“Are you really okay, Nii-san?”
The question coming from Sakura grates on my mind. Part of it stems from not wanting to repeat myself for the third time today. But the other part stems from the fact that walking such a short distance shouldn’t be so difficult.
Ayako brought Sakura to pick me up yesterday after school. She had been told we were hashing out the final details of the Training Camp for the Archery Club when I’d taken a bad fall on the mountain and they were keeping me to see if there was any serious damage done, since I insisted that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. The shoddy lie meant that I couldn’t stay any longer without drawing suspicion, so we went home.
Now it was the day afterwards and, while I can move better than before, walking fast just isn’t happening.
Sakura’s slowing herself down to keep pace with me. Another form of pity that I’m not fond of and she knows it. But it’s like she just can’t help it, so here we were.
“The lingering pain will pass in a few days and I’ll be able to move fine again, so stop worrying,” I tell her.
“But you shouldn’t be putting this kind of stress on yourself just to attend a half-day.”
She’s right. Or she would be under normal circumstances where I wouldn’t have made the effort. But, because the rest of the active Drifters in Fuyuki are attending school today, it makes for the most convenient meeting place for us. And, once school ended, I could head right back home to focus on finding a means of dealing with the more important issues—like finding the Einzberns.
I don’t know what why they played a part in the end of the world, but those were their homunculi. Since they’ve been involved with the Holy Grail War from the beginning, there’s no way the Old Worm didn’t have ample information on them. Once I pinned down a location, I’d send the Veterans to go deal with them.
And once we killed them in this time period, they’d cease to be a problem in the future. If we were lucky, it would be just the thing to save the world—breaking our contracts and setting us free.
The thought of being done with all of this was enough to make me smile until I noticed Sakura still staring at me.
“Sakura, you should be more worried about yourself. Arranging this Training Camp is the last thing Mitsuzuri and I will do as the leaders of the Archery Club. The rest is on your shoulders like it should have been, so you’ll have to assert yourself. You can do that much by now, right?”
Her expression falters at having the discussion become about her instead of me. But she schools her features and nods resolutely. “Yes. I’ll do my best, so please don’t worry about me.”
The talking tapers off there until we make it to the school minutes later. Out of all of the students walking about, Ayako stands out. She’s waiting against the wall next to the entrance with her eyes closed and her head leaning back. Did she fall asleep on her feet?
‘You shouldn’t sleep in front of the school.’
Her eyes snap open at the wake-up call and she addresses us. “Morning, Sakura. Shinji. Are you both doing well?”
“Nii-san is still having a little trouble moving his body, but other than that we’re both well,” Sakura says, giving her a slight bow in greeting. “Thank you for watching after him until now, Mitsuzuri-senpai.”
“If I’d been a little more careful it wouldn’t have come to that, so it was the least I could do for him.” Her eyes shift to me and a telepathic message follows. ‘I was speaking with Issei about something important. Head to the rooftop and I’ll explain it later with the others.’
‘Got it.’ I turn to Sakura briefly as I walk past them. “I’m not doing anything physical today, so you two’ll have to handle opening up the club.”
“Have a good day, Nii-san.”
‘Shinji… about Gai…’
I stop and look over my shoulder in Ayako’s direction. ‘What about him?’
‘He’s been a lot more reserved after what happened. To save you, he ended up having to kill one of the Soldier Taboo and he took it pretty badly.’
From what I heard, he developed a Burst that caused a layer of crystalline material to jut up from the bones in his arms and form a shell around them as he crushed the Homunculus’ skull. It was desperation act. He wanted to accomplish something, and his PSI just filled in the blanks.
‘He does realize they would have killed us if he didn’t, right?’
‘…It’s easy to say that, but….’ There’s an undercurrent of melancholy as she trails off. ‘Look, I’m just letting you know so that you don’t set him off by accident. We talked to him about it when we got back from the future, and he said he just needs to have some time to come to terms with it.’
‘Fine. I won’t say anything to him.’ I wouldn’t really be able to relate to him on the problem anyways since I had no issue with killing anything that tried to kill me. Better to leave it to the people who can do that. ‘Anything else?’
‘The Trio will be coming back after missing school yesterday, so—’
‘Right. Right. Be nice to them too.’ I start to walk again into the building and climb the stairs until I get to the rooftop entrance. Past the door I find six chairs and desks facing one another, arranged for us to take a seat and converse. Energy bars and canned drinks on top of each of them makes for a poor substitute for breakfast, but it’s better than nothing to start the day.
I take a seat on the left side and lean against the backrest while staring up at the sky, trying to get my thoughts together. We have a reprieve for now, during which we needed to train the Track Trio. But I also need some way of dealing with that body-snatcher before we get called to the future again.
Last time she managed to connect directly to my central nervous system, taking over my body and tampering with my memories without me knowing. I can’t presume that I’d be able to detect her the next time. And I can’t just rely on my PSI to reject the connection like before.
It was pure luck I made it back in time to be healed when the damage was linked to my brain. The brain acts as the anchor-point of the soul. I don’t know how our souls get shunted into the future, but if the brain gets severely damaged then it’s over.
Likewise, I didn’t understand enough about the method she used to develop a countermeasure. If it was a Trance or Mental Interference ability, I could probably find some way to shield myself from it. But only if I could detect it coming.
I raise my hand to the sky and just look at it. I can still feel some of that energy permeating me like in the future. Thrumming beneath my skin mildly compared to when in the future. If this is what they meant by PSI getting stronger over multiple trips, then it’ll be less strenuous to come up with something to help me out for the next time.
No one will make a puppet out of me. Never again.
The door to the rooftop opens with a loud sound. It causes me to fall out of my seat in surprise, leaving me to hit the rooftop with a painful crash. I suck in a sharp breath before glaring daggers at the one responsible.
Makidera’s face cringes for a moment before she looks away, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. “Ah, sorry about that.”
Remembering Ayako’s request, I force myself to breath out slowly and vent my agitation harmlessly as I get back to my feet. “Just take a seat.”
She hurries over to the other side, wisely putting distance between us while Saegusa comes out next. Her soft, brown eyes pass on a silent apology as she follows the first one to the other side of the table. Himuro is the last, giving me a slight nod in greeting as she takes her place between the two.
I return to my seat opposite Saegusa and grab the can of coffee on the desk. I need the caffeine to deal with the loud-mouth this early in the morning. Unfortunately, the milky taste ruins the coffee entirely and leaves me even more agitated as the uptight one starts a conversation.
“First, let me offer my gratitude for aiding us in that situation,” she states. “Had you and the others not been there, it’s very likely none of us would have woken up in the hospital. There is likely nothing we can do to repay that debt, but we shall make an effort if it is reasonably possible.”
“I’ll just ask you take this matter seriously so that you can keep surviving from here on. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been any different than if we left you to die there. Aside from that, I trust there weren’t any complications when you woke in the hospital, were there?”
“There were minor tests to try and grasp what happened to us after we all denied having done anything other than attend our club before we fell unconscious. Ultimately, the doctors labeled exhaustion as the likely cause since there were no more physical changes and made rather generic recommendations to prevent it in the future.”
“Those hacks even suggested that we quit,” Makidera loudly complains amid tearing open an energy bar. “Like that’s going to solve anything when it isn’t even the problem.”
“You know you’ll still probably be asked to sit on the sidelines. If not retire, right?”
I thought it was obvious, but it seems she didn’t expect it from the look of surprise that blossomed on her face. “Wait, what?”
“You passed out after a practice in the locker room on the same day that more than a few hundred died from similar cases around the whole of Japan, and people who have recovered from said passing out in the past have either committed suicide or died at a later date, despite not having any sort of commonality between them. The fact that the cause is still unknown has left people scrambling for answers, and since we can’t give them the truth without dying they’re not going to get them.”
“So the school will have to attempt to avoid accountability by minimizing the risk of it happening again.” Himuro nods in agreement. “Yes, I suspect before the day is done our club sponsor will be having words with us. Even if they didn’t, the matter of our survival means that we’d have to cut down or retire from the club in order to properly train our abilities.”
Indignant at having to give up something she’s worked hard for over the last few years, Makidera leaps up and points to me. “But that’s not fair! He and Mitsuzuri get to remain in their club, so why should we get benched when they don’t?”
“Our circumstances are different enough that it doesn’t even apply.” I’d been suffering from sleep deprivation and was manhandled by Ayako’s brother, while she wasn’t even on the school grounds when it happened. “If it’s any consolation, Mitsuzuri and I have basically retired from leading the Archery Club as of today under the excuse that my deteriorating health and her studies have been piling up. So, we’re in the same situation.”
She visibly looks somewhat relieved until Himuro gives her a subtle tap with her elbow that passes along the message that it’s not a good thing. She then clears her throat and tries to play it off. “Y-Yeah, it sucks for all of us.”
I tamper down on my urge call her out on being petulant. Partly because Ayako ask that I play nice today and partly because I had the feeling this was her way of trying to cope. After all, she was the closest of these three to dying and one of her ties to normalcy was taken away from her. Misery loves company.
So I move the conversation away from her and turn my attention to the last of the three. “Were you able to put your family’s worries at ease, Saegusa?”
“Oh… umm… I think so.” She fidgets a bit while gathering her thoughts. “I was actually surprised when I woke up to find my brothers all around me crying. Kouta said he was more upset about dinner and now I owed him a double day on both that and breakfast, but his eyes were the reddest.”
“Well, a child wouldn’t be honest with their feelings. But why were you surprised to find that they’d be worried? You basically take care of them when your parents can’t, so isn’t it natural that they would be happy to see you’re doing well now?”
“I was always worried about them, so I didn’t really take the time to think about how they’d feel if something happened to me. Just that I wouldn’t be able to take care of them if I was gone.” She looks to the desk while wearing a somewhat soft frown. “But… there’s still a chance that’ll happen the next time, isn’t there?”
I don’t sugarcoat my answer. “Until we change the future, or we reduce our count to zero, we’ll have to go when we’re called. The best we can do is make it so that you have the best chance possible of returning so that they don’t have to experience that sort of worry or pain anytime soon. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
There’s a lull of silence at that. What happened before can happen again, and if they’re not up to the challenge then they’ll die. I won’t try to soften that fact because it’s the reality of the situation.
In an effort to raise the mood that I’d intentionally crushed down, Makidera puffs out her chest and says, “Don’t worry so much, Yukicchi. Just leave all the fighting to me and we’ll clear it in no time. I mean, if even Matou can become so tough after only one trip, then imagine just how much stronger we’ll be too?”
I’m pretty sure those words were just meant to be for Saegusa’s sake rather than insulting me, but that’s three strikes in less than five minutes. If I don’t get back at her somehow now it’d rankle me for the rest of the day. “Then you can take my place fighting the next time we get there.”
A short-lived look of pure shock dawns on her face. “Huh?”
“I’m not suited for the frontlines to begin with, so if someone more qualified steps up then I can focus more on a supporting role and handle the logistics to make sure everything goes smoothly. Mitsuzuri will probably be a bit harsh in her training to get you up to par in short order, but anything short of death can be healed away by the Student President easily enough.”
The way her body stiffens despite her effort to hide her nervousness gives away her façade, but her pride won’t let her back out so easily. “S-sure, leave it to me!”
“Excellent.” The way I see it, either she’ll fulfill the role suitable enough or die trying.
Himuro politely clears her throat before I can savor the moment though and pulls out her calling card out. “Can you show us how many points were deducted now?”
I pull out my own from my pocket and press it to my forehead. “Do like this and that’ll be enough.”
The other two pull their cards out to copy Himuro as she does so. Her eyes slightly broaden before she pulls it away from her head, no doubt experiencing the same sensation I did my first time. Then her brows compress as she bears witness to the corner of the card eroding into black and the number appears.
“Mine’s Forty-nine,” Makidera states with a frown while looking over to the other two. No doubt they had the same count. Then she looks over to me with an expectant glance, wordlessly pressing me for an answer.
“Forty-two. I lost five in this trip and three in my first trip.”
If I had to guess, losing five points was probably because of the nature of the mission. It started out as a Recruitment Mission, or at least it appeared to before it turned into an Extermination Mission. Not to mention we learned of Atlasia, who likely has the key to unraveling what brought that future about.
If anything, I think that we should have lost more points given everything that happened. But, for now, I’ll take what I can get.
Unfortunately, Makidera’s petulant side rears its ugly head again in the wake of the information. “Why did you lose more than us for your first trip?”
“Because Gotou and I had been given the task of escorting Mitsuzuri to the checkpoint after she ended up too exhausted to fight our first trip, whereas you three only barely managed to survive until we found you. It couldn’t be helped given how you and the other survivors didn’t know anything and weren’t capable of fighting back, but that difference between our circumstances still applies.”
She doesn’t look all that pleased at the explanation, but it’s the reality of the situation in the end.
‘Gai’s here now, so we’re coming up.’
The telepathic message from Ayako rings in my head. Theirs too judging from the reactions it caused. They’re not exactly used to having a voice other than their own in their heads, despite the explanation that I gave them in the future, so they’re a lot less calm about it and it takes them a minute to settle down.
That’s when the door opens and Gai steps out of the entrance first. He takes in the sight of all of us until his eyes meet mine. It makes him pause in place for a moment. Then he takes a breath and steps over towards my side of the table.
Ayako follows behind him, sparing him a sympathetic look before her expression shifts to one more amicable as she meets the gazes of the Track Trio and shuts the door. “Sorry for taking up your morning like this, but it’s important that we meet up when we can now. More so considering the circumstances aren’t better to start your training this afternoon.”
I… don’t like the sound of that. “Did something come up?”
“Issei and his brother will be heading up further north once school ends to discuss things with the Veteran I mentioned having worked Tatsumi’s group in the past. That means we won’t be able to use the temple or have someone who can heal us until they get back, while Neko’s place is on the other side of the city.”
Oh, come on. I could understand the Monk leaving, but the other had more use to us here since he provided us with a place to train, a method of getting there discreetly, and the ability to heal if any of us got injured. “Do both need to go right now?”
“If the circumstances were a bit different, no. But some of the people we saved got in contact with us, and we can’t have a situation like with Tatsumi and the others dying without any of us being aware. So Issei is going to use his power to set up a network and try to keep the peace between his brother and Ryougi-san, since the talk yesterday over the phone didn’t go so well.”
I can only see a handful of the people we saved following up with the training, so I don’t have much hope for a new wave of Drifters to help us out. But, if there’s an issue between the Veterans then that’ll be problematic. They’re the most experienced ones and the most important assets we have to deal with external threats.
“Do you suspect it’ll turn violent?” Himuro asks, inserting herself into the conversation in an effort to mine for more information.
Ayako crosses her arms and closes her eyes in thought for a moment. “Mmm… I don’t think it’ll get that far with Issei there. Supposedly the two have an easier time understanding one another and he has a level head. But if she’s the one there instead, it’ll be troublesome.”
“There are two of them?”
“No, I mean his other half,” she clarifies. “I never witnessed the change myself but from how Neko put it, Kaname Ryougi is two people in a single body and their specialty with PSI changes depending on which personality is in charge. The male personality specializes in Rise and Burst but is incapable of using Trance. The female personality specializes in Trance and Burst but is incapable of using Rise.”
“A split-personality?” Himuro brings her hand to her chin in thought. “From what you’ve told the three of us in the future about PSI, the power uses the brain in order to process and manifest the abilities. If there’s a preexisting mental disorder, I suppose it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that such things could also affect how their power is expressed.”
I don’t discount the possibility either. Some magi do develop dual personalities to help them blend into society better or use magecraft in different ways. But that’s usually a form of self-hypnosis, not an actual disorder.
Ayako continues on regardless. “Whether he had it before he got there or suffered a breakdown afterwards isn’t something I know, but the male personality is the one they interact with the most and he doesn’t really help past teaching basics.”
It sounds to me like he’s apathetic to the situation of others because they’re not his problem, which is understandable under normal circumstances. But, since we need the survivors to pad out our numbers or these trips to the future will keep happening more frequently for our group, that’s going to have to be dealt with. “And what about the other one?”
“Terrifying enough that they feel the need to send two Veterans instead of just one,” she states. “Through a combination of Trance and Burst, she basically makes whatever illusions she projects into the target happen in real life. So, in theory, she can pretty much kill anyone she wants to with a thought.”
I don’t buy it. You can’t just wish someone dead and make it happen. There’s a system to these things, even if we can’t see it. Most likely this Ryougi person lied about her PSI’s true nature in order to conceal its weakness.
Even so, Himuro seems intrigued by the prospect. “Could it be some form of psychosomatic hallucination?”
Makidera holds up her hand to stall her from going further. “Hold on. A psycho-what now?”
“It’s when the brain believes something is happening to the body and that gets reflected. I’ve heard about an experiment where something similar happened with people who were allergic to poison ivy being blindfolded. One arm was rubbed with an ordinary leaf and told it was the poison ivy, while the other arm was rubbed with the actual plant and told it was harmless. Most of them ended up breaking out in rashes on the arm that was rubbed with the harmless leaf instead.”
“Maybe,” Ayako states. “Maybe, but the mechanics of her PSI is secondary to how she uses it. According to the others, when the male personality does the fighting he uses Rise to raise his physical abilities while wielding a sword and then Burst to fire it off as an extension of his swing, hitting their cores for a clean kill. But when they faced the Soldier Taboo, she’d come out and use that her PSI to torture them slowly with a smile on her face, rather than destroying them off right off the bat.”
The information unsettles the others to an extent, but I can think of a pragmatic reason for the torture while they stew on it. Most likely it’s conditional on using Trance to project the hallucination and using the brain’s response to have the Burst make it a reality. That limits it to the Homunculus, since they’re capable of actual thought and human understanding, and the act of building up is a means of strengthening the effect of her PSI until she can kill with a thought.
Or she could just like relishing the act of killing something that looks humans. Or both. They’re not mutually-exclusive.
Either way, Himuro doesn’t accept the information without scrutiny and makes it known. “Are you certain that information isn’t being exaggerated by biases?”
“Well, there might be some, since its clear Neko and the others don’t exactly like how hands-off he is,” Ayako concedes. “But I don’t think they’d lie given the seriousness of the situation, so I’m taking the warning seriously and passing it along.”
“Umm… c-can we change the subject?” Saegusa asks, a slight tremor in her voice. This is clearly not how she saw this morning’s discussion going and now she’s uncomfortable.
“I guess we did get a little off-topic in how it directly affects us,” Ayako admits. “Anyway, since they’re gone we need to address the issue of where we’re going to be teaching you until they get back on Monday evening, so…”
Her eyes turn to me as she trails off. Then she smiles in a way that tells me I won’t like what’s coming next.
“Shinji, you don’t mind if we use your place this afternoon, do you?”
Interlude 3 – Sion Eltnam Atlasia
There was a building that had yet to fall within the skeleton of a city that had been toppled by the Sandworm.
It still held three solid walls, one of which had a hollowed out opening that was once a door facing the center of the city. The fourth had been eroded by the decaying winds that had constantly blown against it. No different than how it rotted wood, weathered stone, and rusted steel that were exposed to it as well.
There, sitting in the corner with her back against the wall, was a young woman. Her untamed purple hair obscured her face like a curtain as she held her lithe hand out. That allowed the near-invisible microfiber to wind itself back into the bracelet that served to house it.
Her name was Sion Eltnam Atlasia. She was the last of the Eltnam name. And the last who bore the title of Vice-Director within the Atlas Academy.
Atlas had been an assembly of intellectuals, one of the three branches of the Mage’s Association. Predating even the Clock Tower, the alchemists within had dedicated themselves to seeking out an optimal future for humanity. To that end, they acted to prevent the end of the world foretold by the first Director long ago.
They had failed in their duties.
And, as of now, she was the last of the Alchemist of Atlas.
“I accounted for the probability of him resisting, but the fact that his PSI would allow him to forcibly disconnect the Etherlite was…” Her hoarse, yet soft voice trailed off as she assessed additional factors and their potential outcomes into her mind.
Memory Partitioning, the dividing of the mind into several rooms to perform different thought processes with equal devotion to a singular solution, combined with Thought Acceleration, the ability run those thought processes at an accelerated rate, meant she could take in and process data at a speed that was largely unmatched. She’d seen hundreds of ways the events of the battle could go and used that to move his body optimally to do so—going so far as to remove the limitations on it briefly, so as to maximize the chances of his survival.
Then he went and forcibly ejected her Etherlite, which had been connected to his central nervous system. That was the equivalent of tearing out a part of his body and should have fried both the nerves and the body itself inside out from being disconnected while it was still functioning. The fact that he had been alive at the end to be taken back was a small mercy, but the fact that the damage would transfer over to his real body meant that he’d be dead or invalid within minutes at best.
At least under normal circumstances.
“There’s a capable healer who can regenerate limbs, including nerves,” she told herself after arriving to the conclusion upon analyzing the addition information she’d assessed from his mind. “After a very short readjustment and rehabilitation period, he should be mobile and fighting fit. But the prospect of his cooperation, and that of his allies, is also minimal.”
The plan had been simple: To avoid a reoccurrence of what happened the last time she’d encountered the Drifters, as well as avoid being discovered by the Homunculi, she would remain hidden and then would leave a set of prepared thought processes in his mind, allowing him to draw the conclusions and contact the version of herself that still existed in the past. A black-box within his mind that would serve as a time capsule with her knowledge from the future. From there the timeline would branch—creating a timeline where these occurrences never came about.
She sighed as the Etherlite finished recoiling itself around her wrist, having taken in the data from her surroundings to ensure that she was alone. “There’s no other choice then. I have enough data on his behavior and thought process to go off for the next time he returns. It’ll be a little rough and the emulation might not be perfect, but as long as I can keep his PSI capable of reacting then depriving him of his freedom is a small sacrifice compared to the outcome.”
In truth, that should have been her goal from the start. She could have rewritten his mind and thoughts so that he would have done what she desired. It would have taken time to do so manually as she would have to guide the process, but with what she knew now it should be possible to have a program carry it out almost instantly.
‘Sion… If you go that far then it’ll undermine the very principles that you had taken up to this point. It would be cutting another string tethering you to your humanity.’
The warning came from the data stored within two of the remaining partitions of her mind. Her first friend and the only companion she had left in the world, Riesbyfe Stridberg, Knight of the Shield. Though her body had fallen in battle long ago, her information had been swallowed up during that event and she remained there until Sion had managed to take ownership of it during a special Summer in Misaki Town.
“I know that.” She curled up as though she felt a chill through the cloak and white uniform she’d stolen from a Homunculus, resting her head against her knees. “But I’m almost out of time, Ries. I was out of time the moment that last group arrived and I… I…”
She trailed off as she recalled the gravest sin she’d committed as both an Alchemist and Human.
Bitten by her ancestor, Zepia Eltnam, who had become a Dead Apostle Ancestor, Sion was also a Dead Apostle in the making. Ever since that night she had always been walking on a tightrope over a bottomless pit that was drowning in her vampiric urges and giving way to insanity. One slip was all it’d take and she’d tumble down with no way to climb back up.
Yet, she’d managed to hold out in her attempt to find a way to cure vampirism. For three years she had struggled in seeking out a cure and hunting down Zepia alone. There was no help, with her only able to flee from the Church and Atlas on borrowed time.
Then she ran across him.
He was the first person who’d extended a hand to her willingly after three years. To give her the encouragement to seek the aid of others. He’d changed her for the better, helping her put an end to the Night of Wallachia and bringing the vampiric urges to a stage where she could repress them. He’d given her the possibility of securing a new future and returned a fallen friend to her.
Yet, all she could do as she bid farewell to that person was to make a promise to come to his aid whenever he’d needed to.
And she couldn’t even keep that promise when the world as they knew it ended.
Her ancestor had told her in his final moments. Of why he’d become a vampire. One of the 27 Dead Apostle Ancestors. It was because he had beheld the answer to what awaited the humanity in the future.
It was a future of nothing but destruction that was upon them, and like a curse of destiny it was something that couldn’t be changed.
He wasn’t the only one who reached that conclusion. Ever since the first Director of Atlas came to the conclusion that the world would end, every Alchemist who’d worked towards trying to avoid it came to reach that same conclusion that the future was a dead end. No matter how many times they thought about, no matter how many simulations they ran, no matter how many countermeasures they tried to put into place to avoid the foreseen outcome, the future only grew worse—the time table was only sped up.
Yet, they persisted. Time and again they tried to avert that future, challenging fate for the sake of humanity. They challenged it until they were eventually driven into madness and insanity, or took their own life.
Atlas was known as a Den of Madness for this reason.
Zepia warned her that as one who bore the name of Atlasia, she too would fall into despair and give into madness to try and escape it. Her vampiric nature would take hold as she realized there was no hope, and she would drown in blood at that moment. Then, in taking in its dark taste and indulging in the revelry that was to be a Dead Apostle, she would truly be his successor.
She pitied him at his last moment, but she told herself that she would never become him. She would find a way to cure her condition and then find a new hope for humanity. Yet, when she first gazed upon the ash-colored sky that stopped the light of the sun from touching the ground, she understood in that moment exactly what he’d felt.
It was the end of the world that hadn’t been foreseen. An irregularity that hadn’t occurred in any of their simulations, bringing about a new end that hadn’t been accounted for. They had no measures against it.
Even so, she searched for clues. For information. The more information she had, the more confidence she would be in finding a way to save what was left of humanity and the world. She held onto that hope to drive off the all-consuming despair, banking on the satisfaction that was to be human when overcoming an obstacle to slake her thirst.
Her search left her scouring the globe for years. Hundreds of thousands of calculations. Experimentation on everything that she could with limited equipment, constantly being hounded by the artificial creatures known as the Taboo and the ones pulling their strings with only Ries to watch her back. The others who would be her allies—Atlas, the Mage’s Association, even him—had perished on the Day of Rebirth.
But, as Sion searched for clues and found none, hope waned. She grew desperate to figure out what had caused this. So she took a calculated risk and tried to infiltrate one of the towers that had been erected in this land—in his home country. They were the only structures that were left unaffected by the changes, made of an alloy that could somehow weather the erosion that befell everything else beneath the ashen sky.
She’d barely made it out alive, but she did obtain just enough information to know what was happening. Enough to know the Age of Man was over, and it was too late to avert it. As things stood, within another five years there wouldn’t be anything left of the world as it was on both a physical and conceptual level.
The fact that there wouldn’t even be a record to show that humanity existed was what truly threatened to break her.
Everything died in the end. But to die and leave no record of your existence for those that were to come was a true tragedy. Yet, that was what was occurring beneath her own two feet. The moment she’d reached that conclusion, there was only two things left for her:
Death as a Human or Madness as a Vampire.
It was only then, as she was on the verge falling off that fine line towards one side or the other, that a hand reached out to her once more.
His name was Tatsumi.
He claimed to have come from the past with his allies to save the future. A virtuous spirit like him, carrying hope for a future that hadn’t fallen. A light in the darkness of despair that even if this timeline would be lost, the past could be changed so that another branch in the tree of time could sprout.
Then they were attacked again.
And she’d snuffed out that light in the aftermath.
‘We need to keep moving. They’ll be after us soon enough, and you’re almost out of rounds for the Barrel Replica.’
As she began to walk again, Sion resolved herself to see things through to remain sane. She had done the unforgivable with Tatsumi and sacrificed the others that came with him. Her body’s state as a vampire while her spirit was barely tethered to what was left to her humanity were proof of that. But if she managed to get that knowledge back to the past then that was enough.
She would have fulfilled her duties as a member of Atlas. There would be another chance to change the reality of the future. Another chance to see her promise to Shiki carried out by her past-self. And then…
And then salvation would come for her.
It draws a blank no matter how many times I try to recall the name.
I haven’t heard or seen it before. But it does sound like a name that would belong to a Magus. That’s a clue towards unraveling the mystery of why we were being dragged into the future, and I can get more information by playing on the assumption that we were sheltering her from these dolls.
But, out of the corner of my eye, I spot Gotou tensing to move. His fists clenching tight meant he was ready to attack. Better stop him first.
‘Gotou, I’m trying to get more information. Don’t attack until I say so.’
His head twists in my direction and his mouth opens to speak. For a moment, I worry he’d say something careless. But he catches himself, turning back to the enemies in front of him and keeping his eyes on them. ‘If you tell them anything, Nemesis Q will kill you.’
‘I’ve got that handled.’ Ideas on how to lead the conversation were already filling my head. How hard could it be to fool a couple of dolls? Really, the biggest problem was that eventually the fighting would resume and we’d be outmatched as things stood, unless Ayako hurried up with the mission or my Mind Jack reached her.
He scowls but doesn’t say anything else. Now for the Homunculi.
I address the one with the halberd since she seems to hold more authority. ‘I’ll consider your terms since we have non-combatants here and I don’t want more unnecessary deaths. But not unconditionally. What guarantee do I have that you’ll abide by the terms of surrender if we submit to them?’
“We only desire Atlasia, who has evaded us since the Day of Rebirth,” she said. “Should you surrender her we will promise you both safety and shelter.”
Presuming that’s the day everything went wrong from context, Atlasia must be a survivor from then. If that’s the case then she’s the ticket to figuring out what happened and how to change this future. Considering the timing right after Nemesis Q gave us that mission to kill the worm, and the fact that time moved faster in the future… it couldn’t be so simple, could it?
‘One of ours was a Burst-user that was torn to pieces and killed, looking like he was mauled by a vicious animal. From what she told us, you killed him and the other three that surrendered. There’s not much of a reason for us to stop fighting if that’s what we have to look forward to in the end.’
“She’s deceived you,” the halberd-wielding doll claimed. “While the Outriders faction’s sub-leader does have prejudice against this country’s people, the Burst-user escaped with Atlasia as his allies bought time. As members of Akshayavat’s Life Propagation faction, our primary duty is to protect the Terraformer so that once its work is done life can flourish once more. Should you surrender her to us, you have it on our Master’s honor that you will be brought in alive and unharmed.”
So that’s what happened. Nemesis Q sent the other group to protect someone who survived from the beginning, but they failed and died. Their failure meant that we were called in ahead of schedule to save this Atlasia. Most likely they believe that the Drifters have been training under her tutelage and becoming a threat. It was only a hypothesis, but it made sense—
…Wait. Why were they being so patient in waiting for me to make a decision? The longer the questioning continued, the easier it would be for their target to get away. Even if we agreed to the surrender. Unless…
My head turns in Gotou’s direction just slightly, but my eyes pull to the corners where I can spot something just at the edges. Of course, they were planning an ambush all this time through their hive mind.
‘Gotou, it’s ambush! Take out the halberd one!’
An electric current surges through my body as I send the warning out and fighting begins anew. In an instant I move two-fold, flinging the makeshift knife towards the ambusher in the distance while kicking off the ground into a side-roll in time to avoid the halberd sweeping around to hack off my legs. I then bounce back up as she closes the distance faster that Gotou could.
My foot lashes out. The kick catches her in the stomach and her body buckles before she’s sent back several meters, bouncing off the ground violently a single time. Then she digs her halberd into the weathered asphalt and uses it as a brake, coming to a stop and using it to support herself.
“Grk… ugh!” A blood-tinged cough follows, leaving streamlets flowing down the corner of her lips. It joins with the crimson from where her flesh had been torn and uniform ripped from the contact with the ground as her legs quaver.
I… I didn’t use Rise. I didn’t have time to activate it. So how did that same doll that had been giving us trouble before suddenly get knocked back by me?
Wait… that sensation from before. What if that was my PSI at work? Slowing down my perception was an abnormal stopgap in the first place, but if our powers got stronger over time maybe it finished adapting. Yeah, that had to be it. That sensation I felt had just given me a longer-lasting Strength-Rise effect. If that was the case…
My head snaps up as the homunculus attacking at long-range lays down cover-fire to give the one I’d hit time to recover. Gotou barely manages to throw himself out of the way and into an alley while I hop back and to the sides, putting a great deal of distance between us in time for something to land by my feet with a thump.
It was a male homunculus. Or rather, his corpse. The knife I’d thrown had beautifully pierced his skull and destroyed his brain. Unlike the Taboo, these dolls needed their brains to operate on a higher level of intellect. So he’s dead, the clatter of steel arrows spilling from his quiver being the last sound he ever makes.
Without glancing up, my empty hand reaches up and my fingers find their way around the grip of a bow before I even realize it. I just knew that it was there from how his body fell. But a bow needs two hands to use, so my broken arm frees itself from the sling and I scoop up three arrows to use.
There’s no pain as I nock an arrow, even as my broken arm draws back the string until it’s taut. Is that part of my PSI as well? It’s really…
No time to worry.
No, I shouldn’t dwell on it. My body is moving great and my instincts are bordering on pre-cognition. If those are caused by my PSI, I shouldn’t question it right now or try to slow down my perception of time. I don’t want to risk losing these benefits or interfering with the Mind Jack while it was still seeking out Ayako.
I can sort everything out later after I kill these dolls.
I loose the arrow as I escape another flurry of ranged attacks and fire it towards the caster-homunculus. Her arm comes up and a ring forms, stationary like a shield. The arrow disappears as it enters the center, but the rim of it shrinks.
Does that mean there’s a film of some kind within it? Does it work somewhat like Ayako’s power in that it destroys what it touches at the expense of itself? Or is it something like disintegration?
Either way, I can work around it. My hands nock the second arrow as I run towards her while Gotou emerges from the alley to take on the halberd-user. The shots close in to keep me at bay, but she’s slower than me. Worse, she’s easy to read.
There’s a pattern to her attacks. A maximum radius and rate of fire she’s maintaining to face me. It’s almost as if I can predict them, allowing me to slip past them and close the distance.
“Look out!” Gotou shouts.
I look back to see that he’s failed in distracting the halberd-user and she’s on my back, chambered to swing for my head as the caster tries to get some more space between us. I slide to a stop and duck down as her blade comes scything for my head. At the same time, I flip the arrows in my grasp around to use them as a stabbing implement, thrusting for her head.
She pulls back to avoid being killed, but my leg sweeps out to catch hers and she ends up falling backwards. While she catches herself into a back-roll quickly, she’s too late to distract me further.
I nock an arrow mid-spin and fire it towards her companion. She naturally raises her arm and conjures another ring of destruction to eat it. But she doesn’t see the third arrow I’d fired right afterwards until it was too late.
Predicting the rate at which the rim would shrink, I fired it just over that point for a kill-shot. The arrowhead pierces her skull as a result, the momentum throwing her head backwards and leaving the corpse to fall backwards. One down.
But I don’t have time to focus on the clean kill though. The other one is coming for me again, using her halberd like an axe to bring the blade down with enough force to split solid stone. It’s predictable though, so I manage to get off-line by twisting my body and then—
A flash of steel sends me staggering back. There’s a knife in her hand, the other still on the halberd. She’d kept it concealed until now, so I didn’t see it until it was too late. And it was stained with blood.
She’d cut my throat. She’d cut my throat!
That thought enters my mind as Gotou shouts, but I dismiss it. The lack of pain meant I couldn’t even tell if it had been one of the major arteries she’d sliced. I had to draw back, leave the fighting to Gotou and keep my heart rate slow to avoid bleeding out.
It’s only at that moment I realize that I can’t move my body at all.
Instead, my body moves on its own as she comes for me again. Her killing thrust is faster than before, forcing the use of the bow as a makeshift shield to try to keep space between us. It’s cut into two by the knife as my body then rolls out of the way and then starts bounding backwards.
She comes for me with the halberd again, but my body twists and my leg flares out to kick the halberd-wielding homunculi in the chest. She blocks with the shaft of her weapon, but the impact struck where it had been previously bent by Gotou’s blow. As a result, it breaks apart and she’s sent her stumbling back as Gotou finally catches up.
“Raaaggh!!” He leaps over me and smashes the ground where she was standing, forcing her to deal with him as it sets in that all this time it hadn’t been me moving and acting with such precision. Someone or something else moved my body even better than I could, like a puppet dancing on the strings of a marionette.
If I had to guess in relation to Magecraft, they’ve taken control of my nervous system. Since my own mental commands were being ignored, it inhibited those as well. So the only thing I had control over was my thoughts and nothing else—I was a prisoner in my own body.
The Homunculus, now deprived of her polearm’s lower-half, still fights on against Gotou with ease. He’s too slow so she’s landing several cuts on him with the knife, his strengthened flesh being parted by opposition with strength equal to his. In the end, she manages to drive the head of the halberd into his thigh to pin him into place before thrusting the knife towards his throat.
“Agghhh!!” He screams as he brings his arm up. There’s a scraping sound as the knife goes into the arm and comes to a stop. With his face twisted in pain, Gotou’s scream of pain turns into a roar as he brings his other fist around.
She blocks it with her arm, but I can hear the bone breaking as the blow knocks her away. At the same time, her grasp on the halberd’s neck jerks it out. The blood that comes from it as he falls over makes it clear he’s going to bleed out in minutes at best.
Realizing the same, the Homunculus goes for me again. She throws the blade towards my body with a spin that probably would have sawed clean through me if it connected. But the puppeteer moving my body must’ve had some form of precognition because my head was already moving so that it missed as I was forced to lunge.
She grabs the other half of the shaft as a bludgeoning weapon and uses it to knock away my outstretched arm. I can hear the bones breaking but not feel any pain as my other fist comes around and smashes her face in to send her staggering backwards. Even so, the blood from my neck continues to fall relentlessly.
Damn it. At this rate, even if we kill the homunculus, we might bleed out in the end and there’s nothing we can do about. Was I… was I going to die like this?
Some puppet on strings to be thrown away?
A fool being played by someone else again until the bitter end?
No, I just need a little more time.
I need more time for—that’s not my thought. The ambush, the cut’s depth, disregarding my PSI, not questioning the shift in my abilities—those weren’t my thoughts. I should have guessed that you can interfere with mind, violating it as I dance to your tune.
I’m trying to help you! You’re trying to change the future, I’m just—
I don’t care anymore. I don’t know how you’re controlling me. I don’t know where you are either. But I’m no one’s puppet.
NOW GET OUT!
Electricity floods my mind. My blood feels like its bubbling in my veins. The world blinks in and out as static fills my existence as the PSI does its work. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I focus only on redirecting my PSI towards any solution that it can make work. I just want control of my body back—consequences be damned.
It’s agonizing. Blood pours from my mouth and nose and eyes as I collapse to my knees. The pain is too much, my body feeling like its burning within my skin and the world is wavering around me.
I can barely register the homunculus getting back to come for me again, only to be stopped as something invisible binds her at the arm. Her mouth moves but whatever’s being said doesn’t reach my ears before Gotou throws himself forward despite his leg’s injury.
The last thing I see before my consciousness fades is his face twisted in disgust and pain as he smashes in her face with his fists and drives it into the ground, crushing her skull…
…The world swelters as awareness returns to me. My throat feels dry and barren. My head feels like it’s in a haze too. Everything’s so hot and heavy.
I force open my eyes. It takes herculean effort to do so, but the ceiling of the temple comes into view when I do and the blur settles. This is the room where we’d began our trip to the future. I made it back somehow.
Ugh. Then the stench of sweat reaches my nose and I cringe. Disgusting. At least that explains what the heavy feeling is. The futon I’m in has been laced with sweat. I try to throw it off, but my body isn’t responding.
“Ng-ngh!” I struggle for a bit to no avail. The best I can do is twitch my nose and facial muscles. Don’t tell me that removing the control Atlasia had over my body did permeant damage!
Damn it! I thought the Student President had a healing power, so why didn’t he heal me!? “Nrhh…haaa…”
Okay. Okay. I’m not going to panic. I just need to reach out to him or someone else first of all to let them know I’m awake. So I close my eyes and take a deep breath, focusing on my PSI through the haze.
A tugging sensation swaddles my brain as the Mind Jack is woven from the energy draping it. It spools out from the back of my head and phases through the floor to appear within my sight. Then I send it out, visualizing that pompous and uptight face, the glare of the lenses shadowing his eyes ever so slightly.
The cord extends silently, passing through the wall and out of my view. Hmm… it’s at least easier to make the Mind Jack than before, when I was at the mall. Not as easy as in the future, but still to a noticeable extent. That being said, I don’t think it’ll be able to make it very far so if he’s not on the mountain then I’m just wasting—
‘Have you woken up?’
That’s the Monk’s mental voice. He must’ve spotted it then. I redirect the Mind Jack towards him and feel it connect. ‘Yes. Where’s your brother?’
Footfalls prelude the sound of the door sliding open and he appears within my vision. Then he settles for speaking with his mouth to expedite things. “He’s at the school. You’ve been asleep for over a day now, and we do have to keep up appearances.”
Over a day? Damn it. Leaving aside school, because I have bigger problems now, I didn’t come up with a suitable excuse for Sakura since I didn’t expect to be down this long. She’ll ask questions and if they tell her the wrong thing she’ll probably go get Tohsaka involved.
‘What did you tell my sister?’
“Mitsuzuri said she’d make up a suitable excuse, so I left it to her.” He took a seat across from me. “You’re lucky that she managed to complete the objective when she did though. Both of you really would have been dead if not. When Issei told her that, she took it pretty poorly while the others were with the kids you recruited from your school.”
Because of course he did, the tactless oaf. Not only did he fail to heal me properly, but he compounded the guilt on her and undid my earlier effort. So more damage control later on. ‘What happened to my body?’
“Issei said that your nervous system had suffered severe damage. Sensory nerves, motor nerves—he stated that they had basically been fried and that it was a miracle your brain and the nerves that handle the unconscious things like keeping your heart pumping were still intact. He managed to regrow them, but said that your body has to readjust to the sensations and functions. If it’s anything like when I’ve lost an arm before, it’ll probably be a few more hours before you can move at all, and a few more days before everything feels as close to normal as possible.”
Fantastic. Just fantastic. It’s going to be a pain to deal with this, but at least it’s temporary. That’s something.
“What happened there?” He asks with a tone lacking the usual casualness from before. “Gai mentioned that you tried using Telepathy with the Soldier Taboo and that afterwards you were fighting like a different person entirely. He also mentioned that they wanted someone and that they were part of an organization, but he couldn’t recall the name well.”
Not surprising, given he’s about as smart as a gorilla.
I take a deep breath before telling the Monk, ‘My body wasn’t under my control. The person the Taboo were after took control of it before we were ambushed. The way they were manipulating it leaves me to believe that they had either wide-scale Clairvoyance or some form of precognition. But it wasn’t perfect. They ended up getting my throat slashed, so I willed my PSI to get control of my body back. The next thing I know, I’m waking up here.’
I don’t bother to try and keep the disdain out of my mental voice. It was simply too hard, given she had the audacity to take over my body and read my mind. I let Ayako trying to do so slide, but only because it was her. I’m not so nice as to risk my life for or spare some stranger—Nemesis Q’s intentions be damned.
Once we got enough information to affect the past, she was dead.
But I keep that line of thinking to myself. ‘She’s the reason that we were sent on this mission prematurely in the first place. The Taboo were hunting for her specifically because she survived the Day of Rebirth, as they called it. I think she knows why the world was in that state.’
His eyes narrow as he lowers his head, deep in thought. Probably questioning the validity of my words. Not surprising given how many trips he had gone through without that knowledge beforehand, risking his life towards bettering the future through survival. Yet I managed to figure it out in an instant.
Still, he doesn’t dismiss it. He can’t on the off-chance that its right. Not if it’s a chance to save the others and the future. “Can you give me the reason you think that?”
I give him my working theory. The other group of four had likely been dispatched to stave off the pursuers after the person who took control of my body. They met with resistance and were slaughtered to a man, with the guy who they all knew being the one meant to return to the past and inform us. He died from his injuries before he could get back, but bought enough time for her to flee into the city.
Then we were called in. Not just us. But a swathe of people who had calling cards. They were bait and potential soldiers, meant to buy time and get us into position.
“It sounds plausible,” he admits before looking up. “And if it is true, then we can bring this all to a close soon. But there’s still something I’m not certain of that leaves me with doubts.”
‘And that is?’
“How did you know that there were three others with Tatsumi?” he asks. “The number of Drifters chosen each time can vary depending on the circumstances, so we can’t really give an exact number unless we’re in contact with one another. That’s part of why we group up and jump into the future at the same time.”
…I can’t give him an answer. Because I didn’t know. We only know that one guy died in this mission because of his sister. So the only way for me to know the exact amount of that group is if that knowledge had been planted into my mind.
That person wasn’t just controlling my body. She was inside of my head and masqueraded her thoughts as my own until I got injured and put the pieces together.
“I’m concerned that this trip may have had more implications than we realized,” he continues. “This person having all the answers we’re looking for right after his group had died supposedly defending her, so why didn’t Nemesis Q just drop you into her lap so she could tell all of you everything and then pull you back when the goal is the change that future?”
…Damn. Damn, he’s right! There has to be something we’re missing; some reason Nemesis Q didn’t do just that. If she had been reading my mind, she must’ve known about our mission. Nemesis Q didn’t kill me for it, so it had to be okay with her knowing of the mission since her knowledge could change the future.
So why not let us meet together?
Likewise, if she really was in that city all this time then she had to notice us when we were going about saving people. So why did she wait so long to try and run interference? Why didn’t she approach us before the homunculi arrived and why didn’t Nemesis Q direct us towards her the moment we dropped into the city? What was the point in wasting so many potential assets as a diversion that would attract more attention in the end when Ayako is more than capable of dealing with the threats? Why send us after the worm?
The only reason I can think of was if the meeting between us would have been disastrous somehow. Nemesis Q isn’t something I can understand, but that person had some kind of precognition with how she was manipulating me—even if it not perfect. Did she foresee that the meeting would be disastrous enough that she turned me into a goddamn answering machine to parrot her thoughts as my own?
Now that I think of it, those homunculi didn’t tell us why they were after her to begin with. Only that wanted her badly enough that their faction was willing to spare us, if they weren’t lying. If she’s been around since the Day of Rebirth, it’s entirely possible that she knew and prepared for it—or could have been responsible for it as well somehow.
This Atlasia could be as big of a threat as Akshayavat. And, even if not, whoever was chasing her killed a group of near-Veteran Drifters. There was no doubt in my mind we’d be deployed soon to run interference since we were sent there this time.
At this rate, we’d meet the same fate as them.