Chapter 5:

Train ride into dusk

Crimson Core

The Bridge.Bookmark here

Humans are a species of mammals that are able to create a bridge between it’s endless [Crimson Cores].Bookmark here

[The Bridge] lets them actively interact with the cores, producing results based on sometimes purely logical and other times purely illogical moves.Bookmark here

However, whether they will listen to the voice of reason or not is decided entirely on a whim.Bookmark here

Humans are a species of mammals that are able to create an active decision based on their passive feelings.Bookmark here

[The Bridge] makes that happen.Bookmark here

Is that a good thing or a bad one, it’s hard to give a simple answer. We can only hope that a person doesn’t burn [The Bridge] while trying to reach the other side.Bookmark here

“…”Bookmark here

Cyn finished the lecture on a symposium and the audience clapped enthusiastically.Bookmark here

A large amount of neatly dressed people put their hand in the air in order to get an opportunity for their question to be answered. Cyn was about to start shooting answers, but a young man in a lab coat approached her and told her she has a phone call.Bookmark here

It was from school.Bookmark here

She didn’t waste a second. She completely ignored all the raised hands and hurried towards the exit. Everyone was astonished and some even called out a man in the lab coat, convinced he was behind the abrupt end of the symposium.Bookmark here

“Greetings fellow scientists, confused wives and other impatient people with lots of money and free time. My name is Dr. Chom and I will take all the questions on behalf of Dr. Anori. No need for insults.”Bookmark here

Chubby man in a lab coat started answering constantly accumulated questions from the crowd.Bookmark here

“…”Bookmark here

As soon as the game started, colors on Shiki’s turtle shell have started to change. It was still bright blue for the most part, but occasionally, waves of bright orange and light red splashed from one side of the shell to another just to disappear a moment later.Bookmark here

“Mana inside your shell’s reacting with the game thingy,” said Ume while following the colorful waves and asked, “ya think ya can beat it, Mr. Gamer?”Bookmark here

Shiki was already so focused into the game that he completely dismissed his surroundings.Bookmark here

“I know this one, I played it when I was a kid,” said Shiki and elaborated, “it’s called Catch the O-Ni.”Bookmark here

Ume wasn’t particulary interested in games so she just stood next to Shiki, valorously defending him from any potential threat, that wasn't existent at the moment.
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The train continued to traverse the empty fields of nothing but the dry land and a couple of lonely piles of grass that have been cooked under the imaginary sun.Bookmark here

Ume got bored really fast and sat on one of the seats while looking at the glowing shell. It reminded her of some distant times in a past that nowadays feel like someone else lived them on her behalf.Bookmark here

“I caught the O-Ni! I’m on a third level now. It’s getting harder and harder, I haven’t played this in a while,” Shiki said with a childlike smile on his face, clearly forgetting the situation at hand.
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Ume realized that the more levels Shiki complete, the waves of color within his shell were becoming bigger, wider and wilder.Bookmark here

Not only that, she caught with the glimpse of her eyes that the field surrounding them is warping in waves like a sea of glittering red nuances.Bookmark here

“Game over?” Shiki yelled in disbelief, “but I was about to reach O-Ni and it’s magic didn’t even touch me!” he looked outside and a cold sweat bathed his unprepared demeanor.Bookmark here

The world around them shook and twisted. Tiny reddish particles that resemble snowflakes rose from a ground towards the pale crimson sky. It seemed like the world itself is being turned upside down.
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Ume placed her hand on Shiki's shoulder and whispered gently into his ear.
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“Close your eyes.”Bookmark here

“…”Bookmark here

He waited  a couple of seconds until the tremors ceased, and it felt like the train has stopped moving. Slowly but surely, a clamour of young people emerged from the floor on his right, which made his fight against curiousity worthless. He had to open his eyes.
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A familiar boy was holding a game console that Shiki was playing with a few moments ago, and talked happily to his two friends. The interior of an entire train changed into a regular state and couple of passengers were sitting around him.Bookmark here

We must have entered another phase or something, Shiki thought while trying to find Ume. Easily distinguishable blonde was nowhere to be seen. Instead, on his right was sitting a really pretty brown haired girl dressed in a school uniform.Bookmark here

He was staring at her immensely which painted her small cheeks into deep red.Bookmark here

“Stop starin’ at me, dummy,” girl looked at Shiki with her emerald eyes that Shiki immediately recognized.Bookmark here

“Ume? But..” She didn’t let Shiki finish the sentence on his own but did so in his stead, “We’re inside of a [Crimson Core].”Bookmark here

Shiki shook his head and squinted with eyes filled with confusion and dissonance. But somehow he had no need to ask for further elaboration. He was content with that.Bookmark here

He put on a small smile and kept looking at her.Bookmark here

Shiki couldn’t get enough of her. He felt extraordinarily calm and had a need to tell her how beautiful she is. But the words he was cooking inside his mouth were left unspoken.
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He was left with only a wish that she would somehow read his thoughts, and a hopeful stare at her silky straight hair .Bookmark here

People across them have been acting normally as it was a regular scene in a train on a sunny afternoon. Questions only multiplied in rows when he saw the two girls.Bookmark here

One looked just like the president but again, dressed in a same uniform as Ume, and beside her a girl that looked just like her but with shorter hair and a colorful smile. Her skirt was much shorter and the tie on her uniform was loosely done.Bookmark here

Ume noticed that Shiki was staring at the girls and started explaining on her own.Bookmark here

“There’s a pres and her sister, Mia. I remember seein’ her lookin’ like this few years back. She’s much different now though..” Ume sighed while playing with her hair.Bookmark here

“So we’re seeing the past?” Shiki asked.Bookmark here

“Not really, just another version of reality,” Ume added and changed the subject by pointing at the boy beside them and asked, “look at that guy, recognize him?”Bookmark here

Tall slim boy with medium-length hair that touched his cheeks noticed Ume pointed out at him and quickly averted his look.Bookmark here

Shiki examined boy’s body for a minute, made a funny face filled with amusement and asked, “What? Is that Alp?”Bookmark here

“Bullseye,” Ume added while giggling.Bookmark here

Shiki couldn’t believe that this toothpick of a man is the same mountain that puts all the girls into trance with his gardening skills.Bookmark here

“Did he ever look like that?” asked Shiki while invading Ume’s personal space with his head.Bookmark here

She moved her head away from him slightly, when she realized that he forgot about boundaries and confirmed, “mhm, he really beefed up in last couple of years.”Bookmark here

Shiki dropped down his look in slight discomfort and asked her, “are you jealous of Ren?”Bookmark here

“W..w..what are ya sayin’ dummy!” clearly embarrassed Ume jumped from her seat and continued while running out of breath,”we ain’t here for chitchat, get to work!”Bookmark here

“But what am I supposed to do here?” Shiki asked with stretched out hands.Bookmark here

“There’s the boy, you’re “The Stabilizer”, go “stabilize” him or something,” Ume grabbed Shiki who was astonished by her strength and pushed him towards the boys.Bookmark here

When he looked back at her she awarded him with a giant smile and a thumbs up.Bookmark here

Shiki sighed.Bookmark here

He heard one of them talking, “We keep losing at lvl 4,” and, “it’s too hard, I am too slow.”Bookmark here

Shiki grabbed all the strength within him and approached the boys, “hey, we go to same school, I can finish that level for you!”Bookmark here

Familiar boy asked him,”oh yeah I’ve seen you around, can you really do that? You don’t look that skilled to me,” boys started laughing out loud.Bookmark here

Shiki was pissed at his reaction. He thought for a second what would give him an instant credibility and shot back the answer.Bookmark here

“See that cute girl over there? I managed to make her my darling, I can finish a stupid level,” Shiki and the boys turned at Ume who smiled and waved at them.Bookmark here

“Woah.”Bookmark here

“Teach me, senpai”Bookmark here

“My console is in your hands, do it,” boy handed over the device to Shiki.Bookmark here

Shiki gulped down a giant nerve-infested noodle as he prayed that they will exit the world as soon as he finishes fourth level. He didn’t want the boys to ask Ume weird questions.Bookmark here

“But be careful, if you lose we’ll have to start all over again,” said one boy and others agreed with him, “yeah, like always.”Bookmark here

“Don’t worry,” Shiki said and pressed play.Bookmark here

As soon as he started playing, the train started again. It left the station that was this time in the middle of a big city. They were passing between skyscrapers and over the rivers, small parks, shops and thousands of cars. There was even a pier in a distance. Ume enjoyed the scenery of a faint autumn sun that was reflecting from every building that got in it’s way.Bookmark here

She looked at neatly dressed Ren being pulled by her hyperactive sister Mia, and Alp that now read a gardening journal while taking notes with a pen secretly. She saw Shiki, sweating and busting out his fingers like crazy and the boys surrounding him, laughing and cheering.Bookmark here

She let out a deep sigh and dropped her look onto the floor.Bookmark here

There was a silhouette of her body on the floor made by the setting sun.Bookmark here

“Anro Nagisa, age 17, nice to meetcha..... yay!” Ume said while making a piece sign and a forced smile that barely contained her tears.Bookmark here

“Got it!” Shiki yelled proudly.Bookmark here

“Wow you’re amazing! Thanks!” Boy looked at the victory screen happily.Bookmark here

The space around Shiki and Ume froze. The crevices appeared, breaking every image in front of their eyes in pieces like glass. Parts where the image broke completely was being slowly replaced by a classroom until all the parts of the train disappeared into void.Bookmark here

This time around, Shiki reacted much more composed considering he had already faced this bizarre ending to a [World Within]. Bookmark here

They were back in the club room. Sight of a lovely blonde with a tiny top hat on left side and a drill made out of hair on the other now felt nostalgic.Bookmark here

The boy sitting across them didn’t say a word.Bookmark here

“I feel like I talked to you for a long time, but I can’t remember a single thing I said,” he stretched his arms and stood up by saying, “I feel much lighter, like I had a nice long rest, thanks a lot.”Bookmark here

He took a small bow and headed towards the exit of the room. Shiki was surprised by boy’s demeanor so he stopped him before he left.Bookmark here

“What about your problem?” Shiki stood up rapidly from the chair.Bookmark here

“It’s okay man, I feel like I’m ready for the next level,” with those words he opened the door and left.Bookmark here

Shiki stood in awe, motionlessly.
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“He’s way too cool now, way cooler than you, Kap” Ume giggled and got up as well and made her way towards the exit door which led to the clubroom.Bookmark here

“I have so many questions,” Shiki said while staring at the table.Bookmark here

“I know, but you really did a great job out there,” Ume smiled and left the room.Bookmark here

He looked at the clock. Half an hour passed since the start of the conversation.Bookmark here

“Oh I feel like a truck went over me, several times,” Shiki sighed and left the room.Bookmark here

“…”Bookmark here

When he entered the club room, everyone started clapping, including Ume that made soft barely noticable claps.Bookmark here

“Good job! Both of you!” wind blew the curtains behind Ren which made Shiki laugh.Bookmark here

That’s the same Ren I was in the train, he thought. He looked at the Alp, he had a smile from ear to ear and with his every clap furniture in the club room went up and down.Bookmark here

“Nice job Kap, you too blonthie” Omi said while slowly gulping the words.Bookmark here

“Thanks Omes,” said Ume and added, “ don’t be sad, we’ll get ya a partner as well.”Bookmark here

“Hope so,” said Omi and moved his head towards the computer screen.Bookmark here

“So? How was it?” Ren blinked faster than usual. The irises in her eyes enlarged and couple of her fingers danced on her hips. She was obviously in high spirits.Bookmark here

Ume started blurting out words and recreated the scenes that transpired followed by over the top sounds such as “woosh”, “pow”, “boom”, “crash” and “pew”. Everyone laughed loudly, especially Alp that looked like a heavy stone dropped off his chest. Even though he could probably carry one without breaking a sweat.Bookmark here

Shiki stood in a corner, still taken aback from all the unanswered questions that lurked behind his every thought.Bookmark here

At one moment, Ren stopped Ume’s show and asked everyone to take their places.Bookmark here

“We’re all happy for you, but there is one more task before us today,” Both Ume and Shiki looked at each other with painful expression.Bookmark here

“Nothing to do with your jobs, today is Cyn’s, I mean our club advisor’s birthday. I thought we could throw her a small party.”Bookmark here

“Good luck with that, I’m tired, should get home,” Ume made her way towards the exit.Bookmark here

“Please, Ume. Stay just for a bit,” Ren looked straight into her eyes filled with determination.Bookmark here

“Sigh...fine. But don’t expect of me to sing happy b-day,” she went back to her seat and leaned on a table with one hand while making several knocks with other.Bookmark here

“How mature of yuu,” said Omi.Bookmark here

“Beat it, fancypants,” Ume turned her head towards Shiki.Bookmark here

Ren started explaining her plan.Bookmark here

“I thought we should decorate his place a bit with few balloons and Alp even made a cake,” Shiki woke up from his daydreaming with an electrified shock of pure disbelief.Bookmark here

“Alp makes the best cakes!” Ume noticed Shiki’s surprise and decided to reassure him, “he always made them, ever since we were little,” Ume said it with a nostalgic sigh at the end.Bookmark here

“His family runs a confectionery shop downtown, so he has a really good taste in sweets,” Ren said while looking at embarrassed Alp.Bookmark here

“Oh it’s nothing, I prefer working in a garden anyway,” Alp said while flexing with his right hand.Bookmark here

“I feel like they are getting bigger every day, those mussels,” sighed Omi enviously.Bookmark here

Alp grabbed a neatly decorated box that stood on a table behind him, at put it gently on a table. Ren opened a box and it was gorgeously decorated cake with cinnamon sticks rising from it’s center.Bookmark here

“Why cinnamon?” asked Shiki.Bookmark here

“Her name, Cyn, is short from her symbol, cinnamon,” Ren explained.Bookmark here

“More like shorter from cynical,” Ume added with an aggravated face.Bookmark here

It was easy to figure out that Ume holds few sympathies for Cyn, but Shiki didn’t want to pry further. They only knew each other for a short time.Bookmark here

“Okay, she’ll be here soon so let’s decorate this place quickly,” Ren broke the awkward silence with a command and singaled Alp to take out the box with party props.Bookmark here

Cyn arrived thinking something bad had occurred, and was pleasantly surprised that club members threw her a small party.Bookmark here

They were in great mood. They talked and laughed except Ume that held her distance while scratching the letters of her name on the table using her short pink nails.
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