"What did you do?" Eva asked with venom. Mechaner smiled grimly. The door opened, revealing the inspector speaking quickly on a long corded phone. The spook spoke placidly. "Come outside." We exited, and several extra guards filed into the cell. "We have reports of several demon attacks. We believe they are focused on your family and school."

Lina blanched and shouted, "What? Where are they?"

The inspector hung up. "Four locations. A subway station. A suburban house. A downtown skyscraper. The largest attack by far is on your school. We estimate several hundred hostages there. The house belongs to your parents, Ms. Inoue. The skyscraper belongs to your father's company, Mr. Lerche. We don't know what the incident at the subway station is, but possibly it involves one of your relatives."

I started striding towards the exit. "Let's talk on the go. The school? Yes, we go there, but why would he attack it? It's not like there's anything there."

Amaterasu growled disconcertingly, "Our friends are there! It's a school day."

"Huh? What friends? Why not just attack the rest of our families?"

Lina bit out impatiently, "Moron, the rest of us have friends there. You might even too if you paid the least attention."

Eva added, "Plus, it's the first of the month. The rest of our families are probably there."

At our uncomprehending stares, she asked. "Our poster project? The big poster display where we are supposed to be right now explaining our science project? The one we've been working on for the past two weeks?"

I blinked and shrugged. Lina muttered something incomprehensible. Amaterasu gasped and covered her mouth.

"Honestly. I expected this from Sebastian, but Dinah and even Naomi? Parents are supposed to attend. I'm sure mine brought my brother. Naomi's siblings are probably either there or at the house that got attacked. Dinah? Sebastian?"

Amaterasu paled. "Dad was going to come on his lunch break, and Mom was going to be there the whole time!"

They looked at me. I laughed at the idea of my father attending a high school poster project. "My father can take care of himself just fine."

Eva nodded. "Then we need to attend to the school, the subway, and Naomi's house."

I added, "And we need to learn Mechaner's goal here, and force him to back down. Oh, and we need to try to save our much bedraggled anonymity."

Lina spat grimly, "My house is the farthest away. I can't wait, I'll fly there now."

"Yes, okay. See if you can make a confusing storm pattern so it's not clear where you are going."

"Inspector. Where is the subway station?" I inspected his proffered note, and brought the map up on my HUD as soon as I was out of the containment center.

"Lina, wait! Take Amaterasu and Eva to the subway station. They can run to the school from there. Clean up those two locations then converge on the school. Hopefully we can all meet there. I'll have Jackson send drone support to the school, and stay here to interrogate Mechaner."

The girls nodded and the weather took an abrupt turn for the worse. I shouted some instructions to Jackson, then ran back inside before I could become hypothermic again. "Inspector? I need to talk to Mechaner. You might not want to record it."

I considered for a moment, then asked. "Did you tell Mechaner our names?"

The Inspector frowned and shook his head. "No, of course not."

"Mechaner claimed you did."

"I don't know exactly what your experience with the chief superintendent was, but police do not normally negotiate with violent criminals. Much less give a known terrorist the names of people he probably wants to hurt."

I smiled. "I see. He was probably just trying to sow dissent."

I tried to convey relief, but I wasn't sure if I succeeded. Mechaner was definitely trying to sow dissent, the question was whether he was lying. It didn't matter right now. "What does that collar do, exactly?"

"It electrocutes and injects a potent sedative."

"Where is the control?"

"Right here."

I grabbed the device, and disengaged the safety. He shrieked and grabbed my hand. "Careful, the big red button under the glass cover detonates the claymore!" I froze, staring at him aghast.

He shrugged uncomfortably. "I know, it should really have a separate controller. We jerry-rigged it with what we had right then, okay? We weren't really ready yet." I just shook my head at the haphazard treatment of Lina-level high explosives. "If he is controlling the constructs directly, maybe we should just knock him out." I grimaced. "But we don't know if that would work."

I thought for a minute. "I'll need fiber here. Where is the nearest port?"

He looked annoyed. "With outside internet? The only live connection is in the command room."

I shrugged. "Then get a really long cable. Bring it to me fast. I'll take the phone in the meantime."

Mechaner retained the exact same smile he was wearing when I left. He purred, "I see your compatriots have run off. Now, I believe this is where I threaten your loved ones and you release me. Oh wait - you don't have loved ones."

"Warlock, you can't seriously expect us to release you."

"Oh? Why not? Heroes are well known for doing stupid things when their loved ones are in danger."

"Then you also know that the villain never gets off easily when he threatens the heroes' families."

I called Jackson on the corded phone, speaking quietly so I wouldn't be overheard. He answered with skepticism, but once I had verified it was me, I asked him for status on the attacks.

Jackson replied with a preoccupied air. "The subway attack is being dealt with. A wire construct assimilated the subway car Eva's father was in. It seems to be taking him and the other passengers to the school. It probably won't make it, but Mechaner seems to want everyone together at the school.

I faced Mechaner. "Warlock, are you trying to reveal our secret identities? You could have done that easily enough."

He shook his head. "It's a challenge. I admit, I hope you will succeed. The magical girl's ignorant family and friends are threatened. The magical girl has to save them, yet protect her identity at the same time. It's a classic for a reason. Ah, but if only I could be there to watch.

My minions have orders to kill one of the girls' family members in ten minutes. My minions will kill another one at random each subsequent minute. For each material concession you make I will delay one execution. You will need a speaker phone or something similar on site to relay my order. Don't blame me if your technology fails at an inopportune moment. I trust you will convey this threat to the people who care - they might be angry if it slipped your mind."

"Material concession?"

"Oh, the first one is to remove this collar. Terribly heavy."

I raised the controller. "Or I could fire it off right now. I am mighty curious what the police cooked up."

"You could, but then my minions would mindlessly continue killing your companions' family and friends. I made a list, but they'll keep going once they run out of primary targets."

"Escape on your own. Surely you had a plot when you let yourself get captured."

He shook his head. "Afraid you are going to have to make the tough decisions on this one."

I harrumphed and checked down the hall. Finally, they had found a fiber long enough. I plugged the fiber into my laptop, and trailed it through the door, typing with one hand as I went.

I called Jackson on the wired phone. "Jackson, situation report?"

"The subway car has been cleared and Eva's father rescued. Lina is out of contact, fighting at her house. The drones are on site at the school."

"What is happening?"

"There are approximately a dozen wire constructs. The garden has come alive. A number of vortexes, too. The constructs have wrapped up a few people each. Eva's mother, brother, and sister. Amaterasu's parents. None of Lina's family, but several of the people the girls associated with the most. I'm not sure how he chose them. Several miscellaneous bystanders and a few police who tried to interfere."

And the other project? You have them?"

"Yes." Jackson didn't sound happy.

I started typing, carefully directing drones.

"How far out are the girls?"

"Twenty seconds for Eva and Amaterasu. Lina is still far away, even by air."

"Okay, I'll wait."

I focused on my scripting.

Eva's clipped tones came over the line. "We're in. We can't approach the constructs. They just pull the hostages' heads back and choke them if we get within ten meters. I could maybe get in fast enough to stop one construct, but we can't stop the rest. "

I responded, "Show me." I pulled a drone off holding orbit and brought it close. "Advance."

The screen showed dozens of hostages wrapped uncomfortably in loops of steel. I watched as the constructs gradually pulled harder and harder on their captives as the magical girls inched closer. The choked cries of pain stopped the girls short.

Mechaner laughed and shook his head. He spoke in a mocking tone, loudly enough for the girls to hear. "My minions will pull harder the closer you get. I expect necks will start breaking at ten meters."

Amaterasu alternated between moving forward as if drawn by a reel and retreating back with helpless anger as the constructs tightened their nooses. Eva stood scowling, her blades twitching each time the constructs tightened. She growled, "Please tell me you have something."

"I don't know. Mechaner, do I have something?"

"No," he ground out.

"Amaterasu, any ideas?"

"No! I can't hit them or even get close without them hurting Mom and Dad. Please do something, I can't save them." She was usually high-spirited, even in combat. Now she seemed near panicking.

"I'll try something. I'll be in contact soon." I hung up.

I gestured the guards into the hallway. When they ignored me I shrugged and addressed Mechaner. "Well, you did say this would take a darker turn."

I pulled out my knife. It was just a thick utility blade. More suited for crowbar duty than combat. "Let's test your toughness. How do you compare to the magical girls?"

As it turned out, he was just about as tough. It meant I wasn't able to do much more than superficial damage, but I was still impressed by his resilience - he didn't even whimper much.

Torture is one of those deceptively effective things. Father had given me some very basic SERE training for my seventeenth birthday. I like to think of myself as pretty put together, and I had lasted about ten seconds. They hadn't even used the really serious techniques.

Neither did I, yet. Without even resorting to my lighter, I doubted Mechaner could hold out much longer. I gritted my teeth and pulled back for a stab at another finger. My sympathetic pain response was not helping. Unfortunately his toughness meant I needed to really wind up to hurt him. It must have looked like a horror movie.

One of the guards interjected. "Uh, that's ... we can't let you do that!" He didn't move forward, though. I forced myself to sound calm and in control. "Relax, he can heal, remember? Besides, he's super tough. It looks worse than it is."

Mechaner started screaming. Darn it, he had realized his stoic suffering was actually a bad idea. The guards looked at each other, but still shuffled uncomfortably. I had to yell to be heard. "You know, all the people we know he killed, or who died directly because of his attacks? They were all cops. You heard him, he's threatening to kill hundreds of innocent people if we don't let him out to continue those attacks." I directed my next comment to Mechaner. "Give the order to call off your minions. Else I try for another finger."

"No."

I stabbed another finger. I missed and hit one I had already mangled, ah well.

"I'm going to start with the lighter in thirty seconds. You stop threatening innocent lives and I'll stop torturing you."

"No, they won't let you continue for much longer."

I started with the lighter early. Fortunately the lighter was less theatrical than the knife, and the guards were wearing air masks. Less fortunately, I was not. I was already embarrassingly nauseous and shaking from the torture. I compounded that embarrassment by throwing up. This task really needed a professional. Mechaner tried for a laugh, but it didn't really work. Five minutes left. Fine.

I checked to make sure my last drone was in position.

"Jackson, I need to talk to your guests. Privately. Give them the phone, lock the door and go to the school."

Jackson rumbled uncomfortably "Done." I heard him say, barely audible, "Here, take this."

This part I wanted to make sure Mechaner could hear, but not the guards. I turned my cellphone to static, as loud as it went and placed it on the table closer to the guards.

I leaned in close to Mechaner, holding the old handset near his ear. "Hello. What's your name?"

"Daichi." A shy voice returned.

"Daichi. Do you remember your uncle?"

I looked on Mechaner with cold eyes. He ignored me, but a muscle in his neck twitched twice.

I could hear Daichi fumbling with the phone. "Uh yes?"

"Do you want to talk with him?"

"Okay."

I held the phone up to Mechaner. I heard the voice on the other end. "Uncle Satoshi?"

Mechaner threw his head into the phone, nearly knocking it from my grasp. He convulsed as the collar shocked him for the sudden movement. I returned to the phone. "Sorry Daichi, your uncle almost dropped the phone. Can you put your mother on please?"

"Okay. Minute!"

I spoke gently. "Satoshi. You have taken hostages before. You never seriously tried to harm them. You never quite threatened to either. That means I am taking your threat now very seriously.

If you want to return to the status quo - where we fight each other, but don't threaten uninvolved friends or family - then you need but call off your minions. You may fight us, but you must not kill any of our loved ones, or I will do the same to yours. In," I looked at my phone clock, "Three minutes thirty seconds we will kill one of your loved ones, chosen at random. Every subsequent minute we will kill another. Same deal you gave us."

A woman's voice came from the other end. "Hello. Satoshi? Oh my god, I heard you survived the fire. Are you okay? What is going on?"

I replied. "Hello Mrs. Kuno. Your brother is in some trouble. He is threatening to kill some innocent people. If you have any way to convince him to not to, please begin right now."

"What? What are you talking about. Satoshi wouldn't do anything like that. Who are you?"

I sighed and made the drone shoot a few rounds into the couch. A distorted crash came through the phone, then a cut-off shriek.

"Mrs. Kuno? Mrs. Kuno?"

Eventually she responded shakily, "Yes."

"I did not want to worry you Mrs. Kuno, but I'm afraid I shall have to do so. Your brother has ordered a murder in a little less than three minutes. If he has not called it off by then my drone will shoot one of you. This will repeat after one minute and so on. If you wish for yourself and your children to live I recommend you be very convincing. You have two minutes forty five seconds. Beginning right now."

I made sure the phone was well audible to Mechaner. Mrs. Kuno spluttered. "Wait. I don't, I can't. Hello? Please listen to me!" I ignored her, observing Mechaner.

She cried out. "Satoshi? Please tell me what is going on. There's a big drone with guns here!"

I heard some shouts in the background. Probably the nephews realizing they were locked in. Mechaner clenched his jaw, but somehow still managed to speak. "Give me the phone."

I made sure Eva was recording with her phone and could easily broadcast the recording if it actually contained a stand down command. I pushed the computer a little closer. "Go ahead."

He began. "Are you there?"

The magical girls' excited and angry voices echoed back. "Yes! Go!"

He spouted off, rapidly, "Odysseus is torturing me and threatening to kill my family including two twelve year old boys."

Huh. The girls started shouting questions, but I ignored them. I activated my script and showed my drone command screen to Mechaner. "You were a scientist, yes? Know anything about drones? I have drones with pulse and exhalation spectra detection made for tracking living targets.

If the drones at the school detect a single death the drone locked in with your family will execute my threat. I have locked everyone, including myself, out of the drone system - a hacking prevention method. If the system hasn't detected a death and the hostages haven't been moved from the school for fifteen seconds after your threatened deadline the system will cancel the order and return control."

Amaterasu interjected with dismay. "Sebastian, what are you doing? They're children."

"So are some of Mechaner's targets." I raised an eyebrow at Mechaner's cold silence. "You might want to call them off sooner rather than later. I might have made a mistake in my command script."

Amaterasu pleaded. "Sebastian, you can't do this. I know your father was horrible to you, but you can be better than him." I didn't say anything. What was there to say?

I realized Mechaner was still listening to the phone call with his family. There was some talking in the background. Scrambling or pleading, but I couldn't make out the details. If I couldn't then Mechaner probably couldn't either. "Mrs. Kuno? Two minutes remaining. I recommend you speak to your brother. Or perhaps see if one of your sons can persuade him."

"I don't know what to say! Satoshi please. Speak to me. Just give the order they want. If they actually just want you to stop a murder you should anyway. Please, just do something. Redmond is going to attack the drone! Daichi doesn't understand what's happening. I don't understand what's happening!"

Mechaner looked away from me and closed his eyes. "Take off the collar. Just take off the collar."

Amaterasu pleaded. "Please. Sebastian, please just take off the collar. You can be a good guy. I... I... you. I won't speak to you again if you kill them! But Mom and Dad..." Her voice dropped heart-wrenchingly. "I need them." I felt a strange tightness in my chest and face.

"Satoshi? Say something." Mrs. Kuno's voice came with a sob. I let her cry for a short period.

Mechaner growled. "You won't do it. You haven't really locked yourself out. You have a way to stop it."

I shrugged. "Sure, I could find a way to regain control. There are ways. In just a minute or two? No."

He just shook his head. I picked up my computer and threw it against the wall. The corner caved in, showering Mechaner in shards. "Think I can now?"

He froze. I spoke calmly into the old handset. "Give the phone to Daichi"

She did so.

"Daichi. I want you to tell your uncle what you want to be when you grow up."

"I'm going to be a Policeman! I'll pilot the drones."

"I see, that is very nice. Which will it be, Satoshi? Redmond, Daichi, Ino?"

Daichi asked with confusion, "Uncle what does he mean?"

Mechaner was silent, his eyes closed. I checked the time. "One minute remaining."

"Uncle?"

Mechaner replied as if speaking past a deathly pneumonia. "Daichi. I..."

He opened his eyes and looked at me with the most honest emotion he had displayed yet. It was hatred, naturally.

The table writhed under my elbow. I tried to jump back, but the table half-wrapped a leg around mine. Distorted, fractal lines spread across the metal surface. Mechaner shook, convulsing under the electric shock of the collar.

I thumbed the activation switch quickly. Two pinkie-thick needles burst from the collar, but deflected and bent off of a pair of coiled metal cables that had snaked unseen under the collar. The guards shouted something, raising the alarm or telling me to get out of the way. I called loudly, "Killing me won't stop it. Call them off!"

The guards fired twice. One was blocked by the table rearing up, the other struck Mechaner in the shoulder. The table convulsed, the sharp pattern of lines deepened into the metal. I redoubled my efforts to back away, succeeding in freeing most of my leg, but the table still trapped my foot.

The guards fired several more times, hitting Mechaner thrice. The collar broke apart and his chair began moving as well. He reached out towards me, but I was still out of his grasp.

The table expanded like a frayed rope, twisted cables unfurling into lashing steel tentacles. A gas was being pumped into the room, but I couldn't tell what effect it had.

My earbuds clamped down again against the overpowering sound of high calibre rifles being fired inside an enclosed chamber. Mechaner made it out of his chair, but he couldn't move - he merely curled in a ball to protect his head. The table and chair construct crouched in front of him, desperately trying to ward off the now continuous firepower.

Mechaner was pulverized. I could see his face covered in blood. A gaping wound in his leg spurted. The barrage had penetrated to his femoral artery. Somehow he managed to touch the wound. His lips moved and the wound reknit slightly, blood flowing back in like a movie in reverse.

He took two more hits while it did. He extended a shaking hand and touched the shattered laptop. The broken fragments jittered towards him, reassembling in eerie unison. I dialed Eva on the phone I had somehow failed to drop. She shouted an unintelligible question.

Twelve seconds left. I stopped resisting the construct's thin noose and stepped towards Mechaner. I kicked the half-repaired laptop away. With a cry of anger he gave up his desperate huddle and lunged, grabbing my arm. He raised his other hand, starting to strike out towards somewhere vital. To disintegrate it or simply rip it apart I don't know.

I jammed the phone into his face and shouted, "If you kill me and escape they'll still be dead. Call off your constructs! Five seconds!"

He glared at me, face a mask of blood. His hand paused for a moment, then he spoke. "Stop! I command: don't harm the hostages. Mendacious."

I waited, my arm trembling as I held the phone up. It seemed like hours had passed. It was perhaps ten seconds. The constructs and the guards remained frozen. Perhaps the message arrived too late. Did all his minions hear the message? How could they even hear?"

Eva's tinny voice reverberated in the concrete chamber. "The hostages haven't been harmed."

Mechaner gasped out, "Call them. Prove they are okay." I dialed his sister. She answered, still shaking. "Hello? What happened? Satoshi?"

He ground out, "Are you alright? Daichi and Redmond?"

"Yes, for now. What happened?"

Mechaner hung up and began murmuring something, holding his bleeding neck. The guards tensed, but still held back while I was in their line of fire. Mechaner's neck stopped bleeding. Up this close I could see it begin to flow back together slowly. Not perfectly, but without gaping holes.

I felt a strange sensation in my arm, the one grasped by Mechaner. His healing power spread just like his disintegration power did. He was murmuring the same thing, over and over. The feeling increased, small wounds staunching all over my body.

He stopped and raised his eyes to me. "You. I will save for you a fate much worse than death, but I'll start by tearing out your eyes."

I tackled him. He was a lot stronger than me, but he didn't weigh much more. I grabbed his shirt and pulled myself against his chest. Confused, he didn't resist. I hoped I had the angle right, and pressed the big red button.

~~~~

Chapter 13: Upside of Landmines

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