We touched down outside the warehouse. I promptly fell over. They looked down. "Are you okay? What's wrong?"
"Wind. So cold." I responded through numb lips. It was difficult to think - I was getting seriously concerned about dying of hypothermia. That would be embarrassing.
"Oh!" Lina exclaimed. Was I imagining things or did Lina look guilty? She picked me up and brought me into the warehouse before sweeping her hand in a wide arc, "Scintillating Vengeance Fusillade." Ten suns flew out, detonating in the air. The blast of heat was uncomfortable, but the lingering heat bloom very welcome.
She set me down on the air bed, and directed a blast of hot air from the ceiling down on me. I gradually started shivering again - a good sign. I let myself relax for a moment. Then Amaterasu brought me hot chocolate.
Damn, I knew it was too good to be true. They were being way too caring. I chugged while considering my options. I decided pretending to need to rest would be a good delaying tactic.
They were looking at each other meaningfully, and I could tell they were about to start speaking. I pretended not to notice, yawned, and muttered "Thanks" in my sleepiest voice. I pulled the covers over myself and tried to lie still and think.
I must have still been tired from the fight, or the hypothermia took more out of me than I expected because I actually did doze off. I jerked awake scrambling to remove the cord tightening around my ankle.
There was nothing there. It hadn't been long. The girls were eating microwave dinners. Amaterasu brought me one. Carefully "Thank you Amaterasu." I raised my voice. "And thank all of you for coming to get me out."
Amaterasu smiled brightly. Eva and Lina nodded. "We need to talk." Eva took the lead. "Uh... okay" I muttered eloquently.
"What are your goals and intentions, Sebastian?"
I took a moment to organize my thoughts. I decided that mostly honest answers were the best strategy. "I want to understand and harness magic. I want to study what you can do, and replicate it. I want to kill Mechaner." I paused. "And obtain plenty of power for myself."
"How do you plan to accomplish this?"
Time to sell myself. "I was hoping to befriend you so I could study your abilities. I have ideas for how to use them, and I can help with logistics and technical support. I have a wide variety of training, and I can get access to restricted equipment and armaments. I'm supposed to be doing a private project for a year between high school and college. My family is very rich and connected, so I have funding, time, and information."
"Yes, we saw how rich your family is."
What did that mean? Had they realized they had been held captive by my Father? Apparently my concern showed on my face because they laughed.
"Did you think we wouldn't realize your father was in charge of the mercenaries?" Lina asked.
I'm not sure what my expression was at this point, but they seemed to find it even more amusing.
"We know your name. We looked up the owner of that skyscraper: Alexander Lerche, your father. Your tracker chip led a bunch of armed men in helicopters to you. You are the obvious candidate for using the security camera to help us escape."
"Ah. Now that you mention it I was silly to think I could avoid this coming up. My father is... a hard man. I didn't want him getting involved in this. I wanted to do this myself, not under his control or even supervision. I tried to keep this a secret from him, hence blocking the RFID signal. When Mechaner started dragging you off I didn't have any other good option."
They seemed to agree with me there. Lina said, "It was the right call. You risked your life trying to fight first."
I decided to take advantage of the forgiving atmosphere to get some nastiness out of the way.
"I apologize for the drugs - Father defaults to extreme measures. I recommend you avoid being in his power again. He will be more prepared next time. If you do... just cooperate, he can and will do a lot worse."
Lina's lips twitched. "He defaults to extreme measures? Coming from you that's impressive."
I smiled tentatively. I had used a pretty large bomb on them.
They shared another look. Eva tried to clasp her hands primly and speak, but grimaced and stopped as the gesture failed. Amaterasu looked away sadly and continued for her. "We don't blame you for your father's actions. You risked your life fighting Mechaner, and saved us from him by bringing in your father. You gave me the tracker chip..." Her voice both softened and sounded disgusted. "At more risk to yourself. You also helped us escape from your father."
Eva took over. Were they planning this, or just really well coordinated? "So we are prepared to make arrangements to work with you. We can't really keep you locked up forever anyway. However, now is the time to tell us anything you think might be relevant. Hold back now and we will be extremely annoyed."
Lina raised an eyebrow. "Any other evil deeds you might have neglected to mention?"
I thought carefully. Was there anything else? "I have my theories on magic, but I'll be happy to discuss them. I need to devise some tests anyway."
I thought some more. I was sure to forget something that seemed damning, but I actually didn't mind telling them. "I've done some stuff you probably wouldn't like, but not related to you. My father said the government is in disarray, and someone really powerful is deleting information about you."
Then I remembered the phone call that had started the whole thing. Did I want to tell them about the claim that they would destroy the world? I hadn't taken it very seriously even when I learned that magical girls existed, but it was in the back of my mind. A reason to treat them as a threat, a need to understand them, and a cause to be in a position to act.
There were indications that some type of time travel or future vision might be involved - Eva's potential precognition, their powers never being interrupted. The phone call predated any hint I could find that magical girls existed.
I almost groaned. I needed to think this through. What if telling them they would end the world caused them to do so? Or maybe withholding that information would cause it.
I realized I had sat with my hands over my face without speaking for the last minute. "I need to think, give me a minute please."
Well, if they were fated to end the world whatever I did to stop it would fail. The best I could do was to limit the risk as much as I could, and hope the claim was a lie or exaggeration. Best to keep everyone on guard against their world-ending potential. I was confident they didn't want to end the world, and it seemed likely there were more paths where they destroyed the world unwittingly than where they did so intentionally.
"Okay," I began slowly, "I received a phone call with an electronic voice that said 'The magical girls Amaterasu, Lina, Eva will end the world.' This was before any sign that you existed."
Amaterasu inhaled sharply. Lina looked at Eva. "When did you get this phone call?"
"June 15th. About 20:00 GMT."
Amaterasu and Lina shuffled. Eva nodded and glanced at them. Some unspoken communication passed, and Eva turned back. "Each of us also received a phone call on that date. An electronic voice from a blocked number. It informed us that we were magical girls and provided a unique ritual to unlock our powers."
I blinked. "Well. That's incredibly suspicious. A place to start."
They sat on the ground in front of me and held hands (or stumps in Eva's case). Eva spoke. "It's time to introduce ourselves properly. Take our hands and repeat after me."
"Our task is complete.
Need for disguise gone
Morning light reveal us."
The disguise lifted and I saw their true faces for the first time. They were a little younger than me.
Amaterasu's hair remained blond, but seemed a little more real - less like a concept. She looked eastern European, with blue eyes, a lilting nose and a mobile face.
Lina was Japanese, perhaps with some Chinese ancestry. Her wide-set eyes and round face was framed by short, thick black hair.
Eva also showed, unsurprisingly, Japanese origin. Oval face, short nose, slightly flattened facial features. Her hair remained long and black, though it was coiled into a tight bun at the moment.
"My name is Naomi Inoue. I'm a second year at Nishi Omori Senior High school." Lina introduced herself.
Eva said her piece "I am Rin Endo. We all go to the same high school, though Dinah is a year below us."
Amaterasu chimed in. "That would be me: Dinah Fisher. I'm actually American like you. My family is military and my dad's been based here for two years."
"Wait. Is that in Japanese order or first name first? Because the second sound like family names."
"Family names second, we've learned that makes it simpler when dealing with Gaijin." Lina smirked.
I felt like I should say something. "I'm Sebastian Lerche, as you know. I'm officially mostly American, but have dual citizenship in the most convenient combination possible. I've lived everywhere. I had an... unconventional childhood thanks to my father's attempts to raise a worthy heir. I'm seventeen, between high-school and college. Technically I went to a Canadian private school, but mostly I had private tutors."
I wondered something: "You all go to the same high school. Were you friends before you became magical girls?"
Eva responded. "Yes, Naomi and I have known each other for a long time, and we became friends with Dinah when she moved here."
"Was there anything strange or unique you did that no one else did? I mean that could possibly be related to becoming magical girls?"
"Yeah, we considered that. Can we not get into that now? We're all tired, and..." Lina paused. "Injured." She continued with false cheer. "Actually, yesterday was supposed to be Dinah's birthday celebration. I was thinking we could do something tomorrow. We could fly to mount Kumotori, and have a picnic."
I shivered "I don't think I could survive that. The lifting wind combined with the rain would kill me from exposure."
Eva spoke thoughtfully. "Hmm, you could get one of those survival suits - you know, waterproof jumpsuit."
I reddened. "I'm also afraid of heights."
"Oh that was why you freaked out so much when we jumped out the window." Lina giggled.
I glared, mortified. "Actually I thought you were going to throw me out the window because you found out about my father. The height didn't help though."
"You thought we were going to kill you?" Dinah seemed hurt. Lina's giggles morphed into outright laughter. Eva managed a small smile, but nothing more. I decided to get it out of the way. "Eva. I mean Rin. About your hands, I can get you the best prosthetics. It's not the same, but it's something. Sorry."
She smiled for an instant then caught her breath, staring at the bandages. "Thank you; I would like that. I'm lucky, we heal fast, and don't scar. Maybe they will regenerate."
I kept silent - there's a difference between healing a jagged cut and regrowing complicated bone structure. Particularly on her right hand, where her desperate imbued strike had shattered the brittle bones left by the disintegration effect.
Amaterasu asked, "But what will we say. How will we explain it?"
I responded. "I'll fake some paper work saying her hands were run over, or caught in a machine or something. Maybe transfer papers to a 'new' hospital. Of course they'll want to do tests and such, and they can't even inject her with a standard needle..." I trailed off. "Okay it might be more complicated, but if need be I can just hire a private medical team."
Eva looked concerned. "That might explain me missing school today, but not Dinah and Naomi."
I laughed. "You really care about skipping school? Why am I not surprised. Have you considered dropping out? You have more important things to deal with. Or I could just help you cheat on your GED - you know: substitute graduation tests. They do have something like that in Japan, right?"
Eva's eye twitched.
I shrugged. "We'll just say they were at the accident and stayed with you during treatment."
Lina looked more intrigued. "We do need a reason to leave school at short notice. We've had to slip out when there's a demon attack, and the absences are adding up."
Eva shook her head. "Our education is important. Furthermore our parents would never let us drop out of school. We're minors remember."
Amaterasu interjected. "Maybe we could have a special project - like an internship somewhere that gets us out of school."
Eva nodded thoughtfully "That might work. Maybe something medical so we had an excuse for the surprise crises. Moreover, Sebastian, we are willing to extend some trust. We are willing to work with you, but we're still going to keep a close eye on you. That means you need to be at our school. We only need about four hours of sleep, so we can arrange something at night as well."
I groaned. "I don't blame you for keeping an eye on me, that's perfectly reasonable. No way am I going to school. It would be a miserable waste of time."
Amaterasu nodded sympathetically. "I don't blame you; I wish I could get out of going."
Eva transfered her hard look to Amaterasu, but Amaterasu continued. "However I know a lot more about magical girls than you guys do, and it's normal for the girls to go to school. If they have allies of the same age they also go to school - basically they have a normal alternate life."
I spoke slowly. "So you think there's someone who wants this to all go like a typical magical girl story? That would be reassuring - at least the good guys usually win."
Lina interjected. "Mechaner seems more predictable, and frankly silly, when we are acting like typical fictional magical girls. It might be why his first attack directly against us - and his most vicious - was when we took you with us. You disturbed the status quo. Either with your attack on us or because we were holding you captive. Maybe we are safer playing into the magical girl tropes." Eva frowned. "Or he was sizing us up, and Sebastian's involvement just threw off his plan."
I decided to head this conversation off before it got too far. "First of all, there are plenty of possible reasons for Mechaner's attack. Secondly, if he wants to play into magical girl tropes, maybe we should want not to. Third: there's no way I'm spouting inspirational lines and throwing flowers."
Eva spoke with a decisive air. "We're not asking you to throw flowers. You'll come to our school as a transfer student - you've already graduated so you should find it easy and can save us time by helping on homework. We'll keep an eye on the magical girl theme. Oh, and along those lines..." Her smile grew wicked. "We'll need to get you a costume."
Two weeks into the lions den, and I had refused to do the homework. I pretended to just find it easy enough to finish in a few minutes of work. Actually I had already forgotten half of the material, and the other half was riddled with Japanese eccentricities.
I just obtained the answers from Jackson. We had reestablished contact. He had been surprisingly emotional. I was sure Father was keeping an eye on him, but I still needed a lieutenant and Jackson was still my best bet. Besides: he had hidden my previous magical girl related activities from Father.
This approach to schoolwork allowed me to zone out on my laptop in class (I had obtained special disability permission). I was careful not to enter anything explicitly magical girl related (or at least secret) into computer systems.
I tried to be as security conscious as possible - using only carefully vetted legacy hardware. I knew of the more paranoid NSA related conspiracy theories and they were sufficiently plausible to make me distrust anything written or compiled using high level tools.
For the most sensitive and simple tasks I even used a very obscure operating system. It was hand-coded in assembly by three college students who passed every background check I could think of. The laptop was still a risk, but I simply wasn't willing to descend into the stone age.
In a curious reversal of my limited previous experience with school politics, I was popular. Apparently being the new transfer student and clearly not giving a damn was mysterious and cool.
It made me wonder exactly how much of my previous negative experience had been manipulated by my father. I thought he had given up on that after the first incident.
Unfortunately the apparent ease with which I completed my homework led to Dinah and Naomi (I was trying to use their civilian names, even mentally, while they were undisguised - wouldn't do to slip up in public) asking for help on theirs. Rin seemed slightly jealous, but mainly relieved the burden had passed from her.
"Uh sure, just give it to me and I'll make a few notes later alright?" Uh oh, Rin was giving me suspicious looks. She asked, "Why don't you explain how you got this result? That way we can ask any questions right away."
I hadn't paid any attention to the assignment, just filled in the answers. I quickly tried to skim the problem. "Heh, well if you have some specific questions about umm... the theory..."
Rin shook her head. "You have no idea, do you? You've been cheating."
Fortunately we were in a private study room, so I could deflect. "I have some more important work. It's even math related so..." I spun the laptop. "What do you think about this pattern?"
The laptop screen displayed a map of Tokyo scattered with red dots. "These are Mechaner's attacks. They are all relatively public places. I found a good open source directions engine. I calculated the distance in a straight line, on foot, and by car to each of the attack sites from a grid of a few thousand possible starting locations. Ichigaya district minimized the mean distance by foot and air. Nishinippori by car."
Rin asked, intrigued, "We know he tried travelling by the sewers. Are those on the map?"
I responded, annoyed, "No, distance by sewer is not an available function on this mapping system."
"Well maybe we should put cameras in the tunnels down there. There are also huge flood control systems - perfect for a villainous lair."
"Not a bad idea, though reception will be difficult. We can't install anything permanent either: I suspect those tunnels are regularly inspected. Come to think of it, how were you detecting attacks before now?"
"My Divine Cognizance Meditation can detect something... off about active demons in a wide area. It doesn't work when Mechaner is present, but he usually grandstands until someone tweets it - we have alerts set on that type of stuff."
Dinah pointed at one of the farthest flung attacks on the screen. "That was the grass attack. Remember that field trip?"
Lina laughed. "When I burnt the field down? I remember promising myself I would learn my ice attack after that got out of control. Would have been better off just ignoring the grass - it really just tickled."
Then Rin turned to me. "Time for more martial arts training tonight! The heavy duty prostheses need breaking in, and I know just the sparring partner."
I flinched, but nodded tamely. I was still covered in bruises from the last training session, and it wasn't even from her super-strength. Unfortunately I knew just enough martial arts to be a more interesting sparring partner than Dinah or Naomi.
The next week had little development besides the resumption of Mechaner's demon attacks. This might give an idea of the efficaciousness of his healing ability - though the mask and suit made it difficult to determine how much he remained injured.
I had placed drone surveillance on the districts highlighted by my map (unfortunately covering the region as my father had was not really a financially viable option - even he must have found that expensive).
Fortunately I had finally received a small armory’s worth of the more indulgent paintball and competitive battle simulation gear. I could actually use rubber bullets on the girls without significantly hurting them (though I did worry about hitting their eyes), but battle reenactments included serious armament that would otherwise be unsafe to employ.
I had also succeeded in sponsoring an emergency medical internship under a shell corporation. Naturally the all three girls had conveniently beaten out the rest of the tiny applicant pool.
The school administration had proven tractable once I asked my father for some blackmail material on the superintendent.
So, as a school-approved educational opportunity, I was flying them to a nice secluded island for a long weekend of serious training in modern warfare. By plane, thank goodness.
The last class for the day (I didn't remember which one, something about... food? No that didn't make sense) was just ending. On the way out a guy intercepted Dinah. He had a haircut and way of moving that spoke of gangster delusions.
I couldn't tell what they were saying, but her posture was hunched, and she kept averting her eyes. Looking for a way out? Lina spoke from beside me. "I think some girls are getting jealous that you might be getting jealous."
I followed her eyes. Two girls were whispering to each other while staring at Dinah with narrowed eyes. When they saw me looking they covered their mouths, looked at each other and started tittering.
Oh right: I was the mysterious stranger. Ignoring them, I asked Lina: "Who is that, and why does he scare Dinah."
"That's her ex-boyfriend. Lots of drama, but the short of it is they dated, he cheated on her, she broke up with him, he's been hounding her for a while."
"Why don't you do something?"
"Because, though she'll never admit it, she still kinda likes him, and won't let us interfere."
"Hmm. Looks like a wannabe gangster. That true?"
"Yep, he pretends to be Yakuza. Primarily he sells a few joints to his friends. I don't think he has any real connections."
"Now don't get any ideas." She seemed more amused than anything. "Besides, his resident rich bad boy credentials might have taken a hit recently."
"What do you mean?"
"He was usurped."
She sniggered. "You."
"What!" I yelped. "People are comparing me to a high-school pot dealer? I haven't done anything bad, just ignored the teachers! How do they know I'm rich anyway?"
She looked at me like I had brain damage. "You drive a Bentley to school. Moron."
Oh. Well, nevermind, time to fix a problem. I stood up and approached Dinah and ... I never got his name. I caught the last word in the sentence. Gaijin.
I barged in and addressed Dinah, ignoring whatever his name was completely. "Hey, we're going to miss the show!" She looked at me with confusion, but didn’t resist as I pulled her away.
He tried to step forward and grab her arm, but I shuffled positions and broke his grip easily. Marching her away I asked with a low voice. "You don't mind me getting rid of him do you?"
She looked embarrassed, but pleased. "Umm thanks, he's been getting worse."
I chose to take that as permission to get rid of him in a more permanent fashion.
Two days later I brought the subject up with Rin. She responded with a tired acceptance, "Yeah, I know about Hiroshi. I've wanted to do something, but it's sensitive for Dinah and I don't want to make things worse."
"Oh don't worry: I know what to do with petty bullies like this. My father believed in teaching you how to swim by throwing you in the pool. "
"You have experience with bullies?" Her tone was gentle.
"Oh sure, when I was nine my father sent me to a private middle school. He arranged for me to be betrayed by my best friend and picked on by several of the older students. The usual stuff: verbal abuse, slapping books out of my hands, locking me in lockers and so forth."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. When you were nine? That's horrible."
"Right, anyway, I simply framed them for child pornography and sexual assault. Even managed to get them convicted as adults."
She gaped. "That's. What? When you were nine?! Wait, you aren't planning something like this for ..."
"Don't worry: not child molestation, just drug dealing. Hell, he already deals, so it's more a matter of increasing amounts to ensure he goes over the felony minimum."
"We need to have a long talk about proportionate response! That's definitely not it. I appreciate you defending Dinah - or taking revenge for her anyway, but I can't let you do that."
"It's not revenge, it's corrective. It prevents him from hurting her again. Besides, 'do that?' I'm not a comic book villain. Do you seriously think I'd explain my plan if you had the slightest chance of affecting its outcome? I did it thirty-five minutes ago."
She looked at me, eyes wide with horror. "You what? You should have asked me! I might still be able to do something!" She jumped up.
I grabbed her wrist. "Wait, I didn't actually do it thirty-five minutes ago. I just always wanted to be able to say that line." She relaxed partially. "I did it ten hours ago. Also I really didn't think you'd care so much. If it makes you feel better, it turned out he did have some Yakuza connections, who would have thought. Probably the spoiled child of an area boss. I discovered that when they tried to get him released. I deflected it easily enough - the evidence was overwhelming, after all."
She stared at me as I babbled, several different emotions flitting across her face.
"Okay. From now on you confirm with one of us before you do anything that could put someone in jail. Or that could get someone killed or seriously injured. If you know I would disapprove even a little. Or if it would make Dinah sad or make Naomi... laugh like she does when she plays video games."
I nodded contritely. Understood: Naomi most likely one to approve of future ventures.