Chapter 31:

Skill Grafting (+ Profiles I)

Half-Paid Heroes

Chris and Jamie (the latter now out of her daze) watched as Kirikagura held out his hand and enlargened the keyhole in front of him by gradually pulling his hand back. He then produced an abnormally large key (it was about as thick as his arm and about as tall as he was) from one pocket and began to turn. Kirikagura appeared to have put himself into a trance to do this, his eyes glowing a rose hue as he handled this strange process with ease.

After Kirikagura heard a small click, the key and its hole disappeared. The world suddenly rippled out before him and the other people in the room, changing under silvery multi-dimensional waves, until the landscape before the quartet became a dry desert under a setting sun.

Heart Wisdom gave a clicking noise from her throat. Her eyes - which were currently tinted pink like Kirikagura's, supporting this foreign landscape within the real confines of the basement - were downcast, while her lips were slightly apart.

Panicked chirps of a bird suddenly pierced the air around them, and they all turned to see a man gripping a flailing bird. His hands were covered in emerald tattoos that made them resemble dragon's feet, and Chris (the one closest to this man in the altered space) might have imagined it, but there was a small monochrome lizard tattoo "crawling" under his unusually long fringe.

There was, however, no doubt the bird was Heart Wisdom. (Or rather, Valentine.)

The quartet stood in their places, powerless, as the bird version of Wisdom was taken by this man into a concrete building and connected to a blocky copper machine with protruding wires. The man connected himself to another part of the machine. As the bird's cries hit their crescendo, it seemed like blue electricity was being channeled into her body, then the man's.

The human Wisdom closed her eyes and gritted her teeth while the cries shifted from avian to human.

The world then seemed to hit 'pause' as she narrated, "That was the first time I was subjected to the experiment, which allowed me to gain insight into Tateno Ryuji's mind...Fortunately, the lock-bearer's powers and mine combined can only support third-person viewing of memories so you do not have to experience everything I did during this Memory Warp." The brunette jerked her head towards the dazed Kirikagura, indicating he was the "lock-bearer" she was referring to.

Another lock appeared in front of Kirikagura and he repeated his process to reveal the same concrete building a few years later. Yuki, slightly younger than the group knew him to be, was stepping off a shabby tourist van.

"Chojabaru Yuki. I believe you know what will be of him," Heart Wisdom murmured as the man with the dragon hands placed a visor over Yuki's eyes and placed transparent rubber pads that latched on to his temples with tiny squishing noises.

So Yuki's surname is 'Chojabaru'? Chris wondered as she watched the floor rumble, felt the force of the machine's explosion, witnessed Yuki crawl away into the blackening night. The name of the man who did this to him is 'Ryuji Tateno'? What does this have to do with anything?

As if to answer her questions, Heart Wisdom took measured steps until she was in front of Heart Hope. "Skill grafting transfers memories between living creatures and the only way you can perform the process is through the machine you saw. I thought you knew this, as a member of Kirikagura's company."

Hope shook her head at this.

"After Yuki's experiment was over, the yakuza - and people of the Central Security Corporation that helped them - fled into the night, leaving their skill grafting machine destroyed. However, since your brother is involved, it seems someone has made another machine, and I believe you know who holds the key to all this."

"Odagaki definitely has the blueprints," came Kirikagura's voice, his tone firm and showing no signs of his previous trance, before Chris could fill in the gaps for herself.

With this, it was like a cosmic rubber band had been snapped back into place - the world around the quartet warped as if they were in a mirage, then resumed being what it should have been.

Kirikagura and Wisdom blinked the rose light out of their eyes and led the other two home. "It's late," the former reasoned to Jamie. "Wouldn't want you to be getting lost in the dark..."

However, once Jamie was safely home, Kirikagura whipped around to find Souta stepping out of the darkness. Kirikagura tried to find one of his keyholes, but he'd been drained of a considerable amount of power due to the Memory Warp, and so he had no choice but to collapse into his brother-in-law's arms...
In the morning, Chris woke unsteadily and even though it was not a day to go to work, she threw on some comfortable clothing and headed over there anyway. There was a sinister suspicion she had to confirm since Heart Wisdom had declared she would be staying at the Tung household for the time being.

Alex was the only one at the office at the time, trying to quell the chaotic situation.

"Chris, what are you doing here?" the woman called as Chris plucked the cage from its position in the office and headed up to the higher floors of the Company building, where Kirikagura was meant to reside.

Sure enough, Kirikagura wasn't there...
---- Profiles I ----
[Chris Tung]
Age: 19
Ethnicity: Asian (parents from Guangdong, China)
Alias: Heart Hope, the miraculous witch born from the darkness
Type: Dark (transformative), specialty: shadow manipulation

Appearance: Chris is characterised by her long, dark hair, brown eyes and a rather similar appearance to her brother. Hope's standard outfit is a plain black dress with long sleeves and a knee-length skirt, with boots of the same colour from the kneecaps down. As befitting her epithet, she also wears a wide-brimmed hat, although she learns to get rid of it over time. (In another life, although she would have the same powers, her transformation would have her change her gender and her theme would be that of a waiter instead of a witch.) Her stone is the onyx.

In most respects, she is an ordinary university student of the humanities. Her parents look down on her for this, but they still accept her for what she is (because Martin is a much more hopeless cause than her). Chris has spent her entire life in the same neighbourhoods, so in an attempt to branch out, she found the website for the Company.

Notably, Chris was quite timid in the past. Is it, perhaps, the Heart Hope personality that has given her resolve and an almost workaholic attitude towards dealing with enemies...?

[Ella Jane Briarton]
Age: 19
Ethnicity: Caucasian (like lots of people in the country where this story is set, her ancestors come from somewhere in Great Britain, United Kingdom)
Alias: Heart Despair, ???
Type: light (transformative), specialty: ???

Appearance: blonde with short hair, green eyes and a petite frame. Normally found in business clothing, although Despair’s outfit is a white dress and boots with black and red details. Her stone is the black star sapphire.

A university student on a gap year to "gain her bearings in the adult world". Had she gone into university in the same year as Chris, she would've done a commerce-related degree. The Heart Despair personality does not seem to like her much, but Ella can win over anyone...when she's happy.

[The rest of the profile is empty...?]

[Akihisa Kirikagura]
Age: 32
Ethnicity: Japanese
Alias: Lock-bearer (in relation to his powers)
Type: Psychic (non-transformative), specialty: n/a

Appearance: A rather youthful-looking man in a beige suit wearing horn-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses and a gold watch. Nothing more, nothing less.

Seemingly omnipotent, Kirikagura's actually just a somewhat meddlesome middle-aged man with a good education. He is afraid of having a mid-life crisis most of all, which is...unfortunate, considering how old he is.

[The rest of the profile is empty...?]

[Valentina Nikiforova (Valentine)]
Age: Apparently 16
Ethnicity: Apparently Russian
Alias: Heart Wisdom, the winged tactician that sees all
Type: Psychic (transformative), specialty: telekinesis

Appearance: a brunette in a bright green Chinese outfit with a high neck and shorts that go halfway down her thighs, as well as leather shoes. She wears her hair in a plait. Her stone is the opal.

A green budgerigar which has undergone multiple trials of the skill grafting machine, making her as intelligent as an average 16-year-old human, albeit a rather blunt one. It is unknown why her theme is that of a martial artist, but she doesn't seem to mind it at all. (There are hints it may have been the extensive experimentation.)

It is quite obvious she does not like Kou and is very attached to her owner, Yuki. Regardless of whether she is a bird or a human, she retains a heart-shaped mark at the base of her neck.