As was usual for magical girls, Aina’s body glowed brightly during her transformation, but it shone more brightly than any transformation Ryoko had ever witnessed, her own included. The light cut through Ryoko’s darkness spell, which would have allowed Shiro and the family to see what was happening, but it was so intense that it temporarily blinded them. Ryoko avoided the same fate thanks to a spell she kept cast in front of her eyes at all times. She had been on the receiving end of plenty of offensive and defensive transformations, so she devised a spell that would polarize when exposed to bright light, shielding her like a welding helmet.
“Nani was that?” Shiro asked, slightly panicking.
“It’s daijobu,” Aina reassured her, without answering the question. Now that she had emerged from her transformation, Aina didn’t look much different, aside from the wings growing out of her back. She was still wearing a meido uniform, but large, pink frills had been added to its hems.
Magical missiles continued to bombard Aina, but her transformation had allowed her to stabilize her defense. The force of the transformation ripped away the weakest seal, allowing her to access more of her energy. The remaining seals all held, but some were weaker than they had been before the transformation. In a pinch, Aina felt that she could destroy any of them, save one, which seemed unaffected by whatever pressure she put on it.
“Now here’s a treat,” Ryoko said with a laugh. “Aina-san, famed oppressor of mahou shoujo, is herself, mahou. I can’t wait to see the look on that fanatic’s face when I tell her.” As she talked, she slowly increased the power of her attack. Even after transforming, Aina was being pushed back. Raising one hand, Aina summoned a pulse of energy which destroyed Ryoko’s magical missiles. She retracted her hand in momentary confusion before sending another one out, destroying the next wave of missiles.
Most magical girls generated both magical and spiritual energy, but a very few, like Aina, generated a combined spiritual and magical energy. Although the spiritual component of Aina’s energy was comparatively small, her energy had the outward appearance of being purely spiritual. That property had allowed Aina’s parents to place seals on her energy, the last of which, placed on Aina just before their laboratory was attacked, inverted the charge and spin of her energy. Ryoko’s analogy of antimatter to matter had been spot on. When Aina’s energy made contact with normal magical energy, the two energies annihilated each other. The inversion of her energy also prevented any spells she cast from successfully forming, and even though it had been eleven years since Aina had been able to cast a spell, she had just reflexively attempted to summon a barrier, but it had only come out as a burst of energy.
“Nani was that?” Ryoko scoffed. She peered more closely at Aina through the darkness and burst out laughing. “Wao, your mahou energy is all kinds of fucked up. Nani did you do to yourself? Are you one of those self-hating mahou shoujo?”
Although she intended it as a joke in poor taste, Ryoko wasn’t far from the truth. Aina was an incredibly powerful magical girl, and from an early age, her parents had taught her to fear her own power. It had been for her protection as much as theirs, but it had caused her to internalize a hatred for magical girls. At sixteen years of age, Aina had long since realized that even when fear was warranted, hatred was irrational, yet she still struggled to overcome it, even after working closely with Koharu for over a year.
Aina didn’t respond. She didn’t know how much others could hear, either inside or outside of Ryoko’s barrier, and she didn’t want the fact that she was magical to become well-known. Unbeknownst to her, Akira, Chikako, and Naomi had all surmised that her energy had a magical component, though only Akira had correctly guessed that Aina was a natural born magical girl. Aina suspected that Koharu knew. It seemed that Koharu enjoyed dropping subtle hints about it in their conversations, but she always left enough ambiguity in her statements so that Aina couldn’t be certain. Aina also assumed that the gynoids knew, and that Jin had gleaned it from the others, but she trusted them to keep it a secret.
Having seen nothing from Aina’s transformation that was immediately threatening, Ryoko cautiously advanced, sword still in hand. In the darkness, Aina could see thin steel flaps rising and falling back along the side of the sword. Like gills, they sucked in Ryoko’s magical energy as if it were water. They didn’t move in unison with one another, nor did they move in any discernible pattern. Each opened and closed as if at random, sucking in magical energy while they were open. When Ryoko raised it to swing, they all slammed shut, and Aina got the impression the sword was holding its breath.
Before Ryoko could bring the sword down, Aina charged her, attempting to elbow Ryoko in the torso. As she expected, Ryoko was pulled backwards when the spell protecting her torso broke, but before that happened, Ryoko released the sword, and it continued its swing towards Aina. Suspecting this might happen, Aina was ready to catch the sword by the hilt.
“Baka,” Ryoko taunted, as the sword released its stored up magical energy directly into Aina’s palm. At the same time, Aina felt the sword yanking hard to free itself from her grasp, but she didn’t let go. Instead, she broke the next seal, releasing more of her own energy to shield her from the energy flowing from the sword.
Aina stretched her wings as her energy coursed through her body. She had only ever transformed once before, but she remembered her wings as large and angelic, just as Sena had painted them. Now, however, they were short and gray, with black tips, and it took Aina a moment to recognize them. They were the wings of a Java Sparrow. Aina was so shocked when she saw her own wings that she almost allowed the sword to pull itself free, but by this point, the sword had expended its energy, and was considerably weakened. Its gills flew open and it attempted to breathe in Aina’s energy, choking and shuddering when it found her energy could not sustain it, before seizing up and falling limp.
“So that’s your game,” Ryoko mused. “Rather than building your energy continuously at a safe rate, you push yourself in leaps and bounds.” As Ryoko was talking, Aina began walking towards her, brandishing her stolen sword. Energy flowed freely from her, extinguishing the magical missiles. At that point in time, Aina’s energy output was greater than Ryoko’s. “It’s a dangerous game,” Ryoko continued, “but one I know how to play. Double henshin!”
Double transformations were nothing new to Aina. Three of her parents’ test subjects could transform twice, and Aina figured it wouldn’t be strange for Ryoko, who had the reputation of being the strongest magical girl, to have a second transformation. Aina didn’t let that slow her down, however. She continued to close in on Ryoko, shielding her eyes during the transformation, but paused when Ryoko’s wings burst into flames. They had come out of Ryoko’s transformation smaller than they were before, but they burned with an eternal fire. They were the wings of a phoenix, and Aina could feel the heat coming off of them.
It was soon clear to both combatants that, despite Ryoko’s second transformation, Aina was, for the moment, stronger, though Ryoko’s energy was still growing. Pressing her advantage, Aina quickly closed the distance between them and slashed diagonally with the sword. Ryoko had just enough time to cast a disintegration field, and when the blade passed through it, it crumbled into dust, leaving only the hilt intact.
“Do you have any idea how much that sword—” Ryoko started to complain, but her voice caught in her throat as she felt the protective spells she had cast around herself shatter all at once. Aina had broken through her defenses and delivered a punch straight to her face. It was all Ryoko could do to cast a healing spell on herself as she flew backwards, skidding across the lawn until she collided with her own barrier. Aina dared not venture any further from Shiro, and cursed herself for instinctually going for a punch rather than an attack that would keep Ryoko closer. Under any other circumstance, the punch would have been the correct move. It would put Ryoko off balance, and put distance between her and the group of people Aina was protecting, but Ryoko could teleport between Aina and Shiro if Aina was careless.
Luckily for Aina, Ryoko launched herself at Aina in a blind rage, hoping to return a punch to Aina’s face. Aina attempted to parry the punch, but Ryoko had recast her protective spells and spun out of Aina’s reach. Aina once again tried to shatter Ryoko’s spells, but since being knocked back, Ryoko’s energy had grown to match Aina’s. They were at a stalemate.
From the outside, the barrier looked like a large black dome. That is, it had, until Fumiko had set it aflame. It now glowed with a white fire which ate away the barrier, layer by layer. Jin found it difficult to look directly at the flame, but Fumiko stared into it, willing it to burn.
“It’s not fast enough,” Fumiko declared for the fourth time. “Nani’s going on in there?”
“They’re still fighting,” Jin replied. “I can’t tell much more than that.”
Fumiko returned her attention to the flame, losing all sense of anything else. A short time later, she became dimly aware of a chorus of voices chanting “yoisho” in unison.
“Nani is that?” Jin called out to the group as they approached. There were eight in the group, and they were carrying what at first looked to Jin like a giant rib, but it only had a slight curve to it.
“The gynoid says it’s purified,” the ad-hoc leader of the group replied. It was one of the meido who had participated in the capture of the Macedonian. “We’re going to use it as a battering ram.”
“Matte, the gynoid’s under teki control,” Jin warned, positioning herself in their path.
“It is daijoubu,” Sena yelled, running towards them. “I was unaffected by the spell.” Seeing that Jin was still unconvinced, Sena put her hands up in surrender as she approached. “After the last time this happened, I lined the inside of my chassis with a mahou-resistant mesh so I would not fall victim to that electricity-disrupting spell again.”
“That makes sense,” Jin allowed, “but naze only you?”
“Hideaki-sama forbade us from modifying ourselves. He does not want any of us developing superiority complexes.”
“Wakatta,” Jin said, moving out of the way. She wasn’t as close to the gynoids as Aina was, but she was getting better at understanding the impressions she felt from them. She knew that if someone told Sena not to do something, she would want nothing more than to do it. She doubted Ryoko would know this, so she could assume Sena wasn’t being controlled by a spell, but she couldn’t rule out the possibility that Sena was being influenced. “Nani’s in the bag?” Jin asked, pointing to the satchel Sena was wearing.
“Nothing important,” Sena said, taking a black box out of the bag and handing it over to Jin.
“Kore wa an electronic brain,” Jin observed. “Demo, it’s empty. Nani are you planning to do with it?”
“It is better if you do not know,” Sena stated. As they spoke, the meido behind them began ramming their spike into the barrier.
“I need to know you’re not under the teki’s influence,” Jin insisted.
“Aina-chan’s opponent, Ryoko-san, is believed to be the strongest mahou shoujo in the sekai,” Sena started.
“But we both know that Aina-senpai is… stronger,” Jin said quietly.
“Indeed,” Sena agreed. “Demo, Ryoko-san wasn’t always the strongest. She got to where she is by stealing the karada of her stronger opponents. No one knows the exact details, but it is theorized she overwrites her opponent’s brain patterns with her own and rewrites their DNA, absorbing their spiritual and mahou energy in the process. If it is possible to transfer brain patterns from one hito to another, it should be possible to transfer brain patterns into an electronic brain. If worst comes to worst, I will save my tomodachi, even if I can only save her mind.”
“That’s—” Jin couldn’t find the words to express herself.
“Come on, put your backs into it!” The leader of the meido holding the spike encouraged her companions. “Aina-sama no tame ni!” She was answered with a roar of approval, and they slammed the spike into the barrier again. This time it pierced the barrier, pushing all the way through, and opening a small hole around it. Fumiko bolted through the hole, and Jin, casting one last worried glance at Sena, followed. The hole was too small to admit any of the others, so they pulled the spike out and moved to ram the barrier again, but as they did so, the hole closed, trapping Fumiko and Jin in darkness.
“Fumiko-chan,” Aina shouted, panicked. She wanted to tell Fumiko that it was dangerous, that she should run, but she knew that would make Fumiko a target. Instead, she folded her wings behind her back and tried futilely to hide them with her arms. “Minaide!” It was a ruse to convince Ryoko that Fumiko was more useful to her alive than dead, but Aina didn’t have to act too hard. She was embarrassed by her wings, and Fumiko was the last person she wanted to see them.
“I can’t see anything,” Fumiko responded. “Demo, I want to help you. Please, don’t stop me this time.” With that, Fumiko held out her left arm and summoned a bow made of radiant light. She pulled back the bowstring and an arrow made of the same light appeared, nocked and ready. Together, they illuminated the area around her and Jin, but only for a few meters. They were unable to see anyone else.
“Aim a little to your left,” Aina told her. Although they were about ten meters apart, Fumiko had been aiming almost directly at Aina. Ryoko was a few feet away from Aina, to Fumiko’s left, and the others were to Fumiko’s right, three meters behind Aina.
Ryoko just laughed as Fumiko’s shot went wide. She waited in place to see if Fumiko would use that laughter to adjust her aim, but the next arrow missed her by an even greater distance. During this time, Aina hadn’t moved, unable to decide between moving to protect Fumiko, or continuing to protect Shiro and the family. Ryoko took a few steps towards Aina, but a second later, one of Fumiko’s arrows shot directly towards her. Ryoko jumped straight into the air to avoid it. Glancing back at Fumiko, she could see that Jin had her hand on Fumiko’s shoulder and was pointing directly at Ryoko.
The newtype! Ryoko realized. I was careless.
Another arrow flew towards Ryoko. She summoned a disintegration field between them, but the arrow passed through, unaffected, and Ryoko had to twist her body in midair to dodge it. That the arrow was unaffected by Ryoko’s spell, and that Ryoko deemed it necessary to dodge, did not escape Aina’s notice. She didn’t have long to think about that, however, as Ryoko dove straight towards her, extending her leg for an Inazuma Kick. Aina sidestepped the kick, swiveling to face Ryoko as she landed where Aina had been standing a moment ago. This afforded Aina her first chance to grab Ryoko by the arm, but to her surprise, Ryoko grabbed her back. Lifting Aina off the ground, she placed Aina directly in the path of the next oncoming arrow.
Reaching behind her back with her left hand, Aina grabbed the arrow out of the air. Ryoko tried to pull away, but Aina held her in place and swung her free arm around, plunging the arrow into Ryoko’s right side. Beating her flaming wings in Aina’s face, Ryoko forced Aina to release her. She stumbled backwards and pulled the arrow out of her side. It vanished as soon as she pulled it free, and she placed her hand over the wound, but her healing spell had no effect. Whether it was due to some property of the arrow, or whether Aina’s energy was interfering with her spell, Ryoko would never find out. An arrow lodged itself in her arm, followed by another in her side. They quickly disappeared, but their damage had been done.
“Owari da,” Aina declared. As she spoke, cracks began to form in the barrier, letting a minuscule amount of light in. “If you hold still, I can make it quick and painless.”
“Mada mada,” Ryoko growled. “I can still win.” She held her left arm out towards Ginjiro and gathered a large amount of energy in her hand. She had a clear shot, and although it would have to pass through the energy field Aina was projecting, Aina could sense that Ryoko was channeling a massive amount of power. It might be enough to break through, and so Aina put her left hand over Ryoko’s, attempting to smother the spell with her own energy.
What happened instead is that Ryoko’s magical energy slithered onto Aina’s hand.
“I really didn’t want to do this,” Ryoko said as her body began to glow. “It’s going to be difficult to integrate your energy, but I’ll manage.”
Fumiko shot another arrow, but it passed right through Ryoko. Her body had already been absorbed by her magical energy, which sustained her consciousness and which had been projecting an image of her body. Aina pulled back, and the image of Ryoko’s body vanished. Aina could feel Ryoko’s magical energy ineffectually attempting to eat away at her own, slowly expending itself. At its current rate, it would take a few minutes to extinguish. In the meantime, the cracks in the barrier were continuing to widen, and, not wanting to be seen with wings, Aina dispelled her transformation.
That was a mistake. Without the improved control over her energy her transformation allowed, Aina was unable to completely hold Ryoko’s energy at bay. It dug into Aina’s flesh, lacerating her hand and forearm, causing Aina to cry out in pain. When the barrier finally crumbled, it appeared to all observers that Aina’s hand was engulfed in flame. Fumiko, Jin, and Sena all ran to her side as Aina collapsed onto her knees. Koharu, who had cracked the barrier, also swooped down behind them.
“Is that Ryoko-san’s spell?” Koharu demanded.
“Un,” Aina grunted. The pain was worsening as the magic bore deeper into her.
“Your hand is already lost,” Koharu said, summoning a Gigli saw.
“I will hold her down,” Sena offered. “She will not resist me.”
“Iie, I can seal it,” Fumiko said hurriedly, wrapping an ofuda around Aina’s arm above the energy.
“Too risky,” Koharu said. “Out of the way.”
She placed her hand on Fumiko’s shoulder to pull her away, and Aina, acting before she could think, held her intact hand out towards Koharu and blasted her with energy. Koharu flew backwards, and Aina, finally succumbing to the pain, fainted.