Part 29: Crimson Fighters






My body began to quake again as I proceeded further into the factory—the same shaking that Youka described as my body anticipating the appearance of a powerful foe. This time, though, there was nothing unknown about that foe—I had to go into battle to prove myself.



Holdupholdupholdup. Wait here, aaaand...



NOW





Alright, girls, pile on!



And you?



just hot girl shit





Bravo, bravo! Di molto!

V E N O M B O O S T

It'll take a while before I can show Satsuki's true Poison Power, but trust me—it'll be a sight to see.





heef heef. heef heef. there's a ladder there.







Very nice. Thank you, Satsuki.





heef heef.





...Okay you guys are starting to weird me out. Why are you being so quiet?

...

These two are predators. I believe their instincts are activating.





Uh, okay. Mama Fudoji?

Sorry. I'm just thinking about what best to do here.





Bad boy!



Stinger is Free Real Estate.

Well, not technically free, since only one AUTO skill can activate on a given turn, so it might override, say, Fantasy Zone or Airsoft Training, and you might've preferred Fantasy Zone's magical damage or Airsoft Training's healing on that particular turn... But for all intents and purposes, yes, it is free real estate so far down south, it's like you're in a grave, because you are, you'll be dead. Unit 13 got you a free death to go with the house. Unlock the mysteries of the afterlife today, and you get a free house, in a grave!

Given this LP's origins, I expect you all to understand what the hell I was talking about there.



Fall!



There. The two of you should be fine now.

I don't know! I feel like someone here isn't fine!

...

I'm thinking about how best to honor a man's wishes. It's a serious topic. As for her, though...

Give her some time. She's new to being a predator.



These three Hazard Dragons are rotating around this structure in a circular pattern, by the way.



Die!!



As we waited to ambush the final dragon circling the area, I sighed.

I'm sorry. I'm just... nervous.

The feeling inside me... was it just the quivering anticipation of a powerful opponent? ...No. No, there was something... something roaring deep inside of me. Something roaring... in fear. I was afraid. I was deeply, truly, terrified... but I didn't understand why.



Get the hell out of our way.







Okay, c'mon, get up.

Mutsu: Hey, who're you?

The people saving your ass. C'mon, get up.







...There was only one way forward, and I knew what was going to happen when I took that way forward.



Why did I have this awful foreboding in the pit of my stomach? Why did I feel so awful about a fight that... really, I knew I could win?

...Or had I already lost that fight, the moment I stepped into this place?




Then Aoi came on over the comms, and completely broke my silence.

Huh? What, huh?

Hey, Unit 13! We're near Shiba Park in Minato! A while back, we saw life signs there. I think that's where everyone is.

And if there are life signs there, then everyone's safe! Phew... talk about a relief!

Absolutely! That's a huge weight off of our shoulders, I would say.

Thanks.

Oh thank god...

It gave us time to all let out a breath at once—a breath that had been hanging in my chest for ages.



You guys keep concentrating on beating that dragon in Kokubunji.

I'm really sorry I can't help out. Be sure to let that dragon know, I'm sorry I can't make its funeral!

Aww, you have such faith in us!

We will. I'll deliver your message without fail.

Thank you both.



...But there was no running from what lay ahead of us.





We were very high up in the facility now—it wasn't much further to the Dragon itself, at the peak. Amidst these inert pieces of the manufacturing scheme...



...they were waiting for us.



Alright, there you are. Are we done with these childish little games of yours yet?

I mean, if you're going to go that slow, just go home.

How do we know you didn't just arrive yourself?

You don't, but I assure you we've had time to spare.



My hands had unconsciously balled into fists, and I began to feel a twinge of pain where my nails had started to dig into my flesh.

How dare you? 'Praise'? Go to hell. Where do you get off acting like such a smarmy git?

There we are. You're finally starting to be honest.

Because I'm better than you at fighting, that gives you the right to try and rip me apart? You don't know anything about me, Takehaya. I don't care if you're so sure about yourself—if you want a fight, I'll give you a fight and I'll lay you flat on the floor, you bastard. A stupid man like you who can't even understand the feelings of the woman he loves doesn't deserve to insult me.

...So you're saying you understand Aitelle better than I do, huh?

I'm saying you've got an awful case of myopia, Casanova. Why don't you fight me one-on-one if you're so confident? Or do you need Neko and Daigo to back you up because you're too scared to pick a fight you know you'll lose?

...Captain, you seem agitated.

I am.

...Takehaya.

I'm fine, Daigo. I'm not gonna rise to cheap barbs like that.

Why not? Wouldn't it be better for you if you could hate me properly, instead of hating some concept of me?

Takehaya I think you pissed her off.

Yup.

That's fine. It's going to turn out the same either way.

...You sure about that?

Koron. Satsuki. Help me out. Youka, stand back and assist Richter.

You're not bringing along the Ghost of Yotsuya to your final exam? Confident, aren't you.

That's ridiculous. All four of them are just as good—I'd trust any of them with my life.

Cap you're gonna make me cryyyyy

Don't cry. We have a fight to get to.

Not to mention they might evaporate, and we wouldn't want you fogging up your goggles.



...Sorry about this.

I'm not! This is for on the Expressway!

Shut up, Neko.

C'mon, paragon of justice! Show me what you've got!



Give it your best, girls.

Please try not to get yourselves too hurt!

We won't.

(I can do this... I can do this!)

If you want it so bad, then take it!








Here we go, gang—it's time for the main event, Unit 13 vs. SKY! This fight's no joke—Takehaya, as befits the big boss of SKY, gets the dragon-standard two actions per turn, and Daigo and Neko are here to back him up with a new trick or two from our last encounter with them.

An extremely rare case of a boss fight where the enemies have an action economy advantage over the player. A pretty severe one, given that the big man gets two actions on every turn.



Well, if I had to guess, this is likely to pay dividends.



Alright! Here I go!



Woob woob woob woob!

You aren't even shooting at me, ya yahoo!





OW

No offense.

THEN HIT THE LADY WHO YOU WANT TO TAKE OFFENSE



Sei!

I saw his swing like he was moving in slow motion—in that instant, it was easy to dodge.

Try harder!



As I spun around him, the flaming veil around me seared him as well—I could see him start to flag.

I thought so.

Even though Daigo is weak to Ice, not Fire, I threw up Too Hot to Touch here instead of Zero to the Bone because I figured Burn would be a more useful ailment to have around.

Stacking a damage dealt debuff, a damage taken debuff, and a damage-over-time, no matter how minor each of them are, on one ailment, is so amazingly good.

Alright, that's it, grandma, I'm gonna wipe that smug look off your ugly mug!



How old are you, even?

She's 21.

I'm younger than you!





Gh.

You alright?

Fine.

We need to end this quick. C'mon, you two.



OW

I WAS ACTUALLY SHOOTING AT YOU THE WHOLE TIME YOU FELL FOR MY CLEVER DISTRACTION



I throw a buff item on Chisa in preparation to try and take Neko out quickly.

The buff bentos, some of the best consumables in the game, if'n you ask me.



Alright, try not to invoke too much ire, Chisa.



I went to switch my stance, and rushed back afterward—



Daigo! Neko!

Right!

Here I go!



! Look out!



I told you it'd be educational!

Yeah, yeah—get 'em!





It was a perfection of the same technique Neko and Daigo had used on the expressway—in the arc of Takehaya's blade, a hail of icicles launched into the earth, creating a bone-chilling earthquake that launched Satsuki and Koron off their feet. His blade came down on me, drawing a gash upon my chest.

AAAAA

Shit!

What, you didn't think they weren't gonna get a badass team attack, right? More than her own inputs, necessarily, preventing Takehaya from using SKY Impact is the primary reason you want to focus down one of his adds immediately. Everyone still gets an action after this! They'll fuck you up!

As the next screenshot shows: Takehaya is still afflicted with burn. That brutal hit was mitigated, and it still reduced everyone to alarm range. From full HP, even, in Koron's case.



The flaming veil on me struck Takehaya still, but he was undeterred.

Daigo! The psychic!

Right!



Takehaya launched himself at Satsuki again, and pummeled her with the blunt edge of his blade hard enough to leave her on the floor, wheezing.



At the same time, Daigo barreled forward to strike Koron in the stomach, hard enough that I could almost see her involuntarily vomit.

Satsuki, Koron! Hold on a moment—!

Alright, we've got this! You two—!



Oh yeah? You think so?



I'm told that I ran at a speed that was difficult to keep an eye on,



as I crammed an agent to kick Richter's Nanomachine 119 into higher gear, getting Satsuki off of the floor.

Hoo okay

I'm back!

Assist Richter! Get yourself and me in fighting shape, then worry about Koron.

I... hk, understand the logic, don't worry.



As I felt some of my vitality returning, I closed my eyes and took in a breath.



...Takehaya hadn't been present for Youka's lesson, back on the Expressway.



I was going to make him regret that.

Wait, how're they up already?!

—!





Takehaya grunted and started swinging, but he found that Satsuki and I weren't nearly close enough to defeated for his taste.

How the hell—?! Neko!



...Uh oh!





Neko, stand back!

Get Koron up. They won't have the strength to take down all three of us.



Once one of them went down, that was it for them. They didn't have access to Richter's technology—so once I took one of them down, they couldn't use their strongest trick anymore.



So I would do that. Before any of the three of them could move, or Neko could retreat from me, I leapt.





Oh god oh god—



Stay down.



She did.

Motionless is a charge skill, the benefit of which is inherently obvious since it buffs damage to 2.1x at base level, and eventually 2.5x at max. It also has a rider to increase status infliction chances, which if you use it and then use the damage buff on a non-ailment skill, is saved and will wait until the next time you use an ailment skill. It is, frankly, disgusting.

Payback, for its part, is a non-element Iai skill that is a damage upgrade on the Maple and Blizzard Assaults and also lowers the status resistance of the target. It's also quite good—I probably could've done a bit more damage if I'd used Maple Assault on account of Neko's weakness, but hey.

Oh, by the way, Neko has a maximum of 1,800 HP.

From a game design perspective, I often fret about charge skills, but I cannot deny that they are immensely satisfying to use as a player.

Except for Etrian Odyssey III's, where it ends up feeling more like an obligation due to the dominance of Gladiator as both a mainclass and a subclass, but I'm getting way off-track at that point.



As their psychic fell to the ground, wailing and moaning in agony, ours stood back up.

A bit sad I didn't get to participate in that.

You okay?

I'll be fine.

Let's turn this around on them.



Takehaya let loose with another brutal attack, but Satsuki managed to stay on her feet.

Damn it—! Daigo! Lay Inomiko out! We've got to stem this tide!

...Just like she said.



Tch—! Hit a lady while she's down, will you?

All's fair in love and war!



Daigo laid into me with one of his hooks, and did in fact manage to lay me out. However, my body, even as I fell, was just waiting for the call to stand again.

...Get us standing...! They don't have the strength to take us down!



On it! Richter!

Doing my best over here!



As you say, Captain.

Thanks.





WHY ME?!

Because you keep healing them!



The amount of force I had when I stood back up was enough to take Daigo's barge and stay standing—and staying standing was all I needed to do.



You ready?

As I'll ever be!



You two distribute that!



Wham! Bam! Boom!

The fast-acting aerosol sprays seemed to be in the zone, too. Perhaps Richter was assisting them.

...Bad luck for you, Take.

Quiet!



Will you stop doing that?!

Will you stop swinging your sword at me?!

See, Take? Satsuki's an awfully tough girl. You shouldn't underestimate her.



Bad move!



Gah! How—?!

It's all in the mind.

Damn it...! So this is what a real S-Class patient looks like... Daigo!





We're gonna need it.



You know, Takehaya, that was a neat trick you pulled earlier. Mind if I try it myself?!





Lay him out, Chisa!



Aaaargh!

With only two?!



Damn you!







Why won't you go down?!



You're getting whacked 'cuz you're weak. I think it's time to accept that.



Satsuki's hail of bullets continued raining down to tear at Takehaya's flesh.



Warrior's honor, I'm sure, but this would be a lot easier if you were helping with the triage, Youka.

And miss the show?





Pew pew, pew pew pew pew pew!

The beautiful Satsuki, a one-day-only show!

Are you going somewhere?

Home!



Daigo, too, fell beneath my blade, joining Neko on the floor.

Daigo!



You—! I won't lose to you!





You appear to be lost in fantasy.



Here's mine.

Satsuki! Finish him!



(you've got this. take the last shot!)



Aaagh!

YEAH BOI






You've lost. Stay down.



Takehaya refused to let his body fail on him, standing on unsteady, shaky legs after having dropped his blade.

...You... passed. As... expected of true hunters, I guess.

I hope you're satisfied now. We didn't have to have this battle.

...Are you satisfied, Aitelle?



...It isn't a matter of whether I am satisfied. Takehaya—you've gone too far, for Chisa and for yourself. I'm sorry.



...What do you mean, fake?

Fake hunters—compared to you, anyway.



That's about what I suspected. A body that isn't prepared to possess talent on that level can't be expected to use it to its fullest.

What does 'hunter' even mean?






What your ranking system calls 'S-Class' is this same force—children of Earth who, by its will, have come into incredible ability. However, only a few come to their talents to such a degree to truly defend against calamity such as the Dragons. To defeat Takehaya so handily—Unit 13, you are certainly hunters of Dragons.

...

...You're kidding, right?

I am now.

Me? How does that work? I'm just some schlub. I shoot things and I stab them and poison them sometimes. Chisa is crazy with a sword, Koron's got her psychic powers, Mama Fudoji breaks dragons with her bare hands, and Richter's the smartest guy I've ever met—I'm... I'm just me.

(I'm what)

You give yourself too little credit, Miss Satsuki.

You really do.

Well, I hope the planet's happy with the shit path it had me walk to get here. Do I have to kill it next after I take care of the Dragons—?

I'm what?! I'm what did you say I was?

Please, I am begging you to take that back. That's absurd. I am no sort of 'chosen one'. That's ridiculous, Miss Aitelle. I just need this job—

Please calm yourself, Sir Richter.

A hero. Someone who comes from nothing and saves the world. It was all... just like Mom might've imagined.



I... am sorry, Miss Fudoji, and to all of you. I don't mean to say that I believe that the paths you took were the only paths to reach this point—and your paths were tragic indeed.

Right. I'm sure. Unlike us, they're the real thing—



Takehaya bent over, clutching his heart.



Oh no, Takehaya, c'mon, talk to me!

OH NO DID I SHOOT HIM TOO HARD

No. It's a flaring up of his symptoms. Like I said—a body that isn't prepared to possess talent on that level can't be expected to use it to its fullest. Exerting himself like Takehaya does is sure to run his body ragged.

Y-you... Koron Nagataka. You're...

The introduction of S-Class talent into an unprepared body can cause the body to go into overdrive to maintain its newfound normal—draining hydration overly quickly, for instance, leading to rapid dehydration. Those in such situations often run the risk of debilitating diseases due to a de-emphasized immune systems, or have higher vulnerability to brain cancers due to the increased tax on mental processing. Daigo and Neko aren't so powerful as to cause such side-effects to be truly debilitating, but fighting at your level... frankly, I'm amazed you got here at all. You should be dead.

...Koron...

...Pfft... hahaha! This is mortifying.



...I'm sorry.



...You get it, don't you, Inomiko? You understand... who it was who did this to me.

Of course I did. It was as plain as day. It was the answer I'd been looking for for ages.

...Natsume doesn't have S-Class talent of her own, even though her family has been managing talent for generations. It's just like she did with our navigators—she wanted to 'create' talent.

Pff. Got it in one.



A grim endeavor, with orphans as subjects.

It's the same with me and Neko. We lost our parents, and Murakumo took us in and experimented on us.



...It wasn't as though I hadn't come to expect behavior like this from her. The unfairness of it all began to crush my heart under it. I doubted Homura knew—even if she was as eccentric as she was, such an inhumane prospect would revolt her. In fact...

...I could think about that later.


There's your answer. There's why we hate Murakumo.

It made sense. It made sense why SKY would distrust Murakumo. It even made sense why Takehaya would oppose Unit 13 on principle. But...

...Why? Why me?




What?

Why is it me you hate so much? I never did anything to you, but you've always seemed to dislike me. It doesn't seem like you dislike the rest of them. So why me?

...People like you bother me. Your power might be genuine, but you're naive. A sheltered little rich girl, who doesn't know anything about the suffering people like me have to go through—a paragon of justice, without any idea of the darkness of war.

What...?

'A sheltered little rich girl, who doesn't know anything about the suffering people like me have to go through.' So that was how he saw me, I thought. A 'paragon of justice'—in other words, a naive, shining idiot on a pedastal.

I—

What... what did you just say about me? Huh? You want to repeat that?

Ah. So this was what my heart had been quaking about. The roaring grew louder, and my body began to shake.

I don't... know anything? Hm? You want to say that again?

...! Takehaya, I think you should apologize.

'Apologize'? 'Apologize'? As though that would mean anything. Anything, about all the pain this man had put me through. That—

Chisa—?

—was when I started laughing.

Oh, I don't know anything about your suffering, huh? Huh? That's right, I'm just a sheltered little rich girl who's never had an ounce of pain in her entire life, huh, Takehaya? That what you wanted to say? Is that what you're trying to say about me? Huh?

...Uh.

I could see by the look on his face he hadn't expected anything like this. Why would he have? It was reasonable to look at me and see exactly what he'd thought—just a sheltered little girl who hadn't ever hurt. I threw off Satsuki and Youka's hands on my shoulder, walked toward him, and started forcibly poking his chest with my index finger.

Huh? Huh? You wanna say a bit more, eh, Takehaya? Big, tough Takehaya? You're so tragic! Of course, it's not like anyone who lives what you think might be a 'more charmed' life could ever have the kind of pain you've had. Sympathy isn't in your dictionary unless it's Aitelle, huh? You never thought to ask why I might be so aimless? Just saw what you wanted to see, huh?

As though I'm not constantly living in terror? In fear? Huh? You think I really believe that bullshit? Of course I don't! You ever think that maybe some people need to lie like that to survive, huh? Maybe some people need to act like that so they don't go insane, curl up in a ball on the floor and start screaming? Huh?

I'd graduated to pounding my fists into his chest, a low, manic chuckle covering all my words.

Eh? Huh, buddy? You ever think someone might just be trying to not break? Of course you wouldn't! Someone like you, who's always resolute, always single-minded, you don't know what it's like to be broken. You don't know what it's like to break! You don't know anything about the darkness I had to go through, Takehaya, so quit pretending you do!

It was cold. Even though this place was so damned hot, I couldn't feel an inch of it. I was cold. I was nothing but cold. It was a familiar, hateful cold.

Maybe I should show you, huh, buddy? You want to be a hero so bad? You want to take my place? Then do it. Go on, do it. Die in the process too, why don't you? Please, burn yourself out in my stead! I'd love to lose this job!

This man had a heart. He had a strong, burning heart... but his power was fake.

That's right...

He was my exact opposite. The exact opposite of the girl with real power and a fake heart.

Or if you can't do that, then give me a reason to be here. Huh? Why don't you give me a reason to be here? I'd love one. I'd love to be strong like them. I'd really, really love it. But I can't. I can't have something like that. I can't, Takehaya. I'm broken. You get that, right? I'm broken.

I slumped over onto the ground, and started pounding the ground instead. I just kept laughing. Laughing, and laughing, and laughing. There wasn't anything funny—really, I was laughing because there was nothing else inside me.

...All of my friends had been trying to rouse me from this, that whole time. I hadn't heard a word they'd said.



...Do you truly believe that?

Suddenly, it was Aitelle who was in front of me.

Do you truly wish to forsake this world? Were... you lying to me, Captain?

...

...I couldn't bear that look on her face. I knew what she was really trying to say, and even as close to going off the brink as I was...

You're Hypnos, aren't you?

!

That was when I felt Satsuki grappled onto my back, hugging me.

Please stop freaking out please stop freaking out c'mon please I don't like this

Richter had been pacing in the background, rubbing his face. Koron had stood still, unsure exactly how to help in a situation like this. Youka had been trying to wipe down some of my sweat.

You're Hypnos. You don't want this planet to go the same way yours did. That's what you're trying to say, right?

...Huh?




I stood up, and first of all, I returned Satsuki's hug.

...Sorry. Can we... talk about this later, when we're all alone?

...Mmhm.

I turned back to Aitelle.

...If you really will fight for the sake of this planet...



Captain... what is 'Hypnos', exactly?

It's a faraway planet that was obliterated by the Dragons a long time ago—a terrifying dragon called Niara led the invasion, and the populace was wiped out. The only remnants were the planet's will—which took on the form of two sisters. That's you... right, Aitelle?

...Yes.

Wait, wait, whoa, hold on. You're saying she's an alien?

Yes. She's been alive for a very long time, and she's come to Earth to try and save it from the same fate as her home planet. Right, Aitelle?

...Correct.

Chisa.

I don't know.

Why do you—?!

I don't know!

There was a moment of silence.

I don't know. I don't know why I know that. I just do. I just know that this woman is Hypnos. Is this because I'm a 'hunter'? Is that why?

Aitelle averted her eyes.

God damn it, why can't anyone in this fucking war give me a straight answer?!

Just for a second, I'd like to understand something! Okay?! It's fine—I'll fight the dragons! I don't want humanity to die, either! I'll work together with Takehaya when the time calls for it—that's fine, too! I don't care! Just, please, I just want to understand myself!

Something inside of me cracked.

Why can't anyone just tell me anything? Why is it always secrets? Why am I not allowed to understand anything? Why?

...Move.

Huh?

I said move!



In my authority as Unit 13's Vice-Captain, we've taken in everything you've said and will act upon it accordingly. Thank you for your testimony. In the future, I hope we can have a less contentious conversation—and in nicer climes. Now—Takehaya, we have a dragon to go kill. And we're not doing it because we're some manner of chosen ones—we're doing it because these things need to die. This is my will. I hope that satisfies you. Let's go, everyone.





As the door shut behind us, I fell to the ground on the elevator and began to sob. Satsuki, Richter, and Youka sat by me, and Koron began to operate the thing. She stared up to the sky, straight at our goal.

...I was a disappointment. To myself... to Mio... to Unit 13... to SKY... to Aitelle... to Gatou... to the world...

...and to Chisa Inomiko.


It is highly recommended that you read Chisa Inomiko's Reminiscence, accessible from the Table of Contents, before proceeding to the next update.

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