The single most valuable innovation the MSY brings to the magical girl system is the refinement of the demon hunt. The rationalization the MSY would eventually bring to the process was the single greatest revelation in the magical girl condition ever. The paradigm of the entire system shifted, from a situation where magical girl teams struggled to harvest even a fraction of the grief cubes available in a given city, to one where grief cube harvesting was saturated with relatively little effort. Death rates collapsed, grief cube supply shifted from persistent deficit to persistent surplus, and the vast majority of the MSY ceased being directly involved in grief cube harvesting, choosing instead to earn money, pursue research, or even just lead pleasant lives in relative normalcy.

The MSY approach to demon hunting emphasizes two core principles: efficiency and safety. These ideals are attained and maximized via intense scrutiny and regulation of the entire process of grief cube harvest, with every detail considered and analyzed.

Firstly, miasma patrols are carried out with statistical exactness, the frequency of a patrol passing through an area in direct proportion to the frequency of miasma formation in the historical record. These probabilities are updated constantly, adjusted by such factors as recent miasma occurrences, day of the week, the presence of major dignitaries, and so forth, the influence of each factor empirically deduced from centuries of data.

Secondly, hunting tactics are polished to the point where the demon hunt is neither an art nor a science, but merely a routine. Optimized team compositions are carefully chosen, obsessively characterized and stereotyped battle tactics are used, and division of labor is carefully adhered to. Guiding doctrines are both codified and embedded into the culture, and fire control is practiced.

Finally, though not a direct boon to the MSY, civilian rescue is heavily prioritized, for ethical reasons, though not at the risk of the organization's own members—a rule that is imperfectly adhered to.

MSY harvesting doctrine is nothing less than the rationalization of production of a basic good, in a manner the world had achieved in other basic goods a century earlier. Just as industrial rationalization transformed Human society, grief cube rationalization transformed the underworld of magical girl society. Viewed through this lens, the MSY's success was nothing less than a triumph of capitalist economic thought.

— "The MSY as a Triumph of Rationalization," Journal of Economics, Article for the Public, excerpt.

Ryouko's first shipment of grief cubes arrived the next day. Unlike the seemingly more dangerous pistol she had received earlier, these were not entrusted to the standard small item delivery systems. Instead, upon waking from another early morning nap and getting dressed, her TacComp informed her that she had a delivery waiting at the door.

Opening the door remotely, she headed out her door to meet the delivery bot halfway.

This one was different than the usual packbot, but not by much. It was small, maybe fifteen centimeters in diameter and barely the height of Ryouko's foot off the ground. Rounded at the top, it rather strongly resembled a floor‐cleaning robot, though it was much too large to be one of those.

On her approach, it rolled itself to her feet.

In need of cubes? it inquired of her, in what she was starting to instinctively recognize as implant‐mediated telepathy. Its mental voice was squeaky, even though there was no need for it to be so.

It stared up at her with its single optical sensor.

Not at the moment, she thought. But I'll take them all the same.

No need to place them personally, the robot thought. I will place them where you desire.

On my desk then? she thought inquiringly, wondering how it would ever get the objects up there.

Very well, it thought, wheeling off towards her bedroom, tempting Ryouko to add the adverb merrily, though she knew that the device was too simple to have emotions like that.

Curious, Ryouko followed it back to her room. It stopped in front of her desk, then levitated straight off the floor, startling Ryouko, who had to remind herself that, yes, antigrav did exist—it was just a rare extravagance seen primarily on spacecraft, aircraft, and very expensive toys.

It landed gently on her desk, a metallic box sliding out of its side and landing next to it with a light thump. The box was seven centimeters on each side and about five centimeters high. Ryouko had a feeling she knew what it was.

Very different from the standard packbot, she mentally corrected.

Ryouko didn't need to look at her ring to know that she was still nearly full, metaphorically speaking, but she walked to the box all the same, the box springing open at her command. Inside, three grief cubes nestled on some sort of white material she couldn't identify. Three was overkill, but as they had said, they were careful with new recruits.

She picked one up with her hand, looking at it in the sunlight from her window. Somehow, they didn't seem quite like what she was expecting. The ones they had found next to the building three nights ago had seemed to ooze malevolence. These seemed quiet, almost docile.

The ones from then had been full, though, whereas these were empty. It made sense.

Still, it unsettled her.

Whatever the case, though, these were definitely empty. She could tell.

She placed the one she had been holding on the table, then summoned her soul gem and placed it next to the cube, The gem discharged a burst of darkness, particles of pure black flying toward the cube for maybe ten seconds, then returned to dormancy.

Ryouko sighed, because it seemed like the right thing to do. It was hard to describe—it was almost like her stress level had dropped, ever so slightly.

Then the ring reappeared on her finger, and she placed the cube back in the box.

The packbot watched the process unfold with the unblinking stare of its round optical sensor.

Very good, it thought. Should you fully utilize one, feel free to leave it on the table or in the box, and I will take care of it. Alternatively, if you're not home, you may summon an air drone yourself at any time.

You'll take care of it? Ryouko thought. Does that mean you're not leaving?

That is correct, the drone thought. I will stay here and watch over the cubes. This fulfills multiple purposes. Besides providing convenience, I can also warn civilians not to touch them. The box itself also provides warning in the eventuality of the cubes spawning demons. This is highly unlikely, given their empty state, but a theoretical possibility. I can leave if you wish, but otherwise I have been assigned to this residence until your departure.

Wait, how would the box know? Ryouko asked. Shouldn't the miasma interfere?

If a grief cube disappears it immediately assumes the worst, before the miasma can grow.

Oh, right. Well, uh, don't worry about it. You can stay.

The robot set itself down onto her desk, retracting its wheels back into its body, until it was just a smooth shell on the desk, with its optical sensor facing the box silently.

Ryouko lay back down on her bed, taking the moment to stare at her ceiling. She didn't have anything planned for today.

Maybe I should study, she thought.

Current ground combat doctrine emphasizes mobility, flexibility, and survivability, her TacComp recited to her.

The lesson of the Unification Wars is that, with the technological ability of every individual soldier to achieve unprecedented levels of battlefield awareness, it is impossible to conceal weaknesses from opponents. Truly hardened defenses can be circumvented and rendered pointless, while in every other combat sector, victory goes to whoever can strike the other's weaknesses first. With the propensity of both sides to use orbital firepower to ravage large expanses of land, it is rarely feasible to mount a successful defense in depth. The proper response to an impending enemy offensive is to attack first; the proper response to a surprise attack is to seek counter‐attack. Neutralizing command‐and‐control and destroying communications is disproportionately effective compared to the mere destruction of materiel.

It recited the text to Ryouko at a pace far faster than any Human could speak; faster than she could read, even, taking advantage of her implants to pour the information into her thought processes.

She lay on her bed, looking up, but instead of her ceiling, saw the visual accompaniment to the topic, consisting of diagrams or videos illustrating whatever was being talked about, flashing by at a similarly enormous rate. Usually, the point was clear enough, but occasionally the audio slowed down so that the accompanying video could be taken in; video intake could not be accelerated to anywhere near the rate of audio intake.

As the words flowed by, she could sense the plethora of possible branch‐points, where it was possible to dive into subtopics or related topics, and then into other topics from there, in an unending maze of exploration. It was as if every time she opened a box, she found a hundred others inside.

Just to make it clearer, her mental "screen" also displayed the list of topics, rapidly flowing and shifting, and also displaying prominently the few topics she had flagged for future follow up.

Since the device had stopped and was waiting expectantly, Ryouko thought about it, then chose a topic to continue. She chose combat command.

Compared with past eras, combat command is heavily decentralized. Infantrymen and officers are, compared to the past, extremely autonomous, entrusted to analyze the situation and do the right thing every time, with only vague objectives handed down from above. This serves to improve all three functions of command—mentioned later—improve unit mobility and flexibility, and improve the ability of the command structure to survive decapitation strikes. However, the command structure is still vital to both alien and Human, because of the necessity of the critical currency of information.

Even with ubiquitous Tactical Computers and embedded intelligence in nearly every device, soldiers are inundated with deluges of information vastly in excess of what can be processed. For instance, the average infantryman is required to maintain constant awareness of every other combat unit in the area, every member of the unit, and of every nearby drone semi‐sentient and above, in the last case often issuing combat directives.

Ryouko thought about diving further into either combat drones or infantry combat, especially given the juicy diagrams flying by, showing types of common combat drones and equipment, but decided to let it continue.

In relation to this, the command hierarchy serves three critical functions. The first is to delegate the distribution of information, deciding who receives what information. This task is handled by command AIs, with oversight by senior officers.

The second is the classical provision of command. Individual units and soldiers, focused on survival and the achievement of local tactical objectives, do not have the spare processing capacity to analyze the battlefield as a whole, nor would they be likely to ever prioritize the performance of such an analysis. Higher‐level objectives are given by the top of the command structure, viewing the battlefield from the highest levels, and drawing upon immense computing power, usually the full power of an underground computing cluster or battlecruiser processing core. These objectives are disseminated downward, reprocessed into smaller objectives by subordinate officers, and so forth.

The third is the provision of authority. Often, decisions must be made with insufficient information and insufficient time, with too many variables for the command and control systems to reach an obvious, or even likely, choice. In these situations, something must be decided and agreed upon, for better or worse.

The importance of these three roles is reflected in the design of the command structure, which is built to be robust, with authority and processing resources being redirected automatically to the correct person in every situation, depending both on rank and location. This is true from the Field Marshal all the way down to the sergeant. The command hierarchy is designed to keep operating under nearly every circumstance, and has in several instances survived decimation of upwards of sixty percent.

To truly disorganize the ground forces of either side, it is not sufficient to take out command‐and‐control; one must also destroy effective communication. Combat communications is the lifeblood of military operations. Soldiers rely on it to keep attuned with members of their squads, and with other squads in the area. Brigades and divisions use them to keep an eye on each other, and on the enemy. Commanders rely on it so that they may comprehend the battlefield and issue correct commands. The command structure survives the loss of its members by redistributing itself through its communication networks, and it survives the loss of communication by relying on its local commanders, but it is very hard‐pressed to survive both. Ground combat doctrines emphasize the elimination of both to ensure victory.

Again, Ryouko was given a wide range of options, including options for reading more detail about communication networks and command provision, about the operations of the chain of command, and so forth. She chose one particularly close to heart.

The MG branch of the military is its own unique element of the officer corps, each member serving as both part of the command structure and a hard‐hitting unit in her own right. Power type and effective firepower vary, but each MG is the equivalent of at least a company, with numerous examples of mages providing combat performance at the battalion or even regimental level, which is particularly impressive given the enormous combined firepower of modern military units.

As the reason the Human military can even compete with the alien military, mage capabilities and performance underlie a significant portion of military doctrine, both on the ground and in space. Combat experience early in the current war revealed that, while formidable opponents, isolated mages can be eliminated with relative ease in detail, the Cephalopods learning quickly that extremely concentrated firepower on one would often provide elimination. On the other hand, the concentration of too many mages in one location allows for the possibility of a superweapon strike, as has been proven with ghastly results several times.

This experience proved that granting mages officer status, as politically motivated as it was, was a wise decision. As a result of these previous experiences, MG combat doctrine states that individual deployment on the battlefield is to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. In the field, mages rely on the platoon or company they command for fire support and screening, and cooperate heavily with the other mages in their division. Even at the head of units, mages rarely operate in groups of less than five, averaging around a dozen, and occasionally turning out a whole regiment's worth of fifty or so. It is not an uncommon sight to see a group of MGs leading an assault on a position, each relaying commands to individual units as they go.

Besides merely improving survivability, this concentration of mages dramatically improves combat performance, especially on the offensive. Mages are naturally suited for the offensive and counter‐offensive, outputting far more firepower than they can take in return. They especially demand rapid advances, because of the limitations imposed by grief cube supply. Because of this, ground combat doctrine has molded around them; the hyper‐aggressive nature of ground combat is simply the most effective way to function.

The closest analogy that can be made is to the role of armor in the early stages of Second World War, but even this analogy is not perfect. Still, it is instructive that the experiences of the Nazi blitzkrieg early in the war led to the adoption of armor concentration tactics by all participants, with the use of armor as the spear point of offensives. It is for the same reasons that mages in the field are concentrated into magical divisions, analogous to the armored divisions of the past, though these divisions are, of course, well supplied with armor as well. Indeed, at the very apex of offensive thrusts, it is common to find shock troops of MGs detached from standard units entirely, sacrificing defensive capability for shock and awe.

It is not, however, true that mages are entirely absent from other divisions. Nearly all divisions have a few specialist mages performing roles designed to optimize their contribution to the division. These are usually instructed to shun heavy combat.

At this point, Ryouko's TacComp stopped again, and she again sensed a range of options to continue. She could choose for elaboration on divisional allocation of mages, a description of policies regarding preserving MG lives at the expense of others, or a continuation of the previous topic into space combat and combat doctrine.

I want to come back to space combat later, but for now, what is this MG life policy? she thought, driven by morbid curiosity, among other things.

The plain truth is: the life of the average MG is worth far more than the average infantryman, far more than any armored vehicle or piece of equipment, and more than the average platoon or company. Because of this, one of the harshest points of basic training is for mages to forgo heroism, and to save themselves even at the expense of ordering their own unit into certain death. It is one of the most frequently disobeyed and least‐enforced doctrines on the books, but it does exist, and has a measurably positive effect on MG survival.

This point is also strongly indoctrinated on the other end, with the relevant combat units being constantly reminded that self‐sacrifice for one's MG commander is the moral and war‐winning thing to do. Units are encouraged to treat their commanders as the equivalent of unit flags, and the point is made that it would be shameful for centenarians such as them to allow a teenage girl to die to save their own lives, even if in many cases the girls aren't exactly teenaged. This end of the doctrine, though voluntary, is much more frequently obeyed, with countless instances of individual soldiers or units performing suicidal actions, often disobeying orders, to ensure the survival of the unit commander. Indeed, there are several decorations awarded for just this kind of action, with any insubordination usually glossed over or ignored. It is one of the more interesting aspects of military culture.

Here, her TacComp stopped again, and Ryouko leaned back against her wall to take it in. Yes, it made sense, but… it just seemed so cruel. She wasn't surprised that the doctrine was often disobeyed.

As for the other end, she wasn't sure how she would feel, being idolized as a battle flag.

I guess I'll find out, she thought.

She started to ask for the device to continue, but received the internal ping! of an arriving message, or rather, of an arriving message that she needed to read. She was receiving a lot more messages nowadays, but now also had a much better personal filter for it.

So, she thought. Kyouko wants me to join her on another demon hunt. Why not, I guess. It's not as if I had anything else planned.

She got up and headed out the door, grabbing the box of grief cubes as an afterthought. Unnoticed, a surveillance drone the size of a fly clung to her hair, cloaked.

This time, Ryouko wasn't going with just Kyouko, but was part of a larger group. The message said that they were gathering in the Cult's "rear garden" and that was where she went, mildly surprised to find herself pulling up next to a building that resembled nothing less than a restored European church. The side she was looking at was shaded, facing away from the afternoon sunlight.

It was actually pretty impressive it got sunlight at all, this far down, now that she thought of it.

She was tempted to ask the vehicle if it was sure it was in the right place, but instead she stepped out, having spotted someone familiar. Besides, she knew this was the right place; she certainly recognized most of the route by this point.

Ryouko took a moment to look around at what was apparently a rose garden, sucked in a pungent lungful of rose scent—freshly amplified by nasal implants—then dove among the rows of planted vines to speak to Risa, the girl from yesterday, who was standing in the garden talking to Patricia. Ryouko was surprised to see them there, and said as much.

"I don't spend all day in the lab, you know," Patricia, adjusting her hair, acting affronted. "Occasionally I do other things too."

Risa shrugged.

"I lead this patrol group," she said. "Patricia here is just tagging along. I didn't mention it yesterday?"

Ryouko shook her head no, then focused a look at the other girl. It didn't make sense, but did Risa seem nervous?

The girl turned and began to walk, gesturing at Ryouko to follow.

They maneuvered around the other girls and thorny rose vines that populated the Cult center's rear garden. Ryouko looked around, head tilting. The building looked so different here that it might as well have been a different building, she thought. It didn't help that the scent of roses prickled constantly at her nose. So far, her enhanced smell had been nothing but bothersome, though the manuals swore it would be useful in combat.

She found herself standing next to Kyouko, who was standing with her arms on her hips, looking over the rest of them. She seemed aggrieved at something, even as Ryouko mused that the pose made her look remarkably matronly. Perhaps it was something about her body language.

"Asaka applied to join Mami's command staff," Kyouko explained, gnawing at her—synthesized—beef jerky, without even bothering to wait for a conversation to start. "She'll be leaving soon. She sends her regards, and apologizes that she's leaving you early."

Kyouko looked at her with one eye, judging her reaction, while Risa watched the both of them quietly, eyes darting back and forth. Why was she being so quiet, come to think of it?

"You don't seem exactly shocked," Kyouko commented, seeming almost annoyed.

"Oh, well, she mentioned something about it yesterday," Ryouko said, shifting nervously. "I asked my questions then."


Kyouko seemed distracted too. Ryouko would have left it alone, but Kyouko continued:

"Patricia is a valued scientist, but she's got it in her head that she wants to go, too. She just needs some practice to recover her combat skills; that's what she says. I tried to talk her out of it, but she won't listen. And—"

The girl shook her head, then aggressively tore off another piece of the meat.

"Anyway," Kyouko said. "This time will be a little different. You'll be coordinating with a larger group. It's pretty clear you shouldn't be a face‐to‐face fighter, but given your specific power set, we should have a nice role already laid out for you. You'll see. It's your first time, so don't strain yourself too much. Oh, and improvise. Don't be a machine."

Kyouko said the last sentence with a strange smile that unnerved her, because it didn't seem right coming from her. Other than that, Kyouko seemed to be in a hurry of some sort.

"Anyway, I can't go with you," Kyouko said, tugging absently at the bow in her hair. "So Risa and Patricia will be keeping you company. Patricia is fragile in close‐combat, just like you, so you can be her transportation. Where is that girl anyway? I told her and Risa to follow you!"

Before Ryouko had a chance to say anything, Kyouko spun around, somehow focusing on the exact spot where Patricia was staring at a plant, lost in thought. A moment later, Patricia seemed to startle, then turned and walked towards them.

"Oh, sorry," she apologized. "I've got a lot on my mind."

"Soul gem sensing," Kyouko said, again before Ryouko could think to ask; indeed, before she even changed face expressions. "Useful if you master it, and if you know the people involved, though no one expects someone as new as you to be able to track anyone out of costume. Also, telepathy. Get used it. Take care of her, the two of you. Introduce her to the others. Don't let her be a loner."

With that, Kyouko spun on her heel and stalked back into the building, almost as if she wanted to storm back in but couldn't out of propriety. She really seemed to be in a hurry.

Ryouko glanced at Patricia, who was wearing a bothered expression.

"What's with her?" she asked, figuring she might as well ask.

Patricia glanced downward.

"You've, uh, heard that Asaka and I are leaving, right?" she said, a moment later, fiddling with her ponytail. "But it's not just that. Somehow, us saying that triggered Maki saying she wants to leave, too. Kyouko's not happy."

"Ah, so she's unhappy you're all leaving?" Ryouko asked. "That makes sense, I guess."

She wondered if being unhappy made Kyouko more abrupt, and made her stop giving context to her sentences. Apparently so.

Patricia looked at her with an expression she couldn't decipher.

"Yeah, something like that," Patricia said.

Ryouko wanted to ask more, but the air was so thick with awkwardness that you could cut it with a knife. It hardly seemed an awkward enough topic to cause an atmosphere like this, but somehow it had happened.

She shifted a little, trying to think of what to say, but Risa pulled at her arm and drew her to some of the other girls, so she could introduce herself. Ryouko caught the point, stepping away and leaving Patricia with her thoughts.

This would be easy if the miasma weren't so damned clever, Risa thought to Ryouko, as they lunged and weaved their way through the high‐rises. We could just wait for someone's signal to disappear, then show up and take care of business. But of course the miasma forges the signature somehow. Same with the cameras. We have semi‐sentients watching the signals anyway, since sometimes it's obviously faked. You don't usually see a whole cohort of pedestrians suddenly stop and stand around on the same stretch of skyway for more than ten minutes, but we've gotten false positives before.

I had no idea the miasma was so sophisticated, Ryouko thought.

It's almost a creature on its own, Patricia thought. It has to be, for regular humans to have missed it for so many centuries. There's considerable evidence that demon miasmas change over time, becoming more sophisticated to evade surveillance. It's bothersome, but that's how it always has been, or so we think. In the past there were even differences depending on where you were on the planet, though nowadays most observed diversity is interplanetary.

Patricia was saving herself work by standing on some sort of flying drone, accompanied by a small fleet of others, all angry looking, complete with gun turrets. Ryouko, who was hoofing it to get practice, was mildly envious.

There was one last month where the camera showed a party spilling out of a bar into the street, explaining why all these people were standing around, Risa thought. Of course, we still noticed, because it didn't make sense that a bunch of people who had been walking down the street the moment before were suddenly part of a bar party, but the damn things are getting better. Slowly. Very slowly, which is lucky for us.

The ones we can catch the easy way are only a minority, Patricia thought. Most miasmas are found the old‐fashioned way, with statistical forecasting and carefully plotted patrol routes. It's actually better to find one on patrol, since in that case it's usually a lot smaller when you find it, and probably hasn't ensnared anyone yet. The downside is that when one appears in a very low probability area, it's often missed for quite a while, like what happened to you.

Patricia stopped there, realizing that she had referred to an event that wasn't exactly natural. A look crossed her face, but she didn't say any more.

Ryouko navigated the seemingly endless urban forest, vaulting from tube to platform to balcony, up and down and forward. Most around her did it the old‐fashioned way, jumping and lunging like she did. Others augmented their travel with magic, tempting Ryouko sorely to teleport a little, because it seemed so much easier. As she watched, one girl performed a giant leap towards a platform, except that it was clear she hadn't put enough strength into the jump and was going to fall short—until she shot up and over the edge at the last moment, defying physics to perform an aerial maneuver.

"Showoff," Ryouko heard someone—she didn't catch who—mutter under their breath.

Every one of us is capable of limited aerial maneuvering, Patricia thought, but it usually doesn't look all that impressive. Course corrections while falling, ridiculously high jumps, things like that. Some girls have an affinity, though, or start off with extra skills. With enough practice or the right power set, you can even fly, but it's hard, and it's even harder to learn how to do it so it doesn't blacken your gem in a couple of minutes. Most of the Ancients could do it, if you forced them, since everyone wants to learn how to fly, but it's just not cost‐effective unless you really put a lot of time into it. True fliers are rare.

Of course, Akemi‐san could do it from day one, Risa thought. Just one of those things. And before you get too much of the wrong idea, Rohr‐san is talking about flying outside of the miasma. It's actually a lot easier inside a miasma, for whatever reason, though it still takes some practice. Doesn't help against aliens, though.

Ryouko thought of her earlier hunt with Kyouko, where Kyouko had seemed to fall out of the sky with ridiculous precision, and her mind had rebelled slightly, thinking that there was something wrong with her trajectory—

What is this learning business anyway? she thought. I thought we had specific powers.

We do, Patricia thought. And you'll usually never lose those, but our magic is forged by our imagination. If you focus hard enough, you can learn anything that's possible, or so we think. It's just very, very hard to learn anything that doesn't naturally follow from what you already know, which is why basically everyone stays close to their original skillset. You don't see clairvoyants trying to learn lightning skills, for example.

Mami‐san didn't, though, Risa thought. She taught herself those muskets, did you know that? And a lot of the things Kyouko does weren't part of her original spear skills. And Asaka is just weird.

Weird in what way? Ryouko thought.

Hold on, Risa thought, eyes unfocusing.

In the intervening pause, Ryouko focused back on the rest of the group. While they had talked, she had focused on only the three of them, but in truth there was a constant background group chatter, hovering on the edge of her consciousness, ever‐present. It was a lot less serious than she expected, with plenty of gossiping and laughter, with only the occasional intervention of jargon, usually someone noting a landmark or that they had passed "Point 4B" on the patrol route. It was hardly necessary, since Ryouko had an explicit minimap in the lower corner of her vision that she could stare at if she wanted to.

As Kyouko had said, this time was different. This time, she had a constant vague awareness of soul gems discharging around her. It was difficult to describe: Ryouko could only think of it as the sensation that someone was behind you, except amplified and multiplied, so that there was a constant vague awareness of someone two buildings to your right and one building back, or two floors above you, or three buildings ahead of you. It was eerily precise, and stayed with you, like an itch that couldn't be scratched.

What was it? Patricia thought, as Risa's eyes focused again. Somehow she had kept moving, despite not paying attention.

Nothing important, Risa thought. Anyway, Asaka—

Some internal signal told to Ryouko to Stop! and she did so, mid‐crouch on a small drone landing platform.

Only then did she have time to simultaneously wonder why she was stopping and why everyone else had also done so.

Someone in the group felt a miasma, her TacComp thought. So a signal was generated.

Yes, that was true. The blinking dot was showing up on her minimap, pointing towards the suspected position, but the telepathic chatter was already reorienting in the proper direction. Small, the chatter said. Incomplete.

Suddenly she could feel it too, weak but growing in size and power, forming along a skyway that ran along the edge of several commercial facilities. Subtly, but organically, the group firmed up, idle commentary dying down, trajectory shifting slightly.

Since this is your first time with this device, her TacComp thought, proper protocol is to remind you to pay due attention to your team interface, so as to coordinate with maximal efficiency.

Noted, she thought.

Ryouko assumed it was referring, among other things, to the minimap, which was starting to churn out information about numbers, size, and so forth, presumably "gleaned" from her or any of the others. It was completely unnecessary, since she could sense that information herself on the level of instinct, but she supposed it would be useful for someone coming in from longer range.

Alright, Risa began, her thought resounding throughout the group. Small it might be, but we've already got four civilian transponders localizing to the area. Obviously they're not going to get us any accurate fixes. Hyori, where are they?

Way ahead of you, the clairvoyant Hyori thought, as she marked the locations of the Humans on the map. We're late. They're already enthralled.

Damn. Well, today we have a teleporter, so we'll use standard teleporter extraction procedure. The rest of you, get in position.

Barrier generator escort as you pull them out, Patricia thought before Ryouko could ask. Minimum. Ideally, stealth generator, clairvoyant, and telepath as well. We don't have a stealth generator today—they're kind of rare—but—

She stopped, as the personnel in question began to appear next to Ryouko. First came a girl in blue and silver, dressed for all the world like a medieval European swordsman in plate armor, lacking only the helmet. As Ryouko watched, the girl rubbed the outer side of her enormous kite shield with her sword hand, wielding her enormous Zweihander—taller than the girl herself—as if it weighed nothing. She smiled broadly at Ryouko when she saw her looking, brushing aside the blonde hair in her eyes with her other hand.

The clairvoyant Hyori landed a moment later, dressed more conservatively in patterns of black and white.

Risa, already there with her ax and red costume, stepped towards her.

"Most teleporters are perfectly capable of teleporting to a location without visualizing it," she instructed, "and I know you are too, but it is considered safer to give exact clairvoyant guidance, because of all the demons about, and in case of unexpected movement. Unfortunately, it requires a bit of jury‐rigging. She needs touch for her teleportation: get closer, the two of you."

The last sentence was directed at the others, who dutifully shifted towards her and grabbed her two shoulders.

"Close your eyes," Risa instructed, grabbing one of her hands. "It helps me."

Ryouko did so, not quite sure what was going on.

Then she saw it, the darkness behind her eyes replaced by a startlingly clear image of one of the victims, standing listlessly among a crowd of demons, at the entrance to one of the buildings. She realized, then, somehow, that it was an image captured by the clairvoyant and forwarded by the telepath. Jury‐rigged, indeed.

It is best to do this quickly, Risa thought. Jumping to each one in succession and then back out here, as fast as possible, as soon as you get the image and an idea of where is safest. We'll go as soon as the barrier is up.

"Barrier on," the armored girl said quietly, a moment later.

Ryouko focused, drawing on her power, pulling on something—

And they were there. She opened her eyes, and they were already next to the civilian, a woman dressed for a party, in a flowing black dress. The barrier shimmered translucent blue around them, slicing two demons caught in the wrong position in half.

Their bodies began to vaporize, the other demons started to turn, and Hyori grabbed the woman's arm.

Ryouko closed her eyes, and visualized the next person—

They were done with breathtaking speed, Ryouko reappearing on the platform with the four civilians a scant forty seconds later. The barrier vanished, the others let go of her, and the four humans seemed to come back to life, blinking at the world around them.

Alright, civilians clear, Risa thought. But we've lost our surprise. Melee, pen them in, crowd control. Long‐range, open fire. Chop chop, everyone. Patricia, put those fliers to use and give us some elevated vantage points.

I know, Patricia thought sardonically. It's all anyone ever wants from me.

Ryouko blinked, as she felt the girls around her shifting positions, brightening significantly with the discharge of power.

"I know you've still got the blinks left in you," Risa said to Ryouko, without explaining how she knew that. "So you're going to make a bomb squad. Patricia, go with her. You know what Kyouko said."

With that, Risa stepped straight onto one of Patricia's drones and rode it up into the sky without so much as a farewell.

'Bomb squad', Ryouko's TacComp thought pedantically, but with extreme speed, is the colloquial term for a TAD squad, a collection of mages with area‐of‐effect techniques that wanders a battlefield doing hit‐and‐run damage. Demon hunting guidelines recommend the construction of one whenever Teleporter and Barrier support is available, the teleporter providing mobility and the barrier generator providing defense against coincident incoming fire, both enemy and friendly. Telepath and Clairvoyant support is preferred if possible, but not necessary. Such support may negate the necessity of Barrier support, though this is not recommended.

Targeting is provided by local command and control. Squad is reminded that extraction of other girls in danger takes precedence over TAD Squad activities, except in extraordinary circumstances. Proper protocol in such a case is the immediate return of entire squad to a safe location, followed by extraction.

That thought had barely completed before other team members began arriving at her location. Specifically, there were three: dark yellow, cerulean, and bright green. They knew what to do this time, grabbing at her or each other. Two of them began perceptibly gathering power for something. The girl in blue and silver armor extended her barrier again. The clairvoyant, however, had left.

A targeting beacon appeared on her minimap, marking the desired location, with other possible positions also marked less prominently. A gradient map marked the known distribution of demons, though when Ryouko shifted her attention to it, she got a warning that accuracy was not guaranteed, given the lack of audiovisual feeds. Certain splotches were blacked out entirely—no information.

Go for it, Patricia thought.

Ryouko nodded, then reached for that inner calm, the slight sense of distortion and puncture that she desired—

And then, once again, she was there, standing on the street, her companions powering their attacks, at demons that were still too busy heading for the perimeter to spar with the melee girls, or trying to aim upwards at the girls attacking from the sky. The area around the small miasma was deserted of humans, incoming pedestrians warned away, traffic diverted, and the closest offices emptied out—this was not strictly necessary, since the miasma contained the physical effects of their attacks, but it was definitely good practice, in case the miasma spread, or some demons phased through a wall into a building, as they were wont to do occasionally.

As Ryouko watched, more demons materialized, seemingly out of thin air. The miasma was still incomplete.

Incoming, the armored girl thought.

Something slammed against the top of the barrier, the translucent blue turning opaque and sparking, screaming with sound.

Sorry, someone distant thought. Couldn't cancel it in time.

That's why I'm here, the armored girl thought pleasantly.

Then with an expressive push of her arms, the barrier slammed outward, shoving aside some demons that had been standing too close, vaporizing most of them.

The girl in the yellow costume levitated slightly into the air, forming what appeared to be a ball of lightning around her, which slowly surged outward, enveloping them all. It looked like it would hurt them too, but Ryouko knew somehow not to try to escape. The electricity passed by her without harm, then, suddenly, exploded outward in a snapping shockwave, incinerating more of the crowd of demons around them and seeming to paralyze a few more beyond that.

The one in cerulean stood still with concentration, and it was unclear what she was doing until countless hands in her signature color shot out of the street around them and reached for their targets.

Finally, the other one in green summoned what appeared to be a ring of ancient artillery pieces, and before Ryouko could grow concerned at the prospect of launching artillery shells in a residential area, a shattering boom announced their firing. The buildings survived, completely intact.

Right, the miasma, Ryouko thought.

Then, they headed back for her, reaching towards them as the surviving demons sought them as targets. A horde of freshly summoned drones scrabbled outward from under them, lasers firing, even though Patricia had never let go of Ryouko's hand, and drones shouldn't have been able to function in the miasma, much less target or hurt any demons.

Now! Next target! Patricia thought.

Ryouko swallowed any trepidation, gritted her teeth, and raised her left arm, firing a fusillade of strings imprecisely at a set of targets—and departed.

Improvisation, Kyouko had said, and they arrived at the next target with a set of demon pieces disintegrating into cubes.

Very good! Risa approved, from somewhere distant.

They only needed to perform the feat twice. After the second time, Risa declared that they were mostly done and it was time for clean‐up. That apparently meant the end of heavy fire, the withdrawal of more fragile girls—which included Ryouko—and the breakup of the otherwise careful perimeter, the melee girls now free to choose targets as they saw fit.

Ryouko watched with Patricia as the remains of the miasma disintegrated. Some of the girls were already tracking down grief cubes, relying on a combination of their extra senses and their internal records of where demons had died. Some even pulled in cubes telekinetically. Whatever worked; the period of grand organization was over, though there was still significant local teamwork, melee girls grouping demons for attacks from those with more range.

A spear girl volunteered to stay with the four civilians and take them home. Risa approved it, since they had extra personnel.

That was pretty easy, to be honest, Ryouko thought, as they began the patrol again, sealing this thought into a private channel with Patricia. I barely needed those grief cubes.

The majority of encounters are not like the one that tried to kill you, Patricia thought. Most are like this. You can accomplish a lot in large teams like this, but imagine what it was like back when it was teams of three and more vulnerable girls like clairvoyants and telepaths had to enter combat directly.

Ryouko thought about it, as recommended. She had always known, for example, that girls with more robust combat skills were much more heavily represented in the older cohorts compared to the more fragile types—such as, say, healers—but knowing that was much different from experiencing it, however indirectly.

Well, she was glad she lived now, and not in the past, but there were a lot of reasons to be glad for that.

The next encounter was much larger, the miasma stretching over a much larger area and the number of victims greater. This time, when Ryouko finally pulled out of the area with a small crowd of ten or so victims, she was starting to feel the strain on her teleports, and stood alone on a nearby building, waiting to recover, before she signaled that she was ready to try the "bomb squad" again.

Ryouko had multiple opportunities to try the trick she had tried the first time, lodging a string into the ground in the middle of a group of demons, then tearing them in half with a partial teleport, relayed through the ground.

It was effective. She liked it.

They weren't able to maintain a complete surround this time, and Ryouko could feel in the back of her mind the girls on the ground dashing back and forth to reach new positions to head off possible extensions of the miasma. Twice, at the end of a bomb run, Risa told her to shift one of the melee girls to a new location. She complied, and both times she appeared with the barrier generator, made contact with the girl, teleported to the new location, then got out.

It was cold, fast, and efficient, almost to the point of being routine, but it got results. They shredded demons in great numbers and only once did Ryouko see anyone in great personal danger. It got things done, but she didn't feel any of the excitement she had the first time.

The one and only break from routine she experienced that day started with a burst of invective piped into her mind, in the middle of their fifth "bombing run". It was, however, something she would definitely remember.

Son of a—I need extraction! the telepathic voice pleaded. Extraction! Those bastards have spawned right on top of me! I can't hold out! I—

Get over there! Risa ordered, to Ryouko directly.

The command was unnecessary, since the girls with Ryouko were already returning, reestablishing their touch contact with her.

She exited the miasma, and almost jumped straight for the newly marked spot when she felt the large armored hand of Sarah Kaisan, the barrier generator—her barrier generator, she was starting to think of the girl—on her shoulder.

"It's not safe to teleport blindly into any area," the girl said, seriously, Japanese slightly accented. "Not without some sort of protection. You'll learn."

Ryouko nodded, slightly ashamed, then waited for the barrier to appear.

This time, when they appeared, Sarah didn't wait, sending her barrier outward in an immediate blast. Ryouko grabbed the girl they were seeking by a random body part, and had just enough time to see the barrier pass harmlessly through her.

The image stuck in her mind, the girl in efficient, tight‐fitting black, enormous old‐style gunpowder sniper rifle holstered on her back, snarling and firing an assault rifle with her right hand, dodging incoming demon lasers while running. The second gun was modern, and clearly not magically summoned.

But what really caught Ryouko's eye was her left arm, which was missing below the elbow, dripping blood into widely scattered droplets. Then she looked up, and when the sniper turned to look at her, Ryouko could see that she was missing an eye, and a large part of her face there, the exposed white of the shattered socket contrasting with the gory mess that accompanied it.

For an insane moment, Ryouko mused that she had no idea how the girl was even standing.

"My fault," the girl said, when they got back. "They snuck up on me where I was camping. I know they can move up inside buildings, but I wasn't paying attention, I was just so into the killing—oh God, my shrink is going to give me hell for this. I thought I was over doing stuff like that."

The girl was hugging herself, shivering slightly, while the others soothed her and applied grief cubes to her angrily dark gem.

But Ryouko wasn't hearing any of it. Instead she was standing off to the side, staring at a building. She would have been bent over, trying not to vomit, except that now, in the future, that kind of reaction was automatically suppressed. So instead, she stared.

"Get ahold of yourself," Patricia said, appearing next to her.

Ryouko looked up at her, face blanched.

"Better you see this now rather than later," the girl said, gentle but firm, "but we have no time for this. She needs an evac, and you're the teleporter with the two hundred kilometer range. If you can't handle it, have your TacComp suppress your emotions. It diminishes your power, but the capability is meant for situations like this."

Ryouko shook her head, and without a word, walked back shakily, reaching for the other girl's shoulder, her HUD already telling her where exactly she needed to go.

"Will she be alright?" Ryouko asked the staff members who greeted them, back at the armory hospital.

"She'll be fine," the nurse said, smiling back at her. "For someone like you, this is nothing."

It was the same nurse Ryouko had seen that day, so seemingly long ago, where she had received her implant upgrades, and visited a hospital for the first time in her memory.

Ryouko nodded, but only vaguely. She was starting to feel strangely detached from the whole incident, as if it was hardly relevant to her at all. Psychological coping, probably. She could even think that about herself.

She was already being recalled to the hunt.

She followed the girl on the stretcher for a while, mind blank, waiting until she was sure she could make the five kilometers or so back, that she could perform the teleport. She gripped the hand of the girl in the stretcher, who had sedated herself the moment they arrived, and stopped abruptly in the middle of the hallway, ignoring the strange looks she received.

She focused, hard, and returned.

Ryouko saw much that day, clever combinations of powers and skills she hadn't ever considered before. She saw the value of Patricia's drones, which functioned even in the miasma, carrying girls in the sky, from where they could bombard at pleasure. She saw one of the drones jump straight up and perform a flight maneuver, angling around a building to the top of another, all to get a better firing position for the girl she was carrying.

She saw Risa, standing on a drone high in the sky, watching it all with an intense stare, guiding her ax telekinetically at the hordes below, and finally Ryouko realized that she was reading the minds of the demons, reading their intended movements and who they were targeting, directing the hunt. She felt stupid then, because what else would the purpose of a telepath even be?

She saw that while she had been gone, the girl with the lightning, and the girl with the reaching hands, had occupied themselves paralyzing demons, so that a calculated bombardment, or a few easy dashes from a swordsman, could shatter them all. She saw Sarah wield her barrier as a wall, wrapping demons into a tight group, for the same purpose.

She saw the girls on the ground, calling down fire support and air strikes on the desired spots, and a rain of fire, arrows, or purple magic arriving seconds later.

Ryouko understood, finally, how the MSY was so damn efficient.

Still, though, late that night, as she stared at her ceiling yet again, she thought about what the nurse had said.

For someone like you, this is nothing.

Yes, that was true, wasn't it?

Appendix: "Mages First"

In the following text, 〈〉① indicates content redacted to those without security clearance. The number indicates the degree of security clearance required to access enclosed content.〉①

〈The sense of difference, of uniqueness, and even of superiority that arose during the second century of the MSY's existence was perhaps inevitable. By then, the MSY was well‐versed in the art of business and high finance, capable of providing its members, even in the poorest regions, a living well in line with the middle classes of the richest nations. For many, especially those who actively participated in the upper levels of MSY operations, the organization provided even more than that, granting a lifestyle that was outright luxurious. It was a far cry from the poverty from which so many of its members had to be pulled, and this newfound wealth began to isolate its members from the masses of humans that surrounded them on the street.〉③

〈Similarly, the MSY had become increasingly adept at the manipulation of governments, regularly interfering with its proxies in the results of elections, the construction of legislation, and the provision of law and order, in some regions exercising outright dominance over local police and security forces. What had begun as an effort to provide itself with protection from the police, and to provide its businesses with favorable government policy had, through over a century of mission creep, morphed into something completely unrecognizable. The MSY's tentacles stretched everywhere, from the poorest and most remote regions of the world, to the legislative chambers of the most powerful governments.〉③

〈Over time, the attitude of the MSY had become increasingly more paternalistic, taking into itself more and more responsibility for the state of the world. Beginning with the MSY's crushing of Asia's prostitution and sex trafficking rings—and consequent refashioning of organized crime into yet another MSY proxy—and culminating in the engineered reunification of Korea as the opening act of a newly-founded Black Heart, the organization absorbed more and more power and self‐appointed responsibility into itself, until it became customary for Rules Committee politicians to paint the MSY in their rhetoric as guardians of the world, and for the Leadership Committee to consider in secret session the fomenting of revolution.〉③

〈In the war zones of the world, where the organization had once been happy merely to maintain secrecy, MSY front charities provided food and education to the populace, MSY proxies attempted to reform governments, and MSY special forces hunted warlords and terrorists, nominally in the name of protecting its members in the area, but increasingly out of a sense of noblesse oblige at the top, a noble obligation that came at a significant cost, both in resources and in casualties.〉③

〈It was in this environment of isolation, secret power, and immortality that the so‐called Mages First movement developed. It was not a true movement, possessing no leadership or official organization of any kind. Instead, it was a sociological movement, composed of the changing actions and beliefs of the mages of the organization, and would only be named late in its existence, by one of the MSY's own scholars. Nonetheless, the movement's lasting effects would persist in MSY culture for centuries, up to even the present day. It has never really left us.〉③

〈Increasingly, the magical girls of the MSY began to feel themselves superior to the rest of the Humanity. Wasn't it obvious in their power, their immortality, their wealth, their influence over the world, their moral superiority? While governments bickered, they went out of their way to save the poor and downtrodden, who didn't even appreciate their efforts. Why shouldn't they dominate? Why shouldn't they focus more on themselves, on their own membership, instead of wasting resources and risking their lives fighting for people who didn't even know they existed and who, after all, would be dead in a short century or so, while they themselves lived on. Wasn't it time to take a more rational approach? It would be much more resource efficient to withdraw from the more afflicted parts of the world, leaving only the demon hunting teams. Contractees from poor areas could be relocated to richer countries, or could have themselves and their families ensconced into protected mansions, protected from the violence and poverty outside. It wasn't possible to save the whole world, so shouldn't they at least try to save themselves?〉③

〈This kind of viewpoint horrified the eldest girls, most of whom had known early lives of poverty and drudgery, who sympathized with the plight of the poor, and who hadn't spent their whole lives in comfort and power. They remembered what it was like to have friends constantly dying and falling into despair, and knew full well that they were human, not superhuman. From their positions atop the hierarchy they checked the actions of their subordinates, rallying as allies mages recruited from the poor regions of the world, who were mostly not happy to see others arguing for the MSY to abandon their homelands to the four horsemen.〉③

〈Nonetheless, the Mages First viewpoint would have a significant impact on the actions of the MSY over the next century, paralyzing the organization in the face of the greatest cataclysm Humanity had ever experienced. As the employment situation became truly catastrophic and the world began to split in two, the MSY sat and watched, collectively unable to decide between intervention and the inertia of staying in their comfortable, protected, hyperclass mansions. It would take a spark…〉③

— Julian Bradshaw, "Mahou Shoujo: Their World, Their History," excerpt.