The remainder of Naomi’s barriers disappeared, dumping their occupants on the ground. Diaho landed on his feet and immediately sprinted in Akira’s direction. The sixteen meido who had accompanied Akira to the battlefield followed as quickly as they could. They were too far away to see what had happened to Naomi, and thought there was a good chance she would kill them if they intervened, but if Akira died, their lives would be forfeit regardless.
The Soviet ambassador, who was not a young man, was taken by surprise by the barrier’s disappearance and fell on his side. Ikue and the medic flew down to help him to his feet while the other four magical girls remained aloft.
“We should retreat,” Koharu’s subordinate advised. “The Soviets have fled, and we don’t know what Naomi is planning next. We should set up defenses around the Crystal Palace and other key areas of the machi.” Kiyoshi’s sister watched Koharu’s face carefully for any indication that she knew about the lever, and thus had been able to deduce what Naomi’s plan was.
“If we could have hindered Naomi-sama’s plan, she wouldn’t have released us,” Koharu replied after thinking about it. “If she wanted to kill us, she would have done so by now. We need more information on what she’s up to. I’m going to scout ahead.”
“This is where we part ways,” the armored magical girl said, extending a hand to Koharu. “I hope we can be allies in the mirai.”
“Ara, are you afraid of the big, bad meido?” Kiyoshi’s sister teased.
“The Soviets have fled,” the armored girl shot back, “but there are those who will take advantage of the confusion and panic their attack has caused. I must return to defend the church.”
In truth, the taunt had hit close to home. As a Christian, channeling “magic” was sinful, but channeling “the Lord’s might” was less problematic. However, her power had been unable to so much as chip the GINZUISHOU, while two magical girls had cast spells which could eat away at it. Both these incidents had caused her to question whether Naomi and the magical girls were stronger than God. Although she had never done it, she felt as though she was powerful enough to part the Red Sea, and yet, she could not break out of Naomi’s barrier. If magic was one of Satan’s tricks, it should have no real power, but if humans had achieved an unholy power on their own, surely God would destroy them as he had the Tower of Babel. Unless, of course, he was unable to.
She felt guilty even thinking such thoughts. God had flooded the entire world. Could any of these women do that? Although she hadn’t seen evidence that they couldn’t, her faith wouldn’t let her believe they could. It was much more likely that she was insufficiently devout, unworthy of God’s strength… or that she was actually casting magic, deluding herself into thinking she had the Lord’s favor.
She wasn’t returning to the church to protect it, but rather to seek the protection of the confessional.
“That’s an ii observation,” Koharu said diplomatically. She turned to her subordinate. “Go take charge of the chutai and deploy throughout the machi. Let the keisatsu maintain public order, but keep an eye on the usual suspects.”
Duster at the ready, Diaho leapt in front of Akira, half expecting to be struck down by Naomi in the process. Even if his death wouldn’t save Akira, if it appeared that he had done all in his power, Mimi and the kids might be spared. He had run so quickly that he hadn’t been able to take in the situation beyond recognizing that Akira was still alive. Landing in front of his master, Diaho raised his duster to deflect the strike that never came. It was only then that he noticed Naomi’s dead body and Aina standing over it. He couldn’t believe it. There was no way Aina could have killed Naomi. There was no way anyone could.
As he stood there, breathing heavily, the gynoids, the magical girls, and the rest of the staff arrived behind him. They were just as shocked as he was.
Several minutes later, Akira broke the silence by asking, “Is she really dead?” Aina placed two fingers on Naomi’s carotid artery.
“No pulse,” Aina announced, “but with Naomi-sama who knows? Even if I decapitated her, I couldn’t tell you with certainty that she was dead.”
“Don’t scare goshujin-sama like that,” Chikako said, pushing Aina out of the way and bending over to check Naomi’s pulse herself. “Naomi-sama is—was—still a ningen.” Reaching over, she pulled Naomi’s hand open and lifted the Sword of Dios from it. “Here,” she said, holding it out to Aina, “Naomi-sama left you everything else, you might as well have this too.”
“If that’s what it looks like, I’m not sure I want it,” Aina replied, accepting it from Chikako nonetheless.
“That is not Naomi-sama’s to give,” Sena spoke up. “It was pulled from Kazue-sama’s karada. It belongs to her.”
“I have no use for it,” Kazue protested as Aina handed the sword to Sena. Kneeling before Kazue, Sena bowed her head and raised the sword above her, palms open and upward, offering it to Kazue.
“Naomi-sama considered the rest of us before she pulled the sword from you. She chose you because you have something we lack, and this sword is the physical manifestation of it,” Sena said.
“There is no evidence for that,” Kazue argued, “and besides, what about all the other swords that—” Kazue stopped speaking as she looked around. All of the swords that had littered the field, both the false Swords of Dios and the Million Swords of Hate, had vanished. Only the real Sword of Dios and the sword stuck in Naomi’s chest remained.
“I can be very persistent,” Sena pressed. “It is not just watashi. We all want you to have it.”
Sensing there was nothing to be gained from arguing, Kazue took the sword and turned to address Akira. “Goshujin-sama, as far as I am aware, both Naomi-sama and I are your property, which makes this sword your property too. Demo, with your permission, I would like to gift it to Hideaki-sama. He may be able to discover why Naomi-sama was able to pull it from my chasis.”
“Please consider the message you will be sending by doing that,” Sena pleaded as she stood back up.
“That’s an ii idea,” Akira said. “Even if he can’t learn anything from it, it would make a good addition to his collection.” As cool as the sword was, Akira knew he had no practical use for it, and it would help keep Hideaki indebted to him.
“He may not have long to enjoy it,” Koharu said grimly. “I’ve received a report that he has killed the defense minister, and last I checked, killing a goshujin is still a capital offense.”
“Unless under orders from another goshujin,” Akira corrected, a smile breaking out on his face. Both Naomi and the defense minister—the two greatest threats to his life—were dead, and the path was clear for his political ambitions. He knew this victory was due more to luck than his own planning, but that didn’t sour it a bit. Not even Chikako’s complaining was going to spoil his mood.
“Aina-san,” Chikako asked, “nani did you discuss with Naomi-sama? Soshite, why were you so late in getting here?” It was a shrewd play. Although she couldn’t accuse Aina of being in league with Naomi without revealing her own cooperation, she could sow seeds of doubt in Akira’s mind.
“Naomi-sama shared the secrets of meidou with me,” Aina answered, “and explained to me why I should not trust them with you.” Implying that Chikako was untrustworthy was a good counterplay. “I was late because Momo needed medical attention, and I knew that Naomi-sama would fail no matter what I did.”
“How could you know that?” Chikako scoffed.
“The GINZUISHOU informed me that—I learned some classified information while within the GINZUISHOU. Without going into too much detail, within the GINZUISHOU’s influence, it is impossible to achieve non-military objectives through military means.” Aina quickly scanned her gaze across the faces of everyone assembled, looking to see who caught her meaning, and by extension, knew about the lever. Recognition shone in Kiyoshi’s sister’s eyes, and Akira’s smile faded, but everyone else looked confused. Aina was impressed by Diaho’s poker face and wondered who else might be hiding their knowledge.
“Killing me would have been a military objective,” Akira stated. “You should have come directly back.”
“If Naomi-sama wanted to kill you, she could have done so at any time. She wouldn’t have needed to plan all this just to get to you,” Aina said, gesturing in the direction of the hole in the GINZUISHOU.
“Kei-sama, teme!” Aina was interrupted by a shout. A young man in a space suit, sans helmet, was running quickly towards the group. Kiyoshi’s sister aimed some spells at him, but he was able to spin and dodge around them and pulled a fist back to strike her. He stopped just before slamming his hand into a barrier she erected, but in doing so, left himself unable to dodge her next spell and found himself floating helplessly in the air. Jin arrived moments later, wheezing with the exertion of catching up.
“Nice to see you too, Sora-kun,” Kei greeted him sarcastically. “Now shut it. We’re discussing important matters here.”
“You won’t get away with killing Kiyosh—” Sora managed before his mouth was sealed with magic.
“Nani?” Kei gasped. “Aniue is dead?” She unsealed Sora’s mouth to allow him to answer.
“Don’t act like you didn’t know. He head a nervous breakdown and killed himself in uchuu. How did you make him do it? Hypnotic suggestion?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Kei asserted. “I didn’t have to. I knew that if I left him to his own devices, his madness would take him sooner or later. Turns out it was sooner.”
“Usotsuki!” Sora shouted. “Kiyoshi-sama would never take his own life. He wasn’t that weak.” His eyes went wide as those words left his mouth. He twisted in midair to face Jin. “Jin-san, gomen, I didn’t mean to—”
“It’s alright,” Jin interrupted, wiping tears from her eyes.
“OK, enough drama,” Kei declared, sealing his mouth once again. “Akira-dono, it appears I have inherited aniue’s title. I look forward to working with you in the future. “Yoroshiku onegaishimasu.”
“Kiyoshi-dono showed a lot of promise,” Akira said coldly. He hadn’t forgotten that Kei was a part of her father’s plan to kill the occupants of a French ward. “I hope you won’t disappoint.”
“Goshujin-sama,” Aina said firmly, “you can’t allow her to gain power.”
“It’s her birthright,” Akira said, annoyed.
“Jya, I can’t let her leave alive,” Aina said matter-of-factly.
“Even if you killed her, you couldn’t prevent her brand of racism from gaining political power,” Akira pointed out. “Military solution, non-military problem.”
“All other things being equal, I would prefer to live, Nidaime Naomi-san,” Kei said amicably. “And since we’ve already seen I can’t beat you in combat, why don’t we work out our differences in the political arena?”
“Easy for you to say,” Aina spat. “You have a title, and I do not.”
“Goshujin-sama,” Chikako cut in, “the GINZUISHOU is beginning to close, and the Soviets might come back. Let’s return home while we still can.”
“Agreed, but we can’t let Naomi’s body fall into enemy hands. Diaho, Aina, carry her to the Macedonian. Everyone else, guard us.”
Getting into position, Aina grabbed Naomi’s legs, and Diaho her arms, but when they tried to pick her up, a white-hot flame burst from her chest. They barely had time to back off before it consumed her body completely, leaving only ash, and a melted sword, in its wake.
“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Ikue sighed before taking another sip of sake.
“I’m glad you agreed,” Aina said, pouring more into Ikue’s saucer before taking a sip from her own. The two of them had broken away from the victory party Akira was holding in the dining room and moved to the drawing room to have a private discussion.
“You didn’t give me much choice,” Ikue complained, “though it was nice of you to phrase it as an invitation rather than a demand. That’s new for you.” She gulped down her sake and held the cup out to Aina.
“It was an invitation,” Aina said, feigning offense. “I’m not the same bratty jochan you knew. In fact, that’s why I wanted to talk with you. I wanted to apologize for everything I did at the laboratory. I can only imagine what I put you through.”
“It’s… You were just a little kid. You were doing what your parents told you. I understood that.”
“My parents didn’t tell me to break your wing,” Aina said somberly, before tipping her saucer back and swallowing its contents in one gulp.
“I forgot about that,” Ikue lied. “You didn’t mean to, right? You just couldn’t control your own strength. Speaking of which, how come you needed help to take down that commie? The Aina-chan I remember wouldn’t have had any problems. Did you get weaker or something?”
“I’m stronger than ever. I’m just more circumssss—circuit—careful about how I use my power,” Aina slurred.
“Sou ka? Maa, you must be tsuyoi if Naomi-sama made you her successor. Even so, maybe you should ease up on the drinking.”
“You’ve had san more cups than me,” Aina pointed out. It took Ikue a few moments to grasp what Aina was getting at. Even after all these years, Aina was still the same little girl who couldn’t help but want to be better than everyone.
“Don’t be silly. You’re still a minor, and I—”
“Goshujin-sama said I could drink tonight,” Aina said defensively.
“He said you could have a cup or ni.”
“You overheard that? Fine,” Aina grunted, handing the bottle over to Ikue and leaning back in her chair.
“Whoa, this stuff is expensive,” Ikue realized, looking at the bottle. “Is it really OK to take this?”
“It’s OK. Goshujin-sama was feeling generous.” That was good enough for Ikue, who poured herself another cup. She drunk in silence for a bit before Aina spoke up. “Are you ureshii?”
“Because I took the sake away from you?”
“Iie, just, in life? Are you living a shiawase life?”
“I’m making the most of it,” Ikue said after some consideration. “I’m as ureshii as I can be, but am I truly ureshii? Saa.”
“You’re not in one of those mahou shoujo yakuza, are you?”
“I work for a financial—I work in an office. No one there knows I’m mahou.”
“An OL? That’s sexy,” Aina joked. “Do you have a special someone, or are you relying on your boss to play matchmaker?”
“I’m not really cut out for romance,” Ikue said, pouring herself another cup. “Maybe I haven’t met the right person, but I have a hard time relating to people who… who can’t understand what it was like, you know?”
“That’s kanashii. It doesn’t sound like you’re living a shiawase life at all.”
“How about you? Do you have someone you like?”
“And does that automatically make your life ureshii?”
“Shirimasen,” Aina said truthfully. “Demo, I know I’m unhappy without them.”
“Nani brought this on?” Ikue asked, shifting the subject to hide her discomfort.
“I killed Kotori-chan,” Aina admitted. “It was self-defense, and we were both following meirei, but before she died, she told me my parents and I had made her life miserable. It was the first time I realized how much I had hurt you all, and I just thought that if you were all still unhappy, it might be my fault.”
“You can’t change the past,” Ikue finally said, “and yeah, you might be partially to blame, but we’re responsible for our own futures now.”
“Are you in touch with any of them?”
“If I was, I wouldn’t admit it to you. I’m sure none of them want to see you again. I sure as hell didn’t.”
“I get that. Demo, if you do see them again, would you tell them I’m sorry?”
Ikue remained quiet, staring at Aina, trying to determine if she was sincere, before answering. “I’ll think about it if you’ll answer one question for me, honestly.”
“Depends on the question.”
“Was… Was any of it worth it? As far as I can tell, your parents’ research stopped after they disappeared. No one is researching advanced applications of mahou any more. For all we went through, did anything good come out of it? Anything at all?”
“It’s hard to say,” Aina answered. “The weapons research—that is, the research they were getting paid for—resulted in some improvements to existing weapons, but nothing that would change the balance of power. Demo, they did make some promising breakthroughs in mahou geoengineering. In theory, a large-scale implementation of what they created in the lab could save life on Chikyuu, but it’s impossible to maintain as long as the superpowers remain at war.”
“Next to saving the sekai, our lives don’t mean much,” Ikue muttered. “Are you really sorry for that?”
“I am. Just because you think you have to do something doesn’t mean you can’t feel sorry about it. I can’t speak for my parents. I don’t know how they felt.”
“Alright, if I see any of them again, I’ll pass on your apology. You’ll have to take my word for it though. No offense, but I hope this is the last we’ll see of each other.”
Ikue felt dizzy as she finished her teleport. At first, she thought it was from the alcohol in her system, but she had teleported after company drinking parties plenty of times and never felt this bad. As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, she noticed that she wasn’t in her apartment at all. She didn’t know where she was.
“Ikue-san? Ikue Durand-san?” a voice spoke to her from the darkness.
“Dare wants to know?” Ikue asked, defiantly. A young woman stepped closer. In what light they had, Ikue could just make out the cheap business suit she was wearing.