The Riddle of Witch Flesh

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"Knowledge is power. Guard it well."

Fanfic Info
Title The Riddle of Witch Flesh
Genres Drama, Tragedy, Psychological, Action
Author Ratmie
Timeline Half a year before the first main thread.
Canonicity Status Non-canon


Umika, one of the Pleiades Saints, transfers into a secluded, secretive Officio in Prague. She intends to learn about Witches in there, but ends up learning about Magical Girls instead.

Jarmila, another magical girl, is done with being lied to, and seeks change. After all, where everyone seeks knowledge, there is nothing more terrible than a secret.

They are brought together by the questions they ask, and their forbidden answers.

The Riddle of Witch Flesh[edit]

Part 1, an excerpt from 'On the Nature of Witches' (Individual Chapter)[edit]


Long time ago, it had been written, that the one who knows his enemy, as well as himself, needs not fight a hundred battles. While I don't intend to disagree with the great man who wrote so at all, it's vital to understand that his point stands in the realm of pure logic.

It does not, and was never meant to, account for the battles that must be fought. It doesn't consider that choosing morality or emotion, even impulsive actions, rather than calculating outcomes coldly, may often be the right path. Both Magical Girls and Witches are definitely beings born out of passion. And, what‘s more, they were brought to existence for the exact purpose of avoiding that chilling, hopeless world, that terminal station of reason.

A Witch is all that‘s left once we leave reason behind. We have the terrible fortune of having to deal with mystical elements, which we don't truly understand, on daily basis. It seems that everytime you try to establish a rule followed by all Witches, in order to gain advantage, you are eventually faced with one who throughly breaks it.

I have thought that Witches have no control, and then I've met the martial artist Witch. I have doubted their wits, and bit the substitute hook, line, and sinker. I have used to consider Witches mere things that just happen to contain some leftover thoughts, believed that the writings in their world are something like shadows of their past, and that I am putting them out of their misery, only to be begged by a teary-eyed witch to spare her Familiars, in rather broken Japanese.

Some Witches are so fragile in what they are, that their nature changes under one's hand, and some are so strong within their world, that they can just do and be whatever they decide on, whenever.

An Incubator would add, that this shifty unreliability and imperfection is the most valuable trait in humans.

What, then, you may ask, is the point of Witches being cataloged, and why should you read a book concerning the lore of Witches?

Even if we disregard the quote of a strategist, there is also a much simpler saying: "Knowledge is power". Have you ever considered how much weaker could the Incubator's occasional "You don't need to know" be making you? It is my personal belief, that you do, indeed, always need to know. If knowledge holds no value to you itself, let it be power to protect what you hold dear, as well as smite that which you detest, that compels you to read on.

Your learning materials are going to be mostly speculations about the internal mechanics of a Barrier, observations about certain stronger Witches that might give you the much needed edge over them, should you face the still living ones in the future, and finally, the gathered personal accounts of many girls regarding the more interesting Witches they have faced. Please, understand that the Classification of this book is E, meaning it merely must not leave the Twelfth Officio, but every operative can freely read it. This in turn means that it doesn't use anywhere near all the information available, and it most definitely won't use a single page located in the Librarium. Despite that, it will usually attempt to figure out the true state of things, using only the information that is not highly classified.

Most notably, it must not contain any firsthand accounts from the Witches or Familiars themselves, even if the author did have access to a number of these.

Because of that, please keep in mind, the path to understanding is twisted itself, before even attempting to unwrap the chaos that most Witches revel in. The reader may attempt to memorize the many apparently nonsencial, and, at a glance, eldritch 'rune' scripts used by Witches, which clearly don't mantain any of the basic rules of scriptwriting, fit neither for pen, nor brush. But it would be much more useful if she chose to view it as battle notes, an excercise in tactics. And it might be more befitting of a wise person as well - after all, what you are fighting is a girl much like you, with her own life, which must also have been lacking, otherwise she never would have made the wish. Would you pry into her mind, if she was still human?

I had been, quite uniquely as I am told, gifted with telepathy as my major power, so I've never had a choice in this matter. Someone else might find it to be an issue, though. Whether you can put this knowledge to practical use, and whether you would let pity stray your aim anyway, you will probably find, that through understanding the nature of Witches, you are coming to understand the nature of magical girls as well.


There is no single point that the contents of a Barrier would come from. If you would have believed a Barrier to just be the projection of a girl's mind, twisted with a certain complicated pattern every time, which is a common misconception, simple observation proves that wrong.

A great example of this are the writings from arcane texts found in many barriers. Obviously, many Magical Girls of the Twelfth have memorized passages from the Necronomicon or the Tabula Smaragdina, so it would make perfect sense for these verses to find the way into their future Barrier, if they held them in high regard. But, take Goethe's theatrical novel, Faust, which happens to be the most common of these texts by far. It does intristically fit into most - perhaps all – Barriers, without question. But I doubt that all of the girls that have it present in their Barrier have read it. Actually, a quick poll in the Central Archive had proven that only few of the Vanus working there - all of them having some degree of education in literature per the Officio tradition - have actually ever read the book, or even seen any sort of an adaptation.

Kamile photo.jpeg

Therefore, it seems that culture is a major force in a Barrier, and is completely unattached from the Witch herself. Human culture, to be exact, and mind that extraterrestrial Witches come across as completely foreign and alien.

I cannot simply explain why this works the way it does to a layman, because it had requied years to learn, and the intricacies of karma and fate are the most esoteric part of all magic. Still, I will try to further illustrate this issue on the profile of one of the known Alpha Witches, Liliana. After all, her Barrier is simple, compared to a standard Witch, but possibly the most well known of all to us.

Kamile Ignalina [Cl. Rank: E] Status: Active Witch

Kamile was the former Eversor Rank Leader of the Twelfth, a person of considerable skill, who had served the Officio for four years. She had turned into a Witch of her own volition, after being told about her upcoming promotion to a Warmaster, as witnessed by a significant part of the Officio staff. Using her own words, she did it "just to spite the cat and wreck his oh so important resources, because now it doesn't really matter anymore". Her Barrier had completely leveled the former Officio spaces in the catacombs under Prague's "Faust House", and she had subsequently killed more than a hundred of the Officio operatives present at the time, including some of the Vanus. Her rampage was only ended by the Warmaster's Aide issuing an order for tactical withdrawal.

This event had prompted many changes within the Officio policy and structure.

Liliana, Witch of Escapism [Cl.Rank: E]


Also known as: "The Big Fish"

Card: [Witch of Escapism, with an immature nature. Even the act of facing her foes is running away from her immature nature that wants to run away. Attack and defense have become one, and she can't tell the hunter from the hunted anymore. To run away completely is to refuse every choice.]

Engagements: 61, officially. Possibly more, held responsible for at least three unrelated squads of girls from different officios suddenly going MIA on the sea. Still active, always on the move.

Barrier: It simply consists of sea surface with oversized walnut shells. In her first appearance, she had completely flooded the place with seawater, which remained even after she was long gone. On land, her barrier can only be entered through a water source in the area, which is generally dangerous and not advisable, since you would pop up under the surface. The water is filled with various rusty junk. It also seems, that deep below, on the bottom of the sea, there is pool floor. Strangely enough, that is all, there is nothing such as a Labyrinth. This, in practice, means that Liliana will immediately attack anyone who enters her Barrier within seconds.

There are no sightings of her Familiars anywhere outside the barrier, and they don't seem to attempt giving witch kisses to anyone. Liliana doesn’t seem to really use them for anything, try to feed them, or even acknowledge their existence at all. They aren’t aggressive, either. As a band, they are apparently attempting to play Led Zeppelin’s Moby Dick.

In combat, she is often described as incredibly fast for her size, and extremely tough. Despite that, she had been beaten, wounded, and chased away in the past, but always at great costs. Engaging her with any sort of power is definitely not recommended, unless you know precisely what you are doing. Tactics that made it even possible were mainly flying, great land speed, and teleportation, but they can’t win the battle alone.

In the past, there were periods when scrying on Liliana would only reveal cold, empty space, suggesting she has left Earth. But she always comes back.

Commentary: I did not get to meet her, but miss Ignalina was very fond of Moby-Dick. She had apparently claimed that it has no place in the libraries for children, would quote it all the time, and it’s no surprise to anyone that she had ended up becoming a whale herself. I will skip over the main theme, though, mostly because it would inevitably mean going into the reasons for why she did what she did, which seems to be a touchy subject around here. I have no idea myself, anyway.

The way it uses nutshells reminds me of the tradition of children sending nutshells with candles on water. This has no real meaning, kids just do it because it looks nice, and technically, it could mean anything she had associated this childhood memory with. If I had to guess, though, it’s usually done at night, so not only friendship, but also loneliness , isolation, possibly even fear, would be obvious guesses. The nutshells are a good example of association, usually the really fickle part of a Barrier.

The pool bottom had only ever been seen, because someone fell into the water by accident - in the water, you will get eaten right away. I don’t see much sense in it, but the girl who saw it says that it had appeared out of nowhere when she had looked that way.

Well, sometimes, you can do something in the Barrier that you aren’t expected to do, and the whole place then has to adapt to what you did - much like if you had confronted someone with a whole new way of thought and he had to make his mind about it on spot. You can jump through a window that was only supposed to be a decoration, you can pull a rope and all the familiars just die all of sudden as if their strings were cut, something weird may happen if you hit a light switch one too many times. I have known a powerful girl, who would smash down on a witch so hard, she would often break through the floor of the Barrier, the hole leading to a completely different world before dissipating along with the Witch. These places are fragile, because they were just made, and are also incredibly dangerous.

The penguins are surprisingly the most interesting part of it all. You see, much like Miss Ignalina had, as she said, never actually seen a real whale – which is why she doesn’t dive and jump like one at all and just jumps out of the water like a piranha and bites everything in her path – she had propably never seen a penguin either. She had better things to do than visiting a ZOO, and considering her service history, she may well have been that one kind of a Magical Girl who had lived in the twisted world for so long, she had lost the entire notion of correctness. She had relied on her instinct a lot, and you may remember that she had described the way she fights Witches as "Kind of like doing what a smart animal does when it has to attack a human."

Her motherland, Lithuania, is far from the South Pole, so unless she was a passionate Linux user or so, adding a penguin through association is ridiculous. On the other hand, penguins do carry a general meaning, and thus it could be a case of an aforementioned cultural pattern. They are being used by many present day literary authors of various backgrounds and foci, as representatives for higher planes and forces. They also often represent the human unconscious and dreams, both of which fit right within a Moby-Dick Barrier.

It gets a lot more interesting, though: There is no proper source for this meaning. The history of its usage is less than a hundred years old, because nobody has previously really cared about penguins, and older meanings seem to outright contradict it. All those writers are adding them, because they themselves feel like they fit. The meaning had historically first appeared in quite the obscure books, but ended up being referred to by even the most famous of psychologists. Sometime before the World War II, all the smart people had suddenly started dreaming about penguins. So, penguins are, in this sense, definitely a part of human culture now, but their presence in it is hard to justify by logic, and what they represent is the part of humanity which can’t be properly explained, either.

Are you seeing the patterns yet? Witches are thoroughly insane, but their insanity is the one of man. You must understand this. Fighting them and fighting humans or other Magical Girls is the exact same thing. If you ever come across wars, or inter - Officio conflicts, the next time you kill someone whose language and customs you don’t comprehend, give it a thought.

An excerpt from "On the Nature of Witches", by Umika Misaki, Librarian of the Twelfth, former Librarius of the Tenth.

Part 2, a letter to Kaoru, in which Umika explains why she left the Tenth, and what she gained in return (Individual Chapter)[edit]

Looks like it took me this long, three whole months, to write a damn letter to my best friend. That's pretty pathetic, I know.

Only a Callidus can fully appreciate having postal service in our age. If this was an e-mail, or some kind of a magical message, or pretty much anything else, me taking a flight back to you and talking this problem out included, it would get picked up by someone.

Now, I've actually been reclassed to a Vanus in here, but I still know that sending it in an envelope is a beautiful, clean way to do things, perfectly hidden in plain sight. You could send anthrax to a Warmaster, have her open it like the gas bill, maybe even really waste her Officio's time and money by killing her body, and get away with it.

Well, it's time to get started with explaining why and how my contract came to be changed, so that I work for the Twelfth now. There's a good bunch of reasons for it, some just, and some petty. To be completely honest, I don't even have any idea how did everyone in the Tenth take it, my work since then had required full attention. Too bad I couldn't see Jyubey's face when he found out that I really am gone. Did he lose his smug expression for even a split second? I may never know. Let me try justifying myself to you, Kaoru. Not asking for forgiveness or anything, but it would be great, if at least you, of all the people, would listen to what I have to say.

The motives I had are a combination of some personal feelings regarding stuff that was building up ever since my contract, and the more obvious part, business practice of the Tenth. Maybe you have never noticed this, but it's pretty unique how the personal feelings of individuals, and the Officio methodology, which should be two different things, end up meshing together when the Saints are in charge. I am pretty much complaining here, that generally, way too much of what we would do on the field was done on a whim or a hunch. This is already a pretty terrible approach, and lately, the whole resulting bundle just wasn't worth it anymore.

Cooperating with the yaks also has a part in it all. It's both a immoral and dumb thing to do. And I've got a personal problem tied to it, too - it being all about money had made me feel really useless. Remember, my wish was pretty much for money and fame, in a roundabout way. Should have asked for that outright, but I'd wager the vanity of it all would end up being much the same.

It's great, being able to make money like an adult at the age of fifteen, from writing even, and provide for yourself, to live on your own, and still have so much time and money left over. The problem, obviously, is that I became a magical girl in order to accomplish it, and it had changed the world for me. You know that's what Faustian deals tend to do, make you feel like you have never needed that wish. Dreams are meant to be had, they are different from goals, and all that jazz. On the other hand, getting what you want instead of what you need puts everything into perspective, and from there, you can do more than only understand the full scope of this horrible mistake you have made. You also get to develop as a person according to your new values, now closer to reality.

Or, without all the preachy diarrhea, we have started earning so much dosh that I didn't have to act like a hypocrite anymore, aim for the big sellers, and write the lies that fourteen year olds want to read. I've gotten space to think about the purpose of it more. And then, to earn even more money that there wasn't any apparent use for, except maybe for that plasma you'd watch soccer on getting ridiculously big, we had to start doing all that nasty stuff.

It's not like Juubey is paranoid, you know. Not in the sense that he feels the fear from the unknown or anything. It's more like he's a control freak and wants to eliminate all possible dangers, and gain everything he can get away with grabbing, and has no idea about how it all makes him look.The thing is, I doubt even the pet projects and all those skeletons in the closet will need that much money to keep going. Maybe he just wants to have that huge surplus as insurance to throw at problems and people who wouldn't be loyal, like me.

Art must be a true nightmare for an Incubator, and, unfortunately for him, it's also a big chunk of my life. And there is definitely something such as too much money in it. I'd hate to corrupt myself with power any further. It really hurts creativity.

And then, the other part of what's wrong with the Tenth: Consider how we are being elitist to the other girls, but our individual competence isn't too special. Really, we are the last people who should scold anyone. Even Saki, though I really value her as a person, seems to be letting the Warmastering get too deep into her head lately, and don't get me even started on Kazumi. Power establishment based on pals watching each other's back, that's a gang. Calling it a company is a running joke in every mafia in the world, and it's no less of a joke in the Tenth. Just like calling ourselves Saints is.

I guess this all goes for me as well,so, I am not going to be playing holier-than-thou here, since I've participated in all that for long enough before the straw that broke the camel's back.

You see, I've seen an underling of mine being forced to witch out against her will, pretty much as a tactical nuke, and it made me wonder it could happen to me too, if I started being too vocal about what I've thought. That kind of a thing always makes you reconsider your life. Death never seems to run out of ways to impress. Ever since that time, I knew that if I ever got a chance to get away from this, I would take it.

I'd definitely say that beyond selling ourselves out, and giving hell to our kin, the loaded Soul Gem clause in the contract is the sickest thing about the Tenth. It's also why I've had to do it the way I did, in secrecy, by pretty much completely cheating the Incubator. One day, mark my words, Juubey will do that to one of the Saints, and when you start crying over it then, it will be too late.

This makes me realize, I guess Juubey is also looking for a replacement for me now. Doubt he's got one. Since I've arrived, people keep accusing me of being a special snowflake, it turns out that psychometry is really rare, and proper telepathy basically nonexistent. Damned cat never bothered to tell me. You absolutely should work on your potentials, you live in the present too much. Way too many girls that could be amazing, like Hanegawa, work with what they have, but have no work put into them. I can imagine that someone like Satomi might be afraid of getting replaced. It's my fault, too, since I've used the Callidus trainees for capturing Familiars and strapping them on an operating table, rather than anything resembling lessons and passing my skills on.

But, keep in mind as well, that all of my documents, reports, and archives, up until the moment I've left, are still there in the Librarium. These also include a record of every spell I've stolen. That’s kind of a big deal. Really damn valuable. They aren't hard to work with, just make sure that they are being stored properly. Like any other room, a Silent Room can still be a wet and moldy place if you don't care for it. I hope these prove that I still have some shred of loyalty to the Tenth left.

My own records are a lot bigger now, though, through my work here, and a whole Officio's worth of new spells. It feels kind of strange. One day, I will die, and the Librarian who will replace me will get access to all of my books, and will shit bricks over all the spells I have stolen from people's minds, and never even bothered to learn to use. Granted, almost all of them are useless to me, or require a deep understanding of certain esoterics and ability with given kinds of magic, usually achieved through a matching wish. I have only learned a few of them properly myself.

A more flexible Magical Girl, though - imagine if it was someone like the former Warmaster of Third, Ahriman - could learn all of these from the books. And, you know, even if she can't learn the greatest ones that are completely tied to personal affinity and years of development and use, all the smaller but dedicated tricks are enough. Versatile power tends to kind of even itself out in the end. It's scary to think about a girl who could use both the Litany of Sight Beyond Sight and Limiti Esterni, makes me want to just burn the books, but that would be hard to do where I am now, without anyone noticing. Here's hoping it all gets locked down in the vault, classified A or S.

I've given power a lot of thought in here, even if leaving the Tenth would seem like giving up on it. This Officio has contracted a lot of new recruits lately, mostly because of Big Fish really plowing through their ranks, from what I gather. They often don't hold up on the battlefield. It's a part of my job now, since I am an experienced Witch hunter and one of the Librarians at once, to make sure they get it together fast, and know enough that they don't die on their first assignment. The Eversor rank leader, Jarmila, is then the one who gets them through the real thing. She comes across as, by far, the most trustworthy person around. A big sister kind of a character.

Anyway, even the older squaddies in here are somewhat weak compared to what I am used to - and they say that the Tenth sucks at combat. Then there is a huge power gap between the new and old, especially when you consider the shifted requirements for a Squad Leader, and compare them to what the rank leaders can do. The higher-ups are all strong, but there are no replacements. Actually, I hear the current Warmaster became what she is from just a Squad Leader, and that it isn't exactly uncommon around here, people you wouldn't expect that from being declared talents, and made important.

After being asked to help them with fixing their problem with newbies, I've asked myself, what makes a magical girl strong? What makes a person strong, developed to the furthest reaches of their potential?

In my opinion, though nobody is ever going to actually implement that, training magical girls as soldiers, and shutting their personal values off, is cutting the branch we sit on. For one, magic is tied to emotion. This makes jaded magical girls a lot weaker than they could potentially be. Balance of passion and order needs to be reached. That's why the Second is strong. Mirai has the right idea.

I've been told as a kid, that you can tell someone is an adult because he keeps selectively doing things that he hates. At face value, that's obviously pretty insane, but the meaning behind it is, that the person has something he believes in, that surpasses him, and overrules what he wants or doesn't want to do. Obviously, the strongest and most fulfilled people are those who manage to tie this and their childish dream they have followed and were called immature for, into the exact same thing. I may also have betrayed you to make sure that's the case with me, too.

But in order to do that, first, I had needed an opportunity.That opportunity might have been a resounding of my wish. I hear this occasionally happens, that a wish is persistent and tries to fulfill itself again, if it had failed once. Or maybe it's just a prank of fate, I have no way to know. My wish was for a person that would recognize my skills, in order to set my life straight. I got that publisher to help me with writing inane bullshit. And I've met another person appreciative of my work, three months ago.

On that day, walking back home from work, I've sensed a Witch in the park near our house. You weren't home yet, either. Now, you know that stronger Witches get scryed upon and that I get to see all those data, so I could tell that she either was so weak she was not even worth attention, or it must have been a new one. There was a good bunch of her Familiars near by, burning straw balls with doggy features, and seeing an entrance to the Barrier wide open, with her name even on top of it, it was obvious that this Witch meant business.

A few swings with my staff and a couple piles of burnt straw later, the familiars have turned out to be complete pushovers. I've thought I would clean it up, since it looked like an opportunity to do the right thing for once, and went inside her Barrier, reminiscent of a mine.

Ratman - Perdita2.jpg

The place was littered with gems and gold veins, too. Didn't really bother with picking any of that up, since I knew it would definitely turn out to be fairy gold.

Deeper down, the pattern had started changing, and rather than a proper mine, it started looking more like a rabbit hole, the supports also began resembling root patterns. Rather then monetary value, I've started seeing more works of art. There were torn paintings and broken sculptures, the floor was littered with old music sheets. It was the first Barrier I've seen in a long time that had impacted me. She was obviously a kindred spirit to myself. It really made me wish I could have met her while she was alive. The least I could do was to end it for her.

When I've finally arrived to where the Witch should have been, the gate was blocked by roots, which is uncommon - the entrance to the center tends to be welcoming. There, I've met the Warmaster's Aide of the Twelfth.

Panna Vászon is a somewhat tall and pale gypsy woman, with a face wrinkled like an old tree. You don't meet old magical girls often, and she's the oldest looking one I've ever met. Not only did she stand in the Barrier untransformed, she even wore a goddamned business suit, though wearing a gemmed crown with it marked her as a sparkly. Thinking back on it now, circumstances seem to point to the idea that meeting me was a setup, that she had scouted me out. I'm curious about if she could have even made the Witch appear there, somehow. It did turn out to be pretty strong, too, enough that I doubt it was created on spot.

She'd say that she was looking for this Witch, apparently she was a stray from her Officio, a loose end she wanted to tie up personally, and that she has permission from Juubey to hunt on his grounds. I said, why not, I'd save on energy. To that she had transformed, and prompted me to help her breaking open the door.

Fortunately though, I didn't have to expend juice to blast it with attack spells. She had pulled out a flagon of some gray liquid, and sprinkled it under the gate. “The Barrier should now be a bit more jumpy in there" she said, "just make a few cuts on the roots with that polearm of yours, and they should be trying to get away. It will also alert her of our presence, but I can only do so much. I am just an alchemist, not a wizard.”

Ratman - Perdita1.jpg

And so I did. Not only did the roots come apart like possessed, the gate in had opened on its own, and both sides had left the door frame, pressing themselves to the walls of the corridor, shaking, and visibly as frightened as door can be. In this job, you really do see something new every day.

From there, the way led straight to the center, and the Witch herself.

She was in that uncanny valley of looking both silly and menacing. I keep running into animal motives in Witch research, psychology has a lot to say about that, but this girl, she was the real cream of the anthropomorphous personification crop. Only the razor sharp spikes on her back and scissor blades for arms have betrayed her cute visage.

Panna asked me to help her kill it, but now I was curious. A badger with arms made for cutting instead of digging almost makes sense. I've wanted to know more about this girl. Digging into her mind revealed a stream of literary titles, and her strongly dismissive opinions about all of them. Well, I remember she had liked Joyce. There may have been more, but she jumped at me too soon, apparently sensing that something fishy was going on.

Thus I had to transform the book back into a staff, and my fun time was over. That initial onslaught was pretty fast, it's still a good thing it was me investigating this, and not somebody green. For you, though, she would have been nothing. It barely took a minute. Her biggest advantage was the cramped space, rare in a Barrier, that made it hard to dodge her swings. Probably should have played smart instead, use those spikes, roll up in a ball or shoot them, I don't know. Panna's whip also seemed to hurt her an awful lot, so overall, it was pretty disappointing.

Ratman - Perdita3.jpg

As she was breathing her last, I took out the X-File again, and tried to salvage her thoughts. She wanted everyone to know that Hospice is really a great album, and how much she wishes that everyone would understand that.

Telling that to Panna got me the driest of laughs from her, and the question how do I know.

Do you remember the thing I wear on my forehead? That's called a Bindi. It's commonly assumed that it signifies the Third Eye and marks the person as smart, but that's pretty much completely wrong. It's a sign of focus, and marks the person as a worshipper of wisdom, as someone who really cares about his decisions being right, and leading to enlightenment. There is a big disclaimer here, and I trust you do understand that I am not a perfect or even very wise person in the least. But in this way, I want the world to know that I am at least trying to get it all right. Panna wears a Bindi as well, so I've thought we might be a bit alike.

And that we were. As rash and uncomfortable a person as she is, like old workaholic people tend to be, she is also quite the well of knowledge. We've talked about Witches for a hour or so in that park, before she went back to my skills. Apparently, it's some sort of a win on the Incubator roulette, compared to the others. She offered me a position within the Twelfth, where I would have peace for work. That I should visit there and think things through first, definitely - but she had already had me in her net.

Ratman - Panna.jpg

If you are curious, the thing Panna said about having permission from Juubey was bullshit - I've asked. And while I was there, I've reported that a Witch had popped out near my house and that I've killed it and went on to take a shower, and that it dropped no Seed. Then, I've asked for a holiday - you know, so I wouldn't have unfinished or waiting assignments - and took the flight to Prague during it. Sure enough, Juubey must have gotten some kind of a hunch, but it seems he's at least discreet enough not to stalk his operatives in case they were going to betray him. Which I subsequently did, so if he's breathing down your necks even more now, blame me for that.

I can't tell whether Prague is a blessed city, like the Twelfth claims, or damned, like the Fourteenth would like everyone to think. But I can tell that it's a damn spiritually rich land. There's something ominous in the air here, like the sky crackles with power you can just hold on, like there is potential free for grabs, waiting to be used by everyone who enters. Getting addicted to Prague is easy, and happens a lot. There are heaps of foreign hobos who come here to die in a gutter, ground by the city's wheels. Drugs, gambling, cheap prostitution from great-looking girls, and yet, there is something very unique, very special, and even noble about it all. The subtle but lethal temptations weed out the weak, and only the strong survive. Many of the mankind's advancements originate here, and many brand new chapters of history began with someone getting an idea into his head in Prague. Contact Lens! Firearms in open warfare! Crystal meth for everyone! Also, defenestrating corrupt bureaucrats. As a visual metaphor, that might have really set up the idea of mob really revolting from ground up.

This place is surreal and wild in a way no Barrier will ever be. You leave the well-oiled machine of a bank, and right outside, the teenage toothless beggars would blabber incoherent stuff as you pass them by, and with each step on the ancient pavement, you become more assured that somewhere down below, crazy cultists must be planning the end of the world, opposed only by a knight order that had been around for centuries, and only plays a tiny role in it all, just like the Free Masons, Illuminati, and, yes, even the Incubators. That there had been a huge battle of good and evil happening here, for more than a thousand years, the scope of which you cannot hope to possibly understand, and that what you should do is just be yourself in the best way you can, and hope that you are one of the good guys.

An obvious retort is, that these are all just the common feelings that a villager has when he enters a city, and it really is the same thing, but I feel it as well. Prague is the city of cities. Every night, it feels as if just in the next moment, the merry-go-round Witch must show up high above the Astronomical Orrery, and turn everything upside down, the way it was always meant to be, smashing down the props and painted backdrops of civilization, and revealing the elaborate mechanism underneath.

Well, I've digressed. The cultists and knights part is true, though - after all, most of the Officio is located underground. The Vanus who work with me most of the time are way into mysticism, too.

Remember the Fourteenth? The girls that made you laugh with "Even if there is no God or Buddha, there is the First Knight?" Well, they are feuding with the Twelfth. While they seem to worship the Blessed Lady here, they do it somehow wrong for the Fourteenth's tastes. The Twelfth claims that the blessed lady is misunderstood, and also refuse the whole knight part. Apparently they are willing to defend their beliefs, too, and sometimes do skirmishes on smaller scale. The Twelfth can’t really afford it, but it seems to be a tradition in these parts. Militant Protestantism at its finest.

This is a funny thing. Religion becomes so much simpler once you actually see a saint doing a miracle. Early Christians have used to die in roman arenas by scores for a long time, never altering their beliefs, even when tortured. This is not because they would be unable to change their standpoint, even if it would save their works and families. According to their own words, they simply did see someone performing a miracle, were thoroughly convinced by it, and weren't able to deny it.

If, at that point, you doubt it anyway, if you yell "It's a trick!" here, what you get is someone called a Gnostic. Such a person believes that the divine is something to be figured out. Most Vanus working in the archive occasionally see funny things, after all, and if they do that job for a long time, they start getting funny ideas too. So, in a sense, this means that they do believe in the Blessed Lady here, like you would believe that the sun will rise tomorrow.The divinations occasionally show her, she is evidently important, and the people with access to the Librarium would even be able to make an educated guess on what she is. They regard her as an important figure in the afterlife, but reject some of the assertions that the Fourteenth would make, as ungrounded and unnecessary.

In the same breath I must say, that they are a lot less happy for it.

Now, I am not going to tell you all about how I've been led underground by a little gypsy girl courier, and gifted Panna some of our tea to go with her cookies, and then got a lesson on the history of Borgias. But, just so you know, the grass on the other side of the fence is just as puke green as the weeds under your feet.

I've been played for a fool in coming here, Kaoru. This place is a bad spot to be if you are replaceable, and, much like Panna, the Incubator is an old school type. I hear that Ye Mutant Cats of Olde would supposedly omit the part of the contract regarding witching out, but this guy goes beyond stating it in red letters, and adds that Witches are one part of the company end product, and that becoming a Witch is one of the two ways to fulfill your side of the contract, an alternative to serving until retirement.

If you ever meet Panna, watch out. Nobody in here remembers her young. Not even the Rank Leaders, who are the longest serving people around. Hardly the Warmasters, who the Incubator changes like socks, after they inevitably witch out. Once you really dive into the backgrounds in exceptional Witch profiles, it turns out that a good portion of them were formerly girls of the Twelfth.

I've got my theories and clues, too, but suffice to say: even if Juubey is a dick, be glad for what you have.

With love, Umika

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Part 3, in which Jarmila writes about an unreasonably dangerous Witch Hunt (Individual Chapter)[edit]

Jarmila's Journal, February 26

So I've just come home, in the morning. Bought this little book, too.

It was an eventful day and night, and my thoughts on it now will probably matter in the future. So, I've returned to writing a journal, like the one I wrote after the contract. In the event that I die, people could misinterpret my words and actions, and twist me into something I am not. Better express myself in no uncertain terms.

I should probably write it down while it's still fresh in my head. Kinda tired, but my left hand still hurts even after I've had it healed, and the head is full of all kinds of thoughts, so I wouldn't fall asleep.Grabbed a snack and got started with it right away.

So. Late evening two days ago, the cat had called me up directly. Said there was a schedule change, that I am not going to be hunting alone. They want me to take an Info-cyte and a full squad of almost fresh recruits in there. But we would still be hunting the same Witch. It had already pissed me off pretty bad back then, but I've needed the rest. So, I just went to the bed right away, to get up earlier, thinking I'd ask Panna about the reason. Because, I thought, it's probably her fault. Taking blame for the necessary evils is her job.


4 AM is actually a very good time for making your way to Prague's Officio Assassinorum. You can use even the most publicly exposed entry points, and nobody will be suspicious. At four, not even the bench-dwelling hobos of the city center are awake yet - and the Old Town close by, that's already a sanctuary which people rarely enter anymore.

Before everything, I went to get Barbara's full file in the archive. Normal Vanus weren't around to help me, but all the Librarians were already awake. Or was it still awake? Either way just can't be healthy. Then again, they don't really go above and see the sun much, so they can lose track of time as something other than numbers on the display. I guess their work schedule becomes much more lax once they advance in rank, so they just become more nocturnal, as it suits them.

I knew who Barbara was well enough, but they don't allow me to take the details home from their bookshelf maze. So, this was the only way to go over it again. The younger girls usually get a less classified version to hand, but I am expected to seek out the full thing on my own, so chances are I may have been the last person on the assignment to read up on her proper.

But hey, it's the bookworm Officio, they only need an Eversor Rank Leader for the smashing. I could go there blind and just purge her anyway, it would just be a lot more messy. They already pretty much pay me for improvisation. That still takes some skill, though.

The worse part is, I guess, that I also improvise when motivating girls and dealing with responsibility. Delegating personnel logistics and paperwork to Panna and Squad Leaders whenever I can. I fully accept blame for the organization being a huge mess this way. If you ask me, though, whoever does the office stuff willingly is also pretty shady.

It's no coincidence that the Twelfth has both a lot of shady people, and a massive Vanus aparate.

Anyway, every speech I'd make to the girls is an ad-lib. You shouldn't want to be a leader, will to power corrupts but power itself doesn't if it's given for free. Or something like that, I don't remember it right. A girl working in the Archive told me that, when I've asked for help with leadership, books on the topic and so, shortly after I've replaced Kamile. Asking that had actually kind of backfired, because now I've got a neat excuse for when I want to keep being the hit-things-hard person. It seems that being cunningly brutal rather than brutally cunning is why I am not considered a Warmaster candidate, so it's working out.

Kamile seemed to think it as well, that warmastering is the worst thing that can happen to you here. She really helps me out with the complicated stuff, even beyond grave. What I say to the girls myself is mostly just the what she taught me. It would be great, if I could also tell them the "Never lie to the cat, but make yourself look dumb when he's around, just learn to act like him". Best lesson she gave me.

Speaking of Warmasters, Barbara, the Witch we were going to hunt, is a former Warmaster of the Twelfth, from since before my time. At this point, it just doesn't surprise me anymore.

I'll write the basic profile down here:

Barbara, Witch of Retribution Card: [A Witch who only wishes to rest, with a tired nature. But, as the storm moves with her, she cannot escape the ruckus. So, she destroys all resting places out of spite. Maybe she should have just sat down in the rain.]

Familiar: Hassan [An image of a honorable gentleman, holding seat for a lady. Only really useful in time of peace. In the end, he always only thinks of himself. They are strong when they fight in her name, but limp in Barbara's pressing presence.]

Ominous. It seems that her Barrier consists of draper, her Familiars are swords hanging on it, and that she uses lightning magic in addition to being deadly in melee. That stood out to me - can Witches actually use their old tricks? Can't they just kind of do whatever they want with their pastel Witch shenanigans? I recall being told that how they manipulate their world and our magic are two sides of the same coin, and that some rare magical girls can interact with the Witch side of things - can it work the other way around too?

I mean, most Witches don't seem to understand their predicament to begin with.

After that, it said that in order to find her, you should follow the rain and splinters. Nobody in the Archive could explain what this means. Only the girl who lived through fighting her, and the Vanus who wrote it down, would know. Big Fish took both. That's a dead end you run into a lot when you track the Twelfth's past.

That new oriental Librarian from Tenth was the one to bring the file and go over it with me, apparently a Japanese. Spoke broken Czech, but perfect German. Still really impressive, if she had transferred on such short notice. Must be a polyglot.

She made a point of telling me, that while I've been around to see the recent events, the Twelfth's history is quite impenetrable and suspicious for outsiders and newbies. I guess she's right. If she's having trouble piecing things together, a new recruit must be completely left in the dark. Our complex classification system doesn't help that at all. I mean, I don't even know how things were during the commie rule, which is just a few decades - not to mention our roots. Is that kind of stuff in the Librarium, or even deeper? Since there's no Chief Librarian, is there even anybody with a high enough rank to look that deep anymore?

According to what this new girl had said, Barbara was going to be crazy strong. And rather entirely unfitting to be anyone's first assignment. Considering this whole thing was decided by either Juunibey or Panna, and how they keep ranting about permanently being understaffed, you would think they would be more incentive to preserve their new troops.

I've hurried to visit Panna's garden before the appointment's time, hoping she would be awake now, too. Damn, this woman's place has the worst elevator music in the world.

Sure enough, the devil never sleeps. She could be found in the lab in the back, mashing some awfully sweet smelling herbs.

Panna Casual1.jpeg

"Are you here to complain that she is too tough for the recruits?" she asked from behind the corner. That's just rude.

"Barbara rarely appears, and only stays in one place within a window of few hours. She requires immediate attention. When it turns out that on the same day, we have an exemplary course planned, with a Rank Leader, it's a good opportunity to show off. To lead by example."

"That's not even my course, though. It's just your bad management. You know too well how bad I am with that stuff. You've even used to discourage me from talking to recruits in the past. You can't be getting senile, right? Let's just postpone the girl's first hunt to tomorrow and scry them up something smaller in the countryside - I can purge mine alone."

That made her actually stop doing what she was doing. Both the concern and the insult got to her for once, I think.

"We could do that, but a part of the course was testing out a new version of the info-cyte. And how it's going to work in a collective. You should know that, did you even read the dossier? Did you talk to the leader of that Squad yet? She would probably know. If it turns out she's beyond your skill, which she isn't, I just need you to burn her whole place down, get out of there alive, and tell me how the girl with the circlet had performed. You are strong, it shouldn't be a problem. I don't see a real risk aside from the potential loss of resources, but letting Barbara roam or losing you would be more costly."

"Goddammit, here you go with treating people like things again. I hate this so much."

"Hang on to that hatred. It will lead you to victory."

"Fuck. Fuck. I am off."

On the ride back down under, I've pondered about how I am going to talk to the recruits. About my leadership skills. Being directly responsible for the actions of other people puts a tiny bit more weight on my shoulders than I am comfortable with. If it was my call, I'd just want to be friends with everyone in the Officio, or I'd consider them a family. Panna says that this is "a sign of the old Slavic social tendency to regress into a tribal structure in a pinch", and that it had historically only hurt us, so it's better to get over it.

"I've been told that I should walk you through your first hunt today. So, I will. If you want to clear something up before we go, ask away." There.

One of them had politely raised a hand. It was the Squad Leader, though, newly appointed, but experienced enough. This girl had a fancy name. What was it, Popelka? Or do they just call her that, because the feathered hat and arbalest make her look like that one version of Cinderella? "Sure. What is it?"

"Excuse me if this is something trivial, miss, but why isn't miss Twardowska running us through this mission? It was supposed to be an exercise with our Rank Leader, and yesterday I am told out of blue that our squad is assigned an Info-cyte, and that our target has changed and we are now hunting a Witch like that, who would normally take several squads? Do you have some insight into these changes?"

Amazing. So, by skipping over their dossier, I've missed absolutely nothing, and even avoided unnecessary confusion."I get it now. Warmaster's Aide didn't even bother telling me you're a Vindicare squad. You see, the thing is, Martina had been reassigned on a high priority mission yesterday. So important, it seems, she couldn't even contact you before going. I know that much. She can't attend today, either, and normally, your first hunt would just be postponed. I'd prefer to take Barbara on alone, but it's not my place to decide. And I can use you girls well enough."

They seemed to tense up, when they've had it confirmed that this isn't a mistake in paperwork, and that it's happening, right now.

"I am going to need a more detailed description of your squad. Weapons, spells, capacities, every ace and joker you have up your sleeve. The cheap tricks and the last resorts"

The new, reconstructed version of Vindicare Squad 8(Libra) was all newbies, amounting to a total of six weapon users, and six of what Martina calls "blasters". We've got a lot in the Twelfth, but that's still a huge number - especially considering that Squad Leader is a weapon user as well. From what I remember, her career had consisted mostly of protection sort of jobs. Why does Panna have a counter-sniping expert instruct people on how to throw fireballs and sparkling neon stars? Shouldn't that be done by a Librarian, who would know better? Or is she trying to make the Squad Leaders into dedicated teachers?

I don't like blasters. They're always full of themselves, needlessly flashy, and Witch out all the time, since they're just that dependent on the juice. I, for one, have been smart enough to bring a weapon or three along, even when I couldn't create one out of magic yet, back when all I could do was set myself on fire. If an Eversor's ability is expensive, she is soon going to feel the results on her skin, and does her best to get good - but Vindicare are just too spoiled. Isn't the first thing that they teach them to run away? Like that, they'll never get into a situation where they have to actually hit somebody over the head with their sparkling wand of love. This isn't a video game, in real life, you've got to cover your weak spots. Is it that much of a bother to learn how to shoot a gun?

With all that said, blasters are what you usually want against Witches. You can't just beat Walpurgisnacht to death with a club. Set the club on fire with your magic, then we're talking.

The last girl, who made no introduction, must have been the Info-cyte, then. Turned out to be a raven haired everygirl, with a wind jacket she must have been freezing in considering the season, an empty stare above the eye bags, and terrible posture.

"Um, Ma'm. She didn't say a word since she came." said the plump girl next to her. "She also threw hands to the sides when she had walked in, like so. Excuse me if it's not important, but I can tell a druggie when I see one." Yeah, we all can.

"That's alright. She's an Info-cyte. The previous ones had to dip their gems in a lot of chemicals before they would put the helmet on, so I bet they just use a lot more of that now. You'll meet a lot Vanus who have a thing for it, too - we've even got a Librarian with powers that work by getting high." It sounds sillly, but she'll be glad to give you a long rant about historical cultural precedents of intoxication in magic arts. "Anyway, somebody will need to hold her hand, and we'll split into four groups from here..."

She really didn't say a word though, even when she did follow. The girl had those flat cheeks, she had no fat on her, it's easy to be distrustful of somebody like that. I could only pray that Panna isn't actually senile, and still knows what she's doing, sending somebody like that along, even if she doesn't let anybody else in on it.

Locating the Barrier was no work at all. It was supposed to appear at the top of a building, apparently. But getting there in so many people was going to be difficult, especially in the morning. That's why I've split them, otherwise we'd look like a goddamned field trip.

Before what turned out to be a whole apartment complex, we came across a commotion of people. Some poor old sod had jumped out of the window. Fortunately, there was just a cop, a guy who might have been a medic, and the morbidly curious neighbors. He lived alone, so it wasn't too dramatic for the girls - imagine if there was a crying wife and kids or something.

The cop had actually asked my group whether we would happen to live there. "It's a party," I've said,"there should be a lot more girls arriving yet."

He seemed kind of happy about that, like he knew what was up. A cop definitely might. I've kind of expected somebody from the building to question us, too, saying they've never seen any of us around, and why aren't we in school on workday morning, but nothing of the sort happened. The presence of a Witch can really mess with normie heads.

I've sent the two girls of mine up with the elevator, phoned the Squad Leader to make a routine sweep for Familiars in the neighborhood with her group, and took the stairs myself, so I could do the same inside. Wouldn't want any loose ends.

As I've covered the floors one by one keeping up a bit with the elevator, it turned out that one apartment had it's door open. I guess it must have belonged to the old man. I've rushed in there - but despite my Witch sense tingling, nothing really seemed out of ordinary. A damn dirty sink, two shoddy paintings, a pair of worn looking sabers on the wall, a soft sofa, two different armchairs, an open book on the table, a cold cup of cofee next to it.

No real closets for a Familiar to hide in, either, and I didn't bring gloves. But just as I've moved to make a few steps into the bathroom, I saw movement on the wall.

Right, her Familiars are swords. I grabbed one of the sabers by hilt, and hit the other with it. The angle was good, didn't even leave a scratch on the wall or anything, and the Familiar had melted right into the black nothingness that it was made of. I've even expected the one I've grabbed to shift it's blade somehow, and try to cut me, but it didn't seem to be able to do anything beyond a low pitched whine. Wanting to be extra careful, I've first carried it outside, then transformed, and burned it to crisp.

The elevator had a good few floors over me now. Getting ahead of it again, I saw that the last Familiar was hanging at its wires. I've managed to cap him with a spiked ball right away, but it still sent chills down my spine, seeing him there. Using the elevator like that wasn't very bright at all.

Meeting up with the girls on the top floor, they seemed shocked to see how I look transformed. It always seems to people that it changes me a lot, but it's really just about losing that boxer nose of mine, and maybe some fat, and straightening up.

Straightening up your spine can do some amazing things for you. It gives me half a head in height. Being huge is actually a lot like being smart or being homosexual. People acknowledge it much easier if they've figured out that part of you themselves, because you didn't shove it in their face.

For that, though, you need some basic humility. And, boy, I've got nothing else about me that I am proud of, so it doesn't even take much to be humble.

Having waited for the three remaining groups, I've gotten that quiet "ooh" out of them three more times.

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"Barbara is strong. Purging her is going to be hard. I know that most of you have slacked off on the basic training, so I'd say that some of you will die there. It would be nice if we could avoid that, but don't bet on it. Just accept it.

Once we are there, focus on the Familiars and let me take out the Witch. Prioritize keeping yourself and others alive. Don't ever split, keep others within sight. In a Barrier like this, the Familiars will eventually get us surrounded if we rest. Keep moving. I will carve the path for you.

If somebody is injured so much he would die, but his Soul Gem is left intact, someone needs to pick the gem up and keep it. You've already been taught this in the basic training, but I'll say it again because of how important it is: now that you are Magical Girls, your body is much less important. Even death can be healed, as long as your soul is still in one piece.

If you get killed and lose control of your body, it's easy to panic, but try to calm down instead. Getting a new body will cost you a lot, but it's not like it ruins you. The Officio doesn't need to make you a debt slave like the government would. The Twelfth owns you ever since you've made the wish. That's honestly a pretty bad thing, all things considered, but also very helpful in its own way. You see, if you own something, you want to care for it. A lot of people don't realize this. We want you to be happy and strong and smart. Even if it never looks that way, I guess.

If nothing else makes you feel better about going to battle, I've been where you stand. My first Witch hunt was just as hard, and we have made it. Now I am a dedicated Witch hunter, and as far as I know, the most qualified person for this job, far and wide. You've got a friend in me."

Wow. Did I just make a speech without meaning to?

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Now was the time for the Info-cyte to start up. Formerly, it was a helmet, and the Vanus would have to carry it around in a bag, but this one looked much more like a circlet. It was also kind of reminiscent of the crown that Panna wears even in civil, how she wears her gem above her head apparently has to do with chakras. This one, on the other hand, was accented downwards, into the forehead. If somebody in the squad didn't know that the girl with us is a Vanus, they must have figured it out then.

Putting the circlet on, her azure eyes have gotten that empty glint that working Vanus have. "Initializing program Hard Boiled Wonderland. From the throes of death, Blessed Lady deliver me. Orders can now be assigned." articulated she. It was like when a phone recorder is reading a written message.

That... sounded nothing like the Fourth. Panna hates dealing with the Sixteenth. We've always had trouble trusting the Thirteenth on principle. Though I guess nothing is stopping us anymore, if Strauss is really gone. And if sucking the feline phallus had finally gained Panna Incubator technology that she can use in personal projects, then all the bets are off forever.

The most likely version probably is, that only the hardware is comissioned, and one of our slightly less sane Librarians had programmed it.

"What's she going to be helping us with, anyway?"

"I have no idea either. The Info-cytes are meant to weaponize knowledge, since knowledge is all that the Twelfth has. Some of the previous prototypes were supposed to use precognition and tactical manuals in combat, but they've sucked, since you can't reason with Witches. From what I've been told, she's supposed to just observe. Hey, Info-cyte. An order. Focus on recording what's happening. Do not miss anything."

First steps we took on the roof showed us that she had her Barrier already well set up. It was really a bed sheet world, you couldn't see where all the draper is coming from for all the draper getting in way - but in addition to that, it had wooden floor, on which stood a ton of furniture. Mostly chairs and their variations. A few beds, too. There was a giant couch and a sky high bar stool. Man's lair. It actually looked quite a bit like that old guy's apartment.

What was downright bizarre was how the woodwork floor planks were kind of in the right pattern, but twisted in all kinds of ways, and there were plank hills and plank holes.

Then the blades have descended from the knot of a ceiling, every single one with a lengthened finger guard or a basket. The sabers in the apartment were the same - it seemed to be a theme.

Popelka took aim at the closest, hitting it right on the weight center above its guard. The impact force tore it out of the cloth's grasp, and the sword clattered on the ground. That had confirmed her suspiction."Okay, so, you can focus on the cloth. Try not to go near them once they fall down. It's not moving anymore, but it didn't disappear yet, either."

I gave her a nod. "You'd better watch for the ones coming from above, too." said I, materializing my flail. "I'll go on a bit ahead and try to draw the worst of them, don't lose sight of me."

To that, I've made a long leap on the huge barstool's gliding, hit it a few times to produce a good metal clang that the ones not alerted yet could hear, and then jumped from there, to smash the nearest Familiar down.

Barbara w1.jpeg

From there, they've tried to surround me right away, more than a dozen descending all around. While my main skill is made for that situation, using fire in here could get really dangerous, so I had to try being clean and defensive, holding them off with wide sweeps. They did quickly realize they're outmatched, and tried to wait for more to come instead, which pretty much made them target practice for the Vindicare.

Before long, bullets, bolts, arrows, and throwing stars have gotten them. Did they leave defense to the blasters? I'd still better not move too rigidly.

After their initial press, though, it became a cakewalk for me. Further in, I've noticed some of the sheets being wet and dropping water, and waited for the Vindicare squad, to tell them the Witch is probably near. I've noted that one blaster is missing.

"Oh yeah, she caught one through the cloth, right in the back. Couldn't see that one. Then more where that came from. By the time I've nuked the area behind her, they already got her Gem. Shouldn't have gotten so close to the walls since they're not really walls and all."

"I've told you. Some are hiding under the armchairs, too. Or in the stuffed ones." Their formation wasn't too tight, but they've seemed to know what they're doing, so I guess the cover pattern in a place like that must have just been really complex.

"Have you noticed how some of these chairs are broken or burned? One earlier looked like a lightning hit it. This, and the water, mean that the Witch is near, or so I hear. Let's go where there are the most splinters."

The Familiars have calmed down a lot since earlier. Girls would still shoot down any that would get too close, but there weren't any more coordinated attacks. The weapon users would actually miss every so often, since hitting a blade from distance is actually pretty hard.

The draper curtains were beginning to open up a bit, and all of it was wet, even dripping. When we've started to step into the puddles, and finally saw the stormy sky above, rain falling straight on us from it, we saw the tall, thin Witch in midst of it all, cutting a sofa to pieces with one of the Familiars in hand.

"Good morning, Agniezka. Though I probably don't have the right to call you that, since I wasn't around to meet you." She chucked her head to the side, evidently recognizing her past name. A long line of witch letters had appeared in my vision. How do they do it?

"I am sorry, but I can't read that, or speak German too well, for that matter. Anyway, it seems that you have an appointment with the Blessed Lady. Wouldn't want to miss it, would you? We came to show you the way!" I had to yell to beat the storm. Then, I've burned the flail up, and stated whirling it above my head, it's head filling the air with a hiss, as it met the raindrops.

I think that carried the message across well enough. She had grabbed another of the swords hanging around her, and raised them above her head, too.

I didn't waste time and did my best to sucker punch her, leaving an arc of smoke and embers behind. But you can only afford to be so aggressive against somebody wielding two long choppy swords. She was really fast, too. It was troubling how she had no legwork, instead just kind of floating around like a kite in the wind. How do you even fence with somebody who flies? Do we have any flying Eversors? It had occurred to me, only faced with it, how practical it is. Could I learn to fly?

Barbara w2.jpeg

Along with the wind playing with the bed sheets, rain got a lot stronger. The ground was all a big puddle now. Having gained good distance, she had raised her swords above her head. First, I've thought it's a taunt. Then I got hit with a lightning bolt. And kept being hit by it for a good while. It didn't help I was standing in water. That's what I get for being cautious, and not curbstomping her.

By this time, I was long inside the Eversor trance, so I could tell right away that my heartbeat had stopped. Isn't lightning like a really thin, but hot and sharp blade going through you, so most people die of shock? That might be why.

"I'M OKAY" I've yelled back to the Vindicare. "I'VE JUST GOTTA START MY FUCKING HEAR-"

Then I fell face first into the water, not very leaderly at all. It was going to take some time. The hit undid my hair band, so that it didn't pull - probably because of the hilarious thing that electrified hair do. But it meant I had one less sensation to deal with.

I've started entering the true depths of Eversor battle trance. Mind over matter, the mantra goes. My body is a puppet and nerves are but the strings.

The squad that I've still seen in the corner of my eye fought the Familliars. That was easy. Worse thing was, that Barbara had apparently wanted to pick another one off with her lightning. Popelka had thoughtfully hit the basket of her held blade, killing it so she had to pick up another, and gaining us a few seconds of time. The Info-Cyte stood next to her, and was saying something I couldn't hear.

I could guess. She must have been suggesting optimal course of action, because how could a Vanus help here? But what she did was go forward, spreading her hands.

She was drawing some letters in the air with her fingers, I think it was hebrew. Normally, only Culexus can really counteract magic, but I think she was trying to take apart the Witch's spell instead. Somehow. Maybe she had tried to build a barrier against magic? The important thing is-

That wasn't a magic attack, like the profile had said. It's her calling down a honest to god lightning strike. It smashed right through the fancy letters, into the Vanus girl's shoulder, the branches of light running all over her costume. She let out a horrible scream, it must have screwed with the circlet. Well, Panna was going to kill me for this. But, at the same time, wouldn't want her sacrifice to be in vain.

I've raised from the ground, burning bright, and blowing away the Familiars gathered around to chop themselves a piece of me. Done. It didn't take more than ten seconds, but that time could have been critical.

In the hell of magic blasting through the air, water drops, flames, smoke, and steam stinking of ozone, the curtains were all gone. So, the ground was littered with swords. I've picked one, a beautiful, bejeweled khanda, rather than my flail, and toned the flame down so that the sword wouldn't die. Having gone pretty deep already, to take control of my body and secure blood circulation, this setting was perfect.

If I have wanted to end it before anyone else dies, there was just one chance to perform the Mach Lunge right. If that had failed, I had a few more options, but this trick should do it. I've rushed right back at her. A draw-cut, thrust with both hands, a parry, and rather than pressing on, I've taken a step back and changed sword arm to the left, readjusting my stance. Wouldn't want to do this with the dominant arm.

She saw that I am going to be aggressive in this next exchange, and put up her guard.

One step, two steps, and I was in range, with the sword next to my back leg. The final step requires flexing your entire body to allow the joints to form a line. I felt the upcoming pain first as a distant reminder. But, like alarm clock in the morning, it became annoying. And just like that alarm clock, however loud, it had no control over me.

The thunder that rumbled through the storm this time belonged not to her, but me. She did try to parry high, but badly underestimated the force behind my blow. Didn't even move back, so I've cleaved right through her blade and body, and then through the ground, until my sword broke, along with my arm.

The last of cleansing flames that I hold blew away what was left of Barbara, Wtch of Retribution.

Then there was no rain anymore, and and a wave of whelming darkness came over us. Under my feet was a deep gash, and a Grief Seed right next to it. Around us lied a field of laundry poles, since we were obviously on a flat roof now. The Barrier itself was gone.

Taking a look back, I saw the Vindicare with their weapons still raised, one even firing off a shot at a familliar that wasn't there anymore. In the distance, there lied a plump girl's body, with quite a few stab wounds in the back.

"W-what happened? Did you get her? I just saw you explode, and then-" Popelka didn't notice that she'd dropped formalities, which made me glad. She did notice I'm crouching though. "Are you hurt?"

"Yeah, a bit. What you saw, or didn't, was Mach Lunge. You should have seen Kamile use while she was around, it's her trademark technique." Wow, that got me a gasp. It's like all the respect that I get really stands on succeeding her.

"It's called that, because the blade's tip breaks the sound barrier a few times over. Plain and simple, you use your body as a tool, and swing your limb as hard as your body is possibly able to. If you are strong enough, your muscles alone can break your bones. Any Eversor can do some variation of this, I think, she just capitalized on it." Kamile had specialized in enchantment of organic things, though, so she wouldn't wreck her arm like I did just now. And if she did go to the point of hurting herself, she would swing just so much harder than anybody else.

She could make a training sword hard as diamond, and a bone harpoon sharp as razor. Her weapon would never break, and her flesh would never wither. She became a Rank Leader by challenging the person in charge at the time, and beating them up with a broomstick. But, when she did, she found that she could only lead by example. She wasn't very bright, and that's why she had ended up the way she did.

Which brings me to the the other girl standing here before us, with the circlet she wore lying on the ground, split in twine. This, I think, is where this story really begins.

She was looking at her pitch black Gem, it's gliding turning black and crumbling away, rattling, as if her rabid soul was trying to crawl out of the mind's cage. The girls around were looking shocked and terrified, depending on how well they understood what's going on. But she didn't care, she was busy staring into the abyss.

I am sure she also saw it stare back at her.

Part 4, in which Jarmila writes about the following, oddly depressing Witch Hunt (Individual Chapter)[edit]

It's time to continue with this story. There is still much to record, and so much more I should rather be thinking of instead.

Let's see: Where I've last left off, a Vanus of the Twelfth, whose name I've had yet to learn, was staring at the abyss.

With a commendable presence of mind, one of the Vindicare girls around had managed to raise her gun the moment she understood what's happening. I saw her fire off the hip earlier, and it was because she now took a split second to properly aim at the crumbling Gem, that she was too late. We could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble right there. The newly formed Grief Seed vanished into thin air, and her shot had passed through an already dead body.

As fast as Barbara's storm went by, the wind had started picking up again. The sky took on an increasingly darker tone, and it was obvious a Barrier was being set up. But, aside from another dead body we now had on our hands, the Witch herself was nowhere around.

Strange. If they Witch out right before you, you normally appear at the center, or at least very close near her. This seemed like there would be a whole Labyrinth to go through. In place of an antenna on the rooftop shack stood a telephone pole. Where you could earlier see roof bracing were now high walls of barbed wire. Instead of a field of laundry poles, there was a whole load of semaphores and traffic signs - the incomprehensible, long kind, with a ton of different colors, that you normally see on railways. And indeed, rather then a plastic tube for wires smelted into the roof ground, we suddenly had a pair of rails under our feet. In addition to dust and dirt, ground was now littered with gravel, the sun had turned into a blood tinted moon, and sooner than you could blink, we were in a brand new world yet again.

A lot of Barriers take on the properties of the place where the girl had Witched out, but this one was pretty particular about exactly how it wanted to look. This reality bending power doesn't come from the mind. According to Panna, the power of a Witch depends less on the personal competency of the girl, and more on her karma.

The research of karma is something Librarians are fascinated by - it's apparently the magical equivalent of rocket science, but simply put, it's metaphysical weight, or objective importance. It seems to be difficult to judge and measure. This raises the question I'd ask a lot later: Was this pale, lanky druggie important somehow?

Even if that was so, she is now a statistic in the Archive. Sometimes this job makes me and our other Eversors feel like a daybreak garbage squad of the magical girl world. Waking up almost every day, knowing that you'll have to clean up other people's mess again, never knowing how much of it will be actual feces. I am the boss, so I've even got the incineration part down.

This time, though, things were different.

"So, Popelka, this one is on you." I've told her, moving on the track's side, but still keeping the sudden high ground of the rail embankment, since it was so demonstrative. "Do you want to have your girls taking her out too? You know you're done with the first hunt now, so you can really just kind of heel turn and go home, if you want."


She turned to the recovering squad. "Yeah, I'm definitely going to take the overtime here, myself. Not like I've got anything better to do. You others, though, bail if you feel like it." She raised both her hands, and made gestures to illustrate both choices, which made her look all the more like an instructor. "Being proactive is good, but judging your capabilities right matters a lot more. With Barbara, you've just seen some of the most insane stuff that Witches can do. It's all downhill from here. This is a fresh Barrier and I hear the train coming from this side of the rail, so you've probably just got to go in the other, and you're out. But don't actually go into the tracks, pretty sure they are the worst place to be here."

As a matter of fact, there was only one pair of those. Clearly, the train could only go one way.

They've all seemed to be deeply considering it. Screw all that "Ma'm, best of the best ma'm!" garbage you'd hear elsewhere, but still. I may never have managed to fully accept that for all their quirky talents, the Twelfth is still a bunch of wimps. There are so many tomboys, too! These costumes the Vindicare are wearing are spiffy, but you can still mostly recognize the Twelfth's dressing theme. It's much more striking with Eversors. Uniforms, sportswear, work clothes, casual clothes, even Kamile's costume was a frilly tracksuit.

I mean, what kind of a girl fulfills her childhood hopes by putting on pants? I'd hate to step on thin ice here by bringing sexuality into it all, maybe they just happen to get costumes like that. Each seems to have their own explanation for it. It sort of creates a romantic image of gentlemen that guard the princesses, those being Vanus. If only they could follow the image through with strength of character, or at least a basic sense of responsibility.

In the end, two of them left, proposing they'd stay nearby anyway, guarding the entrance against any Familiars that would spill out.

Well, that was one problem solved. I appreciated having nine girls do my work for me, since I'd have to rely on magic much more with only one hand. Another concern to deal with - that my arm was wrecked, and few of the girls had gotten some cuts in Barbara's barrier as well. And aside from cleaning the wound with flames, I suck at healing. If Panna was more lax with her Venenum students, we could have those battle auxiliary Venenum, but no such luck.

Jarmila Rank Leader2.jpeg

My normal approach would be toughing it out and using the limb like nothing's wrong. But nine girls were looking at me now, and that would set a terrible example. Can't expect that from everyone. Fortunately, there was an option I had just for this situation, even though it felt tempting to ignore it again.

Panna's potions are indeed something I try to not think about. Like, well, a lot of things. The sight of a Warmaster riding the Love Potion, working off her four months, and becoming more and more of a wreck, until she can't hold it together anymore and expands the list of high profile Witches, that really burns itself into your mind. I think we never actually were supposed to see any of them, not us Rank Leaders, not even most of the Librarians, but damn, I did. That's how I found out that Panna can screw up like every other person.

I did have a makeup case with some of her stuff in it, but it still felt completely reprehensible. You would kind of expect Panna to put some contingency mind control drugs in it, or use the normals-can't-see-this excuse, due to which you have to always carry it around if you're ever going to use it, to put some kind of a tracking device inside.

See the back of the case below. Now tell me, am I paranoid?

Vászon's alchemical mending cream - Apply onto and into the wound. Enhances blood, skin, and basic tissue recovery. Effective within a minute, so do it fast. - Intended for use on: skin cuts, nicked veins and arteries, cleanly cut muscles. - Not intended to be used on: torn muscle fiber, severed tendons, or wounds that reach internal organs. - NEVER use on broken bones. If the wound is so nasty that you can't avoid touching it, the cream absolutely must not get into the marrow. - Uses next to none of your energy, but is set to lose magical properties if no Gem is nearby. Always carry on your person upon receiving. - Side effects: Immediate hunger, fat loss, muscle mass loss, weight loss, heavy sweating. Leaves scar tissue. After use, eat a big meal, and visit the medical bay or consult the nearest Venenum to have the wound checked.

I've figured it should be alright to use, bone wasn't sticking out, though it was hurting like fractured at least. The bruised and torn skin bled a lot in one spot, probably opened a vein there, that could have been a problem. Then again, making sure you won't bleed out seemed to be the point of this.

It's kind of a mixed blessing, but sustaining the same wound many times can really help your kinesthetic sense. You don't know pleasure until you've had your soul caressed, and much like that, you can hardly call yourself a masochist if you don't even know the pain of having your brain cut.

Having known the extremes also makes you duller to the mundane. Rubbing it in hurt too, but like I am saying, pain is something that gets old. It almost put me off when I've given the case to the wounded squaddies, and they were still making all those silly grimaces and moans when all they had to do was touching a bit of their own flesh.

Finally, the drag was done with. "Let's get a move on. It's your turn to shine now. Can't suffer a Witch to live. You've already been baptized sub utraque specie there, so to say, through both water and fire. I am sure you can handle this. If anything, it will be much easier the second time".

If only I could be this charismatic without the costume on. It really makes it easier to say what I want in an impressive way. It's probably all psychological, I just feel much more confident like this. Which, in the end, may have to with my wish.

"Will those tracks on the ground move, or can she leave them? Damn." Popelka seemed really worried about positioning, and complained that the rail hill was too high to see over, forcing us to keep somebody on the top, which ended up being her.

In the distance, we soon saw her first Familiars, who took a convenient while to appear. Apparently a bunch of winged wheels. They couldn't have been any strong now, and couldn't really beat the group's firepower. Coming from only one place, the tracks, before they've realized they can fly, that didn't help them either.

Good, wouldn't like to be on the front line, there. Blocking attacks that are based on centrifugal force sucks. It's why I use a flail. The wheels would have played rough if they ever got close enough.

Wheels. I was reminded of High Marshal Raleigh. Now, we basically see the Blessed Lady as a grim reaper, because she appears around divinations regarding death. They have a whole, fairly pointless, advanced mythology relating to her, and long story short, one of her saints is associated with wheels. The thing is, they approach it in a really naive fashion. Shouldn't religious people know that wheels are martyrdom, and loss of man against fate? I am the ignorant savage of the Twelfth, and even I know this one. You see wheels on the art in churches, basically all the time.

Petra w2.jpeg

I didn't manage to get a hit in very often. They only ever came from one direction even further in, seeing that the rest was walled off with wires, the corridor around the tracks slowly narrowing. So, they got drowned in curtain fire, and I eventually just kind of withdrew back, so I wouldn't stand in their way. They've managed to progress economically, blasters stepping in when a group would try to break through. It was a bloody hallway, really. With time, maybe, the Barrier could accumulate switches, and turn into a proper Labyrinth, but all the way until we hit the station, it was fairly straightforward.

The station not only had quite a few of the winged wheels waiting, but also had steep concrete walls right around the still only one-way rail, which was worrying. There was barely enough space for half the squad to form a line. In the distance behind it, the sky had carried a small trail of witch letters, that I think were supposed to be the train's hooting.

Soon enough, we could also see her outline, and that's when the weapon users had understood just how massive she is, and started worrying whether they really did well by coming along. "She looks so fast. I don't think my throwing stars will do anything here, ma'm. What do we do when she gets here? Just hit it with everything we've got?"

Popelka spared the girl no look, instead gesturing the blasters to come forward. "Yeah. This is pretty much exactly why I've recommended you that grenade training. Grenades are good. Now get back."

Curious. My complaint about blasters not knowing how to shoot guns now stood on its head. Popelka is clearly really trying, so it's strange her squad can get away with being that impractical. Can't she just, like, order them to learn certain stuff and bring certain equipment? Martina is quite the iron lady as well, at least with subordinates. Could it be the Librarians filling their heads with bullshit about personal development?

Petra w1.jpeg

The train Witch had approached soundlessly, but with an overwhelming amount of Witch text all around it. One of the blasters almost fell, and another had to catch and support her, from the sheer volume of letters and wind pressed against us, before it was even in range. There was no earthly way of knowing whether in this station, it was stopping.

The first gunshots and bolts had next to no visible effect on it, but an explosion of pink petals from the blaster with best range had visibly managed to tilt it.

"That's it! More on that side!"

Pure green light, followed by a pair of fireballs and a bolt of golden lightning smashed into her, her locomotive head already completely fallen to the side, but unable to stop anymore. The rest of her body kept pushing her forward. She was vomiting Witch letters everywhere now, the sky and even the rail corridor's walls being almost lost to sight.

I've wanted to yell that she's sliding to the right and to get on the other side, but there was no time to do even that, so I've just grabbed the girl farthest(?) in the danger zone, and jerked her out of the trainwreck's way. Immediately after, the letters overwhelmed us completely, and once they were gone, the whole Barrier was, like it never existed.

I have been scared that we'd get hit by the tail, and wanted to jump, but that wasn't even necessary in the end. No wounds on anyone else, either.

Her Grief Seed had kept the momentum she had, though, and flied quite far into the distance. We had to search for it for solid half an hour, and then we had to fish it from a rain pipe as well.

Who was she, and why did this happen? It boggled my mind all the way through. It may have been the tedious task of scanning every inch of the bordering apartment complex from the rooftop that emptied my mind, and let suspicion seep in like it never did before. I've had it with hypocrisy and being always left in the dark. I was really drawn to the idea of finding out just what her story was.

Basically, she was a good example of all that I hate about the Twelfth. The amount of recruits and transferees, and the 70% witch-out rate. You almost never see anybody being pressed into losing the fight, though, like with bullying or such. I even try to stomp that right out when it turns up, despite it generally being the victim's fault for letting it happen. There obviously was another way this was carried out, and Panna knows why she keeps it out of our sights and minds. Having stayed in the business for years made it feel almost natural, that girls come and go, but for some reason this one was the straw that broke the camel's back, and resulted in me eventually taking action.

For the rest of the day, and since then even until now, I'd be melancholic and contemplative. And emotional, and quite a bit more honest than usual. After five years of having to steel my mind and guilt tripping myself into trying ever harder, something broke.

It broke subtly, and without me noticing.

She really did make a good martyr after all.

Part 5, in which Jarmila writes about her friends, as well as her foes (Individual Chapter)[edit]

Jarmila casual2.jpeg

The Twelfth Incubator's Office is positioned at a surprising place - in one of the National Theatre's loges. The Archive was rebuilt just under it, so we can simply take a lift from there. Our Incubator has always boasted being something of an anthropologist, and since we were moving everything years ago, he used the opportunity to enjoy music arts during work, and focus on our culture more.

When I've entered the office, he was doing something with the computer alright, but through the one-way glass, I could also see the actors on the stage rehearsing something, repeating lines, occasionally starting a song, but never getting past a few verses before the director would yell at them.

"This is a good example of how narrow human perception is, Jarmila." He responded to my silence, not caring to face me, but using my given name as always. It definitely leaves a sense of pretense. "The play is quite interesting, and could provide, to the more curious viewer, a gateway into a whole new unique theatre genre. But, as it often happens, all you humans remember is the title song. The need to translate it also obscures much of the meaning here."

On a wagon, bound for market

there's a calf with a mournful eye;

High above him, there's a swallow

winging swiftly through the sky;

How the winds are laughing,

they laugh with all their might;

Laugh and laugh the whole day through

and half the summer's night.

Donna Donna Donna, Donna ~

"It's also quite fitting to our cause, what do you think?" Was he gloating about how he's got us under his thumb?

I did know both the song and this cattle allegory. It especially starts making sense once you spend enough time in the Twelfth, and understand that under all those esoterics and difficult words, there's really just a huge slaughterhouse of the Witch flesh. You get good or go Witch. I know the Twelfth is special in this way, but don't see into the exact methods of this being handled, except for having to purge what's left of the newbies all the time. Grief must flow, or so the cat says.

But now that I thought of it, does participating in it all make me a cow?

"I don't understand art, sir. I came to give you report on Barbara, as obvious. She wasn't a cow or a swallow. I guess she was a bitch to kill."

"Make sure to pass the story of your heroic prevailing to one of the Gatherers. More importantly, how many causalities did you have?" Damn cat kept watching his screen, like I was the pet in this room. He looks so silly, I keep forgetting all the jokes are lost on this guy. He may be good at mimicry and has got a definite talent for ad-libs, but under his act is a mask of cold steel.

"Only one squaddie girl had died, and no expensive wounds were sustained." Well, the one I got from having to perform the Mach Lunge hurts, but won't send the limb to Jackdaw's ice box just yet.

"I've noticed that your arm-"

"Though wait, damn, actually, sorry. Two girls are dead. That's why I came late. Jackdaw should already have gotten both the bodies a hour ago or so - we sent them in advance."

"How rude. Don't jump into your boss's speech like that. And don't make this kind of a mistake when reporting." Wiggle, wiggle. If only you could make a key charm out of that tail.


"I am sorry. The Info-Cyte girl had witched out."

His tail slowed down to a still, with a very controlled movement. "That is... actually very interesting, Jarmila. From the Info-cyte's maker, I hear that was out of the question. You should talk to her, it's Renata Lichtenberg, the Librarian with synthetic arms. Our main hacker, formerly of Fourth." An incubator using given names and nicknames is also odd, girls who transferred here say that a lot. "I'll go over your account of her later, assuming you didn't let her get away. Renata will need it as soon as possible, though."

I've seen that one with metal arms a bunch of times. Obviously she would be a transferee from the Fourth, but. "Was that girl really ranked?"

"The thing to consider here is," he kept going on, "Figuring out how much corruption could mechanization of thought save on somebody other than herself was one of the experiment's purposes." The ugly mascot had finally moved, and, for once, his step seemed oddly unsure.

"This is a very strange situation we may have gotten here, mhmm. I understand that you are quite the ideologically driven person. You should be glad, because today is a very special day - you will get to discuss ideology." He turned his head slowly towards me, in a way that shouldn't be possible for any animal with a spinal column. That actually had more shock value than whatever turn scare setup he could have had planned to try out, what with delaying eye contact.

"Well then, Jarmila. Are you familiar with the Riddle of Witch Flesh?

I've resisted the urge to scratch my head here. The Riddle of Witch Flesh? Don't care about these occasional heated debates the Vanus have, but they really wouldn't shut up about this one. "Isn't it basically asking what's the right amount of emotion in life, and how to tell?"

"Yes, that. You know, it's not just sophistry, it's a matter of life and death for you girls. Panna wants to talk to you today, among other people. And discuss this riddle. So, that's another thing you have to do today. She said she would come at the Archive's reception, and that the other Rank Leaders have already been notified."

"Well, it's where they both live. That's... okay by me. I've wanted to stop by there anyway. Drink some beer with them and complain about my day." I couldn't help being kind of blunt, compared to his curly speech

"I know you have just done a lot of work, but this is really important, and she's adamant that she must talk to all of you Rank Leaders together today. You'd better go. Seeds go to the Librarium, I can't take these just yet." He turned back, apparently considering me dismissed.

"I'll be going then, sir. I've told Popelka to report to you in person. She would understand how Squad Libra had performed better than I do."

And so I've left the cat to his own thoughts, which were, in all likelihood, him plotting to screw us all over with the least effort. Like a twisted child that mechanically plays with its toys because that's what they are for, but never has fun. A toy breaking doesn't even make it flinch.

Or like a farmer who grooms his animals and plays with them for years on the end before having to butcher them, because that was the point all along. He doesn't enjoy the act of betrayal and killing. Happy meat just sells the best.

Such is the painful truth. He doesn't really care about humans at all.


Following the familiar branch of tubes out of the Elevator, I've arrived to the Archive's gate, and the booth built into the wall next to it. Anyone who would happen to wander this deep would be put off by the single led light illuminating a massive steel door.

That is, if they could see it. Which they would most likely not, because the girl standing guard next to the gate would usually either be a Callidus trainee maintaining the Rank Leader's double illusion of seeing darkness along with a touching a stone wall, or the Rank Leader herself. For a third of a day, though, and as was the case when I came there, the Vindicare Rank Leader would sit at the booth instead

Martina, who should, by all rights, have seen them coming from a hundred meters away and could make precautions. Provided she actually physically looked where she was supposed to, which no guard really does. Nothing bad ever came out of it, though. I could actually see the light when I've turned corner, so it must have been her shift.

"Papers please - oh yeah, figured the huge person there was you." The booth girl's voice had skipped a whole octave, to accompany the shift of her social gears from seeing a friend. She had her blindfold pulled over hair, with one hand remaining on it like she wasn't sure which way to pull it, making her look like a scatterbrain. That was precious, because it was far from the truth.

Since it seemed a bit like I've caught her reading porn mags on the job or something, I've decided to tease her a bit more on it. "Won't you still have to probe me with clairvoyance, though? What if I am a Callidus? I guess this looks like a bunch of halves in a bag to you, but it's totally a bomb or some shit."

Martina casual.jpeg

"Oh, you're okay. Still saw you with one eye. It's the only way I can do something else on the boredom shift." That sounds like it must make her head hurt, though. She had already hidden whatever she was reading under the desk, it really must have been something disgraceful. "You've got magic on your hand, though, did somebody wreck you? My day was shit too."

This already seemed like a beginning of a good, long dudebrochick talk, one of those that will take hours, but in which we won't actually say anything we haven't said before. So, let me tell you about Martina for a bit, instead of showing, since the way this had happened doesn't show her off enough.

In order to be granted the title and rank "Librarian of the Twelfth", a magical girl has to meet a set of requirements:

To be at the peak of her Vanus potential, showing consistent perfect results in mundane tasks. Martina made her Vanus marks with flying colors.

To be resourceful, knowledgeable, and experienced with both inner mechanisms of the Officio and the groundwork, able to fill different roles than just those usually expected of a Vanus: She must have some at least basic combat training and skill, and deep understanding of magic arts, along with the ability to widely apply them to most problems. Martina can do some crazy things with her magic, and both kill and fix problems like nobody's business.

And lastly, to prove with a clean track record that she is worthy of trust, disciplined, and in general fit to become the Incubator's confidant in some manner, dusting off one of the Officio's closet skeletons, never telling anyone what she came to know. As I understand it, this is where it breaks, because Martina is not dependable enough. Her results are too wall-to-wall to handle the subjects that Juunibey needs clean and safe.

But, much like me, she does pretty good when you leave her to do her own thing.

That's why, after she had beaten on Liliana's skin with two Grief Seed's worth of enchanted sticks and stones, even if it had little effect and even if she had needed a flying friend's help to accomplish it, Juunibey didn't have her replace one of the dead Librarians, but rather the Vindicare Rank Leader, who got gulped down like a chump.

We're similar people, in that we're both thick headed and hard to put a leash on, but also the strongest around. I'll repeat that I never felt like a leader, but Martina apparently does, and says that both prodigies and leaders must be selfish, else they'll never get anywhere. I've got some real issues with her personality, but due to circumstance, she's the closest thing to a friend I've got.

Well, we're friends now, but Martina is a very inconvenient person at first. You will find that she's such a massive pile of issues, it almost makes her seem capricious and many-faced when you get closer to her, because you can never tell what she's projecting at right now. Through her concealed misanthropy, and constant trying to weed her own banes out of others, she gets her job of a Vindicare Rank Leader done.

Panna says she's just histrionic, that I am a jock, and Toy is too soft for our trade, but that's because Panna always has to be a complete cunt to everyone.

I fell on the sofa in that tiny crib, having seen the bed already occupied by Toy, who must have come earlier and tried to catch a nap before the meeting. "Seriously. That fucking cat. If I see that fucking cat try to turn scare me one more time."

Martina immediately gave me the mirror of reason that I've needed, twisted as it was. "He's trying, though. Isn't that worthy of respect? Like, keep in mind this, he must have been at it for eighty years. That's amazing. You've got to respect that, you've got to."

"...It's amazingly stupid of him, if that's what you're getting at. At least it wasn't the fake laughter. That was horrible, god damn."

They don't -and aren't allowed to- keep a bottle opener around for me, so I've always had to conjure up a tiny metal spike and use it to open the bottle cap, which was kind of wasteful. It's always the annoying routines like this that really get to you. I also have to carry my bottles back with me, but Toyen still has it worse, since she can't smoke underground. It also seems to disgust the Vanus when she brings it up, since the Officio spaces are always kept so sterile. You would think that they wouldn't mind, since they so often pretend that shit doesn't stink.

"Sure, but. If my laptop had worked for eighty years, that would be an amazing laptop. Say it runs one of these programs where it tries to learn to speak by talking to you. Except, if you talk to it for eighty years, who cares if the conversational program on it passes the Turing test yet. You grow so attached to it, you even start talking like it, there's no difference anymore."

That was a new thought right there. It had me thinking about it for a while. "Is that like what happened to Panna? Did she talk to an Incubator for so long that she forgot he's fucked up, and became like him? Started seeing the world through the beady eyes?"

"You can ask her herself in a short while.", she turned again. "That reminds me, Toy, I am going to need the bed. Panna insists that since I used to be a Vanus, she wants me to give my account in trance."

Hearing her name called out, the second resident of the booth came to her senses, and sat on the bed's edge. "Sorry. Fell asleep waiting." Then, her mind caught up, and she gave Martina a long, tired stare through her sleepy eyes. "Like, in trance? Vanus trance, like they do in rituals? Like when Řeřicha gets high? So that you can't lie or backtrack on what you've said? What a bitch."

Toyen Casual.jpeg

Martina must have been overjoyed, being able to correct somebody that hard.

"Right, except none of what you've said is a given. It differs by person. Like, it usually allows you to focus more on whatever you are doing in the Administratum. Scryers or seers are usually unconscious during it, but enhance their results like this. They get more worked up. Gatherer candidates would stay conscious and focus on digging in their memory, so they can remember what you've said better, and add notes to the account, down to subtle stuff like the faces you were making. My version is that too. And since the blindfold already allows me to see EVERYTHING down to the pimples on their butt and junk food in their stomach, and you can only do so much sparring, I've tried to push the trance a bit as well, when I was bored."

Married to the job alright. Dirudo, was it? But I have no right to poke fun at her here, since I like to abuse the Eversor trance too.

She held her head in her hands now, staring outside. "It took years, but when I focus these days, I basically get photographic memory of everything I've seen lately. So, the Gatherers really like me now, is what I am getting at." she made a short pause, probably realizing that wasn't what she had originally wanted to say. "Besides, it's not like I would lie to Panna now. It's the opposite - I want to throw the whole thing in her face. Because it's all her fault."

I took a swig from the flask. My sincere pity goes to all the poor foreign workaholic magical girls who will never taste bottled bohemian beer after work. "Was it so bad? I mean, sure, retirement missions suck, glad to have them off my back, but still. Don't you do a lot of those?"

"Let me think about that. Hm. Yeah, I do, but no, you're wrong. You can't actually get used to everything. I am not even really a cynic, or fucking Yossarian like Toyen. I have to look into their faces, you know." Martina seemed to struggle with the proper volume to give her voice, like when you're talking to a driver. She wanted us to hear her, without turning back, but also didn't want anyone possibly passing the Archive's gate to hear, since the conversation was straying in a classified direction.

Well, I could take that burden by talking myself, for a while. "Yeah, and get this: I have to look into their heads, and take a trip through their pocket personal hell. How's that not worse?"

That may be when they've also noticed how I've been starting to slip a bit.


"I also keep count, you know? I've seen thirteen hundred and forty Barriers within five years of service, give or take ten. Some of them don't really count, or I only got a glimpse or something." I've lowered my voice a bit too. "Anyway, that's a Witch almost every day. It also means I've purged an entire Officio in my life, or the Twelfth almost twice over. For the record, I normally use three Seeds a month, since I've got a lot of juice and just smash most of them down with a weapon. You'd think that it eventually gets old, like that all girls would mostly think about wanting to have a dick and that the Barriers would have that. Like that psychologist who wanted to fuck his mom, Freud. That kind of a thing. But no. Still new and new exciting silly shit coming my way."


"Anyway, I actually think that this keeps me sane. If they started repeating and I felt like I've figured people out, that would drive me crazy. So, I get what you're saying. I don't mind answering the question either, and my answer is also no. I don't just fire and forget. Hehe, no pun intended."

Martina was trying to keep her eyes on outside of the booth, but still shot me a look over the shoulder. "That's some strange math. You do realize the problems with it, right?"

"Yeah. The coolest part about it is that I didn't even kill half the Witches we've produced in that time. Not even fucking close. Not even a quarter of them. A tenth, more like. It's sort of hard to not figure out the... You know. The thing."

Toyen seemed already woken up by us talking things of that sort, so she asked Martina the good question. "Is this going to be about the thing?"

"Pretty sure it's going to be about the thing. It was real crazy and weird. And it's not like this was my first time doing this. Panna has to do the gatherer's role herself because nobody else is really allowed to, well, even hear it. Except you, today, finally. For some reason."

Clearly, this mission she had ben on must have been super bad. Worse than murdering your friends and telling your friends about it, which is what a retirement mission normally entails.

So, when she came, there wasn't much small talk. It was obviously the first thing we had to ask. Why is this so important?

"Because this time, I happen to be dying."

There was a hint of amusement in her voice, being able to tell this to the three people in the world who had probably wanted to murder her the most.

"...After Jarmila left the garden in the morning, I had my soul gem faint on me. This body underwent clinical death for a few minutes, and wouldn't move when I came to." She waved her palm around, like when you're trying to get the itch out of it in the morning.

Panna casual2.jpeg

"I won't humor you with stories of what it's like to be old. But this means I could basically leave you any moment now. I probably won't, but it could happen. In theory."

Martina showed the most empathy of us all, actually having something to ask after a long pause. "So, this is because you've still got unfinished business. No last will, you're basically passing the Officio on right now."


"Why us? Why not pick a Chief Librarian - or, hell, another Warmaster's Aide like you - and have her just keep doing what you did? Didn't the cat have you make, like, hectoliters of the Potion for future use?"

Panna tapped her knuckles on the table, and laid her shades on it, maybe to indicate that she's finally being level with us. "The problem with that is that I can't really recommend the Incubator any of the Librarians or my Venenum in good conscience. Jackdaw and Řeřicha have what it takes, if we are talking skill, but neither is a leader. They also are too talented, if you know what I mean by that. They lack the versatility. And perspective. And let's be honest, neither has much common sense."

While the Aide was moving her chair to the back of the crib next to the bed, where Martina had already lied, Toyen had to sit by the table too. While she could, she said the thing on everyone's mind. "Don't get angry, Panna, but you're pretty batshit crazy yourself."

Didn't even twitch her brow. She didn't even insult anyone so far, so it really seemed like a grave matter. "Just listen for a while. After you hear Martina's story from this morning, it will all make much more sense."

And then the session was all ready, started, and Martina would start saying all those interesting things. I should get the account itself from Umika, and stick it under this. By now, at least that's going to be easy.

Part 6, in which Martina recounts her hunt on the most dangerous game (Individual Chapter)[edit]

- Gatherings

-- Witches

--- 82-132 Abigail 11

+++Classification Rank: B+++


+++Account given by: Vindicare Rank Leader Martina Twardowska+++

+++Gatherer: Panna Vászon+++

+++Also present: Eversor Rank Leader Jarmila Holá, Callidus Rank Leader Marie Smetana (here as Toyen)

+++Thought for the day: Freedom and life are owned by those alone, who conquer them each day anew.

+++PANNA: Let's begin. To sum up, this morning, you have been assigned a highest priority mission. What was it?

+++MARTINA: To retire the Warmaster. +pause+ I understand it was because she had reached the point of not being sustainable anymore. As always, it was requested that I let her become a Witch, and kill her only then. But the previous one had tried to fight me four months ago, and escaped, so, I think, that would be why it"s retiring, rather than purging or hunting.

+++JARMILA: Oh yes. This is going to be good.

+++P: How did you feel about this?

+++M: Hmm. +pause+ I was scared. Obviously I would be, having to fight the Warmaster, but don't forget I had no idea who the Warmaster even was yesterday, and the file that I had received was... well, intimidating. +pause+ I'd like to ask this too, why should I of all people have the necessary ability to assassinate the Warmaster?

+++P: That would be, firstly, because the Love Potion deteriorates the soul, so at the time she would need a Grief Seed every day and wouldn't be worth sustaining anymore, you will be fighting a shade of her former self anyway.

+++J: Wow. That's fucked up.


+++P: Secondly, Martina, because you're the least unreliable powerful person around, and the best at engaging humans. You may remember that Jarmila had to hunt down the Witch resulting from your blunder the last time, because she's better suited to battle Witches than you.

+++M: +loudly+ Except that girl back then shot magic at me from her Gem even after I've broken everything in her body except that, so I don't think it was possible-

+++P: Maintain your trance. Besides, we got the Witch, so it wasn't too bad. How did you approach the assignment?

+++M: Well. +pause+ I've learned something from the last one. This time, I've brought a gun. Her file had said she was a powerful teleporter, able to travel hundreds of miles. I can see why such a person would get the job of cleaning the Witches as they turn up. But it also meant that she could teleport on me any time. So, I had no idea what to do about it. I would have requested a Culexus to help me, if we still had any, but we didn't manage to recruit one in, how long? Ten years? I would have actually even requested foreign assistance on this one, if it wasn't so confidential. No way I could really prepare for this. Not even anything I can make with a marker seemed useful.

+++P: She could probably make a short jump, but then we could just get her again. Karolina must have known that she would Witch out right away, if she tried to jump between countries in her state. Someone else would then get the Seed, or we would have to ask for turf access, or even actual assistance, sure. That would be troublesome. At her peak, however, and with the potion's help, even jumping from here to Australia wouldn't be out of question.

+++M: So... I have asked Řeřicha for a seeing. She looked at me with those bloodshot eyes of hers, and said she couldn't help on a short notice like that, but that some acolyte girl had said she saw me talking to a platinum blonde warrior during a divination. That was a week ago, if I remember what Řeřicha said right.


So, I'll rub this in. It would be better if I didn't have to ask. Why isn't there some sort of a system for these yet? We should gather notices like this, I saw some random shit in the warp myself, what do you know, it could help somebody if I shared back then.

+++P: Too dangerous. Could be used as a way to circumvent classification. The person that tries to make sense of these would need to have access to everything, otherwise they wouldn't be able to judge who is allowed to be warned about what. The Incubator certainly does not have time for that, and neither do I.

+++TOYEN: I guess that means the burden of power is biting you in the ass, eh?

+++M: It also turned out to be the right thing to do. When I met the Warmaster at the given place, I've tried to approach her more casually, and she sort of started talking on her own.

+++J: Sorry for jumping in, this seems like a good time. Karolina Sokołowska? Kája? A teleporting Eversor? Long blonde hair? I've trained that nerd. +short pause+ So she was the Warmaster for the last months? That's sort of hard to believe, though, I guess, the Potion goes a long way. Give me a moment here, to get it all together. +pause+ I remember that girl alright. Her name was Karolina, but she insisted for people to not call her by her full name. That she hates it. It's a really common and boring one, I guess. She was a teleporter Eversor, which was awesome, but she was also dreadfully lacking in, well, curiosity. A slow learner. And pretty dumb, all in all. It took me days to explain to her the idea of using teleportation to attack somebody. Just, you know, popping up behind them and shanking their guts. +pause+ I think I just sort of stopped seeing her a few weeks after she got in, and assumed she got killed somewhere off my eyes, Jackdaw took what was left, and Panna had filled the paperwork. I mean, she was supposed to be an operative of her own because of the gimmick, but at the same time, she wasn't so promising a recruit that I'd lose sleep over her. Damn. +pained expression+ You said you'd talked, so did she say anything interesting?

+++M: Yes, she talked a lot - right when she teleported in. It's auditive memory, rather than the visual which I trained for, but I remember it all. To establish the scene better for you - I was told by the Incubator to meet her in an alley in the Old Town, right at the dawn. Don't know how that works. Did you, like, order her to come get shot?


Let's see, a swearword here and there:

"Haha, the place is right now, but time still fucked. Sorry I'm late. Had to kill a monster, except he was a guy. Really wanted to do it for the longest fucking time, and she can't punish me when I'm dead, you dig?" +accent, some elongated vowels+

She was also all bloody and transformed. She held a stained sword. I am afraid I can't tell swords apart like Jarmila would, but it looked very simple and heavy. She had a costume out of hard leather. Tomboyish, like a fashionable fencer. A lot of studs, a very Twelfth looking costume.

+++J: By the way, except for the costume, that sounds nothing like her. She was really phlegmatic and, hm, timid.

+++P: It is her. Consider the love potion's withdrawal effects too. Her psychological profile also has her as bipolar, in case you didn't know. She had also expressed actual concern that you would find out, when she was offered the spot. I would be forbidden to tell you anyway, and wouldn't. Just so this is said here, she seemed to have arranged some sort of a trade with the Incubator, that I didn't see into.


+++T: Wow, that almost sounds like she's the winner. That's much better than what most girls around here get. Most just make a wish, and kind of randomly witch out a month later. Wink wink, nudge nudge, you know.

+++P: He seemed to treat it as a second contract, and would be willing grant a second wish for it in a way, as long as it was reasonable. It's the difference between letting someone fiddle with your soul, and letting him break it.

+++T: What a nice cat he is.

+++M: "It's a lot harder to just cap me like this, without a fight, in cold blood, eh? I get it, I get. You kill a lot of people, but they're always shooting at you first or stopping you from doing your job or some shit. Noow, here's something for you to think about. Magical girls kill monsters, right? And people are shit, soo they are sometimes monsters. So that's why they have us kill people. Got no problem with that. Here's the thing though: You don't get monsters. Aah, fuck, I am saying it wrong. Basically a monster is shit you don't understand. If you can look at the werewolf, he fucking sucks at his job. +fast+ Isn't killing shit JUST because you don't understand it kind of being a massive cunt though? I bet there's a word for that kind of being a cunt. The library girls are going to know but it's not like I could ask them, lately."


"Yeaah, that's the word. Anyway, it's why the Librarians are really evil as shit. They use your fear to have you kill them, and that's alright, but they also ask you questions so they can understand them. It's the closest you can get to really murdering them. There's stalking somebody and killing them which is wrong but human after all, and then there's killing somebody and THEN stalking them, and I can't fucking understand that. I've just stabbed a guy's heart five minutes ago, and it was less fucked up than what they do every day. I've killed him because I hated him, but they kill them because they want to love them. Like I say, fucked up. Well, good to have gotten this out of my head.

No, really, though, what are you waiting for? It's right here on my finger. You're aiming at my chest, that won't do shit. "

I am actually only supposed to kill you as a magical girl if you go crazy before your time runs out. They want your witch flesh - I've told her the truth.

It seemed to sadden her. "That's a shame. I've wanted to meet the pink girl and ask her some shit. But fuck if I remember what it was anymore."

I hear you meet her anyway. The Librarians say she's around the deaths of both Magical Girls and Witches.

"Cool. Tell Jarmila I chose this, and tell Panna she's a bitch. There. If I could have a second go at life I'd swear a lot more, because it fucking doesn't matter. Kurwa."

And then she witched out.

+++P: What was her barrier like?

+++M: Metal. +pause+ It was like a castle top, with a lot of towers. Isn't there already an important Witch that has a castle for a barrier? Like, an alpha?

+++J: That would be Libuna, the Witch of Harvest. She's a pretty big deal. But she's not really an alpha. Just old, and generally really weird. The Librarians ramble about her a lot, alongside the other bit more legendary ones - like the Walpurgisnacht party.

+++M: Yeah, that one. Well, this one had a labyrinth of rooftops and walkways and bridges. The towers were like crossroads. It had great visibility.


Now, there were a lot of ropes and wires between the towers, those were basically the Barrier's ceiling, and this is where it gets freaky. It used organs and tendons for decoration. A lot of blood dripping on you all the time and gore lying everywhere, the sidewalks that you could stand on were all bloody. A lot of it was sticking out of the tower windows, too. It didn't look anything like in a biology handbook, just a bloody mess. +pause+ A bit under the ropes, and everywhere surrounding where you could really stand, would be the webs. They looked like they were made of some kind of mucus. Really sticky. Maybe that's how all webs look really up close, though. I saw that in the TV once. These webs were in a lot of colors, didn't look like spider webs at all. When I talk about moving through the Barrier, those were the walls, and I would walk on the sidewalks and stairways between the towers alongside them. The bridges themselves were really dangerous, I was afraid of slipping on all the blood, so I couldn't really run after her very fast. +short pause+ Did I forget to say anything? Hmm, yes. Smooth ground, no cat head pavement or anything of the sort. The towers had windows, gore sticking out of them. You couldn't get into any. The only exception was the central tower where I've initially appeared, that had a bit of an empty space. And there were only more webs down bellow, with no real ground for all I know. +pause+


I got a bit ahead of myself. The first thing that I saw was her Witch form. She looked like huge fat ass spider, but also had tentacles for hair, so who knows what she was supposed to be. She had a stinger too, but she never got anywhere close to touching me with it, so I guess it doesn't matter.

I found out right away that was that she was immune to my regular javelins. The one I threw off the bat just stuck to her for a bit, and then clattered on the ground - no good. Even the normal ones I just create to throw are still a magic weapon, so that hairy skin of her must have been really thick. Or it might be the case that they are bad javelins because they're pencils, and that I am just too weak for fighting Witches, physically. I have to cheat with magic a lot every time I do, and so I did again.

I had prepared an enchanted bundle before the fight, and those did work. She caught one sparkly pencil to the belly, screamed, jumped at me, and fell right out of the tower as I've dodged to the side. The javelin broke as she rammed through the entrance, part of it remaining in, so even though it was a shallow hit compared to what I've hoped for, it was still lodged solidly.

The bad part was that I didn't have her cornered anymore, and had to chase her around.

It was an endurance fight. She didn't have the skill to hit me on her own, with her limbs or her butt, because she was so big. Two exchanges after I've caught up with her, and she never tried again. I guess she was obviously afraid of using her jaws, because it meant getting way too close to the spearhead.

So, instead, she would jump around and away, try to dodge what I threw, and try to drown me in Familiars. I became sick and tired of that pretty fast, the webs made her much more agile. A few of those throws, I've managed to actually miss, even when I only went for it when it looked safe. Also, she liked to pull the javelins out with the tentacles, and break them in her jaws. I've learned something for the future there, that only the spearhead - or the graphite, if you will - is what I really enchant. Breaking them was really smart of her. Still, the way she approached this gave me a lot of space to work my magic, which I usually don't get. +pause+

I really took my time with her. It seemed she became scared of me. Due to that, she let me get away with writing four scrolls during the battle, part by part. I used each right away, so the bundle of ten that I had at the start slowly grew in lethality. I could always see where she and the Familiars were, after all, so I didn't have to worry about being ambushed. Writing one scroll only takes me a minute now, and each one I read is another brick wall that the javelin can pierce through. That's how easy she made it for me.

After returning back to the center and just doing my thing, the Familiars followed me in, so I just stabbed them away and kicked them off.

Her Familiars that would try to prevent me from making them, with not much success, had winged helmets. They were very bad at their job. There were already a few kinds of them, though. Isn't that a sign of a great Witch?

+++P: Yes. You still didn't say anything about them, were they spiders?


+++M: Shit. Sorry. Right. There were cocoons all over the place and they would burst out of them, but they weren't little spiders. They were white knights with butterfly wings and black knights with dragonfly wings, and they would show up in separate groups. Maybe the knight thing was just armor imagery, because they attacked with claws. Or they would try to to bull rush me off the stairs. I guess they didn't really have space to dogpile me, which is the more classic Familiar tactic. They always had a leader that had a horse-thing, and much bigger wings, but still no weapon - like I said, really varied Familiars.

I saw a few groups of them fighting when they couldn't get to me, but if they had a way, they would try to gang up on me first. Some of the ones that I'd push from a bridge or stairs got caught in the webs, too. I am afraid I really just took a quick stroll through the outside, before getting back at the start and just doing my thing.

+++P: Libuna's Familiars have moth wings. And they are skeletons. That's actually really interesting.

+++T: I heard that a few times. That you can meet them in different Barriers. That if you meet a random midget skeleton with moth wings, a torch, and some sort of a farming tool like a sickle, you should report it. And that it's a really ill omen for you or something.

+++J: Is that so. I've never seen one like that in my life.

+++P: Her Witch Kiss is also fairly famous. There used to be a cult that worshiped her, used it as it's crest.

+++M: Well, I didn't see any of those, either. +pause+ I guess killing her wasn't any amazing feat. All I did was just enchanting the last two with my final scroll, which was where the marker went dry. I didn't want to blow a Grief Seed to make another, so I just went with what I had. Then I used one of them to nail her to the wall of the central tower, because she was just starting to creep on me from the outside.

I went around the tower to stab her with the final one - she was already breathing her last. There were already six holes in her, so I was confident, and it worked. Got her all the way through the jaws and beyond, then kicked it in for good measure. She took her time dying, but that was it. She was flailing around a lot, so I've expected her to try and to hold onto me with the tentacles. that would make it all messier. In the end, though, she didn't even try that. +pause+

Also, she bled. Green blood that melted the castle wall I've pinned her to, but not the javelin itself. I took care not to get it on my hands.. Do Witches normally bleed?

+++J: Some do, yeah.

+++M: I am asking because I see through Witches too, and they're usually made of this black smokegoo thing on the inside. The blood seemed to come out of nowhere. +pause+ Well, that's all. I can't carry corpses like Jarmila, so afterwards, I called up Jackdaw's girls, and they came for the body. It was three blocks to the nearest entrance into the underground. One of them was a Callidus, but even that way, it was risky as hell. They were lucky I could actually cover the path for them though, so just a few people would see them with the bag. +pause+ Can I wake up now?

+++P: Two more things. Did you look into who she killed afterwards?

+++M: It happened five hours ago, so I didn't have time, neither did I care much. From what I could see through the city walls, there weren't any human corpses anywhere near by. I would notice something like that.

+++P: Did you have a chance to bring any of her flesh?

+++M: I've realized that you'll want that right as she was in her death throes, so I've tried to bring one of the knight things. Just jumped from the sidewalk to a bridge near by, next to a group of them. They weren't that dangerous, but the armor made them tricky to pick up. The one I've grabbed wasn't in my hand anymore when the Barrier had vanished.

+++J: Oh. Could the sucker have escaped? That would be bad. Sounds like it could grow into something dangerous.

+++M: Nah, I think it went down with her.

+++end of file+++

Part 7, in which the 12th's leadership discusses feelings (Individual Chapter)[edit]

Panna raised her arms and made a single loud clap with them, as to break Martina out of the trance. "So," she had said, "what have we learned?".

Martina massaged her eyes a bit, and looked at her. "That stuff happened. That's not how you teach anything, though. You've left out the part where you always tell us what to think." That's right. Facts are boring without perspective. You need to add an opinion. People learn from comparing opinions, and all that.

The gypsy had responded first with a nod. "I believe we have already gotten yours, unless you'd like to add something. I can add mine, then we can listen to what the others think."

Toyen had commented on that with an incredibly annoyed expression, raising her face from the table. "Fuck, I know this. The point of this is going to be that the truth is in the middle and that nothing is anybody's fault. Yeah, Panna, that's totally fucking watertight."

Martina was too interested to let Toy derail the conversation, though. "Let's all agree it's the cat's fault and move on." Usually, we think alike. I still had something to confirm, though.

"So, if I understand this correctly, she was a Witch hunter and nothing else. Did the same job as me, except without a right to vacation."

"Yes." Panna answered right away, since she had probably expected the question. "Extermination of newborn Witches. That is what the Warmaster of Twelfth does."

"How many did she kill?"

Again, she replied without a second thought. "Let's see. The exact number would be in her file, but I'd say a bit over five hundred would be about right."

Toyen gave that a low whistle. It really was amazing. "Shit, that's four every day. If it's all in the four months, then she's giving even the Second and the Sixth a run for their money. Is that, like, all the Witches we make?"

"We make a lot more. They get rid of much of ours already. Along with the Fourteenth." Having sat on the edge until now, she sat deeper back in the chair. She must have been feeling tipsy, too.

It seemed quite far fetched to me, though. "Numbers are cool and all, but Witches can be pretty deadly. Did you really have one person with no assistance handle so many? Sounds stupid." It made me feel useless, too.

All the time, I am complaining that Witches are too crazy to reliably approach from the tactical standpoint, and there was a girl that brute forced her way through hordes of them, just behind the corner? Looks like power does beat technique in the long run.

"Yes. Despite the lethality, a Warmaster of Twelfth stays for four months at minimum. At least so far. Well, I wouldn't risk deploying her against an alpha, because that's a suicide mission every time. There had been ninety of these so far, though obviously, they weren't called Warmasters until the Officio system was established, so the ones that didn't last as long don't count. It really all began when the potion came in use. Juunibei contracted a lot of girls over the years, and they've formed several groups. I do believe that the Potion is why he chose the one I led, the Cult of the Black Rose, to be the one that forms the Officio's core."

"So, ninety, by four... that makes you... at least forty years old."

Panna giggled. It might have been something else, but the wrinkles on her face made it hard to tell. We had to assume that she's dying and laughs about it.

"Can't you prolong your life? I mean, you're a Venenum, you've gotta have some ways."

"I do, but I don't like that perspective. It would not be natural". Irony in the room was reaching critical levels. "More seriously, I'd be a brain in a jar sort of a thing. Or a gem, rather. I have sent a lot of people to their end, it would be just distasteful if I couldn't accept mine."


I wasn't sure of the extent to which she was joking, but she still touched upon something important. "This is the first time in ever that I've heard you talk morals. If I didn't know you've got grandchildren, I'd have said you're just a psychopath."

Martina joined in with a wry face. "Don't forget what Jackdaw says. Someone so obviously evil cannot possibly be a bad person. Too much evidence."

"It is debatable." Panna had said. "I've only ever gone against the Incubator's wishes once, and that was a very special case. My life is one of making ends meet."

The Vindicare took a moment to stomach that, while Toyen was playing with a cigarette in her hand, frustrated that she can't light it here. "How the fuck are we even going to go about this? Do you want me to like print out a paper with these, like, check boxes, look at my girls, go 'yeah, these dozen are good to go' and then just like pretend to forget to give them Seeds or something?"

This question, in its bluntness, seemed straining to Panna, and even made her shrug. "It's much more complicated than that. This will take time to-"

"I'll listen to that shit later. I've heard just enough that I can walk out on you now." She had straightened up, and rammed her cap, which she would usually cover her millimeter cut hair with, on her scalp. "I've got a standing assignment, and people to stalk. Or something. My boss is the cat, not you, and this time he didn't order me to do what you say. He said to talk to you, and I did. Fuck this, fuck you, I am out."

Martina had opened her mouth on her, and I don't know whether she had meant to tell her to cut it out, or to just remind her of her own shift at the gate in a few hours. Either way, she ended up saying nothing, because Toy wasn't there anymore. Ripples were spreading over the concrete wall she walked into, and she must have already been swimming through the hundred meters of ground and steel, towards the surface.

"Flashy," I've said, "she should have just used the door." What a waste of her reserves.

"She had always known this,", the hag had noted to nobody in particular. "She'll come back. In a way, only flipping out now makes her the biggest hypocrite of us all."

That's hard to argue with. So I didn't. I took a swig instead, the last bottle of beer now almost done with. "It's amazing how you admit that this is being a hypocrite, though."

"See, Jarmila. Hypocrisy is being in a conflict of interests with oneself. And that describes what we do perfectly. But it cannot stop me. Because... well. It's an imperative, I can't reason with this. I've seen the Incubator's purpose, and now it's my own."

She had taken off her crown and turned it around, staring at the Soul Gem in it intently.

"There are causes that go beyond good and evil, beyond right and wrong. The Librarians may look detached from reality, but their field of study is so expansive, it can't be avoided that they get a bit lost. Each of them has a pointer of her own, and when they argue, it's good, because it brings them a bit more together."

I don't even think I remember most of this right, but the next part is clear in my head as day.

"For example, take the Riddle of Witch Flesh. There is a very particular meaning to it. You know the Hegel point theorem, about Witches? The Riddle is tied to it's proof."

That was the thing about quantity becoming quality, right?

"Yes. All mass is attracted to itself and will grow, as a result of a basic universal rule. But there is a point at which it ignites, and transforms. And another, where it collapses. Like a boiling point. The Riddle is like that. There is a power gap, a jump, that makes a Witch become an Alpha. What causes it? It must have to do with emotion, and it must be a special feeling that not every person had ever truly felt. In those handful Magical Girls, it must have been nurtured into full bloom."

This sounded familiar to Martina. "Are you just talking about love here?"

"I... wouldn't say that. If you had asked me twenty years ago, I would say yes, but now, I am not so sure." Another shrug passed through her face, like she was recalling something unpleasant. "Love, my dear, is like a poison. It's too destructive and messy, too much of a double edged sword, to be the right answer."

The bottom of the bottle was accusatively glaring at me, reminding me of my last - and only - boyfriend. Sometimes, I even have trouble recalling his name. Would you believe that?

"What about faith?" I've proposed, "That seems like a pretty leading human thing to me, maybe it gets passed because you wouldn't normally call it an emotion? I mean, if I get this right, this is all about power. When I look at the Fourteenth, and then us, I see their beliefs making them strong. And we are taught to doubt everything but orders. The point of forcing everyone to read is to encourage critical thinking - and we are weak. How about that?"

Panna had smiled. I've really never seen her display this much emotion, or talk this much. "Belief is a good answer I think, right up there with hope. But neither really satisfies me. Maybe the emotion I am searching for doesn't have a name, or it's something as basic as "awareness" taken to an extreme. An underlying human emotion you wouldn't even know about. My favorite answer at this moment is 'understanding', though."

Martina ran fingers through her bangs, she probably felt pressed to also thing of something smart. "We use it as a meditation puzzle anyway. Like, a question that's meant to be asked, a character defining question."

That's how esoterism is born, I hear. When a question torments you for too long, even a simple one, you make it into a divine mystery in your head. Being governed by something you don't understand, you can't expect others to understand you. So, you lock yourself up in your tower.

I've completely forgotten about my hatred for Panna at this point. "What about Kamile? She is an Alpha, and she wasn't a love struck girl, or a nun, or anything."

"In Kamile's case, I think, it must have been "fear". She had wished to be a child forever. So, she could never get over such a basic thing. I should have known. She grew, as a child, and the childish fear of the unknown grew with her. You know, I never was like you, a believer. In anything. I never thought persistence had merit. But she proved to me that purity does. Perhaps, if she were at it for an absurdly long time, for thousands of years... I am sure human souls have it in them to surpass even Kamile."

She kept looking at her own soul all the while, just as if it was a holy symbol that confirmed her beliefs.

"Well, not me. Somebody else will have to figure out where it all leads. I should go too. It would be absurd, for me to get emotional."

Following Toy's example, she put the crown back on and stood up, but unlike her, she stopped at the entrance. "I'll tell you the rest later today. Karmic spots inside the city will take a while to go over, I should prepare some maps for it, too. Since I don't feel like dying just yet anymore. There's also the Librarius, that's it's own can of worms." Would we really get access to that? Us?

It seemed that this session was done with, though.


My next steps led to the Archive. I didn't want to give Renata the pleasure of news and the displeasure of being yelled at just yet. It would have been better to prepare for this, and so I've asked the Japanese Librarian - her name being 'Umika', as she had already told me many times, and said so with a sour face - for two operative files.

The first had belonged to Karolina Sokołowska. The girl who held her sword like a virgin holds the prick, and then seemed to grow so much further without my guidance. Unsurprisingly, most of that was classified with an A, and stashed elsewhere, so not even I could see it.

I was allowed to get my hands on her background, though.

I've expected an abusive household, and her killing her father or something grim like that, but it wasn't really anything of the sort. Her family was poor, and she ran to fantasy books from her bad grades and lack of other things to do. Then her parents had her to do a retail part time job when she was fifteen, to get money for her family, and that seemed to emotionally drain her enough to agree to the cat.

It's not even inhumane, compared to other stuff that goes on in Poland. Definitely boring, compared to all the other life stories we've got here. Martina's in particular is a real gem of Hussar pride, next to this one. Karolina's story was even boring compared to mine - and it just adds up to my guilt, how meaningless my own case was. In the end, it seems she really did make the wish out of boredom, because she had wanted to spice her life up so desperately.

And did she succeed at that. Kája, you stupid, stupid bitch. You should have just stayed home on your arse. You should have only fenced with nerf swords in your nerd clubs, you should have only been killing monsters in video games.

Who did she kill in the end? I couldn't tell then, but I know that now, so why not say it already. It's not like it affects anything anymore. He was a loan shark's son, twenty six years old. I guess he must have been into something seriously bad if she considered him enough of a monster to kill him with the sword for Witches. The cops just did the "did he have any enemies" thing, and after they went through the list, assumed that it was his father's former client or a hired gun.

The fact that he was killed without torture, cleanly, by a long blade through the heart, was the slightly baffling part. If I was the detective on that, I'd conclude that he screwed with some sparklies, which was exactly the case.

She must have teleported into Prague from Krakow to do that, though, which proves Panna outright wrong about how much time Kája may have left. Just an interesting note.

I should also say this: Incubators seem to have certain tolerance towards long-time employees. Not everybody is necessarily as trigger happy on civilians as the Assassins or the Murderers, but there's still an us vs. them mentality we have for the normals. This is going to sound awful, but it's the truth: she could have gotten away with straight up murder. She was the goddamned Warmaster, even if only in name, and I somehow doubt Panna would mind, either. As long as Kája did her real job right, didn't get caught red handed, and only did something of the sort once.

There, that's all there is to Kája. Any more words would just further spoil the already miserable tale.

For the second file I've asked for, I had to know the person's name first.

"The girl who left with the circlet this morning? That would be Karla Wagner." Umika sat across me, whatever she was doing in the bookshelves before was not that important, apparently. "Worked right here, in the outer circles. I had her look things up for me a few times. Do you know if she was on meth or something? She really looked that way. Or was she somehow tied to that... Kuchekuchika? I still can't spell her name. It's like a tongue twister. The one that soaks her gem in red absinthe before scrying. The head seer here."

"Haha, she does worse than that." It wasn't really possible for me to redeem Řeřicha, that's just the way she is. "Pretty sure that this girl must have been taking something she wasn't in control of, though, Řeřicha wouldn't allow her to do as much."

"She rammed into a shelf, hit herself on my door handle, and would drop books, or leave them lying, yes. That shouldn't be allowed. But I remember she also fell from a ladder once, so she was probably just that inept. Still focused underneath it all, though. As long as you actually got her attention."

Umika had then leaned in, quizzically. "Say. Do you have a lot of experience with addicts?"

What an odd question. I couldn't say yes to it.

"You probably do, though. You only think of her doing drugs right now, but addiction is the way people work. One of the many ways to approach psychology from ground up. This is something that really helps you understand people. We are different by what we choose to be weak towards. Or don't choose, but end up being, and that's the worse case. Think about it for a while."

That's an old one. As old as mankind, even.

Humans are born dependent without doubt. This is instilled in both genes, and in how we've built up society. You can argue that being born is an asset by itself, but after that, you'll grow up in debt. If you refuse this notion, you will start affirming what you can't help but subconsciously feel with artificial dependencies, up to even the drugs. Former addicts are usually religious. They were weak people to begin with, they needed guidance of some sort, and this kind won't get them killed.

But you see the exact same pattern in people that never did anything as dangerous and socially reprehensible. Such as, when rich kids become vegetarians. They don't do it just because, as they'd like to claim, they do it to compensate. And there is nothing wrong with that. Anything to believe in works.

Because the important part is, that they couldn't choose how they were born, but they chose this. Even if it looks nonsensical from an outsider's point of view, for them it's the kind of restraint that makes you strong. Something to hold onto, that makes them confident. Like an oath, a geás, if you will.

It's because limiting your options and allowing yourself to think less makes it easier to focus, an atheist would say.

While Umika was looking up the second file in the endless office drawers, mumbling letters to herself in funny English, I've tried to figure out where she was actually going with this, just like when I've been getting similar lessons long back in the basic training. She must have had something else to point out about Wagner, but wanted me to come to it on my own.

So, I thought on her some more. She didn't seem to care for herself a lot. She was without doubt an addict of some sort. She had an utter lack of presence. She threw arms around, which means lack of control over her motor functions. Umika was obviously implying that she was just obsessive about something, like stalker girls always look horrible. But that's just the start of the thought line, and it didn't really seem to be the case either. It probably wouldn't give me the best grade on the test she gave me here.

I've wanted to believe that a Librarian would be beyond saying things just to look smart.

There wasn't much else to say about herself, but thinking outside of the box, there is always the context to look at. From the standpoint of the commanding officer, Umika seems to say that she lacked skill and talent, but not discipline. At least not in the sense that Vanus understand it. I would call it Orwellian, but that's not a good comparison, since we are actually encouraged to realize. It's just that it also makes us realize how powerless we are against it, when we consider the scope.

Hence, Wagner was the perfect product of the Twelfth. She wanted to be used.

Does the Incubator groom these dependencies in us, when he strongly enforces vague rules? Resulting in discipline?

Or does he encourage thinking for ourselves and trusting nothing, because you can't rely on the rules? Resulting in personal empowerment?

With Wagner, it seems that the ideal is somewhere in the middle, resulting in weak will, but strong personality, if that makes sense. I guess that's not strictly a bad thing, considering our purpose. But it is "corruption", in every sense of the word.

By becoming blind to what has power over us, like an addict, we become led by wires we don't see. By becoming focused on our path, like an actor that reads his lines rather than like an athlete that would seek to expand his freedom, we lose our strength. Still, there is power to be found within this - we become tools, just like that train.

It causes cognitive dissonance, if you don't live in it for years. It's easy to mistake power for strength. You will generally ignore one or the other side.

Even I didn't realize this with such clarity until then. I guess an outsider like Umika would better know just what to point out. Because I revel in my perceived self-sufficiency, and wouldn't normally consider myself an addict, I didn't really think this way until then.

Wagner's file was resourceful and confirmed what I've thought. Made a wish to save family business which apparently dealt with furniture. Her most unique magical girl gimmick was her skill at math, which is just about the lamest one I've ever heard of. The Librarian who taught her was indeed Renata Lichtenberg - the non-deformed surname making it clear that she is not native. Her notes gave off the feeling of a teacher that tears the skin off you, and expects nothing less then perfection. They seemed anal to even me, and I am no expert on the topic. From memory, these are supposed to be offenses:

"Fixed a few letters with a liner and thought she could get away with it." "Interrupted a scrying session. Argued she couldn't use a Seed in her trance state. Convinced she can't learn to." "Questioned the reliability of wording the Gathering contracts with Sixth had, but only after having finished sealing them all." "Still couldn't work with Pascal after two weeks." "Woke up from only a ladder being moved near by." "Has never heard of the Blood Knight." "After being taken off the task for ruining too many, inquired whether weaving a magical signature seal on documents ranked E is a waste when we could just stamp it with ink. Couldn't do them right any more today. Rest granted, still has two whole stacks in F-4 to go through tomorrow. Assigned to a cram course afterwards."

Strangely enough, this worked with Wagner, while it almost never does with anyone else. Towards the end of the file, Wagner has got all Bs and an occasional A, where Renata probably didn't manage to find any fault.

And then she sent her to try out what turned out to be a highly volatile piece of machinery, and she died horribly, and the cat said that Renata is going to want to hear just how horrible the death was, with juicy details. I had really wanted to smash that bitch's face already. This was wrong from every imaginable perspective - human, incubator, mine.

Umika had asked casually whether I've learned anything, and I had to truthfully reply "Nothing I couldn't guess." This seemed to tip her off that I am actually really serious about this all, and after slight hesitation, she offered a penny for my thoughts. Kája's Witch being possibly related to the ever-elusive harvest Witch Libuna would probably intrigue her more, but that was classified to hell and back. At least I could still share Wagner's whole story with her.

So, I did that.

After I was done, it turned out that I wasn't. Umika reaffixed her glasses on the bridge of her nose, looking deep into my eyes. She seemed to weigh her upcoming words on her tongue for a while. Finally, she said it. "It's a pretty boring Witch, for a professional. So, well. I'll try to stick my nose in. Why are you so bothered by this? Could you give me a hint on what makes this one so special? You didn't know her yourself, am I getting this right?"

Right. "I am just grabbing the first thing of the sort that I saw, I guess. There's going to be big changes around here soon." The girl before me didn't even flinch at such news, just listened with perfect focus, like a sickeningly well brought up kid. "I may be actually more or less in charge then, so I want to do a bit of a cleanup first.", I told her.

"You seemed like you've got something more to say. Like, your opinion on that story. You shouldn't keep that in. Tunnel vision, outsider's perspective, and all that." She placed more of her body on the table, further lowering her stature, already tiny next to mine. I guess she wanted to look like a humble listener, and it worked. This girl knows how to pull people's strings.

Alright, I could have used advice. Before I knew it, I shared a bit more of my worries with her.

Both files had in common the utter lack of closure. What were you supposed to think? The lives of these two were all sound and fury. Not to say that the laws of storytelling apply to reality in any way, but it really made me want to make these lives count. To make them into martyrs, twist them into something they never were. Immortalize them in form in which they would never want to live. It's absurd. The number of individual girls I see come and go every year has four digits. There was no way I could ever fix anything, lest I forced some twisted justification on in it, completely detached from what I felt.

And that wouldn't be right. Screw what the cat and Panna say, these girls were dying in vain for all they knew. I understood too well why this was happening, why I had to allow it, and the fatality of it all was killing me. Made me want to burn down this whole place, because no world sustained by something like this could be worth it. I couldn't stop thinking about it anymore, trying to reach some sort of a resolution.

But I could still go on and finish my job. It's how I lived for five years. Kill one more Witch, and then tomorrow. I've gotta do what I've gotta do. Martina had once asked me why I never have a breakdown like everyone else, and I honestly didn't know what to tell her.

I can't believe I still consider myself sane. Not a good person, though. In the end, a lot less people suffer, all because I don't care about it as much as I should, and have enough integrity to save the pieces when everything breaks. I hear this a lot. That I am so strong, I can live with anything. I won't be crushed - no matter how much it hurts. "Fortitude" is the right word. But at this point, it's not an admirable trait, it's something monstrous.

Umika laughed at this, to my boundless bewilderment. "Bullshit. That's a good trait. Real talk, I could tell you whatever switch in your head does it and help you fix it, but I guarantee you'd feel robbed." Her voice now on a much lower pitch, it felt a bit like finding the gangster in a group activity game. She was saying some outrageous things, at that. "If you aren't in a hurry, would you come with me? I think I may have some things to share with you myself."

Looking back on it, I realize she acted oddly from the start of this all. Like she knew this wasn't an everyday victim check, like she already knew the news. I suspect she may have cheated with her magic a tiny bit, to get me to open up more.

And, you know what? I'll be damned if that wasn't the start of a good friendship.

Part 8, in which Jarmila talks about herself for a bit (Individual Chapter)[edit]

As it turned out, the place Umika led me to was her own cella.

"This is where I eat my simple meals, and dream my simple dreams. Though I guess I cook a lot and I've also seen some shit, so neither my meals nor my dreams are really all that simple." She pointed me towards the table, and it was sort of difficult for me to tug my body between a chair, the table, and the wall, since I'm a huge slav like Mucha's models.

Although, obviously, Mucha would pick a girl with a pretty face over me.

Conversely, Umika is an oriental midget, and even accounting for it's owner's size, the room was cramped. "Speaking of cooking, are you hungry? I cook to lift my stress, and don't always have someone to eat it, you see. I have to shove it down the throat of whatever scribe is helping me at the moment, and there isn't always somebody like that."

I was really hungry. Even after ordering some food for the squad after work, gone was the usual joy from moving my limbs around that a fit person feels. Honestly, I felt pretty terrible, and had been running on anger today.

What Umika was saying also suggested that she was previously used to having somebody like that, and just can't break the habit. She must have left a lot of friends in the Tenth.

They may have reputation as some of the biggest assholes walking the Earth, but here you've got it. They are really tightly knit.

I said small, and that it was - for all that had to fit inside. Umika's crib was pretty impressive for a Vanus cell. Those scribes who apparently visit it must envy her position even more for this.

First thing I've noticed, she had a naginata hung on the wall. Must have been commissioned from the old weaponsmith. The fact that he could make such an exotic weapon really shows his skill off. Shame that he had to make it blunt.

We basically feed him, these days. Of course, we can use the old weapons, some of these swords have been already held in a thousand hands - but a hundred standing Eversors is about as hard to supervise as an army regiment, and keeps breaking about as many things. This guy would usually reforge the old, so he must have been happy to actually make something this time.

I think he doesn't believe me we're a private school with fencing classes anymore. The very vague internet page might suggest that, but it's a paper thin excuse for everything we do, a joke. He always insists he wants to see us spar, and the excuse that no men are allowed on the school grounds is wearing thin. Old man, you should have been able to figure it out. Someone who signs the contract as "Woland" without even showing himself to you is mighty suspicious. It's a wonder he didn't stick his paw print next to it.

Now, the oriental polearm was striking, but another thing that must have caught every native's mind had been the bookshelves. No two are alike, and Umika's had been pretty impressive. Among the books she had wanted to keep close to her was the Grand Grimoire, the Necronomicon, and both Gate and Practice from Byrdon's work - Introduction strangely absent. She also had copies of the Bible, Qur'an(I think, can't read arabic), the Vedas, and the Book of Blessed Lady, without doubt for study purposes. A brochure I thought must have been a joke, titled "Dr. Strangeaeon, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Alpha". Another familiar name was 'Two Heads of the Eagle', Panna wrote that. There was also a comically large one on the shelf's edge, with its back modelled into a spinal collumn, and a purity seal, titled 'The Un-Founding copy part 2'.

She brought a bowl of risotto for me to eat. I've hoped for some sort of oriental kitchen, but this was fine too. Especially since it was proper Italian Risotto, not the knockoff mid-Europan version that we call 'rizoto', which has almost nothing to do with it beyond being mostly rice. It doesn't even use olive oil, just sweet vegetables.

This thing, on the other hand, had strawberries in it.

"So, now that you've bought me, what do you need me to help with?" The first bowl was empty before I knew it. Panna's healing cream really took a lot out of me as it advertised. It probably affected my gains in the short term. Despite eating nearly a whole pizza afterwards, from the order we had brought to the roof, I found myself to still be deceptively hungry.

Umika was going through her own personal bookshelf, however, probably already looking for what she had needed. "You are an important person here, you must have seen a lot. I am interested in all of that. Mysteries, secrets, and mechanics. We wouldn't go through it all in a week. So I'll just ask you about the things that matter."

Now, I usually hate giving accounts, so I'd avoid talking to the kind of Librarians who just won't shut up. This girl hit it off right, though, through the stomach. So, I didn't mind. "Classified stuff is of course out, but I'll help as I can. I still have to kick Renata's ass today. Take your time, though, I wouldn't waste food like that."

"Glad to hear that." She gave me a weird glance, there. Looked content, though. "So, I didn't want to breach the subject of Liliana while you were eating, but it seems you won't be stopping anytime soon. I understand that you did not fight her?"

This grub was amazing. "I fought her twice - first time just after she popped up. I wasn't around when Kamile had witched out, though, that's probably what you have heard. I was being taught by the Second's Witch hunters then. Martina would know better, she fought her right as she Witched out. You know, she was pushing her third year of service, but barely through with her Vindicare retraining, herself. Still held her own. Pretty amazing, all in all."

"Miss Twardovska is much less cooperative, it seems, when it's not a part of her job. I had a very specific question about Kamile's Soul Gem."

I didn't manage to multitask eating and speaking very well there. "It was, like, lila. Munch. Salmon pink. Munch. Almost white."

"I mean, your colleague had observed it's change into a Grief Core. It would be nice to at least know what it looked like. The one I saw sketches of looked like a Gem with a looser gliding. It didn't look like a Grief Seed at all." She looked at me with her two eyes, the soul gem she wore on her forehead appearing curious as well, the small grain of corruption in its middle catching eye, like it was the third pupil on that face.

"Oh, hers got naked, so the bauble stayed - and then it, like, bloomed on her hand, when she Witched out." Then it got dark, and people started to hear the drums, oh god, the drums. And then they saw the Barrier, and started to drown and die.

The thing she held before the Barrier was done was this pretty sparkling thing, like waterdrop in a flower. And it wasn't all pink anymore, it had a lot of colours. That's what Martina told me. Don't think it should be a secret or anything."

"But she'd never be white again, eh?" Umika noted that down, but decided to go on. "It's probably too personal, but I don't suppose you could tell me more about her personality? Something people don't tell me often?"

"Asking about Kamile's character today is like you're beating a dead horse with a fish, but let's see." I am, after all, a contrarian in nature. "I'd say the most important thing about Kamile that you shouldn't misunderstand is that she was a monster. Panna would sometimes say she's a Myshkin. It's sort of like with learning a skill, I think. Kamile was a good person, but she didn't learn to be one. She was talented at morals. But you would be scared that she would make a terrible basic mistake at any time she came across a more complicated choice, because she approached everything naively. Like a kid."

"She wished to stay a kid forever, right?"

"Yeah. It meant she could never grow up. Never learn complicated things. It got really creepy really fast, but after some time, her presence was reassuring. "

You could tell she wasn't pretending out of misery like some of the girls that can't keep it together, and her smile wasn't the cynical smirk of she who lost it all - she was actually that pure. She liked Panna like a good kid can love the hard working parent, but like most kids, she wouldn't care what the parent's job actually was. People would die around her, and she accepted it. She would not think about it.

"Do you wish you were like that?"

Where the hell did that come from?

"Not really. She could tolerate the way Twelfth was, because she was insane. The wish was like a fucking lobotomy. I can never be like her. But that level of tolerance is something to strive for."

Umika smirked. "If you actually become perfect, though, the struggle would be over. You would get stuck in the place you were. That scares you. Right?"

"That, exactly. Nothing wrong with an adult acting kiddy sometimes, but actually giving up, becoming a kid again, and just spending your life like that? That's awful. Like those shut-in people. There's more to life than that."

Umika reaffixed her glasses. "It sounds a like she was already fairly in tune with her nature. There must have been more to her, though. Her Barrier's imagery was quite particular. To begin with, how could someone like that even Witch out?"

That was another question I knew an answer to. "I think that she figured out that Juunibey is the bad guy."

She stayed silent. I talked on, without even checking my words before they left my mouth, just naturally connecting to the conversation we had with Panna a while ago.

"If you asked me, I think that the thing about Alpha Witches is that they were happy. They witched out because they were done with their lives. That's what's not normal about Kamile. She witched out out of resolution. That's the way those people are twisted. Because the most horrifying thing is to accept oneself entirely - I heard that from Panna once. "

Umika didn't say a word again, noting nothing down. She did have a book open on the side of the table, though, shooting glances at it.

I waved the fork in the air, dismissingly. "I just couldn't do that, you know? Even if I didn't mind being a Witch, I'd like to be a human as long as possible. I would actually want to be the lesser thing for a while longer. I wouldn't want to 'grow up'. Just because there would be no way back.

So, if she was the childish one, why did she go ahead with it? Because kids do reckless things? I can't be like that anymore. I know too much about it for me to give in now. It's just all upside down. Humans can want to, but aren't supposed to be that way.

But both Panna and the cat probably want them to give in too. Well, except for the part where Kamile ended up killing almost fucking everyone because she did. They probably didn't plan for that. How am I supposed to do that job for them, though? I don't even agree with it."

After a long pause, she spoke herself. "There are crazier people doing crazier things out there, trust me. But, I guess it's not like you're looking too much into it. I am sure that you consider the Twelfth to be corrupt to its core. From a worldly perspective, though, you are fairly pure. You take a piece of Witch Flesh, and then look at it. You don't want to eat it, or even become it. You put it on good light and draw a study of it into your sketchbook.

Really. I came expected to find a bunch of lunatics in here, eating Witches for breakfast, but there is nothing of the sort."

"Oh, there is. We just keep those guys officially outside of the Officio. They're still Juunibey's contracts, though. It's all for show."

"I see. First time I hear that." She noted nothing down, but turned a page, and apparently underlined something. Four or five words. Could it be 'Cult of the Black Rose'?

She looked back at me. "Anyway, it's actually cute. You look at a Witch, and don't want to be "strong like her", or "so interesting". You just want to understand why is she the way she is. You perfect your magic in solitude, so you can match a Witch on her own terms - but you, of all people, are not trying to be the same. You don't actually want to be monsters. Everytime your girls Witch out, every day, they do so in fear of what's to come. Not like the cultists. This is the right way."

I had a good idea of what she might have written down there. I was too far in to care, though. This was sort of fun.

Consider this: Martina never wears her blindfold to spy on people directly, if it's not necessary. Active magic apparently shines far enough that she can just perform cursory checks out of duty. She avoids it because seeing people naked is indecent, or so she says. I believe this only feels that way to her because she actually likes naked girls.

Umika seemed to have no qualms about this, which would even disgust a Culexus. Perhaps she did not care about people's secrets in the way Martina cares about naked female bodies.

"Are you reading my mind right now?"

"Yeah. Got clearance to do this with anyone in the Officio but Panna. It's harmless. Want me to stop?"

I waved the notion away. And she went on talking, as if this was the most common conversation in the world, and she wasn't crossing any social or moral boundaries. Then again, I hang out with stranger people. This sort of honesty was refreshing.

Martina will fuck her up when she finds out, though. It sounded anything but harmless. The Incubator seemed to have an immense amount of trust in this person. Transferees usually come here to die. This one apparently took the Officio for a stepping stone, and not the other way around.

"So, my opinion is that you should keep at just what you are doing, but make it more of an Officio philosophy, if that's the kind of power you're getting here. Accept the inevitable end, but don't obsess over it. Admit the grief of loss, don't seek it or flee from it. I can't do this, but you seem to be able to. You might be able to teach this fortitude to others. I think this is the answer to both the Riddle and the best advice I can give you."

In the end, I have to add that in this case, Umika was only half right.

I have always thought that Panna treats people like things, but in the end, that was never the case. She had feelings, however alien they were to me. She's a much worse person for this, too. It frightens me when I have to accept that her job can easily be done by me, if I chose to take over that particular duty and didn't take the easier path.

Humans simply do have this level of self-delusion they can reach when it's necessary. It doesn't actually take a fanatic to obey a fanatic, in this case the Incubator. The most common folk can end up genociding people in gas chambers as their Tuesday workload, if they are allowed to believe they are justified enough. It dawns on me that, if someone like me were in her place, they'd end up being evil in the most intense way imaginable. Making a point of it being real people that I send to their deaths.

This what the cult of the Black Rose is like, but I digress. The important thing is that if the Twelfth were to change, I knew this was not the way to go. But, to think of Panna as of a person like me rather than a complete monster alien to my values, that meant admitting that I could become like her, too.

It dawned on me then, that I have probably drank her kool-aid a long time ago, and the time has come that its poison would kill me.

The compromise offered by Umika could work, but it was harsh. It didn't ask me to tell people lies - it asked me to teach them to lie to themselves.

That, somehow, didn't sound difficult to do, though. There used to be people who would oppose me in this. Now I can only really think of a handful.

Did they all have to leave me behind? The cynic in me says it was all their fault for being weak to begin with. I used to hate a person like Martina, but these years together made me respect her. Because, no matter how misdirected her efforts might be, she is strong without doubt. If only for somehow getting all the way there. She may have spent the better part of her career just splashing around in the water, learning useless things, but she splashed so strongly, it kept her alive. Maybe it wasn't water, but milk, and Martina was one of those mice? Or was it frogs?

"It's still immoral." I said, "You can't convince me it's okay."

The ideal answer to this, of course, and the way to easily shut up a moralist, is that life is immoral in its nature, and that's also what Panna would say. Umika just nodded, and thought about it for a while. Finally, she asked a question.

"Don't get angry here, but this is a mystery to me. Nobody else in here talks or thinks that way, not even Jackdaw, really. Not even that Toyen. Where did you get the viewpoint of morality from?"

That was sort of uncomfortable to talk about for me. It wasn't classified, though, and I had promised something. "Oh, well. That's an old story. A long time ago, I became involved with a little moral codex of sorts. You see, I am a warrior, but I could have also been a knight..."

And I couldn't call myself a knight knowing that I stood for this.

Why did I put up with it to begin with? It's complicated. Although there are parts of my early career that I am proud of, the incident with Řeřicha in particular, it's not like I came in as a good person and turned worse with time, as the jade set in. Somehow, it's quite the opposite. This isn't in any way me gloating about how much I have improved over time, I am just saying that I used to be a really terrible person.

I became the rank leader's favourite and got special treatment because of all the corners I would cut. I made the wish out of jealousy for my older sister, who succeeds the family, and its fencing school. I used to be a brat eager to prove herself, and the Vanus, as Martina later told me, would joke that I am the dumbest gorilla of them all.

Someone who wouldn't hold back in spars. Found out about the Cult, and just accepted it. Told girls they are going to die when it seemed so. Hit a scribe that wouldn't want to help me, damn, I am really ashamed of that now. Shout orders out of rank, and make shoulders on Squad Leaders because Special Operative has the special in it. I only became the good cop to the girls halfway through.

Kamile taking a liking to me, and suggesting me for a squadless hunter, is the only reason why I didn't get sent to the cult, and am now munching strawberry risotto, rather than Witch flesh.

When I had been sent on the apprenticeship in Second, to become a certified hunter, I became enchanted by the curly speech of the knights. Their boisterous claims and fervent oaths on the ideals of chivalry, and the proper manners of a warrior. They spoke of all that my life had lacked. At the same time, though, I knew I didn't belong in there. My hands were already stained with innocent blood, I would always be a villian. I could make a rogue knight at best, a knight of infamy, a paragon of viles.

I am now also reminded of something: While in there, I got to know a girl named Mordred Pendragon, an incredibly annoying girl. She is apparently a relative of Nero's too, it must run in the family. Given that, she might also be really famous these days, I wouldn't know. Anyway, she made me feel funny. Like I was looking at a mirror and hated what I see.

With those sharp analytical skills acquired from nerds making fun of me back in the Twelfth, I couldn't avoid understanding this. Her entire problem was trying to be what she wasn't cut out for. Those shoes she was trying to fill weren't her size or shape. It was like seeing Cinderella putting on the shoes of her sisters. Round stick, square hole. I hated her. Because, deep inside, I knew that I am just the same.

So, I took the easy path. When the Big Fish came flooding the whole sewer system of Prague with sea water, and after a few hunts on her had gone places, I was glad to be called by my own, and agreed to come back to rebuild.

Kamile had saved me, for the final time. Had I been judged in the eyes of their First Knight, there was no way she could have found me worthy. I would just twist their virtues, and make an ugly thing out of something beautiful. I was glad to leave on short notice like that, saying goodbye instead of a ceremony. The honor of shaking my superior's hand was already more than I deserved.

It is better, I had thought, if I never become a knight at all.

Umika was entertained.

"Have this old wisdom: Change in yourself is something you can't avoid, but you can direct it. If you leave anything to flow naturally, the only direction it will go is down. You never wake up a better person. You have to act yourself into becoming what you want to be, by picking right every time."

Fair enough. "I want to be like Kamile, then, because she never changed. She would pick the same every time, without regrets. I don't have the time to waste an hour of sleep on wondering when did I go the wrong way." That really came right from my heart. A bit more complicated a thought than I am used to expressing, but still.

"You have said this - she was a monster. She can be an ideal for you, but she can't be a precedent.. " Umika tapped her forehead with a chopstick. "For a normal person, it takes at most seven years until your cells are exchanged. If not for the quantum states in the brain, the strings of your soul, nobody could ever be the same person they were seven years ago, they would be disconnected. And even for beings like us, mere human mind can't encompass the entirety of life. You will never remember everything you did or said, and that's why it seems meaningless to try to hold yourself together, because folds and corners of your memory will always escape you. And holding onto a memory just twists you. In time, the colours will bleak, and the details will blur. And one day, all the pictures in your mind will fall over, and there will be nothing left of you in this world anymore. That's the most terrible of fates, and most ironic.

A person in touch with the world cannot be said to die until the ripples of their being die away. But if you shut yourself inside of your little magical Christmas land instead? Your death will be much heavier in meaning. And everything, everything more that happens after that one moment of happiness, even the slightest change, becomes corruption.

If you can only live in the past, then you are already dead."

It sounded an awful lot like the Riddle. Was she saying that it's nonsense?

"Curious you would bring that up again. I suppose it ties into our previous discussion. The Riddle, if I am not mistaken, only asks for a pointer. All the ones that work are vague - like I just said, holding onto something overly specific will destroy you one day. I do think that the original stating of the Riddle did have to do with people changing. Panna may have forgotten as well. Anyway, I'm saying that a memory shouldn't be the pointer."

So, having a key gives you security - but it runs the risk of you losing it, or having it break in the lock. In reality, you could have a spare, but you can't make a spare memory.

That's odd, though. Feels like a false metaphor. Wouldn't a general feeling be even easier to lose track of? What with the meanings behind words changing so suddenly these days.

I wouldn't ask that, though. I wouldn't actually ask a question. That's a Librarian's funny bone. Responding with questions in this fashion instilled the fear of getting a lecture in me, in this case on the importance of etymology, and the boons of conservatism, all the way down to a dissection of the tale of Babel Tower fable. Umika was doing great, and this would just be shooting myself in the foot.

Also, there was a much easier point to make. We were in a library, there was a ton of recorded memories in it, so that part didn't seem true. What if I write down my precise feelings from this time? So I have something to go by later, if I lose my way?

Say, if I were about to do something extremely stupid. Something so idiotic that I am likely to regret it the moment I lose hold of this peculiar feeling that is making me want do it, and will continue to loathe myself for it until the day it will mean my death.

"Text and languages are but a medium, forever insufficient to convey the intricacies of mind. And context is everything. I should know. You still do that, though."

I would have written it down, had I a journal to write it down into. Instead my eyes became locked on the table. For some reason, Umika kept bringing more bowls of the rice sweetness, rather than refill the first, so there was a high stack of bowls on my left side. It seemed she wouldn't bring any more, and there were still more bowls on the dryer next to her sink.

"So, we ate the whole pot, right? It's all green tea now. What else are you interested in hearing about?"

"Let's see. Tell me more stories. You've seen a lot, and make for a decent storyteller. I hate reading the Gatherings. They're just dehumanizing. I need the human element to get inspired."

I hesitated for a while, but in the end, figured I had nothing to lose, and that whatever Umika might find out from the story on my mind, she would have already known. "Okay. So, the best one I have. I tell it to recruits a lot, cut down, but I guess I can tell you the full version. This one time, when I was still green, we had a case of a masquerade breaker. A Witch that set fire to houses and left, they actually put a bounty on her. It seemed like an easy way to get a few Seeds, but it got complicated fast..."

"...and that's the story from the Rank Leader tourney, how I got gifted a cofee mug by the Betrayer."

Umika made for a good listener herself. She would ask a questions a lot, eventually going as far as arguing against some of my choices during that incident - but she would always end up asking me to go on, no matter how radically different she would say I should have acted. Her attitude betrayed her petite looks, and I could tell there are quite the violent depths under the waterline. What a sciencist! Umika would like for me to cut corners, first smash, and only then ask questions and study the fragments.

Not only did I finish the story of the firestarter Witch, I managed to connect it into two more. I would have gone on, but we have been interrupted by a skeleton in a suit.

"I came for you, Jarmila. There is a test the Incubator wishes you to undergo, as a Warmaster candidate. Come with me." The gypsy was wearing her shades again, and definitely would not answer queries for what good are sunglasses underground this time, either.

That was very sudden, and made me a bit mad at the intruder, but I guess I had to pay for the rare nice moment in some way.

I turned to the Librarian as I got up. "There's one last thing I've wanted to ask you, Umika. Where is Renata's place? I've got a bone to pick with that girl."

Panna answered for her, clearly annoyed. "You should have already been there, that's where I've looked first. It's just next to the place we are going. I'll show you the door when we are done. Now come with me."

It turned out Panna was taking me to the inner Librarium, on the left side, reserved for more manual tasks. You could see the lift into the Librarius just at the end of the hallway. The clean and simple double door, in it's steel coldness, looked quite menacing even before I knew what's behind and down under.

I haven't been to here in a while - was it more than a year? That would be because every Librarian gets to order me around in these spaces, and it gets annoying. So, it surprised me to see the walls of this corridor littered with colorful paintings now.

Paintings of Witches. There were many I did not know at first, but I recognized most of the ones found deeper in.


There was the Holy Quintet and among it Candeloro, of whom Jackdaw talked.

There was a scythe wielding Witch that I didn't know yet, but can now recognize as Libuna, the Witch of harvest.

There was Barbara whom I have just defeated this morning, and there was Ekpirosa, the firestarter Witch.

There was Kamile's Witch, Liliana, whom I fought myself.

There was the Betrayer.

There was Itzli, in whose name cultists make bloody sacrifices, and there was even Walpurgisnacht herself. The laughing wheel showed up several times, like she was really my guide through the gallery, and not Panna.

One caught my attention, and actually shook me quite a bit. A carnaging rakshasa with many hands, wielding a different weapon in each, tied down in place with many chains and sutras. Her world was hell, and a prison. Though the infernal flames of her fur ate her bindings away bit by bit, it was clear that once she got rid of these, the little breasty devils around her would only ridicule her with throwing more, and keeping her down. If I am not mistaken, the inscription under the painting had said that her name was 'Stella'.

Nothing besides that. Some of the other paintings had fairly rich texts.

I wondered who painted these - I am sure this corridor was empty, last I've been here. When I have asked Panna about this Witch, she just nodded to herself and said she has no idea. And right after that, that the test was done, for some reason.

"The Renata girl painted them. In her free time. It's just a decoration of her workplace, you know." She pointed to a printer hidden in a closet near by, covered in cloth - a machine, which was a rare sight in here. "We gave her clues on Witches we didn't know about, and she would make these paintings in her trance."

So she's a spoiled art student, huh. Wasn't she supposed to be a mechanicus? That didn't seem to mesh well together.

"She is skilled in practically everything. Art is just what she chooses to occupy herself with outside of work. She churns out a few every week, we only started putting them up just recently. And even with that hobby, she helps us - we just don't tell her, since it could ruin the spell. In my eyes, she fits well into our shrine to Sarasvati."

I came closer to the painting, morbidly curious about its details. "Say. Are there Witches in here that don't actually exist?"

"There are Witches that could exist, or Witches that some have met, but that you could never meet, unless you went beyond the ends of the world. What does it matter, though? There are a lot of things in here that just wandered in from elsewhere, too." She came near me, and took a better look on the composition herself. "So, it's this one. I guess the name really gave it away. What do you think of it?"

"I think that the artist had no idea what they were actually doing, and that makes it hard to judge as an art piece."

Panna was content with that answer "You seem to know your way in art criticism.".

"I just don't shove it in people's faces. More seriously, though - I hate this thing. If the artist wanted to make me sick to my stomach, she succeeded."

Panna had nodded. "It would be terrifying if you could just accept it."

I spent a while taking it in. Witches normally don't shake me up this much. I could put two and two together. "Did Martina get a test like I got?"

"She wandered into here months ago. Saw one, and ran away screaming. I believe she took a whole day's leave to recover."

Martina was an enigma from the first time I met her. She was a person fighting battle with her own demons, but I expected her to be one of those who could prevail. In the end, contrary to appearances, I was better at seeing to it that I don't become a monster myself, and avoiding the abyss with my gaze.

Or was it actually just me being more used to it, because I come into contact with it more often? So that I just gracefully dance among all the elephants in the room?

In retrospect, I regret not asking Panna about her own painting. That old chatterbox may have been good for a few more laughs.

Part 9, in which Jarmila beats up a nerd (Individual Chapter)[edit]

No right way to approach Renata about this came to mind, so I just went where Panna pointed me, intending to say I came because of the Info-cyte right off the bat.

There weren't any scribes in here, though the room was filled with packed computers and printers on pallets, most of them gathering dust. I saw a wheelie that seemed used, but otherwise I had no idea by what magic could all of this stuff be transported all the way down here.

There still was a fair amount of bookshelves, but this was still the only place in the Library with this many computers. You could occasionally see a computer in the outer Archive, used for writing, and Vanus sometimes use their phones as notepads, but they have to leave for above if they are internet addicts. We have nothing such as an Officio-wide wi-fi. It would make it too easy to get things out of here. That's why we use books for everything. Books don't betray you, they would have to get stolen whole.

The fellow redheaded Librarian sat at a massive console of screens, on an elevated platform in the corner. Didn't even respond for a while, then she said "Uh yeah, give me like five minutes.", and absolutely nothing about the situation had changed in ten. I know a Librarian technically outranks me in the Archive, but that is just bloody disrespectful.

Once I got fed up, I came close and crossed the few stairs. She would just keep clicking on it. I wish I could say I could read anything from the screen, but it was machine code.

"INFO-CYTE! Helmet-head!"

She turned around to me, with a hint of anger in her eye, but fortunately could tell who I was.

"Oh, I know you. You're the chick for Eversors. What happened?"

"Yeah, the girl you sent to the hunt with the Info-cyte. She's dead. Witched out. Right when she took it off. From clean to pitch black in a few seconds."

Maybe Karla would have been happier if she saw how troubled this made her superior look. Too bad, though there was a hint of guilt in Renata, she hosed it right down.

She also started fencing the pair of her grey, metallic, actually quite nice arms on me. "That, that's bullshit right there. I use it myself. It doesn't hold the Grief back or anything, so it wouldn't, like, stack up and release all at once." she looked back at me. "You think she could have just caught a really bad stream?"

"Figured I should suspect Panna's shenanigans before I suspect you of being a total bitch. You're shit out of luck, though, there was a whole squad around her. If it was a stream going haywire, someone else would at least notice it. If it didn't take them too." That's what you call crying on the wrong mass grave. I went on, not wanting to give her quarter. "Plain and simple, you fucked up. Or she took the Potion, maybe. Could have been afraid she can't handle a fight."

She stared at me like I was the murderer, obviously understanding what I meant to say. "But that's not supposed to happen. The Vanus are supposed to be safe. And I needed the performance information from her. Did you at least bring the Info-cyte? The device itself?" Ha ha, she was losing it.

"The circlet got broken in two. Girl got hit by a lightning bolt. I brought the bloody pieces, yeah."

"Oh! That makes a bit more sense." She lit up. "Could you hand them over?" At the same time, she slightly betrayed the pretense of care for her subordinate.

"Seemed like there's enough time for that. Since then, you dumb cunt, I ate two meals and had three important meetings. Why are YOU only dealing with this now? Didn't you even notice she didn't fucking come back? Isn't this supposed to be your special important research? Or did you play video games on that shit?" I was furious, and it felt good.

"I've thought she got wounded or something. Or the hunt was too much stress for her and she locked herself up. They do that sometimes." She did a curious thing then, sipped coffee from a cup on the table, with her bare foot. Held the handle between her toes like it was nothing. "They always come back, though. We're all they have. Actually, wave that broom before your own door. Your Eversors may fall to the rose, but our girls always come back when they run away."

"Don't you fucking bring up the rose to me. I'm keeping mine clean, you know? They don't fucking "fall" to it. You're either pure or you are not. If you aren't, we know right away. The cult is the people that the cat recruits in orphanages and wackhouses. They get sent to the cult from the start, or like a week in."

She didn't argue further. At first I thought she may have had first hand experience with the cultists, or the Librarian who supervises the separation. Upon closer inspection, though, she was lost in thought. Folding in her spinning chair like a monkey.

"You say she might have taken the potion. Wouldn't you be able to tell? She was a pretty nihilistic person, the change in attitude would be huge. I had her on antidepressants, but she didn't want to take them. Kept saying she's okay."

"So you've wanted to first drug them and then mindfuck them. Wow. No, she was a huge downer. Looked like she took drugs, though." That's not to talk about how antidepressants for a Magical Girl are probably some really heavy stuff.

"That she always did." The Librarian kept rocking in her chair, using her toe to spin away from the table in a very slow, annoying way. "Say, do you know who the Witch Libuna is?"

I nodded. Strange coincidence. "Literally just had a talk about her half an hour ago. She's the precognitive Witch."

"Possibly omniscient. Definitely self-aware. But she's bound to an area, to this town. She can't go very far from Prague. Yet, she never gets caught, despite being relatively low on the real power scale, and having no protection whatsoever. One of the many enigmas we work with. The final experiment we have considered making with Info-cytes was making Info-cytes out of several precognitive girls, and figure out whether they could match her skill. And checkmate her. We wouldn't actually kill her, since we're actually banned from doing that. Just, have her at our mercy for a while, and then let her go."

If I was her, I'd let myself be caught and freed, just to fuck with them a bit. "Why did you just ask me that?"

"No reason. You either are pure or you aren't. Huh."

Renata stood up from the chair, and leaned in a bit, in an awkward motion compared to how nimble she was before. I was now almost sure, from her body language, that she must have lost arms at some point her life, and gone long without them, because she was just letting them lie, only moving one when she needed to do something with it. She was looking at the locker on my pendant, which she must have guessed I had my Soul Gem in. "Say. What was you wish?"

That is basically the single rudest thing possible to say to a Magical Girl. Not even lovers share these. What the hell?

"I collect wishes, you know. I've wished to understand art. Yours must have been similar, I think." She leaned in further. "Is the wish in your pants?"

I hope I didn't blush there. I didn't laugh, at least.

Then she raised her head and looked me square in the eyes. "Do you demand satisfaction?"

"What. No, I don't, really. The girl is dead. You're a fuckup, I've got nothing to prove here anymore."

She straightened back up, eyeing me further. "Just so you know, I dislike the way Panna does her thing. It's a strange game," she had said, "the only winning move is not to play. So yeah, this feels much more honest. I challenge you to a fight."

I had to take a long time to process that, in my dumb jock head. I came in hoping to shout her out, but could not have been prepared for nonsense of this level.

What the hell was this girl saying? A challenge? She was a Librarian, sure, I could expect competence, but she just challenged a Rank Leader to a fight. A Rank Leader who, as it just turned out, could compete for the Warmaster's seat.

Of course, it's silly that we consider a "competent Vanus" one that has learned to not just be a Vanus. But they aren't usually much more than that, anyway. They don't train or eat right, or even go outside. It's just that whatever weird gimmick they came across on the mutant cat roulette has also turned out to be marginally useful for making things others can use, or enhancing our logistics, or frying the potential Callidus spy in a torrent of warpfire. The Librarians are still, and will forever be, a bunch of nerds.

Nothing about the way Renata carried herself suggested she was a warrior. This girl was either very good at deception, or insane. Taking the whole conversation into account, I was willing to bet on insanity.

I liked it.

"Next! Come here, you skank! We don't have all day!" The Squad Leader in charge extended her gesture with the wooden club she held. She was sweating, so, to an experienced observer, she must have been at it for at least an hour. I knew it was almost two hours, though, and that they should actually be just about done. She was a tough one, still red in the face and worked up.

The girl who just was on a five hit win-streak against the other squaddies parted with her defeated partner, to get a shot against her boss, getting into stance at the deceiving gap of ten meters. The fencing hall is spacious and has to accommodate for fifty girls at a time - but you could tell that they now belong together by the stripe painted on the floor. She would usually be on one of the blue ones, but the instructor's on the far right was red.

The Squad Leader itching for another fight looked on me with a question on her eyes, knowing I wasn't supposed to be there. Did I intend to conduct the sparring out of order?

I handwaved her away, and led Renata through the competing pairs and groups to a side of the room, right next to the stands. I didn't intend to shame her publicly or anything.

On the bench in the corner, we saw the familiar face of our resident necromancer. In it, the eyes that didn't lose their glitter through seeing much, framed in slight wrinkles. It was outlined by raven haired hair, and belonged to a lanky body.

The time has come to introduce Jackdaw.

Jackdaw can be really creepy, despite never trying to, and is very much a character that attracts rumors.

One such rumor would be that once on an assignment, she got shot in the face and choked the guy with her gut for it.

Another, much more believable, is that she has a lot of organs she pulls out of her patients left over, and sells them on the black market for a little extra profit. If that is true, it makes you, like many things, question the value of money to a grief seed, since creating a body part is not all that difficult for some Venenum.

One that I know is true, more a legend than a rumor, is that during the last Walpurgisnacht, she fought an Alpha Witch in Egypt among other magical girls, and used dozens of dead Eversor bodies from the Fourteenth for a literal meat shield against her attacks, in an attempt to hold her down, and provide time for others to finish her off. It seems that this was quite gruesome even next to an Alpha Witch, and left many people mentally scarred. Only a few of the Vindicare that traveled there with her talk to her anymore. The Fourteenth had added this to the list of grudges, although after the Walpurgisnacht, they had enough trouble with rebuilding their own ranks,and never pressed the issue.

The only one of these rumors that I can really confirm false is that she can speak to the dead with just shards of their gem. I am sure we all wish there was someone like that, but that just isn't possible.

The truth behind Jackdaw would be, that she is really a boundless optimist. Only a doctor can reach such a level of harmony with their surroundings. It makes you wonder whether she was always like this. It's difficult to imagine her in genuine distress. Perhaps Jackdaw is the ideal of zen acceptance I have been looking for, in order to not go insane from what my new job may be.

To get back to the fencing hall - Jackdaw would sometimes hang out here, despite not belonging in. She would justify it by hauling bodies for the Venenum to treat faster, since she isn't actually a Venenum herself. She is pretty much a doctor by education, even, just not a magical one. She says that watching different bodies compete is really interesting. I saw her in the stands this time as well, talking to a girl I've recognized as a Venenum.

Jackdaw is handy, because she can allow Eversors to be more serious in spars, just by letting them not hold back and use real weapons. Sometimes, you need a thing like that. You see, Venenum can deal with even most lethal wounds on the body, but there is another problem: Most soul gems can't really travel very far from you. You can put them, for example, under the floor, and then let the girls get more serious because a lethal injury would be impossible without a gem, but you can only do that in a boxing ring , or in a cage, something. A proper fencing hall needs to be large, because there is a lot of pushing back and forth in a real fight. Before most girls learn to move to the sides and, anyway. If someone uses a foil, I want her to get as much space as she needs.

So, Jackdaw can follow the girls, and carry their gems, without fearing she'd get hit by a stray swing herself. If she would, she's just going to pull back such a swing by redirecting the girl's hand a bit. And if she still gets hit for some reason, no big deal. Several Eversors - ones with no nonlethal variation of their preferred weapon, like the two girls with whips - already use her services. Unfortunately for them, she's only hanging out here in her free time.

Jackdaw also said once, much more disturbingly, that she could take a dead body, give it a weapon, and have someone fight it. It would give them experience in fighting foes that don't feel pain and attack suicidally, which comes in handy.

Myself, I hate the idea of having someone always clean the floor. That's already enough of a bullying job now. Wooden weapons had worked just fine for training in the entire recorded history of combat.

To this Jackdaw said that we are writing a new chapter right here, because we also kill monsters aside from just humans. Which prompted me to start considering what a fencing school meant against monsters would look like. After all, there is technique to the proper krump. I ended up just as confused by the end of it all, as Witches always make you.

It made me angry that there would be anyone in these stands today. If the Venenum was supposed to be on service in the hall, she was straight up slacking off. There wasn't a break of any sort right now, and while she should keep her distance from the combatants, she had no business sitting all the way there. The stands on this side were only supposed to be used during tournaments, anyway. You couldn't see whatever was happening on the other side of the hall for all the pillars keeping the space standing, that's why I thought we could be alone. Like this, we would still have somebody watching, and I didn't want that.

I waved at the necromancer to get her attention. It may have been rude to the Venenum, but I wanted to be rude to her. "Watching the game? Did anyone get hurt?"

"A few broken ribs, I think. This new girl here has iffy magic that could screw someone up, so I've been asked to give her a lesson in chiropraxy."

Her eyes then widened when she noticed the second person. It didn't make her look any less phlegmatic.

"Well," she said, pointing to the circlet in Renata's hand "this is going to be interesting".

Renata held the thing out, so that we could all see it clearly. "This is not actually an Info-cyte, it's a bit different. I am building off the old design, but dislike the limitation to Vanus. So, I'll lose any edge my Vanus trance could give me. Not losing much. Then, I'll be fully conscious, and the machine spirit will lead my limbs a bit and offer tactical advice. I'll also get perfect control over my body - simulating an Eversor trance in a way, though I won't be as tolerant to pain, and the muscle memory will still be forged, and just provided. Not, you know, natural. That's something you are going to notice. A bit of a delay in response, probably."

She then put it on her head. "It interfaces with the brain in the same way the old ones did. Still, the original maker had been too narrow-minded. All I really needed to do was exchange a chip, even though I wouldn't understand how it works without reverse engineering a bit of Incubator tech first. Not like they ever banned me from doing that in THIS Officio. Once it's a finished piece of work, anyone will be able to use it."

...If that includes normals, I am willing to bet that they will just seal it inside the Librarium and won't let it get out. Ever.

"I call it the Puretide chip. Remember the name, you will hear it in the future."

It appeared as though we both were ready. Me, in just a T-shirt and having switched to sweat pants, because staying in jeans would be retarded, and her out of costume as well, but cheating nevertheless. Neither of us would be protected by a costume, or spending magic on this, unless Renata's toy actually did.

There wasn't a need to have anyone start us off, though I am sure that Jackdaw would love to shoot a starter gun into the air. Hell, I wanted nobody to see this, but there were already a few curious rascals peeking from behind the pillars.

I took a boxing stance and made a move forward, because it's always better to judge someone's skill while you're on the offense. I figured she would use her metal arms. In case her arms proved much stronger than my magically unsupported body, I could always say that duh, you've got iron hands, so of course a human would lose.

My punch only glanced her guard, but from the contact, I could tell her arms were really light. For all intents and purposes, those were human arms. Huh.

She tried to kick me from the side, and I moved in more, betting on my weight blowing her out. Her knee didn't do much, though I could tell her kick - her human kick - had been really powerful. Then she had to avoid the blow to head by falling down completely, which she somehow managed to turn into damn near a backflip. I should have been more observant there. I should have also stomped on her foot.

Back on her feet, she didn't give me a chance to think, and swung her leg at me again, in a wide sweep - this time with a twist. She caught the side of my raised palm between her toes, and threw it away. If not for my own legwork, the other foot would have smashed right into my chin.

Who knew there was a martial arts monkey like this around? And one of the pencil pushers, too?

She closed the distance, and then threw another pair of kicks on me, this time straight on the stomach. That was notably uneducated of her, since most Eversors worth their salt would just tough it through a hit like that, and only vomit right after the fight. My long legs saved me from that as well, and my long arms saw an opportunity.

She was only using her hands for balance and support, so once she was pulling her other leg forward, I made a step back and managed to catch a few of her fingers in one of my arms. She must have known that maneuver, since she used the other leg she stood on for a high jump right away, as not to expose her ribs to me. I could have tried to punch her in the face with my own left hand, since that face was now close to me, but she would have possibly gone for a headlock if I didn't get out of the way, and that would just be messy. What is this, Blade Runner?

So, I let her hand go. She turned a bit in the air completing the absurdly high jump without me pulling her down, rolled on the fall, and I didn't pursue her, since moving near a leg focused melee fighter while they're on the ground is just a really dumb thing to do.

I just may have missed an opportunity before she landed, when her back faced me, but that's a situation I never had been in. Trying to tackle her felt like the right thing to do, but I held back - there might easily be a counter to that.

She finished her roll, followed it with a backlip to face me, braced against the ground, made a few leaps, and jumped at me again, with a straight pair of kicks this time. It probably made sense to her, because I've only moved back the whole time.

So, I've dodged that to the side, not getting anywhere near those legs, and caught that same hand again. Due to her momentum, a lot more firmly. Then, I made two long steps, and pulled.

I could tell that even with the arms, she weighed about half as much as me. That still makes her a relatively big girl, and I couldn't really throw her around like a grocery bag. I saw an expression of surprise break her focus, though, so I knew right away that I had picked right. She had been already going the wrong way with the missed kick, so I just stepped opposite to where I wanted to get her, twisting the grip a bit.

She covered the first half-turn with two clumsy, heavy steps. The third, she didn't have legs left for, so she used her hand for it, and tried bouncing herself off the ground. That was obvious improvisation, I guess she was trying for a good angle for the fall.

Of course, I wouldn't let her do that. Right as she was almost at the top of the arc, already upside down, I smashed her to the ground as hard as I could. She almost made it into a roll anyway, but alongside the thud of her body, everyone had also heard the clear crack in her shoulder.

She picked herself up, with her healthy arm reaching to her back, looked at me, and hissed through her teeth. "How."

"That's a merry-go-round, uh. At least that's what I think it's called. I guessed it wouldn't be in a martial arts handbook, since it's not an artsy thing. It's a thing that kids in elementary do." Well, in that kind of a gym, you would usually be looking to smash the other kid into a wall, not to spin him around. It's the first lesson about why trying to fight heavier people hand to hand is dumb. It's sort of a bully trick, but I used to be a bully after all.

"You figured out I wouldn't know this, because you could tell I didn't always have hands."

I genuinely never guessed that. "You told me too much when you said it uses manuals. It's more like, I've been looking to get you by doing something wrong but executing it right. I kept fucking telling this people - that's why these things are useless against Witches."

Her eyes were narrowed at me. "Interesting. Would you say hand to hand combat is like chess? Is this like Deep Blue losing to a sub-optimal strategy?"

What a loaded question. Of course she would point out that the piece of junk won in the end. "Bad comparsion. You could program it to beat me, but not a Witch. Besides, with a fighting style like that, you in particular will be fucked when I start actually using my magic. What then? And it's not just that. Like I said, it's also about the art of fighting."

Jackdaw smiled, and asked me "What do you know about art, Jarmila?"

"Nothing, I guess. But she knew perfectly well what she was doing! And I think that's wrong. I say that as a technical fencer. You really need to put your heart to it."

She was visibly angry now - she never was up until then. "Well, fuck you too. If you don't understand what you're doing, how can you be so sure you're doing the right thing?


The girls in the stands cheered on me. It was pretty disgusting. A jock beat up a nerd for speaking up against her, and they liked it. I've got to talk to those girls later and set them straight.

It seemed that Jackdaw was helping herself by restraining Renata a bit with her power, while she was moving the bones into the right spot for the Venenum to fix up proper. Renata's inner civilian showed here, and she nearly broke to tears from the pain. Still, she did not in the end, there is a tough core to the girl.

This brought back unpleasant memories for me. I have seen Jackdaw in battle a few times. She gets sent out the most of all the Librarians, since she's hard to kill. Like Řeřicha, she's frightening in offense too, but letting Řeřicha get anywhere near a battlefield equals a war crime. Jackdaw, on the other hand, is extremely precise in killing. The only collateral damage is the blood to wash from the floor, and the bodies she regrets not owning.

Jackdaw would tear the attacker limb from limb, looking at them with what I hope was pity. In the case of a Witch, she would explode them to bits part by part. After all those years, I understood why she is sad when she fights. It's all those joints, spinal fluids, and Witch flesh, going to waste.

Whether she was helping people live on, or taking their life, though, she needs no torrent of fire like I do. She can just do so with a gesture of her hand.


With her shoulder fixed, Renata leaned her arms forward, squeezing her fingers, which produced a faint, metallic crack.

Seeing those two next to each other reminded me of a passage in Moby-Dick, actually. Ahab had an artificial leg, too. Allow me to find the exact quote:

Then, with every mast-head manned, the piled-up craft rolled down before the wind. The strange, upheaving, lifting tendency of the taffrail breeze filling the hollows of so many sails, made the buoyant, hovering deck to feel like air beneath the feet; while still she rushed along, as if two antagonistic influences were struggling in her - one to mount direct to heaven, the other to drive yawingly to some horizontal goal. And had you watched Ahab's face that night, you would have thought that in him also two different things were warring. While his one live leg made lively echoes along the deck, every stroke of his dead limb sounded like a coffin-tap. On life and death this old man walked.

Renata only wrought death with her hands, while Jackdaw, a necromancer as she were, was all about life. But machines are simpler to understand than humans, and death is easier to deal with than life. Really, Jackdaw was the terrifying one.

So, after seeing her in action once again, and having things put a bit more into perspective by it, it was much easier to talk to Renata casually. I tried to. "Why didn't you use your arms at all?"

Of course, she could expect the question. "I have data on it, but it would set a bad precedent with my arms being abnormal. The Fourth was like that too. Flesh is weak, steel, you can trust. But I don't like that. It would be like being a runner with a crutch. In the words of Valeria Kheredar - a magical girl greater than I: These hands are strong, and they have created great things, but they are not mine. The time will come when I get rid of them, lest I lose the power to master myself forever."

Well, there you go. I guess I could understand why the Fourth would have trouble with someone like her, or why she would have trouble with it. She seemed to know what I'd be curious about again.

"Not the only reason I left. Power struggles got annoying, too. I understood that the way the Fourth was is wrong, and that it wouldn't be changing anytime soon." She wasn't looking at me anymore, practically talking to herself now. " Hell, the whole leadership could use more humility. The conservatives are too passive, and the progressives are fools. The Blessed Lady of Machines is waiting for them behind the last theorem."

Oh. I picked up on the fact that she was a believer, and that their faith would be a bit different, but it never occurred to me that Fourth could actually have those kinds of problems to go with it. You would think they would all be brought together by their love of wires and moving bits of metal, but this instead sounded like a theological schism brewing.

She stretched a bit more. "Well, I trust you are satisfied with a punishment like that. I have learned a bit as well." She turned back completely, having to shove aside the first girl from the gathered mob, before the others got the message and made way. For a while I have been scared somebody would get the idea of giving her a walk of shame, or something stupid like that, it could get them into serious trouble.

Halfway through, though, she stopped, and turned back at me. I still felt slightly guilty under her glare.

"Iron Within."