It is the stars,

The stars above us, govern our conditions.

(King Lear, 4.3.37), Kent

"You're very welcome."

The last of the motes of light faded. Madoka sighed and rubbed her eyes. A draining, swirling exhaustion pulled at her. When Madoka opened her eyes again, she was leaning on her elbows in the cafe near her old middle school.

"You alright there?" asked Sayaka. Madoka looked up. Sayaka was giving her a worried look.

"I'm fine, Sayaka-chan," said Madoka, sitting up and stretching. Her bones popped. "Mmm. Just a little tired. We've been working hard."

"You're doing all the heavy lifting," said Sayaka. "Me and the others are just showing up to say things. It's not like we actually doing anything when you ask us to come with."

"Saying things is important, Sayaka-chan," said Madoka. She picked up her tea cup with a gloved hand and sipped at the bracing beverage. "The right words can topple empires, you know."

Sayaka rolled her eyes. "Sure, Mado-okaa-san, whatever you say."

Madoka pouted as their food arrived, sliding onto the table from the top of an Anthony's head. "I'm not that old, Sayaka-chan!"

"Yes, you are," said Sayaka bluntly. "I watched you rescue friggen Joan of Arc, Madoka!"

"Oh hush," said Madoka, prodding her friend with a foot. "Time is like origami, don't you remember?"

"And besides, you're avoiding the question," continued Sayaka, ignoring the sandwich and soda that had been placed in front of her. "Are you sure you're okay? Ripping open a hole in time and space can't be good for you."

"I'm fine, Sayaka-chan, really," said Madoka. She took another bite of cake. "Hmm, not as good as Mami-san's…."

"But it's only been, like, five girls," said Sayaka anxiously. "Maybe you should cut down on the trips? You didn't really need to go see Emma, she's not that important in the—."

The room physically dropped in temperature as Madoka looked up and dropped ice into Sayaka's very soul. "Every girl is important, Sayaka."

Sayaka quailed.

"S-sorry, Madoka," said Sayaka. "I'm… I'm just worried. You're not completely omnipotent, and I… I guess I still remember the meek little Madoka-chan from before."

Madoka sighed. She reached across the table and flicked Sayaka on the nose.


"It's fine, Sayaka-chan," said Madoka. She gave Sayaka a reassuring smile. "Being a little tired isn't going to hurt me now, and this is important."

"But you're a goddess now!" said Sayaka. "I mean, you getting tired, period, is a problem!"

"It's not as big a problem as making sure this battle goes well," said Madoka firmly. "Samsara is important to humanity. Economically, politically, socially… it cannot be allowed to burn."

Sayaka pressed her lips together unhappily, then pushed her sandwich across to Madoka. "Here, I'm not hungry anyway."

"Eh? But—."

"I just need some sugar to keep going," said Sayaka, sucking down her soda with the provided straw. "Hurry up, we've got more to do, like you said."

Madoka blinked at Sayaka for a moment, before nodding. She quickly devoured the sandwich and the cake.

"Let's get going then, Sayaka-chan," said Madoka. She stood and brushed the crumbs off her gown. "Are you ready?"

"Always, Madoka-chan," said Sayaka. She adjusted her cape and stood at Madoka's side. "Who are we visiting now?"

"Her name is…"

A flash of pink, and the two were gone.

Emma blinked her eyes open.

She was lying on her side, curled gently around her gem. The cold of the floor, seeping through her costume, was the only discomfort she felt. She felt well rested, alert, ready to fight. Two days of combat had been wiped away, leaving her at the peak of fitness. Emma went to push herself up and—

—collapsed in agony as her dying gem ripped open her body. It was like being burned and flayed alive while animals gnawed at your limbs. A ragged scream tore out of Emma's throat as she struggled to retain consciousness. What remained of her soul's light glimmered faintly at the base of her gem, barely holding itself together as the filigree slowly rusted.

Emma gasped, then grit her teeth. Have to keep it together. Have to- have to purify. Three, two, and—

—There was an almost physical impact as she forced her remaining magic into herself, locking her limbs and forcing her backpack to extrude her remaining grief cubes. Emma burned through her last reserves dumping her gem into the pile of cubes. For a second, nothing happened. The pain was getting worse, she was supposed to be purifying, why wasn't she purifying Goddess no not now—

—a surge of relief, like a pitcher of water being poured down her body. An almost literal sizzling as the pain ebbed, washed away. It left her weak and exhausted, collapsed onto her side as she struggled to take in air. Her gem had consumed all of her remaining grief cubes.

But, she was alive.

With a groan, Emma pushed herself upright and slump against the wall. She glanced at Ingrid's body.

"I guess that could have gone better," she said.

Emma sat there recovering her strength. The exhaustion she felt slowly ebbed as her magic did its work. It wasn't much. Deep seated fatigue like this wasn't something you could deal with that easily. Some food would help, but this was the entirely wrong place to break out a food pack.

Instead, Emma dragged herself to her feet and cleaned. The electrical equipment was heavy, but Emma had enough strength to deal with it. Within the hour, the wreckage had been shoved to the side. A battery pack and VR cable were scrounged from the destruction. Emma placed the defenders' remains in neat rows across the back.

A speech would have been good. Emma was too tired to think of anything appropriate.

Emma bowed, then made her way back outside. It was still raining. With a sigh, she pushed the piled squid dead over with a splash of mud.

There was something disquieting about the silence that echoed afterwards. A moment after, Emma realized that it was because she could no longer hear detonations in the background. The march up had been interspersed with the sound of distant combat. Now though, she couldn't hear a thing.

Emma wasn't sure what that meant. On the one hand, it could mean that the defenders had been overwhelmed, pushed into the tunnels of Helsinberg's redoubt and besieged. On the other, it could merely be a lull in the fighting. A quick breath, before both combatants plunged back into the fray.

She grimaced. Best play it safe then. Emma climbed up the hillside as stealthily as she could. The ground was slippery, saturated with water and having little to hold it together. Pebbles and gravel slid beneath Emma's feet. Twice, she had to catch herself from falling completely into a puddle. Once she failed.

Goddess, she desperately need a rest. That would never have happened if she had been at peak fitness. As she neared the top of the hill, Emma took a deep breath and moved to her hands and knees. Slowly, she peered out from behind a boulder to survey the land around her.

The valley had burned. Bits still smoldered as the cool rain tried and failed to quench the fiery hunger of plasma and laser blast. It was a field of ruin, destroyed by forces unmatched by man alone, but contested with unyielding anger and pride. The dead littered the valley, black dots upon blacker dust. The river swelled to match the fury of the men and women who had defended it to their last breath. Little remained of what had once been a dense network of emplacements and weaponry.

Emma sighed. For all her despair and anguish, it seemed the reality of the situation was that she would have been of little use on the field this battle. Her powers were meager, in comparison to the almighty force wielded by a Reaper's laser cannon. Even with her company behind her, the result would probably have only been tragedy. It had been wrong of her to despair.

Emma squeezed her eyes shut. Dammit. She was so stupid.

With another deep sigh, Emma began to search for something to home in on as her next destination. The fields of the valley were stripped of their fortifications, most of them shattered and burnt. The suburbs surrounding Helsinberg been blasted and destroyed as well. Twisted remnants of apartments and houses were all that remained of a once active, if not necessarily vibrant, urban center.

What wasn't utterly ruined had been occupied, the oblong forms of cephalopod drones drifting about and small figures that could only be troopers moving about on patrol. The density of forces increased with proximity to Helsinberg. It was difficult to tell, from this distance, but the constant haze hovering over the area had to be cephalopod drones.

Still, the human line was standing firm. Just within the bounds of downtown Helsinberg, several towers had been toppled to interfere with cephalopod plans. They weren't much, but booby trapping and firing angles made them a challenge that had to be planned for. On top of that, many towers still stood, making them good, if obvious, positions for the many magical sniper teams.

Oddly enough, the Reapers in the area weren't firing. A large amount of wreckage, distantly visible to the east, implied some sort of impact from orbit. Emma had no idea how the battle in space was going, but it appeared that the Home Fleet was making some sort of progress. If that held—

Emma's train of thought was cut off as she caught a bright flash of light about twenty kilometers away, near a building that might have been taken over as a supply depot. Cascading explosions followed, then more bright flashes in an array of colors.

More survivors? No, that didn't make any sense. The tightly controlled sequence of flashes was too organized. MagOps then. Emma wasn't familiar with the redoubt tunnels underneath Helsinberg. Maybe there was a way to get to the underground fortress from the suburbs. But, for all she knew, the team had a teleporter with long range capability.

Either way though, that was her ticket out of here. Emma had to get into the outskirts. If there was one MagOps team causing havoc and, apparently, meeting success, then there had to be more either already in place or about to enter the area. As long as Emma could get into telepathy range, she could get rescued.

First though, the downhill slope.

Freshly soaked in more mud from the downhill trek, Emma moved more quickly. Eyeing her gem warily, Emma dropped out of her costume and walked in the street clothes she had kept from Mitakihara. It was a little more slippery and the chill soaked in deeper, but it used up no magic and wasn't that much worse.

Emma didn't try very hard to scavenge this time. She wanted to get back as quickly as possible, after all. Batteries and ammo packs, however, she saved whenever she could find them. ID Chips she stored in her backpack as best she could. Any potentially useful data was yanked as well, since she now had the VR cable to act as data I/O.

If it weren't for the fact that being numb to death was an alarming state to be in, Emma would have congratulated herself for not letting it get to her. She should probably talk to a counselor about that later. To be fair, though, Emma didn't try very hard to feel sad. Her thoughts were instead focused on the… well Emma wasn't sure what it was that she'd seen, just before waking up.

Technically speaking, it was more of a fever-death-dream than an honest-to-goodness vision. Wasn't it expected for visions to be prophetic in some way? If so, she was completely screwed. Like all dreams, she had started forgetting it the moment she'd woken up. If there was something she was supposed to remember to keep from dying, then it'd been lost by now.

Thinking about it though, she wasn't even sure that it had been any sort of vision at all. She still believed what she had concluded after the IFV had been hit: you didn't survive that sort of thing without outside help. But what you'd been thinking before you fell asleep had strong influences on what you dreamed abut. There was no guaranteeing she hadn't just imagined everything, and since she couldn't remember much, there was no way to tell.

Whatever it was, it had definitely involved swimming. That, and being burned alive while underwater, ominously. There had been music, the sound of violins, and the feeling that everything would be okay, eventually. But aside from that…

…Well, there was one thing. She remembered… she remembered lying on a bed, and someone pulling the sheets over her, before kissing her goodnight. It was like… it had been like she was a little kid again, being tucked in by her parents at the end of a long day.

Part of her suddenly wanted to be done with it all. Not die, no, that was too much, but just to go away into some forgotten corner of space and spend her days napping. Maybe find someone to date, but nothing serious. It seemed like she hadn't felt safe, properly safe, for an entire epoch, and that was something she desperately wanted to feel again.

But if she did die, Emma wasn't sure she wouldn't be… well, "welcoming" was a stretch, but it didn't seem that bad anymore. No one could say for sure what happened after you died, but being rescued by the Goddess was somewhere in that list. As would be, Emma hoped, the chance to take a long nap.

...It seemed childish, but being tucked in by the Goddess would be really nice too.

Getting to the suburbs ended up taking longer than Emma had liked. Her gem was still weakened from coming so close to death. The crushing exhaustion kept her from maintaining long periods of activity. Eating some food from the food packs she had brought from Team B-4's position gave her more strength, but Emma didn't dare spend more time than was absolutely necessary in the open.

There was no sign of any activity from the MagOps team Emma had seen earlier. The outskirts of the suburbs seemed totally abandoned, devoid of any military presence by any side. Emma treated this with cautious optimism. Hopefully, this meant that the squid had pulled away from the area, not wanting to risk further engagement with the MagOps team.

Emma crouched behind a pile of fallen decorative bricks. They had surrounded a playground once. The swings still creaked in the wind as the rain tap tap tapped along the ground, tinging off the metal and scattering amongst the torn shrubbery. There was no movement.

Cautiously, Emma walked forward. Her footsteps were muffled by magic. Carefully placed as well, lest a misstep herald the collapse of rubble and draw the ire of any nearby drones or patrols. The tumbledown walls and impromptu stairways surrounding her beckoned forth, inviting Emma to explore their depths and find what lay within. It was a tempting offer, to be sure, as no doubt there was plenty of interest to find inside.

But that was gratuitously unwise. Emma had no doubt that every single building was booby trapped. If by the squid, then probably with no small amount of explicitly anti-magical girl hardware. If not, then there would certainly be whatever traps human forces had been able to place. No, the main streets were, ironically, much safer.

Emma stayed low, flitting from bit of rubble to bit of rubble. There were some passive sensors wired into her skull, but their range was limited and they did nothing for static emplacements. Emma needed only to run into a turret and she'd be done for. But, from what she could remember, the last attack had been just a bit further west from where she was. It seemed reasonable to assume that the MagOps team was still in the area.

Still, it was a big assumption to make. MagOps teams tended to be created to fulfill specific missions. It was just as likely that the team had melted away into the shadows and returned to wherever they had came from, waiting for another day and place to strike. There was no guarantee that Emma would find them, and for all she knew, she was walking right into—

—an enemy patrol. Emma sucked in her breath and dived for cover, praying that she hadn't been spotted. After a moment's silence, she peeked around the side.

Shit, they were fanning out. One of them must have caught sight of the tail of her robe. The only path that Emma had was through the building next to her. It hadn't been bombed completely, and still stood several stories tall. Glancing back once more, Emma braced herself, then slid in as noiselessly as she could through a ground-level window.

She landed with a quiet thud. Emma waited breathlessly for a moment. Nothing. Good. She immediately set forth, moving forward at a crouch. She kept one eye on the passive sensor readout and another on the ground. The light was dim inside, but she could just make out the shapes that she needed to avoid.

It was true, what she'd expected. The building was riddled with booby traps, the sort that had little feet and scuttled about to find a suitable position. Just at the first door, Emma had needed to brush aside a handful of caltrops and shimmy herself underneath a hip-height ultraviolet tripwire.

More alarming was the array of proximity mines that she found strung across the obvious routes out. With no way to heal herself and death guaranteed if she was found, Emma had to find alternate paths and shimmy herself through tiny gaps to get through. More than once, she held her breath as the clink of an armored tentacle hitting the ground heralded the presence of a patrolling squid. The traps could sense friendly units and let them pass unharmed.

Briefly, Emma considered following a squid from room to room, until she got a chance to escape. This was quickly dismissed as untenable. She wished for rooftops to run across, something that could be accomplished easily and quietly. Perhaps more open to drone attack, sure, but this was maddening.

Emma quickly found herself lost. A growing sense of being herded plagued her as she scanned each area for potential exits. Holes in walls were too convenient, it seemed, and she was going ever higher in the building. Something was definitely not right.

Emma tried to think back across what she'd done so far. She'd gone in through the one window, but she was sure she hadn't been followed. She'd evaded all the tripwires easily too, and hadn't managed to set off a proximity mine yet. The detonation range on those things was only a few meters, but—

—they should have killed her by now. Damn. She WAS being herded. Emma had never been more than five feet from any one mine, the things must have been linked together and were being moved around by the patrol. Her every movement had been orchestrated to push her into a corner, where it'd be easier to pin her down and blow her to bits with a well placed grenade.

Damn it damn it DAMN it. Emma breathed deep and tried to think through the situation. What to do, what to do…

Well they were just standard troopers, from Emma had seen. No unique insignia anywhere. She should be able to take them with just hand to hand. If she used magic to blast some of the mines away… wait no, the window! If she went out the window, she could aeromaneuver away from the building and back into cover.

Nodding decisively, Emma moved hurriedly to the window and checked it for any traps. There was nothing she could see on the frame. She didn't have a good angle, but it didn't seem like there was anything hanging above or below the window either.

Time to hope for the best then.

Carefully, ever so carefully, Emma pushed open the window. Nothing. Holding her breath, Emma began climbing over the window sill. One booted foot touched the window frame before she was fully out.

There was a massive flash and horrendous explosion. Her vision was completely whited out, her ears were ringing, and something was dripping from her mouth and nose. A second later, she realized it was blood.

Blind and deaf, Emma felt her combat instincts begin to scream at her to move, to get out of there, to escape. The explosion must have alerted the entire patrol to her presence, and the trip mines kept trying to climb onto her. Something metal scraped at her boot—

—and then her vision suddenly snapped back into place. The terrifying sight of dozens of mines scrabbling towards her filled her vision for a moment before Emma felt herself get yanked bodily out the window.

"Don't panic, I've got you," said a voice in her head. Emma looked up to see a skull looking down at her, wearing black lace and ruffles. She felt her mouth open to scream, before it snapped shut and her entire body went limp.

"Fuck, if you're going to do that, I'm just carrying you," said the magical girl. Emma lolled limply, in a semi-panicked state. "Oi, you alive in there?"


"I said," repeated the magical girl, slowly, as if speaking to a toddler. "Are you alive in there?"

"I- yes, yes I'm alive," said Emma. "Can you let me down now, please?"

"Not yet," said the girl. "Name's Nodoka. I'm going to keep you like this until we get to somewhere safe, okay? Take a nap or something."

"…I can't close my eyes."

Emma blinked. Then she realized she'd done it on her own. "…Thanks?"

"Don't mention it," said Nodoka. "Hold tight now."

Emma resisted the urge to say something sarcastic. She realized now that they were moving at an extraordinary pace, flicking over the ruins on an apparently completely arbitrary path. The girl must have been wearing some sort of high performance stealth generator, or they'd have been picked up by enemy drones by now.

"Hold on, braking," said Nodoka shortly. Seconds later she came to a hard stop in the courtyard behind a strip mall. Emma felt herself twitch once, before she was dropped unceremoniously to the ground. Evidently, she had control of her body back, because she landed on her hands and feet and bounced back up.

"What's your name?" asked Nodoka. She had pushed the skull, evidently a mask, up on her forehead.

Emma took a deep breath and sighed before answering. "My name is Emma Sinclair."

"Burnside-Sinclair, you mean?" asked Nodoka. She turned and waved for Emma to follow.

"No, just Sinclair," said Emma, confused.

"Huh, that's weird," said Nodoka. "Well, we'll see if you're related to Agapita later. Come along, Emma."

"What's going on?" asked Emma, following behind hurriedly. "Thanks for the save, but where are we?"

"We are exactly five kilometers distant from the nearest entrance to the redoubt," said Nodoka. "MagOps Team Four has been tasked with supply line harassment. Apparently, it's also extended to rescuing your sorry newbie ass."

Emma frowned. "I'm not that new."

"Yes you are," said Nodoka. "Compared to us, anyway."

Oh come on! Seriously? Again? "Why?" challenged Emma. "You're part of MagOps, but you can't have more than a few years—."

"Kid, you are drastically underestimating what it takes to get into MagOps," said Nodoka, severely unimpressed. "I turned ninety-seven two weeks ago, brat. Respect your elder."

Emma blanched. "O-oh."

"Yeah. Now shut up and follow me."

Meekly, Emma trailed behind Nodoka as the girl, woman really, led Emma into the strip mall, the down into the basement.

"Right, stay here," ordered Nodoka. "We'll come pick you up in a bit. Don't do anything stupid."

Emma nodded. With a swish of lace, Nodoka turned and left, basement door clicking shut behind her.

…Well damn. Talk about ruined first impressions.

The basement door suddenly opened again.


Emma caught a small bag full of grief cubes.

"Figured you might want some," said Nodoka from the doorway. "Leave at least half for me."


The door clicked shut again.

With a sigh, Emma sat down on a crate and settled in to wait.