Saga of Soul


"<Yes, Inspector Aoyama,>" said Eriko, <"I'll come and discuss this with the PCTF, but not right now. I have a busy schedule this morning, but I'm virtually certain I can find some time in the afternoon. Yes. Yes. Thank you. Goodbye.>" She closed the cell phone.
"<Trouble?>" asked Junko.
"<I don't think so... Near as I can tell, they want to go over yesterday's battle.>" Eriko took a deep breath. "<Well, let's go... Monsoon will probably want to talk too, and I want us to be done before the sun sets over there.>"

"<No, really, I liked the way you handled that construct,>" said Monsoon. "<It's good to see you getting creative with your magic. But... I get the feeling that's not the main issue, is it?>"
Eriko looked at the ground silently. Monsoon went on: "<The feeling I'm getting is that you're a bit shell-shocked from how that fight ended. By how you ended it. Amiright?>"
"<I... This shouldn't be an issue...>" Eriko struggled uncomfortably to express her thoughts.
The fairy waved dismissively. "<Should, shmould. People shouldn't be scared of housecats, but that doesn't keep people from having ailuraphobia. If it's an issue, then it's an issue. 'Should' doesn't enter into it.>" Hovering closer, she leaned toward Eriko. "<And blowing monster guts all over the neighborhood did bother you more than a little, unless I'm missing my guess. Which I rarely do,>" she grinned.
Eriko sighed. "<Fine. Yes, it... bothered me. It's not very rational - I know I acted in the best way available to me - but, yes, all that blood and destruction felt wrong.>"
"<You mean, it felt wrong for you to be the one causing it. Never mind losing your temper mid-fight, hm?"> Eriko nodded, and Monsoon went on. "<Well, you already know you did nothing wrong, so I don't need to tell you that. As for it not being very rational... Well, duh. After aeons spent dealing with all sorts of people across the multiverse, let me tell you this much: Rationality is overrated. It's got its uses - like, say, figuring out that you can kill a construct by opening a portal to the ocean between its guts - but ultimately, it's just a surface thing. Scratch the surface, and no-one's actually rational. Every one of us is one big throbbing mass of emotions, neuroses, issues, and feelings that may be good or bad, but have little to do with logic. We are the way we are, not the way we think. There is nothing odd about you getting freaked out by what happened yesterday... but you'll get over it sooner than you think. Next time you save the city from a monster, you'll barely flinch at any eventual gorefest.
So!>" Her expression changed together with the topic, "<How's the project going?">
"<Um... Almost done, I think. It has been on continuously for two days now, and I barely need any effort to push anymore...>"
"<Great! Of course... we still need to handle that pseudo-Living Curse and the Circle of Wisdom. Though I'm still trying to figure out what they're hoping to accomplish...>"
"<I'll gladly talk with you about that... later. Junko and I need to get going.>"
The fairy smirked, raising an eyebrow. "<Oh? Do I want to know where?>"
"<...Nowhere problematic.>"
Monsoon smiled and rolled her eyes. "<Okey-dokey... Have your fun. I'll be over here, trying to fit ghetto rap with classical music from the last world I visited.>"

My name is Junko, and I'm currently visiting Los Angeles.
Though I tried not to show it, the trip here still scared me. Even knowing it's coming, falling through dozens of portals is... well, I guess it's a bit like roller coasters and such rides, come to think of it. And now, I'm getting to visit the city of Hollywood with Eriko!
...I'd probably enjoy it more if I wasn't concerned for her. She's been pretty quiet since yesterday. Monsoon seems to get her better than I do, but...
"<It's bullshit.>" Eriko's abrupt statement took Junko by surprise.
"<Er, what?>"
"<What Monsoon said earlier. About rationality. It's nonsense. Sure, people aren't completely rational, but they should at least try to be. Calling it 'overrated' is... It's loser-talk.>"
I nod, pretending to understand. "<She was... trying to help, no?>"
"<Well, yeah. I guess it's just that bit that rankled me.>" She paused. "<I mean, I know I'm overreacting and it's not like she was saying we shouldn't use logic, but... Ah, never mind. We've got some sight-seeing to do.>"

All in all, I think the trip to L.A. did me good. Showing Junko around took yesterday off my mind, being in the States again felt comforting in a way, and even a short trip to the bookstore was a joy (though I was surprised Junko wanted to go there with me. Is she trying to improve her English?). But still... I dunno. I've been ill-at-ease since yesterday, and it's not all just from the gore.
Monsoon says that, deep down, we're all neurotic messes. Is it true? I practically went berserk yesterday. OK, that's only berserk by my rather tame standards, but still. Is this where stress is pushing me? Am I a lot less nice and controlled under the surface?
What kind of person am I?
"<Sorry, am I boring you?>"
Eep! "<Er, sorry. Was distracted.>"
Monsoon smirked. "<Understandable, but let's get back to the spellslinging jerks.>"
"<Right right. You were saying, about Living Curse...>"
"<Yes. Messing with the criminal underworld like your cop pals think he's doing... It's unproductive. A waste of time. So either he's an idiot, or... Well, two things come to mind.
First, maybe he wants to control the gangs to recruit among them and make an army of mages. Deliberately putting yourself in a coma to get magic is always a hellaciously long shot, but having an actual wizard around makes it less suicidal. Of course,>" her eyes narrowed, "<a bunch of stupid criminals with the power to fry the planet is somewhere in the top-ten worst-case scenarios, so we need to stop them hard and fast. And by we, I mean you, since I'm kinda useless outside this place.
The second option... and it's not incompatible with the first... is that he's deliberately trying to attract our attention. Calling us out, forcing you to fight him.>"
"<Isn't that... pretty effective, then? Since, you know, 'bunch of stupid criminals with the power to fry the planet'?>"
"<E-yup. Exactly. And if that's his goal... Definitely could be Downfall, though I wouldn't put it past Murder. Doesn't sound like the Circle's schtick, though - they're pickier when it comes to recruitment.
Which brings us to the Circle. I'm... not sure what to think. I mean, unleashing constructs on a city, then going all 'it's all the fault of the guys in charge, go kick their ass so we can do a better job'... It sounds like the most amateurish world-conquest plan ever. Sure, I know some of the Circle guys aren't all that well-acquainted with reality, but this is... a new low. So either these dudes are serious whackjobs, or... I dunno.>"
"<Better question: How do we stop them? Both of those constructs caused immense damage. I can't just content myself with eliminating every kaiju they unleash and then waiting for the next one - they'll tear the city apart district by district at this rate!>"
"<Good point, but it's not like we have a Circle radar or something. My best advice is to wait until they slip up - they won't keep using the same tactic forever, either.>"
"<Small comfort that'll be to the victims,>" Eriko muttered under her breath. "<By the way, I've had... Junko gave me an idea.>"
Junko snapped to attention. Monsoon's eyebrow rose for an instant before coming back down.
"<It's like this,>" Eriko explained. "<We've seen that both constructs had noble magic boosting their strength. Nothing that big could have moved around in Earth's gravity otherwise, much less smashed buildings made of concrete and steel. So... why not replicate that? I could cast spells to give myself super-strength, too.>"
"<You could, yes.>" said Monsoon. "<And it might help on occasion, but... only so much. You've already got your magical telekinesis anyway, so the benefits of super-strength are a small drop in the bucket. Besides... If you cast this kind of spell on yourself, you've gotta be very careful. I could tell you a thousand stories about noobish mages who got themselves killed in stupidly creative ways like this. There was that guy who made himself so strong, he accidentally broke his own spine by moving around. Or that guy who super-charged all his muscles - and had his heart literally burst out of his chest. So, yeah. Be careful.>"
Eriko paled a little. "<I'll... keep that in mind.>"

"<...and then, when he mentioned demons, elysians and fairies. I get that Downfall is a demon, and I'm willing to accept that Murder is an 'elysian,' but do you know anything about fairies?>" asked Hyosuke.
Soul looked down sheepishly. "<I'm... afraid I can't tell you anything on this subject.>"
"<Why am I not surprised,>" said Koyama. "<I suppose that pretty much covers it... unless you have anything to add?>"
"<No, I think that's pretty much it.>"
"<I have a question, actually,>" said Hiromasa. "<If that thing you opened was a portal to the ocean... then how come we didn't find all sorts of sea creatures at the scene? There were plenty of fish on the ground when you put out that fire in America.>"
"<Completely different pressure,>" she explained. "<With the fire, I opened a portal only a hundred meters or two below sea level. This was a portal some eleven kilometers beneath it. Over ten thousand times the regular atmospheric pressure. Anything that lives down there has evolved to thrive in such an insane pressure. Once brought to the surface, I imagine they all exploded or dissolved. Or something.>"
Hiromasa seemed to accept her explanation, though he twitched uncomfortably at the mental image.
"<All right then. There's another development you need to know about,>" said Hyosuke. "<Tell me... Does the name 'Peter Cook' ring a bell?>"
Soul's brow furrowed. "<No... Who is he?>"
"<A British politician. Now, how about Anna Kahlen? Cheon Eunho? Jonathan White?>"
"<...Sorry, I don't recognize those either.>"
"<They are, respectively, a German politician, a South-Korean media mogul, and an American business tycoon. Now, none of these guys are in the absolute top tier of power... but they're fairly high up. Also, every single one of them is either dying of some medical condition or another, or has a close relative who is dying.
At least, that's how it was until yesterday. Because, in the hours that followed your fight with the kaiju, some hooded figure visited these people or their relatives at the hospital. The doctors still need to finish the analysis, but it looks like they've been cured.>"
Taking it all in, Soul quickly considered the implications. "<A... hooded figure. The Circle of Wisdom?>"
"<Same getup as the guy in those magical holograms, at least.>"
"<I see.>" She remained silent for a few more seconds. "<That... sounds like a bribe, really.>"
"<No shit, Sherlock.>" Hyosuke ignored Koyama's frown. "<We can cure you, so be nice and hand us over the world. Seems about as subtle as anything else the Circle does.>"
"<It's also advertising,>" she reflected. "<They've been going on about how they can make the world a better place with their magic. This is a way of actually showing it - monsters as the stick, healing as the carrot. Now, more and more people will want magic... so they'll be willing to listen to the Circle's sales pitch...>" Or get magic in other ways. "<So that means we need to take these clowns down ASAP.>" Yes, because we wouldn't want magic to cure millions of sick and dying people, now would we? That would be too terrible to contemplate.
"<If I may note,>" said Walker, "<Those four cases are only the ones we know about. There may be others going on that have been less public... though the Circle was fairly showy with these four, at least. Perhaps they are also running other, more discrete operations behind the scenes?>" Seeing Soul wince at the idea, he added: "<The CIA will look into it, at least... between assembling reports of Murder's spree.>"
"<Wait, what?>" said Eriko.
"<Ever since Phoenix, there have been reports of... well, murders, that would match him. Dozens, across the world. Mind you, homicides get committed every day regardless; there are various stabbings that may have been committed by him, but might also be the work of a local criminal. And then there are others where he was actually seen by cameras or surviving witnesses. It's very hard to estimate how many people he has killed since then; we can't even determine the order of magnitude.>"
Soul winced. This just gets better and better, doesn't it? 

Samsod understood the importance of maintaining sharp reflexes. As such, when Secano entered his room, the elysian found him juggling five combat knives.
The thorison flung each knife at one of the targets lined up on the walls, hitting five bulls-eyes. "<What?>"
Secano pumped his fist in a victory gesture. "<Success! We have secured the target as planned, Grand Adviser Chancell is in place, and we may soon proceed with the next phase of his magnificent plan!>"
Samsod said nothing.
"<Soon enough, this world will bend the knee to the glory of the Elysium!>" Secano went on, watching for any reaction from Samsod.
There was none.
"<...Also, pink noble banana bullet monkey.>"
Still no reaction.
Secano was feeling increasingly awkward. "<So, um, how goes your study of the Japanese language?>"
"<I'm almost fluent.>"
"<Great, that's... great. So, um, I'll get back to work and, er, leave you to yours.>"
As he closed the door, Secano muttered to himself. "<I respect your skill, courage, and loyalty, thorison... but by the Supreme One, I look forward to having more people to talk to.>"

My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I'm very tired.
OK, for the sake of my sanity, I'm going to rephrase that:
My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I've had a pretty draining week. It's not just that I'm overworking myself while leading a double life and fighting monsters... It's also that, the more this crazy mess goes on, the less it feels like we're winning.
I couldn't really stop Downfall. Oh, I hurt him enough that he retreated, but now he's doing his own thing, probably raising an army of mages out of street thugs... and every single one of them is a walking, talking WMD with a bad attitude. And they could decide to recruit, too.
I couldn't stop Murder, and he's probably killing an innocent person right now. He's already killed so many in Phoenix alone, and I don't think I could stop him even if I knew where to find him.
I can't stop the Circle of Wisdom. All I can do is fight the giant monsters they unleash, and that won't stop them from making new ones until they run out of patience and decide to try something new.
And that's without getting into that "Extension" that is supposed to be worse than all of them combined. So, really... how am I supposed to win this? following the plan until Mother Aurora and her fairies can finally come in, I suppose. This is too much for me to handle on my own. It really is. I just hope Aurora knows what she's doing.
And now, as I watch the news with my family, they mention those politicians and tycoons who benefited from the Circle's largess. They've actually got one of them urging people not to cave in to the Circle. Noble sentiment, but I guess it'll look hypocritical to most people...
"<...and in other news: The Muramatsu Media company has announced its intention to make an idol singer out of Soul.>"
Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe flinched in surprise when their daughter sprayed tea across the living room in a sudden spit-take.

A short while later, Eriko and Junko were watching a relevant clip online:
"<Whenever the time is right, Muramatsu Media always finds the perfect idols for Japan's youth!>" Hideo Muramatsu, with a wide Colgate smile, was explaining in a great show of enthusiasm. "<We brought you Mew Jin, Aki Chan, Goto Hama, and so many more! They did their best for their fans, and you loved them all!
Now, Japan's youth has a new heroine: Brave Magical Girl Soul! Flying to the rescue, saving the world from demons and monsters! So I say: Who better than a magical heroine to be the idol of youth?
Soul, when you hear this: We offer you the perfect opportunity to reach the hearts of millions, and be the star! Just come to us, and we can kick it up!>"
"<This is so cool!>" said Junko with a mile-wide smile, almost squealing in delight.
"<This is so stupid,>" replied Eriko, facepalming.
"<Come on!>" said Junko, not in the least deflated. "<This is perfect! Heck, I still have some of Mew Jin's songs... Those Muramatsu people are legit, Eriko. You can make it big with them.>"
Eriko gave her a sad, uncomprehending look. "<Junko...Even putting aside the obvious endangerment issue... I have no intention of being an idol singer.>"
"<Why not? It's not like there aren't precedents. You've got Creamy Mami, you've got Pichi Pichi Pitch... And this way, you can get all the fame and success you could want! I mean, you're already famous, but it's not the same... and I'm sure the pay is good.>"
"<And, what, they'll pay me in unmarked bills that I'll stash in Castle Nexus? And besides, a singing career? Celebrity as an idol? Who wants that?>"
"<Who doesn't?>"
Both girls fell silent. After a moment, Eriko sighed. "<Look, I'm... I'm way too tired to deal with this. I need to finish working, then go to bed. This... can wait.>"

"<I recommend the caviar,>" Katsutoshi said, "<this restaurant provides the best in Tokyo. Its taste is nothing short of fantastic, and were I a man of hyperbole, I could almost compare it to your kisses.>"
"<My, Katsutoshi, you're getting better at this. By the end of the year, I might even start believing a word you say,>" Honoka smirked. He used to think of her as generic dateable classmate #10, but her not-so-generic sass had actually earned her the right to a name in his thought process.
"<Truly, it is my tragedy to be in the presence of such beauty that my attempts to do it justice are doomed to the appearance of dishonesty.>" He managed to say it with a perfectly straight face, almost eliciting a chuckle from her.
"<Well, that's rather reassuring to hear, I must say. I wasn't certain what to offer you for your birthday, but from the sound of it, my presence ought to be an appropriate gift,>" she said, also maintaining a straight face.
There was a brief "<Oh.>" as his composure dissolved for a short moment. "<I wasn't aware the date was known...>"
"<I had to ask around. Happy birthday, Katsutoshi.>"
"<Thank you, my sweet.>"
"<More seriously, I do wish I could have come up with a real idea for a present,>" she admitted. "<Unfortunately, your desires are a bit of a cypher. What do you give the man who has everything?>"
He chuckled. "<My needs and desires are, indeed, fulfilled for the most part.>" Except for a real family? Or anyone who actually likes me for myself?
"<So you say.>" She paused. "<If I may ask, Katsutoshi... Is there something unusual going on? I've noticed that you have less time for your fan club lately.>"
He frowned ever-so-slightly. "<My... mother... has recently returned to Tokyo after a long absence.>" Several years of almost no contact with her own son. "<We've been catching up,>" on her insane schemes, naturally, not on any possible parental relationship, "<and she has been involving me more closely with the family business.>" Deranged and almost certainly illegal experiments, twisting the mob around her finger, detaining and interrogating people of mass destruction who could get away as soon as they got bored, messing with powers man was not meant to know... Yeah, that business. "<I've had to catch up on a lot of things in the matter.>" I could tell you some pretty chilling things about NDEs now. Or about how Downfall - remember him? - is raising his own army of mages from street thugs, and two of his candidates are actually agents of my mom.
"<That sounds wonderful,>" she said. Well, it mostly sounds like you hate your mom. Which I guess is normal if she abandoned you for years. But most girls in our school are easier to fool than me, aren't they, my sweet, neurotic eye-candy?

The owner of the Internet café kept his eyes glued to the screen. He pretty much had to - looking anywhere else would mean seeing the bleeding corpses. Seeing them would shatter what little nerve he had left. Losing his nerve would lead to screaming. Screaming would, in all likelihood, lead to death.

"...and now, the authorities are speculating that the Circle of Wisdom is hoping to bribe the world's elite into cooperating," he summarized from the screen, "but they're reminding everyone that the Circle are terrorists and invaders who... who kill civilians... and that negotiating with them is treason."
"I see," said Murder, hovering a short distance away. "Anything else worth my while?"
"Um..." the man, still trying very hard not to panic, scrolled down. "A... a Japanese company wants to, to, to turn Soul into a singer."
This brought a quizzical smirk from the elysian. "Beg your pardon, my good man?"

"<Eriko, I... have a lot of respect for you,>" said Junko. "<And I'll respect your decisions. But... I don't really understand this. The way you're reacting to the idol thing, I mean.>"
"<What's so complicated about it?>" Eriko turned her attention away from her spellcasting. "<Both Downfall and Murder committed massacres just to draw me into the open. If I started making public appearances, how many casualties do you think we'd be talking about - three digits, or four?>" She paused for a moment. "<...Then again, purposefully appearing in public might be a way of getting those guys to show up without starting with a mass murder...>"
"<I get that part,>" Junko said exasperatedly, "<and I don't think that's it. Even without the risk... even without the villains... I don't think you even want this. It's like you don't even care about being an idol.>"
"<What do you mean 'like'? I really don't want it!>"
"<And that's what I don't get!>" Junko took a deep breath. "<I mean... Money. Fame. Millions of fans. Every girl I know except you would give an arm and a leg for this. The boys, too, come to think of it. What... What's not to want? If it was me... Sure, I'd understand not wanting to endanger people, but if I refused, I'd be bummed about turning the offer down, at least.>"
Eriko considered for a moment. "<I don't need money that badly. Fame won't make my life better. And I don't care about having fans.>" Well, maybe a little, but certainly not to the extent you seem to. "<None of this really seems important to me.>"
Junko shrugged. "<More power to you, I guess.>" I don't get it. You don't care about having fans. You don't care about hanging out with friends. Do you care at all if people like you? Do you care about me? You took risks for me, you made me your confidant, you've done so much for me... and despite all that, at times, I get the feeling you don't even care.

Mr. Kahara looked at his guest. This "Living Curse" seemed less nervous than on his previous visit. The Yakuza boss wished he felt the same. This punk - and for all his magical tricks, Kahara still felt he was just a punk - was making waves among the street gangs, had shown him blatant disrespect, and was, according to rumors, working for Downfall himself. Half his instincts were screaming at him to have the impertinent whelp executed. The other half was screaming to smile, nod, and not make the masked man with superpowers angry.
Of course, he had his instructions from Steel-Sama, and that trumped the other impulses.
"<We are in control of the streets now,>" Masaki boasted. A huge hyperbole, but it sounded good. "<This city is ours, and we demand proper tribute and respect. As such, I will be expecting the Yakuza to pay us a tax comprising 10% of its earnings.>"
...And now, 90% of Kahara's instincts were screaming for the punk's blood. He twitched. Surely that idiot wasn't actually expecting him to accept...? Could he really be that dense? Or was he deliberately making unreasonable demands in order to...
"<That is no small request you're making...>" he began.
The Living Curse cut him off by abruptly leaning forward and slamming his palms on the table. "<We can request whatever the Hell we want!>" Suddenly becoming self-conscious about his reaction's abruptness, he awkwardly took a couple of steps back. "<Ahem. What I mean is, considering... Well, since magic is, you know, the name of the game... We...>"
"<I will consider it.>" Kahara forced the words through his teeth.
After his guest left, the Yakuza boss immediately made a phone call. Steel-Sama's plans concerning this guy had better come to fruition very, very soon - there was no way he was letting his clan be humiliated in such a manner by these upstarts!
After leaving the Yakuza headquarters, Masaki sighed in relief. He had made the demands, and he was still alive. Oh, his shields would have protected him from bullets... probably... but he still didn't feel safe, acting in this manner.
Downfall would be pleased.

Downfall wasn't pleased.
"<You idiot!>" the huge demon bellowed as he smacked Masaki, sending him flying across the room. "<You were to obtain a definite answer from the Yakuza - not let them delay!>"
"<But, but, Downfall,>" the thug pleaded, "<I don't think they could accept something so big without taking some time...>"
Downfall, in response, stomped hard enough to shake the whole room. "<I didn't need them to accept! If they had, we would have been the kings of the underworld - but if they hadn't, we could have made an example out of them! It was a win-win scenario, until your human incompetence bungled it!>"
Masaki gulped. "<T-they're still going to accept. Or refuse.>"
"<But you have given them time. I wanted it to be done by today, before the induction ceremony!>" Downfall glared at him. "<Now, I will need to induct the new mages without first announcing our great victory. You better pray that the induction goes well, Living Curse... since if it doesn't, I will not be in a very forgiving mood.>"

"<You have to admit,>" Monsoon said, "<for all the inconvenience and danger, this is kinda funny.>"
"<Comedy gold,>" Eriko muttered sarcastically.
"<Makes me curious,>" the fairy went on; "<Do you think Muramatsu are actually hoping you'll accept the deal and become their new cash cow, or are they just pulling this stunt for the free publicity and media buzz?>"
"<Beats me. It makes little functional difference, though - those idiots need to stop, and they need to stop yesterday.>" She paused. "<I already told the PCTF I don't intend to get anywhere near Muramatsu's building. Thanks again for your help with this.>"
"<No problem,>" said Monsoon. "<By the way... How goes our little project?>"
"<Glad you asked!>" Eriko's expression immediately switched to an enthusiastic smile. "<I think it's finally complete. I tried to reinforce the noble magic earlier, and this morning, too - and it was like pushing against a wall that's not there. You know, that feeling when you try to use magic to do something that's already done?>"
"<I know what you mean. From the sound of it, it sounds like your first attempt at creating magic items is a success!>"
"<I suppose. I haven't really tested it, though->"
Eriko was interrupted when Monsoon, without a warning, slapped her. The teenage girl staggered back in surprise and put her hand to her cheek.
Monsoon, for her part, just kept smiling. "<Does it hurt?>"
"<Er... no. Not at all.>"
"<Test successful, then.>"
"<I guess. But you could have warned me...>"
"<Naaaaaah. Then you would have felt several seconds of apprehension, instead of one second of surprise. This was the more pleasant approach.>"
"<I suppose.>" She took a deep breath. "<OK. Having a permanent holistic shield is a good first step,>" reducing the risks of ambushes, and allowing me to waste less time before intervening in a crisis, "<but we should probably move on to making magical items other than my own body.>"
"<Sure. I've got a few suggestions...>"

"<Good evening, Master Katsutoshi. I do hope your birthday went well?>"
Katsutoshi smiled and replied politely to the butler. The date with Honoka had been... passable, he guessed. She could be reasonably witty, and she was nice enough to look at, but there were times when talking to her made him feel like an idiot for some reason - like she had him figured out better than he did. He resolved to take a different girl on his next date - presumably one from his fan club.
Oh well. A few more hours before bedtime... he'd have to go over math, then yet another one of the NDE reports, then...
"Hello, Katsutoshi."
He immediately tensed up. "Mother. What are you doing in my room?"
"Certain matters had to be discussed in private. Close the door."
Though annoyed, he complied. "What is it now? Another 'captured' supervillain?"
"Nothing of the sort, but several developments. For starters, Downfall has proceeded with his plans to create additional mages."
"I see. So, how many new monsters are we talking about?"
"Of 15 volunteers, only two have survived. Both appear to have developed magical abilities. The bad news is, neither of the survivors are among my infiltrated agents. The good news is, we have nevertheless gained some insight into the process, which seems to match so far the information gleaned from Murder. Meanwhile, Downfall appears to be stepping up his plans and gearing up for a confrontation with the Yakuza - whether he wants to control them for the sake of power or whether he seeks their destruction for another purpose is yet to be determined.
On the matter of the search for Soul, Harris has compiled a list of suspects, whom we are placing under surveillance. Even if Soul is among them, though, this may take some time."
"Right. And once you have magic at your disposal..." he waved dismissively.
"There is one last matter," she said, ignoring his interruption and pulling out a Rolex.
He looked at the watch quizzically. Not a recent model, though still an elegant one. "Yyyyyess...?"
"This belonged to your father," she said. "He never went anywhere without it. I imagine that he would want it to be yours."
Wordlessly, he reached for the watch, and put it on his wrist in place of his usual one.
"Happy birthday," she said in her usual emotionless tone before leaving the room. Katsutoshi let himself fall on the bed - he was suddenly feeling very, very tired.

Late in the evening, Eriko was reading a Facebook page.
", my little girl is not going to make it for more than another month at most with conventional medicine. Just so you all understand where I'm coming from.
So, am I in favor of surrendering to the Circle of Wisdom? HELL YES.
Yes, yes, I know. They're terrorists, they're mass-murderers, they're evil.
But, honestly? I care a lot less about that than about my daughter's life. And I challenge any of you to say you'd feel otherwise in my shoes. Think otherwise? Then let me tell you something: Right now, there are zillions of people dying in Africa or wherever because they can't get food, or clean water, or another one of these things we all take for granted when we have them. There ARE charities to help them. And often, you can save their lives - real, human lives - just by donating a few dollars. Less than you spend on coffee any average week.
But, most of you don't. You don't care that millions of perfect strangers die. And I don't care how many people died in Tokyo. I care about my daughter. If we can get some magic to save her without having to work with the Circle of Wisdom? Sure, that's great. But I haven't seen Soul or anyone except the Circle go out of their way to heal the sick. So, honestly? I'm willing to support the Circle, if they'll save my daughter. I'm just human... and so are all of you, deep down."
Hoo boy. She sighed. He's already got tons of reactions and comments... almost all of them negative.
But even so... I don't get it. He himself admits that the Circle is evil, that they kill that many people... and he's willing to support them to save one person, because it's someone he loves? That's wrong, and he has to know it. Does love - do feelings in general - have to make us act irrationally and immorally like this? Am I like this? And if not, what does that say about me? I don't want to ever put emotional value above what's right and true, but...
Come to think of it, should I be paying visits to hospitals myself?
Still on Facebook, she went to another page - this time, the "Soul Fan Club".
Wow... that many members already? It's almost dizzying. I'd never thought I'd get fanart of me made, but... Holy crap, someone actually made an AMV of the footage from my fights? To the tune of "I Need a Hero"? Um, wow.
Aaaaaand there are actually a few morons hoping I'll take the offer and become an idol. Yeah, people. Not gonna happen.
Her web-surfing was interrupted by the ringing of her cell phone. "<Hello?>"
"<Hey there Eri. This is Monsoon!>"
"<Hey. What's the matter?>"
"<Well, it took some time and observation, but I got his address.>"
Eriko sighed in relief. OK, no paranormal crisis then. "<Awesome. Thanks again for the help.>"

Muramatsu Hideo had a spring in his step as he walked through his house. The Soul maneuver had truly been a stroke of genius on his part - it had drawn everyone's attention to the media conglomerate, and there was no such as bad publicity. There had been a veritable explosion of visits to their website, which led to people discovering more about their music, their TV shows, and everything else. And if Soul actually agreed to the offer? All the better, then. Sure, those cops from the PCTF were complaining, but really...
He yelped in surprise when a portal opened in his living room, and a white-clad teenage girl stepped in.
"<Muramatsu Hideo, I presume.>" She was not trying to hide her displeasure.
"<...Soul.>" His reactions were somewhat delayed as he tried to cope with the sudden turn of events. "<Ah... Welcome... Welcome to my home. We...>"
"<You announced yesterday that your company wished to employ me as a... public performer.>"
"<Yes! Yes we did!>" He began to regain his self-confidence. "<You will not regret coming to us. We will make sure you take the world by storm.>"
"<No, you irrational idiot!>" He was taken aback by the angry yell. "<Are you really this dense?! Do you still have trouble accepting that all the death and destruction - all the magic - is real?! What do you think would happen if I agreed to your insane offer and became a singer or whatever?!>"
"<Bloody murder, that's what would happen! Do you want Downfall visiting a concert?! Murder rampaging through your corporate building?!>"
"<Well, no, but...>"
"<Could have fooled me! Now, listen closely, Mister Muramatsu. You will not be using me for such cheap media stunts ever again. You will retract your earlier statements. You will not mention to anyone this conversation. And you will hope really, really hard that my enemies don't already consider you a target worth investigating!>"
"<Now wait here one minute! Who do you think you are to tell me->"
"<I am telling you,>" she cut him off by floating several feet in the air in front of him, "<what to do in order to stay alive, dimwit! For->"
"<Hold it right there!>" Now recovering from the initial shock, he was getting angry. "<Neither I nor Muramatsu Media answer to you! And frankly, I don't see why any of your monsters would bother targeting us - we're a perfectly harmless company!>"
She blinked. He can't be that stupid... That's just plain denial. He's in denial, and he's going to get dozens of people killed because he doesn't want to see how bad his idea is. Her expression hardened. Screw this noise. I'm making him understand now. "<Mister Muramatsu.... I see that we have a little communication problem here.>"
"<Indeed. What you need to understand is->"
To his great surprise, his lower jaw suddenly slammed against his upper jaw with dizzying strength. He staggered back, then suddenly, he was falling... Except, he wasn't. The room was stationary, wasn't it? But his feet weren't touching the ground, and he could feel the fall. "<Ah... Ahhhhh...>" He was a nudge away from screaming in terror.
"<Like I said, a little communication problem,>" she said as she used her telekinesis to make him hover above the floor, allowing her own body to return to the ground. "<So I am going to try to express myself in a manner that you can understand. Still with me so far, Mr. Muramatsu?>"
With his inner ear and the feeling in his guts both screaming at him that he was falling to his death, he could only nod.
"<Good. Now, to answer your earlier remark: It doesn't matter in the least that you are a harmless company. The people who have died in the paranormal attacks so far? Taxi drivers. Accountants. Coffee shop employees. A bunch of perfectly harmless, perfectly random people. They died because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time - because Downfall and Murder wanted to force me to show up.
You, Mr. Muramatsu,>" she slowly made him rotate in the air until his feet were near the ceiling and his face was in front of hers, "<publicly announced your intention of working with me. If random people were good enough targets... then what of you? Don't you think Downfall, or any other villain I have opposed, might take an unhealthy interest in you now?>"  His eyes wide as saucers, the terrified executive made no sound. "<Maybe you have trouble accepting the reality of the danger. In that case, I suggest you sit down at your computer and google 'paranormal crisis victims'. Believe me, the people who died are quite real - regular folks like you and your employees. If things go sour because of your little stunt, you will die, Muramatsu Hideo. There is no guarantee I can save you in time.>"
"<I...>" he tried to speak up, "<I don't... Please let me down...>"
"<Certainly.>" She dropped him over the couch. "<So, you will follow my advice on this matter?>" He nodded fearfully. "<Good!>" the steel was returning to her voice. "<If you're very lucky, it might not be too late! For everyone's sake, this had better be our final meeting!>"
And with that, she opened a portal beneath her feet and allowed herself to fall through it.
Whew. I didn't like yelling at him like that... much less breaking and entering into his home, or using my powers to terrorize him... but someone needed to set him straight. I don't want the next I hear of Muramatsu Media to be Murder paying them a visit to ask if they have heard anything from me, or some crap like that.
...Actually, if I'm honest about it... I think I did enjoy yelling at him, and calling him on his idiotic behavior. I was really pissed off over the whole thing, beyond the fully rational; yelling a bit let me let out some steam. The nerve of that guy...
But... isn't it odd? That I wasn't interested at all in the offer? Junko's right - even if there had been no security concerns, I'd never have seriously considered becoming an idol. I mean, I'm not interested in a career in show business, obviously... but how come most people are interested in fame, and I'm not? For that matter... Junko always wants me to hang out with her friends, even if she tries not to bug me too much about it. Everyone seems to hate being alone, everyone wants friends, everyone wants to be loved, to... But I don't. Why?
What kind of person am I?

"Interesting. Considering your general respect for law and order, I would not have expected you of all people to act like a dark menacing vigilante."
"Look, I'm perfectly willing to admit I didn't handle it very smoothly. I should have been more patient, I should have... I could have solved the problem without doing the whole Batman routine. I can see that now, yes, but-"
"...but you were not in a good state of mind at the time yourself, I believe."

"...Soul confirmed how easy it would be, so now, the PCTF is paying close attention to new cash flows in the underworld," Walker explained on the phone. "If a mage gets the bright idea to create counterfeit money, or start mass-producing gemstones and precious metals, they'll find out sooner or later."
"That may provide a lead if a mage actually decides to go that route," said Helen, "but given that Living Curse robbed a bank, I suppose it's possible."
"Speaking of that: The Tokyo police are closing in on the gang we think he's involved with. According to the rumor mill, they're working for Downfall... and they're recruiting. Koyama is hoping to bust them all in a big winning move, although he's reluctant to admit he'll need Soul to deal with magic-users."
"Is that so. Maybe I ought to get involved..."
"Whoa there, Barker! We need to maintain the advantage of surprise if we're going to do anything!"
"Especially if they can teleport, I know. I'm not stupid, Walker. If I do anything about this, I'll think it through and clear it with everyone first. But I'd rather the CIA got every sensitive information possible. I mean, do we want Japan to hold a monopoly on magic when this is over?"
"Of course not," said Winston, "but we do want Japan to still exist when this is over."
"I do not intend to endanger PCTF operations."
"That's good to hear," said Walker, "because I think things are going to get harder for them before they get any easier. We just got a report from China. The Circle of Wisdom just struck again."
"What did they do?" asked Winston.
"Well, there was this lady in a hospital. Great-great-grandmother, age 107, can't walk on her own anymore. Well, this hooded Circle guy showed up, and before you could say 'Fountain of Youth,' she looks like she's in her twenties again! And it's not just cosmetic - early reports suggest she's regained her strength and health."
"Hoo boy," said Helen. "You know what that means."
"Sure," said Winston. "Now, everyone and their grandmother will want magic. Especially their grandmother."
"And it's not like politicians - or the billionaires who fund their electoral campaigns - are a very young bunch," Helen added. "So even without the strategic considerations, obtaining magic will now be a priority for a lot of people."
"And the Circle will be capitalizing on their monopoly on magic."
"But they don't have a monopoly," she remarked. "Mind you, I don't see Downfall or Murder doing public service. Soul, maybe, but..."
"It does seem like the Circle is pushing their angle," said Winston. "We have another miraculous healing in America. This time, it's Bonny Smith."
"Bonny Smith?" Helen shuffled through her memory. "Isn't that the daughter of that idiot on Facebook?"
"The one who said he was willing to support the Circle for a chance of his daughter being saved, yes. Nice PR move on the Circle's part."
"Yes, but..." Helen sounded unsatisfied. "They could have started with those 'nice PR moves'. They'd have been welcomed as saviors by millions. Why start with terrorism? Why start by killing countless civilians?"
"Beats me. Makes one wonder what kind of world those guys come from, doesn't it?"

"So you understand," Murder explained, "I could just start another public killing spree to get Soul's attention, and then kill her when and if she tries to interfere... but between Downfall making new human mages and the Circle of Wisdom being stupid, things are just getting so interesting. I haven't been this entertained very often over the past couple of centuries. If I kill Soul now, it's just going to be Downfall and his minions against the Circle. Now, I am going to kill her - and I can't wait too long before I do it - but for now, I'll wait. I know that Downfall's recruitment operation will be the focus of Aurora's attention, and therefore Soul's - she cannot allow more magic to fall into careless human hands - so I may as well enjoy myself on this little safari, you see?"
The co-pilot gulped nervously, watching the pilot's corpse bleeding on the cockpit's floor.
"I knew you'd understand," Murder went on. "Now, Downfall is certain to make his move soon enough, and I imagine I'll do the same... but, not yet. Not before I see how the next bit goes.
But, I've bored you enough with my stories," he said, clutching his knife.
"I have but this to say," the co-pilot finally forced himself to speak. "Do what you want to me, but spare the passengers."
"An intriguing request," said Murder. "We're above the middle of the ocean. With both their pilot and co-pilot gone, how well would you estimate their chances of survival? Regardless... request rejected." He plunged his knife into the man's throat before stepping out of the cockpit.

"<What was once the Black Skull Gang,>" Downfall intoned before his audience of over fifty street thugs, "<is now Endless Ravage! By might of magic, the world is ours. Laws cannot stop us. Nations cannot stop us. Armies cannot stop us. The Circle of Wisdom cannot stop us. Even Soul herself cannot stop us!>"
Most of the audience cheered. The demon went on: "<We are unstoppable. Invincible. Bullets bounce off our shields. Armor crumbles before our spells. Walls are meaningless to our portals.>" He stepped toward the three mages at the front of the audience. "<Living Curse. Crimson Rain. Queen of Pain. You are now above the rank and file of humanity. All you desire, you can seize by force. What is it that you desire? Speak!>"
The three mages winced - in his demonic form, Downfall seemed to have little consideration for indoor voices. "<I want... power!>" the newly-christened "Queen of Pain" finally said. "<I want to be too powerful for anyone to ever be able to control me!>"
"<I want to be rich!>" said the second Crimson Rain. Masaki wondered if he knew about his predecessor, and about how he had ended. "<I want to be able to take whatever I want!>"
Downfall's eyes were now lingering on the nervous Masaki. "<I want... I want to be respected!>" he finally said.
"<And you shall have all that,>" said Downfall. "<The three of you will strike today, displaying your magical might for all to see!>"
"<What do we do? Force the Yakuza to accept our terms?>"
"<No. Too mild. I wish to send a message to the world, not just the criminal elements.>" Downfall raised a fist. "<Muramatsu Media have affiliated themselves with Soul. As such, they have made themselves the eternal enemies of Endless Ravage - and they shall pay the consequences!>"
"<Actually...>" one of the thugs in the audience spoke up, "<They announced a retraction today. They're getting out of the Soul business. Said the police insisted.>"
"<Oh.>" Downfall seemed dejected for a moment. "<Well then, we shall strike at different targets! Different symbols of what would presume to stand in our way - holy temples!>"
"<I... beg your pardon?>" said a confused Masaki.
"<Across the world, across the nation, religions and their priests demand worship and obedience from mankind,>" explained Downfall. "<But their devotion to imaginary gods shall not protect them from Endless Ravage! Each one of you will strike at a different temple, and burn it to the ground, displaying our omnipotence for the world to see!>"
"<Hold it right there!>" Masaki surprised even himself with his outburst. "<That's your plan?! Burn down a place full of people who never did anything to us, just to show we can?! That's not strength, Downfall - that's just being a fucking asshole!>"
He stopped, suddenly frozen with fear. The first Crimson Rain's fate flashed in his mind as Downfall leaned toward him. I... I can fight him... I can...
But rather than strike him dead, Downfall laughed. "<You have guts, Living Curse. I like that. But you lack experience. Showing what we can do - what we're willing to do - is an essential step on the pathway to power.
Also...>" he slapped Masaki, sending him flying against the wall, "<Do not question my orders. Now get up, we have destruction to wreak.>"

The main news of the evening would have been the mysterious loss of the Toronto-London flight over the Atlantic, were it not for the three masked individuals who had each appeared on religious ground, announced their names, and then used magic to set the buildings on fire.
The Shofuku-Ji Buddhist temple was struck by an individual who called himself "The Living Curse". After announcing himself, he sent a blast of fire at the old building, then made his exit. The fire was put out before the temple - a national treasure - was completely destroyed, but the damage was nevertheless great.
The Franciscan Chapel Center, targeted by "Crimson Rain," was less lucky - the attacker didn't leave after the first fireball, and actually made sure the building was doomed before departing (which he did by flying away, two witnesses confirmed. He hadn't had the time to master portals yet).
The first attack reported to the police, however, was the strike on the Shinto Hikawa shrine by "The Queen of Pain". As such, news of the attack reached the PCTF - and thus, Soul - before they were even aware of the other two.

Masami, aka the Queen of Pain, watched the burning building in front of her. I wanted to be strong, to be free... to never have to fear anyone ever again. Is this... overkill? Then again... it's reassuring, knowing I can do this.
"<Who are you?>" came a voice from behind her. She turned around, then took a step back when she recognized the newcomer.
"<No, that would be me. I asked who you are.>"
Masami gulped, then closed her fists tightly. "<I am the Queen of Pain, from Endless Ravage!>"
"<I see. Did you start the fire?>"
"<Yeah... and this one, too!>" shouted Masami as she sent a fiery blast at Soul. The latter, however, simply opened a portal between them, redirecting the fire to the stratosphere.
"<You really shouldn't have done that,>" Soul stated as she closed the portal and opened another one in its place - this time leading to the ocean, several tens of meters beneath the surface. Masami found herself projected against the burning building by a massive stream of salty water, getting knocked out despite her shields. 

In Castle Nexus, Monsoon was once again busy singing her lungs out to one of Earth's songs.
"We're pixies! We're pixies!
And since the 1960s!
We raised that clown to be our tool
To beat the fairies, so we can rule!
We're pixies! We're pixies!
It's going just as we predictsies!
We can't stop now! The time is near
When fairy world, and this world here
Are ruled by us by us you hear!
By us you hear!
Monsoon turned around and turned the music off. "<Oh, hiya, Eri. Who's your friend?>"
"<She called herself - and I quote - 'the Queen of Pain, from Endless Ravage.' Also, she tried to fireball me.>" Monsoon's expression darkened. "<Aaaand she set a Shinto shrine on fire. I put out what was still left, but I should probably get back to Earth - from the sound of it, things are getting complicated. What do I do with her for now?>"
Monsoon considered. "<Leave her here. I can keep her from causing trouble, at least for a few hours.>"
"<Thanks. I'll get back ASAP.>"

"<...and that's when I called you,>" Monsoon explained to Mother Aurora in the strange castle - one devoid of stairs or any commodities required by those unable to fly.
"<You both did well,>" said the Fairy Queen, looking down at the unconscious Masami. "<I will place her where she may harm none. It is best, afterwards, that I accompany you to Castle Nexus.>"
"<Sure thing, my queen. On a different note, how goes your ritual?>"
"<I am making progress, though not as swiftly as we had hoped. The fate of one universe, it would appear, is insufficient - others are involved in the tale unfolding before us.>"

At PCTF headquarters, several police agents were analyzing the situation with Soul.
"<Those three said they were from 'Endless Ravage.' Does that ring a bell?>" asked Hyosuke.
"<It does,>" admitted Soul. "<My... sources... tell me it's a group Downfall belongs to.>"
"<A group, you say,>" replied Koyama. "<So Downfall isn't just an isolated individual.>"
She said nothing.
Hyosuke preferred to press the discussion in a different direction. "<That Queen of Pain... from what you said, she went down easily, yes?>"
"<Yes. She seemed like an amateur. I'm guessing Downfall recently empowered her and the others... which would also explain why Crimson Rain had to fly away. He didn't know how to open portals on his own.>"
"<So Downfall really is raising an army,>" said Koyama. "<Not on my watch.>"
"<I suppose we need to move against them soon, then,>" said Walker.
"<But we need to find them,>" remarked Soul. "<Have you made progress?>"
"<You could say that,>" replied Hyosuke, ignoring Koyama's disapproving glare. "<We think we found their hideout. Maintaining surveillance is tricky. Taking them out will be even more so. I mean... what do we even do about them? Presumably they can portal through prison walls. What about the Queen of Pain?>"
"<I've... placed her somewhere where she won't cause immediate trouble,>" Soul said awkwardly, "<but... I'll have to look into more long-term solutions...>"

When Eriko returned to Castle Nexus, the first thing she noticed was the presence of the Fairy Queen next to Monsoon. The second thing she noticed was the absence of the Queen of Pain.
"<Mother Aurora?>"
"<Greetings, child. Monsoon has informed me of the current predicament, and thankfully, I was able to come here.>"
"<She called you? How...>"
Monsoon, in response, waved her hand, showing off her ring. "<This gets me back to Feyland, remember?>"
"<Right. Where's the girl... Queen of Pain?>"
"<I have taken her to a different universe,>" said Mother Aurora. "<To a place where she will harm no living soul.>"
Eriko winced. "<You're not going to, er...>"
"<There will be no need to hurt her,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<She will be unable to leave, and she will not wreak havoc as she has today, but she will live a reasonably normal life there. Naturally, I will have her interrogated first to learn more of Downfall's malevolent ambitions.>"
Monsoon nodded. "<Speaking of which. How are things going back in Tokyo?>"
Eriko sighed. "<Three different mages, each one hitting a different place and setting it on fire. A Shinto shrine, a Buddhist temple, a Christian church...>"
"<Temples of various religions found in the area,>" Monsoon explained for Mother Aurora's benefit.
"<The attackers were calling themselves respectively Queen of Pain, Crimson Rain, and Living Curse,>" Eriko went on. "<You've already said that the Living Curse was one of the Big Bads of Hell. Does the same apply to the other two?>"
"<Indeed it does,>" said Mother Aurora. "<Both, much like the Living Curse, are living legends in Hell, and among its movers and shakers. The Queen of Pain has earned her name a million times over, inflicting nightmarish suffering upon entire nations. Crimson Rain, for himself, is among the most horrific of Hell's mass murderers, having wielded his minions and armies to commit countless genocides.>"
"<Fun little tidbit: All three of these guys lead factions that kick Endless Ravage around,>" Monsoon pointed out, smiling. "<My guess is, naming his pawns after them is a private joke on Downfall's part.>"
"<Hilarious.>" Eriko facepalmed. "<The good news is, the PCTF think they've found his HQ. Now we just need to figure out what do with that information.>"
"<A valid concern,>" said Mother Aurora. "<Downfall has at least two human mages, and an unknown number of followers. All must be stopped, if these is to be hope for peace in your world. However, even if...>"
Monsoon interrupted her. "<Ahem. The thing is... It's complicated. You're probably going to need to ambush them with the effect of surprise if you want to stand a chance. Incidentally... That'll only work from a good distance.>"
"<What do you mean?>"
"<Well, it's never really come up before, but... demons like Downfall can sense human emotions at close range. It's very imprecise, but it's there.>"
"<What?! How the blue blaze is that... I mean...>"
"<It's complicated. And usually, it's not a good enough sense to make any difference in a combat situation. But if you're trying to ambush him... don't stand too close.
That said, even with an ambush... If you can deal with the magic-users separately, that'll help.>"
"<I suppose. But how do I deal with them? I mean... I got lucky with Queen of Pain. She got knocked out by a water blast. What do I actually do with Living Curse or Downfall?>"
"<At the risk of sounding like a cold-blooded, ruthless bitch?>" said Monsoon. "<If you kill them, we won't hold it against you.>" Seeing the expression on Eriko's face, she went on: "<Downfall is a mass murderer, and he aims to plunge the world in suffering and destruction. He's, you know. A demon. As for any mage that works for him... They are threats to the world. And they work for Downfall. So, yeah.>"
"<Look...>" Eriko tried to reply, "<I'm willing to do what it takes in self-defense, or if they're attacking someone... But if I have the time to actually plan the fight, I want to plan it right. And I don't want to kill anything smarter than a lizard if I don't absolutely have to. Besides, didn't you guys say that killing Downfall might not actually kill him?>"
"<A risk,>" admitted Monsoon. "<He might be able to rebuild himself a physical body before he goes through the Tunnel of Light. Not likely, but there are rare precedents.
Mind you, if you get the chance to send them to Castle Nexus... And if my queen can find the time to be present here during the battle...>" she eyed Mother Aurora, who nodded silently.
"<I suppose,>" said Eriko. "<But... no. That's not a long-term solution. They're criminals, when all is said and done. The police will want the whole gang arrested, and->"
"<That would be a dreadful idea,>" Mother Aurora cut her off. "<If Downfall and his followers are somehow placed in the hands of your world's authorities, and the latter are somehow able to restrain them - a feat unlikely without proper magic - then their interrogation, even that of non-powered followers, may let out dangerous secrets, such as how magic is obtained. And then, your world may very well be destroyed before we can save it.>"
"<Well, what do you want me to do?!>" Eriko was getting upset. "<Send God-knows-how-many people to God-knows-where-you're-sending-them, in blatant disrespect for the law, on the off-chance they may have learned something while hanging around Downfall?! I'm not going to send any followers of his here unless they are mages themselves!>"
"<Then your world may very well be doomed, child.>"
"<Don't you even try to guilt-trip me into this. There are limits to->"
"<People, people!>" Monsoon raised and waved her arms. "<We've got enough trouble already, we don't need to fight among ourselves.
Listen, Eriko: It's great that you want to do the right thing no matter what. It really is. But good intentions won't do much good for anyone if the planet goes kablooey. Now, I'll try to look into more permanent solutions to your problems with these guys... but for now, be ready to do what it takes, at least where Downfall and the mages are concerned. Deal?>"
"<Well... I'll think about it...>"
"<As for myself, I must depart from this place,>" said Mother Aurora. "<Monsoon, when the time comes, beseech me - I will make certain to remain available in the near future.>"

After the Fairy Queen had left, Monsoon looked at Eriko. "<Since I haven't had the chance to tell you yet: Great job, catching the witch. That'll save us a lot of trouble down the road.>"
"<Thanks,>" said Eriko, still looking a bit uneasy. "<I guess it was a bit of a relief, fighting someone less experienced than me for a change.>" She paused. "<You're positive she won't be...>"
"<Don't worry. The bosslady is a bit of a hardass, but she isn't cruel. She won't hurt her more than she needs to - and honestly, there's little to no need. If anything, this Duchess of Boo-Boos will get off lighter than if she'd been punished by your own laws.
But is that what's really bothering you?>"
"<You haven't seemed too well since the last construct fight. Is it still the shock from how it ended, or...?>"
"<N-no. I don't think that's it.>" Eriko sighed, and considered for a moment. "<I think it's what you said that's been bothering me.>"
The fairy hovered in closer. "<What do you mean?>"
"<'Rationality is overrated.' That bit about how everyone is a neurotic mess deep down. That... upset me. A lot.>"
"<Go on.>"
"<I've been... thinking about it. In fact, I think my thoughts over the past couple of days must have sounded like a broken record. Rational this, irrational that... Everywhere I've been looking, I've been seeing how people ignore all logic and decency, letting their emotions do the thinking for them. Every time I've stopped to consider my own actions, I've been wondering how much of it was illogical mumbo-jumbo that I rationalize later. It's been driving me up the walls.>"
Moonson stiffled a giggle, placing one hand on her mouth, and then the other on Eriko's shoulder. "<You mean, people care about more than righteousness and logic while making decisions.>"
"<...Yes. And I'm worried about to what extent this may apply to me.>"
"<And that's what's been bothering you.>"
"<Well, one more thing adding itself to an already-long list.>"
"<I get it. Well, Eri, lemme put it this way...
We all have things that matter to us - that matter to us more than anything else. And when we get this invested in them... sometimes, that emotional investment means we can do stupid things for them. It's all part of, y'know, not being perfect.
Just about everyone has this precious thing they place on a pedestal. For... certain people... it's loyalty, family, friends.>" She stopped short of mentioning Junko. "<For some, it can be a specific person - maybe even someone they haven't met. Possibly an imaginary one. For some, it's respect. Or love. Or their work.
As far as I can tell, Eri... Your most precious thing is rationality. Truth. And honestly, there are worse things to worship.>"
"<I... suppose...>"
"<As long as you keep in mind that people, including you, aren't perfect - that you are going to act irrational from time to time - this shouldn't be a problem,>" the fairy went on. "<Trying to make sense of the world is a noble ideal. Just remember your own flaws, is all. Not like other people don't have them too.>"
"<I guess.>" She turned around, opening a portal away from Castle Nexus. "<Thanks, Monsoon.>"
"<My pleasure!>"

The elderly lady sank to her knees over the church's ruins, and let out a few silent tears. She remained there for a while; when the man with the nasty grin approached, she didn't even notice him until he spoke to her.
"<Good evening.>"
She turned her head. The man wasn't familiar. "<G-good evening. Actually... not so good...>"
"<The church, you mean?>"
She nodded, sobbing. "<One of those... people... he showed up, and burned it completely. It's been our church for so many years, and he burned it down in minutes. Why?! Why would anyone do such a thing?!>"
"<I'll tell you why.>" He knelt down, still grinning. "<Some people... want to burn all that mankind has created to the ground. To crush the human race beneath their iron heel. To show every man, woman and child suffering beyond their worst nightmares... and then destroy them all.
A place that gives you hope - even a fake one - is a delicious target for such people. This attack was a way of crushing your spirit; a warning shot, before the full-powered destruction is unleashed. A prelude to greater things.
Oh, and by the way,>" he said as he got up, "<Now you have cancer.>" And with that, Downfall, still in human form, opened a portal and left.

"<The good news is, there were very few casualties this time, and one of the attackers was neutralized by Soul,>" the prime minister's secretary said that morning. "<She's a bit evasive about what she's actually done with her, though.>"
"<Her?>" the older man said. "<Hm. I'll need to speak to the people in charge. Inform the PCTF that we need results, and fast - the public will not accept the destruction of a national treasure and multiple attacks this soon after the last kaiju. We must take the initiative, if only to calm down public fear. We...>"
He stopped talking when a portal opened. To his credit, he didn't shriek like his secretary when a humanoid figure (were those... pointy ears?) stepped through the magical gate.
As bodyguards rushed in, weapons in hand, the creature raised a white flag. "<I come in peace, Mister Prime Minister. Forgive my intrusion, but we needed to talk as soon as possible.>"
"<I... see.>" The politician considered the being. Ears aside, it looked like a young human male. "<Ah... Take a seat.>"
"<Thank you, Mister Prime Minister. Again, I must apologize for this rather crude manner of contacting you.>"
"<It's all right, it's all right.>" The prime minister seemed to be trying his best to stay calm and collected, despite the overwhelming situation. "<So, er, um... What may I do for you?>"
"<I know that your nation, your very world, is facing terrible threats as of late,>" the being explained. "<Worse than even you realize. And as it happens... Your enemies are also the enemies of my people. It was my hope to offer an alliance between your nation and mine.>"
"<That is... interesting.>" He wiped some sweat from his brow. "<Tell me more, Mister...?>"
"<Secano. Call me Secano.>"

"A struggle with the fallibility of human nature, I see."
"You don't know the half of it."
"You were saying?"
"I was saying eat smallpox and die, Douchebaggio."
"I'm afraid I must decline. Mind you... when discussing the fallibility of human nature, one must not forget the fallibility of spiritual nature. I wondered at the time why Downfall was hitting such... strategically meaningless targets."
"Well, it was a very, very Downfall thing to do. He cares about doing things 'right', for his deranged value of 'right.'"
"So I've noticed. And if I have my timetable right, we're reaching the point where..."
"...where the fecal matter hit the oscillating unit?"
"Isn't that what had been happening all along?"
"Sure, but..."

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