and feeling good as new.
“The training you were putting Matou-kun through dragged on to the point where, in an effort to get results, you pressed him in hopes of creating the necessary conditions to force him to maintain the effect. Then, at the end, he abruptly got the drop on you and caused you to reflexively trigger your own Rise and throw him into the floor hard enough to do this much damage? ”
“That is correct. To my shame, I overreacted—” Liar. “—and ended up using more strength than I intended as the abrupt change in his speed, posture, and power caught me off-guard. To that end, I prioritized healing his injuries after I realized my mistake.”
His brother sighs. “It’s good that you managed to undo the damage—” He looks down to the floor “—or at least the important damage, but you have to take it slower next time. Not everyone is a fast learner like you and can put up with that sort of training.”
“Your praise is once more misguided. I didn’t take to it well. I merely worked my hardest to ensure that I was capable of supporting the rest of you. To that end, I was attempting to ensure that he was capable of doing the same and blundered.”
A rumble slips out of my throat. There. That right there is the reason I didn’t like him: the fake modesty.
It’s one thing for him to be good at seemingly everything, on top of having multiple exclusive abilities. But the way he tried to play it off as though it’s nothing special really pissed me off, because that’s the definition of someone special—excelling at things without any difficulties that others couldn’t.
They didn’t need to make themselves inferior to others. They didn’t need to pretend to be humble. As much as I hated to admit it, he fits that definition here and now. So the fact that he knows it and pretends otherwise rubs me the wrong way.
The Monk turns to me next. “As for you, that was really careless as well. If you had managed to connect when you tried to hit him while using Rise, you could have killed him. Never aim for the head while sparring with your power active, understand?”
I nod, if only because I didn’t feel like being lectured further. The asshole would’ve had it coming though. I tried to cut things earlier and he wouldn’t let me.
He stares at me for a moment before continuing. “As for what you explained happen to you, I believe that managed to artificially induce what’s normally called the ‘Tachy Psyche’ effect. It’s when you feel like time has slowed down because your mind is processing information faster. If I had to guess, your body isn’t suitable for using Strength-Rise as much as Sense-Rise, but since you’re still using Rise energy it’s divided up depending on which you’re prioritizing.”
…I see. He was moving too fast so I instinctively increased the rate at which I could process information, lengthening my perception of time to get the timing, but not my body’s ability to match it. It was the same sensation as when you were watching your death come for you but being unable to stop it. When I tried to correct that the energy had to be divided and the effect wasn’t as smooth as it should have been, so I decided once I was clear of his punch to put everything into hitting him as fast as I could. “Sounds about right.”
“Well, there was no lasting harm done, so we’ll call this a lesson for everyone.” The Monk’s tone dulls a note, thinning out the air of strictness that bound it. “And now we know you probably lean more to the Sense aspect of Rise, rather than Strength. With enough time and training you’ll probably be able to cycle through them more effectively or spread it for an even balance, but we’ll have to work out something until then.”
“Great, but can I go home now?” That gets me a couple of looks from the rest of them. “I’ve got things planned later on and I need sleep before I can do anything.”
“… Fair enough,” he says. “Now, if the rest of you will excuse me, I need to get the spare mats and floorboards. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that’s happened.”