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….
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.”
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?
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 world flashes as I land on my back. The pain blends with the aches already driven into my flesh, leaving me as a mass of agony. If I knew this was how today was going to go, I would have stayed at home.
“On your feet, Matou. You can rest once you’ve shown improvement.”
The insufferable tone of the Student President’s voice makes me grit my teeth. I force my upper body to rise so that my glare shifts from the ceiling of the Guest Room of the Ryuudou Temple to the pain in my ass responsible for putting here. “Tell that to my aching back. You could have at least placed a mat down here.”
“The pain serves as motivation and I can heal most of the injuries you accumulate if there’s a need for it. Now rise.”
“Just because you can heal doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.” The last hour has been nothing but pain with no end in sight. In all honesty, I shouldn’t be surprised after yesterday that their idea of training Rise was to beat it into you.
“Whoa!” A shout and then ‘thud’ draws my attention to the other side of the large room, where Ayako has spent the last hour manhandling the idiot when he rushes her. Again she’s sent him tumbling to the mat after a trip into the air. Unlike me though, Gai manages to get right back up no worse for wear since he’s already gotten good enough at Rise to strengthen his body to take the beating.
“Remember, visualization is the key.” The asshole lectures me when he sees me standing again. “Picture yourself being faster and stronger—needing to be. That desire will call to the energy within you and thread your body with it.”
I don’t need him to tell me that. Visualization isn’t the problem. I can do that just fine. In fact, the desire to be strong enough to punch him in the face has served just fine to kick-start the process, sending warmth coursing through my muscles to dull the pain.
He sees it with those special eyes of his, glasses set aside for the duration of practice. It serves as the signal for him to attack. He closes the distance and thrust his fist out like a spear.
I move to get out of the way, only for the warmth to fade from my body as quickly as it came. The pain returns and stalls my attempt to move. So I get hit and a fresh wedge of pain is driven deep inside of me like a hammer would a nail.
He doesn’t stop his assault. Even though he has to be able to see that I’m not using Rise with those eyes of his, he doesn’t stop attacking. Instead, he drives his other fist into my left shoulder. It causes pain to blossom and take root into the bones there.
“You have to maintain it! Want the pain to stop! Want your body to be stronger!”
“I’m trying!” I attempt to twist my body as he spears his palm towards my chest, warmth spreading and stopping the pain as it swaddles my muscles. It lasts just long enough to avoid his attack but falters when I try to swing my fist towards his face.
He does a half-turn to avoid it and then drives his fist into my stomach. When I go down, clutching the spot, he crosses his arms and looks annoyed. “You have to maintain the image. If I have to continue to drive pain into your body to get that lesson in, I will.”
I clutch my stomach and snarl at him through clenched teeth. “Never… took you… for… a sadist.”
“I take no pleasure in this.” That’s a lie if I ever heard one. “But I cannot coddle you as Mitsuzuri-kun did yesterday. Burst may hold the most offensive potential, but Rise is the most essential to saving your life. If you can’t strengthen your body then all it takes is one solid hit from a Taboo to kill you.”
“I keep saying that it’s not working like that for me.” He just doesn’t get it. I can start the process of using Rise and generate the energy to strengthen my body, but I can’t maintain it for more than a second. It’s like a car that you can start up but it stops working after a moment. The ignition and fuel aren’t the problem, it’s something else entirely.
Damn it. I hate this. I hate it because it only serves to reinforce what I thought earlier. I have no real talent in Rise as I didn’t in Burst and, as much as I hate to admit it, he’s simply too talented compared to me. Someone naturally-talented can’t teach someone who isn’t talented.
“I’d be better off training with Mitsuzuri again than you.”
Ayako takes a moment to look up from the arm-lock she’s placed on Gai to chime in at that. “It’s better if it’s him who does it. He can see the aura of your power, so he’ll be able to assess your progress better.”
A sharp breath fills my lungs as I try to stand again. I don’t think he’s fractured or cracked anything. Even I can tell he’s intentionally placing his strikes to avoid doing anything that’s fatal. But I really don’t feel like getting kicked around for the rest of the day.
“You all say that multiple trips will strengthen my powers. So why not wait until the next one comes and goes before we try again?”
He refuses to budge on it. “Even discounting that your chances of survival drop the less of the basics you have down by the time the next call comes in, it becomes harder to use them properly when they scale. That’s why we need to ensure that it sticks now.”
“Can we at least take a break until the pain stops?”
“The pain only hinders it if you allow it to.” He takes up a fighting stance. “Now, ready yourself.”
There’s no reasoning with him. His determination to apparently beat the lesson into me is unyielding unless I show results. I can’t help but wonder if gaining all those powers screwed with his head more than the others. The Old Worm didn’t have extensive research on them, but like any magus worth his weight in salt and mysteries he had enough for me to learn to get a solid grasp on it last night.
Psychic powers were the result of a mutation that gave one an abnormal perception of reality that moved away from what humans as a whole could perceive. And that very same abnormal perception, an unnecessary and cumbersome “extra channel” as it’s considered, often drove them away from society as a whole because they saw the world too differently from normal people.
Psychicers weren’t exactly psychics in the sense that we weren’t born with those mutations. But I’m willing to bet that on some level that those who had stronger or more varied powers had their perspectives warped to a greater extent than someone who didn’t. In his case, his ability to heal has probably twisted his understanding of what pain does to someone constantly exposed to it in the long-run and left him believing that the physical pain and suffering is worth the gains from it as long as you don’t die from it.
At this rate he’ll break me, only to fix me up and break me again until the end of the day. If I want the pain to stop, I need to strike him down first.
No sooner than I come to that conclusion does he come for me, kicking off the ground.
I swing my fist towards him, knuckles first aiming for the center of his forehead. He doesn’t dodge it. He doesn’t need to. He simply slams his other arm upwards, knocking mine aside. Then he delivers a vicious palm-strike to my chest.
“Urgh!” The impact spreads throughout the rest of my rib cage and stalls me with pain. Another strike follows. It hits me from below, slamming into my chin. Stars come into view as my consciousness flickers for a moment.
In the span of that blink in time, he disappears from my vision like magic. Then I feel a sledgehammer slamming into my back. He’d gotten around me and lowered his stance before sliding forward to drive his elbow into my ribcage from behind.
“Agh!” It sends me staggering forward a few steps, leaving me holding the spot with my hand. But he’s close enough to that I can hit him now. That thought catches my legs before they can give out. I remain standing for the sake of lashing out with my fist in an effort to take his head off, desire boiling down my spine and nerves before reaching the arm.
He lowers his stance further—no, he drops his body and spins into a sweeping strike that knocks my legs away and leaves me falling to a knee. The sensation of the other one crashing into the floor is painful enough that I wonder if it ended up turning to jelly. But I see his hand getting ready to come again.
I protect my face. My face is one of my features as a person. I can’t afford to have him damage it, I don’t care if he can heal me or not. So I raise both my arms to will myself to be able to withstand it, strength coursing through my body to withstand the blow.
So he goes for a grab instead. Leaping over my shoulder while grasping the collar of the borrowed temple gi and one of my arms, he pulls me along his path. Then he slams me down into the ground with a hard ‘thud’ that adds to the pain I’m in.
The cycle repeats when I manage to get back up. The bruises pile up. The agony increases further.
But the message doesn’t carry to him that it’s no good, no matter how many times I say it. He’s intent on making it so that the only option for me is to weather his blows by forcing my entire body to harden like stone or strike as swift as the wind. A second of strength to attack will do me no good since he’ll only dodge it. A second of strength to defend will do me no good since he’ll time his attack to hit the moment it wears off. It’s like something out of those old martial arts films.
I force myself to my feet and try to hammer him again with a blow as hard as I can manage again. My drive to strike him down no longer stems from a desire to hurt him, but self-preservation. It’s the thought of being in more pain and suffering than I already go through every night over some idiot being unable to understand that just because you can heal physical pain doesn’t mean it won’t linger in the mind as a phantom sensation, that drives me to fight back.
It’s still no good. Even when he’s close enough that I can feel the heat coming off his body, he’s simply too fast for me to strike down. He avoids it and then grabs my forearm with one hand to pull me off-balance while chambering the other.
I try to raise my other hand to block as his muscles tense, but pain lances through it from the last blow it’d taken. It won’t move in time.I have to dodge it. But he has a grip on my other arm, limiting my movements. I can break free if I boost myself, but then there was a matter of timing.
Get the timing.
Too fast and he’ll have enough time to strike back when it wears out.
Get the timing!
Too slow and he’ll land the hit.
Get the timing!!
His muscles uncoil as his chambered fist fires forward like a bullet towards me.
I have to get the timing down perfectly!
A painful jolt surges through my brain in response. Everything slows down as a niggling warmth permeates my brain. His fist moves sluggishly, like the air’s density has turned to molasses. I try to move out of its way, but my body feels slow and numb. It’s no good if I can’t move fast enough, so I will my body to move.
The sensation permeating my mind sinks down further, threading my body. At the same time, things begin to move faster as the sensation lessens. I barely get my head out of the way and then pour all of my strength in striking him back in the face with a cross-counter as time returns to normal.
I’ve got him! I’ve—WHUMP!
“So, let me see if I have this straight?”
The Monk stands in front of us at a distance of a little over a yard, eyeing the damage done to the space between us. The floor between us had been caved in, the tatami and wooden floorboards beneath it splinted under the weight of my body. Apparently, his brother avoided my punch by twisting into where he had grabbed my arm and then threw me onto the ground while invoking his own Rise at the same time.
I say apparently because I didn’t remember anything between nearly hitting him, a flash of pain, and then waking up and feeling good as new.
“The training you were putting Matou-kun through dragged on to the point where, in an effort to get results, you pressed him in hopes of creating the necessary conditions to force him to maintain the effect. Then, at the end, he abruptly got the drop on you and caused you to reflexively trigger your own Rise and throw him into the floor hard enough to do this much damage? ”
“That is correct. To my shame, I overreacted—” Liar. “—and ended up using more strength than I intended as the abrupt change in his speed, posture, and power caught me off-guard. To that end, I prioritized healing his injuries after I realized my mistake.”
His brother sighs. “It’s good that you managed to undo the damage—” He looks down to the floor “—or at least the important damage, but you have to take it slower next time. Not everyone is a fast learner like you and can put up with that sort of training.”
“Your praise is once more misguided. I didn’t take to it well. I merely worked my hardest to ensure that I was capable of supporting the rest of you. To that end, I was attempting ensure that he was capable of doing the same and blundered.”
A rumble slips out of my throat. There. That right there is the reason I didn’t like him: the fake modesty.
It’s one thing for him to be good at seemingly everything, on top of having multiple exclusive abilities. But the way he tried to play it off as though it’s nothing special really pissed me off, because that’s the definition of someone special—excelling at things without any difficulties that others couldn’t.
They didn’t need to make themselves inferior to others. They didn’t need to pretend to be humble. As much as I hated to admit it, he fits that definition here and now. So the fact that he knows it and pretends otherwise rubs me the wrong way.
The Monk turns to me next. “As for you, that was really careless as well. If you had managed to connect when you tried hit him while using Rise, you could have killed him. Never aim for the head while sparring with your power active, understand?”
I nod, if only because I didn’t feel like being lectured further. The asshole would’ve had it coming though. I tried to cut things earlier and he wouldn’t let me.
He stares at me for a moment before continuing. “As for what you explained happen to you, I believe that managed to artificially induce what’s normally called the ‘Tachy Psyche’ effect. It’s when you feel like time has slowed down because your mind is processing information faster. If I had to guess, your body isn’t suitable for using Strength-Rise as much as Sense-Rise, but since you’re still using Rise energy it’s divided up depending on which you’re prioritizing.”
...I see. He was moving too fast so I instinctively increased the rate at which I could process information, lengthening my perception of time to get the timing, but not my body’s ability to match it. It was the same sensation as when you were watching your death come for you but being unable to stop it. When I tried to correct that the energy had to be divided and the effect wasn’t as smooth as it should have been, so I decided once I was clear of his punch to put everything into hitting him as fast as I could. “Sounds about right.”
“Well, there was no lasting harm done, so we’ll call this a lesson for everyone.” The Monk’s tone dulls a note, thinning out the air of strictness that bound it. “And now we know you probably lean more to the Sense aspect of Rise, rather than Strength. With enough time and training you’ll probably be able to cycle through them more effectively or spread it for an even balance, but we’ll have to work out something until then.”
“Great, but can I go home now?” That gets me a couple of looks from the rest of them. “I’ve got things planned later on and I need sleep before I can do anything.”
“… Fair enough,” he says. “Now, if the rest of you will excuse me, I need to get the spare mats and floorboards. Believe it or not, this isn’t the first time that’s happened.”
That's an interesting take on Issei -- I can definitely tell they know each other because they share a friend, not because they're friends themselves. Is that somewhere you're going explicitly? It's interesting compared to how Ayako and Shinji have their own friendship.
...You know, it occurs to me, that since this is UBW, as far as Issei knows, Kuzuki and his mysterious new Waifu just up and vanished one night (they died under the Church, I dunno how the bodies were disposed of).
So probably Issei is assuming it's Psyren related; I dunno if Shinji ever found out that Caster's Master was Kuzuki.
Right, well, Issei originally got involved in Psyren because he was hoping to find answers with that, similar to how Kane has suspicions about that whole "gas leak" incident, which tie into their powers allowing them to unravel the truth. And while he isn't close to Shinji, he does have his best interest in mind. They're not remotely close and will probably never be best friends, but Drifters are supposed to form a tight-knit community and part of what's covered in the next chapter is that's because Psychicers are closer to an artificial blend of magus and psychics to Shinji:
Psychics were usually born by chance and it was seen as more of a defect written into the soul that had to be repaired through reincarnation. Because s psychic perceived reality from a different angle from the moment of birth, interacting with that perception and realizing a supernatural phenomenon should come as easily as breathing. It wouldn’t be wrong to call them sapient Mystic Codes, living wands meant to perform a single feat at the expense of being born with a mutation in their brain.
A simple analogy would be ‘the one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.’ In the country fill by those that are blind, the one-eyed man is king. But that means he is the only one who knows just how ugly the country is and his kingship is meaningless. The countrymen (humans) cannot see the world the king (psychic) does and understand it, so there is no place for the one-eyed man among them.
Typically, a psychic only had a single ability or maybe a different variation of that ability, and it seems only possible to pass it along a bloodline through either the introduction of inhuman blood (resulting in mixed-bloods) or by interbreeding and removing oneself away from the trappings of normal society. For someone raised far away from society, surrounded by similar individuals that possess an abnormal channel from birth, that abnormal perception would instead become normal and maximize the chances of it settling in.
That being said, the same could be said about magi.
They see a similar world where morals and meaning are pointless. They see the world that the ignorant masses can sleep well without knowing of, and how inconsequential humans are. Thus they live in search of a way to ascend outside the borders of the world, reach for the truth, and become God instead by finding a path to the Root of all existence—the Akasha.
They work on passing their craft through bloodlines. And though they are capable of interacting with society, there’s a clear line drawn between them and the rest of the unaware world.
Drifters were something in the middle of that. We weren’t psychics, born differently from everyone. But we weren’t magi either, who were still linked to the normal perception of society and could turn off their ability to interact with it through circuits. If I had to take an educated guess, we were an intentional effort at turning humans into weapons—artificial psychics with the capacity of modern magi.
Our abilities aren’t as natural because our brains weren’t initially born with the mutation necessary to perceive the world differently than the whole of society. But we are able to cause supernatural phenomena with only our minds and not circuits. More so, it seems that we have a stable foundation that serves as the base of our powers and we can be taught how to refine our abilities and practice them in a more structured manner.
Ayako had been right that Nemesis Q had turned us into living multi-purpose tools for whatever it had planned to supposedly save the future. If I had to guess, the contract we established likely instilled some form of psychic perception that linked us to some sort of foundation that served as the base of our powers. But more than that, she may be right that it’s picking and choosing who lives and dies in terms of how valuable they are as an asset—not just in terms of abilities, but connections.
It fits nearly perfectly from what I gathered by the notes and observed from Ayako before and after coming into knowledge of the truth. If she hadn’t been lying about the amount of power she could bring forth, and the fact that our abilities supposedly grew over time, then she could easily do enough damage to be considered irreplaceable. It had every reason to save her life, and by sending Gai and I, it may have saved her mind as well.
The person she’s been since yesterday is a strong contrast to how she’s been the last few months, since she started going into Psyren. The major difference is that Gai and I are now involved. Since the Student President couldn’t accompany her, she had been going alone and felt like an outcast because no one could understand what she was actively going through. How long until she got depressed to the point of suicidal or overworked herself without care in hopes of saving someone or anyone so they could understand what she was doing?
Chances are Nemesis Q intentionally marked Gai and I as candidates because of the familiarity we had and chose to send us when she likely needed emotional and physical support the most. Her brother is also a likely candidate for recruitment like Gai since he knew of the card to some extent, but chances are that his involvement would have broken her even further at the time. So it chose classmates that were fit enough to get her to safety and just close enough that she’d be motivated to keep herself well enough to see to it that we got training.
And the results spoke for themselves.
One day was all it took before she was able to pass herself off as normal again to the track trio. Though she may feel guilty about our involvement, on some level I believe that she is happy that she doesn’t have to do it alone and some of that guilt is absolved because she’s not directly responsible. Likewise, the veterans feel the need to help others like them because they are still the only ones that can relate to them and it gives them purpose in this time of peace.
Though we’re a small community, we’re functionally becoming the same as clans and families that possess psychic powers. Because we’re a group, we can function better in society and have more stability mentally. And because the veterans can train us, our ability to survive increasingly dangerous scenarios rises as well.
Ironically, I feel like even more of an outcast.
The foreign thoughts come flowing into my mind fragmented as I focus on the girl standing beneath my perch against the railing on the top floor of the Verde.
She’s largely unremarkable, a ‘6’ in terms of appearance at best with a ‘Cute’ appeal. Not bad, but still a bit below my usual standards and not my preference when it comes to women.
And I have to dock points for her being so wrapped up with her cell phone that she doesn’t notice that she’s being given my attention. That’s just rude. Ah well, its brains I’m after right now, not beauty.
Between us is a silver cord, a sliver of moonlight invisible to the naked eye as it ran from my hand to the top of her brown bed of hair. It was a connection between us forged of ether (at least that’s what I think it is), a building block element in magecraft that could basically become anything in the hands of a magus. Illusions made real until they disappeared, they allow for the realization of supernatural phenomenon in the outside world.
In this case, I’m using it to create a vessel to transmit trance waves in a condensed form. A cable meant to transmit information directly from one point to another, rather than sending out signals unprotected like a satellite dish using pure visualization—exchanging range for clarity. It’s still subjected to the being influenced by the atmospheric conditions, but at the same time the ether shell acts as a shield to protect the more sensitive trance waves that flow into it and allows for mind-reading.
‘He’d be…r no…be with Oriana again.’
Because it’s difficult to hold the connection with the world trying to crush, I can’t properly read her thoughts. But if the others were right about our abilities scaling over time, and being easier to use in the future, I can use it more effectively later on. With enough practice, I should be able to read thoughts, send my own, and interpret the signals to the brain for the senses—at least that’s what I gleamed from the Old Worm’s collection.
Then again, how much of that’s a coincidence?
It’s only because I had access to the Matou Library and the Old Worm’s work over the centuries (and my own natural talent) that I could fabricate the creation of this connection in such a short time. Combined with the fact that I leaned towards Trance while it was underdeveloped among our group, it seems like I was born for furthering it and may have been part of the reason Nemesis Q dragged me into this.
Natural-born psychic abilities are usually seen as the result of a defect written into the soul that had to be repaired once it went through reincarnation within the Akasha. Because a psychic perceived reality from a different angle from the moment of their birth, interacting with that perception and realizing a supernatural phenomenon should come as easily as breathing. It wouldn’t be wrong to call them sapient Mystic Codes, living wands meant to perform specialized feats.
Though they usually lasted a single generation, it was possible to pass on some abilities through bloodlines. That involved the introduction of inhuman blood (resulting in mixed-bloods) or by interbreeding and removing oneself away from the trappings of normal society. For someone raised far away from society, surrounded by similar individuals that possess an abnormal channel from birth, that abnormal perception would instead become normal and maximize the chances of it settling in.
In contrast, magi exchanged ease of use with versatility. They could shift their ability to interact with the world through Magic Circuits, which could be passed on along with their craft through bloodlines naturally. They weren’t hindered by the same social issues as natural-born psychics were, but because they could manipulate the world in ways others couldn’t imagine, there’s a clear line drawn between them and the rest of the unaware world.
Drifters appear to be something in the middle of that. We weren’t psychics, born differently from everyone. But we weren’t magi either, who were still linked to the normal perception of society and could turn off their ability to interact with it through circuits. If I had to take an educated guess, we were an intentional effort at turning humans into weapons—artificial psychics with the capabilities of modern magi.
Our abilities aren’t as natural because we weren’t initially born with the mutation necessary to perceive the world differently than the whole of society. But we are able to cause supernatural phenomena with only our minds and not circuits. More so, it seems that we have a stable foundation that serves as the base of our powers, and we can be taught how to refine our abilities and practice them in a more structured manner.
Ayako had been right that Nemesis Q had turned us into living tools for whatever it had planned to supposedly save the future. But, more than that, she may also be right that it’s picking and choosing who lives and dies in terms of how valuable they are as an asset. Not just in terms of abilities, but connections.
If she hadn’t been lying about the amount of power she could bring forth, and the fact that our abilities supposedly grew over time, then Ayako could easily do enough damage to be considered irreplaceable. But she had been becoming more and more fragile from the stress of it; to the extent I picked up on it easily. Since the Student President couldn’t accompany her, she had been going alone and felt like an outcast because no one could understand what she was actively going through barring him—and his time was limited given his duties.
How long until she got depressed to the point of suicidal or overworked herself without care in hopes of saving anyone so they could understand what she was doing?
Yet, she managed to pass herself off as normal to those girls from the Track Club after a single day. The person she’s been since yesterday is a strong contrast to how she’s been lately. The major difference is that Gai and I are now involved.
Though she may feel guilty about our involvement, on some level I believe that she is happy that she doesn’t have to do it alone. And some of that guilt is absolved because she’s not directly responsible, both of us seemingly ended up finding cards through our own efforts. Likewise, the veterans feel the need to help others like them because they are still the only ones that can relate to them and it gives them purpose in this time of peace.
Though we’re a small community, we’re functionally becoming the same as clans and families that possess psychic powers. Because we’re a group, we can function better in society and have more mental stability. And because the veterans can train us, our ability to survive the increasingly dangerous scenarios rises as well.
Ironically, I feel like even more of an outcast compared to even the other Drifters—I may not be a magus, but I know more of the Moonlit world than all of them. And I can’t tell any of them about it considering what I did during the Holy Grail War. The last thing I need right now was for that to get out—
‘What exactly do you think you’re doing, Matou? ’
The abrupt intrusion of the mental voice shatters my concentration. I look away from the girl as the connection breaks and find the Student President on the ground floor. He’s staring up at me while adjusting his glasses with one hand.
And next to him is Emiya, holding a notepad and pen in his hands.
The autumn sun has started setting as the Student President, Emiya, and I make our way across the Big Bridge.
The pair had come to the Verde to finish their arrangements for the cultural festival and, in Emiya’s case, do some light shopping for dinner ingredients since he was there. The nearing of winter has left the air chilled enough that the field where children play soccer is abandoned. The only sound to be heard aloud is the stirring water from the river beneath the bridge, and the wind as whistles along its journey.
‘—it is the ethics of doing so on ordinary people that is the problem! ’
‘I’m doing what I need to in order to improve. Get over it. ’
In our minds, it was a different story. Since then I’ve had to put up with the mental blathering of the third wheel and his refusal to leave me alone to do my experimentation. In fact, he had actually threatened to teleport me all the way back to the Copenhagen if I didn’t comply, making the trip home longer than it needs to be.
‘Have you no sense of boundaries? ’
‘Trust me when I say there was nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a teenage girl’s mind there. Not that you’d really know about women in general, but the point stands. ’
I have to unravel the strings being pulled and untangle myself from all of this. I won’t allow myself to be played like I was by Gilgamesh and was turned into… ugh. To that end, I need to improve where I can and live long enough to find a way out of Nemesis Q’s grasp.
He glares at me from behind. ‘That answers my question. Apparently, you do not. ’
‘I really don’t care about the privacy of someone I don’t know when my life is on the line, and I won’t waste the effort pretending otherwise just to follow your beliefs. ’
Emiya, ignorant of our mental exchange, breaks the audible silence between us with a question. “Any idea what the Archery Club will be doing for the Cultural Festival?”
I shrug. “You’d have to ask Mitsuzuri since she’s the one handling that.”
The Student President speaks up to that. “They had an idea for a cake shop, but I had to refuse it since the food and drink group has already been filled. They’ll simply have to resubmit a different proposal by tomorrow.”
I look over my shoulder towards him and frown. ‘You know thatMitsuzuri has enough to deal with without the obstruction and with Sakura’s talent for pastries it could work. Just give the club a pass rather than making them do the paperwork over again. ’
‘While I may make exemptions for matters related to our other activities, I must remain impartial to school functions. ’
‘What good is having a position of power if you’re not going to use it to make life easier for yourself and the people you actually care about? ’
‘Unlike you, I actually hold being responsible and fair, as one in my position is supposed to do, as values to live by. It is not as though they will die from my refusal. ’
“Shinji.” Emiya’s voice grabs my attention. “Issei told me that the Archery Club is having a training camp at the Temple. Are you going to be participating?”
I scoff. “Of course not. I have better things to do with my time and Sakura needs to take the reins. We can’t hold her hand all the time.”
“Will you be attending, Emiya?” asks the thorn in my side.
“No, I’m not a part of the Archery Club so I don’t really have any right to go there.”
A part of me wonders if I’m responsible for that. “You know, you didn’t have to leave just because of what I said back then. If you’ve got regrets about it, then feel free to join back up. Mitsuzuri and Sakura won’t complain having an ace on board for the upcoming tournament.”
He merely shakes his head. “I have no real regrets. There was nothing further I could learn from the club. You simply gave me an excuse so that I could pursue something else to lead me to where I need to go.”
Where he needs to go, huh? Given its Tohsaka he’s been hanging around, I suspect that she intends to drag him off to the Clocktower for a formal education in magecraft. Stupid of her, considering she’s supposed to be the Second Owner of this land and once she’s gone there won’t be any more magi to oversee it.
She wouldn’t dare hand the reins over to Sakura after her family had sold her to ours. Not to mention Sakura didn’t have any formal training to defend the territory. And the only other person from that side of the world would be the old man that had taken the Priest’s place after Lancer gouged out his heart, but since the land she was in charge of was given to her by the Mage’s Association, I doubt they’d let the Church seriously overlook it.
Either way, I guess I should be supportive of him. “Well, if it’s something you find interesting then chances are that I don’t care about it. As long as it makes you happy then that’s fine.”
“I still believe that the lifestyle of a monk would suit Emiya best, but I shall nonetheless pray for whatever your aspirations are to come to pass.”
“Knowing that you’re praying for my success is a relief,” he says to that in a tone that sounds sincere, somehow. Then he turns to me. “What about you, Shinji? Fuji-nee mentioned that you didn’t fill out your Higher Education Aspiration Form. I know Issei intends to go into training at the Temple, but I thought for certain you would be making an attempt to attend a prestigious university or something?”
“Don’t be an idiot. I’m the heir to my family fortune, meaning I can’t leave Fuyuki long enough to attend any of the good universities.” Not that I need it, given I live in a manor bigger than Tohsaka’s. “Though that means Sakura’s free to do whatever she wants when she graduates. If she wants to go somewhere to better herself, I can afford to pay her way so she can contribute to the household.”
Emiya’s brows fold in slightly. “Hmm… now that I think about it, I don’t recall Sakura mentioning what she wants to do in the future either.”
“Have you actually asked her?” If there’s anyone who she’d tell, it’d be Emiya. “She’s not the type that speaks up on her own unless pressed into it. There’s a reason Mitsuzuri and I have been guiding her until now, and while she’s improved she still needs a push every now and again.”
Though, considering how things were before the Old Worm was taken care of, she probably didn’t have anything planned out in the long-run. Now she has the freedom to choose, but I can’t help but wonder if she actually intends to use it. I should probably look into sending her off and ensuring she has enough education to manage the estate and everything in it, should the worse happen between the nightmares and what I’ve gotten myself involved in.
“It’s never come up, but I guess I can ask.” He looks down at the bags he’s carrying. “Actually, would both of you like to come over for dinner tonight? There should be enough for five or six easily, and Sakura’s making dessert. I know Issei visited a little while ago, but I don’t think you’ve ever come inside. I can give you a tour before dinner.”
He’s right. In the five years we’ve known each other, I’ve never been beyond his front-door. But, during the times when I held nothing but contempt for Sakura, Emiya’s home was a safe-haven for her. I could do whatever I wanted before and after she left there, but inside she had a reprieve.
I don’t want to intrude on it now. “… Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I see.” And just like that he drops it, nothing further needing to be said on the subject. He doesn’t need to know the reason why. He doesn’t try to convince me over something pointless. He may be an idiot, but I could appreciate that much from him.
“Unfortunately, I have matters to attend to with my Brother Reikan at the Temple. So I must pass on the offer as well.”
Emiya nods in understanding. “Another time then.”
‘Matou. ’ I turn my attention to the Student President at the prodding to find the expression on his face was one of utmost seriousness. The type of look that promised retribution if crossed, unlike before. It suited him somewhat. ‘I don’t think I need to state this, but don’t mention anything about what we do to Emiya. I will not allow him to become involved in this. ’
…He doesn’t know Emiya as well as he thinks. There’s no one I know more qualified than him to handle this. But, since I learn from my mistakes, I’m not willing to risk getting myself killed again by Nemesis Q trying to bring him into the loop a second time.
Besides, someone has to look after Sakura while this eats up my time. ‘Didn’t plan on it. The idiot is more useful here right now anyway. ’
Silence descends once more. Both conversations come to a close with nothing further needing to be said and the walk to our homes continue without any further abnormality. It would be a thing to be missed in the weeks to come.
I kind of wonder why Issei is so dead set on not getting Shirou involved.
But I think the thing I'm noticing most in this bit is how much Shinji has internalized "I am a Drifter" in his world view -- he talks about "us", never "them." Despite being the only one that knows they aren't really that special or particularly unique.
Shirou's his best friend, and as far as he knows, harmless. Shinji knows better, but doesn't want to risk a second visit from Nemesis Q after he tried passing the card off to Sakura to give to Emiya. I'm reworking the next arc to show just how vicious it is, but getting someone involved is basically a death sentence since you don't know where they'll spawn or when.
As for the internalizing, he can't really change what's happened as of yet to himself, but he can't deny the fact that he's gotten the powers he always wanted after giving up on it (minus the whole, you know, fight or die thing) and just because he can peg the social manipulation doesn't mean he can't fall for it.
Soft music filled the air of the second room on the eleventh floor of the Semina Apartments, located in Shinto’s Kurokizaka district. Each floor of the complex had two apartments, and each apartment contained four bedrooms, a living room, and kitchen. It was a luxury apartment befitting those who could afford the four figure monthly rent.
In one of these rooms, Kane Himuro carefully brought a brush against the canvas that was set up, while listening to classical western music. Her father was working late as always, while her mother was with a friend, so it left her without any obligations. She often painted in her free time, when not occupied with Track Club or taking one of her walks throughout Fuyuki, from the Sea Side Park beneath the Big Bridge to the Temple. It really depended on her mood and whether or not she had inspiration to paint.
Recently she had come across a mystery that blossomed into unrivaled inspiration, so she was trying to get the painting done while it was fresh in her mind. At least she would be if she wasn’t stuck listening to Kaede Makidera through her phone’s speaker.
“It’s not fair! Why did the Archery Club get the chance to set up a training camp in the mountain while we don’t?”
She had been complaining nonstop for some time now. It wasn’t a surprise since her approach towards the Student President for the sake of having a training camp on the mountains was poorly thought out. Her enthusiasm got the best of her so much that she often refused to think things through.
Someone like that normally got on Kane’s nerves. But after three years of knowing her it had become so engrained that when Makidera acted like a yamato nadeshiko in her own home, manners and all, it bothered her.
Continuing to paint, Kane simply asked, “Maki, have you considered the Archery Club’s membership being a factor?”
“Leaving aside the fact that you literally burst through the door while he was in a conversation to start making demands without subtly or tact, Emiya is the person he maintains close ties with and remains an unofficial member of the club despite having quit. And Mitsuzuri has been building a rapport with him from the tone of her words with Matou at the mall.”
It was a habit of Kane’s when it came to affairs of romance to take the couple or potential couple and view them like portrait in her mind. Considering how well Mitsuzuri and Ryuudou seemed within that frame, she could see them becoming close enough to be friends through propinquity. Lovers even.
Shelving that aside, she finished her explanation to Makidera. “In contrast, you have ties with Tohsaka. Given his propensity to become guarded and outright hostile around Tohsaka, despite normally being rather dutiful and cordial, their rivalry is rather well-known. When you take that into account, along with her influence among the sports clubs and the fact that Emiya and Tohsaka are in a relationship, he wouldn’t be inclined to allow for an activity that goes outside his duty as the council president.”
“I still don’t see what she sees in that guy,” Makidera responded as usual to that bit of information. Whenever it came up, she tended to rage around a while since the time she spent with someone she considered a friend was cut down because of Tohsaka’s obligations to her boyfriend. “He doesn’t fit with her at all.”
Kane actually agreed with her there. Emiya wasn’t bad per se. He had qualities that she could admire in spades, but compared to the honor student and idol that Tohsaka had established herself as the two were as different as night and day to one another. But it was something of common knowledge around the school now since April and nothing could be done.
Makidera spent a few minutes ranting onwards before settling down. During that time, Kane continued her painting of the coat with its fur collar that splayed outwards in a ring. Getting the details of it with a brush was easier said than done compared to the rest of its body outline.
Then Makidera sighed in exhaustion before speaking seriously, “I just thought it might be a good way to get Yukicchi’s mind off…”
“The red calling cards,” Kane finished for her in lieu of Makidera’s hesitation. It was understandable, given that even she was wary of what happened after the last time she spoke carelessly of it and the one who gave them the cards. It was a humbling and terrifying experience, to say the least.
Kane stepped back and observed the painting. The portrait was a pristine facsimile of the humanoid creature that was strangely avian in nature as it appeared in her dream. It was dressed in a white coat with red trimming, with a starry background of the cosmos and a fleeting light in the distance steadily growing closer to the planet, extending its long arms to hand over the card to her.
She had been chasing rumors of the red cards for some time now because it was in her nature to do so, seeking out logical explanations for the unknown. Things had to have a reason to fit them under her world view. That was how it was for her.
Yet it was the unexplored and unseen things that captivated her. They made her heart race in excitement beneath the placid exterior she wore, a guilty pleasure that led to her searching for the rumored card. So, for such an enigma to appear in her dreams and somehow leave a card behind gave her inspiration, even as the nebulous nature of it nagged her mind as she tried to find a logical reason for how all three of them had the same dream and ended up with the calling card by their bedsides when they woke.
Makidera was wary, viewing it a sick game of some kind with rules printed on the back of the cards. Yukika, on the other hand, had been terrified considering the rumors that the red card marked you for death. More than that, the thought of someone breaking into the home where her family slept and leaving the card behind left her fearing for her little brothers’ safety.
It had brought her to tears.
If there was one absolute both she and Makidera shared it was their desire to look after Yukika. If something threatened her, they would be the ones to shelter and defend her against it. If there was something she was uncomfortable with, they wouldn’t pursue it in her presence. Making her cry or worry was the equivalent of an unforgivable sin, so they decided to try and find the one behind it to put Yukika’s mind to ease.
But they had to be careful until they figured out who was behind everything. There had to be a logical reason for the enigma that was the painted figure that stood before her. Unraveling it would be the best course of action if they wanted to be free.
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.
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.
Standing firm with my feet planted on a mostly-intact rooftop, I peer towards the west as a low rumble reaches my ears. Another series of buildings just collapsed, their long and vigilant stance that weathered the end of the world finally coming to an end. It was far off enough that I couldn’t feel the tremors, but the fact that it was the third time I’d heard that happening left me curious as to what the cause was.
Not curious enough to check though. I was already an uncomfortable distance away from the others, who actually could fight effectively with their powers. Going to check it out alone was just putting myself in danger for no reason.
I look over my shoulder to see that the argent cords stemming from the base of my skull were still intact out of habit, rather than necessity. I could still feel the connection of my mind to theirs. It was strange how natural it felt, but these PSI powers seem instinctive to begin with.
The cord linking Ayako’s mind to mine stretched further back and to the left, far into the distance beyond what my eyes could see. At the best I could make out a sliver of light streaking through the sky from that direction as she shot down distant Taboo. Her last message was that she’d managed to take out the majority of the flying Taboo and thus the most dangerous ones, but she couldn’t hit the further ones since her trade-off limited how far she could aim and back with enough power for the shots to count.
As for the idiot, his cord was lower to the ground and moving a bit. There were at least seven or so blocks between us and the husks of buildings stood as barriers to obscure our view. But Gai stated that as long as the cord remained intact he could reach me if something happened by simply plowing through them.
It’s still crude though. Since I’m the central point connecting the other two, any messages that need to be sent have to go through me. I’m basically a glorified phone operator, but it does allow me to control
the flow of information and stay up-to-date with how we’re progressing.
Between the two of them and my own ability, I could probably get out of trouble if need be. But it doesn’t change the fact that I wasn’t all that eager to even run into any Taboo. So I decided to play it safe by focusing on searching at a slower rate through the use of my enhanced hearing, with mixed success.
I wasn’t sure how many hours it had been since we left the present behind, but it was getting darker now and there was a lot less noise than when we started searching. If we couldn’t hear them or see them, then we couldn’t guide them to the location where we’d arranged for all the survivors to stay before we moved the pods there. Maybe the smarter people still around were hiding quietly to avoid the Catchers and Hounds, but most likely everyone else was dead.
I try not to think about it as I keep moving towards the entrance of what looks to be an entertainment district. The standing buildings are all tightly packed with their displays in various states of disrepair, while some of them had fallen onto the streets below and blocked off the path.
That’s when Ayako contacts me. ‘Shinji, you find anyone else?’
‘Not yet. I don’t think we’ll find anyone else beyond that nervous guy from Sasayama that refused to move unless Gatou walked him back to the others. Speaking of which, it looks like the range for the pool of people they’ve pulled from encompasses half of Japan as a whole if we take his word. Do the recruitment missions usually pull from that many places in Japan?’
‘No. Until now the furthest I’ve been within Japan is from is the Shimane Prefecture when it comes to recruitment missions. It might be that there aren’t any Drifters left in the lower-half of Japan, so they pulled us in for it.’
‘Is that possible?’
‘The death rate for the missions that pitch us against Soldier Taboo is pretty high, so it’s very likely. There aren’t that many of us to start with and we’re lucky in the fact that there are three Veterans to teach us in Fuyuki.’
She’s mentioned those Soldier Taboo a few times now. I really wasn’t looking forward to meeting one of them from how she was describing them, but first I needed to prioritize surviving this mission. We’ve saved a few people but Nemesis Q hasn’t declared the method to finish what we need to do here.
My spine stiffens as a scream rings out, just further beyond the blockade and debris. It’s followed by a Hound unleashing its scream that scrambled the mind and prevented victims from being able to move. Looks like I spoke too soon.
‘Mitsuzuri, I heard a woman screaming and a Hound howling. Do you have eyes ahead of me?’
‘No, it’s a blind-spot for me at this distance with the buildings that tightly packed and I’m lining up a shot to deal with the last of the Carriers before it gets too far away. Can you get eyes on them to see if you can do something before I change targets?’
‘I’ll try.’ I run along the edge of the building I’m on towards as quickly as I can and then jump over to the next one. The buildings that were close together make it easy enough without expending power, but my stamina isn’t the best to be doing something like this without it. In the end, I’m panting by the time I reach the top of the building next to the one that collapsed and get eyes on the screaming person…
It’s the mousey member of the Track Trio from school, Yukika Saegusa. She’s wearing her tracksuit and sitting against the rubble, eyes tear-stricken and wide in fear as she holds the body of Himuro in her arms tightly. It looks like she collapsed over her when she got caught by the scream, but I don’t see the third one.
Stupid of me, I should have suspected they’d be called in eventually. I heard them talking about the calling cards the very day I got caught up in this. Damn it, I don’t have any choice but to act so I jump off the rooftop.
In midair gravity takes hold of me as I use the slowed perception of time to line up my fall and make sure I don’t end up landing short. The world continues to move in slow motion in the process, allowing me to see the surprised look on the Saegusa’s tear-stained face and the Hound turning to face me after picking up my scent. Once I’m sure that I’ll land properly, I redistribute the Rise energy to strengthen my legs and feet to withstand the landing.
I come crashing down on the Hound’s body, carried by my momentum and weight. The result is what you’d expect from a dog ran over by a truck, visceral fluids of some kind splashing over my pants and the girl’s face. Then I stomp on the Hound’s head and core, grinding into it and making sure it’s dead, before I wheel around on Saegusa.
“Where’s the loud one?” I ask right away. If something happens to them then Ayako will have my head for not mentioning it earlier. “You three are never that far apart. Did she get caught?”
Saegusa doesn’t speak. All she does is shake her head as her and cry, eyes red and swollen as tears keep falling. It seems like the shock of everything left her too stunned to get a word out at the worst possible time.
Fortunately, Himuro is conscious and speaks from within Saegusa’s grasp. “A large creature caught her before we crossed the alley to the right.”
“Fuck!” I close my eyes and focus on listening in that direction. The energy threading my body focuses on my ears in response. Sound sharpens. Clarity follows. I can hear bestial panting and scraping of claws against asphalt, a set of larger and heavier footfall, and Makidera’s voice as she demands it let her go.
“You stay here and wait for Gatou or Mitsuzuri! Yell as loud as you can if another one comes close!” I tell them before I start running down that alley Himuro mentioned while sending a message to them both. ‘Mitsuzuri, Gatou, the screaming girl was Saegusa from the Track Club. She’s with Himuro who was caught in a Hound’s scream and can’t move. I left them behind the fallen building in the middle of the road to chase after another Hound and a Catcher that caught Makidera before it can get away!’
I ignore the surprise and loud responses that they give me to focus on the task at hand. I’m not all that fond of Makidera, but when I remember how Ayako mentioned not wanting to see someone she knew die again, I know for a fact that letting something happen to her will send her spiraling the emotional drain again. I did not condemn myself to this nightmare trying to help her just for some idiot to ruin that.
As I run down the alley and come to a stop at the end, I peer over the edge to see that Makidera is slung over the shoulder of the Catcher. It looks like a standard model, the kind that Ayako and Gai would have no trouble with. But it has a Hound a few feet ahead that’s sniffing the ground, no doubt ready to unleash a scream and paralyze her again if it wears off.
If a fight starts then she’ll likely be thrown around, which could prove fatal given how fragile people are in comparison to Taboo, so I should prioritize her rescue. But that Hound is a problem that needs to be dealt with or I won’t be able to get away with her, even if I do manage to snatch her out of its grasp. So my first step is to shut it up.
I look around for something that could pull that much off. The alley is pretty long and narrow, barely more than twice my width. But there’s a set of double door with a rusted chain threading through the handles a couple of times and bound by a lock. PSI-enhanced strength takes root in my arms a moment later and the chain snaps easily under my enhanced strength. Part of that is likely due to the rust, so I doubt I’ll be able to use it to plug the Hound’s mouth for very long. But if it can work for even three seconds I think that I can manage this.
Chain in hand, I ran back over to peer over the side again. They were further away and getting ready to turn to the side of the road. I couldn’t delay it any longer. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I channeled Rise into my legs and leapt out of cover.
The Hound turns my way the moment I land. Either it picked up my scent or heard my footsteps. But it turns my way and the Catcher does the same. No turning back.
I visualize the chain wrapping around the Hound’s mouth, tight enough that it acts as a muzzle to keep its mouth shut. I don’t know the exact mechanics of how it works. I just want it to work. So I pour as much determination and desire as I can into that vision to will it to work, counting on my powers to make it happen.
My vision goes to static for a moment and I feel my connection with Gai and Ayako sever. My mind instead dedicates everything towards my immediate desire, the energy permeating my body converting into something that allows for physical interference as it sinks into the chain. It frees itself out of my hand towards the Hound.
The chains wrap around its muzzle, clamping it shut and sticking there for as long as the energy sinking into it can maintain it. The cost felt heavy just to do that much. Burst really isn’t my specialty after all, but it creates the opening I need to rush forward.
The Catcher’s priorities shift the moment it registers it’s under attack, halfway there. All at once Makidera is thrown into the air as it abandons her to confront me, legs tensing to move with the inhuman speed its kind was so fond of.
I assess the situation. The way it threw Makidera will result in her landing headfirst into a building. She’ll die on impact at how fast she’s going. I have to grab her before that happens. So I sink everything into my body and strengthen it to survive.
Then kick off the ground, diving for her with my arms outstretched. Her weight and momentum buckle my arms and slams into my chest. Then I feel something hard hitting my back before the effects of my Rise-Strength fades, sending pain shooting through my body and knocking the breath out of me—
—and I don’t have time to fight off the pain before Makidera screams as the Catcher lunges towards us, having jumped in the air at some point during that brief moment. Instinct takes hold and ditches the dead weight in my arms to the side. Strength surges and brings both my free arm and the blade up as the claws descend like a guillotine.
My mind flares red, my lungs and throat burn as a scream comes out. One of its claws narrowly misses my head. The other broke my free arm, bone snapping as the flesh was torn into. In exchange for my arm though, my tanto pierces its core.
I bite down the pain and scream to twist the blade, widening the gap as I push it off the side. The blade snaps as the corpse falls to my left, pulling the claws free of the wound and exposing it to the air. It hurts, pulsing with pain with every beat of my racing heart as my lungs start working again to take in deep breaths of the metal and copper scented air.
But at least I’m alive…
…and no sooner than that thought crosses my mind, metal snaps and sends a chill down my spine.
I whip my head around towards the source and see that the chain broke. Now freed from the muzzle, the Hound opens its mouth to scream again when there’s a rush of air and its head falls off. It was severed by the neck as a pole-mounted blade buries itself into the pavement, and the naginata’s owner lands a second later to crush the Hound’s core beneath her foot.
Ayako’s panting as she stares at me. Stray strands of her brown hair cling to her glistening brow, and her chest rises and falls at a frantic rate. She must’ve rushed over to get here on time.
“The cords…cut… I thought that…” She doesn’t finish as her voice turns raspy for a moment. Swallowing saliva to cool her burning throat and taking a deep breath, she asks me, “Are you both okay?”
“WILL SOMEONE TELL ME WHAT’S GOING ON!?”
Oh right. Makidera’s here too. Forgot about her for a minute.
I turn to see she’s got a scrape on her head from where I pushed her out of the way. It’s leaking a trickle of blood that runs in a streamlet down her closed eye, and she looks like she’s on the verge of tears from either the pain or the fear. But she was largely unharmed.
Throb. Unlike me.
Ayako notices the wince on my face and crouches down in front of me. “Show me your arm.”
I hold my arm up, showing where the claw hand dug into the coat. A deep scarlet color was staining it. “The Catcher got my arm while I was saving her.”
She looks it over carefully. “I can tell it’s broken at a glance, but not how deep it is. I’ll need to get the sleeve off.”
A hot lance of pain surges through the wound as she slowly peels back the sleeve, freeing the coat’s material from the wet flesh. I suck in a sharp breath to deal with it. “How bad is it?”
“It’s shallow and the break will be easy to set, so you won’t bleed out if we get it covered up and put pressure on it.” She unzips her coat and starts to take it off. “All our supplies are back near where we left them. I should have at least brought the bandages or pain medication or—”
“What about Yukicchi and Himuro?” Makidera interrupts. Her body is trembling, so I assume she’s struggling to regain the ability to move.
“Gatou’s got them both.” Ayako takes a moment to look over Makidera. “How did you even get here anyway?”
“They were chasing down rumors of the calling cards,” I say. Her eyes turn to me for a moment, showing I had her attention. “Himuro’s the type to chase rumors, so once she heard about it there’s no doubt that she would go out and search for it. And Gatou found his card because he was searching to give her one as well. Nemesis Q must’ve caught them in a sweep this time when it started pulling people from all over. ”
“Damn it!” Her fist balls up in anger for a moment. Then she regains control of herself, faces Makidera, and holds up two fingers. “How many fingers am I holding up?”
“Okay. Now how bad does this hurt?”
Her face scrunches up as Ayako gently touches the wound. “A lot. Now can you explain what’s going on? And what’s with this crazy place and those monsters!?”
“Let me deal with Shinji first and then I’ll get you all somewhere safe and explain everything.”
She rises to her feet and heads over to her naginata, pulling it out of the ash-covered pavement. Then she grabs it with both hands, separated about the length of her shoulders, and turns away from us as a pair of explosion blows it into three pieces. She gathers the broken pieces, crouches down in front of me, and exposes her pink undershirt once more as her jacket comes off.
“What are you doing?” Makidera asks in shock, one eye open and wide in surprise at the situation.
“I need to make a splint for him,” Ayako says factually before she tears the hem of her shirt away and uses two of the broken pieces of her weapon to do so. “Shinji, you’ll probably need a sling for the arm once we get back, but it’ll have to do for now.”
It still hurts, but not as bad as before. “Got it.”
I rise to my feet as she tears another strip of her undershirt off, leaving her midriff exposed as she uses the strip to create a temporary bandage for Makidera’s head. Once it’s patched up, Ayako puts her jacket back on, picks Makidera up, and leads us through the alley towards the other members of the Track Trio. There we find Gatou holding Himuro in his arms, while Saegusa looks terrified as she clings to his shoulder.
Relief briefly crosses their faces when they see one another. It lasts for three seconds before another rumble from collapsing buildings in the distance breaks the moment. Then we head back as the night sets in.
Yukika Saegusa woke that morning when she felt a prod to her cheek courtesy of her younger brothers, who claimed that they were hungry. She snapped upright at that and looked at her clock to see that she was late in waking up—far later than normal. On a normal day, she would have already made breakfast for her family and a lunch for herself before her parents saw them off to school.
“I’m so sorry!” She stumbled out of bed hastily. If she hurried she would be able to get them something to eat—eggs and toast at the very least. It was her responsibility since her parents’ worked so hard to support all five of their children.
“Just give me half-an-hour and I’ll have breakfast read—Ahhhh!!”
In her haste she tripped over her own feet and would have hit the ground if not for one of her brothers, Kouta, reaching out to catch her. She wasn’t exactly heavy, but he was still on the young side and didn’t have much muscle. So he ended up beneath her rather than stopping her fall.
“Nee-chan, you’re heavy!”
She rose to her feet and helped him up. “Sorry Kouta. I’ll make your breakfast now, but you’ll have to settle for just eggs and toast this morning.”
“But I want Oyakodon!” Kouta crossed his arms and pouted. “It’s my day today! I checked the chart!”
“I’m sorry, but there’s not enough time.” She felt bad about it too. Her brothers tended to be naughty, but they liked the breakfast schedule that she came up with and had been good recently. Well, mostly good by their standards. “I’ll make it up during dinner, whatever you want.”
The smirk that formed on his face told her it’d be an outrageous demand, but as long as it silenced him for now that was all she asked before she made her way to the kitchen to cook. It was a small kitchen, but a familiar one. As much as her brothers riled her up, they left the kitchen unsullied since she was the one who did most of the cooking—though her mother helped when she had time off.
Yukika managed to get the light breakfast made in time before they left out, on their way to school. Then she was home, alone. Not enough time for her to make a lunch if she was going to make herself presentable to her classmates. And she didn’t want to spend more money than necessary, so she would have to settle for picking something up along the way if it was on sale and call that her lunch.
She could only blame herself as washed her face in front of the mirror. Ever since that night where she had that dream of that… thing and found that card in her room, she had been on edge. The thought that someone or something had slipped into her home so easily left her panicking out of fear of the unknown, jumping at shadows.
Not for her own sake, but for that of her brothers. They needed her to look after them. She was responsible for them. Yet, chasing rumors somehow led to the sanctity of their household being violated. What if whatever or whoever it was decided to do something to them?
It would be all her fault, and she couldn’t bear the thought of that happening. That was why she had left the calling card at school, in the locker that she had access to as the manager of the team. She didn’t want it anywhere near her family, but she was afraid to get rid of it since she didn’t know what that would do.
It’ll be fine, she told herself to quell the fear in her heart that bubbled up at the thought. If Kane-chan and Maki-chan aren’t worried about it, then I shouldn’t either.
Kane had assured her that it was nothing to worry about and Makidera had all but brushed it off as far as she could tell. Those two were pillars in her life, two people she found companionship with the most outside of her family. Kane was wise and regal, while Makidera was energetic and fun, but both were protective and supportive of her.
If her best friends didn’t find it terrifying, she was sure that she was just blowing things out of proportion. At least, that’s what she thought before the ringing started later that day. It was a phantasmal ringing that couldn’t be drowned out by covering their ears or using earphone and music, ever-present and resonating from within them in a haunting tone.
It wouldn’t go away, no matter what they did. It continued until the ringing became unbearable by the time they finished their afterschool track practice. By then, Yukika struggled just to string together a coherent thought.
“This can’t be happening,” she said in pain as the ringing made her head ache and left her sitting on the bench in the locker room, tears stinging her eyes.
Makidera was leaning against one of the lockers as well with strain evident on her face as she tried to bear with it. “Maybe it was something we ate?”
Kane shook her head and spoke the words they were too afraid to even think of. “It has to be the summoning toll mentioned in the dream.”
Yukika’s heart palpitated upon hearing those words. Not only because it reminded her of that creature that coiled a ribbon around her heart and mind before she woke to find the calling card on her nightstand, but because she could hear them clearly despite the ringing in her ears that wouldn’t go away. Those words and the weight they carried added credit to what she said.
Yet, she denied it. Yukika shook her head in disbelief, desperate to not let it be true. “No…”
“It’s the only reason I can think of that all three of us are like this.” Kane massaged her temples and closed her eyes. “Even if it doesn’t make sense, all we have are the rules on the back of the cards to go by.”
Makidera shot her an annoyed look. “Hold on. You said you saw that Mitsuzuri had one of those cards, right? Let’s just go ask her if it really is a part of this and see if she has some way to deal with it.”
Kane’s silver hair swayed as she gave a shake of her head. “She’s left campus already with Shinji Matou. His sister is managing the Archery Club and can’t reach them. She doesn’t even know where they’ve gone.”
“Then what are we supposed to do?”
Kane reached into her pocket slowly and pulled out her calling card. “We have to make the call. Do you have your cards?”
Makidera grimaced. “It’s in my bag.”
Yukika hesitantly nodded as well, swallowing the rising lump of fear in her throat. “My locker.”
“Go get them and we’ll make the call together.”
The ringing stopped the moment they dialed the number. Or was it simply forgotten? Left behind in the enclosure of the locker room rather than under the dulling, silver-lined sky of thick clouds they found themselves staring up at.
“A-Are we all having a nightmare or something?” Makidera said aloud, a bead of sweat trailing down from her brow as her eyes spanned the new landscape they were in.
“Th-That must be it.” It didn’t make sense unless they were just having a nightmare. Yukika pinched herself as a cold wind threaded the rows of buildings that were in various states of disrepair. The pain stung enough that she winced, but it didn’t make the nightmare end. Slender fingers grasped her hand and stopped her before she could try again.
It was Kane, looking through her glasses with a sad gaze. “It’s not a nightmare.”
Yukika shook her head vigorously in disbelief. “It has to be! What else could it be!?”
“I’m not sure what this is, but if we panic we’ll only endanger ourselves. Let’s stay calm.”
Yukika didn’t hear her as she staggered back, holding her head with tears in her eyes. “I need to get home! I need to get back to my brothers! My family!”
Makidera grabbed her shoulders and held her steady. “Himuro’s right. We’ll get you home safe and sound, so keep calm, Yukicchi.”
That seemed to quell her fears somewhat. At least until Kane looked over the smaller girl’s shoulder and her eyes rose in stunned confusion and fear. Yukika took notice and turned to see what had grabbed Kane’s attention.
It was a monster. Flesh stretched over hulking muscles that exceeded what was humanly possible, combined with misshapen limbs that didn’t belong as it held an upside down body lifelessly in its grasp. On the ground next to it was a pair of monstrous dogs of some kind, sitting on their hind legs. The trio of monsters faced the three of them, lacking eyes yet somehow able to stare at them unwaveringly.
They froze in place out of the sheer abnormality of what they were seeing. Monsters and a corpse akin to the hanged man, blood flowing from a smashed head as papers floated down from the building above—a business man who committed suicide by falling in an attempt to escape the nightmare. Then the masked-headed brute opened its mouth and let a haggard breath as it dropped the corpse with a wet thunk.
Something snapped inside of Yukika and her fear spilled out in the form of a scream at the top of her lungs. “AHHHHHHH!!!”
The scream acted as a starting pistol. Instincts of hunters and prey took root and blossomed, determined in an instant. The dogs moved in for them as the masked hulk screamed in place of a verbal order and the girls ran.
Kane Himuro was their jumping ace, but was good at short-sprints as well. Kaede Makidera was confident in her physical strength and excelled at mid-distance running. Between the two of them, it was entirely plausible to run long enough to escape and find somewhere to hide.
But not Yukika Saegusa, who was on the verge of passing out from fear. She was only the team manager and certain to be the first one captured by the monsters if left on her on. If it was survival of the fittest, she was only suited for serving as a distraction while the other two escaped.
Neither entertained the thought. Instead, Makidera grabbed Yukika and threw her over her shoulder. With her heart racing even though she was being carried, Yukika bore with the uncomfortable sensation of a shoulder digging into her stomach as they ran.
Fear sent adrenaline coursing through their bodies. The chill of the metallic air was all but forgotten as they burned on the inside. Pushing their trained bodies to the utmost limit they ran down the street.
“Through the alley!” Kane yelled from the front. “They shouldn’t be able to see with those things on their faces! If we move fast enough through the turns we should be able to elude them!”
They took a sharp turn down the first alley they found. The path contained two hurdles, an overturned dumpster and a half-fallen fire escape. There was no turning back without being caught, so they could only push through them.
“Maki!” Kane called, arms extended towards the fastest of the three, and the message within it carried. Without stopping, Makidera passed Yukika to the most vertically-inclined of the trio. Freed of the additional weight, Makidera then burst forward with as much speed as she was capable of and lunged forward to vault over the overturned dumpster without stopping.
“This’ll be a little rough, but bear with it!” Kane said as she followed suit with Yukika in her arms. She leapt over the makeshift hurdle despite the additional weight, a testament to the strength of her legs. The moment her feet touched the ground again, she kept running without slowing down.
The first hurdle cleared, they approached the second. The half-fallen fire escape looked as though it fell until it hit the opposite wall and collapsed downwards. The result was a net of rusted steel with just enough of a gap in it where they could make it through if they could get enough height.
Makidera stopped as she approached it and turned around, creating a foothold with her hands to give them a boost. Kane leapt forward with her leg extended out and landed in the prepared foothold. Makidera summoned whatever strength she had to throw the taller girl holding the smaller girl upwards and get enough height to clear it.
The landing was rougher than before. Kane’s knees buckled this time, leaving her to wince in pain. But she couldn’t waste time if they were going to get away. She gritted her teeth and then stood up, forcing herself forward as Makidera climbed over the second hurdle.
They made to the mouth of the alley as Kane began to pant with heated breaths. She was good at short-distances, but they were at the point where she was reaching her limit since carrying Yukika was taking its toll.
Yet she couldn’t stop running. A howl disabused her of the very thought. The monster-dogs had already entered into the other end of the alley, eating up the distance bought with their concerted efforts in a hurry.
“Get lost already!” Makidera shouted as she rammed the half-fallen fire escape with all the strength she could muster. The impact was enough to wrench the remainder of it loose, freeing it from its rusted bonds. It went crashing towards the monster-dogs chasing after them with a loud and deafening sound, obscuring her foot falls as the Black Panther started running again.
“I think I got them!” she said with a proud smile as she caught up quickly while they came out into another street and began to run down it.
“We have… to keep going…into another… alley!” Kane fought to get the words as heated pants left her mouth. She was slowing down now. But they had to keep going ahead if they were going to escape.
“Kane-chan, let me down!” Yukika said, unable to stand the thought of one of her friends being caught because she was slowing them down. “I can run on my own now!”
But it was too late. One of the monster-dogs managed to pull itself free of the wreckage and gave chase after them as they neared the mouth of the second alley. It snarled as it approached the fleeing trio with a frantic gait, racing towards the slowing pair.
“What does it take to get rid of you!?” Makidera shouted as she brought her foot around from below while the other two kept running. The kick connected just below its snout and punted it backwards several feet. She then turned to run, but it got back to its feet before she could make it a step, its mouth splitting into four parts as a scream bellowed out towards her. “Agghhh!!”
“Maki-chan!” Yukika screamed as all the strength seemed to leave Makidera’s body. She collapsed like a puppet with her strings cut, leaving Yukika to fear that she had died. She wriggled out of Kane’s grasp and reached out for her—
“Go…” Kaede called out with a strained breath, struggling to move. Kane did just that upon seeing the other monsters approaching, grabbing Yukika by the hand and forcing her to keep moving through the narrow alley as the monster-dog screamed at Makidera again.
“We have to help Maki-chan!” Yukika cried out as she looked over her shoulder towards the shrinking figure of her fallen friend.
“We can’t do anything for her if we get caught too!” Kane argued as they cleared the mouth of the alley only to meet a dead-end in the front of a pile of rubble from a collapsed building. Before they could run the other way, one of the monster-dogs darted out from the alley and aimed for Yukika.
Kane put herself in front of a scream that left her as immobile and helpless as Makidera. She fell backwards, spared only from hitting her head on the rubble by Yukika’s lithe arms grabbing her as she fell. Using her body as a cushion as they hit the debris pile, she was trapped beneath her remaining friend.
Now there was no getting away. Yukika could barely support Kane’s limp body, let alone climb over the rubble with her in tow. It seemed like they were doomed as the monster-dog’s mouth split open again and it prepared another horrifying scream just for her.
In those final moments, she held Kane for dear life and thought back to her family. She just wanted to see them again. She just wanted to return to her ordinary life
with her family and friends… and then the last person they’d expect to see appeared.
Shinji Matou was not exactly someone who the collective trio would be happy to see under normal circumstances. He wasn’t the nicest person by any stretch of the imagination. Even when he showed up to save them, he looked annoyed more than anything.
But, as she watched him run off in the direction where Makidera had been left behind, Yukika had never been more grateful in her life to see a familiar face…
We make it back to the street where we’ve set up a safe zone just before nightfall. The sound of a sniffle draws my eyes behind me. The paralyzing effect from the Hound’s scream has worn off, so the three girls that stupidly got themselves involved in this are walking between myself and Gai, while Ayako takes the front as a vanguard should something pop out.
Saegusa looks like she’s on the verge of crying again. I don’t know what they’ve been through since they got here, but my attempt to find out was rebuffed by Ayako and Gai. They apparently have something against wantonly reading memories of people they considered friends and uninvolved.
Ayako looks over her shoulder to three of them and takes on a gentle tone as she addresses the crying girl. “We’re almost there. You’ll be safe then.”
Unfortunately, her words serve as the cue for the loud-mouthed one to start asking questions. “Can you guys tell us what’s happening here? Where are we? What was that exploding thing you did before?”
Ayako points to me. “Shinji will do the explaining once we get all of you squared away.”
I blink. “What now?”
“Your arm is injured and we need to get the supplies, so you’ll be watching them and the other survivors.”
Fear finds its way into the Saegusa’s eyes when she realizes that she’s going to be separated from the two heavy-hitters of our little group. “Y-You’re not going to be there?”
Ayako gives the girl a reassuring smile. “Between the two of us, it shouldn’t take more than thirty minutes to get back where we started and retrieve our supplies. We’ll block the exit again so nothing will get in, just to be safe.”
The fact that she looks a little relieved when she finds out she doesn’t have to rely on me solely is a little insulting considering the pain my arm is in because I put myself out there for them. But, focusing on the more pressing issue, I shoot a telepathic message to Ayako.
‘So, to what extent am I telling them and the others?’
‘Give them the truth about the cards and their circumstances. But be gentle. People usually either try to deny it or panic in their circumstances since they just want it to end, and I’ve seen some commit suicide before.’
‘I’m more concerned with the fact that they saw us using our powers and will be just as afraid of us as they were the monsters when they settle down.’
Her expression shifts. Ah… I see, it’s happened before. ‘That’s why you’re going to explain about PSI too. They’ll be less likely to act that way if they understand they’re one of us as well. But if you need to defend yourself, I won’t hold it against you.’
“How many others have you saved?” Himuro asks, breaking into the telepathic discussion between us.
The number Ayako gives is about seventeen with them. Over half were the ones who managed to get themselves thrown into a pod and then freed by us, coming to about nine. The other five had been actively running like these three. We guided them to the very building we came to a stop at a minute later.
Ayako uses her telekinetic hands to move a large piece of debris that blocked the entrance, set into place when Gai brought the nervous wreck of a Salaryman inside. There’s a staircase going down into a corridor underground that ends in a steel door with an eye slot. It looks sketchy, but Ayako assures the others they’ll be safe here again and ushers us into the staircase before she shifts the rubble back into place.
“Is this an underground bar or something?” Makidera asks as she stares at the sign, trying to make it out in the dark as I knock on the door.
“It’s close enough. The building is mostly in one piece where it counts and sound-proof, which means it’s well-insulated. Given we don’t know how long we’ll be here, that’s a necessity since most of the Taboo we’ve seen so far track by sound and we don’t want to freeze to death.”
Plus, it looks like it would have been an elegant place of sorts. I can imagine a soft tune playing through the speakers as a hostess ran the bar for customers who just wanted to relax a bit and let the world outside of these walls drown out. Yeah, we can pass it off as an underground bar as long as they stay out of the back rooms until we can hide or destroy everything that said otherwise—though I personally think that they shouldn’t really care as long as the beds were still intact, since it meant they didn’t have to sleep on the floor.
The eye slot opens after I knock again. A pair of eyes look into mine before it closes and the door itself opens to reveal a tall guy with red hair. He reminds me a bit of a thug, despite the fact that he was cowering when we found him.
The stink of cigarette smoke slams into me like a wall when I enter. I trace the source to the three people off to one side, taken from one of the pods. There was an older girl clinging to a guy wearing sunglasses, both of whom seemed college-aged. Next to them was a tough-looking man who was in his 30s at a guess, sucking on the half-lit cigarette in his mouth.
I was not going to sit here and deal with that stench. “Put it out or get out. Your choice.”
He shifts the cigarette and steps forward like he’s going to cause problems. It would end poorly for him considering I’ve killed things bigger than him in the last few hours. Fortunate for him, the sunglasses guy places a hand on his arm to stop him from getting bounced.
“Just do it, Shibata,” he says to the man. “Don’t want to make things worse, do we?”
The tough guy grumbles under his breath about respect but listens to his younger companion and puts it out with his shoe. Sunglasses then takes a step forward. His hands are raised to show he doesn’t mean to cause trouble.
“Sorry, my friend here is just a little concerned about our situation and wanted to take the edge off a little. Not all of us are as… gifted as you and your friends seem to be, going by the stories we’ve heard from the others here, and we’re still confused. You understand, right?”
“Keep your friend in check then,” I warn him. “The other two are a lot more tolerant than I am, but until they get back I’m the one calling the shots here. Got it?”
“Crystal clear.” He gives me a slight bow of his head and then gestures to girl next to him. “My name’s Sakishita by the way, and this is my girl, Marina.”
Unlike him, who seems to be awfully relaxed all things considered, she clearly looks like she’s on the verge of having a panic attack. Her clinging to him is for security then. “Baby, I want to go home.”
“Just relax, babe. I’m sure this guy will tell us how to do that.” He looks up to me and gives me a smile that annoys me. “Right?”
“Yeah, I’ll explain that once these three get seated.” I direct the Track Trio over to a table with a long seat against the wall that could fit the three. “Get comfy, this’ll take a while.”
Himuro and Makidera head over immediately, with the latter sitting with her back straight and posture rigid. Even in this situation she remains uptight. On the other hand, the former just flops down ungracefully and exhales as though she’s relieved to get off her feet.
Saegusa is the odd one out. She hesitates, looking between the seat and me. “Umm…”
She bites her lower lip and grabs the hem of her track jacket nervously before she inhales and bows her head. “I’m sorry, Matou-san.”
I try to figure out what she’s done to warrant an apology, but nothing comes to mind. She’s too timid to do something like prank me or talk ill behind my back. “What for?”
She looks at my arm. Remorse colors her eyes. Guilt. “I always thought you were scary in school, but you still jumped in to help us and got hurt. So…”
“Oh that. Don’t apologize for something that isn’t your fault.” If anything, it’s Makidera’s fault for getting caught. And really, I was more worried about what would happen with Ayako if I didn’t save them. “This isn’t even as bad as my first trip all things considered.”
“Even so, thank you for saving us.” She raises her head and gives me an appreciative, innocent expression that wouldn’t be out of place on Sakura’s face when she was younger. Before I knew everything that I knew and did everything I did….
I look away. “Fine, you’re welcome. Now go sit with the others, so I can get started.”
She scurries over to their side and takes a seat next to Makidera, who gives her a slight smile while she looks somewhat nervous at the attention she’s gained from the others—not all of it goodwill, given she was holding up the explanation. In particular, there was a group of girls across from this trio who looked annoyed more than anything.
I was fairly sure that were also high schoolers considering their clothes were somewhat standard of a uniform, though they weren’t exactly wearing them in the proper style with their coats tied around their waists. They were the ones from the first pod we saved and were less talkative given everything they went through, so they shouldn’t cause any problems for those three. Still, it did remind me that there was a somewhat varied mix of people that we’d saved to this point.
The last of the pod people were a trio of guys that looked college-age like Sakishita, sitting in the third row of seats against the wall. One of them wore a set of glasses and was fiddling with his phone, which wasn’t working. The second had a set of headphones resting around his neck. The last one of that group had a wool cap over his head.
At the edge of the counter, sitting on the bar chair, was a black-haired man in a suit that was sitting with his elbows propped up on the table and covering his eyes. He was shuddering, tear stains marking where he’d let his fear spill out. Clearly a salaryman in over his head.
A few seats from him was a woman maybe in her mid-20s. She wore a standard outfit I’d expect from someone who worked a part-time job at a convenience store chain. The majority of her attention was fixed on her own calling card, rather than her surroundings.
Then there was the black-haired girl with a ponytail, dressed in a sports jacket and jeans. She had a cloth pressed against her cheek from where she’d been injured, a slight swelling and bruising. Unlike most of the others, we found her actually attempting to defend herself when she ran into a Taboo. It didn’t work out, but it was clear she was a fighter.
Last was a scraggly guy dressed in a jump-suit that had paint stains over it. He looked like he didn’t care much about his appearance, and his hair was long enough that it obscured half of his face. He was sitting on the floor with one hand on his knee, watching all of us in a way that creeped me out.
I take a seat at the closer end of the counter and pull out my calling card, holding it up for them to see as I get started. “Since you’re here, you clearly have one of these. And if you’ve read the back of the cards and had the dream, you know that this is the future—”
“How much did it cost to set it all up?” asks Cellphone from his seat, interrupting me. He makes a flourish with his hands to our surroundings. “Where are the cameras?”
I raise a brow at the stupidity. And I’m not the only one, given that everyone shares the sentiment. Really, the only exceptions are Saegusa, who’s too nice, and the Salaryman, who looks almost hopeful at the thought of this being a set-up. Poor fool.
“Are you an id—” I catch myself before I call him an idiot. Not a good idea right now to actively antagonize someone else after the tough guy a minute ago. “I get you’re skeptical because you didn’t see the bodies before you got thrown into a pod dragged here, but it’s not. Otherwise, how do you explain everything?”
“Movie set. And some buff extras to throw us into the pods.”
Himuro tilts her glasses up as she peers through the lenses with a more refined look than the rest of us are giving him. She still sheltered the same thoughts as us though, just better masked. “I sincerely doubt that this is some elaborate movie set.”
“And those things weren’t human,” Ponytail adds, tilting her head over to me. “Didn’t react like one when I hit a nerve cluster, and I saw his friend tear one in half without so much as a scream. And it was still moving until he smashed it in the chest afterwards.”
She sets down the cloth and straightens her back as she addresses me. “Just Nami is fine.”
“Those things are called Taboo by the Veterans, and they can survive a lot of punishment unless you hit them in their core and smash it. Whatever they are seem to play into how the future became this way, and I believe that might be part of why we were summoned after the ringing began.”
“That ringing was a pain to deal with,” Sakishita says, tapping his ear. “I tried drowning it out with music and all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t stop. I thought I was going to go deaf.”
I shake my head. “It was on the back of the card that you had a set amount of time to answer or you really would have died. Anyone who doesn’t answer the summonings does, likely to keep it a secret and to enforce participation. It’s part of the contract and we haven’t found a way out of it.”
The Salaryman jumps out of his seat at that, as though offended. “I didn’t sign a contract! Even if I did, what kind would allow for this sort of thing!?”
“The kind that kills you if you don’t obey it. When you accepted the card, you established a contract with that bird-man thing that we call Nemesis Q to change the future.” I tap my head and then my heart. “That’s what that sensation of barbed wire coiling around your brain and heart and digging in was. You’ve all felt that, right?”
Surprisingly, they all looked at one another in confusion until Saegusa shifts in her seat and raises her hand. “Um… it felt kind of like a ribbon to me.”
“Mine felt like a silken cord,” Himuro adds.
“A kimono sash for me,” Makidera claims.
The others give their own descriptions. Not one of them had the barbed wire treatment, though there were gems like piano wire and chains. So Nemesis Q apparently just hated me that much.
“Either way,” I continue. “Once that happened you were bound to the terms of the contract you made, which was to change the future—this future. If you try to break the rules past a warning, those constrict and kill you. Those cases of Sudden Death Syndrome all over the world are likely the result of that.”
I pause a moment to let that sink in. I don’t want to rush in or give them too much information all at once. In fact, I’d prefer it if someone else took the reins, but Ayako is still a good distance out.
The silence breaks when Himuro’s curiosity gets the better of her. “Presuming that is the case, that we’re in the future, can you explain how we got from our time period to this one?”
“If I had to guess, that contract created a bridge that allowed for our souls to leave our body and be displaced them in time. Our bodies are still back in the past, unconscious but still alive. Once the trip is over, we’ll snap back to them.”
“So all those rules are real then?” asks the woman at the counter as she rises out of her seat. “If we die here, our bodies back in the past die too?”
“That’s right, Miss…?”
“Miss Kitano, the damage to the soul is reflected onto the body. Any wounds you sustain here end up hitting your real body all at once when it jumps back and if you die here, you die there.”
She lowers her eyes. “My brother had one of these cards on his desk the day he died. It looked beat-up and worn. Does that mean one of those monsters killed him?”
If his card was as beat-up as Ayako’s then the guy was definitely an Active Drifter. “…When did it happen?”
“It was a few days ago. I took the train to my brother’s apartment in Setagaya to find him slumped over at his desk with a beat-up calling card like this in front of him. I thought he was asleep since he was still breathing, so I didn’t try to wake him as I cooked dinner for him since he worked hard… and… and…”
Considering the fact that her body was trembling as she held her free hand to her throat and how the color drained from her face as she trailed off, I’m presuming he didn’t just drop dead either. Still, if it was a few days ago, that would explain why he wasn’t here now. There must’ve been a mission that we weren’t a part of.
I float a Mind Jack over to her and gently inserted before I pulled on her memory and—
The apartment is small overall, the sort of place that a part-timer could rent with a small section in the front to serve as the kitchen, with a few cabinets, a refrigerator, and pantry. She enters through the door at that end, her key jangling as she pulls it free of the lock. She shuts the door behind her as she calls out into the darkness. “Nii-san?”
There is no answer, even as her eyes take a moment to adjust and she spots his figure at the desk. It lies against the back wall, underneath the window, in the middle of the room. The futon is folded on the right and the television, a small thing on a stand, is on the left and turned off.
“Don’t tell me you fell asleep while studying?” She huffs as she sets the bags of groceries down on the counter and goes over to his side. Lying with his head on the desk, the calling card is in front of him with his phone adjacent to it. She spots a traveling bag by his legs as well, leaving her to wonder if he planned on going somewhere or was waiting for someone when he fell asleep.
“You shouldn’t sleep at the desk,” she tells him as she tries to wake him by shaking his shoulder. When that gets no response, she tries harder. There still no response leaving her to get worried now. She checks his pulse and find that it’s still strong, so she brushes it off as him sleeping deeply and begins to cook.
As she cooks, she thinks of her brother fondly. She thinks about how he moved out of the house in Hiroshima when he was younger and how she often came over likewise, trying to see him despite him telling her not to since it was dangerous for someone her age to traveling alone on the train. He was a large part of her life, someone she cared about dearly, and so she didn’t feel a burden for helping him out like this since he tried so hard in her eyes—going so far as to make his favorite meal despite being a slight drain on her own budget.
Then there’s a crash. She looks over to the desk to see her brother had fallen out of the chair and was sprawled on the floor. Blood runs freely from beneath his clothes, a deep shade of crimson that spilled out from gashes torn in his flesh that she could barely make out. Then there was his throat, a visceral mess that reminded me of a piece of raw meat with a chunk torn out by a ravenous dog I once saw when I was overseas at the boarding school.
Despite that, he’s still alive. There’s a fleeting moment of life, a flicker in his eyes as he tries to move his mouth to say something. But that fleeting moment fades with the light in his eyes and his head turns to the side, leaving the blood pooling in his mouth to trickle out.
She’s stunned. Her mind takes a moment to grasp was truly happened in that moment as the card she eyed on the desk disappears from her view, crumbling from existence with the sound of shattering glass. The sound acts as a trigger and causes her to start screaming as the full realization sets in that her brother had died horribly, and a flood of emotions starts pouring in.
Nii-san! Be okay. Let me be dreaming. Nii-san! Wake up. Don’t leave me. Nii-san! Niisan! Niisan! Nii—
—I manage to pull myself out of her memories before I drown in her despair. It’s amazing she’s putting on a façade of being merely sad right now considering it had only been a few days. But what the hell was that?
For me, reading someone’s mind is different from reading their memories. When they’re actively thinking, it’s like listening to their thoughts or I can see what they see by actively reading what they perceive as it comes. But when it’s a memory, it’s like flipping through the pages of a book—though I could see glimpses of images if I really wanted to, sort of like taking a passage from the pages and turning them into a film.
That time was different. It was almost like I was there. Like in my… in my nightmares. Was it because the first time I was in the past, but this time I was in the future? I shelve it for later when I hear a startled gasp from Saegusa and notice how terrified she was as she listened to Kitano talk.
“—it was like some kind of large animal mauled him to death, the sort of thing seen on a nature show. The police originally thought I had done it and was in shock, until the autopsy showed that whatever it was that tore into him couldn’t have been done by a human. I wanted to know what happened so badly, then I was visited in my dream and told there were answers if I took it.”
Saegusa isn’t the only one looking horrified as she finished. Marina, the Salaryman, those three high-school girls, share in her terror. The rest at least looked disturbed by the implications of dying here without anyone realizing what happened. Except for the creep on the floor.
He was smiling even wider.
The Salaryman loses his composure at last. He rushes over to me, knocking both his chair and Kitano to the floor in the process of grabbing me by my shoulders and shaking me like a can of spray paint. “I can’t afford to die like that here! Get me out this instant!”
Nami helps Kitano up to her feet again and glares at him. “You’re the oldest one of us here at a glance, so why don’t you act the part and calm down?”
“Shut up!” he snaps at her. “I’m not like the rest of you. I have a wife and child and family and career waiting for me!”
“Let…go,” I warn him through gritted teeth. Leaving aside the fact that I liked personal space, he was hurting my arm. “Now!”
He doesn’t. He just keeps demanding that I get him out and that he didn’t care what happened to the others, making things worse by panicking. Not to mention he’s spitting in my face as he does so, which is disgusting and further pisses me off.
…Well, Ayako did say I could defend myself. I grasp his wrist with my good hand and get ready to use Strength-Rise to snap it like a twig. But before I could make it happen, the guy with red hair grabs him and pulls him away.
“You’re not the only one scared, but that doesn’t give you the right to act better than the rest of us!” He forces the older man to the floor and pins him into place. “You can stay like this until you settle down.”
The Salaryman struggles to get back to his feet, but it’s just not happening. Red Hair is clearly stronger and he’s got him pinned in a way to where he can’t get leverage. As far as I was concerned, he could stay that way for a moment.
Kitano takes a seat again with Nami’s help. She doesn’t look hurt, but she’s clearly still upset. I consider my approach carefully as I wipe the spittle away and sent a message to Ayako about her brother.
‘I knew him,’ Ayako sends back through the connection we have. ‘Tatsumi and I ran a mission or two together, but he worked with the other Drifters around the Tokyo area. When we get back I’ll have Issei check on the others, but if he’s dead then…’
They’re dead too. I had already come to that conclusion, but I can feel the bitterness in her mental voice as she trails off. Nothing I can do about that except keep the peace here for now by addressing these two first.
I start with Kitano. “Your brother was probably one of the Active Drifters who chose to fight because he wanted to change the future, so you didn’t have to one day wake up to a world like this. He has my respect for that. It won’t bring him back, but we’ll do our best to see that you get out of this alive.”
I then look over to the Salaryman, still writhing beneath Red Hair. “As for you, I get you too. You didn’t know what you were signing up for and it puts your livelihood and family at risk. But if you panic, you’ll die. If you want to get home, stay calm and listen to what I say instead of freaking out. Got it?”
His lips purse thin, but he nods and stops struggling.
“Flip out again and you’re going right back on the ground,” Red Hair warns him as he gets off of him.
The Salaryman rises to his feet and dusts himself off, silently looking disdainfully at the thug-looking high-schooler who’d pinned him down. The feeling was mutual, and not just between them. He hadn’t earned a lot of friends with that stunt just now.
My eyes span the room. They’ve seemed to calm down somewhat, or at least realize the situation better. “To get back home, we need to wait until Nemesis Q reappears. He usually assigns the Active Drifters some kind of task. If it’s to reach a location, we’ll escort you. If it’s to kill something, that’s our job. Either way, once we’ve completed it, we’ll go back to our bodies in the past. The moment you get back, you’re going to contact a number we’ll give you so that we can see about teaching you to control your powers.”
“You mean like what you and the others can do?” Sakishita asks as I take a seat on the counter again, his tone doing nothing to hide how excited he seemed at the prospect despite how much of an annoyance it was to the two next to him. “We get them too?”
“Yeah, that’s part of the contract. If you survive your first trip, you gain powers shortly after you wake up. It’s unpleasant and involves a fever, nosebleed, and more, but they grow in strength over time. We call these powers PSI.”
I decide to demonstrate just to get the point across for the skeptics. I don’t want to reveal that I could potentially read their minds, nor would I try again after that last time, so it’ll have to be telekinesis. I look over to the bar chair that was knocked over by the Salaryman and make a gesture for it to move while focusing my mind and energy enough to get results—I don’t need as much effort as I did with the chain for this.
It floats in the air and lands next to the man upright, startling him enough to jump. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy that reaction after he manhandled me. But I keep my expression schooled as I continue. “Take a seat, this’ll take some time to explain properly.”