I awakened to the sound of argument. I tried not to groan despite a splitting headache. Now I understood - splitting headaches are called that because they're caused by a super-powered girl trying to split your head open on a plastic composite wind screen. They seemed to be arguing about whether to take me to a hospital.

"He tried to blow us up! He didn't take much care not to hurt us!"

"He could be bleeding into his brain. Accidentally killing him in battle is one thing, letting him die because we were afraid to take him to the hospital is another!"

I peeked carefully. Amaterasu seemed to be arguing in my favor with Lina. Lina did seem a little guilty about possibly killing me. Eva was observing with a expression that was disturbingly reminiscent of my father.

I was lying on a air mattress in the middle of a huge empty warehouse. Maybe I could slip away while they are distracted. I tried to quietly shuffle to the other side of the mattress. Oh wait, Eva eyed me knowingly. I decided to persuasively register a vote in favor of hospital. I fully opened my eyes and tried to sit up. I took a breath, smiled disarmingly, and threw up. With something that was not a whimper I decided that was about as convincing as I was likely to get.

Eva spoke "He doesn't seem to be dying, let's see what he knows." Then she turned to me and calmly asked "Who are you?"

I decided to go with an identity I used to attend a particular private school for a few months. If they started poking around after more info perhaps Father would notice. "Johnathon Malchon." I was tempted to try for a slight British accent, but doubted it was worth the risk of slipping up.

Eva smiled icily. "Then who is 'Sebastian Lerche?'" She threw my international drivers license on the table. Oops, did I really bring my wallet on a covert mission? Even worse, it was my real drivers license. I hadn't expected to do anything criminal on this trip to Japan, and building up travel time and connections with my real identity was convenient. I just shrugged and tried for a calculated smirk. "Where is the other guy?" I asked politely.

They glanced at each other and then Eva answered. "He got away. Why did you attack us?"

At least Jackson was free. "You've already caused a lot of damage fighting demons, I wanted to see if you could use your powers for better. Sadly I couldn't trust you to help peacefully."

"That excuses your attack how?"

"I deeply regret the necessity, and perhaps it was a mistake, but look at it from my perspective. Three unidentified people who apparently have Magic of all things are fighting a shooting war throughout a densely populated city! They haven't given an interview, or even an letter of explanation. Wouldn't you be worried about these people?"

There. Mostly true, and it might sidetrack them.

Sadly for the intellectual status of the conversation Lina decided to interject. "You're blaming us for damaging the city? We're just saving people from demons! You blew up two buildings!"

"Only as a last ditch plan. Besides everyone was already evacuated, and I knew you would be fine." I hadn't been certain of course, but 'acceptable risk of killing you' doesn't sound as nice.

Eventually they decided I clearly didn't need medical attention if I could verbally outmaneuver them so adroitly. At least that is how I decided to interpret it. So they drove some bolts into the middle of the concrete floor and chained me to it. They used a fairly long chain at charitable Amaterasu's insistence (she recalled her dog enjoying the space to move around). I'll be sure to thank her by using her for the hard radiation resistance studies.

They seemed to overestimate my strength. Dragging the fifteen meter chain was absolutely exhausting. It also made pacing a loud and unpleasant experience. All I could do was pace and think.

The girls seemed to have a standard schedule - they would meet up in the warehouse after work hours to practice. I was so bored that I found myself greatly anticipating their arrival. Besides, while I had several escape ideas, this imprisonment was actually a great opportunity to get more information. I had underestimated them last time. I was missing still hideously uninformed, and while interrogation was harder when I was the captive I also appeared less of a threat.

I had started implying that my attack was mere youthful foolishness, hoping to play up the poorly socialized but well meaning genius angle. When I was nine Father enrolled me in a private boarding school in Scotland. What I didn't know was that he had ensured I would be bullied (if being an embarrassingly dressed genius nine year old in a boarding school wasn't enough, he had made more direct arrangements as well). In retrospect framing the bullies for child molestation might have been excessive, but at least I had practice with using the slightly autistic act to gain sympathy. They weren't the most scintillating conversationalists, or were still wary of me, so I couldn't tell how well the ruse was working.

Watching them practice was the most interesting part. I was absolutely dying for a notebook, but had to content myself with mental notes. I had learned lots about their capabilities, and had developed several theories about the origin of their powers. Unfortunately that was one aspect they weren't willing to discuss with me at all.

Amaterasu seemed to be the most skilled magically. She had the most abilities, and her control with them surpassed the other's significantly. Furthermore she seemed to be able to improve some of her abilities, a usage that required prepending 'Perfect.' Her skills focused around light. Lina's seemed elemental, while Eva's physical. I had classified the abilities I had seen the Magical girls use as follows.

OVERALL

  • Physical package

    • Toughness
      • approximately equivalent to flexible aluminum.
      • Fast healing
    • Strength
      • ~5x Olympic athlete.
    • Dexterity
      • ~3x Olympic athlete.
  • Disguise

    • Details of features slippery, hard to notice or remember.
  • Mental package

    • None, thankfully.

AMATERASU

  • (Perfect) [Partial|Half|Full] Rainbow Reflection

    • Shield that reflects both light and fast moving matter.
    • More effective against faster matter / more intense light.
    • Strong, gradual force will slowly push through it.
    • Different effects based on color composition?
    • Requires concentration to maintain.
  • [Red|Yellow|Green|??] Rainbow Resonance

    • Ranged attack, 30' - 1' cone, ~100m range (at minimum spread)
    • Disintegrates, blasts, disables in some fashion (?) (other girls slowed, less coordinated after hit during spar).
    • Different effect (on different materials?), dependent on color. need more info.
    • Doesn't disintegrate flesh. (only colors demonstrated? Built in safety feature?)
  • Solid Light Reformation

    • Light fills gaps and breaks that were recently created. Approximately five minutes?
    • Mechanical properties of light similar to replaced material. (?)
    • Simple mechanical machinery functions. (?)
  • (Perfect) Dazzling Display Diversion

    • Fills area with semi-transparent illusory(?) firework show, with blinding effect.
    • Possible greater control to make realistic illusions? (Possibly recommend she practice this, wait for maximum positive relations effect.)

Notes: Some effects seem more tiring, eg perfect rainbow reflection. Approximately ten max within short span.

EVA

  • Third Moment Celerity

    • Grants burst of super speed.
  • Imbued Schism Reckoning

    • Imbues edged or pointed weapon with great cutting power.
    • Seems to trump most defenses.
  • Divine Cognizance Mediation

    • Grants improved senses.
    • Danger sense? Possibly even slight precognition?
    • Requires concentration for duration.

Notes: Mainly sword fighter, she's scary good with it. Imagine if she used a real weapon.

LINA

  • Storm Chant

    • Grants basic wind control.
    • Flight via wind if in the open.
    • Very wide effect.
    • Allows use of secondary attack:
      • Fulminating Percussive Array.
      • Calls bursts of lightning from the storm.
  • Fire Chant

    • Grants basic control of fire, fire immunity.
    • allows use of secondary attack:
      • Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade.
      • Ten sunlike balls fly out and burst in super heated explosions (melted concrete).
      • Control?
  • Ice Chant

    • draw ice out of air, shape ice.
    • allows use of secondary attack:
      • Descending Glacier Conjuration.
      • Coats large area in moving ice.
      • Ice gradually pulls together into sphere, encasing trapped items.
      • Being encased in ice seems to be somehow non-lethal.

Notes: Flying artillery

The big question: is this Arthur C. Clark style high tech (call it 'magic'), or is it truly supernatural (call it 'Magic'). The difference between the two can be difficult to tell. If their abilities are based on nanotech, antimatter power sources, hologram deceptions, exotic matter or some such then it fell well within Arthur C. Clark high tech. However a true functional magic system is just a fact of the universe that falls well within science.

What is the fundamental difference? The best answer I had read was fundamental complexity. If at the fundamental level of the universe there was an axiom that said a certain woman making a certain set of noises and gestures would make a rainbow shield that blocked certain other things in a certain way? Well that was Magic.

I didn't really think Magic as such could exist. We could be in a simulation, but any apparent fundamental complexity would merely be created by the more fundamental simulating universe. If magic existed because we were in a simulation then it seemed to be tacked on. The simulation followed the basic rules that physics had discovered. The magic system was a separate layer of artificial complexity on top - as opposed to a organic development of complexity.

I itched to ask them questions to test these ideas, but had to intersperse them with irrelevancies so they wouldn't get suspicious. Fortunately, after two weeks of mainly showing up for a few of hours of practice right before or after dinner, today they had come in the morning and apparently planned a day out.

I begged to be taken along. It took some convincing, but I must have looked pretty pitiful. It was an opportunity to finally get a true shower, and to talk to them in an unguarded setting for an extended period of time.

Father was certainly looking for me, but I didn't want to be found yet. I had considered slipping a message out somehow. Our family had a set of codes and symbols in case we needed to communicate in steganographic shorthand. If I could convince the magical girls to send a letter or just display a few symbols publicly I could try to convey that I didn't want to be rescued yet (but to have the strike teams ready for my signal).

I had covered the RFID tag in my leg with foil scrounged from sandwich wrappings. I even went so far as to propose a wig and careful makeup to disguise the shape of my face. My masculine pride was salvaged when they agreed to put a 'disguise field' on me.

This consisted of holding hands with Amaterasu while reciting 'Evening Light Hide Us.' I was ecstatic - if I could learn how to do magic, even a single spell, I wouldn't need them nearly as much. Unfortunately afterwards Eva smiled rather nastily when she explained that I would need one of them reciting the spell with me to activate or deactivate the disguise field. She seemed to think I had fallen into her little trap. Of course I didn't care: I didn't want to be found anyway. Admittedly a small fear that I would never be recognizable again made pretending to be pissed at her easy.

I was almost out the door when Eva grabbed me by the collar and hissed. "I've seen how manipulative you are. If all your pleading and promises was for a trick, or a trap, or even just about ruining our day off... I'm known for keeping my promises, and I promise I will make you pay twice over."

A horrified realization struck me: today was their day off. It was a holiday, but the Japanese, delightful workaholics that they were, definitely didn't take it off. This was a school holiday. I wanted to groan and cover my face, but couldn't in front of them. They might actually be in school. I had agreed to go on a day out with three school girls. If I killed them no man would blame me.

Drones drifted by occasionally. They looked like delivery drones, but they were a little too plentiful. They looked random, but somehow there were no gaps in their coverage. I was sure they were looking for me.

I had put some small pebbles in the soles of my shoes to prevent them from tracking my gait. I had obtained the idea from a children's detective story, so I wasn't too confident it would work. Would the disguise power work on machines? The girls had apparently succeeded in avoiding detection so far.

Despite my head-start I didn't have much of an advantage over the government or other interested parties. I eyed the girls cautiously - I could tell there was something strange about the way I couldn't truly remember their features, but no one else seemed to notice. Was that only because I was looking for it? Did some aspect of the disguise interfere with even noticing there was something odd going on? It seemed to block memory creation, but how far could it go? The girls seemed confident, unworried about being identified.

They were, believe it or not, shopping for shoes. We were in a boutique store nestled in the kink of a street that probably got an urban planner fired. The store specialized in the type of shoes only fashionistas or oblivious people would wear. Eva inspected a pair of tall grey boots with ornate buckles made of five different metals. They had relaxed more around me after lunch and a movie.

I had actually enjoyed the movie. It was a brain dead sci-fi film, and the theatre was nearly empty. I had decided to ruin the movie for them by pointing out every inconsistency, bad science, and character stupidity. Surprisingly Eva had joined me in the mockery. We had kept up the sarcastic commentary for most of the film. By the end the rest of the audience had given up on shushing us, though Amaterasu still petulantly sighed "guys" every now and then. Lina was silent, but I occasionally caught her staring at us with her trademark anger and something I couldn't quite place.

Maybe I should stop moping about the shoe shopping and dig for info. "Isn't it difficult to fight in those heels? What if you have to respond to a demon attack?" I asked.

Eva responded with a stifling glance. Amaterasu deigned to respond "We keep our outfit on us, but don't like changing shoes - takes too long. Eva uses sorta mini heels, your foot is lower down than it looks like. It's tough finding shoes that look good and fight well. Besides Eva's a great martial artist, she never has any trouble!" She shook her head and pouted "I almost face-planted into a Venus Fly Trap demon when I used heels."

"Venus Fly Trap demon? What is with these things?"

She giggled "Yeah, it was really big, but pretty slow. And it was more like a heavy blanket when it grabbed you."

Lina interjected "Feed me Seymour!"

Eva smiled, a rare expression for her "It wasn't that smart, remember how it tried to eat the fan?"

I remembered a reference to this one. No recordings, and the witness statements were limited to descriptions of being wrapped up and incompetently digested. The physical evidence was a destroyed greenhouse and a very large withered plant with tendrils wrapped around nearby parking meters and signs. It wasn't burned, cut into pieces, or otherwise showing the usual signs of magical girl damage.

"How did you kill it?" I asked curiously.

Lina smirked and pointed at Eva: "It kept regenerating so Eva threw some jugs of bleach into one of its mouths. It ate them."

I still wasn't sure what their plan for me was - or whether they had a plan at all. Keeping me peaceful because only they could restore my identity was one thing, but did they have an actual long term plan? Was their goal just keeping me from attacking them again?

I didn't think they had it in them to keep me imprisoned indefinitely, or kill me for that matter. I had considered some more worrisome possibilities - who knew what 'magic' could be capable of? Could they wipe my memories? Convert me somehow? Maybe they thought being friendly would make me see how good and upright they were, forcing me to see the error of my ways. That didn't exactly fit: they weren't stupid, and weren't overly friendly.

Eva finished buying the boots and asked "Anywhere else we should go?"

Lina and Amaterasu responded negatively and turned to leave.

I coughed and spoke up "Ah. Actually I was hoping to get something to read."

Eva gave me a measured look like she expected me to have some twisted plot.

"Okay, there's a bookstore around the bend."

"Actually" I stuttered slightly, "Actually I was hoping to get some manga."

They looked at me non-plussed. Eva eventually shrugged "Fine, the bookstore will have some."

The bookstore was one bend away from the shoe store along the poorly planned street. It occupied the seventh floor of the old factory structure. The cluttered buildings on either side of the street seemed to lean inwards, hopefully an optical illusion. The elevator was out of service, which didn't allay my concern. Worse, the girls had somehow enlisted me to carry their various bags up the stairs. I gritted my teeth and slogged up the seven flights - once their use was complete they would pay for this indignity.

The bookstore actually had a whole room devoted to manga. I hunched my shoulders and headed towards a Sailor Moon poster. Eva was watching me knowingly. I glared and reddened. Lina outright started laughing at me. I mechanically started picking the most popular magical girl manga.

Amaterasu skipped over to me and began making recommendations. Lina and Eva looked around furtively and entered a nook. Their giggling indicated it contained a section my sanity required I not enter.

I gathered a good survey of the popular titles and started a quick skim of several random picks. It was beginning to be clear that the parallels between the overall situation and the clich├ęs of the magical girl genre were too close to be ignored.

I needed to do some research. I skimmed one of the stories. Hmm fairly nonsensical villains - that matched. Energy draining didn't really seem to apply, though I couldn't be sure. I read another from a less popular series. This one had sci-fi explanations, though I didn't need to spare much time dismissing them. Similarities between the series: the magical girls dressed up, called out their attacks, had improbably colored hair, and were sickeningly cutesy.

There were various enemies, but all led back to a greater threat pulling the strings. Okay, I already considered that. Besides Mechaner was the obvious candidate - I knew he claimed credit and always made oblique future threats. I sighed and rubbed my eyes. Was I really taking hints from magical girl manga?

A wind rustling my hair, and I looked up. Amaterasu sat against a shelf. Her head drooped forward over a dropped manga. She had nodded off reading. I felt something - sympathy wasn't quite the right word. The girls were putting in quite a few hours with school on top of combat practice, patrolling and responding to demon attacks at odd hours. Amaterasu had maintained her vibrant enthusiasm so well that I hadn't realized how tired she must be.

The manga on the ground rustled and turned. I looked past. A wind circulated through the whole shop, catching spare papers and whirling them in small eddies. I glanced towards the windows - closed. A chill ran down my spine, this was not natural.

"Wake up!" I hissed.

Amaterasu started and clutched for the manga she was no longer holding. The wind was stronger now, the fluttering of the papers disconcerting.

"Come on, we need to find Eva and Lina."

I quickly walk to the edge of the shelf, and glance around the corner. No one in sight, though someone could easily be between the layers of bookshelves. I gestured to Amaterasu, and she nodded firmly, following me towards the section I last saw Lina and Eva in.

The wind was truly powerful now. It whipped through the narrow reaches of the store, pulling papers, and manga off the shelves. It was getting difficult to see. I stepped between two shelves where the papers swirled around like a dust devil. I felt a sudden sharp pain on my cheek. I ran the rest of the way. I touched my cheek and it came away tinged with red. Paper cut? Unusually deep one if so.

Amaterasu had taken off her thin jacket and was clasping a skirt over her shorts as she ran. No one was screaming. I should be able to hear screams or shouting even over the roar of wind. I avoided another vortex of papers by kicking over a cardboard display that was already flapping back and forth violently. The bubblegum bright promotion joined the vortex.

Eva and Lina had changed as well. They stood facing the door. Tension thrummed through their posture. When I reached them I saw what held their attention: A tall man flanked by four strange amalgamations of metal cord and household electronics similar to the one I had seen the girls fighting before. The wire constructs held several terrified civilians. The man wore what looked like a fusion of traditional Japanese wear and the modern power suit. Threads of silver spread through the subdued black fabric in a fractal pattern. A silver mask in the form of an androgynous face with closed eyes covered his face. The peaceful exterior presented by the mask clashed with the tension in his nearly military posture.

"Mechaner" Amaterasu breathed. It was as close to a curse as I had heard from her.

~~~~

Chapter 3: Mechaner

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