Chapter 2: Save the Purgatory

A young girl had her head resting on a desk in the middle of an empty classroom. Slowly, she lifted her head and scanned the barren room with her lifeless eyes. When it was certain no one was present, as usual, she looked down with a somber expression.

Hope or despair… It's not a question I ever stopped and asked myself. All I've ever been able to do is play games. It's always been that way since I was a little girl. That's where things like this usually start.

The scene shifted to a sunny afternoon in a small town. School had just let out, and all the kids were out hanging out with each other. Like a ghost, a five-year-old girl quietly passed through the crowd of loud voices with her jacket's hood up. She made her way through a small shopping district located in the middle of town. Every day, she would enter a quaint little restaurant owned by a middle-aged woman called Noriko, who would give her sweets after school.

"Chiaki," she greeted, brushing her short, black hair aside. "Alone again today?"

Chiaki was completely silent while she wore a dispirited expression. Noriko sympathetically smiled before removing her hood and patting her on the head.

"It's going to be hard to make friends if you don't open up more. Just try speaking a little, alright?" Noriko had a great idea when she remembered an order that came in today. "Want to see something neat? Take a look at that."

Noriko pointed to a machine at the corner of the store Chiaki had never seen before. It had different color buttons on it and a huge screen. It was decorated with stars and spaceships while giant words at the top read Gala Omega. Her eyes widened, wondering what the mysterious object could be.

"Since a lot of people bring their kids, I thought it was best to buy this arcade machine. You want to try?"

She had a look full of wonder when Noriko turned on the machine, making it roar to life. Her focus was completely on the arcade machine while images flashed across the screen and light tunes began playing.

"What is that?" asked Chiaki, finally speaking.

"It's a video game."

"A video game?"

"Just watch me." She gazed in amazement when Noriko popped in a coin and began playing. She only managed to play for a few minutes before all her lives were taken, but that was all the demonstration Chiaki needed.

"I'm, obviously, not that good; the objective of the game is to destroy all the enemy ships while also protecting yours."

"Can…I play?"

"Of course."

She hastily approached the game, almost like she was afraid it would grow legs and run away. A problem already presented itself when Chiaki desperately tried to stretch her body so she could reach the buttons. Noriko noticed and quickly retrieved a stool for her to stand on. Chiaki stood on the stool while holding her breath in anticipation. The words on the screen that kept blinking said, "Please insert coin."

"Get ready," informed Noriko, inserting another coin. "Don't feel bad if you lose. This game can be pretty hard if you don't…"

Noriko's voice trailed off because she witnessed Chiaki easily clear the first level of the game. Not only that, but she was plowing through multiple levels without losing a life. The levels were starting to get ridiculously hard, but Chiaki was like a robot because her hands and eyes were constantly moving at rapid speed.

Meanwhile, Chiaki herself wasn't thinking about anything except what her next move would be. Her eyes were glued to the screen while her brain and body were moving in perfect coordination. Throughout the whole ordeal—she was so entranced in the virtual space—she didn't blink a single time. Her determined look turned to one of disappointment when her last life was finally taken after an hour of playing.

"Wow…" began Noriko. "I was beginning to think we'd be here all night. Have you really never played a game before?"

"Nope," answered Chiaki, rubbing her eyes while entering letters next to her incredibly high score. "My eyes hurt."

"I would think so. It was like you were in another world. If you ask me…I'd say you have a natural talent for this type of thing." The shopkeeper looked are her for a moment while she pondered something. "I'll tell you what: since there's no school tomorrow, how about I show you a place filled with games just like this one?"

Her eyes became as big as saucers while her excitement grew again. She happily replied, "Yeah!"

That's where my love for games was born…or maybe it's better to say that's where I discovered it. After that, I would visit the arcade whenever I could and lose myself in whatever world I chose. It wasn't long until I set high scores in nearly every game I played. I even received some recognition for my ability as a gamer.

The scene changed to the inside of a stadium where the crowd was drawn into the current match between the champion five years running and the now twelve-year-old Chiaki. The tournament had tons of top players from all over the world competing in the hottest fighting game that year. She had been to a few tournaments before, but this was by far the biggest she had attended. Everyone was completely caught off guard when they saw a young girl crusade through the tough competition and face the champion.

The champion was a man in his early twenties that had played every game in the series. Everyone went into this tournament expecting him to win. It added to the disbelief of watching a twelve-year-old girl burst onto the scene and give the heavy favorite a good match. More than that—he was having trouble.

Finally, she dealt the finishing blow and the crowd let out a collective gasp.

"The winner of this year's tournament is…Chiaki Nanami!" yelled the announcer.

The crowd's cheers snapped Chiaki back to reality. She wanted to congratulate her opponent on the good match, but he had already departed in a frustrated huff. It didn't matter because her attention quickly shifted to the man who was approaching the stage. He was a key member of the company that made the game featured in the tournament and creator of the original Gala Omega.

"That was a good show you put on," he said.

"T-thank you…" she stuttered. She was always a person of few words, but she could barely speak right now. She wanted to give her opinion about the gaming industry and an analysis of how modern games measured up to retro ones…but she figured that might be too much.

"For a young lady like you…" he began, handing her a cute and stylish pink backpack. "That's a limited edition replica worn by the heroine from one of our games. Also," The man bent down and whispered something in her ear, "since I know how much of a fan you are of my first game, we put something a little extra in there."

Chiaki looked inside the backpack and found something at the bottom. What she saw made her jaw drop—it was a pristine hair clip in the shape of the ship from Gala Omega.

"That's even more valuable than the backpack. There were only a few of these produced back when the game first came out, making it a precious collector's item. It's sure to be worth a lot of money, so don't take it out of the—"

His advice went up into smoke because Chiaki had already torn open the case and put the item in her hair. There was a blush on her face while she decided to never take it off.

"Heh, never mind…"

Thanks to my love for games, it let me see some amazing things. In fact, I was so good at games, people figured it was the only talent I could've had. It began to shape my entire reputation…

This time, the scene shifted to a classroom. It was early in the morning when Chiaki walked in playing her Nantendo Game Girl Advanced—an act she did every day. She took her regular seat in the back while a few girls noticed her.

"Look, it's the gaming otaku."

"Is messing with that stupid thing all she does? She'll never get anywhere in life wasting her time on that."

"Careful. I heard that if you stare too hard, she'll invite you to play."

The girls started laughing among themselves while Chiaki kept playing her game. Her grades were good, but the natural consensus among kids at her school was that she's nothing more than a compulsive gamer. Comments flew around a lot: she'd never get a boyfriend, a shut-in like her was useless, and similar accusations.

Normally, Chiaki would be too into what she was doing to notice that kind of gossip, but she knew it existed.

After school, she walked to the arcade because it just installed a new game she was excited to play. Upon arrival, there was already four boys playing it. Since it looked like they were having a fun time, she was about to leave until she had an idea. "Um…do you guys want to play a round against me?"

"That's fine by—" The boy halted his sentence when he saw her. All four of the boys looked at her with a weird expression. "Oh, uh…we wouldn't mind, but we're kinda out of quarters."

"I have some," informed Chiaki, pulling out a bag of coins.

"No, it's fine. It would be an odd number anyway, so you can go ahead and play."

Before she could get another word in, all of them walked away. She could vaguely hear them saying disparaging remarks about how unlucky they were or how unfair it would've been. With a stoic look, she put in a coin and proceeded to play the game by herself.

Even after all that time, I was still the same little girl who'd walk home alone. I secluded myself so I didn't have to hear things like that anymore—maybe that was just an excuse I made so I wouldn't have to try. It didn't concern me; I had hundreds of different universes I could visit. So, it didn't matter if I was alone.

This time, Chiaki walked into a tea shop because she was supposed to be meeting someone. One day, she received a letter of invitation. If the information was right, there should be a man waiting for her today. She looked around until she saw an older looking man in a suit and fedora waving at her by the window. It might sound like an odd situation out of context, but Chiaki already knew what this was going to be about.

"Hello, Mr. Kizakura," politely greeted Chiaki while bowing.

"You don't have to be so formal," replied Koichi. "Hope you don't mind I chose this place. It seemed like a proper enough setting."

"It's fine." She took the seat opposite of him.

"I'm Koichi Kizakura, and my main job at Hope's Peak Academy is to scout for promising young talent like yourself. Since you're the only one left that's undecided about whether you want to attend, I invited you here to see if I could persuade you a bit."

She narrowed her eyes. It was true that Hope's Peak Academy contacted her a while ago to let her know she was invited to attend. Her gaming prowess would earn her the title of Ultimate Gamer. Even someone like her, who never kept up with things other than games, knew how glorified and admired Hope's Peak was. To ninety-nine percent of the public, accepting the invitation was a dream come true. For Chiaki, however, there was still a dilemma.

"If you don't mind me asking, is there a specific reason you're hesitant to attend?" asked Koichi.

"…Hope's Peak Academy invited me because of my talent, right?"

"That's right."

"I've always loved playing games, but I never considered it a talent. I've never been able to make friends or be a beacon of hope to anybody. That's why…I don't think I belong in a place with talents that can actually help others."

Koichi pondered how he should approach this. Over his time scouting students, he ran into just about every kind of personality. He has run into kids similar to Chiaki before who, while loving what they do, didn't feel as if their talent could really do anything. "Do you regret being a gamer?"

"That's not true!" countered Chiaki, raising her voice louder than she intended. It was a habit for her to get overemotional when somebody criticized her love for games or the games themselves. "I'll never regret playing games, but…"

"I see. You don't hate that you love games; you think your future has already been decided because it's your talent. In other words, you think you'll never be able to do anything that doesn't have to do with being a gamer."

Her silence was all the confirmation he needed. It was difficult to tell whether Chiaki was being pessimistic or just overly modest, but it was clear this was something she truly believed about herself. Koichi knew how to handle this.

"That settles it. You should definitely attend Hope's Peak Academy."

"Huh?" asked Chiaki with a confused look.

"I've seen kids with talents more ridiculous than you can imagine. Just like you, they thought they'd never be able to help anybody. After their tenure at Hope's Peak, each of them went on to help countless people thanks to their talent. Looking at your talent as a hindrance is a mistake. Look at it as a gift to be utilized in many different ways. You'll find that anything can be possible with good enough imagination. Just how many people have more potential in that department than the Ultimate Gamer?"

She tilted her head while still looking indifferent. Whatever true potential or creativity she could have was a total mystery to her. Still, she was sure Koichi knew what he was talking about because he did this type of thing all the time.

"Plus, who knows? You might discover a talent you didn't even know you had."

It was a strange situation for me. Even though I liked games, I always thought since it was my talent—the future was already decided. But…what did I have to lose?

Chiaki was now standing on the crest of Hope's Peak while looking at the actual building. It certainly looked impressive, but to her—it was just another school. After flipping her hood up, she walked through the front doors.

I thought my classmates were noisy and annoying, at first. Shortly after, Ms. Yukizome told me using my talent could help with making friends. It never happened before, but I decided to give it one more shot and… it actually managed to work. For the first time, my talent helped me do something that wasn't just playing a game. It was also around this time that I started frequently visiting another friend I had.

Hajime was staring at the portable device in his hand with the utmost focus. As it stood, he had lost a total of nineteen straight matches to Chiaki today. However, he was neck and neck with her, and one more move would finally earn him the first victory that evaded him so. His palms were sweaty, and his arms were trembling while he waited for the crucial opening to appear. He held his breath when he saw the opening present itself

He missing completely.

"Damn," muttered Hajime, witnessing Chiaki deplete the rest of his health. He smiled a bit when the all too familiar loser graphic flashed. "All that hard work and I only have my twentieth straight loss to show for it."

"You had the right idea with that last move, but you should've done a weak attack instead of a strong one," informed Chiaki. "It's been a while since I had to focus that hard."

"I guess bringing out your full power is something to be proud of."

Ever since Chiaki embraced the idea of using her talent to reach out to others, she and Hajime started meeting after class. If they didn't feel like walking to the arcade, they would just come to the bench in front of the fountain and play whatever game they felt like on a portable system. Even though Hajime had no idea why an Ultimate like Chiaki would ever want to spend time with him, it turned out to be the most fun he's had in a long time.

"You seem happier lately," said Hajime.

"What makes you say that?"

"You smile a lot more. You were so unemotional when we first met, you could've passed for an android." Hajime laughed a little at his own comment, making Chiaki puff out her cheeks for a second.

"You're one to talk," replied Chiaki, staring at him with a serious expression. "Even when you're smiling, you always look sad about something."

She hoped he would actually talk this time, but he simply averted his eyes away from her. Whenever she would ask about anything personal, he would opt to not say anything. The look he had reminded her of the look she had when thinking about how her talent would cripple her in life. She wanted to help him like Chisa did for her, but she didn't want to pester him about it if he wasn't comfortable talking. Instead, she tried to think of something to lighten the mood.

"If you were a character in a game, what weapon would you want to use?"

Hajime was thrown off by the random question, but he soon understood it was her attempt to make him feel better. He put a finger to his chin while thinking about it and said, "I want one of those huge swords, like a character from a role-playing game."

"Oh," began Chiaki with a sigh, "that was a really typical answer, Hinata…"

Did she just tease me? he thought, raising his eyebrow. "Well, what would your amazing weapon be?"

"That's easy," replied Chiaki, looking at the sky. "I want a weapon that only I could use to its full potential. It would have a cool gimmick, so it would always come in handy."

"I should've guessed. That answer was very…you, after all."

After that conversation was done, the two sat in a peaceful silence. The calm water from the fountain was the only sounds they heard.

A minute later, it was Chiaki who broke the silence again when she asked, "You thought I was an android?"

"Maybe that was a bad example. How about an artificial intelligence from one of those science fiction movies?"

"I'm not an AI, probably. Although…being one might be unique in its own way. I've played some really good games where characters had that gimmick."

"You'd likely be able to do amazing things like manipulating the world, similar to data. You know, like the alien girl from that one anime? I can't think of the name…"

"I've done some pretty amazing things myself," she replied, breaking Hajime's train of thought. "One time, I visited a village and discovered a giant robot. It led to me and a few others having to win an impossible fight against a god. We managed to win, leading to a bright and free future for humanity."

"…Seriously?"

"Yep, that was an awesome game. It's a shame it never received a sequel."

Hajime paused for a moment before heartily laughing. It wasn't her intention at first, but Chiaki found herself doing the same.

Sadly, my time with Hinata was short. As quick as we had met, he disappeared. He promised he'd come again the next day, but no matter how long I waited…he didn't come. Maybe he was avoiding me like all those people did before…

I didn't think I deserved it, but everyone made me the class representative. The death of Kuzuryu's sister and Koizumi's friend occurred, and Komaeda got suspended while Ms. Yukizome was reassigned to the Reserve Course building. It looked bad; however, I promised Ms. Yukizome I'd keep everyone together.

I used all of my experience playing games to plan fun activities for the whole class. It wasn't easy, I didn't even get to play any games for a long time, but it paid off. It's because of them accepting me for who I was, that I was able to work hard. Even though Ms. Yukizome and Komaeda weren't with us, and I still never saw Hinata again—things were going so well.

Maybe it was fate those fun times wouldn't last.

Strange events led me to a secret passage where I met…her. I also met Hinata again—he didn't recognize me. I managed to escape because of Ms. Yukizome. I know she wanted us to run away…but I couldn't abandon her. It might've been easier for me to leave and get away from the danger; however, if I left the person that said there's more to me than my talent—I would've never forgiven myself.

So, I advised my entire class left to rescue her. Now that I think about it, that's probably where it was all over for me. Junko completely caught me in her trap…and it was game over. I don't even know whether to call it an ending at all.

The scene shifted back to the empty classroom like it was at first. Her devoid eyes stared straight ahead while she sat up.

What was it all for, I wonder? I tried my best to be what Ms. Yukizome said I could be—I really did. No matter how many fantasy worlds I would get lost in, I could never escape reality. Everything those kids and Junko said about me is true. Even with my ability to play games, I'm nothing…

She looked down while maintaining her deadpan expression. Those memories were the only things she had now. Her existence was closing her eyes and waking up in the same barren classroom. She didn't know if this was a dream or if this was what the afterlife really was. Telling how much time had passed was impossible because the clock always pointed at eleven fifty-nine.

"It's all," began Chiaki, talking to nobody, "pointless…"

"Now, is that the attitude I taught you to have?" asked Chisa, appearing out of nowhere. She stood in front of the class with an expression that made it seem like she was angry. "That kind of talk doesn't sound like the Nanami I know. You managed to do more than you thought your talent would let you, right?"

Chiaki didn't even bat an eye at her teacher's sudden appearance while she said, "None of it mattered in the end." Chiaki blocked her ears with her palms, slowly shaking her head. "What's the point when—"

"Haha, you nobody!" shouted a familiar female voice that made Chiaki's whole body freeze. When she looked again, her teacher had vanished. Instead, there was the blond-haired woman in front of her desk, gazing down at her with a cocky expression. "You're classmates are mine now, Nanami."

"Junko…" muttered Chiaki, staring at the fake fashionista with an expression that was both phlegmatic and powerful. The classroom and the floor started cracking as like an earthquake was happening.

"It's about time," chimed Junko, looking around. "I thought you'd never snap out of limbo. Heh, even though this is all in your mind—you really look like you hate me."

Chiaki continued to stare at Junko with that same intense expression, which only seemed to be amusing the mastermind.

"Can you reach me? Will we ever meet again? Is it possible for you to obtain an ending that doesn't result in your demise, courtesy of me? Strangely enough, I'm actually looking forward to it." Junko's smile widened while the stationary clock finally hit twelve. "Oh…and no hard feelings?"

Chiaki's senses left her before everything went dark.