It draws a blank no matter how many times I try to recall the name.
I haven’t heard or seen it before. But it does sound like a name that would belong to a Magus. That’s a clue towards unraveling the mystery of why we were being dragged into the future, and I can get more information by playing on the assumption that we were sheltering her from these dolls.
But, out of the corner of my eye, I spot Gotou tensing to move. His fists clenching tight meant he was ready to attack. Better stop him first.
‘Gotou, I’m trying to get more information. Don’t attack until I say so.’
His head twists in my direction and his mouth opens to speak. For a moment, I worry he’d say something careless. But he catches himself, turning back to the enemies in front of him and keeping his eyes on them. ‘If you tell them anything, Nemesis Q will kill you.’
‘I’ve got that handled.’ Ideas on how to lead the conversation were already filling my head. How hard could it be to fool a couple of dolls? Really, the biggest problem was that eventually the fighting would resume and we’d be outmatched as things stood, unless Ayako hurried up with the mission or my Mind Jack reached her.
He scowls but doesn’t say anything else. Now for the Homunculi.
I address the one with the halberd since she seems to hold more authority. ‘I’ll consider your terms since we have non-combatants here and I don’t want more unnecessary deaths. But not unconditionally. What guarantee do I have that you’ll abide by the terms of surrender if we submit to them?’
“We only desire Atlasia, who has evaded us since the Day of Rebirth,” she said. “Should you surrender her we will promise you both safety and shelter.”
Presuming that’s the day everything went wrong from context, Atlasia must be a survivor from then. If that’s the case then she’s the ticket to figuring out what happened and how to change this future. Considering the timing right after Nemesis Q gave us that mission to kill the worm, and the fact that time moved faster in the future… it couldn’t be so simple, could it?
‘One of ours was a Burst-user that was torn to pieces and killed, looking like he was mauled by a vicious animal. From what she told us, you killed him and the other three that surrendered. There’s not much of a reason for us to stop fighting if that’s what we have to look forward to in the end.’
“She’s deceived you,” the halberd-wielding doll claimed. “While the Outriders faction’s sub-leader does have prejudice against this country’s people, the Burst-user escaped with Atlasia as his allies bought time. As members of Akshayavat’s Life Propagation faction, our primary duty is to protect the Terraformer so that once its work is done life can flourish once more. Should you surrender her to us, you have it on our Master’s honor that you will be brought in alive and unharmed.”
So that’s what happened. Nemesis Q sent the other group to protect someone who survived from the beginning, but they failed and died. Their failure meant that we were called in ahead of schedule to save this Atlasia. Most likely they believe that the Drifters have been training under her tutelage and becoming a threat. It was only a hypothesis, but it made sense—
…Wait. Why were they being so patient in waiting for me to make a decision? The longer the questioning continued, the easier it would be for their target to get away. Even if we agreed to the surrender. Unless…
My head turns in Gotou’s direction just slightly, but my eyes pull to the corners where I can spot something just at the edges. Of course, they were planning an ambush all this time through their hive mind.
‘Gotou, it’s ambush! Take out the halberd one!’
An electric current surges through my body as I send the warning out and fighting begins anew. In an instant I move two-fold, flinging the makeshift knife towards the ambusher in the distance while kicking off the ground into a side-roll in time to avoid the halberd sweeping around to hack off my legs. I then bounce back up as she closes the distance faster that Gotou could.
My foot lashes out. The kick catches her in the stomach and her body buckles before she’s sent back several meters, bouncing off the ground violently a single time. Then she digs her halberd into the weathered asphalt and uses it as a brake, coming to a stop and using it to support herself.
“Grk… ugh!” A blood-tinged cough follows, leaving streamlets flowing down the corner of her lips. It joins with the crimson from where her flesh had been torn and uniform ripped from the contact with the ground as her legs quaver.
I… I didn’t use Rise. I didn’t have time to activate it. So how did that same doll that had been giving us trouble before suddenly get knocked back by me?
Wait… that sensation from before. What if that was my PSI at work? Slowing down my perception was an abnormal stopgap in the first place, but if our powers got stronger over time maybe it finished adapting. Yeah, that had to be it. That sensation I felt had just given me a longer-lasting Strength-Rise effect. If that was the case…
My head snaps up as the homunculus attacking at long-range lays down cover-fire to give the one I’d hit time to recover. Gotou barely manages to throw himself out of the way and into an alley while I hop back and to the sides, putting a great deal of distance between us in time for something to land by my feet with a thump.
It was a male homunculus. Or rather, his corpse. The knife I’d thrown had beautifully pierced his skull and destroyed his brain. Unlike the Taboo, these dolls needed their brains to operate on a higher level of intellect. So he’s dead, the clatter of steel arrows spilling from his quiver being the last sound he ever makes.
Without glancing up, my empty hand reaches up and my fingers find their way around the grip of a bow before I even realize it. I just knew that it was there from how his body fell. But a bow needs two hands to use, so my broken arm frees itself from the sling and I scoop up three arrows to use.
There’s no pain as I nock an arrow, even as my broken arm draws back the string until it’s taut. Is that part of my PSI as well? It’s really…
No time to worry.
No, I shouldn’t dwell on it. My body is moving great and my instincts are bordering on pre-cognition. If those are caused by my PSI, I shouldn’t question it right now or try to slow down my perception of time. I don’t want to risk losing these benefits or interfering with the Mind Jack while it was still seeking out Ayako.
I can sort everything out later after I kill these dolls.
I loose the arrow as I escape another flurry of ranged attacks and fire it towards the caster-homunculus. Her arm comes up and a ring forms, stationary like a shield. The arrow disappears as it enters the center, but the rim of it shrinks.
Does that mean there’s a film of some kind within it? Does it work somewhat like Ayako’s power in that it destroys what it touches at the expense of itself? Or is it something like disintegration?
Either way, I can work around it. My hands nock the second arrow as I run towards her while Gotou emerges from the alley to take on the halberd-user. The shots close in to keep me at bay, but she’s slower than me. Worse, she’s easy to read.
There’s a pattern to her attacks. A maximum radius and rate of fire she’s maintaining to face me. It’s almost as if I can predict them, allowing me to slip past them and close the distance.
“Look out!” Gotou shouts.
I look back to see that he’s failed in distracting the halberd-user and she’s on my back, chambered to swing for my head as the caster tries to get some more space between us. I slide to a stop and duck down as her blade comes scything for my head. At the same time, I flip the arrows in my grasp around to use them as a stabbing implement, thrusting for her head.
She pulls back to avoid being killed, but my leg sweeps out to catch hers and she ends up falling backwards. While she catches herself into a back-roll quickly, she’s too late to distract me further.
I nock an arrow mid-spin and fire it towards her companion. She naturally raises her arm and conjures another ring of destruction to eat it. But she doesn’t see the third arrow I’d fired right afterwards until it was too late.
Predicting the rate at which the rim would shrink, I fired it just over that point for a kill-shot. The arrowhead pierces her skull as a result, the momentum throwing her head backwards and leaving the corpse to fall backwards. One down.
But I don’t have time to focus on the clean kill though. The other one is coming for me again, using her halberd like an axe to bring the blade down with enough force to split solid stone. It’s predictable though, so I manage to get off-line by twisting my body and then—
A flash of steel sends me staggering back. There’s a knife in her hand, the other still on the halberd. She’d kept it concealed until now, so I didn’t see it until it was too late. And it was stained with blood.
She’d cut my throat. She’d cut my throat!
That thought enters my mind as Gotou shouts, but I dismiss it. The lack of pain meant I couldn’t even tell if it had been one of the major arteries she’d sliced. I had to draw back, leave the fighting to Gotou and keep my heart rate slow to avoid bleeding out.
It’s only at that moment I realize that I can’t move my body at all.
Instead, my body moves on its own as she comes for me again. Her killing thrust is faster than before, forcing the use of the bow as a makeshift shield to try to keep space between us. It’s cut into two by the knife as my body then rolls out of the way and then starts bounding backwards.
She comes for me with the halberd again, but my body twists and my leg flares out to kick the halberd-wielding homunculi in the chest. She blocks with the shaft of her weapon, but the impact struck where it had been previously bent by Gotou’s blow. As a result, it breaks apart and she’s sent her stumbling back as Gotou finally catches up.
“Raaaggh!!” He leaps over me and smashes the ground where she was standing, forcing her to deal with him as it sets in that all this time it hadn’t been me moving and acting with such precision. Someone or something else moved my body even better than I could, like a puppet dancing on the strings of a marionette.
If I had to guess in relation to Magecraft, they’ve taken control of my nervous system. Since my own mental commands were being ignored, it inhibited those as well. So the only thing I had control over was my thoughts and nothing else—I was a prisoner in my own body.
The Homunculus, now deprived of her polearm’s lower-half, still fights on against Gotou with ease. He’s too slow so she’s landing several cuts on him with the knife, his strengthened flesh being parted by opposition with strength equal to his. In the end, she manages to drive the head of the halberd into his thigh to pin him into place before thrusting the knife towards his throat.
“Agghhh!!” He screams as he brings his arm up. There’s a scraping sound as the knife goes into the arm and comes to a stop. With his face twisted in pain, Gotou’s scream of pain turns into a roar as he brings his other fist around.
She blocks it with her arm, but I can hear the bone breaking as the blow knocks her away. At the same time, her grasp on the halberd’s neck jerks it out. The blood that comes from it as he falls over makes it clear he’s going to bleed out in minutes at best.
Realizing the same, the Homunculus goes for me again. She throws the blade towards my body with a spin that probably would have sawed clean through me if it connected. But the puppeteer moving my body must’ve had some form of precognition because my head was already moving so that it missed as I was forced to lunge.
She grabs the other half of the shaft as a bludgeoning weapon and uses it to knock away my outstretched arm. I can hear the bones breaking but not feel any pain as my other fist comes around and smashes her face in to send her staggering backwards. Even so, the blood from my neck continues to fall relentlessly.
Damn it. At this rate, even if we kill the homunculus, we might bleed out in the end and there’s nothing we can do about. Was I… was I going to die like this?
Some puppet on strings to be thrown away?
A fool being played by someone else again until the bitter end?
No, I just need a little more time.
I need more time for—that’s not my thought. The ambush, the cut’s depth, disregarding my PSI, not questioning the shift in my abilities—those weren’t my thoughts. I should have guessed that you can interfere with mind, violating it as I dance to your tune.
I’m trying to help you! You’re trying to change the future, I’m just—
I don’t care anymore. I don’t know how you’re controlling me. I don’t know where you are either. But I’m no one’s puppet.
NOW GET OUT!
Electricity floods my mind. My blood feels like its bubbling in my veins. The world blinks in and out as static fills my existence as the PSI does its work. I don’t know what I’m doing, so I focus only on redirecting my PSI towards any solution that it can make work. I just want control of my body back—consequences be damned.
It’s agonizing. Blood pours from my mouth and nose and eyes as I collapse to my knees. The pain is too much, my body feeling like its burning within my skin and the world is wavering around me.
I can barely register the homunculus getting back to come for me again, only to be stopped as something invisible binds her at the arm. Her mouth moves but whatever’s being said doesn’t reach my ears before Gotou throws himself forward despite his leg’s injury.
The last thing I see before my consciousness fades is his face twisted in disgust and pain as he smashes in her face with his fists and drives it into the ground, crushing her skull…
…The world swelters as awareness returns to me. My throat feels dry and barren. My head feels like it’s in a haze too. Everything’s so hot and heavy.
I force open my eyes. It takes herculean effort to do so, but the ceiling of the temple comes into view when I do and the blur settles. This is the room where we’d began our trip to the future. I made it back somehow.
Ugh. Then the stench of sweat reaches my nose and I cringe. Disgusting. At least that explains what the heavy feeling is. The futon I’m in has been laced with sweat. I try to throw it off, but my body isn’t responding.
“Ng-ngh!” I struggle for a bit to no avail. The best I can do is twitch my nose and facial muscles. Don’t tell me that removing the control Atlasia had over my body did permeant damage!
Damn it! I thought the Student President had a healing power, so why didn’t he heal me!? “Nrhh…haaa…”
Okay. Okay. I’m not going to panic. I just need to reach out to him or someone else first of all to let them know I’m awake. So I close my eyes and take a deep breath, focusing on my PSI through the haze.
A tugging sensation swaddles my brain as the Mind Jack is woven from the energy draping it. It spools out from the back of my head and phases through the floor to appear within my sight. Then I send it out, visualizing that pompous and uptight face, the glare of the lenses shadowing his eyes ever so slightly.
The cord extends silently, passing through the wall and out of my view. Hmm… it’s at least easier to make the Mind Jack than before, when I was at the mall. Not as easy as in the future, but still to a noticeable extent. That being said, I don’t think it’ll be able to make it very far so if he’s not on the mountain then I’m just wasting—
‘Have you woken up?’
That’s the Monk’s mental voice. He must’ve spotted it then. I redirect the Mind Jack towards him and feel it connect. ‘Yes. Where’s your brother?’
Footfalls prelude the sound of the door sliding open and he appears within my vision. Then he settles for speaking with his mouth to expedite things. “He’s at the school. You’ve been asleep for over a day now, and we do have to keep up appearances.”
Over a day? Damn it. Leaving aside school, because I have bigger problems now, I didn’t come up with a suitable excuse for Sakura since I didn’t expect to be down this long. She’ll ask questions and if they tell her the wrong thing she’ll probably go get Tohsaka involved.
‘What did you tell my sister?’
“Mitsuzuri said she’d make up a suitable excuse, so I left it to her.” He took a seat across from me. “You’re lucky that she managed to complete the objective when she did though. Both of you really would have been dead if not. When Issei told her that, she took it pretty poorly while the others were with the kids you recruited from your school.”
Because of course he did, the tactless oaf. Not only did he fail to heal me properly, but he compounded the guilt on her and undid my earlier effort. So more damage control later on. ‘What happened to my body?’
“Issei said that your nervous system had suffered severe damage. Sensory nerves, motor nerves—he stated that they had basically been fried and that it was a miracle your brain and the nerves that handle the unconscious things like keeping your heart pumping were still intact. He managed to regrow them, but said that your body has to readjust to the sensations and functions. If it’s anything like when I’ve lost an arm before, it’ll probably be a few more hours before you can move at all, and a few more days before everything feels as close to normal as possible.”
Fantastic. Just fantastic. It’s going to be a pain to deal with this, but at least it’s temporary. That’s something.
“What happened there?” He asks with a tone lacking the usual casualness from before. “Gai mentioned that you tried using Telepathy with the Soldier Taboo and that afterwards you were fighting like a different person entirely. He also mentioned that they wanted someone and that they were part of an organization, but he couldn’t recall the name well.”
Not surprising, given he’s about as smart as a gorilla.
I take a deep breath before telling the Monk, ‘My body wasn’t under my control. The person the Taboo were after took control of it before we were ambushed. The way they were manipulating it leaves me to believe that they had either wide-scale Clairvoyance or some form of precognition. But it wasn’t perfect. They ended up getting my throat slashed, so I willed my PSI to get control of my body back. The next thing I know, I’m waking up here.’
I don’t bother to try and keep the disdain out of my mental voice. It was simply too hard, given she had the audacity to take over my body and read my mind. I let Ayako trying to do so slide, but only because it was her. I’m not so nice as to risk my life for or spare some stranger—Nemesis Q’s intentions be damned.
Once we got enough information to affect the past, she was dead.
But I keep that line of thinking to myself. ‘She’s the reason that we were sent on this mission prematurely in the first place. The Taboo were hunting for her specifically because she survived the Day of Rebirth, as they called it. I think she knows why the world was in that state.’
His eyes narrow as he lowers his head, deep in thought. Probably questioning the validity of my words. Not surprising given how many trips he had gone through without that knowledge beforehand, risking his life towards bettering the future through survival. Yet I managed to figure it out in an instant.
Still, he doesn’t dismiss it. He can’t on the off-chance that its right. Not if it’s a chance to save the others and the future. “Can you give me the reason you think that?”
I give him my working theory. The other group of four had likely been dispatched to stave off the pursuers after the person who took control of my body. They met with resistance and were slaughtered to a man, with the guy who they all knew being the one meant to return to the past and inform us. He died from his injuries before he could get back, but bought enough time for her to flee into the city.
Then we were called in. Not just us. But a swathe of people who had calling cards. They were bait and potential soldiers, meant to buy time and get us into position.
“It sounds plausible,” he admits before looking up. “And if it is true, then we can bring this all to a close soon. But there’s still something I’m not certain of that leaves me with doubts.”
‘And that is?’
“How did you know that there were three others with Tatsumi?” he asks. “The number of Drifters chosen each time can vary depending on the circumstances, so we can’t really give an exact number unless we’re in contact with one another. That’s part of why we group up and jump into the future at the same time.”
…I can’t give him an answer. Because I didn’t know. We only know that one guy died in this mission because of his sister. So the only way for me to know the exact amount of that group is if that knowledge had been planted into my mind.
That person wasn’t just controlling my body. She was inside of my head and masqueraded her thoughts as my own until I got injured and put the pieces together.
“I’m concerned that this trip may have had more implications than we realized,” he continues. “This person having all the answers we’re looking for right after his group had died supposedly defending her, so why didn’t Nemesis Q just drop you into her lap so she could tell all of you everything and then pull you back when the goal is the change that future?”
…Damn. Damn, he’s right! There has to be something we’re missing; some reason Nemesis Q didn’t do just that. If she had been reading my mind, she must’ve known about our mission. Nemesis Q didn’t kill me for it, so it had to be okay with her knowing of the mission since her knowledge could change the future.
So why not let us meet together?
Likewise, if she really was in that city all this time then she had to notice us when we were going about saving people. So why did she wait so long to try and run interference? Why didn’t she approach us before the homunculi arrived and why didn’t Nemesis Q direct us towards her the moment we dropped into the city? What was the point in wasting so many potential assets as a diversion that would attract more attention in the end when Ayako is more than capable of dealing with the threats? Why send us after the worm?
The only reason I can think of was if the meeting between us would have been disastrous somehow. Nemesis Q isn’t something I can understand, but that person had some kind of precognition with how she was manipulating me—even if it not perfect. Did she foresee that the meeting would be disastrous enough that she turned me into a goddamn answering machine to parrot her thoughts as my own?
Now that I think of it, those homunculi didn’t tell us why they were after her to begin with. Only that wanted her badly enough that their faction was willing to spare us, if they weren’t lying. If she’s been around since the Day of Rebirth, it’s entirely possible that she knew and prepared for it—or could have been responsible for it as well somehow.
This Atlasia could be as big of a threat as Akshayavat. And, even if not, whoever was chasing her killed a group of near-Veteran Drifters. There was no doubt in my mind we’d be deployed soon to run interference since we were sent there this time.
At this rate, we’d meet the same fate as them.
The world flashes as I land on my back. The pain blends with the aches already driven into my flesh, leaving me as a mass of agony. If I knew this was how today was going to go, I would have stayed at home.
“On your feet, Matou. You can rest once you’ve shown improvement.”
The insufferable tone of the Student President’s voice makes me grit my teeth. I force my upper body to rise so that my glare shifts from the ceiling of the Guest Room of the Ryuudou Temple to the pain in my ass responsible for putting here. “Tell that to my aching back. You could have at least placed a mat down here.”
“The pain serves as motivation and I can heal most of the injuries you accumulate if there’s a need for it. Now rise.”
“Just because you can heal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.” The last hour has been nothing but pain with no end in sight. In all honesty, I shouldn’t be surprised after yesterday that their idea of training Rise was to beat it into you.
“Whoa!” A shout and then ‘thud’ draws my attention to the other side of the large room, where Ayako has spent the last hour manhandling the idiot when he rushes her. Again she’s sent him tumbling to the mat after a trip into the air. Unlike me though, Gai manages to get right back up no worse for wear since he’s already gotten good enough at Rise to strengthen his body to take the beating.
“Remember, visualization is the key.” The asshole lectures me when he sees me standing again. “Picture yourself being faster and stronger—needing to be. That desire will call to the energy within you and thread your body with it.”
I don’t need him to tell me that. Visualization isn’t the problem. I can do that just fine. In fact, the desire to be strong enough to punch him in the face has served just fine to kick-start the process, sending warmth coursing through my muscles to dull the pain.
He sees it with those special eyes of his, glasses set aside for the duration of practice. It serves as the signal for him to attack. He closes the distance and thrust his fist out like a spear.
I move to get out of the way, only for the warmth to fade from my body as quickly as it came. The pain returns and stalls my attempt to move. So I get hit and a fresh wedge of pain is driven deep inside of me like a hammer would a nail.
He doesn’t stop his assault. Even though he has to be able to see that I’m not using Rise with those eyes of his, he doesn’t stop attacking. Instead, he drives his other fist into my left shoulder. It causes pain to blossom and take root into the bones there.
“You have to maintain it! Want the pain to stop! Want your body to be stronger!”
“I’m trying!” I attempt to twist my body as he spears his palm towards my chest, warmth spreading and stopping the pain as it swaddles my muscles. It lasts just long enough to avoid his attack but falters when I try to swing my fist towards his face.
He does a half-turn to avoid it and then drives his fist into my stomach. When I go down, clutching the spot, he crosses his arms and looks annoyed. “You have to maintain the image. If I have to continue to drive pain into your body to get that lesson in, I will.”
I clutch my stomach and snarl at him through clenched teeth. “Never… took you… for… a sadist.”
“I take no pleasure in this.” That’s a lie if I ever heard one. “But I cannot coddle you as Mitsuzuri-kun did yesterday. Burst may hold the most offensive potential, but Rise is the most essential to saving your life. If you can’t strengthen your body then all it takes is one solid hit from a Taboo to kill you.”
“I keep saying that it’s not working like that for me.” He just doesn’t get it. I can start the process of using Rise and generate the energy to strengthen my body, but I can’t maintain it for more than a second. It’s like a car that you can start up but it stops working after a moment. The ignition and fuel aren’t the problem, it’s something else entirely.
Damn it. I hate this. I hate it because it only serves to reinforce what I thought earlier. I have no real talent in Rise as I didn’t in Burst and, as much as I hate to admit it, he’s simply too talented compared to me. Someone naturally-talented can’t teach someone who isn’t talented.
“I’d be better off training with Mitsuzuri again than you.”
Ayako takes a moment to look up from the arm-lock she’s placed on Gai to chime in at that. “It’s better if it’s him who does it. He can see the aura of your power, so he’ll be able to assess your progress better.”
A sharp breath fills my lungs as I try to stand again. I don’t think he’s fractured or cracked anything. Even I can tell he’s intentionally placing his strikes to avoid doing anything that’s fatal. But I really don’t feel like getting kicked around for the rest of the day.
“You all say that multiple trips will strengthen my powers. So why not wait until the next one comes and goes before we try again?”
He refuses to budge on it. “Even discounting that your chances of survival drop the less of the basics you have down by the time the next call comes in, it becomes harder to use them properly when they scale. That’s why we need to ensure that it sticks now.”
“Can we at least take a break until the pain stops?”
“The pain only hinders it if you allow it to.” He takes up a fighting stance. “Now, ready yourself.”
There’s no reasoning with him. His determination to apparently beat the lesson into me is unyielding unless I show results. I can’t help but wonder if gaining all those powers screwed with his head more than the others. The Old Worm didn’t have extensive research on them, but like any magus worth his weight in salt and mysteries he had enough for me to learn to get a solid grasp on it last night.
Psychic powers were the result of a mutation that gave one an abnormal perception of reality that moved away from what humans as a whole could perceive. And that very same abnormal perception, an unnecessary and cumbersome “extra channel” as it’s considered, often drove them away from society as a whole because they saw the world too differently from normal people.
Psychicers weren’t exactly psychics in the sense that we weren’t born with those mutations. But I’m willing to bet that on some level that those who had stronger or more varied powers had their perspectives warped to a greater extent than someone who didn’t. In his case, his ability to heal has probably twisted his understanding of what pain does to someone constantly exposed to it in the long-run and left him believing that the physical pain and suffering is worth the gains from it as long as you don’t die from it.
At this rate he’ll break me, only to fix me up and break me again until the end of the day. If I want the pain to stop, I need to strike him down first.
No sooner than I come to that conclusion does he come for me, kicking off the ground.
I swing my fist towards him, knuckles first aiming for the center of his forehead. He doesn’t dodge it. He doesn’t need to. He simply slams his other arm upwards, knocking mine aside. Then he delivers a vicious palm-strike to my chest.
“Urgh!” The impact spreads throughout the rest of my rib cage and stalls me with pain. Another strike follows. It hits me from below, slamming into my chin. Stars come into view as my consciousness flickers for a moment.
In the span of that blink in time, he disappears from my vision like magic. Then I feel a sledgehammer slamming into my back. He’d gotten around me and lowered his stance before sliding forward to drive his elbow into my ribcage from behind.
“Agh!” It sends me staggering forward a few steps, leaving me holding the spot with my hand. But he’s close enough to that I can hit him now. That thought catches my legs before they can give out. I remain standing for the sake of lashing out with my fist in an effort to take his head off, desire boiling down my spine and nerves before reaching the arm.
He lowers his stance further—no, he drops his body and spins into a sweeping strike that knocks my legs away and leaves me falling to a knee. The sensation of the other one crashing into the floor is painful enough that I wonder if it ended up turning to jelly. But I see his hand getting ready to come again.
I protect my face. My face is one of my best features as a person. I can’t afford to have him damage it, I don’t care if he can heal me or not. So I raise both my arms to will myself to be able to withstand it, strength coursing through my body to withstand the blow.
So he goes for a grab instead. Leaping over my shoulder while grasping the collar of the borrowed temple gi and one of my arms, he pulls me along his path. Then he slams me down into the ground with a hard ‘thud’ that adds to the pain I’m in.
The cycle repeats when I manage to get back up. The bruises pile up. The agony increases further.
But the message doesn’t carry to him that it’s no good, no matter how many times I say it. He’s intent on making it so that the only option for me is to weather his blows by forcing my entire body to harden like stone or strike as swift as the wind. A second of strength to attack will do me no good since he’ll only dodge it. A second of strength to defend will do me no good since he’ll time his attack to hit the moment it wears off. It’s like something out of those old martial arts films.
I force myself to my feet and try to hammer him again with a blow as hard as I can manage again. My drive to strike him down no longer stems from a desire to hurt him, but self-preservation. It’s the thought of being in more pain and suffering than I already go through every night over some idiot being unable to understand that just because you can heal physical pain doesn’t mean it won’t linger in the mind as a phantom sensation, that drives me to fight back.
It’s still no good. Even when he’s close enough that I can feel the heat coming off his body, he’s simply too fast for me to strike down. He avoids it and then grabs my forearm with one hand to pull me off-balance while chambering the other.
I try to raise my other hand to block as his muscles tense, but pain lances through it from the last blow it’d taken. It won’t move in time. I have to dodge it. But he has a grip on my other arm, limiting my movements. I can break free if I boost myself, but then there was a matter of timing.
Get the timing.
Too fast and he’ll have enough time to strike back when it wears out.
Get the timing!
Too slow and he’ll land the hit.
Get the timing!!
His muscles uncoil as his chambered fist fires forward like a bullet towards me.
I have to get the timing down perfectly!
A painful jolt surges through my brain in response. Everything slows down as a niggling warmth permeates my brain. His fist moves sluggishly, like the air’s density has turned to molasses. I try to move out of its way, but my body feels slow and numb. It’s no good if I can’t move fast enough, so I will my body to move.
The sensation permeating my mind sinks down further, threading my body. At the same time, things begin to move faster as the sensation lessens. I barely get my head out of the way and then pour all of my strength in striking him back in the face with a cross-counter as time returns to normal.
I’ve got him! I’ve—WHUMP!
“So, let me see if I have this straight?”
The Monk stands in front of us at a distance of a little over a yard, eyeing the damage done to the space between us. The floor between us had been caved in, the tatami and wooden floorboards beneath it splintered under the weight of my body. Apparently, his brother avoided my punch by twisting into where he had grabbed my arm and then threw me into the ground, while invoking his own Rise at the same time judging from the fact that there was a large hole in it.
I say apparently because I didn’t remember anything between nearly hitting him, a flash of pain, and then waking up and feeling good as new.
“The training you were putting Matou-kun through dragged on to the point where, in an effort to get results, you pressed him in hopes of creating the necessary conditions to force him to maintain the effect. Then, at the end, he abruptly got the drop on you and caused you to reflexively trigger your own Rise and throw him into the floor hard enough to do this much damage? ”
“That is correct. To my shame, I overreacted—” Liar. “—and ended up using more strength than I intended as the abrupt change in his speed, posture, and power caught me off-guard. To that end, I prioritized healing his injuries after I realized my mistake.”
His brother sighs. “It’s good that you managed to undo the damage—” He looks down to the floor “—or at least the important damage, but you have to take it slower next time. Not everyone is a fast learner like you and can put up with that sort of training.”
“Your praise is once more misguided. I didn’t take to it well. I merely worked my hardest to ensure that I was capable of supporting the rest of you. To that end, I was attempting to ensure that he was capable of doing the same and blundered.”
A rumble slips out of my throat. There. That right there is the reason I didn’t like him: the fake modesty.
It’s one thing for him to be good at seemingly everything, on top of having multiple exclusive abilities. But the way he tried to play it off as though it’s nothing special really pissed me off, because that’s the definition of someone special—excelling at things without any difficulties that others couldn’t.
They didn’t need to make themselves inferior to others. They didn’t need to pretend to be humble. As much as I hated to admit it, he fits that definition here and now. So the fact that he knows it and pretends otherwise rubs me the wrong way.
The Monk turns to me next. “As for you, that was really careless as well. If you had managed to connect when you tried to hit him while using Rise, you could have killed him. Never aim for the head while sparring with your power active, understand?”
I nod, if only because I didn’t feel like being lectured further. The asshole would’ve had it coming though. I tried to cut things earlier and he wouldn’t let me.
He stares at me for a moment before continuing. “As for what you explained happen to you, I believe that managed to artificially induce what’s normally called the ‘Tachy Psyche’ effect. It’s when you feel like time has slowed down because your mind is processing information faster. If I had to guess, your body isn’t suitable for using Strength-Rise as much as Sense-Rise, but since you’re still using Rise energy it’s divided up depending on which you’re prioritizing.”
…I see. He was moving too fast so I instinctively increased the rate at which I could process information, lengthening my perception of time to get the timing, but not my body’s ability to match it. It was the same sensation as when you were watching your death come for you but being unable to stop it. When I tried to correct that the energy had to be divided and the effect wasn’t as smooth as it should have been, so I decided once I was clear of his punch to put everything into hitting him as fast as I could. “Sounds about right.”
“Well, there was no lasting harm done, so we’ll call this a lesson for everyone.” The Monk’s tone dulls a note, thinning out the air of strictness that bound it. “And now we know you probably lean more to the Sense aspect of Rise, rather than Strength. With enough time and training you’ll probably be able to cycle through them more effectively or spread it for an even balance, but we’ll have to work out something until then.”
“Great, but can I go home now?” That gets me a couple of looks from the rest of them. “I’ve got things planned later on and I need sleep before I can do anything.”
“… Fair enough,” he says. “Now, if the rest of you will excuse me, I need to get the spare mats and floorboards. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that’s happened.”
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.”