Chapter 13

Sept. 17th, U.C. 0053, 8:23 PM

“Repent, theists!” Élisabeth’s voice echoed throughout Neo Chichibu Shrine. “Cease spreading your lies amongst the populace, and I shall spare your lives. I come only for the thing you venerate as a god.”

Fumiko listened from within Omoikane’s room to the frantic footsteps outside. Élisabeth was wandering the shrine, looking for the room where Omoikane dwelled. When she first entered the shrine, Fumiko could also hear the footsteps of the other priests rushing to confront Élisabeth, but now, she heard only Élisabeth’s footsteps. She wanted to know what had become of the other priests, but it was her duty to wait in this room, as the last line of defense for Omoikane.

The door to the room slid open, and Fumiko released her arrow. It flew, piercing the barriers Élisabeth erected, and sunk into her left shoulder.

Ugoku na yo, Élisabeth-san,” Fumiko warned as she drew her bow once more. “I don’t want to hit any vital organs. We need you alive.”

Dare’s ‘we?’” Élisabeth grunted as she reached up with her right hand to pull the arrow out. Fumiko shot another arrow which passed through Élisabeth’s right wrist.

Jinrui,” Fumiko answered. “Nevertheless, I cannot allow you to harm Omoikane-sama.”

Élisabeth paused to get a good look at Fumiko for the first time. Although Fumiko’s spiritual energy paled in comparison to Élisabeth’s magical energy, she could tell that Fumiko was head and shoulders above a normal human. Her golden aura shone brightly, and Élisabeth recognized it as the aura which had surrounded Aina’s for the past few months. Looking closer at Fumiko, she could see some of Aina’s aura mixed in too.

“These are impressive,” Élisabeth observed, turning her attention to the arrows. “They’re comprised of spiritual energy, but they’re held together by mahou. Their surface is smooth and slippery, and that makes it difficult for mahou to affect them. Difficult, but not impossible. You won’t hit me with another one.”

“Let’s not test that,” Fumiko said, “for both our sakes. Even Ryoko-san feared these. I would hate to accidentally kill you just because you were overconfident.”

“Ryoko-san and I had our differences, but I can’t deny her skill as a mahou shoujo,” Élisabeth admitted. “Even so, I’m not being overconfident. Your arrows are only impressive because everything else about you, in comparison, is… second-rate. I won’t lose to someone who has to beg and scrape to a false god to attain this modest chikara.”

“Chikara isn’t everything,” Fumiko countered.

“It’s not just your chikara,” snapped Élisabeth. “Everything about you is second-rate. I don’t know why Aina-san would fall for someone as plain as you. Did you use some trickery to seduce her? Were you trying to leech off her chikara too, or were you trying to drag her down to your level?”

“You hold Aina in high regard,” Fumiko said, ignoring Élisabeth’s provocations, “even after everything she’s done to you.”

“She doesn’t let anything stop her from doing what she thinks is right,” Élisabeth said. “That’s how I want to live my life, but at times I’ve lacked the chikara, the smarts, or the conviction to follow through. I admire Aina-san for being able to do what I cannot.”

“If she always does what she feels is right,” Fumiko said, “then she wouldn’t got gotten together with me unless she felt it was the right thing to do.”

“And yet, you betrayed her,” Élisabeth needled. “You broke her kokoro.”

“We got back together,” Fumiko informed her.

“I don’t get it. Naze would Aina-san consort with a theist?” Élisabeth asked.

Fumiko laughed, despite the seriousness of the situation. “Between the ni of us,” she informed Élisabeth, “you’re the only one who’s ever believed in a god.”

“Are you kidding me?” Élisabeth griped. “Are there any priests who believe what they preach?”

“Very few,” Fumiko said. “If you want to berate some true believers, there’s a Buddhist monastery I could point you towards.”

“I would appreciate that,” Élisabeth said, sounding calmer. “Demo, could you do something about these arrows first? The pain is starting to get to me.”

Keeping her bow aimed at Élisabeth, Fumiko willed the arrows out of existence. As soon as they faded away, Élisabeth began healing herself. Her wounds had not yet fully closed when a plume of sparkling magic lept from her body and collided with a barrier in front of the curtain which obscured Omoikane. To her dismay, the barrier remained. Élisabeth had held back her magic, worried that a sudden surge in power would tip Fumiko off. She had hoped to slay the kami and escape without any further fighting. She didn’t fear Fumiko, but she didn’t want to anger Aina by harming her.

Incensed at Élisabeth’s actions, Fumiko loosed her arrow, but it only flew a few inches before exploding in a bright burst of light, temporarily blinding Fumiko. Élisabeth quickly closed in on her, but the miko heard her approaching and swung her bow like a club in Élisabeth’s direction. Élisabeth stepped back to avoid it, then ran forward to grab it before Fumiko could swing it again. She pulled it from Fumiko’s grasp and tossed it behind her. It disintegrated before it touched the ground. As she was regaining her sight, Fumiko pulled out a dagger she had stashed in her obi, and channeled her spiritual energy into it to protect it from Élisabeth’s magic. She slashed at Élisabeth, hoping to force the magical girl back, but steel met steel as Élisabeth summoned her broadsword in the knife’s path. Fumiko was forced to retreat out of Élisabeth’s reach, but she put herself between Élisabeth and Omoikane.

Matte,” Fumiko pleaded. “It’s foolish to fight like this.” But Élisabeth wasn’t listening. The sight of the dagger had triggered her fight-or-flight response. Memories of her last fight with Koharu came flooding into her body—the tension, the fear, but most of all, how good it had felt to sink her sword into Koharu’s flesh. Having disarmed Fumiko of her bow, it would have been easy for Élisabeth to restrain her with magic, but all she could think about was the sword in her hand and the enemy before her.

A brief scuffle followed. Élisabeth would thrust or swing her sword, and Fumiko would dodge until she saw an opening. When she saw Fumiko advancing, Élisabeth would step back, keeping herself beyond Fumiko’s range. This dance repeated itself until Fumiko, catching Élisabeth by surprise, ducked under the sword and plunged her dagger into Élisabeth’s side. Grunting through the pain, Élisabeth brought her elbow down on the top of Fumiko’s head, and they both collapsed onto the ground. The impact to her head disoriented Fumiko, allowing Élisabeth to recover first. She pulled the dagger from her body and cast it aside. Then, as Fumiko struggled to stand, Élisabeth pushed her onto her back.

Watashi no kachi da,” Élisabeth declared, pressing the tip of her sword to Fumiko’s throat. She was breathing heavily, her heart pounding from the exertion and excitement of their battle. During the fight, she had extended her consciousness throughout her sword, allowing her to treat it as part of her own body. When she swung it, it had felt like she was cutting the air with her own arm, and now that it was pressing down on Fumiko’s neck, she could feel Fumiko’s heartbeat through it. Fumiko was also breathing heavily, and her heart was racing even faster than Élisabeth’s. “Can you feel that, miko?” Élisabeth asked. “I think I understand now why I clung so hard to religion. I desperately wanted there to be something greater than the evolutionary forces that drive our existence, but while everything I believed in turned out to be fake, the survival of the fittest remained real. Ni heartbeats between us, but with a flick of my wrist, only ichi would remain. Sore wa genjitsu, everything else is just an uso.”

“You’re allowing your amygdala to rule over you,” Fumiko said between breaths.

Damare!” Élisabeth shouted. “I am the victor. Do not challenge me. If you were anyone else, I wouldn’t have left you alive, but I can still kill you.”

“Of course, you’re right that all life ultimately struggles to survive and reproduce,” Fumiko said, seeking to mollify Élisabeth. “Demo, that is only a small part of genjitsu.”

Nani would you know of genjitsu,” Élisabeth sneered. “You stay boxed up in this shrine, enclosed on all sides by the GINZUISHOU, serving a manmade god. You know nothing.”

Chigau,” Fumiko told her. “I have touched the very fabric of existence, have been one with the entirety of the universe. Life is just one of the many interesting ways in which atoms organize themselves.”

Uso,” Élisabeth growled.

“I have seen the full extent of your chikara,” Fumiko continued, “and the failed sekai you tried to build for yourself with it. I have felt the doubt that eats away at your entire being.”

Élisabeth stared down at Fumiko, trying to determine if the miko was telling the truth, and it appeared to her that Fumiko was seeing something far away, something Élisabeth could not see.

Jya, if you know everything, nani’s the point of it all?” Élisabeth asked. “If it’s not serving God, delivering seigi, or fighting for survival, naze are we koko?”

“You don’t want to know,” Fumiko told her, her eyes focusing back on Élisabeth.

Moeru tamashii to do the right thing,” Élisabeth said. “I must know what it is.”

“There is no higher purpose,” Fumiko sighed. “We exist because we do. Meaning is something we crave because we possess the ability for abstract thought, but that does not mean the universe must oblige us.”

Iie!” Élisabeth screamed, flaring her wings out. “Are you telling me that there’s no difference between good and evil? No right, and no wrong?”

“Those are labels we put on actions,” said Fumiko.

“You don’t believe that. You can’t believe that,” Élisabeth said, panic creeping into her voice. “If there is no such thing as evil, then it should be OK for me to destroy this planet, to wipe out all life everywhere.”

“I would prefer it if you didn’t,” Fumiko said. “Even if there’s no point to it, I’m glad we exist, and I believe you are too. Demo, on a large enough scale, hai, nothing we do matters. If you destroy us all, there will be no one left to judge your actions as good or evil. If you do not, all life will eventually go extinct, and there will be no one left to care about how long it survived.”

“I can’t accept that,” Élisabeth shook her head. “All I ever wanted was to do the right thing. Don’t tell me that there is no right thing.”

“There’s no wrong thing either. There are only things you can do, and the consequences of those actions. If you want to do something, and the consequences are acceptable, then do it.”

“It’s not that easy,” Élisabeth griped. “I fought for seigi and failed. I can’t just do anything I want.”

“You can’t always achieve your goals,” Fumiko agreed, “no matter how tsuyoi you are. I believe there is a Christian saying, ‘God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’”

“That’s not scripture,” Élisabeth said. “It’s not even Catholic.”

“Nevertheless, I think it is good advice,” came a voice from behind her. It was Father Millot. Élisabeth didn’t turn around. She didn’t want to see him, not while she had her sword in her hand. She might do something she would later regret.

“Nani are you doing here?” Élisabeth spat.

“I don’t know,” Father Millot replied. “I was at home, and then I was standing here.” Which meant that there was a real possibility that Élisabeth had accidentally summoned him here, as she had with Risa two nights prior. But it was also possible that this was Omoikane’s doing. The thought that the kami might be attempting to wage psychological warfare against Élisabeth sickened her. “Élisabeth, I know I—”

“You will address me as Élisabeth-san,” she demanded.

“Élisabeth-san,” Father Millot corrected himself, “I know I have no right to ask anything of you, but your kazoku is very worried about you. Please, come home.”

“I’ve often thought about coming home,” Élisabeth said. “Demo, they wouldn’t understand what happened, what I’ve been through. They’d try to indoctrinate me again. It would just cause more pain for minna.”

Élisabeth, I—Élisabeth-san, I’ve handled situations like this before. You’re not the first young Catholic to see religion for what it really is. I’m not saying it will be easy, but I’ve helped families to reconcile and accept their children who have left the Church.”

“I’m a wanted criminal,” Élisabeth reminded him. “My otousan won’t welcome back a criminal.”

“Not anymore,” Father Millot said. “Don’t you keep up with the news? The guntai arrested the heads of the mahou yakuza. Only ichi of them were taken alive, but she has confessed to hypnotizing you. You’ve been exonerated.”

This was news to Élisabeth, all the more shocking because she knew that the confession was false. Koharu and Aina were clearing a path for her to come back to the right side of the law, and even though Élisabeth was grateful, she knew they were doing it because they wished to use her for their own plans.

“Nani do you get out of helping me?” Élisabeth asked Father Millot.

“Making amends with the most powerful mahou shoujo in the sekai, for starters,” Father Millot answered. Then he sighed before continuing. “Soshite, I could use your help. Do you remember Samuel? He’s about hachi years younger than you?”

“I do,” Élisabeth said evenly. That boy had always looked up to her.

“About a year ago, he began exhibiting mahou powers. Nothing as powerful as yours. He was so proud of himself, following in your footsteps, but recently, he’s begun to question the scripture. I fear he’s becoming too smart to be controlled, and when he loses his faith, he’ll be free to use his powers as he wants for the first time. He could use a mentor. Someone who could help him avoid the mistakes you made.”

Élisabeth closed her eyes. “And the wisdom to know the difference, ka?” She lifted her sword from Fumiko’s throat and let out a deep, long sigh. “If they’re willing to meet with me, maybe we could—”

“Aina, don’t!” Fumiko shouted.

By the time Élisabeth could spin around, Aina was mere inches away, about to club Élisabeth over the head with her duster. Élisabeth raised her arms to shield herself, and the force of Aina’s strike shattered the bones in Élisabeth’s arms. Élisabeth howled in pain and dropped her sword, which barely missed Fumiko as she scrambled to her feet. Father Millot tried to rush forward to intervene, but Fumiko pushed him back for his own protection. Aina picked Élisabeth up by the throat and held her aloft.

“Naze do you keep making the same mistake?” Aina hissed. “Naze do I keep making the same mistake? I should have killed you. I had plenty of chances.”

“Aina-san,” Élisabeth winced. “My arms. They hurt so much.”

“Heal thyself,” Aina spat.

“Aina, it’s OK,” Fumiko sought to reassure her. “She didn’t hurt me, and we still need Élisabeth-san.”

Aina dropped Élisabeth and stepped back so the magical girl could cast healing spells unhindered. “You will never again set foot in this shrine,” Aina ordered Élisabeth, “and I’m tired of waiting for your answer. You’re going to help me.”

“I won’t,” Élisabeth said defiantly.

“You will, whether you want to or not,” Aina told her. She stepped forward, and Élisabeth could feel her magic being stripped away from her.

“For years now, I’ve wanted to be like you, Aina-san,” Élisabeth said quietly, “but I can’t do that if I’m just following your meirei. I need to find my own way.”

“This is too important to wait for your personal feelings,” Aina said, reaching for Élisabeth. “Let’s go.”

“Iie,” Élisabeth insisted.

She began to glow with a multicolored aura, causing Aina to step back. She could feel Aina’s spiritual energy bearing down on her, but the power coursing through her wasn’t magic, and was unaffected by Aina’s energy. The aura shot from Élisabeth’s body and slammed into Aina’s chest, pushing her backwards into a pillar and knocking her unconscious. Fumiko ran to Aina’s side, and started doing her best to heal her.

“Nani did you do?” Fumiko asked frantically.

Shirimasen,” Élisabeth confessed. “Is she daijobu?”

“She’ll recover,” Fumiko sighed with relief.

“Then we were both lucky,” Élisabeth said. “Take care of her, miko.”

“I will,” Fumiko promised, “but I need Omoikane’s chikara to do so. If you kill him…”

“I still think theism is a mistake,” Élisabeth said, “but I wakatta. I won’t bother you again. Come Father, let’s go.”