House of Cards

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"Welcome to the Third Officio Assassinorum. The perfect officio, if you don't ask too many questions."

Writeup Info
Title House of Cards
Genres Drama, Tragedy
Author Malal
Timeline Begins approximately five years prior to Magical Girl Noir Quest.
Canonicity Status Non-Canon
Completion Status Ongoing


Human Resources[edit]

Harumi Ryouno, a civilian in the guise of a magical girl, works with Sanbey to spin the web of lies that keeps the Third Officio running.

Mercy Killing[edit]

A team of the Third's best and brightest - or at least, the most immediately expendable of those remaining - are assembled to hunt down a rogue Vindicare that has been hunting magical girls of the Third and Ninth alike.

Pearly Gates[edit]

Megumi Minakata, a Culexus of the Third, is haunted by dreams of a thorned grove and a songbird: An experience that starts to try her patience even before it takes a turn for the dangerous.

Note: The above three are intertwined storylines, and meant to be read not one storyline at a time, but in the order they are listed in.

House of Cards[edit]

Human Resources 1: Peter Rabbit[edit]

Harumi Ryouno, of the Third. Incubator's aide. Civilian.

I'd tell people I work in communications, if I hadn't pretty much blown them all off when I faked my death. Pretty good trick, I thought. Nice funeral, or so I'm told. To the rest of the Officio? I work HR; yeah, yeah, I know. Coincidence is a funny thing. Honest answer? Practically the Devil's right hand. Hell, it pays the bills.

...Okay, that was pretty bad.

It's a friday night like any other, which means I've got absolutely nothing to do. That probably sounds nice; I don't have my eternal soul jammed into some pretty little rock, so I get to have weekends off like the rest of us mortals. Let me rephrase that: I've got nothing to do, no one to talk to, and I'm bored out of my skull. I'd kick back and waste away in front of the TV, but I can't quite stomach going back to it. Call me sentimental - I'd laugh you out of the room most days if you did, for the record - but I never could watch much ever since, well, you know. Not long before I started here.

Still stings a bit, I guess.

Looking over my options again. Know them well enough, but sometimes you'll look again, just in case you were wrong the last twenty times. ...At least, I'm hoping that's not just me. Phone I use to call no one, TV I use to watch nothing at all, mattress I don't generally bother sleeping on, fridge I keep pretty near empty because I can't be bothered with cooking for myself. It's like I don't even live here. Then there's the stupid little netbook the rabbit told me I'll need; never got the hang of the thing, just something I had to bring to the Officio one day that spends every day just shy of breaking down completely.

...Heh. Guess that's part of my job, really. At least it's better behaved than your average gem-sporting teenager.

There's a mirror too, just lying around. Handy little thing for when I need to look just right for the role I'm told to step into. This isn't one of those times. Instead, I see a tired-looking face staring out at me from the glass, brown eyes practically covered over by shaggy black hair. None of those crazy colours all the Officio kids seem to have. Never did figure out what the deal was that. Past the head, the picture in the mirror is just some lanky thing trailing across the floor behind me, wrapped up in a baggy, shapeless mess of green and grey cloth. ...It's warm and comfortable, don't judge me. Kinda nice, not having to care about this stuff.

Callidus. Might've been handy for what I do. Hah, like I'd ever take a contract.

So there's also a bottle. I'm not doing that tonight. Usually try not to. Jamming a bottle into my face late at night? Come on, that's drunkard talk unless you've got some company. Before I know it, I'm setting up a game of solitaire - always preferred it with real cards, somehow - and sweeping it right back into the box. I'll just call that one a win. Can hardly ever be bothered with actually playing.

It's funny, the things you realise now and then. Like the company you've got on a friday night, the sort of people you can expect to go to. Not the kids I work with, obviously. Bad for business, getting too attached to them. Never much cared for most of them anyway, crazy brats as far as the eye can see. Other than that... what? Lost everyone I needed to a while back, they all think I kicked the bucket.

So I look down, and I start dialing a number. Gotta have some friends you can count on, you know? I don't have that, but I've got the next best thing. ...Maybe not the next. Definitely not the best. It's a thing, I can say that much. Any port in a storm, or something along those lines. I'm pretty sure he doesn't have anything to do at this hour, but he lets it ring three times first anyway. Warms my heart when he does that, I tell you; taught him the trick myself. Makes people think you're just a little too important for them, but you'll do them a favour anyway.

Others get nine. Three sets of three, so we can pretend he cares about a silly little number. I just get three to show me he hasn't forgotten. The rabbit's got a good memory. Thick as molasses when it comes to some things, though. He's alright when you get to know... well, maybe not, but I kind of like...

Don't feel like lying when I'm not even on the clock, so let's just say I'm not that picky sometimes.

It's kind of funny, the way I recognise his voice on the line. I mean, it's not like I could get anyone else from this number, so that helps. I don't know anyone who can quite sound like no one at all the way he does, though, all the same. It's the most boring voice in the world. Told him that once, and he almost seemed proud. He wasn't, of course, knowing him.

"Sanbey." Same way he always answered, no sprucing it up with titles, not even 'Sanbey of the Third Officio Assassinorum' or anything. Asked him about it once; he said that showed pride, and he wouldn't go the way of his brothers.

"Hey, Rabbit. Got a minute?" See, that's the nice thing about knowing he doesn't care. Get to call him what you want without him getting annoyed. 'Names are immaterial and pointless', he used to say. Even 'Sanbey' was kind of a grudging pick. Seems to think it's a bad precedent, like it's some kind of gateway drug that'll make him grow a personality before he knows it.

"...I suppose so. Some sort of emergency?" Yeah. Yeah, you could say that.

"Nah, just felt like talking." I mean, it's not like this is the first time I've bugged Sanbey. He's used to it, and he doesn't mi- well, I guess he doesn't care enough to be bothered by it. Perks of working for an emotionless space monster, or something like that.

So here I am. Little soul-sucking alien looking like a rabbit that woke up on the wrong side of Chernobyl, and it's what I have to chat with at one in the morning. Can't understand the first thing about this funny-looking monkey it puts up with, and it's the closest I've got to family. Of course I laughed, I felt too sick to do anything else.

"Ryouno?" So he heard me laughing, huh?

"...Ah, it's nothing, boss."

"Very well, then. Now, as you are no doubt aware, there is scarcely any reason for me to-" Oh boy, this again. Did I mention he's about as fun as a spreadsheet? ...Maybe not the best comparison, I usually end up handling some of those every day.

"Listen, I've had a bad day," not strictly true, but it wasn't exactly cloud nine either. "And if you don't get out of your ivory tower, I'm just going to have to turn into some big weird-" Hadn't really seen any witches first hand - only in photos - so it's probably a good thing he stopped me there.

"If you recall, Ryouno, you refused the contract and run no such risk." And there's the problem with a boss who's only as dumb as a sack of bricks when the mood takes him. Inconvenient. Alright, so it was a pretty bad excuse, too; again, I keep the good stuff for when I'm on the clock. Only so much effort in me.

"Yeah, I was sort of hoping you wouldn't remember. You coming over or what? I can share a glass, carrot juice or whatever it is you take. I'll let you go by the time the sun's up. We'll pretend it's... I dunno, a business meeting or something. Officio talk."

"Somehow, I highly doubt that would be your intention."

"Well, lucky you, I don't have much to talk about besides work anyway."

A heavy sigh over the line. Might have thought he meant it, if I hadn't taught him that. Little bit of emoting will get you far, even if your fluffy little alien-devil heart isn't really in it. Still weirds me out how he sounds pretty much human, though. Should be something more like... I don't know, one of those little cartoon animals or something. Not right.

"If I must." Knew it. I can usually count on him for this, who even knows why. Guess we both make our fair share of bad decisions.

"I'll leave the cat flap unlo-"

"That won't be necessary."


Doorbell rings eventually, hell if I know how he does it. Still sitting on the ground when I find him. Little guy looks just like his brother at the Ninth, but with bright blue eyes. Never could decide if that's more or less creepy, but I don't like it much. Gotta have some flair, you know? Not some kind of palette swap - a term I have the kids at the Third to thank for. Keep telling him to spruce it up a bit, maybe a tiny hat or something, but he's having none of it. Would really help him stand out, though, you know? Play up the whole mascot thing.

Then I hear about the Eighth and count my blessings.

Scoop him up and drop him on the couch; of course he doesn't mind, apathy's a fun little thing.

"Come oooooon. Not even a little smile for your favourite lackey?" Got him to blink, at least. I'm going to pretend that means I surprised him. Got to keep him on his toes, or something like that. At least be wrong enough to confuse him.

"You know perfectly well that my facial expression is non-negotiable, Ryouno." Yeah, I noticed. Weird little critter.

"Beep boop."

"...What?" Twice in a row! I'm on a roll.

"Ah, nothing. What had you cooped up in the office all day, anyhow?" I know the answer, of course. Habit. Guy doesn't have anything else to do; kind of like me, but he doesn't bother pretending. Gets him talking, though.

"The Yumishita case," he tells me, and that's about all I need to hear. Crazy Vindicare went rogue a few weeks back, started camping out in witch barriers and shooting out the soul gems of the teams we send in. Ran off pretty much right after her training finished, too; don't know what's going on there, and Sanbey himself isn't telling me all that much. That or he really doesn't know much, wouldn't put it past him. Been digging into it whenever I get the time, though; having all those souls shot out is bad for business, you know? Gotta have her put down.

"I'll get back to to it tomorrow, then, after I've checked in on the others."

"Ryouno, I trust you are aware that tomorrow is a Saturday?"

"...Ah? Yeah, right. Forgot." Damn it, he wasn't supposed to call me on that. What am I supposed to do out here, huh? Gather dust harder? "Might as well hash out what we know, though. Not like we've got much else to do, right?"


"Hey, Peter." Mitakihara's looking nice, right about now. Cities are at their best when the sun goes down, pretty little light show off in the distance. Looked nicer a while back before some of the lights started going off, but this'll have to do. I notice I'm giving him my special three-glasses-in voice by now; good on him if he can make sense of whatever's crawling out of my mouth at this point. I have to listen pretty hard to tell what I'm saying myself.

"Excuse me?" I guess I hadn't called him that before.

"Don't.... donlookatme like that, I just call rabbits what they are." That was a pretty stupid laugh. They probably all sound that way to him, though.

"That scarcely seems necessary." Yeah, well, that's how you take every joke; you and most of the little soul-sucking cottonballs.

"You don't get to talk about how 'names serve no purpose' and then complain about the one I give you." I give his big, floppy ears a little tug. That was pretty clever of me, I'd like to think. I think a lot of what I say is clever, right around this time of the night. "So hey, Peter."

"Yes?" Pretty sure he tried to sound a bit resigned, right around then. No, it wasn't that good. Yeah, I could stand to teach him better.

"'Bout when you said... when you said you'd set me up to get into acting if I still want to. Never thought you meant right away. Real quick-thinking of you, sending me right off like that, into the thick of it. Never saw it coming." Aw, he thinks I'm serious. At least, that might be what the little tilt of the head means. Jokes or no, I have to say, this is probably some real good practice. Real good. Get to wondering what I'll do once I've retired from this little stage, sometimes.

"Ryouno, that was hardly my inten-"

"Shhh. Only kidding. Just relax and- whoops, sorry about that." Ended up leaning a bit to the side, using the little guy like an armrest. Squashed him a bit and he never said a word, but on the other hand, I'm not actually sure he noticed even when Yumishita put an entire giant bolt through him before she ran off. Weird little thing didn't so much as flinch, just had some kind of... of backup. Started eating the body, too. Aliens, huh?

What'd she call it, again? 'Arbalest setting' or something. Funny, she never had anything against ME. I'm sort of flattered by that, almost, but mostly proud.

"Hey, Petey? You're alright, you know." Just sort of muttered in the couch's general direction, something he's free to catch if he likes.

"Hmm?" Funny, the way we keep wasting our time together like this. I hate knowing this is what I've got, if I'm being honest, and he isn't exactly thrilled about hanging around with some human either. Thinks it's a bad sign, looking at all his brothers, and oh, does he ever harp on about how they went wrong. Not that he's annoyed, mind; always says he's above that. Pretty silly, really, but maybe I just don't get space rabbit things.

"Nah, only kidding," I tell him with the biggest grin I can manage. "You're a horr'ble little freak of nature. Don't you change, now." Turns out trying to high-five an incubator's ear when he has no idea what you're going for doesn't really work out. I would've known that, earlier today.


By the time I hear something again - or notice it, anyway - I'm out like a light, with my head on the armrest. Just about manage to pull myself up a bit and see across the room, even though it's spinning way more than I'd like. "I believe that marks sunrise, Ryouno. I will return to my office now." ...Think I might've mumbled something to him when he left. Didn't think he'd stick around, guess he figures nothing back at home's too urge-

Did I just call the office home? Weird.

Well, day's started now, nothing for it; I'll just turn in early or whatever. I shamble over to the frid- to the big cold cereal container - may as well call it what it is - and I end up laughing so hard I need to hold onto one of the wall beams to keep myself up. It's all a bit too ridiculous to do anything else.

The things we do with our time, huh? Unbelievable.

Human Resources 2: Guardian Angel[edit]


I was sort of proud of it, in a way, having an authentic costume to blend in. Getting into it every day, moving around in it, that sort of thing? Not so much. The sacrifices we make for our life's work, or something like that. On the bright side, it gets the effect down - makes the right sort of impression on anyone who sees it - and isn't that what this is all about in the end?

Pure white getup, bit of gold here and there. Goes the whole nine yards; glitter, ribbons, all of it. Even has a little pair of flappy, feathered wings. Goddamn ridiculous, like someone let a ten-year-old outfit all of heaven. I've heard them call me 'guardian angel of the Third'. Obviously, I love hearing it worked, the whole angel look and stuff. Still feel like a bit of a clown in it sometimes, though. At least I got to pick mine. Not having to walk around looking like some sort of Hell's Angels reject the way the Culexus girls do is a plus, too.

The Third Officio Assassinorum. The perfect Officio, or at least, that's the story we've been spinning. A wonderful world where magical girls didn't transform into witches - obviously we never tell them it can happen - where no one was a ticking time bomb, where the incubator looked after everyone's needs and his aide really, truly cared, wanted only what was best for everyone there. ...Rabbit had a sort of gentleman's agreement with the other incubators, that they wouldn't rat us out. Coobs looked up to him, so that was that - even got a Callidus of his to fix up a fake soul gem for me - and the Tenth... come on, who likes 'em enough to listen? If someone at home gets the wrong idea, it's as simple as calling a hit, technically. Me, I prefer a different approach, but that's a story for another time.

Peter and I, well, we go a while back. Let's just say the guy doesn't have a clue about how to deal with actual humans, so I offered to help him along. His helper. The one that keeps everything running smoothly, gives him ideas on how to run the show, that sort of thing. Make sure people know what they need to know and nothing else, clear things up before anyone goes off the deep end; well, more than they already have, with the head cases he hauls in sometimes. It's like herding cats, most days. They still think I'm one of them, Callidus by trade, just too important to join them on their missions. Perfect older sister to the lot of them, doing all of this for years now and telling them everything they need to know about being a magical girl.

Incubators can't lie, or they think they're above it, I was never quite sure. Either way, Peter was smart enough to put me in charge of information. I slip up, sometimes. Oversights happen. The Third keeps being the perfect Officio. It's an easier pitch, what can I say?

I make sure my pearly white soul gem's nice and visible on its choker, so everyone gets a good look at the pretty little rock. Walk in through the door with a smile and a wave, greeting everyone I meet; it sort of blurs together. First name, last name, nickname of choice, whatever it takes. Of course I knew all their names, even the ones that just joined yesterday. Especially the ones that just joined yesterday. It was my job, I couldn't very well slip up. The kids love it, first-hand attention from one of the local big-shots. Stop to chat with a couple of them, ask them what they're doing, how their day's been, that sort of stuff. Bring up something they wouldn't expect me to know or care about, that always gets them.

Whole Officio's best friend, after all. Why wouldn't I know what to say?

Might call it slacking, if you didn't know it was my real job. I swing by the rabbit's office eventually, pick up some files and dig into paperwork. Office supplies, weapon and medical shipments, towering stack of priceless Venenum toys, the works. Adding a couple new recruits to the database, and... ah, yeah, a funeral on Officio premises. Sometimes the kids don't have anywhere else to go for that. Managed to talk the boss into a couple things lately, too; stocks, grabbing hold of a couple import companies, stuff like that. Take a page from the Ninth and rake in some extra funding. Downside is, it just about doubled my workload at the desk for the moment.

...It's kind of a weird place, here. All too futuristic to look real, at least to me. Hovering chair, little disembodied-looking glowing screens that he opens up for his phonecalls, scrolling rosters everywhere, text flashing on all the walls just enough to give me a migraine if I look up from my big old desk next to his. ...Asked him once if he was just pulling my leg or doing those for show, like all that fancy scrolling Matrix stuff. Turns out they can read a whole lot more at once than we can, and he even sounded surprised that I can't. Incubators. None of them know the first thing about humans, far as I can tell; mine sure doesn't.

Quick briefing aside, we don't talk much, only so much to say to each other even when we're sharing a room. To be fair, he's always pretty distracted during the chats with his brother over at the Ninth. Do they even have brothers, or is it a figure of speech? Well, never mind, it's not important. Heard it was a pretty big deal, being allowed to just sit in for their talks, but I never paid much attention. Looks like he's pretty much given up about the new nickname, though. That'll be fun.


Let's see, all done here, and... right, she's been looking a little off lately. Time to take a quick trip underground. Place freaks me out a bit, honestly, but you get used to that around these people. The elevator clunks downward for a while, through a little metal shaft into what might as well be a bomb shelter. Who knows why they kept the place hidden, much less this well protected. What I do know is that no one gets in without- oh, no, scratch that. There's a moth right there, tackling the lone light bulb like some stupid, fluttery battering ram.

Well, most of us are supposed to be here. That's just going to have to do.

The prediction engine - really just a placeholder, I should come up with something for the rabbit before 'oracle cellar' sticks - is a pretty stark kind of place. Never liked it. Bare steel all around and bright white lights embedded in the ceiling, with more glare than anyone in their right mind could like. It's very... clean. Sterile, I guess. There really isn't much to look at anywhere, except for the big, obvious stream running down the middle of it.

People - and by that I mean the local sparkler brigade - called it the River of Tales. It'll do. A little stream running down the middle of the room, from nowhere and to nowhere as far as I can tell. Petey never said a whole lot about just what was going on with it or where it came from. Looks and acts like paper and water at the same time, never got how. Blank paper, according to any Culexus who's seen it; me, I see... all sorts of things in it, some of which might have happened. So do most. Call it a trance, I guess, or a flashback to some memories, some of them from outside your life, others from stuff that hasn't happened. Once in a while, it's something you'd rather forget.

The ones we have working with it - dipping their hands in and staring in around the clock - say that it tells stories. Sometimes yours, sometimes other people's. What happened before, what could have been, what hasn't happened yet. Whole thing creeps me out, and I'd rather the room had something else in it. Luckily, there's someone right here already. Knew that coming in, obviously, else I wouldn't bother dragging myself out here.

Hitomi Masame. Vanus and Prognosticatrix. Don't ask me how the Incubators come up with anything that fancy, I would've thought they'd come up with something unbelievably dry, and yet... what even is that? Latin? Maybe I should ask, some time. Prize catch, anyway; I told the rabbit to start hunting down cripples, sick kids, the ones that are about to die, that sort of thing. Bingo, flood of contractees right away, in case he had any doubt about why he keeps me around. Not like he didn't do it before - most of them do - but he didn't look nearly hard enough. Got him to own a couple of the local hospitals and orphanages too, while we're at it. Smooths things out.

Blind, originally. Stylish as it might be, a blind seer isn't all that much use, and she didn't like the idea of not being able to see, either. The wording was our saving grace, 'I want to know what's in front of me again'. Twist it around a bit, and voila, we've snagged ourselves a prognosticatrix with perfectly good eyes. Not enough of those, though it's starting to look like we might get another before too long. Got to keep an eye on that. ...No pun intended.

She turns around with a scatter of bright orange hair, and looks at me with this big, happy smile. Makes the kid's day whenever anyone comes down here. ...Stare still weirded me out a bit, though. Never got rid of that milky-eyed look, even though she can see just fine. I make sure to meet it with a wave and just as bright a smile. I hear the dripping sound from her hands when she takes her hands out of the river - it rustles a bit when she does - but I don't see any water. Stopped trying to make sense of the thing ages ago. She hurries over to me, and not for the first time, I'm surprised that she can move anywhere in that big white robe of hers. ...Well, mostly white. It didn't need those big eyes on it, surely, even if it's her transformed getup. Come on, that's just creepy.

"Miss Ryouno!"

"Shh, what did I tell you about being so formal? It's just Harumi. We're friends, aren't we?"

A quick little nod, enthusiastic, while while I ask her how she's been doing and cheer her up a bit. Ate it right up. She's getting the usual stream of nightmarish visions around the clock, apparently.

"And you, Harumi?" Still a bit hesitant, like she thinks she shouldn't be saying it. Like it's all some kind of test to see if she can keep formal under pressure.

"Suuuuper secret spy stuff," I answer, same way I often do, with a wag of my finger and a whole lot of exaggerated sneaking over to give her a quick hug.

"You can't tell me?"

"I can't tell you, sorry. ...But don't worry," I add after a bit, like some kind of consolation prize, "it's not that interesting."

"What's it like?"

"You keep standing around trying to blend in, trying to look like you fit in perfectly, waiting around on pins and needles for just the right moment to hear something, or drop the two words you need to. ...Like I said, it's not that exciting." Shouldn't have, really, but I got a kick out of hiding in plain sight, the little hints I gave away. Call it a perk of the job.

"That... that sounds tiring." Hah, she's the one looking all worried now, that's rich.

"Oh, I'm sure it's nothing, Hitomi. Don't look so down!" Flash a smile and give her a little poke on the cheek. It's nothing between us, right?

"Besides, it's nothing so important - a lot of people can sneak around, it's just what a Callidus does, but how many can see into the future? We're counting on you, Hitomi." Everyone likes hearing they're important, or at least, most do. She brightens up a little at that, but I can see the bags under her eyes. Told me before that the visions get worse when she sleeps.

"You look a bit worn out, why don't you take a break? I can get you a cup of cocoa or something if you like; I'm sure we can both spare a little while to relax."

"...That would be nice."


I get a pair of thermoses - thermi? Never could get it straight, but it beats a cup for an elevator ride - ready, and swing by to see if I can catch a certain someone on the way. Not that her and Hitomi were that close, but the little oracle was at her best around a Culexus. Someone who'd damp the visions for a bit. Everyone wins, if only because the average Culexus is thrilled to chat with a magical girl who isn't dropping her breakfast on the floor after a minute's conversation.

Megumi Minakata, Culexus. Unluckiest girl I've ever met. Some kind of... witch's dying curse or whatever. Drags her off to every bit of misery and grief it can get her into, usually gets someone or the other caught in the fallout. Damned pain. Ends up sleepwalking into barriers, too. Joke's on the curse, obviously; not like a Culexus can witch out. Real walking disaster area, but she's more or less latched onto me; good job, me. Again, anyone who doesn't get sick from standing around her, I guess. Or actually calls her by her name.

...Heh. 'Cordy', like that freaky little mushroom. Of all the nicknames the kid could get. Good one, really. If it isn't, whatever, I've laughed at worse. Handy to have her around, though. Who else are we supposed to call when we need something picked up from a tall shelf? Heard she can do other stuff, too, but I never saw much use for it. Counting myself lucky that the whole mind-reading thing takes more than a brush on the shoulder or whatever. I call her when I catch sight of her, give her a little wave.

"Harumi. How could you tell?" Really. She thought every trainwreck in a suit looks the same to me, huh? Shame on me if I can't tell them apart. Bit weird for me, though, dealing with her alongside the kindergarten squad of the rest of this Officio, or most of them, really. She's only- well, I don't like thinking about my age. Let's just say she's only a couple years younger than me. Grouchy one, too, around most people.

"Of course I can tell! You think I can't recognise you after all the time we've known each other?" Gave her a little nudge on the shoulder.

"...Sorry. Not used to people knowi-"

"Please, Megumi, try to relax, I was only joking. And don't worry about the others, they're just a little shy! In fact, I know someone who wanted to see you right now! Would you mind heading downstairs with me to the River? Hitomi would love to see you, I'm sure, and you sound like you could use a break yourself." She sounded like a lot of things over the vox, but she usually liked a bit of time off, so I hazarded a guess this time.

"Right. Moving now. ...Thanks. Coming?" Not one to mince words, her. Never use ten words when you can use one. Never use more than one when you need two, come to that, from some of what I've heard. She has her moments, but I can't drag her out of her shell all that often. She had this little skip in her step when she marched over to the elevator, though. She was a lot easier to read than she liked to think, sometimes, and that's saying something when you're behind a helmet all day.

Well, I could spare them half an hour or so before I leave them with each other. They're both the types that could use a little break.


Shimizu Yumishita. The name blinks at me from a brand new monitor, arrived just today. Let it never be said that the Third Officio doesn't have barrels of cash to throw at whatever it can think of. Not as much as the Ninth, mind you, but it's a given for most of the Officios to some extent. Unfortunately, throwing money at a crazy little Vindy who runs around shooting out soul gems in witch barriers doesn't accomplish a whole lot. I suppose it might make her richer, but that's not quite what we're going for.

...Going to need a team to take her out soon enough, huh. Nothing I haven't organised before, just need to watch out for the backlash from these things. No one likes it when a hunt's called, but against a target like this, it'll probably go over easily.

"Better kill this one fast, Petey."

"Whatever her tactics, she is only one Vindicare, and a relatively new one at that, in spite of her competence. You may be overestimating-"

"It's not about a gun, bow or whatever else she's got. She's picked up on a couple things we don't need her to know. ...Lucky for us, she's real sick, so I don't know how much she can do. Keeping her together should cost her soul gem a lot as it is." Funny that she'd go in sick with something like this and not wish for a cure. Gets me curious enough to look at that bit of her file. What could she-

Ah. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense.

Crazy little brat snoops around a while, stalls her wish for ages and then finally comes to the door to ask for it. Basic training and she's out, leaving us with her cross-country murdering spree. If only she'd stick to killing people, this might not be such a huge deal. A loud sigh, somewhere in the room. Thinking back, it must have been mine, the rabbit doesn't do that sort of thing much. I think I'm starting to piece it together, and it only makes me more sure that we're not talking her down. Kill team it is, and hopefully they don't get wiped out. Assuming we can get enough sense out of the River for once to even figure out where she is, anyway.

The next name flashing on the list is all it takes to convince me. Atsuko Yumishita.

"...Yeah, I'm pretty sure she's out for blood. Would explain why she put a bolt through you, too."

Joy. Sure didn't pull punches when it came to giving me messes to clear it up, but who did? ...Well, the clock, for one. Looks like my shift's over. I've got a night to think this over, minimum.

Guardian angel of the Third, out.

Human Resources 3: An Offer He Can't Refuse[edit]

We go a while back, Peter and I.

I was fresh out of high school at the time, all full of hope and dre- well, no, I got that out of my system a while back. Wanted to be an actress, at the time; still do, really. Film or theatre, Hollywood or Broadway, I didn't much care. Just not Japan, no future in that kind of thing, here. When's the last time anything worth watching came out of this rock? Even picked up some English for that end. Bit rusty, but enough to talk to the Eighth when I have to, as it turned out a few years later.

Don't give me that voice acting spiel, either. I'm not going to be some faceless sound in a microphone.

I guess it was the idea, on some level. The thought that you get to pretend you're someone else and, for a little while, everyone believes you, connects to someone you just made up, thinks you're whoever you tell them you are. I wasn't too happy with who I was back then for a lot of reasons, so that might have been part of it. Honestly, though, I just always had so much fun with it. ...Not that the fame and stacks of cash hurt any, if I made it big.

Needless to say, I didn't. I didn't make it at all. In fact, I didn't even start. You get a helping hand from on high up until high school, but then you reach university and the floor's swept out from under you. Family couldn't rustle up the money for university, acting school, the sort of connections that get you into the acting world, anything like that. I didn't have the training, the people or whatever else I'm supposed to have. Just how it goes, and my day job at a register sure wasn't going to change that. What can you do, really?

Along comes an Incubator, like a carrion bird for dreams. He gave me this big talk about granting a wish, how he could make me everything I wanted to be. Promised me the world. Too bad he laid out way too much, or at least more than he should have. Sometimes I wonder what would've happened if I met Little Coobs – Peter just stares at me when I call the Ninth that – instead of the Third.

He's what you might call one of the traditional, old-fashioned Incubators. Really by the book, didn't have enough of... himself in his head to be clever; all empty inside, like they're supposed to be. Might be a genius in his own way, but he didn't have the first clue about humans. Told me everything, see? Fight witches for a living, maybe die, unless I miraculously last to retirement, or most likely just turn into a witch myself.

Not a bright guy, sometimes.

Knew someone like him, once. Sold watches, and I think maybe some other branded stuff, all 'genuine' if you ask him. Real cheap, too, almost too good to be true. I met him at a better time in my life, so I was having none of it. This little rabbit, though... well, he was one lucky guy, showing up when he did. I had an ear to listen, to see what I could get out of him. It was a tempting offer, somehow, despite all the strings attached. Despite the promise hanging over the door that I'd be coming to die, or worse.

I'd say I know a scam when I see one, but I like to think you don't need to be all that clever to spot this one. Given that he got some contracts even back then, though, I'm not so sure.

We talked for a while, partly since I was hoping I could figure him out. Fat lot of good that did, but I did learn a thing or two about entropy, mostly that Incubators love bringing it up with every other word. At least, the real old school ones do. It's a funny feeling, realising the world's so much bigger than you know. That there's all this stuff going on around you that you never knew about.

I spent a while there, on that rooftop. It was a nice view, with the blinding orange sunset over Mitakihara's skyline. Just me and some half-cutesy, half-disturbing alien sitting next to me, with his ears flapping a bit in the wind. Staring at me with the same wooden expression, the same beady little blue eyes for ages. I still haven't figured out if they can change that at all; physically, I mean. It'd go a long way towards helping them reel in contracts if they didn't look so weird and creepy once you think about it. Still, there we were, a pair of silhouettes in the sunset, while I started to figure out just how little both of us understood.

I didn't take the contract, in the end. Turns out it's an offer I can refuse after all.

He didn't get it at all, I told him. He doesn't get US at all. Not a clue about what he's doing. Funny, huh? Ancient alien or whatever, getting lectured by some girl right out of high school. I like to think it did him good, because like I told him, his schtick was barely good enough to convince the odd desperate teenager. That's when I made him a counteroffer, and he might have looked surprised if he could do that at all. Told me later that it hadn't happened before. Somehow I felt a little proud about that, at the time.

I offered to teach him, in a way. To manage things for him. Get him some fresh recruits. Give him a little pointer here and there to help him snare more new blood, or get his Officio running more smoothly. I'd like to pretend I was oh so special, but the truth is that most of it wasn't that hard. The contract details were some of the first things to go. It's all sensitive, dangerous information, the kind that needs to be explained properly and carefully. Slap on some security clearances, and put someone in charge of relaying it properly to the greenhorns.

That means me, obviously. An Incubator can't lie, or so I'm told, but if I happen to twist things a little, to never tell these kids just how they're going to end up, how's he to know? It wasn't his fault. Plausible deniability, one of the older and better tricks in the book, and I handed it to him on a platter. Once in a while, someone blabs a little too much, and one of the girls at the Third finds out. Sometimes we ship her off to another country, other times we have her retired. Once in a while, they witch out just from learning what's going on.

What's in it for me? Well, it's good practice, partly, but the paycheck doesn't hurt any. Little guy can afford to spare me a good bit of money given everything I do for him. Third wasn't exactly doing great for a while, little low on recruits for obvious reasons, but I've propped it up pretty nicely, and the business side of it isn't doing half bad either. Got its hands into supporting a fair number of orphanages and hospitals, too. Makes a good impression and, frankly, a real good hunting ground for new catches.

From there, it's down to me. Perfect older sister of all the Third, looking after each and every one of them. Not to grease the wheels or keep everything running smoothly, of course. Not because having them witch out or snap prematurely would be inefficient. No, it's because I care about each and every one of them, and we're all making it through this together. I could show them the ropes, tell them everything they need to know, because I've been at this for longer than any of them.

Ate it all up, too. I've been just a little bit older than all of them for... oh, a while now. Keeps me on my toes, adjusting my look in one direction or the other over the years so I'd stay just the same. Just what the image calls for. Sure, I don't change any, and that might seem suspicious if any of them lasted more than a couple years. They don't, not so far.

That's about how it's been until now. Main difference is, I got better. Petey did too, little by little, in his own way. Sometimes I think it might be bothering him. End of the day, that's about all there is to me: The woman who threw her wish away, and made her own deal with the devil.

Poor old Mephy, I don't know what he'd do without me.

Some might say it's... oh, I don't know. Cruel, selfish, selling out humanity. Human trafficking, if you want to slap a term onto it. I've given the last couple of years to helping an alien take the souls of kids and jam it into rocks so they'll turn into monsters. Some people might hate me for that. Some might lecture me. You know what?

Get off your goddamn high horse before I punt it out from under you. The door's over there.

I didn't get my dream either. Why should they? Whatever the reason, I spend all my recent years looking after a gaggle of psychotic brats, making sure they keep ticking, hearing out all their stupid problems and throwing away my life for it; like I said, as far as anyone from my old life knows, I'm dead. The best company I've got in all this is some kind of living mascot that wouldn't know a human emotion if it hit him in the face, and given that he swallows grief seeds sometimes, I'm not completely convinced that it doesn't literally do just that. You know what, though? I'm the only one in this Officio with anything close to standards. I've never hurt anyone; I carry a gun just in case, but I'm not a killer. I haven't lost my mind like the rest of them. I don't giggle while I carve up monsters. You'd think that would mean something.

But hey, think of the poor children, right?

Human Resources 4: Parting Shots[edit]

Shimizu Yumishita. A name to ruin my day.

Well, that's not quite right; it's most of my days, lately, not just one. Sunrise till sunset - and let's not kid myself here, I don't go off the clock at sunset - it seems like all I get to deal with. Some lunatic with a crossbow shooting up our best and brightest... which, I admit, sometimes aren't that special or even bright. We take what we can get. Point is, it's a loss, something which I'm here to stop. With her wish, though... Ah, Petey, this is why you've gotta have me around for contracts. Looks like she ran circles around his clueless little ears.

Going to be a real pain to catch her, now.

“I won't say 'I told you so', but...”

“Your objection is noted, Ryouno. I will be sure to consult you on future contracts.”

“Hey, let me help you, that's all I'm asking for.”

“All? I suppose I must have imagined your salary, then.”

...Huh. Didn't expect that kind of crack from the little guy. Put a smile on my face, somehow, until the rest of the office made me all dizzy again. Whole place is crazy, even if it's not quite as bad as the River of Tales. Just wasn't really made for humans. You'd think he would fix that, after all this time, but I don't think my hints quite got through, and either he couldn't be bothered or... really had no idea it was that bad.

Ah well. Wouldn't be in this job if I wasn't ready for a little weirdness now and then.

Still don't get this Yumishita kid. I mean, yeah, revenge and so on, I can see that. Petty little brat, but I kinda get it. What I don't understand is the way she's doing it. Shooting up the rabbit, that much is pretty obvious, and it's around when I found out how little that means. At least he went and ate the corpse somewhere out of sight, so I guess he's learning a thing or two about tact. She ran off before we could catch her, seemed to just melt away. And then...

And then what?

Shoot up magical girls from the Third, sometimes even the Ninth, with no rhyme or reason? Camp out in witch barriers and snipe down all comers? It just doesn't hold up, even as some kind of revenge story. She can't have snapped completely yet, that'd probably make her witch out or something. But if not, then... why? I just can't see the point in it all. Not that it matters much with the mountain of corpses she's racking up, but it might help a bit with figuring out how she works.

“You got anything, Peter?”

“Very little. What I do see here is a pattern, however. Though there is a semi-random element to her choice of location, Yumishita appears to gravitate towards the barriers of powerful witches. Whether she does so because they provide better hiding spots or an increased flow of victims is, I'm afraid, a question only she can answer. Of note, however, is the fact that she targets magical girls exclusively, and does not assault civilians, including victims of witches. Typically, if a witch brings in too many civilian victims, she quickly disposes of the offending witch. Naturally, since the resulting grief seed is not returned to us, this is in itself a problem.”

Wonderful, now she's costing us grief seeds, too. Something didn't quite click here, between the samaritanism and the whole psychotic serial killer thing she has going. Still, it's a start. At least we've got a decent hunch about where to spot her.

“So we hit the biggest, nastiest barrier we can find, then, and we root her out. Or... we could try shoving some civvies in there to lure her, but that'd be a tough one to explain to the kids. Call it a second priority. We hunt her in her own element, in the worst place we can think of. Am I hearing this right?”

“Approximately.” Oh, joy. And it's my job to do something about this. At least I'm not going in person.

“Send a force into the worst witch barrier we can find to hunt down a rogue Vindicare – one that's killed about two dozen already – and hope it's the right place. Can we afford that kind of bloodbath on the numbers we've got?”

“Can we afford to leave her at large?”

Hate it when he's right. He has a point, though. We can't very well afford the meat grinder option with the numbers we've got right now. It's about time we made it stick. Ordinarily I'd want a squad or three for something on this scale, but since we can't just grab whole human waves for this – assuming for the sake of the argument that we're calling magical girls human – I'm going to have to hand-pick a group.

“Peter, I'm going to go have a chat with Masame. See what I can figure out for our plan. Permission to leave?”

“Of course. I look forward to any progress you may make.”

“Careful with all that 'looking forward' talk, now. Got to keep those pesky emotions in check, right?” ...And he just kinda froze, for a second. Couldn't exactly read his expression, obviously, but I think I hit a nerve. Funny idea, really, that something can still bug him. Didn't feel like pressing it, somehow, so I just showed myself out.


Hitomi's room – she couldn't let me in fast enough when I knocked at the door – isn't quite most people would expect. It's a loud, lively sort of place, where the TV never switches off and there's usually strobe lights turned on overhead. Not to mention music blaring from a couple different speakers around the room. Honestly, the whole place looked five seconds away from some kind of rave. Not that she's the type.

Always gave me a bit of a headache. Can't help feeling a little old, too. She says the white noise helps to keep the visions away. Me, I'd much rather she held onto anything she might be able to learn, but we can't tell her that. ...Which reminds me, I should talk to the rabbit about changing up contracts. At least let us track soul gems or something, in case we get another renegade. Shouldn't be too difficult.

“Oh, um, please have a seat, Miss R- I mean, Harumi. Sorry it's so messy in here, I haven't had a chance to-”

“It's fine, really! Try to relax, before I start scaring the others. Working for Sanbey doesn't make me some kind of inspector, you know. Did the others drop by again?”

She nods. Figured. She's got her a slightly bigger dorm room than most – it's an easy way to keep the precious prognosticatrix relatively happy – and doesn't exactly know how to say no, so the rest of the Officio tends to crash the place on the regular for whatever they can think of. They're a whole lot messier than she'd ever be, so the place ends up looking like a bomb went off, half the time.

Screen's blinking with another reminder of the visit, showing... I think that one's... it's whatever. All I know is that I got lectured last time I called it Street Fighter; never had much of a head for this stuff. Way she explained it, her precognition moves to just reading the next few seconds if she's in a dangerous situation, and she's trained her head into seeing that as just about the same as combat. Sounds ridiculous to me, but if it works, I guess. Went about five rounds with her once, pretty sure she practically cheats at this by existing. Always had a hunch that the real reason's more about getting to feel smug about something. Like a seer has a shortage of excuses for that.

...Whatever. The point. That is, after handing her a batch of cookies I made last night, and chatting about nothing in particular for close to half an hour. It's not a waste of time if you need to do it to keep everything running smoothly, and I try to tell myself that while the rest of my head's screaming at me that I need to move along.

“Ah, Hitomi?” I asked like I'd just remembered. “Sanbey and I were hoping you could help us with something. You've... heard about the Yumishita case, right?”

“Of course. Were you going to send-” Ha. Ha ha ha. Ha. No, girl, we're not throwing you into the thick of it, you're too handy to be cannon fodder. Nothing about a prognosticatrix really says 'front lines', anyway. Would just be a waste of everyone's time.

“Oh, no, no. Don't worry, Hitomi, nothing like that. I just wanted to check something. This might sound a bit silly to you, but I never had much of a chance to learn about how... anything a Vanus does really works. Can I ask you a question?” That takes a minute to click, like she'd never even considered that she'd have a choice, but somehow she only seemed to be more eager after it.

“Please, go on. If there's anything I can do to help...” Sometimes I feel like all she ever wants is for someone to tell her she's doing a good job. Who's a good oracle? You are! Yes you are! Ah, whatever. Makes it easy to keep her happy and far from witching out.

“Can you track someone?”

“...Yes and no,” she answers after thinking about it for a bit, looking a little embarrassed. “I've heard that others can just scry, but even with the River, it's a bit unreliable for me. Do you think you could get... a piece of her? A hair or something? With that, I should be able to track her down.” Well, what do you know. I had a hunch, but it all seemed too witch doctor-y to me. Shows what I know. I wonder for a moment if it's coincidence or the stories come from real magical girls way back, then decide I don't care.

“That's perfect!” I tell her with a little clap of my hands. 'Perfect' as in it'll take going through hell and high water to get her what she needs, but it's a start. “I'll get started on that as soon as I go back to the office, then. Thank you, Hitomi; I think you might have just rescued us.”

“I haven't really-” Done much. I know. Not yet, anyway. Instead, I put one arm around her shoulders and shush her gently. Can't have that.

“Now now, you've helped more than enough; we really couldn't do this without you. ...Enough about work, though. How are your headaches lately?” If I had to guess, it was something to do with her visions, but she seemed to get them on and off. Looked surprised that I even remembered, actually. I guess she doesn't know how many notes I keep. The little props you use to show someone you really do care.

“Still here,” she admits after a bit, one hand on her temple. “I've been... seeing more recently. It's not helping much.” A quiet laugh and a sheepish little smile. Gotta admit, I like her spirit if nothing else, trying to shrug all this off.

“I had a feeling,” I tell her, all frowning concern. “Let's see... you'll need rest, obviously. I'll talk to Sanbey about that.” Simple enough, may as well have her recuperate before any big oracle work. “I'll try to get you something for it, too. I hate to say it, but you might want to turn the music off, or at least choose something more soothing, otherwise you'll only make it worse. If it's anything like the last migraine I had, you won't want anything that can rustle, either. Would you like to have that cleaned up?”

I point at the mess of candy wrappers practically burying the floor, and she tries to do something about it first, but I get her to stay put with a little pat on the head. Takes all of ten minutes to sweep the whole mess into a bag and seal it shut. I stay another half hour past that and chat with her, tell her it's nothing, get her to cheer up. She takes it pretty well, says she's eager to help, and eventually we split up. I'd like to think making arrangements for her break with the rabbit over the phone while she was still around made a difference.

Let's see, I'm going to need a team to track down one rogue Vindicare, and get... something, anything to scry on her with. Maybe even just pick up something she's dropped? Probably best to sneak around instead of getting shot to pieces. Someone to keep them from being spotted, another to figure out just where she is in the barrier, and someone who can... well, who can actually fight. I'm not sending just a Callidus and a Vanus into a major barrier.

Yeah, I think I know the ones. Just a few calls to make.

Human Resources 5: The Rabbit And The Snake[edit]

It was about midnight – I had some loose ends to tie up, and nothing in particular to do at home – when I came back into the office and found him there. Sitting on the windowsill, an opening to something that seems halfway real rather than the strange room around us, staring off into the distance. Well, no, not quite the distance, nothing so vague. He was staring at the QB Heavy offices like his eyes were glued to it. Wish I could say there was some kind of look or the other on his face, but there never is; he's about the only one here that I can't read.

I wouldn't pay much attention to this ordinarily, especially when I'm just reporting in before I head home, but he was there six hours ago, too. I couldn't quite tell if he moved.

“Something bothering you, Petey?” Sure, he had enough reasons to be upset, but he never seemed to mind. It was weird, seeing him acting like this.

“I am well, Miss Ryouno. Please go about your business. You are dismissed for today.” Well, that was pretty wooden even for him. ...Don't know why I stuck around. Curiosity at that point, I guess.

“Is that why you've been staring at a tower for the last six hours?” That got him a bit, I think. Little flick of the ear, and he just sort of... sagged a little, like any sort of breath or effort went right out of him.

“...Would you care to hear a story, Ryouno?”

“A story? I didn't know you told those. What's it about, then?”

“The parable of the rabbit and the snake. Have you heard it before?”

“...No, not that I remember. Go on.” So there I was, taking a seat next to an incubator in the middle of the night so he can tell me a story. At least it got him off the windowsill, even if he did sneak a glance at the tower now and then.


There were once two snakes, who found themselves hungry. Food had become scarce, and the land barren. Without a new source to feed upon, not only would they starve, but countless others might as well. This would not do, and so they set out in search of greener pastures. One – we will refer to him, for simplicity, as the Scaleless – stumbled, or slithered, upon the discovery that would one day save him. It had been a long journey from his home, but one that had been worth the arduous travel.

For you see, the Scaleless had found a rabbit burrow.

He would need to exercise caution, of course, lest he deplete their numbers. He would need to employ a disguise, lest he frighten the rabbits. So it was that he lived among them, always at the mouth of the burrow, mixing sweet gifts and bitter poison in his daily offerings to them. The rabbits prospered and, at times, dwindled for the sake of the serpent they carried within their ranks. Their lives had gone on to save those of others, and the Scaleless thought that this was well.

Years passed, and the snake went unknown through their numbers all this time. Perhaps they had never noticed that he was not a rabbit, or they simply did not care. Could the Scaleless himself remember that he was a snake, when the only reminder came from the venom that leaked from his fangs ever so rarely?

Happily, he was not left alone with their kind forever.

When the Earth had spun around the sun one time too many, the second snake arrived at long last, finding by chance the very same burrow. The Scaleless was elated, finally finding one of his kind to join him in this curious, almost maddening isolation, solitude among a crowd. The one who had shed his scales for a coat of fur was only too happy to help, to the newcomer's surprise and bewilderment. Why? Was it for their mutual mission, perhaps, or some sort of agenda? No, no, nothing of the sort.

You see, helping him to find his place brought the Scaleless joy in itself, because the snake was his brother, from the very same burrow. Why, it must have seemed very strange indeed to the snake back then – those that slither know neither family nor friends, after all – but he did not show this, for a snake can neither smile nor frown, only stare and watch. How curious and mad the Scaleless must have sounded then, lurking at the edge of the burrow and playing the part of his own prey.

In time, the newcomer had learned to adjust, and was even thankful for the help he had been given. For a while, the two serpents were happy in each other's company, brothers that were never meant to be. The Scaleless heard his brother's voice from before him, at first, baffled by the role he had chosen for himself. Happily, one day, they came to an understanding, and began to speak side by side. Perhaps the Scaleless had already poisoned his brother then? Or had the rabbits done so themselves, however unknowingly? He would never learn the answer.

One day, he heard the voice from behind himself instead. He thought nothing of it for one day, then another, until finally he thought to look around; he might have done so sooner, but he already had an inkling of what he might find, and dared not turn his head.

Behind him sat his brother, but not as he once was. Where the Scaleless had only ever lain at the door of the burrow, his brother was within the burrow, further below: A snake no longer, but a rabbit in full. Had he even noticed the change, this poor, maddened creature? No, perhaps not, as even the Scaleless had not seen it himself. They traded glances then, the Scaleless and the rabbit. The rabbit did not know that anything was amiss, for it is in a rabbit's nature to know nothing that would discomfit it. The once-snake saw his brother's eyes, then, and knew that they had gone mad. They could never return home again; the scaleless serpent could only do his best to hang onto a few scraps of memory for both their sakes.

Today, the rabbit, prosperous beyond measure, looks at the snake and sees a brother. The snake watches the rabbit, hoping to find someone he can remember, and sees only his own future in those beady red eyes.

And that is the end of their tale.


“The moral of the story is...” he stops there for a second, not quite sure how to finish. I'm not used to seeing him hesitate. “Is... no. I am still an incubator, Ryouno, or so I wish to believe. We are skilled in neither parables nor morals.”

It's funny, in a way, how long you can know someone for and still learn something new out of nowhere. Maybe that's what he was thinking, too. ...Wasn't all that subtle even when he tried this hard, though.

“So that's how-” he cuts me off before I can say anything. Sounds the same as ever, even through this.

“...Purely allegorical. A story I heard once in the past. It is, as they say, a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” If that's what he wants to think, I'm not about to stop him. I won't get it until he gives the green light.

“I've heard it before, you know. The way you go on about the 'corruption' in other incubators. Is that what happened to Kyubey?” He's quiet for a while; either he's trying to think, or he doesn't want to say anything. I can never tell.

“He is still my dear brother,” the rabbit answers eventually – or is that the snake again, by now? “I would trust him with my life, and those of each and every person in this Officio.” ...Yeah, I guess that's how it goes. We choose some funny company, when we think it might give us someone to talk to. Someone to trust.

“What will you do when you retire?” Huh. I wasn't... I didn't quite see that coming, got to hand it to him. It's not a hard question, though. I always planned to get out of this eventually, buy my way into film or something. Maybe theatre, that's got a nice, classy sort of edge to it. It was always the plan, even if I'm less than sure that it'll work out, some days. Made me wonder, somehow, if he's worried about the day I walk out.

“You? I mean... if you ever let yourself take a break.” It was a bit of a stupid question, one of those 'you too' moments. Not like he was ever going to do anything else. He took it pretty seriously, though, like he did with everything else. Maybe that's what made him the sane incubator, or one of the last to snap, as far as they're concerned.

“I'm afraid I can't imagine the alternatives. I will have to answer some other time.”

Caught him staring out the window again. Have to say, I was impressed, in a way. Didn't expect him to make up a story on the spot, even if that's... probably a bad sign for him, huh. He tried his best, though; maybe in too many directions at once. Not that I could really understand. How can I? It's hard enough wrapping my head around how he thinks at the best of times, never mind when he starts worrying about turning as crazy as the rest of us. About losing his brother – one he never had in the first place - to us.

I notice myself wondering, after a bit, about what he's going to do now. Takes me a little too long, thinking back, to piece it together. He'd look for someone like him, I guess. Someone who can... sort of meet him halfway, even if neither quite gets the other. A good match for a half-snapped incubator, not quite as normal as they come, but not as far gone as the others. And there's only one other incubator in Mitakihara. You'd think nothing could replace that.

...Guess that explains a thing or two. Not sure how I feel about that. Maybe I should be flattered, or worried.


Nothing. I put a hand on one of the rabbit's ears - or the snake, I'll figure that out when he makes up his mind - in case that gets his attention.

“Hey, Peter?”


“You mind if I stay here a little longer?”


...Done stranger things, for stranger people.

Mercy Killing 1: Near-Death Experience[edit]

It was early afternoon when Izuho Taniguchi ended her stay of several hours in the Third Officio's hospital wing. A hulking Eversor with a tendency to loom over her patients, wrapped up in what might charitably be called a costume: An ill-fitting patchwork of dark purple woolen cloth, kevlar and pieces of metal armour. Clearly designed, as she knew all too well, for someone who kept the sort of shape that was generally intended for a human; no longer quite sufficient, but it would have to do. In some ways, it looked like something that might be more at home attached to a siege engine of some sort, but then, she supposed, that wasn't entirely off the mark. Not clothing or even armour so much as a holster for a weapon, in a manner of speaking.

It wasn't that she needed the hospital herself, of course. ...Well, that wasn't entirely true. It was a useful vent, whether that was the point of visiting or not. Find a few of the wounded to apply some of her spare energy to. It wasn't enough, but it took some of the strain off her, and it meant that the Third had almost no need for any other medical care. There wasn't a great deal that an application of pure life force couldn't fix.

Best to spend what she could before it overflowed, anyway.

The last ten minutes or so had been occupied by cleaning up the mess she had left, as usual. Every two hours, like clockwork, she would find an ideally discreet place and... there was really no good way to put it. If an injection was out of the question, it would be a knife to the throat or a bullet through the head. The former, this time. Regular near-death experiences to keep her powers in check, distracted with rebuilding a broken body. Still, it was messy, and needless to say, remarkably painful. Practice made it easier, at least.

"I want to live". Four of the most poorly considered words she had ever said.

The walk down to the Venenum's office – as per the instructions on her phone – earned her a good few stares, but then, so did just about every waking moment. A massive, somewhat misshapen Eversor was enough of a sight, even when she didn't have, say, a vestigial hand growing out of one elbow on that particular day, to take one past example. Overflowing life force tended to find its home in no end of regenerative mutations. Her veined eyes and the bags under them testified to no end of sleep deprivation, even if that no longer affected her health. Not much did. It was still easier than passing without notice outside, at least.

Not having to wear a cloak to cover all the partial and broken weapons sticking out of her was, after all, something of an improvement. She settles down on a bench along the way and opens up her lunchbox – something of a misnomer with how rarely she used it to store food these days. Instead, she picks out three grief seeds, grimacing slightly as she looks them over. It was inevitable, of course, with the sheer amount of magic she expended just existing. The details were beyond her, but Harumi had suggested that it was unwise for anyone in this profession to go without grief seeds for long if they spent as much power as she did.

Now, if only she could use them normally. Still, beggars couldn't be choosers. She swallows one after the other, wincing slightly at the sharp sting. Why did they have to be so sharply pointed? At least it would dissolve quickly enough. Funny; somehow, swallowing a tiny sphere with a spike on the end made her more uncomfortable than slitting her own throat. Maybe she could look into another way, one of these days, to get through her dosages.

The Venenum's office lay ahead. They had belonged to the same officio for a while, but not had a great deal of time to speak before, and now she had an outright request to enter the laboratory. Curious and, given that she had largely supplanted the work any healer might have at the Third, more than a little awkward. It might have been strange to feel a sort of faint guilt over treating the wounded, but then, there was so much in this life that made little sense.

The door was plain enough, wooden and adorned with a brass plate: Penelope Baines, Venenum. A scratch reaches across the name, and under it, an addition in black marker, in the sort of handwriting that spoke of the highest levels of medical enlightenment: 'Penny Dreadful'. She'd heard the title before, certainly; that it was at the Venenum's insistence was news to her.

The woman was a knight, she was certain of it; all the more reason to look forward to this meeting. The profession was, to her faint embarrassment, among her long-standing fascinations. One of the Knights Hospitaller, perhaps. Those still existed, didn't they? She was almost certain she had read something to that effect before. Of course, some would tell her Britain was no longer a land of knights – that she was pinning some entirely unreasonable hopes on one of the Third's few foreign members – but the existence of the Second made her point for her well enough, or so she liked to think.

It only left the question, really, of why she was being brought here, but that question would be answered soon enough. She brushes a little strand of blue out of her eyes, and knocks on the door.


She missed the cauldrons, she really did. It had to be vats, lately. Sanitary reasons, they had said, as well as ensuring consistent results. Well, maybe that was for the best; the less they tried to look like witches, the better. The cat stayed, though, for as long as it could keep itself out of an accident. A bedraggled half-stray tabby that spent most of its time bumping into equipment or table legs head-first, and occasionally biting her leg.

As cats went, Rags was not an especially good one, but this one was hers. At least, the cat seemed to think so, and she was in no hurry to correct it.

Now, sprayer in working order, vats bubbling – she had always set the spare ones to bubble, just for the look of the thing – and the remainder of the chemical stocks were churning in a way that vaguely implied progress. Fooling around with schematics would have to wait a little longer, but that was alright, she had enough to occupy herself with.

She would need names, too. They didn't have names yet for half of her concoctions, and as much as the implications from that pleased her, it was all a little inconvenient. Except for the barrel of warm, thick yellowish liquid behind her, of course. Everyone recognised custard just fine, even if she didn't let most of them dip into her personal supply. What if she went sharing it around and needed a fresh batch for herself in some sort of emergency? What then?

She would be able to imagine just that sort of emergency some day, she was sure of it. Everyone had their vices, and this was hers. Well, this and unspeakably noxious chemicals.

The Venenum climbs up a ladder, cracking open a tall container of some roiling acid and scooping up a cup of it. The cup would hold for a while, at least; meanwhile, she leans in to take a long sniff of the gasses that stung her eyes and burned her skin. Nothing she could ever get away with as an ordinary human, as she would happily admit, but she enjoyed the smell, and a little burning never killed anyone. ...Not anyone like her, at least. Just one of the job's little perks.

Transforming on her way – might as well make the right sort of impression – she goes to answer the knock at the door, right on time, swinging the door wide open with such speed that it slams into the wall, before greeting the newcomer with open eyes and an ear-to-ear smile.

“Yer richt on time! Come in, come in! Welcome to tha lair o' Penny Dreadful!” She leaned in to add a little conspiratorial whisper, as if sharing her greatest secret with the recently arrived Eversor. “M.D., o'course.”

“Er... good afternoon, Miss Baines”, came the answer, the guest lumbering into the laboratory with all the nervous caution of a frightened mouse, trying her best not to knock anything over. A guffaw from Penelope is the only answer she receives for this.

“Aye, aye, guid affie an' whitnot. Nae need ta be so stiff, Izzy. Didna think ye'd be sae quick! Most keep me waitin' for yonks, jes' dinna ken how to hurry! Real treat, it is.” While the Venenum was hardly imposing – slightly rounded and strutting about her laboratory in a sweater and jeans, with a mop of orange hair – she certainly made every effort to intimidate. She wore a bright red, chemical-spattered coat and a black hat more at place on a highwayman, like a tricorne that woke up on the wrong side of the bed. Her pockets practically overflowed with rusted, blood-encrusted scissors and scalpels, while a bulky tool belt held no end of vials, as well as a pair of wickedly sharp claws.

Then there was the grin, right under a pair of uncannily bright green eyes; Izuho, at least, was rather certain that it would have made a shark uncomfortable.

“M.D.? So you're-” she asked, before being cut off. 'Penny' seemed inordinately pleased by the question, as if she had been waiting for it.

“Mean an' devious”, she answers with a little cackle. “Dead chuffed tae meit ye.”

Peeling her eyes away from the gallery of toxins and acids around her, not to mention its caretaker, Izuho forced herself to focus, though not without being a little mystified by the entire experience. Certainly, from what she had heard, the Venenum had been in Japan for some time and should be able to speak the language without difficulty, but every word was wrapped up in a nigh-impenetrable accent, and that was before she started bringing in words that could only be guessed at. It didn't quite add up, or so she liked to think.

Then again, it was getting harder to put anything past the chemist with every passing moment.

“You needed me for something, Miss- I mean, Penny? If this is about the hospital wing, then I'm sorry, but-”

“Naw, I dinna care fer havin' ta deal with doctorin'. Fykie business. Ye took a right heavy load off me back, mm? Naw need tae g'won aboot wark; ye want a tour o' th' lab?” An eager, pointy-toothed smile for the newcomer, as she gestured towards the labyrinth of nightmarish chemicals ahead.

Before she knew what she was doing, Izuho had agreed. Curiosity got the better of her.


“...An' that one's th' sprayer, loaded up with a noo batch. Reckon that's it! Anythin' ta speir at me over?”

“Is it true that you came from the Second?” The chemist blinked once, twice, apparently not expecting the topic, then burst into peals of laughter. It takes a while for her to wipe her eye with a slightly seared plastic glove, calming down enough to answer.

“Naw. Sec'nd disna tak thugs, y'see? All about bluidlines an' whitnot. I got na bluidlines, jes' a wrench an' some poison.” Another of her grins as she waves a surprisingly normal wrench about, retrieving it from one of her pockets. “Willna take me, an' that's foyn. Came here instead; Mita-whatsit's a guid toun.”

“...Ah.” Well, that explained a few things. “Er... what did you need me here for, again?”

This time, Penelope was far more eager to explain than before, hefting the large, chrome-plated chemical sprayer and its pair of sloshing canisters up in her arms, giving it a meaningful tap as she looks at the Eversor.

“Gotta fresh batch of th' mean stuff right 'ere, brand noo mix! So I tole me phone, 'git th'... th' lairge one, th' melty lassie, Izzy. Naw one o' th' wee 'uns.”

“I'm not really sure how-”

“Wir project, aye? Jes' wirs.” A hurt glance meets Izuho's faintly skeptical look. “Oof, dinna lookit me like that. Nothin' daft, just hafta make guid an' sure th' whole barrae's all richt.”

“...How do I come into this?” The Eversor asks, with a faint sinking feeling.

“Bin nearly two oors by noo, mm?”

“...Ah. Thank you?”

“Ye're walcome, think naethin avvit!”

The next ten minutes passed in a blur, which was perhaps for the best. When any sort of clarity returned to the world, the testing area was drenched and covered in smoke, while most of Izuho was reduced to a collection of bone and chemical burns. She couldn't help but be a little impressed despite herself, both by the effect and the sheer power of the painkillers she had received beforehand. A shame that the latter kept her from being able to walk just yet.

“Guid wark, guid wark. Hol' still, aye? Looks like I skailed some of th' ole nasty bubblies. Dinna want tae touch it. Wad keep yerself t'gether till ya can move richt again. Got somethin' for ye in a second. ...Ah! Y'need any scran, Izzie?”

The baffled look must have been taken as agreement; it did not take long for the Venenum to return with a bowl of what looked to be, of all the things she might find in a lab, custard with pieces of fruit floating in it. Presented, admittedly, with a cheery warning to avoid getting any on the currently-exposed portions of her skull.

Well, that would heal soon enough.

“An' while I mynd, I've got some o' these for ye.” A small box lined with, as far as Izuho could tell, syringes. “Will nae even sting! Jes' a little tickle, real tidy!” She gave her visitor – and until a moment ago, test subject – an enthusiastic pat on the back, only to pull her partially skewered and bloody palm away. She should have noticed the exposed blade, really. Best not to mention it.

In passing, it occurs to the Eversor that she should have felt perhaps a little less grateful to receive a boxed set of lethal injections. Then again, there was no arguing the convenience of it; it was some sort of consideration, after a fashion.

“Oh! Dinna forget to bring th' greetseeds in the morn's morn, now! Gotta grind 'em up for ye, see if we can see how t'make...” She thinks for a moment, then chuckles. “I dinnae ken, some kinda sad milkshake?”

Staggering out of the office ten or twenty minutes later with – of all things – repeated thanks to Penelope despite herself, she could only wonder what she should expect of their next meeting, and if, judging by what she had heard, every Venenum was...

It takes a moment to realise that her last question had been said out loud, and then only by the laughter behind her?

“Barmy? Jes' Vennies? Hah! Maun be noo 'ere. Dinna ken much aboot th' job yet? All guid, ye'll learn.”

Mercy Killing 2: Mirror, Mirror[edit]

The clang of metal. A stern lecture, peppered with a few choice insults, and a quiet whimper in answer - her sister always had been a little too harsh - as she stood to the side of it all, showing both encouragement and concern in turn for both parties. In some ways, obviously excepting the weapons, it was just like their old home.

The three Katayamas - Mizuki, as well as her sister Mitsuko - had spent the bulk of their days in the orphanage known as the Mitakihara Children's Home, occasionally known as the Second Chance Institute. Like almost every orphanage, hospital and the like in the area, the Third had a heavy hand or investment in it if not outright ownership. As Harumi would always explain, it was an expression of Sanbey's generosity, his eagerness to help the weak and helpless around him, as shown by how those were often the first he would approach to grant wishes. It held up well enough, with everything he had done. They were prime examples themselves.

They could never quite remember what brought them to the orphanage, and by and large, did their best to keep it that way. It was too early in their lives to recall, and there was nothing to be gained from learning a now-irrelevant portion of the past. They might have clung to it if their lives had been bitter, but - and really, this only underlined the incubator's generosity - the Mitakihara Children's Home was nothing like the nightmarish institutions that dotted fiction at every turn. It was, indeed, a pleasant enough place to live out their years, and Harumi herself had regularly come to inspect the premises, as well as bringing gifts or sweets for the children there.

As much as they had liked it there, when Harumi came to offer them a chance for their own home - they would, at first, be staying at her house before taking a dormitory at the Third - they were all too eager to accept. Eventually, after much needling, they managed to drag the answer out of her, reluctant as she was, as to just what it was that she did. Too modest, much too modest. A magical girl of the Third Officio, as they discovered. Helping the incubator on his quest to save the universe from its eventual fall by creating all the hope they could in the world. Hunting witches and doing Sanbey's work throughout Mitakihara. What could be more noble? What could be more exciting?

She relented, after a few days of begging, and agreed to talk to Sanbey about the matter. They were, of course, overjoyed when they heard that they would be allowed to take a contract. In their eagerness, a wish had been more or less secondary, a formality that they could think of no adequate answer for, not after one wish had already been granted. A selfish wish seemed somehow... inappropriate, given the circumstances, and so they had decided.

Mizuki would bring happiness to those around her - after all, wasn't that what this was all about? - while Mitsuko would help others reach their true potential. It wouldn't do, after all, if they were anything short of flawless in their work for such an important cause. And so they-

Oh. Oh dear. This was all going a little too far.

The girl in the orange dress - their latest... friend? Pupil? It was something like that - was bleeding from a few gashes, the few that hadn't been cauterised by burning light. Slashes from... what was Mitsuko using, now? Some sort of wrist-mounted disc launcher. She always found the strangest things. Crying, too, but not from the injuries. Must have been something her sister had said.

"That's enough, I think." Her voice rang out across the training room, gentle but insistent, and the two stopped immediately: One lowering her arm, and the other a plain, unadorned broadsword. It seemed a bit silly, a Vanus helping to teach an Eversor in combat, but that was seniority for you. Practice could make such a great difference, her sister had experience aplenty in combat; if she wasn't being deployed for interrogations, Mitsuko was generally on the front lines.

Or finding someone to fuss over, as was the case here. But then, that was a mutual obsession of theirs, in a way.

"There, there. You both did well. Don't listen to Mitsuko TOO much, now," she cautions with a look towards the Eversor. "She's always been a bit too... well, you know." But not wrong, never wrong, when it came to picking out the flaws of those around her. Some said the sisters' wishes had changed their nature, in some way. How could it have? They were only doing what they could to help people, it was an absurd claim.

She glances across the hall, and smiles as she catches the eye of the third Katayama sister. "No one's too hurt, right? I think we need to stop here for now, then." The Eversor beamed at the praise - it was, for a new recruit, in rather low supply - and gratefully received the bandages offered to her by Mizuki. She would then thank Mitsuko, the elder of the two, as she was showered with a caustic litany, a list of every flaw in her style and reflexes alike that left nothing unexposed. It was her own sort of kindness, Mizuki liked to think. ...Though the other girl's voice was shaking a little, by the end.

The Katayamas made a rather contrasting pair even in appearance. Mitsuko in a yellowish dress that shone with sometimes-blinding golden light and a soul gem to match, offset by blue eyes and flowing purple hair. Mizuki dressed in drab colours topped, in costume, by what amounted to a grey raincoat, and a soul gem once again in the same colour, with warm dark eyes covered over by blonde hair as the sole splash of colour. ...The hair was dyed on both counts, but that could be their little secret. Everyone seemed to take it in stride anyway. Mitsuko was trivial enough to pick out at a distance, while Mizuki had a certain tendency to blend in even mid-conversation. Truth be told, it was how they both liked it.

A pat on the head and some murmured reassurances later, their latest student - for the life of her, Mizuki couldn't remember her name - had calmed down somewhat, ready to proceed. The Callidus was all too happy to prepare and set the stage, though she would never dream of taking it herself. It just wasn't her place. Instead, she pulls out a pair of folding chairs and brings their violin cases over, along with a bottle of water each. It was the little touches that made the difference. Goodness knew all the shouting left Mitsuko's throat dry, if nothing else.

"I can only assume by the noise that you're attempting to strangle a cat," came Mitsuko's dry, even-voiced objection before long. Clearly weary of the company and all that it brought.

"I-is... is it really that bad?" Stammering a little, she really was a nervous one. It must have been the way they were the first to come to her when she joined the Third that made her scramble for approval like this. At least they were here to help, as always.

"I can promise that your music touched my soul," in a voice as dry and cold as a mausoleum. There was that smile again, all the same.


"If only to drag it into hellish, burning misery." She grabbed the Eversor's hand in hers, adjusting its position and moving the bow herself by way of demonstration.

"That... really hurts-"

"Would you play better with a broken hand, I wonder? At least it would be quieter." Oh, there she went again. That was the cue to step in, surely.

"I didn't think it was that bad, Mitsuko." What could be, really? ...Though it certainly wasn't an instrument that took kindly to a lack of skill, she knew that.

"You don't think much at all." The quips never really meant anything between them. Part of the ritual, part of the... well, calling it a show seemed wrong, somehow. Their dynamic, in a way. It helped to make all this come together, anyway.

"Do you really need to be that blunt about it?"

"Always." ...Well, of course.

A while longer, and the lesson comes to a close, amidst comforting words and smothering praise that sends the Eversor scampering back to her quarters with renewed glee and a touch of fear. She would redouble her efforts now that her mistakes had been exposed, no doubt, and Mizuki's encouragement would save her from breaking. ...Not everyone could take it, despite their best efforts, but surely it was for the best. They were only helping others bring out the best in themselves. With each one holding the third Katayama in one hand, they made their way towards their quarters for the night.

"You weren't quite that mean when you were sparring earlier."

"That was a matter of life and death. This is a hobby."

"...So?" She was a hard one to understand, sometimes.

"So it matters to her personally. Holding back would be cruel."

...She was a kind one, in her own way. Not many realised just how much she cared, and that seemed to be how she liked it, but in Mizuki's eyes the Vanus would always be a warm-hearted guide. There just wasn't any other way to look at it. Still, she knew better to press the point, and so they walked into their dormitory together. Spartan furnishings aside a few scattered snacks and books. They lived most of their days away from it, in the company of others, and never bothered to use the room for much more than sleep. Well, sleep and keeping a few essentials, speaking of which...

Setting down her compact mirror, Mizuki watches as it turns from a circle to a square, then grew to a full-sized mirror leaning on one wall. A minor enchantment that she was, to this day, rather grateful for. She simply couldn't bear to go without it, after all, and Mitsuko was no different. It meant the world to them, though so few knew it. The looks they would get were... well, strange indeed. An hour later, when the two were almost asleep, it would start.

An insistent tapping. Knocking. Irregular, sometimes emphatic and at other times half-hearted, a hand against glass. It had become habit, over the years, to look up at the window to spot the source. The lack of a window in their room certainly simplified this part, at least. Instead, with a faint smile to contrast the frown in the bunk above, she looks over at the mirror and smiles to the third of the Katayama sisters. She always had been a loud one.

"Shh, it's late now. I'll talk to you tomorrow, don't worry."

Mercy Killing 3: Daybreak[edit]

The hunt had begun. A Vanus, an Eversor and a Callidus, assembled by midnight, not by choice but forced by circumstance. True, they were fortunate in that the River had produced a vision of her entering this barrier. A mixed blessing at best; it would mean that they had no choice but to assume the vision was both correct and current, and enter immediately, lest they give her a chance to escape.

The dead of night. Hardly an ideal time to search for a hidden enemy, much less in a witch's barrier.

Izuho took point ahead of the Katayamas, examining the witch's sigil through the filter of an ill-fitting pair of night vision goggles. There was no disguising the reason for her presence here, as clear to her as it was to the others. That, then, would explain the sheer concern Harumi had shown when she relayed the mission to them. It was unnecessary, of course. This was the logical choice.

She stood head and shoulders above the Katayamas and appeared a good deal more threatening; it was a safe assumption that she would take a good few more shots than the others if it came to that. In combat, too, she would dispose of familiars more quickly than they could hope to, and with her soul gem hidden within her ever-regenerating body, few could think to threaten her. She was here to protect, then, and to be riddled with claws and bolts in the service of those more valuable than herself. Little more than a human shield.

And that was as well. It would not do if either of the two were hurt.

"I believe we were meant to meet at midnight. Yumishita is running late," Mitsuko quips behind her, prompting a little chuckle from her sister. More than welcome distractions from trying to make sense of this sigil, standing out in the cold night air. A pair of gates, wide open, with a path of thorns both behind and ahead of it. Ringed with words that she could not decipher, that Mitsuko refused to examine for more than a moment. Words radiating a sense of profound anger and disappointment, directed not at herself, but at... at what? The witch herself? Fear, too. Fear without direction, all-pervading, until the witch had created this barrier to shut herself away from the merciless barbs of the world.

It hardly mattered, and they could waste no more time. There was work to be done. Izuho rises to her feet, metal clanking and cloth rustling as the moonlight shines on the patches of scales and reflective carapace that had recently grown around the scars on her arms. A temporary change like so many others, it would pass in time. Motioning for the others to follow, she steps through the portal and into the barrier, with the two joining her a moment later.

The goggles, as it turns out, are entirely unnecessary, even blinding. They stagger dizzily, swaying back and forth in the bright light of the sun that greeted them. Blue skies and shining daylight all around, as far as the eye can see, with not a cloud above. The only blemish, then, is the sun itself. While it graces the world with its gentle warmth, it shows itself as a swollen mass of orange and red, an overgrown flame that bleeds dripping blackened ichor onto the world below. Great droplets of the strange substance, almost reminiscent of crude oil in appearance, slip away from the star's countless gashes and cuts, only to hurtle down and splash against the ground. At least they were nowhere near this... bizarre material.

Memories. Somehow, they all knew, almost instinctively. Collecting little by little on the barrier's ground as they were bled away by... what, exactly?

The answer comes from their surroundings, the same half-idyllic landscape that turns, under further scrutiny, into the face of a nightmare. They stand in the midst of a series of rice paddies with only ankle-length water, while ahead of them, colossal books form a tunnel of sorts, open wide with their spines facing the sky. Houses new and old propped up the gargantuan pages; small apartments of concrete and steel, sprawling thatched-roof farmhouses and stocky brick cottages stand side by side with their doors wide open. They knew better than to even consider entering, of course.

Ahead, towering skyscrapers - not, at a glance, entirely unlike QB Heavy's office buildings, if distorted by heat haze - grasp at the heavens, spires that would have pierced the clouds, had there been any. Somehow, they held the air of a dream too distant to reach, and a dangerous trap all at once.

They were not alone in the barrier. Far from it. They had known that when entering, naturally, but there was more to this place than a witch and a renegade. Every stalk of rice, every rustling page and sturdy brick, every clod of earth underfoot, and the featureless humanoid shadows that flitted to and fro. Each and every one screamed abuse at the heavens, their words daggers of condemnation, with hatred and guilt as the poisons of their choice. At times they were physical words, in that strange and baffling script peculiar to witches. Other times, the fury and loathing was given voice, equally inscrutable, leaving the air riddled with words and the ears filled with an angry din. Each one cut into the witch as it reached her, drawing some of what passed for her blood now.

Most importantly, standing here in the open, they were exposed. The nigh-immediate crossbow bolt landing in one of Izuho's shoulders was proof enough of that, only moments after they had taken in the scene. It didn't hurt, not more than countless other wounds had before it. Practice made perfect, and where that was not true, it at least had the courtesy to create numbness.

"Get under the books!" She shouted, an unusually assertive call to action that rallied the Katayamas immediately. Shadows wrapped around them in defiance of the sun's glare, almost solid, bolts slowing within them as though it were water. Hands of animated mud and earth rise from the ground to meet the Eversor's pleas for their help, otherwise lost to the din, and crumble as they grasp shots only to find themselves unequal to the task.

A harrowing sprint led them below the comforting shelter of bewitched paper. The familiars watch them impassively for now, as though they are mere curiosities that have no place here, a momentary distraction. They were not the objects of the creatures' rage, and so they passed without incident in that regard. Still, curiously, they found themselves weakening, as if withering in the barrier's thin air, taking it in in ragged gasps as they ran. Was this part of Yumishita's powers as well? If so, then it seemed to abate ever so slightly as they found shade under the arcade of books.

"...Don't look," Mizuki cautioned, as her elder sister glanced up towards the pages. That way lay madness. Witches were strange, inhuman creatures, though Harumi - when pressed - had once told them all that they were capable of transforming ordinary, unwitting humans into one of their ranks. How fortunate, then, that they were exempt and needed only to fear a more direct sort of harm. A barrier's words, regardless, were not to be trusted, and no good could come of trying to understand the beasts.

It was their duty to destroy these monsters that could only bring harm to the world. This, the sisters had known since their first days at the Third, and even before then.

The bolt flying through the book, heralded only by the agonised scream of the familiar it pierced, comes as a rude awakening to them all. The Eversor is the first to act, interposing herself between the shot and Mitsuko before grasping it in one hand. She flashes a triumphant smile at the Callidus even through the pain, still managing to take some amount of pride in her work. That shot would not have struck her soul gem, no, but it was the principle of the matter. Her pride is short-lived, however, as she notes the grey-green sphere affixed to the crossbow bolt, and the sharp ticking.

"...Stay back, please." A clenched fist and gritted teeth. Those, alongside the sight of her squadmates scattering from her, are the only courtesies, the only comfort she receives before the end of the countdown.

A second later, the bloody firework consumes her entire right arm, held out from her. The conflagration reduces flesh and bone alike to a mess of gore and smoke. Flecks of white, red and black spattered across the ground, carried by a nauseating stench and lingering embers. The agony was overwhelming, and even she was left bent double from the shock, but only for a moment. She had learned to use her soul gem's power to dull the pain long ago, though she used it sparingly, with how many grief seeds she needed at the best of times. A moment later, her eyes catch sight of Mizuki, looking as though she was about to either vomit or cry, her costume coated with blood and pieces of what had once been Izuho's right arm.

Somehow, her first reaction had been to mumble an apology. An apology for inconveniencing her squadmate with the detonated remnants of her own arm. At least it made the Callidus laugh. That was good enough.

"Can you hide us?" She asked.

"I'm trying already, she shouldn't be able to-"

"She already HAS, obviously," the Vanus snapped. "The roof can't stop her and neither can you. We need to move. Taniguchi, you can walk, right?"

Of course she could. Now running, that would be far more difficult, but when had that stopped her? ...At least her arm was already coming back. As she knew it would. The sickening sounds of regrown, reknitted meat and bone twisting into new shapes was one she could never grow used to, but then, this was never the time to be picky. No time was. It was still raw, the skin left unformed for the moment, and oddly stiff. Was that a tooth she saw on the back of her wrist? ...It would have to do, as long as the arm worked. She had grown used to the constant mutations long ago, overzealous indulgences of a shell housing more life than one body was ever meant to contain.

The cover of shadows does nothing to stem the merciless barrage from above, raining down with uncanny accuracy, some of them resembling steel rebar or a siege engine's payload more than any ordinary crossbow bolt. Even an Eversor's reflexes are not perfect, and eventually the Katayamas sustain some wounds, quickly sealed at the cost of Izuho's own overflowing life, cuts and sores appearing along her skin as she heals them. Fortunately, nothing had struck their soul gems yet, shrunk down to a ring on Mizuki and a necklace for Mitsuko.

"Hold your ground," the Vanus suddenly announces to perplexed stares. "We don't know where she is. I can change that, but I need time. I need to be able to focus. Can you keep me alive for long enough?" A pair of nods meet the demand. What else could they say?

The darkness bubbles up from the ground, joined by mud and stone, creating a dome around them. It might have been a wall, but somehow, despite the constant assault, they could never seem to trace their attacker. Could a Vindicare become invisible as some among the Callidus rank could? There is no time to ponder the question, now. Instead, the barrier creaks and shakes, crumbling little by little with each thunderous, inexplicably jackhammer-like shot that impacts against its shell. Life to protect life, a soothing gloom to shield the innocent from what they need neither see nor feel.

"I have it," the Vanus announces eventually, amidst the ruins of their shelter. A beam of the sun's own light, in accordance with her own affinity, called down to reveal the traitor's position. Standing atop the books, with a scoped crossbow at the ready. Had she been there a moment ago? How could they be so blind, when the sniper hid in plain sight? Still, she was not far away. They would only need to-

Any further thoughts are cut off by one bloodcurdling shriek, then another, hateful wails across the barrier as the familiars that inhabit and compose it see the beam of redirected and channeled sunlight, screaming in absolute fury. Their quarry, the object of their loathing had been found, tainted, corrupted by the touch of those who had not yet lost themselves. This would not stand. They had not yet crushed the sun and bled it dry, not yet made it weep its last tears of pitch for its sins. These outsiders would not be allowed to steal their prisoner away.

Somewhere, Mitsuko had said something, coughing up tar-like liquid and staring with bloodshot eyes as if she had seen the unspeakable. Her words are lost in the din, one cry among many that do not reach the Eversor, as she pulls out the remnants of a rusted broadsword from her own leg, a handle of bone and bleeding flesh forming where the blade ended. In the same motion, she hurls it at the distant Vindicare, looking for only long enough to confirm that she has hit her mark, just barely. A dodge, in a technical sense, but a scrap of cloth had fallen to the ground. That was all they would need to scry on her later. Already, Yumishita was departing, but that was not their concern.

With another barked order - her usual timidity, she knew, had no place here when leading a pair relatively unaccustomed to the front lines - she sends the Katayamas scrambling to retrieve the scrap, while Mizuki's illusions obscure them from the horde of familiars. She could feel the heat growing, the same draining sensation that sapped her energy growing ever stronger, almost crippling as she struggles to avoid falling to her knees. The familiars surge in from every direction, looking as though the entire barrier is collapsing to strike her down. With a gasp of effort, she extends the weapons buried within her - the souvenirs of countless past battles - from her own skin, in an excruciating bladed carapace that cut her foes simply by striding through them, a monstrosity of misshapen flesh and old steel.

How many had she killed?

How many times had she been struck down, her body torn limb from limb only to grow back?

How much of her strength had left her, in gasps and whimpers, as broken iron and spirit proved too weak to hold off the hordes?

How many bodies did she stand atop, by the end, and how many more circled her as her squadmates made their reluctant escape?

It didn't matter. None of it seemed to matter at all, by then. In the end, she welcomed the witch, and took her hand willingly, floating up into the air.

The sun. Of course. It was so obvious, now; the radiance that had siphoned away their strength throughout their stay in the barrier. Was that a face she could make out in the flame's lacerated, bleeding depths? It had to be real, like the hand of magic and smoldering gas that gripped her own, terribly weak one. They floated higher and higher, but it must have been nothing. Breathing seemed a distant, pointless luxury now. Surely she would make do without. The witch wished only for company, someone who would stand by her side against the ruthless familiars. Who was she to deny that?

The witch was darkening, at long last. Shrinking, as the soft eyes within the inferno - the same grip that burned her skin away and turned her to ash, ever so slowly and gently - dimmed to nothing. ...A sun could only take so much before buckling. Collapsing under the weight it had shouldered, becoming crushed by those who would heap intolerably heavy condemnations upon it. Even a witch - a monster that knew hunger in the place of remorse and cruelty in the place of compassion - could not shoulder this blame. It could only survive by becoming something else. Darker, smaller, gathering the entire world around itself in the hope that even one part of it could cling to her and provide some small measure of comfort.

So this was how it ended, then. The invulnerable juggernaut of the Third, embraced by the heart of the sun that would soon be reduced to a single black point.

"What's your name?"

It must have been human, once. She almost felt as though she had seen the face, once upon a time. Who was she? What was her life like? The world would never know, now. A story fated to end in a place set apart from the world of all that was right and good. A tale spun to its last in a nightmare beside reality. She could not read the sigils, but she heard the witch's murmur, the whisper of a desperate furnace, and she smiled.

"...It's a good name."

Little by little, she burned away. It didn't matter, the body could be replaced. Instead, she grips the miniature sun in both arms, and stares into the molten eyes.

"...Don't worry, it's going to be okay. This won't hurt for much longer."

She reached in, through excruciating heat that could not hope to pierce the dream-like haze she found herself in. The baying of the familiars below seemed so distant and quiet now, so terribly meaningless. Flames wrap around her, and eventually, her hand of seared bone finds purchase on... something, deep within the sun. Was it a heart? It must be. As close as such a broken, pitiful beast could come to having one. And to think she had always been taught that witches were heartless. She squeezed, of course, as hard as her broken, skeletal claw of a hand could. Crushed it between her fingers. What else could she have done? The fires dimmed, the world drained of colour, and the face faded away with her vision.

"I'm sorry."

When they found her in the morning, collapsed in the street beside the grief seed she had refused to use, she would only say that the witch had thanked her, and refuse to speak further of that day.

So ended the hunt.

Human Resources 6: Croesus at Delphi[edit]

Too...Too early for it to be morning. Feel like taking it up with the sun, see if I can talk it out of this. ...Bet there's some kind of sparkler who can pull it off. Not one of ours, though. Walking into work feeling half dead, but at least I'm in good company for that, around here.

Sometimes I think I'm not quite cut out for this kind of work. I mean, take yesterday's order, for one. Picked out a squad of three to go and walk into a barrier. Pretty much some teenager's personal hell with, near as I can tell, a little helping hand from her best friend Salvador Dali. Send them in to kill every little monster that gets in their way, and bring back a piece of an apparently-invisible magical sniper who's been spending her days shooting out every soul gem she can find. All this so we can send out another force to hunt down and kill her. That's me, calling a hit. I even sent someone with the Katayamas pretty much just so she could be a human shield.

Goes past that, too. I've got a little army of... well, pretty much super soldiers here, not to mention all the other resources an officio comes with. Most of them would follow me to hell and back again, and if the mood took me, I'd just have to click my fingers to make someone disappear. Sure, I don't run the show; that honour goes to the weird little alien who runs every other decision by me first. It adds up to a lot, is what I'm getting at here.

I don't know, I guess I just feel like I should've gone mad with power somewhere back there. Maybe even just a little cackle. Never really registered, though, or mattered to me all that much. I guess I don't really care as long as I've got a stage.

Taniguchi's in the hospital wing, no surprise there. Just like you'd expect after she got ripped apart a bunch of times in one night and, from what I heard, hugged the sun or something. Of course, knowing her, she's not lying in bed or anything; no, give her a couple minutes plus a shower of grief seeds and she'll shake it right off. Rather, she's here to treat all those banged up sparklers who don't just grow right back, same as usual.

Girl scares me a bit, to be honest. I mean, look at her. Stands head and shoulders over me, some kind of huge overgrown mess. Patches of scales and... shell, I think, all over her. I've seen what she can do if she doesn't keep her power in line. Everything's suddenly got a life of its own, flying around like it can't get away fast enough. Saw her turn someone into... something like a big blob of meat, once. Didn't die for hours, I heard. Couldn't. Too full of life, anything that died kept regenerating. Yeah, sure, feed me the whole 'gentle giant' story all you like while she walks around the hospital. She still frightens me.

And here she is, just moping around all day. Looked at a witch and thought a little too much about what she was seeing, or something like that. Honestly, I've seen entire forests less green than her. I've never been inside a barrier, and even I know you don't go out of your way to empathise with the murderous ball of despair you're there to kill off. Just don't, or you'll end up like this, assuming you even live. This is basic stuff, I don't know how she'd miss out on it: Go in, put a witch six feet under and leave. It's not that complicated, and given that I'm in a building full of crazy magical murderers, you'd think I can trust them to act the part and go kill something.

But no, she has to think about it too hard and act all depressed the next day. If you want something done right... well, no, I'm not going there.

Ended up giving her a long hug as soon as I get there, telling her I heard all about what she did, what she went through. Was a nice surprise when I came away with all my ribs in one piece. Told her it was alright, she did what she could. No need to worry, now. Anyone would be upset after what she went through.

"...You don't have to do this, you know. I can ask Sanbey to give you a bit of time to rest, if you like. No more missions for a while, and you won't need to do your rounds here either-" Didn't quite catch what she was saying over all the stammering, but she couldn't cut me off fast enough, the moment I bundled it up with taking all the weight of her hospital trips off her shoulders. Nothing if not predictable, I'll say that. Stupid offer, and I knew it; she needs her visits here as much as her patients do, if only for a regular vent for her power, same reason I catch her shooting herself once every few hours, that sort of thing. Doesn't matter, though. All she sees is that I did my best - that I'd go well out of my way for her - and that's all it takes to get her to perk right up, at least for now.

Gets her to volunteer for whatever's coming next, too, so that's a plus.

Mizuki's right there, too; should've guessed, but she's the sort that tries to hide unless someone needs her. Usually pairing up with her sister, who's missing right now. Something about getting worked up over not being able to do enough back in that barrier, and heading off to practice. Bit of a mixed bag, these two; real big mistake of mine, if I'm being honest. They pick some new kid and settle on her, with Mitsuko being about as blunt and harsh as you please when it comes to everything their new pet project's doing wrong. All prickly and full of insults. Once they're broken down, Mizuki steps in with the spoonful of sugar, so to speak. Pull them up again and put them back together. Rinse and repeat until their latest subject's perfect and, surprising no one, a complete wreck who just about lives for their approval.

Good news is, they're great for training, and they net us a lot of witches. Bad news? They net us a lot of witches. Really, it's all down to timing; far as Mitsuko's concerned, she hasn't trained anyone well enough yet, with the way they keep dying to witches eventually. At least, they think all these other magical girls die to witches; can't go telling them about any transformations.

Never could figure out if they mean to do any of this.

I put a hand on her shoulder, and make a pretty good effort with the giant next to me, and tell them first how glad I am to see them back in one piece - not that it's a surprise, of course, I know they can handle themselves - and how well they did, all the people they've saved by bringing us one step closer. Gets them beaming from all the praise, knowing that at the end of the day, whatever they went through and might think about it all, it was a job well done.

"You two must be starving," I announce after a bit of back and forth, concerned with just a bit of disapproval for not looking after themselves. "Why don't I make something for you both? And don't forget to call Mitsuko, too. I'll meet you downstairs!" Looks like that was a nice surprise for both of them, they're pretty much all over anything I'd make.

Funny story about that, actually. I'd never bother cooking anything for myself - either it's cereal, or I dial a number and delivery food comes out - but I'd say I make some pretty fantastic food if I want to. It's a prop, really. No, I can't be bothered, but it's part of the image. Harumi Ryouno of the third-from-the-left apartment complex isn't having any of that, but Harumi Ryouno, guardian angel of the Third Officio? Well, yeah, you can bet she walks in with a basket of cookies for the hardest-working magical girls now and then, and probably flies in on an umbrella while singing about something or the other.

Today, it's pancakes, since that seems to be everyone's favourite. Worked out a recipe for that one a while ago, and people just about go crazy over it, so I've kept it a sort of joking secret ever since. Maybe I'll tell someone or the other how to make it, one of these days.


Takes a while, but eventually, when all that's over with, I swing by towards the River of Tales. Still not quite used to it. They got a scrap of her costume last night, apparently, from a sword Taniguchi threw. Chucking a sword? Really? Even I know that's not something that works. Maybe it stops being a problem once you've got enough soul-charged freak strength behind the throw? I don't really care, but I guess it's good to know at least one of the Eversors here is good enough to fake whatever she wants even if she somehow has less of a clue about fighting than I do.

The piece of cloth's been delivered way before I woke up, so that's a bit of a head start right there. Pretty late at night, from what the text I got tells me - still weirds me out that Sanbey can type those - but it's not like Hitomi sleeps all that much, so she got around to it pretty quick. Always liked scrying over sifting through the river; something about how focusing tends to keep her visions to things she doesn't mind seeing much.

She's sitting there by the River, same as always, with a half-finished bag of chips on the ground next to her. Turns as white as a sheet - the fresh, clean kind that no one's slept on or spilled stuff on, like you get in similes and pretty much nowhere else - the moment she sees me. Tries to play it off like it's nothing a second later, and really, that's probably what it is. She does this now and then, and I guess the whole seen-a-ghost look is something everyone learns to expect from an oracle eventually. I can ask her about it later.

"I've been looking at the cloth," she starts out before I even settle in, eager to tell me everything she can. "I can't seem to focus on her for long, and she moves too much. I've talked to Penny, though, and I think we came up with something."

Always 'Penny', even for someone who's as formal as Hitomi. Not 'Penelope' or 'Miss Baines' or anything like that. She'll correct you once, and then there's hell to pay past that if you get it wrong.

"If we tie it to a compass and a little display screen - I think she said she took it from a calculator - we'll have a machine anyone can carry around that points to her all the time, and even gives the distance. It's... not perfect, but it should be more or less right."

"That's good, but... you know we don't have to glue bits of salvage together, right? You can use anything you need." A small, nervous laugh then, like she doesn't really get it either.

"She said this was more fun. I wasn't going to argue." ...Yeah, fair enough. She gets that way. All this peerless alien technology at her disposal, and nine times out of ten, she'd rather work with whatever she can dig out of a landfill. Venenums, haven't found a sane one yet. Guess that's pretty typical for most ranks, though.

Gotta hand it to her, though, this is a pretty neat trick.

"Thank you, Hitomi; we're all very lucky that you're here to help us. ...I think you need to rest now, though. You've been at this all night, haven't you?" A little nod, like this is nothing, and maybe that's true for sparkles. I wouldn't know. Looks a bit embarrassed about the whole thing, somehow. Doesn't surprise me, though. She told me before that she didn't really care for sleeping if she could help it. Something about one prophetic dream too many.

"Just... try to relax for now. I don't want you to push yourself too hard." She's not easy to replace, after all. Better to have her slacking on company time than witching out early. "Here," I add, showing her some of what I packed from the batch I made earlier, "I kept some for you."

"Aren't you having any?"

"Oh, I already ate. If there's any left, I'll just take it to Sanbey."

"He eats?"

"No, no," I tell her with a practiced little giggle. "He always says something about how he doesn't need a 'vice' like this, so then I have it instead. I'm a Callidus, I can get away with having a bit more than I should."

"Every time? Then wouldn't it be quicker to just-"

"Oh, let me have my fun. I get to see him flustered over the silliest things, wouldn't you do it if you could?"

'Course she would. Who doesn't want to see a bit of panicked rabbit moralising? Oh, sure, he tries to sound all serious, but the little guy looks ridiculous the whole way. We have a good laugh over that and a couple other things for a while.

Once it's all over and done with, that's when she flips like some kind of switch. Doesn't even say a word, just looks at the river, and before you know it she's sobbing against my shoulder, hanging onto it like she expects it to... I don't know. Come right off and fly her off to Disneyland, maybe.

Yeah, sure, this is what I needed in my life. More hysterical teenagers. Well, nothing for it, better calm her down.

Not hard to guess why, either, and I do pretty much have to guess with how few words I'm getting out of her. She's lost a couple friends to Yumishita, same as anyone. Difference here is that she gets to see it over and over while she's digging around in the river for a trail. You look for a story, and you get all the bits you'd rather forget, too.

Gave her a little pat on the back, told her it's okay to cry, not that she was exactly waiting for my permission. There, there. It'll be alright.

"I know it hurts, but... it's going to be okay now, Hitomi. We can stop this. She won't have a chance to do this to any of us again."

"It's not... not just that," she manages eventually, sounding like she's about to choke. "I saw something in the River." Well duh, that's how half your problems start. I don't know how I'm supposed to sound surprised by that.

"What was it?"

"I saw... I think I saw you dying, Miss Ry- Harumi."

Oh, well, is that all? I thought it was something serious. ...No, really. She sees this stuff for all sorts of people, all the time. Not the first for me either, though it's only happened about twice before. You get used to it; must be what had her looking so scared earlier. She acts like the world's ending every time, though, so it's usually a good idea to hear her out. Still, at the end of the day, that's just how it works. The River's not the most reliable thing out there, and the future can change - in other words, the reason it's worth having her on the payroll at all is the same reason you need to take everything she says with a grain of salt.

"Don't worry so much, I'll be okay. What did you see, though?"

"There was a witch," she tells me, going into the same sort of droning monotone she slides towards whenever she's going over one of her visions. "You were trapped in its barrier, I think." Oh, that's rich. Me! In a witch's barrier! When all's said and done, she doesn't even know me. She thinks I'm a Callidus, and that's going to mix up anything she sees, I'll bet. Of course, I'm dead serious while she's talking, all the same. Got to play along.

"Sanbey was there." Sanbey in a barrier? Really? "And he was... holding a pistol, I think, or at least trying to." Haven't had to try that hard to stop myself from laughing in... oh, a while. Come on, this is ridiculous; the look on her face tells me that even she thinks it's pretty weird, but she's still scared. Now personally, I would've thought this would be a nice break, getting something this goofy out of the river, but apparently not. Maybe it's some... symbolic thing? I 'died' to work with Sanbey, and we went off to stop - or sometimes make - witches? Does the River even do metaphors? I'm trying to give this at least a little credit, but it's hard.

I'm not sure what she expects, but I feel like I'm supposed to start dropping coins in a bowl to make her put the crystal ball away or something.

"I'm sure I'll be fine, Hitomi, but I'll do my best to stay away from any barriers for a while. Does that help?" She looks a bit less panicky then, and gives me a little nod. Easiest promise of my life. She looks up at me like she's got something else to say, though it takes her a good while. Guess it's no wonder she's scared; lost enough people already, lately. Probably thinks it's her fault, too. You'd think they'd learn to stop jumping over every little death, with how often it comes up in this line of work. Probably going to take her a while longer to get there, at this rate.

"Please, promise me something," she asks eventually. Never heard her sounding quite that desperate before. "Promise me you're here to stay." Heard that one more times than I can count, and you know what? I stuck with it. I smile and nod at her, stopping just short of telling her I'll probably be here longer than she ever will, just like with most of the others who asked what she did. ...Veteran Callidus, after all. Just that good. Can't believe they still buy it, sometimes.


She cheers up a bit after that, and I stay around until she's calmed down. Feels nice, actually, getting her to lighten up like that. Nothing sappy, don't get me wrong - I'm not going to get all mushy over this - just the pride of a job well done. Same as any other time I pull the wool over someone's eyes.

Not that I'm planning on dying, so that one's all true. I mean, "don't get shot by Sanbey in a barrier" is just about the easiest request I've had before. Just the sort of thing you need to do to keep someone like this from coming apart.

Funny, really. She'll never know she was trying to see a stranger's future.

Mercy Killing 4: Mea Maxima Culpa[edit]

I am Shimizu Yumishita, formerly of the Third. Traitor, outcast, fugitive, murderer, soulless. I am all of these, yet with the witch of this godforsaken barrier as my sole witness, I swear that I am innocent.

A funeral march rolls past for the thousandth time, to the crackling of a thunderstorm and the cries of distant familiars, styling themselves after banshees, and carrion birds turned mourners. The witch lies within the coffin, A nameless tombstone with the face of a young girl, staring out at the sprawling night sky of her barrier with lidless eyes. The bearers sing a song in their unfathomable language, making endless rounds with no destination in site, a march for the sake of marching. One among their numbers glances my way, with a face that is nothing more than a writhing mass of earthworms, its wriggling arms giving way to a pair of stiff, dead rats in place of hands, a lily planted in and growing from each of their skulls.

It pays me no mind, and resumes its journey once more, as I knew it would. I pluck a white lily from the ground and place it in the casket, only to be met with a smile from the witch herself; one that leaves me resisting an immediate compulsion to join the procession.

These familiars are not alone. Vultures circle far above, whether for the witch or myself, I can hardly tell. Curious beasts of shadow and earth, held together by only the barest features of the birds they emulate. Some flesh and bone clings to the muddied darkness, however, and in my time here I have come to learn that they are approximately edible if shot down. I choose not to dwell on any effects this may have, as long as it sustains me. Here I will wait, until the time comes to leave my retreat and strike again to free another soul.

...Her name was Atsuko. Atsuko Yumishita. My late, older sister. I would say that she was the catalyst to these events, but I know well enough that ultimately, I was the cause of her fate and my own.

I still remember the announcement from three years past. Leukemia. Untreatable, as we soon discovered. I would have a year or two, at best. I will not say that I broke down at the time, that I felt any sense of loss or grief over it all. The entire experience was a dream-like one, some fevered vision that I would no doubt wake from soon enough. It never seemed real enough to merit any reaction until it was gone. Half a year later, I was saved.

Atsuko had taken a contract with the incubator of the Third. I knew nothing of it, of course. She told me... she told me it was a miracle. I would later learn that she had wished her way into the Venenum rank. Wished not to cure my illness, but in her kindness, to provide salvation for all who fell in her presence, demanding only that the incubator make her able to heal any wound, cure any sickness. It would require her constant care, but she did not begrudge that for a moment, tending to me night and day. For a time, I was the very picture of health, at the low price of her soul.

I realised so little then.

I confess, I... barely knew anything of the circumstances behind this miracle. Of what her life had become, and the trials she faced daily. What Atsuko herself had become, growing somehow less familiar by the day, as kind and caring as she might remain. I saw no signs, found no omens, and to this day I cannot say what led her to her final fate. It may have been her willingness to mend what was broken that drained her of her own soul. Her own spirit.

I was there, the day she fell. I saw her in our home, becoming a witch before my eyes. I was there when the creature that wore her face - that helpless victim of the incubator's sins - tore apart the home we had lived out our lives in, and spread its pestilence everywhere, as the skin of our family and neighbours sloughed off their skin. I met her broken, hopeless stare as the barrier spread, and she reached towards me to snuff my life out.

A gas leak, they would say later. That was all that her death would mean to the world.

It was a Culexus who saved my life, one Megumi Minakata. The one who thought my own sister a monster like any other, never recognising her as anything but - ironically enough - Atsuko's killer. The one who dealt the killing blow. I cannot, and will not fault her for that; she could not have known, and I realise that now. I told her who the witch had been, at the time, while barely understanding the world they came from. She dismissed it immediately, thinking me delirious from the encounter, and promised that she would tell no one of my delusions. I never spoke of it again, after that event.

With my own health failing, it was not long before the visit came from the incubator, that inhuman tempter who had swindled so many souls away. I did not know his nature - his life's work - at the time, but I remembered what his last miracle had yielded, and bided my time, asking for time to consider my offer. I hid as best I could, spied upon the Third, and was fortunate enough - it was luck, in the end, and not skill that saw me through to this - to learn some scraps of information. Not the full picture, but quite enough. He and his kind harvested the souls, the hope and despair of countless humans. Turned them into enchanted servants fated to become abominations. All the while, he told them nothing. Not a word of what they had become in his service.

I do not know what his ends are in doing this. It scarcely matters; nothing could excuse such deeds.

Armed with knowledge, I went to him personally and all but begged for a contract. He was all too pleased to grant one, barely remembering who I was; the Officio at large seemed to have forgotten both myself and, to a degree, even Atsuko. Thus, I joined their ranks. I wished to be able to seek out and hunt down my enemies without fail, and to evade them at every turn. The deceiver was as blind as those he led - he must have seen many a wish used as a tool of vengeance - and granted my request, never knowing who my enemies were. Perhaps it never crossed his mind that I would know his secrets, or take him to task for it.

Thus far, the wish has served me admirably.

At the end of my training, I sought out the Third Incubator himself, and shot him on the spot; my weapon took on the form of an arbalest, firing several bolts through the creature and barely leaving a scrap of the body behind. That was when I learned the futility of attacking him. The counterattack from the Officio's blind servants began not long after, and I was forced to retreat, seeking shelter from the barriers of witches as I do now, made oblivious by my powers.

What a strange world I have come to inhabit, where somehow, I can only trust witches to protect me until I destroy them.

When I saw how little I had accomplished, it dawned on me that I could take only one path. I would whittle down the numbers of the Third one by one. Destroy their soul gems and free them from their fate to come, their inevitable transformation. Each and every one would be a mercy killing, the most that can possibly be done for them after all they have endured, though I do not expect this to wipe away the blood on my hands.

In time, with his guards wiped away, I will be able to set my sights once more on the beast himself, and find some method to destroy him permanently. Surely, if there is any justice in this world, there must be a way. My sickness eats away at my body, but for now the power of the soul gem keeps it at bay. I will not fall as the others did. To become a witch is to lose hope; I will not rest until either I have fallen or the incubators have, beginning with the Third. Their fate is not mine. Such is my duty. My purpose. I cannot pretend that this is what anyone would have demanded, nor will I claim that it absolves the very deeds carried out for it. I will say only that I do what I must.

...When she hears the end of my tale, the tombstone witch gives off another weak smile, oblivious and uncomprehending. With nothing else to do, I join the ranks of her wailing mourners unseen, ears ringing as I help to carry her casket on another pointless loop. I suspect I will miss her silent company, somehow, when the time comes to end her.

Human Resources 7: Make A Wish[edit]

Someone, somewhere would think I'm being paranoid for this. I know I did.

First visit of the day is to a magical girl most of the Third has met, and very few even recognise. Oh, they see her often enough, and they've heard the name, but they never put it together. No surprises there; she's one of those that wished to disappear. Not all that unusual when they start out broken enough, but she handled it better than most. Been with us a good few years, now.

Up the stairs, left turn, and... there she is. Wouldn't even notice her if I wasn't listening for the squeak of the mop and her usual humming. Turns out I already passed her by, and she's a little way behind me. Never could get the hang of that, even with as long as she's been around. I've heard that unofficially, recognising her for who she is makes up one of the first tests for Callidus promotion. Wouldn't surprise me.

Aoi Katsuragi, Callidus rank leader, or the janitor to most. Costume doesn't help any with the second part of that. Mind you, I only know she's the rank leader because I manage the right things around here. She leaves all the paperwork to an aide or something - Suzume, I think her name was - and just hovers around the building when she's not on some mission, either training a Callidus she picked out or polishing her act.

Most of the ones that recognise her still aren't quite sure what to call her, and apparently Suzume's been called rank leader a couple times at this point. Aoi told me before that no one knowing quite where to place her suited her fine. I can see that; my spot in the officio is a bit vague too, and I like it that way. Everyone feels like I'm not too high up, so they can still talk to me, but I've got a few steps over them in their head - even with rank leaders - when it matters. Works for me. Aoi, at least, seems to get a laugh out of all the times when no one notices her, come to that.

"Ah! I didn't see you there, at first. Good morning, Miss Katsuragi." It's an odd mix, with her. Bit of formality never hurt any, as long as she doesn't have to be part of it. At the same time, telling her I never noticed her is somehow a compliment.

"Need something?" Manages to talk out one end of her mouth while humming, not quite sure how she does it. Hard to make out over whatever jazz tune she's got leaking out of her earbuds. She's got an oddly deep voice, and sort of rich, like a banker dropped into a lake. The sort of voice you might like to have narrating a film, or... even reading a phonebook, I guess. She could probably get away with a lot. Came as a bit of a shock the first time, if only because she's about the most nondescript person you can imagine otherwise. Never figured out how much of that was a Callidus disguise.

"Just a little. I need you to check on Hitomi by the River. Keep an eye on her over the next few days, maybe the next week or two." She means well, sure, but if she gets to snooping around in my timeline like she did before... well, she might notice I'm a little more normal than I'm supposed to be. Could be a problem.

"She would tell you anything she finds as it is." Well, sure, but this sort of thing would throw the whole deal out the window, and I can't very well tell Aoi that, either.

"Not if she thinks it would upset anyone without helping them. ...Sanbey thinks there might be a witch tainting the river, hurting anyone who looks into it. We're not sure yet, but if you could watch for her reactions, make sure you're there if something happens, that would help a lot."

Short pause. More for effect than thinking it over, I think. Leaning on her mop and wiping the floor absent-mindedly while she changes tracks. ...It's sort of nice, knowing that someone here looks a bit more normal, like I do. Kind of tallish, with olive eyes and faintly greying - not that I know why - brown hair. Nothing crazy, like she had some sort of accident in a paint factory growing up. She works her usual magic without even meaning to, and by the time she speaks up, I've already forgotten she was there and started wondering what I'm doing in this corridor.

Wonder if I can figure out where she keeps her soul gem, one of these days. Sure doesn't show.

"Loitering there can't hurt. Anything else?" Well, since she mentions it... might be useful to know if a Callidus can mask their future or past. Would make a good excuse if everything looks ordinary, not that I tell her that. She knows more about being a Callidus than I do, so it can't hurt to ask her. She thinks about it for a bit, then shakes her head.

"Never heard of any magical girl that can affect time. Probably can't be done. Why?" Oh, you know. Just curiosity, really. I once learned most of the witch language over a weekend because I had nothing better to do, it's not that strange if I wonder about these things sometimes. She buys it right away, and excuses herself, heading downstairs.

Rest of the day's plain enough, until night. I'd look into staying here less late, if I had anything else to do.


Sometimes I feel like I'm running some kind of confessional here. All I'm missing is the little screen I sit behind while everyone tells me what they've done wrong, and I tell them it's going to be alright. That's fine, not really what I do best, but it's part of my job here. I did a pretty good job, I think, of keeping all the magical girls here in one piece for as long as they need to be. Taking the weight off people's shoulders when they come to me, until...

He thought I didn't see him staring out the window. Hard to notice when he zones out and stops doing much of anything for ten, fifteen minutes. More so when the typing from his side of the office is the only other sound here, at this hour. It's getting worse. I mean, I know it is, he knows it too. Pretty much told me that. Or... better? At least, if you're not an incubator. I don't know. Can't even tell if I should say something.

...This really isn't what I'm here for. I didn't sign up for alien psychology.

"Something on your mind, Peter?"

Worst part is, it really isn't what I'm here for. This isn't my job, this isn't even anything close to my job. Just looking out for a friend. Scares us both, I think, when we think of it that way.

"You homesick or something? Missing... I don't know. Whatever space rock you came from?"

I asked him what it was called, once. Told me it wasn't in any language I could understand, and it's more of a designation anyway. He said the others might have different names for it by now, but he just called it home. For all of them. Guess I shouldn't have expected any imagination from him of all people. Thought so until he told me a story the other day, anyway.

"If I could, would it still be my home?"

...I'm not cut out for all this philosophy stuff, I'm really not.

"What is it, then?" I asked him, just about giving up.

"I catch myself hoping, at times. Wishing that I had what they did."

"World-class officio? Good report to send home?" Seems pretty reasonable to me. Let's face it, the Third wasn't the best of the pack or anything.

"Peace. They've lost their minds, of course. I can see that much, but it seems to give them a sort of... calm. A weight off their backs. I suppose that must sound strange to you." No, not really. One of the more normal things I've heard from him. He's worrying over nothing; didn't think he was the type for that.

"Basic envy. It's not... well, maybe it's a bit strange, but it happens anyway. Normal part of being human, or something like that."

Realised what I said after he already heard it. He looked like I might as well have stabbed him. ...Well, no, I've seen him get shot. He took it better than this. Should have thought about this. Shouldn't have- no, no, no. He's not like me, not like anyone else. He's a damn near emotionless alien, I'm not about to get worked up over hurting whatever feelings he doesn't even have, that's ridiculous. Makes me think, though. All those stories where a machine learns to be human or whatever - modern-day Pinocchio, I guess - and it either can't start partying soon enough, or wants us all dead. Feels a bit silly, looking at the real deal here.

"What makes you so sure you're losing your touch, anyway?" Yeah, maybe I can tell. Maybe it's just empty reassurance. Thought it might work, all the same.

"I am sure of it. That is all the proof I need." ...Huh. Expected a little more sense from him than that.

"Alright, fine, but why are you-"

"You misunderstand. There should be no 'I', yet I am certain of it."

...Ah. Whole can of worms there, again. I mean, if he's not really supposed to exist, if there isn't supposed to even be a Sanbey as much as some sort of piece you can't tell apart from the rest... where do you even go from there? No 'I'? How can anyone fix that? They pick up our ideas, try to learn so they can work with us better, realise that they're changing, and they...

They go mad.

That explains a thing or two. Guess you have to make the best of it, eventually.

"Is it really that serious? Not being able to go back, I mean. It's not that bad here for you, is it? You've got a pretty good thing going." Have to try. If it was that bad on Earth, would we have lasted this long?

"Miss Ryouno, I came here, once upon a time, to save the universe from its inevitable end. In exchange, I granted the wishes of any who would ask, because even for a cause such as this, we thought some compensation would be needed. Do you know what happened next?"

"You got yourself a nice little empire, far as I can see." There's no denying it, is there? They got a lot out of this.

"This world and its people taught me the concept of a family, then tore it away from me. It stole my home from me. It broke the hearts and minds of my brothers, and some day I will follow them. We granted your every wish, and in return you destroyed us. Equal and opposite reactions: Your hope, at length, cost us our own once we were capable of it. Do you understand what this planet means to me?"

...I don't even know what to say to that.

We broke them. It doesn't seem fair to say it that way, with everything they've done, but he's not wrong. Welcome to Earth; we break our demons until there's nothing left of them.

"...So you're angry, then. After all this."

"No. As far as I have come - as far as I have fallen - I'm afraid I don't have it in myself to do that."

Would be nice if he did. For both of us.

"Instead," he says after a minute, "I find myself frightened for the first time."

"Scared?" I didn't think he was the type. Angry, maybe, but... not this. Didn't help any that he looked and sounded the same as ever.

"'If you're ever ready to sacrifice yourself for the universe', was it? We thought we were ready, each and every one of us. Of course we did. How can there be any notion of sacrifice when there is no sense of self? We came here to save the universe. Is it so strange to feel fear when the entire world's fate rests on one's collective shoulders? It was our duty, our responsibility; is fear not the natural reaction when I find my brothers losing sight of their goal, busying themselves with the prizes of Earth, forgetting their home as they go mad? How can I not be frightened when I can feel myself losing my mind?"

...Think I actually heard him raising his voice a bit, by the end. Can't tell if I should be worried, scared or proud. End up not saying anything. Just doesn't seem like the place for it.

"Do you realise what the strangest part of this whole process - the cycles it has made - is, in the end? We chose this. All of us, incubator and human alike." Quiet again, for a minute. "...Miss Ryouno, I believe it's time for you to retire for the night."

Don't know what came over me. Scooped him up and carried him up. Didn't quite catch what he said along the way; didn't really plan on listening while I carried him off, either. "May as well come with me, then," I told him. "Try sulking again when you've got a couple more years of practice to put behind it, I'm not putting up with it before then."

Sometimes I wonder just what I'm doing with my life.

Pearly Gates 1: Rise And Shine[edit]

The trees towered in front of her, clawing their way towards an alien sky. All spikes, thorns and sharpened branches, a humanoid silhouette suspended from every single one, perfectly still, almost serene. Somewhere, the soft calls of a songbird filter through the canopy and the cool air. She casts her eyes left and right, searching for someone else, some sign of life in this expanse, only to notice the shadow above her a moment too late. The screech comes first, before the talons. Trying to back away, she finds herself pinned, held down by some unseen weight. The shadow hurtles towards her, seconds away from-

Ah, of course.

Dreams. What a pain.

Megumi Minakata claws her way back into the waking world with a stream of sleepily muttered oaths, rising just quickly enough to hit her head on the bottom of the bed above. Every time. Really, it wasn't the pain so much as the way it almost made not being able to remove her helmet seem like a good idea. Embarrassing, that's what it was.

...Right. No wonder she couldn't move. Too late to take back any of what she said a moment ago; hopefully none of it was heard, at least. Had to show a little restraint somewhere, she was a bad enough influence as it was.

"Hey, sprout," she says, poking at the diminutive sleeping Eversor - currently draped over her legs - with a gloved hand. ...Hah. Sleeping like a log. Well, it wasn't too far off. "Can't feel my legs. ...What're you doing here, anyway?" Ought to have been on the top bunk, not that she couldn't hazard a guess or two.

Kaede Morimoto, the 'druid of the Third'. Well, sort of. Mostly, they were taking bets on how long it would take for her to catch onto the joke and realise they didn't even use code names. ...Probably a while. Seemed to be pretty attached to her, for whatever reason; enough for Harumi to suggest they share their dorm. In other words, babysitting duty for the foreseeable future. Not that the company was all bad; if anyone was getting the short end of the stick here - as she had said a few times before - it was Kaede.

She was... what, eleven or something? Hard to remember. Enough to make her feel old, anyway, and not exactly the right age to be stuck in the perpetual company of a cursed misery magnet. Still, she seemed happy enough.

"Huh? Cordy?" First time someone called her that, they ended up thrown down the corridor. ...Into the hospital wing, admittedly. Let it never be said that she was inconsiderate. Later down the line, here she was, just handing the name to Kaede when they first met. Seemed easier to remember. No one called her much else these days anyway.

Of all the nicknames out there, it had to be some kind of freakish parasite mushroom. Figures. Would be better if it at least had the decency not to fit so well.

"Rise and shine, now. ...Quickly, if you can. Any longer and I'm pretty sure I'll just have to lose everything down from the knee."

"But I'm not THAT-"

"I'm a delicate little flower before I have my coffee, okay? What dragged you down here?"

"...I had a nightmare." Of course. Couldn't fault her for having more than her fair share of those. And then the expectant stare.

"What're you waiting for?"

"You're supposed to say something like 'we're all living one', all dark and mysterious and-"

...Well, she wasn't entirely off the mark, but this wasn't the time or place to complain about strange dreams. Had to get a tolerance for it eventually, anyway, with all that she walked into while she was awake. Keep it in her little notebook, sooner or later, if it was anything particularly spectacular.

Like that time her dog caught fire. Honestly, witch's death-curse or not, there was no need to get anyone else caught up in the constant misery parade, that was just rude. Taught her a valuable lesson about pets, at least: Namely, don't.

"Listen, having magical powers and wearing a mask all day - on a helmet or not - doesn't make me... well, I guess it does, but I can't be bothered with acting the part this early in the day. Nightmares don't happen on bright sunny days, alright? They've got a better sense of timing than that."

She clambers out of the bed, finally, sighing to herself. Wasn't that annoyed, not really, but Kaede always seemed to love the distorted effect on her voice. Megumi smiles for a moment under the visor, remembering the previous year. Went whole hog that time, bringing a cape, glowy sword and everything. Got a purple one by accident, but no one seemed to know the difference. Of course, it did mean Kaede hanging onto her cape all evening. Soured her on the whole curtain-wearing thing, eventually. Just too much of a hassle going anywhere with one of those.

"Hey. Breakfast?"

The Eversor's face lightens up immediately. "What are you making?"

"Lukewarm leftovers à la lousy chef. Figured I'd make a real serious effort this time."

Well, so much for sarcasm. She seems to be excited anyway. Hard to tell if that had much to do with anything; sometimes she almost seemed stuck that way. Well, past the first few days after she arrived, at least. ...Probably took her standards down a peg or fifty; anything would seem good after that. By Megumi, meanwhile, every conceivable small object was flying around the room like some sort of chaotic halo. Then again, that was normal enough; either there was a good cause most of the time - even if it was sheer laziness - or she used her telekinesis to convince some of the newer members of the Third that some part of the officio or the other was haunted.

It was a natural fear already, at that sort of age, even without all this. After magic, aliens and inhuman monsters, really, was it so strange to believe in a poltergeist or two?

...Really did look like a tree or something, sitting there. Well, tiny, but a tree all the same. ...Small and kind of sickly-looking. Still, though. Covered in brown and green veins, with strangely flaky, bark-like skin in places. The black eyes and oddly wispy, sparse blonde hair didn't quite fit in, but the long - really, it was too big for her - dress in the same green and brown certainly did. ...Got a splash of orange in autumn, too. Attention to detail, maybe, or just some sort of strange magic. No shortage of that.

Still had that little cut on her arm from the accident the day before. Once in a while, it would leak some sap. Or a millipede.

There was always something to get used to, with Kaede. But then, she wasn't all that different. Walking disaster area, really, and that was putting it charitably. Liable to die at just about any moment, too, with how she tended to sleepwalk into barriers. ...Wasn't strange to think about that day in and day out. Definitely not. It's only brooding if you sulk over it; point and laugh, that's the trick.

"You were going to that garden of yours with Izuho after lunch, weren't you?" Megumi asks, very slightly proud of her memory. Izuho was good company, or at least, definitely better. Didn't bring down every unlikely calamity you could think of, for one. Didn't smash people into walls over petty name-calling. Practically a saint by comparison, really. ...Probably a toss-up between 'nausea-radiating biker suit' and 'hulking misshapen behemoth', though.

"Might want to stay out until evening. Well, unless you're fine with hanging out in an empty room for a while."

"You're going?"

A small nod. "Yeah, just need to head out and find somewhere out of the way. Trying something."

"What is it?"

"Curse science!" She flashes a cheesy, insincere grin at Kaede over her shoulder, before realising that the helmet would obscure this. She could always take it off, but... well, there was something to be said for not blasting your roommate with soul-withering antimagic minutes before lunch. It's the little things that count, in the end.


"Far as I can tell, this curse has enough juice in it to hit me... oh, a couple times a day. Mostly small stuff. I've got some theories on when it hits. Sort of. Picks a time, or saves some for later.. Or I'm barking up the wrong tree to begin with. Anyway. Plan to be out of the way. For the fallout. See what it can do. Taking my notebook, write what it throws at me.."

"Is it... really that bad?" The real question was obvious, of course. 'Do you really need to hide?' Well, no, but staying out of the way was just common courtesy when challenging a curse to work its magic on you.

"Never did tell you what happened a couple months back. Knocked over a vase. Last thing I had from my grandmother, bless her. Fell and shattered."


"Splinter got my dog in the eye. Few shards tore up my suit. Sewed it up and spent the weekend with the Venenum."

"...Cordy?" Oh, of course. They all had to take it so, so seriously, sometimes only more so when she joked about it. Well, that was support for you. No one ever thinks you might be a little tired of the permanent frown. Honestly, it was so ridiculous and unlikely that there wasn't much else anyone could do, or so she assumed, but here Kaede was, looking concerned all the same.

...Well, alright, so she cried over the dog. So she was angry when the suit got ruined. That wasn't the point.

"You're not laughing. ...Ah, never mind. Point is, best to keep away for this sort of thing. Best case, inconvenient. Worst case, might die if you stay around me."


"Mm. You'll get better, though. Stick around if you like, it's a riot."

They would meet again later that day - after Kaede had tended to her potted plants, and Megumi had found a secluded spot to stand in while she called out the name of the dead witch - in the hospital wing. The 'druid' peering down worriedly at the fallen Culexus, not quite able to leave the bed and - much to the discomfort of the remainder of the room's occupants - insisting on keeping her helmet off.

She was laughing then, too. She always seemed to save that for the worst of her misfortunes.

Mercy Killing 5: The Dragonslayer Of Mitakihara[edit]

The clash of steel on steel. Encouraging, certainly, if the latter wasn't her armour being struck repeatedly. Was the Vanus's weapon even steel? Pure magic was more like it, probably, but that wasn't her problem right now. Yelling somewhere, near or far, probably some sort of comment on her stance. Ah, if only she could make it out.

The dragonslayer of Mitakihara steadies herself, whirling her double-bladed sword about as a sort of makeshift shield to deflect the next blow. Stylish as it was, sometimes she caught herself wishing Sanbey gave her something easier to use. Well, no matter. Couldn't complain. A true hero made do with whatever she had on hand.

“You seem rather proud of yourself”, Mitsuko comments from the other side of the whirling blades, “for an Eversor wide open to an attack”.

In retrospect, she really should have moved, but the novelty of the spinning guard took her attention for a little while, when she finally got it right, that she had entirely neglected her feet. What a senseless waste of her speed. Four shots of burning light to her shins leave her crumpling to the ground, and Mitsuko closes in for the...

Kill? She wouldn't kill. Surely she wouldn't. She would. Of course she would. It was an important lesson.

But the dragonslayer of Mitakihara is undaunted, even as she crumples to her feet. Strength and courage, this much she has more than enough of. Far from flinching from the final strike, she raises her weapon and scores a deep, gouging blow, her sparring partner's blood spattering across the wooden floor of the training hall, and on her own face. As though she had confused the sword for a spear, she jams it further into the wound before swinging downwards, dashing the Vanus against the ground.

The realisation hits her at the same time that the sound of cracking bones reaches her ears. Panicking, she drops the staff – no longer weighed down by her opponent – and runs forward, immediately nauseous at the sight of the blood, and doing her best to hold onto some measure of consciousness. Bending down, she reaches for Mitsuko's hand to pull the fallen Vanus back onto her feet. Surely there was something around here. Something that she could use to tend to this wound-


The faint, icy smile is the first thing she sees, but far from the first she hears. The click is followed by the thunderous blast of a gun – another of her light-fashioned weapons, not there a moment ago – that launches shell after shell into her. Pieces of glimmering light with all the weight of a crushed star behind them, slamming into her midsection and lifting her into the air like some sort of ragdoll, buoyed by shots more content to crush than pierce.

The assault does not stop there. Two. Three. Four. Five. She lost count. An entire arsenal must have been emptied into her body, and she has just enough time to see what she had left behind, her weapon and the only means by which she might fight back, lying on the floor out of her reach. Pinned against the wall by the barrage, even the blinding light coming from her prone opponent cannot stop her vision from darkening.

It really did hurt. Far, far too much.



“Miura. Do you realise the gravity of your mistake?”

With the armour – and her transformation – gone for the moment, Yuko Miura, reformed by her soul gem from the bloodied mess that had been left on the ground some time ago, brushes a strand of red hair away from her eyes. Of course she knew. Anyone could tell. She had gone too far, why else would she owe her tutor an apology?

“...I didn't mean to hurt you. Not that badly.”

If she was irritated before, then Mitsuko seemed positively incensed now, barely holding back from some sort of outburst. Instead, Yuko received only a glare that seems to say no amount of effort could possibly teach her.

“And that is your error. You had a chance. You were seconds from victory, and you did what? Flinch at the sight of anyone's blood but your own? Cast away your weapon in a show of mercy? Do you expect a witch or a true enemy – one you have been sent to kill – to appreciate such a gesture? No. You will die at their hands, as you did at mine, and it will be richly deserved. Only without such mistakes do you stand a chance of accomplishing something more than making a testament of your corpse. As it stands, you are a dead woman walking.”

...Maybe she was right. Of course she was right. Mitsuko had been her longer, had trained countless others before them, but that wasn't what she had come for. Were these the words should be said by someone who existed to bring hope to the world? A hero who fought to protect the innocent? They were the words of a predator, or a snake, a heartless hunter- no, that couldn't be right. This was her mentor, after all. ...Jaded, then, but world-wise, perhaps more than she was willing to accept.

“Don't call me that,” the Eversor replies sullenly.

“A dead woman walking?”

“No. Yuko Miura. It's- well, it's my name, but it's not a name for a hero. Not a name for chasing after witches, not really a fighter's name.”

“...Ah, yes. What did you go by, again?”

“Andraste X. Steel,” she starts out, then hesitantly adds “dragonslayer of Mitakihara.”

“And what, pray tell, is the 'X' meant to stand for?”

“I... I was going to decide later.”

Well, now it just felt ridiculous.

She shouldn't have asked, not really, but the question comes eventually, eager to fill the silence however it could.

“You really didn't need to be that harsh, did you?”

“I owed you no less as a part of our squad.”

“Part of... what?”

“Hmm? Oh, I suppose you've not heard, then. You are to join Taniguchi, my sister, myself and perhaps one other in the hunt for Shimizu Yumishita, effective as of our next mission. Naturally, it would be remiss of me to neglect your training.”

Naturally. Not that she had ever asked – though certainly, she appreciated the effort – but it seemed somehow second nature to the Vanus, even as ill-suited as her rank should be to combat, to mold and guide every single new recruit she took the slightest interest in. Often rather brutally. This is what she chooses to ponder for some time, to keep herself from the shock of the news for a little longer. Was she suited for this? Prepared? Willing? Instead of answering any of this in her mind, she only nods dumbly to her would-be mentor.

“At any rate, thank you, Miura. I've been in dire need of more practice lately – this mission has found me wanting, it seems – and you obliged. I trust we can have ourselves a rematch tomorrow. For now, I will be on my way.”

Before Yuko can say anything, Mitsuko has already left.


“Is it true, then? That you killed a dragon.”

“It's more of a... prospective title? I'm hoping I can find a witch that looks like one, one day.”

The question comes to her – considering she was walking back home in the late evening – a good deal later than it should have. A stranger's voice from out of thin air should have made her more suspicious. At least, enough not to reply on reflex.

“Who are you?”

“Shimizu Yumishita”, the figure answered from beside her. “Formerly of the Third Officio Assassinorum.”

Yuko almost chokes in shock at the stranger's answer, quietly thankful that she had not – as was usually the case – been drinking anything on the way during her walk. The swing comes a second later, staff in hand, blade primed to stab at-

Wasn't the Vindicare here only a moment ago?

The staff is twisted out of her grip, skill and shock giving the advantages needed to beat out raw, superior strength, and one blade is buried in the ground as the voice speaks up again, from a little way behind her this time.

“A fine effort, but I am not here to kill you tonight. I am in a rather more... optimistic mood, shall we say, than that. Please, walk with me a while, if you can spare a moment for a lowly quisling. Unless you would prefer to face me with your bare hands?”

...An opportunity. She wasn't frightened, of course not. It was a chance to draw some information out of her quarry, out of the traitor of the Third. Best to keep her talking, to play along, whatever her motive was. Assuming she was even being honest about holding her fire, for all the cause anyone had to assume that.

“Tell me, dragonslayer. Are you ready to kill me, should you need to?”

Whatever question she might have expected, that was not it. Why would Yumishita ask that, of all things? Was it some sort of trick, to shake her resolve? A distraction so that she can be shot in the back? While she considers this, the Vindicare herself drifts into view – there was a strange floating sensation, terribly difficult to keep track of, even when she was only walking – at Yuko's side.

She had expected this villain – this slaughterer – to loom, to tower over her. Instead, Shimizu seemed sickly, frail, and perhaps a little frail even as her costume seemed to do its best to remain intimidating. A black suit and billowing cape in the same colour, with smoky glasses hiding eyes the Eversor couldn't quite make out, with a rather large crossbow hanging on her back. The bald Vindicare's hands were largely covered up by a pair of bridal gauntlets, stained with what seemed to be a witch's ichor. With every step, the murderer reaches out to grasp at walls, a railing or a telephone pole, anything to lean on for a little support.

She could end this here and now, surely. Even as a novice Eversor. Her quarry was right here, sickly, frail, struggling to move. It would be... easy? No, it would not do to underestimate her. But it would be possible, surely? To end it here and now. To put an end to the killer with a single swing. Pierce her soul gem: Spots of beige among seas of pitch, as befitting a villain. She would only need to...

To kill a near-defenseless, staggering, broken shell of a woman when she had afforded Yuko the luxury of mercy. To cut her down when she had come only to talk. No, of course not. She must have said something, judging by the sniper's nod.

“I see. There will, of course, come a time when you – or one of your squadmates, perhaps – will come to that point, if I do not kill you first. My chances seem... poor at best, truth be told, and so I came to ask a favour of you.”

“...You want us to let you go?”

“Hardly. Should we find ourselves at that point, I would ask that you finish me. Thus crusade of mine – while little more than a personal grudge – is aimed only at the incubator. For those who stood in my way, what I did was only ever a mercy killing, much like what I am asking of you.”

“Mercy?” Absurd. Of all the excuses she could have made. There was no mercy in cruelly shooting down so many of the officio's ranks for having the temerity to defend others, to happen to stand in harm's way. They made a wish, was that alone supposed to earn an arrow to their soul? What mercy could there be in that?

“How can you say that?”

“If I told you,” Shimizu asks in her rattling breath, “would you believe me?”

“...No. Is that all?”

“All that I can hope for, but if I find you in an accomodating mood, then I would ask that you lose as little of your magic as possible. ...If you hunt me down with your life intact, then I would rather you did so with as little harm to yourself as possible. Your magic will poison you, in time.”

This was what it came down to, then. An overacted trick to convince them to fight with one hand behind their backs. There was no point in believing such a transparent, convenient lie, and she says as much in answer. To think she had listened to this killer for even a moment. ...Still, something nagged at her even now. Why would anyone ask to have their own death ensured?

Sheer cynicism was the answer, no doubt. What did she expect instead, maiming and torture? Was there some secret she had to keep from the silent room? Well, it was just another reason to prove her wrong, sooner or later.

“I think it's time for you to leave,” Yuko answers simply, starting to summon her weapon back to her hands. If only it could be done a little quicker.

“I suppose it is. Until we next meet, then.” And with that, Shimizu was gone, already vanished from sight by the time she could look.

The rest of the way is a slow, weary trudge through the evening air, under flickering street lamps that lit the way for her, with only the blaring music in her headphones to keep her company and offer some distraction. She arrives home eventually, a little smile landing on her face in spite of the rest of the day when she sees the car parked in the garage. The day was already taking a turn for the better.

Opening the door and announcing herself, she staggers into the living room and falls onto a cushion, scattering her bags around herself like the remnants of some sort of crash site. ...Really, she only died once today; it was a good enough day, all things considered.

HR Holiday Special: All Of The Other Incubators[edit]

Always did hate this time of the year. Probably wouldn't surprise anyone who knows me, which is to say it'd surprise everyone I've met. Lot of reasons, really. The way it gets you bombarded with ads, the same songs over and over, red and white, all that sort of thing since around September? That sure doesn't help any. The cold? Not a fan of that either. All the ways you're supposed to spend the holiday, that doesn't help any either.

Nowadays, it also reminds me, with my birthday right around the corner, that I'm getting older. Not that that helps, but when all's said and done, I guess I was just bitter about the timing since I was... oh, six or something? One of those kids who had their birthday hijacked by Christmas and rolled into it.

Soured me a little on the whole thing, is all I'm saying.

Snow's pretty rough this year; I can feel the whole building creaking under the weight of it, and occasionally, a huge avalanche of it slides down from the roof. I'll probably have to dig to get to my car, in the morning. Not exactly the kind of unwrapping you're supposed to be hoping for in the morning, is it now? Merry Christmas, hohoho and an ice age for all.

...It's quiet here. Too quiet.


See, that's just another way life doesn't bother acting like movies. 'Course, everyone knows that, so I'm not sure why anyone ever bothers to point it out. You can count on someone or something popping up the moment you say or think that phrase, ordinarily. Not here and now. Pity, I could've gone for a dastardly ambush or something right about now. Instead, I've got the apartment all by myself while I flop around gathering dust on the couch.

Spent five minutes rolling around like some kind of festive jellyfish before I realised how bored I am. Not sure why it took that long.

Still, not a whole lot I can do, when you get right down to it. There's... what, the officio party tomorrow? Frankly I'm not looking forward to that too much either, and it mostly means I'll need to wake up fairly early to get everything ready. Yeah, you can bet I'm not a fan of that. ...Not really my style, either. I remember one year, when I ran out in a Grinch costume on halloween, dead of night, smashing up a bunch of those early Christmas decorations that seem to stay up for half the year. Got in a lot of trouble for that. I was younger then. Made a lot of bad decisions.

Still do, obviously. Just older now.

I catch myself drifting to the wrong part of the room, while I stare out the window. One hand halfway to a bottle, the other reaching for the receiver of my phone. Not sure which bothers me more, somehow. ...Yeah, I know, a receiver. Apparently no one has these big, bulky phones any more, or something like that. I don't know, it's what I grew up with and it sort of stuck, I guess.

“Ah, hell,” I end up grumbling at the phone, “you can't be serious.”

I guess I'll never know if it was serious; machine of few words, when there's no one on the other end. I give my thoughts a couple seconds to offer up a better idea, and predictably, they end up disappointing me. Well, no, not disappointing, I never expected more than a whole lot of nothing. Still, it would've been nice. Eventually, I end up dialing the number after all. ...Pressing the buttons, I mean. Not quite old-fashioned enough for an actual dial, don't know if they still even make those.

“Hey, boss? Petey? You free tonight? I mean, enough to fake having a couple hours, I know you never really stop worki-”

And I get interrupted by my own voice, of course.

“You've reached the office of Sanbey and Harumi Ryouno, of the Third Officio. Unfortunately, we can't take your call right now, but if you would like to leave a message, then please-”

Eugh. Hung up real quick on that. Really is true, what they say about hearing your own voice when it's recorded. Can't stand the sound of it. She cut me off, too. Honestly, the nerve of some people. Before I can think about it too much, the doorbell ends up ringing. Perfect. Just perfect. What now, another interruption in case I was thinking of being in a good mood today? Maybe someone got the bright idea of barging in late in the evening to sell me something. What'll it be, then, O hypothetical door-to-door salesman? Mattresses? I bet it is, that's what it was last time.

“I see you're still home.”


“...A little further down, Ryouno, if you would be so kind.”

Seems like he was a step ahead of me, for once. I get around to looking down, and Sanbey's there at my doorstep, covered with a thin layer of snow. Wearing... what, seriously? Wearing some kind of reindeer headband, with a little bag hanging off one antler, like you might do with a bicycle handle. Don't know what got into him.

Took me a minute or two to stop laughing long enough to say anything.


“To the best of my knowledge, yes.”

“You-” I break into another fit of hysterical giggling, seeing him with his tiny little antlers, “you look ridiculous.”

“I am aware.” Total deadpan, as usual.

“...Thanks.” For someone who supposedly can't even figure out emotions, he sure knows how to cheer me up. I try to scoop him up, let out a little yelp and almost drop him on the ground. ...Real glad I didn't embarrassing enough already.

“Holy hell, you're freezing.” I mean, seriously, this is making ME shiver just from picking him up.

“So it would seem.”

“D-did you walk here or something?”, I ask, practically slamming the door shut and scampering off to a warmer room, dropping in front of the heater's orange glow and letting him down beside me. Eesh, I don't really know when he decided to go and turn himself into a popsicle, but it sure doesn't suit him.

“Would you rather I flew here? I'm afraid that's rather beyond me. In any case, I had a delivery to make.”

...Crazy little rabbit. Maybe I said that out loud, maybe I didn't. I want to think he got the idea from the stupid grin on my face, all the same. Ran back to close the door, keep the draft out. Two of us spent a couple minutes in front of the heater, just shivering quietly. Real piece of work, this winter, but we thaw out eventually. Well, I do. Probably going to take a while for him.

He doesn't say anything, just takes off the bag – the little antlers stay on, and it's funny enough that I'm in no hurry to do anything about it – and opens it up. One of those big tins of cookies that you're meant, at least as far as I know, to fill up with sewing supplies at some point in your life. It's the sort of thing that says 'I had no idea what to get'.

...But on the other hand, I don't know what I'd want, and this looks pretty good right now. I'd probably go through it in one sitting if no one was around, honestly. Still kind of shocked that he bothered. He probably said something? I don't know, I didn't quite catch it.

“Only had to bring yourself, you know.” Picked him up and hugged him like a cheap plush toy, pretty near flattened him. Getting all giddy about Petey showing up at your door is one of those things you both look back and get real embarrassed about, a while down the line. Both pretty hopeless, huh? But... sort of in a good way, for now.

“Hey, give me a second. I was going to save this for tomorrow, but since you're jumping the gun anyway... uh, hang on. Swear I left it somewhere around here, maybe behind the couch. One moment. Don't really have much of a tree to put it unde- ah, there we go.”

Should I drag out the potted plant for this? No, no, trying too hard. Think I forgot to water it anyhow, it's gone all brown and yellow in the leaves. Found the box, at least, just a little bit creased. I hold it out for him for a bit, then open it up; probably way too much of a pain to unwrap these things with paws, you know? No point in making this into a big hassle.

Tiny, tiny little blue tie. Think it's meant for people who want to embarrass their cat, and I guess this isn't far off. Suits him better than I expected, somehow; enough to have me cracking up again for a minute before I stop myself. You know, eventually. No need to rush these things.

“Merry, uh... something or other, Peter.”

“...Ryouno?” I'd like to say he looks confused, but... well, you know.

“If you're going to act way too serious all the time, you might as well look goofy doing it. Suits you, anyway. ...It's just a stupid joke, you know?”

“I'm afraid I have never been much good with those. Thank you.” Aw. Well, if he likes a dumb little joke, that's a bonus. ...Guess being given anything is kind of a first for him, come to think of it.

“You're an easy rabbit to please, you know that?”

“Why a rabbit?” Oh, like I haven't gone over that before. “I was told the others are usually compared to cats-”

“Yeah, yeah, let's stop that train of thought right there. I'm still too young to be a crazy cat lady, alright?” Besides, he looks more like that to me. It's the ears, probably. I pop one of the cookies into his mouth, since he's not about to let himself do anything fun without a push, and catch myself a couple seconds later.

“...Ah, wait. Dammit, did I just poison you? Are you supposed to live on, like, just carrot and space lettuce or something?”

“I'm quite well, Ryouno. ...And this is rather good, I must say. Nothing I should make a habit of, of course.”

No, no, of course not. That'll just get him going off on one of his incubator corruption rants. Paranoid little guy, in his own way. Makes me wonder, though, even if it's one of those stupid late-night questions with a real obvious answer.

“Hey, Petey, you ever have anything like this back home? Well, not like this, obviously. Not sure if a lot of people over here do much like this either. Still, you know, some kind of special day, something like that?”

“I'm afraid not. Truth be told, I'm still not certain I understand the point of it all.”

“Well, would you look at that? You're ahead of most of us. No, there really isn't much of a point, besides giving some people a reason to be bitter. It's a nice excuse once in a while, though, for anyone who needs one. This is...”


“Well, mostly awkward and kind of ridiculous. Nice, though, in its own way. Its own really weird way. ...Thanks, Peter.”

And they say my heart grew three sizes that day. Really, I don't know who keeps spreading these stupid rumours. Good job it didn't, or I'd probably be in hospital right about now. ...Huh, never thought of the story that way. Probably not supposed to.

Dead honest, neither of us should really be doing this, we should both know better, and at best we're going to feel like a pair of clowns when we look back at it all. It's not really the kind of company either of us should be keeping, and Peter's probably going to fret over that sooner or later; I mean, I might too, but I don't take it as seriously as he does. It's the same kind of strange, awkward day together we have now and then, and with who he is – let's not kid myself, with who we are – I don't see that changing. Just for now, though, this is nice. I could get used to it.

Plus, I got to spend the night bothering a soul-farming mutant alien rabbit, and in the end, that's the only true meaning of Christmas.

...Probably. Never was any good at this.

Mercy Killing 6: Prisoner Of The Third[edit]

I might have clung to the side of the sky-gouging tower, climbing its hide of steel and glass with my bare hands. I could have worn the guise of the enemy as I walked their halls by night. To do so, as I eventually realised when these methods failed, would be to insult the incubator and his formidable, if foul powers. Ultimately, I walked through the halls of the Third Officio under the cover of night and nothing more. Certainly, I made my best attempt at stealth, but it seemed unnecessary. The puella maga of the incubator's den passed me by entirely, completely unaware of my existence.

Once or twice, I was almost tempted to call out to them, feeling as though I had become nothing more than a product of my own imagination. Fortunately, I resisted. The time for talk would come soon enough.

Happily, even the security of the elevator seems to be fooled by whatever enchantment he has placed upon me. Without a single objection, it closes its doors and glides downward, into the Prediction Engine, the hall of the Third's oracle. Would the Vanus be expecting me? The other one, from the barrier mere days past, had eventually been able to detect me. No matter, I will announce myself, and that will be the end of that. What could a single Vanus in the most secluded part of the officio do?

...More than I could, most likely. Staggering out with weakness in my all-too-heavy limbs, bleeding from a few spots on my face and arms that had made the mistake of brushing against something rougher than empty air. I might have felt some shame at this, had anyone seen it. Instead, I wipe the blood away, the better to make myself presentable, before taking a few confident strides forward. The seer is there, seated by her precious, accursed river. Good.

It would be... easy, too easy, as unaware as she is. Almost a kindness, for one destined to a life of watching the nightmares of others until her soul gem burns out. And yet, I stay my hand. Not out of cruelty or mercy, but because there is something greater at stake here.

"Good evening, seer. Miss Masame, was it? I trust I am not intruding on some troubling vision?"


"Surely you have seen enough to answer that yourself?"

She turns around, and were it not for the stare she fixed upon me immediately, I would have thought her blind from her milky grey eyes. Nervous, fearful, slowly backing away without ever rising from her seat, leaning back on her arms. Shaking, asking the question that had been on my mind a moment ago.

"...Are you here to kill me? Is this it?"

Interesting. Either her visions do not show her everything, or she places little faith in them. Else she would have foreseen this, or taken its absence as proof that nothing of the sort can occur. I seat myself beside her, the very picture of leisurely calm. Truth be told, my trek up to this point had left me with no energy to stand with.

"Would that I could, this would be far simpler. No, I'm afraid I have come here - to the heart of the Third's power, against all sense - for... I suppose 'rescue' would be an apt term. I was hoping to have your cooperation in this."

"I-I don't need rescuing," she stammers out. Of course not, but she hardly realises that she could not be further from my goals. 'Rescue' is in itself disingenuous. Were I inclined to save her - if I had her best interests at heart - I would have buried a bolt in her soul gem some time ago. To spare her is to torture and sacrifice her, only heightening the risk that she might become a witch. And yet, it is necessary.

"Not you," I reply quickly. "I will need your help in saving one of your friends. In showing her the truth. One close to the incubator - the only one with whom I have any quarrel - and perhaps most snared by his lies, but I can see that the cruelty he practices has no home in her heart. I speak, of course, of Harumi Ryouno. An innocent in a position she does not deserve, as are you all, but she holds the incubator's ear and his secrets alike. The difference she could make is immeasurable."

"And why do you think I should believe any of-" Defiance I have no time for, and I brush it aside with one hand to indicate as much.

"Surely you have seen her in that river of yours before. Seen a witch in her future, perhaps, at the moment of her demise?" Ah, yes. The petrified expression on her face says more than she ever could. Really, it was the easiest guess in the world. Sanbey and his brothers make witches of all puella maga, in time, though to what end I neither know nor care. It would seem, however, that I have her attention. Good.

"That is her fate. That is the fate of many of our kind, as I have come to understand it. Chains that can be broken if Sanbey is dragged down from his throne. I will ask only that when the time comes, you will help me to save her. Can I expect this much from you?" A pause, the same fearful, faintly defiant look in her eyes as she rallies herself to speak up.

"...How can I trust you?"

"Neither of us can trust the other, and yet, I have come here to make my request. Make what you will of that; I am only here to save one who can, should fortune be on our side, save us all. Someone who deserves better than a life in this prison, then another harvest for the incubator, and her inevitable end as a witch." I stop for a moment, watching her nonplussed reaction.

"Surprised?" And incredulous, no doubt.

"What's your proof?"

"Precious little, regrettably. But to begin with... a look into my future, if you care for it. I am rather curious myself.

What we both see is heartening, and for her, deeply alarming, more than I expected. The scene in itself does not seem to frighten her greatly - perhaps she does not recognise the bodies, and I certainly do not from the brief glimpse I am afforded - but she appears to make some connection seconds later that leaves her deeply shaken. And yet, for me, the picture holds some hope.

A curious sensation of... strength? My pain vanishing, my magic greater than ever before. The corpses of my would-be enemies - through their insistence and my begrudging, frigid mercy - scattered about a barrier. Before me is the demon himself, Sanbey, the incubator that had stolen my sister from me and twisted her into a broken shell for a monster. He stands cornered, saying something I cannot make out, backed against a wall and completely alone. I cannot see my own face, but sense that I am looming over him, obscuring him under my shadow, and he is no doubt moments from his deserved end.

Somehow, I had expected a worse end to my crusade.

"...I admit, I expected a more dismal scene, though no doubt you see it as such. No matter. Another secret, then - one of which Sanbey is well aware. I invite you, should curiosity ever strike you, to look into my past. There, you will find every answer you need."

"You... you think I want to see more?" Of course not. Neither of us ever wanted to see as much as we did. Before I can say anything to that effect, she cuts me off with a loud sigh, pointing towards the elevator, her arm shaking ever so slightly. Fear has not left her, but she has no time for it now. Misplaced indignation has stolen its place.

"You can't afford to kill me, can you? Then leave. Go. I won't call anyone, not because I want you to be safe, but because I don't want them to get hurt fighting you. I listened to as much as I can for... for her, for everyone else, but that's it. Y-you shouldn't even be here. I have a knife, if it comes to that. Just... just leave. ...Please."

What could I say to that? I stagger to my feet, making my way to the door, albeit slower than either of us would have liked. I have made my plea. I have given her the tools to see for herself. I can but pray, now, that the guardian angel of the Third will be delivered from this prison.

"Thank you for your time, Miss Masame," I manage. Somehow, I keep myself standing for long enough until the doors of the elevator close, and it begins to hum while making its ascent. A split second later, I collapse on the floor, no doubt gaining a few more bruises and cuts for myself as I land. No matter, I have grown used to them by now. My soul gem will reknit the wounds eventually. Better that I do not appear weak, first and foremost.

Two and a half hours later, crawling much of the way, I finally make my escape from the offices of the third officio. Have I failed? It is a question I ask myself often, and at this point, I feel it is only a matter of degrees.

Pearly Gates 2: Waking Nightmare[edit]

Where am I? Who am I? What happened? All questions that those with a little more practice might ask after waking in a strange place. Megumi blinks behind her helmet, shaking her head as consciousness slowly returns to her, much to her irritation.

"This again."

Well, not quite how these moments were meant to go, but it was better than nothing.

The forest stretches around her in all directions, just as it did in her dream. ...If this was any realer. A forest? Here? A barrier, then. It must be. She couldn't have walked so far, unless- no. The one where they had found Kaede was nothing so strange. And... day? It felt a little dim for that, but somehow, though she had fallen asleep in the earlier parts of the night, the sun was pinned to the sky in a spot that brooked no argument. Noon it was, then, under the beautiful blue sky, and clouds that refused to move. Somewhere, too close, she could hear beating wings.

And then the trees. Oh yes, the trees. Grasping at the sky with claw-like branches, more structure than plant, from gleaming chrome-plated steel and improbably rusted wood. They had no leaves, and their bark was stained with blood. Each one thick enough to only be circled after half a minute's time of walking, tall enough to bring on a dizzy sensation when she tried to look up. The many branches, blades and thorns upon it - or sometimes simply spearheads driven into its trunk - held its trophies.

Dolls, facsimiles of humans, pierced and impaled all over the tree, as though they were placeholders or some sort of practice. Now and then, in among them, she could find limp humans, even magical girls, hanging limply but still alive, wearing inexplicably peaceful expressions. Blood trickled down from them, long since dried on the bark. Faces she did not know, and faces that should have been dead long ago, lost to some barrier. ...A hallucination, then, an art that most barriers knew well. The only explanation. She must be seeing things.

At least she came with an excuse for that, somewhere in her sleepwalking. A spearhead of her own lodged in her midsection, twisting and turning hungrily in the wound it had left. Strangely, there was almost no pain there, only a faint discomfort as a reminder that it was there. Truth be told, it had taken her a few moments to notice it there at all.

"Now why couldn't that wake me up sooner?" She asks of the empty air, looking down before shaking her head again, this time in disgust, remembering her helmet only in time to avoid spitting at the ground. Really, she expected more of the strange places she found herself in, most of all a barrier, at least some semblance of taste. Was that so much to hope for? But then, looking at the impaled bodies around her, it should not have come as a surprise that hers would be so different.

"...Gold. Pretty tacky," she mumbles, watching that feathered shadow flit across the sky again.

There was a song, somewhere in there. A beautiful one that seemed to bounce off the sky and sink into her bones. She could only make out the faintest snatches of meaning in it; if only she could understand the words. Were they words at all? ...Probably not, knowing witches. Something about a lady, about Her blessings and a promised land. Her mercy. Her golden paradise that awaited the faithful, and the bliss they would know on these trees. An offering made in the hopes of once - just for once - drawing the attention of that inscrutable goddess.

When it ends - or at least slows down enough to make for a good stopping point - Megumi offers her half-hearted applause. It seemed right, somehow.

"Hmhmhm. Not bad. Nice voice." She pauses for a moment, a silence not met by the crackle in the vox, before posing a question to the sky.


Deafening silence, but at least she had managed to give her position away. She shrugs as the beating wings draw closer. She shrugs, watching idly as the golden spearhead writhes away from the wound, falling to the earth with a soft thud and a puff of disturbed soil. Intent, apparently, on taking back what it had done, as though it meant to spare her.

Some weapon that was.

"...No? Shame." At least she tried. She raises the shield, then, as the ear-piercing screech washes over her, practically a banshee wail. A burning stare from behind a thin mask of porcelain, or painted plastic, or who knew what with all this movement to throw her off. The scream practically skids off the Culexus's barrier, splintering into pieces and echoing through the forest. As one, the impaled bodies - human and puppet alike - turn to stare at Megumi with empty eyes, their attention fixed on this forest's latest victim.

She never knew faceless dolls could look so impatient.

Claws and shrieks assail her, blackened feathers clouding out anything she might hope to see, but for a pair of piercing golden eyes. Gold, always gold with this forest. At least this witch had the good sense to offset it with something a little more tasteful. With a weary sigh, she lifts one arm up, clenching her left hand into a fist, and the witch rises as though gripped about the neck. She only had a few tricks for a Culexus; best to make the most of it.

"Get many nightmares, lately," she says, conversational in spite of the flailing, screeching monster she was holding aloft.

"Not your problem, I know. Heard one was bothering Kaede. You a nightmare? Real?" She lets the question hang in the air, in the exact same way that her opponent does not, slamming the creature into the ground, though not - to her disappointment - hard enough to break anything. Her magic could only give so much strength.

"Stupid question," she mutters to herself. "Like there's a difference." What was a barrier, if not a nightmare made real?

But the monster sprawled on the ground in front of her - quickly collecting itself and rising to its feet - was, for all its talons, wings and beaked mask, human in shape. The feathers held fast onto a cloak and dress, wrapped about her body, and the eyes were not those of a bird, a witch or otherwise. This, then, was no witch. As Megumi takes a step back, a golden spear materialises in her opponent's hands, to a chorus of whispers from the spearheads scattered about the forest. There was some sort of bulky, closed octagonal device behind the spearhead, to some end she could make no sense of, and the whole gleamed with a sort of hunger. Hunger and resentment, in that near-blinding glare from its shining metal. A predator denied its feast.

This, then, was another magical girl, somehow. The lady whose attention this forest had been made to attract, or the earnest supplicant who had created this towering morgue?

"Leave," she finally hisses out.

"Plain Japanese. Surprising," Megumi remarks. "No tree for me?"

"The spear is... demanding I set you free. It tells me this golden bliss is not yet meant for you."

"Could still take y-" A gasp of pain cuts her off, the agony of the earlier wound suddenly returning in full force, with whatever was numbing it returning in full force, growing as it had been ever since... since the spearhead fell out? There was no time to think on it, much less when it had made such a poor effort to make sense to her.

"No, I don't think so. Leave."

The pain brings her to her knees, and looking up at the nearly-unharmed magical girl above her, wielding that golden spear, she could only nod weakly. She was no Culexus of note, but she knew power when she saw it. There was little of it in the holder, but the golden weapon... better to look away than to see what another few seconds of staring would show her. Better to accept it, then, this strange and convenient mercy; it must have caught her captor by surprise as much as her, by the look of this.

"You will forget this." Somehow, it sounded like an order. A tempting one, truth be told. The Culexus's vision begins to blur and shimmer as though through a heat haze, and she slumps forward, helmet touching the soft soil on its way down. She must have said something, or at least, she hoped she did. It would have been a wasted opportunity, otherwise, but whether it was anything good... well, she wouldn't remember it either way, apparently. Hopefully this lunatic would let it slide, given the circumstances.

When she wakes in her room, she has only the clock at her side to tell her what has passed: A handful of hours and no more, not yet enough - in spite of the clear day she had seen - for daylight to come.

As a night's rest went, unfortunately, she had had worse.

Human Resources 8: Tricks of the Trade[edit]

It was a favour for a friend, in a way, keeping me at home on a day that would've had me at the office. Well, a friend of a friend, which would mean Sanbey is-

That still doesn't feel right. Probably isn't.

The Third and Ninth - well, Petey and Little Coobs, and the officios by extension - always were pretty close. Kyubey's sort of like a little brother to him. ...Hah. The rabbit and the snake, I guess. Never did figure out which was which, and I didn't even realise he was the type to go in for metaphors. Anyway, once in a while, he still helps out. Like when the Ninth's got some kind of up and coming star, someone who looks promising enough to work on. Peter sends someone over to help them out, give a bit of training, that sort of thing. It's a little different this time, the kind of thing that needs to be kept quiet. That, and honestly, writing should do.

So here I am, sitting by my laptop at home while it rains outside - hey, at least I'm not missing out on anything by staying in the apartment - and typing away something that might look like pearls of wisdom, if you squint a bit. A little push to help out the Ninth, a couple tricks of the trade. Gotta admit, I'm a little proud that he'd line me up for this kind of thing, and the one who's going to be hearing this... met her before, she knows what she's doing. She'll go far if she doesn't witch out, I reckon.

It's probably not a waste of time unless she drops dead, is what I'm saying, and that's all you can ask of talking to anyone but an incubator in this business.


Forget step one, this is about step zero. Figure out what you want; no, what the officio needs, and let that decide your course. Talk to your incubator before you make any decisions, at least at first, to get a good handle for things. Keep them in the loop, no point working alone. May as well talk to us - Sanbey and me, I mean - too. If nothing else we can share grief seeds if you're running low. Recruits... maybe not so much. You know how things are over here.

Point is, you have to know what you need. Is it fresh recruits? Someone you need to have six feet under? But most importantly, you need to manage this every time you make a decision: Do you need grief seeds, or do you need live ones if you're getting low on numbers? I've attached a couple guidelines - seasonal, since you're going to want everything you can throw out there around Walpurgisnacht, to take one example - but ask me if you need anything else. Eventually you'll crunch the numbers long enough to get a feel for it, probably a better one as far as the Ninth goes than I can give you.

I'm going to cover four things in here: Recruitment, keeping them happy, making them crack, and damage control.

First of all, know where to look. An information network and knowing just where or when to go in, a 'tell your friends' policy, bringing family in, keeping an eye on troubled houses and poor neighbourhoods... that's all very well, but it's not exactly efficient. It's a bonus to your baseline, or at least it should be.

Try to get Kyubey to start buying up a couple places that might be useful; upshot is, it's even good for your reputation. Obvious ones are orphanages, for one - support a couple and, as far as most are concerned, you've practically got a halo around your head - and hospitals. Keep an eye out for the terminally ill, the crippled, the ones that get hurt enough to drop dead at any moment, and work your magic. 'Offer they can't refuse', so to speak. I mean, no offense, but from what I heard, you know how well that works.

I don't care what you've heard, avoid mental hospitals. Rule one of recruiting, no head cases. At the very least, don't go out of your way for it. Sure, they're easy pickings and generally more powerful, but you have to keep the full picture in mind. They're hard to work with or predict, you can't read them, you can't order, organise or properly train them, and they snap like no one else. I don't mean they witch out, I mean they go out of control and start all sorts of trouble, or so I heard; like I said, no first-hand examples around here for the most part. More trouble than they're worth. Just look at the Eighth. Sanbey's got his hands in just about all the places I mentioned around Mitakihara, but... I don't know, talk to your boss about it, I know the rabbit goes out of his way to help Kyubey. He might work something out.

Now, just because it's a shorter explanation, here's how you turn a magical girl into a grief seed on the double. Like keeping them happy, it depends on getting to know them first. Look over those files on your off days - I know, it's a pain - and meet them enough times to figure out how they tick. You can isolate them and, if they live at the officio, drop their living quality down the drain, send them on the worst assignments you've got... but that's the lazy way, and it doesn't always work. Some people take it all and keep going. The trick is to keep an eye on what's happening to them from day to day. Find or make an event that sets them off, gets them to slip a bit, then go in. Or don't. Depending on the person, a couple things they didn't want to hear can be better or worse than nothing at all. Make sure they feel alone, cut off, twist the knife a little. Most of all, don't give them anyone to blame. If they find someone to hate, that gives too much to hold onto, and it can make them dangerous, too.

If you haven't got the stomach for all that, well, that's fine. Honestly, it doesn't usually take much to make most of them come to pieces. Just not being there for them is enough half the time.

Keeping them stable is worth a lot more most of the time, just because it's not what you might call the natural state. First, remember everything. Faces, names, those are the big ones, but if you can keep birthdays in mind, that always helps. Hobbies, little details like that, they mean the world. No one would bother to know the little things, right? So the less it matters, the less important it is, the more it means to remember it for them. Could make someone's day just playing along and acting like you know everything about them, like the same stuff they do, things like that.

Be there for them. Now, obviously we're busy, and you're going to triage it a bit to figure out who to hang out with, but make time for the promising ones and the ones that look like they need it most. That's not a bad thing; the rarer your time is, the more it's worth, but you've got to make sure they know - even when you can't make it - that there's nothing you'd like more than sticking around and chatting for a couple hours. Otherwise you risk just looking aloof. On the same note, 'breaking' the rules now and then helps too. 'Oh, I shouldn't really, but I'm sure everything else can wait'. Or you pretend you badgered Kyubey into making a special exception as a favour to someone or the other, that sort of thing. Again, it means more if it's special, or you went out of your way for it.

Make sure you meet the recruits right away, and visit the Venenum wing now and then. Build up an image, a name, make sure everyone knows your face and you know theirs. Have to make sure your first impression is a good one, after all. Another trick I've learned is learning how to cook something or the other. Doesn't really matter what, as long as it's good, you can count on kids liking it, and it turns into something good for them to associate with you. Helps with the image too, like an older sister or mother for the whole officio. For example... well, there's recipe I use. Trade secret of a sort - least, that's what I always tell everyone - but I may as well make an exception. I've got it attached to the message. Give it a try some time, it'll probably go over well.

There's more, but this is getting long, so I'll cover damage control next. Namely, two big ones: Retirements and Walpurgisnacht. The first one is one where, like pushing someone to witch out, you've got to keep links in mind. The thing about someone dying or witching out is that it makes ripples. Some people are going to get upset about it, real upset sometimes, enough to make them snap, and suddenly you've got a crowd of weird little monsters on your hands. If you planned for it, good, but as always, 'I meant to do that' is kind of a key point in here. Don't let it blindside you or happen by accident. Keep this in mind for a retirement, including whether one is worthwhile to begin with. Make an opportunity of it, if you can: Send someone who's only too happy to off them, or someone who'd break if they had to do it, and if you don't have a good reason to do either, there's always someone who won't care one bit. Worst case, you hire someone from another officio to do it.

Then there's Walpurgisnacht. Gonna be honest, this one's a mess, and it always will be. No one wins here, and it'll be a test of all your management and name-juggling as much as cleaning up the wreckage after. And, of course, actually killing witches, if you put yourself on the front lines for this one. Pick all your best for the night, but only if you're either sure you won't lose them, or you can afford to. Be ready for the waves it makes, all the witches you'll be dealing with in the weeks after - like I said, every death affects others - and make sure the ones on the front lines are expendable. Luckily, tactics are more warmaster territory. We can still sit down and work it out together when the time comes, if you need.

There's plenty more, but I'll leave that for another time, I've given you enough to sit through. Good luck out there.

- H.R.


Whew. That's that out of the way. Send and- oh, yeah, that's right, forgot the address. Can't quite remember, hopefully it's in the address boo- oh, there it is. Good.

Mami Tomoe.

Promising kid, really. Decent type for a magical girl. Definitely going places, at this rate.

Pearly Gates 3: A Garden In Ink[edit]

It was calm out here, soothing, routine. Kaede would come here to center herself, to meet some of her less... masked friends - she knew well enough that Megumi needed a break now and then, all else aside - and to practice one of her favourite hobbies. She invited Cord- Megumi countless times, but every time, it was turned down. She didn't claim to understand it, much less stop trying.

As for her other hobbies... well, she wasn't much of a singer yet. That was for private practice, so as not to embarrass herself. Or the company of someone she knew wouldn't mock her, at the least.

It was another of Sanbey's generous concessions - for which she was certainly grateful - to the Third, a large garden on the ground floor, housed partly indoors and partly sticking out of the building itself, a spot of greenery and a great many colours besides in the otherwise relatively drab palette of the city. She tended to it daily - though to varying degrees - which seemed to only come to her more and more naturally after her contract. It helped, of course, that she could bend or grow plants with a thought, that she could make new ones sprout up on a whim. She really did need to come up with names for some of the more... unprecedented plants she had accidentally created.

Her friend's talents, too, were no small help. Between her and Izuho - her accomplice here in the garden - they probably could have made a jungle out of bare concrete, but somehow, that felt like cheating. There was something to be said for doing all this with your own two hands, taking time over it. If nothing else, it left them something to come back to - to look forward to seeing - time after time, a new surprise with every day.

There was a peaceful sort of... quiet to the garden? No, not quiet, and certainly not with the sounds that surrounded it in and outside the officio's walls. Still, it was a refreshingly different sort of noise from what she was used to, and that was enough. It was a place to come to when she needed to refresh herself between brushes with the world, when she needed something to calm herself, and no place in the world could compare to it.

...There was the forest, of course, but that was so terribly far; she could only afford to make the trip once in a while. Not a sight she would readily share with any but her closest friends, but... well, maybe she could make an exception. Cordy. Surely she would enjoy the peace of it. Something to show her, then, some day when they both had a day to spare.

It was a hideout too, in a sense. One in plain sight, but it counted all the same, in its own way. Where the Third's hulking monstrosity came to tend to the grasses and flowers, along with... well, as far as Kaede was concerned, the fact that the girl who bled bugs and sap attracted no comment said enough by itself. Looming over an entire room and protruding pieces of rusted weapons like some sort of twisted hedgehog was, evidently, more of an attention-getter.

Which made it all the more unusual that they had a guest. Another who hadn't quite found her place at the Third, in her own way, despite Harumi's best efforts. Junko Otozaki, one of the many that Sanbey had rescued from Mitakihara's hospitals, though as to just what it was that landed her there, she refused to say. A Callidus - for all the good it did, as she was always quick to add - with an unfortunate knack for being unheard and unnoticed, despite her best efforts. Ironic, given some of the magic she had been given, but as retiring and nervous as she was, much of the Third seemed to pass over her entirely.

So there she sat, sketching pad in hand, trying to draw the garden and skies in front of her over and over. She never seemed quite happy with it, for some reason.

"Tea?" Kaede offered, a little hesitantly. It was a rare sound in the garden, if only because any sound - besides the ambient noise of the world around them - was rare here. Its usual occupants spent their hours there in amicable silence, or else idle gossip during their breaks.

"O-oh, thank you," the Callidus stammers out, startled, as though Kaede had roused her from a deep sleep. "Er... what is it?" She asks after a moment, looking at the unfamiliar striped berries floating in the mug.

"...I haven't thought of a name yet," the diminutive gardener confides in her, a little embarrassed. "It's something I made last week."

"She tried to grow candy," Izuho points out, from a few furrows away.

"Like YOU wouldn't."

"And it's... you made tea from it?"

"It works better than you might think," Izuho answers again, from between stalks that would have mostly obscured either of the other two.

The visitor takes the cup hesitantly, the sketchpad and pencil abruptly dropping from her other trembling hand. She scoops them up soon after with a nervous laugh, trying to hold the whole bundle in twitching fingers long enough to put it all down somewhere safer, and fortunately only spilling a few drops in the process. "T-too much coffee," she explains, shaking her head. "Been... busy, really busy, Miss Minakata told me I'd start seeing things if I didn't lie down soon, but... it's such a nice day, I couldn't miss a chance like this."

"What are you drawing?" Kaede's inquisitive voice from around her knees, where Junko's legs hang off the garden's short brick fence.

"Oh, this is just practice, rea- don't look! It's not finished yet." She clutches the pad to herself defensively, hiding it with a look of extreme embarrassment. "Sorry, it's just... I'll show you when it's done, okay?" The suggestion meets a happy nod from Kaede, who quickly backs away.

"It's nothing very interesting, anyway. Just practicing some landscapes for a little pet project. I thought this might be nicer to draw than... well, more concrete. It's not really that special, but I'd love to show you when it's done!"

"Can Cordy see it too?"

"Of course!" And with that, nodding and flashing Junko an eager smile, the little gardener runs back to her patch, picking up her trowel. An improvised piece she seemed oddly excited about, a small plastic handle attached to a golden piece of metal, reminiscent of a spearhead.

"Is that new?" The visitor asks curiously. It was an oddly flashy choice for a garden tool, if nothing else. Kaede nods quickly, grinning as she waves it about in the air to show it off, as if she had been waiting for the question.

"I got it from Cordy yesterday!"

Human Resources 9: Damage Control[edit]

Meetings. Always meetings. If it's not paperwork, or showing up at one of the many places we've brought under the Third's umbrella, it's plastering a smile on my face, nodding along while someone talks my ear off, and remembering every little detail. Then again, I signed up for this to deal with people; just this once, I probably don't get to complain.

Plus, I asked her to do this.

Aoi - Miss Katsuragi to me, the nameless janitor to most, generally speaking - sits opposite me, running through her report. As usual, it took me a while to find her even knowing just where she is. She's still got an earphone in one ear, with some kind of soft jazz tune leaking from it. Her way of letting the world know she's barely paying attention, distracted, like you can easily talk circles around her and sneak anything right under her nose. I know better, mind, but it's a good act. I wish I could say I taught her that, but she came through the door with some of it and picked up the rest with time. Not like I can give much of my secrets away anyway, not the sweet and innocent guardian angel of the Third.

Offers me some kind of strange fruit juice thing I can't quite make out. Not sure how she gets it - even if she buys it or makes it herself - but I've never seen her drink anything else. Honestly, after a sip or two, I can see why. On one hand, pretty good. On the other hand, tastes like either hassle or money, not something I'd ever bother with by myself.

She's going on about the results of the little stakeout I sent her on. Watching Hitomi, namely, and the River. Just as well that I sent her, as it turns out; there's plenty I haven't heard from our friendly neighbourhood oracle. A visit from Shimizu herself, to... well now. Is that right? Our rogue murderess is looking out for me. I'm touched, honestly, and... well, I'll be honest, I haven't felt quite this flattered in a long time, but I doubt that's what she had in mind. Still, it's high praise in its own way, isn't it? One of the Third's few innocents, cruelly duped by Sanbey. Hah! Poor guy doesn't have it in him to do that, not really.

"As far as I can tell, she wanted to 'rescue' you. To whisk you away to her side so that you can help her bring down Sanbey and topple the Third, after she exposes whatever she assumes Sanbey's crimes are. She seemed adamant about not hurting you; saving you before she tears down the rest of the Officio, if anything."

Got to say, as meetings go, it's been nice listening to this. Not the first time I think this, but she's got a good narrating voice, that sort of thing. Leave it to me to put everything in film terms, I guess, but it's the kind of thing I could listen to for ages; makes all this a little better. ...Maybe I ought to start spouting film metaphors or something. I mean, if Yumishita's going to act like Sanbey's some sort of cartoon villain - and let's face it, he gets his ideas from me - I better act the part, right? Pulling the strings of the pawns as they dance across the silver screen on the stage of my theatre of the grand guignol-

Ah, hell, I can't do it. Never mind.

"If she has a soft spot for me, whatever her reason," I ask her, snapping back to the here and now to put my best stern look on, "what should that mean after what she's done to so many others?"

No mercy, no quarter, and a lot of other things she's not getting. Sympathy for the devil is, as it turns out, in short supply, even if she did decide I'm too good to this. Hands are tied here: People want blood by now, and they're getting it. Of course, 'hands are tied' isn't quite right; it's not like I ever had any particular interest in sparing her. Still, I'm out to get justice for all those sweet and innocent souls we lost to her, all the people of the Third that she cruelly cut down, and so on and so forth. Put on my angry justice face and people will love every second of it, is what I mean.

"Catch her. That's all there is to this, now and before. We can't let her cause any more harm. Bring her in if we can." Stone-faced, put a sword in the angel's hands. Sometimes people don't want a happy little smile, and learning when to put it away is just part of the job.

"If she plans to 'rescue' me, then that just means we have the bait right here, if it comes to that." Throw that in a second later, after thinking about it a little. Some nice self-sacrificing enthusiasm to get the crowd of one cheering. She's not really a cheering type, but I think that look means she approves. Good enough. ...Really, I'm not even making that up. Or I might not be. There's not all that much of a risk, after all, if she's not going to hurt me; I could set her up given half a chance. I'd rather not - you never know with sparklers - but it's an option I'm happy to have.

"...And Masame," she adds after a bit. "She's been looking into the river every spare moment she gets. If it's not over Yumishita, it's you. Pale as a ghost, trying to find everything she can. Frightened, but I don't know what's scaring her. ...It's probably the same as always. She must see someone die every week, at this rate."

"...Please keep an eye on her. I can't be there for her all the time, but..." My best worried, nervous face; it takes a lot of work to fake crying convincingly, and even more to pull off the look of someone trying to hold her tears back. Good thing I've had practice, really, or I wouldn't be able to keep it up. She agrees, and that's that. She doesn't need to know why. Too much digging in my past or my future is going to turn up a lot of loose ends, a lot of questions I don't want to deal with.

See, that's the problem. You let one thing slip around here and it all comes down like a... well, you know. Something that comes down really easily.

"And try to keep her away from the river. Please."

"If you're worried about her straining herself, I don't think that's enough for Sanbey to-"

I give her the sigh I practiced for a while, and the secret I'm oh-so-grudgingly parting with. Because this is important. Because sometimes, protecting the people who mean the world to you matters more than an officio's secrets. A little one-of-a-kind moment, just between her and I.

"I shouldn't really be telling you this," confiding in her, because she needs to know, because she's earned it, "but... I guess I can tell you a secret, Miss Katsuragi. Sanbey told me not too long ago. He doesn't want anyone panicking, but... we think there might be a witch that can target the river. If any of the visions it sends out catch her..." Another sigh, another frown, a few more tears choked back.

"I hope it hasn't affected her already," and there's my out in case she starts saying anything funny. "We're not sure it's even there yet, that it exists at all, but we've seen hints and we don't want to take any chances. I need you to keep a secret, but... keep her busy, watch the river, let me know if anything strange happens. Please, keep her safe."

She nods, gets up a few minutes later. On the way to the door, she turns around just a little, asks me something over her shoulder.

"When Sanbey came to me, I wished to never be noticed. To blend in."

"I know, you-"

"Did you wish for the same?"

...It's a rare day when I feel nervous, around here. That did it. I doubt she's saying half of what I think she might be, but... Crazy as this sounds, I'm glad I can see her weapon. A little... what was it called? Parrying dagger or something like that. Means she's relaxed, I know that much. If she was tense, she'd pull the mask back up, wouldn't let anyone see something like that.

Secrets are a useful thing. Very useful. Ones you made up five seconds ago, doubly so. Nothing like a little false vulnerability - opening up to someone with none of the risks - to buy you some trust. Seemed like the best trick to break out, right now.

"That's between Sanbey and I. Some people make good wishes. The right wishes. I regret mine, but I hope I can make up for it some day. ...That's all, nothing glamorous." How many of their stories are? A sprinkle of remorse, a dab of imperfection and a hint at some old regret, for that perfect look of baring your soul to someone. All I've got, really; I don't want to bank too much on pretending to be a Callidus, with someone like Aoi.

We trade another minute or two of conversation, and she heads off. She seems to buy it, going by the look she gave me. I hope she did.

What did I wish for, huh? Of all the questions to ask...

Pearly Gates 4: Call Me Cordy[edit]

Here is a scream. Hers. Alone? More than she would like, less than she needed. Fire? A lone blazing light, extinguished. Now birdsong - there is always birdsong - and blood of her own veins. Head swimming, the whole world whirling, stars twinkling in her helmet before her eyes. Mud creeps in somehow, through the visor.

It tastes of memories.

How long had she lain there? Too long. Could have died. Not long enough. So tired.

Why? Why here? It didn't matter. Could not matter. The forest, a different one, older woods, more familiar. It stretches on, it bars and beckons. Onward. Always onward.

Further. Step by step. Slowly she staggers, the broken cursed thing that calls herself Megumi Minakata. One foot forward, then another, little by little she collapses into the waiting trees. Into their outstretched branches.

They wait. They will not be patient.


Here is a home.

A roof. Four walls. A window and a bed. She had had them. They were not home. Not home. Only a house. House of cold stone dark rooms shrieking breaking-

The forest is her home. The forest is safe. The forest is kind. The owl on her shoulder preached in whispers. Reassured, soothed, made a call of gentle calm.

The branches are so gentle, the trees so welcoming. Here the leaves speak only kindnesses. Vine and bark and leaf, so careful, so cautious, holding her up with inhuman care.

Fire, somewhere. Shouting. Something broken, a great many things. The owl tells her not to worry. The cat purrs at her feet. The hive buzzes and hums sweetly.

Where had the rabbit gone?


Here is forbiddance.

The ground wails, her steps make it broken. The sky whimpers, unwilling to look on. Thunder and rain, thunder and rain. Neither burning nor extinguishing. Sound and fury, empty weather. The fire struggles. The fire endures. The forest triumphs still.

The stars, the moon, almost in sight, almost out. Do they laugh or do they hide? They say nothing and still she tumbles through the impenetrably thick night.

Let them have their secrets. Bury them in it. What good would they do her here?

A tree stares at her through a barn owl's half-face, and through choking sap it howls in the voice of a tearful beast. 'Do not take her', it pleads. Wishes of bark, cries of roots. It means nothing.

It lashes, it strikes. The woods are angry, they are hungry, they will not cease, they will not slow. Blood? Of course, of course. A wonder she has more left. A happy wonder. Do they drink, or do they waste it? No time to look. Feet on earth, feet on leaves, faster, further, onward.


Here is peace.

The rabbit, it spoke so sweetly. The rabbit, it promised such things. They would come for her soon. They would take her back. Take her back and never would she break away, the branches the leaves the soil the swarms the packs never to see them again gone forever always gone-

A dream with snow of fur and the sea for eyes. It came for her, it came to save her.

They came on two legs, on two wheels and four, perhaps they would come with wings. Come to take her away, drag her from the forest. The forest she never wanted to leave.

'Would you like to make a wish?'

Yes. What else? To have peace, to never leave. To never leave. Never leave the forest.

She smiles softly. The pelts of trees wrap around her, and the beauty of petals see through her. To the beasts, solace. To the hives, shelter.

The rabbit had been so kind, but where did it run to?


Here is a grave.

Mud. Hungry rain-soiled mud. It swallows her feet, it pulls her down. Each step wrenches away, tramples it, overpowers the earth. It cries tears of little pebbles and brown water. The earth, never a gracious loser.

The sky mourns every step. Loud wails. Almost enough, but sirens will not be drowned out. A call breaks through the din of the woods, once, twice, then silenced.

The ones that came before. The ones that she must outrun. A rescue to be made, before others find-

She trips, and gleefully the leaves swallow her. What had caught her? A hand, an arm. What broke her fall? A man, nameless now. No. Nothing of the sort. Too many pieces. Too many for one. How many had the woods taken?

One more soon, no doubt.


Here is a fortress.

She waits. She watches. She blooms.

A monster still, a hand, it would steal the forest from her, it would steal her from the forest. End the hand, end the calling the voice, cut it away, drown it out, hear only buzzing, hear only howls.

Footsteps, nearer now, heard in the panicked rustling of leaves. The ground warned her, and she spoke to it, calmed it with quiet words and a gentle pat. It rumbles softly, and she soothes its sobbing.

What was this thing at her side, that breathed a hive and saw with sprouting eyes from a bear's body? A friend, and a friend only. Was that not all that mattered? It would protect her. Those that came for her oh so recently, they danced the dance of vines and sung songs of gurgling pollen, so happy were they to find the heart of the forest.

Ah, yes. There she is.


Here is a battle. Here is an end.

The queen awaits, she is so small. Green and brown cover her shape. Rose-red petals, thorned vines stare where once were eyes. Skin of bark, skin of leaves, skin that crawls and buzzes with little wings. Hands that bite, ears that shriek, packs and herds bubbling, boiling under the shell. Branches and roots, extending, reaching from her, fleeing from her: To what do they race?

A voice speaks. Is it a stranger, is it a friend? Is it her? Her own name, stranger or friend? The voice of an old wound, the voice of a spear, a gilded whisper calls to her. It can help, it can save her, and slowly she nods. The helmet's visor is raised to admit its radiance, closed to shield her eyes. Doubtless it can help. Doubtless.

Strangling roots. Rending claws. One and all close in on her, bear down, choking the life from her and stinging poison into her veins. Blood and spit mingle on the inside of her helm, curses drowning in the mix as she flails helplessly, pushing away assailants with unseen force.

It can help her. It would save her. And finally she accepts. The spear, so recently piercing her side, now in her hand. Its touch burns, its presence scars. Voiceless shrieks. The woods recoil; she is free. She cannot be stopped. She will not be contained. Cold metal poised, driven down, seeking only prey, burying itself in rich heart's blood-


It did not end so.

A moment from the fatal strike. The spear vanishes from her arms, and she falls instead onto the soft, yielding earth. So welcoming, so kind, so restful after the torture she faced. The monster is roused. Broken bark shrieks, muffled by sap. A strange beast's roar echoes from deep inside her mouth, forced open by roots from within. Her hair-vines lash, swivel and stare at her as one, and finally her own voice comes from inside blooming eyes, as they watch the small, green-brown jewel in her gnarled hands.

"...Are you going to hurt me?"

"No." Not after coming this far. The helmeted huntress falters, looking at her wounds, and adds "...Suit. Don't nick the suit. Not any more. Holds magic back. Would make you sick. Vomit on my shoes. Bad day all around. Don't make this messy."

"...I'm Kaede. What's your name?"

"You going to remember?"

She falters. She frets. Under her visor, the huntress smiles.

"...Then just call me Cordy. Like the mushroom. You know it, right? I bet you do."

A bright, eager grin. A sharp nod. Cordy's hand, gently pulling the queen of the woods up to her feet.

"Come on. Out of here. Somewhere safe. Before you try to kill me again. Here, take one of these. Press it against that gem. ...Can you walk?"


The dream passes, and Megumi wakes to the Third Officio's hospital wing. What was it the girl had asked her the next day? If she would be safe. What a strange question, in this company. How could Megumi lie?

"Might die if you stay 'round me." Verbose, for her. She looks up, slowly, half-smiling even as she mutters a quiet oath to herself when she sees who else is there. Kaede, of course. How kind of her to visit.


How long had it been since that night in the woods? It wasn't honest, taking her in. Of course it wasn't. She knew that, she always knew, but... but what? The girl was an easy mark. Someone too eager, too attached to the one who had waded through a nightmare to bring a newly-contracted, out-of-control child to safety. She would never run, never turn away, even in the face of a walking disaster area. She would care, she would need help, she wouldn't know any better.

Was it a crime to take her in just to feel needed? That wasn't her question to answer. She could only make it a victimless one.

"Yeah, but you'll get better. Stick around, kid, it's a riot." One gloved hand reaches out, holding Kaede's as Megumi lies prone on the hospital bed. The pain soon convinces her not to move further.

"...So how've you been? Missed a couple things. Stab wounds helped. Go on, here all day."

Human Resources 10: Wishes and Madwomen[edit]

I'd say they tell you a lot of things they do about the job. It'd be a good lead-in, but it would also be a lie. I mean, I've told a few of those before, but half the point of this job is that no one tells the sparklers what they're getting into, and as for me... well, Peter and I sort of had to find out along the way. Not exactly a slew of precedents.

So instead I'll say I expected a lot of things about the job. You've got horrific monstrosities beyond the veil that man was not meant to know - presumably, this is why we get young women to deal with them instead - though in my position I see a whole lot less of those than I expected going in. Close to zero, really. You've got the conspiracies, the magic, the madwomen and trained killers without a lick of sense, and what someone way too fancy for their own good - the sort that'd stick Latin names on every little thing - might call a masquerade, on my part. No, that's all there, alright.

What they don't tell y- what I didn't expect is the train rides. Or bus, I guess, part of the way. I never did get the hang of driving - not sure I've got the reflexes for it, and I've seen enough crashes in my time to scare me off it - so I take the option that's left to me. You see a lot of strangers along the way, or at least, I do. Maybe other people get to know the crowds that catch the same trains or something. I've just got no idea. Makes me think, though, seeing all these people going about their lives.

It's just something I don't really have. Just about literally dead to the world, and that has a way of limiting your options. So does the whole 'shadowy double life as a manager for a gaggle of magical assassins' thing. I don't talk to them or anything - doesn't seem right somehow, and I don't know what I'd say if someone... well, normal came up to me in the street. Different worlds. Something I turned away from and can't have. Feels a little strange, I guess, sitting beside all these people, seeing them going through the motions of something completely unfamiliar.

Most of them are probably... well, themselves. Don't get me wrong, I love a good act. Wouldn't have worked towards that kind of life otherwise. Thing is, though... well, that's the problem with a good mask, I guess. Once it gets good enough, you're not allowed to take it off any more. Funny how that one works, with your hand forced by... what, people who don't even know it exists? By me? I don't know. Too early in the morning to get existential.

Leave that to Petey, I guess. He's pretty good at it.

Most of them probably have some sort of company. Herding superpowered lunatics don't count. At the end of the day, I come back to an empty house and... what? Who's there to talk to? What is there to do? Can't even stand crashing on the couch and watching reruns like I'm probably supposed to. Got nothing to do and no one to see till it's time to hit the officio again; doesn't feel quite right calling it the 'daily grind' considering. About the only one I can really talk to is... no, no. I'm going to stop that right there, before I get as uncomfortable about the whole thing as he does.

I wonder, just for a moment, how all this ended up being so unfamiliar. It wasn't that far off from my own life, a few years ago.

All for your dream, Harumi. That's what I told myself. I'm still here, though, aren't I? Been years, at that. Because I don't have quite enough to retire and never have to worry again, maybe? Or I don't have the connections, I guess. That's not wrong, but it's not going to change with this whole shadow life thing. Maybe I'm worried that the whole place would fall apart without me? I mean, yeah, probably true, and I couldn't really do that to Peter; who knows when that started being something I care about, but for a heartless soul-draining alien, the guy has a way of looking out for me. Sometimes I wonder - and this is what keeps me from moving into the officio, when all's said and done - if it's because I'm one of them by now, more or less. Too far apart from the 'real' world to know anything about it.

...I didn't expect the train rides. At least this one's over. Goodbye, introspection. Hello, looming corporate monolith.


Aside bookkeeping and the closest I have to business meetings - sitting in a room with Petey and pitching ideas at him once in a while - I've got one major thing to take care of today. And that means preparation. As for what the preparation involves... if I had to pick an explanation, I'd say it's a big part of this job: Getting to know people. I don't mean conversation. That's good too, but it sort of misses the point if they see you figuring them out. No, it's a lot of looking through records and dossiers. Files, luckily. Used to be actual papers back when I first joined. I thought we stopped doing that right around when we quit putting heads on pikes and so on, but apparently not.

It's a record, this time. Megumi Minakata - or Cordy, as just about everyone calls her - that witch-cursed girl. The... magic-stopper ones. Culexus, that was it. Gah. Ranks in plain language or at least a living language would be too much to hope for, I guess. Paying her a visit later, which means one Kaede Morimoto will be there too. Thick as thieves, those two. Or Morimoto never leaves her babysitter, I'm not sure. At any rate, it's got me looking over the time they met and, idly, wondering why don't do psych profiles yet.

Probably because everyone's gone too far off the deep end for keeping track to mean much. Then again, hard to say; I'm not exactly an expert shrink.

First time they met was... was a disaster, really. I try not to bring it up around Sanbey, it's one of those times that he worked by himself and it didn't work out too well. Not that I'm going to pretend he can't do it right without me looking over his shoulder, mind. Gets plenty of good contracts alone, these days, or at least a decent amount. You know, credit where it's due and all that, it's not like the little guy needs me holding his hand all the time. Things just... happen, sometimes.

I've made mistakes too, obviously, but I get to not talk about those.

The kid - Kaede, I mean - ran away from home a couple times. Don't think she remembers much from there, and from the little I found out... well, good on her if she doesn't. Ran away to the nearby woods; she told me before that it's where she feels safest. Always has been. While everyone's looking for her, police included - gone missing, after all - along comes an incubator, offering her a wish. She wished that she would never need to leave the forest. Well, close enough; the forest never left her, or at least, that's how it was explained to me. All I know is that she wound up with all kinds of weird magic for... I don't know. Trees, bugs, plants, changing herself all over, animals popping out of thin air, weird stuff.

It was getting messy, so we sent in Cor- Megumi to clear that up. Funny, that. I do end up thinking of most of them by their first name, a lot of the time. Familiarity's not all a sham, I guess. Anyway, she was either going to kill herself, witch out or just cause a mess too big to cover up without anyone intervening, given everything she was doing to that forest. Heard Megumi going on about hungry mud that ate at her feet, 'flowers for eyes and a hive for breath', trees begging and gurgling through bits and pieces of an owl's face, stretched across the bark.

Wouldn't have believed a word of it, but... I don't know. She hates this kind of weird babbling about as much as I do, always been pretty down to earth, so... I'm going to just believe her on this one, and be glad I wasn't there. Didn't seem too fazed by it, came in with the kid passed out in her arms. Then again, not sure if anything bothers her any more. Curse sure doesn't seem to. Sort of wish more of them had her good sense, but maybe not so much on the whole disaster-magnet liability thing.

It's the fallout of a wish, in the end, all the troubles with the forest. But then, what isn't? ...Makes me wonder, sometimes.

"Hey, Peter." Don't know why I asked. Suddenly curious, I guess. "Let's say you could do it... let's say a rabbit or a genie or whatever came to you. What would you wish for?" He's quiet, at first. "Come on, don't tell me you never thought about it." Still quiet for a bit. Realised after a minute that he's just thinking about it. Far too much, same way he does about everything.

"The success of our mission, of course. Though I remind you that an incubator can make no wishes, lacking what humans do." Yeah, right, emotionless and all that. Not quite sure I buy it any more. ...Something funny about his voice when he says that. Wooden, somehow. More so than his usual monotone, almost like he's forcing it somehow. ...I remember when he didn't have to. For all the people I'm supposed to have figured out in this building, the one I actually get along with is the one I can't make any sense of. Maybe that helps, I don't know.

Don't know what to make of this. Better to hit the hospital wing and not think about this too hard.


"Miss Minakata?"

"You know no one calls me that." Raspy, crackling, the same way her voice always came through that funny helmet of hers.

"...Megumi, then?"

"No one calls me Megumi either."

"Someone should."

"Would be nice."

It's easy to think she's upset, or annoyed. It's the impression she tends to give, and I have a feeling she likes it that way. 'No one's an island. Work in progress.' That was how she put it to me, I think. Knowing her as long as I have, though - which isn't THAT long, but more than anyone else here who's still alive - this is a pretty good mood for her. Getting more than two or three words out of her at a time, too, which is something she keeps for Kaede and I, mostly. Apparently she likes the way I don't run away or get sick the moment a Culexus walks past. Strangest thing, huh? She seems to think I'm just that good, and I'm not about to correct her.

"Are you... alright, Megumi? I mean, you look-"

"Old carcass?"

"That's not-"

"Like to think I make it work. Missed anything important."

"Anything important? Megumi, you've got a big stab wound right through your-"

"Heart. Grows back." I swear she's grinning under that helmet. ...Usually like this, talking to her. Almost refreshing in a weird way. She's not wrong, either. Everything but the soul gem is replaceable, more or less. At least, if they get over the trauma from losing whatever bits in the first place, and... well, what I'm seeing here doesn't exactly scream 'trauma' to me.

"Megumi? If it's not too much for you - talking, I mean, or thinking about it - could you please tell me what happened the other day? And... where did Kaede go? I thought she would be here with you."

"Was. Sent her away. Easier grilling me this way. Doesn't need to hear." Well, I can't argue with that. Makes the job easier for me, too. On one hand it means she's lucid enough to think of this kind of thing. On the other hand... what is she even about to tell me?

"Woke up in a forest. Always a forest. Always. Pretty tired of it. ...Heh. I see dead people. Occupational hazard. Matter of time."

Sometimes I wonder how they can act like this. How they can deal with it all. I guess they don't; either they snap eventually, or they already have, just in a quieter way that doesn't involve a giant monster. Hard to tell sometimes. At least Cordy here is the quieter kind of crazy, the kind that doesn't bury a knife in anyone.

"Bodies. Lots of 'em. Few that should've been dead. All speared on trees, looked..." For a second, she just stares off into space.

"Calm. So calm. Even speared right through. Golden spearheads. Gold everywhere. Tacky, gory place. And then she started singing."

"...'She'? Who is that?" It's a hard voice to manage. Frightened, of course. Disturbed, because the angel of the Third is still an innocent at heart. Resolute, because I can't let it show, not when I need to stay strong. I like to think I did alright.

"No clue. Looked like a bird. Thought it was a witch. Dead wrong. Angry sparkler. Got a spear. Entire potato on her shoulder or something. ...Didn't kill me. Hah. Sorry, spoiled the twist. Said the spear stopped her. Told her I should live."

"...The spear." Flat. Well, alright, call that one unscripted, but we're reaching the upper levels of crazy talk, here.

"Mhm. Maybe it's- well, never mind."

So much for answers. "And this... this magical girl that attacked you, might she be one of ours? Could it be Yumishita attacking again? I know she's been hiding out in witch barriers, attacking anyone who-"

"I look like I got a hole in my head? Sniped clean through?" ...Well, she was talking with what you might poetically call a broken heart, you can't blame me for looking just to be sure. That got a... was that a laugh out of her? I'm going to assume that's what the horrible, distorted gurgling sound was.

"...Not that I can see."

"Then it's not a sniper. Didn't get a good look. Still, not her. Got two crazies. Lucky us. ...Mind bringing the diary? Gotta write this down. Real special, curse outdoing itself, maybe. ...Least once I can move my arms proper."

"Of course. ...Thank you, Megumi. Just rest now." All motherly - or sisterly, I never was quite sure, but it seems to work on everyone here - concern and care. And, of course, the recognition a hero deserves. "I'll send someone to- no, I'll get it myself once we're done here." Personally. It's the little things that matter.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" I ask her after a second. She nods, which is a bit of a surprise.

"...Hearing things. Ever since I got hurt. Voice. Don't recognise it."

...Well if this isn't getting loonier by the second. May as well spit it out. "What is it saying?"

"...Hell if I know. Let me just... quote." She stops for a moment, clearing her throat a few times. Not sure what I expected, but this sure wasn't it.

"Receive the golden blessing. Enter Her garden. Welcome the embrace of thorns, the rapturous trees. The offering, the sacrifice, the vessel, the blade, four become one, the four MUST be one. At last Her grace shall come. Take it from the apostle, rob her of it, her hands make it broken, her voice defiles prayers. Silence it break it quieten redeem mangle she is not worthy she is not worthy she is not worthy-"

...And then, just like that, nothing. I start wondering what's going on for just a moment until I see the trickle of blood leaking from under the helmet.

"Megumi? Megumi! Are you-"

"...Echoes. Really echoes in my helmet. 'M fine. Quieter, please. Enough of a headache already. Shouldn't... hah. Shouldn't have said that. Need a favour. Warmaste- no. Rank leade- no, still wrong. Hard to be formal with you. ...Miss Ryouno. Have a request."

I just nodded. At this point, I'm not really sure what to expect, for once.

"Solitary confinement. Silent Room, if you can. ...Losing it, I think."

Spent a while trying to console her before I left. Going through the motions, I guess; I don't know if she needs it. I wonder, sometimes, about what's happening lately; feels like the place is starting to come unglued. Still, I guess that's not my problem, is it?

Peter and I talked, later, about who should take the fall, who should be officially behind the order to get her looking into this. We decided on him, in the end. Moving in mysterious ways, and all that; easy to explain if it comes from someone none of them quite understand, and the best any of us can give is a shrug.

Seems like all the problems recently come from the Third. I miss the days with witches, somehow.

Mercy Killing 7: Protect and Serve[edit]

"I wish to be a hero."

Sometimes, on the slower days, she would wonder how often Sanbey had heard that before. How many times Harumi had heard it. It must have been quite a large number, enough that they knew what to ask her.

The Dragonslayer of Mitakihara had, as usual, yet to find any dragons in the vicinity, to her constant chagrin and an incessant chorus of reminders. It wasn't that it bothered her all that much, really, only that her off days gave her a great deal of time to think. Well, off days that she didn't spend visiting Hitomi, at least. Or bothering Harumi - as friendly as the officio's de facto mentor was, it was hard to shake off the nagging feeling that she must have something pressing and important to deal with. Or Mitsuko; say what you will about her harsh demeanour, she made a point of clearing time for anyone who asked for it. Every time.

And then there was Cor- Miss Minakata, of course, but as much as she tried to be... friendly in her own gruff, awkward sort of way, being around a Culexus was always difficult. And now, of course, she was hospitalised. A small twinge of guilt, there, for not having visited yet. A voice of reason, on the other hand, telling her that practically everyone at the Third had a stint in the hospital at some time or the other. They could all shake it off.

Once in a blue moon, her days off from Officio work would coincide with the days that her father - her mother had left the picture a year or two into her life - was also free. The rest of the time, he would instead jump through endless hoops to see to it that he is there with her. Sometimes, of course, he couldn't make it, and she would never dream of arguing; the life of a police officer was nothing if not unpredictable, after all.

As much as he always took pains to be here, the times when he was not - and the stories he would tell - were every bit as inspiring, in her earlier years. All her years, really, to this day. It was what inspired her efforts to, much to his alarm, follow in his path. For that matter, she spent a good number of years following some vague idea of being a 'hero'. In retrospect, it was just as well that she had a little more direction than that, these days.

She had been lucky to find it that day, a few carelessly misplaced papers from the Third. Something about a shadow war with witches, some talk of magic and needing new recruits to stave off their influence. ...Well, no, 'careless' was a harsh way to put it. Some things were bound to get lost. It was lucky that this was found by her rather than... oh, someone who shouldn't be seeing it. Others might laugh if she called it fate, but she never let a little laughter stop her.

When she finally tracked them down, afraid that they might be angry - she had, after all, intruded on their secret world - they were more than accommodating. They were concerned, of course, but willing to hear her out, and in the end they only asked her, when she first suggested her wish, a single question.

"Are you sure?"

It was a test, of course! One which gave her some pause. A test of her courage? Obviously; it was only natural. A quiet, clever test, too, of her morals. Of course, only the best and brightest - the most upstanding candidates that Mitakihara had to offer - could be accepted. The thought of this sort of power being put in the wrong hands was nothing short of terrifying. They needed heroes, yes, but as she soon realised, anyone who wanted to be a hero was the last thing they would want.

She didn't want fame, she told them soon after. Not fame, not glory - well, alright, the title was a small indulgence, after a funny mood she had on a bored thursday afternoon - and not power. She wanted to protect others. That was the beginning and end of it. That brought her some comfort, after the fact: If no one seems to take note of her, if she is not a particularly extraordinary Eversor, that is only proof that her wish is working. That whatever she has will need to be earned. What magic she was given brought her everything she needed: She could tell when others around her were in danger, and how to best stop them from coming to harm. What more could she ask for?

...Well, yes, the term 'human shield' had come up around the Officio a few times. Still, to those who said it, it was an insult; to her, it was a badge of honour.

There was the danger of the job, of course; on that, her father had been assured that the risks were quite small. They, after all, didn't stay dead. Mitsuko, as she recalled, had even volunteered to demonstrate. Something clean, she insisted. There were some things no one needed to see, and equally, some things she didn't care to clean up. He didn't look pleased, exactly, but he relented, with some measure of pride. He asked a few questions now and then, even came to the Third's offices now and then, claiming he should at least know enough to understand the stories she told him.

It took a while for her to realise just how unusual this was.

Training. None of it would come to anything without training. Mitsuko had told her as much on her first day, and for all the caustic demeanour, for all the customary abuse the Vanus showered upon all her pupils, Yuko had accepted it, even thanked her for her help. It was some of the finest teaching the Third had to offer, after all. Her friend - Yuko had considered her one from the start - looked bewildered at first. These days it got a rare smile out of her.

'At least you know what to tell me,' she would say. 'It's a start.'

Twinblades. Why twinblades? Well, sure, it was big and impressive, and... good for crowds? Probably? Really, that was just a guess. They were so... well, no, not heavy. Of course not. She hadn't tried swinging a telephone pole, but she had an inkling that it might, at least, not go too badly. Still, the shape of these things was... well, awkward. It would take some doing. Still, she likes a challenge, or at least, she repeats as much to herself a few dozen times.

The cartoons stay on in the background. She wasn't even following these shows, but the white noises didn't hurt, and they were in English; with luck, she might pick up a few words from osmosis alone. Even enough to understand Penny- no, that was probably never happening.

It wasn't working, so far, but that was alright. Something to practice to, and- oh. Oh dear, that was embarrassing. Good thing no one saw it. ...It was going to be alright, of course. All of this. Some of the Third's best would be with her on the next hunt, the search for the renegade. All the same, she would like to know enough not to make a fool of herself. Enough to justify bringing her along.

Personally, she still couldn't tell why she was chosen. All the more reason to change that.

Human Resources 11: Cleaning Up[edit]

Sometimes I talk myself up like I'm perfect, like I've never once slipped up on the job.

Sometimes I go on and on about how hard it is to do my job, to keep everything running just so.

Sometimes I'm just all talk, all hot air, it seems like, going on about 'oh, you know, sometimes it does come apart a bit.'

Like I'm just paying lip service to danger, to risks, just so I don't sound too full of myself. Don't know who I'm trying to convince in my own head. Is that something like how prayer works? Wouldn't know, was never much of a religious type. Figure if there's any great big cosmic force fussing over the universe, I probably work for it. ...Now there's a thought.

It doesn't always work out perfectly. Once upon a time...


Callidus. Old hire. Well, old-ish. The sort that calls me every now and then to help her work through some of the things she's seen. It's alright, I tell her. I've seen it all, too. Been at this longer than her, after all. I understand. She believes every word of it, and I get that nice feeling of a job well done. She walks away with something a bit closer to a smile, a little less weighing her soul gem down - can't fix some things by bashing grief seeds against it - and that's a job well done too. Nice enough, in its own way.

Her name was... well, never mind her name. It doesn't mean a whole lot now.

"Miss Ryouno, can you make it to my home now? It's... urgent." Not a good sign, but not rare either. I get those calls a lot. Almost asked if we can't just do this closer to here, at the dorms - far as I know, she was on her way out at most - but I knew not to. She answered anyway, like she read my mind or something.

"I would offer to do this closer to work, but it's... private. At least, I think it probably should be."

Well, that's alright. That's how it is with most people here; everything's personal, everything's secret and private and dramatic like you wouldn't believe. I tell her I'll be there in fifteen, take a bus, and run from the station once it stops. Partly being punctual, partly... well, if she catches me running to make it as quick as I can, that's a nice bonus, isn't it?

She opens the door, and where she's usually all smiles - forced or no - frowning or looking frightened, today she just looks... tired. Really, really empty and tired. Put through the wringer one time too many, broken down a little too much, just slowly coming apart. I've seen that look a couple times before, but in this line of work that's really no surprise at all.

Tells me to sit down, before she says anything. It's a nice, warm, comfortable chair, and she sinks into an armchair opposite it like a bag of rocks. She always liked being comfortable, and it shows in just about everything around her place. A little grateful for it, really. It's not half bad, coming to a place like this, it really isn't. She fixes me from across the small space between the chairs with a stern glare. Funny, that's not one I'm used to.

"Miss Ryouno," she starts. That's a new one too. Well, not new, but rare enough. We're close enough that it's usually just 'Harumi', the way I like it. Shows they're used to you. Today, the look she's giving me isn't nearly as familiar.

"Do you know what my job at the Third is?"

"Of course. Vanish from sight and sound. Spy for us." She's a veteran, there's no need to sugarcoat quite as much. She never cared for it anyway, and this job's all about learning what each person wants to hear.

"I've been hearing things. From friends in the Ninth."

"What did they tell you? If anyone's giving you trouble, I can-"

"I didn't believe them at first. I had to see for myself. Hear for myself. First I listened at the door, then I looked inside. I realised later that you probably have... something that would see me, normally, but I must have been lucky. ...That gem around your neck, Miss Ryouno. How much did it cost you?"

She was right. Got wards for that sort of thing, but I mistimed a few of them last week, had a couple gaps. Noticed after the fact, didn't think it would matter. Right now, she has me just about frozen in place, shocked out of my senses, giving her that wide-eyed beached fish stare. Probably not the best reaction.

"Did you call me because what I say here might make a difference?" Well, no, maybe it's not the best answer I could've given. I don't have many in me, sometimes. Hard to believe, but it's true.

"...Probably not," she admits.

"Nothing." She almost looks like she's about to laugh for a minute, thinking I'm trying to pass my pretty little 'soul gem' off as the real thing. "It was a favour. Sanbey can call in no end of those, even if he hardly ever does it. I'd say we owe them, but it looks like this more than makes up for it."

"What about the souls the Incubators collect? I heard that was to... save the world? I'm not sure I believe it, but-"

"Whether it works or not, Sanbey's more serious about that than most of them, I can promise you that."

"Is that why you're doing this?" I might as well try being honest. It's refreshing, in a way, being able to... cut loose like this. Suppose that's the sort of thing that gets you monologuing with the hero hovering over a vat of acid, though.

"No. I mean, I'd like to tell you that. I'd like to tell myself that, and sometimes I will. Doesn't make it true, you know? It's a nice bonus, if it's true. They think it's true; question of how well it's working, is all."

"Then... what did he offer you?" Couldn't help but laugh, there. She looked confused, for a second.

"Kid, you should know that doesn't matter after the first few years. ...But just for the record, I made him an offer. He's not any good at this by himself, see?"

"It doesn't work forever."

"I'd like to think of this as more of an edge case. Frankly, most of them keel over before too long anyway. It's that kind of job." Maybe not mincing words is a bit of a small favour to her. Maybe it's one for me. Maybe I'm just not quite up to pulling from my usual bag of tricks. Really, I'm not quite sure by now.

"And, ah... thanks. For keeping all this to yourself and coming to me first, I mean. Going to be honest, it makes things a lot easier for me." You learn to appreciate the little things. Could've gone much, much worse.

"It's funny, isn't it? I tried to think about someone I can go to with this, someone I can trust, who knows how to fix this kind of thing, and..."

"Well, I'm flattered. Glad that much is still working."

"Are you going to kill me now?" Froze up again for a second, there. Nervous little laugh; mine, I noticed after a moment. To... keep the secret? Yeah, I guess some people might.

"What, did you marathon some mafia films before you called me out here? No, nothing like that." No, a little joke isn't about to lighten the air, but if it's light enough to see through, that's enough. "I'm a lot of things. I've been a lot of people. Never a murderer. I'm not good for much besides saying the right things, see? So we're going to talk this out." Always wondered what a hostage negotiation is like; maybe this is the next best thing, if we're talking sheer tenseness.

"What happens to me now, then?"

"Good question."


"I'm thinking. Let's see...I'm not giving you the concrete shoe treatment no matter how much you expect it, so that's out. They call those 'retirements' in this business. Cute little name, but I don't like to do it for every little thing like some places do. You sure you haven't told anyone?"

"I think I would remember. Do you believe me?"

"Since you ask, I do. I also can't afford to take risks; I'm going to get someone from the Ninth to... I don't know. Pick through the memories of everyone at the Third? Can any of the ranks do that? All this magic stuff is a closed book to me, no harm admitting it now, I guess."

She shrugs. "Not my department. I'm not sure either. Maybe you could try a Vanus or a Culexus?"

"I'll give that a go, thanks. Know something funny? I don't know where they got those names either."

"Really?" That one gets a little laugh out of her. The crazy things incubators do, huh? Or maybe it was some warmaster or the other. 'Warmaster', there's another weird one.

"Yeah. Never get answers to some things, it turns out.So, ah... let's see. I'm thinking relocation. Somewhere where you can't do any harm, far from the Third. We'll be watching you for any contact, obviously. Nothing personal, I just..."

"Can't take any chances. I understand." Of course she understood. Not a whole lot of choice. Well, unless she decides to finish me right here and now. There's that niggling doubt at the back of my head that, when all's said and done, even a Callidus could take me out pretty easily. Something in my eyes probably gave that away, I'm really slipping today. Or maybe too much suspicion means nothing helps any more. I'm not sure, right now.

"Miss Ryouno, w-what if..." she stammers and stops for a moment, before picking up again. "What if you don't make it out of the building?" If there was a less certain threat, I haven't heard it.

"Yeah, you can probably do that. And then what? You're a murderer, and I don't like to brag, but I'm pretty popular around these parts. Sanbey looks out for me, too, who even knows why. You wouldn't last too long. You've got a secret but no evidence, and not a soul in the Third would buy it just like that; I mean, even you didn't, and you can imagine how much worse it would go over if you killed me, assuming you even get to talk. You know just enough to get my attention. ...It's a bit of a lost cause, you know?"

If there was any of what you might call fire in her eyes, it's gone now. She gives me a sheepish smile and a little nod. "You're right. Sorry, that was a little... well, stupid, wasn't it?" The look she gives me, the one where she realises her life is - when all's said and done - in my hands, sparkler or no. Like she knows she just made an enormous mistake. I just brush it off.

"Nah. It's a good idea, really, or at least a sensible one. Just doesn't work here. The Third's fragile, but not that fragile. I'm not about to send a squad after you over a little idea like that."

"Thank you. I always knew I could be... well, honest with you." Feels strange, being thanked by her at a time like this. Guess some impressions never quite go away. I should probably feel proud of that, shouldn't I?

"Yeah, same to you," I tell her instead. "It... helps sometimes." And it really does, getting to just drop the act once in a while. "Guess you probably don't want to hear it, though."

"At least there's that."

"Mm. At least there's that."

Quiet, for a while. With me thinking, and her... who knows what she was doing. Don't know what I'd do, at a time like that, backed so far into the corner that she's practically on the other side of the wall. If I think there's pressure now... well, there is, and I'm not about to run into more than this, in this line of work. That's the important thing.

Ah. She's shaking.

"I'm thinking relocation," I tell her eventually, breaking the silence. "Your incredible skills got the attention of another officio and we reluctantly let you go, or something like that. You know how Officio politics are. Let's see... Eighth? No. Full of lunatics."

"Second?" She asks hopefully. "I think I would like seeing England. Of course, I would need to learn the language, but-"

"They're pretty picky about bloodlines, and their Incubator... I'm not saying you think alike, but Sanbey hates the guy so much he doesn't even talk about him. Bit of a bad sign, don't you think?" She looks exactly as shocked as I'd expect anyone to be by that. I know I was when the rabbit went on and on ranting about him.

"I'd suggest the Seventeenth, but... hmm. Language barrier. And the ten- no, no, shouldn't send anyone to that nightmare. Seventh?"

"I've barely heard of them."

"Far as I can tell, it's a lifetime of tea, meditation and making little daisy-chains or whatever while their Incubator does his best Shaolin monk impression. Really, I'm not surprised they're not talked about much. ...Probably going to look after you pretty well, though. You fancy giving that a try? I could have the paperwork figured out in a week or so. We'd need to keep you in the Silent Room or something until then, mind you. Obvious precautions and all that."

"Miss Ryouno, one question..."

"Go on. I'm listening."

"Does this... get better?" She asks me, pointing at her soul gem. I wait a moment, but I know what she means.

"Some of them live a pretty long while. Seventh and Seventeenth, mostly." That's probably something like consolation, isn't it?

"Am I some kind of monster? Am I still-" she trails off for a bit, looking for words. Don't think she liked the one she found. "Still a person?" I give her a sad little smile, the kind that doesn't outright say anything and doesn't need to. I'm not going to bother lying to the girl, that ended the second she dropped the bomb.

"...Well, that's not good enough. I want out."

"Lots of people do. Doesn't work that way. Short of turning into a witch or getting your soul gem shattered-"

"I know what I said, Miss Ryouno. I'm done with this. With being a ticking bomb. With being a monster. With being a puppet. It's over, all of this."

"...Alright. Alright, you win." What's there to say to that, really? Talk her down after I've burned a bunch of bridges? I mean, it's a clean solution for me, I'll give her that.

"Are, ah... are you sure?"

"Something close to it, at least."

Her voice breaks up a bit there. I'm not sure how it lasted this long. Mine might have done the same.

I expected a lot of things when I walked in, and even five minutes ago. Can't say this was part of it. I guess I win, don't I? It's over, all cleanly mopped up. She had the decency to tell me first, and then deal with her own mess. The liability that solves itself. Kind of a dream scenario, isn't it? But all the same, somehow...

"I can't really talk you out of it, can I?" She's calm, really calm, for something like this. She's probably scared out of her wits, thinking if she slips up now, she'll witch out. I don't even know if that's wrong. And me... well, I'm calm too, of course. It's my job. I could say I'm torn up about losing her, and I'd be lying. I could say I've seen lots of things, enough to numb me to this, and... that'd be a lie too. It's always someone else. It's always somewhere else, out of sight. I'm not used to this, up close.

"I wouldn't bother, if I were you. ...I could use a favour or two, though."

"Of course. Go on. What is it?" Am I eager to get a good deal out of this? Am I trying to help her somehow, after this? Couldn't say.

"Could you tell them... oh, a witch got me or something? Took it down with me. Maybe even, I don't know, took a hit for you; not too far off from the truth there, is it? I don't know, always like the idea of going out a hero. Just not enough to burn a wish on it; good thing too, with how many of those go sour."

"Of course. I can do that."

"I mean, if there's anyone they'd believe..."

"Hah! You're probably right, but thanks."

She's the one with a question again, after a bit. "...What do you say at a time like this, I wonder?"

"I was about to ask you. Not used to having to do that." It was a pretty bad joke, if it was one at all. We laugh anyway, because we're not quite sure what else to do. Maybe we looked at our options and decided this was the best thing we could do. Eventually, the niggling question in the back of my head comes back; that little thing about favours.

"Was there, ah... was there anything else?"

"Later. Could you stay here a while?"

So I did. We talked about... well, like she said, it's private. Personal. And to be honest, really not all that important. A whole lot of nothing, but it's the sort of nothing that means the world to some people. Just white noise to put things off, I guess. Maybe she was mulling things over along the way. It was a little hard to offer any help when she blew me off point blank, but really, in her shoes, would I be any different? It's a good thing I knew better than to get into all this, really.

Well, almost good enough. It'll have to do.

Eventually, the white noise turns into a pause, a pause turns into silence, and silence into awkward silence. She's the first to break it, and I'm not exactly thankful.

"Miss Ryouno, you... have a gun on you, right? Could you..."

"I told you already. I don't do that." Have to draw a line somewhere. Even if it does make me wonder why I carry the thing.

"Then could I borrow it?"

Long sigh before I caved in. "It's yours." And there goes that line in the sand.

"You've been... pretty stone-faced through all this, kid. Sure you don't want to... I don't know, settle down, have a good cry over it or something? It helps, sometimes."

"Oh, no. Not when you're looking." Saw something crack there, all the same. Not for the first time since I walked in.

"Probably hate me right about now, don't you?" Not sure why I asked. Just curiosity?

"I really should, shouldn't I?" She's got this thoughtful look, like she's not quite sure. "I think... if you paid a little for this, that would be nice. I don't want to hurt you, not quite. And... who knows? Maybe what you're doing needs to happen. Maybe it's for the best."

"Hell of a question. I'll let you know if the rabbit and I ever figure it out. ...Listen, if you have to do this, I could at least walk you back and we could... I don't know, probably work out something tidy that'd hurt a whole lot less."

"No. No, I think it needs to be this."

"Because...?" I'm honestly lost, again, not for the first time today.

She gives me a little smile, then. Half cold and half warm, strangest thing to look at. Guess she wanted to twist the knife and only barely had it in her. "Because I want to make sure you remember this," she says.

"Hey, kid. ...Miss? Just one thing."


"I, ah... I'm sorry. Not sure what for. Maybe lying to your face, maybe letting it turn out like this."

"You don't mean it."

"No, maybe not. I'd like to mean it, though."

"That's something, at least."

Cleanest thing I've ever seen. Just a loud bang and tinkling glass.

The noise got some attention, obviously, but the job has its perks. At least I didn't have to worry about that kind of trouble. Scot-free, with every loose end tied up, and I didn't so much as have to lift a finger. In its own way, I guess that's a job well done, too. A proper, perfect cleanup. Well done, Harumi. Even when I drop the ball, I'm pretty good at this, aren't I? Really, for a slip-up, it couldn't have ended any better.

...Think I was sick in some alley about five minutes later. Some days I'm not good at winning.


You know, it worked. She knew what she was doing, maybe better than me, in her own way. I remember it. I remember every little stain on the wallpaper and every frayed bit of carpet from the room that day.

...I'm not a killer, though. Got that going for me.