Chapter 27: Awakening
Akira’s eyes shot open, and a spotty image of the forest entered his sight. He blinked until the dust was gone, all the while racking his brains in an attempt to recall why his mouth was full of dirt and blood. The answer presented itself when he tried to put weight on his limbs. Pain and memories rushed forth and pressed his body back against the ground.
‘Ah… that’s right.’
With a grunt, he pressed his trembling arms against the dirt and pushed himself up while ignoring the creaking in his beaten bones.
Just like every other time, that one question slipped into his ears, reaching out its hands to him. Those monotone words pranced in his mind, poking at his determination with their pretty suggestions. Should he accept that hand? His knees cried out in eager agreement, an answer echoed by the rest of his body, but he forced the thoughts out of his mind.
“I’m fine, thanks,” he said, voice creaking with a greater intensity than his body.
As soon as he took that tantalizing offer that lay before him in all its child-like innocence, it would crush him with a weight five—no, ten times greater than the physical and mental fatigue that was dragging down his body with its titanium grip.
“I see.” The girl in front of him wore the same neutral face and used the same flat tone. “Hiroaki.”
Akira grit his teeth, concentrating his mana over the center of his stomach and the middle of his spine. A root sprung out of the ground, slamming into the reinforced area like a pile driver. Folding in half like paper, Akira zipped through the air and slammed into a tree.
A guttural noise escaped his throat as the air was forced out of his lungs and he fell to the ground. But he forced himself back up, trudging towards his opponents.
“I see.” This time, the girl’s eyes narrowed by a quarter of a centimeter. “Hiroaki, taking over.”
The boy standing beside her frowned and lowered his shield without a word.
The girl raised her hands, bringing her Speculo in front of her, a crystalline longbow as clear as freshwater lake that reflected the sunlight off its faceted surface. She pulled the bowstring, and a crystal rod began to grow perpendicular to the twine. As it passed the limbs, the crystal widened out into an arrowhead, while fletching appeared on the other end. The girl drew back the completed arrow until her hand was right under her cheek. She released her grip without any hesitation.
“Gh!” Akira clenched his teeth, holding in a cry as the arrow burrowed into his right arm like a nail forcing its way into wood. A snapping sound came from his arm as the arrow broke in two.
He spun and fell toward the bloodstained forest floor, and Ten went flying from his hand and landed a few meters on his right. Pain raged through his body like a forest fire. The stinging in his back from earlier was a flicker compared to the flare in his arm, roaring as it ran through his nerves.
“Give up?” the girl asked.
For one second, he could have sworn her speech had accelerated by the tiniest sliver. But the fire in his arm had welded his tongue to the floor of his mouth.
The girl’s lips had curved downwards for the first time. He could make it out even through the tears gathered in his eyes.
The blaze wouldn’t be dying down any time soon, so Akira straightened his other arm and pushed his torso off the ground.
“Agh!” An arrow found its way into his other arm before he could get back on his feet. He tumbled face-first back onto the ground, a thud and a crack raking his ears as the second arrow was crushed underneath him.
Akira sensed the girl’s silent gaze, and soon enough her voice came.
In response, he pressed his palms to the floor and pushed himself up, ignoring the fire gathering in his arms. The small girl and the lanky boy stared at Akira. Holding eye contact, Akira shook his head twice with big, slow motions.
Two arrows came, unaccompanied by words. They drilled into his thighs, and he crumpled once more. His thoughts ignited with the rest of his body and burnt away before they could form. Fire came from all directions in his body, devouring his nerves. His mind began to flicker.
That tiny whisper somehow forced its way inside his ears. His failing consciousness managed to grab hold of a ledge before it could fall into the darkness that awaited it. He tried looking up, but his neck failed to respond.
“Why continue fighting? What’s the point?” For the first time since they had begun fighting, emotion stained the girl’s voice. “Why get up when you keep getting hurt? When you can’t do anything? Why?”
“Why do you keep getting up?” the girl repeated, her volume rising. “What drives you?”
To her, it may have been one of the greatest mysteries she had ever seen, unfathomable choices made by someone living an unfathomable life. But to him the answer was simple. So simple that it could make anyone laugh.
‘I don’t know.’
“Haa… There goes my watch.”
Akira sighed as he laid down on the riverbank. Beads of ice still stuck to the grass, but he ignored them and enjoyed the cool feeling on his back. His hand slid into his pants pocket, taking out a small bag with glass and metal bits inside. He stared at them, half expecting them to magically reattach.
“I’ll definitely need to repair it again.”
Unfortunately, no amount of staring would fix his timepiece, so he slid the fragments back into his pocket with another sigh. Crossing his arms across his chest, he closed his eyes and listened to the flowing water as it splashed onto the rocks that made up the sides of the riverbank. He leisurely passed time like that, adrift in the peaceful atmosphere, until he heard a yell from a few meters away.
“Well if it isn’t Nishiyama!”
He clenched his fist, nails digging into his palm.
Akira’s closed eye twitched at the sudden greeting. He raised his wrist to check the time, before realizing where his watch was. He sighed, and opened his eyes in order to glance at his only alternative through his breath, which lingered in the winter air. Sure enough, the sun was already halfway across the horizon. Detention had surely ended by now. How could he have been so careless?
“Oi, did you not hear me?”
He quickly closed his eyes. Hopefully, pretending to sleep would drive the greeter away. To his displeasure, the sounds of grass being crushed underneath multiple pairs of feet told him that it was futile. They increased in volume, before coming to an abrupt halt.
‘I just don’t know.’
“I know you can hear me, so why don’t you show some manners and greet your friends!”
Akira felt the rubber sole of a shoe contact his cheek. His head jerked in the opposite direction, the force causing his body to tip over onto his stomach. The kick had forced his senses out of his head, but the flaring tendrils of pain in his cheek dragged them back inside. He steadied his body with his hand as he lifted himself off the ground, using his other to grasp his swollen cheek.
“…Oh, hey Isayama, I was thinking and didn’t hear you, sorry about that.”
‘Go to hell.’
“Ah really? Can’t blame you then!”
With a cheerful reply that was as genuine as his sleeping state from earlier, Akira turned around, acting as if nothing had happened. But underneath his mask, he cursed at Isayama Nakazo: a straight backed boy wearing the same school uniform as him. His shirt was neatly tucked in, and he held his uniform jacket under his arm. He wore a wide grin on his face which didn’t match his sharp eyes that were half hidden under strands of his dyed, purple hair. As usual, he was surrounded by his usual group of five, the majority of which wore their uniforms in a sloppy manner on their hunched backs. Akira smirked at the sight of them.
‘Well, at least their looks actually suit them.’
‘Why do I keep fighting?’
“Got any plans, Nishiyama?”
“Ah, yes.” Akira wiped the smirk off his face and picked up his bag. “I’m quite busy so I need to get going.”
“Hey, hey! That’s no fun, is it?” Nakazo shook his head. “Let’s play for a bit.”
“No, really.” Akira spun on the spot and began walking away. “I’m busy today—”
Before he could finish his sentence, he was knocked off his feet by an impact at his back. Clutching his now tattered back, he glared at Nakazo. As expected, his flat palm was stretched towards him, an indication of his actions.
“Do you think I was asking?” Nakazo grin finally reached his eyes, which were brimming with glee. “Why don’t you show me that Fire magic your family is so proud of? Oh wait, you can’t!”
Rowdy bouts of laughter filled the once peaceful riverbank. Gritting his teeth, Akira threw his bag to the side and stood up, taking a stance.
“Kha…khahahaha! You actually want to fight?” Nakazo burst into laughter. “Surprising, but that’s pretty great.”
“Oh shut up.”
With a low growl, Akira channeled mana through his limbs, tensing his legs and preparing to attack.
“Why don’t you make me?”
‘Why do I keep taking beatings and humiliation?’
He took the invitation and ran straight at Nakazo and his group of five. One of the thugs rushed forwards to meet him with a snort, his fist arcing through the air towards Akira.
“What a dumb—argh!”
Akira sidestepped the punch with ease. He grabbed the thug’s arm, spun around, and used the thug’s own momentum to throw him at his friend. Both of them tumbled down the grass hill, and fell into the water with a splash.
“Sakada! Kawasawa!” Another yelled as he looked at the two who were lying in the water. “You little…”
Another fist came swinging at him. Akira deflected it with his arm. Stepping in, he uppercut the thug, who collapsed on the floor. The two remaining ones stood frozen, but Nakazo simply sighed.
“For the love of…” He muttered under his breath. “You guys should really learn how to fight.”
‘Just to get up and suffer more later?’
In the blink of an eye, he was two meters away from Akira. Akira leapt in, his fist shooting towards Nakazo’s face. When it was a second away from contact, Nakazo shielded his face with his arms.
Akira clicked his tongue in response to his crying knuckles. He pulled his arm and jumped back.
“How’s it feel?” Nakazo laughed while dashing forwards. “That’s a complete physical reinforcement. It’s nothing like your half-assed one!”
He sent a punch of his own at Akira. Akira attempted to sidestep it, but the punch plowed right into his stomach, sending him rolling across the hill.
Akira dug a fist into the ground, killing his momentum. He scrambled to his feet, but a barrage of Wind spells destroyed his balance.
“Come on, Nishiyama.” Nakazo mocked. “You should use some more magic as well, don’t you think?”
Wordlessly, Akira jumped up and closed the distance between them, once more swinging his fist at his opponent’s face. With a laid back grin, Nakazo put up his arms.
Akira redirected all his mana into his fist, its speed and power increasing exponentially. Nakazo widened his eyes and attempted to compress more mana into the surface of his arms, but he was too late. Akira returned the hit he had received in full, smashing his knuckles into Nakazo’s face, throwing him across the air.
‘Every single time, I think I have a chance. That I can do it. But…’
“Gack, gack.” Harsh sounds rose from Nakazo’s throat. Getting on his knees, he brushed his bleeding nose.
‘I can do it!’
Akira redirected mana into all four of his limbs and dashed at Nakazo who was getting back up. Hitting him now would end it. Nakazo looked up, hastening his movements at the sight of his approaching attacker, but Akira was already in range. He raised a fist, and—
‘…It’s never enough.’
—he fell to the ground, mana draining from his limbs and taking his strength with it.
‘I used too much mana in that last punch.’
It should have been obvious to him that a single log of wood would always burn out before an entire woodpile, yet he had decided to burn through it anyways.
He couldn’t do what almost everyone else in the world could, and it was highly unlikely that would ever change.
“Pfft, khahahahaha! What a joke!”
The laughter seeped into Akira’s body, pressing down on his heart. Nakazo walked over to Akira. Akira watched him approach, bracing himself as he saw his leg winding up for a kick.
“Mana Paralysis victims really are nothing!”
‘It never ends. The pain never ends.’
The kick came, digging into his ribs. Akira didn’t let out a sound, and silently tumbled on the grass. Just when he was expecting another kick, he heard Nakazo’s voice instead,
“Oh? Isn’t this the watch I broke earlier today?”
Patting his pocket, he realized that the bag was now pinched between Nakazo’s fingers. He reached towards it, straining his hand in the air, but his body refused to move. Nakazo sent him a smirk.
“Really, planning to repair this? Again? Even though this is the tenth time I’ve broken? Oh man, it really makes me laugh.”
Nakazo crouched by Akira’s side, dangling the bag right outside of his reach. He put his cheek against his other palm, amusing himself with Akira’s struggle. After a while, his lips straightened and he got up while sighing.
He stared right into Akira’s heated eyes with his own hollow ones. Then, he poured out the contents of the bag where he was standing, and walked away with his group in tow.
“Your entire existence is the most pitiful and meaningless thing I’ve ever seen. Why do you keep getting up?”
‘Maybe I should just give up.’
A cold feeling descended on him, flooding his entire being with its icy waters. The flames of pain clashed with the waters, but were eventually doused. Akira should have felt glad that the pain was finally gone, but instead he entered a state of funk. The water was drowning him, and at this rate he’d never get out.
‘What can I do, after all?’
His shoulders lost their tension, and so did his fingertips, which finally slipped out of his palms, undoing his fists. His eyelids grew heavy and started sliding downwards.
But they stopped halfway across his eyes. Akira bit his lip and once again clenched his fists.
‘Damn it all. Just once, I want to win. Just once! But…’
He didn’t want to be the top Maestro. He just wanted to prove that he wasn’t useless. Even if he would only be able to do it once and never again, he wanted to prove himself. It was a simple goal.
‘I can’t. Not with this body.’
Blood trickled from his lip and palms, and the metallic smell tickled his nostrils.
‘All because of this accursed body. I hate it. I hate it so much. Speculo, body… who cares how something looks if it’s completely useless?‘
Tears stung in the corners of his eyes. He gave up on keeping his eyelids fixed in place and let them slowly close, snipping off the tears and causing them to fall to the earth.
‘If only I could change myself…’
His strength followed his tears out of his body. His trembling ceased, and his fingernails slid out of his bloody palms. With that single vain wish echoing in his head, he lay on the floor, waiting for his consciousness to fade into darkness.
It was at that moment that something clicked.
A single vain wish.
Akira’s eyes and mouth snapped wide open.
He heard the girl’s small feet tapping slowly on the floor, moving away from him, but his mind was elsewhere.
‘It really doesn’t make sense, does it?’
The Speculo Management Committee was an organization consisting of several world-renowned magicologists who had decades of experience, and their elites had worked on Akira’s Speculo analysis.
‘How could they have been so off the mark?’
“But when you consider that…” he muttered, “it starts making a lot more sense, huh?”
“What are you talking about?”
The unfamiliar voice brought Akira back to the forest. After a moment he realized it belonged to the boy with the shield.
“Say, what’s your name again?” Akira responded. “I think I heard your teammate call your name earlier, but I don’t really remember.”
There was no response.
“I’ll answer you if you tell me.”
Akira rolled sideways from his stomach onto his back. Pulling his knees towards his chest, he leaned as far back as possible before springing forwards, pulling his body off the ground. He felt light. As light as air.
Gritting his teeth, Akira bent forwards and tugged on the crystal arrows embedded in his leg. After two careful pulls, the arrowhead finally dislodged itself. He threw it away and repeated with the other arrow. Once both were out, he straightened his posture and faced his opponents.
“And what about you?” he addressed the female archer with his right hand grasped around the third arrow, the one in his right arm. He yanked it out with only a flinch.
“Hirose Amaya.” She notched an arrow. “Explain.”
“Ah, I did say I would, didn’t I?”
Akira grabbed hold of the last arrow, pulling it out with ease this time. With a sigh, he flexed his fingers and stretched his arm.
“Explain,” Amaya repeated herself, eyes trained on Akira’s stretching figure. As he had expected, she didn’t seem to notice the black revolver nearby slowly dissipating into mana.
“Well, first things first… Ouch…” Akira placed his hand behind his back, as if he was massaging a sore spot. “I’d like to thank you two.”
Akira focused mana onto the hand, until a familiar metal object appeared, perfectly fitting into his grip.
“Thank us?” Amaya asked.
“Why?” Hiroaki followed up.
Their fingers loosened for the slightest moment. It was just a second, but it was all he needed.
He pulled out the revolver from behind his back and pressed the muzzle against his temple. Hiroaki’s lips parted to yell out a warning while he dashed forward with his shield raised.
“Well, I wouldn’t have been able to figure it out without you two, after all.”
Akira’s blood-caked finger closed around the trigger.
[INPUT CONFIRMED: MANA ROULETTE, INITIATING]
A shockwave burst outwards from Ten’s barrel.