I don't know when it really began. My childhood was reasonably normal, I'm sure of that much. The magic came later. Was I ten years old? Twelve? I don't remember. The first year or two blurs together, a collection of memories of nothing in particular. I didn't take it seriously, at first.
I remember the day it started to matter, though. The day I found my focus. I'd used computers before, but not often. Hard to believe, isn't it? The skill came later, which, I later learned, was not unusual. After I began to take it seriously. After the magic.
It's impossible to describe that first contact. My fingers barely brushed the keyboard, and the world dissolved around me. Colors, shapes, patterns normally  invisible manifest all at once, threatening to overload the senses. I remember the faint echo of ethereal music in the background, too, constantly shifting. I tried to write it down, afterward, but I never quite got it right.  I still hear fragments of that melody, sometimes, especially in my dreams; always brief, fluid, transitory. It changes like a living thing.
Through all of this, I somehow remained aware of my hands. The keyboard seemed to smooth, flatten, and eventually disappear as my fingers moved of their own accord. I thought I no longer needed it; I was connected to another world now, thrust into whatever imaginary space exists between electrons. 
This vision lasted less than a minute, but it could have been weeks, to me. When I saw normally again, the room's flourescent lights were augmented by a soft lavender glow.  Some of that came from the computer's screen; the rest came from me.
* * * * *
The rest seemed to follow naturally from that auspicious beginning. I had been the first of my class to experience such an epiphany, but within two months, all of the others had as well. My closest friend among them, Kenneth, was third, twenty-three hours after me.
Ken was different then; all of us were. His defining personality trait then was his introversion; he was less outgoing, much less flirtatious, and more connected to reality. I can't say he was the most serious of us, but he was far from the oblivious quasi-child of recent years. He had a love of the ironic and the bizarre, along with the amazing ability to listen to someone for hours without getting bored or distracted. Sometimes, when he's closest to who he once was, those still show through.
Sometimes I wonder whether his change was really for the worse. He is happier now than he was then, that much I know. Maybe the only one of us to become happy. So far. 
Whatever the case, it wasn't long before we were ready to 'graduate.' Seven of our class--a number chosen for its associations--came together to discuss our future. Ken and I were among them. We seven were the best of our class, by our own estimation. In power, in skill, or in creativity.  We were already classed as adepts, but we wanted master status.
Master status doesn't come easily, no matter what the number of masters in Nerima might lead you to believe. In order to be acknowledged, we would have to prove ourselves, on our own... 
In short, we needed a project.
* * * * *
Short, red-haired Sheila stretched impatiently as Mark finished explaining his suggestion. "I don't think that will work," she mused. "It's too easy to extrapolate, right from the book." 
Amanda rubbed a cloth over an imaginary spot on her glasses and replied, "It's the best we've come up with. I haven't heard any ideas from you." Most of us sighed at that point; since the day they'd met, those two had constantly argued with each other. It didn't help that their fields of specialization had turned out to be so similar; if anything, it added fuel to what had already been a blazing rivalry.
Of course, when they did work together, they were a force to be reckoned with. But I digress. 
Mark had buried his face in the palm of his left hand at the prospect of another verbal skirmish. "Not now, you two. This is important."
"Just because it's your idea," Sheila growled. She didn't get any further than that, fortunately for all present.
"I know what we can do," Michael ("Don't call me Mike.") said, thereby averting the pocket edition of World War III. He leaned back in his chair--an overstuffed recliner near the corner, well-suited to our quietest, most introverted member--and smiled slightly, making sure he had our attention. He did; even Sheila, whose temper could match Amy's [A], stopped and turned to listen. That was, after all, the first time he'd spoken more than three words at once in nearly two months.
Moments passed in silence. [B] Characteristically, Sheila spoke first. "Were you planning to tell us sometime this century?"
Michael's eyes shifted to Ken, then to me. "Yggdrasil," he explained.
"Yggdrasil?" I asked. "What do you mean by..." The words trailed off as a thought crossed my mind. What Michael meant...
Ken's words echoed my thoughts. "You want us to take over the divine network?"
Sheila and Amanda stared at each other in awe and disbelief, their argument forgotten. This in itself was a minor miracle. Mark's jaw dropped open as he stammered vague protests.
On the couch, Hitomi's eyes snapped open. "I didn't just hear that, did I?"
The others, excepting Michael, laughed softly, the moment of incredulity broken. I replied, something along the lines of, "Any idea good enough to bring the dreamer to join the rest of us..." From that point, I think, we established a tacit agreement. It was decided. We would take Yggdrasil. [C]
I still feel guilty about that, sometimes.
* * * * *
"We need to go -where-?" I asked.
"Japan," Mark cheerfully explained. By his tone of voice, he might have said 'next door.' "There's a convergence in Tokyo due not long from now. We'll need the time to set up."
"So we do have a plan?" Sheila asked. Behind her, Michael nodded, but of course she didn't see it.
Amanda did. "Good. I was beginning to worry." [D]
"But I don't know any Japanese!" I protested. "We could do it from here, tap in remotely." What can I say? Ken wasn't the only one who changed since those days. In my case, I think, it was mostly for the better. [E]
"You have two weeks to learn." Ken grinned as I slowly raised one hand to my forehead. That was the first of many headaches I was to develop before that business was through.
Hitomi said, "You really shouldn't do that to him." I might have taken more comfort from that if her voice held any hint of emotion. It was neutral, distant, like always. Like Hitomi herself. I had never really gotten to know her, had never seen the point in trying, honestly. Ken vouched for her, though, and that was enough for me.
Amanda's advice was somewhat more practical. "You could use magic to translate, like the rest of us. Other than Ken," she added, foreseeing and preventing a potential interruption. "It should be easy for you to auto-translate. Even Jessica could do that, and she took five days to learn how to focus through distractions."
"Oh, yeah." Not only did I have a headache, but I also felt like a complete idiot. [E (again)]
That didn't help. "Just because some of us don't rely on magic..."
"'Don't rely on magic?' Since when? We all know you just have a mind like a sieve."
"I do not!"
"You're the one who missed class because you forgot what day it was, right?"
"Anyone could make that mistake..." [E (yet again)]
"Yeah, but not just anyone could think it was -eighteen months- later than it actually was! Even if they did, they wouldn't do it -three times-!"
"Will you two stop it?" Sheila politely requested as she bludgeoned us with a table.
"Urk..." Eloquence was not my strong suit. And my headache wasn't getting any better, either.
Mark smirked. "Sheila playing peacemaker? Will wonders never cease?"
"I've got a table with your name on it, smart aleck."
"Me? Perish the thought. I was just lost in admiration of your delicate tou...OW!" Mark always was a slow learner. [F] I was surprised that Sheila reduced the table to toothpicks, though. Usually she settled for one blow. Chalk it up to anxiety, I suppose.
"We should plan," Michael said. Again, his voice silenced everyone instantly, though he'd fallen back into his pattern of three-word-or-less sentences. I realize now why that always happened; Michael spoke so seldom that, when he did, we felt compelled to listen, as though he'd deeply pondered each word. Whether he actually was possessed of some uncanny wisdom or not, I don't know. I suppose it doesn't matter--either way, it worked.
Amanda nodded. "We'll need all seven of us."
"But we need to do more than just break in," Sheila noted. "We need some kind of proof, not just that we were there, but that it -was- us, and not some other group..."
Mark leapt out of his seat. "A contract! If we make a contract, they'll have to acknowledge us as masters."
"A contract? As in, a wish? Ultimate Force?" That bothered me. It still does, but in a different way. I never could stand the thought of higher forces decreeing destiny. Sure, it provided security; but freedom and security are a zero-sum equation, and I prefer freedom. My successes and failures are my own, not some cosmic force's; I've confirmed that now, and, I think, that's the way it should be.
"Wouldn't that be dangerous?" Hitomi asked. [G]
Ken nodded. "They're sure to find out, no matter how careful we are. I don't know the penalty for forging a contract, but I'd rather not find out."
"On the other hand," Amanda threw in, "All contracts are backed by the Ultimate Force. So if there was a 'now and forever' clause, to prevent it from being revoked..."
"...We could put one over on the gods," I finished. "Now, that would be something." I did rather like that thought.
"So... we're going to do it?" Mark asked. Amanda nodded, then Michael. I hesitated and glanced at Ken, and found that he was looking in my direction. Simultaneously, the two of us nodded slowly.
Sheila sighed, then shrugged. "Why not?" Finally, with all eyes on her, Hitomi gave in, reluctantly nodding.
"Right, then, it's settled," Mark proclaimed. "We have to make sure we get it right on the first try, though. I don't want to see what the penalty is, either."
"I guess you have to take a few risks, to become a master," said Amanda. As I recall, she was smiling when she said it. I half-expected a thunderclap in the background, but it didn't happen. I relaxed a little as we continued to plan. In hindsight, that may have been the first mistake.
* * * * *
Japan wasn't what I had expected, although my preconceptions were different from the usual. It was rather amusing--even to me, after the first week or so. Ken, of course, was in his element, the only one among us who spoke fluent Japanese. (Hitomi, born in America to parents who had also been born there, had never learned the language.)
One thing I hadn't expected was that Japan would be so green. It was so crowded, after all; wasn't it? But I suppose, as Amanda said, "All that rain has to be good for something."
It rained often. I learned later that we had arrived at the start of the 'rainy season,' not that it bothered me. I always loved storms. But not all of us were so inclined...
"When will it stop? Have we even seen the sun since we got here?" Sheila, as usual, complained most. She sat, curled on the floor near a window, occasionally twisting to look forlornly out.
"Don't exaggerate, and pay attention. This is important," Mark admonished. Somehow, he had developed into the de facto leader [H], a turn of events that surprised him as much as eeryone else. "We need..."
Sheila joined in, completing the sentence in unison. "...everyone to work on this." Her mouth twitched, a tired attempt at a smile. "I know. Just finish going over everything, I'm listening."
"Right." Mark turned to me. "You, Scott, are going to lead the actual 'invasion.'"
I'd expected as much. I nodded. "Sure, computers. No problem."
"Don't get cocky. Ken, you're his second."
"Ken?" I asked.
Ken nodded, with a confident smile. "It may be a computer system now, but it's also the World Tree. My area of expertise."
"Does that make it a binary Tree?" I asked, putting on my best innocent face. On cue, everyone groaned. Except Michael, who merely shook his head. I silently vowed that I would one day get a sound out of him. But that's another story. [I]
Mark continued. "Sheila and Amanda will set up the decoys, to give you two more time. We want each of the three connections bounced through as many sites as you can without losing too much speed." All four of us nodded at that. Anything to make this a little less dangerous. "Hitomi will use her precognition to tell you which ones to go through."
"And you and Michael?" Amanda asked.
"I'll be obscuring our location as best I can. Michael will help with the setup where he's needed, and provide defense during the endgame. That way Scott and Ken can concentrate on the system instead of its parts."
Michael frowned thoughtfully; Sheila asked, "Are you sure that's the best way to do this?"
Mark nodded. "Unless you can come up with something better?"
I could she that something was bothering her, but she shook her head. "Not really. That it is, then."
"Let's get started," suggested Amanda.
* * * * *
We moved slowly--no more than a node a day, and often closer to a node a week. Hitomi's talent was erratic, for one thing, and we were trying to be cautious. Sheila, Amanda, Ken, and I would first establish a presence at a node, often working twenty-four hours or more in one stretch. That done, Mark and Michael would painstakingly review the work, hiding any trace of our activity we might have overlooked. More than once, we abandoned a node and started from scratch, just to be sure.
It was a good system, but it meant that there were fairly long stretches where any one of us had no work to do. It didn't seem to bother Hitomi or Michael, but the rest of us got restless after the first few days of that. Amanda began spending her spare time practicing her dance. Sheila went to libraries, reading voraciously. Ken visited a park, where he would sit for hours; sometimes, he would leave the city for a few days. I'm still not sure what Mark did to fill the time. [J]
Days off meant, for me, a walk in the city. The layout of the streets was confusing at first; I got lost more than once. But I didn't mind too much. There was always something about big cities that attracted me. Some cities are almost living things, with their own rhythms. Tokyo was like that. Eventually, I started learning my way around.
Many minor incidents happen in the city every day. Paths cross or don't; people meet or miss each other; a few intriguing words of someone else's conversation are overheard. The small things that make up 95% of life. Most of the time, they remain fairly insignificant, even dropping out of memory within a week or two. Occasionally, something happens to make the event memorable, and it has a lasting impact. Even more rarely, it turns out not to be minor at all. [K]
I was walking along a street, as I had many other times. It was the second day in a row I'd been free, and it seemed like there might be two or three more to follow it. A lot of time, at any rate. Especially for me. I'm still not a very patient person, and I was even worse, then. It was a bright afternoon, though it had rained earlier in the day, and there were still puddles scattered on the ground. Warm, too. I think it must have been the beginning of autumn, but perhaps it was the end of summer. Dates didn't matter much, at the time, and I couldn't remember, later.
I'd stopped at a bookstore on a whim. [L] My Japanese reading skills were negligible, but that didn't bother me. This particular store had some books in English as well, I was happy to discover. I'd ended up buying one; I don't remember the title. No more than five minutes later, I was walking in the shadow of a wall, started to turn the corner...
...And ran straight into a girl coming the other way. The bag she'd been carrying fell to the ground, miraculously spilling very few of its contents; my book followed it. The two of us were falling as well, but somehow, I managed to twist to catch her. With the result that I landed flat on my back. Well, A for effort, right? [E] Sure hurt, though...
"Are you alright?" I asked. She'd better be, I thought. I would've hated to go through that for nothing.
"Mm-hm. I'm sorry about that."
"My fault," I admitted. By this point, I was on my knees, gathering the food she'd dropped when we collided. Fortunately, nothing seemed to be broken. I hoped there were no eggs in the bag. [M]
"Is this yours?" I turned to respond, and looked at her for the first time. Long black hair gathered into a loose ponytail in back, bright, compassionate eyes, the mouth quirked in a small, tight-lipped smile. I placed her at about my age, perhaps a year or two younger; it was hard to tell, though. After all, height is no help in guessing when you're taller than nearly everyone around you, and speech patterns don't help if you don't speak the language, regardless of translation. When appearance is the only thing to judge by, you have to allow for far greater error.
She was, indeed, holding my book. I nodded, accepting it, and handed her her bag. With another quick smile, she turned and walked on. A second later, I, too, turned and walked on, in another direction.
I didn't think much of the encounter at the time, but I began to run into her--not literally, after that first time, fortunately--at various other places. The first time, we passed at the market. She murmured a quick "Sorry about the other day," I once again apologized to her, and we parted company.
The third time, I walked out of a park as she and a friend of hers--a girl about the same age, with brown hair and glasses--walked by. I waved; she smiled. She seemed about to stop and say something, but her friend called, "Hurry, Akane," and she walked on with an apologetic bob of the head.
Yes, -that- Akane. [N] That's how I learned her name. Hard to believe it worked out that way, isn't it? Anyway, that's how we met. She's changed as much as any of us, too; so much that I didn't recognize her when I first returned to Nerima. I think it was the Angel of Vengeance that began to bring back those memories, but I didn't fully make the connection until later than that. [O]
After that, we started meeting more often. For a time I wondered if someone, somehow, was planning it; it happened that regularly. But I'm convinced that it was just luck. Stranger things had happened to me, after all. Still do, actually. At any rate, we became friends, of a sort... she always seemed slightly distant, self-consciously withdrawn. I didn't learn the reason for that until much later, too, but that's another story. [I]
Despite that constant distance, Akane was... well, it's hard to describe. She was--and is--one of the most beautiful people I've ever known. Understand that I do not use the term lightly; when I say "beauty," I'm not referring to physical appearance. Beauty is an inner trait, one that's difficult to define. Bright, kind, interesting, independent--those are all a part of it, but far from the whole.
Combine that and her sheer force of personality, and, simply put, Akane was radiant. That's probably why she ended up being kidnapped so often, and pursued by so many, as opposed to Ranma's other would-be fiancees. Shampoo had the surface appearance, but little more; Kodachi was a sadistic lunatic. Ukyou came closest, but, though she shared most of Akane's traits, something was missing. She was like a candle compared to Akane's sun. [P]
I've been rambling again, haven't I? Well, I'll skip most of the details of the setup--suffice it to say that there were few problems, as yet--and get to the explanation of what Akane had to do with all this. It was late in the preparation, and one of us made her first--and last--serious mistake.
* * * * *
The scream was audible even in my room, despite the precautionary soundproofing we'd placed on our 'base of operations.' I'd been reading; the same book, I think, that I'd bought that day I first met Akane. The moment I heard, I was up, out the door, and halfway down the stairs before I heard the faint crash of my chair toppling to the floor. [Q] It was one of those screams that seems to carry the unfortunate's heart and soul with it, so agonized it sounds.
I burst into the room, nearly running over Michael. Sheila stood frozen in a contorted pose from one of her mystic dances. Her mouth was open, her expression an eloquent statement of agony; jagged arcs of crimson electricity ran over her body. Amanda was lying sprawled on the floor near her feet, unconscious but otherwise unhurt, as far as I could tell. Michael was in front of me, eyes closed in concentration; Mark was on the opposite side of the girls, shaken, but begining to glow emerald green as he gathered his power. "What happened?" I asked, as my own aura began to manifest.
"Tripped one," Michael said, his eyes still tightly closed.
I looked at Mark. Catching the glance, he elaborated, "Sheila was working on a decoy node. She must have tripped the security; you can see the result. It's probably bad--it was one of the infernal nodes. Niphilheim domain."
"Then we've got to get her out of there, -now-."
"Careful, it's set to trap anyone who interferes and fails to disarm it completely. We don't need two victims."
"Gotcha. Just be ready to blast Sheila when I tell you to. Michael, start warding the room against the various celestial and infernal types. Infernals first."
Michael nodded, setting me a little more at ease. He wasn't a powerhouse, but he was the best at remaining unseen. And at making sure others, like us, remained unseen. Privately, I'd thought that he, not Mark, should have been the one checking each node. But he had another talent, the ability to generate magical power and transmit it to others, and Mark considered that more valuable. Well, now we needed the best. [R]
Taking a deep breath, I projected myself into the Ether, the staging ground for our plot. Sheila's avatar there was trapped just as her body in the material world was, but there was much more loose energy. It was beginning to feel hot. I wondered just how much power that warmth represented; the Ether was usually without temperature.
I decided not to find out. The crimson coils of energy were twisted in an ever-changing pattern. If I could break the pattern, I could take Sheila back to our reality. To do that, I'd have to break the code. If I had time... My computer, or its Ethereal analog, was in my hands before I'd finished the thought, and I was entering lines of code at a rapid pace.
Finished. I decided there was no time to check the program. Instead, I forced my awareness into the real world long enough to shout, "Now!" to Mark, and held my breath as I stabbed the 'Enter' key. Lances of purple energy streaked toward the crimson trap. It shuddered for a moment after the impact, stretched towards me, then dissipated. I began to breathe again. There was no time to pause; I grabbed Sheila's avatar and retreated into the real world.
The first thing I noticed was Sheila's body, now on the floor near Michael's feet. He was beginning to kneel to check her condition; across the room, Mark was walking toward us.
"What did you do? When I hit her, it pushed her right out of that red thing. As soon as she landed, the whole thing just vanished."
"I broke its code. My specialty." Glancing over Sheila's unconscious form, I added, "I hope you didn't hurt her too badly."
Michael shook his head. Well, that was one less thing to worry about.
"Did they track us, or did the wards hold?"
To my surprise, Michael answered. "We're covered."
Mark nodded. "We're safe, this time, but I doubt we'd get away with it again. Want to check on Amanda? She might have been caught in the blast."
"I wouldn't know what to look for," I responded. "She's not dead, but..."
"Go find Ken and Hitomi, then. They both know more about it than any of us."
I nodded and left the room in search of our remaining partners.
* * * * *
"She's been what?" I asked in disbelief.
"Drained." Ken shook his head. "Permanently, as far as I can tell. Physically, she's fine. She's just no longer a magician."
"I thought that was impossible," I muttered, taking another sip of coffee. The two of us were having the conversation at a kissaten; none of the remaining six except Hitomi were comfortable at the house any more. I hadn't seen Sheila since that day, nor many of the others. But Ken always knew how to find me. Some day, I'll ask how he did that.
"It seems you were wrong. She's taking it as well as can be expected, I suppose." A pause, while he drank. Ice water; he didn't care for coffee. "I think she's going to leave Tokyo."
That was news to me. "Really? But where would she go?"
"Not back, that's for sure. At a guess, somewhere in Europe."
"Ken... are we really going to go through with this?"
"I don't know, Scott. I don't know."
* * * * *
Work on the project was set aside, for a time. Sheila did leave, as Ken had predicted, with vague plans about England or Austria, or maybe Argentina. I never heard from her again. Amanda was the most upset, surprisingly. Maybe she missed her verbal-sparring partner. Whatever the cause, she was at the house less and less often--usually only to sleep, and sometimes not then.
Mark continued tinkering with the nodes, possibly from a lack of anything else to do. Michael sat on the rooftop for hours or days at a time, and didn't speak at all. [S] Hitomi shut herself in her room. Occasionally, I heard her emerge at night, probably in search of food; but I never saw her.
I returned to my wandering around the city.
On one of those walks, I met Akane, probably on her way home from school--she was wearing that Fuurinkan uniform. I'll skip the beginning of the conversation [T], since it had very little to do with any of this. It's enough to say that she'd seemed angry for some reason, though she had calmed down soon enough. We walked for a while, but we eventually stopped at a bridge, when I happened to mention...
"You're going to leave Japan?" she asked.
I leaned against the side of the bridge, and looked down at the gently-rippling water. "Maybe. I've been thinking about it, anyway."
"Why? I thought you said you were going to be here for nearly a year."
"Well, I'm only off by six or seven months. Besides, I think it's getting... um, dangerous, you could say."
"So you're just going to give up martial arts?"
I blinked and turned to face her. "Martial arts?"
Now it was her turn to look confused. "You're not a martial artist?"
"No. What gave you that idea?"
"Well, you move like one, sometimes. You're light on your feet."
I chuckled. "I used to dance. That's probably it." Then I realized what she'd said. "Move like one... does that mean you're a martial artist?"
Nodding happily, Akane answered, "Mm-hm. My father has a dojo, so it was easy for me to start learning."
I shrugged. "It always looked kind of dangerous to me."
"Not really, if it's taught right. There's always the risk, but it's not very high as long as you're careful. And even if something does happen, you'll recover in time, and you can continue. Or you could do something completely different, but it's your choice. You don't need to quit because of one accident. If you do, you'll never get any further than you were, and you'll still have to deal with that fear."
I looked at her and thought that she really believed every word. "Don't you think that's a little optimistic? What if something goes wrong and you're permanently injured, or killed?" And what if you're partially responsible for that?
She was silent for a few minutes. "There's not much you can do about that, if it happens," she finally said. "But anything short of death at least leaves you a chance. You might be able to find a way to recover."
"You really are an optimist."
At that point the conversation turned to the disruption someone apparently named "That Baka" was causing in her life. It became a rather one-sided conversation, since I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Not that it mattered. I think I could have walked away while banging on a gong, and she still wouldn't have noticed. I never want to make someone with that kind of focus angry at me. [U]
What she'd said about recovery, though... that was important. That gave me an idea.
We were going to go through with it.
* * * * *
"Are you sure?" Michael asked, concern plain in his voice. I couldn't see his face with the VR helmet over my head, but I imagined his expression matched.
Mark agreed. "We're not finished yet. If something goes wrong, we might not be covered."
"You can cover the route after Ken and I connect. Get Michael to help if you need it. Hitomi too, precog won't help us now."
"But that's all backwards! We won't have enough time..."
"We're doing it backwards, then. Make time."
"We've waited this long, surely--"
"Now. While everyone's here and rested."
"He does have a point," Ken conceded. I imagined him standing behind me, slowly dropping flower petals into that ridiculous iron cauldron of his. A nervous habit he claimed helped him focus. "Perhaps we should begin."
"What about me?" Amanda asked. "I can help cover the route..."
"No," I said. "When they detect us and start tracing, we'll need you to create as many false branches and fake connections as you can. A thousand would be good, if you could manage it, but five hundred will do."
"Five -hundred-?" I could have sworn I heard her jaw hit the floor. "That many?"
"That," Ken remarked sardonically, "Is why we need you to rest. You'll need all your energy to pull it off."
"They're right. -If- we were going to do this." Mark again.
I started to answer, but Ken beat me to it. "We are going to try. If you want to leave..."
Mark snorted. "Who said anything about leaving? Just because this is an insane gamble... well, you only live once."
"Some of the masters choose to live more than once. And some are immortal."
"Amanda... shut up and rest."
"Gee, someone's in a bad mood..."
"I mean it."
"They're starting," Michael said. As usual, his voice stilled the argument.
Starting indeed. I viewed the virtual landscape around me, knowing Ken was seeing much the same thing reflected on the surface of his cauldron. The ground was almost ephemeral; a grid of white lines connected by some invisible force, suspended over a cosmic abyss. Ken's paradigm probably represented it as a flat grassy plain, perhaps shrouded with low-lying mist. The nature of this place was such that different perceptions were possible, and could sometimes coexist; at other times, a particular perception determined its nature. Concentration could determine the very fabric of this section of reality.
There was one thing breaking the otherwise-infinite contiguous grid I saw: A large, twisted tower of metal and insulated cords rose from somewhere beneath the plane to somewhere high above, lost in the cosmic vastness. Peripherals were connected to the great machine by the thousands, causing the whole to spread outward, away from the core that was its main body. It looked not unlike a cyberpunk vision of a tree, branches spread in all conceivable directions, supporting and being supported by the entirety of the surrounding world. Which, of course, is exactly what is was, among other things.
I allowed my senses to scan the considerable defenses, then pointed. Not to one of the peripherals, as the original plan had been, but to the trunk of the great Tree. Heavily protected it might be, but that protection could work in our favor; it would be the most difficult to change once corrupted, and it could not be cut away from the main body like the peripherals could.
I felt Ken's surprise, a tremor in the grid on which we stood; then, I felt his acceptance. We were on our way, gliding across the grid toward the great metallic thing, a computer system that made even my laptop look like an abacus. Attacking the least vulnerable part. Doing things backwards.
I hoped Amanda would begin her distraction soon. I could feel the vague ripples of Mark's work as he tried to shield us from detection; from time to time, a surge of power that could only have been produced by Michael came through, strengthening our own enchantments. I couldn't feel Hitomi's presence at all, but she must have been there, somewhere.
I gave us five minutes, once we reached the node. Any longer than that, and we wouldn't be able to get away, even if everything else went perfectly.
Then we were there. My vision was flooded with pale violet as I began moving around--or through--the defenses. The "trunk" began to twist and flow, changing its configuration every few seconds, and I knew Ken was at work. The chaotic shifts made the job more difficult, but they also exposed new areas of the core. The angelic ICE began to appear, but only a few headed in our direction; the distraction must have been working by then. I spared a few seconds to blast the first, then misdirect the other four.
The violet light began to dim; I was running out of power already. "Almost there," I heard Ken say, and his voice, too, was filled with fatigue.
"Did you find one of its roots?" I asked. Yggdrasil gave new meaning to the concept of 'hacking root.'
"Right in front of you. Don't worry, I'll hold it there, no matter what it seems to look like. I just need a few seconds..."
"We have less than two minutes."
"We'll make it," he assured me.
The segment of the tree I was working on was now glowing a soft violet as my magic continued to alter its programming. I was constantly twisting around more and more complex security now, but somehow I managed not to trigger any alarms. Ken, too, was pushing; I hoped his power would last. It seemed to be fading more quickly than mine; that was hardly a surprise, since he was covering my hasty manipulations.
Then I broke through. I was elated for half a second, until I realized something. [V] "Ken, I'm in, but we have a problem?"
"You got caught?"
"What's wrong, then?"
"The contract. We never decided what the wish would be. We have... thirty seconds to think of something and get out of here."
"Oh. Yeah, that's a problem. Um... just write something! Whatever makes you happy."
Whatever makes you happy...
That was it. A wildcard wish. I wasn't sure how it would--or could, for that matter--be granted, but that wasn't important anyway. We just needed it as proof.
A moment of concentration, then I called to Ken. "Everything's finished, let's go!" I didn't wait; I was out of the Ether and back to reality as soon as the last word crossed my lips.
The first thing I saw when I removed the helmet was Mark, beaming. "We did it!"
"What about the contract?" Amanda asked, as she collapsed onto the couch. She was winded, perspiring; she looked as though she had just run a marathon, and then some. No doubt she was exhausted; she called her magic through dance, so her physical exertion equalled her mental exertion. She used to joke about it, saying it kept her in shape. Good thing; though our mission took only a few minutes, it would have been the most vigorous dance she'd ever attempted. If she hadn't had the stamina to complete it...
"Yes. What did we wish for?" asked Hitomi, smiling with uncharacteristic excitement.
Ken shrugged and looked pointedly at me. I grinned. "Ken gave me the idea. We wished for each of us to be granted whatever we most want right now. I didn't forget the irreversible clause, either."
"I hope none of us have a secret death wish," laughed Ken.
"It may be serious," Michael, ever the brooding sort, said.
Mark answered in the introvert's stead. "If one of us should later decide we no longer want whatever it is we now think we want, we would have no way to reverse the wish. This may turn out to be a Monkey's Paw situation."
"C'mon," I said. "What are the chances of that? Besides, even if it is granted, they're sure to find it and invalidate it somehow, clause or no clause."
"I think you're underestimating the Ultimate System Force."
* * * * *
Maybe I was, maybe not. I'm still not entirely certain. I know; you think I would find out one way or the other, right? Well, I didn't. I can't.
In a way, it's the ultimate irony. In order to be granted a wish, a mortal must be found worthy, and contact the heavenly (or infernal; their standards of 'worthy' are different, and they are infamously subject to bribery with souls, but what do you expect of them?) bureaucracy to make the request. I later discovered that we had been declared worthy [W], and that our mission was considered contacting the system.
We hadn't had to go through all that at all. Making a phone call would have been enough.
We did, at least, get master status out of the whole affair. Six new magenames were added to the list. I chose Inverse, having done everything backwards; Ken, Hirohi, reflecting what I would later realize was his inner desire, which the wish had granted him. The four others likewise chose names reflecting the event: Mark, Michael, Hitomi, and Amanda became Chameleon, Hiatus, Nocturne, and Souldancer, at least on the rolls of the College. [X]
We'd left Japan right after we'd finished the contract, so I didn't see Akane again until very recently. I understand her life became rather hectic, so maybe it's for the best. I finally thanked her a little while ago. I don't think she realized what I was thanking her for, but that's all right. It doesn't really matter now, anyway. Not to me, at least. As long as I finally told her.
As far as the wish goes, I can't say much about any of the others. Michael suddenly became much more popular, but that didn't help his reticence at all. Before, he would be alone and quiet in the corner; and now, he's quiet in the corner with a dozen other people standing around and talking to (or, more accurately, talking at) him. I believe Amanda wished for eternal youth, but I can't be sure for another decade or so, and even then, I'd have to see her. Our paths don't cross much, these days.
I don't know what Mark, Hitomi, or Sheila got out of it. I hope it's made them happy, but I suspect it hasn't made much of a difference in their lives. Maybe Sheila got her power back. One can hope. That's what I'd originally tried to accomplish, thanks to Akane's advice--to give Sheila a chance to recover. To make sure there was a way.
Speaking of happy... Ken's wish, it turned out, was for happiness. Trust him to decide that happiness was what would make him happy; that's the way he saw things, I guess. He got his wish, in a way. He may be a space cadet now, but I never see him depressed. Once in a while, concerned, yes, or even saddened; but even then, he has a sort of absolute contentment to him. And that friendly, cheerfully oblivious smile always emerges before long.
Me? I got what I'd always wanted: Freedom from the manipulations of destiny, the gods, or whatever you choose to call such forces. Or rather, the knowledge that I was free. (Not everyone is, you know. Most, but not everyone.) On the whole, it's worked out pretty well. I know that, whatever successes or failures I might have, the responsibility for them is mine alone. Not some faceless entity's or impersonal force's. My wish gave me the future.
The future looks bright.
*** Footnotes *** by Chibi-RL-Scott
1 - As if there's such a thing as 'normal' in GRIT. Read 'not unusual enough to be truly noteworthy.'
2 - This may have something to do with his complete lack of any artistic ability, with the sole exception of dance. Being able to read music isn't the same as being able to write it.
3 - William Gibson said it much better, don't you think?
4 - Why lavender? Probably because it's silly. Glowing red, white, yellow, black, or blue auras can be intimidating. Glowing light purple auras can inspire giggles.
5 - Optimistic, isn't he? <VEG>
6 - And no doubt among the most humble, too.
7 - "Prove ourselves on our own" is apparently magespeak for "Make a general mess of matters to no useful purpose."
8 - The book is -the- book. The only text of the College of Thaumaturgical Heuristics, Ultimate Lies, and Hocus-pocus Unlimited. 
9 - Yes, he does. He digresses quite often, in fact.
A - Note use of poetic license.
B - Moments should have passed in the right lane, but they were never much for the rules of the road.
C - Which would make a really good filksong, now that I think about it. "First, we take Yggdrasil." Leonard Cohen, eat your heart out.
D - Another moment of common sense ruined by assurances from a friend. And look where trusting her friends got her.  Always listen to that little nagging voice, kiddies!
E - No Comment.
F - He fit right in.
G - Heck, they're all already masters... of the obvious.
H - And remember, this is supposedly the "slow learner." [E]
I - Hopefully one that's told more clearly.
J - He took up fanfic writing, if you really must know. That filled the time quite nicely.
K - There's a point here somewhere, I know there is. Then again, I could be wrong.
L - A very large, flat whim, if the whole bookstore was on it.
M - There weren't.
N - Not the -other- Akane. She doesn't show up in this continuity.
O - He didn't make the connection. Big surprise.
P - There, that should ensure a follow-up by at least one of the Ukyouites.
Q - His room was very similar to his current room, except for a lack of dimension-warping and heavy wards. That is, western-style, with a bed and hardwood floors. 
R - But they made do with the people they had.
S - Not that that was much of a surprise.
T - Thank heaven for small blessings.
U - Too late.
V - There haven't been any footnotes for a while. That wasn't what he noticed, but I figured I'd better throw one in.
W - He never was able to discover by whom. My theory is that the culprit hid his identity to escape censure by the more sensible divinities.
X - Master magicians of the College often identify themselves via their magenames among colleagues; this is thought to provide some measure of protection against Name spells, even when the caster knows the target's full real name. I think it's just repressed fantasy-RPG-wannabe tendencies.
Y - Why not? [Z]
Z - Yes, it's an unreferenced footnote. But there had to be a joke, no matter how old. By the way, did you notice how the footnotes suddenly switched from numbers to letters? Well, I'm about to do it again.
100 - C.T.H.U.L.H.U. is well-known in certain circles. It's famous for the quality of its multiparadigm sorcerous education, and infamous for its aggressive telephone fund-raising. All its alumni dread the call of C.T.H.U.L.H.U. 
101 - Actually, after wandering around Europe for a time, Sheila returned to America and became CEO of a large multinational corporation. So I guess trusting your friends can get you somewhere after all.
102 - Not because he had a preference for Western-style rooms over Japanese-style. Just because hardwood floors make more satisfying noises for the purposes of a story.
103 - Don't you hate it when footnotes have footnotes? 
104 - Not to mention the footnotes' footnotes' footnotes. After a while, you begin to get into recursive footnotes. 
-- Scott Schimmel http://www.seas.upenn.edu/~schimmel/ Ex ignorantia ad sapientium; "You really aren't normal, are you?" ex luce ad tenebras. -- Miki