Chapter 31: Hostile Territory

[Author's Note: Those of you reading this on FanFiction may have noticed that Shattered Skies: Viluy's Database is gone. The short explanation is that I was "nicely" informed that character guides technically qualify as "not a story", so I took both Viluy's Database and Stars Above's Demon Profiles down… after all I've posted on here, I don't want to risk my account. You can still find both the Database and the Demon Profiles on DA and AO3, and the former is also on WattPad. I'll be updating the Database on those sites only from now on.

In better news, new Shattered Skies art by ErinPtah, check it out: fav dot me / dbvoxmc]

La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

37th Floor - Library/Security Center

The destruction and subsequent total collapse of Viluy's lab did not go unnoticed. Vibrations rattled the palace all the way to the main security center twenty floors up, where Sub-Commander Eas, otherwise designated Labyrinth Citizen #ES-4039781, sat poring over new information, as she always did when not actively on-duty. Maintaining her library was her pet project, compiling all the knowledge she could gather within the five multiversal vertices. Though she went about it with less single-minded, monomaniacal focus than Viluy, Eas was no less devoted than she to her job for Labyrinth.

Where they differed was that Viluy wanted all the knowledge there was only for the sake of having it, not for Labyrinth's benefit. After she ascended to the position of Dead End's Head of Scientific, Technical, and Magical Research and Development, Viluy quickly set about making the harvesting of data, all data, Labyrinth's raison d'être.

Eas was different. Her duty was not to Viluy and not to Dead End, but to Labyrinth. They were part of Joker's fold now, yes, but Labyrinth was her home, her purpose, her life. If it came down to it, and she had to choose one over the other, she would choose Labyrinth in an instant.

So when Viluy suggested that Lord Moebius, the ruler of Labyrinth, be merged with the planet-devouring transdimensional entity called Pharaoh 90, the sovereign of the Death Busters, that the whole of both might become stronger than its component beings… Eas went along with it. It was not her place to question. Lord Moebius gave her her life and purpose, who was she to object to his becoming something more? Klein and Northa, her most direct superiors, wholeheartedly approved of the fusion, as did Moebius himself. Any misgivings Eas might have had were irrelevant.

And when the gestalt entity, christened Master Moebius 90, was wiped from existence by the TSAB along with the planet Carnaaji, Eas grieved. Not for the planet, and not for Viluy (though of course, she merely uploaded herself into a clone and was active again in days), but for the part of the gestalt that was Lord Moebius. Eas mourned and wept for the loss of her creator… but only in private, when she was absolutely certain there was no one to listen. Such things, she knew, were not permitted.

When the rumbles of multiple explosions came up through the floor, and her scans revealed that the lab had been destroyed, and furthermore that Viluy and all of her clones were dead… she did not grieve, nor did she feel any desire to do so. Her duty was to Labyrinth. Viluy may have advanced to become her superior in the organization, but Viluy was an outsider, not one of Lord Moebius's children. Viluy was an interloper, who changed Labyrinth from what it was to what she thought it should be. In her heart of hearts, Eas even suspected that the loss of Master Moebius 90 at Carnaaji was at least in part Viluy's fault, though she would never say so aloud.

Her duty, her life, was to Labyrinth, and to the memory of Lord Moebius. So it would continue to be.

"Master Joker," said Eas into the communications panel built into her desk, a clean, stark white half-circle made of duraplast. "I have a damage report."

"Can it wait?" said the tiny hologram of Joker that blinked to life on her desktop. He was huddled over a glowing crystalline sculpture of roaring flames, but its tongues moved like liquid. "Using the artifact requires delicacy… If we send the Will to the wrong time-space coordinates, we lose both her and our creature for good, you know..."

Whatever this artifact and the creature Master Joker wanted to summon with it were, it was no concern of Eas's. "My apologies for interrupting you, Master, but my sensors indicate that Lady Viluy's lab has been destroyed. Vital signs from Viluy and her clones are all negative, and the Snowstorm Protocol is offline. Readings show massive failures within her entire nanobot network... there is no bringing her back this time, Master. How shall I proceed?"

Joker's projection put its masked face in its hand and groaned. "Oh, excellent. Just like that woman to spoil the moment by dropping dead at the least convenient time. What of the intruders?"

Eas's crimson eyes scanned the bio-signature readings for the vast network of tunnels within the asteroid that housed the palace. Cool blue lights bathed her face, adding to the pallor of her complexion. "Alph, Sailor Neptune, and Cure Marine are descending from the 57th floor, Master. It appears they wish to rendezvous with the others. Your orders?"

"Well, then! At least there's time to prepare a welcoming party." Joker released the artifact and put a hand to his chin. "Your orders are to sit tight and maintain the tech as best you can, until all the systems Viluy was in charge of are redelegated. I'll need you to step up where she failed. You can handle that, right…" His holo grinned. "... Labyrinth Commander Eas?"

Eas blinked. That was the extent of her reaction. "Of course, Master. As you wish."

"Good. And congratulations on your promotion."

The Depths

Jamais Ville - Western Border

"She…" Sakura Kinomoto's mouth wouldn't work right. "Th-that can't-"

Next to her, Chibi-Usa Tsukino, Sailor Chibi-Moon, spread her arms in a pleading gesture. "Miki-san, there's gotta be some mistake! Madoka-chan and Akemi-san are friends, Akemi-san would never—"

"Don't you dare!" Sayaka Miki roared, pointing both of her cutlasses as if she intended to run them through. The enormous, armored thing emerging from the reverse-waterfall behind her raised its own sword, rivulets of water trickling up its charcoal-grey plating. Three blank oval eyes sculpted into its iron helmet stared impassively at Sakura and Chibi-Moon, but they could feel something behind those eyes, something that burned with malevolence. "I saw what happened, I was there! That girl... she ripped Madoka apart, even after she begged her to stop! Don't you dare say it was a mistake!"

"But-" Sakura clutched at her temples. Everything, the impossible smoke-and-glass city below, the cavern that contained it, the palace atop it, the universe, seemed to whirl around her at dizzying speed. "But it doesn't make sense. I don't understand, it doesn't make sense! Why? Why would she do such a horrible thing?!"

"Because she's selfish," Sayaka all but spat. "Because even after Madoka gave up everything for her, it wasn't enough. Because that girl wants Madoka as her obedient little doll! She made us all into her dolls! She trapped us, stole our memories, and made us repeat the same year over and over and over…" A crazed edge crept into her words as she walked toward them… not just fury anymore, but a righteous, all-consuming hatred that boiled in her eyes. Behind her, the armored creature slid in her wake, creeping across the cavern floor on a fish tail thicker than a tree trunk and lined with glistening aqua scales. "I made the mistake of trusting her once. She was never my friend, not really, but I thought at least we were fighting on the same side. I thought she'd at least do the right thing for Madoka's sake. I was wrong… we were all wrong. That girl only thinks about herself and what she wants… and she wants Madoka. For all she cares, the rest of us can burn."

Summoning all her courage, Chibi-Moon stood up straight and pointed her wand at Sayaka. "Miki-san," she said, trying desperately not to stammer. "I don't know you, and I don't know what happened between you and Akemi-san. But… but Joker's evil! He's already hurt so many people and destroyed so much! He's using you, Miki-san! If you can't see that… th-then he's got to be controlling you somehow. Let us help you, please, we can break his spell! We can get you away from him and keep you safe! We can take you back to Madoka..."

The look that Sayaka gave her in return was almost pitying. "You don't get it, do you? I can never be on the same side as Homura Akemi. I can't forgive her, and I can't let her have Madoka. Not after what she's done, not ever. You think Joker's evil?! She's worse. I'll fight against her with all I have, and I'll do whatever it takes to keep Madoka safe from her… even if it means handing you two over." Once more she raised her cutlasses. The monster behind her lifted its blade high. "Now, are you gonna come with me, or-"

"CLOUD!" The Card was in Sakura's hands before Sayaka could react. The child-like figure that emerged from the Card spread its tiny arms wide… and Sakura and Chibi-Moon became first vague shapes, then shadows, then nothing at all as the cavern filled with thick, bubbly clouds.

"Dammit!" Sakaya swiped at the gathering clouds and sent a mental command to Oktavia to do the same. Of course. Of course they wouldn't pick the easy way.

"Come on!"

Chibi-Moon bit back a scream when a hand reached out of the nearest cloud and seized her wrist, hauling her forward. Thank God she recognized the following voice as Sakura's. "Sakura! Where are we—"

"CLOUD won't stop her for long, come on!" The two of them burst from the cloud bank… and to Chibi-Moon's horror, they stood at the lip of the rocky balcony overlooking the not-quite-real city Sayaka had called "Jamais Ville". A few pebbles skittered over the edge as Chibi-Moon dug in her heels. It took a long, long time for those pebbles to tumble all the way down and out of sight. "Y-you're not seriously suggesting we jump, are you?"

"No, just climb on, and hold on tight! FLY!" Sakura plucked the next Card from thin air, slammed the beak of her Sealing Wand against it, and straddled it. A pair of feathered white wings burst from the wand's eye-like jewels.

Chibi-Moon stared. It was like a witch's broomstick, but way cuter. No time to admire it, though. Leaping on behind Sakura, she wrapped her arms tight around the Cardcaptor's waist. "Okay, go!"

Sakura kicked off, the wand's wings beat the air, and they were off, just barely ahead of the enraged Sayaka, who came whirling out of the cloud like a blue tornado. That was the last Chibi-Moon saw of her, as Sakura pitched her wand-broomstick down at a sharp angle. Chibi-Moon's stomach leapt into her throat as they dove, wind screaming past them, right into the heart of the impossible glass-and-shadow city.

"Dammit," said Sayaka again, dismissing her swords as the last remnants of the cloud bank thinning around her ankles. Oktavia slid up behind her and came to a halt, a little more than an arm's length away. It—she—seemed at a loss for what to do, but she knew better than to attempt to come closer. Sayaka took pains to never get too close to her Witch form; though she was a part of her being, Oktavia gave her the crawling horrors, no matter how powerful and loyal a fighter she was.

"I know, I know," Sayaka said to the Witch, sensing distress. With a sigh, she tapped the communicator node embedded behind her ear. "Master, Kinomoto and Chibi-Moon just flew into the middle of Jamais Ville. Orders?"

Joker's reply was curt and testy. "Well, follow them, of course! Track them down, subdue them, bring Kinomoto back alive, and steal the pink spore's Silver Crystal if you can. Try not to get too turned around in there, Mademoiselle."

"I'll do my best, sir."

"See that you do. And keep a look out for the backup I've sent you."

"Roger that. Miki out." Sayaka turned on her heel to face the armored monstrosity and took a deep breath. A conductor's baton materialized at her fingertips in a haze of shimmering navy sparkles. As she raised the baton, the space to either side of Oktavia unfolded into a crowd of bizarre creatures: crude, green-haired dolls that danced in jerky, uncoordinated fashion, as if not in full control of their limbs. A platoon of small monsters with mermaid tails and dandelion heads that bore handlebar moustaches, all carrying iron staves. Crude marionettes in the shape of angels. Scores of ghostly musicians: violinists, cellists, brass, and percussionists, each one a silhouette of a human shape filled in with roiling ocean waves. And—

Sayaka paused. There was a new one back there. Just one, and she had never seen it before. No time to pay it any mind now, though. They had a job to do. Facing her surreal little army, she brought her baton swishing down and gave them her command: "Al Capo."

The army of Familiars advanced down the rocky cliff face into Jamais Ville, launching into a booming symphony as they went. The only one that stayed behind was the new one at the back… a nutcracker doll about the size of a spread-fingered hand, draped in long, wet, raven-black hair. Closer inspection revealed that its grinning jaws worked ceaselessly at a tiny pink walnut shoved into its mouth. Even over the army's playing, Sayaka heard the nutcracker Familiar laughing at her... a smug, high-pitched giggle. When she leaned closer to swat it aside, its painted eyes leaked streams of bitter, vinegary tears.

The overture's notes nearly shook Chibi-Moon off of her perch on Sakura's wand-broom, rattling her down to the marrow of her bones. "What are they doing?!" she screamed, but her voice was blown back in her face by the wind of their flight and lost in the noise of the bizarre concert. It sounded to Chibi-Moon like an orchestra gone berserk: high strings screamed, bass groaned, crashing cymbals and the rumble-boom of a timpani thundered in time... a waltz of the damned. The melody lurched and heaved up and down the scales as if it were an out-of-control ship caught in a tempest, with ceaseless waves of sound battering a hull about to buckle from the strain...

"Hang on!" Likewise, Sakura's voice was all but inaudible over the din. Something was wrong… the closer they came to the street, the harder it was to control FLY. Not because she was running out of power, like back in Tomoeda, but because FLY seemed to be having increasing difficulty distinguishing one direction from another. The Sealing Wand rolled and yawed, still plummeting straight to the street below in a steep dive, but the way the buildings streaked past them didn't seem to have any relation to which way they were going… Sakura felt the Card's hopeless confusion as it beat its wings and attempted to keep them upright, only to have the city turn sharply in another direction the moment it regained its bearings. The strain was too much for it; two meters from the street, FLY's wings burst into puffs of pink smoke and sent them tumbling onto the faux-asphalt. The spent Card returned to Sakura's hand… the spirit inside it shivered.

"Sakura-chan, what happened to your Card?" Chibi-Moon spoke louder than she intended; her ears were still ringing. Now that they were on the ground, some unknown force muffled the volume of the music to a more tolerable decibel level. Perhaps the buildings absorbed the sound? She didn't know, and didn't care.

"It couldn't take it anymore." More concerned with FLY's welfare than anything else, Sakura fretted in place, at a loss. "FLY tried its best, but this place confused it—"

"Never mind," said Chibi-Moon, brushing past her, "let's just run for it!" She took a step-

- and nausea hit her with such intensity that she wobbled like jelly on the spot. "S-Sakura… chan…"

One fleeting look at the color draining from Sakura's face confirmed that she felt it too. One fleeting look was all Chibi-Moon could stand, for the girl that stood at her side only an instant ago now stood tilted ninety degrees to the left, at a right angle to herself… and yet she was still upright, in the same place on the faux-street. Chibi-Moon could still feel the warmth of Sakura's presence right next to her, but all her other senses told her she was not where she appeared to be. A quick glance down at her boots confirmed that Chibi-Moon herself had not moved either… she also stood on solid ground, but if one of them was at an angle to the other and yet both could still feel themselves standing next to each other on the ground, how could-

"I don't know!" Sakura clutched at her temples and sank to her knees, unable to keep her balance. "Th-this c-city, th-the space here, it's… it's all messed up..."

"What's happening?!" said Chibi-Moon, her gorge rising as her mind tried and failed to make sense of her perspective. "Wh-what the heck happened to the ground?!"

Both girls stared at each other, baffled and shaken, their skin crawling… The urge to speak was irresistible. Attempting to suppress their words triggered vertigo severe enough to make them want to throw up.

"I… I can't stop myself, i-it's like the words are coming out b-backwards, or… no, in the wrong order-"

"Wait, what...? Sakura, why are you talking like that?"

More staring. Chills raced down their spines.

Measure by measure, the noise of the monsters' deranged symphony grew louder. Their pursuers were still coming.

"Good. Here, take my hand. L-let's just try and take it slow..."

"I-I think so, yeah."

"Can you still walk?"

Shivering, Chibi-Moon clutched Sakura's hand and stared resolutely down at her boots, at the glass-and-shadow asphalt beneath her feet, and kept her eyes on it as she tottered forward, one step at a time. If she didn't look at Sakura, attempting the same next to her at that impossible angle, she could manage it… maybe. She hoped. And if neither of them spoke, whatever compulsion that forced them to speak their sentences out of order couldn't affect them… maybe. She hoped.

As they were, neither saw the words forming on the street sign nearest them, the street sign that had been blank and featureless moments before. Now letters stood out, stark black on ghostly pale glass: TOMOEDA. And on the sign's opposite side: AZABU-JUUBAN.

Less than fifty paces in, it became apparent that the city would not let them through so easily. Chibi-Moon began sinking into the street with her every step as the asphalt softened and took on the consistency of a mud bog, rippling around her ankles in a way that asphalt never should and attempting to pull her into itself. Taking just a few steps was a chore; by the end of the block, her muscles howled for mercy. Sakura, who somehow managed to be standing on the same road just fine, finally braved the twisted perspective long enough to clasp her hands and tear her loose of its grip, after which they took the nearest left turn. It led onto a street that looked exactly the same as the one they left, but inexplicably, this road stayed solid for them both. On and on they walked, changing direction whenever the thunder of the orchestra grew louder.

"Sakura, are you doing okay?" asked Chibi-Moon after a while. She was relieved that at least this time the question came out before Sakura could answer it. "Sakura?"

It was difficult to tell in what direction she was looking. "Th-that building," she said, and pointed.

Chibi-Moon attempted to follow a straight line of sight from her index finger. That only gave her the beginnings of a headache, so she picked a likely building and focused on it. "What about it?"

"The sides," said Sakura. She looked faintly sick. "Count the sides. Do you see what I see?"

"Huh?" Chibi-Moon did, slogging to the nearest curb and back to survey the perimeter. "One… two… three… four… five. So… I guess it's a pentagon, like that building in America—"

"But they're all right angles. Chibi-Moon, they're all right angles..."

Baffled, Chibi-Moon counted again. One, two, three, four, five sides… and each one at a perfect ninety-degree angle. The way each side of the building intersected with the others undermined everything Chibi-Moon knew about geometry, about physics, about logic, about how the world worked. No matter where you were or how far you traveled, one plus one equaled two, a square had four corners, a cube had six faces. Those were inarguable facts, truths that you could always count on. Yet here, right in front of her, was a building composed of five intersecting right angles. An affront to reality, a shape that could not and should not exist, almost mocking her with its inherent wrongness. Dizziness and vertigo made her head throb, she had to look away or she would lose her mind trying to comprehend it… Chibi-Moon wrenched her eyes from it, but the building next to that one was built in the same impossible way. As was the one next to that, and next to it, and all down the street in a row. Despairing, she stared intently at a tree, a glass-and-shadow sugar maple in a planter on the sidewalk ahead of them. Willing it to make sense and assert some sanity to this nightmare, she focused on its gnarled bark, its boughs, its—

Chibi-Moon moaned. The maple's leaves hung still and motionless in the air, while the branches to which they were attached rustled and swayed back and forth in a nonexistent breeze. "Sakura, we've got to get out of here. We've got to get out of here before this place drives us crazy..."

"I—" Sakura began.

The orchestra's music stopped. The sound simply stopped dead, all of a sudden and in mid-measure, without leaving even a lingering echo of the music. An oppressive silence grew and festered between the two girls as they stared at each other at their bizarre angles, hopelessly confused and dreading what came next.

"What do you think that means?" Chibi-Moon said when that silence became unbearable.

"I think it means we'd bett

And Sakura was gone. No sound, no movement, not even a rush of air to fill the space where she had been. Simply gone in the blink of an eye, like she was never there at all.

"Sakura?" Chibi-Moon's voice rang hollow, small and frightened. "Sakura!" She didn't dare move from the spot where she stood; what if whatever just took Sakura took her too? "SAKURA...!"

Nothing but the utter silence of the phantom city answered her. Second after agonizing second ticked by, and in the absence of any other sound, her pulse pounded a drumbeat in her ears that would have put the orchestra to shame: thu-THUMP, thu-THUMP, thu-THUMP…

So when the silence was broken four minutes later by the arrival of the enormous metallic horse and its spear-wielding, flame-headed rider that galloped at full speed out of the nearest faux-brick wall behind Chibi-Moon without so much as a ripple of warning beforehand, the shock nearly stopped her heart altogether.

er keep moving. Chibi-Moon?" Sakura blinked. "... Ch-Chibi-Moon…?"

No answer, and no sign of her comrade. Breaking out in a cold sweat, Sakura clutched her wand to her chest and looked around…

The city had changed around her in the same instant that Chibi-Moon disappeared. Whereas seconds ago it appeared almost generic, a street that could be on most any city in the world, it was now all too familiar…

It was her street. Sakura stood outside a facsimile of her own house, just a few steps from the front door. Further down the block was the high brick wall she passed every day on her way to Seijo High, where years ago she had spent so many mornings with Toya, waiting for a chance to say hello to Yukito before the school bell rang. It was Tomoeda, or a shadow of Tomoeda, its colors faded like an old photograph left in the sun for too long. And the street that was normally so full of life and energy stood motionless and silent as a tomb.

Sakura's skin crawled, her toes curled up tight inside her sneakers. So much of it was right: her father's plants in the garden, the angle of the sloping roof, the yew tree outside her bedroom window. Even the smells were right: there was a hint of savory steam on the air, the unmistakable, mouth-watering aroma of beef being grilled, with the tang of spices and sauce that suggested that her father or perhaps Toya were preparing yakuniku for dinner… but there was no sizzle to be heard, no familiar voices talking and laughing over the grill. No birds singing for their chicks to come in to roost, no singing crickets or night peepers, no noise at all save for the pounding of her heart and the short, sharp sounds of her breathing.

This was wrong, so wrong that tears began to prickle at the corners of her eyes for the unrelenting wrongness of it. This horrible, pale, silent imitation was not her street and not her house, much as it might look and even smell like it. Even worse was that this mockery stood here in this frightening, impossible place while her Tomoeda, the real Tomoeda, was reduced to a mere crater. It wasn't right, it wasn't fair, reminding her of the home that never seemed so far away…

A burst of music shook Sakura from her misery. It was that same wild, heaving melody that chased them into the city in the first place... the melody of madness. The notes were like someone scraping a file back and forth on the inside of her skull. No ordinary music could do that… which meant it was some form of attack. In rising panic, Sakura tried to recall whatever she could of Nanoha's Strike Arts lessons. The only thing that came to mind was to bend her knees and keep her feet spread apart, ready to counter anything that might try to ambush her… "Wh-where are you?!" The question came out as more of a plea.

The front door of the house that was not Sakura's opened. Out stepped Sayaka Miki onto the stairs leading to the street, shortly followed by the monstrous knight-mermaid, which squeezed through a door frame four times too small for it without either it or the frame appearing to give way… just one more stomach-turning optical illusion in a place that seemed to be packed to the ceiling with them.

"I tried to make this easy," said Sayaka over the screaming of the strings. "I offered to let you guys give up without a fight, without trouble." There was great weariness in her voice. "Don't you see, Kinomoto-san? I tried to avoid all this… but you ran. You made this harder on everybody."

Pale and trembling, Sakura trained her Sealing Wand on the Puella Magi. "I-I'll n-never just s-surrender… not to you or J-Joker or anyone!"

A straight-blade cutlass solidified in Sayaka's hand in a shower of deep blue sparkles. The Witch behind her drew its enormous scimitar from somewhere within its cape. "Kinomoto-san, this is stupid. You're not like the rest of us, you're not a fighter. You're only hurting yourself."

Light glinted off the razor edges of both blades in a sinister fashion. Sakura's blood chilled in her veins. "J-Joker is evil," she stammered. "I-if s-stopping him means I have to fight… then I'll d-do it! SWORD!" The SWORD Card released at her command, changing her wand into a long, thin rapier. Instantly, Sakura's shaking hands steadied themselves as she stood up straight. The fear was still there, curdling in her belly, but the Cards's power granted its holder mastery of the blade regardless of their existing skill, and the rush of knowledge came alongside a surge of confidence as the SWORD guided her movements and shared its power with her. SWORD was a Card she never used if she could help it, but… but if this Miki person insisted on a sword fight… Sakura swallowed and said two words to the Puella Magi and the Witch: "Come on."

Sayaka's face twisted as she charged, and sparks flew as both cutlass and scimitar crashed against the blade of a sword that should have been too thin and light to stop them. Around them, the ghostly orchestra that was Oktavia's Familiars formed a circle, still playing that maddening tune without pause...

The Lighthouse

Vertex Point Five

"No," said Homura Akemi.

Madoka Kaname stared at her best friend in disbelief, certain that her answer was some sort of joke, or a bizarre dream. She had a sudden urge to pinch herself, to be sure she was really awake. Her lips moved, attempting to form words. "Wh-wha—"

"I can't help them," said Homura. "I'm sorry, Madoka, but I can't."

"But… but Homura-chan, the rescue team is-!"

"I know." Homura turned away, brushing back her long black hair. "They're in terrible danger, but there's nothing I can do. I can't do anything to help them without the risk of exposing you to Joker."

Tears blurred Madoka's vision. "Sakura-chan is there! Homura-chan, she's my friend, she's one of the Three! If Joker captures her, it's all over! He'll destroy everything!"

"Fantine told us that the Lighthouse is supposed to shelter us from his destruction. We'll just have to hope it can withstand whatever happens."

This wasn't right, this was cruel. Madoka stepped back, looking at Homura as if she were a stranger. She knew that Homura meant to protect her and considered nothing more important, she knew that. But to endanger everything just for her sake, when she had the power to help… "Homura-chan. Please, listen to me! I fought as a magical girl before, r-right? A-and I've been training with Hino-san…"

Homura stared at her without answering, her violet eyes cold and unreadable.

"If…" Madoka swallowed. "If I really was the kind of magical girl that Fantine-san says I am… then I've got to help! I've got to help stop Joker and anyone like him, or innocent people will get hurt! I can't just…" Words spilled out in a rush. "... I can't just sit here and have you protect me if it means everyone else dies!"

Homura said nothing.

Unable to hold back the tears anymore, Madoka placed her hands on Homura's shoulders. "Please," she sobbed. "You have the power to save them. N-nobody else can. Homura-chan, please, I'm begging you…"

On the outside, Homura remained stoic and calm. How many times had Madoka wept in her arms? Too many, too many to count, but Homura remembered each and every one with stark clarity. As cold and hard as she let herself become, the sight of Madoka in tears couldn't help but stir what was left of her humanity, deep down inside her. There was a time when, if Madoka cried, Homura would move heaven and hell to make her smile again. She would find whoever or whatever was responsible for those tears and make them pay. Madoka's sadness was unforgivable.

This time was different. This time, she was the monster making Madoka cry.

Long ago, Homura resigned herself to becoming the lowest of the low. The Devil, the wretched being who tore apart the Law of Cycles. When she made that decision, when she resolved to disgrace herself in order to keep Madoka safe from the Incubators forever, any misgivings she might have had were inconsequential, she thought. Madoka's happiness was all that mattered. Becoming a monster was a small price to pay.

Sitting here, watching Madoka cry with the knowledge that it was her actions and hers alone to blame for it… the Devil felt the weight of the monster she had become. Fantine's words from before rose to the forefront of her mind, speaking that quote that had so infuriated her, and for the first time, she thought she fully understood what they meant: "Abashed the devil stood, and felt how awful Goodness is, and saw Virtue in her shape how lovely, saw, and pined his loss…"


*PS: Thanks to VDrake, Forzare, thesilvergoddess, and Storyteller222 for their help with this chapter's imagery.*