Saga of Soul


Author's note: At this point, I feel it ought to be stated that the opinions and beliefs of characters in this story do not necessarily match mine.

Especially when their respective beliefs contradict each other. ;)

Additionally, I'm experimenting with a new approach with this chapter. Instead of releasing it all at once, I'm trying to divide it into several smaller segments, and release each one once it's complete. Expect more material on this page once new segments are ready!

Last but not least, I would like to thank everyone who's contributed donations. This struggling amateur writer appreciates it.

Jump to part 2
Jump to part 3

It was Sunday morning in Nagasaki, and the morning sermon at a local church had just ended. A teenage boy was heading out, when the preacher called him:



"<Before I forget: Remember to be home by 5:00. Min-Kyu's gonna have to leave earlier than expected, and I want the whole family there to see him off.>"

"<Home before 5:00. Got it.>" The young boy smiled in acknowledgement, and walked out.

My name is Pak Dae-Hyun. I'm 14, going on 15. My father's a preacher, and my mother is an executive.

My parents grew up in Seoul, but mom got a job in Japan around the time dad finished his studies; they came here together, before my siblings and I were born. The original plan was to go back after a few years, but we ended up staying here. We spend most of our vacation time in Korea, and we speak Korean at home, but I guess I've still been exposed to more Japanese culture than anything else. Not saying it's a bad thing; dad always says a man should be a citizen of the world.

As he did a light jog through the street, he finally found the person he was looking for. The girl, roughly his age, was wearing a casual outfit - running shoes, drab colors, a baseball cap. Though they were practically the same height, her countenance and relative musculature somehow made her seem bigger. Her scowl faded when she saw him.


"<Hey Sora. How are you?>"

She shrugged noncommittally. "<Same ol', same ol'. Gotta square things out with Terumi.>"

"<I hope you don't mind if I tag along.>"

She eyed him suspiciously. "<You're going to try to 'fix' this, aren't you? It's my problem, Hyun. You don't have to come.>"

He scratched the back of his head. "<Eh… No-one ever has to do anything, Sora. But if you've got a tough day ahead, then I want to be there.>"

"<Moron.>" Her small smile made it clear enough she meant it affectionately.

Sora and I have been dating for five months. She likes to cultivate a tough image (...which isn't undeserved, really), so people often say we're mismatched, but I don't think so. She's a great girl, and her rough edges don't take away from that.

Which is not to say we're always on the same page or anything. We do have our disagreements. For example, she doesn't think she's pretty. I respectfully disagree.

"<So, what's your morning been like?>" she asked. "<I was mostly hanging with the guys. I'm gonna guess you were filling a bench for your dad?>"

"<It was actually one of his better sermons,>" he said. "<It was about the war, and Soul, and all that.>"

"<Oh?>" Despite herself, she lost the blasé attitude for a moment.

"<Yeah. I mean, it's not like the subject doesn't get brought up a lot anyway, but… well, did you know that, after the way she schooled Downfall, there's been more and more people literally worshipping her?>"

"<I'm so surprised I just had a heart attack.>"

He gave a small chuckle. "<It keeps growing. There's this big Facebook community claiming she's a goddess. Not that they really go into detail about what that means. Plenty of people saying she's an angel. And there's at least two churches I've heard of - one in Mexico, one in Poland - that actually claim she's the Second Coming of Jesus.>"

That prompted some laughter out of her. "<You never told me Jesus dressed up as a girl! Don't keep the juicy bits to yourself!>"

"<My dad's point is,>" he pressed on, "<a lot of people just naturally start worshipping someone with power. Now, Soul is a heroine, and probably a great person… but that's not the same as being worthy of worship. So dad said, we don't worship God because he can fly and shoot lasers from his eyes or anything like that. We worship him because he's perfectly good. Power is irrelevant.>"

"<Dunno about that,>" she smirked. "<If someone told me he was God, I'd be more likely to believe him if he shot lasers from his eyes.>"

It was his turn to laugh. "<OK, yes, I admit that would at least get my attention. But the point is, it's not power that deserves worship. It's never power. It's goodness. And that reminded me of you.>"

That stopped her in her tracks. "<What? What the hell are you talking about?>"

"<Here's how I see it:>" He placed his hands a short distance in front of his chest, palms up. "<Take Terumi. Now, I'm not going to say she's a bad person, because we both know it's more complicated than that…>"

"<Oh, sure. She's a complicated bitch.>"

"<...but look at how things turned out. She wanted you guys to make an example out of Ryo's brother, rough him up, as a show of force. To prove that Ryo and his friends could no longer push you guys around. And we both know Terumi is big, strong, kinda scary, and people listen when she talks. That's power.

But you didn't agree. You refused to go along with it. You said it was wrong.>"

"<I said messing with the little twerp just for being Ryo's brother was exactly the sorta bullshit Ryo would pull. Which it was.>"

"<Right! Terumi was the one with all the power. But you said what everyone knew was right. And even though Terumi was the leader, and scary, and everything, most of them backed you. Power versus goodness.>"

She did her best to ignore her blushing. "<You've really got your head in the clouds, don'tcha? Most of the gang backed me because Terumi was getting all bitchy and bossy and full of shit. This isn't some sappy video game. If everyone did the right thing, we wouldn't have had trouble with Ryo in the first place.>"

"<Of course people don't always do the right thing. I'm just saying, power doesn't always win out. Deep down, on some level, people know better. It's just a matter of reaching out to them on that level.>"


"<I may be a dork, but at least I'm a dork with an awesome girlfriend.>"

Despite herself, she smiled a little.

There was some silence as they approached the empty construction lot. Eventually, though, he spoke again. "<So, uh, how are English classes?>"

"<A bit better,>" she admitted. "<Not at your 'Mister Dictionary' level, but better. Wanna work on it a bit tomorrow?>" she smirked slightly.

"<Sure, but let's go to your place this time. We could use the peace and quiet.>"

"<Hey! If you wanted peace and quiet, you shouldn't have chosen to be born the youngest of four with non-divorced parents,>" she teased. "<Shoulda done the smart thing and been a single child like me.>"

"<Yeah, well, hindsight is twenty- >"

"<Sora, you coward!>" came the angry snarl. "<We said we'd both come alone!>"

Sora glanced at the angry girl waiting for them at the lot. Half a head taller, powerfully built, with an angular face that seemed made for scowling… Terumi was naturally intimidating, Sora had to admit. She looked around. "<Who? What, you mean Dae-Hyun? He's never thrown a punch in his life, he ain't gonna start now. He's just here to keep me company.>"

Terumi, in a move that surprised absolutely no-one, scowled. "<We're supposed to meet here and finish it, and you couldn't even show up without loverboy in tow. Pathetic.>"

"<Actually, coming along was my idea,>" said Dae-Hyun, gently stepping forward. "<And Sora's right. I've never punched anyone in my life.>" I hope I'm not lying here. I don't really remember anything from before the age of 3.

"<No shit.>" The look in her eyes left little doubt that a personal history lacking in violence wasn't making him look worthier of respect in her eyes.

"<But, before you and Sora do your thing?>" He was now standing in the middle between them. "<I was hoping to ask you something.>"

"<What.>" Her tone betrayed more than a little impatience.

"<Well,>" he stepped in closer, "<I mostly get what happened. You wanted the guys to make a stand, show that no-one could push you around. Sora didn't. Some of your friends went with you, some went with Sora, so now you're split, and you're angry about that. You figure it's all Sora's fault, so you called her out, and you agreed to have a good, clean fight about it. And once that's done I guess you'll mostly try to stay out of each other's way.>" Well, actually, three of your friends went with Sora, and only one with you. Sora decided to make this a one-on-one fight because she didn't want to gang up on you. And now you're feeling lonely, friendless and abandoned, but you're too proud to say it like that.

"<Yes, and? Get to the fucking point!>"

"<I'm almost done, promise. I get that you're angry at Sora and want to beat her up, and I guess that's between the two of you. But, well, how much of a beating are you planning to give her? I mean, is it, 'five punches and we're even'? Ten punches? Twenty punches?>"

"<Are you some kinda moron?! I'm gonna punch the bitch till she fucking stops moving!>"

He briefly reminded himself that people like Terumi were fond of hyperbole. "<Until she stops moving. OK, fine, I'm gonna let you two do it in a sec. But, just one thing before that: If you're gonna punch her 'till she stops moving, then please do it to me first.>"

"<WHAT?!>" The shout came from both girls simultaneously.

"<Look at it my way,>" he said. "<You want to beat up my girlfriend. I can't fight, at all. I can't protect her like a real man, and she'll probably kill me if I try.>" His true sentiment on the matter had little to do with this sort of machismo, but speech had to be tailored to the audience. "<I'm her boyfriend. I'm supposed to stand by her side. If I can't fight with her, I should at least go through the same ordeals as her. So, I'm going to have to ask that you beat me up first.>"

Terumi stared at him, bug-eyed. "<You're fucking nuts.>"

"<She's fucking right!>" said Sora, stepping forward. "<Listen, Dae, if you think for one damn second that I'm just gonna stand here and let her wail on you- >"

He turned around, giving his girlfriend a pleading look. "<Sora. This is my choice.>"

To anyone else, this would be an innocuous phrase. But for Sora and me, it has some history, and some meaning. And, I'm relieved to see, that's enough for now.

Startled, Sora stepped back. "<You really are nuts.>"

Well, mostly relieved. I'd be lying if I denied that, on some level, I'm scared stiff of what comes next.

Terumi rubbed her head in disbelief. "<You're seriously asking me to beat the crap out of you.>"

"<As badly as you intend to do to Sora. That's the deal.>"

"<Fine, weirdo. Have it your way.>"

There was only a hint of hesitation in Dae-Hyun's demeanor as he stepped forward, stopping right in front of the bigger girl. "<Any time, Terumi.>"

She hesitated for a couple of seconds. Then she decked him in the jaw.

One day, I'm going to write a book about nonviolent resistance. The first thing I'm gonna say about it? It hurts. When you're pulling a stunt like this, you're going in accepting that you will get hurt pretty badly, and you have to refrain from doing anything to defend yourself. No hitting back - not that I could anyway, but I still have a fight-or-flight instinct like anyone else. And right now? Right now, my face really hates me for getting it into situations like this.

Looking down at the Korean boy as he fell to the ground, Terumi briefly considered spitting on him. "<Fine. We done?>"

"<Ugh… Not really,>" he said, struggling to get back on his feet. Man… Feels like my whole balance is off now. Did one uppercut do that? "<That was just one punch.>"

"<Make it two,>" she said, annoyed, as she hit him on the nose. He staggered back, falling on his backside. "<Now are we done?>"

He only briefly checked the blood coming down his mouth before he started getting up again. "<No, not yet. We don't stop until it's over.>"

Her face twitched as she struggled to understand the weird situation she'd wandered into. She kept making an uncertain grimace as he slowly walked back in front of her, nose bleeding profusely. She could tell Sora had flinched with each punch, and was staring at the boy with a mortified look. She hesitated for a few seconds, then punched his face again, not bothering to aim precisely this time. Once again, he fell over. And once again, after a few seconds, he got up.

Dear Lord that hurt. I'm really hoping I don't end up passing out from this. I'd really hate to go through this for nothing.

She hesitated longer this time, her eyes lingering on his bruised face. Usually, when hitting people, she derived some satisfaction from seeing them hurt. But this? This wasn't a fight. This wasn't even a guy she had a grudge against. Seeing his bleeding (broken?) nose, his bruises… It just made her feel uneasy.

So she punched him in the stomach instead.

Urk. Can't breathe… air… Calm down. Don't panic. I can't breathe because of her punch, but I'm not going to suffocate. I'll be able to breathe again in a few seconds. Don't panic. Slowly, he steadied himself up, staring Terumi in the eyes.

"<...The hell's wrong with you?>" She was looking a bit lost, and increasingly uncomfortable returning his gaze. She belted him again in the stomach, causing him to keel over for a moment, then straighten back up, despite some obvious difficulty. "<Come on, you goddamn fucker! You've had enough!>" A backhanded strike sent him reeling to the ground.

OK. I can do this. It's almost done… I hope. He gazed up at her. "<You said… You said, 'until she stops moving'.>" Fighting the increasing dizziness, he forced himself back to his feet, returning her gaze again. "<Still moving.>"

Her expression was now one of horror. "<What the fuck is wrong with you? It's over! It's done! Get outta the fucking way!>" It occurred to her that her tone was unusually pleading.

He maintained eye contact. "<You don't want to do this,>" he observed calmly, his voice slightly distorted by the state of his nose. "<Tough. We're not done,>" he said as he took another step forward. OK, my face is probably going to try to divorce me for this.

To her own surprise, Terumi took a quick step back, almost as if he was attacking her. Then she punched his jawbone, sending him spinning to the ground. For a moment, she thought it was over, but a few seconds later, he started getting back up. Or at least, trying.

"<Fuck this shit,>" said Sora as she rushed to his side. Terumi watched silently as her former... friend? Ally? - helped the Korean boy back to his feet. Her heart sank when he stepped (or rather, stumbled) away from his girlfriend to face her again. From the look in his eyes, he probably had trouble even telling where she was right now.

"<Still moving.>"

She stared. "<Enough. Just, enough.>" Not as loud as she'd wanted to say it.

"<You don't want to do this,>" he repeated. "<I've never done anything to you. I'm not your enemy. I'm in pain just from breathing, I'm seeing double, and every time you hurt me more, you're getting these awful knots in your stomach, aren't you?>" He paused for a moment to recollect himself. "<Terumi, you don't want to hurt me because you're not a bad person. Hurting someone for no reason makes you sick. You don't do things like that.>"

He stumbled slightly, Sora rushing to steady him. "<You're not a bad person, and you know this isn't right,>" he insisted. Gotta hammer the iron while it's hot. "<You don't want to hit me. Just like Sora didn't want to hit some kid just for being Ryo's brother.>" Painfully, he forced himself to smile as his words sank in. "<You and Sora are both tough. You don't let anyone push you around. And both of you… You aren't bad. You don't want to be the bully pushing others around, either. You two are… actually pretty alike. I think it's a shame for you guys to lose each other as friends over this. So… Maybe you should have another talk?>" He paused. "<Well, unless you want to finish beating me up.>"

"<Your boyo really is crazy,>" Terumi said, glancing at Dae-Hyun as he rested in the corner of the lot.

"<No kidding,>" said Sora. "<I'm glad you didn't finish him off, because I'm gonna kill him on the way home.>"

That almost drew a chuckle from Terumi. "<He pulls stunts like this often?>"

"<...Let's say it's not the first time. And it was crazy before, too.>" She sighed, then looked aside. "<Setsuko won't say it, but she misses you. She'd love to get the gang back together.>"

"<Strength in numbers.>"



"<Whatever works.>"

"<But I'm in charge.>"

Sora waved her hand in annoyance. "<As long as we don't have to do stupid shit, I don't care who's in charge.>"




"<...Besides, if you pull any stupid shit again, you just know Dae-boy will get all in your face again,>" Sora said with a smirk. "<He'll keep hitting your fist with his face!>"

That got both girls chuckling.

"<Your friend packs quite the wallop,>" Dae-Hyun said as he and Sora made their way toward the Pak residence.

"<So do I. I should help you compare them, after that stunt.>"

He smiled weakly. "<Yyyeah, I kinda need to apologize for that.>"

"<You want to apologize.>" She maintained a level gaze at him.

"<Yeah. For putting you in that spot. That can't have been fun to watch.>" He paused. "<At least, I hope that wasn't fun to watch, or else I'm gonna feel a bit worried.>" He chuckled.

"<Not fun to watch? You're the one who got the shit beaten out of him!>"

"<Yeah, but that was my choice. I didn't exactly tell you what I was planning to do.>"

"<You didn't,>" she said, her face hardening. "<I figured you wanted to try and talk things out, not deliberately turn yourself into Terumi's punching bag! You should have told me!>"

"<See, that's the bit I'm not sure about,>" he admitted. "<Should I have told you? Would you have gone along with it?>"

"<Hell no.>"

"<Right. But this was the best way to handle it. So what was more important - getting the happy ending, or being upfront?>" His earnest tone suggested the question was far from rhetorical.

"<It was my problem. You should have let me handle it.>"

"< wasn't just your problem. You were going to get in a fight, take a few punches, lose a friend or two. But Terumi? Terumi was the one who was going to end up almost alone. You know she doesn't make friends easily. And without the whole gang to stick by her, right after getting on Ryo's bad side like that? She was going to end up in a heap of trouble. If I hadn't tried to save your friendship, what would have happened to her?>"

Sora stopped walking, blinking rapidly as she gazed at him. "<...You're serious.>"

"<Well, I'm not saying that was the only reason, but…>"

"<OK, fine. But you should have told me that, instead of pulling that surprise crap.>"

"<OK. You're right. I promise I won't pull this kind of surprise next time.>"

"<Of course you won't. I'll be putting you in your grave long before that.>"

They both chuckled a bit, then walked in silence for a few minutes. Eventually, she spoke again: "<Laying it a bit thick about her not being a 'bad person', weren't you? It's not like Terumi's never hit someone who didn't deserve it.>"

"<I know, I know,>" he said. "<But you've gotta remember: People usually have what they think are good reasons for what they do. Even bullies. Someone who thinks violence is wrong one day might feel justified punching someone the next day because they made him really angry. I wanted to talk to the part of Terumi that knew it was wrong to hurt people. So… first, I needed to bring that better part of her to the surface.>"

"<By getting her to do the wrong thing.>"

"<Hey, it worked, right?>"

"<Doesn't mean it wasn't crazy. You can't just always count on people being not shit deep down. If it was that simple… Well, take Ryo. That crap wouldn't have worked on him.>"

"<Of course not. With Ryo, I'll need to try way harder than this!>"

She thwacked him on the back of the head.

"<Dear Lord, Dae-Hyun, what happened to you?!>"

He gave his parents an awkward smile. "<Oh, that?>" Yeah, I haven't seen a mirror yet, but I probably look like I just lost a boxing match with no gloves. "<Don't worry - it was completely one-sided.>"

His father rolled his eyes. "<Right, that was our greatest concern.>"

"<I promise you,>" Dae-Hyun raised his index finger, "<there's a perfectly good explanation->"

"<And you're going to give it to us in all the necessary details, young man.>"

"<Let me guess,>" one of his older brothers, more amused than worried, told Sora. "<He was playing an extended game of turning the other cheek?>"

"<Something like that, yeah.>" Sora had spent enough time around members of the Pak family to be familiar with certain Christian terms.

"<Did it at least work?>"

"<You might say that.>"

"<Seriously, bro, what are you trying to do? Get yourself declared a saint?>"

"<Nahhh,>" said Dae-Hyun. "<I'm pretty sure you need to be Catholic for that.>"

It's not like getting beaten up like this is a frequent occurrence for me. Seriously, I could count all the times it's happened on the fingers of one hand. Usually, when I'm trying to defuse conflicts - at school, in my neighborhood, with Sora's friends - just talking works best. It's just that every now and then, I find a situation where words aren't enough.

I know dad's proud of me, for being a peacemaker and all, even if right now he feels he shouldn't say it. He says I shouldn't try to be a martyr, but, I'm honestly not trying. I just want to help, is all. I don't think that's so unus-

"<Shush, everyone! Listen to this!>" Min-Kyu, the eldest of the Pak siblings, turned up the volume of the TV, prompting everyone to listen to the latest announcement from the Prime Minister's office:

"<...setting our foot firmly in this new frontier. According to our experts, once the Kamirentai launch, it should take them less than a day to reach Mars. We hope that…>"

Dae-Hyun blinked. They're going to send people to Mars? So soon? Wow.

A few hours passed. Dae-Hyun was given some first-aid, though thankfully he had nothing too serious. Min-Kyu, after some fond farewells, rushed out to catch his train. Sora went back home. A lecture about being more careful was listened to.

All in all, despite some unpleasantness, this has been a good day, Dae-Hyun reflected as he looked online for more information about the Mars mission. No monster attack on Tokyo. I helped Sora and Terumi patch things up. People are gonna walk on Mars in my lifetime - heck, depending on how this goes, going to outer space might become commonplace soon! So, yes, good day. Hm… If they're sending the Kamirentai, or at least, half of the Kamirentai, I wonder if they should also be taking foreign astronauts along for the-

His train of thought was interrupted by sudden small but noticeable change in the room's illumination. He turned around, his jaw almost making a crater in the floor as he saw a portal had opened in the middle of the room. Stepping through the portal was an easily-recognized girl in a white costume.

"<S...Soul?!>" In his current state of shock, longer sentences were not yet an option.

"<Yes,>" said the magical girl, looking slightly uneasy as she looked around. After a few seconds of awkward silence, she forced herself to look at him. "<Are you Pak Dae-Hyun?>"

He blinked rapidly, trying to make sense of the situation. "<Ah… Yes. Yes I am.>" Why… Why is this of interest to you?

The white-clad heroine took a deep breath. "<Mister Pak… Do you know who the Messiah is?>"

He was still a bit too stunned to address the absurdity of referring to him as "Mister Pak", so he focused instead on a simple factual answer. "<Um… Jesus Christ?>"

Her face deflated. "<That was so not the answer I was hoping for.>"

"<This is where we used to live,>" said Eriko, pointing at a house in the middle of Washington DC's suburbs. "<It feels… weird and nostalgic, seeing it now.>"

Junko nodded, mostly paying attention to Eriko's smile. "<You miss living here?>"

"<A bit. Tokyo has its advantages too. But there's a lot of memories here, you know?>"

My name is Watanabe Eriko, and things have been going pretty well for me lately. I beat Downfall - well, more like I curbstomped him. I arrested Murder, which isn't just great news for this planet, but for the entire multiverse . The proper authorities are putting together things like the Kamirentai to deal with this war, so this whole nightmare can end soon. The worldwide panic is dying down. People aren't as terrified anymore. The exodus away from Tokyo is calming down, and I think even the economy is starting to get better, with things like Project Galactica. And I'm working on ideas for sustainable fusion power. So, really, things are seriously looking up!

It's funny. Pretty recently, I was depressed, and the whole world looked like it was going down the drain. Amazing what difference a couple weeks can make.

Some time and a series of portals later, the two girls were back in the Tokyo apartment.

"<I'm surprised you wanted to check the bookstore,>" Eriko admitted. Even if your English has improved a lot lately. "<Found anything you like?>"

"<A few,>" Junko said evasively. We aren't buying anything while we're there, but…

"For all intents and purposes, it seems the Japanese are agreeing to share magic with us. They're just dragging their heels about it. Taking their time, so that they can snag financial benefits like Project Galactica."

"If anything, it's the folks at the NSA I pity right now. This new network is gonna be a pretty sudden mess for them to monitor."

The Ghost nodded, looking around at the rest of the CIA board. All the men and women in the room were veterans of espionage, and understood the complexities of the current situation.

"I don't like this. We're too vulnerable. There's already been a massive attack on American soil. I know Murder's in jail now, but nothing says the Circle of Wisdom won't attack us sometime soon."

"It's out of our hands, and all in those of the politicos, but I'll convey this in my report to the White House."

"I'll also remind you of my department's conjectures regarding the Circle of Wisdom," said the Ghost. "It wouldn't surprise us in the least if it didn't actually exist. It just looks too much like a false-flag operation. We've shared our suspicion with the Japanese, and they said they would look into it, but for now, it's something to keep in consideration."

"I'm more concerned about the economic angle. WWI made America a powerhouse, WWII made it a superpower. If this war ends with Japan taking our place as the leaders of the world economy…"

The conversation went on for a while, eventually touching upon the subject of magic-oriented religious movements.

"Various cults like the Raellians are trying to take advantage. Nothing much in mainstream religions, except for individual cases like this. One or two preachers declaring Soul the Second Coming isn't going to be a large factor."

"It might, actually," said the Ghost. "Downfall has demonstrated the risk of hostile agents recruiting locally, and equipping their new soldiers with magic. Movements such as these could provide fertile recruitment ground."

"...We'll monitor them for a while."

It was supposed to be just another routine evening visit to Castle Nexus, but when they got there, Eriko and Junko found the place occupied by not one, but two fairies.

"<Mother Aurora? Er, hello...>"

"<Greetings, children,>" said the luminous queen. "<There is much that we must discuss.>"

"<I know, right?>" Eriko said excitedly. "<The Prime Minister just announced a mission to Mars before the end of the month! A mission to Mars ! See, they're going to build this fairly basic, lightweight lab-ship. Enough room for three Kamirentai rangers, plus three scientists. Then, they'll use portals to reach space, and then , the Kamirentai are gonna take turns creating portals, getting closer and closer to Mars - it's gonna take thousands of portals, maybe ten thousand, but they're actually going to…>" she paused, "<...aaaand you don't actually care about that. Is this about Murder?>"

"<Among other things,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<For your victory against that most ancient villain, you have more than earned sincere congratulations. Your recent actions may have included a few mistakes, such as your choice to sequester away the Golden Knife, but I will truthfully declare that, of all the humans I have seen fight against the multiversal tide of destruction, you have been among the most remarkable.>"

Eriko blinked. OK, not like I haven't earned some praise here, but it's still surprising. Even with the knock about the Golden Knife. Still, nice to hear.

"<The battle for your world, alas, is much further from completion than you yet realize,>" Mother Aurora went on. "<Already, Endless Ravage prepares to strike back. The Elysium is closer than you realize, weaving a deadly web. The Circle of Wisdom draws near. Last but not least, some of the threats arrayed against you will originate from your human compatriots.>" She paused. "<Through your battles, you have won the first round. The second begins soon, and it shall not be the last.>"

Eriko made a face as she stared at her. "<...OK, you've been a bit cryptic before, but this takes the cake. Mother Aurora, with all due respect… What the Hell are you talking about?!>"

Monsoon giggled. The Fairy Queen remained impassive. "<Soul, consider your life. Consider the events that comprise it. On a given morning, you wake up, and set out to have breakfast. Because the mood strikes you, you opt to feed on a simple cereal bar instead of something more complex. With your breakfast having taken so little time, you arrive to class two minutes early. During these two idle minutes, you daydream, observing the globe on the teacher's desk. Your mind wanders into reflections concerning the Earth's rotation, and how it would interact with portal magic.>"

She paused briefly, then went on: "<Sudden ideas that could be useful in battle flood your mind. This leaves you distracted during the rest of the class, and because of that, you miss an important detail in the teacher's lecture. This short moment of inattention, two weeks later, costs you a point on a test. This, in turn, puts you in a sour mood for a while, at precisely the time when a new classmate is deciding whether or not to introduce herself to you. Seeing that you are upset, she chooses to make friends with someone else instead, and because of that, she does not become a lifelong friend of yours. Two weeks later, in the midst of an attack on Tokyo, you are forced to leave school via a portal to save the day, and she is the only one to witness it. Since you are not friends, she foolishly reveals what she saw to another classmate. By the end of the week, your identity is common knowledge. An Elysium mage attacks your home, and you only win the fight thanks to the idea you had for weaponizing the Earth's rotation. All of this, because you had a short breakfast.>"

The Fairy Queen's expression remained neutral as she concluded: "<All of the events in this hypothetical example are connected, albeit in a way that cannot be predicted in advance.>"

"<Chaos theory,>" said Eriko. "<The beating of a butterfly's wings causing a hurricane. OK, but that doesn't answer my question.>"

"<The answer, child,>" said the Fairy Queen, "<is that it is possible to predict the unpredictable. For me, at least. It is within the realm of my ability to step back, to consider the flow of events that rules the world, and then see a path through the myriad possibilities which leads toward victory.>"

"<To know the long-term consequences of having breakfast,>" Monsoon quipped.

Mother Aurora ignored her. "<I know the chain of events that must follow, for this world to be saved. It is through this chain of events that I shall guide you and others, Soul.>"

Eriko blinked. "<...You're saying that you know the future.>"

"<To a practical extent, yes.>"

"<And that you can… choose the future.>"

"<It is trying, but feasible.>"

Eriko took a long deep breath. "<OK. OK. Mother Aurora? Here on Earth we've got this saying: Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence . And hoo boy, there's some big demand for extraordinary evidence right now. So, just to begin, we- >"

"<You are about to suggest that I guess the number that you are thinking of,>" the Fairy Queen interrupted her, "<which would be one googleplex minus 256.>"

"<Ooooookay,>" said Eriko, slightly deflated, "<but you could also learn that with a spell for reading my thoughts, which I would still find more plausible.>"

"<And as such,>" said Aurora impassibly, "<your next test will be to request a prediction of an event outside of this pocket universe, and independent of mere thought-reading.>"

Rock2005: Oh hey, Neutron. How're you doing?

Neutron: Generally fine. You?

Rock2005: Pretty good.

Neutron: I gotta go in a sec, but, quick question:

Neutron: Pick a number. Any number.

Rock2005: Er, sure. How about 7?

Neutron: ...Son of a glitch.

User Neutron has gone offline.

"<I trust that we may forgo further demonstrations of my claims,>" said Mother Aurora.

"<For now,>" said Eriko. "<But this just raises a whooooole new bunch of questions.>" She took a deep breath. "<How are you doing this? How effective is it? What's the limit? How come just predicting the future doesn't change it enough to render prediction worthless? And no less importantly, what did you mean when you said that my fights up to now were just the first round?! You kinda have to explain that!>"

"<Call me wacky,>" said Monsoon, "<but I think the most important question should be, 'Mother Aurora, how do we save the world?'. Just saying.>"

The Fairy Queen rose slightly in the air, her aura intensifying just a touch. "<From the day of our first meeting, child, you have been informed that certain things were not for man to know. I stand by that statement. However, you have proven yourself again and again, and as such, there is much that may now be explained to you. Perhaps not everything that you wish to hear, but much that you need to know.>"

Eriko hesitated for a moment, and crossed her arms. "<OK then. I'm all ears.>" Finally! You'd better make this good.

"<However,>" Aurora went on, ignoring the twitch of Eriko's face, "<I do not wish to repeat myself today. I shall explain the state and nature of things to you… in a short while, once a certain other person joins us.>" She marked a dramatic pause. "<Soul, it is time that you sought out the Messiah .>"

Eriko blinked multiple times in rapid succession. "<Hoo-kay. Just so we're perfectly clear here: Putting aside all discussions of mad science and assorted mad scientists, you want me, the magical girl from Tokyo, to prevent the end of the world… by finding someone you are so helpfully and informatively referring to as 'the Messiah'. Please be honest: Did Junko put you up to this?>"

While Junko was blushing and Monsoon giggling in Castle Nexus, a certain Korean boy in Nagasaki was relaxing in his room.

He wouldn't be relaxing for much longer that day.

"<This is no joking matter, despite my florid phrasing,>" said Mother Aurora. "<Since war has come to your world, Soul, you have been fighting with limited support, relying on the advice of Monsoon and the assistance of your sister. For victory to be achieved, however, your team must expand. New allies must be recruited.>"

"<Wait, now we're going on a recruitment drive? I'm pretty sure we could have given magic to reliable people from day one!>"

"<Additional magic would not solve our problem. Quite the opposite. You will see why later today. No, it is assistance of a non-magical variety that you will require.>"

The pink glow of the Fairy Queen intensified once more, bathing the castle's courtyard. "<Soul, you are more than merely a talented mage. Talented mages are numerous, and few of them could have accomplished what you have. More than that, you are a hero . You possess inner strength and virtue, without which you would have been crushed by the sheer weight thrust upon your shoulders.>" She paused. "<But there are many different forms of heroism - as many as there are forms of virtue. In your particular case, Soul, your inner strength makes you, before all else, a champion of Truth . It is in the nature of all sapient beings to cheat, to deceive, to lie to themselves, to hide from unpleasant truths and console themselves with pleasant falsehoods. You resist that nature to an extent found in few others.>"

Eriko wasn't entirely certain whether the Fairy Queen's eyes were glowing, or if it was just part of her aura. Regardless, Aurora went on: "<Your devotion to Truth played a large part in making you a magical girl. Your quest for knowledge gave you an exceptional edge. Your honesty - most of all toward yourself - was, is, and shall remain one of your greatest strengths. And just as your great strength is Truth… just as Junko's great strength is Loyalty… the Messiah's great strength is Love.>"

Eriko remained silent for a few seconds, then spoke up: "<OK, I'm gonna be asking for some more clarification here. This whole spiel you just went on, about virtues, and us being respectively champions or whatever of Truth, Loyalty, Love, and the American Way… Is there some magical and/or metaphysical basis through which this is going to matter? Or is this just… applied philosophy?" Because if you start talking about collecting digivices or Elements of Harmony, I'm going to call bullshit on my life.

"<Applied philosophy is not a bad way of putting it. There is no, as you said, metaphysical element to the virtues you embody. Merely moral strength that will save this world.>"

"<OK, fine. Do you have some idea of where to look for this Messiah?>" I just want to get to the part where you explain already.

"<Certainly.>" Mother Aurora gestured, and a small portal opened, revealing an urban landscape on the other side. "<He is inside this house,>" she pointed, "<in the room in front of the tree. He is only slightly older than you. His name is Dae-Hyun Pak.>"

Eriko's jaw did not quite break the speed of sound on its way way toward the floor, but it made a valiant attempt. "<Uh… OK… I know I've made my share of complaints, but I gotta say: That was magnificently specific.>"

In Chicago - as in several other North-American metropolitan centers - certain criminal elements were handling a highly illegal shipment. One that had been announced only a couple days earlier, unexpectedly.

"Well damn," said Bob as he examined the massive amount of crack cocaine. "There's easily ten million bucks' worth of the stuff in here!"

The man delivering the merchandise laughed. "Funny. Going by the usual rates, this stuff would go for twice that much. Good for you we're having a sale!"

That made Bob suspicious. "And why exactly are you guys half-pricing your crack? Am I gonna find out tomorrow this shit is tainted?"

"Test it as much as you want. The Zetas are having a sale because we got ourselves a little production boom, and it's worth lowering our prices… if it means starving the competition."

Back in Castle Nexus, Eriko's gaze lingered on the portal. "<OK. If you say he's there... So, I just go in and… ask him to come over?>"

"<Indeed, child.>"

"<Aaaand… Wait, should Junko and I be changing our faces for this?>"

"<Changing into your Soul identity will help convince him to follow you, but do not otherwise bother to conceal your identity. The Messiah will be aware of your true selves, among other things.>"

"<No secret identity, huh? I'll admit that's new.>" It was only as Eriko touched the transformation pillar and took her Soul form that she did a double-take. She said his name was what?!

My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I just portaled inside some Korean guy's room without permission. At least, I'm gonna assume he's Korean, because "Pak" and "Dae-Hyun" don't sound like British names to me.

Er, not that I have any issue with his being Korean or anything! Countries are just lines in the sand, humans of all ethnicities are practically identical from a biological standpoint barring a few cosmetic details, and it's not like I could even tell whether someone was Japanese or Korean just by looking at them anyway! So, um, should I act any differently around him? Probably not, right? I mean, just because there's some serious bad blood between our countries, and a lot of racism against Koreans in Japan, it doesn't mean anything has to be awkward, right?



OK, focus. This is the guy that the fragging queen of the fairies calls 'the Messiah'. I'm gonna venture a guess that he's important. ...Assuming I've got the right guy.

"<Soul?!>" The boy finally spoke, with only a light accent.

"<Yes.>" If he lives here, odds are there won't be a language barrier, right? So, let's confirm… "<Are you Pak Dae-Hyun?>"

"<Ah… Yes. Yes I am.>"

Whew. That's one bullet dodged.

OK. Let's consider. Mother Aurora says this guy is the Messiah. Not that she really explained what the Messiah is . Now, it's a Judeo-Christian term, but unless fairies somehow follow Abrahamic tradition despite not having come to this world until a few months ago, I'm going to guess she's referring to something else. It's basically a word for 'savior', right? So this guy is supposed to save us? Might be because of Aurora's newfound oracle bullshit… or maybe there's more to it! Maybe this 'Messiah' knows something I don't! Maybe he can explain! "<Mister Pak… Do you know who the Messiah is?>"

"<Um… Jesus Christ?>"

Or maybe I shouldn't get my hopes up. "<That was so not the answer I was hoping for.>"

He gave an awkward smile. "<Well, I, ah, I don't want to start a fight, but it is the answer I believe in.>"

"<Huh. Well, OK, but that's not what I meant.>" She paused. "<Mister Pak… I realize this is probably all pretty weird for you…>"

"<I'll say,>" he forced himself to chuckle. "<I didn't think anyone would call me 'Mister Pak' before I finished college. Or at least, you know, high school.>"

That did help defuse the tension slightly. "<Heh, OK. Mister… Ah, I mean, Dae-Hyun? Like I said, this is all pretty weird, and I'm really sorry to spring it on you like that… but I'm going to need you to follow me.>"

One Messiah, coming up. You'd better have one hell of an explanation, Mother Aurora.

My name is Pak Dae-Hyun, and I just followed a magical girl through a portal to what looks like some sort of castle.

Not how I thought I would be spending the evening.

We're not alone here. Three more people… and two of them have wings. Richly-colored, butterfly-like wings. One is a playful-looking, petite blonde woman, and the other a regal, tall glowing lady. And lastly, what looks like a human girl, not too far from my age. Maybe a bit younger.

Huh… Now that I think about it, didn't the Circle of Wisdom accuse Soul of being an "agent of the fairies"? Is that what they were referring to? … Let's not jump to conclusions. I know almost nothing of the situation. I don't know who these people are, why Soul asked me to come along, or why she asked that question about the Messiah. So, just be polite and friendly for now. Make friends. And to do that, be a friend.

He gave them all a genuine smile as he waved politely. "<Hello, everyone. Soul here already knew my name, so I'm not sure if I should start by introducing myself…?>"

The regal figure spoke. "<Greetings to you, child. Your name is known to us. You are Dae-Hyun Pak, of Nagasaki. A person of exceptional compassion and moral courage. Allow me to make this somewhat more comfortable.>" With that, she gestured, and her hand glowed for a moment - well, moreso than the rest of her seemed to glow already.

What did she - wait. My face doesn't ache anymore. He brought his hand to his face, feeling around. No swollen lip. "<Did… Did you just heal me?>"

"<Mere bruises. I did not wish for pain to distract you.>"

"<Well, you have my attention, and my thanks.>"

"<I was wondering about that,>" said Soul, sounding concerned. "<Did something happen?>"

Soul, the savior of Tokyo, is concerned about the punches I took from Terumi. That's… that's actually pretty funny. "<I guess something happened, sure,>" he smiled, "<but it was resolved to my satisfaction. Still, thanks for the healing.>" He gazed at the regal figure. "<Though you might be overselling me a bit with what you said earlier.>"

"<I am not,>" she replied, her expression unchanging. "<Your humility is appreciated, but not at cost of honest self-awareness.>" The tone sounded like simple fact rather than reproach. "<Now, as for introductions: I am Mother Aurora, the Fairy Queen. This is my subject and assistant, Monsoon. You already know of Soul, champion of Truth and protector of your world. Her sister and ally, the loyal Junko.>"

So they are fairies, and Soul is working with them. The Circle of Wisdom was probably still being full of it with their propaganda, but I guess they weren't completely making things up, either. He kept smiling, then extended his hand. "<Nice to meet you.>"

Mother Aurora didn't react, but Monsoon quickly flew in front of her, grabbing his hand and shaking it enthusiastically. "<Likewise! Ooh, we're gonna have so much fun with this!>"

He blinked in bemusement, but also with some amusement. Aurora and Monsoon seem… pretty different so far. Once she let go of his hand, he turned his eyes toward Junko. Huh. She kinda looks like she wants to join in, but isn't sure she's supposed to. He walked toward her, shaking her hand. "<I didn't know Soul had such a support network. Glad to see she's not alone in this.>"

She returned the handshake and gave the best smile she could manage. "<Heh, thanks.>" Still, he noticed the slight flinch. Hm. Did I hit a nerve there? I hope I didn't hurt her-

His train of thought was delayed as Soul spoke up. "<Mother Aurora… I think Mister Pak - er, I mean, Dae-Hyun, deserves some explanations as to why you had me drag him here. For that matter, I think now would be a good time for explanations in general.>" She paused. "<You see, an 'explanation' is a process in which information is shared, generally within a context that allows for correct comprehension of said information.>"

Sarcasm and impatience. I'm guessing there's some history of frustration there , he concluded.

Monsoon, for herself, giggled. "<Well then, you're in luck! Take your seats, ladies and gentlemen… because you've all been good boys and girls, so it's about time you received a visit from the Exposition Fairy !>"

A short while later, as the humans sat down - Junko to Soul's left, and Dae-Hyun to her right - the alleged Fairy Queen spoke:

"<Understand, children, that the recent attacks on your world are merely the symptom of something far larger. There is a war that thunders across reality, and has gone on for many, many eras. This war involves not only worlds like yours - hundreds of parallel Earths - but also the spirit worlds, of which three exist.>"

He blinked. OK, so… plenty of parallel worlds, and spirit worlds. That's pretty overwhelming to begin with.

"<However,>" Mother Aurora went on, "<the war in itself is only a secondary concern. The primary concern - one which the war affects - is the coming annihilation of the very multiverse.>"

He blinked multiple times in rapid succession. OK, that is overwhelming. What are we talking about here? How can anything "annihilate the multiverse"?

"<The doom of all worlds,>" she continued, "<comes from the very source that created them. He Who Is, the source of the multiverse, will one day bring it to a close, and the unrestrained use of magic is drawing that doomsday nearer and nearer. It is up to us slow him down.>"

He closed his eyes, mouth agape. Forget overwhelming. Are we talking about fighting God here? What?

"<OK, what?>" He opened his eyes, realizing those words were coming from Soul. "<Who exactly is this 'He Who Is', what's up with this doomsday, and what's magic got to do with it?>"

The Fairy Queen maintained that same neutral expression. "<Imagine that you were dreaming of a world. Imagine that your dream was rich and complex, full of different characters and events. That dream would still be a mere shadow, the characters just impressions of people.>" She paused. "<But what if you weren't human, or even a spirit? What if you were something incomprehensibly greater? So great that, as you lay sleeping, your dreaming mental process was so complex, the resulting image was that of a near-infinite number of particles ricocheting over each other across thousands of parallel universes? What if your very dreams formed a multiverse complex enough for life to arise in them?>"

There was silence for a moment.

"<...Are you saying that our multiverse is all a dream of He Who Is.>" Soul's statement didn't have the tone of a question.

"<After a fashion,>" said Aurora. "<To call it a dream is an imperfect analogy. There is nothing remotely human about He Who Is.>"

"<So…>" Soul seemed lost in thought for a moment, "<If this is kinda-sorta a dream except not really… can He Who Is wake up ?>"

There was a sudden chill. "<That, child, is precisely the problem,>" said Mother Aurora.

Silence reigned for a bit. Dae-Hyun tried to collect his thoughts. All right… So, they think this entity, which sounds a lot like a monotheistic God except viewed through a horror story lens, is dreaming up the world, and it's all going to go poof when he wakes up. Let's not forget, it's entirely possible for them to simply be wrong. But let's keep an open mind.

"<As he stands, He Who Is cannot truly wake up,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<There is simply nothing there to awaken. No veritable thought process, no sapience, merely information flowing without direction of any sort. Were it only that, existence would be safe. But if this part of He Who Is could be, roughly, described as his subconscious… then the threat comes from the small fraction of him which is conscious, sapient, aware… and our most terrible enemy. That sentient shard goes by the appellation 'He Who Laughs'.>"

"<He Who Laughs? Seriously?>" Soul gave the glowing fairy a bemused look. "<You're saying this… 'He Who Laughs' is the part of He Who Is that can think for itself?>"

"<Indeed, child. He Who Laughs cannot control the entire multiverse shaped by the eon-long dream of He Who Is… but he has enough power to effortlessly sunder planets, stars. More, even. He has done so before.>" Soul seemed to pale a bit. "<His goal is simple: To awaken the rest of He Who Is. To render the whole of him sapient, so that he may cease dreaming, and for the first time, truly awaken. Which, naturally, would instantly cause the multiverse's existence to cease.>" Seeing that her audience seemed shocked into silence, she added: "<He Who Laughs has been working toward that goal for a long time, and of all the tools he has devised to further that objective, the most efficient to date is magic.>"

"<Which makes it, like, the best out of three,>" said Monsoon. "<...As far as we know, anyway.>"

"<Magic is destroying the world. That's what you're saying.>" Soul rubbed her forehead. "<How? And, if that's the case, why are we using magic?! Why is anyone using magic?!>"

I… really can't fault her for that outburst , Dae-Hyun thought to himself, becoming aware of his own cold sweat.

"<He Who Laughs needs to build intelligence into the rest of He Who Is's vastness,>" Aurora explained. "<My understanding is that the development of humanity - entities within his mental landscape that had developed their own thought process - gave him the idea some time after he became aware of them. He concluded that, by breaking down a human mind, he could analyze its thought patterns and inject some of its intelligence into a minuscule portion of He Who Is, while remaining the sole personality. Of course, a single human mind would have an almost unnoticeable effect on a being this big, and repeating the same pattern across the entirety of his mind would leave him too uniform and homogenous to his taste; to properly awaken He Who Is, it is not one human mind that is needed, but a diverse multitude. And as such, he sought to automate the process - first, with his monsters.>"

Soul blinked quizzically. Dae-Hyun raised his hand. "<Monsters? You mean, like Downfall?>"

"<Not quite. Downfall is a demon, a spirit. Those appeared later. No, I am referring to a far greater kind of monster. Living Extensions of the will of He Who Laughs.>"

Dae-Hyun glanced to his right. Huh. Did Soul get startled by what Aurora just said?

"<These Extensions, as has become one of their appellations,>" Aurora went on, "<are cosmically powerful creatures, each armed with a small spark of He Who Laughs's power. Possessed of an animalistic mind of their own, yet simultaneously guided by his own will. He has hidden one in each Earth, giving them entirely different shapes and abilities. It was this event - He Who Laughs entering the material worlds to place his Extensions in them - that broke the symmetry between worlds. Until that point, each particle in each universe was connected to its mirror image in every other universe, acting in exactly the same manner; each time He Who Laughs entered a universe and built an Extension, he broke that symmetry. Timelines began to diverge.

The purpose of these Extensions was the consumption of souls. With that purpose in mind, He Who Laughs created a plane superimposed upon the material world, filled with a psychoactive substance of his creation.>"

"<Psychoactive substance.>" Soul's utterly deadpan tone and expression would probably have been pretty funny if Dae-Hyun hadn't felt so puzzled.

"<Substance programmed to react to brain patterns and copy them,>" said Aurora. "<Memories, thought processes… all of them leave a psychic impression, a 'soul' so to speak. The Extensions, each and every one of them, are sensitive to this substance. They were made to feed upon the impressions in it. An Extension remains dormant for a while, dreaming and analyzing the minds of every person on the planet. Once He Who Laughs awakens it, it reaches to the souls, analyzing millions upon millions of them all at once, and incorporating their intelligence into He Who Is. The process was not designed to be harmless; though the presence of the psychoactive substance doesn't usually affect the brains it copies in a meaningful manner, when an Extension copies it, there's enough feedback to effectively fry every human brain, every mind on the planet.>"

Once again, silence reigned. For about five seconds. "<So! On that cheerful note, anybody want me to make hot cocoa?>" asked Monsoon with a big grin. "<Or do you guys prefer tea?>"

My name is Pak Dae-Hyun, and… it's not every day that words fail me. But this? I'm not sure how to even begin handling this.

I believe in God. Always have. And I don't just mean I believe in an omnipotent creator - I believe in an omnibenevolent one. I believe God has taken human form to walk among us, has forgiven our sins, will welcome us in Heaven, the whole shebang.

I get the impression the queen of the fairies and I have some disagreements on doctrine.

Her views, apparently, involve a blind idiot God, whose only sapient part is an alien being with no care nor love for humanity. One who doesn't want to save our souls, but to eat them. How on Earth am I supposed to react to that?

On one hand, I just want to call that crazy. It obviously can't be true.

On the other hand, that's hardly any way to talk to people with opposing religious beliefs. Mother Aurora and her views deserve as much respect as anyone else.

On the other other hand, I don't think this is exactly your typical inter-faith meetup here. We're talking about war, people are dying, and I get the feeling I was brought here in order to act . Somehow.

Well, I guess the reasonable thing to do is to keep listening until the end, then ask questions and raise objections respectfully.

This is good cocoa, though.

"<OK. OK.>" Soul put her drink down, ending the short break. "<You're saying this… Extension We really need a better name… You're saying there's an 'Extension' that's been hiding somewhere on Earth for ages, and that if it wakes up, it'll rip everyone's minds out and cause fatal brain damage in the process. And that for some reason, no-one's found it.>"

"<Oh, people rarely do,>" said Monsoon. "<I think He Who Laughs had fun making them. Got creative and stuff. Hid them allll over the place. Heart of a mountain, ocean floor, magma pocket, seismic faultline, orbit… And that's just naming a few we've actually found . Besides, ya know - usually, waking them is kinda not a good idea. It tends to turn into an 'oopsie, I broke the everything' moment.>"

"<OK, fine ,>" said Soul, "<but I'm pretty sure there's never been an incident of humanity going extinct because of some psychic monster in this world's history. So what gives?>"

"<As Monsoon surmises,>" said Aurora, "<He Who Laughs seems to have taken some creative pleasure in crafting the Extensions. But he did not actually activate most of them, leaving them dormant. They were not efficient enough; they would have depopulated the multiverse, leaving only a small fraction of He Who Is awakened. Instead, he moved to a second, more efficient method, which you, Soul, have personally observed: The Tunnel of Light.>"

Dae-Hyun straightened up. "<Wait, wait. Tunnel of Light?>"

Soul looked at him, uncertain. "<I…>" She glanced at the two fairies. Monsoon gave her a smile and a "go ahead" gesture. She turned her gaze back to him. "<I have almost died once. Before… Before Downfall and everything. I was floating in some kind of, well, tunnel of light, like they say.>"

Dae-Hyun nodded. "<A lot of people near death have reported something like that. They tend to report a feeling of warmth and love, of being welcomed, so to speak. Some consider it a glimpse of the afterlife.>"

"<Those in the know consider it the multiverse's biggest schmuck bait,>" said Monsoon, hovering and leaning sideways against a wall. "<The Tunnel of Light - or 'The Great Abstract' if you want to be boring - is basically one big soul processing plant. Instead of having a big psychic monster rip 'em out, He Who Laughs has the Tunnel of Light wait till someone dies, then attract the patterns in the psychoactive thingie into it, where they're sliced, diced, analyzed, and added to He Who Is's big cosmic brain.>"

Soul blanched. Her voice was barely above a whisper. "<I… I almost went into that thing. Is… is that why it feels so nice and welcoming?>"

"<Nah, that's just irony that He Who Laughs thought was funny,>" Monsoon waved that away. "<The mind impressions-slash-souls float toward it whether they want to or not. No need for bait or anything. You were able to stay away because you still had a body that was kinda alive.>"

"<Hey.>" Dae-Hyun gently placed on Soul's shoulder, to her surprise. "<You're OK now. You're here, you're safe.>" Though it did seem to calm her slightly, the truth was that he was feeling some inner turmoil himself. They claim Heaven is a soul-processing plant. That's… that's one heck of a doctrinal disagreement! He didn't notice the look Junko was giving him - or rather, his hand on Soul's shoulder.

Soul turned her gaze back to Mother Aurora. "<So… If this Tunnel of Light is working the way you're describing it, then that means that every single human being who is born and dies, anywhere, is getting us closer to the end of the world.>" She paused. "<And… there's a lot more humans in the world today than in previous eras. So that's extra acceleration. Though I think you said our huge population was unusual?>"

"<Indeed,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<Your world's exceptional population is due to technological advances, particularly in the field of medicine. In those respects, you are ahead of most worlds, though not all.

However, the processing of souls via the Tunnel of Light is still too limited a method. Once He Who Laughs observed the minds of comatose humans floating through it, not always reaching the end, it gave him a third, final idea to advance his agenda. And that is how he came to create magic.>"

Dae-Hyun noted Soul leaning forward, clearly very interested in that part.

"<The old function of the Tunnel of Light merely took a still image of the minds of the dead. Though it could keep going for as long as humanity existed somewhere in the multiverse, it remained a slow and inefficient method of acquiring mental patterns. With magic, He Who Laughs created a direct connection between He Who Is and the minds of living mortals. Those who enter the Tunnel of Light, learn to reach for it with their thoughts, and live to return to Earth, possess a lifelong connection to He Who Is - and with it, the ability to make small adjustments to his dream through sheer exertion of will. In so doing, they can change matter, energy, even space… and their intelligence, directly linked to He Who Is, expands He Who Laughs's reach to a far greater extent than the consumption of a dead soul.>"

Soul seemed to be staring through the fairy queen. "<You're saying, that, whenever I use magic, I'm connecting my brain to some cosmic douchebag thing and letting him copy-paste some of my intelligence on the rest of his super-gigantic mind, which keeps bringing him one step closer to ending reality as we know it because he's a douchebag…>"

"<Thaaaat's the short version,>" said Monsoon.

"<...and you two douchebags never mentioned this little itty-bitty factoid and kept talking in douchebaggy riddles instead since day one because you had what douchebaggy douchebag reasons again you douchebags?! >" That last part was almost screamed.

Mother Aurora didn't flinch. "<A valid question. The answer is centuries of trial and error. Remember that we have a very long history of helping humans protect their worlds. In my experience, an inconvenient number of human mages are simply unable to handle this revelation. At worst, they become unstable, even mad. More often, they develop a deep reluctance to use their magic - a reluctance that I would generally consider wise, but which often gets them killed in battle, as they start hesitating for crucial instants, trying to use as little magic as possible, even forgoing shields. I have, after too many tragedies, learned to reveal this information only to humans who possess the mental fortitude for it.>"

"< You use magic,>" Eriko pointed accusingly. "<Trivially. Is this… different for fairies or something?>"

"<Yes and no,>" said Monsoon. "<See, He Who Laughs wants variety for his brain expansion project. If he was willing to settle for less, he could just take any soul in the Tunnel of Light, copy it a gajillion times, and voilà. But there's only so much use you can get outta a single mind, you know? And when a mage uses magic often enough… at some point, it just stops helping He Who Is. I mean, the magic still works, but no information goes into upgrading the big cosmic brain.>" She paused. "<Typical mages reach that point in months, years, decades if they're really trying to use as little magic as possible for whichever reason. But us?>" she grinned, pointing at Mother Aurora and herself. "<We've been around for ages , and we use our magic to slow down doomsday. Any mileage the magic could have gotten out of us, it got a pretty long while ago. Damage already done, so, no more point holding back.>"

"<I see.>" Soul still sounded very, very weary. "<What about me? Is… my damage 'already done'?>"

"<Not yet,>" said Mother Aurora, "<but it will be. Circumstances will compel it. There is too much danger, too much work left ahead, for you to hold back. You must use magic, in order to prevent its use on a far greater scale.>"

"<Oh God.>" Dae-Hyun paled. "<The Kamirentai. If adding in new magic-users is destroying the world…>" He trailed off, wondering again how much of this he actually believed.

"<You grasp the problem correctly,>" said Aurora. "<By its very design, magic is useful and tempting. Every time that He Who Laughs connects another Earth to the magic of the Tunnel of Light, it does not take long for a large population of new mages to rise, hastening the destruction of all.>" Her gaze swept across the three humans. "<Therein lies the crux of my mission: For ages, I have sought the worlds where magic had become available, as soon as the connection was established. Each time, I have strived to explain the threat, create safeguards, prevent the spread of magic use. But He Who Laughs quickly discovered my actions, and in response, he repurposed the Extensions.>" For a brief moment, her face showed a hint of anger. "<Even in their sleep, those monstrosities now repel fairies and fairy magic. It is why I, and my subjects, cannot enter your universe, save for pocket dimensions such as this one. It is why we have no choice but to ask humans to fight our battles for us.>"

"<So… Those things are even more powerful than you?>" Soul asked. Dae-Hyun glanced at her. Huh. That implies Mother Aurora is particularly powerful, then. Granted, she looks the part.

"<My power, and that of an Extension, are evenly matched,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<But for now, they are sleeping. If I were to force my way into your world, pit my magic against the Extension… then I would wake it, along with its hunger for human souls. We would fight, and I would most likely win, but by the battle's end, I would be surveying a planet of brain-dead humans.>" For a short moment, there was a haunted look to her face. "<I have made that mistake once, and I have no wish to repeat it.>"

"<Now, I know what you're thinking,>" said Monsoon. "<You're thinking, 'but Mother Aurora, none of this explains all the magical supervillains attacking our planet! And it doesn't explain what we're supposed to do, either!' Well, lucky you, we're getting into that very soon!>"

"<That wasn't actually my first question…>" Soul mumbled.

Mother Aurora went on: "<As I have said, He Who Laughs has to individually connect each universe to the magical system he has devised. This is an ongoing process, and has been since magic has first appeared; to this date, it is believed that magic remains impossible in most worlds. Yours was recently connected; that has not only allowed someone such as yourself to become a mage, but also made it possible for the mages of other worlds to travel here, with some effort. I was the first, but obviously not the last. Parallel-universe humans, such as the Circle of Wisdom, and hostile spirits, such as Downfall and Murder, are both a threat.>"

"<About that. What are spirits?>"

"<An unintended side-effect of the Tunnel of Light and the magic system. The refined attunement of the Great Abstract to human minds, combined with countless millions of souls travelling through the Tunnel of Light, eventually reshaped some of its psychoactive matter. Formed new bubbles of reality in it, akin to this pocket dimension - spirit worlds, filled with the emotions of the recently dead. Three spirit worlds in total, formed along the Tunnel of Light.

The first spirit world is shaped by the emotions of humans who have just now entered the Tunnel. They are very recently dead, and as such, the dominant feelings that have always shaped that world are pain and fear. Within that world, echoes of human thought patterns form new minds - minds shaped by anguish and terror. Demons . These demons, in turn, blame humanity for the torment that has been stamped into their very soul; centuries of cultural devolution and scapegoating have led to 'Righteous Vengeance', Hell's dominant doctrine, which demands that humanity dies screaming as revenge for the pain of demonkind.>"

Soul blinked. "<That… makes no sense. If human suffering is what's making them miserable, why the hell would they cause more of it?!>"

"<It is not that simple. It is not the generalized, day-to-day suffering of humans that shapes Hell, but merely what they feel in the early moments that follow their demise. While it is true that Righteous Vengeance is still worsening the issue, this still makes it possible for demonkind to rationalize that problem away. Additionally, the suffering of new humans will only affect the new demons that are formed, not those who already exist.>"

"<Plus, you know,>" said Monsoon. "<Humans are already pretty irrational, and you guys aren't made of agonizing pain and creeping fear of death. Demons… Demons have so much nasty cultural inertia by now, arguing that they shouldn't hurt humans is like trying to convince a triathlon champion to become a slacker.>"

Sadly, I can believe that, thought Dae-Hyun. This kind of self-destructive madness has happened before.

"<In a sense, you are lucky,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<Hell is extremely factionalized, and it divides up worlds between factions through a complicated system of influence, barter, and luck. When they realized your world had been connected, the next faction in line was Endless Ravage, a relatively minor faction comprising less than a hundred demons. Downfall was the first they sent, and more will come, but they cannot sustain the invasion rate of the major factions, such as Perfect Agony or the Extinction Society.>"

Dae-Hyun raised an eyebrow. "<Perfect Agony? Extinction Society? Endless Ravage? Do demons always use such… over-the-top names?>"

"<Comes with the territory,>" chirped Monsoon. "<Demon politics is all one big ego-waving contest about who's the biggest, scariest, Righteous Vengeance-iest monster. Over-the-topness is to be expected! That's how you end up with head honchos like the Queen of Pain, or the Enemy of the World, or… Well, you get the idea.>"

"<Still,>" said Aurora, "<Hell is merely the first spirit world. After their first few moments progressing through the Tunnel of Light, most human souls turn their attention away from their recent suffering, and become increasingly aware of their strange surroundings. The light itself captures their attention, invoking a sense of wonder, curiosity perhaps.>"

"<And that's how Feyland got populated!>" Monsoon enthusiastically pointed both thumbs at herself. "<Fairies are basically born with this big, excited sense of awe and wonder. Most of us, we got one thing that we can stick with for ever and ever and just not get bored with it, because there's just so. Much. Awesome! in the details of it. Painting, strategy games, architecture, plantlife, sunsets… Those of you who have known me for a while can probably guess what best tickles my sense of wonder,>" she said with a wink.

"<I… see,>" said Soul. "<So what's your relationship to, well, Earths?>"

"<Mostly, they're great places to visit and find wonderful stuff in,>" said Monsoon. "<Shame about the big cosmic monsters barring the way. Also , we'd kinda rather the world keeps existing. It's where all the cool stuff is.>"

Mother Aurora nodded. "<The third and final spirit world is the Elysium. As the souls of the dead keep drifting toward the Light, their emotions tend to change further. The immediate sense of wonder fades, giving way to a desire to reach the Light. It is thus desire, more than any other emotion, that shapes the greedy Elysians. What they want, they tend to want obsessively. Their society has taken the form of an imperialistic nation, ruled by an Elysian who lusts for power above all else. Calling himself the Supreme One, he has shaped his society with that goal in mind, allowing him to control his people, while directing them toward the conquest of the multiverse.>"

Soul seemed dubious. "<...Isn't Murder Elysian? And didn't he have your knife?>"

Wait, what? Dae-Hyun gave Soul a surprised look.

"<That is correct,>" said Aurora. "<In the early days of my campaign to save the multiverse, I hoped to circumvene the Extensions by recruiting Elysians to my cause, seeing that they could enter any worlds and practice magic in them. The one who nowadays calls himself Murder was among a small cadre of such recruits, whom I equipped with tools for inter-universal travel. Their mission was to act as emissaries, explaining the threat to reality to human mages, and obtain their cooperation by any means. Obviously, a mistake that ended up costing me dearly. He turned rogue, desiring murder above the survival of the multiverse. The others… were also a failure, though not to the same catastrophic extent.>"

"<By which she means, they didn't turn into crazy serial killers,>" said Monsoon. "<So there's that.>"

"<A greater concern is the remaining bulk of the Elysian population,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<They will seek to add this world to their empire, much like the Circle of Wisdom. You will have to fight against their invasion forces, and it will not be an easy battle.>"

"<So, to sum up:>" said Monsoon, "<Demons hate. Fairies wonder. Elysians want .>"

Silence reigned again for a while. Dae-Hyun looked at Soul, who seemed to be gathering her thoughts. I think a lot of this is as new to her as it was to me. But it also sounds like she's got some long history with Mother Aurora. I guess the fairy queen plays it close to the vest with information? Still… His gaze rested on Aurora. She says her people are shaped by a sense of wonder. But she seems… I don't know, jaded? Extremely self-controlled? Is that the result of centuries of fighting?

And then there's… Junko, right? He glanced at the girl to his left. She hasn't said much. That… doesn't feel right, somehow. I'm kinda getting an outgoing vibe from her. Maybe because of how she dresses? This isn't the style of someone trying to avoid attention. She's being pretty subdued now , though. Because she feels out of her depth? But Soul doesn't. Hm…

"<OK.>" Soul spoke up, breaking the silence. "<Thank you for all this… exposition. I still have a million questions, but, let's start with the big one: If this multiverse is the dream of a Lovecraftian god-abomination who is eating our souls in order to become sapient enough to wake up, and his waking up erases us from reality… How do we stop that? What's the plan? How do we save the world?>"

"<We do not,>" said Mother Aurora.

Silence reigned once more.

It was a small Alaskan shack. A fifteen-minute walk away from the other nearest habitation, twenty minutes from what could generously be called "the town". Still, as isolated as it was, the Miller family - John, Rose, and both their children - loved that house.

At that moment, however, the person watching TV in that house wasn't one of the Millers. The Millers were all quite dead. Ender hadn't bothered doing anything spectacular with their deaths - it would be inefficient, and he still needed to decide on the best way to spread terror in this world. No, the more spectacular horrors would wait until he had a clearer picture.

Examining the TV set, he tried to figure out which button increased the volume.

Back in Castle Nexus, silence's reign had gone on for a good number of seconds.

That reign was at last brought low by Soul's cogent remark.


"<The end of the multiverse is the long-term goal of He Who Laughs,>" explained Mother Aurora. "<An entity that is virtually omnipotent, close to omniscient, can read your thoughts as easily as you read Japanese, and, existing outside our reality, cannot be hurt. That he will end the multiverse is an inevitability.>"

She paused. "<I will not stand down and calmly watch inevitability unfold. If I cannot stop the end of all worlds, then it is my duty - everyone's duty - to do the next best thing, and fight to delay the end. Every year that He Who Is's awakening is staved off, is another year in which billions, trillions , may live, love, and laugh. Every year we win, is a year we have won for life . All life.>"

Soul's mouth hung open for a moment. "<That's… How can you be talking about slowing him down , while also saying he's pretty much invincible?! In fact… if he's as powerful and unstoppable as you say he is, then why are you still here ?! Couldn't he just kill you off to make his plans go faster?! Hell, why use such an inefficient system anyway - couldn't he go to each world connected to magic, put everyone in a coma, and wake them once they got magic?!>"

"<He certainly could.>"

That gave Soul pause. "<...Then why doesn't he?>"

"<He has no cause,>" answered the Fairy Queen. "<Remember, child, that He Who Is, and probably by extension He Who Laughs, was here for the Big Bang. Every Big Bang. He has existed for billions of years. I do not think he really has a conception of boredom nor impatience, save for what he has observed in others. Whether his plan takes ten days or ten millennia to complete is of little importance to him, so long as it does succeed. Any improvements he makes to the plan, he makes because it amuses him, or fits his sense of aesthetics and humor.>"

"<So…>" Dae-Hyun looked sideways, "<...the effect this plan has on us doesn't actually register with him. You mean that we are irrelevant to He Who Laughs.>"

"<Generally speaking. Humans, and spirits for that matter, only attract his attention when they amuse him. Unfortunately, his sense of humor veers toward sadism. To be ignored is the preferable option.>"

"<I…>" Soul hesitated. "<Go on.>"

Mother Aurora obliged. "<To slow down the approaching doomsday, the use of magic must be curtailed. That, in turn, is best accomplished by allowing the fairy infrastructure to create an embassy in your world, and set up the proper protocols. To do that, however, the Extension must be disposed of.>"

"<...You mean, disposed of without causing it to kill everyone on Earth,>" said Soul.

"<Naturally. If that was not a concern, I would simply force my way in, awakening it in the process. Since we wish to avoid that scenario, we need a more sophisticated approach. This is where you come in, Soul: Through a methodical search of the planet, you can find this abomination, and send it here via a portal. I can then fight and slay the monster, without endangering your people.>" A new hint of steel had crept into the Fairy Queen's voice.

"<So you want me to hunt down the monster so you can… get rid of our biggest strategic disadvantage,>" said Soul. "<All right, I can understand that. But what's with the whole oracle thing?! Why did you ask me to drag Dae-Hyun here?! What did you mean when you called him the Messiah?!>"

If nothing else, that startled Dae-Hyun. "<Wait, what?! I… Um, listen. I'm, uh, I'm very flattered, but I'm not the Messiah. I'm not any kind of messiah. I am completely non -messiah.>"

"<What you mean to say,>" Mother Aurora answered, "<is that you are a morally imperfect human being, with all the flaws and vices that this implies, unexceptional in the cosmic scheme of things.>"

"<Yyyyes. I'm not… I'm not a, well…>"

"<Rest assured, there is no such misunderstanding at work. Your nature is understood. You are not expected to do more, be more, than a mere mortal can accomplish.

But what is a messiah? A savior of souls. One who reaches to others with love, and teaches them to become better. You are already that, Dae-Hyun Pak. You have already made it your calling to see the best in others, and to teach them to see it to, and nurture it. It is that quality that makes you important in the events to come, child.>"

Her eyes glowed again. "<A great philosopher from another world has said that all problems, ultimately, can be broken down to one of two things: Numbers, and emotions. The former type of problem is where Soul excels; her sharp mind and exceptional intellect allow her to resolve them with ease. The second type of problem is your domain. Your empathy, love, and instinctive grasp of the human heart all allow you to understand others, and understand how to make friends out of enemies. In her quest to save the world, Soul will make many enemies indeed; your friendship, your help, shall make a critical difference.>"

Dae-Hyun sat back. OK, I suppose that's somewhat more sensible, but I still think it's insane.

"<OK, I'll… take your word for it,>" said Soul. "<But what about that whole future-seeing thing?>"

"<It is a question of extremely advanced magic, child,>" Aurora replied. "<Since our first encounter, I have been spending the majority of my time on a single, exceptional spell - perhaps the most advanced form of noble magic in History. Its aim was to force events to unfold in a certain direction. To decide the future. To control the causality chain so that the desired end result would be achieved.>"

There was a lot of blinking, perhaps a few open mouths. "<...You can do that?>"

"<It would appear that I can. This sort of spell has never been attempted before. I believe it will work. I have felt my way through the path to victory. But understand:>" Her expression hardened. "<It is a path to victory. Not the quickest one, no; if I could find the quickest path, I would simply send you to the Extension's location and be done with it. It is, however, the surest path to victory.>"

"<I… am unconvinced,>" Soul admitted.

"<That is not a problem. I knew you would be, and that, too, is part of the path.>"

Dae-Hyun took a deep breath. "<You believe you know the future. Is that why I'm here?>"

"<Indeed. The path to victory… The path that will save your world… is a path where you help Soul. Though you are no warrior, your actions will make a key difference at certain junctures.>"

He got up from his chair, pacing for a few seconds as he tried to find the words, before finally facing the Fairy Queen. "<Mother Aurora… I thank you for inviting me here. Just to see all this… It's a privilege. And I'm honored by your, ah, faith in me.>"

He looked down for an instant, before forcing himself to return her gaze. "<But… please understand that I have been raised to believe in certain things. I have a certain… view of the world, which I put my faith in. And what you are describing… is completely incompatible with my worldview.>"

"<That is not an issue,>" she stated with calm certainty. "<Whether or not you personally believe in the erosion of reality or the evil of He Who Laughs is irrelevant, Dae-Hyun Pak. What matters is whether you wish to save the people of this world from the depredations of demons like Downfall and would-be conquerors like the Elysium or the Circle of Wisdom, for that is what you will be assisting Soul with. You may not believe that the multiverse is the cold, uncaring dream of an ancient horror… but you do know that hundreds, thousands of innocents have already died at the hands of cruel invaders.>" Her hand gestured in his direction. "<Save the world, child. Save your people.>"

He was trying to decide on his answer when Soul spoke up: "<Actually, he has a point. I can believe you about the whole spirit thing, but how would you even know about all the rest? All the stuff that happened before you actually existed, or the bit about stuff destroying the multiverse?>"

"<Years of painstaking research,>" answered the Fairy Queen. "<Comparing notes with others. Observing changes in He Who Is. Digging into the Tunnel of Light to sift through his memories. And, of course, the occasional taunting from He Who Laughs.>"

"<Wait, you mean you've met ?>"

"<Many times, each one to my regret.>" The Fairy Queen closed her eyes. "<My history with He Who Laughs is something I would rather not discuss. In fact, I believe I have given you sufficient food for thought for today.>" She turned around. "<I must return to Feyland. There are many, many matters that require my attention.>"

"<Yeah, you probably should check up on the place before Poem runs it into the ground,>" Monsoon said with a chuckle. "<Actually, mind if I hitch a ride? I wanna make sure Giggle hasn't been running my place into the ground. Or at least, that he did it in a fun way.>"

"<You will come,>" Mother Aurora stated simply. "<As for you, children, I recommend that you get to know each other, well and truly. Secrets between yourselves will be a hindrance rather than any help.>"

My name is Pak Dae-Hyun. I'm 14, going on 15. I'm currently standing in the courtyard of a magical castle, next to Soul and some younger girl named Junko. And I just got a big lecture from two fairies who have now portalled away.

It's been a weird day. But that's no reason to be impolite, is it?

"<So, er.>" He gave an awkward smile as he rubbed the back of his head. "<I'm Pak Dae-Hyun, but you already knew that. You two… You're from this world?>"

Soul looked at him, her expression a bit hard to read. Then, rather than answering, she walked toward a short, conspicuous pillar, and touched it.

The change took a very short time, but watching it, it felt longer. Her distinctive white uniform turned into plain, everyday clothes. Her facial features took an entirely different shape. Her hair got shorter, as did the rest of her. It was an awkward-looking young girl - younger than him, he dimly realized - who turned away from the pillar to face him.

"<My name it Watanabe Eriko. Junko is my sister.>" She waved around. "<Welcome to Castle Nexus.>"

"It doesn't fit."

"What now , Douchebaggio? I thought this was stuff you wanted to know."


"Huh? What about the SEIACs?" In her sleep-deprived state, Soul was perhaps not at her best where conversation was concerned. The bags under her eyes did not make for a very threatening picture, either.

"The term 'SEIAC' hadn't appeared in any of your prior conversations; both Aurora and Monsoon simply called them 'Extensions'. Here, they used the word 'SEIAC' instead, with no explanation, and you never questioned it. Implausible."

"...Huh." Soul seemed lost in thought for a moment, then smirked. "Well, I kinda fail to see how that's my problem, considering."

Her gaoler ignored her. "Still, it is interesting to see how your team expanded. The little preacher boy made his first public appearance before your third colleague, though I hadn't until now excluded the possibility that you had met them in a different order."

"You don't seem too concerned about the part where the Pink Bitch in the Sky knows the future . The part where she already knows how she will beat you ."

"Correct. The Fairy Queen's strategy of precognition is hardly foolproof."

"Big talk, Douchebaggio."

Her captor didn't engage in further repartee, and made no further comment on the degrading quality of her artificial flashbacks. But for the next twelve hours, Soul was allowed to sleep, uninterrupted by sudden flashes of light nor blaring of sound.


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