Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
— Robert Frost, 1920
Welcome to the MSY website of the Nathalie Arnisaut Lab!
Established in 2095, and funded by the gracious support of both the SMC and MSY Science Divisions, the Arnisaut lab has a long history of research into affairs both mundane and magical, with both a public and MSY‐restricted presence.
On the magical side of things, Dr. Arnisaut is a world leader in understanding the miasma, one of the most mysterious aspects of the system we all live in. Deceivingly simple, demon miasmas are in fact a complex, ever‐changing magical entity in their own right. It is well‐known that miasmas trap their mundane victims in what appears to be a vast desert, but the exact interaction of the miasma with the real world is a subject of deep inquiry.
The miasma appears to exist almost as a form of dream world—attached to our own, and yet not—capable of removing mundane humans from the real world into the dream world, and perfectly replicating the real world environment within the confines of the miasma. To the magical girl, the miasma seems visually indistinguishable from the real world, and may be entered and exited freely, but there are clear signs it is not quite the same, manifesting in a number of magical properties that are unique to the miasma. These include the granting of flight‐like abilities to magical girls within, the negation of collateral damage to buildings, and so forth.
The two principal theories regarding the miasma, the pocket‐universe and shared hallucination theories, both have troubling inconsistencies. The shared hallucination theory has difficulty explaining why it is that telepaths generally do not perceive any mental influence, and why it is that soul gem depletion from combat corresponds exactly with the amount of magic used in the "hallucination". The pocket universe theory has difficulty with the "leak" of mundane collateral damage out into the real world.
It is Dr. Arnisaut's belief that both explanations are insufficient, and that a shared explanation is necessary, formed within the more complex Dream World hypothesis, grounded in the theory that rather than being the creation or tool of the demons, the miasma is a neutral entity, serving as an arbiter of combat that, among other things, helps protect the mundane human population that ultimately feeds all magic from being unnecessarily damaged.
Highlights of past research in the lab include the demonstration that mundane volunteers in the miasma experience a brain state strongly reminiscent of REM sleep, and that the ability of demons to freely ignore seemingly solid barriers, as well as their general ghostly abilities, stem from existing partially in the "desert" world experienced by mundanes. The use of mundane volunteers to construct clever "walls" in the desert world from objects in their clothing demonstrated that demons show substantial reluctance to pass directly through solid objects in the desert world. This unexpected result showed that the desert world was not merely a pure illusion, as had once been thought.
Are you a mundane? Click here for exciting volunteering opportunities, for which you will be compensated amply, following standard MSY guidelines.
— Website of the Nathalie Arnisaut Lab, Paris, France, excerpt.
It was many long months, nearly a year, before Yuma dared ask Oriko the question that had gnawed at her.
After the incident with Sayaka, Oriko had not asked her for any more doctored grief cubes, and Yuma had studiously avoided making any possible reference to them. The old apparatus sat gathering dust on the table, unloved, except for those rare occasions when Yuma sidled up to it and checked whether the magically active parts of it were still active—they always were, and Yuma wondered how long an enchantment like that would eventually last, and whether the physical structure of those parts would eventually begin to deteriorate. Their style of magic was capable, ipso facto, of suspending entropy, but it always required a power source. Without it, how could the metal and plastic keep from feeling the wear of time?
Yuma spent much of her time now thinking about questions like that, her mindscape now capable of fathoming the concept of entropy, of taking the entities of the material world and organizing them into clear, logical chains.
Though she avoided thinking about grief cubes, she meditated—often literally—on other topics of interest, ranging from how Akemi Homura and Tomoe Mami managed to reduce their grief cube consumption to why magical constructs formed in battle seemed real to the touch but disappeared once the magical girl shifted focus. None of it made sense from an energy conservation standpoint—magical girls seemed stuck between one world where energy barely mattered, and one where energy was everything, and grief cubes had to be obsessively counted and recounted.
Where was it all coming from?
Her newfound ability to think more lucidly—one she occasionally made stabs at enhancing even further—carried costs, though. She found her thoughts drawn inevitably to her own situation, to her past, and to Oriko. There were conclusions she would rather not have drawn, domains where she would rather have stayed innocent.
It all came to a head, partially at least, when Oriko stopped by the basement lab to run the grief cube modification apparatus for the first time since the incident.
"What do you need modified grief cubes for?" she heard herself ask, though she knew she didn't really want to know.
"I need to study the demons they produce," Oriko said, without looking away from the machine. "I have a theory—"
"Who are you going to kill this time?" Yuma asked, horrified the moment the words came out of her mouth. She hadn't meant to ask, not really, but it was almost as if she couldn't stand not knowing anymore.
She expected Oriko to freeze, or to glare at her, or to make a shocked expression, but she did none of that. Instead, Oriko turned her head towards Yuma, and straightened her back smoothly, and Yuma knew then that Oriko had foreseen the conversation, with the fearsome power under which Mitakihara—and Yuma—trembled.
"You're not a child anymore, Yuma‐chan," Oriko said, eyes peering unerringly into Yuma's soul. "Not after the change. You know that the world is more than just black and white. You know that sometimes to make omelettes, eggs must break. Sayaka was an egg."
"And what is the omelette?" Yuma asked, surprised she could still speak, even if she had to swallow in fear first.
Oriko smiled slightly, horribly.
"It would ruin the dish to tell you. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have some modified grief cubes to make."
Swallowing again, Yuma stepped backward, nodding, feeling her hands tremble as she clasped them behind her back.
A moment later she fled headlong from the room.
I'm supposed to remind you that Oriko doesn't really see everything—she only sees what she tries to see, Clarisse had said.
Yuma wondered if Oriko had seen Yuma sabotage the machine months ago, using her magic to age a key wire to failure. Easy enough to fix with a trip to the hardware store, but would Oriko have thought to look?
Was Clarisse right?
Another few months brought another visitor, this time not an exotic magical girl who claimed to be unimaginably old, but merely a seemingly prosaic local, a short, unassuming‐looking girl named Kuroi Kana.
Unlike Clarisse, it was clear she wasn't here entirely of her own free will, even if Oriko had seated the three of them under the same veranda, with the same selection of high‐end pastries and drinks. It was chilly this time though because the season was different, and unlike Clarisse, Kana refused to touch any of the refreshments.
"Please relax a little, Kuroi‐san," Oriko said, sipping elegantly at a small cup of espresso. "This isn't intended as a hostile meeting."
"Then perhaps you shouldn't have made this hostile by having your lackeys force me here," Kana growled.
"I could say that no one forced you to come," Oriko said, "but that'd be mere posturing, I confess. Any self‐respecting team leader would feel bound to accept an offer to retrieve a missing team member, even at grave personal risk."
"What, is that supposed to be flattery? Frankly, I'm surprised you haven't killed me yet," Kana said, peering at Oriko over the rims of her glasses. "What are you waiting for?"
"Don't tempt fate," Oriko said plainly. "If I wanted to kill you, I could do so easily."
"And now she wants to show off!" Kana exclaimed sarcastically, gesturing at an imaginary audience, clearly refusing to be awed or cowed by Oriko.
"Let's get down to brass tacks," Kana said, turning back towards Oriko. "I wouldn't be here if you didn't want something from me, so what is it?"
Oriko smiled slightly.
"You're not going to believe me, but while I do have ulterior motives for this meeting, all I really want from you is some conversation."
"Conversation," Kana echoed, clearly wondering if it was Oriko that had gone insane, or Kana herself.
"Conversation," Oriko affirmed.
"You can't just kill someone in my group and then expect to have conversation," Kana said, picking up her teaspoon and pointing at Oriko with it. "Don't think I don't know you were behind that massive demon spawn somehow. It was too convenient."
"You can believe what you like," Oriko said, shaking her head indulgently.
"So, conversation," Kana repeated, clearly trying to rush things along. "What is it that you'd like to have conversation about?"
Oriko set her coffee cup down onto its saucer with a dramatic clatter.
"What is your opinion of the magical girl system that we live in?" Oriko asked. "Do you think we are doomed to live this way?"
Kana scowled, peering around the garden, at the trees, at the piles of leaves in the grass, and at Yuma.
"That's an idealistic type of question," Kana said, shaking her head, "but all of us who have survived have learned to deal with the world as it is. And, if I may point out, you and your team aren't doing the magical girl world in Mitakihara any favors."
"And yet, you and your team run that food stand near the university, don't you?" Oriko said. "Who's ever heard of magical girls making money?"
"There's no way to scale it," Kana said. "Not unless a girl with family money appeared out of nowhere. Though, speaking of that…"
"I'm not here to offer you money," Oriko said, "only to discuss the issue."
"Then what the hell is this about?" Kana asked.
Oriko smiled to herself, again sipping her coffee elegantly.
"Kuroi Kana, what power do you have exactly?" Oriko asked. "I've always wondered, since it's not one that's obvious whenever I spy on you. If you tell me, I'll let your friend and you go. Simple as that."
Kana made an annoyed noise.
"If you can see the future, why don't you just foresee what my answer will be?"
Oriko closed her eyes, smiling in amusement.
"I still have to ask the question, don't I?"
Kana made a snarling expression with her mouth, though she didn't vocalize.
"I'm a clairvoyant, okay? Kind of. I'm kind of like you; I get random visions of the past. I wish I could control it like you can. I'm not telling you more than that."
"Good enough," she said.
"I remember Kana telling us about that incident," Mami said, shaking her head. "That should have been the end of it. I told the others it was time to work together and get rid of Oriko once and for all. No one ever listens."
Yuma shifted uncomfortably. If Mami had any blind spots, Oriko was definitely one of them. Mami had never seemed to realize it might have been entirely reasonable for the other teams in the city to demure on the idea of having every single one of them assault Oriko's mansion in an apocalyptic showdown. Even aside from the numerous casualties such a venture would have inevitably caused, Mami never seemed to notice the obvious likelihood that Yuma herself would have ended up among the deceased.
Usually at this point Kyouko or Homura would have jumped in to change the topic, but neither of them were here, leaving Yuma to try to continue the conversation.
Unexpectedly, Mami shook her head, cutting Yuma off just as she opened her mouth to say something.
"I know what you're thinking," Mami said. "You're not wrong, but I can't help thinking if we had just ended things earlier, we would have saved the girls she killed later, and you would never have had to go through all you did."
Yuma looked down, studying the woven tresses of iron that circled the rim of their table.
"Maybe," she said.
They turned to look at MG, who tilted her head in confusion, hair falling onto the table.
The night the world changed again was unseasonably wet and hot, the sheets of water that filled heaven and earth only barely relieving the heat that plagued both.
It was the kind of night that was best spent inside in air‐conditioned comfort, even for magical girls that could shrug off such environmental conditions.
Even so, the need to patrol their territory for grief cubes was endless, especially when the team was effectively down a member, due to Oriko's refusal to allow Yuma to join the patrols most of the time. If anything, the best demon spawns seemed to be more common on gloomy days.
Oriko had led the rest of the team out after what she said was going to be a particularly lucrative demon spawn, leaving Yuma alone to read in peace.
In retrospect, Yuma would never be sure what exactly caused her to look up from her copy of "The Guns of August". Had she heard something? Seen something out of the corner of her eye? Or had something triggered on her magical radar?
Nonetheless, the fact was, Yuma frowned midway through the seventh chapter and looked up, peering across the room at an empty doorway.
There was only the slightest of shimmers.
Before Yuma even consciously grasped what was happening, she was up, transformed, and vaulting away from the chair, which fell into pieces a fraction of a section later, a blue shimmer revealing the silhouette of a magical girl.
"Damn it!" the girl said, her features becoming more defined. "The bitch sniffed me!"
Yuma didn't know who she was talking to, but she knew not to try to stick around and find out.
Her vault allowed her to land against the wall with one leg, which she used to push off and dive through the window of her room, landing on the grass outside in a shower of glass shards, some of which she felt dig into her skin.
"Stay focused! Get her!" a voice yelled from somewhere above her as she recovered and jumped towards her right, just in time to avoid a searing beam of light that came out of the sky nearly vertical. The intensity dazzled even her inhuman vision, blotting out the scene around her, but Yuma didn't stop moving.
She had to keep moving, had to reach the rest of her team. These were thoughts that hadn't yet explicitly crossed her mind, but which she already grasped by pure instinct. Survival depended on reaching Oriko. She could not take on her pursuers alone.
For the other team, of course, success in whatever they were doing involved keeping Yuma from raising the alarm, and they grasped that idea just as well.
Yuma slammed her hammer down into the ground, dispelling at the moment of impact the enchantment that allowed her to swing it as if it had no weight. The angular momentum of the massive hammer lifted her into the air as she restored the enchantment, launching both her and hammer forward with breathtaking speed.
Still in the air, she caught a glimpse of one of her pursuers—one she recognized, Tanaka Yui in absurd yellow kimono—and pushed herself away with telekinesis. This time she did not notice if the dodge had saved her from an attack.
Yuma gritted her teeth as she raced across the rooftops. She was unfamiliar with the skill set of Tanaka Yui's group, and had no idea if any of them had teleportation or fast movement powers. All she could really do was hope otherwise, run as fast as she could, and exploit her hammer trick as much as possible.
Slowly, painfully slowly, she felt the magical signatures of the girls behind her start to recede into the distance, and she allowed herself to breath a small sigh of relief and settle into a more straight‐line escape trajectory. She had been afraid that the other team, used as they were to the skyscrapers of Mitakihara's wealthy financial district, might have developed some variant of her hammer trick for easy travel. It wasn't terribly difficult, after all—just a minor exploitation of how summoning and dismissing magical equipment could be made to work—but it did require a little practice, and didn't seem to be the kind of thing most magical girls thought of.
One pertinent example of that: Yuma had avoided demonstrating this particular trick to the rest of the group, none of whom she had ever seen perform the feat. She could never really be sure whether or not Oriko knew something, but she suspected it was in her interest to keep a few secrets of her own, just… in case.
She caught a glimpse of a flash of light above her as she was midway in a long jump across a street, too far from any buildings or lampposts that she could use for leverage, and responded the only way she could—she massively increased the mass of her hammer, one of her innate abilities, and pushed it telekinetically as fast as she could away from her, bringing her to a dead stop in the middle of the air. It was the only thing she could do fast enough.
It was only barely fast enough, the searing shaft of pink light appearing in front of her just as her hammer slammed into the wall of a jewelry shop on the other side of the street, debris and glass flying outward as a display case smashed open.
Yuma landed on the roof of a car a moment later, the metal caving in under her fall, which she had accelerated with telekinesis—there was no time in a fight like this to wait for a leisurely fall down to the ground.
She had a fraction of a second to register her situation, clutching the neatly cauterized wound where the pink beam had severed her right forearm. The doorway of the jewelry store started to cave in, a startled security guard still in the process of trying to get away. The pedestrians on the street had stopped in shock, and a little boy in the street was turning to look at her, already dropping his popsicle. There was no miasma here to insulate the effects of magic on the world, and if there were security cameras in the area, they would show everything.
Yuma grimaced and jumped off of the vehicle, dashing away on foot, applying a temporary healing spell to her right arm to mitigate the damage. A confusion of thoughts swirled in her head: that she had been an idiot to let herself be lulled by complacency into a trap, that she and Oriko were bound to get an earful from Kyubey later, that she knew that boy, he had been in her elementary school class—
She shook her head at herself, telling herself she needed to focus. She had to stay off the rooftops, stay close to the ground, stay out of sight—she was far enough now that the sheer speed of rooftop travel was probably less important than staying hidden, especially if one of them was capable of hitting her with a beam at this range.
In retrospect, she should have dove off the rooftop sooner, instead of just continuing to push forward. If she had hidden herself in plain sight in a crowd of pedestrians, she could have used the magical girl secret as a shield, rather than as the liability that it now was with her injured arm. The Incubators did not take intentional violations of the secret lightly—the terrifying whispered stories and rumors attested to that.
Where are they? Yuma thought, casting her mind outward desperately to search for traces of Oriko and the others. By this point Yuma had covered a significant portion of the Southern Group's territory, with both her and the Financial District Team shooting off massive spurts of magic—and yet Yuma couldn't sense any sign of the rest of her team, nor had Oriko and the others shown any sign of noticing what was going on. At the very least, Oriko, with her precognition, should have noticed something was up.
Traveling by foot on ground level was arduous—taking too large a road would put her in the line of sight of too many people, but taking alleyways would oblige her to constantly vault over barriers, avoid dead ends, and even escape the occasional dog. There was no time to worry about security cameras—she could only continue to rely on whatever magical aura or Incubator helped keep the secret in the age of increasing surveillance.
Just as she was on the verge of stopping again to check for continued pursuit, she finally caught a glimmer of one of her teammates, a small blip of power from what felt like Hinata Aina. She couldn't be entirely sure—it was extremely muted, as if Aina were doing her utmost to stay concealed, and Yuma probably wouldn't even have noticed it if she hadn't been Aina's teammate, and thus familiar with the tenor of her magic.
Just what is going on? she thought. They were in their own territory on a demon hunt, so there was no need to try for stealth. What were they doing?
Even so, Yuma had a lead now, and she followed it, turning away from the northern edge of their territory toward a point more to the west, within part of the city's industrial district. There were far fewer people here, which made her sneaking job much easier, and she could no longer sense active pursuit. It seemed like Tanaka Yui's team had abandoned their hunt, though Yuma could only venture a guess what they were doing to Oriko's now completely empty mansion. It was the kind of thing that would demand full retaliation.
She finally slowed her pace, taking a moment to risk applying healing magic to her arm, which was piecing itself back together nicely. If there was one advantage to being a healer, it was that even the most gruesome injuries could be repaired in short order, as long as she had a little bit of time to deal with it. This wasn't the first time Yuma had lost a body part, and she doubted it would be her last. It was an important enough skill that all the teams without a natural healer had at least one member who actively practiced the skill.
More importantly, she now had a constant lead on the rest of her teammates, who were indeed keeping their power emissions suppressed and staying oddly stationary. It looked like they were inside a large, abandoned‐looking warehouse next to a small factory complex.
By this point Yuma had slowed to a walk, gazing around her in wonder and confusion, though she remained watchful for any workers who might wonder what a girl in cosplay was doing way out here. What on Earth were they doing here? She couldn't sense a single demon or even a whiff of miasma—not for miles and miles.
Yuma had been keeping her own soul gem emissions as clamped down as possible to avoid giving away her position to Tanaka Yui and her team, but now she clamped it down even further, dismissing even her own transformation. If there was one thing altering her own brain structure had done, it was improve her ability to see the obvious: whatever it was Oriko and the others were doing here, Yuma wasn't intended to know about it.
What was less obvious was whether it was really wise to try to find out what they were hiding, and sneak up on them untransformed.
In truth, she suspected that the answer to that was no, but she felt compelled to press forward.
"You knew there was something seriously wrong going on," Mami commented, more calm now that they had gotten into the parts of the story she was more familiar with.
"In retrospect, yes," Yuma said. "I guess I was tired of the mystery. Even without cognitive augmentations, it would have been obvious to me that there was something twisted about the situation I was in. I just… didn't think it would be so bad."
Glass crunched underneath her shoes as she searched for a doorway into the warehouse. It had been a long time since she had felt the need to sneak anywhere as only approximately a regular girl, and it felt… disabling. Even in her daily life, most of her time was spent within the grounds of Oriko's mansion, where there was no need to hide how far she could vault or how fast she could move—she had gotten rather used to heading up the stairs in only a couple of long jumps.
If she felt this weak just staying pinned to the ground, she wondered how she had ever managed to deal with being tired, or being unable to keep up, or baking under the heat on her way home from school—all routine occurrences in her previous life, especially at school.
She tried a few doors, but the obvious entrances were all sealed—not merely locked, with the kind of lock she could have considered working open with telekinesis, but actually sealed, the doorknob assembly and hinges seeming to have been melted shut, probably by Aina. That didn't mean she couldn't have smashed the door open, but doing so didn't exactly make for a quiet, deniable entrance.
Instead, she stopped and looked around. Clearly, the intention here was that no normal human would ever go inside the building, not without power tools, but how exactly had Oriko and the others got in? They had no team teleporter, and unless one of the others had somehow learned the skill—
Oh, duh, the windows, she thought, noting that the top of the warehouse had an array of glass windows set into the wall of the building. It was the kind of entrance that could only be used easily by a magical girl, or perhaps an experienced thief, requiring the ability to reach the third story—then stay there while opening a window from the outside, at least if you didn't want to be too obvious about just breaking a window.
Yuma frowned. Her natural inclination was to jump up to the window and just head in, but even if exercising the existing capabilities of her enhanced body was the safest, least detectable use of magic, a magical girl showing up at the window was probably exactly what they would be expecting. If there were traps, if there was someone watching, it'd be there.
She chewed her lip for a moment, even as she stepped away from the building to get a better view. There simply had to be another way in. It was frustrating to know that she just had to break one of the doors down, but instead—
She stopped, realizing in that moment what she needed to do.
She shimmied up to the nearest doorway, the one she had ignored earlier after discovering that it, too, was sealed shut.
I hope this works, she thought, putting one hand flat against the door, which appeared to be an unostentatious single‐door service entrance.
In terms of magic, healing a piece of equipment was not terribly far off from healing a person, even if they were very different in material terms, and Oriko had encouraged Yuma to work on the skill, given how useful it was for the pieces of jury‐rigged machinery scattered around Oriko's lab—not to mention the shocking improvement in team standing Yuma had accrued from her ability to fix the electronics Kirika routinely broke in rage, or Aina's constantly virus‐plagued laptop, or the clogged toilet no one wanted to touch. Even so, Yuma rarely used the power outside of a few, limited "handy girl" type settings, and at first even she simply hadn't considered healing the door. It was thinking outside the box.
A moment later, she "felt" the door heal underneath her magic. There was, of course, the risk that someone inside would notice the small spurt of magic, but it was a risk she had to take—after all, working the windows open with telekinesis would have carried the same risks.
She turned the doorknob experimentally, cautiously, and felt it turn smoothly and give way. It seemed Oriko and the others hadn't bothered locking the door before sealing it.
She stepped into the building, closing the door behind her carefully, then dispelling her temporary healing spell, letting the door revert to its previous state. That ability wasn't new—she had always been capable of healing something temporarily, an ability that was usually only useful in extremely hectic combat, when there simply wasn't time to do a more permanent job.
She let out a small breath, her nose wrinkling at the dust that imbued the small hallway she found herself in. Clearly, no one had been here for a long, long time, which meant that she had chosen her entry point well.
Now she faced the task of working her way through the building without being discovered.
She did everything she could to dampen her soul gem signal, while stretching her mind to track the others as accurately as possible.
I am a limpid pool of water, she thought, recalling the mental exercises that Oriko had drilled into her. I am motionless and still, reflecting only the ripples of that which disturbs me.
She mouthed the words of the mantra to herself as she stepped her way gingerly into the building, looking for a way up. Ideally, she needed a staircase located far away from any of the other girls, so that she could ascend without the risk of immediately being spotted.
Unfortunately, she couldn't see anything like that anywhere nearby; instead, she quickly found herself at the end of the hallway, facing the kind of double door that you often saw leading into restaurant kitchens, complete with a transparent window set into the middle.
Cautiously, Yuma stepped to the side of the door, craning her neck to peer into what was beyond.
She remembered when she would have been too short to see inside without standing on tiptoes. It seemed like an eternity ago.
On the other side of the doorway was what looked like the main body of the warehouse, a wide open space that at the moment looked completely empty—whatever large machines or equipment had once been here were long gone. Elevated walkways hung from the ceiling, servicing whatever had been there, and Yuma could see the windows she had considered jumping through earlier.
Other than that, nothing.
Yuma really didn't want to step out into that open area. It would be far too easy for someone concealed on the upper levels or on the other side of the room to spot her stepping in—there were too many blind spots she simply could not cover, and she could tell that she was getting increasingly close to the others.
She looked around behind her, but just didn't see another way. All the rooms she had passed had clearly been dead ends, and the hallway led directly from the outer doorway to here.
She briefly considered going back outside and using a different door, then shook her head at herself.
What am I even doing here? she thought, leaning slightly to push the door open. I'm going to have to sneak back out after sneaking in, and what if I get caught, what then? What if they—
Just as the door began to move, she froze and jumped backwards, almost yelping out loud. She had felt a soul gem nearby pulse with power. It wasn't anyone she knew, but it came from the same place where Oriko and the others were.
Now that she had sensed it, she could tell that it was releasing power nearly constantly, at a higher level than Oriko and the others.
Something… was off about it.
Yuma swallowed, mastering her fear with the mental techniques Oriko had taught her, careful not to accidentally exert any of her magic. If the unthinkable happened, Yuma reassured herself that she could probably escape, as long as she managed to dodge Kirika's magic aura. Then, she could fling herself onto the mercy of Sakura Kyouko's group, who had shown sympathy for her. At the very least, she could promise them some of Oriko's knowledge.
Crazy, that she was even considering something like that. In her heart, she knew she simply didn't trust Oriko as much as she once had.
She pushed the door open again, just a little, just enough to let herself squeeze through, glancing around in every direction, and especially in the direction she now sensed the rest of her team.
There was still nothing.
She edged along the walls, thankful that plenty of support columns and wooden crates had remained in the room to hide behind. She strained, exerting her supernatural body control to minimize the sound of her footfalls. She felt like a mouse—and wondered who the cat was.
At the far end of the room was a small metal staircase that led to the walkways above. In her deliberately hyper‐aware state, the soul gem emanations from both the unknown girl and her teammates were becoming oppressive—taken together it felt like a constant, nagging pulsation in her head. Whatever she was looking for was in this direction, but the only doorways she could continue into were up above, not down here.
She was also close enough now that it was not just her familiarity with her teammates that enabled her to sense them so clearly—they were unmistakably exerting their magic, straining to perform some kind of technique while at the same time keeping their soul gems hidden. It was also possible that whatever it was they were doing, it was preventing any of them from keeping watch, which would explain why there was no one here to notice Yuma, even though she was already so close.
Yuma stepped onto the staircase, painfully aware of how exposed she was. She could only hope it wasn't booby—
Someone help! I know you're out there! They're—
The telepathic cry for help came out weak and strangled, but distinct, freezing Yuma on the spot. She gripped the railing in sudden fear that she had been discovered, and was only able to master it after a long, terrified moment.
It was only then that she had realized that the voice had come from the same source as the mysterious, unknown soul gem, in a room somewhere just above.
I can't linger here, she thought. I have to get out of this exposed spot.
She dashed up the staircase, sacrificing a bit of her silent footwork for the sake of getting up to the next level, instantly flattening herself against the wall when she reached the top.
To her immediate right was a small side passage that led into what she would have guessed was the office of whoever had once run this building. Whatever was going on was going on inside here.
Yuma resisted the urge to take a deep breath to steady herself, and slid as stealthily as she could along the dusty, age‐worn wall. With any luck, there would be some sort of window she could try to peek into.
What she got instead was even better—not just a window, but a window that looked down onto the room below, which turned out to be not an office, but some kind of workshop, one that had once held rather tall machinery. It gave her an excellent view of what was going on below.
As she had begun to suspect, she had been better off without the view.
The four other members of her team stood in a semicircle around a fifth girl, who had been tied down to what looked like a dentist's chair. Oriko stood in the middle, holding a glowing pink soul gem.
Yuma knew it belonged to no one of her team.
As she watched, the other three girls focused their attention on Oriko, directing their magic at the girl clad in white, who had her eyes closed, performing some kind of operation on the soul gem.
You monsters, Yuma heard the unknown girl think, the telepathy barely audible to her even at such close range. Somehow, Oriko was blocking the transmission.
"Monsters?" Mikuru said out loud, sneering. "I suppose we are, but so are you, and so are all of us. What gives you the right to judge us?"
"You see, the only thing that matters among monsters is power," she said, leaning over the other girls. "I learned that when I was powerless, and then I got power, and now here we are. I thought someone like you would have learned something as fundamental as that by now."
Mikuru raised one gloved hand, splaying her fingers out and peering at them with an expression of twisted fascination.
"I killed them all," she said. "If you had the power to, you could kill me too."
"It can all be over soon," Oriko said, tilting her head slightly. "Stop resisting the soul probe, and I promise your end will be quick and painless. Otherwise, we have more tricks than just a little soul gem‐induced pain."
Yuma's Onee‐chan looked at Hinata Aina meaningfully, and the fire mage raised one hand, summoning on the tip of her index finger a small, pure‐blue flame.
"You know," she said, smiling satanically, "I'm almost glad this technique doesn't work without consent. Imagine how boring this would be, if we could just take what we wanted. No, it's not delicious until we make someone consent."
"It'd be much easier that way, love," Mikuru said, looking at Aina. "This whole process is too convoluted. All this work, and only meager reward. It's all well and good to learn a tiny bit of our enemies' abilities, but imagine if we could take it all. We'd be unstoppable. Instead of reveling in power, we're stuck here trying to squeeze out tiny drops, all because we can't get anyone to give in."
Aina gave Mikuru a look.
"Not this again. Are your memories flaring up again?"
"Shut your mouth—" Mikuru growled, advancing on Aina.
"Oh, for the love of everything, can you two stop arguing for five goddamn seconds?" Kirika began, scraping her metal claws screechingly against the examination chair. "You'd think we were the damn ones being tortured! This is a goddamned experiment, and all you can two can do is make us look stupid! No wonder it's so damn hard to do!"
The three of them began arguing loudly, but by then Yuma had stopped listening, clenching her hands so tightly she was certain she was drawing blood. She quaked with suppressed anger, frustration, and impotence, forcing her eyes closed to stop the tears from flowing.
She didn't know what was worse, or where the sense of betrayal was the strongest. Was it the revelation that Miroko Mikuru was just as insane as the others? Mikuru, whose self‐talk had started to seem like a harmless quirk, who Yuma had begun to look up to, just a little?
Or was it Oriko's empty, pitilessly cold voice? Her warm, loving Onee‐chan, strapping girls to a table and, and—
She felt the tingling coldness begun to run up her arm, and was glad, in a twisted way, for Oriko's training. By distancing her soul gem from her body, she could reduce the physical effect of her emotions, reduce the urge to scream, reduce the urge to summon her magic, reduce—
"Silence!" Oriko said, at a volume only a magical girl could produce without screaming, her message blasted full‐force telepathically as well as verbally.
The other three stopped bickering.
"We have company," Oriko said, looking up to a corner of the room.
For an endless, terrified moment, Yuma thought Oriko had noticed her.
Then she sensed what Oriko had meant.
Everything happened at once: the ceiling above Oriko blasting open in a burst of blinding pink, Oriko dodging backward, Mikuru protecting them all with a shield of arctic‐blue ice—
Oriko closing her hand on the soul gem she held, the glass breaking into shards that burst out almost explosively from between her fingers—
The magical girls of the Financial District team breaking through the ceiling, attacking with everything they had, in what they surely hoped was a surprise attack.
A bubble of yellow magic surrounded Kirika and flung her to the side, just as she started trying to cast her "slow time" aura on the assailants, sending the girl through a solid concrete wall. A circular distortion appeared next to Aina, absorbing the massive fireball she had fired—which reappeared instantly next to Mikuru's ice shield with all its momentum.
The shield shattered instantly, forcing Mikuru, Aina, and Oriko to scatter and dodge.
Then the swordsman of the group, the same stealth assassin that had targeted Yuma, materialized directly behind Oriko while she was still in the air, already swinging her weapon. Unlike most lower‐level magical attacks and projectiles, it could not be blocked by the cloud of spheres Oriko used to protect herself, even with battle precognition.
It was a well‐planned, well‐executed attack, targeted directly at the most valuable member of the Southern Group, but it was desperate—Oriko simply couldn't be surprised like that, and the other team surely knew it. They had come to try to save their friend, even when they knew Oriko would almost certainly crush her soul gem the moment they appeared.
All of that ran through Yuma's mind in the milliseconds it took for Oriko to abruptly spin around, catch her attacker's wrist as she swung, and send them both into an air spiral.
Yuma heard the girl's wrist crack as they fell, just before Oriko slammed the other girl straight into the ground, back first.
The girl coughed spasmodically, globules of blood splattering onto Oriko's face, but she still had enough presence of mind to dispel her own sword, just as Oriko jumped back and allowed it to fall straight down into the other girl's chest.
Another millisecond later, another distortion appeared in front of Oriko—a portal, Yuma now realized—and a powerful kick sent Oriko flying backwards, even though she had blocked it with both her arms.
A white‐and‐orange‐clad girl dove out of the portal, applying both hands to her stricken comrade, who was already getting up.
A healer, Yuma realized.
Yuma stood there in torn confusion and fascination, not just at the battle in front of her but also at herself, at her own feelings. She wriggled the fingers of one hand, realizing that, for the first time since she had contracted, she felt no compulsion to intervene to save her own team. Indeed, part of her—a small part of her, but one that had never existed before—wanted her to do the exact opposite.
Then the other team leader, Tanaka Yui, turned her head a little, looking directly at Yuma.
Their eyes met for a moment, and Yuma experienced one of those blinding flashes of insight she would come to realize accompanied the modifications she had made to her brain.
She knows I'm here, Yuma thought, but she isn't attacking me. She's not surprised, so she knew I was here before they launched the attack. That means—
They had followed her, even when she didn't think she was being followed. Of course they had—a team with a member that could make portals in mid‐air could have easily caught Yuma at any time. And the reason they weren't attacking her…
What was Tanaka Yui's specialty? Mind‐reading. What would she have seen if she were reading Yuma's mind just before the attack? If she were reading Yuma's mind now?
Indecision. Uncertainty. Loss of loyalty. Maybe even…
She stood there for a moment longer, rooted, watching the battle unfold, telepath versus precognitive. Oriko reading the future, and then Yui reading what she saw straight out of her mind. It was a battle that would probably end in stalemate, both sides exhausted.
Except, of course, for the girl who was already dead, her corpse tied to a chair, her soul in evaporating pieces on the floor.
Then Yuma turned and ran, and as she ran she tried desperately to sift through her conflicted, nonsensical emotions. If she had intervened, it wouldn't have made any difference. Oriko would have seen Yuma's actions before she even did them, and thus so would Yui.
Even so, she felt like a coward. Of course she did. That was the wrong question. The question was why she felt like a coward.
She wished she knew.
"Oh Goddess, humans are monsters," MG said.
Yuma grimaced. MG had been a little too honest about her feelings there—Yuma could hardly have avoided knowing what AIs sometimes talked about in their mutual discussions, but it was not something fit to be transmitted widely, any more than Yuma and Mami would have openly discussed AI arrogance in front of MG.
"Sometimes," Mami said acidly, "And one of our flaws is stereotyping large groups based on a single event."
"Some. I meant some," MG amended, too late.
Mami's look was withering, but Yuma couldn't help but think that most of her anger was actually transferred unease about Yuma's story. Nothing here was new to Mami—Yuma had told her this truth centuries ago—but it didn't take a telepath to know that Mami disliked the topic.
Mami was usually more charitable about MG, who was after all a young AI. Besides, the ability of AIs to even make slips of the tongue or stereotype poorly was on some level reflective of their inherent humanity, which meant the levels of irony here extended even deeper than Mami implied.
"Soul probing though?" MG asked, handling Mami's approbation well. "What were they even trying to do?"
"Something I wish wasn't even possible," Mami said, looking down into her tea. "Something we've kept as secret as possible. It—"
"So it of course goes without saying that you shouldn't go spreading this around, not that you would," Yuma said, taking over the explanation before Mami could make it too dramatic. She knew what memories Mami was sifting over in her mind, and she knew they were not memories Mami preferred to have.
"What is it though?" MG asked.
"A technique Oriko was working on," Yuma said, biting into a cookie she had summoned out of the ether. "Put simply, every magical girl has a specialty in magic, a set of magic abilities and skills that they are gifted with at the time of contract, that doesn't require training or skill development to acquire. Fundamentally, though, it's just a form of knowledge, and we know from investigations into magic that anything can be replicated, provided you have the right knowledge."
Yuma bit into her cookie again nervously, aware that she was over‐elaborating an explanation she had been trying to make short.
"Anyway, Oriko was trying to extract this knowledge forcibly from other magical girls and use it herself. Imagine, a magical girl with access to more than one magical specialty! It's a good thing that it turns out to require consent, and that magical girls turn out to be very difficult to coerce. It's apparently one of those ironclad rules."
"All these hidden rules in the system," Mami said, shaking her head, "and the Incubators won't even tell us if they made the rules, or if they come from somewhere else."
"But if all it takes is consent, then why couldn't you use it for good, to train super‐powered mages?" MG asked. "Trade powers, something like that?"
Yuma saw Mami's nostrils flare in outrage, even as she sensed MG's entirely logical train of thought, which centered on how useful something like that would be in the war.
"Well, further research showed that the process could never be completed without killing the person whose knowledge was being extracted," Yuma said, closing her eyes carefully. "So that put the kibosh on the idea of using it productively."
"Oh," MG said.
Yuma kept her eyes closed, thinking careful thoughts that she kept sealed away from MG's connection to her mind.
Of course, the development of the MSY and its facilities for studying magic meant that mages couldn't be prevented from occasionally stumbling on the possibility, no matter how hard they tried to erase knowledge of its existence. And while magical girls, if trained properly, could not be coerced through direct pain, there were plenty of other, more psychological options.
It was inevitable that one or two couldn't resist the temptation, and inevitable that the opposition in the great schism of the Unification Wars would resort to such tactics. The former had been heavily Mami's responsibility, and the latter Yuma's. Neither of them had passed through the experience unscarred.
Yuma opened her eyes.
"Well, we might as well continue."
If Yuma hadn't been a magical girl, she would have stopped running when she got tired, probably only a block or two away from the warehouse.
As it was, she only stopped running when it abruptly occurred to her that she no longer recognized her surroundings—that she had never been in this particular section of town before.
That was not a good sign, since it heavily implied she was no longer in her team's sector. By itself, that meant little—standard practice in Mitakihara allowed unlimited travel between different magical girl territories, as long as you had a clear reason for travel and avoided magic use. It could hardly be otherwise, after all—enforcing strict borders would have separated some girls from friends and family, and everyone from the best grocery stores, hardware stores, and the like. In the ordinary course of things a girl like Yuma, especially with her young age, would have had little to fear.
Everything was different for the Southern Group, though, and it was her misfortune that she had fallen in with them.
Yuma took a moment to look around in more detail. She seemed to be surrounded by, of all things, butcher shops, and she had a feeling the larger structures she could see farther down the block were all slaughterhouses—the closer ones declared as much on the large billboards that served as identifying signage.
Only one building really stood out from the rest. It looked like, of all things—
"Are you alright, child? Are you lost?"
Startled, Yuma looked up at the adult that had materialized over her shoulder. She was no longer as short as she had once been, but the man was still tall enough to loom over her, shading out the sun from her perspective.
At a glance, she took in the relevant details—the black clothing, the visible cross—and paired it with the building she had just seen. This was an odd place to find a Christian church, of all things.
"I saw you running," the man said, tilting his head. "I wanted to make sure everything was alright."
Yuma shrugged. On the one hand, she didn't really know what to say. Things were manifestly not alright, but there was no way she could explain that, but she didn't feel like lying, or escaping.
On the other hand, she also felt apathetic about whatever this man thought of her. It was a new feeling for her, the apathy, but it was real. On some degree, she couldn't motivate herself to care. What did it matter anyway?
The man closed his eyes, bowing his head slightly.
"Well, I won't ask too many questions. But if you're running away from something, or if you need somewhere to stay, we can house you. You won't even be the only one. Not in this district."
Yuma gave the man a puzzled look. In this district? What did he mean by that?
"Sure, why not?" she said, finally. "I could use a place to rest."
It was probably for the best to stay off the streets and out of sight, at least until she was prepared to go back, or Oriko came looking for her.
She paused on the threshold of the aged wooden building, looking around.
That's the butcher's district, she remembered her mother saying. You don't want to go there.
Oh, that's what it is about this district, she thought.
She had meant the ambivalence with which she had responded to the pastor's offer, she realized, as they stepped their way past empty wooden pews. It legitimately didn't matter where she was, and staying inside the building of some foreign religion beat wandering the streets mindlessly. She didn't even have any money on her.
It was a gloomy, overly‐dark building, she thought, squinting around the darkened main worship hall. It could have used some stained glass, some sunlight pouring through some windows—anything to brighten the overall mood.
As the man led her into the back hallways, it occurred to her to check her soul gem. She summoned an image of the gem out of the ring, blocking it from sight with her other hand. As she had gathered from the malaise that had settled over her, it was significantly dark, and she clearly wasn't going to get access to grief cubes anytime soon.
That was the beauty of it, though, wasn't it? She didn't really care, because her soul gem was going dark, and her soul was going dark because she didn't care. She felt like giggling.
"I'm going to have to apologize," the pastor said, stopping in front of an aged‐looking wooden door. "This isn't the most comfortable of places, or the prettiest."
"It's alright," Yuma said, out of social habit more than anything.
"We used to have a much better church out in Kazamino City," he said. "It had its own grove of trees and beautiful windows like you wouldn't believe. It burned down, though."
"Uh‐huh," Yuma nodded along, wondering what relevance any of this had.
"I've always blamed myself for it, a little," the pastor said, looking up at the low ceiling. "A whole family died in that fire. Afterward, I saw one of the girls from that family on the streets, after she was supposed to be dead; I've been trying to find her ever since. I haven't yet, but in the meantime, it can't possibly hurt to take in some other lost sheep."
Yuma looked up and met the man's eye. He held the doorknob in his hand, but made no move to turn it.
She looked away, refusing the obvious attempt to dig for information.
"Well, here we are then," he said, finally opening the door. "A bit of a rec‐room, to pass the time. I'll get some snacks."
He looked around the room for a moment, seeming bothered by something, then shuffled her into a dingy‐looking lounge area, consisting of a few worn couches, a wooden table, and some game sets that looked like they were at the absolute limit of their usable lifespan, and then some. A side passage led to a pair of bathrooms.
The door closed behind her, and she immediately collapsed onto one of the couches, ignoring the complaints it made under her relatively minuscule weight. There was nothing she felt like doing, except waiting. But waiting for what?
The toilet flushed in one of the bathrooms, and a moment later a faucet began to run. Inwardly, she groaned. The last thing she wanted was company.
The door to the bathroom creaked open, a tired‐looking young man stepping out. He wiped his hands casually on his pants as he stepped out into the room—then froze.
Before Yuma knew what she was doing, she was in front of him, gripping his throat in one hand. The man grasped instinctively at her grip, choking pathetically.
She remembered that same throat underneath her hands, freshly sealed back together from what had once been two separate pieces of flesh, and gagged, releasing her grip and recoiling, abruptly unable to stomach the idea of destroying what she had once healed.
The man nearly fell over, then coughed once, twice.
"What the hell are you doing here?" Yuma demanded, surprised at the force of her own voice.
"It's not what you think," he managed, coughing once more. "I'm hiding."
"Hiding," Yuma repeated emptily. The word almost didn't make sense to her.
"From my colleagues—former colleagues," the man said, rubbing his neck self‐consciously. "I had some time to think, after you—uh. Well, you gain a new perspective on life, once you've had a chance to see your own severed neck."
Yuma didn't know what she was supposed to think, or how she was supposed to feel. Was this her nightmares coming to life? It felt like an absurdist tableau, to know she had saved the life of someone she should have hated, and here he was again, somehow, telling her about the experience.
The man closed his eyes, holding his head stiffly in place. It occurred to Yuma that far from being self‐assured, he seemed as confused as she did. She supposed she couldn't blame him.
"I came here, after what happened," he said, carefully avoiding looking at her. "To be honest, I think the pastor thought I was crazy when I told him my story, but after we talked I kind of reached a conclusion. I—"
The Yakuza tough seemed to falter mid‐sentence, and Yuma peered at his face. Was he… embarrassed?
Yuma decided that this definitely had to be an absurdist tableau, though in that case she wondered just whose tableau it was.
The door behind her opened with a creak a moment later.
"I couldn't help but overhear," the pastor said, stepping into the room carrying a bowl of tangerines. "It sounds like you two have met before. Kurosawa‐san, is this…?"
Yuma looked at the priest, then at the young man, trying to infer what was happening.
"Yes," Kurosawa said finally.
The priest took a moment to set the bowl of fruit down on the battered‐looking table.
"Well, this is clearly a bit of a divine coincidence then," he said, looking at Yuma with a penetrating expression. "He's told me about you. He said you healed him from an injury. I'm not sure if I believe that, but sometimes miracles happen."
The priest's look at Yuma was deeply inquisitive, and she wondered what he was looking for, and what she could possibly say. Not the truth, certainly—not as long as she could avoid it. The Incubators understood that sometimes there was no other way, but the rumors about what happened to those who deliberately revealed the secret were… unpleasant.
"Don't be too hard on him," the priest said finally, gesturing at Kurosawa. "If I'm right, you have every right to be, but he's tried to make amends for his life. He helped some of the girls they were holding escape to the police. That's why I'm hiding him here. Sinners deserve mercy."
Yuma furrowed her brow, trying not to make it too obvious that she was deeply perplexed. She didn't just not know how to respond—she no longer fully understood the conversation. She wasn't used to being confused like this—not anymore, not after the changes she had made to her brain.
"Are you an angel?" Kurosawa asked, the question sounding desperate as it came out. "I have to know."
Yuma experienced another moment of even greater confusion, as she saw the priest turn to look at the man reproachfully.
Then, in a flash, she understood what was going on. This man and this priest were convinced she might be an angel.
The very idea was so absurd that she almost broke out laughing, but then she saw—
She saw Oriko and Mikuru looming over her the day her parents had almost given her away, looking so much like angels themselves. She saw Tanaka's eyes wide with shock, impaled to the ground with a shard of blue ice.
She saw Oriko pushing herself up off the ground, shortly after Yuma had wished her body back together.
She reeled, staggering in the direction of the table, bracing herself so she didn't fall.
Her vision cleared again a moment later, and she found herself being steadied by the pastor and Kurosawa. She knew her soul gem had almost lost integrity for a moment, and wondered what had held her together.
"No, I'm not an angel," she said, shaking her head slightly, standing decisively to indicate that she was alright. "Far from it."
"I didn't really think so," the priest said, looking between the two of them. "But why does Kurosawa‐san think you are?"
"I saved his life when I had no reason to," she said, surprised by how smooth her half‐truth sounded. "I guess that might be something."
Kurosawa made a pinched face, but said nothing. He probably knew he had no chance of successfully insisting that his version of events was true. He probably didn't fully believe it himself.
The priest closed his eyes, letting out a breath.
"Well, okay," he said. "I won't ask how that happened, or why, but do you two want to talk in private? I kind of butted in, and now I realize maybe I shouldn't have."
Yuma made a gesture with one shoulder that indicated she didn't really care. It was an odd feeling, having her opinion respected, and one that she still wasn't used to even after multiple years without her abusive parents. It probably didn't help that of the members of the Southern Group, only Mikuru and Oriko seemed to care what she thought, even if she could plausibly claim to be a teenager now, rather than just a child.
Mikuru and Oriko… she repeated to herself.
Did they really care, or had they only pretended?
She shook her head at herself, realizing that she had zoned out mid‐conversation. Whatever focus she had once possessed was clearly leaving her.
Nonetheless, the priest was in the process of leaving the room, making it clear that Kurosawa had probably said something about wanting to talk to Yuma.
It occurred to her that if she wasn't confident she could break the man's spine with her bare hands, the prospect of being left alone with a Yakuza enforcer, reformed or not, might have been concerning.
The man was clearly still collecting his thoughts as to what to say, but Yuma decided to get the jump on him. She wasn't in a pleasant mood and felt a kind of sudden… strength? Rage?
Those were both wrong—it was more like she couldn't be motivated to care about niceties.
"Look, I'm glad you're grateful for not being dead," she said, "and I'm glad you tried to do something about it. That's more than I would expect out of most people. But that doesn't really make up for all the things that you've probably done, and it doesn't make me see any reason to like you or forgive you, if that's what you want. Take your reattached head and make the best of it, I'd say, but leave me alone."
The man's shoulders, who had been slowly collapsing under her criticism, jerked at the last sentence.
"So that really did happen?" he said, looking carefully at a far corner. "I mean, I won't say I haven't thought I might be crazy—"
"Yes, it really happened. So what? More things in heaven and earth, Horatio."
The man looked confused by her sentence, but shook his head, turning away to avoid looking at her. She had noticed that he seemed more afraid of her than anything.
"I don't know what you are," he said, sighing. "Now that I think about it, I don't know what I wanted to say to you. Thank you? It doesn't sound like you want my thanks. I guess—I don't know. I had some vague idea about telling you about my life, to make you understand. You're right, though. I'm just making excuses."
A long silence stretched between them, Yuma savoring for the moment the reversed power dynamic. She was totally in command of this conversation, and they both knew it. That wasn't a feeling Yuma got often—not one she had ever had, she realized.
"Well, out with it then," she said. "You want to tell me about your life, do it. I don't really have anything better to do."
She meant it, too. Whatever it was this Kurosawa wanted to tell her about, it was preferable by far to being alone with her thoughts. She had no desire to face the truth of her life just yet.
The man gave her a cautious look, shifting to his left to sit in the aged sofa that occupied the corner of the room. It creaked ponderously under his weight, seemingly on the verge of collapse.
Yuma made no move to sit. Remaining standing gave her the psychological advantage, and one of the small, unspoken advantages of being a magical girl was a preternatural resilience to the rigors of staying upright. According to Oriko, as magical girls got increasingly older, and increasingly aware of their new bodies' expanded limitations, they often got increasingly obvious in the midst of a crowd—the veteran magical girl would be the steady rock in the midst of the roiling waves, immune to heat and cold and exhaustion, much larger men bouncing off of them with a confused look, as if they had just run into a brick wall. Often, they could be detected this way even when they were trying to hide, suppressing their soul gem emissions as much as possible. Go out on a hot day, Oriko said, and the veteran magical girl will be the one not sweating.
Her mind was wandering again, she realized. Probably another symptom of her soul gem depletion. She wondered why it was causing her mind to wander, rather than obsess over her troubles. The first was more typical of a magical girl running out of power due to magic exhaustion, rather than for psychological reasons—and she was pretty sure her reasons were psychological.
"—I want you to know, I never set out to end up where I ended up. I don't know—I don't have any great excuses, but I didn't want to follow my parents into the family business, being a butcher and having to deal with all the shit they have to go through. You might be too young to know this, but in this region of town, the only choice if you want a different life is to join the Yaks, and that's what I did. I didn't really have a choice in what they assigned me to."
Yuma said nothing, choosing instead to stare blankly at a fork she carried in her hand. To her ear, what the man was saying did sound a lot like making excuses—except if she rejected his excuses, she would have difficulty maintaining her own. Viewed through the lens of circumstance, Yuma had had little choice when it came to joining the Southern Group, and though she had never participated directly in the crimes that her group had committed, she had always known, on some level, what was really happening.
And done nothing.
So, she was better than this guy, but not by as much as she would have wanted.
"Believe me, when I learned what I would end up doing, I thought about leaving," he said, avoiding her gaze. "There's an initiation thing they do, to make you prove your loyalty. It—no, I shouldn't talk about it."
A glimmer of fear had passed over his face just before he cut himself off, the kind of tiny gesture Yuma was getting more skilled at noticing. She didn't press him on it, though—she had no desire to know what wasn't being said.
"So what?" she asked, surprised at the slight sneer in her own voice. "So you felt bad about what you did, and decided to make up for it? Free some girls and run over here? You know that doesn't make up for it at all, right?"
Needless to say, Yuma's cortical self‐modifications had given her… a better appreciation of what it was that the Yakuza had intended to do to her before Oriko's intervention. It was a kind of innocence she knew she was never going to get back.
To her surprise, the former Yakuza lackey seemed to stiffen his spine slightly, reacting to her words with more force rather than cringing.
"No, of course not," he said. "Trust me; I've thought about this. Even talked with the priest‐man here about it. It's just the start. The original idea was to get myself killed right afterward, but I ran instead. I was too scared to die, and you can't trust the cops to protect you from the Yakuza. That's laughable."
He paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts.
"This is going to sound like a made‐up reason for my own cowardice, and maybe it is, but I've come to understand that death isn't atonement. It's just a way out. If I live through this, I'm going to find a way to do something else with my life, though I don't know how."
Yuma watched him as he paused, then looked at her, a new idea seeming to glimmer in his eyes.
"You know," he said. "If you're not really an angel, if you're just a girl, then maybe—maybe meeting you is destiny somehow, you know? I've got to atone somehow, and—"
Yuma shook her head decisively, interrupting whatever it was he was about to say.
"I don't need anything that you can give," she said. "I'm fine; trust me."
Obviously she wasn't really "fine", and how exactly Oriko and the others would react to her disappearance nagged at the back of her mind. If she wanted to go back, she had an explanation ready: the other magical girl team had forced her to flee, and she had ended up trapped far outside their territory, forced to wait for an opportunity to return. It was a lie constructed from pieces of the truth, in just the way Oriko had taught her to lie, but she didn't know if it would work.
A part of her wondered if now might be the moment to try and make a radical change. One Yakuza guy with, presumably, a gun, wouldn't change anything, but if the guy had resources, then she could perhaps offer something if she threw herself on the mercy of one of the other magical girl teams. If—
She performed the mental equivalent of shaking her head at herself. She wasn't at that stage. Not yet.
Kurosawa sensed her moment of conflict, even as he seemed to deflate a little.
"Are you sure?" he asked. "I mean, I guess I just want to make it up to you somehow."
Yuma let out a sigh, then dropped herself down on the couch next to him, feeling it creak even under her small weight.
"Maybe you have," she said. "That's an interesting point you made, that death isn't atonement. What convinced you of that?"
Kurosawa blinked down at her, surprised by both her question and her action.
"Well, I talked to Hashimoto‐san—er, that's the priest‐man here. I'm not sure I buy the religion he's pitching, but I've known him since I was a kid. He knows how to think about these things."
"Says the guy who thought I was an angel," Yuma said.
"Well, you did reattach my head, so…"
Kurosawa shook his head at himself, chuckling.
Then his face turned serious again.
"I feel like you asked the question because you have something to atone for. You're a kid, so I want to say that whatever it is, it can't be that bad, but you're no ordinary kid."
Yuma looked away, seeing not the worn wooden floors of the room, but the magical girl strapped to the examination chair with enchanted rope, face contorted in pain, while her team sneered.
She knew intellectually what the Yakuza did to girls, but she couldn't really imagine it. Could it be so much worse than what Oriko and others had done? How many times had it happened? How many had they killed?
The guilt weighed on her.
The man shook her by the shoulder, startling her out of her reverie.
He leaned over to look at her.
"You look like shit," he said. "I can't believe someone like you would have something like that weighing you down. I won't ask, but you should go talk to Hashimoto‐san. He'll make you feel better."
Yuma looked the Yakuza man in the eye, then bowed her head, standing up from the chair, heading for the door. She didn't really want to talk to Hashimoto—but she sensed that she needed to do something, anything other than stew in her thoughts.
"God, you and that blue girl—what are you? What could possibly be going on?" Kurosawa asked, as she put her hand on the doorknob.
Yuma stood there for a moment. What indeed was going on? What was she doing here?
She thought about Miki Sayaka, that poor doomed girl. She had thought Sayaka crazy, but she was growing to realize that while the girl's reasons might have been poor, her solution was not. If there was no way out of a bad situation, it made a certain amount of sense to try to accomplish something on your way out.
She shook her head and stepped out, ignoring the question.
Reverend Hashimoto peered at her over the lenses of his bifocals, expression unreadable for a moment. He had been reading a newspaper when Yuma knocked, and though he had put the newspaper away, the glasses remained. The priest was a lot older than he appeared.
A moment later the glasses came off too, placed carefully onto the rough‐hewn wooden surface of his desk. He was using the gesture to conceal astonishment, Yuma thought. She very much doubted that when she had started talking about something that her friends had done, he had expected to hear anything like what she actually said.
"For someone of your age, I would ordinarily think that you were exaggerating, or that perhaps you had somehow imagined it," he said. "It would not be the first time. Yet I do not feel like that is the case here. How is it that a girl like you would come to be involved with those who are capable of torture?"
Before Yuma could respond, he shook his head and held his hand up.
"It is a rhetorical question," he said, "and I very much doubt you would tell me regardless. Have you contacted the police?"
She shook her head.
"Impossible," she said.
"Because they would hurt you?" he said.
"Because I could never prove it," she said, "and the police could never catch them anyway. Because even talking about it would have far worse consequences than that. And yes, they might hurt me."
There was a moment of silence, and then Hashimoto opened his mouth to say something, but Yuma spoke first, looking down at the table:
"And because I still love them. When my parents died, they were the ones who took me in. I feel guilty, because I love them, and because I allowed it to blind me to what was going on. I was smart enough to see it; I just chose not to."
It felt good to say out loud and, truth be told, she hadn't even fully understood it herself until she managed to verbalize it. It… made a lot more sense.
She had clearly thrown the good priest for a loop, though, because it was another long moment before she heard him suck in a breath and say:
"That is the most worrying thing I have ever heard someone of your age say. You sound at least twice as old as you should, and blame yourself as if you were twice as old, too. You are too young to have to shoulder responsibility for something you failed to do. There is no expectation that you would intervene in anything."
Yuma glanced to one side. She knew he wouldn't understand, because he had no context in which to understand it.
She heard the priest sigh.
"I would offer you forgiveness," he said, "or God's forgiveness; that's usually enough. But in this case, I think what you're really looking for is your own forgiveness. As a priest, I am aware how poorly equipped I am to grant that."
Yuma looked up, and met the man's eyes. She saw that there was little there for her.
A moment later, she stood up, nodded at the man politely, and turned to leave. It wasn't really his fault, after all.
He caught her shoulder on the way out.
"Listen, I have had a theory for a while now, about girls like you, girls who are supposed to be dead but still roam the streets. If you really have nowhere to go, there is room here for you, and perhaps we can talk further tomorrow."
In the end Yuma took him up on the offer, if only because she didn't really want to do much of anything else. It would have been charitable to say that she really slept, though. She slept only in fits and starts, aggravated by the uncomfortable bed, the unfamiliar environment, and a general sense of unease. She thought—or dreamed—about Oriko, about her dead parents, about the magical girl strapped to a chair.
It seemed that every time she started to drift off, her mind would fabricate a vision or memory that would send her jolting awake.
There was Oriko standing in the dark, smiling, as broken soul gem fragments fell from her fingers.
There was a magical girl strapped to a chair, screaming—even though Yuma had never seen her scream. For a horrible moment it seemed to Yuma as if she were the one standing there, wielding a horrible instrument—and then she awoke again.
There was Oriko standing over the bodies of her parents, reaching down to do something. Her white gloves were stained red.
There was the priest, talking about dead girls roaming the street, girls who had died in fires. She saw a long‐haired girl standing silently in front of a burning church. She saw the same church, dark and gloomy, illuminated only by the dying, multi‐colored radiance of a few stained glass windows. The windows, though, looked odd for a church—not the usual assortment of the Christian god and his saints, but instead a collection of girls, in colorful and unusual costumes.
They looked oddly familiar, especially the green one, and Yuma squinted—
She jerked awake again. It took her a moment to reorient herself, picking up the pieces of her lost dream as she did so. For some reason, she had the sense that she had been on the verge of reaching something, something that filled her with both anticipation and dread. It felt unsatisfying.
She pulled her hand out, summoning an image of her soul gem to check its status. Not full, but not empty either. Generally stable, without the oozing darkness that had threatened it earlier that day. Just as it had been when she had gone to bed.
She supposed she owed the Yakuza man and the priest that much: they had stabilized her. It was Kurosawa who had pointed out that death was no form of atonement, and it was Hashimoto who had caused her to properly analyze the source of her guilt. She hadn't yet decided what to do, but she had reached one conclusion: she would at least refuse to die before she did it.
She was startled by a loud knock on her door.
At this hour? she thought. She had no idea exactly what time it was—there was no clock in the room, and the cell phone Oriko had given her was still in the mansion—but it couldn't have been anything other than the middle of the night.
She struggled out of her sheets, which had twisted into knots around her body, dropping out of bed. A sense of apprehension filled her—it didn't take magical girl instincts or an enhanced intelligence to know that a 3 AM knock on the door was rarely anything good. She had to be on her guard, and decided not to announce that she was coming to the door.
And yet when she opened the door, into a hallway that would have been impossible for any normal human to see in, there was no one there.
She should have been scared, even fearful, but something—perhaps the same something that had warned her to dodge at Oriko's mansion—told her she was in no danger.
Then she noticed the slip of paper on the floor.
We know you're here. We're letting you stay, out of sympathy for your situation, but we won't tolerate you here forever. We'll give you twenty‐four hours.
— Kuroi Kana
PS: Have you ever thought about what really happened to your parents? I've had a very interesting vision about them.
Yuma felt her heart skip a beat.
It was an enigmatic message, though it made its point clear enough. She—
She couldn't remember what had happened to her parents. That entire day was a blur, yet she had never even begun trying to examine it. Why?
She stood there for a moment, putting the pieces together in her mind. Now that the idea had occurred to her, it seemed absurdly obvious, as if something had been blocking her ability to see it, so that the memories were not merely missed, but ignored too. A blind spot for her mind, in other words.
A set of images entered her mind, images that until recently had been sealed out of her memory by Oriko's, or possibly Kirika's, magic. She saw Mikuru killing the Yakuza man Tanaka with an icicle, a memory she had always had. But she also saw her parents, still alive as the miasma began to dissipate. She saw Oriko telling Mikuru to kill them, and the blue‐clad magical girl smiling as she raised her spear of ice. She saw her parents' pain, and their inability even to scream as Mikuru literally froze the blood in their veins, their faces turning into grotesque, inhuman caricatures.
"Satisfying," Mikuru had said. "I like to think I do it in cold blood."
Aina had laughed.
Yuma crumpled the paper in her fist. She needed to go back. There was a lot she needed to think about, and a lot she needed to do.
It seemed entirely reasonable for her to disappear into the night.
"You never said Kana mentioned anything to you about your parents," Mami said, giving Yuma the displeased look that had flashed on and off her face the entire conversation. "Actually, I've never heard about any of this."
"Well, it wasn't exactly ever relevant," Yuma said, looking away carefully. "Really, when would any of this ever come up?"
"Whenever we discussed Kana, for one," Mami said. "It would have been one more piece of information. It would have been nice to know she spared your life when we were deciding how much to trust her."
"Maybe," Yuma said, not really conceding the point. Privately, Yuma could only think that there were many things she had never told Mami.
"I don't get why she didn't just kill you," MG said.
Yuma tilted her head to look at MG, while Mami shook her head sadly at nothing in particular.
"It would have been the right thing to do," MG continued. "As a healer, you were clearly very valuable to your team. Since I'm sure Kana was just as interested as anyone else in destroying your team, she should have just killed you on the spot, or at least tried to capture or turn you."
Yuma shook her head.
"I think she was trying to play the long game. Remember, Kana gets visions of the past. I've never asked her what exactly she saw, but I've always suspected it was enough to make her realize that I wasn't exactly loyal to Oriko anymore, and it might be better to make me go back than to kill me."
"I don't really buy that," she said. "I know Kana, and Kana's team, and she might have just been showing pity on you. I wouldn't have killed you either, though I would have at least tried to capture you."
You don't know her as well as I do, Yuma thought privately.
"Anyway, what confounds me about all of them is why no one ever tried to ask for help," Mami said, shaking her head. "None of this would have happened if they would have just asked for help when things happened. Everyone had to have known I would have jumped at the chance to take Oriko down once and for all."
Maybe that's why they didn't talk to you, Yuma thought, though she again didn't say it out loud. A full‐out magical girl war would have been immensely bloody, especially against someone like Oriko. From what Kyouko had told her, the assembled magical girl teams of the city had made exactly that point to Mami, multiple times, after they finally agreed to cooperate to seal off the Southern Group in their region of the city. A blockade, rather than a war, on the hope that the Southern Group's insanity would eventually bring about their downfall.
It had worked, after all, but there were some things Mami refused to be rational about.
"It seems the other magical girl teams have decided to band together against us," Mikuru said, watching Oriko carefully to judge her reaction. "Supposedly our borders will be absolutely sealed, on pain of immediate attack."
"They don't have the balls," Aina scoffed, waving her hand dismissively. "If they had balls, they'd have attacked us on our own ground. They're scared."
Oriko sipped her tea calmly, acting as always as if she had foreseen everything.
"Well, it was to be expected after recent events," she said.
Not so much as a glance in Yuma's direction. If Oriko suspected Yuma had seen what happened, she was doing a good job of hiding it. Her welcome back to Yuma when she finally returned had been effusive, swallowing Yuma's explanation for her absence without hesitation.
"Yes, yes, expected," Aina said, beginning to pace slowly, impatiently. "That's what you always say. And, you know, we all owe you and your future‐sight a lot, but I don't think you'll blame us for having doubts about how well the situation is going."
Yuma sucked in a breath, looking around the room for the reactions of the other girls. Kirika, leaning against the engraved wood paneling of the far wall, had stiffened slightly, just a little—she affected her usual nonchalance, but bristled at Aina's challenge to Oriko. Her body language signaled as much, her right hand behind her back tapping on the side‐table next to her with the fingers that should have been claws. Kirika was very prone to that kind of tic, the kind of tic that suggested she remembered very little of her life before she had gained her magical girl powers.
Something had happened to Kirika's memories, just as something had happened to Yuma's. She was sure of it. And just as the hole in Yuma's memory had served Oriko's purposes, she was sure whatever Kirika had forgotten served Oriko's. It certainly served Oriko's purposes having a rabidly loyal bodyguard, after all.
On the other side of the room, Mikuru stood in a neutral posture near the doorway into the main dining room, in front of a glass cabinet that contained Oriko's various china sets. She coolly watched the conversation, betraying no explicit reaction, but the very fact that she wasn't saying something to herself gave away that she was intently focused on what was going on.
In the middle of the room, in front of the small tea table Oriko was sitting at, Aina paced slowly. Her comment to Oriko had been extraordinarily restrained by Aina's standards, but it was clear that she meant what she had said. Besides the obvious body language, Yuma had heard the others complain about Oriko's withholding of information on countless occasions. It was inevitable that Aina was going to bring it out into the open. In Yuma's opinion, Aina's concerns were entirely valid, but she had no intention of openly siding with Aina in this discussion.
Yuma herself stood at Oriko's side, carrying a small set of documents in one arm. She was well aware of just how much she looked like Oriko's secretary at the moment, but that was part of the point. She needed to look as loyal and harmless as possible.
Finally, there was Oriko sitting at the small wooden table, continuing to look serene while looking Aina in the eye, though she was no longer actively drinking. Of the four other girls on the team, Oriko was the one Yuma still had considerable trouble reading. She was just always so… calm.
"That is a valid concern," Oriko said. "And I've been quietly aware that I've been mistreating you by not telling you as much as I know, but I hope I can convince you it was with good reason."
Oriko glanced down at her teacup for a moment, and for a moment she looked uncomfortable.
"The simple fact of the matter is that while my visions of the future are extremely valuable, they are also not perfect. Specifically, my ability to map the consequences of my own actions is limited. Every time I map the future, I learn new information, and the effect of this information on my own actions has unpredictable consequences. I have done my best to infer which actions will produce the best future, but you can see how I am extremely reluctant to disturb a system in unpredictable ways. That includes the extremely unpredictable results of giving future information to someone else. There is a reason I have done my best to make my own behavior as consistent as possible, regardless of circumstances."
She peered at Aina with an unnerving gaze that even the notoriously fiery Aina cooled under.
Oriko turned her head away, picking up her teacup and sipping it again.
"It is ironic, but to ensure that I myself do not accidentally change a good future, I must be very careful about mapping the future again after I have seen positive outcomes. The worse the futures I see, the more frequently I can map, because how much worse could I make it? But once I have achieved a good outcome, I am forced to deprive myself of my best power. Only in combat can I exercise my foresight with relative safety. I can only have this conversation safely because I have already foreseen it. You will simply have to trust me that the last time I checked, the future was still bright."
"But what future?" Mikuru asked, stepping forward to stand next to her girlfriend. "You said you saw a future without the Yakuza, with crime destroyed. You said you could give us the power to make this happen, with the power of all magical girls, and the power to change the world. Where is any of that? How exactly are we going to do any of that, blockaded by all the other magical girl teams? I expected we would be ruling them by now; instead we're their prisoners!"
It was the most impassioned thing Yuma had ever seen Mikuru say—more importantly, it was the first time she had ever heard exactly what promises Oriko had made to Mikuru and Aina, and the first time she had heard Oriko outline a limitation to her power.
Something occurred to her, something that wandering magical girl Clarisse had said to her:
"Oriko doesn't really see everything—she only sees what she tries to see."
Yes… that comment made much more sense now. At the time Yuma had only thought it a feeble limitation—she had seen Oriko meditating on the future herself, and it had seemed that Oriko had plenty of time to cast her mind to all possibilities and all future events.
But those sessions had grown rarer and rarer over the past year, and Yuma wasn't even sure when Oriko had last tried to see the future.
"I'm sorry I can't say more," she said, "but you have to believe me that your future is still on the way. All of that. We will have the power to do that. If only you could see what I see."
If what Oriko implied was true, then she had found a future that was satisfying to her, and if it was the future Mikuru was promised, it was horrifying. A future where Mikuru and Oriko had the power they had been seeking when they tortured that girl, the power to use the magic of other magical girls, the power to destroy the Yakuza and crime, and to change the world. The idea of anyone like Mikuru or Aina or Kirika with that kind of power turned her stomach, even if their first targets were the Yakuza.
Yuma looked at Oriko's rapturous face, one which only amplified the horror in Yuma's heart. The look was alien on Oriko's face, on anyone's face, matched only by the look on Mikuru's face while killing her victims.
She remembered again her parents' death, and it took nearly all of her self‐control to keep from gagging on the spot.
They had been terrible parents, more terrible even than she had realized at the time, but she didn't think they had deserved that. More importantly, she could see the cost of letting the Southern Group have the power they sought. She could understand the pattern of grisly murders she had found in the recent history of Mitakihara City—bodies frozen alive, or else roasted alive, in cases the police had never solved. It all aligned: the murders had started roughly five years ago, and ended about a year before Yuma's own contract.
They had been criminals, low‐life thugs, or worse. But…
Yuma looked around carefully, at Aina and Mikuru nodding finally, acquiescing to Oriko's soothing assurances, with what she suspected was a sizable assist from Kirika's magic, and knew the truth.
The Southern Group had become what they wanted to destroy, and had to be destroyed themselves. And if she couldn't bear to live without Oriko, then she had to go with them.
"You tried to kill them!" MG interjected, looking at Yuma with a fresh set of shocked eyes.
Yuma looked back at the intensely green eyes of her pupil, one carved with the I/O symbol in emerald green and the other deep in its vibrant softness.
She allowed herself a momentary pang in her heart. This kind of reaction made MG all too human, more so than many alleged flesh‐and‐blood humans, even more than Yuma herself had been, ever since the events of so long ago.
"Not what the history books say, is it?" Yuma said a moment later, closing her eyes and drinking deeply from the giant cup of coffee in front of her. "There's more; save your thoughts for later."
It took a lot of thought, a lot of preparation, and a lot of luck for Yuma to get the pieces in place.
The first step was to protect the integrity of her own thoughts. If Oriko or Kirika were capable of wholesale blocking her memories, there was no telling what they could do in terms of mind‐reading. Oriko had already given her training to protect her from the likes of Tanaka Yui, but she needed more than simply the ability to resist parapsychology—she needed to be able to do it without the telepath knowing, and ideally to do it all the time, so she could never be caught off‐guard. Not even while asleep.
Down that general line of paranoid thinking lay madness, she well understood, but she felt it was necessary. Fortunately she had plenty of time alone in Oriko's lab to meditate and work on magic. It took a few months, but she eventually got it. It involved cultivating a certain style of thinking, of making sure she was always thinking about at least two things at once, and, whenever one of the lines of thought was too sensitive, making sure that the other line of thought was louder, more powerful.
It wasn't so much an active telepathic defense as a distraction, playing on the expectations of mind‐readers. There was no good way to test it, but she was sure it would work.
There was also no good way to use it while asleep, but she solved that problem by simply not sleeping. It was a surprisingly trivial exertion for a magical girl like her to make, once she knew how. The answer was to simply not sleep and then "heal" the damage. This trick she could even share with Oriko and the others, earning more trust and applause from the group.
It gave her more time to work, anyway.
Once that was accomplished, it was necessary to protect herself as much as possible from the certainty of Oriko's future‐sight. It was true that nowadays Oriko was avoiding any deep probes into the future, clearly certain that the timeline was on the preferred track, and Yuma would have to make special exertions to unseat it. There was a strong chance that Oriko had already foreseen Yuma's plan, so Yuma had to tap into the only font of uncertainty in Oriko's visions—Oriko herself. Any information leak had the potential to shift the timeline, so Yuma stuck as closely to her Onee‐chan as possible, referring as frequently to future events as she dared, gleaning whatever she could off of subtle changes in body language, small turns of phrase. She then spread whatever information she got as widely as she could, dropping it casually in conversation with Kirika and Mikuru. She could only hope that the ripples she introduced would upset the timeline enough.
This was the riskiest part of her strategy. She might overplay her hand at any moment and trigger another attempt by Oriko to read the future—and the closer Yuma's intended future got, the riskier. Even if Yuma did nothing at all, Oriko might still do it—and ruin everything.
Her head hurt just trying to think about that kind of reverse causality, but she could tell that there was no avoiding that particular roll of the dice. She watched Oriko and the others carefully, watching for any sign that she had been scented. She had a backup plan—an evacuation to beg the mercy of Sakura Kyouko and her group—and on more than one occasion almost started it, her hair‐trigger paranoia overreacting to the smallest of coincidences.
The third part of her plan was by far the simplest. While it was possible that Yuma might be able to kill one of the others with a surprise attack, there was no way she could possibly overwhelm all of them alone. She needed more power than she could achieve with just her soul gem and magical girl frame.
So she began making overloaded grief cubes, storing them carefully in pockets around town, as well‐concealed and protected as she could manage. It was inevitable that some of them would erupt into demon hordes, but these were easy to write off as run‐of‐the‐mill demon attacks. When the time came, she would collect as many of them as she could in one grand sweep of the city, keep them suppressed with her magic, then drop all of them at once on the Southern Group while they were distracted with the hunt. If necessary she would attack herself, but she hoped to avoid that and watch from a distance.
Finally, the day arrived, long‐awaited and long‐dreaded.
The clusters of grief cubes pressed against Yuma's body felt—well, not warm, but uncomfortably present, exerting a constant, unrelenting pressure on her mind, like a phantom limb that was always, unrelievedly, itchy.
It took at least as much attention for her to keep the far‐too‐concentrated grief from spilling outward and inevitably spawning demons. She had practiced, multiple times, until she was confident she could handle so many at once, but nothing could have prepared her for the amount of drain it was imposing on her. She could only hope she could get to her destination quickly enough, and without being detected.
She had worried and agonized about her decision every step of the way, over the planning, the execution, and even whether or not she would do it at all. Now that she was finally here, however, she found herself unaccountably serene. The die was cast now, and whatever happened, happened. She was even prepared for her own failure and capture—one advantage to having one's soul compacted into a soul gem was that it made ending one's existence palatably… well, easier to do.
She had the courage of someone already dead, she thought. Someone who should have already been dead, and who expected to be dead soon.
She leapt across the rooftops, honing in on the flashes of magic that signaled the rest of the Southern Group fighting a large group of demons, not even noticing the rain that poured endlessly from the sky, soaking into skin, costume, and concrete alike.
Today was an opportune time to attempt what she had come to think of as her personal project. All four other members of the team were out hunting an unusually large horde, large enough to cause Oriko to request all hands on deck, except Yuma. The demon spawn was located fairly deep in their territory, deep enough that there was unlikely to be interference from the other magical girl teams, yet close enough to the borders that they could intervene if they realized the demon spawn was operating out of control. Finally, the demon spawn had happened in an industrial district, rather than a residential district, so Yuma could summon a tremendous amount of demons relatively free from the worry that she would accidentally be killing innocent bystanders—though it was inevitable that she would be endangering at least a few.
Just as important, Yuma could no longer wait, not now that her preparations were complete. Every passing day increased the risk that Oriko would detect a shift in the timeline and act to snuff it out. In no way could Yuma claim to understand the intricacies of Oriko's future‐sight, but from what little she did know, the intrinsic reverse causality meant that there were only two likely outcomes—either Oriko would never notice, and Yuma would succeed, or Oriko would notice, and the plot would be over before it began.
Mind‐twistingly, the implications of both the forward and reverse logic were the same—the sooner she acted, the better.
So she had braced herself, filled her own mind with a magically‐induced calm, and set out into the stormy night, recovering the grief cube stashes she had so carefully distributed across the city.
She let out a breath, feeling the bright flare of Hinata Aina's magic dance through her soul. She couldn't possibly attack directly—Oriko would detect that long before it happened. The only possible attack was by deception—dropping off overloaded grief cubes in an out‐of‐the‐way location, so that they would show up merely as a furious, fresh demon horde. Oriko would anticipate it, but Yuma's fingerprints wouldn't show up immediately, not if she kept herself out of the way and concealed.
The rest depended on how well she could execute the plan.
Hinata Aina was isolated from the others in an attempt to cut off part of the demon spawn, as always confident in her own abilities, and the abilities of Oriko's future‐sight to anticipate any threats. A bit of luck: Aina was already straining her soul gem, pushing her limits to finish off her section of the miasma. Yuma could feel Aina's signal pulsate with the effort. Only a true veteran would dare such a maneuver, confident that no new demons were going to spawn.
Yuma landed on a streetlamp, releasing her first clutch of grief cubes onto the street below. One small poke—and there, they had begun activating.
She vaulted herself to the next rooftop and continued, not even looking back at the massive miasma she could feel materializing almost instantly behind her. This particular group would assuredly head for Hinata Aina, drawn by the need to support the already existing demons against Aina's attacks.
Hinata‐san! Yuma heard Oriko yell over unshielded broad‐band telepathy. There's going to be a massive horde of demons inbound on you extremely soon. Within thirty seconds, I think. Regroup immediately.
What? Aina replied. I'm a little busy at the moment, if you can't tell! I'm going to be tied up here. I'd rather you come to me.
We will try, Oriko responded. Something is wrong with the miasma. It is far too powerful.
Why didn't you notice? Aina demanded.
Yuma tuned the conversation out as much as she could, though she allowed it to linger on the edge of her awareness. She couldn't truly ignore it, because there was too much of a chance it contained information vital to her project, but she very much didn't want to hear the confused or distressed reactions of her erstwhile teammates. Only someone who would gloat in their downfall could have enjoyed something like that.
A short while later, she reached a location she judged to be the right spot to separate Aina from the rest of the group. A few grief cube packages here would spawn a tremendous concentration of demons that would completely prevent the others from reinforcing Aina. She just needed to—
She paused mid‐action, spotting a scraggly‐looking man shuffling along the street below.
In the rain? At this hour? Practically in the middle of a demon attack?
Yuma hesitated for a long, painful moment, feeling the soul gem signals of Oriko and the others growing slowly closer. She had practiced hiding her soul gem signal for months now, both from demons and magical girls, but the longer she stood here, the more she tempted fate.
She dropped her packages, exerting her magic to summon the demons that lay dormant within. She was too far invested to change her plans now, and it made no difference whether or not she could see the potential victims of her actions—there was certainly more than one on‐duty security guard in her area of attack, probably at least a dozen.
She continued on, feeling guilty at the palpable relief she felt no longer having to keep all those grief cubes under control.
Damn it! Where are these all coming from? Kirika said, before swearing more colorfully than Yuma had thought possible.
We're coming! Mikuru thought. Just hang on!
Yuma could almost taste the desperation in Mikuru's message.
As she continued among the rooftops, she weighed her options. She had expected that the situation would present her with opportunities that she would have to rapidly exploit, but she hadn't expected to get as lucky as she had. However, she now saw two distinct ways to proceed. She could hope that Mikuru would get carried away in her desperation and push too far away from Oriko and Kirika, as she was already starting to, and take advantage of it by using her grief cubes to cut her off as well—or she could take a more proactive approach, one that took advantage of a stratagem she had planned for the occasion.
She decided that being proactive was better than reactive, especially when she could use it to greatly increase the amount of timeline distortion she might be causing. Funny, that those kinds of causality considerations would be so much more important than anything else.
It would take delicacy to accomplish the next steps, then.
She maneuvered as close as she dared to Mikuru, Kirika, and Oriko, stopping behind a squat ventilation turbine on top of an adjoining factory building. Her practice at maintaining magical stealth had availed her well so far—the miasma was very thick here, but the demons had failed to notice her, and she was now close enough to even see the three girls, cutting through the demons with desperate efficiency, unable to make headway fast enough to reach Aina.
Yuma felt a pang of emotion cut into her heart, triggered by the look of genuine anguish she saw on Mikuru's face.
Steady, she thought. Not now.
A moment later she felt it fade away, crushed behind a veil of numbness. She had not realized until that moment just how much she was leaning on the crutch of mind magic to keep herself focused. It was unsustainable, obviously—but sustainability wasn't the point. She just had to get it over with, and then she could let her emotions take her into the darkness.
Yuma allowed herself the luxury of a single breath, and then opened a private telepathic channel with Mikuru.
Mikuru! she thought, hoping she was channeling her distress into an acceptable acting job. I'm glad I got here in time. I have to warn you about Oriko!
Mikuru was far too disciplined, and far too embroiled in combat, to try to look around for Yuma. Instead, the blue‐armored girl dodged around a demon laser, leveraged herself off the side of a building, and hurled an icicle straight through the eyes of one of the oncoming monstrosities.
But there were still more, many more.
What are you talking about? Mikuru thought back, mental voice strained. Where are you? I don't know what you're doing here, but we need you!
As Yuma had hoped, Mikuru kept the conversation in a private channel, rather than broadcasting it to the group as would be useful.
I can't reach you! Yuma thought. But that's just it! I found evidence on Oriko's computer. She made a deal with the other teams. The plan for the future doesn't involve either of you two. I think she means for you to die here.
It was a brazen half‐truth, one that drew half its power from dark implications Yuma had derived from some of Oriko's veiled statements, and the rest from discussions Yuma had overheard between Mikuru and Aina.
Yuma saw Mikuru jerk mid‐blow, by now quite far from Kirika and Oriko, who were visibly hesitating about charging through the demons at Mikuru's desperate pace. She braced for Mikuru to start questioning Oriko openly, and hoped the girl didn't realize the inconsistency between Yuma implying she was stuck behind demons and the fact that Yuma's magic wasn't showing up on radar.
Instead, another telepathic voice tore into their mindscape.
Mikuru! Oriko! I'm sorry. I can't hold out here any longer. My soul gem is nearly gone. I'm not going to make it in time. I'll try to do what I can.
No! Wait— Mikuru began abortively.
She was interrupted by a brilliant red glare about two blocks away, bright enough to burn Yuma's eyes, bright enough to make the clouds and night seem, briefly, irrelevant.
It grew upward, seeming to burn a hole in the sky itself, the flames swirling into a vortex that seemed almost alive, immune to the rain that even now continued to fall. Yuma started, realizing abruptly that the rain really wasn't falling anymore.
She felt the wind turn and gain force, heading towards the flame, and she felt the rain again, beating into her back, pulled in from blocks away by the rising superheated column of air. Funny, that the miasma could blot out so much of the world, but never affected the rain.
Even the demons in the area stopped, turning to look at the vortex.
No! Mikuru screamed in anguish, as Yuma forced herself to turn away.
Remember me, Aina thought, so wistful she almost seemed like a different person entirely. That's all I ever wanted. A final gift.
A crashing boom sounded behind her, and the force of the detonation against her back nearly sent her—a magical girl!—to the floor.
When Yuma opened her eyes again, the red glow still permeated the world around her. Looking up, she saw that even the storm clouds had broken, forced away by the power of the blast, revealing stars and moon above.
She turned, half‐expecting to see a crater in the middle of Mitakihara, but instead the demons in the entire block were gone, miasma and all. The buildings in the area still stood, serenely undamaged, protected by the mysteries of miasma and masquerade. They seemed crisp and clear in the moonlight.
A moment later the clouds closed back in, the rain beginning again, and the miasma reformed, returning the area to a dreamy, surreal quality. Yuma realized that if she didn't act quickly, the area Aina had been in would serve as a clear avenue of escape for the others.
"You bitch!" Mikuru screamed, drawing Yuma's attention back to the drama below.
The ice‐armored mage glared at Oriko with unfathomable rage, a hemisphere of ice rising with a rumble out of the ground behind her, blocking for now the attacks of the newly refocused demons.
"What are you doing?" Oriko asked in genuine shock, raising the floating spheres she used as a weapon in front of her for defense. Kirika had already shifted her stance to face menacingly at Mikuru, claws drawn. Even so, she betrayed her worry, glancing around at the demons still bearing down on them. It was a nightmare, being forced to face down a grief‐stricken former teammate in the middle of a demon spawn.
Oriko's eyes lost their focus for a moment, not even acknowledging Mikuru's stare, and Yuma could see that she was probing the future, just a little deeper than her usual combat focus.
"Ah, I see," Oriko said, with the tone of one who had been enlightened. "I have been a fool."
Then she turned her head, looking up at the top of the factory, directly at where Yuma had pulled her head back behind cover to avoid being spotted. Yuma knew, though, that it didn't matter anymore whether she was seen by Oriko or not. She knew.
Oriko didn't sound worried, though, and Yuma felt the icy tendril of fear shoot itself through her heart.
What am I doing? she finally thought, collapsing onto her knees on the rooftop. I—
She was interrupted, though, by a surge of magic nearby, powerful enough that she flinched, expecting an immediate onslaught, before sticking her head back out to see what was going on.
"Shit!" she heard Kirika say, and for a moment she couldn't understand what all the magic she was feeling was being spent on. All she saw was that Kirika had summoned her aura of slowed time, an ominous black shell of magic that enshrouded the area. Within it, Mikuru stood completely still behind a wall of ice, hands clasped together, not even trying to move. Yuma had difficulty understanding what Kirika was worried about.
A moment later she felt the air shift again, threatening to blow her away, and so cold it felt like her skin was freezing on the spot.
Then the black shell of Kirika's magic shimmered, wavered—and froze into a sphere of ice, tinged with the eerie blue glint of Mikuru's magic.
The rain! Yuma realized. With time slowed, the water had accumulated at the boundary of Kirika's magical aura, the aura that Mikuru knew Kirika would instinctively cast in defense.
It had turned into a tomb, one that Mikuru could trap Kirika and Oriko in. But what was she—?
In the darkness, it had taken her a moment to peer through the shimmering ice, and through the impurities that ruined the transparency of even the purest rainwater. Despite having a magical girl's vision, she had difficulty seeing what was going on, even with the blue shimmer of Mikuru's magic to aid her.
She saw Kirika in the middle of lunging forward with her claws, trying to reach Mikuru, but frozen in the ice, mid‐action. Yuma could see how it had worked—low temperature, the water already in the air combined with ice summoned from Mikuru's magic. The combination of the two would, through surprise and the physical block of Mikuru's ice wall, prevent Kirika from stopping the event in time. The better move would have been for Kirika to run instead—but that simply wasn't in her nature.
Why had Mikuru frozen herself, though? Perhaps there was simply no way for her to perform the skill without using Kirika's water shell, or perhaps she simply hadn't wanted to bother. Yuma could empathize with that, at least.
A moment later, Yuma saw the blue glow to the ice fade, and felt Mikuru's soul gem disappear from her mental radar. She knew then that Mikuru must have burned out her power performing her last feat.
As she watched, the blue‐clad girl vanished, disappearing into the void, along with much of the ice she had summoned, though the outer shell was still intact. A moment later, Kirika, who had been suspended in mid‐air, fell to the floor and—like a statue knocked off its pedestal—broke into pieces.
Yuma grimaced, feeling Kirika's soul gem usage continue to spike. She wasn't sure even she could have healed the damage—the massive damage that accompanied being totally frozen, cell membranes ruptured, blood vessels snapped—
She put a hand to her mouth, barely managing to suppress the urge to vomit, as a wave of nausea overtook her. Why had she stopped to think about it? Stupid.
But what about Oriko? Her soul gem was still active, but Yuma couldn't see her.
Her eyes were drawn to the far end of the ice shell, where the ice was unusually murky—so murky that Yuma couldn't see through it, or see what was inside.
As if on cue, a loud cracking noise sounded as the recovering demon population attacked what seemed to be the only still‐living magical girl, burning white beams streaking towards the shell of ice, which had begun to break.
And then, a moment later, the ice shattered open almost explosively, Oriko jumping straight upwards in an aura of pure white magic, surrounded by the metal spheres she used as protection.
How did she live through that? Yuma thought, staggered.
Yuma pulled out her remaining packets of grief cubes, three in all. There was, at this point, no reason left to hold onto them. At the moment, all they represented was a drain on her magic.
She tossed all three packets over the edge of the building, triggering them awake, and ran.
There was no way Oriko could survive so many demons, even with future‐sight, she thought. Not without backup. All Yuma had to do was get out of the area—
She stopped, only a block from where she had been.
Where was she going? Wasn't the plan for this to be the end? In that case, what point was there in leaving?
She looked down at her gloved hand, at the embroidered hammer she used as a weapon. Her vision blurred, and she felt herself releasing the iron grip she held over her own thoughts and emotions. It was finally—
You're not even going to watch? Oriko thought, her Onee‐chan's voice filtering into her mind. After all, you put a lot of effort into this. You can't even stand to see your own work? That's not the girl I trained.
Yuma tightened her grip on her hammer, biting her lip.
The rational part of her mind knew she was being manipulated, but it was no longer in control. She couldn't bear to watch, but she couldn't bear not to watch either.
A moment later, she turned around and headed back towards Oriko. Part of her was tempted to release the hold on her magic emissions, to allow the local demons to sense her and give her something to fight, but she still had enough presence of mind to realize Oriko wasn't dead yet, and she needed to wait, just a little longer.
What was she doing? With her parents dead, Oriko and her mansion was the only world she knew, full of food and light and books. Why was she destroying it?
She swallowed the nagging thought, landing on the edge of a roof and peering over it at the position of Oriko's soul gem. Her line of sight was blocked by another building, but she could see a circle of demons forming, and knew that Oriko, with her focus on defensive magic, couldn't break out.
Yuma stared for a long moment, hearing her own breath ring in her ears. Was this it, then? It seemed… so empty.
Finally she stood straight up, allowing the bright scent of her magic to shine against the dark winds of the miasma, and felt the attention of some of the demons turn towards her. She didn't really know what she was doing.
Oriko's soul gem was dimming rapidly.
Yuma screamed, releasing all the rage, hatred, fear, and frustration that lurked in her soul. For months now, she had been unable to reveal her true thoughts, always on guard, never asleep, always fearful that her own soul gem might betray her true emotions. She hadn't even had the outlet of demon hunts to release her feelings, not with the rest of the team providing her grief cubes in exchange for helping run some of Oriko's projects.
Oriko. Onee‐chan. Puppet‐master.
As she dove down towards the tremendous horde of demons, she reflected that she hadn't lied to Mikuru, not really. The way Oriko spoke about the future to Yuma had made it clear, intentionally or not, that Oriko had no expectation of Mikuru or Aina living to see it.
As she fell, she felt the weight of her hammer increasing sharply. It wouldn't increase how fast she fell, but it ensured that when she landed, the impact would be cataclysmic.
She kept her eyes open as she shattered the ground, watching the green shockwave of her magic smash outward, tearing apart ground and building and demon alike. Among the upturned soil and ruined pavement, the broken bodies of dead demons dissolved, raining grief cubes onto the ground. Around her the miasma weakened, just a little, and she knew she was making a dent.
The other demons in the area started to turn towards her, realizing that the bigger threat was not the nearly broken magical girl they had surrounded, but this newcomer, whose power was fresh and whose soul—well, if not unsullied, at least was not completely black.
Yuma stayed constantly in motion, refusing to give them a chance to react, or to get a fix on her position. She danced from cluster to cluster, swinging her hammer with wild abandon, deleting, adding, and deleting mass again, healing any injuries she received immediately with copious magic, just as Oriko had taught her. Yuma was more valuable as a healer than in combat, but when she did enter combat, it was a berserker‐style that was most effective. It had always seemed ironic to her, but at this particular moment it seemed only appropriate.
She fought effectively enough that she was even able to stop, finally, breathing heavily and feeling her soul gem begin to strain. All enemies in her vicinity were dead, leaving her in the gaping eye of a veritable storm of demons that threatened to close in on her at any moment.
Dragging her hammer along the ground as she walked, she headed for her goal. What she was doing was madness, she knew, but for some reason it only felt natural, as if it were the culmination of all she had worked for.
She found Oriko lying supine in the alleyway where she had fallen when Yuma first dove off the roof. Her costume was soaked in an increasingly large pool of blood, and it was clear from the angle of her limbs that she was in no condition to do much else than lie there and try to heal.
Still, though, it was striking that Oriko made no attempt to try to move as Yuma approached.
I can still heal her, Yuma thought.
It would cost a substantial portion of what power she still had, but she could do it. A part of her still longed to.
"Don't even think about healing me," Oriko said, peering at Yuma with cold eyes, startling her with the power of her voice. "It wouldn't save us from all these demons. You might as well keep your power for yourself. You did this, after all—I'm going to have to insist you see it through."
Yuma stood there for a moment, peering down at her mentor. What was it about what Oriko said that disturbed her so much? The implied taunt? Or the fact that, even now, Oriko was still telling her to save her power?
Finally, she collapsed to her knees next to Oriko, grabbing hold of the other girl's collar.
"Why?" she demanded, asking the one question whose answer she didn't know. "Why me? What's special about me?"
Her Onee‐chan laughed, full of all the mirth and charm Yuma had come to love her for.
"You even have to ask?" Oriko said, eyes glimmering. "Look around you! Look at what you've done! Who else could have done better?"
"What do you mean?" Yuma demanded, gritting her teeth.
"Tell me, did you enjoy it?" Oriko asked. "Isolating us, turning us against each other, stacking the deck in your favor? Look at you! You've truly learned everything I've taught you. No one else was capable of destroying us. No one."
"Are you saying—"
"Oh don't shake me so hard, child," Oriko said, grabbing Yuma's wrist with one hand. "My neck is broken, you know. If I were human, you might kill me, moving my head like that. I'd rather last a bit longer here, if you don't mind."
Oriko's eyes lost her focus, and began peering into the distance, staring into the infinite abyss of the future.
"It is oppressive for someone like me, gifted with future‐sight, to be incapable of divining my own future," Oriko whispered, grasping Yuma's arm with inhuman strength. "But that's just how it is right now. I should be able to see it, but I can't. Not now, not ever. I can't see past the eternal veil. I don't know what happens to me after my death. Can it truly be nothing?"
Oriko's grip loosened.
"I hoped that maybe at the end, the darkness might lift, just a little," she said, smiling slightly. "But I guess not."
Yuma felt water drip down her cheeks and realized that it was not the rain.
Oriko reached up for Yuma's cheek to dab the tears with her sleeve, the one that was clean of blood.
Oh, child, she thought. You thought we were monsters, but you're not any different than we were. I will always love you, my very own monster, despite the things I did to you, and you did to me.
A long pause.
But maybe you are better than us, Oriko thought. After all, I still have to help you with this last step.
Oriko raised her other hand, her soul gem in its palm, once luminously white, but now almost—but not quite—dark black.
Before Yuma could react, the bloodied hand spasmed, gripping shut on the soul gem, the shards of Oriko's soul shattering explosively, reminiscent of all of Yuma's nightmares about Oriko killing the girl she had tortured.
And then it was over, and there was only a dead teenager lying in her own blood, and another kneeling next to her, heart empty.
"So you killed them," MG said, looking down into her drink with her one green eye, unnaturally luminescent. She seemed not so much shocked anymore as simply numb, as if there were too many things to be shocked at simultaneously.
"Yes," Yuma said, "though to this day I don't know whether Oriko wanted me to kill them, or whether she even intended for it to happen. She certainly didn't seem very disappointed in me."
"And at the very end, she could certainly tell you were going to live," Mami said, sipping her tea. "That was probably why she told you to save your power."
Yuma looked down into her own drink. This was the kind of revelation that Mami usually didn't take very well, but at this point this was centuries‐old news to her, even if Yuma had not previously shared her memories in quite so much detail. Mami did a lot better when she had time to think about it, but the initial shock…
"It was very good of you all to be able to trust me, even after I told you what happened. I was afraid you wouldn't, for a long, long time. No one likes a girl capable of turning on her team like that."
"You had extenuating circumstances," Mami said, watching Yuma carefully over her cup of tea. "I can't say I wouldn't have done the same against someone like Oriko, though I don't think I would have been able to pull it off like you had. You did everyone a big favor."
Mami blinked, and set down the tea, seemingly done with what she was saying.
No one who did what she did deserves to live, Yuma, Mami thought, without changing expressions. It doesn't matter if you had to be the one to deliver justice, or how you had to do it. There is a difference between being one who starts it, and the one who finishes it.
Internally, Yuma sighed. If only Mami could see everything that way… She couldn't, though. No one could. Not even Yuma, not all the time.
What could she say? That to her killing Oriko and the others would be like Mami killing Sayaka and the others? That wasn't the same, and she knew it. What would saying that even achieve?
"She's being unfair," MG thought, relaying the thought into Yuma's cortical implants. "It bothers you, but I understand."
Yuma looked over at her protégé, or daughter, or whatever it was, and found the AI looking back at her.
"Someday, you might have to run your position without me," Yuma thought. "When that happens, you'll be more ready. And you won't have had to learn the hard way."
"I understand," MG thought. "I think."
Ryouko gasped, finally awakening from her dream within a dream. Before her, the basin was again filled with still, placid water.
"Fire and ice," said the voice of the Goddess. "Like this basin of water, life itself always dances on the edge between too hot and too cold. A crisis is coming. In the original English, crisis was once used to indicate a time of great import, one that can change many things, for better or worse. So too shall it be. But I do believe you now have a body to return to."
Wait! Ryouko thought, but the words themselves died stillborn on her lips, as the water in front of her began to boil…