Saga of Soul


My name is Watanabe Eriko. I'm thirteen years old.
Ever heard of botulinum toxin? It is quite possibly the most potent poison in the world - a protein produced by a certain bacteria, so toxic that a few hundred grams could theoretically kill off the entire human race.
None of which is relevant to my situation. It's just an interesting factoid I happened to read about earlier.

"<Eriko, I trust that you know what you're doing,>" said Junko, "<but I have to ask: Why exactly are we on a small deserted, mountainous island, hundreds of miles away from Tokyo?>"
"<Because I need to run a couple of experiments, and these specific ones couldn't be done in Castle Nexus. And you said you wanted to join in.>"
"<All right... What kind of experiments are we talking about?>"
"<Portals, mostly.>"
"<Portals? You use portals all the time! You've opened, like, a million portals for your training this week!>"
"<Five to ten thousands, tops. But that's beside the point. There's something that's been bothering me about this whole portal deal.>"
"<Let me show you:>"
A gate was opened, one end right next to the girls, the other about fifty meters away.
"<Notice anything?>"
"<No, why? What's there to notice?>"
"<Their movements.>"
Junko looked more closely. "<They... They look perfectly still to me.>"
"<It looks that way. But Junko... we're moving too.>"
Junko looked at her, perplexed. "<We are?>"
"<Everything is! The Earth is revolving at one revolution per day, and as big as it is, that's pretty fast - faster than the speed of sound around the equator. It's less fast at our latitude, but we're still moving at several hundreds of kilometers per hour eastward. We just feel immobile because everything is moving with us - the island, the ocean, the air. And the portals>" she pointed at the gates.
Junko took it all in. "<Hundreds of... really?>"
"<Yes, and that's not even half of it. Don't forget that the Earth is also moving around the Sun, at something like... what, 30 kilometers per second?>"
"<30 WHAT?!>"
"<And the entire Solar System is moving around the center of the galaxy. See what I mean?>"
"<...So, what you're saying... is that we're actually moving really fast, all the time. We just can't tell.>"
"<And since the portals look still, that means they're actually moving with us.>"
"<All right. But... what about it?>"
"<Well, that creates some questions, no? I wasn't thinking of moving the portals when I started making them. I just decided to put them somewhere. But they move with the Earth. Does that mean they identify the zone I'm thinking of, and choose to stay there? That would sorta make sense with noble magic, but I was using common magic. My hypothesis is that everything I create has the same speed as I do when I create it.
Now I just need to prove that hypothesis.>"
"<So what are you going to do?>"
"<Two things. First, I want to make a test with portals. I've made some calculation>" she pulled out a paper, "<and came up with this>" she summoned a metallic construction. "<If, at roughly Japan's latitude, I create a portal right next to the green spot on this thing, and leave it on, then accounting for the Earth's rotation, it should slowly pick up some speed, and reach the red spot within sixty seconds.
This is where you come in. I will need you to watch the portal during that minute, so that you can tell me afterward what happened.>"
"<What? Why can't you see yourself?>"
"<Because I'm creating those things with my mind. What if it turns out I'm subconsciously making it move the right way? No, I'm going to close my eyes and turn my back to the whole thing as soon as I create it, then just focus on keeping the portal open. Even if I subconsciously make it move, without looking, I should miss the red spot.>"
"<So, I should watch without saying anything, and tell you what happened once it's over?>"
"<Yeah. Ready when you are.>"
And so the experiment began. Chronometer in hand, Junko watched the portal, until a full minute had passed.
"<Time's up.>"
Eriko turned around. The portal, seemingly inert a minute ago, was now slowly moving past the red spot. The other end of the gate was moving in an identical manner. She addressed Junko:
"<So, what happened?>"
"<It didn't look like it was moving at first, but... after a while, I could see it going slowly. It kept getting faster... well, less slow anyway.>"
"<Did the acceleration look... steady?>"
"<I guess so, why?>"
"<Well, that sounds like what I thought would happen.>"
"<That's a good thing, right?>"
"<Probably... But that leaves the second experiment.>" Eriko then gestured, concentrated, and created a swingset.
"<What's that for?>"
"<Watch and see.>"
Eriko sat herself on the swing, and began moving back and forth. All right, I have enough speed now... She then created a plastic ball right in front of her, while in mid-swing.
The ball kept going for a moment before hitting the ground.
Like I thought. Now for the acid test:
She waited for a few more swings, then created another portal, right in front of her. It started moving at decent speed away from her, flying in the air.
Feeling rather satisfied, Eriko got off the swing. "<Score one for the scientific method.>"
"<What... What just happened?>"
"<It's a confirmation of my hypothesis! Both the ball and the portal were created with the same speed I had when I made them - they are generated immobile in relation to me!>"
"<But...The ball stopped. The portal is still flying in the same direction.>"
Eriko finally allowed the gate to fade. "<The ball had a certain initial speed, but gravity eventually brought it down. The portal is a twist in space-time, and gravity doesn't change its velocity.>"
The blank stare from her friend reminded Eriko that science had never been Junko's strong suit. "<All right, let me try to explain this better. And afterward, I want to experiment some more - I want to see if I can force what I make to have an initial speed other than my own, and if I can control the movement of portals after I create them...>"

It was the middle of the night in the North American suburb as the gate opened. A couple of bystanders watched in surprise as a pale, thin man dressed in dark, elegant clothings stepped out of it, wearing a top hat and holding an ornate knife.
The pale man looked at the electric lights, then noticed some roadsigns and advertisements. He turned toward the bystanders. "Forgive me, gentlemen, but do you, perchance, speak English?"
"Ah, wonderful. Pray tell, what country and city is this?"
"...Seattle, USA."
"United States of America, but..."
"Ah, I see. I'm guessing, British colonies?"
"No matter, it is not your world's History that interests me. I do prefer to live in the present, after all."
"Look, buddy," one of the bystander, who had remained quiet so far, lost his nerve, "who the f#* are you?!"
He smiled. "I am called Murder." There was a swift move of the knife. "This would be the reason."

Hyosuke swallowed his aspirin. He had been taking a lot of these ever since getting assigned to this case.
"<Are we still missing anything?>" asked Hiromasa.
"<Just the solution.>" The inspector looked again at the files in front of him. "<The lab guys have sent their final analysis - the anvils that 'Soul' dropped on 'Downfall'.>"
"<What does the analysis say?>"
"<Well, it's interesting, but it doesn't really give us any leads. I'd been hoping that they could identify the manufacturer, or the type of metal, but they found something completely different.>"
"<How so?>"
"<Well, for starters, the anvils' shape and size don't match those of any anvils manufactured in the world. More interestingly, they were made of completely pure iron. The wire's copper, too, was completely pure.>"
"<And that's unusual for anvils?>"
"<It's unusual, period! Metal isn't supposed to be that pure in real life - there are always faint traces of other elements, even if in extremely small amounts. But the amount of impurities in those anvils is... if not zero, then at least too small for the labs to find anything. I called a metallurgy expert - getting iron to be that way should be horrendously expensive. At least, with any known method.>"
Hiromasa sipped his coffee. "<Odd. Why go to the trouble of creating super-pure metal, just to make anvils from it to drop on someone?>"
"<There's no reason>" said Hyosuke, cupping his chin, his eyes closed as he focused. "<Maybe for Soul, that's the way they are by default...>"
"<I don't understand...>"
"<There's no reason we can think of to make special effort to purify the iron,>" explained Hyosuke, "<so maybe the reason she used such pure iron was simply because that's what she had by default, with no extra effort to purify it. Maybe she made the iron, even the anvils, and it had no impurities because she created it as just that - iron. There are no matches with manufacturers because those aren't anvils - they're the idea of anvils.>"
"<That's brilliant, sir!>"
No, you dummy, this is the part where you're supposed to tell me to slow down and point out the weaknesses in my idea. "<It's just an idea. We don't know anything yet about how her powers work.>" He sighed. "<Some form of flight that seemed based on quick bursts of speed. The ability to make those objects appear. Blasts of ultra-hot plasma. Some form of portals. Super-human toughness, since she wasn't killed instantly by the car>" though it seems entirely possible she died from her wounds after leaving "<and yet, according to DNA analysis of the blood she lost, she's completely human.
According to eyewitnesses, spoke with Downfall in English. No voice recording, no clear information on the presence or absence of accents. Looked like a Japanese teenager, but no real leads there.>" If the higher-ups and the media finally decided to make footage public, we could at least see if anyone recognized her face. "<And then there's Downfall. An even bigger headache.>"
The inspector was thankful for the aspirin.

"<I can't believe you corrected the History teacher in class,>" said Junko.
"<It's no big deal>", she tried to downplay it.
"<It kinda is, Eriko. To most of the class, you're...>" the semi-foreign weirdo who's really smart but doesn't talk to people? "<...the quiet one. The one who always shows up for class, does what the teachers want, and doesn't make any trouble. But this time, you acted like the rebel.>"
"<The rebel?! It's not my fault that this time, the teacher said something incorrect!>"
"<Sure, but... well, I don't think you're supposed to say it. Coming from you, it was... weird.>"
"<That's insane. When something is wrong, you should fix it!>"
Junko preferred not to pursue that line of conversation any further, not wanting to upset Eriko. "<By the way, you're taking a break from magical girl training today, right?>"
"<Yeah. Ever since Mother Aurora came, it's been shields this, energy blasts that, with my own experiments on top. I love these powers, and I know protecting the world from Downfall and his ilk is serious business, but... I need a break. Today, I'm not even going to watch any "Sailor Moon" episode.>"
"<But you were getting to the first season finale... Oh, all right. Anyway, reason I'm asking is because I've talked to the guys, and we're thinking of going to the mall after the afternoon classes. All five of us.>"
"<It'll be fun! Great shops, an awesome arcade, the karaoke place, and much, much more. You need to get out, and that's the perfect opportunity!>"
"<Actually... Um... I was thinking of hanging out at the library.>"
Yeah, sounds like you. "<The library will still be there tomorrow. And this will be good for you. You don't hang out with people enough.>"
Eriko's retort died on her lips. Mom seemed to think so, too. But... The idea of hanging out with my schoolmates this afternoon doesn't seem as interesting as the library. Or a number of activities I do on my own. Is that... normal?
She was distracted from her introspection by some of the ninth-graders making a scene not too far from them - more specifically, a boy falling on his butt after Kazu pushed him.
"<Ow!>" The boy wasn't familiar to Eriko - but then again, she didn't know that many people.
"<Oh, be a man>", Kazu's face expressed great contempt; "<You're not even tall enough that falling on your ass should hurt.>" Some of the nearby students quietly snickered.
"<What do you want from me?!>" The other boy seemed desperate.
"<Mostly, I'm just sick of you, and of the way you're taking advantage.>"
"<I didn't do anything...>"
"<Maybe, maybe not. But how's the teacher's supposed to know? Oh, except, she doesn't need to know - you get to be assumed innocent, while the rest of us can get in trouble!>"
Eriko whispered in her adoptive sister's ear: "<Junko, do you know who that guy is?>"
"<I think it's Mizuno Kunio. You know, the math teacher's son. Quiet guy.>"
Said quiet guy tried to get up, but Kazu put his foot on his chest and pressed down. "<Ah-ah. Not done yet.>"
"<I didn't do anything wrong!>" Kunio insisted, looking on the verge of tears.
"<I'll be the judge of that.>"
Junko gave Eriko a worried look. They slowly began walking away - some other students were distancing themselves from the scene, some were watching it with worry, some were watching it with amusement.
It's no big deal, Eriko thought. Just Kazu being an asshole. This kind of stuff happens. Best to go somewhere else.
Her train of thought suddenly paused. "When something is wrong, you should fix it." I said that just a minute ago. I confronted Junko's father, but now I'm afraid to deal with a school bully? Like hell!
She stopped walking.
"<Eriko? Is something wrong?>"
"<Oh yes.>" She turned around and walked briskly toward Kazu and Kunio.
Kazu turned around as, to the surprise of everyone watching, she tapped him on the shoulder. "<Oh, it's you. What's the matter?>"
"<Better question: What the Hell is wrong with you?!>"
He paused for a moment, then chuckled. "<Oooh, this is going to be fun. Go on, kid, I'm all ears.>"
"<Fun?!>" she was getting genuinely angry now. "<You, you think it's fun behaving like this, attacking and harassing one of your classmates, and, and...>" she trailed off, at loss for words.
"<Well... Yeah, I do. Especially when it's an ass who deserves it, like Kunio here.>"
"<Call me crazy, but I suspect we don't have the same definition of 'deserve'.>" she replied in an icy tone. "<So tell me, Kazu - what kind of behavior actually justifies this in your opinion?>"
He met her gaze, then chuckled again. "<Ah, no matter. What the loser did or didn't do isn't all that important. Anyway,>" he shot Kunio a glance as he scrambled to his feet, "<you just got him better than I could ever have.>"
"<Beg your pardon?>"
Kazu flashed her a smug grin. "<It's one thing getting shoved around by a stronger, tougher guy like me. It happens. But being rescued by a younger, smaller girl like you? Now that's humiliation. Great job, Watanabe.>" Grinning one more time at her and Kunio, he turned his back to them and began walking away.
Eriko looked at Kunio. She looked at Kazu. Kunio again. Finally, she ran up to Kazu.
"<You! Wait!>"
"<What now?>"
"<You think this is funny? You... I...>"
"<Look, I'd love to stay here and chat, but... You just don't have very interesting things to say.>" he said in a detached tone. "<So, how about you take some lessons, get yourself some better lines, and then we'll talk?>"
Once again, he started walking away, but she grabbed his wrist. "<Oh no you don't! Just because you're better at coming up with comebacks, that doesn't mean you win this argument! Just... Being faster with words doesn't change the fact that what you did back there was wrong, and that what you said was full of it!>"
This time, he laughed at loud, then gave her an appreciative smirk. "<You are gutsy, really. Not bad at all for an eighth-grade girl.>"
"<And you're still the biggest ninth-grade jerk I've ever met.>"
"<Thank you.>" he replied in a mock respectful tone, even bowing a little.
"<That was not a compliment!>" Well duh. He knows it's not a compliment.
"<Why not? I'm proud of what I am. Now if you'll excuse me, I really need to do that whole 'walk away to leave you digesting my words' thing without you running after me or grabbing me in the middle, so if you have anything else left do say, say it now.>"
"<Good, then, see you around, Watanabe.>"
As he walked away, Eriko turned around. Kunio had quietly left, various students were whispering among themselves, and Junko was rushing to her side.
"<Eriko! I... What... Is everything all right?>"
She sighed. "<I dunno, Junko. I'm not sure I really helped anything.>"
Junko swallowed nervously. "<I... I'm not sure. but I guess Kunio owes you for stopping Kazu...>"
Eriko sighed. Owe me? I never wanted anyone to owe me. I just wanted to solve a problem.

As classes ended, Katsutoshi climbed into the limousine that waited for him outside his high school. That in itself was perfectly normal - just about every student at that elite private school came from exceedingly wealthy families. But this time around, the limo didn't take him home.
"Your mother will be meeting you at her temporary headquarters, sir - Steel-Sama is working on securing a corporate tower to serve in a more permanent manner" said the Japanese chauffeur in perfect English.
Katsutoshi almost smirked. Steel-Sama. Even in English, most people he knew would always add the honorific "Sama" at the end of his mother's surname. He was used to how she inspired no small measure of fearful respect.
Granted, he had had almost no contact with her over the last few years. What grade had he been in back during their last meeting...?
The limo stopped in front of a medium-sized skyscrapper. He could see Mr Harris waiting for him at the entrance. He wrinkled his nose - he considered Harris to be the biggest phony he knew. At times, he wondered why his mother kept that guy as her personal assistant... But he assumed she had reasons. She always did.
"Katsutoshi! Good to see you. How long has it been?"
"Far too long," he replied, shaking Harris's hand, and showing that he could fake smiles just as well as him.
"True, true. Now, you're probably impatient to see your mother. Her office is on the 28th floor..."
Harris still attempted to make small talk in the elevator, asking about school. Katsutoshi did his best to answer politely and pleasantly.
"...only third in my class this semester, but the competition's intensive. Hard as I may work, my classmates are hardly slackers either, and I'm afraid I lack the genius of some of them..."
"You're too modest." said Harris, as they finally entered Steel-Sama's office.
He saw her in her office chair. Victoria Steel. Despite being 44, she still looked in her mid-thirties. Blond hair in a simple wedge cut. Cold blue-gray eyes behind rectangular glasses. Sobre office attire. A calculating, emotionless expression. As usual, Steel-Sama looked all business - and she was.
Mr Harris just kept his smile on, until she dismissed him:
"Bill, we've been getting complaints from Mr Kahara. Handle them and arrange a meeting ASAP."
"Yes ma'm."
As Harris left, Katsutoshi looked at his mother. "Kahara? Kahara Noboru?"
"Kahara Noboru." she confirmed tonelessly. "One of the most powerful leaders of the Yakuza in Tokyo, and the father of one of your classmates."
He sighed. "Never mind. Why... I mean..." for the first time in a while, Katsutoshi was actually struggling with words.
"Why are you here?" He finally asked, sounding a bit more forceful and angry than he intended. "Why did you want to see me?"
"I had been considering a move to Tokyo, Osaka, Singapore or Seoul for financial reasons," she answered calmly, "but what finally decided me was the Downfall incident."
"The what?"
"A recent incident. Two entities, one of them clearly inhuman, fought each other in downtown Tokyo using abilities that current science is at loss to explain."
Steel-Sama had a reputation for being a ruthless, highly competent businesswoman. She did not have a reputation as a prankster, though. "...Is this a joke?"
"No. I have examined camera footage, and had it examined by experts. Something out of the ordinary happened here, and I intend to learn more."
He processed the information for a moment. "That's why you came here? To hunt after a tabloid story?"
She betrayed no emotion as she met his gaze. "I do not pursue leads without cause. The information was analyzed carefully. Whatever happened here deserves my full attention. If it turns out not to be a phenomenon localized in Tokyo, or even Japan, I was careful to ensure that the move could easily be undone. The headquarters can be transferred away at a moment's notice."
Yeah, and the fact that I'm here doesn't really play a big role in this, does it? "Fine. But why did you want to see me?"
"It is a matter of timing. You are reaching an age where you can make a difference in adult society."
He scoffed. "So, you want me as a tool."
"That is correct."
"So tell me, oh mommy dearest... What's to stop me from throwing a tantrum of teenage rebellion, tell you to stuff your plans, and just plain refuse to help the mother who didn't so much as bother to write?"
"You won't. For multiple reasons. That you depend on me for financial support is not even one of the main ones. Ultimately, we want the same things... And while you hate to admit it, you are loyal to me."
He clenched his fists for a short moment. "Fine. What do you want from me, specifically?"
She held him a few documents. "For now, nothing specific except familiarizing yourself with some of my more unconventional ventures. If any interesting developments warrant your involvement, I'll let you know."
"I see. Good bye."
As he turned and walked out, she had the time for one last sentence: "Oh, and congratulations on your victory at the inter-school tennis competition."

"<Bye guys! See you all tomorrow!>" Junko waved at Gosho, Tomo and Takato, before addressing Eriko: "<That was fun, huh?>"
"<You did better than I expected at the arcade. I guess you're starting to catch a few moves thanks to your training.>"
"<And that Tomo! I almost died laughing when she did that thing with the straw! I'll have to remember that trick.>"
"<I guess.>"
"<...Mostly, though, I was surprised when Takato tore off his mask and revealed he was an alien.>"
"<Beg your pardon?>"
"<Just checking if you were still listening.>"
"<Oh. Sorry, Junko... I was thinking about the whole Kazu thing.>"
"<What's to think about? He was picking on someone, you tried to stop him, it didn't work out.>"
"<Yes, but... Why did the argument go his way like that? I was making more sense, and I'm pretty positive I'm smarter than him, yet it still felt like he was leading the conversation.>"
"<Well... It's different kinds of smarts, no?>"
"<I think it's a matter of experience. I just don't talk to people much, so I wasn't as quick on the uptake...>"
"<I guess.>" Oh great, now -I'm- doing it.
After a moment of awkward (for Junko) silence, she tentatively asked:
"<Eriko... You did have fun back there, right?>" Right?
Eriko hesitated for a moment. "<I don't know, Junko. It was OK, I guess, but... I still think I'd rather go to the library or something like that.>"
Junko looked at her, dumbfounded (and somewhat mortified). "<I don't get it. Here, you were with the guys, with...>" With me. With your friend. "< the library, you'd have been alone!>"
Eriko wasn't sure how to answer the question. So she simply didn't. She's right - what is wrong with me? Aren't people supposed to want to be with their friends?
Junko didn't dare press the issue, too concerned about inconveniencing Eriko any further. Why is it my attempts to help her out never work? How can I repay my debt to her when I don't even understand her?

"<I am certain that you know what you're doing, Grand Adviser,>" said Secano, "<But may I ask why you chose for us to enter this world at the sea?>"
Floating on a raft, Grand Adviser Chancell looked at his two companions. Secano was an up-and-coming agent of the Elysium. A bit young, and he hadn't earned his exaltation yet, but Chancell had high hopes for him. The other one, Samsod, was a human male in his twenties; well-built, pale-skinned, with shoulder-length blond hair, and seemingly little interest in their conversation.
"<You have to keep in mind, Secano, that at this point, this is an information war. We don't know exactly when this world was linked, but it can't have been all that long ago. For most of their History, magic didn't exist for them. They most likely haven't fully integrated it into their culture yet, and it is possible that they are not even aware of the Elysium's existence.>"
He stopped for a moment, noticing the weirded out expression on Secano's face. "<I take it that the concept disturbs you.>"
"<I admit that it does, Grand Adviser. The idea of people not knowing about the Elysium is... hard to grasp, even if I can see that they'd have no way of knowing about it.>"
"<You've spent your entire life in the Elysium, or on Elysium-controlled worlds. But keep in mind that the Elysium can only go where there is magic - for now, most of the multi-verse is still beyond our grasp. The number of universes that He Who Laughs has yet to link is staggering.>"
"<As you say, Grand Adviser.>"
"<Yes. Now, back to strategy.
While it is possible that they do not know about us, it is certain that we know far too little about them. You've seen all the information the Imperial Library has on this world. They are more technologically advanced than most, even if not quite the top. They're not going to be pushovers. We also have some very basic notions of their societies, but we will need far more. Before we can decide the best way to conquer them, we must learn more about them. And that means that we must first interact with their society, learn of their current situation, and do it all without them realizing that we are among them.>"
"<And that's why we're coming by the sea? Because there's no one to see us appearing?>"

It was Sunday afternoon in Tokyo when the people on the street saw a pale man, dressed in black and wearing a top hat, stand up on a lamp post and begin speaking in odd, accented Japanese.
"<Ah, the ignorant, hapless masses of humanity. Sheep for the slaughter. So much prey to the monsters lurking under your race's bed. So many pawns for the great cosmic game.>"
Even though he didn't seem to be shouting, his voice was loud and clear, heard even at good distance.
"<You spend your miserable, pathetically short lives desperately trying to avoid your inevitable fate and create something worthwhile. Always, without exception, you fail - not even grasping by how much, ignorant as you are of the deeper truths of the universe.
But perhaps it is a blessing that you are so ignorant. Perhaps it is for the best that you know not the size of the multiverse, the infinite rage of Hell, the powerlust of the Elysium, the wonders of Feyland, and the true nature of it all... For if you knew what kind of universe you oh-so-briefly live in, what horror truly belies the cosmos... It would drive... You... Mad.
It could be argued that I'm doing you but a mercy, but, to be truthful, mercy is the least of my motivations. I do as I do simply because I wish it so.
Ah, but I have failed to introduce myself. You may be little more than ignorant, ephemeral prey, but that is no reason to be impolite. You may briefly know me as Murder. And with that, I believe my soliloquy has reached an acceptable length. Now, for the next part of this show, I shall repaint the streets in a rather organic shade of red.>"

"<Eriko, are you all right?>" Junko said as her friend practiced her shields under the watchful gaze of Mother Aurora. "<You seem a bit down. Actually, you seemed kinda down all day.>"
"<Sorry,>" Eriko dropped her shielding attempts for a moment. "<I guess I have been a little depressed.>"
"<Why? Is something wrong?>"
"<No...>" God, this is such a stupid reason... "<To be perfectly honest - and feel free to laugh at how silly it is - I'm still upset from watching the Sailor Moon finale last night.>"
Junko looked taken aback. OK, didn't see -that- coming. "<I know I cried when the sailor soldiers died, but...>"
"<No, not that. The deaths I could actually handle. It's the memory-loss at the end that upset me. I hate amnesia endings. What's the point of everything they went through, all the character growth, all the things they went through together, if they don't get to remember any of it?! It's just... Augh! And I feel like an idiot for letting this get to me so much, too.>"
"<Eriko, it's just the season finale! It's not even the last season! They get their memories back later!>"
"<I know! But it still upset me, and now I'm upset even more because I let something like that upset me... Ah dammit.>"
"<A moment.>" Mother Aurora's majestic voice interrupted as she seemed to notice something. "<There are... events taking place. Magic being used profusely and unsubtly.>"
The Sailor Moon discussion got dropped immediately. "<Is it Downfall?>"
"<I shall verify that immediately.>" A portal was opened, showing a neighborhood of Tokyo - one where dozens of bleeding corpses littered the ground, with Murder standing at the center of it, daggers appearing all around him and flying at the fleeing crowd like missiles.
Holy... He's killing them en masse! I... I have to stop this, NOW. "<Doesn't look like Downfall. No matter, I'm going to stop him. Mother Aurora, any advice? Who and what is this guy?>"
Mother Aurora seemed to hesitate for a moment. "<His name is Murder. He is among the greatest murderers of the multiverse.>" She then closed the portal. "<He is also beyond your league, I'm afraid. You are not to fight him.>"
"<Murder is a far deadlier foe than some random demon. If you fight him, you will lose. If you lose, you will die. If you die, protecting this world will become far more difficult for me.>"
"<Well, what do you suggest we do then? He's killing zillions of people as we speak!>"
"<We wait. Mass carnage bores Murder quickly - odds are, the whole point of his display is to draw you out. He'll stop eventually.>"
"<Eventu - have you lost your mind?! We can't just sit here and wait while he commits mass murder!>"
"<We most certainly can. In fact, it is the only reasonable option.>"
Junko, horrified by the entire situation, watched them both as no word was said for a moment. Then Eriko spoke up:
"<Listen, Mother Aurora: With or without your approval, I'm going to go there, and do everything in my power to stop this lunatic. You can whine about it, or you can give me advice to improve my odds of survival. Your call.>"
Mother Aurora sighed. "<I understand your desire to protect your own people, Soul. It is a feeling I am all too familiar with. But please do believe that I have a better understanding of the situation than you. At the moment, you are this world's only defender. If you die, who will be there to stop other, greater threats later on? There are evils out there who wish to bring upon mankind far worse fates than the murder of a few thousand innocents. You are still an amateur at magic, talented as you may be - allow yourself the time to grow into your powers, and then you may be able to prevent this kind of thing from happening ever again.>"
Eriko considered for a moment. "<Look, I see what you mean, but... If I start to let thousands of people die now so that I'm safer, I don't really deserve to be called their protector. It's a risk, I'll admit it... But if I let this happen, I'm just not going to see myself as worthy of going on with this, and what good will I be as a defender then? I think fighting Murder is actually the lesser risk. So, I'm sorry, Mother Aurora... but I am going there.>"
The Fairy Queen sighed. "<Then I will not stop you.
Murder is an experienced fighter. He has a strong penchant for metal blades - he uses them all the time. The knife he carries on himself is very special - it is nigh-indestructible, can cut through absolutely anything effortlessly, always comes back to him when recalled, and allows him to open portals between worlds as easily as one normally opens a portal through space.>"
"<...There are objects that can do that? The lessons you taught me about magical objects didn't go that far.>"
"<This knife isn't just any magical object. It is among the most potent ones in existence, and will ignore your shields. Watch out for it.>"
"<Understood. Well, off I go. Wish me luck.>"

The news helicopter was flying at (what they hoped was) a safe distance from the carnage.
"<Are you getting all this?>"
"<Yeah, both the image and sound>" he was referring to the long-distance listening apparatus they were using this time, "<but he isn't saying anything, just... smiling.>"
"<He? Who's he?>"
"<Foreigner in tuxedo standing on a lamppost. In the middle of it all, looks like he's the one doing it.>"
"<Hey, look there!>"

Murder watched as the gate opened not too far from him, and the white-clad girl stepped out.
"<Ah, you must be Soul. Or are you? I'm hoping they got your name right; I asked around, but the rumors about you weren't all that informative.>"
So he speaks Japanese... Sorta. That's a pretty odd, dated form of the language he's using. Medieval-era Japanese? "<I'm Soul, yes. And you... you're going to stop this. Immediately.>"
He chuckled. "<Oh, I see no need to go further with the anonymous multitudes...>"
She looked around at the countless dead and dying. The blood, everywhere. Sick. This is sick.
"<...not when I have far, far more interesting prey right in front of me!>" Murder made a wide triumphant gesture. "<But, let us not rush into something like this. Let's see... You call yourself Soul, and I can tell you are a human. Pray tell, do you know who and what yours truly is?>"
"<You're Murder.>" Wait, maybe I shouldn't have answered so quickly...
"<Ah, you do know. Would I be incorrect in assuming you heard it from that dear Mother Aurora?>"
She said nothing.
"<I will assume so regardless, simply because it is by far the most likely hypothesis. But let me tell you a little more about myself:
I am an elysian. Like the fairies, my people are immortal spirits from a different plane of existence... but, I probably should not be calling them my people, given how little interaction I've had with any of them over the recent centuries.
You see, a long time ago - by humans standards, at least - Mother Aurora came to me. She needed someone to work for her - someone who could travel to all the worlds she and her fairy minions couldn't go to. I seemed like I was suited for the job, and thus, she gave me the tool with which to achieve it - namely, this handy little gift.>" He unsheathed an ornate, golden dagger. "<She made it herself.>"
Wait, is that knife made of -gold-? But gold is not strong enough to make a good weapon... Then again, with the magic Aurora described, it probably doesn't matter how strong the metal naturally is. "<Hold it. Mother Aurora made this knife? She said fairy magic doesn't work here.>"
Murder grinned mischievously, rotating the knife in his hand. "<Generally speaking, no, it doesn't. But Mother Aurora is Mother Aurora. Her power is roughly equal to the very power that keeps fairies out of most worlds. She spent quite a lot of time, power and effort on this item - enough that it can work here unhindered.>"
"<Fine. Let's assume for a moment you're speaking the truth. What did she need you to do for her?>"
"<Oh, simple enough. Use the knife to go from world to world, find magicians like you, and kill them.>"
"<And incidentally, I am quite miffed at your suggestion that I am not a credible source.>"
Did he... Did he say that to rattle me? Is he saying all of this to make me lose my concentration during the fight? Heeeey... Must not -forget- that it's going to be a fight any minute now.
"<But, enough idle conversation. I am afraid I must now kill you.>"
So much for "any minute now".
Murder made a brief gesture with his left hand. The next instant, a veritable tsunami of blades appeared out of thin air, rushing toward her at great speed.

"<Mother Aurora...>" Junko tried to ask in the most respectful tone she could muster, as she and the Fairy Queen watched Soul open a portal to deflect the blades at the last instant. "<Eriko will... She will be fine, right?>"
"<I certainly hope so, child, but I fear that it is by no means guaranteed. Murder is a terrible opponent, beyond what she can handle at this stage, if ever. Her only hope of survival is retreat - I merely hope that she will take that route before it is too late.>"
"<Isn't there anything we can do?>"
"<Not at this point, child.>"

Another wave of sharp metal. She projected herself high up in the air to dodge it.
OhGodOhGodOhGodCalmDownFocus. Must get him before he gets me.
She sent a blast of plasma in his direction. Without even flinching, he opened a portal in the blast's way, then created a broadsword he telekinetically hurled at her like a missile. She barely managed to portal-block it.
Not good. He's a much smarter fighter than Downfall. I'll need something better to get him.
Using bursts of kinetic energy to zig-zag in the air, she sent another burst at him - then, almost immediately followed by making a giant anvil appear above his position.
There was a loud thud as the anvil hit the ground.
Did I get him?
"Not bad, but no cigar, my dear."
He was floating right behind her.

Inside Castle Nexus, Eriko's phone cell rang.
It had taken Eriko some work to allow the phone's waves to reach in and out of the pocket dimension. More recently, she had also used some noble magic on the phone itself, precisely for this kind of situation.
"<Eriko! Is that you?>" Mrs Watanabe asked.
"<Yes.>" Junko lied. Eriko's spell made it so that when Junko spoke on that phone, the sound waves of her voice were modified, making her sound like Eriko.
"<Thank God! Are you and Junko all right?>"
"<Yes, there's no need to worry.>" I'm really sorry for lying to you, but it's for Eriko. "<Why?>"
"<There's some kind of disaster going on right now in the Juban district. A lot of people are... getting hurt. I had to make sure you were all right.>"
"<That's all right, Mrs... mom. We're nowhere near the Juban district.>"
"<Stay indoors. Actually, take the subway. I'll take you from the station.>"
Hoo boy.

Murder was literally flying in wide circles around her. This was made even more surreal by the fact that he was maintaining a stiff, upright posture as he circled her, sending metallic projectiles every now and then.
He's not even taking this fight seriously - he's -toying- with me. I'm so completely out of my league here it's...
"<You really are a novice>", Murder commented, not stopping his attacks. "<How long have you been at this - four months? Six, at the very most?>"
Don't answer. Don't talk. Focus on the fight. Pay attention later to the fact you've been using magic for even less time than he seems to think. Which suggests I'm a really fast learner. No, think about that later!
"<I will admit, you do not pose much of a challenge... Then again, I suppose that means I can spice the game a little.>"
The next instant, he lunged at her, his golden knife aimed at her heart. She flung herself out of the way with a panicky burst of kinetic energy, resulting in her back colliding violently with a lamppost.
Ow! Well, I guess that means the holistic shield is working, since I didn't just break my own skeleton andOhGodDodgeDodgeDodge!
With a second burst, she flung herself away again as he charged anew, this time making a wide slashing motion.
She watched, eyes wide as saucers, as the lamppost was effortlessly cut in two.
Holy. Freaking. Crap.

Less than ten blocks away from the fight, countless people were running away from the scene... But one grim-faced man was making way toward it.
Suddenly, he paused. Something felt like it was calling out to him. Curious, he went in that direction. In an alley, he found a small knife.
The moment he got close enough, the knife emitted a blinding flash of light, causing the man to roar in pain and cover his eyes.

Soul was dodging Murder's fourth charge when they both noticed the flash.
"<Ah, it looks like I've finally found what I came here looking for.>" said Murder, satisfied.
Huh? I thought he came here to kill me? Soul looked at him, confused.
"<Forgive this interruption, my dear, I will not be long.>" he said, bowing, then opening a portal and rushing through it.
The Hell?

The man was beginning to regain use of his eyes. "<Once I find the son of a bitch who put that knife there I'll...>"
"<I do believe I happen to be the son of a bitch you speak of, my friend.>"
The man looked at the newcomer. "<You're... an elysian. So the Elysium's already sending its lapdogs here? Well, forget about this world, because... Wait. Are you...>"
"<The name is Murder.>" The man suddenly got a nervous chill. "<As for you... Unless the humans are mistaken, I take it that your name is Downfall?>"
He looked at Murder, surprised. "<You've figured out quickly.>"
"<You're a demon, that's easy to feel. I put knives all around the area, with spells designed to locate your kind. I've been fighting Soul with the specific intent of drawing you out.>"
"<What do you want?>" asked Downfall, taking what was probably supposed to be a combat stance. He suddenly regretted having shifted to a human form.
"<Why, I do believe that you and I might be able to do business together!>" Murder made a wide gesture of (mock?) enthusiasm. "<As you will be quick to realize if you haven't already, we have a few common goals.>"
"<I'm listening.>"
"<Good, good. But, this is not the time and place for this. See that building?>" He pointed at the Tokyo Tower in the distance. "<Let's meet there after I finish my business here. I do still owe Soul a termination.>"
"<Hold it! Soul is my nemesis! It will be I who kill her...>"
Before Downfall could go any further, the golden knife's tip was right in front of him, between the eyes.
"<Careful, dear associate. It is generally considered unwise not to let Murder have what he wants.>"
Downfall said nothing.
"<But, do not worry. Our association may bring in things far more valuable that killing a foe personally.
And with that said, I bid thee a 'see you soon'. I will not be long.>"

All right, Eriko, think. He could be back any second. I need a plan of attack.
If I send a blast at him, he'll portal-block it. But what if... Yeah, that could work!

A portal opened, and her foe returned. "<Sorry for this delay. Now, I believe it is time to...>"
"<Just die already!>"
As soon as she had seen the portal, she had created a projectile behind her back. Now, she hurled it forward. Murder opened a portal between them... But she had purposefully been aiming a little to the side this time. Murder saw the dynamite stick as it passed right next to him. He also saw the burning fuse.
In truth, Eriko's lack of experience meant she couldn't time the fuse very well. The explosive flew several meters further than necessary before detonating. Nevertheless, the explosion was impressive, its shockwave sending Soul flying a good distance away.
Finally, she stabilized and looked.
"<Unbelievable. You made me lose my hat.>"
Murder's face was a little blackened, his hat was nowhere to be seen, and his clothes had been substantially damaged, but he didn't look seriously hurt.
Dammit! Not enough power. I was hoping he'd be more fragile than Downfall, but his shields must have protected him. Quick, hit him again...
Before she could proceed with her attack, though, she saw him make a small gesture with his left hand, opening a small portal in front of him. Then he quickly moved his right hand, and she understood what he was doing.
Fast as she could, she gave herself the kinetic burst to rush forward. 'Fast as she could' wasn't enough, however - Murder's right hand, holding the golden knife, came out of the portal's end behind her, stabbing her in the back. She cried out in surprise and pain, then fell to the ground.
"<Very impressive.>" said Murder, as he opened a second portal.
He didn't get to use it. She opened a portal of her own, right beneath herself. She even willed it to move upward, just to gain a few precious milliseconds.
"<Very impressive.>" Murder repeated as Soul disappeared. "<Oh well. Mother Aurora's latest pawn can entertain me another time. Now, to business.>"

"<She will live>" Mother Aurora told the frantic Junko as she healed the magical girl. "<The wound was deep enough to kill, but not enough to kill before she got here.>"
Because she was dodging, thought Junko. That fight was insane.
Eriko coughed and opened her eyes. "<Ugh... Er... Am I still alive?>"
"<Certainly not by virtue of listening to your elders>" said Mother Aurora, "<but, yes.>"
"<Eriko! How do you feel?>"
"<Like I just got my butt kicked.>" Her voice was shaking a little. He almost killed me. For good this time.
"<I hope you understand now why I did not want you to confront Murder>" said Mother Aurora. "<You are a talented student, and the day may yet come where you're ready to face him, but that day is not today.>"
"<But... I had to...>" Her voice was shaking even more. "<The deaths. I had to stop the deaths. Is he... Is he still killing people?>"
"<While he will certainly kill again, probably no later than today, you have accomplished your goal of putting a halt to his current carnage. He lost interest once you showed up.>"
As the girls said nothing, the Fairy Queen continued: "<You have had a rough day. I will let you recover now. We will speak again tomorrow.>"
Wait! I need to ask you... The things Murder said... I... But she didn't have the strength. Mother Aurora portalled away from Castle Nexus.
"<Eriko...?>" Junko asked tentatively.
In response, Eriko caught her and hugged her tight, clenching her against herself. She began to make sobbing sounds... Then suddenly pushed Junko away.
"<Sorry. But, I probably shouldn't make it a habit to cry after every fight.>" she smiled weakly, wiping her tears.
Junko was teary-eyed herself. "<Yeah, probably. Are you... Are you all right?>"
"<Define 'all right'. I don't even have a scratch left on me, I think... But, you know. Not feeling too cheery right now.>"
"<Your... Your parents called. I used the cell phone, pretended to be you, but we're supposed to be on the subway, heading home. I've had to answer several calls, telling them what station we were at each time... I tried to stretch it, but we're only ten minutes away from our stop, and your mom is waiting for us there.>"
"<OK, I'll change and portal us. Thanks, Junko.>"
"<It's nothing.>" Not compared to fighting something like this and getting stabbed almost to death.

"So that, presumably, is how Murder and Downfall met. I suspected it was something like that."
"Not a very complicated story. Murder wanted to make sure Aurora didn't succeed, and he figured Downfall would make a useful pawn."
"You know, in retrospect, you had more than a little luck in your fights."
"Gee, thanks."
"Oh, far from me to deny your skill. But surely you see that, even with the precautions you took, there was a substantial risk for you to die at every opportunity, especially early on. To survive one fight like this is one thing, but you've survived several before you became truly formidable. There is no denying you got lucky, at least at first."
"At first, sure... But there's also Mother Aurora. She wouldn't let me die on her, and I'm not just talking about the healing.
Mind you, there was also a lot of luck involved in my getting powers in the first place. If not for that NDE..."
"True. I suppose that the world's History, ultimately, is a chaotic system, where the slightest change can alter all - and our lives are no exception. An unpleasant admission, especially for me, but true."
"Philosophize away, Douchebaggio. You just wait for me to flap a butterfly's wings and bring all your plans crashing down under the typhoon."
"I'm shaking on the inside."

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