“Are you really okay, Nii-san?”
The question coming from Sakura grates on my mind. Part of it stems from not wanting to repeat myself for the third time today. But the other part stems from the fact that walking such a short distance shouldn’t be so difficult.
Ayako brought Sakura to pick me up yesterday after school. She had been told we were hashing out the final details of the Training Camp for the Archery Club when I’d taken a bad fall on the mountain and they were keeping me to see if there was any serious damage done, since I insisted that I didn’t want to go to the hospital. The shoddy lie meant that I couldn’t stay any longer without drawing suspicion, so we went home.
Now it was the day afterwards and, while I can move better than before, walking fast just isn’t happening.
Sakura’s slowing herself down to keep pace with me. Another form of pity that I’m not fond of and she knows it. But it’s like she just can’t help it, so here we were.
“The lingering pain will pass in a few days and I’ll be able to move fine again, so stop worrying,” I tell her.
“But you shouldn’t be putting this kind of stress on yourself just to attend a half-day.”
She’s right. Or she would be under normal circumstances where I wouldn’t have made the effort. But, because the rest of the active Drifters in Fuyuki are attending school today, it makes for the most convenient meeting place for us. And, once school ended, I could head right back home to focus on finding a means of dealing with the more important issues—like finding the Einzberns.
I don’t know what why they played a part in the end of the world, but those were their homunculi. Since they’ve been involved with the Holy Grail War from the beginning, there’s no way the Old Worm didn’t have ample information on them. Once I pinned down a location, I’d send the Veterans to go deal with them.
And once we killed them in this time period, they’d cease to be a problem in the future. If we were lucky, it would be just the thing to save the world—breaking our contracts and setting us free.
The thought of being done with all of this was enough to make me smile until I noticed Sakura still staring at me.
“Sakura, you should be more worried about yourself. Arranging this Training Camp is the last thing Mitsuzuri and I will do as the leaders of the Archery Club. The rest is on your shoulders like it should have been, so you’ll have to assert yourself. You can do that much by now, right?”
Her expression falters at having the discussion become about her instead of me. But she schools her features and nods resolutely. “Yes. I’ll do my best, so please don’t worry about me.”
The talking tapers off there until we make it to the school minutes later. Out of all of the students walking about, Ayako stands out. She’s waiting against the wall next to the entrance with her eyes closed and her head leaning back. Did she fall asleep on her feet?
‘You shouldn’t sleep in front of the school.’
Her eyes snap open at the wake-up call and she addresses us. “Morning, Sakura. Shinji. Are you both doing well?”
“Nii-san is still having a little trouble moving his body, but other than that we’re both well,” Sakura says, giving her a slight bow in greeting. “Thank you for watching after him until now, Mitsuzuri-senpai.”
“If I’d been a little more careful it wouldn’t have come to that, so it was the least I could do for him.” Her eyes shift to me and a telepathic message follows. ‘I was speaking with Issei about something important. Head to the rooftop and I’ll explain it later with the others.’
‘Got it.’ I turn to Sakura briefly as I walk past them. “I’m not doing anything physical today, so you two’ll have to handle opening up the club.”
“Have a good day, Nii-san.”
‘Shinji… about Gai…’
I stop and look over my shoulder in Ayako’s direction. ‘What about him?’
‘He’s been a lot more reserved after what happened. To save you, he ended up having to kill one of the Soldier Taboo and he took it pretty badly.’
From what I heard, he developed a Burst that caused a layer of crystalline material to jut up from the bones in his arms and form a shell around them as he crushed the Homunculus’ skull. It was desperation act. He wanted to accomplish something, and his PSI just filled in the blanks.
‘He does realize they would have killed us if he didn’t, right?’
‘…It’s easy to say that, but….’ There’s an undercurrent of melancholy as she trails off. ‘Look, I’m just letting you know so that you don’t set him off by accident. We talked to him about it when we got back from the future, and he said he just needs to have some time to come to terms with it.’
‘Fine. I won’t say anything to him.’ I wouldn’t really be able to relate to him on the problem anyways since I had no issue with killing anything that tried to kill me. Better to leave it to the people who can do that. ‘Anything else?’
‘The Trio will be coming back after missing school yesterday, so—’
‘Right. Right. Be nice to them too.’ I start to walk again into the building and climb the stairs until I get to the rooftop entrance. Past the door I find six chairs and desks facing one another, arranged for us to take a seat and converse. Energy bars and canned drinks on top of each of them makes for a poor substitute for breakfast, but it’s better than nothing to start the day.
I take a seat on the left side and lean against the backrest while staring up at the sky, trying to get my thoughts together. We have a reprieve for now, during which we needed to train the Track Trio. But I also need some way of dealing with that body-snatcher before we get called to the future again.
Last time she managed to connect directly to my central nervous system, taking over my body and tampering with my memories without me knowing. I can’t presume that I’d be able to detect her the next time. And I can’t just rely on my PSI to reject the connection like before.
It was pure luck I made it back in time to be healed when the damage was linked to my brain. The brain acts as the anchor-point of the soul. I don’t know how our souls get shunted into the future, but if the brain gets severely damaged then it’s over.
Likewise, I didn’t understand enough about the method she used to develop a countermeasure. If it was a Trance or Mental Interference ability, I could probably find some way to shield myself from it. But only if I could detect it coming.
I raise my hand to the sky and just look at it. I can still feel some of that energy permeating me like in the future. Thrumming beneath my skin mildly compared to when in the future. If this is what they meant by PSI getting stronger over multiple trips, then it’ll be less strenuous to come up with something to help me out for the next time.
No one will make a puppet out of me. Never again.
The door to the rooftop opens with a loud sound. It causes me to fall out of my seat in surprise, leaving me to hit the rooftop with a painful crash. I suck in a sharp breath before glaring daggers at the one responsible.
Makidera’s face cringes for a moment before she looks away, rubbing the back of her head sheepishly. “Ah, sorry about that.”
Remembering Ayako’s request, I force myself to breath out slowly and vent my agitation harmlessly as I get back to my feet. “Just take a seat.”
She hurries over to the other side, wisely putting distance between us while Saegusa comes out next. Her soft, brown eyes pass on a silent apology as she follows the first one to the other side of the table. Himuro is the last, giving me a slight nod in greeting as she takes her place between the two.
I return to my seat opposite Saegusa and grab the can of coffee on the desk. I need the caffeine to deal with the loud-mouth this early in the morning. Unfortunately, the milky taste ruins the coffee entirely and leaves me even more agitated as the uptight one starts a conversation.
“First, let me offer my gratitude for aiding us in that situation,” she states. “Had you and the others not been there, it’s very likely none of us would have woken up in the hospital. There is likely nothing we can do to repay that debt, but we shall make an effort if it is reasonably possible.”
“I’ll just ask you take this matter seriously so that you can keep surviving from here on. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been any different than if we left you to die there. Aside from that, I trust there weren’t any complications when you woke in the hospital, were there?”
“There were minor tests to try and grasp what happened to us after we all denied having done anything other than attend our club before we fell unconscious. Ultimately, the doctors labeled exhaustion as the likely cause since there were no more physical changes and made rather generic recommendations to prevent it in the future.”
“Those hacks even suggested that we quit,” Makidera loudly complains amid tearing open an energy bar. “Like that’s going to solve anything when it isn’t even the problem.”
“You know you’ll still probably be asked to sit on the sidelines. If not retire, right?”
I thought it was obvious, but it seems she didn’t expect it from the look of surprise that blossomed on her face. “Wait, what?”
“You passed out after a practice in the locker room on the same day that more than a few hundred died from similar cases around the whole of Japan, and people who have recovered from said passing out in the past have either committed suicide or died at a later date, despite not having any sort of commonality between them. The fact that the cause is still unknown has left people scrambling for answers, and since we can’t give them the truth without dying they’re not going to get them.”
“So the school will have to attempt to avoid accountability by minimizing the risk of it happening again.” Himuro nods in agreement. “Yes, I suspect before the day is done our club sponsor will be having words with us. Even if they didn’t, the matter of our survival means that we’d have to cut down or retire from the club in order to properly train our abilities.”
Indignant at having to give up something she’s worked hard for over the last few years, Makidera leaps up and points to me. “But that’s not fair! He and Mitsuzuri get to remain in their club, so why should we get benched when they don’t?”
“Our circumstances are different enough that it doesn’t even apply.” I’d been suffering from sleep deprivation and was manhandled by Ayako’s brother, while she wasn’t even on the school grounds when it happened. “If it’s any consolation, Mitsuzuri and I have basically retired from leading the Archery Club as of today under the excuse that my deteriorating health and her studies have been piling up. So, we’re in the same situation.”
She visibly looks somewhat relieved until Himuro gives her a subtle tap with her elbow that passes along the message that it’s not a good thing. She then clears her throat and tries to play it off. “Y-Yeah, it sucks for all of us.”
I tamper down on my urge call her out on being petulant. Partly because Ayako ask that I play nice today and partly because I had the feeling this was her way of trying to cope. After all, she was the closest of these three to dying and one of her ties to normalcy was taken away from her. Misery loves company.
So I move the conversation away from her and turn my attention to the last of the three. “Were you able to put your family’s worries at ease, Saegusa?”
“Oh… umm… I think so.” She fidgets a bit while gathering her thoughts. “I was actually surprised when I woke up to find my brothers all around me crying. Kouta said he was more upset about dinner and now I owed him a double day on both that and breakfast, but his eyes were the reddest.”
“Well, a child wouldn’t be honest with their feelings. But why were you surprised to find that they’d be worried? You basically take care of them when your parents can’t, so isn’t it natural that they would be happy to see you’re doing well now?”
“I was always worried about them, so I didn’t really take the time to think about how they’d feel if something happened to me. Just that I wouldn’t be able to take care of them if I was gone.” She looks to the desk while wearing a somewhat soft frown. “But… there’s still a chance that’ll happen the next time, isn’t there?”
I don’t sugarcoat my answer. “Until we change the future, or we reduce our count to zero, we’ll have to go when we’re called. The best we can do is make it so that you have the best chance possible of returning so that they don’t have to experience that sort of worry or pain anytime soon. It’s unfair, but there’s nothing we can do about it right now.”
There’s a lull of silence at that. What happened before can happen again, and if they’re not up to the challenge then they’ll die. I won’t try to soften that fact because it’s the reality of the situation.
In an effort to raise the mood that I’d intentionally crushed down, Makidera puffs out her chest and says, “Don’t worry so much, Yukicchi. Just leave all the fighting to me and we’ll clear it in no time. I mean, if even Matou can become so tough after only one trip, then imagine just how much stronger we’ll be too?”
I’m pretty sure those words were just meant to be for Saegusa’s sake rather than insulting me, but that’s three strikes in less than five minutes. If I don’t get back at her somehow now it’d rankle me for the rest of the day. “Then you can take my place fighting the next time we get there.”
A short-lived look of pure shock dawns on her face. “Huh?”
“I’m not suited for the frontlines to begin with, so if someone more qualified steps up then I can focus more on a supporting role and handle the logistics to make sure everything goes smoothly. Mitsuzuri will probably be a bit harsh in her training to get you up to par in short order, but anything short of death can be healed away by the Student President easily enough.”
The way her body stiffens despite her effort to hide her nervousness gives away her façade, but her pride won’t let her back out so easily. “S-sure, leave it to me!”
“Excellent.” The way I see it, either she’ll fulfill the role suitable enough or die trying.
Himuro politely clears her throat before I can savor the moment though and pulls out her calling card out. “Can you show us how many points were deducted now?”
I pull out my own from my pocket and press it to my forehead. “Do like this and that’ll be enough.”
The other two pull their cards out to copy Himuro as she does so. Her eyes slightly broaden before she pulls it away from her head, no doubt experiencing the same sensation I did my first time. Then her brows compress as she bears witness to the corner of the card eroding into black and the number appears.
“Mine’s Forty-nine,” Makidera states with a frown while looking over to the other two. No doubt they had the same count. Then she looks over to me with an expectant glance, wordlessly pressing me for an answer.
“Forty-two. I lost five in this trip and three in my first trip.”
If I had to guess, losing five points was probably because of the nature of the mission. It started out as a Recruitment Mission, or at least it appeared to before it turned into an Extermination Mission. Not to mention we learned of Atlasia, who likely has the key to unraveling what brought that future about.
If anything, I think that we should have lost more points given everything that happened. But, for now, I’ll take what I can get.
Unfortunately, Makidera’s petulant side rears its ugly head again in the wake of the information. “Why did you lose more than us for your first trip?”
“Because Gotou and I had been given the task of escorting Mitsuzuri to the checkpoint after she ended up too exhausted to fight our first trip, whereas you three only barely managed to survive until we found you. It couldn’t be helped given how you and the other survivors didn’t know anything and weren’t capable of fighting back, but that difference between our circumstances still applies.”
She doesn’t look all that pleased at the explanation, but it’s the reality of the situation in the end.
‘Gai’s here now, so we’re coming up.’
The telepathic message from Ayako rings in my head. Theirs too judging from the reactions it caused. They’re not exactly used to having a voice other than their own in their heads, despite the explanation that I gave them in the future, so they’re a lot less calm about it and it takes them a minute to settle down.
That’s when the door opens and Gai steps out of the entrance first. He takes in the sight of all of us until his eyes meet mine. It makes him pause in place for a moment. Then he takes a breath and steps over towards my side of the table.
Ayako follows behind him, sparing him a sympathetic look before her expression shifts to one more amicable as she meets the gazes of the Track Trio and shuts the door. “Sorry for taking up your morning like this, but it’s important that we meet up when we can now. More so considering the circumstances aren’t better to start your training this afternoon.”
I… don’t like the sound of that. “Did something come up?”
“Issei and his brother will be heading up further north once school ends to discuss things with the Veteran I mentioned having worked Tatsumi’s group in the past. That means we won’t be able to use the temple or have someone who can heal us until they get back, while Neko’s place is on the other side of the city.”
Oh, come on. I could understand the Monk leaving, but the other had more use to us here since he provided us with a place to train, a method of getting there discreetly, and the ability to heal if any of us got injured. “Do both need to go right now?”
“If the circumstances were a bit different, no. But some of the people we saved got in contact with us, and we can’t have a situation like with Tatsumi and the others dying without any of us being aware. So Issei is going to use his power to set up a network and try to keep the peace between his brother and Ryougi-san, since the talk yesterday over the phone didn’t go so well.”
I can only see a handful of the people we saved following up with the training, so I don’t have much hope for a new wave of Drifters to help us out. But, if there’s an issue between the Veterans then that’ll be problematic. They’re the most experienced ones and the most important assets we have to deal with external threats.
“Do you suspect it’ll turn violent?” Himuro asks, inserting herself into the conversation in an effort to mine for more information.
Ayako crosses her arms and closes her eyes in thought for a moment. “Mmm… I don’t think it’ll get that far with Issei there. Supposedly the two have an easier time understanding one another and he has a level head. But if she’s the one there instead, it’ll be troublesome.”
“There are two of them?”
“No, I mean his other half,” she clarifies. “I never witnessed the change myself but from how Neko put it, Kaname Ryougi is two people in a single body and their specialty with PSI changes depending on which personality is in charge. The male personality specializes in Rise and Burst but is incapable of using Trance. The female personality specializes in Trance and Burst but is incapable of using Rise.”
“A split-personality?” Himuro brings her hand to her chin in thought. “From what you’ve told the three of us in the future about PSI, the power uses the brain in order to process and manifest the abilities. If there’s a preexisting mental disorder, I suppose it shouldn’t be beyond the realm of possibility that such things could also affect how their power is expressed.”
I don’t discount the possibility either. Some magi do develop dual personalities to help them blend into society better or use magecraft in different ways. But that’s usually a form of self-hypnosis, not an actual disorder.
Ayako continues on regardless. “Whether he had it before he got there or suffered a breakdown afterwards isn’t something I know, but the male personality is the one they interact with the most and he doesn’t really help past teaching basics.”
It sounds to me like he’s apathetic to the situation of others because they’re not his problem, which is understandable under normal circumstances. But, since we need the survivors to pad out our numbers or these trips to the future will keep happening more frequently for our group, that’s going to have to be dealt with. “And what about the other one?”
“Terrifying enough that they feel the need to send two Veterans instead of just one,” she states. “Through a combination of Trance and Burst, she basically makes whatever illusions she projects into the target happen in real life. So, in theory, she can pretty much kill anyone she wants to with a thought.”
I don’t buy it. You can’t just wish someone dead and make it happen. There’s a system to these things, even if we can’t see it. Most likely this Ryougi person lied about her PSI’s true nature in order to conceal its weakness.
Even so, Himuro seems intrigued by the prospect. “Could it be some form of psychosomatic hallucination?”
Makidera holds up her hand to stall her from going further. “Hold on. A psycho-what now?”
“It’s when the brain believes something is happening to the body and that gets reflected. I’ve heard about an experiment where something similar happened with people who were allergic to poison ivy being blindfolded. One arm was rubbed with an ordinary leaf and told it was the poison ivy, while the other arm was rubbed with the actual plant and told it was harmless. Most of them ended up breaking out in rashes on the arm that was rubbed with the harmless leaf instead.”
“Maybe,” Ayako states. “Maybe, but the mechanics of her PSI is secondary to how she uses it. According to the others, when the male personality does the fighting he uses Rise to raise his physical abilities while wielding a sword and then Burst to fire it off as an extension of his swing, hitting their cores for a clean kill. But when they faced the Soldier Taboo, she’d come out and use that her PSI to torture them slowly with a smile on her face, rather than destroying them off right off the bat.”
The information unsettles the others to an extent, but I can think of a pragmatic reason for the torture while they stew on it. Most likely it’s conditional on using Trance to project the hallucination and using the brain’s response to have the Burst make it a reality. That limits it to the Homunculus, since they’re capable of actual thought and human understanding, and the act of building up is a means of strengthening the effect of her PSI until she can kill with a thought.
Or she could just like relishing the act of killing something that looks humans. Or both. They’re not mutually-exclusive.
Either way, Himuro doesn’t accept the information without scrutiny and makes it known. “Are you certain that information isn’t being exaggerated by biases?”
“Well, there might be some, since its clear Neko and the others don’t exactly like how hands-off he is,” Ayako concedes. “But I don’t think they’d lie given the seriousness of the situation, so I’m taking the warning seriously and passing it along.”
“Umm… c-can we change the subject?” Saegusa asks, a slight tremor in her voice. This is clearly not how she saw this morning’s discussion going and now she’s uncomfortable.
“I guess we did get a little off-topic in how it directly affects us,” Ayako admits. “Anyway, since they’re gone we need to address the issue of where we’re going to be teaching you until they get back on Monday evening, so…”
Her eyes turn to me as she trails off. Then she smiles in a way that tells me I won’t like what’s coming next.
“Shinji, you don’t mind if we use your place this afternoon, do you?”
The first thing I notice when I arrive to the future isn’t the chill of the air or the taste on my tongue as it passes by. It isn’t the view of the land from atop the building I’m on. It’s not even the screams that I can hear in the distance before they’re snuffed out.
The first thing I notice is the difference within me—the power that thrums beneath my skin.
I feel invigorated and alert, every cell in my body carrying a charge of some kind. I feel like I can run a mile without ever getting tired. I feel like I can do anything—an unparalleled adrenaline rush.
“That feeling will pass once your bodies get used to it,” Ayako says without looking at us. Instead, her eyes are further ahead and down below. She’s scanning the surroundings and planning what step to take next. “But right now we don’t have time to waste. Put on your coats, grab your weapons, and leave your bags there.”
…I close my eyes and tighten my fists to squash the excitement beneath my skin and do as she says. The coat feels a bit big, but it stops the cold from biting at my torso through my other clothes. Armed and dressed, I walk over to the edge of the building and stand next to her while Gai does the same.
We’re in a city, or what was once a city. There are various buildings that have been weathered to the point they could no longer stand. Rust ate away at the steel and stone looked like it was eroded. It was a dead city for certain, a rusted skeleton of what it used to be sometime in the past. Yet there was life below, unfolding chaos as distant dots moved on the ground and in the air flying around.
The need to see and hear further makes my brain tremble slightly and my senses abruptly sharpen. Screams of terror, buzzing of wings, lumbering steps, resounding howls, the taste of metal in the air, the distant figures becoming detailed—it call comes so easily that the sudden change overwhelms me utterly.
I screw my eyes shut, clamp my ears closed, and hold my breath while willing the changes to go away. The tingling in my brain stops after a moment. Everything goes back to normal as I feel a hand on my shoulders.
It’s Ayako. “Ease into it next time. If you don’t set a limit then it’ll go for the peak of what you’re capable of before you’re used to it.”
“Got it.” I stand, rubbing my eyes. “I heard human screams, so I guess it’s a recruiting mission.”
“With Catchers, Hounds, Carriers and Crystal Wasps lurking around,” Ayako adds. “They’re carting people off in pods. Those that get too far from the recruitment zone or too close to a tower will be killed by Nemesis Q since they haven’t got a means of defending themselves until they’ve awakened like you two. That means we need to get over there and save who we can.”
Gai looks down. “It’s a long way to the bottom. You’d think it could have dropped us down close to the street.”
The distance means nothing to Ayako as she jumps. Not down, but across into the distance by at least two blocks. She lands on a rooftop without too much trouble and looks back our way.
Gai whistles, impressed, and stares at her in the distance with his eyes squinted. “Think she expects to make that jump?”
I couldn’t help but scoff at the suggestion. I knew I couldn’t make that jump. So I turn around and look to see if there’s a better way down.
That’s when the air around us wavers and congeals into a pair of giant hands like she showed us in the past, only more solid. They grab us. It’s not tight enough to crush us, but it’s a firm grip that leaves me feeling constricted as they lift us through the air. Like that, we’re literally carried for several blocks as she keeps making vast bounds until a scream is close enough to be heard unassisted.
The source is a girl who looks around our age, in the midst of a group of six Hounds and four Catchers. She’s dressed in a school uniform I don’t recognize, screaming her lungs out as a Catcher holds her over one of the pods with tears in her eyes. She isn’t moving or flailing about, so I’m guessing she got caught by the paralyzing scream. It drops her into a larger pod than the one we saw being carried during the last trip, where pained sounds could be heard from other voices within as she lands, and backs away after it closes the top.
Something descends from the sky. It’s as large as a bus, pale white skin with a helmet-shaped shell where its head should be. It lowers itself to the top of the pod, wraps its lower appendages around the container, and then begins to rise into the air with it.
That’s when Ayako stops holding back. As the hands lower us to the ground, she hops off the top of the building she’s perched on and then kicks off the side of it. She disappears from my view at that moment—
—and then an inhuman shriek bellows from the creature as it collapses over the pod. There’s a gash across its core, courtesy of Ayako. Not only did she deliver a killing blow to it in passing, but she’s also standing in front of one of the Catchers with her naginata punching through its chest and out of the back.
She pulls it out of the side hard enough that the top-half of the Catcher is ripped off in the process and sent askew. Then she aims her crossbow gauntlet towards the Hounds and opens fires. By the time we touch the ground, she’s killed half of the Hounds and the rest of the Taboo have realized they’re under attack.
A surviving Hound howls loud enough to reverberate throughout the area before its life is snuffed out by one of her crossbow bolts, cutting short the signal that still likely reached the other Taboo nearby and called for them to attack us. At the same time, one of the Catchers leaps through the air towards her unprotected back with the same speed that the last one possessed when it floored Gai our first trip.
Before we could shout a warning, she spins around and thrusts the naginata to intercept it mid-fall. Not only did she pierce through its core, but she managed to then pin it to the ground with preternatural strength. Then she used the shaft as a pole to spin around and then deliver a kick to the second one that tried to do the same, sending it crashing through the wall of the half-collapsed building next to us.
“I think she’s got this,” Gai says from next to me. His arms hang to his side with his weapons limply between his fingers.
I can’t help but nod. We really aren’t needed here. Let her handle the fighting while we kick back. As long as we make sure she doesn’t wear herself out too fast and end up like the last time, I think we’ve got this handled…
CRASH!! Of course, then the wall behind us explodes in a spray of stone chunks and dust.
We both turn at the sound to find that the Catcher she launched through the building just punched through the wall behind us. Its arms violently swing back and forth to clear away the stone dust, and it turns towards us. Then it roars and its thick legs began to tense like springs being coiled.
“Aw crrrraaaaaaappppp—” Gai’s words are drawn out as my brain quivers under my PSI-induced Tachy Psyche effect. Time slows to a crawl for me as the Catcher lunges for us, slowly drifting through the air towards us with its arms outstretched to grab us. I use the elongated time to consider my options and then channel that energy to my arms and legs, hastening time as I grab him and then dive out of the way. “—ooph!”
We escape death as it spears through the open space and crashes behind where we were, leading into a roll that carries it further out. I have no doubts now. That would have killed both of us if we were tackled at that speed without being empowered by Rise.
I hurry and get onto my feet and pull out my tanto while Gai hops up and gets into a fighting stance. The Catcher digs its limbs into the concrete with ease to slow itself and then throws itself at us again. Gai intercepts its tackle his body this time and he ends up sliding back from the momentum before he brings his fist down with a battle-cry on its unprotected head.
I don’t know if that thing’s skull is as durable as a human’s. But I do know that its head is half-gone from the blow as it falls to the ground. And it still wasn’t dead.
Even with half its head turned to pulp, the Catcher grasps Gai’s leg from its fallen posture and then rises, overturning him at the ankle like a hanged-man. Then it chambers its arm and swings down in act of revenge.
The only reason he doesn’t have his head crushed by the impact with the ground is that he instinctively guards with his arm before it’s too late. And the only reason his arm isn’t broken into pieces is because his Rise is still in effect. But there was no telling if he could maintain it under pressure.
I lengthen my perception of time to get out of the way as it prepares to try smashing his head into the building this time. Even if he could survive it, we can’t risk him losing any more brain cells since he’s the muscle. I decide on my course of action and, if there was a dial to turn up how super-human I was, then I visualize going from a ‘1’ to ‘5’, sink that power into my arms and legs, and bring the tanto’s blade down.
The first strike cuts through its wiry arm and liberates the idiot before his date with the wall. Then I bring it around again. My blade flows in an arc and cuts through the core this time, with enough force in my arms to tear out a deep gash from which vapor seeped out.
Its life spills out from the core like the sands of a broken hourglass. Perhaps because it’s bigger than a Hound it doesn’t stop functioning as quickly. But it’s dying and it knows it. So with whatever time it has, it makes a final and futile attempt to kill me by bringing its claws around.
My perception of time lengthens for a third time and I see the claws coming for my head, intent on tearing it off my shoulders. I lean forward to get out of the way and thrust the point of the blade into the gash I made to ensure the kill. It goes silent as I pull the blade free and let it finish falling forward, hitting the ground again.
I kick it with my foot just to make sure it’s dead this time. There’s no movement and the body is turning into ashes. It’s dead. I don’t even get the chance to breathe out a sigh of relief when a muffled explosion goes off above our heads and ashes fall like snow. Something had been there—keyword being had.
Ayako stands next to the pod, surrounded by dead Taboo that have begun turning to ashes, lowering her gauntlet after that last shot. “If a Crystal Wasp manages to tag you with one of its projectile needles, you’ll begin to crystallize unless you have some kind of Burst to protect you or have a strong enough Rise to avoid the needle piercing your skin. You’re especially vulnerable to that Shinji, so don’t forget to look up next time.”
She then goes from chiding me to leaping to the top of the pod. She inspects the bulb at the top and then lays a hand on it. It promptly explodes. “That should stop whatever signals it’s putting out to alert the Carriers for a pick-up, so the people inside should be okay right now.”
Gai cracks his knuckles as he approaches and eyes the pod, sizing it up. “I think I can open it up easy enough.”
I shoot the suggestion down before it can gain any traction by pointing out the obvious. “If we have to babysit a bunch of people in the middle of a warzone it’ll slow us down. If they’re safe in there, we can just shove the container as a whole somewhere else and come back for it later.”
Ayako consents, albeit hesitantly. “…We’ll just move them out of sight and then come back for them later. Right now we need to prioritize the people still active and being hunted down.”
We changed up our dynamics after that first scuffle once we had the basics down. That must’ve been at least an hour or two ago. And in these two hours, I had come further than I had back in our time period in the development of my power.
“We’re close to another group!” Ayako yells from further ahead. She’s faster than us by the sheer virtue of her body being well-trained, even when she conserves her power to avoid running dry. It was under Ayako’s guidance we followed the closest scream in this ruined landscape to attempt to save whoever we could.
Once we see a number of Crystal Wasps heading towards a certain direction, a switch of some kind flips in Ayako’s head mid-step. The moment her foot touches the ground, she’s gone. Muted explosions follow as Taboo start dying and Ayako blitzes forward to deal with any flying Taboo to stop the pod there from being carted off and get rid of the most troubling Taboo.
Those Crystal Wasps were the biggest threats out of all the Taboo we’ve encountered so far, even if they were the easiest to get around. They didn’t have eyes, making it easy to avoid them by standing still, but they can track vibrations in the air and were drawn to the screams. And with a lot of people screaming, they were drawn like moths to a flame.
Taking even a scrape of their stingers means losing a limb at least. And if it hit some place that couldn’t be cut off, it was a death sentence. Some sort of crystalline material forms from the wound and encroaches on the rest of the body, transfiguring flesh into crystal—as demonstrated on one businessman who didn’t stop screaming as he fled from the sight of us fighting, unsure of what was happening and forced to make a judgment call—the wrong one, needless to say.
However, they didn’t seem to have the same impact on the other Taboo. If anything, they seemed to avoid targeting people that were too close to them. Did their cores vibrate at a frequency that stopped them or emit some kind of signal?
Ayako didn’t have an answer for me when I asked. There just wasn’t enough research into it because we couldn’t take these things into the past with us and find someone capable of doing so. But she did agree that it was likely the same way the Carriers managed to find the pods despite lacking eyes because of the bulbs at the top.
As Ayako deals with them, Gai uses his Rise to surpass human limits and leaps into the fray with his fist chambered. The first blow manages to make impact and utterly shatters the body of the Catcher, breaking open the flesh to reveal crystalline-like bones while the core is broken in three large pieces.
I remain careful as I approach due to my limitations. I don’t have the desire to put myself on the line, but I do wish to test the limits of what I’m capable of. Even if I can use Strength-Rise in bursts, that’s still enough.
The assault continues from there. As white bolts leave explosions through the air and inhuman flesh breaks open against iron-backed fists, my cold steel cleaves obsidian cores. In less than a minute the group of Taboo was slain, broken bodies turning to ashes to be scattered by the cold breeze that tasted of metal.
“This is a lot easier than I expected,” I say as I inspect the weapon I borrowed. The blade’s chipped at certain points already. “Though I’m not sure this thing will last too long. I expected it to last longer.”
“They’re easy to kill because they’re not Soldiers,” Ayako says as she destroys the signaling bulb on top of the pod and rests her naginata on her shoulder. “These things aren’t meant to deal with Psychicers and they’re really only a threat if you let your guard down or you’ve exhausted yourself. Likewise, most of the weapons we get our hands on aren’t meant to be used by people as strong as us when we push past normal human limits.”
Gai follows my example checks his as well. I can’t tell how he knows but he frowns as he drops his arms and looks at the pod. “They probably won’t last long enough to save too many people.”
I shrug. “We wouldn’t be able to anyway. There are simply too many people being dropped in all over the city. And there are too many Taboo for us get to them all in time.”
So far we only managed to save a measly two more pods worth of people and five stragglers who were lucky enough to survive while being unlucky enough to see the people around them die. Realistically speaking, most of the people here were screwed. It’s a fact, unfair as it was.
But because he didn’t accept that as a fact, Gai suggests the worst thing he possibly could. “What if we split up? Mitsuzuri can get to the high-ground and use that to spot distant people and snipe Taboo, while we cover the ground and go in for the rescue.”
I am not splitting up here of all places, so I start listing off all the reasons it’s a bad idea. “We wouldn’t be able to remain in contact efficiently. Telepathy degrades over distances and there’s a delay. Plus, your Trance still sucks on sending out thoughts. Not to mention if she’s also shooting off her Burst, she’ll run out of energy quicker and it’ll possibly end up like last time.”
Ayako looks down at the ground as she listens. Then her head shoots up as if inspiration has struck her. “Shinji, what about that thing Issei said you were working on in our time? Couldn’t that work?”
Damn. I was hoping they wouldn’t remember that. “I haven’t tested it here, but I did manage to work out the basics.”
“But if it does work, can you link us together?”
“Theoretically,” I admit. “I haven’t tested it on another Psychicer yet and I’d have to link them to me, but if you do the same thing you normally do to send out your thoughts through it and send them to me it might be possible.”
“Then let’s do it. There’s no better place than this time period and I don’t hear or see anything that could threaten us.”
Okay, I didn’t want to do this. But if I’m going to stop this from happening, I’m going to have to play my hand. “I originally developed it to read minds and yours would be an open book to me. Are you really comfortable with me have that sort of power over you?”
Having someone who can read your mind and ferret your innermost secrets is terrifying. I’d kill to hide all the things I’ve done to this point—to her, to Sakura, and to Emiya. I’m willing to die before I speak of them, so it should give me an out and stop the idiot’s suggestion from gaining further ground…
“I trust you not to do that.”
Then she says seven words that takes the fight out of me… mostly because I’m staring at her with the same ‘are you an idiot’ look I give Emiya on occasion. “You’re serious?”
She smiles wryly, as though to reassure me. “I’ll admit the old you might take advantage of that sort of thing, but not in this sort of situation. And if it can help us save even a few more people, it’d be worth it.”
…Damn, when she says it like that it reminds me of that visit in the hospital. “Tch.”
“And she could probably make you suffer for it,” the idiot ‘helpfully’ chimes in.
I glare at him. “I’ll do it already, so don’t say things that don’t need to be said while I concentrate. It’s hard enough with all the distant screaming.”
He mimes zipping his lips and then keeps them shut. Good. Here we go then.
I close my eyes and take a deep breath. I visualize the cord to contain the thoughts, the connection to isolate them from the atmosphere. The image is clear in my mind. Good.
Exhale. Now for the tip, the connecting point—a jack to plug into their minds and link it to mine. The image takes shape in my head. Good.
Inhale. The origin point from where it stems. It has to be my own mind, the base of my skull at the brain stem. The image is perfect. Good.
Exhale. Last are the rules of how it works and why. I shouldn’t need to micromanage everything if I’m going to be doing this while playing search and rescue.
Inhale. Rule #1: Trance energy and effort is needed to pass through it for sending thoughts. That way there are no mind-reading accidents.
Exhale. Rule #2: They’ll be able to send their thoughts to me and receive thoughts I willingly send. But they won’t be able to pull at thoughts from me. I refuse to budge on that.
Inhale. Rule #3: The cord extends based on the distance. Trance shouldn’t encounter any interference from physical objects, so that should prevent it from needing to be excessively long and save me from expending excess energy.
Exhale. Three iron-clad rules are set into place and woven into the creation process as I will the constructs into existence. The energy permeating me is roused, heating up, boiling in my brain as the power tries to meet the criteria I set. I feel something emerging from the base of my skull, a strange sensation like thread being pulled from a spool slowly.
I open my eyes and look over my shoulders. Two argent, phantasmal cords with jacks on their end hang in the air behind me. I will them to move, putting effort and energy into them. They do as commanded. “Okay, I think I got it. You ready?”
Rather than saying anything, Ayako turns her back to me. Then unzips her shirt just enough so she can lower the collar and expose the nape of her neck. Her skin is somewhat glistening with sweat from the exertion to this point.
I focus on that spot and visualize a jack moving slowly towards it carefully, inching closer and closer. The tip meets her skin and I hesitate for a moment. Then I swallow and thrust it in slowly.
She tenses up as it sinks in and she rubs the spot tenderly with her fingers. The digits go through the cord and jack as if it wasn’t even there.
I feel the connection between us. Her mind and mine are connected now. I send a test message. ‘Does it hurt?’
She holds her head and leans forward, wincing. “Go a bit easier there. If felt like you were yelling inside my skull.”
Damn, did I put too much energy into it that time? I carefully wrap my thoughts up in as gentle a tone as I can, using as little energy as I can. ‘Sorry! I was nervous and overshot. Does it hurt where we’re connected? ’
‘It does just feel a little strange, but that’s probably just because it’s our first time doing this. ’ She turns her head and nods. ‘I’ll get used to it. ’
I breathe easier at that and relax. I didn’t want to hurt her, so I feel a little more confident about going on when she puts it that way. ‘Try moving a little to make sure it doesn’t come out.’
She moves forward a few steps. Then she jumps up and down a bit. ‘No problems so far. ’
‘Try jumping up on top of a building as fast as you can. ’
She looks up at the nearest building, a husk of what should have been an office from the design. In a blink she disappears. ‘Can you still hear me? ’
‘Yeah, and I can still feel us connected. ’ The cord is extending on its own like it should, more thread unraveling from the spool of energy within me. ‘I think it’ll do. ’
‘Good job for your first PSI creation. ’ Ayako messages before she lands in front of me. It’s then I take notice of the narrow view of her pink undershirt with a rather childish-looking teddy bear design, contrasting the fact that her bra’s outline could be faintly seen due to the sweat clinging to it.
I turn away and carefully word my next message. ‘You can zip your shirt up now. Your collar won’t get in the way. ’
Ayako looks down and notices the view she’s giving me. She zips up and then crosses her arms as she glares at me. ‘Really, Shinji? ’
Okay, I see what she meant by yelling. I suck in a sharp breath and hold my hands up to pacify her before she explodes in volume or worse. ‘I didn’t tell you to zip it down. I was just pointing it out. ’
‘This jacket holds insulation really well and using Rise heats up the body a lot, so I can overheat if I wear a thicker shirt. I keep those in the backpack until I need them. ’
‘I’m not judging. ’ I honestly didn’t expect pink tone or the teddy bear design from her though. ‘You don’t have be so defensive. ’
“Um—” The third voice reminds us that Gai is still here. “—is it my turn now?”
…Right, I forgot about him. Since it seems to be working, and this is his fault to begin with, I don’t need to go so slow or be so gentle. So I just have the jack thrust into the base of his skull all at once.
“Ow!” He swats at the spot where the jack connected like an insect bit him there. “That stung.”
I float a thought his way to test the connection. ‘The first time is the most painful. You’ll get used to it; just try not to use too much energy when you send your thoughts. It’ll be like screaming inside my head otherwise. ’
‘Got it. ’ He looks out towards the distance. ‘Should we get started then, huh? ’
His words shatter the little bubble we had lost ourselves in at that moment, sobering us up to the situation at hand once more. We had tested the Mind Jacks for a reason and they worked, so there were no more delays. Back to search and rescue it was then.
There’s nothing quite like looking into the eyes of a woman as the light fades from them. I didn’t know why they seemed so appealing as they slowly clouded over while frozen in fear. Not really. Only that they were hauntingly beautiful as they did while the scent of blood tinged the air.
I didn’t know the girl’s name or age. After all, it had been on a whim that I decided to follow her home. She was maybe between the ages of 16 and 20 if I had to guess. Her parents looked like they were middle-aged while they were sleeping, so that seemed about right.
I step back to admire my handiwork a little better and pull out my camera to take the photo of the girl bound to the headboard by her arms. Her long, dark hair was brushed behind her ears so they didn’t obscure her face. Crimson ran from the point where her throat was slashed, cascading down her pale skin in streamlets that ran down the bare and supple curves that were beneath her neck and tantalizing framed them in a way that was just picture perfect.
I snap the picture and save it to my collection when a muffled cry catches my ear and I—
I couldn’t keep my voice in as the man who broke into our house and killed everyone took a picture of my sister’s corpse. I had tried to pretend not to be there. To think it was a bad dream that I would wake up from, and my sister would be sleeping on the bed next to me. But the moment he turns and gives me the same smile that he wore when he put the knife to my sister’s throat and slit it, I knew it wasn’t a nightmare.
“Ah, I haven’t forgotten about you,” he says cheerfully as he waves the camera. “I just wanted to get this shot while the blood still had its luster. Blood dries surprisingly quick.”
My heart tries to escape where my arms and legs can’t as he walked over, bound to the bedposts by ropes that ate into my wrists and ankle and rubbed them raw. The gag muffled my screams as I look into the innocent-looking eyes of a monster that killed everyone without a second thought.
He places the camera in front of me and shows me the photo he’s taken of my sister’s corpse. “See? It looks great, doesn’t it? You don’t have quite the same appeal as your sister, but yours might be more suited for a more innocent look. Maybe with twin-tails?”
I sob as he plays with my hair, like a little girl would a doll. That’s what we were to him, toys for his amusement. Why was a monster like this allowed to exist? Why did this have to happen to us?
He pulls back when he’s finished with my hair, using his hands to create a frame for him to see through. He smiles and then reaches for the knife that was still covered in the blood of my sister. He forces my head back with his free hand and sets the sharp edge of the knife of my neck and—
The floor breaks my fall from the bed, jolting me awake and cutting my scream short as it forces the air out of my lungs. “Ha…ha…ha…ha…”
I lay there, panting and staring at the ceiling on my room as the morning sun begins to filter into it. It had been a dream. It was just a dream. Yet, it all felt so real.
I was that murder, down to my core. I knew why he did what he did. I felt the same joy he did as he opened up that girl’s throat after slaughtering her family, a smile on my lips at the chance to experience the pleasure that came from watching the luster of her blood spilling out over the supple flesh of a young woman. It was… art to him, with each victim being a different and unique work.
At the same time, I was the victim. I felt her fear. I felt her sorrow as she watched her sister, the closest person to her, die a meaningless death. I felt her last moments, up to the point where the knife opened her throat in a single, swift motion.
I reach up to my throat. My heart skips a beat when I feel something wet. I pull my hand away and find them glistening with sweat and not blood. It does little to bring me relief when I can still remember the phantom feeling of the knife and the scent of blood so richly.
It’s getting worse by a magnitude now. No longer content on catching me on the fringes of waking up, I can recall the nightmare from start to end… no, it wasn’t a nightmare. That happened somewhere, a real scenario engraved into the world under the definition of ‘evil’, and it was so vivid that it was inseparable from reality for me.
When I think about how many others await me, I can’t help but feel burning tears trail down from my eyes. “I just want it to end….”
The day only continued to get worse from that horrible awakening.
I had managed to clean myself up and head to school with my sister, who gave my pitiable looks when she thought I wasn’t looking. She must’ve heard me screaming again. There were no words to state how much I hated it when she gave me those sorts of looks, even if it was from concern.
But then, in the period after Lunch, I heard it. In the back of my mind, I heard the tolling of the bell that signaled it was time to return to the future. It was light, a chiming that could be passed as my imagination going wild. I may have been willing to pass it off as just that, if not for the sight of Gai abruptly stopping his chat with another guy in class to turn to me and open his mouth.
I raise a finger to signal him not to talk about it aloud and send a telepathic message. ‘I hear it too. ’
‘Aya… id…me?’ He tries to send a message back, but his Trance is horrible enough that some parts have holes in it. It must be the trade-off in exchange for his proficiency in other fields of PSI. Regardless, I understood what he was getting at—we were supposed to have more time before the call came in.
‘You guys hear that, don’t you?’ Ayako’s voice resounds clearly in my head.
‘I thought we had more time than this.’
‘There’s some room for error. But from the intensity, I think we have until nightfall before it gets too loud. After school, head straight to the Student Council Room.’
Her mental voice cuts out after that. So we’re heading back there, to that ruined future, in a few hours. The thought makes my hand shake slightly, no matter how much I try to keep calm as I look outside the window and away from Gai.
The last time we barely managed to get by. Even though we’re stronger now, I can’t say that I’m all that enthusiastic about returning to that land of death. But there’s no choice in the matter, as the slight toll in the back of my head reminds me. If I want to live, I have to do this. So, as time passes like grains of sand in death’s hourglass, I contemplate everything that I’m capable of and those around me to minimize the chances of me being killed.
Gai is strong when it comes to Rise-Strength. He’s proficient enough in practice to where I doubt he’ll have trouble fighting against the Taboo. But he had no practical experience in battle and his Trance ability is weak enough to where even close-range line-of-sight telepathy is hard on him in the present and he hasn’t discovered his limits in the future. Chances are he’ll make a mistake or freeze-up, and if he gets lost he won’t be able to maintain contact with anyone.
As for me, I’m the opposite of him. My specialty is Trance, with my secondary being in Rise-Sense. While I can transition from Sense to Strength, I can’t use them at the same time. That makes me frailer than the others and likely to fall into an ambush.
The only one of us whose better-suited to go it alone is Ayako. Not only is she experienced in having multiple trips under her belt and has all-around capabilities, but her Burst is capable of creating some kind of explosive energy that can destroy things with relative ease. However, she’s liable to throw herself against the enemy to save someone else and sticking with her will leave us wading into danger.
No matter how I look at it, we’re basically going to be tied to her waist the entire time. We’re too green and don’t know what to fully expect going in. As much as I loathe the thought of being so dependent on her to survive, there’s no other choice.
When the final bell rings, I head the opposite way of the Student Council Room and go down the stairs to the Second Year’s floor. Even if we need to go to the future, we don’t need another mess like what happened the last time with the club. I enter the hallway and see Sakura walking down the opposite end, heading towards the stairs. “Sakura!”
She turns towards me at the call and looks surprised to see me. As I approach her, she then changes directions and meets me halfway. “Is there something wrong, Nii-san?”
“Something’s come up. Mitsuzuri and I won’t be able to make it to the club today because we’re busy with something else and I need you to handle overseeing it alone. We’re going to be gone for a while and chances are you won’t be able to reach us by phone. Go over to Emiya’s place if you need to and don’t wait up if I’m not home after dark.”
Her expression shifts from confusion to concern. “Is everything okay?”
Not remotely close, but she doesn’t need to know that. “It’s just an obligation that needs to be seen through. Make sure everything in the club is running smoothly.”
She doesn’t look like she follows completely, but she obediently nods her head. “Yes, Nii-san. Just take care of yourself.”
With that out of the way, I head to the meeting room to find Gai and the Student President waiting for me. Ayako is nowhere to be found. “Where’s Mitsuzuri?”
“At her home, changing into something more suitable for the environment,” the Student President says as he locks the door to the room. “I have a marker set up in her room that allows me to send her there when needed. Once she gives me a call, I’ll retrieve her. For now, we need to head to the temple, where you’ll find your supplies and weapons for the journey.”
In his hand he cradles a luminous square, the manifestation of the boundary of his Teleportation Marker. It expands to cover all three of us and the world around us abruptly changes to a room in the temple, probably another guest room judging by the setup.
The Student President walks over to a pair of sliding doors and shifts them open to reveal a closet. Only instead of futons and winter bedding, there was a wall of weapons and camping backpacks and coats. He picks up two of the backpacks and shows them to us. “Come over here, you’ll need equipment for your trip.”
I walk over and he hands me one. It feels rather heavy and cumbersome. “What’s in them?”
“Survival supplies that we’ve gathered. You weren’t there for very long your first trip and Mitsuzuri-kun had expended hers before you arrived, but we normally prepare and provide them just in case the mission requires a prolonged absence. You’ll have food and water to last you for up to a week if you ration it well, sleeping bags, some minor camping necessities, and so on. You’ll also need to take a weapon or two from the wall as well to aid you if you encounter a Taboo.”
The weapons in the back of the closet are arranged by hooks in the walls, with the largest weapon being on the top and consisting of what looks to be a staff. From there they decrease in size, consisting of swords and other weapons you would find in a temple. However, on the sides are weapons that were harder to place. “Why do you have brass knuckles, a nail-bat, and butterfly knives in here?”
“These are essentially remnants of Brother Reikan’s misspent youth,” the Student President says with just a hint of shame in his voice. “In his school days, he would often get into fights with hooligans afterhours and on the way to the Temple. They occasionally brought weapons to the altercations and he kept them in the aftermath as trophies of sorts.”
Gai whistles as he looks the collection up and down, impressed by what he hears. In my case, there was one weapon that caught my eyes. It was a tanto with a familiar emblem on it. “This belongs to the Fujimura group, doesn’t it?”
The question grabs Gai’s attention. “You mean Taiga-Sensei’s family?”
“They’re Yakuza.” Not surprising he doesn’t know. Because of how she acts and she keeps her hands clean, few really understand just who she is and her connections. The fact that she’s so immature helps with that. I pick the blade up and unsheathe it. “Why is it here?”
“In the case of that one, I believe the story involves inebriation and perceived insults involving one of Fujimura’s associates, but they’ve since reconciled. We were planning on teaching you to use different weapons, but since the call came early I can only advise you to pick something you’ll feel comfortable with for—”
Bzzt! Bzzzt! Bzzt! Bzzzt!
His words cut off as his phone vibrates loudly and he answers. “…Very well. I’m on my way now.” He hangs up and uses his power to vanish from our view. I can only assume its Ayako calling him for a pick up.
I turn back to the wall of weapons. The first thing I do is rule out any of the temple weapons. I don’t have formal training in any sort of martial art or weapon-use. Trying to use one of the more exotic ones is suicidal considering that. I also stop Gai from going for the sword that hung around the middle section for that reason. “Pick something simple and reliable for a fight, not something you feel would work best from copying one of the shows you watch.”
“Simple, huh?” He looks for a bit more and then grabs a pair of what look to be a U-shaped piece of metal with a handgrip connecting the ends. He holds them like knuckledusters and then takes up a fighting stance. “Yeah, these might work best.”
They probably won’t contribute much to his combat potential considering that with Rise in effect he can punch through a body easy enough. But anything else would just be in the way. Keeping it simple and sticking to what he’s good at is the smarter call and if they break he’ll still be able to use his fists.
As for me, I decide to use the tanto. It’s basically a large knife with thicker metal, so it’s not as flimsy as the knives, nor as complicated as a sword too use. If I do get into trouble, all I have to do is stab my problem until it stops being a problem. I slip it into my pocket as the Student President returns with Ayako in tow.
She’s sporting a long-sleeve shirt that zips up in the front and looks like it’s made of wool, so it was possibly meant for winter weather. She also switched out her skirt for a pair of pants that look like they were made for outdoor activity, with a number of pockets. And her boots rose up her ankles and had fur around.
Not a bad look for her, but I have to question just why she has a naginata in her hands. “Don’t tell me you’re planning on bringing that along?”
“I’ve got a couple of years of practice with it, as well as some experience in using it against the Taboo.” Ayako perches the shaft on her shoulder and turns her head towards the Veteran of the group. “You’re going to be watching after us, right?”
He nods. “I notified Kirishima-kun that I would be absent due to Temple duties. Though I lament adding the burden of my work onto her duties as Vice-President, ensuring that I am here in the event of an emergency takes precedence.”
“I’ll see to it that they come out without too many scratches,” Ayako says before turning to us. “Do as I say the entire time we’re there. I don’t want to risk either of you getting killed, alright?”
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” I have no intention of dying here after all.
That exchange aside, the Student President had us take a seat in the center of the room, back-to-back in a lotus position. The coats and backpacks were sat in our laps, cradled by one arm, while the other was used to make the calls to Psyren. Since each of us has our calling cards, they should allow us to bring copies of them with us to the future while the originals remain behind.
Doing my best to calm my heart by taking a deep breath, I clutch the phone tightly. The fear makes my hand shaky as I pull up the number saved in a list, but I have no choice but to do it if I want to live. So I close my eyes, I hit the button to dial it with all the strength I can muster, and put the phone to my ear…
Then I leave the present behind for the cold future once more.
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.”
Interlude 1 – Sakura Matou
Sakura cradled the bag of obanyaki that she picked up at the Edomaeya Bakery in Miyama, having eaten one along the way home as dessert after their lunch at a small restaurant. There was something about the way that they made it that stood out from other stands and shops, between the cream-filling with a nice and soft interior and fluffy exterior from the heat that gave it a unique blend of sweetness. She had tried to replicate it in her free time, but as far as she knew there was something in the batter that gave the moist texture something extra that she couldn’t pinpoint.
Though they were such simple things, sweets were one of the few things that Sakura found joy in since her old family sold her to the Matou. For the first few days after Zouken had thrown her into the pit, she had a faint hope buried deep within that someone would come and save her. But the death of Kariya, a nice man that her mother was friends with, made it clear that there was no escape, so she resigned herself to it.
Then she met Shinji. He was a bit cold to her at first, but he at least tried to be nice. It was clear that he had been kept in the dark about so many things in his own family, including his own role in it. She couldn’t help but pity him for it.
But, at the same time, she appreciated the little things and kindness he offered her in those dark days. Sakura had next to nothing aside from that. She wasn’t being trained as a magus like her sister, but a tool to carry the Matou Magic Crest in the form of worms that have turned into nerves. They fed off her magical energy should she activate her circuits and triggered through feelings of arousal. With such things defiling her body and soul, she had given up on being accepted as a person until he showed her some semblance of familial affection.
Then Zouken told him the truth and Shinji turned on her. Another connection to her humanity severed, another person who treated her as a human gone. He only became worse as time went on, treating her as a tool to satisfy his lust and take out his aggression. But, as bad as that was, she held onto a faint hope that he could go back to being nice to her again.
And he did.
It took him undergoing a traumatic incident for it to happen, but her Senpai and sister had brought her brother back. Though a part of her resented that her father had sold her to Zouken and her sister had never even tried to talk to her or save her after his death, as if silently condoning what was being done to her, Rin had given her brother back. Even better, Shinji had killed Zouken while in control of the Golden Servant and she was free to try and be happy for once, and look forward to the future….
“Tch.” Her attention snapped back to the present when she heard her brother scoff after unlocking the door to their manor. His hand was held up to his face.
Looking over his shoulder, Sakura spotted crimson on the tips of his finger. The Student President’s words came to mind. “Nii-san, you should lie down. I can bring you anything you need to your room.”
“I don’t need you to baby me over a nosebleed.” He opened the door and stepped inside. “I’m going to the Library to look something up. Don’t bother me unless it’s really important.”
A knot of worry formed in her chest as he left. The Library contained the knowledge of magecraft accumulated by their Grandfather. After the incident with the Holy Grail, Shinji had avoided the room entirely. So why was he going there now? Had his nightmares and health been getting worse enough that he was resorting to the Art to treat them now?
Rin was the only one who would be qualified to help him if that was the case. But Shinji would never accept it. Her brother was dreadfully prideful in some ways and loathed when someone could do something better than him. And there was no one as perfect as Rin, whether it was in magecraft, martial arts, school or love…
Her silent envy ended when she heard a loud thump from the corridor that Shinji disappeared to. Leaving the bag of obanyaki behind, Sakura hurried towards the source of the sound and found her brother on the floor. He was unconscious, blood pooling around his head from his nose that seemed to ceaselessly discharge.
Looking at the spreading crimson, Sakura couldn’t help but feel that in some way her hope to have her brother back led to this. That her wish came true at the expense of his health. That meant it was her responsibility to see that he got well again.
So, if the nightmares continued or it looked as though he was getting worse, Sakura would go to Rin. She would go to her and beg her to help him where she couldn’t. Shinji would never forgive her for trampling on his pride in doing so, but that was fine.
Better that he hated her and be alive than losing him because of her selfishness….
Six Months Ago
I stare up at the fluorescent lights and count ceiling tiles of the hospital room to pass the time.
Being stuck here alone is a quiet sort of Hell. But I can’t leave the hospital until they finish monitoring me for any changes in my body after having the albino brat’s heart shoved into me. The memory of the pain that followed makes me clench my bed-sheet and grit my teeth.
My head turns to the tray by my bedside. On it are two slices of apples cut into rabbit-shapes, with one on its side and the other with a tooth-pick in it. Leftovers from when Sakura was here.
The ears are perfectly shaped, like something out of a magazine. She even coated the flesh with a light and sweet glaze that I liked when I was a child. She put a lot of work into them, overstepping her bounds as someone who was sold to the Matou family.
I still remember the day I was told her family sold her to mine, when I came back from my study abroad after the last Holy Grail War. The thought of an outsider in my household, in my world, made me sick. But a part of me felt bad for the girl, having been sold into being a possession of our family by her own. Then again, I expected as much.
I learned early on that there were two types of people in this world: those that were special and those that weren’t. The former stood on top, sacrificing and using those that stood on the bottom to move up in the world. Then you cut them out when they were no longer useful. Zouken taught me that at an early age, which was what happened to my mother.
Yet, I pitied Sakura.
She was supposed to be special, but was then cast out to become something less. The little girl with dull purple eyes and never smiled was meant to be a tool, but that was just so pathetic that I couldn’t stand it. So, as the heir to the family, I decided to take pity on her and treat her like my sister.
She would never be as special as me, who was to be the heir. But she would be better than everyone else outside of the family. As long as she was loyal, I would never sacrifice her like my grandfather and father did my mother.
Then the truth came out.
Sakura was there to be the true heir, not a failure like me. She knew the entire time and just humored me, laughing behind my back every time I said I would be the heir. I showed her mercy and kindness, treating her like a person rather than the tool to carry on the bloodline she was, and my reward for it was to be mocked.
She deserved to be slapped. To be beaten. To be reminded of her place. So I paid her back for every laugh and taking what was rightfully mine.
And she never fought back. She never claimed it was her right to be the heiress. She just sat there and took it.
At first I thought it was because she knew that she deserved it. The abuse was her atonement for mocking me. If that was the case, maybe I would have forgiven her as long as she served me sincerely. But then Zouken kindly informed me of what it really was:
She pitied me. Someone who was sold off by her own family because I wasn’t good enough pitied me. I was so pathetic that someone who lost everything from her old life and was then given away like a tool pitied me.
Things were a blur for a moment after that. I remember yelling, hitting, exposing her pale skin and feeling lust overtake me. A fleeting thought occurred, telling me that if she was mine to use as I pleased then why not do so in every aspect? Then I felt euphoria, an immense satisfaction flooding me to my core as I experienced the pleasure of being a man for the first time.
She didn’t complain. Zouken didn’t chastise me for it. Of course they didn’t. I hadn’t done anything wrong by the standards of the world we lived in. So our roles were set and life continued.
Then Emiya came into the picture.
He was an idiot. He constantly did things that other people didn’t want to, like he was a natural-born servant and enjoyed it. But he was useful, an honest idiot that I felt like I could tolerate compared to other people.
Someone who could never attain happiness outside of helping others was someone would always be willing to do what I ask without question. Someone who wouldn’t usurp me like Sakura did. Someone I could see as a friend and wouldn’t sacrifice like Sakura, before the truth.
Then he turned against me because of Sakura. He couldn’t understand that Sakura was supposed to be mine, a tool to be used in exchange for taking everything away from me as heir to the Matou line. He chose her over me and the thought of those two together filled me with a black flame inside my chest as I watched them.
Then came the Holy Grail War, a chance to prove myself to Zouken as the one who should have been the rightful heir to the family. Sakura not wanting to fight was so pathetic that he surely had to acknowledge me. Plus, if I won, I could have used it to fix my defective body and become a true magus.
That’s all I wanted in the end. To have been a true part of the world I was born into. Like my father, my grandfather, my sister, and… and my friend.
I couldn’t see the strings being pulled behind the curtain because I wanted to be special. And I got played for it… suffered for it…
I shudder as the sensation of worms crawling through my body and bloating my flesh from the grail came to mind. Was that what Sakura felt everyday for the sake of being a magus? If the stupid girl had said something, I would’ve….
No, it wouldn’t have changed anything.
I had lost my ability to feel sympathy for those I saw beneath me a long time ago. It was only because I had been placed into her shoes that I could understand everything she felt, after I regained my sanity. A moment of empathy towards someone who’d experienced years of a similar Hell silently with no one to save her.
Sakura treats me with sympathy after my ordeal, understanding the pain I’ve been through. She could have mocked me or thrown it in my face after everything I’d done to her. But she simply stayed by my side and cared for me.
Like a sister should.
That moment also made me truly realize why Sakura clung to Emiya despite the abuse I put her through for it. Having been stuck in a position where death would have been preferable, I too wanted someone to desperately save me. And though it was Tohsaka who pulled me from the prison that my flesh had become, she’d made it clear that she’d done it for him. Despite the number of times I’d tried to kill him after he sided against me, he still extended his hand by proxy to save me.
Like a friend should.
The only question now was what I should do when I get out of here. How do I face them? What should I aspire to become after losing my chance at being truly special, only to find that it wasn’t worth it in the end?
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The knocking at the door turned my attention away from the ceiling tiles to the door. Through the slit that serves as a window, I can make out a familiar bed of brown hair and matching eyes. It was Ayako.
Once she notices me staring, she opens the door and enters of her own accord. She’s wearing a pink wind-breaker and a pair of jeans, rather than her uniform.
I sit up and turn so that my feet find the floor. “What are you doing here?”
“Sakura mentioned you were in the Hospital, so I thought I would drop in and check on my Vice-Captain.”
“Didn’t you say you were going to expel me from the club?” I distinctly remember that argument before I sent Rider after her. In hindsight, it… may have been going a bit overboard.
A slight pout forms on her face. “Well, you were starting to get out of hand. I had members on the verge of quitting because you were in a bad mood and decided to take it out on them. Unlike last year, we’ve got a shot at the Autumn Tournament and I want us to come home as the champions.”
After the summer of the first year we didn’t have Emiya anymore in the club, after I made a comment on his burn mark. Did she blame me for that too? “If you really want to win then why are you talking to me? You know where Emiya lives.”
She just stares at me for a moment, her lips pursed. Then she steps forward and gets in my face, looking me in the eyes. “Having Emiya back would make it easier, but I want you back in the club more than anything.”
“In truth, I’ve been doing some thinking about reorganizing the club since we’ve been doing pretty badly lately. I want your help to whip them into shape by the time I have to step down from the role of Captain and help your sister take the reins. I get the feeling that she’d be a good Captain, but right now she’s the type that stands back and quietly nods rather that assert herself, so it’ll take some time.”
She doesn’t sound like she’s joking. But it doesn’t make sense. “Why me?”
“Because we’re a lot alike, so I feel like I can understand you.” Her eyes look towards the ceiling. “You and I don’t like to lose, but Emiya was always better both of us. I admired and was jealous of him for that, yet he quit so easily that it was hard to believe it really even matter to him. How can someone like that drive others into giving it their all?”
“And you think I can?”
“Yeah, I do. As long as you keep your behavior in check, I think that you’re the only person I can trust to be my Vice-Captain. What do you say?”
I know the Archery Club means a lot to her, so hearing how earnest her words are only serves to make me feel uncomfortable. Of all the people she could place her trust in, I am the last one person she should. Not after everything I’d done to her.
Guilt rears its ugly head for the first time in a long time. “You shouldn’t forgive or trust me so easily. After all, I was the one behind what happened to the students and school. And with you in Shinto—”
Ayako’s response is immediate. She slugs me on the shoulder. The hit isn’t hard enough to do any real damage, but it does draw my attention to her face. She looks upset.
“Jokes like that are in bad taste, Shinji.” She crosses her arms. “You’re a jerk occasionally, but even you aren’t that much of an ass. I mean, could you imagine Emiya or your sister standing by you all the time if that was the case? They must see something good in you, right?”
… No, I am that horrible. Both of Emiya and Sakura know that. Even I’m not sure why they act so cordial to me, but they’ll never forget what I’ve done. Ayako’s so painfully ignorant that it hurts… but I prefer the way she thinks of me, a jerk with a softer side rather than a monster that reveled in whatever power he got.
I want her to be right. I want a second chance to start over, to live a normal life without the desire to be out of the ordinary pushing me to become a monster. A second chance to be the sort of person she thinks I can be, and someone who can face Emiya and Sakura without seeing everything I’ve done written over their faces, even if unsaid by them.
If this was the first step to doing that, then I’d do it. “Fine, I’ll straighten up and help if you really need it.”
Ayako smiles as the golden sunlight pours into the room, becoming a radiant scene that burns itself into my memories. “Looking forward to working with you then, Vice-Captain.”
My eyes snap open to find fluorescent lights hanging on the ceiling above. For a moment, I believe I’m back in the hospital room and the last few months have been a dream. That the future I’d seen was nothing more than a nightmare.
“So you’ve awoken then?”
Then I hear a familiar voice and turn my head towards the source. The Student President is sitting down in a chair a few feet ahead of the infirmary bed. His eyes are fixed on a book of some kind.
I sit up and become aware that I’m wearing my club uniform. But there are no signs of rips and tears. I lift my arms to see they’re still in one piece.
He glances up at me. “Mitsuzuri informed me about your abrupt trip to the future and the injuries you sustained. You’re fortunate that I arrived before someone noticed the wounds.”
I hold my head as the visions of that terrible future come flooding back. “So it was real after all?”
“Of course it was.” He closes the book and adjusts his glasses. “You pried where you shouldn’t and were brought into the fold as a result. Whatever your reasons for doing so, you involved yourself in this and the consequences of that are you have seen the future and are now responsible for changing it.”
I want to deny his words about prying, but a brief image flashes in my head at the thought. It’s the memory of that hospital visit from Ayako. The smile she wore when I accepted her terms. It’s stupid that such a simple request and smile moved me enough to make an effort to help her. But I was desperate for a new path to take and she offered me the way.
If Sakura was the hand that supported me, and Shirou was the hand that saved me, then Ayako was the hand meant to guide me towards a second chance—my redemption. So did that mean that this too was a part of what it meant for me to have a second chance? Was it worth it if I got hurt or killed in the process?
… No, it’s not my job to try to sort out that mess that could be set decades into the future for all I knew. I only got involved for one reason and one reason alone, and that wasn’t it. “Where is she? She was with you, wasn’t she?”
“I’ve already treated Mitsuzuri’s injuries and left her behind with Gotou. He had answered his phone while on the way to school and passed out on a sidewalk, so someone called an ambulance and they rushed him to the Hospital. After I had treated him, she remained behind to inform him of the circumstances of his current situation when he wakes.”
He frowns slightly as he looks down at me from over the rim of his glasses. “For the record, I didn’t appreciate your efforts to turn Emiya against me with baseless accusations. Please refrain from doing so again. I have enough on my hands as it is.”
Ah, he must be talking about what I told Emiya this morning. “You shouldn’t have made yourself so suspicious, Mr. President. Besides, you were with her.”
“Regardless, you had no evidence to support that theory. It was fortunate that I managed to cover it up on my way here by saying that she came over to the temple to spar with me this morning and suffered a minor injury that left her unable to attend.”
It would pass somewhat as an excuse. Ayako was the type of person who was into those sorts of things. Being a member of the family that ran the temple, it was natural that he would know some kind of martial arts to go with his attitude as well. In addition, she was also the festival committee chief for the upcoming cultural festival, meaning it wouldn’t be strange for the two to discuss matters in private.
He rises from his chair. “I’m sending word to your sister to escort you home now and informing her that within a few hours you will experience a fever and severe nosebleed that will leave you bedridden for the rest of the day. Don’t mention anything you’ve learned or gone through to her or you’ll risk her getting others involved in this as well. You’ve seen for yourself how unforgiving that world is.”
I don’t need him telling me that. Ayako mentioned that even knowing about what I do can draw Nemesis Q’s attention. Not to mention the bird-thing tried to kill me once before when I tried showing her the card. She’s been through enough as is and I’m not in a hurry to die.
Though I didn’t like what he said before all of that. “What do you mean I’ll be bedridden for the rest of the day?”
The Student President elaborates. “Upon returning to the past, all those that survive the first round undergo a transitional phase as a result of being exposed to that environment as far as we can tell. The body feels as though its melting on the inside as the change happens. Then, when the symptoms pass in the morning, you wake to find that you can perceive the world differently—to know that you have been changed in some aspect from the people around you.”
I think on it as he makes his way to the exit. It must be the abilities that Ayako used in the future. For a moment, my heart quavers at the thought of possessing that sort of power. Then I remember how the last time I yearned for it had earned me a visit to Hell every time I dreamed.
The only reason I didn’t this time is probably because of the displacement of my soul.
As he stops at the door, the Student President gives me a final glance. “When you wake up in the morning, come to the base of the mountain. Mitsuzuri and I will meet you there. Once you and Gotou have arrived, I’ll take you both to meet the other veterans in Fuyuki and they’ll inform you of everything and begin your training. Make sure your schedule for the day is clear.”
Nothing left to say, he leaves the room and gently shuts the door behind him.
I lie back down and just think on everything I just got myself into. It’s ludicrous to think that any sort of power that I can wield would be enough to change a future that has already come to pass. The abnormal sky and condition of the land and those Taboo creatures—how did something like that come to pass by the moonlit world of magi and monsters? Weren’t there safeguards in place to avoid things like that from happening?
Or were they the ones responsible for that future?
The door slides open and the thoughts fade as Sakura steps into the room while dressed in her school uniform. In her hands are my clothes and belongings. She looks slightly relieved as she comes over to my bedside.
“Nii-san, how are you feeling?”
“As best I can be for now.” I sit up and take the clothes. “You talked to the Student President, didn’t you?”
She nods her head. “He said that you would need to rest back at home for the rest of the day and we have permission to leave early. Though, Senpai suggested we should head back to the hospital so they can give you a thorough examination.”
I shake my head. No more hospitals. If I have to stare up at one more tiled ceiling I’ll start pulling out my own hair. “After the symptoms pass, I’ll be fine.”
“No, Sakura.” My tone is firmer this time to get the point across. “Emiya doesn’t have a say in this. I said I’ll be fine, so drop it. Understand?”
“…Yes, Nii-san.” Her eyes lower slightly, leaving her hair shadowing them from view. Without another word, she turns around so that I can change my clothes.
The feeling of kicking a puppy returns with a vengeance. I wish I could just explain that I can’t get them involved for both my sake and hers. That I would like nothing more than to push this onto Emiya since this is his sort of thing. But I can’t as things stand.
I sigh deeply and then look up to the clock again. “Sakura, you haven’t eaten Lunch, have you?”
“Not yet,” she replies softly.
“Then let’s go find a place in Miyama to eat.” I’ve got my wallet on me so it shouldn’t be a problem to treat her. “It’ll be my way of apologizing for getting blood on your uniform since I’m going to be busy tomorrow, so I won’t accept you trying to take a pass on it.”
She looks slight confused given my abrupt change in demeanor, but knows better than to refuse and nods.
We leave the school grounds minutes later and make our way to the district. The cool autumn breeze briefly blows past us along the way. The lack of biting chill and aftertaste of metal were something I couldn’t help but notice. The warmth of the afternoon sun caressing my skin felt almost foreign. And the people ignorantly walking along the side of the road and going about their day without any worries of what the future holds for them….
I do my best to ignore them all as we find a place to dine in peace.
The wind feels a bit colder as it whistles through the remains of Fuyuki.
I carefully peer around the corner of a half-fallen building and make sure the path is clear before I turn to Gai and gesture for him follow. Ayako is in his arms, still unconscious and feverish. He can carry her without being slowed down because he’s broader than me.
We were making our way back to the Shopping District, to the phone that served as the gate to the past. By my guess it’s been at least half-an-hour since we left the building that Ayako had brought us to. We were maybe a little over halfway to the district at the hurried, yet cautious pace we were going. It spoke wonders of just how fast Ayako had been when she brought me there in less than five minutes.
I had thought magecraft was involved at first. But I brushed it off on account of Ayako not being a magus. I confirmed as much when Rider drained her to the extent it took days for her to recover, and had a good laugh when Emiya brought it up back then.
Obviously, I’m not laughing now.
Besides, I’m not a magus. The Old Worm had pointed that fact out many times. I was a defect in the bloodline of the once proud Makiri, a failure without worth despite the effort I put forth in school and how I presented myself.
So if the requirement needed to gain a card was the presence of Magic Circuits, then I wouldn’t be here. Then there was the gauntlet with a crossbow she had earlier. Was it a mystic code of some kind that she could summon at will? Or was I just stretching for something—anything to make the facts line up with what I knew.
What exactly is this the power Nemesis Q spoke of to change the future?
The answer could wait. At until after we got back to our own time. But there was one thing I was absolutely certain of at this moment.
I am never going to wear this uniform again if we get pulled into the future.
It’s impractical for this sort of terrain and weather. And the only reason I kept the sandals on is because the alternative was dealing with bits and pieces of rubble wedging themselves into my feet. I can’t run away if that happens.
As we come to a stop at another outcropping several minutes later, Gai speaks. “I don’t think we have long if this fever gets worse.”
I feel her head. He’s right. She’s warmer than before. “I think we’re ten minutes—”
The words die when I hear a sound coming from the distance and peek around the corner. I see another one of those hounds that nearly dragged me off. But it’s not alone.
No, there’s a person there with it. Or at least what used to be a person before it got turned into Frankenstein’s Monster, lugging around some kind of giant vat or container.
The muscular torso gives me the impression that it was once a tall man, but certain body parts seem misshapen. The arms are elongated to a similar length of Nemesis Q’s arms, yet the legs are muscular and swollen. On its head is a mask of steel that left its eyes and nose hidden, and its ears are shaped like that of a bat’s.
I turn to Gai and press a finger to my lips before pointing over to the edge so he can see as well. His eyes squint before he pulls back. His voice comes out hushed.
“What is that?”
“I’ve run into the dog-thing before. It nearly dragged me off until Ayako killed it. But that other one is new.”
I think back to that time, before Ayako carried me off. She mentioned that the ‘Catcher’ would follow the sounds the Hound made before spiriting me away. I guess that must be it.
It looks fast. I couldn’t see us getting to the phone fast enough to save Ayako if we had to go around it. But going straight ran the risk of us being caught….
At least without bait. “Gotou, how fast are you?”
His eyes narrow at the question. “I make decent time on the track course. Why?”
I nod to Ayako. “Neither of us can run fast enough to avoid getting caught if we have to carry her. But we don’t have time to waste if we need to circle around. Not before that fever puts her down for good. You’re in better shape than me and are wearing actual shoes instead of these sandals.”
“So you want me to throw myself at them?”
That’s the gist of it actually. But he doesn’t need to know that. Instead, I shake my head and point to the right.
“No, I need for you to go that way while the wind is blowing towards the left. You’re going to circle around until the Hound catches your scent and then leave your shirt behind. That’ll buy you time to circle around again and get to the phone while I’ll take Ayako straight ahead.”
“If you’ve got this all planned out, why don’t you do that while I carry her?”
“You’re faster than me and, again, not wearing sandals.” I wiggle my feet for a moment and then tilt my head to Ayako once more. “It’s not about me or you. She’ll die if we don’t do it this way. Do you want to let that happen after she helped us out?”
He looks hard at me at that. Then Ayako. A sigh follows as he stands up and starts unbuttoning his shirt. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Works like a charm. “Run fast.”
“Yeah, yeah. Just don’t screw this up, Matou.” That said, he runs off to the right and disappears around the remains of a building that way.
Honestly, I don’t expect him to get away from those two entirely. But I do expect him to distract them long enough for us to get to the phone. That’s what counts.
That container that the Catcher has looks big enough to house a single person. And, while the ears give me the impression that its hearing is sharp, I can use the wind and softer surface to mask my movements. I’ll live through this and get back to the past with Ayako.
… It’s about three minutes before I see movement on the other end. The Hound lets loose a sharp bark and the Catcher standing next to it rouses. They move off to the right and out of my view.
I reposition Ayako onto my back with some effort. Her fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest and she’s started mumbling something under her breath. Like I told Gai, I really do have to hurry and get her to safety before she dies.
No sooner than we pass by the spot where the Catcher and Hound had been did the winds shift, blowing towards the direction that the monster pair ran. I cling to a faint hope that our scents remain out of the Hound’s range as I push ahead faster. But that hope is snuffed out when I hear a barking noise.
Fear crawls up my spine. It’s coming. The Hound is coming. If it gets close enough to scream, then we die.
I seriously consider leaving Ayako behind for a moment, but that isn’t an option. She’s the clear condition and the reason I came here in the first place. I already threw Gai to the Catcher to buy us time, but doing that to her isn’t an option. I have no choice but to run.
But I’m not fast enough to get away before the Hound catches up. The moment it caught my scent, running stopped being an option. And, even if we hide somewhere, the Hound will just track us down by scent and sound. That only leaves one final option:
I have to kill it somehow.
I don’t know how Ayako killed the last one, but I knew that they could be killed. I can probably manage by bashing its skull in or something. But a frontal assault will just get me caught by the scream and leave me helpless again. I need to arrange an ambush then.
My legs burn while running until I come across the ideal battlefield—one of the buildings that looked as if the foundation shifted. This caused it to lean, tearing down one half of the building and exposing the gutted remains to the elements. I can see a spot where the second floor can be used as an ambush point, and the large rubble beneath it as a weapon.
I enter the first floor through the opening and set Ayako down against the mountain of rubble, beneath where the second floor collapsed. Then I remove the top of my uniform and set it down ahead of her feet. I don’t expect it to distract the Hound for long, but it should make it sit still for a second or two.
That has to be enough.
I grab the largest chunk of stone I can before I climb up the stairs. It’s… a lot higher up than it looks from the first floor, but I get into position as the Hound comes in. The moment it sniffs at the discarded clothing, I hurl the head-sized block down from the second floor.
It smashes down on the Hound’s head hard enough to shatter and makes it yelp. But it’s not enough to do more than crack the black orb on its head. And it knows I’m here now.
I freeze as its legs tense. My blood turns to ice at the knowledge that if I don’t do something, it’ll come after me now. I don’t want to be caught by that thing and dragged off. I don’t want to die for getting myself wrapped up in this, trying to be a hero like….
Something clicks inside of me when I think on what Emiya would do here? What would the idiot who went out of his way to help others do? The answer is stupid and obvious.
I leap down, screaming. I throw myself at the problem without thinking further. I ignore my heart leaping into my throat as gravity grabs my body and drops me down.
The Hound’s legs buckle under my weight and we collapse onto one another. The blood pounding in my ears acts like a war drum. It takes away my sanity.
I find myself screaming as the desire to survive takes hold, scooping up the largest chunk of what was left of the stone I threw. It was maybe the size of a baseball and jagged, the tip pointed enough to serve as a makeshift knife. I stab at the Hound wherever I could with it around the head, neck, and mouth.
I have to kill it. I can’t let it get a chance to recover or it’ll kill me. I have to kill it!
I have to kill it! I Have To Kill It! I HAVE TO KILL IT!
The Hound whines and redoubles its effort to throw me off at the pain. It succeeds. Then it opens its mouth to scream.
I don’t think. I react. My closest arm moves, sinking my fist into its mouth until it’s lodged in its throat. It closes its jaws on reflex and bites into my arm.
“AHH!!” It hurts, but it doesn’t break the bone. It can’t scream like this and it can’t get away. Something inside of me can’t help but giggle as I start hammering away with the stone in my other hand.
It tries to escape, but it can’t. So it tries to take off my arm instead. Pain surges through my body as it jerks its fangs to rip my arm apart, tearing into the flesh until blood began to cascade from between its fangs.
It hurts. It hurts! It hurts! But I can’t lose this chance or else it’s all over!
I drown out the pain with a scream as I keep hammering away, every hit causing the jagged edges to cut into my good hand. It tears at my flesh and leaves my blood to run over the pitch-black stone as the crack widens. Then something inside of the orb begins to pour out like steam.
The Hound’s fangs loosen. Its throat tightens with a whine that chokes on my arm. It’s dying. Good.
“Die! Die! DIEEEEE!” I keep hitting at its weak point until it collapses. Its body begins to soften as the stone buries itself into its head, whitening and loosening. I only stop when it turns to ashes and laugh as I pull out the bloodied limb coated in white powder. “That’s what you get for coming after me, stupid mutt.”
The pain hurts so badly that I don’t think I can use either of my hands again. But I’m alive. The thought makes me laugh again. “Hehehahaaha….HAHAHA— ”
The voice draws my attention. I turn to see that Ayako is awake. The noise must’ve woken her.
“Did you see, Ayako?” I gesture to the pile of ashes. “I killed it. Hahaha… you see, I killed it on my own.”
“Shinji… you need to… calm down….” She leans forward off the rubble, despite her face being red from the fever. “Take a deep breath.”
Ah, she’s staring at me with those eyes. My lips curl into a frown as I recognize those same pitying eyes that Sakura used to stare at me with. Those same pitying eyes that said she was laughing behind my back that I couldn’t use magic when she could. Those same damn pitying eyes that shows she thinks she’s better than me!
I hate them. I hate them! I HATE THEM! IHATETHEM! IHATETHEMIHATETHEMHATETHEMHATETHEMHATEHATEHATE!
“Stop staring at me with those eyes!” I try to rise up, but my body sways on my feet a little. Blood stains the ground as I stumble towards her to wipe those eyes off her face. “You should be grateful I saved you! You couldn’t even do anything and yet, I—”
My foot slips over my discarded top. I fall forward. She reaches out and grabs me before I can hit the ground.
Her body is uncomfortably warm. It stinks of sweat and ashes. But she holds me tight before I can struggle and doesn’t let go.
“Shinji, don’t let this place drive you insane.” Her tone is gentle. And her embrace soothes the burning inside of my chest. “I don’t want to see someone else like that. Calm down so we can go back to the past together.”
Her words bring back my sanity. I realize how close I was to doing something I would regret again to the person giving me a second chance. Shame comes with the pain in my limbs and an apology slips out. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” She pulls back and looks me in the eyes. “What happened to Gotou?”
“He….” I struggle to find the words to say ‘I sent him off to die in order to buy us time.’ Yet, if I worded it wrong she would likely try to go out and find him. In her condition that wasn’t likely to work out and we’d die here stupidly. “The Catcher caught him and left the Hound behind. He’s gone.”
A tear streaks down her eyes at hearing that. A shuddering, lifeless breath leaves her mouth. It takes her a moment before she lets me go and pulls herself together. “I’ll get you out alive then, at the very least.”
The shame and embarrassment still lingers in my chest. I sit up on my knees. “Mitsuzuri, about a moment ago… I didn’t—”
She cuts me off with a slow shake of her head. “It happens. I’ve seen people go insane in different ways. One girl threw herself off a building when I first started out, before Issei could get to her. Another guy tried murdering others until…”
Ayako trails off. The message is clear enough for me to get the picture. Desperate people did stupid things. The pain in my arms lingers as proof of that. I don’t know what I was thinking…oh wait, I wasn’t.
Then again, Emiya probably would have done the same thing. He’s an idiot like that.
“We need to wrap those injuries before the shock wears off entirely.” She tears apart her torn clothes further to wrap strips around my bloody hand and arm. “Once we get back to the past, Issei will be able to heal your wounds.”
“He didn’t come with you?”
“No, he’s a Veteran Drifter.” She finishes and wipes the sweat from her brow with her forearm. “He went through his card’s value around the time I got started and helped me cope through it. Right now he’s taking care of my body in a guest room at the Ryuudou Temple, while I’m here. The wounds we sustain transfer over to our bodies once we snap back, so he stays nearby to heal them. I’ll tell him about you the moment I wake up.”
She rises to her feet and sways before steadying herself. “Did Nemesis Q appear?”
I nod and rise to my feet, letting her lean on my shoulder for support. “The clear condition is to get you to the phone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District. We’re not too far.”
“Then if we hurry, we might be able to save Gotou. If the clear condition is met, all surviving Drifters are pulled to the past as long as they don’t end up inside of the Tower.”
That’s convenient. “Then let’s go.”
We push ourselves to move, stumbling out of the building with our weary bodies. Now that the adrenaline isn’t coursing through my body, I feel like I’ve ran a marathon of some kind and my legs and arms ache. It takes effort to just walk while supporting Ayako.
I glance towards her. The fever hasn’t gone down in the slightest, but she’s trying to put on a brave face. Yet her eyes are half-lidded and straining to remaining open as she looks into the distance. She’s pushing herself too far just to see me to safety…
No, it’s not just me. She’s hoping that if we get there quick enough that Gai can be saved too. It’s a frail, fleeting hope, but enough to get us both to safety nonetheless.
The phone comes into view and I let out a sigh of relief at the thought of safety being only short walk away. But then Ayako freezes mid-step. “What’s wrong?”
She turns her head to the side. Her eyes furrow and close in. “I hear footsteps and hard breathing.”
“What?” I turn behind me and try to listen in. But I don’t hear anything until nearly ten seconds later, when a bloody Gai stumbles out from an alley. Just how sharp is her hearing?
“Gotou!” She releases me and tries to go to his side. However, her strength hasn’t returned just because she sees him. She nearly falls forward until I catch her, sending pain lancing up my limbs.
Gai sees us and yells, “RUN!”
That’s when the Catcher leaps out from the corner in a crouch. The vat it carries is on its back, strapped on like a backpack. In a motion too quick for me to see, it throws itself forward and pounces on Gai.
“AGH!!” He goes down with it on top of him like a feral beast, placing a hand on his head like it’s going to crush it. His strained voice reaches our ears as he yells again. “Hurry up and go!”
I don’t need to be told twice. Ignoring the pain in my arms, I pull Ayako forward with fear giving me the strength to run away. “Let’s go!”
She resists. “We can’t leave him!”
“The hell we can’t!” Why do women make this more complicated than it needs to be? Since I don’t have time to argue, I crouch down and lift her so that she’s slung over my shoulders like a bag of potatoes. The act causes blood to slip beneath the makeshift bandages and the muscles in my hands feel like they’re tearing apart.
Ayako doesn’t argue. Instead, she opts to say, “Brace yourself then!”
That sent up some red flags, so I turn my head expecting the Catcher to be lunging for us this time. Instead, I see Ayako raising her arm and that crossbow-gauntlet appearing on her wrist with a flash of light. There’s a bolt of pure white energy thrumming in it.
The moment she lets it loose, the backlash knocks me off my feet as an explosion sounds out. I end up falling on my stomach and then have the air knocked out of me as Ayako ends up mounted on my back. “Ow!”
In contrast, Gai is half-buried under ash. Confusion paints his face as he notes the absence of the Catcher. “What… happened?”
“Uhh….” Ayako’s body sways on top of me. Then she falls to the ground next to me.
“Hey!” I sit up and take a look at her. Sweat covers her face and blood runs from her nose as she desperately gasps for air. It’s clear she made her condition worse.
Yet, despite all of that, she gathers enough energy to just glare at me with barely-opened eyes. “You said… he was caught…”
I look away. “…I made a judgment call. The clear condition was to bring you to the goal. If he hadn’t been caught, then he would have been brought back to the present as well.”
I had no proof of that until she informed me earlier. But it’s the best excuse I can think of to appease them. A little white lie to avoid making it sound worse than it was.
The conversation died there as Gai came over and helped us to our feet. He’s rough with me and looks like he wants to say something, so I take it that he didn’t like being bait. Shame he couldn’t play the part properly, given I had to kill the Hound, but at the very least he seems to understand that now’s not the time.
Before anything else can jump us, we get to the phone. The moment Gai picks up the receiver, the world vanishes. We abruptly start falling through space again as Nemesis Q lingers above us and claps its hands like it’s giving us an applause.
A look of pure hatred crosses Ayako face at the sight of it. It makes the glare she gave me earlier seem tame in comparison. Then again, Nemesis Q ran her through this who knows how many times now.
Then everything goes dark as the bird that’s mimicking a person grows distant….
I rise to my feet as I breathe in the cold air that has the aftertaste of metal. It was cold, even for Autumn. Probably had something to do with the ashen sky, not a bird in sight.
Looking around, I find that I’m in a set of ruins of some kind. I want to say it’s the archery dojo, considering I see that the school is a broken pile of stone and rubble just across where I am. How many years into the future am I for all the wood to be missing, having rotted away?
I stumble out of what was left of the school grounds and head towards the road to my home. I had no idea if it is still around, but the state it’s in will at least give me some insight into how much time has passed. And it’s closer than going to the Church or the albino brat’s castle. If I have to admit it, a part of me hopes that the Tohsaka Estate has been reduced to rubble, but my priority is finding a way to get back to my own time.
The road feels softer than concrete and asphalt should be. Almost like the ground beneath it is quicksand or silt. The buildings made of stone are leaning as if exhausted, some half-broken and others toppled over. Those made of wood are missing entirely.
Looking at all of this, I can’t help but wonder if there are any people left alive in this environment. It feels too cold, the scent of metal lingers in the wind, and the only light is the silver rays that break through the clouds from above. I don’t think plants can survive in it.
The white-thing, Nemesis Q if I had to guess, had spoken before in my dream about embracing power to change the future. Assuming it plucked my soul from my body, displaced my existence through time, and then dropped me into the future, what did it expect me to do here to get back? What power did it mean that would allow me to change it?
Why is Ayako involved in this at all?
Too many question and not enough answers.
I keep walking until I spot something moving on the path ahead of me. It looks like an animal at a distance, a dog sniffing the ground with some kind of black growth on its head. I decide to walk through the rubble of another home that had been along the path to mine, leaving it to scrounge for rats or whatever it ate to survive for however long the world had been in this state.
No sooner than I walk through the rubble do I hear an inhuman screech that makes me jump. I look back to the source to see that the dog is closing in on me. What, is it hungry enough to try and eat me now?
I decide to run. I won’t be able to fight against it without some kind of weapon or rock. But I trip before I can make it three steps because I’m wearing the club uniform, and the footwear isn’t made for running through terrain like this. By the time I can climb back up to my feet, the thing I thought was a dog is close enough that I could make out the details better.
That thing can’t be called a dog anymore, even if it was once upon a time. It’s pale white, a black orb on its head in the place of where there should be eyes. There looks to be gills of some kind on the sides of its neck, with some kind of silvery build up crusting it. Its mouth opens into four parts like a peeled fruit as it faces me.
Then it screams.
The moment it does, I fall down again from what feels like being hit by something invisible that passes through me. The shriek did something to my ears and bones, leaving me hearing a ringing and feeling my insides shaking. I couldn’t get my bearings fast enough to run or even sit up straight as it trots over, grabs my hem, and starts to drag me with ridiculous ease.
It’s taking me away. It’s taking me somewhere and there’s nothing I can do. I… fuck that!
“Get off me! Let go!” I flail. I scream. I force myself to move however I could. At best I’m no different than a giant worm that’s struggling in the maw of the bird that caught it.
It still works. The dog-thing releases my pants from its grasp. Then it aims its mouth up towards my head, peeling it again into four parts. It’s going to scream again and scramble my brains more thoroughly this time, isn’t it?
I close my eyes on reflex and cover my ears in time for a muted explosion to sound out. The force of it washes over me and covers in a blanket of something like dirt or dust. There was so much, so abruptly, that I thought it had decided to bury me as I was. I cough violently, cracking open my eyes to see that the dog-thing was missing.
Instead, Ayako stands in front of me, covered in what looked like patches of ashes with her clothes ripped in certain places and damaged. On her left arm is a black-gauntlet of some kind with a wrist-mounted crossbow on it. She’s panting, her chest rising and falling quickly as she stares down at me with eyes that have rings of exhaustion around them.
Again, she looks pissed. “You called the number.”
It wasn’t a question. “I… may have memorized it.”
“IDIOT!!” she yells abruptly as the crossbow gauntlet vanishes and she mounts my stomach. My body still feels out of sorts and I can’t move well-enough to stop her from grabbing me by the lapels and pulling my head up towards hers.
“Why? Why would you do that?” she demands, shaking me with every word. “I warned you! Do you know what you’ve done!?”
“I—” She lets my head fall down before I can even get the words out to give her an answer. The ground hurts from the impact, driving my eyes to close on reflex. Fire pools in my chest at the abuse when I came here for her sake in the first place. “What’s the big idea….”
I trail off as something wet hits my cheeks and I hear the near-silent sobs. They quench the fire as I open my eyes to the sight of Ayako struggling not to cry. Sitting on top of me, with her head angled down and her shoulders limp, her eyes glisten with tears.
Her voice shakes as she softly whispers, “I don’t want to see someone I know die again.”
…She looks pathetic like this. Really pathetic compared to how she normally looks and acts. It doesn’t bring me any joy seeing her like this.
The sound of a distant shriek brings an end to her tears as her body stiffens in alarm. She twists her head towards the source, even with the half-standing walls and buildings in the way. Then she wipes her tears and gets off of me.
“We need to leave before the hound and catcher arrive.” She lifts me up with ease, hoisting me like a bride in her arms. “They heard the previous one shrieking and are on their way here.”
“Come on, this is just embarrassing!” Her arms feel like they can give out at any time and she still looks exhausted. “You’re going to drop me!”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Ayako tells me with an edge in her voice. Then she closes her eyes and takes a deep breath. Her arms find new strength and she braces me tight against her body. It feels like she’s burning up on the inside.
Then she moves.
The world becomes a blur of short-lived colors and sights as they pass us by. The wind rushes past my ears and drowns out every other sound. This speed is foreign yet familiar, almost like I’m being carried by Rider.
She carries me through a web of ruined buildings and structures, the last remaining monuments to the people of Fuyuki for all I know. It’s only when we reach a district somewhere between the Big Bridge and the school, filled with more commercial buildings, that she jumps through a second-floor window without glass in it and sets me down on the ground.
“Okay,” she sighs. “Hopefully you’re the last one. I don’t think I can make another trip right now.”
“Last one?” I look around at that and see a shadow move around a corner. A familiar bed of blonde hair comes into view. It’s Gai Gotou from class. “What are you doing here?”
“He’s another idiot who got himself a card,” Ayako says as she leans her back against the wall to the left of me. “Straight from Nemesis Q itself.”
I can’t keep the surprised look off my face. “How?”
He scratches his cheek. “Well, I heard that Kane was looking for one and I thought that I could get one for her. But the one guy I found who had it wanted to charge a ridiculous amount for it that I couldn’t afford. So I ran around looking for any that may have been left around at the payphones when I got a card this morning, in a dream. The ringing wasn’t that bad for me though when I answered it on my way to school.”
“… Seriously?” The skepticism in my voice is thick. “That’s how it happened?”
“That’s the reason that I told you not to look or think about the card at all.” She massages her temples. “Just knowing about it can put you in Nemesis Q’s sight when it starts recruiting, and in this mission alone it invited around twenty people who had an interest in the cards or Psyren this time.”
“I take it they didn’t make it?”
She shakes her head. “The Taboo, creatures like the hound that caught you, killed all of them so far. I tried to help and warn them, but they didn’t listen and the number of Taboo have swelled compared to my last trip. The people who die here have their bodies drop dead back in the past and the card disappears, so it seems like Sudden Death Syndrome struck them.”
I frown at that. It’s only been a few hours since she went missing. “Your brother said you went missing this morning in the Club. The morning session hadn’t ended before the ringing nearly split my head in half.”
“Time moves differently between the past and the future,” she claims. “Or at least it feels that way. I left home this morning, an hour before I normally do, when the ringing started to grate on my nerves. Drifters who have been awakened get a warning ahead of time compared to new recruits, to put our affairs in order, so I knew it was coming since the club meeting yesterday.”
So that’s why she ran out yesterday. She heard the call coming in and went to make arrangements. The Student President being absent this morning likely had something to do with that—all the evidence points to him being involved in this too as a Drifter.
“And how long have you been here?” Gai asks.
“It’s been over three or four days on my end. It’s hard to tell since clocks, watches, and other electronics don’t work properly. I can only go by when it’s light out and when it’s dark, and since people keep popping in I have to stay alert and kill any Taboo I find so they don’t keep killing everyone.”
Ayako lets out a long sigh and her throat muscles shift as she takes a moment to just breathe. “Shinji, you said that it felt like your head was splitting, right?”
“Yeah.” The thought alone makes me want to take a migraine pill. “I didn’t hear anything before it just hit me all at once. It got so bad that I couldn’t stand and blood came out of my nose. I had trouble thinking straight.”
“Usually, when it gets that bad, it means that the time is almost up to answer the summonings.” She opens her eyes and stares at me with her brows furrowed. “Another minute or two and you would have probably had an aneurysm.”
So I went from assured death to nearly being dragged off by the banshee dog or whatever it was. Lucky me. But Gai said he answered just after he woke up, so does that mean the summoning has a priority even among the same group?
Or was Nemesis Q punishing me for skirting the rules with Sakura and telling Emiya where to look. “So how do we get home?”
“We have to complete the mission Nemesis Q gives us,” she says. “The objectives change depending on what Nemesis Q wants, and there’s no way of knowing that ahead of time. If it’s a recruitment mission like I think, then we have to stay until all of the people with cards answer their summonings or die from trying to ignore it. Then we’ll learn the location of the gate through a vision in our heads and have to make it… there….”
She slides down the wall as she trails off, until she’s setting against the bottom. Her legs are splayed out like she’s lost all strength in them, and her breathing hasn’t settled either. It looks like she’s about to pass out.
I crouch down next to her and grab her shoulders. “Don’t fall asleep yet, we still need answers.”
“I… I just need a few minutes of rest.” She grabs my wrist, but her fingers are so slack that they barely cling to them. She’s even struggling to keep her eyelids open, and failing . “Just… stay here until then. Don’t… try… and leave…”
Her eyes close. Her hand slips from my wrist and falls to her lap. Her head leans to the side.
She’s out cold. “Tsk. Of course you fall asleep now of all times.”
I take a seat next to her. She won’t be any good to anyone if she’s tired. I’ll let her rest for a while.
Gai goes to the window and stares out of it for a moment, his brows closing in while he works his brain to think about something. “I’m having trouble believing this is the future.”
“I bet the others who came here before thought the same,” I say. It makes sense if you didn’t know things like that were possible. If I hadn’t been part of the Holy Grail War, or combed through the library at home as a child, then I probably wouldn’t believe it either.
But, while it’s been a while since I’ve read that stuff, I know for a fact that there should have been some way for this sort of thing to have been avoided. How far into the future are we so that all the safeguards failed and magi allowed this to happen? Fifty years? One hundred?
What could have caused all of this?
I look back over to Ayako and see her ash-covered body lying defenseless. If she’s been here for days, she could have been hurt. I carefully run my fingers along her skin, where the patches of ash clinging to it are. They wipe away with some effort to reveal unblemished flesh.
Good, she wasn’t hurt after all. It would have been a waste to have gotten involved only for her to die next to me because of a wound I didn’t notice.
Gai clears his throat. I look up to see he’s giving me a disapproving look with a frown. “Not cool, dude.”
“I was checking her for injuries.” I really was.
“Right, and I—WHOA!” His words turn into a surprised shout as Nemesis Q appears out of thin-air in the middle of the room.
This is its doing. This is a sick game of some kind that it’s putting me through. When I think about all the pain to this point, my body moves on its own to grab it and force it to take us back.
It ignores me as I pass through its body. There’s no physical presence at all. While I tumble onto the floor, it goes over to Ayako and gives her that same inquisitive look that it gave me, as if judging her worth.
It points towards her and the world zooms out until we’re further in the air, overlooking the ruins of what was once Fuyuki. A quick glance behind me reveals the Shinto district looks almost like a desert of silver sand. Then an image appears in my head of a payphone half-buried beneath the remains of a building and sign.
“Escort the Drifter to the checkpoint to clear this round and be rewarded with the power to change this future.”
Then, as abruptly as we were taken away, we were back in the same spot. Had we even left in the first place? Or was it something like remote-viewing? Nemesis Q is gone before I can even ask.
Gai shakes his head to clear it. “That…. looked not too far from the school grounds. I think I’ve seen that payphone in the Mount Miyama Shopping District.”
“That’s in the direction we came from and a little north.” If that’s the case, Ayako can get us there in a matter of minutes. I gently shake her shoulder to wake her up. “Rise and shine, we need to go.”
She doesn’t move.
A pang of worry stirs in my chest and I try again. “Mitsuzuri, wake up!”
Her only response is heavy and labored breaths.
I reach for her face and feel her cheeks burning. Her forehead is the same. It clicks and my chest tightens when I realize why it appeared now. “That son of a bitch!”
Gai comes over. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She’s burning up.” I had thought her movements before was from using Magic Circuits and figured the activation caused her body to feel so warm while she carried me and afterwards. But I was wrong. The sweat and her breathing being so labored while she’s unconscious say otherwise. “She’s got a fever and it probably won’t settle while we’re here.”
He tenses. “Seriously?”
“The words it told us were ‘Escort this Drifter’ weren’t they? If she could move on her own, Nemesis Q wouldn’t have phrased it that way because she could just run with the both of us given how easily she carried me. It was addressing us. And she said that Nemesis Q had been recruiting this round and we’re likely the last ones left.”
“So… it’s testing us?” he figures.
I nod. “With her life on the line as the wager. Either we get her back in time or she dies and we remain stuck here.”
The moment I touch it and feel the glossy texture covering the surface, I can’t deny it’s real. The dream had been real. That… white-thing and its words were real. What did I get myself into?
I pick up the card and turn it over, expecting to see the same number as before. Instead, there’s a list of rules to follow:
1.) Those that possess this card and traverse time are known as “Drifters”.
2.) Those that still have a value on their card are known as “Active Drifters”. It is best for Active Drifters to keep their cards on them at all times.
3.) Active Drifters are required to respond in a set amount of time if they hear the ringing in their heads. The intensity determines the urgency, and failure to respond in time will lead to death.
4.) Active Drifters that die in the future have their bodies die in the present.
5.) Drifters that attempt to speak of matters directly related to their mission to non-Drifters will be judged by Nemesis Q to deem if they are allowed to. Any further attempt after the initial warning will be considered a violation and lead to instant death.
6.) Drifters are still bound by the rules, even if their value is used up.
7.) Rules may be changed over the course of time.
Who came up with these rules? How is it even possible to travel through time?
Damn it, I need to get this to Emiya. But if it was a violation of the rules then would I really die? Maybe I can just slip it into his bag at school? Before I can think on it further, a soft rapping noise comes from the door.
A softer voice follows. “Nii-san, are you awake?”
“Yeah.” I put the card under my pillow as Sakura takes that as a cue to stick her head inside of the room. I see she’s dressed to go to Emiya’s place already. “You’re heading to that idiot’s place this morning?”
She nods. Good. Then I can give her the card to hand to that idiot and have her tell him to look it over carefully.
I reach under the pillow to pull out the card. But the moment the words begin to come out of my mouth, my mind and body freezes in terror. The thing-in-white is standing there now, right in front of my eyes, like a semi-transparent ghost.
“Nii-san?” Sakura’s head tilts as she looks at me. “Are you okay?”
It’s standing right in front of her, yet she doesn’t notice it. Can she not see it?
The white-thing raises a finger. It waves it back and forth. Then the barbed wires around my brain and heart shift, digging the points that had settled into place deeper into them.
“Nnnghhh!” I release the card to hold my hands over my head and heart, fingers digging into them as though to pull out the wires. They’re hurting me in warning, telling me that death is the result of what I plan on doing.
Sakura enters the room and stops by my side at the sight of my pained face as they tighten further. “Nii-san, are you okay?”
I lie to her. “…I’m fine. It’s just heartburn from the restaurant.”
The white-thing lowers its finger. The pain stops. Then it vanishes, its message delivered well-enough.
I breathe easier once it disappears. But my fear remains. How did it get into my room? Didn’t the Old Worm have some protections into place around the manor?
Sakura reaches out and touches my head, feeling the sweat that dotted it from the fear.
I brush her hand away. I couldn’t be sure if it judged giving her the card, speaking to her about the card, or having her deliver the card was a violation, but it’s safe to say that those options are off the table. She’s useless to me here. “I’m fine. Just leave me alone and go to that idiot’s place.”
Sakura looks like she wants to say something again, but falters when our eyes meet. She merely nods silently and then walks out of the room. The door closes softly behind her.
The hurt look on her face at the end makes my stomach churn, like I’ve kicked a puppy. But I have to be careful, even if it means not putting up with her misplaced gratitude. I can’t go into this blindly. I don’t want to die for someone else’s sake like this after everything—especially not because I decided to try and help someone else for once.
…I need to find Ayako. She has to be a Drifter since she has a card as well. She’s the only person I can be certain has one, so I need to find her and have her explain everything to me.
Ayako isn’t on the school grounds by the time the morning session of the Archery Club is about to end. Not only that, but the Student President isn’t here either. The card feels heavy in my pocket when I think on how the connection couldn’t be more blatant.
Then Ayako’s brother forcefully opens the door to the Club Captain’s room. He’s still in his school clothes, so I assume he just arrived. Without any preamble, he marches over, grabs me by my lapels, and shoves me into a wall.
The impact causes several of the pictures and certificates to fall to the ground as he yells, “Where’s my sister!”
“That’s what I want to know!”I try to push him, but apparently monstrous strength runs in their family. “What are you blaming me for!?”
“She didn’t say a word when we went home last night because of whatever you said to her. Then she was gone by the time I woke up. What did you tell her?”
“Nothing that would have done that,” I tell him. “Now let me go!”
He doesn’t. Instead, he pushes me against the wall even harder and the back of my head feels the sting of it. That’s when a firm hand grasps his right wrist and pulls it away from me.
It’s Emiya. He’s standing there in his school uniform, with Sakura in the doorway. He must’ve been coming to see her (or she told him about this morning) when the commotion caught his ears, and now he’s playing the hero always. Not that I’m complaining this time.
“That’s enough,” he says. “Picking a fight based on assumptions doesn’t solve anything.”
Ayako’s brother lets me go in order to pull himself free of Emiya. He doesn’t get free even with both hands. Not until Emiya willingly loosens his grip of steel.
Then Sakura steps just past the frame of the door. She still has that look on her face from this morning, but this time it’s directed towards him. He looks away from her and then storms out of the range itself.
I rub the back of my head. “Honestly, he just comes in and blames me for it without any proof….”
“Shinji.” I turn my attention towards Emiya when I hear the undertone of sharpness in his voice. The last time I heard it was months ago, but I remember it as clearly as I do the piercing look he’s giving me now. “Do you know what’s happened to her?”
I catch the underlying inquiry. He’s not asking ‘Do you know what’s happened?’ but ‘Did you do something to her?’ instead. I should’ve expected that much.
My teeth grit as fire rises in my chest. “I don’t! The talk I had with her was about her slacking off in getting Sakura into shape to take over the club. She said that she was going to talk about it with Fujimura today before she ran out. That’s all!”
His eyes make it clear that he doubts me, despite being someone who usually believes whatever he’s told. He remembers what happens with Rider and the lie I told him back then about Ayako. But he doesn’t say anything with Sakura there. He still believes that she’s not involved in this side of the world.
I temper the fire inside my chest, speaking softer this time. “It’s the truth… I wouldn’t do anything to her after she visited me in the hospital. I’ve been different since then. You’ve seen that much, haven’t you?”
I can tell he wants to believe it when his expression softens slightly. But doubt is still there. The past doesn’t go away. Whether or not he’s forgiven me for what I did back then, he hasn’t forgotten it.
He puts his hands into his pockets. “Just to be safe, I’ll ask Fuji-nee if she’s heard from her, or if her parents have called in her absence. If she has gone missing, we should start looking into it. Keep an ear out in case you hear something.”
I struggle not to pull out the card in my pocket and hand it over as he turns to leave. This is the perfect chance, but I remember the pain and warning a few hours ago. I can’t tell him about the card, the white-thing, or the message I heard….
But, if I recall what the rules on the card were, then I might be able to give him something else to work with. “Try asking the Student President.”
He turns back to me at that.
“The Student President might know something,” I explain, crossing my arms. “He’s been hanging out with her in their free time from what I’ve learned, which is a bit off since he shies away from women. I was going to ask him if he knew why she was so tired all the time myself today, but he hasn’t shown himself. When you consider he’s normally one of the first ones through the gate in the morning, and the fact that they’re both missing at the same time….”
Emiya regards me for a moment. Then he nods in silent agreement before heading back out of the range. He’d look into that much.
That left me alone with Sakura like this morning. Only this time the white-thing doesn’t appear to finish what it started. It looks like my guess is on the money. It’ll only appear when directly related to the matter of the cards and the future.
I notice Sakura staring at me for a moment. Did she doubt me too now? It wouldn’t surprise me. She’s been the main victim when I was at my absolute worst. There’d be something wrong with her if she didn’t have doubts.
“I’m trying to be different, Sakura,” I tell her. “I won’t go back to how I was. Not to you or him or Ayako. I promise.”
Her eyes soften, and a small smile forms across her face. “I know, Nii-san.”
That’s when my head starts ringing.
No. Ringing is too soft a word. It’s more like a piercing shriek that drags the tip of a dagger across my brain.
The point digs into the brain matter, radiating pain instead of blood. It takes away my breath, takes away the ground, and leaves me staggering as the world tilts beneath me.
Sakura reaches over to catch me. “Nii-san!?”
I break her hold on me and lean against the wall. At least I think it’s the wall—no, I’ve slid down the wall. I’m on the floor, barely upright with my back against the vertical surface as Sakura looks down at me.
My eyes catch crimson staining her outfit where my head had been briefly. I reach up to feel something wet coming down from my nose. Blood stains my fingers when I pull back.
The sound intensifies again. A cry feels like it escapes my mouth. Sakura’s mouth moves as well, but no words can be heard over the noise.
I can’t think straight like this. It feels like if the pain gets any worse my brain will explode too. I need make the call or else I’ll die, but I can’t with Sakura here.
I feel my mouth move and hope that I’ve told her to go get the nurse. She looks uncertain for a moment. Then she gathers herself and runs out the club room to do so. Good. That buys me a few minutes.
I pull out my phone. The number is still saved in the Contact’s list, so I have to assume that’s the one to call. Before my brain splits open from the pain, I press the Call button when the Psyren number is highlighted.
The white-thing abruptly appears in front of me. It leans down like a bird scouring the ground for a worm, peering at my downed form with its head craned. Almost like it’s judging me. Its head nods and it reaches down and digs its talons into my brain—into my soul.
Then it pulls.
The ringing stops. My head clears. My eyes stare up at the ashen, cloud-covered sky.
So this is the future.
I descend into Hell as I dream. My sins crawl up my body in the form of tenebrous hands, reaching up from the ichorous slurry to drag me into the abyss. No matter how much I struggle, I can’t break free.
(No, stop! I’ve changed!)
They pull and the world becomes black. The punishment begins. The stygian mud drowns me in the evils of Man for the indulgence of rape—gifting the accumulation of sins with the violation of the mind, body, and heart.
(I won’t do it again! I swear!)
The body is kept intact to bleed endlessly, oozing out acrid curses to consume the world in ink and paint the canvas of Earth into a portrait of Hell. Sitting atop a throne of bulbous flesh, I become the king of a world of sludge beneath a blood-red sky—a kingship that has no worth in a world without humans.
I find myself committing the most heinous acts of depravity born of Man, my body reenacting the worst sins of humanity as the victimizer, imbibing the twisted pleasure they feel. Then I take the place of the victim, and learn what it means to be defiled and tormented. Like that, the mind is bombarded by the whim of an angry god that pays evil unto evil, but is never allowed to break and gain the reprieve of insanity.
(Stop, stop, stop—!)
I suffer from a pain that transcends flesh and bone for the sin of being human. The filthy soul is exposed to All the World’s Evils, but not blackened by it. That ensures the horror can never be accepted with oneself, thus the suffering remains endless.
It hurts. It hurts! IT HURTS! HELP ME! SAVE ME! KILL ME!
(Just let me die! Please… just let me die…)
No. The suffering must continue. The path to salvation is nowhere to be found in the pitch.
Atonement starts in the pits of Hell, an endless suffering that eclipses death as the penalty for violation in the name of respect.
“Bear witness to the crimes of humankind, and never know the ignorance of their sins again.”
That is the decree of the one who oversees the cursed world, Angr—
I wake up screaming as the rays of the morning sun burn away the vivid nightmare. Then cascading purple hair blocks the light. It frames Sakura’s face as she hovers over me.
“Nii-san! Can you hear me!?”
Her eyes are wide with worry. Her hands are clutching my sweat-soaked shoulders, fingers tensed. Had she been shaking me awake?
I stop screaming and start gasping for air, blinking away the tears that sting at my eyes.
She speaks softly as her eyes continue to peer into mine. “Are you okay?”
“I’m…” Please… just let me die…“I’m fine… just a nightmare.”
Her hands drift back to her lap as I sit up and rub my throat. It feels raw on the inside. I must’ve been yelling for awhile—longer than usual.
“But I couldn’t wake you up for over five minutes this time.” Her right fingers find their way onto my head, feeling the cold sweat on the hot surface. “Your nightmares are getting worse.”
I move her hand away. “I just need stronger sleeping pills then.”
Her eyes turn to the nightstand by the bed, where she sees the bottle. She reaches for it and inspects the label and contents. Her frown of concern deepens. “You’ve already gone through this many in two weeks?”
Of course I have. I haven’t had a decent night’s sleep ever since that damn Gilgamesh shoved that albino brat’s heart into me, claiming it would give me the Holy Grail. I can’t remember that time clearly, but when I dream it returns. The sleeping pills help, but the moment I enter the fringes of the waking world, the crimes of humanity stand at the gate to pull me back.
“I’ll just get more later.” I shove aside the covers as Sakura sits up from the edge of my bed. “Anyway, what time is it?”
“Around 6 in the morning, Nii-san.”
I groan softly as I take her place on the edge. My T-Shirt is clinging to my body and my pants feel heavy as well. I feel filthy in general, but I’ve become accustomed to that. Still, my sheets are soaked and will need to be washed. The last thing I need is to come home and find out the stench has seeped into the mattress.
Sakura is dressed like she’s ready to leave the house. No sense in asking her to take care of it then. “I’m taking a shower. If you’re going to that idiot Emiya’s place for breakfast then get going.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
“I said go. Don’t make me repeat myself.”
She nods her head. “Then I will see you at school, Nii-san.”
I wait until she leaves and shuts the door before I muster the effort to get onto my feet. I have to get to the Archery Club soon and open the range for the other early-risers. Ayako used to handle that, but over the last few months she’s been late coming in. And then she sleeps in the club office most of that time anyway.
I don’t know what kind of game she’s running, but what was the point in visiting me in the hospital six months ago if she was just going to start slacking off instead? She asked me to help with getting the club back into shape, so things would be smoother for when Sakura took over as the Captain. At the time, I didn’t think that meant I would do everything.
I shower and clean myself up, putting the sheets in the wash afterwards. Then I slip into my uniform, grab a can of coffee from the refrigerator, and head out the door.
The streets are quiet as always as I walk them alone to the school. There aren’t really all that many people up at this time. Yet, somehow, the Student President ends up walking up to the gate at the same time I do.
“Early again, Matou?” he asks, while looking as bland as ever.
I shrug. “Well, someone has to open up the club. Since Fujimura-Sensei isn’t in yet and Ayako has been slacking off, it falls onto my shoulders. Honestly, the women of this school leave a lot to be desired when it comes to getting things done.”
He makes a slightly unpleasant face before schooling his features. Then pushes up his glasses by the bridge and says, “I suppose you are entitled to your opinions.”
“…What was that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing you need to concern yourself with.”
I watch as he walks off. It feels as though I’ve just been slighted, but I don’t have the energy to say anything back or deal with him. Not before the canned coffee kicks in.
I fight down the displeasure in my chest and just get things at the archery range ready for the morning.
By the time homeroom is about to start, there’s still no sign of Ayako. She didn’t even show up at the range this morning, despite her brother saying she went out ahead of him. Is she running off and leaving all the work to me on purpose?
As if that wasn’t annoying enough, the door into Class 3-A is blocked by two people I don’t want to see at the moment—Emiya and Tohsaka. They had gotten more cordial over the last few months, so them having a deep conversation wasn’t a surprise. But I’ve been trying to keep my distance since the end of the war, something that is incredibly hard when they are blocking my way.
Emiya is the first to notice me. “Good morning, Shinji.”
“I don’t see anything good about it.” I ignore Emiya for a moment and turn to the other one. “The bell is about to ring. If you want your standing in the school to remain on point, you should hurry up and get to your homeroom.”
She brushes her hair over her shoulder in a conceited manner. “I’m merely conversing with a fellow classmate. There’s no crime in that is there, Matou-kun?”
“It is when you’re blocking the way. Hurry up and move.”
“I’m about done anyway.” A small, smug smile comes onto her face. “Speaking of standings, you should work on pulling up your grades. I’ve heard if they slip any lower you’ll be forced out of the Archery Club.”
I grit my teeth as the smug bitch walks off. I don’t know what I ever saw in her. Or, judging by the look that Emiya has, what he sees in her.
He turns to me. “Shinji, are you actually okay? Sakura has told me that you’ve been having trouble sleeping lately.”
Why did Sakura even feel the need to run her mouth about my issues to this idiot? I doubt it’s something he can help me with, even if he was the type of idiot who would try. I need to have a word with her about that later on. “I just built up a tolerance to the sleeping pills I’ve been taking. That’s all.”
Emiya’s expression shifts to a more serious look. “Shinji, whatever you still have against Tohsaka, if it might an after-effect of what happened that day then—”
Stop, it hurts! It hurts! It’s growing! IT’S GROWING! HELP! HELP ME!
I push past him as the memories threaten to surface because of his words. I don’t want to remember that time. I don’t want to remember that pain of having countless worms violating me from the inside out as the grail turned me into a swollen mass of flesh.
That gorilla, Gai Gotou, laughs about something loudly in the seat in front of mine as I sit down. I actually listen to his jabbering for the rest of homeroom in an effort to repress the memories of that night. I glare at Emiya the entire time from the corner of my eyes.
Damn him for reminding me.
I walk towards the range to find Sakura after class ends. We need to have a talk about her bringing up things that don’t concern her to others. Of all people, she should understand the desire to keep things hidden away.
“I’m sure I saw Mitsuzuri-san with one today—”
Ayako’s name being mentioned grabs my attention as I near the entrance to the range. The voice came from the side of the building, so I look over it to see three girls from the track team. The one speaking is Kane Himuro, the daughter of the mayor of the city, if I remembered right.
“—the red card with rumors floating around about people suddenly dropping dead after they use it. I saw her from the window looking down at it.”
Now that she mentioned it, there have been several cases of people suffering from Sudden Death Syndrome over the last few months. There was no official explanation, but, according to her, there’s some urban legend going around that receiving a red card marks you for death. It sounds ridiculous, but Himuro is a bit of a rumormonger—despite acting otherwise a lot of the time.
“I don’t think that’s really true,” says the mousiest of the bunch, Yukika Saegusa. “If that was really the case, there would be a public announcement given how there’s been an increase all over the world.”
Kaede Makidera, the loudest of the trio, rounds out her argument with logic. “Yeah, I don’t think she’d get involved with something like that either way. You might be taking these rumors too seriously.”
They both have a point. But there is a case where the public wouldn’t be informed—if it has something to do with magecraft or that side of the world. Even so, while that might work on a small scale, like with Caster and Rider, I don’t think that it can operate on a global scale for this long. Not when it attracts this much attention.
Not to mention Tohsaka would be all over it given she and Ayako often talk to one another. If she really is incompetent enough to let that slide under the radar, it’d be an embarrassment. Not that I wouldn’t love to rub that in her smug face, but it’d be just as embarrassing for me if I point her in one direction and it turns out to be nothing.
I deal with her enough as is every time I see that smug look on her face after that day.
The trio leaves toward the track field after that. There’s nothing new I can learn from just standing there, so I go inside.
The constant sound of arrows pelting targets blend into the background as I enter the range for the second time that day. It’s a lot livelier than this morning. That normally meant more work for me, but Sakura acts as my proxy for the time being to gain more experience. That way, when Ayako finally passes over the title of ‘Captain’, the transition will be smoother.
She’s still too passive compared to Ayako when it comes to keeping people in line. But she’s improving with every club meeting. And, if anyone gives her trouble like they did when she joined up, I’ll step in.
Right now she’s helping Ayako’s younger brother with his aiming. The kid’s not bad. I’ve seen him on his own and he’s a decent shot, so he shouldn’t need help. Then I catch the glance he gives Sakura while she helps him lineup a shot and see that he’s more interested in her….
I make a note to deal with him at a later date as Sakura looks in my direction. I silently gesture for her to come to me.
She excuses herself to do so. “Yes, Nii-san?”
“Is Ayako in today?”
She nods and looks towards the door where the Captain’s room is. “She said that she wasn’t feeling well and wanted to be left alone. If there was an emergency then I was supposed to get either you or Fujimura-Sensei.”
If that was the case, then she probably wouldn’t be awake any time soon. I’ll use the chance to search around for that card, if it really does exist. Even if I can’t use magecraft, if there’s something magical about it then Sakura or the idiot could peg it—which reminds me of what I wanted to talk about in the first place.
“Sakura, don’t talk to Emiya anymore about what’s going on with me. It’s not something he or Tohsaka needs to be involved with, and I don’t want to repeat myself. Understand?”
Her expression shifts between wanting to say something and then returning to her submissive state. “I understand.”
“Then go back to what you were doing.” I watch as she turns away silently and goes back to the range, leaving me to my thoughts on what to do next. If Himuro was right, then Ayako has the card with her today. If that’s the case, I guess it’ll be best to start with the changing room.
I walk into the men’s section first to change for the club myself. Then I knock on the door of the women’s section to make sure no one is inside. Getting caught rummaging around in Ayako’s belongings isn’t something I feel like having to explain.
Once I was sure it was clear inside, it takes me less than a minute to go through her belongings. There’s no card to be found. I do, however, find what looks to be a makeshift survival kit. There’s some survival bars, water-bottles, a half-filled bottle of the same brand of sleeping pills I use, a pocket-notebook, two pens, and a black matchbook with the words ‘Copenhagen’ on it.
Copenhagen… Copenhagen… where have I heard that name before…
Ah, Emiya works there from time to time. It’s a bar, if I remember right. Why does she have this?
I look into the pocket-notebook to find it filled with dates and scribbles about something called ‘Taboo’ with inhuman descriptions—like something out of a fantasy story or a nightmare. Is she having nightmares and recording them? Or is it something else…
I need more information… and I know just who to ask.
I walk out of the women’s room and back to the range. Ayako’s brother is standing alone now that Sakura is elsewhere, nocking an arrow. If there’s anyone who knows about this, it’ll be him. I just need to be smart in how I approach it.
I wait until he fires his shot before I call him. “Mitsuzuri. I need to have a word with you about your sister. ”
He stares in my direction with a look of disinterest. “What about her?”
“There’s rumors flying around that she’s been hanging around at an unsavory bar these days. And when you consider her behavior lately, on top of the earlier rumors, it paints an unpleasant picture.”
His look of disinterest turns into a glare. He acts all uncaring and distant, but it looks like I struck a nerve after all. “What exactly are you implying?”
I smirk. “I’m not implying anything. Rather, I’m offering to clear up this mess if you can tell me where exactly it is that she’s going to. What you say could decide if things are better for her or worse if it reaches Fujimura. It’d be terrible if she ends up being forced to retire from the club in her last year, if not leave the school entirely.”
He hesitates for a moment, but he talks. “She’s been going to the Temple at the top of the mountain for the last few months to train in the martial art they practice. If you don’t believe me, ask that Ryuudou guy on the Student Council.”
A picture starts to form in my head when I recall what the Student President said earlier. He knew about whatever is going on with her. That’s why he said what he did. There’s something connecting him, Ayako, and the Copenhagen together. But the only solid link between them is…
That’s the main link I can think of. But I can’t imagine him having anything to do with involving ordinary people in events from the other side of the world. That idiot’s line of thinking falls in the other direction.
So that leaves the card that Himuro mentioned. “Now that you mention it, I have seen him talking to her and showing her a red card of some kind. Does she have it?”
“Why does that matter?”
“Proof,” I tell him. “If she has that card on her then, when it comes up, it’ll lend credibility to her alibi.”
“Then yeah, I’ve seen her with a calling card. She never leaves the house without it and usually keeps it on her, but she doesn’t like me looking at it.”
If she keeps it on her then it’s probably with her now in the room. I can go check while she’s asleep. “Well, if that’s the case then I’ll go tell Fujimura when I get a chance. It’d be a shame if she ended up disappointed in one of her favorite students because she got caught up in rumors like that.”
Leaving him behind, I make my way to the club room and find her asleep with her head on the desk. Her body rises and falls in a rhythm, undisturbed as I close the door as quietly as I can. Then, light as a feather, I wander over to the shelf next to the desk.
From there I eye the pocket of her hakama, spotting something red peeking over the edge of it. That must be the card Himuro was talking about. I keep my attention on the shelf as I inch closer and use two fingers to pull it out, bringing it to my face.
It’s a calling card of some kind, the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in some kind of cheap, English, gothic text. The red color abruptly turned black like paint being chipped off or worn away by weather to reveal what was underneath it in the top corner. Turning it over showed a phone number.
I barely finish running my eyes over the number before the world spins and I’m on the floor. My arm is behind my back, a calloused hand holds my face to the ground, and the card is away from me. I struggle to turn my head and catch the look Ayako is giving me with half-bloodshot eyes.
She looks pissed. “I can’t believe you actually went through my—”
I cut her off, my own voice louder. “I just picked up your card off the floor and this is the thanks I get?”
Her expression wavers and her hand eases up on my face, relieving the pressure. But she’s still on top of me. She didn’t buy it completely.
“What? You think I’m lying?” I struggle to get up, but it feels like I have a bunch of cement blocks on my back. “What about a stupid card is so important your first reaction after waking up is to throw me on the ground?”
She grits her teeth and her body tenses. But she doesn’t say anything. She just gets up and grabs her card, shoving it back into her pocket. “Don’t look or even think about it again.”
“If it’s so important to you then don’t leave it lying around like that.” I get back to my feet and dust myself off. There’s an ache in my arm and shoulder where she put me in a joint lock. “And why the Hell are you sleeping on the job anyway? You’re supposed to be out there helping the First Years.”
Her lips purse and she rubs the bridge between her eyes. “I’ve been tired lately. It’s nothing that you and your sister can’t handle. She’s supposed to be taking the reins in a month or so anyway. That’s what everyone agreed to with Fujimura-Sensei.”
“That’s not the point.” I let my anger at the pain in my shoulder bleed into my voice. “You told me that you wanted to get the club back into shape and begged me to help you. Remember that?”
She glares at me again. “I didn’t beg, I asked.”
“I’ve been doing more than my fair share, opening up and closing while you’ve been slacking off. And I put up with it until now. But if this is how things are going to be all the time, why don’t you just stay home instead of coming at all?”
Her head tilts down and her hair cascades over her eyes, obscuring them from sight. Her fist clenches like she wants to take a swing, tensing so tight her body trembles… then her hand goes slack and her body still.
“…Maybe I should….” Her voice carries a note of defeat in it so thick that it’s sickening to hear. There isn’t an ounce of competitive spirit left in her. “I’ll talk to Fujimura-Sensei about it tomorrow.”
I stare in silent disbelief. Ayako always put up a fight when she thought I overstepped my position before. Now she crumbles without a fight. I expect that from Sakura (something we were supposed to be trying to correct), but not her.
Had this been just a couple of months ago, I could see myself laughing at her being bought so low she’d give up everything without a fight. But after what she said when she visited me in the hospital, and the events that led to my extended stay… it just leaves a bitter taste in my mouth to see her like this. Whatever her deal is with the calling card, it managed to do what Rider didn’t that day.
I really don’t like the thought of someone succeeding where I failed.
If this has something to do with a magus then I should leave it to Tohsaka. It’s her job in the first place. But, given how long Ayako’s been like this, if Tohsaka hasn’t found anything yet then she must be either blind or ignoring it.
The card is the key. If I could get my hands on one of those calling cards, then I could take it to Emiya instead. He can play the hero, Ayako can get help, and I can rub it into Tohsaka’s face all at once.
Ayako stiffens abruptly, as though a jolt of electricity went up her spine. A flash of fear crosses her face, and then her expression hardens. She looks me in the eyes. “Shinji, I’ll say this once more: forget the card and everything about it, otherwise you’ll regret it.”
After that vague warning, she walks out without another word and briskly heads for the changing room. Not five seconds later, she runs for entrance of the range with her belongings without even changing out of her club clothes. She ignores everyone who greets her as she leaves with a serious look on her face, and the other members of the club start staring at me like I’ve done something wrong.
I shut the door and pull out my phone. I have seconds at best her brother or Sakura comes to ask me what happened. No one else has the courage or concern to do it otherwise. So I dial the number while it’s fresh in my memories—
“The number you have dialed is not accepting calls at the moment. Please try again later.”
—and get an automated message right before there’s a gentle series of knocks on the door. It’s Sakura. It’s too soft for the alternative.
I save the number into my list of Contacts, under the name ‘Psyren’. I could call or try looking up the number online later on. For now, I do damage control….
The scope of my dream this time is a black canvas, dotted with vibrant stars. Something moves through the darkness, past the stars and Sun, sailing towards me…. no, it’s not heading towards me. I’m merely in the way.
(Is this outer space?)
Standing between the approaching mass and the Earth behind me, floating in the void, is a vaguely humanoid…thing that appears to be mimicking a human. It towers over me at seven feet tall, elongated and bone thin limbs drifting down to near the hem of a white coat with red fur trimming. Its bird-shaped, head-covering helmet is crooked at an angle as it observes me in curiosity.
(What are you supposed to be?)
Its limbs bend, bringing its hands up. It extends one towards me. There, in its talon-like fingers, is a calling card with the words ‘Psyren’ printed on the front in black on red—ink on blood.
(Oh… right, I finished that long-ass questionnaire while I was out eating and it said the card would be delivered to my house the next morning, even though it didn’t ask for an address.)
I reach out and grasp the card, only for crimson chains to emerge from it. They coil around my heart and brain like barbed-wire, anchoring them into place under the threat of tearing them to shreds.
(It hurts! STOP! STOOOOPPPP!!!!)
The thing-in-white grasps my head, grasps my brain—grasps my soul. It pulls it close until it’s touching the helmet covering its own. Then I hear its desire.
“Those who risk their souls to traverse time, bear witness to the future. Hearken the summoning’s toll, know despair, and embrace power to change it. Such are the terms of the contract.”
Too inhuman to register, yet clear as a cloudless sky, the message is burned into my brain by its pointed fingers. Then the thing-in-white releases me, and I fall to the Earth below.
I wake up at the sensation of falling down, despite being firmly on top of my bed sheets.
My head aches. My heart aches. They ache like the dream, the chain and barbed wire coiling around them within my body—within my soul.
It hurts, but I force myself to sit up in the bed. Then I catch a glimpse of something red on my nightstand. My heart stills and my mind freezes.
I want to label it as a dream. The moment I look at it is the moment it stops being a dream. It becomes real—the pain, the words, the white-thing that violated my mind and heart to bind them in chains and barbed wire, and the words themselves will all become real.
But if I lie back down and close my eyes, it’ll all be a dream….
The alarm clock goes off at full volume. The sudden noise draws my eyes to the nightstand on reflex, a hand already moving to hit the snooze button. The red calling card is there, between an empty glass and near-empty bottle of sleeping pills.
It ceases to be a dream.
Chapter 8: Rider vs. Assassin
The Church on the Hill
There stood a lone church on a hill, opposite of the Miongawa river, where the air felt stale. Towering over the surroundings, it represented the only absolute neutral grounds for the upcoming war that was to be waged. Within it was a priest who stared at a bible in his hand, standing at the head of the rows of pews, just before an altar upon which a candle burned.
Only the creaking of the doors drew him out of his reading. He closed the book and turned his gaze to a young man with a long case in one hand and a slip of paper in the other. He recognized him as a Matou from the profiles he had done in the past, the nephew of the previous war’s representative from their family. One never did forget the forbidden fruit, and witnessing the man’s fall and misery was what allowed him to acknowledge his own pleasures in life.
“What brings you to this place, lost lamb?” he asked in a voice that seemed placid, yet it resounded in the empty church.
The Matou approached the priest and presented the paper. “I’ve come to be added to the official list to participate in the Holy Grail War.”
“Oh? I must admit that I did not know that you were capable of the Art,” he said with a note of curiosity in his voice. His eyes set themselves on the Command Seals on the boy’s hand, so the grail recognized him as a Master one way or the other. “Though, is it not strange that the Matou would prepare two heirs for their family when the standard practice is to raise only one?”
The young man tensed. The priest could see the muscles in his jaw clamp together as, through gritted teeth, he ground out, “And why do you presume that?”
“I was made aware of certain facts during my time as an apprentice of the Tohsaka Clan.” A blasé means of informing him that he was aware of Sakura’s former status as he reviewed the application. “But I assure you that my neutrality in the war is enforced, regardless of my previous allegiances.”
His words were in doubt. The young man’s eyes made it clear he did not believe such a thing. Not that it mattered. “Everything seems to be in order. However, are you certain you wish to pursue this course of action? The nature of the conflict may prove disastrous for one in your… condition.”
Grey eyes narrowed in offense and suspicion. “And what does that mean?”
“Forgive me,” the priest said, though there was no change in his expression or tone. “I meant no offense. It is merely that I possess a modest amount of talent in spiritual surgery and can see the signs of one afflicted by aliments that would require such treatment. The last participant from the Matou suffered greatly from it before meeting his end, and I thought you should be aware of the risks.”
“The risks don’t matter as long as I accomplish what I set out to do,” was all that the young boy said. His pale fingers grasped the handle of his long case tighter. “Death comes to everything in end.”
“If nothing else your conviction is clear,” the priest said. “Very well. But keep in mind that this place is a safe haven should you decide to seek refuge from the war. Do not hesitate should you find yourself wishing to be withdrawn from the conflict.”
An idle part of the priest wondered, as he watched the young man leave, if the same scenario that once stirred him to accept himself for what he was would somehow play out once more. He would need to pay close attention to the competitors. But first he needed to contact Rin and remind her that the deadline for the war was approaching and there were only two slots left, Archer and Saber.
Outside the Church
“You don’t actually trust that man, do you?” were the first words Rider said as they left the church on the hill. He was in his astral form, invisible to the eyes of all as he spoke through their connection.
“Of course not.” Shinji cracked open the case and took out a small stack of flyers with adhesive strips on them. “I already knew from the Old Worm that he was Rin’s guardian and took appropriate measures ahead of time.”
He set one of the flyers on a telephone pole at the bottom of the hill, continuing what he had been doing prior to arriving at the Church. He had skipped school to set them up over a great deal of the western side of the big bridge already. While the flyers all had meaningless announcements on them about a performance, he had applied a stamp on them in a special blend of invisible ink that acted as a receptor to processed magical energy or large shifts in mana outside the saturation level within the surroundings upon activation.
In other words, they formed a detection system for magical activity. All of the seals were linked to the map he had at home. It would allow him to monitor the track down Servants within the city.
“Anyway, the biggest issue right now that Servant that attacked us last night,” Shinji said as they began a slow walk. As if a filter overlapped his eyes, the information about Lancer appeared due to the contract. A sort of clairvoyance that put both his stats and name on display now that he had made the connection. “He’s an incarnation of Cu Chulainn.”
“How did you discover his identity?” Rider asked. He didn’t sound as interested as one would expect for learning his enemies’ identity.
“‘Hounds of Ulster’ was the name of one his Noble Phantasms—” A quick cough left Shinji’s lips as he covered his mouth. No blood, but it felt like his lungs were trying to hack themselves up. He’d need medicine once he was done here.
He continued where he left off. “A five-minute Internet search for a lance-wielding hero who used magic, and had a connection to Ulster and hounds, pretty much gave him away. Technology has advanced to the point that communications between different parts of the world have become trivial, while the Holy Grail War was started two-hundred years ago when tales of heroes were spread slower because of the inferior means of communication, making it harder for the identities of foreign Servants to be found. To reinforce that one safeguards of the Grail made it filter out potential Servants from the East.”
“And yet here I stand,” Rider stated. He sounded as if it was something to be proud of.
Misplaced pride, if Shinji had to guess as he set another flyer out of sight, behind a dumpster in an alley. “The war wasn’t supposed to go on for as long as it has, but in every war until now there hasn’t been anyone to claim the prize. As a consequence of that I can only assume that certain aspects of the Grail System have broken down, so to speak. The introduction of figures like Caster, Medea of Colchis, is another example to support that theory.”
“Despite that you still fight for it?” Rider pointed out. “One would call that the actions of a fool, fighting over the contents of a broken cup.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “As long the wish-granting portion works then I really don’t care. What matters now is that we’ve identified two of the Servants and can take the appropriate measures in the future.”
“I care not for their identities. Only that they are strong enough to present to me a challenge,” Rider stated. “There’s no point in bearing the title of the mightiest if there’s no one to test myself against.”
The conversation died there as Shinji continued the repetitive and menial task at hand without pause. Perhaps it was due to the fact that his summoning was done through a catalyst rather than without one, but the two had little connection with one another. Master and Servant, one who wanted to claim the prize to accomplish his goal while the other wished to fight and sate his battle-lust and ego.
Shinji just hoped that the fact that their goals weren’t perfectly aligned wouldn’t bite him in the ass.
And then there was Emiya. He’d have to tell Shirou the same thing, of course. He knew where he would be by the time they finished setting up the flyers, at a place called Copenhagen.
But part of him wondered if he shouldn’t keep the information to himself unless absolutely necessary. Just to have just a few more advantages over Shirou given that he wasn’t sure how much he could trust him after he had hidden the fact that he was a magecraft-user. Even if his doormat, stupid personality was the real thing, and he was inferior to Shinji, there was no telling if he would be willing to surrender the Grail if his Servant desired it and….
Well, even a saint could fall to greed when presented with an item that could grant wishes. He’d probably waste it on world peace or something.
I suppose just informing him of the Servants’ abilities would suffice unless necessary, he reaffirmed in the confines of his mind. Tomorrow, after we have the rest of our measures in place, before we summon his Servant.
At the Matou Manor
The cascading hot water from the showerhead battered against Sakura’s body, a futile effort to cleanse her after spending time undergoing ‘training’ in the catacombs. But no matter how scalding the water, searing her skin and driving heat deep beneath the surface until it became flushed, it could never completely rid her of the phantom sensation that lingered for hours afterwards. Nor could it rid her of those that inhabiting her body, constantly violating her in ways that left a stain on her soul.
Toweling off and dressing for the evening, Sakura stepped through the corridors of the manor. The silence of it was familiar with only three of them living in it, one away and the other in the catacombs. She came to a stop at her brother’s workshop.
Opening the door revealed the light of the evening sun as it dwindled on the horizon. It casted the last of its sobering rays into the room. It was a soothing sight that made her hesitant to smother it out with the artificial lights above. Not much had changed since the time she had entered into his room all those years ago, bearing a fever.
The room still bore with the scent of herbs and medicine, stemming from the fireplace in the room. The table in front of it had medicine that he had recently made, pills of some kind that was supposed to help him. There was even more of the candy that he had given her after coming back from the continent.
Half of his shikigami were gone. Relocated to another hiding place he had established. Since he was determined to keep the fighting as far away from her as possible, it made more sense to have them somewhere more favorable that he could deploy them from.
There was also the futon on the floor. It was fairly comfortable, the comforter thick and the pillow on it soft. There was an allure to it, lying under it while the cold of winter had yet to pass with a warm body beside her.
Yes, he would wrap his toned arms around her legs. His chest would rise and fall, breathing in deeply as he trace his calloused fingers up her thighs. Tempting, teasing her inadvertently with the promise of pleasure until she begged him. Then they would reach her inner thighs and—
Sakura gasped as she tore her eyes away from the futon, before the thoughts and memories could stir the worms up further. Even though Shinji had been more tender than usual last night, on that very spot after the fighting, there was still a desire for more. A wave of disgust rolled over her like a landslide at how incestuous things had gotten between, and how she feared she was starting to look forward to it.
She told herself it was because of the worms. They were insatiable little monsters by their very design. The act of supporting his Servant would mean that the worms nestled inside of her would be even more active than usual for the duration of the war. That meant she would continue to defile him in order to satisfy them, taking a perverse satisfaction herself in the process.
It was a cruel reality that they both had to face. No matter how hard or long she held out between the points where she simply had to have someone acting as her lover for a time, it came down him being the only choice and she was okay with it. In fact, she was more than okay with it.
It was painful because, during moments like these, it made her realize how twisted things were. When she thought about her own feelings for Shirou and the feelings she had for her brother, they overlapped in certain places when they shouldn’t. And then when she thought about how Shinji liked Ayako, someone who she found herself just a bit jealous of but could accept, but would never truly be likely to be with her given the nature of their circumstances….
She silently damned the ones responsible. She damned the Tohsaka name and all that it had entailed. She damned Zouken, a monster that refused to die. She damned magecraft for what it had done to her and her brother. She damned herself for not simply taking the easy way out by throwing herself off the roof of the school, whether because she was too afraid of death or because of the worms within wouldn’t allow her to do so.
And, occasionally, she damned the world itself for allowing her to suffer such an existence.
Either way, she couldn’t keep taking from her brother without giving something in return. She couldn’t fight, she couldn’t really use magecraft either, but she couldn’t sit there and do nothing aside from anchoring the Servant to the world. Not while both of the men she found herself drawn to were fighting for her sake. That was why she had decided to do this, to act as his support during the war.
Sakura took a seat at the desk where the map of Fuyuki was, bordered by the four corner manikins that were luminous in their containers. On one side of it were the flyers he was putting up around the city, next to a custom stamp he made and the ink that he used for his shenfu. The map was active, with nodes of light indicating where he had set up them up round the city.
Shinji didn’t want her in the war at all, but she had begged him to at least let her monitor the map when he wasn’t there to do so. It seemed to be a good call since, after the sun had set, there seemed to be activity in the Shinto part of the city. She pulled out her phone and dialed his number….
“Be careful, Nii-sama,” were the last words Sakura said over the line before Shinji hung up the phone and sighed to himself. He was feeling somewhat tired from the repetitive actions of the day and his walk over a great deal of the city. It didn’t help that the cell phone reception was poor within his current location.
He was within the sewer that had once been the hideaway of the Caster of the last war, courtesy of the memories he had bought. While he really didn’t take solace in what had transpired within the dark chambers that ran beneath the city, it was isolated enough that no one would come looking here without prior knowledge. Not unless they pulled the same stunt Waver had done.
Unlike the last psychopath who came here he had plenty of floodlights up and running, their glow glistening off the once damp and slime-riddled walls. It was by no means glamorous and the dark arts carried out had left a tainted sensation sunken deep into the walls, despite being thoroughly bathed in fire ten years ago. But it was at least kept sanitary and free of any sort of spiritual beings with the fuwen that lined with walls and floor to inscribe a bounded field.
The shikigami he had removed from the house were now here, along with some spare things for his Art. It wasn’t an ideal place to do Chinese Alchemy—in fact Fang Yin would probably kick his ass if he even thought about blemishing her Art by doing it in such a place—but it was the perfect place to set up the focal point for his ritual spell.
One of the central arts of the East, at least when it came to Taoism and Onmyoudo, was the ability to manipulate weather. He was able to get his hands on one ritual that would convert a large amount of magical energy into lighting within a vessel and call it forth. Lighting in a bottle in a literal sense, it only needed to store enough mana over time from the different sources he had set up and were drawing in mana constantly.
“Rider, we’re leaving,” he said to his Servant after he dressed himself for combat and grabbed his case. It wasn’t a far trip from where they were. Armed and with Rider by his side in astral form, Shinji approached the building that Sakura had mentioned before on-foot.
The mask rested stiffly against his face while his bow was within its case. His outfit wouldn’t draw the attention of any non-magus due to a number of enchantments inscribed on it. It was basically rendered unremarkable through a mild application of Mental Interference.
The building itself was also unremarkable within the business district, three floors and almost uniform compared to the surroundings. The interior was grim and silent, the lack of sound too unnatural when office workers should still be toiling away at their desks to eke out a living. As if that didn’t set off warning bells, there was a potent stench that caught his nose coming from above.
His footsteps against the tiled floor were louder than he liked as he walked towards the staircase. The elevator was a bad idea, an ideal place for a trap if there ever was one. Cramped quarters in possibly enemy terrain, it was a kill box.
No sooner than he opened the door to the emergency stairwell did he have to duck down. It was either that or the white blur that leapt through the air at where his head was would have taken it off instead of sailing past him. He spun around as it bounded off the wall to claim him from behind, the case coming in an arch to intercept it. The sound of bones being shattered and then clattering across the floor echoed through the corridor.
He grimaced. It had to be Caster’s work. With that in mind he retrieved his shenfu and origami from his case. There would be more of them for certain, and Rider had no intention of helping him in dealing with them. Not when they were beneath him after Shinji told him not to waste revealing himself should they have been the ones attacking the manor last night.
He let an origami butterfly take flight first, using the symbol painted on its wings to act as extra eye. Through a pass he connected it to the sensory input of his left eye so he could scout the stairwell. With it he counted and located the other bone creatures inhabiting the stairwell and dragonflies followed.
The shikigami landed on them and then ruptured. The thunderous explosions echoed throughout the vertical corridor of steel. The force and heat stripped the cheap constructs of the hold they had on themselves and they fell damaged and in pieces.
With the stairwell emptied Shinji climbed upwards to the second floor, where the foreign scent grew stronger. He directed prana to a fuwen that was applied to the interior of the mask, where a set of lenses had been placed over the eyeholes. It applied a form of Alteration so his line of sight could see through the x-ray spectrum without the risk of damaging his eyes.
The immediate threat was three bone constructs in a humanoid form that were on the opposite side of the door, an ambush. He let three of the shenfu he in his hands slip from his grasp, controlling the prana that he saturated the paper with to control how it moved. Telekinesis, basically.
They snaked through the bottom of the door and found their way onto the ribcage of the constructs before detonating. The explosions dented the wall, trying to punch through it and reach him on the opposite side. The construction materials used weren’t that cheap, so they held.
Shinji opened the door, letting the butterfly take flight to continue scouting ahead of him. It was swatted down, cleaved in two by blade of bone, and the connection between it and the eye was severed with a note of pain from the backlash.
It readjusted in time to see them coming from around the corner. They met with the same fate as their predecessors, explosive talismans turning them to smoldering piles of bone fragments. Stepping past them he let another handful go and then slipped them through the grates in the vent leading above to catch the ones spying on him from there.
Using his mask’s x-ray and combing over the building for anymore signs of the creations of Caster, he found none. So instead focused on the still forms of the people in the rooms. All of them were unconscious; leading him to recognize the incense pilfered their inherent mana and siphoned it out.
“What are you doing, Boy?” asked the Servant in astral form as Shinji pulled out the pen that was his Mystic Code.
“I’m going to contain it to,” he explained. “If we need to broker with another Master to ally against Caster, this is proof of her harvesting power and making her a legitimate threat. It’s another advantage and the sooner she’s gone the better. I don’t expect your help but if anything approaches, at least alert me.”
He didn’t mention that since he had a vested interest in trying to reproduce it somehow. How often was it that you had a chance to sample a product of Witchcraft from the Age of the Gods? Since Caster was limited to the resources of this age, if he could discern the method of creation he could probably advance his own studies in Chinese Alchemy… or, in a last resort, use it.
The Servant made a noncommittal sound as Shinji set to work with crafting the bounded field with his Mystic Code. Every stroke had to be perfect, the foundation of the Art of Fuwen in the words as much as the strokes of the pen or brush. He needed something that could draw it in, contain the gas, compress it, and sustain it, multiple lines….
Once he had the circle drawn up it came to life with a cobalt flare as he provided the prana to be used. The air shifted as it was drawn in, gathering the violet incense that loomed into the bounded field and prevented it from escaping. Soon it appeared to be a column that stretched up to the ceiling and the gas seemed to storm about, yearning to be free.
Once it finished gathering the secondary function took place. The second outer layer altered the air between it and the innermost layer, compressing and congealing until it was a solid. Where there was once a column there was now a sphere the size of a crystal ball, the hue a deep shade of violet that you could sink into.
With a final series of strokes with the pen on the surface of the sphere it was done, a bounded field to contain it while drawing in enough mana to keep the orb it its present state, warding off Gaia’s attempt at returning it to its natural state. By the time he had finished more than ten minutes had passed. He picked it up with one hand and noted it felt heavier than it looked, after which he placed a call to his sister and asked her if she managed to track the flow of the stolen mana taken from the people in the building.
Her answer was unexpected. “Ryuudou Temple?”
“Yes, Nii-sama.” Sakura said over the line. “I’m not mistaken. It’s heading towards the temple.”
He shook his head. “That’s where the major leyline runs. It figures she’d hide there then. That’s… going to be a problem if she can tap it. No, who am I kidding, she’s the Caster class—of course she can.”
“Are you going after her?” A note of worry was in her voice, no doubt recalling her own experiences with the Servant. Shinji had asked her the general details when she had gotten home after that particular debacle.
His answer set her at ease. “No, I’m coming home. Caster is a problem for another day.”
A soft, but audible, exhalation that came with relief could be heard. “I’ll see you then, Nii-sama.”
Shinji put away his phone ad turned to where he thought his Servant was. “Let’s go back to the manor, Rider. We’re done for the night.”
“If you wish to do so then do it on your own,” the Servant stated tersely as he materialized. “This war is not meant for cowards. They have no place amongst us. I intend to get rid of this Caster that slinks in the shadows before the night ends, lest her interference hinders the battles to come.”
“Going after Caster alone is—” Rider leapt out a window before he finished speaking. “—a bad idea….”
He slapped his palms over his eyes and sighed. He had to get to the manor before Caster or Lancer decided to take a shot at him while he was Servant-less. After making a call to the police over the landline in the building he departed with a shikigami’s help.
The Chinese armor that adorned Rider seemed to stand out in the argent moonlight. He stood before the entrance to the mountain with his halberd in hand. It was quiet, almost dead silent with the thick trees on either side of it. Rising up the slope they held within them a power that warded his entry barring this single and narrow passage. It was the ideal place for a trap.
He set foot on the carved stone that constituted steps and found nothing amiss, thus he climbed. It was well before he neared the top, where the temple resided, that he caught sight of the Servant that stood to obstruct his path. A samurai dressed in purple, carrying a long Japanese-style sword on his back.
“I have to ask that you go no further,” the mysterious Servant said. His voice was rather lax given he was in the presence of an opponent who would no doubt try to kill him. His posture was much the same, his hands hiding within the sleeves of his kimono as he stared down from the high ground.
Coming to a stop, more so out curiosity at the lack of a presence he felt from the opposing Servant, Rider’s red-copper eyes stare into the indigo ones of the swordsman. “I came here seeking Caster, but it seems that this hunt bore an unexpected prey. Who are you to stand before my might?”
“Servant Assassin, Sasaki Kojirou,” the Servant clad in purple announced with a smile as he drew his sword. The grey steel seemed sharp enough to cut the moonlight itself as he brought it to his shoulder. “Will you name yourself? Or will my blade simply claim your head namelessly?”
The causal revelation of the name and drawing of the blade bought about a heavy laugh from Rider. It was a merely steel. Well-forged as it was, it wouldn’t hold be able to bear the full brunt of Sky Piercer. “A mere assassin, wielding such a flimsy blade, dares claim it will take the head of Lu Bu Fengxian?”
It was then Shinji’s voice reached the Servant’s ears. He had opened a pass between them once he made it back to the manor, enabling Shared Perception. “You had to tell him your name? That’s supposed to be kept a secret for a reason!”
“I have no need to hide who I am,” Rider stated, unshakable in his tone as he addressed both his Master and his opponent. Raising his halberd so that the moonlight gleamed off the red and gold of the blade, he pointed it towards Assassin. “I am the mightiest of Servants in this war!”
A small chuckle left Assassin’s mouth as he let the blade hang in his grip, taking a single step forward in the process. “That’s a rather bold statement to claim so soon while the madden warrior and ojou-chan are running around. But you should be able to stop my blade from taking your head if that is true.”
“He’s baiting you,” Shinji warned.
Rider didn’t care. The ground beneath him cracked as he lunged for the samurai, his lungs releasing a boisterous battle cry. The air itself seemed to split as he released a straight-downward strike meant to cleave Assassin in two.
A twist of the legs and torso was all it took to dodge. Flowing like water his blade followed and brought the impossibly long sword up to fulfill his promise as it sought out his neck. The rear of the halberd’s shaft came around to intercept it, the blade skimming off the surface as it grated along the slanted slope with sparks.
Brute strength came from Rider’s arms as he brought the point of the halberd up again, seeking to open Assassin up. Once more he was dodged and forced to defend. The sharpened length of steel that came around from the front in a stab was shielded with the neck of the halberd, his hand bracing the flat of the blade in defense.
The point of the sword then circumvented a third exchange, coming up from below on the other side. Rider barely managed to get away, retreating just in time so that the blade bit into the armor that adorned him and carved a bloodless furrow from the lower right hip to the upper-right shoulder.
Assassin followed with a graceful deadliness as his sword turned on a dime many times. Fluid strokes that had a seemingly endless number of patterns that he couldn’t predict, all seeking his neck. Eventually it drew blood, barely stopped from opening up Rider’s throat as he leapt back while his halberd soaked up the rest of it..
“If you had been merely average then you would have already lost your head,” Assassin said as he flicked the miniscule amount of blood on his blade off. “I suppose I should be proud that such a flimsy blade was sullied with the blood of the mightiest, after all.”
Rider’s eyes narrowed as he bared his teeth at the samurai while the wound quickly mended itself. Part of it was in anger at the barb, but excitement bubbled beneath the surface at the face of the challenge before him. That deceptively mundane sword was deadly within the grasp of the purple-clad Assassin, an underestimation that nearly cost him his head.
Twirling the Chinese steel above his head, Rider approached for a second time. He brought it around in a fearsome arch. Wide and sharp, it would take off the samurai’s entire upper body if it connected in truth.
But Assassin’s sword was faster. It came around from the top-left, a diagonal flash that would reach Rider before the halberd, cutting off his head and then his arm as it passed through…
Assassin abandoned the slash and leaned back as intuition spoke to him, Eye of the Mind (False). It was all that saved him as a thin, red line wept at his throat and stained his clothes. Indigo eyes stared down at the weapon in Rider’s hands.
It was no longer a halberd. What had been a pointed blade tipping the long staff was now a curved, half-crescent blade meant to reap lives rather than grain. The interior of it was red, with the trimming of the exterior gold, resembling a grim reaper’s scythe from which blood stained the tip.
“A weapon that switches forms as the user wills it in the midst of battle, huh?” Assassin mused as a wind blew, one eye closed with a smirk on his face as the wound closed. “In that essence, it’s not one opponent I’m facing, but as many as you have at your disposal. Interesting….”
With twist of his wrist the scythe returned to a halberd. He then invaded the samurai’s space as he stepped forward. The point moved with precision as it thrust a number of times, seeking to stab into the kempt kimono and the flesh beneath it.
The samurai avoided the thrusts, until one particularly deep stab invited the counterattack. The katana guided the point of the halberd aside before skating along the top end before arching for his neck like a demonic wind. Even if he used the scythe as he did before, it wouldn’t be able to retract fast enough to do fatal damage….
Yet metal rang out as the blade was deflected by the bracers that now adorned his forearms. Even if the katana could cut steel, the bracers themselves were unbreakable against such a flimsy weapon. Rider’s hand set out and snared Assassin’s sword while his other came down. The bracers were gone, instead replaced with Noble Phantasm in its axe form.
Assassin slammed his palm against the butt of his sword and angled up so that it sliced Rider’s hand open. Earth and stone erupted in a plume of dust as the ax smashed down, but before the dust cloud even had time to clear Assassin broke out of it as the scythe blade came out of it and reaped the space where he had been. The samurai fell back to regain the high ground.
Three arrows followed after him, half the size of the halberd but the same design. One shot sequentially after the other. Assassin slapped the first two away with the flat of his blade and leaned to avoid the third as it passed where his torso had been an impaled itself into a higher stair. Then he readied himself as prana surged and a gale dispelled the remains of the dust cloud to reveal Rider standing there in an archer’s poise with his bow, Cannon Force, nocked.
Rider wasn’t able to read the path of the sword no matter how many times they had clashed. And no matter the weapon, Assassin’s swordsmanship, position, and reach made all but one of his weapon forms useless. And while he could dodge the base arrows, a charged shot would encompass the entirety of the mountain pass—
—foreign words left distant lips and echoed throughout the mountain. Divine Words that had space itself distorted at her command, sealed within a sphere as a portion of the atmosphere that made up the world compressed down into it. Everything nestled tightly within it was frozen in place.
Rider couldn’t move. He was helpless as the gathered prana that illuminated the tip of his arrow evaporated in an instant, snuffed out as an ebony haze washed over the dome. He could only watch as it then congealed into a solid form, the Witch of Betrayal herself.
“I have seen enough,” she said, the cowl of her hood hiding her eyes while her lips painted themselves into a smile.
“Don’t interfere, Vixen,” Assassin stated.
“Silence dog.” She didn’t even turn to face him as she pulled out an iridescent and faced Rider. “Berserker can be bought down a number of times with his Noble Phantasm if the weapons themselves can count as individuals. If not, then having another dog leashed will make it easier to catch a more useful Servant.”
“Andddd, we’re done here,” Shinji spoke through the pass, having been silent until now. Whatever Caster was planning as she approached Rider, he wasn’t going to risk losing his Servant to her like that. “By the Power of the Command Seal! Rider, I order you to return to my side this instant!”
At the expense of a crystallized miracle, the Forced Summoning took hold and Rider was pulled from the battlefield.
No sooner than his Servant had arrived back in the woodlands behind the Matou Manor, behind the bounded fields that had been established by the Old Worm over the centuries, did Shinji find the halberd at his throat. All it would take was a muscle twitch really, and the blade would open up the carotid artery at the very least if it didn’t take his head off. It was safe to say Rider was upset.
Oddly enough, Shinji felt rather calm due to the fact that he flat-out knew that Rider would probably betray him at some point. His rank in Nature of a Rebellious Spirit all but ensured it would happen eventually. Not even a king could keep him loyal for a long period of time.
But, if Rider managed to kill him, then his sister would inherit the Command Seals that were on his hand upon his death because of the modified Shared Mastership. And he’d told her that if that happened she was to have Rider promptly kill himself and then seek out Shirou to make sure he kept his word. Sure, he’d be dead, but considering his Servant’s acts in life it felt appropriate that it would at least be a mutual kill. Still, he preferred living to death if he could help it.
“I could have called you back at any time,” Shinji stated after a few more seconds had passed and the blade didn’t move to decapitate him. “The moment you left my side I could have ordered you to break off rather than let that fight start, especially knowing now that Caster was in an alliance with Assassin’s Master to guard her. But I didn’t interfere while you and Assassin fought because I respected that you wanted a one-on-one fight. The strongest would have prevailed.”
“Then why did you interfere, Boy?” Rider growled through clinched teeth. “Do you think her dagger could have felled me?”
“Caster interfered first,” he said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “She took advantage of the situation and had you pinned down, with your neck exposed for Assassin to take if he didn’t seem to follow Bushido. Plus, I had no idea what that dagger would have done unless I let her use it, which would have been a betrayal considering I was in a position to act. I played it safe so that you could remain in the war rather than be eliminated or brought to heel before it officially begins because of a cheap trick by a coward that hid in the shadows.”
Red-copper eyes narrowed. “And yet you weren’t there either.”
“Because you left me behind,” he pointed out. Steel entered into his voice as he gritted his teeth. “Leaving aside the fact that Caster probably could have mind-controlled me into using a Command Seal to order you into obedience, you abandoned me! I asked you if you would ride alongside me as an ally and didn’t use a Command Seal when we first met and you attacked me because I respected you too much to simply order you to follow me. Is it too much to ask that it be returned?”
Betrayal and Respect, two words that summed up the entirety of Lu Bu’s history beyond the blood-soaked battlefield, were the words he stressed. In the end, they were the ones that reached the Servant. The tension that lingered in the air dissipated as the halberd left his throat and was perched on Rider’s shoulders.
Shinji rubbed where the blade had been and felt a nick where blood had been drawn. He frowned, but spoke in a more relaxed tone. “We need allies before we try to take the mountain again, someone to deal with Caster while you and Assassin have your bout to the death. Whether Archer or Saber, as long as they have decent enough Magic Resistance then that’ll suffice.”
“… I am not patient, Boy,” Rider stated. “I was not satisfied with the outcome of that battle. Nor that of the one with Lancer.”
“One night,” Shinji told him. “I’ll have his Servant summoned tomorrow, get him registered, and then you can storm the mountain, have your great battle, and not worry about the witch pulling a stunt like this again. After that we work with them until you and that Servant are the only ones left to fight and you can prove yourself the strongest.”
Yeah, so this fight was a bit hard to write because reasonably speaking, Assassin is not someone Rider can defeat all that easy or even fight to a draw. I mean, look at the freaking Personal Skills he has in addition to the high ground advantage. Not only can you never learn to read his attack patterns, but he gets an innate sixth sense that lets him adapt over time.
Even in canon it was him luring Saber into flat ground that cost him dearly. So basically only at a long range can you beat him, unless you’re freaking Hercules. Or with Gae Bolg since he has no resistance to curses, luck be damned.
Actually, you know what would be awesome? A fanfic where Shirou has Rule Breaker traced and uses it after Caster’s death to free Sasaki from the mountain and make an alliance with him. I don’t know the mechanics needed to make it work, but fanfiction lives off that sort of thing.
Servant Stats: Assassin
Spirit: Sasaki Kojirou
Alignment: Lawful Evil
N. Phantasm: ?
Class Skill – Presence Concealment (Rank: D): is the capacity to hide one’s presence as a Servant. It is a common skill to the Assassin class.
* Eye of the Mind (False) (Rank: A): is a natural talent to avoid danger on the basis of an innate 6th sense, intuition, or prescience, where accuracy of instinct has been augmented by experience – somewhat overcoming the problem of visual obstructions that appear in the course of combat. The difference between Eye of the Mind (True) and Eye of the Mind (False) lies in that the former is an ability that humans can obtain through accumulation of experience. The ‘False’ version is superficially similar, but in fact represents a natural instinct that cannot be obtained regardless of effort or experience – even though experience can refine its accuracy.
* Knowledge of Respect and Harmony (Rank: B): prevents any decrease in the effectiveness of a technique, regardless of how many times it is used against the same opponent.
* Vitrification (Rank: B+): is a serene state of mind. A mental protection that nullifies mental interference.
* Tsubame Gaeshi: The fabled technique of the legendary swordsman Sasaki Kojirou, who was said to be able to cut down a swallow in mid-flight. It is not something recognized as a Noble Phantasm under the Servant system, but rather an intrinsic skill of the anonymous swordsman representing the legend of Kojirou. This demonic sword technique, the utmost and sole technique used by Assassin, is not a Noble Phantasm or a magical phenomenon, but it has reached a level comparable to one out of pure godlike skill that “surpasses even Servants.”
Chapter 7: Rider Vs Lancer
Within the Catacombs beneath the Matou Residence
Sakura let a tense and long breath she didn’t know she had held out as the Servant they called forth relaxed his halberd-arm and the tension seemed to fade. She had been so worried that she would have lost her brother…
But now that they had a Servant they were actually in the Holy Grail War as active combatants. Well, more like her brother. He was the one taking to the field as a Master, along with her Senpai and her… her sister….
They were going to be trying to kill one another.
Sakura couldn’t help fear that they would end up like her uncle Kariya, dying to try and save her. Between Shinji and her Senpai… even if they had strong Servants, would they be able to fight and defeat Rin’s? Even if they managed to defeat whatever Servant she summoned, she would keep fighting to win the grail for the sake of the Tohsaka name.
She would keep pressing them, maybe even attacking them to get rid of them directly. Would they actually kill her in the attempt? Would she succeed in killing one of them?
Her chest tightened at the thought. No matter what she would lose someone close to her. No matter what she would turn one or more of them into killers. How could she let it get this far?
She had to call it off somehow, but when she turned towards where the elderly magus had been Sakura noticed the amalgam of worms she called a Grandfather was missing. Then again, even if he was here, what would it have mattered?
Zouken made it clear that he didn’t consider her human. Her feelings and thoughts never mattered, only her body and its use for his sake. Her wishes were her own. They never mattered to anyone else in the end… No, that wasn’t right.
Shinji heard her wishes and was doing his damndest to grant them, even putting so much strain on his body and facing their grandfather. Yes, her loving and strong brother who knew just how to hold her and comfort her after they—
Her breathing tensed and her body shuddered as she banished the thoughts. The Servant’s presence was already starting to tire her out after what was spent for the summoning and so the worms fed and her lust grew. She need time to adjust before the carnal impulses grew and she became driven to sate it, defiling her brother once more. She had already done so too many times.
There was a flutter in the corner of her eyes that caught her attention. She turned towards the exit of the catacombs, atop the flight of stairs that hugged the wall, where she spotted paper cranes fluttering towards her brother, origami keyed to his magecraft. “Nii-sama, why are they…”
“We’re under attack,” Shinji explaining the unfinished question. “I set up a small ward system of my own using a few shenfu after the debacle with Caster. It reacts to the presence of foreign magical energy and sends out one of my battle shikigami to deal with the threat while alerting me. ”
He looked around to see that Zouken was gone as well. “Then again, it probably tripped the main boundary field before it reached my array. The fact that we’re just finding out means from this point on we’re on our own.”
“A challenger appears already,” the Servant mused. A grin etched itself across his face at the thought and his halberd-arm tensed. He was ready for combat, eager for a chance to prove himself the strongest of the summoned warriors.
“Wait,” Shinji said, before Rider went gallivanting off. “You should return to your astral form so we can assess the threat first. We shouldn’t reveal you until we can be certain the enemy is worth your might.”
“You think you understand my might?” Lu Bu asked in a low tone, his steed turning its burning gaze once more towards Shinji.
Shinji silently shook his head. “Not the full extent. We have yet to take to the battlefield so I can observe it for myself. However, I do know that only another Servant would provide an adequate challenge for a warrior such as yourself and I know that the Caster of this war is capable of summoning minions who would not be worth your time and would only allow her to observe your abilities. Giving up an advantage isn’t pragmatic if we are to take the prize, especially if the battle that follows won’t prove you as the strongest out of all the summoned Servants.”
“…Very well,” Lu Bu consented after a moment. Then both he and his steed vanished, as though turning into motes of light and then fading away. Despite being in astral form, Sakura and Shinji could feel the warrior’s presence about them through the contract.
“Sakura,” Shinji called, keeping his voice level as he pulled the opera mask he had from beneath the clothing he wore. “From this point on it’s my fight, not yours. Grandfather won’t help, he’s made that clear.”
“But…” she trailed off, unable to say what she wanted to after they came this far. I don’t want you to get hurt for my sake.
“Just go to my workshop and stay safe,” Shinji stated as he ran up the stairs to get back into the mansion, heading out to the first battlefield and leaving her by herself.
Sakura felt the weight in her heart of being useless once he was out of sight, only serving as an anchor of the Servant they called forth. But it was all she could do, tie Rider down to Earth and hope for the best.
That and try to curb the growing lust she felt courtesy of those damnable worms inside of her.
Outskirts of Matou Residence
The blades of grass barely sounded as they crunched beneath argent steel boots and soft paws. Thick roots jutting out of the ground failed to hinder the hunter or his hounds as they advanced through the woodlands for the manor that rested between them. They noticed when the crossed the first and secondary boundary fields and were prepared to expect opposition.
Still, there was a brief moment of pause when countless sheets of paper followed some invisible current only to take the form of a humanoid giant.
The hunter whistled at the sight, his four hounds baring their fangs and tensing their muscles to pounce. The giant moved without grace, merely brute strength backing it as it swung its arms and fists around like clubs to mow the blue-haired hunter down. The trees hindered it more than the hunter and his hounds, all of whom avoided the hammer strike that knocked over the nearest tree and scattered thick splinters that failed to penetrate his bandage-wrapped greaves and the gauntlet on his left arm.
A short and high whistle left the hunters mouth, a trained command to yield the hounds while he stood up the shikigami that bore down on him. Vicious blows were unleashed, empowered by the source deep within the construct that acted as a battery to keep it moving for a short but effective time. But the hunter avoided them with a smile on his face, every movement sharp and crisp while he enjoyed the brief interlude before getting serious.
When the shikigami, Fangfeng, sought to deliver a crushing overhead strike it met with the sharpened edge of a blade and was severed. The tanned giant stumbled back a step in response and glared at the hunter, now wielding a weapon. The long shaft was deep green in color, tipped by a sharp blade that looked like a wolf’s head if you squinted. Fangfeng let out a low growl from its throat as strings of prana connected from the severed limb and darted to the undamaged sigils on the sheets that were severed, dragging them back into place to reclaim its arm.
The spear-wielding hunter pressed his attack, striking with sharp thrusts into the giant and severing its limbs over and over.
Fangfeng reconnected the severed parts that could be salvaged, but it slowed down at a steady pace. Reattaching what was lost cost the power source, The Seal of False Life, even more of its reserves of prana. To compensate for the loss, it became sluggish and its strength lessened.
The hunter noticed that and decided the brief distraction needed to come to an end. Setting the forefinger of his gauntlet-covered finger aflame with prana, the blue-haired hunter crossed the distance between them in the span of a heartbeat and risted the rune of flames onto the shikigami.
Fire was born from the rune, a gluttonous blaze that swallowed up the giant and ate through whatever defensive enchantment it had bestowed upon it against the flames of one who knew the Original 18 Runes. Fangfeng took another step forward, trying to fulfill its duty, but the flames devoured it and left ashes behind.
With that out of the way, the hunter motioned towards the manor with two fingers and whistled for the hounds to advance.
The four moved to do so. Their legs crossed the distance with their master following, only to be intercepted by a streaking flash that cleaved through the four hounds in a single stroke as a second figured appeared.
Now impeding the way of the hunter was the warrior adorned in the armor of an ancient Chinese general. Twirling his halberd into a fighting position, red copper pupils were fixed on the similar set that were the hunter’s and something unspoken passed between them. It was a challenge.
The hunter took up a fighting stance. His legs spread out, muscles tensed, and the spear-head pointed down so that it could ascend with ease to pierce the heart from below. A grin stretched across his face in acceptance of the challenge.
The two sped forth and clashed.
Shinji stood atop the tree limbs that rested beneath the canopy, watching through the emblem of an eye on a shikigami as prana forged a connection from his left eye’s optic nerve to it. He couldn’t hear anything that would be said between the two, but he doubt he would be able to hear anything anyway as the two weapons continued to clash in the storm of steel.
His first thoughts when he observed the Servant was that it was a Lancer. The deftness of its speed and the use of a spear made that much clear. Although he didn’t expect to see the Servant utilize a rune to burn Fangfeng to ashes, so he would expect it to use Magecraft as well and compensate for it later.
He would be more upset about that, but ultimately that was Fangfeng’s role in the grand scheme of things. For ground transportation he had Baihu, for aerial he had Zhuque, Genbu was for pure defense, Qinglong and Bashe had more esoteric uses, but Fangfeng was made to hit hard and fast to wipe out minions like Caster made in droves. It was never meant to be used against a Servant, not even for an adequate distraction.
Shinji had to admit that he would have preferred to observe the fight from his workshop, so he could note the effects the fighting was having on Sakura. She was already tired from the initial summoning. The fighting wouldn’t help her at all.
But he had to come out and witness this for himself for two reasons. The first was to observe the battle between Servants with his own eyes and possibly kill the enemy Master. The second was to keep Lu Bu’s respect.
The Servant was a warrior and, for the time being, they needed to work together. Hiding away with his sister while his Servant fought wouldn’t send a positive message and, considering the Servant tried to kill him once already, he needed to show he wasn’t a coward. Although he wouldn’t interfere in Lu Bu’s fight unless he deemed it necessary enough to use a Command Seal.
Turning his attention back to the fight, he watched as Lancer and Rider tried to kill one another.
With Lancer and Rider
The air reverberated with the clashing of steel against steel as the two pole weapons smashed against one another. In a single session more than a dozen lethal attacks were released between the two warriors as they fought in one of the first battles of the Holy Grail War.
Letting out a roaring battle cry, Rider twirled his halberd around in arches as he tried to take off the hunter’s head. The powerful swipes of the halberd were followed by spinning motions of the body that added to the momentum. Like a raging inferno, the fierce motions were deadly to both the opponent and the surroundings.
Lancer avoided the swipes with sharp and direct motions that brought him just outside his opponent’s range, looking for an opportunity to strike. When he found it his spear was sent forward, stabbing with fierce thrusts that punctured to inflict death by a thousand cuts should he fail to pierce the core of his opponent. Like lightning he struck with unparalleled accuracy, only to be thwarted by mere centimeters as the armor of the Chinese general was scraped and scarred from the sudden twists that preluded the incoming halberd smashing down.
The initial session consisted over twenty exchanges, both assessing their opponents. Then they changed it up, Rider switching from a swipe to planting his feet on the ground with his legs spread as he began a barrage of thrusts. Lancer avoided the thrusts with narrow twists of the body, following up with his own attacks all aimed at the fatal spots that Rider’s halberd deflected.
“Not bad,” Lancer said. Then he poured on the speed of his thrusts, increasing the number of attacks to overwhelm the opposing spearman. “But challenging me to a fight with spears was suicidal!”
The influx of the attacks soon overtook Rider’s defense, his war paint marred by blood as the blade of Lancer’s spear grazed his cheek. The arms and legs follows, the armor chipping as the strikes that were meant to kill were the only ones that could be blocked successfully. With no other choice, Rider leapt back.
“Not a chance!” Lancer advance, using his speed to close the distance and sending forth a thrust aimed for the heart. Rider’s halberd was coming around to guard, but it wouldn’t be nearly fast enough…
Which is why he was he surprised to find that his spear was deflected, Rider sliding in with a fist chambered. Halting his advance and bringing his spear around he used the shaft to guard against the impending strike. The fist snaked past the shaft and grabbed his collar, lifting him up and throwing him around with it enough force to send Lancer skating off his feet as he touched down. Following the motion he leapt back and noted that his opponent was now missing his halberd, a set of bracers now taking its place.
Of all the classes, Lancers were the fastest. There was no doubt about that. Utilizing their speed they could strike down their opponents with precision attacks faster than most other classes could defend against as long as they were in range.
However, Riders were known for their Noble Phantasms and their versatility. Lu Bu’s God Force was no exception. Possessing multiple forms that he could exchange on the fly, Rider could approach combat from multiple angles and catch his opponent at a disadvantage.
Exchanging Thrust Force for Blunt Strike Force, now Rider closed the distance while intent on invading the range of the spear, the point where it would lose its effectiveness. Facing the storm of demon-like thrusts, the bracers caught and deflected the majority as he moved his arms to block them until he passed the effective range of the spear. The bracers vanished in an instant, replaced by a Jian that had appeared in the left hand, and the sword was thrust forward like a viper’s strike, aiming to pierce the skull.
Lancer tilted his head to the side and then spun his spear around to knock the shaft against the blade before it could come around in a follow-up swipe. Pain flared in his stomach and the hunter was sent back, skidding along the ground once more as the right fist of the general smashed into his unprotected gut.
“Tricky, huh?” Lancer mused as the general advanced, before setting the tip of his spear alight with prana and risting a set of runes on the ground. Calling upon his knowledge of runes, taught to him by the witch, Lancer brought the earth now under the runes to life. It rose up to form a defensive bulwark, hardening to be unyielding stone that stood between the two.
God Force shifted once more. Parry Force was replaced by Slash Force. Bringing his full strength to bear and twisting with all his might, Rider cleaved the bulwark in half with the war ax now in his hands. But Lancer was nowhere to be found…
The sound of parting air reached Rider’s ear before the ominous glow that radiated from above. He looked up to find the hunter in air, his spear twirling in his hands above his hands. Lining the head of the spear was a set of runes that left a luminous trail of prana as he began to fall to Earth with the intention of using it like one would a hammer. The war ax was replaced with the bracers once more and guarded against the strike with both arms as the prana-wrapped spear head was brought down.
A thunderous roar filled the woodlands on impact. The shockwave that was unleashed as the rune-enhanced blade smashed down against the bracers, the force alone caving in the earth surrounding them, stripped trees bare and their branches torn asunder. There was nothing that could be heard over the howling of magical energy as the two forces continued to push one another, until finally the sound of shattering steel rang out.
Lancer disengaged, retreating to safety and sparing the broken weapon in his hand a single glance. It couldn’t be helped that the spear broke under the force of the battle. It wasn’t the real Gáe Bolg after all; his new ‘Master’ had sealed his original one away and replaced it with this facsimile.
“We’ll call this one even,” Lancer said bitterly, the displeasure in his voice apparent as he reverted to astral form at the beckoning of his Master through their shared perception. “Next time, we finish this…”
Shinji made his way back into the Manor once it had been confirmed that the enemy Servant had left. Rider was obviously displeased at his battle being cut short and had gone off to see if he could pick up the trail while in astral form or find another Servant to do battle with. Shinji thought it to be pointless, but didn’t argue with the Servant on the grounds of not wanting to stress their newly formed alliance as long as he stated in astral form to avoid stressing his sister.
However, the moment he entered his workshop he found Sakura already collapsed on the floor. Her breathing was heavy, hard and hoarse. Sweat had laden her body to the extent that her gown was soaked enough to be seen through. Her fair skin was feverish red as she burned from the inside out with desire and pain as the worms were the most active they’d been in so long from both the summoning and the combat.
Tossing the bow and mask aside, Shinji kneeled onto the floor and took her into his arms. “Sakura! Are you okay?”
“Nii-sama…” she whispered, reaching up and touching his face. “I’m sorry, but I can’t hold out anymore…”
“I know,” he said as he lifted her up and carried her onto the bed. “I… I’ll take care of you…”
“I’m sorry,” she said again, knowing once more she was going to defile him for her own sake.
Shinji said nothing, merely steeling himself to do what was necessary. He simply told himself it would be just a little while longer. Once the war was over and they had the Holy Grail, he could do something to rid her of the worms once and for all. It could grant any wish, right?
Then, after that, he would kill Zouken for everything he had done…
Well, that’s the first fight of the Holy Grail War between the Servants. Now, as you can imagine, this was mostly a scouting battle as Lancer had been sent by Kotomine to assess each Servant.
You’ll also notice that this Lancer is a different version of Cu Chulainn, a younger version like the one in Fate/Prototype, and as such he has a different set of Noble Phantasms and stats. The biggest change is that Lancer no longer has Gáe Bolg’s heart-killing, instant-death curse. One of the main reasons I did this was I would have to have a legitimate reason not to use it in combat.
Besides, despite having personal skills in Runes, it seems a shame he rarely used them.
Servant Stats: Lancer
Spirit: Cu Chulainn
Master: Kotomine Kirei
Alignment: Lawful Neutral
Strength: B – ((A) while under Warp Spasm)
Endurance: C ((B+) while under Warp Spasm)
Luck: E ((B-) due to the protective amulet that he carries his luck is raised.)
Agility: B ((A++) while under Warp Spasm)
N. Phantasm: A
Magic Resistance C (B+): This version of Cu Chulainn carries on him a protective amulet that further enhances his Magic Resistance beyond his class skill.
Rune Magic (B ): capacity to use the 18 original runes.
Battle Continuation (A ): The strength of vitality for predicaments. Also, the ability to withdraw from combat and reach allied territory alive after being defeated. At this rank it makes possible to fight even with deadly injuries and can remain alive so long as one does not receive a decisive fatal wound.
Battle Frenzy (A ): The flaw of losing oneself in the midst of battle. During combat, when damaged a Luck Check is performed. Because of the protective amulet the Luck check keeps the Battle Frenzy from activating with a 1/10 chance. Should the amulet be lost, the chance becomes 1/4 and should it fail Warp Spasm is activated.
Protection from Arrows (B ): An inborn ability of Cu Chulainn; as long as the shooter is within his line of sight, he can track down ranged weapons with his eyes and defend against them. Does not apply for attacks made from super-long-range or with a great area-of –effect.
Disengage (C ): The ability to break away from combat. At this rank it has the bonus effect of returning battle conditions to what they were at the beginning of the match.
Warp Spasm: Last Riastrad (Anti-Unit) – The berserker state that he was renowned for, it is not manually accessed, but done via Battle Frenzy. Once it reaches a tipping point, all his stats become enhanced but he loses the use of any other Noble Phantasm to enter a state similar to Mad Enhancement.
Hounds of Ulster (Anti-Squad) – The ability to summon hound familiar based on the legend of rearing the replacement hound of Chulainn. He can only summon up to twenty per night with the amount of mana available to him, in groups of four.
Gáe Bolg: Soaring Spear that Strikes with Death (Anti-Army) – The true use of Gáe Bolg, is the largest and most powerful attack delivered using the spear. It is the “attack that unleashes countless darts at the enemy” that is spoken of in the legends. It is the attack that made him a hero which utilizes the full potential of the lance’s curse, converting all of Lancer’s prana into energy and releasing the accumulated power after the spear is hurled, detonating on impact with enough power to blow away a multitude of enemies.