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

In the most widely‐trumpeted version of events, the role of the "Southern Group" has always been clear. They were the band of villains to match the Mitakihara Four's heroes, and Mikuni Oriko was the James Moriarity to match Akemi Homura's Sherlock Holmes.

In reality, of course, the picture has always been much more clouded. Oriko and her companions were indeed murderers and havoc‐wreakers, terrorizing the other teams in their vicinity and displaying an appalling lack of regard for human life. However, many troublesome details of their actions remain, and invite speculation to this day.

Why, for instance, did such a group adopt Chitose Yuma as a fifth member? Her inclusion went wildly against the grain of the group's previous activities and avowed beliefs, and they invested significant resources including and training a girl who, by all accounts, was not unusually powerful.

Secondly, the life stories of a majority of the group's members share a certain eerie resonance. According to the accounts of other magical girls, Mikuni Oriko, Hinata Aina, and Miroko Mikuru all started their magical careers as vigilantes, with life stories to match. Mikuni was the daughter of a ruined, corrupt politician, and she spent much of her early months tracking down and exposing her father's associates. Hinata was the survivor of a murder‐arson, and Miroko the victim of a rape, and they both achieved vengeance on the perpetrators before embarking on a brief period of targeting other criminals. All three of them eventually became erratic, starting to kill people for the most minor of crimes, with only Oriko appearing to have maintained any semblance of a grip.

Still, despite all their unstable behavior, they all had at least slight justification for their murders. Things changed with the formation of the Southern Group, with a sudden radical shift of focus: the group began to focus primarily on other magical girls, and to kill those who in many cases appeared to be innocent. In other words, they became fully "evil", a change of behavior which to this day has little explanation.

Finally, and perhaps most intriguingly, there is a distinct pattern to be found in these later killings. The magical girls who were their victims were almost always the most erratic, asocial, or aggressive members of their teams, assuming they were even part of a team. That is, those that were killed were often the most obvious recruits for their own group, though it must be stressed that in a slight minority of cases no such connection could be found.

〈Overshadowing it all is the specter of Oriko's precognition, as by all accounts she was one of the most powerful of her generation, before the unexplained extinction of her magic class. It is baffling to many observers that she would die to a simple demon attack, no matter how massive, or that anyone with knowledge of the future would act as randomly as she seemed to. Many have suggested instead that it was her view of the future that led the Southern Group to undertake the actions that it did, and that it was she who insisted on Yuma's preservation.〉③

〈Viewed in this light, then, Yuma's survival becomes singularly intriguing. So too is the observation that in the official account, the Southern Group was integral in shaping the Mitakihara Four, compelling Kyouko and Mami to put aside their differences and reunite, and forcing them and several other teams in the area to cooperate on a limited scale. The specter of the group's depredations would figure large in the initial Charter of the MSY and, of course, Yuma would be an integral member of both the Mitakihara Four and the MSY.〉③

— Clarisse van Rossum, MG, "Ruminations on the Mitakihara Four," online essay.

Kyouko opened her eyes, staring up at the wooden ceiling of the cramped alcove where she slept. What had she been dreaming about?

…Submarines? A mermaid?

Ugh, my dreams never make any sense, she thought.

Her bed creaked as she sat up, steadying herself using the nearby desk.

She reached for the switch to the nearby lamp. She would never admit it to anyone, but the reason she liked her room cramped and old‐fashioned wasn't from stubbornness or being old, as she liked to imply to anyone who inquired, but simply because it reminded her of the room she had slept in as a child.

They had lived simple lives, even more so when her father had been excommunicated. Goddess only knew how he had held onto the church building, but he had, somehow, and all she and her sister had been told was that it had taken a great deal of money. Money they didn't really have.

It wasn't as unlikely as it sounded. They had been anomalous already, her father an outpost in an isolated parish, one who had already done much to antagonize the Church, though that had been with his zeal rather than his heresy. Perhaps they had been so glad to wash their hands of him they were willing to give him a parting gift.


She remembered how happy she and her sister had been, when her parents had hauled in a new bunk bed for them to share. Before, they had simply shared the same cramped mattress, which had been very annoying—even if she secretly found it comforting.

Her father had smiled at them then, a little sweaty from assembling the thing himself, an ecclesial man unused to that kind of work.

That was the other reason she stayed in this room. It reminded her of what it had been like to have nothing, why she had made a wish in the first place. It was stabilizing. Humbling, when it was so easy to lose herself in all the baser pleasures of life.

"Five more minutes," the girl who had been sleeping next to her mumbled sleepily, flailing at her with one arm. The way she did it, grasping and flinging blindly, it wasn't clear if she was trying to pull her back or push her away.

It was Maki, the youngest of her pupils, only twenty-one.

Honestly, Kyouko wasn't sure why she still felt the need to do this. Did she miss her childhood, the comfort of having someone sleep next to her? Was she dissatisfied with something?

She shook her head. She didn't know.

Like so many others her age, she had been through a hedonist stage. It had been roughly two centuries ago, right after Unification, when all the hard tasks of the Union had been finished. Then, like all those others, she had let loose, immersing herself in a daily cycle of drink, partying, and secret liaisons with girls a fraction of her age. Seduction had been simple—there was something about being so old that made it easy to do.

Eventually, it lost its appeal, but not before soiling her reputation species‐wide. Mami was nicer about it, but Kyouko had been forced to endure endless smirks and jokes from Homura and Yuma. You'd think Yuma, at least, would lay back about it, but no, it was always Kyouko who had to be the butt of jokes. Yuma was untouchable.

Not that Kyouko didn't help to perpetrate that. Yuma was the imouto. You didn't mess with that.

Outwardly, she called their teasing slander, but inwardly she knew all those rumors had a certain basis in fact.

Regardless, all of that was ancient history now. She had a new purpose in life, even if she occasionally returned to old habits.

It wasn't too bad. She was careful about consent.

"You don't even need to sleep anymore, Maki," Kyouko said, standing up, turning around and nudging the girl with her knee. "It was a one‐hour nap. Theoretically, that should last you the month. Suck it up, flip the switch, and get up. You have patrol duty."

She looked at the girl, who was still stubbornly keeping her eyes closed. The position of the bedsheet on her body revealed a lot more than was proper.

Kyouko swallowed. Why did this one have to look so much like Sa—

"Ugh, have it your way," Kyouko said abruptly, grabbing her clothes off her chair and thrusting them on efficiently. She projected annoyance and impatience, but really she was just trying to get out of there as fast as possible.

She shut the door behind her on her way out and headed for the front of the building.

As she walked, she bridged the transition from the dark, old‐fashioned, and modest rear of the building to the bright, modern, and cheerful front. Architecturally, the whole building was about such contrasts, between light and dark, hope and despair. It befit the main church of the Cult. Or the Church, rather.

She headed down a hallway, greeting members of the Church she passed. The wall to her right was full stained glass, a luxury her father's original church could never have afforded. The blossoming sunrise poured in, illuminating the hallway and its pedestrians in shades of red, green, blue, purple, and yellow.

It seemed a little dimmer than usual, though.

"Good morning, Kyouko," Patricia said, as they passed each other in the hallway. The girl signaled that she wanted to talk.

"Good morning," Kyouko returned, stopping to face her. What did she want?

"Who was it today?" Patricia asked, smiling vaguely, face illuminated by the sunlight.

"I don't know what you're talking about," Kyouko responded automatically, annoyed. "But if she doesn't come out in the next fifteen minutes, go in there and kick her awake."

"Sure," Patricia said, tilting her head and shrugging her shoulders. They both knew that, in practice, nothing of the sort would happen. Instead, Maki was guaranteed to be up within the next ten minutes, attitude notwithstanding. Anything later, and she would miss patrol duty, and despite the unique location where her particular patrol group was situated, regulations still applied. No pupil of Kyouko would be so stupid.

"Anyway, I'm going to be meeting Ryouko‐chan at one with Asaka," Patricia said, putting her finger to her cheek. "Since I'm an enhancement specialist and all of that. Thought you'd want to know. And uh, Sister Clarisse wants to know if you'll be doing morning sermon today. Since you missed last night."

The higher tiers of the Cult hierarchy were addressed "Sister". Kyouko had started the practice, way back when she had been organizing the Cult. It made sense, after all. At first it had seemed cheesy, even to her, but eventually they had all gotten used to it.

However, Kyouko skipped using the title. She was Kyouko. Everyone knew her. And she absolutely refused to be called "Mother" by anyone.

"Tell her I'll be doing afternoon instead," Kyouko said. "I've got places to go."

"The visitors will be disappointed," Patricia chastened, voice carrying a slight hint of reprove. "Some of them came just to see you, and will have to go back before the afternoon."

"I know," Kyouko said, bowing and conveying sincere regret. "But it's important. Convey my apologies."

Patricia nodded, then turned to continue heading down the hallway. The whole thing could have been handled by electronic message or telepathy, but the Cult liked to be old‐fashioned in certain ways.

She continued on her way out of the building. It was actually faster to head out the secret back entrance, the way Mami had entered yesterday, but she needed to be seen. She greeted Sisters, Acolytes, worshippers, clasping hands, nodding politely, and pronouncing benedictions.

She even stopped outside the grand double door of the Hall of the Ribbon to say nice things about a baby some girl had brought in, since it never hurt to say nice things.

It did bother her just a little, though. Yes, girls with service waivers or restricted service, usually government officials or Union administrators, could nowadays much more easily do something crazy like raise a family, but that didn't make it a good idea. It made those on active duty jealous.

This war was already damaging the egalitarianism atmosphere of the organization enough. There was no need to aggravate it further.


Flag that topic for review later. I might want to bring it up at the next Theological Council meeting. Also, remind me to think about it and maybe talk about it in the afternoon sermon. And start stressing the magical girl solidarity harder.

Acknowledged, her tactical computer—her TacComp—thought, its thoughts mechanical and unemotional. Sometimes Kyouko wondered if she should apply to get one of those new fancy models, like the one Mami had.

She kept putting it off, though, and in the end, what did it matter anyway? Innovations like always got spread methodically down the ranks, and a Lieutenant General like her would probably get called in for an upgrade in two years or so. She would get it then no matter what.

Kyouko eschewed the large main entrance, though. She needed to be seen, yes, but this particular day, she'd rather it not be widely known where she was going.

Thus, she skirted around the edge of the main assembly hall, smiling and waving as she passed the side door—then ducked into an elevator recessed behind the back wall.

Aboveground, this building was the main church of the Cult of Hope, from the rear defined by the same ancient architectural style that had once defined her father's church, and from the front defined by the glassy and metallic architecture typical of newly constructed buildings.

Belowground, it was a fully‐stocked MSY Military Armory, complete with weapons, hospital wards, living areas, and production facilities. Even farther belowground, it connected with the Mitakihara region's last "Redoubt", built in case of the unthinkable: a siege of Earth itself.

Her elevator was one of many scattered throughout the building, and she was thus obliged to share it with only one other girl, a member of the same patrol group as Maki, heading down to join the others. They chatted, and the girl mentioned that she was concerned Maki hadn't shown up for breakfast with the others.

Kyouko kept a straight face.

Thankfully, Kyouko's destination was only the first floor, counting downward.

A quick turn to the right, about ten feet of walking, then another turn right through a waiting door, and she was where she wanted to be: a narrow platform carved out of the edge of an underground tunnel, walls plastered from floor to ceiling by a mosaic of paper, each individual sheet decorated with amateur artwork. It had been one of the social activities of the Armory's residents—all magical girls, naturally.

This tunnel was one of many leading into and out of the building. The underground entrances were only available to residents, and those magical girls and officials who had business to be there. All others used the main entrance to the church aboveground. Indeed, unless you expressly specified which entrance you wanted, the transports would always take you to the main entrance. These underground entrances weren't very well‐known.

She inspected the artwork on the wall, hand on chin. It was "amateur", but that did not mean the art was bad. Some of it was amazingly good. It had to do with how old the girl in question was, and how much they had practiced. Scattered among the drawings one could see many excellent drawings: Incubators, soul gems, magical girls in battle, Field Marshal Mami smiling and looking out over the bridge of her flagship—the HSS Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov—and Kyouko standing in front of a congregation giving one of her sermons, with a lot more light and halos than she thought she had.

Kyouko focused her attention on one in particular. In well‐rendered watercolor, it depicted Homura with her white angel wings furled around her, trying to kneel, but being refused.

The one doing the refusing was the Goddess, of course, in all the vague detail that they knew about her. As was traditional, the face was frustratingly blank. In twenty years of ribbon‐induced visions, no one had ever managed to see her face. The only one who could fill in the blank was Homura, the one whose return they awaited.

Whoever the artist was, she definitely kept up with the latest visions. There was the long‐flowing hair, the white robes, the slight hint of wings—

Kyouko frowned. It was traditional to depict the Goddess in all white because, well, that was she looked like, to most who saw her. Vague, mist‐like, white—Kyouko had seen it herself.

With finesse and care, the hair was tinged just a hint of otherworldly pink.

That wasn't in any of the official descriptions. And Kyouko, of all people, would definitely know. And was her hair ever depicted as that long?

She squinted, looking for an artist name—and started.

"Kishida Maki," it said.

Goddess, she thought. I didn't know she was this good. I just thought—

She interrupted herself, then continued on a different train of thought.

But she's never had a vision…

Kyouko considered what to do.

Kyouko fired off a quick message to Maki, text‐only, inquiring about the long and pink hair.

No response. Was the girl still sleeping?

A while later, she let out a breath. Well, it was nice to see the girls were having fun.

Kyouko turned to face her vehicle, which had been waiting for her the whole time, of course.

"You want to talk, Onee‐chan?" Yuma had said, when Kyouko had called her earlier that morning. "How convenient! I happen to be in Mitakihara today, and—well, nevermind all that other stuff, I can carve some time out. How does two hours sound? At MSY: GA, of course."

It had been convenient, since Kyouko hadn't even had to explain that she wanted a physical meeting, for security purposes.

Kyouko stepped into the metal, cone‐shaped transport.

Strictly, it was probably a better idea to travel by foot off‐grid, as Mami had done, but she could probably rely on Yuma to wipe the records of her travel if she asked.

"Just a reminder," her vehicle intoned as she stepped into it, in the sort of pleasantly female mechanical voice that all transportation agencies loved. "Scheduled rain begins in five minutes. Ensure that you are prepared."

Aw hell, Kyouko thought. It was sunny just a moment ago!

Well, another reason to be glad she wasn't taking any walks.

With a thought, she signaled the vehicle to get on its way.

Kyouko slid her chair downward so she could stare up at the simulated blue sky on the interior of her vehicle cover. Bright and sunny, with birds and things like that.

When Yuma had turned fifteen, they had taken a three‐day trip to the countryside. It had been a complicated endeavor. Extremely complicated, given that they'd had to stockpile grief cubes for weeks, then blow it all compensating the University Group to cover their territory for three days, and they also had been obliged to contact every team whose territory they would pass through to telegraph their benign intentions ahead of time.

Without the Southern Group, things were much easier, though. With them still present, such a trip would have been unthinkable.

They had stayed with a local mage they had gotten in touch with, the one overseeing the sparsely populated area. She had been glad for the company, and the small gift of grief cubes hadn't hurt either.

It had been worth it, though. Every one of them was city‐born and bred, and Yuma had looked so happy, running through the grass and hugging annoyed‐looking sheep, that it had made Kyouko's heart ache.

They had kept it a secret from her beforehand, since if she had known she would certainly have told them to call it off. But Yuma had told them once about her childhood, how her only trip out of the city was also one of her only happy memories with her parents.

They could all understand the importance of memories like that, and even Homura had gotten unusually sentimental, wishing out loud that the Goddess could be there with them—which incidentally broke the ban they had placed on her talking about the Goddess in front of their new host, but nevermind.

Kyouko wondered what kind of girl the Goddess had been. She had been Human once, like all of them. That, at least, Homura had made abundantly clear.

Bright, cheerful, selfless, willing to sacrifice herself to save others from pain. That was what Homura had implied, and all she and her theologians had to go by, but it was strangely easy to extrapolate what kind of girl she must have been. Loving and pure, like a Goddess, but human nonetheless…

Kyouko sighed. There had always been something beautiful about the concept, but she had been too cynical to believe, until it was too late.

Homura, where have you gone?

The bright blue sky faded away, replaced by a maze of transparent tunnels networking themselves before a sky gray with storm clouds and distant rain, rain that blurred her view of the world as she emerged onto surface level, where there were no tunnel walls to shield her.

The tunnels swarmed with countless vehicles, carrying the denizens of the city to and fro. From this far down, it was impossible to get a clear view of the sky, no matter how the material engineers fussed about making the tunnel material ever‐more crystal‐clear. The only way they could have possibly de‐obscured the sky was if they had used military‐grade cloaking.

The tunnels were the most visceral reminder that this wasn't truly the city of her childhood.

They had always treasured Yuma, spoiled her, even. They were all young, had all undergone more than their fair share in life, but none had been as young as her.

Kyouko thought about all that had happened.

For Kyouko, the girl had reminded her of her sister, and that had been more than enough.

The first time she spotted Yuma had been shortly after Homura first joined their team, weeks before the girl's mysterious change of personality.

Kyouko had been showing the new girl the ropes, stalking a group of demons near the edge of their territory. Jumping among the rooftops in bright daylight, Kyouko had been instructing Homura on the fine art of demon‐tracking.

Stop, Kyouko instructed, more direct than usual, grinding to a halt on top of a ventilation module. Get down here.

"What is it?" Homura asked, appearing above her, feathery white wings casting a shadow downward. She hovered for a moment before abolishing the wings, dropping down next to Kyouko, pigtails fluttering behind her.

Kyouko pulled out her brand‐new cell phone. Mami was too far to use telepathy, so they'd just have to use something more technological.

"Mami. Sorry to disturb. Southern Group infringing territory. Come at once. Will wait for you. Ask Kyubey for position," Kyouko typed out carefully, still a little unused to the interface.

For all its smug refusal to "take sides", Kyubey had always been helpful against the Southern Group, even volunteering advice occasionally.

It had even explained once, pointing out that the Southern Group killed far more girls than the average group and insisted on taking a territory too large for them to fully cleanse, leading routinely to demon attacks that dissipated uselessly before any girls got there to claim any cubes. It was very inefficient, it had opined, and the Incubators regretted contracting Mikuni Oriko.

"What's going on?" Homura asked, peering into Kyouko's face. They had convinced her to fix her eyes and remove her glasses—such a safety hazard!—but old habits were hard to break.

"Focus," Kyouko said. "You can feel them, can't you? Fighting the demons."

Homura turned to look at the horizon. She furrowed her nose.

"Yes," she said. "Other girls?"

"Not just any girls," Kyouko explained, glancing at her phone and Mami's "I will be there in ten minutes." "The Southern Group. The one we've been telling you about. The ones that don't play by the rules. Keep your magic use down."

"Oh," Homura said, in that meek way she had. "Too bad."

Kyouko closed her eyes, trying to sort out the constantly shifting mess of magic in the distance. Demons, yes, obviously, and there was Kure Kirika, and Mikuni Oriko, and that goddamn psycho Hinata Aina, and—

Kyouko stopped, tilting her head.

A new girl! she thought. Or at least, one I've never seen before. This could be interesting.

"So what now?" Homura asked. "Do we talk to them?"

"From now on, we only use private telepathy," Kyouko instructed. "Unless we have a good reason to let them hear us when we confront them."

"We're con—confronting them?" Homura asked.

Kyouko smiled devilishly.

"They're no need to be scared," she reassured. "Just follow our lead. They don't know about you. With you on our side, I think we'll give them a little roughing up."

Kyouko sensed something approaching to their left. It was Mami.

Kyouko! Homura! I'm in telepathy range, Mami thought, tone demanding. What's the situation?

They're testing our patience again, Kyouko thought. Killing demons on our territory.

The Southern Group had been trouble ever since Mami first encountered them, back during the brief interim when Kyouko had broken their mentor‐student bond. Initially, it hadn't been a group; it had just been Oriko and Kirika, the two seeming to find glee in tormenting Mami by denying her grief cubes and attacking her out of nowhere.

Mami could have taken Kirika, or even maybe Oriko, alone, but the two of them were entirely too much.

The breaking point had come when they had trashed Mami's apartment, seemingly out of the pure joy of vandalism. Mami had cried in the ruins of her life, among her shattered teapots and broken furniture, then done something entirely unwise: she had attacked them.

To perform her attack, Mami had traveled far enough south that Kyouko was able to pick up the signals of her attacks from where she was—which wasn't as impressive as it sounded, considering that Kyouko was fairly well tuned to Mami, and Mami had been practically going nova.

What Kyouko saw personally, when she finally got there, was the look of unvarnished fury on Mami's face as she attacked the other two girls, summoning muskets as if they were candy, pulling Tiro Finale after Tiro Finale, too enraged to even say her trademark catchphrase.

It had been disturbing, because up until that point Kyouko had no idea Mami could even be enraged. It just didn't seem possible.

And of course, Mami was losing anyway, because something like that was just unsustainable.

So, despite all the reasons she had given for leaving Mami behind, she moved in, confident that whatever was going on, it couldn't possibly be Mami that was in the wrong, even if Mami was looking fairly murderous.

In the end, Oriko and Kirika had backed off, and it was left to Kyouko to put Mami back together, help clean up her apartment, and to draw on her own grief cube stocks to make up for some of the power Mami had used.

She knew what it was like, to have one's home destroyed.

After that, Oriko hadn't left her alone either. Kyouko had no home for them to trash, but the constant attacks drained her resolve. Mami kept showing up to "pay back" grief cubes, obviously desperate to patch things back together, and Kyouko had started shifting her territory northward, almost out of necessity.

It was then that the Southern Group had really emerged, Oriko and Kirika appearing one day in her territory with two other girls from who knows where, both of whom managed the prodigious feat of being even more insane than Kirika.

There was Hinata Aina, always laughing and bragging about how she would burn everything, "purify them all of their sins with her cleansing fire." She took glee in killing, and always talked about how much they had all deserved to die.

Miroko Mikuru was a lot quieter, but was hardly any better, muttering to herself telepathically about the serenity of cold, how much better it would be if they could all be like her ice. Or at least Kyouko had wished she would mutter it to herself. It would have been a lot less unnerving.

Kyouko knew when the jig was up. She fled back to Mitakihara and rejoined Mami.

It made sense, too. In the aftermath of her… personal tragedy, she had told Mami that she was better off without her, but that had turned out to be manifestly untrue. Even Kyouko couldn't deny that the both of them would be dead soon if they didn't team up.

And if she was nothing else, she was a survivor. That, at least, she had decided.

But even with the two of them allied, they still couldn't really maintain the integrity of their territory. Four versus two was a bit much, especially when one of those four could foresee the future and relayed combat directives to the others.

All they could afford to do was keep themselves alive, harvest grief cubes, and grit their teeth as the others traipsed the edges of their territory, daring them to attack.

But with Homura, things would change.

Are they all there? Mami thought back.

No. Miroko Mikuru seems to not be with them, but they have someone new.

Someone new? Mami thought, with a slight tinge of concern. That could be trouble.

Yes, Kyouko thought. But we have to take this chance, with one of them missing. And now that we have three, we have to give them a warning to stay the hell out. If we stay away just because we're not sure what powers this new girl has, we'll look weak and cowardly.

I agree, Mami thought, as Kyouko knew she would. Plus, they might have noticed Homura already, so there's a good chance we're not keeping any secrets anymore.

Not to mention I doubt we're really going to trip up Mikuni Oriko and her annoying precognition, Kyouko added.

Yes, Mami thought.

"Alright, Homura," Kyouko said, looking the girl next to her in the eye. "Remember what we said about them, especially Oriko. We're not springing any surprises on them, so don't take any risks. I know you haven't fought any other girls before, but we might not have to. Hopefully, once Oriko sees what kind of power you have, they'll back off."

"What if they don't?" Homura asked, eyes slightly fearful.

"Just do your best," Kyouko said, smiling reassuringly. "Since you're new, just stay back, make sure to keep us covered with your aura, and fire some arrows when you can. Be careful about your soul gem; demons might not know to target it, but you can bet they do."

"Okay," Homura said, nodding with a determined expression.

Kyouko strategically left out the fact that, if Oriko were intentionally going into a fight, she probably expected to win, and if someone who could see the future expected to win…

Goddamn, what an annoying power! Kyouko thought.

"Good afternoon, Sakura‐san, Akemi‐san," Mami said, dropping down behind them, polite as ever.

"Let's go, then," Kyouko said, propelling herself forward. "Magic usage to a minimum. No wings. Let's at least try to surprise them."

"I'm not used to this running," Homura complained, barely managing to keep up.

In almost no time at all, they were there, inside the miasma, looking down at a horde of demons trying to focus their attacks on a pair of girls in their midst, and failing to hit anything. As they watched, Kirika tore apart a pair with her claws, jumped, twirled elegantly in the air, and landed outside the group, turning to face them. The movement of the lead demons slowed perceptibly, and Kirika easily dodged their beams, aided partly by relayed foresight. The demons in the rear tried to move forward, bunching up behind the lead demons and getting trapped in turn in the slowed time field.

The second girl, dressed in scarlet darker than Kyouko's, darted away from the group she had been distracting, propelling herself next to the slowed demons with shocking speed, riding two jets of flame, exactly as if she were wearing rocket boots. She raised her blood‐red scepter with its ball of fire, and the cluster of demons shot up in towering inferno, the summoner giggling with pleasure.

Hinata the Fire‐mage, the Scarlet, the Insane, who had in her past a long trail of charcoaled bodies, "cleansed" by her fire. Kyouko had no clue how Oriko had managed to convince her to join a team.

Behind Kirika, a safe distance away on the sidewalk, Oriko stood watching silently, like a white phantom. At her side, holding her hand, was the new girl, clad in green.

She's so young! Kyouko thought, aghast. How is she there? A team like this would kill her as soon as look at her.

It could be a deception, Mami thought levelly. She could have manipulated her age downward. It'd fit. Oriko's team is rather eccentric.

I don't think so, Kyouko thought. Look at them! I don't think Kirika would tolerate anyone but a kid holding Oriko's hand like that.

It's not safe to make assumptions like that, Sakura‐san, Mami thought. Anyway, it seems we haven't been noticed. Time to make our entrance. We're landing on that smaller building over there. Long‐range bombardment, girls!

A burst of magic from Homura, and Kyouko felt a sudden rush of power, warm and addictive. Homura's aura.

They jumped into the air. Homura spread her wings and readied a full flight of arrows. Kyouko extended her arm, a blizzard of spears appearing among and around them, ready to dive. Mami extended both her arms, filling in the gaps with her muskets, nearly darkening the sky.

Then she summoned her signature giant musket‐cannon, four times her size and, like everything else, aimed downward.

"Tiro Finale!" she yelled full‐force, and the street around the four girls of the Southern Group bellowed and exploded under a hellfire of musket balls, impossibly fast and sharp spears, and purple arrows. The street repair crew would have had a lot of unexplained work to do tonight, were it not for the miasma and its distorting effects on reality.

Kyouko and Mami landed gracefully on the building below them, followed moments later by Homura, landing softly with her wings.

They dodged, Kyouko telegraphed to Homura, in case she relaxed too much.

"That was pretty impressive," Kirika said, jumping onto the ceiling where they were standing, seven meters in front of them. She licked one of her claws, in that disturbing habit of hers.

Of course they had dodged. It was too much to expect that a team headed by Mikuni Oriko would ever be surprised. She had merely warned them to move at the last moment, when her time‐sense or whatever it was tingled.

No, if they were ever to defeat a team like that, it could only be by attrition.

"You burned a lot of magic on that light show," Hinata Aina said, voice taunting, appearing next to Kirika. "Even Tiro Finale. That was stupid of you. Now you're easier to kill."

"Believe what you want," Mami said, in that chilly aristocratic way she had.

Finally, Oriko herself arrived, along with the mysterious green child. From the way the child stood with her mace‐hammer, nervous and unsteady but trying to hide it, Kyouko was instantly sure she really was as young as she looked.

"Who's the new ward?" Mami asked, sneering. "I wasn't aware you were in the habit of raising fresh meat."

"Fresh Meat" was Mikuru's terminology. In one sentence, Mami was reminding them that they were missing a member, and also pointing out their anomalous behavior. As for the sneer—well, Oriko always did bring out the best in Mami.

"I could say the same to you," Oriko said, matching aristocratic iciness with aristocratic iciness. "But it is the kind of silly thing you would do, isn't it? I'll have you know Yuma‐chan here is quite powerful."

As Mami and Oriko continued their grandstanding, Kyouko listened to it with one ear, but focused her attention on something else entirely.

You, new girl, she thought, sealing the thought into a private channel. Yuma, is it?

It's Chitose‐san to you, the girl thought back, looking Kyouko in the eyes, trying to project hostility but not quite succeeding.

Kyouko was absolutely certain now.

What's a new contractee like you doing with girls like these? Kyouko thought, carefully watching Oriko instead of Yuma. I'll warn you right now: they're all insane. You're not going to live long, sticking with them.

Kyouko noted the girl's angry reaction.

They saved my life! There's no way they're bad people!

Instead of saying anything, Kyouko sent an incredulous laugh.

Did they now? Must have been an accident. You'll see how bad they are soon enough.

I told you—

Listen, you sound like a nice girl, Kyouko interrupted. You probably won't believe me, but we're nice girls too. Nicer than the ones you're with. Mami's not bluffing. We could take the four of you. If you switched sides, it'd be a cakewalk.

From the corner of her eye, Kyouko watched the other girl curl her lip. This wasn't going to work.

Kyouko sighed, internally. Oh well. It had been worth the shot.

"So if you don't leave our territory and never come back," Mami was threatening, "we will not hesitate to kill you."

Better us than that crazy bitch next to you, Kyouko thought.

"You take that back!" Yuma snapped, brandishing her mace. "How dare you insult Onee‐chan!"

Her eyes were fiery and she was clearly doing her best to restrain herself from attacking.

Such a newbie, Kyouko thought. And 'Onee‐chan'? That's… interesting.

Yuma stepped forward, only to find Oriko's hand already blocking her path.

"It's okay, Yuma‐chan," she said, voice reassuring. "We're leaving."

"What?" Aina demanded, turning to face Oriko, face twisted with sudden anger and frustration. "We're going to run? I could take these idiots alone!"

"No you couldn't," Oriko intoned icily. "Or are you questioning me? We won't win this fight. The new girl is too powerful. Better to just leave."

"Are you serious?" the scarlet mage asked. "We outnumber them!"

Oriko made a strange expression, as if to say "Who's the one with the precognition here?"

"Yes," Oriko said, almost sighing. "Let's just go."

She turned and jumped off the building, followed by Yuma, Kirika, and—reluctantly—Hinata Aina, who turned to give them a sneering look before leaving. As she did so, she summoned a fireball in her hand and dramatically extinguished it, as if to say "I could easily do this to you."

"Incidentally, you haven't seen the last of us!" Oriko shouted as they departed.

As if that really made their departure any less embarrassing.

They waited for a long moment as the other four girls' magical signatures faded.

"Well," Mami said, turning to Kyouko. "That went quite well, I daresay. What did you say to, uh, Yuma, though?"

"It's Chitose," Kyouko said nonchalantly. "I just invited her to switch sides. That's all."

Mami gave Kyouko a look.

"It was probably worth it, but you could have at least said something to the rest of us."

"Didn't have any time," Kyouko explained, shrugging. "I was right, though. She is new. They saved her life, for who knows what reason, so she's still in hero‐worship mode. I feel sorry for her."

Mami sighed.

"Well, maybe we'll get another chance," she said, fiddling pointlessly with part of her hair. "Kyubey says our territory could easily support a fourth, if having a fourth let us kill demons more efficiently."

"Those girls are definitely weird," Homura said appraisingly, piping up for the first time in a while. "But I don't get the feeling like Mikuni is a bad person."

"Mikuni destroyed almost everything I own," Mami warned, voice containing more than a hint of a growl. "And she's killed plenty of people. If anyone deserves to die, it's her."

With an angry and brisk turn away, she stepped forward and jumped off the building, down towards the street, leaving them behind.

"I don't get Oriko either," Kyouko said, shrugging and moving to follow. "But like Mami said, she's killed plenty of people, and we aren't here to play psychologist. Don't let your sympathy get in the way of what needs to be done."

Her tactical computer startled her from her reverie.

Maki had finally seen fit to respond.

"The long pink hair?" her youngest pupil asked, seemingly bemused. "That was Asaka‐san's suggestion, when she saw it. She said it was the proper color and length. I thought it was weird, since everyone does it in pure white, but she insisted. It looks nice, don't you think? I think I did a good job."

Kyouko made an exasperated gesture with her left hand.

"Yes, you should have mentioned it!" she relayed back. "Use your head for once! Pink… if we can get her to confirm this, then we'll have our first color! That has theological implications, you know. Pink isn't exactly a normal hair color."

Really, that girl could be aggravating sometimes. She knew that Asaka had a vision in her history, and loved being secretive about it. If that girl was insisting on pink…

And the nerve of that Shirou Asaka! Keeping something like this to herself!

Gritting her teeth slightly, Kyouko tried to get back to what she had been thinking about.

The next time Kyouko saw Yuma up‐close was months later, long after Sayaka's death and Homura's "change".

They had encountered the Southern Group several times, of course, but Yuma was always mysteriously missing.

It had been a complete coincidence, one of life's unaccountable strokes of chance.

She had been walking home—back to Mami's place—with a bag full of food in one hand and a piece of half‐eaten taiyaki in the other, generally feeling good about the world. After all, it was hard to stay depressed about anything with the prospect of a full stomach in front of you.

She still had one more errand, though. Mami's towel rack had buckled and collapsed the day before, the victim of an over‐enthusiastic tug by Kyouko. Left to her own devices, Kyouko would have just left it, but Mami wasn't the kind of person to tolerate something like that.

So here she was, walking into one of those giant hardware stores with a bag of groceries and a slip of paper informing her what kind of replacement rack she needed.

She remembered the first time she had been here, helping Mami finish restoring her apartment after the Oriko incident. Back then, it had been an experience completely alien to her, and even now she had to admit feeling a bit overwhelmed looking at the rows and rows of mysterious‐looking metal objects.

I'm only here for one thing, Kyouko thought, biting off another mouthful of red bean pastry. And worst case scenario, I just ask someone. It can't be that hard.

Something—or someone, rather—ran into her side.

Well, it served her right for standing in the doorway gawking like an idiot.

"Sorry—" she began automatically, looking down.

"No, it's my fault," the child below her interrupted. "I wasn't look—"

Kyouko and Yuma stared straight into each other's eyes for a long moment, Kyouko's mouth still biting into the fish‐pastry.

Yuma's eyes widened, and she began tensing to bolt.

Kyouko reacted faster, grabbing the girl by the hand. Muffling the girl's mouth, she dragged her out of the doorway, picked the girl and her bag up into her arms like a child, and rushed around the corner into an alley with just a hint of unnatural speed.

The most natural thing in the world, picking up a random child and running off with her in an embrace that was actually a subtle form of restraint.

Totally natural.

She really hoped no one had been watching. At the very least, she'd have to go back later and destroy the security feed. Just like the good old days…

Let me go, you bitch! the girl in her arms thought. What the hell are you doing?

Kyouko recoiled at the unexpected language. Well, hanging around the Southern Group must have some side effects, after all.

I could ask you the same thing, Yuma‐chan, Kyouko thought. This is our territory. Usually we ignore girls running errands, but you should know your group is an exception. Your hero Oriko destroyed Mami's apartment, which is definitely off‐limits. We've warned you.

Who said you could call me Yuma‐chan? the girl demanded. Let me go!

Only if you promise not to run or scream, Kyouko thought. I'm not here to hurt you. I just want to talk. Or do you want to waste magic seeing whether you can break my hold?

The girl looked back up at her with a sullen look, but not one filled with unusual anger or hatred. Kyouko had read her character correctly.

Fine, the child thought.

Kyouko let go of the girl's mouth and, when she didn't scream, set her back down to the floor.

For a moment, Kyouko could see the girl consider fleeing.

So like I said, I'm not going to hurt you, Kyouko thought, before the girl could finish thinking about it.

She would have verbalized it, but she figured she probably shouldn't mention anything about threatening little girls out loud.

What do you want? Yuma thought, eyes darting around, still trying to spot an escape route.

"How's life?" Kyouko asked, inspecting the tail of her taiyaki. Fortunately, she hadn't lost any pieces of it in the recent chain of events.

"What?" Yuma said, looking up at her blankly.

"I mean it," Kyouko said, looking at her carefully. "How's life? I imagine it can't be very peachy, having to work with a bunch of crazy girls like that. Tell me you at least don't live with any of them."

Watching her eyes, Kyouko caught the slight glimmer of pain.

"It's fine," Yuma said, voice still wary and hostile. "And if you must know, I live with Oriko. She's very nice."

She didn't dispute Kyouko's "crazy" assertion this time, she noted. Also, despite everything, Yuma wasn't treating her as a complete enemy, or she wouldn't have said so much. How did a girl like this get mixed in with Oriko?

"You're lying," Kyouko said point‐blank.

She scanned Yuma's face for more clues, spotting a slight cringe and again, that glimmer of pain.

Kyouko gritted her teeth slightly.

"Tell me they at least didn't do anything to you," she said, letting a bit of sympathetic anger show. "Girls like that wouldn't tolerate you around, at least not without Oriko holding their reins."

"They didn't!" Yuma said, too fast, looking Kyouko in the eye, eyes wide like a deer caught in the headlights. "Oriko protects me."

"Oriko can't be there all the time," Kyouko said. "She can't foresee everything."

"Of course she can," Yuma said, indignant. "She's Oriko."

Ah, right, touché, Kyouko thought to herself.

She took a moment to swallow the last of her pastry.

"I hear the Financial District girls had a member disappear on them recently," Kyouko said, shifting topics slightly. "You wouldn't happen to know anything about that, would you?"

A strong flash of anguish in Yuma's eyes, and Kyouko knew she was right.

Yuma didn't say anything, of course. She just stood there chewing her lip.

"My offer is still good, you know," Kyouko offered, stepping forward slightly. "You could join us anytime. You could do it right now, in fact. You don't have to stay with them."

She watched as Yuma pulled at her skirt.

"I can't," the girl said, looking away. "I can't leave Oriko like that. I—"

The girl shook her head sharply.

After a long moment, Kyouko sighed, leaning back against the wall.

"What does Oriko want with a bunch of wires anyway?" Kyouko asked. She had seen the contents of the bag Yuma was carrying—could still see it, actually.

Yuma stepped backward just a little, looking uneasy.

"It's for my research," Yuma said, looking off to the side. "She's uh, teaching me."

Kyouko blinked.

"Your research?" she said, incredulously. "You mean her research, right?"

"Don't look down on me!" Yuma protested, glaring at Kyouko and standing up on tiptoes to gain greater height. "Oriko says I have potential!"

Yuma lisped the word "potential".

"Right," Kyouko said, trying not to sound skeptical—and failing.

It was weird though. Teaching? What was Oriko playing at?

Kyouko sighed again, then reached into her bag.

"Alright," she said, tossing the girl an apple she hoped Mami wouldn't miss. "You can go."

Yuma caught the projectile on instinct, then blinked, looking startled. She had clearly forgotten she was being held "captive".

"I'll be watching for you next time," she warned unconvincingly, backing away from Kyouko, still carrying the apple. "You won't get me so easily again!"

"Of course I won't," Kyouko patronized.

She watched the girl run off.

I'm such a sucker for cases like this, Kyouko thought, full of regret. Hopefully this turns out better than Sayaka.

In many ways it did, but in others it didn't.

Kyouko didn't see Yuma again for two years, not from close range.

The time after that, they were patrolling the edge of their territory, all three of them this time. It was not particularly lucky that they saw it that day, or that they were all there—the other teams in the area agreed to help cover their flanks and rear during these patrols, and they returned the favor. It was an entente of sorts, just so that they could all afford to patrol the border with the Southern Group particularly carefully.

This time it was at night, in the rain. It wasn't particularly pleasant but, as Homura was fond of pointing out, their bodies didn't mind much anymore, and the clothing was magical, so it didn't matter if it got wet.

One of the benefits of living in a city was that, even without magical girl eyes, it was still possible to see even in such terrible conditions. With their enhanced vision, it wasn't terribly harder than being out in daylight—easier, actually, since they had to rely less on their powers to hide them from normal humans.

The three of them stopped almost simultaneously, Mami and Kyouko on the roof of a department store, Homura hovering overhead.

Do you feel that? Mami thought, and you could hear the frown in her voice.

Yes, Kyouko thought.

A very large demon horde, just over the territory boundary, marked out here by a river, and the Southern Group was fighting them.

It's in their territory, Kyouko thought. It's none of our business.

No, Homura thought, with a slight tone of incredulity. They're losing.

Both Mami and Kyouko paused, assessing her statement.

She's right, Mami thought. Miroko and Kure are running out of power, and I don't know where Hinata is. She should be involved in an attack of this scale.

I sensed her just a moment ago, Homura thought. She's dead. That's why I said they're losing.

There was a long moment of silence, a moment Kyouko spent listening to the rain fall around them.

This doesn't make any sense, Kyouko thought. This is a large demon attack, yes, but they should be able to hold it. They're more than capable.

Apparently not, Mami thought. Should we do something?

Yes, Homura thought. They won't make it, and they're quite far away, so if we don't move now, people might die to the demons while we're trying to get there. There is no guarantee that the girls in any of the other territories will even be in range to notice this.

Miroko flickered out even as she was thinking that.

What the hell is going on in there? Mami thought. The last thing I want to do is help them, but we have to move in. For the civilians if no one else.

I agree, Kyouko thought, though she was thinking about someone else entirely.

Let's go then, Homura thought, taking flight.

They strained to get to the area in time, fighting the wind and rain, but the distance was great, and as they moved, they sensed the remaining girls weakening and flickering, first Oriko weakening, then Kirika dying, then finally Oriko falling as well.

I never thought I'd see the day she would go down, Mami thought.

Kyouko couldn't sense any vindictiveness, and was almost surprised, except that Mami followed up in a disappointed tone with:

I never got to get my revenge.

We're almost there, Homura thought. We might be able to get Yuma out, at least. If any one of them deserved to survive, it was definitely her.

They must have been protecting her, for her to live this long, Mami thought. Who would have thought?

She struggled with the dual realities of Oriko protecting Yuma, and of Oriko sneering and taunting her as Mami tried to make her pay, make her pay for destroying my life

Yuma! Kyouko transmitted, in the telepathic equivalent of a shout. Just hold out a little longer! We're almost there!

Using her spear, she started to pole vault into the air, trying to gain added speed.

No response, and Yuma's signal weakened sharply.

Just a little faster, Kyouko urged herself.

I have an idea, Mami thought. Akemi‐san, can you activate your aura? I'm going to use my ribbons to bind us to you.

I don't see how that'd help, Mami, Homura thought. I can carry you, but it'd just slow us all down.

Not if I Tiro Finale backwards, Mami asserted. I can adjust it to impart momentum.

Kyouko's eyes widened as she grasped the concept.

She slowed, matching pace with Mami as Homura swooped down.

A surge of power from Homura, followed by the confining glowing yellow embrace of Mami's ribbons, pinning her chest to one of Homura's legs. A long moment of soaring into the air, a brief moment of freefall as Homura reshaped her wings for horizontal flight, and then—

"Tiro Finale!" Mami's clarion voice rang out.

The ground below her became an incomprehensible blur, a crushing fist of air and rain slamming it into her chest as they surged forward.

This must have been what it was like to be Hinata, Kyouko thought to herself, apropos of nothing.

I hope that projectile's not going to land anywhere, Mami, Homura thought. They would have been close enough now for easy speech, were it not for the deafening roar of air around them.

Don't worry, Mami thought. I can dispel it.

And then they were there, entering the miasma. Homura strained her wings to brake, and the other two exerted what magical force they could, until they reached a near‐stop. Homura stooped towards the ground, looking for targets.

The ribbons dissolved, and Kyouko dove for the ground between two skyscrapers, eyes scanning. Spotting a cluster of demons headed to her right, she changed her trajectory, sending a battery of spears in their direction.

By the time she and Mami landed, arrows, spears, and bullets had cleared out a wide swath of the street. Kyouko spun around, trying to localize on Yuma's rapidly fading soul gem, flickering with rapid bursts of magic use.

"There!" Mami shouted, pointing down an alleyway.

Kyouko turned to look—and froze.

Chitose Yuma was clearly no longer in the business of trying to stay alive. She flailed wildly within a cluster of demons with her mace, pouring out shockwaves at an irrational pace. The demons died, or were thrown back, but there were too many. Yuma was absorbing beam after beam, taking critical blows, sustainable only because she was expending her magic to keep herself constantly healing.

Her face was lined with tears, her eyes were red and insane, and she was smiling.

And her soul gem was nearly pitch‐black, with only slight hints of green.

Mami sucked in a sharp breath, trying to stay calm.

They had seen this once before, of course.

Sayaka, near the very end of her life, as she had started to exhaust her last reserves and her sanity had started to seriously slip.

Afterwards, the three of them had discussed what to do if that happened to any of them, or anyone they cared about. They had made plans.

"Can you two keep the demons off my back?" Mami asked.

"Yes," Homura and Kyouko answered simultaneously, rushing forward, knowing what the plan was.

A full flight of arrows struck the demons, staggering them.

Kyouko extended her spear into a chain‐whip, spinning and forcing the demons back, away from the girl in green.

There was one moment when Kyouko met Yuma's eyes, and for many years afterwards, Kyouko wished she had never seen the look there.

Then Mami's ribbons whipped out and cocooned the girl, pulling her away.

With an efficient blow to the back of the head, of the kind of strength that would have decapitated a human, Mami knocked Yuma out. She released the ribbons and, before the body even had a chance to fall, wrenched off the soul gem, tossing it high into the air to Homura, who was already soaring upward. She was headed for a hundred meters in the sky, close enough to give fire and aura support, far enough that it would give Yuma a temporary death.

And then they cleared out the rest of the demons, finishing the job.

The weeks afterward had been vaguely surreal.

When Yuma woke back up—came back to life, more precisely—she found herself securely bound to Kyouko's bed, her soul gem out of reach and nestled in a pile of grief cubes. Sitting at her side were the Mitakihara Three, soon to be Four.

It took a while to calm her down.

It was nearly a week before they felt comfortable letting her out of the room, two weeks before they gave her back her soul gem, a full month before they dared take her demon hunting, despite the strain she was on their grief cube resources.

During that period, Yuma was prone to fits of crying and, despite all their soothing and all of Mami's cake and tea, it was months before she was back to a semblance of her former self. It was a tragedy, but she had lived, and Kyouko felt happy that that was the case.

Still, they all sensed that there was something broken about the girl now, and some of the things she said in those first few weeks didn't quite make sense. There was something else going on, implausible as it was. She wasn't crying only because they were all dead.

The official story was wrong. The version in the Homura movie—which Kyouko had troubled to watch in the privacy of one of her offices—was even more wrong. But if what Kyouko had seen were really all that had happened, there would have been no reason to lie. After all, as personal as it was for Yuma, after the founding of the Union, plenty of girls, including many in leading positions, had undergone something very similar at some point in their lives. Protective Confinement—"befriending," in common vernacular—where they woke up to find themselves tied to a bed, their soul gems outside their control, and a pleasant therapist sitting by the bedside. It was too sensitive to talk about in those early years, but later on, Yuma would have had plenty of company.

It was another year before Yuma told them what exactly had happened, what her life had been like, what she had done, and why she wanted no one to hear about it.

That was when they had learned the story that would tarnish the glamour of the founder of the Black Heart, the girl who improbably cradled a reputation of innocence, and whose child's face beamed from news reports into the hearts of the populace.

They had agreed.

Once, in the second week, Kyouko had overheard Homura talking to Yuma in the room she now shared with Kyouko.

"You really think so?" Yuma had asked.

"You don't have to believe me," Homura had said. "But it's true. Personally, I could never forgive Oriko for what she's done, but the Goddess is a better person than I am. There is a place for her to go. For us all to go."

At the time, Kyouko had thought about privately reprimanding Homura for drawing Yuma into her delusions, but she never had. Eventually, she had decided that if Yuma could be convinced to believe a comforting lie like that, it could only be for the better.

Ironic, that all these years later it would be Kyouko preaching from a pulpit and drawing comfort from the prospect of a life after death.

Even though Homura had hinted at it many times, and talked often of her longing to go back to her Goddess, that was the only time Kyouko had heard Homura express her view of their fates so clearly.

Kyouko stepped from her vehicle, looking up at the rain blasting the transparent awning of the fortieth‐floor entrance to the headquarters of Mahou Shoujo Youkai Governmental Affairs and Governance: Magical Girls. From within, its mistress, freshly restored to an unusually young nine years of physical age, oversaw and influenced the Human world.

Others, of the more conspiratorial type, would say instead that she ruled.

Kyouko checked her internal chronometer.

It was time to visit Chitose Yuma.