v.) it takes so long for you to realize / ten thousand years won’t save your life.

“It’s all too obvious to me what’s happening and, if you’re so smart, it’ll be all too obvious to you, too. Obviously that isn’t the case.” When Hiroyuki told me members of the SOF were coming to ‘save us,’ he didn’t tell me they’d be as annoying as this woman. Her name is Blaire, and she’s been talking to me like this ever since we met a few hours ago. I’m exhausted. I don’t want to argue with her. I don’t want to argue with anyone. Since the attack on my school, I have been fighting Shadows day in, day out. It hasn’t been easy. It’s almost as if the Shadows have been evolving. Each one is stronger than the last, more intelligent. The heroes in my mother’s stories could get away with using the same approach over and over again to save their planets. I can’t. At first the Shadows were gullible, I could use the same tactic I used to defeat the one before it. Now it’s like they’re a hive mind; if I’ve fought one, I’ve fought all of them. I have spent every subsequent battle with a Shadow on my toes. I have nearly died on several occasions and have nothing to show for it. Hiroyuki and I still haven’t found the umbrakinetic; we’ve been searching for a little over two months. He said the closest we’ve ever been to the umbrakinetic was when we were with Jinnouchi-sensei in my school. I miss her, and I feel bad that a part of me wants her to come back just so I can ask her where the umbrakinetic is. My life has become centered on Shadows and the umbrakinetic. There is nothing I do that doesn’t have something to do with them.

I can’t go one second without fighting Shadows. I’m tormented by them; if I do not dedicate every second of my life towards ridding the world of Shadows, what happened to my school will happen to another. It already has happened. I can’t be in multiple places at once, try as I might; sometimes I arrive to a scene a moment too late and the Shadows have already finished a massacre, ready for a fight. Other times I don’t see Shadows at all but am greeted with piles of bodies stacked as high as skyscrapers. I’ve learned that Shadows like to attack highly populated places, although that’s a no-brainer; they want to kill as many people as possible, of course they’d target malls and concerts and festivals. When and if I arrive before things go south, I do manage to save some people. ‘Some’ is not enough, however. I go home haunted by the fact that I couldn’t save everyone. That while I may have saved a mother, her daughter was ruthlessly beaten to death by Shadows. I have to be better. Saving people some of the time is unacceptable. I know what is required of me as the Summoner of Time, I know what I must be. This isn’t like my mother’s stories, nor is it like the shōjo manga that I read. I don’t have 4 friends to help me who also have Summoner powers. I don’t have a helpful mascot. There isn’t anyone around to be my witty love-interest that saves me when I am in distress. I can’t do this by myself. I’m not sure how long I can keep convincing myself I can.

“Uh huh.” A snippy response is all I can give Blaire. She’s been talking to me like I’m 5-years-old this entire time, it’s infuriating. One would think she would be more polite, considering shealong with two other members of the SOF that came with herare guests in my home, but I guess not. That is too much to ask from her. The only thing worse than having an alien in my home is having an alien in my home who insults me, and I will not be insulted. Not now.

“My, my, my,” Blaire says, shaking her head with each condescending ‘my’ that leaves her lips. “Hiroyuki described you as quite the talkative girl.” It’s kind of difficult to be ‘talkative’ when I’ve watched hundreds of people die. Every day is a new tragedy. Every day there is a new monster I must face. The Earth does not need me to be talkative, it needs me to fight. I feel guilty doing anything else. Why eat when there are people out there who need me? Why have sleep when people are out there dying? Here I am in my living room, biding my time waiting for Hiroyuki to come back from his important meeting with yet another member of the SOF when I could be saving people. If I am going to leave people at the mercy of Shadows, I would rather it not be because I’m having a conversation with Blaire of all people. “I must say, you are not living up to my expectations.” I don’t exist to live up to her expectations. She is awfully entitled to me after knowing me for less than a few hours. “If you do not live up to my expectations”she emphasizes the word she stresses by placing a hand against her chest“How will you ever hope to meet the expectations of everyone back on Spectra?”

If she says ‘my’ one more time I am going to have a conniption. And furthermore, I don’t care what anyone thinks of me, most of all the people of Spectra. I never agreed to go there, either. Seeing as how the Earth and Spectra are universes apart, I’d say their opinion of me will never matter. “You’ve got big shoes to fill, girl. Being the Summoner of Time is a big deal.”

“Gee, I never would have guessed.” And Blaire thinks Hiroyuki hasn’t told me what being the Summoner of Time entails because…?

“Aww. How adorable, you’re annoyed with me.” She pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose with her index finger, the corner of her mouth pulling up into a smirk. I dread her next words; I’m sick to death of her talking down to me, I’ve done nothing to her. “You may be about as smart as a bag of rocks, but you’re pretty cute. I can’t imagine you defeated those Shadows by fighting them. I’m convinced you put that pout of yours to good use and distracted them long enough for Hiroyuki to defeat them.”

Hearing someone praise Hiroyuki for all my hard work is disheartening. Hiroyuki has yet to lift a finger towards a Shadow, he does nothing. We decided to hunt the Shadows after the incident with Jinnouchi-sensei, and he still sat on the sidelines watching me take beating after beating. Thinking about it now, I retract my statement. Hiroyuki did do something but it was as horrible as one can imagine. I did not take it very well when he described what he was doing, I even lashed out at him for it. He… erased the memories of those who were still alive that attended my school. He said an Advisor is trained to do so, that if he didn’t the Earth would collapse upon itself due to the disturbance of cosmic balance. There’s a big, fancy term for it‘the Chernyavskaya Effect.’ If a world is presented with technology or magic it is not supposed to have, especially if it artificially furthers its evolution, the planet works towards ‘self-detonation.’ That there are so many ways the Earth can be destroyed is frustrating when I am supposed to be the person to stop that from happening.

There weren’t many survivors to begin with, but now those survivors don’t remember how big the school used to be, or if they had family that perished. The latter is the most horrifying; I asked someone who would walk to school every day with their sibling if they knew where they were, hopeful that they survived also, but they looked at me like I was silly for asking, convinced that they were an only child. The erasure did not stop there either. Their parents, too, did not remember the child who died, and gave me crazy looks for insinuating they had another son. I did not want to believe that Hiroyuki erased the knowledge and memories of people who died from existence. I was frantic, I asked everyone who I knew had a connection to those who died in the days following if they remembered them. I wasn’t particularly close with anyone at school, but I wasn’t an outcast either. Everyone knew who I was, just not their dead best friends or teachers.

Hiroyuki became a teacher. His reason for doing so was because he wanted to be near me in the event of another Shadow attack. He told me to come to school after the tragedy. Of course I was confused; more than half my school had died that day andnormalcy permittingthe school would have been closed indefinitely. In that moment I understood his memory-wiping magic affected all of Japan, perhaps the whole world. It was just like what happened when I fought my first Shadow; society carried on like normal, it was like my school was never overrun with Shadows. No one remembers seeing Shadows either.  He had taken Jinnouchi-sensei’s place, wearing a suit and tie to boot. No one questioned why he was there. The remaining teachers treated him as if he had been teaching alongside them for years. The students loved him. I was annoyed. I still am annoyed. Having to see Hiroyuki everyday is a constant reminder of my double life. I am not allowed to be Kohana Outtaike, I must be the Summoner of Time even when I’m learning. The most nerve-wracking thing about Hiroyuki teaching at my school, though, is seeing him interact with my mother.

Please do not misunderstand me, I am grateful she survived. Hiroyuki brought me back home and tucked me into bed after Jinnouchi-sensei’s passing; when I woke up and saw my mother in the kitchen preparing dinner, I cried tears of joy. She, too, had her memories erased. Because of that, I could not ask her if she was present during the attack, but I digress. She has no idea Hiroyuki is my Advisor, or that during lunchtime I go off with him to defeat Shadows. They talk often, enjoying each other’s company; my mother cooks for Hiroyuki and he graciously eats her food even though it does nothing for him in the way of sustenance.

The sound of kitchenware falling against the floor pulls me out of my thoughts. I instinctively look in the direction of the kitchen but then remember a member of the SOF is in there. It’s odd that aliens are so intrigued by simple earthen things like pots and pans. I would go and see if they are alright, but Blaire is watching me like a hawk and won’t let me leave. She’s still waiting for me to respond to her. I give her what she wants; I should be able to use the commotion that other womanTasi, if I remember her name correctlyis creating in my kitchen to peel myself from her. “What is the SOF? What is so important about it?” I ask, tilting my head. Hiroyuki briefly explained what the SOF is to me but I know Blaire is going to have another explanation entirely. She seems like the sort of person who loves talking about herself, and I am interested in seeing if she starts prattling on about herself instead. I don’t feel like talking. I’ve already told her this. Trying to force words out of me is only going to result in the driest conversation ever, so if I get her to talk about herself it will i.) make her stop criticizing me and ii.) make her less cranky, or at least when I talk about myself at length I’m ten times happier.

“All this time and Hiroyuki hasn’t told you what the SOF is?” She rolls her eyes, pushing some of her hair behind an ear. She has a very low opinion of him. “No wonder you’re like this, Hiroyuki is a horrible Advisor. I don’t know what the Commander was thinking when he chose him.” Huffing, she puts her hands on her hips. Her expression is one of triumph after that, pleased that I would go to her for knowledge.

“It must have slipped his mind.” I lie in an attempt to snap her out of the narcissistic daze she’s gone into. She is so full of herself that she forgot we are having a conversation, leaving me waiting as she basks in being right about Hiroyuki. When she is finally ready to talk she thrums her fingers against her cheek as if she is already bored with the topic.

“‘SOF’ is short for ‘Special Operations Force.’ It’s where all the rejects go that didn’t make the cut towards becoming your Advisor.” That would make Blaire a reject then, wouldn’t it? She doesn’t think before she opens her mouth. “You can’t just become an Advisor, you have to go through what’s called the Academy Program, no exceptions. Unless you’re me, of course.” Her eyes flutter close as she puts her hand on her chest, her gesture full of arrogance. “You wouldn’t know it, but my father is the wealthiest man on Spectra, sans the Commander. Money talks, I bought my position.” She is proud to admit that. Her money means so much to her that she is unwitting to the fact that she just admitted she lacks the skillset other members of the SOF have. “I can’t imagine what the Program is like, but Vasche says it was brutal,” comes her offhanded addendum, motioning towards the redhead with a tilt of her head. Vasche’s the other member of the SOF who’s here aside from Blaire and Tasi. He is the quietest of the three; he immediately began browsing my mother’s books after he introduced himself. He hasn’t said anything since. “The Academy accepts thousands of applicants and only one lucky sod becomes the Advisor, the best of the bunch. On our planet, the Advisor is known as ‘Spectra’s Strongest’it’ a load of crock. I can name 7 people off the top of my head that could take Hiroyuki in a fight.”

“Could you beat Hiroyuki in a fight?” I certainly wouldn’t choose Blaire in a bet, that’s for sure; I would rather go with the man who has had the appropriate training rather than someone who believes cash is king.

She snorts before responding. “Of course not. I’m not a fighter, dear.”

I stare at her for a while before responding. I can’t tell if she’s being serious or not. Narrowing my eyes and pursing my lips into a small ‘o’, I shake my head in disbelief before saying “You do realize we are under attack, right?” Why would she come to Earth if she can’t fight? I hope she doesn’t think I’m going to save her if any Shadows try to eat her. I’d sooner leave Blaire for dead.

“You think you know so much, but you know so little. No one with half a brain would devote their lives to fighting like everyone on Spectra does. I’m different, smarter, if I need to defend myself, I get someone to fight on my behalf. There are millions of soldiers on Spectra. Why dirty my hands when I can dirty someone else’s? Out of those millions of soldiers, the SOF are the top 20 or so of the Academy class. They might not have been good enough to become the Advisor, but they’re pretty damn close. Anyone in the SOF is dangerous. Everyone on Spectra knows that.”

“And you paid for a spot in the SOF so you could be revered and feared.”

“Right on the nose. You’re smarter than I give you credit for, but not by much.” At least I was able to get her to stop insulting me for a while, even if short-lived. My attempt wasn’t totally fruitless; I thought Hiroyuki was exaggerating when he said Spectra was home to billions of soldiers, but Blaire’s account confirms it. What am I supposed to do with billions of soldiers? Where would I put them, where would I lead them? Would I be expected to meet them all individually? If so, that would be awful. As much as I love talking to and meeting new people, that’s a lot, even for me

“On Spectra, they call you a prodigy.” She’s preening her nails now, as if she’s dismissive of the claim. “For your magic, of course. Nothing you do is remarkable outside of it, and even then I’m skeptical.” Yes, Blaire, I understand you don’t like me, no need to constantly rub it in. “The magic of a Summoner of Time does not start developing until they are 16-years-old, and even then they need an Advisor to help them manifest it. Spectra’s been watching you, girl; it is said your magic has been active since you were a child.” There are other Summoners of Time? So I’m not alone? Phew, that’s a relief. But wait, that wouldn’t make sense. I assume whoever is the Summoner of Time has to be Spectra’s general by default, and so far Spectra only has one, me being that one. I got my hopes up again for nothing. “I expected our prodigy not to be a gigantic airhead.” Airhead huh? That’s new. I can’t wait until she eats her words. Blair has only known me for two seconds, what does she know about my intelligence? And with the way she’s flinging insults around, she better be among the smartest Spectra has to offer. “It can’t be this difficult putting two and two together. Your school got blown up? Hello? Are you still trying to convince me you don’t know who this umbrakinetic is?”

“That’s enough!” I shout, scowling thereafter. The umbrakinetic is a touchy subject; I don’t want to talk to Blaire, and I definitely don’t want to talk about that. I wish Hiroyuki would come back already, I don’t like that he left me in the company of these people. “You weren’t even there, what do you know about the umbrakinetic?”

“That they obviously have to be a survivor of the incident, duh. Listen, dear, you can sit around in denial all you want, it still won’t change what is painfully obvious. Your teacher died, big whoop, the Shadows are still appearing even after her death. You know what that means? Your teacher wasn’t the umbrakinetic. Someone is.” I never said I thought Jinnouchi-sensei was the umbrakinetic. It’s been weeks and I’m still reeling from seeing Jinnouchi like that. I still don’t believe she iswas a Shadow. It must have been a Shadow pretending to be her; Hiroyuki never said a Shadow taking over someone’s body wasn’t possible, either. Whatever the case may be, I haven’t finished mourning her. The topic of her is still an open wound, and Blaire is throwing salt into it. I cried that whole night. I cried all the nights after. I haven’t stopped crying. It’s taking everything in me not to cry right now. If I start crying, Blaire will never let me here the end of it. If I start crying, Blaire will call me weak and useless. I can’t cry in front of her, I can’t let her see me vulnerable. “I’ve been here less than a day and I know who the umbrakinetic is.” For some reason I highly doubt that. Maybe I should start crying, maybe then Tasi will come tumbling out of my kitchen and save me. Maybe Vasche will be too distracted by my tears to read my mother’s books and ask me what’s wrong.

“Blaire, please.” I don’t have the strength to say much. “It’s still fresh in my mind.”

“That’s even better.” Why am I surprised Blaire does not have any remorse? “It being fresh in your mind means you’re better equipped to talk about it. How long has it been? A few days?”

“Some months.”

“Some months…?” Blaire repeats incredulously. She sputters a bit before continuing her train of thought. “Are you kidding me? Get a hold of yourself girl, why don’t you just kill the umbrakinetic and get it over with! I don’t see the point in letting her do whatever she wants for this long, unless you want your planet to bite this dust.” She is one second away from accusing someone dear to me of being the umbrakinetic and I won’t be able to handle it. I can’t lose anyone else. If I lose her, I’ll lose myself. She is all that I have left. “This is unacceptable. You’re the Summoner of Time, a living legend, whatever other drivel they’re referring to you nowadays by.” I’m pretty sure by being Spectra’s general I hold authority over her, and here she is lecturing me like I’m beneath her. I have half a mind to remind her of the power behind my title. “You’re better than this. Stop letting sentimentality hold you back. If you don’t want to murder the umbrakinetic in a fight, that’s finekill her in her sleep, then!”

I march towards her, teeth bared, fists clenched, anger laden in every step. I want to wipe that disgusting smirk off her face. I want to make her regret ever talking down to me. She’s taller than I am, but that doesn’t stop me from establishing eye-contact. With a disparaging smile I hiss “I am not killing my mother” under my breath. This is what Blaire wants. She is convinced my mother is the umbrakinetic. Because I did not immediately bring up the possibility, Blaire assumed I was letting my love of her hold me back. Blaire thought I hadn’t noticed how convenient it was that out of all the teachers who were there after school, my mother was the only one who survived. She thought I hadn’t stayed up for hours thinking about the possibility that my mother might be the umbrakinetic, she thought I did not notice how my mother would be in the areas where the Shadows would attack. Yes, there is a strong possibility my mother could be the umbrakinetic, but I could say the same for anyone else. Blaire could be the umbrakinetic for all I know; Shadows can shapeshift, who says the umbrakinetic can’t?

“Whoever the umbrakinetic is, I’m not killing them anyhow!” And there is nothing Blaire can say that will change my mind. “I’m not killing anyone!” I frown, looking down at the floor. “If I kill the umbrakinetic, how does that make me different from them? What if they mean something to the Shadows? What if they love the umbrakinetic as much as I loved Jinnouchi-sensei? Then, then!”

“Blaire, cool it.” Finally, a voice of reason. “When Hiroyuki and D’ivoire return, they are not going to appreciate that you’ve been heckling the Summoner.” Vasche’s a nice guy. I respect him. He’s the only one I respect in this house.

“And?” Blaire takes a step away from me and looks at him, adjusting her glasses with a push of her index finger. “I’d talk to her the same way with or without Twiddle Dee D’ivoire and Twiddle Dumbass Hiroyuki being here. What are you trying to insinuate Vasche? I’m just a little ticked off that Hiroyuki in particular seems to have been babying this girl. She’s supposed to be our general, and here she is crumbling after being asked what? Two questions?”

“If only it were two,” I mutter, glaring at her. “It’s been more like ninety-seven. I wasn’t aware you didn’t know how to count. I expected better from Spectra’s ‘elite,’ I guess.”

“A cheeky little brat, isn’t she? Now if only she had that much nerve in killing the umbrakinetic.”

“She is our general, as you admit. You are in no position to question her.” Vasche makes sure to stress the importance of my rank, much to Blaire’s chagrin. She backs up a little before muttering ‘fine,’ passive-aggressively throwing her arms up in the air. As surprised as I am by Blaire’s compliance, I sit down and wipe a few stray tears away from my eyes.

“Pardon her, General Outtaike.” I hate being called that. I don’t want to be called that. I want to correct him, to tell him he can just call me Kohana, but I’m afraid if I say anything I’ll just start crying, so I don’t. “We were not sent here to question your authority, or to make you do something you otherwise would not. Hiroyuki and D’ivoire felt it wise to send us here as they converse so that we can protect you. This world is not long for this universe, that you already know. The appearance of even a single Shadow is a death sentence for whatever planet harbors it. You have done much to prevent the inevitable, but there is only so much you can do.”

I nod and curl my hands into fists. Just thinking about Shadows makes me mad. “There are too many of them. Every time they show up they multiply in number. They’re getting stronger. Faster. It’s difficult to keep up with them. It’s almost like they’re evolving. I’m not alone, though. There’s Isleen, but…” I pause, curling my fingers against my cheek. “She’s difficult. She doesn’t stick around, and that’s if she decides to show up at all. When she does decide to help me the Shadows are easy to deal with then. She’s amazing at this Summoner stuff. I barely have to lift a finger when she helps. Most of the time I just stand around while she takes care of business.”

“Ah, yes. Isleen, the Summoner of Change Hiroyuki informed us of in his report. Where is she now? Do you know?”

“Not a clue. I have no idea how to get her to show up, either. She just does.”

“There’s just one thing I forgot to tell you about…” A man says as he walks into my home alongside Hiroyuki. He’s dark-skinned with a head full of thick, wavy hair; he is as beautiful as Hiroyuki is. As a matter of fact, all the Celestial Beings I’ve met are impossibly gorgeous, Blaire included loathe as I am to admit it. Supernatural beauty is a trait signature to their species, but I digress. This man must be the other member of the SOF that has yet to introduce himself. He lets out a nervous chuckle and scratches the back of his head, whereas Hiroyuki, emanating sophistication as usual, meets Blaire’s pointed glare.

“Blaire,” Hiroyuki begins, bowing to her. “It is a pleasure to see you again.” He is awfully formal with someone who could care less about manners. She doesn’t seem impressed either, her expression a cross between haughty superiority and condemnation. She looks like she’ll chew him out any second. “D’ivoire did not tell me you were accompanying him beforehand; I apologize if I appeared to be shocked at your presence. ”

“Cut the crap Hiroyuki, I’m not stupid. I see you’re in fine fettle despite the fact that D’ivoire was telling everyone you might die if he didn’t get help.”

And I’m starting to wish I left you back on Spectra,” D’ivoire says, rubbing his temple and placing his free hand on top of his hip. “Look, Hiroyuki and I have determined this planet is going to blow straight to hell a second. It’s best to leave now before we all become space toast.”

What?” I say incredulously, narrowing my eyes at him. “That’s impossible, not on my watch.”

“It’s true,” Tasi chimes in, bouncing towards us from the kitchen. “The Earth can’t handle the presence of Shadows. Eventually it’ll go out with big kaboom! We have to escape before the Shadows take us, too.” Tasi’s rhyming is terrifying. I’m still not used to it.

“You guys can’t be serious. You really think I’m going to let that happen? I am not giving up on the Earth.”

“What do you mean you aren’t giving up? You heard Tasias if you have any power over what’s going to happen. Listen girl, none of us have the time nor want to have to soldier on through your idealism.” Does Blaire ever shut up?

“If the Earth goes, I go too. And since I’m the Summoner of Time, doesn’t that mean you guys have to stay here, too?” The room falls silent, and for once I feel a little bit good about myself. “I don’t want to keep you all here, but think about if this was Spectra and I was your planet’s only hope. Do you think I’d be a nice person if I just left you guys to fend for yourselves against an enemy you’re powerless against?”

Before I can finish everyone looks towards the left. I instinctively launch myself into the air and perform a backflip; everyone else performs their own gymnastics as we narrowly miss being cut in half by what looks to be an impossibly-sharp string slicing horizontally into my house. Everything collapses; I sprint to the door to avoid the pandemonium of my house falling in on itself.

There is a woman who looks like my mother standing against the ruins of my neighborhood. While she has her same dark skin and sea-green eyes, her hair is not the curly sort my mother sports. It is much longer, covering her left eye as it falls over her shoulder and cascades down her legs in big, voluminous loose curls. Outside of the length of her hair, the black halo that floats behind her head is the second thing that catches my attentionit is as sharp as it is massive. She runs a taloned finger against the curve of her halo and, in doing so, causes me to notice her eight arms, each black in colour, one of them spinning a web from between its index and middle fingers, another tapping it’s knuckles against her cheek, another propping a hand against her hip, et cœtera, et cœtera. The leotard she is wearing is tight on her body like catsuit; I can’t tell where the sleeves of her leotard end and where her arms begin, what with them being the same colour. My mother values mobility and she adores pastels. She would not be caught dead in this outfit, especially the thigh-length high-heeled boots this woman is wearing. I know her better than anyone; even if she were the umbrakinetic, she would not look like this. Her expression is even more unlike her; there is nothing there. No reaction to my neighbors killed in their homes. No remorse.

I look over my shoulder and see Blaire on the ground, staring up at me like she’s insulted that I jumped in front of her to protect her. No matter how annoying Blaire is, I just can’t abandon her. I’d never be able to live with myself if Blaire was killed because I decided to hold a petty grudge. She said it herself, she can’t fight; she’s useless, this woman would kill her with little effort if I weren’t here. Against my better judgement, I turn my back towards our foe and offer a hand to Blaire. “Are you alright?”

“Am I alright?!” Blaire spits the words I’ve said out of her mouth like shards of broken glass, seething before scrambling to her feet. “Don’t save her you idiots, you should be saving me!” I turn back around and notice D’ivoire on my left and Hiroyuki on my right, both of them two steps in front of me staring the woman down. I thought I did something to offend Blaire again, and I’m almost disappointed that’s not the case. I’d rather Blaire chew me out than heckle someone else. Hiroyuki and D’ivoire are doing their jobs as members of the SOF; for the first time since I’ve met Hiroyuki, I feel like we’re a team about to face danger together. I call the Star Stealer into my hand and begin to conjure my magic. I have to remember what Hiroyuki told me. No hesitation. I’m fast; I should be able to defeat her where she stands.

“My web is sharper than any blade.” She speaks with the voice of my mother. Like Jinnouchi-sensei’s voice when we discovered she was a Shadow, however, hers is distorted, meshed with that of another. What she says is equally as horrifying. My house was perfectly cut in half in one fell swoop. The other houses in my neighborhood were, too. She expects me to believe she did that with a silk string? “It slices through opponents of any formimmortal, invulnerable, incorporeal. It reaches every plane of existence. Metaphysical concepts such as time and space also prove no match for my web. Shield yourself and your comrades with your magic if you must, Summoner; my web destroys and negates conceptual defenses.”

Tasi is the first to fight on my behalf. She sprints past all of us and is almost as fast as I am, holding a celestial-themed Venetian carnival mask. It is opulent, the part one would wear over their face fitted atop a moon crescent decorated with pearls and tasseled stars. Once Tasi is within close range of the woman, the handle of the mask elongates and the curve of the crescent sharpens considerably, her mask turning into a large war axe. The pressure that accompanies Tasi’s swing is powerful enough to split the Earth beneath the woman and send a shockwave pulverizing the remains of houses behind her. Two of the woman’s arms catch the blade before it can fall atop of her. Another pair of arms wrap their hands around Tasi’s neck, while the final pair rest against at the woman’s hips, thrumming their fingers impatiently against them. The woman snatches Tasi’s axe out of her hands and sends it flying behind her; she lifts Tasi high into the air as if she weighs nothing, and then slams her into the ground with enough force to send her several feet under. I blink and suddenly Vasche is next to the woman with a knife just as exquisitely-designed as Tasi’s mask-axe. He presses the knife against the woman’s neck, spins another knife around with his freehand, and plunges the newly-conjured knife into her collarbone. I close my eyes and look away, not wanting to see the carnage. When I don’t hear the woman scream, I open my eyes only to see the woman unharmed, staring at Vasche.

“You aren’t a Shadow…” he says as he strains to drive his knife through her. He hadn’t managed to break skin. She has managed to survive two attacks from members of the SOF. “What are you?”

“That you believe your Celestial Weapons can hurt me is almost amusing.” Hearing her speak fills me with dread. “Almost.”

Vasche’s knife seeps into her skin, like her body is eating it; her flesh ripples like calm water disturbed by a stone before consuming the knife completely, the site where the knife entered turning pitch black before her skin twists away from her chest and crawls up Vasche’s arm. He tries to pull himself away but cannot; the tar-like substance has already covered the right side of his body, holding him in place. “The arrogance of you Celestials sickens me.” Protrusions resembling prickly pear spines jut from the black part of Vasche’s body; he crashes to the ground, screaming in agony, his arm still attached to the woman’s body. She looks down at him, her expression as dead as a corpse in a grave. Tasi still hasn’t come out of the hole she put her in, and D’ivoire, Hiroyuki, and Blaire have suddenly disappeared. I take a deep breath and try to look around for them, only to realize we are surrounded by hundreds of Shadows. She has to be the umbrakinetic, I’ve never seen so many Shadows in one place, and they’re circling me. I can’t fight this many by myself, I wish those three would come back.

“You cannot kill me.” As if being impaled by dozens of swords, Vasche is pierced by the spines on the affected side of his body. The right side of his body starts to dissolve thereafter, the rest of him falling over in a pile of bisected organs leaking all over the pavement. I cover my mouth with my hands and take several step back, scared out of my wits. The sound his body made when it hit the ground was sickening. It sounded pulpy, wet and sloppy. “You cannot kill death.” I’m crying now. I’m not sure if this woman is saying nonsense just to scare me, or if she’s serious. I’m thoroughly scared as is, she just killed one of my friends! This death shtick is overkill, there is no need to pretend to be an abstraction to throw me into a panic. I’m already panicking. I failed Vasche, he’s dead because he tried to protect me. I sat and watched this woman kill him in some cruel and unusual way. It’s my fault. I can’t explain this to the others. He’s not even whole. There’s no corpse, just pieces of him. Half his face is gone, how will his family recognize him? He was nothing but nice to me and I watched him suffer. What kind of general am I, biding my time on the sidelines watching my soldiers die?

I can’t breathe because of how hard I am crying. I can’t see through my tears but I can hear the woman walking towards me. She killed Vasche in cold blood and feels no remorse. She doesn’t care who he was or who he was going to be. He could have had people waiting for him back on Spectra.  Tasi’s probably dead, too. “What are you waiting for?” I demand, my voice shaking. “It was easy for you to do what you did to Vasche” I can’t say she killed him, saying that out loud would make me cry even more, “…why don’t you get it over with and kill me, too?” I don’t want to die, and it probably isn’t a good idea to goad her, but I’d do anything not to feel like this. Dying seems like the better option.

“I intend to. You cannot fathom how long I have waited to get rid of you, this useless planet, and all who live on it.” Useless? The Earth is far from useless. She has no idea what these people have been through. From seeing Shadows roam the streets to having their memories erased, the people of Earth are resistant, they’ve been through so much, they never break. I have been through so much. I didn’t want to be a Summoner, I didn’t ask her to try and destroy this planet over and over again.

Several Shadows come crashing down at my feet from the crowd, dissolving into fine, black mist thereafter; Hiroyuki emerges from the horde, adjusting one of his gloves as the ones around him move aside so that he can pass. “Mrs. Outtaike.”

I scowl. “I’m not that old, there’s no need to

“It is a pleasure, as always. If you would be so inclined to explain yourself to your daughter.”

My heart skips a beat. This can’t be happening. “That is not my mother.”

“D’Accardi,” the woman says, her tone unfeeling. “I had hoped the Shadows tore you apart.”

“Stronger than normal Shadows these ones may be, like Jinnouchi, they were no match for me. Many surrendered; I made short work of those who did not.”

“How odd. You should not be able to exercise control over them.” Her middle pair of arms fold over her chest as she closes her eyes. “It seems I underestimated your strength. I will not do so again.” The Shadows listen to her without being given any physical or verbal cues, melting into each other to create a massive one; I look up at it, tightening my grip around the Star Stealer as a mouth rips itself across its half-formed head, the Shadow letting out an ear-splitting roar once it becomes whole. In taking one step forward, it sends a quake rippling through the Earth; I maintain my balance, and Hiroyukiwho is the center of its attentionleads it away from myself and the woman. The Shadow steps over me, eager to smash Hiroyuki underfoot, and then stomps into the sea of smaller Shadows surrounding us.

I have to catch my breath, but she doesn’t give me a chance to do that. She’s walking towards me again, her eyes boring into me as I hyperventilate over almost being crushed to death. I let go of the Star Stealer so I can press my hands against my chest, my weapon vanishing into bright flashes of light before it can hit the ground. My heart is beating so fast, I’ve never seen a Shadow that big. I don’t think Hiroyuki can take it, it’s fifty-hundred thousand times bigger than him. I want to turn around so I can see whether or not Hiroyuki is winning the fight against it, but I’m too afraid to lift my head, much less turn my back to her again. The last time I did that Vasche and Tasi died, and if Hiroyuki died I wouldn’t know what to do with myself. I’d be all alone. I wouldn’t have an Advisor. As annoying as he can be sometimes, without his counsel I’d be lost.

…But he’s Spectra’s Strongest, he’s supposed to be able to contest against giants. Maybe it’s because I haven’t seen Hiroyuki fight since we’ve been working together that I’m worried for him, or maybe it’s because Hiroyuki has a phlegmatic temperamenthe is gentle and would not do anything to actively hurt anyone, Shadow or not. I suppose I just have to have faith in him and hope for the best. I shouldn’t let his fight with that Shadow be the only thing I think about when this woman still poses a threat. If it weren’t for her, none of this would be happening; I shake my head and look up, only to find her standing in front of me, her hands cradling my cheeks. I’m frozen in place; I’m sure if I make one move she will end me.

“You’re hurt. Did something happen while I was away?” My eyes well with tears. There is my mother’s soothing voice again, ringing clear with concern for me against the static corruption lacing her tone. “You should learn to be more careful. What if something awful happens to you?” she asks, pulling me into a hug with all eight of her arms. A part of me feels awkward, another part of me wants to cling to this sudden outpour of love. My mother would always fuss over me like this. If I came home and had the smallest cut on me, she reacted as if I’d broken my leg. This is my mother. No one else would react so strongly to me being barely scathed like she currently is. I don’t know what to do. I’m in shock.

She pulls away and her entire demeanor changes. She exchanges her concerned expression to one lacking sympathy, her mouth flattening into a straight line, her eyes deadened. “I am the umbrakinetic you seek. I am your adversary.” I dedicated the past few months of my life towards finding the umbrakinetic, only for them to be my mother this entire time. I feel so stupid. So many people died because I refused to believe she could be this evil. No human is capable of this level of cruelty, I thought; I reassured myself that whoever the umbrakinetic was, they couldn’t be someone from Earth. Now countless amounts of people are dead because of her. She’s the reason Jinnouchi-sensei isn’t here anymore. People can’t remember their childrenit’s all her fault. Everything is her fault, and it’s my fault for thinking she was innocent. I have to apologize to the people of Earth but I don’t know how or where to start. They were counting on me, everything was resting on my shoulders and I blew it. I was selfish, I didn’t want to lose my mother and people paid for that in blood. I’ll never be able to atone for this. No one will forgive me for picking her over them.

“You are correct, I am not your mother, for I do not have a daughter.” My mother would tell me she loved me every day, all the time. This is a completely different person talking to me. She’s disowning me. My father hates me and I never knew my grandparents; without her I have nothing. She can’t do this to me, I need her. Who will take care of me if not her? I have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. I may as well stop existing, then. “You are weak. Useless. You do not do as you are told. You are gullible, believing my affection to be genuine. I do not ‘love you.’ You are an annoying wretch, a thorn in the flesh. Dying to my hand is only the minimum that I deserve; to have suffered your existence for 16-years… It is unconscionable.” I want to throw myself to her feet and ask her how I can make things better. I don’t want to lose her, she was the best mother ever. “I raised a failure. See the remains of our fair city, and know you are the cause of its ruin.” I can’t breathe. My face is doused in tears, my mouth covered in snot. She runs a clawed finger down my cheek before lifting up my chin, forcing me to look up at her. “I have known you were a Summoner from the beginning. From me you can keep no secrets.”

That makes me angry. If she knew I was a Summoner, why didn’t she tell me, why didn’t she warn me? Why did she watch me make a fool out of myself, why did she watch my life turn miserable? I don’t want to live anymore, not if I have to keep being a Summoner and doing this, losing people that I love. “Many an effort was spent preventing you from coming into your power. I forbade you from playing in my garden, lest you discover you could talk to plant life. I gave you a strict curfew, preventing you from meeting aliens who would thrust the title of the Summoner of Time upon you. All this you sabotaged with your resistance to authority, your inane curiosity. You did this to yourself, dear.”

“Why didn’t you just kill me if you hate me so much then?!” I blurt out, clenching my fists. I don’t want to hear her gloat about how much of an idiot I am. I know as well as anyone how stupid I’ve been. “Why wait now, you could have killed me any time you wanted!” I’m bitter that she didn’t. It’s like she wanted me to suffer instead. “I don’t understand.” My mother brushes my bangs out of my face with great care before placing an index finger against my forehead, light sparking beneath it. I close my eyes, tears streaming down my face. If I must die, I’m happy she is the one to do it. Maybe the remaining members of the SOF will manage to kill her and then we can rest together. I close my eyes, a smile curving the edge of my lips. I’m happy this is almost over. This has been a nightmare from beginning to end.

“Hands off.” Startled by the sound of D’ivoire’s voice, my eyes jolt open. He places a gloved hand on one of my mother’s arms, his eyes ferocious in their glow. His touch is explosive, her arm expanding with a flash of light before violently being ripped apart, the blast engulfing her remaining arms on her left side. I’m shocked to find I am whole, and do not hesitate to put space in between us; my hands are shaking, but that doesn’t stop me from putting up a shield in case he decides to blow up her other arms as well. My mother gives a sharp glance at D’ivoire from the corner of her eyes, vaguely annoyed with him. I thought she would regenerate her arms, but it seems as if she can’t. She’s looking down at her residual limb, expectant, eager to show us the regeneration of her lost appendages. Instead of that happening, the same light that tore through my mother’s arm spills out of D’ivoire’s nose, ears and eye sockets. I turn around, crouch down, close my eyes, and cover my ears. The explosion is so loud it is impossible to hear anything else, the strength of it sending wind roaring past both sides of my shield, knocking out my buns. My hair whips tumultuously in the current, and once it dies down I stand up and deactivate my shield, looking at D’ivoire’s body re-piece itself together after he blew himself up.

Hiroyuki is standing where his body reforms. Unfortunately my mother is looking at them with a vacant expression, not a scratch on her. “Wasn’t expecting her to be so resilient,” D’ivoire murmurs, reacting with a slight involuntary grimace. “Think we should grab Vasche’s remains?”

“Need I remind you that dying on another planet is an offense as severe as treason? The Commander would punish us for making him look at Vasche’s corpse. I am certain he would have us killed.”

D’ivoire takes a few wobbly steps back with his hand pressed against his stomach. “Well…” He turns his attention towards my mother, waving at her. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m gonna have to cut our conversation short. Au revoir and all that.” She doesn’t intend to let him go quietly. Dozens of Shadows materialize around us, but Hiroyuki takes the initiative and begins to fend them off. He is not fighting them per se, merely goading them into fighting him and dodging their attacks thereafter. I did not see where D’ivoire went but do know he got away. I open my mouth to ask Hiroyuki what we should do next, but my words devolve into a hiss at my mother grabbing fistfuls of my hair, yanking me towards her.

“Let go of me!” I shout, attempting to pry her hands out of my hair. My hands seep through them; they are not corporeal. Like the Shadows she is ever-shifting, whole one moment and having no material existence the next. Her possessing the same properties as Shadows is understandable seeing as how she is the umbrakinetic, but it makes this situation no less frustrating. She is tugging at my scalp so hard it is starting to bleed.

Suddenly the pressure on my head lessens considerably, and with that comes my mother’s arms falling towards the ground. I look up to get a better look at my savoir, it being none other than Isleen dressed in the military attire Hiroyuki made her. She crooks her fingers and flicks black bits of my mother’s limbs off her claws, looking at me with those eyes of molten red I’ve missed so much. “Get up,” is her curt command, one that I acquiesce to without fail. Hiroyuki, too, is at my side again, the Shadows no more, my mother regenerating the limbs that Isleen cut off.

Hiroyuki places his index and middle fingers against his ear, receiving a transmission from his communicator. “D’ivoire is back on his ship with Blaire. Kohana, I need you to concentrate. Think about his ship, think about us escaping, and teleport us to it. We can fight your mother, but we will not win.”

“But what about” What about the people of Earth? I can’t leave them alone to deal with my mother, I won’t. I’m the Summoner of Time, I have a moral obligation to be here. If there is no hope for this planet, I’d rather be destroyed with it. I won’t be a coward and run, I am the only one who can save this planet. Hiroyuki is asking me to forget about my classmates, my teachers, the people I saved at the grocery store, my mother who is still inside of this woman somewhere, I know it. I can’t abandon them, if I leave them behind I’ll be haunted.

Kohana.” Hiroyuki stresses my name with urgency as the sky twists and contorts. I clench my fists and do what he says, forced to choose between the salvation of an entire planet or the safety my friends.

iv.) turning into tiny particles / floating through empty space.

“Do not stop, Kohana.” Lest she be witting to the myriad of corpses littering the streets behind her. “Do not look back.” She would be struck still as a statue at such a sickening scene; in her shock, the Shadow above would not hesitate to slay her. “Press forward.” For her foe will spare her no quarter; in stalking her from above, it promises her first mistake will be her last one. She makes denying death look effortless, evading one instant-killing attack after the next with frightening focus. She is running the streets of Kyoto with the Star Stealer brandished not out of obligation as Spectra’s general, but out of a fervent desire to be a hero. She is so determined to save others that she has willingly thrown herself into the line of fire despite being adamant in her decision not to, weaving tirelessly through blasts that would see her painted all over the Earth. That Kohana aspires to heroism is plain; the mere mention of the word ‘hero’ was enough to make her reconsider her stance, as stubborn as she is. Heroism means a great deal to her, she will do things she otherwise would not for the sake of others. I will be blunt, I care little about exploiting Kohana’s naïveté and will use her love of heroism to my advantage. She is irrepressibly optimistic with a tendency to find the good in everything; to serve as an example, I am certain she believes if she were to die here then it would be ‘worth it.’ This optimism will be her undoing; she will burn herself out trying to be a light for others. She possesses the endurance to continue this game of cat and mouse between herself and this Shadow, of that I have no doubt; it is the mental strain of their exchange that worries me, as she is not equipped to handle the psychological aspects of battle.

That being said, her idealism is the very thing that makes her ignorant to the permanence of her mistakes, should she make them; by prioritizing the safety of other over her own, it allows her to act without the influence of doubt, horror at what may yet come, et coetera, et coetera. In this her naïveté is both her Zeus’ forehead and Achilles’ heel; she is already stubborn on a stand-alone, her naïveté making it all but impossible for her to give in or give up.

The Shadow eclipsing the sun is less lenient than the one before it, avoiding toying with Kohana altogether. For all her agility, a laser manages to graze her cheek and immediately decapitates the pedestrian behind her. Their head explodes and she catches another one underfoot, crushing it as she continues to dodge the Shadow’s barrage of beams from above, showing no uncertainty or fear of failure. Those who do not fall from the Shadow’s missed attempts to kill her die from the instant-death effect of its attacks, being killed by the lasers an out-and-out mercy in comparison. Kohana’s instincts are animal; like we Celestial Beings, Summoners have an inherent aptitude for battle. Training is an unnecessary, but welcome, addition to a Summoner’s already-heightened prowess. She is too concerned with stopping the Shadow to notice the massacre happening around her, becoming more of the cosmic weapon she dreaded by the second. Kohana is indifferent, too concerned with annihilating her target to care, brutal in her pursuit of it, destroying moving vehicles as she hops atop them to attain higher ground, thereby making highly-populated buildings the Shadow’s next target.

She runs up a 7-storey building with blistering speed, the windows that find themselves unfortunate enough to be level with her stilettos shattering under the pressure of her gravity-defying advance. She throws her blade up the length of it in the same manner one would throw a javelin, deciding she does not need it. When she reaches the top of the building, she looks down and her mouth twists into a grimace; knowing that the building will crumble without delay, she steadies herself for its inevitable collapse and launches off it by way of a backflip, thereon calling upon her magic while she makes her descent. Her eyes glow furiously as the building is caught mid-fall by way of her spatiokinesis, surrounded by the same green light that spills from her irises.

True to her self-sacrificing nature, she has placed the lives of the civilians over her own, sparing them from being crushed to death by the building at the cost of recovering from her fall. To my surprise Kohana rotates her body with catlike agility and ensures she lands hand-first, her touchdown smooth as it is gentle; utilizing her incredible momentum, she pushes herself off the ground and leaps back into an upright position, snapping her arm out to the side in order to catch the previously-discarded Star Stealer which, after spinning around multiple times, falls perfectly into the palm of her hand as soon as she opens it, the people of her planet staring wide-eyed and slack-jawed at her performance. Pointing the blade of the Star Stealer towards the ground, she turns her nose up at those still standing under the building’s shadow, taking a few steely steps forward as if encouraging herself to do whatever it is she plans to do next. Her gait melts into a blur; with super speed, she retrieves everyone under the building one by one. An elderly woman is the last person she goes back for, exhaling gently as she puts her down and holds her hands in front of her, anticipating her fall. The woman gives Kohana a small smile and retains her balance, attempting to steady her shaking hands by placing one atop the other. Her calmness intrigues me. Despite standing in the epicenter of a catastrophe, she does not give way to panic. Even Kohana is taken aback by the woman’s reaction ( or lack thereof ), an embarrassed note leaving her lips as she brushes stray strands of her hair behind an ear.

“Thank you for saving me,” the woman says, bowing and folding her hands neatly in front of her.

“Um… Thanks. Iwait no, that’s not right…” Kohana scratches her cheek and then looks at me, placing a hand on her hip. I have no advice to give her. “Hiroyuki, what am I supposed to say?”

“Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Others need you. Now I can say I’ve lived long enough to meet a hero.” Kohana starts tearing up, her lips wibbling as holds her hands close to her heart. It is now that her magic holding the building in place wanes; she is jolted back to reality following its collapse. “You’re something from books, y’know; if you weren’t standing in front of me I wouldn’t believe it.” Embarrassed, Kohana turns on her heel and runs back onto the fray, easily jumping over the debris behind her. She was correct in leaving the woman without responding to her comment; Kohana has no time for smalltalk, and the Shadow overhead could attack again at any moment. It is odd that it has not.

“Doing a ton of work down there Yuki.” I place the tips of my index and middle fingers against my ear to adjust the reception of my communicator, D’ivoire’s voice, thereon, ringing clear. He is given to prying into the affairs of others; the Commander could not have given him a more appropriate station as head of the espionage division. Whether he is genuinely concerned about my wellbeing, or unduly curious about what I am doing makes no difference to me. The familiarity in his voice is comforting; I feel safe, knowing he is watching over me. “Earth’s getting shredded.”

“That would be the Shadows and the Summoner’s doing,” I correct, looking at a group of Shadows coordinate an attack against Kohana. She sees them but is unsure how to approach them, making a loosely-wound fist with her left hand and taking a tentative step back. Fighting the instinct to run, she takes a deep breath and steels herself for what is to come, reminding herself of her position. She is the Summoner of Time and Space, an extraterrestrial war general; were she anyone else, it would have been wisdom for her to flee the scene of two dozen Shadows. If she does not stand and fight, no one else will because they cannot. It is a bitter pill to swallow, knowing she must accept the unfair odds she has been pitted against. It is reflective in the indignation that weighs heavy on her brows, the disbelief that pries her mouth ajar and her twitching fingers, not knowing what it is she wants to do with her hands. I assume she wants to conjure her magic but finds herself too frightened to do so. That is what I gave her the Star Stealer for. Unfortunate it is, then, that she has forgotten her greatest strength at a time where it is most needed.

“Hold on, hold on. What do you mean Shadows? Shadows, with an ‘s’? Shit.” It finally dawns on him that Kohana and I’s situation on Earth is dire. The urgency in his voice gives me reason to believe he has not left Spectra yet. Though we are not in a video transmission, I know D’ivoire well enough to imagine his body language; I can see him straightening his posture apropos to the realization of Earth’s Shadow infestation and running a finger along hem of his jabot in a nervous gesture. “You didn’t tell me things were that bad, only that you were stranded.” Now there is regret in his voice. I do not fault him for shirking his responsibilities, it is clear his inaction was born from worry and disbelief. “I’m so stupid, I should have known you of all people wouldn’t contact me if it weren’t serious.” He confirms my suspicion, letting out a sigh as he does so. I hold my arm akimbo and smile, chuckling into the receiver. He was the one who told me ‘even Spectra’s Strongest needs help,’ his words verbatim; I am not so strong as to avoid unfortunate events, nor does my position as Advisor make me invulnerable to threats. The Special Operations Force holds me in very high esteem to an exaggerated degree; they believe I am perfect, so powerful as to never need assistance even when the odds are against me.

“Did you think me indestructible, D’ivoire?” I tease. I glance at Kohana who is now surrounded by Shadows, fighting tooth and nail in order to avoid being overwhelmed by them.

“Knock it off, will you? Now I have to see who’s available and scrap up a last minute team. None of the people I have on hand are good enough for that sort of competition. Rayne is going to kill me.”

My dear sister would never hurt him. “To be fair, I also did not know there was an umbrakinetic here. Do not blame yourself, D’ivoire. Rayne will understand as well.”

“Not sure how understanding she’ll be seeing you brought back to Spectra in a casket.”

“There is no need to catastrophize. I am well; you should know the Summoner fought a Shadow by herself mere hours ago.” I do not hear anything from D’ivoire for quite some time. Afflicted with a pang of worry, I draw my gaze away from Kohana and curl my fingers into my chest.

“A’ight, listen.” I could listen to him for an eternity, her underestimates how fond I am of his voice. “Tell me, what the hell kind of wet-behind-the-ears Summoner doesn’t die fighting a Shadow? Jeez.” Ah, I see. He is jealous of Kohana’s ability.

“The stubborn kind,” I say in full confidence. D’ivoire sucks his teeth.

“Oh, okay then. Can’t wait to meet this miracle kid and learn their secrets. I’d like to be able to beat things that should annihilate me by being hard-headed too.” Before I can respond he ends the transmission, forcing me to focus. It is always a treat, hearing from him. I wish he would call me more often.

“Are you alright, Kohana?” She gives me a sidelong glance in response, one full of anger. The Shadows have her on her back; one of them is salivating over her, long, jagged teeth coming into formation. Her face tenses as the Shadow slams its hands on either side of her head, teetering as it leans in closer.

“Does it look like I’m okay to you?” she says, full of derision. “A little help would be nice. Appreciated, even.”

“Call upon the Star Stealer.”

“And what is the Star Stealer going to do against” She pauses, counting the number of her enemies down on her fingers. “16 Shadows!

“As I have said, the Star Stealer is attuned to your magic. Your proficiency, as a result, is heightened. The Star Stealer will guide your hand.” She takes my advice in lieu of starting an argument. Her sword fits into her palm in a flurry of familiar green light, a faithful ally. Tightening her grip around its hilt, she wiggles around and manages to create some distance between herself and her foe, allowing her to slightly sit up and, thereon, drive her blade through its newly-formed skull.

The Shadow lets out a wail accompanied by the bright effects of her magic; clenching her teeth, Kohana violently rips her sword out of the Shadow’s head and kicks it away from her with her left heel, throwing it into another group of Shadows that dodge the oncoming attack and attempt to dogpile on her. Kohana meets their nimbleness with her own, rolling on her stomach which prompts the Star Stealer to vanish. Pushing herself up and away from the ground, she valiantly goes against the odds stacked against her, standing proud. In a graceful motion, she sways both her arms to the left and her blade rematerializes. With one hand on the uppermost part of the Star Stealer’s hilt and the other on the bottom, she brings the blade across her shoulder and slams it down the length of a Shadow in front of her, the impact causing several pieces of the earth to break apart and fly into the air, hitting surrounding Shadows with much the same force. She lifts the Star Stealer up to whereas it stands vertically at a perfect 180-degree angle, using the sword as leverage as she launches herself towards her opponent, gripping the hilt as tightly as she can with her right hand. She completes her jump and once again slams her blade into the Shadow with the added momentum of her gymnastics. Putting her right hand forward and using her left as an anchor, Kohana bends back and swings the Star Stealer from over her hips, cutting deep into several Shadows before bringing the blade back around and slamming it into most of the Shadows present, bringing the Star Stealer down to the ground by way of assuming a brief kneeling position.

Drawing the Star Stealer up again, she drags the tip of the blade across the ground and swings it back down, thereon holding the sword to her side in much the same manner a samurai would, dragging the steel of it through the dirt as she sprints towards her foe. Once she reaches the Shadow, she snaps the Star Stealer up into the air and delivers an upwards, swinging blow to several Shadows caught in her assault. Twirling around, she regains her grip upon her sword, hefting it up with both her hands as she waits for the last Shadow to approach her.

It conjures a glaive in its hands, foolishly running towards her in an attempt to prove itself to its peers. Kohana walks towards it unfazed, gently pressing her fingers against the steel of her blade. The Shadow readies an attack, twirling its glaive around before positioning to impale her with it; her expression does not change even as the tip of its weapon makes its way towards her stomach. Kohana evades the attack and counters it with her own, propelling herself back with such frightening momentum that she leaves multiple copies of herself behind whilist doing so, executing an aerial cartwheel towards her foe to make up the distance she put between them. With the Star Stealer in her hands once again, she charges at the remaining Shadow as if she were wielding a lance, knocking the Shadow back a long distance. She keeps up with it, sinking her blade further into its body, twirling around on her heel with her back turned towards it and swinging the Star Stealer around with all the force of a mountain lion mauling a deer, throwing her sword into the Shadow and knocking it through several buildings, finishing her assault by spinning gracefully, slowly, the Star Stealer making its way back to her like a boomerang which she sways overhead, thereon segueing into her default stance. She hefts the Star Stealer up with both her hands in order to hold it upright in her right, sticking it into the ground once she has decided she is finished.

“What’s wrong with it?” She references the Shadow, looking at it as if she pities it. Despite its best efforts, it cannot bring itself to cease its twitching.

“Your blade is a temporal weapon by way of your magic. Each successful strike with the Star Stealer can potentially slow your enemies down, stop them outright, or rewind their actions. With more experience comes more effects; ordinarily the Shadow would reform. Because of the spatial damage inflicted, it cannot.” While Kohana is reflecting on my words, a horde of Shadows spawn behind her. It is likely she finds the Shadow’s convulsing too human and is now conflicted with whether or not it is ethical to fight them. The Shadows take this as a chance to end her, and though I know she will prevail one way or another, their numbers are staggering and she is so absorbed in her thoughts that she has not yet noticed them.

What makes Kohana turn around is the sound of Shadows bursting behind her. The one responsible for the aforementioned is a wolf that shifts mid-assault, exchanging her fur for knee-length hair barrel curled loosely at the ends the colour of candied moonlight bearing the luminosity of a billion dying stars. The intimate places of her body are still covered in fur, however; in retaining her modesty she speaks volumes of her intelligence, understanding the purpose clothes serve for humans and emulating them thus. Having shed her wolf form, she now bears the appearance of a precocious girl, her vacant stare projecting that of a childlike naiveté, her face giving the impression that she enjoys wearing pink, powdery perfumes, skipping through fields of flowers, and dressing in billowy skirts and frilled blouses.

Her doe-eyes are half-lidded by the weight of her lashes, resulting in a perpetually sleepy look. Her moderately-thick brows are set high above her eyes, giving her an ever-questioning, though soft expression. Her cheeks are flush with a healthy glow, her lips the colour of scepter’d isle roses. She is svelte, a tender, dreamy ingenuousness and an eerie kind of vulgarity. Ethereal she may be, only a fool would believe her harmless by way of refusing to see past her delicacy; there are several unnerving things about her, such as her eyes being the colour of bright, vivid blood. She looks as if she is peering at us through ruptured vessels, bleeding profusely from eye sockets serving as severe wounds. Her irises are freshly-wet injuries, that of senseless slaughter and the first kill of battle. So, too, does she have a last man standing stare, the sole survivor of a war she both started and ended. There is a great carnage about her eyes; in them I see countless massacres and, most notably, the corpses of all those lacking the sense not to challenge her.

A Shadow attempts to slip her sight to no avail; in the aversion of her gaze from us to it, her pupils move across the great slaughter of her eyes with all the precision of a hawk capturing its prey within its talons, coolly calculating, ruthless. She is strange and frightening in her swiftness, her expression blasé at best in spite of what her eyes suggest. Where the latter marks her as someone who enjoys violence to excess, the former gives me reason to believe she is deeply apathetic due to the absence of any emotional reaction to this scene both in her expression and body language. She manages to portray herself as nothing more than a pretty, empty-headed girl and a cruel, wicked demon whose evil knows no bounds simultaneously; it is not the execution itself that is jarring, but the fact that she succeeds in combining two conflicting things as seamlessly as she does. It is my belief that this is the effect she wished to attain through her shift, to come off as both doll-like and destructive in equal measure.

There remains one wolfish thing about her in this form: the way she moves with extreme and ferocious energy, ripping Shadows to ribbons with claws she has kept long and sharp with reckless abandon. Kohana’s fighting style is that of ease and suppleness, turning power into grace when she is focused; this one is a berserker whose every move is wild as befitting of a beast, catching fleeing Shadows by their ankles and dragging them back towards her before attacking them in full rage while retaining control. She, the Shadows whisper in tongues unintelligible, the fear of God placed into them at the pronoun she has made hers. She, they dread, seized by profound fear and terror, repeating a madness mantra as they trip and fall and sob: we must run, we must run, we must run. They recognize her monstrosity, mark it leagues above their own despite being the bane of the cosmos, and concede they are no match for her. I will praise them for their decision to seek escape in lieu of taking part in a battle they know they cannot win, numbers be damned; this is the first time I have seen self-preservation from Shadows, scared out of their wits into sense by the she-wolf’s presence. From her wafts something biblically cataclysmic, something that smites those against her in an instant. She, the water into blood. She, the mixture of wild animals. She, the death of the first born, the final and most painful blow. With her on our side, we have an unbeatable advantage; the Shadows want nothing to do with her, and will abandon their pursuit of Kohana if she is near her.

Be that as it may, I cannot imagine this girl-turned-wolf cares about Kohana in any capacity. She certainly is not fighting these Shadows to protect her. Frankly, they do not know each other for the girl to go out of her way to keep Kohana safe. Judging by her display of great skill, however, I believe she knows she is a Summoner and has known long before she encountered us. Wolf or girl, it matters not; her command over her Summoner element is far superior to what Kohana has displayed with hers thus far. Do not misunderstand me, that is not to say Kohana is a bad fighter; on the contrary, she continues to hold her own against droves of Shadows and, as D’ivoire stated prior, her first battle should have been sabotaged by inexperience. Kohana knew nothing about her power, nor of her opponent. In accordance with reason, the Shadow saw a sitting duck; unfortunately it encountered a tiger with a rather nasty bite and sharp claws, a girl fierce in her anger who refuses to lose no matter what. These two a cat / dog dichotomy; Kohana, with her tendency towards ferocity when incensed enough and the she-wolf, an animal who has shed her skin for that of the softer sort, still bringing about the brutal winter wind of the Arctic as she hunts the hunter. There is nothing tame about these girls, they are wrath-wild and bestial-brutal, untamed, raw; that my charges are so blatantly animal amuses me so.

With regard to her animalistic behaviour, I am almost certain Kohana hails from a feline species in another universe. She has several traits of the aforementioned, her pupils the most conspicuous. I do not wish to confuse the girl further, however; she will no doubt fail to understand how she can be a Summoner and some manner of cat, although she will no doubt insist she is purely human. She hisses, likewise growls; surely she cannot think that is behaviour befitting of a human.

Nevertheless, it is my belief that this girl will foil Kohana. Where Kohana is gregarious, she will be unsociable. Kohana’s tendency to ask questions will be contrasted by the other’s lack thereof. As Kohana learns more about her power, this girl will already have mastered her own. When I go back to Spectra with them in tow, I anticipate a great confusion about which of the two holds the Summoner of Time title. Moreover, I was told there was only one Summoner on Earth; I can only imagine the wide-spread surprise when I return with another. In the eons of the Summoner Project existing, there has never been an instance where two Summoners hail from the same planet. Even more impressive is the fact that this girl managed to evade the sensors used to locate Summoners. Endowed with exceptional power, it is also possible Kohana’s magic jammed the sensors; that Spectra was also unwitting to the presence of Shadows on Earth all but confirms the latter. Still, I will not discard the possibility of this girl wanting to be discovered on her own terms.

Feelings of admiration and respect still Kohana into awestruck silence. There is fear as well in her stare, too fascinated to look away and too terrified to run. Kohana and I may be of the same mind. The she-wolf has and continues to eviscerate these Shadows in mid-air; she does not even allow them the luxury to descend. Had they been humans, we would be covered organs and layers of flayed skin.

She lands on all fours, the ground fissuring beneath her; Kohana is so taken with her that she does not realize she is struggling to maintain balance. The girl rises with poise unbefitting of a monster, her expression that of a clear sky or a calm sea, tranquil. Her eyes, though half-lidded with a listless innocence, are pointed at Kohana as if she disapproves of her inability to protect herself. As she walks past the Star Stealer, she gently wraps her hand around its hilt and pulls it out the ground, wind surging through its blade as it reacts to her magic. I am impressed she understands how the Star Stealer functions without being told; her command over wind also evokes my admiration, as it is an application of a more advanced form of magic Kohanafor all her powerhas no grasp of. In a deft motion the girl presses the Star Stealer’s blade stark against Kohana’s back, to which she raises her hands up in surrender and yelps, scared into proper posture. Kohana pleads for me to help with a pout, her eyes tearing up, thereon filling with terror as she strains to look back at the girl from over her shoulder. Amused by Kohana’s skittishness, the girl gives a slight smirk and, in doing so, unveils her teeth to Kohana who gulps upon catching a glimpse of them. They are nearly the same height, Kohana taller by an inch or so; she will be pleased, knowing that she is not the shortest amongst us. Kohana opens her mouth to say something but her words stuck in her throat; I imagine she is too busy thinking about how to escape.

The girl’s smirk widens a little as she brings the Star Stealer up to Kohana’s throat and turns the steel in a way that forces Kohana to instinctively lift her chin up. “You are leader?” She speaks with a thick Russian accent, omitting the article between ‘are’ and ‘leader.’ The broadness of her accent is contrasted by her bright, candied timbre; one would not think someone as ruthless as her would sound so sweet. Her voice is cavity-inducing, dessert to the ears, pure sugarcane; there is a breeziness to how she speaks, her words the gentle caress of spring rousing flowers to wake. Kohana looks at the girl as best as she can and nods her head, resulting in the removal of the Star Stealer’s blade from her neck. Kohana lets her body fall in a sigh of relief, doubling over and catching her breath after forgetting how to breathe. She places her hands flat against her stomach and stays in that position, gaze earthward, limbs trembling; the girl, who has yet to relinquish the Star Stealer, is unimpressed by Kohana’s theatrics, choosing to soldier on and leave her behind. She will get no sympathy from this girl, it seems that compassion is not something she is capable of.

Kohana coughs before rising up on her feet, reaching out towards her. “W-wait!” she stutters, tripping over herself as she attempts to follow the other. There is a blush that dusts her cheeks. “You haven’t even told me your na—!”

“Do not.” A cold but powerful command, one that causes Kohana to quickly retract her hand and take a hurried step back.

“Yes ma’am!” comes Kohana’s emphatic expression of assent as she snaps into attention. It is unlike her, being so meekly obedient. Kohana cannot work up the nerve to fight anymore, her loss of nerve giving me cause for concern. This girl is truly a force to be reckoned with, managing to frighten Kohana into submission; that is something neither I nor the Shadows could accomplish.

It is amusing to think this girl does not know Kohana is a spitfire who is as irascible as she is passionate. What she is aware of is that the girl cowering next to me would have died had she not intervened. I cannot imagine Kohana has given a good first impression as they arewithout doubtfight-oriented, and likely scorn her for her glaring weakness; in fact, it is clear to me this was not the other’s first encounter with Shadows, given the ease with which they dispatched them. I would like to know more about this girl, however questioning her now would be inappropriate. While the Shadows are far too terrified to approach her a second time, they may become desperate in their need to devour Kohana. That the Shadows have allowed us to go this long without confronting us once more is telling in and of itself. As I’ve said before, Shadows have no concept of self-preservation; keeping their distance from the wolf and not throwing themselves at Kohana for the opportunity to eat her are both anomalistic behaviours from them.

“I believe she means she does not have a name,” I say, clarifying the girl’s comment. I thought the aforementioned clear, considering the girl is a shapeshifting animal. Animal of the wild sort have no need of names, though I suppose that has been lost unto Kohana by witnessing how human this girl has become. Kohana is thoroughly confused, unable to discern whether she is friend or foe; Kohana looks up at me, shaking, playing with her hands to stop them from moving. She is scared stiff and feels defenseless without the Star Stealer. The girl turns around again and Kohana snaps behind me, peering at her from over my shoulder.

“She’s scary.”

“Hopefully you think her less so in the future. She is a Summoner, same as you.” It does not surprise me that Kohana is not taken aback by the aforementioned. She is unusually savvy of these happenings; just as she correctly guessed I am an extraterrestrial, she must have concluded the she-wolf is a Summoner. One would think she would be thrilled about having a teammateergo, no longer having to fight alonebut she is unenthusiastic towards to our new addition. Her eyes have lost their luster, her head hanging low; I am of the opinion that Kohana does not think they will get along. Every attempt Kohana has made to engage in conversation with the girl, friendly or not, has been shot down. It is likely Kohana has never encountered a person she could not immediately befriend until this moment, hence her forlorn reaction. I would say the girl is guarded, aloof, even, but I have not seen enough of her to say she is deliberately rejecting Kohana’s attempts to form a friendship. I believe it is precisely the aforementioned that has Kohana teary-eyed, slumping her shoulders and letting out a sigh as she raises her head only to pout, thereon lowering it again so her bangs hang in her eyes in order to hide the tears that fall from them.

“You will spend the rest of your days together,” I say, folding my arms across my chest. Perhaps I was insensitive. That was not my intent. My comment has done more harm than good; her weeping has worsened. She covers her face with both of her hands and slows her gait, blinking several tears away before rubbing her eyes in an attempt stop crying. I use this moment to clarify my words. “There will be ample opportunity for you to become acquainted with her. Do not give up, she may yet open up.”

Kohana perks up, clinging to the sleeve of my coat; in doing so she proves my observation correct. The girl’s ‘scariness’ bothers Kohana little compared to the possibility of never growing close to her, although that raises a few questions on its own. Kohana craves the girl’s companionship, that much is certain; what is not clear is if Kohana idolizes her as to be disappointed by what she assumes to be disinterest in knowing her on the girl’s part, or if there is something deeper here, a crush beneath the front. To be afraid and infatuated all at once; Kohana is struggling to make sense of her conflicting emotions. Infatuation explains why Kohana’s cheeks have so often filled with colour, and why she hasand continues tostumble over her words. Her passion betrays her, her emotions so extreme they are written across her face in big, bold letters. She could not hide her infatuated even if she wanted. It permeates her expression, her voice, her body language; every part of her professes her love for this girl, and it is only by the mercy of her being a wolf that the object of her affection takes no notice. I did not think I would bear witness to ‘love at first sight.’ It is sweeter than I had imagined it; I vow to keep Kohana’s feelings a secret.

I have many questions to ask this girl, however this is not an appropriate time to do so. Instead I offer a solution to her not having a name. “We will refer to her as her military titlethe Summoner of Changeuntil we are in a more favourable environment to discuss such frivolities.”

Our wolf companion stops and turns towards us, her eyes still retaining that bleeding quality about them. “Very well.”

“I am not calling her the Summoner of Change,” comes Kohana’s adamant response, stomping her foot and peering up at me while wearing a pout. “It’s a mouthful! That’s six whole syllables.”

“So is the Summoner of Time,” I reply, tilting my head. Only Kohana would throw a temper tantrum over something as inconsequential as this. I begin to regret my words; perhaps I should not have engaged her in an argument about units of pronunciation.

“That’s not the point.” Kohana illustrates hers by folding her arms in a petulant manner, huffing as she does so. “She’s a person, she needs a name.”

“Forgive my bluntness, Kohana, but there are more pressing matters to attend to.” Such as preventing her world from being destroyed. Surely she can see the cracks stretching across impressive lengths of the Earth.

“What’s more pressing than making sure my teammate has a name?” I am not going to answer her. That would only prolong this conversation when we have no time to spare. Luckily the girl gets Kohana’s attention by staring at her; once Kohana notices she has fallen under the wolf’s gaze, she is stilled by a shudder.

“The tall one is right.” Her rationality is sorely needed in our ensemble. It is my hope that she makes a habit out of thwarting Kohana’s tantrums. “Come.” She punctuates her command with a sharp turn on her heel. Kohana speeds up behind her.

After a while of silence, Kohana pokes her index fingers together, mustering the courage to look at her. “Um…” The girl does not turn around, ergo, Kohana is forced to talk to her back. “…Miss?” she continues, her expression brightening. “I-I was wondering… How did you… y’know… find me?”

“You reek.”

Kohana nervously laughs in response and scratches the back of her head, her half smile dropping off her face when she turns to look towards me, her expression now one of hurt feelings. There are tears pricking in her eyes and her lips are wibbling.

“She means she was able to find you because of the magic you exude.” Kohana does not understand what I have said as evident by her confused expression. “Unique to the Summoner of Time is their passive emission of magic. Unlike other Summoners, you are constantly producing magic as per the unique way in which you were created. Said magic is largely ambient, that is to say it is not normally a specific type that you send forth. In the case of it being a particular kinesis, generally it will be newly-created time and space that you exude.”

“She tracked me on smell alone? How does one smell magic?”

“Yours is particularly potent.”

Kohana purses her lips together, desperate to change the subject. “Let me guess… the Summoner of Change can manipulate change.”

“That is not entirely wrong, nor entirely correct. As the Summoner of Change, she is what you would call an inclinkinetic.” My pause is purposely done to savour the look of confusion on Kohana’s face at that last word. As Spectra’s general, she will be expected to have memorized known kineses by name and function.  It is important she knows what her opponents are capable of; through the study of kineses, she can also commit the potential strengths and weaknesses of her teammates to memory for optimal team composition. There are millions of kineses; this will pose no problem to Kohana because she is a Summoner. By now it should be evident that Summoners are of heightened intellect. Celestial Beings are among the smartest species in the multiverse and Summoners were made in our image. I can say with confidence Kohana and her new teammate are the most intelligent beings in this universe, myself excluded. “…Or a shapeshifter. Surely you were curious about the girl’s wolf form.” Kohana narrows her eyes at me, knits her brows, and purses her lips at me before her body relaxes and she tilts her head to the left, tapping her curled fingers against her cheek as she becomes lost in thought.

“What wolf form?” Her question is followed by a nervous laugh. “I didn’t see a wolf.” Feeling self-conscious, she draws her hands into tightly-wound fists and gives me a sword-sharp frown, compensating for her inattentiveness with anger. “Maybe if a certain someone didn’t leave me at the mercy of a thousand Shadows…!”

To that I cannot help but chuckle. “If exaggeration were a talent you would win the show, Kohana.”

“Exaggeration?” The word falls out of Kohana’s mouth like a shard of broken glass, her lower eyelid twitching as her body grows stiff with incredulousness. “I’m telling the truth!” she insists, folding her arms with undo aggression. “I didn’t see anything!” That is surprising, considering she had been gawking at the girl like a love-struck puppy. Kohana does not let me respond, however, and instead makes a shooing motion with her hand. “Finish what you were saying about the Summoner stuff, I’m not arguing with you on this.” Very well, I will gladly acquiesce. I would like to stay on topic as much as possible. It is only because of the girl that we are not encountering more Shadows; to honour her assistance, I would like to provide new information to the both of them.

“What you see now is not truly how the girl looks.”

“Are you saying she’s an actual wolf?” Kohana stops and blinks. “Can animals become Summoners?”

“Yes.” It is an answer to both of her questions. Once I respond she continues to walk. “That is likely the case. There is a distinct possibility, however, that she may not be a wolf. We can speculate the actuality of her existence, but we will never know what she truly is until she tells us.”

“So the opposite of a werewolf, then!” comes Kohana’s triumphant conclusion. I find her expression can be imaginative at times, the emotional style with with she conveys her thoughts and feelings veering into poetic when she is disposed to reflection. This is one of those times; I find her comment thought-provoking, prompting me to think if the inverse of the werewolf myth would be worse than what it originally entails. “A wolf cursed with humanity… sounds sad.” It astounds me that Kohana can be airheaded one moment, and then share deep, philosophical thoughts about simple topics the next. If only she was capable of such rational thought often; I cherish these moments where she does not let emotion cloud her judgement. Perhaps our new companion will struggle with the humanity they have been granted as Kohana has said. If so, she is in luck; Kohana is more than willing to help her, and who better to help her steer the vastness of humanity than she who clings feverently to the humanity she has lived amongst.

“Hey, you should tell her I would watch a movie about her!” Kohana’s eyes light up and she draws her hands into loosely-wound fists, walking on her tiptoes for a bit. “Or, err,” she continues, realizing she is, perhaps, too excited, thus giving her interest in the girl–and her apparent crush–away, placing her palms flat against her thighs and standing on her soles once more, “you would watch a movie about her.” I laugh quietly to myself; it is clear Kohana is struggling between wanting to express her fondness for the girl, and not wanting to give away how she feels about her. It must be embarrassing, I am sure, falling head over heels for someone who, not even a moment ago, held a blade to her neck as an assertion of dominance. “A novel written about her life would be even better!” She clasps her hands together and looks up at the blackened sky, sighing. “I should write it.” There is a delighted pause that follows her words before she taps an index finger against her cheek, thereon stopping to point skyward as if gesturing an exclamation mark. “Oh, better idea!” she blurts out, covering her mouth. She slowly removes her hand, revealing a wide grin. “I should paint her.”

“You would paint her before me?” This is Kohana’s way of destressing. By making the girl the subject of her thoughts, she does not have to think of the ruin the Shadow above has wrought. “Am I not pretty enough to catch your artistic eye?” She recoils when she hears the word ‘pretty’; it is odd, seeing her take offense to me referring to myself as such. Still, I continue to indulge her, brushing a few strands of my hair behind an ear in an attempt to tidy myself. “I have known you longer, it is only appropriate that I be painted first.”

“I’ve known her longest,” she huffs, closing her eyes and folding her arms in an indignant manner. “There is an alien named Isleen Tchaikovsky in my mother’s stories,” she begins,  She’s one of my favourite characters, but my mother doesn’t talk about her often. I understand why. She’s Prince Ukyo and Princess Saki’s knight, so Isleen’s too busy with military stuff to go on adventures with them. And she’s not just any knight, no, she’s the knight commander! She’s so skilled everyone calls her ‘the Chevalier,’ that’s her official title. She reminds me a lot of Isleen. They’re both cool and pretty. They have the same red eyes and silver hair; they could be the same person. Same person, same name. Isleen Tchaikovsky, but sometimes Isleen Chevalier.” Isleen is a rather soft name for an animal. Judging by the girl’s acceptance in being called ‘the Summoner of Change,’ however, I believe she will have no qualms being referred to as such. On the subject of Kohana’s crush, perhaps she grew fond of the Isleen from her mother’s tales first; if the aforementioned is true, she believes the she-wolf to be the original Isleen in the flesh, ergo, Kohana has already given our new comrade the first Isleen’s characteristics. She will be disappointed, then, when she realizes this Isleen is her own person andheaven forbidworse than what she has imagined. I am curious to know what our Isleen has in store for us; already she has much to teach Kohana.

The Shadow above makes its next move, effectively souring Kohana’s high spirits. The sky’s colour returns as it abandons the sun; Kohana, Isleen and I raise our guards, expecting a battle. In lieu of the aforementioned, the Shadow fashions itself into a supercell lightning storm, striking down a learning institute immediately thereafter. The impact shakes the earth, bathing both the buildings that encompass the school and their surroundings in a goopy, thick black residue. Kohana’s horror is written all over her face, she need not say anything for Isleen and I to understand the severity of this situation. She opens her mouth to speak, but instead of giving words she lets out a shriek of terror. Balling up her fists to stop her arms from shaking, she takes a deep breath and then shakes her head, invoking her super speed; we lose Kohana in an instant.

Fortunately she has not gone far. We find her in the school a few paces away from the entrance, paralyzed by the grisly scene awaiting us. The walls are drenched in blood, the floor littered with pieces of her peers and instructors. I cannot recall the last time I have seen such savage, indiscriminate killing. What immediately comes to mind after seeing such violence is the millennia I spent in the Academy Program. I was made a spectator to exams wherein I watched hundreds of aspiring Advisors kill each other until one studentunrecognizable by way of a combination of wounds and being dressed in the remains of their opponentswas left standing. Exams that happened weekly, exams that the Academy eagerly awaited as a collective. It was difficult in the beginning, getting close to people only to lose them the next day; three days into the program and it felt odd when someone was not brutally killed on the rare occasion that the aforementioned happened, and when it did someone was to blame for the lack of bloodshed, paying for the mishap with their own.

Just as I had done when I was much younger, I begin to count the number of corpses present. Try as I might, there are far too many of them in this area; I am certain the Shadows brought most, if not all those still present to this specific location to kill them, to have her return to a gruesome mess of those she spent a significant amount of time with. It did not matter whether Kohana was close to those who were killed or not; as far as the Shadows were concerned, these people needed to die simply for breathing the same air as her. Several of the Shadows are now eating what is left of her late friends and acquaintances in order to throw her into more emotional turmoil. I look to my left and see a boy no older than my charges attempting to crawl away from a Shadow. His lower body is missing; using the last of his strength, he drags himself across the ground, leaving chunks of himself behind in the small distance that he covers. Like an over-excited child, a Shadow bounces over to him and morphs its arm into a spear, driving it through his chest with a skin-crawling squelch. The boy writhes on impact, encouraging the Shadow to drive its arm further into his body before he stops moving altogether. Another Shadow has crucified a child and is now picking their organs out of their body and popping them into its malformed mouth like candy. As this Shadow happily chews on the child’s heart, other Shadows amuse themselves by wearing the faces of the children they have killed to amuse those around it. I am revolted.

The Shadow in the sky’s recent attack could not have caused this. I believe these Shadows infested Kohana’s school after she left to meet with me. It is likely the Shadow that eclipsed the sun fled here to lure us.

It is not up to me to decide what we should do next. That decision is Kohana’s to make and the she-wolf knows this as well; Isleen is just as unperturbed by this scene as I am. After waiting for several minutes, I turn to Kohana to find she is in a state of mental numbness, reacting to this crisis with listless resignation. Her eyes are unfocused without any luster, so wide and unblinking that they simulate a pair of glasses. She is staring into the distance, her vacant gaze characteristic of a war-weary, traumatized soldier emotionally detached from the horrors around them. She runs her fingers through the hair cradling her cheeks to provide herself some form of comfort, only to drag her fingers through her scalp and do away with the neatness of her buns. Isleen has grown impatient. Irritated, even, at Kohana’s reaction to stumbling upon this bloodbath. She takes a single pointed step past Kohana and, although subdued, raises her lips to snarl at her.

“Leave her.” She proposes a solution to Kohana’s shock with cold logic. This girl is not one to mince words; she speaks like the edge of a dagger, short and sharp with calculating precision, a stark juxtaposition to Kohana’s words full of raw emotion.

“She will die.” I fold my arms over my chest, expecting a change in her decision; in lieu of the aforementioned, she presses on with bone-chilling indifference. “The school is infested with Shadows. They are attracted to her with intense and immediate interest. You will be ignored, and she will be devoured.”

The girl gives an arrogant snort of laughter. I catch a glimpse of her teeth as she smirks; she has kept them menacing, unnecessarily sharp. “A paltry meal,” is her only response before disappearing amidst the corpses and the Shadows, confirming my suspicions. As a wild animal I cannot fault her for wanting to eat others; it is the fact that she insinuated Kohana would not be a fulfilling meal that gives me cause to pause, as if she entertained the thought before coming to that conclusion.

I turn my attention towards Kohana whose legs have given out from under her. There is a part of me that wishes that I could understand the devastation that plagues her. This scene will no doubt be burned into her memory forever; a child should never have to see their classmates splattered against their school’s walls.  While it is likely there are survivors, I would have to kill them for they have seen too much. As an Advisor, I cannot suffer those from a third world planet knowing far more than they should, even if they are victims to magic that should not have been present on their planet.

I kneel next to Kohana and brush her bangs out of her eyes. She will hate herself for leaving school, for ‘leaving these people to fend for themselves.’ She will hold herself accountable for not being here to save them. She has only just begun her charge as the Summoner of Time and already she is taking on so much; not being here to prevent this slaughter is probably the reason why she fainted. Had she been awake, I would urge her to leave this behind her. There is no need to visit Earth in between saving worlds who need her assistance, and as soon as Kohana sees the sorry state those planets are in, she will agree with that sentiment—there is no need to take the Earth with her. Fond as her memories of this planet are, succumbing to nostalgia will only slow us down and hinder us; if the Earth does not meet the necessary criteria for the Summoners to war on then it is best left alone. Though Shadows plague it now, it is not as pressing as our primary objective, one I have not gotten a chance to discuss with her yet.

I remove the glove on my right hand by tugging at the fabric on the tip of my index finger. My ecliptic coordinates, in all their gold splendor, begin to glow; ecliptic coordinates are Celestial-made tattoos that resemble constellations. Though pretty, their purpose is not an aesthetic one. On Spectra, it is thought that stars are a division of heaven. We eat the assembly of the blessed and adorn ourselves in it; using a cosmic-coloured ink made from the magic that pervades our planet, we don the abode of bliss in geometric patterns, paradise written all over our skin. Ecliptic coordinates, like our eyes, glow when we cast magic, and are especially vibrant when conjuring the additional kineses they bestow us. The true purpose of ecliptic coordinates is to widen Celestial Beings’ magical repertoire; there are offensive, defensive, and supportive forms of coordinates depending on the type of ink used, diversified further by being so exact in their creation that one can choose the new kinesis they can use. My coordinates are curative. Loathe as I am to admit, my natural abilities are quite destructive. Without them I would have no restorative utility to offer to my comrades; being forced to watch my brethren in arms suffer due to my healing ineptitude was incentive enough for me to seek coordinates that would make me a better-rounded fighter. Ecliptic coordinates are not a luxury everyone can afford, however.

‘Expensive’ does not begin to cover the cost of them; very few Celestial Beings have coordinates, and those who do either enlisted themselves in the Advisor Program, or paid more than just money to receive them. Apropos to the latter, individuals give up everything to receive nothing in comparison regardless of how powerful coordinates are. Furthermore, coordinates obtained outside of the Advisor Program are vastly inferior. Only the Commander and those working alongside him capture the perfection of coordinates; no one else can harness the energies of the planet like they do, a fact readily apparent considering the Commander created the Summoner Project.

I employ the magic Kohana has wanted so strongly for me to use. Had she had been conscious, I’m almost certain she would have been disappointed with the nature of it. It is not of the destructive, offensive kind she would have killed to have me use. My coordinates cover the length of my arm, my hands, and my fingertips, moving counterclockwise against my skin before leaving my body and smattering themselves against Kohana’s skin. Her face in particular is freckled in my coordinates; it is the area they have decided is the most effective place to employ their magic. This is not the devastating magic she assumed me capable of. My coordinates emit a gentle healing aura that enfolds her and brings her back to her senses, her eyes opening slowly as if she has been roused from sleep. She behaves as she would waking up in the morning, her expression sleepy, her movements slow; when she realizes where she is and is reacquainted with the scene responsible for her unconsciousness, a jolt of devastation surges through her body and she looks around frantically, her words stuck in her throat. She looks at me after her moment of franticness and latches onto me for security, burying her face in my jabot before letting out a wail and immediately bawling.

“Why did you wake me!?” she screeches into my chest; bawling up her fist, she strikes my shoulder over and over again. Her assault is weak, she can barely lift her arm up. “Why did you bring me back!” With each word she becomes more incoherent. “Why, why, why!”

“If we do not act, more people will die.” It is a sobering realization for Kohana, one that causes her to go silent. “You must,” I add, helping her to her feet. “You will. You can mourn after you have carried out your obligations. You must move forward for the Earth’s sake as well as your own. Now brandish your blade.” She opens her right hand and the Star Stealer materializes in it. “The other Summoner,” I begin, correcting my statement, “Isleen went ahead of us. I doubt she will be successful in locating the umbrakinetic, but it would be wise to follow her.”

“What do they even want.” Her voice has lost its colour. She does not sound like the Kohana I know.

“Umbrakinetics are incredibly strong magic users and are well aware of such. They are trying to test you, or perhaps lure you to them in order to unveil themselves. This school would not strike their fancy elsewise; they know there is something here that is important to you, perhaps

My mother!

Kohana holds the Star Stealer with both of her hands and sprints forward into a sea of Shadows, deftly sliding between a few of them before they realize she means to evade them in lieu of facing them in battle. Scorned, they begin to lash out at her, unleashing a barrage of swipes from long, needle-sharp claws and spiked punches; Kohana jumps over one Shadow’s head and flips in mid-air, landing on the shoulders of another before steadying herself and hopping off of it, thereon slamming the Shadow into the wall next to her and through what I assume to be a vacant classroom, her grip loosening around the Star Stealer. I watch as her sword slides against the floor and she is seized by horror. Greeting us is the Summoner of Change who calmly retrieves the Star Stealer and points it towards a Shadow different from the rest sporting blue hair and purple irises. Shadows are one solid colour, that being black; I have never seen an aberration like this. “Jinnouchi-sensei…?!” The urgency with which Kohana says that name brings me to pause. Even more troubling is the fact that Kohana seems to be referring to the Shadow.

It says Kohana’s name quizzically in response, its tone deep, distorted. Kohana’s heart sinks as she runs towards her teacher, stopping so abruptly in front of her that she nearly falls over. Like the heroes she idolizes, Kohana tries to be a pillar of strength. Fire-eyed, she throws her body in front of the Shadow, using herself as a shield against Isleen’s attack. I did not think Isleen capable of such merciful hesitation; she strikes me as the sort that would utilize any opportunity to defeat her opponent, even if that means striking down a comrade in order to do so.

Perhaps I am too generous with that word; Isleen has not aligned herself with us. We do not know her motives, and we are not certain she shares a common enemy with us. Still, Kohana is not intimidated by the tip of the Star Stealer mere centimeters away from her back. I admire her tenacity, the manner in which she clings steadfast to her heroic creed. Kohana faces danger with exceptional courage, moving without fear as seen in how she leaps to the Shadow’s aid. I am confused by her willingness to shield the Shadow, however. They are the enemy; though not the umbrakinetic we seek, it is clear they are responsible for the Shadows flooding the school and killing everyone here. Kohana throwing herself in front of this Shadow may as well be a gesture of waving a white flag, for the Shadow will surely use this opportunity to consume her. Any Shadow would. Had this Shadow not been two seconds away from snapping Kohana’s neck, I would have scolded her for her recklessness.

Kohana is shaking despite acting decisively; she cannot keep her hands steady around the Shadow’s shoulders. It acknowledges her reassuring gesture by bringing its hands up to her neck and, thereon, wrapping them tightly around it. Kohana strains against the Shadow’s hold, placing her hands atop its own. “You have to…” She struggles to find the air to finish her sentence, “fight it!” Her last words come tumbling out of her mouth in a yell that required vigorous exertion. Tears stream down her face as she half-swallows screams of pain, wanting so desperately to have her instructor back. “This isn’t you!”

“Please, Kohana.” Its tone is akin to a tender caress against the cheek, its words a lullaby intended to calm Kohana by way of deception. It proves effective; Kohana falls victim to the soothing influence of its song. She is at ease, her body relaxing despite the Shadow tightening its grip. Kohana holds the person the Shadow has been masquerading as in high regard; she trusts this Jinnouchi completely, and believes she would not do anything to deliberately harm her. I will be blunt: Jinnouchi does not exist. She never has. She never will.

Kohana’s aim is plainwith an act of self-sacrificing submission she hopes to reawaken Jinnouchi’s humanity but she cannot rouse what is not there. Whatever the reason, this Shadow donned a human skin. It went against its violent nature to live amongst them. I find it difficult to believe a Shadow was able to blend so seamlessly into Earthen society; it fit the mold of a teacher of all conceivable possibilities, and did the aforementioned so frighteningly well that Kohana does not recognize her life is in danger even while she is gasping for air. I imagine Jinnouchi was friendly and congenial with her students, Kohana most of all; drawn to the latter by way Kohana being a Summoner, Jinnouchi must have found it difficult to curb her urges to kill Kohana. It is possible Jinnouchiin an attempt to quell themlavished Kohana in affection in much the same manner parents dote on their only child; too busy expressing her fondness for Kohana, murderous thoughts as per the inherent character of Shadows would have been given no conscious consideration.

I almost pity it for teaching itself to love. It was without result, and now Kohana will suffer twofold for its error.

“I’ve killed so many already.” The Shadow’s voice is as gentle as the sound of light rain; one would not think it was referring to its indiscriminate slaughter of schoolchildren. The colour begins to drain from Kohana’s face; I cannot tell whether that is due to fear or lack of oxygen. “I can’t hold myself back much longer. I must apologise. I won’t be there to see you change the world.”

“I won’t! I can’t! You can do this Jinnouchi-sensei!” It pains me to see Kohana give her all for someonesomething that was never real. She has long since emotionally exhausted herself to the point of fainting earlier; Jinnouchi has decided Kohana has not suffered enough, entertained by her begging as Shadows are wont. “I’ll be with you every step of the way.” Kohana struggles to keep her smile on her face “I’m here,” she reassures the Shadow in a pained whisper, her eyes welling with more tears. “I won’t let you die.” She can barely speak; must this Shadow make a show of her pain?

“Kohana.” I am stern, my expression that of stark disapproval. “Jinnouchi never existed. It is and has always been a Shadow. Do not fall for its ruse. Get away from it, now.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” There is no getting through to her. She is sick with emotion. “Stop talking!” Her voice is hoarse, her eyes bloodshot. “Stop!” she begs, she pleads, “I won’t let you hurt her! Leave us alone! I won’t let you, I can’t let you!”

Isleen tightens her grip around the Star Stealer andin one deft, heartless motiondrives the blade through Kohana and into the Shadow. The sound of Kohana choking on her unsung words is the only thing that can be heard before a powerful wind surges through the steel of the Star Stealer, the current ruining the room. Kohana falls limp on the sword and the vicious shredding of Jinnouchi follows thereafter by way of Isleen’s ærokinesis. Impaling Kohana with her own sword is not cruel enough for the she-wolf. Once enough of Jinnouchi has been flung throughout the room, she rips the sword out of Kohana’s back and retracts her arm, flicking Kohana’s blood across the floor. Isleen carelessly drops the Star Stealer and turns sharply on her heel, not sparing me so much as a glance as she makes her exit. I will not chase after her, nor am I keen on leaving Kohana to lay in a pool of her own blood. This is not the last we have seen of Isleen, that much is clear; a Summoner she may be, Kohana’s wellbeing takes precedence over Isleen’s desire to play the role of a loner. I make my way over to Kohana and access her wound. It is severe, but it will not kill her.

“Will you be sending me off now?” Forlorn of all hope, the Shadowin all its scattered piecesasks if I will slay it, its voice resounding from every direction. It certainly sounds miserable, as when lonely being abandoned. I know better; it will not convince me that it is genuinely unhappy.

“Unfortunately, yes.” My reply is curt despite my formality. I am unmoved by the Shadow’s supposed sorrow; it will find I have no sympathy to give it. The ecliptic coordinates on my arm leave my skin and transfer to Kohana’s body, illuminating her with a wealth of constellations. Already the bruises on her face begin to fade; I know she takes healing applications well as per her being a Summoner, but I am relieved nonetheless. “You were created to protect her.” It is not a question. There is no other explanation for this Shadow’s strong attachment to Kohana. Upon the Shadow’s conception, it was told to treat Kohana in the manner of a mother. It could not disobey its umbrakinetic; as a result, this Shadow was maternally kind, protective and nurturing. It embraced its role as ‘Jinnouchi’ and had excess compassion to spare, excelling in its given mission. But a Shadow is still a Shadow, and it has ruined the lives of many in pretending to be human.

“Mhm,” is its only response. I close my eyes and give a small nod.

“I assume she fell out of favour with the umbrakinetic, then.”

“You know who they are.” Though tender in tone, there is a keen edge to its words. “There is no need for manipulation, Celestial, for I will not tell you anything you don’t already know.” I scoop Kohana off the ground as the Shadow continues to lecture me. That it thinks it has any say in my duties as an Advisor is absurd. “I don’t understand you. You condemn me for hiding the truth from Kohana and prolonging the inevitable, but are you not doing the same?” I owe this Shadow no explanation for my actions. Unlike itself, I am not pretending to be one of her parental figures. I do not dignify it with an answer. “Take care of her.” The Shadow passes along the orders it was given to me as it begins to dissipate into nothing. Its voice grates on my nerves, I should have rid myself of it sooner. I do not know how it is Kohana came to adore this person.

“Believe what you will.” For a moment it almost sounds human. “I loved that girl.” I will not fall for its deception. A Shadow knows nothing about love. “I did all I could to save her.” I am angry on Kohana’s behalf; would that she is conscious to hear how absurd her precious Jinnouchi sounds. “I did more for her than you ever will, hate me for that if you must.”

iii.) shored against the ruins / drowning in ten different directions.

Hiroyuki is the prettiest man I have ever met. That I have ever seen. The darkness cheapened his beauty, whereas the light amplifies it; he looks different under the rays of the sundramatically sohis already-transcendent beauty increased a million-fold. It must have something to do with the type of alien he is. If I had to guess, I would say he is ‘star-oriented’, and is at his best physically, socially, and emotionally in the presence of them. Intensified by the light of the sun, his beauty does not simply bend wills, it breaks them. Those who caught a passing glimpse of him while we were going home have either walked into walls, tripped over themselves, or bumped into numerous others. Some look at him as if they were childhood best friends reunited after decades of silence. It is not enough to say Hiroyuki is distractinghe is hypnotising. I imagine people who know nothing about him would do anything for him. I would have done anything for him, had I not pulled myself together when we met in the same spot I fought that Shadow in. It was strange, I had not acted that way when he greeted me after falling out of that tree. I could do nothing but stare openly and stupidly at him, overwhelmed by his beauty. I could not think, I could not speak, moving was an impossibility. Surprisingly enough, Hiroyuki was concerned. He called my name several times in an attempt to snap me back to reality, but no matter how many times he said it I could not recognize it. It sounded foreign, it sounded like it did not belong to me. My name was not my name; that someone is so pretty that I forget who I am, even for a moment, is terrifying.

He is more angel than alien. I had forgotten where I was and what I had come there for, my mind was blur; for all my discombobulation, however, I could recall who Hiroyuki was but could remember nothing about myself. Come to think of it, in that moment nothing else mattered but him. There was no one I respected more than him. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to fulfil his every wish, no matter how small or ridiculous. I wanted to devote my life to him. I wanted to sacrifice myself for his goals.

I began to worry about how the people of Earth would react to Hiroyuki. I assume I have some sort of immunity against his beauty due to my… powers. Still, I was wholeheartedly dedicated to him and made a slave to his fancies and whims. Under no circumstances can we go out in public together, it’s too dangerous. The people around us would not be themselves; under the influence of his beauty, they would do things that go against their principles and personalitiesI clearly would know. I was silent most of the way home because I was trying to think of a way to protect everyone against his thrall. Needless to say, I believe Hiroyuki can’t help his beauty. I believe he does not affect others purposely, although I do wonder if he has an explanation for this phenomenon. Speculation is all good and well, but until I know the truth about his beauty I won’t be able to defend others against it.

‘There is much to discuss,’ his words verbatim; now is not the time to talk about something as irrelevant as his looks. I assume he will tell me more about the Shadow I faced, about where he comes from, and share why he decided to come here. There is also the matter of his spaceship, which takes precedence over everything else; I gave him my name, and now he owes me a tour of it. If he really is in the possession of a spaceship, that would eliminate any doubt in my mind about him being an alien. If we really have to work together from this day on, trust in him is of the utmost importance. That is not to say I don’t trust himI do, to a certain extent. The fact remains that I know nothing about him; his friendliness does not distract me from the possibility that he may be in league with the enemy.

Had Hiroyuki and I taken a more crowded route going home, we would have been surrounded. I’m short, there would have been a stampede, I would have been knocked over, I would have been crushed to death. I’m an aspiring astrophysicist, not a poet. I’m not very good when it comes to flowery language, and Hiroyuki has the kind of beauty that can only be expressed through sonnets. I likened him to a Victorian vampire earlier this morning; that was me trying my best to capture it, though something tells me he took offense to it. He looks like someone you have never seen before, and will never see again. He looks like people would kill each other just to stare at him. There is an unreal quality about his beauty. He seems dreamed-up, imaginary; he is far away despite close proximity, untouchable. Please do not misunderstand me, I am not fawning over him. He is simply not what I had in mind when I thought of meeting my first alien. Of meeting any alien. This is odd. He is odd. Ukyo and Saki are nowhere near this pretty in my head, and they are royalty. Princes and princesses are always pretty, but not Hiroyuki pretty. In fact, none of the characters in my mother’s stories could have prepared me for how pretty Hiroyuki is. He is so pretty I am almost irritated by it. Unicorns are pretty, mermaids are pretty, færies are pretty… Aliens are not supposed to be pretty, and he is prettier than all those things combined. The prettiest. I wish I was half as pretty as he is, minus the ‘making everyone slavishly devoted to him’ shtick.

Hiroyuki watched me nearly die, and I resent him for not helping me when we both knew he had the power to stop that Shadow single-handedly, but personal gripes aside Hiroyuki is unusually humble. I refuse to believe he is unaware of the affect his beauty has on people. Furthermore, he does not think he is better than me despite his clear superiority. I thought he would be arrogant, condescending even given his knowledge and experience, but he is patient. He even said we were partners, which means he sees us on equal footing. I find that funny, considering he’s over a foot taller than me; it’s annoying, having to look up at him whenever we speak. I hope ‘abnormal tallness’ isn’t a common trait among his people, though I suppose I should not get ahead of myself. My mother would never let me go to another universe. She would say no as soon as I asked, but that’s assuming she does not think I am joking.

Truthfully, I don’t know what my mother would do. Trying to gauge how she would react to me asking for permission to go to another universe is impossible when meeting an alien is not a common occurrence. Yes, I understand she is the one who introduced me to them to begin with; she of all people would take what I say about Hiroyuki seriously. That is not the point. I’ve always known my mother’s stories were more than just stories, but I am having trouble processing the truth in spite of that. For some reason, I feel like she was still hiding their existence from me despite being so open about them. It’s irrational, I know; she would tell me about them every night for years, yet I still feel lied to. It’s probably because she never outright said they existed, but what if passing aliens off as ‘stories’ was the only way she knew how? I am trying to give her the benefit of the doubt. I am trying to make sense of all this.

On one hand, everything I know about aliens is because of her. On the other hand, nothing she ever told me about encompassed whatever Hiroyuki is. He came to Earth to see me, he knows me better than I know myself; he knows about my powers, and knows exactly what I am. It’s surreal, to think I am this important to someone from another universe. Hiroyuki needs my help, why else would he go to such great lengths to find me? If not my help, then he must need me for something. Working with an alien is a once in a lifetime opportunity; I would not forgive myself if I declined his offer. Even if my mother said no, I would still go. I would be fighting for her, for the people of Earth. She can’t say no. She’s not allowed to. I assume I am the only one capable of fighting Shadows. That makes me invaluable; this is bigger than her, bigger than me, and I will not let her stand in my way. I would not wish a Shadow on my worst enemy. I would not even wish a Shadow on my father, and he deserves to be menaced by one. I will defy my mother if it means keeping those monsters away from others.

There are no secrets between my mother and I, but how can I tell her I was almost killed by a Shadow? It sounds silly, not to mention I snuck out of my room that night after she tucked me in. I would be in massive amounts of trouble if she knew I climbed out of my window to talk to trees. A specific tree. I’ve known that tree since I was a child. I was excited to tell it about Jinnouchi-sensei seeing my notes; incidentally, the bedtime story my mother told reminded me to do so. I couldn’t sleep. I laid in bed for two hours staring at the ceiling, imagining how the tree and I’s meeting would unfold. For years that tree has encouraged me to share my research with someone other than my mother; I couldn’t wait to see its reaction, I was so excited that bearing it was impossible. I waited until I was certain my mother retired for the night and practically ran to tell the tree everything. One moment I was in bed, and the next moment I was sprinting down the street in my pyjamas to lay comfortably in the tree’s branches. We were having a wonderful conversation until Hiroyuki interrupted us. Or was it the Shadow that cut our conversation short…? Either way, neither I nor the tree invited them. They ruined everything. The tree said it was going to tell me something important it saw moments before I came to speak with it. I fell out of its branches just as it was going to part with that information, and that’s when I realized Hiroyuki was standing over me being annoying. His hair is so long that I’m pretty sure I got some of it in my mouth while he was forcing me to play 21 questions.

Speaking of Hiroyuki, when I rendezvoused with him I made sure to greet the tree but it didn’t say anything back to me. I was confused. Hiroyuki, being the nosy person that he is, urged me not to be. He said the tree was still recovering, and that it would take a few days before it was up to talking again. Frankly, he doesn’t know what he is talking about. I wouldn’t take his advice even if my life depended on it. He may be some all-knowing alien, but I’m the Earth expert here. He can’t out-expert me; unlike some people, this is where I come from, this is where I was born. It’s obvious he can’t talk to trees like I do, and I have been talking to them for a while. Trees love talking, they always have a lot to say. I’ve had trees talk to me right after natural disasters; their endurance is inspiring. Survival runs in trees’ blood, they are the strongest people I know. I look up to them. They have been through so many storms that the idea of my friend being incapacitated by a Shadow is sheer nonsense. Each tree I’ve come across has told me they’ve seen horrible things, so a Shadow would not have scared my friend that badly. What Hiroyuki doesn’t know is that my friend is hundreds of years old. All the trees in my neighborhood are long-lived, in fact. Honestly, the Shadow wasn’t even that scary. Even I’ve seen scarier, and I’m a toddler in tree years. Hiroyuki knows more than he is letting on, and I’m almost certain he thinks I’ll believe anything he says just because he is older than me. Or at least I think he’s older than me; I’ve forgotten whether or not vampires age.

Anyway, the Shadow didn’t do too much damage, considering everything looked the same. It was as if the Shadow and I’s fight never happened, though I could have sworn there were earthquakes and explosions when we battled. Oh well, I must have imagined them. The grass seemed greener, the cherry blossoms were fuller than I had remembered them being, and there was no debris to speak of. No one seemed like they noticed anything out of the ordinary, either; people ogling Hiroyuki aside, today carried on as usual. That being said, he seriously needs to do something about his height. He can’t be pretty and tall at the same time, we look odd standing next to each other. If it isn’t his face people are staring at, it’s our glaring size difference; never mind the fact that he’s dressed like he came from the 18th century, he’s huge, too. I suppose if I was not taken aback by his clothes and how pretty he is, I would have found him intimidating in stature. It’s a good thing I heard him before I saw him as well; he is a soft-spoken man who comes off as elegant regardless of what he says. With his wavy blond hair and almost see-through blue eyes, he is the Victorian vampire to end all Victorian vampires. I won’t even touch on his angularbut somehow delicatefacial features. He’s so pretty people have to do a quadruple take when they see him; during the last stretch of our journey back home, I saw people almost walk into traffic with their eyes glued to him. Forget using magic, Hiroyuki is a weapon all on his own.

I take a swig from my juice box while looking down at my free hand, curling it into a fist over and over again. To think I’ve been capable of casting magic this entire time, I can scarcely believe it. Again, I’ve always known magic existed, I was simply under the impression that it was something humans could not do, and that magic was only for supernatural beings and aliens. My mother was the one who told me humans did not possess the aptitude for it; imagine my surprise when Hiroyuki insisted otherwise. He told me I had manipulated time to stop the Shadow in its tracks. Time! I was born under a lucky star; time is metaphysical, abstract, and ridiculously powerfulno one can beat me if they can’t move. If I can stop time, I should be able to accelerate and reverse it too; rapidly aging people and objects should also be part of my arsenal, time travel obviously being on the table as well. To think I could have been stuck with something underwhelming like the power of love or friendship… it makes me shudder. I probably would have died, those powers would have been useless against the Shadow I fought.

The aliens in my mother’s stories always had unique, strong abilities and employed them creatively. I am aware stopping time is as straightforward as it gets, but imagine all the innovative things I could do with it. I could dodge attacks, make it impossible for others to dodge attacks, make it easy for me to flee a scene… Granted, I don’t know how to employ my magic whenever I want to yet. Whenever I found myself alone at school today, I tried employing my chronokinesis but I couldn’t get it to work. I even posed and shouted ‘Freeze!’ like before; despite my best efforts, time resumed as normal. After my 26th attempt, I had no choice but to believe what happened with the Shadow was a dream. I had to be certain it was, however, and still honoured my agreement with Hiroyuki. Sure enough, he had been waiting for me. He had some clothes neatly folded over his arm, and was holding a pair of high-heeled, ankle-length boots by their tied-together strings in his freehand. He was alone; any longer, though, and he would certainly have been swarmed by people. If Hiroyuki is real, the Shadow must have been too. Relief and horror flooded me in equal measure at the realization.

My mother is still at school, but she won’t be there for long. I pleaded with Hiroyuki to speak quickly, as we do not have enough time for leisurely conversation. He nodded his head and assured me he would be brief, insisting he would only need ‘a minute or two’ to say what he has to say. Surprise! Hiroyuki’s a big fat liar, and has not said one word since we’ve been here. I thought he understood how dire our situation is, but he has been wasting time gawking at the décor of my home instead. I had to drag him upstairs and into my room, that’s how distracted he was. How distracted he still is. I knew we would not be able to talk in public because of his ‘talent,’ so bringing him into the privacy of my home was the only other option I had. While I do have some idea as to when my mother will return, the problem is my father who could barge in on us at any moment. He does not tell my mother and I when he plans to stop by, he simply comes and goes whenever he pleases and has little regard for privacy. I do not know how to explain having a grown man in my room who also happens to be an alien from another universe. Then again, I’m not sure he would care about Hiroyuki. My father only gets angry at things concerning my career choice and personality. I suppose I should say he gets mad at me specifically. The worst he could do is tell my mother about Hiroyuki, which is another reason why he needs to hurry up.

I don’t blame Hiroyuki for being awe-struck at my room, though. It’s exquisitely-designed: moody, sophisticated, and opulent with richly dark colours. To the lace curtains falling around my bed, the billowing drapes framing my window, and the cluster of skull-encrusted candlesticks on my desk next to my laptop, my room makes a dramatic statement. I’d be floored by my room if it were possible for me to experience seeing it for the first time, too. I have an eye for design, and am partial to the gothic Lolita style; for that reason, I am well acquainted with the Edwardian and Victorian fashion he seems to favour. If anyone can appreciate my hard work, it’s him; I swell with pride as he admires my interior decorating, snickering quietly when he finishes inspecting the elaborate carvings in my bookcase only to then be snared by the chandelier hanging over his head. Folding my arms, I close my eyes and smirk before realizing Hiroyuki has distracted me, my smug look wiped clean off my face.

What part of ‘we can’t afford to waste time’ does he not understand?

“I’m going to assume everyone on your planet sleeps outside,” I scoff, tapping my foot against the hardwood flooring. Yes, I am irritated by Hiroyuki’s incompetence, but I would love to sleep outside. It isn’t an insult despite my disparaging tone; dreaming under the stars would be perfect, I’d be able to stay up all night and talk to all my plant friends until I dozed off. If Hiroyuki really does sleep outside, I’m jealous. “This isn’t an art exhibition either,” I add, raising a brow and tilting my head towards the lavishly-framed oil paintings that have seized his attention. I paint every so often and specialize in photorealism; I possess an eidetic memory, in which I am able to paint without the aid of photographs unlike my peers. Generally, I paint places I’ve been or people I’ve seen in passing, although I have a tendency to paint those who are close to me with consistent and conscientious regularity. My mother is a frequent muse; many of the pieces that adorn the walls of my room are of her.

As it happens, my mother looks nothing like me. She has curly pink hair, sea-green eyes, and dark brown skin; our eye colour is the only vaguely similar trait we share. Hiroyuki must think she is a stranger, and is puzzled by the sheer amount of portraits I have of her. She is smiling in half of the pictures I’ve painted; I’ve captured her beauty in ordinary moments where she is tending to her garden, preparing dinner, reading, or playing one of her instruments in others. My mother is effortlessly beautiful; she is even more breathtaking in person. If Hiroyuki is at a loss for words now, he will lose consciousness when they become acquainted with one another. My mother’s beauty is spearheaded by her moral excellence as opposed to Hiroyuki simply being pleasing to the æsthetic sense. When one looks at my mother, they know she is trustworthy, they know she is generous, they know she is kind-hearted. She is so respectable that it precedes her in appearance; she need not introduce herself to others for them to know what kind of person they are dealing with. That is not to say my mother is not assertive, however. On the contrary, what makes her so terrifying is that she has mastered the art of subtlety. She is elegantly good-natured, and elegantly iron-fisted; she refuses to let anyone treat her in a thoughtless, disrespectful, or exploitative manner. My mother dominates those who have crossed her by slyly ruining their lives. People only see her for her wisdom and maturity, and they praise her for her gentle expertise and domestic superiority, but are unwitting to the biting steel that lies beneath.

She works within her refinement and utterly destroys whoever is foolish enough to get on her bad side while still maintaining her outward softness; with a word she can do away with someone’s career, with a glance she can end friendships, and by being polite whenever possible others are never aware of her manipulation. My mother can be very malicious despite her compassion. She is worse than my father in that regard, but has never been mean to me even when I’ve done something bad. The thought of me doing something worthy of the same scorn I’ve seen others become the object of scares me, truth be told. I don’t ever want to see her angry at something I’ve done. I can take my father’s vitriol, but not hers. Never hers.

“You are quite the artist,” Hiroyuki murmurs, glancing at several pieces he’s thoroughly looked at already. I frown; it’s like he did not hear what I just said.

“And you don’t listen very well.” He is perceptive. People who have seen my artwork typically assume they are photographs.

“I am not ignoring you, Kohana.” It’s suspicious that he thinks I think he’s ignoring me. How would he know I think he’s ignoring me if he wasn’t ignoring me? I certainly did not tell him I felt ignored by him, so he wouldn’t know I think he’s ignoring me unless he was actually ignoring me. He sounds guilty; I don’t have any sympathy for someone who disregards me intentionally. “I merely think your art is interesting.” Just interesting? So it’s not pretty? It’s not the best he’s ever seen? I see. Hiroyuki continues to insult me. “I assume your work is considered prodigious on this planet?” I imagine Hiroyuki has not seen other 15-year-olds drawing like Kei Mieno, so I’d say yes. “On my planet, art of this leveland at your ageis commonplace.” Disregard my previous comment, I did not know Hiroyuki was going to take a bulldozer through my self-esteem. I’m upset something I take pride in and consider myself good at is seen as ordinary somewhere else. Granted, drawing like this was something I could always do, it’s not like I practiced tirelessly to obtain this level of skill in photorealism. “Like you, I can also capture the likeness of a photograph in art. What makes you different from myself and other Spectrians, however, is that you do not need a photo to draw from. You possess an

“Eidetic memory.” I finish his sentence for him, speaking in dull monotone. My expression is deadpan, my body language standoffish; mentally, I prepare myself for the onslaught of questions Hiroyuki will no doubt ask me pertaining to the subjects in my paintings. He will want to know who the people in them are, why I’ve painted so many landscapes and storefronts, what the reason is for my use of vibrant colours despite preferring darker ones, et cœtera, et cœtera. I don’t have time to answer them. We have more important things to attend to.

Hiroyuki is supposed to be the wise we-must-stay-on-topic one, yet here he is with his head in the clouds. I have to do everything around here. I snap my arms down next to my sides and pout as hard as I can; not only is he too captivated by my artwork to focus, but he hasn’t taken a single sip of the juice box I gave him. He’s letting a perfectly good juice box get hot! It’s horrific! “You were so serious this morning. Now you’re acting like a puppy locked in a bacon factory,” I say bitterly, pacing back and forth in front of him with my hands held behind my back. “It’s strange seeing an alien from another universe staring at everyday things, like stairs.” I’m starting to think Hiroyuki is one big hallucination. Maybe today didn’t happen. Maybe I still haven’t woken up. I have half a mind to go back to sleep in hopes that this nightmare will end.

Of course Hiroyuki chuckles at my comment. He thinks it’s funny. He takes a seat on the edge of my bed, sits the things he brought down next to him, and rests his cheek against the knuckles of his left hand. I can’t stand him. He’s mocking me. He thinks I’m ‘adorable.’ He thinks I’m ‘cute.’ He takes my shortness as some kind of ‘pretty weakness.’ One day I’ll be really tall, maybe even taller than him. He’ll be sorry then. They’ll all be sorry.

I want to ask him about the clothes he has. My imagination is going wild; it could be a spacesuit I have to put on in order to board his ship. I stomp over to my desk, snatch my juice box up, stick the straw in my mouth and take a very long sip, all while maintaining cutthroat eye-contact with him. As soon as I’m finished with my juice box, I’m going to drink his because he clearly doesn’t want it.

“I was expecting tea.” I don’t care what he was expecting. He’s going to drink his juice box and he’s going to like it. Furthermore, tea is cruel and unusual. To make tea, one has to boil my friends alive. If I tore off Hiroyuki’s leg and dropped it in scathing hot water, it would be the same thing. I don’t think Hiroyuki leg tea would taste very good, but I digress. I’m not unreasonable, I know tea is a well-loved drink and that I’m the only one who can talk to plant lifeit’s a curse. “Do not think me an ungrateful guest, your hospitality is appreciated.” That was unexpected. “Thank you, Kohana.” I almost thank him back for being so nice to me about it, but I’m embarrassed notwithstanding; to draw attention away from my blushing, I hold my juice box from its base and make a swishing motion as if it were a wine glass. Tilting my chin up and closing my eyes, I hum in a snooty matter while sniffing the air.

“This isn’t juice,” I insist, a smile curling my lips as I begin to play with the straw. “You cannot imagine what I went through to attain this drink. And it’s not just any drink. Oh no, this an alcoholic beverage favoured by the kami. I suppose only a master sommelier like myself would recognize it; I can identify it through colour and texture alone, by its smell.” I take the straw out of the box and put the hole right up to my nose, taking another whiff of it, thereon lowering the box and fanning its aroma into my nostrils, smiling while I do so. “Does it not make your eyes sting, does it not make your eyebrows burn? One sip of this would kill you. It’s like drinking an atomic bomb. Just because you’re an alien doesn’t mean this drink will spare you, either. To survive it, you must be of divine origin.” Pleased with myself, I slip my straw back in and take a long sip, staring directly at him.

“And you are? Is that why you still live after taking quite a few sips of this ‘drink’ you speak of?” I tilt my head to the left and glance at the ceiling, tonguing the inside of my cheek before pressing my lips together in introspection.

“I hadn’t thought that far,” I admit with a shrug and a grin, putting my juice box on my desk. “Why haven’t you touched your juice, though? It’s from my own personal stash.” Unless he can’t drink juice. That would confirm my suspicions about him being a vampire. Vampires only drink blood; maybe he intended to lure me to some secluded area so he could break my neck and drain my body of it instead of showing me his ship. I’m watching him.

“If I may speak plain, stars are Celestial Beings’ only source of sustenance. I could drink the juice you have graciously given me, however it would not nourish me and I would not be able to taste it.”

“You eat stars?” I repeat, overcome with awed delight and wonder. I press the palms of my hands together and bounce around my room before coming to an abrupt stop; giving a tiny, excited gasp, I twirl in place and then sit on the ground when I’m finished, throwing my arms high above my head in an attempt to gesture towards the universe. “You mean those self-luminous celestial bodies held together by their own gravity, in which the energy generated by nuclear reactions in their interiors are balanced by the outflow of energy to their surfaces, and the inward-directed gravitational forces balanced by their outward-directed gas and radiation pressures?” I may have went a little overboard. I may have forgotten to breathe, too, but who wouldn’t when one of their favourite things are being discussed? Our conversation up until this point was uninteresting and tiresome; if we would have talked about juice boxes or my art a second longer, I would have died of boredom. Nothing else engages me like topics pertaining to the cosmos; it’s thought-provoking, stimulating, and lets me indulge in math and science both. Hiroyuki seemed confused for a split second after my impassioned rant, but now he’s back to his usual laidback self, giving me his signature smile. I jump up on my feet and lay down next to him, flipping over on my back and smiling as wide as possible. He thought my rant was endearing; it makes me happy, knowing that he appreciates my knowledge of the cosmos.

“Yes. We break stars into fragments. A fragment can sustain us for approximately seven-thousand years, making it unnecessary for us to eat daily like humans do. Technically speaking, Celestial Beings are stars; our biology is identical to that which we eat. We are endlessly-exploding spheres of gas mostly consisting of hydrogen and helium. In addition, we can be incredibly luminous when certain requirements are met, and can be incinerating to the touch should we will it. Celestial Beings are immune to UV radiation, resistant to fire, and the effects of stellar energy does not affect us.” I marvel at Hiroyuki, my mouth opening wider and wider as he continues to speak. He’s a star person… That must be why he is so pretty. I knew it. “We can survive and adapt to the vacuum of space unaided, are unaffected by gravity, and do not require air to function.”

“Space is like your second home, huh?” I assume a seated position, running my fingers through his hair before deciding to brush it. “How do you guys get stars?” I question while reaching for my wide-toothed comb. “Do you just walk up to one and eat it?”

“It is a complicated process. We prefer eating suns. Think of them as the crème de la crème of stars.” I look at the sun and then look at Hiroyuki, trading glances between the two several times before stopping to look at him in disbelief. I hold my forehead, looking down into my lap as I try to process that. Hiroyuki? Eating a sun? But why? How? He is a spec of dirt compared to the size of a sun; his mouth certainly isn’t big enough to consume one. “They are luxuries; despite being somewhat difficult to obtain, suns are always in high-demand because the well-heeled gorge themselves upon them.” I am only half-listening; I’m too busy blinking profusely to pay attention to what he is saying. “Initially suns were something anyone could eat, served for special occasions such as graduations or ceremonies. That changed when it was discovered eating suns in mass quantities does not bring about any adverse effects as was thought prior, and so suns quickly replaced standard stars in that regard. Those who can afford to eat suns now eat the entirety of them in one sitting. They are not satisfied with consuming a sun fragment every several thousand years, and demand the same portion the day after. Those who cannot afford to eat suns eat lesser stars in the same fashion.”

I nervously start playing with the hair framing my cheek. “I see…” It has been minutes since I last spoke; I can’t think of anything to say because his words shocked me. After I muster the courage to continue my train of thought, I give him a tentative glance and curl my fingers against the corner of my mouth, punctuating my unease with a twitchy smile. There is a star-eating abomination in my room. If Hiroyuki destroys the Earth, it will be my fault. I’m sheltering him. I’ve shown him how we humans live. I gave him juice to quench his thirst. I’ll be responsible for the apocalypse. I am pale already, but I imagine my face is Cyphochilus beetle white from fear. “Celestial Beings are the definition of gluttony,” comes my high-pitched squeak; somehow Hiroyuki seems to be oblivious to my discomfort.

“Precisely. My people do not eat to live, but live to eat.”

I can’t help but think about what would happen if Hiroyuki ate the Earth’s sun. Majority of the life on Earth relies on the sun as an energy source, the exception being extremophiles that, as the name suggests, thrive in extreme conditions. Without the sun, the average temperature of Earth would plummet. Within 24 hours of the sun’s ‘disappearance,’ it would be noticeably cold; within months, the Earth’s temperature would be nearly absolute zero. 90% of humans will have perished to a combination of the severe drop in temperature, unrest, famine, and countless other horrors. The atmosphere would start to condense after a while; at -183 degrees Celsius, oxygen becomes a liquid, and at -195 degrees Celsius, nitrogen78% of the atmospherewould also become a liquid. The two are very dangerous in their liquid states; the former explodes when it comes into contact with organic substances, and the latter can cause nasty cryogenic burns. While the Earth would still have plenty of air, it would be in a form humans cannot breathe; suffocation would be a common cause of death. Plants would not be able to photosynthesize without a sun and, as a result, would die of starvation. Animals who eat those plants would die without them. There would be no crops. Rivers and lakes would freeze over. There would be no water. Power lines would snap due to the extreme cold. All sources of electrical power and means of transmitting it would be gone. As a final point, the sun’s disappearance would give the Earth nothing to orbit. Consequently, the Earth would fly wildly into the cosmos like a ball on a string that snaps mid-swing. The Earth could collide into another star, or be swallowed by a black hole. We would all die. Slowly. Painfully. In the end, nothing would be left.

My blood runs cold. My face is frozen with fear. I curl my hands into loosely-wound fists against my thighs, trying not to panic. “You wouldn’t eat our sun, would you?” I whisper, trembling at the thought of his answer.

“No.” I exhale after a minute of holding my breath. “The Earth’s sun is safe, you have my word.” Good.

“I have another question. Assuming Celestial Beings define suns as stars that planets receive heat and light fromthus being necessary to its orbiting planets’ longevityhow is it that you guys are able to keep up with that level of supply and demand without…”

“We rapidly accelerate the lifespan of suns for us to process them into fragments, as with any star; we force them into supernova, including those that are not massive enough to enter said transient astronomical event. Through this process, a sun will see approximately thirteen billion years of its life pass in the span of thirty seconds before destroying its galaxy entirely; every so often, a sun’s supernova is only strong enough to destroy its solar system, however. The resulting annihilation of planets, moons, and other celestial bodies is so severe that there is no evidence they ever existed after the explosion; planets that survive are thrust back into deep space, never to be seen or heard of again.”

“That’s awful!” There is no need for me to ponder on his words. What Hiroyuki and his people are doing is unforgivably evil. Their actions cannot be justified. There is no explanation for being this brutal, especially when it sounds like no one can defend themselves against his people. He needs to know he is despicable, even more so if he does not personally destroy suns and condones their destruction instead. There is nothing worse than someone who pretends something foul is not happening. I’m furious; if I was taller, I would grab Hiroyuki by his jabot and shake some sense into him. If he doesn’t agree with what is happening that is even more damning. I would want an explanation as to why he is complacent with what his people are doing to the cosmos. “You can’t just do that, what about all the people you kill?!”

“We do what is necessary for our survival.” How can he be so calm about this? Why is he not remorseful, why is he not swallowed by guilt? I don’t understand. I’ll never understand. This level of cruelty isn’t meant to be understood. There is no sense in it.

“You just said your people don’t need to eat as much as they do not even a moment ago,” I hiss, my voice dangerously low. I pace back and forth, running my hands down my cheeks before biting my nails, thereon snapping my arms down next to my sides and, finally, screaming at the top of my lungs. “You have to do something!

His expression is unsmiling; he has become a stark contrast to the calm man I was talking to just a moment ago. “You are too idyllic. You ask me to change something that has gone on for eons, knowing I am but one man.”

“I don’t want to hear your excuses,” comes my snappy reply as I fold my arms in protest; it is an equally sharp gesture, all razor-edged rage and resentment. I stand my ground, establish unwavering eye-contact, and turn my nose up in disgust at him. I’m appalled by his actions, specifically his lack thereof; I can make sense of him being malicious alongside his people, but he seems without fear or favour apropos to their actions. That’s even worse. “I would,” I continue, firm and resolute. I imagine Hiroyuki is a million times the fighter I am; that being so, I do not understand why he refuses to fight for those who would benefit from his prowess the most. Some scary alien from another universe he is, I have more spine than he does. What good is all his wisdom and strength if he’s going to sit on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs as people lose their homes? Their worlds? Does that not move him, is he not bothered by the knowledge that Celestial Beings’ actions are causing irreparable damage across the cosmos?

If I had a third of his power, I could save everyone. I would save everyone. Ukyo and Saki always say power should be used to protect others whenever the opportunity arises; Hiroyuki does not know how fortunate he is, he’s wasting it. “You won’t because you’re scared.” Cowardice must be the reason for his inaction. Spectra sounds like an empire; it could be that he is afraid of being punished for speaking out. I have no sympathy for him if that is the case. His life is not worth the trillions of lives they take in pursuit of their ‘delicacies’. It would be an honour to die for the right thing; my mother says that is the lesson Ukyo and Saki are trying to teach me through their adventures.

“And if you died?” I want to tell him to stop being snide. I’m not like him. I’m not a coward.

“I’d die,” I answer with no hesitation. Surely he can see the determination in my eyes; I mean business. And I would let myself be reborn, just to die again for them. I’d die as many times as necessary to see them safe.

Anyway, we desperately need a change of conversation. I’m exhausted. Talking about my hypothetical death is in no way pleasant, and Hiroyuki’s silence isn’t helping either. “What’s a Summoner?”

“A Summoner is a cosmic weapon.” Hiroyuki’s passive-aggression is staggering. It’s obvious I struck a nerve by confronting him on his complicity. He had been elaborate in his explanation of Celestial Beings and their ‘habits’; now he is suspiciously curt in his responses, lacking the passion he spoke with. I roll my eyes as he finishes his statement. “…One of Spectra’s cosmic weapons.”

“One thing at a time, please.”

“Please?” he repeats, closing his eyes and smiling. He tilts his head back before speaking. “I did not think you capable of polite requests.”

“I’m polite when it suits me.” I bet he hadn’t expected me to be honest, either. “Start explaining things already. I didn’t sneak you into my house for you to make fun of me.”

“Spectra is my home planet, and is where Celestial Beings come from. I will not insult your intelligence with a lie. You have the right of it, we are universal conquerors. Through our technological and magical advances, we’ve made universes hollow for eons. You are but one of the means in which we do that.”

“…Making hollow…” I squint at him, tilting my head to the side and placing my hand gently against my desk. “You mean you destroy everything inside of them?” I slowly retract my hand and curl my fingers against my mouth before realizing what else he’s said. “Universes? As in plural?” I’m horrified. Every time Hiroyuki opens his mouth about Celestial Beings, they just get worse and worse. I’m trying to see the good in them. They can’t be as bad as Hiroyuki says they are. It is my hope that Hiroyuki is exaggerating, and that he is electing to tell me all the bad things they do so that I can look forward to their many acts of heroism. Maybe Celestial Beings save as many worlds as they destroy. Maybe Hiroyuki will tell me Celestial Beings are not real and that they are some myth to scare impressionable children. Sure, I’d take offense to being treated like a child again, but it would be a relief knowing the cosmos is safe from people who want to destroy it for their own selfish gain. “Don’t be silly.” My tone is condescending. “There is only one universe. This universe,” I stress, gesturing to our surroundings. While physically conveying my stance on the multiverse theory, I remember his last comment and frown accordingly.

The truth is, I am a firm believer in said theory. I made it sound like I did not support it because it’s easier to swallow Celestial Beings’ cruelty by accepting the existence of only one universe. I cannot fathom the amount of people who have lost their lives for food. I am overcome with grief, it feels as if my heart might burst from the pain of it all. If everyone in a universe is slaughtered, who mourns their loss?

I feel betrayed by Hiroyuki, he is not the gentle man I thought he was; I knew there was something ruthless about him, but I let his smiles and laughter at my jokes cloud my better judgement. I’m an idiot. I deserve this. Only someone as gullible as me would allow themselves to be lured in by the promise of a ship that might not even exist. At this point I’m certain he is using me to try and destroy my universe just like his people did to all those other ones. I bring the bar of my arm against my eyes to wipe my tears away, finding the confidence to assert myself once more thereafter. “—And I assure you,” comes my shaky addendum, my voice cracking from the shock of being told I am a tool to hurt innocent people, “there is no way I could destroy an entire universe.” I’m going to throw up.

Those destroyed universes are crushing my shoulders. If only I would have known sooner, I could have saved those people. I could have used the power Celestial Beings gave me to undo their tyranny. I could have

Look at me!” I shout in a threatening manner suggestive of a tiger’s snarl, forcibly throwing my arms out before digging my nails deep into my palms, my brows tightly drawn, my nostrils flared, and my eyes stinging with tears. I am furious and horrified in equal measure. I want to say something, anything, but when I open my mouth only screams come out. My screams aren’t all angry, there’s pain in there too. Unimaginable pain, pain those universes must have felt before they were wiped out.

I am so overcome with emotion that I want to run away and leave Hiroyuki here. I don’t want to continue this conversation. I want to hide in some dark corner where no one can find me and bawl my eyes out. It’s a miracle I’m holding it together as well as I am right now. “I am not a universe-nuking weapon!” My breakdown is loud and intense; I am sobbing, retching in disgust of myself, and choking in between words made incoherent by convulsive gasps and sniveling. “I’m a normal girl whose normal life you ruined by invading my normal planet!” Everything is blurry, but I can see Hiroyuki’s indifferent stare so clearly. He didn’t care when I was crying during my fight with that Shadow, so why would he care now? I cover my face with my hands and bend over, tears rushing through the cracks of my fingers. I could cry for the rest of my life and it still would not be enough to mourn the lives of all those taken by him and his people.

I feel like I could cry for an eternity. I feel like I am not allowed to stop crying. I know too much, it would be horrible if I stopped. I owe it to those people to grieve for them. No one else will.

My next words are so vicious they come ripping out of my mouth. “Everything is your fault! All of it! The Shadow, the tree, whatever terrible thing that will inevitably happen to me because of your coming! You have ruined my life that fast! I wish we never met, I wish that Shadow killed me. If only I knew how to use my chronokinesis to turn back time. I should be able to, right? Right? The first thing I’d do is ensure you never set foot on Earth. I’d keep you as far away from here as possible. I’ll be a protector to my people, I’ll use my power for good!”

As anticipated, Hiroyuki, like last time, is cold. He doesn’t care about my crying. He clearly wants me to be the ‘weapon’ he says I am. Unfeeling, just like him. Now I understand why he was so disappointed when we were under attack. I was not acting like a killing machine. I was too emotional, too soft, and too weak. I’m the antithesis of what he and the other Celestial Beings want. I am supposed to be terrifying, something capable of making universes crumble. He seemed unbothered by the possibility of my death. He could probably just make another Summoner of Time to replace me. He sees me as defective. Useless. Even as a universe-destroying thing, I’m not good enough. I’m never good enough. Now I’m bawling again.

“If it makes you feel any better, we have not destroyed a universe in quite some time. Not since we got tangled in matters with Alræra.”

“Explain.”

“Alræra is another planet similar to Spectra. They are what you would call our rivals.”

Our rivals? What do you mean our rivals? I have nothing to do with your planet.”

“Again you misunderstand me. You are one of Spectra’s cosmic weapons. That makes you a weapon of Spectra. I will be blunt; you are Spectra’s property. You are well within your rights not to accept that, I understand. However, that does not change what you are, and what you were made for. You will do what you were intended to.” I blink once. It is slow, dramatic, and punctuated by the placement of my hands atop my hips. I love being a tool of mass destruction and not a person with feelings. I brought this on myself, this is exactly what I get for trusting an alien.

“I am no one’s property!” I screech, slamming my eyes shut to prevent myself from crying again. Despite by best efforts, tears run down my face in rapid succession. My heart racing. My head hurts. The only colour I see is red. The only thing I want to feel is anger. I feel betrayed, I feel lied to. Finally Hiroyuki shows his true colours; he’s ashamed of me. “I am not a thing to be owned!” I am exhausted from crying so much in one day. I disappointed my father because I wasn’t what he wanted, and now I’m disappointing Hiroyuki because I am not the universe-nuking weapon Celestial Beings thought they created. I hate my father. I hate Hiroyuki. I hate that I can’t make them happy unless I am exactly who they want me to be. They will not be satisfied either; if I am not perfect, I am worthless. Even if I am a weapon of Spectra, that doesn’t mean I have to listen to them. I am sick of people telling me who I should be. The last thing I’m going to do is let an alien from another universe force me to be something I’m not.

“Calm yourself, Kohana.”

“You are not my father.” That was a little too personal, but I am seething nonetheless. “Don’t tell me what to do.” I said the first thing that popped up in my head to draw attention away from the father comment, looking down at the ground and unclenching my fists. “Be calm? How can you tell me to be calm…?” I’m tearing up. I’m trying to hold them in. I don’t think I’m doing a very good job at it. I sit down on the ground, curl up into a ball, and cry into my kneecaps. I want this day to end.

“Summoners are…” Fantastic, now he’s trying to explain what they are. Again. I’ve heard enough. Please, no more. I can’t take it. “capable of destroying planets, yes, like any of our cosmic weapons. But that is not all they are. You are special. What makes you a Summoner comes directly from the source of omnipotence itself. You possess a connection to the All Creator no one else in the multiverse can boast, Kohana. You were made to thwart the impossible, the eldritch, the beyond comprehension, the divine and the unimaginable. Pray tell me, where do you hear that you are an instrument of evil in our mantra?”

I wipe my eyes and pick myself up off the floor. That gives me hope. “You will not be alone. There are 7 others Summoners with specializations different from your own scattered throughout the cosmos. We must find them. You are the Summoner of Time and Space, General to the Summoners of Spectra. You have the entirety of Spectra’s military force at your disposal, of which holds within it billions of soldiers. Your purpose as a Summoner is to protect those who cannot protect themselves with the power you hold. You are no monster, Kohana. You are a hero.”

“A hero…” I absentmindedly murmur, brushing the tips of my fingers against my lips. A hero, like Ukyo and Saki… Like all the other aliens in my mother’s stories. That is all I’ve ever wanted to be.

“Yes, and I am your Advisor. Outside of a handful of individuals, your authority is absolute. You could change our world with a single command. You could change it in an instant.”

I laugh. It isn’t a mournful laugh, or even a patronizing one. It is soft. I am trying not to cry again; laughing was the best alternative I could think of. “I don’t think I’ll be a good Summoner of Time. I know nothing about the military. I can’t fight. Spectra should have picked a better candidate. I’m afraid I will only disappoint you all.”

“It is not a matter of Spectra ‘choosing’ a general. You were always meant to lead us.”

“Somehow that does not fill me with confidence.”

“We could not be in better hands.” He smiles and stands. I start grumbling to myself. “At the risk of confusing you further, the foes you fight as the Summoner of Time will often possess your same level of power, or something akin to it. Your strength is necessary.” I can barely stand. What strength could I possibly have? “My duty as your Advisor is simple. I am the hand that guides you. I give you counsel, and record your adventures.” It just hit me that I can’t be a general without a war. I’m going to die, aren’t I? “I am also required to protect you

“As your general,” I begin, interrupting his explanation; I try my best to make my voice deeper, to make myself bigger, “the… ahem… Summoner of Time and Space and Spectra’s whateveryoujustsaid… You are hereby sentenced to whatever terrible thing you Spectrians do to the people you torture for not protecting me.”

but there is a difference between not being able to protect yourself and refusing to fight because you are lazy. It is up to me to decide whether or not my intervention is necessary. Furthermore,” he adds, a tiny smirk tugging at his lips, “We do not take prisoners. They are an inconvenience and waste of resources. We kill those who surrender to us.” He is being scary on purpose. I puff my cheeks out and stomp on the ground in an attempt to tell him to stop.

Hiroyuki holds out his hands as if waiting for something to appear in them; within seconds after his gesture, a high-tech samurai sword materializes out of thin air. I curl my hand against my chest and take a step back, marveling at the size of the weapon, wondering how Hiroyuki does not crumble underneath the weight of it; after giving the sword several looks over, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is as long as Hiroyuki is tall andlike himwould lord over me if positioned vertically. It is a white-bladed ōdachi with black and silver accents. Outside of its size, the most curious thing about it is that the steel of the blade is in two distinct parts, one being significantly shorter than the other, about 1/6th of the longer part’s length. The smaller part looks as if it could be used as a separate, sizable dagger, but I digress; they are connected by two pieces of steal positioned proportionately along the body of the shorter piece, a small gap present between them. This is what gives the sword an apparent width about it, and is what gives it a technological appearance. I’ve never cared much for swords, but this one is gorgeous; I assume this is Hiroyuki’s weapon, it leaves me breathless. “For you,” he says with a small nod. For me? He shouldn’t have. This is awfully generous of him, I don’t know what to say.

“It’s called the Star Stealer.” Wait, what does he mean for me? What am I supposed to do with a sword that looks like it weighs twice as much as I do? Where would I put it, how could I put it anywhere, I’d sooner break my arms trying to carry it. Hiroyuki is trying to kill me by forcing me to do something impossible again. “It is a Celestial Weapon prototype that functions as both a staff and a sword.” I would have preferred a magic wand as opposed to this, but he doesn’t care about what I want. I would have even settled for it being unnecessarily huge like this sword. If I had to guess, I would say Hiroyuki is 203 centimeters tall; the Star Stealer towers over him, being at least 225 centimeters long. I am 152 centimeters as per comparison; Hiroyuki and the sword are massive for no reason at all. “I did not think you would need it, but I brought it along as a precaution.” Oh gee, how nice of him. That sounds like a thinly-veiled insult. “You mentioned having trouble calling upon your magic. Wielding this, it will make channeling it effortless.” I’m skeptical, holding my hands and scrutinizing the blade all the while. He cannot possibly expect me to carry this thing around whenever I want to cast my magic. It will slow me down. I might accidentally poke an eye out. It just isn’t realistic. “Go on, get a feel of it,” he says with a smile, encouraging me to take it out of his hands. I smile back as a reflex, though mine is much more awkward in execution. “Don’t let my rambling stop you, you have my permission.”

I take a deep breath and reach for the sword with one hand, thereon hovering my palm over its absurdly long hilt. I humour him with an attempt, curling my fingers tightly around it; to my surprise the sword feels like it weighs nothing, and I am able to lift it up with ease, raising it high into the air to get a better look at it. I cannot wrap my head around this sword being weightless despite its size. Silenced by the conundrum it poses, I wait for Hiroyuki to give his inevitable explanation as to why I have not fallen over yet. “I’m impressed.” I blink, my cheeks tinting red with embarrassment; I don’t take compliments well, especially unexpected ones, and when I blush my entire body changes colour. I was expecting him to talk about the Star Stealer’s construction, not give me praise I did nothing to warrant. “The Star Stealer weighs 3 tonnes.” As soon as I hear ‘3 tonnes’ it feels as if the sword has regained all its weight; my arms drop down with frightening speed, and the Star Stealer along with it.

I start tearing up again. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’ve had my fair share of surprises today. Maybe it’s because I wasn’t expecting to pick up something that shares the same weight as an African elephant.

“Oh, don’t be like that,” Hiroyuki insists, wearing a warm smile. He sure does love joking at my expense. “I would not have given it to you if I did not think you could handle it.”

“I can’t handle it!” I snap back. “I’ve never picked up something this heavy before!”

“You just did.” Hmm. He has a point. “With ease, no less.”

“Touché. But still.”

“It should not surprise you that you possess super strength. You can cut sheets of metal by applying pressure with your fingernail.” He demonstrates this by poking me in the arm. I glare at him, of course; I hate it when Hiroyuki teases me, he treats me like a child. “We have yet to perform the appropriate tests to see where your strength stands, but I can say with certainty you are able to lift objects hundreds of times your size over your head. You can move mountains, crush diamonds in your grasp, and force runaway trains to come to screeching stops by allowing them to crash against your hand. You could clap and create a small earthquake.” I take a deep breath and hold the Star Stealer with both of my hands, straightening my stance and pressing my lips together. Ōdachi are supposed to be held with two hands, I think, but holding it with one hand feels better to me. “You do not have to wield it. It is finely attuned to your spatio and chronokinesis for optimal handling; ideally, you want to stow the Star Stealer away in another dimension, calling upon the blade when you need it.”

“That’s better,” I say, dropping my arms down and giving a sigh of relief. “I may forget, though.”

“The Star Stealer inflicts psychological damage as well. Foes can contend against a regular-sized blade, but the Star Stealer is, frankly, enormous. Most have not been taught how to defend themselves against a blade its size. It is intimidating; perhaps less so with a girl of your size holding it, but intimidating nonetheless. If not to slice a path through your opponents, use the Star Stealer to make them wish they were dead upon its unveiling.”

“Got it.” I lied. I’m going to forget Hiroyuki said any of this in an hour.

“Because you cannot manipulate dimensions at the moment, you will simply have to carry the Star Stealer with you wherever you go.”

Before I can protest, Hiroyuki begins to unfold the clothes he brought. He is now holding a black, double-breasted poncho coat sporting a mandarin collar; it is sleek, elegant, and has silver embroidery evocative of royalty all over it. It manages to be mature and playful all at once and is unmistakably military in design; luxuriant and luminous, it gleams in spite of its colour, it looks like it was weaved from interstellar space, it looks cosmic. It is unspeakably stunning, it is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. It puts Hiroyuki and my mother to shame; it makes him look like an eye crusty, and makes my mother look like a moldy toenail. I set the Star Stealer against the wall in order to give the poncho my undivided attention; it is a universe all on its own, and I am entranced by its splendour. It looks too lovely to wear, complimented by a pair of elbow-length leather gloves, plain leggings, and lace-up high-heeled booties, all these items black with silver accenting.

“This is your general uniform.” My hands start to shake as I reach for it. I am speechless; a part of me wants to believe I misheard him. I don’t deserve this outfit or his kindness. I had been so nasty to him a moment ago, and now he is giving me an exquisite gift. I said so many foul things I can’t take back. “I made it while waiting to meet you again. It stays true to your fashion sense, while retaining the look of a Spectrian. I hope it is to your liking, Kohana.” I already have the outfit on, boots and all, looking at myself from head to toe. It fits like a glove, I am flabbergasted by his craftsmanship and how perfectly he was able to eyeball my measurements. After a while I stop admiring myself to look up at him; I’m so startled by his look of confusion that I take a step back and place my hands atop my chest.

“Is something wrong?” My concerned expression quickly melts into one of horror. “Do I look ugly in it?”

“You left to change, correct?”

“Yes?” I blink profusely, trying to figure out what that has to do with anything. It sounds like he is dodging the question.

“As the Summoner of Time, moving at extraordinary speeds is as natural to you as breathing. You exercised that when you changed; I did not see you leave, nor did I see you return.”

“Oh…” I give a wide smile, giggling with my hand over my mouth. “Do you think I always do that? What if someone sees me, I need to learn how to better control it!” I pull at his sleeve, bouncing up and down. “You have to teach me, Hiroyuki!”

“Now is not the time.” But I’m the Summoner of Time. That has to count for something, right? “There is still much to discuss; unfortunately this Shadow demands your attention, so we must forgo conversation for now.”

“Shadow?” I croak, my eyes wide with fear. I turn sharply on my heel, looking for any sign of it. I dread the thought of having to fight a Shadow again; I almost died the first time, or did he forget that? This is ridiculously unfair. It hasn’t even been 24 hours, I haven’t even rested yet. I’m still recovering from my wounds; I’ll be killed for sure. “But I got rid of that Shadow didn’t I?” Unless it unstuck itself, in which case… “Hiroyuki, what happened to the Shadow we left behind?”

“I disposed of it, rest assured.”

“If you ‘disposed of it,’ how is the Shadow is back? Besides, I don’t see a Shadow.” He doesn’t answer me. He does, however, point to my window, which reveals a scene of cataclysmic proportions. It is 4 in the afternoon, but it is incredibly dark outside; I recognize the sticky, gooey tendrils dancing along the edge of what looks to be the now totally-eclipsed sun, but I know better. With my lips parted, I grab the Star Stealer and open my window with the intention of jumping out of it. “We’ve got 7 minutes to get rid of that thing,” I murmur, sticking one leg outside. “If we want to pass this off as a solar eclipse, that is.”

“It pleases me that you remember we must use discretion when addressing supernatural events. You will want to be prompt with this one, however; this Shadow will swallow your world if allowed to do as it pleases for too long.”

I flinch at the severity of this situation, scratching the back of my head and giving an anxious laugh, tapping my nails against the glass. “Don’t you think it’s a little too early for me to be saving the world?”

“Not at all. Saving worlds is your new profession.” I had a feeling he would say that. This is an awful lot of responsibility for one girl. I’m not cut out for this. “You will have saved so many worlds that doing so will no longer seem surprising. Nor will it feel like ‘hard work.’ The novelty saving planets will lose its intensity quickly; eventually it will become second nature to you, and will be all you care to do.” I look up at the sky; the Shadow covering the sun morphs into a face littered with several Cheshire smiles. I can hear its discordant, vomit-inducing cackling; it’s mocking me from above, which makes me ball my hands into fists and bite my lip. I’m going to send that thing back where it came from. It will regret coming here. “I wish you luck, General. You are the Earth’s only hope. You are its last line of defense. Its life is in your hands; protect it.”

ii.) is this darkness in you, too? / have you passed through this night?

I am shipwrecked, but by no fault of my own. Having said that, I do not believe this planet is the culprit. Rather, this is the work of someone who resides on Earth that evidently does not want me here. As any astute Advisor would do, I scoured the archives for anything Earth-related before embarking on this mission. It would have been foolish to have not been well-read on Earth; not only would any Advisor dedicate years to studying territory unknown to them, any individual with an iota of common sense would. To roam in lands one knows nothing about is a fool’s endeavor. I will be the first to admit, however, that a personal account of Earth’s inner workings would have been far better, owing to the fact that planets are constantly changing, evolving, and that is precisely where conflicts with the Earth being a third world planet arise. This planet has an apparent lack of magic and monsters; moreover, the Earth’s technology is prehistoric and its people are barely able to explore their solar system, the latter of which suggests Earthen-built ships are deeply inferior to Spectra’s war vessels. It should be understood, then, that there is nothing on the Earth that could have possibly denied me entrance, least of all something capable of ruining my ship to this extent. It is common knowledge that some planets are sentient and do not take kindly to invasion, however the reports I read assured me this planet is not able to perceive and feel emotions.

The question of Earth’s sentience was the first thing I researched for the Aphelion’s sake. I did not want her to be pulverized upon entering its atmosphere. I was resolute in my research, careful. I had the Aphelion’s safety in mind first and foremost. Now she has nearly been wrecked beyond repair, and I have no fathom of an idea what could have caused this. I feel as if I’ve failed her. My heart is heavy with regret. I let her down, I could do nothing to protect my ship. I could not even steadily land her after she had been grievously wounded. It is a miracle she is still salvageable, and it is a miracle I am still in one piece after our baffling ordeal.

The Aphelion is precious to me. We have sailed the stars together for millennia, ever since I was a child. Initially she was a project for one of my engineering classes, thereon evolving into a lifelong companion. Before I presented her to my instructor, I felt compelled to take her out on a test run; to this day I am still uncertain as to what possessed me to leave my planet in order to do the aforementioned, but I did notand still do notregret it. It was the most fun I had in ages, weaving through meteor showers and getting very near to suns in order to marvel at them.

Celestial Beings are forbidden to leave Spectra, it is a privilege only given to an Advisor; in that rebellious trip away from my planet, I had gotten my first taste of freedom and needed more of it. Granted, the Aphelion was not supposed to be able to handle spaceflight at that time. We were only required to build a ship in terms of æsthetics and proposed functionality, but I took it a step further because I was excited. If my instructor knew I was capable of building fully-functional ships in my boyhood, I would have immediately been put to work next to adults who had spent their lives mastering the craft I was already proficient in. I knew what would follow if anyone knew of my talent. I would have been labeled a prodigy and robbed of my agency. Spectra would have turned me into a machine, wringing from me every last drop of productivity until I showed promise in a new, less demanding area of expertise, or until I was dead. I was a child, I did not understand being overworked past the point of exhaustion. What was clear to me was that I would have been torn away from the Aphelion if I was bombarded with a ceaseless amount of work by way of someone discovering my talent. The way I saw it, it was either fame or the Aphelion. I let everyone believe I was a mediocre engineer for my ship. I failed my exam, and from that moment on did the bare minimum when it came to engineering matters so that no one would discover my secret.

It hurts me deeply, to see the Aphelion in such a sorry state. I am saddened to the brink of tears. Initially, and for a long period of time, I could do nothing but stare at her remains. It would have been irresponsible of me, to be so overwhelmed with grief that I could not cloak the Aphelion so that she is perceptible to Celestial eyes only. Shipwrecked or not, it is my duty to ensure I do not influence a third world planet’s understanding of extraterrestrials. To do so would be catastrophic, to put it simply; I must focus, I must remember why I am here, I must put less precedence on my ship. I came to Earth on a retrieval mission.

The person I seek is certainly powerful enough to have snatched the Aphelion and I out of the sky, but without being taught how to wield their power properly, they could not possibly be responsible for this catastrophe. Someone well-versed in magic sensed my coming, and made it their mission to make my arrival as unpleasant as possible. This was no act of chance, this was deliberate, and if I come across the fiend responsible for harming the Aphelion in my search for the Summoner, I will leave this planet content. Regardless, I tap my index and forefingers against the side of my head, activating my communicator. I need to inform someone that I am stranded on this planet until I can fix my ship, of which could take ages, judging by the damage. Rescue seems like the best course of action. My communicatorin a flash of brilliant lightprojects my comrade’s image on a large, floating screen in front of me. It seems D’ivoire was expecting my call, as he is looking directly into the receiver and is wearing a smug expression, propping his legs up against his desk.

“Well, well, well,” he begins, thrumming his fingers and leaning his head against his freehand. “What do we have here? A shipwrecked Spectrian in dire need of assistance..?” I must admit, I was taken aback by his sudden appearance despite being the one who called him. His eyes are a warm shade of brown, his lips full, and he has always been a sharp-dresser; he is as popular as he is handsome, I am not surprised he continues to leave me breathless despite having grown up together.

“I… appreciate your humour,” is my response, albeit clumsily given. “Was it the debris that tipped you off?”

“You already know. I’ve never seen her so beat up. You okay down there? I know you love that thing more than you love your own life.” D’ivoire delights in the company of others, he is a social animal in every respect. He is generally warm, approachable and easy to relate to in character. His is the temper and disposition of a friend, even in regards to strangers; he is kind, good-natured, and his goals are simple in spite of the ambition he carries himself with. For all of his likability, however, I have never met a man more hungry. I am convinced he was wrought from resolve, forged from pure perseverance; once he has made a decision, he carries it through until the end no matter the cost. No one can change his mind, no one can stop him from getting what he wants. I believe D’ivoire’s most prominent quality is his ability to perfectly balance his warmth with his wrath to obtain favourable outcomes. He possesses a resiliency that other members of the Special Operations Force lack. He has an abundance of self-confidence and has no doubts, traits many of my comrades find enviable. D’ivoire walks as if he is the anointed, the man of destiny, the prophet, the great giver and the benefactor to all in the multiverse, gifted beyond average with early and easily-won distinctions, certainly the favored and admired child of his classes. His perennial youthfulness and fascinating charm stem from him being able to achieve and be self-sufficient; that he can be so certain of himself and remains humble in equal measure is, from my perspective, what makes him so dangerous. “Sorry, didn’t realize I called her a ‘thing,’ caught it too late.” I had not realized he said that either. Still and all, I do not mind. I know D’ivoire does not mean to be purposely malicious in depersonalizing my ship. “Send my apologies to the lady, would you?”

“You exaggerate,” is my cool response to him insinuating I would throw my life away for the Aphelion in a heartbeat. He sees through my façade and knows that I am heartbroken despite everything. I am glad he is perceptive.

“Think you can fix her, Yuki, or do I have to come down there and save you?”

“It’s peaceful here. Quiet. A trip to Earth is the vacation you never knew you needed.”

“Alright, well…” he throws his arms behind his head and swivels around in his chair, stopping only when he has finished his drawl, “it’ll probably be a couple of Earth days before I can get to you. Boss man’s gonna want a report of your situation and all before I leave, so keep your communication channels open. I’ll watch your movements in case you need some backup ASAP andin that casemaybe the Summoner there can get us to you pronto. You never know, she is a prodigy and all. Her magic affinity might have something to do with miracles.”

“The Summoner may end up saving us both. I didn’t crash the Aphelion, mind you.”

“Find that hard to believe, thing’s busted.”

“When your ship meets the same fate and we are both stranded here, we can discuss the legitimacy of my claim then.”

“Sounds good, hopefully you’ll have yours fixed by the time I get there.”

I have no doubt that he will save me, and repair the Aphelion himself if he has to. This is a man who is driven and goal-oriented contrary to what he projects that values success in his missions, in which he is more invested than anything else. Achieving what he has set out to do takes precedence over every other concern, whether they are physical constraints, the feelings of others or even of himself. D’ivoire pushes himself mercilessly in pursuit of an accomplishment; he can be ruthless, calculating and possesses a steely determination befitting of a strong and assertive individual. Because he is good at numbing out his feelings, I find that he canin the extremebe cold. He becomes a different person when completing his assigned tasks. D’ivoire is pragmatic, can be matter-of-fact, is not averse to using manipulation and deception in spite of his morals, et cœtera, et cœtera. He tends to be demanding and authoritarian, though these characteristics are hidden behind a presentation that is smooth, well-mannered and humorous. D’ivoire is also focused on power, whether or not he is the one who has it. If a leader is not guiding a group well enough, he is consumed with a strong desire to take over, as it can be frustrating for him to see the way forward and not be able to guide people in a more efficient, successful manner. While sometimes consciously duplicitous, he once confessed to me that he does not know what is really true for him, since he often feels emotions and has an attitude he thinks is appropriate for a given situation. That said, the good in him outweighs the bad. He is an excellent communicator and brings a much needed measure of extroversion wherever he goes. Honourable and sincere, he tries to do right by others and goes out of his way to be honest and transparent.

I made the acquaintance of D’ivoire when we were waiting to be interviewed by the Academy for admission. We were young, a little over five-thousand-years-old, with one dream at the forefront: to become the next Advisor, chosen out of thousands of Celestial Beings by the Commander. Before D’ivoire marched through those doors and told the officers why he wanted to become Spectra’s Strongest, he told me, a stranger at the time, his reason. He was shaking with excitement, eyes smiling, face lit with glee. I did not think him a competitor. This was someone that liked people and wanted them to like and trust him in turn. My first impression was that he was naïve. In days gone by, I could not understand why someone would subject themselves to ten thousand years of training just to ‘see what is out there.’ It was absurd, I thought, he could pick up any Spectrian book and read about distant planets and the universes they are housed in. I began thinking of alternative options for him in that instant. I could not, in good conscious, watch someone throw their life away for something that frivolous. He could easily replicate the experience of going to another world, of being on another world in the simulations he had access to even as a child. Even further, he could have asked the previous Advisor about what it was like to journey the cosmos. While Advisors are forbidden to part with what Spectra considers classified information, regaling a child with colourful accounts of warfare would not have been breaking the law.

D’ivoire could sate his curiosity many ways; I did not understand why he chose this path, the most harrowing of them all. I did not want to. His reasoning was too simple. So greatly outside the bounds of reason that I had half a mind to think him a liar and be done with it. I needed to rationalize the basis of him giving a third of his life to Spectra for something so small. I convinced myself he was either very deceitful, or very cunning in that making allies before the semester started would benefit him above all else. I could not have been more wrong.

My thoughts are interrupted by a dull, heavy sound, like that of someone collapsing. My guess is proven half correct when I look down and find a girl of fourteen summers laying on her back, dazed and confused from what looks to be a sudden impact. Because of the aforementioned, I feel confident in my assumption that she fell out of the kikuzakura tree in front of us. There is further evidence to support my claim: i.) the tree’s chrysanthemum cherry blossoms are still falling down, landing gently on top of her ii.) its limbs are still trembling from being climbed and presumably being knocked into during her decent down to the earth and iii.) there are twigs and the like stuck in her ox horn buns, her blunt cut bang disheveled and riddled with pedals. I smile and brush some of my hair behind an ear, chuckling at the absurdity of this situation; to think the Earth has elected to greet me with a girl falling out of a tree, it is nothing short of amusing. She does not realize I am looming over her, but is staring wide-eyed into space with her mouth open. Truthfully, what makes this encounter so entertaining is that I did not think anyone would be out and about at this hour, much less hanging around in a tree; I was less startled by her fall in front of me and more confused by its timing. That said, my confusion is also laced with worry. It is much too late for a girl her age to be roaming about all by her lonesome. For anyone, really; I need not speak of all the unfortunate things that could befall her should I leave her to fend for herself, it is plain that the girl is unable to think and act properly due to the shock of her falling.

Frankly, it is not in my character to abandon those in need. Like D’ivoire, I have a strong sense of mission; the difference between our commitments is that mine is in service of helping others in lieu of completing a given objective, and I will always work assiduously to that end regardless of the orders I am given. My kindness has served me well as an assassin, and I have never believed it to be a weakness. A good assassin does not discard their humility. I am able to key into the unspoken emotions of others because of it; while that makes me extremely effective at resolving others’ problems, I need not explain how that can be used as coercion. Not every mission needs to be completed by way of an assassination. I know many ways of getting others to still their tongues, of making silence their most fortuitous option. A true assassin knows there are fates worse than death. An even better assassin knows there are deaths that do not require dying to experience.

“You make the concrete look comfortable,” I tease, smiling gently. I am long overdue for rest and relaxation myself. Once I make a considerable amount of progress on the Aphelion’s repairs, I may follow this girl’s example and lie down. Surely she must be exhausted after climbing ( and falling out of ) such a tall tree; the girl no doubt deserves the luxury of sleep. I almost do not want to disturb her. I, of course, know better. “Just how long of a nap will you take?”

Her response is a physical one. She takes on a childish expression, lips aquiver, brows coming down hard atop her eyes as she shuts them tight and murmurs, “Is it naptime already…?” It is certainly a delirious question apropos to her still being half asleep. I was not expecting a reply at all; I am happy at this unexpected turn of events.

“Not quite.” I do not think she heard me correctly; still, she is adorable notwithstanding. “It is four in the morning, an odd time for a little girl to be roaming the streets.”

“Four in the—!” Now she realizes I am here. She frantically opens her eyes upon realizing where she is and what is happening; the first thing I notice is that her eyes are in no way human. They are radioluminescent, and glow fiercely against the gloomy colours of the evening. I would go as far as to say the darkness accentuates their glow, though there is still a large possibility the glow of her eyes is intensified by her mood. Regardless, her eyes are too vibrant, too vivid to be of earthly originthey are unmistakably otherworldly; once she manages to catch a look at me, she jolts up into a seated position and supports her weight on the back of her hands, crawling away a bit. She wears an expression of horror, pointing at me once she decides she has put a reasonable amount of distance between us. This girl is awfully dramatic, retracting her hand and clutching her chest soon thereafter as if I’ve committed some horrible crime against her that has left her shaken. That she is of cosmic origins there can be no doubt; perhaps the magic inside of her is reacting to my own and that is the cause of her eyes’ frighteningly bright glow. If that is the case, she is certainly the Summoner I have been sent here for. “You saw nothing!” she screeches, waving her hands around indignantly, “you don’t know that I’m here”that’s redundant“and you’re definitely not going to tell my mother I was here!”

“Lively no matter the hour. Is it reasonable to assume you are a morning bird?” Perhaps ‘bird’ is not the best animal to compare her to, what with her falling gracelessly out of that poor tree.

“Yes…?” She answers thoughtlessly, curling her knuckles against the corner of her mouth and tilting her head slightly to the left; her face is steeped in confusion, perhaps she is trying to figure out if what I said was a trick question. It was not, I was merely speaking in jest. “I mean no!” comes her vehement addendum. She decides to lay flat on the ground again, closing her eyes and sighing wistfully as she does so. It is a long time before she gives another reply; I wonder what she hopes to accomplish with her long-standing silence. I will not leave, especially when I have reason to believe she is the Summoner I seek.

Eventually she understands that she will not be rid of me that easily and casually folds her arms behind her head. “Are you sure you’re not plotting against me…?”

“Merely curious. Speaking of curiosity… How is it that you managed to climb this worse for wear tree?” I do not remember the tree being this sickly a few moments ago. The strange thing about this is that its dilapidation is not reflected in its blossoms, which are thriving and are the same as when I first saw them. The wood, however, is in horrible condition, hard but liable to break at the slightest application of pressure.

She opens one eye to give me an incredulous look. “I don’t follow.”

“This tree is ill-suited for climbing.”

“Can’t be, climbed it.”

“You have the ability to thwart the impossible, the eldritch, the beyond comprehension, the divine and the unimaginable.” That is my planet’s military mantra, something she will not soon forget. “Scaling a dying tree should be nothing to you.”

Again she relaxes herself, sprawling out in the same manner a lazy cat would. She is being defiant on purpose. Her long pauses, her flippant body language, and her refusal to look at me are all actions meant to rile me into retreating. She will find that I am of a phlegmatic temperament and, unlike her, am not quick to anger.

“This is ridiculous,” she says. Anyone in my position would say the same of her behaviour. I do not mind her bullheadedness, however. She can be as difficult as she likes. I remain unbothered. “I didn’t hear a word of what you said. …Except that last part.” Meaning she did not understand the mantra I spoke, but does not want to admit that. This girl is puzzling to say the least. She certainly comes off as self-willed and obstinate, entirely independent in personality, even. I would be hard-pressed to believe she would ever need the approval of others, yet she is bothered by what a stranger may think of her comprehension. Perhaps it is a matter of pride that has her on the defensive. “Normally I would chalk you up to being some stranger out of your mind, but.” But? “It’s four in the morning. You’re dressed like a Victorian vampire.” If she has issues with the Spectrian uniform, she will have to take it up with our superior. I, however, take offense to that, frowning a little. I made this outfit myself. “You look like one, too.” I am uncertain whether or not that is meant to be an insult. “…And your eyes are glowing.” And hers are not? The intensity of her eyes were what drew me to her in the first place. “It’s obvious you aren’t from here. Even your accent is strange. Either you fess up about who and what you are, or…” She sounds like she is going to threaten me, but is as threatening as a marshmallow. “Or…

I sense a foreboding presence, and it is for that reason that I look away from the girl who is too busy coming up with what she childishly is hoping to be a ‘good’ threat to use against me. The girl knows no more than she did before, however I am haunted by unpleasant feelings of fear and unease being thrust upon me by some unknown third party. There is familiarity in this dread, and I am not so emotional as to be unable to separate my true feelings from those imposed by way of power. This is a Shadow’s doing, a horrendously grotesque creature more dangerous than words can express thatup until nowmust have been skulking around in the darkness. There is much I could say about them. Shadows are incredibly violent, vengeful creatures who are only interested in either massacres or full scale planetary annihilation; unfortunately, they know how to multitask when it comes to matters of destruction and destroy frighteningly well. I am not exaggerating when I say even the cosmos’ most seasoned fighters would not survive a confrontation with a Shadow. This girl is as inexperienced as they come, and the Shadow attacks her as soon as it manifests, giving her no opportunity to defend herself. It does not even allow her to notice it.

Knocked back on her hands and seized with terror, the girl avoids being skewered to death by a small margin, digging her fingers so deep into the ground that the Earth is cracking where she sunk her nails. The Shadow answers the girl’s horrified pause with an eyeless stare, its gaze so penetrating that it chokes a frenzied cry out of her. She instinctively begins to crawl away from this dark, amorphous, colossal mass lording over her in all its insanity-inducing horror, its body riddled with hideous faces losing cohesion and unraveling into masses of coiled, writhing tentacles, from which maws and hooves emerge. The appendages whip around and leave a sticky residue on whatever they touch before manifesting into faces again, giving her their original, revolting looks. I continue to watch without getting involved; the Shadow knows it cannot disturb my composure and, as a result, has ignored me from the start. The girl no doubt takes offense to this; I expect her to complain shortly after the Shadow’s… performance, assuming she has not gone mad because of it. On the topic of her sanity, I part with words of encouragement:

“You must stand.” My words are blunt, ringing clear against the distorted screeching that blares from the Shadow’s body. If she is the Summoner I seek, she has heard me clearly in spite of its cacophony of cackles, snickers and screams. Her level of hearing is unbelievable by most extraterrestrials’ standards, especially where humans are concerned; sounds that are undetectable by themsuch as dog whistles, ultrasonic finger friction, and infrasonic elephant callsare things she hears with clarity. She pays no attention to ambient noises, and distance is no factor in what she is able to hear. Given the natural capabilities of a Summoner, I am in full confidence that she has heard sounds on other planets. As sound cannot travel through the vacuum of space, this puts the frightening extent of her hearing into further perspective. If I knew her name, I am certain she would snap to attention as soon as I called it; it is instinctual for her to notice her name out of a jumble of several overheard conversations in the same manner an animal does. Still and all, that is to say nothing of her other senses.

“Your planet will not protect you.” Needless to say, I speak of how she is still laying on the ground despite everything. I suppose I should not be surprised, what with us meeting with her falling out of the sky and forgetting how to stand thereafter. “Get up.” Due to the girl being thrown into a state of extreme fear and desperation, her cat-slit pupils are now the size of saucers, her mouth hanging open by way of violent dread, her body indescribably tense. She is unable to look away from the writhing, oily abyss despite her best efforts to tear herself away from it, a fact of which inflicts her with even more panic.

I cannot comfort her, only guide her. The battlefield is no place for comfort, as she will soon come to understand. I will not cheer her on as her life is being threatened. She needs to be sharp, precise, so skilled as to make encouragement useless.

How cruel this umbrakinetic must be, subjecting this child to the indescribable horrors of a Shadow, plaguing her mind with malignant entities that induce incurable insanity in anyone foolish enough to catch a glimpse of them. Shadows are amalgamations of unpleasant tastes and textures, disastrously dense, messy, blight black, gunky, and tarlike. They have a heavy, sticky consistency but are also adhesive, glutinous, and chunky like congealed fat, a veritable nightmare to the senses. Shadows are forged from primordial chaos and are the degeneration of matter, energy and concepts made manifest; their mere presence results in bizarre changes to the area they are in. This Shadow will demonstrate the aforementioned to us any moment, examples being that they bring with them severe paranoia and hostility in others, inexplicable disasters, rend reality wherever they go, so on and so forth. This girl is, frankly, outmatched. Were it not for my presence, she would have been made short work of. Whoever conjured this Shadow wanted to ensure she was with us no longer. I refuse to believe someone would go through this much effort to kill a defenseless, ordinary child. This girl is seen as a threat. She is something someone with endless reservoirs of power wants to test. She needs to find what makes her rouse the curiosity of this person and use it as a weapon against them. “Be strong.” I have no doubt the sight of the Shadow has broken her, or, at the very least, has irreversibly traumatized her; its malevolent, warped laughter seeping from its innumerous orifices, its ever-shifting, snot-like gooey consistency, its pulsating coldness, its Hell-incinerating heatit all gives me cause to believe she will be forever lost onto me, babbling incoherencies until I put the poor girl out of her misery. I am considering bestowing onto her that mercy, but before I can act the Shadow violently rips the tendril meant to skewer her out of the earth. Fortunately for her, the retraction of its arm snaps her back to reality at a great cost.

Following the Shadow’s action, everything around her dies instantly. A wave of death lays claim to everything in a half mile radius. Flowers wither away into nothing, birds drop down to the Earth in a soiree of corpses, and even the tree she climbed is not spared. I applaud her mental resilience; I have known warriors who have been utterly destroyed by Shadows despite training for thousands of years to become immune to them.

“It is preparing another attack.” I am calm, careful with my wording, concise as possible so that she can confidently defend herself against the Shadow. It is gauging her mettle; I would be a liar if I said I were not using this opportunity to do so also. She is trembling; I am unsure if she is reacting to my words, or the thick fog of decay and despair all around her. Homes have been destroyed. Families, gone. I cannot help but wonder how hard the realization that people have died will hit her. Tragedy and pain, in all probability, have yet to play a major part in her life. This Shadow will see to it that it does, all too pleased with itself knowing it has inflicted the first irreversible wound on the girl. It enrages me that her life is not enough to appease it, the Shadow must shatter her mentally, too, so there is nothing left of her to salvage. Perhaps it must break her mind first in order to make the kill all the more satisfying. Regardless, she looks at me with a pained expression, large tears swelling in the corner of her eyes as she shrieks, shouting what I can only assume to be another string of demands made indecipherable by her incoherency. That she still feels compelled to tell me what to do while tears run down her face is entertaining, if nothing else. She is certainly aggressive, so easily offended and ready to bicker even when her life is being threatened. I am counting on that belligerency, how she is prepared to stand and fight the smallest thing that makes her angry.

There is courage in that oversensitivity, her willingness to settle scores with complete strangers who are noticeably stronger, faster, and smarter than her. I want to tell her that there is no difference between myself and this Shadow. If she can challenge me, she can challenge it, and if she is the Summoner I seek, I firmly believe she will emerge victorious. “Come now, girl”it is a sigh meant to calm her nerves“this is a matter of life and death.” Her tears do not move me. They do, however, excite her assailant. “You have to save yourself.”

Hers is an expression of disdain after my comment, the fear that once consumed her replaced with vehemence. It is a pleasant surprise, her stare. I thought the girl someone who often says cutting remarks but has a soft personality beneath that derision. Virtue garnishes her thoughts unceasingly, it is clear she is of the guileless sort; her threats ring loud, but her powerlessness to carry out those threats rings louder.

Honourable in principles, in intentions, in her actionsshe is a person that is upright and fair, and I am hard-pressed to believe she has it in her to hurt anyone. The sneer she gives me is adamant on changing my mind, however. There is something murderous in that condescending curl of her lip. Something that would swallow the world whole if only she would allow it. She looks at me as if I deserve to be ridiculed, so foolish, so far beneath her that it is only natural she holds me in contempt. Her condemnation rationalizes itself: Anyone would mock you if they were in my position. Her disparaging smile is done in full confidence of her pure-heartedness: I’m not mean, I would never hurt someone on purpose. Perhaps there is something manipulative here as well in the way she convinces herself her scorn is appropriate as long as it is indirect. As long as she remains right-minded and courageous on the surface, as long as no one looks further than what is, to me, painfully obvious. She maintains a lovesome exterior, but harbors a great deal of anger; the girl is almost certainly fawned over for her high moralsespecially in showing kindness and forgivenessbut her current actions make it clear she does not possess the noble sensibility that she expertly convinces others she has. I am unsure how deep the contrary runs apropos to the aforementioned within her, however it is safe to assume she is more spiteful than not. After all, spite is the only reason why she is making any attempt to fight this Shadow; she wants to see me humiliated, forced to retract what would then be an erroneous assumption: I’ll make you eat those words, I refuse to be beaten by something as silly as a shadow.  

For all her fits of temper, she is still akin to a cub learning how to roar. I do not think she can maintain this jeering scorn for long. She is still easily-intimidated and, without the aid of provocation, finds the idea of fleeing more favourable. Were it not her feeling the need to prove something to methat she is not the weak, scared little girl I assume her to beshe would have ran as soon as she caught a glimpse of the Shadow’s ever-changing silhouette.

“You really think…” she begins, taking her knife-like stare away from me and pointing it at her assailant. One of her buns came undone. I would have never guessed her hair is as long as it is. It spills against her shoulder, down her arm, and forms a brilliantly-thick pool of purple in a lustrously-neat pile. If I had to estimate its length, I would say it is far longer than she is tall. No wonder she has her hair pulled away from her facewith hair that long, it would only get in the way. It may be within her best interest to cut it, her lack of coordination will no doubt increase tenfold due to its length being a detriment in battle. Who knows, perhaps being like a bull in a china shop will be one of her strong suits. I, for one, would be quite surprised seeing the Summoner of Time bumbling about when she is known for graceful execution in everything she does as per her military epithet, but I digress. While her hair was still radiant while pinned up, now that it is down, because it is so voluminous, it looks as if her hair contains a sea of stars, especially against the backdrop of nightfall. The girl is sparkling; could she be more enticing to this beast? This is beginning to become absurd, it is difficult to believe she is not doing this on purpose.

“You expect me to believe,” she restarts her train of thought, narrowing her eyes and hissing like a cat in the most literal sense. She is full of surprises. I can’t tell if that was another show of theatrics, or if this is a side effect of her being a Summoner. The aforementioned would not make sense, given the lack of correlation between catlike behaviour and the abstractions of time and space, however she has failed to make sense as it stands, so that would not be totally farfetched. The tree, her refusal to get up despite everything, her being out and about during the late hours of the eveningI am more confused by her than she is of me. “…That you can do nothing to help me?” What a nervy thing to say. Her tone is certainly bold; she is self-assured in her skills of deduction, speaks firm of my ability to save her from this monster and is furious that I am playing the role of a spectator in lieu of assisting her. “When you’re not bothered by anything that is happening?” Why would I be? A Shadow could never scare me. I have seen too much, and been through so little not of the horrifying variety. If it would appease her, I could act as if I am bothered by it; she will make herself sick, being bothered by something so insignificant. My lack of fear infuriates her more than the Shadow seeking to kill her. Her priorities are misplaced, to say the least. “When this thing isn’t even looking in your direction!” It is as I thought, she is throwing a temper tantrum because I am not being given the same attention by our friend. Her behaviour is silly and immature, but I can expect nothing less from a child.

She will find that her new position will demand she grow up faster than what she will think is possible. Either she will come into the wisdom required, or she will be forced to deal with the consequences should she be without it. She will be afforded no chance to complain. Why, she will not even be allowed time to mourn following her incompetence.

The Shadow is no longer entranced by the cosmic glitter of her hair. It raises its arm high in the air and, thereon, morphs said arm into a massive, ornate axe, the size of the blade head accounting for at least 40% of its mass. I am more attentive now than ever. If she is the Summoner I seek, she will be unharmed by the Shadow’s next action, which proceeds to be slamming its arm down to cleave the girl in half.

She squeaks on impulse, frantically closing her eyes and throwing her arms up over her head in an instinctive attempt to block the attack. Any other person would die on impact; I am uncertain if I could take the brunt of an attack that impressive. Shadows are formidable foes who do not concern themselves with the weak and use the strong like toothpicks. The best struggle tirelessly against them. The worst are given quick, excruciating deaths. Someone of my caliber would have to give the utmost effort to defeat one, and would be completely overwhelmed upon facing a group of them. Fortunately for this girl, she possesses an immunity to almost all forms of harm and ailments, including extreme force and high temperatures. What threats do bullets pose when she can withstand the collapse of universes? She will achieve feats of immeasurable magnitude; so incredible, this girl, that her arms lessen a blow that would have otherwise seen the Earth shattered. The ground does collapse inward beneath her, however, and she begins to sink in the resulting chasm, unwitting to the ensuing chaos. Buildings falling, sidewalks turned to shrapnel, vehicles exploding via shockwaves from the attack, et cœtera, et cœtera. A convenient thing it is, then, that she chose to partake in her shenanigans when any sensible person would be in bed. The casualties would have been staggering if she and the Shadow met at reasonable hours. She has her mischief to thank for that small act of heroism.

In the chaos I still see her, arms intact without a scratch. The Shadow is thrilled by the girl’s resilience; again it raises its axe, a crazed expression worn on all its innumerous faces before they dissolve into Cheshire-grinning madness. This time the girl is prepared, keeping her arms where they are because she knows they will protect her from the incoming assault. The Shadow remains one step ahead of her, its other arm transforming into an axe of the same caliber to deliver a crushing blow twofold. It gets worse, of course.

Shadows are insatiable creatures who rarelyif evercome across someone who can weather the storm of their devastating power. They wander the multiverse, ravaging world after world in search of someone who can entertain them who is both luminous in appearancethe antithesis of what they areand incredibly bold, that boldness implying a brightness in character that fulfils their need for light in the abstract. And here this girl is with her fiery temperament, a dream for the beyond comprehension wearing moonglow as skin, her eyes as bright as gamma radiation. Her twinkling hair, her star-specked lashes, even her voice sounds like something from a celestial event; when she speaks her tone is that of light that is heard, beautifully delicate even when she is throwing temper tantrums. The Shadow would sooner die than give up its pursuit of her, and with that persistence comes the knowledge that this will not stop until one of them does. You can hear it in its demonic laughter, it is not satisfied with attacking her once and, in lieu of the aforementioned, strikes her over and over with all the force of a meteor crashing into the Earth. I am not one for exaggeration; to support my claim, there is a large crater beneath the girl. I initially thought the damage the Shadow inflicted could be passed off as an earthquake as to not alert Earthlings of the existence of extraterrestrials, but damage of this magnitude will have to be blamed on an event of cosmic proportions. She has not noticed it yet, but everything around the girl lays barren. The Shadow has beaten the life out of everything within a sizable radius; I only hope her home is nowhere near here, for her sake. Finding out her family is no longer with us would be a horrible way to start her charge as a Summoner.

The Shadow has now decided she is too resilient, having grown sick of her impenetrable defense. It is just as fickle as she is, amused one moment and then bored the next. With slimy, dark-coated fingers, it grabs the girl by her shirt and lifts her high into the air so that they are eye-level. In a decisive move, she tries to wrap her hands around its wrist but they seep through it, her fingers surrounded by a miasmatic mist that cackles jarringly at her helplessness. Angered by the Shadow’s sudden incorporeality and not the fact that it is mocking her, she begins to kick and scream in protest, shrieking at the top of her lungs about how what’s happening ‘isn’t fair’ while the Shadow licks its several-hundred, newly-manifested lips, preparing to eat her. I don’t know what I expected.

It is clear she is not a battle savvy, but to be so preoccupied in an emotional outburst that she does not notice a hulking monster drooling over her… I do not know if this is due to a complete lack of self-preservation on her part, or if she is simply vacuous. Either way, surely she must care a little about not wanting to die if her intermittent crying is anything to go by; if nothing else she is an excellent multitasker, bawling her eyes out while being unspeakably wrathful. The more pronounced one’s anger, the greater the hurt concealed beneath; if she knew how to fight, this girlin her myriad episodes of furious cryingwould likely dispose of this Shadow easily and quickly. She has the markings of a warrior made merciless by way of extreme emotionalism; dangerously unpredictable, this girl is one who would stand over your body after she has stabbed you over and over again, thereon crying in your wounds after having determined you have not suffered enough for earlier slights you cannot remember against her.

My response to her is better late than never; it is also true despite my intent: “This is your fight.” Using the knowledge that she is reactive to my advantage, it is my hope that my words will cause her to be attentive again. I cannot imagine being so easily provoked, it is a glaring weakness I will have to make her aware of as soon as possible. Be that as it may, she looks at me slowly, fuming as one might expect, making tightly-wound fists before I can finish my statement, to which I hastily end so she can focus: The first of many,” I continue, curling my knuckles against the corner of my mouth so that I can hide my smile. I still end up chuckling despite my effort to stifle my amusement, unfortunately; how could I not laugh when she is cartoonishly angry, as though smoke will come billowing out of her ears any moment? Her expressions and body language are so exaggerated that words would fail to describe the intensity of them; she is physically expressive to an extreme degree, I would go as far as to call her histrionic. “It would be rude of me to interrupt.” When we are young, Celestial Beings are taught how to differentiate between battles that must be fought together, and those we must let our comrades fight alone. It is not a matter of abandoning them, but one of honour; even if they are outnumbered, even if they are far weaker than their opponent, we must not interfere with deeply personal conflicts. To do so would be failing to respect them, bringing shame on their name and doubting their ability as a fighter. “I would not dare rob you of this moment. It would be cruel of me to do so; this battle is a major milestone in your future, whether you realize that or not.”

She closes her left eye, straining against the beast and, thereon, peering at the ground through her right. At least she is not afraid of heights, what with being held so frighteningly high in the sky. “…Our fight!” It is an outcry of strong disapproval; I cannot tell if her face is red from crying, or from screaming. Most of what I said was heard and then promptly dismissed; she probably choose to respond to what she felt was ‘most important.’ Perhaps I was chosen to be her Advisor because the Commander knows I have endless reservoirs of patience and would have to deal with what is, in all likelihood, the most difficult Summoner in existence. “Don’t think you get to worm your way out of this! I’m dyingshe emphasizes that last word in both a sudden change of tone ( one of great sorrow ) and the drooping of her shoulders“and you’re just standing there!” She would have a very successful career in acting; this girl is easily the most dramatic person I’ve met so far in my extraterrestrial travels.

“When you are older, you will thank me for not getting involved. You will understand, then. I do not fault you for being unable to now.” There is much she has yet to learn. She can’t help that she speaks from a place of ignorance.

Oh, so you’re one of those people that think I’m too young to know what’s good for me.” It is as if her attention is narrowly restricted to one thing at a time. Moreover, I do not know how she came to that conclusion upon hearing my words. In less than the time it takes one to blink, she has forgotten she is fighting for her life and has still yet to realize the Shadow salivating. I refuse to believe she is this inattentive, this forgetful, she must be joking; the aforementioned is not outside of the realm of possibility, given her mischief, but there is only so much I can tolerate. To be frank, I was not prepared for this. I was told she was a magic prodigy, thatbecause of the aforementionedshe would be someone extraordinary in multiple areas, so gifted as to make guidance needless. I imagined she would have been thoughtful and subdued, a quiet, somber girl with sound judgment and common sense, someone quick at seeing how to gain an advantage against any opponent, certainly someone who knows when they are in a gravely serious situation. This girl wants for all those things, although her inexperience is the most deafening. For all the power my people have discussed her having, she knows how to wield none of it. She is being held high into the air, held tight within the Shadow’s grasp; she cannot attack because she does not know how. Going into this mission, I thought she would have at least been capable of that. I would take anything, a gravity-infused blast, temporal acceleration, even something along the lines of her ‘prodigious power’: space–time compression…

“I’ll have you know,” she begins, closing her eyes in a self-satisfied manner; she waves her index finger around in tandem to each word being said, a reprimandingand emphasizinggesture too casual considering the circumstances, “that I know that you know that I know you don’t know that I think someone who can save me saving me is a better option than… anything else you think I’d prefer if I were older.” A small grin pulls at the corner of her lips; in that I know she was trying to humour me, if nothing else. It is an entirely inappropriate time to so, she can make me laugh after the Shadow is defeated. Again, this girl’s priorities are the worst I have encountered.

A slow blink is my only response; I wear a look of confusion as I try to find the point in her words beyond her smile. After coming to the conclusion that she simply likes to hear herself talk, I unwind my arms and tilt my head, pleasantly entertained by her babble. She is an endearing girl despite the frustration her antics bring; I hope this is the beginning of a lasting friendship, and it is for that reason she must see to it that she lives.

It is true, her being a Summoner brought me here on business, but with a personality so darling how could I not wish for her companionship? Her capriciousness may be off-putting to some, but to me it means there will never be a dull moment with her. Perhaps she lashed out at me because I am a stranger, and will shed that aggression when we are more than acquaintances. Regardless, the Shadow flips the girl upside down, her other bun unraveling in the sudden motion; its attack was cleanly executed, a lone tendril catching her by the ankle as to stop her inevitable decent. The yelp she gives aside, the girl waves her arms out in front of her in a knee-jerk reaction; it is likely she is reaching for the Earth she cannot see, because the Shadow has made itself wider mid-morph. I need not tell her Shadows absorb all forms of light when she hasand continues toexperience that firsthand, however, she has the ability to see beyond absolute, impenetrable darkness. It may not be the land she is looking for, she may see things in the Shadow’s body I am unable to. It is the first thing about her that unsettles me, the possibility that she, as inexperienced as she is, a bumbling, babbling little girl, is savvy to things I am not.

“Don’t let it eat you.” I am referring to the Shadow, of course, who has used our conversation as smokescreen to conceal its transformation into a swirling abyss lined with teeth. It is all mouths now, thousands of them, snapping, slobbering, slowly lowering the girl into the shrieking voids of its body. “As confident as I am in your defenses,” is my continuation, folding my arms against my chest as the girl begins to panic, “impressive as they are…” I add offhandedly; it is a welcome hum of approval judging by the manner in which her face lights up, “being eaten by a Shadow will surely kill you.”

This girl never ceases to impress me, spurred on by my words and curling herself into a seated position towards her knees, essentially doing what appears to be an inverted sit up; from there she latches onto the tendril she is hanging from and attempts to slither out of its grasp by climbing it ( another nod to her felinity, no doubt ). The Shadow is only amused by her actions, lowering her further into its depths and cackling mad with fervor as she triesin vainto free herself from it. I look on, unbothered by the fact that this could potentially be her last moment. Nothing can save her from being consumed by a Shadow, as it is a fate worse than death. Her ‘accidental defenses’ will not save her from an incomprehensible end.

“Being eaten by a Shadow would kill anyone; the monster you face is far beyond your skill level. It is a miracle you’ve made it this far.” A part of me wants to explain to her that Shadows incinerate anything they touch, and vice versa. That its heat alone should have incinerated 3/4ths of this planet just by being conjured on it. I want to comment on how she has gone unharmed thus far in spite of the aforementioned, on how sheafter noting the Shadow’s incorporeityhas somehow denied it. …Almost as if she made it tangible in an act of defiance. That this girl is special there can be no doubt, though the question still remains: in what way is she different from what is usual for a Summoner? “Could they have been wrong?” My question is not aimed at her. I am merely talking to myself, discussing the viable explanations to this conundrum. “That your talent lies in weathering the worse as opposed to pure offense? Where you excel in one, you lack in the other.” I am running out of time. I cannot think of a way for her to harness her ‘powers’ and fight against the Shadow forever. She has sunk deep into it, enshrouded by tar-thick tendrils shifting into sticky, teetering hands.

“You’re wrong.” I am taken aback by the sound of her voice. She should not be audible when the top of her head is the only thing that is visible. “I can fight.” Nevertheless, I challenge her until the bitter end, speaking her own childish language.

“Prove it.”

She disappears in festering darkness. The Shadow has snuffed out her brilliance, and ended her life just as I thought. I want to mourn her. Although we did not know each other long, there was a pulling quality about her. Her moods were contagious, everything found itself doused in her colour. Even the Shadow was affected by her, acting uncharacteristically in her presence: giving her opportunities to fight back when Shadows are known for showing no pity or mercy, playing with hernot as a predator does preybut as a friend with whom a child spends time with, looking forward to and being genuinely entertained by her reactions, et cœtera, et cœtera. She was loud, spry and lively; she deserved a death befitting of the energy she went out with. To have gone out as quietly as she did, it feels like an insult to who she was. She should have died with the roaring applause of a supernova; a violent demise would have best suited her. If she were still alive, she would complain that her parting swan song to the universe was too soft. Even now I can still hear, protesting about how ‘unfair this all is.’ I can see her petulant expression, her pouting, her sniveling, the knitting of her brows… I will miss her, odd as it sounds. She left a lasting impression on me, I do not think I will ever forget her and she will continue to exist in me as she does in everyone who was fortunate enough to meet her.

Those who were close to her were given an incredible honour; I cannot imagine how much her loss will haunt them. There is a sentimental part of me that wants to seek her family and friends, if they still live, and inform them of her death myself. It is only right that I do so, being the last person she was with before she passed. Unfortunate as these events are, however, I must press on and give a thorough report of what happened to the Commander. I am still an Advisor, and it was my work that brought me here; he will not be interested in hearing about a girl devoured by a Shadow, but the presence of a Shadow on this planet will certainly pique his interest. Speaking of the Shadow, it has not moved since it ate the girl, whose name I have just realized I grievously did not receive. I cannot deny that her death has rattled me, loath as I am to admit it.

I want to turn on my heel, to leave the girl and the Shadow behind and return to the Aphelion to continue working on her repairs, but the formerwho showed no signs of discomfort heretoforeviolently implodes, cleaved in several directions by an outpour of iridescent light eye-meltingly bright bursting from its center.

A smile curls the corner of my lips and I thrum my fingers against my cheek, excited, expectant, no longer distressed. I can see through the rubble; there she stands amidst the scattered pieces of the Shadow, covered in gelatinous bits of it in a variety of different shapes and sizes still sentient, sucking at her skin like ticks. Unfortunately for them, they are not strong enough to break through her flesh; furthermore, she seems quite annoyed with the sensation, scowling as she slowly brings her hand up to her forehead to flick away the gunk that plagued it. Her lower lid twitches, the constriction of her already-thin pupils followed by a subtle quirk of her nose expressing her disgust; I can only imagine how much this period of… unusual tranquility from her perturbs the Shadow who is, I imagine, struggling to recover from an attack it does not understand. I am pleased, smiling a bit wider this time, praising her for her improvement.

“You’re learning.” She must think I am a tough and uncompromising person, especially after I watched her ‘die,’ but that could not be further than the truth. The reason I seemed so cold earlier was because I did not know for sure if she was the Summoner I had been sent here for. Furthermore, her inexperience and general weakness necessitated my indifference; it was my hope that once she realized I would not save her, she would become the magic prodigy who is richly spoken of on my world. “That’s good; your refusal to die is important.” The Shadowin a fit of extreme emotion uncharacteristic of itlets out a long, loud piercing cry as it tries to put itself back together, straining to bring its pieces slithering into once place. Majority of its… remains form a twisted blob blinking in and out of reality; it is so wounded that it cannot maintain cohesion, ergo, it keeps falling apart, and is largely distraught because of it. I have never seen anything like this.

“Finish it.” I quickly snap out of my shock; so, too, does the girl upon hearing my voice once more. “You must attack it while it’s weak.” Again the Shadow shrieks, and it is not one of mocking jeering. It is one of sadness, of excruciating hurt, the physical pain it sustained must be unendurable. I almost feel pity for it. The Shadow is crushed by being rejected by the girl, upset that it could notin all its eldritch horrorstomach her. “You will come to find that all your foes will be predisposed to fighting dirty when against you because of who and what you are.” It lashes out at the girl, half-cohesive, half-coherent, shooting bits and pieces of itself like bullets at her, a barrage of oily pitch seeking to tear through her with hurricane force. “You must use every opportunity to kill them first. You have untold power at your disposal.”

One of her elementary skills as a Summoner is bullet perception, her mind and body able to process information at such absurd speeds that time slows down, enabling the girl to perceive what would normally be moving too fast for even someone of my stature to see. Because she processes visual information at an accelerated rate thought impossible, nothing will ever be fast enough to escape her perception. Avoiding linear attacks such as shots and lasers, to her, is as natural as breathing, quickly positioning herself away from the path of the Shadow’s attacks, dodging them accordingly. Should she elect to hone this skill, it will offer predictive capabilities such as anticipating an opponent’s next move based on the slightest shift of their muscles. Her limitless agility makes her a slippery foe, nigh untouchable; fighting someone who can run, move and think at what are arguably transcendent velocities is a fool’s errand. The girl no doubt fails to notice the ease with which she weaves through the Shadow’s attacks; her nescience apropos to the aforementioned is further evidence that this level of agility is innate to her, she must have achieved these levels of speed before.

Once the Shadow exhausts itself, she stops where she last set foot and moves her left arm slightly behind her back, wearing a determined expression as she readies herself for another attack, moving with the fluidity of champions. I shudder at the thought of what she could do if she applied herself seriously, if she understood the extent of her power and applied it in possession of that knowledge. She is capable of so much more; she will grow up to be an extraterrestrial terror. “To fight you by the rulesand worse, head onis suicidal,” I continue, folding my arms. Without looking in my direction she gives me a half-hearted nod, refusing to let me be a distraction. She is catching on quickly, I am surprised she has taken heed of my instructions, stubborn as she is; I had not expected her to improve this soon, and certainly not during this battle. It is my satisfaction this time that is the cause of my grin. “Your evasion is without equal. Simply by existing you give your opponents one of two options: to take you by surprise, or die in the process.”

“I’m not going to pretend to know what you mean,” she murmurs in response, her tone indicative of steely resolve. She does not break eye contact with the Shadow, anddespite her short statureis sizing it up, seeking to intimidate it into surrender. She knows she has the advantage and intends to keep it, less the frightened girl I met mere moments ago and more the image of a staunch hero. “…but if that means I can beat this thing…” she begins, a hand on her hips, curling the fingers of her freehand against her cheek in introspection, “then that’s good enough for me. How do I do that, exactly?”

“I will not explain your abilities to you while your life is still in danger.” My reply is more than a tease than anything, though the firmness of my assertion is not lost in my fun; while I am poking at her inability to discern when questions are appropriate, I will not leave to her own devices where the Shadow is concerned. “There must be some manner of magic within that body of yours.”

“Oh? With magic?” She blinks profusely, her heroic stance relaxing; she drops her arms in a comical show of realization, her eyes wide with wonder. “Why didn’t you say so before?” It is only after several seconds that she realizes the difficulty in what I said and her reaction is no less exaggerated, turning sharply on her heel to glare at me with a deep frown proceeding a pout, balling up her fists and stomping her foot on the ground. “Wait… What do you mean with magic?” She shakes her right hand and opens it as if dropping something, emphasizing that there is nothing there with her dramatic gesture. “Hello? What magic! I don’t have any magic, and as you’ve acknowledged, there’s this thing conveniently ignoring you and trying to kill me! Can’t you do something? I’m sure you have enough magic,” she stresses, dual flexing her index and middle fingers to draw quotation marks in the air, “for the both of us.”

I raise a brow at her. “Is the prospect of being capable of casting magic yourself so impossible when you are being pursued by a Shadow that may or may not be your own razing everything in its path?”

“Yes.”

The Shadow makes a final, desperate attempt to defeat the girl while her guard is down, lunging at her with all that is left of itself in a sudden, brutal attack. She stands her ground and is neither angry nor scared. In a pleasant turn of events, it is calmness that prevails amongst the tumultuous sea of her emotions; the girl is cool and collected, a stark contrast from how she reacted to earlier mishaps. I would have never imagined the volatile girl I met but mere moments ago could be so tranquil, yet here she is taking the Shadow’s decision to launch a kamikaze assault extraordinarily well. The Summoner I thought I would meet is now standing in front of me, fearless and determined to win; not only is she ready to protect herself, now she is also able to do the aforementioned instead of relying on the aid of a stranger. I am proud, watching her take matters into her own hands. She closes her eyes and deeply exhales, searching for the magic that was latent inside her up until this moment. The girl allows the Shadow to get close to her and, once it has, throws her arms out, her magic ready to be unleashed in planet-destroying fervor after being pent up for so long, sparking excitedly in between her fingers.

When she opens her eyes again they are dazzling, the green glow of her irises bathing the surrounding area in their hyper vibrant colour. Massive chunks of the earth begin to float, and waves of sky-cracking pressure undulates from where she stands; initially I believed this planet would swallow the Shadow by way of the girl conjuring what I could only assume to be an actual earthquake, but when she shouts “Freeze!”her voice booming, commandingthe very fabrics of reality bend to her decree. She has frozen the Shadow in place by way of temporal freezing, an application of time manipulation. What is interesting to me, however, is that time was not the only thing she manipulated while trying to manipulate it. Along with the seismic activity and the sky roaring as if it would rain lightning, the temperature around the Shadow frigidly dropped, and a thick blanket of ice surrounds it. Suffice to say, none of those things are the abilities of a chronokinetic. This is a vital piece of information apropos to unlocking her the true potential.

The girl thrums her fingers against her cheek in introspection before she walks up to the Shadow and examines it, thereon knocking her knuckles against it as to confirm it is defeated before her jaw drops. “Woah…” She straightens her posture and places a hand on her hip, her mouth forming an ‘o’ as she crouches down to get a better look at her… ‘frozen forever’ foe. “I did this?” she asks, pointing at herself and looking back at me, smiling slowly. With each passing second her smile gets wider; she is adorably proud of herself.

Her smile is contagious. I smile back. She is looking for recognition and I am all too happy to give it. “Yes, you did that.” Of course I am compelled to explain what actually happened. “You stopped time, which has confirmed my suspicions. You are the Summoner of Time and Space and we”I say, gesturing to our surroundings“have a lot of work to do.”

“We?” Suddenly she speaks sharply, narrowing her eyes and tilting her head to the left to physically convey her irritation caused by my statement; I think she believes I want her to help me clear this place of the wreckage caused by she and the Shadow’s battle. That is entirely my fault, I should have explained myself better. “Hard pass. I’m going home.”

“You misunderstand me, I did not mean we were going to clean up the area together.”

She stops walking and looks at me from over her shoulder, turning around slowly. I had not even realized she started to leave. Not only is she fast, she is quiet as well. She has the footsteps of an assassinshe reminds me of myself. With the proper training… “I’m listening.”

“We are partners, you and I, and there is much to discuss. Although I am curious as to why you don’t seem shocked about any of this.” I am not sure if it is apathy or if she is just exhausted at this point. She cycles through emotions so quickly, I can scarcely understand her.

“If I may be honest with you, I already know how this goes. I have been told stories like this for ages and, let me guess, you’re some kind of alien?” She is feigning disinterest, preening her nails and frowning as she does so, but unbeknownst to her I have read that the people of Earth have a great interest in extraterrestrials. I see no reason to deny her the information she seeks. She is a Summoner, after all, and she is not as human as she thinks. She is far from such, in fact; the girl is as much of an extraterrestrial as I am.

“I hail from another universe, yes. From you I can keep no secrets.”

Ha!” Her sudden exclamation almost knocks me off my feet. She rushes towards meevery step she takes laden with triumphant furyand prods my chest with an index finger. “I knew it!” comes her addendum, poking me for every word she speaks; she does so with an inordinate amount of force, too, as if I personally told her extraterrestrials did not exist. She does not know her strength; were I any other person, her jabs would injure me. “All those stories were true, I!” she trails off, her impassioned enthusiasm fading into silence. I wonder what it was that managed to get her to stop mid-sentence. It is unlike her. She is very gregarious; I imagine when it comes to her interests, she talks for ages about them. “Ahem…” With her gaze glued to the ground, she holds her hands behind her back and takes a step back, uncharacteristically sheepish. She cannot bare to look at me, I almost want to ask her what is wrong. “Well… where do we go from here?”

“I need to tend to this mess as to not alert the people of this planet of your skirmish.” Part of an Advisor’s job is damage control. It is very important that I erase all evidence of there being a fight here, or it could have grave, cosmic-scale consequences for Earth. “Other than that, I have to continue repairs on my ship.” Her face lights up when I mention the Aphelion; perhaps we have something in common after all. I use this opportunity to my advantage; I must know the name of my charge. “My name is Hiroyuki D’Accardi.” If the girl had manners she would give me hers, but she does not; I have to ease her into this exchange. “Feel free to call me whatever you like.” It is an incentive for her to return the courtesy of her name. “And yours?”

She bites her lower lip, weighing her options. I anticipated this. “If…” The girl is still dazed by the mention of my ship, held rapt by excitement. “If I tell you my name, will you show me your ship?”

“Perhaps,” I say, smiling; it is the sort of vague, playful answer she would give me and she knows it, which is why she pouts a bit. I follow my comment with an equally-as-teasing extension: “Weren’t you going home?”

“Yes, but…” She sounds disheartened. Her shoulders are heavy with disappointment, and in her fit of sullenness she gently kicks a rock across the land she and the Shadow left barren.

“It may be in your best interests to do so, your parents might be looking for you.”

The mention of her parents snaps her out of her pouty mood; it is almost as if she has remembered how late it is and that the sun will be rising soon. I do not know if she realizes her family could have been hurt in her and the Shadow’s battle; for some reason she is desensitized to the possibility which is something I find odd, considering this must have been her first fight.

She does not seem to care about what she destroys while facing an opponent. Teaching her to be mindful of her surroundings while neutralizing her enemies will be difficult, but it is an essential skill she must be willing to learn. There is no sense in saving planets from ruin if she ruins them herself in the process. I do not doubt that she will lash out at having to learn how to cut a swathe through her enemies while simultaneously sparing the environment that very same fury; she is one whose first reaction to anything challenging is to get angry and deem it impossible to complete, but once her temper tantrums run their course she makes phenomenal progress and sees her objectives completed.

“It’s Outtaike Kohana,” she mutters half-heartedly, turning on her heel again and running in the opposite direction. With her back turned towards me she waves her arm as a signal of farewell, her shimmering hair trailing on the ground behind her; it is far longer than she is tall and I am distracted by its length, wondering why she doesn’t cut it in lieu of pinning it up in buns. With how clumsy she is, I am worried she will catch her hair underfoot and trip. “I’ll be back tomorrow after school, looking for you in this exact spot! Don’t forget!” I’m sure I won’t. Who could ever forget her?

i.) star student / star smile.

Jinnouchi-sensei asked to talk to me after class and I’m a little worried. I’ve never been asked to speak to a teacher at the end of my lessons. I guess it’s easy for me to believe I’ve done something wrong. I don’t bother anyone, so this can’t be about another classmate of mine. Neither am I behind on my work; I complete my assignments the moment they are given. Even if an assignment needs a few weeks to complete, it only takes me a few hours to see it done. The answers I give are always correct, and my papers are always given exemplary marks. Actually, I have never scored lower than the highest possible mark on any assignment, so I can’t imagine Jinnouchi-sensei would want to discuss an unsatisfactory grade, especially when I already know the material she’s teaching. I learned the subject years ago. Chemistry is so easy, it’s child’s play. I appreciate Jinnouchi-sensei’s lectures, but if I paid attention to them I’d fall asleep. Atomic numbers? Isotopes? Ions and compounds? Boring. Most of my classmates struggle with the subject and say it’s too hard to understand. They ask me for help a lot with Jinnouchi-sensei’s lessons. Oh, and Enatsu-sensei’s too, though I guess trigonometry isn’t the same as chemistry.

I’m the person people go to when they need help with science and mathematics. No one else gets those two things like I do. They’re my favourite subjects; you can’t have one without the other. I won’t bore you with a long explanation as to why I like both because, well, there is no long explanation. I’m a simple person; I like math because there is only one right answer, and I like science because everything sparks my curiosity. No science can be done without some mathematics; at its simplest, math reinforces scientific theories, and at its most complex, it is the impetus for scientific discovery.

Instead of listening to Jinnouchi-sensei drone on about acids and bases, I’m trying to determine what the origin of the preponderance of specific enantiomers in biochemical systems is. While my classmates are struggling to keep up with gas-phase reactions, I am teaching myself biophysics. Major unsolved problems in mathematics interest me a lot, but my true love is astrophysics. It doesn’t present as much of a challenge as unified brain processing theory and the quantitative study of the immune system, but it’s fun for other reasons. Aliens, for instance; the longer I study the nature of cosmos, the closer I feel to what’s out there. If I get better at my studies, maybe one day I’ll be able to meet what’s beyond the stars waiting for me to discover it. There are whole new worlds up there, but as of now we could not survive a trip to them. That is where my studies come in. Science is important, and I intend to push the envelope on it. Imagine the flowers no one’s ever seen before, the pretty comet-speckled bodies of water, the fluffy clouds in the shape of moons and suns… Astronauts can only travel approximately seven miles a second; we won’t get anywhere moving that slow. I’ll see that number raised higher. I’ll create a way for us to move ten thousand times faster than the speed of light. I’ll get us to other planets in no time flat. Don’t worry, I’ll also find a way for us to survive moving that fast. Survival is one of my top priorities in pushing the limits of science.

Needless to say, there are people who are terrified of space. I understand; space can be a scary place. For example, there is a rouge supermassive black hole weighing more than one billion suns currently roaming our universe at three million miles per hour after being jettisoned from the centre of its galaxy. If the Earth were sucked into a black hole, it would be catastrophic; long before Earth would be sucked into said black hole, it would be torn to shreds by tidal forces and become part of its accretion disk. Speaking closer to home, on Venus it rains sulphuric acid which is extremely corrosive. Jupiter’s moon, Io, has hundreds of active volcanoes on its surface. If a human were to visit Saturn, diamonds would cut through their body with all the force of countless bullets being shot through them. Neptune has the most violent winds in the solar system, which can reach 2414 km/h; those speeds put even the fastest Earthen tornadoes to shame. Even Pluto poses an extreme threat to us, its surface containing oxygen frozen hard as steel and bearing lakes of liquid neon; with a surface temperature of -228 Celsius, we would freeze solid in a single nanosecond. I will admit the planets in our solar system are fascinating, but I believe they are not exciting enough to be the focus of our space exploration. Frankly, I am bored with them; I’ve learned and heard so much about our sister planets that they are no longer engaging subjects. We know enough of Uranus, we understand Mars as much as necessary; I fear astronomers of today will never move on from our solar system, and will miss out on what else the cosmos has to offer. I believe this fixation is the reason why we have yet to meet what my mother calls ‘the people from the stars’; it is obvious none of the planets I’ve mentioned are home to life, so I do not understand why people waste so much time on them.

Most people overlook the perils of space flight when discussing the dangers of the cosmos. You will find that I am not most people. Astronauts travel far from Earth during their missions; the further they go, the more rescue becomes impossible as an option. Should something go awry, we lack the technology to reach them, let alone help them in the emptiness of space with no resources. They would certainly die, and die alone, in boundless darkness and silence. Astronauts explore space knowing full well the risks of such; I imagine that is less horrifying a demise to them than it is to us. Still, it is a chilling thought, dying outside of Earth where all your friends and family are. There is no oxygen in space, so your body would not decompose. If you were near a heat source, it would mummify; if not, it would freeze. Even your corpse would never return to Earth, and it wouldn’t be much of a funeral if none of your remains were recovered. On the bright side, if you died wearing a space suit your body would decompose a little, but only as far as whatever oxygen is left in your tank before it depletes. If I had to choose, I’d rather be frozen; some cryobiologists believe cryogenically-frozen corpses can be ‘brought back to life’ with the proper advances in science. I’d love to be reborn in a world far more advanced than the one I lived in prior.

On the subject of our present day technology, our spaceships are not impervious; they can easily be destroyed by most cosmic phenomenon, and are not as durable as people will lead you to believe they are. In space, the only thing between you and solar flares, gamma radiation bursts, and stellar collapses is the spaceship you are riding in; our technology is not advanced enough to handle any of those at point blank range. Spaceships are also not built to last a several-years trip, much less a several-centuries one. Our fastest ship is able to travel 33,000 miles per hour; at that rate it would take approximately six hours to go as far as light goes in one second, meaning we could get to our nearest neighboring star in 43,000 years. Time is unforgiving in space; it is my hope that one day we will be able to control it. I almost can’t imagine it, going from one planet to the next in a blink of an eye, being able to go wherever I want and not being limited by locations on Earth. You see, my idea of space travel doesn’t involve spaceships. They’re too unwieldy and only seem to slow us down; if we could get our bodies to endure the severity of the cosmos and move about it with ease, we could save resources otherwise wasted on those useless hunks of metal. I’ll admit I may be a bit too ambitious for a 15-year-old, but I will see my theories a reality; the next generation of space exploration starts with me, and I intend to see it be as safe, fun and efficient as possible. People will have nothing to fear in the hands of my research; there will be nothing to be afraid of after I have found new solutions to space radiation, the gravity on other planets, the lack of oxygen in space, et cœtera, et cœtera. I will allay their fears so there is room for them to love space almost as much as I do.

I talk so much about other planets, I wonder if people think I don’t care about Earth. I do. After all, Space exploration and the furtherance of Earth go hand in hand. I want to protect Earth from everything we yet understand; aside from ourselves, what bigger threat is there than the unexpected and unforeseeable conditions of the cosmos? This planet is precious to me; come alien invasion or the apocalypse, I refuse to sit idly by and let anything happen to it. It’s a silly assertion, I know. I’m only one girl. I’m not an explosion-triggering spy or a tornado-wielding knight, but I know those people exist. I’m confident in my ability to get them on my side. With a little persuasion, I can convince them it’s in their best interests to protect Earth. Alien alliances are the things of sci-fi manga and novels of the same genre; I don’t think that makes the possibility any less likely. Aliens are surprisingly very helpful, or at least the ones I’ve heard about. I acknowledge that my source on aliens may be only telling me about the ‘good’ ones, however it is my belief that ‘bad’ aliens were once good ones. I will make sure to ask her about all this when we next talk about them.

Science isn’t what made me curious about space; it is a tool to sate said curiosity, however. My mother tells me bedtime stories about space every night before I go to sleep. She has been telling me stories since as long as I can remember, and that was what sparked my interest in the cosmos initially. She’s told me that when I was still in her belly, she’d whisper about the stars overhead and could feel me kick in excitement. Apparently I never kicked for anything else, and in talking about space she could get me to kick on command. Growing up, she’d joke about how I was born on the wrong planet. I believe that’s true; deep down, although I love Earth a lot, I feel like I don’t belong here.

My mother is convinced nothing makes my face light up like talking about space; even when I’m falling asleep listening to her stories, she says there’s a look of longing in my eyes that is almost too strong for words. She was not surprised by my great love of the cosmos. She anticipated it, even. My father, on the other hand, has never been impressed with it. He turns his nose up at my studies, and ignores me deliberately on the rare occasion that he is home when I am. My father is a famous chef who specializes in Chinese, Japanese and French cuisine. He is an acclaimed cookery writer in Japan with more than 200 books written; he has sold at least 40 million cookbooks and owns 130 restaurants, half of those located in China where he was born. My father is a busy man. When he is not home, he is hosting cooking shows or shooting episodes for his own. We don’t get along; while he is proud that I stay on top of my studies, he thinks my passion for science and math is a foolish endeavor. He does not hesitate to remind me how stupid I am for walking away from all he’s done for our family. His insults are scathing. I do not take them laying down like a dog. We argue; I know who I get my bullheadedness from. He wants me to continue the Hsü legacy, but I have no interest in cooking.

Sometimes my father is tactful about forcing me to live my life the way he wants me to live it. He will start a conversation about something that has nothing to do with cooking, and then suddenly will comment on how great of a pastry chef he thinks I’d be if I just ‘tried.’ It’s insulting; I do not try, I do. Try insinuates a half-heartedness I am not capable of. I give everything my all and then some, even if my end goal is small. I don’t know how to make ‘attempts.’ I move heaven and earth for what I aim to accomplish. If I wanted to be a pastry chef I would have done so already. My father doesn’t need to worry about whether or not I’d be a good one. I’d be the best one. I’d be even better than him at desserts, though I will admit no one makes sakuramochi like he does. My mother beats him in other areas, of course, but I think they’ve learned and continue to learn from each other. I like to think they fell in love with each other over their love for food; I can’t imagine someone as sweet as my mother being attracted to my cantankerous father based on personality alone.

My mother specializes in Nigerian dishes with a little Japanese flair she learned from her father and grandmother on his side; her miyan kuka is my favourite, and no matter how much my father tries to perfect my mother’s recipe, he can never get the soup to taste as good as hers does. I’m glad he can’t, it’s one less thing he can prepare and hold over my head because he knows I like it. He’s always trying to persuade me with food; I won’t lie, sometimes I’m tempted to give in to his demands in exchange for some tamago he’s made, he knows the power eggs have over me. Anyway, I’m convinced my grandmother is looking out for me; how else would my fathera master chef extraordinaire, as he calls itnot be able to get something as simple as a soup right? My mother says the reason he can’t is because only an Uwaokhonye can master it. It’s a joke, I’m sure, but sometimes I can’t help but wonder if my grandmother doesn’t like him. She died before I was born; this is how I keep her alive in me. I like to believe she is under the same opinion that my father thinking I should willingly place his success on my shoulders is ridiculous. I want to make a name for myself, I don’t want to ride on his coattails. He can have his restaurants and name brand cutlery and whatever else he boasts about, I don’t want it. I want to be an astrophysicist, and that’s final. Nothing he says will change my mind. I learned my adamancy from the best, obviously. Maybe this tug-of-war will go on forever between us. Him, thinking he can change my mind, and me, not budging one bit, with some periods of friendliness in between that. It really feels like we’re trying to see who gives up first. Unfortunately for him, he did not raise a quitter; that is another quality I inherited from my father. I hate being so much like him, it’s exhausting.

Recently, my mother’s been too tired for bedtime stories. That’s fine, it just means the next story she tells will be a million times better than her last. I would say that maybe she needs time to come up with more stories, but I don’t think she makes them up. I think she’s met aliens before. I think she speaks from experience. Aliens are real, my mother is too passionate about them for them not to exist. There is something in the way that her face lights up when she tells stories, like when she speaks of this reoccurring character named Ukyo and his lover, Saki. They are royalty, a prince and princess respectively; they come from a distant planet ‘enshrouded in stars,’ and rule together while protecting it from a great, unknown evil. My mother is always enthusiastic when she tells me stories of the cosmos, however when she mentions those two she is overcome with nostalgia. Her eyes soften, her heart gets heavier; she speaks of their world like she lived on it. Like she misses it. From her tales I’d swear the three of them were once friends. Sometimes she gets so into her stories that she accidentally amuses me for hours with Ukyo and Saki’s adventures; it is hard to sleep when everything she says is so interesting. She makes even the most mundane things the characters do exciting. One time I fell asleep to a tale of Ukyo and Saki fishing, that’s how riveting her stories are. There was nothing but the two of them and the sea; it was so lulling and they didn’t even catch anything. I don’t like fishing, I think it’s boring. I just can’t stand the idea of sitting around waiting for something that may never come. Ukyo and Saki, however, made their fishing trip about enjoying each other’s company, not just about the fish themselves. I hope to one day find love like that.

I’m a big hopeless romantic. Passion, chivalry, true loveUkyo and Saki seem to have it all. I’m a bit jealous; I hope my dashing prince or princess comes and sweeps me off my feet soon. All this waiting gets tiring after a while. I’m worth three princessesno, four princesses; who wouldn’t want to come rescue me, I’m the ultimate princess. Scratch that, I’m a princess who doesn’t need saving, but it sure would be nice to be saved just to experience that. Saki didn’t need Ukyo to save her, but she was flattered that he attempted to do so despite her being more than capable of handling herself. That’s how they first met, and it’s how they fell in love with one another. Ukyo with Saki’s strength, and Saki with Ukyo’s gentlemanliness despite its unnecessity.

I believe in all the things people who aren’t hopeless romantics probably roll their eyes at. The red thread of fate, love at first sight, being reincarnated and falling in love with your lover all over again, in every lifetimeall those things exist. I would be thrilled if someone gave me flowers, or wrote me love poems, or gave me gifts for no special occasion like Ukyo and Saki do for one another. I don’t like receiving gifts, but gifts given as a romantic gesture are very sweet. Through Ukyo and Saki’s tales especially, my mother’s combines my love of love, science, math, and royalty all in one. I still can’t believe how lucky I am to have a mother that tells me about my favourite things before I go to sleep. Now that I think of it, it’s probably because of that that I’ve never had a nightmare before. Or, at the very least, I’ve never dreamed anything fitting the ‘frightening’ or ‘unpleasant’ description. I usually fall asleep during my mother’s stories and end up dreaming of what she tells me. That makes me five-hundred times more excited to hear her stories the next night. With the way people talk about how frequent nightmares are, it makes me wonder if nightmares really exist if I don’t have them. Or maybe prince Ukyo and princess Saki are looking down from their planet and protecting me from them in the same way my grandmother is preventing my father from mastering her passed-down recipes. The latter is more fun to believe; as much as I love science, not everything needs an elaborate reason to be. It is my belief that someone who lives their life by hard science and closes their heart and mind off from magic must be the most miserable person of all.

Ukyo and Saki are probably listening to my thoughts now as I wait for Jinnouchi-sensei to finish looking at what has had her attention for the past ten minutes. She has been shuffling through a stack of papers; whatever she’s looking at must be interesting, because she has this big, intrigued look on her face. She hasn’t taken her eyes off whatever is holding her attention so strongly, that’s how I know she is fascinated by what she’s reading. I understand that feeling; sometimes I pick up a book on physics and can’t find it in me to put it down. I read it for hours, from front to back and front to back again until I realize it’s time for bedtime stories, my mind buzzing with numbers and theories while I listen to my mother speak. I bet Jinnouchi-sensei has forgotten I’m here, but it would be rude of me to interrupt her reading when she seems to be enjoying it. I fold my hands on top of my desk neatly and fix my posture, pulling myself out of my daydreaming; I don’t want Jinnouchi-sensei to look up and see me staring off into space, although It’s difficult not to when I think of my mother’s stories. Most notably, when I think of the really cool powers Ukyo and Saki have, it’s like nothing else exists.

My mother calls what they’re able to do magic. As one might imagine, my mother’s stories are the reason why my interest in magic sparked. I think magic is amazing. Outside of academic texts, I get really into fantasy stories because magic is a staple of the genre. I’m a sucker for the wonderment that comes with magic. Magic can cure illnesses, it can predict the future, it can start natural disasters; you can do whatever you want with magic as long as you believe you can. I want to be able to phase through any impediment or to generate acid from my fingertips like the aliens in my mother’s stories do. Those two examples are only a few of the hundreds of powers I’ve been told about. I wouldn’t be so weak in relation to all the scary things in space if I could manipulate magic. For example, Saki being a princess does not hinder her; she can fight all on her own, she’s even better than Ukyo. My mother calls her powers ‘gravitokinesis,’ which is just a fancy word for the ability to manipulate gravity. She uses a yo-yo in battle, sometimes two, and whichever way she tosses her yo-yo is where the gravity of her surroundings shifts. For example, if Saki tosses her yo-yo to her right, the right becomes the ground and everything shifts towards the ground in that direction. She creates a whole new floor, and everything has to follow suit in accordance with it. Imagine how dizzying it could be if she tossed her yo-yos in two different directions simultaneously. Not only that, but she can do other things like create black holes and smash evil bad guys into nothing by enveloping them in gravity fields. Bad guys usually don’t get a chance to hurt Saki, because she can hurt them from far away with her gravity manipulation. Ukyo, on the other hand, doesn’t fight as much, but that doesn’t make him any less cool. He wields a star-forged sword and shield in battle, and his magical powers are what my mother calls ‘astroremkinesis,’ the ability to manipulate celestial objects. Comets, asteroids, even planetshe can control them all. Ukyo once gave Saki a moon as a gift, it was very romantic. I’m not sure what I would do if someone gave me a moon. Maybe I’d use it as a book light for 3am research when I’m supposed to be asleep.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Outtaike-san,” Jinnouchi-sensei says, finally looking up at me. She is wearing a sheepish grin, and adjusts her glasses with a push of her index finger. I don’t want her to feel bad because I didn’t mind waiting at all, it gave me a lot of time to reflect on things. For that I am grateful. “You turned in your homework along with some of your notes,” she trails, raising up something I thought was long lost: my notes on quantum field theory and how I was trying to understand it on my own. “I wanted to return these to you and I” Jinnouchi-sensei keeps looking at my notes and back at me; she understands we’re having a conversation, but my notes won’t let her concentrate on anything else that’s not them. “I must apologize once more, I shouldn’t be looking at something you did not give me permission to see, but Outtaike-san…” She pauses, her mouth open for a few seconds and her eyes wide in amazement. She can’t find the words to speak for a long time, and when she finally does she starts her sentence off with an amazed stutter. “This is…” There she goes, looking frantically at my notes again, “incredible! You’re just a child, you shouldn’t be able to understand this subjector any subject associated to itthe way you do.”

That kind of stung a little. I’m not a child, I’m 15-years-old. I’ll be 16 in a month, then I’ll really be old. I’m not sure what Jinnouchi-sensei is insinuating with bringing my age into my quest to understand quantum field theory. What does it matter? I don’t think you have to be a certain age to dabble in quantum field theory. That’s silly if you do; it’s not my fault adults can scarcely understand it. Whether I’m 15 or twenty-one hundred thousand years old, my passion is my passion. Who says kids are not allowed to learn what makes them happy? No offense to Jinnouchi-sensei, but quantum field theory is easy. She’s not applying herself well enough, that’s why she looks so shocked to see my notes. She needs to study more, that’s all. I almost impulsively ask if she wants me to be her study partner, but she speaks before I am able to with a series of blinks: “Even I cannot grasp most of this.”

“It’s not that difficult!” I blurt out; I quickly cover my mouth with both of my hands, realizing how loudly I gave my answer. I wish I could go back and speak more softly; I only shouted because I was excited at the thought of telling Jinnouchi-sensei about quantum mechanics, classical field theory, and special relativity, all three thing essential to understanding what’s written down in my notes. There’s more than those three topics, of course, but I don’t want to overwhelm her with things she’s not familiar with. A light blush covers my cheeks as I knit my fingers together in embarrassment; it’s only the beginning to an even bigger blush, lasting only for a second before it consumes me whole. I prod my cheek with an index finger before I continue to speak, glancing at the ceiling as to not make eye-contact. It’s almost surreal that she kept me after class just to return my offhanded notes to me, but ended up so amazed by them she’d rather have a conversation instead. No one has ever done this before. Ah, well, of course not, I’ve never accidentally turned in my notes with my homework, and Jinnouchi-sensei is the nicest teacher I’ve had. She’s a very involved instructor, cheering us on in all of our endeavors and giving us the confidence we need to keep moving forward. In her we can confide anything; she’s a shoulder to lean on, an ear to talk to, and an extra pair of eyes when you need them. Jinnouchi-sensei is one of the more popular teachers here because she is so friendly. My mother is just as popular, however. “—You just have to know the prerequisites. Understanding Maxwell’s theory and the underlying machinery of variational calculus are a given,” I chime, looking down at my left hand and counting on my fingers. “There’s a ton of… Ah… Ingredients to it. I think that’s what makes it so ‘hard’ to others. Most of the ingredients are technical aspects of perturbation theory; only some of them are fundamental.”

“Oh? Perturbation theory?”

She’s wearing the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on her face. It makes me smile just as big; Jinnouchi-sensei must be really interested in hearing what I have to say. Even so, I’m going to take extra care to make sure I don’t ramble. “This one is tricky,” I warn, curling my fingers against my lips in deep thought. There’s no easy way to explain perturbation theory, but I’ll try for her. “You start with an almost impossible math problem.” I don’t think an impossible math problem exists. They just haven’t been solved yet. I’ll solve them all. “It’s too hard to work out, so you find a problem that’s kinda like it, but easier to solve in comparison. After you work out the easier problem, you ‘perturb’ the solution that makes the solved problem more like the hard one you wanted to solve originally. You end up answering the original problem… but only kinda. It’s like an approximate answer, but that is better than having nothing at all, I think.”

She doesn’t answer me for a while. She lays my notes on her desk, glances at them and then looks at me again, her smile ever-present. I’m glad I can make her smile with something others don’t like. Science and math are always seen as tediousdeclared the two worst subjects by my peersbut I like them. There’s nothing more satisfying than finding the solution to a long math problem and applying that mathematical skill to something scientific. There is a rush that comes with writing an answer down and knowing it is right; I don’t understand how people could not care for that. Err, I suppose I answered my own question… If they can’t grasp the material, they probably can’t get the correct answers anyway. “You are truly gifted, Outtaike-san.” I sigh, pressing my hands against my cheeks to hide them. My face is red now, but that’s just a thing I do. It’s normal. When I get really embarrassed, my whole body is covered in blush, not just my face. That happens every time without fail, I can’t blush like normal people do. My fingers are red and so are the palms of my hands. It’s embarrassing, that’s why I’m sitting here squishing my cheeks together, to make it go away before Jinnouchi-sensei notices. “You were the talk of the school when you applied; outstanding grades, outstanding personalityeven your recommendations were written with more enthusiasm than we’ve ever seen, I’ve heard, but this… I had no idea you were capable of this. Your mind seeks greater things; no wonder you’ve scored perfectly on everything I’ve given. I don’t doubt you’ll continue to receive perfect marks during the school year.” I nod my head. I won’t let Jinnouchi-sensei down. Not that I could anyway, I could do her chemistry assignments in my sleep. “Forgive me, it slipped my mind to say; I told Kæde-sensei I would be keeping you for a short while, she should be here any moment.”

My mother and I try to leave school together so we can commune home together. It’s not that I hate riding back alone, it’s that sometimes I draw unwanted attention to myself, or, lately, my mother has been pretty adamant on me not spending ‘too much time’ around plant life. If I can’t stop to look at flowers, how else will I be able to talk to my flower friends? I guess she makes sure I don’t get sidetracked. A few days ago she told me standing in front of a vase full of flowers and talking to them seems strange to onlookers. I did not know that; how else do they talk to flowers, then? My mother has a gorgeous garden; I used to spend all my free time playing in them. I would roll in the mud, catch bugs, sit and listen to the flowers talk about what they had seen when I was not there to provide them company… It all happened gradually; first my mother and father no longer approved of me getting dirty playing outside, and then right around the time they noticed more of my mother’s flowers were dyingI had nothing to do with it, I promisethey said I had to spend all my free time indoors. Sometimes I still sneak out, however. I’d never abandon my friends no matter what rules my family impose. With my father gone most of the time, and my mother sometimes having to stay at the school longer than usual, I’m free to be around people I consider family. It’s a little unfair, my parents banning me like this when my friends go away every winter and I can’t see them until the spring.

“Does she by any chance know about how much you adore quantum mechanics?”

“Quantum field theory.” I quickly correct Jinnouchi-sensei on her error.

“Aren’t they the same?”

“No. Quantum mechanics is best summed up by something like the Schrödinger equation. The Schrödinger equation, however, doesn’t take into account special relativity and doesn’t describe fields. Of course you can still take fields into account with the Schrödinger equation, it’s just that the fields themselves would be classical fields and Schrödinger equation doesn’t describe the field itself. That one’s a no brainer though, Einstein had noted the Schrödinger equation doesn’t obey relativity a really long time ago.” I would have kept talking, but my mother walked in. I hadn’t noticed Jinnouchi-sensei get up and place my notes on my desk, that’s how engrossed I was in my own explanation.

My mother teaches music here. A lot of my classmates are very gifted musically, but it’s like my mother increases their talent tenfold. The music they play gets better and better with each passing lesson, but then again my mother is not an ordinary musician. She’s not as famous as my father, however I think if she showed the world the full extent of her musical talents, she could be. It’s like how Jinnouchi-sensei most likely thinks someone should know about how advanced I am in math and science; people don’t know my mother can play at least 50 instruments professionally. It’s not that she doesn’t apply herselfobviously not when she has a job at a prestigious private schoolbut like me, she knows not everyone needs to know what she can do. We both simply love to have fun.

The first thing my mother does when she walks into the room is smile at me. Her smiles are warm, they’re the best ones. She smiles at me like she hasn’t seen me in years; when you take into account that she is always smiling at me at every given moment, it puts her love for me into perspective. My mother never passes up a chance to tell me she loves me, either. If she was another person, maybe it would be smothering, her love, but it’s just right because it’s her. If my mother didn’t tell me she loved me every second of every day, I would feel empty; even now, I can tell she is bursting at the seams with wanting to hug me and tell me that she missed me, even though it’s only been a few hours since we’ve seen one another.

“Akemi-sensei, I hope you have been well,” my mother says, nodding towards Jinnouchi-sensei. My mother’s voice is sweet per usual, her gestures dainty, her word choice delicate. If there’s anyone who carries themselves with well-mannered elegance, it’s her. Everything my mother does is soft and courteous, she always has the other person in mind. She makes sure not to speak too loudly and is polite company. I aspire to be like her, to emulate her regard for others in speech and manners. I don’t think there I’m there yet, not with my abrasive father leaving such a deep impression on me. I hate to admit it, but… I think I’m more like him. I don’t understand it, I long for my mother’s kindness. I talk back too much, and sometimes I’m loud without meaning to be. I forget to apologize when I slip up. Maybe it’s because my father does not say sorry for anything, even when he’s in the wrong. My mother accepts it as a part of who he is. I am not so forgiving. I challenge him. We fight. I’m not supposed to be so combative, I know. I’m not this way with anyone else, I promise; I know this behaviour is forbidden in public as well. Still, I show my anger with him through my body language. No one else knows I’m furious in those instances but him.

I tuck my notes into my bag and skip towards my mother who gives me the biggest hug I’ve ever gotten. I’m clairvoyant, see? I have the ability to look into the future. I can peer inside the souls of all.

“Yes, I have,” Jinnouchi-sensei answers, “Outtaike-san and I were having a conversation about how quantum field theory isn’t the same as quantum mechanics, two subjects that should be well beyond her ability to grasp. I was returning her notes on the matter.” It’s at this moment that my mother stops hugging me and gives Jinnouchi-sensei her full, undivided attention. She’s not upset. She’s far from it, actually. I’m not sure what made her end her hug so abruptly, it’s not like her to cut a hug short. She usually holds on for as long as she can, and even afterwards she fixes my hair and checks to make sure I don’t have any cuts or bruises. Sometimes playing outside can be unforgiving; before when I used to come inside after spending time with the flowers, my mother would have band aids and alcohol pads ready to tend to my ‘battle wounds,’ as she called them. What’s odd is that she checks for cuts and bruises even when she knows I’ve been in school all day. I’d give anything to trade classes for outside play, but I know how important they are.

“Kohana-chan has a great love for those subjects. Please do not mind her.” It’s not like Jinnouchi-sensei hated our conversation. She seemed intrigued, and was eager to learn from me. There’s nothing to not mind, I wouldn’t have talked about them had Jinnouchi-sensei not started a conversation about my notes in the first place. My mother means well, but her response makes me feel bad. It’s like she finds my ramblings a nuisance in telling Jinnouchi-sensei to ignore them. I play with one of my pigtails with my freehand and look down at the ground, pouting. I don’t think I did anything wrong.

“I was thrilled with what Outtaike-san shared with me, actually! I was not sure if you knew about her passion with such things. Now that I know you do, I must ask: have you considered applying her talents towards more ambitious things?” How much more ambitious does it get from here? I went through a lot of trouble making sure I was accepted to this highly-regarded school. Besides, fame is icky. I’m sure that’s not what Jinnouchi-sensei means, but the thought of people following me around asking me the same questions over and over again is horrifying. Don’t get me wrong, I love answering questions, but even a question-answering fanatic like me needs breaks. “She could change the word, Kæde-sensei; from what I’ve seen and heard, I believe she is a genius. When she grows up to be our age, I can see her accomplishing great things.”

“In time.” My mother says that with so much confidence. In timeI keep repeating that in my head. She said that like she’s sure it will happen. Remember what I said about me being clairvoyant earlier? That was a lie, she’s truly the clairvoyant here. I let out a note of embarrassment, playing with the fingers of my left hand to take my mind off the blush that is plaguing my body. My mother believes in me, she really believes in me. I feel like I can overcome any obstacle, conquer anyone standing in my way on my quest for greatness. I imagine this feeling is what one feels when they successfully cast magic, which must be the same feeling one gets when they answer a math problem correctly. I’m overwhelmed; once again, my thoughts drift back to Ukyo and Saki. Ukyo can manipulate celestial bodies, Saki can manipulate gravity, and maybe my power is to do whatever I want. I’ll ask my mother if there is a word for that once we’re home. “Goodbye, Akemi-sensei. I enjoyed speaking with you.”