"WHO ARE YOU?"
"That was the last of them. We've wasted enough time as it is. We're leaving, Kyuubey."
To Aru Mahou Shoujotachi no Monogatari
The Second Spell – Index Librorum Prohibitorum II
The girl in violet leaped into the open sky in front of the apartment complex, with the strange white creature called Kyuubey perched on her left shoulder. From there, she instantly and literally disappeared from sight, leaving a stunned Index Librorum Prohibitorum and a wounded Shirai Kuroko in her wake.
That just now… was magic! The magic was practically instantaneous in its activation, and much too sudden and immediate for Index to analyze on the spot…
…but it was magic nonetheless, and powerful magic at that.
That one realization, Index feared, even as she rearmed herself with the first aid kit, would complicate and worsen the unfolding situation. Just by virtue of her demonstrated ability and willingness to wield magic, and at that against the protectors of the city, she would cause Academy City to once again become a battlefield. After Judgment failed to stop the magical intruder, security and police forces such as Academy City's Anti-Skill would bring out the bigger guns. Although such forces were well-armed and well-trained in the art and science of neutralizing criminals with psychic powers, Index remembered that the few times she had seen them fielded against even singular, moderately-prepared magic users had ended disastrously for them. To put it frankly, they were vastly unprepared for the versatility, raw power, and determination an antagonistic magician could bring to bear.
With the Anglican Church's Necessarius busy with rebuilding its own forces and home nation, and with the hero named Kamijou Touma gone, the question of who could stem this fresh tide of conflict arose. For the sake of the city, and for the sake of the boy who loved and protected the city, and for the sake of preserving the perilous balance between magic and science, Index Librorum Prohibitorum felt strongly that she would have to bring down this malefactor herself.
However, before she could even begin to do that, she had a girl right before her eyes in need of salvation.
After confirming that she was still breathing and conscious, she delicately unrolled and straightened Shirai's body from its hunched-over position, taking care to keep the wounded leg level and clear the debris from the explosion away from the wound. She wrapped a fresh, unused piece of gauze around the base of the wound as a tourniquet. From what little she picked up from Academy City's compulsory First Aid classes while tagging along with Kamijou, she figured that this was the best she, personally, could do unassisted.
If only I could use magic to deal with this, she could not help but think… just as she heard a muted buzzing sound accompanied by something vibrating within her left pocket. On reflex, she fished around said pocket and found a pink cellphone. She opened it and immediately looked for the button to answer the call, only to find that she didn't have to press anything further.
"This is Uiharu," the youthful, panicked female voice on the other end of the line squeaked. "Shirai-san, we have reason to believe the intruder's an esper of some kind, teleportation or increased movement speed. She's already eluded three barricades and now seems to be changing course and heading back toward District 10. Yanagisako-sempai and Kaneyama-kun aren't responding. …Shirai-san? Shirai-san, come in! You can hear me, can't—"
"You're with Judgment, aren't you? Shirai Kuroko is in danger," Index cut in, neatly interrupting the girl on the other side of the line. "She's in the front room of a seventh-floor boy's dormitory, with a bullet wound in her leg." After narrowing down the address further, she added, "I've already taken care of the blood loss, but she still needs medical attention. Please call for medical assistance!"
"Excuse me," the one named "Uiharu" responded, "but who is this?"
"Hurry up and make the call!" Index shouted. "Every second counts!"
"Y-yes, Ma'am!" was all Index heard Uiharu say before the call ended.
After confirming once more that Shirai was still breathing and that the blood loss was properly stemmed, Index disabled the automatic locking mechanism (for all the good that did, as there was still a gaping hole in the front wall) and set out.
When magicians violated the boundaries between magic and science, the burden of bringing them to justice fell upon other magicians. Index Librorum Prohibitorum would uphold this tenet even as the justifications were steadily falling apart.
Moreover, as worried as she was about Shirai, Index's own position was a precarious one. She was still technically an illegal immigrant living in a foreign city. A deal brokered between the Anglican Church and Academy City, contingent upon Kamijou Touma's role as her guardian, had given her the political cover she needed to stay in the city, which otherwise kept tight controls on who was allowed inside and when. With Kamijou gone, and with her having actively defied her superiors in the United Kingdom with her decision to stay, she could not assume that she would be protected, if she were to be apprehended by Academy City's law enforcement and questioned on her immigration status. She left the scene for her sake as well as for others'.
Index ran out of the apartment and into a rapidly deteriorating scene of pandemonium.
Vehicles belonging to first-responders – fire, police, and the like – gathered in a seemingly haphazard array at the entrance to the boys' dormitory building. A growing crowd of panicked students gathered near the entrance, and in the distance, Index could view a procession of the telltale navy blue vans of Anti-Skill speeding to the scene of the incident. When she had made it to the floor, she could look back and see that, for once, the structural damage had not miraculously been localized to the Kamijou apartment. Indeed, there were even larger holes in the sides and doors of the sixth and eighth floors of the complex.
The girl from Judgment said that the magician was headed toward District 10, recalled Index. And we're in District 7...
There were twenty-three school districts in Academy City. District 7, located near the center of Academy City, was one of the larger and more populous districts. Within District 7 were located the student dormitories as well as many of the city's middle and high schools, from the prestigious Tokiwadai to the not-quite-as-prestigious high school Kamijou Touma had attended. It was also home to the office of the General Superintendent, the personage to whom the Board of Directors ultimately answered. Bordering District 7 to the southeast, and situated at the southern end of the city, District 10 had somewhat of an unsavory reputation. Ostensibly devoted to energy research, District 10 also contained the city's correctional facilities and orphanages, as well as, more noticeably, the only cemetery in the city. Unsurprisingly, it was also a major stomping ground for "Skill-Out", a term for armed roving gangs of Level 0 washouts from Academy City's Esper Development Curriculum who tended to target their more successful peers.
Index pulled her own cellphone out from underneath her robe while on the move. She accessed the cellphone's Global Positioning System and pulled up a map of Academy City, having seen Kamijou do the exact same thing during an earlier incident in which a lone magician walked through Academy City's security with ease. The border to District 10 was due south of her current position, and running to the inter-district border on foot would take roughly an hour and a half. Thinking on this, she quickly realized that trying to track a magician on foot, especially if the girl from Judgment was right and the magician could use instantaneous transportation, would likely be an exercise in futility. With that in mind, Index scanned the streets in hopes of finding an automated transport bus even as she continued her run.
In this environment, Index's attentions were divided among the three lines of checking her cellphone map, looking for quicker transports on the crowded roadways, and evading the eyes of Academy City's police and security forces. Thus, she was completely caught off-guard when a blinding light flashed before her eyes and an acute, stinging pain shot through her right hand, causing her to reflexively fling aside the cellphone.
Index, having been stopped in her tracks, looked around for the phone and saw it lying (face-up thankfully, which lessened the chances of main screen damage) on a sidewalk. As soon as she touched it, however, the sensation of pain from before returned. This time, as there was no blindness accompanying, she could see a sky-blue nimbus of static electricity flickering on-and-off around the machine. Puzzled, she glanced at the sky. It was mid-to-late morning, so the sun was still in the sky and the cloud cover was only moderate at best, with no signs of either rain or lightning.
While she had her gaze turned skyward, she saw a bolt of lightning race across the sky. The lightning, though high in the sky, was not quite at cloud level, so the source had to have been closer to the ground, at least relative to the skyline. Further inspection revealed that these blasts of lightning originated further from the road, behind one of the many wind turbines dotting the cityscape.
Although ignorant of the finer scientific points of electricity, Index knew that lightning simply did not act that way normally, so she went to investigate.
For her trouble, she found herself a mere couple of feet away from being flattened by a wind turbine rotor whirling freestyle like a giant white pinwheel at breakneck speed. Behind this dangerous projectile shot a trail of electricity. The dangerous shuriken crashed against the side of another wind turbine and detonated in a deafening boom, sending chunks of the building flying in all directions and creating a small cloud of dust. Index barely had time to look at the damage caused before the rotor, now suffused with an otherworldly purplish glow, floated away from the wreckage and rocketed back toward the other wind turbine… upon which it was completely sliced by a rod-shaped mass of razor-fine black sand particles.
Index tried to look up to get a better view of these strange phenomena, but the gaps in the view caused by the flying black things seemed to concentrate sunlight between them.
"Hey, you over there!" a girlish voice called in Index's direction while she was busy rubbing her eyes. "There's an esper terrorist on the loose, so you should be…"
Index, her vision and hearing cleared, knew that voice, and the girl to whom it belonged. Just like Shirai, she wore a Tokiwadai winter jumper and skirt. However, she was taller than Shirai (and slightly taller than Index herself), with short brown hair and eyes that matched well with her outfit. She also had somewhat of a tomboyish build to her. Most strikingly, however, her usually pristine school uniform had nicks and scratches all over it, especially around the arm sleeves.
That explained the electricity being thrown around. The girl in front of Index was Academy City's strongest and most versatile electricity-using esper.
"You… you're that idiot's pet nun!" Misaka Mikoto, the third of Academy City's seven Level 5 espers, the pride and joy of the Esper Development Curriculum, gracelessly hailed. "What are you doing all the way out here?"
"Who's a pet, Short-Hair?" Index shot back.
"You picked a bad time to go sightseeing. You've got to get out of here." Electricity flashed on the tips of Misaka's bangs of hair, and a ball of lightning formed within each of her palms. Misaka then faced the wind turbine, which now had a sizable dent in its side. "I know you're still around somewhere. So quit with the hiding and face me already!" Three streams of electricity shot out from Misaka's forehead and each of her hands and converged into a massive torrent of lightning, which destroyed the windmill in short order.
As soon as Misaka finished shooting, Index blinked… and then saw the violet magician (complete with Kyuubey perched on her shoulder) standing directly behind Misaka with the business end of her sidearm pointed at the back of her head. As with Misaka's, her outfit had evinced signs of the wear and tear of battle, but her stony expression did not change. "As you can see, I do not need to hide against the likes of you. Please do not make me pull the trigger."
Misaka, though visibly surprised and obviously caught off-guard, was not afraid. Instead, she suffused herself with a barrier of electricity that forced the other girl to quickly step back, lest she be immobilized by thousands of volts of sheer pain. However, even as she jumped back, she flung three objects forward. To Index, they looked like miniature green soda pop cans.
Index barely had the time to register just what those green things were when Misaka suddenly tackled her to the ground and covered her eyes and ears.
Thus covered, Index could hear only a muffled crackling sound and feel only a persistent tingling sensation across her back.
After four seconds, Misaka untangled herself from Index. "Hey, Shorty, are you all right down there?" she asked, shaking Index awake.
"Yeah…" Index confirmed, rubbing her eyes.
"Sorry about that. Those were just flash bombs. I can't believe I overreacted to something like—"
Two pink beams of energy descended from above and sliced through the cloud of distorted light. The first missed, but the second caught Misaka in the chest and blew her cleanly off her feet. With the trail of energy stuck to her taking the time to dissipate, Misaka rolled back to her feet and broke into a run, and a constant trail of pink energy lances dropped from the sky and lodged themselves into the ground behind her.
Index moved herself away from where Misaka was running and climbed her way to the top of another nearby windmill. Having done so, she could get a clearer look at the enemy. Surely enough, the magician in violet was the one sending those pink bolts after her. Apparently, she had foregone the use of conventional weapons entirely and was instead opting to use magic. The pink shots, Index could now plainly see, were arrows; from this revelation, it made perfect sense that the magical tool was a bow. The handle of the bow was a tree branch with a pink rose blossom at the tip. While one shot was nocked at a time, when fired, it would separate into four smaller shots which would fire simultaneously. The violet magician could easily control the speed at which the energy blasts traveled. She could manage up to twelve shots per second.
Strangely enough, although the magician was talented enough with the bow to keep Misaka on her toes, Index had gotten the sense of the bow being not hers, but someone else's. Perhaps it was the symbolism at play; the pink rose, in the language of flowers, symbolized grace, elegance, and appreciation. According to the prevalent idol theory of magic, in order to evoke the magic of the bow, the violet magician would need to bring out the qualities of grace and elegance. Yet the violet magician's moves, while not entirely clumsy, were practiced, rote, and purpose-filled; the girl wielding the bow did little to disguise the rigorous training she obviously went through to utilize the weapon.
Then again, it might well have just been the mismatching color scheme, with the bow (and the hairband, come to think of it) clashing with the magician's otherwise somber colors.
In any case, Index had analyzed what she felt she needed.
After lowering herself from her vantage point and returning to the battlefield, she took a deep breath.
"Reform and reverse direction," Index ordered. The latest round of bolts did just that, reforming into one concentrated mass of energy and shooting back upwards at the shooter. The violet magician dodged – barely – and nocked another set of arrows.
Spell Intercept is working, Index noted.
"Full tilt upwards. Release. Stabilize. Amplify. Release." Index heard the confused scream of the violet magician in reaction to her bow seemingly taking on a life of its own. The weapon shot a concentrated beam of energy into the sky, whereupon a series of pink concentric circles formed in the sky, blotting out the clouds for a quick few seconds, and swallowed the energy. The enemy then must have had a good idea of what happened, because she used her method of instantaneous movement to get out from underneath those circles. Index had done the same.
Not even a second afterward, out from the center of the circle shot an avalanche of pink energy that reduced everything directly beneath the circle to a smoking ruin.
Index had tried to continue running, but the magician in violet overtook her and kicked her to the ground. She kept her right foot planted on Index's back, and she had her sidearm pointed at Index's head.
"That was you, wasn't it?" the violet magician asked coldly. "What did you just do?" Index, who was beginning to feel the wounds and fatigue piling up, did not answer. "Very well. Keep quiet if you desire. I will not ask you again. Just know this – I have something that I need to accomplish in this city." Index heard a clicking sound. "And if you continue to obstruct me, then I—"
"Pick on someone your own size!" With another spear of electricity and a roar, Misaka Mikoto rejoined the battle.
"Persistent…" the violet magician seethed, stepping aside to avoid this latest attack and thus distancing herself from Index. She reached into her shield, probably for another firearm, when the purple gem on her left arm began to emit a bright lavender gleam. Paying no heed to the nun and esper in front of her, the violet magician clicked her teeth in an undisguised show of irritation. "It's close."
Then, she simply disappeared, her visage and presence completely gone without a trace.
For the second time that day, Misaka picked Index up. "What's with her? Teleportation? Energy projection? Instant materialization? Aerial bombardment? It was like fighting a flying armory! What kind of research institution could develop a Multi-Skill like that? Ah… I'm getting bad memories here." Index did not know whether Misaka was complaining to her specifically or simply giving voice to her frustration aloud, but something within her could not abide such ignorance in the face of the enemy.
"That wasn't an esper. That was a magician."
"Ma-gi-ci-an," Index pressed, separately emphasizing each part of the word.
"What's with you?" Misaka prodded Index's forehead with her own left index finger. "Did that terrorist kick something loose on that last hit or something?" Misaka shrugged. "That was totally an esper. In the first place, magicians don't even exist."
Index growled at Misaka. "They do! Magic and magicians really do exist!"
"Yeah, yeah, magic exists." Misaka's dismissive tone and hand-sweeping gesture completely betrayed her disbelief and undermined the sincerity of her admission. "So, Miss 'Magic Exists', do you have some convenient magic that'll help me track down that terrorist?"
"I do," Index shouted, puffing out her chest. She then produced her cellphone and turned it on.
The screen did not turn on.
Index pressed the on button again… and again… and again… and again. No screen had shown up, and no lights had appeared. The thing had broken after all. Index then growled at the device and shook it exaggeratedly, but it still did not respond.
"And this is the part when you get on your knees and scream, 'Such misfortune!' Right, Shorty?" The smugness in Misaka's voice did not improve Index's mood at all.
"Don't assign that Touma-like behavior to me, Short-Hair!"
Misaka then placed her left palm over her right eye in a show of exasperation. She then extended her right palm toward Index. "Hand it over," Misaka ordered.
Index did so. Misaka fiddled with the cellphone's buttons for a few seconds… and then, using her prodding finger, sent a tiny trickle of electricity into the underside. With a victorious look on her face, she pushed the screen side of the phone into Index's eyesight. The phone was on, screen, lights, and all!
"The battery just ran dry," Misaka explained. "Seriously, what were you doing? You're supposed to let these things charge. Letting the charge go completely out reduces the maximum amount of power the battery can hold, you know."
Index could feel the blood rushing to her face. Oddly enough, this had something of a rejuvenating effect on her. "I… I knew that!" She then calmed down and focused on the map. They were still a fair distance from School District 10, and the prospect of someone on the level of Misaka Mikoto intercepting and stalling their target again was slim. "The suspect's headed toward District 10."
"How do you know?" asked Misaka.
"I overheard some people from Judgment," Index replied, "Shirai Kuroko and another girl."
"Kuroko?" Shirai was Misaka's underclassman and roommate.
"It's a long story," Index responded, cutting off her line of inquiry. "First, we need to find some quicker way to District 10."
Misaka sighed. "You could've said something about District 10 earlier if you knew." After a rueful shaking of the head, she whipped out her own cellphone, a stereotypically girly pink one with a childish frog-mascot strap on the underside, and rapidly pushed a series of buttons.
"What now?" Index asked, seeing the other girl retract her phone.
"We get back to the streets and wait at the next intersection. Follow me."
The wind vanes had taken Index further off the road path than she had realized. Noon had passed before the two of them were able to find an intersection, and nearly a half-hour passed before an available automated transport bus was available for usage. (That, Index realized somewhat belatedly, was the reason for Misaka's telephone call.)
It felt good, Index thought, to be finally off her feet.
"So," Misaka asked, "what's this 'long story' with Kuroko?"
"Shirai-san was attacked," Index recalled, "by that magician. But she should be all right. She should be in the hospital."
"Should be?" Misaka turned to Index. "Wait, what happened? Were you there?"
"They took the fight… to Touma's apartment," Index said. "They just crashed through the apartment… and then Shirai-san…"
Misaka shook her head. "I'd ask you what you were doing in his apartment – that's for boys, you know – but now isn't the time."
"Hey, Short-Hair," Index asked after a moment's silence.
"What's with you guys and silly nicknames? I have a proper name, you know. Misaka Mikoto. Mi-sa-ka-Mi-ko-to."
"Then, Misaka Mikoto," Index pressed on, undeterred. "Why were you fighting against that magician? You don't even have that armband, so you can't be part of Judgment. You're an esper with no conventional weaponry to speak of, so you can't be with Anti-Skill. You couldn't be out for revenge for your class junior because you didn't even know until I told you. You're a civilian member of this city, so there was no reason to put yourself on the line. So why?"
Misaka leaned back on her seat and turned her gaze to the bus's low ceiling. "No special reason. I saw a suspicious person tearing her way through the cops and decided to jump in and lend a hand. That's it."
Index merely stared at Misaka in response.
"What? Did I give you a wrong answer or something?"
"Not really," Index shrugged.
Another moment's silence passed between the two of them. Yet again, it was Misaka who broke the stalemate.
"Thanks," she said, smiling at Index warmly for the first time in the entire day.
"Thanks. For what?"
"For saving Kuroko. She can be a total weirdo at times, but she's a good kid at heart."
"You don't need to thank me for something like that," Index responded.
Around 1:30 PM, they finally made it to School District 10. Peacekeepers of various affiliations swarmed the northern entrance and checked everyone who wished to enter. Index, who did not want to face the authorities just yet, leaped off the train before it reached the official checkpoint. To her surprise, Misaka followed.
"What are you doing?" Index asked her.
Misaka shuffled her feet uneasily. "Well, I did kind of take out those windmills, so…" She trailed off. "Anyway, let's continue our search." As the two of them ran southward, Misaka quickly whipped out her cellphone and furiously dialed her way through a series of buttons. "Come on, pick up, pick up, pick up…"
Misaka visibly relaxed the tension in her shoulders and took a deep breath. "Uiharu-san? It's Misaka…" She paused. "Yeah, I'm doing fine. Thanks for asking." She paused and listened again. "Yeah, I already heard about Kuroko… She's at the hospital and will be all right? That's such a relief… Actually, I need you to do me a favor…"
Index could barely keep pace with the still-energetic Misaka and could thus concentrate only on snippets of the conversation. When Misaka finally ended the call, Index could only ask, "What now, Short-Hair?"
"Another Judgment branch fell silent," Misaka explained. "Their last reported location was an abandoned energy research lab south-to-southwest of our position, so we'll have to take a detour. If can we get there fast enough ourselves, maybe we can find clues to lead us to the perp."
Index gave a curt nod and, trusting the other girl implicitly, simply followed her.
The four-story former laboratory that Misaka led Index to reminded her of a desiccated, hollowed-out corpse. The outside of it was a very dark shade of grey, the kind of color that heavily implied destruction by fire damage or an explosion. In contrast to this somber color, a medley of green and bluish-colored hanging plants of varying species crisscrossed the perimeter of the building. The lawn around the building had been unkempt as well, and the grass grew long enough to completely cover both girls' feet and some of their lower legs as well.
The two girls picked their way through this grass and entered what they presumed was the front door. As soon as they did so, a thick, heavy, iron-like odor filled their senses. Index could instantly tell the smell.
"Blood," said Index to Misaka. "This whole place has the smell of blood."
Misaka tensed up. "Stay close to me."
As they picked their way through the ruins, they happened upon a roomy interior area that once served as either a lobby or a cafeteria. Directly above their position, they could hear the echoing sounds of two pairs of footsteps other than their own.
"Did you hear that?" Index asked Misaka.
Misaka nodded in confirmation. "We should get upstairs."
Finding their way upstairs was easy. Index and Misaka needed only backtrack to the point of entry, wherein there was a serviceable staircase leading upwards – serviceable being the operative word here, for as soon as Index stepped on the final stair, it collapsed, forcing Misaka to pull her up. Now that they had a better idea of where to go, the two girls quickly made their way to the source of the footsteps…
The deafening peal of a gunshot rang out, accompanied by a throaty female scream of agony. Index did not know much about guns, but she did remember the sound that the violet magician's personal arms made. This was not it; the sound was much more powerful and pronounced, perhaps indicating a weapon larger and with higher destructive power than the handgun.
Misaka made a reckless dash in the direction of the gunshot sound, and Index could do naught but follow.
The scientists' quarters in which the two girls found themselves housed a horror show for which they had to steel themselves.
Upon looking down at her feet, Misaka held her mouth in order to avoid retching on the spot. The bloodied bodies of four Judgment members – all but one of them female – lay on the floor, the telltale circular wounds on their heads indicating that they had, indeed, been blown away with a high-powered weapon. At the other end of the room, cowering behind what remained of a bunk-bed set, a fifth person, male, likely adolescent, pointed his firearm – which indeed had a much longer barrel length, confirming Index's suspicions – at the two.
"Why, you… were you the one behind all this?" Misaka shouted, completely fearless of the large gun the other person wielded. "Get out from under there before I force you out!"
The gunman rose slowly in response, allowing Index to get a better look at him. He was a pitiful wreck of a boy, with his shaggy, matted, short blond hair sitting haphazardly on his head. He wore a brown hoodie and blue jeans, and he had a manic, tear-, snot-, and saliva-filled expression of fear on his face as he continued to train the gun on the nun and esper. Index could feel an overwhelming aura of horribly distorted magic life force, the likes of which she had never felt before, emanating from this poor boy.
"I'm just a… just a… Level 0 after all…" he moaned. "A Skill-Out… an unneeded existence…" He made a pitiful show of steadying his weapon, even as tears clouded his eyes and presumably his sight. "You… you're from the Board of Directors, aren't you? AREN'T YOU? What did we… what did we go all the way to Russia for, huh? ANSWER ME!"
"You're not making any sense!" Misaka shouted. "I'm not from the Board of Directors or whatever, so just put that rifle down already!"
"It's useless, Short-Hair," Index shouted, hiding behind Misaka. "There's a powerful curse affecting this person!"
"A curse? You can't be serious!"
"SHUT UP, DAMN YOU!" ordered the gunman. He did not give them a chance to shut up. He fired a shot directly at the nun, only to have it forcibly deflected off its course by a shield of electromagnetic energy. Undaunted, the Skill-Out locked and loaded for another shot, but Misaka sent a powerful jolt of electricity back at him before he could fire again. The Skill-Out boy violently convulsed for a few seconds before finally collapsing to the floor along with the dead and dropping his weapon.
"Who would lay such a powerful curse on him?" After confirming that he was not going to get up and try attacking a third time, Index ran to the blond and examined his limp body.
"What are you—" Index's glare cut off Misaka's question.
"There should be a curse mark somewhere on his body, something like a tattoo, signifying the nature of the curse," Index explained.
"That's ridiculous. He was just under some kind of hallucination. You know, from breathing in all the plant waste around here or mental manipulation by an enemy esper or…"
"Found it," Index said. "What a relief. I thought I might have had to strip-search him…"
Ignoring the shade of red Misaka's face turned due to the mental imagery, Index examined the marking of the front of the neck. It was small, placed around the boy's throat area. The small tattoo was a pitch-black rendition of a symbol of some kind enclosed within a circle. The symbol itself was a line that ran straight through the middle of the circle lengthwise just before stopping at the upper tip. Branching out from this line were a series of six smaller lines, three on each side for purposes of symmetry, protruding out from the parent line. Index realized that it was a stylistic representation of a tree.
Index then grabbed a branch of overgrowth from the outside wall, dipped the branch's tip in the blood of the rifle victims, and began tracing the symbol found on the Skill-Out onto the wall behind him.
"Give me a proper explanation here," Misaka demanded. "You're totally creeping me out."
"Quiet," Index said evenly in response. "I'm trying to get to the bottom of all this."
After finishing her macabre wall artwork, she planted one of the safety pins holding up her outfit onto the direct center of the bloody circle. "Open."
As soon as she finished saying this, a wall perpendicular to Index's started to emit a ghastly black radiance that threatened to suck all light from the room. The black gleam just as suddenly turned into a bright green that forced Index and Misaka to shield their eyes before it stabilized into a lime-green replica of the symbol on the wall.
"It worked," Index said. "I had to wing it a bit there, using the corrupted mana from the environment and an alternate form of Spell Intercept. If I had to process my own life force to release the seal on the barrier, it would have gone badly for me."
"What are you talking about? What's going on here? Why am I out of the loop all of a sudden?" Misaka tapped her feet in irritation.
Index took a deep breath. This was like dealing with Kamijou in his more obtuse moments all over again. "Whatever did this to these children is on the other side of this seal."
Misaka cracked her knuckles. "So we go in, find out whoever or whatever's behind all this, and crush them, huh? Finally, something simple!"
While Index had hoped that the teenage genius behind her could find better words for her sentiments, she also realized that they would likely have to defeat what was on the other end of the seal anyway. So she nodded.
Without further preamble, Index Librorum Prohibitorum and Misaka Mikoto climbed into the symbol…
…and fell some ten feet from the sky before landing clumsily on top of each other.
When they regained their wits, they looked at themselves… and saw that their forms were stylized, two-dimensional… paper cutouts? They looked around and saw that they were in an expanse of forest, with the "trees" heavily resembling children's crayon drawings of trees. They heard what sounded like children playing and singing along happily in the background, but they could see no children – or indeed anyone other than themselves.
"What the Hell is this?" the two-dimensional Misaka asked, continuing to stare at herself in utter disbelief. "What kind of mental manipulation is this? Whose Personal Reality would be this twisted? Is this some kind of AIM Field corruption or something?" A spark of electricity flashed between her eyes. "No, this can't be a mental illusion, because I'd be immune to it…"
"Throwing around a bunch of scientific terminology isn't going to help," Index retorted.
"A scientific explanation would be better than just fumbling around in the dark like this!"
Index grunted in sheer annoyance. "Let's keep moving. If we explore, this should shed some more light on our situation."