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ON THE SUBJECT OF NAMES

"Seki Hyobe here. Psi is the principle art of science; that is to say, theoretically imagics came first. One's psi is merely a scientific manifestation of that abnormal concept, allowing us to create a system in which theoretical laws can properly explain it."

SEKI HYOBE

It was April 20th.

My third year at Albedineity—a school for Espers in the Governmentally Organized Territory of Tokyo—had just barely begun. It was rather surreal, I must admit; I doubt the concept of growing up was unbeknownst to anyone, but it was at the very least muted in my mind. I never had time to think on the more luxurious thoughts that life had to offer, so it really did creep up on me in a way I couldn't really expect. Still, I like to think I took it in stride, and when I was enlisted once more as an official Mache for Albedineity's practical training program, I couldn't have been happier.

In short, this would be my third year operating as a licensed Mache.

It was said the common age for Esper certification was sometime around your third year of University, where you were finally allowed to take on specialize internships to hone your skills. However, Albedineity was always a school focused on encouraging auturgy within their students, and the most promising were inserted into a practical training program where they'd be expected to hone their skills for their second or third year license exams. In order to do this, Albedineity established the "Mache" program, which acted as a separate police force from the sovereign Hunter Association.

There were a few special cases, though, which primarily came up during aptitude testing. If a student registered higher than a ten on the preliminary test, they would be aggressively pushed into applying for a license potentially years in advance. For me, it meant I underwent the exams within the second month of becoming a student at Albedineity.

"Frankly, you'd be hard-pressed to find any other students as promising as you in GOTT," Doctor Watanabe informed me, painstakingly removing the suction wires from my body, "I believe there's only five others that come close, and only one of them is younger than you."

It was extremely generous praise, and although I didn't exactly consider myself representative of his standards, I was glad to finally have a place in the world.

I had originally got into Albedineity through good grades alone. Truthfully, Albedineity's intellectual exams were difficult—much too difficult to be considered "high school level courses". Indeed, when it came to intellectual academies in GOTT, there were really only two: Albedineity and Phrontistery.

The Phrontistery had more of a focus on imagics, though, which never really interested me as a student of science. Concepts that couldn't be explained in reality, to me, had no place within it.

I suppose that wasn't giving imagics a fair chance, but it was similar to scientists and historians rarely coexisted in the same person, despite the close connection of their respective careers. Psionics, in this analogy, would fall closer to science on this scale.

I momentarily halted my reflections to glance at the carnage that stood before me. Several cars had been upturned, with the few who could still protest their treatment blinking rapidly with the only form of communication available to them. Dumpsters had travelled out from their alleyways and onto the streets, and lines of police tape ran across the perimeter as many a dumbfounded officer scratched their heads at peculiar scene.

One of the officers was draped in a trenchcoat, his brow furrowed in a frenzied debate with a youth in a white school uniform. An underclassman Mache, employed underneath Albedineity's practical training program in order to solve psionic incidents.

The Mache Organization had two distinctive branches, the Theomachy and the Iconomachy. Theos, for short, focused on incidents with imagics, namely young Mages and street thugs who had discovered magic through outside sources or internal struggles. Meanwhile, Icons, like myself, focused almost entirely on psionics.

The suffix machy, derived from the Greek mache, refers to combat, which makes the meaning of the terms rather self-explanatory, and a little presumptuous. Iconomachy translated to a fight against idol worship, the disposition many Mages had towards Espers in their praising of technology and machines. Theomachy, meanwhile, referred to a fight against the gods, which aptly described the battle between science and religion, where many imagic concepts originated from. I always thought that these names denoted the divide between both worlds quite well, especially with the stereotypical depiction of scientists being against god.

While imagics hailed their power from unknown arts, psionic theory was founded in reality. The phrase, "reality guides machine", put into practice our first ancestral thoughts. Through gene manipulation and full-body awakening, commonly abbreviated as "FBA", the participant gains the ability to ignore select wordly laws through a process with regards to quantum theory. In short, FBA simulates a box which protects the user against the universe's defining principles, allowing a user to modify said principles using their origin, another overly-complex term used to describe the ability FBA kindles on a subject.

These origins, generally, are extremely minute, allowing certain individuals to modify principles within the "circle of recollection". I don't wish to bore you by explaining every overly-specific term, but think of psionic theory as a circle which encompasses many abilities or powers. Each ring on the circle represents a power threshold, and as abilities get closer to the center, the user reaches a state where they more-and-more can begin to manipulate the core fundamentals of the universe. By this analogy, you can understandably figure that those in the outer circles are much more numerous than the high-aptitude centers.

Then again, it took me many years of schooling to fully grasp these concepts, so I wouldn't be surprised if a bit of that explanation went over your head.

I was aptitude nine, meaning that I held a core strength that many other Espers envied. The core of ability was commonly thought to be aptitude twelve, of which there were three known cases. I say "cases", because no one person truly becomes an aptitude twelve Esper. Instead, origin can manifest as universe-altering strength through obscure and often difficult processes, usually being a result of freak phenomenon in the universe.

With that exposition out of the way, I was currently on the trail of the culprit that caused this messy situation. The Hunter Organization had pinned the breakout on a psi user dubbed "Call Card", due to his use of forcefully invoking others true names using a magical artifact equally dubbed "case zero", being the first of its kind.

Call Card, from the outlook, seemed to be a bastard of imagics and psionics. At the very least, he had somehow received an incredibly rare artifact, which he had begun using against GOTT's serv population almost indiscriminately.

Servs were common biological occurrences, but rarely seen within the GOTT. Select humans who lacked any real aptitude for psionics or imagics were generally referred to under this pseudonym. Theoretically, it was impossible to maintain zero aptitude for either craft, but both bodily structure and principles played a big part in whether someone was born with "natural talent". Certain networks of nerves simply couldn't support FBA, and imagics was always an art of the mind rather than the body.

Not to say psionics didn't require superior intellect, of course.

It wasn't that servs were particularly looked down upon by the average person, which made the cases of Calling Card that much stranger. Especially since, as population goes, there were a lot more servs than any other person on Earth. The only exception was naturally the GOTT, which housed eighty percent of Japan's Mages and Espers. It was mostly an education district, although it still maintained the many tourist attractions that it dedicated its fame back in the heydays of humanity. Because of this, it wasn't strange to see foreigners roaming the streets, ogling at both the entertainment buildings and the academy facilities.

On the other hand, Calling Card was said to been invoking the true names of many servs, which virtually had no effect on their wellbeing. In fact, most harm that came to the people affected by Calling Card was done primarily before the artifact ever extracted their true names—the act of reciting one's true names, generally in spells, increased the effectiveness of said magick, but only if that person also had a strong astral presence. In regards to Espers and servs, true names had little to no use. An incredibly strange case, for sure.

I reached the other side of the street, only sparing a moment to watch the fleeting ground beneath me. Right, I was currently jumping from one rooftop to the other, due in large part to my personal origin, AP. Simply, "acceleration and positioning". This allowed me to change my speed in regards to the time my body took to move, and also allowed me to lessen my impact against objects that I marked within my vision by accelerating at the last moment. My abilities over position, however, were quite mundane, and was considered an aptitude three origin. Still, I found it quite helpful to maintain the spherical qualities of my Iron Cross, which was quite possibly the most over exaggerated thing I could've called it, yet infinitely more awesome than any other of my ideas.

As I landed on a dormant rooftop, save for a few open ventilation shafts and electrical machinery, I felt footsteps enter my natural vicinity. In short, I felt them before I heard them. It was hard to explain, but my power over positioning allowed me to feel out objects in my vicinity, which in turn gave me almost a psychic sixth sense (despite the fact that there were clearly more than five senses within the average human body, but that was a story for another time).

A girl I didn't expect to see emerged from behind a large conduit—Motozawa Aoi, the future successor to the Board of Theomachy.

As a theo, her powers had been developed solely to aid her in the defeat and capture of Mages. It was well known that her origin, which she called "Law Disruptor", was able to dismantle unnatural phenomena, and was an impossibly unparalleled gamechanger in the Theomachy. By touching the tips of her fingers together and splitting them apart, she could unravel various different magicks, rendering them completely null. Ironically enough, this appeared to work against all forms of essentia apart from Null essentia, the imagic theory of nothingness. I couldn't readily explain it, especially since few things in imagics made logical sense, but since there was a definitive lack of substance in the astral world, Law Disruptor had nothing to unravel.

I felt as if I should point out the mere fact that imagics involved concepts that were actually nothing completely devalues anything good I could possibly say on the art form.

Motozawa Aoi turned her head from side-to-side, seemingly on the lookout for someone. Most likely, that person was Call Card, but realistically, she probably had also pieced together my presence due to the slight shifting in principles near her. An Esper could easily sense the presence of other Espers, generally because Espers slightly distorted the world around them. For me, she most likely picked up on the slight change in air pressure, and possibly the slightly varied speeds of the electrical chimney in comparison to the ones on rooftops farther away. Of course, she likely wouldn't be one-hundred percent sure, as her skills were trained for the capture of Mages, not Espers, but the mere fact that she was an Esper put her seventy-percent of the way there.

I should probably step out, only so she doesn't assume I'm Call Card.

I bergrudigly slid out from my hiding place, messing up my hair slightly into a more amicable state.

"Motozawa Aoi, good evening."

"Ah, Seki Hyobe the Icon, right?"

"That would be correct," to enunciate my response, I gave a slight bow.

"Great, now I don't have to hunt you down," she smirked.

"Pardon?"

At that instant, a beam of light shot past my cheek. I felt one of the vents behind me shatter outwards, and the sound rushed into my ears as debris came falling down around me. My eyes shot open, and I immediately pulled out my Iron Cross, several steel balls which expanded slightly after making contact with my fingers.

Without asking any questions, I threw them forward—the moment you attacked a fellow Esper, you were declared forthright that you expected a duel. My Iron Cross traveled through the air faster than bullets, whizzing past my enemy and marking their return by pausing in the sky. It was then their design feature activated, modifying their external shells so that the acceleration pushed them upwards and around, causing them to return to my fingers like miniature boomerangs. They were rather easy to catch, especially since I could lower their acceleration in order to cause them to travel downward in an arc. I couldn't control their gravity, though, so the ones that went a little off-course fell to the ground anticlimactically.

The reason neither of our attacks had hit was something completely intentional—a showing of respect between two combative parties. Esper combat was much a show of mutual appreciation as it was a fight to the end. Showing off our mainstay abilities here was communicating that we wouldn't hold back against our opponent. Espers weren't completely devoid of hidden and often sneaky tactics, though, and most of us keep any origin trump cards under wraps until victory would be assured alongside it.

My understanding of Motozawa Aoi went as thus: she possessed the ability to turn both natural and unnatural light into weapons, first by intensifying its brightness and fracturing them into beams of light, then by transferring their electronic energy into pure heat. She has full control over the balance, although the light still remains visible in the physical world. At one-hundred percent capacity, her light beams become a "death beam".

At its current limitation though, that being the conversion catalyst, she could only theoretically release a singular death beam before collapsing, making it ineffective to utilize in Esper-to-Esper combat. Her catalyst, as you might've assumed, is her body, and excessive use would quickly cause the heat in her body to expand outwards and disappear, causing immediate death. Her current applications, "stun beams" and "kinetic beams", worked just fine though, assuming she didn't overuse them.

Stun beams were simple, made to inflict heatstroke onto her victims which would limit their ability to return any attacks and would eventually cause them to lose consciousness. Kinetic beams, on the other hand, were designed to harm and/or kill. If enough beams hit, death was inevitable.

If her origin had any specific advanced uses or flares, though, I had no idea. Last I heard, the Esper Association had classified her Light Manipulation at aptitude seven.

The power she was more well-known for, on the other hand, had received a classification of aptitude nine, the same as mine. As she possessed a singular aptitude nine and aptitude seven origin, juxtaposed by my aptitude nine and aptitude five, you might assume she was the stronger party. However, the aptitude nine classification of "Law Disruptor", as I was aware, was against her prime target, Mages. Against Espers, it was positively useless, which meant I had the upper-hand.

It wasn't time to celebrate, though. Motozawa Aoi had challenged me of her own accord, meaning she was confident in her ability to defeat me. Because of that, I had to assume she had something up her sleeve.

She flexed her wrist, causing several more beams to shoot out from my peripherals. I dodged them with ease, increasing my rate of acceleration and launching my body to the left. I caught my foot against the railing of the roof-exit, firing several Iron Cross bullets in her direction. Two beams shot from the sides of the building, colliding with Iron Cross and melting them. Their form changed, I lost control of acceleration, and the liquid mass fell to the ground in lumpy heaves.

No matter how fast I made my Iron Cross travel, I couldn't pass the speed limit of the universe. As long as Motozawa Aoi could visually register my bullets, she could intercept them before they reached her. I would have to shoot from her blind spot, which meant I would have to rotate around the battlefield quickly.

If possible, I would have loved to increase her bodily acceleration, causing her to crash into the side of a wall or something, but here is where imagic theory collides with psionic interpretation. Apparently, the aura that makes up objects, commonly referred to as essentia, greatly dictated how origins interacted with certain objects. For instance, it was easier for me to increase the acceleration of steel as opposed to a stone or my own body. This was due to the essentia that made up steel, which acted as a conductor for active-oriented physical-manipulation origins.

However, life forms other than my own were out of sync with my origin. This was due to the essentia in their bodies, namely Humanus, rejecting the influence of my origin. This wasn't the case in my own body, as I could physically force my body to accept the changes that I made to it. Something about the concept of free will in imagics and other vague concepts that didn't have any foundation in physics.

Now, as you can imagine, I was dodging theoretically light-speed projectiles. No matter how much I accelerated my body, such a feat should generally be impossible, which is where another one of Motozawa's downsides came into play. It seemed she couldn't project light outwards with the attempt to harm at any speeds faster than mach three, and doing so was incredibly strenuous on her body, the Esper equivalent of lifting several hundred pounds of weight for an extended period of time. Her light projectiles, however, had little sense of cohesion. Simply put, I couldn't invert its acceleration, so I would have to rely on physically dodging them.

Thankfully, as a high-ranking icon, many Esper's abilities were made known to me. In addition, Motozawa's history of bouts against other Espers, particularly those who either invaded her territory or challenged her on school grounds, gave me a lot of public information to work with.

I need to end this quickly.

That thought alone influenced me into using another application of my AP: expansion.

I slipped out several new spherical objects—they were cool to the touch, just like my Iron Cross, but each one was marginally bigger, being slightly smaller than a golf ball. I threw them then, the LEDs on their outer shell glowing with an illuminating blue light.

Iron Bomb.

Small circular incisions popped out of each Iron Bomb, several smaller spheres that were encased within the outer shell. Due to my origin, they accelerated outward at an incredibly quick rate, leaving no time for Motozawa to intercept. I always thought this specialty of mine would be cooler if I could scatter their position as well, but the second-half of my AP simply wasn't strong or versatile enough for that.

The smaller spheres exploded; carbon combustion within the internals of their bodies. A torrent of red flames blew outward, encasing Motozawa's body in a simmering heat. My Iron Bomb could become catastrophic in power, but I generally kept it as a tool to incapacitate. While the flames seemed deadly from the offset, Motozawa's most pertinent danger was risk of concussion. However, in our modern day Japan, it was still nothing serious.

It was then Motozawa revealed her trump card: Law Disruptor.

I watched in shock as Iron Bomb's flames began to be sucked into a central point, revealing several magic circle-like objects levitating around Motozawa. They appeared to be designed after actual imagic circles, but had a bit of scientific flare. Instead of the traditional runic alphabet used to represent latin phrases, each gap within the circle was decorated with Egyptian hieroglyphics that referenced a psionic thought experiment. The only one I could readily translate was the reference to Schrödinger's cat, which was the symbol of a man, bird, and fish.

"Didn't think I could deflect psionic-based phenomena, I assume?" Motozawa Aoi's smirk grew wider as she basked in my surprised expression.

"Espers use physical concepts in their attacks...what you just did was the equivalent of negating a bomb, psionic or not." I frowned, my shock being replaced with genuine curiosity.

"Incorrect, my power remains the same as it has always been: negating abilities brought forth through abnormal means. Surely, you don't mean to claim that FBA is a natural transformation?"

It made some amount of sense; humans were never meant to control wind, or fire out electrical pulses from their bodies. However, her explanation was simply implausible—Iron Bomb was a tangible object, theoretically usable without Acceleration. She should've be able to negate my acceleration of the bombs, but not the bombs themselves.

"In short, your Law Disruptor also acts as a shield?"

"A more apt way to describe it would be an 'anti-force' origin."

"You mean that you steal away the force of an attack and use it to strengthen your defense?" I couldn't readily believe her words at first—essentially, what she was claiming to have was an impenetrable barrier. There were still some glaring weaknesses, even with this interpretation. For instance, two Espers firing their origin at the same time would render the barrier obsolete. But, if both of their origins were directly-produced attacks, such as water manipulation, she could use Law Disruptor's alternate ability in order to negate it flat-out.

"There is a hefty downside, as I'm unable to use my second origin while Law Disruptor is active. Law Disruptor constantly siphons out unnatural phenomena, meaning my Light Manipulation is also cancelled out."

"Even then, the strength of your origin more than makes up for your downsides."

"I suppose your correct in that; now, as for my reason being here. I want you to accept defeat and resign your current mission immediately."

"Resign—..?"

"Do I need to spell it out for you? I want to be the one to catch Calling Card, not to mention I believe my origin is sufficiently more equipped to handle him."

I blinked, taking a moment to digest her words.

"You want the credit for bringing Calling Card to justice, then."

"That, and I have a personal vendetta to set with the man. I don't want anyone interfering—especially you."

I shook my head, jumping down from the exit ramp.

"I'm afraid I can't do that—Iconomachy gave me this mission, and I promised I wouldn't fail. While I understand your plight, I refuse to stand down as per my own pride."

Motozawa smiled.

"Then that is your answer?"

"The most honest answer I can give."

"I see—…"

A beam of light shot past my face.

"Then die."

I had no time to appreciate the clichéd delivery of her line. An array of beams launched behind Motozawa's back. The lights almost seemed to have physical mass, as the steadily-flowing wind blew up on the coattails of her jacket as attack after attack rained down against me. I increased my acceleration, dodging in-between each volley without stop. As I narrowly avoided the last beam, I could feel the waves of heat start to blister my skin. The proximity was enough to burn my arm slightly.

I turned on the heel of my foot, launching myself forward at fifty miles an hour. I dropped a couple of my Iron Cross, causing the balls to begin rolling around Motozawa's feet. I appeared behind her, grabbing my wrist tightly as I opened my left palm in preparation for an attack. Motozawa's followed me with her eyes, materializing her impenetrable shield—Law Disruptor.

"Anything you try, I'll simply negate it. Face it, Seki Hyobe—you cannot win this battle."

"I suppose you're right—one mistake, and I'll be struck with your Light Manipulation. I have no doubt that even a scratch would send me to the infirmary."

"Then why do you still fight—..?"

"Because I no longer need to worry about dodging; I've already won."

As if heralding my words, the iron spheres began to jump about, their forms launching into the air and striking against what appeared to be an invisible cube. Their forms began to outline the shape of a box, hitting each "corner" at incomprehensible speeds. Every single time an Iron Cross bounced off a corner of the invisible box, a small magic circle ricocheted it in the opposite direction.

This was my ultimate application of my origin.

"Schrödinger's Box."

It was a rather cliché name, but so was much of my arsenal. In any case, it sounded cool, and that was all that mattered.

Naturally, an Esper couldn't readily utilize a Mage's arsenal. Instead, the magic circles that appeared were more of a personal flair, marking the point at which each individual Cross's "position" changed. This ability was the apex of my origin, allowing me to make use of both my gifts at once.

"What is—…"

"You cannot break out of this prison; one look at how quick my Iron Crosses are moving, and I'm sure you'll come to understand."

Motozawa clicked her tongue as she faced her defeat. As I predicted, it seemed Law Disruptor was only compatible with direct attacks. Indeed, even something like my Iron Bomb, which did damage in a surrounding area, was still considered a direct attack. However, modifying the terrain, or in this case, encaging my opponent, was allowed.

"Now, if you don't mind, I should get to going after my real target," I grinned.

"You'll pay for this, Seki Hyobe! Do you hear me? I'll make you pay—..!"

She really said such a clichéd line.

I ignored her ramblings as I leaped onto an adjacent building. If this event would come back to bite me, so be it—right now, I needed to find myself a serial assailant.