A fine rain hung over the city. It wasn't Lina's fault this time. We were inaugurating a demon attack early warning system. The system was little more than a slightly customized adaptation of existing emergency broadcast systems. At least it would proffer more meaningful advice.

The main point was the media circus surrounding it. A specifically anti-Mechaner defense system being publicly activated? How could he resist making an appearance?

Some local celebrity handed Eva the oversized scissors and stepped back, clapping primly. A giant ribbon encircled the antennae-laden building. Frankly, it was kind of silly. The radio building was already operating, and had been operating just the same for years.

Eva stepped forward and paused for a moment before the ribbon. I could make out a quick "Divine Cognizance Meditation" over my earpiece. She had restarted it every time she stood still. I waited on the other side of the stage, clapping politely.

We had added a dash of extra color to my armor for the event. I edged a bit closer to Amaterasu. Not for romantic reasons, I'm afraid. I just wanted to make sure I was well within shield radius. Mechaner had seemed rather pissed at me last time we met.

The crowd cheered again as the scissors snipped and the ribbon hit the ground. A shadow covered the audience, and they quieted quickly. A swarm of oversized insects covered the sun.

Large chimeric creepy crawlies had actually been some of Mechaner's earlier minions. He had mostly abandoned them. I didn't blame him - while the oversized arthropods worked better than they mechanically had any right to, they still kinda sucked.

The giant spiders could shuffle about with unwieldy, easily damaged legs. Anything larger than a cat couldn't fly. Fortunately, he didn't go any smaller than that - tiny flying black widows would actually be scary. Even worse, the chimeric parts tended to conflict about as much as they helped. Fear was really the arthropod chimera's main advantage.

Eva said softly, "No immediate danger. Let Mechaner have his display, maybe he'll come out personally."

I nodded, searching manually through my drones' views. The automatic detectors hadn't sprung, but they might be blocked by the censor. I had forgotten to test that. I found him pretty easily. He was walking through the radio building, heading towards the doors Eva had just de-ribboned. He passed right by my drone with barely a glance.

I directed the girls to watch the doors only a moment before they burst open and Mechaner strode onto the stage. The audience (and the cameras - the reporters had insisted on filming the event even though the recording wouldn't work) turned away from the impressive aerial display with scattered gasps.

Mechaner looked surprised and annoyed that we were already facing him. I guess he was hoping for a startling entrance. He spoke to the crowd. "Your warning system fails even on its inauguration. Your heroes cannot protect you!"

Eva stepped forward and responded. "We will do our best. The warning system will give everyone a chance to avoid your depredations. Your insectoid monsters have failed before, Mechaner. This time we are yet stronger."

Mechaner spread his arms. "People of the city, people of the world. Why do you resist me? Know that those who bow to their rightful Emperor will be spared."

I messed with my HUD for a second, linking my voice into the speaker system. "Mechaner, what do you offer besides a tyrant's threats?"

Hopefully, I could keep him talking instead of fighting. The teams would have begun the sweep as soon as Mechaner showed his face. Mechaner turned one outstretched hand towards me. "Those who bow to me with fealty and love for their rightful ruler will be granted protection and benefits the sovereign alone can bestow. All will bow in time, but those who bow first will be elevated above the rest."

He strode forward towards a young reporter sitting in a wheelchair. She tried to back away, but tangled her chair in some cords. The crowd shifted away from her rapidly. Amaterasu and Lina started forward, but Eva shook her head. Mechaner spoke loudly. "This young woman just had a terrible injury, yet she returns at once to her task. Tell us what happened to you, brave lady."

I couldn't make out her expression, but she spoke fearlessly enough. "I was shot by my husband. The doctors removed most of my small intestine."

Mechaner nodded gravely. "When and why did this happen?"

"Three weeks ago. I fought back when he was drunk and hit me. I will not give in to you any easier."

"A brave lady indeed. You will make an excellent example of what my generosity means."

Mechaner reached forward and touched her belly. The woman frowned for a moment, then screamed, reaching to push Mechaner off. He held her down, resisting her effortlessly.

Amaterasu raised her hand and Lina started her storm chant. The woman stopped screaming, and ran her hand over her belly. Mechaner stepped back and stood with hands clasped behind him. The reporter pulled her shirt up slightly and stared, speaking too softly for the crowd to hear. "It's gone."

Mechaner projected like a stage actor. "Tell the crowd."

She stood and faced the crowd. "It's gone, my scar is gone. The pain is gone too."

She directed the next question to Mechaner. "Is my intestine healed?"

"Indeed," he responded magnanimously, "all the damage has been healed." He directed his next comment to us. "See what your selfish interference has prevented?"

Jackson's voice came over my com. "Mechaner's minions are coming out in force against the search groups. No huge impediment so far. We are running your distance calculation on all the new constructs to narrow down his center location."

Lina said, laughing, "Please. Give everyone here some credit. You heal one person? Great. It hardly makes up for all your property damage, emotional trauma, maimings, and murders. Maybe you should have started with healing sick people, then people would have listened to you."

Mechaner frowned. "Enough. Do you think I do not know you are simply delaying me? Your pathetic assault is already doomed. You I will defeat now."

Eva acted an instant before he had finished. She shouted "Third Moment Celerity" followed by "Imbued Schism Reckoning" and ran towards Mechaner, casually dodging the lightning bolt he called down.

A worm the size of an anaconda burst out of ground, blocking her approach. Amaterasu bisected it with a Blue Rainbow Resonance. The thrashing halves still threatened her path, especially since the rear half possessed an oversized scorpion stinger. Eva flicked her right sword once and stepped through the resulting gap.

The swarm descended from the sky, fighting the rising wind. Lina floated into the air. Her whipping hair suddenly froze - spread behind her in unnatural stillness. "Fulminating Percussive Array!" The lighting tore giant gaps through the oncoming swarm, terminating on power poles and lightning rods.

The crowd screamed and scattered. As Eva swung towards Mechaner, his bulky costume shifted and fragmented, wire tentacles boiling out. The construct wrapped around Mechaner deflected Eva's arm, while simultaneously pulling him aside.

She leapt well over Mechaner's head, avoiding a swipe from a second scorpion worm, and a gravity field from Mechaner. At the apex of her leap she grabbed one of the wires trailing off of Mechaner and pulled herself at him.

I coordinated my drones, shooting the swarm out of the sky with ease. I didn't attack Mechaner. For one thing I would be ecstatic if he forgot I existed. For another I didn't want him to get desperate. I did scatter a few suicide drones nearby.

A spider the size of a large truck crawled through the modern art sculpture in front of the public safety department. The sculpture was supposed to remind people of the sacrifices safety professionals had made in past disasters. I didn't understand the sculpture, but a giant mutated spider certainly added an apocalyptic feel to the work.

Amaterasu was shielding the camera crew (and me) from dive-bombing wasplike creatures with stingers the size of IV needles. Lina was busy with her air battle. I directed a few low calibre shots toward the beast. It shook, a strange steaming blood pouring from its wounds. The protuberances covering its back rotated, blasting steam at my drones.

Jackson spoke again. "We have pinpointed the center of Mechaner's effect. We are facing stiff resistance at the building, but will have sufficient forces on site shortly."

My HUD displayed images of a huge brick building with two smokestacks. The surface was crawling with wire constructs. Around the building an army perimeter was swiftly forming. A mostly cohesive force of tanks, turrets and soldiers consolidated near the front entrance. Dozens of agile quadcopters flitted in loose patterns. Ten heavy fire support drones orbited. "Thanks for the update. We are engaged with Mechaner and arthropod chimeras, but there's been no significant victory for either side."

As I finished, one of my larger suicide drones detonated near the strange oversized spider, propelling a cone of shrapnel through the beast. I recognized the protuberances a moment too late: huge bombardier beetle turrets. The spider sizzled, expanding. "Ama, spider is exploding!" I shouted, pointing.

She leapt in front of the nearby group of people and cast a huge Partial Rainbow Reflection. The spider burst into steaming chunks, a roaring column of steam rising skyward.

Mechaner separated from his duel with Eva, blood slowly soaking his costume. Eva was not unscathed, however. She limped slightly, favoring her left foot. Despite his injuries, Mechaner smiled and mocked. "Your allies are fools to come to my place of power. You cannot help them now!"

"Jackson, Mechaner just implied an ambush is waiting there." I warned, before turning my HUD to view the invasion of Mechaner's fortress. The strike team had destroyed the defending forces, and were working their way through the labyrinthine factory building. I watched their advance from the perspective of a well-armored soldier.

For a moment I worried Mechaner was simply distracting us, but that worry was soon put to rest. A fractal pattern of cracks spread throughout the soldier's gun. He shouted and threw the weapon to the ground as it started writhing in his grasp.

He wasn't quick enough. A tendril of wire had already ensnared him. He turned to run, trying to shake off the metamorphosing rifle. It wrapped around his legs and tripped him.

I switched to a different view: a surveillance drone. It flew directly into a fleeing soldier's head, knocking him to the ground.

I switched again. The tank rotated its turret so fast I felt dizzy. It shifted minutely for a second before blasting a distant fellow tank. The camera shook, pelted by high velocity rounds from the orbiting fixed-wing fire support drones.

I switched again. The quadcopter suicide drone flew strangely, weaving to evade fire. It was closing with a well-defended fire support drone. I saw three other suicide drones fall prey to the suppressive fire, but the one I was viewing from came within kill range. That camera went blank.

He could convert metal objects? Why had it taken him so much longer last time? Why had it seemingly required him to be touching it last time? He had mentioned being closer to his place of power, maybe that was the benefit. "Jackson? What's the word - are they going to bomb?"

"Not yet. There's still way too many people in the area - our men included. The fire support drones seem to be outside of the direct conversion effect, but some converted drones have carried wire constructs up to the support drones. We've lost seven, and three have been converted. The air force is going to try to shoot them down, but we have a full evacuation order for the area. He's got a lot of converted hardware in there, we can't afford to let him have more."

"No visual on the origin of the effect?"

"No."

I made sure the girls were in on this and whispered into my throat mike, "The invasion team has been routed. We need to make it into the center of that base, disable whatever he has there if possible. He can convert anything composed substantially of metal into constructs, so conventional forces can't get close. Maybe we can get in there. If not they'll bomb the place. Mechaner has a fair number of interceptors now, so there will be collateral damage if it comes to that."

Eva took charge, speaking forcefully. "Then we'll go. Lina, pick us up. Take us down there as fast as you can. Amaterasu, shield us while we go through the swarm."

Mechaner cackled madly as Lina swept by, pulling us in her wake. "Too late! You can't save them!"

I responded by detonating my suicide drones. His personal construct absorbed much of the blasts. I actually did get a decent head shot, but it healed up right away - he had been renewing his healing every few seconds.

We blitzed through the circling swarm with Amaterasu's shield, though the swarm was already reduced enough that it probably wasn't necessary. In flight I coordinated with Jackson. "Send anything you do have at Mechaner. It'll slow him down, and you might be able to capture or kill him."

"Done. I'm sending you the schematics for the factory. The center of the effect is pinpointed on the map."

I took a good look at it. "Okay, let's go in through the roof. Amaterasu, disintegrate a chute straight down from the point I mark."

I couldn't see her nod in the blasting rain. Lina was making good time. I continued after a moment's thought. "Eva, I hate to say it, but you need to ditch the swords. They have too much metal."

We flew in from above. Amaterasu shielded us against the fire from the suborned fire support drones. We landed on the roof. I sprinted to the target highlighted on my HUD.

A buzz rose in the air, and Lina fired a Descending Glacier. I slipped on the resulting ice, hitting my shoulder painfully. Eva picked me up. I pointed out the spot. "Ama, straight down from there. Five stories."

She nodded and stood on the spot. She bent over and touched the ground "Perfect Blue Rainbow Resonance!" She fell through the resulting hole. I looked down it. "Um, how am I getting down?"

A large explosion shook the roof. Eva didn't respond, but cast Third Moment Celerity and jumped in, dragging me with her. We fell through five rooms. I couldn't get more than a glimpse of each one. They seemed to be packed with strange devices, or else completely barren.

Eva reached out and ran her hands and feet across the edges of the holes in the floor. The surface was very uneven - sometimes crumbling and sometimes sharp. Still she managed to bleed off most of her momentum at each floor. It was still a very bumpy ride. When we reached the bottom I stumbled out of her grasp. "Ow. Next time let's just rappel please."

Lina landed next to me, not bothering to fall slowly. She splintered the fine wood flooring and nearly continued on to the next level.

Eva shrugged and pointed at the hole. "Ama, if you would."

Amaterasu covered the hole with a Solid Light Reformation. Eva asked me, "Where is it supposed to be? The demons will be here soon."

I looked around. This seemed to be a surprisingly well furnished study. The wooden floors were complemented by off-white walls occasionally covered in tasteful wooden filigree. A soft glow from several thin vertical lamps reflected from the walls. A desk, a few bookshelves, and a comfy couch were the only amenities.

"Right there." I pointed to the center of the room, where my HUD indicated the center of Mechaner's empire resided. There was nothing there. Lina cursed. Eva shook her head. "How confident are you? Could it be nearby?"

I shrugged. "I checked on the way. The center is definitely there - no room for statistical error. The model must be off, or we were wrong about the cylinders."

Eva sighed, a rare sign of frustration. "Okay. Check the room, fast. See if there's any indication of where this power source might be. Or if there's anything else here now that we need to deal with."

I started with checking the doors. One opened onto a laboratory, one onto a bathroom, and one onto a bedroom. I was debating between the bedroom and the laboratory (mainly out of curiosity concerning the contents Mechaner's night stand) when Amaterasu spoke up in an odd voice. "I found a book. You might want to see it."

Eva responded in clipped tones. "Is it immediately relevant? If not just put it in your pouch."

Still looking at it, Amaterasu responded in the same strange tone, "I think you might still want to look at it now."

I walked over, asking, "What is it?"

"A printout. A printout with magical girl rituals."

Not concealing my excitement I asked, "Really? That's great! What does it have?"

She looked up at me. "It has a ritual to destroy the world."

~~~~

Chapter 18: Existentialism

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