His arm felt like lead. The burning in his abdomen intensified as he reached out a hand covered in blood toward the silver haired woman lying prone on the floor.
"I... will definitely... save you..."
Before he could reach her, his flame was snuffed out.
Gasping for air, Natsuki Subaru came to his senses.
"Oy, kid, you okay? You look like you've seen a ghost."
The appa trader in front of him looked concerned. Whether that was because Subaru was scaring off possible customers or for his own wellbeing was unclear.
Subaru looked down at his hand, shaking but entirely clear of blood. He was sure that was real. It felt too real to be a dream. Even now, the pain of having his guts ripped open was etched into his psyche like a festering wound as his skin remained unmarked.
Subaru shook his head, gathering up some misplaced confidence. "Sorry for worrying you old-timer. I think I'm good to go now. Just realized I forgot to do something important, so I'll head that way now."
With that, Subaru left the confused trader behind, heading down the street toward a familiar alleyway.
Subaru looked fervently from side to side. It seemed that the trio wasn't where he expected them to be. If he were smart, he would wait for them to arrive and then ambush them. But...
Subaru glanced at the alley again. He was short on time, and wanted to be in just the right position to apprehend the blonde haired thief. No choice in the matter then.
He walked down the alley with his guard up, glancing in all directions. Reaching the end of the alley, Subaru turned back around.
"Well then, what do we have here boys?" A voice from above asked. Jumping down from a ledge just above Subaru's periphery, a lanky boy with blue hair brandished a knife.
"Looks like we got us a mark!" a short kid with a bowl cut emerged from a bush off to the side.
"Who's dumb enough to come into our alley?" a third voice chimed in, as a large man with wraps around his head walked into the alley from the street.
Subaru felt sweat drip down his neck. He thought he had been careful; it seemed the hoodlums were more dangerous than he gave them credit for.
He eyed the knife. "Now boys, I know you don't want anyone to get hurt now. You should put that knife down, and we can talk things out, the civilized way." Subaru said, gesturing toward the thug holding the weapon.
"Ha, I don't think so idiot." The short one pointed at Subaru. "We have you at our mercy, now give us everything you got on you and we might just let you leave with your life!"
Subaru eyed them with distaste. He didn't want this to get dragged out, especially with a blade in play.
"You want my stuff? Go get it!" He shouted, and threw his bag high up into the air, past the thugs.
They all took their eyes off of the tracksuit wearing teen as they followed the arc of the bag.
Subaru jumped forward and kicked the short hoodlum in the face, an easy feat considering the 2 foot height difference between them. Then, he pushed the large one off balance, and began wrestling with the lanky one for control of the knife.
"Give me…. This… before you hurt yourself or me!" Subaru yelled, before wrenching the knife from the thug's hand. He jumped back, knife in hand and considered his next move.
He tested the weight of the knife in his hand. It was fairly light, and he gave it a couple test swings. He didn't want to be forced to use it, but it was a powerful tool in evening out the battleground.
Subaru looked at the hoodlums grouping back up after the surprise attack. "Now will you leave me alone? As you can see the tide has turned, I'm not someone you can just mug easily."
He gestured toward the alley's exit onto the main road. "Knowing that, I'll let you get out of here before I call the guards to come arrest you."
"Ghk…" the lanky one made a strangled noise before whipping something out from behind his back and lunging forward. "Don't you mock us you bastard!"
Subaru tried to dash backwards but the sudden attack caught him off guard and he tripped, falling, hitting his back against the hard stone of the alleyway and crying out in pain.
His assailant swung at the empty air where Subaru had been a moment prior, but due to the distinct lack of him he was forced to continue the momentum of the swing, throwing him off balance and downward.
Subaru felt a dull throbbing emanating from his chest. Hazily, he tore his eyes away from the sky to see the cause of this agony.
There, embedded deep in his chest was a knife, similar in appearance to the one Subaru stole. Blood dripped and pooled around the hilt, staining the tracksuit he wore and mesmerizing him.
He coughed up some blood, which furthered the painful throbbing in his chest.
He heard a moan. Subaru slowly tilted his head to the right and saw the lanky boy who attacked him on the ground next to him.
A knife was buried in his gut. The knife Subaru had been holding.
He tried to muster up some sort of sympathy or regret, but could feel nothing.
"Oh shit, what the hell man!"
The remaining two hoodlums were looking down at the two of them with wide, unbelieving eyes.
"This wasn't how this was supposed to go…" The short one pleaded with the air, tears in the corners of his eyes. "If you had just given us what we wanted this could have been avoided, and then…"
He looked to Subaru's right and became quiet, turning away.
His breaths grew more labored, and he could feel himself fading. Dimly, Subaru noted the moaning beside him grew quiet and less frequent, until he could barely hear it.
Unbidden to him, his right arm flopped over, as if he had lost all strength. It sounded like it came into contact with something, but he didn't want to think about what that might be.
Subaru could no longer feel the throbbing in his chest. The blood which had been coming out around the knife had slowed significantly. Maybe his situation was improving. But if that was the case, why is it the only thing he could feel is... cold.
And Subaru's consciousness drifted away along with his body.
Suddenly, he felt warmth. Consciousness returned to a body with a still beating heart, and one Natsuki Subaru breathed again.
The appa trader was staring at him. He appeared to be saying something, but Subaru could not comprehend the words. He stared straight through the trader, unblinking.
Subaru looked down at his shaking hands. He couldn't understand why he was killed. Why he had been reborn. What the purpose of all of it even was. His Isekai fantasy was very different from what he had imagined.
Someone grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him.
Taken by surprise, Subaru's head snapped up, and he was finally able to hear the trader who was still gripping him firmly.
"Hey kid, do I need to find a healer for you? You're scaring off all my customers staring off into nowhere right in front of my shop, and it's creeping me the hell out!"
Subaru noted how serious the trader was about his stall. It was his livelihood after all. He shook his head from side to side and slapped his cheeks.
"Whew, sorry about that old man, I've had a hell of a day." Subaru said, rousing himself from his stupor.
"You must have, you seemed to be lost somewhere far away…" the trader grumbled, removing his hands from Subaru's shoulders.
"Well now that you seem back to normal, either buy something or get the hell away from my shop, so real customers can buy something." He said gruffly, looking away.
Subaru smiled, and quickly bowed.
"Thank you for worrying about my wellbeing, even though I am a stranger to you." He said.
Subaru knew that under the gruff exterior, the man was sincerely concerned for him, despite only having just met him from his point of view.
"Yeah yeah, just get on out of here. And maybe talk to some friends about what's on your mind, seems like you could use some help." The appa trader said, dismissively waving him away.
Subaru felt a rush of gratitude to the man. He needed someone to set him straight and snap him out of his destructive thoughts, and it seemed like Appa guy was just what the doctor ordered.
Subaru looked down the street toward the alleyway where he died, and started walking. Now that he knew there were two knives in play, he would have to approach this differently.
Ideally, he would have liked to go and find something resembling guards in this situation. There should be peacekeepers in a city like this, he knew from his time watching anime and playing video games.
But he was short on time, and spacing out in front of the trader earlier wasn't helping matters. Hopefully he could wing it well enough with the new information he had.
Resolved, Subaru approached the alley and walked down it. Inside, he was surprised to see the three hoodlums out in the open, arguing about something.
"I'm telling you man, I had the worst nightmare ever! And it felt so real..."
Subaru's ears perked up. This hadn't happened last time.
"So what if you had a bad dream that you died? Do I need to give you warm milk and a bedtime story to calm your nerves? Or can we get back to what we do best?" the large man with wraps said mockingly.
Subaru froze. Did he hear that right?
He stopped walking, and the trio noticed him.
"Shit, now we missed our chance to ambush someone! See what your bad dreams did?" the short one shouted at the lanky boy, who recoiled physically upon seeing Subaru.
"Guys…" he said with horror. "That guy was the one that killed me in my dream. He used my own knife and everything. I would never forget his face!"
Subaru's mind raced. They haven't met in this loop before, but that was the person that killed him last time. Subaru couldn't forget his face even if he tried to; the first person he had ever killed, inadvertently or otherwise.
Somehow, they both had retained their memories of what happened last time after dying. Subaru cursed his bad luck, as all attempts to catch them by surprise were out the window now.
"Hey asshole, we're talking to you here!"
Subaru was shoved, stumbling and almost falling down as he focused on the three in front of him.
"What the hell did you do to our friend here? Answer quickly and we may stop at beating the crap out of you." They advanced on him menacingly.
The lanky hoodlum had fallen to his knees and was clutching his head. " I don't understand… You died, I died, I've never seen you before and yet we killed each other…"
He looked directly at Subaru, eyes piercing through him as he connected the dots.
"It's almost like we went back in time by –"
In an instant, time froze. Subaru could not move, nor breathe. There was a thick miasma all around, masking everything but his immediate surroundings.
He could see the two hoodlums, their advance frozen by the miasma, suspended in time.
The one that killed him however, was still moving. He appeared to be in a similar state to Subaru. Aware, but unable to escape the overwhelming pressure of this alien presence.
Then, Subaru experience terror like he never had before. Something was caressing his heart, with a gentleness that did nothing to soothe the fear and dread coursing through him at that moment. Thoughts of his death flashed before him, as he silently pleaded and begged the entity to take anything it wanted, except for him.
The thoughts wouldn't stop, and it was all he could do to remain sane through the panic. Then without warning, the hand receded, and he could have sworn he heard someone whisper something to him.
Immediately, the lanky boy's eyes widened in abject horror. He began convulsing and thrashing, as if to escape an unseen assailant.
There was a sickening crunch, and the boy's eyes went white. He fell over, lifeless.
The miasma receded, and Subaru gasped for air, looking at the boy who moments ago was in his same position.
There could be no mistaking it. Subaru had been spared, and the boy had not.
The other two turned around when they heard their friend collapsing.
"Hey man, are you okay? What the hell, he's just a normal guy, he ain't scary at all!" They approached the lanky boy, and turned him over.
"The shit is this…" The large man's eyes turned dark, and he looked from his friend to Subaru. "He's dead. What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything…" Subaru said quietly, refusing to look the man in the eyes.
"Like hell you didn't do anything! My friend is terrified of you, says you killed him in a dream, then suddenly he drops dead?"
They both stand up and the man draws out brass knuckles, affixing them to his fists.
"I don't care what kind of magic power you have, I'm going to give everything I have to make sure he is avenged!" the man lunged for Subaru, who just barely avoided a fist swung at his face.
"Magic? I don't have anything useful like that!" Subaru pleaded. "Even if I did I would never use it to kill someone, you have to believe me!"
"Bullshit. You're going to die for what you did, right here and now." The man looked up for a moment, then back to Subaru. "Let him have it."
Briefly, Subaru realized he lost sight of the short one, just in time to feel immense pain erupt from his head. It felt like his skull had been cracked open, and he dropped to the floor.
"Good work man, he never saw it coming with you distracting him."
He could barely make out what they were saying. His vision was going in and out, and he saw two pairs of feet near him.
"Now, let's take out the trash." Boots said, and with a mighty kick, Subaru knew no more.
Subaru was tired. He was in front of the appa trader again, now well acquainted with his mannerisms. He apologized to the man for wasting his time as he did not have any money, and his feet instinctively went to the alley again.
Subaru did not want to die again, and he had no plans to. But he needed to know what the limits of his power were, and if others were affected or not. The very future could one day depend on this knowledge.
Going into the alley, he noticed it was empty. As he walked in further, a voice stopped him.
"Well then, what do we have here boys?" a familiar voice drawled.
The trio jumped down at the entrance of the alley like they did two loops ago. The lanky boy brandished a knife, just as he did back then.
Subaru eyed it warily, having remembered it being inside him not too long ago. He put down the groceries he was carrying and pointed at them.
"I have a question for you." He said, gesturing to the one with the knife. "Do you know who I am at all?"
The hoodlum looked confused. "No? Why, are you someone special or something? Should I know you?"
Subaru was confused. By all accounts, there was no memory of the last loop for anyone but him. So the question became, what had changed from one death to another?
Then, Subaru remembered. His arm had come down to rest on top of the dying boy next to him in the loop before he remembered. Was it really so simple a thing? And why did it work that way?
The lanky boy was still talking. "I don't care who you are! Give us everything you've got, and maybe we won't kill you!"
Subaru did not want to try fighting them again. It hadn't worked out well the few times he did try, with terrible results. As such, Subaru resolved himself, and drew in a deep breath. "Guards, come help quick, I'm being mugged and they are threatening my life!"
The trio freaked out, looking this way and that, but didn't see anyone.
"Whew… you really gave us a fright kid." The large man said. "Good thing there were no guards around here. Now stop putting up a fuss before we decide to really rough you up."
"I may not be a guard, but I believe for this sort of situation, my own power should be sufficient." A confident voice said from the open end of the alley.
A man with flaming red hair and an ornate sword on his hip walked in, relieving Subaru of the stress his body and mind had accumulated.
He was saved.