The Eternal Tale
The Sixth Chapter – Setting Up The Arc
"Hm. Well, to sum it all up - we planned all of this. Hayato is also a member of the student council."
Mikado shrugged his shoulders lightly, but that did nothing at all to appease the discontent that the five 'heroes' felt.
"Yes, we already understand that. But please explain the reasons behind why you chose to do this," Aoi said. She curled a few errant strands of ear behind her ear and glared at the student council president.
"There are actually quite a few good reasons for this, Shinki-san. One, we wanted to test out your fighting ability, and what better way to do that than to engage all of you in a real fight? Two, it also serves to give some much needed fighting experience, and allow you guys to get accustomed to using your abilities. Three, it was an opportunity for the three of you who have yet to awaken your abilities to do so. Four - "
The interrupter was Ken, who had just held up a hand. "What does that mean, president? Is it not possible for our powers to awaken normally, like Hayami-san and Hikage-san?"
My powers didn't awaken by themselves, Keisei pointed out. Of course, that was only in his mind. He did not say anything at all aloud.
"That's a good point," Mikado admitted. "It's not as simple as that. This is again due to your unfamiliarity with the 'story', but there's a world of difference between now and the time when they awakened their powers. In Hayami-san's case, her powers had awakened before the story started. I wasn't kidding when I said that this was the first chapter. It's no problem at all to acquire your powers before hand. To put it in another way, it happens 'off-screen', and therefore isn't important. But all of you are 'on-screen' now. And that changes everything, because awakening a new ability isn't some minor matter. The story usually won't allow it to happen without some important event accompanying it. It's plot important. One of the easiest ways to achieve this would have been to have one of your awaken your powers in order to save Hayami-san and Hikage-san from their desperate situation just now, but those two were too competent for that."
Wait a minute. But that means...
"...In other words, what I did was actually detrimental," Keisei said, completing his thought aloud.
If he had lost, then it was actually likely that Aoi, Ken, or Shion would have awakened their powers in order to save them from their desperate situation. After all, this was just the start of the story. The heroes weren't going to be defeated here. Through the twisted logic of the playing field that they were on, it had actually become beneficial to lose.
Hayato shook his head in response. There was still a gaping hole in the middle of his body, but he appeared entirely unphased by the grievous wound. "That's one way of looking at it, and it's a good idea to get used to thinking about what the story would do, but it's not one hundred percent either, you know. You can't be certain and you can't rely absolutely on your predictions. Maybe the story would have intervened in some other way if you had lost. Since I'm not actually an enemy, I would have stopped after I defeated the both of you anyway."
"That's right. You can think of it as us trying our luck. If it works out, great, but it's not something that you should actively aim for. Of course, everything depends on the situation...There may come a time when your only hope is to manipulate the story in your favour. But that's a strategy that should only be used when you have no other choice," Mikado added.
What he had said was quite true, but there was one more reason why he had not wanted Keisei to lose. It'd be troublesome if the 'protagonist' wasn't able to handle a threat like that. We can't have him always getting bailed out... thought Mikado.
The student council president coughed before continuing. "Anyway, as I was saying, there's also a fourth reason that explains why we wanted to do this. And that's to demonstrate the effect that the story has, and to warn you guys about it. As you've already seen, Hayami-san attacked Hayato earlier. She did not, I am sure, intend to do that."
Sakura perked up upon hearing Mikado mention this, but she still remained silent. The redhead's current behavior was very much the opposite of her initial cheerful and outgoing demeanour, and she bit onto her lower lip and narrowed her eyes as she listened to Mikado. It seemed as though what she had did earlier was still weighing heavily upon her mind.
Mikado gave her an encouraging smile and carried on. "What had caused Hayami-san to act in such a way was none other than the story. After all, it's only natural to finish off your opponent in a dramatic way like that. That too, is something that you have to be aware of. Right now, you're characters within a story. But you're also actual, real people. Don't forget that. There are still three more years to go, and the story's influence will only strengthen over time. It's necessary to act according to the story, but don't lose yourself inside it. That will only lead you down the path of ruin."
This entire story is one troublesome pain in the ass, huh... thought Keisei. The 'story' had seemed like a dangerous enough concept in the first place, but it was only proving to be more and more malignant with each piece of information that they learned about it.
Hayato nodded, acknowledging what Mikado had said. "And it's a good thing we planned this too, because the little lady over there - " he was obviously referring to Sakura, " - looks pretty shellshocked still. You don't want something like that to happen only when the story properly starts, and you have to fight real enemies. That would have made for a bad situation."
He planted a hand on his waist, all the while ignoring the real elephant in the room - the wound that Sakura had inflicted upon him. It went without saying that no ordinary human could have survived it, but he seemed determined not to bring it up himself.
It was awkward, but Keisei decided to bite the bullet.
"...Toudou...senpai, was it?"
"Yeah, that's my name. What's up?"
Hayato raised an eyebrow, but there was a slight change in the curvature of his lips that Keisei did not miss.
What's up? You know damn well what's up, quit playing dumb! Keisei screamed within the confines of his mind.
"That's all very well, but there's one thing that I'm sure everyone here would like to know. How is it that you're able to take a wound like that and not be harmed by it?"
"Ah." The speedster's smile shifted into a flat-out grin. "I'll let Mikado explain that. He's the boss, after all."
"There's no reason why you couldn't have explained it yourself!" Mikado protested, pushing his fingers against his forehead. "Well, fine. It's not like I particularly mind doing this. Listen up, my cute juniors. To be direct about all of this - we aren't human. Anybody in this school who isn't your age isn't human. After all, I've already told you that this school operates on a three-year cycle. In other words, we've all already completed our cycle. There's no longer any reason for us to remain in this school. What this school - and the story - does is that it copies the data from its records of the previous cycle, and uses that to create copies of the students that took part in that cycle. That's us. To borrow a term from video games, you can think of us as NPCs."
At this juncture, Aoi raised her hand. She looked rather uncertain of herself. "N...P...Cs? What exactly does that term mean, president?"
Mikado blinked. "Haven't you ever played any RPGs before, Shinki-san?"
"RPGs? I'm afraid I do not know the meaning of such a term, either."
Shion scuttled over next to Aoi and scrawled a few sentences on her writing pad. (An RPG is a type of video game, Shinki-san. NPC is a term that refers to characters inside the game that aren't controlled by humans. In other words, they're just a part of the game.)
"Ah. I see. I'm sorry to say that I have no experience at all with video games, but I do understand the explanation," Aoi replied, closing her eyes and nodding her head.
Well, she does give off the impression of someone who doesn't bother at all with electronics. You wouldn't see someone of her type in Akiba... Keisei noted.
Incidentally, Keisei wasn't a big fan of video games himself, but he did at least play them occasionally.
"So, that means that the senpai here are existences that are similar to ghosts," Aoi added.
Mikado smiled."Exactly. Ghosts, or something like intelligent computer programs that the story created to act as its agents. The 'me' that exists here right now is just a record of myself during the three years that I spent here, and the same goes for Reika and Hayato, as well as the other members of the student council. That's why we can shrug off fatal wounds in the way Hayato did. We're not even alive."
It was a concept that was simple enough to understand, but Keisei still found it surreal to think that the tall, bespectacled figure standing before him was not a human, no matter how much he resembled one.
"Right. So now that we've gotten that out of way, let's carry on. Actually, with that, we've already completed most of the necessary explanations, but there's one more thing that all of you have to know," Mikado said.
Ken was the one who obliged Mikado's leading statement. "And what's that, president?"
"It's the explanation of how the story progresses. Those of you more familiar with manga would probably have figured this out by now, but a 'story' of this type progresses in the form of story arcs, and it's the same here as well. Since Shinki-san probably isn't aware of this, I'll just explain the term 'story arcs' as mini-stories. As the good guys, you all have one condition to fulfil for each story arc. Usually this is something like beating the main villain of the arc, but it's possible for there to be other conditions as well. Sometimes, you might have to chase after a really powerful magical item, or something like that instead."
There was again silence as everyone took their time to digest this new piece of information.
"So...What happens if we lose? In fact, considering we're the good guys here, how is it even possible for us to lose in the first place?" Keisei asked.
"It's definitely possible. The only thing that probably can't happen even if you lose is that none of you guys can die. But that won't matter. Keep in mind that the story will only reward those who win. Even if you keep your lives, you wouldn't have fulfilled your objective at the end of three years if you don't win. And, of course, it's in your interest to win during each story arc, even if it's only to defend yourselves. The 'evil' side aren't going to pull any punches."
"I get it. So that means that we're about to enter our first story arc," Ken said.
"Yup. So prepare yourselves for it. In our case, we had a big advantage because we had an ability that allowed us to identify the arc 's win condition. Since you guys don't have that luxury, you should probably try to be on the lookout for anything that might serve as a hint regarding that. The first arc is always the most difficult, though. The later arcs carry on from the first arc, and it's easier to guess what the story wants you to do then, but the first arc is unconnected to anything else. What you need to look for is some kind of connection, if it exists."
A hint and a connection, huh? Like what...Wait. Keisei slapped himself on the forehead.
The sound caused everyone else in the room, as one, to turn towards him.
"What is the matter, Hikage-san?" asked Aoi.
"Oh, well...I was just thinking about something. It might be possible that I know what the next arc is going to be about. I'm pretty confident I know who one of the enemies in the next arc will be, at least. It's someone that we both know, Shinki-san."
"An enemy that we both know? Who could that be - oh."
Her faced twisted into a grimace and she crossed her arms. "Yes, I agree with you. It's quite likely, isn't it?"
Keisei thought back to something that Mikado had mentioned earlier, before Hayato had appeared.
"And there's one more important thing to note. You can't use an 'ability' on a person who's in a different 'story' from you. That's basically a contradiction, because such abilities are granted by the story itself. Since your abilities are a representation of your self in the story, you can't use them in a story where you don't exist. The story won't allow you to cross over."
It was obvious that any enemies that they met would have to be in the same 'story' as they were. And, as Mikado had said, it was only possible for someone in the same story to use an ability on them.
All of that led him to only one conclusion.
There was someone who was undoubtedly an enemy, and who existed in the same story as they did.
"I understand that you're a villain, and I can't exactly rebuke your actions, but was all of this really necessary? It seems far too high-handed."
Himegami Reika sighed as she twisted a lock of golden hair around her index finger. Her task had been quite simple - she was to give the explanations to the 'evil' side in this particular story, in the same way Mikado had been assigned to guide the 'good' students. And yet, what surrounded her now was nothing less than a scene of carnage.
Littered on the ground around her, were the bodies of numerous students. Some of them appeared unharmed, but the majority of them had charred clothes and burn marks seared into the exposed parts of their body. Quite a few were moaning in pain from their injuries.
"You were done with your explanations, weren't you, miss? I prefer to get straight to the point, y'know. Besides, none of 'em are dead. I didn't kill anyone. 'Fire' is a pretty damn lousy weapon in a 'story' like this, huh? Nobody ever gets beaten by a fire attack."
The small puff of fire that the lighter produced winked out as the boy replaced the cap of the lighter.
Amakawa Daisuke get off his chair and observed his handiwork. He had managed to take down most of the other students with his attacks, but there were four others that were still standing after his assault. For some reason, the sun had shifted into such a particular angle as to produce a trick of draping all four of them in shadow, such that only their silhouettes were visible, and not any of their facial features.
He stared at them for a few moments.
"Say...Himegami-senpai, was it? Is that something that happens often? It kinda gives me the creeps."
"What are you talking about?" replied Reika.
"The way I can't see any of those guys. They're all covered in shadow and everything."
"Oh. I think that is common, yes. It's another thing that the 'story' is fond of doing."
"...Right. So, good job, the four of you guys. Whose faces I can't see. You might wanna move forward a bit so that I can see you and so that you don't scare the hell out of me."
The four students did so.
"Good. So it looks like I'm the leader of this little gang, unless somebody has an objection?"
Daisuke lifted the cap of his lighter again, and once again a red haze appeared from the small object.
There was no response, which could, of course, only mean consent.
"Great. Let's all have fun fighting alongside each other, you hear me?"
Daisuke smiled widely, but there was no trace of humour in his words or actions.
Four others...That means five including myself. Assuming that all of the fights are one-on-one, that means that you've got four pals yourself, Hikage Keisei. Just wait. I'm coming for ya.