Silence looms within the room at the Temple.
The call came in. The message clear. It’s time to play Nemesis Q’s game again.
Too soon. That thought lingers at the forefront of my mind. It feels too soon since the last time. There hasn’t been enough time to train. Then again, I suppose there’s never enough time when you’re being coerced into fighting for your life—no matter how much you prepare for it.
I look over to see Ayako leaning against a wall with her ridiculous polearm next to her. She seems like the perfect picture of calm just standing there with her arms crossed and eyes closed. But, even without reading her mind, I can tell she’s deep in thought about how to make the best out of this situation now that she has to look after another three people.
Meanwhile, Gotou is pacing back and forth while absentmindedly rolling those oversized knuckledusters in his hands. Ayako said that he can work out his issues with killing the homunculi on his own. But I have doubts he’s made any significant progress on that front.
If he hesitates at the wrong moment it might bite us in the ass…
“Maybe these?” Makidera muses as she plucks yet another weapon from the cabin—a pair of metal tonfa this time.
She wraps her hands around the handles and then moves them around to get a feel for them. The long ends were just past the length of her elbows. The short ends stick out past her knuckles by the length of her longest fingers. They should be simple enough to use that she won’t need to fry her neurons thinking when she has whatever is waiting for us in that ashen wasteland trying to rip out her throat.
In contrast to her, Himuro went with a more complex choice by choosing a sickle and chain. I can’t pretend that I knew what was going through her mind when she picked it out, but I don’t think she intends to make much use of it. Since that discussion a few days ago she’s been focusing on refining her Burst more than anything, isolating herself from both her friends in the process from what Saegusa mentioned to me in private.
Speaking of the mousy one, she finally appears when the Student President pops into the room using his Teleportation Marker. Unlike the others, she insisted that she had to go home first and changed out of her school uniform for something akin to winter wear. Casual but practical at a glance, with lots of pockets.
“Sorry I’m late,” she says apologetically. “I know it was asking a lot, but—”
Makidera quickly brushes off her apology before she can even finish. “It’s not a big deal. You had a lot to do, right?”
“I just had to check my brothers, make sure they knew what would be for dinner, tell them not act too naughty while I was out, and a few other things…” She finishes counting off on her fingers with a deep breath and nods. “But now I’m ready.”
…No one really buys it. Not when none of us are ready to go die in some distant future. Fighting for a cause none of us signed up for willingly. All of us can see she’s just putting on a brave face, but none of us can call her out on it when she still came knowing that there’s a very real chance she won’t be coming back.
That none of us will be coming back alive.
“Don’t worry about anything!” Makidera says boisterously while giving her a pat on the back, showing off the tonfa in her hand. “We’ll keep you safe.”
That was the wrong thing to say. It might have been meant to be reassuring, but she was more terrified of them dying for that very reason given their last trip. Not that the loud one has any way of knowing that as Saegusa puts on a nervous smile before staring down at the ground.
I float a thought her way before she dwells on it too much. ‘You didn’t tip your family off too much, right?’
Her gaze turns to me. ‘I… um… just told them I might be a little late. And that my brothers should be good for our parents. And that…’
She bites down on her lower lip and looks at me somewhat guiltily. ‘And that if anything happened to me… I wanted them to know I love them.’
Another mistake. The reason we pretend to have normal lives is to avoid anyone getting suspicious about these little excursions. So that they don’t end up getting sucked in like how I did with Ayako’s situation.
But she just can’t separate herself from her family. Not without at least letting them know how much she cared. Even if she can’t tell them why to avoid wrapping them up in this, it’s just not in her nature to not do that.
Oh well. Damage done. Another matter for another day. ‘You can pass it off as just wanting to reaffirm things after the hospital visit, so it isn’t a big deal. Just remember to apologize for worrying them later, okay?’
She lets out a small breath in relief and gives a slight nod. Then she makes her way over to me, leaning against the wall next to me. ‘Umm… what did you tell your sister?’
‘I didn’t tell her a thing,’ I confess unashamedly. ‘I don’t have any intention of dying, and if I came out of nowhere and said something like that Sakura would undoubtedly start worrying that something was up. No sense in winding her up about nothing.’
And, even if by some chance something does happen to me… well, the paperwork for her to get everything has been in place well before now considering my condition. She’ll never have to work a day in her life, so Sakura will be just fine financially speaking. Emotionally…
I push the image out of my mind.
Meanwhile, Saegusa looks down to the ground. ‘Oh… I see… I wish I could be so sure like that. Even Maki-chan and Kane-chan are so calm, but I’m still so nervous that my stomach feels like it’s turning in knots.’
Again, not a surprise. But rather than trying to calm her down with empty platitudes, I decide to take a more practical approach. ‘Make a Mind Jack.’
My sudden request catches her off-guard. But after a moment she closes her eyes and weaves a Mind Jack into existence. It flows from the base of her skull and connects our minds. ‘How’s this?’
‘It’s well-made,’ I tell her truthfully. While the shell feels thinner than my constructs, so the amount of information that can flow through it might be bottlenecked, it feels smooth. And she constructed it rather quickly.
Despite my praise, she meekly brushes her fingers against her arms and keeps her eyes on the ground. ‘It’s nothing special. I know that Mitsuzuri-san and Kane-chan can make them as well—’
I place my hands on her shoulders before she goes on. ‘Saegusa. Look at me.’
Her head shoots up and her soft, brown eyes meet my own.
‘It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t even do basic Telepathy. The fact that you can do the same thing as someone as experienced as Mitsuzuri and as competent as Himuro means that you’re just as capable as I thought you were.’
‘But… that’s only because you spent so much time helping me…’
True, I might have spent more time grooming her to be a capable Trance-user so she doesn’t get herself killed. But she legitimately did put in the work to get this far despite having obligations to her family, and never once complained. Yeah, she needed the talent to get this far. But she worked to make something of that talent.
I let the sincerity of that paint my thoughts as I continue. ‘Even so, you’ve never disappointed me. That’s why, while I expect you to be terrified and make mistakes, I know you’ll do the best you can and make up for it. So, stop underselling yourself already.’
‘Matou…kun…’ She only catches her slip up after the fact and it leaves a crimson blush that paints her cheeks.
I only give her a small smile before gesturing my head over to the weapons cabinet. ‘Now let’s get you armed for the trip.’
She nods meekly and mutely, following me to take stock of the arsenal. She isn’t suited towards strengthening her body for combat, so heavy weapons are out. She has no practice with anything that requires dexterity or skill, so a staff is out of the question as well. And I don’t trust her not to hit someone in close-range combat if we gave her a long-range weapon either, so we might as well go with the practical choice then. ‘Take this.’
Her slender fingers curl around the Tanto within its sheath. It’s the same one I used before, so I know it can get the job done. Ideally, she won’t need to use it. But if she does need it then she’ll have it.
She looks it over for a moment. ‘Won’t you need it?’
‘I’ve got my own packed away, plus I bought a couple of weighted chains and some metal stakes used for camping to serve as ranged weapons. The chains can be used to bind the mouths of any of those damn hounds to keep them from screaming at us. As for the stakes, I can program them to seek out and strike the cores or brains of the Taboo, so it’ll be more efficient to support everyone.’
She winces, probably imagining what the latter would look like. The casual way I mention impaling spikes into the brains of the homunculi probably doesn’t help either. The rest of the preparations are understandably done in solemn silence.
Then we jump back into the future.
The steel-grey sky welcomes us for the third time with a lonely whisper in the breeze. The chill riding it digs past my flesh and muscle to caress the bones. It’s enough to stiffen my spine as the tang of metal on the wind lines my tongue on its way down my throat.
“Is… it always like this?” asks Saegusa as her small body shifts around uncomfortably in the wind. It’s not the sheer cold she’s talking about. It’s the thrumming going on inside of her from feeling her powers grow stronger.
“Even with forewarning, it’s still an unpleasant thing to experience,” Himuro notes while adjusting her glasses with one hand. To her credit, she hid whatever abnormality she felt with her neutral expression.
The same can’t be said for Makidera, currently rocking back and forth on the ball of her heels, I won’t be surprised if she starts sprinting laps around the half-eroded road that we’re on from how energetic it’s making her feel. Thankfully, common sense seems to be doing its job and keeping her feet still.
“You adapt quicker to it over time,” Ayako states with a shrug. “But it’s best that you wait for it to settle down before trying any PSI. We don’t know what’s out there or what mission we have, so the first thing we should do is find a place to hunker down in for the moment.”
We scan the roadside for shelter immediately. Standing out in the open like this is just begging to get us spotted before we can properly fight back. Not to mention how cold it is. We manage to spot a place among the bones of what were once massive buildings that’ll suffice and shuffle into it.
After slipping on the winter clothes and ensuring the supplies made the transition without any problem, Ayako heads for the entrance with her weapon in hand. “I’ll go scouting for a bit.”
She nods. “Getting a better understanding of the situation will make things easier in the long run, and I’m used to doing this sort of thing whenever I arrive.”
“Then I’ll make a Mind Jack so we can at least—”
“I can handle that. You just focus on waiting out the adjustment period,” she states before spinning out a Mind Jack. The tip angles towards me for a moment before suddenly swerving and connecting to Gotou. “I’ll let you know if I find anything, but until then don’t broadcast or give away our position.”
I stamp down on the feeling gnawing in my chest as she closes the entrance. The rational part of me can recognize that she’s being considerate considering how little time we had to adjust the last time. We were only a trip ahead of these three and the sensation was still moderately distracting, so not wanting us to attempt even something as simple as creating a Mind Jack is understandable.
But looking at the construct, and whom she chose to link it to, the realistic part of me concedes she’s still wary about letting me in her head after that last time. She has no assurances it won’t happen again when the best I can tell her is that I’m handling it. Gotou is the safer choice at the end of the day.
Whatever. I shift my focus onto helping Saegusa. “Just close your eyes, calm your breathing, and focus on everything slowing down and closing in until you’re in the state of mind we normally practice in during our sessions.”
Her eyes close. Her shoulders relax. Her chest rises and falls in time with her breath, matching the rhythm that we practiced together. Good.
I look towards the others and catch them doing the same. Breathing exercises aren’t exactly foreign to members of the Track Club, so they can copy the physical motions easily enough. And Gotou will likely adapt quicker than them simply due to previous exposure, so there’s no need to worry about him.
So that just leaves me.
I put myself through the motions and mindset. The storm settles within me soon enough. Then I test out my limits by preparing one of the safeguards I have planned for when we inevitably run into Atlasia.
It’s based on the principles of a Mind Jack. Specifically, the exterior shell designed to keep the more sensitive Trance waves inside of it. I use the construction as a foundation and let it expand slowly so that it encroaches over my body inch-by-inch, until it forms a membrane wrapping around me from head-to-toe.
I breathe out and open my eyes once it was done to see Saegusa staring at me with her head quirked to the side. “Has your PSI settled down now?”
She nods. “I should be able to use it now without any problems.”
“Then spin out a Mind Jack and try to connect with me.”
Her brows furrow slightly in concentration for a moment. Then out comes the wired connector in roughly the same time that it took back in the present. Not a surprise since being able to program the process is above her skill level at present—foundation first, efficiency afterward.
It slithers towards me and curves smoothly around to the back of my skull, intending to sink into the base and connect us. Then the tip stops as it catches on the membrane. The familiar touch of her mind remains absent.
Her brows arch. “You… found a way to block me?”
“In light of what happened the last time we came here, I thought I should try out some anti-Trance techniques.”
Specifically, I wanted a method to avoid having my mind read wantonly or my thoughts influenced by an outside force. The simplest method of doing so is to shut them out before they can get to my brain. Ideally, it’ll work on even non-Trance methods of mental interference as well.
“Try to force it in until I say to stop.”
She seems mildly uncomfortable about using her PSI in such a manner, but she ultimately does attempt to force the Mind Jack past my defenses. The membrane manages to hold up, but it feels like it’s being grounded away as her own Trance construct pushes against it. Probably because the Mind Jack has more density to contain the regular telepathic transmissions.
A dense enough Trance construct could simply erase it. Then again, being composed of Trance energy means that it won’t offer any sort of protection from physical interference. But what about regular Trance waves?
“Try with regular Telepathy now,” I instruct her.
She does so. Or at least I think she does by how her expression shifts for a few moments before she gives up. “It looks like you couldn’t hear me.”
No signs of any notable degradation within the membrane. I can only presume that any thoughts she tried to float my way ended up breaking against it—like water splashing against an umbrella. However, if it shuts me out of all thoughts other than my own, it’ll effectively render me deaf and mute to telepathy.
It’ll be a gamble to keep it active at all times in that case. Telepathic transmission happens to be our primary means of long-distance communication. I can probably key it to allow for specific people to circumvent it if there’s a specific frequency or signature to an individual’s Trance waves…
No, I’m getting too far ahead of myself right now. I need to focus on what it can do for me in the short-term. It’s a safety net against having Atlasia and other trance-users getting into my head unwillingly. But if that does happen, I’ll have to resort to the other two methods I have on hand.
But I push that aside for the moment to address the others once I notice them listening in. “You three finished adjusting as well?”
Makidera opens her eyes and crosses her arms. “The shakes have settled down enough. I’m ready to go.”
In lieu of a verbal answer, Himuro holds out her hand with her palm facing upwards. Then something proceeds to take shape, similar to how Gotou created a simple ball to knock down the cards in a demonstration of how Burst could manifest. Only in her case what formed was an almost glass-like octahedron.
It floated above her palm for a moment before her gray eyes peered to the wall on the opposite side of the room we were in. Then it shot towards it as if it was thrown at the speed of maybe a fastball. It shattered upon hitting the wall, but not before leaving a rough indent that was a quarter-inch deep.
“I believe I’ve acclimated well enough,” she finally answers while adjusting her glasses. “It seems like my Burst has more physical substance than when I practiced back home. But it’s still too fragile to be of use against anything with a hard exterior.”
“A simple answer would have been fine, but whatever.” I turn to Gotou last. “What about you?”
He looks down at his hand from his perch against the wall at the prompt. Then he closes his eyes and forms it into a fist. “…There aren’t any problems from what I can tel—”
Gotou’s head snaps up and his words die as he looks towards me. Makidera takes a step back and bends her legs. Saegusa nearly falls off her makeshift seat in surprise. And Himuro grips her weapon tighter.
That’s when I turn around to see what set them on high alert.
And come face-to-face with Nemesis Q.
“Ughhh… why do we have to do this stuff?”
As the autumn sun was slouching over the horizon, the soft whines of a somber panther fill the air.
The former captain of the Track Team was miserably carrying a set of steel poles along with Gai. They were meant to be used building the different stands for the sake of the upcoming cultural festival. The collective weight wasn’t light by any means, but since we were the only ones left on the campus there was no reason to hold back using Rise.
The Cultural Festival would be within the first week of November. That wasn’t too far off from now and there was still a lot of work to be done for certain clubs. Hence the reason we were still here at this hour.
I roll my eyes at her complaining before turning my attention back to my own assignment. Manual labor is beneath me in most cases, but I treat it more as rudimentary training to master the form of telekinesis that suits me. By brushing a finger across a nail and infusing it with my PSI, I can program them to drive themselves into place with no physical effort on my part.
It’s a simple program at the end of the day—requiring a set amount of energy to carry out a simple routine at a specific distance. Not the flashiest uses of PSI, but driving the sharp end of a weapon into the head or core of the target is a practical and efficient method of killing. It also requires no extra effort on my part once its set into motion aside from the implementation of a return function.
“It’s not fair that we have to suffer alone when we can’t even run or participate with the Track Club anymore,” the loud one continues to whine. But, like how a broken clock was right at least twice a day, she has a point. None of us would even be here under normal circumstances, since only current club members are required to construct their own stands and displays.
Then again, her mouth is the reason we’re here now.
Even I could tell the Student President was in a mood after his return from… wherever he and his brother ventured off to. But she lacked that ability apparently. So here we were, pitching in with helping the clubs that were dragging behind—Archery and Track Club included.
I have a barb on my tongue ready to go and remind her that she’s the reason we’re here. But then I see Himuro looking up from sketching out a design that’ll later be shaped and painted into a sign and hold my tongue. It’s more fun to watch sometimes.
“Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t this because you were the one who kept egging on Ryuudou about the training camp?”
Himuro’s opening salvo starts out with a factual reminder and a pointed stare. Caught unaware by the sudden assault Makidera recoils as if she’s been slapped. But Himuro doesn’t relent as she continues her verbal assault.
“And didn’t you also come up with this needlessly elaborate design and theme for the Track Club? Despite the fact that everyone else in the club pointed out it wouldn’t be practical?”
“And, after you insisted that we still do it, rather than having everyone work on it bit-by-bit each session you said we’ll just leave it alone until a few days before the festival so we can concentrate on practice—and then let whoever had the worst time on the field hammer it out, which is the qualification that you now meet?”
I grin when the realization that she ultimately dug her own grave blossoms on her face. It’s like a work of art. If only I could capture the moment on camera…
“Matou-kun, you shouldn’t smile at Maki-chan being scolded.”
A gentle chastisement in a soft voice courtesy of Saegusa breaks the moment. She has a small, disproving frown on her face that a pre-school teacher wears while scolding a child for laughing at another hurting themselves by being stupid. Yes, they have it coming but you shouldn’t make fun of them because of it.
I’d probably take more offense to it if not for the fact that it came from… well, her.
The mousiness that comes naturally to her makes it hard to take her seriously. Really, the fact that she’s gotten comfortable enough in the last week to actually call me out on it is more of a surprise. But it also serves to further a theory I’ve had for some time now.
“Just now… you addressed me rather informally, didn’t you?”
A brief look of surprise crosses her face. It’s genuine too. The moment she realizes the implications she starts to get flustered like one would expect.
“Oh, I didn’t… I’m sorry if—”
I shake my head and quell her worry before she gets too worked up about it. “I don’t really mind. You can even just call me by my name like Mitsuzuri does occasionally if you want. I just noticed you never did the same for her or Gotou.”
Saegusa isn’t nearly as formal as Himuro, but the number of people she addresses casually can be counted on a hand. Even if I don’t consider it that big of a deal, for her it’s a huge leap that shouldn’t be happening so fast. It’s most likely because she’s unaware of how her powers are starting to influence her.
Mental Interference can easily be obstructed by Magic Resistance. That is why Physical Interference is the preferred method of dealing with an enemy magus. But there is also another risk—the risk of losing oneself in the process of working the mind of another.
To affect one’s mind as a magus and change their thought processes pulled their own along that same path depending on the means and methods. To get around that other means were utilized, such as psychology, artificial Mystic Eyes that work like projections, and so on. But there is a difference between suppressing a memory to forget an event or hypnotism compared to linking minds together like we do.
It breaks down the separation of self and leaves us malleable to a greater degree—at least that’s what I believe.
Saegusa has no safeguard for her own thoughts and emotions inside her own head. She lacks the mindset to separate one identity from another with self-hypnosis that I do from my misspent years. How long until she changes because of that without realizing it?
Then again, even preparation and mindset aren’t perfect. Touching one’s mind can make you consider things. Make you reflect on yourself in ways you normally wouldn’t be able to.
Touching the emotions woven into the memories of both that woman from the future and Saegusa left a mark on me. I’ve been considering just what familial affection is because of them. How it relates to Sakura and myself.
Saegusa’s affection towards her younger siblings was something…warm. Light. It’s like a gentle breeze that caresses the heart, or so my sixth sense interprets.
Yet… I can’t relate to that when I think of Sakura.
I’m trying to make amends for everything I’ve done. But I just don’t have the same depth of emotions for Sakura that Saegusa has for her younger siblings. Otherwise, I don’t think I’d still be relatively sane after everything I did to her.
Not just to her body, but her mind.
I never shied away from reminding Sakura that her purpose was to be a plaything. I enjoyed bringing up that someone like Emiya would never want someone as dirty as her. That the only thing she’s good for was… things that I enjoyed at the time.
I could see it in her eyes that Sakura honestly took it to heart at some point too.
That’s why she never once made an attempt to be happy with Emiya after the war. Realistically, she’ll probably never seek out a lover. Even without looking into her mind I can tell she believes she’s been too dirtied to deserve such things it.
Did I even care that I ruined her in such a matter back then? Was I going to take care of her for the rest of her life as my toy, using her in the same way my own mother had been used to sire a heir? Or was I going to throw her away?
…Either way, the damage has been done.
I can’t take it back. I can’t even say that I’ll be alive or sane enough to take responsibility if things keep getting worse for me. Once I’m gone she’ll be alone with that burden.
Any chance of a normal sibling relationship is long gone. I’ve already crossed too many lines with her to even attempt that. There’s no going back.
But then I recall the warmth of Saegusa’s affection for her own siblings. The happiness she finds in being part of their lives. It feels… nice.
I can’t help but wonder if it that’s the way I’m supposed to feel about Sakura. I think at some point I even might have felt that way when we first met. But once I found out she was replacing me as heir all of that vanished.
Part of me wants more of it. To let down my guard and just feel the warm touch of Saegusa’s emotions as our mind’s meld. Just so I can reclaim a bit of what was lost.
Just as a little happiness to balance out everything I was dealing with. The Grail’s curse. The ruined future. All of it.
But I can’t take that risk with her.
Ayako still gets nervous when she feels my thoughts brush her mind. Everything in her body still rejects the brief glimpse of horrors in my head she witnessed. She’s a lot of things but frail isn’t one of them considering everything she’s gone through as a Drifter.
The same cannot be said for Saegusa. For a girl who lived an ordinary and happy life until now to be exposed to even a fraction of the mire in the back my mind… for someone whose thoughts and feelings are so easily exposed to experience those things …
The image of glasswork shattering comes to my mind.
Her psyche would break into too many pieces to really recover. Even if she did, she’d never be the same. The warmth she holds for her family. The guilt she bears from nearly getting her friends killed the last trip. All those things that make up the mousy, innocent girl in front of me would be no more.
I can’t be responsible for that. I can’t let those things be tainted and defiled because I let her into my head just to savor the feel of them. I can’t make the same mistake that I did with Sakura again…
‘Is everything alright?’
I realize I lost myself in thought the moment Saegusa’s warmth touches my mind like a cloud drifting on the wind. Her brows are folded in and her neck is tilted ever so slightly as she observes me. I pull my head back slightly and force a small smile as I lie.
‘Just coming up with a new training regimen. I think you need to practice with the others more often so you can use your powers more frequently. I’ll try to convince the sadist to lay off you until then.’
The Student President wasn’t any softer on Saegusa than he was with me when he got back from his trip. Or any of them really. But the difference was that while the other two were no strangers to physical work, she was and often ended up the most exhausted. She just isn’t suited to using Rise in an offensive capacity like them.
‘You don’t have to,’ her mind whispered to mine. ‘I know it’s hard. But I need to be able to do everything I can to help everyone. That includes taking care of myself.’
And despite it all Saegusa never once complains about the training. She doesn’t even harbor ill-will towards Ryuudou, even though every night so far she’s needed to be carried home from exhaustion. She just keeps forcing herself to get up and keep trying because she wants everyone to be safe.
‘…You’re pretty amazing, you know that?’
I’m pretty stingy when it comes to genuine praise, but it’s deserved. The fact that it coaxes a blossoming smile from her face shows she appreciates it as well. I have to say it suits her nicely.
“Hey, quit flirting in each other’s heads over there and get back to work!”
Unfortunately, Makidera ruins the moment with her thoughtless accusations. The warm expression turns to one of fluster. She avoids my gaze and tries to justify how happy she looked just moments ago. “I…it’s n-not like that…”
“Makinoji…” Himuro’s voice came out a bit more frosty than normal. The light of the evening sun obscures her eyes behind her glasses. But I can imagine she’s glaring at the thoughtless monkey. “Please think carefully before you speak again tonight.”
She catches on she might have botched things from the expression on her face. But it’s too little and too late. We call it an evening a little later and put away everything before heading home.
Or at least the others do.
I stay behind just a little longer to make sure everything is in order. I didn’t want to have the sadist in my ear about a misplaced screwdriver or anything. Then I grab my bag and make my way out of the gates.
“May I have a word?”
That’s when Himuro calls out to me. She’s standing next to the wall on the outside of the gates, arms crossed.
“I thought you left with the others to escort Saegusa back to her home?”
“Since Maki was hungry and Saegusa wanted to get some snacks for her family, I told them I would catch up with them in Miyama. I didn’t want them to wait for me while I spoke with you in private.”
“Oh really?” I cross my arms and stand a little straighter. “Talk to me about what?”
She adjusts her glasses and meets my gaze. “I won’t defend what Maki did, but we’ve been friends for a long time now. She does tend to speak tactlessly, but in this case it’s because she picked up on how strangely Yukika acts around you. I’m sure you can understand that with everything going on, it’s somewhat worrying to us.”
“And she somehow interpreted that as us being lovers?” I nearly laugh. “A bit of a stretch, don’t you think?”
“I suppose it might seem that way to you, but…” She brings her hand to her chin and closes her eyes for a moment, as if in thought. “Before I say anything more, I would like your word that you’ll not utter a word of this to her. Agreed?”
I arch a brow. She approached me and now she wanted my word to keep silent about it. There should be a limit to how self-entitled you can be. But I humor her. “Fine. Now spill.”
She opens her eyes and then takes on a firm expression. “The way she looks at you at times is really incomparable to how she was even a month ago. You were quite a notorious person during our Second Year and onwards. So much so that even she couldn’t help but hold some disdain towards the mention of your name.”
I clench my teeth for a moment at the thought of that happening. It’s a complete contradiction when she doesn’t even hold an inkling of hatred towards the one who worked her over during training. I barely even talked to her back then.
…But then I remember Blood Fort Andromeda and that they were among the victims. I can’t claim it’d be undeserved. Even if those memories were locked away or removed.
I let out my frustration with a sigh. “Your point being?”
“Even though there were rumors that you’d become upright or at least less abrasive, the impression from before remains so firmly entrenched that it’s hard to be shaken. Yet, there are moments when she looks at you and simply smiles like before. Since you saved her from that monstrous dog it’s like she has an… admiration for you, at the very least.”
I scratch my head and realize what she’s getting at. “…Listen, you don’t have all the facts so you’re piecing together a conclusion that isn’t right because of that. It isn’t love or admiration or whatever you think it is.”
“Then what is your perception of things?”
I payback her own entitlement with a demand of my own. “Do I have your word that this won’t reach any of the others?”
She nods without hesitation. “It would only be fair.”
I give a heavily abridged version of my thoughts on the matter. That I’ve had my own suspicions about how our powers might influence our personalities. That they are too far removed from what is normal to not have any drawbacks. That powers that aren’t purely physical might have a greater influence on the behavior.
I use the Student President as a reference. That he doesn’t pay consideration to pain because he believes he can heal anything short of death. He doesn’t empathize with it easily anymore or has at least seen and experienced wounds so egregious that anything short of that will be met with little concern.
She understands well enough. “In summation, you believe that she’s being nudged by her own powers because you two share a similar affinity with the same categorization of PSI. That it’s influencing her to an extent?”
I nod. “I’m lacking complete hard evidence, but the reason she was acting flustered earlier was because I made a note of her referring to me without honorifics. She hadn’t realized that she did so. It’s not a big a deal for most people, but—”
Himuro picks up on the train of thought instantly. “She doesn’t refer to others so casually unless she’s well-acquainted with them. She’s a polite girl so it goes against her ingrained behavior. The fact that she did so unknowingly means that she regards you as being someone she can be comfortable with.”
Another nod. “I only brought it up so she’ll start thinking on any other things she might have done differently or open up a little more to the others. The only reason I haven’t shared this with anyone else is because we cannot have them being afraid of their own powers when it could mean the difference between life and death. More so when the circumstances can easily explain away these changes as well considering it is a rather perilous one.”
“I see…” She removes her glasses and looks down at the lenses in silence for a moment. “I can’t say I’d thought it out to the same depths as you, but I had considered that not everything was as clear as it might have been. There are so many uncertainties about everything else and now we can’t even be certain if any changes we make are of our own will.”
I remain silent to let her process everything. Someone who runs off pure emotion won’t handle it well. But Himuro is logical to a greater extent than the majority of people in the school. She’ll take that into consideration and put that before her emotions. Or so I hope.
“The best we can do is survive first and foremost. And to do that we must change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly. As long as it doesn’t completely take away from who we are, I believe we can at least claim that we are the sum of our own decisions.”
Settling on that conclusion she replaces her glasses. “So be it then.”
I sling my bag over my shoulder. “That should settle things then. I’ll leave it to you to explain to the loud one there isn’t anything romantic between Saegusa and myself. I don’t have any inclinations to seek out a lover with everything going, and even if I did, she doesn’t deserve to be stuck with a guy like me.”
That done, I start walking back home in silence. Himuro doesn’t say anything to acknowledge the discussion any further. Then again, nothing to be said now that she has reached her own resolve about how to approach things: To survive we’ll have to change, knowingly or unknowingly. Willingly or unwillingly.
In hindsight, I suppose we can only blame ourselves for what happened a few days later. That was when we returned to that future where the vampire awaited us. That was when we did something we’d regret for the rest of our lives beneath the ashen sky. It was…
The sum of our decisions.
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.”
“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?”
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.”
“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.”
Yukika Saegusa woke that morning when she felt a prod to her cheek courtesy of her younger brothers, who claimed that they were hungry. She snapped upright at that and looked at her clock to see that she was late in waking up—far later than normal. On a normal day, she would have already made breakfast for her family and a lunch for herself before her parents saw them off to school.
“I’m so sorry!” She stumbled out of bed hastily. If she hurried she would be able to get them something to eat—eggs and toast at the very least. It was her responsibility since her parents’ worked so hard to support all five of their children. “Just give me half-an-hour and I’ll have breakfast read—Ahhhh!!”
In her haste she tripped over her own feet and would have hit the ground if not for one of her brothers, Kouta, reaching out to catch her. She wasn’t exactly heavy, but he was still on the young side and didn’t have much muscle. So he ended up beneath her rather than stopping her fall.
“Nee-chan, you’re heavy!”
She rose to her feet and helped him up. “Sorry Kouta. I’ll make your breakfast now, but you’ll have to settle for just eggs and toast this morning.”
“But I want Oyakodon!” Kouta crossed his arms and pouted. “It’s my day today! I checked the chart!”
“I’m sorry, but there’s not enough time.” She felt bad about it too. Her brothers tended to be naughty, but they liked the breakfast schedule that she came up with and had been good recently. Well, mostly good by their standards. “I’ll make it up during dinner, whatever you want.”
The smirk that formed on his face told her it’d be an outrageous demand, but as long as it silenced him for now that was all she asked before she made her way to the kitchen to cook. It was a small kitchen, but a familiar one. As much as her brothers riled her up, they left the kitchen unsullied since she was the one who did most of the cooking—though her mother helped when she had time off.
Yukika managed to get the light breakfast made in time before they left out, on their way to school. Then she was home, alone. Not enough time for her to make a lunch if she was going to make herself presentable to her classmates. And she didn’t want to spend more money than necessary, so she would have to settle for picking something up along the way if it was on sale and call that her lunch.
She could only blame herself as washed her face in front of the mirror. Ever since that night where she had that dream of that… thing and found that card in her room, she had been on edge. The thought that someone or something had slipped into her home so easily left her panicking out of fear of the unknown, jumping at shadows.
Not for her own sake, but for that of her brothers. They needed her to look after them. She was responsible for them. Yet, chasing rumors somehow led to the sanctity of their household being violated. What if whatever or whoever it was decided to do something to them?
It would be all her fault, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. That was why she had left the calling card at school, in the locker that she had access to as the manager of the team. She didn’t want it anywhere near her family, but she was afraid to get rid of it since she didn’t know what that would do.
It’ll be fine, she told herself to quell the fear in her heart that bubbled up at the thought. If Kane-chan and Maki-chan aren’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t either.
Kane had assured her that it was nothing to worry about and Makidera had all but brushed it off as far as she could tell. Those two were pillars in her life, two people she found companionship with the most outside of her family. Kane was wise and regal, while Makidera was energetic and fun, but both were protective and supportive of her.
If her best friends didn’t find it terrifying, she was sure that she was just blowing things out of proportion. At least, that’s what she thought before the ringing started later that day. It was a phantasmal ringing that couldn’t be drowned out by covering their ears or using earphone and music, ever-present and resonating from within them in a haunting tone.
It wouldn’t go away, no matter what they did. It continued until the ringing became unbearable by the time they finished their afterschool track practice. By then, Yukika struggled just to string together a coherent thought.
“This can’t be happening,” she said in pain as the ringing made her head ache and left her sitting on the bench in the locker room, tears stinging her eyes.
Makidera was leaning against one of the lockers as well with strain evident on her face as she tried to bear with it. “Maybe it was something we ate?”
Kane shook her head and spoke the words they were too afraid to even think of. “It has to be the summoning toll mentioned in the dream.”
Yukika’s heart palpitated upon hearing those words. Not only because it reminded her of that creature that coiled a ribbon around her heart and mind before she woke to find the calling card on her nightstand, but because she could hear them clearly despite the ringing in her ears that wouldn’t go away. Those words and the weight they carried added credit to what she said.
Yet, she denied it. Yukika shook her head in disbelief, desperate to not let it be true. “No…”
“It’s the only reason I can think of that all three of us are like this.” Kane massaged her temples and closed her eyes. “Even if it doesn’t make sense, all we have are the rules on the back of the cards to go by.”
Makidera shot her an annoyed look. “Hold on. You said you saw that Mitsuzuri had one of those cards, right? Let’s just go ask her if it really is a part of this and see if she has some way to deal with it.”
Kane’s silver hair swayed as she gave a shake of her head. “She’s left campus already with Shinji Matou. His sister is managing the Archery Club and can’t reach them. She doesn’t even know where they’ve gone.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
Kane reached into her pocket slowly and pulled out her calling card. “We have to make the call. Do you have your cards?”
Makidera grimaced. “It’s in my bag.”
Yukika hesitantly nodded as well, swallowing the rising lump of fear in her throat. “My locker.”
“Go get them and we’ll make the call together.”
The ringing stopped the moment they dialed the number. Or was it simply forgotten? Left behind in the enclosure of the locker room rather than under the dulling, silver-lined sky of thick clouds they found themselves staring up at.
“A-Are we all having a nightmare or something?” Makidera said aloud, a bead of sweat trailing down from her brow as her eyes spanned the new landscape they were in.
“Th-That must be it.” It didn’t make sense unless they were just having a nightmare. Yukika pinched herself as a cold wind threaded the rows of buildings that were in various states of disrepair. The pain stung enough that she winced, but it didn’t make the nightmare end. Slender fingers grasped her hand and stopped her before she could try again.
It was Kane, looking through her glasses with a sad gaze. “It’s not a nightmare.”
Yukika shook her head vigorously in disbelief. “It has to be! What else could it be!?”
“I’m not sure what this is, but if we panic we’ll only endanger ourselves. Let’s stay calm.”
Yukika didn’t hear her as she staggered back, holding her head with tears in her eyes. “I need to get home! I need to get back to my brothers! My family!”
Makidera grabbed her shoulders and held her steady. “Himuro’s right. We’ll get you home safe and sound, so keep calm, Yukicchi.”
That seemed to quell her fears somewhat. At least until Kane looked over the smaller girl’s shoulder and her eyes rose in stunned confusion and fear. Yukika took notice and turned to see what had grabbed Kane’s attention.
It was a monster. Flesh stretched over hulking muscles that exceeded what was humanly possible, combined with misshapen limbs that didn’t belong as it held an upside down body lifelessly in its grasp. On the ground next to it was a pair of monstrous dogs of some kind, sitting on their hind legs. The trio of monsters faced the three of them, lacking eyes yet somehow able to stare at them unwaveringly.
They froze in place out of the sheer abnormality of what they were seeing. Monsters and a corpse akin to the hanged man, blood flowing from a smashed head as papers floated down from the building above—a business man who committed suicide by falling in an attempt to escape the nightmare. Then the masked-headed brute opened its mouth and let a haggard breath as it dropped the corpse with a wet thunk.
Something snapped inside of Yukika and her fear spilled out in the form of a scream at the top of her lungs. “AHHHHHHH!!!”
The scream acted as a starting pistol. Instincts of hunters and prey took root and blossomed, determined in an instant. The dogs moved in for them as the masked hulk screamed in place of a verbal order and the girls ran.
Kane Himuro was their jumping ace, but was good at short-sprints as well. Kaede Makidera was confident in her physical strength and excelled at mid-distance running. Between the two of them, it was entirely plausible to run long enough to escape and find somewhere to hide.
But not Yukika Saegusa, who was on the verge of passing out from fear. She was only the team manager and certain to be the first one captured by the monsters if left on her own. If it was survival of the fittest, she was only suited for serving as a distraction while the other two escaped.
Neither entertained the thought. Instead, Makidera grabbed Yukika and threw her over her shoulder. With her heart racing even though she was being carried, Yukika bore with the uncomfortable sensation of a shoulder digging into her stomach as they ran.
Fear sent adrenaline coursing through their bodies. The chill of the metallic air was all but forgotten as they burned on the inside. Pushing their trained bodies to the utmost limit they ran down the street.
“Through the alley!” Kane yelled from the front. “They shouldn’t be able to see with those things on their faces! If we move fast enough through the turns we should be able to elude them!”
They took a sharp turn down the first alley they found. The path contained two hurdles, an overturned dumpster and a half-fallen fire escape. There was no turning back without being caught, so they could only push through them.
“Maki!” Kane called, arms extended towards the fastest of the three, and the message within it carried. Without stopping, Makidera passed Yukika to the most vertically-inclined of the trio. Freed of the additional weight, Makidera then burst forward with as much speed as she was capable of and lunged forward to vault over the overturned dumpster without stopping.
“This’ll be a little rough, but bear with it!” Kane said as she followed suit with Yukika in her arms. She leapt over the makeshift hurdle despite the additional weight, a testament to the strength of her legs. The moment her feet touched the ground again, she kept running without slowing down.
The first hurdle cleared, they approached the second. The half-fallen fire escape looked as though it fell until it hit the opposite wall and collapsed downwards. The result was a net of rusted steel with just enough of a gap in it where they could make it through if they could get enough height.
Makidera stopped as she approached it and turned around, creating a foothold with her hands to give them a boost. Kane leapt forward with her leg extended out and landed in the prepared foothold. Makidera summoned whatever strength she had to throw the taller girl holding the smaller girl upwards and get enough height to clear it.
The landing was rougher than before. Kane’s knees buckled this time, leaving her to wince in pain. But she couldn’t waste time if they were going to get away. She gritted her teeth and then stood up, forcing herself forward as Makidera climbed over the second hurdle.
They made to the mouth of the alley as Kane began to pant with heated breaths. She was good at short-distances, but they were at the point where she was reaching her limit since carrying Yukika was taking its toll.
Yet she couldn’t stop running. A howl disabused her of the very thought. The monster-dogs had already entered into the other end of the alley, eating up the distance bought with their concerted efforts in a hurry.
“Get lost already!” Makidera shouted as she rammed the half-fallen fire escape with all the strength she could muster. The impact was enough to wrench the remainder of it loose, freeing it from its rusted bonds. It went crashing towards the monster-dogs chasing after them with a loud and deafening sound, obscuring her foot falls as the Black Panther started running again.
“I think I got them!” she said with a proud smile as she caught up quickly while they came out into another street and began to run down it.
“We have… to keep going…into another… alley!” Kane fought to get the words as heated pants left her mouth. She was slowing down now. But they had to keep going ahead if they were going to escape.
“Kane-chan, let me down!” Yukika said, unable to stand the thought of one of her friends being caught because she was slowing them down. “I can run on my own now!”
But it was too late. One of the monster-dogs managed to pull itself free of the wreckage and gave chase after them as they neared the mouth of the second alley. It snarled as it approached the fleeing trio with a frantic gait, racing towards the slowing pair.
“What does it take to get rid of you!?” Makidera shouted as she brought her foot around from below while the other two kept running. The kick connected just below its snout and punted it backwards several feet. She then turned to run, but it got back to its feet before she could make it a step, its mouth splitting into four parts as a scream bellowed out towards her. “Agghhh!!”
“Maki-chan!” Yukika screamed as all the strength seemed to leave Makidera’s body. She collapsed like a puppet with her strings cut, leaving Yukika to fear that she had died. She wriggled out of Kane’s grasp and reached out for her—
“Go…” Kaede called out with a strained breath, struggling to move. Kane did just that upon seeing the other monsters approaching, grabbing Yukika by the hand and forcing her to keep moving through the narrow alley as the monster-dog screamed at Makidera again.
“We have to help Maki-chan!” Yukika cried out as she looked over her shoulder towards the shrinking figure of her fallen friend.
“We can’t do anything for her if we get caught too!” Kane argued as they cleared the mouth of the alley only to meet a dead-end in the front of a pile of rubble from a collapsed building. Before they could run the other way, one of the monster-dogs darted out from the alley and aimed for Yukika.
Kane put herself in front of a scream that left her as immobile and helpless as Makidera. She fell backwards, spared only from hitting her head on the rubble by Yukika’s lithe arms grabbing her as she fell. Using her body as a cushion as they hit the debris pile, she was trapped beneath her remaining friend.
Now there was no getting away. Yukika could barely support Kane’s limp body, let alone climb over the rubble with her in tow. It seemed like they were doomed as the monster-dog’s mouth split open again and it prepared another horrifying scream just for her.
In those final moments, she held Kane for dear life and thought back to her family. She just wanted to see them again. She just wanted to return to her ordinary life with her family and friends… and then the last person they’d expect to see appeared.
Shinji Matou was not exactly someone who the collective trio would be happy to see under normal circumstances. He wasn’t the nicest person by any stretch of the imagination. Even when he showed up to save them, he looked annoyed more than anything.
But, as she watched him run off in the direction where Makidera had been left behind, Yukika had never been more grateful in her life to see a familiar face…
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.
Interlude – Kane Himuro
Soft music filled the air of the second room on the eleventh floor of the Semina Apartments, located in Shinto’s Kurokizaka district. Each floor of the complex had two apartments, and each apartment contained four bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen. It was a luxury apartment befitting those who could afford the four figure monthly rent.
In one of these rooms, Kane Himuro carefully brought a brush against the canvas that was set up, while listening to classical western music. Her father was working late as always, while her mother was with a friend, so it left her without any obligations. She often painted in her free time, when not occupied with Track Club or taking one of her walks throughout Fuyuki, from the Sea Side Park beneath the Big Bridge to the Temple. It really depended on her mood and whether or not she had inspiration to paint.
Recently she had come across a mystery that blossomed into unrivaled inspiration, so she was trying to get the painting done while it was fresh in her mind. At least she would be if she wasn’t stuck listening to Kaede Makidera through her phone’s speaker.
“It’s not fair! Why did the Archery Club get the chance to set up a training camp in the mountain while we don’t?”
She had been complaining nonstop for some time now. It wasn’t a surprise since her approach towards the Student President for the sake of having a training camp on the mountains was poorly thought out. Her enthusiasm got the best of her so much that she often refused to think things through.
Someone like that normally got on Kane’s nerves. But after three years of knowing her it had become so ingrained that when Makidera acted like a yamato nadeshiko in her own home, manners and all, it bothered her.
Continuing to paint, Kane simply asked, “Maki, have you considered the Archery Club’s membership being a factor?”
“Leaving aside the fact that you literally burst through the door while he was in a conversation to start making demands without subtly or tact, Emiya is the person he maintains close ties with and remains an unofficial member of the club despite having quit. And Mitsuzuri has been building a rapport with him from the tone of her words with Matou at the mall.”
It was a habit of Kane’s when it came to affairs of romance to take the couple or potential couple and view them like portrait in her mind. Considering how well Mitsuzuri and Ryuudou seemed within that frame, she could see them becoming close enough to be friends through propinquity. Lovers even.
Shelving that aside, she finished her explanation to Makidera. “In contrast, you have ties with Tohsaka. Given his propensity to become guarded and outright hostile around Tohsaka, despite normally being rather dutiful and cordial, their rivalry is rather well-known. When you take that into account, along with her influence among the sports clubs and the fact that Emiya and Tohsaka are in a relationship, he wouldn’t be inclined to allow for an activity that goes outside his duty as the council president.”
“I still don’t see what she sees in that guy,” Makidera responded as usual to that bit of information. Whenever it came up, she tended to rage around a while since the time she spent with someone she considered a friend was cut down because of Tohsaka’s obligations to her boyfriend. “He doesn’t fit with her at all.”
Kane actually agreed with her there. Emiya wasn’t bad per se. He had qualities that she could admire in spades, but compared to the honor student and idol that Tohsaka had established herself as the two were as different as night and day to one another. But it was something of common knowledge around the school now since April and nothing could be done.
Makidera spent a few minutes ranting onwards before settling down. During that time, Kane continued her painting of the coat with its fur collar that splayed outwards in a ring. Getting the details of it with a brush was easier said than done compared to the rest of its body outline.
Then Makidera sighed in exhaustion before speaking seriously, “I just thought it might be a good way to get Yukicchi’s mind off…”
“The red calling cards,” Kane finished for her in lieu of Makidera’s hesitation. It was understandable, given that even she was wary of what happened after the last time she spoke carelessly of it and the one who gave them the cards. It was a humbling and terrifying experience, to say the least.
Kane stepped back and observed the painting. The portrait was a pristine facsimile of the humanoid creature that was strangely avian in nature as it appeared in her dream. It was dressed in a white coat with red trimming, with a starry background of the cosmos and a fleeting light in the distance steadily growing closer to the planet, extending its long arms to hand over the card to her.
She had been chasing rumors of the red cards for some time now because it was in her nature to do so, seeking out logical explanations for the unknown. Things had to have a reason to fit them under her world view. That was how it was for her.
Yet it was the unexplored and unseen things that captivated her. They made her heart race in excitement beneath the placid exterior she wore, a guilty pleasure that led to her searching for the rumored card. So, for such an enigma to appear in her dreams and somehow leave a card behind gave her inspiration, even as the nebulous nature of it nagged her mind as she tried to find a logical reason for how all three of them had the same dream and ended up with the calling card by their bedsides when they woke.
Makidera was wary, viewing it a sick game of some kind with rules printed on the back of the cards. Yukika, on the other hand, had been terrified considering the rumors that the red card marked you for death. More than that, the thought of someone breaking into the home where her family slept and leaving the card behind left her fearing for her little brothers’ safety.
It had brought her to tears.
If there was one absolute both she and Makidera shared it was their desire to look after Yukika. If something threatened her, they would be the ones to shelter and defend her against it. If there was something she was uncomfortable with, they wouldn’t pursue it in her presence. Making her cry or worry was the equivalent of an unforgivable sin, so they decided to try and find the one behind it to put Yukika’s mind to ease.
But they had to be careful until they figured out who was behind everything. There had to be a logical reason for the enigma that was the painted figure that stood before her. Unraveling it would be the best course of action if they wanted to be free.
So she would.
As sweat rolls down my brow and my brain feels like it’s cooking inside of my skull, I have to admit that I didn’t expect to spend three hours tied up to a chair and gagged by duct tape when I set out this morning to the temple. Then again, since when has anything been as I expected these last few days? At least there’s no one to snap a photo or anything that can be used against me at a later date.
The Copenhagen being closed for the day meant that the four of us had it to ourselves. The woman who runs the place is in the backroom, doing… something. Gai is next to me, tied up and gagged as well. He and I were turned to face the table that Ayako’s sitting next to, doing some kind of paperwork. A line of empty cans are on the table next to her like one of those festival shooting galleries, and our goal is simply to knock one of them down using Burst.
I get the whole ‘learning works best under pressured circumstances for the first time, so we’re imitating one’ angle that she offered as an excuse when we started, but the gags weren’t necessary. And, since every now and again she glances up and there’s a small smile on her face, I can tell she’s enjoying this on some level. I guess she’s still mad at me over her brother and Gai accidentally setting her off earlier, so this is her idea of a harmless payback.
The muffled grunting coming from next to me signals the start of Gai’s next attempt. He’s been going at it over and over without stopping, eyes narrowed on the can furthest to the right. Ayako takes notice as the air in front of his head wavers and ripples as it tries to take shape.
Then it pops. The backlash hits him as if a physical force, causing his head to rock and his eyes to flutter. It looks like he’s ready to pass out.
“That’s no good.” Ayako gets up and moves over to check and make sure he hasn’t fried his brain. “You’re getting results, but you can’t just keep throwing yourself at it like that over and over. You need to take more than a minute to visualize what you want to happen, build the energy up as much as you can, and then fire it off. Don’t forget to take into account how far you are from the can too.”
A muffled sound of compliance slips from behind his gag as he closes his eyes and tries to temper his breathing through his nose.
Then Ayako turns her attention to me. “In your case, you haven’t really been trying all that much. You have to actually make an effort, Shinji.”
I roll my eyes. It’s not that I haven’t been trying over here. It’s just that the last three times I’ve done so, spaced out over the course of dozens of minutes, it’s making my head feel like an oven. The fact that Gai can fire failure after failure and keep going probably speaks of latent talent on his part in using that particular field of PSI. So, rather than risking my health, I’ve been observing and thinking on what we were doing in between tries.
Despite the others being largely clueless when it comes to underlying mechanism, I don’t think that what we’re doing is outside of the laws of magecraft. Looking at Burst as the ability to cause a change in the world and the backlash that we experience, the world is actively attempting to reject our efforts on some level. If that’s the case, then why are our abilities strengthened in that future according to the others? Is it tied into whatever it was we were supposed to do to change it?
I think on it for several more minutes but come up with no answers. Then I push the thoughts aside to try again.
Two hours pass.
I can’t help but grit my teeth behind the tape as I watch Gai’s mental construct take shape. He’s been staggering how often he tries now—the first renewed attempt being five minutes, the third done in ten, then fifteen for the fifth, and so on. Now at the twenty-minute interval between this time and the last, the result now floats before him.
Sweat rolls down his face as a big ball hovers in front of him. His eyes are fixed on it, furrowed in concentration to patch it up where it’s falling apart. It’s barely solid, evaporating over time as he strains himself to simply hold it together, but it retains its shape overall.
Ayako stands to the side of the table and observes it with appraising eyes. “Now send it forward by picturing it flying towards the table and pushing as much energy as you can into making that image a reality.”
It flies forward with a muffled roar, slowly eroding as it crosses the intervening space. There’s barely anything left by the time the remnants crashes into the line of cans and breaks apart entirely on impact. The dispersion causes him to tilt his head back and flare his nostrils as he takes deep inhales through them.
“There you go.” Ayako smiles somewhat softly as she comes over and undoes his bindings, showering him with honest praise in the process. “I’m impressed. It took me a nearly more than half the day to get it my first time, yet you managed to do it in less than five hours.”
The moment his hands get free, he tears off the tape covering his mouth and sighs. Then he rises to his feet and goes to look at the cans up-close. A grin spreads across his face at the results. “I nailed it!”
“Yeah, you’re officially a Psychicer now. How do you feel?”
“It feels like my head is on fire.” He wipes the sweat from his brow. “I think I want to lay down for a bit.”
“Well, since you’ve gotten down how to form it, I guess I can send you home early.” She looks up at the clock. “But Issei is still busy at the temple for a few more hours and won’t be able to teleport you back. You’ll have to take the bus or walk.”
“I can use the fresh air.”
“Then you’re free to go. Just don’t overdo it or tell anyone, and we’ll meet again at the temple in the morning.”
He agrees, bids us goodbye, and then walks out the door with a grin at accomplishing something that few others could.
Ayako turns to me and crosses her arms. “Your turn now.”
I exhale through my nose tensely. It rubs me the wrong way that he made more progress in a couple of hours. I can’t just let myself be upstaged like this. I close my eyes and focus on the image in my head again…
Pain flashes through my head at another failed attempt. I couldn’t get it to stabilize before the backlash kicked in. The tape around my lips holds back a train of curses as a mental sledgehammer pounds away at my skull and my brain roasts within it.
Why? Why can’t I get this? It doesn’t make sense! I’m doing everything right, so it should work! So why can’t I get it!?
“We’ll call it here for now.” Ayako comes over and starts to untie me. “You’re too stressed out, and at the rate you’re going you’ll end up hurting yourself.”
My hands come free first. I slowly pull the tape from over my mouth, to avoid adding to my pain, and then I rub my temples to make the throbbing in my skull slowly ebb away.
“It doesn’t make sense. I’m doing everything right, so how did I lose to Gotou of all people?”
“Don’t start getting sore because he beat you to it. I told you that he finished even faster than I did, so it’s likely that he has a stronger affinity towards it. You have the capacity for it, if that last time counts for anything. It’s just going to take a lot more work.”
“Even if that’s the case, I can’t fall behind.” I have to get this down. I just have to—if not for the sake of my survival, then for my pride.
“Then we can practice more after you’ve unwound for a bit.” She looks at the clock again. “Let’s go to Verde for an hour or two and then come back. That way we can have Lunch and I can try to beat a record in the Game Center.”
“I left my wallet at home since I thought we’d be at the Temple.”
“Then I’ll pay this time. It’s only fair since it’s my suggestion.”
“…Fine.” It’s better than sitting around here and doing nothing in the end.
We leave out of the Copenhagen and make our way towards the Verde. The Industrial District isn’t all that far from it, maybe a twenty-minute walk at our current pace. The thought of my constant failures nag me the entire way.
I should have gotten it by now. Gai’s an idiot and he managed it. Looking at every single instance of failure and the time it took to recover, even if I don’t have a strong affinity for it, the results aren’t adding up for the amount of effort. What if… what if I never get it?
In a worst case scenario, I might be bad at all of them. The Old Worm always said I’d be a failure and I had him killed for it. But now… now I can’t help but fear he might have been telling the truth…
No. No. I’m just panicking for no reason. I’m not useless. I wouldn’t be involved in this if I was. They wouldn’t be trying to help me if I was. They’d cut me off and leave me to die since I was useless in the end…
Then again, that’s what I would probably do if I didn’t care all that much for them. Thankfully, the others are far more soft-hearted. But that doesn’t ease my growing concerns over the fact that I can’t get it.
Eventually, I just come right out and ask, “Did you send a telepathic message to him and give him some instructions I didn’t get?”
Ayako gives me an offended look. “Shinji, I wouldn’t do that given the circumstances. You just have to accept he has an edge and make up for it with hard work. And don’t antagonize Gotou just because he did better than you either. I know how you get when someone is better than you at something.”
“I’m not the one who snapped at Gotou early and then taped his mouth shut because of that, now am I?” I realize a second later that came out harsher than I meant it to when she gives me a sharp look. “I didn’t mean for that to come out so badly. I just… you get it.”
The look lingers for a moment before she relents and lets out a soft sigh. “Take some time to cool your head off… and I do kinda owe him an apology for blowing up like that. It wasn’t his fault that he pressed the wrong button.”
“So what about that did set you off?” After all, I don’t want to end up making the same mistake. That and it usually takes a lot to push her to that point.
She looks at the crowd around us and then I hear her voice in my head. ‘I don’t like it when someone or something places such a cheap value on the lives of others just to do something that benefits them. Much less something as abstract as saving the future when it won’t come out and just tell us how we’re supposed to do that. It just takes us and uses us without concern for what we’re doing at the time.’
Ah, right. Should have guessed that much from what they told us earlier and that look she gave it. A part of me wonders if she would have forgiven me for what I had Rider do at both the school and to her after all of this. Probably not.
Ayako has a slight frown on her face now as we enter the mall. I suppose I’ve ruined the mood she was in by bringing that up. I should say something, but we’re in a crowded mall and she’d probably be mad if I said something aloud that leads to more people being dragged in.
I lean close to whisper in her ear instead—
“Stop right there!”
—only to pull back at the loud and annoying voice of the self-proclaimed Black Panther that normally stalks the halls of the school. And she isn’t alone. Flanking her left and right is the small and reserved, mousy-looking manager of the track team and the boring, high-jumping ace. When did they get there?
Ayako turns around to find the loud one looking incredulously at the two of us walking so close together. The mousy one looks like she’s walked in on something private and shrinks back in surprise. The third simply looks focused on her inner thoughts. “Makidera, what’s with the yelling?”
She waves her finger between Ayako and I. “You and him! Why? How?”
…I see where this is going and don’t have the patience for this. Let’s see, how did she say Telepathy worked? Visualize their face, wrap thoughts directed to the person, and send it out, right? ‘Mitsuzuri, I think they believe we’re a couple.’
She glances back my way, so I guess she heard. “Is it really that strange for the Captain and Vice-Captain of the same club to be seen together discussing club matters?”
“On campus, where you have to be in the same place. But outside, I’d expect you’d try to get away from him as fast as you can. Especially after that blow-up that had you running out of the club crying, and the fight between him and your brother that left him in the infirmary and sent home early.”
Ayako looks at me accusatively. ‘Crying? ’
‘I didn’t spread those rumors. In fact, I tried to tamper down on them, but it looks bad when you look at the two next to each other.’ I address trio next. “I don’t know who spread that around, but her brother didn’t put me in the Infirmary. I just hadn’t been sleeping well and his little episode didn’t help.”
“And I didn’t run home crying because of Shinji. I just realized I had something important to do and left him to do it.” She steps forward and crosses her arm as she turns her gaze to Makidera. “In fact, I’m a little offended at the suggestion that he could make me do that.”
“It could happen,” Makidera says, though the bead of sweat on her face and reluctance in her expression tells me she doesn’t buy it herself, but she doesn’t want to back down. The smallest of the group looks… I want to say ashamed. For what, I couldn’t be certain? Did she believe in those rumors too?
Himuro sets a hand on Makidera’s shoulders and switches places with her before things could get worse. “We apologize for any accusations that may have been made. Clearly those rumors have no substance and Makinoji was too eager to jump on them. However, it is rather odd that the pair of you would walk together without any conflict, given what happened and the history of animosity between you two.”
I take that as a cue to take the reins. “I came out here on some business and ran across Mitsuzuri by chance. She heard from my sister what happened and wanted to apologize on his behalf. Then she decided since we were in the same area, we’d discuss matters for the upcoming tournament.”
Ayako picks up the excuse and runs with it. “Right, and I was here looking into a matter for the cultural festival since I’m the committee festival chief and Ryuudou’s busy with matters at his temple. Really, it’s a good thing that we met up by chance since these last two days have been disastrous for the club with both of us acting like that.”
“Then we should be on our way so that we don’t hamper your discussion. Once again, you have our apologies for the misconceptions.” She turns and forcibly leads Makidera to the store containing a bunch of dolls and stuffed animals. Saegusa gives a small bow to Ayako before she follows after them.
After fending off the self-proclaimed Black Panther, her handler, and the mouse that tagged along with them, Ayako and I take the escalator down into the Underground Food Court. Since Ayako is footing the bill and most of the stalls are to my standards, I simply grab something light before we take a table in the corner to eat. I didn’t even get halfway through my meal before Ayako sends a telepathic message.
‘You know they followed us right? ’ She tilts her head slightly. ‘I’m using Rise to enhance my hearing and focusing on their voices. They’re around the corner, whispering to each other while Makidera is looking.’
I turn my head slightly and glance out of the corner of my eye to see that Makidera is by the stairs, peeking over the corner. ‘Then should we actually talk about the club to throw them off so that they get bored and leave.’
‘I guess. Speak loud enough to be heard but not obvious.’ “So I was thinking we could try holding a training camp or something. Ryuudou Temple is a big place suitable for it.”
“If you think you can get the slackers into it. I don’t have that kind of time.” ‘What are they talking about now? ’
“We could let your sister handle it by herself. She’s ready now.” ‘Well, now they’re floating around the idea that we’re in a secret relationship and they’re looking for any clue they can get to prove it. Himuro seems to be bringing up the point that you’ve been pretty tolerable lately as evidence and believes I’m the one for that.’
“If you think so then I’ll ask her when I get home. But you’re still going have to tell Ryuudou yourself. ” I can’t even say that’s wrong entirely. She’s one out of three reasons. ‘Really, don’t they have anything better to do? ’
“Do you two still not get along?” ‘Leaving them aside, I’m actually surprised you’ve picked up on Telepathy well enough to hold a separate conversation your first time.’
“He’s too uptight for me to get along with him. Besides, you’re on the council for the upcoming festival and talk to him anyway, so it’s more convenient.” ‘You already explained how it works, so it’s not that hard.’
‘And yet you struggled with Burst despite me giving you more precise instructions? ’ She holds up a finger and looks in their direction. ‘No, I think you might lean towards having some talent in that direction, but Trance isn’t all that well-developed barring Telepathy. Even then this is really as far as we take it.’
‘Why’s that? ’ I look as well but can’t see them. I guess they left.
‘For one, some Taboo can pick it up when it’s broadcasted. For another, while it can pass through solid objects, it is affected by the atmosphere. Enough distance can cause it to get scrambled or dissipate entirely, like a cloud that breaks up over time. So unless your Trance is specifically something that can get around those limitations, like Issei’s Aura Sight, we focus on combat instead.’
That seems rather short-sighted. But then again they said it themselves. They don’t know how their powers work on a mechanical-level, so making some kind of modification to get around those limitations would only matter if there was no alternative. They could just work on their Burst and Rise instead and leave things as they were with Trance since they could still operate within those limitations.
After taking a moment to drink from her cup, Ayako speaks again. “Speaking of the training camp, I was talking to Issei about it not too long ago before yesterday. He’s willing to lend us the space, but since now we’ve got to spend some time getting you and Gotou into shape, I’m thinking about letting your sister head it before handing over the reins to the club and leaving the decisions to her, barring exceptional circumstances.”
“She’s still a bit toothless, but your brother will probably keep anyone who gives her trouble in line due to his obvious crush.”
She shrugs. “He’s not exactly subtle, is he?”
“Not in the slightest.”
“Yeah, well… he could do worse for his first crush. Shame he doesn’t have a chance considering that she’s fond of Emiya.”
“And Emiya’s with Tohsaka for some reason,” I add in, a hint of disgust in my voice.
She bites back a small laugh. “Really, for you two not to get along you seem to have the same opinion as Issei. It’s because of that those other rumors are spreading around.”
I blink. “What other rumors?”
She doesn’t answer. She just shakes her head and finishes off her drink before ushering me to hurry along with my own because she wants to hit the Game Center. I make a mental note to check on those rumors at a later date, but the moment I got home I was hitting the library like I planned earlier.
If Trance is closer to Mental Manipulation like I think, I can probably find some method of use that would increase my chances of survival.
The differences between our cards are made clear when we pull out ours to find that they look the same as always. They were unblemished compared to the Student President’s card. Not to mention that black patch in the corner of his.
“Now press the cards to your forehead.” He does so himself to demonstrate. “Doing so will register how many points you have left now that you’ve awakened your PSI.”
There’s something akin a heartbeat that surges through my head when I do so. I pull it away to see that my card now look similar to his. The only difference is that there’s a large number in the black patch now.
“That number represents the present value of the card. They all start at fifty and have points subtracted on each trip until they hit zero. When it does, you’ll be considered a Veteran Drifter and no longer bound to Nemesis Q’s summoning.”
Looking at the number, I see that my value is forty-seven. A quick peek shows that the same applies to Gai’s card. If that trip’s value was only three points, then does that mean I have to go through this around… sixteen more times!?
Not a chance. “Is there any way to get out of it earlier?”
His answer is frank and to the point. “No, there isn’t. While different types of missions deduct different values, you must go through it since ignoring the call will eventually result in death from what passes as a brain aneurysm. If there’s a way to break Nemesis Q’s contract or a power to do so, we haven’t found one. The best we can do is give you enough training and guidance so that you don’t die so easily.”
“Tch.” I click my tongue in annoyance and rub the back of my neck. If it can’t be helped then there’s no point of whining about it. Not that I’ll stop searching through my own methods. “Now that I think about it, Mitsuzuri’s card didn’t have a number on it when I checked the first time.”
“That’s because you didn’t have access to PSI.” Ayako comes over with the tea and coffee, setting them down in front of us. Then she pulls out her card and we see that her number is fairly lower than ours. “One of the ‘package powers’ we have is some form of Clairvoyance, allowing us to see Nemesis Q and other PSI powers.”
She points towards the bar counter, where an almost ghostly hand is grabbing a couple of energy-bars. It floats them over and drops them in the center of the table for us to grab for ourselves. Ayako smirks slightly as the hand does a little wave over her shoulder before dissipating. “To someone without the ability to see PSI, it looks like they just floated over with a thought, so it’d be basic Telekinesis.”
“Of course, that’s merely one way to do it.” I look over to the Student President to see that his tea is floating in the air, twin streamers winding around each other like a DNA helix. “It really depends on the method in general, with some being more suitable than others for different missions.”
I shelve my thoughts on the showy display to keep the questions coming. “What kind of missions are we expected to take?”
He lowers the tea back into cup, having proven his point. “We usually classify them as one of three types. Recruitment missions are when Nemesis Q drops a bunch of people into that world and then tells them to make it to a checkpoint. Extermination missions when we have to kill a certain Taboo or opposition. Exploration missions are when we simply need to arrive at a certain point by a certain time to witness an event or carry out an objective. The difficulty varies for each of them, and sometimes the missions change with the circumstances—it really depends on Nemesis Q’s whim.”
“And which ones take the most points off?”
He holds up both hands, with one having a single finger raised and the other having three. “It depends on the mission and your participation in it. You both lost three points in a recruitment mission, which is usually two more than you would normally lose for surviving a mission of that nature. If I had to make a guess, it’s because you actually managed to save Mitsuzuri-kun. Her death would cost it the most experienced active Drifter in Fuyuki, making things much more difficult for however Nemesis Q intends to change the future.”
“So that’s all our lives were worth to it, huh?” Frowning as I grab one of the bars and peel back the wrapper, I can’t help but feel that we’re getting a raw deal regardless. It’s ludicrous to expect anyone to survive in that sort of place to begin with, much less when faced with the things that Ayako killed, all for a mere one-to-three points out of fifty.
…Yet, could I really talk? I had attempted to kill everyone in the school just so that Rider could win the Heaven’s Feel. Their lives in exchange for a better ‘chance’ at victory, not a promise or even something as tangible as points. Does that make me worse than whatever Nemesis Q was?
The train of thought is broken when Gai raises his hand like we’re in school. “If it can take away points as it pleases, then what’s stopping it from adding more to them?”
The Monk rubs his chin at that in thought before shrugging. “It hasn’t happened before, but that’s certainly a possibility given that the cards remain unless we die and some of the rules on them now weren’t present when we started. We’ll just have to cross that bridge when we get to it. It’s best to focus on what we can do now.”
They’re all making valid points, so I move on. “So, what else do these things do?”
Ayako answers the question. “They also act as a means by which we can carry items with us into the future. If we have our cards on us when we make the call to the future, our clothes and anything we’re carrying on us will be copied onto our souls when we arrive. It saves on expenses since even if we lose or break anything in the future, we still have them here. But it also means that nothing we take there will be able to be brought back.”
It makes sense if I understand everything right, at least when I compare it to what I read up on how Servant summoning worked. Somehow the card creates a record of everything that the user has in proximity to them and then reproduces it. Since our souls are being materialized or shifted into the future through that same card, it’s likely it ensures that they can interact properly. It’s still hypothetical, but it’s the only way for me to understand it in terms of what I can reference.
The Student President summarizes it all for us. “To reiterate, the cards act as proof of the contract we have with Nemesis Q first and foremost. Through them we know how many trips we have to take, a list of rules that constantly changes, and the only method by which we could bring equipment and clothes to the future. Since the call can come in at any point and time, it’s best to carry it on you unseen at all times.”
His words tack on a weight to the card between my fingers that wasn’t there before when I think further on it. The contract basically robs us of the decision to choose when we were pulled to the future and what we did there in exchange for the powers we may gain in the line of duty, which we have to use to survive. The only benefit I can see in the long run is keeping them if we survive all the way, but even then we’re still bound to the rules of the card and there’s nothing saying that it can’t add points instead of taking them away.
I set it down on the table and start to drink my coffee. The rest take that as a cue to shelve the heavy topics until everyone has food in them and time to process what we’ve learned. The first one to break the silence isn’t the idiot, the monks, or Ayako, but the door as its hinges groan with the arrival of the newcomer.
The woman in the photo enters the store, looking a few years older but unmistakable. In her hands is a box. “Sorry I’m late everyone. I had some business in Miyama.”
“What’s in the box?”
She reaches into it and pulls out… a persimmon? “Fujimura decided to offload a box of them onto me, so now I’ve got to deal with them before they go bad. Anyway, where are you with the new recruits?”
“We’ve covered the uses of the cards and were about to go into basics with Rise, Burst, and Trance PSI for them,” the younger brother explains as she grabs the drink on the counter that Ayako made and then sits down on one of the barstools. He then turns back to Gai and I. “Rise is what we classify PSI that increases the abilities of someone’s body and can be broken down further into three sub-classes itself: Strength, Sense, and Healing.”
He counts off with his fingers as he lists them. “Strength raises the body’s physical capabilities in terms of muscle strength, durability, speed, and so on. Sense raises the five senses to limits that are above what may be humanly possible, such as being able to taste the presence of metal in the air, see great distances, or hear movement well before it comes into view. Healing represents and enhances the body’s natural healing capabilities.”
“So that’s how Mitsuzuri managed to run so fast while in the future.” I make sure the fact that she carried me bridal style goes unspoken. “And how she heard Gotou’s footsteps before he came into view near the end.”
She nods to confirm. “To be honest, I’m pretty balanced when it comes to uses Strength and Sense, but just above average in terms of overall ability. And I can’t use either one when I’m using the full extent of my Burst since using two forms of PSI is difficult. The others are on another level.”
“Of the Veterans, Brother Reikan is the strongest when it comes to being able to take a hit and give one, in addition to having the ability to regenerate damage he takes mid-fight, but his ability with manipulating his five senses is comparatively lower. Hotaruzuka-san is the best at heightening her speed and senses, but lacks the durability that my brother has. In my case, I am closer to Mitsuzuri-kun’s level in terms of being balanced between Strength and Sense, despite having already finishing my run, but specialty is Healing and unlike the others, I can naturally combine it with Burst to heal others.”
From the sound of it, Rise would be Material Transmutation on a personal level. At least when looked at from a magecraft-user’s perspective. By interfering with the natural properties of the body, they enhance or alter them to superhuman levels.
“As for Burst, it is the ability to affect the world outside one’s self. Using your PSI, you change the world around you with a thought. Whether it is simply the ability to move things with your mind, create constructs or energy, or cause any sort of change, as long as they interact with the world on a physical-level it falls under Burst.”
There’s a soft sound and slight glow as the older woman flexes her fingers and energy shrouds them in the form of claws. “Of the different types of PSI, Burst is the one that’s more battle-focused. Unlike pure Rise-users like Rei-chan, we can deal with multiple threats at once including those that put an obstacle between us. My claws are an example and you’ve seen how Mitsu-chan specializes in using hers.”
Burst would probably be classified as Physical Interference then. At least in the broadest of terms, given that it only requires making changes on a physical-level. Specifics of how they functioned would probably lead to multiple subcategories like with Rise.
“Last is Trance. In general, abilities that fall into this class allow interaction with the minds of others, or alters the mind of the user to become capable of things it normally would not be. Telepathy is the most basic form of this, though my ability to perceive auras is another example.”
Meaning it would basically be Mental Interference at its simplest form. Telepathy might fall under a different category under the classifications of magecraft. Again, it would depend on the specifics of how the powers work.
“The talent for each individual varies between them, but all Drifters seem to have the ability to use them upon awakening to an extent. Other, more obscure classifications do exist, such as the ability to control a certain territory, area, domain (Zone) or the ability to combine two or more different classes (Hybrid).”
He takes a sip of his tea and then clears his throat. “That concludes a basic explanation of PSI. Are there any questions?”
The three classes basically boil down to things that affect the body, the mind, and the world at large. It was simple enough to grasp. But he left out the specifics and that makes things too broad for my tastes. “So how does it work exactly?”
He looks at me with a flat look I give Emiya on occasion. When he does something I can’t help but think he’s an idiot for. “What part did you not understand? I don’t think I can simplify it anymore than I already have, but I can attempt to the best of my ability.”
I grit my teeth at the subtle barb. “No, I understand the whole thing perfectly. You’re using an internal source of energy caused by the contract to initial supernatural phenomena. That much I picked up from Mitsuzuri on the way to the temple. It’s not that hard to wrap your head around.”
“Then I fail to see what the problem is.”
“I’m asking is how it works in detail.” I pull back the sleeve of my jacket to show my bare arm, where I had been bitten in the future. “You can heal us, but are you sapping your own body’s ability to heal to have our own regenerate damaged cells or are you replacing them with your own tissue while adapting it so that our body will accept it without rejection?”
“…Is it really that important to know how it works, rather than the fact that it does?” Gai asks, looking back and forth between us. “I mean, considering how badly we got hurt and all.”
I end up giving him the same look that I was getting a moment ago. “Not knowing how something works can cause problems in the long-run. Think about how Mitsuzuri killed that thing in the future that grabbed you.”
She arches a brow at the inquiry. “What was wrong with that?”
“They exploded when you hit them. The amount of energy needed to do that should have produced heat or a shockwave that dispersed on impact, but I didn’t feel a thing from it when you saved me. So it can’t be any type of energy that generates heat, but if it was just raw kinetic force then those shots should have gone through them and kept going.”
“Ah, I think I get it.” It seems like she’s picked up where I’m going easy enough. “If it had been something that caused an explosion or used pure force, I could have hit both of you from proximity.”
“I trust your judgment and aim, all things considered. But imagine if one of us got a similar power and tried to do the same thing. If they worked even slightly different, we could end up killing allies by accident. ”
I turn back to the Student President. “There’s also the fact that you haven’t mentioned how the internal energy source you mentioned is enacting these changes. Is Mitsuzuri converting it into whatever those shots are? Or is she pulling some new substance out of thin-air because of that energy acting as a bridge of some kind to access and shape it?”
His lips purse slightly as he tries to come up with a counter-argument. Then he sighs in defeat. It’s a sweet sound. “We aren’t certain. Usually the abilities we gain are dependent on circumstances. Namely, we usually end up in a circumstance beyond our current ability to handle it and in desperation our minds reach out for power that will offer a solution. The energy taken from the body is then used to realize that power.”
In other words, they can do things but don’t understand how it functions on a mechanical-level or the true nature of the mystery they’re invoking. It’s so unstructured. “If you don’t know how they function then how did you come up with those categories for different powers to fit in so nicely?”
“They were taught to us by Drifters who came before us, who claimed to have learned it from a Psychicer in that future. We aren’t certain how long this has been going on, but Brother Reikan and Miss Hotaruzuka were involved starting six months ago, while I became involved around a month after them, and Mitsuzuri-kun has been involved well after that point to where I was the only one left capable of assisting her. However, the classification system serves well to help us grasp the power we use best.”
Six months ago was the end of the Holy Grail War. Did it have something to do with this? No, it can’t. If they learned from another Drifter then it would have had to have been going on longer than that.
There’s a minor flash of light as Ayako materializes that same crossbow-gauntlet that she had while in the future. “It’s not like we haven’t given it some thought, Shinji. We just don’t have the necessary time or equipment to determine that sort of thing, so we can only learn as we practice and as the situation demands. It’s how I learned how to manifest this when I needed to be able to practice.”
Gai, who had been in the middle of opening up the last energy-bar, stops to stare at it. He must’ve only caught a glimpse of it in the future after she used it to blow up that thing that had jumped him. “You can use that to fire those energy arrows, right?”
“Bolts, not arrows.” She cradles it against her chest for a moment. “It’s a trade-off. I use bolts for precision and speed shots so I don’t end up killing someone caught in the blast radius, like Shinji mentioned. Using arrows causes too much collateral damage, even with my powers weakened here, so I can’t use it in the city.”
“How big of a blast are we talking about if you go all-out?”
“Mm…” She places her hand on her chin in thought. “Let’s see… The last time I checked using my full-power in the future, I was able to level an area roughly the size of that mountain the Ryuudou Temple is on, more or less. I think I was in a different country though, and the mission was simply to destroy one of those towers so I didn’t have to worry about friendly-fire or holding any energy in reserve and got it done as quickly as possible.”
It’s kind of absurd how she basically said something so casually. As someone who has seen things of that nature being done by Servants, I can only scratch my head at it. At least with Servants they had the excuse of magical artifacts from a different age and were decidedly no longer human, if ever.
Then again, they’re not operating under any sort of known foundation from the sound of it. It’s been years since I looked up anything other than magecraft in the library, and even then I stopped reading through the books there after the war ended. If I hadn’t blacked-out, I would have taken the time to properly study yesterday.
The Student President looks up at the clock on the wall before setting the now-empty cup of tea down and rising from his chair. “My apologies, but my brother and I must return to the temple now. We’ll leave your training in Mitsuzuri-kun and Hotaruzuka-san’s capable hands for today. Tomorrow, we will utilize the room in the temple to assist you there in training your Rise abilities.”
Gai crosses his arms and sighs. “I was going ask Himuro if she wanted to see a movie then, but I guess it can’t be helped. This is more important.”
“Practice is a luxury you should take advantage of. It’s better to learn how they work here than out on the field.” The Monk tilts his head towards the Bartender. “For example, she only discovered that she could increase the sharpness of her claws by decreasing the amount after she had gotten swallowed whole and had to cut her way out. If she had known that ahead of time, she could have killed the Taboo before it carried her miles off in its stomach.”
Her eyes crack open slightly to glare at him. “I don’t want to hear that from the guy who picked a fight with that thing that passed for a dragon just because you’ve always wanted to. Don’t think I didn’t see that smile when you lunged for it.”
He doesn’t deny it. In fact, he laughs at that. “Well, how could I pass up the chance in following the footsteps of the monk who had done so before us? That was the purpose of our martial training after all. Besides, you were needed elsewhere.”
She pouts slightly at that before waving the pair off. A square of light erupts from the younger of the brothers’ hand and engulfs them. They disappear just like that. She polishes off the drink that Ayako prepared for her and then speaks.
“He’s right in the end. There’s no telling when you’ll be called back, so we’re going to have to push you a little harder so that you can survive. It’ll eat into a lot of your free time and you might resent us for it, but that’s preferable to being dead. We’ve seen enough people your age die doing this sort of thing, and after Mitsu-chan here came close enough that Nemesis Q decided that she needed to be rescued, it’s best to do what we can.”
“Speaking of which, what exactly is Nemesis Q?” I think back on its mannerisms and the sheer uncanny feeling it gives off. It doesn’t exactly feel human, but more like something pretending to be human.
“Don’t know. What we do know is that only Drifters can see and communicate with it, and it’s immune to our powers—they pass right through it.” She raises a finger in warning. “The one thing to remember is not to put your faith in it or trust it. It is not your friend and won’t hesitate to kill or replace you for whatever reason it comes up with. It may make an exception if you’ve got a useful power like Mitsu-chan, but don’t push your luck with it.”
Ayako’s expression shifts to barely-restrained contempt, reminding me of the face she made on the return trip. “I’m not exactly happy it decided to help me considering it brought these two into the fold. Neither of them asked for this and both of them nearly got taken by the Taboo in the process. It could have teleported me to a checkpoint or anything else…”
Gai doesn’t look all that scornful compared to her. “I’m kind of okay with it since I was looking for it in the first place. Besides, we’re doing something good for the future, right?”
Ayako glares at him and her voice rises. “Even if you’re okay with it, I’m not! You and Shinji arrived there at the very end, so you didn’t see people dying without even knowing what was happening because they were unlucky enough that they caught Nemesis Q’s attention and had their lives cheapened to a few points!”
The idiot flinches back and looks apologetic. He seems to realize he’s said something to nearly set Ayako off and remains silent. As for her, I’m fairly sure that the older woman is talking to her through telepathy to calm her down, given the looks they were exchanging. After the moment of silence passes, the Bartender speaks up.
“From here on out, you’ll see a lot of things you wish you could forget. I’m not sure how Rei-kun and his brother manage to get through the night, but I’ve had to take more than a few nightcaps to get to sleep and Mitsu-chan takes sleeping medication. Realistically, we do what we can to help one another cope, but it’s something that sticks with you and because you can only talk to people already involved, it weighs on you pretty heavily.”
I can relate on a lot of levels. That’s why I know lingering on the subject won’t help and change it. “Then what should we start practicing first while we’ve got the time?”
“Hmm… how about Burst?” She rises to her feet and flexes her fingers to form her claws again. “It’s the most difficult, but it shows tangible effects and both of us are familiar with how it works.”
Ayako looks at her crossbow-gauntlet and then dismisses it. “It’s pretty energy intensive though for people just starting out, so they won’t be able to practice it for long. And I don’t think that we can try anything more than generic telekinesis.”
“That’s probably best.” The Bartender rubs the back of her neck and looks at the clock. “We should have the place to ourselves for the rest of the day. How do you want to do it?”
Ayako looks between the two of us. Her expression brightens as an idea comes to her. “Do we have duct tape and rope?”
… Odd, why did a chill run up my spine at that question?
A pained rasp leaves my parched throat. I wake up wanting to scream from the usual nightmares of the evils of man. It’s only because my throat is so dry that it comes out as a shrill wheeze instead.
A stabbing pain lances through my forehead from the light peeking through the blinds of a window meeting my eyes. My body reactively struggles to get away from it. I end up falling out of what turns out to be my bed. The tumble to the floor rids me of the lethargy and brings my mental faculties back to being fully functional.
I can guess that it’s morning judging from the dawnlight coming through the window. The entire night vanished the moment I reached for the door to the Matou Library. An overwhelming sensation of vertigo and nausea overtook me and then… nothing.
I look at the alarm clock and see that it’s just before seven in the morning. There’s a plastic basin next to the bed that’s filled with water tinged light-red. The washcloth hanging over the side has faded crimson stains on it.
The same goes for my bed. A chair is sitting next to it and there’s a towel on top of the pillow with a brighter shade of crimson on it. Dried blood lingers on the rim of a depression where my head was while I slept.
The door opens and Sakura enters. She looks tired, with the skin under her eyes slightly darker. Despite that, she only asks about me. “Nii-san, how are you feeling now?”
“Fine now.” It’s a partial truth. My entire body actually feels fairly heavy. My throat feels unbearably dry. My skin feels raw between my lip and nose. And the musk of blood, sweat, and fever suffocate my nose.
But she’s done enough.
Sakura smiles gently at the half-lie, relief expressing itself on her face. “That’s good. I was worried that you were getting worse.”
“I’ll be fine now. Go get some rest.”
She departs from my room without arguing, so I know she must be really tired. It hadn’t even been evening when we returned and she’s been stuck taking care of me since then. How embarrassing.
But I don’t have time to linger on it. I haven’t forgotten about the meeting with the others. I can’t go while smelling of fever and sweat. I have an image to maintain.
I go to the bathroom and take a shower, letting the hot water wash away the crusted sweat and rehydrate my skin. Inside of the cascading water, there’s a nagging sensation that something feels off in the back of my head. But I can’t put my finger on it.
It’s probably just that everything is catching up to me.
That sounds like the most logical reason. I can’t brush it all off as a dream or nightmare, and the time I planned to spend doing research disappeared when I came back home. I just need answers from Ayako so I can settle down.
I finish cleaning myself up, dress in my casual clothes since the autumn morning air is cold, and place my card in my pocket before I head out. The walk to the entrance of the mountain is boring for the most part. There’s hardly anyone around and the streets feel abandoned to a haunting degree. It leaves me feeling uneasy until I neared the base of the mountain and found Ayako sitting on the bottom stairs.
She’s wearing a pink windbreaker and a pair of jeans with zippers around the knees for pockets. Her eyes look distant as she brings what looks to be a snack-bar of some kind to her mouth with one hand, while holding a canned drink in her other hand. They only come back to the present when she notices me and swallows. “Morning, Shinji. Did you sleep well?”
“I wouldn’t know. A few hours after we got back to the present that fever and nosebleed hit me. The next thing I knew I was waking up in my bed an hour ago. Sakura apparently had to drag me to my room and spend the entire night watching over me.”
Her brows furrow in curiosity and her lips form a small pout. “That’s a pretty bad reaction. The only one of us I can think of that had it that bad was Issei from what I heard. I suppose I owe your sister an apology for adding to her troubles, and you over what happened that day. Minori told me about how he acted in the club. I’ve told him to apologize as well.”
An apology won’t save him from whatever I do to get revenge. I might have to be careful now that I know that Ayako is capable of exploding things, but I need the catharsis. But, for now I take a seat on the stairs opposite of hers and we wait in silence for Gai to arrive.
…Minutes pass. The silence permeating the mountain becomes unbearable as time ticks slowly. I fish around my thoughts for something to break it. But there’s nothing I can think of in particular that helps sort out the confusing mess that this has become.
Ayako looks up from her now-empty can and breaks the silence for me. “Feeling nervous?”
“Unsettled. Something feels… off after yesterday.”
Her expression sours. “I know the feeling. It’s surreal, going back to your ordinary life after everything that’s happened when you have to live with the knowledge that the future is a mess. It’s overbearing the first time it happens and you can’t help but think that something’s wrong, but you’re the only one who really knows it and you can’t tell anyone about it unless you’re willing to get them killed.”
I guess that’s one way to explain that nagging I felt earlier, but not exactly. I already know about the Moonlit world of magi and Servants, but those are… different. I’m not a part of that world, just someone who knows it’s there. Now I’m part of this and only a few other people know about it.
“Does it ever get easier?”
She closes her eyes and crosses her arms in thought. “Hmm… it depends on the person, I guess.”
“What kind of answer is that?”
She tilts her head up to the sky and opens her eyes. There’s a sort of resignation in them. “There’s not much else I can say. For example, Issei handles everything pretty well as far as things go. I usually do the things I did before I got involved in all of this, like visiting the game center in the Verde, attending the Archery Club, things like that. They help me forget it for a while and make me feel more… normal.”
Her voice is heavy on that last word. Thinking back to everything, I can’t help but remember how defeated she sounded when I told her to retire from the club. She had been deciding that she had to give up something she put her heart and soul into out of necessity to remain normal.
“If I had known you were going through this sort of thing, I wouldn’t have said anything about you quitting the club.”
“And if I’d done a better job of hiding it, you wouldn’t have had your ordinary life taken from you. I was screwing-up pretty bad for you to take notice enough to try and do something. That’s why you lied to Minori about those rumors about me ‘hanging around at an unsavory bar these days,’ the day before yesterday, right? ”
My brows rise unintentionally. There were already some rumors floating around from when she was hospitalized in February about that, and I may have had a hand in that, but they’d settled already after Rider’s barrier activated and things went back to normal. I make a note to make her brother suffer later on. “I can explain that. I just—”
Ayako lightly shakes her head. “I figured that you went through my stuff in the Locker Room and I was pretty mad about it. I spent a couple of hours planning on how I was going to punish you for it, but it got pushed back because of all the time I spent on the other side and doing my best to help others and kill the Taboos. Then when you showed up, I felt that it was partly my fault since the only way for you to have gotten so suspicious was because of that.”
Her eyes turn down and look at the ground, as though she still blames herself for it. It brings up the memory of her teary face and the warmth of her tears splashing against mine in that cold world of ash and sand. It bothers me.
“I thought you were being pressured into something and got myself tangled into it as a result of trying to help, but the Student President made it fairly clear that it was because I acted on my own that I have no one to blame but myself. And I did what I set out to do, so we’ll call it even for now.”
Her eyes look up and the corner of her lips tug backwards, forming a slight small. Gone is the weakness she showed before. “That’s fine. Just don’t violate my privacy again or else I’ll be mad.”
To prove her point, she crushes the can between her hands into a ball without any visible effort. The fact that there’s a muffled explosion and what looks like charred scraps of aluminum dust when she uncovers her hand with that same smile sends the message. The conversation as we continue to wait turns to more tolerable subjects until the third wheel shows up.
Gai is wearing black pants with white stripes and an opened red jacket with fur trimming around the collar. The black muscle-shirt underneath it reveals he’s surprisingly fit. “Yo! Sorry I’m late. I stayed up late after I got out of the hospital to catch a couple of shows I didn’t want to miss and ended up not realizing the time.
“Did you suffer from a fever and nosebleed?”
He laughs a bit. “Yeah. I didn’t really notice until I was getting yelled at for getting blood on the couch, but it came and went after I went to bed. I woke up refreshed about thirty-minutes ago, though my head feels a little tight in my skull.”
The fact that he sounds like nothing has changed despite seeing the future bothers me. In fact, I am reminded of a certain, honest idiot. No… no, he’s possibly worse.
Ayako just stares at him with a conflicted smile before turning her attention to the distant temple gate. She closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. After a moment, she nods and then opens her eyes. “We can come up now. Issei and his older brother are waiting.”
“How do you know that?” I ask from behind her as she starts to climb the stairs.
‘Because he told me.’
I nearly stumble back in surprise as Ayako’s voice resonates in my head clearly. Gai lets out a slightly confused sound, so I guess that he could hear it too. The small, playful smile I catch on the side of her face tells me that those were the reactions she wanted to see.
‘Come on. It’s time you two learn about just what you’ve gotten yourselves into.’
“You can read minds?” I became wary immediately. There are many thoughts in my head that I don’t want people to know.
‘No. It’s easy to push our thoughts out and into the heads of other people when we can see them or picture them in our minds. It’s like you imagine your thoughts being bundled up in a cloud of energy and then your push that cloud towards them. But reading the thoughts of others isn’t the same since the energy that we use to bundle our thoughts up belongs to us, not them. And then distance is a factor.’
That eases some of the tension running up my spine. She doesn’t have a reason to lie to us about it. “What energy?”
She turns her head around and looks me in the eyes as she keeps walking. ‘It’s hard to describe. It’s like since we were exposed to the atmosphere of the future, we can use this sort of energy in our bodies if we concentrate on something. It feels like it’s rushing out when you use it and using too much of it will make your brain hurt and your body tired, but it’s so mysterious that it’s hard to measure or really define when you’re just starting out. With time and training it gets easier, and in the future our abilities scale up.’
Is it magical energy? No, she doesn’t have Magical Circuits to draw it in. Then is it that she’s somehow processing her Od to… no, I’m over-thinking it. I need more information before I make assumptions, and even then my primary concern is getting out of this now that I’ve done what I needed to do.
“And we can do it too now?” Gai asks eagerly. He’s practically giddy at the thought.
‘That’s what we’re going to teach you today—the basics of PSI, the different types, and so on. We can’t let you go at it blind after all.’
Climbing the stairs to the top, we reach the temple that has been here for who knows how long and—
My brain trembles and static fills my vision as worms violate the flesh. Help me.
Chains bind and pull the swollen, pulsing meat before dropping it into a lake. Make it stop.
Flesh bulges, filling with the boiling, cursed mud as the golden Servant laughs. Make it stop!
It bloats to its limits. The pressure tears open the meat to spew it out for the first time. It hurts.
The nerves connecting me to every inch are set ablaze with pain. It hurts! It hurts! It hurts!
—“‘Shinji!’” Ayako’s voices ring loudly in my head and ears at the same time. It brings me back to reality.
“Huh?” I notice her face is close to mine, to the point our breaths mingle, as she stares into my eyes. The sudden proximity causes me to step back in reflex and I end up bumping into something. My head whips around to find Gai there.
His eyes are furrowed warily. “You okay?”
I swallow the saliva pooling in my mouth and nod. That memory it… it was after the grail had been planted inside of me. Long after the worms violated me. As I laid witness to all the evil in the world, was some part of my mind aware of what was happening to what became of my body? D-Does that mean I’ll start remembering all of the pain that I was in, on top of the nightmares?
Ayako leans forward and frowns. “What happened? You suddenly stared spacing out when you looked at the temple and broke out in a cold sweat.”
“Sorry, just… had a moment. It’s nothing.”
She doesn’t seem like she’s buying it, but she doesn’t argue. It makes sense. No matter how I’m actually feeling, it’s too important for her to teach us how to survive. She turns around and leads us towards the back of the temple.
There’s a path in the back of it leading into the mountain. Partway there, we find the Student President, wearing a sweater and beige pants, and a slightly older-looking monk dressed in black waiting.
The Student President welcomes us with a plain look. “I see you’ve all made it through the night.”
“Yeah, they’ve both stated that they’ve had the nosebleeds and everything. Though Shinji’s left him unconscious and he said he was bleeding for a long time. Can you take a look at him?”
“Very well.” He removes his glasses and stares at me for a moment. I don’t feel anything from the stare, but it’s uncomfortable in general to be stared at like that. A slight hum leaves his mouth before his gaze turns to Gai.
Then he places his glasses back on. “He does seem to have a slightly thicker aura than a nascent psychicer. It’s tinged with a faint darkness, a thin veil of malice that swaddles the edges of his potential. In contrast, Gotou is a newly-born sapling yearning to mature, the sounds of eager growth thrumming within.”
…Okay, I’m lost. That makes absolutely no sense to me. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Ayako turns towards me. “One of Issei’s powers is the ability to sense and read Auras, so he can interpret if someone has a power with his senses. The combinations tend to come out as strange though since he’s interpreting it through all of his senses instead of just one—including a sixth one.”
Gai seems rather enthused learning about that tidbit, but the Student President seems rather unbothered about it. “If someone possesses a power beyond that of the average person, then I can perceive it visibly. Likewise, when they are in the midst of using that power actively, then it becomes more vivid to all of my senses. It has limited utility in this time period, so I rarely use it outside of circumstances such as this.”
The Monk laughs slightly as he gives him a pat on the back. “He’s being modest. Out of all the veterans in Fuyuki, Issei possesses the greater variety of abilities in contrast to us.”
“Brother Reikan, your praise is misguided. They only permit me to remain on the sidelines. It is always you and the others who did the majority of the fighting.”
“Fascinating as this is, what are we doing this far out here anyway?” I point my thumb back the way we came. “I thought we were going into the temple?”
The Monk shifts his gaze towards the distant temple. “No, they’re doing something there this morning with the parishioners and we can’t risk being overheard. So we’re relocating towards the second meeting site in Shinto—the Copenhagen.”
I frown. “If we were going to walk that way, then we could have caught the bus. Not to mention it’s near the industrial district. It’ll take us ages.”
Ayako puts on a knowing grin that matches her eyes, furrowed with the knowledge of something that few others do. I know that glance given I’d put it on many times as well. “We have a faster way and back here no one is likely to spot us.”
The Student President steps towards us and extends his hand. A square of light emerged from his palm and then stretches around all of us before layering itself onto the ground. In an instant, the forest behind the temple vanishes from my view and a flickering sense of weightlessness overtakes me.
Then it feels like I’m suddenly heavy. My knees buckle before I regain my balance. I look around to see that we weren’t in the back of the mountain anymore. Instead, we were in what looks like a homely bar.
It had a rustic appeal to it, with wooden floorboards beneath our feet and a bar counter on our right. Most of the tables had the chairs on them, with the exception of one close to what seemed to be an antique stove.
It takes me a second to find my voice. “Wh… what just happened?”
While Ayako closes her eyes and tilts her head up slightly again, the Student President fixes his gaze to us. “I used my Teleportation Marker to bring up to the Copenhagen in Shinto. Since it is closed today, we can talk in peace.”
For a moment, just a moment, I can’t help but look at him with my brows raised at the sheer and casual way that he said that. Then I remember what I’ve gotten myself into and the moment passes.
Meanwhile, Gai looks around suspiciously as Ayako goes around the bar counter and turns on the lights. “Should we be in here right now?”
“It’s fine.” Ayako assures him as she starts grabbing bottles of alcohol off the shelves behind the counter. “I sent a telepathic message to Neko and she told us to go ahead while she’s on her way here. She’s just finished up a delivery to Fujimura-sensei’s place and is on her way back by truck.”
That name she mentioned brings to mind a discussion about this place I had with Emiya a long time ago. “She’s the one who hired Emiya for a part-time job here a couple of years ago, wasn’t she?”
Ayako looks up at me with a hint of surprise on her face. “I’m surprised you knew that. Weren’t you and Emiya on the outs?”
“We’ve known each other for around as long as he’s been working here. Even if things between us aren’t as close as they used to be, I do know more about him than anyone else.” Like the fact that he’s a magus as well. “I wouldn’t trust my sister going to his house every now and again to cook in the morning otherwise.”
The Monk, who had been silent until now, rouses after hearing Emiya’s name. “Now that I think about it, I haven’t seen Shirou-kun in sometime around the temple.” He turns to his brother. “How is he doing in his studies?”
The Student President takes that as a cue to chime in. “His grades remain as accomplished as always, but I fear that a certain wily fox has her claws in him now. I warned him that she would lead him astray, but it seems that my efforts were for nothing. Now I fear she will consume every ounce of goodness in him before long.”
I can’t help but nod my head, knowing the fox he’s referring to. “For once we agree. I warned him as well, but he’s made his choice. Really, he has no eye for women….”
Then I look over to Gai and recall how he got involved in this mess as well. “Then again, maybe he’s not the only one.”
He takes offense to that. “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just saying, that girl’s rather stuffy and her father’s in a rather high position in the government, so she’s probably not all that interested in commoners.” Honestly, she’s not a bad woman in terms of looks, but she’s so uptight that she wouldn’t be any fun. He’d have a better chance with nearly anyone else in the school—except Sakura or Ayako.
“Shinji, I don’t really think you have much room to talk.” A bemused smile comes across Ayako’s face as she says that. “Didn’t you constantly approach Tohsaka for the last two years? I remember you taking out one of her rejections on a couple of first-years. What does that say about you?”
“Geh….” Why did she have to bring up that? “My eyes were clouded back then. I’ve come to see through the mask she wears and have realized she’s not my type of woman. Emiya can have her.
“Oh, and what is your type of woman then?”
It’s worrying that she’s getting involved now, but I have no shame in my taste in women. Not that I’d tell her, of course. “Only an idiot would tell that sort of thing. Who do you take me for, Emiya?”
A slightly teasing tone laces her voice. “Then maybe I’ll just ask Emiya myself. If you were such good friends, I bet he’d have a good idea.”
My memories flash back to when I gave him a magazine some time ago that could be used as evidence. Surely he wouldn’t give it away on his own. But… but if Tohsaka really has her under his thumb then he might just do it.
She puts on a rather coy smile that makes me take a step back. This is revenge for her telling her brother about the Copenhagen, isn’t it? She’s embarrassing me in front of Gai, who is nearly doubled over seeing me back down, and the Student President, who has his eyes narrowed in faint amusement.
I will get them both later for this! I swear it! “N-now, Mitsuzuri, let’s not go that far.”
She sighs. The amusement passes from her face.“Fine, I’ll let it slide. But don’t bring up others tastes when it comes to romance. That sort of thing isn’t to be taken lightly.”
“Got it…” I guess she’s had her fun. “And stop laughing Gotou!”
Gai gets in a few more chuckles and then winds down a bit, looking back and forth between us and then sighing. “Still, I’m feeling kind of left out here. Everyone knows Emiya well enough for blackmail material, but I only talk to him every now and again in class.”
The Monk takes that as a cue to speak up. “Neko-kun attended school with Taiga-kun and I, so we were all familiar with one another to some extent even before we got involved in this. Our families too considering the rivalries from our old men and the fact that the temple has been Copenhagen’s best customers for a long time. That being said, Neko and Junior weren’t aware that he knew them both and only learned a year ago, when a fight nearly broke out between them over him working at the liquor store. It was an entertaining tale to tell over a drink of sake beneath the moonlight.”
“And here I thought monks were supposed to abstain from things like that.” I look over to the monk-in-training within our group to see his eyes are closed, a faint look of embarrassment on his face at how such dirty secrets of the temple were spilling out so freely. The corners of my lips turn up at finally having something to break the virtuous façade he wore. “I had no idea you were so worldly, Ryuudou.”
“I myself do not participate in such activities, but one must be willing to accept that others may not share the same virtues yet remain virtuous. Especially given the nature of the trials we face. However, as long as one is alive, they can strive towards shaking off the chains of the three temptations.”
“I’m not judging.” I walk up to him and set a hand on his shoulder like we’re old friends. “It’s only natural for everyone to have a secret or two and you’re still in-training for a little while longer. No one would blame you for deciding to experience the wonders of the world before settling down to live a virtuous life. I can even be your guide should you choose to take that path in life.”
He steps away from my grasp and glares. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t try to do so now or in the future. I have no desire to travel such a path.”
I can only shake my head. “A person should at least attempt to take in as much of the world into their soul as they can rather than narrowing it down to such an extent. You’ll only be wracked with regrets later on if you pass it up. Such a thing will deny you enlightenment after all.”
I take another step forward and extend my hand for the Student President to take. “Tell you what, I’ve heard of a party going on soon with some girls from Western High. I was thinking about asking Emiya to accompany me, but I’m feeling generous. I bet there’s one or two who would be more than happy to broaden your horizons. What do you say?”
He takes a step back again and warily eyes me. “I see that tint of darkness must’ve been reflective of your nature as a tempter. However, I will not be led down the path of evil by the prospect of meeting girls and will not let you do the same to Emiya.”
Before we can go any further, Ayako interrupts. “That’s enough Shinji. No more tempting us further with unwholesome desires. And while I’m back here, does anyone want to drink or eat while we wait? Issei, you want tea, right?”
“If possible, I would appreciate it, Mitsuzuri-kun.”
Gai takes a step closer to the counter. “Can I try something alcoholic? I’ve never tried anything before, but like Matou said I should take the world into my soul while I can.”
She taps her chin in thought for a moment. “Hmm…it’s too early in the morning for that and we have a lot to talk about. Maybe later, but we do have coffee or a couple of other things she has here for when I stop by, like energy bars.”
I take her up on the offer. “I’ll take my coffee with milk and two sugars. And one of those bars. I didn’t have breakfast.”
She ducks down beneath the counter, reaching for something, while I take a seat at the table close to the stove and turn to look at the different pictures on the wall nearby. One in particular that I do take notice of is a picture of what looks to be Fujimura and a brunette woman sitting around a table with what looks to be the Monk, all three rather younger and making a toast.
I take my eyes off of the wall of memories as the seats to the right, left, and across from me are occupied by Gai, the Monk, and the Student President. The latter pulls out a crimson calling card that’s slightly more worn than ours, but the biggest difference is that there seems to be a corner of it where the crimson has been peeled away to reveal a black patch.
“Let’s not waste anymore time while we wait. Both of you pull out your cards. It’s time you learned just what they’re capable of and how they tie you to this.”
Six Months Ago
I stare up at the fluorescent lights and count ceiling tiles of the hospital room to pass the time.
Being stuck here alone is a quiet sort of Hell. But I can’t leave the hospital until they finish monitoring me for any changes in my body after having the albino brat’s heart shoved into me. The memory of the pain that followed makes me clench my bed-sheet and grit my teeth.
My head turns to the tray by my bedside. On it are two slices of apples cut into rabbit-shapes, with one on its side and the other with a tooth-pick in it. Leftovers from when Sakura was here.
The ears are perfectly shaped, like something out of a magazine. She even coated the flesh with a light and sweet glaze that I liked when I was a child. She put a lot of work into them, overstepping her bounds as someone who was sold to the Matou family.
I still remember the day I was told her family sold her to mine, when I came back from my study abroad after the last Holy Grail War. The thought of an outsider in my household, in my world, made me sick. But a part of me felt bad for the girl, having been sold into being a possession of our family by her own. Then again, I expected as much.
I learned early on that there were two types of people in this world: those that were special and those that weren’t. The former stood on top, sacrificing and using those that stood on the bottom to move up in the world. Then you cut them out when they were no longer useful. Zouken taught me that at an early age, which was what happened to my mother.
Yet, I pitied Sakura.
She was supposed to be special, but was then cast out to become something less. The little girl with dull purple eyes and never smiled was meant to be a tool, but that was just so pathetic that I couldn’t stand it. So, as the heir to the family, I decided to take pity on her and treat her like my sister.
She would never be as special as me, who was to be the heir. But she would be better than everyone else outside of the family. As long as she was loyal, I would never sacrifice her like my grandfather and father did my mother.
Then the truth came out.
Sakura was there to be the true heir, not a failure like me. She knew the entire time and just humored me, laughing behind my back every time I said I would be the heir. I showed her mercy and kindness, treating her like a person rather than the tool to carry on the bloodline she was, and my reward for it was to be mocked.
She deserved to be slapped. To be beaten. To be reminded of her place. So I paid her back for every laugh and taking what was rightfully mine.
And she never fought back. She never claimed it was her right to be the heiress. She just sat there and took it.
At first I thought it was because she knew that she deserved it. The abuse was her atonement for mocking me. If that was the case, maybe I would have forgiven her as long as she served me sincerely. But then Zouken kindly informed me of what it really was:
She pitied me. Someone who was sold off by her own family because I wasn’t good enough pitied me. I was so pathetic that someone who lost everything from her old life and was then given away like a tool pitied me.
Things were a blur for a moment after that. I remember yelling, hitting, exposing her pale skin and feeling lust overtake me. A fleeting thought occurred, telling me that if she was mine to use as I pleased then why not do so in every aspect? Then I felt euphoria, an immense satisfaction flooding me to my core as I experienced the pleasure of being a man for the first time.
She didn’t complain. Zouken didn’t chastise me for it. Of course they didn’t. I hadn’t done anything wrong by the standards of the world we lived in. So our roles were set and life continued.
Then Emiya came into the picture.
He was an idiot. He constantly did things that other people didn’t want to, like he was a natural-born servant and enjoyed it. But he was useful, an honest idiot that I felt like I could tolerate compared to other people.
Someone who could never attain happiness outside of helping others was someone would always be willing to do what I ask without question. Someone who wouldn’t usurp me like Sakura did. Someone I could see as a friend and wouldn’t sacrifice like Sakura, before the truth.
Then he turned against me because of Sakura. He couldn’t understand that Sakura was supposed to be mine, a tool to be used in exchange for taking everything away from me as heir to the Matou line. He chose her over me and the thought of those two together filled me with a black flame inside my chest as I watched them.
Then came the Holy Grail War, a chance to prove myself to Zouken as the one who should have been the rightful heir to the family. Sakura not wanting to fight was so pathetic that he surely had to acknowledge me. Plus, if I won, I could have used it to fix my defective body and become a true magus.
That’s all I wanted in the end. To have been a true part of the world I was born into. Like my father, my grandfather, my sister, and… and my friend.
I couldn’t see the strings being pulled behind the curtain because I wanted to be special. And I got played for it… suffered for it…
I shudder as the sensation of worms crawling through my body and bloating my flesh from the grail came to mind. Was that what Sakura felt everyday for the sake of being a magus? If the stupid girl had said something, I would’ve….
No, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
I had lost my ability to feel sympathy for those I saw beneath me a long time ago. It was only because I had been placed into her shoes that I could understand everything she felt, after I regained my sanity. A moment of empathy towards someone who’d experienced years of a similar Hell silently with no one to save her.
Sakura treats me with sympathy after my ordeal, understanding the pain I’ve been through. She could have mocked me or thrown it in my face after everything I’d done to her. But she simply stayed by my side and cared for me.
Like a sister should.
That moment also made me truly realize why Sakura clung to Emiya despite the abuse I put her through for it. Having been stuck in a position where death would have been preferable, I too wanted someone to desperately save me. And though it was Tohsaka who pulled me from the prison that my flesh had become, she’d made it clear that she’d done it for him. Despite the number of times I’d tried to kill him after he sided against me, he still extended his hand by proxy to save me.
Like a friend should.
The only question now was what I should do when I get out of here. How do I face them? What should I aspire to become after losing my chance at being truly special, only to find that it wasn’t worth it in the end?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The knocking at the door turned my attention away from the ceiling tiles to the door. Through the slit that serves as a window, I can make out a familiar bed of brown hair and matching eyes. It was Ayako.
Once she notices me staring, she opens the door and enters of her own accord. She’s wearing a pink wind-breaker and a pair of jeans, rather than her uniform.
I sit up and turn so that my feet find the floor. “What are you doing here?”
“Sakura mentioned you were in the Hospital, so I thought I would drop in and check on my Vice-Captain.”
“Didn’t you say you were going to expel me from the club?” I distinctly remember that argument before I sent Rider after her. In hindsight, it… may have been going a bit overboard.
A slight pout forms on her face. “Well, you were starting to get out of hand. I had members on the verge of quitting because you were in a bad mood and decided to take it out on them. Unlike last year, we’ve got a shot at the Autumn Tournament and I want us to come home as the champions.”
After the summer of the first year we didn’t have Emiya anymore in the club, after I made a comment on his burn mark. Did she blame me for that too? “If you really want to win then why are you talking to me? You know where Emiya lives.”
She just stares at me for a moment, her lips pursed. Then she steps forward and gets in my face, looking me in the eyes. “Having Emiya back would make it easier, but I want you back in the club more than anything.”
“In truth, I’ve been doing some thinking about reorganizing the club since we’ve been doing pretty badly lately. I want your help to whip them into shape by the time I have to step down from the role of Captain and help your sister take the reins. I get the feeling that she’d be a good Captain, but right now she’s the type that stands back and quietly nods rather that assert herself, so it’ll take some time.”
She doesn’t sound like she’s joking. But it doesn’t make sense. “Why me?”
“Because we’re a lot alike, so I feel like I can understand you.” Her eyes look towards the ceiling. “You and I don’t like to lose, but Emiya was always better both of us. I admired and was jealous of him for that, yet he quit so easily that it was hard to believe it really even matter to him. How can someone like that drive others into giving it their all?”
“And you think I can?”
“Yeah, I do. As long as you keep your behavior in check, I think that you’re the only person I can trust to be my Vice-Captain. What do you say?”
I know the Archery Club means a lot to her, so hearing how earnest her words are only serves to make me feel uncomfortable. Of all the people she could place her trust in, I am the last one person she should. Not after everything I’d done to her.
Guilt rears its ugly head for the first time in a long time. “You shouldn’t forgive or trust me so easily. After all, I was the one behind what happened to the students and school. And with you in Shinto—”
Ayako’s response is immediate. She slugs me on the shoulder. The hit isn’t hard enough to do any real damage, but it does draw my attention to her face. She looks upset.
“Jokes like that are in bad taste, Shinji.” She crosses her arms. “You’re a jerk occasionally, but even you aren’t that much of an ass. I mean, could you imagine Emiya or your sister standing by you all the time if that was the case? They must see something good in you, right?”
… No, I am that horrible. Both of Emiya and Sakura know that. Even I’m not sure why they act so cordial to me, but they’ll never forget what I’ve done. Ayako’s so painfully ignorant that it hurts… but I prefer the way she thinks of me, a jerk with a softer side rather than a monster that reveled in whatever power he got.
I want her to be right. I want a second chance to start over, to live a normal life without the desire to be out of the ordinary pushing me to become a monster. A second chance to be the sort of person she thinks I can be, and someone who can face Emiya and Sakura without seeing everything I’ve done written over their faces, even if unsaid by them.
If this was the first step to doing that, then I’d do it. “Fine, I’ll straighten up and help if you really need it.”
Ayako smiles as the golden sunlight pours into the room, becoming a radiant scene that burns itself into my memories. “Looking forward to working with you then, Vice-Captain.”
My eyes snap open to find fluorescent lights hanging on the ceiling above. For a moment, I believe I’m back in the hospital room and the last few months have been a dream. That the future I’d seen was nothing more than a nightmare.
“So you’ve awoken then?”
Then I hear a familiar voice and turn my head towards the source. The Student President is sitting down in a chair a few feet ahead of the infirmary bed. His eyes are fixed on a book of some kind.
I sit up and become aware that I’m wearing my club uniform. But there are no signs of rips and tears. I lift my arms to see they’re still in one piece.
He glances up at me. “Mitsuzuri informed me about your abrupt trip to the future and the injuries you sustained. You’re fortunate that I arrived before someone noticed the wounds.”
I hold my head as the visions of that terrible future come flooding back. “So it was real after all?”
“Of course it was.” He closes the book and adjusts his glasses. “You pried where you shouldn’t and were brought into the fold as a result. Whatever your reasons for doing so, you involved yourself in this and the consequences of that are you have seen the future and are now responsible for changing it.”
I want to deny his words about prying, but a brief image flashes in my head at the thought. It’s the memory of that hospital visit from Ayako. The smile she wore when I accepted her terms. It’s stupid that such a simple request and smile moved me enough to make an effort to help her. But I was desperate for a new path to take and she offered me the way.
If Sakura was the hand that supported me, and Shirou was the hand that saved me, then Ayako was the hand meant to guide me towards a second chance—my redemption. So did that mean that this too was a part of what it meant for me to have a second chance? Was it worth it if I got hurt or killed in the process?
… No, it’s not my job to try to sort out that mess that could be set decades into the future for all I knew. I only got involved for one reason and one reason alone, and that wasn’t it. “Where is she? She was with you, wasn’t she?”
“I’ve already treated Mitsuzuri’s injuries and left her behind with Gotou. He had answered his phone while on the way to school and passed out on a sidewalk, so someone called an ambulance and they rushed him to the Hospital. After I had treated him, she remained behind to inform him of the circumstances of his current situation when he wakes.”
He frowns slightly as he looks down at me from over the rim of his glasses. “For the record, I didn’t appreciate your efforts to turn Emiya against me with baseless accusations. Please refrain from doing so again. I have enough on my hands as it is.”
Ah, he must be talking about what I told Emiya this morning. “You shouldn’t have made yourself so suspicious, Mr. President. Besides, you were with her.”
“Regardless, you had no evidence to support that theory. It was fortunate that I managed to cover it up on my way here by saying that she came over to the temple to spar with me this morning and suffered a minor injury that left her unable to attend.”
It would pass somewhat as an excuse. Ayako was the type of person who was into those sorts of things. Being a member of the family that ran the temple, it was natural that he would know some kind of martial arts to go with his attitude as well. In addition, she was also the festival committee chief for the upcoming cultural festival, meaning it wouldn’t be strange for the two to discuss matters in private.
He rises from his chair. “I’m sending word to your sister to escort you home now and informing her that within a few hours you will experience a fever and severe nosebleed that will leave you bedridden for the rest of the day. Don’t mention anything you’ve learned or gone through to her or you’ll risk her getting others involved in this as well. You’ve seen for yourself how unforgiving that world is.”
I don’t need him telling me that. Ayako mentioned that even knowing about what I do can draw Nemesis Q’s attention. Not to mention the bird-thing tried to kill me once before when I tried showing her the card. She’s been through enough as is and I’m not in a hurry to die.
Though I didn’t like what he said before all of that. “What do you mean I’ll be bedridden for the rest of the day?”
The Student President elaborates. “Upon returning to the past, all those that survive the first round undergo a transitional phase as a result of being exposed to that environment as far as we can tell. The body feels as though its melting on the inside as the change happens. Then, when the symptoms pass in the morning, you wake to find that you can perceive the world differently—to know that you have been changed in some aspect from the people around you.”
I think on it as he makes his way to the exit. It must be the abilities that Ayako used in the future. For a moment, my heart quavers at the thought of possessing that sort of power. Then I remember how the last time I yearned for it had earned me a visit to Hell every time I dreamed.
The only reason I didn’t this time is probably because of the displacement of my soul.
As he stops at the door, the Student President gives me a final glance. “When you wake up in the morning, come to the base of the mountain. Mitsuzuri and I will meet you there. Once you and Gotou have arrived, I’ll take you both to meet the other veterans in Fuyuki and they’ll inform you of everything and begin your training. Make sure your schedule for the day is clear.”
Nothing left to say, he leaves the room and gently shuts the door behind him.
I lie back down and just think on everything I just got myself into. It’s ludicrous to think that any sort of power that I can wield would be enough to change a future that has already come to pass. The abnormal sky and condition of the land and those Taboo creatures—how did something like that come to pass by the moonlit world of magi and monsters? Weren’t there safeguards in place to avoid things like that from happening?
Or were they the ones responsible for that future?
The door slides open and the thoughts fade as Sakura steps into the room while dressed in her school uniform. In her hands are my clothes and belongings. She looks slightly relieved as she comes over to my bedside.
“Nii-san, how are you feeling?”
“As best I can be for now.” I sit up and take the clothes. “You talked to the Student President, didn’t you?”
She nods her head. “He said that you would need to rest back at home for the rest of the day and we have permission to leave early. Though, Senpai suggested we should head back to the hospital so they can give you a thorough examination.”
I shake my head. No more hospitals. If I have to stare up at one more tiled ceiling I’ll start pulling out my own hair. “After the symptoms pass, I’ll be fine.”
“No, Sakura.” My tone is firmer this time to get the point across. “Emiya doesn’t have a say in this. I said I’ll be fine, so drop it. Understand?”
“…Yes, Nii-san.” Her eyes lower slightly, leaving her hair shadowing them from view. Without another word, she turns around so that I can change my clothes.
The feeling of kicking a puppy returns with a vengeance. I wish I could just explain that I can’t get them involved for both my sake and hers. That I would like nothing more than to push this onto Emiya since this is his sort of thing. But I can’t as things stand.
I sigh deeply and then look up to the clock again. “Sakura, you haven’t eaten Lunch, have you?”
“Not yet,” she replies softly.
“Then let’s go find a place in Miyama to eat.” I’ve got my wallet on me so it shouldn’t be a problem to treat her. “It’ll be my way of apologizing for getting blood on your uniform since I’m going to be busy tomorrow, so I won’t accept you trying to take a pass on it.”
She looks slight confused given my abrupt change in demeanor, but knows better than to refuse and nods.
We leave the school grounds minutes later and make our way to the district. The cool autumn breeze briefly blows past us along the way. The lack of biting chill and aftertaste of metal were something I couldn’t help but notice. The warmth of the afternoon sun caressing my skin felt almost foreign. And the people ignorantly walking along the side of the road and going about their day without any worries of what the future holds for them….
I do my best to ignore them all as we find a place to dine in peace.
The wind feels a bit colder as it whistles through the remains of Fuyuki.
I carefully peer around the corner of a half-fallen building and make sure the path is clear before I turn to Gai and gesture for him follow. Ayako is in his arms, still unconscious and feverish. He can carry her without being slowed down because he’s broader than me.
We were making our way back to the Shopping District, to the phone that served as the gate to the past. By my guess it’s been at least half-an-hour since we left the building that Ayako had brought us to. We were maybe a little over halfway to the district at the hurried, yet cautious pace we were going. It spoke wonders of just how fast Ayako had been when she brought me there in less than five minutes.
I had thought magecraft was involved at first. But I brushed it off on account of Ayako not being a magus. I confirmed as much when Rider drained her to the extent it took days for her to recover, and had a good laugh when Emiya brought it up back then.
Obviously, I’m not laughing now.
Besides, I’m not a magus. The Old Worm had pointed that fact out many times. I was a defect in the bloodline of the once proud Makiri, a failure without worth despite the effort I put forth in school and how I presented myself.
So if the requirement needed to gain a card was the presence of Magic Circuits, then I wouldn’t be here. Then there was the gauntlet with a crossbow she had earlier. Was it a mystic code of some kind that she could summon at will? Or was I just stretching for something—anything to make the facts line up with what I knew.
What exactly is this the power Nemesis Q spoke of to change the future?
The answer could wait. At until after we got back to our own time. But there was one thing I was absolutely certain of at this moment.
I am never going to wear this uniform again if we get pulled into the future.
It’s impractical for this sort of terrain and weather. And the only reason I kept the sandals on is because the alternative was dealing with bits and pieces of rubble wedging themselves into my feet. I can’t run away if that happens.
As we come to a stop at another outcropping several minutes later, Gai speaks. “I don’t think we have long if this fever gets worse.”
I feel her head. He’s right. She’s warmer than before. “I think we’re ten minutes—”
The words die when I hear a sound coming from the distance and peek around the corner. I see another one of those hounds that nearly dragged me off. But it’s not alone.
No, there’s a person there with it. Or at least what used to be a person before it got turned into Frankenstein’s Monster, lugging around some kind of giant vat or container.
The muscular torso gives me the impression that it was once a tall man, but certain body parts seem misshapen. The arms are elongated to a similar length of Nemesis Q’s arms, yet the legs are muscular and swollen. On its head is a mask of steel that left its eyes and nose hidden, and its ears are shaped like that of a bat’s.
I turn to Gai and press a finger to my lips before pointing over to the edge so he can see as well. His eyes squint before he pulls back. His voice comes out hushed.
“What is that?”
“I’ve run into the dog-thing before. It nearly dragged me off until Ayako killed it. But that other one is new.”
I think back to that time, before Ayako carried me off. She mentioned that the ‘Catcher’ would follow the sounds the Hound made before spiriting me away. I guess that must be it.
It looks fast. I couldn’t see us getting to the phone fast enough to save Ayako if we had to go around it. But going straight ran the risk of us being caught….
At least without bait. “Gotou, how fast are you?”
His eyes narrow at the question. “I make decent time on the track course. Why?”
I nod to Ayako. “Neither of us can run fast enough to avoid getting caught if we have to carry her. But we don’t have time to waste if we need to circle around. Not before that fever puts her down for good. You’re in better shape than me and are wearing actual shoes instead of these sandals.”
“So you want me to throw myself at them?”
That’s the gist of it actually. But he doesn’t need to know that. Instead, I shake my head and point to the right.
“No, I need for you to go that way while the wind is blowing towards the left. You’re going to circle around until the Hound catches your scent and then leave your shirt behind. That’ll buy you time to circle around again and get to the phone while I’ll take Ayako straight ahead.”
“If you’ve got this all planned out, why don’t you do that while I carry her?”
“You’re faster than me and, again, not wearing sandals.” I wiggle my feet for a moment and then tilt my head to Ayako once more. “It’s not about me or you. She’ll die if we don’t do it this way. Do you want to let that happen after she helped us out?”
He looks hard at me at that. Then Ayako. A sigh follows as he stands up and starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Works like a charm. “Run fast.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t screw this up, Matou.” That said, he runs off to the right and disappears around the remains of a building that way.
Honestly, I don’t expect him to get away from those two entirely. But I do expect him to distract them long enough for us to get to the phone. That’s what counts.
That container that the Catcher has looks big enough to house a single person. And, while the ears give me the impression that its hearing is sharp, I can use the wind and softer surface to mask my movements. I’ll live through this and get back to the past with Ayako.
… It’s about three minutes before I see movement on the other end. The Hound lets loose a sharp bark and the Catcher standing next to it rouses. They move off to the right and out of my view.
I reposition Ayako onto my back with some effort. Her fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest and she’s started mumbling something under her breath. Like I told Gai, I really do have to hurry and get her to safety before she dies.
No sooner than we pass by the spot where the Catcher and Hound had been did the winds shift, blowing towards the direction that the monster pair ran. I cling to a faint hope that our scents remain out of the Hound’s range as I push ahead faster. But that hope is snuffed out when I hear a barking noise.
Fear crawls up my spine. It’s coming. The Hound is coming. If it gets close enough to scream, then we die.
I seriously consider leaving Ayako behind for a moment, but that isn’t an option. She’s the clear condition and the reason I came here in the first place. I already threw Gai to the Catcher to buy us time, but doing that to her isn’t an option. I have no choice but to run.
But I’m not fast enough to get away before the Hound catches up. The moment it caught my scent, running stopped being an option. And, even if we hide somewhere, the Hound will just track us down by scent and sound. That only leaves one final option:
I have to kill it somehow.
I don’t know how Ayako killed the last one, but I knew that they could be killed. I can probably manage by bashing its skull in or something. But a frontal assault will just get me caught by the scream and leave me helpless again. I need to arrange an ambush then.
My legs burn while running until I come across the ideal battlefield—one of the buildings that looked as if the foundation shifted. This caused it to lean, tearing down one half of the building and exposing the gutted remains to the elements. I can see a spot where the second floor can be used as an ambush point, and the large rubble beneath it as a weapon.
I enter the first floor through the opening and set Ayako down against the mountain of rubble, beneath where the second floor collapsed. Then I remove the top of my uniform and set it down ahead of her feet. I don’t expect it to distract the Hound for long, but it should make it sit still for a second or two.
That has to be enough.
I grab the largest chunk of stone I can before I climb up the stairs. It’s… a lot higher up than it looks from the first floor, but I get into position as the Hound comes in. The moment it sniffs at the discarded clothing, I hurl the head-sized block down from the second floor.
It smashes down on the Hound’s head hard enough to shatter and makes it yelp. But it’s not enough to do more than crack the black orb on its head. And it knows I’m here now.
I freeze as its legs tense. My blood turns to ice at the knowledge that if I don’t do something, it’ll come after me now. I don’t want to be caught by that thing and dragged off. I don’t want to die for getting myself wrapped up in this, trying to be a hero like….
Something clicks inside of me when I think on what Emiya would do here? What would the idiot who went out of his way to help others do? The answer is stupid and obvious.
I leap down, screaming. I throw myself at the problem without thinking further. I ignore my heart leaping into my throat as gravity grabs my body and drops me down.
The Hound’s legs buckle under my weight and we collapse onto one another. The blood pounding in my ears acts like a war drum. It takes away my sanity.
I find myself screaming as the desire to survive takes hold, scooping up the largest chunk of what was left of the stone I threw. It was maybe the size of a baseball and jagged, the tip pointed enough to serve as a makeshift knife. I stab at the Hound wherever I could with it around the head, neck, and mouth.
I have to kill it. I can’t let it get a chance to recover or it’ll kill me. I have to kill it!
I have to kill it! I Have To Kill It! I HAVE TO KILL IT!
The Hound whines and redoubles its effort to throw me off at the pain. It succeeds. Then it opens its mouth to scream.
I don’t think. I react. My closest arm moves, sinking my fist into its mouth until it’s lodged in its throat. It closes its jaws on reflex and bites into my arm.
“AHH!!” It hurts, but it doesn’t break the bone. It can’t scream like this and it can’t get away. Something inside of me can’t help but giggle as I start hammering away with the stone in my other hand.
It tries to escape, but it can’t. So it tries to take off my arm instead. Pain surges through my body as it jerks its fangs to rip my arm apart, tearing into the flesh until blood began to cascade from between its fangs.
It hurts. It hurts! It hurts! But I can’t lose this chance or else it’s all over!
I drown out the pain with a scream as I keep hammering away, every hit causing the jagged edges to cut into my good hand. It tears at my flesh and leaves my blood to run over the pitch-black stone as the crack widens. Then something inside of the orb begins to pour out like steam.
The Hound’s fangs loosen. Its throat tightens with a whine that chokes on my arm. It’s dying. Good.
“Die! Die! DIEEEEE!” I keep hitting at its weak point until it collapses. Its body begins to soften as the stone buries itself into its head, whitening and loosening. I only stop when it turns to ashes and laugh as I pull out the bloodied limb coated in white powder. “That’s what you get for coming after me, stupid mutt.”
The pain hurts so badly that I don’t think I can use either of my hands again. But I’m alive. The thought makes me laugh again. “Hehehahaaha….HAHAHA— ”
The voice draws my attention. I turn to see that Ayako is awake. The noise must’ve woken her.
“Did you see, Ayako?” I gesture to the pile of ashes. “I killed it. Hahaha… you see, I killed it on my own.”
“Shinji… you need to… calm down….” She leans forward off the rubble, despite her face being red from the fever. “Take a deep breath.”
Ah, she’s staring at me with those eyes. My lips curl into a frown as I recognize those same pitying eyes that Sakura used to stare at me with. Those same pitying eyes that said she was laughing behind my back that I couldn’t use magic when she could. Those same damn pitying eyes that shows she thinks she’s better than me!
I hate them. I hate them! I HATE THEM! IHATETHEM! IHATETHEMIHATETHEMHATETHEMHATETHEMHATEHATEHATE!
“Stop staring at me with those eyes!” I try to rise up, but my body sways on my feet a little. Blood stains the ground as I stumble towards her to wipe those eyes off her face. “You should be grateful I saved you! You couldn’t even do anything and yet, I—”
My foot slips over my discarded top. I fall forward. She reaches out and grabs me before I can hit the ground.
Her body is uncomfortably warm. It stinks of sweat and ashes. But she holds me tight before I can struggle and doesn’t let go.
“Shinji, don’t let this place drive you insane.” Her tone is gentle. And her embrace soothes the burning inside of my chest. “I don’t want to see someone else like that. Calm down so we can go back to the past together.”
Her words bring back my sanity. I realize how close I was to doing something I would regret again to the person giving me a second chance. Shame comes with the pain in my limbs and an apology slips out. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She pulls back and looks me in the eyes. “What happened to Gotou?”
“He….” I struggle to find the words to say ‘I sent him off to die in order to buy us time.’ Yet, if I worded it wrong she would likely try to go out and find him. In her condition that wasn’t likely to work out and we’d die here stupidly. “The Catcher caught him and left the Hound behind. He’s gone.”
A tear streaks down her eyes at hearing that. A shuddering, lifeless breath leaves her mouth. It takes her a moment before she lets me go and pulls herself together. “I’ll get you out alive then, at the very least.”
The shame and embarrassment still lingers in my chest. I sit up on my knees. “Mitsuzuri, about a moment ago… I didn’t—”
She cuts me off with a slow shake of her head. “It happens. I’ve seen people go insane in different ways. One girl threw herself off a building when I first started out, before Issei could get to her. Another guy tried murdering others until…”
Ayako trails off. The message is clear enough for me to get the picture. Desperate people did stupid things. The pain in my arms lingers as proof of that. I don’t know what I was thinking…oh wait, I wasn’t.
Then again, Emiya probably would have done the same thing. He’s an idiot like that.
“We need to wrap those injuries before the shock wears off entirely.” She tears apart her torn clothes further to wrap strips around my bloody hand and arm. “Once we get back to the past, Issei will be able to heal your wounds.”
“He didn’t come with you?”
“No, he’s a Veteran Drifter.” She finishes and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm. “He went through his card’s value around the time I got started and helped me cope through it. Right now he’s taking care of my body in a guest room at the Ryuudou Temple, while I’m here. The wounds we sustain transfer over to our bodies once we snap back, so he stays nearby to heal them. I’ll tell him about you the moment I wake up.”
She rises to her feet and sways before steadying herself. “Did Nemesis Q appear?”
I nod and rise to my feet, letting her lean on my shoulder for support. “The clear condition is to get you to the phone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District. We’re not too far.”
“Then if we hurry, we might be able to save Gotou. If the clear condition is met, all surviving Drifters are pulled to the past as long as they don’t end up inside of the Tower.”
That’s convenient. “Then let’s go.”
We push ourselves to move, stumbling out of the building with our weary bodies. Now that the adrenaline isn’t coursing through my body, I feel like I’ve ran a marathon of some kind and my legs and arms ache. It takes effort to just walk while supporting Ayako.
I glance towards her. The fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest, but she’s trying to put on a brave face. Yet her eyes are half-lidded and straining to remaining open as she looks into the distance. She’s pushing herself too far just to see me to safety…
No, it’s not just me. She’s hoping that if we get there quick enough that Gai can be saved too. It’s a frail, fleeting hope, but enough to get us both to safety nonetheless.
The phone comes into view and I let out a sigh of relief at the thought of safety being only short walk away. But then Ayako freezes mid-step. “What’s wrong?”
She turns her head to the side. Her eyes furrow and close in. “I hear footsteps and hard breathing.”
“What?” I turn behind me and try to listen in. But I don’t hear anything until nearly ten seconds later, when a bloody Gai stumbles out from an alley. Just how sharp is her hearing?
“Gotou!” She releases me and tries to go to his side. However, her strength hasn’t returned just because she sees him. She nearly falls forward until I catch her, sending pain lancing up my limbs.
Gai sees us and yells, “RUN!”
That’s when the Catcher leaps out from the corner in a crouch. The vat it carries is on its back, strapped on like a backpack. In a motion too quick for me to see, it throws itself forward and pounces on Gai.
“AGH!!” He goes down with it on top of him like a feral beast, placing a hand on his head like it’s going to crush it. His strained voice reaches our ears as he yells again. “Hurry up and go!”
I don’t need to be told twice. Ignoring the pain in my arms, I pull Ayako forward with fear giving me the strength to run away. “Let’s go!”
She resists. “We can’t leave him!”
“The hell we can’t!” Why do women make this more complicated than it needs to be? Since I don’t have time to argue, I crouch down and lift her so that she’s slung over my shoulders like a bag of potatoes. The act causes blood to slip beneath the makeshift bandages and the muscles in my hands feel like they’re tearing apart.
Ayako doesn’t argue. Instead, she opts to say, “Brace yourself then!”
That sent up some red flags, so I turn my head expecting the Catcher to be lunging for us this time. Instead, I see Ayako raising her arm and that crossbow-gauntlet appearing on her wrist with a flash of light. There’s a bolt of pure white energy thrumming in it.
The moment she lets it loose, the backlash knocks me off my feet as an explosion sounds out. I end up falling on my stomach and then have the air knocked out of me as Ayako ends up mounted on my back. “Ow!”
In contrast, Gai is half-buried under ash. Confusion paints his face as he notes the absence of the Catcher. “What… happened?”
“Uhh….” Ayako’s body sways on top of me. Then she falls to the ground next to me.
“Hey!” I sit up and take a look at her. Sweat covers her face and blood runs from her nose as she desperately gasps for air. It’s clear she made her condition worse.
Yet, despite all of that, she gathers enough energy to just glare at me with barely-opened eyes. “You said… he was caught…”
I look away. “…I made a judgment call. The clear condition was to bring you to the goal. If he hadn’t been caught, then he would have been brought back to the present as well.”
I had no proof of that until she informed me earlier. But it’s the best excuse I can think of to appease them. A little white lie to avoid making it sound worse than it was.
The conversation died there as Gai came over and helped us to our feet. He’s rough with me and looks like he wants to say something, so I take it that he didn’t like being bait. Shame he couldn’t play the part properly, given I had to kill the Hound, but at the very least he seems to understand that now’s not the time.
Before anything else can jump us, we get to the phone. The moment Gai picks up the receiver, the world vanishes. We abruptly start falling through space again as Nemesis Q lingers above us and claps its hands like it’s giving us an applause.
A look of pure hatred crosses Ayako face at the sight of it. It makes the glare she gave me earlier seem tame in comparison. Then again, Nemesis Q ran her through this who knows how many times now.
Then everything goes dark as the bird that’s mimicking a person grows distant….
I rise to my feet as I breathe in the cold air that has the aftertaste of metal. It was cold, even for Autumn. Probably had something to do with the ashen sky, not a bird in sight.
Looking around, I find that I’m in a set of ruins of some kind. I want to say it’s the archery dojo, considering I see that the school is a broken pile of stone and rubble just across where I am. How many years into the future am I for all the wood to be missing, having rotted away?
I stumble out of what was left of the school grounds and head towards the road to my home. I had no idea if it is still around, but the state it’s in will at least give me some insight into how much time has passed. And it’s closer than going to the Church or the albino brat’s castle. If I have to admit it, a part of me hopes that the Tohsaka Estate has been reduced to rubble, but my priority is finding a way to get back to my own time.
The road feels softer than concrete and asphalt should be. Almost like the ground beneath it is quicksand or silt. The buildings made of stone are leaning as if exhausted, some half-broken and others toppled over. Those made of wood are missing entirely.
Looking at all of this, I can’t help but wonder if there are any people left alive in this environment. It feels too cold, the scent of metal lingers in the wind, and the only light is the silver rays that break through the clouds from above. I don’t think plants can survive in it.
The white-thing, Nemesis Q if I had to guess, had spoken before in my dream about embracing power to change the future. Assuming it plucked my soul from my body, displaced my existence through time, and then dropped me into the future, what did it expect me to do here to get back? What power did it mean that would allow me to change it?
Why is Ayako involved in this at all?
Too many question and not enough answers.
I keep walking until I spot something moving on the path ahead of me. It looks like an animal at a distance, a dog sniffing the ground with some kind of black growth on its head. I decide to walk through the rubble of another home that had been along the path to mine, leaving it to scrounge for rats or whatever it ate to survive for however long the world had been in this state.
No sooner than I walk through the rubble do I hear an inhuman screech that makes me jump. I look back to the source to see that the dog is closing in on me. What, is it hungry enough to try and eat me now?
I decide to run. I won’t be able to fight against it without some kind of weapon or rock. But I trip before I can make it three steps because I’m wearing the club uniform, and the footwear isn’t made for running through terrain like this. By the time I can climb back up to my feet, the thing I thought was a dog is close enough that I could make out the details better.
That thing can’t be called a dog anymore, even if it was once upon a time. It’s pale white, a black orb on its head in the place of where there should be eyes. There looks to be gills of some kind on the sides of its neck, with some kind of silvery build up crusting it. Its mouth opens into four parts like a peeled fruit as it faces me.
Then it screams.
The moment it does, I fall down again from what feels like being hit by something invisible that passes through me. The shriek did something to my ears and bones, leaving me hearing a ringing and feeling my insides shaking. I couldn’t get my bearings fast enough to run or even sit up straight as it trots over, grabs my hem, and starts to drag me with ridiculous ease.
It’s taking me away. It’s taking me somewhere and there’s nothing I can do. I… fuck that!
“Get off me! Let go!” I flail. I scream. I force myself to move however I could. At best I’m no different than a giant worm that’s struggling in the maw of the bird that caught it.
It still works. The dog-thing releases my pants from its grasp. Then it aims its mouth up towards my head, peeling it again into four parts. It’s going to scream again and scramble my brains more thoroughly this time, isn’t it?
I close my eyes on reflex and cover my ears in time for a muted explosion to sound out. The force of it washes over me and covers in a blanket of something like dirt or dust. There was so much, so abruptly, that I thought it had decided to bury me as I was. I cough violently, cracking open my eyes to see that the dog-thing was missing.
Instead, Ayako stands in front of me, covered in what looked like patches of ashes with her clothes ripped in certain places and damaged. On her left arm is a black-gauntlet of some kind with a wrist-mounted crossbow on it. She’s panting, her chest rising and falling quickly as she stares down at me with eyes that have rings of exhaustion around them.
Again, she looks pissed. “You called the number.”
It wasn’t a question. “I… may have memorized it.”
“IDIOT!!” she yells abruptly as the crossbow gauntlet vanishes and she mounts my stomach. My body still feels out of sorts and I can’t move well-enough to stop her from grabbing me by the lapels and pulling my head up towards hers.
“Why? Why would you do that?” she demands, shaking me with every word. “I warned you! Do you know what you’ve done!?”
“I—” She lets my head fall down before I can even get the words out to give her an answer. The ground hurts from the impact, driving my eyes to close on reflex. Fire pools in my chest at the abuse when I came here for her sake in the first place. “What’s the big idea….”
I trail off as something wet hits my cheeks and I hear the near-silent sobs. They quench the fire as I open my eyes to the sight of Ayako struggling not to cry. Sitting on top of me, with her head angled down and her shoulders limp, her eyes glisten with tears.
Her voice shakes as she softly whispers, “I don’t want to see someone I know die again.”
…She looks pathetic like this. Really pathetic compared to how she normally looks and acts. It doesn’t bring me any joy seeing her like this.
The sound of a distant shriek brings an end to her tears as her body stiffens in alarm. She twists her head towards the source, even with the half-standing walls and buildings in the way. Then she wipes her tears and gets off of me.
“We need to leave before the hound and catcher arrive.” She lifts me up with ease, hoisting me like a bride in her arms. “They heard the previous one shrieking and are on their way here.”
“Come on, this is just embarrassing!” Her arms feel like they can give out at any time and she still looks exhausted. “You’re going to drop me!”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ayako tells me with an edge in her voice. Then she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Her arms find new strength and she braces me tight against her body. It feels like she’s burning up on the inside.
Then she moves.
The world becomes a blur of short-lived colors and sights as they pass us by. The wind rushes past my ears and drowns out every other sound. This speed is foreign yet familiar, almost like I’m being carried by Rider.
She carries me through a web of ruined buildings and structures, the last remaining monuments to the people of Fuyuki for all I know. It’s only when we reach a district somewhere between the Big Bridge and the school, filled with more commercial buildings, that she jumps through a second-floor window without glass in it and sets me down on the ground.
“Okay,” she sighs. “Hopefully you’re the last one. I don’t think I can make another trip right now.”
“Last one?” I look around at that and see a shadow move around a corner. A familiar bed of blonde hair comes into view. It’s Gai Gotou from class. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s another idiot who got himself a card,” Ayako says as she leans her back against the wall to the left of me. “Straight from Nemesis Q itself.”
I can’t keep the surprised look off my face. “How?”
He scratches his cheek. “Well, I heard that Kane was looking for one and I thought that I could get one for her. But the one guy I found who had it wanted to charge a ridiculous amount for it that I couldn’t afford. So I ran around looking for any that may have been left around at the payphones when I got a card this morning, in a dream. The ringing wasn’t that bad for me though when I answered it on my way to school.”
“… Seriously?” The skepticism in my voice is thick. “That’s how it happened?”
“That’s the reason that I told you not to look or think about the card at all.” She massages her temples. “Just knowing about it can put you in Nemesis Q’s sight when it starts recruiting, and in this mission alone it invited around twenty people who had an interest in the cards or Psyren this time.”
“I take it they didn’t make it?”
She shakes her head. “The Taboo, creatures like the hound that caught you, killed all of them so far. I tried to help and warn them, but they didn’t listen and the number of Taboo have swelled compared to my last trip. The people who die here have their bodies drop dead back in the past and the card disappears, so it seems like Sudden Death Syndrome struck them.”
I frown at that. It’s only been a few hours since she went missing. “Your brother said you went missing this morning in the Club. The morning session hadn’t ended before the ringing nearly split my head in half.”
“Time moves differently between the past and the future,” she claims. “Or at least it feels that way. I left home this morning, an hour before I normally do, when the ringing started to grate on my nerves. Drifters who have been awakened get a warning ahead of time compared to new recruits, to put our affairs in order, so I knew it was coming since the club meeting yesterday.”
So that’s why she ran out yesterday. She heard the call coming in and went to make arrangements. The Student President being absent this morning likely had something to do with that—all the evidence points to him being involved in this too as a Drifter.
“And how long have you been here?” Gai asks.
“It’s been over three or four days on my end. It’s hard to tell since clocks, watches, and other electronics don’t work properly. I can only go by when it’s light out and when it’s dark, and since people keep popping in I have to stay alert and kill any Taboo I find so they don’t keep killing everyone.”
Ayako lets out a long sigh and her throat muscles shift as she takes a moment to just breathe. “Shinji, you said that it felt like your head was splitting, right?”
“Yeah.” The thought alone makes me want to take a migraine pill. “I didn’t hear anything before it just hit me all at once. It got so bad that I couldn’t stand and blood came out of my nose. I had trouble thinking straight.”
“Usually, when it gets that bad, it means that the time is almost up to answer the summonings.” She opens her eyes and stares at me with her brows furrowed. “Another minute or two and you would have probably had an aneurysm.”
So I went from assured death to nearly being dragged off by the banshee dog or whatever it was. Lucky me. But Gai said he answered just after he woke up, so does that mean the summoning has a priority even among the same group?
Or was Nemesis Q punishing me for skirting the rules with Sakura and telling Emiya where to look. “So how do we get home?”
“We have to complete the mission Nemesis Q gives us,” she says. “The objectives change depending on what Nemesis Q wants, and there’s no way of knowing that ahead of time. If it’s a recruitment mission like I think, then we have to stay until all of the people with cards answer their summonings or die from trying to ignore it. Then we’ll learn the location of the gate through a vision in our heads and have to make it… there….”
She slides down the wall as she trails off, until she’s setting against the bottom. Her legs are splayed out like she’s lost all strength in them, and her breathing hasn’t settled either. It looks like she’s about to pass out.
I crouch down next to her and grab her shoulders. “Don’t fall asleep yet, we still need answers.”
“I… I just need a few minutes of rest.” She grabs my wrist, but her fingers are so slack that they barely cling to them. She’s even struggling to keep her eyelids open, and failing . “Just… stay here until then. Don’t… try… and leave…”
Her eyes close. Her hand slips from my wrist and falls to her lap. Her head leans to the side.
She’s out cold. “Tsk. Of course you fall asleep now of all times.”
I take a seat next to her. She won’t be any good to anyone if she’s tired. I’ll let her rest for a while.
Gai goes to the window and stares out of it for a moment, his brows closing in while he works his brain to think about something. “I’m having trouble believing this is the future.”
“I bet the others who came here before thought the same,” I say. It makes sense if you didn’t know things like that were possible. If I hadn’t been part of the Holy Grail War, or combed through the library at home as a child, then I probably wouldn’t believe it either.
But, while it’s been a while since I’ve read that stuff, I know for a fact that there should have been some way for this sort of thing to have been avoided. How far into the future are we so that all the safeguards failed and magi allowed this to happen? Fifty years? One hundred?
What could have caused all of this?
I look back over to Ayako and see her ash-covered body lying defenseless. If she’s been here for days, she could have been hurt. I carefully run my fingers along her skin, where the patches of ash clinging to it are. They wipe away with some effort to reveal unblemished flesh.
Good, she wasn’t hurt after all. It would have been a waste to have gotten involved only for her to die next to me because of a wound I didn’t notice.
Gai clears his throat. I look up to see he’s giving me a disapproving look with a frown. “Not cool, dude.”
“I was checking her for injuries.” I really was.
“Right, and I—WHOA!” His words turn into a surprised shout as Nemesis Q appears out of thin-air in the middle of the room.
This is its doing. This is a sick game of some kind that it’s putting me through. When I think about all the pain to this point, my body moves on its own to grab it and force it to take us back.
It ignores me as I pass through its body. There’s no physical presence at all. While I tumble onto the floor, it goes over to Ayako and gives her that same inquisitive look that it gave me, as if judging her worth.
It points towards her and the world zooms out until we’re further in the air, overlooking the ruins of what was once Fuyuki. A quick glance behind me reveals the Shinto district looks almost like a desert of silver sand. Then an image appears in my head of a payphone half-buried beneath the remains of a building and sign.
“Escort the Drifter to the checkpoint to clear this round and be rewarded with the power to change this future.”
Then, as abruptly as we were taken away, we were back in the same spot. Had we even left in the first place? Or was it something like remote-viewing? Nemesis Q is gone before I can even ask.
Gai shakes his head to clear it. “That…. looked not too far from the school grounds. I think I’ve seen that payphone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District.”
“That’s in the direction we came from and a little north.” If that’s the case, Ayako can get us there in a matter of minutes. I gently shake her shoulder to wake her up. “Rise and shine, we need to go.”
She doesn’t move.
A pang of worry stirs in my chest and I try again. “Mitsuzuri, wake up!”
Her only response is heavy and labored breaths.
I reach for her face and feel her cheeks burning. Her forehead is the same. It clicks and my chest tightens when I realize why it appeared now. “That son of a bitch!”
Gai comes over. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s burning up.” I had thought her movements before was from using Magic Circuits and figured the activation caused her body to feel so warm while she carried me and afterwards. But I was wrong. The sweat and her breathing being so labored while she’s unconscious say otherwise. “She’s got a fever and it probably won’t settle while we’re here.”
He tenses. “Seriously?”
“The words it told us were ‘Escort this Drifter’ weren’t they? If she could move on her own, Nemesis Q wouldn’t have phrased it that way because she could just run with the both of us given how easily she carried me. It was addressing us. And she said that Nemesis Q had been recruiting this round and we’re likely the last ones left.”
“So… it’s testing us?” he figures.
I nod. “With her life on the line as the wager. Either we get her back in time or she dies and we remain stuck here.”
The moment I touch it and feel the glossy texture covering the surface, I can’t deny it’s real. The dream had been real. That… white-thing and its words were real. What did I get myself into?
I pick up the card and turn it over, expecting to see the same number as before. Instead, there’s a list of rules to follow:
1.) Those that possess this card and traverse time are known as “Drifters”.
2.) Those that still have a value on their card are known as “Active Drifters”. It is best for Active Drifters to keep their cards on them at all times.
3.) Active Drifters are required to respond in a set amount of time if they hear the ringing in their heads. The intensity determines the urgency, and failure to respond in time will lead to death.
4.) Active Drifters that die in the future have their bodies die in the present.
5.) Drifters that attempt to speak of matters directly related to their mission to non-Drifters will be judged by Nemesis Q to deem if they are allowed to. Any further attempt after the initial warning will be considered a violation and lead to instant death.
6.) Drifters are still bound by the rules, even if their value is used up.
7.) Rules may be changed over the course of time.
Who came up with these rules? How is it even possible to travel through time?
Damn it, I need to get this to Emiya. But if it was a violation of the rules then would I really die? Maybe I can just slip it into his bag at school? Before I can think on it further, a soft rapping noise comes from the door.
A softer voice follows. “Nii-san, are you awake?”
“Yeah.” I put the card under my pillow as Sakura takes that as a cue to stick her head inside of the room. I see she’s dressed to go to Emiya’s place already. “You’re heading to that idiot’s place this morning?”
She nods. Good. Then I can give her the card to hand to that idiot and have her tell him to look it over carefully.
I reach under the pillow to pull out the card. But the moment the words begin to come out of my mouth, my mind and body freezes in terror. The thing-in-white is standing there now, right in front of my eyes, like a semi-transparent ghost.
“Nii-san?” Sakura’s head tilts as she looks at me. “Are you okay?”
It’s standing right in front of her, yet she doesn’t notice it. Can she not see it?
The white-thing raises a finger. It waves it back and forth. Then the barbed wires around my brain and heart shift, digging the points that had settled into place deeper into them.
“Nnnghhh!” I release the card to hold my hands over my head and heart, fingers digging into them as though to pull out the wires. They’re hurting me in warning, telling me that death is the result of what I plan on doing.
Sakura enters the room and stops by my side at the sight of my pained face as they tighten further. “Nii-san, are you okay?”
I lie to her. “…I’m fine. It’s just heartburn from the restaurant.”
The white-thing lowers its finger. The pain stops. Then it vanishes, its message delivered well-enough.
I breathe easier once it disappears. But my fear remains. How did it get into my room? Didn’t the Old Worm have some protections into place around the manor?
Sakura reaches out and touches my head, feeling the sweat that dotted it from the fear.
I brush her hand away. I couldn’t be sure if it judged giving her the card, speaking to her about the card, or having her deliver the card was a violation, but it’s safe to say that those options are off the table. She’s useless to me here. “I’m fine. Just leave me alone and go to that idiot’s place.”
Sakura looks like she wants to say something again, but falters when our eyes meet. She merely nods silently and then walks out of the room. The door closes softly behind her.
The hurt look on her face at the end makes my stomach churn, like I’ve kicked a puppy. But I have to be careful, even if it means not putting up with her misplaced gratitude. I can’t go into this blindly. I don’t want to die for someone else’s sake like this after everything—especially not because I decided to try and help someone else for once.
…I need to find Ayako. She has to be a Drifter since she has a card as well. She’s the only person I can be certain has one, so I need to find her and have her explain everything to me.
Ayako isn’t on the school grounds by the time the morning session of the Archery Club is about to end. Not only that, but the Student President isn’t here either. The card feels heavy in my pocket when I think on how the connection couldn’t be more blatant.
Then Ayako’s brother forcefully opens the door to the Club Captain’s room. He’s still in his school clothes, so I assume he just arrived. Without any preamble, he marches over, grabs me by my lapels, and shoves me into a wall.
The impact causes several of the pictures and certificates to fall to the ground as he yells, “Where’s my sister!”
“That’s what I want to know!”I try to push him, but apparently monstrous strength runs in their family. “What are you blaming me for!?”
“She didn’t say a word when we went home last night because of whatever you said to her. Then she was gone by the time I woke up. What did you tell her?”
“Nothing that would have done that,” I tell him. “Now let me go!”
He doesn’t. Instead, he pushes me against the wall even harder and the back of my head feels the sting of it. That’s when a firm hand grasps his right wrist and pulls it away from me.
It’s Emiya. He’s standing there in his school uniform, with Sakura in the doorway. He must’ve been coming to see her (or she told him about this morning) when the commotion caught his ears, and now he’s playing the hero always. Not that I’m complaining this time.
“That’s enough,” he says. “Picking a fight based on assumptions doesn’t solve anything.”
Ayako’s brother lets me go in order to pull himself free of Emiya. He doesn’t get free even with both hands. Not until Emiya willingly loosens his grip of steel.
Then Sakura steps just past the frame of the door. She still has that look on her face from this morning, but this time it’s directed towards him. He looks away from her and then storms out of the range itself.
I rub the back of my head. “Honestly, he just comes in and blames me for it without any proof….”
“Shinji.” I turn my attention towards Emiya when I hear the undertone of sharpness in his voice. The last time I heard it was months ago, but I remember it as clearly as I do the piercing look he’s giving me now. “Do you know what’s happened to her?”
I catch the underlying inquiry. He’s not asking ‘Do you know what’s happened?’ but ‘Did you do something to her?’ instead. I should’ve expected that much.
My teeth grit as fire rises in my chest. “I don’t! The talk I had with her was about her slacking off in getting Sakura into shape to take over the club. She said that she was going to talk about it with Fujimura today before she ran out. That’s all!”
His eyes make it clear that he doubts me, despite being someone who usually believes whatever he’s told. He remembers what happens with Rider and the lie I told him back then about Ayako. But he doesn’t say anything with Sakura there. He still believes that she’s not involved in this side of the world.
I temper the fire inside my chest, speaking softer this time. “It’s the truth… I wouldn’t do anything to her after she visited me in the hospital. I’ve been different since then. You’ve seen that much, haven’t you?”
I can tell he wants to believe it when his expression softens slightly. But doubt is still there. The past doesn’t go away. Whether or not he’s forgiven me for what I did back then, he hasn’t forgotten it.
He puts his hands into his pockets. “Just to be safe, I’ll ask Fuji-nee if she’s heard from her, or if her parents have called in her absence. If she has gone missing, we should start looking into it. Keep an ear out in case you hear something.”
I struggle not to pull out the card in my pocket and hand it over as he turns to leave. This is the perfect chance, but I remember the pain and warning a few hours ago. I can’t tell him about the card, the white-thing, or the message I heard….
But, if I recall what the rules on the card were, then I might be able to give him something else to work with. “Try asking the Student President.”
He turns back to me at that.
“The Student President might know something,” I explain, crossing my arms. “He’s been hanging out with her in their free time from what I’ve learned, which is a bit off since he shies away from women. I was going to ask him if he knew why she was so tired all the time myself today, but he hasn’t shown himself. When you consider he’s normally one of the first ones through the gate in the morning, and the fact that they’re both missing at the same time….”
Emiya regards me for a moment. Then he nods in silent agreement before heading back out of the range. He’d look into that much.
That left me alone with Sakura like this morning. Only this time the white-thing doesn’t appear to finish what it started. It looks like my guess is on the money. It’ll only appear when directly related to the matter of the cards and the future.
I notice Sakura staring at me for a moment. Did she doubt me too now? It wouldn’t surprise me. She’s been the main victim when I was at my absolute worst. There’d be something wrong with her if she didn’t have doubts.
“I’m trying to be different, Sakura,” I tell her. “I won’t go back to how I was. Not to you or him or Ayako. I promise.”
Her eyes soften, and a small smile forms across her face. “I know, Nii-san.”
That’s when my head starts ringing.
No. Ringing is too soft a word. It’s more like a piercing shriek that drags the tip of a dagger across my brain.
The point digs into the brain matter, radiating pain instead of blood. It takes away my breath, takes away the ground, and leaves me staggering as the world tilts beneath me.
Sakura reaches over to catch me. “Nii-san!?”
I break her hold on me and lean against the wall. At least I think it’s the wall—no, I’ve slid down the wall. I’m on the floor, barely upright with my back against the vertical surface as Sakura looks down at me.
My eyes catch crimson staining her outfit where my head had been briefly. I reach up to feel something wet coming down from my nose. Blood stains my fingers when I pull back.
The sound intensifies again. A cry feels like it escapes my mouth. Sakura’s mouth moves as well, but no words can be heard over the noise.
I can’t think straight like this. It feels like if the pain gets any worse my brain will explode too. I need make the call or else I’ll die, but I can’t with Sakura here.
I feel my mouth move and hope that I’ve told her to go get the nurse. She looks uncertain for a moment. Then she gathers herself and runs out the club room to do so. Good. That buys me a few minutes.
I pull out my phone. The number is still saved in the Contact’s list, so I have to assume that’s the one to call. Before my brain splits open from the pain, I press the Call button when the Psyren number is highlighted.
The white-thing abruptly appears in front of me. It leans down like a bird scouring the ground for a worm, peering at my downed form with its head craned. Almost like it’s judging me. Its head nods and it reaches down and digs its talons into my brain—into my soul.
Then it pulls.
The ringing stops. My head clears. My eyes stare up at the ashen, cloud-covered sky.
So this is the future.
I descend into Hell as I dream. My sins crawl up my body in the form of tenebrous hands, reaching up from the ichorous slurry to drag me into the abyss. No matter how much I struggle, I can’t break free.
(No, stop! I’ve changed!)
They pull and the world becomes black. The punishment begins. The stygian mud drowns me in the evils of Man for the indulgence of rape—gifting the accumulation of sins with the violation of the mind, body, and heart.
(I won’t do it again! I swear!)
The body is kept intact to bleed endlessly, oozing out acrid curses to consume the world in ink and paint the canvas of Earth into a portrait of Hell. Sitting atop a throne of bulbous flesh, I become the king of a world of sludge beneath a blood-red sky—a kingship that has no worth in a world without humans.
I find myself committing the most heinous acts of depravity born of Man, my body reenacting the worst sins of humanity as the victimizer, imbibing the twisted pleasure they feel. Then I take the place of the victim, and learn what it means to be defiled and tormented. Like that, the mind is bombarded by the whim of an angry god that pays evil unto evil, but is never allowed to break and gain the reprieve of insanity.
(Stop, stop, stop—!)
I suffer from a pain that transcends flesh and bone for the sin of being human. The filthy soul is exposed to All the World’s Evils, but not blackened by it. That ensures the horror can never be accepted with oneself, thus the suffering remains endless.
It hurts. It hurts! IT HURTS! HELP ME! SAVE ME! KILL ME!
(Just let me die! Please… just let me die…)
No. The suffering must continue. The path to salvation is nowhere to be found in the pitch.
Atonement starts in the pits of Hell, an endless suffering that eclipses death as the penalty for violation in the name of respect.
“Bear witness to the crimes of humankind, and never know the ignorance of their sins again.”
That is the decree of the one who oversees the cursed world, Angr—
I wake up screaming as the rays of the morning sun burn away the vivid nightmare. Then cascading purple hair blocks the light. It frames Sakura’s face as she hovers over me.
“Nii-san! Can you hear me!?”
Her eyes are wide with worry. Her hands are clutching my sweat-soaked shoulders, fingers tensed. Had she been shaking me awake?
I stop screaming and start gasping for air, blinking away the tears that sting at my eyes.
She speaks softly as her eyes continue to peer into mine. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” Please… just let me die…“I’m fine… just a nightmare.”
Her hands drift back to her lap as I sit up and rub my throat. It feels raw on the inside. I must’ve been yelling for awhile—longer than usual.
“But I couldn’t wake you up for over five minutes this time.” Her right fingers find their way onto my head, feeling the cold sweat on the hot surface. “Your nightmares are getting worse.”
I move her hand away. “I just need stronger sleeping pills then.”
Her eyes turn to the nightstand by the bed, where she sees the bottle. She reaches for it and inspects the label and contents. Her frown of concern deepens. “You’ve already gone through this many in two weeks?”
Of course I have. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep ever since that damn Gilgamesh shoved that albino brat’s heart into me, claiming it would give me the Holy Grail. I can’t remember that time clearly, but when I dream it returns. The sleeping pills help, but the moment I enter the fringes of the waking world, the crimes of humanity stand at the gate to pull me back.
“I’ll just get more later.” I shove aside the covers as Sakura sits up from the edge of my bed. “Anyway, what time is it?”
“Around 6 in the morning, Nii-san.”
I groan softly as I take her place on the edge. My T-Shirt is clinging to my body and my pants feel heavy as well. I feel filthy in general, but I’ve become accustomed to that. Still, my sheets are soaked and will need to be washed. The last thing I need is to come home and find out the stench has seeped into the mattress.
Sakura is dressed like she’s ready to leave the house. No sense in asking her to take care of it then. “I’m taking a shower. If you’re going to that idiot Emiya’s place for breakfast then get going.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I said go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
She nods her head. “Then I will see you at school, Nii-san.”
I wait until she leaves and shuts the door before I muster the effort to get onto my feet. I have to get to the Archery Club soon and open the range for the other early-risers. Ayako used to handle that, but over the last few months she’s been late coming in. And then she sleeps in the club office most of that time anyway.
I don’t know what kind of game she’s running, but what was the point in visiting me in the hospital six months ago if she was just going to start slacking off instead? She asked me to help with getting the club back into shape, so things would be smoother for when Sakura took over as the Captain. At the time, I didn’t think that meant I would do everything.
I shower and clean myself up, putting the sheets in the wash afterwards. Then I slip into my uniform, grab a can of coffee from the refrigerator, and head out the door.
The streets are quiet as always as I walk them alone to the school. There aren’t really all that many people up at this time. Yet, somehow, the Student President ends up walking up to the gate at the same time I do.
“Early again, Matou?” he asks, while looking as bland as ever.
I shrug. “Well, someone has to open up the club. Since Fujimura-Sensei isn’t in yet and Ayako has been slacking off, it falls onto my shoulders. Honestly, the women of this school leave a lot to be desired when it comes to getting things done.”
He makes a slightly unpleasant face before schooling his features. Then pushes up his glasses by the bridge and says, “I suppose you are entitled to your opinions.”
“…What was that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with.”
I watch as he walks off. It feels as though I’ve just been slighted, but I don’t have the energy to say anything back or deal with him. Not before the canned coffee kicks in.
I fight down the displeasure in my chest and just get things at the archery range ready for the morning.
By the time homeroom is about to start, there’s still no sign of Ayako. She didn’t even show up at the range this morning, despite her brother saying she went out ahead of him. Is she running off and leaving all the work to me on purpose?
As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the door into Class 3-A is blocked by two people I don’t want to see at the moment—Emiya and Tohsaka. They had gotten more cordial over the last few months, so them having a deep conversation wasn’t a surprise. But I’ve been trying to keep my distance since the end of the war, something that is incredibly hard when they are blocking my way.
Emiya is the first to notice me. “Good morning, Shinji.”
“I don’t see anything good about it.” I ignore Emiya for a moment and turn to the other one. “The bell is about to ring. If you want your standing in the school to remain on point, you should hurry up and get to your homeroom.”
She brushes her hair over her shoulder in a conceited manner. “I’m merely conversing with a fellow classmate. There’s no crime in that is there, Matou-kun?”
“It is when you’re blocking the way. Hurry up and move.”
“I’m about done anyway.” A small, smug smile comes onto her face. “Speaking of standings, you should work on pulling up your grades. I’ve heard if they slip any lower you’ll be forced out of the Archery Club.”
I grit my teeth as the smug bitch walks off. I don’t know what I ever saw in her. Or, judging by the look that Emiya has, what he sees in her.
He turns to me. “Shinji, are you actually okay? Sakura has told me that you’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
Why did Sakura even feel the need to run her mouth about my issues to this idiot? I doubt it’s something he can help me with, even if he was the type of idiot who would try. I need to have a word with her about that later on. “I just built up a tolerance to the sleeping pills I’ve been taking. That’s all.”
Emiya’s expression shifts to a more serious look. “Shinji, whatever you still have against Tohsaka, if it might an after-effect of what happened that day then—”
Stop, it hurts! It hurts! It’s growing! IT’S GROWING! HELP! HELP ME!
I push past him as the memories threaten to surface because of his words. I don’t want to remember that time. I don’t want to remember that pain of having countless worms violating me from the inside out as the grail turned me into a swollen mass of flesh.
That gorilla, Gai Gotou, laughs about something loudly in the seat in front of mine as I sit down. I actually listen to his jabbering for the rest of homeroom in an effort to repress the memories of that night. I glare at Emiya the entire time from the corner of my eyes.
Damn him for reminding me.
I walk towards the range to find Sakura after class ends. We need to have a talk about her bringing up things that don’t concern her to others. Of all people, she should understand the desire to keep things hidden away.
“I’m sure I saw Mitsuzuri-san with one today—”
Ayako’s name being mentioned grabs my attention as I near the entrance to the range. The voice came from the side of the building, so I look over it to see three girls from the track team. The one speaking is Kane Himuro, the daughter of the mayor of the city, if I remembered right.
“—the red card with rumors floating around about people suddenly dropping dead after they use it. I saw her from the window looking down at it.”
Now that she mentioned it, there have been several cases of people suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome over the last few months. There was no official explanation, but, according to her, there’s some urban legend going around that receiving a red card marks you for death. It sounds ridiculous, but Himuro is a bit of a rumormonger—despite acting otherwise a lot of the time.
“I don’t think that’s really true,” says the mousiest of the bunch, Yukika Saegusa. “If that was really the case, there would be a public announcement given how there’s been an increase all over the world.”
Kaede Makidera, the loudest of the trio, rounds out her argument with logic. “Yeah, I don’t think she’d get involved with something like that either way. You might be taking these rumors too seriously.”
They both have a point. But there is a case where the public wouldn’t be informed—if it has something to do with magecraft or that side of the world. Even so, while that might work on a small scale, like with Caster and Rider, I don’t think that it can operate on a global scale for this long. Not when it attracts this much attention.
Not to mention Tohsaka would be all over it given she and Ayako often talk to one another. If she really is incompetent enough to let that slide under the radar, it’d be an embarrassment. Not that I wouldn’t love to rub that in her smug face, but it’d be just as embarrassing for me if I point her in one direction and it turns out to be nothing.
I deal with her enough as is every time I see that smug look on her face after that day.
The trio leaves toward the track field after that. There’s nothing new I can learn from just standing there, so I go inside.
The constant sound of arrows pelting targets blend into the background as I enter the range for the second time that day. It’s a lot livelier than this morning. That normally meant more work for me, but Sakura acts as my proxy for the time being to gain more experience. That way, when Ayako finally passes over the title of ‘Captain’, the transition will be smoother.
She’s still too passive compared to Ayako when it comes to keeping people in line. But she’s improving with every club meeting. And, if anyone gives her trouble like they did when she joined up, I’ll step in.
Right now she’s helping Ayako’s younger brother with his aiming. The kid’s not bad. I’ve seen him on his own and he’s a decent shot, so he shouldn’t need help. Then I catch the glance he gives Sakura while she helps him lineup a shot and see that he’s more interested in her….
I make a note to deal with him at a later date as Sakura looks in my direction. I silently gesture for her to come to me.
She excuses herself to do so. “Yes, Nii-san?”
“Is Ayako in today?”
She nods and looks towards the door where the Captain’s room is. “She said that she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be left alone. If there was an emergency then I was supposed to get either you or Fujimura-Sensei.”
If that was the case, then she probably wouldn’t be awake any time soon. I’ll use the chance to search around for that card, if it really does exist. Even if I can’t use magecraft, if there’s something magical about it then Sakura or the idiot could peg it—which reminds me of what I wanted to talk about in the first place.
“Sakura, don’t talk to Emiya anymore about what’s going on with me. It’s not something he or Tohsaka needs to be involved with, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Understand?”
Her expression shifts between wanting to say something and then returning to her submissive state. “I understand.”
“Then go back to what you were doing.” I watch as she turns away silently and goes back to the range, leaving me to my thoughts on what to do next. If Himuro was right, then Ayako has the card with her today. If that’s the case, I guess it’ll be best to start with the changing room.
I walk into the men’s section first to change for the club myself. Then I knock on the door of the women’s section to make sure no one is inside. Getting caught rummaging around in Ayako’s belongings isn’t something I feel like having to explain.
Once I was sure it was clear inside, it takes me less than a minute to go through her belongings. There’s no card to be found. I do, however, find what looks to be a makeshift survival kit. There’s some survival bars, water-bottles, a half-filled bottle of the same brand of sleeping pills I use, a pocket-notebook, two pens, and a black matchbook with the words ‘Copenhagen’ on it.
Copenhagen… Copenhagen… where have I heard that name before…
Ah, Emiya works there from time to time. It’s a bar, if I remember right. Why does she have this?
I look into the pocket-notebook to find it filled with dates and scribbles about something called ‘Taboo’ with inhuman descriptions—like something out of a fantasy story or a nightmare. Is she having nightmares and recording them? Or is it something else…
I need more information… and I know just who to ask.
I walk out of the women’s room and back to the range. Ayako’s brother is standing alone now that Sakura is elsewhere, nocking an arrow. If there’s anyone who knows about this, it’ll be him. I just need to be smart in how I approach it.
I wait until he fires his shot before I call him. “Mitsuzuri. I need to have a word with you about your sister. ”
He stares in my direction with a look of disinterest. “What about her?”
“There’s rumors flying around that she’s been hanging around at an unsavory bar these days. And when you consider her behavior lately, on top of the earlier rumors, it paints an unpleasant picture.”
His look of disinterest turns into a glare. He acts all uncaring and distant, but it looks like I struck a nerve after all. “What exactly are you implying?”
I smirk. “I’m not implying anything. Rather, I’m offering to clear up this mess if you can tell me where exactly it is that she’s going to. What you say could decide if things are better for her or worse if it reaches Fujimura. It’d be terrible if she ends up being forced to retire from the club in her last year, if not leave the school entirely.”
He hesitates for a moment, but he talks. “She’s been going to the Temple at the top of the mountain for the last few months to train in the martial art they practice. If you don’t believe me, ask that Ryuudou guy on the Student Council.”
A picture starts to form in my head when I recall what the Student President said earlier. He knew about whatever is going on with her. That’s why he said what he did. There’s something connecting him, Ayako, and the Copenhagen together. But the only solid link between them is…
That’s the main link I can think of. But I can’t imagine him having anything to do with involving ordinary people in events from the other side of the world. That idiot’s line of thinking falls in the other direction.
So that leaves the card that Himuro mentioned. “Now that you mention it, I have seen him talking to her and showing her a red card of some kind. Does she have it?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Proof,” I tell him. “If she has that card on her then, when it comes up, it’ll lend credibility to her alibi.”
“Then yeah, I’ve seen her with a calling card. She never leaves the house without it and usually keeps it on her, but she doesn’t like me looking at it.”
If she keeps it on her then it’s probably with her now in the room. I can go check while she’s asleep. “Well, if that’s the case then I’ll go tell Fujimura when I get a chance. It’d be a shame if she ended up disappointed in one of her favorite students because she got caught up in rumors like that.”
Leaving him behind, I make my way to the club room and find her asleep with her head on the desk. Her body rises and falls in a rhythm, undisturbed as I close the door as quietly as I can. Then, light as a feather, I wander over to the shelf next to the desk.
From there I eye the pocket of her hakama, spotting something red peeking over the edge of it. That must be the card Himuro was talking about. I keep my attention on the shelf as I inch closer and use two fingers to pull it out, bringing it to my face.
It’s a calling card of some kind, the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in some kind of cheap, English, gothic text. The red color abruptly turned black like paint being chipped off or worn away by weather to reveal what was underneath it in the top corner. Turning it over showed a phone number.
I barely finish running my eyes over the number before the world spins and I’m on the floor. My arm is behind my back, a calloused hand holds my face to the ground, and the card is away from me. I struggle to turn my head and catch the look Ayako is giving me with half-bloodshot eyes.
She looks pissed. “I can’t believe you actually went through my—”
I cut her off, my own voice louder. “I just picked up your card off the floor and this is the thanks I get?”
Her expression wavers and her hand eases up on my face, relieving the pressure. But she’s still on top of me. She didn’t buy it completely.
“What? You think I’m lying?” I struggle to get up, but it feels like I have a bunch of cement blocks on my back. “What about a stupid card is so important your first reaction after waking up is to throw me on the ground?”
She grits her teeth and her body tenses. But she doesn’t say anything. She just gets up and grabs her card, shoving it back into her pocket. “Don’t look or even think about it again.”
“If it’s so important to you then don’t leave it lying around like that.” I get back to my feet and dust myself off. There’s an ache in my arm and shoulder where she put me in a joint lock. “And why the Hell are you sleeping on the job anyway? You’re supposed to be out there helping the First Years.”
Her lips purse and she rubs the bridge between her eyes. “I’ve been tired lately. It’s nothing that you and your sister can’t handle. She’s supposed to be taking the reins in a month or so anyway. That’s what everyone agreed to with Fujimura-Sensei.”
“That’s not the point.” I let my anger at the pain in my shoulder bleed into my voice. “You told me that you wanted to get the club back into shape and begged me to help you. Remember that?”
She glares at me again. “I didn’t beg, I asked.”
“I’ve been doing more than my fair share, opening up and closing while you’ve been slacking off. And I put up with it until now. But if this is how things are going to be all the time, why don’t you just stay home instead of coming at all?”
Her head tilts down and her hair cascades over her eyes, obscuring them from sight. Her fist clenches like she wants to take a swing, tensing so tight her body trembles… then her hand goes slack and her body still.
“…Maybe I should….” Her voice carries a note of defeat in it so thick that it’s sickening to hear. There isn’t an ounce of competitive spirit left in her. “I’ll talk to Fujimura-Sensei about it tomorrow.”
I stare in silent disbelief. Ayako always put up a fight when she thought I overstepped my position before. Now she crumbles without a fight. I expect that from Sakura (something we were supposed to be trying to correct), but not her.
Had this been just a couple of months ago, I could see myself laughing at her being bought so low she’d give up everything without a fight. But after what she said when she visited me in the hospital, and the events that led to my extended stay… it just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to see her like this. Whatever her deal is with the calling card, it managed to do what Rider didn’t that day.
I really don’t like the thought of someone succeeding where I failed.
If this has something to do with a magus then I should leave it to Tohsaka. It’s her job in the first place. But, given how long Ayako’s been like this, if Tohsaka hasn’t found anything yet then she must be either blind or ignoring it.
The card is the key. If I could get my hands on one of those calling cards, then I could take it to Emiya instead. He can play the hero, Ayako can get help, and I can rub it into Tohsaka’s face all at once.
Ayako stiffens abruptly, as though a jolt of electricity went up her spine. A flash of fear crosses her face, and then her expression hardens. She looks me in the eyes. “Shinji, I’ll say this once more: forget the card and everything about it, otherwise you’ll regret it.”
After that vague warning, she walks out without another word and briskly heads for the changing room. Not five seconds later, she runs for entrance of the range with her belongings without even changing out of her club clothes. She ignores everyone who greets her as she leaves with a serious look on her face, and the other members of the club start staring at me like I’ve done something wrong.
I shut the door and pull out my phone. I have seconds at best her brother or Sakura comes to ask me what happened. No one else has the courage or concern to do it otherwise. So I dial the number while it’s fresh in my memories—
“The number you have dialed is not accepting calls at the moment. Please try again later.”
—and get an automated message right before there’s a gentle series of knocks on the door. It’s Sakura. It’s too soft for the alternative.
I save the number into my list of Contacts, under the name ‘Psyren’. I could call or try looking up the number online later on. For now, I do damage control….
The scope of my dream this time is a black canvas, dotted with vibrant stars. Something moves through the darkness, past the stars and Sun, sailing towards me…. no, it’s not heading towards me. I’m merely in the way.
(Is this outer space?)
Standing between the approaching mass and the Earth behind me, floating in the void, is a vaguely humanoid…thing that appears to be mimicking a human. It towers over me at seven feet tall, elongated and bone thin limbs drifting down to near the hem of a white coat with red fur trimming. Its bird-shaped, head-covering helmet is crooked at an angle as it observes me in curiosity.
(What are you supposed to be?)
Its limbs bend, bringing its hands up. It extends one towards me. There, in its talon-like fingers, is a calling card with the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in black on red—ink on blood.
(Oh… right, I finished that long-ass questionnaire while I was out eating and it said the card would be delivered to my house the next morning, even though it didn’t ask for an address.)
I reach out and grasp the card, only for crimson chains to emerge from it. They coil around my heart and brain like barbed-wire, anchoring them into place under the threat of tearing them to shreds.
(It hurts! STOP! STOOOOPPPP!!!!)
The thing-in-white grasps my head, grasps my brain—grasps my soul. It pulls it close until it’s touching the helmet covering its own. Then I hear its desire.
“Those who risk their souls to traverse time, bear witness to the future. Hearken the summoning’s toll, know despair, and embrace power to change it. Such are the terms of the contract.”
Too inhuman to register, yet clear as a cloudless sky, the message is burned into my brain by its pointed fingers. Then the thing-in-white releases me, and I fall to the Earth below.
I wake up at the sensation of falling down, despite being firmly on top of my bed sheets.
My head aches. My heart aches. They ache like the dream, the chain and barbed wire coiling around them within my body—within my soul.
It hurts, but I force myself to sit up in the bed. Then I catch a glimpse of something red on my nightstand. My heart stills and my mind freezes.
I want to label it as a dream. The moment I look at it is the moment it stops being a dream. It becomes real—the pain, the words, the white-thing that violated my mind and heart to bind them in chains and barbed wire, and the words themselves will all become real.
But if I lie back down and close my eyes, it’ll all be a dream….
The alarm clock goes off at full volume. The sudden noise draws my eyes to the nightstand on reflex, a hand already moving to hit the snooze button. The red calling card is there, between an empty glass and near-empty bottle of sleeping pills.
It ceases to be a dream.