Saga of Soul


"...recording this for posterity," Eriko was speaking to the camera. "This has required several precautionary measures and preliminary experiments; I wasn't certain of the extent to which holistic shields would protect me from this environment. As such, I am using noble magic to maintain a 3-meter-wide bubble of air around me at approximately the standard atmospheric pressure. It has been holding quite well, and breathing does not feel any different from normal surface conditions.
The distance of a portal jump is hard to estimate, but according to the distance-measuring apparatus, I am currently located at an altitude of 388 kilometers - in other words, low Earth orbit." She aimed the camera at the Earth below. "This is, I believe, the first human expedition to outer space accomplished without the use of rockets. Further expeditions will hopefully reach geosynchronous orbit, Lagrange points, and, eventually, the Moon."
She stopped talking and looked around her. She took out a telescope. Screw Mother Aurora and her plans, screw Downfall and Murder, screw the Circle of Wisdom, screw sleep deprivation, screw Kazu, screw all my self-doubts - right now, at this very moment, I'm happy. I'm a scientist magical girl in outer space. I am doing the absolute coolest thing anyone my age has ever done. I can see the curvature of the Earth. I can see the unblinking stars without the interference of Earth's atmosphere. I'm basking in nigh-perfect silence - nothing louder than my own breathing.
I need to get back to Earth soon...
Just five more minutes.

"A video camera, a telescope, scientific equipment... You had reservations about creating a five-dollar bill, but infringing on several copyrights by duplicating expensive equipment was acceptable?"
"That was different. That was for something worthwhile, not for fleeting self-indulgence."
"Nothing you say will convince me you weren't enjoying it."
"That doesn't mean it wasn't important! ...Oh, zip it."

While the audience in the room only included a very small fragment of Japan's government, the members of that fragment were rather significant. Though the PCTF at large hadn't been informed yet, the appropriate military representative was present. All were aware of living a historic moment.
"<So what you are saying, then, is that there are hundreds, thousands of parallel worlds similar to this one; they follow the same 'standard History' up to a certain point, then break away from it at different periods in time.>"
"<That is correct, Prime Minister,>" said Secano. The elyisian's Japanese was decent enough, accent notwithstanding. "<I believe your world broke away from standard History approximately twenty-and-a-half centuries ago. Some break away sooner, others later.>"
"<And each of these parallel worlds have their own Earth, with their own humanity, nations and civilizations.>"
"<Yes indeed.>"
"<But you yourself do not come from one such parallel Earth.>"
"<Correct again. Separate from the material worlds such as your own are the three spirit worlds - Hell, Feyland, and the Elysium. I am a native of the latter.>"
"<Which makes you a... spirit.>"
"<Which is not as different from being human as it may sound,>" said Secano. "<The Eylsium is a mercantile nation. We seek trading partners across the multiverse. We trade art, knowledge, currency... Unfortunately, the multiverse is not without its more aggressive elements. I believe you have already encountered a few.>"
"<You might say that. What can you tell us about the... supernatural elements we have been encountering lately?>"
Secano took a deep breath. "<Downfall is a demon - one of the spirits that form within Hell. That particular spirit world has certain particularities that lead it to receive a... psychic backlash of sort, shall we say. I am not a scholar, and I cannot do the full explanation justice, but the short of it is that negative human emotions from various worlds are projected into Hell, and into the minds of its inhabitants. As a result, every single demon is suffering from human pain and fear - and they tend to be a rather psychotic lot as a result. They also tend to blame mankind for it, which leads to the doctrine of Righteous Vengeance - the dominant ideology of Hell, which demands that demons get revenge on mankind in various gruesome ways.>"
"<Are you saying, then, that the reason Downfall murdered dozens of innocent civilians was due to this... misplaced blame?>"
"<Presumably. One needs to keep in mind that, due to the prevalence of the Righteous Vengeance doctrine, hurting mankind is also the best way for a demon to gain power and prestige within Hell's society.
I understand that you have also been having trouble with the Circle of Wisdom. True to their claims, they are indeed a human society. They are a religious cult of sorts - one that places magic in a divine role, and human mages - especially members of the Circle - as prophets and demigods, who rule over the rest of mankind. A magocracy if you will.>"
"<They have been boasting the ability of their magic to bring about a Golden Age. More recently, they have started healing terminally ill people. What do you make of that?>"
Secano sighed. "<The Circle of Wisdom, generally speaking, cares very little what happens to non-mages. They may claim otherwise, but that is little more than propaganda. Once they take control of a world, any denizens unable to use magic themselves become second-class citizens at the very best, slaves at worst.>"
"<Their willingness to resort to terrorism does make their claims pretty suspicious.>"
"<Indeed. But, moving on...
This 'Soul' isn't anyone I have ever heard of before. My guess is that she is a human mage; she might be a local, for all I know. Her interactions with Downfall and Murder, however, suggest that she is an agent of Mother Aurora, the Fairy Queen. That may be problematic.>"
"<Why? What can you tell us about fairies?>"
"<Fairies are... complicated. If demons are psychotic, then fairies are downright alien. Their psychology and motivations are almost impossible to understand for non-fairies, be they human or elysian (and I suspect that goes for demons, too). This is further complicated by their queen: Mother Aurora, through accidents of History, has come to possess magical powers that dwarf anyone else's; as such, she has come to set the tone of their society for millennia. Her ideology - which the rest of fairykind has traditionally been on board with - makes fairies the self-appointed guardians of the multiverse. As such, they oppose demons, the Circle of Wisdom and others... however, one of the things they 'guard' the universe from is magic falling into the wrong hands. Which, to them, means humans'.>"
"<And why is that?>"
"<To the best of my understanding... Fairies deem humans to be irresponsible upstarts, too young and impulsive to be entrusted with the power of magic. Not that such reservations are ever applied to young fairies, mind you. Still, the end result is that much, arguably most of the fairies' efforts revolve around keeping magic out of human reach.
It must be noted, though, that certain factors (which I can explain in further details after this) keep them from freely travelling between worlds. That is why they are often forced to act through non-fairy agents, and, I imagine, why you haven't suffered a full-scale fairy invasion so far.>"
"<A full-scale invasion?>" the military liaison raised an eyebrow. "<Would you call what we've faced from demons and the Circle 'full-scale invasions?'>"
"<It's not the same. For most beings, travel between worlds is a very time-consuming matter - which is why Downfall is, so far, the only demon in your world. The Fairy Queen, with her ludicrous power levels, can easily cast the magic necessary to move her agents from world to world. The only reason she hasn't done so here is that the factors I mentioned keep fairies from using magic in this world... for now. If her past behavior is any indication, Mother Aurora's main strategy in this world will be to get rid of these limits.>"
"<I see. But tell me, Mr. Secano... what of Murder?>"
Secano sighed. "<Very well, Prime Minister. I suppose this was unavoidable.>" He paused. "<Murder, as you have been told, is indeed an elysian. He is also a criminal, a mercenary, a traitor and a psychopath. Countless human generations ago, Mother Aurora contacted four mercenaries among my people. She hired their services to assassinate dozens and hundreds of human mages across many different worlds - worlds where fairy magic was powerless, but elysians could act freely.
Murder was one of those mercenaries. His actions in themselves were criminal, and treason against the Elysium (understand that several of his victims ranked among our trading partners)... but he ended up betraying even Mother Aurora, indiscriminately killing non-magical mortals and even fairies when it pleased him. He is, in essence, the greatest serial killer in all of reality.>"
A silent nod. "<Well then... What of your role in this?>"
"<I am here as observer, ambassador, and possibly trader. To tell you the truth, I have been gathering information for several weeks.>"
"<Then why act now?>"
"<Well, I needed some time to familiarize myself with your world. But beyond that, the recent change in the Circle of Wisdom's actions made me nervous, so I decided it was time to contact you. After all, who knows when it might be too late?>"
"<This is all very interesting, Mr. Secano... but, tell me: What do you suggest we do about it?>"
"<Well, as it currently stands, your planet has just become another theater of multiversal war. If Downfall and his ilk win, then the six-to-seven billion humans of this world will suffer through horror and genocide. If the Circle of Wisdom wins, then you will find yourselves in the thrall of an ancient order of magic-wielding fanatics. If Mother Aurora and Soul win, then your world will become a... nature preserve of sort, with the fairies preventing anyone other than themselves from having magic on it (what they will do to you I can only speculate - they can be unpredictable in that respect). As for Murder, his usual modus operandi is simply to keep killing until it is no longer safe for him to remain in the area.
Of these three options, I suspect that your unconditional surrender to Mother Aurora is probably preferable.>" That statement caused some ruckus in the assembly.
"<Order! Let him finish.>"
"<Thank you, Prime Minister. As I was saying, of these three options, fairy victory is probably the lesser evil... but I am here to suggest a fourth option: Fight back, drive all of these factions out of this universe, and remain free humans in control of your own world.>"
"<We have been taking measures aimed at that. The creation of the PCTF, military operations against recent attacks...>"
"<A very good start, Prime Minister. I commend you for it. But it will only delay conquest. You are, unfortunately, lacking your enemies' firepower.>"
"<You mean, magic.>"
"<Precisely. And this is where the Elysium comes in.>"
The military liaison raised an eyebrow. "<Are you offering to fight for us, or...?>"
"<That would be impractical. The logistics of multiversal travel won't allow the Elysium to send many agents here beyond myself. What I can do, however, is teach you how to use magic yourselves.>"
A historic moment indeed.

My name is Samsod, and I'm a thorison.
I exist to fight for my liege. That is the purpose for which I was born. Dutifulness, courage, and combat prowess are the only qualities required of me - a simple enough life. All else is superfluous; I have no need for feelings that do not help me in the exercise of my duties. Some other thorisons are more emotional, but I see it as futile.
I am a very good thorison. I know this for a fact, due to past battles. Grand Adviser Chancell did not select me for this mission randomly, after all. My current mission, however, has involved no combat so far - just waiting, observing, and learning. Pretending to be mere criminal scum, laying low in the city base. The Grand Adviser has admitted that our involvement with the criminal element is mostly part of his backup plans; if the primary plan works as well as he hopes, we may soon be moving all hidden operations to the mountain base.
One way or another, his plan will strive to avoid difficult battles wherever possible. That is only sensible. Good plans seek the best odds of victory. I understand and accept that. Nevertheless, I find my current near-uselessness frustrating. The same goes for my confinement to our hiding hole. The Grand Adviser understood that; he has advised me to leave it for short ventures into the city once every few days, if only to help retain my clear-headedness. That's the reason I'm currently walking through the streets, carrying groceries back to the base.
"<Don't kill me! Don't kill me please!>"
"<Then fork it over, kiddo!>"
Samsod's eyes focused on the source of the commotion - a young, thin man getting mugged by a trio of bikers. This city was somewhat lacking in outright violence compared to others he had seen, but in this neighborhood...
The victim seemed scared out of his wits. Hands shaking, he pulled out a wallet. Grinning, the nearest muggers reached out for it...
...then keeled over when a glass bottle full of grape juice exploded against the back of his head.
The victim and remaining muggers all turned around in shock to see the bottle's thrower - a broad-shouldered, bearded, long-haired man holding a grocery bag, grinning. "<You bandits want a fight? Pick one with a true fighter,>" said Samsod.
"<You're fucking dead, asshole!>" one of the bikers shouted, pressing the pedal and charging at him. In response, Samsod stepped aside, spinning with his arm extended, thus getting out of the bike's way and slamming the grocery bag in his attacker's face, knocking him off his vehicle. The bag broke, dropping a mess of foodstuffs on the asphalt.
The victim was watching the whole thing slack-jawed. The third mugger, for himself, cursed and pulled out a knife. He drove toward Samsod, intent on impaling him. Samsod, in response, began to move to the left and down for cover... which turned out to be a feint when he jumped upward and to the right, both dodging the attack and sending a flying kick at the thug. He fell to the ground like the others.
The thorison looked around. A few passerbys looking in fear and/or amazement, a few scampering away, but no-one who looked like reinforcement for his enemies. No police, either. He turned around and began walking away.
"<That was amazing!>"
He looked back. The muggers' victim was running after him. He was smiling in awe. "<Three against one, and they had those bikes too! How did you do that - karate? Kung-fu?>"
Samsod wasn't really familiar with the martial arts of this world, but he could still figure out the meaning from the context. He was not, however, about to explain the intricacies of thorison training. "<They were fools. I got the first with a surprise attack from behind; he was completely unguarded. The other two thought their vehicles made them invincible. Defeating them was nothing special.>" He was exaggerating the ease of it, but it seemed wiser to minimize the whole thing. Attracting too much attention wouldn't be good right now.
"<Still,>" said the young man, "<I'm amazed you did that. I can't imagine having the courage to fight those guys, much less for a total stranger.>"
"<I fought them for myself,>" replied Samsod. "<Fighting is what I do.>"
"<But they could have killed you!>"
Those amateurs? Not very likely. Though I have faced far greater dangers. "<We all die some day. But being a coward means dying every day.>" Samsod rephrased - with much lessened flourish - the lessons he had been taught as a child. "<Only the brave are really alive.>" And with that, he left the man and entered a store - he needed new groceries, after all.

"<This is madness!>" Hyosuke wasn't quite bellowing, but he had noticeably raised his volume. "<Raiding Downfall's compound without Soul is deranged!>"
"<On the contrary,>" said Koyama. "<Soul is not a member of the PCTF. She was never supposed to be – in fact, need I remind you that your job is to investigate her? The PCTF exists to protect the nation from paranormal threats. If we can't do that, then the whole thing is worthless.>"
Hiromasa was watching the exchange uncomfortably, uncertain whether he ought to say anything. Hyosuke, for himself, was fuming: "<What do you think this is – some proof of concept? We're up against terrorists with such powers, that their being bulletproof is almost a footnote! For once that we can actually get the drop on them and plan things out, giving up the 'Soul advantage' is moronic!>"
"<The weaponry provided by Maxcorp...>"
"< untested against paranormals! Besides, the PRISMs are designed to fight kaiju, not... smaller targets.>"
"<Well, we've got to test it at some point, no?>" Koyama was trying not to show his own anger. "<We can't depend forever on such a huge unknown like Soul. The PCTF needs to establish its ability to defend Japan, and we will not achieve that by letting some mystery girl do our fighting for us forever!>"
Meaning, you want something that will look good for the government and the media, and you're thinking with your ego again, thought Hyosuke as he glared at his superior. "<Do you not understand what is at stake here? If we waste this opportunity due to petty pride like this, not only will we be allowing dangerous mass-murderers to escape, but dozens of brave policemen and soldiers may lose their lives! We...>"
"<Enough!>" Koyama's patience was at its end. "<Inspector Hyosuke, I will not be entrusting our safety to a secretive magical girl who dodges our questions and disappears captured criminals. Soul has been hiding far too much information to be trusted, and she will not be involved with this operation.>" He put his hand forward. "<I will be keeping the Soul-Signal for the rest of this day.>"
Hiromasa gulped. Hyosuke glared at Koyama for an interminable moment, then eventually pulled the Soul-Signal out and handed it to him. "<If good men die today because of your swollen head, I will be holding us both responsible for their deaths.>"

"<Prime Minister... do you think he can be trusted?>"
The older politician considered his colleague's question for a moment. "<Secano? Well, unfortunately, we lack information on the matter. But... What he has told us seems fairly consistent.>"
"<It mostly seems rather... fantastic.>"
"<Any more so than what we have been seeing lately?>"
"<True. But... given how little we know, how easy would it be to lie to us? How do we know he isn't setting us up for...>" he trailed off, uncertain what the worst-case scenario would actually entail there.
"<We don't know that. I do, however, suspect he has been genuine so far.>"
"<Why? Gut feeling?>"
"<That too... but there are better reasons. There's the fact he didn't try to hide that Murder was an elysian - an information he had to know wouldn't be playing in his favor. Now, that could easily have been calculated... but what I find really telling is the solution he suggested: Not bringing their armies, not telling us what to do... just handing us power. I don't think he wants pawns... He wants allies who can hold their own. Until we have magic, we are at a huge disadvantage. Once we have it... the balance of power shifts.>"
"<I see. Then who are you going to select for this?>"
"<Well, I am going to ask the Self Defense Force for a variety of psychological profiles. Can't be too careful, considering the amounts of power that will be handed over to individuals here...>"

"Now, I told Koyama this wasn't a good idea," Walker explained on the phone conference; "So did Aoyama, and he was a lot less polite about it than me. No luck, though - he insists on doing it without Soul."
"Bad news," said Helen, "but we should have seen it coming. There are few things cops like less than someone who disappears suspects. Add that to national pride, plus the new weapons... and everything starts looking like a nail for their hammer."
"You said this wasn't likely to beat Downfall."
"I stand by that. But it might work, or at least do something, and I imagine these guys hate being helpless - or looking helpless.
Doesn't matter right now, though. If we can't get them to be sensible about it... then I should hurry and do some damage control."
"Damage cont- Helen, what are you-"
"Just trying to ensure we don't lose every lead."

"I doubt our weapons will give them victory," Steel reflected to Harris, "but whether or not they do, it's a lose-lose scenario for us."
"Is it?" asked her assistant. "There's a fortune to be made from this market if we play our cards right."
"The money involved is trivial compared to potential control over magic," she replied. "Though we have gained much precious information from Downfall and his minions, they may yet know important things we have not discovered so far. The PCTF's strategy, as well as their resources, make no allowance for capturing magic-users. Even if they win, it will be an overall loss for us."
"Well, what would you-"
"I believe it is time to contact Downfall."

My name is Masaki, and I'm in over my head.
Getting these powers seemed like such a lucky break at first. To finally be top dog. To be someone. To get some respect.
But Downfall is fucking crazy. He burned Genji to a crisp for standing up to him. He had us burn down temples and churches just to make his point. He doesn't care at all that what's-her-name Queen of Pain got beaten by Soul and disappeared to God-knows-where - and really, how could it have ended otherwise?! Queenie had only had her powers for, for, a few hours! She couldn't even make shields without help; she didn't have a prayer against an experienced mage!
Downfall doesn't give a damn about us, and I wouldn't be surprised in the least if he gets us all killed.
But what do I do about it?
Fighting him one-on-one sounds suicidal. I've had more time to get used to magic than Queen of Pain or Crimson Rain, but I don't think I'm anywhere near his level. Gang up on him? Probably wouldn't work. Make myself scarce? All my buddies are here, and he might kill them. Even if I manage to take them with me, I'm not sure if he might be be able to track me down with magic.
There was a ring, and one Masaki's friends answered his phone. "<Hello? Yes, who... What? I don't know what you're... Uh...>" He fell silent, and listened for a moment, his expression growing worried. "<All right... Just a moment.>" The thug then walked toward Downfall, handing him the phone. "<It's a call for you, sir.>"

Downfall's monstrous form wasn't exactly appropriate for using a phone - sure, he could use magical telekinesis to compensate for the unwieldy hands, but his ears were just too far away from his mouth. As such, the caller was forced to wait a while as the demon took a human shape.
"<Who is this?>"
"<My identity is irrelevant,>" said the female voice with an accent Downfall was not really able to notice. "<What matters is that I have information that may be of some concern to you.>"
"<How were you able to find me?>" said Downfall, ignoring for now the bit about information. First Murder, now this woman...
"<I've kept my ear to the ground, and you have been making waves. Your takeover of several gangs, muscling in on Yakuza territory... Tracking you down was easy enough.>"
"<Very well,>" he conceded - that might be a good thing, really. After all, he did want to draw out Soul and any other agents Mother Aurora might have. "<What do you want, and why should I care?>"
"<As I said, I have useful information. I have resources. I can get you out of a sticky situation, and be an important long-term ally to your cause. As for what I want: I want to borrow your minions.>"
That was enough to give the demon pause. "<To... what?>"
"<You have novice mages at your service. I want to use them to attain some of my own goals... and in exchange, I can assist you with yours.>"
Downfall grinned. "<An amusing offer. Now tell me... what can you give me that would be worth that much?>"
"<Quite a number of things, depending on what you need. I will start with a free sample: In a matter of hours, your compound will be under attack.>"

"<Welcome to the Soul Fan Club!>" Tomo smiled as Eriko entered the room. Junko, next to her, held her hand in what she hoped was an encouraging manner.
Junko told me our school had one of those and she was a member, so checking it is reasonable enough I suppose. I guess... I am curious about how other people perceive the whole mess.
Granted, a bunch of enthusiastic junior high kids might not be very representative.

"<So... What do you guys actually do?>" she asked tentatively.
"<Oh, lots of stuff!>" Said Tomo cheerfully. "<We collect pictures, video footage... There's fanart, we even make our own. There's all the discussion forums about Soul (but stay away from those 'Crisis Truth' creeps, they can be so mean). I have this friend online who makes music videos with Soul footage. There's cosplay...>"
How does that work? Eriko wondered. Sure, you can dress up like me, but that's just one character! Most of my enemies haven't been humanoid, and besides, wouldn't cosplaying as a real-life mass-murderer be horrible taste?
"<...and this is a list of testimonials from people whom Soul helped,>" Tomo went on. "<Check it out!>"
Eriko began reading:
"<...and then, just when it looked like it was over, wires appeared out of thin air and electrocuted the demon...>"
"<...saw people die less than five meters away from me. Would have surely died too if...>"
"<...I was determined to keep shooting missiles at it until it died, even at the cost of my life. Then she appeared. Dressed in white, flying in the sky, blasting at the kaiju. On some level, I knew everything would be all right...>"
"...had hastily packed the most valuable things in the car and were driving away, knowing we'd never see our home again. That's when the radio said the fire had been put out. It was a miracle."
"<...just kept going at it with everything she had. Finally, she made it explode!>"
Eriko looked away from the testimonials. Um, wow. That's actually... kinda overwhelming.
It was then that she heard the now-familiar pained whimpers of Kunio, as the latter got dragged by the ear into the room by Kazu.
"<Oh, hey there Gutsy.>" The bully smirked.
One of the fan club members gave them a confused look. "<Ah... why are you...>"
"<Oh, this?>" Kazu casually pointed at Kunio with his free hand. "<I just carry him around as a conversation-starter. He's great for breaking the ice.>"
Eriko brought her palm to her face. "<Kazu... let go of Kunio's ear.>"
He complied, retreating from his victim in exaggerated moves. "<As you command, Empress Gutsy!>" Kunio massaged his ear, wincing.
She sighed. "<What do you want, douchebag?>"
"<Oh, I dunno,>" he waved dismissively, "<I was getting bored, so I figured I'd go find someone interesting. And since there ain't many of those in this school...>"
Junko was paying rapt attention to the exchange. Ooh. Implying that she's "interesting". That was almost flirting. Ooh, is Eriko actually blushing a little?
Eriko glared at him. "<This is what I hate about you, Kazu. You think anything you do is justified so long as you have fun doing it.>" She paused for a short moment. "<Actually, let me amend to that: It's one of the things I hate about you.>"
While Kunio was quietly making his getaway, Kazu chuckled. "<Hate me, love, I don't care as long as it's not boring. Speaking of which,>" he stepped forward to examine some of the photographs and drawings collected by the fan club, "<I see you guys have been paying lots of attention to the magical mayhem.>" He grabbed a half-finished drawing despite the protests of the girl trying to complete it, and erupted in laughter. "<Oh, that's rich! You've made her costume so frilly, she'd be laughed out of a shojo anime! And those sparkles!>"
"<That's enough, Kazu,>" Eriko said with as much steel in her voice as she could manage, "<Let her draw in peace.>" Even if, yeah, it's embarrassing to see myself drawn in such a ridiculous outfit. Just how many ribbons did she put there? "<This club is for people who... who are interested in Soul. Contribute or get out.>"
"<Okey-dokey.>" he raised his hands in mock surrender. "<Hm... Well, if you gotta know, I've been thinking about those Circle of Wisdom blowhards.>"
That caused Eriko to snap to attention. "<What about them?>"
"<Well, it's like this,>" he explained: "<They show up from another world. They drop Godzilla knockoffs in the street. They tell us to surrender with their big corny hologram speeches. They start curing the sick, like it proves they're the good guys after all. It's, like, the worst attempt at alien invasion ever. So, the way I figure,>" he paused for effect, "<is that they just don't get us. Maybe they ain't human at all, and we're too alien for them to understand. Maybe they're human, but their whole culture is crazy-different. Bottom line is, they're too foreign to understand us. So they're doing the things that they think would work on them, and hope it'll work on us and make us surrender to them or something.>"
Eriko nodded. That's... not an unreasonable view, actually. But this is hardly supposed to be the first world the Circle attempts to conquer. So...?
"<What do you think?>" Kazu interrupted her musing.
"<Huh? Oh... I'm not certain. It could be that the guy in charge of their invasion is a loon. Or maybe it's something completely different that we haven't figured out yet. I mean, when they started with the kaiju, nobody saw the miracle cures coming. There may yet be phases in their plans that will come later. Maybe things will make more sense then.>"
"<Maybe. Maybe.>" He kept smirking. "<Well, fun chatting with ya Watanabe, but I got places to be and people to beat. See you 'round.>"
Outside of Eriko's field of vision, Junko gave Tomo a thumb-up. I bring Eriko here, you make sure he knows where to find her... Great job, Tomo. And if he's willing to borderline-flirt like that, then we can make Erizu real by the week!

Kisho wasn't really paying attention to his surroundings as he made his way to the hideout. Truth was, he had a lot on his mind. Several of his friends and gangmates had died in Downfall's magic-giving ceremony, and now, they were all involved with real, magical terrorism. He wasn't quite certain how to feel about the whole situation, and...
"<Excuse me? Do you have a moment?>"
He turned his attention to the speaker - an attractive, red-headed foreigner holding a paper sheet. "<Huh? What is it?>"
She showed him the paper. "<I'm supposed to meet my girlfriend at a restaurant, and these are the directions she gave me, but... well, I guess she didn't realize I can't read Japanese characters. Can you understand this?>"
He gave it a look. "<Uh, sure...>" He began translating, but, they both had to admit, the instructions weren't very clear. He did know where the place was, though - it was only a few blocks away, really.
"<Could you show me?>" she asked, idly playing with her hair. "<I'm already late...>"
Maybe it was because she was attractive. Maybe it was because he was in no hurry to go near Downfall. Maybe it didn't matter all that much, since Helen was ready to attempt the same tactic on other followers of Downfall's if this one hadn't taken the bait. Regardless, he accompanied her to the restaurant in question.
She gave a quick look inside. "<Huh. She isn't here. Either she's also late, or she got tired of waiting for me and left.>"
"<Uh huh. Well, it's definitely the right place...>"
"<I guess. I really hope she's still coming... I need her help reading this other Japanese document.>" Her expression lit up as she looked at him. "<Hey, tell you what: How about we have lunch here, my treat, and if she doesn't show up, you can help me out?>"
Helen was perfectly capable of reading it herself. She had written it. But she needed the excuse. I gotta to keep you interested, busy, and away from Downfall's compound while the PCTF storms it. This way, even if they do screw up, at least we'll have you as a potential lead. You may not be much, but it's better than nothing.

"<I'm really sorry about that,>" Eriko apologized to Tomo. "<He enjoys getting a rise out of me.>"
"<No big deal,>" Tomo reassured her on behalf of the fan club. "<Besides, I thought it was kinda cute the way he was flirting with you.>"
Eriko's cheeks reddened once more. "<He was not! Why does everyone say that?!>" He wasn't... right? I mean, sure, a few bits could be interpreted that way, but...
"<OK.>" It was now Tomo who was raising her palms in mock surrender. "<Subject dropped. But, seriously, Eriko, we'd love to have you in the fan club. Heck, you're always welcome just to hang out with Gosho, Takato and me. I know you have Junko at least, but no-one should be this lonely.>"
"<I'm... not lonely,>" said Eriko, slightly surprised at the turn of conversation. Sure, I don't get close to a lot of people, but being lonely would imply being miserable, no?
Tomo seemed unconvinced. "<Junko tells me that you don't have any other friends. And that's a shame, because, even if you can get a little weird at time, you're really nice. So I want you to know: You're not alone.>" She punctuated her claim by giving Eriko a hug.
Eriko awkwardly returned it, but the event weighed on her mind as she and Junko left the club. I'm not alone? What does that even mean? She's offering me their friendship? Nice of her, but what of it? I don't particularly enjoy hanging out with these guys. If anything, they bore me. If I had enough free time for it to matter, I wouldn't mind in the least spending it alone, reading a nice book, doing my experiments, or surfing the Web.
...Am I being a horrible bitch here? Tomo was trying to be nice to me. She's trying to be my friend, and I'm completely unappreciative. And isn't it normal to want friends? What's wrong with me?
"<...I figure we should come back every now and then,>" said Junko, unaware of her sister's inner turmoil; "<They have all sorts of interesting stuff, and...>"
"<Junko... Am I a freak?>"
The question stopped Junko cold. "<What... do you mean?>"
Eriko gave her a distressed look. "<I... I don't know. Sometimes... Sometimes I get the impression I'm inhuman. Like I don't have the right emotions.>" I don't get myself anymore. Bad enough that I'm stretching myself thin with the Soul thing, but there's also... everything else.
Junko put her hands on Eriko's shoulders, and maintained eye contact. "<Eriko? There's nothing wrong with you. Nothing. You're the best human being I know.>" You've done so much for me, you work so hard to protect people, you're so honest it's actually a little crazy... "<And there's nothing wrong with your emotions, either. Sure, they're confusing, but everyone here is a bit confused,>" she gestured at all the other students in the hallway. "<So, please, don't call yourself a freak. You deserve better than that.>"
Eriko nodded, but she didn't feel much better.

"Not exactly the best set of arguments with which to reach you, I imagine. She'd have probably obtained better results if she had gotten you to explain your problem in detail, rather than jumping to comfort you with clichés. But then again, if she had done that, she wouldn't be Junko."
"Not very loquacious today, I see. Though, seeing this, I must give credit where credit is due: Downfall really did find a weak spot in your psych."

Despite its refusal to call upon Soul, the PCTF intended to pull no punches during its assault on Downfall's compound. The area had been mapped; every window had been accounted for; dozens of well-armed soldiers were ready to charge, with the support of numerous policemen; two PRISMs had been positioned, as discreetly as the battleground allowed.
Koyama, for his part, was monitoring the situation from the PCTF's headquarters, and trying not to sound too nervous as he addressed the head of military operations:
"<Are your men ready, captain?>"
"<Any moment now, director Koyama. We'll attack the moment we can get a clear shot at Downfall.>"

One of the PRISMs had been placed on the roof of a building a certain distance away. The soldier manning it hoped it was far enough that Downfall and his cronies wouldn't notice him... without being too far to make the shot.
"<I can see Downfall pass in front of the window every now and then,>" he informed his superior. "<He's pacing a lot. I think he's nervous.>"
"<Roger. If you can get a clean shot in, shoot, and tell us immediately.>"
Acknowledging his orders, the soldier focused once again on the distant target. His fingers were ready to squeeze the trigger. Then, at last, the monster paused at a spot he could aim at...

"<The Paranormal Risk Incineration SysteM, or P.R.I.S.M., was designed following the observation of footage from earlier battles,>" Steel explained as she showed the contraption to the military. It was neither elegant nor small - the size of a car, really. "<Evidence suggests that the enemy possesses a form of defense that blocks projectiles, though it has its limits. As such, we tried to look into an attack that couldn't be blocked.
The PRISM is our first attempt. We believe that->"
"<Hold it right there. Very little time has passed since this crisis started. Are you telling us that you've already come up with new weapons for this? Technology doesn't progress that quickly!>"
"<You are correct. Very little of the technology we use is new. PRISM relies on mostly pre-existing industrial lasers, such as those commonly used to cut metal. We have merely made certain modifications and optimizations to make them more practical of use as weapons.>"
"<...And you believe this may cut our enemies like metal?>"
"<Given how limited intelligence is at this point, I'm afraid no tactic is guaranteed to function. It is, however, the best anyone can provide so far short of Soul.>" The small pique at their pride seemed to work. "<As further information is acquired, we will keep developing new and better weapons. For now...>"

With all the precision he could muster, the soldier aimed the device at the monster. "<Japan PRISM power...>" he murmured, before finally getting a lock on the target, "<...Makeup!>" And with that, he pressed the trigger; multiple kilowatts of focused, coherent light struck.

There were several things that could be learned from the events of that day.
First of all, kinetic shields were utterly useless against an attack made of light. Second, while Downfall's holistic shield wasn't useless, it wasn't sufficient when dealing with that many kilowatts concentrated on such a small surface. Third, when a creature that big, with lungs to match, got its flesh seared by a laser beam, results were loud.
Fourth, private Go Suzuki was good enough a shot to launch a teargas bomb right through one of the compound's windows.
Within moments, the coughing thugs were pouring out of the smoking building. Soon enough, a wall was broken apart as the injured monster burst through it, still howling in pain. Hyosuke, who was watching from a relatively safe distance as part of the secondary intervention team (the primary team being entirely comprised of military), furrowed his brow in perplexity.
With the enemy now vulnerable enough, a squad of soldiers rushed into action. The PRISMs weren't their only weapons, after all...

"<Circumstantial evidence suggests that whether a projectile can get through a shield is both a function of the projectile's total kinetic energy and of the energy density at the point of impact,>" Steel said as she held the massive shotgun. "<Our engineers have scrambled to design this weapon to account for that. It incorporates features lifted from sniper rifles, big-game hunting rifles, anti-materiel rifles, and more. Its purpose is to impart as much speed as possible,>" she lifted a large bullet, "<into these projectiles. High-caliber, made of dense tungsten, and given an elongated shape so as to increase the pressure on a small impact surface.>"
"<Won't recoil be a problem?>"
"<Unavoidable. This weapon is therefore not designed for automatic fire...>"

Koyama watched the live feed carefully. All right. Now to see if those guns can actually hurt Downfall.
The squad let loose, firing bullets that could have pierced most forms of personal armor like butter. Oh, kinetic and holistic shields were greatly reducing the impact... Nevertheless, the bullets were going almost two centimeters in, drawing blood (and screams. Lots and lots of screams.) from their target. In fact, the latter seemed to be backing against the wall, desperately trying to shield his head with his "arms", and shouting with a deafening volume: "<Stop it stop it I surrender don't kill me stoooop!>"
Unfortunately for him, in so doing, he remained mostly stationary for several seconds. Which was enough for the second PRISM to nail him.

"<Well I'll be,>" Walker couldn't help but smile, watching along Koyama back at the HQ. "<They actually got Downfall.>"
"<Yes!>" the PCTF director pumped his fist before regaining his composure. "<That leaves only his associates!>"

The soldiers were ordering those very associates to surrender and get down on their knees, but Hyosuke, still watching with the secondary team, wasn't quite so satisfied with the situation. "<That makes no sense... Why would he....>" Suddenly, something occurred to him. "<That's not Downfall!>"

"<I said get down!>" one of the soldiers was shouting at a thug who hadn't gone on his knees like the rest - a big, bald guy with an unnerving grin. The man looked at him, chuckled, and gestured; there was a short gust of wind, then the soldier - and five more standing close to him - fell to the ground.
"<You seem tense,>" the bald man said as he looked down at them. "<Take the time to smell the cyanide.>" The surviving soldiers took notice and quickly aimed their guns at him - but not quickly enough. The next instant, he was already flying three meters up in the air, and roaring triumphantly as he rained down fire on them. "<Living Curse! Crimson Rain! Show them power!>"

A minute later, it was a slack-jawed Koyama who was watching his operation turn into a bloody mess. The large bald man was flying around fast, incinerating soldiers and policemen. Another thug seemed to be helping, though less skillfully; a third one was flying around, but seemed more intent on defending himself than attacking. Both the first and second mages had suffered minor injuries from the bullets, but that didn't seem to be slowing the big one in the least. Twenty men were down already, and approaching thirty. How had things gone so wrong so fast? Just a short moment earlier, it had looked so...
"<Koyama! Do you hear me?!>" came Hyosuke's voice over the communicator. The director stared at it dumbly. "<Get the goddamn Soul-Signal and call us some backup before they kill everyone!>"
He reached for the Soul-Signal in his pocket, and gazed at it. We need to beat these guys without Soul. But we're losing. What do-
His musings were interrupted when Walker snatched the Soul-Signal from his hands.

Even Murphy's Law needs to take the occasional break. As such, Eriko had just gotten out of school when her cell phone rang.
"<Soul! Listen, this is an emergency...>"
"<Who are... What's going on?>" If it's an emergency, I can remind them that I insisted on Aoyama being my contact afterward.

Fucking Downfall. Fucking Koyama. Fucking job.
I'm "Inspector Aoyama", not "Action Hero Aoyama". I shouldn't be scrambling to grab an oversized shotgun from a fallen soldier and strive to aim at a guy who's flying across the block unpredictably. And yet, here I am. Thanks, life. Thank you so much.

Though he missed his shot, Hyosuke's spirit was nevertheless lifted when he saw the familiar white-clad magical girl portal through the sky. That was quick. At least something went right today.

Oh. Oh, wow. Eriko gazed down at the battlefield. What the hell is going on here? They were planning the assault on Downfall's compound today. This looks like... Did they...
Her musing was interrupted when she saw a man (the one Downfall had codenamed Crimson Rain, though she didn't know that at the time) duck behind a car, then use magic to fling it at a group of soldiers (though he didn't manage to send it far enough to hit them this time). All right. Bad guy identified. Seeing him clumsily fly away from the soldiers trying to shoot him, she quickly positioned herself...

"<Shoot that bastard dooooown!>" Lieutenant Shitara didn't care how frantic he was sounding as he tried to gun down the mage. One of the men who had served under him for years had just been killed in action, the rest and he himself had almost died several times in the past couple of minutes; he was absolutely done fucking around. If only that flying wizard would stand still for a moment...
Then, suddenly, a stream of water going with amazing force came down from the sky, smacking the mage down to the ground. In a moment, it was over; the guy looked down for the count. Lieutenant Shitara looked up, and saw the responsible party.
"<Soul! Thank God you're here! There's two more of them!>"

Soul gazed around the battlefield. One thing finally jumped to her attention: Among the bodies littered around, one was definitely not human. Is that... Downfall? He looks dead. Could it be that...
The big, bald mage, noticing her intervention at last, stomped dramatically, then streaked upward. Next, he let loose massive pyrotechnics in the air. Having properly gathered attention, he bellowed: "<Soul! I am your foe!>"
The situation on the battlefield changed rather quickly. Now that they weren't being slaughtered, the PCTF's forces received orders to put some safe distance between themselves and the guy who had been slaughtering them. Masaki, for himself, tried to blend back in among the non-magical thugs, who were still suffering from massive confusion (several had been hurt in the battle as collateral damage). Soul, for herself, cautiously floated up, approaching her challenger.
"There you are," he said, switching back to English. "It has been far too long since our last encounter. I still owe you a vicious beatdown after last time."
She looked at him, confused. "...Downfall?"
"Precisely!" he exclaimed, pumping his fist. "I used my magic to turn one of my cultists into a passable doppelganger," he gestured at the demonic-looking corpse on the ground. "Butchering your soldiers is invigorating, but it is your blood that I thirst for, Soul. I have been looking forward to this. Preparing. Behold!" he gestured down, "A demonic cult; magic handed to greedy mortals in exchange for their loyalty. I knew you would have no other choice but to get involved."
"You're deranged," she murmured. "Why even do those crazy things? What do you get from... from nonsensical carnage? What's the freaking point?"
"I wouldn't expect a human to understand," he sneered, "but your race has brought doom upon itself a thousand times over! Oh, demonkind will have its Righteous Vengeance - and I shall establish my magnificence by bringing it down upon you!" As he spoke, he pulled out a knife. One made of gold.
Soul's eyes bulged. No way... "Is that..."
"Indeed! I have with me Murder's legendary dagger. You have many people who want you dead, you see." He smirked. "And I am happy to oblige."
The demon in human form raised his hand, and a jet of searing flames flew toward Soul. Her reflexes were by now honed enough that she opened a portal between them nigh-instantly, redirecting the attack somewhere above the ocean. She prepared a retaliation, but Downfall was already on her, extending the other, knife-wielding hand.
Deeply unpleasant memories flashed in her mind. Nevertheless, she was able to dodge by flinging herself back with a burst of kinetic energy.
"Run all you want, Soul!" Downfall roared with a ferocious smile. "I cannot be escaped!" He sent another fiery jet at her. She dodged - but without a portal to redirect it, the burning projectile kept going, before finally giving in to gravity and falling on a building's roof, setting it ablaze.
Crap! Is that place even evacuated? What was that attack comprised of anyway, kerosene? I gotta... Igottafocusonthefightdodgedodgedoge! Soul's distraction was short-lived, as she found herself dodging another charge by her foe and his weapon. On the verge of panic, she opened between them a portal beneath the ocean, sending another jet of high-pressure seawater at him. Downfall suffered a direct hit, and was pushed back nearly twenty meters before getting out of the jet's way. He looked none the worse for wear, smiling. As the water fell down into the street, he gestured and sent another blast of fire at her, which once again was redirected away... but he seemed less aggressive now.
Not that Soul was really in a state of mind to analyze his posture. She just sent another water blast, which he dodged without much difficulty at that distance. "Not bad, Soul. You are a worthy foe indeed." His words caused her to stop for a moment, hesitating. He went on, bellowing loudly. "Truly, your death shall be my triumph. It shall end all hope for your world. But not quite yet."
He looked at the battlefield below. "Your reckoning is at hand. Your death shall be upon you in a matter of days!" he gestured dramatically. "But not like this. Not in a meaningless surprise battle. When I slay you... it will be under circumstances of my choosing." He grinned at her. "My cultists will now follow me as we take our leave. Your weak, useless allies below can take a moment to mourn their dead and lick their wounds. Try to stop me, and I will burn this neighborhood to the ground!" He punctuated his threat by sending a fiery blast down at a nearby building. It happened too fast; a few seconds later, Soul was sending seawater at the inferno. The demon began floating down; "We will meet again very soon, for the very last time, Soul. Pray to any imaginary gods you worship for mercy, for none shall be granted to you."

"...she put out the fire and healed the wounded, but she said she couldn't bring back the dead," Walker explained on the phone some time later.
"Honestly, that last part's kind of a relief," the 'Ghost' admitted. "Can you imagine the headache if she could?"
"No kidding. Anyway... She dropped by the HQ afterward. She wasn't exactly happy about the whole thing."
"Not sure. She seemed more... I dunno, perplexed. Koyama started getting defensive, said the police can't rely on her if she keeps hiding information and suspects. She looked... dead tired, I guess, and told him to just leave the Soul-Signal with Aoyama for now, and that she had to go."
"I see. So did he?"
"Well, I did, since I still had the damn thing. Now it's just a question of whether Koyama will take it back."
The 'Ghost' sighed. "What a clusterfuck. Hopefully Helen's plan will work better..."

"<It was a freaking disaster,>" Eriko told Monsoon. "<All those people dead, serious property damage, and the bad guys got away. All because the PCTF didn't trust me.>"
"<It would have been a lot worse without you,>" said Monsoon. "<And I saw that fight; I think you have a decent chance next time you tango with Downfall.
What I find weird is that Murder would let him have his knife. That doesn't sound like him. Unless...>"
"<Listen,>" Eriko cut in, "<Those 'more permanent' solutions for dealing with rogue mages: Do you have anything so far?>"
Monsoon considered for a moment. "<Well, it may take some work, but... Why...>"
"<I managed to pin down one of the mages,>" Eriko explained, "<but that wouldn't have made a huge difference afterward anyway if I got no way to neutralize him. I can't bring these guys here for Aurora to handle, Monsoon; that'll mean more problems with the PCTF, and that will mean more senseless deaths. I need a solution.>"
"<I understand,>" the fairy nodded. "<I'll do what I can. For now, though... It kinda sounds like Downfall wants his grand finale soon, doesn't he?>"
"<Yeah. I'm not sure why he wanted to delay it at all, though. He almost made it sound like a show.>"
"<That might be it, Eri. You've become an international heroine these days. You're the one everybody hopes will come when things get weird and deadly - you, not a bunch of soldiers and cops. Maybe Downfall figures that if he kills you in a showy enough way, he'll also kill hope for everyone else.>" She smiled; "<Let's test what happens if he fails instead, 'kay?>"

"<If I may ask,>" said Hiromasa once they had a few minutes alone, "<How did you figure out the big monster wasn't Downfall?>"
"<I could have been wrong,>" admitted Hyosuke, "<but... it didn't seem to fit. Whoever he was, he was just too scared. In his original appearance, Downfall was utterly unafraid, and ignored pain and injuries for the most part, at least until Soul turned him into a lightbulb. This one was acting too differently.>"
"<Good catch.>"
"<But too late to make any difference.>" And now, all these men are dead. Because Koyama did something stupid, and I didn't stop him.

In the warehouse that Steel had offered him as a new hideout, Downfall was having a phone conversation even as Masaki clumsily tried to heal his injured colleagues.
"<Your tip held up. Good work.. whoever you are.>"
"<This is not the last time you may find my services useful,>" Steel replied. "<This was, however, the last free sample. I have told you what further services will cost.>"
"<You did. But I haven't decided yet if it's worth it.>"
"<Consider that I have a very far reach. If you tell me what your goals are, then I can tailor my assistance to match them.>"
"<Is that so.>"
The conversation went on for a while, but Masaki wasn't paying attention - he was still getting the hang of noble magic, and restoring the injured thugs was taking all his concentration. He was about halfway done when the demon turned his attention back to him:
"<Living Curse. Crimson Rain. Your performance was... mediocre.>"
Masaki turned red. "<We were mediocre?! You sacrificed Shin, several of us died... We could have just escaped here from the start if you'd opened a portal instead of lying a trap for the police!>"
That promptly got him telekinetically smacked by Downfall, who hurled him against the wall. "<You're a fool. What is the point of having power, if we run away? We have power, so that others learn to run away from us! But you,>" he looked at 'Crimson Rain', "<were defeated instantly by Soul... Whereas you barely even fought, constantly running and hiding. You have the power to kill them like insects; use it!
For now, though...>"

"<Yes, the State will absolutely pay reparations over this. The people need to see we're doing something, after all.>"
"<Of course, Prime Minister. But what about...>"
They were interrupted. "<Excuse me? There's an urgent call for you, sir - from chancellor Fujita.>"
A short moment later, the statesman answered the phone. "<What exactly is the matter, chancellor?>"
"<Well, sir... You may recall my recent, eh, health problems...>"
"<I do, yes...>"
"<Well, they are no longer a concern.>"
There was a silent pause. "<Are you implying what I think you are, Fujita?>"
"<Yes. The Circle of Wisdom. But it doesn't end here.
You see... The Circle mage who cured me is here. In my room. He asked me to call you. He says he wants to discuss a cease-fire.>"

"Ah, yes. The great PCTF screw-up. Pity - they had started off reasonably well, considering the circumstances."
"Still feeling laconic, I see. Oh... Well, considering what came next..."

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