It felt like an eternity.
An eternity of slumber, silence, and vigilance. Of pain, madness, and sorrow.
But something changed. There was a fracture in the dream, a fracture that spread, cracked, and rent the world asunder, casting him adrift in the Sea of Souls.
He drifted aimlessly, pulled along by the whims of the current and the souls that bore him. But slowly, ever so slowly, he felt himself pulled upwards, towards that gleaming, bright light that cast its wondrous rays over the sea and gave every soul its color.
But the endless dream was reluctant to let him go; he could still feel the shards that clung to him, the last vestiges of its tendrils weighing on him, trying to drag him back down, back into that nightmare.
He could still remember it, that monstrous, black demon, its eyes glowing red with the hatred of a thousand souls. He could still feel its frenzied claws, its talons tearing into him with an anguished cry like it was tearing itself apart rather than him.
It was still all too vivid, all too fresh, and as he struggled to escape that crushing abyss, that infinite weight, he couldn't tell what was fake, what was real, what was fake, what was real, what was fake, what was real –
"Good morning, Minato~"
The voice was soothing, comfortable, and so painfully familiar. It sliced through his hazy consciousness, ensnaring him in its melody and forcefully hauled him up.
His eyes shot open.
". . . Elizabeth?"
Minato's voice was hoarse, his words sounding just as cracked and dry as the throat they came out of. But even so, she beamed at him, smiling as if he had just handed her the world itself on a silver platter.
"I'm glad to see your cognitive abilities are still in top condition! I was afraid that your years spent as a stone statue might have dulled your wits."
He slowly sat up, each movement giving rise to some protest from something within his body. But even as the aches piled on, compounding with each other into an overwhelming agony that would've paralyzed lesser men, he couldn't help but feel . . .
He felt alive. He felt whole. He couldn't feel that immense burden anymore, that crushing despair that had wanted nothing more than to simply give up and die. Which must mean . . .
"Don't worry about Erebus; I took care of it."
He blinked at her. How did one "take care" of an immortal manifestation of humanity's darkest feelings?
She rolled her eyes at his blank expression. "In case you couldn't tell, I mean I killed it! I even teleported it to the moon first to avoid causing collateral damage. And this time, it's gone for good. Which means . . ." She stepped in front of him and bent over so they were staring at each other in the face.
"You're free now," she said softly. "You don't have to bear that burden anymore, that onerous cross that no one should have to shoulder."
Minato blinked again, but this time, he felt the wet trickle of a tear sliding down his cheek. He . . . he hadn't been expecting this. He hadn't expected to be saved, hadn't expected to be given any sort of reprieve from the eternal torment he had willingly subjected himself to.
But as he stared at his savior and felt the warmth of her gentle gaze on him, as he listened to the steady beat of their hearts, pounding in unison and reminding him that he was alive, that he was flesh-and-blood and not a cold, stiff statue, it all finally sunk in.
Relief crashed down on him like a mighty wave, and he had never felt more human. Because it was human nature to be selfish, to put one's own well-being above that of others, and even when he willingly made the choice to go against it, to go against that raw, basic instinct for the sake of those he cherished, there had still been that fear, that nagging doubt that he was making a mistake.
Even as he felt the seal envelop him, he had heard that haunting whisper in the back of his head:
Why did he have to be the one to give up his happiness? Right when he had found something worth living for, why did he have to be the one to sacrifice it for the sake of others?
It wasn't fair. Even as he felt his body stiffen, flesh giving way to stone, his final act to save all of humanity, that whisper had continued to repeat in the far reaches of his mind.
It wasn't fair.
In his last moments before the endless dream pulled him down for his eternal slumber, he only had one thought, one prayer, one final, hopeless wish:
To be saved.
And now, his impossible wish had come true.
The waves of relief finally receded, and he slowly came down from those euphoric highs the tides had taken him to, leaving him drained. Tired. But there was still one more thing he had to do above all else.
". . . What happened to SEES?"
"Funny you should ask about them." She sat down next to him. "Would you like to hear a fairy tale?"
Slowly, he nodded.
The tale was a simple one. It was of a woman with a simple desire, of a curious group known as the Shadow Operatives, and of their efforts to bring about a miracle to save the one they all held dear.
Because a miracle was indeed what it would take to destroy the evil god that held their loved one hostage.
And through much hardship and tireless effort, a miracle is what they managed to achieve.
Minato slowly took it all in, and although his face was as impassive as ever, his heart was moved; it was touching to know that Elizabeth and SEES had treasured him so, to know that they had spent countless hours honing their knowledge and abilities to bring about their miracle:
Transporting Erebus to a world where it could be killed.
But as she spoke, he could feel an undercurrent of sadness, a hint that this fairy tale wouldn't have a happy ending. He could already guess what this tragedy might be when he had woken up and saw that people were missing, that people who should've been here weren't.
Even so, he felt the need to ask anyway.
She shook her head sadly. "We could only muster up enough energy to send one person across along with Erebus," she said. "Given my strength, it was a unanimous decision as to who that person might be."
Minato lowered his head. He had been expecting as much. But there was still one more possibility, one more avenue that he needed to explore even though he already knew the answer.
"Can we go back?"
He tried to not be crushed when she shook her head, when she looked down and whispered, "I'm sorry." He felt his world crumble just a little, but he forced himself to catch the pieces as they fell, forced himself to rebuild it stronger than before.
He had been prepared for this possibility. After all, he had accepted that he might never see them again when he sacrificed himself for their sakes. Reclaiming his life was already far more than he could ever have asked for.
Simply knowing that they were still well would have to be good enough for him.
But now that he was free, he felt lost. Unsure. What was his purpose, now that fate had separated him from the one group that had given him life, had given him meaning?
He felt like he had regressed back to his apathetic self, that hollow existence that had never truly lived until he met SEES so long ago. He knew his old friends would be disappointed to see him in this sorry state, floundering about like a fish on land.
He could only imagine the choice words some of them might have for him.
"They wanted you to live."
He looked up at Elizabeth's words to find her golden eyes staring straight into his soul.
"Growing up. Getting a job. Marriage. Family. Finding happiness. All these were denied to you because of the burden you willingly placed on yourself." Her stare intensified. "They didn't want that. I didn't want that. In fact, they left me a message. What was it Junpei said? Ah, right. He said that if you were sulking after you got out, I should 'kick your ass into gear'." A hint of red tinted her cheeks. "A bit vulgar, but I do believe it conveys its message quite effectively."
Minato snorted. Leave it to Junpei to be the one to motivate him again, even when they were a world apart. And he had to admit, hearing Elizabeth mimic the crude boy's tone was a treat in and of itself.
He stood up. If that was what his old friends wished of him, then he would oblige. He would honor their last wishes and live his life to the fullest.
And the very first thing he was going to do . . .
Was graduate properly.
After all, he had never finished his senior year. Dying on graduation day didn't help matters either.
Thus resolved, he asked Elizabeth what she intended to do.
"A most excellent question! I have already taken the liberty of scouting the nearby area, and it seems this world's version of Japan does indeed use the same currency as our own, so we needn't worry about money." Her eyes widened. "Ah, I should give you some, shouldn't I? You will need money to purchase those fabled 'school lunches', of course."
She took out her purse, made him hold out his hands, and upturned it.
A cascade of coins came pouring out, a never-ending torrent that quickly spilled out of his hands and clattered on the floor.
Oh. He remembered now. Elizabeth's patented 'bottomless black purse'.
He knew he spent a lot of money on the Compendium, but he didn't think he spent that much. Certainly not enough for her to casually toss away three million yen into water fountains.
"There! That should be enough to cover all of your needs."
Minato glanced down. The shower of coins had piled up on itself, conglomerating into a stack that reached as high as his knees.
He was going to need a much bigger wallet to carry it all.
As his mind sifted through his Personas looking for one that could possibly alter the spatial dimensions of his newly gifted wallet, she turned away with a thoughtful expression, as if she hadn't dumped a million yen's worth of coins on him.
"Going back to the dilemma of what I shall do from now on . . ." She tapped her chin repeatedly. "We have no need of money, so there is no need for me to work. However, as I understand it, it is customary for women who look my age to be employed in some fashion in human society. Those who shirk their obligations are looked down upon by others and are referred to in a derogatory fashion . . . what was the term?"
As he carefully extricated himself from his monetary prison, she continued with a triumphant tone. "NEET! That was the term. Not in education, employment, or training." She nodded sagely. "I do not wish to be associated with such a negative stigma, so I suppose I shall find some task that intrigues me."
Given Elizabeth's less-than-stellar knowledge of human culture, he had his doubts about her ability to hold any sort of position. When he voiced his concerns, however, she simply dismissed them with a wave of her hand.
"Fear not, I have learned quite a bit about your society during our time together! The Shadow Operatives were only too happy to teach me more about Japanese culture as well; I am confident that I can navigate your society without standing out."
He gazed at her in disbelief.
"Without standing out too much," she conceded.
Minato shook his head and smiled in amusement. He had missed moments like these, he realized. Moments where he could simply relax and freely converse with those he cherished. After tasting the sweetness of the fruit of bonds, the knowledge that there were those that cared about him and whom he cared about in return, he didn't think he could go back to those lonely days of solitude anymore.
He was glad that Elizabeth was here. He was grateful to her for freeing him. He was grateful to her for choosing to stay with him. He was grateful to her for bearing the last wishes of his old friends, so that he may treasure them in his heart forever.
That's right, he hadn't properly thanked her yet, had he? How rude of him.
His voice was but a whisper, and for a moment, he was afraid that perhaps it hadn't reached her, she who had already stepped towards the doorway in pursuit of her latest whim.
But then she turned around and gazed at him. Something passed between them then, a signal transmitted along those invisible ties that had brought them together again, something that could not be expressed with words.
"It was my pleasure."
Going out with Elizabeth was like going out with a hyperactive child who was fascinated by everything she saw.
Minato had already lost track of the number of detours they had taken during their excursion into the outside world, but he was sure it was somewhere in the double-digits and steadily climbing up.
"A museum! Is that not a place where items of great artistic and historical value are showcased for the masses to enjoy?"
She had dragged him outside soon after his awakening to "reacclimate him with the environment", but it was quite clear that it was merely an excuse to let them go out on a date together.
He appreciated it. It had been so long since he had lost himself in a crowd of people, enveloped by a throng of humanity and its ceaseless march towards a brighter future. There was something comforting about being among others, a deep sense of certainty that he was not alone.
There was a reason why solitary confinement was often considered inhumane. People desired connections to others, needed it, in fact, something he had learned all too well as he forged bonds with the members of SEES.
His vigil over the thin border that separated Erebus and Nyx had been a lonely existence, one where he had been suspended in a waking dream. As such, he had felt every torturous moment, every sting of pain whenever Erebus unleashed its rage upon him. His heart had ached all the while, wishing for someone, anyone to connect with. Someone to relieve him of his mental sorrows, someone to tell him that it would be all right.
It had been a painful, lonely existence, but it was one that he had willingly endured for the sake of those he cherished.
"You should try to smile more, Minato!"
He blinked. Elizabeth was right up in his face, smiling in amusement.
"That dour look doesn't suit you. Chin up! This is the start of your brand-new lease on life, and you should be facing it with positivity!"
Almost immediately, he felt his own lips curl up in a smile. He had missed her antics more than he realized, it seemed. He didn't know what she saw in him, what a bubbly, energetic woman saw in a quiet, passive boy like him, but he was glad she had deemed him worthy.
Perhaps she simply enjoyed trying to get a reaction out of him. He certainly enjoyed her liveliness at least, craved it in fact, a testament to the yawning void in him that had been left by years of hosting Death.
He knew she was simply trying to cheer him up, trying to "kick his ass into gear" in her own special way. But that didn't make her any less right; dwelling on the past wouldn't do either of them any good, and it was disrespectful towards those who had worked so hard to save him, those who had been left behind and had wanted him to live.
"That's better! If only the others could see you now . . ." She sighed. "I think they'd be delighted."
Minato wasn't so sure about that. It hadn't even been half a day since Junpei's "wake-up call", and he had almost found himself brooding again, thoughts consumed by what he lost rather than what he had. He was sure his old comrades would've huddled together to come up with something more creative to help him get over it.
. . . Best to not think about that. He didn't want to even imagine what kind of personal executions Mitsuru could design for him with the rest of SEES helping.
Instead, he would focus on the present. The present that they had all worked together to bring him.
It truly was a gift to live in the present.
"A library? Is that not a temple of knowledge, where information is shared freely with all who make the pilgrimage to its halls?"
Elizabeth scampered off to the side, and he felt himself following in her footsteps to stop in front of an elegantly designed building with a dignified air about it.
It seemed this was to be their latest detour.
"What a convenient location to stumble upon! It would do us well to learn more about this world we've arrived in."
He had to agree on that front; besides, while this world seemed nearly identical to his own, he was curious to see if there were any small differences in play.
The moment Elizabeth stepped through the automatic doors and saw all those books lining the shelves, she couldn't help herself.
The next thing she knew, she had already pulled down a book and was leafing through its pages at a breakneck pace, absorbing the information within near instantaneously.
"You must really like books."
She looked up as he approached her, a ghost of a smile on his face.
"I am fascinated by them, yes," she said, still flipping through the pages. "They are the only thing in your culture that I was already familiar with; the Compendium I manage is a book, after all."
She had always wanted to visit a library after hearing of their divine purpose, but there had never been time for such a frivolous whim. Her mission with the Shadow Operatives took precedence: to defeat the Shadows, wherever they might be, and to find a way to free the boy they all held dear from his curse.
Even the downtime between missions had not gone to waste; she had spent the entirety of those hours preparing, planning, brainstorming possible avenues they could explore.
Mitsuru had applauded her for her staunch work ethic, but even the strict, perfectionist redhead had expressed concern for her workaholic nature after a point.
They needn't have bothered. She wasn't human, after all. She wasn't constrained by their human limits.
Minato pulled down a book and skimmed through it. "It appears the history of this world is a bit different from ours," he noted. "There doesn't seem to have been nearly as many wars between nations."
She nodded idly. "Indeed." She put her book back and immediately pulled down another one. "There seems to be a recurring pattern of powerful kings throughout history – kings that were rumored to bring destruction with them wherever they went." She closed the book and looked down the aisle, gazing at the long line of texts that she had yet to read. "Is it true that anyone who seeks knowledge may take these tomes with them back home to read at their leisure?" she asked excitedly.
He glanced up at her question. "Yes. But you must return them within a certain timeframe."
"Oh, a deadline! A restriction that forces one to consume knowledge at a rapid pace, far faster than what they might be used to! What an ingenious method of developing young minds!"
He smiled in amusement. "If you wish to borrow some of these books, I believe the checkout counter is over there." He pointed.
Following his finger, she spotted a young woman sitting behind a counter, watching the various passersby mill about the area.
Ah, she must be a priestess of this temple! One in charge of safeguarding these sacred texts, surely.
Elizabeth approached the woman, a bundle of books in her arms. "I would like to, ah, what was the term? Check out? Yes, check out!"
The woman smiled at her. "Of course. If you would just show me your library card . . . ."
She blinked in confusion. Library card? Was that a proof of membership? Did she have to join the temple to partake in this sacred ritual of "checking out?"
"Ah, I don't have one of those," she confessed.
The woman's smile did not falter. "That's okay! Just give me some form of identification, and I can set you up in a jiffy!"
She blinked again. Identification? She needed some sort of item that could identify her? She didn't have anything like that, unless . . .
Suddenly finding inspiration, she pulled out the Persona Compendium and set it on the counter. It was, after all, what her duties as an attendant of the Velvet Room had revolved around. There was no object in existence that defined her better than this!
The woman's smile showed the faintest of cracks as she picked up the Compendium and peered within its depths. "Ah, this is . . . a book? On mythology, at that . . ." She looked up. "I'm afraid we aren't currently accepting donations. Now, would you please show me some form of identification?"
That wasn't good enough? Elizabeth was stumped. "I do not think I possess this 'identification' you speak of . . . ."
The woman's smile finally broke down. "Really? You don't have a driver's license or a student ID or anything?" She sighed. "In that case, I'm afraid I cannot allow you to check any of these books out. You will simply have to read them here."
Oh? Was that all? She had thought there would be a much greater punishment for abandoning a ritual half-way through, but this temple must be more generous than she thought.
"Is that so? Very well, then! Thank you for your time."
She walked back towards where her lover waited, a mildly dejected look on her face.
He looked up at her approach. "Trouble?"
She frowned. "Apparently, I lack some form of 'identification' that is required by this temple. Which is a shame, since I had wished to partake in its services."
He nodded in understanding. "Ah, right. We don't exist here. Not officially, anyway." He frowned. "This may pose a problem in the future."
"Truly? Is this 'identification' you speak of so important?"
At his nod, she found herself furrowing her brows in thought. "Strange. I never encountered such an issue back in our old world. Although, it may simply be because Mitsuru and the others took care of the logistics for me."
"That sounds like something she would do if you joined her organization." He glanced to-and-fro, finding a nearby computer and sitting down in front of it (that reminded her, experiencing the activity known as 'surfing the internet' was definitely next on her to-do list!). "We may need to find others who can do the same for us here," he said as he opened the browser and began searching.
She glanced around, looking for another computer that was available, but every single one seemed to be occupied.
Disappointing. But that was fine, she had plenty of other things to occupy her attention.
She glanced down the aisles, the myriad of books lining their shelves creating a colorful mosaic that enraptured her, beckoning her to come hither and discover their secrets.
How long would it take for her to read every single book in the library, she wondered?
She always did enjoy a challenge.
Yuri was miffed. Peeved. Perhaps even a bit put-off.
She wasn't angry, proper Hime-Mikos do not get angry, they simply lost their composure for a moment. That was all.
She was simply a little . . . frustrated. Frustrated that two more contestants had shown up to compete for Godou's attention, and they all seemed so much more impressive than her.
She wasn't a fighter. The other three girls were all stellar warriors, wielding divine swords and commanding magic to aid Godou on the battlefield. Meanwhile, she was forced to remain in the backlines, acting as support.
Her only saving grace was that he relied on her Spirit Vision to gather the information needed for his Warrior Authority, which was, of course, a very important job! But even so, she wished she could do more for him, could be more useful to him, could stand out more to him.
Off the battlefield, the situation wasn't much better. Ena, her childhood friend, had a body that could only be described as that of a goddess (Godou's words, not hers), and Erica was a classic blonde bombshell who drew the envy of women everywhere. Liliana was no slouch either, possessing an exotic, fairy-like appearance that she only wished she could compete with.
The only thing Yuri had going for her was her intelligence; she had the best grades out of all of them, no, out of the entire school, a status that she took pride in. As a result, she had spent many late nights tutoring the four of them the day before a major exam.
It wasn't much, but the smile and "thank you" Godou expressed to her after she helped him ace a test made her heart soar.
She wanted to keep feeling that, that genuine feeling of gratitude and appreciation. Thus, it was imperative that she diligently keep up with her studies, which was why she was currently studying at the library.
Pulling down another book, she skimmed the first few pages, then closed it and put it back after realizing it wasn't what she was looking for.
She sighed. Math was her least favorite subject. All those numbers and symbols clumped together on the page made her head swirl. But since the other girls were even more hopeless than her at calculus, it was up to her to save her boyfriend from the terror of flunking out of school.
She knew it would be more efficient to use a computer to look up the information she needed but using one just didn't appeal to her. As a Hime-Miko, she had a strong connection to the spiritual world, and using something so touched by humans, so artificial was anathema to her. Books, on the other hand, felt more natural, more real. There was something special about the way it felt to turn a page, to breathe in the musty scent of a book as she delved into its pages. Something that technology simply couldn't produce (no matter what all those ads about e-books said!).
She only kept her cell phone on her because she understood the importance of communication; if it weren't for that, she would've tossed it away as soon as Amakasu-san had given it to her.
Stepping around a shelf, she bumped into a woman who happened to be there. "O – Oh, pardon me – !"
The woman said something in response, but Yuri couldn't hear it. Because her Spirit Vision had suddenly flared up, and her world had washed away.
It was afraid.
It howled and hissed, snarling at that all-too-familiar white-haired woman and the Avatar of Death at her side.
She had done something to it, it knew. It could feel that something was wrong, that something had changed.
Before, it had merely regarded the two of them as nuisances, buzzing flies that simply delayed the inevitable end it sought to bring about – for it was a god, an immortal manifestation of humanity's darkness that could not be erased.
But now, as it stared at that sinister blade bared against it, it felt naked, utterly exposed. There was a creeping chill in the air, and it could feel the bloodlust directed towards it, bloodlust that it had once been able to ignore with impunity.
The woman said something, and Death's grinning visage filled its view, a crackling skull that leered at it as the blade sunk deep into its hide, carving flesh apart.
In a single moment of clarity amidst the visceral pain that dominated its mind, it realized something:
For the first time, it was afraid of Death.
It tried to run. But there was no running from Death, that grim reaper who shadowed its victim wherever it might be.
It tried to fight. But one could not fight Death, for death was the phantom who came to collect, who would suffer no objection to its decrees.
In one desperate, final effort, it tried to attack the woman, that golden-eyed witch who had orchestrated its demise. But by then, its mutilated body could not even reach her, let alone strike her.
In its last moments before it faded forever, it could see its essence being drained away, trapped in those coffins strung up behind Death like a pair of morbid wings.
The last thing it ever saw was the lid of a coffin slamming shut over it.
The vision ended, and Yuri returned to her senses to find that her entire body was trembling.
It had felt so real. Like she had been there, had been chased by Death itself and mercilessly torn to pieces.
She could still feel it, that primal fear of death that Erebus had felt, that all-encompassing, all-consuming void that she hadn't even known gods could feel.
She stared down at her hands, hands that were pale and clammy, and she imagined that the rest of her body didn't look much better.
"Oh? You don't look so good; have you caught a fever, perchance?" The woman leaned in closer to her, and she almost instinctively backed away, afraid that Death might come leaping out of the woman's shadow at any moment and eviscerate her with its bloody black blade–!
There was no doubt about it. This woman was the mysterious Campione that had slain Erebus, the one that the History Compilation Committee had been panicking about for the past few days. And if she really could control a manifestation of Death as her vision suggested, they were very right to be worried indeed.
She had to report this. Had to get back and warn them, give them time to prepare, time to let Godou prepare.
But first, she had to make it out without dying from the newest Campione's ire or fainting from sheer terror.
"I – I'm fine," she stuttered out. "P – Please don't concern yourself over me."
"Are you sure? It's possible you're experiencing a panic attack: you seem to be breathing rapidly, your face looks pale, and you seem to be shaking quite a bit –"
Yuri felt that she really might experience a panic attack as the woman listed off her symptoms, but she was saved when a soft voice interjected:
"You're scaring her."
It was a boy. His voice was calm, melodic, and she could feel herself calming down simply by listening to it.
The woman's face fell. "Am I? I didn't think I was using any form of intimidation that might induce such a response, but I am still inexperienced in the ways of human culture, so perhaps I blundered somewhere." She gazed at her with sharp eyes, and Yuri felt herself stiffen up again. "As a token of apology, I shall lend you my aid. You came to this temple of knowledge seeking information, no? Tell me that which you seek, and I shall bring it to you!"
Yuri blinked. What? What was going on? Was the Campione really backing down just from the boy's words? And did she really offer to fetch books for her?
. . . Best to play along. Everyone knew that it was best to go along with whatever a Campione said.
"M – Math," she stammered out. "I – I was looking for math textbooks . . . ."
"Mathematics! A most useful yet complex field; I commend you for desiring to study such a difficult subject." The woman spun on her heel and walked away. "I shall return with your desired materials shortly!"
As she disappeared behind a set of shelves, Yuri could feel her pounding heart calm down, her body slowly realizing that the danger had passed. She turned to look at her savior, who was simply gazing at her impassively.
Remembering her manners, she hastily bowed. "T – Thank you for that. My name is Yuri Mariya."
He nodded at her. "Minato Arisato." He paused for a moment, then inclined his head into the distance. "And that was Elizabeth."
She had their names. Finally, the HCC could put a name and face to the newest Campione who had slain Erebus. And as a bonus, the knowledge of a mysterious boy who seemed to be acquainted with her. Should she try to get more information out of him?
It was risky. Every moment she spent here was another chance for her to be killed on a whim. But every scrap of knowledge could be vital, every tidbit of information could be what was necessary to fuel Godou's Warrior Authority, that trump card that could easily turn the tide of a battle between godlike beings.
Besides, as she remained in Minato's presence, she couldn't help but feel a sense of . . . peace. Tranquility. She felt at ease around him, safe and secure. It was that feeling that gave her the courage to stay and ask her questions.
"Um, may I ask how you know her? Elizabeth-san, I mean."
He turned to gaze at her, regarding her silently.
"She saved my life," he said softly.
Yuri blinked in surprise. That . . . she should've expected an answer like that; after all, she herself followed Godou out of loyalty after he had saved her from being used as a tool in one of Voban's sick ploys for power, but hearing it said so casually threw her for a loop anyway.
"I – I see." She paused, briefly considering, then decided to take the plunge. "What's she like?"
If he was at all put off by her sudden curiosity, he did not show it. Rather, he simply nodded along and responded like she was asking perfectly normal questions.
"She is very whimsical. Playful. Excitable. Curious, too." A pause. "Is that enough for you?"
From what she had heard so far, it sounded like the newest Campione would be quite a handful to manage. Then again, what Campione wasn't a pain to deal with?
She bowed again. "T – Thank you for indulging me!"
He nodded at her, acknowledging her gratitude, but as she turned to leave, her thoughts already awhirl about what she would put in her report, a mountain of books blocked her path.
Stunned in place by this sudden migration of dead trees and leather, Yuri almost jumped in surprise when it spoke to her.
"Apologies for the delay! I wanted to ensure that you obtained a comprehensive grasp of all the core fundamentals of mathematics, so I did my best to find the leading textbook in each of the fields!"
She was still stunned in place when the first textbook was dropped in her hands. Then another. And another.
"This one in particular is truly fascinating. I do not know why, but it seems that books with rather humorous titles that insult the reader are quite popular."
By this point, the stack of books in her hands had reached her head, and she could clearly see The Complete Idiot's Guide to Calculus as it joined its brethren in making her hands feel like they were about to fall off.
"And that should be the last one! If you read each of these books cover-to-cover, I'm sure you'll become one of the leading mathematicians of your generation!" Elizabeth's face popped out from behind the mound of glorified paperweights. "I'll be looking forward to hearing about you when you create a new theory that redefines the laws of the universe as we know it!"
Yuri was glad that the HCC had given her some basic martial arts training. Without it, she doubted that she would've been able to hold the weight of the history of math for this long.
Maybe, just maybe, if she was lucky, she would be able to reach the checkout counter without dropping anything and (possibly) irritating the newest Campione.
"Oh no! I forgot about quantum calculus! And q-theory! And noncommutative geometry! The library didn't have books on those subjects, so they escaped my notice! I must rectify this at once!"
On second thought, if she was going to die, she would rather be cut down quickly and painlessly by Death rather than succumb to textbook overdose.
Truly, the newest Campione was a most cruel and terrible tyrant.
It was Friday, and Kaoru was playing card games with her friend while the entirety of the History Compilation Committee ran around in the background like a bunch of headless chickens.
"Ah, Sayanomiya-san? For someone of your station, you may wish to show a little more concern."
One of the chickens running around had stopped to speak to her. How irritating.
"I fail to see what worrying over something out of our control is going to accomplish, Amakasu-kun." She looked up from her hand. "You should know as well as I do that doing something with insufficient information can be worse than doing nothing at all."
The report pertaining to the supposed existence of the eighth Campione could only be described as sparse at best. As far as they could tell, a Heretic God had suddenly appeared a few days ago, only to vanish just as abruptly.
Their Hime-Mikos (herself included) had worked together to divine the approximate location of the god's appearance, eventually deducing that it had appeared on a remote island off the coast of Japan. They had even managed to identify the god as Erebus, an old and powerful evil god.
However, when they had sent a group to investigate the site of the god's appearance, they had found . . .
There had been no trace of battle. No smoking craters, no snapped trees, no ravaged earth . . . nothing to indicate that a god had been slain there at all.
They had asked the local fishermen and port authorities if anyone had gone out there recently, but none of them reported activity of any sort near the island. For all intents and purposes, it was as if a Heretic God had descended only to promptly disappear right after.
It didn't make any sense. Heretic Gods didn't just disappear. They were either slain, or they eventually sated their hunger for destruction and calmed down before hibernating in the Netherworld.
There was no way that Erebus had calmed down in mere seconds. Which meant it must have been slain.
But by who? Godou, the resident Campione of Japan, had been nowhere near the island at the time. None of the other Campione had been nearby either, and while it was possible that some hidden Authority from one of them was the culprit, that was highly unlikely. After all, said Authority would need to be able to reach half-way across the world and have the capability to kill a Heretic God within seconds.
The power of the gods was incredible, but not that incredible.
In short, the most logical explanation was a third party. Perhaps a Campione who had been in hiding all this time, who had only recently chosen to resurface? Or perhaps someone who happened to be in the right place at the right time and was now the newest god-slayer?
"I understand what you are trying to say," Amakasu said. "But surely, it is never too early to begin trying to think of contingency plans, no?"
She scowled as her opponent outmaneuvered her yet again and forced her to concede the match. "Damnit. Should've seen that coming." She returned her gaze to him as her opponent cleared the table. "When the time comes, we'll use diplomacy as we've always done. Besides, we have Godou-kun on our side now, so we're not entirely helpless."
He frowned. "You know about Godou-san's reluctance to partake in the affairs of the supernatural. We cannot afford to wholly rely on him."
"Yes, yes, I know. But even so, you all need to learn to stop worrying. Lighten up a bit!"
He crossed his arms and gazed at her long and hard. "You're acting a bit strange today," he finally declared.
"Oh?" Kaoru's eyes roved over her newest hand. "And what makes you say that?"
"You're always the first to get serious whenever something involving the Campione occurs. You would've been the first to pick up that report and pick out the small details the rest of us aren't able to find." He glanced at the table she was sitting at. "Yet here you are, playing cards without a care in the world."
She gave a dry laugh as she set down a card. "You should know that this is part of my routine by now."
"Yes, I do." His eyes narrowed at her. "Which is why I also know that this the first time you've ever been on a losing streak in this game in years."
She leveraged another scowl at him as she lost yet another round. "What can I say? It's just not my lucky day."
"Perhaps," he conceded. "But I find that hard to believe for someone as skilled as you."
She sighed as she leaned back in her chair. Normally, as the heir of the Sayanomiya family and the Chief of this branch of the HCC, no one would dare to speak to her so bluntly.
But she and Amakasu went way back; he had been the first to welcome her when she first dipped her toes into the affairs of the supernatural as a child, and he had provided indispensable help to her over the years as she struggled to gain her bearings in this strange, dangerous moonlit world.
He was a useful advisor. An excellent secretary. And above all else . . .
A loyal friend.
He deserved an explanation.
"I had a vision," she said softly.
He immediately perked up, sensing that what she was about to divulge was something crucial.
"It was a few days ago, right after we felt Erebus descend, actually." She gazed off into the distance, through a window and over the horizon, so far she thought she might see into another world. "I saw a world. A world most similar to ours, but with one crucial difference –
"There were no Heretic Gods. And there were no Devil Kings."
He was silent as she spoke, a fact that she appreciated. She felt that if he spoke, it would shatter this illusion she had built, that this fake world she had woven out of her words would collapse and fade away forever.
"I could see people milling around, living normal, everyday lives. There was no undercurrent of fear, no lingering sense of dread, no sense of apprehension that perhaps, at any moment, they would be killed by something out of their control, that divine retribution might be visited upon them for no reason other than they were in the wrong place at the wrong time."
She turned back to him, a wistful look on her face. "When I saw that, I couldn't help but think . . ."
"Wouldn't it be nice if we lived in a world like that?"
Her story finished, the world she had built slowly dissipated, its entrancing beauty fading to make way for the cold, harsh reality they lived in.
Sensing her withdrawal from her pleasant dream, Amakasu finally voiced his thoughts. "Do you believe this vision has anything to do with the one who possibly slew Erebus?"
"Who can say? It was a nice dream while it lasted though." She turned back to her card game. "Anyway, there you have it. That's what's been bugging me all this time; that and my wishful thinking."
He nodded and looked as if he wanted to say more, only for them to be interrupted by a chicken who had found his head.
"Sayanomiya-san! There's an urgent message from Yuri-san!"
Sighing, she got up. Looks like playtime was over.
A shame, really. She had just gotten a winning hand too.