“Élisabeth?!” Emi blurted out. “Élisabeth the cop killer?”
“I prefer Élisabeth the god slayer, personally,” the guard said. Élisabeth did not drop the illusion and continued to speak with a masculine voice. “If I’m going to be judged based on something I did over a century ago, I’d much rather go with that.”
“Fine by me,” Koharu said curtly, “if you’ll tell me naze you’re koko.”
“I needed information from that shounen,” Élisabeth said.
“I was perfectly capable of interrogating him myself,” Koharu said, “but now we can’t rule out the possibility that you tampered with his mind.”
“I apologize,” Élisabeth said, “but I needed to hear certain details directly from him. Besides, I doubt it makes a difference. You have multiple witnesses, including one who’s immune to magical tampering. He won’t escape the gallows.”
“Demo, we need to find his accomplices,” Koharu countered.
“If you must know, the terrorist group that furnished this shounen with a nuclear warhead calls themselves the Constitution Defense Force,” Élisabeth explained. “They’re a small group operating in West Virginia. I’ll deal with them.”
“You can’t just do everything yourself,” Koharu told Élisabeth. “You have to allow shakai to have a say, to have a role, in solving our mondai.”
“I know that,” Élisabeth snapped. “It’s not like I have a god complex.” Koharu raised her eyebrows at this, causing Élisabeth to add, “You know what I mean. It’s just that it was my carelessness that caused this in the first place. I sidelined a couple of ‘Murican rikushou… heiwa negotiations no tame ni. I thought they were harmless, but they turned out to have more pull with the ‘Murican guntai than I thought. They got the warhead for the terrorist group. I’m not trying to solve the sekai’s problems all by myself. I’m just doing what I must to fix my own mistakes.”
“I’m doing what I must too,” Emi cut in. She leveled her service weapon at Élisabeth. “Élisabeth-san, you’re under arrest for the murder of nana keisatsu officers.”
“Koharu-san,” Élisabeth sighed, “leash your inu, or I’ll do it for you.”
“Emi-san,” Koharu said firmly, “that was over hyaku years ago.” “There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” Emi replied.
“She was forgiven,” Koharu said. “There were extenuating circumstances, and her contributions to shakai since then—”
“There was never a formal pardon,” Emi insisted. “It’s our ninmu to arrest her.”
“Doko do you propose holding her then?” Koharu asked. “You can’t physically arrest her. Put your gun down.”
“In that case, I’ll… I’ll…”
“Don’t make the same mistake she did,” Koharu warned. “You’re not a seigi unto yourself, even if you do wear a badge.”
Élisabeth, who had until that point found their bickering entertaining, remarked, “I’ve never known you to not be able to keep your inu in line, Koharu-san. Naze are you treating this one with kodomo gloves?” For the first time, she regarded Emi seriously. “Iie, she’s not your inu. She’s Aina-san’s. She finally got over that miko, huh? I have to say, I’m disappointed though. I never expected her to go for someone so baka.”
“I’m not baka,” Emi said.
“Jya, naze are you pointing a hebi at me?” Élisabeth taunted.
Emi felt her gun wriggling in her hand and looked down to find she was holding a small viper instead. She dropped it, and its body began to disintegrate as it fell, but it sank its fangs into her left hand and injected venom before it crumbled away. For a brief moment, Emi watched in horror as her hand began to swell and turn bright red. The swelling spread up her arm, and, thinking quickly, Emi summoned a katana and used it to amputate her own arm just below the elbow.
“Atashi saiseisan,” Emi grunted before the pain overcame her. Her disembodied arm, and the blood that had splattered across the room, vanished, and a new forearm burst from her elbow. She held back a cry of pain as her new nerves formed.
“Omoshiroi,” Élisabeth complimented. “I’ve never seen regeneration quite like that, at least not in a ningen. Perhaps I misjudged you.”
“Emi-san!” Koharu shouted, breaking through Élisabeth’s illusions. “Nigete!”
“Doko e?” Emi stammered, but she couldn’t hear Koharu’s answer as Élisabeth began to reassert control.
Emi could still see Koharu shouting at her, but was unable to make out the words. She cast a glance towards the door, but stopped when she realized that her arm felt normal. She hadn’t really cut it off and regenerated it. Élisabeth was testing her, trying to find out how she would react, learning her weaknesses, and perhaps trying to gather information she couldn’t get directly from Koharu. She needed to escape, but in another moment, she would be trapped inside Élisabeth’s illusions again. With no other alternative, and no destination in mind, Emi teleported away.
Aina entered the unused warehouse at precisely the agreed-upon time. This building had once been a dock for the black ships, but over the years, they had all been decommissioned or destroyed. Only the Mississippi remained in active service, and she would be retired in another two years. Once that happened, the peace treaty would prevent any nation from fielding such powerful airships. This was, of course, how it should be, but Aina couldn’t help but feel nostalgic for the majestic vessels. Though they were instruments of war, they had always looked so fetching as they sailed silently through the air.
“Yo,” Aina called out to Noriko, who was standing near the middle of the warehouse floor, speaking with a couple of gynoids. She waved Aina over. “Quite the space you’ve got here,” Aina observed once she was close enough for conversation. “Did you know I once captained the Macedonian?”
“Nyani?” Noriko exclaimed. She was unaware of the building’s prior use as a dock, and was caught off guard by the topic of the black ships.
“The Macedonian was recently turned into a museum,” one of the gynoids informed Aina. “It is not far from here. I believe the curators would be willing to let you sit in the kyaputen’s chair again, if you would grant them an interview. I can set it up if you would like.”
“Onegaishimasu,” Aina answered, bowing slightly to the gynoid.
“This isn’t exactly our space,” Noriko admitted. “We’ve been using it for meetings, but it’s scheduled to be demolished in a few months. The keisatsu and the private security guards have been turning a blind eye. Nobody wants to confront us over a condemned building.”
“Sou ka,” Aina said. She turned back towards the gynoids, about to ask them about the meetings, but thought better of it. They were wearing jumpsuits bearing the Hideaki Heavy Industries logo, not meido uniforms. Though there was a good chance they knew about the meetings, it was better to talk with those directly involved. “May I ask why you are here at this late hour?” she inquired of the gynoids.
“I’m attaching a condition,” Noriko said. “I’ll help you train, but futari tomo are going to capture it on high-speed camera.”
“How unusual,” Aina said. “I’m not sure a meido has ever voluntarily recorded her training sessions for her adversaries to analyze.”
“I don’t have adversaries to worry about any more,” Noriko pointed out, “and I need the okane. HHI and I have agreed to split the licensing fees.”
“If this is just about okane, I could compensate you for your time,” Aina suggested.
“It’s not,” Noriko said. She paused to collect her thoughts before continuing. “Many of the younger generation condemn our previous way of life—your way of life. They should. I don’t blame them for that. Demo, many of them don’t fully understand what it is they’re condemning. I want to show it to them, the good and the bad. I want to show them the training and the artform that blessed me with this karada, with all its violence and ugliness.”
“That’s commendable,” Aina said. “Normally, I would agree, but I don’t want Jin-san analyzing my movements.”
“She’s observed your training for over a century,” Noriko said. “Surely you don’t think you’re going to come up with something to surprise her in a single training session. I’m doing this to help get you back into shape, to give you a fighting chance against her, not so you can assassinate her. I’m not taking sides.”
“Fair enough,” Aina said. “Let’s get started.”
Nekomimi were not known for their stamina, but after forty minutes of intense sparring, Noriko was just starting to breathe more heavily than normal. Even so, she was far from winded. Aina had hoped that perhaps she could use her greater stamina against Jin, but Jin was likely to last even longer than Noriko.
After having moved defensively for the last few minutes, Aina went on the attack, trying to catch Noriko off guard. Their spears clashed as Aina attempted to overpower the nekomimi, but with a few deft movements, Noriko, for the fourth time, knocked the spear from Aina’s hands. As it rolled away, rather than run after it, Aina closed the distance between herself and Noriko. Undaunted, Noriko swung the spear around in an attempt to slam the shaft into the side of Aina’s head. Aina rolled under and grabbed the shaft as it came to a stop. If she had been a second faster, she would have pulled it from Noriko’s hands, but the nekomimi took advantage of Aina’s light weight to fling her into the air.
This was not the first time Aina had been thrown skyward by a spear user, and without exception, they always tried to skewer her on her way back down. This time, however, the blade on the tip of Noriko’s spear detached and shot towards Aina. This spear was built like a railgun, using Noriko’s spiritual energy to propel the blade. Most opponents would not be able to dodge, but Noriko expected Aina would, so she dropped her spear shaft and darted towards Aina’s intact spear lying on the ground a few meters away. For her part, Aina deflected the blade using her duster, sending it into the ground ahead of Noriko, forcing the Nekomimi to stop just long enough for Aina to catch up to her.
The two were about to engage in hand-to-hand combat when a bright flash illuminated the warehouse and Emi fell from a height of several meters. Noriko took advantage of the distraction to retrieve Aina’s spear, but stopped in her tracks when Aina caught Emi as she fell.
“Emi, nani happened to you?” Aina asked loudly. Emi was staring blankly towards the ceiling, and Aina could detect many powerful spells affecting her. She began to pull at the spells until Emi regained enough control of her senses to speak.
“Élisabeth-san,” Emi gasped. At hearing that name, Aina flooded Emi’s body with her spiritual energy. It tore through Élisabeth’s spells, but also cut Emi off from her own magic.
Another bright flash filled the warehouse as Élisabeth arrived a moment later, dragging Koharu by her collar. She was no longer disguised as a police officer, and was clad in the flowing white robes that had been her trademark for over a century.
“Ohisashiburi, Aina-san,” Élisabeth greeted Aina. “Please, forgive the way I treated your… companion. You know how I feel about keisa—”
Before she could finish, Aina bombarded her with spiritual energy. Cut off from their magic, Élisabeth and Koharu tumbled to the floor.
“Emi, Koharu-san, grab her,” Aina ordered. “Noriko-san, you should leave. I promised your kohai I wouldn’t get you involved in this sekai.”
Koharu immediately grabbed Élisabeth and held her down. With a little prodding from Aina, Emi stumbled over to the two of them and managed to cuff Élisabeth around her wrists and ankles.
“Isn’t that Élisabeth-sama?” Noriko asked. “I heard she helped bring heiwa.”
“And she’s going to help preserve it,” Aina said. “Now leave.” She shouted so the gynoids near the other end of the warehouse could hear her. “And erase the last few minutes of footage. I don’t want Élisabeth-san on camera.”
The gynoids had already packed their equipment and were heading for the door. Noriko hesitated but ultimately joined them.
“This isn’t very nice, Aina-san,” Élisabeth spit. Her body began to shine with a rainbow aura, and Aina backed further away, but still kept her spiritual energy blanketing the three magical girls. The rainbow aura shot out towards Aina, but she was able to dodge out of the way, and it faded as it flew past her.
“Don’t worry about that,” Aina called to Koharu and Emi. “It can’t hurt you. Now, pick her up, we’re going for a walk.”
It wasn’t far from the warehouse to the closest GINZUISHOU wall, but Élisabeth’s struggling slowed them down considerably. Aina had directed Koharu and Emi while staying far enough away to avoid Élisabeth’s attacks. When they reached the GINZUISHOU wall, Aina began filling it with her spiritual energy, then the GINZUISHOU reached out and enveloped Élisabeth.
“Naze are you doing this?” Élisabeth cried before she was sucked into the GINZUISHOU completely. She swam furiously within the wall for a few seconds before the GINZUISHOU crushed her. She exploded into a mist of blood and viscera, which was quickly whisked underground, where the GINZUISHOU was storing the radioactive material from the nuclear explosion.
Emi retched upon witnessing Élisabeth’s murder, but Koharu was seemingly unaffected.
“You finally changed your mind about her?” Koharu ventured. “I told you she was too dangerous.”
“I didn’t change my mind,” Aina explained. “You were always right, but we needed her. We don’t need her anymore.”
“If she somehow survived that and gets out of there…” Koharu trailed off.
“Then she’ll kill the san of us,” Aina finished, “and possibly everyone we care about, but I think she’ll spare the sekai. Demo, she could have done that at any time, and I don’t think she survived. We’re safer now than we’ve been since she first awakened.”
“Just like that?” Emi finally managed. “You just killed her like it was nothing. Wasn’t she your nakama?”
“You were going to kill her too,” Koharu pointed out.
“Demo, I would have felt bad about it,” Emi insisted.
“It’s not like I wanted to do it.” Aina stated. “I had to. She was dangerous.”
“And if I become dangerous someday,” Emi snapped, “will you do the same to me?”
“That won’t happen,” Aina reassured her. “Élisabeth-san was dangerous because she was unstable and we couldn’t trust her. I trust you.”
“A lot can change over a lifetime,” Emi said.
“If it comes to that, I promise I’ll feel bad about it,” Aina said. It was meant as a joke, but Emi didn’t think it was funny.
“Minna told me when I finally met the real Aina-san, I’d run screaming,” Emi said quietly.
“Even I told you that you might not like the real me,” Aina said.
“I feel like an aho for doubting you,” Emi sobbed.
“Demo, you’re not running away screaming,” Aina pointed out.
“That’s just because I’m so overwhelmed,” Emi said, shaking her head. “I need some jikan to process this.” She turned away from Aina and began to teleport. At the last moment, when she was confident Aina couldn’t stop her, she added, “Don’t come looking for me. I’m not sure I want to ever see you again.”