“Not ten minutes and we run across a scouting party.”
Makidera and I take stock of the enemy as we hide downwind of the steel breeze blowing through the husk of civilization. There are eight total.
Five of them are Homunculi. Two magecraft-users. Two halberd-vanguards. And a rearguard with a bow.
The other three are the abominations they love to keep around them. Two Hounds. And a hulking Snatcher.
It’s a composition that specializes in tracking and capturing, acting as one node of the net that had been cast over the remnants of the city. Their hivemind will alert them when one team finds a target. The nearby units will divert some of their numbers to close the net from more than one side to make escape nearly impossible.
A basic strategy, but effective for the dolls’ capabilities. It takes advantage of their numbers and inherent communication for maximum efficiency. And with the Taboo in the skies intercepting enemy communications, it guarantees a high success rate.
For the incompetent, anyway.
A simple network of Mind Jacks provides real-time communication that they can’t intercept. Their ignorance of that means they have no way of guessing we can coordinate just as effectively. That makes them little more than puppets waiting for someone to pull their strings.
I’ll oblige them.
‘Saegusa, tell Mitsuzuri to shoot down the airborne targets after firing at the largest cluster ahead of us. If she asks why then the reason is that we want them to believe it’s going to be an escape route and they’ll spread themselves thin enough to cover it so we can’t escape through it. It’ll also serve to alert the person we’re here to find of our presence.’
Her mental voice is gentle as always when she responds. ‘Mitsuzuri-san says that she will do that before providing cover fire starting clockwise until we can reposition. Will that be okay for you and Maki-chan?’
In other words, she’ll clear out those that are closer to Gotou and Himuro first and then make her way back around to us. The ruins around us will hinder her aim compared to those two, so protecting them is a priority to avoid their capture. We just need to move more carefully until she can relocate later to get a better vantage point in our direction.
‘That’s fine. As long as Makidera doesn’t do something that gets her in over her head, there shouldn’t be any problems.’
Hesitation carries through from the other end of the line for a moment. ‘…Please, keep an eye on her. Despite the front she puts up, Maki-chan is forcing herself to keep up with everything.’
Looking at her, I can see Makidera’s gaze on the Hounds and Snatcher at this very moment. Those same ones had caught her before. Her pride might stop her from admitting she’s terrified of a repeat of that scenario, but how tense her body is gives it away.
‘I’ll babysit her and keep her out of trouble.’
‘Please be safe yourself, Matou-kun.’
The connection remains intact but goes inert. Only a matter of time before Ayako starts her assault. Once that happens there’ll be no time for hesitation and doubt.
I need Makidera alive to play her part in things, so better to prod the exposed nerve now. “Is the Black Panther of Homura really that terrified of a couple of dogs?”
Her short, black hair whips around before her dark eyes meet my own. The withering glare she gives me is mildly impressive. “That’s not funny.”
I shake my head and shrug. “Listen, I’ll shut the dogs up when we start. But I want to prioritize those dolls since they’re the bigger threat. If you don’t think you can handle those monsters and want to cower here, then tell me now. That way I can plan ahead rather than misplace my trust in you to protect yourself.”
She starts to look uncomfortable and even she crosses her arms over her stomach as the steel wind whistles past us. It almost seems like the cold stole the very fire from her eyes. “…You’re really planning to kill them without blinking an eye. It doesn’t bother you at all, does it?”
I take a moment to measure my response. “If it makes you feel slightly less uncomfortable, I don’t see them as human. They’re just dolls that dress the part—mass-produced and flawless replicas that lack the blemishes and imperfections. I won’t feel bad about breaking a doll that’s trying to kill me, regardless of how it makes me look.”
She grimaces and turns her gaze to the ground. “…I won’t say that it doesn’t bother me. But I know I don’t have the right to sit here and judge you for it. Especially not when the only reason the three of us are still alive is because of it.”
Nice to see she has some level of awareness. It makes things easier. “Killing or being killed isn’t something normal people have to deal with, but that isn’t an option for any of us anymore. Nemesis Q robbed us of that luxury. I won’t tell you to get over it right away, but eventually, you’ll have to get your hands dirty. We won’t be able to shelter you forever.”
“I…” She clenches the hem of her coat as her lips pull back into a frown. “I know that. That’s why… I wanted to… ugh, this feels so weird to say all things considered…”
She fidgets in a way that starts reminding me of Saegusa. Minus the mousy demeanor that makes the latter more appealing. It feels uncanny, to be honest. “Is it really that hard for you to thank someone?”
Her eyes narrow as she spots the grin on my face. Just like that the vulnerability evaporates. “It’s you. Let’s be real here, you’re the last kind of person I’d want to spend time with or even speak to. And I can tell that you’re not the biggest fan of the rest of us as well.”
I don’t bother denying the accusation. “Well, the situation demands we shelve things like that if we want to live. I can make nice under those circumstances.”
She scoffs and crosses her arms. “Nice to know it takes the threat of death to make you into a decent person. I really don’t see what Yukicchi sees in you.”
I get ready to tell her she’s misinterpreting Saegusa’s actions when a warning flows down my connection with her. Seems like Ayako’s first shot is almost done being primed. No more time for small talk.
“It’s time,” I warn her. “Focus on the big one and then the dogs. I’ll deal with the dolls.”
Makidera’s expression twists uncomfortably as reality sets in. Then she closes her eyes and exhales before falling into a sprinter’s crouch. The moment her eyes open the change is clear, an unwavering gaze set straight ahead to the goal.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Ayako making that same face. It’s the mindset of the competitive, cultivated by their roles as the heads of their respective clubs. A state of mind that focuses on allowing them to shelve all unnecessary thoughts to achieve their objective—not unlike self-hypnosis in a way. If she’s repurposed that state of mind to the task at hand, then she’ll cross the threshold without hesitation.
As for what comes after that… who knows?
I ready my tools as well. The lengths of the weighted chain occupy my left hand, filling my palm with the sting of cold metal. Three camping stakes occupy my right, their girth nestled between my fingers. I prepare them all while I can as my pulse slowly quickens in anticipation…
Then light spears across the steel-grey firmament.
Ayako’s opening shot resembles a shooting star falling to earth—a fleeting flash that splits the sky, burns gloriously for an ephemeral moment, and then blossoms in the distance with the radiance of a miniature white sun. The overbearing glare illuminates the skeletal remains of the city as the rumble of destruction resounds throughout the battlefield and marks first blood.
No sooner than my perception of time dilates does Makidera vanish from my side. It seems that a single trip was all it took for her to live up to her self-proclaimed moniker as the Black Panther and devour the distance between herself and her prey. Electricity surges through my mind as I leave my tools to execute their programming and join in the hunt.
In the three seconds after the daystar comes into existence for Makidera to reach the enemy, three corpses hit the ground. The magecraft-users and rearguard collapse like puppets with their strings cut courtesy of the metal stakes driven through their skulls. But she remains ignorant of everything aside from the hulking mass of muscles saddled between the two muzzled mutts as the final step of her sprint turns into a pendulum-like kick, aimed at its massive torso.
The Black Panther ends up crossing the finish line under a shower of viscera, crystalline bones, and blood that turns to ash as the core shatters.
The number of enemies has dropped to less than half in five seconds. The dolls’ hivemind must be experiencing a flood of information from the sudden assault on multiple fronts. Something like this won’t work a second time now since they’ll know we’re here.
A pair of stakes cut through the air like silver bullets as I launch my assault on the remaining two Homunculi. The first one dies cleanly as the stake punches a neat hole in its skull. The second one’s death isn’t so clean since they moved in response to Makidera, leaving the stake to get clipped by the halberd.
The act reoriented the stake, but not enough to kill the forward momentum. So rather than a straight line, it forced its way through at an awkward angle right as Makidera’s attention focused on the nearest Hound. Ignorant of the gruesome sight due to pivoting on her grounded leg and bringing her raised one down like a guillotine onto it, I witness the aftermath in slow motion.
The right eye ends up being smashed as the stake slams into the socket at an angle. It keeps going and breaks partway through the stark-white bone hidden behind the snow-white skin. Fragments bury themselves into glistening pink brain matter that ends up scrambled as the stake tears through before catching midway. Eventually, it goes flying out at an awkward angle, dragging with it a long optical nerve somewhere amidst the rubble.
It’s a bit of a captivating sight. A morbid artistry. But I don’t have the luxury of dwelling on it as Makidera overshoots her next kick.
Her foot came down upon the black core nestled on top of the Hound’s sealed maw, destroying it. But she’d put too much power into it, so her foot continued and broke through the asphalt beneath it. With the remaining Hound behind her getting ready to lunge, her instincts take hold as she leans forward and places one hand on the ground while bringing her other foot up to kick it away.
A sloppy kick, but it serves its purpose by punting the abomination away and slamming it into a piece of concrete rubble. It became a rag doll after the audible snap of its spine being broken in two, but the unsightly thing still wasn’t dead. It kept flailing its forelimbs pitifully while its hindlegs remain inert and the chain kept it muzzled until I put it out of its misery.
…That’s when the sound of vomiting pulls my attention back to Makidera.
The self-proclaimed Black Panther is huddled over the side, bracing against rubble jutting from the ground for support as she spills the contents of her stomach. Not an unexpected reaction, but not one we have time for.
I run a Mind Jack between the two of us. ‘Hurry up. We can’t sit around for long.’
‘… shut… up… ugh…’ She exhales a rasping breath as she finishes and wipes her mouth with the sleeve of her jacket. Her eyes are partly unfocused but come into clarity as they fix themselves onto my own. Then she scowls. ‘How can you smile after all of that?’
…I reach up to the corner of my lips. The curve of them pulled back in a grin feels foreign before I flatten it. But there’s no time to linger as light blossoms in the sky from Ayako’s second shot not even thirty seconds after the first. ‘You won’t have time to do that again, so get it all out of your system while you can.’
Makidera spits off to the side before taking deep, patterned breaths. Likely some kind of breathing technique she learned from the Track Team to get her nerves under control. It had better work considering the timetable we’ve been put on now that Ayako’s shot has become a beacon for all to see.
Countless reports began filing in one after another, breaking the monotony mere seconds prior within the Command Tower.
Homunculi that were acting as the support within the Communications room were receiving a massive influx of information. The hivemind of their counterparts in the field flowed into the deformed wetware within the tanks. Bubbles frothed as the chemicals within the fluids were adjusted to handle the strain. Cerebral matter that composed their flesh pulsated as that information was relayed to those manning their station as the organic interface allowed them to filter through it.
“Units seven and eight have been cut off from the network—”
“Unit two has been eliminated in a hostile engagement! Cross-referencing with the database matches—”
“—teen has begun engagement with a member of the Resistance, splitting off members from Units ten and fourteen for support—”
“—three has ceased transmitting their signal. It was sniped from ground-level based on the triangulated trajectory, believed to be the same Wide-Scale Destructive Burst User that destroyed the Terraformer.”
The voices overlapped until the head of the Tower entered the room from his private chambers and pointed to a monitor. “Show me.”
The monitor shifted to the view of one homunculus as they watched a bloom of light coming into existence further in the distance from the ground. Its vision abruptly end as the ‘camera’ suddenly jerked to the side and cut off. It then switched to the perspective of a nearby one that was standing over the bodies of three of the fallen in surprise as the massive Catcher between exploded from a kick as another member of the Resistance suddenly appeared. Their retaliation had been cut short as they both suddenly died.
Then it showed another pair in combat from the viewpoint of a rearguard. One of them was a male that he’d recalled seeing the last time one of their numbers had contacted the Homunculi. He clearly boasted a leaning in Rise considering he was ramming his entire arm through the body of a Snatcher with little trouble despite the muscle density to shatter its core, which he then picked before it could turn to dust and chucked at a vanguard with a halberd.
The homunculus didn’t hesitate to bat away the disintegrating corpse with the flat of the blade as the rearguard lined up a shot. But then there was a spray of blood as the vanguard’s head was pierced from the side. The body collapsed on the ground as the view of the Homunculus shifted back to trace the line of fire and subsequently caught sight of the young woman with her arm outstretched, a cluster of crystalline constructs revolving around her wrist before the vision cut with its death.
After staring at the frozen vision paused on the screen, the Head of the Tower crossed his arms and scowled. “It hasn’t been that long since those Rebels were last spotted. Had they demonstrated that level of ability prior?”
“We do not believe so,” answered one of them. “Based on the shared records and similar experiences, we believe that they must somehow have a method of artificially enhancing powers along with some method of knowledge transference. However, any efforts to deduce the truth so far usually results in them killing selves.”
“No doubt a failsafe to keep their secrets…” His fingers clutched at his sleeves as he dove into thought. He could count more than a handful of times when his forces had captured survivors to bring them to the Tower or interrogate them. Yet they would convulse and perish before their bodies dissipated, denying them any sort of information. Thanks to that discovering the hideouts and numbers was always difficult.
If he allowed the Vampire to slip through his fingers again then there was no telling when he would be able to retrieve her again. And after the last failure, he could not afford to fail again. Fortunately, the final adjustments had been finished recently on his pet project.
“…Ready transport vessels for all our remaining forces but launch the one for the project ahead. The chase ends now.”
“Isn’t that the place from the vision?”
Makidera points out the obvious as she rounds a corner ahead of me to scout. We’ve been traveling carefully while receiving updates from Saegusa on how it’s going on their end. At the moment Himuro and Gai are both receiving covering fire from Ayako and they’re reuniting with no success on their end.
Meanwhile, the Mind Jack I’ve been using as a Dowsing Rod has led us into view of the bleached building from the vision. It took time to get here while ensuring that no one was on our trail, so I’ll admit I was concerned about her moving. But it seems Atlasia hasn’t left yet based on my improvised dowsing technique.
I feign ignorance to keep her unaware of that fact. “If she’s still inside then good for us. That way we can get the information and fulfill the mission so we can get out of here. Running around in these winter clothes makes me sweat more than I like.”
She glances my way back and scoffs at that. Then she straightens her back up and crosses her arms. Even her expression turns somewhat contemplative, as if she’s putting thought into something.
I allow it as I ensure the protective layer that I have around my body is still intact. So far it hasn’t been disturbed by any attempts at manipulating my mind via Trance or direct control like the last time. However, there’s some minor erosion from the atmosphere itself that I tend to while I can.
“…Hey, we’ll be sent right back once we’re done, right?” she asks after a pause.
My response is instant in comparison. “The requirement was to retrieve the information. No mention of reaching a checkpoint or anything else. So unless Nemesis Q decides to move the goalposts, we’ll basically be sent back the moment we get everything she has to offer.”
She turns her head to the side and her attention goes back to the building in question. “But those monsters are still looking for her, right? She looked like she had been running for a while in that vision, so if we leave right after we get the information—”
I didn’t have to read her mind to see where she was going. So I cut it off then and there with a question of my own. “Is saving her worth the lives of the others?”
The words she was going to say died in her throat. New ones take their place just as quickly though. “…What do you mean?”
“This is a future that we’re meant to change by dragging the knowledge we gain into the past. Once we do that, this particular future won’t be ours anymore. Even if we jump back again, it’ll be either a new branch in time created from our actions, or the entire thing will be overwritten.”
To be frank, I have no idea which option it’ll be. Or if something else will happen. I am not an expert on the quantum mechanics of time travel, given its True Magic that I cannot obtain. But I learned what the Old Worm knew of how time operated from research into the Grail War given that access to the Throne meant gaining access to Servants across from time—which is more than she knows.
“Every second we spend here longer than we need to is another second we put ourselves at risk to the various dangers. And if the future changes then the person you save won’t be the same even if you meet again. In fact, depending on how far into the future this is, she might not even be born. Knowing that, are you willing to sacrifice the others who’ll follow us back into the past for the sake of someone who may as well vanish the moment we leave?”
She wants to argue. Her expression makes that clear enough. But my words aren’t something that she can dismiss when it’ll involve others. “Even so, it doesn’t sit right with me to leave someone else to be dragged off to who knows where… Not after it almost happened to me.”
I spot weakness the moment she breaks eye contact. The vulnerability in her voice is edged. It’s a sight I’m too familiar with.
But it doesn’t change anything as the lie comes out smoothly. “…Fine, I’ll kick it up the chain for Mitsuzuri to decide. Knowing her, you’ll probably get your wish. But first, we need to establish that she’s here and hasn’t run off.”
Her expression shifts into surprise as I mentally communicate our location to Saegusa along with the fact that we located the last place seen in the vision. She expected a fight given our desires are polar opposites at a surface glance. Myself championing logic that preserves our lives against her emotional desire to reach out to someone else to wash away the shame of her own helplessness.
Either way, she wisely doesn’t give me a reason to change my mind as she somehow manages to smile like an idiot. “Right, let’s get going!”
I let her take the lead and watch her from behind. For a fleeting moment, stray thoughts pass through my mind while I go over my plan a final time. Perhaps she believes that I’m going along with her suggestion to save time. Or maybe she believes that I’m more sympathetic than I really am.
Well, I do feel some pity for her so the latter might be true. But the outcome doesn’t really change regardless now that I already put the pieces on the board my opponent set. All I can do is follow the sacrificial pawn and take advantage of it to lure Atlasia out.
There’s no turning back now.
I wonder how you will respond, my hated opponent.
Nemesis Q’s appearance didn’t startle me.
I simply exercised the natural precaution of getting out of the way the moment it appeared, in the event one of the others decided to attack the administrator of this death game. It was justified given how emotional some of them were prone to being. The fact that I just so happened to not take notice of the pebble-sized piece of rubble on the dust-laden floor and ended up falling back into Saegusa was just unfortunate.
It serves to break everyone else out of their shock.
Himuro places herself between it and Saegusa. Her crystals that make up her Burst are already forming. She probably knows attacking it would be fruitless, but a token show of defiance is better than standing there slack-jawed.
Makidera springs forward and closes the distance. With “token” being a word missing from her vocabulary, she simply goes in to kick the one who pulled them into this.
I can attest from a botched sparring session that the snap of her leg can topple a tree while under Rise, so she doesn’t lack the strength to defend herself if she runs across trouble in this trip.
But this is Nemesis Q.
And before it, all PSI is meaningless.
Her entire limb sinks through Nemesis Q without any sign of connecting. There is no sign of displacement via some form of spatial manipulation like with the Student President’s ability. No signs of it simply shrugging off the hit due to immense strength.
Her leg just passes through it and out the other side. She might have braced her leg expecting the impact, but the follow-through leaves her nearly tripping over herself if not for her reflexes kicking in. She manages to jump back in several feet and put up her guard in anticipation of a reprisal…
Nemesis Q merely stands there as its head quirks slowly back and forth with no indication that it noticed she had attempted to break it in half. Left. Right. Up. Behind. The motions remind me of a clockwork bird observing its surroundings with…mechanical… precision…
I can practically hallucinate the sound of gears turning until it clicks in my mind. The only times I’ve seen Nemesis Q has been under three very specific circumstances: when I received my card the first time, when we receive our orders in the future, and when we attempt to break the terms of the contract.
Time and again it has shown itself to be too uncanny for it to be human. No fear of an attack from legs that can shatter centuries-old trees. No sadistic pleasure from forcing the role of soldiers in its war upon us. No consideration or compassion for those under its banner. No sympathy for those who yearn to be free.
But… when you consider that it might be a constructed entity then things make a lot more sense.
Nemesis Q is a tool meant to carry out a specific purpose. It exists to carry out that directive with the necessary resources and is optimized to do so. Its human-like form is simply to interact with other humans—an avatar to carry out its functions.
Then there’s the fact the others have mentioned that only those with cards can see Nemesis Q. The same as how we have a limited form of Clairvoyance to perceive PSI-based abilities. That means that it is most likely some kind of PSI construct as well—Burst or Trance or something in-between.
But if I take into account that a creator of a construct must have the knowledge or ability to bestow the same upon their creation, it brings to mind two questions:
Who could create something capable of shifting souls through time and modifying them to enable the use of psychic abilities?
And why go about things in such a roundabout way to do it if they have that much power?
“This thing is so creepy,” Makidera states after a few more seconds of the construct just standing there craning its head around in angles that were impossible for anything living. The apparent lack of consequences to her actions causes her to lower her guard and relax her stance.
Then she looks back at me and scowls. “Get off of her already!”
The reprimand makes me aware of Saegusa’s tiny body beneath me. The same realization dawns on her as I look down and see her face flushing red. I get back on my feet before things get awkward and give her a moment to rise as well before asking. “Why didn’t you say something?”
She fidgets in place sheepishly while avoiding my eyes “You had that look on your face you get when you start thinking about something deeply. I figured it might be important and I wasn’t hurt or anything, so I didn’t want to interrupt you…”
Makidera scolds her for that line of thinking. “You have to speak up or guys like that will take advantage of you. He can wrack his brain just fine standing up.”
“Enough,” I say before she goes further, in recognition of the known fact it might have been the influence of her powers again. I should probably snap back at the insinuation about my character, but this isn’t the time for that.
That can wait until we’re back where we belong. “Gotou, did you send word to Mitsuzuri?”
His silence to this point ends as he relays her message. “She said not to bother Nemesis Q if isn’t doing anything, and not to leave the building or broadcast with Telepathy. It seems like there’s a lot of Taboo scouting for something or someone, including one that can sense Trance waves, and she doesn’t want to do anything to give us away too soon.”
“Did she spot any other humans? Drifters?”
He takes a moment to relay that question and gives a shake of the head. “Nothing.”
If there’s no one screaming for their lives, then chances are it’s not a recruitment mission to bolster our numbers. Then that makes it a kill mission or some other objective. Considering those dolls and abominations running around searching for something, it might be we’re expected to run some kind of interference or beat them to whatever it is they’re after.
I only have a moment to ruminate on it before Nemesis Q suddenly becomes active. Its clockwork motions give way to defying gravity as it flies into the middle of the room. Then it snaps its fingers and my consciousness is ripped from my body once more.
There’s some disorientation as I suddenly find myself in a room somewhere on the first floor of a building that has a massive hole in the wall, courtesy of a rusted car that crashed through it maybe decades ago. Glancing around the room reveals nothing of importance, but it becomes clear that the location itself is meaningless a moment later. That’s when the stalwart silence becomes broken by soft panting that draws my attention back to the unintended entrance.
A slender figure presses against the gap between the hole and the car. White fabric tears as a figure slips into the dark confines of the room, the slight scrape of metal from the barrel of a gun that looks nearly unblemished pinging against the surface. Obscuring the faint rays of the already dim light that barely offer visibility, it takes a moment before I can get a clear view of who it is.
The first thought that crosses my mind when I see her face is that of a lone flower amidst the ruins of steel, battered by the harsh winds.
It’s probably because of the hair that I take an interest in her. The shade immediately reminds me of Sakura and so I can’t help but fixate on how familiar the sight of it is. The unkempt and ragged appearance, clinging to her sweat-slicked face that was flush from exertion as she struggled for breath…
The visage churns within me an unsightly feeling that’s akin to a coal tar mired in lust, steaming with a sinister hatred and desire. To pluck that lone flower that survived the end of the world and defile it. To leave it forever stained black as it wilts.
And it unsettles me.
The lust I can understand to an extent, even though I haven’t had much of a sex drive since the nightmares began. The hair color and the exhausted state naturally associate themselves with moments of joy and exhilaration that dominating a woman in a bedroom provides in my mind. That’s why I can probably rationalize it as being an acquired taste due to my time with Sakura and Rider.
The hatred is a different story.
I hate her in ways I’ve never hated someone before without any reason. Just seeing her wells up in me the desire to do horrific things to her and revel in it. It takes active effort to not picture stripping her of the white clothes that the Homunculi usually wear and violating her just because it’d be one of the cruelest things I can think of to do.
And I don’t know why that is since I’ve never seen her before.
Emotional attachments are a combination of experience and associations. The stronger the emotion, the stronger the association. The memories of victims and victimizers that haunt my nightmares, and the enjoyment derived from their pain and suffering, are something I can vaguely understand at this point due to how they associate themselves with some meaningful experience.
But she has nothing to rationalize why I hate her to this extent.
If she’s someone who escaped the enemy and has useful information, then she’s a valuable asset that needs to be secured. If she’s associated with the Homunculi and needs to be killed, then her death becomes a means to an end. Unless her name happens to be Einzbern due to the whole rigging the Grail War and demon thing…
But until I know why Nemesis Q brought me to her there should be nothing but cold indifference. So why do I feel such irrational hatred towards her? And why does it feel so right?
I just don’t know why…
At least not until she speaks.
“—ey’ll be here soon, Ries. Then it’ll be over.”
The irrationality becomes clear the instant I hear her soft, broken voice.
It’s almost like a revelation that expels all doubts when I realize that there’s one specific time that irrationality is expected. And it’s the very same logic I imagine drives Emiya to be such a fool, pursuing the ambition that he does. That being… well…
You don’t need a reason to do what you believe is right.
I feel my lips stretching apart into something wicked as I see the one who violated my mind and body for the first time and drink in every detail of her appearance. Even if I didn’t know it consciously at a glance, I must’ve known it was her on some level. Therefore, the hatred I feel is completely natural because my intention is exactly what I promised to do.
I’m going to kill her.
“Drifters—” Nemesis Q speaks as it hovers over her and looks towards me. “—behold she who holds the key to change the future. Receive the knowledge of the Day of Rebirth and ferry it to the past. Thus, breaking the chains binding the future in place.”
I lock eyes with the construct if it has any beneath that mask it bears. I already guessed its intention when I realized it was Atlasia, so I can only assume the stare is meant to be a warning. Is it telling me that my vengeance will not come to pass?
Or perhaps it’s a silent warning to prioritize getting the knowledge before I kill her? It is not human and if we change the future nothing that happens here will matter because. So why should it care if I kill her so long as the mission is completed?
I don’t have an answer as we’re transported back to our simulacrum bodies and—
—I extend the seconds out for as long as possible to come up with a plan before the others start speaking. I have to get on top of this and come up with a method to accomplish everything at once. There are three objectives to start with:
Find Her. Receive Her Knowledge. Kill Her.
Finding her needs to be the priority for obvious reasons. That means I need to do so before both the Homunculi and the others. The rest of the group won’t just stand back and let me kill her, so it has to be me alone who finds her first if I want to get my revenge without them knowing.
The expedient thing to do will be to split up the group to search for her. But there is no way Ayako is going to let any of us wander around alone when we’ve got inexperienced people in the group, so I’ll have to suggest pairs. If I stress the urgency of the situation and make it seem reasonable enough, she shouldn’t have any logical complaints.
Not when Nemesis Q practically dangled the chance to end things once and for all like bait on a hook.
I take a moment to figure out how to divide the group up before moving onto the next issue.
I’ll assume based on her tampering with my head that she has enhanced mental capabilities on par with an eidetic memory. If the Day of Rebirth is truly the point of no return then she probably has every piece of information retained with absolute certainty and clarity. I can rip it out of her mind with the Mind Jack, but if she specializes in Mental Interference she’ll likely have some kind of safeguard.
I’ll have to think of some way around that.
Killing her will also be an issue. I’ll need to find a way to make it look like one of the abominations or homunculi did it, so that none of the others suspect me. I can justify it if necessary by revealing the fact that she had been the one who took over my body and claim self-defense, but considering how creative I intend to be with the right amount of time…
I really would prefer not to deal with the looks that Ayako and Saegusa would give me in the aftermath.
But at least finding her will probably be the simplest part.
I’ve already thought of how to do that.
I just need to put it into action—
—and quickly spool out a Mind Jack that flies straight into Gotou’s head. He winces as it goes in roughly, but I can feel the connection to the Mind Jack that Ayako made. I float my thoughts straight through it to her. ‘Mitsuzuri, we need to split up. Tell me everything you’ve seen so far so I can come up with a plan.’
‘How did you—’
‘Using Gotou’s mind as a router since you’re still too afraid to tether your mind to mine directly. Normally, I wouldn’t go through the effort of doing things this roundabout, but it’s the best compromise I can make given we’re pressed for time.’
‘Shinji, it wasn’t like that.’
‘Maybe not intentionally, but right now isn’t the time to get into that. Just send the information so I can focus on having things planned while you listen through him. That way we can move out by the time you get back, because if Nemesis Q spoke true this is the one chance we’ll have to finally be done with all of this.’
I picture the first time I saw her in this terrible future as I gnaw at the hidden hope buried in her chest to be free of all of this. The hope that she’ll never have to see any other people she knows dying here. The guilt she has for looking into my head and getting a hint of just what lays there and how it put up a wall between us. I use it as a weapon to manipulate her emotions and put pressure on her to get my way.
It’s necessary. I’m doing this for her sake as well. I’ll succeed in getting the information and killing Atlasia, so we can change the future and be done with Nemesis Q’s game.
So that she can just go back to living her life and leave all of this behind, I’ll stomp on whatever buttons of hers I have to.
‘…Fine. There’s some chalk in my bag. Take it and use it to map things out on the floor. I’ll be back in five minutes.’
Her mental voice carries a hint of weakness before the information comes rushing in. The working memory of what she’s seen to this point flows into my mind and reveals the number of the Taboo and Homunculi. I can make out it’s a net being closed in from the composition and formation of their search parties.
They’ve been working from the outside inwards, using Hounds to sniff her out and the Catchers to capture her or anyone else they find. They’re actively destroying the areas they’ve been through so she can’t double back and hide. Time isn’t on our side after all.
I take special note of the creatures in the air that I’ve never seen before. They float in the air via what I’m assuming to be Telekinesis with their bat-like wing membranes outstretched, the combination of which reminds me of a satellite dish hanging low to the surface of the earth. I can only assume these are the ones that can track Trance waves if not in a self-contained system like the Mind Jack.
Then I set to work with outlining the terrain and begin briefing the others once I have enough information. Since Ayako’s still connected to Gotou’s mind but doesn’t object, I take the silence from him as her consent with the plan. I just about finish up explaining things to the three girls right as she returns to our temporary hideout. “—which is why we’ll be moving in pairs of two, with one experienced member going with one inexperienced. The moment any of us find the target, we’ll converge and retrieve them to accomplish the mission.”
The three of them take a moment to process the information. For once, even Makidera’s expression carries the weight of seriousness as she seems to be taking into consideration just how high the stakes are. This is their ticket out of this after all.
Himuro adjusts her glasses before giving me a firm look. “What criteria will determine who we will be partnered with?”
“Capability. You will be going with Gotou to shore up his lack of aptitude in Trance. You have a ranged Burst as well, based on what you demonstrated early. I’m sure you can deal with things like the Hounds and anything he can’t from a distance, right?”
She closes her eyes and nods. “It’ll be done.”
Truthfully, I don’t think he’s gotten over his aversion to killing the Homunculi. He might have, but if he hasn’t we don’t have time to work him into it. That is why I’ll leave that to Himuro.
If she’s true to the words that she uttered that night at the School Gate, she’ll do what needs to be done. If not, he’ll kill them to protect her. And if he doesn’t and she isn’t capable, they’ll die.
It’d be a loss that we could do without. It’d hit both Ayako and Saegusa hard. But I’ve given them every advantage I can, so it’ll be their fault alone if it happens.
I turn to Makidera next. “You’re with me. Just kick what I tell you to and I’ll handle everything else. You can do that much without the others holding your hands, right?”
She scowls and looks like she’s going to say something. But Himuro taps her on the shoulder and shakes her head before she can get a word out. The message carries and she just huffs in silent anger.
“Saegusa, you’ll be with Mitsuzuri. She has no weaknesses and is the most experienced among us, capable of killing anything she can see at any range and protecting you if need be. That will free you up to where you can fulfill the role of being at the center of our wired network.”
I draw six circles on the floor in two pairs of three and tap on the bottom-center circle to indicate her. I run a line between the bottom-center circle to the bottom-left and bottom-right for her connection to the other Trance users. Then I run a line between the Trance-users to the Rise-users.
“You will be connected to myself, Himuro, and Mitsuzuri. Then Himuro and I will run our Mind Jacks to our partners. That way we can remain in communication with each other without risking being overheard and without them expending unnecessary energy trying to do something that doesn’t suit them.”
Saegusa brings her hand to her chin in thought before she asks an innocent question. “Wouldn’t it be better if I ran my own lines to the other two as well? That way we’d all be connected.”
I shake my head. “You’d need to be able to process multiple trains of thought with perfect clarity while remaining aware of your surroundings. Even I can’t handle that kind of parallel processing with so many people—it’s a limitation of the mind. But this formation should work out best for everyone.”
It shores up the weaknesses of our Rise-users by giving them support. It places the center of our network with our best line of defense. And it gets everyone else who could interfere out of my way.
We’ll all get what we want by the time this is over if everything goes well.
“If there are no more questions, let’s get started…”
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.
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.