Saga of Soul
CHAPTER 17: MY KIND OF PERSON
"<We have four shield-piercing rifles aimed at him at all time,>" said Hyosuke, "<and so far, he's been unable to use any magic whatsoever - as far as I can tell, at least. Still, we're being cautious, obviously. As for interrogations...>" he chuckled. "<He's no hardened military veteran, just a punk-ass loser. He broke down pretty quickly. He's been spilling the beans on pretty much everything.>" Tamai "The Living Curse" Masaki was already proving himself a valuable source of information for the PCTF.
"<That's great!>" said Soul, but her expression quickly became one of concern. Wait, that would probably include how he got magic in the first place, wouldn't it? Less great. She failed to notice Walker's exasperation; to her credit, he was doing a decent job of hiding it. "<...So, what have you learned?>"
"<Well, as far as he knows, there's only one more mage in Downfall's cult - that Crimson Rain guy. From the sound of it, Downfall has been sending him out on missions lately, but he doesn't know what they are. And Downfall has been discussing his plans with someone on the phone, but he's been fairly secretive about that...>"
Soul raised an eyebrow. "<You think he might have allies? Who on Earth would want to help Downfall?>"
"<Well, he may have been aggressively recruiting more people than Tamai knew of,>" said Walker, "<but we have another theory. According to Tamai, Downfall carried around one possession of which he seemed particularly proud, and that he would often show off around the gang - a golden knife that could effortlessly cut through anything. The same knife he showed last time.>"
"<...Murder. He did hint they were working together.>"
"<Guess he wasn't making that up. What worries me, however, is that he apparently has a plan of some sort.>"
"<That's... ominous, sure, but what if he's training mages outside the gang we know of?>" said Soul.
"<A worrying possibility, but not all that likely,>" said Walker. "<According to Tamai, the operation Downfall used to turn the gangsters into mages has a stupidly high mortality rate.>"
They know. They know how to obtain magic. Soul nervously wiped some sweat off her brow.
"<Not only that,>" added Hyosuke, "<but he used to have another mage. An old acquaintance of Tamai. He gave lip to Downfall after getting his powers. Downfall killed him on the spot.>"
"<I... see. Have you found out what his actual plan is?>"
"<No such luck,>" Hyosuke admitted. "<But... from the sound of it... it involves you.>"
Her eyes went wide for a moment.
"<He would occasionally rant about an upcoming confrontation with you,>" he said. "<And according to Tamai, Downfall was hiding in human form among the hostages, and was supposed to attack you while you were distracted. He has no idea why that didn't happen. He also claims that Downfall was using magic to speak through him during your encounter. Comparing your report, and the way he's talking, I figure he's either telling the truth, or one hell of an actor.>" She nodded. "<Beyond that, though, we can only guess.>"
"<There is another matter,>" said Walker. "<The counterfeiters... On one hand, Tamai knew nothing about them, so it seems more likely that they were with the Circle of Wisdom. But if that's true... then they may have been smarter than we thought.>"
"<What do you mean?>"
"<According to their partners, they were mostly using their counterfeiting operation to obtain contacts within the underworld. But it becomes pretty hard to follow their past trail and figure out who, if at all, they have contacted - which makes sense if they could use magic to shapeshift. This raises the question - why would they want these contacts in the first place?>"
"<Our first guess is recruitment,>" said Koyama. "<If they want to find collaborators with whom to overthrow society, then it makes sense to find those who are already willing to stand against the existing social order. But perhaps you have another idea?>"
"<I...>" This is bad. This is very bad. Downfall giving magic to three-four older Kazus is bad enough. The Circle of Wisdom giving magic to organized crime? That's... "<I don't know. What if... What if they want them to act as their local enforcers once they take over? Use them as middlemen to exert control over society?>"
"<Possible, but not too likely,>" said Walker. "<Despite what they might like to think, the Yakuza do not represent a credible alternative to actual governmental services and the such. When a nation takes over another, it is almost always done by taking control of existing infrastructures.>"
She sighed. "<All right. I don't know, then. I'll just keep working on a second anti-magic manacle for now. Anything else?">"
"<Only this,>" said Koyama: "<Are you positive Tamai's manacle will keep him neutralized permanently?>"
How am I supposed to answer that one? "The fairy I'm not supposed to tell you about assures me it'll work that way?" "<Sir, I'm somewhat new to this myself. If what I know is correct, then yes, this will work until the manacle is manually removed.>"
She was aware that he did not seem particularly reassured by her choice of words.
The yakuza, much like their Western counterparts, derived great profits from protection rackets. However, the Japanese mobsters also practiced a different form of extortion: By obtaining enough stock in a company to attend shareholders' meetings, the yakuza could exert influence on corporations - the presence of violent, disruptive thugs at such meetings made it easy to blackmail executives.
The Kahara clan, among other activities, made frequent use of these "meeting-men". It was a large source of revenue. But played right, it could also be a source of data.
"<Boss, I don't know about this. Why does Steel-Sama want all this information?>"
Noboru Kahara cast an annoyed glance at his subordinate. "<Why do you think? She's investing billions of yens in venture capitalism, banks, the stock market. If she knows what's going on in every boardroom, she knows where the smart investments are.>"
"<That's... illegal, right?>"
"<It's insider trading, and yeah, it is. So what?>"
"<She's never asked for our help with this sort of thing before. Why the sudden change?>"
"<No idea, don't care.>"
"<And you're not worried this might get us in trouble?>"
"<Not really. We're just telling her what we hear. If this blows over, the one in big trouble would be her... and she's a smart girl. Whatever she's doing, I'm sure she has a plan to avoid getting caught.>"
The Palace of Life was by far the largest structure of Feyland. Admittedly, it was not the awe-inspiring work of art that the Domain of Wonder was; unlike the Elysium, fairies did not bring in human artists from dozens of Earths to assist in the constantly-evolving design of their seat of government. That said, there were always some fairies with an artistic bent and some free time, and it showed in the eclectic, somewhat chaotic and inconsistent look of the palace.
To an Earth-based mind, it was a confusing environment. Feyland had no gravity, no up and down, and this was reflected in the palace's mostly-spherical shape. The interiors were, by human standards, very roomy, making it easy for the flying fairies to navigate through them. At the moment, a particular couple was moving toward the central room.
"<I have work to do,>" the one to the left complained. A bespectacled male, dressed in a blue-gray military-looking uniform, he wore a rifle on his back. "<We could have saved time with a portal.>"
"<Now, now, Diamond. You won't do yourself any good by rushing everywhere. Take a moment to enjoy the beauty around you,>" said his companion, enjoying the view as they passed yet another room - this one decorated with a display of zero-G fountains and magical light projectors, combining to fill the room with rainbows. The fairy herself was obviously female, and taller than Monsoon (though still considerably shorter than Mother Aurora). Her wavy, light-brown hair matched the colors of her simple but elegant dress. "<Besides, teleporting in closed spaces, nevermind into a meeting, is plain rude.>" She smiled at him softly, not bothering to pursue that line of conversation further; she and Diamond had had it more times than she could be bothered to count over the past century.
She allowed her eyes to wander over another room - this one a massive interior flower garden. Many of the flowers therein did not exist naturally - the result of either magic or genetic engineering. She slowed down to take a whiff, and giggled almost silently when Diamond cast her an annoyed glare. One of those decades, I'll really have to clamp down and teach him how to relax a little. "<By the way, don't you think you were a bit harsh on Yllill earlier? I know how important training is, but she's still too young for real duty.>"
"<She is not,>" he said firmly. "<If she's old enough to pull those stunts of hers, then she is also old enough to understand that every citizen has a responsibility toward Feyland. Making sure her entire class is present and accounted for is not such a crushing duty that she cannot handle it.>"
"<But she's still just a little girl...>"
"<She's a teenager. She's almost an adult. It's time she acted like one.>"
Her smile returned. "<Perhaps. Her birthday is coming up. I think we should take her to visit an Africa,>" she said offhandedly. "<She has mentioned how much she'd love to lately.>"
He did a double-take. "<Wait, what?>"
"<Oh, don't be so surprised. You know how much she loves stories about that place, or animals. She'll have the time of her life seeing a real rain forest, real lions, real elephants... Not to mention a real sun and clouds,>" she winked.
"<Have you lost your mind?! She's way too young! This is far too dangerous to...>" He stopped when he realized his mistake.
"<We've already agreed that she is almost an adult,>" she chided him gently. It's time we treated her like one.>"
"<Earthly environments are deathtraps for non-mages!>" he flailed his arms wildly. "<Predators! Diseases! Toxins! Natives!>"
"<We'll get her a holistic shield. You know humans need time on Earths, sweety,>" she said. "<It'll be safe enough, and it'll do her a world of good to see what's truly out there. Just because she'll always be our baby is no reason to keep coddling her forever.>"
"<That's not...>" his protests died when he realized they had reached their destination. Did she deliberately time the conversation that way? Yeah, probably.
When they entered the room, another fairy was already there. Her short hair was blood-red, her armor was made of materials not yet found on Eriko's world, the sword on her back would have been described there as a saber, and her face, at the moment, was inexpressive.
"<Hello to you, Arrow!>" his companion smiled at her. He nodded politely.
"<Poem. Diamond. You were almost late,>" she noted.
"<I'm very busy with the security of Earth-12,>" he replied. "<There's an epidemic of the holocaust plague, they don't have the medical technology to deal with it, and I very much doubt it just happened to evolve there naturally. Somebody smuggled that virus there. If anything, I ought to be skipping this meeting!>"
Arrow scowled slightly. Poem wordlessly conjured some of her finest tea for everyone. She didn't bother reminding him that he'd already done all he reasonably could for the moment, and would have had nothing to do but wait nervously for the next day or two. Ah well. She believed she could keep him occupied in more productive manners. The poor dear has an admirable sense of duty, but he simply doesn't know how not to run himself ragged.
As she shared her tea (some of the finest in the multiverse, thanks to many centuries of experience) with the other two, a portal opened, and two more fairies stepped through. The second one was Monsoon, but before her came an unusually-sized, luminous figure.
"<My apologies,>" said Mother Aurora as the portal closed, "<given circumstances in the new world, I want to keep Monsoon away from it for as few minutes as possible.>"
Diamond, annoyed, glared at Poem, who just shrugged it off with a silent giggle while Monsoon cheerfully greeted everyone. He then turned his eyes back to Mother Aurora. "<If we may get back to business...>"
"<We may,>" said Mother Aurora. "<Diamond, I have read your report about the holocaust plague outbreak. I will stop the epidemic itself later today, but this is only a stopgap solution. How did the virus reach Earth-12?>"
"<My agents and I are investigating it,>" he replied solemnly, "<but there's no new evidence yet. For now, the Extinction Society remain our principal suspect.>"
"<Curse that Crimson Rain,>" Arrow clenched her fist, "<I should have killed him when I had the chance!>"
"<Yeah, because you definitely wouldn't have gotten your ass kicked by all the demons there. Give it a rest, war lady,>" Monsoon said in an amused tone.
"<The question,>" Diamond ignored the interruptions, "<is what they're hoping to gain from this. They have got to know this will get stopped quickly. It seems like a lot of time and effort to go to for limited results, given your ability to stop the plague. We're investigating possible hidden motives, as well as other possible perpetrators.>"
"<Do so,>" said the fairy queen. Her attention turned to Poem. "<How goes the situation with the faeborn strike?>”
“<Oh, the strike ended four days ago,>” said Poem between two sips of tea. “<Thankfully, we managed to talk things out like adults, without anyone getting hurt.>”
“<Have you now.>” Aurora’s expression did not waver. “<I was under the impression they were rather agitated.>”
“<Now, now. They were not entirely unreasonable. A lot of people get upset when they feel no-one is listening to them. Once I showed them otherwise, they were perfectly open to dialog.>”
Aurora paused for a moment. “<Poem, what did you- >”
“<I promised to have another colony opened for them within the year, on the condition that they exceeded some of their work expectations. Nothing unreasonable, but they have been hard at work ever since.>”
The fairy queen frowned. “<You know very well that this will require more bureaucratic oversight than we can afford at the moment.>”
“<That can easily be solved by recruiting more bureaucrats among the faeborn themselves, if only to pick up the slack in other sectors.>”
“<Poem,>” Aurora managed to convey her anger without raising her voice by a single decibel, “<I had explicitly left instructions not to commit to any such course of actions. We have too many pressing concerns with the safety of all of reality to allow such petty matters to distract us.>”
“<Precisely. That’s why you also left instructions to resolve this sort of distraction quickly and efficiently. I reconciled your instructions in what I felt was the most reasonable manner.>”
“<Hell take it, Poem!>” Arrow raised her fist in exasperation. “<You’re always testing the boundaries like this! Would it kill you to simply follow our queen’s orders like you’re supposed to?!>”
Poem just kept smiling softly. “<We’re trying to defend the multiverse and its people, Arrow. That we sometimes disagree on how to best achieve that is inevitable. That we can work together despite some disagreements makes us adults.>”
“<Pretty, meaningless words. You’re always trying to sneak in your agenda. Always trying to give more power and responsibility to the faeborn.>”
“<I’d like to think I have a good estimation of their ability. I have, after all, raised a few.>”
“<Enough.>” Aurora quickly ended the argument. “<Are there any further newsworthy events I need to be aware of?>” Seeing the others remaining silent, she went on: “<Very well. Soul has recently captured one of the human mages working for Endless Ravage using an anti-magic manacle. He is, regrettably, in police custody – a compromise that I fear has become necessary for now. I fear that the strain of her duties is driving Soul to a breakdown.>”
“<I’m doing what I can to help, but a 13-year-old mind can only take so much until it snaps,>” said Monsoon. “<These past two days, she’s been avoiding me. I think she’s afraid I might read her emotions.>”
Diamond raised an eyebrow. “<She knows we can do that?>”
“<Noooo, she knows demons can do that. But she’s smart; she probably at least suspects the same holds true for us. To be honest, at this point I’m mostly hoping for the big, cosmic ritual to work as advertised and save the day.>”
“<Fantastic,>” said Diamond. “<So you have a 13-year-old child risking her life on the verge of nervous breakdown, trying to protect a world from demons, the Circle of Wisdom and Murder, losing control over access to magic on a politically-unstable Earth, and your big strategy hinges on a type of spell that’s never even been tried before. A freaking strategic masterpiece,>” he glared at Monsoon and Aurora both, ignoring the glare he was getting himself from Arrow.
“<Oh be fair,>” Monsoon said as she leaned back in her chair, not looking concerned in the least. “<This isn’t exactly a normal situation. I mean, that many factions all at once? A child creating a pocket dimension? Given the hand we’ve been dealt, I’d say we haven’t been doing all that badly.>”
“<If we had human mages working for us, this kind of abnormal situation would be trivial to deal with!>” His stare defiantly met the queen’s. “<Do you have no conception of what your chronic mistrust of humans is costing us all?>”
“<Again with this nonsense?!>” Arrow protested. “<It’s always the same with you two! Always wanting to give humans magic. Like you’ve forgotten what’s destroying reality in the first place!>”
“<You have to be pragmatic about this sort of thing!>” he protested. “<If we had a small but dedicated corps of human mages, we could- >”
“<I have heard these arguments enough times to last me ‘til the end of all worlds,>” Mother Aurora interrupted. “<They were old and ancient by the time you were born, Diamond. Furthermore, this is a strategic meeting, not a shouting match.>” Satisfied that the quarrel had been quieted, she spoke again: “<Monsoon, how bad do you believe Soul’s situation to be?>”
“<Hard to be sure,>” the blond fairy admitted. “<The trauma and PTSD is one thing, but I thought she was handling it better than most humans her age. I think that’s just contributing to her overall fragility – something else seems to be bothering her lately. She’s… ludicrously critical of herself.>” She giggled. “<Why is always the best ones who think they’re pond scum?>”
“<A better understanding of right and wrong leads to a better understanding of one’s own shortcomings,>” Poem chimed in. “<Even so, ‘always’ is hyperbolic.>”
Diamond sighed. “<So your glorified child soldier is not even talking to you anymore, the actual scum of the multiverse is breaking loose on her Earth, and short of her Majesty pulling a miracle, the whole situation is FUBAR?>”
“<Yup, that sounds about right!>” Monsoon replied with an innocent smile.
“<Perhaps not,>” said Mother Aurora. “<Your evaluation of her is inaccurate. She is no child soldier.>” She paused. “<She’s a hero.>”
My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I’m a magical girl… I think? Does that even make any sense? A magical girl is just a fictional archetype. Me? At best, I'm just a girl who has magic. I'm no Sailor Moon. Heck, I don't think I even have what it takes to be Sailor Mercury. Some defender of Love and Justice I'd make... I'm not even sure I'm capable of love and friendship.
Why am I even doing all this? Why have I been risking my life and sanity over and over again all this time? I very much doubt the answer is in the animes I've been watching with Junko. I'm not "fighting for my friends" - I don't have any of those except for Junko, and from the looks of it, I've been a crummy one to her anyway. I'm clearly not "fighting for love". Compassion? Can I really be said to have compassion? Murder kills a thousand people, and all I see is numbers. Shouldn't I be horrified by all the pain and suffering? Shouldn't I be wracked with guilt over the death of that gun-toting berserker? Shouldn't I feel lonely and seek friends, or love, or... For crying out loud, what kind of person am I? Some kind of sociopath? Some uncaring, cold-hearted freak masquerading as a normal human?
Monsoon says it doesn't really matter, as long as I keep doing the right thing. I think she's oversimplifying. It matters to me . And if my motivations are all wrong... If, deep down, I'm just a cold, uncaring shell of a human... then who says my actions will remain the right ones? Monsoon would... Ergh. I don't think Monsoon would care much for my introspection. Or my angst, for that matter. I... I don't want to face her right now. Because... I don't know. Downfall was able to see through me so easily. Could she do the same? I don't think she'd warn me in advance if she could, but she always seems so perceptive to my moods... I wonder if-
"<Are you OK? You've seemed kind of... down, lately.>"
She hesitated. "<...I'm fine. I've felt a bit stressed out lately, but, you know...>" Ergh. I hate lying. "<...Don't worry.>"
He didn't look convinced. "<Eriko... I hope you realize that if there's anything wrong, you can always talk about it with your mother and me.>"
Naturally, that made her feel worse. But maybe I could at least... She sighed. "<I... don't think I've been a very good sister to Junko, at least.>"
"<You've only had a sister for a couple of months,>" he smiled as he ruffled her hair. "<You're allowed to take some time to learn how to do it right. But really,>" he cast a glance toward the children's room, where Eriko had recently convinced Junko to hang some of her own posters, "<what makes you think you haven't been good enough?>"
"<I'm not sure,>" she said. "<I just feel I've been disappointing her a lot lately. She...>" OK, what should and shouldn't I tell here? "<...She seemed pretty upset about how I reacted when a boy at school tried to ask me out.>"
He blinked. "<Tried?>"
She nodded. "<I shot him down. Like a surface-to-air missile.>"
"<Huh. What kind of boy are we talking about here?>"
He smiled. "<Then you probably did the right thing, no?>"
"<Did I, now?>" She looked aside. "<Dad, I...>" She paused... then turned around, forcing herself to meet his gaze. "<I wanted to know: How do you decide what the right thing to do is?>" And how does someone without love or compassion do it?
He was somewhat taken aback by the question. "<Well... mostly, I suppose I ask myself the question: What would happen if everyone acted this way? If it looks to me like the world would be a better place, then I usually figure it's the right thing to do.>"
She nodded. That's more or less what I do...
Seeing her falling silent, he cleared his throat. "<You know, Eriko... There's been some talk at the office. There is a... possibility... that I might be reassigned to Washington again soon.>" A possibility he'd been the first to raise, actually. "<Nothing's certain yet, but... Would you like going back?>"
She pondered. "<Send you back now? When the biggest newsworthy items are happening here?>"
He sighed internally. Of course she'd seen through it. "<I'm mostly a political journalist, Eriko. But I'll admit, getting you and Junko away from danger is an important factor.>"
What a joke. You could have us move to Antarctica, and I'd still be coming right over here to risk my life. But if you're considering it... "<How bad is it? I mean, are people really running away from Tokyo?>"
"<Well... Let's not blow things out of proportion,>" he said. "<The actual number of people leaving the city because of the crisis isn't a single percent of the population. Still, it's undeniable that something's going on,>" he admitted. "<The number of people moving in is at an all-time low. Real estate values are starting to go down. If this keeps going... then I suppose city hall will be facing a crisis of its own.>"
"<Uh-huh. And what about... the rest of the world? How is everyone dealing with it?>
"<Vast question, Eriko,>" he chuckled bitterly. "<This has been going on too long, too visibly, for anyone to deny it's real at this point. Except for a handful of crazies, but there's always a few of those. So right now, most people want answers. They want to understand what's really going on. Makes me wonder how the Aztecs felt when Cortés arrived...>" He paused, the analogy momentarily leading his train of thought in an unpleasant direction. "<Scientists are scrambling to understand, religious institutions are scrambling to somehow fit this into their theologies, and politicians are trying to pretend the situation is under control. Some corporations have already found ways to make money out of this, like Maxcorp and their laser weapons. But...>" he paused, "<To a lot of people, this isn't just about the threat. Magic looks like it could be the solution to a lot of problems. We've seen that, aside from military applications, it can cure even cancer, and restore youth. Nobody wants the Circle of Wisdom to be in charge, but... a lot of people want magic to be used for the good of mankind, or at least for their own good. And that includes a lot of movers and shakers.>"
She pondered. "<Even if we did use magic for good... The complications from granting eternal youth would be...>" she shook her head. Too big an issue for me right now. Focus. "<Do you... Do you think people might actually be willing to work with the Circle of Wisdom?>"
"<I don't know. The Circle have been making unprovoked attacks on civilian centers. That isn't earning them trust. But some people might be willing to overlook that in exchange for a new lease on life. Some might be willing to make a deal with the devil for power. I don't know.>"
She nodded. And I don't either.
In a certain third-world country, a paramilitary leader was staring - with some nervousness, though he wouldn't admit it - at the suited man before him. "<You... have fulfilled your end of the bargain, I see.>"
"<Of course, general,>" the man said with a polite smile. "<Magic makes assassination trivial, even against heads of States. Frankly, the hardest part was hiding the fact that magic was used.>" He returned the general's stare without his smile wavering. "<With our friend now gone, taking control of this country should be effortless for you.>"
"<Naturally, we will be expecting you to... remember our favor once you are in charge.>"
"<You haven't even told me who you are,>" he pointed out. "<Are you with the Circle of Wisdom?>"
"<Need-to-know basis, general. Need-to-know basis. This is too early for me to confirm or deny. For now, we just want you to establish control over this beautiful nation, and keep our little secret to yourself. I assure you, there are other governments and would-be governments whom we are approaching.>" He gazed out the window. "<This is the new reality, general: The world is no longer run by the Americans. Or the Russians. Or the Chinese. It's our world now, general...>" he smiled at him again, "<but that doesn't mean we can't get along now, can we?>"
As the assassin disappeared through a portal, the general wondered, not for the first time, if he'd made the correct choice. It seemed unreasonably optimistic to hope he had become anything more than a puppet ruler.
"<OK, guys, show of hands,>" said one of the gangsters. "<Who here thinks working for Downfall was a horrible mistake?>"
Several hands went up. A few seemed hesitant.
"<I can't even recognize myself in the mirror!>" That one had had his face modified by Downfall so he could go outside without being recognized, buying groceries and other necessities. "<My own mom wouldn't recognize me if I met her! My life is ruined!>"
"<What about Masaki? He was supposed to be important. Useful, at least. Downfall was supposed to have his back. And now he's dropping him like an old sock! He's not even trying to rescue him from the cops!>"
"<Only one mage left, and he's never around anymore. How long do you think it'll be before he puts the rest of us through that goddamn ritual of his?>"
"<Hey, if it works... We'll have magic! Real power!>"
"<Yeah, that sure worked out well for Masaki, didn't it?! At best, that'll just mean we keep getting bossed around by Downfall until Soul kicks our ass. More likely, we'll die! Masaki was lucky to even survive that shit!>"
"<I hear ya. Downfall doesn't give a fuck about us. I say we cut our losses now.>"
"<...I was hoping y'all had some ideas.>"
"<What about that golden knife of his? He said it cut even through shields. Think we could kill him with it?>"
"<Great idea, genius. Now, all ya need to do is steal the knife from Downfall, then kill him with it. I'm sure you'll do great, knife-fighting a monster the size of a cement truck. Dumbass.>"
"<Why even bother fighting him? He's been busy rehearsing that speech of his for hours. We could just leg it.>"
"<I dunno, man. You... heard what he said he'd do to 'deserters'.>"
They all shuddered at the idea.
"<Maybe we could... wait. I'm not hearing him anymore. Is he...?>"
As if to confirm, Downfall's loud footsteps echoed through the warehouse. Soon enough, the demon passed by them.
"<H-Hey there, boss. How, how's it going?>"
"<Excellently,>" he said. "<I have found the words with which Soul shall be broken.>"
"<Words? Aren't you gonna break her with, um, fire?>"
"<Oh, she will lose her life,>" said Downfall. "<but only after she has lost her spirit. A true demon would accept no less.>"
One of the gangsters seemed dubious. "<What kinda words could break Soul? Ain't she supposed to be, y'know, tough?>"
Downfall laughed. "<She rushes to the call of duty. She fights the worst the multiverse can throw at her. She defends the defenseless. But behind that facade of nobility and courage, there's nothing but a little girl pretending to be something she's not - as expected from a measly human! Once I show her her true self, she will crumble. She's a hero, yes... And heroes exist to be broken!>"
"<Another political assassination?>" Secano raised an eyebrow. "<Grand Adviser, is this wise? Won't it arouse suspicion?>"
"<Not yet, and not at this rate,>" said Chancell. "<But that is precisely why I am proceeding slowly with this part of the plan. It helps that the current state of crisis is raising tensions worldwide, though. Somalia, Sudan and Colombia will soon be puppet nations. The general, like the others, understands perfectly that he would be easy to replace.>"
"<Isn't this... risky?>" Secano hadn't wanted to question the plan before, but... "<We are already making good progress with Japan. Why use this parallel strategy? Isn't it increasing the risk of our operation being found out?>"
"<Secano... Our operation is always at risk of being found out. And reality on the field is rarely accommodating toward battle plans. What if the Circle of Wisdom ruins plan A? What if Endless Ravage destroys Japan? What if Mother Aurora discovers our secret? What if Murder decides to assassinate the prime minister? There are too many variables. We need backup plans. A professional strategy isn't one that predicts events, but one that can adapt to them.>"
Eriko sat down and wrote. "<My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I am Soul. If you are reading this, that probably means I was Soul. My life is terribly dangerous at the moment, and I know at least one of my enemies has upcoming plans for me, so I'm writing this just in case.
Earlier this year, I have spent three months in a coma at the Juntendo Hospital. I have erased this information from hospital records, and for that I apologize. During my coma...>"
She went on for a while, describing her experience. "<My research notes can be found in the accompanying DVD. As for the rest... I just wanted to tell everyone I'm sorry. Mom, dad, I'm sorry I lied to you, sorry I got myself killed and put you through all this. You have been the best parents a weirdo like me could have had. You deserved better than dishonesty and loss. Junko, I'm sorry I couldn't be a good friend or a sister to you. You owe me nothing. Mother Aurora, Monsoon, in case this ever reaches you, I'm sorry for revealing your secrets, but if I'm no longer around to help then I think it's for the best. I'm sorry I couldn't be a better protector of the world. Inspector Aoyama, I'm sorry to have burdened you, to have told you so little. I'm sorry, everyone.>"
"A last will and testament. Really."
"Not in itself an unreasonable idea, but this tone..."
"Such pathetic self-pity. So much unlike what I have come to expect from Soul. If I didn't know better, I'd question whether you were actually Eriko Watanabe."
"Your silence is deafening."
"And they're still not letting you access the captives or the records of their interviews?" said Helen as she examined one of the dresses in the shop. Hm. Nice. I think this one would look good on me. The green would make a nice contrast with my hair. But it might not look professional enough for this. Maybe I'll take it as a personal expense with my next paycheck.
"No luck," admitted Walker. "They're keeping that data top-secret. Koyama is polite and apologetic, but he says the orders came from the uppermost echelons of the government, even before they got Tamai."
"Well, they're not stupid," said the Ghost. "If Downfall could empower his mooks, then it's obvious they could be key to immense power."
"But it's power we can't afford for America not to have," said Helen. "Mind you, I'm not saying you should pry it from the PCTF... Politics might actually be our best bet here."
"Agreed," said the Ghost. "I'll see if the Washington folks and the diplomatic corps can convince their government to share what they've found."
"And if they can't," she said, "then Walker, it's still for the best if you ask no questions about it... yet. No need to keep them on their guard."
"Indeed," said their supervisor. "What about your angle?"
"I've interviewed the Ebisu Foundation folks. Near as I can tell, they're legit."
"No reason for them not to be. I'd be more interested in finding where Downfall has holed up. Or what Soul really is."
"I know what you mean. But I still want to check out Maxcorp. Interview with one of the VPs tomorrow. In the meanwhile, you and Walker keep trying to get the PCTF and PSIA* on board with this; we'll need their help."
"We'll also need their approval," said the Ghost. "We're not going to antagonize them by performing illegal surveillance on Japanese soil without very good reasons."
"I know, I know. Don't worry, I'm just testing the waters for now."
Mister Watanabe read the latest news online. The Vatican's official statement says they're not sure the invaders are demons and Soul an angel, but it's certainly implying they are. Shares in Japanese companies still losing worth. More and more politicians and media personalities demanding that Soul explain herself and what's going on... but it's obvious what they really want is magic. The G20 is putting together a think-tank of economists, sociologists and scientists to analyze the potential consequences of magic on society. Rekindled interest in magical girl stories and kaiju movies...
OK, enough with the delaying. I need to get this done.
Taking a deep breath, he went to the girls' room. With Eriko away on a routine medical checkup, he found his adopted daughter reading a manga in bed.
Wait, is she reading? I think she's just holding it, doing nothing.
She looked up. "<Um, yes, Mister Watanabe?>"
He refrained from sighing. I suppose it's unreasonable to have her call me "dad". "<I hope you have a few minutes. We need to have a talk.>"
"<Of course. About what?>"
"<Well... You haven't seemed very happy lately. For that matter, neither has Eriko. We're somewhat concerned.>"
Junko said nothing for a while. He pursued: "<Junko... Is something wrong?>"
"<I... don't know,>" she said. "<I, well... I don't think...>" She struggled with the words for a while. "<I don't think I've been a very good friend to her.>"
She looked in surprise when he chuckled. "<I'm starting to think you girls are way too hard on yourselves.> So tell me... Does this have anything to do with that boy who asked Eriko out?" He and his wife made it a point to intersperse the occasional English sentence in their dialog, as a way of helping Junko learn.
She blinked. "Well... It's... complicated. <She rejected the coolest boy at school. I just don't understand it.>"
"<From what I've heard, wasn't he a bit of a jerk?>"
"<A little. But lots of girls liked him. Even Eriko knew he was...>" she trailed off, blushing.
He looked sideways. Careful: Minefield. "<Junko, these things are always complicated. It's possible to like some aspects of someone, and still dislike them as a whole. Maybe Eriko cared more about his flaws than his qualities. You wouldn't go out with any boy who showed interest, would you?>"
"<But Eriko doesn't show interest in anyone!>" said Junko. "<She doesn't care about having a boyfriend, she doesn't try to make friends, she... she acts like being alone doesn't even bother her!>"
"<Have you considered that maybe it doesn't?>"
"Junko, people are different. <They don't all want, or need, the same things. Some people are miserable unless they're surrounded by friends. Other people feel the happiest living in an isolated shack in the woods, away from everyone else. Some people need love and romance above all else. Others simply don't care for it. You're bound to meet a lot of very different people in life... and it's important to remember that they can have very different needs.>"
"<But... But I don't understand what Eriko wants at all!>"
He smiled. "<Then take the time to find out. What are friends for?>"
Vice-president Nishimoto had known he wasn't in for an easy ride when he had accepted the position with Maxcorp's Japanese branch. Not that he had been looking for one, of course. He was competent, he worked hard, and he believed he could be bold when the situation called for it; Maxcorp seemed like a good fit. All in all, he had figured that taking an hour to answer a journalist's questions wouldn't be the hardest part of his week.
He had not expected to get drilled about connections between his boss and the yakuza. This American reporter seemed to know a lot more about Miss Steel (or "Steel-Sama", as he had quickly discovered she was nicknamed) than he did.
"<No, Miss Barker, I am confident that there was no involvement between Maxcorp and the death of the Hino clan. Even if we accept your thesis rather than the gas leak explanation, Maxcorp is a legitimate business, not a terrorist organization. We deal in technological solutions, not yakuza wars.>"
"<You say that, but everybody knows how unconvincing the official claims were. Additionally, the Hino clan were feared; few would have dared to go against them. Given the motive they had handed Mrs. Steel less than a month earlier, wouldn't she - and Maxcorp by extension - have been the most likely suspects?>"
"<These allegations are ridiculous! It would make far more sense to blame the yakuza directly!>"
"<Would it, now? Do you really believe the yakuza would stoop to mass murder against a rival clan?>"
"<Of course they would! They are nothing but violent criminals!>"
"<That's not what you said earlier,>" she said, playing with one of her digital recorders. His face fell when he recognized a moment from over half-an-hour earlier into the interview:
"<...but Maxcorp has been liberally investing hundreds of millions, billions of yens on loan from the Kahara clan. How can you say that this doesn't constitute shady involvement with the underworld?>"
"<Miss Barker, I'm afraid you're conflating two entirely different things. The Japanese yakuza are not some criminal secret society like the mafias you can find in America. Despite some surface similarities, they are a legitimate organization with public offices and practices. They are among the first to provide relief in disaster areas. Cooperating with the local yakuza branch is a perfectly normal course of action for a Japanese company.>"
He wiped some sweat off his brow, silently cursing himself. I should have remembered I'd said that... But the conversation has covered so much since. Damn this smug, nosey... He took a deep breath. "<Miss Barker... The role of the Yakuza in Japanese society is a complex matter. I could not cover it entirely in just this interview. Obviously, in a different context, they are going to appear as radically different things, but I cannot properly explain such a matter in just a few short sentences. I was merely trying to give a reasonably simplified version for someone not acquainted with the culture...>"
She smirked coyly. "<Mister Nishimoto... I imagine I'll be writing several articles about Maxcorp and its CEO soon. Depending on what I find out, they could wind up very positive or very negative. I think it may be for the best if Miss Steel makes sure to give me her own version of things. Preferably in person.>"
He closed his eyes for a few seconds. "<You want an interview with Miss Steel.>"
"<Well, of course. I think she'll want to give me one, too.>"
But while that could be useful, that's not my sole objective , she pondered as she glanced at the rest of the office floor. I'm figuring out this place's layout, and how to bug it properly. Optimally, we'd just aim a laser mic at your office's windows. Except that you decided to be the world's only CEO whose office has no view on the outside. Properly paranoid, perhaps?
But that won't help you. That's hardly the only trick at our disposal.
My name is Aoyama Hyosuke, and I'm wondering when we'll see the end of this.
Thanks to Soul, we finally have one of those bastards in custody. That girl really came through. I know Koyama hates depending on an unknown foreign element like her, and I don't like it either, but fuck it - we can't afford being picky and half the city might be smoking ruins if not for her. So, sure, it's suspicious that she won't tell us everything, but that doesn't have to mean she's a baddie. Hell, I'm half-expecting to learn she's got a superior giving her stupid orders and telling her not to share information - it's pretty obvious that she hates hiding stuff. Well, that, or she's the most convincing actress on Earth. Which I doubt.
But we're so far from done. Downfall is still out there, and he's got at least one pet mage left. Murder is still out there, killing dozens of people per week. The Circle of Wisdom is still out there, and gods know what abomination they'll unleash next. And, no less worrisome... I think we've got a leak.
By the time Tamai "The Living Curse" Masaki told us where Downfall and his crew were holed up, they were already gone, and the place was on fire. Just like the last one. That's not surprising, though I'm starting to find it suspicious that they're able to even find these hiding places. However... Downfall knowing to run away this time made sense. We'd just captured his flunky. What makes less sense is what happened the last two times. We close in on his first HQ, and it turns out he's ready for us. We track down his second HQ through cell phones, and he evacuates it, leaving the phones behind. Could be a coincidence. Could be he's just careful, and figured out his security risks. Could also be he's using magic to spy on us, even.
But it could also be that someone simply told him . And I can't be the only one to whom the possibility has occurred. Walker's a smart guy. So are several of our other detectives. Heck, even Koyama may have thought of it (Hiromasa's still blissfully unaware, I'll bet). But it's not a pleasant prospect. Do we have a traitor? Is Soul telling him everything she knows behind our back? Is he listening in on us magically? Neither of these possibilities are very comforting. I'll admit, I'm really hoping he just got lucky.
For now, though, it's Soul we're trying to figure out.
"<Human DNA, probably Japanese. Does that mean we at least know she's human?>" asked Koyama.
"<Not necessarily,>" said Hyosuke. "<Remember, Downfall could take a human form. She may have done the same.>"
"<And even if she's human,>" commented one of the PCTF agents brought over from the PSIA, "<that might not mean much. The Circle of Wisdom are human too, or at least bill themselves as such. They could be lying, of course.>"
"<If they're really coming from another world, that limits the options,>" said Hyosuke, recalling one of his talks with professor Maru. "<Humanity evolved here; for there to be humans in another world, it has to mean that either they're originally from our own, or that their world's History was exactly like ours for billions of years and then changed after humanity emerged.>"
"<And we have no way of knowing either way,>" Koyama sighed. "<Fine, so we don't know for certain she's human, only that she has a human body. What else?>"
"<She's a rookie. I'd wager a pay cut on it,>" said the commander of the PCTF's military branch. "<I've seen the footage of her early fights, and she had no idea what she was doing. She's learning fast, but she's learning.>"
"<Fluent in Japanese and English,>" said Walker. "<Accent's mostly Japanese, with some American influence, which supports the theory that she's native to our world.>"
"<According to professor Maru, she is extremely intelligent, and familiar with multiple scientific disciplines,>" added Hyosuke. "<But he says she mostly has surface knowledge. Less like a professional scientist than like a college freshman who reads a lot. She seemed very excited about contributing to actual scientific research.>"
"<She prioritized keeping civilians and our own people safe during battles,>" said another detective. "<She also seems to dislike using lethal force. Her fight with the gunman shouldn't have taken that long.>"
"<Familiar with at least bits and pieces of popular culture, uses modern expressions... I'm almost sure she's a real Earth girl,>" Hyosuke shrugged. "<Even if she's slightly verbose. Sounds to me like she's some kind of teen genius, all things considered.>"
"<But she knows things. And she's reluctant to share all she knows,>" said Koyama. "<And the way she disappeared Queen of Pain without telling us the details, even though she was fine with handing us Tamai... I'm inclined to believe she's working for someone. Possibly even those fairies the Circle mentioned. She wouldn't say a word about them.>"
"<A possibility,>" said Walker. "<But if those fairies exist, we can only guess at their objectives. Part of our problem is that we have several powerful new factions at work, none of which we have any prior knowledge about. For all we know, several of them could actually be only a single one.>"
"<True,>" said the PSIA agent. "<Murder could be an agent of the Circle, making them look like a preferable alternative. Soul and Downfall could be on the same side, playing a twisted good cop/bad cop routine on us all. Murder and Downfall could be the same person. Or things could be exactly as they seem. Our ability to make rational decisions remains crippled until we can gather more information on the various factions.>"
"<Tamai is already singing like a canary about Downfall,>" said Hyosuke, "<even if he only knows what that demon told him. For now, though... there is Soul.>"
"<You... seem to have some rapport with her,>" admitted Koyama. "<Do you think you can drill her?>"
"<I can at least try to get a better idea of who she is and where she stands.>" And I don't think she's some kind of mole. I really don't. But I could be wrong...
My name is Mitani Yoshio, or lieutenant Mitani. I'm a member of the Japanese Special Forces Group... Or rather, I was. Just like those twenty other guys standing beside me, I've just been transferred to this... this new unit. They warned me from the start that it would be top-secret stuff, and that we had low odds of survival... But they also said this unit is going to make a big difference with the invasion of our country, and I could already tell that if I make it, this will be the ultimate move for my career.
I'm guessing they told the other guys the same thing. I wouldn't know, though. We're all wearing ski masks, we were told not to talk to each other yet... I have no idea who the other guys are. More SFG guys? People from the Special Boarding Unit? No idea.
But I was probably right about this being a huge career move, given that the guy briefing us is the prime minister himself. And he's telling us that...
"<...this unit will be operating on an exceptional level of secrecy. You will save the nation, you will be heroes, yes, but you will be anonymous heroes. Your identities will be known to only a select few individuals at the highest echelons of the government and Self-Defense Force. Revealing your names and faces will be considered an act of treason. Your families will have to be kept in the dark about your actual assignment. Even with each other, you will have only limited interaction.
Make no mistake, gentlemen. We are at war. You have been selected to fight with different weapons, different tactics, and different risks, in order to safeguard our country from those who would enslave or destroy it. If we win this war? Then there will be statues of you in public spaces. If we lose this war? Then you will die in obscurity. Not that it will matter, since Japan as we know it will be no more.
However, there is one thing that must be absolutely clear: To join this unit, you will undergo a radical form of training, which may be even d eadlier than your actual missions. Of those who will proceed, we expect only one in three to survive. Those who die, will have died in service to their country, and will be publicly honored. Those who live, will be our nation's only hope.
This is your last chance to walk away, soldiers. Anyone who stays in the room now, will have volunteered for a very dangerous patriotic duty.>"
Yoshio didn't budge from his spot. You can count on me, prime minister, sir!
Steel-Sama was not aware of Helen Barker's existence. She was not aware that the CIA was taking an interest in her. But she was aware of the possibility. By becoming the PCTF's chief weapon provider, after all, Maxcorp was establishing itself as a notable player in the crisis; it only stood to reason that the PCTF, the CIA, and others might want to know what was going on behind the company's closed doors. What if Downfall had figured out more than he let know, and Living Curse revealed it during interrogation? What if Murder had? In short, while she didn't know for certain whether she was under investigation yet, she prefered to be careful. Which was why she was having her conversation with Downfall in a random company car, in the middle of traffic, with a cell phone she was confident the authorities didn't know about.
"I believe we have found a suitable location for your battle, Mister Downfall. We need to check it out and ensure there are no nasty surprises, but barring any unexpected development, you can conclude matters with Soul tomorrow afternoon."
"About time!" said the demon. "You have been keeping me in waiting far too long, mortal. I have half a mind to just go ahead without your help and careful preparations."
"You could do that. But you would have to settle for less exposure, worse angles for the news camera, PCTF meddling, and overall less effect," she replied, her voice still digitally masked. "Considering how your fights with Soul have turned out in the past, I assume you are planning to have Crimson Rain protect you during the battle?"
Some anger seeped into Downfall's voice. "Nonsense! She got lucky the first time, and I chose to leave for my own reasons the second. I will need no help for this finale!"
Sucker , Harris thought to himself, smirking as he kept driving the car.
"Very well. Once you have killed Soul, you intend to take her corpse back to the base?"
"Of course. There are appropriate ceremonies for the demise of a hated foe, and the initiates had better learn to appreciate them."
Harris's smirk disappeared. Please don't go into detail again. Hearing about it once was bad enough. Can't you just incinerate her body and blow away the ashes, like a normal person? Idly, he wondered how Downfall's gang would react to having to participate in his gruesome "ceremonies".
"So I imagine," said Steel-Sama. "Good luck, Mister Downfall."
"Magnificence makes its own luck."
As the conversation ended, Harris glanced at her. "So how much explosive did you place in his new hideout?"
"More than it would take to get past his shields."
"Can't say I'll miss the bastard. But why? I thought he was a useful source of information."
"For now, he is. If he wins tomorrow's battle, however, his next move will be to torch civilization to the ground, starting with Tokyo. Between his shields and portals, he can, in fact, destroy the city if he so chooses."
"...And we live in the city."
"Among other things. If Soul dies, then Downfall becomes more of a liability than an asset. He will not survive his triumphant return to his HQ."
"Fair enough. But what if Soul wins?"
"In the best case scenario, Downfall is captured alive and brought a prisoner to the PCTF, where we may yet benefit from his knowledge. Failing that, we simply focus on magical R&D with Crimson Rain."
"You told him that in the 'unlikely' eventuality of his capture, you would use your connections within the PCTF to plan his escape..."
"A precautionary lie. It will make him somewhat less likely to reveal our role in this. I doubt he can give the PCTF enough information to go back to us, but there is no point in taking unnecessary risks. The less reasons the PCTF has to suspect he has Earth-based allies, the better."
"Right. What about Murder?"
"He remains a wildcard. We know he was spying on Downfall. Telling Downfall, however, would not have advanced our goals, and would have allowed Murder to connect us to the people who were interrogating him earlier. We will simply have to watch and see what he does, if anything."
"So...At least one of the magical players is taken off the board tomorrow, and you get to keep one mage who's sorta cooperative? Not a bad deal."
The Watanabes were having dinner when the Soul-Signal rang.
"<Eriko, I've told you to turn your phone off during meals,>" her mother said, slightly annoyed as her daughter answered.
"<Hello? Huh. Yes. Is it an emergency? I see. I'm... Look, I'm busy right now. I'm with you in fifteen minutes. Bye.>"
"<Who was it?>" asked her father.
"<...Aoyama,>" she replied after a second of hesitation.
"<An upperclassman from school,>" said Junko quickly. "<She helps him with English, he helps her with Japanese.>"
Their parents did not pursue the matter further. It was not as if Eriko had a history of deceit.
Less than fifteen minutes later, while Eriko was "officially" in her room chatting with the fictitious upperclassman, Soul was actually meeting the real police detective on the PCTF's rooftop. "<You wanted to see me, sir?>"
"<Nothing urgent, like I told you,>" he said. While they were ostensibly alone, the conversation was being recorded and listened to by the rest of the PCTF. "<I mostly wanted to know how you were holding up.>"
He gazed down at her. "<Soul, you're a brave girl, but you're, what? 15? 16? 17 at the very most? It's bad enough for trained adults to face the kind of things you deal with; I hate the idea of a kid having to.>"
She looked at the ground. "<I... I'll be fine...>" I hope. I mean, I did actually feel the need to write down a last will and testament. Which I haven't been able to do anything with anyway. I mean, what, am I supposed to give it to Junko? Yeah, that would go well.
His brow furrowed. She didn't object to being called a kid. Most teenagers would. Hm... "<Will you? You looked pretty shaken after some of those fights.>" He paused. "<It's OK to talk about these things, you know. We're not expecting you to be made of steel.>"
But what if I am , and it's not actually a good thing? "<...Thank you. And... Well, I'm not saying it's easy. But... Well, I gotta do what I gotta do, right?>"
"<About that,>" he said. "<I'd like to be a bit clearer about your motivation here. I mean...>" he waved his hand, "<I'm a cop. Protecting people is my job. You don't look like you've finished high school yet, and I can tell you're not exactly enjoying these battles. So why are you doing this?>"
She paused. "<I... I wonder.>" Seeing him raise an eyebrow, she went on: "<What happens if I don't? People die. Cities burn. The world... The world becomes a much, much worse place. And... And that's wrong. It shouldn't happen. It'snot the way things should be. So I try to stop it from happening, because for now, I'm the only person who can.>" That's good, right? That's a decent motivation, right? Even if it's a bit impersonal?
He considered. "<Do you mean, you're doing this because you don't want people to be hurt, or because you don't want the world to be a certain way?>"
"<Well... Both, I guess?>" But... Possibly more the latter? It's hard to tell. How much do I care about the actual victims?
He nodded. "<You're a good kid, Soul. No, really. Most folks in your position wouldn't show this kind of courage. And this city would probably be a pile of slag if you didn't act the way you did. But, well...>" his expression turned apologetic, "<...I'm still a police detective. I can't really blame the PCTF for not being very comfortable with, well, with an ally keeping secrets.>"
Her expression fell. "<It's, it's not that I don't want to help. It's just... This information is incredibly dangerous, detective Aoyama. In the wrong hands, it can destroy the world even without a psycho douchebag like Downfall.>" And Mother Aurora knows what she's doing, supposedly...
"<Maybe. Maybe. But to be honest, Soul... The impression most of us are getting is that you're taking orders from someone else. Allies we don't know about?>"
"<I... I couldn't say, detective Aoyama.>"
"<Well, I'm not gonna make you,>" he shrugged, "<so I just want to ask you one question: Do you trust them?>"
She blinked. Mother Aurora and Monsoon have taught me a lot about magic. They've taught me how to use my powers a lot more effectively. They've helped me against Downfall and the Circle of Wisdom, warned me against Murder, given me advice... Does that prove anything? Does their cryptic attitude prove anything? "<I... I think so, sir.>" Wait, will he take it as confirmation I'm working for someone? Augh.
"<Then I hope you're right.>" He took a deep breath, then smiled. "<Whatever happens? I'm glad you've been there to help us, and I hope we can beat Downfall and whatever he's got planned together.>"
He extended his hand. Hesitatingly, she shook it. "<...Thank you, sir.>"
Back at the PCTF HQ, Aoyama pondered once more just how trustworthy she was. Just to be on the safe side... I'm going to have to put together a test of some sort.
"<The day has come,>" Downfall grinned from ear to ear as the sun rose. "<Today, Soul dies.>"
Live news reporting was always stressful work. You had very limited time to prepare, you had to adapt to the news as it emerged, and you couldn't flub in front of the camera.
Truth be told, the stressfulness was not lessened by a demon appearing right next to you (and right in front of the cameras) at the start of the morning broadcast.
Eriko was woken by the Soul-Signal. She quickly judged it a horrible way to start her Sunday morning.
"<It's Downfall,>" said Hyosuke. "<He teleported into three different news studio in the middle of live news reading, in rapid succession. Gave the exact same speech each time - he's calling you out to meet him at a specific location at noon, alone, or else he'll kill thousands. He left immediately, didn't even take the time to hurt anyone. The location is...>"
"<This location is bullshit!>" the PCTF's military attaché slammed his fists on the desk. "<It's a freaking public square! How can there be no good angle to place a PRISM unit?! Wait, maybe here... No, there's no way. It'll be visible from any distance.>"
"<What about here?>" Koyama pointed another spot on the map. "<Tall building. We could put it on the rooftop...>"
"<No way, it's too far. If he's gonna be in the square, it'll be an impossible shot. You'd just set everything on fire.>" The military officer sighed. "<That bastard picked his location well. There's no preparation we can make for the battle. No place to hide any surprise for him, no way to intervene except with the choppers...>"
"<Speaking of which, news choppers are already circling it. The place has excellent visibility,>" said Koyama. "<That may have been another reason he picked this spot. I think he's going for effect.>" He pinched the bridge of his nose. "<Just evacuate the damn place. Keep jeeps of soldiers armed with shield-piercing guns ready. And get Soul in here!>"
"<Eriko and I are just gonna be watching the news online,>" Junko told her adoptive mother as she barricaded herself in the room with the Eriko "doll". Please be safe, Eriko...
"<There you are!>" exclaimed an annoyed Monsoon as Eriko used the transformation pillar to assume her Soul form. "<Don't portal off on me now, missy! I've seen the news, and you gotta think things through!>"
"<He said to meet him at noon,>" said Eriko, nervously averting her gaze from the fairy. "<Still got several hours, but I need to talk to the PCTF. We'll think of something.>"
"<Think schmink! Stop avoiding me, this is serious!>"
"<I know that!>"
"<Then act like you know that! Look, I'm here to give you advice, specifically so you don't get yourself stupidly killed! So are you going to listen?>"
"<I am listening!>" But make it quick. Please.
"<OK. He said to be there at noon, but, if possible, try arriving later than him. You don't want Downfall to portal-ambush you, you want to portal-ambush Downfall. Also, he seems to have a melodramatic streak. If he starts giving a speech, interrupt him with a surprise attack. A strong one. He might be smart enough to bring hostages though. In which case, be ready to put some distance between you and him, long enough to figure something out. But don't focus on the hostages, focus on Downfall; he want to destroy the world, not just a handful of people. Also, see if the PCTF can get a few of those nifty lasers aimed at him. If he's monologuing, maybe you should have them interrupt him first before you join in on the fun...>"
For a moment, Eriko wondered whether the ability to talk without stopping to breath was magical in nature, or came naturally to Monsoon.
"No way I can get up close," said Helen on the phone. "I'll get to the rooftop and observe from afar. Hey, see if you can get me one of those shield-piercing rifles for next time."
"<...panic grips the district while the police cordon off the area...>" said the newscaster while the thugs watched.
"<So, who're ya betting on? Soul, or the boss?>"
"<No bets. If the boss finds out, and if anyone bets on Soul, we're dead.>"
"<Point. Pass the popcorn."
"<There you are! About time!>"
"<I apologize for the delay,>" Soul gave a polite bow. Monsoon wasn't exactly someone I wanted to talk to, but I'm not dumb enough to turn down tactical advice in a situation like this. "<Any further development since you called?>"
"<Not yet, except for the occasional bouts of panic. We've given the area a look, and...>"
"<Prime minister, shouldn't we at least try to send Secano?>"
"<Secano isn't a soldier. He's already stated his intention to stay out of this. And given that we need him to train our new unit, I don't think risking him on this is our best bet.>"
"<But sir... If Soul loses, what's to stop Downfall from tearing the city apart?>"
"<Hopefully? The PCTF and the Self-Defense Force might not be entirely helpless. But if Secano dies before arming us, how will we defend ourselves against the Circle of Wisdom?>"
"<Sure, we'll take a break to watch the battle when it takes place,>" said Harris at the lab. "<For now, though, keep working. Try to open a portal at this location,>" he showed another rooftop on the live feed.
"<Sure, sure. Sheesh.>" Crimson Rain gestured, successfully opening another gate.
Harris nodded approvingly. He hadn't wanted to show the man his true face, but the large sunglasses helped, and he knew the fake beard looked realistic... Still, he didn't like the lab gloves much.
The square was usually bustling with people at this time of the day. For once, though, it was eerily empty. A cat lazily walked through the atypically empty space... then ran away in terror when Downfall stepped through a portal shortly after noon. He was holding a terrified man by the head in one hand, and a golden knife in the other. "SOUL! COME HERE AND FACE ME!"
From a "safe" distance, the news choppers were retransmitting the entire event, live, to hundreds of millions, if not billions of viewers. Much of Paris and Cairo had gotten out of bed early. Much of New York wasn't going to bed yet. Much of Beijing was glued to the screen. They all saw as the second portal opened, and the girl in white hovered through it, facing the demon ten times her size.
"There you are," he grinned cruelly. "Almost on time, too."
"<SOUL! YOU GOTTA SAVE ME!>" the hostage screamed in terror, flailing around helplessly.
"You have a hostage," she observed, her outward appearance not betraying her nervousness yet. Except for the sweat she unconsciously wiped off her brow.
"Naturally. I have a few things to say to you, and I did not want to be rudely interrupted."
"Let him go," she said, mustering as much steel into her voice as she could. "You want to talk. Fine. But if you hurt him, I'll attack you. If you don't let him go now, I'll attack you. If you let him go, I'll let you speak your piece."
His grin wavered for an instant, and then reasserted itself. "Oh? And why should I trust you?"
"I always keep my promises." Right? I do, right? I mean, I never actually promised mom not to walk into danger again... Dear gods I suck.
He considered for a moment, then laughed loudly. "I can believe that. You so-called heroes and your silly codes." He let the man go; the latter dropped to the ground, then got up and ran away. The demon turned his attention back to the magical girl. "This has been a long time coming, Soul. The first time we met, I crushed you. I could have finished you off. But you displayed unexpected resourcefulness, and I thought it best to see how far you could go."
I'm... almost sure that's not what really happened...
"On our second encounter, I wanted to deal with you permanently, but it wasn't time yet. True, I knew I would win. For all that you are a talented amateur, you cannot truly prevail against an ancient demon once he gets truly serious. But I wanted to study your character for a while. To see what manner of human you were. To study the lie."
She blinked. "The lie? What do you mean?"
He grinned. "The lie that you live, Soul. The lie that you are. I have observed you carefully. I have tasted your emotions. I have smelled the very emptiness that you fear within your heart!" He gestured dramatically. "Human beings are the sum total of their relationships with each other; the human soul is composed of its connections to its fellow men. A person is nothing without other people. And you, little Soul, are hardly a person at all! I'd hesitate to even call you human!"
She took a step back. "What... What do you mean by that?"
"LOOK AT YOURSELF!" he bellowed, causing her to flinch. "Always rushing in to the rescue, and leaving immediately after. Always the mysterious savior. Never staying around long enough to even get to know the people you've saved. Have you ever wondered why?"
She said nothing. He went on: "For all your showy heroics, you do not care, Soul! You merely pretend to! You are not driven by some noble love for humanity! You are not driven by compassion and warmth! You are nothing but a cold, empty shell, masquerading as a noble and true champion!"
She said nothing.
His expression grew increasingly triumphant. "Suppose that you fight me. In fact, let us be generous: Suppose that you win. Suppose that you defeat all those who would threaten the filthy humans of this miserable planet. Then what? Will you go and celebrate your victory with all the friends and family you most assuredly have? I don't think so. Loved ones are for real, genuine human beings, not empty shells playing at being real people. How can you call yourself a hero of the human race, when you cannot even connect with the human race? How can you call yourself 'Soul', when you don't have one?"
She said nothing.
He raised a clenched fist in the air. "All that you do is a sad, pitiful charade. Win or lose, Soul, you are completely alone. And even worse, you have no option but to be alone! Without a real human heart, without the warmth that draws humans together, you can never be anything more than a sad, lonely caricature of your race! All of your attempts at acting nobly and justly are nothing but that - nothing but the last-ditch attempt of an empty shell to convince herself she can be a real girl!" Small flames surrounded his knife-wielding fist as he concluded.
She said nothing.
Then she chuckled.
Then she laughed.
Then she doubled over with laughter. "Oh God, what a relief!"
He blinked, his smile replaced with a quizzical look. "Relief?"
She stopped laughing, but was now smiling widely instead. "Let me tell you a little story," she said enthusiastically. "Once upon a time, there was an introverted, intellectual girl who got herself some magical powers. The girl soon found herself using her magical powers to save the world, because, in the words of another super-powered teenager, 'With great power comes great responsibility'."
"And so, this magical girl got in a lot of fights and difficult situations, which she often found pretty stressful and depressing. But she kept going, because it was the right thing to do, and if you don't think that's a good enough reason, you're an idiot."
"But that's-" He tried to interrupt, but she did not slow down. Had he been paying closer attention, he would have noticed she was not dropping her guard, either.
"And as she went on, the girl started having alllll sorts of doubts about herself. What kind of person was she? Was it wrong of her to have almost no friends? Was it wrong of her to not care about having almost no friends? Did she feel sad enough about all the victims? Should she try to be famous, so that the public would love her? Should she be obsessed about romance, about finding a boy who would love her? Should she try to be more like everyone else? Was she a bad kind of person for letting the stress get to her, make her lose her temper at times? Was she the wrong kind of person for not being more social, for not depending on other people to be happy?"
"Yes you-" he desperately attempted to steer the conversation back on track.
"But then, some dumb cliché Chaotic Evil loser tried to give her a cheap attempt at a Hannibal Lecture, throwing alllll her doubts in her face in the most obvious, transparent manipulation attempt of all times. And those doubts that had been making her question her own humanity? They all sounded so dumb once they were spoken out loud! What, are you seriously trying to convince me I'm a bad person, or even no person at all, because I'm not a social butterfly? That was your plan? Let me tell you what kind of person I am: I am an introvert. I am a left-brainer. I am a helpful helper who helps. I am a scientist. I am an engineer. I am a mage. I am a loner. I am the most honest person I know. I am a truth-seeker. I am a superheroine. I am a mahou shoujo."
She smiled defiantly at the confused demon. "I am Soul. Yeah, sure, I'm not the most social person around. Who cares? None of this was ever a problem! I can be a perfectly good person the way I am, and I should never have let it worry me so much in the first place. I guess I let the stress get to me, but hey, look at it this way: Seeing how much of an idiot you were being about this was exactly what I needed to make me see how dumb I was about the whole thing!"
"But-" he sputtered.
"Let me tell you what I'm going to do. I'm going to be good to what few friends I have. Maybe I'll make more friends down the road, but I'm going to stay an introvert, and I'm going to be fine with that. I'm going to keep doing a scientific study of magic. I'm going to keep the world safe. I'm going to open whole new branches of scientific research..."
"WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME ALL THIS?!"
"...But first, I'm going to unleash astronomical amounts of pwnage onto you, because I'm the Junior Goddess of Kick Your Ass!"
"That doesn't even make any-"
"Junior! Goddess! Of Kick your Ass!"
Downfall blinked a couple times, not sure what the Hell had just happened. That concern was quickly eclipsed by the portal to the Mariana trenches that opened between him and Soul, blasting him with pressurized water and sending him a good distance back. He flung himself sideways, then sent a fiery blast at her. She deflected it with a quick portal. He sent a second blast. She deflected it again - this time with a portal whose other end was aimed at Downfall. He yelped in pain as his own flame seared his skin. Cursing, he jumped through a portal.
"Oh no you don't." Her gaze narrowing, Soul flew through another gate, taking her a hundred meters above the square. From her high vantage point, she was able to see the still-steaming Downfall, who had teleported to another spot in the location. So he's not running away, he was just doing a tactical retreat. Good. She opened a portal again, this time right behind him. Downfall himself was looking upward, having just noticed her flying above; he barely saw her creating an anvil before she flung it through the portal, hitting the back of one of his legs. Roaring, he turned around on instinct; the gate had already closed, and she was flying in his direction. He turned back to face her, just in time to see her open another portal to the deep ocean; this time, he deflected it with a gate of his own.
That big, oversized form of his is pretty tough and hard to put down, but it limits maneuverability; he can't fling himself around as fast as me. Heck, I'll bet he can barely even fly! Landing on the ground to better focus on her attacks, she opened another portal. He prepared to defend, but didn't see anything happening. When she created an anvil and readied to fling through the gate, he frantically turned around to locate the angle of attack... only for the projectile to break through an inch of asphalt to strike him from below instead. Before he could even react, she telekinetically reached through the portal beneath him to slam him to the ground.
"Why you little..." He stopped mid-sentence when he saw her create a large harpoon, aiming it at the portal in front of her. With both magical telekinesis and his body's enhanced strength, he barely managed to dodge to the side before the harpoon was magically projected through the portal, grazing him as it shot upward. "THAT'S ENOUGH!" he roared, sending out a fiery blast; she deflected it again, then propelled herself thirty meters upward.
I'm winning here. I really am. He's not as good with portals as me, and it shows - heck, he hasn't even had an opportunity to use the knife yet. But I need to finish this quickly. His physical resistance is a problem, but if I hurt him enough that he feels he can't win, he might just portal away and escape. I need to hit him hard .
Hm. Sure, why not? I've been wanting to try this trick for a while now.
Downfall paused for a few seconds to consider his strategy. The little girl, blast her, was far better with portals than a novice like her should have been. Downfall didn't like using portals in combat. They lacked panache. Fire spells had class, and doubled as effective terror weapons. But he might need to use a different approach to dispatch Soul. Perhaps combine a portal with the Golden Knife, like Murder had? Granted, his original plan had involved finishing her off while she was dealing with the existential crisis of discovering her own humanity was a lie. How could... Wait, what was -
Downfall gasped as a portal opened beneath his feet, causing him to fall through it right next to Soul (who was still thirty meters in the air). He managed to magically stop his fall halfway to the ground, then readied his own attack, when he saw her open another portal, this time aimed at him...
See, this is an observation I made some time ago. When you open a portal that goes too far, there are consequences. Weaponizable consequences.
It happened far too quickly for Downfall to realize what was going on (or defend against it). One moment, a portal was opening, aimed at him from a distance of about twenty meters. The next moment, devastation.
Really, it only makes sense. The two ends of a portal are always stationary in relation to each other. But if you pick two geographic locations in the world? They're anything but stationary!
The news choppers filmed as the blast erupted from the portal before Soul, hitting Downfall all but instantaneously - like a column of solid devastation reaching to the ground, causing it to explode in a spectacular splash of water and gravel.
Because you see... The Earth is revolving eastward, and it's round . So at any moment, you and the patch of Earth you're standing on are going in one direction... while the patch of Earth on your antipodes is going in the opposite direction.
And the funny thing? It's going pretty fast. The Earth has a circumference of over 40,000 kilometers, and a revolution period of 24 hours. That means every spot on the equator is moving at a speed not too far from half a kilometer per second .
As the dust began to clear, the cameras filmed the large steaming crater that had formed in the street; Downfall's body, badly mangled, laid on the crater's rim. The Golden Knife wasn't anywhere near him.
Which begs the question: What happens when I, in Japan, open a portal at the equator, somewhat to the East of South America's coast? And about half a kilometer below sea level?
Answer: The most obliteratingly badass water cannon ever. Because, sure, tapping into the Marianas Trench provides pressure... But then, the water still needs time to accelerate. Here, the water is already going faster than a bullet. And this kind of speed means hundreds of tons of water crossing even a small portal in a single second. An energy yield measured in gigajoules, in hundreds of gigajoules.
And the scary part? That wasn't my best shot. I can think of an alternation on this technique that I'm still afraid of using due to collateral damage. For now, though...
Downfall's body twitched weakly as Soul landed right next to him, and affixed the anti-magic manacle to his arm. She then pointed her index at him. "Junior goddess of kick your ass."
He said nothing.
A short moment later, a PCTF jeep rolled by, with several soldiers... and one familiar detective.
"<Is he still alive?>"
"<Looks like it, Detective Aoyama. Barely, but yeah.>" Hm. I'm guessing his holistic shield will prevent his situation from deteriorating... "<I did put the manacle on him, though.>"
"<Good job. Anything else we should know?>"
"<Well... Like I told you, he can detect the emotions of people around him, and if you kill him there's a risk he'll come back. I think that's it.>"
"<Duly noted.>" Hyosuke then stepped toward the fallen demon. "<Downfall, by the authority of the Japanese police and the PCTF, I am putting you under arrest for murder, terrorism, and conspiracy against the government.>"
There was some confusion, many questions...but for most of the countless millions watching the event, there was, above all else, elation. And shouts of "Hell yeah!" that woke some people up, depending on time zones.
"<She beat the boss.>"
"<I can't believe it.>"
"<Think we should get outta here?>"
"<Hell yeah. Get everyth- >"
That profoundly important sentence was rudely interrupted by the explosives planted in the building.
Harris answered his phone while Crimson Rain watched the news, mouth wide open.
"Soul has won." There was no discernible emotion in Steel-Sama's voice.
"Yeah, I saw. So what now?"
"This will affect investments, of course. I have already liquidated relevant assets. Deal with the rest."
"Y-yes ma'am," he said as she hanged up. He then turned his attention back toward Crimson Rain. "<Listen. Something just happened.>"
"<Hell yes something just happened! Didja see that? Soul kicked his ass!>"
"<Beside that. One of your colleagues from Downfall's gang called us halfway through the fight. Said Murder had appeared inside the lair, and was killing everyone.>" That was a lie, of course - Steel-Sama had simply judged that Crimson Rain might become less cooperative if he knew the truth.
"<No fucking way.>"
"<And we just got another report. A large explosion in the area. Sounds like he blew the whole place up before leaving.>"
"<So, what I need you to do right now, is open a portal at these coordinates. We need to look for clues, for survivors, anything.>"
"<Back at the... No way! What if Murder is still there?!>"
"<We're not taking risks, Crimson Rain. I just want you to open a portal for one second - long enough for me to throw in this listening device,>" he said, holding up a cell phone.
It took some prodding, but eventually, Crimson Rain agreed, and opened the gate to the smoking remains of the building. Harris quickly threw the phone in. You and your plans, Steel... This had better work.
"I did it! I freakin' did it! I kicked his ass! WOO!"
"Glad to see you actually being happy about how one of your fights went," said Monsoon. "But that's not the only thing you're happy with, I'm guessing?"
Eriko's smile wavered for a moment, then returned. "Heh. Yeah, I guess. It was kinda silly, worrying over, well..."
"...over dumb nonsense?"
"Yeah, that. It's just that it's been, you know, eating at me for a while now. Like something was wrong with me, or I wasn't acting the way I should, or feeling the way I should, or... You get the idea."
Monsoon chuckled. "So... Your parents, Junko, me, none of us could help... But hearing one of your baddies say it did?"
"Guess my brain works on reverse psychology," Eriko stuck her tongue out. "OK, I promise we'll talk some more soon, but I should really get home now. Don't want to keep Junko waiting with the doll too long."
I can't stay here, Masaki thought to himself as he paced through his cell. He had long since stopped trying to get out of his straitjacket. They'll have me executed! I don't think I actually killed anyone, but I'm sure they'll find a way to execute me anyway. Dammit, how did this all happen to me? All I wanted was some goddamn respect! OK, let's see... Maybe the anti-magic crap will switch off after a while? I should keep trying to open portals every hour. Maybe Downfall will still need my help and rescue me? Maybe-
His thoughts were interrupted when the massive door opened, and PCTF agents pushed forward an obviously-injured, seemingly still hazy Downfall. Masaki watched, mouth open wide, as they locked him in an adjacent cell. Nearly a minute passed in silence.
"<...Downfall? What happened to you?>"
A silent moment passed before Downfall answered. "<Junior Goddess of Kick Your Ass.>"
As he stood over the corpse of the train driver, Murder observed his immaculate golden knife. "<It is good to have you back. I suppose Downfall wasn't a complete waste of time...If anything, his idiocy was entertaining. And he may have truly set something in motion with Crimson Rain, whether or not he realizes it himself.
Soul has come along nicely, from the looks of it. I suppose I'll be killing her very soon.>"
So, yeah. Yesterday's battle is still generating a lot of buzz. Probably will for a while.
Most of it is really positive. Lots of people were given hope by my finally beating Downfall. Sure, there's one or two who think the whole thing was staged. Hey, not my fault Downfall thinks massive rants before a big battle are somehow smart (then again, who am I to talk?). But still, most people seem pretty happy.
And frankly? I'm happy. I got over some major insecurities, and I beat a major villain. Maybe we can win this whole thing after all! And I'm definitely gonna be handling that whole "last will" thing differently.
But before that, there's something else else I want to win.
"<Good afternoon, president.>"
The president of the go club looked up. "<Oh, hello, Watanabe.>" The captain of the girls' team nodded to acknowledge her presence too.
"<I was wondering if I could play a game against you,>" said Eriko.
"<Huh? Uh, sure. Two handicap stones?>"
"<No. No handicap.>"
That gave both him and the captain pause. "<...Are you sure?>"
The captain of the girls' team stood by, observing the entire game. "<That was... more aggressive than you've been playing lately,>" she said after Eriko won by 2.5 points. "<Though admittedly still closer to your usual playstyle.>"
Eriko chuckled. "<I guess, yeah. Remember what you told me? Mindset matters. Well, I've been getting better.>"
"<I can see that.>" She pondered for a moment. "<If you can keep this up for the rest of the week, you're on the team. Maybe even the team's second.>"
"<Sure thing, captain. I'm not letting anyone down.>"
"Ohhh yeah. Now that was a scene worth flashbacking to!"
"Does this mean your loquaciousness is reasserting itself, Soul?"
"Oh bite me Douchebaggio. It's one of my fondest memories, and I wanted to properly appreciate it. Without wasting it on your ulcerific commentary, thank you very much."
"So I see. Downfall truly overestimated his plan, obviously."
"Well... Makes sense, no? He's spent several centuries in Hell, plotting and scheming and fantasizing about how one day he would go to a human world and proceed to prove himself the Best Demon Ever by being some kind of magnificent bastard villain-Sue."
"Only for all his fantasies, hopes and dreams to meet the cold, hard reality of humans who did not follow his narrative."
"Bingo. I'd feel sorry for the idiot if he wasn't such an evil bastard."
"And I'd feel sorry for you if I was the sort of person who felt sorry for anything."
"When I get out of here, you'll be sorry all right."
"Prepare to be disappointed, Soul."
My name is Watanabe Eriko, aka Soul. I'm a magical girl, and no, I wasn't being silent just so I could properly appreciate Downfall getting his sorry ass kicked. That was just a cover. I was THINKING. After all, I do need to get out of here somehow. And whatever I try, I doubt I'll get more than one shot at it.
My name is Watanabe Eriko... and I have a plan.
*PSIA: Public Security Intelligence Agency. The central intelligence agency of Japan.