Saga of Soul
"<It's just that... After Downfall, I said I didn't want to get caught unprepared like that ever again. But when I fought Murder, he curbstomped me.>"
"<It's not like you were completely helpless against him,>" Junko tried to reassure Eriko. "<Your portal-block trick worked really well, and that dynamite attack was very clever.>"
"<But it wasn't enough. I still lost. I'm putting my life on the line with these fights, not to mention a lot of other people's lives. Mother Aurora got this right - I should be using my brain to figure out better ways to fight them.>"
Junko sighed, glancing at Castle Nexus's starless, inky 'sky'. "<I guess. But, Eriko... You're the smartest person I've ever met. I'm sure you can figure this out.>"
"<Maybe... If I treat this seriously.>" She closed her eyes and stroked her chin. "<Let's see... The way Murder used a portal to target me was actually a pretty good idea. If I work on my portals' accuracy, I could use it myself. In fact, since the close end of the portal can be a certain distance away from me, I could open one end next to my opponent, and the other end hundreds of kilometers upward. Suck him into the vacuum of space. It would only be a short delay if he could portal back, though.
Come to think of it, what about attacks that hurt the senses? Or acid... No, poison and acid would both be countered by holistic shields. Blasts that follow their target? Projectiles that explode if and only if they hit their target?>" She began writing notes down. "<I'll make a list of ideas...>"
"<We're holding him for now, and you're welcome to take him whenever you please,>" said Kahara on the phone. Truth was, he dearly hoped she would take Murder soon - holding the creepy bastard themselves made him nervous, and it was probably worse for the men he had assigned to guarding him.
There was a pause. Steel-Sama considered the implications. She had hoped that the Yakuza could be used to gather information over time; that they could capture one of the magic-users - much less Murder himself - was unexpected, especially so soon. "<How did you capture him?>"
"<One of my men met him by chance, recognized him, and threatened him with his gun until he accepted to come.>"
On her end, Steel-Sama raised an eyebrow. From available data, she doubted a gun would be a threat to Murder. "<Have you seen him use magic at all?>"
"<Er, the man who captured him did. Saw him pull a knife out of thin air.>" Awkward pause. "<He killed someone with it.>"
"<But not the man who was capturing him.>"
"<I see.>" Another pause. "<I will be sending some of my personnel in the afternoon to pick up Murder, and transfer him to a facility outside of Tokyo. Good work, Mr Kahara.>"
Harris spoke once she hung up. "So... Murder let himself be captured?"
"Then aren't we, you know, just playing into his plan?"
"Assuming he has one, that does seem rather likely."
"So what do we do?"
"We have to consider what his plan is. Perhaps he is just playing a game and intends to break free once he grows bored, in which case, his plan is of little interest to us. Perhaps he is doing this in the hope of gathering information, in which case, we must ensure that the information he gets cannot be traced back to us. Perhaps he is hoping to sow misinformation. Perhaps we do not have the knowledge required to understand his plan.
However, my real concern is not whether Murder can complete his plan, if it exists. My concern is to advance my plan. In the present state of affairs, what we need is information, and Murder is the best available source."
"Fine, but how will you make him talk?"
"On that matter, we will need to prove adaptable. The first step, however, will be to transfer him to a holding facility in America."
"...Wait, what? Why?"
"Multiple reasons. The first one is that he must be kept in a place that cannot be traced back to me, and we do not have the time to establish such a place in Japan..."
"<So much for that idea.>" said Eriko, striking out a line in her notes.
"<What do you mean? It worked.>" asked Junko.
"<Meh. Sure, you can use noble magic to make a blast home onto a target... but it takes too long to cast. Noble magic just isn't good for situations that require speed - by the time I used such an attack, an enemy could have hit me several times.>"
"<Oh. Well, there are still other ideas...>"
About then, a portal opened, and what was by now a familiar pink glow washed across Castle Nexus.Ah, good. Maybe I can ask Mother Aurora about...
Eriko's train of thought was derailed when she realized that this time around, the fairy queen had not come alone. There was another person with her - and, from her appearance, Eriko guessed the newcomer was a fairy too.
"<Greetings, children. I do believe introductions are in order.>" Mother Aurora waved in their direction. "<My dear, this is Soul, guardian of this world; this is her friend and confident, Junko Takahashi. Children, this is my faithful helper, Monsoon.>"
"<Hi!>" Monsoon gave a chipper smile and wave. In a rather stark contrast with Aurora's quiet majesty and dignity, she seemed cheerful and outgoing. "<Awesome to finally meet you guys! Mother Aurora has been telling me soooo much about you!>"
"<Er, hi... Welcome to Castle Nexus.>"
Monsoon giggled. "<She said you were pretty polite for your age.>"
"<Er, thanks, I think...>"
Junko cautiously approached Moonson. "<Um, sorry for asking, but are you... you know...>"
"<Am I what?>" Monsoon gave her a mischievous look. "<Happy to be here? A party girl? Curious by nature? A fairy? Adventurous? The best singer in Feyland? Capable of going on with this till next year if I want to? The answer to all of these is yes.>"
"<...I just meant the fairy part.>"
"<Well, that goes back to the yes.>" She pointed to her back: "<Usually, butterfly wings mean either 'fairy' or 'trying to look like a fairy'.>"
Eriko eyeballed Monsoon. Motormouth... OK, so fairy personalities aren't uniform. Neither is fashion, hair color, wing size... or luminosity. "<Well, I hope this place is to your liking. Forgive the question, but...>"
"<...but you're wondering why I'm here.>" The fairy was still smiling playfully. She pointed at Mother Aurora with her thumb (allowing Eriko to notice a golden ring on her finger): "<On her Majesty's service. You need experienced help defending this world, and Mother Aurora can't be here all the time. My schedule's a bit more flexible, though... I can stay here for long periods of time. Heck, if you want, I'm perfectly willing to stay here until the world is safe again!>"
"<Stay? You mean, in Castle Nexus?>"
"<That's the idea. That is, if you think it'll help.>"
"<Wait, wait, waiiiit.>" Eriko held her hands in a "hold it" pose. "<You're asking me if I want you to move to Castle Nexus...>"
"<...So I can be your assistant when Mother Aurora isn't available. Give you training, advise you, answer what questions I can, that sort of stuff. I mean, you're talented and all, but you're still a newbie. You'll need all the help you can get.>"
"<Can't argue with that.>"
"<So that's a yes?>"
"<Fine with me. I made a guest room when I first built this place... A bit sketchy, but if you have magic, then you can remodel until you like it...>"
"<I am glad that this matter is settled,>" Mother Aurora spoke, "<but I am afraid I cannot tarry much longer. Other matters are calling for my attention, and as such, I must take my leave.
Soul, learn what you can from Monsoon. She is the most reliable and competent among my subjects, and ought to be of great help in your cause. Monsoon, as always, I trust you to fulfill your task. As for you, child,>" she addressed Junko, "<your help remains appreciated.>"
A portal later, and the Fairy Queen was gone.
Eriko gave her new guest an uncertain look. "<So... Should I show you the guest room?>"
"<Sure! We can deal with the work stuff when you feel ready.>"
Inside Steel-Sama's office, the CEO and Harris watched on the remote cameras as the handcuffed Murder was being led at gunpoint by some very nervous yakuzas into a private jet.
Harris was a bit puzzled. "Are the guns and handcuffs actually helping keep him under control, or are they just there to keep the yakuza from freaking out?"
"As a matter of fact, they are there to encourage Murder not to leave yet. It is extremely likely that he can break free easily, and is aware of it - in which case, his current imprisonment at our allies' hand is but a fiction. He probably isn't completely certain whether or not we are foolish enough to understand that it is a fiction. If it's a game to him, then it is to our advantage to keep him playing long enough to learn what we need to know - and to that purpose, we will maintain that fiction as long as necessary."
"So... He's pretending to be our prisoner, and we're playing along."
"Essentially. Though that is only the most likely interpretation."
"Right. But what happens if he decides to stop playing during the flight? How do we explain the destruction of the plane? We don't want anyone to know we're involved in the magic biz."
"Hardly an issue. This isn't my plane."
"You remember my meeting with Mr Miyano yesterday."
"Yeah, you offered to help him smuggle his son to... Oh..."
"Correct. You'll recall that I insisted on using Miyano's plane to send his son there, so that if he got caught, nothing could be traced to me."
"Wait, don't tell me your putting his son and Murder in the same plane!"
"Of course not. The young Miyano is actually flying in my plane, and will be starting a new life in Florida as arranged, with a new identity."
"And without the Japanese police on his back."
"Meanwhile, Murder is being flown on Miyano's plane. If he were to decide to destroy it, any investigation will lead to Miyano... Who will have to handle it without implicating me, as I am his son's only chance at a life outside of jail. And since Miyano has no links to Murder, the investigation won't find anything."
"Great! So even if Murder breaks free, it's completely untraceable!"
"Merely a contingency plan. Plan A remains for him to let us take him to Phoenix without making a fuss."
"<Yes, it's true>", said Monsoon, "<noble magic isn't really something you can use on the fly. Not good for combat, unless you take a few moments to cast it beforehand, like your shields and disguise.>"
"<Thought so>", said Eriko. "<but there have to be other tricks, right?>"
"<Sure. And I'll teach you what I can... but you might be surprised at how little there is. Magic doesn't exactly have any martial arts dedicated to it.>"
"<Really?>" Eriko raised an eyebrow. "<That's kinda... odd, no? I mean, obviously it's very useful in a fight, and some people have had it for a very long time. Shouldn't combat forms be all over the place?>"
Monsoon smiled and rolled her eyes. "<Eri, let me explain something to you. Fairies, elysians, demons - we're all spirits. In our natural state, we don't have physical bodies - we only build them for convenience, or for visiting material worlds such as this one. When the people around you don't actually need their bodies, learning how to beat the stuffing out of them isn't really all that useful. Magical combat doesn't come up often for spirits - as for humans who develop magic, there just aren't that many of them. So it doesn't really get refined into martial arts and the such.>"
"<About that. I wanted to ask...>"
"<...Do fairies have family names?>"
Monsoon raised an eyebrow. "<Huh? Uh, no. We don't really have families, period. Why?>"
"<Because, I'd been wondering... Earlier, Mother Aurora said, word-for-word, Junko Takahashi.>" Junko raised her head, suddenly more curious. "<Given name first, surname last. It's the right order in a lot of countries, but not in Japan. So I was wondering if you have interactions with other societies? Other human societies, or at least mortal?>"
Monsoon whistled. "<You are paying attention.>"
"<Well, the things Mother Aurora says often imply it...>"
"<Right. And yeah, lots of physical worlds, filled with humans.>"
"<They are?>" Eriko got pensive again. "<But, if humans evolved here, how can there be humans in other worlds too?>"
The fairy giggled. "<I think we should stop this line of questions here. No offense, but the bosslady can get pretty insistent on the whole 'need-to-know' basis. I'll admit she takes the 'some things must not be revealed to mortals' thing a bit further than I think she should, but, you know, she's still the one calling the shots.>" Her expression suddenly switched to concern. "<Mind you, it's not like she doesn't have some damn good reasons.>"
"<Some of them, you don't even want to know. But partly, it's that you don't want just anybody to have magic. Remember I said there were other physical worlds? Well, at least one of them had this stupid kid who got his hands on some magic, and decided he wanted to have some anti-matter.>"
The color drained for Eriko's face faster than the air from a popped balloon. "<Anti-matter.>"
"<Only a little. Just enough to fill a crate.>"
"<Yeah. Can you say 'nuclear winter'?>"
Eriko just stared into the emptiness, contemplating the abyss of terror and anti-particles. It was Junko, puzzled, who spoke: "<Wait, wait. Anti-matter? What's that?>"
"<Strongest explosive in the multiverse>", said Monsoon, smiling. "<A handful will obliterate a city, and it explodes as soon as it touches anything.>"
"<Oversimplified,>" said Eriko, partially regaining her composure, "<but what I don't get is... If he caused this kind of explosion, then how can you know what happened? I mean, wouldn't any witnesses have been reduced to mono-atomic dust?>"
"<Aw.>" Monsoon, still smiling, held her hands behind her back. "<OK, we don't actually know it happened that way. We know there was an explosion, we know the surviving scientists from that world concluded it was anti-matter, and we have some reasons to suspect magic was involved, but the rest is just guessing.
Still, you get my point. Magic getting around is bad news, and people finding out how you can get magic is really bad news.>""<I got my magic by falling on my head. Won't other people find out sooner or later anyway? And seriously, how come the world wasn't full of magicians before me?>"
"<Well, it doesn't always work. Most people who see the tunnel of light don't really stop to experiment. And even if they did... that doesn't really do much unless magic works in your specific universe. And odds are, magic didn't work in your universe until recently.>"
"<Back up.>" Eriko held her hand, eyes shut. "<Magic... can exist or not exist, or start and stop to exist, in different worlds?>"
"<Welllllll...>" Monsoon twiddled her hair. "<I think this goes back to the 'I'm not allowed to say more' thing.>"
Eriko gave her an annoyed look. "<Are all fairies this frustrating?>"
Monsoon smiled. "<Of course not. I work hard at this.
Jokes aside, though, you're right that people are going to find out about this eventually. It'll take work, keeping that knowledge from wreaking havoc... And that means we can't let them find out too early.>"
"<I'm not sure I like this. Something like this shouldn't be kept a secret.>"
The fairy grinned. "<Always the truth-seeking scientist. Still, trust us on this one. It's only a temporary solution, but Mother Aurora and the rest of us have tons of experience dealing with newly-magical worlds.>"
"<All right. I'm not going to tell the whole world about my discoveries until the right time. But... The fact that I was in a coma is no secret. If people discover who I am... Well, that'll be a pretty huge clue.>"
"<So we're going to have to work hard at protecting your secret identity. But, you know, it also works the other way around.>"
"<People who know how you could get magic could figure out your secret identity from there.>"
"<Oh!>" Eriko's eyes bulged out as the realization hit her. "<Downfall, Murder, others like them... If they already know humans get power from NDEs, they can just check hospital records to find people who have recently emerged from comas, and track me down from there!>"
"<Yeah. You might want to take care of that before they get the idea.>"
"<Er... OK, sorry if this is a stupid question, but how exactly do I take care of that?>"
"<You have noble magic. Go to wherever they keep the records, and erase them.>"
"<...Just like that?>"
"<OK... Wait. What if they already have the records? If I erase myself from them, and they see I'm no longer there even though I'm still on their copies, won't that single me out?>"
"<Heh. Good thinking, but if they have the records, then it's only a matter of time before they find you anyway, no?>"
"<OK, so we'll handle the rest of the secret identity lessons later. For now, let's see about this hospital problem...>"
Paying no attention to Harris, Katsutoshi stared fixedly at his mother. "Let me see if I get this straight. You've had the Yakuza capture Murder - or rather, you think Murder let them capture him. And now, you're taking him to a facility in America in order to pump him for information."
"OK, I have to ask: Am I really the only person in this room who thinks this has 'bad idea' written all over it? This guy has supernatural powers, you admit yourself that you can't control him, and now you do this?"
"Risks need to be minimized, but sometimes ought to be taken" the businesswoman replied calmly. "We cannot afford to miss such an opportunity."
"And if this explodes in your face? What then?"
"Then precautions have been taken, and will hopefully prove to be enough."
Katsutoshi frowned. "Fine. But why are you telling me all this? What do you want me to do?"
"For now, nothing. You are one of the precautions."
Mrs Watanabe was on the computer. Her husband walked past her when she called him.
"<What's the matter?>"
"<I got an e-mail>", she explained. "<It's from the Smiths.>" The Smiths had been their neighbors during their stay at Washington. The two families had gotten along well. "<They wanted to make sure we were all right.>"
There was an awkward silence.
"<I'm going to tell them we're fine, of course, but... I guess it's a bit of an eye-opener. We're living in a disaster-zone, Eiji.>"
He sighed. "<Tokyo is a big place, Mitsuki. Two incidents in far-off parts of town don't mean we live in a disaster zone.>"
"<You know what I mean. There is danger, and for all we know, it might get a lot worse before it gets any better.>"
"<Well, what do you suggest we do? Skip town and go back to America?>"
"<Is that really a bad idea?>"
They both paused. She went on: "<I know this doesn't sound like a very brave thing to do, Eiji... but we have to think of Eriko, and of Junko, first. If Tokyo becomes too dangerous, then it may be our duty as parents to move out.>"
He stopped to consider it. "<For now, it's not really justified. Two incidents don't mean that much on their own - more people have died of car accidents. But if it gets really bad... I don't know. There might be an evacuation plan, the whole thing might end... It's too early to tell.>" He looked up. "<And until things become clearer... Is that really the message we want to send the girls? That we should run away at the first sign of danger?>"
"<This is Eriko we're talking about>", his wife glared at him; "<we've already seen she doesn't run away from danger, and I have extra gray hair to prove it.>"
"<But was she wrong?>" He could tell he was walking on thin ice, but pressed on. "<I was horrified by what happened to Eriko just as much as you, but it's thanks to her that Junko was saved from... a very bad man. You can't tell me you're not proud of her for at least that.>"
"<I'm proud of her. But I'm less concerned about being proud of my daughter than about having a daughter to be proud of.>"
"<I know what you mean. But... there's always danger. Accidents, threatening people... We can never keep her and Junko 100% safe. It's always going to be a compromise between safety and living well.>"
"<I know that. But those new incidents...>"
"<...are still too new to make life-altering decisions based on them.>"
She sighed. "<I know. But I'm still nervous about the whole deal. I hate thinking that, if the girls had been at the wrong place and time, some monster we don't even understand would have... You know.>"
"<I know.>" he said, hugging her. "<I know.>"
My name is Junko, and I've never seen Eriko look so awkward.
The two girls stood in front of the Juntendo hospital. "<It's weird to think I've spent three months there.>" said Eriko. "<I mean, I remember none of it. I was experimenting in another plane of existence.>"
"<Yeah, I guess.>" But I remember coming to visit you every week. "<So, you just cast a spell, and the information is erased?>"
"<It's not that simple. Noble magic can do a lot, but you need to give it the foundations. And I don't want to erase anything but my own records - this data is very important, obviously.>"
"<So what will you do?>"
"<This.>" Eriko pulled a sheet of blank paper. "<First, I use noble magic to make a schematic map of the hospital and its computer system appear on the paper. That's not a problem, because the hospital is close enough, and the magic can recognize computers.>" A short while afterward, the map appeared. "<Next, I make the specific computers where the data is stored appear on the map. This is less simple, but noble magic can find information about computers... Not sure how it does, but it can. General knowledge usually seems accessible, somehow. Still, this is a lot harder and longer.>" After a few minutes, a computer cluster on the map was colored. "<Al right. Now, I use the magic to write down, in text format, every file where my name appears. That's why we have several more sheets of paper.>" The process took several minutes. "<This is tough,>" Eriko admitted, "<because the magic has to figure out the computer languages, the data storage, and all that stuff. And I'm not that good with noble magic.>"
"<So, what? Noble magic can think by itself?>"
"<Yes and no. Kinda. Dunno. It seems able to absorb and process information, but it can't seem to come up with anything new on its own. A bit like an insanely advanced, but not quite AI-level computer.>"
"<I see.>" Smile and nod. "<Is it done?>"
"<Looks so.>" Eriko peered through the printed files. "<I appear here... and here... Simple enough.>"
There was a long moment of silence.
What's the problem? She seems... unusually unsure of herself. "<Eriko? Is anything wrong?>"
"<I... don't know. It just feels wrong, Junko.>"
"<What, the magic?>"
"<No. I mean, erasing official records to cover myself.>"
Huh? THAT'S what's bothering her? "<Why is it a big deal?>"
"<Because... Well...>" Eriko fidgeted. "<I mean, I know it's important, but...>" she sighed. "<I know I have to do this, but I don't like it.>" She then focused, her eyes closed, making it clear she was casting the spell. A while later, she opened them again. "<All right. Done. I doubt it's perfect, but to the very least, following the trail should be a lot harder now, if at all possible.>"
"<I still don't get why it upsets you. Magical girls have to protect their identities, right? And so do superheroes, no?>"
"<I know. I just don't like the idea of bending the rules, vandalizing public property, and erasing information.>"
"<I think...>" I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill, Junko thought. But she let it go unsaid.
Inside an underground laboratory in Phoenix, Arizona, Dimitry carefully approached the man - no, the being, he corrected himself - that was standing there behind bars, watching him and the guards with what he guessed was an ironic grin.
My name is Dimitry Onegin. I like to think I'm an intelligent guy. I have Ph.D-level knowledge in physics, and am quite good with biology and chemistry.
He cleared his throat. "Welcome to, er, Phoenix, Mister... Murder?" While his English was quite good, his Russian accent was rather thick.
I studied at St Petersburg. Should have gotten my doctorate years ago. But noooo, I had to get myself kicked out over the incident with Ivan.
"Oh, I do believe I'll enjoy myself", Murder replied. The way he said it didn't make Dimitry feel any less nervous.
My career was in shambles. Life was hard. I had a wife and kids I had to feed. Then I got that offer...
"I'm... glad to hear it." That was a lie, but Dimitry preferred to err on the side of politeness. "We, we hope that you'll enjoy your stay in our lab. We, ah, hope to learn much from you..."
Apparently, this syndicate needed chemists to refine their synthetic drugs. They could pay, and my family needed to eat. I took the job. Actually enjoyed the scientific research aspect. Kept my family off the streets.
"I'm certain you do." replied Murder. "But if I may ask, to whom do I owe this hospitality?"
I wasn't satisfied though. Spending my life designing more efficient ways for people to melt their own brain hadn't exactly been my great ambition when I entered college. Besides, the people I was working with didn't make me feel safe, to say the least, and I wanted to ensure a brighter future for my kids - preferably one outside of Russia. It's been joked that our History can be summed up as "things got worse".
There was a silent pause. "I'm afraid I'm not allowed to discuss that." That was half-true; given that his employers were keeping him in the dark about their identity, Dimitry was fairly sure they wouldn't want him to reveal it if he did know.
Then came that -other- offer. Someone in America needed scientists, and were asking the syndicate to send them some. Excellent pay, and they could arrange green cards for me and my entire family. If I took it, I could give us the future I wanted.
Murder didn't let up. "Oh, but I insist. After all, I am here, completely at your mercy. Surely I deserve to at least know whose prisoner I am." The amused tone only served to drive Dimitry closer to panic - he had been warned that Murder was almost certainly capable of breaking free when he so chose.
I decided to go for it. Flew over to America. Began working in this secret laboratory. Weird research, and some of the things I've done here... I can't say I'm proud of.
He stammered. "Mr Murder, I'm afraid I really can't answer the question. I don't know who owns this place. I just work here."
This seemed to amuse Murder a great deal. He actually chuckled. "Heh. Very interesting."
"Why yes. I, too, hope to learn much from my stay here."
But THIS... This isn't what I signed up for. They want me to study a being that... I've seen the videos from Tokyo, and the police reports. Madness.
"Anyway..." Murder went on. "Forgive me if I do not present myself, but not only do I believe you know my name, but it would also require for me to learn yours. And please understand, I find it's better not to get too attached." He grinned at the scientist's frightened look. "I jest. Actually, I would like to know your name, Mister...?"
"Dimitry. Call me Dimitry." Less than two minutes in, and he was already feeling quite weary.
"Dimitry then." He took off his hat. "A pleasure. You may call me Murder."
Another day at school, another attempt by Junko to get Eriko to open up to her other friends, another resulting awkward conversation about Soul.
<"The police won't say anything about it,>" Takato said with some degree of enthusiasm, "<so either they don't know, or they're keeping it secret.>"
No kidding, Sherlock. Eriko's eyeroll went unnoticed.
"<I saw the video on TV and YouTube,>" said Gosho; "<and, wow! I know Murder's the bad guy, and killed lots of people, but you gotta admit he had class. The way he fought... He seemed in control the entire time.>"
Eriko's clenched teeth and apopleptic grimace went unnoticed, except by Junko, who hurried to interject: "<Well, good thing we have Soul to protect us!>"
"<Do we?>" Takato seemed dubious. "<Last we saw, she had gotten knifed like... something that bleeds when you knife it. I mean, she could be dead by now.>"
"<No way.>" said Tomo. "<Magical girls don't die so easily. She'll be back.>"
"<Damn straight she will!>" echoed Junko, trying to give Eriko an encouraging glance.
"<Maybe. We'll see, I guess>" said Takato. "<I wonder how their powers work. Magic? Technology? Aliens?>"
"<Looked like magic to me>", replied Tomo. "<They didn't have any machines.>"
"<Murder had that knife.>"
"<And any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic>", Eriko chimed in with the Clarke quote. "<If a technology was good enough to do these things, maybe it could also be hidden.>" Junko interpreted that as Eriko's attempt to keep the others from the truth; in reality, Eriko had only wanted to correct what she genuinely perceived as a flawed argument.
"<I think...>" Gosho began to say, when he noticed something that stopped the conversation cold: Kazu, heading toward them, dragging Kunio by the ear."<Hey you!>" Kazu pointed at Eriko. "<Just who I was looking for!>"
As Kunio whimpered in pain, Eriko tensed up. What now?
"<Kunio here just did something dumb, and my first idea was to hit him until he understood how dumb it was... But he's a slow learner, and I don't have all day. So I figured, since you love helping him and are supposed to be smart, you could be assistant teacher.>"
She sighed. "<Kazu? Let go of Kunio's ear.>"
"<Eh, why not.>" As Kunio massaged his now-freed ear, Kazu launched into his explanation: "<So, I was talking to our favorite loser here. The usual. Some ribbing, some talking, a friendly elbow strike to the chest, shoving dirt into his mouth... Actually, I haven't gotten to the dirt part yet. I ought to write that down so I remember it later. And then, big baby here - I'm not making this up - offered me money to leave him alone!>"
"<I wasn't sure whether to feel insulted or laugh. Then I thought some education was badly needed. So, class - can anyone tell me what Kunio did wrong?>"Eriko gazed at Kunio. He wasn't exactly a rich kid. Was he a regular target of Kazu's mistreatment? She wasn't really aware of the social networks at school.
"<Um... He... showed disrespect?>" said Gosho tentatively.
"<Close>", said the bully. "<It was insulting that he thought he could bribe me, but that's not exactly it. You see,>" he put his hand on Kunio's head and pushed downward, causing him to scramble to keep his footing, "<the whole reason I deal with him in the first place is because I don't respect him. He's a loser, a mama's boy, a teacher's pet, and the biggest wimp I've ever seen. And if I have to take care of him because I don't respect him... Well, getting me to respect him even less isn't really going to help, hm?>"
"<That's all very interesting...>" said Eriko, "<...for a pile of undiluted bullshit.>" Kazu, amused, raised an eyebrow at her. She went on. "<You're not bullying Kunio because of some self-imposed nonsense duty of thumping people who aren't like you. You're bullying him because you're a jerk, and you like lording over people.>" And maybe because it helps you feel superior to them or something like that.
Grinning, he leaned forward toward her, causing her to recoil a bit. "<You're catching on. Good student.>" Before Kunio could react, he caught his ear again. "<Well, we've still got some dirt-feeding to do, so, bye-bye.>"
What the...? Eriko's confusion quickly gave place to anger. "<Kazu, leave him alone!>"
He turned around, smirking. "<Well, if you think what I do would hurt him more than being rescued by an eighth-grade girl... Oh, wait, we've already been over that, right? See you 'round, Kunio. Hope your lady rescuer is there to save your ass next time.>"
As Kazu walked away, Kunio ran in a different direction. Eriko couldn't tell for certain if he was holding back tears.
The Black Skull gang could not be called "organized crime". There was nothing organized about them. A bunch of hoodlums, most of whom had not finished (and often, not started) high school, they lived their lives with the belief that they had nowhere to fit in except with fellow delinquents.This hadn't been a good week for them. They had had an unpleasant brush with the Yakuza, and the latter had humiliated them and kicked them out of what they had considered their territory. They had tried to expand said territory in another direction, but that had resulted in a big fight with another delinquent gang, which had turned sour; one of them had ended up at the hospital, and they doubted the police would let him go.
Masaki still fumed as he thought about that. Fuck the police, fuck the Yakuza; they're all out to get us, just like everyone else!
But then, he noticed the strange man entering the Black Skull gang's hangout. "<Hey! Who are you, and what do you think you're doing here?!>"
The man looked at them, and gave a thoroughly unpleasant smile before replying in broken Japanese. "<I followed your emotions here. Perfect anguish. Full of anger, but feeling so helpless. Just the kind of resentment I'm looking for.>"
Losing patience, Masaki stepped in front of the stranger. "<I don't know what the Hell your problem is, but if you don't get out of here fast...>"
"<Your threats mean nothing to me. There is nothing you can do against me.>" There was more than a little smugness in the stranger's tone."<Oh yeah? Then I guess this is nothing!>" Masaki threw a punch at his jaw.
"<Indeed it is.>"
Masaki stopped to consider. What just happened? I punched him... I did, right? He threw another punch, for precisely the same result: For no clear reason, his fist stopped right before hitting the man, then pulled back. Even though his muscles were still pushing forward. It felt surreal.
"<Masaki? The fuck are you doing?>" To the other delinquents, it looked like their colleague was pulling his punches at the last moment.
"<I'm... I dunno.>"
"<But I do.>" said the stranger. "<And it would be best if you listened carefully.>"
"<Fuck off, you foreigner!>" Masaki was starting to feel nervous, scanning his surrounding for anything he could use against this mysterious intruder.
"<Foreigner? Is that what you think I am?>"
"<You're no Japanese!>" Masaki stated the obvious, only tangentially aware of the conversation as his eyes locked on a nearby can of beer.
"<Is that so? And to think, I thought my disguise was perfect. How you humans can tell the difference between your various nationalities... I suppose you have an eye for detail.>" The stranger had kept talking even as Masaki, screaming, had thrown the can at him. The can, just like his fist, stopped short of hitting the man, and was ejected away. This time, the other delinquents too could see something was off. "<But let me show you the really interesting detail:>" The stranger then raised his hand, and Masaki suddenly found himself two feet above ground. The stranger waved, and Masaki flew several feet away before abruptly hitting the wall.
Bewildered and bug-eyed, the delinquents looked at the stranger, who seemed to revel in their frightened amazement. "<Well kids, I believe you ought to listen now, no?>"
"<Who... Who are you?>"
"<I am... Downfall.>" That last word was accompanied by a circle of flames briefly erupting around him, eliciting gasps of surprise from his audience. "<And I have come to make you all the deal of a lifetime.>"
"<Meh. Erased my data from the hospital records yesterday evening. I was hoping to practice combat a bit today - I'm definitely in the mood to blow stuff up.>"
Monsoon giggled. "<You do seem like you have some aggression to burn. What happened?>"
"<Nothing. Some jerkhole from school.>"
"<I don't want to talk about it.>"
"<Fine.>" Monsoon, hovering, turned her back to the girls. "<Don't talk about your problems with the person who has several centuries of experience dealing with every possible sort of problem.>"That was an argument Eriko could respect. "<OK, point. See, there's this guy... Kazu...>"
"<...And then he left!>" Eriko concluded her recounting. "<I mean, what the Hell?!>"
Monsoon raised her eyebrows, still looking rather amused. "<It's really bothering you, isn't it?>"
"<Well, yes! He keeps spouting bullshit, but I still feel like I'm losing the argument.>"
"<Depends on your definition of losing the argument>", Monsoon shrugged. "<I think I can see your problem, though.>"
"<You do? I mean... I'm trying to go over the whole thing in my head. He started out making this big show of explaining how he was, supposedly, bullying Kunio because Kunio deserved it. Then, when I pointed out what nonsense that was, he treated that as some kind of victory for himself. Actually, it was the same thing afterwards - when I told him to leave Kunio alone, he did, but he still made it out to be even worse for Kunio than if I hadn't done anything.>"
"<Now you're getting it>" said Monsoon. "<Your problem, Eriko, is that you're approaching this like some kind of rational debate - you point out the holes in your opponent's logic, and everybody sees that you were right. At least in theory. But Kazu, I'm guessing, doesn't care about logic. He isn't trying to prove his ideas are right, he's trying to prove he's all cool and awesome. So he can abandon whichever claim he's been making as soon as you've poked holes in it, and re-frame the argument to make himself look like the winner. You just can't out-logic someone who doesn't care about making sense anyway.>"Eriko brought her hand to her forehead. "<So... It's all style over substance. I can disprove his claims, and he'll just switch to other claims.>"
"<Something like that. Is he cute?>"
There was a spray of water from Junko, who had been drinking right then. Eriko merely choked for a moment.
"<Beg... Beg your pardon?>"
"<Just wondering. You get kinda flushed, and I couldn't tell if it was all from being pissed off.>""<Monsoon, he's an asshole.>"
"<Hey, I've known girls who'd go for the aggressive, confident type.>"
"<That's not... Wait.>" Eriko suddenly got pensive. "<Monsoon... Do fairies have genders?>"
Junko looked at the glass in her hand, having avoided a second spit-take.
"<By default, no. In practice, yes.>"
"<We're spirits, so, no gender by default. But our personalities tend to gravitate toward a gender, and the physical bodies we build obviously have one. I mean, I could make myself a male body - I've done it before, and it can be a fun change of pace - but I feel female, so I spend almost all my time in a female body. Virtually every fairy is in the same situation, male or female. Same for other types of spirits, near as I can tell.>"
"<But... Does this mean that there's a concept of gender that goes beyond the physical, or on the contrary, does it somehow derive from it...?>"
"<Outside your need-to-know, and my attention span. Time we got back to work, don'tcha think?>"
"<Right. We still need to work on the secret identity thing.>"
"<You said you erased your hospital records, right?>"
"<Yeah, but that's not enough. When Murder and Downfall attacked, I got lucky - I was in situations where I could go into Soul-mode without attracting attention. But I figure, if this kind of stuff is going to keep happening, they probably won't be obliging enough to avoid making trouble while I'm at school, or with my parents.>"
"<A cogent observation. Let's see what we can do...>"
"<I hope you like the office we got you, Mr. Akaishi>", said the man as his eyes surveyed the building he had obtained for them.
"<It will do very nicely. A pleasure doing business with you.>"
"<Likewise. I believe your next shipment is due in three days?>"
"<Correct. You may tell your superiors that they can rest assured, we will make good on it.>"
The man, apparently satisfied, gave a formal goodbye and left the building.
"<Finally! I thought he was never going to leave!>" said Secano, still in human form. Samsod, at the other end of the room, remained typically silent.
"<If you are to operate here, you must get used to maintaining the masquerade in the presence of local humans>", said Chancell, still looking like "Mr. Akaishi".
"<I understand. Still, it feels undignified, working with these... outlaws.>"
"While I share your distaste, I'm afraid dignity does not come first. We need to be able to operate in secrecy. Criminals already possess the infrastructure with which to do that. Attempting to forge by ourselves the documentation with which to operate on this world would be too risky; we cannot allow ourselves to be discovered so soon. Now, thanks to these outlaws, we have what we need to launch our operation>" he gestured first toward the fake I.D.s they had been provided with, then all around them at the building that had become their HQ.
"<As you say, Grand Adviser. But that leaves the matter of our actual conquest strategy...>"
"<Right. I have a rough draft of the necessary strategy in mind, though the details still need to be worked out. We will need to establish a power base, connect with the Elysium, bring governments to their knees, neutralize rival factions... And, of course, gather more data. As always, information is key. But before all that...>" he smiled, "<I believe we have a shipment to deliver in three days, no?>"
Secano frowned, reached forward, concentrated for a while, and made a bundle of bills appear in his hand. "<Sigh... One hundred million counterfeit yens, coming up.>"
"Monsoon. An interesting character, I'm sure you'll agree."
"You mean, in the 'may you live in interesting times' sense?"
"That too, I suppose. She is certainly quite different from Mother Aurora."
"Well... sense of humor, at least. But if I may ask - you insufferable douche - what exactly are you hoping to get here?"
"Now, Eriko. You of all people ought to know that, as always, information is key."
Author's note: Downfall, as noted in chapter 3, is not exactly well-versed in Japanese. He has had some time to improve since then, but the transcription of his scene here nevertheless ignores multiple mistakes he made.