Based on "The Illustrator", by Abicion
"No, please, please stop! I can't run anymore…!"
"Come on, you have to get up. We can't stop here."
"But the others… she… she took Reika and C-Candy, and… and what she did to poor Akane-"
"Don't think about Akane, just don't."
"I said don't. The… the only thing we can do is run away while we still can…"
"But we've got to s-stand our ground! We've got to fight her somehow!"
"Don't you get it? Our powers aren't working on her, this is our only choice! Oh no, come on, get up! Please get back up…"
"Why? Why is this happening? She… she should have been one of us, Candy said so… What happened to her…?"
Part 4: Sundown
Click. Yayoi pulled her bedroom door shut and turned over the lock. With her eyes shut tight, she crossed over to the chair in front of her drawing board and slumped into it. The temptation to just start crying and not stop until morning was overwhelming.
It had taken fifteen minutes of creeping unseen through Nanairogaoka's back streets to find a garden hose, sitting forgotten in someone's side yard. Another ten minutes to wash off all the blood. Only then did she drop her transformation, discovering to her blessed relief that her school uniform was still clean and unblemished. Then it took another half-hour trek to find the alley where she first transformed, to retrieve her schoolbag that she had left there. And another half-hour to walk home… Her mother was worried sick, and took her into her arms the moment she stepped through the door. Yayoi found none of her usual comfort in her embrace.
During dinner she barely ate anything, though that night it was yakuniku, one of her favorites. Always perceptive, her mother needled her with questions, trying to determine what was wrong, but Yayoi put on a false smile and told her everything was fine, that she was merely tired after a long day. She didn't tell her that the sight of meat was turning her stomach.
She sagged in the chair, wishing she could simply melt into it. That other girl, her sempai, was dead. Yayoi had failed her. She would lie there in the park until someone found her body. No chance to say goodbye to her family or friends, no heroic last words. She was there, and then she was gone, just like that. Again and again she had asked Kyubey why, why she couldn't do anything… the little creature had no answer. He had disappeared from her shoulder shortly before she came in the front door.
Her schoolbag rested on the table next to the drawing board. Normally when she felt depressed, she would take out her sketchbook and work well into the night. Her sketchbook-
That's right. They're still in there. Yayoi opened her eyes, moved the chair in front of the board, and summoned her sketchbook from pocketspace. It fell neatly open on the corkboard with a soft thump. Yayoi flipped through it, back to the first few pages…
There was Arisu Sato, still with a look of utmost confusion on her face, still with the speech bubble reading "What the hell? What happened? Hidariko? Migiko? Kise…?" hovering above her head. As Yayoi's fingers brushed the paper, she came to life, blinking and looking around, trying to determine where she was.
"It's your fault, you know," Yayoi whispered to her. "I made the contract and got this power because of you, Sato-san. Because you were so mean…"
To her astonishment, Arisu looked up at her, wide-eyed. "Kise? Is that you?" The speech bubble erased itself and printed new words as she spoke. Yayoi heard her voice in her mind as well, tiny and faint.
"You can see me?" she said to the pen-and-ink figure, hovering closer to the page.
"Yeah, I see you," said Arisu, putting her hands on her hips. "What the hell's going on, Kise? What did you do?"
"I put you inside my sketchbook. My little friend and I came up with it… Hidariko and Migiko are in there too, on another page." Yayoi smiled just a bit. "I figured you'd respect my drawings if you actually were one."
"This isn't funny, Kise!" Arisu stamped her foot. It struck against something on the white void of the page, but Yayoi couldn't tell what. "When my father finds out about this-"
"You think he'll believe you?"
Arisu's face fell for just a moment. Stubbornly she crossed her arms and glared. "Fine. What do you want with me?"
That was a good question. Yayoi blinked; Arisu and her lackeys were trapped in there, sure, but now what? "I…"
"Don't tell me you went through all this trouble just to chicken out, Kise…" That smirk that Yayoi so hated appeared on Arisu's face. "I don't know how you did it, but there's no way you'll try anything. I know you. You don't have it in you to hurt anyone."
"I think you're wrong," said Yayoi softly. "Do you know what I am now, Sato-san? I'm a Puella Magi, a magical girl. I killed a monster this afternoon, did you know that?"
Her face fell again. "You… you're lying. Magical girls aren't real. Even if they were, you're too spineless to do something like that."
"Maybe you don't know as much about me as you think, Sato-san." Now a note of anger was creeping into Yayoi's voice. "I had to fight that horrible thing in exchange for the power that put you in my book. I made a wish, and forged a contract. And I'll probably have to do it again." She glared down at Arisu's page. "I let someone die this afternoon, Sato-san. Even with my power, I couldn't save her. I couldn't… What if it happens again? What if I'm not strong enough?"
Tiny ink beads of sweat formed on Arisu's forehead. "L-Look. We… we just wanted to have fun. If that's what this is about, I'm sorry. I'm sorry, Kise, okay? That's what you wanted to hear, right?"
"Yes, that's what I wanted," said Yayoi, turning away for a moment.
"Right, so… just let us out of here. We didn't know you were… doing all that stuff. Just let us go, I promise we'll never tear up your drawings again. Hell, we won't even talk to you, just let us out of here… all right, Kise?"
Yayoi looked back at Arisu, at her growing concern, at the helplessness that she had never seen on her tormentor's face before. She thought about it. "Do you swear? You'll really leave me alone?"
"Yes, yes, I swear!" said Arisu, rubbing her arms. "C'mon, Kise, just let us out. If it's money you want, I can pay you, even. Let us out. Please?"
"All right." Yayoi closed her eyes and concentrated her power into the Soul Gem set into her ring…
She tried again, very clearly picturing the three girls floating off the page and materializing in her room, visualizing what she wanted, just as Kyubey had taught her. Still nothing happened.
"Well? Do it, Kise! Let me out!" said Arisu's voice, growing just the tiniest bit frantic.
Yayoi turned pale. She tried a third time, concentrating so hard that her fingers gripped the corkboard, leaving marks from her nails… nothing. She looked at Arisu, her eyes wide, and whispered, "I can't."
"I can't," she said again. "I… I put you in the book, but I don't know how to turn you back…"
Arisu only looked frightened for a moment. Then her face twisted into the ugliest scowl Yayoi had ever seen. "You little bitch. How dare you… how dare you do this to me?"
"I… s-stop it." Yayoi's pale face flushed with color at the harsh language. "I-I'll ask Kyubey when he comes back, m-maybe he can-"
"No!" Arisu screamed, waving her fists impotently. The word was shouted so loudly that the speech bubble grew to take up a quarter of the page. "No you don't, you miserable little freak, you're going to let me out of here right now!"
"Sato-san, I just told you-"
"Don't you 'Sato-san' me! Let me out! LET ME OUT, GODDAMN YOU!"
"Listen to me, Sato-san! I'll try again, just-"
Her voice was hysterical, flecks of spittle flew from her mouth. "I'll get you, Kise, I swear! If it's the last thing I do, I'll make you pay for this! I'll tell my father, and he'll ruin you, and your mother, and the rest of your family, and all your pathetic little friends!" The speech bubble filled up rapidly with harsh, jagged kana. "I'll make you pay for this for the rest of your worthless life, do you hear-"
Yayoi tuned out her mental voice, shutting off the tirade.
Arisu didn't realize that her captor could no longer hear her. Her speech still flowed in rapid lines through the text bubble, though… she used words that horrified Yayoi, words she hoped she would never use, even if she were that angry. Ugly, hateful, foul speech, promises of violence and revenge that she couldn't have imagined would come from such a beautiful face, even with all Arisu had done in the past to torment her.
"S-Sato-san, c-calm down. Just calm down. Please, I'll th-think of s-something…" Her hands were shaking now. The same cold feeling of helplessness from earlier this afternoon began building in her chest, just like when she had realized that her sempai was dead…
The torrent of foul words continued unabated. Arisu was screaming blue murder.
"I-If you d-don't calm down…" Yayoi scrunched up her features, concentrating. Her lightning bolt pen appeared in her left hand. With her thumbnail she flicked the cap off, exposing the eraser she had integrated into the other end. She swallowed heavily. "If you don't calm down, I'll-"
Arisu's dark eyes were wild. She was beyond listening, beyond caring.
So Yayoi leaned down and rubbed the eraser over the lines of ink that formed her mouth.
The older girl's eyes widened in shock as it caught her in mid-shout. The speech bubble went blank and faded out. She stopped moving… and her head, face, and upper jaw slid in one direction, her lower jaw and everything below in another… both parts of her fell to the bottom of the page, limp and lifeless…
Yayoi's heart stopped.
Only a moment later, bright red ink began pooling across the page, staining it, oozing through the lines that made up Arisu's unmoving body. That ink slowly took up the corner of the page, then a quarter of it…
She sat staring at the growing pool of red, her mind a total blank. "No," whispered Yayoi. "Sato-san, I didn't mean to. I'm sorry. Sato-san?"
There was no answer. She opened her mind, praying desperately to hear Arisu's voice, even if it was cursing her and screaming in anger. Nothing, only silence.
Yayoi began to shudder as she pushed herself backward, away from the book, away from her drawing board. The pen was still in her numb fingers. She pried it loose and let it fall to the floor. Stumbling out of the chair, letting it tip over, she backed into the corner of her small room.
"No. I-I can't have." Her eyes were wide as saucers. She could still see the red-stained page, even from the corner. "I didn't mean to. I didn't mean it." Yayoi slid down the wall and sunk her fingers into her blonde curls, clutching at her temples. "I didn't mean it, Sato-san, it was an accident." She stared at her slippers, at the folds of her yellow cardigan, at the hem of her skirt… her skin was so cold… "I didn't mean it…"
Yayoi remained there in the corner, repeating the same words over and over for more than an hour. She was only interrupted by a small knock on the door.
"Yayoi?" said her mother's voice. "I made some almond jelly for dessert. Would you like some?"
"No thank you," she answered mechanically. She had never felt less like food in her life. She didn't deserve food, after- Through a supreme effort, she managed another sentence. "I'm tired, Mama, I want to go to bed…"
"All right." There was concern in her voice. "Let me know if you need anything, okay?"
Her mother's footsteps retreated down the hall.
The litany continued on in Yayoi's mind: I didn't mean to. I didn't mean to. I didn't mean to…
When Kyubey reappeared hours later, she was still there, huddled into a ball, staring at the floor. Yayoi? he said. Is something wrong?
Conflicting emotions burned within her. Part of her wanted to hug him, part of her never wanted to touch him again, felt revolted by his very presence. "I killed her, Kyubey." Her voice was hollow. "I killed Sato-san. I couldn't bring her back out of the book, and when she wouldn't calm down… I killed her. I didn't mean to, but I killed her…"
Oh dear, said Kyubey, padding closer. You probably shouldn't have done that.
Yayoi wanted to scream at him, but her throat was too tight. Her voice emerged as a high squeak. "Why? Why didn't it work? You told me magic always works, why couldn't I bring her back?"
Kyubey answered with impeccable calm. You wished you could make people to respect your drawings. This was the form your power took… the power to make them grant you that respect, and nothing more. If you wanted to restore them afterward, you should have been more specific with your wish.
"Oh God," she whispered, clutching at her temples again. "I'm a murderer. I killed her. What will I do? How will I ever explain this to anyone?"
Must you really explain? Kyubey asked, tilting his head to one side. You're a Puella Magi now. The consequences of your actions and decisions shouldn't apply as they would to normal humans.
"I can't just forget about her!" she almost shrieked. Only her worry that her mother would hear kept her voice down. "I have to do something, I have to make this right, but I can't! I killed her, how am I ever supposed to make up for-"
A strange, icy calm descended over her. She had an idea. Just a glimmer of one, but it was enough. Normal humans, he had said. The consequences of your actions and decisions shouldn't apply. What did that remind her of? Of the stack of superhero comics and manga in her closet. Weren't there any number of superheroes who did what they did to atone for some past tragedy? She had this power, this terrible, frightening power… she knew some of its limits now…
"Kyubey," she whispered. "If… if I spent the rest of my life… being a hero, fighting bad guys along with fighting Witches… would that… make things right?"
Kyubey blinked. I don't know. Human morality confuses me. Do you think it would make things right?
"I don't know either," she admitted. "But I think… I think I have to try. It's… it's the only way I can think of to repent for what I've done…"
I see. Then I'll support you in this decision, Yayoi. As long as you continue the fight against the Witches, I'll help you.
Silently, Yayoi rose to her feet. They didn't seem to be doing so of her own accord; they took her across the room, over to the drawing board. Her hands reached out and took the page that was half-stained crimson. Moving on their own, her hands gently tore the page from the book. Now it was nothing more than paper; its magic was gone. Her hands crumpled the page into a ball, carefully, so that the redness wasn't visible anymore. They dropped it into her wastebasket.
"Kyubey," she said without looking at him. "I think I've decided on my name."
You're changing it?
"No, my superhero name. During the day, I'll still be Yayoi Kise." She hugged herself tight, still deathly cold. "During the night I'll be… Sunder." She tested the word. "Sunder." The Japanese pronunciation of "thunder"… it felt right. It also had "sun" in it, like Taiyoman. But it also meant something else. She knew the word from her English classes: "sunder" meant "to break".
It was right. It would work. Nothing could ever erase what Yayoi Kise had done, but Sunder could try to make up for it. Sunder could fight bad guys and Witches alike. Perhaps one day, Sunder would be able to dispel the terrible, icy cold inside her.
She looked down at the crumpled paper ball in the wastebasket one last time. "I'm sorry, Sato-san."
She never looked at it again. Sometime during the next week, the basket was taken from her room, and emptied into the burnable trash. The only evidence of Yayoi's crime, and the last trace of Arisu Sato, was eventually reduced to nothing but cinders.
As the weeks passed, Sunder made her presence known. She started small, foiling robberies, putting a stop to hostile bike gangs. All of the culprits went into her book.
She bought a portable radio, and learned online how to tune it to emergency frequencies. She made maps of the city, charting the back alleys and routes across rooftops that would keep her hidden in the darkness. Doing so, she was able to travel to crime scenes well before the police arrived. Nanairogaoka's police officers were baffled; no matter what it was, no matter how small the crime, its perpetrators were always gone without a trace.
Hiroshi Sato, Arisu's father, eventually started a public investigation into the whereabouts of his missing daughter and her two friends. Class 2-2 of Nanairogaoka Middle School was plagued with detectives and law enforcement officials for a few weeks, all diligently asking questions. When two of them came to the Kise household one afternoon when her mother wasn't home, Yayoi panicked and trapped both of them on blank pages… as she did with the next officer to show on her doorstep, and the next, until they stopped coming. Chiharu Kise grew worried at her daughter's sudden change in demeanor and paranoia around policemen. Then she grew suspicious… and one day she went into the book, too. The investigation continued, though there were no leads, no clues, and no evidence. Hiroshi Sato was forced to admit defeat. He retired from public office shortly afterward, a shadow of the powerful man he had once been.
It wasn't enough for her. Driven by guilt, she began to seek out villains instead of waiting for them to appear. The city became gripped by an outbreak of missing person reports. Icy tendrils of fear spread through the formerly cheerful little city, but no one ever found anything. Some suspected the Yakuza. None knew the truth.
In time, the other commanders of the Bad End Kingdom came looking for their lost comrade. Once Sunder learned who they were, the others, a witch, an oni, and a harlequin, joined Wolfrun on opposite pages from each other, one by one.
As the population steadily dwindled, there appeared more Witches in Nanairogaoka, spawned from the remaining people's despair. Over time, Sunder learned how to fight them, learned how to hone her abilities and use them to kill Witches quickly and efficiently as possible. She was never at a shortage of Grief Seeds.
One day Kyubey simply disappeared from her life. She found she didn't really need him; once she was done cleansing her Soul Gem with the Seeds, they went into her book and were erased. It was simple.
And finally, new magical girls appeared to combat the growing darkness. Not Puellae Magi; they were different. A coordinated team of four, they called themselves Precures…
Three months later
"No, please, please stop! I can't run anymore…!" Miyuki Hoshizora, alias Cure Happy, fell to her knees in the empty, deserted street, breathing hard. Her pink and white costume was tattered and torn, her magenta pigtails disheveled.
"Come on, you have to get up," said Nao Midorikawa, Cure March. She was taller and far more athletic than her teammate, wearing a green version of the same costume, equally torn. The longest of her three lime-green ponytails brushed against the asphalt as she knelt to take her friend's arm. "We can't stop here."
"But the others… she… she took Reika and C-Candy, and…" Miyuki shuddered uncontrollably and let out a choked sob as the images flew through her mind again, images that were seared into her memory like brands. "… and what she did to poor Akane-"
"Don't think about Akane, just don't." Nao squeezed her eyes shut tight and fought the urge to throw up.
"But…" Miyuki stammered, looking up at her with teary eyes.
"I said don't," repeated Nao venomously. She slammed her fist into the asphalt; it left a sizeable crater in the street, and Miyuki shrieked and drew backward. "The… the only thing we can do is run away while we still can…" The admission was more painful than she would ever admit, but damn it, what else was there?
Shakily, Miyuki rose to her feet and clenched her fists. A few traces of her old optimism began to show through her fear. "But we've got to s-stand our ground! We've got to fight her somehow!"
Nao wanted desperately to believe her, to fight alongside her once again… but after what that girl had done to Akane… "Don't you get it?" she said, astonished at her own bitterness. "Our powers aren't working on her, this is our only choice!"
Hearing her friend, the indomitable Nao Midorikawa, advising her to run away made Miyuki slump back to the pavement with a small moan.
"Oh no, come on, get up!" Nao grabbed her arm and shook hard. They couldn't afford to give into despair, not now. "Please get up…"
"Why? Why is this happening?" whispered Miyuki. It still didn't seem real, like it was all some terrible nightmare. "She… she should have been one of us, Candy said so… What happened to her…?"
"I…" Nao shut her eyes and looked away. "I don't know. She always seemed so kind, so shy…"
"Wait." Miyuki looked up fearfully. "Did you hear that?"
Nao didn't need to hear. She hauled Miyuki to her feet. "We have to go. Now."
The sound Miyuki heard was footfalls echoing through the empty streets… and there weren't enough people left in Nanairogaoka to form a crowd that big. That meant only one thing: Sunder was coming.
They started to spill around the corner, ghastly monochrome things, moving in spastic, jerking motions… things that looked almost like familiar people of the city, and were all the more horrible for the resemblance. There were policemen and bikers, teachers and students, authority figures and random civilians… most of the city's population, in fact, reproduced as drawings on paper, details filled in with black ink. She called them Sketches.
How she had discovered that power, no one knew, but now she could make these creatures apparently out of thin air, as many of them as she wanted. Her own personal army, completely subservient to her will. Somewhere in the massive crowd, Sunder walked among them, protected by them, seeking out the last two Precures, her book under her arm, her pen in hand.
"Miyuki, go!" shouted Nao, shoving her friend away. "You're the only one who even came close to damaging her, you've got to run!"
"Nao-chan, I won't leave you!"
"I'll catch up, just go! Run!"
Miyuki ran, tears streaming down her face, not daring to look back. She ran, though she knew of nowhere else to go. The Sketches were everywhere. Her powers were nearly exhausted. And Nao could only buy her so much time…
I'll catch up. It hurt Nao more deeply than she could say to lie to Miyuki like that. Miyuki had always been so bright, so cheerful… until they had discovered the true extent of Sunder's power and cruelty, she had never even considered the possibility that the Precures might fall. Hadn't they been chosen as "legendary warriors"? Didn't the heroes always triumph in her beloved picture books that she was always reading?
But the picture books never told of anything like this. The picture books never said what happened when one of the chosen heroes turned bad…
Nao dashed into the crowd of Sketches, visible as little more than a blur of green. They scattered in the wake she left behind, blown away like the scraps of paper that they truly were… but each one could move like a human, and could hit like a cinder block if their master so wished it. They had underestimated the Sketches before, and paid dearly.
Howling a battle cry, Nao cut into their ranks like a hurricane, lashing out with savage kicks that tore through their paper bodies. Red ink sprayed everywhere whenever one of these things died; she had to be careful, getting blinded by that ink would be suicide. Raging gales swept from her palms, forcing them back. By focusing her power, she could even slice through them with blades of razor-sharp wind, but that technique took time to concentrate… time she didn't have.
The sudden dryness of the air told her that Sunder was drawing near. Maybe… maybe this time it'll work. Please, let it work. For Miyuki's sake, please… Directing some of her remaining energy into her feet, she crouched down low to the ground, her body like a coiled spring. Club-like fists rained hammer blows down on her as the Sketches crowded in around her, jostling for the best position to attack… and then they were thrown back by the shockwave as Nao leapt straight up thirty meters in the air.
This high above the city, hearing nothing but the wind sighing in her ears, she could almost smile. From up here, it looked much like the beautiful place that it used to be… not like the ghost town it was now. But I guess I have to come back down sometime. Might as well be now. Nao began to plummet back to earth, as she knew she must, scanning the massive crowd of black-and-white figures for a trace of color…
She found it, a tiny patch of yellow. Nao gathered all her remaining spirit into the Smile Pact at her waist, putting everything into this one shot. She was falling like a star from the heavens now, the wind was screaming… hopefully, the extra velocity would give her that much more power. A whispy green ball spun into form at the toe of her boot. It compacted into a tight little sphere of whirling power, ready to explode. She saw the yellow figure down below look up with alarm. Perhaps she knew what was about to happen. Nao drew her leg back and shouted as loud as she could. "PRECURE MARCH SHOOT!" Her heel struck the ball, spiking it straight down…
The explosion of tightly compressed air tore dozens of Sketches to shreds upon impact, and cast hundreds more to the winds. Mere seconds later, her energy expended, Nao hit the street with the force of a meteor.
When she awoke, she hurt. As a Precure, she could take punishment that would kill normal humans ten times over, but she had never attempted anything like this. It wasn't something she wanted to try again. Nao lay motionless in the meter-deep crater formed by her impact… there was a fine mist falling on her. She must have ruptured a water main. That at least meant that Sunder wouldn't be able to-
Sunder was standing right over her.
"Why, Midorikawa-san?" said the little blonde girl once known as Yayoi Kise. "You left Hoshizora-san behind to attack me. Why did you do that?"
Oh hell. She's not even hurt. What do I do now? Nao coughed. "To try to stop you. Hello, Kise-san."
Yayoi frowned and stuck out her lip. With all she had done, how could she still manage to look that cute? "Don't call me that. My name is Sunder now."
"No it's not, Kise-san." Nao coughed again. She didn't feel anything broken, but she still couldn't get up… "I've seen what Sunder does. That's not you… that's not the girl I know…"
Shadows grew across Yayoi's face. "You don't know me as well as you thought."
"Kise-san…" With strenuous effort, Nao raised her arm. She tried not to show fear, but she couldn't help trembling, just a little. "Please, you've got to stop. Is this really what you wanted? To fight your friends in an empty city?"
"I don't…" Yayoi paused. "I don't have any friends. Friends would have stopped them… Arisu and her bullies. Friends would have helped me, before it all started."
"We didn't know," said Nao, almost pleading. "We didn't know! You could have told us, you could have told someone… You didn't have to do all this. We were…" She didn't know why she said it. It was something Candy had told them, when they first caught her attention. Nao had never quite believed it herself, but… "We were supposed to be a team. You were supposed to be one of us, a Precure. What happened, Yayoi-chan?"
The smaller girl's face twisted. "Don't call me that."
"Yayoi, please. If there's any part of you that's still good, just put the book down…"
Now, strangely, she looked fearful… more like her old self. Her golden eyes were haunted. "I can't, Nao-chan. I'm scared… There's so many of them inside there now that I can't block out their screaming… I tried drawing things for them in there, to make them stop, but they won't stop. They never stop. I tried drawing them back to life…" She looked around at the broken Sketches littering the street, bleeding ink. "… but no matter how hard I try, they won't come out like they should. I can't get them right, they're just mindless copies. I want to give the book up, Nao-chan, but I can't…"
"Why?" Nao whispered. Maybe, maybe she could get through to her, if she would only listen. "Why can't you?"
"Because if I give it up…" Yayoi summoned the book and clutched it to her chest. "Because if I give it up, they'll all be dead, nothing more than ink on paper. I'm the only one who can keep them alive. I don't want them to die…"
Nao couldn't help but shudder. "You could… I don't know. I don't know what to do, but we can find someone who does. I promise we can. There's got to be someone out there who can help, right?" She gave the girl a hopeful smile.
"You'd… you'd help me?" Yayoi was wavering. "Even after all this?"
"Poor little Yayoi-chan…" Nao sobbed with relief. "Of course we will. Miyuki-chan and I will help you- Yayoi-chan?"
Her face was now hard and cold as stone. "You're pitying me," she said.
"You said 'Poor little Yayoi-chan,'" she said, with deadly calm. The glimpse of Yayoi that Nao had seen was gone, and now Sunder was back. "That's what people always thought. 'Poor little Yayoi-chan, she's so lonely.' 'Poor little Yayoi-chan, what a coward.' 'Poor little crybaby Yayoi-chan…'"
Nao froze, her body filling with ice. She had said it without thinking it. "No, wait. Please, Yayoi. I didn't mean it like that. You have to believe me!"
"Poor little Yayoi-chan would have fallen for it," she said, opening her book, flipping through page after page after page of screaming pen-and-ink figures. "But I'm not poor little Yayoi-chan anymore. I've changed… they don't pity me. They all respect me now."
She stopped at a blank page with one hand. The lightning bolt pen appeared in the other. "You know," she said, "For some people, I've been drawing things especially for them. Like for the violent ones… I draw them bleeding, so they can feel what it's like to hurt. And for the people who get drunk and break things? I draw bottles of water that they can't reach. It's like…" She paused, searching for the right word. "Like justice, I guess. Because that's what heroes do… they bring bad guys to justice."
"Please, Yayoi, you know I didn't mean it!"
Yayoi held the book open in front of Nao, her thumb on a blank page. That page began to glow, filling with power as she whispered, "You're afraid of bugs, aren't you, Midorikawa-san?"
Sound travels far in abandoned cities. Miyuki heard the tremendous impact of Nao hitting the street even from several blocks away, and felt the vibrations rumble through the earth beneath her feet. So when she heard the now-familiar thunderclap of displaced air that always announced a new victim of Sunder's book… "No," she whispered, drawing her knees up tightly against her chin. She didn't think she had any more tears in her, but they kept falling regardless. "Nao-chan," she sobbed, lowering her head. "Nao-chan, not you too…"
It was only a few moments later that she heard the footsteps approaching. Sunder and her minions were moving again, seeking their next target. Miyuki remained huddled in her hiding spot, behind a wall that closed off an abandoned warehouse. She knew she had to keep running, but her legs wouldn't move.
The crowd of Sketches drew nearer. They were on the street outside. Sunder was speaking: "Come out, Hoshizora-san. Just give up. You're the only one left."
Stay calm, thought Miyuki. Don't make a sound. Maybe if she can't find me, she'll just go away…
"Please, Hoshizora-san," said Sunder. Her voice echoed eerily though the empty streets. "If you try to fight, you'll just make it worse for yourself. Midorikawa-san fought me, and then she tried to trick me…" Venom coursed through her tone. "I didn't let her. I hope I got the details on the roaches right. I've never really drawn them before, and I had to do so many in such a short time…"
Miyuki clapped a hand over her mouth. Oh God, Nao-chan.
"If you come out now, it'll be better for you in the end. What I draw on your page doesn't have to be bad… Come on, Hoshizora-san. Please come out."
Somebody help me, thought Miyuki desperately. Please, anyone…
And to her astonishment, someone put their hand on her shoulder. Miyuki stifled a scream and almost blasted that someone in the face with her remaining power… she thought for certain that anyone left in the city was inside, behind a locked door for their own safety. For one wild moment, she thought that perhaps Nao had pulled of a miracle, perhaps she had escaped…
It wasn't Nao. It was a girl Miyuki had never seen before, slightly older than her, taller, with the generous figure of a particularly lucky mid-teenager. She had amber-gold eyes and blonde curls that for a horrible moment reminded her of Sunder, but her face was kind, warm and gentle and serene. "It's going to be all right," said the new girl, quietly, so Sunder wouldn't hear.
Miyuki could barely speak thought her shock. "You… who…?"
The hand on Miyuki's shoulder squeezed. "I've come to help you. Stay here, I'll stop her."
"Are… are you another Precure?" She felt stupid for asking, but considering everything else that had happened…
The girl actually laughed, a soft, musical sound. "No, I'm not. My name is Mami Tomoe, and I'm a Puella Magi." She took hold of her skirt and made a curtsy, just like a proper medieval lady in one of Miyuki's beloved picture books. The girl wore a costume that looked vaguely European: a beret with white feather, long sleeves, what appeared to be a bustier, striped tights reaching up to her mid-thigh, high, zippered boots…
"I…" Baffled, Miyuki just stared at her. "I've never heard of-"
"I'm not surprised," said Mami. "We're different from you. Kyubey?"
At her feet, a small white creature appeared, something like a cat and something like a rabbit. It padded close to Miyuki and looked up at the new girl, and Miyuki heard it speak in her mind. You called?
"What is that?" whispered Miyuki, staring at it. It sort of resembled Candy, and yet something about it was strange and unnerving.
"Don't worry, he's a friend," Mami said with a smile. "He told me what's happened here. Stay with him, and try not to make a sound."
At a loss for what else to do, Miyuki nodded and gathered the thing called Kyubey into her arms. He was warm and soft.
I apologize, he said to her. When I contracted her, I never suspected that she would go this far, or become this dangerous. She's become an anomaly.
"You mean you-"
"We'll explain everything we can after this is over, I promise," said Mami, brushing back one of her curling pigtails. She opened her hand, and an antique musket appeared in it with a golden flash. "For now, just stay here and let me handle Kise-san."
Miyuki watched in awe as this new girl strode confidently out past the wall and into the street…
Moving like a dancer, Mami Tomoe dove into battle with the Sketches, firing blasts from her muskets as quickly as she could summon them. They littered the street with the bodies of her foes as she bombarded their ranks… every shot was precise and methodical, every blunt strike took another creature down.
Yayoi watched her with growing anger and confusion. Where had she come from? Why wasn't she afraid? Lashing out with her pen, she threw a bolt of lightning at the older girl, only to have it stopped by an intricate latticework of glowing ribbons that sprouted from a spent casing, protecting her. Furiously, Yayoi let loose another bolt, and another, and another. The air burned hot around her, ionized by electricity as she screamed "Who are you?"
Mami didn't answer, she simply spun out of the way of the bolts she could not block, still with that serene calm about her that Yayoi found so unnerving. Gradually she made her way closer and closer, decimating Sketches by the dozen, shells and casings falling in a constant rain from her spent arsenal… she was within ten meters now, then five…
Yayoi commanded all her remaining forces to gather in front of her, drawing lines of light in the air to form a few more to bolster their numbers. This girl was relentless, she simply kept coming no matter what… The Sketches formed a living wall around her, their edges folding into each other. By doing so, they couldn't attack, but at least her attacker couldn't-
An entire battery of muskets appeared, floating behind Mami in midair. She raised her arm like a general about to issue a command to her troops, and spoke two words: "Tiro Volley."
Yayoi shrieked as her wall of minions was blasted to pieces by the barrage of musket fire. Frantically she threw open her sketchbook to an empty page. As soon as the girl showed her face, she would be-
A flurry of cheery yellow ribbons raced across the cracked pavement. Moving like snakes, one of them reared up and snatched Yayoi's pen from her hand. Another swiftly did the same to her sketchbook. Half a dozen more spun around and around her, pinning her arms to her sides and drawing her knees together. Yayoi screamed, lost her balance, and fell to the street, helplessly squirming as the strange girl walked calmly through the flaming remnants of the Sketches, coming to stand by her side. Another musket appeared in her hand; Yayoi felt its barrel press against her temple.
"Hello, Kise-san," said her captor. "My name is Mami. Let's talk."
"Let go of me!" Yayoi thrashed back and forth, straining against her bonds… until she heard the click of the musket's stock, and saw Mami's finger tighten on the trigger.
"You know I can't do that," Mami said. She sounded oddly regretful. "You've become a threat to yourself and others. So big a threat, in fact, that Kyubey asked for my help."
Yayoi's eyes widened with shock and betrayal. "You know Kyu-"
"Yes," said Mami simply. "He's my friend too. In fact, I knew him before you did, Kise-san. You see, I'm a Puella Magi as well. Now, please stop struggling and listen to what I have to say. This will be your last chance at redemption."
Though she glared up at Mami with as much defiance as she could muster, inside Yayoi was confused… What kind of person would press the barrel of a gun against her head and offer such a thing?
"I understand, Kise-san." Of all the words she could have said, those were some of the last Yayoi ever expected to hear. "Kyubey told me about you when he asked for my help, told me about your wish. I know what it's like to feel like you're all alone. I know what it's like to want respect, to want to be a hero."
And to Yayoi's astonishment, she believed her. There was sincerity in her voice, yes, but also pain, a very familiar pain that she had almost forgotten, that she had buried down deep inside herself when Sunder was born.
"So I understand why you did it all, Kise-san," Mami continued, "even all these terrible things. But don't you see? Don't you see what you've become?"
"A bully," said Mami softly. "Worse than that, a villain. Exactly what you were trying to stop."
"No." The younger girl was shocked to feel herself start to cry, something she hadn't done since the awful night that she killed Arisu Sato. "N-No. I… I…" Her body heaved, and a sob escaped her lips. Perhaps it was her magic, perhaps it was simply the way Mami said it… but either way, the truth of that statement cut Yayoi to the bone. "I didn't mean to," she whispered, drawing in a shuddering breath. "I didn't mean to, I really didn't…"
"I know." The sympathy in Mami Tomoe's voice only made her sob harder. "I know, and I'm sorry, Kise-san. I'm sorry it went this far. But if you want, you still have a chance. One last chance. Nothing will ever make up for the crimes you've committed here, but if you come with me, I can at least help you start over. We're both Puellae Magi, we can fight together. This is your chance to be a different kind of hero, Kise-san: not one who fights to gain respect, but one who fights for people's happiness, and protects them from despair. Maybe, just maybe, if you do that… one day you can learn to respect yourself again."
Yayoi held still, letting the words sink in. For a moment, even her tears stopped. It would mean leaving what was left of Nanairogaoka forever, she was certain. But it would be a fresh start… a step away from the darkness, a chance to be like the heroes she used to idolize. And she wouldn't be alone anymore, Mami would be there with her. Mami, who understood her and was willing to forgive the blood on her hands. But to face the things she had done to all those people trapped forever in her book, to Arisu and Akane, even if it was to let those things go… that terrified her, struck her with a fear that squeezed her heart in a grip of ice. The deadly chill spread outward from her heart through her veins, making her shiver uncontrollably… The Soul Gem on her hip filled with that coldness, and its amber glow began to fade.
"No," whispered Yayoi, her eyes dark and sorrowful. "No, it's too late… I can't…"
"No!" She screamed the word to the skies, and lightning exploded from her body, from her eyes, her mouth, her fingertips, more powerful than any she had ever summoned before… it raced through the musket still held against her temple, into Mami's body, blinding her and blowing her backward. Yayoi's small body was swallowed up by a column of blazing light, and roaring thunder drowned out the sound of her scream…
By the time Mami returned to her senses, Miyuki Hoshizora was by her side, shaking her shoulder and weeping. The air still crackled sharply around them, and sparks danced on the sidewalks and in the remnants of street lamps, but there was no sign of Yayoi Kise. The only traces left of her were a lightning bolt-shaped brass pen and a handsome leather-bound sketchbook, both lying abandoned in the broken street.
That's impossible. I can't do anything right. All I ever do is make trouble for others… and embarrass myself… Why…? Will I always… just be like this… forever…?
Then maybe it'd be better if you just died right now, said someone strange and unfamiliar. It almost sounded like a young girl's voice.
Maybe it would be better just to die…
That's right, said the voice. You should just die now.
I should just… die…
Her eyes opened. She was no longer on the lonely bridge that led to home. The city and its beautiful sunset were gone. She stood on a gently rolling landscape of scraps torn from oil paintings, all gray and lifeless and drained of color. The sky overhead was now blood-red, patterned with angry whorls of yellow and orange, and bizarre statues loomed out of the ground, their angles sharp and threatening.
The girl drew back in shock. "Wh-what is this place?"
In front of her, building itself up piece by piece, there appeared a great stone arch, like the one in photos she had seen of Paris. Something dark and ominous sat atop it… something alive…
She stumbled backwards, terrified and disbelieving. "What…? What's going on here?"
Now a trio of figures came through the arch, their movements jerking and spastic. They resembled vague, crude sketches of humans, scribbled onto scraps of paper by a mad artist. Slowly they walked toward the girl, raising their arms.
"Ah!" The girl tried to run, tripped, and fell to the ashen, painted ground. Paralyzed with fear, she could not rise again. She simply lay there helplessly, watching the strange things come closer, their awful visages reflecting in the lenses of her red-rimmed glasses… "No!"
The thunder of musket fire accompanied a volley of blazing arrows of pink light. The strange creatures lurched back, pierced through. Parts of the arch began to crumble. The ground inexplicably sprouted shining golden strings that reared up like snakes and bound the trio of monsters helplessly to the arch…
"That was a close one." The calm, serene voice came from one of the two figures now standing in front of the girl with the red-rimmed glasses. It was she who carried the musket; it was resting on her shoulder.
The second figure turned around to face her… and the girl's mouth fell open in astonishment as she recognized the kind, smiling face. "You're safe now, Homura-chan," said her classmate.
Homura Akemi was almost beyond the ability to speak. "Y-You're…!"
They're magical girls, said yet another voice, cold and clinical. They hunt Witches.
Homura turned around and stared. That voice had come from a creature sitting behind her, looking something like a cat and something like a rabbit… and it had spoken directly to her mind.
"I guess you've discovered our little secret," said Homura's classmate, raising a rose-branch bow and notching another arrow. The blossom at the bow's peak lit up with pink fire as she pulled back on the bowstring. "Don't tell anyone in our class, okay?"
In unison, she and the girl with the musket fired. The arch was engulfed in a mighty explosion, the thing atop it roared with pain as its body burned…
The Artist Witch was dying in the flames. Had it any human awareness left, it might have wondered about the girl with the musket. Perhaps it would have recognized her, sparked a glimmer of memory within its consciousness… or perhaps not. Perhaps there was nothing left of its human form but rage and sorrow.
Perhaps things might have been different…
"Uwaaaah! Don't look!"
"You're really good!"
"Looks great to me…"
"Did you make that up yourself?"
"Yes. I love drawing pictures like this… but it's childish, right?"
"No, no, not at all! Look at me, I love picture books!"
"I didn't know you were good at drawing…"
"You can show the entire class, too!"
"I-It's embarrassing, I'll just get bullied! Please, keep this a secret!" Yayoi Kise clutched her sketchbook to her chest and ran for the stairwell, blushing scarlet. Soon she was lost to sight.
Behind her, the two other girls stared. The first one was mostly dumbfounded; she had known Kise for quite some time, and never suspected she had that kind of talent.
The second girl was equally baffled at first, though she had only met Kise a few days ago… but then she began to smile. She had the beginnings of an idea… There were supposed to be five Precures, after all, and only two had been found so far… so maybe…