Saga of Soul


My name is Downfall, and I am the chosen of Endless Ravage.
I have been entrusted with the role of spearheading Endless Ravage's assault upon this Earth. After all these centuries, it is at last our turn to prove our might against a human world - and of our entire faction, I have been selected to go first and make our mark.
I am here to get Righteous Vengeance upon the humans.
I am here to prove the capability of Endless Ravage.
I am here, last but not least, to prove my own worth as a demon. And to achieve that, it is not enough that I kill humans by the thousands. It is not enough that I become a symbol of terror. No; to truly distinguish myself, I must be magnificent.
I don't have unlimited time. Aside from the plots of other factions (the Fairy Queen in particular), it will not be too long before Endless Ravage sends another demon to do its work here. Then a third. Then a fourth. I must already have accomplished much by the time the reinforcement gets here.
Thankfully, Soul just gave me the answer.
Soul is an interesting one. In a short amount of time, she has become this world's defender and savior. Fighting me to a standstill on our first encounter. Surviving a brush with Murder. Defeating two powerful, rampaging constructs. Stopping that fire. To millions, she is a heroine.
But when I faced her earlier... I could feel it. Her mounting, neurotic self-doubts. Behind that appearance of courage and selflessness, there is a mental fracture - a mind ready to shatter into a million tiny pieces. For all her victories and accomplishments, she is terribly uncertain. She questions herself. And I say, why kill her... when I can break her, then kill her?
This will only take a little bit of preparation, really. I need to study Soul further. I need to understand her self-doubts - enough to shatter her mind, in a big public display. I will let the world see their heroine broken, driven before me... and then promptly executed. It will be... magnificent.
Thankfully, every step in this plan is simple enough to execute for someone in my position. This will take a week at most.

As the group walked toward the hall, one of the Prime Minister's assistants whispered to Secano: "<Are you certain that this is a trap?>"
In full riot armor, Secano could easily pass for a human. "<It reeks of it. Demanding to meet your entire government to negotiate? It's transparent. The Circle of Wisdom does not recognize any government but itself. I'd stake my life that they intend to either capture or eliminate your national leadership in one fell stroke.>"
"<Then why are we going anyway?!>" The assistant hadn't wanted to question the Prime Minister's decision to his face, but his nervousness was now getting the best of him.
Secano sighed. "<Your leader,> he pointed at the statesman at the front of the group, "<has surmised - perhaps correctly - that, given its power, the Circle is just as liable to strike without a proper invitation, and that he may as well see for himself what they want on the off-chance that they might be genuine. Additionally... we are going. Select members of the government are going. The bulk of it will nevertheless be absent from this reunion, and will be able to maintain the war effort should the worst happen. Finally, the Prime Minister seems to consider me a... trump card, shall we say.>"
"<...You do not sound happy about that.>"
"<I am hardly a combatant. I came here to negotiate mutually beneficial deals; I have no wish whatsoever to come face-to-face with one of the Circle's fanatical mass-murderers!>"
The Japanese man blanched. "<You can't fight?>"
"<I can fight. I'm just not inclined to.>"
The assistant muttered to himself gloomily, bemoaning his boss's choice to take such an insane risk. Presumably, the prime minister's unsettling silence was his own way of dealing with nervousness...

Several dozens of political figures, assistants of various sorts, and guards were assembled in the hall, with all eyes on the robed and cowled figure. Many were expecting the prime minister to open the session, but instead, a silent nod signaled for chancellor Fujita to step forward.
"<Friends and esteemed colleagues,>" the senior statesman began, "<As you all know, we are currently in... what may be considered a state of war. Our nation has suffered tragic attacks, two of which have been claimed by the Circle of Wisdom.>" He paused, wiping some sweat from his brow. "<The Circle has now... sent a representative,>" he pointed at the robed mage, "<who claims they seek the establishment of diplomatic channels, and wish to explain their positions before the government of our nation.>"
The assembled politicians seemed both dubious and anxious - hardly a surprise. Just about all of them were questioning their own judgement in answering the call to attend the meeting. Several others had refrained from it. There were hushed whispers across the room, until the mage walked to the podium; Fujita nervously walked away, letting the mage speak:
"<Thank you all for coming.>" The audience hushed as he addressed them in an unidentifiable accent. "<The Circle of Wisdom has glanced upon many worlds, and a far greater number of nations. Thousands of years have taught us the importance - the very vitality - of legitimate government. But,>" he paused dramatically, "<what government is to be considered legitimate?
We have seen many autocracies. One man rules all. Sometimes he comes into power through force, sometimes through heredity. The ways of selecting a dictator are varied, but none of them - not a single one - can prevent a sinner, a thief, a murderer from ascending to the throne. None of them, not a single one, can guarantee that a wise man shall rule. Autocracies are not legitimate.>" A few politicians nodded.
"<We have seen democracies. The people select a ruler, hoping for him to represent their interests. But what do the people actually understand of their own interests?>" A few eyebrows rose. "<Many among the people are wicked. Few are wise. They cannot be expected to choose their leadership wisely. Democracies are not legitimate.>"
Despite their wariness, several of the politicians began protesting, but he ignored them and went on with his voice rising higher: "<Legitimacy can only come from wisdom. And wisdom - true wisdom - comes from the divine. Only those who have touched God, those channeling the power of He Who Is, can legitimately rule. Only they may guide humanity to a Golden Age, safe from disease, from war, and from the depredations of spirits!>"
Much like the mage's speech, the politicians' angry protests were getting louder. He concluded: "<I have demanded an audience with this nation's government - but there is none! No legitimate authority governs this land, merely an assembly of con-men, manipulators and demagogues - just like everywhere else! Thankfully, your people's burden shall now end - the Circle of Wisdom is here to free them from you, and guide them on their true and just path! But before that can happen... all illegitimate authority must first be purged!>"
The guards all had their guns aimed at the mage by that point; when he gestured and unleashed a wave of fire at the very people they were here to protect, they let out a hail of bullets. Their rifles had been hastily procured overnight from the PCTF ("The army needs to run further tests", they had said), and were the same model that had demonstrated some effectiveness against Downfall, but here, they utterly failed to stop the mage. Perhaps more to the point, they could do nothing to stop the fiery blast; it seemed as if it was to incinerate the prime minister and chancellor Fujita where they stood when, unexpectedly, a wall of granite appeared before them and blocked the attack.
The shooting paused as all saw Secano (or rather, someone in riot armor yet oddly unarmed) step toward the mage, his gloves glowing. "<This government is under my protection! Stand down immediately!>"
The mage remained silent for a moment. "<Unexpected. Who are you?>"
"<I...I'm not going to start answering your questions!>"
"<I see. Well, so be it.>"
He then caused a metal ball nearly a meter wide to appear in the air, immediately flinging it at Secano. The latter quickly raised his hands and managed to immobilize the massive projectile an instant before it reached him, then flung it back. It knocked the mage several meters back; an instant later, he opened a portal and escaped.
"<Prime minister! Are you unharmed?>" Secano rushed toward the statesman.
"<I'm fine,>" the latter said, not without some awkwardness. He then walked toward the vacant podium and spoke through the microphone: "<We all need to talk. I owe you all a few explanations. But first, we need to calm down. I'm calling a five minute recess.>"
As he turned and walked out of the hall, several of the assembled politicians objected: "<We're supposed to stay here?!>" "<That demon could come back!>" "<I'm getting out of here while I still can!>" It was Secano, still in armor, who calmed them down by taking his turn at the microphone: "<Ladies and gentlemen, please stay calm. You are not without protection. If need be, I can deal with the Circle of Wisdom's mage again... though I doubt he will return after his defeat.>"

A few minutes later, there was still some tension as the reunion started over.
"<As I have said, I owe you a few explanations...>"
"<Indeed you do!>" said one of the politicians with only partially concealed anger. "<Prime minister, did you know that maniac would attack us?!>"
"<No more than you did. But I believe we all suspected. We all came here anyway, because it seemed worth the risk.>"
"<And what about him?>" A finger was pointed at Secano. "<He's some kind of wizard! What's he supposed to be?>"
A sigh. "<This... is Codename S. As the PCTF has concluded, as seen with Downfall's minions and possibly Soul, it is possible for human beings to master magic. As it happens, I am now launching a new program - the creation of magically-empowered soldiers such as him!>" he pointed at Secano, starting many murmurs. After all, revealing Secano's alien nature right after an alien had almost purged the building with fire probably wouldn't have gone well. There would be time for that later... "<The real name of Codename S, as well as the origins of his powers, are classified for now. This information will be made available to the National Diet in the near future, but today, I was hoping he could protect us from any treachery on the Circle of Wisdom's part.>"
"<Wait, wait. He's a Japanese soldier?>"
Rather than answering, he gave Secano a look, signaling him to advance toward the podium. The armored Elysian addressed the assembly: "<I'm afraid I cannot answer further questions on my identity as a matter of national security.>" He stepped back from the podium.
"<Prime minister, what do you...>"
"<We all came here today,>" he ignored the other speaker, "<to give the Circle of Wisdom a chance to explain itself. To see if there was some tragic misunderstanding at work, if war could still be averted. And I'm certain we all wish it could be. War is Hell. War is destruction, casualties, tragedies. War must always be a last resort. Unfortunately,>" his gaze intensified, "<it has now become all too clear that the Circle will not leave us any other option. So be it then! Japan will not become a conquered nation! I pledge a solemn oath before you all - we will fight back against the invaders, pushing them out of our nation, out of our world! Whether we need to use the weapons of Earth, whether we need to duplicate their own arsenal,>" he pointed at Secano, "<we will overcome any enemy who dares threaten us!>"
Fujita watched as the members of the Diet asked further questions, receiving what few answers could be given for now. An official declaration of war against the Circle of Wisdom, secrecy, a "super-soldier" program... What on Earth are we getting ourselves into?

Being a 7th-grader, Yuta could only be one of the newer members of the go club. His level wasn't anywhere near the club's best players, but he was a fast study - as Eriko had discovered, since she seemed to be playing didactic games with him fairly often since waking up from her coma.
"<I think I'm really getting the hang of this,>" he observed with some enthusiasm after one such game. "<Maybe next time we should play with only six handicap stones?>"
Are you getting better, or am I just getting worse? "<You've got a good memory for josekis,>" she observed while clearing the board, "<but you rely on them too much. Memorizing good moves is essential, but it's not a substitute for thinking things through. There are certain aspects of strategy you need to grasp that could be worth several handicap levels if you really incorporated them.>" For instance, you...
She looked to the side to see the speaker. "<Kunio?>"
The oft-bullied boy looked uncomfortably at the ground. "<Yyyes. Ah, er, am I bothering?>"
He took a deep breath. "<I was wondering if you were free anytime soon... Er, I mean,>" he turned frantic, "<my mom wants to have you over for dinner sometimes, if it's not a bother. You don't have to, but, er, you're invited...>"
Mrs Mizuno? Why would she... Is it because of the Kazu thing? She briefly considered. "<I'll have to check, but I think tomorrow should be fine...>"

"<Ah, Soul! Welcome!>" Hiromasa's cheerful tone and wide smile were somewhat forced; the others merely nodded in acknowledgement as she stepped through the portal and into the PCTF's HQ.
"<Good evening to you all,>" she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide her own nervousness. Aoyama, Koyama, that CIA guy... If I want to get any explanations...
"<You have our gratitude for the assistance with yesterday's crisis,>" Walker quickly preempted everyone else. "<You have saved many lives.>" He didn't even bother to check Koyama's expression.
"<Yes, about that,>" she began. About how you weren't supposed to move in without me to begin with?! Because that was our best shot at stopping Downfall once and for all?! but now he's managed to escape once again because you played cowboys instead of including me like you should have! And besides, I told you specifically that the Soul-signal had to remain in Aoyama's hands! I was highly insistent on that matter! "<I...>" She quickly found the words getting stuck in her throat.
Koyama interrupted the awkward silence. "<Ahem. In light of recent events, we thought it might be best if you talked things over with the PCTF's chief science advisor.>"
That gave her pause. "<Chief science advisor?>"
"<He has certain interesting ideas,>" Koyama went on as he led the way, "<and we want to see if these can help against our enemies...>"
"<The Soul-signal.>" The sentence came as little more than a squeak.
"<The Soul-signal. W-where is it?>" she managed to say, with effort.
"<Right here,>" Hyosuke held the device up. He said no more.
"<...Yyyyes. As I was saying...>" Koyama resisted the urge to grit his teeth as he pushed a door open. "<Professor Maru. Meet... 'Soul', a civilian ally of the PCTF. Soul, meet Professor Maru.>"

"<My apologies if my etiquette is sub-par,>" Professor Maru laughed nervously, "<I'm not entirely sure how one is supposed to address a superhero.>"
"<Ah... Not a problem, sir,>" she replied. Yeah, like I have some clue what I'm doing. Wait, was he joking?
"<I have been studying your... abilities, shall we say, since the original Downfall incident,>" he said with an uneasy smile. "<Putting aside the consideration for security and the safety of the world, I must thank you - as a scientist, you have provided me and many others with some wonderful puzzles. We may end up having to rethink physics from scratch thanks to you!>" Again, he gave that laugh.
"<I imagine, yeah.>" Heck, if you'd seen my notes so far...
"<I've been trying to figure out how you can do all these things,>" he said. "<I've got a few conjectures, though no testable hypothesis yet. If I may bore you with that a bit?>"
"<Well... Sure. Gladly. But please keep in mind that most of what I know - which isn't all that much - is, er, classified. I'm afraid I probably won't be able to confirm or deny much.>"
"<I see.>" If Maru was disappointed, he didn't let it show. "<Well, by this point, I'm virtually positive that you are effectively creating significant amounts of matter ex nihilo. The energy requirements for which, using known methods, ought to be gigantic.>"
"<Equal to mc˛.>"
"<Precisely!>" He held his index finger up, visibly delighted. "<And, seeing what happens when you do manifest energy, I'm not really getting the impression that the objects you create originate from energy-to-matter conversion.>" She nodded, and he went on. "<Early on, I conjectured that you were doing this by forcing virtual particles to become real...>"
"<You can do that?!>" she exclaimed, startled at the idea. Wait, wouldn't that explain everything neatly? Particles flicker in and out of existence, and magic just forces them to stay - that could explain where the matter I create comes from! ...No, wait. I can make matter disappear just fine, like I do with sewage in Castle Nexus. And I can use noble magic to transmute matter. That doesn't really gel with the virtual particles conjecture. Her face fell slightly. "<Actually... No. It's an interesting idea, but I don't think that's how it works - if it did, I...>" She paused. "<Sorry. Never mind. Please go on, sir.>" Bad Eriko! Bad! Get out of "science fangirl" mode, and back to "must keep path to casual WMDs secret" mode!
Maru blinked. "<Ah, well... Another idea I've been toying with - though I'll admit, it's a bit of a long shot - is the idea of re-programmable reality.>" Noting the interest on her expression, he went on: "<Some theoretical physicists have been considering the idea that the world is best viewed as a massive computer program, with matter and energy being information. It's an abstracted view, but, suppose one could 'reprogram' the system - get root access or something. Reality could be rewritten, so to speak.>"
She nodded. That might be it. Common magic would be basic edits, and noble magic... would be "scripts" of some sort? Maybe going through the tunnel of light gives me 'root access' like he's saying. Hm... But if that's true, could one potentially apply more advanced programming? Maybe generate better automation? "<An interesting idea.>"
He smiled. "<Yet another possibility I have considered is that you're forcing thermodynamic miracles.>" He paused for a moment to see if she had questions, then went on: "<At the most basic level, particles behave in a somewhat random manner; the ordered behavior we've come to expect in Newtonian mechanics is simply the result of the law of averages being applied to astronomical numbers of particles. It is possible for objects to appear ex nihilo, or for a burst of kinetic energy coming from nowhere to deflect a projectile - it's just so ludicrously unlikely, it probably wouldn't happen on its own even once in the history of the universe. But perhaps,>" he looked at her intently, "<your powers somehow force the universe to go along that possible path rather than all the others.>"
She considered. Could that be it? I dunno... Some of the things noble magic does require levels of information-processing that I'm not sure this would explain. Or would it? She nodded non-committally. "<Fascinating thoughts, sir.>"
"<One way or another, what you do falls so completely outside the bounds of understood physics, it will pretty much demand a massive revision of our knowledge,>" Maru said smiling widely. "<As you can imagine, I'm rather excited!>"
She smiled weakly. "<I can relate, professor. Unfortunately, I'm afraid I must concern myself with more pragmatic matters first...>"
"<Of course.>" His expression got more serious almost instantly. "<On that note... We have some autopsy results on the creature that was killed yesterday - the one that looked like Downfall.>" Soul's gaze focused. "<Human DNA, looking Japanese. Our leading theory is that Downfall used his abilities to transform the body of one of his henchmen. Does that strike you as possible?>"
She considered for a moment. "<Yes. It's what he claimed he did, along with giving himself a human shape. But what were those weapons you used against him?>"
"<The firearms were a new rifle model, designed to maximize the energy density to impact surface ratio. As per your own suggestions, I believe. The other weapon, called PRISM I think, was basically several industrial lasers put together and attached to a hastily-designed targeting system.>"
"<Lasers. I've... theorized before that they could get past kinetic shields, but I haven't tested it yet...>"
"<I can imagine. Well, the fake Downfall did seem to have a kinetic shield, according to the ballistic lab... but if that shield had any effect on the lasers, then we didn't see it.>"
She nodded. "<Any chance of further weapon developments? I could use more help on the battlefield...>"
She then turned her attention back to Koyama: "<Actually, I've been thinking. Lasers, improved firearms... With the advantage of surprise, it should have given Downfall trouble. But if he already had a body double ready...>"
"<That can mean one of two things,>" said Hyosuke. "<Either this is standard tactics for him, just covering his bases... or he was actually expecting us. What do you think?>"
She paused to consider. "<I... don't really know as much as I wish I did about Downfall and what he's capable of. I suppose it's not impossible he was just being careful. I suppose it's not impossible he's been spying on the PCTF for a while, either.>" She looked around uncomfortably. Hell, he could be watching us right now. I... think I'm going to use several portal jumps to get back home today.

"<I do not approve of this, Monsoon,>" said Mother Aurora, her glow reflecting off the blond fairy's wings. "<If they can capture and incarcerate mages, then they can interrogate them, learn their secrets. Dangerous knowledge could spread.>"
"<At this point, I think that's moot,>" Monsoon replied. "<Keep in mind that this is an Information Age world with seven billion humans, not one of those pre-industrial Earths. Even without accounting for the Circle of Wisdom, or for Downfall's shenanigans, sooner or later someone is going to figure out magic comes from the Tunnel of Light. We just need to make that knowledge moot quickly enough.>"
"<This is not merely about the spread of magic,>" the Fairy Queen countered. "<What if they tell them of our strategy for managing connected worlds? History has shown that humans refuse to take the long view on such matters!>"
"<We can always deny that. And in the short term, we need this. There's too much opposition, showing up too fast. Giving Soul technological assistance from the human side can make a vital difference - heck, those weapons yesterday could have beaten Downfall, if things had gone a little differently. Besides... Soul needs it. I mean, this kind of person needs to do things by the book, which for her means cooperating with the authorities.>"
"<An ironic claim in your case.>"
Monsoon giggled. "<Hey, I've never broken your rules, have I? But more seriously, Soul's on the brink. She's a kid. A stupidly smart and mature kid, but still a kid. The way things are going? She's gonna snap so hard, they'll hear it all the way back to Feyland.>"
"<Your appraisal of her mental health is surprisingly pessimistic.>"
"<Your Majesty, she can't take that much more. Puberty's a stressful enough time as is, especially in her culture. Throw in multiple fights to the death, responsibility for the fate of her world (and she's freakishly responsible), rising levels of self-doubt, having to act against her own personality whenever she withholds information from the police... Yeah, she's headed straight for a mental breakdown. And with all due respect, we can't afford to let her have one right now.>"
"<And so, you desire to throw her a bone, so to speak.>"
"<No. I want to throw her as many bones as we can afford to. She's far more competent than the average novice, and she's been accumulating enough experience for it to make a real difference at this point. If we lose her too early... Well, what happens to your Plan? Can it still work?>"
Mother Aurora considered for a moment. "<In theory yes, though this is admittedly uncharted territory.>" Monsoon began to speak, but the Fairy Queen made a gesture and she fell silent. "<Very well, Monsoon. I will put my trust in your expertise on this matter. But what other 'bones' were you thinking of throwing?>"

"I've hidden a bug in Kisho's coat, and with his cell phone number, he's now trackable. Additionally, I was able to check his call history, which should help identifying his colleagues," Helen explained to the Ghost. "Still, the risk of losing him is there, and we're not 100% certain if he will join up with Downfall again after the recent events."
"So we bring the PCTF in on it," said the Ghost. "They can use this to track Downfall again, and hopefully stage a less clusterfucky assault this time."
"That's one option," she said. "Possibly the best one. But I want you to choose carefully."
"What do you mean?"
"We can tell the PCTF. This would involve admitting the presence on Japanese soil of American agents we hadn't previously told them about, and has a fairly reasonable chance of leading to the end of Downfall's activities. Or, I can try to keep this investigation going without the PCTF, and hopefully learn valuable information about Downfall and magic before arranging for him to be taken out. The second strategy is far more of a gamble, and puts Tokyo at a greater risk, but presents a small chance of concluding with America as the only nation with access to magic - potentially a strategic game-changer."
The Ghost mulled it over for a few seconds. "Even with you, that's an awfully long shot, Barker."
"Yes, I suppose it is. But I felt the possibility had to be brought up."

"<Obviously, in such a large metropolis, people move in and out at a rapid rate all the time. It is difficult to estimate how many recent departures were actually due to the crisis, mister Prime Minister. By our estimations, the Tokyo refugees number between 20,000 and 60,000.>"
"<Even if it's a tiny percentage of the population, it's yet another sign that we need to show them decisive action,>" said the elder statesman. "<Even if the actual creation of our new magical squad will be top-secret, its operations will have to be very public, so as to restore public faith in our ability to protect them.>"
"<If I may suggest,>" Secano pointed out, looking uncomfortably at the select assembly of politicians and generals around him, "<you have to keep in mind that magical warfare involves a very different paradigm from, er, conventional warfare.>"
"<I'm certain you'll indulge us with an explanation of those differences,>" a general said gruffly.
Secano wiped the sweat off his brow. "<Magic... cannot be mass-produced. You can train mages, yes, but it's not as simple as training soldiers. Every battle mage at your disposal is going to be a living weapon capable of fighting a small army, and their numbers will always remain small. This is a situation where every single soldier is a huge strategic resource.>"
"<Then I guess we will make certain to select only the best of the best,>" said the general. He then grinned; "<Of course, Prime Minster, we were going to do that anyway.>"
"<I'm afraid it will take more than just that, general,>" replied the statesman, drawing a few quizzical looks. "<To put this much power in the hands of a single soldier... That's entirely unprecedented. It means that extraordinary measures must be taken to ensure that they cannot be subverted.>"
"<That's precisely what I was trying to say, Prime Minister,>" Secano nodded.
He nodded at Secano and continued: "<Even if a soldier is a true patriot, targeting him personally can be devastating. What happens, for instance, if the Circle of Wisdom kidnaps a soldier's family, if Downfall burns down his hometown? We are going to need to not only create a force of magic-wielding soldiers - we must also ensure their anonymity!>" Before the generals could respond, he continued: "<The identity of every soldier in this program will be one of the best-kept secrets of our nation. I will be expecting your recommendations to be forwarded to me and me alone - do not even discuss them among yourselves.>"

My name is Watanabe Eriko and... I'm kinda at a loss here.
I don't really know Kunio, beyond the fact that he gets bullied by Kazu. I've never met his dad. I've never really interacted with his mom outside of math class. And now, here I am, having dinner with them. They're polite and all, but what am I supposed to do?
"<...and that's the point where Kunio and I both agreed it was a waste of time,>" Mrs. Mizuno finished relating an anecdote that would have been mildly amusing if not for Eriko's awkward feeling. Her expression then got more serious. "<Ahem. All jokes aside... Eriko, you might be wondering why I wanted to have you over.>"
The teenage girl looked up. "<...The thought has crossed my mind, yes.>"
"<There were two reasons. First of all, I wanted to properly express gratitude to you.>"
"<Gratitude?>" What, over the Kazu thing?
"<Yes. We know that Kunio has... problems with some of the delinquents in our school.>" Kunio, for himself, lowered his head, clearly discomforted. "<Unfortunately, there is only so much that can be done. We appreciate that you have been standing up for him.>"
"<Ah...>" Are you actually grateful, or do you just feel obligated to say it? "<...Honestly, I don't think I've been much help at all. Sometimes I even wonder if I've made things worse.>"
The teacher didn't blink. "<That's rather modest of you, Eriko. Nevertheless, we owe you a debt of gratitude- >"
"<Oh come on!>" Eriko surprised everyone, including herself, with the volume of her protest. Crap, I said that out loud? She sighed. "<Mrs. Mizuno... Nobody owes me anything. I don't want anyone to owe me anything.>" Bad enough with Junko, now you guys? "<I don't help people - I don't try to help people - because I want anyone in my debt. I do it because it needs to be done - and I'm not even that good at it.>" Kazu now bullies Kunio specifically to piss me off. Also, Downfall, Murder, the Circle of Wisdom... All of them are still running around.
For a moment, awkward silence reigned at the table. Eriko felt like shrinking to subatomic size. Or teleporting away. I can't believe I mouthed off like that. Just how badly is the stress getting to me? After a few unpleasant seconds, the teacher spoke again:
"<That's a way of seeing things. But as your teacher, there are things I need to do. Such as watching over my students.>" She paused. "<Eriko... You haven't been doing very well since your return from the hospital. Now, obviously, that's understandable to an extent, given what you've been through. However...>" Her gaze turned sideways, "<you have managed to catch up on your studies. Despite that, you look more and more distraught with every passing week. You look exhausted. Depressed. I would have thought things would be fine once you got back into schedule, but it just keeps getting worse.>" She gazed back at her. "<Eriko... Is something wrong?>"
Eriko looked at her wordlessly. Great. Freaking Great. What the hell am I supposed to say now? "I've been fighting a solo war to save mankind from terrors that fight armies"? "I have to deal with the fate of the world hanging on my shoulders"? "I've gotten lethally injured several times, and still need to go out and face monsters"? "I'm running myself ragged trying to save the world while also trying to figure out what the hell is wrong with me, poorly managing relations with fairies and policemen, and freaking out by having sex dreams about a guy I hate"? "I'm trying to come up with an evasive answer without outright lying"? Finally, she sighed and answered: "It's... a lot of things, Mrs. Mizuno. There's the stress from... what happened, but there's more than just that. There's the go club... I don't want to let the team down at the upcoming tournament, but I've fallen behind. There's all the trouble lately with... with the monsters,>" she fumbled with words for a moment, "<it may seem silly to concern myself so much with that, but I've been keeping an eye on the whole thing, and... it keeps me up at night. My parents have even mentioned the possibility of moving, but that's not it... And there are other things beside all that, like... like... like puberty, and...>" she blushed as she stammered that bit, then sighed again. "<I... appreciate your concern, Mrs. Mizuno. But I don't think anyone can help me.>"

Later that evening, while Mrs. Mizuno was giving Mrs. Watanabe a phone call (hardly the first that week), Eriko was making a stop by Castle Nexus.
"<Oh hey there,>" Monsoon waved at her as she turned off the music. "<Wasn't expecting you at this hour.>"
"<I had things to do,>" said Eriko. "<Anyway, I can probably spare half an hour before I get home, so I thought we could work on- >"
"<Ut-ut-ut,>" Monsoon raised her finger to Eriko's lips. "<There's no need for dirty words, missy.>"
"<Ah... What?>"
"<Don't deny it,>" Monsoon waved her finger reproachfully, "<I distinctly heard you say 'work'.>"
Eriko stared at her for a moment. "<And your point is...>"
"<My point is, you're over-worked,>" Monsoon smiled. "<So I'm putting you on a short vacation. Today, tomorrow - no working on new spells. No building magical items. No practicing for combat.>"
"<What?! But I need to be ready- >"
"<Precisely. You need to be ready. And Eri...>" Monsoon put her hands on the girl's shoulders, "<...driving yourself to the point of emotional exhaustion will not make you ready. It'll make you a train wreck. So, both for your sake and the sake of everyone else... you're taking a little break. No negotiations.>"
Eriko stared at her for several seconds, dumbfounded. "<Uh... So what should I do, if, if...>"
"<Here's a thought,>" Monsoon hovered so that she was leaning sideways on Eriko's shoulder. "<How about you do some science experiments?>"
"<Wait, isn't that also work?>" Although... It does sound appealing...
Monsoon giggled. "<Oh, Eri. The things you'll have to learn. Here's a tip: Mental effort gets a lot less taxing if you maintain some variety. Right now, doing science is going to feel like a vacation to you.>"
Eriko considered for a moment. I have been putting my research on the back-burner lately. And I do want to get a few things done. I wonder... "<Monsoon, I wanted to ask you...>"

"<...results match predictions to the extent I can measure them,>" Eriko observed as she excitedly jotted down notes. "<Yet another win for Mendeleev!>"
"<I'll take your word for it,>" said Monsoon, looking slightly bored. "<I've picked up some basic chemistry over the past couple o'centuries, but nothing like this.>"
Eriko remained focused on her experiments. Unbihexium. I'm actually testing the properties of unbihexium. The "magic number" element. Element 92, uranium, is the heaviest you can find on Earth; everything beyond it decays too quickly. By the time they get to element 110, half-life is measured in seconds. They can only make a few atoms of these elements, and they only last a short moment. But this? Element 126, with just the right number of protons and neutrons to land in the "island of stability". Its very existence was hypothetical until now; even the best particle accelerators built to this day can't synthesize its atoms. And now, because I've willed it into existence, I have a handful of this infamous element 126 before me. It's in moments like this that I love magic the most.
Let's see... Phase, density, chemical reactions, melting point, electrical conductivity... and its half-life is about...
Nervously, she shifted her gaze back to Monsoon: "<You're positive you can clean up the radioactivity from my experiments, right?>"
"<Been there, done that, bought the wing accessory.>"

"<...which means that to the very least, 10 million fake yens have come out of that place,>" Hyosuke explained. "<but that's just what we're sure of. It could easily be ten times, a hundred times that much!>"
"<OK, so a lot of money,>" said Walker, "<but that sounds like a job for the regular police, not the PCTF. Why are you so interested in these counterfeiters?>"
"<Didn't we mention this?>" Hyosuke adjusted his glasses in momentary perplexity. "<I had a talk with Soul about it. Remember when Living Curse robbed a bank? Soul herself confirmed that if a mage wanted money and was willing to break the law to get it, then creating fake banknotes would be trivial. And Downfall is recruiting among street gangs. So, it seemed plausible that sooner or later, one mage or another would try to use his powers for a counterfeiting operation. That's why we've been keeping a closer eye than usual on the underworld's cash flow and money laundering. This crime syndicate,>" he stamped his finger on the relevant document, "<has been making huge cash transactions, transferring a lot of banknotes as change to businesses it owns. And it's all pretty rushed, like they suddenly got a counterfeiting operation they weren't expecting to have.>"
"<OK, OK, I get the picture. So no hard proof, but they're acting the way you'd expect them to if a wizard showed up and offered to create money for them.>"
"<Exactly. Meaning, we might be able to track down a mage if we play our cards right.>"
Walker smiled. "<Between this and the Kisho lead, maybe we can finally nail these guys before the end of the week!>" Unstated sentiment: And bounce back from the latest clusterfuck.
"<Although this lead,>" Hiromasa noted coldly, "<was obtained without hiding secrets from our partners.>" Yeah, I'm still pissed that you had an agent working outside of the police framework on this. And that you still won't tell us who he is.
"<Ahem.>" Koyama didn't leave time for an awkward silence to form. "<I appreciate having multiple leads. We need to stop these terrorists as soon as possible.>" Shiina Hiromasa, you idiot. Am I really the only one here who cares about diplomacy?
Hyosuke paid it little mind. "<I want to ensure that we don't mess this one up, so, it's probably best if we discuss this with Soul before launching the operation...>"
"<If you want Soul, you're in luck,>" said an officer who was just entering the room, "<she entered the station just now. Apparently she needed to have a talk with Professor Maru.>"

"<Unbihexium?>" Professor Maru stared, dumbfounded, at the notes the magical girl had handed to him.
"<It wasn't really much harder to create than anything else,>" Soul said. "<Which I guess is another nail in the coffin of the hypothesis that I summon the things I create. This stuff doesn't exist naturally, does it?>"
"<Well,>" he pored closely over the document, "<Maybe in truly minuscule amounts, if a supernova happened just right in order to create it...>" He trailed off, too focused on the text.
Soul looked slightly embarrassed. "<I, ah, probably lack the rigor of a real scientist, and my lab isn't the best around, and science is all about reproducible results, but...>"
"<This is incredible,>" Maru interrupted. Looking up from the notes, he turned back to her. "<It's true, we... need reproducible results. If, if I brought you to a laboratory that studied radioactive materials, could you bring a sample?>"
As they discussed it further, she found herself smiling. Monsoon was right, this is exactly what I needed. Just like when I went into space - one science break, and I feel so much better. Not to mention, making a real, positive contribution. This is major science stuff here, and- 
"<Soul!>" Inspector Aoyama came into the room. "<Good thing you came, I needed to talk to you...>"

"<...according to our sources, this is the apartment where they're holed up,>" Hyosuke explained to her as he pointed at a picture of the apartment. "<The windows are always covered, and they don't seem to go outside much. The Yakuza show up in person to get the money.>"
"<I... see.>" She considered briefly. "<What would you say are the odds that they're actually using magic?>"
"<What, you want me to give you a percentage? I don't know. But it seems suspicious enough that we shouldn't take chances.>"
She nodded. This... this is actually great news! I thought we'd missed our opportunity... Maybe we actually have a chance to catch Downfall now! Heck, I'd settle for the Circle of Wisdom. "<So... What's the plan?>"
"<Actually, we wanted to consult you on that,>" said Walker. "<Last time, Downfall seemed ready for us. What do you think we can reasonably expect here?>"
She paused to think. "<Well... It looks like they want secrecy. So probably nothing blatant. But... Hm. Their biggest worry might actually be scrying, since they wouldn't even know if their secrecy had been breached. Maybe- >"
"<Hold it. Scrying?>"
"<Oh, yeah... You know those portals I use? It's possible to make tiny, pinhole-sized ones and look through them.>" She failed to notice the shifting expressions on the adults as they considered the implications of what she had said. "<If I was in these guys' position, I'd probably want to put countermeasures in place against that. I'm not certain if it's possible to magically make it impossible to open portals somewhere - it probably is - but I'm guessing I could cast a spell that would raise the alarm if it happened. Yeah, that would make sense.>"
"<If you say so,>" said Walker. "<Any other ideas?>"
"<Well... I figure, anyone who goes there should probably have shields. I can shield a person, or two or three, for a few minutes, unless you want me to go alone...>"
"<No, certainly not alone,>" said Koyama. "<Actually, I'm concerned about what happens afterward. Suppose there really is a mage in there; Downfall, one of his cronies, the Circle of Wisdom, whatever. What then? There's probably a fight, maybe he gets killed. What if he gets knocked out, like Queen of Pain? Do you intend to make him disappear, too?>" he eyed her disapprovingly.
Soul looked uncomfortable. "<I'm... trying to figure out a solution for that. I'm not really done, though. I... I promise that if I can get these people in police custody, I will.>" Maybe I can ask Mother Aurora or Monsoon to just hold them in Castle Nexus until we find a solution? "<But until then, what else can be done? You can't really disarm a mage, even one who doesn't know how to open portals. I care about the law too, but right now, your prisons can't hold them.>"
"<Those are still fairly vague promises you're making,>" Walker noted.
She sighed. "<I'm sorry. It's... complicated, and I'm still trying to figure things out myself. I don't want to promise more than I'm positive I can deliver.>" Awkward silence reigned for a moment. "<Soooo, when can we raid this place? Is this evening good?>"

"I recognize where this is going. And I very much doubt it did you much good, considering. Though I find it odd that you were in such a hurry to launch that attack. Not even asking Monsoon for advice?"
"Those looks can't kill me without magic, you realize. Now, were you afraid, presumably like the PCTF, that if you waited any longer they might simply disappear? Were you eager to wash off the bitter taste of the other day by achieving a clear victory together with the PCTF? Were you uncomfortable talking with Monsoon about the topic? Or were you just in a hurry to get things done at an hour when your parents wouldn't be expecting you or Junko to be home?"
"FINE, I don't always make the most intelligent and rational decisions! Now shut! UP!"
"Touchy subject."

"<So the reason our special, shield-piercing guns didn't do nuthin'...>"
"< almost certainly because the Circle's envoy, standing still as he did, had enough time while he was talking to create a second shield surrounding his position. The bullets were already slowed down by the time they reached his personal shield. This tactic cannot be applied in normal combat, since it requires the mage to remain in one spot,>" Secano explained to the military men.
Once they had no further questions, he retired to his assigned quarters. So far so good. If the Grand Adviser's plan works, we can bring this world under control with minimal violence. And the Grand Adviser's plan will work. This, I swear. I cannot afford to waste this chance. Not after, well...
He had gone through twelve more pages of his History book when his cell phone (acquired some time before the current ruse had begun) rang. "<Hello?>"
"<Soul and a policeman with a rifle are right in front of the door. They just rang the bell.>" Even whispered, Samsod's voice remained cool and collected.
Secano's mind raced. No. No, no, no! We can't be discovered now. Wait. What can they discover from the hideout? Some counterfeiting, but the important part isn't there anymore, and Samsod will never talk. Shouldn't be a huge prob- no, wait. These high-tech investigators can find everything from even the least of details. Hair, fingerprints, DNA... documents... I can't just assume we haven't left anything there.
But what to do? I'll ask the Grand Adv- no. No time for that, he's going to be too busy, and this needs to be resolved before they enter the apartment. I'll just... have to make every piece of evidence disappear. It was with a slightly quivering voice that he spoke up: "<Samsod, do not let them into the room. Keep them out, k-kill them if possible, while I erase all the evidence.>"
That going against a mage in such a manner would be suicidal, even for Samsod, went unsaid. Samsod was a thorison; there was no need to say it.

Soul and Hyosuke stood before the door, Hyosuke knocking on it again, ready to barge in if they did not get an answer this time. One magical girl. One policeman, armed with a shield-piercing rifle, and protected with shields of his own. One PRISM positioned on a nearby rooftop, ready to spring into action if a battle spilled into the street. A police cordon outside, diverting the crowd from the street just to be on the safe side. And as per the plan, shortly after Hyosuke had knocked, she had opened a tiny portal to scry inside the room. Since now we're already here, they...
Her eyes went wide at what she saw. "<Aoyama look out!>" she shouted as she opened a portal before them to deflect the attack, an instant before Samsod, standing in front of his side of the door, pulled the trigger on his shotgun.
There was a loud bang, and a pained yelp; an instant later, Soul closed her portal, and opened a different one beneath her and Hyosuke's feet. The two of them fell through, and landed in the street below. She didn't manage a very graceful landing, but Hyosuke seemed worse off, falling to the ground and clearly in great pain.
"<Fucking fuckit fuckity fuck! Bastards broke my leg!>" His pants' left leg, she could now see, had a big red spot.
I guess the portal I opened in front of me wasn't wide enough to completely cover both of us, and one of the shotgun pellets went there. Wait - inspector Aoyama has shields! They can't have faded already! Does that mean... Does that mean that they're using anti-shield weapons?

Secano, with an improvised hood covering his head, portalled inside the apartment.
"<They are- >"
"<I know,>" he cut Samsod off. "<They went to the street outside. Don't give them a moment to breath. Keep the fight away from this building.>"

"<You can't stay here with this injury,>" Soul quickly concluded, opening a portal back to the PCTF HQ.
"<I...>" Hyosuke began to raise his voice in protest, then thought better of it. I can't even stand upright. I'm not going to be of any help here. Groaning in pain, he tried to get up so he could move toward the portal; she preempted him by telekinetically lifting him and gently pushing him through.
She had just closed the portal when she heard the odd sound. Turning around, she saw a cloud of smoke coming out of the ground beneath the apartment, and rising up to cover the building's facade. Then she saw the grenade fly through it in her direction.

In a fight centered on ranged attacks, perception was key. Victory generally went for the first one to see the other. Samsod had been taught that pretty early on. Dropping the smoke bomb through the window (while putting on infrared-vision goggles able to see the human body through the smoke) was simply sensible. Unfortunately, he didn't have enough time for a sniper shot; as such, before he jumped through the 3rd floor's window, he pressed the trigger on his small grenade launcher instead. He heard the explosion before he hit the ground, his permanent holistic shield preventing damage from the fall.

Soul, her uniform damaged and blackened, picked herself up from the ground and stared in shock at the charred spot where she had stood moments earlier. Hoooly... They threw a bomb at me! Good thing it wasn't shield-piercing, I hurt all over anyway, maybe I got first-degree burns from never mind focus don't give them an easy target! Without a word, she propelled herself up in the air, remaining in motion even a dozen meters above the ground. Even if you're a crack shot, I doubt you can hit me when I'm-
Another grenade came out of the smoke. This time, it hit a nearby building.

Samsod knew he was an excellent shot. Still, hitting a flying mage smart enough to keep her distance would be a challenge, even with the assault rifle (as for the shotgun, better not mention it). But one of Soul's objectives seemed to be the protection of bystanders, and even if the street had apparently been preemptively evacuated, could the same have been done with all the buildings? Reinforcing her sense of urgency would incite her to make mistakes.
Samsod also knew that Soul had been using those powerful water blasts lately. So when the flood suddenly came, he wasn't surprised. Hiding underneath the car had been a good call.

Soul looked at the mess below. OK, looks like the stream of high-pressure seawater cleared most of the smoke. But where's the maniac shooting bombs?
...Actually, what kind of foe am I fighting here? A mage? A non-mage with heavy weapons? Could whoever was there have portalled? She franticly turned around, trying to see an enemy about to catch her off-guard. Can't see anyone. That's bad. Keep moving, keep looking - they gotta be somewhere...

Soaked but still combative, Samsod clutched the assault rifle under the damaged car and removed the short-circuited infrared goggles. As a thorison, he had been taught to channel bloodlust and fury into battle... but also how to maintain a calculating focus when needed. And right now, all he needed was for the girl to get close enough for him to tag her with a spray of bullets. With the enchantment on the weapon, they would be going fast enough to pierce even her shields...

Secano tried not to get distracted by the sounds of battle outside. A small part of him hoped he could get Samsod out of it alive, and that Soul would die, but right now he had something more urgent to take care of. Namely, soaking everything in the apartment he didn't need to save in kerosene.

Where are they where are they where are... OK. Eriko, get a hold of yourself. So far, my enemy has only used weapons, so it's probably a non-mage. Meaning, no portals. Could he still be in the apartment? No, I'm almost positive the second bomb came from the ground. So where could he have gone, in all that smoke?
It was then that her eye turned to the cars parked in front of the building. Huh. Could be. But how do I check that without getting in range of the shotgun?

The soldier manning the PRISM observed the scene with a growing sense of frustration. Given the time it took to aim a PRISM, he had known ahead of time that he probably wouldn't be useful in this operation... But so far, he hadn't even seen the enemy! Soul was flying around like a chicken with its head cut off, and... Wait, did she just go through a portal?
"<Excuse me!>" He almost jumped when he realized the magical girl was now flying behind him. "<I think the enemy is hiding under those cars. Can you..>" she paused, clearly uncomfortable with what she was saying, "<...incinerate them?>"

Samsod quickly realized what was happening when the car next to the one hiding him went up in flames, the industrial-powered lasers heating it up until its fuel tank exploded. So much for ambushing the mage. Wordlessly, he clutched his weapons and rolled away from the car, quickly getting back up on his feet. He immediately started running - remaining in place would make him an easy target not just for Soul, but also for that laser platform. Still, he needed to force Soul to get close. Grabbing the grenade launcher, he bombed another nearby building.

Soul briefly considered her foe as he came in the open. A large, long-haired, bearded man carrying two rifles slung over his shoulders, with a bandoleer and some kind of big pistol in hand and Holy crap he jut shot another bomb I gotta stop him!
A portal later, she was thirty meters above him. Another portal later, and a stream of pressurized seawater surged downward right as he was aiming one of his rifles at her.

Samsod let out a short burst of automatic fire, but to no avail - the portal to the ocean was already in place between him and the mage. In an instant, the deluge would strike. The thorison threw himself on the ground, with his assault rifle beneath him, instants before the stream hit.

Soul closed the portal after about ten seconds and looked down at her foe, sprawled on the ground. I didn't kill him, did I?  For a moment, she considered her options. If I get closer to check up on him, he might shoot me; the water washed some of his weapons away, but it looks like he fell on one rifle. Hm...

Samsod ignored the pain. Even with his shields, the water had hit him hard enough to cause damage; he suspected his chin had cracked against the pavement. No matter. His grenade launcher and shotgun had been washed several meters away, but he still had the assault rifle... but rolling on his back and aiming the rifle at Soul, or even getting up, would take too long; her reaction time was good enough that she'd open another portal. But if she landed...
A portal opened a short distance away and swallowed his grenade launcher. Another portal did the same to his shotgun. Then another one opened beneath him...

Soul had landed on a nearby rooftop before disposing of the weapons, and thus didn't need to worry about opening portals and maintaining herself aloft simultaneously. When her foe fell through the portal, she telekinetically held him in such a way that his back was turned toward her. OK, now just to remove his rifle and...
She didn't have the time to proceed as he, fast as a snake, held his rifle with its rear facing away from him and its barrel next to his side, and let out a volley.
Naturally, it was all but impossible for him to aim with any precision in this manner, and even if it hadn't been, it still gave her enough time to open a portal to deflect the bullets. In so doing, though, she dropped him.

Samsod landed on the pavement below. Only two floors... He doubted he had gotten her, but he still had a chance, provided he didn't remain static. Running along the side of the building, he pulled a grenade from his bandoleer...

OK, so apparently he's still ready for more. Soul repressed the urge to rush to the edge of the rooftop to take a look - He might be waiting below to shoot me in the face. Instead, she opened another portal to the deep ocean right above the spot where he had been hovering seconds earlier, spraying another jet of water toward the ground.

Samsod, for himself, had already run several meters away by the time the portal had opened, and managed to avoid the crushing liquid. Counting the seconds as precisely as he could, he threw the grenade up. It exploded at the height of the roof, only a short instant after leaving his hand.
That wouldn't have killed the mage, he knew. But if he was lucky, it might have shocked her enough for the next bit. Not wasting a moment, he began to climb the building's rain gutter. If he reached the roof in time, he might get a shot at her...

ENOUGH. I've had it with this freaking commando. Soul had been far enough from the exploding grenade that its explosion had merely managed to knock her off her feet. Standing up, she used pinhole-sized portals to scry quickly on the situation. It only took her a couple of tries to locate the man. Oh, so this is how you want to play?

Samsod couldn't see it when the larger portal opened a couple meters behind him. Then Soul magically vaporized a piece of his assault rifle's sling, causing the weapon to fall. He looked down, only to see the weapon suddenly be yanked backwards. He looked backwards, only to see Soul telekinetically pulling the rifle through her portal. He reached for one of the remaining grenades in his bandoleer, only to see the portal close. He looked up, only to see an anvil materialize two meters above him. 

Soul heard the loud thud coming from down below. OK, that might have been overkill. I may have crushed his skull, or broken his neck. Carefully, she opened a portal above the street to look down. Wow, he's still getting up after this? Tough guy. Then she saw him, snarling, look at the portal and throw a grenade at it. She closed the portal in time, and the grenade exploded harmlessly in the air. Screw this, and screw you, buddy. I don't have any patience left here.

Samsod hurt all over, but it didn't matter. Right now, nothing existed save killing. He still had a couple of grenades, and if he managed to get close enough...
Then she flew up and above the street. Not hiding anymore, but too high for him to hit her. Once again, he began to run ("never let yourself constitute an easy target", he remembered even now), trying to go around the corner of the building (and then what? Try to ambush her in the unlikely case she followed? Try to get on the roof to take his rifle back?), but he never got that far: A portal opened on the ground in front of him, and he had too much momentum to stop in time. He fell through the portal, passed two meters next to Soul for a brief instant, then fell about ten stories before hitting the ground. He only got back on his feet in time to realize that a blast of white-hot plasma was heading toward him.

Soul looked at the explosion from her attack. Huh. My energy blasts usually don't explode like that... Oh, I get it. The heat must have made his grenades explode.
Amazingly enough, he was still standing... but, moving to get a better angle, she could see her attack hadn't left him unaffected. His clothes had been incinerated, in worse condition than hers; his torso and sides were bleeding (Probably from the combination of the plasma and grenades, she thought); his beard was smoldering, and his hair was on fire. She shuddered slightly at his scream of pain.
Then she realized he wasn't screaming in pain. It was a furious battlecry.

In the throes of berserker rage, Samsod shouted at the mage. His arsenal was gone. He was out in the open. He couldn't rely on backup. At times, a thorison may lose. At no times may a thorison give up. He pulled out his combat knife, and beckoned at her to come and face him. In response, she opened another portal under his feet. This time, he fell on nearby power lines.

Soul watched with horrified fascination as he spasmed for a few moments before finally falling off the power lines and hitting the ground yet again. He didn't seem to be moving.
Then the fireball erupted from the apartment.

Secano breathed a sigh of relief, then realized his hand was shaking. I did it. I've erased every bit of evidence. Even with their technology, there's nothing they can discover from that inferno.
He then considered the situation. Samsod is still there, if he's still alive. But so is Soul. The plan can't be completed without me. If I try to save Samsod, I need to be extremely cautious. He opened a first portal at high altitude, observing the entire area. Here's the burning apartment... Wait, a water jet? Soul. She's trying to put the fire out. Can she... No, it doesn't matter. Anything in there has already been incinerated; all she can do is save the rest of the building. But where is Samsod?

Samsod had never been this badly injured. He had even lost consciousness for a few seconds. But now, he was back to his battle fury. Kill the mage. Win the fight. Battle for duty.
The mage was busy with the fire. Good. That gave him his opening. Operating more on instinct than anything else by this point, he made his way to the fire escape ladder...

Goddammit, did they have a bomb inside or something? Hovering in the air, Soul was spraying massive amounts of water at the inferno. Then she saw something move, and looked up to see her injured opponent lunging at her from the rooftop, screaming, with a knife in hand.
Instinctively, she shifted back a bit. His knife missed her, but his free hand grabbed her ankle. The next moment, they were both rolling on the ground.
How can he still move?! Is he immortal or something?! Seeing him getting up and raising his arm for a stab, she injected as much kinetic energy as she could into his forearm. She heard an unpleasant sound as his arm was broken, and he himself pulled back by it several meters backwards, dropping his knife. In response, he snarled, grabbed his knife with his other hand, and charged at her once more, screaming. She sent another burst of kinetic energy, slamming him against a wall so hard that she once again heard the sound of bones breaking.
She wasn't even sure whether to be impressed anymore when he kept charging. She briefly hit him with another jet of water from the Mariana Trenches. Then she slammed another anvil against him. Causing injury after injury. His movements were getting slower, but every single one of them was still aimed at attacking her.
This is insane! Completely and utterly insane! She looked at the bleeding, broken body still trying to charge. "<Stop it! Stop it before I kill you!>" she shouted.
"<We all die someday!>" he roared back, albeit in his native language rather than Japanese. Right before being hit with another energy blast. At least it cauterized his wounds. Then another kinetic blast, once again getting up.
I don't... I... Why won't he stop? Why won't he stop?! Soul, growing more and more frantic now, propelled another anvil at him. This time, it hit the head. Once again, that crunching sound before he hit the floor.
He didn't get back up. With his obviously broken neck, he had no way to.

Hiromasa ran up to Soul. "<Are you... Are you all right?>"
She didn't answer.
He looked at the man on the pavement. "<Is he...?>"
She hesitated. "<I'm not sure.>"
Warily, Hiromasa got closer to check. "<No pulse. He's dead.>"

"<I was so useless,>" Secano bemoaned. "<I panicked, I got locked into this idea of erasing evidence that probably wasn't even there, I took too much time, and when Samsod was fighting for his life with honor, I was so afraid of Soul doing something that I just stood by and watched until he died. I- >"
"<You are being too harsh on yourself again,>" said Chancel. "<Neither you nor I know for certain if they could have found important evidence in there. A strand of hair for DNA? A document we misplaced? We'll never know for sure, but it could have been a threat to our mission. And you were far more important for the plan than Samsod.>"
"<But... It's only with his help that we were able to- >"
"<Yes. But we would have found another method if not for him. And I chose him precisely for this kind of situation.>"
Secano looked at him, perplexed. "<What do you mean, Grand Adviser?>"
"<Simple: I could have asked for a third elysian, or a human mage. The whole reason I chose a thorison as our third teammate is that some plans require that one sacrifices himself, and I needed one who was both willing and expandable in case such a plan was needed.>"
Secano considered that for a moment. "<But such a plan might still be needed, regardless of what happened today, so...>"
"<It might. I am not saying this is not a loss, Secano. We lost a competent and faithful servant of the Elysium today. Nor am I saying you handled the situation optimally. There were several flaws in your approach, which I will explain in detail. But this is not a disaster, and your mistakes, given you were improvising, were not beyond the pale.
Samsod will receive full honors. And I, for one, will not allow his brave sacrifice to be in vain.>"

Putting out what was left of the fire. Healing what injured she could, including inspector Aoyama. Then returning to Castle Nexus.
"<Oh hey there Eri... Sweet silhouette, what happened to you?!>" Monsoon did a double-take when she saw the sooty magical girl.
Eriko, for herself, remained silent for a few seconds before concluding that no, she didn't want to talk about it right now. Before Monsoon could reach her, she opened another portal. A few moments later, as night fell on a quiet little spot in the hills, Eriko landed there, and dropped to the ground, crying.

"<You guys finally done with the questions? Yes? Good,>" said the gangster who now went by "Crimson Rain". "<The boss said to do what you asked. So what do you guys need done so badly?>"
"<Several things,>" said Steel-Sama over the interphone. Naturally, she did so from her skyscrapper, while Crimson Rain had been placed in a discreet little warehouse provided by the Yakuza. "<For starters, our personnel will want to perform a few experiments. Please use your magic according to their specifications.>"
In reality, of course, that was secondary - the main purpose for bringing Crimson Rain aboard had been to ask him questions. And while he was obviously and unsurprisingly far less well-informed than Murder had been, he was also proving far easier to work with. Easier to recruit, perhaps?
"<Fine, fine,>" he said, "<but I got one question of my own. What exactly does the boss get out of this?>"
"<Logistics and strategic support,>" she answered, "<to complete his plans for Soul.>"
Her work with the magic-wielding mobster finished for now, she turned her attention back to Harris.
"The good news is, they used a PRISM for the operation, and it wasn't useless, so that will help keep us in the loop,>" he said. "<The bad news are, the whole thing fell flat on its face. More questions raised than answered."
"There is still information in here. We need the other pieces to assemble the puzzle," she stated. "There is another matter. Take note. We are going to create a charitable foundation to help victims of supernatural incidents ASAP."
"...You are?"
"It is to receive large amounts of fundings, to the extent that they can be tax-deductible."
"Yeah, sure. But what for? Good PR?"
"There is that. It will improve our situation politically. But that is only a bonus. Mostly, I am hoping to catch Soul's attention."

"Ah, yes. I believe you had never killed anyone before that day, had you? A pity... for a moment there, one could almost believe you were getting a break. Unbihexium, really?"
"Monsoon was probably right to give you that short vacation. But then, they do say that no-one needs a vacation as much as the one who just had one."
"Really, Soul, are you still sore about that? I doubt he would have wanted to go any other way. Or are you sore about the fact that, in your panic, you weren't able to think of all the simple and easy ways of stopping him? Like teleporting him to the sea and waiting for him to tire himself out? Or teleporting him into a jail cell? Or simply breaking both his legs?"
"Go to Hell."
"Get better repartees. Granted, melodrama is more Downfall's thing, isn't it? And he certainly put work into this little bit..."

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