The burning landscape rolled beneath me slowly, blurred by the wind. I scrunched my eyes up, trying to shield them. A war was being fought in Tokyo. I should say a war had been fought in Tokyo. Jets still flew overhead on occasion, and missiles still traded blows, but on the streets only alien forms walked, or slithered or whatever it was they did.
I had one option other than enjoying the view. I flicked on my tooth receptor and waited for it to vibrate three times. "Father. Or Jackson. Or whoever is listening. Track this signal. I am captured by Mechaner. He is in the helicopter in front of this one. Relay this message and my location to the magical girls, please. I'm going to turn off the tooth transmitter to conserve battery. I'll retransmit every five minutes."
We left behind the majority of the urban area, and approached the remains of a large building complex. It looked like it had burned down, then been partially rebuilt. The rebuilt sections were now damaged, some parts still smouldering. Gutted tanks and drones littered the ground. More than a few corpses as well.
This was outside Mechaner's previous range. He must have extended it. Was that just because Tokyo was important, or because of this location in particular? We landed.
I was positioned at an awkward angle inside the construct. Even though its movements were fluid, the construct occasionally bumped the sword stuck in my belly. I held back my cries. My facedown position proved useful as I passed over a toppled sculpture. It would once have been a tall block of granite, worn through as if by water to form a single sinuous word: Diluvian.
The Machine was here. I flicked the tooth ring on again. "Mechaner has taken me to Diluvian. I think he's going to do something with the Machine. We can't let him. If there are any forces remaining, you should converge on this location soon. Tell the magical girls. I'll leave this line open." A few seconds later, the tooth ring buzzed twice. Message received, I hoped.
The construct took me to the largest and least damaged of the rebuilt buildings.
Inside, something out of a physicist's dream blossomed. I was unqualified to describe the device, except to say that it had plenty of gleaming metal tubes, careful optics and multicolored wires. It looked very expensive.
A giant smouldering crack ran through its central chamber, once a perfect sphere. Two bleeding corpses lying next to a demolitions kit clued me in to the cause of this crack. Apparently unconcerned by this vandalism, Mechaner directed several constructs as they added components from the airlifted crates to the Machine.
I returned to my previous question. Why me? The girls made sense. Mechaner made sense. I didn't. What was unexplained or mysterious about me?
I received the phone call
I wasn't forsworn
I was unusually young and competent
I wasn't blocked by the censor
The magical girls had all of these properties, but I had a plausible explanation for them. The magical girls received their phone call because they were likely to be able to send the call to themselves. This required them to not be forsworn. It also made it more likely they were young and competent.
That was the first three properties explained. The fourth was explicable if Mechaner added an exception to the magical girl censor. With his obsession, it made sense for him to do that for the magical girls, but not for me.
Mechaner finished adding the components. Out of the sole window, I could see a storm rising. Lina was coming. Mechaner noticed, and hurried his repair efforts. He shouted an order and dozens of converted drones took to the air, charging off in the direction of the oncoming storm center.
Mechaner stood next to the machine, touching the central sphere. He murmured something continuously. The machine shifted, groaning. Ash and debris flowed into the crack, while other parts reoriented themselves. The grime and scars on the body of the machine faded away slowly, the great crack down the center closing.
Several distant explosions were hard to separate from the nearly constant thunder. Mechaner's constructs closed their ranks, surrounding the machine like dense brambles. Through the narrow opening of the door I could see incoming attack helicopters. They were coming from the opposite direction as the storm. Were they Mechaner's forces or opposing forces?
The thunder intensified for a moment, and a spot on the ceiling disappeared. The magical girls fell through, their light landing belied by a floor-shaking crash.
A suicide drone blew up next to them. Amaterasu intercepted the blast, but it took away the element of surprise. Mechaner looked up, but didn't stop his muttered chant. Lina cast a Descending Glacier Conjuration on me. The construct around me halted. The ice continued growing, eventually covering all but my head - a feature for which I was very grateful.
I tried to tune out the destruction. It made sense that Mechaner would exempt the magical girls from the censor. Although, wouldn't the censor have to be designed before he activated the second Machine? The rules were fixed once the second Machine was 'sent away.'
Mechaner had built in a clever exception to allow him to create minions. That had only worked within Tokyo, and the magical girl censor operated worldwide. Mechaner had seemed to not know who the magical girls were. He had gone to extensive effort to get the police to uncover the girl's identities. Had that been a convoluted deception?
Mechaner completed his chant. He moved to the console. We couldn't let him send his message. I tried to shout out a warning, but could barely manage a whisper. Eva was in her Cognizance Mediation at that moment, fortunately.
She called out Third Moment Celerity and ran towards the Machine. Three constructs blocked her path, firing a dozen rifles at her. She dodged and feinted, but they still hit her twice.
She sliced them into pieces in passing and charged the center sphere, her imbued blade pointed to pierce the thick construct cover. The covering was thicker than her sword was long, I didn't think she could penetrate.
Amaterasu hit the spot with a Blue Rainbow Resonance, thinning the constructs. Eva suddenly threw herself to the side a moment before piercing the sphere. The ceiling crashed down, catching her foot.
I couldn't do anything but think. Why would Mechaner use such a complicated deception? The simplest explanation was that he didn't. That he simply tuned the censor to not block magical girls. Still didn't explain me.
Okay, let's take another tack. Why was my phone call cut off by Mechaner's interference, while the others were not? Because it routed to a foreign number, and the intelligence agencies could block that? For that matter, why were the intelligence agencies still refusing to give me the rest of the phone call? Something to do with the end of the world?
What was the most parsimonious rule set for the censor? To exempt magical girls and Mechaner and me? To exempt anyone who received a phone call and Mechaner? Why were the phone calls important and what was mine missing?
What did all the other phone calls have? A short inspirational message and a ritual to gain magical girl powers. Suddenly it became clear. My phone call contained a ritual to gain powers. The intelligence agencies were afraid to give me the ritual because I might be one of the magical 'girls' who destroy the world.
I wasn't forsworn because I had sent the message to myself. Why did Mechaner block the call? Because he stole my ritual. He couldn't prevent the machine from sending out the message, but he could try to intercept any message containing the ritual he wanted to use.
I started talking, trusting the tooth ring to transmit. "To the PSIA, or DIH. I know my phone call contained a magical girl initiation ritual. I understand you are afraid I will use it to destroy the world, but I really need it now. Mechaner is doing a good job of conquering the world. We can't let him use the Diluvian Machine. Please. This might be our last chance to stop him."
Mechaner had entered the fray himself. Worse the attack helicopters had arrived, and were under his control. They disgorged dozens of drones.
Eva was injured: a broken leg and several bullet wounds. She fought on, trying to penetrate the horde surrounding Mechaner.
Lina flew through the burnt wreckage of another helicopter, but a point-blank suicide drone exploded behind her. She fell, her raven hair streaming behind her in tatters.
Amaterasu shielded and blasted. At some point she had disintegrated the ground around her, then Solid Light Reformationed it when the constructs approached. Over a dozen constructs were stuck in the translucent concrete replacement.
Eva dodged fluidly, while saying something. She managed to look at me disbelievingly while flipping around two RPGs and a lightning strike. I tried to nod, but just wriggled my chin.
Eva pulled out her phone and tossed it. It sailed through the twisting tentacles and landed face up directly below my right eye. I read out the text displayed.
"By the forces that underpin the world, I shall rescue the victims, uplift the weak, fix the broken, and bolster the strong. I am a magical girl!"
Nothing happened. Damn. The rituals Eva, Lina and Amaterasu had used didn't work on extra people, so this shouldn't be surprising. So why did Mechaner want me not to get the ritual? He could have just used it first. Unless he stole my ritual. If it was truly intended for me, because I was named as the recipient in the message.
Mechaner held Amaterasu's shield under his gravitational pressure, swiftly reducing it. Lina still lay unmoving. Eva fought a dozen constructs at once, unable to find the space to evade the small arms fire anymore.
If the ritual was tuned to me, why didn't it work? Every other ritual that involved more than one person required the participants, willing or not, to be touching. Oh. There was only one exception to the censor: people with magical girl powers at any time. It didn't care when I was magically empowered, it just looked for that pattern - independent of time. I had evidence that I would succeed.
"Mechaner," I called as loudly as I could. He finished crushing Amaterasu's shield. She tried dive away, but the gravity caught her legs. He hit her once more, slamming her into the ground.
I called out again, whistling first this time. He heard me, glancing at me as he copied a memory card to the console. The Machine thrummed, a chill white mist vented continuously, and a periodic thunk overwhelmed even the sounds of battle. "Mechaner, stop, or I order your family killed."
He looked furious, but insufficiently so. I shouted again. "Five seconds. I have the phone right here."
He glanced at the phone then suddenly leapt at me. At the apex of his leap his hand sprouted a wreath of black flame. He plunged it into my chest. The black flames disintegrated my torso like they had Eva's hands.
It was already too late. I spoke the first syllable the moment he touched me, and became invincible. A ritual is a magical girl power, and a magical girl power cannot be interrupted.
His hand stopped a millimeter from my heart. The black flames burned skin and bones, but couldn't stop my lungs or heart. They still hurt like nothing else. Mechaner pressed forward for a moment before he realized what was happening. Then he jerked back, trying to pull his hand out. It wouldn't leave.
He dragged me and the construct still wrapped around me to the console. He typed with one hand for a mad moment.
I completed the ritual. Mechaner slumped, but continued typing. A sense of strength and sudden knowledge crowded my head. The black flame was suddenly unimpeded. I pulled my hand out of the ice - the resisting construct no longer immovable. I touched my chest, calling out with my tortured last breath. "Retrograde Entropy Sanction!"
The black flames died and the dust from its passage assembled into flesh. My chest pulled together, the most recent damage repaired. I pulled Mechaner away from the console. He managed a last key-press. I held him down with one hand while repeating "Retrograde Entropy Sanction" twice more.
Eva dragged Amaterasu and Lina next to me. Eva bled from dozens of wounds, but still held a wall of blades against the innumerable constructs. I shook Mechaner and shouted in his face. "Call off your minions!"
Eva's phone rang. I reached for it, but a construct slapped it out of my hand. It shattered on the floor. I considered repairing it, but wasn't sure if I had enough pieces remaining.
My tooth buzzed three times in short succession.
I used the healing spell on Amaterasu instead. She woke, but could barely manage to sit up. She settled for casting a few short-lived partial Rainbow Reflections to block incoming rockets. The constructs were not adapting to their master's new status as most squishy object in the room.
My tooth buzzed again. Morse code, I realized.
A construct grabbed Mechaner by the legs and hauled him away from me. I pulled back and shouted. "Call them off." He laughed. "I will. You're too late, I sent the message. You win for now. I'm a little disappointed, but the heroes winning is more appropriate."
He cried out as the construct redoubled its efforts. My tooth buzzed. Long short short. Mechaner gasped out. "Stop. Stop pulling me and stop attacking them." He turned to me. "I need to have a long conversation with the new magical girl."
The constructs paused for a moment and stopped pulling his legs, but they still fought Eva. My tooth buzzed again: long short pause short long long. What was that? SHLDNW. Maybe it was supposed to be SHLD NW. Shield north west? No. SHIELD NOW. "Ama, shield us all now!"
She shook her head. "I can't." I healed her once more. The constructs redoubled the assault, hitting all of us with a hail of bullets. Even Mechaner was hit several times. The impacts made me lose my grip on him and the constructs yanked him away. Amaterasu raised her hand. "Perfect Full Rainbow Reflection!"
A huge shimmering globe covered all of us, even Mechaner's head. Amaterasu held the globe, trembling under the strain of such a large shield. Eva dispatched the constructs caught inside. I cast Retrograde Entropy Sanction on Amaterasu once more, feeling the strain in my torn chest. She clenched her teeth, biting out, "How long do..."
The world became searing light. I covered my face, but it made no difference. A dreadful heat scorched my exposed skin and a shockwave hammered me into the ground.
The glare receded. Amaterasu slumped, somehow still holding the shield. Her hair was on fire. I looked up. A fireball the size of Manhattan rose above us.