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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Dead Enders:


Chapter 1
  The magic was running out. Oh, people had worried about it before. People were always saying the magic was running out. No one listened to them. Or if they did, they stopped listening to them after the magic kept coming and didn't run out after all. But this time the magic really was running out. This time there weren't any new secret sources of magic to mine. There wasn't a pocket dimension they could pop and eat the innards of anymore. No miraculous discoveries. Not even a higher magic conversion rate to do things 'cheaper, faster, longer.' All of that had been invented already. Their magic was at the limit set by the laws of physics. Their civilization was old enough and smart enough that problems couldn't be 'fixed' anymore. All fixable problems were fixed. It was the problems they couldn't fix that kept coming back to haunt them.
  The problem was they were all going to die.
  "So it's a dead end, isn't it?" Cyan, who had been waiting pensively a few paces away for the results, asked Awesome grimly. Could he read my face so easily? I guess if we live as long as we do, friends start knowing what their friend is going to say before they say it. One of the inconveniences of having fixed every fixable problem. Awesome tried a one-sided smile and bit his cheek. No point trying to hide the results of the study from Cyan now.
  "It's a dead end. We're Dead Enders now. Wyrds are a dead end."
  Cyan looked a little sick. Those words weren't thrown around lightly. Calling someone a Dead Ender was, well, discourteous to say the least. Of course, Cyan wasn't trying to keep his face straight because of a bad word. It's for the same reason I can't keep my face straight. It's because we don't want to be Dead Enders. It's because dead ends are horrible.
  I didn't ask for this, Awesome thought. I didn't plan on being born in time to see the whole world end. I didn't try to be alive to watch civilization collapse and the future become a flat line leading nowhere. I didn't live or think like a Dead Ender. But here I am. Like some sort of criminal. I guess it's my fault as much as anyone else's. I eat magic too.
  "So now what?" Cyan asked. It's not that Cyan was dumber than Awesome. Cyan just thought best through conversation. By prodding. Making Awesome keep up and lead him somewhere new. But the whole point of a dead end is that there was no answer to "now what?" Or "What next?" or "What now?" or "What's the plan?" or "What do we do?" The whole point of dead ends is that they ended. That's all they did. We die and then it's over. We're Dead Enders now. Dead people waiting for the end. End points waiting to die.
  "Nothing. I told you. My scrying. . .my scrying says the magic is running out. My scrying says there's nowhere else to find it and no way to make any more. My scrying says we've been so brilliant that we managed to try every trick the universe ever had. My scrying says there's maybe two hundred years left of magic at current consumption. Maybe we could drag it out, go on half rations. Or maybe we could kill each other in a giant war and a few Wyrds could live much longer. What does it matter? We've done everything we can. Invented every invention and done everything there was to do. In the end, no matter how few Wyrds there are, they'll run out of magic and die someday too. It's a dead end. There is no future possibility branch whichever path I scry."
  "There has to be something we can do." Cyan insisted. Cyan wouldn't cry. Cyan wouldn't go into hysterics. Cyan was calm. Never feeling something so deeply that it cut to the quick. As if he knew exactly how far he could care about something before there was no recovering from it, and pulled away right at the brink. Cyan was taking this better than Awesome. Awesome felt awful. Awesome felt like he may as well faint right here where he stood. Only that might distress Cyan, Awesome collapsing right in front of him while they were having a conversation. I can always wail in despair and run in circles after he's gone.
  "I should tell Magnolia." Awesome decided. Cyan asked what they could do. Well, he could go tell Magnolia that there was nothing they could do anymore. That was something. All the Wyrds had a right to know. But Magnolia was his friend. She had a right to know these things first.
  "Have you looked for Choice Givers?" Cyan pursued.
  "Of course I looked for Choice Givers. Look for yourself if you don't believe me." Awesome felt a little insulted. I mean, I guess there was no point feeling insulted when you'd already called yourself a Dead Ender. But how could anyone be such a bungling amateur as to not check for Choice Givers from the very beginning? Wherever there were still Choice Givers, there were still infinite possibilities. A Choice Giver meant the universe still had a choice. A Choice Giver meant Wyrds wouldn't reach any dead ends. Previous Wyrds had scryed before, and there had always been choices as far as they could see. But that just meant the end wasn't close enough, their scrying wasn't good enough, to see that it all led to dead ends. In a way, Choice Givers were just an illusion. Apparently Wyrds had been a dead end species to begin with. We were a dead end the day we were born. But, Choice Givers weren't a bad idea. They gave us hope. They made us feel good. They kept us alive as long as we could, and made us as strong and wise as we could ever be. It just feels a little treacherous for the Choice Givers of the past to deliver us up to a dead end like this. The whole point of following the Choice Givers was to not reach a dead end. They tricked us. Or God tricked us. Or we tricked ourselves. Choice is such a stupid concept. I can't choose to stop eating. I can't choose whether I'm born or not. Choices that don't matter and choices we want to take so much it doesn't matter we can technically 'choose' something else. Were those the only choices Choice Givers gave us? Was it all for this? We were supposed to have infinite possibilities. Scrying was supposed to be blindingly beautiful as the branches spread and spread like a fractal until your whole consciousness hummed and whirled with it and you couldn't hold onto the vision any longer. Choice Givers were supposed to give us that. Not the choices we had left for the next two hundred years. Like how and when to die, and whether we would try killing each other off first to live a little longer.
  Awesome knew some Wyrds would. Wyrds loved to keep their options open. No two Wyrds thought exactly the same. Once the news was out, some Wyrds would start killing. Then other Wyrds would start killing to defend themselves. Then leagues of Wyrds would start killing and defending together. And the magic would dwindle away.
  Was there a point to dying morally? Bravely? With dignity? Was it meaningful for Wyrds to keep living the same way, without flinching or deviating, to the very end? Would we be proving something? To whom? God? Ourselves? Look, our souls, our civilization, couldn't be broken. Only our material bodies. We died. But nothing defeated us. We lived how we pleased until the very end, beholden to no one and afraid of nothing. That did sound better than a civil war followed by some stupid tribe of Wyrds somewhere living it up for another million eons. The look of people going about their daily lives until they suddenly keeled over, right in the middle of shopping and visiting and going to school. . .surely that was better than the smug faces of murderers living it up and pretending nothing was wrong drinking tea or something on a mountain of corpses. That was sick.
  "Are you sure you looked for Choice Givers?" Cyan came out of his trance. Cyan always took Awesome literally. Awesome was the best scryer in the universe. And now Cyan was insulting him again?
  "Yes, I'm sure." Awesome said, the irritation in his voice impossible to restrain.
  "Let's go see Magnolia then." Cyan said. "I want to ask her to check for Choice Givers."
  "Is this a running joke? Let's all forget we're Dead Enders and make fun of Awesome?" Awesome guessed it could be something like that. Cyan was so calm sometimes you couldn't tell he was joking.
  Cyan smiled and shook his head. So. Not a joke, and not an insult. Well, nothing would change until they saw Magnolia.
  Cyan and Awesome got on the starway and whisked along, letting the currents take them. Yep, that's me. Eating magic. Every mile of the journey. Sorry everyone. But what am I supposed to do? Huddle at home for the rest of my life for another few seconds? For another day? I refuse. I know what I'm going to do now. Not run in circles or any of that. I've decided to live like I didn't know the future. I'll live my days to my fullest and what will be will be. I have to prove to myself that I can die with dignity.
  "Did you catch the Bulls game?" Awesome asked, since the star currents could only go so fast and they may as well say something.
  "Yes." Cyan smiled. "Did you?"
  "No." Awesome blushed. I'm so bad at small talk. Thank God Magnolia doesn't care about stuff like that. Magnolia loves me for talking about larger stuff.
  Cyan thought about telling him how the game went. Awesome could tell it from his face. But then Cyan shrugged and looked away. It was the same look as when he had shook his head earlier. Was that hope? Or was Awesome just inventing the feelings he wanted to see in his friend's eyes? I don't know. I guess I'm in some sort of shock and clutching at straws. Could I have possibly not checked properly for all Choice Givers? Impossible. The time stretched out and neither of them seemed to want to talk anymore.
  I'll find out his secret when we tell Magnolia.
* * *
  "Shiori!" Kotone waved, as though Shiori had somehow missed her and hadn't seen her yet. Shiori Rin smiled. It felt good to be welcomed so warmly. It felt good that Kotone was so excited to see her she had to shout and wave. Maybe Kotone would feel as good as I do if I acted excited too?
  "Kotone!" Shiori shouted and waved, running the rest of the way, her school uniform whisking and flapping and her shoes clopping against the cement sidewalk without an ounce of self-dignity. Shiori Rin was thirteen years old, a first year student in middle school. She didn't need to have any self dignity. She needed to show Kotone how happy she was to see her.
  Kotone Nakano was beautiful. She had pale, unblemished skin. She was tall and her hands and feet were small and proportionate. Her whole body seemed to fit with itself. She smiled all the time and the smiles always lit up her eyes. Kotone didn't need any woman's curves or extra flesh to be beautiful. That was inevitable. That was easy. Every girl would get those. She was beautiful because she had what every girl didn't have and never would. She had everything else.
  Shiori Rin didn't mind. No one thought she was ugly. She thought she was pretty when she looked in the mirror. There wasn't anything she hated about herself, except maybe her waist. She kept pinching her waist and asking her mother if she should lose weight, but mother told her a little fat was healthy for a growing girl and to stop worrying and eat whatever she liked. Shiori Rin wasn't fat. She was athletic. She practiced Taekwondo every weekend if not every day. She was in the softball club and was the star of the team. But still, she could pinch her waist. Shiori bet Kotone couldn't pinch her waist. Kotone had no flaws.
  Kotone Nakano hugged her, and then eventually retreated to just holding her hand. "It's been so long! Did you finish your summer homework?"
  "Of course. I'm thirteen years old. I know what's expected of me." Shiori couldn't stop smiling though. They'd gone swimming together, Kotone, Shiori and Chiharu. They'd gone to the beach together. They'd slept in a cabin together and stayed up as late as they could talking and looking at the stars. Shiori Rin had no idea what they had talked about. Maybe softball. Chiharu was on the softball team too. Kotone wasn't. She played the flute. Kotone's skin was too light to waste playing softball out in the sun. Though I'm sure Kotone wasn't so vain to think of it that way. It's just that she liked flutes and orchestras and music more than sports. I was NOT being jealous or envious or sniping at her in my mind. I was not.
  "An entire summer, and I only saw you three times." Kotone pouted. "What on Earth were we doing this entire vacation? Three times. I got to see my best friend three times. It's like I was working a job overseas or something. But we're just a few blocks away."
  "Our families have their own plans. . ." Shiori blushed. "I wanted to see you more too! It's just. . .I would sleep in, or watch TV, and one day just led to another. I wanted to see you."
  "That's all over now." Kotone Nakano brushed summer away. "It's the first day of school. From here on we'll see each other every day. You'll walk to school with me every day, won't you Shiori?"
  "When I don't have softball practice. Or sleep in and have to run to school. Or class chores. Or need to ask the teacher something before class. Or it rains."
  "Why wouldn't you walk with me when it rains?" Kotone complained.
  "Because then I'll be running to school. I hate getting wet." Shiori grinned.
  "That's right. Chiharu would jump in every puddle. She'd make sure it splashed you too." Kotone smiled, the holder of special inner circle knowledge of her friends. "You'd rather be setting fires."
  "Someone had to set the fire the night outside the cabin. It's not like I'm an arsonist in training."
  "Hmmm? Are you practicing for someone? 'It's not like I like setting fires.' -- 'It's not like I was doing this for you.' -- 'It's not like I want you to scrunch closer to the fire where it's warm.'"
  "Kotone!" Shiori Rin blushed hotter and hotter. Kotone laughed. Kotone Nakano watched too much anime. It was corrupting her. I'm thirteen years old!
  The school came within view as they crossed the last street and made the last turn. The road was swarming with students now. Seating wouldn't change with the new trimester, so Shiori wasn't too nervous. She would see Chiharu when she saw her. Still, her stomach kept fluttering and she kept standing up on tiptoes to see if that was Chiharu over there. Or maybe it was that girl. Or maybe she had changed her hair style and Chiharu was walking over that way. She hadn't seen Chiharu in forever. Maybe she wouldn't even recognize her anymore. Shiori bit her lip. Three times over the entire summer break. Am I a good friend? I didn't even think of visiting or calling. I was happy watching TV.
  "Chiharu!" Kotone squealed, seeing her. She waved and almost bounced up and down. All the boys stopped to look at her. When she did it, it was cute, endearing, and perfect. I'm sure it would just be embarrassing and dumb and the boys would laugh if I was bouncing like a ball. Kotone didn't care. She had that effortless grace where she did things for her own sake and others could like watching or not.
  "Kotone!" Chiharu Sakai shouted and waved, smiling. Shiori's stomach got more and more nervous. Would Chiharu be mad? It's not like they had called her though. Am I a bad friend?
  "Good morning Shiori!" Chiharu shouted again, and Shiori's heart floated two meters into the air. She wasn't mad.
  "Good morning Chiharu!" Shiori shouted back. They raced to walk together into the school grounds. Other friends were meeting too. Other names were being cried out back and forth and other girls were hugging each other. The first day of school was happiness. The first day of school was everything becoming right with the world again, being able to fall back into the same routines and know your parents wouldn't gripe because you were properly working hard and getting to see your friends every day and talk about something new and interesting that happened that day and it meant getting to play softball again with the whole team. School was happiness. The first day of school was even greater happiness, because the teachers didn't really expect you to work at all today. It would just be softball and lunch on the roof together and maybe a swimming class because it was still summer after all.
  Shiori couldn't wait to go home and tell her parents about her day and all the jokes Kotone had made and how Chiharu's catching was so good that a pitcher always knew where to throw. The day hadn't even happened yet but she was bursting with enjoyment because she knew it would. School was a place of infinite possibilities.
* * *
  Awesome and Cyan got off the star currents when the chime told them their stop was ahead. It didn't really matter how far across the galaxy, or even how far across the universe Wyrds lived. Magic meant everywhere was just a short ways away. Once civilization was exploding pocket dimensions for food interstellar travel just wasn't that exciting anymore. Magnolia lived in a nice area. She had been famous for raising prize winning dogs. She gave up after a few decades of not placing highly, when it was clear she couldn't win anymore. But it didn't matter. She was as rich as she'd ever need to be with the trophies she'd already claimed. Awesome wasn't intimidated. He was the best scryer in the universe. No amount of qualifications in any other field could match his. But it was nice to have someone close enough in social status that she stopped thinking about his status and started seeing him for himself. If she thought dog breeding was as good a job as scrying, let her cling to her fantasies. If it meant they could feel close.
  Cyan rang the doorbell and the two of them waited impatiently. They hadn't said a word in hours. I've been patient until now because there was obviously nothing to be done about it. But now that she's right here why can't she hurry up and answer the door?
  Magnolia saw who it was and rushed down the stairs to greet them. Okay, maybe she had been as fast as possible. It was a big house and they had come without warning.
  "Cyan, Awesome, how good to see you!" Magnolia smiled. She was beautiful. Everyone knew it. Magnolia knew it. But Awesome couldn't tell her because then she'd deny it and tell him not to flatter her. So Awesome just drank her in with his eyes and let his silence say it: You're beautiful. I love you, Magnolia.
  "It's good to see you too, Magnolia." Cyan gave a nod that was halfway down to a bow. "Will you invite us in? We have something important to talk about."
  "Don't tell me you two got into trouble?" Magnolia frowned. "Oh, come in, come in. Of course you can come in. You know you can come in without asking and when I'm not here too. Do you want some tea with cookies? I had some downtime and was just cooking to keep my hands moving."
  "You might say we got into trouble. And yes, please, on the tea." Cyan grinned. Awesome didn't say anything. Cyan had some secret to share with Magnolia, and there was nothing constructive he could input into the conversation until the secret was revealed. But he did take a seat in a nicely cushioned sofa that let him still watch her back as she worked.
  Cyan sat quietly, closing his eyes, scrying again. Awesome just waited. I did not mess up. There were no Choice Givers. The possibilities ran out, it was all dead ends. Magnolia finished her cookies and poured the tea and brought the platters over one by one. Then she distributed the plates to each of them, took a cup of tea and a saucer, sipped her tea quietly, set it down, and waited for Cyan to come back to them. Awesome started eating the cookies. It had been a long trip and that always left him hungry at the end. Magic reserves depleted, time to restock. This is exactly why we don't have any choices. I can 'choose' to not eat the cookies but I'm too hungry to listen to such a choice and so I never had a choice at all. The moment I heard cookies I knew I was going to eat them all.
  Cyan stopped scrying and looked as confused as last time. Confused meant somewhere between hope and despair. Did I really miss something?
  "Magnolia, before either of us says anything that might taint your opinion -- Can you scry for some Choice Givers? Any Choice Givers. Look anywhere and everywhere. Try to feel them out. Stretch."
  "Of course, if you want me to." Magnolia gave a timid look at Awesome. She knew there was no point using her talent for scrying if Awesome had already tried and failed. He could see further than anyone. Awesome nodded encouragingly, showing he wasn't offended, and ate another cookie. So Magnolia sat back and closed her eyes, and Cyan and Awesome ate and drank tea, as happy as they could be. As happy as Dead Enders could be.
  Magnolia opened her eyes. "I keep thinking I've found them, but then I keep thinking I'm wrong and I'm just imagining things. Why?"
  Cyan nodded. "Exactly. I felt the same way. I thought, "Here's a Choice Giver!" And then I thought, "Wait, that's not a Choice Giver. I know what a Choice Giver feels like, I remember meeting Choice Givers before, and this isn't it."
  Magnolia nodded.
  "But then I thought to myself: My first instinct said they were Choice Givers. Why? I needed to know. I needed to know if I wasn't just seeing what I wanted to see, so I wanted to ask you before you heard the news. Could you see the Choice Givers? And you said you could, only, they were different."
  Magnolia nodded again.
  "Then this means I'm right. I'm not just imagining what I want to see. There are still Choice Givers. They're just different. There are infinite possibilities, out there, somewhere. We just have to find them." Cyan sat back with satisfaction.
  "Nonsense!" Awesome protested. "Magnolia only thinks there are Choice Givers because we haven't told her the news yet. She expects there to be Choice Givers so of course she found something, somewhere, eventually. I tell you I saw nothing."
  "What's this about?" Magnolia asked.
  "Well, this is the bad part of the news." Cyan gave a one-sided smile. "The magic is running out. It's a dead end."
  Magnolia gasped. "No!" Magnolia looked at Awesome. Currently only Awesome could scry far enough ahead to see it was all dead ends. The others would still be seeing infinite possibilities. But he knew. Eventually the second best scryer would know. And then so on down the line, the knowledge cascading to the weakest scryer among all the Wyrds. It's not like he could keep the information hidden.
  "It's a dead end." Awesome confirmed. "Wyrds are a dead end. We're all Dead Enders."
  "Don't say that like you like it." Magnolia snapped. Then she blushed to have yelled at him. Then she put her hands to her stomach. His words had made her sick.
  "Sorry." Awesome said. "I just think Cyan's wrong, so, if I'm right and it's a dead end, that means I've won the argument and I'm the best scryer again. I'd feel awful if I were wrong. It's professional pride."
  Magnolia scowled. "So you're happy if your pride is retained, regardless of the fate of the universe?"
  Awesome held up his hands. "The universe is doomed either way. No point losing my pride too."
  "You are insufferable." Magnolia said. But she saw his point. She paused to take a sip of tea. "So? What next?"
  Why does everyone keep asking me that? Awesome wondered. It's a dead end. There is no next!
  "What's next is we find these Choice Givers that somehow aren't Choice Givers but are still Choice Givers. And we make sure their Choices don't run out. And we preserve our infinite possibilities." Cyan said decisively. As though these Choice Givers were a certainty. A necessity. But if they aren't our infinite possibilities, what was the point?
  Awesome thought about it. Choice Givers that weren't Choice Givers. He had only checked all the possibilities of the Wyrd. Cyan was saying something outrageous. Non-wyrd Choice Givers? That was impossible. The Wyrd were the only sentient species. In all of their travels they had never met anything else. Space was a void full of magic and Wyrd and that was it. This was children's talk. Stuff and nonsense. But Cyan had asked Magnolia to stretch.
  Awesome knew he would have to scry again, if only to squash this hope. The hope had already infected him, that somehow he'd been wrong. He couldn't die with dignity while believing fairy tales and children's talk about aliens and God knows what. But suppose he found alien Choice Givers. What could we do for them? We're just a bunch of Dead Enders.
  We can do whatever we can. A voice came back to him.
  And why should I care if they have any Choices? Why should they have any when we don't? Why should we help them? We're the ones in need. They're better off than we are. Why won't someone come save us? Why should only they have infinite possibilities?
  Because infinite possibilities are beautiful. A voice responded quietly.
  "What's the point of Choice Givers who aren't Choice Givers, who aren't Wyrd, and we've never met before!" Awesome yelled at Cyan. At himself. At God. He stood up and started pacing, wanting to throw something. "You're telling me to find them and, and, what, scry out their best path, the path that keeps going, on and on, like a flower that just blooms and blooms? As a service? As a, "hey, guess what, we're super-sentient aliens, and we know how to scry, and, just so you know, if you don't follow or emulate this Choice Giver, it's the end of the line. We're going to die in a couple hundred years though, so, it's not like we can prove any of this to you. Take us on faith. Have a nice life?"
  Cyan nodded. Magnolia smiled. Those bastards knew he'd already given in. Of course, they knew him. They'd been friends forever. But they were still bastards for not even trying to convince him. This was stupid. This was ridiculous. He had chosen to die with dignity. He was going to be the better Wyrd. He wasn't going to go around killing people so he could live longer. Wasn't that noble enough?
  Choice Givers are the noblest souls. Those who follow or emulate the Choice Givers are noble. Those that don't, are nothing but Dead Enders. You know this. The quiet voice wouldn't stop.
  "Okay, but I'm only checking once. If I don't see these Choice Givers, they aren't there. It's ridiculous for me to be checking twice in the first place." Awesome sat down. Cyan and Magnolia nodded. They knew he'd find them. Awesome closed his eyes and scryed. Stretch. Search anywhere. Feel it out. Infinite possibilities were still out there, somewhere. Where?
* * *
  Shiori sneezed. Someone was talking about her.
  "Don't mind!" Chiharu called out, then threw the softball back to her. Shiori sighed and caught it. She wished people would talk about her behind her back while she wasn't pitching. It caused foul balls. And made her look stupid.
  Shiori Rin watched the signal. Two fingers meant a fastball right down the middle. Something she couldn't possibly foul ball, which would restore her confidence. Chiharu was so sweet. Always thinking about her, trying to find a way to help.
  Shiori took her pose, then windmilled her arm, stepped up, and threw as fast as she could. There was a satisfyingthwunk into the mitt. The batter hadn't even tried to swing. Shiori smiled as she caught the ball and turned around. How's that? Who's stupid now?
  Softball was finally back. The national tournament would start in just a couple weeks. Just a couple weeks to work off the rust and get the team ready to play. The coach was running them like mad to get them back in shape. Of course, their team wouldn't make it to nationals, or even district play. She was a good pitcher but she had no illusions she was the best in Japan or anything. Still, she promised herself the team would win before it lost. Take your Viking's due. If we're going out, we're going to take some other team down with us. That's all anyone could ask of them. They were just thirteen year old girls. Well, except for the fourteen and fifteen year old girls on her team. She was in the first year among middle schoolers, but still the fastest runner on the team. There were only so many starter slots, but if you had the ability, you could be a starter at thirteen, or even twelve. Third years, second years, and first years alike had to earn their spots via nothing but merit.
  Shiori nodded at the call, another fastball down the middle. If the batter wouldn't even swing there was no point trying harder. She took her pose, windmilled, and threw. thwunk. Strike two. The batter still hadn't swung. It's not that the batter wasn't trying. It's just that Shiori's opponent probably hadn't played all summer and the ball was faster than she remembered it. Maybe those few months helped me grow my arms and I'm stronger now, Shiori mused. One more.
  Chiharu signaled a change-up. One more ball down the center but at half the speed of the previous two. Shiori grinned. She took her pose and windmilled, but held on to the ball until half the momentum was already gone, releasing at the last second. The batter swung -- too early! Pwunsh. The ball was snug in Chiharu's glove.
  "Strike three, you're out!" Chiharu intoned. Practice didn't have umpires making the calls for them. The batter sighed and gave her bat to the next hitter. She would have to run a lap around the field for failing. Of course, Coach just wanted them to run laps around the field regardless. But this way everyone was trying their best to somehow not run, even though everyone would end up running anyway. Such an evil coach.
  Shiori was about to take a drink before the next batter was up, when she fell down. Something had touched her. No, disoriented her. No, just ruined her balance. A few people started towards her in concern and she waved them away. She tried to stand up, show them she was alright. But she couldn't. The world was spinning. No, it was like it wasn't this world at all. Heat stroke? Her parents would throw a fit. She'd be taken off the team. She wouldn't compete in the tournament. Get up! Get up!
  Shiori stood up. She laughed and kicked the dirt, as though there had been a hump that tripped her. She waved everyone away and stuck out her tongue, holding her hand in front of her face for apology. Everyone was relieved. What on Earth? Never mind. Throw this pitch and show them you're fine.
  Thwunk. Strike.
* * *
  "So now we have a problem." Awesome concluded in his report to the government. "All choices for wyrds end at some point in the future, currently estimated at 200 years from now. But all choices for life don't end. There are still Choice Givers out there somewhere, trying their best, transforming the future. But as far as I could tell, they are very few. The odds of their success, well, who can tell? But those odds would be much higher if we lent them our aid. A wyrd's life is meaningless as a Dead Ender. We can hop, skip, or jump, but we're all heading to the same place, and soon. But a wyrd's life, every day would be precious if we lived with them. We could be part of saving their world. Saving life itself. If we could feed the power we use into the hands of their Choice Givers, they would have a decisive advantage over the technological level of their own civilization. It appears they never even discovered magic, nor are they a life form dependent upon it. That's their strength, but it means we can tip the scale by giving magic to whomever we please. Should we intervene? Should we help? For our sake? For their sake?"
  Awesome looked around the walls of the capitol building and met the eyes of each of the legislators in turn. "If we do determine to help this alien civilization, we must also find out a way to fold our bodies into the tightly restricted dimensions of Earth and take on a physical form, while still somehow being spread out enough in the etheric dimensions to have access to magic we can feed on. I have no idea how this could be done, my specialty is scrying. But I hope the government could devote itself to answering this question, as quickly as possible. Once the process is finished, I would like to be the first to volunteer and test its safety. I want to be with them. I want to be where the Choices are."
  The legislature waited for Awesome to make any more bombshell announcements. Starting a speech with "We're all doomed, it's the end of the world," then following this up with "I have made first contact with the first known sentient alien species outside our own," and then transitioning over to a budget request to "Go where we're needed and do what we can for our cousins who share everything important about what makes a Wyrd good no matter how strange or backwards they seem." Well, it was probably the strangest speech ever made to this body. But they were old, wise Wyrds. They had ruled well, as well as could be expected. Wyrd civilization had long since fixed everything in government it was possible to fix. They had figured out what worked and what didn't, and government had pretty much been on auto-pilot ever since then. It's not their fault magic was running out. We didn't do anything worse than our ancestors. It was just time. Who could imagine that in the lower dimensions there were forces like 'chemical energy,' and 'electricity.' Such weak power sources. But it was being released everywhere, all across the universe. Energy Wyrds couldn't access, had never really noticed, had never really seen it had so little to do with the real world. It was like looking through a microscope at a village of little people. The quantum forces at work down there must seem enormous to the people down there, but it was a meaningless grain of dust, the entire system, from up here. Even if Wyrds could find a way to extract the energy from those levels to feed themselves, it would probably feed one Wyrd for one micro-second or so before the whole thing was exhausted and the universe of the little people destroyed. Amazing that such small beings could still reach sentience. Perhaps matter down there is more dense. Or perhaps the universe is a fractal and size has no relation to complexity. Awesome wasn't a scientist. I'm sure there's some explanation. It doesn't matter. What matters is how the government will respond. Because I need their folding device if I'm going to go live among the living instead of just the walking dead.
  "Awesome, you are our best scryer. I gather that no other scryer can see any of the dead ends you speak of yet?"
  "Correct."
  "There's no chance that you've made a mistake?"
  "No chance, sir. I've checked and rechecked."
  "Awesome has never lied to us about his scrying before. Nor does he show any signs of insanity. I move that we take his testimony at face value and discuss the option he's laid before us."
  Awesome breathed a sigh of relief. Thank goodness Wyrds had good rulers.
  "We have to be prepared for when this reaches the public. There could be a war."
  "There will be a war, I fear. The logic is too simple to refute. Less Wyrds means more to go around for whoever is left. The less Wyrds the better."
  "Then we have to be prepared to win that war. Raise the strongest army and kill anyone who tries to disturb the peace by 'eliminating the competition.' We aren't animals who think with our stomachs anymore."
  "Could we trust that army once raised? It could turn and kill all the civilians, achieving the exact same goal."
  The legislature came to a glum silence. Who could they trust?
  "Awesome, could you scry out a way to avoid war between Wyrds?"
  "Sorry, sir. It doesn't work that way. All my scrying shows is Dead Enders and Choice Givers. Since all Wyrds are equally Dead Enders now, I can't tell you anything about any of them. Good and bad decisions look the same to me. It all leads to the same dead end either way."
  "So. . ." A legislature tapped on his desk, trying to grasp the idea of despair, of futility. "So none of our decisions matter except whether we will build this folding device or not?"
  "Correct." Awesome said.
  "I think Awesome has made an indisputable argument. If there is life somewhere out there that needs our help, that's at risk of becoming Dead Enders like us, it is our duty as fellow living beings and agents of choice to help them. Their values and ours are the same. Their good and ours is the same. If Wyrds are no longer viable as a life form, we have to make sure life goes on, somewhere, and lives in our place."
  "If we did find a way to fold Wyrds into this lower dimension, could they live any longer there than they do here?"
  "No, sir. Folded or not, Wyrds would be consuming the same amount of magic, probably more than usual, if we want to help the Choice Givers down there. If there's no more magic moving down the funnel, we'll still die just like if we stay here."
  "So we can't even live to see if our help was of any use or made any difference."
  "That's not true, sir." Awesome hastily corrected. "We can scry to make sure they're on the right track. That their future is branching out healthily, filling up the infinite channels of possibility. I think we would know what we had achieved by the end. If we achieve anything, it will be apparent. It will be fulfilling."
  "Does anyone know if this folding device is technically possible within the laws of physics?"
  "I think it is. My physics isn't fresh, but nothing in my memory screams 'impossible' out to me."
  "Then the next step is to take this to our most trusted scientists and let them get to work. I assume everyone is in favor of creating a folding device?"
  The Wyrds supported the bill unanimously.
* * *
  "Look, look." Shiori grabbed Kotone's arm and pointed. "They're selling ice cream at that stand. Let's go!" Softball practice in the summer was exhausting, even when you weren't getting heat stroke and falling over like an idiot in the middle of practice. This was exactly what she needed. She could eat Mother's dinner too, so it's not like she was spoiling her appetite.
  "If you want." Kotone let Shiori drag her along, smiling. Chiharu agreed heartily, since she'd been running in the sun this whole time too, and the three of them set off.
  "What do you think, what do you think?" Shiori asked excitedly. Chiharu looked at all the flavors. "Tea? Blueberry?"
  Kotone Nakano got out her wallet and ordered a scoop of vanilla.
  "What do you two think? Should I get chocolate almond surprise? It sounds tasty. What could the surprise be?"
  Chiharu Sakai got out her wallet and ordered a scoop of vanilla.
  "Neh, neh." Shiori grabbed Chiharu's arm to make her look at the flavor. "What do you think the surprise is?"
  Chiharu laughed. "If you don't hurry up we'll finish without you."
  "Unfair! I was the one who suggested -- !" Shiori rushed to the ice cream clerk and slapped her money down. "Three scoops of chocolate almond surprise!"
  "Three scoops?" The boy blinked, looking at her friends.
  Shiori Rin blushed. "Two then." She almost mumbled. The clerk seemed more satisfied and bent down to work. He seemed to be giving extra large scoops though. A girl's outrageous demands had a magic of their own.
  "Do you think we'll get to go swimming tomorrow?" Shiori asked her friends once her ice cream was in hand. "School is for swimming. Why go through all that to build a pool, and not swim in the summer?"
  "I think they wanted to make sure everyone had their swimsuit ready." Chiharu offered. "It would have been embarrassing if some people weren't prepared. They'd be left out and look like show animals at the zoo."
  "So, that means they'll let us swim tomorrow right?" Shiori asked.
  Kotone picked at her ice cream, taking microscopically small spoonfuls. "I'm so busy. There's a recital coming up and we have to learn all new songs. I hope I fit into my old swimsuit."
  "Did you grow so much over the summer?" Chiharu asked, trying to look her over head to toe again.
  "Yes and no. I'm worried because I barely fit already. I just keep getting taller." Kotone fretted.
  "Don't worry. You won't be taller than the boys at fifteen." Shiori squeezed her hand. Even Kotone could feel insecure. And here I was making snide comments about her skin this morning. In my head. Of course I'd never hurt her by saying them out loud. I'm a bad friend, not a monster.
  "But. . .who can say?" Kotone picked at her ice cream. Shiori was already well into her second giant scoop. She was so distracted by swimming she hadn't even tasted what chocolate almond surprise was supposed to be. Sigh. Mother will be mad if I can't eat all my dinner.
  "The softball national tournament starts in two weeks. Shiori is terrible too." Chiharu made a face.
  "I'm not terrible! I just fell down!" Shiori raised her voice. Traitor!
  "You fell down?" Kotone instantly looked worried.
  "I'm not an invalid!" Shiori yelled, flapping her arms.
  "Of course not. You're just terrible." Chiharu Sakai soothed.
  "I'm not terrible either!" Shiori protested.
  "Of course not. You're just awful." Chiharu placated. Kotone burst into laughter. Eventually all three of them were laughing as hard as they could. Somewhere in there Shiori had finished off her chocolate almond surprise. I guess the surprise is that the whole scoop is tasteless. Kotone stood up and threw the rest of her ice cream away. Gosh, what a sweet girlShe only bought ice cream so we wouldn't feel like we were leaving her out or think she wasn't enjoying it as much as we were. Will I ever be that considerate?
  "Then, see you tomorrow?" Kotone asked Chiharu and Shiori.
  "Yes!" Shiori smiled. It was so good to be with her friends again. "See you tomorrow!"
  "See you tomorrow!" Chiharu chimed in. And the group broke apart, heading home to their families. Shiori Rin was an only child, but Chiharu had two younger sisters and Kotone had an older brother. They'd all be getting home from school about now too. Then they could all tell each other about their day over dinner. She wasn't jealous. She loved her mother and father and Melody and that was that. Besides, it meant less competition for the bathroom. And easier laundry days. And being able to stretch out on the entire sofa to watch TV. I'm not jealous at all.
Chapter 2
  There had been a leak. How? Did some scientist somewhere blab something to all of his assistants? It was impossible. But the alternative was that a politician had hid all of his thinking and all of his motives all of this time, and then immediately leaked the knowledge behind their backs. Who had it been? Or could some other scryer have found the same truth, realized the same solution, and started upon the exact same invention as the government had? No leaks, just a giant coincidence? Absurd. There had been a leak. Which meant someone didn't like what they were doing and wanted to break it up.
  Why? Awesome didn't understand. Why, when the reasons were so obvious, so natural, to carry out this task? Why were there still people who disagreed, who wanted to do something else, who got in the way? This was so obviously clear cut. Were they insane?
  The leak was twofold. One, everyone knew the world was coming to an end. Two, everyone knew about the new aliens and the folding device. Thank God, not everyone owned a folding device. It was complicated and expensive enough that, as far as the government knew, they had the only working prototype. But Wyrds were smart. Anything that could be made, could be replicated. Were there wyrd scientists right now getting classified information, building things in remote corners of etheric space, smuggling parts across the starways? To do what? Invade? Or maybe to live as tourists because it was fun. Or maybe they were so anxious to help out that they wanted to cut in line. Motives could range across the whole spectrum of good to silly to stupid to evil. Just one magic user in the wrong hands could do incalculable damage. I messed up. I thought if wyrds got involved, because we were so advanced and wise, blah blah, we'd be a blessing to these aliens. But what if we're a curse? They were doing just fine without us. I mean, not really. They barely had any Choice Givers left and almost all their paths led to dead ends. But compared to us they were doing just fine. And I just unleashed the whirlwind on them. I have to get down there. No one knows who is capable of what. I have to clean up after my own mess.
  Awesome trusted exactly two people to carry out this mission. Cyan and Magnolia. Anyone else could be folding into the alien dimension for any reason at all. If only he had been able to make the folding device himself!
  Meaningless. Another scryer would have eventually made the same discoveries, proposed the same device, and another scientist would have eventually built it. I'm not omnipotent. I'm not the only one allowed choices in the universe. I just. . .I was the first so it's all my fault somehow. But they wouldn't approve his folding. The government was so frustrating!
  "We only have a prototype, we have to see if it's safe."
  "Your scrying is invaluable to the Wyrd. We can't risk you."
  "There are veterans, soldiers, who would be much better suited to this task. Professors of anthropology who can understand primitive cultures. Diplomats who can convince them to accept our help. People with endless qualifications that fit alien encounters and culture-building. Please let them do their job, just like you did yours by alerting us to the situation."
  I told them in the speech I alerted them with that they had to let me go down there. If they're so grateful, why can't they show that gratitude and let me go where the choices are? Everything was down there! Wyrd space was probably going to become some slaughterhouse, some anarchic survival of the fittest. Life was down there. Let me, Cyan, and Magnolia go down there and enjoy our lives and our friendship where it's safe and new and exhilarating. He told them his price! They couldn't just edit his price out. Not that they had technically told him no. But not letting him be the first person folded? Trusting to 'explorers' and 'soldiers' who 'knew what they were about.' How can you know what you are about in a totally foreign world? How could anything we ever studied have prepared us for this task? This was stupid. Credentials were so stupid.
  His phone rang. Awesome was excited, then despairing again the next second. It was just Cyan. "Hello?"
  "Awesome, you'll want to see this. Turn your phone to channel five."
  "Okay, but this had better not be a Bulls game." Awesome sighed and let his phone project a viewing screen.
  It was live. A giant horde of journalists were waiting for a spokesman to come out from the Capitol building. The tension was obvious. Everyone knew the world was ending. But did that mean someone would resort to violence? They still had two hundred years left. Could everyone ignore the future and let things return to normal? Or was this just the calm before the storm? No one knew. Just like no one knew how a leak had occurred, who did it, or why someone else wanted a folding device.
  A spokesman strode forward, smiling and confident. "Greetings, greetings. Everyone take a seat." He wanted for pictures to be taken and the journalists to settle down.
  "As you know, it has come to the government's attention that the magic is running out. This is a grim, sad fate. But we all knew it was coming, someday. It just happened to be us. I've been advised that there are no good choices, but that doesn't mean we have to make evil ones. Violence is wrong. Murder is wrong. Greed is wrong. Hoarding is wrong. Magic was meant for all of us. No one has more right to it than anyone else. When the magic runs out, it runs out. I utterly abhor, I utterly reject any logic that says we should ration, or restrict magic to any smaller segment of the population. The government will do everything in its power to keep non-state actors in their place. If they think reaching a dead end is a license for murder and mayhem, they will be corrected. We stand ready to enforce the peace wherever violence breaks out." The spokesman let his grim glare fade and tried to relax a bit, to relax his audience a bit.
  "But this isn't why we assembled you here today." The spokesman reassured the public. "We are here today to celebrate, to discuss a new hope. There are rumors, reports, of a project our government has embarked upon. Some part of them were true. We have found a new, fragile, weak and small sentient alien species. They don't feed on magic like we do. They could continue living and thriving forever, as far as we know. Their universe is brimming with possibilities. But if we don't help them when we have the chance, those possibilities might come to an end. They are an endangered species, though they don't realize it yet. They are in grave danger of flatlining. A handful of Choice Givers live within their society, a society of billions of Dead Enders. Almost every line the future can take leads to extinction or stagnation. To nothing ever changing again. Their society hasn't learned the lessons we have. They are young, silly, like children. They haven't fixed everything they could fix. They haven't invented everything their laws of physics allows them to invent. They don't even know how to scry.
  "We must give them these gifts. We need to teach them the importance of choice, of possibility. We must show them that the true value of the world is Truth, Beauty, and Love. We must scry for them, tell them when they are going astray, what the consequences of their actions will be before they so foolishly embark upon them. They are blind children who don't know where to go or what to do. And we must protect their remaining Choice Givers, by force if necessary, with all the power we have. Maybe in the next two hundred years we can set them on the right course. By then, we should be able to see the fruits of our intervention. But this isn't just pure charity, they offer us something in return -- they can promise us that when we die, nothing vital dies with us. That some part of us lives on in their souls and their memories. That our civilization and our culture will have meant something, to someone. They can offer us an amazing gift, a chance to stand proudly when the magic runs out, when we all leave this place and meet our Creator. He will ask us, "I gave you these gifts, this long life, this power, and what did you do with it?"
  "It's important that we answer him with something. Not -- "We killed each other so that we could hoard magic a bit longer for ourselves." Not "We slept in because there was no point doing anything anymore." What if we all went before God, every one of us, and with a clean heart, said, "We made sure that God's will suffused an entire new universe of possibilities. Out of nothing but love. Have we not done well?"
  "Our government wanted a chance to tell God something like that. And so, we built the folding device. Today we are happy to announce our first pioneer to an alien world. Obviously, he's not here today. The mission and the device must be kept secret for reasons of public safety. But I can announce that we succeeded. The wyrd known as Xanadu is safely living among the aliens. Magic is funneling through his conduit from our world into theirs, so we know Xanadu must be alive and active. However, we have found no way to communicate, or, for that matter, to bring Xanadu back to the etheric plane. His life is with them now. Our scryers can detect the growth and paring of their world's branches. Whether the Choice Givers or the Dead Enders are winning. We will know if Xanadu has done his job without any reports from him. But naturally, we don't expect a single Wyrd to move mountains. We will be sending down more, one Wyrd for every Choice Giver. The best wyrds we have. And if any of those funnels stop and we have reason to believe a wyrd has died, we'll send in another. We won't let this world fail. Not when the hopes and prayers of the entire universe rest upon it. Updates on how the work is proceeding can be expected regularly. That is all."
  The spokesman gathered up his papers, waited for a few more pictures, refused to answer questions, and walked back into the Capitol building. Awesome released the breath he had been holding. So it had started. It worked. One Wyrd for every Choice Giver. And maybe fifty Choice Givers in the world. Me, Cyan, and Magnolia. Somehow, all three of us have to be among those 50. Those 49. Some bastard 'expert' was already down there taking up a slot. How could he convince them to give up three of just 49 remaining slots? This was terrible.
  "What do you think?" Cyan asked him over the phone.
  "I think it was a good speech." Awesome sighed.
  "Do you think they'll give us three open slots?" Cyan asked.
  "I don't know." Awesome sighed. "I hope so."
  "There isn't much time to wait and hope. 49 open slots. Those could all be filled tomorrow. They could all be filled tonight for all we know. Now that they know the folding device works, there's nothing stopping them."
  Awesome's stomach felt sick again. "I know."
  "So when are we sneaking in to the Capitol building?" Cyan asked nonchalantly.
  "What?"
  "When? Tonight or tomorrow? And are you calling Magnolia or am I?" Cyan followed up.
  "I don't remember agreeing to sneak into the Capitol building."
  "You just did. Now, are you going to call Magnolia, or am I?" Cyan repeated.
  "The Capitol building will be full of security. The folding device may not be operable without enormous numbers of technicians. It could need a week to recharge and be useless even when we got there. Any number of things could go wrong!"
  Cyan just waited silently on the phone. He had an unnerving ability to know when he'd already won an argument. Which seemed to be every single time. Awesome sat there, petulant, trying to outwait his friend.
  "Alright. I'll call Magnolia. Let's get together this evening and find a way in. I hope you're secretly a spy or something, because I have no idea how to break in to the most secure building in the universe."
  "Oh, we're not breaking in. We'll be invited in. You're their top scryer. Get us in, and then we bolt for the folding device room, flip a switch, and we're gone for life before they can say Jack Sesame. Easy, really."
  "Of course." Awesome piled as much sarcasm as he could on the line. "I guess I can ask them to at least let us see the device being used, since I came up with the idea. They'll probably compromise that far. Then we just break the glass window or whatever and jump. Stupidly enough. . .it sounds like it will work."
  "Now you're talking. Call Magnolia."
  "Right. I'm hanging up here then. And Cyan, we don't move until we get that invitation and that tour. Even if it takes me a week." Awesome put his foot down.
  "Roger that, captain." Cyan hung up.
  Cyan was a genius. Hope was rushing through his blood again. These were his aliens and he was going to save them. I made first contact. So I'll be the one to meet a Choice Giver. My life story will go on.
* * *
  Shiori Rin ran the rest of the way home. She needed to run more because the softball tournament was coming up. And she needed to get home in time to eat dinner before Taekwondo practice. It wasn't too far a walk from home to school, so she got back in a flash. She opened the door just by turning the knob and crashed in to the foyer -- her family never bothered to keep it locked because there hadn't been a theft in the neighborhood in living memory.
  She kicked off her outdoor shoes and slid into her indoor slippers, not wanting to pollute her home with anything from outside, and announced "I'm home!" Between deep breaths from all her running.
  "Welcome home." She heard from upstairs. Mother must have been on the computer upstairs. "Dinner's ready, but just take a snack or something until Father gets back from work."
  "That's okay!" Shiori shouted up the stairs. "I had ice cream with Kotone and Chiharu on the way back. I'll hold until dinner."
  "Oh? How are those two?" Mother called back down. "They were so sweet when we went to the beach together."
  "They're fine, mother. I had so much fun today. We ate lunch together on the roof, and walked to school together, and everyone hugged me."
  "Well I hope you hugged them back." Mother 's voice chided her humorously.
  "Of course! Twice as hard." Shiori bragged. "Do you know when Daddy's coming home? I have Taekwondo practice in thirty minutes."
  "Oh, that's right. I don't even have a car to drive you there until Father gets home." Mother sounded worried.
  "That's okay! I can run there. My softball coach told us all to run everywhere until the Nationals."
  "Oh, please come upstairs and stop yelling up at your mother like we're in a fight, Shiori. When is the National tournament starting?"
  "Two weeks!" Shiori shouted up the stairs. "I have to go change. This is awful. Softball and Taekwondo in the summer sun, and all this running, and I can't take a bath until tonight."
  "You could take a bath now." Mother reminded her.
  "And then run to Taekwondo and back? What's the use?" Shiori griped.
  "My poor Shiori. Every day is so full of problems."
  "I really have to get changed and go. I love you Mom. Tell Dad I love him when he gets back and to eat dinner without me!" Shiori Rin rushed into her room and took off her school uniform, hanging it up carefully on her closet door where it wouldn't get wrinkled. Then she grabbed her Taekwondo uniform and pads and mouth guard and stuffed it into her duffel bag. She checked the mirror. Short hair because she was too busy with sports to let it get in her eyes. No figure at all. But she was definitely pretty. Nothing to worry about. Then she struggled into some loose street clothes she could run in, a t-shirt with frills at the bottom and shorts, got out her street shoes and carried them to the foyer in one hand and her duffel bag in the other. Her arm hurt from all those throws and it was pathetic how hard it was to hold her bag with just her arm muscles. But in a few seconds she had struggled into her shoes and properly secured the bundle across her back with tightened straps so it wouldn't bounce when she ran.
  "I'm off!" Shiori called upstairs to her Mom again.
  "Have a safe trip." Mother replied.
  Shiori opened the door and started to bolt away when she practically bulled into her Father.
  "Daddy!" Shiori's face lit up. "I had the most amazing day. I'm off to Taekwondo. Enjoy dinner."
  "I can give you a ride." Her father was still trying to recover from the collision, much less the machine gun of sentences.
  "No need! Love you!" Shiori dashed off before he could give any reply. He would be tired and hungry from work, he hadn't eaten two jumbo scoops of chocolate almond surprise like she had, and the meal was already ready. She bet Mom had been waiting hungrily too. Plus, running was fun. Exercise was fun in general.
  Shiori paced herself once she was outside the sight of her house, and occasionally had to come to a complete stop to wait for a light to signal 'walk' across the streets. She wasn't tired at all by the time she got to the dojo, where she went to another changing room and got into her Taekwondo gi. It was red, her favorite color. The belt was black. Becoming an ace pitcher and a black belt wasn't that hard. All just manifestations of the same body. Motor control, reflexes, speed and strength. There were girls with black belts younger than her. But she knew all the skill in the world couldn't beat an adult. Her elbows and fists and kicks didn't have any weight behind them. Oh, she could break plywood boards, but it's not like muggers just sat there waiting for you to hit them, and their reach was so much further than hers that they'd probably just pick her up and dangle her by her legs the first kick she threw.
  Shiori didn't train in Taekwondo to avoid muggings. There had never been any muggings in Inazumu. She didn't like hurting people either. It's just that it felt good to have such perfect control of your own body. She wasn't super bright, and she didn't want to study all day every day. So she practiced Taekwondo and asked Chiharu for help before tests. Chiharu Sakai was the smart one. She was always up at the top of the class rankings. She was also the one who chose what pitches Shiori should throw and where. It all worked out. She'd rather be pretty like Kotone than smart like Chiharu, but she had earned this black belt herself. With her own skill. This ability was hers alone. It was important that she was the best at something among her friends, or she'd start to feel like she didn't belong. She didn't want her friends to put up with her out of pity.
  "Rin! Demonstrate the form at the front of the class."
  "Yes, teacher!" Shiori rose from sitting on her heels. Here we go. "Kyaa!" Side kick. Step forward. Elbow. Punch punch punch. "Kyaa!" front kick. Axe kick. Left roundhouse. Reverse roundhouse. Jumping reverse roundhouse. Shiori smiled, still perfectly balanced and in the place from which she had launched herself. She took a guard stance and then left it, turning and bowing to her master.
  "Good. You may sit."
  "Yes, teacher." Shiori bowed again and walked back around the mat, trying to keep out of the limelight. But she couldn't stop smiling at how cool she must have looked.
  Once lessons were done she was putting her shoes back on and strapping her duffel bag on her back. She was sweating horribly and it was still hot outside even with the sun down. Her casual clothes would be drenched. At least her school uniform would be clean in the morning. Mother would have seen to that. That or replaced it with another set. The uniform was cute. The dress shirt was white, while the skirt was plaid, with red and brown and green checkered squares, and hung below the knees. There was a little shield on her right breast with the initials of her school, and it was colored blue for her first year. They had a white beret, like the French wore, to cover their hair on the way to school, but you had to take it off once you actually arrived. High schoolers got much cuter uniforms, with overcoats and a ribbon tie on the front. But that was ages away.
  "See you again Rin!" Futabe said as dusk fell in and she got into her parent's car.
  "See you again Futabe!" Shiori waved.
  "Byebye, Rin. See you again." Her other classmates vanished into the night. She waved and told them all goodbye. Then she started to jog again. A bath would feel so good.
  I've got to get a more sane schedule. I can't stay late for club practices with softball and attend Taekwondo classes and do homework. I was just lucky because it was the first day and the teachers didn't want to assign us anything. I'll ask Mom to reassign my schedule to just the weekends now that school has begun. Shiori should have done this before summer break ended but it never occurred to her. She just slipped into vacations like a glove and never woke up until they were over.
  The night was gorgeous. The city had lights everywhere, with billboards and store windows advertising everything. The streets were still pretty crowded with people trying to get back home. Just like me. They're probably thinking of me as a 'crowded street' and they're the only real human. Shiori smiled at the image. Vending machines were still offering cool drinks, in season for the summer, and various snacks. If she ate another snack without touching any of Mother's dinner Mother would kill her. She passed a few barking dogs out on walks, and paused to pet them all until they stopped barking and started liking her.
  "Hi Mrs. Aede!" Shiori waved to her neighbor, who was watering her flower garden.
  "Why hello Rin. First day back from school?"
  "No, now I'm coming back from Taekwondo practice." Shiori ran in place, because she'd never brush off an adult who was talking to her.
  "Well, hurry back to your parents. I'm sure they're worrying." Aede smiled at her.
  "They won't worry. This neighborhood is completely safe." Shiori argued.
  "Streets are never safe at night. And parents are always worried." Mrs. Aede took an extremely stern pose with her arms crossed. "If those two lost their only child, a tiny little daughter, what would become of them?"
  Shiori felt a little awkward. She knew how fragile her parent's happiness was. Being an only daughter meant she couldn't mess up at anything. If she started using drugs, or failing school, or getting in fights, they couldn't rely on any other child to make them proud. It was all on her. If she hurt herself in any way, she'd ruin the entire meaning of their lives. They had spent their lives making her, so she had to make sure she didn't break. She always looked both ways before crossing a street, avoided anything that would catch a cold -- like Chiharu's puddle jumping! -- and stayed kilometers away from any bad influences. I'm their entire life. The pillar of their happiness. I know I have to be strong. All the way until they're eighty and I'm sixty and I'm taking care of them every day, I have to be strong for them. All the way. But I don't want to think about all that work at once. I just have to be strong one day at a time, do what's expected of me that day. If I tried to think about all the work I have to do for the rest of my life to not hurt them, I'd go crazy.
  "I'll be careful Mrs. Aede. See you next time."
  "See you next time, Rin dear." Mrs. Aede relaxed, the child properly lectured.
  Shiori finally made it back home, unstrapping her duffel bag and kicking off her shoes, breathing heavily through her mouth. "I'm home." She called out.
  "Welcome home," her mother replied again, this time from the kitchen. "Come fetch your dinner before I put away all the plates."
  Shiori put her indoor slippers on. "Yes mother. Is the bath ready?"
  "Yes, but your father's using it right now, so you may as well come eat."
  "Fineeeeeeeeee." She had so wanted to take a bath.
  "Do you have any homework?" Her mother asked as Shiori fetched herself a cup of tea, a bowl of rice and a bowl of soup full of tofu, vegetables, seaweed and pork or maybe beef. It looked delicious.
  "Nothing, thank goodness. Mother, could you reschedule my Taekwondo to just Sunday? I can't possibly juggle all these activities at once."
  "Of course dear. I'll call your instructor tomorrow and explain."
  "Thanks. Itadakimasu." Shiori Rin properly recited before she took her first bite of food. She could snack on some ice cream without saying it in front of her friends, but she couldn't imagine eating dinner at a table in front of her Mother without showing any manners. She'd kill me.
  Once dinner was over, Shiori got up to help with the dishes, but there weren't many left to do anymore and Mother shooed her away. "Go take your bath. Tell Father to get out if he hasn't already."
  "Okay." Shiori walked to the bathroom and knocked politely on the door. "Daddy. Mother says to get out already."
  "I'm already out, just give me a chance to dress." Father reported with a sense of being unjustly accused.
  Shiori Rin stepped back into the living room and turned on the TV, politely waiting her turn. It was a news item on a guy supposedly performing miracles. Healing the sick. Summoning fishes and loaves of bread. Straight out of the story books. No one had figured out his trick. Some people thought he should be put in jail, but no one could point to any harm he was doing. He was just a really, really good magician. A new Houdini.
  "This again?" Shiori's Father walked up behind her. "The office won't stop talking about it. The explosions, flashes of light. There have been videos of people flying in midair. And now miracles from the Bible. The same nonsense all over the world."
  Shiori watched intently. "They must have been on wires or something. Or the tapes were doctored. It must be like some giant hacker worldwide project that they decided to do together for fun."
  "Even so, it's strange. No one has figured out how they're doing it. People have been hurt. I don't like it." Her father sighed, as a journalist dug into the fish and showed it was real genuine food, not rubber or paper mache or something.
  "Surely no one's been hurt by this one. He's healing the sick." Shiori said.
  "He's pretending to heal the sick. And no, not this one. Others. A new one seems to show up every day." Father was patient, but he never let a mistake go uncorrected. He was very good at looking over her homework.
  "I have to take a bath. Anyway, it's all very far away from here. This is like the safest city on Earth. No thieves in living memory." Shiori Rin reminded Daddy, because he seemed to genuinely be worrying.
  "That's right. That's why we moved here, so our precious Shiori could grow up safe and sound. Nothing will happen here. It's probably just hacked footage anyway. Probably, nothing has happened anywhere." Shiori went to take her bath. Father didn't sound convinced. Father was trying to reassure himself. That was really strange.
  Shiori undressed yet again, then showered down. Mother would want to use the tub after her, so she couldn't take too long. But she wanted a long time because today had been exhausting. Plus, she had had that heat stroke she wasn't about to tell her parents about. Relaxing in the bath tub was the best solution she had come up with. She hadn't felt thirsty at all, though she'd forced herself to drink a lot of water afterwards. Shiori rubbed her arms with a sponge until all the pain in her muscles was gone, then she got up, turned off the shower, and settled into the bathtub's warm water. There was no time to daydream. She just had to relax and soak as fast as possible. She wasn't sure how to relax quickly but she was sure she could get the hang of it.
  Ten minutes or so had passed and she wondered if she'd dozed off when her mother knocked on the door and asked how she was doing.
  "Five more minutes." Shiori raised her voice to reach beyond the door. She sat in the tub as long as she dared, then realized she hadn't shampooed her hair yet and got to work. She was still dressing when her mother knocked on the door again.
  "Almost out! I promise!" Shiori jumped on one foot trying to put her sock on. Her hair could dry instantly because it was short. She checked for anything left over in the bathroom and then walked out in a stately manner.
  "I swear. You certainly enjoy your baths." Mother had her arms crossed.
  Shiori thought about something snide like, "Better than not taking any," but it wasn't lady-like, and it was rude to her Mother, who just wanted to take a bath like anyone else on Earth after a long day.
  "I'm sorry, I think I dozed off." Shiori placed her hand in front vertically in front of her face and gave a little bow, closing her eyes. She'd stick her tongue out and bite it, but that was more for friends and less for dignified parents.
  "It's okay dear. Go on to bed then." Mother closed the bathroom door behind her and Shiori was left to herself again. You see? Just be honest and thoughtful and I'll never have to get into any fights. I'm glad I didn't give the glib response.
  Shiori was tired. She brushed her teeth in the bathroom upstairs, that just had a toilet and sink. Then she stared into the mirror wondering what she was supposed to do next. Had she packed her school swimsuit? I did that yesterday. It's still in my bag since I thought we would be swimming today. Shiori walked into her room and checked to see if her school uniform was clean. Then she checked to see if her alarm was set. She sat on her bed wondering what she'd forgotten, but she was simply too tired to guess. Maybe nothing. So she got back up, turned off the lights, undressed again, and got into bed. Half of every day was simply dressing and undressing. So tired.


Chapter 3

  Shiori woke up to a strange red glow in the room. She tried to turn over and go back to sleep, but the dumb light wouldn't turn off. Then she thought some sort of construction vehicle must have its lights parked directly across from her room and be shining into it. She didn't understand it, since she was on the second floor, but oh well.
  But then she noticed the light was in her room. And it was making a strange humming sound too.
  Shiori sat up, rubbing her eyes. Could she be having some sort of stroke, an after effect of the heat stroke? Maybe blood is pouring into my brain and all my brain can make of it is to create a floating red light and a humming sound. I should call out for help. But what if this is a dream, or I'm crazy, or. . .she didn't think her parents could help with this anyway.
  The red light seemed to orient on her. Then it spoke. "Hello." Oh great, now it could speak to her.
  "It's like, four A.M. in the morning. Why did a red light decide to bash through my window and tell me hello?" Shiori asked it, politely, all things considered.
  "I'm not red. I'm Awesome." The red light replied.
  "I'm sure you're super amazing." Shiori yawned. "When you're done shining and humming, just go back out the window and leave me alone."
  "No, I mean, I'm the color. Awesome. Not red. There's a difference."
  "There's a color called Awesome?" Shiori was so confused.
  "Yes. And Wyrds identify themselves by their colors. So I'm Awesome. Please, tell me your name."
  "Shiori Rin." Shiori gave reflexively.
  "Hello, Shiori Rin." Awesome said.
  "Don't call me Shiori. Only my friends and family can call me Shiori. It's Rin to you." Shiori corrected reflexively. What were you supposed to do when a red light started talking to you? Scream? Hit it with a pillow?
  "Hello Rin. I'm an alien from another world. I've come here to help you. Maybe protect you. You're a very important person."
  "What?" Shiori asked. Then it all started making sense. This was one of those hacker pranks. They were somehow recording her, and projecting a holographic image, and teasing her and probably putting it on the internet. She looked down at her bare chest and became furious, gathering up her sheet to hide her body. "You're disgusting! How dare you! Go away! I'm going to call the cops."
  Awesome looked perturbed. It turned back and forth, blinked a few times, and then just sat there floating. "I can't go away. But if I disturbed your sleep, I'm sorry. I'll wait for you outside in the morning then."
  "You do that and I'll call the cops. I'll call the neighbors. I don't know how you're doing it but someone is going to catch you hackers. Now, if you're leaving, leave. I'll see how far I can trust you by what you do right now." Shiori was furious. This was so utterly illegal.
  Awesome blinked, and then floated to the window, undid the latch, pushed it open, all apparently without any hands to do it, and flew away.
  Could a hologram open a window? Shiori stood up to look out the window and check where it went. She gathered her sheet around her chest and kept it close, suddenly afraid of cameras trained at every angle to her window. The window was open. It had been closed seconds before. She leaned out of the window to see if someone on a ladder had been pulling a prank or something. No. And there was the stupid light. Waiting beneath the bush.
  "If you're going to sit out there, at least turn off your light so no one else will see you!" Shiori whispered loudly at it.
  "Sorry." Awesome bobbed and then turned off.
  You've got to be kidding me. I can't figure this one out. The window was opened and closed by that red gem. Wait, not red, that Awesome gem. It could talk. It could fly. What hacker could do all of that? She couldn't make any sense of it. So she closed the window, went back to bed, and hoped it was all a dream.
  Awesome was waiting for her in the morning. Shiori gave an agonized groan and glared at it.
  "I'm sorry if I offended you. Like I said, I'm new to this world. I'm an alien, a Wyrd, so I don't know if what I say or do is offensive to folded dimension dwellers." Awesome started floating beside her as she walked to school.
  Shiori Rin sighed. "First off, we're not 'folded dimension dwellers.' This is Earth. Japan, to be precise. Inazumu, really. I'm a human being. A girl, to be precise. Well, a female I guess is more precise. But anyway, I'm a girl. I'm a japanese middle school girl. And in Japan, nobody floats around or shines for no reason. So stop acting like an alien super technology and start acting like a piece of jewelry. Here, get in my bag." Shiori held it out and Awesome hopped in. She knew she shouldn't be encouraging it, but if she was going to be haunted by aliens, at least she could keep it from the neighborhood and not be any more embarrassed.
  "The first thing you will learn about being a Japanese middle school girl is that we aren't important. If I remember what you said last night and wasn't dreaming."
  "What's important about you isn't your educational status. You're a Choice Giver." Awesome replied.
  "Okay, this is another rule. Aliens don't get to use special phrases that don't mean anything like they're standard Japanese. I'm just me. Shiori Rin. I'm not some alien queen who descended from the heavens and ended up on Earth. I have pictures of when I was born and eyewitnesses. I'm not what you think. Actually, I have no idea how you're even speaking Japanese with me. But you should go back home, and let me pretend I never met a floating alien in the first place."
  "I'm speaking Japanese, and floating, and shining, with magic. A Choice Giver is what it sounds like. It means through you, the world still has choices. If the world follows you or emulates you, the future opens up into infinite possibilities. That's extremely important. Choice Givers transcend species lines. You aren't a wyrd. You're an Earth-human-Japanese-female-school-girl Choice Giver."
  "Pick one designation and stick with it." Shiori snapped. "I'm just a kid. I'm not. . .a prophet or cultist or whatever. I don't preach to anyone. And don't tell me I should start preaching now. I won't. That's not me at all, and I wouldn't be any good at it. I just want to live out my life the way I think I should."
  "Not a prophet, not a cultist, not a preacher, a Choice Giver. Someone who contains infinite possibilities." Awesome corrected.
  "I can't tell them apart." Shiori Rin patiently replied.
  "Okay. I'll see if I can explain it to you better later. Let's set that debate aside for the moment." Awesome offered.
  "Sure." Shiori Rin agreed. "But look, that's Kotone Nakano ahead. Nakano to you. Don't say anything and don't flash or float or anything. I'm going to talk you out of bothering me and you're going back to outer space. But until then stay in my bag and let me have fun at school."
  "Nakano is also a Choice Giver. It's okay if she knows about me." Awesome said.
  "How convenient." Shiori rolled her eyes. "Now hush." Awesome hushed. Her respect for him went up again. He had obeyed last night and this morning. He didn't seem malevolent. Just extremely pushy and sure he was right about everything. As far as alien encounters went, she supposed this wasn't bad. But why me? This is absurd. Because I'm a Choice Giver? What does that even mean? There's nothing unique about me. Chiharu's way smarter than me, and Kotone's way nicer than me. All I can do is sports. And any boy could play sports better than her. Why doesn't Awesome go chase down a pro baseball player and leave me alone?
  "Good morning Kotone." Shiori tried to put an especially cheerful voice on, but it sounded absolutely artificial.
  "Good morning Shiori." Kotone looked like she'd seen a ghost.
  "What's wrong?" Shiori touched her arm. The two of them fell into the same pace, walking to school together.
  "Nothing. Is there something wrong?" Kotone pretended to smile.
  "Yes. There's something wrong, and you're going to tell me about it on the way to school. Or I'll sick Chiharu on you." Shiori had a vague pit of dread in her stomach.
  "I. . .I saw a ghost last night. It was white and shining and started trying to talk to me. I screamed. My parents rushed in, but the ghost ran away. I couldn't sleep all night. Occasionally the ghost would come back to the window and I would scream again. My parents spent the rest of the night with me. They think I've gone crazy. But I'm not crazy. Over half the world believes in ghosts. I looked it up online. It's not crazy to see a ghost and then believe in ghosts." Kotone rushed the words out.
  "It's not crazy." Shiori agreed, sighing. "Kotone, you're not crazy. Promise not to scream or call me a plant monster body snatcher or anything, okay?"
  "Why? Are you a b-b-body snatcher? Did you kill Shiori?" Kotone's eyes were getting wider and wider.
  "No! Calm down! They aren't ghosts. They're aliens. If you spent all morning talking to one, like I had, you would have seen they aren't ghost-like at all." Shiori held Kotone's hands to show her she was still flesh and blood and keep her calm. Had Shiori been this scared when she saw Awesome? She didn't think so. Was I supposed to be? I don't know. How many thirteen year old girls meet aliens in the night so that we could draw a valid statistical comparison and grade where I am on the courage curve? Maybe that's why I'm a Choice Giver. I wasn't scared at all. Don't get a big head just because an alien starts flattering you. You're not important. You aren't even brave. You were probably just too stupid to notice you were in danger.
  "You talked to one?" Kotone's voice was so high it almost popped.
  "Yes. It's sitting quietly in my bag right now. Now, Awesome, listen carefully. One of your alien friends has scared my best friend and ruined her sleep last night. I want you to very carefully say, "Hi Nakano," float a few meters up into the air, then go back into my bag and be quiet, so you don't scare her. And move slowly too."
  "Hi Nakano." Awesome said quietly, floating.
  "You see? They're respectful aliens. They aren't trying to hurt us. So it's okay. That white alien just wanted to talk to you." Shiori smiled. The situation was rather hilarious, her comforting Kotone like she was a pro at alien-human relations and had done this all her life.
  "Just to talk to me." Kotone repeated to herself. Then she straightened her legs and the hunted look went away. She still looked tired though. I'm clearly the strange one. How on Earth did I meet an alien, tell it to leave, and then go back to bed? Shiori laughed, thinking back.
  "I'm glad you saw one, Kotone. I was still wondering if I had gone insane or had permanent brain damage or something. But now it's settled. There are nice aliens that want to meddle in our lives and call us princesses and the like, and besides that, we're the exact same. Our lives are the exact same. I guess it's an overall plus." Shiori said.
  "What if it wants to talk to me again?" Kotone looked distressed.
  "Then we'll talk to it. They're nice, really. And cute. They're harmless."
  "I want to tell Chiharu about it. I don't want to keep it from her. The three of us shouldn't be divided like this." Kotone became more confident.
  "Okay. We'll tell her at lunch." Shiori Rin hugged her. She really was relieved Kotone had seen one too. Now she just had to figure out how to make the aliens go home.
  When lunchtime came, Shiori was bursting with the need to talk. They had gone swimming that morning, but that no longer mattered. Describing encounters with aliens was just way more fun. More fun than she had ever dreamed of having. I'm one of the most special people in the world. And so is Kotone. Awesome told me she was a Choice Giver, but I didn't believe him. But the aliens contacted her too. He was telling me the truth. He may have been telling me the truth this entire time. I wish I remembered what he had said right when he introduced himself. She couldn't think back beyond their conversation this morning.
  Shiori practically dragged Chiharu up the stairs until they were up at the roof. Kotone walked up the stairs after them, like she was heading to an execution.
  Shiori twirled in a circle and then held an impish grin on her face, watching Chiharu. "Promise not to scream or call me a witch or anything." Shiori said, excited.
  "I promise." Chiharu said, setting down her tea and opening her bento, sitting down as calmly as ever.
  "I met an alien last night. Kotone did too. The alien's name is Awesome. Awesome, say hi to Chiharu Sakai. But call her Sakai."
  "Hello Sakai." Awesome floated out of her bag again.
  "Hello Awesome." Chiharu smiled and took a sip of tea.
  "No, I mean, really. Chiharu, this isn't some prank. I'm not using a wire. This is an alien. Kotone saw one too." Shiori gave a pleading look to Kotone.
  "It's true. I met an alien, Chiharu." Kotone backed Shiori up.
  "Me too." Chiharu said. "His name is Cyan. Cyan, say hello to Rin and Nakano."
  Cyan floated out of her bag, glowing blue. "Hello Rin, hello Nakano."
  Kotone looked sick. Shiori just started laughing.
  "Ok, you got us." Shiori sat down and started unpacking her lunch. "Itadakimasu." She started eating, staring at the new alien.
  "You visited every single person on Earth, and you called them all Choice Givers, and now you want to be our alien symbiotes or something and give you food." Shiori accused.
  Awesome rose out of her bag. "No. Sakai is a Choice Giver."
  "Right, like everyone. We're all just full of choices." Shiori explained.
  "You won't listen to me." Awesome sounded angry. "You are a Choice Giver. Nakano is a Choice Giver. Sakai is a Choice Giver. And maybe fifty other people in the whole world. The three of us decided to synchronize to the three of you because we're friends, and we wanted to stay together, and you were all nearby to each other. I didn't know the three of you were friends, though it makes sense, since all three of you are so different from Dead Enders that you'd naturally be drawn to each other. But all three of you are incredibly special. To be precise, each of you are one in 140 million."
  "Furthermore, we aren't aliens. We're wyrds. You told me to pick one, a term you gave. So I'm following your wishes and calling you by the right names, and as girls, and all that. But you just keep calling us aliens." Awesome continued.
  "Hey now!" Shiori raised her voice. "I didn't ask you to jump into my bedroom and look at me half naked. Nor did I come to your universe to start telling you what to do. It's completely different when I ask for simple courtesy from you and when you ask it from me."
  "It's not any different! I'm a wyrd, a girl's body doesn't mean anything to me, so there's no way I somehow took advantage of you last night. And didn't you hear me? I didn't say I came here to ask for favors or tell you what to do. I came here to help you, and protect you, and save your entire world! Why don't I deserve simple courtesy?" Awesome glowed with righteous wrath.
  "Because I'm a real person and you're just a floating blob, idiot!" Shiori yelled.
  "Now, now." Chiharu touched her arm.
  "I. . .sorry. I didn't mean it. . .and I'll call you a wyrd from now on." Shiori blushed. So much for her professional human-alien relations. She should let the U.N. take over from here. I'll probably start an interstellar war like this.
  "Last night, Cyan told me the same thing. That he was here to protect the Choice Givers. He seemed earnest and serious. But I don't understand why they came here. Japan is peaceful, and Inazumu is safe. We shouldn't need any protection." Chiharu acted like the conversation had finally gotten through introductions and they were ready to talk about serious matters.
  "I. . .am I the only one who doesn't sit down and chat with glowing lights in the night?" Kotone asked, bewildered. "Did I. . .drive my alien away? Is it going to report me or something?"
  "Your wyrd." Chiharu touched Kotone's arm, just like she had Shiori's.
  "I'm sorry. My wyrd." She half bowed to the floating gems.
  It was Cyan who talked this time. "The wyrd you're referring to is Magnolia. She's our friend, and wants to be your friend, Nakano. She's completely harmless, I promise. She raised kfelshew in our world. She bakes itzur."
  "Okay, Cyan. Hello. I gave a rule to Awesome, and I'm extending it to you. Don't use alien gibberish and pretend it's normal Japanese." Shiori spoke up.
  Cyan blinked and flashed a few times. "She bred and showed off dogs. She's great at baking cookies."
  "Much better." Shiori nodded.
  "We need to protect you for two reasons. We are scryers. And don't raise your voice, Rin. Scryer is a real term in your language." Cyan continued.
  Shiori closed her mouth, her cheeks heated.
  "We can see the future, but not in the terms you're used to. We only see the possibilities. Possibilities that flat-line. . .err. . .possibilities that stop branching, are called dead ends. People who stick to those tracks are Dead Enders. They're scum. The worst. Trash. We don't know what happens on those possibilities, we just know the nature of that possibility. It's a flat line. It never changes. Nothing happens ever again. Scryers can see the other side of the coin too. We can see Choice Givers. These are the people who, by following or emulating, allow for infinite possibilities. They're people who are not only not Dead Enders, but have overcome the very possibility of Dead Ends themselves. Wherever they go, the Dead Ends disappear. They are like dragonslayers. Heroes. There's a miraculous power in them to keep the universe alive. Changing. Growing. Branching. When a scryer sees a Choice Giver, it's like the most beautiful field of flowers you've ever seen. It makes you want to cry."
  Cyan was interrupted. "Except for one particular Choice Giver who --" Awesome started.
  "Hush, Awesome." Cyan broke in. "She apologized, but you haven't."
  "What should I apologize for?" Awesome groused.
  "For seeing her half naked, which clearly shamed her and hurt her, and for what you were about to say just now." Cyan said.
  "I can't help it if, when I fold down a hyper dimensional tube, I end up seeing something!" Awesome blinked in effrontery.
  "Yes, but if you had any sense of shame, you could make her feel more at ease by admitting it was wrong, in and of itself, no matter what your intentions were, to see her like that. That the state of your seeing itself was wrong, independent of who was seeing and who was seen." Cyan said.
  "I'm sorry for seeing something I shouldn't have seen, Rin. I didn't mean to." Awesome sighed.
  "I know." Shiori blushed. "Can we just stop talking about my chest?"
  Cyan took that as a chance to continue. "So long as there are Choice Givers, your universe will never reach a dead end. Nor can it ever totally be dominated by Dead Enders. But when we reached your planet, there were only fiftyChoice Givers left in the world. If anything happened to you. If all of you should die of an illness or an accident or anything, your entire world would flatline. It would stagnate or just go extinct, since a flatline can't tell the two states apart, since they're the same essence, they never change. Any Choice Giver is precious. The last fifty Choice Givers among all known life, among all known creation. . .how unbelievably precious can you be?"
  "What do you mean, among all life? Are you guys robots or something?" Shiori asked. Why was it always Shiori or Awesome interrupting? Don't tell me we're similar. Oh no. My favorite color is red! At this rate, Shiori would be stuck with Awesome for keeps. Shiori would rather have Cyan. Cyan was calm and smart, just like Chiharu. But that meant Cyan would rather have Chiharu. Of course. Everyone would rather have Chiharu. Except Magnolia wanted Kotone. And Awesome wanted her. Perfect.
  "No, we're alive. Besides, sentient robots are also alive. If they existed. Which as far as I know, they don't." Cyan replied.
  "Then," Kotone broke in, "Then wyrds don't have any Choice Givers anymore."
  "Correct. We're a dead end." Cyan sounded sad.
  "That's horrible. I'm so sorry." Kotone said.
  "If you understand that, you understand why we can't let the same thing happen to you." Cyan said.
  "But the same thing won't happen here." Chiharu rejoined. "Like I said, Japan is at peace and Inazumu is safe. We don't have any bad habits and we look both ways before we cross the street. We're as safe as humanly possible without just sticking us in a cushioned room. It's nice that you came all this way to protect us. By the way, how do wyrds protect humans? I don't mean to offend, but all you can do is float and blink. In any case, it's nice that you came all this way. But you may as well go back. We promise to stay safe. I intended to live in a safe manner anyway. You can go tell your other wyrd friends that we're all safe and everything will be fine."
  "That. . . isn't exactly true." Awesome said. And then the lunch bell rang. No one had eaten much. But then, this was more fun than eating. Kotone, Chiharu, and Shiori all looked shocked that they were even at school, on the school roof, and that they were supposed to be attending class right now. For a second there, it's like they had been living entirely different lives.
  "We have to go." Kotone said nervously.
  Awesome blinked for a bit. "I'm going to go find Magnolia. Can I tell her you'll talk to her now, Nakano? She just wants to help you. Like us, only, she's more compatible with you. She. . ." Awesome blinked a bright red. "She thought you were the most beautiful and so. . ."

  "I'll talk to her with everyone else. We'll work this out." Kotone promised. And then she was flying down the stairs. Shiori got up and ran too. Chiharu just gathered her stuff and walked. But she didn't care about regular things like being late or getting punished or looking stupid. She was calm. And she was one of the top ranked students so the teachers would give her a pass anyway. Stupid Chiharu. It was just like her to take Cyan for herself.


Chapter 4

  George Flint was an environmentalist. He lived on a commune and made sure to use as few resources as possible. He didn't eat meat, and he hated everyone who did. He wrote newsletters about all sorts of pollution and letters to the editor about whatever laws were being debated in Congress. He even attended a few protests. For the whales. For the owls. For the minks that were being caught and skinned in Russia. No one listened. It was all so meaningless. No one cared. Oh, a few people cared. But no one cared as much as he did. And because he didn't have any power, there was nothing he could do. The animals were defenseless. The trees were defenseless. The rivers were defenseless. The air was defenseless. Even the mountains were getting their caps blown off and mined away. Even the earth was defenseless. Soon enough humans would find a way to pollute space.
  He hated them. He hated the polluters. He hated everyone who benefited from pollution. And he hated everyone for not caring. He tried to distract himself, to do other things. He took a lot of drugs. He hooked up with girls who felt the same way. But after every distraction, he could read in the news some new atrocity. More CO2 in the air. Underground water supplies running out. Erosion of the topsoil. Depleted uranium poisoning. Shark fin soup. It was like the entire world had gone crazy, or it was just intent on making him feel bad, by doing every single thing wrong, writing up an article about their heinous deeds in the paper, and then delivering it to his door.
  He tried gardening. He tried bonzai tree pruning. He tried lecturing public school kids on how they needed to recycle. Nothing helped.
  I mean, give me a break. Recycling? There was a giant patch of pollution in the Pacific Ocean as large as several states. The horse was already out of the barn. The pollution was already here, everywhere. Recycling new pollution changed nothing. And nobody recycled anyway. He would lecture the kids, and then watch them go throw something in the trash that was recyclable, two seconds later. Those prick kids probably knew he was watching and were laughing about it too. They were exactly what was wrong with this world.
  At age 45, George Flint realized he had done every possible thing and the environment had gotten worse every year in his life. It was hopeless. It was like fighting the tides. Then he read a book: The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. The book talked about how the world would look if suddenly, overnight, mankind disappeared. If humans just went away, how the animals and plants would flourish. There were pretty pictures of green things overgrowing cities. George Flint finally got it. Environmentalism wasn't hopelessly trying to minimize the harm humanity did to the environment. Environmentalism meant wiping humanity off the face of the Earth. Weisman understood. He was talking in code to people like George Flint. Stop beating around the bush. Stop pretending you don't know what the problem is. The problem is people. The solution is mass murder. If we environmentalists would just rise up and kill everyone, then it would all be over. The pollution would end, the Earth would recover, and the birds would sing. Balance would be restored to the ecosystem.
  There was only one problem. George Flint was just one man. When he mentioned his theory to a few people, they disagreed with him. Some disagreed with him vehemently. Even though they were environmentalists and knew all the same facts he did. Even though they knew the pollution would never end until the source was eradicated. They were such hypocrites. He was surrounded by worthless hypocrites.
  George Flint left the commune. He started wandering around the country in a truck, trying out his message in city after city, hoping to find one clear thinking group that would see the obvious logic of it all. The problem was people. The solution was mass murder. Some organizations were more sensible than others. They talked about reducing the human population down to a billion, or half a billion, or a million, or half a million. But then they would stop. They would stubbornly refuse to admit that if you left even two humans alive, they'd eventually reproduce and you would be exactly back up to seven billion, or seven quadrillion for all humanity cared. Humans kept reproducing so long as there was any Nature left to rape. If they ever got out into space, they would keep reproducing until they had raped every last environment in the entire universe. They had to be stopped here, now, while environmentalists still could. Stop meant killed. The universe had to be made safe from the polluters who would never stop once they got started. It would be pollution from Rigel to Vega. Landfills and skinned minks from Betelgeuse to Orion. Bratty kids who wouldn't recycle and meat eaters who didn't mind torturing and killing animals from Algol to Altaire.
  Environmentalists kept talking in code. They kept talking about birth rates. About letting the population fall 'naturally.' Population didn't fall naturally. Population grew naturally. Across all human history population has always grown. And they talked about population falling 'naturally.' 'Voluntarily.' Population didn't fall voluntarily. Or to be more precise, when population falls voluntarily in one human community, another human community just moves in whose population does not fall voluntarily, and you are back to square one. The whole world's population has never fallen voluntarily, not once, and it was still rising today. The environmentalists were just cowards. They were whistling by the graveyard, pretending they couldn't see the most obvious logic on Earth. People weren't going to 'volunteer' to cease to exist. They could only be forced. Forced meant mass murdered.
  George Flint stopped riding around in his truck. He couldn't convince anyone. They didn't want to be convinced. His arguments were flawless. His logic was crystal. They just refused to see. They believed what they wanted to believe. He built a cabin and started gardening again. There was nothing he could do. Even if he went on a killing spree, humans would just reproduce and fill up the space. That had been his point. That if you left the job undone, it was like not doing the job at all. Killing two people wasn't going to cleanse the world of mankind. He couldn't raise an army to work alongside him at the mass murder project. So it was over. He just wanted to farm and forget. Hopefully he'd die of cancer sooner or later, and then he wouldn't have to read any more news stories about the world becoming any more polluted. Polluted with humans. Pollution meant people.
  That was when the wyrd appeared. Its name was Green. Like the environment. Green understood him. Green agreed with him. Green said it only made sense. Green wanted to protect the animals and plants and rivers and air too. George Flint could talk to someone like Green. It was a pleasure to garden, and say what you thought, and to be told "That's brilliant." Instead of jeered or glared at or ignored. So when Green said he might be able to do something about it, George was all ears. George knew Green was an alien. But since Green always agreed about how bad pollution was, it was obvious Wyrds weren't like people. They were like the plants and animals, at harmony with nature. Green was the right type of alien. A man could work with Green. Aliens could have any sort of technology, any kind of bizarre power. If Green though he could help eradicate mankind, well, then maybe he could. Maybe Green and George Flint, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, could start the mass murder project all on their own.
  "I can't kill everyone." Green said. And George sighed. He had hoped. That stupid feeling of hope had invaded him again, and now it would take forever to stamp it back down. George wanted to go smoke some weed. "But there is a way to kill mankind. Kill the Choice Givers. Kill the Choice Givers, kill the world."
  "Who are they? Really big polluters? I told you, if even two people live on it doesn't matter." George sighed. Maybe Green was like all the rest. Always talking about limited action. Morality. All that nonsense.
  "Choice Givers are like mankind's engines. They keep the engine going. Stop providing fuel to the engine, and the engine turns off. Mankind turns off. It reaches a dead end. That's when humanity will die."
  "I don't get it. People live off of food. Their fuel is plants and animals, or if you want, fossil fuels, sunlight, wind power, uranium, etc. Not choices." George liked Green. At least he had his heart in the right place.
  "They die in their souls. They give up hope. They turn to stupid beliefs. And then they rot away on the vine. The stupid beliefs and stupid feelings choke them to death. They dwindle, they decay, and then they disappear. Only Choice Givers keep the cycle going. Everyone else is a Dead Ender. The Dead Enders are everywhere. If Choice Givers didn't keep inspiring them, they would just properly flow into a dead end and die. Kill the Choice Givers, kill the world." Green encouraged him. It had a pretty good ring to it, that slogan.
  "How do I know if it works? I mean, you're saying this will take a long time. I'm 48 years old. What if I kill them all and nothing happens?" George complained. He wanted to see The World Without Us. All those pretty trees and birds going wherever they pleased. A world without pollution. Pollution meant people.
  "I told you before, didn't I?" Green was always patient. "I can scry the possibilities. After the Choice Givers die, the world always flatlines. Sooner or later. It has to. It's the rules. I don't know how long it will take. But I can promise you it really will happen. Trust me." Green said.
  "Why should I just trust you?" George complained.
  "Because I believed in you." Green said, blinking green lights, acting hurt.
  George blinked back tears. Green was his only friend. He was the only one who got it, who didn't give him mean looks. Green was right. He had to trust him. Kill the Choice Givers, Kill the World.
  "Ok, Green. Sign me up." George Flint grinned.
* * *
  Chiharu Sakai wanted to restart the conversation as soon as they found Magnolia. But she had softball practice with Shiori after school, and Kotone had flute practice, and Awesome hadn't found Magnolia by the time they were done. Awesome went off to try and find Magnolia again, and all three of the girls went back home after telling each other "See you tomorrow!"
  Chiharu had a lot of homework to do. She was smart, but she was also thorough. Homework took time. Getting perfect grades on everything took even more time. When she got home, she carefully took off her shoes and aligned them in their proper place for when she wanted to leave again. She was tired from softball practice, and she was even more exhausted from staying up last night talking to Cyan, when he suddenly appeared at 4 a.m. She needed a bath and then to go to sleep. But if she went to sleep now, it would ruin her sleep schedule. She had to go to sleep around ten so she woke up refreshed and ready for school by six or seven. That meant staying awake. Which meant doing homework. Choice Giver? I've never had any choices. Logic always dictates my next choice. Logic and reason. If there's a winning move in a game, there's no choice but to take it. The whole point is to win the game. Which means if there is a move before that winning move, that gets you to the winning move, there's no choice but to take that move too. If the game was easy enough, you could see the logical necessity behind every move because it inevitably led to the winning move at the end. Computers could do that with chess. But I can't. Chess is hard. It's life that's easy. I could tell the winning moves since I was five. I could tell the moves that led to the winning moves, and the moves that led to the moves that led to the moves, by age ten. After that it was all downhill.
  Work hard. Study. Get along. Be nice. Be honest. Keep quiet. Get good grades. Dress properly. Behave properly. Stay calm. Don't say anything you'd regret later. Obey those who are placed in authority above you. Get a good college entrance exam grade. Get a degree. Leverage it into a graduate degree. Leverage that into a secure, high paying, but not particularly difficult job. Find another graduate degree holder with a good job who has done all the same things. Marry him and have smart, well behaved kids. If they make you happy, have more, until they stop making you happy. Teach your kids everything you know about the game of life by age ten, so they don't make any mistakes either.
  I already won this game at age ten. I won this game when I saw all the moves that by necessity lead to victory. Life has been boring ever since. Not bad. The moves were right, which meant they couldn't possibly lead her astray. Just boring. She had to focus all of her attention during softball, exert all of her effort during test taking. But she never had to work hard to know what to do, to know what to say or not say, to know who she should be. Softball was fun. Being herself was boring. Only suddenly, apparently, it wasn't boring anymore.
  I'm a Choice Giver. I'm not sure how to leverage that. I don't know where that falls into the plan. I don't understand the rules of this game. I don't get how to incorporate it into the game of life. Maybe the wyrds would explain it to her fully and then it would become obvious and then boring again. But Chiharu had rarely had so much fun in her life. Yesterday had been great. Making fun of Shiori. Hugging Kotone who was so happy to see Chiharu she had shouted over the heads of a huge crowd of boys and jumped up and down to get my attention. Was anyone that nice? That self-effacing just to make a point? Kotone would do anything for me. That's what she was saying. Kotone's my best friend in the world. Only so is Shiori. I'm not going to separate them out in my mind. They're both my best friends. Hopefully for life. People usually grew apart, but Chiharu knew she wouldn't. She would be the same person her entire life. This was because she had already started life's chess match and now she was committed to play the game out to the end. I can't change my strategy midstream. So I'm me, and I love my friends, so I'm not going to stop loving my friends, ever.
  Today had been even better. Today had started at 4 a.m. when she was contacted by an alien. It was obviously an alien. It said it was an alien, and there was no other explanation. So Cyan was an alien. Not from outer space. From dimensional space. From hyperspace. From somewhere above. Cyan called it the etheric plane. No matter where we pointed our telescopes or flew our spaceships, we never would have found the wyrds. We were only looking sideways, but space is a manifold that stretches out in every direction. I always wondered why we hadn't met aliens yet. It was obvious they would have to exist, by just the laws of averages. X stars that have planets. X of those planets are in the habitable region for life to emerge. X of those planets develop life. X of those life forms become multicellular. X of those life forms become sentient. X of those life forms visit the Earth. Since the number of stars in the universe was some inconceivable amount, no matter how low you set X each time, unless it was zero, someone should have visited by now. She couldn't see any reasonable place to put a zero. None of those steps were that hard. As proof, mankind had done it. Anything that could be done could be replicated. But now there was another explanation. "X of those life forms don't realize that moving sideways is a waste of time and fold up or down instead." Maybe any alien that was sophisticated enough to reach the Earth was sophisticated enough to find a universe of their own, without any obnoxious neighbors, and were just as happy that we never found them. I don't know. It's just a theory. But it could be the answer.
  Then she had talked with Cyan more on the roof. Even better, her friends had been Choice Givers too. She couldn't have predicted that. Cyan said there were only fifty Choice Givers in the whole world. Chiharu had thought she would be alone in this Making Choices thing. Or whatever she was supposed to do. Go on a quest to find the holy grail and bring back Choices to the people. But she could go on this adventure and stay with her friends too. The flood of happiness when she had realized that during lunch was only barely corralled by a calm, deliberate sip of tea.
  Obviously, I won't let the wyrds interfere with my life game. If I deviate from the winning moves, who knows where I'll end up. It's the winning move. It was irrational to stray from it. Whether there were wyrds or not, she'd already won. She didn't need their help for anything. But if she could win at life and have fun with the wyrds and her friends, then that was even better. Just talking to the wyrds was fun. Cyan was smart. Really smart. He had a lot to say about an entirely different world. Obviously she'd eventually squeeze him dry like a sponge, until every day he would just be repeating himself. That would be sad. But that's what happened whenever you met a new person. They would be new for a bit, but then they would be old. New people are exciting, but they're like coal. You burn through the fuel and then it's out. Old friends were higher grade. They were a renewable resource. They made you happy because they loved you. She didn't know if Cyan could be an old friend. He was an alien after all. Maybe they'd get bored with each other, have nothing in common, and go their own way. But for now it was fun. Coal was there to be burnt. Like not using coal, not using new people was just wasteful.
  Chiharu yawned, going over her kanji, her math, her science, and her history, and filling out all the appropriate worksheets. Her eyes were watering because they weren't blinking enough, because she was too tired. I'm not going to make it to 10 p.m. like this. I need to mix things up. Go take a bath.
  Chiharu looked at Cyan just sitting on the counter. She couldn't decide whether he looked like a marble, a glass orb, or a really expensive gem. Could she just leave Cyan out as a paperweight or some silly curiosity she felt like collecting? Cyan wouldn't betray her intentionally. If Mother came into the room he would just sit there, blue and lifeless. But she was still worried. Suppose someone stole Cyan. Or broke him. He wasn't exactly a strong creature. Just a floating blinking talking gem. She needed to make a necklace and wear Cyan as a pendant. That way she could keep Cyan with her at all times. She could just imagine one of her little sisters picking up Cyan to play with and bashing him against a counter until he broke and died. Then she'd come crying to me with the broken pieces and I would have to forgive her yet again, like I forgive them every time they break something of mine. Get along and Be Nice were cardinal rules.
  Chiharu got up, then wondered if she was supposed to be taking a bath or making a necklace. Ugh. She was too tired. Bath first. It's a cardinal rule to bathe every day. I can make a necklace whenever. Except if it ends up killing Cyan. But that's a risk I just have to take. I can't risk breaking a cardinal rule.
  Chiharu undressed and started the shower. She was starting early so the bathtub was empty, so she started filling the tub up too. With five people to bathe she wasn't really starting that early. It was baths as soon as everyone got home until bedtime, really, in the Sakai family.
  She had thought about bringing Cyan along and talking to him there. But Cyan had seemed really strict about not looking at naked girls. She wasn't sure she cared. She'd allow herself one or two love based flings with boys when she was older. They weren't to last over a year. That was a rule. If she didn't have any sex before she married, her husband might think she was weird. But if she had too much, he would think she was untrustworthy. Since getting a graduate degree took forever, that meant marriage at 30. She would meet guys she liked before then, and they could fill her quota, and keep her from being too lonely. But they weren't the guy because the guy would have a graduate degree and a good job when they met. You couldn't trust anyone who didn't have their own lives together. If they couldn't take care of themselves, how could they take care of you, or your children? How did you know they had enough self control to not cheat on you, or not hit you, when they didn't have any self control in other fields? If they weren't disciplined enough to get a graduate degree and a good job, they couldn't be trusted at anything. She would do her part, and that meant she could demand her husband do the same.
  But it was a far stretch to include a wyrd as one of her 'one or two' flings. She doubted she could think of him that way, or he could think of her that way. He was a boy though. And since he could use magic, there was no telling what form he could eventually take. Talking to a boy nude was definitely forbidden territory. It was a tough call. But Cyan thought it was inappropriate so she would defer to him. She was already attracted to his mind, after all. But that could just be the novelty of him having an entire new world to describe. But it could also be how calmly he lays things out. He's just so reasonable. It was easy talking to him. She didn't have to force herself to get along with Cyan. They got along from the very start.
  Soaking in the tub, her stomach growled and reminded her dinner was probably being served. She kept her hair a medium length, because it blended in. Not too short or too long. It was also perfect for their trio. Kotone's was long and beautiful, and she wore it to be as beautiful as it could be, with ribbons or hair clips or twin tails or whatever occurred to her for that day. Shiori's was short like a boy's. Her face was shaped like a girl's though, heart shaped and wide eyed. No one mistook her for a boy, thank goodness. So I obviously have to have medium length hair to complete the symmetry.
  She got out and got dressed, sighing at her ordinary body. That was okay. She was smart. She'd still fetch for a lot on the market. She ate mechanically, saying "Itadakimasu" first, telling her parents an edited version of her day -- "We went swimming. Shiori was showing everyone she could do every stroke. Only she couldn't do the butterfly at all and I kept calling her a terrible butterfly. It was great."
  "Someday you'll tease Rin too much." Father warned her.
  "No I won't, because I can tell when her face is laughing and when it's crying. I pull back if I think she'll cry. I push home when it starts to laugh." Chiharu smiled. Shiori was so transparent. Like a perfectly shined crystal. Those wide eyes transmitted all of her emotions instantly and without fail.
  "Someday." Father shook his head and continued with his meal. Chiharu smiled. Father just wanted her to mess up at something. That was okay. Maybe she should, just to please him. Something small. It must be tough having a perfect daughter and having nothing to do because she never needed to be raised.
  "Chiharu's a bully. Chiharu's a bully." Saki chimed in.
  "That's right, I'm a bully. So watch out!" Chiharu tapped Saki on the forehead. Saki laughed. She was three and she just wanted attention. Any attention would do. Sisters were fun sometimes.
  Then dinner was over and Chiharu had to get back to her homework. Chiharu yawned. Plus I have to make that necklace. Oh no. Would Cyan object to being worn? He'd call it sinful or something. So she'd make it a short necklace. It would rest right beneath the collar of her shirt. He couldn't object to that. She didn't want it just sitting around visible, even as pretend jewelry. Someone would take an interest in it. Or else someone would recognize it, recognize him. If there were three wyrds, there would be more. Not all of them would necessarily share the same goals. There was no point advertising to the world that she was a Choice Giver. One of only fifty in a sea of seven billion humans.
  Once Chiharu was safely back in her room, she asked about the news reports of magic. Cyan had laughed about the fish and bread guy. "Yes, it's all true. Those are wyrds. He's using magic. He's a Choice Giver, clearly. I mean, he goes around healing the sick and feeding the hungry now that he has this power. That's wonderful."
  "I'm not going on a pilgrimage to India to heal the sick." Chiharu stated.
  "Everyone's magic is different anyway. It fits your personality. I don't think your personality is meant for healing." Cyan said.
  "What's that supposed to mean?" Chiharu said.
  "It just means your personality isn't suited for healing sick strangers." Cyan said.
  "I could heal sick strangers if I wanted to." Chiharu pouted. "But I don't want to. That's the difference. You're saying I couldn't do it at all."
  "People can't do what they don't want to do." Cyan said.
  "They could if they had to do it anyway." Chiharu replied.
  "But no one has to do anything." Cyan said.
  "Let me rephrase that. They could if they were being tortured or threatened or the whole world was at stake or something, such that they suddenly wanted to do it even when they normally didn't want to do it." Chiharu explained.
  "If you don't normally want to use magic like his, then the magic we'll manifest won't be like his. And once it's manifested, it can't be changed. Maybe developed, enhanced or something. But it can't just be changed to something else." Cyan said.
  "You can grant me magic powers?" Chiharu's eyes widened. "Like that fish and loaves boy?"
  "Not like his magic powers. But magic powers, yes. We just need to form a contract." Cyan said.
  "I won't marry you unless you have a graduate degree, a high paying job, and some way to make human kids with me." Chiharu informed him brusquely.
  "Not that contract. A magical contract. Wyrds can make one contract, once. Once we're together, it is for life. But I won't get in the way of your family or friends." Cyan said.
  "Thanks." Chiharu smiled. He was so understanding. "So what are the rules of the contract? I have to go create choices, like fish and loaves boy, a certain quota every month, and in return I get magic powers? But if I ever fail you grow a giant dragon head and eat me?"
  "You are so dark." Cyan laughed.
  "Just practical. You're an unknown alien sounding eerily similar to the devil right now." Chiharu replied.
  "It's simple. You agree to bind me to you. Then I serve you for life and you can use whatever magic we manifest as you please. I can yell at you and call you names, but, in the end the magic is yours and, well, am yours. From then on you own me, and I move as you direct." Cyan said.
  "So what's the catch? When do you sprout a dragon's head?" Chiharu said.
  "There's no catch. We came here to serve you. You're a Choice Giver. That's what qualified you for my loyalty. You earned it already. I just want to help. I won't live forever. The universe I come from will run out of magic in two hundred years. But I can help Choice Givers until one or the other of us dies, and keep seeing a beautiful world here, every time I scry. That's my reward. It would be my honor to serve you." Cyan said.
  "Your tongue is too smooth. I told you, I won't marry you unless --" Chiharu started.
  "We'll work on that part later. For now will you agree to a magical contract with me?" Cyan quickly stopped her.
  "Not tonight. I'm tired and you've been seducing me. Maybe tomorrow, when my head is clear, and I've talked to the others. Now hold still, I'm attaching a necklace to you."
  That was the first night she'd slept with a boy. Just slept. It's not like a small gem could do anything. But it was warm where it rested.
* * *
  Chiharu Sakai woke up after a wonderfully long sleep. She hadn't made it to 10 p.m. But that was okay because she hadn't woken up too early either. She changed into her school uniform and put on her white beret cap at a slightly tilted angle. Then she went downstairs and ate some eggs for breakfast. Mother had already prepared Chiharu's bento. Mother was sweet. Determined to be the perfect mother. She was a good role model. She'd won at life.
  It didn't take long to put on her shoes, brush her hair, and go out the door. She rode the bus most of the way to school, so she couldn't walk there with Kotone and Shiori. That was okay. She got to play softball with Shiori, which left Kotone out. Now if she could just find something to do with Kotone and leave Shiori out, the symmetry would be complete. But she didn't want to leave Shiori out. She liked being with Shiori. I guess some symmetries were never meant to be.
  Today's mission was easy. Take notes, attend lessons, then get to the roof where they could eat lunch. She would tell them about magical contracts, and Kotone would tell them if she'd found Magnolia or not, and whether they got along. Then she'd ask them if they all wanted to become magical Choice Givers together. Then. . .then she'd decide if she wanted to become a magical Choice Giver on her own, if they said no. That was a thought for after lunch.
  The lessons were tedious, and she kept lifting her hand to touch her neck and feel if Cyan was still there. That was a bad habit. She was supposed to be concealing him, not drawing a bull's eye around the fact that she was wearing "something suspicious." But she kept checking anyway, impatient for the lunch hour.
  The lunch hour never came. Instead, Chiharu heard a terrifying roar at the gates of her school. It was in English. It was simple enough that Chiharu could understand it perfectly.
  "I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT, CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!" The man was wearing some sort of ridiculous tentacled tree. But the tentacle tree wasn't completely ridiculous. It tore the gate off their school grounds in a couple seconds.
  "Cyan! What is this?" Chiharu screamed, completely oblivious to her classmates. They were screaming. For that matter, she was screaming. She was terrified.
  "I don't know!" Cyan shouted over the voices of the classroom. "It's a magical contract, but. . .give me a second to scry. . .that man's a Dead Ender! Something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong!" Cyan was blinking right through her school uniform with agitation.
  "You couldn't tell that part from the guy screaming his lungs out and tearing our school down with a tentacle tree?" Chiharu shouted at him.
  "Choice Givers can be eccentric! Actually, they're almost certain to be eccentric, since you're only one in one hundred forty million a person." Cyan defended himself.
  "I am not eccentric." Chiharu said, this time more calmly. The argument was short-circuited by another shout from outside:
  "I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!"
  "What do I do to form a contract with you?" Chiharu made her decision.
  "Say, "Via tu lusches, Cyan."" Cyan said.
  "Via tu lusches, Cyan." Chiharu said without a second of hesitation. That man was coming for her. He was coming for her Kotone. He was coming for her Shiori. He could not have them. They belonged to her. She felt a little warm, but nothing happened. A rising tide of panic formed in her belly.
  "Nothing's happening! Give me magic! We have to fight him!" Chiharu was trying to keep her voice down. The teacher was trying to herd them somewhere, follow some sort of drill. Come to think of it, she had to get away from everyone else, unless she wanted the world to know she was a magical girl. Chiharu acted like she was following everyone else where the teacher pointed. But the halls were crowded with scared girls and boys, and it was easy to duck into the nearest bathroom.
  "Imagine the strongest weapon and armor you can. Something you can wear and carry. Not like a tank or something. Then repeat after me, "Coi, Cyan!"
  Chiharu didn't waste much time. Tentacle man was breaking into the school. Strong. She could do strong. "Coi, Cyan!" And then the magic exploded throughout her entire body. Out of nowhere, her power suit had appeared. There was a little afterimage of sparkles, and then the world was normal again. She checked her gun. Two handed, a rifle instead of a pistol, light enough for her to wield, and yep: "Laser Mark 7,000" written on the side. Her imagination could embrace quite a lot.
  "Where did this come from?" Chiharu marveled.
  "Hyperspace. I used magic to fold it in. Once we win we can use magic to fold it back away." Cyan explained, the gem had a prominent place in the middle of her chest, flaring a brilliant blue light which reflected off of flexible blue carbon armor. Well, a brilliant cyan to be precise. Cyan wouldn't like it if she called her outfit blue. This power suit was designed to let her punch through walls, jump over buildings, stop bullets, and anything else she could think of in a short time. Most importantly, it had a visor to protect her identity.
  "Chiharu, have you ever fought anyone in your life before?" Cyan asked.
  "Of course not. I'm a Japanese school girl." Chiharu was running down the stairs anyway, running to where she had seen George Flint enter.
  "That suit isn't all of your magic. I don't know what it is. It manifests based on your personality. If you really want a certain magic to happen, in this fight, that's probably the magic you came with. Seize on any stray idea. Will it. If it's fated, the magic will happen!"
  "I'm going to blast him with this gun before he even sees me." Chiharu said fervently.
  "He has magic too. He isn't just a suit either!" Cyan was terrified for her. She could somehow tell better, now that he was embedded in her suit. He hadn't expected this at all. Which was funny, because she had. At least a little. Something like this. Not all wyrds would be the same. Just like not all people were the same. Cyan was naive. That was so sweet of him.
  "If he has magic too, I'll just counter it." She reassured him. She could hear his English roars as they got closer.
  "That's it! Seize on it. That's our magic. If he casts anything, counter it. It will happen. It has to happen." Cyan said.
  "Roger." Chiharu said. But it wouldn't come to that. He was within sight now. She leveled her laser rifle and blasted him.
  It bounced off of something. The man was shining with green light. He turned around and roared. She blasted him again. The laser bounced off.
  "I'VE FOUND A CHOICE GIVER! DIE, CHOICE GIVER!"
  Chiharu screamed at her wyrd. "IS MY GUN ON SAFETY MODE OR SOMETHING?"
  "It's your gun! You imagined it!" Cyan yelled back.
  "SOLAR FLARE." George Flint yelled, and a superhot plasma was shooting towards her.
  "Counter!" Chiharu held up her left hand, telling the spell to stop. The plasma evaporated well before it reached her.
  "TSUNAMI." And now the entire hallway was filling up with water.
  "Counter!" The water was gone. But she'd been distracted. He'd been running at her with all those wriggling leafy tentacles and they'd extended well in front of him. They trapped her, and they were pulling her in.
  She blasted him with her rifle. It bounced off his green light. This time she concentrated herself. She had one shot at this.
  "Counter!" She pointed at the barrier she knew had to be there, and held down the trigger of her rifle. The beam blew a hole right through him. George roared and threw her away from him with all his tentacular force.
  She slammed into the hallway wall. No. She slammed right through the hallway wall. Now she was rolling across the softball grounds outside. It hurtsI'm going to die.
  "He's regenerating!" Cyan yelled at her.
  Oh great. My power suit can't do that. This guy was like the most twisted version of an ever growing forest she had ever seen. That could shoot solar flares. Or any sort of natural disaster he could imagine. How cute. Goes with the tree suit.
* * *
  When Kotone Nakano woke up, Magnolia was waiting timidly on her windowsill. Kotone smiled at her and opened the window. It was nice outside, the summer heat hadn't really clamped down with the sun having only just risen.
  "I hear your name is Magnolia. Pleased to meet you, I'm Kotone Nakano. I'll be in your care from here on." Kotone bowed almost ninety degrees.
  Magnolia dipped down and then back up, the only bow she could make. "Um, what do I say in situations like this? I don't know the ceremony."
  Kotone smiled and straightened back up. "You say, "Likewise, please take good care of me.""
  "Likewise, please take good care of me." Magnolia said.
  "You're a girl like me, right? So I can change in front of you?" Kotone asked.
  "Yes." Magnolia replied.
  "Already we have an advantage over the others." Kotone said happily. She got out of her pajamas and dressed into her school uniform. Then she stood in front of her mirror and brushed all the tangles out of her hair that had developed while she slept. "They say you picked me because my potentialities were the most beautiful."
  "To me they were." Magnolia agreed.
  "Thank you. It's nice of you to think that. But I'm nothing special. No matter how long I think about it, I don't notice anything particularly grand I could do." Kotone had gone over what she would say all last evening while Awesome was out searching for her. She had fallen behind the others at making friends with their wyrds, so now she had to be twice as fast. When they met today at lunch, she'd show the other girls that the Kotone-Magnolia pair was the best.
  "It's not what you do. A Choice Giver is someone who, if followed or emulated, allows for infinite possibilities. It's someone who breaks through dead ends like they aren't even there and opens up paths that everyone had thought were closed. It's like they aren't bound by fate. Just being who you are is enough." Magnolia reassured her.
  "Hmmm. I still don't get it." Kotone pulled out a hair tie and deftly gathered up half of her hair into a left pigtail, flipping and reflipping the band until the hair was firmly in place. Then she got out her second hair tie and pulled the rest into her right pigtail, flipping and reflipping. She looked carefully into the mirror. The twin tails looked symmetrical. Then she took a hair clip with a pink heart on it and brushed all of her bangs to her left side, clipping the hair in one place and out of her eyes for the rest of the day. "A dead end is a big deal. The stagnation or extinction of the planet. To avert that, I would have to do something equally big ."
  "Dead ends never happen while you live, so you don't have to stop them. You're thinking like the Dead Enders have already won and you have to go wrest the future back from them. The future is in your hands, they have to wrest it away from you." Magnolia said.
  "But nothing's in my hands. When I'm 20 I get to vote, one vote in a country of a hundred million. Besides, Japan has only ever had one competent party, the LDP, and it's been running the country for the last seventy years. There's really nothing to vote over." Kotone got her school bag and opened it up. "In you go. Let's get breakfast and then wait outside for Shiori. Err, Rin to you." Magnolia flew in.
  I could ask her to call me Kotone. But that would be artificial. We only just met this morning. It has to be real when she calls my name, or it's meaningless. We would just feel awkward, like we're playing the roles of good friends. But, she does think the world of me. But based on some superpower of hers to see what no one else can. Does she like me like a human, because she feels warm inside when I'm around? Or are the two paths to liking equally valid? Should I look down on how they find who they like and why they value people? But this is the only way I know how to make friends. And Magnolia isn't anything to me. A strange and frightening kidnapper who's stolen my normal life and thrown me into a duty I never asked for. Now I have to think about living up to my station as a Choice Giver all day, wondering if maybe I've fallen short and let one of the 'lights of the world' fade out. Ugh. I'm just a thirteen year old girl.
  Kotone walked down the stairs and saw her family already down before her. "Good morning papa. Good morning mama. Good morning brother."
  "Good morning." They all replied warmly to her. See? It was simple. You knew people liked you if they felt warm inside. Then you could be kind to them, and rely on them, and know they would never hurt you or use you. This was much better and more reliable than scrying. Which had obviously just chosen the wrong girls.
  Kotone packed her bento into her school bag that had been left out for her, then sat down at the table and broke open a pair of chopsticks. "Itadakimasu." Rice, fish, and some flavored vegetables, each in their own plate, were all efficiently transferred from the table to her stomach.
  "Then, I'm off." Her brother called out, already in high school. He was as handsome as she was pretty, which let him project confidence, which meant he was always surrounded by friends.
  "Have a safe trip." Kotone and her parents all said. Then it was her turn.
  "I'll go wait for Shiori outside." Kotone smiled. "I'm off."
  "Have a safe trip." Her parents replied, and she was pulling on her school uniform shoes and out the door.
  "I don't know what this voting business is about, but it has nothing to do with creating possibilities." Magnolia replied now that they were out of range of being overheard.
  "In Japan, we collectively decide on our collective future. Everyone gets one vote to say what the laws of the country should be. How we should treat each other and the outside world. The party with the most votes takes over and runs the country for a few years. Then it all starts over." Kotone explained.
  "That's. . .interesting." Magnolia blinked a few times, thinking about it. "The paths don't seem to care who wins these votes though. No politicians are Choice Givers, but you three are."
  "Exactly, which must be why you're wrong. If you wanted to find a way to change the future, you'd definitely go find the prime minister. Then you could tell him, 'pass this law, veto this one.' And with your scrying, you would always know which laws would succeed." Kotone said.
  "Scrying isn't specific like that. We don't know the impact of people's choices." Magnolia said.
  "You're telling me scrying can only tell you one thing, that certain people are special. But without the context that shows how we are special or why we are special, how am I supposed to act in the special way you want from me? Just tell me what to do." Kotone pleaded.
  "You've got it all wrong. A Choice Giver is someone who, if followed or emulated, leads to infinite possibilities. You're still a Choice Giver even if no one follows or emulates you. But I want to follow you, because you're the most beautiful Choice Giver I saw. So you at least have helped me escape my dead end. You're doing plenty. It's up to others if they want to be helped by you. You give them a choice, that's all you ever had to do." Magnolia explained again.
  "If I had power, I could give people choices. Like, vote for me and I'll ban cars. Then people would suddenly have the option to ban cars, a new choice. But if I say, "follow me and I can't do anything for you, or change anything." I'll just look stupid! Follow me where? To school?" Kotone laughed.
  "Most choices that matter are deep inside your heart. Why you live the way you do, who you care about, what makes you happy, how you respond to the pressures and pleasures of the outside world. Everyone has an answer, a way of life, for all of these questions, before the first time they vote on cars or not. It's those mysterious questions that lift or sink civilizations, species, Life. The world balances upon the deep mysteries of the heart, and how you, you and your friends, answer them. The rest is a distraction, an illusion. It won't matter in the least, in deep time, what decision was made." Magnolia lectured.
  "But I'm not religious either. I wouldn't know where to start. Of course I hope gods are watching over us. Prayers make me feel better. Temples are pretty. But I've never meditated on deep mysteries or felt a divine light of enlightenment enter through my head and fill all my chakras. It's just silliness." Kotone protested.
  "Nevertheless, every second your heart beats, it's providing answers to the deep questions. How should I feel? What should I say? How do I explain this? How do I fit this into my view of the world? Is this right? Can I live with myself like this?" A Choice Giver is answering the toughest questions, almost as quickly as light is streaming into your eyes and showing you the outside world, you're generating answers to that outside world, pushing back at it, interpreting it, taming it, every second of your life. And for some reason, your answers don't lead to a dead end. They aren't the answers of a Dead Ender. They lead somewhere brilliant. Somewhere beautiful. Like a waterfall whose stream splits, and falls, and those streams split again, and fall, and the cliff splits the river again, and it falls, and you just zoom back and back and the waters keep pouring and sparkling against the sun and the river just keeps falling and falling because the mountain's height is beyond your imagination."
  "Do you think my answers are better than yours? Look at how well thought out all your words are. You're way ahead of me." Kotone said.
  "I know your answers are better than mine." Magnolia said. Kotone blushed. Magnolia, at least, thought her feelings for Kotone were real. Magnolia was giving her the reverence and adoration due to a Dalai Lama or something, even though she hadn't said one wise phrase yet. All I can do is accept her feelings or reject them. It's painful to have your feelings rejected, so all I can do is accept them, and treasure them.
  "Thank you." Kotone whispered. "I'll try my best to be a Choice Giver so you can keep seeing your beautiful waterfalls."
  "Even if you didn't try your best, you'd be a beautiful Choice Giver." Magnolia blinked encouragingly.
  "I'll try my best anyway. I feel like I should do something now that I know." Kotone insisted, this time with more confidence. Magnolia's explanation had made sense. She could do that; Answer the deep questions of her heart. Those answers were just instincts. They came easily, unbidden, whenever she wanted them. Follow the warmth, avoid pain. I could answer any question in a snap like that.
  "Kotone!" Shiori waved.
  "Shiori!" Kotone waved back. She smiled with her entire face. Shiori always made you feel excited. Shiori ran the rest of the way to her side, then they walked in stride side by side. Kotone checked to see if her hat was in place, and then held her bag demurely in front of her with both her arms V-ing to a point. Shiori was just swinging it back and forth with one hand.
  "I love your hair!" Shiori exclaimed.
  "I like it this way. It looks looser and less strict than braids or gathering all of your hair tightly back into a bun or a ponytail. That kind of hair is formidable. Like, "I can bully my hair and I can bully you too!"" Kotone put on an angry face.
  Shiori laughed. "I know I know! Like teachers, and old people, they wear their hair like that's what they want to do to you next! Twist you into a knot or roll you into a ball and kick you down the whole street!"
  "But my hair, I want to make a deal with it. Stay out of my eyes, and I'll still let you fall forward across my face. Stay off my neck, and I'll let you flow down my back in loose streams in twin tails. "Look how well I get along with my hair. I could get along with you too." That's what my heart hairpin is saying." Kotone bragged.
  "I wish I could dress up my hair." Shiori said.
  "You could grow it out. I could try all sorts of styles on you, and then teach you how to do one you like. We could spend all day in front of a mirror." Kotone enthused.
  "No, no. I have softball, and Taekwondo. Hair just gets in the way. It's too much of a bother." Shiori sighed.
  "There are plenty of softball girls with long hair." Kotone pointed out.
  "Yes, but they're all secretly suffering inside and envying me, since I can run and jump and twirl and nothing ever gets out of place or in my way." Shiori nodded assuredly.
  Kotone smiled. Shiori did like twirling around, like yesterday at lunch. Kotone tried it out, raising her bag with her arms and spinning so her hair went sideways and smacked her in her face when she stopped. "It's. . .decidedly frustrating, I'll admit." Kotone said, checking each of her pig tails to see if they were flowing symmetrically down her back again. You didn't want your hair plastered to your back, that was icky. It had to float, creating a shadow.
  "HaHaHa, that was great, Kotone! Do it again!" Shiori asked with her big wide eyes.
  "Only if you spin with me. From here to that tree, no matter how many people are watching." Kotone negotiated, grinning.
  "Okay. Commence spinning on three. 1, 2, 3." Shiori swirled forward.
  "It's not a race!" Kotone called out, holding out her arms and pivoting her way forward. This was fun, her skirt was spreading out like a ball gown, and she was the center of attention for everyone on the street.
  "I win!" Shiori touched the tree. With her Taekwondo training, she didn't look dizzy at all, just standing with her center of gravity as balanced as ever.
  "Like I said, it's not a race!" Kotone finished by touching the tree. The world was spinning just fine for her. But that was a fun feeling so long as you didn't fall over. She instinctively started stroking her hair back into place again.
  "Let's talk to the gems again this lunch period. Remember when Chiharu explained how safe we were, and Awesome said, 'That's not exactly true.' I want to know why they think we aren't safe." Shiori said.
  "Just ask Awesome now, he's right here right?" Kotone suggested.
  "He only came back this morning after he found Magnolia. And we may as well wait until everyone's together. That Chiharu. She took the smartest and nicest gem for herself. I want to trade. Do you think she'll trade?" Shiori sounded hopeful.
  "If you ask nicely." Kotone smiled. Smartest and nicest? That was clearly Magnolia. She explained things in a way I can understand. Cyan just went on and on.
  "No! She won't, even then. She's evil. She clamped onto him the moment he appeared." Shiori said.
  "That does sound very evil." Kotone agreed, smiling.
  "Maybe she'll share Cyan." Shiori suggested.
  "Awesome would be lonely." Kotone said.
  ". . .you're right. I'm sorry Awesome. I won't leave you alone. I'll give you to Chiharu when I borrow Cyan." Shiori nodded as though it had all been decided.
  Awesome grumbled something.
  "What was that?" Shiori asked with a dangerous edge.
  "Nothing." Awesome said brusquely.
  "Hmph! After I was so thoughtful of you." Shiori stuck out her tongue at her bag.
  Kotone laughed. Everyone had found their own balance with their wyrd. She hoped she could get along well with Magnolia. White was a prettier color anyway. Her wyrd looked like a pearl.
  Shiori and Kotone didn't have the same class. They didn't share a class with Chiharu either. Just one of those vagaries of fate. But that was okay because they always had lunch together, and Chiharu would help them study after school whenever they asked. They'd go to the library and then start laughing about stuff until the librarian always had to come over and quiet them down.
  Kotone hugged Shiori tight. "I'll see you at lunch then." Then she carefully readjusted her hair so it all flowed straight and evenly into one of her two twin tails. Hugs, like everything, always disrupted your hair. It was a running battle.
  
  Once Kotone stepped into her classroom, she set aside all of the business with their wyrd friends and concentrated on her studies. She tapped her mechanical pencil on her lips whenever she sat still listening to the lectures. People could look at her lips all they wanted, if it drew attention to them. It was just a habit though. Something to do.
  Teachers came and went, and it was all Kotone could do to keep up with them. But she felt a little superior in the back of her head. You all can teach me the answers to the questions that don't matter. But I could teach all of you the answers to the questions that do matter. Teachers thought they were so great. But what's so great about triangles? The questions that civilizations teeter on top of, the questions that teeter on top of an isosceles triangle, ready to fall to the left hand of God, where he says, "Into the fire with you, I shall see you no longer!" or the right hand of God, where he says, "You are welcome to me, come into the fields of paradise." She was the teacher of those sorts of answers. But so far she only had one answer. Follow the warmth. She wasn't sure she could turn that into a useful instruction manual. Kotone thought about standing up in front of her class and writing out "1) Follow the warmth!" in bold letters across the chalkboard. Then she'd turn and lean over, staring each of them in the eye.
  "I have one lesson in life. Follow the warmth! That is all. Dismissed!" Kotone laughed out loud at the mental picture.
  "Nakano, do you have something to add?" The teacher gave her a mean look.
  "Yes, teacher. Please, everyone, follow the warmth." Then she blushed furiously because she'd really gone and done it. But I promised to be the best Choice Giver I could to Magnolia. And I felt in my heart that's the answer.
  The whole class broke into laughter. "What is that? Follow the warmth?"
  "Class! Whenever we are all ready?" The teacher just looked at them until they all quieted down again, only now everyone in class was smiling, trying not to giggle.
  "Good. Now, you can calculate the remaining two lengths of a triangle when you know one length and the angles on each of its ends--"
  Kotone sighed in relief, slowly emerging from her turtle of arms over her head. I did it Magnolia. It wasn't even that bad. Maybe one or two of them will think it over all day, and find something. Now she just had to wait for lunch hour and show off to her friends how close she'd gotten with her wyrd in just one day. She started late but she felt that she had to be the furthest ahead at Choice Giving now.
  Only, lunch hour never came.
  "I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT, CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!" The roar came out of nowhere. She couldn't make heads or tails of it. Who on Earth? Kotone rushed to the window. It was a crazy monster. It was like a cosplayer who had dressed up as a tree, then changed his mind and dressed up as an octopus, and then decided to just wear both outfits at once.
  "Do you know what he just said?" Kotone whispered to Magnolia.
  "Yes, with magic, I can understand all human languages. It. . .well, he says he's come to kill you." Magnolia blinked worriedly.
  "Are you kidding me?" Kotone's voice went higher and higher. "What are we going to do?"
  "We should run away. He found us somehow, but look, he doesn't know exactly where we are. Let's run away, everyone in this school is in danger." Magnolia's voice was pretty high too.
  "I can't run away without Shiori and Chiharu!" Kotone whispered. "You said you would protect us! Start protecting!"
  "But for that, we would need a contract. And even then there's no guarantee - -" Magnolia was interrupted by another roar.
"I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!"
  "I don't care! At this rate someone's going to die!" The teachers were herding them into some 'safe place' like in the drills. But no one was safe from octopus tree monsters. They weren't like earthquakes or something. Kotone ran away from her teacher and all the teachers and up to the roof. She hoped the others would think to meet up with her here. But when she arrived, she was alone. A stab of panic shot up her insides. Calm down. Everyone's alive.
  "A contract is for life Nakano. Do you want me to be with you always?" Magnolia asked in a rush.
  "Yes! And call me Kotone!" They were friends now. They would just have to be.
  "Repeat after me, Via tu lusches, Magnolia." Magnolia said.
  "Repeat after me, Via tu lusches, Magnolia." Kotone rushed. She felt a bubble of warmth settle over her. But, the tree beast had already torn a hole into the school. It would be a massacre!
  "So? Now what?" Kotone rushed. "What's the next line?"
  "Imagine the strongest weapon and armor you can. Imagine the magic that's just for you. Keep that image in your head, and then say, "Coi, Magnolia!"" Magnolia said.
  The strongest weapon and armor? "I thought you said you would protect me!" Kotone wailed.
  "This is protecting you! I'm giving you my magic!" Magnolia protested.
  "I'VE FOUND A CHOICE GIVER! DIE, CHOICE GIVER!" Another meaningless roar in English. But she thought she knew what it meant, in her bones. She had to do this.
  Kotone took a deep breath and imagined the strongest possible warrior. "Magical, miracle, Coi, Magnolia!" Kotone felt magic exploding through her body, down every nerve, until it shined all around her. She was suddenly in a white dress with light blue petticoats. Magnolia was a gem embedded in her right gown glove. She was holding a pink rod with a heart in a circle and wings spreading to either side. A big red ribbon was covering her chest, and a blue belt with a white heart in the middle circled her waist. Her twin tails had become an impossible shade of pink.
  "What on Earth is this?" Magnolia was shining the brightest Kotone had ever seen her.
  "I'm a magical girl! I'm really, really, a magical girl!" Little wings sprouted on her boots and she floated five feet into the sky. She laughed exultantly. "Oh Magnolia, I could kiss you. Do you know how many years I dreamed of this?"
  And then there was an explosion and someone was flying through a wall and rolling across the softball grounds. It looked like a power suit from Bubblegum Crisis, only without the stupid high heels or any curves. And about half as tall, since it was built for a little girl. The suit was all in blue.
  "Cyan!" Magnolia cried out.
  "Chiharu!" Kotone realized at the same time. The tree monster was walking out of the hole, closing in on Chiharu. Chiharu couldn't move.
  "I won't let you!" Kotone shouted, and then she imagined fire sprouting out of her wand. Nothing happened. Kotone sat looking at her wand, stunned. "Magnolia, tell me the lines, what's a wyrd line for fire?"
  "It's not like that! The magic is yours, I'm just a conduit. That isn't the magic you manifested." Magnolia said. "Think of a spell that comes naturally, something that fits."
  "But fire was what came to my mind first!" Kotone protested.
  "No, fire is what you reasoned out you could cast based on all of your experience with magical girls. You justthought it should be natural. You didn't feel it was natural." Magnolia kept blinking. The stupid tree was taking its time, but softball fields were only so big.
  "Ice!" She waved her wand. Nothing.
  "Water!" She waved her wand. Nothing.
  "Thunder!" She waved her wand. Nothing.
  "Chiharu's going to die!" Kotone wailed.
  "Keep trying! Seize on a hunch! Think freely, not based on examples!"
  That was when Shiori appeared, blazing through the wall of the school in an explosion like a comet towards her foe.
* * *
  When Shiori Rin woke up, Awesome had already returned in the night. She hit the alarm clock to turn it off, then grabbed her pillow and placed it carefully on top of him.
  "What are you doing?" Awesome blinked.
  Shiori yipped. "You were awake?"
  "After the awful racket your alarm clock made." Awesome said.
  "Well just stay under that and don't look. I'm on to you. Pervert." Shiori sat up and rubbed her eyes. Clothes. Then brush my teeth. Then breakfast. Did I pack my swimsuit? Oh yeah, I did that two days ago.
  "I keep telling you, I'm a wyrd." Awesome protested from under the pillow.
  "You're a boy, and all boys only think of one thing." Shiori got her school uniform shirt on and started buttoning it up, feeling a bit safer.
  "Do you cover your dog's eyes too?" Awesome asked.
  "That's different. Melody isn't sentient. For that matter, Melody's a girl." Shiori sniffed at the idea of Awesome being remotely as cool or good or trustworthy as her dog.
  "I'm attracted to Wyrds. I love Magnolia!" Awesome said.
  "Quiet, you're lucky I let you stay in my room." Shiori pulled on her skirt, it had buttons running up the left side that turned it from just a strip of cloth into a properly snug piece of clothing, and those took time too. So Awesome loves Magnolia, hmmm? I wonder if he's told her. I wonder if I can blackmail him by threatening to tell her? The possibilities were endless.
  "I fought my way through six security guards, jumped through a glass window, and turned myself into a tiny gem by folding down a hyperdimensional tube just so I could protect you, and I'm lucky I can stay?" Awesome spluttered.
  "I didn't ask you to jump through a glass window or fold yourself into a ball for me, so don't think I'm grateful." Shiori snipped. "And Chiharu already told you, we're in Japan. We're perfectly safe."
  Awesome fell silent.
  "Oh, don't sulk. You can come out now." Shiori relented, brushing her hair in the mirror until at least everything lay flat and straight.
  "Well, what do you think?" Shiori held her hat on with one hand and spun around.
  "Is that a trick question?" Awesome asked.
  "Pervert, what were you thinking? You don't understand a woman's heart." Shiori crossed her arms and gave him a judgmental glare.
  "It looks good on you." Awesome tried.
  "Too late. You'll never get Magnolia like that. Into the bag with you." Awesome let out a long, mournful blink.
  "I didn't think I'd be babysitting."
  "What was that?" Shiori asked.
  "Nothing!" Awesome jumped into her bag. He was such a child.
  Shiori ran down the stairs by twos. "Good morning Daddy. Good morning Mother."
  "Good morning Shiori." Her parents replied. Then it was all business. She said "Itadakimasu," ate her toast and eggs, packed her bento her mother had made for her, and put on her school dress shoes, leaving the indoor slippers at the entrance for when she got home.
  "I'm off. Love you!"
  "Have a safe trip." Her parents replied. Shiori set off at a run. Her softball coach wanted them to run everywhere. Besides, Kotone will be waiting for me. The run would have only taken a few minutes, but she had to say hi to Mrs. Aede, because she was outside tending her flowers. And then she had to pet a cute dog an older man was giving a morning walk. But when she saw Kotone waiting like a porcelain doll, her arms holding her bag in front of her, her hair carefully split into twin tails and her hat perching precariously on top, she rushed to join her.
  "Kotone!" Shiori waved.
  The trip to school had been fun. Kotone had suggested the dumbest game. She never cared what people thought of her, she made them respect her, respect what she was doing, just by her own projected confidence. Like she was in control and everybody was doing this, and really the rest of the school children were out of place for not spinning their way to school. But Awesome had started another fight. Mumbling about how he'd like to trade her. As though Cyan wouldn't leap at the chance to be her wyrd. She hoped they went swimming again today. She wanted to work on her butterfly stroke. It was so hard. You had to remember so many different moving parts, and it was exhausting too.
  Shiori tried to concentrate on taking notes. But she ended up doodling instead of doing the math. She didn't understand any of it anyway. Chiharu could explain it to her in a way she'd understand, one on one, after school. She grinned and started drawing Awesome with funny faces, saying, "Yes mistress, I'm sorry mistress." She was a little anxious though. Awesome still thought they were in danger, but there was no apparent reason why. She had to sort that out during lunch. A shame Awesome had to spend all yesterday just finding Magnolia. Well, to be fair, she had spent all that night doing homework and wouldn't have had any time to ask Awesome about it anyway. She bet Chiharu had done all her homework in thirty minutes. Stupid Chiharu.
  But lunch hour never came.
  "I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!" Some crazy guy was yelling at the top of his lungs at the school gate.
  All Shiori could catch was 'Kill', because it sounded just like korosu, the Japanese word for kill. And George was obviously his name, since it was an English name. But when she looked outside to see the guy ripping off their metal guard-rails like they were paper, she thought she had it figured out. It's magic, so it has to do with me. Stupid Awesome, what have you gotten us into?
  "Rin, this is bad." Awesome said from her bag. Her entire classroom was in an uproar, and the teacher was trying to shout over all of their heads too. "That guy's a Dead Ender. A wyrd has made a contract with a Dead Ender! He's coming to kill you."
  "I thought you wyrds were on our side!" Shiori yelled at him.
  "I. . .there was a leak. . .someone else got a hold of the folding device plans. This is obviously their work. I'm from the government. Well, except, I came on my own without the government's permission. These guys are just, they're just, terrorists."
  
  "I AM GEORGE FLINT. KILL THE CHOICE GIVERS, KILL THE WORLD. COME OUT CHOICE GIVERS. I AM GEORGE FLINT!"
  "We need to fight him. We've gotten everyone in the school involved. Give me a tree suit like his and I'll go out there." Shiori nodded to herself. She wasn't afraid. It was the helpless children around her who were afraid. I'm strong. I've been training for this all my life. And I have Awesome at my side.
  "You have to make a contract with me first." Awesome said.
  "What's a contract?" Shiori asked. The tree man was bursting his way into the school through a wall. She was following the traffic of the other students, talking as quietly as possible despite the hurried clip in her voice.
  "We agree to be with each other until death does us part. I have to follow your orders, and I can funnel magic into you from the etheric plane." Awesome replied.
  "No way. I want to be with Cyan." Shiori immediately rejected him.
  "We don't have time for your childish games!" Awesome glowed.
  "Fine. But if I have to be your owner for life, you have to call me 'mistress' from now on. And apologize for what you said this morning. I am not a baby. I am super mature for my age."
  "No way!" Awesome refused.
  "I'VE FOUND A CHOICE GIVER! DIE, CHOICE GIVER!"
  Shiori flinched, half expecting George Flint had found her. But when she looked either way across the hall full of kids, no tentacles were coming for her.
  "In any case, give me a tree suit!" Shiori said. If it wasn't her, one of her friends was fighting.
  "Repeat after me, Via tu lusches, Awesome!" Awesome said.
  "Via tu lusches, Awesome!" She felt a little warm, but that was it.
  "Now, imagine a weapon and armor. Something you can wear, and say, "Coi, Awesome!""
  Shiori tried to picture herself as a giant tree with leafy tentacles flowing all over the place. I can't be seen in that!She panicked. Something cool! I need to wear something cool! My Taekwondo gi? But that didn't have any armor. Armor, weapon. . . I can't think of any weapons. I always practiced fighting with my fists!
  Then Shiori heard an explosion down the hallway, and she rushed towards it before she knew what she was doing.
  "What are you doing?" Awesome yelled at her. "He'll rip you apart in seconds! Manifest your magic!"
  "I have to see what's going on!" Shiori yelled back at him. She turned the corner of the hall way to see Tree-man walking back out of the school and onto the softball field. She looked out the window, where a giant pillar of dust was just trying to settle around a girl in some sort of blue exoskeleton.
  "Transform. Transform into anything!" Awesome kept nagging her.
  Shiori tried to picture herself in her own tree suit again, but she couldn't figure out where to put her arms or legs and how she'd walk in the thing. Then she stopped trying to imagine anything because it wasn't working.
  "Ah, moooohhh!" She screamed. "I don't care anymore! Coi, Awesome!" Magic exploded across her entire body, and red light surrounded her. She felt incredibly strong. She felt like she could do anything. She launched herself at Treeman's back, blew another hole in the wall in front of her, and accelerated faster and faster each time her foot planted on the ground, her fists wreathed in fire.
  "Kyaa!" She shouted, and her fist slammed into some sort of green line. Her arm kept pushing forward and the bubble burst like it was nothing. Her fist plowed into the giant leafy morass, and then her entire arm sprouted with fire. She could feel it inside her. This was nothing. She could make it much hotter. Much bigger.
  "Burst Knuckle!" She shouted, and red light, well, Awesome's awesome light, covered her in a nimbus of energy. Fire ran up in a wave through her hip, her shoulder, and her fist, through every joint, just like her instructor had trained her, and blasted into the tree.
  Half charred tentacles started raining from the sky, and Tree-Man had bounced ten or twenty feet from where she had first hit him. But impossibly, the man was getting back up again. He didn't even look that hurt.
  "He regenerates!" Chiharu cried out to her from across the softball fields, trying to stand back up. "Keep hitting him!"
  "I'VE FOUND ANOTHER CHOICE GIVER! I AM GEORGE FLINT! DIE, CHOICE GIVER!" Tree limbs starting growing from out his back and snaking towards her.
  "Is that the only thing you can say?" Shiori taunted him. With this magic, she could do anything. She could jump right over those tentacles. She bent her knees into a crouch, and then launched herself in a wide arc twenty meters into the sky. She flipped a couple of time in the air, fire whipping down her right leg as she spun. If a punch doesn't work, just hit him harder.
  "Flameeeeeeeee," She said as she came down straight at his head. She felt that flash of green barrier try to stop her, and break apart again. "GEYSER!" Her axe kick cut down his entire body, an explosive fire cutting him like butter and spreading across his entire body. She landed in a cloud of dust in front of him, her fists naturally rising to a guard position.
  The man split in two and started regrowing on either side. She just stared in wide-eyed surprise.
  "SOLAR FLARE!" One of the treemen yelled, a dangerous looking plasma coming out of his hand.
  "Dodge it!" Awesome yelled.
  "I know that!" She yelled back, bunching her knees and pushing off. She could run so fast. Her feet had some sort of metal boots that pushed harder than anything she could do. She was faster than any Olympic sprinter right now. She zoomed in a circle around the man, trying to hit him from his blind side.
  "HURRICANE!" The other tree suddenly shouted, and suddenly she was flying through the air in a fierce wind. Oh crapI wasn't watching the other one. She slammed into something. Leaves. It had pushed her right into George's squiggly embrace. Tentacles were reaching up to crush her throat.
  She raised her arms up to protect her, fire jetting out of them and burning the tree limbs black. But she didn't have any leverage. More limbs were wrapping around her legs and back, and the stupid tree was regenerating again back towards her throat. I won't let it end this way! Fire. I have to summon more fire!
* * *
  "Do something! Do something! Do something Do something Do something!" Kotone waved her wand, tears coming out of her eyes.
  "Calm down. Find a hunch. Something out of the blue. That's the real magic. Something that just pops into your head." Magnolia wasn't sounding exactly calm herself though. Awesome was down there, in the middle of that tree thing, and Cyan was out. They were running out of time.
  Kotone thought of every magical girl attack she had ever seen. She felt like her life was flashing before her eyes. Which one? Which one's me? Which magical girl show was Magical Girl Kotone? There was only so much magic in the world! If only tree beetles ate the man to shreds!
  Kotone gasped. A hope. Please, gods and spirits, let this work.
  "Magical, miracle, pine beetles, answer my call!" And suddenly, Magnolia's white light erupted from her glove. She couldn't see if it was having any effect, but suddenly George Flint roared, thrashing back and forth. Both George Flints. Kotone grinned in satisfaction.
  "Rot in hell!" She yelled at him. George had dropped Shiori and was rolling back and forth on the ground, no doubt trying to crush her beetles.
  "It's not enough. He's regenerating. Look. The other George flint is seeping back in to reinforce the true host." Magnolia advised.
  "Magical, Miracle, wood peckers, eat him up!" Kotone waved her wand. Nothing happened. Kotone threw her wand down in frustration and stamped on it.
  "Insects! Stick to insects!" Magnolia yelled.
  "I know already!" Kotone angrily wiped the tears from her eyes. I'm a beautiful girl. My magic can't be insects! She picked up her wand and glared at it.
  "Magical, Miracle, glowworms!" She waved her wand, and Magnolia's light flared again.
  "What are you doing?" Magnolia yelled.
  "I don't know! What else eats trees?" Kotone asked.
  "I've lived here for two days! I have no idea!" Magnolia replied.
  "Magical, Miracle, termites, burrow him apart!" Her wand released lots of white hearts. This time Treeman gave out a terrible roar.
  But it wasn't all good news.
  "I'VE FOUND ANOTHER CHOICE GIVER!" He batted Shiori aside like a doll with six or seven thick wooden limbs. "DIE, CHOICE GIVER!"
  "Yeah? Come and get me if you can!" Kotone replied, sticking out her tongue and pulling down her lower eyelid.
  "VOLCANO!" And out of nowhere, ash, smoke, and lava were falling from the sky at her.
  Kotone sprouted her wings on her boots and darted away from the school roof. But George Flint just kept turning to keep his eyes on her and the smoke kept chasing after her.
  "Why is his magic so much better than ours?" Kotone whined.
  "He's had more practice. Plus, wyrds come in different strengths. And so do magic users. There's just no telling until you make a contract. Don't worry, you're doing fine. You just saved your friends' lives." Magnolia blinked happily.
  Kotone smiled warmly, the praise shoring up all her fears. "Magical, Miracle, wasps, sting him to a pulp!" Kotone's little hearts trailed out behind her as she kept flying.
  "METEOR!" George Flint bellowed. And out of nowhere, a flaming boulder was streaking at her at atmospheric reentry speeds. She couldn't dodge. The rock was everywhere in her field of vision. Oh no.
  The boulder hit her. Only it didn't. She didn't feel a thing. The boulder flew by her, through her, an awful screeching tearing sound, until it slammed into a couple of houses and trees behind her. A giant dust cloud appeared, framing her white dress and her gossamer floating wings on her boots. She looked down at herself. She looked at one arm, and then the other. Kotone blinked. I don't know what I'm supposed to think right now.
  Then Kotone noticed a man in a kimono floating besides her. He was carrying a wicked looking samurai sword and his outfit was embossed with endless roses and dragons. A silvery gem stood out on the middle of his white scabbard.
  "Don't worry. You're safe now. Step back. I'll finish this." The man inscrutably floating in the sky was much older than her. And he looked like he did this sort of thing all the time, for fun, and sometimes when he was asleep for practice.
  "Who are you?" Kotone breathed.
  "Masanori Miyamoto." And then he was flying straight for George Flint, his sword glinting against the rays of the sun. Or maybe with its own inner light.
  "I'VE FOUND ANOTHER CHOICE GIVER! DIE, CHOICE GIVER!" George Flint raised his arms, tentacles sprouting upwards to catch the flying samurai.
  "We've heard enough of that line." Masanori said, and he flew straight through the tentacles like they weren't even there.
  Masanori cut what looked like a circle around the man. He calmly and coldly intoned. "Angle exile." And then the whole area started to fold, and shimmer, like the light that surrounded Kotone when she had become a magical girl.
  Then the samurai flew backwards, a spike of a treelimb running right through his side. He looked down at it in horror, and only then did the cut space turn sideways and disappear. There was a completely clean slice of the tree limb that was still in this universe from wherever George Flint had been sent. It was still stuck inside the samurai's body.

  "How careless." He said. And then he fainted. Shiori was already rushing towards the man.


Chapter 5

  Rei Takeda was an evil, selfish, stupid, worthless girl. That's what her mother called her, at least, and she had no reason to believe her mother was wrong. She must have been that awful, because her father flew into rages and beat her what felt like every day. She provoked him by not cleaning the dishes fast enough, or for taking too long a bath, or for scoring badly on a test. It was impossible to explain that she was so afraid of breaking the dishes and angering him that she moved at half speed. It was impossible to explain to him that she had stayed in the bath because it helped ease the pain of her bruises. She couldn't explain to him that she failed her tests because she couldn't study between the light-headedness and tears when he finally finished punishing her and let her crawl into bed. Those were just excuses, Mother said. It's really because I'm selfish, stupid, and evil. I hog the bath. I won't do my chores. I won't do my homework. I disobey my parents, and my teachers, and won't listen to anyone. I'm just a worthless evil girl who was born to be a burden on everyone around me. Mother kept telling me how perfect the family would have been if only I hadn't been born. How Father would never have to get so angry, how there would never be any fights, how Satoshi wouldn't have been killed.
  Do you think I don't know that? That accusation hurt the worst. One day she'd angered father so much he hadn't stopped beating her. She had broken the television while trying to move a chair. It was an expensive television, it was huge, and it was Father's favorite thing in the world. She had screamed that she was sorry over and over, but he didn't believe her. He was sure she had done it on purpose. She was just that sort of spiteful, malicious devil child. And so he was determined to beat the devil out of her and show her that no one could break his stuff and get away with it. Satoshi had jumped in the way. He grabbed his father's arm, tried to wrestle with him. And father was so enraged he just turned and snapped Satoshi's neck. That's how I killed my brother. My brother rarely made father angry. Sometimes, but rarely. Father liked his firstborn, his son. It was only Rei he hated. And so Father had taken Satoshi's body out onto a boat his friend owned and thrown him into the sea. They said if I told anyone they would just know I had killed him, and they would just throw me in jail for life. That made sense, because I knew I had killed him. My older brother was the only person who had ever been kind to me. He couldn't do much, because if he acted too sympathetic, that would make Father furious, because it was like questioning how just his punishments were. That meant he could only be nice while Father wasn't watching. But she knew he wanted to help. And then she had broken Father's TV and killed her brother. When mother reminded her of that, she always knew Mother was right. I am evil. If only I hadn't been born. Mother and Rei agreed on that much. If only I hadn't been born.
  Sometimes father got angry when Rei's hands started shaking when they were in the same room. He asked what she was so afraid of. He asked her if she'd done anything wrong, that she should have to be afraid of her father. When Rei shook her head and denied having done anything wrong, he grew furious. He called her a liar, that if she hadn't done anything wrong, she wouldn't be afraid of getting punished. And then he beat her for lying to him. Rei wished she could trust father, feel safe and comfortable around him. She wished her body wouldn't shake and her speech stutter like a stupid fool when she tried to answer his questions. Mother said she stuttered because she was so stupid she couldn't even talk straight. But she only stuttered when talking to Father. She couldn't explain that though. She supposed she was stupid anyway. If she were smart, she wouldn't keep offending Father by doing stupid things like shaking uncontrollably just because he had sat down on the couch to watch TV. Satoshi hardly ever made Father angry. A good girl, a smart girl, could have been like Satoshi. Everything was her fault.
  When the police came to ask what had happened to their son, her parents had said he had just run away one day, and they had never heard from him since. Since the neighbors said they often heard shouting at the home, and since Rei and Mother had confirmed the story, the police considered it an open and shut case. The boy had gotten sick of his parents and run off to make his own way in life. Some boys did that. Father was always calm around other adults. It was like Mother said, only Rei upset him so much. Rei was the source of the problem. Rei was the devil.
  Rei Takeda was thirteen years old. She would never survive all the way to high school graduation. She knew, sooner or later, father would kill her, like he had killed Satoshi. Sometimes she hoped he would, but he always seemed to know when to hold back. He didn't break her bones. He wouldn't hit her face. The only time he had lost control was over the TV. Rei thought about breaking his new TV again, so he'd kill her. But she didn't have the courage. She was afraid of death. If she thought something would end up killing her, she couldn't do it.
  She couldn't look forward to escape. Escape was too far away. She would be beaten her whole life. She would be beaten for the rest of her life.
  Two weeks ago, Rei had found a stray dog. It was ragged, with one of its ears torn clean off. The dog was obviously getting into fights with other stray dogs. She had kneeled down to it. "You're just like me, aren't you? You keep making them mad." The dog had growled at her, but she didn't make any sudden moves, or try to pet it. She just sat in the alley with the dog, holding her hands in her lap, and cried. Rei and the dog had stayed in the alley together until nightfall. When she finally got up to go home, the dog had walked up and pushed itself against her legs. Upon arrival, she was beaten for skipping her chores and making her parents worry by staying out so late. That was okay. She just thought about meeting the dog again tomorrow, laying in bed with all her fresh bruises, and the thought kept making her smile until she fell asleep.
  When Rei got out of school, she went to a convenience store. She bought stuff she thought the dog might like, like sandwich meats. Then she ran over to the alley. The stray was there. It stood up, watching her warily.
  "I won't hurt you." Rei Takeda promised the dog. "Look, I brought food. It's delicious. Do you want some?" She got out her first package of meat, and threw a few slices halfway in between her and the dog. The dog watched her hand, watched the meat. She sat patiently, lowering her eyes. After a few minutes, the dog decided she wasn't watching him anymore, and he darted for the meat. He dragged it further away and started eating. Rei watched the dog, her eyes beaming with joy.
  "See? It's delicious, isn't it? Do you want some more?" And Rei threw another package's worth of sandwich meats halfway between her and the dog. The dog finished the old meat, then snatched the new meat and started eating that too. This time the dog didn't back away to the back of the alley. He just lay there, well out of reach of her hand. Rei smiled. "Can I call you Shuto?" Rei asked the dog.
  The dog finished the meat, then raised its head to look at her, waiting to see if she'd throw more meat. Rei just sat still, watching Shuto. Eventually Shuto lay down contentedly with its head on its paws. The two sat there quietly together for a while.
  "Shuto, I have to go now. If I'm late again, father will be mad. But I'll come back tomorrow. See you tomorrow, Shuto." And Rei slowly got up off her knees, and made her way back home. She went through the entire evening not making Father angry. She finished her homework and she didn't start shaking when they all ate dinner together. She was thinking of Shuto, of whether Shuto would let her pet him tomorrow. She would sit and wait for him to come stand next to her again, like on the first day. Anything else, and she might be trespassing. She might drive him away. She didn't want that.
  The next day, she came back with more meat for Shuto. She sat and talked to him about her brother while he ate. She told him about every time her brother had patted her hair or told her it was going to be okay. Every time he had told her not to believe her mother and that she was a good girl. She cried a lot. Halfway through her sobbing the dog had come over to her and licked her face. That just made her cry more. Shuto sat next to her and she did get to pet him.
  The next day, she sat next to Shuto and explained why she couldn't take him home. That her parents would be mad and they would chase him away, or hurt him. She knew it was selfish, but she asked Shuto to always stay in the alley, and not to run off with the other dogs, or let some other child adopt him. She told Shuto to stop getting into fights with the other dogs. Shuto always looked dirty and beat up, just like her. It's like he instantly went and got into fights whenever she left. Shuto wouldn't listen. Even when she gave him a bath, he ended up dirty the very next day.
  This afternoon though , when she had come to see Shuto, he wasn't there. She called out his name, "Shuto? Shuto? It's okay, it's me. Come out Shuto." Shuto wouldn't come. So she sat patiently in the alley, getting out her homework and doing the subjects one after the other. This was Shuto's home. He'd have to come back eventually.
  "Hey look. It's Takeda-tard." A group of boys from her school were standing at the mouth of the alley.
  "Takeda-tard was waiting for her dog." They mocked. "Takeda-tard doesn't have any friends, because she's so stupid, so she had to hang out with a dog."
  "What do you care?" Rei glared angrily at them. "Leave me alone!"
  "Your stupid dog isn't coming back, Takeda." The leader of the boys said. He held out his hand, which had a white bandage around it. "Look what he did to me."
  "What did you do to Shuto?" Rei felt a horrendous pain, like her soul was tearing in two.
  "Nothing. We just saw you petting him, so after you left we tried to pet him too. To be nice. And the stupid dog bit me. I had to get a rabies shot! So I told my parents and they told the city and the city took your stupid dog away. You know what they do to dogs that bite people." The boy smirked.
  "Your dog's dead, Takeda-tard!" A boy in the back of the group jeered. All of them started laughing.
  Rei screamed. Then she filled her lungs and screamed again. It hurt her throat to scream that loud. But not nearly as much as their words hurt her. She had killed again. She killed everyone who tried to be nice to her. Rei screamed again, a wordless cry of frustration, of despair, of hatred. She filled her lungs and screamed again, but only a bloody gurgle came out. It hurt so much.
  The kids ran away. Adults ran to her, but all they saw was this girl screaming for no good reason in the middle of the street.
  "Someone call her parents." Someone suggested.
  "Maybe we should call an ambulance." Someone else suggested. Rei struggled up and ran away from them. She didn't want their help. She wanted to die. That was how she'd ended up in her room, holding a kitchen knife, sitting alone in the dark. She knew she had to plunge it into her stomach and cut a giant path through her internal organs. Or make a long slice all the way down both her arms. But she couldn't move. She stared at the knife, and her hands shook. They could barely hold onto the hilt. She didn't cry any more. She just looked at the blade and pleaded for it to stab her. Occasionally she'd try to tell her arm to move, to cut, but she always cut the signal off. Her arm stood still. She was infinitely far away from killing herself. She wanted to die. She had never been so sure of this in her life. She knew she had to die, she knew death was the only good thing in life. But she was too afraid. She was a worthless coward who couldn't even do this right.
  That was when the floating black orb appeared. Rei Takeda stared at it lifelessly. She didn't feel much of anything anymore.
  "I can give you what you want." The black orb said. "My name is Onyx. I can kill you."
  Rei shook her head. The orb didn't understand. She was too afraid to die. She couldn't make any decision that she knew would lead to her death. It was the exact same as trying to jump into a river, or off a cliff, or drive a car into a brick wall. If she knew, consciously, that this would end up killing her, her subconscious stopped her. She couldn't trick herself. Asking someone else to kill her, if she knew he really would, was the exact same.
  The orb sat there, blinking for a while. "I can help you die in a way your body won't stop."
  Rei looked at him with desperate hope. "How?" She rasped. Her throat still hurt, so she didn't want to talk if she could avoid it.
  "Fight the Choice Givers. If you kill the Choice Givers, one of them will be sure to kill you. Sooner or later. They will kill you, against your will, with you fighting as hard as you can to stop them. You won't know when it will happen, or against whom. It will be sudden and out of the blue. You'll be fighting, and then you'll die. Maybe if you fight well enough, you'll beat them all. It's not assured you will die at all." Onyx seemed to understand her. Maybe Onyx was the first person who understood her in her entire life.
  "I don't want to kill anyone." Rei rasped.
  "You want to kill yourself." Onyx pointed out.
  Rei was silent. Time stretched out. The two of them sat together silently as minutes passed.
  Her mind was silent too. Dull. Cold. She couldn't get herself to care. So what if she killed people? Death was a mercy. The whole world was just a net negative. If she turned a negative into a zero, she was doing them a favor. Onyx understood.
  "How do I kill the Choice Givers?" Rei Takeda rasped. She felt nothing. She didn't care anymore. What had the world ever done for her?
  "Just say, Via tu lusches, Onyx. I'll train you in how to fight. One by one, we'll kill them all. Kill the Choice Givers, kill the world."
  "Via tu lusches, Onyx." Rei whispered. Warmth tried to trickle into her, but she wouldn't let it. She was cold. She was cold inside. She would always be cold, forever.
* * *
  School ended up being cancelled for the next week, as repair crews had to go in and make sure the building was still safe, and repair it as quickly as possible. Luckily, the people whose houses had been crushed were already away at work or school. In the end, there were only three injured people. Basically, every Choice Giver but Kotone had to go to the hospital. And of course Kotone had to go too, to be with them. Adults explained that it had been another one of those dirty pranks by the worldwide hackers, setting off explosions and creating holograms. The fact that the tree monster all the eye witnesses talked about couldn't be found anywhere was supporting evidence.
  Kotone didn't try to disabuse them. If the whole world knew they were magical girls locked in a war with dark wyrds from outer space, they would put them in the deepest underground bunker in the world or in some sort of undersea submarine and do crazy experiments on them in the name of science. I don't want to lose the life I have. That's almost as bad as dying. But she thanked Magnolia from the bottom of her heart for having come down to Earth on time. Wyrds could scry out Choice Givers wherever they fled. If no good wyrds had come down to help them, the dark wyrds could have wiped all the Choice Givers out in a matter of months. Weeks, maybe. And only magic could fight magic. Getting the rest of the world involved was just a waste of time.
  She needed to thank one other person from the bottom of her heart, though. Masanori Miyamoto, the man who had saved her life and nearly died doing so. And to do that, she needed to wait outside his door until visitors were allowed to see him. I wish I had been given healing magic. Why bugs? Did people look at Kotone and think 'Ah, bugs. Bug girl. Bugs are just the thing for her.' She had never liked bugs herself. But there it was. I'm some sort of magical, miracle bugmaster. Ugh.
  "Why do you think George Flint wanted to kill us?" Kotone asked Magnolia.
  "Who knows. Dead Enders want the world to follow a path that ends with stagnation or extinction. That means by definition all Choice Givers are in the way, because you keep creating fresh, new possibilities for the world to follow. The first step to any Dead Ender's plan would be to kill the remaining Choice Givers." Magnolia glowed mutedly.
  "But didn't you say the whole world was full of Dead Enders? Does that mean everyone I see secretly wants to kill me?" Kotone asked.
  "Some Dead Enders are less stable and more manipulable than others. Some are more ambitious or competent than others. Just like we can scry out the most beautiful Choice Givers, wyrds can scry out the ugliest Dead Enders, the ones that shut down the world’s paths the fastest and destroy things the soonest. The terrorists will try to recruit from among them.” Magnolia explained.
  “Not terrorists. ‘Terrorists’ has too much linguistic baggage. Dark wyrds.” Kotone said.
  “Dark wyrds then. And the world isn’t 6.99 billion Dead Enders and fifty Choice Givers. There are those who follow or emulate Choice Givers too.” Magnolia said.
  “Can people follow or emulate Choice Givers from the distant past?” Kotone asked.
  “Yes, but it’s hard. The message gets garbled, it becomes obsolete, or the tradition just dies away. The impact Choice Givers have has a sort of half life. It keeps fading away until the world has nothing but dead ends again. Only new blood and new possibilities keep your future alive.” Magnolia said.
  “Are new Choice Givers created from following the old ones?” Kotone asked.
  “No. You are fountains of new possibilities. Oh, you could be taking something from one tradition, and something from another. But if you didn’t synthesize that into something new, keep looking forward, and trust your own inner voice, you wouldn’t be special.” Magnolia said.
  “Are we born Choice Givers or do we become them?” Kotone asked.
  “You become them.” Magnolia said.
  “Could we stop being Choice Givers, and become Dead Enders?” Kotone asked.
  “Technically, yes.” Magnolia said.
  "What do you mean?" Kotone asked.
  "Well, our scrying can only see the implications of your current choices, whether they lead to infinite possibilities. If you change your mind, change your choices, then you could suddenly be as bad as anyone else. Only, it's difficult for a Choice Giver to change her mind towards something worse, because her very choices about how she makes her choices already exist, and already guide you down the right road."
  “That's reassuring. Could Dead Enders become Choice Givers, then?” Kotone asked.
  “Yes. But it’s unlikely. People are pretty set in their ways.” Magnolia said.
  “Then the world won’t really end even if all the Choice Givers are killed off. More would pop up sooner or later, and the cycle would restart.” Kotone said.
  “Not if the dark wyrds kill them off too. And not if the world becomes so bad that it’s impossible to fix it, impossible to change anything, and nothing you say or do matters. Like our world.” Magnolia sighed.
  “Oh.” Kotone sat on the hospital bench. Magnolia sat silently in her bag. Patients and nurses and janitors and guests were constantly walking by, but they all ignored her and left her alone, because she projected that wish with her body language.
  “I’m sorry your world is dying.” Kotone offered.
  “I know, Kotone.” Magnolia blinked her light understandingly. Kotone couldn’t hug Magnolia, so she did the next best thing and squeezed her with her hand.
  “Nakano?” A harried looking nurse looked at her clipboard. “You wanted to visit Mr. Miyamoto?”
  “Yes, please.” Kotone bowed to her, hastily rising to her feet and pulling her school bag in front of her.
  “Are you a friend or relative?” The nurse asked.
  “No.” Kotone replied.
  “Then you can’t --”
  “I was at the school incident. He saved my life. I have to thank him.” Kotone quickly interrupted.
  The nurse seemed to look at her for the first time, showing a hint of respect. “Okay, but don’t disturb him. He’s on a lot of pain killers right now, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already asleep. You also wanted to see two other girls, from the same school incident. . .Rin and Sakai?” The nurse asked. “Did they save your life too?”
  “No, they’re my friends.” Kotone smiled.
  “Okay, I’m giving you a sticky note with their room numbers. Visiting hours are only so long, so you’ll have to figure out how to meet all of them in one go.” The nurse said, getting out her pen and scribbling something.
  “Thank you.” Kotone bowed again, accepting the paper and the signature that said she had free run of the hospital. She checked her hair with a hand mirror from her bag, got out her hair brush and fixed it as best she could, then took a deep breath and knocked on the door.
  “Come in.” A voice came through the door. So Kotone opened it and took a few steps into the room. The man had a giant web of bandages and a few tubes going into him, but he was awake.
  “My name is Kotone Nakano. You saved my life. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.” And then Kotone bowed and stayed bowed as deeply as she could.
  “Umm.” The man sounded embarrassed. She couldn’t see his face because her face was still pointed straight at the ground. “It was nothing.”
  “My life means a lot to me.” Kotone said.
  “I didn’t mean it like that. I can’t think straight right now, I’m on so many drugs. Could you stop bowing?” The man asked.
  Kotone straightened up and gave him her most heartwarming smile, the one that filled her whole face. “Next time I visit, I’ll properly have some flowers. I can read to you too, or we can just talk. It isn’t just for me. Thank you for saving my friends too. Once that man killed me, he would have killed them too. You can’t know how much this means to me. Thank you so much for saving all three of us.” And Kotone helplessly bowed again, because she didn’t know any other way to express the fullness of her heart.
  “It’s okay. I didn’t do it for your sake. I chose to do this sort of thing myself.” Masanori said.
  Kotone looked back at him and smiled, settling down into the chair next to his bed. “I would be a little worried if it was for my sake. We only just met. And you are like, fifty years old.”
  “Thirty seven.” The man protested. “And I didn’t mean it that way.”
  “I know. And if you think I’m not grateful that you’re the kind of person who risks his life to save complete strangers, then you’re crazy.” Kotone lectured.
  “What happened to the pink hair?” Masanori asked.
  “Hush. You’re clearly delirious.” Kotone blushed crimson.
  Masanori laughed, and then winced. “Ok. That was a bad idea.”
  “If you don’t mind, could you tell me how you did all that? And why you were there in the first place?” Kotone got him back on topic.
  “I call it ‘angle universe.’ When Xanadu told me that he had come from folded space, I started wondering what other tricks you could pull with that. So when I formed a contract, I found that all my magic was based around folding. When I saw you were going to be hit, I folded you out of the way. I can do that instantly, to any one object, for a few seconds. You were probably in the universe next to this one when the boulder flew through. It’s harder to fold someone permanently away, but wherever George Flint ended up, I doubt he can trouble anyone.” Masanori seemed to be on firm ground for the first time.
  “Xanadu?” Magnolia floated up from her bag. “You formed a contract with Xanadu?”
  “Do you know him?” Masanori asked Magnolia politely.
  “Only by reputation. He was sent a few days before us, as our very first pioneer. The government said he was an elite soldier or something who could scout the terrain.” Magnolia said.
  “A few days? I met Xanadu ten years ago. I’ve been fighting these Dead Enders for years.” Masanori said.
  Magnolia blinked for a bit in confusion. “The time streams between our dimensions must be different.”
  “Do you know where they took my stuff? I’d feel better if Xanadu were here. You never know when. . .” Masanori grimaced.
  “I will try to find him for you. I‘ll bring him with the flowers, next time I visit.” Kotone promised.
  “Then, I’ll see you next time.” Masanori sighed back into his bed.
  “I’ll see you again.” Kotone got up from her chair, bowing one more time. Next time, when he wasn’t so tired, she could ask him more questions. For now, she wanted to see Shiori and Chiharu. She had a lot of conversations to go.
  Kotone quietly closed the door behind her and got out her pen, writing Mr. Miyamoto’s room number down alongside that of her friends’. Then she found a payphone in the hallway and called her parents.
  “Sorry I can’t make dinner. The nurse has only just now let me visit Shiori and Chiharu. I’ll be back before bedtime. If you could save something for me. . .Thanks Mama. I’m completely alright. I told you that already. Just a little frazzled. It’s okay, I’ll take the bus.”
  Then it was off to room #210, where she checked up on Shiori.
  “Are you okay?” Kotone asked, sitting down beside Shiori’s hospital bed.
  “This? This is nothing.” Shiori raised her arms to show how healthy she was, then she winced. “Who hasn’t been sent flying ten feet by a few tree limbs?”
  Kotone smiled. “Any broken bones?”
  “Nope. Just. . .I was so sure I could beat that guy. I’m so frustrated. That’s what hurts the most.” Shiori sighed, looking at her hands. Then she shook her head and grabbed Kotone’s hands into hers.
  “You saved my life, didn’t you? Thank you, Kotone.” Shiori said.
  “You’re my best friend.” Kotone said, as if that was explanation enough.
  “I want to get stronger.” Shiori said, a few tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I don’t want to feel that helpless ever again. I don’t want to lose ever again.”
  “We’ll get stronger.” Kotone squeezed Shiori’s hands.
  “My softball coach is going to kill me if I can’t pitch on the first game.” Shiori moaned.
  “You’ll be fine. If nothing’s broken, just take a hot bath, use some of those magic icy hot pads, and sleep in. School’s out for the next week.” Kotone said.
  “I’ll try to get released tomorrow. There’s really nothing wrong with me. Then we can train with our magic. What magic did you use, Kotone? I couldn’t see, I was in a squiggly death embrace.” Shiori asked.
  “I need to check up on Chiharu.” Kotone blushed. “See you tomorrow!”
  And then it was time to visit Chiharu in room #221. When she walked in, her entire family was bunched together in the room. Chiharu had Saki on her lap and was tickling her. Saki kept squealing “noooo!” and “Stoppppp!” but it didn’t seem like anyone in the room cared. Her other sister, Aiko, was sitting against the wall reading. She barely lifted her gaze to register Kotone’s existence before settling back down again.
  “Kotone!” Chiharu looked up to see who had come in.
  “Good evening Chiharu.” Kotone bowed. “Good evening Mr. Sakai. Good evening Mrs. Sakai.”
  “Good evening Nakano.” Chiharu’s parents greeted her warmly.
  “Chiharu, are you okay?” Kotone asked.
  “Bruises and scrapes. Plus somewhere in there I got dizzy and blacked out. I hope that doesn’t leave me permanently stupider. When boxers black out, they lose like 5 IQ each time.” Chiharu scowled.
  “If that were true, they’d be down to zero in no time.” Kotone said primly.
  “Nevertheless. I can already feel the stupidity flowing through me.” Chiharu said.
  “Those are the pain killers.” Kotone said. “You’d better not lose any IQ, we need you after school for tutoring, from here to age eighteen, for free.”
  “I’ll try my best.” Chiharu smiled.
  “Shiori isn’t hurt either.” Kotone informed.
  “Thank goodness.” Chiharu said.
  “She said your coach would kill you if you don’t play in the first game.” Kotone smiled.
  Chiharu laughed. “If she can pitch I can catch.”
  “Then that’s settled. We have a week off school, so let’s meet up and enjoy ourselves as soon as we can. I have to go home and eat dinner, so I‘ll be going now. Sorry to intrude, Mr. Sakai, Mrs. Sakai.” Kotone bowed to the rest of the family again.
  “It was no bother at all, Nakano. You’re always welcome.” Chiharu’s parents reassured her.
  Kotone stepped out of the crowded hospital room and started her long trip home. Thank goodness, they were both okay. But Mr. Miyamoto wouldn’t be able to save them next time, not with that giant hole in his side. We three have to get better at magic in the next week before the next Dead Ender arrives. There’s got to be some way around being a bugmaster. It’s too embarrassing. Kotone collected the loose strands of her hair back into their proper places in her hair clip and twin tails, then sat down to wait for the bus.
* * *
  "We can break what Magnolia told Kotone down into three possible meanings to being a Choice Giver." Chiharu stabbed at her notebook with a helpful chart. Kotone and Shiori huddled around her to see, leaning in. The three had told their parents they were going to study at the library, but that was only roughly true.
  We are studying, only, we're studying magic. And we are at the library, only, we're outside on a park bench where we can be as loud as we want. That was a stupid way to pretend you weren't lying, turning every word inside out and letting people hear what you wanted them to hear. But the larger truth was more like this: "I am going out with my friends for a benign, constructive purpose." If the larger truth was conveyed through the use of a smaller lie, no lie had been told. She was just framing the truth in a way her parents would understand.
  "Theory 1: Small answers and Big answers are the same. The principles behind our day-to-day decisions can be directly applied to communities as a whole, as, for instance, laws or religious doctrines." Chiharu pointed to her first box.
  "Theory 2: Big answers are derived from small answers. Under this theory, there is a logical chain you can grow from a day-to-day decision all the way up to how we should run the world. It just takes intelligence enough to grasp the essential principle and how to apply it in larger cases." Chiharu stabbed her second box.
  "Theory 3: There are no Big Answers, only small answers. All big answers are inherently erroneous. Choice Givers should be emulated from the bottom up, rather than the top down." Chiharu stabbed the final box.
  "I can't tell them apart." Shiori complained.
  "All categories are arbitrary. I'm just trying to help clarify things." Chiharu said.
  "So if you knew a Choice Giver well enough, you could think to yourself, "what would Shiori think about this? How would Shiori react? What would Shiori do?" And with enough specific knowledge of Shiori, you could, when the situation was specific, do the same thing." Kotone suggested.
  "That would be category 3." Chiharu nodded. "But of course, it wouldn't work if you didn't feel the same way as Shiori at the same time. Magnolia specifically told us that one of the Choices we make is how we feel about whatever the world throws at us. If someone emulated Shiori while not understanding why, or being angry and frustrated about it the whole time because she would do something else. . ."
  "That sounds hard. With all those restrictions, can Choice Givers really help anyone?" Kotone asked.
  "I don't know. Magnolia only said mankind would have infinite possibilities 'if'' they would follow us, not whether anyone will." Chiharu answered.
  "Okay, so let's take Category 1." Shiori tried. "I like dogs. So everyone should own a dog. This would give the world infinite possibilities."
  "That does seem reasonable. At least, under that theory, the whole world having a pet dog is probably a step in the right direction." Chiharu calmly kept her face straight.
  "But according to Cateogry 2." Shiori pointed at the box. "It would read differently. I like dogs, so maybe we should all like pets. Or all lower life forms. Or maybe it's important to be affectionate."
  "Right." Chiharu nodded. "What's important is capturing the essence of your choice and then ballooning it up to cover all situations."
  "If people emulate us, don't the total number of choices go down, not up?" Kotone complained. "For instance, making everyone own a dog, that eliminates choices like "I won't own a dog."" In the end, people could only be carbon clones of like, fifty different models available anywhere on Earth."
  "If everyone owning a dog displaces other choices that lead to stagnation or death, it's okay to eliminate choices. In fact Choice Givers could be giving people the only choices that don't lead to stagnation or extinction, and thus be very strict taskmasters. It could be our job to eliminate all the bad choices that are out there." Chiharu explained.
  "Are there really so few choices that work out?" Kotone asked sadly.
  "If you extend practically anyone's belief system to a universal law, you will find the seeds of destruction in it. What's special about our choices is no matter how far you balloon them up, no matter how many people follow or emulate us, it won't lead to a dead end. Many people's choices, if not ballooned up, if not extended too far, will be either innocuous or even useful. But if their inner logic was exposed to such a wide-scale test as all of humanity following them. . ." Chiharu left the rest hanging.
  "Power corrupts." Shiori suggested.
  "More like, power reveals the inherent flaws of a seemingly harmless belief system by ballooning it up to such a size that anyone can observe its flaws." Chiharu corrected.
  "So no matter how many people adopt dogs, in theory 1, or pets, in theory 2, or pet dogs when they see them, in theory 3, only good will come of it." Kotone said.
  "Precisely. I think wyrds have settled the question of dog ownership once and for all." Chiharu smiled.
  "Maybe I should adopt a dog." Kotone grinned. "It would put me on the right track."
  "Kotone's a Choice Giver too, and she doesn't own a dog!" Shiori protested.
  "I don't even pet dogs when I see them." Kotone said.
  Chiharu nodded. "It's safe to say we're on the road to hell."
  "You're making fun of me." Shiori said.
  "Maybe a little." Chiharu smiled. Making fun of Shiori was the most fun thing in the world.
  "I prefer Category 3." Kotone said. "I mean, I don't want to write out a law code for anyone. It's important that they also feel it's the right thing to do, while they're doing it. That's what gives the choice such inner strength."
  "Hmmm." Chiharu stared at the boxes. "I think I would choose Category 1. My choices are obviously right, and everyone should just follow them. If they aren't competent enough to do so, they can follow them as far as they are able. Since I'm obviously right, giving them the privilege or freedom to do the opposite is just wasteful and counterproductive, to their own lives and the inhabitants of the rest of the world. I'd give an exception to people obeying another Choice Giver's law code, since wyrds' scrying can be trusted, and it seems those law codes work fine too. But it would be a huge improvement if we at least banned all the obviously wrong codes."
  "Then I'll choose category 2." Shiori said.
  "Don't choose a category just to not leave it out!" Chiharu hit her with her notebook.
  "We don't know these are the rules anyway." Kotone reminded. "We could be wrong and Choice Giving could mean something else entirely."
  "I suppose I should think it over carefully before installing the iron fist of the age of Chiharu." Chiharu admitted.
  "But I know what you're talking about." Shiori said. "There are so many things that are so obviously wrong, and it feels like waiting for people to 'see' that themselves is just hopeless."
  "Slavery as a custom was uprooted by force. The same with human sacrifice. And burning widows in India on their husbands' funeral pyres." Chiharu gave examples.
  "I can see how a Choice Giver, by stopping slavery or human sacrifice with an iron fist, could keep the world from stagnation or extinction. Like, just imagine the whole world ruled by a few fat rich people who just lazed about and millions of slaves who couldn't even learn to read. Where would the world go? Maybe it would just stay that way forever. Poor and painful forever. Or if everyone resorted to human sacrifice and the wars needed to get enough victims, we'd just end up driving ourselves to extinction." Shiori said.
  "I guess you're right." Kotone said.
  "Luckily, we know all three of us are right, no matter what we think or do." Chiharu said. "Even when we contradict each other, we're both right, because both contradictory statements lead to a good ending."
  "So in conclusion, we should keep doing whatever we want?" Shiori asked.
  "That or adopt dogs." Chiharu said.
  "Stop that. Leave Melody out of this!" Shiori pouted. Chiharu loved her pouty face.
  "Okay, on to the second part of our strategy conference." Chiharu flipped over the page of her notebook to the next three boxes.
  "All three of us couldn't beat a single Dead Ender. There's bound to be more of them, so we need to get stronger. Cyan told me that our magic can't be changed, but it can be developed or enhanced. This means creativity is a huge plus. We all need to come up with new moves. Think of the essential nature of your magic, and see if you can branch out into an entirely different spell while sticking to your nature. Did you two bring pencils and paper?"
  "Yes." The two chimed.
  "Okay. Here's your assignment. Think of three new spells in the next fifteen minutes. Make them as different as possible." Chiharu got off the park bench and lay down on the grass, stretching out to consider her own blank notebook.
  "I. . ." Kotone blushed. "I need help."
  "What's wrong with your magic?" Chiharu asked.
  "Everything!" Kotone wailed. "I summon bugs!"
  Chiharu smiled, but Shiori started laughing. Shiori followed up between laughs, "Bugs? Why bugs? That doesn't fit you at all!"
  "I don't want to be a bugmaster! But when I tried to summon birds, or shoot fire or ice, nothing would happen. Only bugs worked!" Kotone said.
  "Tell me the exact thought that popped into your head, the one that hinted at your magic's manifestation." Chiharu said.
  "I think it was. . .something like. . .I wish pine beetles would tear him apart. Or maybe it was eat him up." Kotone offered.
  "I think we can work with that. Imagine the critical factor not being bugs, but 'small things' that 'degrade' the target bit by bit. If you think of it like that, you wouldn't be limited to bugs. You could give people diseases, for instance." Chiharu offered.
  "That's even worse! I don't want to be Magical Plaguemaster Kotone!" Kotone rejected. "Besides, what disease would possibly be useful in such a short time as a fight? George Flint was throwing volcanoes at me, and I'm trying to make him sneeze?"
  "You're right, maybe diseases aren't as good as bugs. Well, that's my advice. Think of small things that degrade their targets piece by piece, like lots of bugs working together do. You have fifteen minutes." Chiharu said.
  Then the three of them did quiet down and lie on the grass. The pond nearby lapped against the shore. Kids were flying kites. Kotone kept tapping her lips with the back of her pencil. Shiori was staring at the paper blankly, then started to doodle. Chiharu tried to tune them out and concentrate exclusively on the task at hand. She knew that if the time limit weren't short, no one would think of anything. Restrictions bred creativity. But she couldn't help them any further. She couldn't protect her friends with just counterspells. Countering didn't stop the opponent's suit. Nor could it assuredly beat a magic that overpowered hers, or a magic that came from too many directions, or a magic that she didn't notice in time. She didn't know how far she could trust it.
  What was the essence of counter magic? She thought of it as redirecting the vectors of magic such that it was all pointed at itself, so that it canceled itself out entirely. Like directing sound waves, no matter how loud, to hit each other head on and thus produce no sound at all. She had always found that fascinating. It looked like it defied the laws of physics, but it was already used to make cars quieter, for instance, in the real world. So what would happen if she didn't change the vectors of the arrows all the way back in on themselves? What if she only redirected them a little? She smiled and wrote down her first new spell. 1) Deflect magic.
  Chiharu thought about it a little longer. If she could change the vectors to just barely miss her, could she also turn the vectors around? That would be vicious. She wrote down 2) Reflect magic. Just one more. She sat there thinking. Was that all you could do with magical vectors? Surely there was just one more ability, nestled in there. What if she could see the vectors of the flow of magic, and add her own magic to the mix, feeding the magic in the exact same direction as the first? Just as you can cancel out a wave entirely by having it hit itself, you can also double it by overlaying the exact same wave on top of it. This was done by all sorts of machines, such as an electric guitar's amplifier. Chiharu smiled and wrote down, 3) Amplify magic. Just imagine what my laser gun could do if I amplified the waves as high as I could. Then I could have burst through that stupid green barrier like it was nothing.
  Chiharu stretched and turned over, staring at the sky. She checked her watch, and then watched the kites and the clouds. Days off from school could be nice.
  "All right, time's up, put your pencils down." Chiharu snapped. "Let's see what we came up with."
  Kotone sighed. Shiori looked confident.
  "Okay, Shiori, you first." Chiharu said.
  "Number One:" Shiori read from her notebook. "Firefly. I shoot a bunch of little fires at the bad guy, like the fires are flying. See?" Shiori had drawn a useful doodle of herself blasting away at a growling tree octopus.
  "Okay." Chiharu nodded.
  "Number Two:" Shiori recited. "Flashfire. I make a giant flash of light around me and then pounce on them while they're blinded." Shiori pointed at her doodle of the tree octopus covering its eyes with all eight tree limbs.
  "Are all your attacks puns?" Kotone asked.
  "They helped me think!" Shiori justified herself.
  "I think they're great spells." Chiharu encouraged. "And?"
  "Number 3:" Shiori read. "Fireplace. I place a mine and if they step on it, the mine erupts into fire." Shiori had a helpful doodle of a tree octopus flying into the sky with lots of lines rushing up from underneath him.
  "That's. . .an inventive interpretation of fireplaces." Chiharu grinned.
  "All that matters is I did my assignment. What about Kotone?" Shiori asked.
  "I. . .I don't know if these will work until I try them out with Magnolia." Kotone temporized. All three wyrds had gone away together to confer by themselves about all things wyrdy.
  "That's okay, if they came to you while brainstorming, it's probably your magic whispering to you, so it will work out." Chiharu reassured her.
  "Okay. Number One:" Kotone read out. "Poison."
  "Poison what?" Shiori asked.
  "I don't know. Poison clouds, poison rain, pits full of poison. I can summon objects at long distance, so, just, summon something on top of them." Kotone said.
  "What types of poison?" Chiharu asked.
  "The green kind?" Kotone offered hopefully.
  "Umm. I think it's a good idea, but you should look up the ones used in World War I. I think the best poison gas known to modern science is chlorine, but you'll need a good mental image of it if you want to summon it."
  "Okay. Number Two:" Kotone read. "Acid."
  "Acid what?" Shiori repeated herself. She was clearly getting back at Kotone.
  "Like, I summon a bucket of acid over their heads and dump it on them. Acid is small but degrades what it touches." Kotone defended herself.
  "I think sulfuric acid would be your best bet. It burns people alive." Chiharu suggested. "You'll need to read up on it to get a firm mental image."
  Kotone shuddered. Chiharu placed her hand on her friend's arm. "If you don't need to use it, you can always summon bugs. This is a worst case scenario. If George Flint were choking us to death, and acid can save our lives. . ."
  "I know. I just. . .don't like what my magic says about me." Kotone sighed.
  "Fire burns people alive too. What does that say about me?" Shiori offered.
  "I guess burning people to death is torturous too." Kotone managed half of a smile.
  "See? We're the same." Shiori said.
  "For that matter, staking someone out on an anthill to be eaten alive was also a tool of torture used by the Native Americans. See? Acid and poison is no worse than before." Chiharu pointed out helpfully.
  "Let's just move on to number 3." Kotone sighed. Chiharu didn't get it. How come only Shiori's words of encouragement made Kotone feel better?
  "When Magnolia told me to think of a weapon and armor, I came up with a dress and a wand. My armor lets me fly, and my magic lets me summon bugs. But my wand didn't do anything, even though it's my 'strongest weapon.' So I'll have my wand shoot something. Like, really small, fast bullets at as far a range as possible. Preferably out of eyesight. I call it, Sting Snipe." Kotone explained, her voice getting more subdued by the second.
  Shiori and Kotone looked at their hands, downcast. Chiharu knew what they were thinking. We're japanese school girls. Why are we thinking of such horrible ways to kill people? But it didn't matter what they wanted. They were being hunted, and killing was justified if it was in self defense. How can I explain that to them?
  "Neh," Shiori got their attention, speaking quietly. "Let's all agree, that before we fight any more Dead Enders, we try to talk to them first."
  "We'd lose any chance at an ambush. Soldiers don't talk to their enemies, they just kill them." Chiharu said.
  "But we're not soldiers." Shiori said, looking Chiharu in the eyes. "We're Choice Givers. We should be destroying their dead ends, letting them have infinite possibilities again. Dead ends are bad, but Dead Enders are people. We should be healing these people, not hurting them. They're coming here to be healed. They just don't know it yet. But the three of us, we know we can heal them. Somehow. It's inside of us to. . .change them. If we win with violence, that means we lost our fight. Our fight as Choice Givers."
  "I agree with Shiori, Chiharu." Kotone looked hopeful for the first time. "I. . .don't want to just hurt and kill people. . .for the rest of my life. Maybe we can talk to them."
  Chiharu sighed. "The dark wyrds are choosing the most deadly, determined monsters on Earth to give power. What could we possibly say?"
  "We could try." Shiori insisted. "There's always a way. That's what it means to be a Choice Giver. We find ways where others can't."
  "What would you have told George? He was a walking tape recorder. He only said like, two different things!" Chiharu argued.
  "But he was talking to us. Maybe he was crying out for help. And we. . .we were just hitting him. We could have asked him for his reasons." Shiori said.
  "Our real power is inspiration. That's why the wyrds chose us in the first place." Kotone teamed up.
  "Okay." Chiharu took a deep breath and looked them in the eyes. "We try to talk to everyone who comes at us. If they start off attacking, we start off dodging. I so swear." Chiharu said. Shiori was right. And if she wasn't right, Chiharuwanted Shiori to be right. Because Shiori's world was so much brighter.
  "I so swear." Kotone quickly agreed.
  "I so swear." Shiori said, putting her hand over her heart.

  "Now, does anyone want to hear what magic I came up with?" Chiharu asked.


Chapter 6

  Mahmut al Baz was a Muslim. He wasn't particularly devout. Like his friends, he was more concerned with getting a university degree, and whether his home town won the Egyptian Premier League. Ismaily was a decent football club, and living in Ismailia pretty much meant life revolved around its victories and defeats. When he was young, he had played football in the streets with the other kids, and dreamed of playing for Ismaily and running into the middle of the vast stadiums cheered by millions of people from their TV sets at home. He wouldn't stop there though. Naturally, his football career would lead to Egypt winning the World Cup for the first time, all thanks to his last minute goal. His dream hadn't decided if the World Cup final would be against Germany or Brazil, but it was certain he would score the winning goal and lift the trophy in front of billions of people who would remember his name forever. Then he had realized that he wasn't any better than the other kids he was playing with, and the dream had slowly receded. Maybe he wouldn't win the World Cup after all, but at least he could play for Ismaily. Then Mahmut realized that he wouldn't get into Ismaily either, and so he just followed the team with the rest of his friends, drinking with his friends and cheering on their goals.
  Mahmut was poor, but so were all of his friends. Poverty didn't mean anything in Egypt. He was attending a university, which meant he was upper class. The fact that he had a tiny apartment, that the apartment complex was built at least fifty years ago, and that he didn't own any furniture beyond a bed and didn't have any gadgets aside from his cell phone, was just normal for a man starting out in life.
  Islam did pop up in his life every now and then, though. He had turned down his friends when they invited him to go with them to sow their wild oats. Of course, it was hard to say whether that was out of religious piety, or just common sense. He wanted to find a decent, well behaved, modest virgin at University. High quality girls like that didn't waste their time with impious men. People would talk. Her parents would find out. And suddenly he wouldn't be invited to eat dinner with them anymore. Anyone, whether they were religious or not, could see it just wasn't worth it.
  He kept the fast of Ramadan, but he rarely went to a mosque. He gave himself the excuse that University life was just too busy for such luxuries, and he'd go back to attending mosque once he'd settled down with a family. The kids needed a good religious upbringing, after all, until they could tell right from wrong. Islam also came up whenever Al Jazeera came on, or his friends started talking politics. He was distinctly reminded that he was a Muslim every time he heard about the latest atrocity Israel or the West had perpetrated against them. Sometimes it was killing innocent civilians in their endless wars of aggression. Other times it was just some particularly nasty comment people were making against his people: They fornicated with camels, or were all inbred idiots, or their Prophet, peace be upon him, was composed of cow dung. The calumniators always sank to new lows. People who had never been harmed by a Muslim in their life still found the time to talk about how awful he, as a Muslim, was. It was like they delighted in insulting him, his family, his beliefs and his Prophet. Whenever he listened to the outrages in the news too long, he would get furious, and he would leave the room and take a walk. Somewhere, anywhere, and try to concentrate on girls, or football, or University. There was nothing he could do about it. Mahmut reminded himself. I can't stop them. Allah will sort them out as He pleases, when Judgment Day comes. Allah sees all of this, and He knows their crimes, and He has set aside a place for the evildoers. I don't have to do anything. I can't think about doing something because everyone knows what happens to boys who do. They go crazy and end up dead somewhere far away. And then the Islamophobes would point at those boys and call them names, and call Islam names, and say "See? We were right all along." Mahmut wanted to scream at them that if they had only stopped doing and saying such awful things, no one would have gotten so angry that he had to embrace jihad. That all the blood of the world was on their hands and Muslims provoked beyond all reason weren't to blame for anything they did in response. I can't do anything about it. Think about football. Football is a safe topic. I can think about football all I want and not end up killing people.
  Mahmut was returning from one of these walks, wondering how he could introduce himself to a good looking girl in his class who virtuously did nothing to bring attention to how good looking she was, when the angel Gabriel came down to him. Gabriel was a blinding white light, with a dense core that was the brightest lit part of all. It floated off the ground, waiting for him when he entered the apartment. Mahmut knew instantly it was Gabriel, Allah's messenger, because what else could such a floating light be?
  Mahmut was instantly prostrating himself on the ground, lowering his eyes from the terrible brightness, and started reciting protective lines from the Qu'ran. In the name of Allah, the benevolent, the merciful. What were you supposed to say when an angel came down to you?
  "You are faithful. This is good. I know your heart, Mahmut. Allah is pleased with you. I have been sent to you, to tell you that Allah has a mission for you. Judgment Day is nearly at hand, but Allah's hand is stayed by the false prophets who pervert the world from Islam." Gabriel seemed to grow particularly bright with fury in contemplation of these deceivers.
  "Surely Allah. . .in his power. . ." Mahmut licked his lips.
  "You are faithful, Mahmut. So tell me, do you know of the dajjal?" Gabriel asked.
  "The false mahdi." Mahmut answered. "The thirty liars who come before the true Mahdi, who comes before Judgment Day to save us all."
  "Do you know of the signs that precede the coming of the Dajjal?" Gabriel asked, so far pleased.
  "Usury will become legitimate. People will stop offering their prayers. Adultery will be rampant. The blood of innocents will be shed. The foolish will rule over the wise. . ." Mahmut licked his lips, trying to remember more of his childhood lessons. An ashy pallor came over his face.
  "And tell me, have not all the signs come true?" Gabriel asked, in a voice that shook his skull with heavenly wrath.
  "Yes. . ." Mahmut pushed his forehead against the ground. "Yes, all of them. Every sign has come true."
  "But Allah wishes to give mankind one last chance. He does not wish to begin the last judgment, while the Dajjal still mislead his sheep. If only the Dajjal were killed, people might return to Islam. People would leave off their wicked ways. Allah wishes to welcome as many of his children as possible into his bosom, but the Dajjal are pulling them away. Tell me, Mahmut. Will you, in Allah's name, kill the Dajjal?"
  "Yes, I will do anything. Tell me what to do." Mahmut agreed fervently.
  "The Dajjal, they pretend to be innocent. They take on the forms of the young and the helpless, but they are all wickedly spreading evil across the world. They are the deceivers, even their physical forms are deceptions, and they deceptively call themselves 'Choice Givers.' I will give you Allah's blessing, Mahmut. I will give you the power of Allah. The power to kill the Choice Givers. The power to help Allah End the World. Now, repeat after me, via tu lusches, Pearl."
  "Via tu lusches, Pearl." Mahmut spoke the angel's language, and warmth filled his body. It was Allah's embrace.Thank you, Allah, for giving me such a special place in your service. His life before had just been an illusion. Islam had been the Truth, the only Truth, all along.
* * *
  "This is his room, unless they've moved him since then." Kotone told her friends. She was carrying a small bouquet of flowers in a vase. There was no point bringing him food. The doctors hadn't wanted to strain his digestive system and were keeping him on an IV. He was missing a kidney now, but that was okay because everyone had two to begin with. He'll be fine. Kotone told herself. He certainly won't want to see you walk in crying. Smile. We're here to cheer him up.
  Kotone knocked, and Mr. Miyamoto responded from beyond the door, "Come in."
  Kotone walked into the room, carrying her flower vase in front of her, smiling as brightly as she could.
  "Good afternoon, Mr. Miyamoto. I brought my -- waaagh!" Kotone tripped over a wire and threw her arms out desperately to catch herself. It was no use, she landed on her nose.
  Shiori started laughing. The laughter grew more and more bubbly, until Shiori sounded like she was choking on it.Let her choke on it. Kotone blushed a furious red.
  "Waaagh!" Shiori repeated, in a high pitched squeal, which Kotone certainly hadn't sounded like. Shiori kept laughing, leaning over and holding her sides. "Waaagh!"
  "That," Chiharu said, entering into the room with a straight face, "May have been the cutest thing I've ever seen."
  "It's not like I planned it!" Kotone scrambled onto her knees and looked to check Mr. Miyamoto's reaction. If he was laughing at her too, she would melt into the floor and die. He wasn't laughing, but he did seem a little lost for words. His face and hair were dripping with water, and a few flowers were sprinkled on top of his bed.
  "Oh no! Oh, I'm so sorry!" Kotone rushed to him and got out her handkerchief. She started wiping the water off his hair and then, mortified, tried to give her handkerchief to him. Then she gave up that and just bowed. "I'm so sorry!"
  "I. . .don't mention it." Miyamoto pulled up his blanket and wiped the water off his face. "I suppose there are many ways to deliver flowers." He eventually said philosophically.
  "I'll deliver you flowers properly next time!" Kotone squeaked, still keeping herself bowed.
  "It's okay, Nakano. Why don't you introduce me to your friends?" Miyamoto asked her encouragingly.
  Kotone got up. "My former friend, who won't stop laughing over there, is Shiori Rin. My soon to be former friend, who is laughing at me in her head but just won't show it, is Chiharu Sakai. Now that they're out of the hospital, they wanted to thank you too."
  "Thank you very much for saving my life." Shiori Rin became serious and bowed low.
  "Thank you very much for saving my life." Chiharu Sakai bowed deeply.
  "Nakano didn't like it when I said "It was nothing." So I will just say, it was my honor to save your lives." Miyamoto bowed back to them. "Both of you fought bravely against a terrifying foe."
  "But we lost." Shiori said.
  "And I almost lost." Miyamoto reminded them. "But luckily, one of us just so happened to win."
  "Mr. Miyamoto is too modest. Miyamoto has been fighting Dead Enders for years now." Kotone bragged. "By the way, I brought you this." Kotone pulled Xanadu out of her pocket, and put it in his open hand. It hadn't taken too much effort to convince the staff she had been personally sent by the injured patient on an errand to fetch a good-luck charm Miyamoto particularly regretted not having from his personal effects.
  "Thank you. But it doesn't look like I'll be leaving this hospital any time soon, either way." Miyamoto sighed.
  "Isn't there any Choice Giver who manifests healing?" Chiharu asked.
  "Fish and loaves boy." Miyamoto shrugged. "If you want to go to India. . ."
  "We aren't exactly free to travel the world." Chiharu pointed out.
  "I thought that might be so." Miyamoto gave a wry smile.
  "But if the dark wyrds can trace the locations of Choice Givers, I'm afraid you are in grave danger, Mr. Miyamoto." Chiharu said. "Because you got injured for our sake, we thought about it, and we want to protect you, however we can."
  "Only, we have school, and homework, and chores, and, well. . ." Kotone looked down at her feet.
  "So we thought, why not get in touch via cell phone?" Chiharu picked up the conversation. "If you could keep a cell phone on you, and give us your number, you could call us if a Dead Ender starts yelling "Die, Choice Givers!" somewhere in your vicinity, and we could all rush over."
  "That seems reasonable. What's your cell phone number?" Miyamoto asked.
  "That's just the thing, Mr. Miyamoto. We don't have cell phones yet. We thought you might help us with this tiny little problem." Chiharu asked, her eyes completely innocent.
  Masanori laughed. "You imps! A hospital visit! You came to extort money!"
  "It's only a hundred thousand yen or so." Kotone rushed.
  "And it could save us, too. If we could call each other if a Dead Ender attacked us at home." Shiori plead. "What's the point of saving us if we die while you're still in the hospital?"
  "A hundred thousand yen? Are these gold plated phones?" Miyamoto complained.
  "You have to take into account the calling plans." Chiharu said.
  "Fine. It's not like I have a choice." Miyamoto sighed and got out a pen and paper. "This is my ATM code, and here is my ATM card. Go and take whatever you want."
  "We couldn't. . ." Shiori tried to stop him.
  "What are you talking about? We're Choice Givers. Every one of us. If we can't trust each other to do the right thing, who can we trust?" Miyamoto asked.
  "Thank you, Mr. Miyamoto. All for one, and one for all, right?" Chiharu smiled warmly.
  Kotone was smiling too. Masanori was nice, dependable, and wise. He didn't look down on them at all. That comfortable equality was such a unique feeling around adults.
  "Mr. Miyamoto, is there any chance you could tell us more about yourself? Like, if you know any other Choice Givers? If you know anything about the dark wyrds' plans? How you happened to be there to save us in time? We are new to the superhero business." Chiharu asked.
  "Magical girl business." Kotone corrected her.
  "Choice Giver business." Shiori frowned at them.
  "More about myself, hmm?" Masanori thought quietly for a while. The girls all took a seat. Xanadu blinked in his palm. "Ten years ago, I was in the Japanese Self-Defense Force. A colonel. My life was crystal clear. I only wanted to do one thing, protect Japan. That was when Xanadu came down to me. He said I was a Choice Giver, and that he had folded his way down to this dimension to protect this world from dead ends. I couldn't figure it out. Why was I a Choice Giver? There were millions of soldiers like me. Tens of millions all across the world. But he insisted there were only fifty Choice Givers in the world. The more I tried to explain to him how unimportant I was, the more special he made me out to be. But after the fifth time or so he explained to me how wonderful Choice Givers were, I thought to myself that they must truly be a grand type of man, and I realized what I had to do. I wasn't really a Choice Giver, you see. I am a meta-Choice Giver. I protect other Choice Givers, and so, if everyone emulated me, the future would open up to infinite possibilities, because then the other Choice Givers would be able to forge a path to the future. I'm just a loophole. There was nothing special about me, but there is something special about you. After that it all made sense to me. And I also realized I couldn't be in the Japanese Self-Defense Force anymore. I had to be the Choice Giver self defense force, all on my own, until the day I died."
  "Masanori won't listen to me. I keep telling him there's no such thing as meta-Choice Givers. Just Choice Givers, those who follow them, and Dead Enders. But he insisted on making a new category for himself." Xanadu flashed green-gray-silver.
  "It fits the definition. The logic is impeccable. I'm not special." Masanori said, as though he had repeated the same things to Xanadu a thousand times.
  "You're especially stubborn." Xanadu sniped. "The greatest Choice Giver in the world, the first, and the strongest. And all I hear about is 'I'm just a soldier,' and 'I'm just doing what makes sense.'"
  Kotone laughed. Everyone bonded with their wyrds differently, but all wyrds seemed to love their charges.
  "Be that as it may." Miyamoto continued. "I then started flying around Japan. Xanadu can scry out the location of other Choice Givers. So I started looking for others, checking to make sure they were safe. You three were dim at first, but three years ago, you all suddenly awakened. You all became incredibly bright, especially. . ." Miyamoto coughed, moving on. "You three and Isao's group are the only Choice Givers in Japan we've found. Xanadu can also scry out the ugliest Dead Enders, and when they start approaching too near a Choice Giver, we check to see if everything is all right. So far, we haven't lost a single man. But these. . .dark wyrds, as you put it, won't stop. Not until we're all dead. So the fight goes on. Forever, I suppose."
  "Do you know why the dark wyrds are trying to kill us, Xanadu?" Chiharu asked.
  "No. It's evil to kill a Choice Giver. I can't understand it." Xanadu said.
  "So you've been watching over us all this time?" Kotone asked.
  "For three years or so. We weren't sure at first." Miyamoto corrected.
  "Three years ago. . .is when we all first met." Shiori smiled, radiant with a new realization. "We made each other Choice Givers."
  "Love, Beauty, and Truth." Xanadu said quietly.
  "What is that?" Shiori asked him.
  "It is the purpose behind creation, life, fate, everything. It is life's prayer to God, it is life's glorification of God, it is all that is holy in this world." Xanadu said. "Your love for each other must have reached all the way to Him."
  Shiori smiled proudly, and Kotone couldn't help but run over and hug her. Then Chiharu was with them and they found a way to all three hug together. It was one thing to know you loved each other, and it was another to be told that Wyrds had seen their love grow for each other, seen it transform their souls, with a vision that was always right and could never be mistaken. It was another thing to be told they were all that was holy in this world.
  "Xanadu will try to convert anyone who stays too long in the same room as him." Masanori smiled at them.
  "They have a right to know. Everyone has a right to know God's plan for the living. We came down here to tell you. Not just you Choice Givers, but all mankind. Love, Beauty, Truth. There is nothing else, there never needed to be more." Xanadu said.
  "Thank you, Xanadu." Shiori bowed. "We'll keep that in mind. But I don't need to be told to treasure my friends." Then the three were hugging again and wiping away silly tears that had gotten into their eyes.
  After that, visiting hours were over, and Kotone promised to call him with their new cell phone numbers and that they'd rush to him whenever he asked. School would be starting soon, and then her flute performance. She hoped the dark wyrds would just leave them alone.
* * *
  Chiharu slipped back into the hospital room after the others had left and looked him in the eye. "If we've been Choice Givers for three years, why was this the first time we were attacked?" Chiharu asked.
  "Why do you think this is the first time you were attacked?" Miyamoto grinned. Chiharu nodded to herself, and then gave him another deep bow.
* * *
  When Shiori got home from her hospital visit, she had never been in higher spirits. Mr. Miyamoto was a real Choice Giver, he fit the mental image, always deflecting praise away from himself and giving without any thought of return. She could see why the wyrd government had sent Miyamoto their finest wyrd. Compared to Xanadu, she had gotten Awesome. Only, stupid Awesome had broken in and forced himself upon her. If Awesome hadn't gotten in the way, she could have gotten a pro wyrd like Xanadu. She was sure a Hanadu or a Shanadu had been lined up just for her, but now Awesome had made a life contract with her, and she could never bind with another. Farewell Hanadu. Farewell Shanadu. Awesome has ravished me away. She pictured herself crying and reaching out to them as the red gem carried her into the sunset. At least he could have let her bind with Cyan.
  "I'm home!" Shiori yelled, closing the door and taking off her shoes.
  "Welcome home." Mother called from the kitchen. "Was Mr. Miyamoto feeling well?"
  "He was feeling wet, after Kotone threw her flower vase at him." Shiori replied, giggling.
  "No!" Mother sounded scandalized. But Shiori could hear the laughter in Mother's voice too.
  "She tripped on a wire and went waaagh! And the water and the flowers went sploosh." Shiori tried to pantomine it out, but Mother couldn't see because she was still in the kitchen.
  "That's so awful." Mother said, but she laughed. "We'll eat dinner once Father arrives, so could you feed Melody?"
  "Of course, Mother." Shiori put her shoes back on and went back outside to circle around to the back yard. With only one child, her parents could afford a few luxuries like a house with a yard.
  She kneeled down to pet Melody and then took off the lid to their dog food. She put in two scoops and no more, checked the water (there was still plenty), and then sat down on the back porch and watched Melody eat.
  "I had the most wonderful day." She told Melody. "Now I know why I'm special, Melody. It's because my friends love me more than anyone else loves anyone in the world. Isn't that amazing? I don't know if I've ever been this happy." When Melody was done eating, she got Melody's ball and started throwing it. The dog rushed after it and brought it back, and then Shiori bounced it again, trying to make the angles more wild and unpredictable off the house's walls.
  "Shiori, dinner's ready!" Mother called.
  "Coming!" Shiori replied. She petted Melody once more and then went back around to the front door where she could take off her shoes and get into indoor slippers again.
  Once everyone sat down to the dinner table, everyone said "Itadakimasu." There was miso soup, and rice, and tempura shrimp and vegetables. It was wonderful.
  "And then, you wouldn't believe it, Daddy." Shiori built up the suspense. "Kotone tripped and said waaagh!" Shiori made a dramatic gesture to illustrate. "And she splashed Mr. Miyamoto in the face." Daddy started laughing immediately, not even trying to look scandalized.
  "Did he kick the three of you out?" Daddy asked.
  "No, he was sooo polite. He said, "I guess there are many ways to deliver flowers."" She tried to take on as low a voice as possible. Then the entire family was laughing. After the meal, she helped Mother by drying off the dishes Mother washed, and then all the pots and pans that had been used for the cooking. Daddy went ahead and took the first bath.
  When all the dishes were done and put away, Mother asked Shiori to go get Father out of the tub.
  "Daddy --" Shiori knocked on the door.
  "I know, I'm almost ready." Daddy said. I must have gotten my habit of long baths from Daddy.
  Shiori went back to the television and turned on the news. There were reports of a giant black butterfly seen flying through the sky. That's a new one. I wonder who that is. Then Daddy arrived and she slipped into the bathroom. Shiori undressed and sat down under the shower, this time remembering to shampoo her hair. Just a minute or so into her shower, Awesome opened the window and jumped in.
  Shiori's eyes widened further and further. "Don't look!" She tried to cover herself and fell off her stool. "I knew it, Awesome! You really are a pervert!" She had to compete between yelling at him and keeping her voice low enough that no one outside heard.
  "Rin! Listen to me. There's a Dead Ender headed right for us. We have to get out of here! Unless you want to involve your entire family, we have to go!" Awesome blinked rapidly in agitation.
  Shiori Rin stood up and gathered herself. I wish we had had time to buy those cell phones. It doesn't matter. This time, I'm going to win. She nodded to herself and looked at Awesome calmly.
  "Let's do this, partner. Coi, Awesome." Her suit appeared around her in a sea of shimmering sparkles, and magic flooded through her body. She had heavy looking metallic boots, a red shirt with a metallic chest plate, and a pair of red shorts with metallic greaves reaching down her thighs to her knees. She had a pair of red and brown gloves that only reached to her knuckles, but protected her from damage no matter how hard she hit her opponent. The finishing touch was a tiara with Awesome embedded in the middle at her forehead, glowing like fire. Last time she had been so busy fighting, she had no idea what she'd transformed into. Shiori stopped to look in the bathroom mirror and tried to turn her head while twirling so she could try to see her back.
  "Rin! Have you gone completely mad?" Awesome tried to exude as much urgency as he could while keeping his voice down.
  "Hush. Do you think any girl on Earth wouldn't check to see how she looked in new clothes?" Shiori asked. The suit was awesome. She was clearly a genius. Then she crawled up on the toilet, which got her up to the windowsill, and she quietly dropped down through the window to her back yard.
  "How far away?" Shiori asked, while starting to gather speed. With her boots, she was the fastest sprinter in the world.
  "Maybe two minutes? Even scrying can't see where people are exactly." Awesome said.
  "More than enough, we'll fight in the park. I won't let any bystanders get hurt." Shiori said, her eyes narrowing in determination. She took a few leaping bounds and turned down a new street.
  "Awesome. . .thank you for warning me. Thank you for protecting my family" She told him.
  "Of course I would do that much, Rin." Awesome blinked.
  "Call me Shiori." Shiori said kindly. "But you're still a pervert. You sure took a long look when you had the chance, didn't you." Shiori grumped.
  "Like I said. . ." Awesome started as dryly as possible. But their conversation was interrupted. The Dead Ender was standing on a telephone pole, looking down at them. She was in a black dress with white frills at the sleeves, a white lace petticoat peaking out beneath the first black layer, wearing black strapped boots, with beautiful sweeping black butterfly wings extending behind her back, chased with violet spots and lines. The girl was short and thin. She looked no older than Shiori. Her eyes were completely cold. It's like they no longer looked at anything anymore. They just saw. Beyond that, nothing.
  "Who are you?" Shiori Rin asked. "Why are you doing this?"
  "Are you a Choice Giver?" The girl's voice was cold. Detached. Like she was just idly wondering.
  "My name is Shiori Rin. What is your name?" Shiori asked.
  "Rei Takeda. I've come to kill you." The girl in black said.
  "No you haven't." Shiori said.
  The girl's eyes widened, taken aback. "I haven't?"
  "You came to be healed. You just don't know it yet." Shiori said.
  "Fight back or not, Shiori Rin. I don't care." And then Rei Takeda flew up into the sky.
  I wish I had thought of a suit that flies. Too late now. Shiori gathered her knees and started bolting towards the park. If she stayed out in the open like this, Rei would have all the advantage.
  Rei chased after her, staying a safe distance overhead. "Blackest Night." She intoned, and black bolts started flying from the sky.
  Shiori started zigzagging, her boots punching deeply into the pavement as she kicked off of it faster and faster. She was like a downhill skier. The attacks wouldn't touch her. She's a girl my age. How can I reach her? Wherever the black bolts hit, the earth vanished. It didn't explode, or vaporize, or do anything. It just ceased to be. Shiori gulped and tried to put on more speed.
  "Rei! Listen to me, Rei! The dark wyrds are manipulating you. They say anything, they're just lying to you! Everything is for their own sake!" Shiori cried out.
  "What do you know? Onyx was the only one there for me! Everything should just return to zero!" Rei shouted angrily. A new flurry of black bolts came down from the sky, but the distance between them protected Shiori as much as it did Rei. In the time it took for the attack to land, Shiori could always dodge to the side.
  "Rei! When did you start thinking like that? Think back! When did you start wanting to kill people? It's all the dark wyrds!" Shiori cried out.
  "Death is a mercy!" Rei shouted back. "Eternal Zero!" Shiori didn't see where Rei disappeared. She was in the sky, and then she was gone, and a bar of dark light was rushing towards her from just meters away. Shiori threw herself to the side, cold air rippling by her.
  "Shiori!" Awesome yelled. "Forget about convincing her. She's as dark as pitch. She's irretrievable!"
  "No! I won't give up!" Shiori yelled back at him. "If you have time to say stupid things, tell me what that attack was!"
  "How would I know? But you won't dodge it again. One hit and we disappear! Shiori, what are your priorities right now?" Awesome asked.
  "REI! Rei is my priority right now!" Shiori yelled.
  "Don't use my name like you're my friend." Rei Takeda stood in the street in front of her. "Eternal -- "
  "Firefly!" Shiori cried out desperately. Fireballs spread out in an arc in front of her, attacking everywhere Rei might dodge.
  Rei had to break off her attack and fly backwards, evading the fire with a look of concentration.
  "Why is death a mercy? I love my life." Shiori continued the argument like it hadn't stopped.
  "If you lost your brother, if you lost your dog, you would understand too. Life is just losing everything you love. That's why it would be better to die, if you're the first to die, you won't lose anything at all!" Rei Takeda flew up into the sky. "Distracting me won't work! Eternal Zero!"
  Suddenly Rei was gone, and black bolts were attacking her from every direction. There was only a split second to think.
  "Burst Knuckle!" Her fist slammed into the ground and the entire area cratered beneath her. Some of the black bolts passed overhead, others were intercepted by the fire and debris. That had been so close. She was afraid of breathing and finding out parts of her body were missing.
  "I understand now, Rei. Don't worry. I'll save you." Shiori called up to the sky.
  "If you understand, stop dodging and die! Blackest Night!" Rei Takeda yelled.
  "Flashfire!" Shiori invoked, and the entire night sky flashed like a grenade. There she is. Rei's black wings were outlined by the impossibly bright light. Shiori gathered all her strength into her boots. More. More. I can do anything. She pushed off, leaping into the sky, the air making a whump behind her.
  And then she had caught Rei in a hug, both of them hanging in the sky. "I'm sorry you lost your dog, but I have a wonderful dog to play with back home. I'm sorry you lost your brother, but I would love to be your sister." Shiori held her tight.
  "Let go!" Rei squirmed.
  "No." Shiori replied.
  "Let go." Rei begged.
  "No." Shiori replied.

  Tears started falling onto Shiori's shoulders. Rei hugged Shiori back as though clutching onto a log in a rushing river, then whispered in tortured relief, "It's so warm."


Chapter 7

  "Is she okay now?" Shiori asked Awesome, who still glowed in the tiara on her forehead. Rei had floated them safely back down to the ground, still shaking and holding her. But in just a few minutes she had simply fallen asleep. It didn't look like she had slept much in a long time. Now Shiori carried Rei on her back, Rei's arms wrapped around Shiori's shoulders and legs around Shiori's hips, step by step, back towards home. Her arms were behind her back to keep Rei from sliding down off her back to the ground. So long as she flowed with magic, a weight like this was nothing.
  "It's impossible." Awesome said, returning from his scrying. "She's not a Dead Ender anymore. Just seconds ago, she was a shearing hook, all the futures were dying around her."
  "Choice Givers defy the impossible, remember?" Shiori said, smiling. "We make the impossible possible. Around us, there are infinite possibilities. Even the possibility of healing her."
  "I knew that. . .but I never believed it. This is the first time I've seen. . .why you are such a beautiful girl." Awesome had a touch of awe.
  "You mean beautiful Choice Giver." Shiori corrected.
  "Right. Choice Giver." Awesome corrected. "From a strictly scrying perspective."
  "Don't think a girl is happy if she's called beautiful by a peeper." Shiori said. But she was a little happy. Awesome had never praised her before. The two walked in silence together, crickets their companions, and the moon their guide.
  "What will you do?" Awesome asked.
  "I meant what I said." Shiori replied simply.
  "I know. What will you do about your parents?" Awesome asked.
  "They'll understand. They have to. Did you see her legs underneath this dress?" Shiori asked.
  "Is that another trick question?" Awesome asked.
  "You are such a pervert. Is that all you think about?" Shiori asked.
  "All I ever think about is how I can avoid being called a pervert, and I still fail." Awesome blinked angrily.
  "You know what I'm talking about." Shiori said.
  "I know." Awesome blinked.
  "My parents will understand. They're the people who raised me, after all. I trust them." Shiori adjusted Rei's weight on her back.
  "After tonight, I would believe anything." Awesome said, giving in.
  "How could anyone be so cruel?" Shiori felt tears welling up in her eyes. They were tears of rage more than pain. "A little girl. She's so thin, Awesome. She doesn't weigh a thing."
  Awesome just blinked.
  "Maybe the world should just be a zero." Shiori ached.
  "Don't go losing the argument now." Awesome rebuked.
  "I know, I just. . . How? What did she ever do to anyone?" Shiori asked Awesome again. Asked heaven again. "I can't even wipe my face." Shiori laughed at herself as tears ran off her cheeks to hit the sidewalk.
  "You can heal her." Awesome said.
  "I will heal her." Shiori promised. She started walking on the crunch of grass, and then set Rei down by the bushes next to her bedroom window. She then looked at Rei Takeda's outfit, and then her own, and sighed. If she changed out of her clothes, she'd just end up in what she was wearing before. Which meant nothing. "Awesome, go to my room and fetch me some clothes."
  "Roger." The wyrd floated into her room, returning shortly with two sets of clothing.
  "Okay, now go to my room and don't you dare peep. I mean it. Just because I'm stuck with you for life doesn't mean Rei has to suffer." Shiori said.
  Awesome floated away obediently. He acts obedient, but he'll peek. Perverts always do. Shiori was on to him.
  In ten minutes or so she had both of them dressed in clothes that wouldn't draw suspicion, and then she carried Rei on her back the rest of the way and opened her door.
  "I'm home." Shiori called.
  "Oh thank goodness." Mother said. "Father's already gone out searching for you. You didn't say a word. You vanished in the middle of the night. You've worried your father and me beyond your wildest imagination. And what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?" Her mother towered over her with her hands on her hips.
  "Mother, this is Rei Takeda." Shiori gently set her down in the entranceway. "She doesn't have a home anymore. She's been beaten, and beaten, and beaten. She. . ." Shiori felt tears coming back to her eyes. This wasn't the right way. She had to speak more clearly.
  Shiori got on her hands and her knees and touched her forehead to the ground. "This is my once in a lifetime wish. Please adopt Rei as my sister. If not legally, then in your hearts."
  "Shiori." Her mother stared at her, amazed. "If this is true. . .we have to call the police. Not. . .just suddenly. . ."
  Shiori kept her head bowed, her body trembling. "I don't care about punishing anyone. I don't care about the law. Please, why involve the authorities? They could just take Rei away, take her back. The law could take her anywhere. I just want Rei to be safe. I want Rei to be loved, for once in her life, like I was my whole life. Please. This is all I'll ever ask of you."
  "You hopeless child. Why can't you wish for something for yourself, if it's the only wish you'll ever ask?" Mother asked her.
  "Because Rei needs me. I'd give her anything." Shiori didn't lift her head, she didn't dare move from that position, even if she had to stay there for an hour. A day. Any length, to show her sincerity.
  "Let me talk to your father." Her mother sighed, picking up Rei from the floor and taking her to the couch. She did a quick inspection and her face became more and more pinched as she saw the brown and purple and yellow bruises that sat all atop one another. "Oh, do get up, Shiori. You know he'll say yes. I don't know how you two met, but if you sneaked out to save her, Shiori, I'm proud of you. I'm so very proud of you."
  Shiori smiled, then stood up to sit on the couch with her mother and the sleeping Rei. Mother called Father's cell phone with her own, and they had a quick and private conversation.
  Mother looked down at the two of them, Rei's head resting on Shiori's lap, and let her cell phone drop back down to her side. "He always did want another child." And then Mother was crying. I must have gotten that habit from Mother.
* * *
  Rei Takeda woke up in the middle of the night. She was sleeping on a bed crowded with pillows, stuffed animals, and another girl. Shiori Rin had nestled in tight against Rei's back and wrapped her arms around Rei before falling asleep. The bed was small, so it's not like Rin could stay infinitely far away from Rei even if she wanted to. But Rei knew it wasn't that. Rin was hugging her close because she wanted to hug her close. Rin was asleep, completely vulnerable and helpless, hugging the girl who had tried to kill her less than a day ago. Rei Takeda lay there, feeling the warmth of this complete stranger and taking in the smell of Rin alongside the bed and cushions that had been completely suffused with Rin's scent, and marveled.
  Were there really people like this in the world? No one has ever shown me any kindness since my brother died. I thought the world was devoid of kindness. The kids at school didn't call me by my first name. They never tried to understand me. They called me names, just for keeping to myself. I don't do anything at all and people bully me. I try to kill this girl, this Shiori Rin, and she embraces me.
  What was so absurd is that there was nothing stopping Rei from killing this girl in her sleep. How did Rin know Rei could never do that? Could never have done that from the moment Rin hugged her? How did Rin know that in her heart of hearts, she hadn't wanted to fight? She had wanted to die, for Rin to kill her, for Rin to finish everything so Rei would never have to wake up again. But now she was awake again, and she didn't mind. Waking up like this, with someone's arms around you, she didn't even know there were feelings like this. How many other feelings does the world hold I never knew about? Why did the gods keep all of these feelings from me, if there were so many? It was so unfair. How could one person's life be so sweet and another's so sour?
  Rei had been relieved when that flashfire technique had blinded her. She couldn't dodge Rin's next attack. She wouldn't even feel any fear because she wouldn't see it coming until it was too late. She could just take one of those burst knuckles through the heart and slump over dead. The indignity of being hugged instead, of having her dream stolen away from her yet again. . .and then the realization that she had wished for this hug more than anything else in the world. . .her feelings were changing so quickly, her thoughts becoming so muddled, that Rei had no idea who or what she was anymore. She didn't want to leave Rin's embrace, but she knew life couldn't be this easy. If she were at Rin's house, her parents had obviously just let her sleep over. They would send her back home. The home she had fled because she knew if her father attacked her one more time she would have killed him. Then the cycle would repeat and she would be just as desperate as before. Rei had to figure something out before then.
  "Onyx, are you there?" Rei carefully slid out of Rin's arms and crept down to the living room couch where she could have some privacy.
  "I'm here, mistress." Onyx said, floating off of the floor and blinking black.
  "I'm sorry, Onyx. I did something selfish and ruined your plans." Rei Takeda said, walking down the stairs and holding him in her palm.
  "These things happen." Onyx sighed. "I underestimated her."
  "Will you stay at my side anyway?" Rei asked.
  "Contracts are for life. I can't leave you." Onyx said. "Worse, I have to do anything you tell me to do."
  "I don't want to force you. You could. . .I don't know." Rei said.
  "I honestly can't do anything. I am yours, mistress. I can't make a contract with anyone else, I can't even fly away from you for too long. I could cause trouble for you, maybe blink in a crowded subway to bring attention to myself, but what for? So I get buried in a sock and never talked to again? I tried and I failed. I know when a bet has gone bad." Onyx said.
  "Will your friends be mad?" Rei Takeda asked.
  "Very." Onyx laughed. "But that's okay. If they have something to say about us, we'll just beat them all up. If you had used event horizon, that Choice Giver would've been nothing."
  "Maybe." Rei admitted. I was sure Eternal Zero was already unbeatable. She could freeze a small area within sight to absolute zero, making a complete stasis field. After that she could walk anywhere she wanted, brush her hair, or play tiddlywinks and from the perspective of the target, no time passed. The only problem was any attacks which entered the stasis field were also stassified, so anyone in Eternal Zero was incapacitated, but also invincible. She had to release Eternal Zero for her blackest night spears to reach the rest of the way to the target. But in just that split second, Rin had avoided them. Her agility was ridiculous. Since I hadn't given up on Eternal Zero working, there was no point in resorting to event horizon. I wonder if that would've beaten her though. It's frustrating, somewhere inside of me, to think Onyx and I could lose to anyone. Even though I'm glad I lost. Even though I wanted to lose. Rei Takeda smiled. The gesture didn't come naturally to her. Her face muscles didn't cooperate very well, but eventually they gave in and she enjoyed the irony of her situation.
  "Was Rin right, were you just manipulating me?" Rei asked.
  "Of course." Onyx blinked.
  "Then why did you really want to kill the Choice Givers?" Rei asked.
  "Spite." Onyx said.
  "Spite?" Rei asked, surprised.
  "Why should our world die and yours get to live? It's unfair. So we came here to kill your world too, out of spite. Every time I think of you primitives having an infinite future while my universe, which has fixed everything and discovered everything, just rots away, I. . .I just want to blow up the world. We all do. All the wyrds like me couldn't stand to accept the ridiculous fate God had given us. The almighty wyrds dying, and humans living on. It's humiliating. At least if wyrds outlive humans, there's some justice in the world." Onyx glowed a bright black as he happily got into his speech.
  "We're a lot alike, aren't we, Onyx?" Rei squeezed her black partner. "I hated how other people could live such carefree lives, while I never had anything. I wanted to blow up the world out of spite too." Rei realized.
  "Of course. Why do you think I chose you? You were a great Dead Ender." Onyx complained.
  "I'm sorry Onyx!" Rei apologized again. She hated disappointing the only person who had seen her as valuable, as competent, as good at something. Even if it was villainy.
  "I'll forgive you if you can keep the Choice Giver's wyrds from torturing me or imprisoning me or something. I don't know what law codes would apply down here." Onyx blinked worriedly.
  "If they can forgive me, they can forgive you. All you did is try to help." Rei defended him.
  "Tried to help destroy the world." Onyx pointed out.
  "I'll protect you. And Rin will protect me. Everyone should just get along." Rei nodded decisively.
  Rei tried to think of how she would make money and wander the streets as a lone thirteen year old girl. Her blackest night spears would certainly be good for digging tunnels or canals. Maybe a construction company would hire her, if they didn't mind that she was using magic. If Onyx didn't mind her using magic for such frivolous things. But then, he did say he had to give her magic for anything she wanted, since they had made their contract already. But halfway through her plans, she somehow fell asleep again on the couch, Onyx still resting in her curled up palm.
  When Rei woke up a second time, it was morning and people were already moving around and about the house. She sat up like a frightened deer, wondering if she had made Rin's parents angry by using their furniture without permission, wondering if she'd be beaten again.
  "Takeda, you've woken up?" An older woman with much longer hair than Rin called out her name.
  "Yes ma'am." Rei crossed her arms in front of her and clasped her hands in her lap.
  "You'll be wanting a bath then. For now you can wear Shiori's clothes, even though they aren't a perfect fit. Later, we'll go out and you can buy whatever you like." The woman said. It was strange. She was acting like Rei being here was completely natural. But she did want a bath.
  "Yes ma'am." Rei bowed and looked around furtively.
  "The bathroom is just around this corner. There's another upstairs without the shower and tub." The older woman explained, reading Rei's mind perfectly.
  "Yes ma'am." Rei bowed again and walked where she was directed. The house wasn't very large, so it wasn't hard to find what she needed. Just like she'd been told, a new set of Rin's clothes were hanging on a bar inside the bathroom for her to change into. Rei winced as she pulled her clothes off. She always tried to be careful, but inevitably her clothes would brush up against a fresh cut or bruise that hadn't quite healed yet. She didn't really know what it was like to not be in pain. Rin's hug had hurt a lot, but somehow it hadn't mattered. It had felt wonderful. Rei winced again as the hot pressurized shower water hit her, but she methodically rubbed the pain away with a sponge, massaging the pain until it was a dull warmth that spread all the way up and down her body. Then she got out the shampoo and washed her hair, only finally sinking into the bathtub, where the hot water helped ease the pain. Hot baths had always been something to look forward to at home. Not only was warmth a natural pain killer, when your body floated in water, it didn't come into contact with much, either. But in a few minutes, she started to grow afraid that the older woman would get mad, or perhaps Rin's father would get mad, because she was selfishly hogging the bathroom. So she got back out and quickly got dressed. Rei had long flowing hair down half her back. Partially it was just so people knew she was a girl. She looked like a stick, and three years younger than her real age at that, she was so short. Her long hair was the only mature, womanly gesture she could make. Her parents had never cared to feed her that well. Luckily, her stomach had shrunk enough that she wasn't always hungry for more. At least, not too hungry for more.
  Rin's clothing was loose on her hips, the hem of her skirt plunging almost to her feet, but it would do. It was clean and warm, and it represented Rin's feelings. That was enough.
  Rei dried out her hair as best she could with a towel, then put on her indoor slippers and walked back out into the living room.
  "Takeda, we're about to have breakfast, so can you go wake up Shiori?" The older woman said, ladling out soup from a pot into smaller, invitingly decorated bowls.
  "Yes ma'am." Rei said. For some reason the older woman hadn't found fault with her yet. She hadn't said how awful she looked in her clothes, or how stupid she was to not have found the bathroom immediately, or how slow she was at taking a bath. Rei was sure she should have been insulted at least five times by now, even if all the insults were fit into one explosive sentence.
  Rei traced her route back upstairs to Rin's room, and quietly opened the door. Rin was sleeping on her side, a stuffed giraffe squeezed between her legs with her arms wrapped around its neck. Rei had an impulse to go hug her, but she quashed it down.
  "Rin, please wake up. Your mother says breakfast is ready." Rei said.
  "Nnnn, Rei? When did you wake up?" Rin was still in her clothes from last night, out of modesty for Rei's sake.
  "Only a bit ago. Please hurry." She didn't want to be punished for failing her assigned task.
  "You're that hungry?" Rin smiled. "I'm coming, just let me get changed." She picked up her pillow and stuffed it firmly on top of her wyrd. Rei had told Onyx in the bathroom to fly out the window and hide in the bushes, for now, until she knew he was safe.
  Rei closed the door and started to walk down the stairs. Rin's father was also heading for the stairway though, and Rei instantly flinched backwards. She crossed her arms in front of her and bowed, "Please, after you."
  "Thank you." Rin's father said, walking down the stairs. He also acted like it was completely natural for Rei to be here. "Breakfast smells great. Have you gotten the paper?" His voice trailed off as he went downstairs talking to his wife. Rei didn't really remember her parents talking much.
  "Good morning Rei." Rin gave her a bright smile, standing in fresh new clothes. "You waited for me?" Rin kept assuming the wrong thing. Rei had just wanted to stay as far away from Rin's father as possible. Out of reach.
  "Good morning Rin." Rei returned the greeting awkwardly. In her house, no one said good morning, or good night.
  "Shi-or-i." Rin said.
  "But. . .I couldn't. . ." Rei protested.
  "If you call me Rin, my whole family would have to respond every time." Rin explained.
  "I wouldn't feel comfortable." Rei protested again.
  "I'm sorry. I shouldn't pressure you." Rin gave in. She looked a little hurt. "Let's go have breakfast. My parents want to talk to you."
  Rin almost herded her down the stairs, staying behind her and giving her encouraging smiles. Rei gathered her courage. It was natural for girls who slept over to be served breakfast. She just had to eat breakfast with them, say her goodbyes, and go.
  "My parents don't know about magic." Rin whispered. "It would just complicate things if they did."
  Rei nodded, the gesture promising not to betray Rin's secret. She pulled up a chair and sat down, a steaming bowl of soup with carrots and onions and mushrooms in a warm transparent brown broth. There was rice in a bowl nearby, and a pair of ornate chopsticks, the kind you didn't throw away after using, on the tablecloth.
  "Itadakimasu." The family said. Rei copied them. And then everyone was eating. Rei tried the soup. It was great.
  "Rei Takeda." Rin's father was the first to speak. Rei stiffened. She tried to keep her hands from shaking as she grasped her spoon. "Could you tell us where you got those bruises?"
  "It was my fault." Rei blurted out.
  The family exchanged a ring of looks. "Setting aside whether it was your fault or not, can you tell me who gave you those bruises?" Rin's father asked again.
  "I made father angry. I kept doing the wrong thing." Rei explained helplessly. When had they seen her bruises? She hadn't let anyone find out in her whole life.
  "I see. And how did you lose your brother?" Rin's father asked.
  Rei's hands really did start shaking then, making a tap-tap-tap with her spoon against the lip of the bowl. "I killed him."
  "You killed him?" Rin's father looked shocked.
  "May I be excused?" Rei said, feeling sick to her stomach.
  "No, we have to talk about this. Why did you kill your brother?" Rin's father asked.
  "I didn't mean to." Rei said.
  "Okay, then, how did you kill your brother?" Rin's father rephrased the question.
  "I broke the television with my chair. I made father too angry." Rei said.
  Rin's mother gasped. Rin's father leaned back like he had been hit.
  "Dear," Rin's mother started, but she was cut off.
  "I know. That settles it. We can never involve her family again. They can never know where she went." Rin's father sounded extremely angry.
  "May I be excused?" Rei asked again.
  "No." Rin's father said again. He was like Rin. So stubborn!
  "Rei Takeda, I have another question for you. How would you like to live with us?" Rin's father continued.
  "I couldn't possibly intrude." Rei looked down at her plate.
  "I didn't ask if you wanted to intrude. I asked, how would you like to live with us? It's a simple question. Would you feel happy or sad to live with us?" Rin's father said.
  "Happy." Rei said. What else could she say? Rin had given her as many happy moments as the entire rest of her life combined.
  "Then I have another question. How would you like to be called Rei Rin from here on?" Rin's father asked with that same no-nonsense tone.
  "I. . ." Rei started crying. "That would be wonderful. . .Mr. Rin."
  "You mean 'Daddy.'" Rin's father sat back, a triumphant grin on his face.
  "Yes, daddy." Rei corrected herself, sobs shaking her frail frame. Was there really a family like this in the world? Can I really be Shiori's sister? Had these feelings really existed, right outside her house, right outside her reach, all along?
* * *
  "It's called, "Project Heal Rei." Shiori said. Chiharu and Shiori were practicing their pitching routines on the softball field . Cyan lay quietly inside her shirt on her necklace, in case of sudden attack. The rest of the team was running or fielding balls that the coach would hit out with her bat one after the other. Chiharu tried not to let anything surprise her. But when Shiori had come to school for its grand re-opening, Chiharu had been floored.
  "According to the story, it turns out Rei is my twin sister." Shiori continued, winding up and pitching a fastball.Thwunk.
  "Of course. Everyone has a long lost twin sister." Chiharu encouraged.
  "Only, Rei was weak and sickly. This is because I hogged all the nutrients in Mother's womb. That explains her height too." Shiori said.
  "Naturally, everyone tries to eat their twin sister sooner or later." Chiharu accepted.
  "So she's been home schooled and led a secluded life ever since." Shiori continued, throwing a slider that barely grazed over the strike zone. Thwunk. "But now she's feeling better and asked to attend school with me, and so now she's transferring in to our class."
  "What about the paperwork? Her birth certificate?" Chiharu asked, tossing the ball back to Shiori.
  "That's all being forged." Shiori wound up and threw a foul ball. Chiharu suspected Shiori was nervous that this part of 'Project Heal Rei' wouldn't work.
  "Forged? Your parents must be serious about this." Chiharu threw the ball back.
  "The most serious thing we've ever done in our lives, Chiharu. You can't imagine it. Rei doesn't even realize, but whenever one of us gets too near her, she lifts and crosses her arms, to protect herself from being struck. It's awful. I can't stand it." Shiori threw another ball. Thwunk.
  "So where do I come into this Project?" Chiharu asked, tossing the ball back to her.
  "To transfer from home schooling to middle school, you have to prove your grade level with a test. Rei isn't stupid, but it was hard to keep up with school with a life like that." Shiori said, concentrating hard and pitching a fastball on the top left edge of the strike zone. Thwunk.
  "So I need to tutor her." Chiharu accepted, tossing the ball back. It didn't matter if Shiori loved this Rei Rin more than she loved Chiharu now. Shiori had a big heart. Even a small piece of it was more precious than full sized portions of others'.
  "It won't be too hard. We all need your tutoring, so nothing's changed." Shiori was quick to sweeten the appearance of the deal. She threw a change-up down the middle. Thwunk.
  "I don't mind. I hope I can help heal Rei with more than just tutoring." Chiharu said, tossing the ball back.
  "Of course. You two just have to be her best friends. She hasn't had any friends in her entire life. She had one friend, a dog, and the city killed him." Shiori was always angry when people hurt dogs. It didn't matter how often dogs hurt people. People probably deserved it. But dogs were always innocent, and therefore hurting a dog was a real crime. Shiori threw a fastball down the plate. Thwunk.
  "Let's draw up a list of fun things to Heal Rei with." Chiharu offered. "We could take her to a summer festival, quick, before the season ends." Chiharu tossed the ball back.
  "That's ingenious! We can have a Christmas party, and visit a shrine at New Year's too." Shiori said, her voice enthusiastic. It was a slider, but it was way off target, bouncing off the fence behind Chiharu.
  "Those are both half a year away, idiot." Chiharu said. She tossed the ball back.
  "Maybe Kotone can think of something." Shiori fretted.
  "We could invite her to watch our softball tournament." Chiharu suggested.
  "Right! We'll win the nationals for Rei!" Shiori looked bright eyed.

  "Err. . ." Chiharu didn't know how to respond to that one, but luckily the coach whistled and their pitching practice was done. If Rei hadn't been able to concentrate but was plenty smart, she would be furthest behind in kanji. Chiharu would have to design some worksheets.

Chapter 8

  Claus Reinhardt was a U.N. functionary. He had the same dream as the people who walked the halls of the United Nations since its founding. All of humanity under one government, at peace with itself, without borders or divisions, with a minimum standard of living and basic human rights for all. From this tall tower in New York City, the United Nations worked day and night to finalize Earth's evolution. The U.N. fed the hungry, cured the sick, patrolled the borders of the fractious, punished the aggressive, and preached to the backwards. Slowly but surely, the U.N. would become the only legitimate governing body. Then the U.N. would collect taxes in its own right, form its own army, and usher in the new world order.
  Claus Reinhardt hoped he could be a part of this, however limited his power was now. He hoped the U.N. would achieve their dream within his lifetime. But he feared that time was running out. Without world peace, humanity would go extinct. Weapons of mass destruction would eventually proliferate, some insane group would eventually set them off, and humanity would eventually die, unless the idea of national 'sovereignty' was completely abolished. If the U.N. could not oversee and run every corner of the world with its own enlightened hand, some barbaric corner of the Earth could make the next small pox, or ebola virus, or worse. Modern transportation was so interconnected that an airborne plague, if, say, it had a one month incubation period, could infect every major population center on Earth. Such a virus could be constructed, using simple tools at little cost, in practically any high school chemistry lab. And so long as there were rogue states, or just anarchic states that had no idea what their own citizens were doing, crazies, somewhere, anywhere, could be inventing that very virus. Today. But no one saw the threat. They laughed and said that was just, 'science fiction' and that 'no one would want to do that' anyway. Humanity was walking on a knife's edge. The U.N. was the only solution. A one world government that disarmed everyone but itself and ran everything with the same efficiency as the civilized world was the only answer to this threat. But all he could do is hope to rise up the ranks and that someday people's wisdom would catch up with his own, giving him the authority he needed to conquer the world.
  He tried not to let his ambition consume him. People like that burnt out. Patience was more important than intensity when it came to politics. He sweated out his intensity on tennis courts. He gave all of his wildest and most heartfelt speeches to his wife, the only person who understood. But it was so hard. Every day he filled out some useless form, or asked for some war criminal to be extradited, or watched some other tin-pot dictator thumb their nose at his august organization, the impatience and fury kept rising up. How, this late into the U.N.'s history, how could people still defy its authority? We are the collective will of the world! And these slugs, these worms, pretended they were important, because they owned a few thugs with guns and could extract a measly sum from their subsistence farming peasants? Not only did people continue to defy the U.N., despite being about as important as Joe's corner store in terms of population or GDP, they continued to get away with it.
  I have two children. They are five and six years old. And at this rate, they won't live to age fifty. Because someone, somewhere, is going to set off the Big One. A nuclear barrage that blots out the sun. A plague. A chemical in the air that sterilizes the whole world before we even notice. It was coming. Claus could feel it in his bones. It was coming. And he was just sitting here at a desk.
  Angrily typing in a report with this in mind, a light appeared in his office.
  "Claus Reinhardt. We have watched you closely. Please don't be surprised. People accuse you of believing too much in science fiction. In that case, believe me when I tell you I come from the planet Xiboo."
  Claus stared at the light in shock.
  "I come in peace. We are an advanced civilization. But we couldn't stand watching from the side any longer. Our civilization has developed a technique, called scrying. With this, we have watched over the Earth for thousands of years. Always before, the Earth was safe. No matter how bad things got, its trajectory was still upwards. This is no longer the case. A group of people have emerged, calling themselves "Dead Enders." These "Dead Enders" will, in the future, destroy the world. They will either invent the weapons that kill off mankind, or the philosophy that inspires someone to use them, or be involved somehow or other. Our scrying is not exact. But it can tell us who is cutting off all the lines of possibility from Earth's future. It can also tell us who is the right man for the job. The job of stopping them before it is too late."
  It was an impressive speech. Claus sat, stunned. Could insanity really produce something so coherent, and so full of information he had never himself known or imagined? Which was more unlikely, that he had suddenly gone insane without any warning, or that benevolent aliens existed somewhere in the hundred billion galaxies of the universe? Claus reached out his hand and poked the floating gem that was illuminating his room. It radiated a deep blue color, and was warm to the touch.
  "What is your proof?" Claus asked.
  "Proof? If my civilization is advanced enough to travel to your planet, isn't that proof enough? I have no proof. Humans can't scry, so you can't see what we can see. You can either believe we are aliens with technology beyond your wildest dreams, or not. You can either believe my scrying, or not." The ball said with insulted disdain.
  "If you're so strong, what do you need me for?" Claus asked.
  "I am just a projection. Xiboo is somewhere far, far away. The only way we could help your species in time was to set up a wormhole, a conduit, from our land to yours. And you must be the anchor of that conduit, that wormhole, on this side. Make a contract with me, and we can feed you power through the conduit. It will arrive instantly, and thus, you will have the power to stop this tragedy before it happens. We have watched you, we know your heart, we can scry out your brilliance. You are one of your people's saviors, what we call a 'Choice Giver.' You can save the infinite possibilities of this world, but only if you help us kill the Dead Enders." The floating ball explained.
  A chance to do what he had always wanted. To do something truly important. A chance to stamp out the evildoers who threatened his children and the entire world, with a tool that could tell him the specific identities of the individuals involved, and the power to kill them. It was a miracle. If there was even a small chance this alien was correct. If there was even an infinitessimal chance he could help save the world, how could he possibly turn it down? How could he turn that chance down and look his children in the face? How could he turn it down and look himself in the face?
  "Tell me what I have to do." Claus Reinhardt steeled himself.
  "Repeat after me, Via tu lusches, Indigo. After that it's easy: Kill the Dead Enders, save the world."
  "Via tu lusches, Indigo." A warm feeling sunk into his gut. The phrase had a good ring to it.
* * *
  "Okay, next up is math. You pay attention too, Shiori. I'm only going over this once." Chiharu lectured. Everyone had gathered in the city library for these after school study sessions. Even without Rei Rin, the three of them had been doing this for years, whenever Shiori or Kotone fell behind their class curricula. Now they were just doing it every day. Between school, tutoring, and softball practice, there was barely time left in the day. Chiharu would just get home, eat dinner, take a bath, and fall into bed. At least she was able to finish her homework while at the library with everyone else.
  "There are six trigonometric functions: 1) Sine theta equals cosine of pi over 2 minus theta, which equals 1 over cosecant theta. 2) Cosine theta equals sin of pi over 2 minus theta, which equals 1 over secant theta. 3) Tangent theta equals sin theta over cosine theta, which equals cotangent of pi over 2 minus theta. 4) Cotangent theta equals cosine theta over sine theta, which equals tangent of pi over 2 minus theta. 5) Secant theta equals cosecant of pi over two minus theta, which equals 1 over cosine theta. 6) Cosecant theta equals secant of pi over 2 minus theta, which equals 1 over sine theta. Got it?"
  "Hueeiiiiiiiiiii." Shiori wailed. Rei just stared at her notebook with bleak despair.
  "None of that." Chiharu glared. "This stuff is very simple. Everyone in Japan is expected to know it."
  "Maybe we should take a break." Kotone suggested hopefully.
  "Yes, a break!" Shiori gazed hopefully at Chiharu with her wide puppy dog eyes.
  "Fine." Chiharu sighed. "Rei, I'll write the equations down for you, so give me your notebook." Chiharu's voice was much kinder when speaking to the shortest member of the group. Rei obediently handed it over and watched Chiharu write them all out in a desperate attempt at memorization.
  "I wanted to tell everyone," Kotone started fixing her bangs back under her shooting star hair clip. "The cell phones are in my backpack. I bought one for Rei too. You wouldn't believe how much money he had. Masanori is a gillionaire!" Kotone smiled brightly. Chiharu felt a little dumpy compared to that hair, that smile, and that enthusiastic high pitched voice. I'm not the most unlucky person in the world. I could have been Rei Takeda. So don't go pitying yourself, Chiharu.
  "How did he get so much money? Didn't he retire from his job?" Shiori asked.
  "It's obvious," Chiharu said, while still writing out the trigonometry equations without giving them half a thought. "He capitalized on his magic, somehow or other. A shame my magic can't make money. All I can do is mess with other people's magic."
  "I wonder if a power plant would pay me to heat some steam. . ." Shiori mused.
  "I advise against it." Chiharu said, still not looking up. "Revealing our identities is dangerous. Besides, it's illegal for a thirteen year old to work. Plus, now we have as much money as we want, since we still have Masanori's ATM card."
  "Chiharu! We promised to only use it for cell phones!" Kotone sounded scandalized.
  "He said he trusted us to use it wisely. If ice cream would cheer us up or we wanted to buy a deserted island for training, then that still falls under our budget as Choice Givers." Chiharu finished her equations and patted Rei on the head. Then she realized that despite Rei's looks, she was the same age as Chiharu. Blushing, she cleared her throat and made sure not to make eye contact with the girl.
  "Our own island?" Shiori sounded excited.
  "Okay, I am not letting either of you touch this ATM card ever again." Kotone gave them stiff glares. "And I'm telling Miyamoto about you two next time I deliver flowers, too."
  "Try not to trip." Shiori giggled.
  "Oh, Kotone, I just thought of a great use for your ATM card." Chiharu realized, looking up. "Let's all buy yukatas for the summer festival!"
  "Oooh!" Kotone clapped, looking delighted. "Let's go! Let's go now! Rei, do you want help picking out a yukata? I could do your hair, too!"
  Rei looked startled, surprised to suddenly be the center of attention. "I. . .I've never worn a yukata. . ."
  "Don't worry, I'll help you put it on. Please come with us, I'll die if I hear one more problem involving cosecants today." Kotone grabbed Rei's hands between hers.
  Rei looked at Shiori, who nodded encouragingly. "I want a black one, with silver fish." Rei decided.
  "Then I'll wear white with gold fish." Kotone decided.
  "No fair! I want a yukata that matches Rei's. She's my sister!" Shiori protested.
  "You can't even dress yourself in a yukata, so how could you help Rei? Face it, she's mine now." Kotone pulled Rei's back against her front and wrapped her arms possessively around her. They really looked like mother and daughter, what with Kotone being especially tall and Rei especially short. Chiharu wished she had a camera. I have to remember to bring a camera for the summer festival. Everyone will be at their most beautiful in years. And it will be Rei's first happy memory with us. She'll want to keep looking back over the pictures, again and again, and it will make her happy every time she sees them.
  Kotone got out her backpack and put it on the table, handing out the cell phones. "I've input all of our cell phone numbers already. Miyamoto is the first on the list, then Shiori, then Rei, then Chiharu, then me. Everyone, be sure to call Miyamoto and give him your number. The Dead Enders could come any time, so keep these on you at all times. I hope you're keeping your wyrds with you too." Kotone said.
  "Of course. Awesome's in my bag." Shiori said, taking the phone.
  "I brought Onyx." Rei whispered, still being hugged against Kotone.
  "And Cyan's around my neck." Chiharu said.
  "All right everyone, we're going to the nearest cash machine. Project Summer Festival, begin!" Kotone put her hand out.
  "Ohh!" Shiori placed her hand on Kotone's.
  "Yay!" Chiharu said with an affected cheer, placing her hand into the growing circle.
  ". . ." Rei tentatively put her hand on top. Super Secret Project Heal Rei had begun.
* * *
  The night of the summer festival had finally arrived. Shiori was practically bouncing on her toes. They had waited until the weekend, and had spent all day preparing together at Shiori's house. Kotone had insisted on doing Rei's hair, which had a circular braid running all around her head like a natural crown of flowers, and needles holding up the rest of Rei's long black hair in a bun. Shiori couldn't do anything with her hair, but Chiharu had pulled hers into twin tails with belled red ribbons at the ends. Kotone had used a giant red ribbon tying her hair back in a loose pony tail. Everyone was in red elevated wooden sandals that made a clop clop every step you walked. Kotone was wearing her white yukata with goldfish, Rei her black yukata with silver fish, Shiori was wearing a red yukata sprouting with bunches of grapes and chrysanthemums, and Chiharu wore a blue yukata full of birds flying or perched on twigs.
  Chiharu handed her camera over to Shiori's father, and then they all excitedly squeezed together and smiled. Shiori and Rei got to stand in the very center, squeezed tight by their friends. Kotone gave a V sign, and then the shutter snapped.
  "Thanks Daddy. We're off, then!" Shiori announced breathlessly. Chiharu quickly fetched her camera back and wore it on her wrist with a tight strap.
  "Are you sure you'll be safe alone?" Daddy asked.
  "This is Inazumu, Daddy. Nothing ever happens here!" Shiori reassured him.
  "Ah, Shiori, we thought we could set up another bed by the time you got back for Rei." Mother said.
  "Absolutely not!" Shiori gave a big X with her arms. "I want to sleep with Rei."
  "But, surely it's an inconvenience for two people in such a small bed." Mother protested.
  "Rei is like a wild animal, mother. To be tamed, she has to be accustomed to my touch." Shiori said.
  "Shiori. . .I can hear you. . .I'm right here." Rei was looking down at the floor, blushing furiously.
  "See? Rei doesn't mind. The matter is settled then." Shiori nodded as though it were impossible anyone could disagree with her any further. "Love you Daddy. Love you Mother. I'm off."
  "Have a safe trip." They both replied.
  "Bye-bye, Daddy, Mother. I'm off." Rei looked up bashfully, then back down again.
  "Have a safe trip." The two replied even more warmly.
  Then they were out the door and walking as fast as their red elevated sandals could handle. They didn't have many streets to walk before they started hearing the boom boom boom of the ceremonial drums, and an occasional parade of flutes.
  "This is so exciting. My last summer festival was when I was like, six!" Shiori enthused, spinning around in a circle and looking up at the night sky. It was a clear night with a bright full moon. It was perfect.
  "What do you want to do first, Shiori?" Kotone asked. Kotone had explained the plan. They couldn't let on that this was all for Rei's sake, or she'd feel self-conscious, and try too hard to enjoy herself, and then she might not enjoy the festival at all. As far as the group was concerned, Rei could go jump in a creek. They were all coming because theywanted to have fun.
  "Takoyaki! Then taiyaki! Then ikiyaki! Then yakisoba!" Shiori shouted each of the food items off in turn.
  "You'll get a stomach ache." Kotone warned.
  "Sacrifices must be made! The food is waiting for me. I can't let it down." Shiori said.
  "I want to catch goldfish as soon as possible." Kotone said. "My outfit won't be complete until I have a water bag full of swimming goldfish hanging on my wrist."
  "I want goldfish too." Rei said.
  "Of course! We have to stay matching. We're going to stay right next to each other the entire festival, and draweveryone's heads. They're going to ask for pictures we're so cute." Kotone smiled at Rei.
  "You want to eat with your sister, don't you Rei?" Shiori asked with pleading wide eyes.
  "Of course." Rei said.
  "I want to try out the shooting gallery. I'll show them the results of my laser gun training." Chiharu held out her arm and flexed her non-existent muscles. "If I get a stuffed dog, I'll give it to you, Shiori."
  "Maybe we should get alien masks for our wyrds!" Shiori enthused.
  Kotone laughed. "I would love that. Let's strap a set of alien masks on all of them and make them glow really bright and take pictures."
  Rei giggled. Shiori's heart rushed with warmth. Rei was laughing because of my idea. It's working.
  When the four girls arrived, they did become the center of attention. They were so young and pretty that the crowd made way for them as they walked between the stands together. A few adults asked if they could take pictures, which slowed down their walk, because they all had to gather tight together again and pose with big smiles. Shiori couldn't stop smiling. She didn't have to fake it for the pictures.
  "I found the goldfish. Let's go, Rei." Kotone started dragging her by the wrist, not even looking back to see if Rei would follow. Shiori staked out a tree to sit under and started ordering food from the stands. When she ran out of hands for the food, she deposited all of it, still steaming hot, and then went back for more. On her second run, she had found candied apples, chocolate bananas, and cotton candy, and bought all of those too. Shiori didn't worry about money. Project Heal Rei was funded with the full approval of Mr. Miyamoto.
  Kotone was kneeling down with a pile of broken nets at her feet. She hadn't managed to catch a single goldfish gently enough to place into her water bag. Rei was working on her fifth goldfish. She had only broken three scoopers. Shiori walked up behind them. "Are you two ready?"
  "I'll be the shame of the Nakano family if I can‘t even catch a single goldfish!" Kotone bit her lip in an expression of supreme cuteness. Did she do it intentionally? Shiori could never tell.
  "I'll give you some of mine, Kotone." Rei offered shyly.
  "I. . .I. .. " Kotone slowly raised the fish up on her net, not startling it or making it thrash. "I got it!" Kotone flipped her net over and the fish was secure in her water bag.
  A large crowd clapped for her. Kotone drew attention like a magnet, and she stood up and gave a big V sign, then bowed. Her smile was as bright as the sun. After that Rei poured water out until two more goldfish fell into Kotone's bag, then Rei refilled her water, and the two of them walked together with three goldfish each strapped to their right wrists.
  Chiharu snapped a picture of Kotone with an arm around Rei and both of them holding out their right arms to display their living jewelry. Then they all started eating. The food was hot and full of meat and spices, and the candy was sinfully sweet.
  "Let's go buy the masks." Shiori suggested to Kotone.
  "Then, I'm going to the shooting gallery." Chiharu said. "Rei, do you want to come with me?"
  "Okay." Rei said, and the two were off, threading through the crowd.
  "It's working!" Shiori whispered gleefully to Kotone.
  Kotone tossed her hair and put her hands on her hips. "Of course it's working. She's helpless between the three of us. Ohhh, ho, ho, ho." Kotone gave an evil laugh. Lots of people turned to watch them. Shiori smiled and held her hand up to her mouth too. "Ohhhh, ho, ho, ho, ho!"
  Then the two of them got in chorus and leaned backwards together. "Ohhhhh, ho, ho, ho!" What was there to be ashamed about? They were thirteen year old girls in yukatas. They'd be forgiven anything.
  They had just purchased their masks when Magnolia gave a start. "There's a Dead Ender coming our way."
  "Not now!" Kotone exclaimed.
  "I don't think they attack at our convenience." Magnolia replied wryly.
  "Let's go meet Chiharu." Shiori said, and Kotone nodded. The two were running through the crowd, only to see Rei and Chiharu running towards them. Chiharu was stubbornly carrying her stuffed dog under her arm.
  "We have to get away from the crowd. We'll settle this in one go." Shiori said confidently. The other three nodded. Kotone looked a little queasy. That was when her phone rang.
  "Hello?" Kotone opened her cell phone hurriedly. Shiori couldn't hear what was being said, but she could guess.
  "Oh no. Shiori, Mr. Miyamoto. . ." Kotone looked at her.
  "Kotone, Chiharu, go protect Mr. Miyamoto. We'll handle this." Shiori ordered.
  "Are you sure? We could fight this one all together." Kotone offered.
  "And what if Miyamoto dies in the meantime? Go. Don't worry, I have Rei with me." Shiori said. Kotone nodded. Then all four of them were ducking behind the nearest building.
  "Coi, Awesome!"Coi, Cyan!" "Coi, Onyx!" "Coi, Magnolia!" The yukatas folded out, and four magical girl outfits appeared instead. Sparkles surrounded all of them for a few brief seconds.
  Kotone's boots sprouted rainbow colored wings. "Chiharu, hold my hand. We're flying as fast as we can." Chiharu, in her complete exoskeleton, took Kotone's hand. "I can do a bit better than that." Chiharu said. "Amplify." And then Kotone's wings started vibrating and throwing off even more colors.
  "See you soon!" Kotone tried to give a reassuring smile, and the two shot off like a comet through the sky.
  
  Rei sprouted her butterfly wings and carried Shiori to the top of the highest building's roof. After that, they just watched and waited. The two said nothing, just letting the summer breeze slide across their faces. Rei's braided circlet of hair stood out against the full moon.
  "Here it comes." Awesome warned Shiori. Shiori spotted the man and called out to him. His figure was shrouded in darkness. It almost felt like the man was nothing but darkness.
  "I'm Shiori Rin, a Choice Giver. I want to talk. There's no reason for us to be fighting. Whatever your dark wyrd said to you, it was all lies!" Awesome's magic translated the words across all possible languages. Even though Shiori was looking right at him, she suddenly lost sight of him. He appeared closer, as though stepping out of the roof's shadow.
  "Dark wyrd? I was contacted by Shiva. Shiva told me the last dance had begun, and killing you would end the world. End the world, and start it anew. Shiva has chosen me to dance for him." The man's voice almost hissed. No matter how close he got to them, there were still no distinct features. Just a figure in shadow.
  "Is your great God Shiva really just a floating ball?" Shiori asked. "Think about it!"
  "No one insults Shiva and lives." The man hissed. And just like that, tendrils of shadow darted out to bite Shiori.
  Shiori jumped backwards, trying to think of what to do. But suddenly the man wasn't in her field of vision anymore.Jumping between shadows againIn that case. . .
  "Flashfire!" Shiori yelled, and the entire night sky lit up.
  "Fool." The man hissed. "Where there is light, there are shadows." His voice came from behind. The man was behind her. She turned around, trying to catch him in her eyes again, and then a sharp pain tore through her. Impossible. He was nowhere near her!
  Shiori dropped to the ground, holding her side. Her chest plate had been cut, and a thin line of blood started trickling out from under it.
  "Blackest Night!" Rei called from above, soaring on butterfly wings. The bolts dropped down in a flurry, but the man had disappeared into the shadows again. Small craters pocked the rooftop from where her attack had landed.
  "Shiori, are you okay?" Rei called out fearfully.
  "I'm fine." Shiori said, standing back up. If I can't see him, then I just have to know where he's going to be.
  "Fireplace." Shiori said, setting a mine in front of her. "Fireplace." She set a mine behind her. "Fireplace." She set a mine to her left. "Fireplace." She set a mine to her right. "Come at me, you dancing freak." Shiori said.
* * *
  "Magnolia, can you still sense Miyamoto?" Kotone asked, rainbow light streaming behind her as she cut through the sky.
  "He's alive. The Dead Ender is right there too, somewhere, but scrying can only locate an approximate location. He's probably in the hospital, looking for the room number." Magnolia replied.
  Kotone flew to Miyamoto's window and let Chiharu go. The momentum sent Chiharu crashing through the window and into the wall on the far side. "Chiharu, guard him. I'm going to the ground floor to find the culprit."
  "Isn't this causing a scene?" Chiharu grumbled, rubbing her head and standing back up.
  "No one can recognize us in our magical girl forms." Kotone brushed the concern aside. Then she was flying back down to the reception desk. With her winged heart wand and pink hair and red beribboned white dress, the hospital came to a halt just to look at her. I just have to find someone in a flashy outfit. Where. Who? Kotone walked through the halls.
  "Excuse me, miss. Do you have some business--?" A security guard walked up to intercept her.
  "Magical, Miracle, sleeping gas." Hearts puffed out of her wand, and the guard coughed a few times, then slumped over. Kotone had already forgotten about him before he hit the ground. Where was the culprit? Surely he wouldn't still be in his normal clothes this near an enemy Choice Giver.
  "I am Kotone Nakano!" Kotone shouted. "A Choice Giver! I'm a champion of love. All I want is to spread warmth. There's no reason to fight. Let's talk this over!" Magnolia translated her voice magically into whatever language her opponent needed to hear.
  She saw a grenade rolling towards her, and bolted backwards with her wings. An explosion ripped the hallway where she used to be.
  "Please stop that. There are innocents all around us. If you want to fight, at least come outside." Kotone spoke to her still unknown opponent.
  "There are no innocents among infidels." A man stepped forward, wearing a kevlar armor suit with dynamite and grenades hanging everywhere. "Allah has already condemned you all."
  The people within the hospital screamed and started running away.
  "Allah? The only person who has been talking to you is a dark wyrd. Look, I have a wyrd too!" Kotone held up her right hand, Magnolia shining a pure white light.
  "Silence, Dujjal. You are a deceiver. Everything you say is a lie. Your very form is a lie. How sick of you to take on the shape of a little girl." The man held out his fist and clenched it.
  "Earth ripper!" Spikes started growing out of the floor, ceiling, and walls to pincushion Kotone.
  "Magical, Miracle, corrosion!" Kotone waved her wand and acid splattered in a circle around her, dissolving the earth as quickly as it stabbed towards her. Then she bolted for the door. I need to stall until Chiharu gets here. Surely she heard that explosion. I have to keep his attention. Why won't he listen to me? Rei listened to Shiori!
  Kotone flew out the door and launched herself high into the sky. The moment he stepped out of that hospital -- "Sting snipe!" Kotone announced, and a rain of needles shot out of her wand.
  The man looked stunned, pin cushioned from top to bottom. Then he grinned, and started brushing the things off, while looking up to see her. "Allah protects his own. He has given me the strongest armor, Dujjal."
  "Go suck on a pig." Kotone said, sticking out her tongue and lowering one of her eyelids.
  "You little --" The man's face grew veined. "Blast Wave!" And an explosive shock wave shot out of his fists towards her position. Kotone soared into the sky, turning and looping just to make sure he never got a fix on where she'd be next.
  "Magical, Miracle, Sulfuric Acid." Kotone said. She hated doing this, but if sting snipe didn't work. . .
  The acid appeared over his head in a washtub, then tipped over to spill all over his face. The acid stopped at his clothes, though, and hovered over his hair, sizzling away at an invisible wall.
  "You signed a contract with jinn, but I signed a contract with Gabriel. You cannot defeat me, witch." The man grinned.
  "Amplify." Chiharu said, standing behind the man. And then the acid kept growing. The sizzling became louder, then his whole body was covered in steam, and then the screaming began.
  Kotone eventually landed beside the unrecognizable corpse. She felt sick.
  "Good job Kotone. I barely had to do a thing." Chiharu said, patting her on the shoulder.
  "I tried talking to him. He wouldn't listen." Kotone sighed.
  "People of Faith don't listen to reason." Chiharu stated simply. "I'm worried about Shiori. Let's go back."
  "Just. . . Give me a minute, Chiharu." Kotone said. Then she turned around and threw up. She tried to keep her beautiful pink hair away from the flow.
* * *
  "Shadow snake." The shadow man hissed, and his tendrils shot across the ground from another secluded corner of the roof. Halfway to Shiori, the ground erupted in front of her and blew the things away. A fountain of fire burned into the sky, leaving a thick smoke when it was gone. But he was already moving again, in his strange warping away, and he had drawn a sword just as dark as his own body. Strangely, he wasn't heading for Shiori, but well off to the side.
  Rei figured it out just in time. "Eternal Zero!" She yelled. Not at the shadowman, who she could never catch in her field of vision anyway. On Shiori.
  "Clever butterfly." The man hissed, his shadow already melting away again. "Have you seen through Shiva's dance already?"
  "You aren't attacking us. You're attacking our shadows. But it doesn't matter. Anything within my stasis field is invincible. Chop at her all you want, it won't matter if you can't bring me down. I'm your opponent now." Rei made sure her shadow wasn't anywhere near the rooftop.
  "You're not a Choice Giver. Leave now and I'll spare you." The man hissed at her dismissively.
  "Shiori is my sister." Rei answered coldly, her eyes narrowing to slits. "And don't be mistaken. Eternal Zero isn't protecting Shiori from you. It's protecting her from me."
  "Shadow snake." The shadowman called, fanged phantasms attempting to snag her out of the air.
  "Stasis shield." Rei sneered dismissively. The snakes froze in place in front of her. "Let's do this, Onyx." Rei whispered quietly to her partner.
  "Initiating." Onyx said, in a particularly pleased voice. Onyx was embedded in the small of her back, his black light forming her butterfly wings. But once Onyx started concentrating, her wings spread out well beyond her, an inkblot spreading into a new black sun that extinguished the moon.
  "Everything should just return to zero." Rei chanted. "Event Horizon."
  Shadowman tried to flicker to one shadow, then to another. Each time, he was dragged back up towards her black rift in the sky. He howled, trying to flee away to another building entirely. The gravity pulled harder.
  Rei floated calmly in the sky, watching her prey. I am the cold. He went this way, and he went that way. He even went upside down. But it had all been futile from the start. Rei allowed herself a smile when he disappeared into the tiny black dot at the center of her maelstrom.
  Rei waited a few more seconds, just to be sure, then she cut the rift off. She floated down to Shiori and let her boots land on the roof, then released eternal zero.
  "Rei! Where did he --?" Shiori blinked, her head turning back and forth.
  "It's alright, Shiori. I dealt with him." Rei said. "More importantly, how's your side?"

  "Just a scratch. My suit isn't just for show." Shiori smiled, lifting her arms to show how healthy she was. Then they heard a whistle and a pop behind them. The two turned to see the first firework light up the sky. Without having to say anything, they defolded back into their yukatas, sat down, and held hands. Bursts and sizzles of every pattern filled the sky. Golden streamers that looked like trees, and flashes that just made enormous cannon like sounds, and fireworks who gave birth to baby fireworks that exploded into new colors and patterns. The summer festival was coming to an end. But this was an alright way to end it.

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