Saga of Soul


My name is Aoyama Hyosuke, and this has not been a good day. Itís not over yet, either.
For the record? Shotgun shrapnel through the leg hurts. Soul fixed that after the fight, so Iím not gonna complain. Iím more upset about this looking more and more like another dead-end.
It really looked like we had our break. Like we were going to crash in, stop some of these jokers, maybe even get some answers. Well, one of them is dead, sure. He wasnít a mage, though, so Iím not sure how big a help that is - can they replace guys like him easily? Donít know. But the place they were at got torched, and the experts who looked at it are almost positive a mage did it and got away. Any evidence we might have found there is lost forever; the Yakuza weíre interrogating are unlikely to have known much. And Soul didnít look good...
The inspector looked up from his coffee mug at Hiromasa. "<Yes?>"
"<The autopsy has some results ready. Very intensive injuries, obviously - they say it's amazing he kept fighting through it all, but they're not convinced that was supernatural. He might have just been that crazy.
Another thing, though - something's off with his body. They think magic was used to make him look Japanese.>"
"<Really.>" Hyosuke looked straight at him. "<What makes them think that?>"
"<Well, his hair was black, but the follicles are blond. And I mean, the hair was really black, not dyed that way.>"
"<This could mean a mage was turning it black, without changing how his body actually worked... So it would gradually grow back into its natural color. This would mean he needed to see a mage regularly.>"
"<Right. Well, they ran a genetic analysis on the guy, they say his genotype isn't Japanese, or even Asian at all. They're saying it looks Scandinavian.>"
"<So, Viking with guns. Lovely.>" Hyosuke paused, then looked at some of the pictures of the battle that had been taken. "<You know... He really looked Japanese. Not Korean or Chinese or Vietnamese or anything like that - those really looked like Japanese traits. Whoever reshaped that guy had an eye for detail...>"
Hiromasa nodded. "<They're interrogating the accomplices. They say they had no idea magic was involved, and thought they were just regular counterfeiters.>" He chuckled; "<They were so desperate to convince us they had nothing to do with the supernatural attacks, they didn't even seem to care they were confessing major fraud. Still... they say there were three guys involved. And from the sound of it...our viking wasn't the brains of this outfit.>"

As the teacher went on about History, Junko cast a worried glance at Eriko. Not good. She's been depressed since yesterday's fight. She won't even talk about it. Was it that hard? Is it because she killed that guy? What should I do? She sighed to herself. Maybe Monsoon can help. At least there's the Kazu thing...I'll have to get it done soon. Eriko really needs a boyfriend.

"<So how was the go club?>"
"<Deplorable,>" said Eriko. "<I haven't played this badly in years.>"
Junko's throat constricted. She opened her mouth, then closed it, deciding that asking again would do no good. "<We're going to Castle Nexus?>"
"<I guess, yeah.>"

The magical girl proved less reticent to talk with Monsoon about her battle - less out of familiarity than because it fell under her duties.
"<Yeah, I've seen the TV footage,>" said Monsoon. "<He was one badass bastard, I'll give him that. No way Downfall got this guy - this here was a man trained to fight mages.>"
"<The Circle of Wisdom?>"
"<That's my first guess. Lots of the big magical organizations get non-mage flunkies - no offense, Junko,>" the fairy smiled mischievously. "<Still, I'm surprised they had one here. Usually, when you invade, you start by bringing in as many mages as you can, then start transporting support personnel. Odd tactical choice, but then again, whoever's running this invasion does seem to be a weirdo.>"
Eriko said nothing.
"<...So what's eating you?>" asked the fairy. "<You look like a cat who just went rafting.>"
That got her a brief chuckle from Eriko, but the latter soon sighed again. "<I ki...I got that man killed.>"
Monsoon hovered to her side. "<I'm probably not gonna be breaking any newsflash when I tell you it was legitimate self-defense. You already know that.>"
"<Yes, but...>" Eriko massaged her brow. "<It wasn't necessary. I didn't have to kill him. I can think of, of, of at least four different ways I could have incapacitated him. He died because I got angry and panicky. I screwed up, Monsoon.>"
"<Kiddo, everyone screws up. Especially under fire. And given that he was willing to blow up the scenery just to get at you, with no regard to civilians...Given he was working for world-conquering, interdimensional fanatics...I'd say nothing of value was lost.>"
"<But that's not true!>" Eriko's burst made Junko flinch. "<We lost knowledge! Now that he's dead, the PCTF can't interrogate him! We can't find out who he was really working for, and what their plans are! We could lose this whole war because I didn't use my head! And it's not like it would have been that hard to capture him, either. I could have made a cage appear around him. I could have broken his legs. I could have kept him falling on and on between two vertical portals. I could have - >"
"<You could have been perfect, stayed cool as ice while a one-man-army was repeatedly trying to kill you with explosives and guns, and figured out the exact best way to deal with a crazy situation in a couple of minutes? Don't make me laugh,>" said Monsoon. "<Well, do, but not like that. For Feyland's sake, Eri - even Mother Aurora makes mistakes, and she's been at this for 43 zillion centuries or something.
And anyway...>" she leaned closer, "< that what really bothers you?>"
Eriko paused. "<Yes. No. It shouldn't be, at least.>"
"<I killed someone. Bad guy or not, an issue. I don't think there's really anything, ah, wrong with being bothered by that.
But I keep thinking we've lost precious information, or how I could have handled it better. And...And I think that bothers me even more. I'm more bothered that I screwed up, that I wasn't smart enough, than I'm bothered about killing a human being.>"
"<So what bothers you is that you're not bothered right?>"
Eriko sighed. "<Not very rational, is it?>"
Monsoon smiled and rolled her eyes, turning her palms upward. "<You and your quirky rationality.>" She hovered a bit to the side. "<Look, Eri... Do you intend to let the people of Earth die?>"
Eriko looked at her with surprise. "<What? No!>"
"<Are you willing to let the people of Earth get enslaved by alien tyrants?>"
"<Of course not!>"
"<Are you going to stop protecting people as Soul when they desperately need you?>"
"<Even if that means going up against the likes of Downfall or constructs?>"
"<I... I'm not going to give up, Monsoon.>"
"<And that,>" the fairy touched her index against Eriko's stomach, "<Means you're a hero and one of the good guys. All else is bookkeeping. You can sweat the small stuff in philosophy class, but, if a guy is being attacked by a demon, he isn't gonna care whether the magical girl saving his life feels guilty for the right or the wrong reasons when she's off-duty.>"
Eriko paused to consider for a moment. "<I'm not entirely convinced it's that simple... but thanks,>" she said, smiling and relaxing a little.
"<Whoa whoa whoa,>" said the fairy, raising her hands. "<Don't thank me yet.>" Her expression then shifted to a mischievous grin. "<Not before I give you a real reason.>" She then quickly hovered to another spot of Castle Nexus, returning with two metallic objects - each one like two half-circles, joined in the middle by some mechanism.
Eriko looked at it quizzically. "<What...>"
"<These are anti-magic manacles.>" Monsoon demonstrated how to close one. "<Slap one of them against a magic-user's limb, and it locks onto it like glue. Almost indestructible, but, the best part? It's enchanted with a noble magic spell that can be summed up as 'the guy imprisoned with this can't access magic'. The ideal tool for capturing mages alive!>"
Eriko touched the device. "<That's... That's great, and I'd hate to look a gift horse in the mouth, but, wouldn't that be really hard to use in a fight? Short of extraordinary dexterity, you'd pretty much need to immobilize the target before using it. Wouldn't it make more sense to make an anti-magic net?>"
"<You'd think so,>" said Monsoon, "<But that rarely works out. The magic needs to properly define the space contained within the net, which tends to mess things up. Plus, even with solidity enchantments, a net is gonna be more fragile than a steel manacle.>"
Junko clapped her hands. "<Well, that's great! That'll help keep the police happy! You can go tell them that you have a way of capturing your enemies alive now!>"
"<Well, not quite yet,>" said her adopted sister. "<I'll need to import the magic first.>"
"<You'll need to what?>"
"<Oh, Monsoon explained that a while back,>" Eriko put the manacle down on a nearby table. "<It's like this: People in different worlds can cast magic, right? And an enchantment is basically a magic spell cast over and over on the same object until the spell becomes a 'permanent memory' of the universe, and keeps working even without a mage to cast it, right?>"
"<But it'll be a memory of the universe where the spell was cast. It isn't part of other universes. So if you bring an enchanted item to a parallel world, it acts like a normal object there.>"
Junko blinked. "<But then... What's the point?>"
Eriko nodded. "<It's possible to make the parallel world access the memories of the first world, so to speak. If you start casting the enchantment on the item in the new world, then magic starts feeling something familiar, and the enchantment works again. That's what importing magic means.>" She paused. "<It takes time, but far less than enchanting the item in the first place.>"
"<And then of course there's the issue of fairy magic not working in your world,>" added Monsoon, "<meaning you won't be able to use most of our magic items outside of Castle Nexus. We've only got a small handful of items enchanted by non-fairies, unfortunately.>"
"<I could probably create some for you once I get the time,>" said Eriko. "<...actually, can't you have your human allies from other worlds help out with that?>"
"<Oh, we do. But even with that, production remains low - most of those willing to help us are more useful on the frontlines of worlds the baddies are invading, so to speak. And even if they don't do that, they tend to use most of their items themselves, anyway.>"
"<Ah. Well...>" The magical girl gazed at the manacle. Then at the fairy. Then at the manacle. Then she bowed. "<Thank you!>"

"So that was her spin?"
"You're not an idiot, Soul. Did you really accept that explanation?"
"If you want to say something, Douchebaggio, say it."
"I will decide on my own time whether it is advisable to disclose any data to you."
"Yeah, I've noticed. Like this creepy voice modulator? It's not like I don't already know who you are, douche."
"Then why am I using an electronic voice modulator?"
"For the same transparently obvious reason you keep the lighting in here so goddamn bright, or keep waking me while I'm sleeping. You just want me to be psychologically fragile in every possible way, don't you? Even stuck here, imprisoned behind steel walls, surrounded by guards, in a portal-proof underground bunker, with my magic turned off, I still scare you. And you know what, Douchebaggio?
You're damn right. You should be scared."
"I was never afraid of you."
"Says the douchebag who's sleep-depriving a prisoner just to be safe."
"You are a lot more loquacious all of a sudden."
"Have it your way."

"...and her idol singer career is doing pretty well,>" said Junko as she and Monsoon listened to the music in one of the castle's room. "<I thought you'd like it.>"
"<I don't come across music I don't like very often,>" Monsoon grinned, "<and I've been collecting it from many different worlds over many different centuries, so believe me, I would know.>" Her expression then grew more serious. "<Junko... I said Eriko needed to work on importing the magic, but that's not the only reason I wanted to come here. I need you to do something.>"
Junko blinked. "<Um, sure thing, Monsoon...>"
"<Not for me. For Eriko.>" The fairy glanced around. "<Her job isn't exactly a piece of cake. And in other shocking news, water is wet.>"
Junko just nodded.
"<Aaaaaand since she's your sister, my friend, and the world's protector, we should probably do a few things for her. Make sure she knows her hero work is appreciated.>"
"<Like what?>"
"<Well, I've got a suggestion or two...>"

"<It is the purpose of society to take care of its own,>" said the Maxcorp spokesman (recently hired among Tokyo's best) to the journalists. "<The government maintains order and builds hospitals. Private insurance companies allow citizens to hedge their bets. But both of these need to calculate the consequences of their actions slowly and carefully. There are many decisions that they simply cannot rush.
The current crisis,>" he paused for effect, "<is happening far too quickly, too unexpectedly. No-one had any way of being prepared for it. The death and destruction caused by the enemies of humanity is an unprecedented type of tragedy. Nobody was ready for giant monsters to rampage through our streets. No-one has bought an insurance against demons.
This is where charity must step in. The purpose of the Ebisu Foundation is to support the victims of the supernatural crisis - both in Japan and outside of it. When existing insurance does not cover them, we will assist with medical expenses, rebuilding ruined businesses, and supporting the families of civilian casualties.>"
"<How will the Ebisu Foundation pay such expenses?>" asked one of the reporters.
"<The initial fundings,>" came the reply, "<is a one billion yen donation from our Maxcorp founders. As you may imagine, though, even this kind of money will not suffice in the face of the destruction we have faced to date. This is why we are counting on additional generosity. Be it from other corporations or private individuals, any form of help will go toward assuaging the pain of the victims...>"

"I've already asked a guy in the IRS," said Helen. "Most of that money is tax-deductible, but not all of it. Not the way Maxcorp already plays tax codes like a fiddle. No, they went beyond that to get a nice, round number with nine zeros behind it."
"So they've done something generous. Why does that make you distrust them already?" said the Ghost. "Not all rich people are assholes."
"All? No. But Maxcorp are. Have you read the files on their CEO? She lives up to her name. That woman has liquid nitrogen for blood. Makes me want to exchange life tips with her."
"You're saying she's a corporate shark."
"Nooo, I'm saying she makes corporate sharks look like baby ducks. She has crime bosses kissing her ring. And no records of her ever donating a single cent to charity."
"Fine, so she probably isn't doing this from the goodness of her heart. This could easily be a PR move. They are in the business of arming the PCTF, after all."
"Even so, they seemed in a pretty big hurry to do it. And a billion yen is, what, 13 million dollars? Maxcorp are filthy rich, but they're not multi-billionaires. They can't throw this kind of money around casually. They thought this was very important and urgent. Need I point out that Miss Steel is a highly intelligent, cool-headed thinker, and very much a control freak?"
"So what do you think this is all about, then?"
"Oh, I intend to find out."
He sighed. "You know, Barker, I could just order you to drop it and stop reading too much into every detail."
"I suppose you could, yes. Or you could also stop arguing for the sake of arguing, since you know we don't have an abundance of options and ought to follow up on what little we find."
"So you realize it's probably a false lead."
"Of course. There could be any number of explanations for this atypical behavior. But it is better to investigate a probable false lead than none at all."

"<Of course, Mr. Downfall,>" said Steel-Sama over the phone. "<This will take less than a week to arrange. No, you do not need to concern yourself with that aspect - if this plan fails, it will not be due to any imperfection on my end. Yes. Yes. I will see about that.>"
Harris looked at her as she eventually turned the phone off. "So... You think it's curtains for Soul?"
"Difficult to predict," she said. "Downfall is not particularly intelligent, but his plan could actually succeed. And even without it, she has no guarantee of surviving any of her fights, near as I can tell. Alternatively, it is entirely possible that he will fail and die by her hand. One way or another, it is important that we extract as much information as possible in the meanwhile."
"Right. Hence Crimson Rain," said Harris, massaging his temple. "I'm not sure about the way you're handling him, though. The 4-star hotel might be a bit much. What if he decides he's had enough of the questions and experiments, and refuses to show up at the warehouse lab?"
"A risk," she admitted. "However, it is clear that Downfall thinks nothing of abusing his minions. By showing Crimson Rain that he is a valued employee, we can play up the contrast without making the sales pitch too transparent."
"At which point, you can have a magician actually working for you. Not the brightest magician, but at least one who won't murder your chief researcher for shits and giggles." Harris rolled his eyes - then quickly stopped and slightly shook his head nervously. "What then? What's the victory condition?"
"Crimson Rain's allegiance might suffice for what I have in mind. It is more likely, however, that we will need to move into the production of mages. But now, however, we are starting to understand the process." She gazed at Harris. "Keep working the hospital angle. I want all the names ASAP."

"Score one for electronic espionage," said Walker. "The bad news is, Kisho isn't going back to Downfall's gang. Guess seeing that battle on the news scared him. The good news is, he did call some of them. So now we know their numbers, and we've tracked down their cell phones, and we once again know where the bastards are hiding. A disaffected warehouse by the docks."
"So the PCTF can try another raid," said the Ghost. "Hopefully a better-planned one. What do we know about this warehouse? What, did they just waltz into some abandoned place? Who owns it?"
"Police records show that it belongs to a small shipping company that has been de facto out of business for years. It's a Yakuza-owned business, but small gangs have been involved with it at times - some of the detectives suspect it has been used for smuggling and drugs."
"So one of Downfall's cronies could have been there in the past, or heard about it from an acquaintance," Helen followed on that line of thought. "So, what exactly are the PCTF planning for the raid? High-yield missiles?"

"<...thus allowing the PCTF to track their cell phones through their GPS, Prime Minister," Koyama explained on the phone. He was trying hard not to let his nervousness (and excitement) over addressing him show.
"<Impressive. Well-done, director Koyama,>" said the politician without tearing his gaze away from the documents over his desk. "<Information technology is truly one of the great game-changers. Did you know, director,>" his tone changed slightly, "<why none of the ancient empires have ever achieved world domination?>"
"<N-no sir.>"
"<Size and delays. If an empire is large enough, powerful enough, and its neighbors fail to ally against it, then it can raise armies sufficient to crush any of them individually. Give a generation or two to assimilate their cultures and rebuild, and the next neighbor can be conquered in the same manner. Sometimes, it even takes far less time. If it were only that, the Earth would have been united under the banner of a single nation millennia ago.
But it is not only that. Once a nation is conquered, it must be administered. Armies need to move across territory. And just how effectively can a central government rule a province, when any exchange of information between them requires weeks of horse riding? Had the telegraph been invented, the Roman empire might have lasted far longer.
But,>" he let out a weary chuckle, "<I suppose I am boring you with my talks of political theory.>"
"<Not at all, sir.>"
"<All I meant to say is that electronic warfare is an important tool that you are wise to use. Keep going, and inform me of all recent developments, director Koyama.>"
"<Of course, sir!>"
As the conversation ended, he focused his full attention on the documents again. Suggestions from the generals. Candidates for the super-soldier program. Detailed psychological profiles.
"<Dear, do you have a moment?>"
He looked up. "<What is it, Kikuyo?>"
Kikuyo shuffled by the doorway. When her husband had become prime minister, she had been prouder of him than she could properly express... and concerned about the strain she feared it would put on their marriage. The strain had come, inevitably, but she felt they had been dealing with it properly.
Until Downfall. Until the monsters. Now... especially lately... things were no longer the same.
"<Norio and Ran have set the date,>" she explained. "<It will be exactly two months from now.>"
"<That is good.>"
"<Good? That's all you have to say?>" She sighed. "<Our relatives and Ran's will be coming from all over the place, and I'm hoping not to have the media around, but we need to arrange our own schedule to attend...>"
He flipped a document. "<I'm afraid I can make no promise about that. The next two months are promising to be very busy.>"
She blinked. "<Your own son is getting married, and you can't get a free day two months in advance?>"
"<I will try, but as I said, I can make no pro- >"
"<This is no minor family meeting! This is the most important day in the life of the person most important to us! How can you even... What happened to you, Akira?>"
He gave her a weary look. "<My country got invaded.>"

"<FASTER!>" Downfall bellowed as he threw another weight at Masaki, who barely managed to fly away in time. The weight hit one of the warehouse's inner walls. "<You're going to have to dodge better than this if you want to survive in a fight!>"
"<I'm trying! I'm trying!>" the delinquent whimpered as he barely dodged yet another attack.
The other Black Skulls, wisely, stuck to other areas during those training sessions. "<Man, they're getting loud. You guys are sure about not watching it?>"
"<Lemme put it to you this way: Do you think Downfall will care about collateral damage?>"
"<...Point taken.>"
Their musings were interrupted by a knock on the door. Suspiciously, they shot glances at each other - was anyone supposed to be out? Then one of them, one hand holding a knife in his pocket, opened the door.
What appeared to be a homeless man was standing on the other side. "<Hey guys,>" he said as he stepped through the doorway, "<mind if I come in?>"
The gangsters looked at him with befuddlement. Then hostility. "<Who the fuck are you?!>" "<What the fuck are you doing here?!>"
"<Close the door,>" he replied, his expression suddenly turning dead serious, "<I need to talk to Downfall.>"

"<And you say they already have this place surrounded,>" said Downfall after hearing their guest's message.
"<Correct. It's your cell phones - they can track them down and listen to your conversations. I've brought these new ones that they don't know about - use only them to communicate with the boss from now on. We also have a new hideout you can move to. However... It would be for the best if the PCTF didn't realize how good an access we have to their information...>"

"<And this will cancel a mage's powers? Seriously?>" Koyama appeared suspicious.
"<I'm almost certain of it, yes,>" said Soul as she presented the first anti-magic manacle to the PCTF. "<This will hopefully allow for our enemies to be caught alive, tried, the whole deal.>"
"<I... hope so,>" he said. "<Are you going to hand it to us then?>"
She winced. "<With all due respect, director Koyama, I think I'm going to be in a better position than anyone else to put this manacle on them. Once I do so, however, they're all yours.>" She checked her watch. "<Sorry to cut this meeting short, but I have something else I'm almost late for...>"

At the radioactive material laboratory, over two dozen scientists - most of them physicists, but also several prominent figures in chemistry - watched as the magical girl participated in the experiment.
"<This is... about as unconventional as it gets,>" one of them whispered to his neighbor. "<How are we going to publish this?>"
"<With great enthusiasm tempered by even greater caution, of course.>"
"<I mean... There's so much here that's terra incognita! If we accept that she can do this sort of things, then why do we accept that she's not just messing with our instruments somehow? It's no more far-fetched!>"
"<Simple: We don't accept it. Yet. We record the data meticulously. We theorize on what it could mean. When doing so becomes possible, we test the crap out of everything and try to falsify every hypothesis. You know, the scientific method. If we can deal with Descartes' demon, we can deal with a magical girl.>"
"<You missed out on a career in comedy edutainment.>"
"<I know, right?>"
Unaware of the whispers, Soul focused on the experience, generating small amounts of unbihexium. I'm doing this. I'm really doing this. I'm working with real scientists on real science. OK, sure, it's because of my powers rather than because I'm some kind of genius or anything, but who cares? It's science!
Professor Maru watched with wonder and excitement as his colleagues handled the actual experimentation, precise tools manipulating the extraordinary chemical. Honest-to-goodness unbihexium. In my own lifetime, no less. Life sure has ways of surprising you. He became dimly aware of the wide grin on his face. Heh. I wonder if this will earn me the respect of the scientific community, or permanently brand me as a freak.
Another hour of experimentation passed. "<The weight is roughly as...>" †"<This confirms my paper's predictions on its conductivity...>" †"<What do you think caused the...>" †"<I'm still pretty sure this means it belongs to a new valence block...>"
"<Um, excuse me?>" Soul addressed Professor Maru, who turned his attention away from one of the discussions. "<What's valence?>"
He blinked. "<Ah, right... I suppose you haven't studied chemistry formally, have you?>"

"<I swear, you guys have the weirdest requests,>" said the so-called Crimson Rain. "<Fixing broken stuff... Resurrecting rats... Resurrecting incinerated rats... Pulling souls out of people's bodies... Y'know, I think magic's more of a fireball and chi attacks thing.>"
"<Well, you did manage some of these,>" said one of the experimenters. "<Though restoring information that has been lost to entropy appears to be somewhat problematic.>"
"<Whatever. What do you want to do today?>"
"<We were actually hoping to study magic's potential for long-range detection... as well as your portals.>"
"<I toldja, I don't know how to do those yet!>"
"<Then this could be a good time to start, no?>"

"Portals? Why portals? They may be useful, but I fail to see how they're relevant to..." Katsutoshi trailed off.
"We already know portals affect space. I intend to see if they have any effect on time. Conventional science suggests that they should," his mother explained.
Katsutoshi sighed. "This is ridiculous. You've read the experimental reports. Even if you use magic to destroy armies, control governments and cure all diseases... You're still grasping at straws."
"You are making a multitude of baseless assumptions despite a severe lack of data," she replied. "Magic is a new field that we are only starting to explore. The possibilities are vast, and will require creativity to fully explore. Furthermore," she added, "experiments have already confirmed magic's ability to rejuvenate the body. To the very least, this removes the constraint of a conventional human life expectancy."
"Joy," he muttered.
"Finally, do not underestimate the worth of conventional power and influence. Whoever ends up controlling magic will find it almost trivial to control the world, provided the bare minimum of competence."

"<Eri! Great to see you again!>" said Tomo as Junko led her sister to the meeting room of the Soul Fan Club.
"<I can't stay all that long,>" Eriko admitted, "<I can't skip the go club today.>" Gotta prepare for the tournament, and the way things have been going, I'm not sure I'll be our team's second player. Heck, I'm not sure I'll be on the team at all if I can't get my game back into shape. ...Actually, I'm wondering if I should be wasting time on go to begin with when there's a war on. But... Monsoon says I need breaks. And I think she's very, very right.
"<You can run there in a few minutes,>" said Junko. "<There's this amazing video I wanted you to see.>" I hope Monsoon is right...
"<Sure... What is it?>"
"<Take your seats,>" said Junko as she accessed the video online.
Eriko pondered briefly why Junko seemed so eager as a song began to play in the background...
"<I met my wife four years ago. I quickly fell in love with the way she laughs, with her sunny disposition and kind spirit. She made me happier than I'd ever realized was possible, and I knew there was no-one else I'd rather spend my life with. We'd only been married for five weeks when it happened. I heard on the news about some unexplained disaster in the neighborhood she works in. I got scared, and I called her. She told me about the demon, about Downfall killing everyone, how she had thought for sure she would die. She didn't know at the time what had stopped him. Then we learned about the magical girl who had come to everyone's rescue. The woman I love would be dead if not for you. Thank you, Soul.>"
"<I was on my way to the bank when Murder showed up. We had no idea what was going on. Then he started killing everyone. There was blood, and screaming, and we were all too terrified to think straight. I just ran, and ran, and felt the blade go through my back. The last thing I remember thinking was how much losing her dad like this would hurt my daughter. I woke up in the hospital, but the ambulance could never have gotten there in time if you hadn't shown up to drive him away. I've made a full recovery, and next week I'm organizing my daughter's 8th birthday. Thank you, Soul.>"
Eriko gazed curiously at the recordings. I've seen testimonials of people who've seen Soul before. Someone's actually bothered to make a thank-you vid? Her gaze intensified as the video went on.
"...We'd bought the house less than a year ago. We're still paying the mortage. If it weren't for you, my family and I would be homeless. Thank you, Soul."
"< friend's life. Thank you, Soul.>"
"<...stopped the monster...>"
"<...saved me from...>"
"< brother...>"
"< children...>"
"<...Thank you...>"
"<...Thank you...>"
"<...Thank you, Soul.>"
Eriko had lost track of time by the end of the video, after nearly twenty different interviewees had said their piece.
"<Cool, huh?>" said Junko. "<And that's just a small part of it. There are so many people out there that Soul has helped, and since they can't thank her in person, they're hoping that, somewhere out there, this video will reach her, and she'll know how grateful they are.>"
"<Yeah,>" said Tomo, "<it's... Eri? Are you OK?>"
"<I... I'm fine," said Eriko, her voice breaking slightly. "<I, I just have to run. Gonna be late for the go club. But, uh... Thanks.>"
As she moved out, she felt some surprise when she wiped away some small tears. That's right. What I did helped. I've made mistakes, I've suffered defeats, I haven't always been there when people needed me... but for these people, I made a difference. I got this much right, at least.

"<You're sure she's OK?>" asked Tomo.
"<With Eriko, I'm never sure of anything,>" said Junko with a sigh.
"<Really? She doesn't seem like an unpredictable kind of person to me.>"
Junko chuckled bitterly to herself. "<You'd think so. Still, I think she's OK... I figured she needed to be cheered up a bit.>"
"<And this was the way?>" Tomo raised her eyebrows.
"<...She's a huge fan of Soul,>" Junko improvised. "<Still, like I said, she needs cheering up...>"
"<...and getting her a cool boyfriend is just the trick, hm?>"
She smiled. "<That's the spirit! Do you think we can get her and Kazu together by now?>"
"<He's already flirting with her. She just needs to go from tsuntsun to deredere long enough for him to ask her out.>"
"<...OK, but how do we make that happen?>"

"<Hey, Kazu?>"
He turned his attention toward Junko. "<What's the matter?>"
She took a deep breath. "<Look... I need your help.>"
He raised an eyebrow with amusement. "<Oh? With what, pipsqueak?>"
"<It's Eriko. She's been... She's been kinda depressed lately. Tons of stress.>"
"<See, that's why I don't take studies too seriously. Saves me the ulcers.>"
"<...Right. But, seriously, she's making herself miserable.>"
"<Shame. How am I supposed to break her spirit if she's already doing it to herself?>"
"<Uh-huh. What I'm saying is... I need you to cheer her up.>"
He laughed out loud. "<So, let me get this straight. You want me to go and cheer up the person who calls me a human-shaped pile of crap?>"
"<Yes! That's exactly what I want!>"
"<And I give a damn becauuuuse...?>"
"<Because you're the only one who can do it!>" she flailed her arms dramatically. "<Kazu, my attempts to help her out suck! I don't understand Eriko - I'm not sure anyone does, except maybe you! You're the one who always knows what to say, so please, say what it takes to make her happy this once!>"
He chuckled. "<And I guess in this fantasy of yours, I ride in like a knight in shining armor to save her from the dragons of stress and sadness, sweeping the nerdy damsel off her feet?>"
She blushed. "<Ah, well...>"
"<You and that friend of yours have been trying to get me and gutsy-girl together for weeks,>" he observed mockingly. "<You want me to play the bad boy boyfriend, and her to play the tsundere girlfriend. And I'm gonna guess she didn't put you up to this any more than I did, hm?>"
Junko paled slightly. Oh crap oh crap oh crap oh crap...
"<Sure, I'll do it.>"
Oh crap oh cra- Wait, what? "<Huh?>"
"<You want me to date her? Sure, why not. She's not pretty, but she's kinda fun. Probably won't last, but not like it's costing me anything.>"
She blinked. Wait, does that mean my plan worked after all? "<Um, great. That's great. But I've told you, Eriko's spec- >"
"<Yeah, yeah, she's a special unique snowflake. We'll see about that. So, where's the lucky girl?>"

That's right. I did help a lot of people. I just need to improve, Eriko thought to herself as she placed another piece on the go board. And going to see that charity... The Ebisu Foundation? Going to see them wouldn't be a bad idea either. Maybe I can help. For example, next time I-
"<I've lost,>" her opponent conceded, bowing in defeat. "<Man. I thought for sure I was going to win with that huge territory over there. I hadn't realized you could actually invade it at any time.>"
"<You built it too far from the border,>" she explained. "<You need to find the midle ground. Build too close, and you don't get enough points. Build too far, and you're not safe.>" Of course, that's all basics. But we all have to learn sometimes, huh?
He nodded. "<Yeah, I get it. But don't worry, Watanabe,>" he said with a mix of respect and humor, "<I will beat you some day.>"
She judged it safer to just smile. At this rate? Yeah, maybe in the not too distant future.
"<Watanabe?>" This time, a female voice from behind her. The captain of the girls' team.
"<...Yes, captain?>"
"<I wanted to talk to you. Privately. About the inter-school tournament.>"
Eriko winced internally as she followed her. "<What about it?>"
The captain seemed uneasy. "<You were the team's second member for three tournaments in a row, but you had to miss the last one. We had to bump Sato to second, and bring in Suzuki as third.>" She paused, looking sideways. "<I haven't decided yet who's going to be on the team this time.>"
Eriko pondered. Suzuki isn't that good. Before my coma, she needed three handicap stones against me. And I know she hasn't gotten much better. But I've been getting worse, haven't I? "<It's... not an easy question, captain, but I think I can still play well.>"
"<Can you, Watanabe? I've been watching you, and your game's been getting... sloppy. You get distracted and miss important stuff. You don't plan as far ahead as you used to. You make erratic moves. I can't recognize your play style anymore!>"
Eriko stared at the floor silently.
"<You still know your josekis and have all the reflexes, but it's like you're on automatic pilot. Watanabe, you know as well as I do that mindsets matter. You're not going to win at the tournament unless you want to!>"
"<I do want to!>" Eriko surprised both of them with her outburst. She paused awkwardly before going on: "<I... Captain, I know I've hit a bit of a slump, but it's gonna be OK. I'm going to get it together, and everything will be fine.>"
"<Really?>" The captain herself seemed uncertain what to think. "<Watanabe, you have to understand it's not just about you. There are three players in a team, and we need all three to do their best. For our team, for the go club, for our school! I... I can't choose lightly!>"
Eriko glanced sideways awkwardly. "<Look... You still have two weeks before you need to announce our roster, right?>"
"<So, please, just give me some time. I'll get my game back, or you can have Sato and Suzuki instead.>"
"<And, what, I should just tell Suzuki to cool her heels and keep waiting for my final decision to see if you bounce back from your funk?>"
"<I... I'm sorry.>"
The captain sighed. "<I'll give you some time. But if you can't back it up, Watanabe...>"

Well, let's look on the bright side , Eriko reflected a bit later as stepped outside the go club. At least I have variety in my stress: Instead of just worrying about saving the world from a stream of homicidal monsters, I can also worry about smaller stuff, like whether I'm ruining things for the go club by being selfish! I'm sure I can keep finding new and exciting ways to feel pressured!
"<Yo, Gutsy Girl.>"
Right on freaking cue. "<What do you want, Kazu?>" she all but snarled. At least he isn't twisting Kunio's arm this time around or whatever.
"<Just checking up on you,>" he shrugged, grinning. "<Rumor mill had it that you were one bad day away from train suicide.>"
"<Not funny, Kazu.>"
"<Not my words,>" he shrugged. "<Seriously though, it's not that bad, is it?>"
She blinked. "<...I'm fine.>" Around them, several students had started paying attention to the conversation.
He bent down slightly to reach her level as he gazed at her. "<So you say. Still, I'd rather not take chances.>" He firmly placed his hand on her shoulder, causing her to blush slightly and flinch. "<You know the Hong Kong Bar? The place two blocks away from school?>"
"<Yyyeah. What about it?>"
"<Great. Meet you there in 20. We'll grab something to eat there.>"
As he turned around and began walking away, Junko - watching from safe distance - pumped her fist. Yes! He did it! He asked her out! She grinned as her gaze wandered over the dozen other students who'd observed the exchange. You guys were probably watching to see another shouting match between Eriko and her arch-nemesis, right? Hope you're not too disappointed.
Eriko stood silently. Wait, what? Was thatÖ †concern? From Kazu? AndÖ did he just ask me on a date? She watched as Kazu stepped further down the corridor. He didnít ask, he just decided, the goddamn jerk. Seriously, is this a date? Come back here, youÖ Still blushing, she noticed the other students watching. Caught between the desire to run after him to demand clarifications and the awkwardness of the situation, she watched him go past a corner. IÖ Iíd be making a sceneÖ I could just show up at the Hong Kong and see what this is all about, andÖ No. Absolutely not. Iím not going to let him win with such a cheap trick. Her expression hardening into one of resolve, she ran after him. "<Hold it!>"
He turned around with surprised amusement. "<Whatís the matter?>"
"<What is this is all about?!>" she flailed her arms in exasperation. "<Why are you asking me to, toÖ>"
He chuckled. "<Whatís so hard to get? Just Ďcause I like fighting with you doesnít mean I canít care about you. Other than myself, youíre pretty much the only person in this school I respect.>"
Her expression twitched. Really? You do? "<You almost make it sound like aÖ>" She choked on the next word.
His grin intensified. "<A what, Watanabe?>"
"<ÖA date,>" she said, now blushing crimson.
"<And who says it isnít?>"
She blinked. "<Youíre already dating Seikina and Aika!>" she protested, some anger returning to her voice.
"<Not really,>" he shrugged. "<Thatís just playing around, and they know it. Like I said, youíre the only one around here I respect.>"
She paused, embarrassingly aware of the growing crowd around them. "<You cannot be serious.>"
He laughed. "<And why not? Youíre good-looking, youíre smart, youíve got a cool attitude, and you want this as much as I do.>"
Iím what? He thinks IímÖ ButÖ " <DonítÖ donít presume you know what I wantÖ>"
"<If you insist,>" he raised his palms in a conciliatory gesture. "<So, Iíll be seeing you there, then.>"
Iím being asked on a date. By Kazu, of all people. A rapid succession of thoughts ran through her head. The dream she had found so disturbing. Kazuís sheer force of personality. The compliments he had just paid her. The feelings she had been trying to ignore for weeks now.
He blinked. "<What?>"
"<I said no.>"
"<What do- >"
"<I will not go out on a date with you, Kazu,>" she stated firmly, her expression ice-cold. "<Not today, not tomorrow, not ever .>"
He gave another chuckle. "<Foreverís a pretty long time. You- >"
"<I will not date you,>" she repeated. "<You know why? Because youíre a douchebag, thatís why!>" Several students in the crowd flinched at the sudden shout. "<Youíre always acting like youíre so much better than everyone else because youíre willing to hurt them and have some clever-sounding retort, whether or not it makes any actual sense! Youíre not better than them, Kazu! Youíre the single biggest loser in this school Ė others may get bullied, or manipulated, or insulted, but at least they donít need to bring others down just to feel good about themselves! You are nothing but an emotional parasite!>"
"<Oh please,>" he rolled his eyes, "<And you say my clever retorts donít make sense? What does that even mean, to- >"
"<What are your plans.>"
That made him pause in puzzlement. "<What?>"
"<What are your plans, Kazu,>" she said, coldly. "<What do you intend to do with your life after youíre done with school.>"
"<IÖ What does that have to do with anything?!>"
"<You canít answer it, can you,>" she said. "<You have no plans, because youíre not actually good for anything.>"
"<Hey, now! Wait a minute!>"
"<Zip it!>" Her shout paused him for a moment, and she took advantage of that to keep going: "<What, youíre going to keep bullying people when youíre 40? Youíre gonna have to find a job, same as any of usÖ That, or fail to find a job. Kazu the Cool Delinquent can't survive past the next few years. All your bravado and attitude are worthless in the real world; youíre just trying to pump up your self-worth by bringing other people down, like it gives you power over th- >"
"<Oh shut up!>" he snapped at her angrily. "<You think people like me never get by?! You think youíre better because you act like everyone wants you to?!>"
"<No, you dumbass! I think Iím better than you, that everyone here is better than you, because youíre a jackass!>" She turned around and began walking away. "<And Iím not going to date a jackass.>"
His fists clenched in anger, he shouted after her: "<Thatís bullshit! You think you're too good for me?! You're just a sheep like everyone else here, and if you think you're above it all, then you've got no clue! Like I canít tell you have the hots for me?! You think people canít tell- >"
She turned her head around, her face red. "<I do. So what?>"
"<You think people canítÖ Wait, what?>"
"<I said I do. I never called you unattractive. So what?>"
He blinked. "<So you admit it! You do want this!>"
"<And you know what that changes? Absolutely nothing.>" She resumed walking away. "<Just because Iím human, doesnít mean I have to be stupid about it.>"
She ignored the crowd, ignored what he was saying, as she walked away. She had soon put a couple of hallways between them. But then...
"<Eriko... Why?>"
She turned around to see a devastated-looking Junko. "<What do you mean?>"
Junko struggled to find the words. "<I... I don't understand. Didn't you want a cool boyfriend?>"
"<Um... No?>" Besides, I don't think of Kazu as "cool" to begin with.
"<How can you say that?>" Junko seemed increasingly desperate. "<Don't you care about love? Don't you care about other people? Don't you care about...>" About me. "<...about being alone?>"
Eriko took a step back, uncertain. "<Junko, what... What is this all about?>"
Her sister sighed. "<I... Never mind. I'm sorry. Forget I said anything,>" she said as she turned away and ran.
What the Hell, Junko?

"You realize, of course, that this was all her doing."
"Junko. Given her transparent attempts to manipulate you earlier, it is obvious that she was trying to set you up with that Kazu kid."
"Junko isn't much of a planner."
"Not a skilled one, perhaps. Still, this was clearly a failed matchmaking attempt."
"Oh come on. Junko's not that stupid."
"So you say."

My name is Junko, and I just screwed up big time. Again.
I'm not completely sure where things went wrong. Tomo and I were doing a good job planting the idea of a relationship in Eriko and Kazu's heads. I really thought we had it all set up perfectly. Sure, I panicked a teensy weensy bit when it turned out Kazu could see through it, but hey, he didn't seem to mind. And it would have gotten Eriko an actual boyfriend, you know? And she knew he was hot. So, perfect, right?
And then she shot him down in front of everyone like I've never seen anyone get shot down before. I think she actually managed to upset Kazu - what she said back there hurt him enough that he got angry, the way she usually gets angry at him. Does that mean she "won"? I dunno. But I don't think there's any chance left of them getting together after this.
And you know, I think I could live with that... There'd be other opportunities to help her open up to people. No, it's afterwards that I really screwed up. What was I thinking, blowing up at her like that? I had no right. No right at all. Eriko's got enough problems already without me selfishly accusing her of not being open enough, about not caring about people. How stupid can I get? Eriko risks her life for other people, she...
...she helps out perfect strangers, yet she doesn't pay any attention to her friends. She doesn't bother with romance. She closes up, all alone, and she doesn't even seem to realize anything's wrong with it. It's like being a world-saving magical girl superheroine is the only thing keeping her from turning into a hikikomori, and all my attempts to help her are utterly useless. And after that outburst... I feel too awkward to even talk to her. So her I am, standing by uselessly while she works on important stuff with Monsoon.
I've really screwed up this time.

My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I wonder if I screwed up.
If I did, then I don't see the exact point where it happened. And yet, the end results... Ergh.
Let's get one thing out of the way: Yes, I was attracted to Kazu. Still am, I guess. He's selfish, dishonest, mean, and a huge jerk, and I still got that... feeling, about him. I'm not sure what that says about me. I'm not sure I like what that says about me. But one thing I know I don't like is rampant douchebaggery, and Kazu had that in spades. Calling him out like that? Calling him out on how much of a phony, look-at-me-I'm-so-damn-cool-because-I-suck bullshitter he was felt great. It was all stuff that needed to be said. But what did that accomplish? He won't become a nicer person. Nothing's changed.
I also find myself wondering if I did the right thing. Why is it that I acted the meanest toward him the one time he's actually trying to be nice to me? Then again, Kazu lies. That bit he said, about how his other relationships were just "playing around", but I was the only one he respected... It sounded semi-credible when he said it, but it had to be bullshit, right?
Still... Is this really what I should have done? Junko seemed horrified that I didn't jump on the opportunity to have a boyfriend. She hasn't said a word to me since this afternoon. Is that really so wrong? What would a normal person have done? What kind of person am I?
"<Hello? Castle Nexus to Eriko?>"
"<Oh, sorry. Was thinking.>"
"<Must have been some gloomy thoughts. Junko doesn't seem too cheery either,>" said Monsoon. "<Something happen?>"
"<I... don't really want to talk about it.>"
"<Are you sure? I'm pretty good at the 'talk about it' deal.>"
"<I know, but... I think right now, I'd rather take my mind off the stupid drama.>"
The fairy gazed at her dubiously for a moment, then smiled and clapped her hands. "<Okey-dokey then! Let's talk shop. How about those manacles?>"
"<Well, I told the PCTF about the first one, and I'm doing good progress on importing the second one. That still leaves the matter of actually capturing any of our enemies.>"
"<Right. And in case you run out of manacles, Aurora's little gift,>" she gave a glance to the anti-magic cell recently added to the castle, "<can hold a few prisoners in temporarily. Speaking of which, where is the PCTF planning to hold their prisoners?>"
"<Classified,>" Eriko shrugged. "<I also offered to help them build a new, secret HQ, but...>"
"<...but then it wouldn't be a secret from you?>"
Eriko nodded.
"<Yeah, I figured. Let's hope they finish that new place before Murder or the Circle of Wisdom just decide to wipe their building off the map. Don't worry, though - they'll have to bring you in on their secret clubhouse soon enough, and they know it, even if they don't want to admit it yet. Large organizations are often inconsistent. But,>" she grinned, "<Enough about that! Have you been taking your prescribed vacation time?>"
"<I've been helping real scientists study unbihexium. It was... pretty awesome, actually.>"
"<You're a real nerd, you know?>"
So we laugh. And I do feel a bit better. But after that... I'm still wondering what's wrong with me. And I think Monsoon can tell.

"<You're late,>" Hyosuke noted gruffly.
"<Sorry, I didn't sleep very well tonight.>" Admittedly, Hiromasa did look worn out. "<Anything important going on?>"
"<A phone call from Downfall's compound, to one of his cronies who was out to get some newspapers. He told him to get his ass back to the warehouse - something about teaching them about combat using various types of energy discharges.>"

All this trouble, just to keep the PCTF from being positive we know about their little phone trick, Downfall reflected. Guess my mysterious ally really cares about his mysterious information sources. It would be so much simpler to just teleport inside the PCTF's HQ and burn it to the ground... but I don't want to scare Soul away too early. I can kill them all easily once I've disposed of her. And then... Then this world will tremble before Downfall, of Endless Ravage!
Looking at his gathering of thugs, he grinned. "<That was hot plasma. Now, for some electrical attacks...>"

"<Wait, wait,>" said Soul. "<You knew where their new address was?>"
"<We were tracking their phones. They'd only been there for a few days,>" said Hyosuke. "<We were planning to assault their compound with your assistance this time. But their phones disappeared completely fifteen minutes ago.>"
"<From the looks of it, all electronics with a radius of at least 300 feet have been disrupted. An electromagnetic pulse,>" said Walker. "<Downfall said something on the phone about training them in the use of energy attacks. Our guess would be that he accidentally fried the phones... Except that, near as we can tell, everything went silent inside there shortly afterwards. And now there's smoke coming out, suggesting a fire.>"
"<We already have two PRISMs aimed on the location, and three gunships ready to send in missiles,>" said Koyama. "<Your job will be to go in there after they blast the walls open, and defeat Downfall is he's still there.>"

"<...and he wasn't there,>" Eriko finished recounting to Monsoon. "<No-one was. They were gone, and the warehouse was burning down.>"
"<So, either they found out about the phone surveillance, or they were just being cautious,>" said Monsoon. "<Do your police friends have any idea where they are now?>"

"The PCTF has no idea where you are,>" Steel-Sama explained on the phone, "<yet. I will inform you if this changes... However, as compensation, I will be keeping Crimson Rain's services longer than anticipated."
"Don't presume to dictate me conditions, human," said Downfall. "I could destroy the PCTF at a moment's notice if I so chose."
"But in so doing, you would only lead to the creation of a different governmental resistance force. One about which I might not have quite as much information to sell you. For now, the PCTF's continued existence is an advantage for your plans."
"Perhaps. However, Soul remains my priority. How long before we can advance to the next phase, mortal?" There was a dangerous hint of impatience in the demon's voice.
"You will be pleased to know arrangements are all but complete," Steel-Sama replied, unperturbed. "Action will become possible tomorrow."
"Excellent. Tomorrow, Soul will face danger. The next day, she will face annihilation."
As the conversation ended, Katsutoshi gave her a weird look. "Tomorrow? I figured you were going to drag this on as long as you could."
"Unnecessary. Crimson Rain was unable to magically locate Downfall, or any other distant individual target. It is thus entirely possible that Downfall has no means by which to locate him either. As his loyalties are shifting, even the successful completion of Downfall's plans would leave at least one mage in my employ... and, no less importantly, the creation of new mages is now within the realm of feasibility."

My name is... well, I normally go with "Masaki", but Downfall insists on "The Living Curse". Of course, Downfall insists on a lot of things.
Like using me as bait for this. I can't say I'm looking forward to fighting Soul head-on - sure, Downfall says he'll get her easily while I'm distracting her, and the plan is kinda clever, but I've seen enough of Soul in action to admit she's better than me at this.
But... it is a clever plan, right? Almost scary, how easy portals make it to kidnap random people.
"<Twenty hostages should be enough,>" said Downfall, within the new compound. "<We'll just need to make sure they can't move.>"
"<Should we tie 'em up? We don't have rope, but Living Curse can make- >"
"<No need,>" said Downfall. "<Easier to just break their legs.>"

As she stared at the go board, Eriko tried hard not to think about the captain of the girls' team, who she knew was stealing glances at their game. Don't let it distract you, don't let it distract you, don't let it distract you... Just play normally. You can ace this. C'mon, Eriko, you're turning into such a whiny, neurotic...
Her luckless attempts at concentrating ended when the Soul-Signal was activated. Contrite, she excused herself from the club - "<I'm terribly sorry, but, this is a personal emergency...>"

"<What is the problem?>" she asked as she entered the PCTF HQ.
"<We think it's one of Downfall's cronies,>" said Hyosuke. "<He identified himself as 'The Living Curse', at least. Black ski mask, taken over an underground parking lot. He claims to have twenty injured hostages, and that he will kill them if anyone but you shows up.>"

Breathing heavily, Masaki tried to ignore the pained moans of a couple of nearby hostages. Keep it together... You won't die, you won't go to jail, this is gonna work, just don't panic...
He nearly jumped out of his skin when a portal opened, and the white-clad magical girl jumped through. She took a moment to size him. "<You're... Living Curse?>"
"<Y-yes,>", he said. She looks nervous. Hell, this close, she looks like a freaking kid. She's, what, 15? 16? Just a kid. She's even more over her head than I am. I can... I can take her. I really can. "<I am The Living Curse! And I got twenty hostages scattered throughout this place!>"
"<What... What do you want,>" she asked, looking wary.
I can do this. I don't need to be afraid of her. I don't need to be afraid of anyone! He prepared to answer, but then he felt his mouth move on its own - which felt rather jarring, even with prior warning: "<I brought you here to face your doom, little girl. Unless you hope to have a chance against a minion of Downfall?>"

"It's kinda clever," said Harris, "using noble magic to puppeteer his mouth like that. Guess Downfall didn't want him to flub his lines." He looked at the video feed - one of many, provided by cameras placed within the cars in the parking lot. "And even if they start to fight, with the hostages and everything else, she'll need to be careful. One way or another, this will take a while. Downfall's lucky... I doubt he could have come up with such a plan on his own."
"Not unless he is far more intelligent than he has let on so far," said Steel-Sama.
"What exactly is the point? Downfall is right there," said Katsutoshi, pointing at a "hostage" whose legs were unbroken. "Why not just finish her off where she stands?"
"From the sound of it, killing Soul would not suffice for his plans," said his mother. "I suspect he wishes to use her in order to deal a severe blow to humanity's morale. To achieve that, he needs to attain a greater understanding of her. And as he has deigned explain, demons can sense the emotions of those nearby."
"And he can sense whatever it is she's feeling over the pain and fear of the hostages? Impressive then."

"<Look,>" said Soul, "<We don't have to fight. Whatever Downfall is giving you, it can't be worth this,>" she pointed at one of the hostages. "<He burns people alive in the street, he incinerates temples just to show how nasty he is... He'll turn on you first chance he gets. If you let these people go, maybe you can negotiate something with the PCTF. Maybe they'll be willing to let you go free if you tell us what you know about him. Hell, I could use the help of another magic-user myself.>" And if you don't... She gave a silent thought to the anti-magic manacle, stored in a special alcove of Castle Nexus.
"<Oh Soul, Soul, Soul,>" Masaki felt himself say, his mouth, tongue, and vocal cords all commandeered remotely by the disguised Downfall. "<Playing the hero? Do you really think yourself so noble? Or is this all some act?>"
She paused, taken aback. Noble? Am I? I mean, sure, I'm more honest than most people, and I'm taking these insane risks, but... Focus. This could easily be a trap. "<I never said I was noble. I'm just trying to do the responsible thing.>"
"<Really. You have the audacity to stand in my... in the path of Murder, of Downfall, of many great and terrible threats. What is it that drives you to such recklessness, little girl? Is it obedience to someone else? A misplaced sense of duty? Some naive love for your fellow humans?>"
Involuntarily, she blinked at the last one, and he gave pause rather than pursuing. Is that why I should be doing this? I... I don't think I love others like that. Does it really matter, though? "<That's not important. If I save someone from monsters, they're not gonna care if I do it because I love people, or... or just because it's the right thing to do.>"
"<Oh? So the reasons why you do what you do are unimportant? It doesn't matter whether or not you have love in your heart for others?>" He pressed on. "<Could it be, hero, that underneath that mask of selflessness, you are just as cold and uncaring as the villains you face?>"
"<I'm nothing like you people!>" she protested angrily. Steady. He's probably provoking you. Don't let down your guard. "<I don't go around murdering people!>"
"<And yet you get so angry and defensive at the idea. Perhaps you are not so confident in your own humanity? I wonder what sort of life you lead... Do you even have loved ones? Friends? Family? Lovers? Or are you cold and distant to them as well?>"
She clenched her teeth. Goddammit, why does he have to... Wait. Monsoon said demons can sense people's emotions. Maybe Downfall taught him to do the same? Maybe Downfall is here? Maybe he is Downfall! "<I'm done with this conversation. Surrender peacefully, or face the consequences.>"
Masaki said nothing at first. Then... "<Peace died the day Downfall came to your world.>" The next instant, several smoke bombs across the parking lot - all of them hidden underneath the cars - went off all at once.
Crap crap crap! Instinctively, Soul opened a portal in front of herself to deflect any coming attack. Then she flew a good distance to the side... stopping at a wall.I can't see where I'm going like this... though he probably can't, either. She then heard the coughing sounds. This can't be good for the hostages. And this lot has, what, three floors? What to do...

His holistic shield protecting him from the worst of the smoke's effects, Masaki jumped through a portal to a lower floor. All right. Not ideal, but I'm still unhurt. Hopefully, Downfall will get her. Still, I have to be careful. She can't see me with all this smoke, but I can't see her, either. He then noticed the coughing of some nearby hostages. Man. I wouldn't want to be these guys. Hope they don't croak... Wait, what's with the wind?
Looking around him, he realized that indeed, a wind seemed to be pulling the smoke up to the floor above. The Hell? Cautiously, he went up. Peeking around a corner, he could see the smoke noisily rushing inside what seemed to be a portal. And right next to the portal, the small, feminine silhouette around which the smoke was flowing on its way there.
Using a portal to get rid of the smoke? Clever... But you've made yourself visible! With a rush of adrenaline, he sent a plasma blast at the figure. To his surprise, it remained in place. Wait, is it glowing now?
All of a sudden, the portal disappeared. He briefly heard a sound behind him before something hit him in the back, hard enough to get past his shields. As he passed out, he barely had the time to be amazed by how painful it was.

Step 1: Realize that with hostages and smoke around, you can't just go and blast the whole place to kingdom come like an idiot.
Step 2: Hide behind one of the concrete columns holding this place together. Stick close to it.
Step 3: Create an effigy of yourself made of lead, only a few meters away from your hiding spot.
Step 4: Make sure you have a trusty anvil right next to you.
Step 5: Open a portal. One end between your hiding spot and the effigy. The other end, five kilometers above you. With a pressure differential like that, you're not risking the hostages' lives, but you're still sucking away the smoke.
Step 6: Lie in wait while the terrorist comes to check what's sucking away all the smoke.
Step 7: Lie in wait while the terrorist mistakes the effigy for you due to all the smoke.
Step 8: Watch closely where the attack on the effigy came from.
Step 9: Close portal. Open another portal between your position, and the spot behind where the attack came from.
Step 10: Apply trusty anvil. Profit.
Well. That could have gone a lot worse, Soul reflected as she opened another portal, retrieving the anti-magic manacle and applying it to Masaki's wrist. To her relief, it clicked in flawlessly, locking itself in position. Hesitating for a second, she opened a portal to a different location. First, drop him at the PCTF. Then, come back for the hostages.

When Masaki opened his eyes, even though his injuries had been healed, he felt at once that something was off. Over the seconds that followed, he realized he was wearing a straitjacket, and was behind bars. Several men were staring at him on the other side - four soldiers with weapons aimed at him, and two policemen. Though he couldn't see it, Kisho was in another cell, not that far from his own.
"<Looks like you're awake, Living Curse,>" said one policeman, whom he recognized from the news as the director of the PCTF.
"<Or should we say... Tamai Masaki?>" said the older policeman, looking at some files. "<High school dropout, petty delinquent, small-time thief... and magical terrorist.>" All humor left his face as he gazed at him with hard, cold eyes. "<You are under arrest by the authority of the Tokyo Police.>"
Masaki's heart sank. "<I'm outta here!>" he shouted in panic as he set out to open a portal. Nothing happened. He tried again. And again. "<Why... Why isn't it working?!>"

"A shorter battle than expected. She possesses some tactical finesse," Steel-Sama admitted. "Nevertheless, Downfall got what he wanted. Additionally, while the mage in the PCTF's custody might reveal things we'd rather keep secret, we may also benefit from their interrogation of him."
"All in a day's work," Harris grinned. "But what about the next phase in Downfall's plan?"
"I believe it will be suffering a few delays while we set everything up," said Steel as she prepared the phone call, "I can probably negotiate a few days while we talk to Crimson Rain about his career plan." She paused, then added: "However, there is also the urgent matter of the CIA's involvement, and possible suspicions cast in our direction. I have been careful, and security in this building is draconian, but no security is truly impregnable. Additional precautions must be taken."

"I suppose you could take some comfort in having taken down Mister Tamai so easily. But then again, that is rather akin to taking comfort in outsmarting an orangutan."
"Of course, Downfall never actually intended for his pawn to win. He just wanted a peek into your emotional reactions. And we know where that led."
"Right. In hindsight, I now suspect your next encounter with Downfall has shaped much of this past year..."

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