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Arc 4 of End War Online: Shattered Boundaries.

Chapter 19

January 7th

It was early morning and I wake up with a start. Beads of sweat dripped down my face as I find that I was hyperventilating. The sheets were all off me and I was only on boxers, but I still felt unnaturally hot… I must’ve been tossing around a lot during that dream… the same one. I sit up and let out a deep breath, forcing my breath down, my elbows resting on my legs. I keep having the same dream… it’s been acting up a bit more lately, after I had recaptured Samael… that voice I heard when we were in Void… I kept hearing it. It felt like… it almost felt like I knew the voice. Like it was something I recognized. I couldn’t place it, no matter how hard I tried.

Either way, I didn’t get a good feeling from it.

I turn on the fan at the far end of my bed to cool me off as my sweat dissipates off me. I look over to my laptop on the desk in my room, thinking about End War… and myself. There were still a lot of things I didn’t understand, and I knew I had to be careful. Looking at my father now… he had been through SAO… it made me wonder what he was like before that, and before he met my mother.

I sigh deeply, shaking my head and standing up, walking over and sitting down on the chair, opening up the laptop and kicking it out of sleep mode. I never actually turned off my laptop, I just kept it on the charger and closed it whenever I was done with it. Killed the hell out of the battery, but I always kept it hooked up to an outlet anyway, so I didn’t care much. Besides, it was a pretty high-end laptop, it could handle it.

I looked at recent news. Sure enough, most if not all headlines were about End War Online, even outside Japan. Worldwide news was all over this. Skimming through several news articles, I could see that people were getting understandably angry at Chronotek. Seemed that many people also hadn’t forgotten about SAO, and were bringing that up multiple times as evidence that the gaming industry in general has stepped over boundaries. However, defenders of Chronotek call back to the fact that it was a deranged game master who trapped everyone in SAO, whereas this incident was by no means Chronotek’s fault, besides the fact that their own security system failed, but how would anyone be able to predict that someone from inside the game was going to pull something like this? Hacking the systems from outside is near impossible, but from inside… you’re a lot closer to where you need to be. It doesn’t really take much.

As well as all the controversy around Chronotek, the gaming industry as a whole was getting railed. The same rabid feminists who say video games are misogynist or whatever were screeching about how video games are literally killing people now before being summarily ignored. More sound arguments held that the industry hadn’t learned from the SAO Incident, and raised concerns about the future of VRMMOs, and how corporations could protect users from outside and inside attacks. Of course, none of that was easy. VRMMO technology has been around for over 20 years now, but it was still a quickly growing field. The RiftGear is already out of date compared to other new models from Chronotek or other companies. It would take a ludicrous amount of money and labor for security to keep up with the actual technology.

Chronotek themselves have released multiple statements on the issue regarding security in VR technology, as well as the safety of the whole field. Of course there were risks involved; literally transporting consciousness into a server network wasn’t exactly a basic process. And the whole technology was first introduced by Chronotek a few years back as well. It’s the newest venture in VR technology, and just as with everything, profit took priority over safety. Chronotek, however, I trusted. They weren’t the same kind of greedy monopolistic douchebags that ran the industry from the late 2000s onward. They were working their asses off trying to resolve the issue, but from what those two representatives from the EWO team told me, they were probably not going to make much progress any time soon. I don’t want to say that I’m the only one who can end this, but… it’s been a few months already and they haven’t been having any luck with it… and as they said, likely the only way to reset the system is from the inside. Still had no clue how that could be done… my job right now was to hunt down the AEP. After they’re dealt with I can focus on the whole resetting the system thing.

Thinking about the whole fiasco about EWO in what is already being called the EWO Incident made me think back to SAO and my father’s involvement in it. He had killed people before, I already knew that… how many, I didn’t think I wanted to know. It just made me think… my father couldn’t have started out a player killer… something made him that way. Was the same thing going to happen to me…?

I had contemplated taking my friend’s life before, if it came down to it. But to take the life of a complete stranger… I couldn’t decide if that was better or not… I mean, I wouldn’t know them, so it’s alright, right? But what’s their life compared to my friends? There’s no difference other than sentimental value to me. If it came down to saving the life of a friend or a stranger, I would surely choose to save my friend. Am I wrong to think so? I didn’t want to think about killing anyone in the first place. I didn’t want to be forced to do something like that… I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to live with myself.

I’m distracted from my thoughts when I see a message icon appear in the top right corner of my screen. I open it up and see it’s from Octavia.

Hi, Yamato. Do you want to hang out sometime today? I should be on by the time you get out of school. I realized we hadn’t had much time to do anything together what with everything going on with you… I just thought maybe we could do something to help get your mind off things.

Message me back when you get the chance.

You know what? She was right. I hadn’t thought about it before, but we hadn’t had any time to hang out since all this started. We used to hang out a whole bunch in EWO before all this AEP business started up. Considering everything that’s been happening recently, I thought it might be a good idea to take a break… I wouldn’t want to get stressed out overworking myself.

I message her back.

Yeah, sure, sounds great.

---

The final bell rang and immediately everyone began packing up their things in preparation to go home. It really wasn’t required for me to still go to school at this point since most people were still trapped in-game. I’m surprised they didn’t close the school down altogether, but I guessed they didn’t want to have the teachers get paid leave. A whole lockdown of Japan’s school system might be more trouble than it was worth.

I finish packing my things and leave my classroom, noticing Naoto leave her own next to mine at the same time. She notices me as she closes the door and walks past me, allowing me to walk by her side as we headed down the hallway towards the stairs.

“Hey.” I say. “Heading for the hospital?”

“How’d you know?” She asks, turning her eyes to me without turning her head from forward.

“You have that look again.” I tell her plainly.

“What look?” She questions, this time turning her full attention to me.

“That whole brooding look you get.” I say as we make our way down the stairs.

“I don’t get broody!” She defends herself, feigning offense.

“You sort of do.” I say, making it down to the first landing and turning around to the next flight that led to the first floor. “How’s your old man doing anyway?”

“He’s…” She pauses momentarily. “He’s still hanging in there. He’s not getting any worse but he’s not getting much better either.”

“Mind sharing what his condition is?”

“Lung cancer.” She says. “Late stage…”

“That’s bad I take it?” I wasn’t exactly an expert in the medical field. I’d need to ask Abigail about all that stuff whenever I actually get an interest in it, which would probably be never.

“The survival rate is about 8%” She said, stopping at the first landing when I was halfway down. I stop and look back up at her. “That’s double what it used to be… but it’s still not very promising…”

“Oh…”

She stands there for a bit, looking at the ground to her side. She sighed a long and low breath, lost in her thoughts.

“You worried about him?” I ask.

“I don’t know…” She responds. “I keep telling myself I don’t, but…”

“Hm…” I turn back to looking down the stairs at the first floor, taking a few steps down before Naoto stops me.

“Hey…” She begins. “Can… can you come with me to the hospital today? I, um… I could use the support…”

“You want me for support?” I look to her with a skeptical expression.

“I don’t have anyone else.” She says solemnly.

“Way to settle for less…” I mutter underneath my breath. “I don’t think I’m the best when it comes to that sort of thing. In any case, I told a friend of mine I’d hang out with her today on EWO.”

“Her?” Naoto asks.

“Yes, her.” I reply. “Why?”

“I just… didn’t expect you to have any other girl friends.” She said. “Surprising…”

I knew that wasn’t the reason and that she had come up with that excuse on the spot, but I play along anyway, just because I couldn’t think of any real reason why she’d be jealous, but since when did women need a reason for anything?

“I have friends.” I tell her, walking down the stairs. “Anyway, I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah, bye…”

---

“Alyoop.”

I hop down the last six steps to the first floor lobby of HQ, landing cleanly and straightening myself out. I walk over to the big couch and notice Lucy was on the couch, while Vixen was fiddling around with the teleporter. Lucy was tinkering with some electronics on the main table from the couch, clearly completely absorbed with whatever it was.

“Hey, Lucy.” I say, startling her slightly as she had been pretty into her work.

“Oh, hey, Yamato.” She said.

“You know where Octavia is?” I ask.

“Over here.” I hear Octavia call from the other room.

“Over there.” Lucy points to the direction of the sound without looking, getting back to whatever she was so involved with.

I pass by Vixen and look at what she was doing.

“We ever going to get that thing up and running?” I ask. “It’s kinda just been sitting there…”

“Well the problem is these things aren’t really set up many other locations.” Vixen told me, looking up from her crouched position. “So there aren’t even that many places to go with it.”

“That kind of sucks.” I say. “How new is this tech anyway?”

“New enough for this to already be out of date.” She smiled. “Isn’t technology great?”

“For some things.” I say, emulating feeling around my head for the RiftGear that was stuck on her face in real life. She got the picture, and her expression turned darker.

“Well… we make the most with what we’re given.” She says. “Go on, hang out with your girlfriend.”

“Sure.” I say, leaving her to get back to her own work and heading into the other room where Octavia was waiting for me.

“Hey, Yamato.” Octavia says from the kitchen. Looked like she was cleaning up a bit. The kitchen did have a tendency to be a little disorganized… I never used it, I just eat out everywhere. Not that I can’t cook, I do cook lunches for myself for school all the time, it’s just that in the game I had more money than any one man would ever need, so I might as well eat out all the time. It was mainly Blenheim that caused messes, and sometimes Jager when he decided he wanted to get a bit experimental with how he can get himself buzzed.

“You don’t have to clean all this shit up yourself, you know.” I tell her.

“Well the other boys aren’t going to do it.” Octavia responds. “If someone doesn’t it’s never going to get done.”

“Just kick Blenheim’s shins.” I smirk, leaning on a wall. “Always works for me.”

“I might.” Octavia chuckles, throwing a wet rag at me, which plasters itself onto my face. “But now that you’re here you might as well help.”

“Egh.” I take the rag from my face and shrug, walking over and deciding to get to work cleaning off the tabletops. Yeah there was a bunch of stuff stuck to the nice wood finish… nice job, Blenheim.

“Speaking of Blenheim…” I say in a more serious tone. “How is he? He out of bed yet?”

“Yeah, he’s going around.” Octavia said, cleaning up the dishes. “As a matter of fact, Abigail can’t keep him in his bed. He hates it.”

“I can figure.” I say. “I’d hate it too, not being able to do anything all day.”

“Don’t worry.” Octavia said. “As long as you got your right hand you’ll be just fine.”

“Shut your face.” I snap back at her, flicking some water from the rag into her face as she laughs.

I didn’t have a problem with her making comments like that. She was my best friend after all. She was also a bro… or would it be sis? She was a girl that I treated like I would a guy. We’d pick on each other all the time like that.

We work for about 15 minutes more before we finish up.

“So where are we going?” I ask Octavia as we leave the kitchen.

“Out to lunch I guess?” She says. “It’d be nice to talk with you a bit, catch up on recent events.”

“Sure.” I say as we head out.

---

So we got lunch.

It was a place more in the city than Abernelle’s, but not too crowded like the bigger chains you’d find deeper into Halfen. It was Octavia’s favorite, a place called Fleurir. You could guess by the name that it was a restaurant for French cuisine, though it had some items that conformed to the less refined palate as well, in the case that you weren’t French.

Even though I wasn’t, I’d been to France enough times to acquire a taste for certain things, and even knew how to speak French, so I fit in surprisingly well at a French restaurant for a Japanese person.

“Bienvenue.” The waiter said as he came up to our table and put the menus down in front of us. “My name is Jean, and I’ll be taking care of you today. We have lovely terrine and bisque specials today. If you’re interested, details are on the front page of the menu. Can I start you out with a drink?”

“Sweet tea, please.” Octavia spoke first. “No lemon.”

The waiter turned to me.

“Just water.” I say in French. “No lemon.”

He seemed slightly surprised that I was quite fluent in his language, but smiled and nodded.

“I’ll be right out with your drinks.” He says, walking away.

I open up the menu and take a look at what they had. I already knew what I was going to get: just salmon, but I always looked through the menu of any restaurant to see what else they had.

A few seconds of silence passed before Octavia spoke up.

“Oh, I forgot to mention.” She said. “I can log out.”

“You what?!” I almost jump out of my seat, causing a small disturbance in the restaurant. “Since when?!”

“Since the lock in?” Octavia hushed me. “With all that was going on with you I never got a chance to mention… but yes, I can log out, just like you.”

I sigh and sink back into my seat. Octavia noticed and giggled.

“Were you worried about me?”

“Well of course I was!” I say. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re such a sweetheart.” Octavia said with a gentle smile, using a single finger to flick my bangs up a little playfully. I lean back in my seat and cross my arms, pouting and looking the other way.

“Should’ve said so sooner…” I mutter.

“Sorry, sorry.” She said. “So, how’s school going?”

“It’s going.” I say. “Don’t really know why considering half the school is absent due to the lock-in. Figured they’d close down by now.”

“Getting good grades?”

“What are you, my mom?”

“Just wondering.” She said, putting an elbow on the table and resting her cheek in her palm. “You check world headlines?”

“Early this morning, actually.” I say. “Everywhere you go you see news about the lock-in. People are comparing it to the SAO Incident.”

“It’s actually worse than the SAO Incident…” Octavia said, sighing lightly. “At least in SAO only around 20 thousand people were trapped… millions of people play EWO.”

“Not so many people have died yet, though.” I mention.

“Enough have to get the media into a frenzy…” Octavia leaned back in her seat, stretching her arms out and yawning. “Though SAO was still pretty bad… my mom was a survivor of it.”

“Huh?” I turn to look at her. “Seriously?”

“Mhm.” She nodded. “Says she worked in a guild called… Pendragon Court… I think?”

“Pendragon Court…” I heard that name before… I couldn’t recall where…

Wait, no, I remember. When I was looking up the SAO Incident before, I read that the Blade Master worked for a guild called Pendragon Court… could dad have met Octavia’s mother from that?

“Did she mention anyone called the Blade Master?” I ask her.

“Yeah…” Octavia said, looking at me quizzically. “She said that guy was probably the only reason she survived… how do you know?”

“He’s my father…” I say.

“No way…” She said, eyes wide. “So… wait, that’s how they met? My mother and your father?”

“She probably met my mother that way too.” I say. “SAO is how both my parents met as well…”

“Wow… I never knew.” Octavia put a hand up to her chin in thought, but upon noticing my solemn expression, spoke up. “Something up?”

I look up to her from my lap and sigh.

“I don’t know.” I sigh, looking out the window. “It’s just that… my father… I don’t really think I know him.”

“Why’s that?” She asked.

“He was a survivor of the SAO Incident.” I explain. “Despite this he kept this from me my entire life for whatever reason. We also train in kenjutsu from time to time and his methods… well they changed recently. Formerly we’d practice using bokken, wooden sword. That’s how it should be. But recently… he’s taken to sparring with real blades… and fighting to kill.”

“What?” Octavia sounded confused. “Fighting to kill? What’s that mean? Your dad wouldn’t actually try to kill you, would he?”

“Came close a few times.” I say. “I never realized it before… when we used to spar with bokken, he’d seem pretty normal… he’d be calm and relaxed… but the instant his hands grip a real blade… something about him changes. There’s something about his style that changes. His more aggressive, but still incredibly collected and precise… his movements seem impossible, and he seems to know his moves ten steps in advance… he reads his opponents like a book. It’s a side of him that I’ve never seen before… it feels… it feels terrifying.”

Octavia stays silent, thinking about my words.

“That’s not the most of my concerns either…” I say. I hold my hand out, looking into my palm. “It happens to me too.”

Octavia gasps lightly, looking to me worriedly.

“When I hold a real blade… something about me changes. I can feel the blade… almost like it’s alive… like it’s guiding me in my movements. It feels so strange… like I become a completely different person… like I’m transported to some different world. I’m worried that I may not really know myself either…”

“Your drinks.” I hear the waiter say as he comes by and puts both our beverages in front of us. “Are we ready to order?”

I sigh and look out the window as Octavia took her order, her voice becoming white noise as I’m lost in my own thoughts again. The more I thought about it the more I got this uneasy feeling about it all… I didn’t really know who my father was. The person he was all my life was drastically different than the person he actually is… and I don’t think I was any different. I was something other than what I made myself to be… and I had no idea what that was.

“Monsieur?” I hear the waiter say, snapping me out of it and bringing me back to attention.

“Oh… um…” I collect my present thoughts. “Salmon, please. Full.”

“Would you like any sides?” He asked.

“Scallops.” I say. “And some croissants too.”

The waiter nods and leaves once again to place our orders.

“You seem more out of it than normal…” Octavia noticed.

“As opposed to acceptably out of it?” I ask.

“I’m being serious, Yamato.” She snapped. “I’m worried about you.”

“I can handle myself…” I say, looking back out the window.

Octavia huffed and crossed her arms.

“You’re too stubborn for you own good, you know that?”

“You’ve only told me that like a million times by now, so it can’t be a lie.” I reply. “It’s just a whole bunch of shit has been going on lately… seems like everywhere there’s trouble I’m right in the middle of it…”

I sink down further into my seat.

“I don’t know what these people want with me, but if they’re willing to trap everyone in the game and inadvertently kill millions of people just to keep me here then it can’t be good.”

“Well you’re not trapped.” Octavia commented. “You could just leave, they wouldn’t be able to do much about that.”

“You really think I’d leave everyone to die? Especially when I’m probably one of the few people who can actually solve this?”

“Can’t just leave it up to the developers?”

“The developers themselves said it can only be resolved from inside.” I cross my arms. “Two of them talked with me recently; told me that they can’t do jack from outside. The only way to regain control of the system is from inside.”

“And how can that be done?” Octavia asked.

“Fuck if I know… but we need to get to figuring that out fast.”

I take another look outside.

“It looks like people adjusted well to being trapped, though…” I note. “I’m surprised there wasn’t mass panic or anything.”

“Some people did flip out a bit.” Octavia informed me. “But on the whole I think people are thinking that the whole thing will be fixed soon.”

“I don’t think they understand exactly how severe the situation is.” I tell her.

“Well how could they?” Octavia asked. “Besides, it’s probably better if people stay ignorant, just to keep the people calm about it.”

“They’ll figure out eventually.”

“Not if we fix it quick.”

“You really think it’s going to be that easy?”

“I’m trying to be optimistic.”

“Optimism is just lying to people’s faces.” I say pessimistically. “I doubt we’re going to be able to beat these guys so easily.”

“I know, but…” Octavia looked the other way, her head low.

I’m sure she knew just how dangerous it was. She wasn’t the type for denial. But still… she was scared. I could tell. And why wouldn’t she be? We could easily die in this world and we’d never see our reality ever again. It was a frightening thought… I was Nephilim, sure, but if I died it wouldn’t be any different than anyone else. I had to be careful, too. I didn’t want to die just yet.

“Don’t worry.” I tell her to try to cheer her up. “I won’t let anything happen to you. I promise.”

“That’s not it, dumbass!” She snaps back, a bit of red coming to her cheeks. “I can take care of myself!”

A brief silence passed before she spoke up again.

“But… thanks.” She admits, a little embarrassed. “That… I feel better…”

I offer a soft smile as the waiter came by again, bringing us our meals.

“Bon appétit.” He said. “I’ll come by in a little bit to see how you’re doing.”

With that, he left us to our meals.

And in case you were thinking, because you probably are, it’s not like that. Octavia and I have been friends since childhood, so of course I care deeply about her. The reason why she was so flustered was because she was a bit prideful and was embarrassed when I told her I’d protect her. She’s a bit like that. She likes to handle things herself and sometimes gets agitated when people defend her, even if it’s me… but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t appreciate it.

I get to it pretty quickly, digging right into my salmon. If there was one thing I loved, it was salmon. It was my favorite kind of seafood, and one of my favorite foods in general. Hang around me long enough and you’ll get to noticing how much I liked the stuff.

“That all you ever get?” Octavia asks over her own meal, which looked to be some sort of terrine. “Just salmon?”

“I like salmon.” I say, taking another bite.

“A little too much, maybe.” She chuckles.

I shrug, taking a last bite before moving in on the scallops, setting my sights on the croissants as my next target.

“Oh…” I say after a brief silence, suddenly remembering something. “Isn’t your birthday next month?”

“Aw, how sweet of you to remember, Yamato.” Octavia smiled widely. “Yes it is. I’ll be 18.”

“Hm, finally legal, huh?” I smirk.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Octavia crossed her arms.

“Nothing at all.” I look back down to my meal and get back to eating, ignoring the look she was giving me.

“Oh?” Octavia suddenly wore a wicked grin as she leaned over the table to me. “Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting?”

“Don’t start.” I tell her.

“I didn’t think you were into foreign girls… though you are pretty cute, you know…”

“I’m trying to eat, here.” I attempted to ignore her, but her teasing me like this didn’t fail to put a bit of red on my face.

“Just a month longer, Yamato…” She smiled mischievously at me. “You can give me a special birthday present.”

“Stop talking.”

“Heh…” Octavia sat back down, laughing lightly at the thought. “It’s alright. I know you’re not interested in girls.”

“It’s not that I’m not interested in girls.” I tell her plainly. “It’s just that I’m not interested in having a relationship with one.”

“Isn’t that the same thing?”

“No, it’s not.”

“Even if it’s me…?” She gave me a face that feigned pleading. She was so full of it.

“Even if it’s you.” I say.

“You’re so mean, Yamato.” She took a sip of her drink. “Don’t you get lonely?”

“No.”

“Liar.”

“Shut up.”

To tell the truth, I did get a bit lonely from time to time. It’d happen to anyone, really. I’ve never really been in a real relationship with a girl before, and from time to time when I saw others holding hands or holding each other my heart would drop a bit… though over years I’ve grown to be able to ignore it until it goes away… it was true, though, I really wasn’t interested in pursuing something like that right now. I had more important things to worry about… especially now…

But fuck that subject right off.

“Has anyone gotten any closer to tracking down these AEP jerkoffs?” I ask.

“Lucy’s been working with Renskr intelligence but so far we haven’t turned up anything…” Octavia informed me. “Honestly, there really isn’t much to work with. The only times we’ve been able to nail them down is when they wanted us to. Now that they’ve done back into hiding we haven’t been able to scrape up anything really concrete on them.”

“Slippery bastards…” I mutter.

I hated this. The fact that they were just toying with us, with me, scheming and planning and tricking us into doing whatever they wanted. It felt like we were all on their strings. And now that they’ve had their fun they’ve vanished without a trace, only to reappear later whenever it’s convenient for them. Whoever they were, they were dangerous, that was for sure… but even moreso they were all cockheads.

“But… forget about all that shit.” I say. “We’re having a day off, right?”

“Yeah, you’re right.” Octavia agrees and takes another bite of her meal. “So… are you getting good grades?”

“You already asked that.”

“You never answered.”

I sigh and roll my eyes.

---

After lunch, Octavia and I spent a bit more time together roaming around the city before we headed back to HQ. We got back in the evening, and by then everyone else was back at HQ. Walker was working with Lucy and Vixen on intel in the main room, discussing it amongst themselves. It wasn’t anything I was concerned with; I didn’t do intel, I just complete the contracts that come from the intel. Jager was in the kitchen, getting another drink, and I assume Abigail was still in the infirmary as always. Blenheim was probably there as well.

“Hey, you two.” Walker says when he looks up from his business.

“Ah, tovarich!” Jager cheers, pouring himself some vodka that I could smell from across the room. “Care to have a drink?”

“You know I don’t drink, Jager.” I say. “And even if I did I’m pretty sure the stuff you drink would kill me.”

“Hah… true, I’m quite a bit more experienced with taming this beast.” He lets out a cheerful laugh and goes to pour his drink, stopping partway and shrugging before taking a swig directly from the bottle instead.

“I’m gonna go see Blenheim.” I tell Octavia.

“Yeah, alright.” She nodded. “He should be in the infirmary.”

“Figured.”

I give her a small wave goodbye and head down the hall to Abigail’s office. Along the way I was thinking on how I’d confront Blenheim… I mean, I almost killed the guy. What was I supposed to say? That I was sorry? It’s not like apologizing was going to take it back. I was tempted to just give up and go up to my room, but I forced my legs to keep walking even when the rest of me wanted so desperately to turn the other way.

I got to Abigail’s door and stopped before I opened it. I was still thinking on what I should say… I was afraid to open the door and face him. Just before I mustered up the courage, however, the door opened on its own. There stood Blenheim. He immediately took notice of me and grimaced.

“Hey…” I say a little hesitantly.

“Hey…” He said dryly.

He was on his feet, but he was still bandaged up from his injury. He looked fine enough to go out and about now, but he was far from being cleared for active duty again… it’d probably be another month or two before he’d be able to get back into the action. It must really pain the guy to still be stuck lying around doing nothing while everyone else was out doing stuff, especially tracking down the AEP.

Blenheim pushed his way past me and began walking down the hall. I followed closely behind.

“You doing okay?” I ask. “Not dying… or anything…?”

Could probably afford to choose my words a bit carefully here…

“No.” He says plainly, not looking back to me.

He seemed a lot more distant now… like we were complete strangers… I really couldn’t blame him. I mean, I did almost murder him. I don’t think simply apologizing was going to be much consolation for him.

“Blenheim, come on.” I say. “I didn’t mean it.”

“Is that supposed to make it better?” He said in a cold tone.

“Hey, don’t get pissed at me.” I retort. “I told you I didn’t think it was a good idea but you insisted.”

“Oh, so it’s all my fault, then?”

“Don’t put words in my mouth.” I tell him.

He scoffs and keeps walking.

“Come on, dammit.” I pull up alongside him. “What the hell do you want from me, huh?”

“I don’t want anything from you!” He snaps, stopping to turn to me. “You almost killed me!”

“It wasn’t my damn fault!” I shout back. “How was I supposed to know that would happen?”

“Just leave me alone, Yamato!” He yells, storming off down the hall and leaving me.

“For fuck’s sake…” I sigh and rub the back of my neck.

“Don’t take it too hard.” Abigail said as she came up behind me. “He’s been pretty on edge since the whole incident… you aren’t the only one he’s struck out on. He’ll feel better when he can get back out in the field.”

“I hope so…” I genuinely felt worried for Blenheim. He was one of my closest friends and now… well he was pissed as hell at me for reasons that I couldn’t help. There was probably nothing I could really do right now. I’d just have to give it time, I guess…

“So how’d your date with Octavia go?” Abigail asked to change the subject.

“It wasn’t a date.” I say plainly.

“Sure it wasn’t.” Abigail said sarcastically.

“Whatever, lady.” I shrug off her implications, not letting her comments get to me. “Why are you so interested, anyway?”

“No real reason.”

“Whatever you say.” I shrug. “You have a boyfriend yet?”

“No… why?”

“Want to go somewhere sometime?” I ask.

“Wh-what?” She stammers a bit, but quickly catches on that I’m just messing with her. “Geez, save it for Octavia, Yamato.”

“I already told you I’m not going out with her.” I smile mischievously. “I’m still single too, you know.”

She pushes me into the wall with a bit of playful force.

“Ow…” I rub my shoulder. “That hurt only slightly…”

I head out into the main room where Walker, Lucy, and Vixen were working on whatever, hopping onto the couch and stretching myself out.

“Whatcha working on?” I ask, not too terribly interested but bored enough to ask anyway.

“Working on a new lead…” Lucy explained.

“Making any actual progress?” I ask.

“Slowly.” Vixen said. “Right? Slowly?”

“It’s not a complete standstill.” Lucy quipped.

“Hm… alright.” I say, lying down on the couch. “Anything I can use?”

“I think it’s probably best if you took a break, Yamato.” Walker said. “It’s going to be a bit before we have anything really solid so in the meantime you can afford to kick back a bit.”

“You sure about that?” I ask.

“It’s not like these AEP guys are going anywhere soon.” He told me. “They’re probably going to stay hidden for as long as we’re looking for them until they come up with something else.”

“So, what, we just sit on our asses?”

“Not much else we can do, Yamato.” Walker sighs and shakes his head. “We’re doing our best here.”

“You don’t need to worry too much, Yamato.” Lucy assured. “We have plenty of time. Following the pattern these guys have been making they won’t be making any major moves anytime soon, especially with how hard we’ve been cracking down on them.”

“I’d rather get this done and over with as soon as possible.”

“That’s what we’re working on.” Walker told me. “In the meantime, you might want to work on yourself. You still haven’t completely mastered your new abilities yet, so you should use the free time you have to train and improve so when the time comes you’ll be prepared to take action.”

“Yeah, I guess…” I cross my arms. “I just hate the idea of waiting around doing nothing…”

“Have at least some patience, Yamato.” Vixen said. “You can meet up with Callahan and the other two Nephilim in the meantime to help hone yourself, if not just to give you something to do.”

“Yeah, yeah, alright, I hear you.” I sigh and stand up, heading back to my room. “Later, though. It’s about my dinner time.”

“Alright.” Walker waved me off. “See you later.”

“You coming back on tomorrow?” Octavia called when I was halfway up the stairs.

“Probably.” I respond. “Like Walker said I’ll need to be as strong as I can be when the time comes, so I got a lot of work to do.”

I head back up into my room, and once there, I log out.

---

I yawn lightly as I put my RiftGear onto my nightstand and roll out of my bed just as my mother steps in.

“Oh, just in time.” She smiled. “Dinner’s just about done. It’s strange how you have such good timing with that, you know.”

“Son’s intuition?” I shrug.

“Sure.” She laughs, leaving to prepare the rest of dinner.

I stretch my entire body out, before heading out of my room and into the dining room, where mom was laying down plates and bowls. I look over into the living room and see Claire and her partner Maggie watching TV together. Looked like they’d be dining with us as well. An odd thing, however, is that I didn’t see dad.

“Hey, where’s dad at?” I ask mom, who had just finished laying down the plates and utensils.

“Doctor’s.” She replied. “He got into another coughing fit and I kicked him out of the house until he went and got himself checked out.”

“You should’ve seen him, too, Yamato.” Claire called. “He was practically kicking and screaming as she pushed him out the door.”

“He hates the doctor.” Mom chuckled lightly. “Hates hospitals even more. But I wasn’t taking no for an answer, not this time. Your father can be a real child sometimes…”

“Is it getting worse?” I ask as I sat down at the table. “Do we even know what’s going on with him?”

“I thought he was just coming down with a pretty bad cold, but other than the cough he’s fine… he doesn’t have a fever or stuffed nose or anything else… it’s just the cough as well as some minor breathing problems that come and go… it’s strange… I’ve never seen anything like this and I’m a nurse myself.”

“Couldn’t just diagnose him here?” I ask.

“I’m a nurse, but I thought it best he go somewhere they have some actual hardware.” She shrugged. “There’s only so much I can tell from home.”

“And even that’s a lot…”

“Like how she can tell if you have a fever just by how flushed your face is?” Claire said as she and Maggie took their own seats next to each other.

“Or how she can feel muscle cramps just by sliding her hand over the area?” I add.

“Or how she knows when you’re congested by feeling your back when you cough?” She comments.

“Please, please.” Mom held her hands up, smiling with her eyes closed. “We all know your mother’s awesome. She’s one hell of a cook, too.”

She brought out the food and set a few trays down on the table for us to pick out our own meals from. I filled my bowl with rice with plenty of soy sauce, and stuffed by plate with sauced chicken and a few ganmodoki. I pick up my chopsticks and start digging in, ignoring most vital points of Japanese etiquette as I usually did. Didn’t matter much to anyone in the house, it’s not like I did this when we ate out.

“So how long has dad been gone?” I ask.

“About an hour and half now.” Mom replied. “Might be back soon. He called and told me we could start eating without him in case he wasn’t home by then.”

“Hrm…” I shrug as I swallow a healthy mouthful of rice.

Apparently mom noticed my less than content expression because I sure as hell didn’t.

“Something wrong?” She asks, making me realize that I had been scowling slightly at the thought of my own father.

“Oh…” I lower my chopsticks, looking to the ground, not really wanting to explain my predicament right now. “It’s nothing.”

“You know I can tell when you’re lying too.” Mom points at me with her chopsticks. “Come on, spill it.”

“It’s not something that I feel comfortable discussing over dinner.” I say. “Besides, it’s not that important.”

“Hm…” My mother gave me a sharp look, but she’s interrupted when the front door opens.

“I’ve returned.” Dad says as he kicks off his shoes and hangs up his coat, stepping into the dining room. “Oh, just started, huh?”

“Yeah, you’re just in time.” Claire said. “Grab a bowl and a plate.”

“Don’t mind if I dooo.” Dad slid towards the plates and bowls, grabbing himself one of each as well as a pair of chopsticks, sitting down on his cushion at the table.

“So what’d the doctor say?” Mom asked him.

“About as much as you’d expect…” He sighs. “He couldn’t tell what was going on either. He said he wanted me to come in next week so he can run some actual tests…”

“You’re going, right?” Mom raises an eyebrow.

“You’re going to force me even if I say no.” He gives her a look.

“Good.” Mom smiles contently and goes back to her meal.

I look to my father silently as he started eating his dinner… it surprised me, actually… I only now really noticed, but my father had impeccable table etiquette… he sat straight up, cross-legged, he held his chopsticks perfectly… he almost looked like he was some kind of emperor from way back when… he wasn’t even in his hakama, either. I don’t know… when we sparred together he seemed… no… no, he was the same. I was thinking about how primal and aggressive he was when we fought, but that wasn’t the case at all. I only now realized that he wasn’t being aggressive at all… he was being patient, observant, precise… I was just leaving so many openings for him to capitalize on. He wasn’t moving in on me so much because he was bring vicious in his attacks, he was fighting like that because I myself was letting him…

I was subconsciously staring right at him for probably half a minute or so, because I only realized that I was when he looked up from his meal and our eyes locked just for an instant… I swear to God I felt a chill go up my spine when in that instant I saw deeper than I had before… I look away quickly and go back to my meal, pretending I never saw anything… he knew, though, I knew he did. However, he didn’t say anything about it, and simply got back to his dinner.

What the hell was going on… there were so many facets to him that I didn’t understand. My mind kept racing back over that question. Who was he, really? He was my father… that was the only thing I knew for sure. Other than that he was a complete mystery to me. It really worried me how I’d been living with someone all my life and not once noticed that he was a completely different person than who I thought he was.

“Yamato.” Dad said suddenly, startling me slightly. “Why don’t you and I have a little match after dinner?”

“Um… why?” I ask hesitantly.

“I don’t know.” He shrugs. “We haven’t really done it in a while.”

Claire adopted a worried expression, but said nothing about it to either of us, most likely realizing it was probably better to stay out of it.

“You sure you’re good for that?” Mom asks.

“Don’t worry so much, sweetheart.” Dad smiled. “The doctor didn’t say it was life-threatening or anything.”

“Well… alright, if you say so.” Mom’s lowered her shoulders slightly. “Just don’t push yourself too hard, alright?”

“You worry too much.”

---

I had finished dinner and silently cleaned off my plate and bowl before I headed over to the dojo to wait for dad to finish up his meal. Knowing how he eats it wouldn’t take long, even with his table etiquette.

I spend my time alone in the dojo with Amaterasu, just holding the sword… staring at it meaningfully, like any second now it was going to just tell me everything I needed to know. But no, that was silly… swords don’t talk. At least, not like that they don’t… I still found it strange how they could speak at all in their own way. It seemed something supernatural… since when have swords been able to do anything like that? It was completely ludicrous. If I told anyone on the street about it they’d probably have me locked up in an asylum somewhere… but it was true. I’ve experienced it. It’s not something that can be explained properly… I can’t so simply elaborate on how a sword can communicate with me… it’s not like they’re sentient or anything like that… but they still have their own stories… I guess I was just one of the few people who could actually listen.

“Yamato.” I hear my father say behind me, pulling me from my thoughts and turning my attention to him.

I stand up on my feet as he picks up his own blade from the shelf.

“We’re going out.” He says.

“Out?” I repeat. “Where?”

“The shrine.” He replies. “I think this time we should spar in the pool.”

“What difference would that make?”

“You’d be surprised.” He smiled. “C’mon.”

We go back inside, heading to the front door, putting on our shoes and heading out.

“We’ll be back.” Dad called to mom.

“Don’t be too long.” She called back.

With that, we left the house.

---

We arrived at the shrine in short order, climbing the steps before descending some more to the lake. To my surprise, I see Aunt Sakura there, looking over the water. It shouldn’t really surprise me, though. I mean, she did have her own bed roll here.

“Sakura.” Dad called as we approached. “Still here, huh?”

“Oh, hello, you two.” She smiled. “Yes, still here… I just really like staring out over the water, you know?”

Dad looks out towards the water as well.

“Yeah.” He agrees. “It’s pretty.”

I look over the water as well. They were both right… a night like this, the moon was full and the water was so still it looked like glass, perfectly reflecting the light of the moon and the stars above. We were in a smaller part of the city so the light pollution was lower here. It let us see more stars in the sky than in the more urban areas. You look up and you’d see thousands of them. You could look down at the water and see the same image in perfect detail with how still the water was.

“What’s with the swords?” Sakura asked us when she noticed our weapons.

“Oh. Just decided to take Yamato out here to spar for a bit.” He said. “Hope you don’t mind if we intrude on the view.”

“Oh, no, it’s fine.” Sakura smiled. “I’d like to see how far Yamato has come in his training.”

My father looks to me.

“You ready?”

I give a shrug.

“I guess.” I say casually.

My father leads me into the shallow pool, our steps rippling the shallow water and distorting the image of the sky above. We stood a distance from each other. I draw my blade, tossing the scabbard into the grass at the shore, and grip my blade with both hands. My father doesn’t unsheathe his blade, as was expected. He simply stood there motionless with the sword in his left hand, ready to draw faster than lightning. It had been a while since we did this, so I didn’t really know how I’d do… might’ve gotten a little rusty from malpractice. We stayed there, staring each other down for long enough for the water around us to settle back down to its glass-like appearance. The light from the moon beamed both down and up at us, perfectly illuminating the stage for us. A breeze rolled in, and I dashed forward. My father did as well, faster than I did, and quickly drew his blade, slashing out at me. I parry the blow and try to use the momentum of the strike to launch my own strike, but as usual my father was a step ahead of me, and he easily redirected the swing below him, leaving me wide open for an attack of his own. I barely manage to jump back in time to dodge the blade and distance myself from him.

Damn… his age definitely wasn’t letting him down. He was in his forties and he could outpace any fit, athletic twenty year old. That put me at a disadvantage… I didn’t know how to accrue that much speed in the same short time frame as he did. Maybe if I paid attention I could learn something…

I decide to do that, and go at him again. I make a swipe, paying attention to his footwork. I noticed how he shifted his weight away from me as he evaded the attack, simultaneously dodging and gathering momentum for his own strike. He was on one foot as he twisted his leg around and behind him, throwing himself into a spin that he could use to strike. I was so focused on his footwork, however, that I almost fail to notice the blade coming at me from behind, and I have to brace my blade behind me to block the strike, before slashing at the pool, kicking up some water which launched his way, distracting him just enough for me to back off.

“Heh…” My father smirks as he sheathes his blade. “You’re starting to get it… but you can’t quite keep track of both my movement and my attack, can you?”

“Well how do you expect me to keep track of everything at once?” I ask.

“Don’t think about it.” He instructed. “Just feel. Let your senses do the work for you instead of processing it all yourself.”

“That doesn’t help much…”

I sigh and ready myself again. Just feel, huh…? Like… like that one time before… when those stealth ops from the AEP were surrounding us… Lucy was hurt… I don’t remember details, but I can remember what I did… I… I felt them. I couldn’t see the enemy so I felt them instead. I didn’t process the information consciously, it just came to me on its own… how did I do that…?

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, closing my eyes and taking a stance. The instant I open my eyes, he’s on me. I brace my blade in front of me to block a flurry of incoming strikes before ducking under another, throwing an attack of my own his way. He evades the strike but I press the attack, throwing myself forward with a burst of speed that allowed me to gain extra momentum to slash upwards. He’s forced to block the strike, redirecting the blade over his head and allowing him to spin around to slash at me. I let go of my sword, catching it backhanded and crouching, putting my blade between me and his, letting it slide over me. With the blade backhanded, it allowed me an opening to hit him even mid-counter. I land a solid kick to his stomach which causes him to stagger back, before I quickly spin my blade back forward and make another quick slash, leaning forward and one leg off the ground, twisting around to get extra range on the strike. He’s forced to put his blade above his head to block the blow, but it was a pretty strong strike that forced his blade down a bit as my free foot hit the ground in a perfect stance that preserved my balance. I take the opportunity to duck under his guard and make a slash at him and manages to nick his arm only slightly, before I step forward to make an upwards diagonal slash.

He sees this coming, however, and suddenly my blade is bounced back, leaving me open to a counterattack which he capitalizes on, making a slash that I have to push my body back in order to avoid, putting me off balance and allowing him to launch a furious offensive that allowed me no time to fully recover my guard. He moves up and swiftly disarms me with an attack that forced my blade out of my hand and sent it spinning high into the air. Now completely defenseless, I’m forced to back off quickly as he continues his onslaught. I’m nicked a few times throughout, but for the most part I dodge each of his attacks. He wasn’t letting up, though, and he was pushing me back towards the shore, towards where I had tossed the scabbard to my sword. I wasn’t going to be able to keep up dodging like this much longer… I then catch a sharp glare in my eye that momentarily distracts me. I glance up just for a moment and notice my blade coming down, reflecting the moonlight at me. A split second later, I see my father also get momentarily distracted by the light reflecting off the blade and directly into his eyes. That allowed me just the window I needed to flip back and kick the flat of his blade upwards, throwing his guard open and allowing me to pick up my scabbard from the ground, and in the recovery, catch my blade as it fell down. I spin with the momentum and sheath my blade, throwing all my weight forward to launch myself towards my father. I draw the blade faster than I could see, nailing him right through his guard, cutting along his right shoulder and slicing his cheek. He spins and backs off, feeling the injuries. They weren’t too bad, though they were bleeding. He looks to me with a confident smile as I step back into the pool, blade in one hand and scabbard in the other. I hear Sakura gasp lightly when I sheathed my blade and readied myself to draw.

Don’t think about it… feel… feel the surroundings… feel my opponent… don’t think about any of it… just let it all come…

I launch forward with a single step, moving faster than I had ever moved before, and draw my blade, a black streak cutting through the air and slicing the water that had splashed up. He draws his own blade at the same time, and the resounding clash sent ripples through the water. I press the attack, slashing left, right, up, down. He parries and dodges in suit, but wasn’t counterattacking… I wasn’t leaving openings… however, he does eventually find one and manages to throw me back, launching himself into his own offensive. I do the same as he, parrying and dodging every single strike without even thinking… my blade seemed to move on its own as I fought… it seemed to always know just where to be at just the right times. I find an opening in his guard and throw my blade out, rebounding his away and allowing me to return to my attack. I moved like wind… each step and each swing flowing seamlessly into the next… it felt… it felt so new… but at the same time strangely familiar.

However, my focus began to slip and I took notice, further dooming myself as I misstep and allow my father into my guard, forcing me to narrowly avoid a vertical slash that sliced a few hairs from the side of my head. I spin and kick myself backwards, retreating to a safe distance to recollect myself.

“That’s it, Yamato.” He nodded, sheathing his blade and readying himself once more. “Again.”

I shake my head, clearing my mind and taking in a deep breath, holding it for a second and letting it out slowly, decreasing my heart rate slightly, allowing me to focus more… It was difficult being like this; completely thoughtless as I concentrated and readied myself… it felt like something else entirely was controlling me, and it was hard to keep my mind clear of any thoughts whatsoever, lest I lose my focus completely and end up getting hurt. It was a state in which you weren’t even aware that you were breathing… a complete zen-like trance that enhanced combat performance exponentially… it was a difficult state to hold, but somehow my father held a mastery over the art… something that I was only now coming to grasps with.

I open my eyes again, sheathing my blade as my father came at me this time. Without missing a beat, I draw my weapon. At blinding speeds the blade cuts downwards through the water, seamlessly reaching out of the water and splitting the air in two as it met the opposing blade, reverberating off each other with an audible screech. The shock sent vibrations through the blade and into my arm, but the way I had hit his blade and the way I recovered from the blow absorbed the impact perfectly, causing next to no damage to myself. I quickly sheath the blade again, spinning around and preparing to draw again, just as my father was doing the same. We lash out simultaneously, once again clashing into each other, sending another shock through our bodies and through the water below us. It was difficult to describe just how I was feeling in the heat of the moment, as you’re not supposed to even think about it… but I did know that we were perfectly synchronized in our movements. I felt a perfect balance of ability and movement as we both went at each other… I sensed his movements with more than just my eyes… my sight felt like an even part of my entire focus, allowing me to sense to an incredible degree of accuracy which move we both previously made, which one we were in the process of making, and which one we were going to follow up with… if felt absolutely exhilarating.

We fought evenly for what seemed like just a split second, but turned out to be more like 20 minutes, before we finally clashed swords, pushing our blades strongly together and trying to get an edge over one another. I swipe my sword horizontally, sliding his blade off mine and allowing both of us to spin around and make one last attack. Our forearms collide just as our blades meet each other’s necks, keeping us both just centimeters away from beheading each other.

We stay there, eyes locked as strongly as our blades, the heat of the fight finally dawning on us. The battle high began to wear off on me, and I finally registered just how hard I was breathing and how much I was sweating, even with the cool night air to cool me off I felt hot from the fight. My father felt somewhat the same way, though he seemed to be a bit more collected than I was at the moment. Taking notice of my exhausted state now, there was no way I was going to be able to keep up the fight, even though he could go on.

My father, however, relented, and detached his blade from mine, sheathing it and smiling lightly.

“You’re becoming a lot like him…” He closed his eyes, as if he was remembering something. “Do you understand what I mean now?”

“I…” I pant lightly. “I’m not entirely sure…”

“Hm… of course not.” He said. “But you’ll figure it out.”

“Will I, really?” I ask.

“I know you will.” He smiles warmly at me. “You’re my son, after all.”

Yeah… I guess he was right… I was his son. That simple fact didn’t really hit me properly until now. I had always taken that for granted. He was my father, that’s all there was to it… but that wasn’t quite it. My father was a completely different character. I was the main character of my own life, but I’m just the current section of his own story which has gone back for years longer than I’ve been alive. I could only imagine what kinds of things he went through in SAO… the kind of person he used to be. I wondered how he felt back then… how he thought, how he behaved, how he interacted with others… and the story of how he became who he is now.


The man standing in front of me is a Blade Master… and my father. I felt I understood him a bit more… and I felt I learned a little more about myself as well.

Chapter 20

March 19th

I spent most of the school day doing normal classwork, but often keeping my mind on EWO. It’s been a few months since anything new has come up. Maverick and the Renskr military were still looking into the AEP to see what they could come up with. They were getting somewhere, but not at any real decent pace. It was a well known fact that these guys knew how to stay hidden. Renskr was even hiring other outside contractors to help in the effort, but it still didn’t pick up the pace to any noticeable degree. As for me, I was starting to get a little bit impatient. I was ready to go in and wipe out these bastards from the get-go, but it’s been months now and I haven’t seen any action whatsoever. It was really getting on my nerves… I didn’t like just waiting around until they made another move on us. I wanted to be out there bringing the fight to them… but there wasn’t much I could really do about it from where I was. I’d just have to hope something comes up soon…

It finally hit lunch time and I was quick to pack up my things and start on my way up to the roof where I usually ate. I moved silently out of my homeroom, but was stopped when someone called me from down the hall.

“Hey!” I hear him say, making me turn around to see him jogging up to me. He stops just short of slamming into me and gives me a wide smile. “Hey, how’s it going?”

“Who are you?” I say plainly.

“Oh… right, I guess we’ve never met before.” He smiles and scratches the back of his head. “The name’s Shino Ikazuchi!” He points a thumb to himself for emphasis.

“Good for you.” I say, walking off.

“H-hey!” Ikazuchi stammers. “Aren’t you going to introduce yourself?”

“I’m not the one who started the conversation.” I look back to him. “I don’t really feel obligated to give you my name.”

“Hey, listen, just hear me out, alright?” He smiles nervously. “I’m actually a member of the Kendo club here. Hopefully going to be captain soon, too!”

“We have a Kendo club…?”

“Geez, what’s up with you, man…?” Ikazuchi lowers his head a bit. “You’re completely stone cold…”

“Why bring this up?” I ask.

“Well, the thing is… I’d like you to join.” He smiled enthusiastically. “We could use another member! And on top of that, we-”

“I’ll pass.” I say as I continue walking down the hall.

“Hey! C’mon!” He rushed to catch up to me. What was up with this guy? “Look, the reason why I’m asking you is because… I saw you fight before.”

“Before…?”

“A few months back when you were at the temple.” He explained. “I visit there from time to time as well, and I saw you there with that man… you were fighting with real katanas and you were moving so fast! I could barely even see your swords, it was unbelievable!”

“Okay, so why now?” I ask.

“Well the truth is…” Ikazuchi rubs the back of his neck. “The national Kendo tournament is coming up soon and… well… none of our members are ready!”

He grabs my shoulders and shakes me.

“It’s gonna be a massacre! We don’t stand a chance at winning!”

“That sounds an awful lot like your problem.” I shrug him off. “I don’t have time for any clubs.”

“Come on, please, man?” He pleads desperately. “You’d make an awesome addition to the team! Look, look, I’ll show you around the club, okay? You can make up your mind then.”

“I already made up my mind just now.” I tell him. “I’m not interested.”

“Come on, humor me, alright?” He says. “We meet in the gymnasium after school. Just give me a chance to win you over and then you can leave if you want.”

“Is it really that important to you?” I ask. “It’s just a stupid competition.”

“It’s not just a competition!” Ikazuchi’s voice suddenly turned more serious, and I was immediately less dismissive of him. It seemed he was more serious about this than I thought…

“Oh… uh, sorry about that…” He smiled, returning to his normal carefree nature. “Look, just think about it, okay? I promise I won’t bug you about it again if you decide not to join.”

I take a deep breath and sigh, lowering my head as I did.

“Fine…” I say. “But only to get you off my ass.”

“Awesome!” He says gleefully. “After school in the gym, don’t forget! I’ll be waiting for you!”

With that he ran down the hall in the opposite direction.

What was up with that… a Kendo club, really? I didn’t fight like that for competition. I fought that way to…

I… why did I fight that way…?

I sigh again and think it over… maybe joining the Kendo club wouldn’t be such a bad idea… might help give me a sense of direction that I lacked. Maybe… hm… maybe that’s the reason why I couldn’t beat my father at the moment… he obviously had something I didn’t, and he was leaving it up to me to figure it out… couldn’t hurt, I guess.

I put the thought up into the air and continue on my way to the roof.

---

After school, I decided to take Ikazuchi up on his offer and headed to the gym, a place I had never actually been before, oddly enough. I wasn’t part of any clubs or sports in the school so I never really had any need to go there until now. I stepped into the gym to see the Kendo club in attendance, wearing their practice outfits and practicing stances and swings with their shinai. I catch sight of Ikazuchi the same time he catches sight of me, and he waves at me.

“Hey!” He called, running up to me. “Glad you decided to come! I was a bit worried you’d just ditch me.”

“I was tempted to.” I say.

“Hey, Shino.” Another member comes up and looks me over. “This the guy you were talking about?”

“Sure is!” Ikazuchi smiles.

The other, more collected looking member holds out his hand.

“Kazushi Inuzuka.” He says, looking me in the eyes.

I extend my hand and shake his firmly.

“Yamato Haseo.” I introduce myself.

I liked this guy more than Ikazuchi already.

“Hey, why didn’t you introduce yourself to me?” Ikazuchi says annoyingly, sounding offended.

“That’s why.” I say. “You’re going to be captain?”

“Shino?” Inuzuka chuckles lightly. “He wishes. As long as I can help it he’s not getting my position.”

“So you’re captain, then.” I infer.

“Come on, Kazushi.” Ikazuchi laughs off his comments. “I’m not that bad, you know.”

“You could be better.” He responds plainly. “Now, Yamato. Shino has told me you’re quite the swordsman.”

“So he says.” I say. “I think I’d probably be better than most.”

“Care to prove that?” He asks. “I’m sure Shino has already informed you that our boys aren’t really up to snuff right now, so if you’re as good as Shino says you’ll be a pretty valuable team member.”

“You act like I’ve agreed to join.” I remark.

“It’s your choice.” Inukuka shrugs. “But if you are a swordsman it’s always good to have some partners to spar with and help home your skills against a multitude of different opponents and styles… that said, your first opponent will be me.”

“You?” Ikazuchi says. “Right out the gate?”

“You have a problem with that?” He turns and asks. “If he’s as good as you say he is he shouldn’t have a problem.” Inuzuka turns back to me. “You okay with that? As team captain it’s my job to determine who gets to join.”

“Sure.” I say. “No problem at all.”

“Wha-seriously, dude?!” Ikazuchi stammers, before sighing. “Kazushi’s pretty tough. You sure about this?”

“I can handle myself.” I say plainly.

“Well, let’s get you outfitted and we can start.” Inuzuka walks away, expecting me to follow.

“Let’s start now.” I declare, causing him to turn his head back and look at me, surprised.

“I’m glad you have confidence, but for your safety you’ll need to wear the gear. Don’t want you getting hurt.”

“You won’t even hit me.” I state. “That outfit would only slow me down… the hakama would get in the way of my feet and the padding would just hinder my movement…”

“Heh… you’ve got spunk, kid.” Inuzuka smiles. “Alright, have it your way.”

“Seriously?!” Ikazuchi recoils at the statement. “What kind of guy spars without armor?”

“Shut up, Ikazuchi.” I say as Inuzuka tosses me a shinai. I easily catch it by the handle and spin it in my hand twice. It felt not at all like the real thing… not just for obvious reasons either. It lacked the genuine feel of a true blade… it didn’t have the same thrill to hold as Amaterasu did. It didn’t have a name either… just didn’t sit right with me.

Either way, I guess I’d be able to work with it… as strange as it felt.

We step up to the training area in the middle of the gym sided by the rest of the Kendo team who were already gossiping under their breath even though I had just now arrived here. Could stand to wait at least a little bit, guys.

Inuzuka and I take our stances, with the captain taking a trademark stance with his sword gripped in both hands, feet spread slightly and on the same plane, and knees bent slightly. I take a similar stance with both my hands on my weapon facing forward, my knees straight and my left foot forward, my entire body tilted to the right slightly. I could tell Inuzuka’s stance was solid and well defended, not leaving much room for me to attack, but at the same time inhibiting his own ability to strike quickly from the stance he was in, whereas my position allowed me much more speed to strike first while sacrificing defense on my left side. It wouldn’t be a problem for me, though; I was quick enough to defend from any angle.

“Let’s begin.” He says.

I nod and we slowly close in on each other, taking light steps so as to allow us to hold our stances. I moved a bit faster than he did, however, since he was much more cautious in his approach. I think he was going to try to get a feel for me first, instead of moving in on his own accord. My confidence in my ability didn’t come from nowhere, and he knew it. I soon grew tired of waiting, and quickly moved in, rushing towards his side and launching my shinai at him. He doesn’t need to move far to block the strike, but with his other side open, I easily maneuvered around his guard and put the bamboo blade up to his neck before he could regain his stance.

I could hear the rest of the team ooh and ah as I had so easily bested their captain.

“Heh, not bad.” Inuzuka said as I backed off. “I should take you more seriously.”

Of course he wasn’t done yet. I could tell he wasn’t expecting the kind of speed and accuracy I possessed, but now he was going to take me seriously. This was the real match.

We start again, circling around each other and slowly moving inwards. When we’re within striking distance of each other, Inuzuka takes the initiative and moved in with an overhand strike. I parry the blow with a quick and conservative motion that redirected it away from me, once again opening his side. I go for it, but this time the wooden sword strikes against his, bouncing it away and forcing me to jump back before I’m hit.

Now that was better… Inuzuka was faster than first looks would say. Actually, no, he wasn’t. He was nowhere near my speed… but he knew how to use his energy to maximize his speed, gaining more agility than he would normally be capable of. He knew exactly how to best utilize his energy.

He was interesting, alright… but I’ve fought worse.

I move in again, making a quick and hard vertical slash that he dodges, opening up my left side to his own offense, but I quickly parry his blow by spinning to face my right side towards him, gaining momentum as I did to strike at his shinai and bounce it back, making another attack of my own that he also parries, before we both distance ourselves.

Bouts like this in Kendo weren’t exactly my forte. I was more used to going in fast and hard and pressing the attack, not giving my opponent any room to breathe. This quick attack and then defend kind of style didn’t really suit me. Confrontations usually lasted for just a few seconds before settling back down again. I wish I could just pummel the guy into submission like I usually do, but in Kendo that wasn’t how it worked. It wasn’t exactly that I wasn’t skilled enough for it… I was just a bit impatient. It was sometimes tough for me to stand and observe instead of reacting in the heat of the moment. I was a tactile learner, after all.

We advance once again, Inuzuka starting out with a short swipe of his weapon which I easily parry, allowing me into his guard, but with his tight stance he regains it before I’m able to properly strike at him, forcing me to jump back a bit before moving back in and attempting a second assault, throwing a horizontal swipe his way. He knocks my sword away, but I move the handle of my weapon up, curving it around and inside his guard, preventing him from moving himself back into position and allowing me to force the tip of my shinai upwards and towards his neck. Before I’m able to fully pull it off, though, I feel wood against my neck, and notice that he had curved his arm around my shinai to allow his weapon room to maneuver towards my neck.

I smirk and back off as we take position again for our final round. We both had one point, and the next point would decide the winner. I take the same stance as before, as does he, and we begin circling around each other. Despite my previous disposition towards joining the Kendo club, I was surprised to find myself actually getting into it. There was a certain thrill in sparring with someone who could actually beat me. Most other people outside my father didn’t have any kind of combat experience or training in them whatsoever, so it was a cakewalk to sweep the floor with them, like those three bullies from way before… but the captain of the Kendo team was quite a different matter. He actually knew what he was doing.

It was pretty fun, actually.

I take two tentative steps forward, waiting for Inukuza to make a move I already knew he probably wouldn’t make. From what I could tell his style was reactionary. He didn’t like making the first move and leave himself open. He was much more defensive than I was… something that came with both advantages and disadvantages. I take the first move, rushing forward in a single step to bring my shinai downwards towards his head. He blocks the blow and quickly counters with an attack of his own, and I react by quickly smacking his weapon out of the way and allowing me one more quick strike which unfortunately misses before backing up again. I don’t stay on defense for long before switching back onto the attack, trying to weasel my way into his guard to allow me the win. I was going for his neck. That was my target. I’d have to find a way through his guard before that, though. My first win was from him underestimating me… it was a fluke. Now I’d have to actually put some effort into it.

I quickly dash to the side, building up more momentum to allow me more power to swat at his weapon, successfully throwing him off balance with the well placed strike, and allowing me into his guard. I had him. Or so I thought…

Before I knew what was up, I notice instead of bringing his shinai down like I expected him to, which would come too slow to counter me, he instead let go of it, letting it drop in front of me. I suddenly hesitate at the unforeseen maneuver, and this allows him to catch the weapon in his left hand and aim the tip directly at my neck just before I’m able to put the wooden blade up to his.

“Damn…” I mutter.

I actually lost… I recognized why, though. I hesitated and I reacted wrong in the face of an unknown threat. I should’ve brought my guard up and backed away instead of pressing the attack… that’s what lost me the win.

“Not this time, Haseo.” Inuzuka smiles, pressing the tip of his shinai down onto the ground. “But I have to admit… you have a pretty unorthodox style. Managed to be both focused and unpredictable at once… I’m impressed. You seem to have a natural talent for this sort of thing.”

“Heh, you think so?” I ask. “Well I am the son of a swordsman so… maybe I inherited a few things from him.”

“That so?” Inuzuka smiles. “Well, you’ve already proven yourself more able than most people around here…” He throws a quick glare towards Ikazuchi, who shrugs with a look of resent. “I think you’d make a fine addition to the team.”

“I haven’t decided yet, you know.” I remark.

“I know.” He says. “But your form is lacking something… it’s lacking structure and discipline. You’ve got natural talent, but that’s about all you got. You can quickly adapt and you use that to your advantage, but with nowhere to focus that skill you’re not going to get very far.”

“I’ve gotten far enough.” I say.

“There’s always going to be someone better.” He says. “But really, if you stuck around we could really refine that style into something unbeatable.”

“I’m not really sure…” I scratch the back of my neck.

“Come on, Yamato.” Inuzuka says. “I can tell you’ve got that need to grow stronger in you. That insatiable thirst to hone your skills to be as sharp as they can possibly be. You’ve got the makings of a great swordsman.”

“Hrm…” I cross my arms, closing my eyes in thought. “Alright… sure.”

“Hah, great.” Inuzuka smiles and pats my shoulder. “We meet in the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after school. You don’t have to go to every session, but we’d like to see you around as much as possible.”

“Yeah, sure.” I nod.

I guess it could hurt if I tried it out. I knew I was lacking in certain areas… discipline was definitely one of those areas. Maybe it would be beneficial for me to practice with the team. If anything, it would help me grow stronger so I could free my friends in EWO. That was reason enough for me.

“Alright!” Ikazuchi puts an arm around my neck from behind. “We got that tournament in the bag, now!”

“Oh, right.” I mutter. “Forgot about that.”

“Wha- seriously?! Come on, you’re killing me, here!”

The team laughed. I laughed with them.

---

After a bit of practice, I decided to head home earlier than when the team would usually get out. Along the way, I just so happened to run into Naoto on her way out of the school. She shuffled quickly out the front door, and I picked up my pace a bit to catch up to her outside.

“Hey.” I say, slowing down when I was beside her. “What’s up?”

“Oh… hey, Yamato…” She said quietly. “Just… going to the hospital again.”

“I haven’t seen you around in EWO that much.” I say. “Have you not been on much because of that?”

“No, no, I’ve been on.” She says. “I’ve just been following my own leads on these AEP guys… I know I said I’d help you and everything… I was planning on sharing what information I got when I got it with you.”

“Nothing’s come up, then?”

“Nothing worth mentioning…” She sighed. “These guys really know how to hide themselves.”

“Not even the military’s intelligence agency can get anything.” I remark. “Maverick’s still working on a possible lead, but we haven’t gotten that far on it yet… and we’ve been at it for a few months…”

“I know… even with all the digging I’m doing it seems like they’re just moving further away.”

“You’re not doing this by yourself, are you?” I ask her. “I mean, you have some people helping, right?”

“Well… not really.” She pushes her hair out of her eyes. “I told you already, I’m a freelancer. I like to work alone.”

“You’re not in any danger are you?” I question, causing her to turn her eyes to me.

“What, you don’t think I can handle myself?” She huffs.

“Don’t put words in my mouth.” I say. “I’m just worried is all.”

“You’re… worried about me?” She stops and looks at me.

“A little.” I say. “I mean, you could die out there.”

“Hm…” She looks forward and lowers her head a bit, thoughtfully. “I’ll be careful.” She tells me after a brief silence. “By the way, why are you still around? You usually leave school way earlier.”

“Eh, I checked out the Kendo team.” I say. “Decided to join.”

“You actually joined a club?” She says skeptically. “Didn’t think you were the kind of person to get involved with that.”

“Well, I wasn’t really given much of a choice at first…” I rub the back of my neck. “But I don’t know, having more sparring partners couldn’t hurt.”

“I guess not.” She says.

“And aren’t you part of the culture club?” I recall. “How’d you get involved in that?”

“I can’t be interested in culture?”

“You can be interested in something without joining a club.”

“My homeroom teacher forced me to…” She sighed. “I mean, it’s not too terrible, other than the whole Christmas thing we did…”

“Heh, yeah…” I remembered the way she was dressed up in that skimpy Santa outfit… I could feel my cheeks heat up a bit. “I remember that…”

Naoto punched my shoulder, knocking me out of it and making me chuckle lightly.

“You want me to go with you to the hospital?” I ask her to change the subject. “You think you’ll be alright on your own?”

“I’ll be alright.” She says. “Thanks, though. You’re sweet for worrying so much about me.”

“Seems strange that not too long ago you were ready to shoot me just for looking at you funny.”

“Heh, yeah…” She smiles. “Funny how things change in such a short amount of time… especially in light of recent events.”

“I guess so.”

“So what have you been doing in the meantime?” Naoto asks.

“Training my ass off, pretty much…” I answer. “Not much else I can do without anything to go on. The most I can do for now is just get stronger so I’ll be ready to make a move when the time comes and wipe the floor with these bastards.”

“Well, that’s good.” Naoto says. “Just don’t push yourself too hard.”

“You worrying about me, now?” I look to her with a smirk.

“Just don’t want you screwing up.” She says quickly.

“Nice save.” I remark.

“Shut up.” She says jokingly.

---

Eventually Naoto and I went our separate ways and I walk by myself down the streets back towards home. I have my left hand in my pocket as I walk, passing by the temple and rounding the corner. I look up from the ground and notice three people standing there. A girl with her back against the wall, and two guys pestering her. Where have I seen this before…

As a matter of fact, it was the same girl. Yuki or… Yuka I think her name was. Something like that. I’m pretty sure it was the same bullies as before too. These guys don’t learn, do they? I sigh and step forward, grabbing their attention.

“What’s all this then…” I exhale, bothered by the inconvenience of having to deal with these jerkoffs again.

One of them steps forward a step. “None of your…” Then he recognizes me. “Oh… well, well, if it isn’t the hero again. Where’s your whore girlfriend?”

“I don’t know.” I pull out my cell phone and pretend to dial. “I really should try to get a hold of your mother, shouldn’t I?”

“Heh, fucker…” The guy smirks cockily as I put away my cell phone.

Wait… weren’t there three of these guys last time?

I’m suddenly met with a sharp blunt force to the back of the head that sends me onto my knees, making my vision go a bit blurry as I hit the ground. I hear the girl yelp as I plant a hand on the ground to stop myself from completely falling. I cover the back of my head as I try to get reoriented. I look up and see one of the guys approach me with a rebar. I can’t do anything as he winds up and whacks me right in the side of the head, sending my face right into the ground. I could hear their laughter as the three surrounded me, each with their weapon of choice. A metal baseball bat, which is what clocked me the first time, a piece of rebar, and a normal lead pipe. I try to get back at least onto my knees, opening my eyes groggily and seeing the pool of blood resulting from the injury to my head. I didn’t know how bad it was exactly, but I got hit pretty hard… and that was a lot of blood.

“What’s the matter?!” One of them shouts. “Not too tough now, huh?!”

I receive a blow to the stomach, not hard enough to cause any internal damage at the angle the guy was at, but it was enough to knock the wind out of me. I reel and try to get my breath back, trying to get the strength to retaliate in some way, try to get out of their circle… but my legs weren’t cooperating with me, and I was having a hard enough time getting my senses back at the moment. Their muffle laughter was all I could hear, past the deafening ringing that was bouncing around my head. I coughed a bit, staggering up to one knee and still trying to catch my breath.

“No!” I hear the girl rush up and try to shield me from the bullies by putting herself in between me and one of them, but she gets nailed hard in the side from behind, putting her to the ground as well. She coughs, trying to pull herself together after the hard hit. Luckily after that they brought their attention back to me, so it allowed her to crawl away again for the time being.

I look up and see the one with the rebar raise his weapon and bring it down hard.

It didn’t land, though… I shake my head and my vision sharpens, allowing me to see that it was caught by a hand. When I look over, I see a man in a black coat and slacks holding the rebar firmly in his hand. It was my father…

“What’s the big idea, old man?!” The guy says, trying to wrench the weapon out of his hand.

My father stands there motionless and says nothing, letting the guy struggle before letting the weapon go, causing the guy to fall back a bit but catching his balance before he hit the ground.

“Hey, get lost, pops!” Another said. “This isn’t any of your business.”

“Yeah, don’t think we won’t fuck you up too!” The one with the baseball bat pointed the weapon at him. “Get lost!”

Still, my father remained silent and motionless, standing over me to protect me.

“You deaf or something?!” The one with rebar huffed. “GET! LOST!”

He raised the rebar and came at him with it. Big mistake…

My father ducked under the swing effortlessly and grabbed the assailant’s arm, twisting it violently and making the guy cry out in pain and let the rebar go. Without missing a beat, my father grabbed the rebar in the air before twisting his arm around the bully’s, grabbing his forearm and placing his leg up just below his armpit. He pushed his leg out and I heard a pop as the bully’s arm was pulled effortlessly from its socket, causing the guy to scream in pain and fall to the ground, holding up his limp arm as he tried to move it, only making it flap around as it wasn’t fully connected to him anymore.

My father turns to the other two, rebar in hand. He spins the metal rod around in his hand a few times, striking it along the ground and sending up a few sparks. The other two seemed intimidated, but it didn’t stop them from trying to rush him at once. My father easily evaded two swings from either before smacking one with the baseball bat in the hand, causing him to drop the weapon and allowing my father to jump out of the way of the one with the lead pipe as he took a swing at him, missing him and managing to nail his friend in the face. In the distraction my father wailed him in the stomach hard, causing him to cough up blood and double over.

All three down in a matter of seconds.

He takes out his cell phone and calls the police, reporting the bullies before hanging up and rushing over to me.

“Yamato!” He says. “Are you alright?”

He lifts up my head to get a look at my injury. I touch my forehead and look at my hand, blood trickling down my fingers. I could feel the warm liquid on my face as it dripped onto the pavement.

“Damn…” He muttered. “Alright, come on, let’s get you to the hospital.” He walks over to the girl, who had mostly recovered, though was probably still stinging a bit. “You too, c’mon.”

He picked up the girl and nodded for me to follow him. I could still walk, but I was aching all over… we left the three bullies to moan and crawl on the ground to be picked up by the cops.

---

“Alright, honey.” My mother took a swab of cotton with alcohol soaked into it and moved up to me. “This’ll sting for just a little bit.”

“Mom, I’m not five.” I scoff. “I’m fine.”

She dabbed the wound on my forehead with the swab and I immediately recoil and hiss in pain.

“Gah! Fucking Christ, that hurts!”

My mother giggled and held me in place as she went over my injury to clean it up.

I was in the hospital getting my wound checked out. My mom was still on her shift so she decided to treat me herself. The look on her face when she saw me all bloodied and beaten… I thought she was going to pass out.

“You’re lucky your father came along when he did.” She said as she finished up disinfecting the wound and went to apply some antibiotics. “You could’ve ended up a lot worse than this.”

“Hmph…”

“Well, there isn’t any permanent damage.” Mom said. “You really should be more careful, though, Yamato.”

“What was I supposed to do?” I ask. “Let that girl get beat up?”

“Of course not, Yamato. But you could’ve been killed, you know…”

“I’m not that easy to put down, you know.” I say. “I mean, I came from you.”

“That you did.” She laughed. “When I was younger, I never really expected I’d have a child. But I’m glad I did.”

“What, you didn’t want a kid?” I ask her.

“Before I met your father I never really gave it too much thought.” She admitted. “It’s funny how when you meet the person you love your opinions change so much.”

“Egh, not me.” I say, crossing my arms. “I’m never having kids.”

“Aw, you don’t want to give me grandkids?” My mother pouted.

I shake my head.

“You’ll change your mind.” She smiled. “When you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you’ll want to make something special with her.”

“Whatever…”

My mom finished cleaning up my wound and wrapped bandages around my head to neatly cover it up.

“Alright, that should do it.” Mom says. “Unless you have any other great plans today.”

“I don’t ask for this shit.” I point at my head.

My mom simply laughs.

“Well anyway, you’re free to roam about for a bit. I expect you home by the time I get there, though.” She turns to me and gives me a warm motherly smile. “If you aren’t then I’ll hunt you down and kick your ass.”

“I’m sure you will.” I sigh, waving as I go to leave the room.

Actually, I’m not sure she would, I’m absolutely positive she would. When she says she’ll do something, by God, she means it.

I slide the door open and I’m startled as a figure runs by. I look down the hall and notice it was Naoto. It looked like her hand was up to her face as she rounded the corner. I look down to the floor and notice the faint glimmer of liquid on the floor. She was crying…?

“Naoto…” I say out loud.

“Are you a friend of hers?” I hear a voice say behind me, turning me around to face another person. She was an older woman, looked to be somewhere in her early forties, though I was never that good at telling age. She had black hair and amber eyes… it didn’t take much for me to realize that it was Naoto’s mother.

“Um… somewhat.” I say, looking back to where Naoto had gone before turning my attention back to her mother.

“I see.” She smiled, apparently seeing that we were more than just ‘somewhat’ friends. “I can tell she trusts you.”

“How’s that?” I ask, confused a bit. “You don’t even know about me.”

“You have that air about you.” She says. “The kind of charisma that people can trust in.”

“That so…?” I ponder over that a bit.

“I’m sure she’s told you of her situation with her father.” Naoto’s mother continues. “The poor girl is so conflicted… she worries herself to exhaustion over me and is afraid of even speaking to her father.”

“From what I’ve heard I can’t blame her.” I say. “But I’m assuming that she isn’t telling me the entire story.”

“Her father does love her very much.” She explained. “He… had a good reason to leave us.”

“I disagree.” I say quickly. “It’s a father’s duty to stay by his family’s side no matter what. I don’t care what excuse he may have, leaving his own daughter is unacceptable.”

I said the words so plainly and matter-of-factly. I wasn’t a father myself, nor did I plan to be, but even so I possessed remarkable paternal instincts… it was odd in that sense.

“You think much like she does.” Her mother smiles. “Listen, young man… I have a favor to ask of you…”

I look back at Naoto’s mother, noticing many emotions in her eyes… sadness, regret, guilt… hopefulness through it all… it grabbed my complete attention.

“Please take care of her.” She told me. “Neither I or her father can reach out to her now… but I believe you can…”

I stay silent, once again looking back to the corner Naoto had ran around.

“She’s a good girl.” Her mother says behind me. “Please help her through this…”

I look back and see tears rolling down her mother’s cheek.

“I can’t do anything…” She spoke through fractured breathing. “I’m her mother and… I’m helpless…”

I stay silent, thinking it over… Naoto’s mother was entrusting her daughter to me… in that fact I’m sure her father would do the same. I didn’t know how to take that… the fact that they were trusting me to help their daughter felt… I don’t know. It felt like a weight was put onto my shoulders on top of what I already had on my plate.

At the same time I felt I was obligated to do so out of respect for their faith in me… a faith completely unwarranted. They wanted desperately for Naoto to be happy… they truly did love their daughter.

“Alright.” I nod without hesitation, standing tall with shoulders broad. “I promise.”

Naoto’s mother wipes her tears away and smiles lightly, bowing to me.

“Thank you.” She said gratefully.

---

I left the hospital, noticing grey clouds overhead. I looked around… Naoto was nowhere to be seen. I’d see her tomorrow, most likely. I sigh, walking to and sitting down on a nearby bench. I look up to the sky. It was going to rain soon. I didn’t really care… I walked in the rain all the time. What was getting wet to me?

I kept thinking about Naoto… I could only imagine what she must be thinking. It didn’t feel right to me… I mean, sure we were friends… but I really didn’t know too much about her. Now I suddenly felt this overwhelming fixation to protect her. Her own parents putting their faith in me; someone they didn’t even know… Naoto’s trust in me… it left me more than a little confused. I didn’t really know what to think.

I eventually drop my head tiredly, sighing heavily, before standing up and leaving for home.

I began to realize then just how much Naoto actually did trust in me… I realized that she’s probably told nobody else about her troubles… about her father in the hospital and her mother worrying over him. It just now struck me that she trusted me enough to break down in front of me, and cling onto me for support when she needed it.

She put her faith in me… the least I could do in return was be there for her.

Chapter 21

April 9th

These last few weeks have been pretty busy for me. On top of the Kendo team and the practice sessions with them, as well as the occasional training session with my father, I’ve been checking on Naoto at the hospital more frequently. She says I don’t need to, but even so I make sure to drop by whenever I could to support her. I noticed sometimes she wouldn’t even be there, but lately she’s been there almost every single day… it worried me a bit… but I tried not to worry too much. I was sure she’d be fine.

I hit the steps downstairs at HQ. I look over halfway down and see Walker, Vixen, and Lucy in the main room, talking things over with each other. Walker looks up from his work and notices me coming down the stairs.

“Ah, Yamato.” Walker said as I hit the ground floor and walked into the main lobby. “Just in time. We got something.”

“No shit?” I say, jogging over to the couch and vaulting over it to what Walker was looking at. “Fucking finally.”

“We have some info related to the AEP coming from Osia.” He explained.

“Osia?” I ask. “We got Osia in on this too?”

“The entire planet is in on this, pretty much.” Vixen said. “The main problem is in Renskr, sure, but this is an epidemic that everyone needs to work on.”

“Okay, so what do we have?” I ask.

“Nothing yet.” Lucy said. “The data is too sensitive to be transmitted across the continent to us even with the toughest encryption levels. The data is stored on a single ISD that’s going to be transported via a freight train across the continent to the Renskr military, where we’ll be able to get at it.”

“So… we don’t actually have anything, then?” My shoulders go slack.

“Not really…” Lucy said. “Sorry to get you worked up like that. But we will have something soon.”

“That’s nice…” I say. “It’s been way too long since we’ve been able to do anything.”

“You been training with your powers any?” Walker asked. “We’re going to need you to get up and go when the time comes.”

“Oh, yeah.” I say. “Callahan has been supervising me on how to control my Void abilities. Also Michael and Amanda are helping out a bit whenever they aren’t too busy.”

“Great.” Walker nods. “In the meantime, you still have some free time. We should get the info we need by tomorrow. Trains move pretty fast, you know.”

“Yeah, those maglevs don’t mess around when it comes to expedience…”

Maglev trains were popular in the real world due to their speed, and some freighter companies were switching to maglev trains from diesel engines. However, in EWO they were absolutely crazy. The speeds they’d reach would sometimes approach 500 miles per hour on straightaways. With that kind of speed, cross-continental transportation wouldn’t take long at all.

“We’ll tell you when we get it.” Walker said. “Just make sure you have yourself ready by that time.”

“Alright.” I nod. “Do they even know that we have this information? I mean, we do, so…”

“They shouldn’t.” Walker said. “Can’t imagine they intercepted a letter.”

“We’re resorting to actually letters, now?” I raise an eyebrow.

“Sending information digitally has become too risky.” Lucy explained, sitting down on the couch. “Nothing beats a good old piece of paper when it comes to security. Only one copy, only one destination.”

“Except for the fact that anyone with two working eyes can read it.” I point out.

“Well nobody uses letters anymore, so they didn’t expect that we’d employ them.” Vixen added. “Takes a bit more time, but at least we’re not risking being exposed. The letter wasn’t sent via postal service either, it was hand delivered here from Osia.”

“Ain’t that nice.” I say. “Welcome to the 18th century.”

“We’re working with what we got.” Walker said.

“These sukas are really giving us a tough time.” I hear Jager say as he walks in, leaning onto the back of the couch, canteen in hand. “Hopefully with this new info we’ll actually be able to make a move on them.”

“Eager to get into the fight, Jager?” Walker asks.

“You know it, tovarich!” He smiles. “Surkov’s just been itching to see some real action.”

“Well hopefully you’ll get that soon.” Walker smiled. “Just have to wait a little longer.”

“That train better hurry it’s ass up.” Jager put his canteen back on his belt and crossed his arms.

“500 miles per hour’s no joke.” I say, patting his shoulder. “Don’t worry; I want to beat the hell out of these guys just as much as you do.”

“Hah, I bet.” He laughs. “Hey, why don’t get do something while we wait?”

“Something?” I ask. “I don’t really hang around bars, Jager.”

“Fine…” He shrugs. “Let’s get lunch, then. I know a great place and I’m starving.”

“You’re also almost sober.” I point out sarcastically.

“Hey, now.” He feigns taking offense to that. “I don’t get as drunk as you think I do!”

“I bet.”

He walks up to me and pats me on the shoulder twice.

“Let’s get going!” He smiles. “I’m sure you’re hungry too.”

“I was planning on getting something to eat, but as long as you’re paying I guess I can go with you.”

“Hah!” He laughs heartily. “Just like the cheapskate you are! Money, money, all the time! That’s what makes you a great mercenary!”

“I use money for stuff, never hurts to have more of it.” I shrug.

With that, we left the building. Might as well hang out for a bit while we wait.

---

Jager took me to a restaurant I had passed by multiple times before but never actually ate at. The place was pretty full so we had to get a table in the middle of the place. Well, we would’ve if I didn’t insist on waiting for a window booth. I got a bit antsy whenever I sat in the middle of someplace. I preferred corners or other places where I didn’t have my back to anyone. Just one of those things that bothered me… I didn’t think I was afraid of someone stabbing me in the back or anything… I just liked to know what’s going on around me. I think…

Shut up.

Anyway, we had ordered our meals and our drinks had just arrived when Jager spoke up.

“So…” He says. “How’s the whole being a Nephilim business going?”

“Better than I expected, given the circumstances.” I reply. “But I don’t really think it’s such a big deal… I don’t really like it when people blow it out of proportion.”

“Well, you are the third.” He said “Those rumors had a lot of excitement about them before you turned out to be the one.”

“Not only am I the third, though, I turn out to be destined to completely fuck everything for some reason, and apparently I’m the only one who can fix the game and stop these AEP douchebags.” I sigh, putting my cheek in my hand and looking out the window. “I feel like a lot of shit I never asked for has just been thrown on me out of nowhere…”

“We never ask for all the bad things that happen to us.” Jager says in one of his rare instances of wisdom and clarity. “Besides, being the way you are can’t be all bad.”

“It’s not really… it’s just that my plan never involved any of this. All I wanted was to be a mercenary, do my job, do it well, get paid well for it. That was all I wanted, and now these jerks have to fuck everything for me… and everyone else for that matter.”

Jager finishes up a large sip from his drink, which was no doubt alcoholic, and sighed.

“I think all of us feel that way in some way or another.” He says. “None of us planned for things to happen the way they did. At least you have the ability to log out. Not all of us got that lucky.”

“I guess…” I sigh again, taking a sip of my drink.

“Seems like one shitty thing after the other for me, especially.” Jager sighs. “Not meaning to sound all woe-is-me or anything, but life hasn’t been too easy on me.”

“How so?”

“I don’t think you need to know.” He said, taking another long sip from his drink.

“Just occurred to me now that I haven’t really heard much about your history.” I say.

“Are you really that interested in knowing?”

“Maybe?”

He sighs again and smiles.

“Fine, fine. I’ll tell you.”

Jager sets his drink to the side and crosses his arms on the table.

“I was born in Verkhoyansk. Northern Russia. My father was German, which is why I have the German surname, while my mother was Russian. Had a sister two years younger than me. Lived up there all our lives. We lived in a small house out in the wilderness. Wasn’t too far from civilization so we still had what we needed there. Lights, heat, water… we hunted a lot for food, though. My father was a hunter, so he took to teaching me how to handle a rifle and hunt in the wilderness. By the time I hit my mid teens I was already an expert marksman, on par with even my father, who’d been doing this for years.”

Jager stretches himself out a bit before continuing.

“Anyway, when I was 16, my father and I were out late while hunting. We were split up to get more game. We were supposed to meet up at a certain spot within a certain time, but my father never showed up. It seemed odd to me since he knew these woods like the back of his hand, so I went out to look for him. Eventually found him with a bullet wound in his stomach up against a tree. He told me that there were men on their way to our house. I treated my father’s injury as best I could before taking his rifle and heading back to the house. When I got there, I saw there were two men holding both my mother and my sister hostage at gunpoint. With the time I had I would only be able to save one of them… but I didn’t accept that. I aimed both rifles at both of them and ended up nailing them both simultaneously in the head… luckily they weren’t hurt, and my father recovered from his wounds.”

Jager sighed and took a long sip from his drink, finishing it off.

“Shit…” I say. “Is that why you…”

“That’s how I developed my twin rifle technique… it came from that night. Since then I trained myself in being able to wield a rifle in both hands, whether to be able to utilize one with both hands or make use of two at the same time, as impractical as that may be… I still honed the style to be my own, and it wasn’t too long before I had surpassed my father in marksmanship.”

“Any other terrible life events you think I should know about?” I ask.

“Nothing too special, other than the most recent one…”

“Which would be…?”

Jager sighs, reaching for his drink before realizing it was empty and then sighing even harder.

“You ever been in love before?” He asks.

“Nope.” I say. “Why, were you?”

“At one point.” He said, crossing his arms and closing his eyes.

“For some reason I have a difficult time imagining that.” I smirk.

“I told you about her before, I think.” He said. “Her name was Laura Schwarzerfeld. This was back when I was a member of November Company and Hotel November after that. She was a few years younger than me, I never caught her exact age, but she was as mature as her 20s with how she acted. She was the first girl I ever really felt anything for. But…”

“But she blew you off?” I ask.

“More than that, I’m pretty sure she ended up resenting me…” Jager sighed. “I did… I did something that I probably shouldn’t have.”

“What’s that?”

“You don’t really need to know.” He said. “But suffice to say it put an end to any chance of me being with her, if there even was one to begin with.”

“I wouldn’t know how that feels.” I say, taking a sip of my drink.

“I’d rather die than feel that again.” He said with a straight face. “It’s worse than that.”

“Must really suck…” I comment. I didn’t know if Jager was exaggerating or not, but I didn’t really think saying anything about that was the best idea. Clearly it was something that really hurt him, and something capable of hurting Jager was definitely not something I’d want to experience.

“But enough about me.” Jager says. “What about you? It’s only now occurred to me that I don’t know much about your history either.”

“You never asked.”

“I’m asking now.”

“It’s not special.” I tell him. “Just lived a normal life, really. Only child, two parents. My mother is a nurse at a hospital and my father runs his own dojo teaching swordsmanship.”

“Ah, so he’s who you got your skills with a blade from?” Jager smiled.

“Got them from both my parents.” I say. “They’re both SAO survivors, so they both know how to fight.”

“Is that so?” Jager seemed interested.

“Yeah.” I say. “My mom is pretty nifty with a sword, though she doesn’t practice all that much anymore. My father though…”

I stop for a second.

“What about your father?” Jager asked.

“He’s…” I take another brief pause. “He’s unreal… picture the most powerful swordsman you can in your head, and he’s better than that.”

“Damn…” Jager said, just as our food came in.

The waiter places our plates down in front of us and leaves us to our meals.

“It’s crazy…” I say as I take a bite. “He’s been training me in his style for as long as I can remember… even with all those years under me he still completely destroys me whenever we spar.”

“Well at least you don’t spar with real swords or anything, hah.” Jager laughs as he takes a sip from his newly refilled drink.

Oh, how ignorance is bliss…

“We do…” I mutter, putting my elbow up on the table and resting my cheek in my hand.

Jager almost spits out his drink, but he stops himself as that would be a waste of good alcohol.

“You what?!” He sputters.

“We spar with real blades.” I say nonchalantly, as if it wasn’t that big of a deal.

Honestly… it really wasn’t anymore. I’ve gotten used to training like that now. I’ve learned to acclimate myself with the life or death regiment my father had put me on.

“He doesn’t try to kill you or anything, does he?” Jager asked hopefully.

“I… I don’t know…” I say, thinking about it. “That point is kind of hard to explain… it’s not really a question.”

“Not a question?”

“He’s not trying to kill me when we fight.” I explain to the best of my ability. “That doesn’t have anything to do with it. He’s fighting me, plain and simple. Fighting to win. But there’s nothing else to that end. He’s not trying not to kill me, but he’s not making an effort to decapitate me either… he’s just fighting, pure and simple… and so am I.”

“You’re okay with that?” Jager asks in disbelief. “I mean, my father and I used real guns but we never shot at each other.”

“No, it’s… I’m fine, Jager.” I say. “In fact, I think it’s actually done me good…”

“How’s that possible?” He questioned.

“Fighting like your life depended on it… there’s no substitute for it. No matter how much you train it doesn’t compare to the real thing… only in a true life or death situation do I feel like I’m actually honing my skills. Being put in a real situation in which if I didn’t perform, I’d get hurt or killed… it’s really exhilarating.”

“You’re smiling…” Jager pointed out.

And indeed I was. Just thinking about the rush I always felt whenever I held a blade in my hand was enough to make my mouth curl up into a grin. I didn’t know if I was crazy but… I didn’t care.

“Heh…” I shake my head to wipe off the smile, returning to my original composure. “Sorry.”

Just then, Jager’s UIP began beeping. He checks it and answers the call.

“Jager, here.” He says.

“It’s Chris.” Walker says through the communicatory. “Is Yamato with you?”

“Yeah, we’re just out for lunch.” Jager responded.

“We need you both back here. Now.” Walker’s tone denoted urgency.

“What, now?” Jager asked. “We’re not done eating.”

“Now, Jager.” He repeated in a more aggressive tone.

“Right…” Jager nodded and hung up the call.

We both look make eye contact for a few seconds before we both immediately start wolfing down our food as quickly as we could. Once done, I quickly slam a sum of money I estimated to be over the cost for the food down onto the table, before we both jumped out of our seats and rushed to the door.

“Money’s on the table!” I call to the entire restaurant as we both leg it out the door.

“Dammit, we didn’t bring a car!” Jager said as he began to rush down the street towards HQ, with myself tailing him.

“Running is good for you!” I say.

---

When we had arrived back at HQ, both Jager and I were quickly rushed up onto the roof towards the VTOL, which Lucy was already in, ready to take off. Jager and I followed Walker as he jumped into the passenger bay and told Lucy to hit it, whereupon we quickly rocketed into the air. The bay doors slid shut and we took off at mach speed.

“Mind telling us what’s going on, Walker?” I ask.

“The train’s been hijacked.” He says.

“The train?” Jager asked. “You mean the train that had that intel we need?”

“That’s it.” Walker nods. “Don’t know how they did it, but they intercepted the train and now have control of it. We need to get to it and make sure we get that intel before they get away with it.”

“Shit.” I curse. “How are they always one step ahead of us?”

“Doesn’t matter, we’re stopping them.” Walker said. “It shouldn’t take us long to intercept the train. Get ready.”

“Kind of wish you gave me time to get my assault rifle.” I say.

“You’ll have to make do.” Walker told me.

As Walker had said, it took only ten minutes at mach speed for us to reach the train, whereupon Lucy slowed us down to match the train’s speed and opened the bay doors.

“Alright!” She called back. “You’ll have to drop off here! Make sure you-”

She’s interrupted when the entire aircraft shook in a storm of gunfire from the train. Lucy quickly pulled the nose up and back away from the train and I was almost flung out of the thing with the force of the turn, forcing me to hang onto one of the side rails.

“Shit!” Walker shouted as Lucy managed to bring the VTOL back to a level position close to the ground and away from the train.

“They have fucking AA guns?!” I yell.

“This train is carrying some sensitive info!” Walker said. “Of course it’s going to be guarded from its most vulnerable position!”

“Helped a whole lot, didn’t it?!”

“We need those guns down!” Lucy said. “I can’t get anywhere near the train with those things after us!”

“Leave that to me!” Jager says.

I look over to him as he shoulders his beast of a rifle, moving up to sit with his legs outside the bay door. He takes aim towards the train.

“Go higher!” He shouts. “I’m being blocked by terrain!”

“I can’t stay up that long without those guns nailing us!” Lucy said. “I can make strafing runs but you’re going to have only a few seconds each time!”

“More than enough! Take her up!”

Lucy quickly pulled the aircraft up and we were immediately met with a hail of anti-air fire. Lucy jerks the VTOL to the right, and Jager takes a shot, nailing one of the guns square on. Lucy moved the VTOL quickly over the train and towards more cover on the other side. Jager quickly jumped to the other side of the aircraft and took another shot before we ducked back low to the ground, nailing another.

“Two down!” Jager said. “Two more runs!”

“Alright, get ready!” Lucy called, before making the same run again, flying over the terrain into gun range while Jager took another shot, hitting another gun emplacement dead on, and hitting another on the return swing. Once again low to the ground, I noticed Jager grab another clip for his rifle, and hold it close to the internal magazine port. No doubt he’d have to perform a quick reload to get the last gun on Lucy’s final run, as his rifle only held five shots, and there were six guns. I didn’t know if he’d be able to pull it off… but he’s known as one of the best snipers in the game… I’ve seen him do some crazy shit before.

“Here we go!” Lucy shouted as she brought the VTOL back up for one last strafing run. Jager took the shot the instant he had line of sight, hitting the fifth gun battery before opening up the internal magazine port and quickly and cleanly loading up another five rounds into is rifle, cycling the bolt just as he jumped to the other side, taking aim and firing at the last AA gun, destroying it with a single precise shot, right after a split second reload.

They didn’t call him one of the best for nothing.

“Heh!” He smirked. “All guns down!”

“Nice, Dimitri!” Lucy said. “I’m gonna bring her down next to the train. You’re gonna have to jump down onto the train from the air.”

“Oh, great!” I say sarcastically.

“Wait, something’s not right…” Walker said. “The train is picking up speed!”

I look out the door and notice that he was right. The train had started to speed up to try to escape from us. It was pulling away quickly.

“Shit!” Lucy cursed. “I can’t keep up with the train in this mode! We need to close the bay doors!”

“How are we supposed to get on it, then?!” Walker asked.

I think quickly, trying to come up with an idea. She was right; we’d need to close the passenger bay doors to exceed a certain speed, as the VTOL was designed to not surpass a certain velocity when the doors were open as a safety measure. We’d need to have them closed if we wanted to keep up with the train… or maybe we didn’t…

“Close the doors, Lucy.” I say. “Catch up to it.”

“I hope you have a plan!” She says as she does what I say, closing the doors and allowing her to pick up more speed to catch back up to the train.

“What’re you thinking?” Walker asks as I look out the bay windows, watching as we caught up to the train and leveled out next to a flat car.

“There’s a tunnel coming up, Yamato!” Lucy shouts. “Whatever you’re gonna do you might want to do it fast!”

I place my hand up against the bay door, focusing my energy to my palm, then releasing it, blasting the door out, causing the aircraft to shake, but not get out of Lucy’s control.

“Shit, what did you just do?!” Lucy shouted.

“That’ll buff out, I’m sure!” I say. “Walker, come on!”

“Copy that!” He responded.

Both Walker and I jumped out of the VTOL and landed on the train car just as Lucy had to pull up to avoid colliding with the tunnel. Once we hit the tunnel, the entire scene darkened, save for the lights on the ceiling, which illuminated the tracks in an orange light.

“God damn, Yamato…” Walker sighed. “That was a shitty idea.”

“You know me.” I shrug, pulling out my twin pistols as Walker brought out his personal assault rifle.

“Let’s get to the front car.” Walker said.

“Right.” I nod, before we both take off, running towards the front car.

We had to jump over multiple crates and other such cargo before reaching another flat car, where we noticed someone waiting for us. Only one, though… odd…

We both look at each other, before nodding and aiming our guns at him. He had his back faced towards us, so we got his attention.

“Who are you?” Walker asks.

The mystery man then turned around. I found it was someone I recognized…

“Wha… Shaw?!”

“Yamato!” My old boss spread his arms, as if to welcome me. “I knew you’d show your face sooner or later.”

“Shaw?” Walker asked. “As in, Drake Shaw? Leader of the Mercenaries Guild?”

“My old boss.” I say. “The hell is he doing here…?”

“Ah, and Chris Walker as well.” Shaw smiled. “Even better.”

“You working for these AEP bastards now?” I ask, guns still trained firmly on him, though he didn’t seem the least bit threatened by them.

“You know what the Mercenaries Guild is all about, Yamato.” Shaw shrugged, looking the other way with a smile. “The AEP offered a very lucrative deal, and I wasn’t about to pass up on an opportunity to get back at you for everything you’ve done.”

“Oh get the fuck over it already.” I say.

“Yamato, we need to stop this train.” Walker reminded me.

“Yeah, I know…” I let out a strong huff. “You go on ahead, I’ll take care of him.”

Walker nods as we both approach Shaw carefully from both sides. Walker quickly moved to his side, though Shaw is quick to draw a blade, ready to strike him down. I begin firing on him, forcing him to jump back to avoid the bullets and allowing Walker to get around him and move on towards the front car.

“No you don’t!” Shaw growls as he activates a grappling hook as Walker climbed up to the top of a container, grabbing his leg and forcing him to grab onto the edge to keep himself from falling. I react quickly by drawing Armature from by back and throwing it towards the cord, the blade spinning at high speed in the air, propelling itself and slicing the cord cleanly in two before embedding itself at the top of the container next to Walker, allowing him to grab onto it and pull himself back up. He takes my blade out of the container and tosses it back to me, nodding before continuing on his way.

Shaw looks on as Walker moved out of sight before sighing.

“You always were a pain in my ass, Yamato.” He said, pointing his own blade towards me.

“New blade, huh?” I smirk.

“I think this one suits me better.” He smiles as the blade began crackling with red electricity, sparking along the blade and causing it to hum as he slashed it through the air.

“Come, now, Shaw. You’re really gonna fight me with a blade?” I smile arrogantly as I spin my own blade through the air, catching it in a reverse grip in front of me, activating the blue plasma edge.

“I won’t be beaten by you again.” He says, murderous intent in his eyes. “I’m going to make sure your entire team suffers just like we did, but I’m going to take care of you first.”

“Then get me.”

Shaw rushes in, faster than I had ever seen him move, and launches an overhand slash that buzzes through the air. I spin and back up to both dodge and build up momentum for my own counterstrike, slashing fast and hard. Shaw brings up his blade and my sword bounces off his, leaving me open. I manage to dodge a few strikes before landing a clean kick to his gut, putting him off balance and allowing me to launch my own flurry of strikes. I utilize the built in engines in the handle of my blade to add more power to my strikes, but oddly enough, it didn’t seem to faze him. He blocked and evaded my attacks without too much trouble… what was going on? He shouldn’t be like this… he’s never been this good.

I keep on my assault, pushing myself further in order to get the upper hand. He was skilled, but I was still even better. I quickly launch a blindingly quick flurry, knocking his guard wide open and allowing me to move into his defense for a finishing blow. Before I’m able to land it, though, I notice his free hand opening up to reveal a ball of red energy. Before I’m able to react, he lets it go, and I’m sent flying backwards, hitting the ground hard and sliding back. I shake my head and rub the back of my neck, groaning a bit. I’m not left with much time to recover, as Shaw is immediately on me again. I kick myself back up onto my feet and lock blades with him.

What the hell was that he just did…?

“Surprised, Yamato?” Shaw smirked. “You aren’t the only special one anymore!”

He grinned wickedly as he raised his hand, more red energy forming in his palm. I could sense it… it was pure Demonic energy. But that was impossible… he was Human… only a Demon Hybrid or pureblood Demon could produce that kind of energy. I’m forced to bring up a shield of my own energy to block his attack, which rebounds off my guard, but still pushes me back a bit. He slashes at me, and I hook my blade underneath his, spinning around and redirecting his blade to my side, leaving his side open for a quick kick, followed up by a powerful slash quick he barely manages to evade. Now at a distance from each other, we both had some breathing room.

“That’s Demonic Anima you’re using.” I say. “How are you able to use it? You’re Human.”

“Not anymore, Yamato.” He smiles. “I’ve become more than Human. I’ve become something created with the sole purpose of destroying you.”

“Yeah, I really don’t care.” I sigh, readying my blade again. “Whatever the fuck they did to you doesn’t matter. You’re in my way now, and I’m not going to be so easy on you like last time.”

“Come on, then!” Shaw points his HF blade towards me. “Time for you to learn your place!”

“Bring it.”

Shaw extended his arms, and focused his energy to the train car beneath us. The entire thing began to shake, before suddenly, with a massive jolt, it derailed, and at the speed we were going, it didn’t take long for the entire thing to careen to the side, both ends grinding against the either side of the tunnel. Metal scraping and electric zapping filled the air as I’m sent to the ground. I look behind me and see the rest of the train getting similarly wrecked. I look to Shaw, and notice he had jumped safely to the next car. I watch as he grabbed an entire container telekinetically, and lifted it up as he smiled maliciously.

“Oh, fuck…” I mutter as I struggle to get onto my feet before the ground beneath me exploded. He sends the entire canister my way, and I’m forced to push against it with Soul Force, crumpling the front end and stopping it, but also dropping it onto the tracks, causing the car I was on to collide with it. The sudden decrease in velocity sends me flying forward, off the car and over the canister. In the air, I let out a powerful burst of energy which accelerates me extremely quickly towards the train, causing me to fly over the forward car and onto the next one down. I roll along the ground, coming to a hard stop on the railing at the end of the car.

“Agh…” I rub my head. “Jesus Christ…”

Subsequently, I heard a loud boom from down the tunnel as the derailed cars finally broke completely free of the magrail and were destroyed.

I stagger back onto my feet, looking up to Shaw, who was still standing above me on the canisters on the car behind me. He looked down on me, arms crossed.

“Crazy motherfucker!” I shout, readying my blade again as he jumps off, drawing his and coming down on me hard. I block his powerful blow and lock blades with him again push against him. He was strong, no doubt, but it didn’t matter how strong he was. I was still a Nephilim… and whatever he was now didn’t compare to that. I manage to push him back and break open his guard, opening him up for two quick slashes that nail him in the chest and stomach, before I kick him back and jump upwards, coming down on him fast and hard, forcing him to bring up his guard in defense and lock blades with me. He charges up energy in his palm once again and pushes it towards me, but this time I grab it in his hand, pushing back against him. I push his arm aside, causing him to stagger forward and allowing me to spin around and drive my blade through his back. I push the blade further in before withdrawing it, swiping it through the air once.

I thought it was over then… so I was taken by surprise when he turns and delivers a horizontal slash that very nearly decapitates me. I jump back and take a defensive stance.

“What are you?” I ask.

“Something you’ll never be!” He rushes me again, lashing out at me multiple times. I’m on the defensive, blocking and evading his strikes, occasionally performing quick counters or pushing him back with a solid kick here and there. I jump over him, slashing at him when he was below me, landing just behind him and slashing backwards before he’s able to turn around to face me, the swipe glancing off his blade and pushing him off balance, allowing me to go on the offensive. I assault him from every angle quickly and strongly, not giving him any opportunities to retaliate. He may be tough, but he wasn’t counting on my near infinite stamina. I could tell he was starting to get tired. It wouldn’t be long before he slipped up. I force him back towards the front end of the car, giving him all I had. I was superior to him by quite a wide margin when it came to blade combat, I knew that going in. But even so, he was putting up one hell of a fight… but now I was on the offensive, and he wasn’t going to last long against me. I slash left, right, up, down, pushing him further towards the front of the car before his back hits the railing. Once that happens, I raise my blade high, ready to strike him hard. I didn’t notice him charging energy in his hand again, and before I’m able to react, he unleashes it on me, sending me flying backwards. I slide along the ground before I’m flung off the train car, but I barely manage to grab onto the railing with my free hand before I fall off the train completely.

“Dammit!” I curse, looking behind me, watching as the walls of the tunnel sped by at almost mach speed. I try to bring myself back up onto the train, but when I look up I see Shaw there, smiling down at me.

“It’s over.” He growls, raising his blade, ready to strike me.

Suddenly, the entire train shook as it quickly decelerated, causing Shaw to fly back and me to slam my entire body onto the car as my body caught up to the change in velocity. I recover and jump back onto the car as Shaw attempted to regain his balance. I move in faster, slashing at his blade, knocking it aside and opening up his guard. Shaw attempts to bring his sword down on me from there, but I twist myself around and let the blade pass me harmlessly, grabbing his arm and slamming the butt of my blade on his forehead, knocking him back and causing him to loosen his grip on his weapon, letting me wrench the blade from his hand. I quickly spin around and slice into him multiple times with both blades in two swift motions, cutting deep into his chest and stomach, but making sure the wounds weren’t fatal. Shaw groans before his legs fail him and he collapses onto the ground. I lower both HF blades and take a deep breath, letting it out in a long-winded sigh, just as the tunnel ended and the bright sun damn near blinds me. I hold my arm over my eyes until they adjust, just as the train comes to a complete stop.

I look over Shaw’s blade, before looking down to its owner, unconscious on the ground.

“I’m keeping this.” I say plainly.

I deactivate both my blades and sheath Armature back onto my back, jumping off the train car and back onto solid ground. I bend down, placing my hands on my knees as I let out a groan, stretching myself out and checking myself for any major injuries, of which I was relieved to find I didn’t have any. I begin my walk towards the front of the train. It took a while, but I finally got to the front car. I climb up onto the train and look inside to find Walker.

“Hey.” I say as I walk up next to him. “Have any trouble?”

He looks back to me, and I notice he was holding an ISD.

“A bit.” He said. “Nothing I couldn’t handle. Got the intel… I take it you took care of Drake Shaw, then?”

“Sorta.” I say. “I let him live.”

“You sure that was a good idea?” Walker asks. “It might come back to bit you.”

“I don’t want any blood on my hands, Walker. If I can avoid killing, I will.”

“A time may come when you can’t avoid it…”

“I’ll deal with that when I get to it.” I sigh “But it was strange… Shaw had Demonic powers… he’s Human, I know that for sure… I don’t know how that’s possible.”

“He took up practicing Dark soulcraft?” Walker suggested.

“No, this was pure Demonic power.” I specify. “It’s not just regular Dark energy like people can use. It… I don’t know… he became something else.”

“Well we could always just ask him.” Walker points out. “We should probably take him into custody.”

“Better than just leaving him.” I say. “Yeah, he could probably tell us a few things about what we’re dealing with.”

Walker heads out of the lead car, jumping off the train while I followed.

“Let’s call Lucy and get the hell out of here.” He says.

“Yeah.” I nod.

---

Once we had safely secured and transported Shaw back to HQ and had him locked up in one of the holding cells we had in the basement, we got to work looking at the ISD we recovered. The entire team was gathered together as Walker opened the ISD and submitted a special code that only we had access to in order to unlock it. Once he started sifting through the info, his eyes widened.

“What the hell…?” He muttered.

“What is it?” Blenheim asked. “What’s it say?”

“They’re… they’re trying to ‘manufacture’ Nephilim…”

“Manufacture Nephilim?” I sit up in my seat. “The hell does that mean?”

“I have… no idea…” Walker sighs. “Yamato, you have Rena’s number, right?”

“Hahah, hell yeah…” I smile jokingly.

“Call her over here.” He says. “She’s been digging into this as well, she might want to see this… and she might have some more info we could use.”

“Yeah, sure…”

After calling up Naoto and telling her the situation, she wasted no time in getting here, more than eager to hear what we had found.

“Hey.” She said as she walked through the front entrance and approached us all on the couch. “What did you find out?”

“Take a look.” Walker spun the ISD around and Naoto walked up to get a look at its contents.

“Creating Nephilim…?” She says. “That’s… that’s what they want to do?”

“You know anything about this?” Walker asked her.

“Somewhat.” She nods. “I’ve found out that they’ve been able to successfully give subjects abilities belonging to other races. They’re essentially able to create Hybrids, though not perfect by any stretch. They still exhibit abilities of Hybrids, even so. I didn’t think they were trying to go as far as creating Nephilim to that end… I was planning on telling you about it once I had some conclusive info but… this…”

“They can manufacture Hybrids?” I ask. “So that’s what Shaw…”

“Shaw?” Naoto turns to me. “What about him?”

“We have the guy locked up in the holding cells.” Walker explained. “Apparently Yamato fought him.”

“He displayed Demonic abilities beyond normal Human capabilities.” I said. “He must’ve been engineered to be like a Hybrid…”

“Hm…” Naoto rubbed her chin. “Can I see him?”

“Sure, help yourself.” Walker said. “Yamato, you can take her down?”

“Yeah, sure.” I say, standing up. “C’mon, let’s go.”

I lead Naoto downstairs and into the holding cells. There were eight, but I couldn’t imagine we’d need any more than at most two. I walk over to the cell we kept Shaw in and deactivated the electromagnetic barrier, stepping inside with Naoto and reactivating it once inside. Despite that, we had him tied down to an upright table with steel braces over his chest, abdomen, and ankles, just to make sure he really couldn’t get out. Couldn’t be too careful until we knew exactly what we were up against.

“Oh, look who it is.” Shaw sneered. “You brought your bitch along too, Yamato?”

“Something like that.” I shrug, receiving a punch to the shoulder from Naoto.

“So, about the contents of that ISD.” Naoto said. “Mind explaining exactly what the AEP is planning to do with genetically engineered Nephilim?”

“Heh…” Shaw chuckled. “You really think I’d tell you if I knew?”

“I have ways of getting what I want.” Naoto brought out an HF knife and activated it, the blade buzzing in the air as she spun it into a reverse grip.

“Ooh, scary.” Shaw taunted.

“You’re a genetically engineered Demon Hybrid, am I correct?” Naoto said. “Powerful in your own right, but far from the real thing… I’m guessing they haven’t yet perfected the process.”

“They probably have by now.” He responded. “I was engineered to be a Hybrid just as they were finalizing the process…”

“It showed…” I comment. “Callahan would probably stand up better than you did against me.”

Shaw glared at me, but didn’t say anything. He wasn’t in much of a position to backtalk anyone anyway.

“What are they planning?” Naoto asks again, brandishing her knife to make sure he knew she meant business.

“I’d start talking if I were you…” I suggest. “She’s scary when she’s mad.”

“Like I’m going to tell you.” Shaw said. “I already said I don’t know anything anyway.”

To that, Naoto went down to his right hand, grabbing it and extending his index finger, placing her blade up to it.

“Sure about that?” She asks darkly.

“Woah.” I look away, not wanting to watch.

“Gah!” Shaw struggled to get his hand back from Naoto, but in his bindings he couldn’t get a lot of strength to do so. “Fine, fine! I’ll tell you!”

Naoto let go of his hand and walked back to me, ready to hear what he had to say.

“I don’t know what they’re planning to do with any Nephilim they may create.” Shaw said. “They started out making Hybrids, and they said after they perfected that they’d move onto Nephilim. They use test subjects in order to conduct Soul transference experiments… most of them end up with the subject being killed.”

“How close are they to actually creating a Nephilim?” Naoto questioned.

“I don’t know.” Shaw responded. “Considering they just recently perfected Hybrids I don’t think it’ll be for a while… but I wouldn’t rest easy. They’re resourceful.”

“They’re trying to create Nephilim…” I rub my chin. “Why? What would they do with a Nephilim…?”

“Or multiple Nephilim.” Naoto interjected. “Maybe they want an army.”

“I doubt that.” Shaw said. “From what I heard they only needed one.”

“Only one…” I mutter. “But then there’s the question of why they’d want me. If they just wanted to get their hands on me then why would they need to create a Nephilim of their own?”

“Look, I’ve already told you all I know.” Shaw said. “Not even the people in the AEP know much about it except the higher ups of the higher ups.”

I turn to Naoto.

“This doesn’t make sense.” I tell her. “What was the point of activating my powers if they were just going to make a Nephilim anyway?”

“I really have no idea…” Naoto shrugged. “Just one more mystery to solve, I guess…”

“I think we got all we can get out of him.” I say, deactivating the cell and stepping out with Naoto, reactivating it once we were out.

“Hey, when are you going to let me go?” Shaw asked.

“I dunno.” I shrug. “Sometime?”

With that, I follow Naoto as she heads back upstairs.

Once we got back into the main meeting room, Walker welcomed us back.

“Hey, just in time.” He says. “We got a call.”

“We did?” I ask. “From who?”

“The President.” He responded plainly.

“Wait, what? Like, the President of the country?”

“That’s the one.” He pointed at me.

“Why the hell would we be called by the President of Renskr?”

“He’s requested Maverick meet him personally at the main HQ of the military.” Walker said. “He especially requested you and Rena be present.”

“Me?” Naoto asks. “Why me?”

“You’ve also been looking into the AEP.” Walker explained. “I don’t know what he wants with us, but he’s requested we all be there to meet him.”

“Well, I guess we shouldn’t keep him waiting, then…” I sigh.

“Oh boy!” Jager said. “I knew I’d be recognized by the President for my amazing drinking skills! Think I’ll get a medal?”

“The only medal you’ll get is when your face hits the ground when you pass out.” Abigail says.

“Hah! Good one!”

“Let’s get this over with.” Blenheim says. “I never really liked political types.”

“Who does?” Lucy added.

---

We reached the capital city of Adell in short order by air. We landed at a nearby airport before traveling downtown and towards the building where we were to meet the President; a huge skyscraper that was probably over 100 floors. We all went inside and checked in with a clerk at the front desk, who instructed us to go to the top floor of the building, because people of major political power were always at the top floor. It was a rule.

We all stepped into a clear glass elevator which took us up the 100+ floors in about 15 seconds because elevators these days might as well be rockets, before reaching the top floor and stepping out. We walked down a small hallway leading to a set of double doors. Once there, Walker led us as he opened up the doors and stepped inside. We entered a large mostly vacant room, surrounded completely by windows save for the wall that had the door we entered from, at the end of which was a single desk and a single chair, upon which sat the President of Renskr himself.

“Ah.” He said when he saw us walk in. “Glad you all could make it.”

We all walked forward and stopped when we were in front of him. Too bad there weren’t any chairs around for us to sit on…

“I apologize for the short notice.” The President said. “When I got word of what happened on the train and how you recovered the ISD, I needed to speak to you all personally. I trust you brought the ISD with you?”

Walker nodded and put the ISD on the President’s desk.

“I think you’ll find its contents interesting to say the least.” Walker said as the President opened it up and looked inside.

“Oh…” The President said. “This is… this changes things…”

“The man we captured from the train was a genetically engineered Hybrid.” I tell him. “He says that they’ve perfected the creation of Hybrids, but he has no idea what they want to create Nephilim for.”

“On top of that, he claims that they only want to create one.” Naoto added.

“Only one?” The President asked. “They want to create their own, yet they spend so much time an effort trying to capture one…”

“That’s what we can’t figure out…” Naoto says.

“Hm…” The President thinks things over. “I’ll send this information over to the military at once… but now, onto the reason why I called you all here.”

The President takes off his glasses and cleans them off with a cloth before putting them back on.

“Maverick has been working in tandem with the Gale Rangers for quite some time now.” The President said. “I have a proposition for you.”

“What kind of proposition?” Walker asks.

“I would like Maverick to join the Renskr Military as a subsidiary of the Gale Rangers.” The President explained. “You’ll be free to operate as you have been, but you’ll have the added benefit of being funded by the government, as well as having access to the latest technology and equipment the military has to offer. On top of that, you’ll be working directly with the Gale Rangers from now on.”

“Hm…” Walker smiled. “Interesting…”

“You want Maverick to join the military?” Jager asked.

“It is my understanding that you were once a part of the military, Dimitri Jager.” The President said. “You once operated under November Company, if I recall.”

“Once…” Jager muttered. “I don’t need to go back there.”

“You’ll still be with your current team, I assure you.” The President said.

“Wait…” Vixen interjected. “We’ll have access to all the latest tech? From the military?!”

“That’s correct.”

“Chris, we need to do this.” Vixen was practically bouncing on her feet.

“Your current mission will remain unchanged.” The President said. “In fact, with all you’ve accomplished, I’d like you to lead the investigation into the AEP.”

“We’ll be able to use the Renskr Intelligence Agency to their fullest!” Lucy said.

“What about me?” Naoto asked. “Why’d you call me here?”

“I’d like you to join Maverick.” The President said. “If it’s alright with you, Mr. Walker.”

“She has been a pretty big help lately…” Walker said.

“I don’t want to.” Naoto said suddenly, causing us all to look at her. “Sorry, but I work better alone… I wouldn’t want to get in your way… I’ll still be helping you guys out, but on my own terms… thanks for the offer, though.”

“Hm… well it’s your choice.” The President said. “So, what do you say?”

“I say…” Walker paused, thinking on it. “I say we’re in.”

“Excellent.” The President smiled. “From now on, Maverick will join the military as a subsidiary of the Gale Rangers. You’ll continue to operate how you see fit, and you’ll be leading the fight against the AEP.”

“Alright!” Vixen jumped up into the air in excitement as everyone else got to talking amongst themselves about the change. Most of the comments seemed positive… it really didn’t matter much to me. I’d keep doing what I’m doing. Didn’t matter to me how I did it.

“As for the Nephilim among you.” The President said, grabbing my attention. “Yamato Haseo, was it?”

“That’s right.” I step forward.

“I don’t want to put any more pressure on you… but all of these happening have been revolving around you. I’ve heard of this… prophecy, that you are to bring about the end of the world… personally, I don’t see you doing such a thing. You are a Nephilim, and therefore are an invaluable asset to our mission. I trust that you’ll see things through to the end, no matter how dangerous it may get.”

I nod.

“You can count on me.”

“Good.” The President smiled.

We’re all cut short when suddenly a bright flash of light appeared outside the building, followed by a thunderous boom of lightning. I turn my back to the bright light and shield my eyes. The next few seconds were filled with the lights and sounds before everything subsided, just as quickly as it began. When I open my eyes and turn to look out the window, my breathing stops…

Two giant glowing blue eyes started at me from outside the building… it had no pupils, as its eyes were a simple flat blue, but I could somehow tell it was staring right at me… the entire room was silent for what seemed like ages… I finally return to my senses and I manage to let out a yelp just as the creature roared and swiped at our floor with its giant hand. I try to run, but I get tripped up when the entire building shakes. Dust and debris fly everywhere as I find myself being grabbed and raised up towards the creature’s face. I struggle against its grip as it stares at me… then, as if it was confirming that I was indeed the one it was after, it began tightening its grip on me. I scream in pain as it began slowly crushing me. I push back with everything I had, but Nephilim or no, this thing was way stronger than I was… I begin to cough up blood, just as I can feel my ribs start to crack under the pressure… my vision fades in and out… my thoughts briefly turn to the status of my friends before another jolt of pain brings me back to myself.

Then, without warning, black energy explodes from my core, piercing the thing’s hand effortlessly with multiple tendrils of darkness, before pulsing outward, wrenching its grip loose enough for me to breath. The darkness began traveling up the creature’s arm, seeping into it and infecting its body as it traveled up towards its head. The beast was in obvious pain… if it could feel pain… and in that moment it raised its arm and threw me away. I passed out mid-flight… I didn’t feel when I hit the ground.

Chapter 22

Nowhere

My eyes shoot open and I gasp suddenly. I was sweating slightly. I was on my back on a cold, hard ground… I couldn’t see anything, and I briefly worried that I was blind… but when I notice white ghost-like streaks across the pitch black backdrop, those thoughts were put to rest. I knew where I was, though I wasn’t sure how I got here.

I slowly get back up to my feet. The ground was as black as everything else… however, I could still see it clearly by the fact that it shone, almost like obsidian. I seemed to radiate a small light as I looked around myself… a circle of pale white light emanated in a small circle around me, only allowing me sight for a few feet, not nearly enough to actually see… if there was anything to see in the first place.

I was definitely in Void… but the odd thing was, it didn’t feel like a dream… it made me wonder if Void could somehow permeate my dreams… I didn’t completely understand how Void worked yet, so anything could be possible… it certainly didn’t seem to follow normal logic.

I take a few tentative steps forward, figuring that simply standing around wouldn’t get me anywhere, and decide to head out into the Nothing. Being in Void always felt so surreal… it felt like… I don’t know, I couldn’t really explain the feeling. It was nothing… but at the same time I could feel it… I could feel Nothing… as if it was an actual thing in and of itself. In this world, nothing was not the absence of something… it was an entirely different concept of its own… it wasn’t anything that anyone could truly understand, even if they experienced it, since it clearly didn’t follow the rules that I’m used to.

My head suddenly throbs and I flinch, putting a hand up to my head as I close one eye and grunt in slight pain. I begin to hear voices that I didn’t recognize… there seemed to be many of them… or maybe just a few that overlapped to the point of meaninglessness. I couldn’t understand it at all. I couldn’t focus on any single voice for any length of time before it was drowned out by another. The voices began getting louder and louder as I walk, but before the sounds get too unbearable, I close my eyes tight and shake my head, banishing the voices and allowing me once again to think clearly. However, the silence did not remain for long, as another, much more powerful voice spoke. It was one voice this time, and it was perfectly clear… it addressed me.

“Void Avatar…” It said in a dark tone, seeming to come from everywhere all at once. “Long have I awaited you.”

I realized quickly that I had heard this voice before… yes… back when I had fought Samael in hell… when I took us both into Void. It was this voice…

“Who are you?” I ask.

“I no longer have a name of my own.” The voice said. “As two, was I once known. Cyratel, the first. Erebus, the second.”

“Erebus…” I mutter. “That name… I’ve heard it before…”

“You’re the one who caused the First Insurrection…” I suddenly remember. “You’re a Persona.”

“As once I was, I am no longer.” Erebus explained. “I have gained a sentience of my own… independent of he, to whom I was once bound.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I ask.

“You, who are borne of Void.” The voice continued, disregarding my question. “To be Void is to be Nothing… to be Void is to be all. Void is nothing and everything, across time itself. I see the ends of all days that are, was, and will be… however…”

Erebus paused, as if in thought.

“Your destiny… I cannot see…”

“My destiny…?”

“You, who would shatter the shackles of Fate. What do you see within the Void?”

“What do I see…?”

“To gaze into Void is to see Nothing and all… the beginning and end of all things… you alone have been granted the ability to challenge Fate itself. You are unbound by the chains that trap all others. What shall you do with this freedom?”

“What are you talking about…?”

Before me, a path opened up… a path that was clear to me, and though nobody else was around, I felt that it could only be seen by me alone.

“Come forth.” Erebus said.

I do so, hesitantly at first, but I make my way down the path and come to an empty space… emptier than before… I look down and notice that I was no longer standing on solid ground… I felt as if I was floating in complete blackness… the white spirals around me were gone, and I was alone… then… I don’t know what happened… I don’t remember any of it… so many images raced by me… so many sounds and thoughts and feelings… too many to comprehend. It was there for only a flash, and it left as quickly as it had appeared… and before I knew it, I was back to where I was before.

“What… what was that…?” I ask aloud.

“Indeed, your Fate is unknown even to yourself…” Erebus pondered. “But this may change. How you hold on, without falter, to the falsehoods of life. To gaze into Void is to see Nothing and all… Young Voidborne. Knowing this, do you still wish to sever that which gives you meaning? To shatter the boundaries that hold you to this world, and to become something more?”

I think on his words… I understand none of what he says… but his words still stuck with me somehow… as if it was speaking in some other language, but I still could understand the imperativeness of its speech.

“I…” I hesitate. “I don’t know…”

“Indeed, you are still young.” Erebus said. “Your journey has but begun… as you travel the road of Fate, you will understand more and more… and in time, you may achieve that which all others strive for… young Voidborne, we shall meet again, very soon.”

And then the presence disappeared…

---

My eyes open instantly, but not frantically. I awaken as if I had just been napping, releasing a light sigh as I can once again feel myself breathe… I look up to the white fluorescent lights above me.

“He’s awake!” I hear a voice say.

I look over and see Abigail to my side, and I look back to see Vixen and Jager run up to my side. I notice I was in a hospital bed… but it didn’t look like any place I recognized… I sit up in the bed and look around. I notice people running around, shouting at each other. I notice military types rushing to and fro… the whole place seemed to be in a panic. I could hear the sounds of battle off in the far distance.

“What happened…?” I say. “What’s going on, where is everyone?”

“They’re fine.” Abigail assured me. “They’re busy, though… a lot’s been going on…”

“What about… what about that thing that attacked us?” I ask.

“The military is currently engaged with the Colossus.” Vixen explained. “They’re doing the best to contain the situation, but… it’s a Colossus, so things aren’t going well.”

“The others are helping as much as they can.” Jager added. “That thing is tearing us up out there…”

“Where’s Naoto?” I ask.

“Who?” Abigail said.

“Uh- Rena, I mean.”

“I’m here!” I hear Naoto say as she rushed into the room to my side.

“Oh, hey…” I say.

“Are you okay?” She asked, genuine concern in her voice. “You aren’t hurt, are you?”

“I’m alright, don’t worry about me.” I say, sighing. “Besides, that’s not important. We need to deal with the Colossus, first and foremost.

“And quickly too.” Abigail said. “With the way things are going the whole city could be in ruins in just a few hours…”

“But that begs the question of why a Colossus would make an appearance in the first place…” Jager scratched his chin. “Who sent it down?”

“Whoever did, I think they want to wage war.” Vixen said.

“Then why only send one?” Jager countered. “They’d send more than just a single Colossus if they really wanted to wipe us out…”

“It’s after me.” I say, grabbing everyone’s attention. “It chose to target me specifically when it first appeared…”

“Why would it be after just you?” Abigail asked.

“I don’t know, but we don’t have time to worry about that.” I jump out of the bed, testing out my limbs. “What can we do?”

“We’re doing everything we can do at the moment.” Vixen says.

“Okay, well what can I do?” I specify.

“If the Colossus is after you, I don’t think it’s a good idea to go out to engage it…” She told me. “You may be Nephilim, but… you’re in an infirmary.”

“I can’t just sit around and do nothing.” I say. “That thing is after me, I’ll give it what it wants.”

“Yamato, don’t be stupid.” Vixen said more sternly. “You’re strong, but not strong enough to take on a Colossus singlehandedly. We need a plan here.”

“We don’t have time for a plan!” I say. “This thing is tearing the city apart! I can hear it from here!”

“Yamato, this is an order!” Vixen raised her voice. “You are to stay put until we come up with a proper plan of engagement. Do I make myself clear?”

I stop there. I wasn’t used to taking orders from Vixen, but she was still second in command of Maverick. I didn’t like it… but I chose to comply, though begrudgingly so.

“Fine…” I mutter.

“I know you’re anxious right now, Yamato.” She said. “But charging headfirst into a fight isn’t always the best strategy.”

“Always worked for me.” I shrug.

“You’re lucky is why.” She said. “Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance at it… no doubt we’re going to need you to take this thing out.”

“You think Christen or Amanda can help?” I ask.

“We can’t get into contact with either…” She crossed her arms. “We could use their help for sure… but you’re the only Nephilim we got.”

I huff and sit back down on the bed, crossing my arms.

“People are dying out there…” I say.

“I know, Yamato.” Abigail interjected. “Which is why we’ll need your help to save as many people as we can.”

“Walker is with some military higher ups working on a plan to combat the Colossus.” Vixen told me. “In the meantime, we’ll need you on standby. Be ready for anything immediately when called.”

“Well what the hell am I supposed to do in the meantime?” I ask.

“Nothing.” Vixen said. “Just be on standby for when we need you, okay?”

I sigh and catch my jacket from a nearby chair, putting it on and leaving the building without a word. Once outside, I notice it was night time. There were hundreds of military tents scattered across the place, with soldiers and medics and everything in between hustling and bustling as the Colossus ravaged the city in the distance. I look towards it as lights of explosions and gunfire flashed around it… nothing seemed to do much to it…

“Yamato.” I hear Naoto say from behind me. I look to her as she comes up beside me. She looks towards the city and to the battle raging there. “That thing’s really tearing us apart…”

“Yeah…” I say, lost in thought… thinking on what Erebus had said in that dream…

“Yamato, are you really alright?” Naoto asked, breaking my train of thought. “You seem a little shaken up…”

“I…” I pause briefly, sighing heavily. “I don’t really know…”

“What happened?”

“I don’t know…” I tell her, partly because she wouldn’t understand and partly because I myself didn’t understand either. “But… I get the feeling something about me is going to change…”

“I’m sure it’ll be okay.” Naoto tries to assure me.

“Look at what we’re looking at.” I tell her, holding out an arm towards the city. “It’s only going to get worse from here.”

Naoto stays quiet as I hold out my hand. A flicker of Void appeared in my palm, looking almost like black fire. I stare at it, thinking hard on what Erebus had said. I didn’t think I was really going to understand the meaning behind its words at the moment, no matter how hard I thought on it. I clench my fist on the flame, causing it to dissipate between my fingers.

“Why me?” I think aloud. “Why did it have to be me of all people…?”

“What’s wrong?” Naoto asks. “You don’t like being this way?”

“The fuck kind of question is that, Naoto?” I turn back to her, annoyed. “Look at this. Look at how many people have died, how many people are STILL dying, because of me. Why the fuck do you think I’d like any of this?!”

“I… I’m sorry.” She raised her hands. “I… that didn’t come out right.”

“Besides…” I say, calming myself down. “I don’t think I really trust myself with this.”

“What do you mean?”

“I just think that… when the time comes… I won’t know what to do.” I say. “That, or I just won’t be able to do it.”

“Why doubting yourself all of a sudden? This isn’t like you.”

“I don’t fucking know…” I say. “I just… I’m just a bit turned around right now, is all… I’ll get over it.”

“Yamato!” I hear a voice say.

I turn to see Walker jogging towards me.

“Good, you’re awake.” He said. “We need you.”

“What’s up?” I ask.

“We got a plan to deal with the Colossus.” He explained. “You’re going to be integral to its success.”

“Um… I don’t really…” I say. I wasn’t sure if I was really up for action right after what I had seen… especially since I was still a bit disoriented.

“Yamato, we can’t take no for an answer.” Walker said. “This won’t work without you.”

I look back over to the city, at the Colossus raging against the military. They definitely weren’t doing much to it… if Walker had a plan and they needed me for it, I couldn’t really say no.

“Alright.” I say. “Let’s go.”

Walker nods, and walks away as I follow.

“Yamato?” Naoto says, making me look back to her. “Are you sure?”

“I’ll be fine.” I say. “Don’t wait up for me.”

With that, I leave her as I follow Walker through the camp.

---

I made my way with Walker through the camp to another main building. I step inside following Walker and head down a few halls before entering a large circular room, where multiple military higher ups were gathered around a large circular table, along with the leader of the Gale Rangers, Sarah Graham herself.

“Yamato.” Sarah said as I walked in. “Long time no see.”

“Yeah.” I say.

“Yamato Haseo.” A commander type addressed me. “Good to see you’re alive and well.”

“Alive and well enough at least.” I say. “We got a plan?”

“That we do.” She said. “Let’s get right down to it. Have a seat.”

I do so, sitting next to Walker as the commander went over some sheets and plans on the table.

“Alright, let me update everyone on the situation.” The commander said. “The Colossus appeared in the city at approximately 1630 hours at King’s Complex. It took out the top floor of the military HQ first and foremost. It is our understanding that Maverick, Rena Asagami, and the President of Renskr were present on that floor. Unfortunately, the President was killed in the attack, though everyone else was able to escape. Judging by the fact that it only went for the top floor, we believe that it was specifically targeting someone. Yamato Haseo.”

The entire table turns to look at me, making me feel a little anxious.

“You were the one it was targeting. Would you say this is true?”

“Y-yes.” I say. “I think it was sent to take me out… it went specifically for me, it didn’t seem to care about anyone else.”

“I see.” The commander nodded. “We have confirmed that the Colossus is an Angel type.”

“Angel?” I ask.

“Yes.” The commander said. “Do you know anything about it?”

“I don’t… I don’t know.” I say.

“It’s our understanding that you’ve been in contact with Michael Christen, am I correct?” She asks.

“Yes, but there’s no way he’d approve sending a Colossus down… especially to get me…”

“You’ve been to Heaven before. Is there any reason why anyone there would want you dead?”

I think about it. I recall the first time I had gone to Heaven… I remembered.

“The Archon.” I say. “The leader of Heaven. He wanted me executed, but Christen went against him… he eventually got the Divine Council on my side as well…”

“So you believe that the Archon is the one who sent it?” The commander questioned.

“That’s the only person I can think of who wants me dead in Heaven.” I nod. “And he’s the leader of Heaven, he probably could do something like this. It had to have been him.”

“So then he sent it without permission? Is that it?”

“There’s no way Christen would have approved of it.” I say. “I’m not exactly sure what’s going on over there…”

“We can worry about that later.” The commander said. “For the past five and a half hours now the Colossus has been continuously assaulted by the military. We’ve been able to suppress it for now, but we aren’t doing much damage, and on top of that it’s tearing the city apart. Now if the Colossus was not in such an urban area we’d be done with this by now, we would’ve just used one of our superweapons to wipe it out… however as it is right now we are unable to use any of them except for one. Athenor.”

“The railgun?” I ask.

“That’s correct.” The commander said. “Athenor has the power and precision to engage the Colossus with minimal collateral damage. That is why we’ll be using it during this operation.”

“Okay, so why am I here?” I ask.

“You will be the one firing it.” She said plainly.

“Huh?”

“We’ll need you to take out the Colossus.” She told me.

“Woah, woah, hold on a second.” I stand up. “You can’t honestly expect-”

“I do.” She gave me a dismissive stare.

“Isn’t there someone else more qualified to shoot that thing?” I ask. “You gotta have some guys there that can do it.”

“As it so happens, we don’t.” She closed her eyes and crossed her arms. “We had three people qualified to fire the gun and all three are dead.”

“Shit… then why me?”

“As a Nephilim you possess heightened senses beyond what we have.” The commander explained to me. “This makes you our best shot in taking it out. Even without proper training your natural talents should be able to compensate.”

“You gotta be fucking kidding…”

“Yamato, we need you for this.” Walker said. “We have no other options here.”

“You want me to fire a superweapon at that thing without any training at all?” I say. “You gotta be out of your god damn minds!”

“Desperate times call for desperate measures, Haseo.” The commander said. “Like it or not, you’re the best we have. Will you help us?”

“I don’t have a fucking choice so why are you even asking?” I hold my hands out before letting them drop to my sides.

“Very well, then.” The commander stood up from her chair. “We’ll be launching the operation at 2300 hours. Get ready.”

With that, we were all dismissed. All the other military types stood up in unison and started leaving the room. I stay seated for a bit, but eventually stand up slowly, sighing deeply. I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see Walker looking at me with a determined expression.

“We can do this.” He said. “I have faith in you.”

“Yeah…” I say under my breath.

Walker heads out and I follow closely behind. We were headed to Avalon-3.

---

We arrived at Avalon-3 in around 45 minutes, which gave us a good 15 to prepare for engagement. We were a lot further away from the Colossus now, but the city could still be seen on the horizon, as well as the lights from the battle. If you listened closely you could hear sounds as well.

Walker and I were lead through the complex and out to the superweapon I’d be firing. Up close it was even bigger than I had thought… the thing had to be as tall as a skyscraper and at least a half mile long. And I was going to shoot it… fucking yay.

“Alright.” The commander of the station said. “We got a few minutes before the operation begins. Let’s get you in and acquainted with the weapon systems.”

“Yeah… sure.” I say, shrugging.

“Head for the elevator, it’ll take you up to the control box.” The guy said. “There should be a comms headset in there. Put it on once you get there.”

“Yeah, okay.” I walk over to the elevator and hit the button to go up. The thing took me all the way up to the control box, which felt like it was a mile off the ground. Once inside, I located the headset and put it on.

“Hello?” I hear a voice in the headset say. “Can you hear me?”

“Yeah.” I respond.

“Alright, I’ll be walking you through the weapon’s operations so you can have a feel for how it works. It’s not going to be a very comprehensive course since we don’t have a lot of time, but I’m sure you can handle it.”

“Sure…”

“Alright, to your left you should see a switch and a button. You see it?”

I look over and see a small lever switch and a button underneath it.

“Yeah.”

“Alright, flip the switch, then hit the button.”

I do so, flipping the switch first. I feel a small rumble as the lights inside the box flipped on, and once I pressed the button, multiple holographic consoles appeared in front of and around me, displaying information that I didn’t know what to make of. I guess I turned the thing on.

“Alright, there should be another pull lever to your bottom right. Pull that.”

I do, locating and pulling the lever, and I’m greeted with a prompt on one of the screens that said CHARGING, as well as multiple white bars slowly filling up.

“The weapon is charging up now.” The operator said. “It should take ten minutes to fully charge the gun. This should allow us just enough time to get the thing fully ready before the operation.”

“Okay.”

“Now, there are a bunch of consoles that don’t really matter to you.” He said. “But the centermost console is the one you want. That’s the targeting screen. Hit that to expand it.”

I touch the holographic display at the center and the box widens into what looked like a super high tech targeting scope.

“Fancy.” I comment.

“That’s your targeting scope.” He says. “You’ll see things like distance, zoom multiplier, all that stuff, and you should also see a charging bar to the left of the screen.”

I had noticed the slowly rising bar before he had even mentioned it.

“Right.” I say.

“Now, in front of you are two control sticks. You have complete control of the gun with those. Now, you won’t have to make a lot of movements since the gun is so big and we’re pretty far away from the target, so the gun sensitivity should be very low to allow for fine aiming. There should be an indicator of that on the target screen. Look for it.”

I look to the top right of the target screen and see an indicator that said Sens. LOW. I guess that was that, then.

“Yeah, it’s on low.” I say.

“Okay, good.” He replied. “Now, to fire the gun, you’re going to want to lock on first. Do to that you press in the two buttons while keeping your sights on the target. It should take only a few seconds for the gun to lock on. You can zoom in by holding the lockon and pushing the sticks in and out. Once that’s done, pull the two triggers to fire. Easy peasy.”

“Doesn’t really look too simple from where I’m sitting.” I remark.

“Right…” The guy chuckled lightly. “But you’ve fired guns before. It’s really as easy as that. Just center in on the target, and then pull the trigger.”

“Center in on the target, and then pull the trigger…” I repeat. “Right…”

“Okay, we’re about ready now.” The operator says. “The gun should be just about full now.”

I look to the rising bar to my left and see it was just about done. Once it hit 100% the bar began flashing, and inside the bar, the words READY TO FIRE were displayed.

“Main cannon fully charged.” I hear another operator said. “Ready to engage target.”

“You ready?” The other guy asked.

“Ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.” I say.

“That’ll have to do.”

Then, I began to hear multiple voices in my headset.

Target acquisition ready. Electromagnetic coils at acceptable output. Photonic ring speed stable.

That among many other things I didn’t understand were sounding in my ears as everyone prepared for engagement.

“Ready when you are, Yamato.” I hear Walker say in my headset.

“Right…”

I begin to operate the gun, first zooming onto my target. I could see the thing perfectly clear, and the gun was able to zoom in at a frightening degree, seeming to disregard the horizon line. I could zoom up right into the Colossus’s face as if I was actually right next to it and see every single detail. Once I was at a good zoom level I began the lockon sequence. Multiple rings on the target screen began to spin and recede into a center targeting circle. Once the circles reached the center circle, it flashed red and the words LOCK ON appeared.

“Target locked.” I hear an operator say. “Fire when ready.”

“Go for it, Yamato.” Walker said.

Once I had it dialed in, I pulled both triggers. A bright flash of light lit up the entire cabin for an instant, and an incredible boom and many electric shocks resounded throughout the complex. The very instant I had hit the triggers, the targeting scope showed the damage I had done. The projectile had hit the Colossus instantaneously, and it hit hard. A blue streak had connected the projectile with the barrel of the gun which quickly dissipated as the Colossus was thrown back and hit the ground.

“Direct hit.” I hear the operator say. “Assessing target damage.”

System cooldown initiated. Radiator fins deployed. Photonic ring decelerating.

“Did we get him?” I heard Walker ask.

I zoom in on where the Colossus was. I sure as hell looked dead… I couldn’t imagine anything could survive a direct hit from this thing… but… it started getting back up.

“Negative!” I hear the operator say. “Target is still active, repeat, target is still active!”

“The hell?!” I shout. “I missed?!”

I look through the sights and see that I didn’t completely miss… its entire right arm had been sheared off, but it wasn’t a kill shot.

“Dammit!” I shout, pounding my fist on the console, causing it to flicker static a bit.

“We need another shot!” I hear one operator say.

“Cooldown sequence is still active.” Another says. “Two minutes.”

“Yamato, are you there?” I hear Walker say.

“I missed it.” I say. “I fucking missed it.”

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll get another shot.” He said. “Just stay calm and we’ll-”

“Wait, what is that…?” I look through the scope and see that the Colossus was staring right at me… shit, it knew where I was. “Um… Walker?”

“Target has eyes on us!” I hear an operator say. “What’s the status on the cannon?!”

“Charging sequence has just started!” Another said. “We don’t have enough time!”

“Overcharge the generators! We need another shot right now!”

“Yamato!”

Walker’s voice was the last one I heard before the Colossus’s eyes flashed, and instantly a beam of energy hit me. I was thrown out of the cannon and lost consciousness when I hit the ground.

---

I slowly regain consciousness to the sounds of my headset going off with multiple voices.

“Call for reinforcements!”

“We need medical attention here now!”

“What’s the status on the cannon?!”

“Extensive damage! The power cables are still intact but the main cannon has been disconnected from its base. We can’t fire it!”

“Main cannon is offline! Repeat, Athenor is offline!”

“What’s the status on the operator?!”

“No signal coming from the control cabin. Status unknown.”

“Yamato!” Walker’s voice shouts. “Yamato, are you there?! Yamato!”

I try to move but find myself unable to. I realize I was buried under piles of rubble. Only a few parts of me were exposed to the surface, my left hand and right leg, but my head was stuck firmly underneath. I felt weakened by that attack… though I would be dead if I was anyone else, the fact that I was Nephilim meant I could survive things like that… but that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Matter of fact, it hurt like hell… my ears were ringing and most of my other senses were numbed out. The shock of getting hit from something like that was really taking a number on me…

“Yamato?! Answer me! Come on!” Walker kept shouting for me… but I couldn’t find the voice to answer. I just laid there, unable to move or call for help…

“Target is advancing on our position!” I hear an operator say. “It’s getting ready to attack!”

“We have no means of defense! Evacuate the facility! All personnel evacuate now!”

“YAMATO!”

Walker’s voice suddenly came clear… and when that happened, the weight of rubble on me vanished as a wave of energy shot outwards and cleared all the debris around me. I float upwards and land back on my feet. I stare at the Colossus in the distance… somehow I could see it clearly, even from this distance. Just then, I’m suddenly surrounded by a field of black and white energy. It spiraled around me and instantly I feel renewed strength and unbelievable power course through me. It was unlike anything else I’d ever felt before… I felt… I felt almost god-like… I felt like I was in complete control… but… at the same time I wasn’t. Some other force was guiding me… but it was my choice to follow it.

Then, a shadow appears around me… flowing like a slow moving black flame. I look over to the main cannon… it was lying on its side as it had been disconnected from the turret. I didn’t care. I wasn’t going to miss this time. I hold a hand out towards the cannon, and the black shadow raced towards it. Instantly, the black energy began to wrap around the entire cannon, like many large tendrils. I pull my hand back, then slowly raise it up, lifting the entire cannon off the ground. It was weightless… I didn’t even struggle with this… I was in complete control…

I lift the cannon up and bring it closer to me, lifting the barrel up as I brought it next to me, before bringing it back down and pointing it towards the incoming Colossus. I place my right foot forward and cast my right arm out, pointing towards the enemy.

“Charge it now!” I yell.

“Yamato?!” Walker says.

“DO IT!”

“Main cannon charge sequence initiated!” I hear the operator say.

Power began to flow into the cannon from the intact power cables, but I knew that it wasn’t going to be enough.

“Power flow is down 50%!” The operator says. “We won’t make it!”

At that moment, I begin feeding my own energy into the system, speeding up the charge with everything I had.

“External energy source detected! Charging rate increased by 500%!”

I held the cannon steady as I continued to charge it, feeding more and more of my power into the gun. It only took half a minute later for the cannon to charge completely.

“Cannon fully charged!” She said. “Power levels exceeding 200%! 300%!”

“FIRE IT!” I shout.

In that instant, the cannon surged, and a much more powerful boom rocked the entire complex, sending a shockwave outwards as a black streak instantly collided with the Colossus. It didn’t matter where I had hit it this time… the top half of the beast had disintegrated under the immense energy of the shot. The remains of the Colossus fell down and hit the ground hard. Bits and pieces of the cannon I still held began to fall off, as the shot itself just about tore it completely apart. At that moment, my power quickly spiked downwards, and I lose my grip on the cannon, causing it to fall to the ground with a mighty crash. Exhausted from using that much power, I fall to my knees, before falling completely to the ground, unconscious.

---

I wake up, once again, staring at fluorescents. I recognize these ones, however, as the ones at Maverick. It seemed like I’ve been waking up in infirmaries a lot lately…

“Yamato!” I hear Naoto say as I wake up.

I turn to look at her. She had a worried look on her face, but it seemed to ease up when I looked to her.

“Are you okay?” She asked.

“Cold…” I say, sitting up in the bed and looking around. “Where is everyone else…?”

“It’s late so they had to log out.” She said.

“You stuck around?”

“Well… yeah… I mean… I was worried.”

“Worried…” I say. “Why?”

“Why?” She repeated. “You could’ve died!”

“I didn’t know you cared so much.” I remark, suddenly realizing the fact that her demeanor towards me had changed dramatically. “What happened?”

“What… what are you talking about?!” She suddenly got annoyed. “Is it so wrong for me to worry about a friend?!”

“I… no, that’s not what I meant.” I say defensively.

“You are such an idiot!” She said. “I was so worried and you don’t even care!”

“H-hey, it’s okay, really!” I hold my hands up. “I’m alright, don’t get so angry.”

She calms down and sighs, sitting back in her chair.

“Sorry…” She said. “I just… I don’t really know why I’m this worried about you…”

“It’s okay.” I smile. “I appreciate it…”

“What happened, anyway?” She asked. “I heard from Walker that you… you picked up the cannon and fired it again?”

“I… I’m not exactly sure what I did…” I say, putting a palm up to my head. “I mean… yes, I did… I picked up the entire thing and fired it. I don’t know how, but… I just… one instant I felt like I was almost dying, and the next… I felt this incredible power course through me. I felt so focused it was almost like a trance. I just… I just did it. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it.”

“It’s something about you being a Void Avatar?”

“Probably…” I sigh. “Which means it’s something I don’t understand… dammit…”

I get up out of the bed and stretch myself out, yawning.

“I should probably get out of here, too.” I say, turning back to Naoto. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Yeah… okay.” She nodded. “Sleep well.”

I open my menus and log out.

---

“Indeed, your Fate is unclear, even to yourself.”

I heard the voice and felt the presence once again. I opened my eyes and find myself staring once again at blackness in every direction. I slowly get back up onto my feet and turn to the direction of the presence, which still felt eerily like it was everywhere anyway.

“Young Voidborne.” Erebus said. “What is it you seek?”

“What do I seek…?” I ask.

“Surely you have drives and ambitions… all things living in this world have something to strive for, even if it’s simply the magnificence of life itself.”

“I… I’m not sure…” I say. “What do you mean?”

“So, you cannot even say for yourself what it is that keeps you alive?” Erebus asked. “Perhaps the search for a purpose in itself is enough to keep you going…”

“What are you talking about…?”

“Young Voidborne. Seek strength, and with it, seek adversity. In time, all your questions will be answered… and your wishes granted.”

And then it disappeared…

---

I wake up quietly. I’m staring up my ceiling… I look over to the clock on my nightstand.

4:21 AM

Strange… I never really got up this early. Especially with all that had happened I expected I’d be sleeping until at least 5 in the afternoon… and thinking about it, I felt something was… off…

I heard some sort of banging from outside my room. I sit up in my bed and look towards my door. Another thump comes from outside. I decided to investigate, putting on a shirt and slowly opening the door to my room, looking both ways out. I didn’t see anything… I slowly and quietly leave my room creeping down the hallway with slow and careful steps. Soon after, I begin to hear voices… voices I didn’t recognize.

“God, I can’t believe this bitch put up so much of a fight…” I hear one voice say. “She’s fucking crazy.”

“We’re not here for her.” Another said, as I slide up to the corner and peek around it into the living room. I saw two men standing over my mother… one of them had her pinned face down to the floor, and the other held a gun to make sure she didn’t try anything.

“MOM!” I yell instinctively, despite what I should have done, which was to keep quiet.

I grabbed their attention as I rushed into the room to take them on, but I’m suddenly floored when a blunt object hits me in the head, disorienting me and sending me to the ground. I feel a foot on my back as I feel fresh blood trickle down my face. I try to struggle, but that blow really took it out of me.

“Yamato!” My mother cries, just before being hit in the head to shut her up.

“This him?” I hear the guy above me ask.

The one with the gun comes over and looks at me.

“Yeah, he’s the one.” He says. “Yamato Haseo. Sorry, but we’ve got to kill you now.”

“What… who are you…?” I say weakly, still trying to struggle against the foot holding me to the floor.

“Nothing personal, kid.” He said, pointing his gun to my head.

Just then, I hear a shinking sound from above me, and I can see blood splatter onto the floor. I manage to look up to my assailant who now had a blade firmly embedded through his chest from behind. The blade spun 90 degrees and cleaved its way out the man’s side. He fell over in a bloody heap, dead before he hit the ground. Standing there was my father, bloody katana in hand.

“Shit!” The gunman said as he fired off a shot. My father rushed him, dodging underneath the bullet effortlessly and slicing upwards, disarming the gunman by slicing his arm clean off. Before he could even scream, my father spun around and slashed horizontally, decapitating him in one swift motion.

The last of the three assailants rushed my father with a lead pipe, swinging once at him. He easily backstepped and evaded the swing. The guy tried to go in for another strike, but my father grabbed the pipe as he was bringing it down. He brought his blade around and slammed it through his jaw from the side, before twisting it around and violently ripping it out, tearing the man’s lower jaw off. The man staggered back, screams gurgled by the blood pouring from his face, before my father grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and drove his blade up through his upper jaw and out the top of his head, pushing it in to the hilt before withdrawing it and tossing the body aside as casually as he would the trash.

After that was done, he cleaned the blood of his blade and sheathed it, before running towards mom on the floor.

“Asuka!” He went down to his knees. “Are you okay?!”

“Ishi…” She said weakly. “Behind…”

It was too late, though. I hear a bang, and my father hits the floor, blood pouring out of his chest. I look over and see one last guy, armed with a handgun, walking past me towards my father.

“What a fucking pain.” The man said as he approached my father on the ground as he struggled to catch his breath, holding a hand up to his wound to slow the bleeding. “This was supposed to be quick and clean… we only came for the kid, why did you have to get in the way?”

I shook off my disorientation and tried to get back up onto my feet. I got onto one knee before the man turned to me and pointed his gun at my head.

“Don’t even think about it!” He said.

“Yamato!” My father shouted as he grabbed his blade and threw it towards me.

I rush forward and grab it in the air, spinning once and unsheathing it in one quick motion as I approached the gunman. He didn’t even have time to think as I brought the blade down, bisecting him from his right shoulder to his left hip, the blade cleaving straight through his skin and bone effortlessly. The man gurgled up blood as his top half slowly slid off his bottom half, and he hit the floor.

The end result was a massacre… blood and gore everywhere… I stood there, bloodstained blade still held tightly in my hand… my breathing was erratic and my thoughts were racing… I killed a man… I actually killed someone…

I lose my grip on the blade and scabbard and drop to my hands and knees, trying desperately to catch my breath… warm blood coated my hands as I clenched my fists…

I… what have I done…?

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