Continuity: the Madoka Magica TV series (not movies). There may also be references to the Drama CDs and spinoffs.
He went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day, and came to sit down under a juniper tree; and he prayed that he might die, and said, 'I have had enough. Now, oh Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors'.
~ 1 Kings 19:4
Above the worlds of mortals,
Above time and space,
Above all the timelines in all universes,
A goddess, beautiful and terrible, sits upon a throne.
The perfect form of the young woman is clad in the finest materials, a bright dress wrapped around Her slender body, flowing splendidly down on both sides of a pair of crossed legs in elegant stockings. A gloved hand rests casually on the throne's armrest. The other one is a fist, supporting Her jaw as She gazes down at all eternity, ageless eyes glowing gold.
In some times and places She has an occasional worshipper. Has, for all times are equally now to Her. These lucky people are few, and each has gained knowledge of Her only through special circumstances, for Her own nature dictates that the goddess be largely forgotten by the Universe that She once helped remould.
They call Her the Archer Lady, Bringer of Hope, the Forgotten. But even in their dreams those special people have never caught more than a glimpse of what She has become. She begrudges none the familiarity, but She prefers to spare the sanity of those precious few who know and care about Her.
Her gaze follows the infinite arrows of hope as each culminates in an avatar, Madoka herself appearing in her most benign form, saving a magical person from despair. This is Her life's work: to carry hope and salvation to those who, by fighting for their dreams, protect others and keep their universe alive. This task is what She traded Her mortal life for, gladly and with no regrets.
All of Her energies are engaged in this work, for the extent and form of Her power is the result of a wish, and the wish that made Her what She is was all about this very task.
And, on Earth, Homura Akemi fights on, hoping for the miracle that was promised her. That hope is not destined to last forever.
Homura had not heard Madoka's encouragements in months. Perhaps over a year now. She couldn't tell any more.
She did not complain. There was no one to hear her out, so she spoke to no one. She fought on, with a straight back and composed face, showing little weakness to her enemies and even less to her allies.
The others had grown wary around the quiet, unapproachable girl. They had their lives, their hopes, dreams, and regrets, so they could be human to each other. Homura had Madoka, and that was something there was no point in sharing. When Kyubey suggested there was no way to verify her story as something other than her imagination, he spoke an impersonal, clinical truth, describing the state of available evidence with no judgement behind it. It did not prevent him from noticing that her ideas at least carried some explanatory power. Her human acquaintances, on the other hand, would just consider her delusional, so she told them nothing.
When the best person to hear you out is an Incubator, you might as well be alone.
Homura left Mitakihara. She was not known to reappear in nearby cities.
This was not unprecedented. There were demons to be fought everywhere - even in the mountains, deserts, in the uninhabited wilds. Those were more rare, for demons were born from human emotions, around human settlements, and were more likely to be drawn to attack humans than to drift out and get lost somewhere secluded, or to be already born out there, of the misery of a traveller. But it did happen, and the little streams of despair and pain that reached those places were still enough to let an unattended demon grow in strength and guile.
So magical girls occasionally toured outside of their primary territories to weed out these latent threats. It was a different fight, more rare but sometimes more challenging. Not as well-fed, but with more time to develop, such demons could grow unusually cunning. Fascinating stories of dangerous adventures in faraway haunted places circulated among the initiated.
These escapades did not leave cities unprotected. It was rare for a single girl to control a territory by herself, so, when one chose to tour, there were allies left to pick up her share of the work.
Homura's departure raised few eyebrows and little alarm. That suited her.
She remembered reading, a long time ago, that some people would withdraw to the wilderness and be alone to better hear the word of God. She did not think herself a prophet, nor did she really believe Madoka would be more likely to whisper to her on her journey than in Mitakihara; she just thought about it.
In the years that followed, she quickly lost track of of how many demons she managed to slay. Kyubey kept showing up for the used up grief cubes, messing up her count. That didn't matter. It was just one day merging into another, then another.
Travel, hunt, kill, talk to Kyubey, resupply, travel, hunt, kill...
And now she was sitting under a tree in the middle of a near-desolate nowhere. The sun was bright and hot, but under the tree there was pleasant shade. She was glad that the sun wasn't shining in her eyes.
It occurred to her that a day which you can't tell apart from the previous one is a good day to die.
Homura had stopped purifying her soul gem. It was not a deliberate decision. It was that the magical potential kept becoming harder to restore, with more and more concentration required to force the gem's impurities to transfer to a grief cube. One day she found that she had no interest any more in making the effort, so she didn't.
Soon she had to give up on her enormous wings. Being nearly raw energy-work, they consumed much power, especially when used for attacking.
Ironically, even then the prospect of dying in battle seemed as far away as ever. She was just too good. Her bow had by now become a highly refined art, efficient, deadly with even a tiny trickle of power pouring through the fine magical framework. Despite abandoning the protection of the wings, experience, alertness and well honed instincts kept her alive. Arrow after arrow, demons died at only a small cost to Homura's soul gem. It seemed almost as if there would always be energy for one more.
Kyubey noticed, of course. He tried to talk her into using grief cubes again. To her surprise, at one point he jumped into her arms, the way she once saw him do that with Mami, forever ago. The way he rested his head on her shoulder, curled into her arms, was so pet-like and friendly that Homura wondered for a moment if it was really happening, or if by now her mind was addled.
But she understood, of course. Everything about Kyubey, from his body design to his voice and mannerisms, had been engineered to affect cuteness and lovability to human girls. It was not well done, and sometimes he came across as creepy even if you didn't know him (and more so if you did), which made her think it must have been done more with trial and error than purposeful design, and stopped when deemed 'good enough'. Still, it tended to work, but she had to wonder what earlier versions of Incubator bodies would have looked like.
So the gesture had not come from any genuine affection of Kyubey's, and yet he wasn't trying to fake affection, either - a point that most humans would have trouble understanding. People did not really believe in minds and motivations that weren't humanlike. But Homura had been around the little monster long enough to know better. What would have been an abject lie from another human, in Kyubey's case was just an action that he knew how to perform because it tended to have effect.
And, despite everything Homura knew, to some stupid part of her brain it did feel good, just a little.
She asked him to leave her. He hopped down and turned around to observe her.
"Goodbye, Homura Akemi", he said finally. "Our time together has been interesting and I gathered much energy. Now I must find another girl who will form a contract with me."
She waved apathetically at the creature that had been her enemy and target so many times, but in this life had been the closest she had to a companion. He disappeared. Homura closed her eyes and touched her ribbons.
"I am tired, Madoka. You have no idea how tired I am."
Clouds passed slowly overhead, thin and sparse. Her body ached, and rest was not coming. She tried to think of whether all her efforts after Madoka's ascension had been worth it, and found that she didn't know any more. Did it matter, if she was destined to end up like this eventually? It bothered her that she didn't know. Her breathing grew laborious.
The soul gem in her hand was completely dark.
She felt something approaching. Fast, as if from incredible distance. Something magical. Powerful. Not the evil of a demon, though.
A flash of pink - and, suddenly, just like that, a magical girl hovered above her. She was smiling. To Homura, it was the most gentle smile and the most beautiful face and the dearest magical girl in the cutest pink magical dress possible in all the universes. The sight was so Madoka it hurt.
She couldn't speak...
Madoka was right there, and Homura couldn't speak. All the emotion held in until now threatened to choke her, she was in tears (damned water stopping her from seeing Madoka clearly!), her heart was trying to beat its way out of her chest, and her body was shaking. All she could do was reach up feebly.
The other girl gave her a look that, more clearly than words, said: it's all right, I understand. She closed her hands around Homura's soul gem. Time stopped.
Slowly, like a river of dark molten lava, pain and despair flowed out of the dark-haired fighter. Ten thousand little fires of exhaustion that she hadn't even been aware of were doused in her muscles and tendons. Tension left her temples and eyes. Her breathing eased. Homura hadn't realized it was possible to feel such overwhelming relief.
Time resumed. As she already knew to expect, the purification manifested as black smoke leaving her soul gem.
Homura discovered she could smile again.
Not trusting her voice, she reached with her thoughts. "Is it time?" She could not hide how desperately hopeful that question was. At the end of all her work, her reward was coming. Homura's soul gem would disappear, and she would die, and then she would be with her Madoka forever.
The last of the smoke dissipated, and her amethyst soul gem shone purely.
It remained stubbornly there.
The sky and the tree and the hovering figure of her saviour receded rapidly, until they were only a faraway light in a dark tunnel.
Homura finally found her voice, and screamed.
Then all was dark.