Chapter 42

May 1st, U.C. 0053, 6:00 PM

Omedetou tanjoubi, sensei,” Aina was greeted by a chorus of meido as she stepped into the doujou.

“Arigatou,” Aina said with a bow as the meido applauded. “To celebrate, I brought some guests.” She stepped aside, and 8 privates from the 01st Magical Company entered the doujou. “Armor up. We’re going to practice spell breaking until supper.”

There was a flurry of activity as the meido rushed to the supply room to don their anti-magic armor. Aina had made it a habit over the last year to regularly schedule counter-magic training. Even though Kei had been successful in toning down the Mahou Shoujo Control Act, that hadn’t placated Élisabeth. Many rank-and-file yakuza soldiers had defected to Élisabeth’s cause over the last year, leading the yakuza to take a more aggressive stance as well. Aina had turned many battles in favor of the 01st, and she wanted her coworkers to be prepared if the magical girls came for revenge.

The anti-magical armor wasn’t anything impressive. It consisted of a vest and gloves which were created from completely inorganic material. Protection charms had also been woven into them, and, together, these measures should make the armor immune to spells from most magical girls, but they could only protect the areas they covered. The training involved learning to move to block spells with the armor while disrupting the casters with spiritual energy. Most of the meido had difficulty controlling their spiritual energy to the degree required to break spells, and so focused on utilizing their armor effectively. At first, this had been boring for their magical training partners, but as the meido improved, it became more difficult to hit them, and the training had become something like a game for the magical girls. The more ambitious of them had also used the opportunity to learn some physical self-defense from the meido.

By this point, both sides knew what to do without Aina giving any instructions. With 16 meido and 8 magical girls, they broke into groups of three to practice. Although the doujou was large, the groups needed room to maneuver and dodge, and things quickly got hectic. Aina weaved among the groups, observing them and offering guidance when appropriate. Things continued in this manner for about 15 minutes before the magical girls suddenly erected barriers around their groups.

“Incoming!” one of them yelled.

Although Jin’s position in the mansion had risen considerably following her exploit in the Gundam, that meant nothing within the hierarchy of the kitchen. Being the youngest staff member, Jin was subservient to all but the gynoids. She didn’t mind this at all. The other cooks were nice to her, and she was still learning from them. On this particular evening, Jin had been placed in charge of the curry, and she had just placed a fourth pot on the oven when she felt the presence of a malicious aura. The aura was strong, and it crashed into her violently, applying so much pressure that she had difficulty breathing. She staggered to the wall and pressed the broadcast button on the intercom.

Teki shuu!” Jin gasped.

“The kekkai is holding,” a voice replied through the speaker. Jin didn’t recognize it.

“Goshujin-sama, please move to a safe room just in case,” Shiro’s voice sounded over the intercom.

“Iie,” Jin said quickly, starting to recover her strength, “they’re already inside the safe rooms. Get to the doujou.”

As she finished speaking, the kitchen went dark. The power had gone out, rendering the intercom silent. Jin turned towards the door, steeling herself to rush into battle, when she noticed it wasn’t just the mansion that had lost power. The gynoids weren’t moving at all.

“Report,” Aina demanded.

“It’s Ryoko,” the closest magical girl replied, referring to the mercenary magical girl with a fondness for cheap business suits. “She’s here.”

“Call for backup,” Aina ordered.

“We have,” the magical girl explained, “but we got no reply. We don’t know if our message made it through.”

“When’s your next scheduled check-in?” Aina followed up.

“Not for another yon-jyuu minutes.”

Aina pulled out her mobile phone to call for help, but the signal indicator only showed two letters: “MP.” Minovsky particles.

“Alright,” Aina announced loudly, “our top priority is to call in reinforcements. Stay in your current groups. Meido, escort your mahou shoujo as far away from the mansion as possible. Each group will go in separate directions. Avoid fighting. If you see Ryoko, run away. Go!”

“Ha,” a chorus of voices replied, as barriers flickered out and the groups ran to the door, but Aina was already gone, running back towards the mansion. She hadn’t made it halfway when a window on the second floor burst open and Shiro, with Ginjiro under one arm, his wife in the other, and Nanami clinging to her back, leapt out of it. Shiro landed hard on the ground but managed to stay upright and run towards Aina. Ryoko jumped from the window a few moments later, undaunted by the height, and floated slowly to the ground. She blasted a spell directly at Shiro as she fell, but Aina extended her spiritual energy around Shiro, deflecting Ryoko’s attack.

“Stay ni meters behind me,” Aina told Shiro. “I can’t mamoru you if you go farther than that.” Shiro only nodded as she ran past Aina.

“Aina-dono, ohisashiburi,” Ryoko greeted her amicably. “I was hoping I could have avoided you on this job, but it appears that is not my unmei. Demo, perhaps something good can come of this. I haven’t yet had the chance to thank you for being such a thorn in the side of that fanatic.”

“Élisabeth-san?” Aina inferred.

Sou, her,” Ryoko spat. “Everything started going wrong once she entered the picture. God, she’s so dumb, but no one else seems to see it. All she ever talks about is seigi, seigi, seigi, as if such a thing actually exists. And yet, the oyabun roll over whenever she wants something. Soshite, what does she have to show for it? Not a single victory.”

“By keeping herself in focus, she draws the heat away from the oyabun,” Aina explained, happy to stall for time. “Demo, that’s not all there is to it. Her cause is alluring to a lot of mahou shoujo, so if they go against her, they risk mass defections, but if they wait for her to fall in battle, they can claim to carry on her struggle. It doesn’t cost them much to cooperate with her.”

“It doesn’t cost them much?” Ryoko asked, irritated. “If they paid me even half of what they’re giving her—”

“You could pay off your debts and still have some money left over,” Aina finished for her. “Demo, they’d never do that. They pay you just enough for you to make progress on your debts, but not enough that you can pay them off in the next san-hyaku years. If you don’t mind the flattery, you’re too tsuyoi for them, Ryoko-san. They need a way to control you, and what better way than to twist you up over what is, to them, a small amount of okane?”

“They’re not paying me anything anymore, Aina-dono,” Ryoko corrected, adding a bitter emphasis on the dono.

“You had a falling out with Élisabeth-san?”

“Apparently, I’m not devoted enough to her cause. Well, I was never devoted to it anyway. She told the oyabun she didn’t want anything to do with me.”

“That wasn’t very smart of her,” Aina observed. “She needs all the allies she can get.”

“Like I said, she’s dumb,” Ryoko shrugged. “You, on the other hand, are very clever, Aina-dono. I can tell. That’s why I know you’ll listen to reason and step aside.”

“I heard that you aren’t very smart, Ryoko-san, but attacking a goshujin is a serious crime. As tsuyoi as you are, you won’t escape the consequences.”

“Unless ordered by another goshujin,” Ryoko countered. “Well, not a goshujin yet, but he will be once I kill those san.”

“The otouto or the oji-san?” Aina asked.

“Don’t know, don’t care, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did. Soshite, I don’t like being looked down upon. I’m very intelligent. Maybe I’m not as smart as most mahou shoujo, but I’m still smarter than most hito. I’m just not very clever. That’s why I can never seem to get the upper hand on the oyabun, despite being stronger than them. You, on the other hand, Aina-dono, have a reputation for being clever, so I would like to make you an offer once more. Join me. With our combined strengths, we could take over the machi.”

“I appreciate the offer, but I decided long ago that I will live as a meido, and that means protecting my goshujin-sama with my life.”

Zannen,” Ryoko sighed. “Still, it seems you’re not picky about dare your goshujin is, so when I succeed, my employer will become your employer. Considering that, he would prefer I leave you alive, but I have permission to kill you if you get in my way.”

Without further warning, a portal opened on the ground in front of Ryoko and zipped towards Aina. Normally, she would have opened the portal directly under Aina, but she had been unable to target any spells within the two-meter radius of influence created by Aina’s spiritual energy. Knowing Aina’s reputation for spellbreaking, she didn’t expect the portal to survive contact with Aina’s energy, but she hoped Aina might try to dodge it, leaving a clear avenue for her to attack Ginjiro and his family. Aina didn’t fall for it, tearing the portal apart before it could get close.

“That spellbreaking of yours really is something else,” Ryoko mused. “Most mahou shoujo would turn tail at this point, but I don’t have that option.”

“Of course you do,” Aina said. “There’s little I can do to prevent your escape.”

“I need this job,” Ryoko said sternly. “The oyabun won’t accept another late payment.”

“If it’s just money—” Aina began.

“Save it,” Ryoko cut her off. “If I betrayed my clients, I’d be unemployable. Besides, I came prepared for this.” As she spoke, a cool breeze began to blow from the northwest, bringing with it the faint smell of the ocean. “Ryuujin-sama,” Ryoko bellowed. “Join with me to slay my teki. Fulfill your promise to me, and I shall fulfill my promise to you.”

Appearing from behind the mansion, a serpentine dragon rose into the air, sending drops of water raining down on the courtyard. It fixed its eyes on Aina, then on Ryoko, opened it’s abnormally large mouth, and spoke, “Ningen-me, you summon me to fight upon land?”

“I will double your payment,” Ryoko offered, “just to destroy this single meido.”

Yokarou,” Ryuujin declared, “but you must allow me to feed upon her spiritual energy.”

“As you wish,” Ryoko said.

“I bear you no malice, ningen,” the kami addressed Aina as he began to descend towards her, “but you will die for me.”

“Ryuujin-sama,” Aina roared, doing her best to imitate the dragon’s intimidating voice, “I am the successor to Naomi-sama, slayer of kami, and I will not hesitate to slay you.” This gave the dragon pause, but he quickly regained his confidence.

“You are no Naomi,” he informed her.

“Nevertheless,” a voice came from next to Aina, surprising her, “you must not underestimate her, Ryuujin-dono.” Aina half turned her head to see Omoikane standing next to her. “Come,” he bade Ryuujin, “let us leave this tatakai to the ningen. We have no place here.”

The dragon snorted and responded, “You have never steered me wrong, Omoikane-dono. Gomen, ningen, you are on your own.” He rose into the air and vanished in a flash of light.

“Help is on the way,” Omoikane said, placing a hand on Aina’s shoulder before fading away.

“There’s no help for you,” Ryoko declared, barely able to contain her anger.

A domed barrier shimmered into existence over their heads, touching the ground far outside Aina’s area of influence. Then another barrier appeared over it, and another, and another, until hundreds of domed barriers, with a combined thickness of nearly a meter, covered them. Electricity visibly arced through some of the barriers, promising to shock any who dared touch them. Ryoko didn’t move as Aina backed up towards one of the walls, Shiro and the family moving with her. Unwilling to touch the barriers, Aina sent out her spiritual energy to eat through them, but as soon as she dispelled the first barrier and began working on the second, the first was recast. Aina couldn’t destroy them as quickly as they could be created.

A flurry of magical missiles fired at Aina, followed by a powerful beam attack. Aina blunted them all with her spiritual energy, even the missiles that curved towards Ginjiro.

“We appear to be at a stalemate,” Aina observed.

Chigau,” Ryoko asserted. “Henshin.” Aina shielded her eyes as Ryoko transformed. “You’re in my domain now.” Ryoko stretched out her massive wings, and the barriers around them turned black. Aina could no longer see through to the outside, but light still filtered through them, keeping the courtyard dimly lit.

“Aina,” Shiro shouted, “I can’t see anything.” Ginjiro and his family shouted mostly the same message, calling out for one another. They were seemingly unable to hear each other.

Daijoubu,” Aina said firmly and loudly. “Just don’t move. I will mamoru you.”

The family fell quiet, but Shiro issued a warning, “I can’t tell if that’s really you or not. If I feel you come close, I will attack.”

“Don’t worry about her,” Ryoko advised, “she wouldn’t feel you even if you were breathing down the back of her neck. You, on the other hand, seem to be unaffected. That’s unfortunate… for you.”

Beating her wings, Ryoko launched herself at Aina, gathering magical energy in each of her hands. Meeting the attack head-on, Aina punched directly towards Ryoko’s head. She moved too quickly for Ryoko to respond, but as her fist approached Ryoko’s face, the spiritual energy surrounding the fist destroyed a spell Ryoko had cast around her head. Similar spells cast around her body detected the collapse of the spell and pulled her body sharply to the side, fast enough to dodge Aina’s punch. She reached her arms past Aina and fired spells towards where Shiro was standing. They traveled for half a meter through Aina’s spiritual energy before fizzling out completely. Aina followed up with a punch aimed at Ryoko’s abdomen, and this time Ryoko’s spell yanked her back, out of Aina’s range. 
“Sou ka,” Ryoko chuckled. “Your spiritual energy annihilates magical energy, like antimatter annihilates matter. You recover your spiritual energy quickly, but not instantaneously. That should mean it’s possible to overpower you.”

“You really aren’t baka,” Aina complemented. She wanted to go on the offensive, to kill Ryoko before she could summon enough magical energy to overcome her spiritual energy, as the Soviet magical girl had, but that would leave Shiro unprotected. She knew she wouldn’t be able to withstand Ryoko’s attacks forever, and hoped she could hold out until help arrived.

Hundreds of magical missiles flared into existence and propelled themselves towards Aina. They homed in on her, but before they had travelled half the distance, even more were created behind them. Wave after wave of missile crashed into Aina, thousands created every second, like a never-ending firework. They forced Aina to back up towards Shiro, so she could concentrate her spiritual energy over a smaller area. Ultimately, though, it was obvious what was going to happen. Ryoko’s magical energy would continue to grow, and Aina wouldn’t be able to keep up.

If only I were stronger, Aina caught herself thinking. How many seals would I need to break? She quickly banished such thoughts from her mind. She could not break those seals. She would not break those seals. She would not endanger the world for the sake of her own life, nor Shiro’s, and certainly not for any goshujin. Just as when she had fought Naomi, Aina thought it might be for the best if she died here. Naomi had convinced her to live, but because of that, Akira was dead, replaced by an inferior master, and Chikako had been forced to run. Who knew how many of her friends would suffer if she continued to live? Would Jin die? Would Sena be destroyed? Iie, anything but that.

Aina was snapped out of her guilt by a magical missile stinging her cheek. Her spiritual energy was collapsing, and soon, she would be defenseless. She would hold out until the end, but she was forced to accept her fate.

“I’m here!” A voice echoed through the darkness. Aina’s heart skipped a beat. It was Fumiko. “Just hold on. I’ll be through the kekkai in a minute. Just hold on, A—Aina.” It was the first time she had heard Fumiko ever speak her name, and it rekindled her determination. She would push her seals to the limit—no, she would break them—if it meant protecting Fumiko. She would do it just to see Fumiko again.

Sensing Aina’s strength growing, Ryoko intensified her attack, hoping to finish Aina off before she could turn the tide in her favor. Summoning a sword into her hand, she rushed at Aina, while still bombarding her with magic. Aina could feel the first seal buckling under the pressure from her spiritual energy, but it wasn’t fast enough. She would be dead in a moment.

Surprising even herself, Aina said the one word she had sworn never to say, the word her parents had absolutely forbade her to ever speak, and the one word that could save her at that moment. It came out as barely a whisper, and a tear ran down her cheek as she pronounced it.