Saga of Soul


"<You did pretty well.>" Hovering a few steps away, Monsoon raised an eyebrow as she gave an appreciative grin. "<Clever, the way you got that construct.>"
"<Ah, thanks. Actually... It was easier this time. It wasn't smart and fast like Murder and Downfall.>"
"<I figure. That thing wasn't designed to fight magicians.>"
It wasn't? No, of course not. It was just an angry animal lashing out at everything in sight. "<Then... What was it designed for?>"
"<It's a terror weapon. Size does matter,>" she grinned, "<it'll make people even more afraid than Murder, even if Murder is actually deadlier.>"
"<But... why? Why would they - whoever they are - want to terrorize Tokyo?>"
"<Well, more than one possible answer to that. Downfall might do it because he's, you know, a demon. The Elysium, if they found this world, could be trying to scare it into submission, or create political instability they can exploit. And it's a big multiverse; there are even more factions around.>"
"<Hold it. 'The Elysium'?>"
"<Oh yeah. Big multiversal empire of the elysians. Keep trying to conquer more worlds. The bosslady's pretty much the single biggest obstacle for their global domination plans.>"
"<...And you didn't think I might want to know something like that why, exactly?>"
"<Well, for starters, it's not like knowing it would make any difference at this point. Second, well... Look, I can see your side, but Aurora's had really, really bad things happen because someone ended up knowing too much. That's kinda influencing a lot of our policies.>"
"<Well gee, that makes me feel so much better! I mean, I'm only risking my life on a regular basis, fighting monsters for people who don't even trust me enough to tell me who I'm fighting! Maybe I just ought to...>"
Eriko's angry rant came to a surprised halt when, without warning, Monsoon floated up to her and hugged her.
"<I'm sorry,>" the fairy's voice sounded a lot less hyper than usual. "<You don't deserve this crap. You're just a kid. The worst of your worries should be friends, romance, school, and all that stuff - not life-threatening battles for the sake of billions of lives. You should be able to do your research, hang out with Junko, and tell your parents the truth.
But... It's a fucked-up multiverse. You get to be the only person who can protect this world. Mother Aurora gets to be the only person who can protect the multiverse. I get to be her right-hand. I don't want this any more than you do. I'd much rather kick back in Feyland and throw parties with my friends than follow Aurora from world to world, helping her protect them from demons, elysians, and the latest human wizard who figured he could take over half his world by nuking the other half.
You don't want this, I don't want this, Mother Aurora doesn't want this. But it's the way things are, and if we don't save the day, no-one else will.>"
Eriko, awkwardly, fumbled with her hands for a while before finally returning the hug. "<Look, I get all that, but...>"
"<...but you're upset about not knowing enough about what's going on, especially when you know we know. I'm sorry. I'll try to convince Aurora to let you in on more info, but you've gotta understand her - she cares more about saving the world than about any single person's convenience.>"
Monsoon finally let go of the hug, looking straight into Eriko's eyes. "<But no matter what happens... Eriko, I want you to know we're really grateful for your help. We couldn't protect the Earth without you. And you did a sweet job today.>"
"<Now, better get back to your room before Junko loses it.>"

"All those things they wouldn't tell you, and you got angry about them not mentioning the Elysium sooner?"
"It was the straw that broke the camel's back. I was getting sick of the whole cryptic business."
"She had probably assumed that, since Mother Aurora had told you about elysians, she had also told you about the Elysium."
"Yeah, that's my guess."
"Quick damage recovery on her part, though."
"Monsoon is good with people. Always been."

If anyone had been looking at Eriko and Junko's room at that moment, he would have seen an anxious Junko sitting at the computer, and a somewhat stiff and expressionless Eriko sitting beside her.
My name is Junko. I'm thirteen-years-old, and I'm trying hard not to be useless. Right now, that involves covering for Eriko. And I gotta admit, the way I'm doing it creeps me out.
Monsoon and Eriko put their heads together recently, and figured they'd need something in case Soul was needed while Eriko was supposed to be somewhere else. Apparently, Monsoon has already had to deal with this kind of problems before, because she already had the solution: An animated doll to which she gave Eriko's shape. This "decoy", like she calls it, is magically designed to move according to someone's thoughts - and I spent several hours learning to control it. It still doesn't look very natural, but I'm trying my best. Still, it's creepy, and if Mrs. Watanabe comes in, the decoy will probably look weird to her. She knows her own daughter, after all.
Aside from the weirdness, it also bothers me that I don't really know what's happening. I wish I could be in the living room, watching the news live with Mrs. Watanabe. Instead, I've got to try to learn what I can on Eriko's computer, so that I can stay in her room and maintain the cover with the decoy. It's the first time I don't get to watch the battle in real-time, and...
A portal opened, and mild-mannered Eriko Watanabe entered the room.
"<Eriko! You... You're OK?>"
"<Yeah. I guess I am, this time.>" She forced an awkward smile. "<What a concept, huh?>"
Junko's response was rushing at Eriko and holding her close.
"<Um... Ah... I'm guessing this is 'have you hugged your magical girl?' day or something?>"
"<Sorry, sorry>" Junko let go. "<So... You beat it?>"
"<Yup. It was easier than the previous fights. I managed to keep it still with one spell, and use another spell like a railgun. The monster's dead.>"
"<Dead? You killed it?>"
"<It wasn't intelligent... Just a big animal.>"
"<OK... But what was it doing in Tokyo?>"
Eriko sighed. "<Not sure. Monsoon says it was a terrorist attack, but she can only guess who's responsible. Could be Downfall, could be someone we haven't heard about... And, remember how Murder is part of a race of spirits called elysians? Well, it turns out they have this big multidimensional empire bent on global domination. Just lovely.>"
"<Uh-huh.>" Junko was left unsure of how to respond. "<...Wanna watch the news with your mom?>"
"<Sure, I guess.>"

"<What a mess.>" Hiromasa looked over the monster's corpse. "<Think they can run an autopsy on this?>"
"<Oh, they will.>" said Hyosuke. "<And whatever happens, they can't just leave it to rot in the middle of the street.>"
"<How are they going to move it? It's a freaking kaiju.>"
"<I'm guessing, several helicopters. They'll also need tons of ice. Hey, what...>"
The aging policeman suddenly noticed a small object flying out of the creature's mouth. Before he could make out its shape, it went up several dozens meters. In the next instant, a gigantic hooded figure appeared in the sky, with bright light emanating from it.
"<What in all the gods...>" Hyosuke instinctively reached for his gun, then remembered he had no bullets left.
A voice then came from the figure, loud enough to be heard hundreds of meters away:
The luminous figure disappeared from the sky. "<What the heck was that about?>" asked Hiromasa.
Hyosuke, grim-faced, was still looking at the sky. "<See, this is why I keep telling you you should learn English.>"

Watching the new turn of events, Mrs. Watanabe had grown a little paler.
"<What was that?>" asked Junko, hesitatingly looking at Eriko. "<That was English, right?>"
"<Yes. It was a message from the 'Circle of Wisdom', whatever that is - and it sounded to me like a declaration of war.>" Looks like I have a few new questions for Monsoon. If she deigns to answer, that is.

"This further complicates the situation," Steel-Sama observed. "That may be good for us."
Harris raised an eyebrow. "How so?"
"A complex situation will likely present more openings. Furthermore, whether or not they genuinely meant it, this Circle of Wisdom claims to value the practical applications of magic. Definitely worth investigating."
"OK. But what did you think about... about the fight?"
"The military managed to cause the creature minor injuries with heavy weaponry that got past its shield, but aiming presented difficulties. Have the right people look into missile systems, helicopter-portable cannons, experimental weaponry, nerve agents, and targeting systems. I want a list of potential investments quickly - there will soon be large amounts of government money invested in weaponry to fight monsters and magicians with.
No less interestingly, Soul is still alive. This supports the immortality hypothesis. She also displayed a modicum of tactical thinking... She's a reasonably intelligent individual, in all likelihood."

"<I'm sorry I can't be home for dinner,>" Mr. Watanabe apologized on the phone, "<but I need to cover this.>"
"<I know, I know.>" His wife was familiar by now with the work schedule of journalists. "<At least the girls were home this time.>"

Some time later, the prime minister's speech began. He displayed somewhat less self-assurance than usual - given the rapid progression of events, he had not had much time to prepare.
"<I would like to begin by thanking the soldiers and policemen who gave their lives in defense of Tokyo and its people. The nation will never forget their sacrifice.
These are difficult, uncertain times. Three times we have been attacked, each strike more devastating than the last. Our enemies are using weapons that we are only beginning to study; they fight with complete disregard for the lives of civilians.
Nevertheless, they can be fought. Preliminary analysis has confirmed that the creature that attacked us today was injured by our military's weapons. We will not stand for these attacks on our people - we will fight tooth and nail against the invaders, pushing them back, and ensuring that the nation is safe again! And, in order to do so more efficiently, a special task force will be established and given the mission of learning as much as possible about our enemies.
Speaking of our enemies. After today's attack, an organization calling itself the Circle of Wisdom claimed responsibility, and declared that they were acting with benign intentions toward the population. Their willingness to kill hundreds of innocent civilians proves that they lie, and I urge our citizens not to put any stock in the Circle's words. They have also claimed to have attempted negotiations with three different governments; if that is true, those governments have kept it a secret. I believe that was, as such, another of the Circle's lies, designed to sow fear and doubt among us. As they will discover, such cheap tricks will not work.
On a different note, it has been observed that in every attack so far, the invaders' efforts were slowed down by the intervention of a third party, who has self-identified as 'Soul'. If this 'Soul' is truly on our side, we urge her to contact us, that we may work together to end this crisis. If not, then let her know that we can deal with her, just as we can deal with every other enemy.>"
"<What the Hell is he talking about?!>" Junko interjected angrily. "<Y... Soul saved the day, each time!>"
"<Not now, Junko.>" Eriko pointed at the TV, as the prime minister's speech continued.
"<Sorry sorry.>" But still. He's making it sound like they did all the work and Eriko just gave a hand or something.

"<You know,>" Eriko observed as the two girls returned to their room, "<I always thought that when the prime minister would mention me, it would be because I won the Nobel Prize or invented FTL travel or something.>"
Junko half-grinned, half-winced. "<He said he wanted you to work with them. What do you think?>"
"<I suppose it would make sense. If I gave the police and the army some hints, they could probably fight Downfall and the others a lot more efficiently. Frankly, that would have been the first thing I'd have done after Downfall, if not... well, if not for Mother Aurora's insistence.>"
"<You think she's wrong?>"
"<I don't know. I'm too new at this. Aurora thinks it's too risky, because then people might learn about magic, and then you could have chaos and disasters, but... The more I think about it, the less it sounds like a good reason.>" She shivered slightly. But then I think back about that anti-matter nightmare. It would really take so little, SO LITTLE to destroy so much...
"<So what are you going to do?>"
"<Talk to Monsoon. Try to get this whole thing straightened out. Ask her who the Hell the Circle of Wisdom is.>" And hope she doesn't evade this time around. "<And I really, really need to figure out a way to get there quicker. It took me way too long just to realize that kaiju was there.>" According to the news, it killed less people than Murder... But I saw the damage. All those buildings destroyed... Like a freaking war-zone. It wouldn't have happened if I had known right away.
"<So... We're going to Castle Nexus?>"
"<Tomorrow. Mom will probably notice if we leave this evening,>" she said as she leaned against the wall, "<and I need to rest and think.>"
As she said that, the blue-tack holding the top of an old poster to the wall finally gave in; the Nikola Tesla poster folded down, covering Eriko's face. Annoyed, she put it back into place as Junko stifled a giggle.
"<I guess I've had this here for a pretty long time. Maybe I should get a new one.>" A realization suddenly dawned on her, and she looked across the room. "<Er... Junko?>"
"<I just noticed... My room is practically the same as before my coma.>"
"<Same posters, same decorations, same everything except the bed and the bare minimum of your things. But... You had this room all to yourself for weeks before I woke up, and it's been several more weeks since that.>"
Junko said nothing.
"<And... Back in your house, your room was, well, you know. Pictures you liked, posters of bands you listened to, cutesy stuff everywhere. How come this place has changed so little?>"
Junko hesitated. "<Well... It's your room...>"
"<No, it's our room. Our as in, both mine and yours. So...?>"
"<Well... Still. I didn't want to mess it up...>"
"Mess it up?" Who are you, and what did you do with Junko? Eriko rubbed her eyes in frustration. "<Well, enough of that excuse. Tomorrow, we're redecorating until at least half the room looks like you live in it, come Hell, high water, or necessary stops by the mall.>" I can't believe I am the one pushing for this kind of stuff now. Talk about messed-up.

"<Boss, if I may ask...>" Masaki said tentatively, "<What's the Circle of Wisdom anyway?>"
Still in a human form, Downfall didn't even bother turning around to face Masaki as he answered. "<Overblown losers. They show up, use their magic to force everyone to kneel before them, and then pretend they're doing people a favor.>"
"<Are they...human?>"
"<Human idiots, but, yes.
Buuut... If they're showing up, things are going to get even more complicated. Soul and Murder are one thing, but this...>" He finally turned his head toward Masaki. "<Well, I don't mind having more idiots to kill, but this probably means we'll need to speed up your initiation.>"
The young delinquent gulped. "<Isn't that... dangerous?>"
Downfall leaned toward him, baring his teeth in a malevolent grin. "<Very dangerous.>"

"Ah, hello to you, my good fellow", said Murder as Dimitry entered the room. "How is your work progressing?"
"I... Well... It's interesting." Dimitry did not feel quite comfortable with that line of questioning. Or the being questioning him, of course. "Actually... One of the higher-ups wants to talk to you."
Murder raised an eyebrow. "Is that so. Well, let it not be said that I turn down potentially interesting conversation. Let them come in as soon as they please."
"Well... They'd rather talk on the phone, actually." Dimitry pointed toward the telephone in the room. He turned on the speaker. "They'll be calling any minute now."
"Ah, I see." Murder's ever-present grin didn't fade. "Very well."

On the other side of the Pacific, Steel-Sama spoke through her computer's microphone. A digitally-altered voice was heard in the Phoenix lab.
"Murder. I have many questions for you."
"I imagine you do," said the elysian. "I do not suppose I could be told who it is that I am speaking to?"
"For the purpose of this conversation, you may refer to me as 'Brown'. Further information may not be divulged at the time, however."
"Hardly fair, if you'll ask me." Murder's grin did not waver. "You get to ask questions, and all I get to do is answer? Hardly fair. No, I'm afraid I must haggle for now."
"What do you want." Even back in the Tokyo office, there was no hint of frustration in Steel's voice. Just a question, stated matter-of-factedly.
"Why, all I want is a fair trade. A question for an answer. It would be quite fair, I believe, for you to answer one question for every question I answer."
"In that case, you will tell us what question you want answered each time. I will ask my question then, and if you answer it to my satisfaction, I will answer yours."
"My, my. I am not certain that this is entirely fair, but, so be it.
First of all, I want to know... what it is that you hope to achieve."
There were two silent seconds before Steel's reply came through. "Acceptable. What is the nature of your powers?"
"Straight to the heart of the matter, I see. My power is magic, Brown - I reach into the will that defines reality, and impose my own on a local scale."
"What is this will that defines reality?"
"Ah-ah-ah, Brown. You need to answer my question first. What is your overall goal here?"
"Power. As much as possible, in all its diverse forms."
"Straightforward. I suppose I can respect that. My next question, incidentally, will be who you truly are."
"To answer your question, then, it is as follows: All of reality, every particle, every bit of space, is part of a larger thought process - the thought process of He Who Is. So who are you then?"
"I am Barbara Parker."
"Not a satisfactory answer. A name out of context doesn't tell me what you are."
"I work for the government of the United States of America."
"Much better. I'll next want to know who is in charge of this operation."
"How does magic work?"
Murder snickered. "You are, truly, a horrible conversationalist. But, to answer your question: Those who are capable of using magic simply focus on their connection to He Who Is, focus on the changes they want made to physical reality, and force it into the framework of He Who Is. The mind makes it real, so to speak."
"I have been put in charge of this operation by the director of the Central Intelligence Agency. What is your next question?"
"Oh, we will get to that later."
"Because I'm enjoying this. Your impatience is more than a little obvious, and I would rather not answer all your questions in one go."
In the Tokyo office, Steel hesitated for a few seconds. "We will speak again very soon, Murder."
"Oh, I'm counting..." Murder didn't have the time to finish before she disconnected.
"Cocky little bastard, if you'll ask me" said Harris. "He's making it more and more obvious that he's toying with us."
"He is." Steel agreed. "But it is possible that he genuinely wanted those questions answered."
"You mean... He's gathering information from his cell?"
"That is not an unreasonable strategy for someone who can open portals through space, and thus evade said cell as soon as is convenient for him. It is very unlikely that he cannot escape. Perhaps asking questions and bargaining is simply done for the sake of his entertainment... But we cannot discount the possibility that he allowed himself to be captured specifically for the purpose of gathering intelligence."
"OK. But about that mystical crap he gave us? He Who Is? Isn't that from the Bible or something?"
"Have it looked into. He could be making it all up. If he isn't, though, then he might just be handing us the key to all the power I will need."

"<All right, maggots!>" Downfall called the gang to attention. "<We've gone over this long enough. It is time for those among you who showed sufficient courage to pass the initiation ceremony.>" The gangsters were simultaneously excited and very, very nervous.
How did I get into this? Masaki was having second thoughts. He doubted he was the only one.
"<I will wait inside the initiation room. Every time I call, an initiate will enter. I will put him at death's door, and he will reach the tunnel of light. Rather than go through, he will stay where he is, and focus on making water appear. After I have decided he has had enough time, I will bring him back to life - and he shall be either a mage, or a corpse.
Greatness or death. All up to you.>"

Harris stood by and watched as Steel-Sama debriefed Dimitry on the phone.
"I'm going to need your full report, Onegin. Any detail could prove invaluable."
"It had better be!" The stress was taking its toll on the Russian scientist. "I feel like I'm locked in a cage with Hannibal Lecter! All day long, he's grinning, always dropping those hints, always suggesting that he's going to kill me. He's driving me nuts!"
"Focus on the task at hand, Onegin."
"Focus? That's what I'm trying to do all day - focus on not screaming and running the hell away from this place!"
"You are a scientist given the opportunity to study a genuine paranormal being. Surely that has some value to you."
"I..." Dimitry paused. "...Yes, that definitely beats designing drugs for gangsters. But it's not worth my life."
"Dimitry Onegin. Once research on these paranormal subjects has been completed to my satisfaction, I will take measures to ensure you and your family can live comfortably in America."
The scientist paused to consider his boss's claim. "...Do I have your word?"
"Yes. This research is that valuable."
"All right... I suppose that will have to be good enough.
Anyway. The medical analysis suggests he's human. Seems Caucasian, as far as I can tell.
The blood tests gave some very strange results. At first, I thought he was completely clean. But after a close enough analysis, it turns out that he has several viruses and bacteria that should be killing him, but... they're not reproducing, or barely so. I don't think he's even contagious."
"What kind of disease are we talking about here?"
"Oh, many different ones. Some are completely unrecognizable. Others are not quite similar to any pathological agents that have been recorded so far, but they share similarities. This is the part that convinced me he's from some kind of parallel Earth... But that's not the weird part. The weird part is that it doesn't seem to hurt him. I mean, in his blood samples, all those pathological agents go wild, and start acting like, well, pathological agents. But he's perfectly healthy. It's like they're unable to hurt him so long as they're in his body."
"I see. Do you have any explanation for that?"
"None whatsoever. I can't even imagine a beginning of an explanation to that under known science. But if you can bottle this thing, then you might have a universal cure!" Dimitry suddenly got excited. "We could save tens of millions of lives with it! Hundreds! This could lead to the greatest medical discovery of all times!"
"Or, in business terms," Harris got thinking, "more money than God."
"Focus on the present." Steel interrupted. "Go on, Onegin."
"Yes, yes. He, he eats and drinks regular food and water, but I've never seen him go to the bathroom. That makes no sense to me, since his weight remains the same, and there's nothing unusual about the chemical composition of his breath - it's like the waste somehow disappears. I was curious about his clothes, to see if there was anything unusual there. He gave me his hat to analyze. It's like the objects in Tokyo - doesn't fit any known manufacturer, doesn't have even microscopic flaws, couldn't have been made with regular techniques despite looking regular to the naked eye. And when I got back to him? He had a new hat on, just like the old one. I checked the video, and the damn thing had appeared out of thin air."
"Matter creation, then?"
"Looks like it. I calculated the energy that would normally be needed for something like that... and it's way beyond that of an A-bomb. Not that there seemed to be any energy discharge or anything - one moment there was no hat, next moment there was. Again, I can't think of any scientific explanation that would make sense."
"Are you saying," said Harris, "that there is no scientific explanation?"
"Of course not!" Dimitry took an offended tone. "I'm saying current science doesn't explain this. Not in any way I can think of. This magic is looking like a completely new thing.
I've tried asking questions, even got further demonstrations of his powers. Not a lot of leads there, though."
"Give me any details regardless," said Steel.

Other gang members apprehensively looked at Masaki's blank face. It had been too much to take in, too fast. The shock when his heart had just stopped, and he lost consciousness... Floating out of his body... Reaching the tunnel of light... Barely mustering the wits to follow Downfall's instruction... Making water appear from nothing... Then, suddenly being back inside his body.
Nine of the gang members had volunteered for this. The only other one among them in the room was Ginjie. Masaki assumed the others were dead.
"<Your initiation is now complete.>" Downfall seemed rather satisfied with himself as he held the golden 'ceremonial dagger'. "<Rejoice, for you are now a step above mankind. You are now mages.>"
"<Unreal.>" Ginjie seemed a notch less shell-shocked than Masaki; he was currently causing drops of water to appear in front of him, letting them fall to the ground.
"<Quite real, to the contrary,>" said the demon. "<As you are reborn... you are in need of new names.>"
"<Names?>" Ginjie looked up from his experiment. "<Whaddaya mean names?>"
"<You are no longer the mere humans you were before. It is fitting that you rename yourselves. You,>" he pointed at Ginjie, "<are now Crimson Rain.>" Ginjie's hand instinctively touched the hair that he kept dyed in red. "<You,>" Downfall pointed at Masaki, "<are Living Curse.>"
"<O...kay.>" Masaki finally spoke. A bit... melodramatic, I guess. The other members seemed to like it, though. Several even cheered.
"<You are the first two, but there will be more. With your new powers, I will lead you from victory to victory; we will exterminate those who stand in our way!>"
"<Oh yeah?>" Ginjie spoke in a tone that Masaki recognized - that was Ginjie being cocky. "<Question, oh great esteemed teacher: We have magic of our own now. Why should we follow you?>"
Downfall didn't say a word. He just flicked his wrist, and sent a stream of fire at Ginjie. Masaki stumbled backward; the other members screamed and pulled back. It was over in an instant, with an unrecognizable charred corpse on the ground.
"<I'm sorry, did you forget? Centuries-old demon.>" Downfall looked around. "<Thankfully, I imagine that will be the last time such an incident occurs.>"
Masaki suspected he was right.

Dimitry was startled by Murder's short laughter. Cautiously, he approached the containment cell.
"Is... is there any problem...?"
"No, not at all. I was simply thinking of an easy-to-manipulate fool I've met once. I must give the slow-witted one some minimal credit for style and humor, though." Murder's head turned to face the scientist. "Did you know that Crimson Rain and Living Curse are the names of two powerful and influential demons, each one leading factions that Endless Ravage would compete with?"
"It would seem that the fool would strive to insult those he cannot attain by associating their names with the dirt... and then pretend to be actually honoring the dirt. Amusing, really."
"I'm sorry... What are you talking about?"
"Oh, do not concern yourself with it."
He's definitely screwing with my head now, Dimitry thought to himself, but I better report this to the boss anyway.

Predictably enough, on the next day, the recent events were on everybody's lips.
"<I saw all the videos of the helicopters carrying it away. It was huge!>" Takato didn't even try to hide his excitement. "<A real kaiju! It was twice the size of a T-rex! And the army shot missiles at it!>"
"<But they still needed Soul to beat it,>" Junko was quick to point out.
"<I told you she was still alive>", Tomo said with a smug air.
"<You bet she is,>" said Junko; "<Soul's always there to save the city in the name of the Moon!>"
"<In the name of Moon?>" the reference easily flew over Gosho's head.
"<Er, yeah. Like Sailor Moon. Um, you know Pretty Cure?>"
"<I don't watch it.>"
"<Engh. Well, you probably should. I mean, with magical girl stuff becoming real, you could probably learn something from those shows!>"
"<I'm not so sure about that,>" Eriko began saying; "<It's not like...>" No, wait. Getting me to watch this stuff is Junko's way of helping me out. I shouldn't diss it in front of her...
Gosho shrugged. "<Well, at least now we know who's behind the attacks...>"
"<What do you mean? We don't know anything about the Circle of Wisdom!>" said Takato. "<Heck, we don't even know if Downfall and Murder are with them!>"
"<It didn't sound that way,>" said Eriko, "<but go figure. I mean, Downfall bragged that he was going to destroy the world, Murder did a big speech without actually explaining what he wanted, the Circle of Wisdom is claiming that they're trying to help... and all three of them killed dozens and dozens of innocent people.>"
"<About that,>" said Takato, "<Do you think they were telling the truth, when they said they'd contacted Earth governments before? I mean, if it's true, that would mean that those governments had been keeping it a secret from us...>"
"<I don't know. I mean...>" Let's see... What could they get from it? "<...Even if it's true, what could they have said? 'Hey everyone, wizards from another world have asked us to surrender to them'? Who would have believed that? When Downfall attacked, you almost couldn't find his pictures outside the Internet. When Murder attacked, plenty of people outside Japan didn't believe he was real. Even now, with the construct, people over the world still find it hard to swallow.>" Granted, skepticism over this stuff is going down every time, but still...
"<Er, I mean, the kaiju.>" Crap. Gotta watch my choice of words. "<Anyway, I'm saying, even if the Circle of Wisdom contacted them, maybe they didn't say anything because they figured nobody would believe them. Or maybe the Circle never contacted them at all, and are just saying otherwise to make themselves look less evil.>" Still, it's a weird strategy they're using. Are they seriously hoping that, if they send enough monsters to attack us, we'll eventually welcome them with open arms? Either their PR needs work, or they have more in store than I can see...
"<Eh, we'll see. Say...>" Tomo abruptly changed the subject, "<did you notice that Seika didn't show up for class today?>"
Uninterested as she was in gossip, Eriko allowed her thoughts to drift back to more interesting matters. They give this big speech about how they're a good thing for us. It seems... naive?
"<Now that you mention it, yes>", said Junko; "<You think she's sick?>"
Granted, they may have a point about magic solving all sorts of problems. For all of Aurora's worries about us blowing ourselves up with it, is it really any different from any other technology? If we could master it, we could cure any disease, solve the food and water shortage...
"<Maybe lovesick>", said Tomo. "<It's because she saw Kazu kissing Akina the other day.>"
We could create a post-scarcity society! That would... Wait, what? Erin focused again on the conversation.
"<For real?>" Junko raised her eyebrows. "<He's been dating Seika for two weeks!>"
"<For real! I saw it myself! She was walking, entered hall B, and bam! There they were, with tongue and everything!>"
"<Wow! What did she do?>"
"<She started yelling at Akina about stealing her boyfriend. Then Kazu laughed, said 'No-one steals me, I just take what I want', and kissed Akina again. Right in front of Seika!>"
"<What a jerk!>" Eriko's face reddened deeply. "<Where is that asshole?!>"
"<Um, I think he was around hall B...>"
"<I need to have some words with him!>" Eriko angrily stormed off, with Junko following her.
"<Eriko? What... What are you doing?>"
"<I'm going to call Kazu on this crap. He can't treat people like that!>"
"<But... I... I don't think it's any of our business...>"
"<Like it was none...>" Like it was none of my business that your father was beating you? "<That doesn't make it OK!>"
"<But...>" Junko stopped in her tracks. Wait. Is Eriko jealous? Is that why she's angry? Or... Is she really just upset because she's a heroine and wants to help people? ...Hey, don't leave me behind! She quickly resumed following her friend.

It did not take them long to find Kazu, who was talking to Akina. "<So, I kicked him around a bit, and then... Oh, hey there, gutsy girl.>"
"<Kazu. Need to talk. Now.>"
"<Talk away.>"
She took a deep breath. "<What the Hell is wrong with you?! Torturing and humiliating Kunio isn't enough to fill your daily dietary needs in evil?! Now you need to do it to your own girlfriend too?!>"
"<Hey, that's...>" Akina began to protest, while Kazu chuckled.
Eriko went on. "<What do you think?! That other people are toys?! Do you get all your kicks from human misery?!>"
With his trademark smug grin, Kazu looked at her and began replying: "<I just do what I want. Simple as that. Anyone doesn't like it, they just...>"
"<Shut. Up.>"
"<Shut up.>"
"<Shuttup. I don't even want to hear it. I don't care if you've just found the best comeback line in the history of the universe. Kazu, you're an asshole, and the world would be a better place if you didn't exist. You need to stop this crap, or else!>"
His grin never wavered. "<Yeah, or else I'll get lectured by a know-it-all eighth grader. What a terrible fate.>"
Akina looked increasingly upset. "<You stay out of our business, you bitch!>"
Eriko ignored her. "<Rot in Hell, Kazu.>" As she turned her back to him, Junko followed her, unsure what to think of the situation.

"I suppose my comments here would be superfluous."
"Rot in Hell, Douchebaggio."

"You don't think we should be asking him about this 'Living Curse' and 'Crimson Rain' business?" asked Harris.
"Negative." Steel prepared to re-establish communication with Murder. "This is not our priority. He may have mentioned it to Onegin to give us useful clues, but he may just as well have been handing us misdirection, or just playing mind games with the only audience available to him. Practical questions remain a priority."

A minute later, Dimitry and Harris stood by as the elysian killer and the human CEO resumed the previous day's discussion.
"Murder. We still have information to exchange."
"Ah, Parker. How I could pretend to have missed your extraordinarily bland prose. Or would you rather I call you Barbara? Brown, perhaps?"
"Call me as you wish. I have more questions I intend to see answered."
"I suppose you could satisfy my own curiosity. You said yesterday you wanted power, but you also claimed to be working for the government of the 'United States of America'. I understand that to be the land you are currently holding me in. But do you seek power for your country... or to serve your own purpose?"
Steel paused for a moment. "Odd question. Regardless of the truth, surely you realize I would need to give you the same answer."
He laughed. "Indeed. Different question, then: What have you figured out so far concerning the factions in this little game?"
She considered for a moment. "Acceptable. My question first: How are magical powers obtained and controlled?"
"Ah, the big one. You're a rather practical-minded one, are you not?"
She made no answer.
"In response to your question, then: Spirits like me don't obtain magic, we possess it from the moment we come into existence. Humans such as Soul, however, can become magicians under rare circumstances: If they reach the Tunnel of Light in the Great Abstract, and come back alive, they keep forevermore a connection to He Who Is that allows them some degree of control over physical reality."
She waited a few seconds for him to say more. Seeing that he didn't, she deigned answer his earlier question: "Concerning the factions at work, we have identified you, Downfall, Soul, and the Circle of Wisdom.
Your own objectives remain unclear. Downfall, who has self-identified as a demon, appears motivated by wanton destruction; reason unknown. Soul, whom you have identified as a human mage, seems to be working to protect the population. As for the Circle of Wisdom, all we have is their public claims, which you saw yourself."
"And is that all you know?"
"We seek to figure out added details, but that is only speculation. For instance, Soul appears to be a novice in combat, albeit possibly immortal, considering the injuries she seems to survive. As for the Circle of Wisdom, their claims could be aimed at damaging trust in existing governments... If so, however, then they are rather clumsy at it. Suspiciously so."
"Well, you've got a few small things wrong, but close enough. My next question is: If you had magical powers... What would you do with them?"
Dimitry and Harris both raised their eyebrows at the question. Steel went on: "How does one reach the Tunnel of Light?"
"By all the planes of reality, you truly are the blandest conversationalist to have ever drawn breath. But, to answer: Get close to death. Real close. Too close for your brain to maintain your mind any further. That generally does the trick, I believe. Of course, that leaves the matter of returning to your own body... Not an easy feat, generally impossible to accomplish without a lot of luck."
"I see. As for myself: If I had the appropriate ability, I would use them to learn the secrets of those over whom we need leverage."
"Straight and to the point as always. I'll try to do the same with my next question then: Barbara... Do you truly believe this little prison can hold me?"
Dimitry gulped. Harris looked surprised. Steel took a few seconds before answering: "In that case, my next question is as follows. You have mentioned the need for near-death in order to reach the Tunnel of Light and obtain magic. What happens to those who fully die, then?"
He laughed. "Their fate? Gone forever. Lost to oblivion. Swallowed, processed, by the Tunnel of Light. Answer my question now."
"It strikes me as very unlikely that this facility can hold you against your will."
"And yet, you hold me here."
"What do you think is going on, Barbara?"
"My next question..."
"Enough of this little game, Barbara. You have precious little left to tell me that I find interesting. What I wanted to know, you have told me.
But I do not think you are a fool, Barbara. Boring, perhaps, but no fool. You know that I could leave at a moment's notice. I am staying here because I need to assess the situation and wait for some other plans of mine to go in motion; I've learned a few useful things during my stay, some of them thanks to you. As such, I've been reigning in my blood-lust, and I will keep reigning it in... for a while", he gave Dimitry a toothy grin; "Alas, I do not find you interesting enough to keep playing games with you. I will, however, throw in this last bit of information, as a reward for playing the game: Soul is not working alone. She is being directed by another spirit known as Mother Aurora, the Fairy Queen - a cosmically-powered regent who seeks to prevent magic from falling into human hands. For now, she needs to use Soul, as fairies are barred from entering this world... but, ultimately, she aims at removing mortal mages such as her from the equation.
And with that, my dear, I believe this conversation to be over."
Steel disconnected. Harris looked at her incredulously. "You're just going to let him say that?"
"At the moment, I have no leverage over him. That may change in the future, but for now, he has more control over the situation than I do."
"All right... What about the things he said then?"
"Worth investigating. Get me all our files on NDE research."

"<...and I guess I'll take that one too>", Junko said as she picked up a poster of her latest favorite idol singer.
Eriko suppressed a wince. OK, so she and I have pretty different tastes in room decoration. Surely she realizes that a few months from now, she won't even care about this singer? Doesn't matter - I insisted that she gets some of her own stuff for our room, and if this is what she wants, so be it. "<OK, I guess that's enough... Unless you have anything else you want?>" She looked over the other nearby shops in the mall.
"<No, I'm good.>"
"<OK then. Time to pay Monsoon a visit.>"

As Eriko and Junko returned to Castle Nexus, they found Monsoon step-dancing to lively music.
"<Oh, hey there! Had a good day?>"
"<I suppose. You?>"
"<Oh, just peachy! I've been trying to learn more about your world's music and dance, and comparing it to that of other worlds. Fun!>"
"<Nice. But if you don't mind...>"
"< have questions you didn't get to ask yesterday?>"
"<All ears, hon. Aaaaaall ears.>" She twirled her finger in the air as she said it, creating a bunny-ears headset on her own head. Junko stifled a giggle.
"<All right then. First of all: Responsibility for the construct attack was claimed by a group calling itself 'the Circle of Wisdom'. Who the heck are these people?>"
"<Ah, them. Yeah. Well, they're this bunch of human wizards who got together, decided that magic gave them the right to rule over everyone else, and started taking over all sorts of worlds. Their little magocracy isn't quite as widespread and powerful as the Elysium, but it's there.>"
"<So... They want mages to rule over society?>"
"<I'm sure it makes sense in their head. It's not so great for the non-mages they end up ruling over, though. They don't like power that they don't hold a monopoly over, so they usually restrict science and technology in the worlds they conquer - the only way to get things done is with magic, and if you want magic, you need to work with the Circle of Wisdom. You get the idea.>"
Holy crap. They do that? That's... vile!
Wait. Am I more upset about them suppressing science and technology than about them oppressing people? That's just not right.
"<The Circle of Wisdom has fought with the bosslady several times>", Monsoon went on. "<She's freed several worlds they tried to conquer, so as you can imagine, they're no big fans of her.>"
"<All right. But why the whole construct thing? And that message? Their strategy seems weird.>"
"<Dunno. There are lots of people in the Circle; maybe the one in charge of this invasion is a weird guy.>"
"<Maybe. But tell me this, Monsoon: What's the long-term plan?>"
"<Beg your pardon?>"
"<You and Aurora keep saying that you're pros at this whole 'save worlds that now have magic' thing. But there's more and more crazies showing up to wreck the place. I need to know what to do with them.>"
"<Oh... Well, it's going to be a little while before we're ready. Mostly, we just need you to hold the fort...>"
"<Sorry, but that won't cut it. You can't just tell me to trust that there's a plan. I can come up with a plan. Mostly, it would involve me going to the authorities, explaining the situation to them, and helping them fight off the enemy forces.>"
"<That would kinda mess with the whole 'keep magic secret for now' part of the main plan.>"
"<Yes, which is the reason I haven't done it yet. But the more time passes, the more it's looking like the thing to do. You know how many people died because of the construct? Any of them might still be alive today if I hadn't been waiting on your mysteeerious masterplan!>"
Monsoon sighed. "<Point taken. Look, Eri...>" she put her hands on Eriko's shoulders, and looked at her with sad eyes; "<I can't tell you everything. It's pretty top-secret. But if I give you some insight into the core part of the plan, can you promise me that you won't do anything rash?>"
"<I... suppose so...>"
"<All right. It's like this... Somewhere on your world, there's an Extension...>"
"<Mother Aurora mentioned that briefly. She said it was a threat to mankind.>"
"<Oh yes. We're talking about a soul-devouring, potentially planet-wrecking eldritch abomination. Bad stuff.>"
"<I don't suppose you're going to tell me what it's supposed to be an extension of.>"
Monsoon smiled. "<Maybe when you're older. Anyway... This extension is more dangerous than all your other potential enemies put together, but so far, it's dormant. Which doesn't mean it's harmless - even in its sleep, it's keeping fairies and fairy magic outside this universe.>"
"<So... It's more powerful than Mother Aurora?>"
"<Same order of magnitude, I'd say. She can kill it, with the right preparations... We've used that strategy to save other worlds: Once the Extension is out of the way, there's no more threat of instant kablooey, and Mother Aurora can show up in person to kick Murder's sorry ass. Or send other fairies if she's busy. And then, the rest of us can show up and help deal with magic, making sure the world stays in one piece.>"
"<All right... So what's keeping Aurora from killing this Extension?>"
"<Well, aside from all the necessary preparations for the fight, there's the matter of finding it. Right now, Mother Aurora is working on something that'll help us with the job; once that's ready, it will be your mission to track down the Extension, and then, it's save-the-world time!
...So you're not going to do anything stupid, are you?>" She gave Eriko puppy-dog eyes.
"<...Fair enough. But I still need to improve my abilities to protect the world from the 'regular' villains.>" I can't believe I'm calling them "regular". "<Not to mention, I need a way to learn about attacks quicker. That construct wouldn't have done most of that damage if I'd been informed of its presence sooner.>"
"<Heh, true. Well, if I'm teaching you the tools of the trade... I was thinking today's lesson would be about magic items.>"
Junko, who had stayed out of the discussion so far, got closer. "<What kind of magic items are we talking about here?>" Anything like those in Sailor Moon? Anything like those in Nanoha? Something completely different?
"<Well, they generally duplicate a spell.>" Monsoon pointed at the transformation pillar. "<Take the pillar, for example. When you activate it, it can cast one of two spells - one to give you the Soul-form, one to give you the Eriko form, as it remembers them. Ultimately, it all comes down to noble magic.
Suppose that I cast a noble spell over an area, so that whenever someone said 'boom', there'd be an explosion. If I said 'boom', well, it would be activated, right?>"
"<Yeeees...>" said Eriko.
"<But it wouldn't last for a very long time. It could work for minutes, hours, days depending on my skill and effort, but eventually, reality would kinda-sorta 'forget' about it, and you could say the trigger word without causing any explosion. Not even a popping balloon.
Magical items are reality's mementos. You attach a noble spell to a physical object, and if you put enough hard work into it, it may last forever! Take my ring, for example," she displayed the golden circle on her finger, "Mother Aurora designed it so that it can send me back to Feyland any time I need it to.>"
"<So how do you make these?>" Eriko looked closely at the ring. "<Will any object do?>"
"<Yeah, but you'd better take something durable. I mean, if you destroy a magical items, the magic tends to fade, since it doesn't consider the remains to be the object it was attached to. Anyway, you pick your object, then use noble magic to make it do what you want under the circumstances you want. Only, you need to force that magic in real good if you want it to become permanent - if you don't take your time, the item will go back to normalcy after a while.>"
"<I see. How powerful are these objects?>"
"<Well, they're casting the same spells as the wizard who made them. So, same power, too.>"
"<Gotcha. But what are the triggers? I mean... when I fought Murder, his knife was able to cut through solid metal. If he did anything to activate it, I didn't see it.>"
"<Well, that spell didn't require a visible activation... Basically, what it said was that whenever the blade got real close to something, that something would split in two, with the two parts going away from the blade. His knife doesn't even touch what it cuts - it gets within a millimeter range or something like that.
But other activations... Well, you can actually get pretty varied here. Mostly, anything that noble magic can recognize can work as a trigger. If you're skilled enough, you can make items that you activate with your thoughts, or those of another mage. Other items are activated with a password - though it's usually best to make it so that it needs to be spoken by the person holding the item,>" she winked mischievously.
"<And the decoy you made for Junko?>"
"<Actually, that one reacts to the electric stimuli in her nervous system...>"
"<Wait, wait,>" said Junko. "<If a magical item can be used by...>"
"< someone who isn't a mage? Well, that depends on the triggers. But don't get carried away, Junko - even if we made you an arsenal of magical weapons, it still wouldn't compare to a mage's versatility. You don't beat guys like Downfall and Murder with just a magic stick.>"
But you might be able to stop a construct, Eriko thought to herself. Especially if you've had military training or something like it. "<So... How long does it take to make a magical item?>"
"<Well, that depends on a lot of factors. Skill, power, experience, the nature of the item, and then of course how much time you spend on it per day. A few weeks of hard work for a mildly useful item sounds reasonable.>"
"<All right. Question, now: How do we apply all this?>"
"<I'm a veteran, you're a genius. I'm sure we can figure out something...>"

Hiromasa sat nervously beside Hyosuke as the chief read their report.
"<This has got to be a joke.>" the chief looked up. "<Lizard DNA? That Godzilla had the DNA of an itty-bitty lizard?!>"
"<Just a preliminary analysis.>" Hyosuke kept his cool. "<They need to examine it further. Regardless, though, we know that creature wasn't working the way known science says it should. Muscle strength, bullet-proof shield, reinforced hide... Magic, or whatever it is that Soul and her enemies use, was clearly involved here.>"
"<Officer Aoyama is correct,>" Hiromasa timidly interjected, "<According to the autopsy, the bullets didn't even touch the monster while it was alive. After it died, though, it...>"
"<I've read the report.>" the chief coldly snapped at him. "<Aoyama, you've stated being directly in the presence of Soul. Did you really learn nothing from that?>"
"<No more than I've mentioned in the report. However, we're investigating this 'Circle of Wisdom' angle. As we've discovered, the creature had interesting marks branded onto its skin. We have linguists trying to identify the language...>"
"<That figures.>" The chief sighed. "<Officer Aoyama... There is a certain problem.>"
"<What problem?>" New events? New information? Political meddling? Media meddling?
"<It's the Diamond Dragons gang. Remember them?>"
"<Small gang of hoodlums and drug-dealers. I arrested their leader and several of his cronies 12 years ago.>" So why the hell are you bringing them up now? Unless...
"<Correct. Well, he got out of jail two years ago. We have reasons to suspect he's getting the gang back together, and dealing illegal substances in their old neighborhood.>"
You really are going to do it, you miserable rat-bastard. Hyosuke's poker-face did not waver. "<Unfortunate, but how is it connected to this incident?>"
"<There... is no connection. However, seeing as you're the man who arrested him the first time, we believe you and your partner would be the ones best suited to handle this.>"
Aaaaand there we go. Hyosuke's face got redder, and his voice slightly coarser, but his expression remained almost the same. "<It would seem to me that our current case is rather more important than anything the Diamond Dragons can do.>"
"<The case isn't being dropped. We're forming a special task force for this - the Prime Minister suggested it, and the NPA* decided it would be for the best. They want Koyama in charge.>"
"<We have been investigating this case since the Downfall incident. Why exactly aren't we on this task force?>" Of course you'd put a guy like Koyama in charge. Good at talking to journalists, good at licking boots, and only does as he's told.
"<We felt it would be for the best. Of course, we're expecting you to give the task force all the information that it'll need...>"
"<Of course.>" Hyosuke got up. "<Good day, sir.>"
Hiromasa quickly followed him. "<Ah... It's not that bad, Hyosuke...>"
"<No, of course not. Everything's perfect.>"
"<I mean... You yourself didn't like it when they assigned you to this case, did you?>"
"<Don't be a fool. They assigned us to the case because nobody wanted to deal with Downfall's mess. Now that they can see these attacks are continuing, that they can see it's actually important, they're keeping us away and busy with some unimportant excuse!>" Typical.
"<Well... As long as the case is solved...>"
"<Because you think Koyama will solve it? That idiot won't go far.>"
Hiromasa went silent.

"<I miss the pointy ears>", Secano said half-to-himself. "<I've had them for, what? 26 years now? Maybe a bit more. I know we can't afford to look non-human while we're hiding here, but...>"
Samsod, busy cleaning a shotgun, said nothing.
"<Well, I suppose it's just a matter of time,>" the elysian went on, "<With the Grand Adviser's strategy, it won't be too long before the Elysium controls this world. Won't that be grand? I might finally earn my exaltation...>"
Samsod, putting the shotgun away, said nothing.
"<I really owe it all to the Grand Adviser. After that disaster at Pittkit, I thought for sure my career was finished. When Grand Adviser Chancell - a Hero to the Elysium three times - asked me to work as his assistant, I couldn't believe it.>"
Samsod, busy cleaning a machine-gun, said nothing.
"<You could say something.>"
"<I don't speak much.>"
"<So I've noticed. Are all thorisons this quiet?>"
"<Right. Samsod... We're going to be working together for a while. It would be better if we knew each other some more.>"
"<I was born on Earth 3. Father was a thorison, like his father before him, and so on for eight generations. I grew up on thorison training camps, and officially became one during my coming-of-age ceremony.>"
"<Right... Earth 3 is where thorisons come from. I heard those coming-of-age ceremonies are deadly?>"
"<About one in eleven survives. Sometimes less. Sometimes more.>"
"<Wow. And you say your family's been doing it for eight generations?>"
"<That's why we're encouraged to father many children.>"
"<Ah. You have any children?>"
"<Six. Maybe seven, one concubine could have been pregnant when I was called on mission.>"
"<Uh-huh. They're going to be thorisons like you?>"
"<The males that survive will.>"
"<I see. Do you...>" Secano struggled for words for a moment. "<Do you like being a thorison?>"
Samsod took a while to answer. "<Do you like being an elysian?>"
"<That's not the same. I'm an elysian by nature, I can't be anything else.>"
"<I've always been a thorison. There's nothing else I can be. We thorisons... have sworn eternal allegiance to the Elysium. Once as a collective, and once individually, when we become thorisons. Our loyalty is infinite.>"
"<So I've heard. What do you think of our mission?>"
"<The Elysium has ordered us to bring this world to its knees. We will bring it to its knees. The Imperial Mastermind Chancell commands, and I'll obey his commands, kill his enemies, and do my duty.>"
"<And speaking of duties... Looks like my break is over. Back to surveillance. Later, Samsod.>"

"Looks like we're finally getting somewhere."
"It's Aurora's plans, wasn't it? You wanted confirmation on them."
"This is useful information. Saving the world by killing the SEIAC... An ambitious plan. Worthy of her, admittedly."
"And what do you want, Douchebaggio?"
"I'm quite ambitious myself."
"No kidding."

*NPA: National Police Agency.

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