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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Dead Enders Part 2

Chapter 9

  It was Rei's first day at school, having passed all the qualifying tests, and she had happily joined the rest on top of the roof for lunch. She was in the same class as Chiharu, which was great, because it meant she could easily get help with any group work and find a partner for any group assignments. The other night, when Chiharu and Kotone had returned to the festival, they had compared notes. When it turned out the dark wyrds were recruiting religious people, their own wyrds had asked them what humanity's faiths were all about. Chiharu had promised to draw them up an instructive manual, and while the girls attended school, the wyrds had all gathered together and read over them. Rei was glad to see all the wyrds flying up to the top of the roof to join them -- she never felt safe when Onyx was too far away -- but she hadn't been prepared for the angry hum that filled the air and the flashes like lightning that seemed to go off because the wyrds couldn't hold them in anymore.
  "So let me get this straight," Cyan said, his voice trying to stay under control.
  "Every single human religion wishes for, welcomes, and prays for the End of the World?" Cyan asked.
  "Not Shinto." Kotone was quick to defend herself. "In Shinto, nature is always changing, and creation is always in the middle of this flow. Every moment is as important and vital as the next."
  "Okay, so every other human religion?" Cyan asked.
  "Maybe not animists." Kotone shrugged helplessly.
  "No wonder this whole world is full of Dead Enders. They are all openly trying to end the world." Cyan blinked in disgust.
  "But the last day is supposed to bring about some new, better world." Chiharu defended.
  "And what's the use in that? The way you describe it, all those new worlds are just stagnant flatlines. Graveyards for dead ghosts who can never do anything, ever again, for the rest of time. People want to end a world of infinite possibilities so they can sit forever, living forever, in an eternal dead end?" Cyan heaped all the scorn he could into his words. "Look at these awful places. Oh, in heaven you can play a harp and you can sing praises to God. Only, there's no giving or taking in marriage. No new life is ever born. Nothing ever changes. No one becomes a better person or evolves into a higher form, because everyone's already gotten to heaven and there's no further point to developing yourself further. You can't even die when you grow so bored you bash your head against fluffy clouds in the hopes of escape." Cyan slapped down the notebook describing the 'New Testament' with disgust.
  "Or this one, eventually all of our souls leave our bodies and they reach Nirvana. But what is Nirvana? Peace. Escape from the cycle of rebirth. So, basically, death? Because if you aren't alive you're dead. If you're completely at peace, like a stone, feeling and thinking nothing, then you're a stone. So there's your heaven. A new, better world, one without any thought, any life, any feelings at all." Cyan threw down the notebook covering Buddhism, and picked up the next. Chiharu had gone through a great deal of effort categorizing all the religions of Earth for his perusal.
  "Or this heaven, this is just disgusting." Cyan waved Chiharu's notebook in their faces. Cyan took a deep breath and recited.
  "There are four rivers, they all taste great. It's not too hot or cold. Oh, and you can have sex with tons of virgins, who regrow their virginity overnight. If you're a boy that is. No paradise is described whatsoever for a girl. Muslims want to hurry up and end this world, this beautiful world of infinite possibilities, for tasty drinks, room temperature weather, and oodles of loveless sex with an enormous harem of doll-like, inhuman life forms that never chose to love you in the first place for any merits or kindnesses of your own, but are just programmed to serve you faithfully by Allah. It's no wonder they're called houris. It's just an alternate spelling for Allah's whores. Whores to pay his faithful with for their service on Earth." Cyan slapped the notebook notes down titled 'Qu'ran'.
  "Anyone who welcomes an end time, or worships a deity who promises one, is insane. Do they have any idea how much it hurts when your whole world ends? When you realize everything everyone has ever done has been for naught? That everything that was ever made, every last artwork that has been faithfully transmitted, every last line of descent that thousands of generations of parents have sacrificed and struggled to keep alive within a new generation of children, every last discovery we ever made about life, the universe, and the Good, is all going away? That despite life running as fast as it can, straining itself to the very limit of its resources, suffering and dying in a continuous stream to make a better world, death still caught up to us and so all that suffering, all that trying was for nothing? Do you know how it feels that I can't have kids anymore, because my universe is all washed up? Do you know how it feels to be azombie? To look at every building ever built and think, "there's no point to this building anymore, no one will ever live in it again." Can you imagine the pain of wondering what it was all for, when the end result is the same as if we had never lived, the same as if the universe had never existed in the first place at all? Do you know the pain of wondering if there wasn't something left undone, some new height of experiences we could have reached, if we had transcended our limits? Do you know how painful it is to wonder if there wasn't more out there? What if there is a love so glorious our hearts would burst to feel it? A truth so brilliant our minds would crack trying to fathom it? A beauty so deep our souls would drown trying to drink it in? If the world ends, no one will reach any of those heights. We have no idea how high they climb. Maybe they climb forever. Maybe our love is like a worm's love for another worm, to those potential beings, the ones we could have been, if only our world hadn't ended. But we'll never know now, because it's dead. It's all dead!" Cyan took a long breath.
  "I won't even demean myself to take note of this. . .this. . .vile. . .evil. . .'eternal torture' your religions speak of. I won't demean myself, or you, by pointing out the type of soul who could ever approve of such a thing. I won't demean myself by pointing out that every single one of these religions consigns the vast majority of mankind to eternal torture, sparing only a chosen few. If I start to think of it too long, I want to. . .I want to. . ."
  "Join me?" Onyx blinked wickedly.
  "Yes! God help me! What am I supposed to think when. . .billions of you want to torture the vast majority of each other for eternity? Do you know what this sounds like to an outside observer? Can you imagine how sick and barbaric your world really is?" Cyan glowed a furious blue. "When did you people come up with these ideas?"
  "Generally, around two thousand years ago?" Kotone winced ahead of time.
  "Two thousand. . ." Cyan started sputtering. "Two thousand years ago? Are you trying to tell me, that for the lasttwo thousand years, you have been advancing your mathematics, your chemistry, your physics, your biology, your geology, your engineering, your painting, your music, your literature, your medicine, and your astronomy whilecompletely ignoring theology, the study of God's nature and our relationship to Him? Everything else needed improving but, wow, 2,000 years ago, that part of human thinking got it right the very first time? Nothing to improve upon here, a book that endorses genocide, slavery, polygamy, arson, lying, cheating, murdering innocent children because they happen to be the firstborn of Egypt, flooding the entire world -- And this is the final and perfect theology?" Cyan took up his notebook again and waved around the box titled 'Old Testament.' "Since then, no one has figured out how to improve on this? There isn't a single relationship to God less evil than this? There isn't a single God more worthy of worship than this? What have you humans been doing?"
  "To be fair," Chiharu said. "No one actually follows their religion, or their religious texts."
  "Then why be that religion?" Cyan asked, amazed. "If you don't believe it, if you don't follow it, why are you of that faith? That's absurd. 'To be fair, we aren't evil, just insane hypocritical liars.'"
  Chiharu took a sip of her tea and grinned. "Still better than actually believing that stuff, though, you have to admit."
  "If I had to choose between gleefully serving the most evil force imaginable, endorsing the eternal torture of billions of souls, or living a lie for my entire life, never getting any hint of knowledge about the true Good, the true Holy, and the true God, and just somehow trying to pretend to be a cow who never thinks about anything even though I'm a sentient being. . ." Cyan tried to frame the question.
  "You'd rather it all just became zero?" Onyx offered hopefully.
  Cyan blinked sullenly. But he didn't contradict Onyx.
  "Don't worry Cyan. The future belongs to atheists like me." Chiharu consoled him. "Only atheists are willing to embrace the newest discoveries and abilities of science, and so inevitably we'll conquer the world, or just go and settle all the other worlds in the universe. Almost all intelligent people have converted to atheism long ago."
  "There is a God, and he created us as his crowning glory!” Cyan contested. “I don't want atheists to conquer the Earth and forget their duty to God, to never feel anything sacred their entire lives long. That's horrible!"
  "Well, I'm not sure how many wyrdists there are on Earth, so you'll just have to be content with atheism. It's the only rational conclusion." Chiharu said diplomatically.
  "Shinto's just fine." Kotone blushed. "You can't say a single thing about Shinto you said about the rest. And the gods do answer our prayers, if we pray with all our hearts. And I feel holy when I walk through a red gate."
  "I'll be a wyrdist, if it makes you feel any better." Shiori offered.
  "Don't go changing your religion to make people feel better!" Chiharu hit Shiori with her notebook.
  "You're just jealous because I'm more compatible with Cyan than you are." Shiori returned to her longstanding grievance.
  "I am not jealous. For your information, Cyan proposed to me weeks ago. I had to fight him off with a stick." Chiharu said.
  "I did no such thing!" Cyan glowed.
  "I tried to tell him no, but he said:” Chiharu took a deep breath and put on a mournful pining face of unrequited love for the audience, “‘Let's set that aside and just begin our lifelong contract until death does us part.’ Word for word, I swear to God."
  "You don't believe in God!" Cyan objected.
  "Which is exactly why I can swear to him whenever I want." Chiharu said primly.
  Then the lunch bell rang, and the girls had to scurry back down the stairs.
* * *
  Awesome floated in the sky with the three other wyrds. They were close enough to alert their mistresses if any threat was incoming, but they wanted some privacy to continue to discuss just what exactly they had come upon.
  It was this simple. Awesome, Cyan, and Magnolia had become so accustomed to how good their Choice Givers were, that they had forgotten how rare their goodness was. These tiny lights were lost in a sea of infinite darkness. An evil deeper than anything Onyx would have been willing to do. There were good wyrds and bad wyrds, heroic wyrds and petty wyrds, selfless wyrds and selfish wyrds. But no wyrd had ever suggested, in all of history, that the vast majority of wyrds would be sent to a place of eternal torment after death, simply for disagreeing with the speaker. It shocked Awesome. It confused him. Why save a world like this? Why save people like these? Cyan was right. Anyone who wished the eternal torture of even a single soul was awful. It made Awesome sick. Everyone might get angry and at some point or another wish they could punish someone who had wronged them even after death, but it took a limitless depth of evil to condemn someone who prayed to a slightly different deity, or just none at all. . .humanity was willing to torture someone, for eternity, over anything. Over nothing. And they continuously praised the God who did this as 'perfect', they even gave him sickeningly ironic titles like 'all-loving,' or 'merciful.' If that was loving and merciful, what did humans think was hateful or cruel?
  Were humans and Choice Givers even the same species? Could hearts like Shiori's have anything in common with the black hearts that preached these faiths and worshipped these dark gods? Could there be any possible relationship between Shiori, who excitedly greeted each new day as a wellspring of infinite possibilities, and the billions of humans who prayed for a Last Day to wipe everything away and replace it with a dead end?
  "Can this world truly be saved?" Awesome asked. The other wyrds flashed their various lights, acknowledging his question.
  "Does this world deserve us?" Awesome asked again. But that wasn't exactly the right question. Who were they? They were a failed species from a dead end world. They had ruined their own universe and never found a way around it. Their scrying didn't reveal anything special about themselves. He knew what the real question should be.
  "Does this world deserve them? These girls who are more beautiful than any human can see or even dream? These girls who they want to burn in hell as 'heathens' and 'idolaters'?" Awesome asked. It was a rhetorical question. There was no way this world deserved Shiori. There was no reason Shiori should try to save them, or help them, at all. They worshipped a being of infinite evil while condemning infinitely good people like Shiori to eternal suffering. Why lift a finger for people like that?
  "Chiharu says no one really believes that stuff. . ." Cyan offered. But his heart wasn't in it.
  "If they don't really believe it, why don't they say so? Why don't they clearly and explicitly renounce these beliefs? Why don't they expurgate them from all of their holy books, and say it is a filthy belief, only believed by filthy people, and that only a filthy God would do such a thing to anyone, for any reason? Why don't they stamp this belief out once and for all? You can't have it both ways. These people say they belong to these faiths. They say these are holy books, authored by God. They say this is Truth. They can't simultaneously say they don't believe any of it." Awesome countered.
  "Maybe humans really can believe and not believe the same thing at the same time." Magnolia offered. "They are an alien species. Maybe they can do things we can't imagine."
  "How can you both believe and not believe the same thing at the same time?" Awesome asked incredulously.
  "I don't know. . .somehow. . ." Magnolia blinked helplessly.
  "Listen to this. This is what over a billion people believe, those who call themselves 'Muslims.' All nonbelievers, regardless of how virtuous or innocent they are, go to hell. For nonbelievers, hell is eternal. The Qu'ran explicitly describes how the majority of mankind will be tormented in hell forever. Here's just a sample of what's in store for our unlucky nonbelievers: Their skin will be burnt off, then replaced so it can be burnt off again. They will be given garments of fire, and boiling water will scald their skin and internal organs. Their faces will be set on fire, their lips burnt off, and their backs set on fire. They'll be roasted from side to side. Their faces will be dragged along fire. They'll be bound in yokes and then dragged through boiling water and fire. This is all straight from the Qu'ran, the unchanged, perfect word of Allah. Does this sound like a metaphor for 'absence from God?' Awesome flashed sarcastically.
  "Maybe Muslims believe it, but they don't condone it, they just are powerless to stop it. . ." Magnolia's white light had a wan, ashen hue.
  "Don't condone it? They pray to Allah five times a day. They call him the 'benevolent,' and the 'merciful.' To ascribethose titles to this deity is to utterly obliterate your soul. They, and their Allah, are simply evil incarnate." Awesome concluded. This time, none of the wyrds had any response. What defense was there?
  "I wanted to be a missionary to these people." Awesome said. "Oh, I had other reasons. I wanted to escape the dying world of the wyrds. I wanted to meet a Choice Giver who was so beautiful I never wanted to stop scrying, just so I could continue gazing upon her. . .but I thought it was okay to have a few selfish motives, because at heart I just wanted to help these people. But I don't want to help these people anymore. They disgust me."
  "These religions will destroy themselves eventually. Their followers will be consumed by their own hatred." Cyan said.
  "Yes, but when they consume themselves, will they take the bare handful of good people on this world down with them? And when that happens, will they have taken all life in the multi-verse down with them? You know as well as I do, these are the only Choice Givers we could find. Anywhere. The only ones." Awesome said.
  "We probably just aren't good enough scryers. There has to be more life somewhere." Magnolia said.
  "Even if that's true, it would still be a terrible blow. A terrible loss of opportunity, if nothing else. How good would a world that actually emulated and followed their Choice Givers be? How much better than a world full of Dead Enders once they've killed off the last good people in the universe?" Awesome said.
  "Choice Givers could teach these Dead Enders a better way, they could save mankind, turn this all around." Magnolia said.
  "They can only save those with open minds and open hearts, they can only save the people who want to be saved, the ones who are willing to follow or emulate them. Like Rei Rin. How many is that? Am I to believe that religious people, who believe in eternal torture as a punishment for those who disagree with them, have open hearts? Am I to believe that religious people, who state ahead of time that they have no intention to be rational, that all of their beliefs are based off of blind faith, have open minds?" Awesome blinked scornfully.
  "But what more can we do?" Magnolia asked.
  "Maybe angle exile could be used for good as well as harm. Maybe we could just take everyone worth saving, and open a portal to another world. A world without Dead Enders." Awesome thought. "If we just keep fighting like this, we'll lose eventually. We can't win every time. Our Choice Givers will be picked off one by one. This world is beyond any hope of salvation. We should just pick up our stuff and go. Just. . .leave."
  "I'll ask Masanori about it next time Kotone visits." Magnolia promised. "The truth is, Kotone hates these fights. Awesome is right. I just want to protect Kotone from having to fight like this, ever again. She didn't ask for this, but she's still trying her best. You should have seen her this last time. It was awful. It's killing her inside. She's a thirteen year old girl. Why do we have to fight for anyone else? Let the Dead Enders have the world. I just don't want them to hurt Kotone anymore."
  "I think Chiharu is having fun." Cyan said. Awesome gave Cyan a warning red flash. "Alright, alright. Let's at least wait until Magnolia tells us if the scheme is even possible."
  "Once we find out, we'll ask the girls all together. A united front." Awesome swiveled at Cyan.
  "Where you two go, I'll follow, whether it's this universe or any other. You know that." Cyan said.
  "Thanks, Cyan." Magnolia flashed warmly.
  "I hope you're letting me come too. I wouldn't exactly like being stranded here as a known traitor to the dark wyrds." Onyx blinked nervously.
  "Of course you're coming. Evil or not, Rei loves you, and Shiori loves Rei." Awesome said.
  "And you love -- " Onyx started.
  "I don't know what you're talking about and I don't want to know." Awesome interrupted warningly. "If everyone's done saying something intelligent, let's get back to our owners' sides."
* * *
  Isao Oono, age fifteen, stepped off the airplane ladder and onto the soil of his native land. Isao tried to keep in touch with Japan. He was still technically attending middle school, though with the worst attendance record imaginable. But his kind of work wasn't exactly applicable here. Assassinations required someone who needed killing.
  When he was younger, he hadn't intended to become an assassin. He had planned on being a car mechanic, or maybe a plumber. But that all fell out the window when Black arrived. It turned out he was a Choice Giver, someone who could provide the world with infinite possibilities. And with Black's help, he could use magic. After learning that, Isao gave up on his previous career plans and came up with a new one. If I want to give people choices, there was one extremely easy way to do so. With magic, I could have the power to do it: Kill all the tyrants of the world. And then if new ones are elected or appointed, kill those too. Sooner or later people would figure out that evil rulers were no longer acceptable. Isao Oono had the final veto on every head of state, because he could take all of their heads. His recent, third trip to North Korea hopefully had made this point extremely clear. This time the dictator had hid in a remote fishing village, never appearing at an army parade or touching his palatial home. It didn't matter. Black could scry out tyrants wherever they ran. Tyrants cut off possibilities, which meant all the dead ends in the area centered around them. No one could hide from the Isao-Black team.
  The world would be free, free to reach its own potential, not just in the civilized corners of the West and the East, but everywhere. He would free southeast Asia. He would free the Middle East. He would free Africa. He would free the splinter nations of the U.S.S.R. The armies of the world sat idly, refusing to act, refusing to do what they knew was right. All the armies of the world had managed to execute one dictator, Saddam Hussein, at the cost of trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of lives. But I've already killed ten dictators. And all it costs me is hotel and airfare, and nobody but the target has to die. He couldn't have asked for a more fulfilling career. By the time he was sixty he figured the whole world would be a decent place to live in. A journey of a thousand miles started with the first step, after all.
  The question that weighed on Isao's mind was China. Were they a good government or a bad one? Would the replacement be any better than the person he killed? Could that country's government really be taken down, or did it enjoy thorough popular support? Killing dictators only worked if the people wanted to be free of them, but were too scared to revolt. For places like China, it wasn't clear what people wanted. It wasn't even clear that China's government was tyrannical. A dictatorship, sure, but a dictatorship that had hosted a beautiful Olympics. A dictatorship whose economic growth underpinned the whole world economy. China would have to wait. Isao only hoped North Korea wouldn't make him fly there again. He had an appointment with like six other countries in the next month, and he didn't want to have to delay those assassinations again. But North Korea served as an example. Once the will of the North Korean dictatorship broke, the other dictators would take note. Elect or appoint a ruler with the consent of the governed, or die. If North Korea could wait him out, all the other dictatorships would try the same tactic too. Then he'd barely get anywhere. One country at a time. Haste makes waste.
  Now that he could use his cell phone again, he decided to call ahead to base. Miyamoto funded his operations, but he knew plenty of other Choice Givers. People whose magic wasn't suited for assassination, or people who just were hoping to get by. Nao was hoping to compose songs that would touch the hearts of millions. Ryo was making a visual novel. They were such idealists. Isao smiled. What's the use of showing people what they really want so long as villains are still out there, keeping them from attaining it? The best way to give people choices was to set them free. Freedom was always won by the sword. But Isao didn't mind. As far as he knew, he was the only Choice Giver who could become invisible to all means of detection. Naturally assassinations had devolved to him. It's not like the songs and novels weren't important too.
  For some reason, no one was picking up. Isao figured they were out and about, or just too busy to answer the phone. But something in his gut told him there was something wrong. Base had always answered his phone calls before. They had known when he was going to arrive, and they always welcomed him back with applause. Something was out of place for everyone to be gone.
  "Black, can you scry out Nao, or Ryo, or Hisoka?" Isao Oono asked his wyrd.
  "Roger." Black said. Then the gem in his jeans pocket lay dormant for a while.
  "That's strange." Black said. "I can't find anyone."
  "Look again." Isao said. Something was definitely out of place.
  "Well, there's Miyamoto, he's still a long ways south from here." Black offered.
  "What is that idiot doing? He's been gone all month." Isao grew angry. Miyamoto should have known to keep a watch on the Choice Givers up here. With Isao and Miyamoto gone, their battle strength was. . .
  "Black, scry for a vicious looking Dead Ender. Start at Miyamoto's location and zoom out. Something that looks ready to chop away all the possibilities." Isao Oono said. I hope I'm wrong. But I already know I'm not wrong. He'd been in the killing business too long to not see the signs.
  "There is one. It looks like. . .its traveling steadily southwest. Master, it's ugly. Uglier than I've ever seen." Black said.
  Farewell, Nao. Farewell, Ryo. Farewell, Hisoka. I will avenge you.
  "Pinpoint the city Miyamoto's lazing about in." Isao said, walking to a map of Japan.
  "It looks like. . . here, Master." Black furtively floated to a corner.
  "Let's go buy a ticket, Black." Isao Oono said.
  "Where to?" Black asked.
  "Inazumu. Where else?" Isao couldn't afford to be angry. He had a target. When you have a target, all you can be is focused.
* * *
  Kotone Nakano was visiting Mr. Miyamoto for a third time. She was alone again, and she had finally delivered her 'get well' flowers to a table beside his bed. Miyamoto had taken his wound in the process of saving her life, and she intended to watch over him until that wound was healed again. It's just that things kept cropping up and keeping her away. Studying with Rei, shopping for yukatas, practicing flute, or fighting bomb throwers, it all made sure she couldn't complete a simple promise. So Kotone was feeling pretty happy to see those flowers sitting, safe and sound, in their proper place at last.
  "Chiharu says you must be using magic to make so much money." Kotone said.
  "Smart girl." Masanori grinned.
  "Oh come on. Please tell me how!" Kotone asked. The question had bothered her ever since she had seen the bank account pop up on the ATM.
  "I call it, 'angle mining.' I kind of feel out a good place on the other side, cut a hole, and in drops gold nuggets from another universe." Miyamoto said.
  "Isn't that counterfeiting?" Kotone asked.
  "How so? The gold is real. It really does work if you put it in electronics or whatever. It's valuable and people pay me for it." Miyamoto defended himself.
  "But you know gold is a storehouse of exaggerated value simply because it's rare." Kotone glared at him.
  "That's why I gave up on the idea of repaying the entire Japanese national debt in gold bars." Miyamoto grinned. "But enough to get by? The market will never notice. And besides, it's for a good cause."
  "I don't get it." Kotone said, looking down and blushing a little. "You're rich, you're nice, you're handsome, you're apparently the best guy on Earth according to our wyrds. . .and you're unmarried. I'm the only person who even brought you flowers, who even knows you're in a hospital. Could it be, b-b-boy's love?"
  Masanori laughed. "If only. Maybe then I'd have an excuse. No, it's nothing like that. When I joined the army, I didn't meet many girls. And when I left the army, I still didn't meet many. Those I met, I kept finding some fault with. They were selfish, or vapid, or ugly. I kept thinking to myself, someday I'll meet the right girl. And the years went by, and here I am. Somehow, I just never met her."
  "What if it’s me? Could you wait until I'm eighteen?" Kotone half whispered, her face completely red.
  "Don‘t be silly. You have no right to ask such a question until you are eighteen." Miyamoto rejected her in a flash. Oh great. Now he'll hate me. Why did I say that? I'm so stupid. Kotone wanted to cry, but she couldn't. It might make Miyamoto feel guilty. When she had been the one at fault, completely, and he'd been a perfect gentleman start to finish.
  "Mr. Miyamoto,” Magnolia interjected in a somewhat nonchalant manner “You said you could feel out that gold would be on the other side of your folding. Does that mean you know where angle exile sends things too?" .
  "I suppose I could figure it out, if I ever bothered to check. 'Away' was the only thing I really concentrated on, for that attack." Miyamoto said.
  "So could you angle exile something to another inhabitable planet? Some place almost exactly like our own, only, without any people yet?" Magnolia asked.
  "If I practiced. . .maybe I could." Miyamoto wondered. "What do you think, Xanadu?"
  "It's within parameters." Xanadu said.
  "But that's wonderful!" Kotone clapped, her face lighting up. "That means we don't have to kill anyone! They can all go live happily ever after!"
  "I suppose. . ." Miyamoto rubbed the back of his head. "How odd. I never thought about sparing my opponents. You have a compassionate heart, Nakano. Now I feel bad, almost, for all the times I have used that move without worrying about it."
  "Mr. Miyamoto, no matter how bad you feel for exiling people to places unknown, I promise you I felt worse for melting someone in acid. If that's a compassionate heart, then this world needs help." Kotone corrected him.
  "Well, if I ever get out of this bed, and we're all in the same place, and my attack hits. . .sure, let's send them to a habitable world. A place they can't hurt anyone else. Who knows? Maybe they'll reform and live happily ever after." Masanori warmed to the idea.
  Magnolia glowed a complacent white.
  Thank you so much Magnolia. Somehow, we changed the topic. You saved my pride. Now it's like I had never asked him. . .that. . .at all.
  "You have to watch your bank account though, Mr. Miyamoto. Chiharu and Shiori, they're rotten thieves. Rotten to the core. They'll buy their own personal limousines and jets, and say it's all for Choice Giving. I told them I'd warn you." Kotone said, trying to act natural again.
  "I don't mind." Miyamoto laughed. "Easy come, easy go."
  Xanadu flashed a brilliant silver, bringing the conversation to a dead silence. "Incoming."
  "You're kidding me." Kotone exclaimed. "The last one was just days ago!"
  "I'll call the others." Miyamoto said grimly, getting out his cell phone.
  "This one's. . .heavy. . .or sharp. . .if you prefer." Xanadu said, his voice strained. "We're going to need everyone."
  Kotone sighed and gave a longing look at her flowers. Another fight. All I wanted was to spread warmth. But. . .she also wanted to protect Mr. Miyamoto. He was helpless because of her. And. . .he hadn't said what his response would be, when she was eighteen.
  "Coi, Magnolia." Magic exploded through her body.

Chapter 10

  "Got it. We're on our way." Shiori ended the phone conversation. "Rei, would you mind carrying me to the hospital?"
  "Of course I don't mind." Rei said. The two of them were in their room, snacking on some onigiri mother had made for them, and doing their homework together while listening to music. It had been a peaceful summer day. Shiori wondered if she would ever enjoy peaceful days again.
  "Coi, Awesome!" Shiori invoked. She was glad to see her armor had repaired itself magically since the last fight. She slipped open the window and looked around for nosy neighbors.
  "The coast is clear." Shiori said.
  "Coi, Onyx!" Rei invoked, and she was back into her gothic dress and violet chased butterfly wings. Rei wrapped her arms around Shiori's waist, and then they jumped out the window. For a brief moment Shiori feared they were just going to plummet into the bushes. But Rei flapped her wings a few times, a powerful wind blew out beneath them, and they were soaring in the sky.
  "Let's get high enough that at least no one recognizes our faces." Shiori shouted into the wind.
  "Yes, sister." Rei said, and soared upwards accordingly. Rei didn't look strained even though her magic was carrying both of them. Shiori supposed neither of them weighed that much.
  Kotone and Miyamoto were alone, awaiting some new monster stronger than all the others. Chiharu couldn't fly, so she might arrive too late. On the other hand, her power suit could leap tall buildings in a single bound. Maybe she'd be fine. Chiharu was the key. Once they saw how well Kotone's magic performed with Chiharu's help, everyone had demanded Chiharu combine with them to make a new move. The results had been spectacular. If this guy was stronger than George Flint, only twin techs would suffice to take him down. Shiori couldn't wait to try out hers.
  Shiori thought flying would be fun, but it was surprisingly normal. The fact that she was flying to a life and death encounter, where herself and her friends' lives were on the line, made the flight impossible to enjoy. If only we could cut off these dark wyrds at the source. The dark wyrds were behind all the Dead Enders, without them, everything would return to normal. But she couldn‘t imagine any such way.
  When they arrived, Kotone was already standing on the rooftop, with her ostentatious white dress and pink hair, both flapping gently in the wind that always rushed on buildings at this height. She looked grim, like she had been chewing on licorice this entire time.
  "Kotone!" Shiori waved. The two landed at a run, slowly braking their speed.
  "Shiori." Kotone turned to give her a big smile of relief. "Chiharu?"
  "She's coming. I'm sure she'll make it in time." Of course, Shiori only said that because she wasn't sure Chiharu would make it in time. But there was no point worrying about stuff that couldn't be changed.
  The three stood quietly on the rooftop, watching the sun set. It threw off brilliant scarlets, pinks, and golds, dyeing the clouds with various impossible colors. Please don't let the enemy be flying this time. I only have one ranged attack.
  From behind, they heard a shing-shing of servos whirring and carbon landing on concrete.
  "Looks like I made it in time." Chiharu said happily.
  "Chiharu!" Everyone called out her name at once, suddenly feeling more confident. "You heard this one was strong, right?" Shiori said.
  "I heard." Chiharu said.
  "I want your amplification first." Shiori begged with wide eyes. Chiharu never said no to her widest eyes.
  Chiharu laughed. "Fine by me. Let's finish this in one strike, Shiori."
  "After we talk things over." Shiori reminded Chiharu.
  "Of course. After we talk things over." Chiharu agreed.
  "It's strange, isn't it?" Kotone mused. "It's such a beautiful sunset." No one knew how to respond to her, so they just stood watching for the Dead Ender‘s arrival. The beauty around us never seems to seep into our souls. It really was strange.
  "Incoming." Cyan warned. A few tense seconds later, they could see the speck in the air. Oh no. Why can all my opponents fly? Shiori bit the inside of her cheek in frustration. The Dead Ender flew close enough that everyone could see him clearly. The man was in the prime of his health, carrying a giant claymore with a blue gem embedded in the middle. He wore a full suit of plate mail, with gold chasings and lines, and a white heroic cape with gold decorations down his back. His face was unhelmeted, revealing a strong jaw, blond hair and bright blue eyes. It looked like he had just stepped out of a picture book.
  "My name is Shiori Rin." Shiori cried out to the flying man, making sure her voice would carry. Awesome translated her words into whatever language the man needed to hear. "I'm a Choice Giver. We don't want to fight. Please, if you have grievances, tell us about them, and we'll change whatever we can. If you're angry with us, or hate us, let's talk it out. If you think we're bad people, ask us any questions you like, and we'll try to answer them. If you're in pain, we can try to heal you." There. That should cover all bases. And this time I didn't insult anyone's wyrd companion or religion and get their backs up. This time it had to work.
  "Schoolgirls." The knight sneered. "I thought 'Captain Japan' was going to be my most ludicrous fight."
  "Whatever you've been told, we are just school girls. Chiharu and me, we have a softball tournament coming up. Kotone has a flute recital. Can't you just leave us alone? We only want to go to school and live out our lives in peace." More and more, Shiori ached for the peace she had taken for granted just a month ago.
  "Indigo has already told me all about you. You sound convincing, but there's no point lying. Indigo's scrying is perfect. No matter how someone looks or behaves, he can tell a Dead Ender from a Choice Giver. Somehow or other, you three are going to bring about the destruction of the world. I'm the true Choice Giver. Indigo's scrying says so. And I have come to free the world from your dead end. Prepare yourself, Shiori Rin." The knight lifted his claymore.
  "Stop! Please!" Kotone cried. "Your wyrd is lying to you! All of our wyrds say we're Choice Givers, and you're the Dead Ender. Free yourself before it's too late!"
  "Listen to yourselves. By the same logic, why couldn't all of your wyrds be lying to you and mine be telling the truth?" The knight shot back angrily.
  "Because Awesome couldn't lie his way out of a paper bag!" Shiori retorted angrily. "If you're so confident we're being deceived, convince us. If you're a real Choice Giver, show us a better way. Is violence the answer to everything? If your soul is full of light, share a little of that light with us, and open our eyes! I've told you my name, but you won't even give your own! We aren't people to you, just firewood to be chopped up. Is that what being a Choice Giver means?"
  "If you want to know the name of your executioner so much, so be it. I am Claus Reinhardt. And it's useless to pretend. Indigo has already told me that scrying is absolute. He can foresee the future. Dead Enders don't change." Claus said.
  "You couldn't be more wrong!" Shiori shouted. "People can change! They can change from night to day, if you ever reach out to them! The future isn't set, it isn't a flat line. It's full of infinite possibilities! Wyrds can't scry the future of people's hearts, only the consequences of their present heart's trends. They can't foresee free will!"
  "More lies! Why should I risk the fate of the world on useless sappy lies like these!" Claus Reinhardt roared.
  "And what if you're risking the fate of the world by not listening to me? Claus Reinhardt, is the world normally saved by chopping up little girls?" Shiori challenged.
  Claus gave her an agonized look, his sword lowering. "No! No! I cannot pity you! I have a five year old girl at home. Her name is Claudia. And she is counting on me. If you wanted pity, you should have taken pity on her, before you plotted to kill us all! I will protect my children from this insane world!"
  "Crown of Glory!" Claus shouted. Shiori clenched her fists in frustration. Again and again, she couldn't reach them. Again and again, she failed.
  Eight sparkling balls came into being, glowing a white-yellow, and sending out flares and forks of electricity in all directions. All four girls scattered, two taking to the air. Claus wasn't going to talk anymore.
  "Strike them down!" Claus pointed, and the ball lightning scattered, two to each of them, creating a high pitched whine as they tore through the air.
  "Chiharu!" Shiori cried out, her boots giving her enough speed to sprint to the side as the lightning whooshed by.
  "Go!" Chiharu called, her power suit letting her leap over the lightning headed for her.
  "Super Move!" Shiori cried out, emitting more and more of Awesome's light from her forehead tiara.
  "Amplify." Cyan started glowing in unison from Chiharu's chest.
  "FIRESTORM!" Shiori yelled, and her normal firefly came out as an enormous torrent of flame.
  Claus Reinhardt was fast. The plate armor didn't seem to weigh anything. Even though she had tried to cover the whole sky around him, he was still zipping out of the way.
  "Deflect!" Chiharu shouted, and suddenly the firestorm took a right angle turn and slammed right into a startled Claus.
  "Shiori, behind you!" Rei cried out. Out of instinct, she jumped as high as she could. The lightning from crown of glory hadn't faded out when it missed. They were still homing in on her, turning around for a third pass. Everyone had to occupy half their energy just dodging the stupid things every pass. Shiori looked up in frustration. Hadn't they hit him dead on? So how was his lightning still going?
  When the smoke cleared, Claus stood smiling, his Claymore held in a guard position in front of him. He started to laugh. "As expected, Shiori Rin! You are a fine opponent! But the light always triumphs over the darkness. That is why I am the strongest." Claus whipped his sword towards her and a shockwave shot through the sky.
  "Stasis shield!" Rei cried out, freezing the energy wave right in front of Shiori. Two lightning balls slashed through the air after her.
  "Ah, mooooh!" Shiori yelled, cutting the line of her body left and right to weave back through the incessant attacks.
  "Chiharu, let me try!" Rei cried out.
  "Ready when you are." Chiharu agreed, ducking under her lightning hounds.
  "Super Move." Rei's butterfly wings became thicker and thicker.
  "Amplify." Chiharu concentrated Cyan.
  "Eclipse!" An enormous dark lance of erasure shot out of her towards the target.
  "Aegis Shield." Claus Reinhardt invoked, and a giant golden light slammed down to protect him.
  "Counter!" Chiharu cried. But nothing happened, his spell brushed hers aside like she hadn't even tried. The lance slammed into the shield, and after a few dizzying seconds of magical forces vying for supremacy, all of Rei's darkness spread out into motes and floated away.
  "You've got to be kidding me!" Chiharu exclaimed in frustration.
  "Royal Verdict!" Claus Reinhardt called, and a bolt of lightning came out of a rift in the sky and struck Chiharu dead on.
  "Chiharu!" Shiori cried out.
  "Eternal Zero." Rei cast, but Claus kept darting about, and the zone she froze was always a few seconds too late and behind where he was now. With Crown of Glory making her dodge half the time as well, the spell simply couldn't hit.
  "Sting Snipe." Kotone cast, from high above all the other combatants. A rain of needles pinged off of Claus' plate armor. The man started laughing again. "Good! Keep struggling, Dead Enders! The end is nigh!"
  "Flameeeeeeeee ---- Geysssssssssssserrrrr!" Shiori turned, channeling fire through her leg in a sweeping roundhouse kick. The two ball lightnings exploded against the edge of her kick and ceased to exist. She was at Chiharu's side in an instant, her leg still on fire. When the balls came in for their next pass, she smashed them into puffs of air.
  "Chiharu, say something!" Shiori said, grabbing her and shaking her.
  ". . .that hurts, Shiori." Chiharu complained. "Do you think. . .this powersuit. . .is for show? Losing to. . .an attack like that?" She muttered, trying to stand back up.
  "Chiharu, we need something stronger! What's stronger than eclipse?" Shiori asked her. The battle between the three flyers raged above them.
  "I guess. . .if a twin tech fails. . .there's always triple techs?" Chiharu said.
  "Tell me what to do!" Shiori encouraged her, pulling her up to her feet.
  "Just stand here for now. Kotone, we need gas #3! All you can make!" Chiharu shouted.
  "Magical, miracle, carbon monoxide." Kotone waved her wand, white light glowing brightly from Magnolia in her right glove. "That's it?" Kotone cried, dodging a shockwave of Claus's sword and two lightning balls besides.
  "Good! Keep it up!" Chiharu yelled encouragingly. "Amplify." Cyan started glowing brightly again in her chest.
  "Rei, get out of there, but keep him occupied!" Chiharu shouted.
  Rei nodded and shouted, "Blackest Night," black lances stabbing at Claus from behind. Claus's plate armor couldn't stop erasure, so he at least had to pay attention to her.
  "What is this, are you trying to make me dizzy? Carbon Monoxide is useless in the open air." Claus sneered.
  "Just stand there and see!" Chiharu challenged him. "Shiori, one more time!"
  "Fireeeeee-----" Awesome flashed brilliantly.
  "Amplify." Cyan pulsed in synchronization.
  "STORMMMMMMMM!" Shiori shouted, her fist punching a cone of flame into the sky.
  "The same stupid tricks. . ." Claus sneered, lifting his claymore, which was glowing with blue-violet light, to block.
  Then the entire atmosphere around him ignited, as Shiori's spark hit Kotone's super saturated flammable gas.
  "It's not over yet!" Chiharu shouted. "Deflection!" Cyan's light poured out of her, and instead of an explosion outwards, the explosion warped back around into the target, right into the core where Claus stood.
  Rei took the opportunity to erase the four remaining balls of lightning, and everyone held their breath.
  Claus dropped from the sky and landed in a heap against the ground. But the blue-violet light kept flickering around him, trying to regain its strength. Everyone stared, disbelieving.
  "Get down there! This is our chance! Finish him off!" Chiharu shouted, jumping straight off the building to heed her own advice. Shiori yelped. Whatever Chiharu's power suit was made of, if Shiori tried that, she would become a flesh puddle at the bottom. She turned to the roof's door and broke it open, running down the stairs.
  "Magical, Miracle, Oxidization!" Kotone cast from high up in the sky, determined to get him out of his plate armor so her sting snipe could strike home. The man stood up laughing, swinging his claymore back over his shoulder, even as his armor started rusting and falling off him in enormous chunks.
  "Is that it? Is that the full power of darkness?" Claus roared up at them. "It ends here. Royal Verdict!" The sky split, and lightning struck all three girls within his sight. Chiharu slammed into the ground, landing sideways instead of on her feet like she'd intended. Rei flapped a few times, trying to break her speed, and fell into the pavement with a painful smack. But Kotone was too high up. She started to fall faster and faster towards the earth.
  "Kotone!" Shiori screamed, willing more and more power into her boots. I'm faster than anyone. She reminded herself, and her footsteps started pounding holes into the ground. A cloud of dust shot out behind her as she sprinted under Kotone, then jumped, snagging her out of the sky and into her arms.
  "It is finished!" Claus yelled triumphantly, cutting a vicious arc with his claymore. The shockwave thundered towards her, and Shiori was still in midair, completely incapable of changing her trajectory. Have to shield Kotone! Shiori bent double around her, willing her armor to do something. The shockwave hit, and then it passed through her body and was gone again. It didn't feel like a thing. Had the attack been an illusion? No.
  Shiori landed, her face bright. "Miyamoto!" And there he was, floating in the air, Xanadu gleaming from his scabbard, and his sword glinting with its own silver light.
  "Yo." Miyamoto managed a smile. "Having some trouble?" He fell a few meters in the sky before Xanadu's light picked up again and caught him. His face grimaced in pain, but he held his sword with the same determination as ever. Protect the Choice Givers. That was all.
  "Finally the ring leader emerges." Claus glared. "Indigo says you're the darkest. You and this girl. No matter. This sword will see you all dead."
  "Not if I can help it." A voice came out of thin air. And then a spear sprouted out of Claus' chest, straight through his heart.
  "I am Isao Oono." A boy phased into view, draped in a classical ninja look of pure black clothes that covered everything but his eyes. "And that," Isao suddenly tore his spear back out of the man's chest, letting the Dead Ender fall to the ground. "Was for my friends."
* * *
  Shiori woke up to her alarm clock. Rei's long hair was tickling her face. She wondered how long haired people didn't choke to death in their sleep, with it constantly getting in their face like that. Short hair was definitely best. She was still lying in bed trying to gather up Rei's hair and stick it behind her head instead of in front of it, when Rei opened her eyes. Shiori smiled, staring straight into her sister's eyes.
  "Good morning, Rei." Shiori said.
  "Good morning, Shiori." Rei gazed back at her for a full three seconds before blushing. She looked away and sat up, which caused a stuffed chicken to roll off the bed.
  Shiori sat up and kicked their sheet down to the bottom of the bed. She used to just sleep in her underwear, but between Awesome and Rei she'd discovered the amazing appeal of pajamas.
  "Does it hurt?" Shiori asked as Rei rolled out of bed.
  "My old cuts and bruises? Or the new ones I got landing on the pavement? Or the lightning burns?" Rei asked.
  "Anything." Shiori said.
  Rei smiled, giving her a quiet thank you with her eyes. "No. Nothing hurts. None of it hurts at all." Rei started undressing, and Shiori lunged to stick her pillow on top of Awesome. He almost got a peep, that time. That sly pervert, thinking she'd forget about him if he stayed quiet.
  Even though Rei said that, her back and hip looked like a mess. Shiori winced just looking at it. I have to get dressed and brush my teeth and eat breakfast. Today was an important day for Project Heal Rei. It was finally the first day of the softball tournament. Rei had promised to cheer in the stands with Mother and Daddy. Shiori just had to win and make Rei proud. She couldn't do anything for Rei's body, but she could win a softball game for Rei's spirit.
  Shiori Rin got out of bed and started undressing, her back turned to Rei Rin, both of them buttoning up their school uniform with practiced efficiency. It had been a full week since Claus Reinhardt's attack. Shiori had finally been able to relax in class and assume they wouldn't always be under assault again. Now it almost felt like those fights were a dream and school life was the only reality.
  Shiori noticed Rei standing in front of the full length mirror, brushing all of the tangles out of her hair that sleeping had created. Then Rei tied a short pony tail and a long pony tail on the same side, one stacked upon the other.
  "That's so gorgeous!" Shiori said. "I wish I had long hair." Short hair was so awful. You couldn't do anything with it.
  "This is an important day for my older sister." Rei Rin explained. "What will she do if she looks around to take heart from my cheering, and I don't look pretty in the stands?"
  Shiori tackled her in a hug. "I'd just throw foul balls. Four balls against every batter. They'd beat us by a thousand points."
  Rei Rin grinned, her face clearly visible as a reflection in the mirror. "A good thing I thought ahead, then." It had never occurred to Shiori that Rei might have been thinking how to help Shiori today. It made her fill up with so much love she didn't know where to put it. If I'm constantly trying to make her happy, and she's constantly trying to make me happy, we're going to get so hopelessly confused. We won't know who is who anymore.
  "Awesome, you can come out now. You're unusually quiet this morning. I hope you're not plotting anything." Shiori gave him a suspicious scowl.
  "Me? Plotting?" Awesome blinked.
  "So you are plotting something. What is it this time, you want to sneak in on Rei in the bathtub?" Shiori asked.
  "I'm just thinking about something." Awesome said.
  "Thinking and plotting are the same thing." Shiori said.
  "Aren't you going to eat breakfast? This is an important day. Stop dilly-dallying." Awesome said.
  "For your information, bonding with my sister or my wyrd is not a waste of time. It's my favorite time out of every day. But yes, I am a little hungry. So you can keep your secret. For now." Shiori scooped Awesome up and tossed him into her school bag.
  "Onyx." Rei called, and the dark wyrd floated out of the closet and into her bag. Shiori and Rei stopped over at the bathroom, brushing their teeth together, and then they were finally ready to go down the stairs.
  "Good morning, Daddy. Good morning Mother." Shiori ran up to each of them and gave them a hug. She grabbed the bento left out on the counter for her and packed it into her school bag.
  "Good morning Shiori. Your father is getting out of work early just to watch your game, so you had better win." Mother waved the rice serving ladle at her warningly.
  "Rei Rin, you look positively beautiful." Daddy marveled, setting down his cup of tea.
  "Thanks Daddy." Rei blushed, trying to sidle quietly into her chair and eat the breakfast already laid out in front of her. Both Shiori and Rei gave a proper "Itadakimasu" before starting their meal.
  "If it's softball, we have to eat hotdogs and nachos. Do you think they'll be serving hot dogs and nachos?" Daddy asked pleasantly.
  "Daddyyyyyyy." Shiori said. "This is middle school. Where did you think we were playing, Koshien?"
  "Baseball requires certain food. Those are just the rules of life." Daddy insisted. "You agree with me, don't you Rei?"
  "Umm. . .yes Daddy." Rei said, her chopsticks making quick work of her rice and eggs.
  "I'll see what I can cook up." Mother sighed and rolled her eyes. "But only because we're going to be watching with Rei."
  Rei couldn't help the smile that crept across her face, even though she kept her face pointed as far down as possible. Shiori felt a thrill in her heart. Way to go, Mother! You got her that time.
  "I don't want to keep Kotone waiting." Shiori got up. "Thanks for breakfast. Let's go, Rei." Shiori kicked off her indoor slippers and sat down to put on her shoes.
  "Coming." Rei placed her plate in the sink and then grabbed the bento Mother had packed for her and stuffed it into her school bag.
  "Then, Mother, Daddy, we're off." Rei waved to them.
  "Have a safe trip." Shiori's parents said. And the two of them were out the door.
  They walked through the streets, the sun still low in the sky, with birds chirping everywhere and car motors constantly zooming by.
  "Do you really get to eat nachos?" Shiori asked. "I wish I got to eat nachos in the stands."
  "If you weren’t pitching, none of us would get to eat nachos, including you.“ Rei said.
  "Oh. I hadn’t thought of that." Shiori confessed.
  "Honestly. I know you're intelligent, Shiori. You say the most amazing things. So why are you so air headed the rest of the day?" Rei asked.
  "I have to recharge between wise sayings." Shiori stuck her tongue out at her younger sister.
  Rei laughed. Then she spotted Kotone waiting for them up the hill and waved. "Good morning, Kotone!"
  "Good morning Rei!" Kotone waved back. She was in high spirits. "Good morning Shiori."
  "Good morning, Kotone." Shiori responded warmly. The two caught up to her quickly and they all three started walking in line.
  "Today's the game, right? I'll definitely be cheering you on." Kotone promised.
  "Thanks Kotone." Please, all my ancestors and all the gods of this town, let me win this match. Everyone's relying on me. "How are you?"
  "Oh, that lightning bolt? Don't worry, don't worry, you caught me before I landed right? It's not like it had the full force of a natural lightning strike. It just sort of numbed me and stung a bit." Kotone waved her hand dismissively. But Shiori had seen Rei shirtless. The lightning had looked every bit real to her. That fight had been close. It had been really, really close. If everything hadn't gone right. . .Shiori shook her head. Everything did go right and that was that.
  "I bundled Miyamoto straight back into his hospital bed and lectured him for thirty minutes about reopening stitches." Kotone said. "Really, the nerve. The man could barely walk. At least that Oono boy agreed to watch after Miyamoto until he was fully recovered again."
  "He saved my life, Kotone." Shiori pointed out.
  "But can't he save us without endangering his own life, just once?" Kotone complained. "I would like for him tosomeday emerge from that hospital."
  Shiori smiled. If she didn't know any better, she would have thought Kotone was in love. But they were only thirteen years old. Thinking about boys was far too early. Plus, Miyamoto is like, fifty years old. If I had to choose a guy, I'd choose Isao Oono. He looks super cool in that ninja outfit and talks like a total badass. Even so, Miyamoto was an impeccable gentleman. I need to thank him, again. Well, he was going to stay in that hospital bed forever, since he reopened all his stitches. No matter how long I put the visit off, he'll still be there waiting.
  "Even though it feels like a long time, school only started two weeks ago. He's only mortal. Wounds like that don't just heal overnight." Shiori said.
  "Has it really only been two weeks?" Kotone asked wistfully.
  "Less than two weeks for me." Rei murmured.
  "That's so weird." Kotone said. "Oh! Rei, that reminds me. I'm inviting you over to my house this weekend. Please say you'll come."
  "Just me?" Rei sounded nervous.
  "Oh, I don't need to ask Shiori or Chiharu. I'm just ordering them to come." Kotone smiled.
  "Then, I'll come." Rei agreed. Shiori groaned.
  "What? What's wrong?" Rei asked, her eyes widening.
  "She's trapped you. And now that she's trapped you, she's trapped us too. It has to be THAT." Shiori said.
  "What?" Rei asked worriedly.
  "An anime sleepover!" Kotone announced triumphantly. "We start as soon as we can and watch anime all the way into the night. Then we crawl into our sleeping bags and talk about everything we saw until we fall asleep. It's like, like, the happiest experience possible in life!"
  "Anime is boring. No one acts believably at all. And the girls are always half naked." Shiori complained.
  "Anime is the highest art form known to man. Everyone acts as they ought to, even if we fall below the excellence of their moral standards. And all the girls are full of personality and vigor. They are not just eye candy." Kotone answered back.
  "Is anime really that good?" Rei seemed dubious.
  "You just haven't seen the right series." Kotone said, grabbing Rei's hands. "Under my expert care, I promise you'll be happy."
  "Then, I'd love to come over and watch anime." Rei bowed.
  "Let's at least make part of the day fun and eat crepes and ice cream for dinner." Shiori pled.
  "I don't know how you stay thin." Kotone complained.
  "Hello? Softball tournament starts today?" Shiori pointed out.
  "Pssh. Like pitchers do any running." Kotone tossed her hair.
  "I bat too you know!" Shiori protested.
  "If you simply must have crepes no matter what we'll get crepes. But we're going right back to my place to watch more anime afterwards." Kotone negotiated.
  "Fine, fine." Shiori surrendered. A sleepover was a perfect addition to Project Heal Rei. Kotone was so sweet to think of this. Everyone I know is so great.
  When Shiori arrived at the school gates, they told each other, "See you again!" and each split off for their own classroom. They'd all meet up at the roof for lunch. Knowing mother, she filled my bento with meat from top to bottom, to give me energy for the game. Shiori couldn't wait to open it and see. Kotone was right. It was a wonder she wasn't a blimp.
* * *
  Chiharu signaled a time out to the umpire and walked up to the mound. "What's wrong? Those two balls weren't nearly close enough to force her to swing." The game had remained tied, 2-2, all the way to the 9th inning. But Shiori's pitching was getting erratic, and Shifuto Gakuen had a runner on 2nd and 1st base with only one out. They absolutely couldn't let Shifuto get to third base with two outs left, because then a fly ball could give a free run to the man on third base with an out to spare. Shiori had to strike this person out. But it was three balls and no strikes so far.
  "I'm just. . .so tired." Shiori wiped her forehead. "What is this now, 130 pitches?" Shiori asked.
  "Stuff and nonsense. You've thrown 80 pitches, tops." Chiharu lied.
  "Oh. . .well, okay then." Shiori fiddled around with her cap.
  "This batter doesn't have perfect form. If you throw to the inside, she'll strike. Three pitches, Shiori. That's all I need from you. Three pitches to the inside." Chiharu coaxed her.
  "But if I throw them all to the inside, she'll figure the pattern out and hit." Shiori complained.
  "Not if she's so stressed out about winning a 2-2 tie game for her team that no matter how hard she tries she lets her bad habits take over." Chiharu says. "Of course, there's no way you're stressed out about winning a 2-2 tie game and losing control of your pitches. I know you better than that."
  "Of course. Hehe. Of course I wouldn't do that." Shiori gave her a look of wide-eyed innocence.
  "Three pitches to the inside. Let's send these girls home in tears." Chiharu said. Then she held out her left, ungloved hand. Shiori nodded and slapped her a hard high five. All the fire was back in her eyes. That's my Shiori.
  Shiori gave a hawk-eyed look at her batter, then wound up and pitched. Thwunk.
  "Strike!" The umpire called. The batter had cringed backwards when she saw the fastball heading near her. Chiharu smiled and tossed the ball back to her best friend. That pitch had been as fast as the first inning.
  "Go, Go, Shi-or-i! Go, Go, Shi-or-i!" One half of the stands started chanting.
  "Hey pitcher! No control! Hey pitcher! No control!" The other half started yelling back.
  Shiori wound up and slashed her arm sideways for a slider. Thwunk.
  "Strike!" The umpire called. Their school's side erupted in cheers. Chiharu shook her head and tossed the ball back. I ask for three nice simple fastballs to the inside, so she does a special pitch that just barely enters the strike zone like some sort of pro. It was enough to give you gray hairs.
  Shiori caught the ball and paced a few steps back and forth, giving her shoulder every second of rest she could. Then she got into her stance, wound up and pitched again. It was a beautiful fastball to the inside. The batter swung well over the ball. Thwunk.
  "Strike three! You're out!" The umpire called.
  The next batter took up position, holding the bat further forward so she could swing it faster and connect with the center of the bat to inside pitches. Like I'd let you. Chiharu positioned her glove to the outermost corner of the plate. This Shiori could stay within the strike zone. Her eyes were on fire.
  Shiori wound up and pitched, and the batter caught it with the edge of her bat, completely surprised. Chiharu walked underneath the ball and waited for it to come down, catching it snugly into her glove and showing the umpire.
  "You're out! Three outs, switch sides!" The Umpire signaled dramatically.
  Shiori jumped up and down, waving up at Rei, Kotone, and her parents, who were all jumping up and down and hugging each other. The entire crowd was chanting her name. Chiharu just smiled and started taking off her catching equipment. As it so happened, it was also Shiori's turn at bat. Shiori was last in the batting order, and Chiharu was first, which meant the two of them would have the chance to seal the game. Shiori's thrown 145 pitches now. I can't let this game stay a tie. If it goes to extra innings, it might injure her permanently.
  Shiori rushed over to put on her batting helmet. "I'll get on base, Chiharu, so send me home!" Shiori ordered. She refused to even take a sip of water and just went out to the batting area, practicing her swings.
  Chiharu didn't mind the irresponsibly optimistic order. She had planned to do so already. She just wanted the bat in her own hands already, and watched Shiori with impatience.
  After two balls, Shiori tried her first swing and missed. Then there was a third ball. Then a foul ball, which counted as a strike. A full count. The entire crowd went silent in agonized anticipation. If you strike out, Shiori, I'm going to kill you.
  "Ball four! Walk!" Shiori sighed and dropped her bat. No doubt she had wanted to at least get a hit in sometime during the game. But it didn't matter. Only results mattered. Shiori was on first base. The other pitcher was tired too. That's why she had thrown four balls.
  Chiharu stepped up to the plate, wondering how to win the game. Only a home run could reasonably win it from here. Should I bunt, and at least get Shiori to second? But who can I trust to get her home if not me? No one had shown any ability to hit this girl's pitches consistently.
  Chiharu simply watched the first ball go by, trying to feel the strength of her opponent out. Could I have hit that for a home run? No way. It had still been too fast and too low. The Shifuto pitcher wound up again, and halfway through her release Shiori started running. Chiharu stood still and watched as the change-up slowly passed her by. Shiori you genius. You read the other pitcher's stance and decided to steal. That was a terrifying skill.
  The opposing catcher snagged the ball out of the air, stood up and threw as hard as she could. But Shiori was already sliding -- without trying to protect her pitching hand at all! -- and the field referee quickly made the call. "SAFE! Safe!"
  "Great, Shiori!" Kotone yelled, and the crowd started applauding again. Of course, her fool stunt had meant Chiharu just got another strike. Next time, she'd have to bet everything on a swing. Unless. . .Chiharu desperately went through the calculations. How fast was Shiori? I can't reliably hit this pitcher. So what if I don't try to hit? What if I only try for a fly ball? Sure, I'll be out. But the ball will be so far into the outfield, that maybe. . .just maybe. . .
  The pitcher wound up and threw. The pitch wasn't easy at all. Chiharu did everything she could to just get under it and give the ball lift. Chiharu didn't even bother to start running. It was an out. A two year old could catch that ball. She just yelled out to Shiori.
  "You can do it, Shiori! Take us home!" Shiori nodded back at her, a grim look as she waited on the plate for the ball to be caught. It looked like she was taking energy from all of her muscles and slowly eating it, absorbing it into her mind, and passing it down to her legs.
  "Out!" The umpire called. The outfield had fielded it. And then the race was on. Shiori bolted for third. Everyone in the benches started yelling at her, screaming for her to run faster. The outfielder threw it to the infielder. The ball hung in the air as Shiori rounded third base and ran for home. She never looked back to see where the ball was. She just leaned into the air and pumped her arms like daggers directly in front of her body. The ball reached the infield, and the girl turned expertly and launched it for home. No one could outrun a ball. The ball was going to get there first.
  Shiori dived head first for the plate, angling as far away from the Shifuto catcher as possible, so only her hand was within reach of the scoring plate, and her body as far away from being tagged as possible. The catcher caught the ball, turned, and dived for Shiori. The two collided into a heap of dust.
  "SAFE! Safe! Game over! Reika Gakuen Wins!" The umpire called.
  Shiori screamed and jumped into Chiharu's arms. Chiharu fell over from the weight, hugging her and pelting her on the back, the shoulder, anywhere her punches could land.
  "We did it! We won! We won!" Shiori kept repeating. And then the whole team was piling on top of Shiori and Chiharu. They were so heavy she couldn't breathe. It was softball. It was the stuff of life.

Chapter 11

  "Neh, Awesome." Shiori said, holding her knees upright with her arms and resting her chin on top. They were sitting at the park outside the library, on 'standby.' If all went well today, no one would have to fight. The Dead Ender had seemed eager to argue her case to anyone who would sit and listen, and so in a gesture of good will, they had let Chiharu argue the case out peacefully one on one. Hopefully she would have time to call them and ask for help before fighting broke out. They were in the same park, and it wouldn't take long to reinforce her friend. But it was important to repay the stranger's trust with trust. Good people didn't use other people's goodness against them. Everything had a price. Saving someone without a fight meant risking Chiharu alone with her opponent. They had all agreed it was a price worth paying.
  "What is it, Shiori?" Awesome replied.
  "When Cyan scries Chiharu, he sees a field of blooming flowers. When Magnolia scries Kotone, she sees a waterfall that keeps splitting and falling down a boundless cliff. But you've never told me what you see when you scry me." Shiori said.
  "True." Awesome said. That stubborn wyrd would make her beg.
  "What do you see when you scry me, Awesome?" Shiori asked.
  "A web of light." Awesome said. "The web is vaster than I can see. Along the web, pulses of light shoot from nexus to nexus along endless filaments. Sometimes the light cascades in a wave all in one direction. Sometimes the pulses all travel freely, all on their solitary missions, each in their own direction. But the flow of light never repeats, and it never goes out."
  "Is it beautiful?" Shiori asked.
  "More beautiful than you could ever dream." Awesome replied.
  Shiori smiled. "I'm glad, you know."
  "Hmm?" Awesome asked.
  "That it was you." Shiori said.
  "I know." Awesome said. The two sat quietly for a while.
  "I chose you before we even met." Awesome confessed.
  "I know." Shiori answered just as simply.
  "Shiori, now's as good a time as any." Awesome said.
  "To tell me your plot?" Shiori asked.
  "To tell you my plan." Awesome blinked sternly. "You should realize by now how hopeless this fight is. The dark wyrds will keep coming. Even if they didn't, the sheer vast mass of Dead Enders on this world will crush out the light of good souls, sooner or later. I thought our coming here would help, but. . .we've probably just made it worse. Wyrds probably made Earth's fate all the more sealed."
  "Listen to you. Talking about fate to a Choice Giver." Shiori chided.
  "Probable course, then." Awesome blinked. "The point stands. Whenever I scry, there are fewer Choice Givers. Dead Enders aren't only targeting us. Maybe someday it will just be us. Just us against all the evil of two combined worlds. Maybe someday Kotone will die in battle, or Chiharu. Maybe someday it will just be you and me, Shiori. You and me against all the darkness in every living soul."
  Tears emerged unbidden in the corners of Shiori's eyes. "I don't want that."
  "What if there was a way to escape all this? What if we could take everyone and everything we care about, and journey to another world? The dark wyrds can't hurt us if they can't find anyone who will contract with them. The Dead Enders can't chase us beyond space and time. A world ruled by Choice Givers, who we know won't go wrong. A population of followers or emulators, who would never turn on their shepherds. How wonderful would that world be? Most of all, it's somewhere safe for all of us. Kotone and Magnolia. Chiharu and Cyan. You and me. I won't have to watch the people I love die. I won't have to watch your web of light go out." Awesome said.
  Shiori shook her head, tears falling down her cheeks. "Awesome, you've studied our religions. So tell me, did you ever read this parable? 'Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it?'"
  "I. . .may have." Awesome admitted.
  "Did you ever read this psalm?" Shiori pursued, summoning up the memorized lines Daddy had once recited to her when she had had a particularly bad fever at age five.   "'The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.'"
  "I read it." Awesome said.
  "Then you know why I have to stay and fight." Shiori said.
  ". . ." Awesome flashed a deep red again and again. "I. . .guess I did know. . .I just didn't want to admit that I knew."
  "That's why you're such a child." Shiori sniffed, wiping at her eyes.
  "I'm thousands of years old." Awesome complained.
  "It doesn't matter. All wyrds are spoiled children. Your lives are too easy. That's why you say things like 'let's run away and abandon the weak and the lost to their fate,' the moment things gets tough. And that's why Onyx says things like 'let's destroy other worlds because it just isn't fair.' Wyrds or humans, it doesn't matter, we only mature by building relationships and overcoming obstacles. Until now, wyrds have never faced a difficult obstacle. Judging by you and Magnolia, wyrds never get past first base either. If no one dies, there's never any urgency to live. And so none of you grew up at all." Shiori lectured.
  "Choice Givers are insufferably impossible to win arguments with." Awesome glowed angrily.
  Shiori smiled. "Then I pity whoever's trying to argue things out, 'fair and square,' with Chiharu."
* * *
  “Before we begin, I need to ask some questions.” Chiharu poured Phyllis Landstrum some tea. Cyan was magically translating for her. The two of them sat together at a picnic table. Phyllis was newly out of college, eager to spread her message to the world about how everything should change. She would have looked young, except for the ridiculously serious looking thirteen year old child she was facing across the table. Neither of their ages mattered. One was a genius Choice Giver. The other was one of the most ambitious, competent dark wyrd contracted Dead Enders in the world. Those were qualifications enough for either side to demand a fair hearing.
  “Go ahead.” Phyllis gestured politely.
  “Do you know what being a Choice Giver means?” Chiharu asked.
  “It means giving the world infinite possibilities.” Phyllis said.
  “Okay. And do you know what a Dead Ender is?” Chiharu asked.
  “It means ending all possibilities, flatlining into stagnation or extinction.” Phyllis answered.
  “Your wyrd told you this?” Chiharu blinked in surprise.
  “Sunglow chose me because we both like being honest and upfront. Our motto is, ‘fair and square.’” Phyllis smiled warmly at her floating companion.
  “In that case, do you know I’m a Choice Giver and you’re a Dead Ender?” Chiharu asked.
  “Yes.” Phyllis said.
  “That’s. . .unconventional. And you‘re okay with this?” Chiharu asked.
  “Have you ever really thought about the meaning behind those terms?” Phyllis countered.
  “I’ve certainly tried.” Chiharu responded.
  “Then did you ever consider that ‘infinite possibilities’ could just be another term for chaos?” Phyllis asked.
  “I. . .no.” Chiharu frowned.
  “How about ‘Dead Enders’ then? Did it ever occur to you that perfection is a flat line? Any deviation from perfection, up or down, left or right, any change from perfection in any way, would just make the world worse. Therefore, perfect things are immutable. If the world ever reached perfection, it would stop changing. A Dead Ender, then, is someone who wants to perfect the world. Choice Givers are those who want to throw it back into chaos. So long as Choice Givers live, we can never reach perfection. You are a destabilizing force, you foil everyone’s hopes and dreams. Your very existence radiates chaos. That’s why I had to come here and, hopefully, convince you to change your ways. I know Choice Givers can become Dead Enders whenever they please. I want all of you children to join me. My cause is just. My path is a straight, flat line to utopia.” Phyllis explained.
  “Well.” Chiharu took a sip of her tea to gather time to think. “And if we don’t join?”
  “We’ll fight it out, fair and square.” Phyllis shrugged.
  “So what if I convince you to give up on being a Dead Ender?” Chiharu asked.
  “Fair is fair. We’ll both try to convert each other, here and now. I’ll listen to your arguments if you listen to mine.” Phyllis said.
  “So what is your perfect utopia?” Chiharu asked.
  “Communism.” Phyllis answered unhesitatingly.
  "If you want to understand a thing, you have to break it down to its essence." Chiharu explained. "What, in your opinion, is the essence of communism? Our entire debate has to start from there."
  "Equality." Phyllis Landstrum replied confidently.
  "Ok, equality. But in what sense? Everyone has to be the same height? Everyone has to own a dog?" Chiharu asked.
  "No, nothing like that. Just. . .equal opportunity at a good life. And I mean a real genuine shot. So if you're dumb, or sick, or your parents were poor, or you lived in the wrong country, or a hurricane hits, or whatever, other people make up the difference and get your life back on par. No matter what hand people are dealt at birth, they should still have as good a shot as anyone else. A clear path to happiness. Communism is about giving everyone that shot, no matter how expensive it is to give them that shot, because everyone deserves it. A clean shot at a good life." Phyllis explained.
  "I hope you don't mind me just asking questions until I fully understand?" Chiharu asked.
  "It's fine. Socratic dialogue is a perfectly fair arbitrator between contending parties." Phyllis Landstrum said. She lifted her tea cup and took a sip.
  "Okay then. Am I to understand that so long as everyone is happy, no matter what life threw at them, your essential goal will have been fulfilled?" Chiharu asked.
  "I. . .that's almost true by definition. Of course things are okay if everyone is happy." Phyllis complained.
  "So you're not really a communist. You're a utilitarian. The essence of your values is human happiness." Chiharu clarified.
  "You could say communism is a sub-class of utilitarianism." Phyllis admitted.
  "Could I say that communism is both the valuing of human happiness for all, on one hand, and a means to achieving it, on another?" Chiharu asked.
  "Yes." Phyllis said.
  "Of the two, which is more important to you? The ends or the means?" Chiharu asked.
  "The end, of course. There's no point doing anything if it doesn't result in human happiness." Phyllis said.
  "Then if there were some other, better means to achieve happiness for everyone, there would be no point in communism anymore?" Chiharu asked.
  "Yes. If there were a better vehicle to effect human happiness, communism would be obsolete. But there is no better vehicle. That's why I spent so many years studying the issue, and the best answer I found was communism." Phyllis argued.
  "Why is communism the best means? Surely you know communism's track record." Chiharu asked.
  "Many reasons." Phyllis smiled, finally getting to make her case. "The first is fairness. So long as some people are randomly more fortunate than others, everyone suffers from the knowledge that it isn't fair. The well off feel guilty for their good fortune, while the unfortunate are envious of the well off. To make matters worse, both fortunate and unfortunate people think that their inequalities in income also signify inequalities in their own human value. Under communism, I could level everyone's fortune and status, thus abolishing the hateful pecking order.
  "The second reason is diminishing marginal returns. Marx said it well: From each according to his ability, to each according to their need. It's ridiculous to give individuals more and more wealth, wealth that could only be used for wasteful luxuries, so long as there is still anyone in the world still in need. Like you said, I'm a utilitarian. All the pain and all the joy in the world go into the same giant pot. If I can increase the total happiness of mankind, I'll do so, as a moral duty. Taking from those with excess and giving to those with too little maximizes human happiness. The joy of palatial homes, flashy cars, or personal yachts -- how can that compare to the pain of the starving, the cold, the sick? If we immolate all of those petty joys and transubstantiate them into relief for the suffering masses. . .how much good could we do? How great an increase in human happiness would that be?
  "The third is compassion. I can't stand to see suffering in the world, knowing that we could have helped, but no one cared. If we have to resort to coercion to get people to care, then oh well. The coerced can complain about their taxes, but have they ever walked in the shoes of those they refuse to help? If they had ever starved, or frozen, or lost multiple children to disease, how would they view the petty complaints of people like themselves having to pay high taxes? The scales are obscenely unbalanced. Do I feel bad about making people work while not getting any benefits out of it? Sure. But I would feel even worse if I let people die of want while there was still something we, as a collective coercive body, could have done to stop it."
  "Even if people caused their own problems?" Chiharu asked.
  "Even then. Compassion means not judging your neighbor, but lifting out a hand to help anyway. Everyone has flaws. Some people are born with more flaws than others. It's our duty to even out the pain those flaws cause. No one chooses to be born human, with human frailty. We would all like to be intelligent, courageous, strong, healthy, sober, temperate, wise, talented, determined, hard working, outgoing -- but only a tiny few can be all those things. Should we blame people for a weakness they never chose? It makes no difference why they're suffering, whether it's their own fault or someone else's. The only thing that matters is we have the means to relieve their suffering, suffering is evil, and therefore we must and shall use the means we have to make the suffering stop."
  Chiharu looked down at her cup of tea and tapped her fingernail against it. "I must say, you have put a lot of thought into this."
  "Thank you." Phyllis Landstrum smiled confidently.
  "Is there any evidence there will be enough money to go around to relieve all suffering on Earth, if you reimpose communism on the world?" Chiharu asked.
  "There's no evidence it will work, but we have to try." Phyllis said.
  "Suppose you knew, for a fact, that the economy was only as rich as it is today, because we are not communist and are not centrally planning." Chiharu said.
  "I think that's a reasonable supposition. People work harder for themselves than others. If the market allocates capital, it will be more efficient than an even redistribution." Phyllis admitted.
  "How poor would you allow the world to become due to this increased inefficiency as a tradeoff for helping the unfortunate?" Chiharu asked.
  "Hmm. Let's say I am willing to reduce the per capita GDP of the world from $11,000, like it is today under capitalism, to $5,000, if it means I can distribute it evenly to all. Even if communism is that less efficient, it would still be enough for everyone to meet their basic needs. Everyone could have food, shelter, education, vaccinations, clean water. . .whatever we really, truly need. $5,000 a year could still buy all of that, for everyone on Earth. But right now, under capitalism, we make $11,000 per person per year, yet the majority of mankind still lives in squalor." Phyllis offered.
  "So would you be okay with redistributing $5,000 to every person, all across the Earth, as a minimum standard of living, and leaving the rest of the economy free? If you only want to redistribute end goods like food and shelter to those in need, why are you trying to redistribute capital goods via intrusive laws? Leave businesses free to act however they see fit, hire and fire whom they please, trade with whomever they want, invest in whatever they want, and then just skim their profits due to this efficiency off the top with a tax. After all, if the same amount of money reaches those in need, and we are trying to maximize happiness, what does the distribution of capital have to do with anything? What does communism have to do with anything?" Chiharu asked.
  "I. . .Communism still solves income inequality while your citizen's dividend doesn't. People would still feel bad, comparing themselves to higher earners." Phyllis said warily.
  "But in terms of diminishing marginal returns, and in terms of compassion, all of your objections would be met?" Chiharu asked.
  "Yes, more or less. Though if the world got richer, I would want to redistribute even more, to meet more obscure needs. It would be nice if everyone lived to age 70, for instance. Or if everyone had internet connections. If there is more wealth, compassion and diminishing marginal returns would like to claim more of it, for the same reasons I set out above." Phyllis said.
  "Okay, then let me rephrase the proposal. Would you be okay with one quarter of the world's wealth being taxed and redistributed evenly across every citizen of the world, or taxed enough such that every citizen of the world receives $5,000, whichever of these taxes is higher?" Chiharu asked.
  "The $5,000 being inflation adjusted?" Phyllis searched for a trap.
  "Naturally." Chiharu replied.
  "Then. . .that seems reasonable. But that only meets reasons 2 and 3." Phyllis retreated.
  "Okay, so summing up where we've reached so far: Would you agree that old fashioned communism, state planning, arbitrary state seizure of property, rampant corruption and black markets, price controls, minimum wages, labor laws, tariffs, state ownership of all wealth, 100% taxation, forced labor, gulags, famines, etc -- all of that could be discarded and replaced with this one mandatory tax? Everyone is still free to allocate their money however else they please, into luxury spending, or investments, or what have you, from there?" Chiharu asked.
  "No, because the pecking order is still disgusting. Only equality can teach people to treat each other as equals." Phyllis said.
  "Okay. Would you agree to the above statement, if no one worried about each other's status, and no one perceived the inequality in each other's wealth to be of any serious interest?" Chiharu asked.
  "What do you mean?" Phyllis looked puzzled.
  "Earlier, you said that the problem of wealth inequality is that it's divisive. But if no one felt guilty or envious, superior or inferior due to differences in wealth, then it would no longer be a problem. We don't need to level everything. All we need to do is decouple wealth from status, and to decouple status from people's own sense of self-worth." Chiharu explained.
  "But everyone cares about status and wealth." Phyllis objected.
  "Do they? Need they? Have you never met anyone who was content with what they had? Have you never met anyone who was proud of who they were, without reference to anyone else?" Chiharu asked.
  "Maybe some people. Some particularly good people. But human nature. . ." Phyllis trailed off.
  "Human nature is many things. We can emphasize some parts of our nature, or we can emphasize others. We can meet some human needs, or meet others. Humans have free will. In the past, it was 'human nature' for us to kill each other in war. Over 30% of mankind died by violence. The women, of course, were treated like spoils of war and raped by the victors. That was human nature for thousands of years. But now -- is that considered inevitable, immutable human nature?" Chiharu asked.
  "No. Even though it was natural, it wasn't engraved in our nature. We eventually overcame that type of behavior." Phyllis admitted.
  "In the same manner, is there a way to overcome feelings of superiority and inferiority without leveling everyone's wealth?" Chiharu asked. "Is there a way to overcome 'human nature,' and insist that we are better than just whatever human impulses call upon us to be?"
  "Is there?" Phyllis asked, curious.
  "I think so." Chiharu said. "All people need, to not be arrogant or feel ashamed about having more or less status or wealth, is to value something in their hearts higher than anything money can buy. You can probably guess what they are. Love, Beauty, and Truth." Chiharu looked Phyllis in the eye.
  "But what if some people have more of that than others? How is that fair?" Phyllis complained.
  "Can communism redistribute love, beauty, and truth?" Chiharu asked.
  "I. . .well could you?" Phyllis challenged Chiharu.
  "Yes, because I'm a Choice Giver." Chiharu smiled. "If people follow or emulate me, I can redistribute my Choices, the small choices I make in everyday life, the choices that enrich me with love, beauty, and truth, to everyone in the world. But only if you don't follow your wyrd's plan and kill the Choice Givers. We are trying to redistribute our spiritual wealth to you. Please don't interfere."
  Phyllis sat back in her chair. "Even if we all make the right choices, some people will be more loved than others, just by chance. . .by who they happen to meet while they're alive. . ."
  "I'm not God." Chiharu admitted. "And neither is Communism."
  "But all of this is assuming we've already set up a citizen's dividend for the whole world. Without that dividend, we aren't talking about overcoming petty pecking orders. We're talking the difference between life and death." Phyllis rallied.
  "Then, you should stop campaigning for communism, and start campaigning for that citizen's dividend, shouldn't you?" Chiharu asked.
  "I. . .no one would listen to me." Phyllis complained.
  "I listened to you." Chiharu said softly.
  "I. . ." Phyllis squeezed her hands against her face, disbelievingly. "I practiced so many spells to beat you with."
  "I'm sure you are very strong." Chiharu smiled compassionately.
  "I'm going home. I'll tell my college friends. Love, Beauty, Truth, and a citizen's dividend. I'll redistribute it all. Maybe my magic. . .will help somehow. I have no idea how. But. . .I could advertise with it or something." Phyllis stood up.
  "Call me or write me any time." Chiharu Sakai offered, holding out her hand.
  "I will." Phyllis Landstrum shook it.
  It had been a good fight.
* * *
  Like usual, Isao Oono was with Masanori during visiting hours. The first few times Isao had visited, they had caught up on all of their recent fights. Isao had mocked Masanori for losing to a tree man, and Masanori had praised Isao for another successful run-in with North Korea. But the conversation had quickly turned to their lost friends. Isao talked about all the conversations they had had together. Even the stupid ones, that really hadn’t meant anything. They traded inside jokes Masanori, Isao, Nao, Hisoka, and Ryo had shared. A lot of conversations started with, “Do you remember when. . .?” Masanori always remembered when. That was a solace. Sometimes Isao thought he might be a little morbid company, and would try to turn the conversation away from his memories. But he couldn’t. Somehow or other, he always found himself asking, “Do you remember when we first met Nao? She was singing on a sidewalk, with just her acoustic guitar and a tin can for tips. I don’t think she even had a place to sleep until we invited her back to base. . .”
  And a few minutes later, he was suddenly starting a new story, “Do you remember when Ryo asked Nao to be the heroine’s voice actor for his series? She refused, saying she was a singer. Then Ryo called her stupid and elitist. She stormed out of the place and he chased her down. They were yelling at each for hours but at the end they were a couple and she was playing the voice of his heroine's role. I wonder what Ryo said to her. I mean, that’s pretty sly, don’t you think? Nao was furious with him, storming out of the place, and in the next two hours, he had a girlfriend and his heroine’s voice actor. . .” Isao laughed, but his eyes wanted to cry.
  Masanori laughed with him, wishing he had Ryo’s luck with girls. Then he would tell about Hisoka with his Captain Japan shield, white with a red sun in the middle, that could break through or block anything, and how only Hisoka could have imagined both his strongest weapon and strongest armor into a single object. Hisoka had always been frustrated with Masanori and Isao. “Why was your magic so creative? I can’t fight you min-max exploiters. One cuts off the universe around me and sends me into the void? How do I block that? And Isao, what the hell, he walks up and stabs me whenever he wants and I’m dead before I know I’m in a fight? It makes my shield look ridiculous.” They promised him his shield looked great. Even though it did look ridiculous. They both started laughing over that. Hisoka had liked going out in his costume and fighting crime. Isao kept wondering if any of them blamed him for being gone. He kept wondering if Ryo, Hisoka, Nao and he together could have defeated Claus.
  “No, you would have died with them.” Masanori answered.
  “I could’ve gotten a hit.” Isao stubbornly insisted.
  “With Indigo’s barrier and his full plate still on? And with him still flying?”
  “With flash move. . .” Isao suggested.
  “What’s stronger? Flash move or firestorm into carbon monoxide gas deflected back into an implosion? And Claussurvived that. You know full well you exploited an opening that no one but those girls could have created for you.” Masanori said.
  “I could have tried.” Isao insisted.
  “Yes, you could have tried, and died. And then Claus would have come here and killed all of us, too, and that would be the end. The end of everything. Isao, I thank the spirits you were in North Korea. It was divine providence that kept you out of harm’s way. If you feel guilty for saving the world I will punch you in the face.” Masanori said.
  “Go ahead and try, old man. I was always quicker than you.” Isao grinned.
  “Short spears stab faster than katana, but they can’t parry.” Masanori sneered.
  “Like I’ve ever had to parry someone.” Isao laughed. Not about his spear. About his realization that Masanori was right, and Isao had been exactly where the gods wanted him to be. Where the gods had directed him to be. The guilt would go away, he had avenged his friends, he had protected the light of the world, and that was surely enough. But the loneliness wouldn't stop. He missed them so much. It’s like he could see them all here again, right beside him, whenever he closed his eyes. They were alive just a week ago. Just one week ago they had all been real. Not figments of my imagination. Warm, tangible, living breathing friends who would laugh with him, spar with him, and eat instant ramen with him in front of the TV. People he could share anything with, and never feel afraid. Now it was just down to Masanori. Masanori and Isao were the only two people who really knew these people ever existed. They were the last two carriers of these people’s existence left in the world. Isao wouldn’t let the Dead Enders take Miyamoto in his injured state. The assassinations would just have to wait. Masanori was his only remaining friend.
  That was when Isao’s cellphone rang. Which was strange, because the only person who should know his number anymore was Masanori. He answered it, expecting some stupid computerized advertisement.
  “Hello?” Isao said.
  “Hello, Oono? This is Kotone Nakano speaking. Um. . . you may not know me.” A young girl was speaking on the phone. She sounded nervous.
  “Sorry, I don’t. But you seem to know me.” Oono replied.
  “Well, see. When you stabbed Reinhardt, Shiori overheard you talking like. . .well. . .like Inigo Montoya from Princess Bride. . .and you happened to mention your name.” Nakano confessed.
  “Oh! I’m sorry. You must be one of the girls.” Isao Oono’s voice became much more friendly.
  “Right. I’m the one who rusted the armor away. I like to think it helped.” Nakano said nervously.
  “It did. I couldn’t believe my good luck when it happened. There’s no telling how strong the strongest Dead Ender’s ‘strongest armor’ was. My spear probably would have just smushed against it, without you.” Isao thanked her.
  “Thank you. That. . .I’m glad. It’s so hard keeping up with Chiharu and Shiori. I’m always worried. . .that I’m second tier or something. . .” Nakano trailed off.
  “From what I saw, you were the most valuable player of that fight. You helped the attack while dodging lightning and sword slashes, keeping his eyes off the true threats the entire fight. That’s not second tier, Nakano. If anyone’s second tier, it’s me. I just sneaked up on a guy from behind and stabbed him. I can’t even fly.” Isao encouraged her.
  “You just sneaked up and stabbed him? We were at our wits end trying to hurt him, he always had time to block or dodge our attacks, but you finished him in seconds. That’s second tier?” Nakano laughed. Isao smiled to himself. Okay, so, maybe he had done his part during that fight too.
  “So what’s this call about?” Isao asked.
  “Right, well, we’re having a party at my house this weekend. And I thought, maybe Oono would like to come. And then I thought, you simply had to come because you didn’t give any of us a chance to thank you for that night. I was unconscious at the time, so I can’t even put a face to your voice.” Nakano said.
  “Well, technically no one’s seen my face because I was in a ninja veil.” Isao corrected her.
  “All the more reason for you to come over. I. . .I don’t normally call up strange boys. Please say yes.” Nakano insisted.
  “Before then, how did you get this number?” Isao asked.
  “Mr. Miyamoto told me, of course.” Nakano answered. Isao glared at the man sitting in bed, who held up his hands innocently.
  “Was this his plan, some sort of ‘let’s cheer up Isao?’ party?” Isao asked her.
  “No, we just wanted your number so you could keep in touch. All for one, and one for all, you know?” Nakano asked.
  “Ah. . .I guess that is a good idea.” Isao admitted.
  “This party is my plan. Inviting you was all my plan too. So if you say no, you’re rejecting a thirteen year old girl who will cry, and cry, and cry, because the first time she asked for a date with a boy, she was turned down.” Nakano said.
  “So now this is a date?” Isao’s eyebrows went up.
  “It is if you want it to be.” Nakano laughed. “It’s also a sleepover party with friends if you want it to be. Or if you just want it to be some sort of formal tea ceremony where we all just glare at each other and walk in slow motion, we can do that too. We all want to thank you, we owe you some gesture, so. . .”
  “I’ll come. But it will only be a date if you’re pretty.” Isao agreed.
  “Then it’s a date.” Nakano replied confidently. “And be sure to tell Mr. Miyamoto that.”
  “Why?” Isao asked, confused.
  “Just be sure to tell him.” Nakano insisted.
  “Okay. . ?” Isao agreed.
  “My address is 1473 Iza St. Look up directions on Google. We start at twelve noon, this Sunday. Don’t stand me up.” Nakano ordered.
  “Got it. See you then.” Isao finished writing down her address.
  “See you then.” Nakano agreed happily, and ended the call.
  “What was that?” Miyamoto asked.
  “I’m going on a date with Kotone.” Isao said bemusedly. “She told me to tell you.”
  Miyamoto beamed happily. “Clever girl.”
  “Why? What’s this about?” Isao asked suspiciously.
  “Call it a bet. A bet between the two of us.” Miyamoto said.
  “Who’s winning?” Isao asked.
  “I don’t know.” Miyamoto shrugged it off casually. Well, it was none of Isao’s business.

Chapter 12

  Mastermind was a man who would soon become a wyrd. Of course, he had no intention of turning himself into one of those silly floating gems that had to follow a human's orders. No, he was going to become a real wyrd. The ones the wyrd council talked about. The ones who spanned solar systems, traveled between galaxies, fed off the very atmosphere, lived for eons, and had at their fingertips all the power and all the knowledge of the universe. The moment his wyrd, Lust, had told him about the plane he had come from, Mastermind had known what he wanted most in life. To shed his human form and transcend. To become a higher order being that was akin to a God. The wyrds complained that their magic would run out in a 'mere' two hundred years. And yet, that was already over a hundred years of additional lifespan, all in perfect health. A place without annoying human needs like the digestive tract. Without having to work to earn your food. Without worrying about what temperature it was. Without insects. Without disease. Without everything that was disgusting and frustrating about this world. Up there, somewhere, in the higher dimensions, was Mastermind's destiny.
  The only problem was that wyrds had discovered no way to fold up. They considered the act impossible. But what did wyrds know? There must be a way. And that was why the magic that he had manifested was centered entirely around teleportation. He had attempted to immediately teleport to the etheric plane, but it had failed. Then he had built a machine to amplify his magic, and tried it again. That, too, had failed. He added to the machine, he improved it further and further, he tried again and again, and always it had failed. That was when he had heard about the Choice Giver 'Masanori Miyamoto.' He was a thorn in the council's side. He was always showing up and dispatching their foot soldiers. He was always saving other Choice Givers at the last moment. And there was one other thing they said about the man. He was a master of folding.
  Mastermind had instantly scrapped his old designs and restarted with new ones. The first trick was to find someone with compulsion magic. Her name was Tien Feng. He had no illusions of trying to convince Miyamoto to help cast the teleportation spell. The machine required a good deal of energy to fold a human up into the form of a wyrd. To be precise, once the reaction started, it would suck up all the energy of the universe in a microsecond. But who cared, if it could get Mastermind up there? What use did he have for this lowly plane, now that he knew there was another, better one waiting out there? Convincing Miyamoto wouldn't be a problem. Whoever Tien Feng compelled would do whatever she said, so long as she lived. To get her on board, Mastermind had had to share his plan, his dream of becoming a wyrd, with her. The machine might support the transcendence of them both, who knew. Mastermind had programmed the computer to provide him all the energy necessary, and her whatever was left. He could be magnanimous, so long as it didn't interfere with his dream. The next step had been when he met Robo. He didn't know Robo's name, and had just started calling him that for convenience. He didn't even know if Robo was really a robot. What he did know is that Robo would follow his orders unquestioningly, and would never betray his trust. This was of vital importance, because Robo had the one magic technique Mastermind needed to complete his plan.
  Miyamoto was being protected by an enormous gathering of Choice Givers, more than Mastermind had any hope of defeating alone. The council had its own plan on how to deal with this gathering of Choice Givers. After Reinhardt's failure, they had given up on direct confrontation. The Indigo-Reinhardt pair, after all, had been their trump card. Losing him had shaken the council deeply. Now they talked of a much more patient plan -- Keep recruiting more wyrds from the etheric plane, and collect enough Dead Enders that there was no possibility of defeat. A hundred magically contracted Dead Enders, or a thousand. But those kinds of numbers might be years in the making. So far, Mastermind had only been given an army of six. Plus, despite what the wyrd council thought, Mastermind had no intention of leading such a fight. A fight like that might kill Miyamoto. And if Miyamoto died, Mastermind's folding machine wouldn't work. He would be stuck in this fleshy form forever.
  No, Mastermind didn't want an army that could go kill the gathering of Choice Givers that was guarding Miyamoto. What he wanted was a quick, surgical strike. He wanted to get in, compel Miyamoto, and get back to his machine where he could begin the magic ritual. If only those other Choice Givers ever dropped their guard! Their wyrds constantly scryed for both each other's location, and the location of any Dead Enders who might approach them. Mastermind had been at this maddening impasse ever since he had heard of the samurai. Robo was the breaker of this impasse.
  Robo had a simple technique. He could create a large block around a person. No magic or physical objects could get out of, or into, the block. You could talk to people in the box, and air could go in and out, but anything remotely large was stopped cold. It was a useless technique in terms of combat. To make matters worse, the box lasted a day, but could only be used once a week. But it was the spell Mastermind needed. It was a way to capture Miyamoto without harming him, and a way of escaping Miyamoto’s friends without being harmed. The fact that Robo's magic was practically made to order was as suspicious as the thing's complete loyalty. But Mastermind didn't care how or why this convenient tool had been given to him. All he cared about was that it worked.
  At last, with Robo, Tien Feng, Miyamoto, his lab machine, the physical energy of the universe, and Mastermind's teleportation magic, he would become a wyrd. It had been a long trip. But transcendence was worth it. He couldn't wait to witness the world of the wyrds firsthand.
* * *
  Kotone had worked with Mama for over an hour to pick out the perfect outfit for her date with Isao. She could call him by his first name now, since they were going on a date. Even if that date meant watching anime together with all of her friends. It was the feelings that counted. Halfway or so through her conversation with Isao, she had realized he wasn't just a cool guy. He was also a nice guy. At that point, she had begged him for a date.
  After Miyamoto had rejected her, she had thought about why. She already knew she was too young, that's why she had asked him to 'wait for her.' But he had rejected that idea too. Which meant it wasn't just her age that was the matter. It was something she was supposed to gain in-between now and age eighteen. In short, it was experience. How could she talk about long term love when she had never been in love? How did she know Miyamoto was the right man for her when she hadn't even met any others? How did she know she could handle a real relationship without ever being in one? How did she know she'd still like men like Miyamoto if she'd gone through a lot of life transforming experiences between now and then? Without experience, whether she was eighteen or not, Miyamoto would still reject her, and for good reason. Without answering his doubts, about whether he was really her top choice, and not just a crush by a naive girl, about whether she could truly love someone, and not just think she did, she would be just as useless at eighteen as she was now at thirteen.
  The problem was, Miyamoto was a Choice Giver, as was she. After being used to having so many Choice Givers in her life, she really didn't want to trade down to ordinary mortals. She knew how good these people were. They were the best people on Earth. So a question like "How do you know I'm the right boy for you?" was very difficult to answer. Unless, of course, she could date another Choice Giver. Isao Oono was the perfect selection.
  This didn't mean she intended to shortchange Isao. If they fell in love, if they got along perfectly, if they formed a lot of happy memories together, if they learned everything a couple needed to learn, then that was fine too. But Kotone had made a bet. She was making a bet that at eighteen, she would still want to be with Miyamoto. And she was making a bet, that at eighteen, Miyamoto would for the first time want to be with her. It was just a wild girl's fancy, but there it was. When Kotone had seen the opportunity to inform Miyamoto of how admirably she was fulfilling his expectations, of how well she was taking his rejection, of how dutifully she was trying to overcome his objections, she had taken it in a flash. She was sure Miyamoto had gotten the message.
  Kotone had finally settled on a tie-dye t-shirt and a black skirt. She thought black was suited to a date with Isao. She had kept her hair loose, except for a heart decorated hair clip to keep her bangs out of her eyes. After a long check in the mirror, she smiled, and decided she would definitely pass his 'pretty' test. She was anxious for the clock to reach noon, and was already ebullient though nothing had happened yet. She had gone over her entire anime collection trying to find something suitable for Rei Rin. It couldn't be anything sad, not with Project Heal Rei still underway. It couldn't be about fighting, not when they were all girls and had plenty of fighting in their own lives. Romance was unsuitable, since they were too young to really relate to it. Her first date with a boy who would probably journey all over the world after this and see her maybe once a month did not qualify as 'able to relate to romance.' And even this thin reed she could lay claim to was no use for Rei. The anime, of course, had to be one of the best ever made. That leftK-On! and Working!! Kotone decided K-On! appealed more to men than women, and the selection was finally done. They would watch Working!!, start to finish, in an anime sleepover marathon. And Rei would laugh out loud from beginning to end, to the point that all the sad things in her life were completely forgotten, and all she could remember was the here and now. Once Rei had tasted the forbidden fruit, she could always show her K-On! next. And from there. . .the world. Each and every time pulling her away from her painful past and towards a totally different, totally pristine mental plane where all anime fans dwelled. It was heaven on Earth. A place they could all retreat to no matter how bad the real world became. Rei, of all people, should appreciate that most of all.
  When the doorbell rang, Kotone's heart jumped. She didn't know who at the door would make her more nervous, Isao or Rei. But she knew she would be a proper host to them both, and spread the warmth to both their troubled hearts. Because that's what she had decided it meant to be a Choice Giver.
* * *
  Rei Rin took off her outdoor shoes and put on the indoor slippers Kotone's family had provided for them, formally stating, "Sorry to intrude." Kotone hugged her immediately, then took her hand and started pulling her towards the television in the living room.
  "This makes everyone." Kotone said, surveying her friends like a particularly good day's catch of fish in her net.
  "And now, introductions. Everyone, this is Isao Oono. He's a fifteen year old Choice Giver, a good friend of Miyamoto's, an assassin of evil dictators all across the world, whose magic is invisibility, and his wyrd is Black. Oh, and as of ascertaining that I was pretty upon my opening the door, Isao also became my boyfriend." Kotone smiled proudly.
  Everyone clapped, and the girls all bowed and said, "Pleased to meet you, we'll be in your care from here on."
  "Now that we're all here, I wanted to tell Isao something important. It turns out that when Chiharu and I were unconscious, Miyamoto was weak as a newborn babe, Rei was a complete mess of injuries, and Shiori was the only one left standing, Isao Oono gave Claus the finishing blow. Maybe Shiori could have somehow handled it from there, I don't know. But I, for one, would like to formally thank Isao for coming to our rescue. Isao Oono, thank you for rescuing me and my friends." Kotone bowed deeply. The others were quick to bow and thank him too. He looked a little embarrassed.
  "Now, Isao, pay attention, because these are your new friends. The short girl with the long hair is Rei Rin, a reformed Dead Ender. She wields negative energy, her wyrd is Onyx. It's the same color as yours, only a much prettier name." Kotone teased him. "Be nice to Rei, or I'll never forgive you."
  "Next to her is Shiori Rin, her older twin sister. Never mind that they look nothing alike. Shiori Rin is Rei Rin's older twin sister, that's our story, and we're sticking to it." Kotone glared at Isao as though he had tried to raise an objection. "Shiori has short hair and likes to eat too much."
  "Hey!" Shiori protested, covering her stomach protectively with her hands so no one looked.
  Kotone laughed. "But she's also the best friend, best sister, best fighter, and best counselor in the world. I love her. Anywhere she goes, the room brightens up. Whenever she leaves, she takes a part of my heart and my happiness with her. Walking to school with Shiori and Rei is the happiest part of my day." Kotone went on, like usual, refusing to be embarrassed, projecting the confidence that let whatever she was doing be what was normal.
  "Shiori wields fire magic, and puns. Shiori was a firebug even before she got her wyrd, you should have seen her when we went camping." Kotone smiled. "But now she's much worse. She solves all the problems of the world by burning them up."
  "I do not!" Shiori blushed fiercely.
  "I think Shiori likes you, Isao, so if you want to dump me for her, I'll understand. But do it quickly, or you'll hurt my feelings, because I have no intention of dumping you." Kotone said.
  "Enough about me, Kotone!" Shiori said.
  "Shiori's our brightest Choice Giver, she probably gave us our sparks too.” Kotone ignored Shiori's wishes. “She's so bright it ended up taking three of us just to carry the load. Her wyrd is Awesome. He's the best scryer among all the wyrds, and was the first to discover this world. He discovered it by finding Shiori. The contact was so shocking Shiori fell down during softball practice, and Awesome refused to contract with anyone but her. From there on, Awesome has constantly tried to peep on Shiori naked, because apparently scrying her just isn't enough anymore. He's also a deadly stalker of Rei Rin. His lechery knows no bounds." Kotone grinned.
  "That's totally unfounded!" Awesome choked, flashing red.
  "Sitting over there with the shoulder length hair -- don't flinch away from me Chiharu. My introductions have been entirely complimentary. Unless there's some shameful secret eating away at you that you don't want me to expose?" Kotone asked inquisitively. When Chiharu said nothing, Kotone resumed.
  "As I was saying, sitting over there is Chiharu Sakai. She's our smartest Choice Giver. Her magic is redirecting vectors. Her wyrd is Cyan, who is a perfect fit, because they're both unflappable elitists who always watch the world as though it's only on TV and never actually affects them personally. Cyan’s already begged Chiharu to marry him, which one-ups even Awesome’s lasciviousness.” Kotone continued.
  Cyan spluttered, “Lies, all lies!”
  But Kotone went on like she hadn’t heard. “From her crown of unstained air, Chiharu commonly descends to give us guidance on school work, philosophy, how to win battles, or how to organize our days off together. I would be helpless without Chiharu, concerning everything. I love her so much." Kotone smiled warmly at her. She then turned to face Isao Oono directly and took a deep breath, looking into his eyes.
  "I'm your last friend that needs introducing, and hopefully your first girlfriend, Isao. My name is Kotone Nakano. I'm a Choice Giver, just like these two, but I don't do it by acting on instinct, like Shiori, or giving advice, like Chiharu. All I do is follow the warmth. I think that there's love and kindness everywhere, if we just open our hearts to it. And I think that if we weren't so afraid, we could love others freely, and earn their love in turn. That is why I can bare my heart to you like this, right off the bat. I trust everyone up until the very moment they betray me, so please don't cheat on me. I'll never suspect it, I'll have no mental defenses against it, and it will tear me apart." Kotone gave Isao a pitiful look.
  "My magic is a great reflection of my character, I am a poisonous, acidic, plague-bearing bugmaster. My wyrd is Magnolia, who is great at explaining things, and gets along well with everyone. Everyone says I'm beautiful, but Magnolia sees into my heart, and she says they don't have the first idea how beautiful I really am. I still like it when people compliment my looks though, so feel free to praise me as often as you like." Kotone smiled hopefully.
  "We know you lost all of your friends in just the last few days. But we're here for you, now. We can't be your old friends, but we could be completely new ones, who love you just as much, if you let us. I can't say I've suffered any great sorrows, though I can tell you, lightning really hurts. But just imagining how I would feel if I lost all my friends, it hurts enough to make me cry. So, I think I can understand you, if only a little. I think we can all understand you. Don't imagine you're alone and no one can ever understand you anymore. You're here today, and we're watching a funny anime, and you can laugh along with the rest of us. If Rei can laugh, so can you. None of your old friends will hold it against you." Kotone concluded her introductions.
  "Today, we're watching Working!! We're also eating crepes and ice cream for dinner. And we're pulling out sleeping bags and falling asleep on the carpet of this very living room when night falls. We're also talking about anything and everything. I'm turning on the subtitles, so if you're bored with what people are saying, just follow the anime and zone us out. Don't be a cad and demand we all be silent for your exclusive benefit. This is a free talking zone. Shushers will be escorted out of the environs. I'd also like to take a walk with you alone, Isao, just to stroll the neighborhood. It. . .well, it's about as daring as I'm willing to be with you, and it's as daring as my parents will allow me to be anyway, so it will just have to suffice. I hope you didn't come here with any evil designs?"
  Isao lifted his hands up palms open and shook his head.
  "Good. Because all of our wyrds can see you're a Choice Giver. So we expect exemplary behavior from you. All men are supposed to follow or emulate your choices, so if it turns out that includes taking advantage of little girls -- !" Kotone shook her finger at him.
  "It won't! It doesn't include that! You're the one that insisted this was even a date!" Isao protested vociferously.
  "So, would you like to take a walk with me around the neighborhood, after, say, we finish our crepes, and that's all?" Kotone asked hopefully.
  "Yes, I'd love that." Isao agreed, wishing the spotlight would finally leave him.
  "Ok everyone, I'm your hostess for the day. If you need anything or have any questions, just ask me. I've already prepared everyone tea, so I'll be fetching that now." Kotone bowed, her face full of nervous happiness, like she didn't know what to do with her feelings anymore.
  "Don't trip! 'Waaaagh!'" Shiori squealed. Chiharu laughed, while Kotone blushed and Isao and Rei looked on bewildered.
  "This is the problem with making new friends. They don't have all of our inside jokes yet." Chiharu kept laughing, and started explaining Kotone's hospital visit to see Miyamoto. "And then, waaagh!" Chiharu started laughing again. "Ah, you just had to be there."
  Rei smiled. Even though she hadn't been there, it was still funny. She gave out a real giggle at the idea of Kotone falling straight onto her nose and dousing a guy with vase water.
  "Two girls who will go unnamed are not getting their tea." Kotone said fiercely, putting steaming cups from her tray in front of the others.
  "Forgive me, Kotone. Give me tea too. You called me fattttttt." Shiori begged.
  "Oh very well. Since this is a day of good cheer." Kotone smiled and served her best friends.
  "And now, let the anime begin!" Kotone excitedly pressed play on her dvd player, and then rushed over to sit next to Isao. Not touching. Just close enough to exchange glances whenever they liked, and feel like they meant something to each other.
  Rei Rin tried to soak it all in with an open mind, and nonjudgmental eyes, wanting to find whatever Kotone found so wonderful in this series. Wanting to follow the warmth that Kotone was trying to give her. It was a story about eccentric people hanging out and talking during and after work at a cafe. They didn't stand around making jokes, their entire existences were jokes. And whenever two of these people collided, something ridiculous was said or done, like how a particle was created whenever two fields collided in physics. It was inevitable, and it was incredible. Rei started laughing out loud. After a bit longer, even Shiori gave in and started laughing. No one had seen anything like this. Maybe Kotone was right, maybe it was just about finding the right series.
  After everyone had calmed down they did start to chat. Kotone brought out some rice crackers and pocky to snack on.
  "It's such a shame though. I wanted to win the national tournament and give Rei the trophy." Shiori sighed.
  "Our goal was one win. Not winning the nationals." Chiharu threw a cracker at her.
  "But, 7-0?" Shiori sighed again.
  "It can't be helped. You're such a terrible pitcher." Chiharu shrugged.
  "I am not! I was just tired from last game." Shiori protested.
  "I don't mind, sister." Rei quickly interposed. "I have so many happy memories from that first game, it's like I didn't even see the second. I wouldn't care even if you lost a million to zero."
  "I think they'd call the game before that point." Chiharu remarked judiciously.
  "Rei, you're even worse than Chiharu! Do you really think your sister could lose a million to zero?" Shiori's wide eyes looked like they were going to cry.
  "I didn't -- !" Rei panicked. And then everyone laughed, and she realized Shiori was giving her a triumphant gotchalook. Was it so impossible for them to be mad at each other that anything mean had to be a joke? And yet, it seemed that was the case. I have so much to learn from these people.
  "Chiharu, tell me how you converted 'fair and square' girl." Kotone was brimming over with curiosity.
  "Oh, it was nothing. Phyllis was willing to listen fairly to what I had to say, I'm always right about everything, and so of course she walked away a convert." Chiharu said.
  "That can't be the entire story!" Shiori interjected.
  "Ok, well. Hmm. Actually Phyllis did teach me something important. When I asked her why she was okay with being a Dead Ender, she said something interesting. She said that perfection was a straight line, that never deviated in any direction. A Dead Ender was just someone aiming for a perfect world. She was proud of her title. She thought we were the ugly ones, because we kept creating so many possibilities, we kept adding so much change and chaos to the mix, that the Earth could never settle down into its one ideal shape." Chiharu said.
  "Is that true, Awesome?" Shiori asked.
  "It could be." Awesome said. "Our scrying can only see if a person's choices lead to stagnation or extinction. If that stagnation were an ideal utopia, or a horrible dystopia, we couldn't tell the two apart."
  "But from our point of view," Cyan was quick to add, "Stagnation is a horrible, ugly ending no matter where things stagnate. There's no such thing as a stagnant utopia. There's always got to be something better, just a bit further ahead, that we should be striving for."
  "I tend to agree with Cyan." Chiharu said, sipping her tea. "But it got me to thinking about the true nature of Dead Enders. Their secret identity, if you like. If you look back on all the people we fought, they all shared one essence. Whether in this world, or in some fantasy 'next world,' they all wanted to impose a universalist utopia. They knew what this world needed, they had everything figured out, and it was okay to impose it by force. Whatever prize they had in their eye, it was so blindingly bright, that it was worth any cost. Even sacrificing everything else that anyone else might think is good about life. If the utopia could be reached, the rest didn’t matter. This is why they cut off all our possibilities. They force us all into their single mold. George Flint probably wanted a bunch of growing trees, for instance. And so everything else, in the way of trees growing, had to go. Rei wanted a perfect, still, quiet zero, where no one would have to suffer anymore. And so everyone had to cease existing so the zero could be put in place. Phyllis wanted perfect equality, even if it meant sacrificing freedom. Mahmut wanted Allah to rule the world, even if most people would suffer under Him. Claus wanted his daughter to be safe, even if we had to be killed for it. They always take some narrow good, balloon it up, and then imagine they’ve fulfilled the highest potential of mankind. They always leave so much good on the cutting board, that will never be fulfilled anymore. And that is why they always lead to dead ends.”
  “So what does that make a Choice Giver? Someone who doesn’t believe in utopia?” Isao asked, dissatisfied.
  “No. If it were that easy, there’d be more than fifty of us on Earth. Or however many of us there are left now. It’s more like Choice Givers are the people who really could reach a utopia. But our utopia is different from theirs. It’s open ended enough, it is particular and local enough, that it never narrows the full spectrum of Good’s expression. For instance, this sleepover, here, now, is a utopia. It is a utopia for everyone in it. Am I wrong?” Chiharu looked around the gathering. No one thought she was wrong.
  “Choice Givers are people, if emulated or followed, who really can give life the full appreciation it deserves. If everyone were like us, they could all create their own little utopias, each suited to their own needs. And those little utopias could be woven together into a tapestry, seamlessly flowing into one another like small trickles flowing into a river that empties into the ocean -- only the ocean the waters of life empty out into is the ocean of stars. Trillions of utopias, utopias like this gathering of friends, circling around trillions of shining stars, across the entire multiverse. We, uniquely, have a dream as big as life's possibilities, and we are taking the right paths to get there. That's what our wyrds are telling us. That's what we somehow need to tell the world.”
  “See? What did I tell you about Chiharu explaining philosophy for us peons?” Kotone grinned at Isao.
  “I believe you. That. . .was astounding.” Isao said, shaken.
  “I wish I could convert a Dead Ender, like you and Shiori.” Kotone sighed.
  “You will!” Shiori assured her. “You’re a great speaker, Kotone!”
  “I hope so.” Kotone sighed. “Maybe all my poison and acid is trying to tell me I’ll never measure up.”
  “And maybe you’re an idiot.” Chiharu said. “I won’t let anyone talk badly about you, Kotone. Even you.”
  “Err. . .but you just. . .” Isao started to point out in confusion.
  “Oooooooh. Isao’s coming to Kotone’s rescue! Oooooooh” The girls all turned on him with expectant eyes.
  “That is. . .Kotone! Let’s go on a walk!” Isao grabbed her hand and pulled her up. Kotone looked at the crowd and then started blushing furiously. For all her embarrassment, though, she didn’t let his hand go for as long as Rei could see them.
* * *
  “Shiori, wake up.” Awesome flashed urgently. “Dead Enders. Three of them, heading for Miyamoto’s hospital. We have to hurry.”
  “Mm? Awesome? Tell me in the morning.” Shiori tried to close her eyes.
  “Wake up you stupid baby!” Awesome rammed into her forehead.
  “Ow!” Shiori woke up, rubbing her forehead. “What did you do that for?”
  “Three - dead -enders- heading - for - Miyamoto.” Awesome repeated, flashing to accentuate each word.
  “Not again.” Shiori moaned. “Everyone, wake up, we have to go save Mr. Miyamoto. Again.”
  Chiharu yawned and rolled up from the floor. “What is this, the third time?”
  “This time, I’ll definitely convert one through talking.” Kotone looked determined.
  Isao just got up. “Let’s go, Black.” Rei sighed and squeezed Onyx to her chest.
  Awesome blinked. When did three Dead Enders together stop being a serious threat? These girls were getting to be ridiculous.

Chapter 13
  Everyone arrived at the base of the hospital with time to spare. Isao went invisible. Shiori curled up on the grass to go back to sleep. Kotone practiced speech lines, hoping for the exact right introduction that would finally convert a Dead Ender. It was annoying when Dead Enders attacked in the middle of the night. But at least that was better than attacking during school hours. Chiharu suppressed a yawn and sighed. School was coming up in just a few hours. After the fight, there probably wasn't even time to get back to sleep.
  Miraculously, Shiori had no problem falling back asleep. Chiharu supposed it was like in those soldier stories. Soldiers eventually figured out that any downtime was time to sleep, and slept accordingly. Or maybe she was just too fearless for her own good. Or maybe she trusted Chiharu to kick her awake before the fight started. Well, that could be arranged.
  I wonder what they'll hit us with this time. They had never fought a party of Dead Enders working together. But then again, none of them seemed as dangerous as Claus Reinhardt. In fact, all three of them together didn't seem as dangerous as Claus Reinhardt. As far as Chiharu was concerned, they were just throwing away valuable pieces. If the dark wyrds ever thought to attack with ten, or twenty at once, instead of all of these piecemeal nuisance raids. . .what would they do then? Maybe we should give up on living in Japan, and go search out the other Choice Givers around the world, and make a full scale army. Maybe we should start hunting down them and killing dark wyrds the moment they appear. But if Chiharu did that, she knew she would never enjoy her life again. It would just be battle after battle, forever. I don't want that. I want to enjoy my life with my friends, my normal life with my family, with Saki and Aiko. Maybe it was stupid, but there it was. There was no point protecting her life through a route that would already make it unlivable.
  "Incoming." Cyan told her. Chiharu stepped over and nudged Shiori with her foot.
  "nnn. I'm up." Shiori sighed, getting back on her feet.
  "Let's let Kotone lead the conversation with the Dead Enders." Chiharu suggested. "She's feeling left out."
  "Fine by me. Just tell me when to firestorm." Shiori held a hand over her enormous yawn.
  The three Dead Enders appeared. They were all flying. Chiharu sighed. Everyone just loved to fly these days. The one in the middle had some sort of crazy silver skinsuit with pretend atoms orbiting around him. To his right was a white cloaked and hooded figure with a metallic mask, keeping himself, or herself, aloft with a jet pack. To his left was a girl wearing a Chinese style dress with devil horns, bat wings, and a tail. That was pretty imaginative. At least that Dead Ender seemed to realize she was a bad guy through and through. Or maybe she just thought it was cute.
  "I'm Kotone Nakano, a Choice Giver." Kotone started, nerving herself up for the best speech ever. The hooded figure started making weird hand signals. Chiharu bit her cheek and readied a counterspell. Their resolution had been to keep talking even if they had to dodge attacks, as long as they could. She had to give Kotone this chance to shine.
  Suddenly, a transparent yellow box appeared around the group. Chiharu let loose a counterspell, but it fizzled upon touching the wall. Deflect fizzled too. Everything fizzled on contact. Isao reappeared touching the barrier, looking startled. The entire group was trapped.
  "What--?" Kotone looked around, holding her wand uncertainly.
  "Our business is not with you children." The atom-orbiting man said. "Don't worry, the box won't do you any harm. It's just that you can't leave it for the rest of the day."
  "Who are you? What is your objective?" Kotone challenged the man.
  "I am Mastermind. Our objective is simple. The world the wyrds come from is superior to our own. Therefore, we will fold up. It is time for this cross-cultural contact to stop being so one-sided. With the help of Masanori, we will become wyrds." Mastermind happily explained himself.
  "Coi, Xanadu!" Sparkles appeared around the hospital window of Miyamoto's room. And then the man, weak as ever, walked into the air with sword ready. "You're a fool if you think I'll help you with anything."
  "Of course. I would be a fool, if I thought that." Mastermind smirked.
  And then Miyamoto's face went slack, and he lowered his sword.
  "By the way, I am Tien Feng. And that was my magic. Remember me, mortals." The devil flapped her wings. "For next time my name is spoken, I will be a god."
  "Stop! Wait!" Kotone yelled, flying into the box's yellow wall and bouncing off.
  "Come, Miyamoto." Tien Feng smirked. Chiharu had to shake her head. The girl had the suit of a succubus, and used compulsion magic of all things. Now that was a girl who knew what she wanted.
  "Yes, mistress." Miyamoto flew to them.
  "Robo, carry the man. He'll never make it back to base in that condition." Mastermind ordered.
  Robo didn't say anything, but just flew over on his rocket pack to pick the man up easily into his arms. It was almost comical to see a man in a princess carry hold like that. Robo's suit was certainly strong enough. In just a minute, the entire Dead Ender force had flown away. Chiharu sighed and sat down in her powersuit. They had been well and truly had.
  "What do we do? They've taken Miyamoto away!" Kotone wailed, kicking the wall of the box.
  "We wait a day." Chiharu shrugged. "Mastermind said they needed him 'to fold up.' We can only hope that they'll need him for more than a day. What a sick technique. Anti-magic barrier plus anti-physical barrier? At least they couldn't finish us off." Chiharu sighed. Could she have foreseen a move like this? How? No other Dead Ender had cast anything remotely like it. The world was indeed vast.
  "Awesome, are you okay?" Shiori asked worriedly. All wyrds needed continuous supplies of magic to survive.
  "No problem. The box is active in this dimension, my conduit is hyperdimensional." Awesome sighed. "But I do feel like a fool."
  "Is it possible?" Shiori asked. "Can people fold up?"
  "No, it's impossible. The energy needed for that sort of reaction. . .would devour the entire cosmos in a micro-second. . ." Awesome trailed off.
  "Which isn't a hindrance at all to a Dead Ender." Isao supplied.
  "Even then, wyrds have already done the math, there's no known way to fold up. We knew that when we came down here, it was permanent." Awesome said, regaining his confidence.
  "Mastermind sounded confident it could be done. It's not like wyrds have been studying folding for a long time. From what you told me, you only started worrying about the question a few weeks ago, right? Plus, wyrds only have their own magic to work with. They never considered what magic might emerge from wyrd-human contracts." Chiharu said.
  "Then it's over. We're going to sit here in this box until the universe explodes, and Mastermind achieves all his dreams, with Miyamoto his helpless accomplice." Rei Rin sat down, sighing.
  "It's not over. We have no idea how long Mastermind's plan takes. We don't even know if this box will really last as long as he said it would. We'll track them down and take Miyamoto back." Shiori said, patting Rei on the shoulder. Rei offered Shiori half a smile, as though she knew Shiori was just trying to cheer her up, but appreciated the gesture anyway.
  "If Mastermind can interact with the wyrd world, then so can we." Shiori said. "Awesome, you said your conduit is still connected. When you suck in more or less magic from the etheric plane, that's 'interacting' with the wyrd world, isn't it?" Shiori asked.
  "Well, sure, I guess." Awesome said. "But I already said, there's no way we could fold up, even if Mastermind and Miyamoto can. If you thought I could somehow transport us up my tube. . ."
  "No, who cares about that? Tell me, is anyone watching your conduits, to see how the wyrds connected to Choice Givers down here are doing?" Shiori asked, an idea clearly forming in her head.
  "Sure. If a wyrd on duty dies, the conduit will disappear, and then they'll know to send another wyrd replacement to his or her Choice Giver. That and scrying are about the only two things the Wyrd world can see about Earth." Awesome explained.
  "Then, would they notice if your conduit suddenly turned off?" Shiori asked.
  "Umm, are you angry with me, Shiori? Turning off my conduit would kill me." Awesome flashed worriedly.
  "Not if you were at absolute zero. Without a metabolism, you won't need any magic." Shiori smiled.
  Everyone looked at Rei.
  Awesome flashed his light, still not content. "So why would you want to turn me off? It's not like any new wyrds, even if they did arrive in the hopes of replacing me, could penetrate this box. We're just weak floating gems down here."
  "I'm not going to turn you off. I'm going to turn you off and on. Over and over. With just an 'on' and an 'off,' we have a binary code. '1', and '0.' Humans call it morse code, 'dot' and 'dash.' Surely wyrds, in your great wisdom, have developed a binary language with just two letters to work with?" Shiori asked excitedly.
  "I, yes. . .I suppose we have." Awesome looked flummoxed.
  "Then we've won." Shiori clapped her hands together. "Gods, we could have thought of this at any point. I can't believe it took Mastermind to tip me off."
  "Tip you off to what?" Chiharu asked, jealous that Shiori was somehow two steps ahead of her.
  "I've been wishing, hoping, for some way to turn off the spigot of dark wyrds that keep coming from your plane to go haunt ours. It just sounded like a dream, until now. Now I see that we've had all the pieces in place to do this since forever. We can send any message we want, right? What do you think would grab their attention, up top? We need to get them to realize your 'death' and 'non-death' is spelling out a coded message.
  "How about, Jack Sesame?" Cyan flashed whimsically. "He's a sort of folk story where we come from."
  "Okay, we have a day to sit around in here." Shiori started ordering them around. "Cyan, you don't have to teach Rei the language. Just tell her when to turn on and off eternal zero. Start spelling "Jack Sesame" with Awesome's conduit over and over again. Meanwhile, Onyx, you're going to tell us the location of the dark wyrd's base, the identities of all your friends, where you've hid your folding device, and your folding device backup plans, and anything else we need to know. And once you've told us, you're going to tell the wyrd government, in binary."
  "Why should I?" Onyx flashed petulantly.
  "Because if you don't Rei will cry." Shiori said.
  Onyx tried to blink carelessly and villainously not care. "Rei. . .look, Rei, Mastermind is just doing what we always wanted. He's destroying the whole universe. Let's not cooperate with them. This is our win."
  "Onyx, you can't fool me. You ceased being a villain ages ago. We're your friends. You were always my friend. You don't have to put up a tough front anymore." Rei coaxed him.
  "I. . .I am a proud villain of the honorable dark wyrd organization. . ." Onyx started, then everyone started laughing.
  "Dark wyrd organization? Do you guys really call yourselves that?" Kotone's asked.
  "Err, no, we're, the 'wyrd council.'" Onyx blinked a wave of black embarrassment.
  "You've already joined our side, or you wouldn't be using our terms, Onyx. Come on. We're all waiting on you. No one here will think less of you for being a good guy." Shiori appealed to him.
  "Am I really not important to you, Onyx?" Rei asked pitiably.
  ". . ." Onyx sighed. "You're right. Somewhere in there, I started to care. You Choice Givers. . .are entirely too corrosive."
  "If by corrosive you mean purifying, then yes, we are." Shiori answered him smugly. "Now get talking. We have all day in a box to tell the Wyrds up top about this."
  "But how will this help against Mastermind? You said we'd won." Chiharu complained.
  "Don't you get it, Chiharu? If we can turn off the spigot, then this is our final battle. How strong will we be, knowing this is our last fight, and one more victory means, means. . .everything? Our lives back. Our Earth saved. Just smack Mastermind in the face and we can go home and do whatever we want! If you remember that, how strong will we be? I don't care what's waiting for me in his evil lair. I can already feel the weight falling off my shoulders! From here on, we can do anything. Beat Mastermind, and our lives won't just be restricted to endless fights, there will be infinitepossibilities. We can all have a Christmas party, and visit a New Year's shrine together!" Shiori enthused.
  "You're really looking forward to Christmas, aren't you." Chiharu smiled, Shiori's hope flooding into her and lighting up her imagination.
  "Of course!" Shiori shouted. "Our lives begin here, today. Today, our lives begin anew. Who cares about Mastermind? Who cares about the universe exploding? We'll tear down anything in our way and go celebrate Christmas together! This is their final hand." Shiori said.
  "Their gotterdammerung." Chiharu grinned. "It's the twilight of the wyrds."
  Isao Oono grinned. "If only we could play 'Ride of the Valkyries' when we fly over to their base and take Miyamoto back."
  "I could hum it." Chiharu grinned back.
  "What are you two talking about?" Kotone asked jealously.
  "Our first inside joke, as new friends." Chiharu replied.
  "All friends need inside jokes. Miss Waaagh!" Isao grinned.
  Kotone tried to get angry, then she just laughed. Rei was already signaling, "Jack Sesame." Trapped in a box, the world in peril, and Miyamoto a slave to a succubus, the group had never been in higher spirits.
* * *
  Mastermind, Tien Feng, and Robo landed deep in the mountains of Japan, walking into a subterranean cave that housed his irreplaceable machine. Even with Miyamoto compelled, it's not like either of them knew how to incorporate their two teleportation techniques into the spark that would overload the machine. Somehow or other their magic could cause a chain reaction. Mastermind knew it could. But it would take time, experiments, and a deep amount of focus to do so.
  "Tien, bring Miyamoto, we're going to my lab. Robo, guard the entrance." The hooded figure turned and stood a silent sentinel.
  "What is this, Mastermind?" Ajani Ngige intercepted him and complained. He was one of those despicably petty Dead Enders with a petty dream. A drug dealer whose magic had manifested as the ability to create the perfect drug, without resistance building or side effects. Since to him pleasure was the sole purpose of life, Ajani had figured that distributing his drug would bring about his utopia. Mastermind sneered inside his head. As though a mind like mine could be wasted simply feeling good, when there was a whole universe just waiting to be explored above him.
  "We agreed not to make any moves until we had a decisive military advantage." Ajani complained.
  "The situation changed. The Choice Givers have decided to attack us. At least this way we caught their strongest member." Mastermind gestured to Miyamoto.
  "I don't like it. . .these guys beat Reinhardt. . ." Ajani mumbled.
  "Are you a man or a coward?" Tien Feng sneered. "They're schoolchildren. They're thirteen year olds. If they come here, kill them. It's not that complicated."
  "I don't like it either." Miguel Sores walked up to the entrance, Genevieve Desmarais like always in tow. "We were supposed to outnumber them. You've acted too soon."
  "By my count, there's seven of us and five of them. Four of them thirteen year old girls." Tien Feng rolled her eyes. "I think we've fulfilled the conditions necessary to win. That is, if you three do your part. I've already defeated myopponent."
  Miguel Sores was some sort of anarchist who wanted everyone to return to subsistence farming. Genevieve Desmarais was even worse. She just loved Miguel. Both of them made Mastermind sick. He was surrounded by pettiness. At least Robo was quiet and did what he, or she, was told. Mastermind could imagine that Robo was wise. Robo was a good talking companion. Mastermind could say whatever he wanted and Robo wouldn't say anything stupid in response.
  "I suppose they'll be coming here whether we like it or not." Miguel sighed. "But I'm bringing this up with the wyrd council."
  "Bring up whatever you want." Mastermind snarled. Fool. The wyrd council was going to evaporate into pure energy in the next few days. But go contact them all you want. This world is already dead to me. "Tien, let's go."
  "Cooooomminggg." Tien Feng said fetchingly, winking at the Dead Enders she left behind. Tien got the enormous joke being played on these losers. Tien wasn't bad company at all.
* * *
  "Amethyst, come here. What do you make of this?" Taupe asked the other guard on duty.
  "What?" Amethyst stored his phone away. Watching the Bulls game while on duty. Well, it was an extremely boring duty. Taupe didn't blame him.
  "Awesome, his conduit is blinking." Taupe pointed.
  "That's impossible. If his conduit stops, that means he died." Amethyst explained.
  "So what, he's dying and coming back to life hundreds of times, just for fun?" Taupe gestured. "Just see for yourself."
  The two guards stared at the conduit turning on and off, from perfect health to complete silence, over and over.
  "That. . .is weird." Amethyst finally granted.
  "Moreover, look, the blinking isn't just on and off. Look at the time gaps between them, they aren't the same period." Taupe insisted.
  "Long, long, short, short, long, short, long, short --" Amethyst started counting them.
  "That isn't random. He's purposefully showing us something. But what? What can a blinking conduit show anyone?" Taupe asked.
  "It can show anything. With two states, any amount of information can be conveyed." Amethyst replied, his mouth going slack. "By God, he's discovered a method of contact. True communication from the bottom up. As expected of our greatest scryer."
  "What are you talking about? How can 'on' and 'off' say anything?" Taupe asked.
  Amethyst hit a few buttons on his phone, summoning up the relevant data. "Here. The long-short code for our written language. I suppose it's a hobby only some of us learn. Now, let me watch for a bit."
  Taupe and Amethyst stared at the conduit sucking and not sucking, for longer and shorter amount of times.
  "J-A-C-K-S-E-S-A-M-E." Amethyst spelled out. Then there was a pause. "J-A-C-K-S-E-S-A-M-E."
  "That's not random." Taupe agreed.
  "Awesome's trying to get our attention." Amethyst agreed. "Taupe, call the higher ups. Actually, call everyone. Get the entire government here. They're going to want to see this."
  Taupe agreed. His hand shaking, he dialed up his captain. "Sir, we have something you're going to want to see."
* * *
  "Do you think they got the message?" Rei Rin asked, sitting on the floor of their box. Her voice was a whispered croak. Invoking eternal zero didn't take any real energy from the magical girl. The energy came from above, through the conduit. But just saying the words that many times, stuck in the box with no water, had made the experience miserable.
  The night had turned to day, and a vast mass of Japanese were gathered around them, staring and pointing. Various people had tried to break through the box. Of course, it was all to no avail. Policeman had come to look at them, scratched their heads, and then left again. They were in a box. Sitting in a box wasn't exactly a crime.
  Rei was glad they at least had all their costumes on. Hopefully they wouldn't be recognizable when they returned to school life. Rei envied Kotone's pink hair.
  "They did. They had to." Shiori replied. "You did great, sister."
  Rei smiled.
  "Once the dark wyrds are caught, they'll probably fold a wyrd down here to tell us. We'll probably receive medals." Cyan offered.
  "Great. I always wanted medals." Chiharu said sarcastically.
  "Don't fight, you two." Magnolia pulsed.
  "Hello everyone! I'm magical girl Kotone! Have you hugged your neighbor today? Teehee!" Kotone posed and released little hearts from her wand. The crowd started laughing and applauding. Actually, Rei wanted to laugh too. Trust Kotone to turn this into a 'spread the warmth' advertisement.
  "Our teachers are going to kill us for skipping school." Shiori sighed.
  "You do know Cyan has scryed out seven Dead Enders, including Miyamoto, in that mountain?" Chiharu mentioned judiciously.
  "Who cares? What's seven more. Just seven more, Chiharu." Shiori said, her eyes glowing. "If only this stupid box would end."
  "What if Robo catches us in another box?" Chiharu asked.
  "We'll spread out this time. Whoever isn't caught, beat Robo, and we'll be freed again." Shiori ordered.
  "We are not fighting seven more." Kotone turned on them with a glare. "Miyamoto is being held captive. No one had better even be thinking of hurting him. He's injured enough as he is. Just take out Tien Feng and Miyamoto will be free again."
  "You're right. I'm just a little tired." Chiharu sighed. "We didn't exactly get much sleep last night."
  "Box?" Shiori addressed the yellow rectangle directly. "I think you've lasted long enough. You've made your point. How about it, box? If you set us free, I'll love you forever and ever."
  "You've gone -- " Chiharu started to respond. But then the box disappeared. Rei stared in complete astonishment. No way. It was a coincidence. Not even Shiori could do something like that. Could she?
  "Choice Givers make the impossible possible." Shiori had an extremely self-satisfied smirk on her face.
  "You did not just do that. Choice Giving doesn't work that way." Chiharu glared.
  "Uh-huh. Tell it to the judge." Shiori smiled. Then she turned to the others. "Kotone, Rei, can you carry us all, divided between you two?"
  "No problem. Chiharu can amplify our flight if we need it. Amplified, I'm pretty fast." Kotone bragged, her boots sprouting wings and floating her a few feet off the ground.
  "We'll never forget you, box!" Shiori called. And then the crowd watched the entire crew hold hands and fly away.

Chapter 14

  When they came within sight of the mountain, Rei and Kotone split apart, so they couldn't be boxed again. Sure enough, Robo was waiting at the entrance. He or she didn't say anything, but just started spraying lasers into the sky.
  "If Robo doesn't like talking, that's fine by me. Onyx!" Rei rasped.
  "Let's do it." Onyx agreed cheerfully. Rei's butterfly wings started growing wider and wider.
  "Chiharu." Rei asked her friend.
  "Got it." Chiharu grinned.
  "Secret Technique." Rei intoned, gathering up all her energy.
  "Amplify." Cyan started glowing blue to her black.
  "Abandon hope, all ye who enter here." Rei chanted. "Black Hole."
  In a few moments, the mountain cave had become noticeably wider. Robo's jet pack hadn't saved him. Or her. Or it. I guess now we'll never know. Rei sighed.
  "Let's land." Chiharu asked. "The rest of them are in there with Miyamoto. We don't want to suck him up with them."
  Rei Rin nodded and flew her to the entrance. Kotone was delivering Shiori and Isao nearby.
  "Rei, that was amazing!" Shiori shouted at her.
  "Just one more fight." Rei rasped. "If it's just one more fight, I don't want to wait any longer. I want to go play with Melody."
  "The Dead Enders are all over the place. I can't give you anything specific." Awesome said.
  "Alright, everyone. Let's split up and hunt them down." Shiori ordered.
  "Fine by me." Isao said, slipping into invisibility. "Just don't interfere with my target. Black, I need some speed. Flash move."
  A curtain of dust shot up from where Isao used to be standing.
  Kotone, Shiori, and Chiharu all put their hands in a circle, and then they nodded. "One more time!" They all shouted. And then they split up into the innards of the cavern.
  Rei tried to follow Shiori, but she stumbled. Strange. Magic wasn't really that draining. She tried to get up again. Her legs wouldn't move.
  Shiori smiled and came back to her. "You've done enough, sister. Eternal Zero all day, flying here with another person, and tearing a mountain in two? That's enough. Rest here. I'm going to punch Mastermind in the face."
  "Thanks." Rei whispered. "Good luck." Rei's part in this fight was done.
* * *
  Isao walked silently within range of his target. He was a good looking fellow in his 20's or so. His suit was radiating electricity. He was ready to fight. But it didn't really matter. Isao stabbed him through the heart. It looked like his part was done.
* * *
  Chiharu sped through the caverns in search of prey, her laser gun ready. She met the exact person she had hoped for.
  Tien Feng whipped her tail, in the same gesture she had used before Miyamoto was caught, with a confident smirk on her face.
  "Reflect." Chiharu cast. An invisible wave turned around and went back towards its master. There was a brief look of horror, and then Tien Feng had a dull, vacant look.
  "Release Miyamoto." Chiharu ordered.
  "It is done." Tien said listlessly.
  "Become a good person." Chiharu said. "Actually, I'm not sure how well your brain can process that order. Okay, for starters, follow and emulate me. I'll see what new additions I feel like adding to your personality later."
  "Sounds interesting." Tien Feng said, changing her pose, for some reason, to an extremely arrogant slouch.
  Chiharu had to suppress the desire to tell Tien to become her footstool. This was just so ridiculously fun. "Obey me and my friends. Don't harm us. And don't harm yourself." Chiharu immediately resorted to the three laws of robotics. Asimov had tried to think of loopholes, but Chiharu doubted the magic would leave any.
  "Let's go search for more prey." Chiharu said, shouldering her gun and beginning to sprint again.
* * *
  Kotone faced off against a real life angel. The blonde haired girl had white angel wings and a flaming sword. Inside the cave, neither of them had much mobility. But that was okay. Kotone would finally convince this one last Dead Ender. It was her last chance. After today, they were free forever.
  "My name is Kotone Nakano. What's yours?" Kotone asked amicably.
  "I. . .Genevieve Desmarais. I won't let you through." The girl brandished her sword.
  "That's okay. I don't want through. I came here to heal you, Genevieve, not to go anywhere else. So tell me, why are you here?" Kotone flew over to a rock and sat down.
  "All the governments of the world have to be abolished. We'll be happy if we just farm again. . ." Genevieve seemed confused, not knowing where to put her sword.
  "Seriously?" Kotone asked. "You love farming that much? Where are you from? Genevieve is French, right? You flew all the way from France to Japan so you could kill me, because I was in the way of your farming?" Kotone asked incredulously.
  "It makes sense when Miguel says it!" Genevieve snaps.
  "Could you possibly be in love with Miguel?" Kotone asked.
  "That's right. And he loves me too." Genevieve said hotly.
  "That's a relief. I just had my first date with a boy yesterday. I specifically told him we couldn't do more than take a walk together. But he immediately grabbed my hand in front of everyone. I didn't want to make Isao lose face in front of my friends, so I bore with it. But do you think that was really loving of him? To completely ignore my stated wish on the first date? I bet Miguel would have been a much better gentleman." Kotone said.
  "Well, it depends on the context." Genevieve said, sitting down. "Why did he try to hold your hand? Maybe you just said something so charming or cute he did it without thinking. Wouldn't that be loving?"
  "I think it was a reflex. Isao would never take advantage of me. He was just embarrassed because all my friends were teasing us, and wanted to take me away. But really. He said I could trust him, and bam! He grabs me." Kotone complained.
  "Well was it really fair of you to stick him in the middle of all your close friends on your first date? Maybe he was embarrassed because he felt outnumbered and the whole situation was under your control." Genevieve replied.
  "I hadn't thought of that." Kotone admitted. "I thought he would like my friends."
  "I'm sure he does. But it's still awkward. They're your friends, so they'll always think he doesn't deserve you. That's a lot of pressure to act under all day long." Genevieve explained.
  "What's it like to be loved? When I imagine it, if a guy loved me, he would want to protect me. He would protect me from the world, sure. He would protect me from any insult, too. And he'd protect me from doing anything I'd later regret. I think he'd protect me most from my own weaknesses. He would be my strength." Kotone suggested.
  "That's too narrow. A man's love isn't just protection. Any friend could do that. A man's love is about knowing you're valued. It's his passion for you, and his gratitude, and whether he remembers all the special moments we've shared before." Genevieve corrected.
  "But there has to be an element of loyalty." Kotone replied. "Passion could be given to any pretty girl. He could be grateful for how she pleases him too. Where does that get you? No, I'd know if someone loved me if he cared about me more than anything else. If he cared about me more than anything else, I'd know he cared about me more than anyone else too."
  "A guy who's only devoted to you, and nothing else, is nothing but a dog. Or a slave. What's the appeal in a one dimensional feeling like that?" Genevieve shot back.
  "But what if the man isn't devoted to you. What if he's devoted to what he sees inside you? What if the man loves. . .your soul? Can a dog love souls? Is it slavish to revere the sacred?" Kotone asked.
  "If your boyfriend has been 'worshipping your soul,' I suggest his grabbing your hand is just the start of his intentions." Genevieve smiled kindly.
  "He wouldn't say it. You'd just see it in his eyes. That desire to protect. That look that says, 'I will give my life for you.' Except, it's not for you. I'm not making any sense." Kotone blushed angrily.
  "No, I think I've seen that look before. It's like the look of a man staring at a painting in the Louvre. They stare, and stare, and they have this sort of tense look about them, like they're about to jump into action, like they finally found what they've been searching for. They finally found something worth preserving at any cost. How strange. I'd completely forgotten that look, until you brought it up." Genevieve thought back to Paris wistfully.
  "I know a man who stares at me like that. I'm his painting in the Louvre. He's been alone his whole life. He wanted to protect someone, he wandered down every wing of the Museum, but no matter how many paintings he saw, he never tensed up. Not until he saw me. When I realized how he was looking at me, I wanted to have his children. Do you think I'm crazy?" Kotone asked.
  "No. . .no. . .I. . ." Genevieve broke off, tears welling up in her eyes. "Miguel never looks at me. I just try to help his dream, so he'll think fondly of me. He doesn't love me." Genevieve Desmarais sobbed. "He only loves his own reflection in the mirror."
  "I'm sure he loves you as much as he knows how." Kotone comforted her. "I'm sure he means well."
  "They all mean well. But look what he's done. I'm in some rotten cave, abandoned, in a fight for my life. How could he? How could he?" Genevieve yelled.
  Kotone forced back a smile. How's that, Shiori? How's that, Chiharu? Now I'm a true Choice Giver. It felt wonderful.
* * *
  Chiharu and Tien Feng strode into another chamber. This time there was a black man wearing a ton of gold chains, with a gold plated gun. I guess that counts as magical weapons and armor.
  "Tien, what's going on? My wyrd says you're no longer a Dead Ender. And why is this girl still a Choice Giver?" The black man pointed at her.
  "Compel him." Chiharu ordered. The man looked shocked, then jumped behind a boulder. Chiharu muttered to herself over the missed opportunity.
  "Fight him as best you can." Chiharu ordered. Then she sat back and waited for an open shot.
  Tien flew over the rock, trying to enslave the man, but she was too slow. After a few shots from his gold plated gun, she dropped to the ground.
  "Little girl, I'm guessing what you did." The gangsta told her. "I'm guessing you can turn our own magic against us. But it doesn't look like you can turn our suits against us, can you? I'm guessing I just have to blast you with this gun."
  "Unless I blast you with mine." Chiharu answered sweetly. Both of them sat behind rocks in separate corners of the cave.
  "I'm guessing you rely on others for everything. I'm guessing you're a one trick pony. I'm guessing this is the end for you." The man kept talking.
  Chiharu thought about it. There was no point to his blather. This man said he wasn't using his magic. But what if he was like Isao? What if he was using his magic right now?
  Chiharu pointed into the air between them and invoked Cyan. "Counter." Cyan flashed blue. That son of a gun. If he could attack before she noticed, she needed to finish this quickly.
  "I'm guessing you can't counter all my airborne drugs. I'm guessing you'll fall to one soon, little girl. I'm guessing you were the weakest of them all." The gangsta kept on ranting.
  "It's finally your turn, buddy." Chiharu patted her Mark 7,000 rifle. "Show them what you can do." She imagined the laser in her gun not shooting, she imagined reflecting the laser back and forth, keeping it trapped, just growing the beam, trapping it between so many reflects it was incredibly pressurized. The laser never touched any of the gun's sides. It just bounced between her walls of magic. That's right. That's the pace. Next up. Amplify the beam. Stronger. Keep bouncing. You can't come out yet. Amplify some more. The beam was getting hotter. The weakest? I'll show you weak.
  Chiharu stood out from under her rock's cover and shot her laser. It was as bright as a firebird, it was as hot as the sun. The man was huddling safely behind his cover. But there was no such thing as cover against Chiharu. The moment the laser shot above his head, Chiharu yelled out one more time:
  "DEFLECT!" The beam turned at an impossible angle and vaporized the entire area. Vectors could do anything. Punk.
* * *
  "Mastermind!" Shiori shouted. Miyamoto was unconscious in a heap. "It's over! Give it up!"
  Mastermind turned and gazed upon her with endless fury. "It was working. IT WAS WORKING. WHAT HAPPENED TO MY BOX?"
  "I guess it just needed some love." Shiori quipped. "Please tell me you're going to put up a fight. I promised to punch you in the face."
  "I will rebuild. I'm almost there. I'll extract Miyamoto's magic into another vessel. I will become a wyrd. Do you know how many times I've tried? You're just one more road bump. After I kill all of you, I will find a way. There's alwaysa way." Mastermind insisted.
  "Rapidfire." Shiori said. Her boots sprouted jet flames on her heels. She was faster than anyone. She shot towards Mastermind with the fury of a comet, summoning flame into her knuckles. This whole ordeal over in one more punch!And then she was suddenly on the other side of the room. Shiori spun, her jet boots tracing a wide arc, and then she launched herself at him again.
  And then she was back on the far side of the room. Suddenly Mastermind's hand was behind her, blasting into her armor. Shiori pitched to the floor, but instinctively rolled out of the attack. Mastermind was still standing in front of her. What the hell was this?
  "Shiori! Remember back at the box!" Awesome called out. "He always wanted to fold up! His magic is teleportation!"
  "That's great!" Shiori shouted back, her jet ski boots skidding across the floor, as she desperately zigzagged just to stay away from his floating fists. "But you haven't told me the important part. What on Earth can I do about it?"
  "I don't know. Aren't there any more words that involve fire?" Awesome asked.
  "Crossfire!" Shiori shouted. A burning cross zoomed towards the floating atomic man. And then it was behind her, and only Shiori's diving leap watched it fly overhead.
  "Nope!" Shiori reported.
  "I saw!" Awesome yelled back.
  "I am Mastermind. I am the head of all Dead Enders. Did you think these cheap tricks would work against me?" The man sneered contemptuously.
  "I'm the most beautiful girl in the multiverse!" Shiori shouted back. "I'm the brightest Light in the stars! I am hope! I am life! I am Shiori Rin! YOU NEVER STOOD A CHANCE AGAINST ME!" Shiori shouted.
  Shiori spun to point directly behind her and summoned fire into her fist. "BUUUUURRRRRRRSSSSSTTT KNUCKLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!" Her punch passed through the air behind her, using the same point to point spatial connection that had teleported her crossfire. She felt a satisfying crunch as it burned right into his face.
* * *
  Chiharu was carrying Miyamoto on her back when they emerged from the cave. Kotone was escorting a crying woman. Isao had his arms up, pinning his spear against the back of his head. Shiori followed them back out of the cavern and soaked in the noonday summer sun. Or perhaps, it had a touch of fall to it. No matter. Fall was a useless season. All she wanted was for it to be Christmas.
  "Rei, are you feeling better?" Shiori asked, kneeling down to hold her sister's hand.
  "Not really." Rei whispered. "Actually, all my injuries still hurt. And now I've lost my voice too."
  "If you're healthy enough to complain, you're fine." Shiori beamed down at her. "We won Rei. It's all over."
  "I know, Shiori. Your face already told me everything." Rei stroked Shiori's cheek, and only then did Shiori notice she was crying.
  "We won." Shiori repeated. She didn't know what else to say.
  "I know, Shiori." Rei couldn't stop smiling.
  "Greetings, folded surface dwellers. I am Bubbles." The wyrd flashed a bright, light blue.
  Everyone started laughing.
  "What, did I already mess up?" Bubbles asked worriedly. "Diplomacy is so hard between species. . ."
  "Please tell me you arrested the dark wyrds." Chiharu cut to the chase.
  "Yes, umm. Yes, precisely. Thanks to your investigations. Well, I was sent here to. . .to tell you we've arrested them. The 'dark wyrds' won't be troubling Earth any longer." Bubbles flashed a bright blue. "If you people already knew this, I wish I hadn't taken a one way mission to tell you. . ."
  "Don't worry Bubbles." Kotone told him brightly. "One of our kids will be a Choice Giver. Once you're contracted, the Earth is a lot of fun."
  "There will still be some Dead Enders, whoever the dark wyrds allied with before the spigot was closed. The 'wyrd council' Onyx used to report back to is still out there. I'm sure they're all plotting our destruction somehow or other." Chiharu said.
  "Let them come." Shiori said fiercely. "We'll just beat them too." Then she turned away from the cliff face and helped Rei back to her feet. "Everyone, let's go home. I, for one, am ready for bed."

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