"Mechaner, we will not allow you to inflict your mad designs on these poor hostages - release them." Eva had a surprisingly dramatic flair for being so proper.

"My darling defiant Princesses," Mechaner announced theatrically "Your concern for your subjects is touching, but fear not: it is your own company I seek."

He pointed and each of the constructs whipped a rapidly elongating bundle of cords in our direction. We spun into action. Eva shouted Third Moment Celerity, and darted forward between the cords, sword already drawn from her courier bag. Amaterasu called out Half Rainbow Reflection to protect the rest of us, while Lina started her Storm Chant.

I turned and ran towards the back of the store. Maybe there was a exit on that side. I covered my eyes to pass through a vortex of paper. A dozen paper cuts opened on my arms and face, and books hammered my legs. My ears popped from the low pressure as I reached the center. I staggered onward, but a particularly large tome took out my knees from behind.

I was afraid to open my eyes in the storm of unnaturally sharp paper, and the constant battering made it difficult to think. I had only gone a few feet, but I was already uncertain of my path. I chose a direction and crawled, but the sudden increase in blunt trauma pushed me back.

Suddenly the wind shifted, sucking the books past my huddled form and towards the fight. I looked back. Lina directed blasts of air to pelt Mechaner with debris, freeing me from the vortex. She was limited by the hostage one of the constructs was holding in front of Mechaner, and the constructs were un-phased by the bombardment.

She switched to the Fire Chant. Eva whirled past three grasping tentacles, and shouted Imbued Schism Reckoning before slicing her now glowing sword through the tentacles holding one man aloft. Mechaner gestured and the cut segments dropped the hostage and wrapped around Eva's blade. They separated easily whenever they touched the enhanced edge, but still delayed her for an instant - long enough for the construct composed mostly of old television sets to wrap itself around her ankles.

Amaterasu dropped the shield to cast Green Rainbow Resonance, cutting the tv construct in half.

I paled under a sudden frisson of fear, forgetting my goal for the moment. I don't know how I had missed it. Seen on video it seemed silly, but in person - feeling how chaotic and fast battle really was - it was terrifying. Their special attacks were never interrupted.

Hundreds of long flowery chants in combat situations, yet they were never interrupted. I had initially dismissed it as indicative of the low quality of the enemies - and implicitly assumed that sometimes they were interrupted. What if that assumption was wrong? What skill could ensure that they were never interrupted? What power give such protection?

Magic had made me seriously consider that reality could be a simulation. If such a simulation blindly followed the rules of physics as we knew them, random chance would eventually interrupt. To prevent interruption would require sophisticated intervention. For all the myriad forms the interruption could take the intervention needed way more to undetectably block them.

This was way more than a rote blast of fire. This intervention seemed intelligent - and vastly knowledgeable. Wasn't that a terrifying thought. If this was a video game the players were obvious - the magical girls or Mechaner. The heroes or the villain.

As soon as Amaterasu dropped the shield, Mechaner made a fist and pulled. The ceiling caved in. Amaterasu and Lina fell to the ground as if standing on Jupiter. Metal pipes and support beams ripped through the drop ceiling, spearing down at the prone girls. The spears glanced off Amaterasu's legs, scoring thin cuts before piercing the concrete floor. Even her strength would find it difficult to escape.

Lina responded: "Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade!" I turned my head away from the glare as ten sun bright spheres the size of baseballs spun from her sweeping hand. Mechaner was suddenly covered by the constructs' forms. A backwash of scorching wind hurried my departure. There was no back exit, just the out of service elevator.

The constructs were left twists of wire, denuded of electronics. Mechaner made a fist and pushed forward. The three constructs flew towards Lina and Amaterasu.

Eva finished extracting herself from the remains of the fourth and stabbed Mechaner in the belly. There was a grinding screech that couldn't indicate good things for the now un-enhanced blade, but Mechaner staggered and reached towards Eva. She evaded his grasp with alacrity born of good motivation. While flipping around the blade to avoid his grasp she shouted "Imbued Schism Reckoning," and braced to wrench the blade. Giving up on touching Eva, Mechaner instead grabbed the blade, keeping her from pulling it out in a cut that would have nearly split him in twain.

The blade burned and rusted, corruption spreading from the point of contact rapidly. Eva pulled and the sword broke off and turned to dust. The rot continued, expanding the hole in Mechaner's body and disintegrating Eva's fingers. She stepped back with a cry.

Mechaner was slowed, but far from fatally injured. Lina and Amaterasu were surrounded by a Full Rainbow Reflection, with the three constructs wrapped around that, slowly constricting.

Damn, I might need to do something. I looked around, desperate for some weapon. Eva blurred around Mechaner, kicking him, but unable to do real damage.

I found a letter opener on the checkout counter - not much of a weapon. A large fire extinguisher under the counter caught my eye. I grabbed the fire extinguisher, letter opener and a roll of packing tape, then moved between two rows of book shelves.

Mechaner raised his hands as if in divine invocation. A bolt of lightning struck through the hole in the roof and into the spherical shield held by Amaterasu. The lightning shattered and rebounded to the sky, but some of it transmitted through the pipes and supports already in place when the shield was created. Amaterasu convulsed and the shield dropped.

I held the fire extinguishers handle down and quickly wrapped it in tape. The blast of chemical dust was caught in the eddies of wind. I threw the hissing extinguisher at Mechaner. The cloud of dust quickly obscured him, but not before I waved Eva toward me. She gave an agonized look at Lina defending the trapped and barely conscious Amaterasu, before calling Third Moment Celerity and blurring to my side.

I held out the letter opener. "Imbue it, quickly." She gingerly touched it with what little was left of her hands. "Imbued Schism Reckoning!" The letter opener glowed a hazy blue. "Now distract him." I whispered before climbing the bookshelf.

She retreated. I lost sight of her almost immediately in the chemical dust cloud. Mechaner called down lightning twice more, the strobing light and sound hammering my senses. Could he see? Was he just hitting the same place hoping Lina and Amaterasu were still stuck there?

I lay over the top of one of the book shelves, about eight feet off the ground. I hoped he would stride down this corridor and I could stab him in the head. I waited for ten incredibly long seconds. The imbued letter opener would only last for about 45 seconds, even if I didn't use it.

I heard a loud voice over the continual rustling of papers: Eva. "What do you want Mechaner?" I started crawling in that direction, jumping to the next bookshelf. It creaked, and I froze.

"I prefer Warlock, actually. I want you, princesses." His voice was sepulchre, with an undercurrent of wheeze.

"I... we're not princesses." She was trying not to sound disgusted.

He sounded calm - amused and in charge "I believe you are mistaken. Additionally I assure you I have no untoward intentions." Suddenly a note of fury entered his voice "Though if I did you would be honored by my attentions! I am the emperor of the universe and more!"

Ten seconds left? Or just five?

I was nearly there, crawling slowly to avoid attention. Eva responded:

"What do you need us for then?"

He started to reply, but I had already leapt. Eva's eyes flicked up to me for an instant. Maybe he heard me, or saw her glance. Either way Mechaner turned abruptly, causing my head splitting strike to hit his shoulder. The imbued blade carved a terrible wound, nearly separating his shoulder from his chest.

Mechaner completed his turn and shoved me with his other hand. I flew through the bookshelf and collapsed, barely conscious. Eva shouted "Imbued Schism Reckoning," and leapt forward. Mechaner tried to dodge, but the side of his face disappeared in a gout of blood.

Eva fell to the ground as her desperate lunge denied her balance. She curled around the glowing stump of her right hand. She had imbued the sharp edge of exposed bone.

She recovered enough to call out Third Moment Celerity, but just as she began to blur Mechaner grabbed her face with his remaining hand. A cloud of darkness shrouded her head, and she slowly fell back to the ground.

I felt a vague fury: had he disabled her, or simply disintegrated her head? I stood and staggered towards Mechaner. He sat down heavily and tried to raise his fist. His arm fell short. More slowly this time he repeated the gesture with his off hand. The roof caved in, pipes and rafters bending into spears. He missed me by a foot.

I ran, and heard the order this time "Carry me and the girl. You kill the boy." I reached Amaterasu. She was bound with steel cables, being carefully extracted from the pipes and beams. The construct ignored me. Amaterasu looked my way, and I saw she was crying as she struggled. She whispered "Run."

A sound like a chain rattling came from behind me. I stabbed myself in the leg with the letter opener and reached into the wound. I pulled out the RFID chip and shoved it in her mouth. "Swallow" I ordered. She looked disgusted and confused, but did so.

The construct behind me came into view. It was still smoking slightly, encrusted with melted plastic. Its movements came in jerks. I glanced toward the stairs, but that escape was covered by the construct carrying Eva, Lina and Mechaner.

I started to climb the cables and twisted beams towards the hole in the ceiling. I was in shape, and even climbed a little. On the other hand I had several broken ribs, and a strict time limit.

I found a large I beam and held onto what looked like a coax cable - hopefully I wouldn't electrocute myself. I made it half way up before the construct arrived. It started coiling itself up the I beam like a snake. I redoubled my speed and reached the end of the I beam.

The edge of the roof was a little out of reach. The construct touched my feet. I tried kicking it, but almost lost my balance. I jumped for the edge. I grabbed it, and held. The thin metal held too. With a last surge of adrenaline I pulled myself to the roof.

As I did so I felt a light tug on my ankle. The construct had a thread around my ankle. I ran towards the edge of the building. No way down. I bent and tried to pull the thread off, but even though I pulled hard enough to cut my hand, it wouldn't come off.

It wasn't pulling that hard - I could still move around. At the opening to the hole a second thicker cable slithered around the thread, coming my way. I looked for a fire escape, a clothes line, a building I could jump to. Nothing.

The second cable was almost to me now. It would wrap around my ankle and pull me back into the hole. Probably strangle me. If only my father's strike team would get here. I was sure they had picked up the RFID, but I was also sure Mechaner would take the girls away quickly. Stupid of me to give the chip to Amaterasu - I wasn't even sure Father's care would be better than Mechaner's.

I started shuffling my feet in the pebbles on the roof, tracing a pattern. A family symbol meaning: 'evac now.' I completed it just before the second cable reached me. In the process of tracing it I had circled the (locked) roof access.

The second cable gripped my leg tightly and pulled me off my feet. Wrapping the roof access in the cord seemed like a worse idea when I was being dragged around the corrugated sides. I heard a loud crack. Fortunately it wasn't my leg. Another crack sent a thrum through the cable. Three more gun shots came in quick succession and then I was free.

A helicopter approached, two snipers nearly hanging out the side. I hobbled forward and waved them down. I jumped inside the moment it touched down. Buckling up, I shouted over the greetings "Follow the RFID signal, quickly!"

The pilot shrugged and handed me a helmet. I put it on and repeated myself. I realized the snipers had pistols trained on me. Oh right, the disguise field. "I am Sebastian Lerche. Authorization: Heavy Field Doormouse Occidental Trip."

They took off and relayed the authorization to control. Shortly after I heard a new voice over the com "Hello Son. I see you have found an exciting Project."

I licked my lips "Yes Father, I have a inside line on the magical girls. Right now we need to keep Mechaner from escaping with them."

"Very well, but we shall have a conversation about this immediately after." His voice was smooth, but I wasn't reassured.

The pilot interjected "Sir, Mechaner is fleeing towards the waterfront. We have confirmation on three hostages."

I responded "Don't let them get to the water. And fire at will, the hostages are tougher than they look."

We banked, and I could see them. Mechaner's two remaining constructs brachiated from the street lamps, clutching Mechaner and the three girls. They were taking fire from two helicopters including mine now. A construct lost an arm and nearly dropped Mechaner.

He raised a fist and a nearby helicopter was torn from the sky. The construct carrying Mechaner, Lina and Eva fell apart from the gunfire. His remaining construct gathered them all up slowly and fed itself into a manhole. We landed next to the manhole and leapt out. I asked "Do we have a signal?"

"Yes, but it's fading."

"Do you have a pocket drone?"

One of the mercenaries pulled a folded quad-copter from a pouch and tossed it down the hole. "No sign of ambush sir."

"Good. Get down there and follow the signal. Pilot, I need drone coverage in the sewers ASAP."

I grabbed a rifle and slung it across my back before following the two snipers into the manhole. Mechaner hadn't gotten very far. The single construct was simply too loaded down and damaged. Mechaner turned back to us and raised his fist. I shouted "scatter" and dove away, but he was trying to collapse the tunnel in front of us. The huge pipe shuddered, and tendrils of dust fell, but there was no collapse.

The mercenaries shot, hitting Mechaner twice. He's tougher than normal, but he was badly injured already. He gasped an order and the construct dropped the magical girls, bundling him instead. The construct fled - much faster without its heavy burden.

We shot, but I didn't think we got a headshot - the only type I held out hope would kill him. I sat down, and whispered. "We need evac and medical care. Get those drones down here and don't let up." Suddenly I felt quite faint.

~~~~

Chapter 4: Father

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