A.N.: I have been working on this story for 11 years now, and this is the 4th version (the 1st in English, though). MaruMonzterz and its characters were created to reflect the diverse world we live in. The main characters are Japanese, but there will be many more characters from all sorts of backgrounds, races, abilities, sexual orientations and gender identities.

MaruMonzterz will some day share a sequel with another story of mine called Be Myself!, so if you like this one, you might want to check out the other.

Lastly, if you want to see extra pictures, information, and secrets about MaruMonzterz, check their website: .com.

Chapter 001

It's Not Just a Flabby Ball

Tuesday, 31st December 2013.

A man and his young child sat on a plane headed for Japan. The man acted politely towards the air stewards and fellow passengers, but his mind flourished with thoughts of how he could exterminate all those annoying bastards and still make it look like an unfortunate accident.

It would not be the first time.

His child was young, but well-behaved. Like the father, the child put on a perfect display of politeness and cuteness that made everyone in the immediate vicinity squeal. And just like the father, the child's mind wandered over more sinister thoughts.

The three children did not bother with greetings. They had a job to do, and it better be finished by the time their 'father' returned from his business trip. They would rather not think of the consequences if they failed.

The parents had not seen each other for two years, but still liked to think they loved their child enough to put aside personal differences in special occasions such as this one. The mother called via her computer, and the child ran to answer. The father said maybe two words before leaving mother and child alone.

No child liked to see their parents divorced, but the family knew that sticking together would have been much worse.

Most of the Kinomotos' belongings were already packed away. The fridge stored food for the next five days. Two futons, covers, and a selection of warm clothes were the only other objects still lying around. In just five days they would be leaving the city for good, and starting life a new in Japan's busy capital.

At least by this point they had an idea of what to expect. It was the sixth time they moved city in twice as many years.

At the hotel where the Urashimas were staying, a foreign visitor tried to complain about the noise next door. The Urashima children (three in total, two of them identical twins) pretended they had nothing to do with the noise, even though they knew perfectly well that the noise was being made by a wild racoon that was let loose in the enclosed space.

Their parents would not appreciate having their suitcases and clothes slashed by the wild thing, but the children knew they would just buy new ones in the end. Money made everything disposable, including the three of them.

For the Urameshis every end of the year was a sad one. It was another year gone by with no sign of their eldest child. It would be five years now. Five years waiting and hoping.

At least they still had their second child. This one would never leave them…

The Yuy household lived under a strict set of rules. One of them was that there was no such thing as 'holiday' or 'weekend'. There was always some work to do, or at least some training. This was why Yukio Yuy and his grandson woke up at five in the morning for a routine karate training session, despite the freezing temperatures and blatant festive spirit of the last day of the year.

No holidays. No breaks. Just practice. All year long.

As for the Higurashis, their last day of the year started much like the previous ones. They were a family of three: mother, father, and daughter. They lived somewhat comfortably in a small apartment in Tokyo, and would be like any other family in the neighbourhood if not by a small detail: their daughter was destined to become a Main Character, so they deserved a lot more attention than the enigmatic tid-bits shown above. At least for now what happened to the Higurashis is what is most relevant to this story.

Not that the rest is unimportant. It is just not urgently important.

However, the girl destined to become a Main Character is not quite there yet. She has not found the source of her powers, or the thing that sets her aside from her peers. At the moment she is just a girl with long black hair, heart-shaped face, a somewhat thin body even though she regularly feeds on chocolate and other unhealthy junk, and is about to become too short for her age if she does not grow an inch over the next year. She goes to school from Monday to Saturday, and doesn't really do much else. The poor girl has tried many different hobbies before, but somehow each attempt ended in a trip to the nurse's room. And to add insult to injury, she is at the bottom of her class in terms of grades, and is constantly shamed for bringing everyone else down with her.

There is one thing about this girl, though, that could mark her as Main Character material even without the special source of power. And it is the fact that she has many interesting fears. She is scared of her Maths teacher, afraid of heights, afraid of spiders, afraid of ghosts, afraid of darkness, afraid of stomping elephants, of tiny insects, of pianos rolling down the stairs, of portraits staring at her, swivel chairs, weird sounds, half-eaten watermelons, doll eyes, banana skins, falling feathers, and plush crocodiles. She is afraid of so many things her classmates often make fun of her for it (which then makes her afraid of them too).

Because of all these fears, the year 2013 had not been a happy one for our Main Character-to-be. Still unaware of her destiny, she hoped that this New Year would be at least a little better than the previous one. She clung so much to this hope that she made an extra effort in the ritual end-of-the-year cleaning of her family's flat. She put so much effort into it, actually, that she spent the whole afternoon in bed recovering from sore muscles and the trauma of being attacked by falling pots and pans from the kitchen cupboard.

"Rumi-chan, come join us for dinner!" Suzume Higurashi knocked on her daughter's door. Suzume was a woman in her late thirties who spent most of her days teaching at a nursery. She loved children more than anything, particularly her dear Rumiko.

"Coming!" Rumiko answered, taking a deep breath before rolling her sore legs to the side of the bed. The rest of her body followed suit, fuelled by a few grunts of pain. 'This is the last time I offered to scrub all the floors twice' she thought as she begged her limbs to move forward. Slowly but surely, she crawled through her bedroom door, walked the ten steps that separated her bedroom from the table in the living room, and collapsed in one of the chairs.

"Oh, my Rumi-chan worked so hard!" Suzume exclaimed. She had a flair for dramatics that neither Rumiko nor her father found very appealing. "I'm sure the New Year kamiwill bring you plenty of luck!"

"I hope so…" Rumiko agreed, enjoying the feeling of not having to put weight on her legs anymore. "I did my best, and mum made plenty of offerings."

"With Rumi-chan's hard work and Suzume's delicious offerings, I'm sure the kami will help us." Rumiko's father appeared suddenly in the living room. She hadn't noticed him coming, and the surprise caused her heart to skip a beat. "It's ok, Rumi-chan, it's just me!"

"Be more careful, dear. Rumi-chan is really tired, don't scare her more." Suzume calmly told her husband. She was never visibly angry at him, even when she was supposed to be scolding his constant reckless behaviour.

"Yes, please, dad, don't do this again," Rumiko pleaded. Her father took pity on her.

"All right, no more sudden apparitions. I promise." The man winked and high-fived the air, as if this would make his words more official. "How about we have some food now? We don't have that much time before midnight!"

"Of course, dear. I'll bring the toshikoshi soba. Take a seat with Rumi-chan and relax." Suzume disappeared towards the open kitchen behind the living room, never losing sight of her daughter or husband. She had been cooking for most of the last few days, as it would be another three before she could do so again. The kami were not to be disturbed by the sound of cooking, meaning that if a family wanted them to bring New Year blessings, the hob, the oven and the microwave had to remain untouched. No shops would be open for the next five days either. Thanks to Suzume's hard work, though, the kitchen was filled with enough food to feed a small army.

The toshikoshi soba, buckwheat noodles eaten only at this time of the year, did not stay for very long on the table. Rumiko had used so much energy in her share of the house cleaning that she ate about three times as much as her parents.

"Rumi-chan, don't you think you're eating too much? You are only a little girl; you shouldn't eat like a man!" Suzume censored her daughter when Rumiko tried to ask for more food. Rumiko's face fell and she returned to her seat empty-handed.

"Oh, please, Suzu-chan, our daughter is almost a teenager! She is growing up fast and needs a lot of food to cope with it!" Rumiko's father argued. He grabbed Rumiko's bowl and filled it up once more.

"She is not a teenager yet," the mother replied. Rumiko looked from her father to her mother, following the argument like a deer caught between two enemy headlights.

"She will be twelve in five days."

"Twelve is not teenager yet. She is still in primary school."

"There is only one more year of that."

"So for one more year she gets to stay a child."

"But she still gets to eat all the food she wants. It's my final word."

Suzume did not want to challenge her husband. Recognising her defeat, she indicated that Rumiko should eat her sixth bowl of noodles.

Midnight came not long after that, announced by the bells from the Buddhist temple nearby. One hundred and eight times it rang, purifying those who listened from their evil passions. The last of 2013 disappeared with the rings, and 2014 began as a clean sheet.

"Happy New Year, Rumi-chan!" Suzume hugged her daughter and gave her a special red envelope with a money gift called otoshidama.

"Thank you, mum! Happy New Year to you too!" Rumiko beamed, smiling widely and bowing repeatedly to thank her parents. The red envelop contained more money than she expected. Until she saw the 23.000 yens it contained (just over £150, or $230), she had been expecting the value of her gift to match her (dangerously low) grades.

"We hope this year will bring you lots of good fortune," Rumiko's mother explained, lifting just one corner of her lips. As much as she worried about Rumiko's academic future, she felt that Rumiko's potential probably lay somewhere far from books and numbers, and as her mother it was her duty to help Rumiko discover that potential.

"And we hope you can find something you are really passionate about," Rumiko's father added, smiling much more openly than his wife. Takao Higurashi was known for his often catastrophic attempts at humour in the most formal situations. It was embarrassing for his family to watch him struggle with his compulsion to crack bad jokes in front of his boss or important guests; and nobody understood how he still had a boss after so many rude intrusions. "Whatever it is, hopefully it won't send half your class to hospital."

"It wasn't my fault!" Rumiko protested, remembering one particularly disastrous day in P.E. "It was an accident! I swear! I thought the javelins had rubber tips!" She became more agitated and exasperated as the memories flooded her mind. She would have gone on an even more desperate avalanche of exclamations if her mother had not interfered. Suzume caressed her daughter's hair and spoke with the kind of soothing tone that one naturally develops after living for almost twelve years with a child who is afraid of TV advertising jingles.

"It is ok, Rumi-chan, no one is blaming you. From today onwards you can leave all of those things behind and concentrate on your future."

"Thanks, mum, I will." Rumiko relaxed under her mother's touch; it was the one place she knew to be completely safe.

"That's the spirit! Now let's celebrate! Who wants to see the first sunrise of the year?" Takao asked his wife and daughter in his best overly-enthusiastic tone. His fist instinctively punched the air above his head and his lips receded to show all his shiny teeth. It was not the most charming expression, but at least this time around Rumiko did not seem scared (unlike the two previous years, in which she burst in tears and screamed her lungs off at the sight).

"I do!" Instead of being scared of her father's antics, Rumiko became surprisingly enthusiastic about the family plans for the early morning. It probably had something to do with the healthy addition to her wallet, or at least with the feelings of safety spreading from her mother's hand on her hair. Whatever the case, a few hours afterwards the Higurashis became just three among thousands of people who went to the Meiji Shrine to watch the first sunrise of the year. There, they said their prayers and drew sacred lots to see their fortune for the year to come. Takao's was an inspiring 'even on overcast days the sun shines through the clouds', Suzume's told her that 'if one is not enough, two might not suffice either', and Rumiko's advised her to 'follow your heart, and even the worst decisions will bring good results'.

"Does this mean that if I follow my heart when I'm making up answers for school tests I'll get good grades?" The girl asked her parents. Her eyes shone with the kind of hope that only students desperate to get any grade above three out of ten knew. Takao and Suzume exchanged worried glances, but smiled as soon as they turned to their daughter.

"Of course, my dear, though it is still not an excuse for you to ignore your studies," Suzume answered in her best soothing voice.

"Sure. I'll do my best," Rumiko promised, much less enthusiastic than she had been a couple of seconds earlier. It was not her fault that she always got horrendously bad grades at school; she was always so afraid of the teachers that she could not pay attention to what they were saying. Then the teachers got angry because she dragged the whole class down with her low grades, then she became even more scared. It was a cycle that Rumiko did not know how to break.

On the way back from the shrine, the Higurashis saw a group of children playing with strange toys. There were six children in total; four boys and two girls, mostly slightly older than Rumiko (except from a very short boy, who looked considerably younger). Four of them were holding flabby balls with cute faces, while the other two had some kind of console in their hands, from which they made waist-high plastic imitations of a horse and a lizard fight each other. Even though the horse was purple and the lizard was red, and their bodies were covered in armour plates, the plastic animals looked like almost perfect replicas of the real beings. They moved just like the real animals as well. Impressed by the realism of the creatures, Rumiko approached the children. Her parents continued on their way home and told her to follow soon.

"What are those?" She asked one of the children, a girl wearing round glasses who seemed smart and friendly.

"They are called MaruMonzterz," the girl answered with a smile "Or MaruBalls, when they are not doing anything." She showed Rumiko the toy she was holding. It was green, the size and shape of a football, and had a friendly smiling face. To complete the appearance of a cute and completely harmless thing, a tuff of dishevelled hair sprung out of the top of its 'head'. "But with a Spirit Medallion, they become monsters you can use to fight other monsters."

"Monsters?" Rumiko asked in a trembling voice. The MaruBall's cute smile suddenly became very threatening. "I don't like monsters; they're scary."

"They don't need to be. Look..." The girl pointed at the two MaruMonzterz fighting near them. The horse was stomping on the lizard. After a while, one of the lizard's legs broke off. "Okay, maybe you shouldn't look at them. My name is Sakura Apapa. What is your name?" Apapa gently turned Rumiko away from the fighting MaruMonzterz.

"I'm Rumiko Higurashi. Nice to meet you."

"Nice to meet you too." Apapa smiled at Rumiko. Thankfully the newcomer was now looking at her instead of witnessing the lizard losing another leg. She felt strangely compelled to teach Rumiko about her favourite game, almost as if mysterious forces had chosen her to become the mentor of a disciple destined for greatness. She also felt a strange familiarity towards Rumiko, like she knew someone like her in the past. Either way, Apapa's instincts told her to keep talking and make sure Rumiko wanted to play MaruMonzterz too. "Depending on what your Spirit Medallion is like, your MaruMonzter can be cute and not scary at all".

"But the cute ones are useless!" One of the boys with the consoles shouted. "Argh, Tokita, at least let me fight back!" He barked at his opponent almost in the same breath. His lizard had just one leg left, and its tail was also gone.

"You're one to talk," the shortest kid in the group interrupted. "Your scary lizard is all but finished, and the nice-looking horse is whipping your ass." The kid burst in a surprisingly scary fit of evil laughter.

"I still win against you!" The Lizard Boy snarled back. Tokita, the one controlling the horse, put his console down and waited. Lizard Boy and the little kid soon broke into a childish argument. The horse and its master stood patiently until the short boy burst out laughing again, and Lizard Boy acknowledged his defeat.

"Now admit to Tokita-san that you lost," the short boy demanded.

"Never! This fight is far from over!" Tokita and his horse rolled their eyes. It should not be possible for a plastic purple horse in armour to imitate such human expression, but the creature not only did it, but did it in a perfect imitation of its master.

"Yes, it is; you're scaring our new friend!" Apapa chipped in, seemingly not fazed by the horse's behaviour. "Let's show her the real game."

Rumiko was so surprised by being called 'friend' despite barely knowing these people that she did not pay attention to the short, yet very important argument that followed between Apapa and Tokita. She vaguely registered words such as 'secret', 'too soon', and 'True Spirit', but lacked the concentration to make any sense of them. The next thing she knew, Apapa was dragging her close to the place where Tokita and Lizard Boy had been fighting.

The ground in front of her was covered by weird drawings. The horse and the remains of the lizard (the head, the body, and half a leg) were standing in two small triangles. Between them was a very elongated hexagon with two long parallel sides and much shorter triangular tips. The triangles where the horse and the lizard stood were positioned exactly in the middle of the hexagon's parallel sides.

"This is the arena," Apapa explained. "In a proper MaruMonzterz stadium we have low metal walls instead of drawings, but here we improvise."

"There is a MaruMonzterz stadium?" Rumiko asked, wondering why she had never heard about this game before. If it had its own stadium, it had to be a big thing.

"They built one for the Japanese Tournament. We will talk about it later," Tokita interrupted harshly. Rumiko was surprised by his deep, commanding voice; he sounded like a grown man already despite being not that much older than her. She moved instinctively closer to Apapa, afraid of him. "If you want to show Higurashi-san how it works, do it soon."

"Yes, Ichigo, I will do it now." Apapa promptly answered, calling Tokita by his first name. Rumiko was surprised that someone apparently as gentle and carrying as Apapa dared do such a thing to the scariest teenager she had ever met. "So, Higurashi-san, here is how it goes." Apapa turned to Rumiko. "Since that last fight was so easy, we will get Ichigo a new opponent. Kagome, go when you are ready"

The other girl in the group, Kagome, nodded and stepped beside the triangle that was still occupied by the remains of the lizard. From her pocket she took a round medallion the size of a big coin and inserted it in a small opening that otherwise served as the nose of her cute MaruBall. Meanwhile, the lizard magically returned to its original form. Its very solid shape dissolved in a pool of goo (if Rumiko paid more attention at school she would think of liquid mercury as a more fitting comparison), a process that was mirrored by its lost limbs. When everything was completely flabby, the limbs were sucked into the main gooey mass, and only then it solidified into the round shape of the MaruBall. The whole process took just a few seconds, but for Rumiko's impressed eyes it seemed to take much longer. Lizard Boy's MaruBall was red and had even messier tuffs of hair than Apapa's. Instead of a cute face, it had a mean glare.

"Once the Spirit Medallion is in, we throw the MaruBall in the arena. We have to drop them in this triangle for the fight to start," Apapa explained. As she spoke, Kagome threw her MaruBall (bright yellow with black and silver hair) squarely in the middle of the triangle. The force of the impact caused the ball to flatten like a pancake for an instant. Then, as if by magic, the pancake re-inflated in the shape of a yellow goat in weird black armour. Just like the horse and lizard, the goat was as life-like as a yellow armoured goat could be. "We use the MaruMind to control them, like in a videogame." Apapa showed Rumiko an object that strongly reminded her of the controller of a popular videogame brand. The colours in the MaruMind matched those of her MaruBall. "Depending on which animal they are, they can kick, bite, punch, peck, stomp, curb, freeze, burn, scratch, cut, slash, and any other destructive verbs you can think of. Some have special attacks too."

"This sounds like a violent game," Rumiko noted, suddenly not so sure she wanted to take part in it.

"It is!" Lizard Boy agreed. Apapa shot him a warning glare.

"It's not as violent as it seems, or at least not as scary," Apapa insisted. "The MaruMonzterz will not hurt you or anyone else."

"You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure."

Rumiko considered the answer for a while. Not getting hurt was something she always hoped for, particularly after so many disastrous experiences trying to play sports. Maybe this new game was not as scary as she first thought.

"So the fight starts once the MaruMonzterz leave their starting triangles. Every time you hit your opponent, you get a number of points depending on how strong the hit was." Apapa explained. As she spoke, the goat and the horse met at the centre of the arena and attacked with their hooves. "You win once your opponent can no longer fight. When this happens the winner gets bonus points for the win, which are basically the same number of points they accumulated during the fight. Do you understand?"

"No, not really…" Rumiko admitted sheepishly. Any explanation that involved numbers was immediately labelled 'too complicated' by her brain and immediately discarded.

"For example, if I get 150 points during a fight and I win, I get another 150 points as a bonus, which means in total I get 300 points." Apapa tried again, taking on a professorial tone much gentler than the one used by Rumiko's school teachers. "If I win after getting 256 points, it means I get 512 points at the end. And if I fight really well and get 628 points, at the end I will have 1256 points."

"All that Maths hurts," Rumiko sighed, getting a headache by the mere mention of numbers.

"You don't need to worry too much about it," Apapa quickly added, smiling with the kind of understanding and compassion that Rumiko's Maths teacher had never shown. More than anything else, it was Apapa's smile and patience that kept Rumiko interested in the new game. "Your points appear in the MaruMind so you can keep track of them, and at the end it adds the bonus automatically to your total. You don't have to do any maths."

"Oh, great! I might have a chance at this game, then!" Rumiko beamed.

"You certainly do," Apapa nodded. Beside them, the goat and the horse were having a much closer fight than the previous one. Tokita and Kagome were completely focused on their MaruMonzterz, not even bothering to look at the buttons on their MaruMinds.

"How does the ball thing becomes a monster like that? And how can I choose which animal it will be?" Rumiko asked Apapa, impressed by the fight. She was still scared of the realistic animals, but the precision of their movements was growing on her. It was almost relaxing to watch the armoured goat hit the horse's side with its horns, only to receive a tail-full of hair to the face. Apapa indicated that Rumiko should approach Kagome to look at her MaruMind in more detail. The control had a series of buttons on each side and a six inch screen in the middle. The screen currently showed an HP bar for the goat (it was still almost full), a diagram showing which parts of the goat were most damaged, and the total number of points accumulated so far in the fight. As Rumiko watched the screen, she saw the numbers rise from 65 to 85 and then to 100.

"All the information about your MaruMonzter is stored in the Spirit Medallion," Apapa explained. Kagome was too focused on the fight to even notice they had approached. "You can choose which animal you want, and once you start to fight with it, you can customise it any way you want."

"How can I do that?"

"You can choose accessories, powers, attacks, and all sorts of things from the MaruMind. Each accessory costs a number of points, so the more you fight and the more points you win, the more accessories you can get."

"I see!" Rumiko beamed. It was rare that she understood an explanation so soon. She imagined what it would be like to have her own MaruMonzter (preferably a cute one, like a bunny) and what it would look like full of equally cute accessories.

"And then there are the True Spirits, which…"

"You've done enough explaining for the day, Sakura," Tokita warned from the other end of the arena, without taking his eyes away from his horse. "Let Higurashi-san absorb everything before you fill her brain even more."

"As you wish, Ichigo," Apapa sighed. "You're welcome to stay a bit longer and see the end of the fight. We're always practising around here, so if you feel like you want to get your own MaruMonzter, you can come to us and we can help you."

"Sure, thank you!" Rumiko beamed. She had a feeling she should be worried about Tokita's interruption, but she was too excited to care. No one had ever been as friendly to her as Apapa; she would gladly hang out with her for as long as she was welcomed to. "I want to come back tomorrow; it's good luck to practice your hobby on the second day of the year after all!"

"Yes, please, come! The shops won't be open yet, but we can show you more things. As soon as New Year holidays are over we can help you get your own MaruMonzter if you want." Apapa smiled at Rumiko's enthusiasm. She was glad that her efforts were paying off.

"I have a feeling I will!"

Accepting Apapa's invitation, Rumiko stayed until the fight was over. Surprisingly, Kagome (whose surname Rumiko was later told to be Takahashi) won by the tiniest margin, after accumulating 825 points, giving her 1650 points in total. Tokita got 810 points. The rules stated that he was allowed to keep them, though he would not get any bonuses.

The group made plans to meet in the same place at the same time the next day. Rumiko arrived home full of energy, despite the sleepless night. Too bad all her parents wanted was a quiet, relaxing evening.

A.N.: Thanks for reading! :)

Apapa's group will get some more individualised attention in the next chapter, so if you got a little overwhelmed by the sudden surge of similar-sounding foreign names, things should become clearer then. There is a reason for introducing so many characters at once. so please bear with me. This will be the only time this happens in the story.

If the "-san"s and "-chan"s confused you a little, either google "Japanese honorifics" or check out the page with the same name on MaruMonzterz's website for what they mean. Japanese characters will use honorifics in this story because it is an important way of characterising people's relationships.

In the next chapter, Rumiko gets to play for the first time, and the rules of the game are more clearly explained.