Chapter 23:

Starry Night

Half-Paid Heroes

Ella's consciousness awoke in what appeared to be a rainbow bubble of some sort.

Her first thoughts were that she was underground, since she could smell the place beyond the bubble - it smelt like dirt (soggy, cold, earthy) - and it was horridly claustrophobic in the space she was allocated.

She then became aware of a wheezing noise, and realised it was her own breath. However, after placing one hand over where her heart should have been and noticing she had no pulse, she stopped hyperventilating like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Below her was a cavern the size of the Company office, filled with the LED-like light of a octahedron-shaped floating crystalline structure in the middle. Four smaller stones, presumably precious from the way they sparkled - red, pink, yellow and black - were in a formation that seemed to support the rock in the middle, even though it clearly did not need the support. One woman, seemingly an Eskimo based on her clothing and wild back-length plait, knelt before this structure, her jet-black pendant giving off light that counteracted the cavern's.

Ella recognised the pendant as being the same stone on her ring, although the "star" was on the right side of the stone rather than being fully visible.

The woman muttered something while touching the floating crystal with one hand, and suddenly, the entire world began to shake and quiver as the cavern's ceiling opened up to reveal a starry sky. 

Snow rushed into the new crevasse, and Ella unconsciously sighed as the claustrophobia in her head faded away with the falling powder.

The woman's mutterings became louder and more audible as the sky itself began to glow with unearthly power. Ella couldn't understand what language they were being spoken in, but the words were mesmerising...up until the Eskimo stopped her ritual with a shout and a raising of her hands from the crystal.

Then, the stars began to rain upon the opened cave.

One "star" shot through Ella, but she discovered she was merely a ghost in this world.

One slammed into the woman, and while the pendant created a transparent barrier to protect itself for a few seconds, the gem split into clean halves as the glowing sky rock cleaved into it. It then formed itself into two new wholes - one being the onyx which Heart Hope possessed, one being the star sapphire of Heart Despair - while the owner lay unconscious, knocked out by the white luminescent meteor.

"Hahaha! I always thought she was such a foolish woman, for choosing to defend the creatures of the earth," came a haughty voice from behind Ella, as the cavern and the sky both vanished with a rainbow haze to reveal a world of darkness. (This voice was distinctly Ella's own, only with a strong British accent for some reason she couldn't fathom.)

Ella turned to see the recognisable form of Heart Despair before her, along with four other magical girls in the background which looked familiar:

First, there was Heart Hope, the miraculous witch with the form of Chris.

Next, Heart Wisdom, from the female form Valentine the bird had shown off.

Thirdly, a woman wearing a vermillion off-the-shoulder ballgown, assuming the form of Alex.

Finally, another woman with a high-neck yellow dress, who had the form of Jamie.

The five Hearts, in all the splendour they were meant to have.

In all the splendour they should have had.

"S-So that's what that ritual was for?" Ella stammered back, finally choosing to answer the Heart Despair before her.

"I mean that this woman here, the one who appeared in this memory of mine, was the one who determined your fate as 'defender of the earth' ten years ago..." Heart Despair shook her head, which created an unnatural shine on the crown ornament atop her head. "Of course, I could not have gone along with it, for I am not a creature of the earth. We Hearts are not creatures of the earth, and neither are the creatures made from the magic granted by the stones that fell from the sky that day."

"Then just what are you?" Ella demanded, getting out of her sitting position from the capsule and taking a swing at Heart Despair's face, only for Despair to grab it then let it go.

"We are merely...what would you call it?" With this question, she turned to the group behind her, who whispered for a bit before Despair came away with an answer, "Personalities that can possess you, with the power to change your body, mind and soul should we deem you inappropriate for taking on our mantle."

Heart Despair strode up to Ella and observed the face of the one she was meant to be possessing. The azure eyes of Heart Despair were distinctly battle-hardened, making her seem more stern than Ella.

"As you may have gathered from all that, my vassal," Despair began to declare more to herself than Ella, "I am incomplete. So it seems like fate that someone has bestowed me upon you, the other half to Heart Hope."

Ella shook her head. Now that Chris and her were separated, they were no longer two halves of a whole like they used to be.

Before she could verbally protest though, Despair finished what she was saying: "Now, I believe that was everything that all-seeing traitor wanted us to tell you. You are dismissed."

With the last of these words, the world went black once more...
Meanwhile, Yuki and Jamie were in hospital, waiting for the condition of their coworker on some unpleasantly uncomfortable plastic seats, now that they had dealt with the neighbour and his car. Jamie was on the very left chair of the row while Yuki was on her right, boredly poking the screen of his phone so that the open messages (a new style of directive-sending Kirikagura was trying out) slid up and down.

"Kirikagura said Odagaki was involved with this incident in his directive, huh?" Jamie sighed, stretching while still seated on the plastic waiting chair.

"Does that bother you?" Yuki asked her almost inaudibly, faint memories of phantom pain flooding back to his five-year-old injuries as he finally bothered to look at the grey linoleum floor.

A nurse with a vacated stretcher went past them, the stretcher's wheels squeaking audibly. Jamie held her hands over her ears while the grating noises passed.

"What if I told you it does, because I'm a former employee of Odagaki's?" Jamie finished when she brought her hands down.
---- Author's Note ----
I wanted to write something more specifically for Halloween, since I already have an established "skeleton", witch and black cat, but my brain and my life wouldn't let me do it. However, I wrote some chapters in advance for times like this, so you get plot developments instead.

Gerry Hines