Saga of Soul
CHAPTER 20: REMATCH
My name is Mother Aurora. I am the Fairy Queen. I am she who wields power beyond mortal ken. I am the nemesis of Hell. I am the slayer of eldritch abominations. I am the goddess that keeps empires in check. I am the bulwark in the path of multiversal annihilation. Countless billions across a multitude of worlds owe me their continued existence, and do not know of me. That is for the best - I do not need their recognition nor their gratitude, only that they cause no harm to reality.
My mission - the mission on which I have embarked my people - has been going on for ages. I have learned patience in the process. I am oft accused of inertia, of holding on to obsolete ideas. My detractors underestimate what I have learned from experience, from trial and error - for I am ancient indeed, even by the standards of fairykind; I was among the first, born to the most innocent of ages. But despite what some would claim, I do understand the need to improve one's strategies. It is for this reason that, ever since discovering this new universe, I have been spending so much of my time on this new spell.
It is working. I can feel it. It does not affect reality - not yet. It will not until it is complete. But that is only a matter of two or three weeks now; I am certain of it. I feel some excitement at the thought. A terrible shame that Murder's challenge is due to expire in only five days - I was hoping to keep Soul alive. As it stands, her odds are-
"<Mother Aurora. It's been a while.>"
Floating as she had been for hours in the large empty room, she opened her eyes, and saw the speaker - a smirking man in a white uniform of indeterminate origin and era. Her normally impassive expression changed slightly - just enough to express hatred. "<He Who Laughs,>" she said tersely.
"<It's been a while, old friend,>" he said. The smirk never left his expression as he hovered around her. Though he kept his back straight, his position did not remain vertical in the process, leaning at a wider and wider angle. "<I've heard you were recently ambushed with a hydrogen bomb. It is such a relief that you've survived - it would have been rather lame if the mightiest child of the multiverse had been killed by so little, wouldn't you say?>"
She ignored his circling movements around her, keeping her gaze immobile. "<What do you want?>"
He took an air of faux-hurt. "<Can I not simply check up on an old acquaintance? Really, Aurora. You are becoming less amusing by the century. Remember our first meeting? You created a multi-megaton-yield explosion inside my head. Wasn't that fun? We never fight like that anymore. I mean, sure, OK, my power is as much above yours as yours is above that of the common mage, but still!>" He paused. "<Well, my power when I really really really really really really hold back, and then some. But still! Just because you can't hurt me even a little, it doesn't mean you shouldn't humiliate yourself by trying!>"
"<What do you want?>"
He laughed. "<Oh, I was just...watching...this new magical ritual of yours. Trying something like that? You've got guts, Aurora. I'm... a little insulted... but also a little entertained. So I've been trying to decide whether to let you finish.>"
She stared straight ahead, silently.
He had gone past horizontal, and was now leaning downward, even as he kept circling her. "<In the end? In the end, I think I'll let you finish. More entertaining that way. I might even let your crazy plan actually work. Of course,>" he grinned, "<I reserve the right to make tweaks.>" He paused. "<All for the greater good of my personal amusement, of course. I'm sure you'll understand.>" His smirk widened at her silence. "<Oh, and... say hi to Monsoon for me. Love that girl.>"
My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I'm practicing for next week's go tournament. I also have a challenge from Murder for a fight to the death sometime within the next five days, but hey, you gotta prioritize!
More seriously, though, I cannot allow myself to panic. I've been trying to analyze the situation as rationally as I can. When I first fought Murder, I was an almost complete beginner. I've had a bit more experience with magical brawls since then, and when I think back on it - or when I watch the footage of our fight - I realize just how good he was. Precise movements, quick reflexes... If Downfall was a guy with a club, then Murder is Musashi Miyamoto. The only reason I was able to do anything during our fight was that he was toying with me. If I face him now in a straight fight... well, I'll die.
But... things have changed. I'm not the first line of defense anymore. The Kamirentai has seven mages, and each one of them is a trained soldier. Is it best if I leave the fight to them? Or, I don't know, join in and help them? Or something?
How good in a fight are they, actually? They didn't impress me too much last time, but it was their first outing. On one hand, they're new to magic. On the other hand, trained soldiers. How does that even out?
Startled, Eriko nearly dropped the go book. "<Um, yes captain?>"
The older girl rolled her eyes. "<You studying josekis, Watanabe, or just woolgathering?>"
She smiled sheepishly. "<Sorry, captain. Got a lot on my mind today.>"
"<Well, if you're going to be our second at the tournament, the least you can do is stay focused on your go. I'm gonna play with Sato; you go and teach the new kid.>"
"<Yes captain.>" On some level, I don't think the idea that I might not be alive by the time of the tournament is really registering with me.
"Have a seat, Mrs. Steel." The CEO of De Beers still wasn't entirely certain why Maxcorp insisted on this meeting, but the woman before him was apparently acting with the backing of Japan's Prime Minister. "Now, what can I do for you?"
"You can save your business."
He blinked in confusion, then chuckled. "I assure you, our revenue charts are not exactly filling me with dread lately."
"Your entire business is built on scarcity," she said, tonelessly. "You maintain your conglomerate afloat by controlling the amount of diamonds that hit the market. This is a sound business model, as long as you control the source of the diamonds. Which, right now, you do not."
He raised an eyebrow. "Where, exactly, are you going with this, Mrs. Steel?"
In response, she placed her briefcase on his desk, and opened it without a word. Bug-eyed, he examined its contents. "Is that...No, no." He reached in, grabbing some of the diamonds inside, then examining them with a magnifying glass. She waited silently for several minutes until he was done.
"The Koh-I-Noor," he said, reclining back in his chair. "The Blue Hope. The Star of Africa. The Orloff. The Regent. And all of this... This is practically a list of the world's twenty most famous diamonds," he gestured at the glittering contents of the briefcase. "Except they can't be. They're in museums."
"The originals are," she said. "But these copies are perfect, down to the last atom. If you put them next to the originals, you could not tell which was which, not even with state-of-the-art scientific equipment."
He pinched the bridge of his nose. "How...?"
"Magic. The Japanese government is looking at civilian applications of their latest toy. For a mage, creating a diamond is not any harder than creating an iron anvil. A ton of diamonds can be created in under a minute."
"I am completely serious."
He remained silent for another moment. "With all due respect, Mrs. Steel... I am not convinced. Just because these," he pointed at the briefcase, "are convincing enough for a short, superficial analysis, it doesn't mean that true diamonds can be mass-produced."
"Your reaction was anticipated," said Steel. "Which is why ten million carats of diamonds have already been produced." He paled slightly. "The Japanese De Beers office has been contacted and asked to analyze them. I believe they should be calling you any time now."
He considered for another moment. "I think I will be calling them first. But let's say you are correct. Where are you going with this?"
"Simple. Market domination," she answered. "Magic can end most forms of scarcity. It can annihilate the profitability of the diamond industry, as well as gold, rhodium, platinum, and more. It can be used to replicate valuable manufactured goods, ranging from artworks to stealth bombers. It can mean the death of profits and business as we know them.
Unless it is properly controlled. I am currently working with the Japanese government to achieve just that." She pulled out a few documents. "These describe our current plan - international legislation aimed at regulating magic worldwide."
He gave the file a cursory look. "So, you want De Beers to help you lobby relevant politicians. Make it so the creation of rare materials is strictly regulated."
"Well, not exactly. We expect you to do that anyway, simply because your business cannot survive otherwise. Rather, the question is - why should this new legislation protect the diamond trade? In other words, what's our motivation for letting you join the club?"
He paused. "You want a bribe?"
"We want a guarantee of loyalty. See for yourself," she said as she handed him a contract.
"You cannot be serious," he said once he was done reading it. "Transferring a billion dollars or two into an account with the Bank of Japan is negotiable. But why the hell should De Beers buy 5% of Maxcorp's shares for more money than your entire company is worth?!"
"Because Japan owns magic, and Maxcorp is acting as the face of Japan's financial plans in the West," she replied calmly. "We are standing to benefit from the revolution that magic introduces to the economy - if anything, what we're charging you for the Maxcorp shares is underpriced. All in all, this is designed to ensure that our interests remain aligned."
"And you actually expect me to..."
"Right now, I expect you to sign nothing. I expect you to call your experts and have the diamonds analyzed. I expect you to examine how magic will affect the market. I expect you to have a word with Japan's Prime Minister. Then I expect you to sign these contracts, for the following reason: They are the only thing that can save the De Beers conglomerate."
"<Nah. If Murder said within a week, then he'll take the whole week,>" said Monsoon. "<He likes letting his opponents stress out before the battle. I think he finds it funny.>"
"<Hilarious,>" said Eriko in a deadpan tone. "<So I still have four days.>"
"<Yeeeees. It'd be best if you could get your sentai friends to handle it, but, Murder's smart. He'll look for ways to force you into a one-on-one battle.>"
"<I see. Any advice on how I can beat him?>"
"<Well...normally, I'd say that the best way to win is not to play. To stand back and wait until he gets bored and moves on. You know, what you refused to do the first time around. But I don't think it'd work this time anyway - looks like you've impressed him enough that he'll insist on this fight, even if he needs to burn whole cities for it. Mind you... that might force him into a situation where the Kamirentai could join you... buuuut I'm gonna go on a limb here and guess we're not cool with the casualty rates involved.>"
"<Right. Well, I'll think about it, but... Actually, I wanted to ask you. The TV... I missed the Prime Minister's speech, but, apparently this 'Project Galactica' he's unveiled is a really big deal. And from what I've read on the Internet...>"
"<I know, right?>" Eriko's tone shifted to excitement. "<A network of over a thousand satellites in low orbit! And those are big, high-end satellites, over ten tons each! And they think they can finish the whole thing in two weeks with the Kamirentai! It's revolutionary!>"
With a resigned grin, Monsoon shook her head. "<It never fails. The moment you humans get magic, you start misusing it.>"
"<Cheap, ultra-fast Internet access constitutes misuse?>"
"<It's not worth it. Magic is a complex issue. You need to save it for when it's vital, not for when it's convenient. I- >"
"<You use magic all the time.>"
"<Not the same thing, Eri,>" said Monsoon with a wink. "<OK, not our chief priority right now. The bosslady will give you the whole scoop after the Murder thing is over. So... do you have any ideas?>"
"From the looks of it, Maxcorp is about to be catapulted into the Fortune 500," said the Ghost. "Aligning themselves with the Japanese seems to be working in their favor."
"I find it odd that they managed to get into this conglomerate to begin with," said Helen, "but I suppose it's one more thing I can ask Steel about in her interview. Still... this Galactica is just the start. This is going to redraw all the geopolitical maps."
"Yes. Presumably, it's why Tokyo is trying to stall for time in negotiations - they want to enjoy their monopoly as long as they can. From what I've heard, they're really pushing this regulation plan, and they insist Washington ratifies it before they share magic with us."
"Makes sense to me. Magic is the new nuclear power."
"And there is... one more thing." He paused. "They say that there was a secret attack by the Circle of Wisdom, right before the one on the Kantei."
She raised an eyebrow. "Do tell."
"Supposedly, the Circle of Wisdom contacted some of their high-up politicos. Said they wanted to negotiate a truce. Got a meeting with the Prime Minister and some of the Diet, sent one of their mages."
"Really. Was Soul involved?"
"No, they say she wasn't anywhere near the whole thing. Anyway, they got there for the secret meeting. The guy made a big speech about how mages had a connection to God, which made them the only legitimate authority. And then he tried to kill everyone."
"But these guys are still alive. The Kamirentai?"
"Yeah, some of these guys were there, and able to force the Circle guy to retreat."
Helen reflected. "I think this is circumstantial evidence for my theory. If the Circle of Wisdom just wanted to eliminate the government, it could attack during any normal meeting. But like this, in the middle of negotiations it initiated? An excellent way of telling the whole world to never, ever trust the Circle."
"That's what I was thinking too. But it's no proof."
"No, not yet. But it's food for thought, and if it's true, then we should inform the Japanese ASAP. As for Soul... Soul wasn't there. And we've seen that Downfall could change from that huge monster form to a human one. She could easily look like a robed adult."
"You think she was the attacker?"
"I'm saying it's a possibility."
My name is Mitani Yoshio. I am Ace 6 of the Kamirentai.
I'll admit, so far this job isn't exactly like I imagined. I expected our main activity to be fighting enemy mages and monsters. We've had that fight with the kaiju near the Kantei, sure... But, the past few days, we've been busy with intelligence work and civilian infrastructure.
Mind you, the intelligence work consists of using pinprick portals to spy on foreign organizations, and the civilian infrastructure involves working in outer space. I am in low orbit right now, in a freaking red and white spacesuit, magically pushing a satellite that I earlier duplicated (also magically).
So, I'm not complaining. I'm bringing Japan to a glorious new age.
"<Ace 6, satellite #98 has now achieved sufficient velocity. You may disconnect and begin decelerating,>" said the radio in his helmet.
"<Roger, ground control. Engaging deceleration.>" Right. By now, I'm going at several kilometers per second. As the experts explained, if I open a portal right now into Earth's atmosphere, the explosion could kill me, even with my shields. So, I need to spend a minute or two pushing myself in the opposite direction until-
"<Ace 4? Ace 4, respond. Ace 4, please respond.>"
Wait. What's wrong?
"<Ace 4, this is ground control. Please resp - >"
"<I'm afraid,>" said a dreadfully familiar voice, "<that Ace 4 is unavailable due to an unfortunate case of mortality. Tragically common, that.>"
The Kamirentai had strict orders in this sort of situation. They regrouped. They advanced carefully. By the time they reached Ace 4's position, and found his decapitated body, Murder was long gone. The head had been pulled out of the helmet, presumably so that he could use the radio transmitter.
"<Lieutenant Hachiya Sonsaku was a true patriot.>" Chancell, in his role as Prime Minister, had every intention of milking the Kamirentai's first casualty for all it was worth. That had actually been one of the benefits of getting real soldiers killed in the act of empowering the Kamirentai - if/when his handpicked mercenaries started dying off, he could always claim the identities of genuine elite soldiers as the identities of the fallen. "<In the face of supernatural danger, his unwavering loyalty to the nation led him down the most dangerous path possible, taking incredible risks to keep Japan safe. He died, not just a good soldier, but a man trying to give humanity the stars. He will never be forgotten,>" behind him, the camera still showed the newly opened (and magically constructed) memorial for the fallen of the Kamirentai, which now boasted its first statue, "<and his mission will not be abandoned. Project Galactica, and the exploration of outer space, will continue. The Kamirentai will keep watch over our nation. And Murder will pay for his crimes.>" Chancell had given new security protocols for the rest of Project Galactica's duration - he had no desire to see his magical army wiped out, after all - but the project would continue, even at a slower pace. He needed to safeguard Japanese domination quickly, after all. Besides, chaotic as he could be, Murder wasn't entirely unpredictable, after so many centuries; he doubted another attack on the Kamirentai would be coming before the serial killer's duel with Soul.
Watching the news in Eriko's room - well, their room - Junko turned toward the girl she was still struggling to think of as her sister. "<Eriko?>"
The magical girl, paling slightly, didn't look away from the screen. "<You know... I think it's finally sinking in that less than four days from now, I could really die.>"
"<...You told PSIA to leak those files to that lunatic?>" Secano blinked. "<You want him to print a sleazy article about Lieutenant Hachiya's, ah, indiscretions?>" He paused to think. "<If he does that... he'll just offend the population's patriotic sensibilities, since Hachiya's considered a national hero and a martyr now. Do you plan to capitalize on that popular anger?>"
"<Precisely.>" Though still wearing the face of the Prime Minister, Grand Adviser Chancell preferred to hold the conversation in an empty room outside Tokyo, away from prying eyes. "<We will need control of the media as soon as possible. One does not transition from a free press to government-controlled propaganda in one step. When we take measures to shut down one blog toward which the people already feel righteous rage, a few will protest about setting a dangerous precedent - too few. Additional steps will be taken in time.>"
"<I...see.>" Even after all this time, Secano still marveled at how limited this government seemed to be. A wonder they can even survive without someone like the Supreme One.
"<But that is a long-term affair, and of secondary importance. More urgently and more importantly, we need to adapt our course of action to handle Soul.>"
"<Soul is unlikely to even survive the week,>" Secano pointed out. "<Letting Murder eliminate her solves the problem rather neatly.>"
"<It is not so simple. Just standing aside and allowing her to die has its downsides.>"
Secano considered. "<Well...It would involve letting Murder live, I suppose. And while Soul is only an obstacle to Elysium operations in this universe, Murder has been a thorn in its side in all universes?>"
"<No, that's not it,>" said the Grand Adviser. "<Murder may cause us unending headaches, but he is just as likely to murder a demon or a Circle of Wisdom mage as an Elysian. It evens out,>" he said, the hint of distaste barely perceivable in his voice. "<No, the problem comes from loss of face. We need the people to trust the Kamirentai to protect them. Having millions say that they stood by and let their heroine die would be an early blemish on their record. Especially now - it would look too much like they were afraid to fight him.>"
Secano considered for a moment. "<Grand Adviser...I understand that Soul is a threat because she acts as an agent to the Fairy Queen. Because she may potentially locate the Extension and allow the fairies into this world. Forgive me if I speak foolishly, but... could the problem not be solved simply by talking to her?>"
Chancell raised an eyebrow, a hint of a smile on his lips. "<Elaborate.>"
"<We could tell her the truth. Maybe not about us, but about the Fairy Queen. I doubt she would care much for Mother Aurora's methods. Even if we can't hand her incontrovertible proof, she seems to have a logical mindset; we could simply point out the available facts, and...>" he paused. "<...Or am I talking nonsense?>"
"<Not nonsense, Secano,>" said Chancell. "<You do oversimplify, but there is a core of truth in your idea. It involves too many risks at the moment - for starters, Soul might very well agree with the Fairy Queen - but it may serve as a valuable backup plan. For now, however...>"
My name is Watanabe Eriko. Right now, I'm supposed to be teaching some of the basics to the go club's new kid (I really should memorize names around here better). But I'm finding it hard to focus.
I actually feel a bit silly, thinking earlier that I could just hand the whole thing over to the Kamirentai. This isn't like Downfall! Downfall may have been Skynet-knows how many centuries old, but I figure he was still new at actually doing this stuff. At least, he wasn't particularly smart or efficient. But Murder? Murder has this knife that lets him move from universe to universe casually, and he's been going on his multiuniversal killing spree for ages - and he's still alive! If he hasn't been caught by now, what are the chances of a small military unit from a world that only got magic a few months ago?
...The flipside, of course, is that if he hasn't been caught by now, what chance do I stand? I'm just a little girl who is revolutionizing science, walked on the goddamn Moon, and mopped the floor with Downfall because I'm THE JUNIOR GODDESS OF-
OK, OK. Reality check. Am I starting to get ego problems? Am I being... arrogant... by starting to think I might be better suited for this than the Kamirentai? There's still six of them, and they're adults. What do I have that they don't? Well, OK, experience with magic, and an attack that weaponizes the Earth's rotation, but that won't help much if I can't even hit M-
Crap, I'm really not paying attention to the go board, am I? That's not being fair to the newbie.
She pointed at the latest piece he had placed on the board. "<This works, but you could do better than this. Placing here, for instance.>"
"<Huh? What's the difference? I mean, both of them make my group live, no?>"
"<Well, yes. But protecting your group is all you'd accomplish with this move. If you place here, you're also threatening my hold on the corner. Defense and attack. Remember, you've got to get as much done with every move as you can.>"
He considered it, not noticing some sudden rapid blinking on her part. "<OK, yeah, that makes sense...>" He corrected his move as per her suggestion. When he looked back at her, her brow was furrowed, and she looked like she was staring through the board.
I'm an idiot. I've got three days before the fight of my life, and I'm spending them going through my usual routine? I should be spending as much time as possible thinking up ways of surviving - no, of winning! I've got a few ideas, I need to go and figure it out...
"<Watanabe?>" he said, noticing her shifting expressions.
Crap, I'm also in the middle of this didactic game. OK, I'll get back to my tactics as soon as it's done... No. Right now, I feel like I've got this. Like I'm in the zone. I have to tackle this problem as the Junior Goddess of Kick Your Ass, not as... whatever I'll feel like in 30 minutes. But I can't just drop the newbie like this... "<I, ah, I need to... I'm heading to the bathroom, I'll be back in a few minutes.>"
What followed was ten minutes of furious pacing in the washroom.
Yes, that could work... and that could work too, but I'd need a lot of practice. Do I have enough time to practice? And I should run all my ideas by Monsoon on the way home.
OK. OK. I think... I think I can do this. She pumped her fists. I should probably head back and finish our game before the newbie feels abandoned. This time, there was a spring in her step as she returned to the go club.
My name is Junko. I'm a pretty normal girl. I'm also a magical girl's confidant, but I'm not doing a very good job of it.
Eriko was starting to get worried about her fight with Murder. I don't know if she's right. I mean, I know he won the first time, but... after the way she beat Downfall? After the way she's been since that day? I just can't imagine her losing. It just doesn't work.
Anyway, she's working on some kind of plan with Monsoon...
"<Since Murder will probably try to separate me from the Kamirentai, my overall tactic can't rely on them,>" said Eriko. "<And if he's got centuries of experience, I can't just... hope to surprise him with something he's never seen before. And he's got way better reaction time than me.>"
"<That's a fair assessment,>" Monsoon smiled. "<And from the way you're saying it, I'm guessing you've got something planned anyway. Curious curious curious!>"
"<Not something. Several somethings. To beat an advantage as big as his, I'm gonna need to really overwhelm him. So, tell me which of these ideas sound unworkable...>"
Eriko is smart. I've always known that, because she does well in class, and can understand all those scientific things, and talks like an encyclopedia. But back before all this started, I don't think I really understood what her being smart really meant.
When she came up with that weird experiment to see if portals moved with the Earth's rotation? I had trouble even figuring what she was talking about. Once I did understand, I realized it was pretty clever. Also, that it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years. And the way she beat Downfall? I wouldn't have thought of that, either. And now, all those ideas she's bouncing off Monsoon... I know it's really dumb of me, but, I just never thought she could use her intelligence for stuff other than school and booksmarts. But she can. Of course she can. Maybe... Maybe she needed to realize it too?
"<All right, sounds to me like we've got ourselves a plan!>" Monsoon clapped her hands cheerfully. "<But we'll only get about two days to prepare. You kinda can't spend those days at school.>"
Eriko sighed. She'd figured as much by herself, but it still bothered her. "<We'll need to figure a way out.>"
That got Junko's attention. Eriko can't lie. But I can. It's the one thing I know I can do for her.
My name is Steel Katsutoshi, and my mother is an archvillain.
Even I don't get told everything about mother's plans. But I do understand that she's managed to leverage her access to magic to become first among equals in a top-level politico-financial conspiracy. The Prime Minister wants his corporate allies to benefit from magic and make Japan the new economic superpower before the rest of the world gets mages. But he can only keep his monopoly if mother doesn't sell the secret to other countries. So now, she gets to go and negotiate conditions with a who's who of billionaires who'll get ruined unless the law protects their market from magical competition, and she gets to make more money in the process than Maxcorp has managed over the entire preceding decade. And of course, all that money she's making is going into an account with the Bank of Japan, so the Prime Minister might actually be smarter than I thought he was.
And me? I'm handling the reception to some freaking journalist.
"Miss Barker!" he gave her the sort of smile that could get half his classmates to blush. "It is truly a rare pleasure. I have greatly enjoyed your articles on Okinawa." Well, they weren't boring, at least. As he shook her hand, he briefly considered kissing it, then rejected that approach as too forward. His job was to put the journalist in a good mood and lower her guard a bit before she started the interview, but there was a place for subtlety, after all.
"The pleasure is all mine, Mister Steel," she smiled back. "I see you've done your homework. Miss Steel wants you to get the hang of the family business early on, I take it?"
"It is an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with any degree of responsibility," he lied through his teeth. "Besides, I get to meet interesting people." See? I'm not outright complimenting you, so it's not too visibly manipulative. But it's still easy to interpret as a compliment.
"I imagine. Did you meet Soul?"
That's another interpretation. "Well, yes, briefly. Although, much to my regret, I probably couldn't tell you anything about her that you didn't already know."
"A pity," she said as they walked side-by-side. "Tell me then - are you familiar with the Kahara clan?"
He almost flinched. Almost. She's straight and to the point, this one. Perhaps a little distraction is in order. "Miss Barker, please!" he said with a conciliatory smile. "If we must speak of weighty matters, could we perhaps go back to Soul? I would rather not discuss the Yakuza in such pleasant company." I don't need to say anything important one way or another. But if you giggle, I win.
She chuckled. "Wow. That was so fake, my hair almost turned into a wig just from hearing it!"
As he realized too late his smile had faded, it occurred to him that perhaps there was a vast difference between the psychology of adult women and his teenage classmates.
My name is Helen Barker, and I'm at best amused by high school would-be heartthrobs trying to flirt with me with cheesy lines straight out of a cheap romance novel. At worst, slightly disturbed. But never mind the Steel son acting as a buffer, it's his mother I'm interested in.
"Maxcorp has made gigantic profits over the past few days. I've been asking colleagues who specialize in the business side of things, and it seems obvious you're benefitting from a close alliance with the Japanese government." Admittedly, the information had come from her colleagues in the CIA rather than in the fourth estate. Not that it required too much digging - as a publicly-traded company, Maxcorp had to make much of its financial information readily available. "And it seems you're expecting this trend to hold - you've bought back a significant amount of the company's shares recently, and are still buying what you can. Since the value of these shares seems bound to skyrocket, presumably you will be able to make a killing by selling them again later."
"You have done your homework." Steel-Sama's face remained completely neutral, her cold green eyes staring through her spectacles.
Hey, that's my line! Helen kept herself from chuckling. "Miss Steel, it seems that you're benefitting from Japan's magical initiative to an immense degree. Since this is not a Japanese company, I was wondering why you were being given such a generous deal."
"A variety of factors. Maxcorp has, practically from the start, taken the initiative in designing weaponry able to stand up to magical opposition. The PCTF sees us as valuable allies. As for the rest, no comment."
"Are you confident that Maxcorp can remain a valuable ally now that the Kamirentai is operational? Despite the recent setback with Murder, one might speculate that the ability to train mage soldiers almost makes the PRISM and Black Arrow obsolete."
"The PCTF does not seem to share that opinion, since they are currently negotiating the purchase of further weaponry. Additionally, Maxcorp's ability to rapidly innovate and adapt is no less important than the innovations we have been able to put on the table to date."
"I see." Let's see how you answer something simple... "Do you have any comments on the recent arrest of Maxcorp employee Walter Sims?"
"There isn't much to say. Sims was a low-level employee in our Detroit office. His arrest over domestic violence had nothing to do with his work. His contract has been terminated in response."
"Fair enough." Despite having a recorder working, Helen jotted down a few notes. "Given Maxcorp's recent windfall, can the Ebisu Foundation expect additional funding in the near future?"
"Correct. Though the recent telethon has done a lot for the Ebisu Foundation, Maxcorp will be transferring an additional 300 million yen to it later this month. It is hard to estimate how much money will be ultimately necessary, since magical battles and the damage they cause are highly unpredictable, but we prefer to have a safety margin in this case."
"That telethon. Soul was the one who made it possible. What is Maxcorp's relation with her?"
"It was Soul who approached the Ebisu Foundation and made her offer. We have no relation with her beyond that."
"I see. On a more personal level, what do you think Alexander Steel would have thought about these recent developments?"
"My father's feelings on the matter have little relevance."
"Miss Steel, I have to give my readers the human story too. Your father was Maxcorp's CEO for 26 years. He was one of the company's founders. One might expect his business philosophy to remain part of the culture."
"My father was a skilled businessman for the first 19 of those 26 years, a mediocre businessmen for the 3 that followed, and an obsolete one during the last 4. As for his final decision, he hurt everyone, and Maxcorp was no exception. The company was almost ruined. You will find little of Alexander Steel here that could not have come from someone else."
"Very well. What about..."
The interview went on for another twenty minutes. Helen would go back to certain points, ask for some further elaboration, and insist on certain elements as long as she felt it wasn't suspicious to do so.
Victoria Steel...You have one hell of a poker face. And I'm not excluding the possibility that there is something wrong with you on a fundamental level. But don't think I didn't notice anything interesting.
You were careful to give very, very little information that I could not have found somewhere else. But the absence of data is a form of data. If you tell very little on a subject when first asked, and then consent to provide more details when pressed, that means you're tight-lipped. When you tell very little on a subject even when pressed, it means you're almost certainly hiding something. Even a good liar, then, might be inclined to deflect suspicion by giving more information on "safe" sujects... but, well, that just tells me which subjects are safe, doesn't it?
You don't like talking about your father, or your husband, obviously... but you will if you have to. You're not too talkative about Maxcorp's Taiwanese expansion, but you will ultimately discuss it. You do not go into details about your alliance with this new Japanese initiative, or about why you're so important to them. Same with Soul. Same with your ties to the Yakuza.
You're a good liar. But you're hiding something.
"<38°C,>" Mrs. Watanabe observed as she checked the thermometer. "<Both of you. It might be for the best if you stay in bed.>"
"<Y...Yeah.>" Eriko looked fairly upset - which she indeed was. "<I mean, it's not that bad, but... I don't think I should risk things getting worse?>"
"<Yeah,>" said Junko, doing a better job of faking illness. Magic could easily change temperatures, but Eriko wasn't going to make them actually sick - in her case, the holistic shield would have prevented it anyway. "<Can't have Eriko missing the go tournament, right?>"
Mrs. Watanabe chuckled. "<I'll call the school. You two stay in bed as much as you can.>"
Once they had their privacy back, Eriko quickly set the animated "doll" in place. "<I'll keep it in the bed,>" said Junko. "<If your mom checks up on us, I'll say you managed to fall asleep a few minutes ago. So, you should have all day.>"
"<And hopefully tomorrow, too. Thanks, Junko.>"
She prepared to open a portal, but, before she could...
She turned around. "<What?>"
Her adopted sister fidgeted. "<I...is there any way I can help?>"
"<Huh? You are helping. You're protecting my secret identity. That's a pretty big deal.>"
"<But...Is there anything else?>" She wasn't even trying to hide her pleading tone by now. "<I, I keep trying to help you, but I don't know how! I don't know what you want, Eriko!>" You've protected me, you're saving the world all the time, and I keep letting you down...
Eriko blinked in confusion. What brought that on? "<Junko, I don't get what you're talking about. You've helped me a lot. I mean, besides the secret identity. You're my best friend.>" And as silly as the Soul fan-club can be, you did cheer me up by showing me how many people I'd saved as Soul.
Junko did not seem entirely convinced. "<But what do you want, Eriko?>" The question had been almost whispered.
Even with her sub-par social savvy, Eriko could sense that this was somehow important. "<...I want to save the world. I want to stop this crazy war. I want to understand the universe. I want... I want you, mom, dad, me, the neighbors, and folks I've never met in Senegal to be safe. I want...>" she gazed wistfully at her adopted sister, "...I want us to finish watching Sailor Moon together.>"
That seemed to get a slight smirk from Junko, so she added: "Just a million more episodes to go, right?>"
It was a fairly common trait of drug lords that they favored extravagant displays of wealth. It wasn't just pride - if you could afford a gold-plated gun, that meant you were successful. And if you were successful, that told everyone that upsetting you was unsafe.
Not that "General Zeta", as he was nicknamed in the milieu, would use a gold-plated gun. His diamond-studded outfit was one thing, but he had served in the military, and he prefered his weapons functional and sobre, thank you very much. Besides, in his experience, if you wanted to build up an intimidating image, a few beheadings did the job far more effectively.
But despite his history of extreme, efficiently-directed violence... despite being surrounded by loyal armed men... despite maintaining a perfect poker face... he wasn't so sure of being the most intimidating person in the room. Not when the duo to whom he had granted an audience had magic. From what he'd heard about Japan, you needed special guns to beat mages. He'd have to look into getting some of those.
Of the two visitors, it was the woman - dark-skinned, long flowing hair - who did the talking. The caucasian man - the one who'd demonstrated magic early in the conversation - said nothing behind his mask.
"<It seems like an obvious application to magically generate gold, diamonds, or even computer chips,>" the woman said in accented Spanish - definitely not a native speaker. "<However, in terms of dollar-per-pound, it is hard to beat illegal substances. The cocaine market alone brings in billions of dollars each month, despite yearly production ranging below a single kiloton.>"
He kept his expression neutral. "<Are you offering to create cocaine for us?>" He wasn't sure how good an idea that really was - the actual farming of coca and refining of the drug were extremely cheap, compared to the substance's retail price. Sure, magic might help the Los Zetas cartel save some operational costs, but...
"<That is only part of it,>" the woman replied, her tone and expression as neutral as his. "<We offer to create cocaine for you within American cities, wherever you wish your dealers to access it.>"
That got his attention. There were dozens of tricks for getting the merchandise past the border... but the ability to completely bypass the border could be a game-changer. "<Keep talking.>"
20 minutes away from closing time. In the small Starbucks somewhere in Portland, the barista numbly told himself that they had only been 20 minutes away from closing time.
And now, the floor was covered in the blood of dead customers, as well as that cute girl that had only been hired last week.
"I must confess," said Murder, as he walked up to him, "when I hear people complaining about having to wait in lines... I simply find it hard to empathize." His smug smile not wavering for an instant, he added: "Now, be a good chap and get me some coffee, will you?" Seeing the barista still frozen in place, he added: "Oh, and no milk or sugar. I like my coffee as black as my soul."
Desperately, the barista tried to will his body to move. Fear seemed to be a good paralyzing agent.
"Do hurry," said Murder. "I have a duel coming up soon, and I don't want to spoil my appetite by fighting inferior law enforcement two days before it."
"<Dodge this!>" Monsoon giggled as she launched yet another high-velocity rubber ball at Soul. "<OK, I think we should take a break now.>"
Struggling to catch her breath, Soul nodded. "<Right. But after that, I want to check the balloon thing again...>"
"<They've confirmed it was Murder in Kingston,>" said Hiromasa. "<Seven casualties... He's scheduled to fight Soul tomorrow, right? What are you going to do?>"
"<What do you want me to do?>" Hyosuke grumbled. "<I've talked to her, and she's agreed she'll work with the Kamirentai if possible... but she thinks it's a big 'if', and she may be right.>"
"<Watanabe called,>" the president of the go club said. "<She says she's getting better, and that nothing short of death itself is gonna keep her out of the go tournament.>"
"<Well, at least she's determined,>" said the captain of the girls' team.
It wasn't a very large bus or anything. It was one of the smaller ones used by Tokyo's public transit, really.
Even so, it still looked impressive, floating in the air, maintained in stationary position by Murder's magic, even as the Elysian serial killer stood motionless on its roof with his hands behind his back. He smirked, ignoring the screaming children inside - the bus had just picked up most of its passengers from school when he had arrived.
"<I will speak to Soul, and Soul alone,>" he said with his magically-amplified voice. "<If anyone else attempts to intervene, innocent blood will run across your streets.>"
Only a few minutes after Murder had made his ultimatum, another threatening presence manifested near the Diet.
Given how the appearance of each construct had been followed by similar holographic messages, people knew what to expect a mage of the Circle of Wisdom to look like. The white cloak looked just like in the messages.
What did take people by surprise was the attacking mage being 10 meters tall.
"<Murder.>" Soul tried not to let her nervousness show. "<Don't... hurt them. It's me you came to fight.>"
"<Young lady, I consider myself a connoisseur of death, and the assassination of the helpless is quite amusing. Admittedly, I called you for the sake of the challenge.>" His smirk got meaner. "<I suppose I could, of course, make this vehicle explode, and then fight you while you were truly enraged... but, no. I took hostages to ensure we would not be interrupted.>" He gestured briefly, and a portal opened. "<Our arena. A quiet place where we won't be found before the end of our battle. Unless of course you carry with you some form of tracer for potential allies?>"
"<You want me to follow you there?>"
"<If you give me your word, Soul.>" He was now playing with the Golden Knife. "<If you give me your word that no-one will assist you in this battle, and then go through the portal, then you have my word that I will allow this vehicle's passengers to return safely to the ground, and then fight with you to the end before I hurt anyone else.>"
She sighed, and dropped to the ground the emitter she had told the Kamirentai about two days prior. So much for that. At least Monsoon says Murder doesn't break promises lightly. "<I give you my word.>"
"<Most excellent. Then proceed through the portal and to your doom, if you will.>"
"<The Kamirentai are fighting the kaiju mage,>" said Koyama, struggling to keep his calm. "<What about Soul?>"
"<No way I'm calling her now!>" said Hyosuke. "<She's with Murder, and this is not the time to break her concentration.>"
"<I do hope the arena doesn't strike you as unfit,>" Murder gestured at the forest dozens of meters below them.
Hey, is that Mount Fuji over there? "<Could be worse. But I don't intend to let it become my grave, either.>"
"<No offense, Soul - you are quite the impressive novice - but I have been defeating mages stronger than yourself since before the fall of Pompeii.>" He chuckled. "<Now, unless you have any last words...>"
Might as well. "<I do, actually. Questions, in fact.>"
"<But of course.>"
She swallowed. "<I can't be the first person to ask you this, but... Why? With your abilities, you could be saving millions of people, if not more. If what I understand about the multiverse is correct, then it's not even like you'd be lacking for adversaries, with demons and evil mages and stuff running around. Or you could set yourself up as... well, with your magic, you could be rich, powerful even. So... why this?>"
His grin did not waver. "<You're correct, I have indeed been asked this question before. To put it simply, then: Because I enjoy it. I enjoy ending life. After all,>" he raised an eyebrow, "<the entire multiverse is inexorably progressing toward annihilation. I would rather be an active participant. And if sowing chaos in my wake makes it harder to stop me... well, then, so much the better!>"
Progressing toward annihilation? What does that mean? Magic can pretty much tell the laws of thermodynamics to go sit in a corner, so it's not like we have to worry about heat death. "<Very well. But what about...>"
"<My dear, I do not intend to answer questions all d->"
Before Murder could finish his sentence, a large portal opened right in front of Soul. He was quick enough to dodge before it had finished forming, but realized immediately afterward that it was not an attack - rather, the gate allowed immense amounts of smoke through, almost instantly obscuring the entire area.
You see, Murder... I haven't been sitting on my hands these past few days. I've been working. Researching. One of the things I've researched? Smoke screens. There's all sorts of military tech there. So, I found one that worked for what I was trying to do. And then I created some generators to experiment with. And then I filled Castle Nexus with white smoke. And then I filled the whooooole Castle Nexus pocket universe with smoke at a pressure of hundreds of kilopascals (well, except for one pressurized room for Monsoon to stay in).
"<Clever, Soul. You truly are more interesting than Downfall could ever have been,>" he said, staying on the move as he projected several blades in the general direction she had been in. "<Still, smoke has its limitations.>" With this much of the white gas floating around, he doubted he could disperse it quickly. But all he needed was to localize her. He sent a burst of flame through the air, the illumination strong enough to make some easily visible shadows in the smoke... and then he barely dodged a high-speed metal projectile. He'd been on his guard - after all, filling the area with enough light to make her visible would obviously make him visible as well.
Still, he had seen where the attack had come from. Rather than directing more blades there, he portalled to the location. Looking around, he noticed a silhouette in the smoke. Dashing forward, he stabbed... and realized it wasn't Soul just an instant before it exploded.
I also took the liberty of placing a few decoys in all the smoke. Had to test it a few times to get to work. A bunch of me-shaped balloons - not gonna fool anyone in broad daylight, but this kind of poor visibility is a different story. And to make it more interesting, I filled them with hydrogen, and lined their insides with white phosphorous - which happens to ignite on contact with air. Burn, you mass-murdering son of a BITCH!
The explosion was followed by a jet of compressed water that he barely dodged, quickly portalling out of the way as he sent blades in its source's general direction. "<Oh, you're good,>" he whispered, a manic grin adorning his face as his costume smoldered, his hat gone. No need to speak loudly and give away his position, of cou-
He saw the shadow and, in a fraction of a second, threw himself aside thanks to reflexes honed over centuries - and even then, the supersonic water blast clipped his left arm, dislocating his shoulder and sending him spinning.
I know Mother Aurora warned me not to use these "finisher moves" outside of desperate situations. Well, screw this - I'm willing to consider you a desperate situation. Earth Rotation Attack, or whatever!
He quickly cut off the mad laughter escaping his lips and portalled a bit further away. He noticed a shape nearby, but quickly realized it was another balloon decoy. Now he just needed to hunt her down through the smoke, and-
Another supersonic blast. Once again, he dodged, almost getting crushed by the water jet.
Trying to get away? Forget it. I'm not giving you time to think and regroup. Sorry, did you think that because you couldn't see me through the smoke, I couldn't see you? Science fact: Many types of smoke, including the one I'm using, don't block infrared light. You can't see it right now, but I'm wearing infrared goggles... and since I made sure the smoke at Castle Nexus was kept at low temperatures, in infrared vision you stick out like a sore thumb!
He wasn't entirely certain how she could see him, but clearly she could. Time to end it, then. Quickly moving from portal to portal, he let out more blasts of luminous flame, sending blades at any shadows that came his way, and letting them explode like the first one once they were pierced.
But then, one of the shadows dodged.
"HA!" With a triumphant howl, he opened a portal right next to the shadow. He could see Soul on the other end - and it was, indeed, her. Not a decoy. Better yet, he had estimated correctly, and his portal was behind her.
His good arm plunged the Golden Knife through the portal.
Quickly, though not quickly enough, Soul moved forward and away.
That move with which you beat me the first time? Stabbing through a portal? It's good. So I had to prepare for it. So, over the past few days, every few minutes of waking time, I've cast some noble magic on myself - not enough to make it a permanent enchantment, but enough to last this entire fight. Any time a portal opens less than a meter away from me, a surge of kinetic energy projects my torso in the direction away from it. Not my whole body, just my torso - so I immediately know what's going on.
She was dodging. Not bad. But not good enough. His arm was quicker. Tenth of a second after tenth of a second, the Golden Knife continued its path toward its white target.
Black. It was moving toward something black.
"Huh." No other sound escaped his lips as he pulled the knife away, realizing he'd just stabbed himself between the shoulderblades.
Because, if I know it's coming, then I can react. Especially because over the past few days, I've practiced this so many hundreds of times with Monsoon, to make it reflexive. The moment your attack came? I opened a portal to deflect it - and aim it right back at you. Defense and attack.
The gravely-injured Murder was still hovering motionless when Soul turned around, reaching through her portal, and clasping an anti-magic manacle on his broken arm.
He heard the words "Junior! Goddess! Of Kick Your Ass!" echoing through the air as he began falling.
"<I won't lie - I almost just let him fall all the way to the ground,>" Soul admitted as Murder - partially healed of his injuries, but still manacled, and placed in a straitjacket - was being hauled away by the PCTF.
"<I couldn't have blamed you, but I'm glad you didn't,>" said Hyosuke. "<Rule of law still counts, and he might know important things.>"
"<So how did you beat him, anyway?>"
"<Not easily. Let's just say, I came prepared.>" She paused. "<Sorry about the emitter. I'd have preferred to have the Kamirentai onboard, but he saw through it.>" And plan B worked out fine in the end.
"<Wouldn't have made a difference anyway. The Circle of Wisdom was apparently counting on you being busy with Murder.>"
She instantly blanched. "<What...What happened?>"
"<That cloaked mage who shows up in all their holograms? He tried to attack the Diet. But he made himself as big as his kaijus first. The Kamirenti fought him to a standstill for a while before he finally ran away.>"
"<An interesting development,>" Chancell admitted. "<It would have been preferable for Soul to die today - this victory will only make her even more popular - but removing Murder from the board is better than nothing. Congratulations on playing your role perfectly, Secano.>"
"<I'll admit, it's a performance I'd rather not repeat too often,>" said the younger Elysian. "<But I suppose a simple construct wouldn't have been enough this time.>" Turning himself huge and hiding underground until Murder showed up had not been too pleasant; he had needed noble magic just to keep such an oversized physiology functioning. At least the mercenary members of the Kamirentai had put on a good show; any honest soldier among them could easily be neutralized, simply by being tasked with levitating the steel platform that kept the others aloft.
"<All hail the conquering heroine!>" Monsoon threw confetti at her as soon as she came in. "<Sorry about the funky smell, I'm still cleaning up from all the smoke.>"
Soul stopped...and then couldn't help but laugh out loud, amusement mixed with relief finally hitting her. "<I did it! I actually did it!>"
"<I'm as shocked as you!>" said Monsoon, still smiling wide. "<But hey, what'd you know? Maybe all it takes to stop a seven-digit murder spree is a 13-year-old girl with infrared goggles!>"
"<Seven di- OK. OK. Well, he's beaten now.>"
"<Yeah, I couldn't watch the fight, so I was watching the PCTF HQ. You handed him over, huh?>"
"<Rule of law still counts.>"
"<Ehhhh.>" Monsoon waved with her hand. "<Iiiiii don't think your courts can really handle him. I mean, how are you gonna try him for crimes committed in other universes?
Buuuut that's an issue for another day. Today, you get mad points for stopping one of the multiverse's greatest bogeymen!>"
"<Right. Er, shouldn't Mother Aurora be here?>"
"<She's working on something important. She said not to interrupt her unless it's a life-or-death emergency, and that she'd tell us when she was done.>" She paused. "<By the way, where's Murder's knife?>"
"<You know, it kinda does belong to the bosslady...>"
"<You'll get it, you'll get it. But not before I've studied it for a while.>" And frankly, if you think I'm going to just hand you over the artifact of power before you and Aurora give me some goddamn answers, you're nuts. I've earned some explanations now.
"She beat you?!" Downfall stared, bug-eyed, at his new neighbor. "But...How?!"
Still wincing whenever he moved - Soul had, cautiously, only partially healed the wound in his back - Murder answered with cold rage filling his eyes: "Downfall, today, I am imprisoned and forced to bide my time. But someday, I will be free again, carving anew a path of death and destruction across the multiverse. If you wish to survive that day, then today, you will be silent."
"<...And then,>" the captain of the girls' team explained, "<Watanabe played here.>" Most members of the go club didn't really see the move's importance, but the president grinned as he realized what she had been going for; "<so her opponent tried to play here... and then Watanabe cut her off, and I'm sure you can see the results.>" The oohs and aahs confirmed that even the rest of the club could figure it out by now. "<And that's when her opponent resigned.>"
"<I still can't believe we lost to the Kaio school 2-to-1!>" Sato grumbled. "<Two more lousy points, and we'd have reached the finals!>"
"<That's still a better performance than our school's had in five years,>" the club president pointed out. "<Nice work!>"
Eriko blushed slightly, but kept her winning smile.
Later, she was instructing that newbie whose name she was totally going to memorize one of those days. "<...and that's why you need to play that move on the fourth line, not the third.>"
"<I see.>" He paused. "<You're amazing, upperclasswoman Watanabe.>"
"<I mean it. When you got sick, we were worried you might not be able to play at the tournament. And then you came back, and were playing so well, I'm not sure the president could have beaten you!>"
"<Eh, I'd still give him good odds,>" she said with a chuckle. "<But, well, morale matters, and I was feeling very, very confident. Being less nervous than your opponent can help!>"
"<I guess you're right. But I'm not gonna stay a low-ranked player forever,>" he said with a determined smile. "<One day, I'll be strong enough to beat even you!>"
She grinned. "<No. That will never happen.>"
My name is Watanabe Eriko, and I'm a thirteen-and-a-half years old magical girl. Aaaaand... I think I'm getting the hang of it.
Downfall, his crony, and Murder are all in jail. I've got the Golden Knife stashed in a nice little hiding spot, and I have every intention of studying that thing - I'm not just a magical girl, after all; I'm also a scientist. The Kamirentai are here to lend a hand. Project Galactica is gonna change things, and it's just the start - the Prime Minister is talking about going to Mars next. So, all in all? Things are looking up. Way up.
Mind you...I think there are things I still need to take care of. Maybe things that are easy to forget about. For example...
"<Well,>" said Eriko, as she sat next to Junko, "<We've got all day.>" She placed the Sailor Moon DVD inside the reader. "<Let's see how many episodes we can marathon.>"
"<Gotta say,>" Monsoon observed, "<it's been a preeetty long time since you told us not to 'disturb' you. I'm guessing you were working hard on the ritual?>"
"<Your guess is indeed correct,>" said Mother Aurora.
"<Cool. Well, don't I have some news for you! M- >"
"<Murder has been defeated. Soul has placed him in the care of mortal law enforcement.>"
Monsoon blinked. "<Yes. That.>" She paused. "<Sooo...>"
"<I became aware of it quickly,>" said the Fairy Queen. "<Murder's defeat and capture collapsed uncountable scores of possible paths. He was always the wildcard. With him so limited, I was able to complete the ritual ahead of schedule.>"
"<Ooooh!>" Monsoon clapped her hands. "<So... We win?>"
"<The path ahead of us will be longer and more complex than I'd hoped,>" said Mother Aurora, "<but it shall lead to triumph indeed.>"
"<Works for me!>" Monsoon's wings were fluttering faster than usual. "<So, what's step one?>"
The Fairy Queen gazed at her imperiously. "<There are additional pieces that must be placed on the board. If this Earth is to be saved - a taller order than you even now realize - then the next step must be for Soul to recruit the Messiah to our cause.>"
Monsoon blinked. "<The who where what now?>"
"A magical girl first making her mark on the multiverse. You must be proud."
"Shut up, Douchebaggio."
"Not much for repartee today, I see. However, certain parts still bother me."
"Yeah, well, no refunds."
"For instance, I am fairly certain that Inspector Aoyama did not grow a beard midway through your conversation in real life."
"For that matter, I am also fairly certain that, when you turned Murder's own weapon against him, there was no dramatic music and needlescratch sound effect."
"Probably not. Now go away." You wouldn't begrudge a sleep-deprived girl her hallucinations, now would you?