Blog Archive

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Followers and Emulators:

Chapter 1

"You know, I only spared you yesterday because my fiancee insisted I talk things over with people before stabbing them.  So why are you back here today?  Do you think I have the patience of Buddha?"  Isao Oono sighed, tapping his spear across the back of his shoulders in time with his words.  He should have known listening to Shiori would just get him into trouble.  What was the point of invisibility if he couldn't kill with it?  He was terrible at giving speeches anyway.  What did she expect him to say?  "Today the weather sure is nice?"  He was talking to a wyrd contracted Dead Ender, humans handpicked for being the most nefarious evildoers on Earth.  What does she expect from me, miracles?

"It won't go like last time, Choice Giver."  The Dead Ender smirked cockily, a werewolf with red eyes and slavering jaws that could no doubt bite through trucks and were poisonous besides.  He could probably regenerate too.  Magic was good about matching people's inner expectations.  "Now that you've stopped skulking around, it's all over.  Say your prayers!"

Isao Oono held up his free hand, willing him not to move, still tapping his spear haft on his opposite shoulder.  "The weather sure is fine today, isn't it?"  There.  He had tried to convert the Dead Ender just like she wanted.  He'd given it his all this time.

"RAWRRR!"  The werewolf growled one last time in disgust and lunged across the open park grounds.  He was fast, far faster than an ordinary human.  Of course, Isao wasn't an ordinary human anymore.  He was a Choice Giver.  It was time he let this lupine understand what that meant.

"Split form!"  Isao announced to Black, whose light created a black bubble around him.  Isao Oonos dashed out of the bubble in every direction, some even jumping into the air.

"You can't fool me.  There's only one real body!"  The wolf yelled, jumping and biting from one Isao to the other, his claws and teeth harmlessly passing through them.

"Grappling hook!"  Isao announced, and a thousand pronged ropes shot out from all of his separate illusionary replicas.  The werewolf looked with dismay for any place to dodge, but the ropes were spinning in from everywhere.  In that moment of hesitation the singular true Isao's singular true rope hit perfectly, winding and winding around his arms and torso so fast that the Dead Ender lost his balance and toppled over sideways.

"Flash Move!"  Isao blinked from his location which had been directly behind his starting location, appearing in a single instant right in front of his opponent's fallen form.  And in that instant Isao sank his spear deep into the Earth an inch from the werewolf's protruding snout.

"Strike two."  Isao said over his opponent, breathing hard as he leaned menacingly on his spear.  "Yesterday was strike one.  Strike three and you're out.  Go and sin no more."

The Dead Ender gave out a howl of frustration, fury and despair.

* * *

Shiori Rin heard the howl and despite herself jumped to her feet in worry.  "Awesome."  Shiori half-asked.

"Don't worry.  I can still scry his presence."  Awesome paused a moment.  "He's heading this way now."

"And the Dead Ender?"  Shiori asked, still worried.  Just because he was alive didn't mean he wasn't injured.  A Dead Ender just would have to interrupt her picnic with her fiance and friends.  They never cared about timing, or common courtesy.  It was so like evil doers.

"He's alive. . .but his wavelength. . .is somehow muted.  Like a steak knife becoming a butter knife."  Awesome blinked confusedly.

"As expected from my love."  Shiori beamed brightly.  "He converted him!  I knew he could do it if he would just try!  I wonder what he said!  I bet it was the most brilliant speech ever.  Don't you think so too, Awesome?"

"I . . . no comment."  Awesome passed, knowing it was impossible to contradict Shiori once she was on a roll.

"Isaooooo!"  Shiori shouted, jumping and waving at him as he appeared over the horizon, still draped in his ninja clothes with a distinctly non-bloody spear trapped by his arms behind the back of his head.  She couldn't tell if he smiled behind his masked face.  Only his eyes were exposed behind all his black leather and cloth, and she was too far away to see what they were saying.

Isao gave a nonchalant wave, lifting one hand to acknowledge her presence, then continued walking back to their spread out picnic blanket.

"What is that?  He could act a little more excited."  Shiori pouted, biting her lower lip.
"You know him better than that."  Masanori cajoled.

"Boo."  Shiori kept her face in a pout for a few more seconds, then got tired of it and rushed up the hill to meet him 3/4ths of the way with a brilliant proud smile.

"You did it!  You're amazing!  I want to have your kids!  Marry me!"  Shiori said, hugging him tight.
Isao folded out of his ninja gear and back into his street clothes, a proud grin on his face.  "Silly.  You believed all that already."

"Nope!  Only now!  I was just teasing before!"  Shiori drew back to show she was just teasing now with her smile, then kissed him on the lips.  The kiss lingered for a few seconds as they both relaxed with another near-death experience behind them.  Shiori Rin was twenty years old and Isao Oono was twenty-two, and their lives were already set in stone.  Isao was Shiori's first, last, and only.  In love, intimacy, and everything else.  She didn't need to know who else was out there or how happy they'd make her.  She was already the happiest she'd ever been.  There was no point asking for more.

Isao took her arm between his and held her waiting hand at the bottom, all their fingers interlocked instead of just their palms, and the two walked back down the hill to their spread out resting spot.  It was another hot summer in southerly Inazumu, Japan, but the breeze, shade, and the river flowing nearby all helped to keep it cool.  It was the start of their year together, before he flew abroad assassinating bad guys for their year apart.  She wished he would never leave, but that had been his deal.  She wasn't ever going to ask him to change it.  That would be fundamentally dishonest.  It would be despicable.

"Awesome says you rendered the Dead Ender harmless.  He says he's too dull to cut a single branch of possibility anymore."  Shiori gushed.

"That's good to hear."  Isao laughed.

"What did you say to him to change his mind?"  Shiori asked.

"Oh, you know.   This and that."  Isao replied vaguely.

"I'm really curious!"  Shiori leaned into him.

"Oh, just boy talk.  You wouldn't understand."  Isao said, shooing it away dismissively.  "What's important is he's agreed to stop, right?"

"I suppose."  Shiori pouted disappointedly.  What had he said?

"Welcome back, Isao, Shiori."  Kotone Miyamoto smiled brightly.  Kotone had the most beautiful smile in the world.  But currently she was a little short of perfection due to being heavily pregnant.  Standing watchfully by her side, still in his samurai garb, was her older husband and Choice Giver number 4 at the picnic, Masanori Miyamoto.  Shiori had been so anxious about the fight, she was actually surprised to see them sitting there on the spread out blanket.  She had forgotten them completely.

"So can we spread the good news?  Our final Choice Giver has finally talked a Dead Ender into coming back to the good side?"  Kotone asked merrily.

"Yep!"  Shiori stepped away from her fiance and showed him off proudly.  "He's a second stage Choice Giver now, just like everyone here!  He won't lose to anyone!"

Isao gave an embarrassed bow, and Kotone and Masanori clapped with congratulations.

"So where were we, before the interruption?"  Kotone asked, always the social expert and the flawless moderator of any party.

"Wedding invitations."  Shiori sat down, already wearing the diamond ring they had gone shopping together for a week ago on the fourth finger of her left hand.  It was expensive without being enormous, in a subtle but beautiful way she could look at all day.  The diamond was black, because it reminded her of him, and the entire band had an inset of precious gems in a small dip surrounded by a rise of gold on either side.  The two of them could afford anything, since they were both earning 100 million yen a year as 'consultants' to Angle Corporation -- which consisted exactly of one person, the owner, who just so happened to be Masanori, their best friend.  She didn't feel guilty at all for splurging on the wedding ring.  Marriage was special, and so the symbol of it should be special too.

"That's right."  Kotone put on a compassionate face.  "I never asked before.  What happened to your family, Isao?"

"Hmm?  Oh, I left a note."  Isao said casually, leaning over to pick up a handmade onigiri by a very unexpert wife-in-training.  He only realized he'd said something wrong when the entire picnic fell into dead silence.  For a moment even the crickets stopped chirping.

"You did what?"  Shiori started dangerously.

"You know.  When I was 15 and Black told me I was Chosen.  Obviously I couldn't stay any longer. . .so I left a note. . ."  Isao trailed off, looking at Shiori's and Kotone's disapproving glares.

"Obviously, huh?  So I suppose I've been quite the idiot for living with my parents up until now, huh?"  Shiori said.

"More importantly, how much do you think your Mother's been worried about you?"  Kotone said in a high pitched squeal.

"It's not like that at all.  We're all really easygoing, as a family.  Not like yours.  I'm sure they took it well."  Isao said, waving his hand.

"So my family isn't easygoing enough, huh?"  Shiori asked even more angrily.

"There's no Mother on Earth who would just accept a note and stop worrying about a son who hasn't contacted her again in seven years!"  Kotone squealed at a nigh supersonic pitch.

Isao looked desperately to Masanori for help, who shivered in fear and fled nearly to the other side of his tree out of sight.

"Isaooooooo."  Shiori said, placing her face directly in front of his.

"Yes dear?"  Isao said sweetly.

"We're writing another 'note,' right now!  You'll tell them that you're marrying a sweet, sweet young girl and ask them to attend our wedding, right?"  Shiori asked.

"Right.  Of course.  That was my intention to begin with."  Isao kept his eyes closed to avoid seeing her angry face any more.

"And that you want them to meet me as soon as possible, right?"  Shiori continued.

"Of course.  Naturally."  Isao gritted.

"And you'll apologize for not saying anything until now, right?"  Kotone put her fists on her hips.

"An apology. . . but it was completely sensible. . ."  Isao protested.

"ISAO!"  Both his current and ex-girlfriend shouted in unison.

"Right, an apology, of course.  That was my intention already."  Isao wished he was back on the battlefield fighting werewolves.

"And as for you, Mr. Quiet.  Come to think of it, I don't know what happened to your family either."  Kotone turned like a hurricane towards her disappearing lover.  "Surely you didn't 'leave a note' too, did you?"

"If I had, I certainly wouldn't admit it now."  Masanori laughed.

"What was that?"  Both girls chimed in unison.

"I didn't!  I didn't!  It was nothing like that.  Both my parents died of lung cancer when I was in my 20's.  They smoked over a pack a day.  They wouldn't stop even when their doctors begged them to and showed X-rays of their tumors.  Of course they didn't qualify for any organ transplants, so it was all over from the beginning.  And before you ask, I was an only child.  They spent all their spare money on more cigarettes.  I was probably an accident they resented for cutting into their smoking budget in the first place.  There's no way they were going to allow a younger sibling through that gauntlet.  Mother didn't even stop smoking while she was pregnant."  Masanori said, his face growing harder and harder the longer he thought about the subject.  "I don't like talking about it so I never do, that's all."

"That's terrible."  Kotone was instantly back to her empathetic self.  She struggled to stand up to go over and comfort him, but she sat back down in frustration and just ended up patting her baby through her stomach instead.  "I'm so sorry, Masanori.  Why do Japanese love smoking so much?"  Kotone asked herself.  It was the curse of their country.  One quarter of the population of Japan smoked even though science had proven it to be a dirty deadly habit long ago.  "Sometimes they smoke right in front of me, never mind the baby in my womb."

"Tell them to put their cigarettes out."  Masanori ordered urgently.

"I do, but it's a free country.  The teenagers especially just roll their eyes and laugh.  Such obnoxious good for nothing. . ."  Kotone closed her mouth before she let out any curse words.

Shiori laughed.  "Kotone, we were teenagers just a few months ago ourselves, isn't it a little soon to talk about the 'darn youths?'"

Kotone blinked, lifting a finger to her lips and tapping them.  "You know, you're right.  I'd forgotten."

"What is that?  You forgot your own age?"  Shiori laughed disbelievingly.

"You'll understand soon enough, Shiori.  I'm a mother now.  That means I'm an adult.  And everyone around me is still just a bunch of bratty children.  In this world there are mothers, children, and threats to our children.  That's all."  Kotone said, cupping her stomach protectively.

"Do you know the baby's sex?"  Shiori asked.

"It's a girl."  Kotone smiled.  "Her name is Kotori, after both of us."  She nearly sung the name instead of saying it, she loved her daughter so much already.

"Kotori Miyamoto."  Shiori breathed.  "It's beautiful, Kotone."

"Isn't it?"  Kotone sighed.  "But Aiko went and stole Bubbles away for herself."

"There's always Capri."  Shiori said encouragingly.  The new wyrd who had come down to say the etheric plane was saved thanks to Shiori's good advice was living with Kotone at her voluminous mansion alongside their pet mad scientist Cho Kai.  She was still a baby in wyrd terms, just a ten year old girl in human form.

"It's hopeless.  Capri's already Saki's playmate."  Kotone sighed.  "It's just a matter of time before Chiharu grabs our new wyrd for her remaining little sister."

"Aiko says that was an accident."  Shiori held out hope.

"Chiharu?  Accident?  I'll never believe it."  Kotone scorned the very idea.  Kotone's magic was acid and poison for a reason.  "No, when we get back from our picnic, I'm sure we'll be hearing the news.  Saki 'accidentally' through a strange slip of the tongue said "Via tu lusches, Capri" and poof, it couldn't be helped, they were bound!"

Shiori laughed.  "Impossible!"

Isao sighed as he wondered what to write to his parents.  He'd stopped composing in his head in frustration after the first sentence:

"Dear folks,
The weather sure is good today, isn't it?"

What on Earth else was there to say?

* * *

"Sakai?"  The teacher asked in an efficient drone as she took attendance for the day.

"Here here."  Saki Sakai replied, raising her hand.  It was a couple months into the 2nd trimester of her 5th year of elementary school.  In Japan, school years had three parts punctuated by three long breaks.  The school year started in April, when the cherry blossoms were in full bloom.  It then continued until a long midsummer break, after which point it picked up again for the second trimester.  This lasted until around Christmas, when schools got out again for their winter break.  The third trimester started up again in January and went until spring break, at which point you'd move up a year and start all over.  Elementary school had six grades, including children from six to twelve years old.  Middle school had three grades, from twelve to fifteen years old.  High school finished up with three more grades, from fifteen to eighteen years old.  It depended on your entrance examinations which high schools, if any, you could attend, because Japan believed in tracking.  But that wouldn’t be a problem for Saki, who was smart enough to always be near the top of her class.  She assumed that if she worked at it she could have been at the top of the class, but she didn’t see the point.  The sky wouldn’t fall if she wasn’t the valedictorian of elementary school after all.  She was ten years old, but would turn eleven next week.  She ached for that extra year.  Eleven was one year closer to twelve, which was one year closer to thirteen, which was one year closer to fourteen, which was just a hair's breadth away from fifteen, which was her older sister Aiko's age.  Once she was fifteen she would be a full adult like Aiko.  Everyone would respect her, she could have a boyfriend of her own, she could go anywhere she pleased without having to tell anyone, and even fly on planes all around the world like her sister had.  And she was just one week from turning eleven.  She was infinitely close to being fifteen years old, but in exchange each day seemed to take an infinite length to pass.  The waiting was torture.

"One 'here' is enough.”  The teacher corrected Saki peremptorily, and the class laughed.  Saki put her forehead on her desk to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes.

“Sato?”  The teacher continued calling attendance over her unruly class.

“Here.”  The boy raised his hand.

“Takahashi?”  The teacher continued.

“Here.”  The girl replied quietly.

“Uemeda?”  The teacher gave one last query.

“Here.”  The boy replied.

“Great,”  The teacher finished ticking off her boxes.  “Everyone’s present then.  I know it’s a little late in the trimester, but a new friend is joining us today.  I want everyone to get along with her and help her when she has any questions, okay?”

“Yes, teacher.”  The class responded cheerfully, excited at the prospect of this new mystery girl.

“Kouno?  You can come in now.”  The teacher made a dramatic gesture towards the door.

The door slid open, revealing a short girl with long black hair held out of her eyes by a bright red ribbon that stood up like bunny ears over her head.  Other than that she wore a long white shirt with lacy ruffled frills at the bottom, creating the effect of a dress without actually being a dress, and blue jeans underneath that stopped before reaching her ankles.  After that came tiny socks that didn’t reach up to her ankles and tiny laceless white tennis shoes that shined to perfection without a single scrape or scuff.  She stood shoulders braced with her arms folded behind her, her left hand casually clasped around her right wrist, with an easy and practiced smile for her new classmates.  Other than a basic dress code for decency, elementary schoolers didn’t have a school uniform.  That privilege was reserved for middle schoolers on up, and was a way of recognizing the growth of students who had reached that level of maturity.  Everyone in elementary school wished they could be wearing the school uniform of middle schoolers, and middle schoolers spent all their time wishing they could wear the school uniform of high schoolers.  No one envied the freedom of elementary schoolers to dress as they pleased.  It just meant no one cared how they dressed because no adult would look at them twice anyway.  Having to wear a school uniform meant you were no longer invisible, and thus what you wore mattered.  It was a compliment that you’d finally arrived at an age where your decisions had an impact on those around you.  With power came responsibility, but the inverse of that was equally true:  Irresponsibility was only reserved for the powerless.  No one would seriously accept such a bargain if they had a choice.  No one ever did.

“Kouno, please write your name on the chalkboard and introduce yourself to the class,” the teacher smiled encouragingly.  The transfer student walked confidently to the blackboard and turned her back to the class, hiding her name until the last instant, where she turned around and revealed it with a flourish.

“My name is Eri Kouno, it’s nice to meet you.  I’ll be under your care from here on.”  Eri Kouno gave a polite bow to the class, which was replied to with polite applause from her audience.

“My parents moved to Inazumu because they heard it was the safest, nicest, prettiest place on Earth, so I already know everyone in this town is amazing.  I can’t wait to make friends with all of you, and I’ll strive to not bring your city’s reputation down by joining it.”  Eri bowed again, and this time the applause was thunderous, with the entire class saying it was “nice to meet you too.”  Saki found herself smiling and clapping despite herself, realizing for the first time just how pretty Kouno was.  She liked the girl immediately, and wondered if she could make a real friend in school for the first time.  At home she had her family, and Capri would come over to play, or she would go to Kotone’s mansion with Chiharu to play with Capri, but that was different.  Saki hadn’t made any of those friends herself, they had just fallen into her lap.  If she could make a new friend under her own power, she could be more like Aiko, who had Sayuri and Mizuki, or Chiharu, who had Kotone and Shiori.  It would be her first step to matching them deed for deed.  But then again, from the reaction of her classmates, they were all thinking the same thing, so Saki’s chances of stealing Kouno for herself were statistically unrealistic.  Saki sighed to herself.  If Kouno were going to make any friends, it would definitely be the popular girls in the upper right corner of the classroom.  They shared the same fashion sense and magnetic personalities after all.  All Saki had was her brains and up-to-date knowledge about all currently airing television dramas.  Not much to win over a cool girl like Kouno in conversation.

“There’s an open desk next to Sakai, Kouno.”  The teacher gestured politely, pleased with Kouno’s speech as much as her students were, instantly taking a liking to her new pupil.  “Why don’t you sit down there and we can begin our lessons?”

“Yes, teacher.”  Kouno bowed politely and walked through the rows of desks to her new home.  Saki almost held her breath as Kouno sat down beside her, her hair just centimeters away from Saki’s hand, and then started even more nervously when Kouno immediately turned to look her in the face and smiled.

“It’s nice to meet you.”  Kouno said in a whisper.  “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any books or materials yet.  Can I share with you for today?”

“Of course!”  Saki smiled, wondering what goddess had blessed her this day.  Kouno was stuck with her, like it or not!  Now she had to become Saki’s friend!

“You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”  Kouno smiled appreciatively and readjusted her desk halfway closer so they could look at Saki’s open book together.  It also meant they could talk even more quietly without disturbing the class.

“I’m Saki.  Saki Sakai.  It has a pretty ring to it, don’t you think?”  Saki asked hopefully.

“You almost rhyme!”  Kouno laughed.  “Your parents are so mean to not let you rhyme perfectly!”

Saki laughed with her, covering her mouth with her hand to keep her voice down.  “I don’t mind at all.  Saki’s a special name for our family.  I’m the third child, the full blossom of our family’s love.  My parents loved what they’d made so far too much to not have a third.”

“But then they stopped at you.”  Kouno pointed out teasingly.  “So I guess you weren’t good enough to merit a fourth.”

“I wasn’t to blame for that!”  Saki blushed.  “I’m already piled up in the same room as my sister.  I’m sure they just didn’t have any more space for another baby!”

“I’m sorry, I said too much.”  Kouno bowed, abashed.  “I just suddenly felt like we were friends and said the first thing that came to mind.”

“It’s okay, I wasn’t angry.”  Saki smiled, the warmth of being ‘felt like’ a friend flowing through her.  “I felt like we were friends too.”

“For the record, my name doesn’t rhyme at all and I’m an only child, so my parents must hate me way more.”  Kouno continued apologetically.

“I’m sure it’s because there’s no point adding to perfection.”  Saki replied encouragingly, suddenly in the reverse position of having to defend Kouno from Kouno instead of defending herself from Kouno.

“I’m trying my hardest.”  Kouno replied with sincere longing, which put a pause to both girls’ chatter.

“Sakai, could you answer the problem on the board?”  The teacher asked, patiently letting their conversation slide because every transfer student deserved a chance to fit in at the beginning.

“Yes, teacher.”  Saki stood up and pushed her chair away from her desk.  She only saw the math problem in front of her for the first time, but she solved it instantly in her head as she approached the blackboard, and fired the answer out with confident strokes of chalk.  When she got back to her seat, Kouno was waiting with a congratulatory, conspiratorial smile.

“You’re good!”  Kouno praised her in a whisper.

“That’s nothing.  I’m a Sakai, like my sisters before me.”  Saki preened under Kouno’s attention.

“Hmmm?”  Kouno smiled mysteriously.  “But I think your reign ends here.  After all, I’m a Kouno.  From here on I’m going to be number one.”

“Oh, I wasn’t number one in the first place.  That belongs to Kisida in Peach class.”  Saki dispelled the illusion quickly.

“Seriously?  What rank are you then?”  Kouno pouted.

“I think I was fifth on the last round of tests.”  Saki tried to remember.

“That’s no fun.”  Kouno slouched.  “I wanted to compete with you.”

“If you want, I’ll win first on the next test.”  Saki grinned cockily.

“Really?”  Kouno held up her hand with one pinky outstretched.  “On the next test, let’s stake our family honor then.  The loser. . .hmm. . .the loser has to come over to the winner’s house and meet her parents, so they can see how great they are.  Do you promise to try this time?”

“I promise.”  Saki said excitedly, realizing that the stakes were a prize worth winning or losing for.  She held out her pinky and the two intertwined their fingers and shook on it.

“Kouno?  Can you solve this next problem?”  The teacher asked her next.  Kouno stood up, her red ribbon bouncing well above her head, and solved it in a flash.  Saki gulped.  She might have to study for this one.

Chapter 2

Drab flicked the channels irritably from one station to another, finding everything humans made equally boring and stupid.  Back in the etheric plane, magic was cooked in all sorts of ways, coming in a wonderful variety of tastes that made you enjoy life.  Now it just funneled through a tube in a bland natural flow.  It tasted like eating rocks every day.  That was just the least of it though.  The sports down here were barbaric, resulting in injuries and full of fouls and penalties.  No one here had the decency to play by the rules and accept losses like gentlemen.  He would've given anything to be back in the stands watching the Tides navigate the twelve rings with unparalleled elegance and cohesion.  Sure, the Bulls won most of the games, but their style was too simple, too practical.  Any true fan of Shi cheered for the Tides.  The Bulls were just the Bullies, the schoolyard idiots who had nothing but size speaking for them.  But he would have even cheered for the Bulls if it meant he could watch a game of Shi again.

It wasn't just the sports though.  He had this accursedly inconvenient body.  He was just a tiny bead, a sphere who could barely lift a stone and moved at a glacial pace across the sky.  In his real body his dimensions were titanic, his magic power capable of enormous feats of speed and strength that made nature his plaything.  But here he could actually feel hot or cold, without any good way to cure the sensation.  Any child of the human world could pick him up and break him with a good swing.  He felt absolutely powerless, like he was a child again, only this time without any hope of growing out of his larval state.  He had left his family behind, impelled by the need to be down here where the action was, and there was no way to communicate with the plane above.  Then the casualties had begun, first in trickles and then in a deluge.  Almost everyone he had folded down with was masterless or dead.  Practically no one had come to reinforce their steadily dwindling numbers.  And their perfect plan to doom the world through secrecy had somehow been leaked to the enemy and foiled at every turn.  Somehow there was a traitor in their midst, serving the real government, privy to the Wyrd Council's highest consultations.  Now he couldn't even trust his comrades who had suffered through all this privation with him.  He didn't like the glares of distrust fired at him either.  Just because he hadn't chosen a vessel and joined the fight yet, everyone assumed he was working for the government.  It's not like Amaranth had made a contract either.  So why did everyone suspect him?  It wasn't fair.  No one had told him killing off humanity would carry with it so many inconveniences.  It was supposed to be like a field trip, or a fun vacation cruise to an exotic island.  It was supposed to take a year at most.  They were mere humans, worthless grubs, a civilization that hadn't even expanded off its home planet, barely sentient, with only a handful of Choice Givers without any retinue of followers or emulators to speak of.  The Wyrd Council, meanwhile,  were wyrds, masters of multiple dimensions, inventors of everything the laws of physics allowed, scryers who could see the future.  It should've been easy to snuff out this pathetic backwater, but instead they were losing.  Losing!

"Blast that Xanadu!"  Drab shouted aloud, throwing the TV controller down on a randomly selected news channel.

"What is it this time?"  Cream asked wearily, looking up from her book.

"Everything!  How dare he make portals to new worlds!  The humans are going to get away now!  We can't follow without a new folding device!  Everything was going perfectly until he started interfering!  Xanadu and his stupid host!  That stupid folding host!  That's our technology.  Ours.  How dare he make it his magic?"  Drab fumed.  Everything was going wrong.  Bright lights were spreading out across the multiverse, taking root in parallel dimensions no one could reach.  Even if they succeeded in destroying the world, it was too late now.  Mankind would flourish all over the place, with more choices than ever, because all of the new worlds were seeded with people brimming over with infinite possibilities.  Xanadu!  The government dog who had prevented their mission for seventeen years running!  If only I could contract with someone stronger than Xanadu!  I'd like to rip him apart!

"I don't see that it matters."  Cream yawned.  "The new colonies don't have any wyrds protecting them, so we just have to send one saboteur to each of them and clean them all out.  They're just rats jumping out of a sinking ship into an ocean."

"If that's all we have to do, why haven't we done it yet?"  Drab yelled.  "Why don't we have a new folding machine?"

"Ask the people up top."  Cream blinked sardonically.  Both knew that it was impossible to get any information about what had happened above.  Seven years ago, suddenly, all contact with the etheric plane had ended, and no further reinforcements carrying news had arrived.  They had continued the war on their own, sure that the situation would improve eventually.  But it never had.  And now, to take the cake, the most unimaginable event in the universe had occurred.  Somehow, impossibly, wyrds were gaining their possibilities again.  Their enemies down on Earth were no longer Dead Enders like they were.  Nor were millions of wyrds they could dimly perceive still living in the Etheric plane.  Not only had humans survived the Wyrd Council's best attempts at extermination, but now the wyrds were going to survive too, which made their entire project an exercise in futility.  The whole point had been to kill the humans as a protest, a protest to God for sparing such an inferior species while condemning their own.  It was an act of rebellion, a blow of righteous wrath against cosmic injustice, a balancing of the scales.  But now the scales were balanced anyway, and the Wyrd Council had had nothing to do with it!  If wyrds lived, what was the point in killing off mankind?  What wrong were they righting?  What order were they restoring to its rightful place?  Wyrds would continue to dominate like they always had, and humans would continue to be ants like they always would be.  What was the point in hating them now?

Only Drab did hate them.  He hated them more than ever.  He hated them for balking his will.  He hated them for humiliating him, for foiling him, for being humans and daring to oppose his wishes for even a millisecond much less eight long years.  He hated them for tricking him into folding down into this stupid spherical body to make a completely futile gesture he could never reverse.  He hated them for killing the five volunteers he had folded down with, good friends he had always enjoyed spending time with in the days before they learned magic was depleted and they were all going to die.  He hated them for everything, more than ever, and he would kill them no matter what happened in the etheric plane.  It was no longer about righting a wrong or anything abstract like that.  It was purely personal.  Now he simply wanted to win.

The news channel was breathlessly showing off the Indian who had healed a child's blindness by just applying hands to his forehead.  Humans never seemed to get how easy these tricks were.  They always breathlessly talked about it as some sort of miracle.  Miracle?  If Drab were still in his old body, he would've shown them miracles. . .

"Will someone kill that stupid showoff?"  Cream asked bitterly, blinking angrily at the Choice Giver's constant provocations by advertising himself in front of them nonstop.

"We already have."  Drab sighed.  "Twice."

Before Cream could give any reply, Amaranth, Eggplant, Grullo and Platinum floated into the room.  Amaranth turned off the TV with a magic-at-a-distance flick and took his privileged seat at the round table.

"The Wyrd Council is now in session.  I'd like a status report on section leader's projects to end the world."  Amaranth said.

"As you know, I'm short on numbers.  Anyone I contracted now wouldn't stand a chance in my sector.  The Moral Aristocracy is patrolling throughout Asia."  Grullo complained.

"All my underlings are dead or have gone rogue."  Drab snarled.  It was unbelievable that both Hank Elroy and Cho Kai, people his department had chosen for being the epitome of evil, could have betrayed the Wyrd Council in the end and gone their own way.  Now he looked like a fool to the rest of them, when before they had all been singing his praise.  Now everyone figured he was a traitor too.  And all due to Xanadu's interference!  Xanadu!

"I don't need to lift a hand in my region."  Eggplant said.  "There aren't any Choice Givers left in Africa.  Any lights that seem to be growing towards infinite, the second tier if you will, my group is killing before any government wyrds even come to help them.  I suggest everyone adopt our strategy.  For some reason the government is restricting its recruitment to only full fledged Choice Givers, which means all we have to do is kill anyone close to becoming a Choice Giver and let the ones that are alive die of old age.  Then we've got them, Amaranth.  We've got them nailed for good."

"I ordered my wyrds to lie low and wait for a better opportunity, as you instructed.  Was I supposed to be doing something?"  Cream asked with a yawn.

"I'm training a few warriors in a remote location.  I think they'll match up against any Choice Giver one for one, but there's only four of us.  I don't want to waste my men."  Platinum reported.

"Sepia reported in.  His master has gone rogue and he can no longer attend our meetings.  He sends his regrets.  Apparently his master was scared spitless and no longer has the will to fight."  Amaranth reported.

"He was just a lone wolf."  Drab sneered.  "It's not like you can expect anything from agents like that."

"Oh, and did you achieve something while I wasn't watching?"  Eggplant blinked amusedly.

"There will be no infighting among the Wyrd Council."  Amaranth flashed warningly, and Eggplant immediately bobbed up and down apologetically.  "Drab had a good idea that we all approved of at the time.  It was our best shot in years to genocide mankind.  I will treat any insults directed towards Drab as insults against my leadership directly."

"I didn't mean anything by it."  Eggplant apologized again.  "I'm sorry.  I wasn't thinking."

"Good.  I'm pleased with all of you.  Eggplant has a good suggestion.  For any spare wyrds in each of your sections, make sure to kill off bright ones as well as Choice Givers.  If we kill off the second tier we'll have fewer enemies to deal with at the top tier, and they can't do a single thing to stop us.  However, the Moral Aristocracy and the Japan group won't let this happen.  They've both matured bright ones into Choice Givers while entirely under their armed protection.  Ultimately we can't just wait for them to die of old age, they've learned how to reproduce.  We must take the Choice Givers down directly, before their poison spreads and we end up facing a thousand Choice Givers all with government supplied wyrds hunting us down.

"But how?"  Eggplant asked.  "Do you think Platinum's group can do it?"

"No.  Platinum's right, if he doesn't think they can do it there's no point throwing his men away.  That's why I've been saving this for last."  Amaranth beamed a pleased reddish pink.

"Ladies and gentlemen.  We have reestablished contact with our friends above.  Meet our reinforcements:  Shadow!  Flame!"  A gray and an orange wyrd floated into the room.

Platinum started beaming a happy silver, and the entire room brightened up with waves of excited color.

"I don't mean to complain. . .but just two new wyrds?"  Cream asked.  "I don't think that will make much of a difference."

"Shadow and Flame aren't just two new wyrds.  They were scouted from the army, and their magic strength is extraordinary.  If the two work together, the Japan group, no, even the Moral Aristocracy will fall."  Amaranth said confidently.

"Kill Xanadu."  Drab frothed.  "No matter what else happens, kill Xanadu.  It has to be Xanadu.  Send them both at Xanadu and forget the rest."

"He has a point, Amaranth."  Cream threw in her support of her somewhat close friend.  "So long as he lives, more and more of these vermin are going to escape off planet."

Amaranth blinked, silently thinking for a moment.  "Very well.  I don't see any objections.  You two will be tested on Xanadu.  He's a legend from the army too.  It should be interesting to see if your pedigree can match up against his, don't you think?"

Shadow and Flame blinked in concert.  "We'd love to have the opportunity to prove ourselves against a warrior like him.  We will deliver his head without fail."

"Good, good."  Amaranth blinked in approval at their zeal.  "My suggestion is that you find Dead Enders near his place of residence.  That way they can't scry your approach from afar.  Then it's just a matter of waiting, like a spider with a web, for Xanadu to approach you.  Choice Givers can't ambush us, because they stand out wherever they go.  But in this world, Dead Enders are everywhere.  So long as you remain motionless, they'll never see you until it's too late."

"Amaranth, let me contract with someone too.  I want to kill Xanadu with my own hands."  Drab volunteered, wanting more than anything to prove his loyalty to the cause in front of all the other section leaders.

"Nonsense.  Your strategies are necessary here.  Generals do not fight in the trenches, Drab.  Once we have full contact with our followers above, your section is sure to fill up again, and they will need your leadership.  Put this silliness to bed.  Patience is our ally.  The humans can win a thousand times.  But we only have to win once."  Amaranth glowed with serene confidence.  Suddenly, things didn't look so bad anymore.  With a leader like Amaranth, the Wyrd Council couldn't fail.  Indigo would be avenged.  They'd all be avenged.  And Drab would be vindicated once and for all.

* * *

"Studying for your test?"  Kouno leaned forward to look at Saki's opened journal.  Classes hadn't begun yet, so Saki had started scribbling away to pass the time.  Kouno looked brilliant as ever, this time in a green shirt that faded to a light green and then a pure white at the bottom, still with frills, blue jeans and her bright tall red ribbon she had clearly chosen to define her through thick and thin.  With her head leaning over her hair flowed dangerously close to the floor, but that also looked to be an act of intentional grace.

"No.  This is different.  Earlier this year Aiko, my older sister,"  Saki corrected herself to clarify things for Kouno, "gave me a really tough question.  I've been trying to solve it ever since, but my thoughts are totally disorganized."

"What was it?"  Kouno asked curiously, trying to read her writing sideways.

"Well, it's like this.  Everyone knows what it is to be good.  Everyone knows the standard virtues, what society expects and hopes from you, etc.  'What is Good?' is the easy question.  The real question is 'why be good?'  What could motivate someone to be good?  Or if you prefer, how can someone who doesn't want to be good start wanting to be good?  Because that's where everyone trips up.  That's where everything goes wrong."  Saki explained.

"But that's easy."  Kouno smiled, settling down into her desk and getting out her mechanical pencil and paper.  "The answer is 'fear,' of course."

"Fear?"  Saki blinked.

"Children obey their parents because they're afraid of being punished.  Or they're afraid their parents will stop liking them.  Or they're afraid of how helpless they'd be without their parents' financial assistance.  Adults obey the law because they're afraid of getting caught by the police.  Nations avoid offending their neighbors because they're afraid of losing a war.  It's easy to make someone who doesn't want to be good want to be good.  You just threaten them with a fate even more dire than the pain and hassle of being good if they aren't good, and poof, they're angels."  Kouno said, spreading her fingers out wide and waving them to represent her poof transformation.

"But in the case of the children, that doesn't explain why parents would be good.  And in the case of the law abiding citizens, that doesn't explain why the cops would be good."  Saki pointed out.

"The parents are afraid too.  There are laws against child neglect after all.  And there's always the threat of ostracism.  They're afraid of losing their good reputation.  The cops are afraid of other cops, there's even an internal police force that does nothing but investigate and arrest other cops who go bad.  So you see, everyone's thought of these problems in advance and they've already been solved."  Kouno lectured.

"But what about an all powerful dictator who didn't have to fear anyone?"  Saki asked.  "Why should he be good?"

"Well, if you look at the historical record, not many all powerful dictators have been good, which proves my point."  Kouno smiled.  "But I guess if I had to explain how fear could even motivate an all powerful dictator, I'd say fear of being hated.  Or even fear of being forgotten.  Everyone still remembers Augustus Ceasar, because he was good for his country.  But how many people still remember Heliogabalus?  Even dictators fear the judgment of history, I think, and that might keep some of them on the right path."

"But what if you were God?  Surely God wants to be good, and he could even brainwash people into loving him no matter what he did."  Saki protested.

"God, hmm?  I think God would be the most afraid of all."  Kouno pursed her lips, her brow knitting.

"Of what?  What's left to fear?"  Saki asked.

"Falling short of your own ideal."  Kouno whispered, her eyes ceasing to see what was in front of her and looking at something far away.

Saki felt a pang of concern run through her as she looked at the usually bright and cheerful girl across from her, but the teacher's entrance stopped her from saying anything more.

"Rise!  Bow!  Take your seats!"  The class representative ordered the class, who all dutifully and respectfully obeyed.  With the ritual done, everyone could forget what they had been doing before class began and focus on the teacher in front of them.  Saki didn't get a chance to talk with Kouno again until lunch.

"I know this is sudden,"  Saki said as she dipped into her school provided meal.  Elementary schoolers didn't get to bring bentos from home, their meals were all provided by the administration.  It was probably a great relief for mothers across Japan, but it was just one more penalty for being young to Saki.  Aiko got wonderful home-cooked food for lunch every day.  Meanwhile, she got green beans.  "But my birthday is this Friday."

"Oh really?  Congratulations.  I turned eleven in June, though, so I win."  Kouno replied cheerfully, waving her spoon.

"That's not it.  You see, Chiharu, that's my oldest sister."  Saki corrected herself to help Kouno again.

"Chiharu, Aiko, and Saki.  Big, just right, and too small.  Like the three bears."  Kouno smiled.

"Wait, why am I too small?"  Saki pouted.  "You haven't even met Aiko and yet she gets to be 'just right'?"

"I can't help it, the fairy tale tied my hands."  Kouno stuck her tongue out at Saki.

"Oh fine.  The point is Chiharu suggested we all go to an amusement park together to celebrate.  Right now it's just my family, but I wondered if you'd like to come too.  I mean, it's not often you get to visit an amusement park, right?"  Saki asked hopefully.

"I'd love to come, but I couldn't go without my parents.  I don't think they could trust complete strangers like your parents to look after me just because I said I liked you.  I'll ask if they'll take me when I get home, okay?"  Kouno asked.

"Do you?"  Saki asked nervously.

"Do I what?"  Kouno asked, her spoon paused near her mouth like she'd been caught doing something wrong.

"Do you really like me?"  Saki asked.

"Well, what about you?"  Kouno looked sideways, blushing.  "Do you like me?"

"Let's write down what we think of each other on paper, turn the sheets face down, trade sheets, and then both turn them back over on three."  Saki suggested excitedly.

"That's fair."  Kouno nodded, getting out her backpack and searching for her notebook.  Saki did likewise and they were soon shielding their paper from each other and writing their answers down in secret.  The two exchanged their slips of paper by sliding them across their joined together desks.  Saki was blushing already from what she'd written, wondering if she'd gone too far.  Her fingertips burned against the sheet of paper that was holding her fate.

"On three."  Kouno announced with a courageous deep breath.  "One, two, three!"  Saki turned over her sheet of paper and looked at the single kanji awaiting her.  Well.  Who would've believed it?  It was the exact same kanji she'd written for Kouno.  Saki's face went from amazed to overjoyed.  She had made her first true friend.  When she looked up, Kouno was looking back at her with misted eyes.

The character they had both written was 'love.'

"Does this mean I can call you Eri?"  Saki asked hopefully.

"Only if I can call you Saki."  Eri replied, wiping at her treacherous eyes.  Then the two started laughing.  The order of their bonding was completely messed up.  But that was okay.  Everything was perfect, now.

* * *

"We're taking a detour, Isao."  Shiori Rin announced.  They had been wandering through the town looking at cakes, flowers, and even churches for their coming wedding.  Shiori wasn't a Christian in the least, but in the end a wedding just had to be in a church, or it wouldn't feel right.  Isao didn't like any of the plans equally, so it was all one to him where they married.  Shiori didn't want to waste too much time preparing her wedding, she only had one year with Isao before he was gone and she wanted as much of that year as possible sharing a marriage bed.  Every day they wasted was a day she could never get back.  What if Isao died abroad next year?  Then every day she spent decorating her dream ceremony was another day gone forever from their true bliss.  She would regret those lost days for the rest of her life.  She was in a rush, but these things took time to arrange even when in a rush.  The only good part about it all is she never had to worry about the price.

"Where to next?"  Isao asked patiently, aware that grumbling wouldn't change anything.

"Your sister-in-law."  Shiori smiled.

"Rei?  Do you want her to be the maid of honor?"  Isao guessed.

"Well of course.  I was hers you know."  Shiori said happily, her pace pushing faster without her even realizing.  "But that's not all.  Rei moved out to live with Onyx in this tiny little apartment.  She says she's happy, but I don't believe it.  Besides, I'm lonely now.  I'm getting Rei back."

"You want Rei and Onyx to squeeze back into your parent's house?"  Isao asked, nonplussed.

"No, silly.  I want all of us to move into Kotone's house.  Then it's not a matter of squeezing in.  You've seen it, right?"  Shiori held her arms out as wide as she could and then turned around to display the image while they walked.  "It's thisssss big!  And it has a giant hot spring!  Plus the ceilings are thisssss high.  And the carpets are so thick you can fall asleep on them!"

Isao laughed.  "Does Kotone know you're going to move in?"

"Not yet.  Not until I get Rei to come too, but she invited all of us already, so that's unimportant.  Besides, I think you're misunderstanding something.  We aren't moving in for our sake, we're moving in for theirs.  Think about it, Kotone and Masanori must be having a really hard time right now.  Masanori is trying to work off a one-hundred trillion won debt, while Kotone is eight months' pregnant and can barely move about the house.  Meanwhile they've got a not particularly safe or courteous house guest, who's more like a prisoner under house arrest, Cho Kai.  Kotone can't possibly defend herself as she is now, or after she's had the baby either, so Masanori is practically locked inside the mansion with her at all times.  On top of all that they have to take care of Capri, who is full of mischief and doesn't go to school so she's in their hair at all hours.  If we all joined them, we could give everyone some more liberty.  We can help Kotone take care of Capri and Kotori when the baby arrives, protect them all when Masanori's away, and make sure Cho doesn't get any ideas."  Shiori summed up.

"Shiori Rin, are you actually a nice, caring, thoughtful girl?"  Isao smiled.

"I can punch real hard you know."  Shiori warned.

"I don't mind."  Isao said.  "That is, moving in with Masanori.  I'd mind getting punched."  Isao corrected quickly.  "He's my best friend, and I would feel safer with him around when I'm gone.  I don't want to come back to a murder scene ever again."

"Isao Oono, are you actually worried about me?"  Shiori batted her eyelashes.

"You have no idea."  Isao trailed off, not wanting to delve into it.

Shiori gave Isao a compassionate look, then grabbed his arm and glomped herself against it, leaning her head into his shoulder.

"Don't worry, Isao.  I have a plan for that too.  When we marry, I'm dropping out of college.  There's no point now that I have an endless fortune and a loving husband.  I'm going to start up a dojo instead.  Whenever I'm not taking care of our little ones, I'm going to be teaching Taekwondo.  And when I'm not teaching, I'm just going to be training on my own.  Last time I wasn't strong enough.  I wasn't any use to anyone.  Even though I made a promise with Kotone to never lose another fight, I was totally useless when it mattered.  The next time Dead Enders try their luck against us, though, I'll be on a completely different level.  I'll tear them all apart."  Shiori promised.

"That would be relieving."  Isao laughed, and when he looked down at the girl on his arm with her breasts pressed firmly against his side, his smile was completely genuine.

"I'm going to train, and train, and train.  I was a black belt by age ten, but there's levels and levels of black belts.  When you get back from your year abroad, I'll be a super duper black belt.  I'll be able to break boards just by glaring at them."  Shiori smiled up at her fiance.

"Oh?  That'll be a sight."  Isao smiled down at his fiancee.

"Plus I'm thinking of two more people."  Shiori announced proudly.  "If we don't live together with Kotone and Masanori, it will be hard on Awesome and Magnolia.  They're married too you know, but wyrds are bound to their mistresses for life.  It would be too sad if they had to live apart.  So Kotone and I just have to live together.  We have to.  And Rei has to live with me too.  Because I'm bound to her for life.  Just like the wyrds.  Just as much."

Isao didn't know what to say, so he just reached down to her hand and squeezed it.  The two held hands the rest of the way to their destination.

Chapter 3

Rei Rin was baking bread when she heard the knock on her door.   She looked at the timer and decided the oven would be okay on its own for a little while, wiped her hands on her apron, and spoke up to her mystery guests, "Coming!"

Her apartment was small and old, but it had its own bathroom and kitchen.  The living room during the day became their shared bedroom at night, just by pulling out the rolled out futon and moving away the dinner table.  The tatami mats were wonderfully soft on their own, so they didn't need any other furniture cluttering up their space.  They didn't own a television, mainly because neither Rei nor Onyx enjoyed watching it, but they did have a computer with high speed internet in the corner to keep in touch with the world .  Rei was determined to keep her expenses to a minimum without hurting her quality of life.  It was a knife-edge of guilt either way.  She knew that Kotone wouldn't want Rei to be suffering from privation just to pay off her infinite debt, but she also didn't want to be wasting any money on fripperies as though she didn't owe Kotone and Masanori any gratitude at all.  Every day she had to balance the competing issues in her mind and every day she tried to come to the best compromise she could.  Rei knew she would never be able to pay off her debt, 100 trillion won was larger than the GDP of some nations.  But what else could she do?  She really did owe those two for making them follow her selfish whim.  She could at least pay back as much as she could, out of the paycheck they themselves paid her every year, by abstaining from any extraneous expenses and 'rebating' whatever she had left over at the end of each year.

Onyx wasn't due back from his job until late in the evening.  Rei wasn't confident she would do well in the workplace, so she had asked Onyx if it was okay for her to be a homemaker.  Onyx didn't care in the least, since she was actually earning one hundred million yen a year working for Angle Corporation, but he said he'd be too idle staying home with her every day and decided to take up a career.  Rei had learned for the first time what a vast gulf there was between humans and wyrds once Onyx had the human body to move about in society.  He had applied for every college course that could be passed via testing and then passed them all in a matter of days.  The same college Rei had been grinding away at all hours of the day, Onyx breezed through and graduated from in two weeks.  He then applied for law school, skipped all the schooling and took the bar exam, passed that, and was a lawyer within the month.  Next he had opened up his own firm and offered discount prices to get clients, and won every case he had taken so far by settling out of court.

It was ridiculously cheap.  Wyrds were enormous beings that had accumulated knowledge over centuries of eternal life.  Each of their brains was like the database of Wikipedia, or a log of all files on the internet ever posted, or something even vaster.  The thimbleful of knowledge it took to make it in the human economy was a joke to them, not even worth mentioning.  Onyx was quick to explain this didn't make them any smarter or wiser, that humans had their own ways of arriving at good conclusions.  It was just that any job that required massive memorization of facts was in their bailiwick.  It had been an evolutionary necessity the longer their lifespan grew and the more memories they had accumulated to develop larger, more accurate, and faster memory banks than anything humans could attempt.  Cyan was using the same trick to become a lawyer too, and both were ace attorneys because they both had every obscure precedent ever made at any time in Japanese court history at their fingertips.

Maybe in a few decades humans could invent computers smart enough to replicate what the wyrds were doing, and Rei could take a little satisfaction in throwing him out of his job.  But as things stood, 'Onyx Rin,' erstwhile dark wyrd who had tried to annihilate mankind, was one of the highest paid, respected professionals in Inazumu.  There was even talk of having him run for mayor.  Rei took the vast majority of his paycheck and plowed it back into her debt to Masanori too.  After all, Onyx had benefited at least as much as she had by becoming a real boy.  I hope.  Rei blushed and quickly chased thoughts of the night away.

Rei opened the door and a bright glow of happiness suffused her.  The most wonderful person in the whole wide world was standing outside.

"Shiori!"  Rei squealed.

"Hi Rei!"  Shiori grinned contentedly, proud of her reception.  "Oooh, it smells good in here."

"I was preparing dinner for when Onyx gets home.  Would you like to join us?"  Rei asked, grabbing Shiori's hands and tugging her into her apartment's cool air conditioned interior.

"No, not today."  Shiori said.  Isao walked quietly in behind her.  "I came to see you."  Shiori explained.

"Well, here I am."  Rei grinned.  She flourished her apron and then twirled in a circle, showing off her very normal black t-shirt over her very normal black jeans.  A black headband kept her long black hair behind her ears and rolling down her back.

"Well, it's like this."  Shiori fidgeted, wondering where to start.

"Oh, I'm sorry.  Shiori, Isao, would you like some tea?"  Rei asked.

"Yes please."  Isao answered politely, glad to have something to do while they talked.

"It'll be just a minute."  Rei promised, then rushed back into the kitchen to start heating some water.

"Rei, will you move back in with me?"  Shiori suddenly asked from the living room.

Rei's heart leaped out of her chest.  Her eyes started burning with the wish to cry, but she beat that impulse down ferociously.  "What's this, Shiori?"  Rei asked carefully, not ready to turn around yet, fumbling for her tea kettle.  "I'm a married woman now, I'm sure Mother and Daddy wouldn't appreciate the. . .well. . . the noise.  And there isn't a spare room either."  Rei blushed at the idea of sharing a room with Shiori again.

"I'm marrying Isao."  Shiori said from the living room.

"I know that, you called me the day he proposed, remember?"  Rei grinned, remembering how happy and excited and bewildered her twin sister had been.

"Well, it helps explain the next part, see."  Shiori excused herself.  "Once we're married, we'll have to have a place of our own.  So you see, we'd be moving out either way."

"Of course."  Rei understood, but still didn't see how these issues connected.  Having set her water to boil, she went to the fridge and picked out a few fresh cucumbers to chop up and serve as appetizers.

"So your objection last time no longer stands."  Shiori said carefully.

"Last time?"  Rei asked curiously, then her mind started racing backwards until she seized upon it.  "Oh no!  You never gave that up?"  Rei accused Shiori.

"I'm bad at giving up."  Shiori admitted cheerfully.

"Does Kotone know you're moving in with her?"  Rei asked chidingly.

"Not yet.  I'm going to see her next, once you've agreed to come with us."  Shiori said, and suddenly Rei understood the entire devilish plot.

"Now look here,"  Rei spun around, still holding her sharp, juice stained knife in front of her, and pointed it at Shiori's innocent smile.  "You know how beholden I am to the Miyamotos.  I owe them one hundred trillion won, Shiori.  Even if I didn't, I'd owe Kotone so much for being my friend.  My entire life is possible because of her and Masanori."

"And me."  Shiori pouted.

"And you."  Rei melted.  "You know I won't forget that, Shiori.  Never."

"So let's move back in together!"  Shiori pounced eagerly.

"Wait!  Let me finish!"  Rei stopped her sister.  "How would it make Kotone feel if I appeared on her doorstep and said, "All of your previous charity wasn't enough.  Now you have to share your house with me too.  Oh, and I'm going to have tons of kids so I hope you don't mind them running around and breaking everything while I'm here."  She'll think I'm the least grateful girl in the universe.  Because she's kind, she'll agree.  I know she would.  But in her heart, she'll wonder why I'm such a viper to never think of her needs even once.  I don't want that!"  Rei exclaimed.

"It's not like that at all, Rei.  Kotone's house is HUGEEEEEE."  Shiori widened her arms as she extended her word.  "She'd never even notice you were there, you wouldn't be imposing at all."

"It's not the degree of imposition, it's the principle."  Rei corrected Shiori, turning off the heat to her kettle and pouring the hot water into three cups.  "I can't ask for anything more from her after all she's done."

"Just to get this straight,"  Isao interjected, surprising both girls.  "If it weren't an imposition on Kotone or Masanori, you'd have no further objections?"

Rei Rin carefully stirred in her tea leaves to the hot water and watched the clear liquid become a pleasing aromatic brown, thinking it over.  "I don't want to impose on Shiori either.  It's selfish of me to think my sister would want to live with me forever.  You two have your own life, your own plans, now.  In the end a sister's just a sister.  That's nothing compared to a husband and children.  I can't monopolize Shiori anymore.  You probably came over here because you were worried, right?  But I'll show you both that I can manage on my own.  I've promised myself that I can be happy without imposing on anyone else again.  You don't have to worry about me anymore."

"Then it's simple."  Isao said as Rei delivered the tea cups and orange slices on a series of saucers all stacked on top of a serving tray.  "Shiori never once said she wanted to check up on you, or was worried about you, on the way here.  She said she missed you and wanted you back.  I don't think that was a lie just to be nice.  That's your sister's true feelings, Rei."

Isao took a sip of tea and then restarted.  "As for Masanori, you saved his life alongside the rest of us when he was kidnapped.  All the money he's made since then is something you made possible.  We couldn't have done it without you, Rei."

"That's different."  Rei complained.  "We're all comrades when it comes to saving the world.  I don't get any special privileges for that, I fight because I love all of you, not to receive free housing."

Isao shook his head ruefully.  "Fine, forget that part then, or the part where you saved everyone in the fight with Slime King, or the part where you saved the entire universe of the wyrd's by allowing us to communicate with the government above.  I have a new question for you, then.  Do you think the threat to us has passed?"  Isao asked.

"Well. . ."  Rei looked away, troubled.  "It was six years between the first and second attack.  So we can hope. . ."

"The dark wyrds aren't going to let us populate the multiverse without a fight.  They must be angry as a beehive right now.  And every single iota of their hatred will be directed at one single person, Rei."  Isao said.

"Don't you think they'll give up?"  Rei asked hopefully.  "Look, if they scry upwards, they can even see that their whole world has been saved.  That magic is properly flowing in again, and all this fighting was pointless."

"Did Onyx tell you they would give up?"  Isao asked, taken aback.

"No. . .but Onyx has a pessimistic streak. . ."  Rei muttered.

"Onyx would know better than either of us whether the dark wyrds would give up.  He was a dark wyrd too, right?"  Isao bore down.

Rei sipped her tea and kept her eyes downcast.

"They're going to try to kill Masanori.  Today, or tomorrow, or in a month.  But they're coming, Rei."  Isao promised.  "It's what I'd do if I were them.  And Kotone is eight months pregnant."
"I know."  Rei whispered.

"You're the strongest warrior we have."  Isao stated this as just another indisputable fact.
"I know."  Rei bit her lower lip.

"Come live with us."  Isao enjoined.  "Protect the people you love.  You can't do it from here, Rei.  One hundred trillion won, do you think the Miyamotos care about something like that?  What they care about is their unborn child.  If you were there to save their baby daughter, do you think they're going to be griping at night about what a burden you are?  Do you think they're that petty?  You know they're too nice to say it out loud, but do you think they would even complain in their innermost hearts, a single instant, if you were there every night watching over them?"

"You're right."  Rei sighed.  She looked up at Shiori, her heart wavering with the most secret, greatest hope in her life.  "Is it okay for me to be spoiled again?"

"Little sisters should just be quiet and do as they're told."  Shiori smiled back at Rei encouragingly.  "Let's start packing!"

* * *

It was nearly six o'clock when Saki appeared at Capri's place.  She felt bad for inviting a new friend before she'd even invited her older friend to her birthday party, but Capri didn't come to school so it couldn't be helped.  At least she had come all this way to invite her in person instead of calling over the phone.  That was acting like a true friend, wasn't it?

Saki and Capri had met around a month ago.  When Saki had gotten home from school, a strange girl was sitting on their front porch, her skirt tucked neatly under legs she was kicking up and down, bouncing her heels against the concrete step below her.  She had been staring intently at a pinecone and tearing off scales studiously one after the other.

"Hello,"  Saki had said politely, not knowing what to make of this girl.  She had to be a foreigner, because she had bright blue eyes, but her face looked like any other Japanese girl's, and her hair was still a silky black.  A half Asian?  But half Asians would have inherited the dominant brown eyes, not recessive blues.  Was she just wearing decorative contacts?

"Are you lost?"  Saki asked, wondering if the girl even understood Japanese.

"No, I'm not lost."  The girl looked up from her important work, her blue eyes sizing up Saki instantly.  Saki felt like she was an incredibly small, unimportant person when she looked into those eyes.  It made her uncomfortable.  "Aunt Kotone gave me this address to stay at today, but no one was here."

"Kotone Miyamoto?"  Saki guessed.

"Mmhmm.  She had work today."  The strange girl explained, lowering her eyes back to her pinecone.

"There must have been some sort of mishap, but I can let you inside."  Saki offered, flourishing her house key.

"That's okay.  I like it out here."  The girl had responded disinterestedly.

Saki didn't know what to do.  She stood still holding her school bag wishing one of her older sisters would arrive.  It was a nice summer day, with a cool breeze and a fresh smell of flowers in the air.  It's just that Saki never noticed things like this.  Whenever she got home, she would lay down on the couch and watch TV until dinner.  She'd never stayed outside for any length of time more than necessary.  What was there to do outside?

"Hey, do you want to play?"  The girl suddenly suggested, looking up again.

"Umm, what game?"  Saki asked.

"Red Light Green Light."  The girl suggested.

"There's only two of us.  It wouldn't work."  Saki explained.

"Oh.  Too bad."  The girl lost interest and went back to her pinecone.

Saki nodded to herself, coming to a decision, then went searching for another pinecone.  Once she'd found a suitably spiky one, she carried it to the porch and set down her bag.  She tucked her skirt under her legs and sat down beside the blue-eyed vagrant.

"I just have to take off all the scales, right?"  Saki asked hopefully.

"Mmhmm.  Doesn't it feel good when it tingles?  Bodies are so wonderful."  The girl smiled brightly down at her hands.

"They aren't that great.  They hurt all the time, and they get tired.  I'd rather just be a soul, floating around, watching whatever I wanted."  Saki replied absently, starting to take off her pinecone's scales.

"It's no fun at all."  The girl replied as though she'd already tried that.  "You feel left out, like the world doesn't need you.  Plus, even pain feels a little pleasant.  And the food.  It's so much tastier."

"What is that?"  Saki asked, laughing.  "Was Kotone serving nothing but gruel until recently?"

"Oops, I wasn't supposed to say that."  The girl covered her mouth, blushing.  "Forget I said that, okay?"  The girl turned on her with a serious look and grabbed Saki's hand between the two of hers.

"Already forgotten,"  Saki said breathlessly.

The girl smiled in relief, shrinking back down to normal size.  "My name's Capri, what's yours?"

"Saki."  Saki replied, unintentionally only giving her first name because Capri had only given hers.

"Do you want to be friends?"  Capri asked, studiously looking down at her pinecone and not at the girl beside her.

"I. . . okay."  Saki gave in, looking down at her pinecone with a disconcerted blush.  She didn't even know who, or what, this girl was.  But she didn't seem like a bad person.

"Saki!"  Aiko shouted, appearing breathless at the front gate.  Her face was red from running and she was leaning over on her knees.  "Did anything weird happen?  Did that girl tell you anything?"

Saki thought back for a moment, staring at her sister in surprise, but remembered her promise.  "No, sister.  Nothing happened."

"Are you sure?  You weren't surrounded by light or anything?"  Aiko asked again, walking up to Saki and petting her limbs as though searching for a mark.

"That tickles."  Saki giggled, trying to pull away.

"Thank God."  Aiko breathed.  "Don't scare me like that!"

"What did I do?"  Saki asked petulantly.

"Nothing.  Forget what I just said."  Aiko said, still breathing hard from her run.

Saki sure had to forget a lot today.

"Capri, I'm sorry I'm late.  I completely forgot I was supposed to come home early today.  Can you forgive me?"  Aiko sat on her heels so she could stare Capri in the face instead of looming above her, apparently not in the least surprised at the girl's blue eyes.

"It's okay Aiko.  Saki kept me company."   Capri threw her pinecone into the yard and started brushing her hands off on her skirt.

"Hey, don't do that.  You'll make a stain."  Aiko lectured, getting out her handkerchief and rubbing the girl's dirty fingers.

"Welcome home, Aiko."  Saki pouted, feeling completely upstaged by this newcomer her sister was fawning over.

"Oh, sorry, Saki.  I'm home.  I'll open the door for you."  Aiko offered.

"That's okay, I have a key."  Saki sulked.  "I'm going to watch TV."

"Saki."  The strange girl said urgently, stopping her in mid-motion.  Saki turned around to look at the girl who was wearing a nervous expression.

"Can I come over and play tomorrow?"  Capri asked.

"Of course."  Saki said, a strange happiness she'd never felt before making her smile.

Now she was visiting Capri, and now she was asking her to come over.  Capri had never ceased being mysterious, but that was okay.  Saki could forgive her first friend for being anything.

When she rang the doorbell, however, she wasn't greeted by the usual barking dog.  She wasn't even greeted by Mr. Miyamoto.  Instead, a swarm of strangers opened the door for her, with a "Who is it?"

"Umm.  Is Capri here?"  Saki asked nervously.  She thought a couple of them might be Chiharu's friends.  She had seen them coming over from time to time.  But that boy was totally new, and he had a dangerous aura too.

"Saki, is that you?"  A girl with shoulder length hair knelt down to talk to her eye to eye.  "It's me, Shiori.  You've grown so much!"

"Hello."  Saki said, wishing she hadn't rung the door.  "I remember you."

"Look, Isao.  It's Chiharu's little sister.  Isn't she beautiful?  I want one.  Let's take her home!"  Shiori grabbed Saki up into a hug and rubbed her cheek against Saki's.

"Aaagh, Sakiiii."  Capri saw her friend getting tossed back and forth with her arms pinned to her side helplessly.  She ran in and started pulling on her arm from the other side.  Saki was getting dizzy.

"Shiori, Capri, honestly!"  Kotone snapped, her fists on her hips, finally arriving at the door.  "Can't you tell you're being a bother?"

"Shiori started it."  Capri whined.

"It was just a hug."  Shiori whined.

"It was a kidnapping!  And as for you, Capri, if Shiori 'starts' abusing your friend does that mean you should join in?"  Kotone arched an eyebrow, which made Capri wilt.

"What is it, Saki?  Don't mind everyone.  We're just a little excited because it's a house-warming party."  Kotone explained kindly.

"I. . .my birthday is this Friday.  I hoped Capri could come to an amusement park with my family."  Saki quickly blurted out.

"Oooh, a roller coaster!"  Capri clapped excitedly, looking up at Kotone.

"Not going to happen!  You're far too young to ride one of those."  Kotone waved her finger.

Capri sighed.  "Yes, Aunt Kotone."  She gave an apologetic look to Saki who was still outside the door.

"But I'm sure Masanori wouldn't mind taking you on the teacups and the Ferris wheel."  Kotone broke into a beautiful, mischievous twinkling smile, and Capri's face transformed from dejection into ecstasy.

"An amusement park?"  Shiori asked Saki.  "Is Chiharu coming?"

"Yes.  Chiharu and Aiko are taking me."  Saki explained.

"Then can I come too?  I want to ride the Ferris wheel with Isao."  Shiori explained dreamily.

"I'm sure Chiharu would be glad to see you again."  Saki reassured her senior.  Why did Chiharu make such strange friends?  Eri was so much better.

"When is it?"  Shiori asked.

"This Friday after school.  We're all meeting up at 4 pm."  Saki answered.

"I'm coming too."  Rei spoke up from behind the crowd.  Saki dimly remembered her as one of Chiharu's friends too, but a much quieter and more sensible one.  "I want to ride the Ferris wheel with Onyx too."  She explained quickly.

"I'm sure Chiharu would be overjoyed. . ."  Saki graciously invited this new couple.  How many people were coming to her birthday party?  This was rapidly transforming into a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Chapter 4

Shadow shut down his third eye and left the sea of scrying images behind to rejoin the visible world.  He had found his partner.  It was a beautiful soul.  A gaping maw in the center of a dark cave, even darker than the pitch black around it, only the maw had a deeper hole inside of it, which was even darker than the rest of the open mouth, and inside the hole there was an even deeper hole, darker than all the rest, leading all the way down into an infinite Abyss.  His vessel would be an avatar of despair.  Shadow was here to spread despair across the human world, by choking out all of their brightest lights and casting them into eternal darkness.  He didn't need to kill them.  Once they were in despair, they would destroy themselves, one way or another.  In a decade or a millennia.  It was all one to Shadow, so long as the job was done, he was content.  With wyrd lifespans, they would be able to view the end personally either way.  And with wyrd patience, waiting wasn't onerous in the least.  For a soul to have such perfect despair, for a human to have already reached the point Shadow intended to throw all the rest of mankind, was such perfect symmetry.  It wouldn't take much to prod a soul like that into action.

"Flame, I'm off to recruit.  Have you decided on someone yet?"  Shadow nudged his partner who was still lost in the infinite imagery of the third eye.

Flame was silent a moment longer, then relaxed and opened his eyes.  "He's angry.  I can use that.  What a delicious anger it was, too."

"Make sure he can get along with my partner.  We're a two-man team."  Shadow reminded Flame.

"And how am I supposed to know that when you haven't even shown me your partner?"  Flame blinked a questioning orange.

"Well just don't hire a berserker or something.  We need a tool, not a live explosive."  Shadow reminded.

"I know what I'm doing,"  Flame retorted.

"It never hurts to check."  Shadow said, shutting the argument down.  "Let's have them meet up at a coffee shop or something.  Are you ready?"

"Ready."  Flame blinked.  "I think you'll be delighted."  Flame glowed confidently.

"Same here."  Shadow glowed a happy gray.  Things had not gone very well up until this point.  Shadow and Flame had been some of the first wyrds to volunteer for service Earthside.  If God planned on killing off the wyrds and replacing them with some sort of tiny insect grubs from a lower dimension, they had wanted to put a spike in God's eye.  A sort of "we're here, and we're not going to take this," message right to God's callous heart.  But the hyperdimensional tube hadn't functioned according to predictions.  Not only had it folded them down through space, but it had folded them forward in time as well.  So even though they should have been fighting alongside their comrades from the beginning, here they were, only now reaching the Earth seven years after their fold began.  Amaranth had told them that similar mishaps had occurred all across the timeline.  Some wyrds had ended up ten years back in time, and no doubt other wyrds would be appearing three years later for the first time, unaware of all that had happened during their journey.

If Shadow and Flame had been here from the beginning, none of this would have happened.  There would have been no organized Choice Giver resistance.  The world wouldn't still cling to hope.  Their connection to the dissidents in government who had smuggled the plans for the folding device to them wouldn't have been exposed and shut down.  And most of all, they never would have allowed humans to escape to parallel dimensions.  The Wyrd Council was a defeated shell of itself.  But it was never too late to turn things around.  Amaranth was right about that.  Now that they were here, the direction of the wind had changed.

* * *

"I'm home,"  Isao Oono announced, taking off his shoes and placing them carefully in the foyer.

"Big brother!  Mom!  Big brother's back!"  A twelve year old boy raced up and grabbed Isao by the arm, who promptly pulled him straight into the air to float giggling with excitement.

"Hey Tetsuo, how's it going?"  Isao asked his little brother.

"Did you really fight bad guys?"  Tetsuo asked.  "I told all my friends you were a superhero, but they didn't believe me."

"Of course I'm a superhero.  I wrote it all down in my letter, right?  I've been killing bad guys left and right.  Sunup to sundown.  Stab! Stab!  Stab!  Just like that."  Isao punched his arm forward illustratively, sending Tetsuo swinging back and forth in the air precariously.

"Aaagh, let me down, let me down!"  Tetsuo complained.

Isao lowered his arm enough to give his brother footing, only to face the rest of his family lined up in front of him.

"Welcome home, Isao.  Have you been well?"  Mom asked.

"Is this the girl you wanted to introduce?"  Dad asked, looking appraisingly at the shy Shiori hiding behind Isao's back.

"I'm fine, Mom.  Has Maria already moved out?"  Isao asked a little sadly, wishing he had gotten to see his older sister too.

"She's living with her boyfriend, they've got a motorcycle shop of all things."  Mom said.

"Haha!  That's just like her.  Well, tell her I said 'hi,' okay?"  Isao asked.

"She said to tell you 'hi' if you dropped by with your new bride.  Oh, she also wants to know when the wedding date is, so she can arrange around it."  Mom remembered.

"That's up to Shiori,"  Isao stepped aside, and pulled his pride and joy in front of him with his hands on her shoulders.

"Pleased to meet you,"  Shiori bowed.  "I'll be under your care from here on, M-mom, D-dad."

"Likewise, please take care of us from here on."  Both Isao's parents bowed solemnly.  "So you're the one that brought back our wayward son?"  Dad smiled affectionately, deciding she was pretty and polite enough for anyone.

"I just wanted to meet everyone.  We're family, after all."  Shiori explained nervously.  "Maybe, we could have your blessing?"

"I'm sure Isao knows what's best,"  Mom waved the old fashioned idea away.  "Of course you have our blessing, if you want it.  Now let's all have some tea."  She clapped and started escorting people away from the front door and towards the living room.

"Ah, Mom, that's boring.  I want to hear about Isao stabbing the bad guys."  Tetsuo complained.

"The bad guys can wait, child."  Mom replied.  "If it's too boring go out and play."

"So how many did you get?"  Dad asked, secretly just as curious as his escorted-outside-youngest-son.

Isao's note had been legendary around the family and was still displayed on a shelf next to his parent's anniversary presents and grandfather's china ware:

"Dear Mom and Dad,
I have been chosen for an important duty that only I can do.  Don't worry about me, and tell everyone at school sorry for the short notice.  I'm going to kill the bad guys.  All of them.  Until then,

"Asia's done.  I'm working on Africa now."  Isao smiled proudly.

"So it was you.  I should have known."  Dad shook his head.

"What do you mean?"  Mom asked, not following at all.

"We raised quite the terrorist."  Dad chuckled.

"We prefer the term 'freedom fighter,'"  Isao grinned back.

"What are you two going on about?"  Isao's mom put her fists on her hips.

"I don't know how, honey, and I don't think I'm allowed to ask either.  But that's how it is.  Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Korea.  That entire wave of democratic uprisings?  The perpetrator's standing right in front of us."  Dad clapped Isao on the shoulder.

"Though the Korea one caused a little too much trouble."  Isao apologized.  Shiori had had to clean up after his mess there.  Who would have thought a unified Korea was a trigger for World War III?

"And since you're bragging about it so openly, I suppose this girl's wrapped up in it too?"  Mom asked askance.

"She knows about it."  Isao qualified.

"Well, I can't say you're wrong.  You've made a lot of people happy, Isao.  But try to be safe."  Mom complained.

"Keep it a secret, or there will be reprisals directed towards you."  Isao warned.  "You might want to wait a few years before trusting Tetsuo with the details."

"Of course you're right."  Mom agreed, moving over to the kitchen to prepare their tea.  "You were trying to keep us safe, weren't you?"

"It crossed my mind."  Isao smiled, sitting down on his old couch where he used to sit watching TV and doing homework.

"Well, that's all water under the bridge.  You're here now, and that's what matters.  What I really want to know is how you two met.  If that isn't classified information?"  Mom arched an eyebrow.

"It was through a mutual friend."  Isao said.

"It was at a hospital."  Shiori replied simultaneously.

"That hardly counts."  Isao objected, turning on his fiancee.

"I don't know about you, but that's when I fell in love."  Shiori smiled.

"Then why didn't you say anything at the time?"  Isao complained.

"I was thirteen!  Do you think I could have said something that embarrassing?"  Shiori shook her head at the idea.

"Thirteen.  Why, Isao!"  Mom looked shocked.

"It's a misunderstanding!  We met again when she was nineteen!"  Isao protested.

"Uh-huh."  Mom turned back to her tea doubtfully.

"Shiori wasn't even pretty at thirteen.  At first I thought she was a boy - -"  Isao's sentence was stopped with an oof as an elbow landed on his chest.

"It's all a misunderstanding, Mom."  Shiori piped in with a high pitched ladylike laugh.  "Why, he was dating a different thirteen year old girl at the time."

"Isao!"  Mom turned on him, scandalized.

"It's a misunderstanding!  I was only fifteen!  And she was the one who asked!  And we only held hands!"  Isao sputtered.

"At first."  Shiori grumbled behind her hand.  She knew exactly how far those two had gone.

"Well, if you say so."  Isao's Mom lightheartedly threw the concern away.  "Tea's ready.  I think we'll get along just fine, Shiori."

"What a coincidence."  Shiori said with her widest eyed innocence.  "I was thinking the same thing!"
Isao decided to go outside and play catch with Tetsuo.

* * *

Yume Minami lay in a slightly elevated bed, staring at the ceiling.  She was ten years old, but her life was already over.  Her family had been taking a trip to the beach this summer vacation, when a drunk driver careened around a corner and slammed into them head on.  Her father, mother, and little brother had died instantly.  She hadn't been so lucky.  When the paramedics had pulled her out of her crumpled metal tomb, she hadn't felt any pain.  She hadn't felt anything beneath her neck.  She had broken her spinal cord.  There was no cure.  Her entire body was paralyzed for life.  Impersonal nurses would come in every day to give her a sponge bath and exchange out bedpans, but no one she knew visited.  Everyone she knew was dead.  The nurses had put a vase with a plastic orange sunflower within her eyesight to cheer up the sterile white room.  She liked to look at that flower and smile at a well played joke.  I've lost my family, my friends, and my future, but at least I have an artificial flower.  Thanks, God.

The most hilarious part of the joke is that the drunk driver had survived uninjured.  She thought he was serving five years in jail somewhere for his crime.  Yume hadn't committed any crime, but she was imprisoned for life.  Imprisoned inside her own dead body.  Imprisoned by a stubbornly beating heart that wouldn't stop no matter how many times she told it to.  Imprisoned by a will too weak to hold her breath until she died or bite her tongue in two and bleed to death.  When the drunk driver got out of jail, he'd get to run and jump and play again, none the worse for wear.  But she couldn't get any time off for good behavior.  She couldn't be rehabilitated.  No one would forgive her.  It was impossible to live, and impossible to die.  Her life was a case study in futility.  And to think, just three months ago.  No, to be precise, just two months and seventeen days ago, she had run to school.  She had skipped rope without thinking twice about it.  She had wrestled with her little brother and sent him crying to Mom as a daily ritual.  The little snitch.  As though he didn't start the fights in the first place.

Within her short term memory, within just a few seconds ago, she had been alive.  All of this could just be a dream, a fairy tale.  She could wake up to an alarm clock and jump out of bed, shouting, "I'm going to be late, I'm going to be late!"  It could still happen.  After all, her memories from before the accident were still so clear.  Her memory of spreading jelly with a knife across bread, of an arm and fingers that replied so deftly, so dexterously, so cleverly to her tiniest impulse.  Her memory of jumping over a rainy puddle with infinitely strong legs that could take her anywhere.  They were still fresh.  So she might still be asleep.  It could still all just be a long, long nightmare.

Yume didn't cry.  She had cried herself out long ago.  She didn't ball up her fists and dig her nails into her palm.  She couldn't control her fists.  She didn't curl up into a ball and hold her knees tight against her chest.  She couldn't change her position.  So instead she stared at an empty white ceiling and hoped she would be waking up soon now.  She had waited so patiently for so long.  The nightmare was sure to end in the next five minutes.  She started counting patiently to see if it would.

"It's time to change, Minami."  A nurse said with fake cheer, knocking on the door.

Yume didn't bother replying.  What could she do, refuse?  She couldn't feel her own body, but it still had to be taken care of, or it would start bruising and becoming infected.  Her worse than useless body, which should have just been amputated at the neck, meant she had to go through this humiliating ritual every day.  But that was okay.  She was up to two minutes.  She was going to wake up soon.

The nurse caught Minami's mood, and quietly went about her duty.  It was a pitiable patient.  One of her friends had simply quit after the first week, crying that she couldn't stand nursing anymore.  Minami's eyes weren't those of a ten year old's anymore.  They were endless pools of despair, that threatened to pull down anyone who made eye contact with her.  They were eyes that challenged your faith in the gods.  They were mocking eyes.  Hateful eyes.  And yes, the nurses knew Minami hated all of them.  Who wouldn't?  After all, every day they walked around in front of her, in perfect health, with a family to go home too, without any problems whatsoever.  That was enough to hate anyone.  The remaining nurses took this room in shifts, to try to lighten the load on any one of them as much as possible.  None of them stayed to talk to the girl.  Minami never replied.

When the nurse had plumped up her pillow and carefully laid Minami's head back down, it was minute four.  Minami impatiently started counting the last sixty seconds.  By the time the nurse closed the door Minami was up to thirty-four.

Thirty-five.  Thirty-six.  Thirty-seven.  Thirty-eight.  Thirty-nine.  Forty.  Forty-one.  Forty-two.  Forty-three.  Forty-four.  Forty-five.  Forty-six.  Forty-seven.  Forty-eight.  Forty-nine.  Fifty.  Fifty-one.  Fifty-two.  Fifty-three.  Fifty-four.  Fifty-five.  Fifty-six.  Fifty-seven.  Fifty-eight.  Fifty-nine.  Five minutes.

Yume stared blankly at the ceiling.  Well, she must have gotten enough sleep now.  In the next five minutes, her chances of waking up would be even higher.

One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  Ten.  Eleven.  Twelve.  Thirteen.  Fourteen.  Fifteen.  Sixteen.

"Yume Minami,"  A gray sphere floated through the window and intruded into her field of vision.

"How would you like to walk again?"  The sphere asked.  It had no mouth, so she didn't understand how it was speaking.  But if this were all a dream, stuff like that could happen easily.

Yume tried to open her mouth, to respond.  But for a moment she had forgotten how.  How long had it been since she had said something out loud?  Two months?  Or maybe just one?  Eventually she resurrected her voice into a whispered croak.

"Yes, please."  Yume couldn't sit up excitedly to stare at this new marvel.  She couldn't lift her arms up to catch it like a firefly.  So she lay still and stared instead.

"However, there is a price."  The gray sphere glowed, making sure she understood.

"Don't care."  Yume whispered.

"That's the spirit.  I knew I could count on you, Yume."  The sphere spoke.  No one had called her by that name since the accident.  Against her will, tears started piling up in the corners of her eyes.  She didn't lift up her hands to wipe them off her cheeks.  She couldn't move.  So tears just gathered up into little beads and trickled down either side of her face.

"Repeat after me.  Via tu lusches, Shadow."

* * *

Ryu Kitamura was walking home from work.  It was an office job, like any other.  He was a compliance officer, who went around making sure everyone was following the million regulations local, state, national and international governments had for their company.  It wasn't a fun job.  People seemed to take his paperwork personally, like he had been the one who had personally passed every single law on the books overseeing every branch of the industry.  But it had paid the bills.  He had done everything he was supposed to do.  He had graduated from college, then from graduate school, and finally landed as an intern at a shipping company.  From there he had worked long days and nights putting in his fair share, and slowly been promoted into a real, long-term job suited to his qualifications.  Once he had a salary, he had gone through a series of omiai, marriage interviews, set up by his parents with local available girls.  He had given them flowers, said the expected words, and waited patiently.  Eventually a woman had agreed, and they had married.  Because of his sterling qualifications, he was a little ahead of the average man in the game of life.  At twenty-eight his wife gave birth to his first child, a son.  Everyone had celebrated, and everything had been going well.  To make enough money for a real home that could house all of them, and another child to come, he had taken more and more hours at the office.  He came home tired and grumpy, because work was always a tug-o-war with the rest of his company who "didn't see the problem with" an obvious problem, or "was only just for a bit" breaking the rules, or saying "surely that didn't mean it applied here" when of course that's exactly where the law applied.  But did anyone thank him for keeping their company safe from lawsuits?  Of course not.  They just grumbled about their 'little dictator' and tried to slink out of their next regulation like they'd never learned a thing from the previous round.

But that was okay, because he was being paid to take abuse like that.  He'd taken that money and bought an expensive mortgage.  It was a small house, only tycoons could afford a large house in Japan, but it was above average.  It would take decades to pay off, but that was okay too.  His job was secure and he was good at it.  Everything was going according to plan.

And then, out of nowhere.

"I want a divorce."

What for?  For working?  Should I have been a homeless bum instead?  He hadn't beaten her.  He hadn't even yelled at her.  He hadn't cheated on her.  Hell, he didn't have enough time to even look at other girls.  He hadn't done anything.  But she wanted a divorce anyway.  There was nothing he could say to change her mind.  He was too confused to be able to say much in his defense anyway.

His wife had happily kept the house his work had paid for.  She kept his son too, a son he'd barely gotten to spend time with while they were married, and usually only when the child was already asleep.  Now he didn't have a son at all.  From this distance, too young for the son to even remember his father, there was no way he could have any influence on the child.  There was no way he could be in the child's life in any meaningful way.  She had taken everything from him.  Legally, freely, and without a shred of guilt.

It was apparently all his fault.  He hadn't been loving enough.  Whatever that meant.

Two weeks after the divorce was finalized in court and she had gotten the house, the car, and the kid, her boyfriend moved in with her.  She had apparently been cheating on him for months.

That was his fault too, she explained.  She had been lonely.  He hadn't been romantic enough.  He'd left her alone too many days in a row.  It was only natural.

Ryu wondered what 'natural' meant in this world.  If it meant women could take everything a man ever cared about, throw it onto a sidewalk, stomp on it, spit on it, and then walk away laughing, with the full endorsement and backing of society and the law, and a few claps followed by 'you go girls!'  Then he supposed life was 'only natural.'  Only, no one had told him ahead of time this was what natural meant.  They had given him one story, about what he had to do and what he could expect in return.  But they had pulled a bait and switch.  Really, all he could ever have expected from women was this.  A plan so universally endorsed and approved of that his wife had never even blinked an eye.  For the rest of her life, she would sit around laughing with her boyfriend over what a fool Ryu had been.  What a jerk.  What a loser.  What a guilty scumbag who deserved everything that happened.  After all, the courts had sided with her, right?  And all of her friends would agree with her, laughing that of course he had it coming.  Her boyfriend would agree with her, laughing that of course you should dump a guy like that.  It was in their self interest to side with her.  The boy got to steal another man's wife.  The women got the right to do the same in the future to their husbands without recrimination.  Everyone won.

Everyone but Ryu Kitamura.  But no one gave a damn about him.  The world had made that point quite clearly.

As he searched for his key in the twilight dusk to open up his tiny cramped apartment -- he was still paying half of his salary in alimony and child support to his ex-wife -- an orange glow appeared behind him.

"Ryu Kitamura, how would you like the ability to kill people -- and get away with it?"  The floating orb spoke.

"Will they be girls?"  Ryu turned around, a fire leaping out from his heart and boiling through all of his limbs with uncontained rage.  He didn't care if this was some sting operation or a giant practical joke.  This voice had spoken his heart's one true desire, and he wasn't going to miss his chance, however slim, to fulfill it.

"Most of them."  The orange orb replied generously.

"I'm listening."  Ryu folded his arms in front of him.

"It's quite simple, really.  Repeat after me:  Via tu lusches, Flame."

Chapter 5

Eri Kouno anxiously stared at the clock.  "Mother, we're going to be late."

"Calm down, Eri.  It's going to be fine."  Mother finished checking her makeup.

"It's 3:45."  Eri reported from the front door, watching the second hand move inexorably forward.

"The amusement park isn't going to run away."  Mother laughed, stepping into a pair of brown dress shoes.  "Alright, into the car.  Darling, are you ready?"  Mother called up the stairs.

Father came trotting down the stairs in response, tightening his tie on the way.  "What do you think, too formal?"

"Meeting your daughter's friend's parents can never be too formal."  Mother reassured him.

"We're going to be late."  Eri wailed, rushing for the back door of their car.  She vainly tried to open the door but it was, as she well knew, still locked.  Her parents walked in this creeping crawling slow-motion formal funeral pace to the car without a care in the world.

Mother finally pushed the button that opened all the door locks at once and climbed into the driver side.  Father got into the passenger side and Eri dived into the back.

"Seatbelts."  Mother ordered.

"Done."  Eri reported breathlessly.

Mother turned around to check, then turned on the car engine and pulled out of the driveway.  For a busy Friday afternoon, there was surprisingly little traffic.

"My, how lucky."  Mother commented absently.  There was a series of traffic lights between them and the amusement park at the end of town, but as they approached each one they always turned green.  Even the left turn signals turned green right before they arrived, signals that changed once in a blue moon for the poor drivers stuck in said lanes.

"My, my."  Mother hummed happily, slowly turning left onto the last road before the parking lot.

Right when Mother was looking for a spot, another car pulled out at the very front near the entrance.  Eri tore off her seatbelt and dived out the door.

"No need to rush, Eri.  We're five minutes early."  Mother said, stepping lightly out of the car with the same casual pace she had gotten in.

"I see Saki.  I'm going on ahead!"  Eri shot behind her to her parents, and ran the rest of the way to their meeting point.  A huge crowd had assembled to celebrate her friend's birthday.  Everyone was older except one other girl, who had blue eyes of all things.  Taking a closer look, she wasn't the only one.  An older man seemed to have black irises instead of the normal brown, standing next to a girl she originally took for a middle schooler, barely any taller than she was.

"Everyone, this is Eri Kouno.  Mr. and Mrs. Kouno are walking this way."  Saki introduced her friend to the crowd.

"Pleased to meet you."  Eri bowed politely, her red ribbon flipping well above her head as it moved.  Mother had given her that ribbon when she was eight, saying it looked good on her.  She had worn it ever since, and every now and then she caught her Mother smiling happily at the sight.  Every now and then Eri smiled at the memory too.

"Eri, Mr. Kouno, Mrs. Kouno, let me introduce you to everyone."  Saki spoke up again once Eri's parents arrived, still early according to the scheduled meeting time.

"Starting on the left," Saki held out her arm like a showgirl, "My sister's friend, and her fiance, Shiori Rin and Isao Oono.  After them is Rei Rin, Shiori's twin sister, and her husband, Onyx Rin.  Next up is Masanori Miyamoto, Capri's uncle.  In front of him is Capri, my oldest friend.  And after Capri are my two sisters, Chiharu Sakai, and on the extreme right, Aiko Sakai.  A lot of people were excited about going to the amusement park for some reason.  But don't worry, we'll probably be going on different rides once we get in, right?"  Saki turned to the crowd behind her.

"Don't worry Saki.  We won't bother you."  Shiori promised.

"Keiichi Kouno,"  Father stepped forward and held out his hand to Chiharu confidently.  "I confess I was hoping to meet Saki's parents today, but it's still nice to meet you.  Ever since we moved here, your daughter has been taking care of ours."

"It was no problem,"  Chiharu shook his proffered hand.  "Saki's been talking about her new friend every day she's been so happy, we're deeply indebted to you."

"She talks about Eri so much she won't let me sleep."  Aiko groaned in remembrance.

"Aiko!"  Saki blushed red.  But Eri's parents laughed and the ice was immediately broken.  It looked like everyone was ready to have a good time.

Eri stepped through the crowd and gave a quick bow to Capri.  "It's nice to meet you, I'm Eri Kouno.  Let's all three of us take the rides together."

"You're beautiful."  Capri said, paradoxically closing her eyes as she did so.

"Thank you."  Eri said, not sure what to do.  She did try to dress up and look her best, just like her parents.  But no one had called her beautiful for just that before.

"You're a good influence on Saki."  Capri said, smiling with her eyes open again.

"I, thank you."  Eri repeated.  She thought Saki had been a fine person from the start.  In a few minutes, groups had been decided on and sorted out.  Capri, Saki, Eri, Mr. and Mrs. Kouno, Masanori, Chiharu and Aiko would form one group.  Meanwhile, Shiori, Isao, Rei and Onyx would go together on the more thrilling rides.  But they would all meet up again at six for the Ferris Wheel, then have dinner and cake to celebrate Saki's eleventh birthday.

Chiharu quickly put her hand in the center, until everyone else had circled around and added in their hand on top.  "Project Happy Birthday, Start!"  Chiharu shouted, and everyone else lifted their arms in cheering approval.

Eri felt a little embarrassed, but her parents took it all in stride, joining in as quickly and loudly as the rest.  They were such lifesavers.  They were the best parents in the world.

"Where do you want to go first, Saki?"  Eri asked, getting a purple stamp on her wrist as she turned in her ticket.

"Hmmm.  Let's try the haunted house!"  Saki said, pointing at a distant building.

"Ok.  Let's stake our family honor on who frightens first."  Eri agreed happily.  She could handle scary stuff.  Ghosts, demons, and all that were just stories from an ignorant past.

"Always a competition!"  Saki laughed, grabbing her hand and leading the way through the crowd.  When they arrived, the line was extremely short and they were ushered straight in by smiling employees.

"My, my."  Mother smiled happily.  "Darling, will you protect me?"

"I'll manage somehow."  Father grinned back at her, holding out his hand and escorting her into the darkness.

Eri wasn't frightened of the dark.  She was eleven years old.  And not a phony eleven like Saki who was just ten and a day.  She was eleven and a half years old -- if you rounded up.  She marched into the darkness behind her parents, but must have taken a different turn.  Before she knew it, she was alone with Saki and Capri, whose eyes were glowing in the dark.  Okay, that was a little scary.  Just a little.

"Did we take a wrong turn?"  Saki asked nervously.

"It's a haunted house.  All turns are equally correct."  Eri replied boldly.  "Just keep following the same wall."

"I'LL EAT YOUR LIVER!"  A ghost screamed, brandishing a knife.

Eri screamed and ran.  Saki looked at the ghost, then at the quickly vanishing Eri, and rushed to follow.

"Wait for me!"  Saki yelled.

"STAY AWAY FROM ME!"  Eri screamed, running even faster.  The hallways were too dark and she stumbled over a log, her shin protesting with a flurry of pain.

"I'm commmmmminggggggg."  A banshee with hair covering her face started crawling out of the well.

Eri screamed.  She started crab-walking backwards away from the monster, her legs too weak to pick her completely back up.  Then hands were grabbing her and she started punching and kicking them off.

"Eri!  Eri!"  Saki was laughing, trying to avoid the worst of her flailings.  "Eri, it's me.  Mooooh.  Why didn't you say you were such a scaredy-cat?"

Eri opened her eyes into the dim light carefully, ready to close them again in an instant.  "Saki?"

"It's just us."  Saki repeated soothingly, gesturing at Capri behind her.  "Let's go back to the entrance."

"No, I can get through."  Eri's voice wavered against her will.

"I'm not saying you can't."  Saki said, pulling her back up onto her feet.  "I just suddenly really want to take a ride on the tea cups, okay?"

"Well. . .if you insist. . ."  Eri looked down at the floor.

"It's my birthday, so spoil me a little, okay?"  Saki asked.

"It can't be helped, since it's your birthday."  Eri graciously surrendered.  "Well, let's just go back to the entrance then.  This way, everyone."

Capri didn't say a word, even after they emerged back into the light.  For that, Eri thanked her from the bottom of her heart.

"There you are."  Masanori smiled as he saw them emerge.  "I thought I heard a scream."

"It's more fun that way."  Eri explained quickly, and Saki nodded in agreement.  "Are my parents out yet?"

"Let's wait for them."  Masanori decided.  Her parents had come all this way to attend the amusement park with their only child.  He doubted they wanted to become separated now.

"Eri, dear, are you alright?"  Mother walked through the crowds that separated the exit from the entrance.

"Fine, mother.  But. . ."  Eri bit her lip.  "I wagered our family's honor and lost.  I'm sorry."

"Well just win it back next time."  Mother took out her purse and fetched a band-aid unconcernedly.
"Sit down."  Mother ordered kindly.

"It's nothing, Mother."  Eri squirmed away, not wanting to be treated like a kid.

"If it's nothing, a band-aid won't make it any worse, right?  Now sit down."  Mother ordered.  Eri sat down and held out her bleeding leg.  When she looked closely, she saw a rather red mark on Saki's face too.  Eri blushed with even more shame.

"There, all done.  Where to next?"  Mother asked, patting Eri on the head.

"Saki wanted to ride the tea cups."  Eri mumbled.

"How nice.  It looks like the line for the tea cups is short too.  My, my."  Mother said, holding her hand back out for Father to hold, and the troupe started walking back across the grounds.

"Masanori, duck!"  Aiko shouted.  Masanori turned his body to see what the fuss was, and then he was falling backwards onto the ground.  A split second later the sound of a supersonic bullet reached their ears.

"So they came."  Father said, tension suffusing his face.  "Everyone, run away.  I can't explain what just happened so just trust us.  Eri, stay close to me.  Don't move no matter what."  He stepped forward and started to announce something.

"Coi, Cyan!"  Chiharu shouted, ignoring him.  An explosion of light suffused her figure, and in her place suddenly was standing a girl in blue carbon fiber holding a laser gun.

"Aiko, take Saki and run!"  Chiharu ordered.

"I can help.  I'll find the sniper's location!"  Aiko protested.

"Don't be an idiot!  If you die it's all over!  Run!"  Chiharu ordered again.

"I'll find Shiori!  Hold out until then!"  Aiko shouted, and then she was racing away with Saki in tow.  A lot of the crowd was joining her, as people started screaming and fleeing from the bleeding man on the ground, unsure of where safety could be found.

Eri stood petrified behind her father's back.  It was supposed to be a birthday party.  It was just supposed to be a birthday party.  She heard the sound of whizzing bullets plowing into the dirt and kicking up fine sand into the air.  But she knew that was a false comfort.  Every time she heard a bullet it was too late to do anything about it, it had already missed.  It was the bullet she wouldn't hear that was going to kill her.  That was somehow too terrifying to grasp.

"My, my."  Mother said calmly, standing in front of both Father and Eri.  "Lucky only the first shot was accurate, aren't we?"

"That we are, dear."  Father grinned.  And then the impossible happened right in front of her.  "Coi, Tangerine!"  Her father was transforming too, a blinding spray of rainbow colored sparkles engulfing his large back.  Emerging from the other side was a buddhist monk in orange long robes, sandals, a shaved head and a twelve-ringed staff.

"Circle of protection."  Father struck the ground three times, and an orange barrier started expanding voraciously outwards from his feet.  The Kouno family, Chiharu and the man down were all included.  Bullets that had previously been spraying into the dirt were now pinging off the sphere, sounding like raindrops on a tent.  Eri stood very still, as close to the center of the barrier as she could.

"Team Choice Givers."  Chiharu said through a dark visor.  "Allies, I presume?  Can you heal Masanori?"

"Sorry, that wasn't the magic I manifested."  Father replied.  "We're the Moral Aristocracy.  Pleased to meet you."

"We need to find the enemy's location.  Any ideas?"  Chiharu asked politely.

"My idea is to wait here for reinforcements."  Father replied.

"Not a bad idea."  Chiharu agreed after a short pause.  "But I can't let them get away.  Somehow they got under our radar.  They're too dangerous to leave free."

"Sorry, master."  Tangerine said, an orange glowing gem on Father's sash.  "There are Dead Enders everywhere, just like always, I didn't notice any new ones moving in."

"They were waiting for us."  Chiharu decided.  "That's a new one.  Simple, when you think about it."
Bullets stopped bouncing off their shield.  Eri looked anxiously towards the Ferris wheel, the direction they'd been flying in from by the sound, but it was too far away to make out any figures.  Whoever was trying to kill her was going to try something new.

* * *

"Did we get him?"  Yume whispered to her wyrd, lowering her sniper rifle tiredly.  She wasn't wearing anything special, from the outside.  She was wearing black athletic shorts and a black T-shirt, laying down flat on top of a metal beam supporting the Ferris Wheel.  Her gun was nearly as tall as she was, with a long barrel supported by a tripod and an enormous scope on top.  It was the strongest weapon she could imagine, so that's what she had received.  As for her armor, it was inside.  A new skeleton to replace her old.  A new girl's body that worked.  It moved as she wanted, it was strong and fast.  It was her now.  Shadow had fulfilled his promise.  She was never going to leave this form.  This was her body now.

"Can't tell.  I thought I saw him move at the last instant before we fired.  But he certainly looks dead."  Shadow replied.

"He's alive."  Flame reported, his scrying still showing the bright light of their quarry.  "Abort?"  Flame suggested.

"No.  This is too good an opportunity.  We engage."  Shadow decided.  "Kill Masanori."

"Just what I wanted to hear!"  Ryu shouted, standing up.  "Form of the Dragon!"  He shouted, and sparkles started surrounding him in an ever increasing flurry.  A man was no longer standing on the pole, but instead a four legged beast, which was rapidly growing in size and weight.  Yume hopped nimbly onto Ryu's sparkling back, her rifle held diagonally across her back to avoid hitting the ground.  She could do anything nimbly now, thanks to Shadow.  She felt more graceful then she'd ever been in her previous life.

Soon the metal pole gave way beneath them, and in a creaking moan, the entire Ferris Wheel started to tip over and fall.  Ryu gave out a ferocious roar and unfurled his wings, leaping into the air before he fell with his perch.  There was no way the leap or the wings could hold up such a massive body.  The entirety of the king of wyrms was supported by magic.

"Yume, stay down and look for an opening."  Shadow advised.

"Yes."  Yume whispered compliantly.  She hadn't been able to get her voice above a whisper since she left the hospital.  She'd be safe on Ryu's back.  Besides, her endoskeleton was indestructible.  She had imagined that trait more than anything else.

* * *

"What is that?"  Shiori pointed, a real live dragon appearing out of thin air.  Crowds of people were running in every direction, but their wyrds couldn't guide them precisely to anyone's side.  Everyone was close enough together to make it an indistinguishable jumble to them.  When the commotion began, they had all transformed, but not knowing where to go, they had stood helplessly behind cover and waited.

"Shiori!"  Aiko came running in a beeline towards them.  It wasn't fair.  Aiko could pinpoint anyone's location by looking through their eyes.  Telepathy was so nice.  Behind her ran Saki and Capri.

"Hurry, they're by the haunted house.  Masanori's down."  Aiko shouted, panting for breath.

"Got it.  Aiko, take the kids and hide.  Rei?"  Shiori asked.

"Each of you grab a hand."  Rei said, magic thrumming into her butterfly wings until they were twice their normal size.  Shiori took her left hand and Isao her right, and they were launched like a crossbow bolt towards their destination.

"He isn't dead."  Black assured Isao, scrying out the lights in front of him.

"I'll take care of it."  Rei promised, though Shiori had no idea how.  The dragon was heading straight for the haunted house too.  It was going to be a race.  If the dragon turned and attacked Aiko, what were they going to do?  Who was their real target?  Who was more threatening to the dark wyrds?  Shiori didn't know.  For all she knew Kotone was under attack at the mansion and didn't have any help at all.  She just had to beat the enemy in front of her.  But how hard would she need to punch a dragon?  Nevermind.  She could do it, if she followed her training and put her hips into it.  She could accomplish anything.

The dragon reached the haunted house first.  It pivoted above the ground and unleashed a torrent of flame towards the ground, washing down onto its initial target and then flowing outwards like a sea of destruction around it.  But the flame didn't reach the ground.  Something was impeding it.

"I'm letting go."  Rei warned, and suddenly Shiori was flying through the air and falling towards their destination.  She relaxed and timed her knees, pushing down right when she hit the ground, sliding sideways with metal boots whirring mightily against the strain.

"Eternal Zero!"  Rei announced.  The dragon seemed to be moving just fine, so Shiori kept looking around for what she'd frozen.

"Good thinking, Rei!"  Chiharu applauded.  She aimed her gun and shot, but the dragon's scales soaked up the shot like it was nothing.

"Not this again."  Chiharu sighed.

"I'll try to kill the rider."  Isao decided, fading to invisibility.  It was obvious his spear would be equally useless stabbing into the enormous beast.

"I'll handle the dragon."  Rei stood up confidently.  "Chiharu?"

"Sure thing:  Amplify!"  Chiharu's breastplate started glowing furiously.

"Everything should return to zero.  Eclipse!"  Rei pointed and a black bar shot out in front of her, streaking through the sky at the unmissable target.  But a few feet in front of the dragon's hide, the beam took an inexplicable perpendicular turn and ended up fading into the sky.

"An at right angle's shield."  Chiharu cursed.  "Well now my laser gun is really worthless."

The dragon gave out another roar, dwarfing their entire field of vision as he slammed his tail into their protective barrier.  The barrier shook, a few cracks appearing where the tail had landed, but then it regenerated and held.  Inexplicably, the dragon stepped on its own tail during the recoil and collapsed into a heap in front of them.  It let out another roar of frustration.

"Chance!"  Shiori shouted.  She started running forward at increasing speed, her metal boots pushing her beyond human limits, fire coalescing around her fist.

"Let my pain become your own."  Shiori heard a tiny incantation.  Isao was right, there was a dragon rider, who was currently gesturing towards Chiharu.

Chiharu saw it coming too, even though the attack wasn't visible.  She pointed back at the dragon knight and called out "Counter."  But Cyan's light burst into dribbles.  Desperately she summoned up all of her magic and tried a new spell, not knowing how close 'her pain' had already approached.

"Deflect!"  She called out again, and this time Cyan's light held.  It held.  And Shiori felt a strange cold chill strike her from behind.  It felt like concentrated misery, but it didn't hurt anywhere.  She stumbled back down to the ground, her footsteps faltering.  "No, I won't lose again!"  Shiori said, and planted her feet firmly.

"Burssssssssttttttttt KNUCKLEEEEEEEEE!"  Shiori shouted, channeling all of her strength, from her legs to her hips to her shoulders to her wrists into the dragon's side.  Whatever shield was protecting it from projectiles didn't stop her strike.  She felt the shock deep into her arm as her fiery gloved fist pounded against the dragon's hide.  For a moment everything held stable, but then the heat from her fire starting melting the scales in front of it, and her arm sunk ever so slowly through the armor and into the dragon's flesh.

I can do it!  I can fight!  Shiori started channeling more and more fire through her fist and into the hole.  "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!"  Shiori shouted, her entire figure now a hazy shimmering red light behind the flames.

The dragon turned its eyes on this new threat, untangling itself from its own feet and rolling over to crush her.

"Stasis shield!"  Rei shouted, and ridiculously, the entire dragon floated in mid-air, defying gravity because time would not allow it to fall the rest of the way to the ground.  Shiori smiled and kept channeling flames, sure that if she just kept at it the beast would cook from the inside.

"Amplify!"  Chiharu called, adding Cyan's magic to Shiori's, seeing that progress was being made.
The dragon howled in frustration, and started flying back into the sky.

"Heavenly Palm!"  The strange monk announced, and a shockwave pierced the clouds and forced the dragon back down onto the ground.  He was now caught between the stasis shield and the ki blast, Shiori still feeding fire through his scales.

"ENOUGH!"  The dragon shouted.  And suddenly it wasn't there anymore.  In the distance, a man appeared, well away from where Shiori had been punching, holding his side and grimacing.

Shiori blinked, panting.  She felt like she couldn't summon another lick of flame.  The prick had folded back into his human form just to make his target box smaller.  It wasn't fair at all.

"Welcome to my despair."  The black clothed rider slid off his now-too-small shoulders.  This attack, at least, was visible.  It was a howling skull of green phantasms heading directly for the inert Masanori.  And that's where it stopped, directly over Masanori, frozen forever in time.

"You can't have him."  Rei announced grimly, flying up into the air.  "Everyone, get away.  I'm going to finish this!"

At that moment Isao appeared, his spear thrust straight into the small black clad dragon knight's chest.  The knight looked at him in shock, but Isao was even more shocked.  The entire spear had bent sideways into a crumpled mess.  Aside from a small prick of blood, there was no damage at all.
"Death undying --"  The girl began, but the impact of the spear had unbalanced her gun, and she tripped over it between her legs and started trying to squirm out of her shoulder strap instead.

"Isao, get away!"  Rei cried out in frustration.

"Flash move."  Isao agreed, disappearing and reappearing fifty meters to the side.

"Abort?"  An orange wyrd asked in a strained voice, looking anxiously at his master.

"Abort."  A gray wyrd glowed and then sighed in agreement.

"I'll remember this, fire girl."  The Dead Ender pointed at Shiori furiously, his other hand over his scarred side.

"I won't let you!"  Rei called out.  "Event Horizon!"

But the dragon was too strong.  In an instant, he had transformed again, the dragon knight riding back on his neck, and in a few wing strokes, he pulled away from the sucking vortex.

"I can chase them!"  Rei called out in frustration.

"Don't, Rei!  We can't help you if you pursue!"  Chiharu ordered.

Isao threw his spear away in disgust, looking at it's misshapen metal tip one more time.  "A ten year old girl.  And she was the one who shot Masanori."

"Eri, are you okay?"  Mrs. Kouno, who had simply stood there the entire time, turned around and looked the girl in the face.

"Yes, Mother."

Rei floated to the ground, flapping her black-violet butterfly wings a few more times and then folding them back into her back.  She looked with resignation at the speck on the horizon.

"Everyone, I came to help!"  A young girl came rushing in, with a voice suspiciously like Chiharu's youngest sister.  She was in black, spiky plate armor, slab after slab of it, that covered every inch of her body, with just eye slits for her face.  In one hand she was carrying a warhammer like it was a plastic toy, spike on one side and maul on the other, looking just as dark and dangerous.

Shiori started laughing.  "I knew it! Chiharu!  I can't believe you had the guts to do it again!"

"In what world is this my fault?"  Chiharu shouted back in frustration.  "I left her with Aiko!"

"Err, well. . .I couldn't just stand around."  Aiko walked up behind them, looking a little embarrassed.  "So I kinda sorta explained everything to her in a rush. . .and Capri didn't mind. . .so I just. . .Everyone, I'm sorry!"  Then she held out her hand in front of her face hopeful for forgiveness.

"I'm reporting both of you to the authorities via eternal zero.  Irresponsible use of underage wyrds has got to be a crime."  Shiori waved her finger.

"All of you seem really at ease, but isn't that your friend lying on the ground?"  Mrs. Kouno asked the assembled army.

"Don't worry about him."  Chiharu smiled back at her.  "Ever since Rei got here, his time hasn't moved a second forward.  We'll wait here until the ambulance arrives.  I guess the birthday cake is out, though."  Chiharu sighed, looking at the deserted fair grounds.

"And the Ferris wheel."  Shiori sighed.  That particular attraction lay in a crumpled heap of beams and pylons.

"Who wants to tell Kotone Masanori's back in the hospital?"  Chiharu asked.  Strangely, all eyes turned to the lone remaining man in the group.

"All right, all right.  I'll tell her."  Isao sighed.  This hadn't been a good week.

Chapter 6

"Take a seat, Eri."  Mother instructed.  Her parents had apologized to the others and said they didn't want to be around when the officials arrived.  Eri had wished Saki a quick happy birthday and then walked in a daze back to the car.  She had thought herself a reasonably open-minded person, who enjoyed stories about aliens, time travel and alternate realities.  She had just never thought they would all explode in her face at once.  Those stories always happened to someone else.

"We didn't want to have this conversation with you yet."  Mother sighed, sitting across from Eri and pouring both of them a cup of hot tea.  "But there's no sense hiding it anymore."

Eri waited patiently as Mother took a long sip of tea to compose herself.  "It's like this.  We're the leaders of the most powerful organization on Earth.  Our goal is simple:  World Domination.  You were meant to be our heir, the inheritor of a new and better world.  That's why we raised you with such high standards and expectations.  We need you to be perfect.  We couldn't accept anything less.  And so far, you've been doing very well.  We don't really need the wyrds to tell us this, but you've followed in our footsteps perfectly."

"Wait."  Eri held up one hand palm out while rubbing her forehead with the other.  "When do we get to the explosions?"

"In time, child."  Mother laughed, taking another sip of tea.  "Ok, I'll start over.  Three years ago, Father and I were approached by an alien civilization from a higher dimension.  They had mastered two powers we humans lacked, dimensional travel and future sight.  At the time, their situation was very grim.  As a result of their overtechnology, they had grown to an unsustainable limit and had only a few years, in our time, left to live.  So, paradoxically, between the two of us, humans were the more advanced species .  We still had a bright future, whereas theirs was already doomed.  These aliens call themselves wyrds, and in this world, they can only manifest as small round gems."

Mother paused a moment and then undid the clasp on the back of a fine golden necklace.  At its heart, hanging on a teardrop pendant, was a glowing yellow gem.  "Eri, meet Daffodil.  This is my wyrd.  My companion for life.  She's very special to me."

"Hello Daffodil." Eri bowed politely.

"Hello Eri."  Daffodil blinked back in a polite feminine voice.

"Wyrds wanted to help us, since they could no longer help themselves.  They were much more advanced than humans, but ironically had to rely on us to keep carrying the torch of life forward.  The people they rely on are called Choice Givers.  They're people like your Father.  People like me.  Within our way of life, our system of values, our thoughts and feelings and actions and decisions, in sum, our choices, is a secret formula that will liberate the full potential of life.  Wyrds used to have people like this that they admired and obeyed, but now there are only humans with that kind of potential.  Because they're a fair-minded species, when they ran out of their own Choice Givers, they came down to serve us instead.  Wyrds have come down to Earth to give us three things -- their wisdom, their future sight, and their magic power.  Because all of these tools can be abused in the hands of the wrong people, they've restricted these gifts to Choice Givers alone.  It is up to us to spread the lessons the wyrds have to teach to the rest of mankind, using the power they've bestowed upon us, under the guidance of their 100% correct predictions."  Mother paused to put her necklace back on and tuck her pendant back under her shirt.

"The problem is not everyone is suited to become a Choice Giver.  Choice Givers are the moral aristocracy of this world.  We are a natural elite that has surpassed ordinary human limits.  It was the same for wyrds.  Only a handful of wyrds at any given time were Choice Givers, most just didn't have the intellectual or emotional traits necessary to do the right thing, even when they knew what it was.  But humanity must do the right thing, or it's doomed to stagnation or extinction.  If humanity does not follow us, it will plunge off a cliff.  This isn't theory, it's an established fact.  Wyrds can see the future, and we are the only future for mankind.  Wyrds are never wrong.  Scrying is like sight to them.  It can't see forever in all directions to the tiniest possible detail, but it can be relied on as firmly as when we rely on our eyes to decide where to take our next step on a walk or where to stretch our arm to pick something up.  It's nonsense to disagree with a wyrd's eyesight.  It's the same as saying the sky isn't blue to someone staring right up at it."  Mother explained.

Eri nodded, feeling like she had heard something like this before.  Where?

"Wyrds had an answer for that within their society.  Those who couldn't become Choice Givers, followed or emulated those who could.  Great respect was given to Choice Givers.  Their holiness, their superiority, was self evident to any wyrd because they can all scry and scrying was never wrong.  It was easy to convince the other wyrds to do as their Choice Givers said.  And in this way, their entire race was able to live at the highest level of refinement.  Everyone was as good as their very best.  They created a wonderful civilization because it was modeled after their most wonderful people.  But humans don't have this sixth sense, this third eye.  They can't see clearly and visibly who their moral aristocracy is.  They are lost and take after false prophets or their own emotional whims.  Whereas most wyrds were followers and emulators, most humans are Dead Enders.  They are the very bottom of the moral castes.  A Dead Ender to a wyrd is like a leper or a felon to us, diseased, scary, and disgusting.  But for humans, it's everyone you meet.  They just don't know any better."  Mother continued.

"So now we're back to where we began.  When wyrds came down to us three years ago, giving us congratulations, because we had finally ascended to their highest and noblest caste, and finally merited their attention and support, we realized what a dark and benighted world, for the first time, we were really living in.  A few weeks later, a recruiter came to our door, with his own wyrd in tow.  He explained that he belonged to the Moral Aristocracy, the most powerful collection of Choice Givers in the world, and that they all worked together for safety and support.  We're almost to the explosions."  Mother smiled.

"The Moral Aristocracy has an evil nemesis.  We call them the Corrupters.  Wyrds can scry into the hearts of man in either direction.  Some wyrds, dissatisfied with the loss of their world, came down with completely inverted values.  The most beautiful human souls, for them, were the most ambitious and destructive Dead Enders on Earth.  They wanted to empower these Dead Enders instead, and lead them to victory over the light.  When the war just began, when wyrds had first arrived on Earth, we were all fighting on our own whenever the two forces met.  All sorts of silly adventures occurred, but Choice Givers were outnumbered and the Corrupters were winning.  The Moral Aristocracy realized things couldn't go on like this, and flew all across the world to fight as a team that could no longer be picked off one by one.  Soon the Corrupters started fighting as teams too, and it was really looking grim for a moment.  But seven years ago, the Corrupters suddenly went silent.  Their numbers evaporated, and we Choice Givers were suddenly on the attack.  We started scrying out particularly bad Dead Enders and checking to see if they were indeed the Corrupted.  Most of the time they weren't.  They were just evil people like you'd see anywhere.  Corrupters are extremely good at hiding in this world, because it's so evil they could practically choose anyone to work with.  But we have had successes.  We've become so assiduous in hunting down Corruptors that they've evacuated all of Asia.  We're trying to secure Europe next, but it all relies on numbers.  When we joined the organization, when they recruited us three years ago, we were assigned to patrol Japan.  The Corrupters could always come back, so we wanted to live in the safest place we could find."  Mother paused and took a sip of tea.

"Inazumu is the safest place on Earth for two reasons.  One, crime is non-existent.  The people here are remarkably conscientious.  Two, there were already six Choice Givers living here together, keeping the city safe from any Corrupter incursions.  We knew they would never dare to attack you here.  Then, of course, they did."  Mother laughed wryly.

"So the others who were fighting?  They're part of the Moral Aristocracy too?"  Eri asked.

"No.  They're just a little group of friends that apparently wants to stay out of the fight and live out normal lives.  A little disappointing, really."  Mother said.

"Oh."  Eri said, deflated.  If Saki had been part of the Moral Aristocracy too, everything would've been perfect.

"For now, we have to deal with the Corrupters.  They have the power to destroy the world in an eye blink, whereas normal Dead Enders would take centuries or millennia to do it.  The Moral Aristocracy is tasked with the hunting and killing of all remaining Corrupters as their prime directive.  If the Corrupters gather in one place, we call for reinforcements, and the Moral Aristocracy gathers in one place.  If they spread out, we spread out and chase them.  Since the majority of the wyrds in the etheric plane are on our side, we have a good chance of winning this war.  Even so, we've lost a lot of good people protecting the Earth.  Some of them were my friends."  Mother admitted a little sadly.

"We've been trying to produce more Choice Givers to refill our ranks.  The parents among us all have our hopes.  You're one of them, Eri.  But it hasn't gone as well as planned.  Choice Givers can't be mass manufactured according to a blueprint.  We raise you with our own standards, the ones wyrds tell us are the right standards, and as a result all we've ever gotten is obedient, well-behaved children.  When the wyrds scry you, Eri, they see a follower.  A very beautiful, very dutiful, very loyal follower of her parents.  It's the same for the rest of us.  Choice Givers can't be taught.  They emerge spontaneously with an inspiration from God.  Parents just aren't cut out for it.  But then again, you're only eleven years old.  Maybe you'll join us later, when you've thought things through more thoroughly.  After all, we only became Choice Givers three years ago, and we're middle aged.  I just don't know how to help you any further from here.  All the help we give you just makes you an even more loyal follower.  I'm sorry, Eri."  Mother lowered her head.

"No, don't,"  Eri waved her hands, aghast.  "You haven't done anything wrong, Mother.  You're perfect.  Didn't you say even the wyrds were mainly followers?  I don't mind following you.  I love you!"

"Thank you.  But remember you need to obey your Father too."  Mother winked.

"I know."  Eri smiled back.  "My parents are one flesh.  That's what marriage means.  Following you is following him, and vice versa."

"That's right."  Mother nodded.  "You really are such a good girl."

Eri felt warm and fuzzy from all the praise.

"But the problem remains.  Even if we do defeat the Corrupters, they'll win in the end.  That's because humanity is quite competent enough to destroy itself.  We were well on our way before they got here, and once they're gone, we'll just continue apace.  We know how the world is supposed to be organized, now.  We're supposed to be a three-caste system, with Choice Givers on top, followers and emulators underneath, and Dead Ender untouchables at the bottom.  We're supposed to use praise and shame to make people want to be followers and emulators instead of Dead Enders.  We're supposed to be as strong as our strongest link, we're supposed to be as good as our saints.  But we can't scry.  So everything has gone wrong.  God gave us five senses when we really needed six.  The moral sense.  Without the moral sense, we're still blind.  Blind, and heading off a cliff.  Without the moral sense, how do we make everyone follow the natural aristocracy, mankind's Choice Givers?  How does the Moral Aristocracy conquer the world?  If we don't, mankind has no future.  And that's what the Moral Aristocracy has truly been organized for.  That's the real challenge we're trying to overcome.  That's why we need to work together and pool our powers and ideas the most."  Mother explained.

That's where she'd heard this question before.  "How do you make people want to be good?"  Eri repeated aloud.

"Precisely.  And we all came to the same conclusion."  Mother said.

"Fear."  Eri realized.

"My, my."  Mother's eyes widened in surprise.  "Correct again.  Maybe you will join us soon."

* * *

"It hurts."  Yume said in a fully recovered and cheerful voice, poking her bandaged chest.  "Shadow, it hurts."

"Of course it hurts if you keep pressing on it."  Shadow chided.

"But look." Yume poked over her heart and gasped in pain.  "It actually hurts.  I can feel it, Shadow.  I can feel it when I'm hurt.  Every piece of my body, all the way down to my feet.  Can you imagine that?  Even feeling your feet?"

Shadow glowed gray, stealing the color from the room.  "A bit better than lying in bed, isn't it?"

"Shadow, it's wonderful."  Yume said, poking her chest again because she just couldn't stop herself.  "I felt the wind on my skin as we flew.  I felt the sun heating me up.  I felt your warmth nestled against my neck while we cast.  I could feel the magic.  It was so powerful.  It makes your whole body tingle and shake.  It was so powerful."

"You already said that."  Shadow glowed pleasantly.

"Did I?"  Yume poked her chest again and bit her lip from the intoxicating pain.  "Shadow, are you angry with me?"

"I'm not angry with you.  We tried our best."  Shadow said.

"I lined up the crosshairs right onto his forehead like you said.  I even held my breath like you said.  But I still missed."  Yume fretted.

"It wasn't your fault.  The shot should have hit.  Maybe it was just some sort of combat instinct, but he flinched right before we fired."  Shadow explained.

"So I didn't mess up?"  Yume asked hopefully.

"No.  It wasn't your fault.  We'll get him next time."  Shadow promised.

"But next time they'll know we're coming, right?  Now that they know our scrying signatures."  Yume worried.

"Maybe we can work something out with Platinum's group."  Shadow shrugged.  "For now you two just have to heal up.  We may have lost the factor of surprise.  But at least they're down two Choice Givers.  We're doing fine."

"Let's run around the block and then take a hot bath."  Yume suggested.  "Or will that wash off my bandage?"

"You should stick to sponging off the rest of your body and leave your wound alone."  Shadow advised.

"No way.  I want the strongest shower possible.  I want the water to be superfast hot needles that flay me alive.  I'm not taking another sponge bath in my life."  Yume announced.

"I guess that's okay.  There's very little flesh between your skin and your ribcage."  Shadow sighed.  "But remember, he won't attack your heart next time.  If he has any brains, he'll stab a different vital point without any bones.  Your throat, or your kidney.  It'll be a one hit kill.  We lost that surprise too."

"But he lost his."  Yume smiled.  "I hope he walks near me again.  If only I hadn't tripped, I would've had him today."

"That rifle is too big for you."  Shadow blinked.  "Couldn't you have thought of a different strongest weapon?"

"I thought it was tied down really securely."  Yume complained.  "You don't mind being grafted to my skin all day, do you?"  Yume's suit was her entire skeleton, nervous system, and everything else that was broken in the accident.  Meanwhile, wyrds were always incorporated into their mistress's suits when active.  The magical compromise had been part of Yume's skin folding out and being left with the gray sphere right at the juncture of her ribcage below her throat.  Yume didn't mind.  She thought Shadow was pretty inside of her.  But she wasn't about to fold her suit out and let Shadow float free again.

"Wyrds are a very patient species.  I'm content."  Shadow said.

"Ryu, I'm off for a jog!"  Yume waved at the front door, putting on her shoes, which she delightfully kicked firmly on by pounding the toe of her shoe against the ground while balancing on her other foot.

Ryu gave a muffled curse which she took for a 'have a nice time.'  Burn wounds were extremely painful, but Yume thought he was being a bit of a sissy.  For all his grumbling, the girl's punch had been quite small compared to the size of a dragon's body.  Ryu grumbled about a lot of things, but he never took his anger out on her, so all in all, she didn't mind.

"Let's try hopping down the first street."  Yume smiled at the prospect, closing the door behind her.

* * *
"I don't get that girl."  Ryu grumbled to Flame, a wet towel over his face and a sack of ice over his abdomen.  "I thought she was depressed."

"She was depressed.  Which means now that it's over she's ecstatic."  Flame corrected.

"But doesn't she know she's killing people?"  Ryu complained.

"She knows.  She just doesn't care."  Flame glowed a satisfied orange.  Shadow really had chosen well.  Of course, Ryu wouldn't lose to her.

"But why?  I mean, I know she was in a car wreck and all."  Ryu and Yume had talked it all out over coffee and doughnuts and both had empathized with each other.  "But it's not like these people did anything to her."

"Sure they did.  While she was laying in bed paralyzed, they were walking around, laughing, making love, taking baths, and playing catch.  They probably all danced a jig together too.  It's inexcusable, when you think about it."  Flame explained.

"Jealousy?"  Ryu knitted his brows.

"If you want to call the Big Bang an explosion, then yes, I guess you could say she was jealous."  Flame replied.

"But she doesn't look angry."  Ryu objected.

"She isn't.  It's like I said.  She doesn't care."  Flame repeated patiently.

"You aren't making any sense."  Ryu growled.

"Sorry, I keep forgetting humans can't scry."  Flame searched for the words to describe what he he saw when he scryed Yume's soul.

"Take a chemical reaction.  In chemistry, things can suddenly transform from one substance into another, right?"  Flame asked.

"Right."  Ryu agreed slowly.  His college chemistry courses had been a long time ago.

"But ordinarily they'd do that right away, or they wouldn't react at all.  That's why most of the time nothing's fizzing or burning or exploding when you leave it alone."  Flame continued.

"Right."  Ryu followed.

"It takes the addition of a catalyst to change this formula.  With a catalyst, the resistance to change is lowered, and suddenly chemical reactions that couldn't occur in the past become possible.  Physics has the same story.  There are energy wells where electrons like to sit if undisturbed.  It takes a certain amount of energy to force them out of a state of 'rest,' where they go and do more interesting things.  If left alone, they'll eventually settle back down into another energy well, and wait for the next disturbance, unable to change their own properties because they're trapped by the path of least resistance to always stay the same."  Flame said.

"So what?"  Ryu asked.

"The ethical equivalent of energy wells is compassion.  It makes you not want to hurt others.  It makes you care about the interests of others.  It stops reactions that ordinarily would occur, if people were purely selfish, and introduces a steep hill you must be propelled over to reach the limitless heights of amorality.  Humans short circuit their desires with all these checks and balances, and keep themselves on a narrow unreactive leash.  You could say compassion makes humans into noble gasses.  Quite boring people, really. They cease doing anything out of the ordinary."  Flame explained.

"The two of you, on the other hand, are very special humans.  Neither of you feels any compassion.  It has been burnt out of you.  You aren't on leashes anymore.  You can do whatever you want, even if the incentive is incredibly tiny.  It can be vengeance, or anger, or jealousy.  Or in Yume's case, it can just be gratitude for walking free again.  You see, she's happy doing this job.  If you burn away that resistance, it's like creating a frictionless plane that a marble can roll anywhere over.  Yume is a free-rolling marble who doesn't care where she roams.  If killing people can express her gratitude, or even let her jump and play about, well, that's a small benefit.  And there's no cost at all.  Because she no longer cares about the cost.  When she experienced so much suffering that no one else could ever arouse her pity again, when she learned to pity herself more than everyone else on Earth combined, she rated other people's pain down further and further.  Every day she lay on her hospital bed, she degraded the importance of the pain of others to a yet more irrelevant and puny level compared to hers.  And at a certain point, on a certain day, she degraded their pain down to zero, and realized that she was the only person suffering on Earth.  Everyone else, no matter what happened to them, relatively speaking, was happy, and had nothing to complain about.  They had no right to whine at all.  She was the only victim on Earth."

"When I scry Yume Minami, I don't see a shape or form.  There's only darkness.  Her soul is a bottomless pit that gets darker the further you fall, which shouldn't even be possible, but there it is.  Yume doesn't think of herself as a person anymore.  She realized that at some point, long ago, she had already died.  From there on she was just experiencing Hell.  Her soul is Hell.  It's an infinite Abyss.  Try throwing in all the pain and suffering of the entire world, every mortal second of it, and throw it into that Abyss.  Divide it by infinity.  What do you get?"  Flame asked.

"Zero."  Ryu realized.

"And there you have it.  From her point of view, she doesn't have to care about anyone else anymore, because no matter what she does to them, it all amounts to nothing.  She's divided this world by infinity.  For someone who's lived in Hell, folded surface dwellers have nothing to complain about.  Everyone's lost the right to complain but her."  Flame said.

"I guess she thinks my complaints are pretty ridiculous too, huh?"  Ryu Kitamura mused.

"Oh yes.  But don't worry.  She likes you.  You might not be on the same level, but you're kindred spirits all the same."  Flame said.

"By design?"  Ryu asked.

"Of course."  Flame replied.  "Shadow and I are a two man team.  Always have been.  Always will be."

"It's weird.  I hate women.  But I don't hate her."  Ryu admitted.

"Once this is all over maybe you two could live together."  Flame suggested cheerfully.

"Heh.  Maybe."  Ryu winced as he sat up in bed.  If Yume was going to take a shower, it wouldn't hurt to have dinner ready for her when she came out.

* * *
Saki Sakai fell onto her bed face first.  What had she gotten herself into?  What was she going to tell Eri when they got to school?  It was all messed up.  She hadn't even gotten to eat her birthday cake.  Plus her face hurt from where Eri had punched her.

Saki laughed into her pillow.  That felt like a lifetime ago.  But she supposed it was only an hour.  Saki never imagined Eri could make a face like that.  She had always seemed so mature.  For once Saki had beaten her at something.  It felt wonderful.

Her short lived reverie came to an end as Aiko entered their mutual room behind her.  She sat down on Saki's bed and ran a finger up her back.

"How are you holding up?"  Aiko asked.

"I didn't save the day.  I looked like an idiot.  My older sister tricked me."  Saki complained into her pillow.  She had worn such a pretty green skirt, brown shirt and white vest, too.  But all everyone would remember her for would be her spiky black armored dwarf mode.  Capri had told her to imagine the strongest armor possible, and that obviously meant full plate mail.  What else could she have chosen?

"Ehehee."  Aiko kept petting Saki's back.  "Sorry about that."

"My older sister‘s an idiot jerk."  Saki mumbled into her pillow.

"I only started down this path half a year ago, so I can understand.  I bet you have a lot of questions, right?  I told Chiharu to leave it to me."  Aiko kept soothing her little sister with her makeshift massage.

"A lot of questions!"  Saki sat up indignantly at the understatement, making Aiko yelp and fall off the bed.

"Sorry!  Are you okay?"  Saki said automatically, and then her anger escaped her due to the ridiculousness of it all and she was laughing.  Aiko crawled back on to the bed, smiling that the storm had broken.

"You get off for that because it's your birthday."  Aiko pretended to scowl.

"Sorry.  I really didn't mean to."  Saki laughed again.  Then she got to business.  Let's see, what should she ask first?  The list was nearly infinite.

"Capri was an alien all along?"  Saki made her choice and began.

"A wyrd.  To them, we're the aliens.  It's only polite to call each other humans and wyrds."  Aiko corrected.

"A wyrd then.  What does that mean?"  Saki asked.

"In celtic folklore, an inescapable personal fate.  Sort of like what star you're born under.  It's the closest term to what they call themselves in their language.  Maybe they're the people who have embraced their fates.  Or the people whose fate weighs heavily upon them.  Or the readers of fate.  Or the people chosen by fate.  But wyrds will do.  It's the name they chose to tell us."  Aiko replied.

"I suppose that should be the most surprising part.  But looking back. . ."  Saki smiled.

"Capri wasn't very good at hiding herself, was she?"  Aiko said ruefully.

"You weren't any good at hiding Capri either."  Saki laughed, thinking back.  "But okay, so there are aliens.  Why are they fighting each other?  And why here?  Couldn't they do that back where they came from?"

"The wyrds have two factions.  The official government faction wants to uplift mankind.  The other faction, the dark wyrds, want to destroy mankind.  They can't do either from home, so, here they are."  Aiko spread out her hands.

"Only two?"  Saki joked.

"You know, that's true.  Human have what, 200 countries?  And a dozen competing political parties in each country.  And that's just one planet.  Wyrds are an intergalactic empire.  Two seems a little sad."  Aiko agreed.

"I bet if we lived there, we'd notice more distinctions."  Saki suggested.

"Maybe."  Aiko said dubiously.  "I get the sense that the more advanced you become, the more similar you become.  Sort of like that quote."

"Happy families are all happy in the same way."  Saki started, catching it immediately.

"But unhappy families are each unhappy in their own special way."  Aiko finished.  "Have I mentioned recently what a brilliant little sister I have?"

"Maybe."  Saki smiled.  "But I just remember the quotes.  You even read the boring parts of Tolstoy."

"Tolstoy isn't boring.  He's thorough."  Aiko corrected primly.

"I feel like we're drifting further and further away from the topic."  Saki laughed.  After a moment Aiko laughed too.

"Let's get a cake."  Aiko suddenly suggested.

"What?"  Saki asked.

"It doesn't have to be anything special.  Let's walk to the convenience store together and buy a cake.  How about one with strawberries on top?"  Aiko suggested.

"Okay."  Saki agreed, feeling just a bit excited at the prospect.  She was eleven years old now, far too old to care whether she got a birthday cake for her birthday or not.  But it was so sweet of Aiko to care.  It was like she was the most perfect sister of all time.

"We'll get a small one, just the two of us."  Aiko grabbed her purse and opened the door.

"I'll ask questions while we walk."  Saki promised, stepping down the stairs and fetching her shoes.

"Mother, Father, we're going out for a bit.  Is that okay?"  Aiko called out.

"Where are you going?"  Mother asked through the door.

"Just to the convenience store."  Aiko promised.

"Have a safe trip."  Mother gave her okay.

"We'll be right back."  Aiko promised again, and then they were out the door.

It was a cool night.  Summer was fading away and Fall was moving in.  It was that wonderful time of year where you could actually stay outdoors for more than five minutes without feeling miserable .  The stars were out, and the moon was half full.  The chaos at the amusement park felt unreal.  The city was as quiet and safe and cozy as ever.  It hummed with a collection of night sounds from the wind, insects, and cars passing in the distance.

"We're the good guys, right?"  Saki asked as they strolled down the street.

"You bet.  We're the best."  Aiko answered confidently.

"So we just go to school by day and fight dark wyrds by night?"  Saki asked.

"Like Batman?  No."  Aiko laughed.  "They attack during the day too.  We don't get to pick and choose.  But mainly, they don't attack at all.  There are only so many dark wyrds left.  Shiori figured out a way to cut them off from sending any new reinforcements from the etheric plane, so they only attack when they're really confident it will work."

"Shiori?  Who's that?"  Saki asked.

"You know, Chiharu's friend.  She's actually our leader.  Everyone looks up to her.  Somehow you feel like everything will be okay when she's around.  Even though we're all stronger than she is."  Aiko smiled coyly.  "But don't tell her I said that."

"I won't."  Saki agreed.  "Okay, so what do I do when they do attack?"  Saki followed up with what was important.

"Capri will tell you ahead of time and we'll all get together."  Aiko said.

"I don't remember it happening that way. . ."  Saki looked at her sister askance.

"Maybe they had magic to suppress their presence.  But it won't work again.  All our wyrds know who they are now.  They could scry that pair out from kilometers away."  Aiko reassured Saki.  "The important thing is that you find out what magic you've manifested, and how to use it.  You saw how close that fight was.  We need you, Saki.  I'm useless in a fight, all I can do is read minds.  My armor is a bra and panties."

"You mean that pair you always wear?"  Saki asked.

"Mmhmm.  We're here."  Aiko said, looking up at the brightly lit 'open all hours' sign.
Saki was surprised.  She felt like they had just stepped out of the house.  It really was fun hanging out with her older sister.

"Wait!  You can read minds?"  Saki snapped.

"Not so loud!"  Aiko put a finger over her lips, glaring.

"So every day and every night in our room together, you've known every single thing I ever thought?"  Saki whispered, her eyes aghast.

"Maybe."  Aiko turned her eyes sideways and whistled.

"So every time I thought you were being considerate or wise or empathetic or personable, every time I ever looked up to you for any reason?"  Saki asked as they searched the counters for their purchase.

"Every time."  Aiko confessed.

"Then, even this sudden idea to buy a cake?"  Saki realized.

"I heard you missing it, and I wanted to make your birthday whole again.  I was reading your mind then too."  Aiko confirmed.

"So aren't you really a horrible person?"  Saki complained.

"How about this one?"  Aiko leaned down and picked out two slices of strawberry topped, vanilla frosted, lemon cake.

"Okay."  Saki agreed happily.

"I don't know about horrible."  Aiko smiled, going to the front of the store to pay the clerk.  "I'm just using the gifts God gave me."

"Hardly!  You chose eavesdropping as your magic!"  Saki pursued.

"Thank you for your patronage, come again."  The clerk returned Aiko's change and escorted them out the door.

"Thank you,"  Aiko bowed back to him, then broke into a smile and pointed a new direction.  "There's a bench at a park this way.  But that's just the thing.  We don't choose our magic.  We choose our strongest armor and our strongest weapon, but our magic is whatever our inner hearts secretly wish for most.  You could say it's our manifested soul.  I wanted to connect to others, more than anything else in the world.  So God gave me this.  And I did connect to others.  Thanks to my magic, my life is so blessed.  I don't think that makes me horrible."

"My magic's what I wished for most?"  Saki asked, thinking it over.  But what did she wish for most?  All she could think of is that she wanted to be like Aiko.  That had been her dream since they started really being friends.  She didn't think transforming into an Aiko clone would be very useful in battle.

"I'm sorry if you feel a little betrayed.  I didn't notice anything about you due to considerateness like you thought, it's all because I cheated.  I'm actually terrible with people.  But there's one thing you should know, Saki.  I've read so many of your thoughts, I think I know you better than anyone.  And I love you.  I really, truly love you.  The real you.  Through and through."  Aiko said.

Saki blushed and kept her head down, her head spinning.  This was probably what feeling drunk felt like.

"Doesn't your armor feel a little heavy?"  Aiko joked, changing the subject.

"Nope.  I thought of that.  The strongest armor would be as heavy as plate but as light as a feather.  That way even I could wear it.  The weapon too.  I thought how strong I'd be if I could wield a giant hammer that still weighed as much as a feather.  I could swing it like some sort of rapier, even though I'm just eleven.  I figured I could clobber the dragon pretty good like that."  Saki replied.

"Have I mentioned how brilliant my little sister is recently?"  Aiko mused.

"Stop it."  Saki blushed an even deeper red.  "You're embarrassing me."

"Sorry."  Aiko apologized, placing their cake down on a stone table and getting out a pair of plastic forks.

"Just lean over the box, we don't have any plates."  Aiko warned.

It was a gorgeous park overlooking a stream.  Saki noticed the dark silhouette of the city library nearby, and guessed that was why Aiko knew about the place.  She took her fork, said "Itadakimasu!," and swallowed her first bite.  It was a delicious mix of flavors at just the right level of moisture.  She hadn't realized how hungry she was before now.  They had all missed dinner because of the fight.  It was hands down the best birthday cake ever.

"I keep getting distracted."  Saki complained.  "Okay, so there are aliens, and we fight them with magic, but I have to find out my soul's desire to unlock it.  And we're winning the fight but we still need everyone we can get, up to and including dwarven little sister dark knights like me."

"Sounds good so far."  Aiko encouraged.  "Except I keep telling you they're wyrds."

"Right, wyrds."  Saki corrected herself, taking another bite of cake.  "But why us?  The wyrds should have chosen soldiers on both sides."

"That's the fun part.  The dark wyrds choose the evilest people they can, and the light wyrds choose the goodest people they can, so complete amateurs get to fight it out."  Aiko said.

"Goodest?"  Saki asked, laughing.

"I had to preserve the parallelism."  Aiko defended herself.

"It's that boy.  He's infecting you with all these non-existent words."  Saki teased.

"Leave Kyoshi out of this.  By the way he doesn't know anything so don't tell him."  Aiko pleaded.
"Yes, sister."  Saki finished her cake and looked around a little morosely for more.

"Maybe you're really good.  I can even believe Chiharu's really good.  But I'm not.  Eri's way better than me."  Saki continued.

"That was, well. . .an abuse of power. . ."  Aiko looked away guiltily.  "It was an emergency.  I thought Masanori was going to die.  Masanori's more important than the rules, you see.  He's making portals to alternate dimensions and seeding them with new human communities.  We just had to save him.  I had to do something."

"He's making portals -- ?  No, never mind.  We're all magical girls.  That's normal now."  Saki shook her head.

"Masanori might not like being called a magical girl."  Aiko grinned.

"Magical boys and girls, then."  Saki corrected.

"He might not like that term either."  Aiko laughed.

"Leave me alone!"  Saki griped.

"Says the sister who wouldn't leave 'goodest' alone."  Aiko retorted.

"You're older than me!  You can act a little more mature!  So okay, on a scale of 1 to 10, how good am I?  How much of an exception to the rules am I?"  Saki asked the important question.

"You're just fine, Saki.  You aren't a Choice Giver.  That's okay.  There's only around fifty of us on Earth.  But you're still just fine.  You're an emulator.  You emulate someone who is a Choice Giver, so you can be just as good as any of us, or even better."  Aiko said.

"Who?"  Saki asked.

"Well, me."  Aiko blushed.  "You look up to me a lot."

Saki blushed too.  She should have seen that one coming.

"Here,"  Aiko said, holding out her hand.  "Happy birthday, Saki."

It was her sister's slice's one and only strawberry.

Chapter 7

Eri Kouno picked up her school bag and tapped her shoes firmly onto her feet.  "I'm leaving for school."  Eri announced at the door.

"Have a nice day."  Mother replied distractedly, concentrating on her smart phone.  "My, my, all our stocks went up again.  How lucky."

Eri smiled and went out the door.  For the first time in her life, she knew the inside joke her Mother had been saying all these years.  She felt like her parents had acknowledged her now, that she was one of the Moral Aristocracy, albeit an apprentice.  Sure, their secret had only been revealed by accident, but her parents baring all their plans and explaining everything after that had been their own choice.  It had been based on their trust in her.  Ever since their family had won the lottery three years ago they had been living well without having to work.  But now she knew why her parents had retired -- they had more important things to do, like hunt Corrupters -- and their family's luck was invincible when it came to financial security, so work was at best a hobby for them anyway.  If there were any other hobby more worthwhile, why work?  For social status?  The problem is who wanted social status from Dead Enders when you'd already received the highest praise possible from immortal super-advanced future-wise wyrds?  They had the status they cared about from the people who mattered -- their fellow Choice Givers in the Moral Aristocracy.  Everyone else's opinion was invalid before they even opened their mouths anyway, so it really didn't matter what they thought.  They were too stupid, ignorant or evil to consult about anything.

There was only one girl whose opinions mattered to Eri now.  Saki Sakai, who had also been acknowledged by the wyrds.  She couldn't wait for lunch period so she could discuss the entire situation with her best friend.  So much had changed since their disastrous birthday party, and all of it for the better.  It was a wonderful time to be alive.  Aliens had come down to Earth proffering supertechnology to a chosen few.  It wouldn't be long now until the entire world changed forever.  The whole past was going to be wiped away and replaced with a fresh New World.  There was going to be a moral renaissance that would totally sweep away the cobwebs of dusty obsolete minds that had prevailed for the last two thousand years.  Her parents were the leaders of the most powerful organization on Earth, and were making steady progress towards achieving their united dream.  And she would inherit it all.  Queen of the New World.  That had a nice ring to it.

“I suppose that makes me Princess of the New World right now.”  Eri giggled happily.

“Minus five points for delusions of grandeur.”  Sapphire glowed a deep pure blue.

“Ehhhh?”  Eri blanched.  “Come on Sapphire.  It was just a joke.  Look, I apologize.  I’m sorry.  Don’t take away five points!”

“Minus five more points for apologizing without repenting for your sins in your heart.”  Sapphire blinked again.

“Oh fine.  Take all my points.  See if I care.”  Eri hmphed.  “Just remember Sapphire, no blinking, floating or talking at school.  Stay in my bag and scry or something.  Come to think of it, what do wyrds do to stay entertained?”  Eri asked curiously.

“We don’t get bored.  We evolved away from worries like that when we became nigh-immortal.  We can just patiently wait for the next event, whether it’s a week or a century from now.”  Sapphire floated on to her shoulder to whisper privately into her ear as they walked.

“Sounds so nice.  Never having to be bored at all.  Do wyrds get hungry?”  Eri asked.

“Yes, but we can eat via osmosis whenever we want by just sucking in the nearby magic out of the air.  Magic is a right in the etheric plane, it’s everyone’s property equally, so we can never go hungry and everyone, even babies are competent enough to feed themselves.”  Sapphire bragged.

“So nice!  What about waste elimination?”  Eri asked.

“We reradiate excess magic back into the atmosphere.”  Sapphire said.

“You wouldn’t believe what we have to do.”  Eri complained.  “Wyrds have it so good.”

“That’s nothing.  In the etheric plane, everything is better in every way.”  Sapphire glowed happily, reminiscing.  “Take the government.  We don’t have elections or the right of primogeniture.  We scry out promising candidates who display interest in the field and each senator takes on an apprentice to groom as their replacement.  When a wyrd dies or retires, the apprentice becomes the next senator and the Parliament’s work carries on as normal.  Soon enough they choose their own apprentice and train them to the job, in an endless cycle.  We’ve had a peaceful transition of power for. . . a long time.  While you were still knapping rocks and chewing hides, I suppose.”

“We’ve had that system before too.  In the Roman Empire, they would adopt a promising new leader as their son and heir, and their adopted son would serve as a sort of junior Caesar until the senior Caesar retired or died.  Then the junior Caesar became senior Caesar and adopted a new ‘son.’”  Eri retorted.

“And how long did that last?”  Sapphire asked, interested.

“Five emperors.  They were the five good emperors:  Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.  Their golden age lasted almost a hundred years.”  Eri reported proudly.

“Oh, almost a hundred years?”  Sapphire glowed with barely restrained laughter.  “And what became of it?”

“Marcus Aurelius broke the pattern by making his own son, Commodus, the next heir, who then spent his entire reign debasing the currency to fund extravagant parties and participating in gladiatorial combat in front of the entire Roman people for his own personal pleasure.”  Eri sighed.
“If Marcus Aurelius was so wise and good, and the four previous emperors had all chosen so well via adoption, including he himself who had benefited most from the system, why did he make his own biological son the next heir?”  Sapphire asked in puzzlement.

“Why indeed?”  Eri held out her hands and shrugged, sending Sapphire floating.  “I guess parents just can’t help it.  They’re just too hard wired to do what they know is right and end up favoring their kids instead.  We even have a word for it, nepotism.  It’s just one more failing on top of all the others.”

“Nepotism huh.”  Sapphire blinked, pondering this ridiculous new quirk of human culture.  “So like with you.”

“What?  No!”  Eri blushed.  “I earned my parents’ trust by being a bright and beautiful follower.  Just like I’ll earn yours!”

“Not at this rate.”  Sapphire laughed.  “Negative ten points within the first hour.”

“You mean I started at zero? Boo.”  Eri put her mouth into a perfect circle of discontent.

“Where you start is arbitrary, the only thing that matters is where you end up.”  Sapphire replied.

“I know.  But it still feels better in school when they let you start at 100 points.”  Eri pouted.

“Wyrds don’t have schools either.  We’re given an information dump at age five or so and instantly know everything there is to know about the world.  From there it’s just finding what you like to do and who you want to be.”  Sapphire blinked, settling back onto her left shoulder.

“Must be nice.”  Eri sulked.

“Oh, and we don’t have to work either.  Since all goods are built automatically by machines and magic is so powerful we can accomplish any service we want almost instantly with our own power, we don’t have to rely on others by trading with them.  Our only economy is hobbyists trading the products of their skills, like athletes and artists.”  Sapphire pointed out.

“Must be nice.”  Eri sulked.

“Plus the people you meet are much more beautiful.  Everywhere I float all I see is the same thing, it’s like walking through open sewage.  I’ve scryed so many Dead Enders I can’t even grasp how bad they are anymore.  I didn’t know there could be this many Dead Enders in existence.  In the etheric plane, people pay attention to their souls and take care of them.  They don’t just let everything go and become public eyesores.”  Sapphire lectured.

“But we can’t see the ugliness in each other’s hearts.”  Eri answered quietly.  “Not even the ugliness in our own.”

“Plus two points for a good line.”  Sapphire glowed.

“Ehhhhh?  I lose five points for a joke but only get two points when I'm wise?”  Eri whined.

“Minus five points for questioning the referee.”  Sapphire glowed.

“So I lose three points overall????!!”  Eri cried out in amazed anguish.  Negative thirteen before school started?  How could she ever form a contract with Sapphire?

* * *

When Saki arrived in class, Eri was already seated in the desk next to her, writing into her notebook with a look of intense concentration.  Saki didn't know how to approach Eri now that she was a magical girl.  Should she try to keep everything secret?  Even though Eri saw it all with her own eyes?  That was absurd.  There was only one solution.  Just act normally.  Normal was fine.

"Studying for the test?"  Saki leaned over Eri's shoulder to get a view, placing her bag on the hook to the side of her desk.

"Good morning Saki."  Eri paused, looking up to see Saki's face who was looking down over her.
"Good morning Eri."  Saki replied, smiling warmly.  She sat down in her chair but kept both her legs on one side pointed towards Eri so they could keep eye contact.

"I arrived really early today.  I was too excited."  Eri laughed.

"I suppose you have a lot of questions."  Saki nerved herself up for the gauntlet.

"I do?"  Eri asked, confused.  She tilted her head to the side, bouncing her giant red ribbon that added an extra half foot to her height.

"It must have been quite a shock, seeing me in full plate."  Saki commiserated.

Eri laughed.  "That's true.  It was all black except for your wyrd!  And spikes? Why spikes?"

"To be more menacing. . ."  Saki blushed.

"Isn't it heavy?"  Eri asked.  "My armor's going to be super light.  I already know what it will be."

"I imagined my armor and weapon to be weightless for me.  The hammer's only heavy to the people I hit."  Saki explained.  Then she did a double take.  "Wait!  You know everything already!"

"Of course!  My parents couldn't keep it from me once it all blew up in our faces.  Listen, Saki,"  Eri held out her arm in a straight line and stabbed her finger towards Saki's face,  "I admit the Sakai line is special.  You have three wyrd contracted sisters after all.  But the Kouno family is even more special than you are.  We have three wyrds too, and I'm going to overtake you in no time, mark my words."

"So in the end this is a competition too?"  Saki asked, bemused.

"Kounos or Sakais, whichever of us becomes the better magical girl will decide our family's honor.  It's all tied up except for us!"  Eri repeated passionately.

"It's nothing that great,"  Saki tried to clear up the misunderstanding.  "I didn't actually earn the right to bond with Capri.  It was just an emergency so we ignored the rules this one time, and even then I was no use at all.  I'm sure Capri regrets it now, but it can't be helped, we're bound together for life."

"I don't regret it."  Capri blinked a light blue from Saki's school bag.  "When I scry you -- "

"Ora!"  Saki hissed in a panicked whisper, hastily squeezing her bag shut.  "Not in class, Capri!  I knew you shouldn't have come!"  Wyrds always accompanied their masters so that they could transform at a moment's notice and alert their masters of incoming danger.  Capri had even moved into Saki's room and abandoned her human body just to protect Saki.  To Saki it sounded like an enormous and unwarranted sacrifice, but Capri assured her that small things like this didn't matter and she'd be a teenage girl for centuries to come anyway.  It always boggled Saki's mind to realize what it meant to live so long.  Capri's entire lifetime contract with Saki would just be a tiny sliver of Capri's life, like a human going out to watch a baseball game or visiting a museum over a weekend.  But Saki's lifetime contract with Capri would be one of the most important relationships in her life, dominating everything she ever experienced from here on.  The two versions of the same event were just too far apart to grasp.

Saki's train of thought was interrupted by the teacher's arrival.

"Stand!  Bow!  Take your seats!"  The class representative called out in a clear formal voice.
"I'm taking attendance."  The teacher started her normal routine.

"Ando?"  Their teacher began.

"Here."  Ando replied.

Saki couldn't help it and leaned over to whisper with Eri again.  "But why do you have a wyrd?  When did this happen?  Don't tell me you've been a Choice Giver all along?"

"I'll tell you during lunch."  Eri leaned towards Saki conspiratorially.  "I have so much I want to talk about!"

"Kouno?"  The teacher reached Eri's last name.

"Here."  Eri raised her arm politely.

"I hear you two were caught up in the chaos at the amusement park.  I trust you're all right?"  The teacher asked.  The rest of the class turned in a buzz of excitement to learn about what happened.

"Those dastardly hackers.  Blowing up a Ferris Wheel and creating the illusion of a dragon in the sky."  Eri laughed nervously, putting her hand behind her head.  Saki died a little inside.  Eri, you're the worst liar ever!

"We ran away with everyone else right when it started, teacher."  Saki quickly rushed to her rescue.

"Good.  I wish these hackers would leave Inazumu alone.  This is just like that publicity stunt where they stuck a bunch of girls on wires in a box and then had them 'fly' away after a crowd had gathered."  The teacher sighed.  "You'd think they'd have more interest in Tokyo or Osaka than our sleepy little city. . .But nevermind that right now.  Back to attendance.  Machida?"

"Here."  One of the prettiest girls in the upper right corner lifted her hand.  Class was about memorizing a new set of kanji and learning how to draw them right.  The girls in class were much better at it than the boys, so the lesson was pretty quiet and relaxing.  All you had to do was keep the spacing and stroke order in mind and you could recreate the same figure over and over perfectly.  After that the teacher had the class read together from a book of classical Japanese literature.  It had a lot of tough kanji Saki had to concentrate on to bring up the word from her memory, and a lot of her classmates would stumble and stutter halfway through their called upon paragraph.  Listening to the slow and broken message about dogs and boats and how they related to the sky and death, Saki wondered why anything old was automatically a 'classic' and wished she could read Aiko's book to class.  She could show them what a real writer was like, who wrote about stuff that actually mattered in a way that was actually fun.  These people had no idea what true classics passed them by every day for lack of recognition or fame.  People a million times as talented as Shakespeare or Beethoven who just never got attention or ran out of funding, people who should have made it big if everyone weren't too busy buying and reading 'classics' to try out anything new.  Revering the same old people forever and ever no matter how obviously boring and dumb their works really were.  It was so like Dead Enders.

After that, they had a period covering math.  It was simple arithmetic, something adults relied on calculators to do at all times, but children had to learn by hand and do in their heads.  It made no sense.  Even if people could do arithmetic, they'd inevitably make a mistake if they did it by hand.  Sooner or later their concentration would lapse and they'd add two numbers wrong, and then the whole job would have to be redone from the start, because they wouldn't know where they had made their error.  No business would ever rely on hand-done calculations, even mathematicians couldn't add and subtract as reliably as machines, so what was the point?  Saki grumbled in her head the whole way through her exercise in long division.  The only reason school was set up the way it was, Saki thought, was because the people who ran it never had to experience it.  There was a complete disconnect between the policymakers and their policy's consequences.  How could society be so stupid?  It would be like making a snack company where none of the workers ever ate their own snacks to see if they were good, or a car company where none of their employees test drove their own cars.  How could you design any good product like that, completely blind, with no practical experience at all?  The minister of education should be a child.  A smart child who was actually suffering the consequences of her own decisions.  Then everything would change overnight.
Then the bell rang and the morning session was finally over.  There was a gasp of relief and groups of children started grouping up and chatting for the most fun part of the day.  To save time, lunches were served in the classroom, and students were selected by a schedule to serve out the meals to everyone else.  Today was Saki's turn.  As she carefully balanced serving trays with bread, milk and tempura vegetables with tempura shrimp, her classmates interrogated her.

"Did you really see a dragon?"  Ando asked.

"Yes, but it was just a projection.  There's no way dragons could really exist.  I mean, the police didn't find one when they arrived, right?"  Saki lied.

"Were you scared?"  Uemeda asked.

"Terrified."  Saki told the truth.

"Your face is bruised.  Are you really okay?"  Takahashi, the quiet girl who sat behind her asked concernedly.

"For that matter Eri has a cut on her shin!"  Uemeda followed up.

"Could it be you both really were attacked by a dragon?"  The class gathered up excitedly.

"Eh-he-he.  Here's your tempura shrimp."  Saki waved her tray-carrying arms to get their attention.  She had worried all weekend about what to tell Eri.  She hadn't even thought about what she'd tell the rest of the class.

"Actually, I was the one who gave Saki that bruise."  Eri intervened.  "We went into a haunted house, and I got scared, so I ran and tripped over a well.  Then I punched Saki because I thought she was a ghost when she tried to help me up."

"What?  Is that all?"  Uemeda sighed, completely let down.  The class laughed and the danger passed, to Saki's great relief.

"But why were you two at the amusement park?"  Machida asked curiously.

"It was my birthday this Friday.  I invited Eri."  Saki bragged happily.

"Oh, really?  You should've said something!"  Machida clapped her hands together.

"It's nothing special.  Everyone's born on some day."  Saki kept passing out her platters of food.

"Everyone, let's wish Sakai a happy birthday."  Machida stood up and addressed the crowd.  "To make up for her busted party, even if it is three days late."

"You don't have to do that."  Saki blushed furiously.

But the class ignored her protests and shouted together, “Congratulations on your birthday, Sakai!"  Then there was a round of applause that followed after.  Even the teacher smiled and clapped a few times for her.

"Thanks everyone."  Saki bowed.  "Congratulations to all of you when you're born too.  I mean --"
The crowd laughed, and one of the boys slapped her on the back in what she thought was a compliment.  Boys never made much sense in what they did and why.

"Sorry everyone, but Saki's mine."  Eri grabbed her wrist.

"Oooohhhh!"  The boys whistled.

"Mooh.  It's not like that!"  Saki complained even as she was dragged away.  Boys!  Again!

"Listen, you can't make friends with them.  They're just Dead Enders."  Eri whispered hotly when they sat down back at their pushed together desks with their own food.

"I wasn't particularly. . ."  Saki objected.

"Promise you won't leave me.  You're the only one I can talk to."  Eri pleaded.

"Of course I promise."  Saki replied concernedly.

"Okay then."  Eri relaxed, the tension leaving her face.  "We have around thirty minutes left of lunch period.  Where do we start?"

"Itadakimasu."  Saki put her hands together politely, splitting her chopsticks.  It seemed like a sensible place to start their lunch, all in all.

"Itadakimasu."  Eri repeated after her, taking her first bite of fried green beans.  "So good.  Japanese cooking really is the best."

"Isn't it?"  Saki agreed happily, digging in herself.  "Where do we start, hmm?  How about, what were you writing before class?"

"Oh, I forgot about that.  It's homework my mother assigned me.  I have to brainstorm up all the existential threats to mankind, the ones worth using force to stop.  You know, right, what being a Dead Ender means?"  Eri asked.

"Someone whose choices, if copied by the whole world, would lead to stagnation or extinction."  Saki repeated verbatim from Aiko's lesson over the weekend.

"Right.  So the question is, what makes someone a Dead Ender?  The wyrds can't tell us why in particular someone's choices are dooming the world.  It's up to us to find out the underlying problems.  Like, take theoretically some smoking guy.  He's a Dead Ender, Capri can tell you that."  Eri suggested.

Saki nodded, following the example.

"But does that mean the world is doomed to stagnation or extinction if everybody smoked?"  Eri asked pointedly.

"That can't be right.  Sure, smoking leads people to early deaths, and it smells, but lots of good people have smoked for centuries, sometimes even the majority of the country.  No matter how dumb it is, smoking shouldn't destroy the world."  Saki said.

"Right.  That's the thing.  Smoking isn't what makes him a Dead Ender, because there's nothing innate to smoking that would deter our human potential.  Therefore, it wouldn't be right to ban smoking in the name of Choice Giving.  To be good rulers, we need to make sure we are only forbidding the true crimes of Dead Enders, not neutral side issues.  I could think of a lot of things worth banning -- loud music -- polka dots -- using the word 'baby' in any context -- but that wouldn't be benevolent of me.  I have to be careful when I classify things or I'll turn evil."  Eri explained.

"Classify things?"  Saki asked.

"It's like Islam.  Islam had the right idea, only the religion's all lies so of course it went wrong.  But morality definitely consists of three things:  The obligatory, the forbidden, and 'everything else.'  The question is what are those things?  It's so vital that we get them just right, because if you leave something that's obligatory out, the world stagnates or goes extinct.  If you leave something that's forbidden out, the world stagnates or goes extinct.  But if you forbid things that are actually okay, or make people do things that are actually bad, your society will be miserable, and rebellious besides.  It's a knife edge!  It's got to be the toughest question on Earth."  Eri explained.

"I see your point on the forbidden stuff.  We wouldn't last long if murder and theft were okay."  Saki took a gulp of milk.  "But is anything really obligatory?"

"It's an if-then statement.  Nothing's obligatory or forbidden in abstract, but if we want a world that doesn't flatline, then we need to set certain moral laws, both obligatory laws and forbidden laws.  I don't want the world to flatline, so it's morally obligatory, it's just logic, to decide from there that it's okay to force people onto the right track.  Here's an easy example.  Is childbirth obligatory or optional?"  Eri asked Saki.

"Optional?"  Saki replied timorously.

"Nope.  It's obligatory.  Take the Dead Ender from before, Mr. Smoker.  Suppose he's also a determined believer in abstinence for life.  If the whole world copied his choice --"  Eri started.
"Then humanity goes extinct."  Saki realized.

"That's when we've got him.  He can smoke or not if he wants, but deciding to stay abstinent is unforgivable.  As Choice Givers, we can't just look away from a decision like that."  Eri said.

"But it's more complicated than that."  Saki countered.  "What if he has some sort of system of choices where depending on the circumstances he'd change his behavior?  Then if everyone copied him, they wouldn't all necessarily stay abstinent."

"Right.  If wyrds couldn't keep track of that, their scrying wouldn't be worth much.  I mean, you come from a family of three, and I'm an only child.  If everyone copied your family, the world would become a black hole from the sheer mass of people in time.  If they copied mine, eventually there would only be one person left on Earth and he wouldn't be able to find a mate, so 'The End'.  On the surface, it looks like both our families should be Dead Enders."  Eri explained.

"So why aren't we?"  Saki asked, happily following.

"Because of situational thinking.  My parents only had one child, but that's because they are living in Japan, one of the most crowded countries on Earth, in a world of seven billion people and rising.  There's no emergency when it comes to needing more children right now.  Likewise, your parents wouldn't have had three kids every single generation, not stopping even if the world had a trillion people milling about in an ant-like mass on the surface.  They'd stop at some reasonable point before it became that overcrowded.  Wyrds realize people's choices are underpinned by even deeper meta-choices, and keep track of why we make our choice before they judge.  So both our families get a pass, because they know at heart we'd adjust to circumstances appropriately and not just blindly repeat the same patterns everywhere."  Eri said.

"So childbirth is obligatory, but only under certain circumstances."  Saki said.

"Right.  And those circumstances are always the same -- when the world would stagnate or go extinct otherwise.  It doesn't apply if the person would change his behavior if the population started rapidly shrinking.  Basically we need to view everything backwards.  There's only one 'obligatory' in our moral law, saving the world from a flat line.  Everything else is just a logical extension of that main point.  So whatever saves the world from a flat line is obligatory, whether people like it or not, because their feelings don't matter as much as our survival.  For instance, global warmers could argue that whether people want cheap energy or not, it's obligatory that we all stop polluting the atmosphere because we're all going to die otherwise.  They don't have to care about people's rights.  The crisis is just too severe to give a. . .well. . .a mouse. . .about it."  Eri stumbled over her sentence.

"Maybe that's it.  The whole world is full of Dead Enders because we're ignoring global warming?"  Saki asked hopefully, quickly covering for Eri's close brush with imperfection.

"Are the Choice Givers you know eco-freaks?"  Eri asked.

"No.  They don't mention it at all."  Saki looked down in disappointment.

"Same here."  Eri said.  "If global warming really were going to destroy the world, that would have ruled out my parents, who burn fossil fuels quite happily and without a pang of conscience about it.  Maybe it'll flood the coasts or something, but wyrds don't care about nonsense like that.  They care about existential threats.  We're Dead Enders for something else.  But what?"  Eri asked.

"This is really hard.  If we knew what really was threatening humanity's future, we could just ban it, or make people do the opposite, and save the whole world in an instant."  Saki blinked.  "But it's nothing obvious at first glance.  I mean, I could see a suicidal person's reason for being a Dead Ender.  Or even a drug addict's.  But what about everyone else?"

"Both of those examples are no good either.  What if the suicidal person wouldn't commit suicide except for his exceptionally rare circumstances that he was involved in beforehand?  If everyone emulated or followed his decisions, most would never come across those circumstances, and so they wouldn't commit suicide either.  What if the drug user is only taking drugs because of something that impelled him down that road, and ordinarily he would've lived very differently?  If everyone emulated or followed his choices, that doesn't mean they'd ever come across his circumstances, so the results would still be different.  Even suicidal people aren't necessarily the problem.  So what is?  What's imperiling our world?"  Eri repeated.  "That's my homework."

"I'll think about it."  Saki promised, not having a ready answer.  It really was a difficult question.  "Now tell me about your wyrd.  Since when did you get a wyrd?"

"Yesterday."  Eri grinned proudly.  "His name is Sapphire.  He isn't a child like yours, he's a real expert who was sent down to bond with my father."

"If he was sent down to bond with your father. . ."  Saki started.

"Then why do I have him?"  Eri finished the question.  "A fair question, but the answer is actually quite simple.  It was all due to hyperdimensional travel."

"In Japanese?"  Saki asked hopefully.

"The etheric plane hadn't originally planned to fold Tangerine down to bond with father.  Their first choice was Sapphire.  But after he folded, he didn't appear on the other side.  After a week of this they agreed something must have gone wrong and it wouldn't do to leave Father unprotected.  You see, Corrupters are always targeting Choice Givers, they can scry their bright lights from anywhere on Earth, and Choice Givers are helpless without magic to protect themselves."

"Corrupters?  You mean dark wyrds?"  Saki asked.

"Dark wyrds?"  Eri laughed.  "That's such a great name.  But yes, by Corrupters I mean dark wyrds."

"Sorry I interrupted."  Saki blushed.  So dark wyrds sounded a little childish.  It's not like she'd made up the term.

"Okay, so Sapphire had disappeared, and Father was in grave danger.  That's when Tangerine volunteered to come down next and try the bond again.  He folded down like a charm and ended up being Father's partner for life.  But then, a year later, Sapphire appeared, having felt no gap in time at all since he jumped into the folding device.  You see, the folding device doesn't just fold space, it folds time too.  It has to, because our planes aren't on the same timeline.  It's all very complicated, but space and time are really one unified substance and its impossible to act on one without acting on the other.  So Sapphire popped out, all ready to form a contract with Father, and there was Tangerine who had already cut in line in front of him.  There weren't any other spare Choice Givers lying around either, so Father asked if Sapphire would like to stay in their closet and wait.  He's been living with us ever since.  Like everything else, I was kept completely out of the loop.  But this weekend when they told me everything, they asked if Sapphire could bend the rules a bit, since their daughter was being targeted for assassination, and form a contract with me.  It seems I'm not the only one either.  All across the world really good people are being killed because the Corrupters hate them, but the government doesn't recognize them as worth saving.  Just because we're only followers and emulators, we're being abandoned to the Corrupters' mercy."  Eri continued.

"That doesn't seem fair."  Saki opined.

"I know, right?"  Eri said.  "But Sapphire is totally stubborn.  All he would say is he'd 'consider' it.  He wouldn't have even done that except he can't get in touch with the government above so he has to improvise based on changing circumstances observed on the ground based on what he thinks they would tell him to do if they could.  So starting this morning he's been testing me, seeing whether I deserve a wyrd's lifelong loyalty and power.  And he won't say when the test ends either.  I have to be nice to him until he agrees.  It's like Santa's on a vigil watching at all times whether I've been naughty or nice."

"But that's better than nothing right?  I mean, think about it.  You must be the only emulator on Earth a wyrd would even consider bonding with."  Saki said hopefully.

"The only?"  Eri arched an eyebrow.

"Like I said, it was an emergency!  I didn't pass a test or anything!"  Saki deflected the undeserved praise once again.

"The first emulator ever chosen by a wyrd was you, Saki."  Eri corrected Saki cheerfully.  "But I'll be the first follower ever chosen by a wyrd.  I trust my parents, and that's enough for me.  We won't lose to you.  Kounos to Sakais, or Followers to Emulators.  I'll pass Sapphire's test in no time, and then we can go on adventures together."

"I wonder if they'll let us?"  Saki asked excitedly.

"While we're still in elementary school?  I'm guessing no."  Eri smiled.  "But we're going to be friends past elementary school, right?"

"Right."  Saki nodded vehemently.  That, at least, would always stay the same.

Chapter 8

"Little Bird, Little Bird, fly away.  Come again some other day."  Kotone sang quietly, peeling an apple for when Miyamoto woke up.  Kotone wasn't sure why you had to peel apples before serving them to sick people.  She suspected it was to give the healthy visitor something to do.  Sort of like how graves weren't really for the sake of the dead, peeled apples weren't really for the sake of the sick.  Peeling was its own reward.

"What is that?  You seem to be giving our daughter some awful ideas."  Masanori mumbled, his eyes slowly blinking awake.

"She needs to know her name before she's born, or else she'll be confused when we call out to her."  Kotone said primly, putting down her knife and the saucer containing his carefully prepared fruit.

"This time they shot you in the lung, dear."  Kotone said.  "It's okay.  Just like kidneys, humans have spare lungs.  You'll never miss it."

Masanori sighed, feeling extremely tired.  "I can't believe I'm alive.  One moment Aiko was shouting, and the next moment I was on the ground.  I couldn't breathe, and then I couldn't see.  I couldn't even move to find cover.  I was sure that was what death felt like."

"Well you're not dead.  You're going to be fine."  Kotone repeated, fighting back tears.  It was always him.  The entire weight of the world was always on him.  How many years would this take off his lifespan?  Five?  Twenty?  She didn't know.  How many more injuries would he take after this one?  She didn't know.  And she only had one tiny unborn daughter of his so far.  If he died now, she'd be left with almost nothing to remember him by.  It was too soon.  She couldn't handle Masanori dying now.  She was only twenty years old.  Raising a child alone in a vast empty mansion was asking too much of her.  That wasn't her dream life at all.

"If I'm alive, I guess that means we won."  Masanori tried to smile.

"Isao told me they got away.  But at least all of us lived."  Kotone said.

"Our will is continuing while theirs is thwarted.  It's our win."  Masanori repeated.

"Yes dear."  Kotone was happy to agree, since it would make him feel better.  Masanori was so strong.  Where did his confidence come from?  What would she do if they came back to finish him off?

"How long until I'm released?"  Masanori asked.

"Only a week."  Kotone said.  "But you'll be weak and need my wifely affections after that."

"A fair trade."  Masanori smiled.  "I love your wifely affections."

"They're a real bother, so don't go getting shot just to receive them."  Kotone replied gently.

"Haha.  You're on to me.  Well, it was nice while it lasted."  Masanori smiled.

"Right when you leave the hospital, it'll be my turn to go in."  Kotone complained.  "They really need to invent an artificial womb already."

"If they did that, boys would abandon women wholesale."  Masanori sighed, closing his eyes.  "It would be a total disaster.  The end of the world."

"So that's what you were really after.  You just couldn't have children without me?"  Kotone quipped.

"Of course.  That's what all of us are after. . .not a secret. . .tell Little Bird. . . I love her."  And then Masanori was asleep again.  Kotone made sure he hadn't just died on her by listening to the heartbeat machine carefully.  The sound calmed her enough to unclench all the muscles in her stomach.

"Papa loves you, Kotori.  Did you hear him?  That was Papa.  I love you too.  So hurry up and join us.  We all want to see you.  I have so many anime series I want to show you.  We'll watch them together in our home theatre.  The screen is huge.  You'll be the most spoiled child in the universe.  But if you don't come out, I can't give you anything.  So hurry up and grow, Kotori.  It's a fun world out here.  I promise I'll keep it warm for you."  Kotone spoke softly to her child.

"Stupid Papa,"  Kotone continued.  "He shouldn't have told Mama he loved you more than me, should he?  Drugged people say the dumbest things.  Even if it's true, Papa normally wouldn't have said that.  Wives have to put up with so much, you know that?  And the wives of soldiers have to put up with the most.  And now he loves you more than me.  You must be a real looker, Kotori.  I'm a model, but you stole his heart in a flash.  I guess you'll have my job in no time, huh?  Just so long as you remember to wear cat ears like I did.  Don't forget to model for anime magazines.  I'll only give up my job to you if you promise to model for them too."

Kotone couldn't help herself, and started tearing up.  She was so helpless.  Her husband was weak and vulnerable, her child was weak and vulnerable, and she was weak and vulnerable, and the most powerful beings in existence wanted to kill them more than anyone else in the multiverse.  She had to keep talking to Kotori or the fear would overwhelm her.

"But it can't be helped, can it?"  Kotone restarted, fiercely wiping away her tears. "The truth is, I love you more than Papa too.  I know exactly how he feels.  It's a feeling of not being able to do anything about it, like the love has already been decided and you're just watching on from afar.  So I'll forgive him.  That way, we can give you a little sibling.  You'd like that, right?  So hurry up and join us.  We need the real estate.  Once you're out, we can fit in another.  All your little siblings are waiting on you.  They're only souls right now, but they're waiting, out there.  They're waiting right next to you.  They're probably cheering you on, Kotori.  They're saying "Keep at it!"  "Keep at it, Kotori!"  "Keep at it, and we'll follow after!  Keep at it, and we'll keep at it too!"  Listen, Kotori.  The eldest sibling is a really important role.  You have to be their role model, and take care of everyone."

"The eldest sibling has to be the best.  She can't let her younger brothers and sisters down, because they will all look up to you.  More than me, they'll look up to you.  Crazy, isn't it?  Even though I'm their mother.  But I need you to help me with all the other kids.  Mothers don't really raise their children.  The secret of it is, we only raise the eldest child.  From there on, you all just raise each other.  Isn't that crazy?  It's pretty irresponsible of us, don't you think?  But we all do it.  Every family.  I guess mothers get tired after the first.  So you're the only child I get to raise, Kotori.  After that they're all yours.  Don't worry, I'll take care of all the painful and messy and boring parts.  But you have to be good to them.  That's your job.  Be strong, and make your siblings strong.  I can't do that part for you.  That part is up to you.  Love your siblings like I love you.  They're your only siblings in the whole wide world.  Even when the younger siblings are loud or annoying or lying or cheating or stealing or hitting you, don't forget it.  They're your irreplaceable family.  Your only little brothers and little sisters in the whole wide world.  If you remember that, you'll always feel warm inside, even when they're annoying.  It's the secret recipe to happiness.  Treasure the people around you, and you'll always be happy.  Simple, huh?  But knowing that made me one of the top forty people on Earth.  I guess it wasn't so simple after all.  Your Mama's amazing, Kotori.  My advice is worth all the gold in the world and more.  But you get it for free, because you're Mama's daughter.  Nice, huh?  You have no idea how happy you're going to be.  We're all going to be so happy together.  From day one, your life is going to have the end of movie credits rolling.  Your biography is only going to have two sentences:

"Kotori was born.  And then she lived happily ever after."

"Amazing, huh?  Your Mama's amazing though, so she can do it.  Just you wait.  Together we can do anything.  I can't give you Bubbles anymore, but I'll lobby for another wyrd.  You want to be a magical girl, right?  Of course you do.  Just be sure to pick a really beautiful dress when you transform.  You only get one chance, so you have to imagine it just right the very first time.  I can't wait to take a picture of you in it.  A looker like you, wearing a dress like that, might be the most beautiful object on Earth.  Just think.  You're going to be the most beautiful person on Earth.  Isn't that quite a future?  Not just anyone can be that pretty.  But you can.  Once you're born, you can do anything.  You're not just any child.  You're the child of Masanori Miyamoto and Kotone Nakano.  You're going to be special.  The most special existence in the universe.  I bet you can't wait, huh?  It's all going to start soon.  It's only a few more weeks now, Kotori.  A few weeks is nothing.  Why, that's like the time it takes to swim from one side of the pool to the other.  It's like nothing at all.  Do you know the longest three weeks in my life?  It was when I was 17 years and 11 months old.  I didn't know if Masanori would say yes to me when I confessed my love again.  I thought maybe I'd imagined it all myself, that I was just delusional.  He never made any passes at me.  He was always so respectful, he treated me just like everyone else."

"But you know what?  I knew he must love me, even then.  Because I wasn't just like everyone else.  I was the girl who had confessed to him.  To a girl like that, if you wanted to drive her away, you would've been really forbidding and cold, right?  But he wasn't cold.  He accepted me alongside everyone.  And that was the hint.  I knew in my heart he was just waiting.  The two of us were waiting together, like metronomes, our hearts beating as one.  The longest three weeks of my life, we were probably beating in unison the entire time.  That's what I think.  Your parents must love each other a lot, huh?  To have waited so long without being swayed by all the time apart.  Not just anyone can do that you know.  They wrote an entire book about a Greek girl who did it, it was so amazing.  It's called the Odyssey.  Her name was Penelope.  And right next to Penelope they should put down your mother's name.  Kotone Nakano, the faithful girl who never gave up, and never lost hope, for five long years."

"Do you know what makes a magical girl, Kotori?  It's hope.  We never give up, and we never lose hope.  That's our most powerful spell.  I cast it on your father, and he couldn't get away.  And I cast it on you, so now you're alive, even though we started so late and it took so long.  I cast it during every fight, even when it looked like the whole world was coming to an end.  If you become a magical girl, remember your first and greatest spell.  Hope is mankind's magic.  It's our secret move that can defeat every final boss, even the level 99 ones.  But don't forget to love either.  For magical girls, it's all about love.  Hope, Love, and Joy.  Even when you aren't happy, try and smile.  Find happiness in every little thing.  If you're joyous, joy will seek you out.  If you're melancholy, misery will always find you.  The gods wouldn't have it any other way.  They love happy girls.  For a magical girl, cheerfulness is always a must.  You mustn't cry, unless it's for someone else.  It's okay to cry for others.  But you mustn't cry for yourself, because the gods don't smile on girls who won't smile back at them.  Smile, Kotori.  The spirits are always watching, and when you smile, you light up their world.  It will definitely pay off."

"Since you're even prettier than me, once we dress you up in a yukata and go to the shrine to pray for New Year's, you'll make all the boys swoon.  But with great power comes great responsibility, Kotori.  Girls have a terrible power, and of all girls, the beautiful ones are the most terrible of all.  So stay a virgin until marriage, don't cheat, and don't divorce.  Mama did it, so you can too.  Fornication is cheating on your future, adultery is cheating on your present, and divorce is cheating on your past.  You're going to be a magical girl like Mama, right?  In that case, cheating is unforgivable.  You see, Kotori, the best thing about magical girls is that they never go back on their words."

"Mrs. Miyamoto?"  A nurse opened the door to their hospital room.

"Yes?"  Kotone turned politely, wiping her eyes again to make sure she hadn't left any signs of crying behind.

"There's no use staying here any longer.  How about you go to bed and get some sleep.  I'm sure your baby would appreciate it too.  We'll look after your husband non-stop, and call you the moment anything happens.  So don't worry and take care of yourself.  Your husband would want that too, right?"  The nurse asked.

"Yes, you're right."  Kotone said, wondering how much time she'd been sitting there, waiting for Masanori to wake up and see her smiling face, to see life and love again, the one gift she could give him, because she couldn't heal any of his endless wounds.  The ones he got protecting her.  And the ones he got because of her wyrd's suggestion, Magnolia's idea that they could journey to other worlds.  She could never repay him, the world could never repay him, for what he'd done.  But she could at least smile for him when he woke up.

"Can you make sure he eats my apples?  I'm sure he'll be hungry. . ."  Kotone made a gesture at her endless heap of peeled, sliced fruit.

"We'll take care of it, Mrs. Miyamoto.  Get some sleep.  He'll still be here in the morning."  The nurse ushered her up out of her chair and through the door.

"Thank you."  Kotone bowed.  "Thank you for saving him.  He's the light of my life."

"We try our best."  The nurse smiled, a note of real pride surfacing in her voice.

"Good night."  Kotone bowed again.  Her car was somewhere in the parking lot, but she decided to take a taxi home.  She could never be too safe.  Not when there were only three weeks left to go.

* * *

Shiori Rin was having a no good, very bad day.  It started when she woke up and went to college.  None of her neighbors she'd grown up with all her life waved at her or greeted her.  Even the dogs didn't wave their tails.  Maybe everyone was feeling grumpy because it was Monday, but she didn't remember a single day when people had been this distant before.  When she took her seat in her world history course, the Professor actually asked who she was and why she was sitting in so cavalierly on his class.  She didn't talk much in class, but she thought her professor at least knew her a little.  Her classmates were the same.  People she had sat next to regularly and worked on projects with looked at her with confusion and kept their silence, not even greeting her back when she greeted them.  She didn't want to confront them for being impolite, it would just make things even more awkward, but by the time she left class she was feeling awful.  Could it be that she hadn't made any impression on any of these people?  It's true that she had planned to quit classes as soon as she could live with Isao, because Isao was simply more important, but until then she had wanted to give them her very best.  Now she felt it would be better to just go ahead and quit.  No one seemed to want her here anyway.

When she got back home, she called out a dispirited, "I'm home."

"Welcome back, Rei."  Her Mother called from upstairs.  Shiori felt a shiver of fear.  Rei hadn't lived with them for months.  "It's not Rei, Mother.  It's me, Shiori."  Shiori called out, taking off her shoes.

"Oh.  I'm sorry, Shiori.  For some reason I just wondered who it could be and thought of Rei first."  Mother apologized, stepping out of her room to see her daughter.

"Mother, I've been having a terrible day.  A professor chewed me out for sitting in on his class, even though my name is on his attendance sheet.  And all the neighbors seem really grumpy."  Shiori complained.  The only missing part from this day is if it had suddenly turned into a downpour and she didn't have an umbrella.  That would've really captured the mood.

"That's terrible.  We pay these professors so much and they don't even try to remember the faces of their students.  Well, I'll cook something up for dinner and we can all eat once father gets home.  I'm sure it'll all clear up in the morning."  Mother commiserated.

"Thanks, Mother.  I think I'll take a bath.  I just had this horrible chill."  Shiori explained, walking down the stairs as slowly as she had walked up them.  A really hot, really long bath.  She'd call Isao tonight and he'd make everything better.  Mother was right.  Everything would be cleared up by tomorrow.  One single professor shouldn't keep her down.

* * *

"What are you up to?"  Aiko asked from across their shared  bedroom.  "Normally you'd be downstairs watching TV.  Are you taking up writing too?"

Saki had been lying in bed writing notes and scratching them out in her notebook for hours.  No matter how much she tried, the answers wouldn't come together.  Dead Enders existed, that much was certain.  Humans really were doing something wrong, something that was imperiling the Earth.  But whatever option she took, she didn't feel like the world was as badly off as the wyrds said it was.  None of humanity's flaws rose to an existential threat.  Before that happened, surely they'd back away and try something else.  People were a lot of things, but even amoebas were smart enough to preserve their existence.  How could humanity be doing worse than unicellular organisms?

"I think I have the answer to your question, Aiko."  Saki spoke up.  That, at least, she could report progress on.

"Oh?  What question?"  Aiko asked, sitting up.

"Why do people want to be good?  Or, how do people motivate themselves to be good?  You said it was much tougher than knowing right from wrong.  The first is child's play, but the second is still a complete mystery."  Saki said.

"You really found an answer?"  Aiko asked excitedly.

"I bet you already read my mind so you know it without me saying."  Saki complained.

"If I had, I wouldn't steal your chance to say it aloud for the first time, now would I?"  Aiko answered leadingly.

"Okay.  Fine.  You'll probably laugh anyway.  But it's simple.  It's just one word.  The answer is love."  Saki said.

"Do I get a longer explanation?"  Aiko asked hopefully.

"It's love.  The answer is love.  People are motivated to be good because they love.  They love themselves, so they're good to themselves.  They love their family, so they're good to their family.  They love their country, so they're good to their countrymen.  They love their pets, so they're good to their pets.  The reason you want to be good is always love.  It's because when you're good, you make the people you love happy.  Even yourself."  Saki spelled it out.  It didn't need much explanation.  One word really said it all.

"Humans want to make the people they love happy, and the only way to do that is to act with their sake in mind.  So even when it's troublesome, if it makes the people they love smile and say thank you at the end, they're motivated to do it.  Even if it means jumping through fire."  Aiko thought aloud.

"Even if it means dying for them.  There are innumerable examples of people dying for the ones they love.  People die for God because they love Him.  They die to preserve their integrity because they love Truth.  If the answer were fear, no one would die for anything.  But they do.  All the time.  Even for complete strangers.  Only love sends people into burning buildings."  Saki said.

"I'd rather you didn't run into a burning building for complete strangers, Saki."  Aiko said.  "Call me selfish, but that isn't a worthwhile trade in my books.  I know seven billion strangers, but you're my only little sister."

"Oh, I agree it's crazy.  But it's a noble kind of crazy."  Saki pursued.  "Whether it's your idealized self, your beliefs, your religion, your family or your dog, you'll do the right thing by them because you're in love with them.  There was never any other motivation.  There can't be any other.  Without love, we'd all be machines.  We wouldn't desire anything.  So we wouldn't do anything.  That would be the end."

"I wonder what Chiharu would say.  Maybe you're just using love too loosely.  You can get away with a lot using semantics."  Aiko pondered.

"Well that's my answer.  If you want another answer, ask another sister.  But you asked me, so I thought about it for six months to give you my reply.  You could be a little grateful."  Saki pouted.

"Thank you, Saki.  There.  Are you happy?"  Aiko asked.

"Yes.  I am incredibly happy that the sister I loved said thank you to me.  I'm so happy it justifies the endless hours I spent writing down answers and then erasing them again.  I'm so happy, why, it even proves my own argument."  Saki said.

Aiko shook her head, chuckling.

"What?"  Saki asked, frustrated.

"No, it's just.  Saki, I have a truth sense.  I can immediately tell when someone's words don't match up with their true thoughts or feelings.  But the thing is, you tried to be all sarcastic and ironic. . .but the real irony is that my truth sense never tingled.  You meant every single word of it.  You just didn't want me to know.  It's just so. . .so. . .sweet of you.  I can't believe my little sister is this cute."  Aiko reported.

"Turn Bubbles offfffff."  Saki cried.

"Never.  Not gonna happen.  Did I tell you when my truth sense saved the entire universe?"  Aiko asked.

"Fifty times, and I only knew starting this weekend."  Saki groaned.

"So you see, you can never be too careful."  Aiko said.

"I can't believe my older sister is so manipulative, deceitful, selfish and cruel."  Saki said.

"I can't believe that either."  Aiko laughed.

Saki threw her pillow across the room.  Then she went downstairs to watch TV.  It wasn't fair that the wyrds said Aiko was the ideal woman.  They just didn't know her.

Chapter 9

"Chiharu, are you free?"  Saki knocked on her sister's door a day later.  She was at her wit's end trying to figure out why the world was composed almost solely of Dead Enders.  If Chiharu didn't know the answer, the most analytical girl she knew, then no one did.  The time had come to seek out wisdom, she'd exhausted her own on the last question.

Chiharu opened the door, looking surprised.  "This is unusual.  What do you need?  Help on your homework?"

"Kind of."  Saki said, stepping into her sister's room and taking a seat on her bed.  "Eri, my friend you met at the amusement park, got an assignment from her parents to identify the existential crises facing mankind, and why almost everyone on Earth is responsible for them.  She passed the question on to me, and I can't make heads or tails of it.  I thought you might know."

"Why is everyone a Dead Ender?"  Chiharu repeated, sitting down on the bed beside Saki.  "I've explained it before, but I guess you weren't there at the time."

"You know the answer?"  Saki looked up hopefully at her college age, sophisticated sibling.

"Well there are multiple answers.  The wyrds have a simple definition, Dead Enders are people who, if followed or emulated by the entire population, would result in the stagnation or extinction of the world, a flat line with just one possible future.  It's easy when you consider a suicide cult or something, why that would result in only one possible future."  Chiharu started.

"See, I mentioned that too, but Eri said that was wrong.  Even suicidal people are only making choices based on specific circumstances, most of which would never happen, so they could be safely followed or emulated."  Saki said.

"But I said a suicide cult, people who commit suicide based on an abstract belief, which transcends any particular circumstances they might find themselves in."  Chiharu replied.

"Oh, sorry."  Saki retracted her objection.

"But I guess that sums it up right there.  Dead Enders are people whose abstract beliefs, if faithfully followed by everyone alive, would lead to stagnation or extinction."  Chiharu said.

"But surely most people's abstract beliefs are harmless.  Take Christianity.  It's the most widely held abstract belief on Earth.  It's clearly wrong, you can't fit two of every animal on a boat, and the world isn't six thousand years old, but even though it's wrong, it's never led to the stagnation or extinction of mankind.  Abstract beliefs, however false, are generally harmless."  Saki argued.

"Are they?  Or are we just not looking far enough ahead?  How long has Christianity been around?"  Chiharu asked.

"Two thousand years."  Saki replied.

"And how long does a single Wyrd live?"  Chiharu asked.

"Umm."  Saki said.  She really didn't know.

"Maybe to them 2,000 years, or 10,000 years, is part of a rapid catastrophic disaster.  I always liked in history, looking back, we describe the Fall of Rome as some sort of actual event, a happening that we can mark down on our calendars.  But for the people of the time, they never felt Rome was falling.  Rome was still Rome, the same as it had ever been.  Oh, sure, new rulers were in power, and maybe they were poorer than their ancestors, but nothing had really changed.  They would have argued hotly that Rome was still just fine, the capital had just been transferred a bit further east, that's all.  Constantinople stood until 1453 AD.  And the people living there still felt they were the same Roman empire they'd always been."  Chiharu said.

"So you're saying that we're just like the Byzantines.  We say Christianity is harmless, and they say Rome's capital just moved a bit to the east, but an outsider's perspective looking in with an elongated timeline sees a complete collapse both times."  Saki tried to explain things to herself.

"Precisely.  Wyrds and humans are different.  They care about stuff that will happen far into the future, whereas we don't.  They see the long term consequences of our thinking that we don't, while we simply enjoy the short term consequences of our thinking without a qualm, because the long term is a long way's away."  Chiharu said.

"But doesn't that mean that it's all nonsense?  Won't humans simply change their abstract views once they start to hinder us however many thousands of years from now, thus completely dispelling the supposed crisis?"  Saki asked.

"Will they?"  Chiharu asked.  "We've seen it many times before, Saki.  A culture that enters a period of total stagnation, no matter how many years pass.  Egypt.  China.  The Australian Aborigines.  Eskimos.  Amazon rainforest tribes.  Even Japan.  And all of the inferior species of the Earth, who have lived for millions of years and never changed, not once, not even the slightest.  There were times when countries were richer, more technologically advanced, and more populous centuries ago in their pasts than they were in their futures.  Almost every single time, these countries did not reform and renovate themselves.  There was no sudden enlightenment where they got their acts together and tried something new.  No one rose up among them and said, "This isn't working, I suggest we implement an entirely different religion, political system, economic system, education system, and set of virtues in order to turn things around.  Any change, at this point, would be for the better.  Let's give it the old college try!"

Saki giggled.  Chiharu was right.  People in the past didn't appreciate change or progress like the people of the present did.  Sometimes those were considered dirty words, or even worse, their languages didn't even include them in their vocabulary.

"No, there weren't any internal reforms.  Every time it took an outside culture to dynamically barge in and change things for them.  History is a giant patchwork of good cultures spreading out from tiny local sources, consuming the weak and failed stagnant cultures of their neighbors, and then proceeding to fail and stagnate in turn, when they reach the limit of their abstract potential, only to be replaced by some new invading innovative culture.  This is how humanity has struggled upwards from the stone age, through migrations and conquests, cultural evolution, group selection of good ideas that worked over bad ideas that didn't lead anywhere for those who held them.  The wyrds are right.  Stagnation is a real threat.  If the beliefs most people hold would eventually result in a stagnant world, once it began, we would never recover.  We would never change.  Humans, like their ideas, would be stagnant vacant morons who would just endlessly repeat things and never try anything new.  It's happened untold times in history.  It makes perfect sense that it would happen again."  Chiharu said.

"But why would Christianity stagnate even though it's ushered in progress for two thousand years?"  Saki asked.

"Hello?  The Dark Ages?"  Chiharu pointed out.  "But even granting your premise, the answer is simple.  Occasionally there are heroic individuals who can revolutionize their cultures all on their own.  They're the people who can shatter the pattern and revitalize mankind with infinite possibilities.  They've always been among us.  It didn't start with me, or even Masanori.  Anyone in history who appeared out of nowhere and changed everything was probably a Choice Giver.  And there were probably millions more in history who nobody listened to or followed, who would have had just as dramatic and destabilizing an effect.  Christianity was saved by a Choice Giver, Martin Luther.  The history books won't say that, but it's true.  Catholicism had become stagnant, corrupt, ignorant and cruel.  All that changed when he nailed his ten points to the local church's door.  He created a new future, one full of new possibilities, that to a wyrd, with imperfect vision, could easily be seen as infinite."

"But if Martin Luther was a Choice Giver, why are Protestants Dead Enders?  Or if Jesus was a Choice Giver, why are Catholics Dead Enders?  Shouldn't they all be followers and emulators?"  Saki asked.

"The wyrds explained that.  Martin Luther may have had all the answers in his heart, but he could only write so much and so well.  He couldn't possibly explain himself fully about every last detail, concerning every last hypothetical future possibility.  If a new circumstance came up and Martin Luther noticed it, he would've made the right choice that would have preserved humanity's possibilities, but what about his followers?  They may not have been as bright as him, and without any guide from his words on the matter, they could come to a completely different answer.  Just for example, during the American civil war, the South said the Bible condoned slavery, whereas the North said it condemned it.  They can't have both been right.  Jesus could only have had one opinion on the matter.  But that opinion is lost to history.  Looking back, we simply don't know, and everyone interprets his words to suit themselves, and all their interpretations aren't actually what Jesus would do."  Chiharu said.

"Following dead Choice Givers just doesn't work very well, huh?"  Saki thought about it.

"Dead Choice Givers have a half life.  They're extremely valid in their day.  Then they're pretty valid the next century.  And then they might have a few good ideas the next.  But by the forth century after their death, how many of their opinions still have any bearing on the real world?  And how many people correctly remember and interpret his opinions?  How many are still following the true Jesus Christ, Choice Giver, instead of their own made-up doppelganger?"  Chiharu asked.

"Considering most Christians don't even read the Bible anymore. . ."  Saki surrendered.  "I guess it could turn into a Dead Ender religion over time.  Even if it started out as a force for progress instead of stagnation, it won't necessarily remain that way for all time."

"Bingo."  Chiharu said.  "Only modern Choice Givers who have modern opinions and can explain themselves fully when asked about what they'd do, whose true motivations and visible feelings more eloquently deliver their meaning than any dry words -- these are the only people we can follow without reaching a dead end somewhere in the future.  When I die, I hope no one gives a fig about what I said.  I want them to be listening to someone else, someone the wyrds trust as much as me, who's up to date with all the latest changes, and can appeal to their target audience in whatever way works best for them.  Choice Givers must continuously pass the baton to the next generation, or we'll become the next great evil, the next stagnant rut mankind falls into, rather than Good's champions breaking down all walls and making the impossible possible."

"Choice Givers are prophets of a living God."  Saki realized.

"Well said!"  Chiharu exclaimed.  "That's what I mean.  God doesn't just suddenly stop talking to us.  Choice Givers have been among us every generation, speaking true prophecies, spreading the Truth as far and wide as they could, preserving our future and propelling mankind's progress.  There's no end to revelation.  The end to revelation is the end.  Without new revelations, we'll stagnate.  I don't care at what level, it'll still be a stagnant pool.  Stagnation is death."

"Insofar as old ideologies are still useful, it's because they've been reinterpreted time and again by other Choice Givers who took the baton and passed it on, like Martin Luther."  Saki guessed.
"Right.  Only, there haven't been any influential innovative Christian thinkers in ages.  You could make an argument for C.S. Lewis, but honestly he doesn't impress me.  Then again, religious thinkers all strike me as pretty pathetic."  Chiharu smiled wryly.

"So Christianity has reached the end of its rope, as far as we can see, until a new Choice Giver revives it like a phoenix from the ashes with a whole new direction, and would ordinarily make any country who adopted it wither on the vine."  Saki said.

"Unfortunately, there are practically no Christian countries left to test this theory on that would prove my point.  No one actually follows the religion anymore.  They've moved on to Enlightenment thinking, which is almost the complete opposite of Christianity on every subject.  But there is one Dead Ender religion which is alive and kicking to test it on."  Chiharu suggested.

"Islam."  Saki knew the intended target immediately.

"Bingo.  Islam has lasted 1400 years, but all of its innovation has been due to outsiders, it is intrinsically incapable of reform or progress if left to itself.  And as a result, Islamic countries are the backwater of the world, always behind in every field, always wrong about everything, and unwilling to do anything about it.  Islam is the perfect example of how humanity could lose all of its possibilities, all of its potential, and stagnate its way to irrelevancy.  To make things even scarier, it's the fastest growing religion on Earth.  If left unchecked, it's conceivable that Islam could someday conquer the entire world, meaning no outside reforming culture could ever make headway and reform it from abroad, and then it would simply sit on their conquered world like a dog in the manger.  It would do nothing with humanity, since its religion insists on doing nothing and changing nothing, but it wouldn't allow humanity to become anything other than Muslims either.  After all, in Islam, the penalty for apostasy is death."  Chiharu said.

"So is that it?  The world is composed of Dead Enders because the wyrds are foreseeing the victory of Islam?"  Saki asked.

"It's a possibility."  Chiharu said.  "But it gets even more interesting than that.  What if you aren't a Muslim, but you insist on tolerating and celebrating the diversity and enrichment that is Islam, rather than forcefully opposing and preventing its spread across the world?  What does that make you?
"A Dead Ender!"  Saki said.

"Right.  It turns out that liberalism is also a dead end.  It's so tolerant it cannot forbid anything.  And on the other hand, it's so wrapped up in its worship of freedom, that it can't make anything obligatory, either.  Category One Choice Givers like me realize the necessity for the obligatory and the forbidden for humanity to survive and prosper.  Liberalism refuses to accept either of these concepts, and so there goes the 'civilized world.'  They, too, would result in stagnation or extinction, because they do not have the moral tools to stop it."  Chiharu said.

"Eri mentioned those terms too.  I guess that means her parents are Category One Choice Givers, and she's following their lead."  Saki said.

"Eri sounds like a cool girl."  Chiharu grinned.  "If I had my way, I would make a lot of things obligatory.  I would also forbid a lot of things.  Because each time, I simply do not see how humanity could succeed without said laws in place."

"Give an example."  Saki begged.

"Okay, well here's a good one.  I think it should be obligatory for people to accept known, demonstrated, endlessly repeatedly proven facts as facts, and not just be able to dismiss them as 'theories.'  Nothing angers me more than scientific progress being made, and then abandoned again by people unwilling to accept the consequences.  You should not be able to lie in public, or teach to your kids in private, or in any way say something so stupid as 'the world is flat' or 'the Sun revolves around the Earth,' and get away with it.  Occasionally, tremendous expenditures of intelligence and will drag mankind an inch closer to the truth, through the extraordinary effort of our greatest heroes.  And then it's all thrown away again by intellectual ants who turn their backs on said heroes.  It's unforgivable.  I don't see why I should have to forgive it, or allow it, or tolerate it, or give people the freedom to do it.  It's just flat out unacceptable."  Chiharu said.

"But sometimes scientific theories are overturned when new facts come in."  Saki rejoined meekly.
"And at that time, everyone's free to discard the now disproven belief.  But until then, they don't have that right.  No one has the right to prefer their own microscopic pea brains over the tested and valid observations of science."  Chiharu said.

"But couldn't we just ignore them and move on?"  Saki asked.  "Do we have to hunt down every last dissenter to save mankind's future?"

"Can we risk it?"  Chiharu asked.  "Suppose there are one hundred scientific facts which society needs to believe in order to advance to the next level of civilization.  To transcend into a higher order of people capable of fulfilling a greater degree of Truth, Beauty, and Love, we need to, as a society, know and operate under the rubric of one hundred different scientific facts that inform our decision-making process every step of the way.  Suppose the dissenters of ninety-nine of these facts are laughed out of the room and ignored.  But for some reason, the dissenters in just one scientific fact get their way and become the dominant ideology.  Then they make it somehow heretical to believe the Truth and ban its teaching in school, and persecute and 'laugh out of the room' anyone who cleaves to the actual scientifically proven truth."

"Then humanity still loses.  Especially if stagnant societies don't reform themselves eventually, but just go on mindlessly repeating their past mistakes every generation."  Saki admitted.

"Which is what we've observed in past cultures again and again.  It's hardly a sky is falling scenario.  It's simply what we've observed and what we can expect from mankind absent Choice Givers.  They really are a bunch of sheep."  Chiharu said.

"But why wouldn't the same thing happen as in the past?  New cultures could spread and save old failed cultures, like Perry's black ships sailing into Uraga harbor."  Saki suggested.  "Then this entire picture of a world crisis is just wrong.  Even though most people have bad ideas, it isn't necessary for everyone to have the right idea all the time.  The laws of evolution will make sure that those few who do have the right idea will always win out in the end."

"This time it's different."  Chiharu said flatly.  "There is no 'outside' anymore.  Globalism means humanity is all in the same boat.  It is now possible for a single bad culture to dominate everyone on Earth simultaneously.  After which point, no outsiders can ever hope to migrate or conquer their way into history's glorious annals.  It will be the end of history.  Globalism has already wiped out most differences between cultures worldwide.  It's only a matter of time before all the differences are gone, and we become a ubiquitous monoculture that only mouths the same lines and cares about the same things, forever.  If we don't make sure that monoculture is invented and tended to by Choice Givers, like the Vestal virgins tended to the shrine of Vesta's eternal fire in Rome, the Earth is lost.  If any of the current prevalent cultures of the Earth, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Liberalism, Libertarianism or whatever, became Earth's monoculture, we will most assuredly stagnate into a flatline of unchanging irrelevancy.  Humanity will never transcend under them.  It's either us or nothing."

"So we are in the deciding epoch of human history?"  Saki asked, rather bemused.

"I believe so, Saki.  I think this is it.  The next few centuries will either turn humanity into another failed organism, like the cockroach, that lives and does its thing, but never goes anywhere or changes in any way, until the sun explodes -- or we will cease to be human whatsoever, and surpass all our wildest dreams.  The future rests on a knife edge.  But in any case, there aren't any more second chances.  If we fail, I do not believe we will ever recover again.  Instead of the fall of Rome, we'll be looking at the fall of Man."  Chiharu said.

"That's pretty dark.  It can't be that bad."  Saki complained.

Chiharu shook her head ruefully.  "People keep saying that."

* * *

"Now listen Eri.  To achieve infinite possibilities, humans must first have what?"  Father slapped his whiteboard with his plastic pointy thing.

"Yes!  Infinite power!  Infinite knowledge!  Infinite desire!"  Eri replied.

"Too quiet!  Say it like you want it!"  Father slapped the whiteboard again.

"Infinite power!  Infinite knowledge!  Infinite desire!"  Eri shouted.

"Correct!  Nothing's possible without power!  Nothing's possible without will!  And nothing's possible without imagination!  If we don't know about something, we can't want it, if we don't want it, we can't get it, and if we can't get it, nothing will change!  In that case, how can humans attain infinite possibilities?"  Father slapped the whiteboard again.

"Yes!  We can't!"  Eri shouted back with her loudest voice.

"CORRECT!  Humans are worms!  Worms!   Infinite possibilities are reserved for whom?"  Father slapped the whiteboard again.

"Yes!  Infinite beings!"  Eri shouted back.

"In other wordsssss?"  Father asked.

"Yes!  Gods!  We must all be Gods!"  Eri shouted back.

"Correct!  That's my daughter!"  Father exclaimed, smiling broadly.

"Honestly, you two."  Mother sighed dramatically.  "The neighbors will call the police."

"That's impossible, because?"  Father slapped the whiteboard with his pointer.

"Yes!  Because we live in a mansion and own the whole block!"  Eri shouted.

"Correct!"  Father exclaimed.  "Mwahahahahaha!"

"I've changed my mind.  You don't have to help me teach Eri."  Mother said, rubbing her forehead.

* * *

Isao was halfway in between reading a book and sleeping when an intercom buzzed from the outside gate.  Shiori planned to move in to the mansion too once they were married, but she had said it was bad luck to live with someone before you married, so for now he was just hanging out with nothing special to do.  It was probably a comfort to Kotone that a man was in the house, and he could fetch things for her and drive her around so she didn't have to work as hard.  But he felt a little guilty to be earning 100 million yen a year just for that.  Once he was back on his mission, he'd feel like his salary, and his status as one of the world's premier role models, would be his by right again.  But when he'd seen Shiori crying that summer day, he simply couldn't stand the idea of leaving her alone again.  Apparently, there were important things only staying still could achieve too.  And whenever he got to see Shiori's excited, sparkling eyes just from having him nearby, he didn't regret the change for a moment.

"Kotone?  It's a visitor."  Isao called out.  But the mansion was hollow, dark and silent.  She was probably at the hospital again.  Somewhere in the deep hollows of this endless labyrinth, Rei, Onyx, and Cho Kai should be around.  Awesome was still with Shiori, however, until she moved in.  Capri had already moved out.  Magnolia, of course, would be at Kotone's side.  Which meant it was up to him to answer the door.  What if it was someone from Kotone's work?  She hadn't left him with any directions.  If it was a newspaper salesman, he'd stab him through the heart.

Isao touched the intercom and spoke into it unsurely.  "Hello?  Who is it?"

"Iiiisssaaooooooooooooo."  Shiori moaned like a wounded animal from the other side.

Isao bolted to the front door and threw it open.  He jumped over a hedge and unlocked the gate faster than he could think.  Then she was in his arms, as he checked desperately to see where she was bleeding.

"It's my parents."  Shiori sobbed, her face puffy from crying and a small backpack on her back.  "They've forgotten who I am.  Something. . ."  Shiori choked on her sobs against his chest.  "Something is. . .terribly wrong. . .Isao. . .everyone's forgetting me.  Everyone is. . .something is. . .wrong with me. . .please. . .Isao. . .help me."

Chapter 10

"Counter."  Chiharu pointed at Shiori for the third time.  Cyan lit himself up as brightly as he could, until the entire living room was awash with his ghostly light.  But the moment it struck Shiori's body, the spell quivered and shattered apart.

Chiharu's heart sunk deep into her stomach.  "I'm sorry Shiori.  It's too strong for me.  It's just like before."

Shiori nodded silently, huddled beneath Isao's arms.

"It's my fault."  Chiharu said, sitting down and cupping her face in her hands.  "It's my fault."

"You know that's not true."  Kotone soothed, putting her hand on Chiharu's back.

"I deflected the spell straight into her."  Chiharu said, pain gnawing through her stomach.  The last person she would ever hurt in her life was Shiori Rin.  She loved Shiori more than anyone else on Earth.  And yet in the end she'd done it anyway.

"Right, and we all know you did it intentionally, with full malice aforethought, because you've always hated Shiori all along, right?"  Kotone replied sarcastically.

"I could've just let it hit me.  I didn't have to send it off wildly who knows where.  It was my choice to allow an accident like this."  Chiharu clung bitterly to her self hatred.

"Right, because we all know that you assuredly being hit by an enemy spell is better than even the chance of any of us being harmed by accident."  Kotone pinched Chiharu's skin away from her back.  "This isn't the time for your silliness.  Do you think blaming yourself will make Shiori feel better?"  Kotone challenged Chiharu.

Chiharu looked up from her hands at Shiori's scared and fragile face.  Her wide downcast eyes were like deep pools staring bleakly into the void.  Chiharu knew what she was seeing.  It was the same thing they were all seeing in the days ahead.   When will I forget Shiori Rin?

"What do we do?"  Isao asked, his voice clear and focused.

"It's clearly a curse.  The enemy kept referring to her own suffering.  I suppose that's all the clue we need.  She's causing Shiori to suffer.  Only, not physically.  The curse works by erasing the outside world's memories of her instead."  Chiharu analyzed.

"Then why do we still remember her?"  Isao asked.

"From what Shiori described. . .I think we all know."  Chiharu sighed, not wanting to say it.  "Based on the strength of our memories, our feelings, our bond with Shiori, it's erasing us bit by bit.  Just like any wasting disease, it has to devour us inch by inch, over time.  But if we can't stop the spell, it's only a matter of time."

"She'll lose us in the reverse order of our love for her."  Kotone breathed.  "I can't believe someone would manifest a spell like that.  What kind of soul casts something so cruel?"

"A ten year old girl's."  Isao grimaced.  "Whatever her reasons, I don't care.  If we want to undo the spell, we have to kill her."

"I hope that's enough."  Chiharu said.  "There's no guarantee it hasn't already set into motion an irreversible process."

"I choose to believe it will stop."  Isao said simply.

"You're right.  Nevermind.  I'm just dark."  Chiharu said, hating herself.  No one would have cared if Lethe had hit her.  If she could have gone back in time, she would have gladly embraced the spell.  Her life was nothing compared to Shiori's.  That God would allow something like this to happen, to someone like this, was just more incontestable proof that there was no such thing as God.

"But how do we find her?"  Kotone asked, getting back to what mattered.

"Black?"  Isao asked hopefully.

"I'm sorry, Isao.  I would scry her out if I could.  I would do anything to stop your pain."  Black morosely glowed his unlight into the air.

"Awesome.  You're the best scryer in the universe.  Find her signature.  You've seen it before.  Surely you can find it anywhere now."  Isao encouraged Shiori's wyrd.

"I. . .I'm sorry, Isao."  Awesome blinked, held tightly in Shiori's palm.

"What are you talking about?  You haven't even tried yet!  This is your mistress!  Don't you care at all?"  Isao asked Awesome angrily.

"This world is so dark, once I reach a certain distance, it's all just darkness.  In every direction.  The world is just black to me.  It's always been that way.  Don't you think we would have tried to scry out the dark wyrd's home base long ago if we could?  For all we know she's sitting right there in the middle of them, as hidden as they are."  Awesome said.

"Is she in Japan?"  Isao asked.

"I. . .don't know."  Awesome blinked awkwardly.

"Fine.  So we just have to fly all over the world until you can scry her.  Draw a map of your scrying's furthest range.  We'll turn the world into boxes and fly through each of them."  Isao said.

"It's too big.  The chances of us simply happening upon a hidden base. . .there's no reason they'd even be along a major air route. . ."  Awesome countered.

"So what?  There's a possibility you'll scry her, right?"  Isao asked.  "Are you going to take responsibility for not pursuing that possibility?  Are you going to take responsibility for erasing Shiori Rin?"

Awesome was silent.  Then he eventually gave a fatalistic reply.  "I'll of course do whatever Shiori asks of me."

"There you have it, Shiori."  Isao said, standing up, pulling on her hand.  "Kotone, I'll need your private jet and a pilot.  We can start flying tonight."

"Of course you'll have it."  Kotone agreed.

"No."  Shiori whispered.  "Don't take me away."

"We're not taking you away.  We're going to find the girl who did this to you and save you."  Isao tugged on Shiori's hand again.

"Let me die around my friends, Isao.  Don't take me away."  Shiori whispered.

"You're not going to die!"  Isao shouted.  "You are not going to die!  I'll save you, but you have to let me!  We can't do anything by just sitting around!"

"Isao, if we married, would you love me more?"  Shiori whispered, looking down at the floor, her arm lifelessly held aloft by his.

"What are you saying?"  Isao asked in a painful voice.

"If we made love tonight, would you love me more?"  Shiori asked.

"I already love you with all my heart."  Isao said.

"It could give us another day."  Shiori said.  "You could remember me a day longer."

"I don't care about a day!  I want to be with you all my life!"  Isao protested.  "Scrying out that girl is our only chance!  Listen to me, Shiori.  You're not yourself!"

"I do."  Shiori said, still refusing to move.

"Do what?"  Isao asked, frustrated.

"I care about a single extra day.  I demand an extra day.  I don't care about the wedding anymore.  I've wasted weeks preparing for this stupid ritual.  Marry me, Isao.  I want to be your wife, even if it's for a single day."  Shiori looked up at her fiance, a fire in her eyes.

Isao sat down, Shiori's hand still pinned in his.  "You want me to stay, even knowing what that means?"

"Running away is just running away.  She knows the spell better than any of us.  She knows to avoid us until the curse is complete.  Dark wyrds can scry out Choice Givers anywhere on Earth, they can always run away if we ever randomly approached too near.  We'll never find her, Isao.  You must know that too.  It won't happen."  Shiori said.

"It could happen."  Isao repeated desperately.

"It could, but it won't.  I'm not going to spend my remaining time with team Choice Givers flying from airport to airport chasing the wind.  It's. . .not like a samurai."  Shiori finally explained her stance in a way Isao would understand.

Isao rubbed his face.  "Okay Shiori.  Let's find a civil magistrate.  I'm sure with enough money we can get a certificate."

"Sorry for being so selfish."  Shiori smiled.  "I just need it to be official.  Our marriage has to be official, Isao.  It has to be real.  I need things to be real right now."

"I know."  Isao said.  "Let's get a taxi.  We're wasting time here."

Shiori smiled.  "Thank you.  Everyone, I'll see you soon.  Don't forget me."

Kotone and Chiharu waved her goodbye, kissing her on her cheeks.  Kotone gave her a prayer and wished her a happy marriage.  And then the two were out the door.

The moment Shiori closed the door Kotone broke out into a sob.  She hobbled back to her easy chair and sat down helplessly, careful not to ram Kotori against anything.

Chiharu walked over to the chair and pushed Kotone over.  Then she snuggled against her best friend and held her in her arms.

"I won't forget Shiori.  I can't forget Shiori.  I love her."  Kotone cried hot tears against Chiharu's shoulder.  "Gods, I'm just so helpless.  I can't do anything anymore.  I. . .Masanori's hurt, Chiharu.  He's really hurt.  He's so weak.  Everything is. . .everyone I love. . ."

Chiharu didn't know what to say.  It was impossible to say it would be all right.  It wasn't going to be all right.  Soon enough, even their grief would disappear.  They wouldn't even know what they had lost.  Shiori was worse than dead.  And the disease was incurable.  Because she had deflected the spell to hit her friend instead of let it hit herself.  Because of me.

"There's still one last hope."  Chiharu said, her mind racing.  "Once we've all forgotten her completely, the spell could end.  Then, we just have to fall in love with her again.  Since it's Shiori, it wouldn't take long.  Creating all new memories.  Even if the magic forbids us from learning about our past together.  It won't erase our future together."

"I hope you're right.  But, if you really believed that. . ."  Kotone broke off from her reply and shivered, clutching Chiharu's arms with sharp nails deep to the bone.  "Chiharu.  Check on Rei.  Right now."

Chiharu felt a chill run through her.  She stood up in an instant.  "Which room?"

"The fifth bedroom, it's the hallway with the red carpet."  Kotone said.

"I see it."  Chiharu said, and then she was running up the stairs to the second floor.  When Rei had heard the news, she had apologized to them and asked to be left alone for a while.  The problem was, she'd never come back.

Chiharu reached the door in a sprint and tried to open the doorknob.  It was locked.  She slammed her fist on the door.  "Rei!  I'm coming in!"

"Coi, Cyan!"  Chiharu shouted, and magic exploded through her body, light surrounding her in rainbow colored sparkles.  She pulled her leg back and with a whirr of servos kicked down the door.
Rei was sitting in bed, staring at a knife she was holding idly above her arm.

"REI!  YOU IDIOT!"  Chiharu shouted, her exoskeleton covered hand snaking over to grab the knife by the blade and wrench it from the tiny girl's grasp.

Rei kept staring at her arm where her knife used to be.  "It's no use.  I'm a coward, you see.  I can't do it even if I want to.  I've been sitting here for an hour.  I couldn't get the knife even an inch closer.  It's always the same."

"Do you think this is what Shiori wants?"  Chiharu shouted.

"I don't want to forget her!"  Rei screamed, her throat rasping.  "I'd rather die!  I'd rather die!  Let me die first!  Kill me first!"

"You're mad!"  Chiharu said.  "Listen!  It's not over!  What if she forgets us once?  So what?  We'll just make friends with her all over again.  Okay?  Do you get that?  Rei Rin!  Can you not befriend your sister again?  Is your love so weak?"

Rei turned around for the first time, her mouth quivering, to stare at Chiharu's visored menacing power suit.  "Is that true?"

"It's only logical!  We all started off having no memories of her!  So what?  Did that stop her from befriending us then?"  Chiharu shouted.  But in the bottom of her soul, she knew she was lying.  She was lying to Rei, and she was lying to Kotone.  Chiharu had heard the full invocation of the Dead Ender's chant, and invocations were only required for the strongest spells.  'Let my pain become your own'.  If Chiharu had wanted to hurt someone, there was no way she would have left such an obvious loophole.  And magic was the manifestation of your soul.  A girl like that, casting a spell like that, saying something like that.  There was no chance whatsoever they could just build new memories to replace the old.  None.  Isao's wild goose chase had a higher probability.  Worse, Chiharu thought Shiori knew the truth too.  Just from feeling the spell inside her, she knew there was no turning back.  Shiori would know if the answer were that easy.  But if Rei believed she'd remember until she forgot, she wouldn't know that she'd forgotten, and the danger would pass.  It was all she could do for her friend now.

"I promised, Chiharu.  Just a few days ago.  I said it so lightly.  I never even thought about it.  I said I'd never forget her."  Rei wrapped her arms around her shoulders and shivered, hugging herself into a smaller and smaller radius.

"Then fight!"  Chiharu pleaded with Rei.

"If I forget Shiori, who will I be?  Chiharu.  I'm so afraid.  I'm so. . .very. . .afraid."  Rei started trembling, and then she started crying, like a fever breaking.  The more outward emotion she felt, the lower her emotion actually was.  Chiharu started breathing again.  Kotone had known.  Thank God for Kotone's all-expansive empathetic heart.  Thank God.  If Chiharu had had to tell Shiori about this. . .

"You scared me half to death, too."  Chiharu finally spoke, defolding out of her armor in a wash of light.  "Rei, I don't know what you think about us, but you've always been a true friend to me.  Even without Shiori, you're still our friend, right?  Why would you think you'd be evil again?  It's impossible.  We're all here for you.  It's not like the entire past six years is going to disappear."

"Shiori is in every single one of those memories.  I'm going to wake up only remembering life with my parents."  Rei shivered, sitting in bed in a crumpled ball.  "I'm going to think I'm still living with them."

"Nonsense.  The memories will just reassemble into some other pattern that makes sense without her.  Maybe Shiori’s parents will save you, and then we'll all meet together on our own initiative.  It's just like stitching together a wound."  Chiharu said.

"I'm sorry.  Tell Kotone I'm sorry.  Even though you've both been so good to me."  Rei said quietly.
"There's nothing to forgive."  Chiharu said decisively.

Rei nodded, then asked in the same quiet voice.  "Is Shiori still here?"

"She went out with Isao.  They're going to find a judge and sign a marriage license."  Chiharu reported.  Thank God Shiori had left.

"She asked me to be her maid of honor."  Rei said.

"I know."  Chiharu replied.

"But I guess that's impossible now."  Rei said, giving a hollow laugh.  "Never mind.  If you could, Chiharu, I need to apologize to Onyx.  I told him to stay quiet and not to interfere."

"You aren't going to do anything stupid, are you?"  Chiharu asked.

"Like I said, it's impossible, even if I want to.  I can't follow through.  It's all just pretend."  Rei calmly explained.

"Okay.  You might want to take another room.  Make up with Onyx.  You'll feel better."  Chiharu counseled.

"I will.  Thank you."  Rei smiled up at Chiharu.  "You're pretty forward, for a virgin."

"I have an imagination."  Chiharu blushed crimson.

"You're always so calm.  That's why we can rely on you."  Rei's smile became heartfelt.

Chiharu took a few steps forward and gave Rei a long tight hug.  "I always envied you."
"Me?"  Rei laughed, bewildered.

"You're first in Shiori's heart.  I envy you for that."  Chiharu kept willing strength into her comrade.  "But even more, I envy your love for Shiori.  I know I'm going to forget her next.  But you?  You'll last forever."

Rei Rin tried her best to hug Chiharu back.

* * *

"Dear, is there any way to filter our spam folder?"  Sora Kouno asked Keiichi as she lay in bed.  He came out of the bathroom a few minutes later, putting away his toothbrush.

"It's already filtered.  That's why it's in the spam folder."  Keiichi answered humorously.

"But you never know, what if it isn't really spam?"  Sora complained, clicking on an example.  "See, here, this might be an important business opportunity.  A company in Tomsk wants us to fund a new type of internet hardware.  Web 3.5.  That's got to be way better than Web 2.0, and Web 2.0 isn't even out yet."

"Tomsk?  Where the hell is Tomsk?"  Keiichi laughed, sitting down beside her and laying a possessive palm on her back.  Sora's suit was rather small and inconspicuous, so that she could wear it at all times.  It was a necklace glowing with her yellow wyrd, in a diamond shaped locket modeled after the suit of cards.  A necklace, and a manifested magic, that had blessed her with good fortune from the moment she had made her contract.  She always had wished to be lucky.  As a child, nothing had ever seemed to break her way.  Like usual for the night, neither of them were wearing anything else.

"Let's see."  She double clicked on the file, which started showing a series of pictures of the 'Athens of Russia.'  The place looked extremely cold.  And like all things Russia, desolation just hovered around the pictures, no matter how cheerful the lighting.  She'd been through Russia before.  It was even thicker with Dead Enders than India.  It had felt like entering Hades, trying to find Corrupters in their midst, which had proved a complete exercise in futility.  Russia wasn't populated by people anymore.  It consisted solely of the walking dead. The wyrds trying to destroy the world were probably good by comparison.

"Southwestern Siberia.  The real center of the action.  A stone's throw away from Silicon Valley."  Sora smiled teasingly.

Keiichi laughed.  "Let's invest anyway.  I'm sure they'll go up afterwards."

Sora smiled.  "I admit they have piqued my interest."  She started scrolling through the offices and underground tunnels they wanted to purchase to lay down more fiber.  Then her mouse hand came to a dead halt.

"My, my."  She said with a toothy grin.  "How lucky."

Keiichi leaned over, trying to see what she was seeing.

Sora made it easier for him and maximized the picture.

One of the underground tunnels had a dim light emerging from the side.

"Is there any doubt?"  Keiichi breathed.

"Judging by how I came across it?  No."  Sora sat up to face her husband front-forward, stretching ostentatiously with pride and satisfaction.  "We've just found the Corrupters' home base."

* * *

"I'm home."  Chiharu said tiredly.  She had kept Kotone company until Shiori had returned.  The two had wished them well and with that, Shiori had officially moved in to Isao's room in the mansion.  Kotone said she was going to bed and not to worry about her, and so Chiharu had finally been relieved of the necessity to comfort everyone.

"Welcome home,"  Saki said from the couch in front of the television.

"Where's Aiko?"  Chiharu asked.  She wanted to test something.

"In the bath."  Saki said, laid out sideways and munching on a stick of pocky.  Even though the television was on, she was staring at her school books and taking down notes.

"That's unusual.  You're studying for your next test?"  Chiharu asked.

"I made a promise to Eri I'd get first in the school."  Saki explained.

"Maybe I should just barge in to the bathroom."  Chiharu mused.

"Go ahead.  I'd laugh."  Saki gave a thumbs up.  Chiharu smiled despite herself.  A couple miles away, everyone was unhappy, but over here they were completely unaffected.  It was good not to rely on too few emotional supports.  Even without Shiori, Chiharu still had her family.  And Cyan.  But she couldn't be with Cyan until she finished graduate school and got a well paying job.  It was part of her unalterable life plan.  Cyan didn't mind, he had inhuman patience to go with his inhuman lifespan.  But Chiharu hated it.  She hated it even more when Rei made fun of her for it.  But that was okay.  If Rei could find the time to tease Chiharu, she was away from the brink.  If being an object of ridicule could help, she'd gladly volunteer for the job.  After all, it was Chiharu who had taken Shiori away from Rei.  It had been her deflection.

"How about this?"  Chiharu plotted.  "We both strip in our rooms, then fold into our magical suits.  We barge into the bathroom together, defold back into nudity, and jump into the bath tub with her, offering to wash her back."

"Easy for you to say!  She'll only avenge herself on me!"  Saki complained.

"Come on.  I dare you."  Chiharu said.

"Mooh.  I'm not a kid."  Saki focused furiously on her textbook.

"I double dare you."  Chiharu said.

Saki stared at her book with furious intensity.  Then slapped it shut.  "I'm in."

"Hurry.  With her Bubbles-wrap off, she won't be able to mind read our intentions.  It's our only chance."  Chiharu said.

"I'm hurrying."  Saki protested, rolling over the back of the couch onto the floor and landing like a ninja cat.  Both of them raced up the stairs and quietly closed their doors.

Chiharu made sure her parents were safely tucked in their bedroom, and then whispered to her wyrd.  "Coi, Cyan."  In moments she was in her powersuit, and she was opening the door again.  In the room down the hallway, Saki peaked out the door as well.  She really was a sight.  Her full plate armor was so thick she looked as wide as she was tall, and there were practically no human joints left.  It was like a walking black barrel, with a tiny eyeslit to see out of that robbed any identity from her little sister.  But she moved as nimbly in it as if she were in a t-shirt and shorts.  Chiharu put a finger over her lips and started tiptoeing down the stairs, Saki following after with a hand on the guardrail.

"Can't you do something about that clanking?"  Chiharu whispered.

"Metal clanks!"  Saki hissed back.

"Well, move more fluidly."  Chiharu said in frustration.  Her servos were a pleasant buzz in comparison.  Why would you choose a medieval suit of armor over a modern powersuit?  Her sister was such an airhead.

Chiharu reached the door and took a deep breath.  Unlike Kotone's western style mansion, her parent's modest Japanese home didn't have any locks, even for its most private places.  Japan relied on trust instead.  Well, that was Japan's fatal error.  You could never trust an older sister.

Chiharu made a silent hand signal to Saki to jump to the left once they breached the door, and Saki nodded, holding her warhammer tight with both hands halfway up the haft so that it wouldn't bounce against anything.  Then she put her hand on the doorknob and twisted it, pushing in at the same time and defolding into no clothes at all.  She rolled to the right as her little sister scuttled to the left, leaving their sister no escape.

"Aiko, it's been a long time, so let's bathe together!"  Chiharu said enthusiastically.

"I've come to wash your back!"  Saki said at the same time.

"Wait!  Both of you!"  Aiko stood up in panic, trying to cover her breasts.  "At least shower first!"  But the two heard nothing of it and hugged her tight from both sides as they dived back into the bathtub.  There was a sloosh as half the water in the tub overflowed onto the floor.

"Noooooooooo,"  Aiko squealed.  "You're going to ruin me for marriageeeeee!"

"Just give it up!"  Chiharu shouted, holding Aiko's arms behind her back as she struggled to get out of the tub.  Saki took the initiative to turn the faucet back on since the water was barely leg deep anymore.

Aiko gave up.  With Saki sitting in her lap and Chiharu pressed to her back, any further resistance was just too embarrassing.  "Chiharu. . .is a bully."  Aiko muttered sadly.

"That's right.  So watch out."  Chiharu tickled Aiko's ribs.

"Stop!  Stop!"  Aiko giggled, trying to thrash away again.  "I give!  Mooh! Chiharu, what's gotten into you?"

"Actually, I just had a question I needed to ask you and didn't have the patience to wait."  Chiharu admitted, smiling happily.

"I was invading your privacy like you've invaded mine for the last six months!"  Saki retorted gleefully.

"So?  What's the question?"  Aiko asked, trying to squeeze into a more comfortable position between her two sisters.  This bathtub was not equipped for three.

"Who is Shiori Rin?"  Chiharu asked.

"Shiori--?  How should I know?"  Aiko asked.  "Wait, is she related to Rei Rin?"

Saki looked curiously at her older sister too.  She had never heard the name before.

"How many people did you travel with when we fought Cho Kai, Hank Elroy, and Abhi Durai?"  Chiharu asked.

"It was the five of us of course.  Rei, Kotone, Masanori, you and me.  Team Choice Givers."  Aiko replied.

"Who did you shout out to, when you said "Jump!" when Abhi Durai was trying to devour his victim into slime?"  Chiharu asked.

"I. . .that was. . ."  Aiko thought about it for a moment.  "It was. . .Kotone, right?"

"She was flying in the air."  Chiharu corrected.

"Then it was you?"  Aiko asked.

"I was trapped in a stasis field."  Chiharu corrected.

"I'm sorry.  I don't remember."  Aiko said, a look of frustration creasing her forehead.

"It was Shiori Rin, Aiko.  Try and remember.  She wore red and can throw fire."  Chiharu said.

"Even if you say that. . .is this part of the prank?"  Aiko asked angrily.

"Shiori Rin came up with the name Team Choice Givers."  Chiharu continued.  "Don't you remember that?"

"That was. . .Kotone. . ."  Aiko thought back.

"Kotone said we needed a name.  She didn't suggest one.  It was Shiori, Aiko.  Shiori is Rei's twin sister."  Chiharu continued.

"I. . .I'm not wearing Bubbles.  Let me out and I'll put him on.  Then I can tell if you're telling the truth."  Aiko stammered.

Saki looked at her older sister concernedly.  "Chiharu, what are you talking about?  I've seen your friends come over all the time.  Rei was there all through middle and high school.  If Shiori came too, I would have remembered.  Rei doesn't have a sister.  Shiori Rin doesn't exist."

Chiharu sighed.  "Aiko, you really have become too dependent on mind reading.  Can't you tell when I'm serious?"

"But it's just so unbelievable. . ."  Aiko complained.

"Both of you sit still.  This is an important experiment.  We're going to take a nice long tight squishy bath together, and I'm going to tell you about Shiori Rin.  When you wake up in the morning, I'm going to ask you both about her.  Concentrate and remember everything you hear, okay?  For me?  This isn't a joke.  I'm serious.  Work with me here."  Chiharu pleaded.

"Yes, sister."  Aiko said, Chiharu's tone showing it was time to just obey.

"I met Shiori Rin when I was ten years old.  At the time, I was probably a nice girl.  I had already decided my life plan, and was acting it out with single minded determination.  But everything you actually like about me is due to her.  Shiori Rin made me a Choice Giver."  Chiharu began.

"I was walking to the library to return some books and check out some new ones, when a ball came rolling to my feet.  Shiori rushed after the ball, and our two eyes met for the first time.  She had short hair, like a boy's.  But her face was shaped like a perfect heart, and her eyes were incredibly deep and wide.  She was running after the ball leaning forward, with her glove out.

"I'm sorry, can you toss that back to me?"  The girl asked me.  So I put my books down and gave it a good hurl.  She caught it expertly in her glove, and then looked back at me in surprise.

"Wow!  You're really good!"  The girl exclaimed.  It made me happy, because I'd never thought of myself as the athletic type.

"Listen, we're all playing at the park together, but we don't have enough outfielders.  Come and join us!  I'm being run off my feet like this!"  The girl said.

"That's okay, I'm just returning these books -- "  I told her, showing the stack at my feet.

"Never mind that and let's go!"  The girl said, and then she had grabbed my hand and was dragging me away.  I tried to get angry, but she was smiling and laughing, and her eyes were sparkling with unbelievable innocence, and all of a sudden I just wasn't angry anymore.

"Shiori!"  The pitcher waved to her, seeing her finally return with the ball.

"Hereeeeee!"  Shiori shouted, throwing the ball with all her might, which had just enough strength to roll to the pitching plate.

"Who's that?"  The pitcher asked.

"A friend!  She's going to cover left field!"  Shiori shouted.

"Great!  Shiori's friend, we still need three outs!  Give it your all!"  And then the pitcher had turned to face off the next batter, and that was that.  I had to take my place or I'd let everyone else playing down.  Even though I didn't have a mitt, I wanted to field the balls and throw them to the basemen.  I wanted to help.  I wanted to cheer alongside them when we got an out or a run.  And before I knew it, they'd realized how good I was at analyzing the game and I'd been elected catcher.  In a couple years Shiori was our park children's team's pitcher, and we've been a team ever since.  Shiori has always been like that.  She acts as though she’s unreasonably selfish, but in fact it's always for someone else's sake.  She knew it was more fun to be with others than all alone.  She volunteered herself as my friend before I even thought to ask.  She's the bravest, sweetest, brightest, happiest girl I know.  Listen, when we were twelve, the three of us were walking together window shopping, when a group of high schoolers tried to hit on Kotone.  You see, even at twelve, Kotone was tall and beautiful, so I don't really blame the high schoolers, but she was really scared and couldn't properly turn them down.  That was when Shiori stood in front of them and said, "Too bad!  She's dating me!"  Chiharu laughed, remembering.  "I don't know if the high schoolers thought Shiori was a boy or we were lesbians, but after a moment of grumbling between themselves they gave up and walked away.  Shiori was never afraid of anything.  When we told ghost stories, Kotone would cringe and hide behind my back immediately, but Shiori would just be nodding along eagerly, wanting to know who died next -- "

When Chiharu got out of the bath, she realized she'd been crying halfway through the story.  No wonder her sister's faces had grown so quiet and drawn.  She hadn't been doing an experiment.  She'd been delivering her best friend's eulogy.

* * *

Aiko lay in bed, safely back in her underwear again.  She couldn't sleep.  "Saki, are you awake?" 
Aiko asked.

"Yes."  Saki said from across the room.

"Chiharu was crying."  Aiko said.

"Yes."  Saki said.

"I don't think I've ever seen Chiharu cry before."  Aiko said.

"Me neither."  Saki said.

"What could hurt her so much?  Do you remember what she was talking about?"  Aiko asked.

"No.  Can you?"  Saki asked, frustrated.

"It must have been Cyan. He must have had a fight with her.  That could make her unhappy."  Aiko decided.

"Oh, so it was Cyan.  Thank goodness my wyrd's a girl.  She'll always be considerate.  Listen, Aiko, let's make breakfast for her or something.  We should cheer her up.  When Chiharu's like that. . .when she wavers. . .I feel like I've lost my footing."  Saki said.

"Okay.  We'll cook breakfast together.  I can't believe that Cyan.  I won't forgive anyone who makes my sister cry."  Aiko agreed.

Chapter 11

"I can't believe it."  Saki Sakai stared at her test, stricken.  She had gotten a single question wrong, because she'd read the question wrong, and thought it had been asking something else.  She wasn't first in the school rankings.  From that alone, she was. . .fifth. . .like always.

"Don't mind don't mind!"  Eri patted her on the shoulder with an enormous smirk.  "There's always next time, Saki!"

"If I weren't distracted by things at home -- !"  Saki bristled.

"Oh?  Is that the sound of someone trying to back out of her bet?  Which family just aced the school rankings?"  Eri waved her test paper in front of Saki's face.

"The Kounos."  Saki muttered.

"What was that?  I'm not sure I heard you,"  Eri continued fluttering the test paper in front of her face.

"It was the Kounos!"  Saki spoke louder.

"That's right, the Kounos!  I've retrieved my family's honor.  The haunted house incident never happened!"  Eri bounced on her toes euphorically.  "So, when can I expect you over to my house?"
"What does it matter?"  Saki groused, then her face lit up with a brilliant idea.  "Fine, let's make it today after school!"  Saki challenged.

"But, my parents might be busy. . ."  Eri pushed her two index fingers from her alternate hands together worriedly.

"Oh?  I thought we had a promise.  Wasn't the winner going to invite the loser to meet her parents?"  Saki drew up all her height and crossed her arms in stern disapproval.

"Fine!  This afternoon!  You'd better not be late!"  Eri pointed just as dramatically back at Saki.

"What are you talking about?  How can I find your place unless we walk back to your home together?"  Saki laughed.

"But, won't you need to check in at home first?"  Eri asked.

"I'll just call my parents, they've met your parents already so it will be fine.  Of course you'll have to give me your clothes to wear for school tomorrow.  You'd better dress me up as fashionably as you dress every day.  And since I'm staying the night, we'll have to bathe together too."  Saki said.

"Wait!  This wasn't part of the promise!"  Eri complained.

"Backing out now?  The Kounos sure are bad at keeping their words.  Sounds pretty dishonorable -- "  Saki grinned evilly.

"Okay, okay!  Sapphire, don't deduct any more points!  Saki can do whatever she wants!  I'll bake her cookies!"  Eri's face turned red.  Saki almost felt a little pity for her.  Almost.  Maybe if she hadn't waved her test in front of Saki's face.  Maybe.

"Let's bake them together then."  Saki relented.  "I need to learn how to cook eventually.  All I could do for Aiko this morning was crack eggs."

"You have no idea how easy you had it,"  Eri leaned in close to whisper in Saki's ear.  "I only got to positive points this morning.  I made my bed after I woke up and he gave me one point.  I swear, if I stopped an asteroid from hitting the Earth, he'd give me one point!"

"I still don't even know what my magic is."  Saki admitted, blushing.  "But Chiharu gave me some pointers on your homework.  Let's work together, as followers and emulators, when we get to your place, okay?"

"Okay.  Can you convince Sapphire to bond with me?  I'm sure he'd listen to you."  Eri pleaded.

"Of course!  You're perfect.  I'll tell Sapphire that as many times as it takes."  Saki promised.

"Thanks, Saki.  I'm getting really excited.  Can we fit all this in to one visit?"  Eri smiled excitedly.

"If not, I'll just come over tomorrow too."  Saki grinned.

"Don't become a freeloader!"  Eri objected.  But the lunch chime rang and the happy part of school was at an end.  Now they had to stare at kanji and jump rope again, like some sort of diabolic torture chamber, for the next three hours.  Saki wouldn't be surprised if school made them do both at once, since apparently anything and everything 'built character' and 'was necessary if you wanted to succeed in life.'  As though adults jumped rope.  Or remembered a single thing from what they learned in school.  School was the biggest fraud in human history.

* * *

Keiiichi Kouno presented the picture to his assembled team over the video conference table.
"It's low resolution, but my wife wouldn't make a mistake.  The Wyrd Council, as they call it, is in Tomsk, Russia.  Specifically, in an underground lair."  Keiichi reported.

"As expected of Sora,"  An elderly man shook his head ruefully.  "You say their location was in your spam folder?"

"It may be the first and last time an advertisement ever helped the world."  Keiichi grinned, and the Moral Aristocracy laughed appreciatively.

"What do we do?"  A middle aged woman asked.  "They can scry us from anywhere on Earth.  If we approach Tomsk, they'll flee ahead of time and we'll lose them."

"That is the problem, isn't it?"  Keiichi bit his cheek.  "We have them, and we don't have them.  If we attempt to engage them en masse, they'll slip through our fingers.  They might stand still if we only sent one or two Choice Givers, but then they could just kill those two and where would we be?"

"Do we have any long range artillery?"  A nerdy 20-something boy asked.

"It would be suspicious to even get near Tomsk.  Besides, they're underground.  Unless we confirm their exact location, make visual contact, and watch them die, there's always the chance we'll miss them, and then they really will get away."  Keiichi threw the idea out.

"Let's hire terrorists to bomb the place."  An elderly woman sitting in a rocking chair suggested.

"Do you know any?  Who do we call, Terror-4-Hire Hotline?"  Keiichi asked.

The Moral Aristocracy laughed again.  Any 'terrorists' they contacted would inevitably end up being a front group for the CIA or MI6 anyway.  Anonymity was key to their future conquest of the world.  The last thing they wanted to do right now was alert the authorities to their presence.

"How about the opposite, then?"  A precocious child holding a teddy bear and wearing a frilly pink dress offered.  "Let's tip off the Russian secret police -- what do they go by these days?  NKVD?  OGPU?""  The girl stopped, trying furiously to remember the books she'd read on the most murderous group in history.

"I think it's the MVD now."  A hairy heavily muscled fifty year old man offered.

"Thanks, Nikolai."  The girl waved her teddy bear's arm in acknowledgement.  "Let's tip off the MVD  that the underground lair in Tomsk is a secret Chechen terrorist network.  If I know them, they'll blow up everything first and ask questions later."

"Sending Dead Enders to hunt Dead Enders.  True, the Corrupters will never see it coming.  But what if Russia learns about wyrds?"  Keiichi asked worriedly.

"Aren't we going to tell the world about it anyway?"  The grandmother replied.

"That was just a contingency plan."  Keiichi corrected.

"Well, isn't this the contingency?"  The grandmother pursued.

"Fine, we'll deal with that when it happens.  More importantly, how do we guarantee the Russians A) take the tip seriously, B) react with enough force given their magically armed opponents, and C) kill all the wyrds so that this battle can finally end?"  Keiichi asked.

"Leave that to me."  A woman in her thirties adjusted her glasses clinically.

That was the great thing about the Moral Aristocracy.  Between all twenty of them, there was always a magic for everything.

* * *

"I'm home!"  Eri called out, holding Saki's hand and leading her into the giant vestibule of their mansion.

"Sorry to intrude."  Saki followed up timidly, taking off her shoes.

"Father, I hope you don't mind, but I brought Saki back with me today.  If it's alright, can she stay the night?  We'll both go to school tomorrow together, and she wants to wear the clothes I pick out for her."  Eri called out to the empty expanse, confident her father would hear her somewhere in there.

"Welcome home, Eri.  It's good to see you again, Saki."  Mother bowed politely to their guest.  "Father's in a very important meeting right now, so why don't you two go out and play in the back yard?"

"I'm sorry.  I didn't think I'd interrupt."  Saki bowed back, feeling a little more guilty for forcing Eri's hand.

"It's no problem."  Father said affably, closing a door on the third floor of the mansion and tracing his way to the central stairway.  "We just finished."

"And?"  Mother asked.

"Miss Clive believes she can conjure up enough authentic looking documents for a certain extremely brutal and thorough security service to act."  Keiichi grinned cheerfully.

"Oh?"  Mother laughed.  "That's brilliant!  Who thought it up?  Was it you, dearest?"

"Sorry to disappoint you.  It was our resident super genius."  Father got all the way down the stairs and kissed Mother demurely on the cheek.

"Annette Grifford?  That innocent doll faced red haired child detective?  Suggested we hire the KGB?"  Mother's voice kept rising in disbelief.

"They changed their name again.  It's apparently the MVD now."  Father grinned.

"You just never know anyone in this world!"  Mother exclaimed.

"Welcome home, Eri."  Father leaned down from his vast height to give his eleven year old daughter a kiss on the cheek.

"Did something good happen, Father?"  Eri beamed up at him, glad neither of her parents were angry for bringing back an unannounced guest.

"Not yet.  But there's reason to hope.  Now, what's the plan here?"  Father turned her attention to Saki, who was standing quietly in the background, still amazed at how rich her friend was.  Eri had never said a word about it at school.

"We're going to bake some cookies together.  Do we have the right ingredients?"  Eri asked concernedly.

"If it's cookies, I'll. . ." Mother offered.

"It's okay, Mother.  Just give us the recipe and show us where the ingredients and cooking utensils are.  We're trying to learn how to be good wives.  You see, Saki has this hugeeee crush on Uemeda."  Eri began.

"Lies!  All lies!"  Saki tackled Eri to cover her mouth.  "Is this how you introduce me to your parents?"  Saki asked.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't help it."  Eri started laughing, her red ribbon bobbing as her head shook.  "Mother, Father, this is my best friend.  She wanted to stay over for the night."

"Welcome,"  Eri's parents nodded slightly.

"Saki, these are my parents.  As you can see, they're not just any Choice Givers, but the leaders of the most powerful Choice Giver organization on Earth.  You could say they're the two greatest people on Earth."  Eri held out her hand to present them with a flourish.

"Ah, nice to meet you."  Saki bowed deeply.

"Tell us about yourself, Saki."  Mother suggested, guiding them to a set of comfortable couches in the living room  "I'll go set the kitchen in order, but I can listen from there.  Would anyone like some tea?"

"Yes please."  Saki agreed, relieved to have something to hold and sip so she didn't just have to stand around nervously.

"Take a seat and relax.  It will only take a moment."  Mother smiled, and soon everyone was under her spell and sitting down quietly as directed.

"There's nothing interesting about myself."  Saki searched around desperately for a way to compare to 'the two greatest people on Earth.'  "But I really like my older sisters.  They're both Choice Givers too."  Saki bragged.

"We met them, at the amusement park."  Mother called out from the kitchen, agreeing affably.  "They seemed like wonderful people.  Very brave.  And it was sweet of them to take you out for your birthday."

"That's nothing."  Saki enthused.  "Aiko wrote this incredible book, it's called Changeling, and it's my favorite book ever.  Not that I've read that many books. . ."  Saki was quick to blush and retreat.

"A book by a Choice Giver?  That must be extremely interesting."  Mother inquired.

"Oh, it is.  It's about psychics who take over the world because they're sick of the world.  You see, the world is sick, it's just totally broken, and they're the only good parts left in it.  But then the world wants to break them too, and they just. . .stop tolerating it.  They marshal their forces and strike back in full righteous fury.  They call themselves humans and everyone else 'homo sapiens,' like some leftover relic of the evolutionary tree.  And their society is so wonderful.  It sounds like heaven.  It's really strict for the individual, but the rewards for everyone agreeing to obey those terms together, as a community, are enormous!  I wanted to live there instantly.  When the story ends they're all set to colonize the whole world with humans and establish their society as mankind's future, through force of psychic arms."  Saki rushed to explain.

"I could get to like this girl."  Father grinned.  "A shame we aren't as strong as these psychics, it would make life so much easier."

"Father's planning to conquer the world too!"  Eri explained.

"Really?  How?"  Saki asked, amazed.

"It's a secret."  Father put his finger over his lips.  "Who's your favorite character in this book, this Changeling?"

Saki thought about it for a second, mulling over the options.  She liked practically everyone in the story, and the characters were all similar to one another, because they all shared that one bond as a united community with a single goal.  It was like what Aiko had told her earlier.  The better people became, the more similar they became, because there was only one absolute ideal.

"If I had to choose, it would be Hitomi Machida.  She just has this immortal line.  Hitomi barely ever says more than like three words in a sentence, and that's when she talks at all.  But that was enough for me to remember her so clearly."  Saki explained.

"So what was it?"  Mother called from the kitchen, pouring hot tea.

"Her fiance asks her. . .arghhh, before that I have to explain,"  Saki said, shaking her head.  "All the psychics in Changeling have been paired up in arranged marriages, because the community wants the new psychic genes to 'stick' and carry over to the next generation, so that humanity can be a new psychic race unlike everyone who came before.  Most of the community are just people with the right ideals and above average intelligence, it's just these twenty psychics, aged from around ten to twenty, who are their flame and hope for the future.  And none of the twenty psychics object, they all understand how important this is, and embrace their duty, in marriage, war, childbearing, everything.  Duty is such an important word to humans.  I mean, to the humans of Changeling.  So Hitomi has a fiance of course, I think his name was Hoh Er."

"A Chinese married to a Japanese?"  Mother asked, bringing Saki, Eri, and Father tea, carefully placing the platters that looked extremely fine and beautiful in front of each of them, before taking a seat herself with her own cup of tea.

"In Changeling none of that matters.  Everyone in the community is bound together by their ideals.  Race, nationality, historical grievances, cultural traditions, religions, they're all wiped away and replaced with this overriding dream of progress.  The main characters are a couple too.  Kip Miles is a coffee colored Indian, who was actually raised by homo sapiens, and his fiancee by the end of the story is Autumn Brewnell, this incredibly striking blue eyed blonde haired nordic type whose mother is the leader of humanity.  They couldn't have been more different people or come from more different backgrounds, but because they were both psychics, and they both believed in the future their community was aiming for, they still fell in love and came together as a couple and a team."

"I see."  Mother said, listening with fascination.

"Okay, well, Hoh asked his fiancee, Hitomi, whether she wished they didn't have to fight a war, whether she wished she could just abandon this whole concept of duty and go do whatever she liked, leading a peaceful, pleasant life."  Saki got back on track.

"It sounds like the Devil tempting Jesus."  Eri put in, listening intently.

"Well, be that as it may, he ended it by asking her, "Does the world absolutely have to change?""  Saki continued.

"And?"  All the Kounos leaned forward.

"And Hitomi said "Yes.""  She always says just one word like that, and speaks really quietly too,"  Saki explained parenthetically.   Everyone nodded to show they understood.

"And when Hoh asked "Why?""  Saki continued,  "Hitomi said, "Because like this, it's still too sad."
Eri Kouno leaned back, her head feeling like a rung gong.  It may have been the most beautiful line she'd ever heard.

"That's just it, isn't it?"  Father leaned back, a sigh of satisfaction escaping him.  "How can they expect us to sit back and do nothing, now that we know where this world is heading?  It's impossible.  It's like Aiko said.  Like this, it's still too sad.  The world absolutely has to change.  And it's our duty to change it."

"Do you agree with Aiko, Saki?"  Mother asked.

"Aiko's my guiding light."  Saki said simply.  "I wish we were living with Hitomi and Autumn and Katja and Azusa and Valentine and Norn and all the rest of the psychics tomorrow.  I would trade their world for ours in an instant."

"Can I have a copy?"  Eri asked hopefully.

"I'll ask Aiko for one.  But she's really leery of handing the book out, because it's so politically incorrect.  It basically overthrows every single tenet concerning everything we believe in the world today."  Saki said.

"I don't mind that."  Eri boasted.

"I'll ask.  That's all I can promise."  Saki said, not very optimistic about Eri's chances.  "But weren't we going to cook some cookies?"

"Right."  Eri agreed, standing up briskly.  "Saki, you can crack the eggs."

"Please no!  I've cracked enough eggs today!  I want something real to do!"  Saki protested as the two friends escaped into the kitchen.

Sitting in bathing suits with their legs in the large outdoor pool, Saki, Capri and Eri enjoyed their late summer or early fall evening.  There was a tall fence around the entire complex, so no peepers could see them, and the temperature was just right.  Saki had had to borrow Eri's bathing suit, but that was nothing, since they were going to share a bath together in a couple hours anyway.  Thankfully, not like the one she'd shared with her sisters yesterday.  Eri had an enormous indoor hot spring that could have fit ten people comfortably with water so deep they could maintain their modesty perfectly.  Not that she really minded being seen, if it was Eri and Capri.  At eleven years old, there was nothing to see anyway.  Turning a year older certainly hadn't helped in the development department.  How long was God going to make her wait?

"If Cho Kai could give you any type of body, why do you have blue eyes, Capri?"  Saki asked curiously, kicking her legs in the cool water back and forth, but slowly enough not to make any splashes.

"We wyrds all decided together,"  Capri said proudly.  "Our colors are important to us, they're our identity, it's what we're named after.  So we wanted to at least have the color of our eyes, the windows to our souls, to be our true colors as wyrds."

"So really your eyes aren't blue, they're Capri?"  Saki asked, smiling.

Capri nodded.  "And Onyx has Onyx eyes, and Magnolia has Magnolia eyes, and Awesome has Awesome eyes."

"I'm sorry you can't hang out in your human form at my house.  My parents might object to me fighting dark wyrds if they knew I was a magical girl."  Saki apologized again.  Eri's home, where everyone was in on the business together, was so refreshing.  More than all the money, she was jealous of parents who would understand her like Eri possessed.  No wonder she loved them so much.

"It's okay.  I miss it."  Capri said, kicking her legs next to Saki's and watching the water ripple around them.  "But you'll let me be human again when you move out at eighteen, right?"

"But that's seven years away."  Saki said plaintively.  "How can you nonchalantly skip over seven years?"

"Seven years really isn't that long."  Capri said idly.

"I wish I could just wait around for seven years without a worry in the world."  Saki said.  "Hey, maybe that's my magic?  Maybe I'm immortal!"

"Want me to stab you and find out?"  Eri asked.

"Err.  No thanks."  Saki quickly lost hope.

"I don't think our magic is immortality,"  Capri said, her eyes staring up at the clouds.  "When I scry you, I see a long, slow, winding river.  It looks like it isn't moving at all.  But it's actually so powerful it's reshaping the world.  The key to your magic is in that image."

"Capri."  Saki said, touched.  She felt like she'd been given a precious locket from a boy who had just confessed to her.  "But maybe I am immortal then.  You're talking about a meandering river, those are the very oldest rivers you know."

"The river's age doesn't matter.  It's how it slowly but surely changes."  Capri spoke confidently.

"I've got it!"  Eri clapped her hands together, making Saki jump.  "Your magic isn't immortality, it's aging!"

"You mean like I can touch things and turn them to dust?"  Saki asked, alarmed.

"Oooh, try it."  Eri jumped up from the pool and found a rock.  "Here, put on your suit and touch this rock!"

"Do you want to try it, Capri?"  Saki asked, a little excited despite herself.

"Sure."  Capri shrugged.

"Okay, Coi, Capri!"  Saki shouted, and magic burst through her veins and all the water on her skin disappeared to be replaced by layer upon layer of heavy black mail.  She walked over a few steps, still as lightly as in her bathing suit, and imagined magic running up through her body and into her finger.

"Umm, let's see.  Shining Finger!"  Saki said a suitable spell name, tapping the rock gently.  Capri's light reacted, a blue diamond centered in the middle of her breastplate, and the rock started to grow.  The rock started pushing Saki backwards as she retreated, stumbling.  Soon it was a boulder, and then it was nearing the roof of the house.

"Stop!  Stop!"  Eri called out frantically.

Saki pulled her hand away and clamped down on the magic stream.  The rock sat perilously as a new lawn ornament between the back yard and the pool.  "Oops."  Saki said, laughing nervously.

"Do you call that aging?"  Eri complained.  "Shrink it back!"

"Okay."  Saki said.  "Let's do this Capri, umm. . . Shrink Ray!"  She willed magic into her finger and touched the rock again.  The boulder started growing over the roof.

"Stoppppp!"  Eri used construction site sign language again, and Saki broke off the connection with a wail.

"Are you trying to break my home?"  Eri asked in a panic.

"It can't be helped!  No matter what I do it just grows up!"  Saki wailed.  And then she realized what her souls' most secret wish must have been.  She had wanted to grow up.  'I'm a big kid now.'  Oh, God.  It was too embarrassing!

* * *

The three girls lay in Eri's bed together, changed out of their clothes and into a matching set of red pajamas.  Eri's bed was enormous, perfectly suited to a little princess, so none of them were even touching.  But it was still a perfect place to whisper with the lights off.

"What do you see when you scry me, Sapphire?"  Eri asked, wishing to keep up with her rival.

"A hawk clutching lightning bolts swooping downwards in mid flight."  Sapphire said.

"Oooh!  How regal!"  Saki said approvingly.

"I told you you were beautiful."  Capri agreed, her blue eyes glowing with their own light in the dark.

"A hawk sounds weaker than a giant river though."  Eri complained.

"But you can shoot lightning!"  Saki encouraged her friend.  "Lightning's strong!"

"Thanks, Saki."  Eri blushed, feeling warm and wonderful.  "Sapphire, make me a magical girl."

"Please do."  Saki agreed.

"It isn't enough to get along with your friends."  Sapphire complained, turning Eri down for the umpteenth time.  "Can you be a pillar for the whole world?  Do you have enough love for everyone?"

Eri sighed, wondering when she'd ever be good enough.  Her whole life, her parents had wanted her to be perfect, and she'd tried her best.  Now Sapphire wanted her to be perfect, and she was still trying her best.  But she always fell short of all of them.  She couldn't be perfect.  Her name wasn't Perfect Kouno.  It had always only been Eri Kouno.  She couldn't do any more than she already had.  Maybe it was time to just give it up.  She could never follow in her parent's footsteps.  It had been a silly children's dream all along.  Now that she had met a wyrd, she had met that reality face to face.

"You don't know Eri, Sapphire."  Saki said angrily.  "Of course she can love everyone.  What kind of question is that?"

"It's okay, Saki."  Eri sighed.  "Sapphire's right.  When I think of Dead Enders, I just feel contempt.  As far as I can tell, Dead Enders are just losers.  That's what the word means.  The world is full of losers who aren't fit to bear the title human.  They're still just hominids.  Homo Sapiens.  Like in Aiko's book."

"But listen, I believe that too!"  Saki said, grabbing Eri's hand from across the bed.  "I'm the one who told you about the book!  And Aiko's the one who wrote it!  She never said she loved everyone on Earth.  In fact, she said she's never thought highly of 'the masses.'  When she became a Choice Giver, she said that humanity could just go look after itself for all she cared!  Choice Givers don't have to mindlessly worship the worst our species has to offer.  In fact, it's our duty to reject what they have to offer and demand more!  Maybe it isn't unconditional love of all life like Buddha's.  But it's tough love, like parents show their children!"

Eri felt a flicker of hope.  Could she feel tough love for everyone?  Could she demand they keep getting better, like she'd always demanded from herself?  Was that so far out of character to be beyond her reach?

"You said you had the answer for my homework.  I came up with some answers too."  Eri said, squeezing Saki's hand with her own, refusing to let it go.  "Dead Enders are those who refuse to change.  They just stubbornly cling to the same old traditions and beliefs, that science and reason have disproved long ago, and hold the whole world back in the stifling grip of stagnation.  And it's not just because they're afraid of the risk of change.  It's so much worse.  It's because if everything stays the same, they get to stay in power.  It's just that simple.  Stagnation benefits the old, the wealthy, the prestigious, the conformist, the ideologically correct, everyone but children and heretics.  Everyone but the misfits just want everything to stay the same forever.  But only children and heretics can make mankind progress.  They're the most reviled people in the world, the greatest contempt and hatred on Earth is reserved for them, but they're the one and only chance for humanity's survival.  If we're going to get off this planet, if we're going to liberate our minds and open ourselves up to the possibilities of transcendence, it will only be because of our children and our heretics.  It will be over the objections and the spitting fury of the masses.  The old, the petty, the ensconced, the mindless, and the powerful.  They're all on one side.  And it's us, just us eleven year olds who haven't 'gotten with the program,' who still think there's more to life than this, on the other side.  We still dare to think that maybe our schools aren't 'perfect' just the way they are.  That maybe a lot of these jobs are retarded makework we shouldn't be forced to take just to pay for outrageously overpriced homes.  That these religions just don't make mathematical sense.  That freedom is a convenient term that somehow excludes all the freedoms we might want -- the freedom to found a new country, the freedom to organize society under our own terms and with the exact right citizens we want -- but is perfect at stopping us from proposing any single reform of anything that currently exists in the status quo."

Saki smiled in the dark.  This was the Eri she knew.  "The hypocrisy is just choking, isn't it?  If you say marriage should be for life, or babies shouldn't be killed in their wombs, they go screaming about how we're restricting their sacred freedom.  But then they turn right around and say drugs are illegal, because it's a bad choice that harms both society and the individual.  It's okay to kill babies, but God forbid a teenager smokes some weed.  It's okay to shatter a family, to kidnap children away from their fathers, to steal someone's entire life work away in an instant, but God forbid a child sees an R-rated movie.  You can promise your wife to be faithful until death does you part and then sleep with another girl the day after, but God forbid you forget to put on your seat belt or don't wear a bike helmet."

"Freedom never mattered to them.  The only freedoms they ever cared about were their own.  They don't want freedom.  All they ever wanted was license.  Adults are scum."  Eri summarized.

"Well, divorce in Japan is still really low."  Saki reminded Eri tactfully.

"Of course I don't mean Japan.  But the moment you leave this blessed isle, it's just darkness.  It's just a moral void.  No one's even trying to be good anymore.  They don't even care, they've even lost the ability to feel ashamed of what they've become.  If you turn on Japanese television, you can see stories of good people being good to each other.  Just really sweet stories.  Stories about fathers helping daughters, neighbors helping neighbors, friends helping friends, and everyone standing up for what's right no matter what the price.  If you watch a movie from Hollywood, it's just vomit.  It's all just vomit."  Eri repeated.

"It's just us, Saki."  Eri continued.  "We're like Gondor and it's just waves upon waves of orcs besieging our blessed isle on all sides.  And over everything stares that great red flaming eye, Sauron.  The evil principle that's filled all the orcs and men to bursting, so long as I get my way I don't care who pays for it!"  Eri stressed each word.

"It's not just you."  Capri interjected, surprising Eri because she always stayed so quiet.  "You have us now.  Why do you think the wyrds came down to you?  We're on your side.  You may feel outnumbered, but there are thousands of times as many wyrds as men.  And the vast majority of us are with you, Eri.  We endorse you.  You're the group we respect.  You're the souls we find beautiful.  Not them.  We aren't going to abandon you.  Sapphire won't abandon you, Eri.  And Daffodil won't abandon your Mother.  I won't abandon Saki.  Not once in her entire life.  I'll always love and support her.  And when I say it, I mean it.  I can't even live without her at my side, and we have to do everything we're told.  That's how much we're behind you.  Don't feel powerless and alone.  You see, wyrds are with you, and we worship the one true God.  The God of Truth, Beauty, and Love.  When the wyrds are with you, that means God is with you, and if God is with you, you‘re invincible.  Now that we've weighed in on humanity's future, there's no way you're going to lose.  Compared to your electromagnetic and nuclear forces, your gravity and all the rest, the power of magic is infinitely greater.  So don't feel alone or afraid or depressed or despairing.  It might take time to train enough avatars who can accept our contracts, but we're going to win.  God will not allow evil to triumph.  In the end, it's his Creation, no one else's.  It will always reflect his will.  Like a second moon rising within a lake, the world and God are one.  One perfect beauty.  All one, Eri.  All one."

"Capri."  Saki breathed.  She had forgotten once again.  She felt guilty for thinking Capri didn't care about their bond because it would be so short for a wyrd.  No matter how short it was, Capri cared about it as deeply as her own life.  She had given herself, all of herself, to Saki, of her own free will.  It wasn't a 'ball game' to Capri at all.  It was something sacred, and Saki was someone sacred and pristine to have earned it.  Lifetime contracts mattered more to wyrds than humans, not less.  They were the ones who paid the full price upfront.  They were the ones acting out of absolute dedication.

"Do you miss it, Capri?  The etheric plane?  All those beautiful wyrds who worship God like you?"  Saki asked.

"I miss it."  Capri closed her eyes.  "But it's okay when I look at you."

Saki felt tears bunching up in her eyes.  Capri had confessed to her again, and her heart wasn't nearly wide enough to reply as well as Capri deserved.  All she could do was roll over and hug Capri as tightly as she could.

Chapter 12

"You will have Platinum's group as reinforcements.”   Amaranth told Shadow over the phone.  “Xanadu must die this time, though.  We don't have any more forces to spare." 

"We'll get him, Amaranth.  My mistress says she can handle Black's magic.  The rest are inconsequential.  The Japan Group is at half strength at best."  Shadow said confidently.  "Meanwhile we're all healed up and ready to go.  Even if we have to strike out in the open, now's our chance to settle this."

"I'll tell Platinum of your optimism.  But in the end only results matter.  Produce the results."  Amaranth said sternly.

"It won't be long now."  Shadow promised, and then he hung up.  Amaranth sighed and glowed a melancholy reddish pink.  Once the portals were shut down, the extra human worlds could be dealt with.  But the fewer they seeded the universe with, the better.  As for this world, it just needed one more push, and it would be doomed forever.  Amaranth was beginning to think their mission here was completely unnecessary.  Just reading the news headlines and watching humanity's awful television commercials was enough to see they would do just fine at flatlining themselves.  But he couldn't stop now.  Now that they were already committed, the only permissible outcome was victory.  It was a matter of pride.  Even though circumstances had changed, he hadn't been wrong.  He hadn't been wrong to hate these people.  They were still the worst sort of scum.  Someone had to come in and clean them out.  God would thank Amaranth in the end.  The shadow majority of wryds secretly agreed with him, they just didn't have the guts to take action about it like he had.  The multiverse was fine when it was just God and his wyrds.  Interlopers who just splattered paint on top of this perfect portrait weren't needed.  Heaven belonged solely to those who could see through the third eye, the eye of God.  These people were just demons.  They needed to go back to the abyss they came from.  To become Choice Givers of all things, to try and usurp the wyrds' favored position at the right hand of God, was unforgivable.  That was a title reserved for the most honorable of their race, something only one wyrd in a million could hope to attain.  Humans had no right to it.  There was no way even a single human was better than even a single wyrd.  It was ridiculous.  It was insulting.  If that's what scrying showed, then humanity just had to be wiped out, so the results would go back to what they should have been again.  Soon enough wyrds could forget all about these fake, impersonator Choice Givers.  Then they could regain their pride.  There was no way a human Choice Giver could exist when the wyrds had reached a complete dead end.  He would not allow the history books to record it.  He would make reality fit its proper course.

These humans were just being so stubborn about the dying part.

Amaranth's thoughts were disturbed by a distant shout in Russian saying "Fire in the hole!" followed by a slow rumbling and then a mighty roar.  Suddenly, coming from the hallway leading to his room, a bright red and yellow fireball rushed towards him like a wailing skull.

"Impossible!"  Amaranth shouted.  And then the explosion passed over him.  The frail bead fell lifelessly, and lightlessly, to the floor.

* * *

Isao Oono woke up in the nude in the arms of an equally undressed woman.  He almost bit his tongue to stop from shouting out in surprise.  How old was this girl?  Based on her slim figure and heart faced shape, he could only assume the worst.  Was she even legal?  She was beautiful in her own way.  Never mind that!  How did she appear in his bed?  What had they done together last night?  He couldn't remember a thing.  Had they somehow gotten extremely drunk and ended up making love?  But how?  Isao never touched the rotten stuff, and he definitely wouldn't have plied it on a minor.  But how else could a situation like this arise?  Maybe he'd wanted to have sex with this girl so desperately that everything had become permissible, and then drank so much that he suffered a complete blackout of the night before.  If so, he had a great constitution.  He didn't have the least bit of a hangover upon waking.

Isao couldn't help himself and reached out his hand to cup the girl's breast that sat defenselessly inches away.  She felt wonderful.  It was no wonder he had been desperate to have her.  But how could he ever explain himself to Kotone, bringing a random girl home to his ex-girlfriend's place who he didn't even love, making a total mockery of their relationship by going further with a complete nobody than they ever had together?  Maybe Kotone wouldn't find out.  That was his only hope now.
The girl across from him slowly fluttered her eyes awake, which were enormously wide, doubling her attractiveness all over again, and then smiled at him happily, snuggling close against him.  "Silly.  If you want me, you don't have to sneak about while I'm asleep.  All you have to do is ask."
Isao Oono was in a crisis.  He wanted her terribly, and the girl didn't seem to mind at all.  All the preparations were complete.  Even if she was a stranger. . .even if she was a stranger. . .it wouldn't hurt to make love one more time. . .

Isao Oono rolled out of bed and stood up.  He walked to his closet and hastily pulled on a pair of jeans.  Okay.  At least that embarrassing part of the problem was solved.

"I'm sorry.  You'll probably be furious and think I'm lying, but please listen to me.  I don't remember what happened last night at all.  I don't know how we met, or why we ended up together.  You seem like a nice girl, I can't imagine why I would be willing to hurt your feelings, but there it is.  I can't even promise to do right by you and start a relationship with you now, a day late, because I'm wrapped up in something dangerous I can't allow uninvolved people to endanger themselves with.  I'm sorry.  That excuse probably sounds really lame.  Everything I've said sounds pretty lame.  Just forget about this lame boy and try to find a real man next time."  Isao bowed halfway to the floor in shame.

The girl hadn't sought to cover her own body up in the least.  She just stared at Isao painfully, until by the end of the speech tears were trickling down her face.  "I. . .I had hoped. . ."  The girl stared down at Isao's bedsheets and started crying helplessly.  "It makes sense. . . we only met recently. . . it's pretty arrogant to think you'd love me any more than this, huh?  Even my parents have already forgotten, and they've known me all my life. . . so why does it hurt so much?"  The girl's last sentence came off as a quiet whimper.

Isao didn't know what to do.  He was the worst.  Had he actually told this girl he loved her?  If he had, it was an even worse betrayal than the sex.  But it was all a lie!  How could he comfort her now?  He didn't have the right.

"Do you have a place to go?  It would be best if you left now."  Isao suggested, trying not to stare at her so attractive, so available body.

The girl's face tried to contort into a wry smile.  "This is my home, Isao.  It was our home. . . but you're right.  I guess I'm being a nuisance, aren't I?  I'm sorry.  I'll. . .move into another room.  I don't want to be a nuisance, but. . .I love you, husband.  I'll always, always love you.  Even if you. . .I'm yours even now. . .whenever you want. . ."  The girl looked up, her eyes clouded by a river of tears.
Isao couldn't believe his ears.  What had he promised her last night?  Husband?  It was impossible!  "I don't think that would be right."  Isao turned her down angrily.  Why was she lying about last night?  No matter how drunk he'd been, he'd never have made a joke like that.  He wasn't a devil.
"I. . .okay."  The girl nodded, her hair falling down over her face.  She stood up lifelessly from the bed and picked up a faded blue backpack from the floor.  Then she walked by him to the closet, still in the nude, and started pulling out shirts and skirts and panties and bras and socks and shorts.  How on Earth had she managed to carry in such a load of laundry?  Hadn't it just been a one night stand?

"Goodbye, Isao."  The girl said, nude except for the backpack strapped over her back, stepping to the doorway.

"Wait.  What's your name?"  Isao asked.  "It's unfair if you only know mine."  He could at least remember this much about their tryst.

"Shiori Oono."  A tear fell off her face and fell to the ground as she whirled her back to him and ran out the door.

Isao sighed.  Saying jokes like that until the very end.  What a strange, ill-mannered girl.  Never mind her.  The real question was why he was staying at Kotone's in the first place.  Shouldn't he stop lazing about and get back to Africa?  He had important work to do.  But for some reason, he'd come back to visit his friend's graves and just never left again.  He had turned into a total bum, and for what?  There was nothing to do here in Japan.

That was it.  Kotone must have asked him to stay and watch over her while she was pregnant.  It was only fair.  He owed her, whether they had broken up or not didn't change what they had shared.  He would have set aside his task for as long as she needed him.  Though he didn't remember exactly when she had asked it of him, she must have at some point.  Plus Masanori was in the hospital from a sniper shot.  He couldn't exactly leave a pregnant woman and an injured man alone to face the assembled wrath of the dark wyrds.  But dear Lord, just because he was taking a break from assassinations, going to bars and getting drunk to pick up probably underage homeless girl drifters was out of bounds.  He needed to go to a shrine and purify himself.  That is, if the gods were even interested in listening to him anymore.

* * *

Shiori Oono walked a few guest rooms down and entered mechanically into her new room.  She had asked for one more day, and had gotten three.  It was a fair deal.  The last three days had been some of the best in her life.  Though admittedly a bit painful and a little scary at first.  They'd barely gotten out of bed except to eat and bathe, and even then they were together.  It had been so very, very wonderful.  Everything she'd ever imagined it to be and more.  Adults really did have it better than kids.  Correction.  Lonely adults had nothing to brag about.  It was only the married adults who had it better.  No one else had a clue in comparison.  Everything and everyone else was just a prelude or suffix to marriage.  Without it, life could never be complete.  Kids or adults, none of them would understand until it happened to them.  Then they would open their eyes and see what living was really for.  Of course, her marriage may have set a record for shortness, so she really wasn't in a position to talk about it.

Shiori wiped her dirty face and tossed her backpack onto the floor.  She had to get dressed.  She should've prepared a speech for Isao for when he forgot about her.  She must have looked really stupid to him, stuttering and sobbing about.  Why hadn't she realized this day would come?  She'd somehow pushed all that aside and become a nymphomaniac instead.  All that had mattered was getting to embrace him one more time, every new time.  And the all important question wouldn't be determined for another month.  Was she pregnant with his child?  Or was she not?  She was okay with raising the baby alone.  She had plenty of money saved up from her work at Angle Corporation.  But if the baby was also cursed to forget her every day, she couldn't live with Isao's child either.  She'd have to give it away for adoption.  A baby deserved at least one parent, and in her state, she couldn't even give it that.  If that was the case, maybe she didn't want a baby.

A sharp ache tore through her at the idea.  No.  She wanted his child.  She wanted to be pregnant.  Even if she never got to see the child in her life.  Even if her baby never knew a single thing about its parents.  The mere fact that it existed, somewhere, living and breathing, was eternal testament that Isao and Shiori had loved, married, and shared something sacred and real.  A baby would be a living reminder that Shiori Oono hadn't lost to her curse.  She hadn't just disappeared.  She had created life.  She had been.  The baby had better be there.  If it wasn't, Isao would have a lot to answer for.  She had given him ample opportunities.

Shiori left her new room, dressed in whatever clothes had appeared at the top of her bag, and left to eat breakfast.  Even if everyone forgot her, she couldn't leave Kotone and Masanori behind right now.  Those two Dead Enders hadn't been targeting her.  She'd just been collateral damage.  Their target all along had been Masanori, the man who had saved her life all those years ago, when she'd been a tiny child.  Forgotten or not, she wouldn't forget.  She wouldn't forget anything.  She'd protect the people she loved until those two returned.  And when they did. . .she would aim for Miss Sad Face.  If Miss Sad Face thought being abandoned by the whole world would break her, well. . .she was probably right.  But since Masanori had lived instead of died, their mission would require a second pass.  Which meant she could still get everything back.  Which meant, she would never give up.  No matter how painful it got.  Soon, any day now, the pain would end.  Everything would go back to the way it was before.  And she'd teach that brat a lesson about playing with other people's feelings.

"Shiori, your face looks awful.  Are you okay?"  Kotone waved a greeting, having already prepared a breakfast of toast and well-cooked chicken in front of her.  Pregnant women couldn't eat fish, eggs, or really anything.  The constrained diet was just one more burden alongside the others.  Shiori vowed to remember Kotone's diet and mimic it if she were pregnant.  This was no longer just her friend's problem anymore.

"He's gone, Kotone."  Shiori said, trying to feel detached about it.  "I don't know why I got so sad.  It was three days, and I knew it had to happen."

"That boy!  He dumps me, and now he forgets you!"  Kotone exclaimed angrily.  "As expected of an assassin, he really is heartless!"

"It's not his fault.  It's the magic."  Shiori repeated the line to herself to make the message stick inside her own head.  If she started resenting people for not loving her enough, she'd truly be betraying their feelings.  They were also the victims of this curse.  She wasn't just suffering her fate alone.

"I haven't forgotten a single thing yet."  Kotone reassured her friend, reaching out her arm to pat Shiori.  "Here, have a slice of toast.  I bet there's ice cream in the fridge, but I don't think I'm allowed to eat that either."

"You love people too much."  Shiori teased, going to the fridge to search for this elusive comfort food.

"But if I do forget you, somehow, know this ahead of time."  Kotone put on a serious face.  "Even if you have to hide out in some nook or cranny, you're always welcome here.  Unless it's too painful to see us. . .stay as long as you want.  You can stay your entire life here if you want.  Steal our food like a ghost, our clothes, our jewelry, anything you want.  If everyone forgets you, you won't be able to get a job or even rent a place.  They'll keep trying to rent it again because they'll think it's vacant.  So just stay here.  You're always welcome here."

"Thanks.  I intend to stay, at least until I feel you two are safe again.  It's true that we can't find those two Dead Enders so long as they hide out in the vast world.  But there's always the chance that they'll seek us out again."  Shiori said bravely, grabbing a pint of ice cream and a spoon to sit back down with her friend at the table.

"Somehow I'm not thrilled about the idea of using my husband as bait."  Kotone frowned.

"Even to save little old me?"  Shiori fluttered her eyelashes and arched her eyebrows into puppy dog eyes.

"Oh hush.  I can't choose between you two without betraying something."  Kotone glared.  "What will be, will be.  Is that good enough for you?"

"Fineeeeeeee."  Shiori said, forcing herself to stay cheerful.  "I can always buy a house, then it won't matter if everyone forgets me."

"Stay here, at least until Rei forgets."  Kotone warned.

Shiori didn't want to watch Rei forget.  But that was an extremely selfish whim.  Kotone was right.  Rei was also a victim.  She needed to be there for her little sister.  She had to do what she could.

"You're right.  I will."  Shiori promised.

Kotone gave a relieved smile, then went back to eating her breakfast.  "It's funny, losing your memories.  I haven't thought about them in ages.  But when I heard I'd forget you, I've been thinking about us non-stop.  Do you remember when we first met?"

"It was in Lily class, 5th year elementary school."  Shiori said confidently.

"We were all practicing the recorder together.  I was the best in the class, and you were the dead worst.  So the teacher asked me if I could help you."  Kotone said.  "When I played the song for just you, note by note, in our little corner of the classroom, your eyes lit up.  They were so huge and excited, like the recorder was the greatest instrument to ever exist, and I its finest player.  I thought, if playing the recorder can make someone smile this much, then in middle school, I want to play the flute in front of everyone.  I wanted to play the very best classical music in the world with the prettiest wind instrument of all, and then I wanted to see how happy your face would be when you listend to me again.  It was all for you, in the end."

"I'm sure I wasn't dead worst."  Shiori pouted.

"You were."  Kotone laughed.  "You were horrible.  Horrible.  Like a creature from the deeps."

"Well so what!  I'm a pitcher, not a fancy-nancy musician!"  Shiori flared.

"Hahaha, and yet you smiled that much when I played."  Kotone looked away wistfully.  "You probably love music more than me.  You probably love everything more than me, Shiori.  You're the one who got me excited about life."

"I was just a tomboy.  It's you two who taught me how to love."  Shiori pushed the praise away.  "Awesome said it, didn't he?  None of us were Choice Givers until after all three of us were friends.  We were all good together, and only together."

"So will I fade away when I forget you?"  Kotone wondered.

"Even if you do, Magnolia's stuck with you."  Shiori grinned.

Kotone laughed.  "There is that.  Even if I forget you, I won't forget my love for anime.  And so long as I'm an emissary to the wider world for that, I'll still be doing good."

"Yuck!"  Shiori stuck out her tongue.

"Honestly!  How could you dislike anime after all I've shown you?  That's it.  We're going to the theatre and you'll watch Clannad with me until you like it."  Kotone said authoritatively.

"I don't want to spend my last days on this Earth watching dumb unrealistic girls whose breasts bounceeeeeeee."  Shiori whined.

"Listen here, freeloader!"  Kotone stabbed her finger at the ice cream dappled chin of her friend.  "These aren't your last days.  They're my last days with you.  So let them be happy ones.  Please?  You gave Isao his wildest dream.  Now you have to give me mine."

"You already have Masanori."  Shiori looked away, whistling.

"Shiori Oono!"  Kotone blushed crimson.

"Fine, fine.  I just have to watch anime, right?  What is it, twelve episodes?"  Shiori sighed tragically.

"Forty eight!"  Kotone slammed down her sentence.

"Spare meeeeee."  Shiori begged.

"And just for that last dig, we'll watch Kanon next!"  Kotone pursued, grabbing Shiori by the hand and dragging her away from the table.

On the bright side, forty eight episodes, 20 minutes or so a piece, would last exactly sixteen hours.  It meant she could forget about Isao for the entire rest of the day.  Which is probably what Kotone was trying to do from the start.

Shiori stopped complaining and gave her friend a hug instead, walking meekly to her doom.  She wouldn't be this loved by anyone again for a long time.

* * *
Keiichi punched the red button in front of his video conference table.  'Operation Conquer the World’ had irrevocably begun.

All across the world, all the televisions of the world started showing the same illusionary image.  Balls of light who would supposedly be making First Contact with their intended prey floated in a pretend spaceship with all sorts of whirring high tech gizmos behind them.  A lot of magic had come into both portions of the presentation, but in the Moral Aristocracy, someone always had a spell for everything.  There would be no way to trace a speech delivered by magic, nor any way to analyze his voice masked by magic.  The plan was foolproof.  The sheer power of hacking every channel at once would prove to mankind that these were aliens with overtechnology and they were serious.  The magic to get everyone's attention was the wyrds', but the speech was crafted by 100% genuine humans.  It was their final gambit to turn back the course of this dying world, and what the Moral Aristocracy had agonized over word by word for months.  These were the issues that had to be addressed.  There was no way to tolerate them and survive as a species.  Now that the Corrupters were arranged for, it was time for the Moral Aristocracy to make their bid for the world's future.  This was the true reason why the Moral Aristocracy had formed.  This was what they had all been waiting for.  And it was up to Keiichi, their leader, to start the ball rolling.  He took a deep breath, nodded to Sora, who nodded back at him, and began.

"Greetings, folded surface dwellers.  We apologize for interrupting your regularly scheduled broadcast for this important announcement.  We are the Wyrds, from the etheric plane, and we have come to judge your world.

For many years we have patiently watched mankind's progress across time.  Though it has faltered and failed many times in the past, the general arrow of progress was clear.  For this reason, all of your failures and failings could be forgiven.  But now, things have changed.  The failures and failings are becoming too enduring and too severe.  Rather than hiccups that people can quickly recover from, mankind's temper tantrums and thrashing about is posing an existential threat to the future of life on this planet.  Nuclear weapons have the capacity to eliminate all higher order life, they are a weapon suited only for madmen, and yet still the nations of the world refuse to disarm.  All nations will disarm and foreswear all WMD immediately.  As will be shown later in the broadcast, they no longer serve any purpose anyway.  The Earth's ecosystem is running low on several crucial resources, and yet still there is no plan to contain overpopulation.  Many places are so densely populated that poverty, famine, disease, illiteracy and war rage unchecked across the land, and yet still mothers continue to pop out brood upon brood of additional sufferers.  Other sections of the world are having so few children that they are emptying out at a rate faster than the Black Plague ever managed, even though there is plenty of land, wealth, and opportunity for all, and yet no measures are taken to reverse this manmade catastrophe which portends the utter annihilation of said erstwhile happy and successful group.  This will not be permitted.  Where necessary, birth rates must be reversed, whether that be to a lower threshold, or a higher one.  Evolution has long since been proven by all scientific measures, and yet still humanity is managing to devolve into an inferior life form by completely neglecting all of Darwin's and Galton's lessons.  This Idiocracy ends now.  Births among the upper echelons of society will be promoted, those among the lower classes discouraged, and mankind will fulfill its potential for greatness.  The entire rise of civilization was founded upon monogamous marriage.  Outside of cultures practicing monogamy, there was only barbarism, poverty, ignorance, oppression and war.  But the recent generations of mankind have abandoned this hard-won lesson and reverted back to its primitive stone-age roots, all for the sake of cheap thrills.  Henceforth, monogamy is no longer a lifestyle alternative, just as good as any other, it is the foundation of civilization and it is mandatory.

For the first time in history, illegitimate children are not considered shameful for their mothers, and fathers are considered unimportant to the wellbeing of their daughters and sons.  Children at the bottom are thus destined for some degenerate end, having never been given a chance by the society around them, having never even been told once in their life what it is to be a good person, or given one example in their life of someone actually being one.  Children at the bottom are no longer being raised at all, they are left to roam feral across the streets and neighborhoods, haunting the night like werewolves and vampires of old while the police generally watch on helplessly for fear of 'giving offense'.  This ends now.  Society cannot function when it is in the grips of chaos.  People must feel safe in their persons and their possessions as they go about their daily life if we are to maintain the most rudimentary form of civilization.  Therefore, crime will no longer be permitted, no matter how draconian the necessary enforcement measures become.  To all gangsters and thugs out there listening today, consider this your final warning.  This same warning applies to corruption, whether within the government or outside of it.  So long as any group is threatening the security of people's persons and their possessions through irregular and arbitrary seizure, people cannot invest in their future and society cannot move forward .  Corruption of this sort will no longer be tolerated.  The rule of law is henceforth the only rule and the only law in town.

Meanwhile, children at the top are barely any better off than children at the bottom, raised not by a mother and a father, because they are both too busy working at all hours of every day, but rather by 'schools' combined with 'homework' that represents a perpetual holding facility that break all labor laws ever imagined in length and severity, while not providing any measurable benefit whatsoever for the children undergoing their year round confinement.  Indeed, home schooled children continuously outscore their 'public' and 'private' school rivals in all tests of academic achievement and future life success such as income levels or college degrees.  So long as children can pass certain standardized tests, crafted and distributed by us, at the end of each year, it is entirely up to them which school, if any, they wish to attend, and what curricula, if any, it has.  Neither their parents nor society has the right to force them into working conditions no adult would ever tolerate if applied to themselves.  If this means parents must leave someone home to look after the children, and cannot both work all hours out of every day -- good.

If society abandons its children, this is an existential threat to the future of mankind.  Even supposing these children somehow get by under their own efforts, they will be even less well equipped to raise the next generation, who will thus gain even worse habits and be even less well equipped to raise the next generation, ad infinitum.  Children are raised not just for their own sake, but for the sake of our grandchildren, our great grandchildren, and our great great grandchildren.  The primary victims of feckless parents have not yet been born, but they are all waiting, in their billions, to reap the whirlwind this generation has sown.  Eventually we will reach a point where all motherly and fatherly instincts and habits have been erased, and mankind will simply not know anymore how to perpetuate itself, nor care anymore if it does.  This, perforce, will mark the last generation of mankind.  To avoid this, henceforth, children will be guaranteed a positive home environment, with a mother and a father, without divorce, without abuse, and without neglect.  Children are a duty, not just toys for adults to play around with.  Parents' implicit contracts with their children, and their spouses, will no longer be ignored.

Because some scientific truths have had unsettling logical implications, mankind has chosen to abandon science and cling to its outdated religions.  But only science can solve the existential problems facing mankind's future.  The Earth will only support life for a limited time, as will this entire universe.  Unless we continue to embrace the study and implementation of scientific solutions, we will never save life from the dual threats of our sun going Red Giant and the heat death of the entire universe via entropic decay.  Even setting these existential threats aside, it is absurd to reject the findings of science in favor of the teachings of religion.  Science is the only possible way to provide enough prosperity, health, knowledge and power to conquer the demons known as Suffering and Death that plague this Earth with incessant, hellish torments no one, by rights, should ever have to face.  Religion has no answer for the future death of the cosmos or the present death of the person, it cannot cure cancer with prayers and it cannot feed the world with hymns.  It cannot predict earthquakes and tsunamis nor can it build buildings capable of withstanding these disasters.  Religion cannot do anything but perpetuate itself.  Like any virus, it relies on others to perform even its most basic functions.  We can no longer advance with these outdated 2,000 year old texts hijacking every new brain born into the world and replacing its creative innovative gray matter with old decayed obviously false gray goo from the grave.  We are no longer giving birth and raising humans into this world.  Because of religion, we have been mass manufacturing nothing but zombies for millennia.  This must stop.  Henceforth, children must not be raised as adherents to any organized religion, and must be allowed to choose what faith, if any, they prefer, without pressure or favor, upon reaching adulthood alone.

The economic system has been overwhelmed with parasites.  These parasites have cleverly masked themselves in all sectors of life, from private businesses to government workers to out and out charity recipients.  But whatever their sheep's clothing, they are all equally wolves underneath.  Unless the parasitism is scaled back, such that the productive are allowed to actually produce the vast wealth of this world, there will be nothing left for anyone.  Automation, on the other hand, has displaced so many previously needed jobs that vast sections of the populace truly serve no productive economic purpose on this Earth.  This trend will continue to accelerate for the rest of the known future, but governments have still refused to admit the problem even exists, much less addressed it with any solution.  It is an existential threat to mankind to take nearly everyone out of any valued or respected role in society and simply cast them out onto the streets to 'fend for themselves.'  Not only will they not fend for themselves, they will avenge themselves on those who can -- why not?  What do they have left to lose?  Only a compassionate and respectful response to these displaced workers can save our collective future.  People must find new sources of employment, from hand made crafts and hobbies to child-rearing to homemaking, and enrich their lives with goods not of this world, that machines cannot yet make:  Love, Beauty, and Truth.  Those who still are productive must provide enough to others that they can implement this social and economic transformation into our technologically unavoidable New World.  It does not have to be much, indeed, there is a lot to be said about the joys and virtues of frugal living.  But it must be enough to return peace, order, harmony, and happiness to all the displaced souls in the world.  The world must have a warm home for each and every individual living upon it, no matter where they started or where they ended up.

Lies have proven themselves one of the most devastating anti-human weapons of all time.  The people of the Soviet Union were destroyed, as Aleksander Solzhenitsyn said so eloquently, not by gulags and guns but by lies.  Once everyone had been forced to live by lies, life, effectively, ended across an entire continent.  Therefore, lies will now be classified as an existential threat to mankind.  If some individual or collective organization is caught lying about a simple statement of fact, they will no longer get away with it.  If some individual or collective organization breaks their contractual obligations, they will no longer get away with it.  If some individual or collective organization libels someone else, they will no longer get away with it.  If some individual or collective organization employs irrational arguments to get their way in a contest of wills, if they manipulate others in deceitful and misleading ways to achieve their own personal goals, they will no longer get away with it.  Bertrand Russell, one of mankind's foremost mathematicians and philosophers, once said "Give me one lie, and I can prove anything."  Therefore, even allowing one lie to stand in public can result in the most monstrous of societies imaginable.  It can cascade into a dystopia, the extinction or stagnation of the entire Earth.  This isn't a threat we can afford to ignore.  Therefore, the Era of the Big Lie is over.  From this day forward, we have entered the Age of Truth.

We reserve the right to detail other existential threats and regulate against them in the future.

Now, with our demands out of the way, the good people of this Earth must be wondering, how many divisions have the wyrds, to enforce these claims?  Let me make this simple.  We have enough divisions.  We have as many divisions as there are asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.  This evening, you will observe our first salvo, an asteroid no telescope foresaw in time to do anything about, passing by in a near miss of the Earth's orbit.  We can divert and rain down as many of these asteroids as we please, onto any target we please.  Meanwhile, you do not know where we are and are completely incapable of striking back.  It is pointless to resist.  It is in our power to wipe out mankind in a matter of weeks.  If you choose to ignore us, our second asteroid will land in an uninhabited corner of the globe.  If we are still ignored, our third will hit the most obnoxious densely populated den of sin we can find.  Death will continue to rain down from the heavens until society chooses to change itself in accordance with our demands.

But wait!  Because we are a merciful and benevolent bunch, we are offering a special discount, we are calling it the "Sodom and Gomorrah" special!  If even 1% of your city dedicates itself to following our will in your hearts, as best you can, the entire 100% will be spared!  You won't get a deal like this very often!  That's right, if even one person in one hundred in your community follows our New World moral code, all of your sinners will also be spared.  Your friends, your family, your fellow citizens and even your celebrities, everyone will be spared if you transform yourself alone.  In time, it will become clear how superior these 1% are to their brethren.  In time, these 1% of followers will come to be known as the Moral Aristocracy, and by their example, perhaps, the rest of mankind can be shepherded into the future.  You can redeem your brethren, but only if you first redeem yourselves.  How about it, world?  Is there even 1% of you who can rise to the challenge and live in a way befitting an upright, two legged, sentient mammal?  We will be waiting with hopeful anticipation that this world can be saved.  If it can't, if not even 1% of you can follow these simple and bottom-floor, basic moral rules, then there's no point sparing this world from God's judgment anyway.  We will not stay our hand for the sake of the dark and depraved of this world.  If you wish to live, shine.

This has been a public service announcement by the Angels of the Lord of Hosts.  We will now be returning you to your regularly scheduled broadcast.  Everyone, have a nice day."

* * *

"Fear will keep them in line,"  Keiichi Kouno sat back in elation, his speech finally finished.  "Fear of this battle station."

"It's amazing what magic can do, isn't it?"  Sora asked, holding his hand to feed her strength and resolve into his own.  They both stared at the news channels as they scurried about in panic.  "Who would have thought that the ability to project a small force, less than a human push, over an arbitrarily long distance, as far out as halfway to Jupiter, was all it took to conquer the world?"

"20-something nerds can manifest frighteningly subtle abilities, can't they?"  Keiichi smiled.

"Thank goodness we only had a daughter."  Sora agreed, smiling.  "I'm sure her magic will be honest and straightforward, just like her."

Keiichi's video conference table lit up, so he punched the flashing button and called up the screen.  Esmerelda Clive sat comfortably in a spartan business skirt, one pantyhosed leg folded over the other above the knee, adjusting her square-rimmed glasses with her index and middle fingers pressed elegantly together.

"The wyrd council is dead."  Esmerelda reported, without emotion or embellishment.

"Excellent.  Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen."  Keiichi replied, leaning back in his chair with a sigh of satisfaction.

"The problem now is Corrupted agents who were already operational out in the field."  Esmerelda continued clinically.

"A much reduced problem.  Nothing the Moral Aristocracy can't handle via magical duels."  Keiichi dismissed the issue.

"As you say, then.  Congratulations on your speech.  I think its contents speak for all of us."  Esmerelda said.

"It should.  We wrote it up together and voted unanimously on the final draft."  Keiichi replied jovially.

"Well then, let me compliment you on your delivery.  I believe your passion in voicing said words speaks for all of us."  Esmerelda adjusted her glasses and switched her bottom leg to fold over her top in the opposite direction.

"Compliment accepted, Miss Clive."  Keiichi nodded graciously.  "Any prediction as to the outcome of our gambit?"

"I do not believe they will listen until the asteroids begin to kill."  Esmerelda said.

"A regrettable necessity.  We will make sure to not kick up too much dust into the air that it hurts overall crop yields, even if it slows down our schedule."  Keiichi promised.

"The arc of justice grinds slowly, but it will arrive."  Esmerelda said.  "With this, humanity has finally secured its future.  We will transcend."

"Thank you.  Hearing that from you is extremely reassuring."  Keiichi said.  If Esmerelda was optimistic about something, everyone else could go ahead and party, it was a done deal.

Chapter 13

"Sorry, Saki, but can you lead me to Eri's place?  I have something I need to tell the Kounos."  Chiharu told her little sister.  Saki had been watching one of her favorite doctor dramas when a bunch of obviously fake wyrds had taken over the screen instead.  At first Chiharu had a nightmare that the dark wyrds had finally decided to try and recruit the entire human public to witch hunt down the Choice Givers of the world with a series of libels and lies.  But apparently dark wyrds looked so far down on humans that it was beneath their pride to work alongside them.  No matter how many years passed, they wanted to destroy the world using their own strength, and left the majority of Dead Enders out of the conflict.  For wyrds to appear in front of everyone like this, and to make a speech like the one they made, could only mean one thing.  Their friendly neighbors had bared their fangs.

"You aren't going to fight them, are you?"  Saki asked fearfully.

"Of course not.  They're Choice Givers.  It's sacrilege to raise your hand in violence against a Choice Giver.  It's like spitting in the eye of God."  Chiharu said.

"Oh thank goodness."  Saki sighed in relief.  "I don't want to fight them.  Her parents were nice to me, and Eri's my friend."

"I have never once lost an argument with someone who was willing to listen to reason.  We're just going over to have a chat."  Chiharu encouraged her little sister.

"Let me call their place.  I'll tell them we're completely peaceful so there won't be any misunderstandings."  Saki said quickly, running to their central home phone and dialing for the Kounos.

"Yes, hello?  This is Saki Sakai.  Sorry to bother you when it's already late.  Yes, it's about the speech.  My sister thought she might come over and talk about it.  We have no ill intentions at all.  She just wants to talk about it.  Is it alright if I guide her to your place?  It shouldn't take long.  Maybe thirty minutes?  Okay.  Thank you so much!  Then, see you soon!"  Saki hung up and took another deep breath.

"They said it would be fine, sister.  But they also said there was no way you could change their minds now that they've begun, so don't get your hopes up."  Saki said.

"We'll see."  Chiharu said.  "Well then, let's go save the world."

"Yes!"  Saki agreed, putting on her shoes and leading the way out the door.

* * *

It was a quiet, solemn journey of walking and bus rides to the Kouno mansion.  The town had a lot of people milling together in the street, trying to make heads or tails of the news.  Most didn't believe it.  They had seen so many miracles created by hackers in the past, that this one just seemed to be a bigger and better version of the same.  A few of them resented these 'wryds' for thinking they had any right to judge other people.  A few nervously boasted about making sure to go out and do the opposite just to defy these would be tyrants.  A lot of people kept their peace and looked worriedly up at the sky.  The wyrds had predicted a meteor would fly by this evening.  If the scientists of the world saw it, this wasn't any ordinary hacking prank.  Then again, it wasn't so hard to believe hackers had some amateur astronomer who had noticed the coming meteor and timed their announcement accordingly.  It was still just an elaborate hoax.  The power to divert asteroids?  It had to be a hoax.

When Saki came to the Kouno mansion's gate, it looked a lot more menacing and intimidating than it had in the daylight.  She hit the intercom button and prayed no one would get into a fight.

"Hello?  It's us."  Saki spoke into the grill.

"Welcome, Sakais."  Eri's father returned, and the gate opened for them.  Saki led the way again, this time reaching the front door to knock.

The door opened, and Eri's father was standing there again.  "Welcome, please come in."

"Sorry to intrude."  Saki bowed nervously, stepping into the foyer and taking off her shoes.  Guest slippers had been provided for both of them, and so she slipped those on and walked meekly to the living room couch she had so happily drunk tea at just three days ago.

"Sorry to intrude."  Chiharu bowed crisply, following her little sister.

"I gather you heard our speech?"  Eri's father said.  It didn't take long for both Eri and her mother to appear, bringing in hot tea they'd obviously started preparing when Saki had called.  The tension in the room shot up dramatically.  Saki found it hard to look Eri in the face.  When she did, Eri instantly reddened and looked away.  She looked extremely angry.  Why?  For trying to make her feel ashamed?  For trying to make her say her parents were wrong and they had done a bad thing?  I suppose in a way Saki was betraying Eri just by being here.  But raining death down on the world surely wasn't the way to save it.  Right?

"Yes, I just wanted to ask a few questions about it.  Are you bluffing or for real?"  Chiharu asked, accepting her tea and taking a savoring sip.

"We aren't bluffing."  Eri's father said.

"Is it okay if I ask a lot of questions in a row?"  Chiharu asked.

"Fire away."  Eri's father replied, taking his own cup of tea.

"What if mankind can't live up to your expectations?"  Chiharu asked.

"Then they're worthless anyway.  Whether they die here and now, or flatline into stagnation later, makes no real difference.  We're just hurrying up their own decision, the dead end would happen either way."  Eri's father said.

"What if, given time, we Choice Givers could persuade them to become better people?  What if they can't live up to your expectations now, but if you had given us a little more time, they could have lived up to your expectations later?"  Chiharu asked.

"Persuade?  You're living in a dream world.  It's impossible to persuade anyone of anything."  Eri's father said.  "These people are sheep, they don't use reason in the first place, but just follow their obsolete traditions and their base instincts.  How many times have people tried to persuade them to reform?  When has the world ever listened before?  Dead Enders don't listen to reason.  They must be coerced into everything.  Fear is the only way to push them in the direction they need to go."

"I've persuaded Dead Enders before."  Chiharu said.

"An exception, a meaningless anecdote, that doesn't change statistical facts."  Eri's father dismissed the news.

Chiharu sighed.  This really was going to take a while.  "Are you fine with this?  A world of followers who only follow out of fear?  Inside their hearts, nothing will have changed."

"At first, perhaps."  Eri's father agreed.  "But people are creatures of habit.  They tend to rationalize and approve of whatever they are currently doing.  Obedience will begin as only an outward disguise.  But it will creep inside soon enough, until they start to think that this was what they really wanted to do and be from the beginning."

Saki's eyes widened.  Were people really that fickle?

"Even then, it will be a false following.  Rationalizations, excuses, they aren't the same as understanding why they should be the way you want.  If they truly understood, they wouldn't follow you out of fear.  They would emulate you out of love."  Chiharu said.

"Emulators are all well and good, but they'll always be a tiny minority.  For everyone else, all they can ever hope to be is followers.  So long as we are the ones they follow, what's the problem?  The world will be safe for the people who really matter.  If everyone knows their place and behaves, the real citizens of this world, with real potential, who really will change the future for the better, won't be caught up in their nonsense anymore.  I don't need everyone to be a star.  It's enough if everyone else just stays out of our way."  Eri's father said.

"Isn't this reckless?  Taking on the entire world while the dark wyrds are still out there?"  Chiharu asked, changing tacks again.

"The wyrd council is dead.  We killed them.  While your group just sits around doing nothing, the Moral Aristocracy has been doing its duty.  We aren't like you, a bunch of laid back girls who just want to be happy."  Eri's father said.

"I don't think we've been doing 'nothing' all this time."  Chiharu frowned, putting down her tea.  "We had everything in hand without your help.  We've already sent hundreds of thousands of people, all followers and emulators, across the multiverse, giving each of them their own habitable world.  They will all flourish according to their own unique plan, far away from the threats of dark wyrds and Dead Enders.  And, apparently, far away from the threat of you."

"Dear,"  Eri's mother put a hand on her husband's arm, who took a moment to relax again.

"I'm glad to hear that, Sakai."  Eri's mother started.  "But you must realize that whether life will flourish elsewhere or not, the moral calculus doesn't change concerning what we should do with the Dead Enders here.  There are still seven billion people on Earth to save, and countless trillions who will follow after them, regardless of what happens in other worlds.  You don't mean to say that we should just leave the people here to their fates, because their lives no longer matter?"

"No, I don't mean that."  Chiharu admitted.

"Surely you aren't some sort of Dead Meanser, coming here to preach about how everyone's a special snowflake?"  Eri's father jumped back in.

Chiharu laughed.  "No, I had no such intention."

"Then what is your real objection to our plan?  Do you not like the laws we gave?  The manner of our enforcement?  The threshold we set as a minimum value for life to continue?  Do you think one of the measures was unnecessary, or that all of them were unnecessary?"  Eri's father pressed.

"My only objection is that Shiori wouldn't want this."  Chiharu said quietly.  Saki looked up in confusion.  Who was Shiori?  And what did her opinion matter?  Chiharu was a Choice Giver, why would she look up to anyone?

"What does that mean?  Whoever this Shiori is, we're all Choice Givers here. It's impossible to pull rank on us, or make arguments by authority."  Eri's father said.

"I don't know if anyone will follow your commands.  I hope they do.  I even admit they're all good ideas.  But I know this isn't the way to save mankind.  Beating them down, making them smaller, taking away their free will, how will this prepare them for the challenges of the future?  We need to make Dead Enders strong at heart, strong enough to decide these things on their own, for themselves, because they want to be good.  If they aren't ready to even follow these 'rudimentary' moral laws without someone pushing them from behind, how will they follow the next level of morality?  We both know what the next level is, don't we?"  Chiharu asked, a hint of pleading in her voice.

"Temperament.  The passion and resolution to not only do what is right, but enjoy doing it, and to follow through with it to the very hilt."  Eri's mother supplied.

"Will fear make anyone passionate or dedicated to the cause of life?  They'll always do whatever is the minimum requirement, while resenting it the whole time.  They'll do it, but they'll hate doing it.  And then it's just another Dead End!  We stagnate as a bunch of well behaved surly never do wells."  Chiharu pressed.

"The next generation will have a fresh start.  And with a good environment in place, they'll achieve more than their 'surly' parents."  Eri's father predicted confidently.

"How?  How can the next generation do better when all their parents are surly and treat it all as just a farce, a ritual?  Don't you think that contempt for the Good will show through to the children, even if they never once say it out loud?  Children pick up on a lot, Mr. Kouno.  They know when adults truly care, they won't be fooled by a cargo cult like simulation of good people doing good things."  Chiharu said.

"It's better than nothing,"  Eri's mother said.  "What would you prefer?  Hoping for a miracle to transform everyone's hearts into joyous angels?  Letting the Dead Enders destroy the world, such that not even the salvageable few can survive or prosper?"

"It's not better than nothing!  In the long term, it's stunting their moral growth!  Once they reach the second level, there's a third level of morality.  It's when we're not only happy being good, we're happy when anyone is good.  And then there's a fourth level of morality.  It's when Good takes on a material form, and we are a part of it.  And then there's a fifth level of morality.  It's when we start over and reset the universe into something Good from the start, something that life could be even better inside of.  Then there's a sixth, a seventh, and an eighth level, that only that life form will ever know!  What's the use in getting people to level one if it isn't in a way that prepares them to reach levels two through eight?"  Chiharu asked.

"We'll reach all those levels."  Eri's mother reassured Chiharu.  "With the help of the Dead Enders or without their help, a few champions will keep dragging mankind forward, bit by bit."

"But it's lonely!  Saving the world with just a handful of people isn't as infinite as everyone joining hands and making the future together!  Softball is more fun because you get to play with everyone!"  Chiharu exclaimed.

Saki looked at Eri hopefully.  It was just like in the classroom, when Eri had wanted to segregate herself from the rest of the class, but Saki had thought they could all be friends.  In both cases, there was no doubt Eri would be a good person.  But only in one case was she safe from being alone.  In math, there were higher and lower infinities.  In that case, infinite possibilities wasn't the end of your ideas -- it was only the beginning.  Infinite possibilities wasn't good enough.  The set of all infinite possibilities was even better.  How fun would a world be with the art and science of a million Choice Givers?  What if there were a billion?  What if there were one in every home, a fountain of life and love to everyone they met?  What if there were so many role models to emulate not a single person would be left out?  And to get those numbers, to get that future, the world still needed to mature.  Rather than wardens, what the Earth really needed right now was babysitters.  Mothers didn't beat their children for their failures, at least, not the best Mothers.  They simply praised their children for their successes.

"You're too ambitious."  Eri's father proclaimed, bringing Saki's hopes crashing down.  "Higher infinities?  Look around you.  We'll be lucky if the world survives just the next fifty years.  If we hadn't intervened, what do you think would have happened?"

"Anything could happen in fifty years."  Chiharu said, drinking the last of her tea.  "One year ago, both my sisters were Dead Enders.  Now they're the lights of my life.  Now I try to learn from them.  A year ago, our family got along, just like any family you might find.  Now we're the happiest family in the universe.  All three of us shared a bathtub together.  No one could have predicted that a year ago.  So just think what could happen in fifty!  Here, I'll tell you what could happen in fifty years.  Suppose each and every one of us loves just two other people.  Suppose we make enough of an impact in their life that they really do change, from the inside out, to be more like the souls we want.  Aiko's dating a boy named Kiyoshi.  Kotone's having a child named Kotori.  Suppose we all change just two people in our lifetime.  If that person goes on to change two more, from a Dead Ender to an emulator, how long would it take to change the whole world?"

Eri's parents looked at each other with confusion.  Saki didn't know the formula, but she did know it was exponential.  If everybody converted two other people, the chain wouldn't end until the whole world was transformed.  The number of converts would double each iteration.

"If 50 people converted 100 people in year one, and those 100 converted 200 in year two. . ."  Eri's mother formulated, then got out her smart phone to answer her own question.

"Around 50 years."  Eri's mother put her smart phone down, her eyes wide.  Chiharu sat back with a smug smile of satisfaction.

"It's too late."    Eri's father objected, looking down at his hands.  "Now that we've played our hand, we have to follow through, or they'll grow contemptuous of us, and then fear won't work as a motivator ever again."

"Father's plan wasn't wrong!"  Eri said, her eyes flashing up angrily to stare into Chiharu's.  "Don't lecture Father like you're so important!  Father's the best of the best!  I trust him!  Stop making Father feel bad!"

"Eri. . ."  Saki bit her cheek.  Of course she'd feel that way.  It's how she'd felt from the beginning.  Saki even loved that about her friend, how much she respected her parents, so how could she criticize her for it now?  Was it truly impossible to persuade anyone of anything?

"Let's make it a bet,"  Chiharu leaned forward to press the attack.  "If in ten years, we haven't grown the number of good people through loving our neighbors, one by one, if we haven't produced any results. . . then you can do whatever you feel is right.  But give us ten years.  Go on air again and tell them, on second thought, you're going to give them a ten year grace period to get their acts together.  We'll do something between now and then.  We'll love the world to pieces.  And for the sake of that love, they'll love others in turn.  It could work.  Listen.  Once upon a time, we were all trapped in a box, and the world was literally set to explode.  Shiori asked the box to go away, just asked it, and it disappeared.  If it's Shiori, we can do it.  We can make the impossible possible.  So you don't have to do this.  Whether you tame the world with an iron fist now or ten years from now, who cares?  But if we can do something better --  If we can turn their eyes to God before then, and fill them up with a part of his Spirit, would you really object to that ending?"

"Just to be sure, you're an atheist, right?"  Eri's mother smiled.

"What's that got to do with anything?"  Chiharu complained, flustered.

"I wish we could have met this 'Shiori',"  Eri's father shook his head ruefully.  "You make her out to be quite the character."

"The stupid thing is, all of you have."  Chiharu's voice cracked with pain.  "But I still remember her.  How could I forget?  I love her so very much.  Everything about her.  Every word, every tone, every single strand of her hair.  How could I ever forget her?  How can I let her down?  It's my job to win every argument.  You see, she believes in me.  She's believing in me right now, that you two will see reason.  She's always so reckless like that.  Once, she told me that she'd get on first base, so I had to bring her home.  It was an important match, but I'd never even managed to get on base before then.  The other pitcher was really good.  But there she was, asking the impossible, sure that I'd do it, because I was her best friend.  Do you know what the weight of a good person's expectations feels like?  Of course I brought her home.  Of course I made the hit, when she said it like that.  And so I just have to win this match too.  It's my job to get these hits, so she can do the rest.  I'm her catcher, you know?"

Saki looked on with baited breath.  Chiharu was giving everything she had.  If this wasn't enough. . .

"Perhaps the world will still be around if we wait just one more decade."  Eri's father admitted.

Saki jumped up from her place on the couch with a squeal of glee.  She dived into Eri at full force.

"Stop it, Saki!  Father wasn't wrong!  It's just a ten year delay!"  Eri shouted, trying to push Saki off her.

"Unn!"  Saki nodded, hugging Eri anyway.

"My parents weren't wrong!"  Eri repeated.

"Unn!"  Saki nodded, agreeing.

"We'll be enemies in ten years anyway!"  Eri repeated.

"Unn!"  Saki nodded, hugging her even closer.  It didn't matter.  In ten years she'd love Eri to pieces.

* * *

Isao Oono parked Kotone's car in the garage and stepped outside to help his passengers into the house.  They were a fitting couple of helpless people, one eight months pregnant and the other returning from the hospital.  Neither of them could be expected to put up much of a fight at a time like this.  If those two Dead Enders returned, his only ally would be Chiharu.  Thinking back, it was a miracle they had repulsed their initial attack in the first place.  He didn't even recall how they'd managed to injure that dragon.  Could he ask the Moral Aristocracy for help?  He would have to.  Now wasn't the time to be picky about allies, even if they intended to destroy most of the world as an object lesson to sinners.  Masanori was his last friend from the olden days, and the man who'd supported him all this time, morally and financially.  Kotone was the girl he loved, even if they had gone their separate ways.  He'd bow his head a thousand times to the most ruthless gangsters if it would save their lives.

"Good, you two are back."  Cho Kai said as they walked through the side entrance.

"What is it, Cho?"  Kotone said with politely concealed exhaustion.

"Money.  You're behind on my money!"  Cho Kai complained, slapping the back of one hand against the palm of his other.  "How am I supposed to complete my telescope when you randomly take breaks from providing the funding?"

"We'll provide the money."  Kotone said, sighing.  "If that's all, my husband's very tired right now, Cho."

"When will you provide the money?"  Cho Kai asked, still standing in their way.

"Shortly."  Kotone said, keeping her voice as pleasant as ever.  "Is that all?"  She asked again.

"Well, if it's shortly then it isn't a problem."  Cho Kai muttered.  "But what's with letting in random strangers into the mansion?  Are we becoming a flophouse for teenage runaways now?"

"What do you mean?"  Kotone said, her forehead wrinkling with confusion.  "Magnolia, is there an intruder in the house?"

Magnolia started to shine a dim white, and then stopped in surprise.  "There is, but, well, it shouldn't be a problem.  She's a Choice Giver.  Maybe she's from the Moral Aristocracy and wanted to talk to us about the broadcast?"

"Maybe.  In any event she'll just have to wait.  I have to take care of Masanori.  The nurse left me with a whole list of instructions for how to care for him at home.  Isao, can you go meet her?"  Kotone asked hopefully.

"Sure,"  Isao shrugged.  "Where did you see her last, Mr. Kai?"  Isao asked.

"I. . . don't remember."  Cho Kai looked confused, then shook his head.  "I can't be bothered by all these distractions.  Just be sure to bring me the money."

Isao watched the Korean walk away like a fading thunderstorm.  He apparently never once noticed any possible extenuating circumstances for Masanori falling behind.  In the end, bribing Dead Enders to join the other side didn't do much for their personalities, did it?  Isao wasn't one to talk though.  His werewolf probably wasn't very nice to old grandmothers these days either.  What had come over him to spare an enemy like that anyway?  It wasn't like him at all.

Wait, wasn't he supposed to do something?  Isao tried to remember what, but the idea had already skittered away.

"Here, Masanori, just lean on my shoulder."  Isao said, half carrying him as they walked behind Kotone to her room.

"Oh thank goodness."  A girl with shoulder length hair and bright wide eyes appeared in front of them.  She was beautiful in her own way.  But she certainly was confident, to appear in front of them without any invitation.  Did trespassers usually announce themselves like this?

"Masanori, are you okay?"  The small-breasted girl asked.

"Magnolia,"  Kotone said in a strained voice, on the brink of panic.

"It's okay, Kotone.  It's not what you think.  She's a Choice -- "  Magnolia started, then paused.

"What is it?"  Kotone asked.

"Nothing, I just felt this awful wave of deja vu."  Magnolia blinked uncertainly.  "Anyway, she isn't a threat."

Isao breathed again.  He would have hated to kill a pretty girl like her.

"Listen you,"  Kotone said, trying to put on a polite voice, but becoming even more aggravated than she had been with Cho.  "Don't go calling other people's husbands by their first names.  And before that, don't come into people's houses without an invitation.  Now, he may look okay, but he's very weak right now, so stop interrupting us, and go back to wherever you came from!"

"Kotone?  It's me.  Shiori."  The girl lifted her arm up as if to touch Kotone, who flinched backwards in fear.  The girl immediately stopped, frozen.

"There you go again, putting us on a first name basis.  I've never seen you before in my life.  Do you enjoy pulling pranks like this?  What are you, a high schooler?  Do your parents know about your night life of cat burgling?"  Kotone asked angrily.

"I. . .I'm sorry."  The girl deflated  like a punched bowl of risen bread.  "Sorry to interrupt. . ."  She said listlessly, and then turned around and started walking down the hallway.

"Hey!  Wrong way!"  Kotone pointed imperiously.  "The exit is past us.  You're leaving.  Now."

The girl looked up like a frightened deer.  What did she expect?  Kotone was being nice enough just by not calling the cops!

"I'm so sorry!"  Rei Rin ran in between Kotone and the mysterious intruder.  "She's my friend.  I invited her over as a guest.  That isn't a problem, is it?"

"She's your friend?  Why, Rei!  Why haven't you introduced us to her before?  Any friend of yours is a friend of mine."  Kotone smiled, a flood of relief entering her stiff body.  "I'm so sorry. . .Shiori, was it?"  Kotone nodded her head, finding bowing with her belly too much of a bother.  "I snapped your head off when you were completely innocent.  You must think I'm awful!"

"Never that."  The girl quickly reassured Kotone.  Tears were in her eyes, she was so happy to have been saved.  "Thanks, Rei."

"Let's go, Shiori.  Masanori needs to get off his feet."  Rei suggested, taking her arm and guiding her down the hall.  Isao watched the girl walk away with a lingering regret.  Maybe he could ask Rei to introduce her to him?  He was sure Rei would put in a good word if he asked. . .

"Oi."  Kotone put her hands on her hips and gave him a cold glare.  "If you keep drooling like that, you'll make me think I wasn't good enough for you."

"Of course you're a thousand times prettier!"  Isao protested.  Drooling?  "Come on, Kotone.  You're a model.  How could a tomboy like that compete with you?"

"I don't know.  That's why I was asking you."  Kotone kept her frosty glare on for a few more seconds.  "Well, I'll let you off this time.  But don't think that just because we're letting you stay here means you're allowed to indulge in behavior unbefitting the presence of my baby daughter."

"We keep getting interrupted."  Masanori suggested in a plaintive voice.  "Is there any chance of me getting to a bed tonight?"

"Oh I'm so sorry dear."  Kotone gushed.  "Who told you to stop walking, Isao?  Have some mercy on the old man!"

"Forty-four is still middle aged, damn it."  Masanori wheezed.

"Of course dear.  Who said you were old?"  Kotone agreed good naturedly, turning to guide them back into the depths of the mansion and its master bedroom.  Isao laughed and started carrying Masanori forward again.

"Thanks for saving me."  Isao whispered to his coconspirator.

"To tell you the truth, I was staring too."  Masanori winked.

"You dirty old man!  You have Kotone!"  Isao whispered in  outrage.  That girl belonged to him!

"Forty-four is middle aged!  And if you haven't noticed, Kotone hasn't looked like a girl for a long time now. . .more like a stuffed pig. . ."  Masanori whispered back.

Isao couldn't stop himself and started laughing uproariously.  It's a good thing he'd never be caught in something crazy like marriage and children.  Once they were out of this crisis, it was back to the clear blue skies of freedom.

* * *

"The coast is clear, sister."  Rei Rin said, still holding on to Shiori's hand.  "How about you move in to my room?  Then I can always tell them you're my guest if you're caught again."

"It just happens so suddenly,"  Shiori sniffed, trying to wipe away her tears.  "Why do I cry every time?  It's only temporary.  Everything will be back to normal soon.  Gods, why am I such a crybaby?"

"I won't forget you.  I promised to never forget."  Rei Rin said confidently.  "Will you move in with me?  It can be just like when we were kids."

"Yes,"  Shiori nodded, squeezing Rei's hand.  "I'd like that.  Thank you."

"I won."  Rei beamed.  "I've got to be the last one standing, now."

"Silly."  Shiori smiled.  "Don't be happy about something like that."

"Look here, sister."  Rei said, turning Shiori around to stare into her eyes.  "I haven't forgotten you.  Even though we met three years after you and Kotone, even though she's as bright as the sun and I'm as dark as the new moon, I beat her!  There's now an official measure of it, and it says I'm your best friend in the whole wide world.  Let me be a little happy."

Shiori Oono smiled and nodded, hugging her short, slim sister tightly.  "Of course you can be a little happy.  But not in front of me!  I'm under a curse!  It's forbidden to enjoy my curse as an interesting new love-o-meter!"

"Whatever you say, sister."  Rei said, hugging her back, happy to have everything the way it was before.  She'd missed Shiori so much, in those months living in her dingy apartment.  But she couldn't say it, because she hadn’t wanted to be selfish anymore.  But this time she could have Shiori all to herself, and Shiori would consider it selfless.  It was like a gift from heaven.

"You made love to Isao and watched Clannad with Kotone.  So what are you going to do for me?"  Rei asked excitedly.

"Ehhhh?  I have to serve someone else againnnnn?"  Shiori wailed.

"First, you can brush my hair."  Rei held up a finger as they went to Shiori's new room to fetch her backpack full of clothes.  "Then we can play frisbee at the park."

"So now I'm a dog?"  Shiori wailed a second time.

"Shiori,"  Rei exchanged her smile for a worried look.  "Did you hear the broadcast?  I saw a repeat of it on the news.  And the asteroid flew by just like they said."

"I wouldn't worry,"  Shiori smiled.  "If I know Chiharu, she's already done something about it.  Did you know?  She's never lost an argument in her life."

Chapter 14

"So there you have it."  Chiharu Sakai explained to everyone as they sat together around the dinner table.  "We have ten years to make lots of friends and turn their frowns upside down."

"Couldn't you have bargained for a few more?"  Kotone complained.  "What am I supposed to do in ten years?  After Kotori, I'm having another child, and then another. . ."

"Don't look at me."  Masanori said.  "I've got my hands full just angle mining all day to pay off someone's absurd promise."

"Will a telescope that can see the origins of the universe or a supercollider that can find the most elementary particle count towards the Moral Aristocracy's goodness meter?"  Aiko asked hopefully.
"Not so much.  They were just going to scry each city to see if they were properly following orders or not.  It wasn't a points system to begin with."  Chiharu said.

"On that note, why didn't you dream about the Moral Aristocracy ahead of time?"  Kotone asked.  "I thought you had precognition about stuff like this."

"Apparently they weren't a threat to me.  My precognition is based around my danger sense, so. . ."  Aiko shrugged helplessly.

"All I can do is kill dictators.  I can't convince people to be good, I'm doing my best just by giving them the opportunity."  Isao complained.

"If it's angle mining, I can help."  Saki offered.  "You should concentrate on taking care of your health."

"What do you mean?"  Masanori asked kindly.

"Give me a bar of gold, and I can give you back a mountain of it."  Saki beamed.  "My magic is growth."

"Really?"  Kotone asked, clapping her hands together excitedly.  "Then, can you double the size of my cake?  The baby's really hungry today."

"Watch!"  Saki said, standing up and away from her chair.  "Coi, Capri!"  In a haze of sparkles, Dark Knight Saki appeared with a warhammer in her right palm.  She set it down to lean against the table and picked up Kotone's plate.

"I might make the part I touch dirty so just cut that portion off."  Saki advised.  Everyone waited with baited breath for the demonstration.

"Shining finger!"  Saki said, dipping her plate-mailed pointer into the frosting.  In a moment Kotone's cake was stretching and climbing dangerously past the limits of the plate, and Saki shut off her magic again.

"You could feed the world like this.  Imagine if we gave you a bail of hay or something."  Aiko smiled.

"So I have to feed the cattle?"  Saki asked indignantly.

"Even if we flooded the market with hay, all it would do is drive real farmers out of business, and increase a population that would then be dangerously reliant on her continuously churning out more.  She'd become a haymaker for life."  Chiharu vetoed.

"But when it comes to gold, we never feel guilty about flooding that market."  Kotone grinned.  "People who hoard up wealth in shiny metal deserve to have it stolen from them and redistributed into the economy of real things with real value."

"Let's make a diamond as big as the moon."  Saki suggested.  "Give me a blue diamond and I can call it the Capri Crown."

"Who could buy a diamond as big as the moon?"  Aiko laughed.

"The tides from all that extra gravity alone would destroy the world."  Chiharu vetoed again.

Aiko put on a serious face, "Guys, I just had a daydream, it says that Saki is plotting to --"

"I am not!"  Saki ran up to Aiko to cover her mouth.  "She's lying!"  Saki appealed to the rest of team Choice Givers.

"Let's just fill up the vault with gold again."  Kotone offered as a compromise.  "It would be a huge help for Masanori if you could do that, Saki."

"Yes!  I'll head on down to the vault now."  Saki volunteered.

"The key password is 50039."  Kotone offered.  "Thank you for the cake."

"Anytime, Capri's Aunt!"  Saki waved, clanking out of the living room and down the stairs.

"Even though I'm an aunt, I'm only twenty."  Kotone pouted.  "She could have called me 'young beauty' or something."

Everyone was quick to assure Kotone that at eight months and two weeks pregnant, she'd never been prettier.

"So, what do we do?"  Isao eventually asked, and the crowd went silent looking around at each other.

"We're already trying our best, each in our own way."  Kotone eventually said.  "We've all been trying to make the wyrd's dream of a bright fruitful world true from the beginning.  A new deadline doesn't change anything."

"It's not up to us."  Chiharu said.  "Choice Givers can only pave the world towards a new future if everyone else follows or emulates us.  In the end it's all up to them.  We can give advice, or provide working examples, but they have to admire us or it's all useless.  If they want to avoid the Moral Aristocracy's solution, they're going to have to start admiring true heroes and reflecting on their actions in comparison a bit more, and soon.  The wyrds don't think Mr. Kouno is wrong.  They thought his solution was just fine for the likes of us, humans so blind we couldn't even tell good from evil when it slaps us in the face.  I'm not even sure why I argued for something as crazy as this.  Humans have had ten thousand years to shape up.  Why did I think they'd suddenly change given another ten?  Because now they'd been warned?  They'll forget their warning in an instant."

"What else could we do?"  Kotone asked.  "Love is better than fear, you weren't wrong about that, Chiharu."

"Thanks, Kotone.  It must have been due to your influence that I even bothered."  Chiharu said.

"If everyone were like the heroes from anime, this whole problem would go away in an instant."  Kotone repined.

"Unfortunately human imagination is superior to human instincts."  Chiharu said.  "I could go for the characters in Changeling, so long as I'm dreaming."

"Even if Dead Enders saw those characters, they're too morally primitive to admire them."  Aiko said.  "If I wanted, I could self publish the book with Kotone's millions I've already been given, but it wouldn't change a thing.  Those who liked it would already be bright enough without my help, and those that disliked it wouldn't learn a thing."

"Art is created inside the brains of both the authors and the audience.  If the public isn't good enough to view it, there's nothing the artist can do to make it better."  Chiharu agreed, sympathizing with her little sister.

"If Aiko's books can't help and Kotone's anime museum can't help and Masanori's telescope can't help. . ."  Isao trailed off, not knowing what was left.

"Maybe Saki can grow people's virtue just by touching them."  Kotone suggested.  "She could call it the 'Hand of God.'"

"Somehow I doubt it."  Chiharu rolled her eyes.  "Saki wanted to grow up, not become a saint."

Everyone stared at their dinner plates morosely.  Convince people to actually change their ways?  Impossible.  Chiharu had bargained for the impossible.

"On second thought let's just bombard the world and call it a day."  Masanori shrugged.  Isao laughed, while Kotone shot him a 'you're not being helpful' glare.

"Thinking about it won't help.  We just have to spread the warmth to whoever's nearby."  Kotone decided.  "Then they can spread their warmth to whoever's nearby them, and so on.  That's always been the solution.  It's the only way good has ever worked."

"I'll be even nicer to Sayuri and Mizuki,"  Aiko promised.

"And I'll get Rito to watch Clannad with me.  It was pointless last time, watching it all by myself."  Kotone volunteered.

"Who's Rito?"  Masanori asked, a little alarmed.

"What do you mean who's Rito?  He's my brother!  How could you forget that!"  Kotone asked angrily.

"Err, well, he just doesn't seem to have much of a presence. . ."  Masanori flinched.

"For your information he's ten times as handsome as you and already married at half your age!"  Kotone said.  "You could learn a thing or two from Rito!"

"If that's true, it won't actually raise our counter in our bet with the Moral Aristocracy. . ."  Chiharu reported, and Aiko snickered.

"I can't believe it!  All of you!  Rito's an important person to me!"  Kotone said.

"Sure he is, no one's doubting that."  Isao said soothingly.

"You shut up!  I don't want to hear anything from someone who 'left a note!'"  Kotone stabbed her fork towards Isao.

"I'm done."  Saki reentered the room, completely oblivious of thunderstorm Kotone, walking back to the table to fetch her warhammer.  "Can I go over to Eri's place now?"  She asked Chiharu.

"Sure, it's not like we're making any progress over here."  Chiharu smiled.

"Don't believe anything Aiko says."  Saki warned the table.  "I'm off!"

"Have a safe trip,"  Everyone chorused together.  Chiharu smiled to watch her sister defold out of her spiky armor back into a white-pink shirt that spread out at the bottom to form a kind of skirt and short blue jeans with flowers on her back pockets.  Just her breezing in and out of the room had made everyone happier.  With emulators like her, the world could have changed in a flash.  For all Chiharu knew she'd already surpassed them all.

* * *

Eri Kouno awaited her friend's arrival with some trepidation.  She had invited Saki over to witness Eri's historic moment.  But what if Saki looked down on her now?  What if they weren't really friends anymore?  Could two good people disagree about anything and still like each other?  Or could you only, in the end, ever like yourself?  Eri wasn't going to back down.  She would rather die than admit her family had done anything wrong.  But she didn't want to lose her only friends she'd gained since she moved here either.  Was there a way to have friendship and integrity, or were the two antithetical by definition to each other?

"Eri?"  Eri heard Saki's voice from inside the house.

"I'm out back!"  Eri shouted.  "Come outside!"

"Okay!"  Saki shouted back from inside the house.  Eri bit her cheek and waited.  Saki didn't sound angry, but maybe she was just being polite.  How could she really know what Saki thought of her anymore?  But what was the point of abandoning what you had out of fear of losing it later?  That just meant assuredly losing everything, and sooner.  Eri just had to treat her like a best friend and hope for the best.  There was no other path to happiness.

Saki and Capri, in young girl form, opened the glass sliding door and entered the back yard.  Eri stood in front of the pool, next to the enormous rock Saki had grown previously.

"Because of you, my parents told me to do some yard work and get rid of this rock."  Eri Kouno smiled, overjoyed to finally have her audience.

"No way!  How can they expect you to move something this huge?  It would take a crane!"  Saki protested.

"Just watch me!"  Eri held out her arms to either side and puffed out her chest.  "Coi, Sapphire!"  Her red ribbon, shirt and skirt folded away in a blaze of sparkles, and in its place gradually appeared the first ever magical Follower.  Her armor was brilliant standing in the sun, almost too bright to look at.  Every panel, every scale of it was made out of diamonds, a transparent white that captured the rays of the sun and scattered them in every direction.  There wasn't an inch of her skin left visible, the diamond mail covered her from head to toe, and her helmet sloped forward with a faceguard in the form of a diving hawk.  Over Eri's nose was its piercing beak, and on either side of her eyeholes were its half folded in wings, which spread out into long diamond feathers that provided a winged helmet over each of her ears.  Topping everything was Sapphire himself, a dark blue gem shining with magical power, serving as a clasp to Eri's single red ribbon that still gave her an extra half foot of height to the diamond helmet beneath.

Eri swung her arm around holding a thin but scintillating diamond blade, the hilt a normal leather grip but the rest a thousand myriad colors and none.  "The hardest armor and the sharpest weapon!"  Eri bragged happily.  "In the end it has to be diamond!  Plus it's so lightweight even an eleven year old can wear and wield it.  For style, strength, or speed, this is the ultimate combo!"

"Oooooh!"  Saki clapped, enthralled.  Capri smiled happily to see Eri's dream come true.

"That's just the start!"  Eri said, turning to face the rock and holding her diamond longsword tightly with both hands.  "My magic is enhancement!  Diamond is hard, but it can still be shattered.  Diamond is sharp, but it's still too brittle.  For a rock like this, only magic can suffice."  Eri bragged happily.

"Sapphire, let's do it!"  Eri called out happily.

"Yes, mistress."  Sapphire drawled, starting to pull in blue light from the atmosphere and turning into a furnace at the top of her head.

"Strength upppu!  Toughness uppu!  Sharpness uppu!"  Eri cast spell after spell, a blue ghostly glow surrounding her arms and her diamond sword as layer after layer of enchantments sunk into their grooves.  "Vertical leap uppu!"  Eri cast her final spell, and a cloud of blue light settled around her knees down to her feet.

"For a Kouno, a rock like this is nothing!"  Eri said.  "Secret Technique, swallow sword!"  Eri shouted, jumping high above the roof in a single explosive motion, well above the titanic rock she was aiming for.  As she fell back towards her target, she swung her diamond blade as hard as she could, until its entire length was cutting down on the boulder as she fell.  She didn't bounce off the rock, or get her weapon stuck in the rock.  She kept falling like the boulder wasn't there.  A hiss was the only sign she was making any contact at all.  She cut through the entire boulder all the way back down to the ground.  There was an unearthly groan as the boulder checked to see if it were still connected or not, and then a third of the boulder started sliding away, cut so smoothly it looked like a laser beam had melted its way through.

"Eri, look out!"  Saki called, as the segment collapsed towards her.

Eri held up one blue-wreathed arm and caught the entire falling weight effortlessly, smiling at Saki as she gently lowered the rock to the ground.  She hadn't even looked up in fear of the falling rock.  "Didn't I tell you?  My magic is enhancement!  The goal:  Perfection!"

"But you surprised me,"  Saki said, the three gathering together around cupcakes Mrs. Kouno had made for them.  Eri hadn't come back inside until the boulder was cut into hundreds of manageable chunks and carted away in a wheelbarrow to the trash take out bin.  Saki and Capri couldn't help much, since their magic could only make the stone bigger, so they had swum in the pool instead and shouted encouraging words.  In the end they were all tired out and eager for a meal.

"When did Sapphire give in?"  Saki asked, thrilled for her best friend.

"It was after you two left.  Sapphire suddenly said he was okay with a contract now, and gave me the code words.  I asked him why, and he said it was because I believed in my father to the end.  I should have realized it sooner!  Sapphire has a crush on Father!  Father was his first love, you see?  But Tangerine cruelly stole Father away with his orange-colored wiles, and Sapphire was left with nothing even though Father had been promised to him.  So if I showed I was going to always be like Father no matter what, then Sapphire would get to bond with a Father mark II for life.  He knew I wouldn't randomly go my own way and betray what he loved about Father once I got older.  He wasn't really testing whether I'd make my bed or not, it was all to see if I were loyal.  If I were loyal to the same person he was, heart and soul, then he could be loyal to me, heart and soul, for life.  This is how a Follower wins a wyrd over.  Simple, really."  Eri flashed an overjoyed smile.  It hadn't been simple at all, all those weeks of failures and doubts.  All the time wondering whether Saki would leave her behind and forget about her, because she couldn't measure up.  Wondering if she really could inherit the legacy of her parents and do their family name honor instead of disgrace.  She had been the only child, so it had been all on her.  All the pressure of her parents' accomplishments could only be carried on through her.  It hadn't been easy, carrying that weight.  But now look where she was.  A diamond knight, the best of her kind, and the third Kouno with a wyrd -- just as high a population as the Sakais.  Because she'd won over Sapphire, her parents could stand proudly and announce they were just as good as anyone, even a certain family of tea-sipping cloud-dreaming meddlers.  It hadn't been easy.  But the reward was worth it.

"How many other sword techniques do you have?"  Saki asked.

"Let's see.  There's eagle strike, that's when I throw my sword."  Eri held up four fingers, trying to remember.  "Then there's egret strike, that's when I run bent forward and try to cut people's legs off."  Eri reduced her fingers down from four to two.  "And then there's hawk strike, in honor of Capri's scrying.  That's when I hold my sword backhand behind my back and slash as quickly as I can across my body."

"Like an iai strike from a drawn katana?"  Saki asked.

"Like that.  The fastest, strongest cut!  With my enchantments, if someone gets within a three meter radius of me, they'll be dead before they notice I moved!  Secret technique, Hawk Strike, the end!"  Eri pantomimed with her arms above the table.

"Ugh, she got me!"  Capri cried, holding her heart and slumping over.

"Noooo, Capriiii!  Don't leave meeee!"  Saki wailed.

"Tell my mother. . . in the heavens. . .I have no regrets.  It was a beautiful strike. . .like a hawk carrying lightning. . ."  Capri held out one arm, which Saki grabbed and squeezed tight to her bosom, then died.

"Children!"  Mrs. Kouno's voice came from upstairs.  "Don't play with your food!"

"Yes Mother!"  Eri said in a penitent voice.  But all three giggled together without a hint of remorse.  Did Saki or Capri look down on her deep in their hearts?  The answer was an unequivocal no.

* * *

"Who are you?  What have you done to me?"  Awesome blinked angrily.

"Not again, Awesome,"  Shiori sighed.  "Is there any way to tape up the mouth of a wyrd gem?"

"Wait, what on Earth, you're a Choice Giver?"  Awesome flashed in even greater surprise.  "How did you make a contract with me without my knowledge?  Why am I even here?"

"Awesome, look, it's me."  Rei said, waving to get his attention.  "Your mistress is a good girl, so don't worry about it, okay?  You're under a curse that's making you forget her, but it'll be lifted any time now.  Just be sure to give her magic when she needs it so you can be lifted from the curse."

"I guess that could explain it. . ."  Awesome mulled it over.  "Well if Rei says it's okay. . ."

"Moooh."  Shiori sighed in exasperation, getting up the bed where she'd been hugging one of Rei's stuffed animals from home to her chest.  Rei had stowed away quite a few from their shared bedroom when she moved out.  It was wonderful getting to see them again.  Mr. Penguin, Mr. Giraffe, Mr. Alligator and that one deformed squid-like thing that she had apparently once thought was cute.

Shiori Oono took out a notebook and ripped out a sheet of paper.  Then she got out a giant black sharpie and a piece of tape, sticking the paper on the wall.

"Awesome, I'm a good girl, and your mistress, and I order you to keep quiet and do as I say.  You're the worst! -- Signed, Shiori Oono."

"There."  Shiori looked at the wall with satisfaction.  "Now whenever he pipes up again, I can just point."

Rei Rin smiled.  Shiori forgave everyone else for forgetting her, but apparently she had no intention of forgiving Awesome.  They were that sort of team.  Rei Rin stared intently at the photobook they'd spread out on the bed to look at together.  She put her small hand over the picture of everyone in their yukatas.  Shiori was wearing. . .what design?  Sunflowers?  Rei lifted her hand from the picture and checked.  Grapes and Chrysanthemums.  Rei Rin gulped as Shiori joined her back on the bed.

"Oh look!  It's the summer festival!  Kotone was so cute!"  Shiori beamed, laying down on her belly side by side with her sister, her knees bent back to float her feet over her thighs.

Rei stared at the next picture, with her and Kotone holding out their goldfish in bags strapped to their wrists.  "I don't look any different."  Rei sighed.

"You're a foot taller at least."  Shiori encouraged.

"I guess.  Oh, look!  It's our high school cultural festival.  Your hair was short, so they made you play Romeo."  Rei laughed, looking at her dressed like a buccaneer.

"Don't remind me."  Shiori groaned.  "Oh, look, here's you acting like a fortune teller with your hair in front of your face."

"Better a witch than a boy!"  Rei pinched her sister.

"Ooh, what's this?  Here's us at the athletics festival.  Looks like I got first in the 100 meter dash, whereas you got. . .?"  Shiori searched the photos for clues.

"So you can run fast!  I can fly you know."  Rei complained.

"Rei, look."  Shiori said in a quieter voice.  It was their parent's picture of the two of them holding hands for the last dance around the cultural festival's square log fire.  Rei was in the inner side because she was shorter, and was looking up at Shiori with an incredibly happy smile, who was looking down contentedly in her own happy way.

"I remember that."  Rei breathed, staring at the picture.  "We didn't have any dates, so I asked if you'd dance with me for the last dance, and you said yes.  I was so happy."

"Me too.  My younger sister cared about me this much.  I kept thinking what a miracle it was to have a sibling."  Shiori said, staring at the picture.

"So just any sibling would do?"  Rei pouted.

"No.  Not just any."  Shiori corrected quietly.  She turned the page to see Rei's celebration of her 16th birthday party.  Kotone and Chiharu were hugging her from either side as she cut the cake for them, still short and tiny like an elementary schooler attacked by crazy high school girls.  But suddenly the picture was clouded up by a teardrop, and then another.

"I'm forgetting, Shiori.  Bit by bit.  I'd forgotten that dance.  It just wasn't in my head until I saw the picture.  It's all going away."  Rei cried.

"It's okay, Rei."  Shiori said.

"It's not okay!  Once I'm gone, you'll be all alone!  No one will remember you in the whole world!  And you can't meet anyone else ever again!  It's not okay!  I have to remember you.  I have to. . . I won't leave you alone. . .after all. . .you didn't leave me alone!"  Rei sobbed, her shaking tremoring into Shiori's side.  "I have to study. . .I have to concentrate. . .why do I keep forgetting you when you're right here in front of my eyes?"

"It's not your fault.  It's the magic."  Shiori wrapped an arm around her younger twin sister.

"Loneliness is a special kind of hell.  You just don't know.  It's not okay at all!  Only the lonely can understand the pain you're about to feel.  That was her curse, to make you as lonely as she was!  The curse is loneliness!  It's being left all alone in the world, where no one can save you, ever again!  I know what she did so well!"  Rei said.  "It's not of this world.  It's pain, but it's not the kind of pain anyone is ever supposed to feel.  It's not like, oh, I stubbed my toe.  It's not even like getting dumped or fired.  It's not of this world.  There's no description at all for the people who haven't felt it yet!"

"It's okay, Rei.  I won't be alone.  You're all still in my heart.  She didn't take away my memories.  So it's okay.  We'll never separate.  I'll never forget you."  Shiori said, squeezing Rei close.

"Shiori?"  Rei said, sounding frightened.

"I'm right here, Rei."  Shiori said.

"I'm sorry.  I. . .I've fought so hard. . .I woke up every night and read about you in my diary, every hour, I set the alarm clock so I wouldn't stop thinking about you for over an hour. . .but I just. . .it's like holding on to an eel. . ."  Rei said, holding on to her sister's arms frantically.

"It's okay Rei."  Shiori said, but this time she didn't mean it.  Her eyes were welling up with tears from the realization that this time it really was all over.  All of it.  Her entire life up until now had finally been erased.

"I love you."  Rei said once more.

"I love you too."  Shiori said.  And then it was over.  Rei's arms had relaxed and she sat up with a frightened look.

"Who are you?  Why are you in my bed?"  Rei asked, her eyes strangely wet with tears.

"Don't mind me.  I was just passing through."  Shiori sat up, wiping her eyes.  I have to be strong.  I have to be strong now.  From here on it's just me versus Miss Sad Face.  I have to be strong and win.  I have to overcome this or I'll never escape it for the rest of my life.

"Onyx?"  Rei asked, scooting back to the wall away from Shiori.

"Strangely enough, she's a Choice Giver, so. . ."  Onyx reassured Rei, floating up from his spot in the corner.

"Bye, Rei.  I'll see you again soon."  Shiori waved.  She gathered up her blue backpack full of her spare clothes and left her last home on Earth.

* * *

A chime rang in Yume's left ear as she deftly lifted a strip of beef to her mouth with chopsticks.  She could arrange her five fingers any way she pleased.  Eating with chopsticks was a ridiculously guilty pleasure.  It felt as good as playing the piano.  But she had to drop the meat back into the hotpot from surprise.

"It's done."  Yume reported to Shadow.

"Finally.  Stubborn girl.  What kind of friends did she have?  The whole thing was only supposed to take three days."  Shadow let out a gray ring of relief.

"She has to be broken now.  She won't offer any resistance.  She'll probably beg us to kill her."  Yume Minami predicted.  "No one can survive pain like mine."

"You say that, but when I scry her, she's still a Choice Giver."  Shadow said doubtfully.  "A strong one, too."

"Don't worry Shadow.  That probably just means she has the right abstract beliefs. It won't translate to anything in reality.  Her psyche's smashed.  Of course that wouldn't change any of her previous positions on life.  But it's smashed."  Yume said.  No one could survive being forgotten by everyone.  No one could survive being left entirely alone.  She knew this from experience.  It was hell.  She'd sent that girl to hell.  An infinite, eternal torture.  No one could withstand Yume's pain.

"Very well then.  If we waited any longer, Masanori would recover anyway.  We should strike now while their strongest player is still down.  It's six on four.  Only that traitor Onyx, Black, Cyan, and Tangerine have any combat capacity.  This time, we outnumber them.  Once we smash the Japan Group, we'll kill off the Moral Aristocracy, and everyone else who's free floating around.  Our string of defeats ends here."  Shadow said.

Yume Minami quickly grabbed the strip of well cooked meat from the hotpot with her chopsticks and stuffed it into her mouth.  "At least let me finish dinner."  She pleaded.

"As you command, mistress."  Shadow blinked from his grafted spot at the bottom of her neck.  It was good to be in charge.

Chapter 15

"We have trouble."  Cyan blinked, waking Chiharu up from the middle of the night.  Chiharu squeezed her eyelids tightly against the bottom of her eyes and then forced herself awake.

"What is it, Cyan?"  Chiharu asked, sitting up in bed and looking for a t-shirt and jeans to put on over her underwear.

"Dead Enders, converging from all sides.  All of them are on a beeline for Masanori's house."  Cyan reported.

"I guess they didn't like the subtle approach after all."  Chiharu said, flipping on the light switch.  "How many?"  Chiharu asked.

"Six, and two of them are the ones we fought previously."  Cyan said.

"How many did we beat when we were thirteen?"  Chiharu asked, slipping a shirt on over her head.

"Six."  Cyan reported.

"See?  Then it won't be a problem."  Chiharu said encouragingly.  She heard a quiet knock on her door so shimmied quickly into a pair of tight blue jeans.

When Chiharu opened the door, she wasn't surprised to see her little sisters already up and dressed looking worried.

"I presume your wyrds alerted you?"  Chiharu asked quietly to not wake up their parents.

"Chiharu, what are we going to do?"  Aiko asked.

"Saki, call the Kounos and ask us if they'll help."  Chiharu said.

"Yes,"  Saki breathed, rushing downstairs to their landline phone.

"Aiko, I want you to come with us, but only so I can keep an eye on you.  You're as vital to this world as Masanori is to the other worlds.  They could be targeting you too."  Chiharu said.

"Yes sister."  Aiko sighed.  "I wish I'd chosen a weaponized suit like you'd advised me."

"If you had, the world would have been destroyed long ago."  Chiharu reminded Aiko.

"There is that."  Aiko smiled.

"The Kounos say of course they'll come.  It's their mission to destroy the Corrupters."  Saki came rushing back up the stairs.

"Okay."  Chiharu nodded to herself, counting up the combatants on each side.  "Saki, it's okay if you stay home.  You're only eleven years old, you need to live at least until your first kiss.  We'll handle this ourselves somehow."

"I have to go, sister."  Saki said, angling up her chin.  "If I live but you two die, it's not like I'm any better off."

"There is that."  Aiko smiled wryly.  Chiharu sighed and saw the votes were against her.  "Fine.  But Saki, if you feel like running away, it's okay to run.  I'm not convinced we'd lose without your help you know."

"Understood."  Saki agreed, just happy to be invited.  She knew Eri would be there.  Her parents would expect it of her as a given.  So she had to be there too, no matter what.

"Team Choice Givers, move out."  Chiharu said, padding down the stairs before putting on her shoes and creaking open the doors.

"Roger."  Chiharu's younger sisters saluted her and then did the same.  They made for a rather sad Earth Defense Force, when you thought about it too long.  But it was all the Earth had.

* * *

Yume Minami looked through the scope of her sniper rifle.  Sure enough, Masanori's mansion had been covered entirely by that same orange barrier that had foiled them last time.  At the heart of the transparent orange dome stood a buddhist monk with a wide brimmed straw hat and a 12-ringed staff.  He apparently thought very highly of himself, to have as many rings as Buddha.  Then again, given the speech the Moral Aristocracy had made, maybe they did consider themselves better than the old religious figures who still ruled the world from the grave.  There was no point firing, it would only betray her location without breaking the shield.

"How many are you scrying?"  Yume asked Shadow.

"Inside the bubble, seven Choice Givers, and an assorted handful of followers, emulators, and Dead Enders."  Shadow said.

"The mansion's servants perhaps?"  Yume asked, her brows furrowing at all the extra players.

"The goody-two-shoes Wyrds from the government only give magic to Choice Givers, so it hardly matters."  Shadow said.

"What about my prey?"  Yume asked.

"She's not in the bubble.  She's somewhere nearby in town however."  Shadow warned.

"What did I tell you?"  Yume smiled triumphantly.  "Probably huddling somewhere crying."

"You would know best."  Shadow surrendered.  "If you have a countermeasure for the invisible assassin, now's the time."

"I'll draw him out.  The first person who gets within arm's reach of me is going to fall into a trap."  Yume smiled.  She focused her mind and began the invocation.

"Darkness beyond despair."  Shadow's aura surrounded her in a steely gray, then slowly shrunk back down into a second gray slightly luminescent skin.

"Another river of Hell?"  Shadow asked, viewing her handiwork as best he could while still grafted into her body.

"Lethe makes people forget.  But Styx is a little different.  It's the river that, once crossed, means you can never leave Hell again."  Yume explained.  "Daddy used to read Horace and Homer to me and my little brother on his lap, one on each leg.  Strange that we could be so small compared to him, isn't it?"

"Wyrds also have a childhood, but even our children are enormous and powerful, and when they turn five we feed them all the knowledge in the cosmos.  It's odd that humans stay such grubs for so long."  Shadow agreed.

"It's only humans, too.  Deer, for instance, are born with the ability to walk.  Almost everything can fend for itself within a year."  Yume mused.  "I guess it's because we're the most loving species on Earth.  We can afford to rely on our parents."

"Until drunk drivers run them over."  Shadow reminded Yume.

"There is that."  Yume agreed with a bit of melancholy, turning to the Dead Enders behind her.  "As expected, they're waiting for us.  Despite their numbers, however, only three can fight.  The monk in the middle seems content to just protect his invalids and kids, so he won't be an issue.  I'll deal with the invisible man by staying in the front.  The rest of you stay in the air or well back until we trap the assassin.  It would be a shame if he slaughtered you all before you even noticed him.  I'll be riding Ryu so that we're both immune to projectiles."

"So basically you're going to deal with everything?"  Verdigris blinked a dirty blue.

"Well, we are the strongest Dead Enders ever."  Yume said apologetically.  "I just don't want to waste my allies fruitlessly.  Once the assassin's trapped and the barrier is broken feel free to run in and slaughter everyone else."

"Very well.  We will trust Shadow's lead, Amaranth did give him command."  Icterine blinked a light green, and the other Dead Enders nodded.

"Are you ready Ryu?"  Yume asked.  A few butterflies started floating around in her stomach.  If her spell didn't work, she was about to be killed by that ninja, and there would be no time to correct for her mistake.  Invisibility was a ridiculously unfair ability.  At least Shadow's scrying had alerted her to his presence as 'somewhere in the vicinity.'

"They've gathered a goodly number for us to kill."  Ryu smiled, showing his teeth.  "Don't worry Yume.  If you stay on my back, I won't let any harm come to you."

"I'm counting on it."  Yume smiled back at him, giving him space to transform.

"Form of the Dragon!"  Ryu shouted, and his shout quickly transformed into an enormous roaring bellow as his bulky wings, tail, and head grew over the nearby trees.  His flame colored scales were a slippery climb up onto his spined neck, which Yume straddled expertly, her sniper rifle tied tightly against her back in a diagonal line so it wouldn't get in her way again.

"Let's show them hell."  Yume suggested, and Ryu agreed with a flap of his wings that sent them rolling into the sky and towards their quarry in an unstoppably massive charge.  The barrier wouldn't even last a second.

* * *

Shiori Oono watched the mansion carefully from on top of a roof two blocks away.  Awesome had warned her of the incoming Dead Ender threat, and so she had returned from the park which had been her homeless abode of the moment while she thought things over.  It was going to be okay.  Awesome was quick to confirm that Miss Sad Face was among them.  She just had to get to point blank range with that dragon rider and hit her with a Burst Knuckle.  Then everything she'd lost would be restored to her.  It hadn't been fun, but mercifully, it hadn't taken very long either.  The dark wyrds were probably in a rush because they didn't want to have to fight Masanori at full strength.  It was entirely understandable.  At full strength, Masanori had killed endless Dead Enders for over a decade.  Who would want to fight him again?  But Masanori's handicap was Shiori's once in a lifetime opportunity.  She would not miss it.

"Who are you?  Why am I on your forehead?"  Awesome asked in a sudden tizzy.

"Hush, Awesome."  Shiori sighed.  "We're in our battle armor, because we're about to engage the Dead Enders down there.  Just think of me as Mysterious Mistress X.  I'm a masked hero of justice, so give me all the power you can."

Awesome flashed a steady red as he scryed his host, and then gave in.  "How on Earth I came to be in this position, I can't remember.  But Cyan and Magnolia are down there, so if you're willing to protect them. . ."  Awesome left off hopefully.

"I will."  Shiori promised Awesome.  "Just keep the magic coming."

"Yes, Mistress X."  Awesome blinked.  Good, he might remember this conversation for another thirty minutes or so before she had to repeat it.  Surely the Dead Enders that were all prowling within scrying range would get this over with before then.  She didn't want to explain herself to Awesome again.  It was driving her nuts.

A roar shook through the earth just as much as it thundered through the heavens, as an enormous red-orange dragon appeared over the treetops.  A small black dot sat on its neck.  She's come.  And with another roar the dragon was flying towards her friends.  Shiori stood up and willed strength into her metallic gray boots.  I can do this.  I can do anything.  Then she jumped off the roof of the house and sprinted towards her prey.  The dragon was fast, its size made it look slow but it crossed the distance much more rapidly than she did, slamming straight into the circle of protection at full speed.  The barrier bulged inward, flickering furiously, before shattering into a thousand pieces.  In moments the monk had retreated to the front door and cast a new, smaller barrier around the mansion, leaving only the other warriors exposed to the dragon's claws.

Good thinking!  Shiori praised the Moral Aristocracy.  If the Dead Enders could be distracted into targeting the people who could fight instead of the people who couldn't, the barrier had served its purpose anyway.  She was pounding through the streets, leaving small holes where each stride touched the ground and clouds of dust behind her.  In one leap, she had jumped over Kotone's brick wall and into her garden grounds.  The dragon was breathing fire at the peasants gathered below, but Cyan's blue light glowed and the fire was reflected back into the Dragon's face, making it wince back blindly.  Shiori didn't have time to worry about anyone else.  She timed her breaths and then summoned all the power she could to her legs and launched herself into the air.

She landed on the dragon's back, still in a dead sprint.  Flame started to gather around her fist as she held it back behind her.

"Burssssssttttttt  Knuckleeeeeee!"  Shiori shouted, rushing at Miss Sad Face's back, who turned with a look of wide-eyed surprise to see this sudden assault appear out of nowhere.  Too late!  You can't dodge me at this speed!  Shiori exulted, ramming her fist at the girl's face.  Right before her punch landed, there was a sickening distortion that started folding and rippling the entire fabric of space, and then the two of them were no longer on Earth.  Shiori looked around in bewilderment, checking her fist, and then looking up at the little girl who was now on a pavilion high above her.  Shiori was standing on a wide circular arena full of bones and skulls.  Everything was dark.  There didn't seem to be any light sources at all, but you could still see, as though the darkness itself provided enough light to tease you with.  Shiori stared up at her Dead Ender opponent with a sense of awe.  Why were all her spells so ridiculous?

"Who are you?  You aren't the ninja!"  The girl at the top of the tower looking down called down in anger.

"I'm Shiori Oono.  Who are you?  Why are you doing this?"  Shiori Oono shouted back up.

"What are you doing here?  I know my spell worked!  You have nothing left to fight for, the whole world's abandoned you!"  The girl shouted back with an even greater distaste.

"That's okay, because I never gave up hope!"  Shiori shouted back.  "Besides, you still remember me.  So the whole world hasn't abandoned me, now has it?"

The girl laughed.  "You may have saved the ninja, but only at the cost of your own life, Shiori Oono.  To fight your way out of this hell, you would have to beat all hundred of my demons, each stronger than the previous.  Cling to your hope while you can.  I'll watch from here to see how long it lasts."
Shiori Oono figured it wouldn't work, but she tried to jump up a floor anyway.  An invisible barrier slammed into her at exactly the height of the second floor, and she winced as she landed again on her hands and knees.  Spells had parameters, once you were trapped in them, it was only natural that you had to obey their rules.  One hundred demons, huh?  She'd needed some Taekwondo training anyway.

"If you're going to watch, you could at least tell me your name."  Shiori called back up again.  It didn't seem likely that she could convince this girl to change her ways, but her ambush had already failed so there was no harm in trying.  Besides, it was nice to talk to someone who actually remembered what she said.

"Yume Minami.  I am the girl who sent you to hell, not once, but twice now.  You must resent me a lot."  Yume giggled.

"Do you take pleasure in other people's pain?"  Shiori asked angrily at her laughter.

"Yes."  Yume said.

"Errr."  Shiori said.  She wasn't sure what a good riposte to that was.  "Well, didn't anyone tell you that's a bad thing?  What would your parents think?"

"I wouldn't know.  After all, they're already dead."  Yume said flippantly.  "You see, until a month ago, the world was taking pleasure in my pain.  It had designed itself to be one giant torture chamber.  All the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, everything.  The entire universe was designed to make me suffer as much as possible.  From the beginning of creation, it had been steadily clanking away to craft the perfect environment for me to boil alive in.  I'm just paying the world back a little.  Just one tiny fraction of a percent of what it did to me.  I think that's fair enough."

Shiori Oono stared up at the girl above her.  What could a ten year old girl have gone through to say something like that?  Shiori couldn't imagine.  Was it possible for someone to suffer worse than Rei had?  Of course it was possible.  Just as Good had no ending, just as there was always a greater love you could feel or even more beautiful being you could become, there would always be even greater suffering behind the previous worst pain imaginable.  The higher people's faculties became, the more they could suffer.  It was the dance of good and evil that spiraled all the way to infinity.  And the two of them now stood on either side of that intertwined double helix, looking into each other's souls like mirrors.

"It's ironic, Awesome."  Shiori whispered.

"Hmm?"  Awesome asked.  "Howso?"

"The world's such a small place.  To think I'd meet my exact opposite.  She's like my evil twin sister."  Shiori said.

"Isn't she a little young to be your twin?"  Awesome flashed, not convinced.

"My evil daughter?"  Shiori asked hopefully.

"Isn't she a little old to be your daughter?"  Awesome asked again.

"Well she's got to be my evil something!"  Shiori complained.

"Worry about it later."  Awesome warned.  "Here they come."  A portcullis started lifting, a rasping metal grating sound, and the first demon walked out.  It was a three headed dog with the tail of a snake larger than she was.

"You said the first would be the weakest!"  Shiori shouted up at Yume accusatorily.

"Cerberus is the gatekeeper to hell!"  Yume shouted back.  "He has to be the first demon!  Besides, this is my world.  I can set it up however I like!"

"When I'm through with these I'm coming for you!"  Shiori shouted, shaking her fist angrily at her spectator.

"You won't make it past twenty!"  Yume taunted back.  And then the Cerberus howled and pounced at her breathing fire and poison.

* * *

"Lucky darts!"  Mother shouted, throwing her strongest weapon that she used to pick stocks with at the man with insectoid green armor.

"Cat's Cradle,"  The armored man replied, and string came out of his ten fingertips, snagging the weapons in mid-air.  The battle raged around them, with wyrd lights flashing their ghostly colors in all directions, intersecting and turning into muddled browns and grays at the edges.  But no matter how Eri looked at it, they were being overwhelmed.  Father was busy protecting the weak, and it was all Chiharu could do to defend herself.  If they were going to win, it had to be her.  She had to slay that dragon.  It was immune to projectiles, which only left her sword.

"Sapphire, quickly!"  Eri called.  "Sharpness Uppu!  Speed Uppu!  Strength Uppu!"  Blue light started sinking into her in careful patterns, until she could feel the magic flowing from the tip of the sword all throughout her body.  The dragon turned to lash its tail at her mother, but the green-armored man at the last moment jumped in-between with his own intended net attack and took the full brunt of the dragon's swing.  Eri smiled as she saw her Mother put her hand to her mouth with a startled "My, my."

"Secret technique, swallow sword!"  Eri said, jumping into the air.  She would cut the dragon in two right at the top of his back.  Her diamond sword could cut boulders.  This wouldn't be a problem.  She reached the top of her arc and started flying back down, the wind whistling around her.  At the last moment she swung her sword with all her strength into the dragon's scaled back.  Her sword snapped in two.  It hadn't even left a mark.

Eri stared at her broken sword in consternation.  "You've got to be kidding me!"

"Eri, move!"  Sapphire warned.  Out of the corner of her eye she saw the dragon's head spinning on an especially agile neck around to snap her off his back.  Only her enhanced speed let her jump back off into the comparative safety of team Choice Givers.  She heard an enormous chomp behind her as she rolled back onto the ground.

"Eri, are you okay?"  Saki asked, hefting her warhammer and looking at the battlefield fearfully.  Chiharu stood behind her, countering as many spells as she could.

"Magnetic Pull!"  A purple clad man in a cape and a lot of liquid-filled ring tubes pointed at them.

Chiharu looked down at herself and shrugged.  "Nope, carbon fiber."

Eri looked down at herself and shrugged.  "Nope, diamond-stitched leather."

Saki screamed as she started floating away in her suit of plate mail.  "Chiharu you bulllllyyyy!"

"Oh, all right."  Chiharu said, pointing.  "Counter!"  Saki fell back to the ground in an extremely loud heap.

"Dragon!"  Eri pointed as it lowered its head towards them and an orange glow gathered in the back of its throat.

"Shining Finger!"  Saki stabbed her pointer into the ground, which started swelling upwards in a rushing roar.  By the time the dragon's fire was belching towards them Saki was rolling down the side of her new hill, the shield of earth blocking it all away.

"Shrapnel blast!"  The purple caped man floated over the hill, angry at being ignored.  But he never got the spell off.  Isao had jumped off the top of the hill and landed on his back, a spear piercing his heart.

"Invisibility's fine for these Dead Enders, but what do we do about the dragon?"  Isao shouted.

"He's immune to my laser!"  Chiharu shouted.  "Can't Keiichi do something?"

"It's no good!  He can't spare any power from his barrier!"  Isao shook his head.

"Just hold on!  Let's kill the ones we can kill first!"  Chiharu shouted, and Isao nodded as he faded back into obscurity.

Saki Sakai knew what she had to do.  She held her weightless warhammer tightly in her sweating palms and rushed out of the relative safety of her embankment.  I designed my warhammer to hurt this dragon.  I'm sure it will work.  Everyone's counting on me!  She rushed forward towards his haunches and yelled a battle cry, slamming her hammer with an overhead swing into his hide.  The hammer bounced off with a strange metallic ringing.  She fell backwards in a heap, the warhammer vibrating so much she could barely hold on to it.  Now what?  Saki thought desperately.

"Saki!"  Eri shouted, racing up to her friend through the various explosions.

"Eri!"  Saki cried out in relief.

"Saki, strike him again!  Give it all you've got!  This time we'll fight him together!"  Eri grabbed her hand.

"Unn!"  Saki nodded, squeezing her friend's hand back in return.

"Speed uppu.  Jump uppu!  Strength uppu!"  Eri cast, blue runic lines settling onto her arms and legs.  She grabbed Saki with one hand and her warhammer with the other.  "My sword's broken so we have to hit it with this.  Let's go, Saki.  Together!"

"Secret move, swallow strike!"  Saki shouted, not quite sure of the move's name.

"Secret technique, swallow sword!" Eri shouted in unison, and the two were whistling through the air.

"Weight uppu!"  Eri said, and blue lines started swarming into the hammer.

"Wait a second!"  Saki said worriedly.

"Don't worry!  It will stay weightless to us no matter how much force I give it!  Come on Sapphire.  Again, and again!  Weight uppu."  Eri said.  Saki suddenly got an idea and started smiling as they fell back towards the ground.

"GIGATON HAMMERRRRRRRRRRRR!"  Saki shouted, and she let a flood of magic into her weapon, which started ballooning into enormous proportions.  Soon the hammerhead was larger than she was.  Then three times as large.  She had to stop when her two hands together couldn't comfortably hold the haft anymore.

The dragon raised his head at the annoying pests and shot out a gush of flame.  Eri whirled in front of Saki, putting her diamond armor in the way.

"Eri!"  Saki shouted.

"Don't worry!  Fire resistance --- uppu!"  Eri shouted, spreading her arms and legs to shield her friend.  Blue light settled around her diamond mail just before the red flames gushed over and past them.

The dragon blinked to see the two children emerging from the other side unscathed.  Then it blinked again when it realized just how large Saki's warhammer had grown on its downward arc towards his back.

"Reachhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!"  Saki prayed, throwing her warhammer downwards in front of her at the dragon before he could flinch away.  There was a terrible crunching sound as the weightless super-massive super-sized hammer crashed into the dragon's back.  And then there was a splatter as the dragon's body was crushed into the ground and split apart at the seams.  The two friends landed from their skyscraper-class jump in a pool of blood and guts.

"Mother, look, I'm a dragonslayer!"  Eri shouted, jumping up and down and waving, splashing blood all over her white diamond coat of mail.

"I see you!"  Mother waved back.  "As expected of a Kouno, Eri.  But calm down and pay attention, there's still two more!"

* * *
It was too much.  The hundredth demon was too much.  Shiori felt completely drained of magic.  She had a dozen wounds, from minor to serious.  She could feel blood trickling away from her side.  Strangely she had thought lying on the floor for a while would make her feel better.  But as each moment passed, she just felt even weaker than the last.  She was going to lose consciousness like this, in this eternal hell.  She was going to die like this.  She had to do something.  She needed more fire.  She had to make more fire.  She searched her memory and her body for another spell.  Anything more that she hadn't used previously.  There had to be another reserve, another backup for times like this.  And then she felt the spark at her very center.  That tiny little thumping that meant she was still alive.
"Your wounds are severe.  Give up hope!"  Yume taunted from the top of her tower.  The demon stood waiting, all powerful, ready to deliver the final blow whenever Yume commanded.  But Yume wanted to see Shiori break first.  She wanted the satisfaction of knowing that no one could withstand the pain of hell.  Not her, and not anyone else either.  Otherwise Shiori, in a way, would still win.  She'd win by leaving a doubt in Yume's heart.

"Mystery Mistress X, what are we going to do?  Our fire won't pierce.  Can't you summon a stronger fire?  Like against the fifteenth demon!"  Awesome flashed from atop her tiara.

"Call me Shiori."  Shiori commanded, not wanting Awesome to forget her name right now.  "Did you know, Awesome?  There's a fire in all our hearts."  Shiori panted, seizing on this new energy as she bled out.

"But if you do that --!"  Awesome choked, immediately realizing her plan.

"It's fine, isn't it?"  Shiori asked, panting as she lay on the bone-strewn sandy floor of the arena.  "It's fine this way.  A life like that, all alone, who needs it?  I want to say "I'm home again."  I want to hear "welcome home" one more time.  Twenty years, thirty years, fifty years off my lifespan, so what?  If it means I can see everyone again, so what?  I don't care at all."

"Shiori. . ."  Awesome blinked uncertainly.

"Let's try one more time, Awesome.  I just have to stand up again, right?  It's easy.  I've stood up before all the time.  hehe."

"Understood."  Awesome flashed mournfully.  "Releasing all limiters.  Initiating."  Awesome's glow radiated out of her tiara and enveloped her entire body, a layer of red light growing thicker and thicker outlining her entire body, its warmth sinking into her as much as radiating away.

"Hearttttttttttttttttt,"  Shiori struggled to her hands and knees.  Then she slid one leg forward and kneeled on one foot and one knee.  Finally, she pushed herself up, to stand against the demon again.  She swayed for a second, her vision blurring, but she stopped herself, her balance training taking over, her fists clenching to either side.  She tossed her head up to stare at her opponent in the face  --  "FIREEEEEEEEEEEE!"

Magic exploded around her and through her, her body suddenly fine again, her eyesight sharper than ever, and strength in her arms and legs she'd never imagined.  A red aura was steadily glowing and pulsing all around her, bellowing and waving like real flames into the outside air.  Her hair wasn't falling down her shoulders any more.  It floated outwards and waved back and forth around her like a flaming halo.  With this, she could do anything.  I can beat anyone.

She tapped her foot on the ground, testing herself, then she smiled cockily at the monster in front of her, the lord of hell, the monster that she simply couldn't beat, the last of one hundred demons, the invincible beast that was supposed to send anyone into madness and despair who got this far.

"Prepare yourself!"  Shiori crossed her fists, and her red fiery aura grew fiercer and brighter, until she was almost invisible in the middle of it.  And then she was across the floor, her fist ripping into the demon's stomach.  Her arm felt a momentary shock of resistance, and then it collapsed.  The demon ripped backwards through the air, a look of dismay in its eyes.  Shiori didn't stop.  She couldn't stop.  The heat was overwhelming.  She stepped, and she was beneath the demon, her punch uppercutting it into the air.  The demon bellowed, twisting, trying to keep track of her movements.  But she was already crouched on the ceiling, watching the demon approach her.  She bundled her knees downwards like a spring and gathered energy into her feet.

"It's over!"  Shiori shouted, launching herself towards her final wall.

"Flameeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee"  Shiori started spinning through the air, her leg sprouting with fire, leaving a ghostly trail of magical energy behind her.  "GEYSSSSSSSSERRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR!"  Her leg connected with the demon at full speed, the demon still being flung upwards into her leg.  She passed through it, bones and flesh all crunching away before her, until she was on the other side.

The demon's top and bottom half split in two, falling to the floor.  Shiori stood with her back to the carnage, her flaming aura still pulsing and twisting to an invisible breeze.

"100."  Shiori Oono shouted challengingly to the air.  And as if in reply, the universe began to filligree like an icy pond, crack, and then shatter apart around her.  She was back.

"Impossible."  Yume said, backing away from her with a look of bewilderment.

Shiori smiled delightedly, staring down her quarry.  "Didn't you hear?  Choice Givers make the impossible possible.  We are Hope, we smash anything that gets in our way.  And today that means you."

"If it's come to this. . ."  Yume licked her lips.  "Thousand fears, light the way, Abyssal -- "

Shiori watched the girl chant in slow motion.  She had all the time in the world to beat her.  It was amazing how slow she was.  Her heart, her mind, everything sang with power and strength and life, ready to be called on at need.  She thought of eating ice cream with Kotone.  She remembered camping with Chiharu.  She was watching anime at Kotone's house.  She was winning a softball match, jumping into Chiharu's arms.  She was kissing Isao on a cemetery bench.  She was sleeping with Rei.  She was hugging Rei.  She was seeing Rei for the first time ever, standing on top of a telephone pole, with dead eyes that saw nothing.  She was carrying Rei home on her back.  She was crying in Rei's arms.

Rei.  Rei.  Rei.

Shiori had all the time in the world.  Yume was only halfway through her spell.  What a slowpoke she was.

"GIVE THEM BACK!"  Shiori shouted, clenching her fist.

"MY PRECIOUS MEMORIES!"  And then she hit Yume in the face.  There was a satisfying crunch.

* * *

Yume Minami woke up with her head in someone else's lap.  Her cheek felt a burning pain, like it had been exposed down to her bones.

"You have a really hard head, you know that?"  Shiori smiled ruefully, nursing her fingers.

"Shiori Oono. . ."  Yume whispered, looking up into the face of her rival.  "Why didn't you kill me?  If you don't kill me, no one's memories will return."

"I was trying!"  Shiori complained.  "But when you're unconscious, you're actually pretty cute, you know?  I thought to myself, it would be nice if she could become my evil twin daughter."

"What is that?"  Yume laughed, still too woozy to lift her head.

"I think I might understand, Yume."  Shiori said, her face dirty and black with ash and dirt.  "I think I felt your world for just a little bit.  You've been alone all this time, haven't you?"

"I have Shadow."  Yume replied, trying to touch her neck with her hand.

"Yes, but Shadow's a dark wyrd trying to destroy the world."  Shiori frowned.

"Who cares?"  Yume asked.  "I don't give a damn about the world.  What has the world ever done for me?  The world killed my family.  The world paralyzed me from the neck down.  It left me a helpless bedridden girl for the rest of my 90 years of life.  Shadow gave me a new body.  Shadow let me walk again.  You tell me who I should show more gratitude."

Shiori thought about it for a moment, tracing little circles on Yume's forehead with her fingertips.
"Let's make a trade.  Give me back my friends, and in return I'll share them with you."  Shiori smiled, tears of compassion gathering in the corners of her eyes.

"Just kill me.  I love Shadow.  My loyalty is to Shadow.  To hell with all of you.  I wish I'd been able to put all of you into hell.  Maybe then you'd start to care about girls like me."  Yume closed her eyes, waiting for the final stroke.

"I think I know why the world is full of Dead Enders."  Shiori said, teardrops falling onto Yume's burned-away skin.  "They think this is the best of all possible worlds.  But you and I know it's not, right?  You and I know that's not true."

Yume struggled to get out of this crybaby's lap.  "If you won't kill me, I'll cast another spell.  Maybe Shadow and I can win after all.  I'm not sorry.  I don't repent at all.  To hell with you."

Shiori smiled and helped her halfway up, holding her back steady.  "You're as dark as the abyss.  Awesome says you're the scariest being he's ever met.  You're the evillest, Yume."

"Don't patronize me."   Yume growled, but then her head rang again and she fell over, straight into Shiori's bosom.  A long silence passed between them, where all she did was listen to Shiori's heartbeat, her head floating up and down in time with Shiori's breath.

"Neh, Yume, did you ever think God was sorry?"  Shiori asked, breaking the moment.

"What?"  Yume asked, her head buried in Shiori's breasts.

"That he sent Shadow to you because he was sorry?  That you ended up in my arms because he was sorry?  Maybe God agreed with you.  Maybe he thought it was just too much."  Shiori said.

"There's no such thing as God.  If anything there's a Devil, but that's the most I'll believe in.  God wouldn't make a place like Earth, where everything can be taken from you in the blink of an eye, through no fault of your own."  Yume muttered into Shiori's chest.

"Even if there isn't a God, maybe God is sorry and wants you to be happy after all."  Shiori insisted.

"What is that?"  Yume laughed.

"Hate us, resent us, be as jealous as you like.  I don't mind, Yume.  Become my evil twin daughter, and I'll make all that pain back up to you.  I'll replace it all with joy.  Every last fraction.  I’ll pay off the full 100% of your pain, as many years as it takes, for the rest of my life.  That's fair, right?"  Shiori said.

"That. . .does seem a little fair. . ."  Yume admitted.

"Just so you know, I might not live very long though.  So try to be happy quickly."  Shiori said, stroking Yume's hair soothingly.

"What is that?"  Yume complained.  "Then I take it back!"

"And just so you know, your new Daddy is the ninja you wanted to kill."  Shiori went on, pulling Yume to her feet.

"He stabbed me in the ribs!  I double take it back!"  Yume protested.

"Whatever you say Yume.  Let's go home together. It's actually only a few feet away.  Convenient, huh?  I bet you weren't so rich last lifetime.  But from here on you'll be swimming in gold."  Shiori bragged.

"I never agreed!"  Yume tugged on Shiori's hand.

"Plus I'm trying to get pregnant, so be nice to your stepsister.  In fact, don't even call her a stepsister.  Be nice to your sister, Yume Oono."  Shiori said.

"It could be a little brother."  Yume protested vociferously.

"Would you like that?  Okay.  I'll try to give you a little brother this time.  So, can Isao have his memories back?  I can't exactly rape Daddy, and I will need his help."  Shiori asked hopefully.

"I do this under protest."  Yume sighed, holding out two fingers and starting the invocation to release the river of Mnemosyne from the depths of hell.  What was the use?  She couldn't reason with this girl, and she couldn't beat her either.  Besides, Shiori understood.

Maybe she wouldn't be such a bad Mother after all.

Chapter 16

"Now listen, Yume.  We're your upperclassmen, so you have to do whatever we say."  Eri Kouno leaned towards her shorter friend.

"Including 'Give me your umbrella, I forgot mine'?"  Yume complained, folding her umbrella down away from her carefully so the water wouldn't fall into her hair.  There was a large white gauze bandage over her left cheek and she wore a turtle neck collar that was hugely out of fashion, but the rest of her looked the picture of health.

"I didn't take your umbrella entirely, I just asked you to share it with me."  Eri pouted, shaking her wet jeans in the hopes of getting them dryer.

"How can I share an umbrella with you when you have that monstrous ribbon floating over your head?  I'd have to hold my arms up the entire walk to school!"  Yume complained.

"For your information, I got this 'monstrous ribbon' from my mother--"  Eri planted her fists on her hips.

"We're going to be late, we're going to be late!"  Saki jumped up and down apprehensively, her school shoes already on as she watched her quarreling friends.

"Saki's right.  Nevermind that and listen closely.  When it comes to transfer student speeches, just follow my lead."  Eri boasted.

"I'm a year younger than you, we don't share the same class.  How do I take your lead?"  Yume Oono asked.

"By listening to my advice."  Eri answered patiently.  "Just keep this all-important thing in mind.  You're not talking about yourself.  You're talking about how you'll fit in with everyone else.  Give a speech that lets you fit in with everyone immediately.  No "I hate you alls," or "I'll send this class to hells!""  Eri stabbed her finger through the air towards Yume's chest.

"More importantly, we're going to be late!"  Saki stressed again.

"I don't need advice from people who forget their umbrellas."  Yume hmphed, ostentatiously taking off her shoes and slipping on her school slippers.

"Don't come crying to me for help when you've turned the whole school against you."  Eri hmphed, tossing her wet hair as she took off her shoes and put them in her shoe locker.

"Good luck Yume!"  Saki waved, dragging Eri away.

"See you after school. . ."  Yume waved back, suddenly feeling afraid.

"No, at lunch!"  Saki shouted from a distance, and suddenly Yume felt a lot better.  She could do this.  She was the strongest Dead Ender in the world.  Her soul was as black as pitch.  A transfer student speech was nothing.

"Hello everyone, I'm Yume Oono.  I'll be under your care from here on."  Yume bowed to the class in front of her.  The children were all tiny, just like her.  She had become so accustomed to living around older people.  It was disorienting to realize she had any peers left in the world.

"My hobbies are greek mythology and arguing with my friends."  Yume tried to smile, but it hurt her burned away mouth too much, so she just folded her arms in front of her in what she hoped was an inviting manner.  "When I grow up, I want to change the world."

The class gave a resounding round of applause.

* * *

Kotone and Masanori returned from the hospital with a healthy baby girl in their arms.  Everyone gathered around with party hats and cake.  This was, after all, Kotori's first birthday.

"Everyone, thank you so much."  Kotone gave her friends a warm smile.  "I've probably been a little irascible while carrying this child.  If I made you feel bad, I'm sorry.  I'm sorry I wasn't fighting with you two weeks ago too."

"Nonsense!  Just protect us when we're pregnant and it's all even again."  Chiharu said, slapping Kotone on the back.

"When that gravity wielder started crushing Chiharu against the ground, I had to wrestle Masanori to stop him from flying out to help.  Even though he was their target from the beginning!"  Kotone sighed.

"Masanori!"  The girls all looked angrily at him.  "Wrestling with a pregnant woman?"

"She tackled me from behind!"  Masanori protested.  "Besides, I gave it up when I saw Rei's event horizon sucking him away in turn. . ."

"Rei, you didn't tell me you beat anyone!"  Shiori Oono rounded on her twin sister.

"Saki slew a dragon.  Why mention the little things?"  Rei deflected the praise away.

"Congratulations on your daughter, Kotone."  Shiori turned away from reproving her sister to give her best friend a tight hug.  "But you know, I still beat you to the punch."

"How many more Dead Enders are you going to adopt?"  Kotone asked in exasperation.

"As many as it takes."  Shiori Oono said, smiling.  "With your money, it's not like I can't afford it."

"I'm not sure I'm ready to be a Dad."  Isao sighed.

"Nonsense, you're two years older than me!  Get it together!"  Shiori complained.

"But, she's already ten. . .if I were Masanori I'd be scouting her for--"  Isao complained.

"Stopppppppp!"  Kotone squeaked, blushing crimson.  "Masanori did no such thing!  Don't pollute Kotori with a bad impression of her Papa!"

"You can't have Yume.  Yume is forbidden."  Shiori said sternly to her husband.  "But when Masanori and I die, I'll let you two get back together.  Don't just live out your lives as lonely shells when you'll both be so young."

Kotone gave a sideways look at Isao, her face still red.

Isao looked away embarrassedly, putting a hand over the back of his head.  "I already promised Masanori I'd look after his kids, so I guess adding in one more Miyamoto wouldn't hurt."

"Kotone, will you make Isao happy?  I kind of gave him a hard bargain, dying so early on him and all."  Shiori asked.

"If that's what you want, Shiori."  Kotone said.  "But I intend to keep Masanori alive, so if you don't want to make Isao lonely, you'll just have to go on living for a long time to come too."

"I'll try.  Hehe."  Shiori smiled, kissing Isao and then Kotone on the cheek.  She thought about it a few seconds and then kissed Masanori on the cheek too.

"What's that for?"  Masanori said.

"For loving Kotone so much that you'd already arranged things with your best friend."  Shiori said.  Then she walked over and gave Rei a kiss on the cheek.

"What did I do?"  Rei asked, confused.

"That's a thank you."  Shiori said.  "For remembering me to the very end."  Then she walked over and kissed Kotori on the cheek.

"What did she do?"  Kotone laughed.  Once Shiori started she was an unstoppable whirlwind.

"It's a blessing.  A prayer that she grows up to be as wonderful as her mother."  Shiori Oono said, staring at the baby.  "She's so cute, Isao.  Let's take her home."

"We're already home."  Isao mentioned.

"Let's grab her and take her into our room then."  Shiori conspired.

"The baby might complain when you don't produce any milk."  Isao pointed out.

"Curses, foiled again."  Shiori snapped her fingers.  "In that case, just make me pregnant too."

"You'll have your child before the year is out."  Isao smiled confidently.

"And be sure to make it a boy.  You have control of that, you know.  Yume's really excited about having a little brother."  Shiori reminded Isao.

"You'll have your son before the year is out."  Isao promised again.

"Chiharu, won't you reconsider and marry Cyan already?  What if the gravity bomb had crushed you, and you never got to marry at all?"  Shiori asked.

"I won't deviate from my life plan, even if it's your dying wish."  Chiharu said firmly.  "I'm going to graduate from college, then graduate school, then get a well paying job.  Then, if Cyan wants, I'll give him first claim on my hand."

"It's such a waste!"  Shiori complained.

"Cyan already has my heart, Shiori.  He won't miss the rest too badly."  Chiharu smiled fondly.

"If Aiko marries before you do, I'm going to laugh."  Shiori said.  Then she walked over to Chiharu and kissed her on the cheek.

"What did I do?"  Chiharu asked.

"That's for saving the world."  Shiori Oono said.  "In the end, you were the best of us, weren't you?"

"Don't be silly, I didn't do anything. . ."  Chiharu said, but the eyes of the entire household were upon her, and no one was bringing up a single objection.

"I just happen to have more younger sisters. . ."  Chiharu started again, but everyone just watched her.

"Everyone knows Shiori's the best!  Or Masanori!"  Chiharu begged.  But the named individuals shook their heads and smiled.  The dark wyrds were all but extinguished, but if they wanted to defeat the Moral Aristocracy, everyone would have to try their best to lead more people onto the right path, one love affair at a time.  By that measure, Chiharu was leading the group by far.  And everyone, even Chiharu, knew it.

* * *

"I'm home!"  Saki said, depositing her wet umbrella into the rack at her home's entrance.

"Welcome home, Saki."  Her parents said.  "We have a surprise for you.  Come into the living room with Aiko."

Saki took off her shoes and obediently walked to her living room couch to join her sister.

"The first order of business -- Saki Sakai, you're a hundred millionaire."  Father bombed this information on her with a mischievous smile.

"What?  I am?"  Saki blinked, sitting upright.  She'd grown all that gold for Masanori's sake, to pay off his debt.  Had he given some of the proceeds back to her?

"Surprising, isn't it?  But it's all thanks to your eldest sister, who works for Angle Corporation.  This year she gave her paycheck to us.  But next year she's decided to give it to you.  She says you earned it, over and over again.  I guess you do get all A's. . ."  Father shrugged happily.

Saki Sakai smiled.  Once upon a time, she had thought getting all A's was the most good she could do in the world too.  It felt like a lifetime ago.

"But that's just the half of it.  We talked to a contractor, and they said there's plenty of room to build a third bedroom on the side of the house.  With our new money, we thought we could finally give you two what you've always wanted, your very own room, with all the privacy you could ever need. . ."  Father began happily.

"I refuse!"  Saki held up her arms in a giant X.

"I refuse!"  Aiko held up her arms in a giant X in perfect harmonized unison.  The two sisters held out their crossed arms in defiance of their parents.

"But Aiko, you have a boyfriend now, and both of you have friends you want to bring over. . ."  Father said, perplexed.

"We're happy just the way things are, Father."  Aiko said.  "I like my little sister right where she is."

"I want to tell sister goodnight, every night."  Saki agreed.  "Don't rip us apart now. . .we only just started to get along!"

"Well, if the two of you are sure."  Father said, looking from one daughter to the other.  "Chiharu's going to stay with us all through college, and perhaps graduate school.  You'll never get your own rooms if you don't take this chance now."

"Haven't you noticed, Father?"   Aiko flounced patronizingly.  "Chiharu's still living here for the same reason we're keeping our shared room.  We're the happiest family in the world."

No comments: