The Iron Circle

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Fanfic Info
Title The Iron Circle
Genres Drama, Action
Author TwiceBorn
Timeline Concurrent with main thread
Canonicity Status Non-Canon
Completion Status Ongoing


Honoka Iwakura, Vindicare of Officio IX, transfers to the cold and enigmatic Fourth Officio Assassinorum. Amidst the technological wonders of the Fourth, she slowly discovers the hidden rot within the Machines, and is swept up into a course of events that could see an entire Officio fall...

The Iron Circle[edit]

Ch. I: Olympia[edit]

In a field of iron and circuitry, she dreamed.

She dreamed of cogs, of gears, of works wrought of stone and metal. Images of a finely-crafted rifle, a gilded clockwork wolf, a suit of armor surpassing any in existence whirled through her mind, each one a masterpiece waiting to be made real. Eventually, she chose the rifle; an appropriate gift, she reasoned, for the newly instated Warmaster in Japan.

The image of the rifle was replaced by an emerging blueprint, and like a loom weaving together a garment, the blueprint spun into being. First the base structure of the firearm, then the finer mechanisms—the trigger assembly, the system of operation, the safety—down to every last detail, until she was at last satisfied. A fine gift for a—

Hmm? Is that a present? For...*gasp* for Homura-chan!

The dreamer paused at the interference. The blueprint continued to float on the sea of circuit boards and silicon transistors.

No! No, no, no, no, no,! YOU don't get to give Homura-chan anything! Only I do! You-you GEARHEAD! You COGBRAIN! RUST BUCKET!

Ignoring the stream of childish curses, the dreamer thought-started a program.

[Initiating Memopad application. Loading...]

To her right in the electronic dreamscape, a white notebook-like image materialized. On the blank pages appeared writing formed of neat print.

<Personal log, timestamp 5395.94111. Fifty-sixth encounter with unknown entity.>

Are you listening to me?! She's MINE! Got it?! You can't have her! I—

<As with all previous encounters with entity, fifty-sixth iteration occurred within neuroscape. Multiple anti-virus scans and diagnostic cycles do not detect any unknown foreign software in data drives.>

The entity, apparently tired of hurling abuse, resorted to floating between the dreamer and the notepad and making silly faces.

<Entity continues to exhibit intense frustration with my reactions to her provocations, as it had done since fifth encounter. Current episode of aggressive behavior appears to have been triggered by my idea of crafting a gift for the newly promoted Warmaster of the Ninth Officio. Entity, however, appears to assume gift is designated for “Homura-chan” (analysis: Japanese origin, plus diminutive honorific indicating emotional bond between speaker and subject).>

Heedless of the entity and its attempts to provoke her, the dreamer continued to take notes.

<Observation: Entity believes “Homura” is the new Warmaster of Officio IX. Inference: “Homura” is an alternate designation for new Warmaster of Officio IX. Hypothesis: Entity is associated in some way with new Warmaster of Officio IX. Must contact new Warmaster of Officio IX on this subject, along with presentation of rifle.>

As the dreamer continued to ignore the entity, the latter began wringing the hem of its dress and snarled.

Fine. FINE, you dumb cogbrain!- It twirled around, crossing its arms and sticking its nose in the air with a pouting *hmph!* -If you're not gonna listen then I'm just gonna go away! I never should have given it to you! <No further relevant observations made for entity. Shutting down neuroscape.>

As the dream-fields of metal and electronics faded away into reality, the entity turned and gave the dreamer a smile. As always, it was a smile dripping with blood, leaking from crimson lips down to a pink and cream-colored Magical Girl costume.

Well...maybe it wasn't SUCH a waste. Pitch-black eyes closed as the smile widened. Because now, one day, I'll get to see Homura-chan take it from your cold, dead hands! Hee hee hee! Then the giggling pink figure faded into nothing.




Then reality made itself known again.

There was a slight buzzing sensation in her head, heralding a message.


She paused. Then sent her own reply.

<Receiving, go ahead.>

<We've got contact from 12-Sigma-5. They'll be arriving in 30 minutes.>

<Acknowledged. I will be ready to meet them shortly.>

Now fully awake, the dreamer stood in one smooth motion, the servos in her limbs purring to life as she rose. There was a visitor today, an exchange student of sorts from the infamous Ninth Officio, and decorum demanded she go out and meet the new arrival. She noted the apparent coincidence between the timing of this visit and trigger for today's encounter with the entity.

As she headed towards the doors to her personal quarters, she took up a weapon that hung on the wall and slipped it into a sheathe at her back. It was a two-handed hammer, with with two killing faces pointing perpendicularly away from the haft. On each mallet face was etched the Roman numeral “XVI”.

The hammer was made of gold.


She awoke with a start.

She blinked, groping about, trying to either figure out where she was or remember it. The sketchpad on her lap clattered to the floor as she flailed around.

Something gripped her arm.

“Ms. Iwakura? Are you alright?”


She blinked some more, shaking sleep and fatigue from her eyes, and she realized her arm was held firmly in place by a hand made of metal.

“Ms. Iwakura?”

“Oh, uh, ha ha! Sorry about that, I'm awake...”

Honoka Iwakura laughed sheepishly as she picked up her fallen sketchpad. On the sketchpad were illustrations, designs for an artificial left hand made of steel and servos.

She was sitting in an armored gunship, a propeller-driven VTOL airplane that was a heavily modified Osprey airplane. Two rotors and a pair of engines made a steady hum as the gunship plowed the air currents. Inside the plane with her was the pilot and co-pilot—whom Honoka had yet to see—and her liaison, Barbara Falko.

Honoka herself was a taller girl, with bobbed red hair, bright blue eyes, and a shapely athletic figure. She was wearing her powered exoskeleton for the occasion; the culmination of three years of non-stop work and every bit of robotics knowledge she possessed, with metal and ceramic plates installed in strategic places for protection and hydraulics that dramatically increased her strength, she'd figured it would be her way to dress to impress. Doubly so, considering that today was the day she was meeting the masters of engineering: the Fourth Officio Assassinorum.

Despite wearing her best, however, upon seeing her liaison Honoka felt she might as well have been wearing rags.

Barbara Falko's body was covered from head to toe in metal, as though she were made out of it. Certain parts of her body were obscured by what looked to be armored plates or protrusions, such as her chest, head, shoulders, and hips, forming metal imitations of a low ponytail and a blouse-and-skirt combination. The plates and protrusions were painted a soft baby blue, while the rest of her was a bright alabaster. Her face, like the rest of her body, was metal, consisted of a pair of blue eye-lenses and barely-defined features resembling that of a blank fashion mannequin. Lines where the joints of her body lay were stark against the white alloy body. Overall, the liaison's metallic body cut a lithe, slim figure.

Either Barbara was wearing the most advanced (and tight-fitting) armor of all time, or Barbara was literally some kind of robot. Given what Honoka heard of the 4th, the latter seemed somehow more likely.

“Did you have a nice nap?” asked Barbara. Her voice sounded almost natural, with a touch of synthesized quality, though her mouth didn't move when she spoke. Honoka wasn't entirely sure where the sound emanated from. Despite the liaison's inhuman appearance, however, Honoka noted she could still read her body language: calm, measured, unfailingly polite. Rumors said the girls of the Fourth were universally cold and were assholes, but Barbara seemed to defy expectations.

“Hai! Er, yes!” said Honoka. She remembered just a second too late to speak in English rather than her usual Japanese. “It was just a tiring flight, that's all, ha ha...”

“It was, wasn't it?” said Barbara, though she didn't seem the slightest bit fatigued. “I do apologize for that, flying from Japan to our headquarters in the Sahara can't be easy...”

Honoka glanced out the window. The rich brown sands of the Sahara Desert gazed back at her, a line of nomads interrupting the endless expanse of coffee-colored dunes. She'd heard the headquarters of the Fourth was mobile, and happened to be traversing one of the biggest deserts in the world when Warmaster Matsuda approved of her sabbatical. Idle thoughts crept into her head: was the headquarters an armored convoy? Perhaps a ship capable of sailing on both land and sea? Or maybe it was a giant floating carrier, like the headquarters of the Sixteenth. She flipped a pencil back and forth between her fingers to ease her excitement.

“Speaking of which,” said Barbara, “the pilot tells me will be reaching headquarters in about half an hour. I'm sure you'll want to be out of that combat armor as soon as possible.” The metal liaison nodded pointedly at Honoka's exoskeleton, and once again Honoka felt ashamed of her best work.

“May I ask how you came across that armor?” asked Barbara. “I wasn't aware that the Ninth regularly issued powered armor to its personnel.”

Honoka let out a sheepish laugh as she waved her hand. “Oh, this old thing. It was just, uh, something I cobbled together a few weeks before I got here, you know. Felt it was...appropriate. Yeah.” She paused, and decided she never would have made it as a Callidus.

For her part, Barbara merely stared at Honoka for a moment before saying, “I see.” The mannequin-like face was impossible to read.


The conversation went on from there, to Honoka's great relief, to idle talk about their respective Officios. Honoka found herself talking much more about the Ninth than Barbara did about the Fourth, and she wasn't entirely certain if that was just by coincidence.

“...and what is it like, working alongside Venenum and Vanus girls?” asked Barbara.

“Well, we don't work alongside them, per se,” said Honoka, “not in the field, anyway. But they're handy, it's always nice to go into a firefight knowing you have good intelligence and good medical support.” She cocked an eyebrow. “But what about the Fourth? I'm more surprised you don't have Venenum or Vanus clades yourselves...”

“We in the Fourth believe all of our Magical Girl personnel must be fully combat-capable,” said Barbara. “So it's not so much that we don't have Venenum and Vanus clades—though that is technically true—as much as our Callidus, Vindicares, and Eversors divide the usual Vanus and Venenum roles between them. As for how this is done, we have a system that we call the Dodekatheon...”

Barbara proceeded to explain the Fourth's unique organizational structure: the Dodekatheon, twelve departments that doubled as support mechanisms and places for the girls of the Fourth to hone various skills. The liaison didn't get far in her explanation, however, before she abruptly stopped and looked out the window.

“Oh. We're almost here.”

Honoka followed her gaze. In the distance was what appeared to be...a person? Or at least, it looked vaguely humanoid, with two legs, a pair of stubby arms, and the biggest shoulders she'd ever seen. As the plane flew onwards, however, Honoka realized it wasn't a person at all.

The legs were like castles, each of them a stout cylinder bristling with hundred of guns. The arms were not only by far the largest cannons Honoka had ever seen, but also, she suspected, the single largest weapons ever constructed in human history. The right arm-cannon itself was so long that a small runway sat atop of it. The head, itself the size of a five-story building occupying a whole city block, gazed back at her, its form like that of an iron knight's helmet of with void-black circular eyes and a grille for a mouth. The impossibly broad shoulders held an entire fortress-complex, barracks surely large enough for a small army and enough guns to render an entire city to ash. A part of Honoka, a very small part that wasn't enraptured by the colossus standing above the desert sands, estimated the whole thing to stand at about 2000 feet and about as wide at the shoulders.

If machines could have a goddess, thought Honoka, this is she.

“This,” breathed Honoka, “is your headquarters? You live here?”

“Yes,” said Barbara. If she was amused at Honoka's dumbfounded look, she wasn't showing it. “This is not only the nerve center of our Officio, but also our primary research, design, and manufacturing facilities of the technology that makes us the Fourth Officio.”

Honoka shivered in delight as she mashed herself up against the glass to get a better look. She realized she was probably looking very silly in front of the liaison, but she couldn't bring herself to care. “Have you guys ever fired one of those things?” she asked, pointing at the oversized arm-cannons.

Barbara replied, shaking her head, “Not since I've joined the Officio, no. In fact, I don't recall any mentions of the primary armaments being fired in any Officio record. I suspect the weapons are largely there to deter attackers. The 'big stick', as it were.”

Honoka wasn't sure who would want to assault a walking fortress like the Fourth's headquarters. People with death wishes, maybe. Madmen, perhaps.

Eventually, the gunship landed and Honoka and Barbara disembarked. As they walked towards a huge metal gate leading into the headquarters, Honoka asked Barbara a question.

“So...who built this thing?”

The doors before them groaned as they approached. “The Fourth, of course, back when the Officio system was first enacted. The two people who designed it are still with us, one of which was our own Incubator.”

“And who was the other designer?” asked Honoka.

“The other designer was—”


The voice boomed from the threshold of the entrance. Like Barbara's, it seemed mostly natural with the slightest synthesized quality, but there the similarities ended. It was deep for a girl's voice, bordering on masculine, and despite the brevity of the one-word statement it brimmed with authority and confidence.

Honoka turned her gaze to the speaker. She couldn't make out fine details since her eyes were adjusting to the bright midday sun, but from the looming shape she could tell the being was about eight feet tall and made entirely out of metal. Despite the light, she could still spot a golden glimmer behind the figure's right shoulder, looking something like the head of a very large hammer.

“I'm Petra Dammekos,” said the figure, “Warmaster of the Fourth Officio Assassinorum. The Fourth calls me the Warsmith.” Petra gestured at the iron colossus they were standing on.

“Welcome to the Olympia.”

Ch. II: Dodekatheon[edit]

The Iron Circle Chapter II: Dodekatheon

Honoka lay alone in the cool gloom of her quarters. Her sheets were thin, her cot was hard, her room felt more like a cell, and her dinner consisted of nutrient bars with the texture and taste of paper mache. The Fourth, decided Honoka, weren't terribly used to having guests.

As she lay there, wresting sleep denied her by jet lag, she reflected on the day's events.


Things had started with the Warmaster.

“I'm Petra Dammekos, Warmaster of the Fourth Officio Assassinorum; the Fourth calls me the Warsmith. Welcome to the Olympia.”

Like Barbara's, the Warmaster's body was of metal, but where Barbara was shaped in the image of a lithe girl in her mid-teens, Petra was an armored warrior from ancient times.

She was tall, towering over the red-haired Vindicare. Her torso was a solid, heavily armored plate of jet trimmed with iron-grey, a modest bulge at the chest the one concession to femininity. A large set of pauldrons further bulked out the figure, as did the pteruges-skirt of long metal strips that armored her thighs and hips. The head was reminiscent of a samurai's helm, bearing a wide metal neck flap that seemed to open like a cobra's hood.

Warmasters, Honoka found, had a way of inspiring some mixture of awe and fear in their lessers. Petra Dammekos was no exception.

Honoka couldn't help it. 'What a beautiful machine...'

Awe overrode reason, stifled propriety. Her trembling hand reached out to touch the metallic form of the Warmaster, aching to caress the cold iron shell. She had to know how they made it, to look at the iron guts beneath the plates and see how the walking, moving expression of mathematical and engineering perfection before her worked—

“Why are you trying to touch me, Vindicare Iwakura?”

The booming voice shook her awake. It held no disgust, nor did sarcasm taint it; it was a simple question asked out of legitimate curiosity. Honoka found herself flinching back as if struck.

She glanced at her hand, then at Petra, then at her hand again. She saw Barbara staring at her in the corner of her eye.

“Oh...oh. Erm.” Recollection flooded her mind, followed swiftly by embarrassment, and she bowed to the Warmaster in apology. “Uh, I'm-I'm terribly sorry, Warmaster Dammekos, I didn't mean to be rude—”

Barbara cut in smoothly. “I'm afraid she's had a long plane ride, Warsmith, and she is still recovering from seeing the Olympia in full view—you know how visitors can be whenever they see our headquarters...”

Petra simply stared back at Honoka. Whether she took the statement at face value or simply didn't care, Honoka couldn't tell, but the Vindicare felt she was being studied intently.

It was only after an uncomfortably long moment that the Warmaster spoke.

“I'll give you a tour around the Olympia before we bring you to your quarters.” A pair of squat, boxed-shaped machines trundled forward and hauled away Honoka's luggage as the Warmaster strode forward.

Then she paused, as if to reconsider, and addressed Honoka before moving off. “And call me Petra. Or 'Warsmith'. That's what the Iron Circle calls me.” Each of her steps was heavy, emitting a dull thud that echoed through the grey halls of the Olympia, and each of her steps was filled with purpose.

As Honoka followed the moving Warmaster, she muttered to Barbara. “The 'Iron Circle'?”

“Formally,” said Barbara, “the Iron Circle refers to the Warsmith's cadre of bodyguards—six of our most combat-capable Eversors sworn to keep the Warsmith safe.” As ever, the liaison's voice was smooth, like a mirror's surface. “However, depending on the context, it can also refer to our Officio as a whole. This latter meaning was the one the Warsmith was referring to.”

As Barbara spoke, Honoka threw Petra another glance. She saw a weapon mag-locked to the Warmaster's back, a golden sledgehammer about as long as Honoka was tall, with a head the size of her own. It reminded her, in a chilling, discomforting way, of the mysterious golden katana the former Eversor Rank Leader used to own back in the Ninth, back before she got retired.

With such a weapon, wondered Honoka, who needs bodyguards?


“You're better with words, Barbara, so I'll let you do the talking.”

“Of course, Warsmith.”

The three of them made their way down to the bowels of the Olympia. Each hall they traversed, each chamber they passed was well-planned and finely-built, with every scrap of space devoted to something functional. They weren't pretty, per se, made as they were by shaped and stamped corrosive-resistant metal—no exquisitely carved walls of marble and gold here—but in their mathematically-guided precision Honoka found a stark beauty.

“As I explained on the plane,” said Barbara, “the Iron Circle is divided into twelve organizations, or Orders. The purpose of each Order is two-fold; the first is to provide support services necessary for our Officio to function, the second is to provide a place for the Iron Circle to test one another and improve upon our skills. Each Magical Girl in the Fourth is a member of one and only one Order, but we are permitted to participate in the activities of other Orders. Our first, and so far only, Warsmith created this system when the Fourth Officio was first formed.”

“Quartus was the one who came up with most of it,” grunted Petra.

A few minutes of walking and a short ride on an elevator brought them to a set of double doors, deep in the “shoulder” of the Olympia. Beyond it was the muffled roar of heavy machinery.

“Here,” said Barbara, “are the primary testing and manufacturing facilities of the Lyssatra, our weapon and armor manufacturers.” She strode towards the double doors, where a relief of an armored knight--a sword in one hand and a rifle in the other--loomed down on them.

“I would like to warn you that the Lyssatra manufactorum is very noisy. Ear protection is advised.”

Before Honoka could tell her she didn't have any ear protection, Barbara opened the doors. That meant Honoka had less than half a second before it hit her.

The roar of pneumatic presses, stamping machines, grinders, cutters, fusion torches, and smelters struck her like a shockwave. Such was the din of industry that Honoka felt herself staggering backwards, wincing at her battered eardrums.

Petra glanced back at the reeling red-haired Vindicare and, producing a pair of earmuffs from a hidden compartment, tossed it towards Honoka, who gratefully put them on. The din died down at once to tolerable levels.

Now that she was spared from the audial assault, Honoka had a chance to take in her surroundings.

Packs of Magical Girls milled about the chamber: some of them had metal bodies similar to Barbara's, though with differing shapes, sizes, and colors. A taller girl with a pair of metal pigtails poked away at a tablet, while a shorter one with bobbed hair-decals and a busty chestplate shouted at the strawberry and white painted girl in front of her. Another pair of girls had bodies that were larger, barrel-shaped torsos with trunk-like legs—they set about doing heavier work, hefting a small artillery cannon to prepare for welding.

Barbara's voice came in through a vox in the earmuffs. “I do apologize for the noise, Ms. Iwakura," she said with polite sympathy. "The Lyssatra is one of the most critical Orders within the Fourth—the vast majority of our Officio's funding comes through the sale of weapons and armor, and we must constantly manage a sizable number of orders. This means the production facilities must be kept running day and night.”

Barbara turned as she noticed something. “Ah, Forge Master Thematica.”

The one Barbara called “Thematica” strode towards the trio, a gaggle of robotic Magical Girls parting before her. “Petra!" came the jubilant voice, "Hello, hello, just noticed you coming in, how can I—oh? What's this?”

Her iron body was very similar to cannon-haulers', albeit with a bronze-red paint scheme and a head resembling an armet helmet, set in the center of her wide-shouldered torso, sitting on thick, pillar-like legs. Her hands were a riot of every machinery tool imaginable; clamps, pliers, cutters, and drills jockeyed with one another for space, each sitting at the end of arms made of thick bundles of cable. More cables snaked out of Thematica's back, each of them prehensile and ending in a trio of dexterous claws, giving Honoka an impression of a large metal octopus.

Said octopus wasted no time moving right into Honoka's personal bubble, inspecting every inch of Honoka's prized exoskeleton.

“Hmm. Powered exoskeleton. 85% high-grade steel, 14.99% titanium-aluminum alloy, .01% miscellaneous materials; ceramic-plate armor, joints and actuators made from—”

“This is Forge Master Felicia Thematica,” said Barbara over Felicia's muttering. “As you might have already inferred, she is the Master of the Lyssatra Order.” Honoka tried her very best to focus on Barbara and not on Felicia's ruthlessly thorough examination.

To Honoka's relief, the myriad probing devices drew back after an uncomfortably long minute.

“Hmm,” said Felicia. She was gazing at Honoka as though she were a defunct specimen, scratching her chin with one of her prehensile metal cables. “Marginal increases to strength and speed, exposed actuators vulnerable to damage. Ceramic-plate armor only rates to Armor Class II. No auxiliary systems installed.” She tutted and shook her head.

“You poor, poor dear..." she cooed. The prehensile cables lashed out and dragged the bewildered Honoka closer, dismantling her exoskeleton piece by piece. "Here, let me get you something much more you.”

“Wait what—”


Back in the gloom of her cell-like quarters, Honoka reflected on the memory and giggled. She looked at her beloved exoskeleton, stowed away in a rack, then at the brand new suit of Fourth Officio powered armor that sat in the corner.

Felicia had dragged her to a storage facility, where a dozen or so suits of powered armor sat in racks. With disturbing speed the Forge Master disassembled Honoka's suit and started fitting her new ones, like a fussy dressmaker with a hapless customer, mumbling about how “the 'Aquilas angles really brought out her curves”, or how “the 'Errant' wasn't really her thing”. Thematica eventually settled on a slick-looking number she'd called the 'Maximus' and had it shipped to Honoka's quarters.

She looked at her new gift again. A goggled faceplate packed with sensors; blocky, interlocking plates of armor that could stop rifle bullets dead; advanced actuators that let her run, jump, and lift beyond even what her magically-enhanced flesh could achieve. Armored hands that could punch holes in solid concrete. As much as it irked her to admit it, it really did blow her old exoskeleton out of the water.

Settling back in her cot, she reviewed the rest of the day.

The next incident, she thought, hadn't been quite as pleasant as the rest.


The Warmaster, the liaison, and the Vindicare continued their tour, moving ever deeper through the walking god-machine.

The more she saw of the Fourth's infamous mobile headquarters, the more Honoka understood why the Olympia was so unfathomably huge: foundries, repair bays, cargo holds, barracks, training facilities, on top the subsystems necessary for keeping a 2000 foot machine operational, all of these were contained within the Olympia's metal frame.

After an hour of walking, the three passed a room similar to the weapons foundry, where magical girls were at work maintaining a variety of vehicles. A handful of motorcycles here, an armored APC there: one gargantuan tank, with a main gun barrel that seemed almost comically large, dominated the vehicle bay.

“This is our land-based vehicle hangar, where the Apeia makes its home,” explained Barbara. “The Order of Mechanics is charged with keeping the Officio's fleet of ground vehicles functioning. It is their duty to ensure that any Officio sortie has adequate ground transportation and effective ground-based extraction. It is also one of the more popular Orders, though perhaps not quite as much as the Mechanicus, our Order of Cybernetics--”

“Still more popular than your pathetic little Emmeles, Falko,” came a voice from behind a, not one voice, realized Honoka. Two in perfect snych, down to the dripping contempt they held.

The pair of figures before them were humanoid, each roughly five feet and two inches tall. They looked remarkably similar to one another in Honoka's eyes—identical basic chassis, down to the height and body proportions with the difference laying in the decals. The one on the left was painted black with a prominent teal chest plate and teal cheek guards, with a pair of flexible metal protrusion imitating a set of twintails. The one on the right, sported a black paint scheme with sizable red leg reinforcements, red shoulderpads, and a long, high ponytail.

Despite their superficial differences, however, the body language of the two was almost the same—leading with one foot while putting their weight on the other, one hand placed on a jutting hip, for the same sneering, cocksure stance.

The girls bowed to their Warmaster, and barely a nod of ackowledgement to Barbara. “Warsmith, Speaker Falko,” they said in unison.

“Yda, Ach,” said Petra in acknowledgment.

“Chief Mechanics Yda Stradale and Ach Stradale, also known as the 'Speed Freaks',” said Barbara to Honoka, her tone even. If she'd taken insult from the two about her Order, she didn't show it. She turned back to the twins. “I was merely explaining—”

“Who's this?” interrupted the red one. “What's a meatbag like her doing in the Olympia?”

Honoka's Vindicare-trained eyes didn't miss the subtle clenching of Barbara fist. “This is Honoka Iwakura, a Vindicare novitiate from the Ninth—”

The teal one spoke this time. “Oh, so it's one of the Murderers?” she said in a mocking sing-song. Both twins began circling around Honoka, like a pair of metal vultures. “How's old Valnikov doing? She fucked any more blondes, yet?”

Barbara stepped in before Honoka could protest, her tone taking up the slightest hint of steel. “Chief Mechanic Yda Stradale, that is no way to speak to a guest.”

The tension in the air tightened, like a metal string under strain. Honoka glanced at Barbara, then the twins, then at Petra. The last of the three she watched the closest.

In her four years with the Ninth, Honoka had served under three Warmasters; Kharn, Chiaki Matsuda, and a third whose name she could barely remember. Kharn had her own ways of dealing with things when Officio girls would squabble, which boiled down to sicking Equerry Malal on them until they shut up, egging them on until they shut each other up, or dragging them back to her quarters and “taking their other skulls”, so to speak, until they couldn't shut up. As for the most recent Warmaster, the infamous Murderface hadn't been at her post for long, but Honoka could easily imagine the surly, noodly girl either slinking away for a drink or kneecapping everyone in sight until the problem solved itself.

And so Honoka watched the Warmaster of the Fourth. She noted that Petra simply watched the two squabble. It was neither hesitation born of indecisiveness, nor glum disinterest born of apathy; rather, Petra seemed to be content observing the liaison and the Chief Mechanics, like a biologist watching lions trying to establish dominance. Much the way, she realized, Petra had done when they'd first met.

Yda Stradale took a step forward. “A guest? Is that what we're calling them, now?”

“Yes, it is,” said Barbara, giving not an inch of ground.

“Get back to your little board meeting pow-wows,” said Ach, giving Barbara a little pat on her polished cheek, “and let rest of us handle this little meatbag. The way it should be.”

“Chief Mechanic, the Emmeles serve a vital function in the—”

“Yeah, you keep telling yourself that—”

“This is most inappropriate—”

“*Ahem* So...what's a 'novitiate'?”

Barbara and and the twins whipped their heads towards Honoka. The redhead did her best to look innocent.

Barbara's shoulders drooped in relief. “A pertinent question, Ms. Honoka," she said, glad to be rid of a conversation rapidly going south. "'Novitiate' is the term we use—”

“—to describe outsiders like you who stay for a year, steal our precious resources and knowledge, then opt out on joining us despite everything we invested in them,” said Yda. “Makes you wonder why we even bother with meatbags, eh?”

Honoka frowned. “Wait," she protested, "I'm just here to learn, I didn't leave Japan and come all the way out here just to steal your things. And besides, -you- were the ones who approved my one-year transfer here.”

We didn't approve the transfer personally,” snarled Ach, “and if it were up to us, you wouldn't have stepped one foot into the Olympia, you and that deficient piece of scrap you're wearing as armor—”


“That's enough.”

All of those present whipped their heads in Petra's direction.

“W-Warsmith?” said the twins.

“No more insulting the novitiate. She's our guest. Understood?”

The twins looked around them: all around the chamber, Magical Girls were staring at the altercation before them, welders and cutters gone still. As one, the Chief Mecanics' belligerence became sullen sulking.

"...yes, Warsmith.”

“A-aye, Warsmith.”

“Back to your duties, then.”

The Stradales threw Petra half-hearted salutes and stalked off, pouting and petulant. Petra, meanwhile, ignored the Chief Mechanics and waved Honoka forward, deeper into the Olympia.

They walked in silence for a few minutes. If Petra had been embarrassed by the Stradales, she didn't show it; Honoka, on the other hand, couldn't help but feel shocked and a little numb.

She hadn't expected the red carpet to be brought out for her, certainly, nor had she expected the Officio nicknamed 'The Machines' to be the warmest bunch. But she hadn't expect such a cold welcoming, either. Such...hostility. She wondered how prevalent this attitude was going to be, how many more Yda and Ach Stradales she'd come across in the next twelve months.

It was at that point Honoka realized: being with the Fourth was not going to be all fun and games.

Barbara's voice startled her out of her brooding.

“My most sincere apologies for the previous...altercation, Ms. Iwakura.” The placid, diplomatic tone almost disguised the exasperation in the liaison's voice. “Some among the Fourth require a little time to warm up to new arrivals.”

The red-haired Vindicare let out a laugh, which she hoped would disguise her bitterness. “Ha ha, that's, that's alright, Ms. Falko, there's no need to apologize.”

Barbara shook her head and continued. “I'm aware that the Fourth has a reputation for being insular and hostile towards outsiders, and as much as it pains me to admit it, that reputation is not entirely baseless. One of the main reasons why the Warsmith created the Emmeles—our diplomatic corps—and the reason why I joined it was to help undo that reputation. But I'm afraid that our work is not yet finished.” She turned her metal head towards Honoka. “Regardless, please do not think our Chief Mechanics' attitudes are representative of the rest of us." The liaison placed a hand on Honoka's shoulder, a part left uncovered by her exoskeleton, a hand that felt remarkably warm despite its metal make.

"I, for one, am very glad you decided to visit.”

Later, Honoka would look back on this moment and note this was the first time a robot had ever made her blush and stammer.


'Yeah...I'm not going to be looking back on this one too fondly.'

Honoka tossed in her cot, drumming her fingers on the stiff fabric as she mulled on the memory. Not the best start to her first days in the Fourth, she decided. Probably could have gone better.

No use in dwelling on that bit, she decided, forcibly shoving the memory aside. A glance at her discarded exoskeleton made her remember what Petra had said, soon after leaving behind the Stradales:

“But you're not here for guns or armor or cars,” she'd said. “Your transfer request said you wanted to study our Ironforms.”

“Next, we'll take you to the Mechanicus.”

Ch. III: Mechanicus[edit]

Chapter III: Mechanicus

Few have the fortune to say, without exaggeration, that they were living their dream. In those first minutes, standing there in the metal bowels of the Olympia, walking amongst the engines that fashioned bodies of iron, Honoka Iwakura could have claimed such a feat.

She saw Magical Girls gathered around a projected blueprint, arguing fiercely over the merits and demerits of what appeared to be a knee joint.

She saw Magical Girls overseeing performance tests, muttering to each other as they read data off of tablets, another Magical Girl serving as the test subject.

She saw Magical Girls chatting animatedly with their friends as robotic repair arms performed maintenance on them, like a gaggle of teens at a salon relaxing as they were being groomed.

She saw the massive forge-heart of the Mechanicus. The cradle of what made Officio IV what it was, what made it so starkly, utterly different from nineteen others. What gave it its nickname so often repeated by outsiders: The Machines.

“Woah! Watch it, short stuff!”

A hulk of a machine almost ran Honoka over from behind. Distracted, the red-haired Vindicare threw herself out of the way at the last second, tripping over her own feet.

Startled, Barbara hurried over to Honoka. “Oh dear,” she muttered, hauling the prone Vindicare to her feet—which she did with disturbing ease, noted Honoka, who was still wearing her weighty exoskeleton. “Are you alright, Miss Iwakura? I'm afraid I have to ask you to be on watch while we are here in the Manufactorum; it is always busy, and for some of the larger girls, human-sized objects are dangerously easy to trample underfoot.”

Honoka continued to gaze at the retreating hulk. It was...simply huge, there was no other way to describe it. Some fourteen feet tall, vaguely humanoid with a pair of arms and legs, an egg-shaped armored torso. Its trunk-like arms, ending in a set of brutal claws, looked as if they could tear an APC open like a soda can. Every one of its thunderous steps reverberated through Honoka's bones.

“What...what was that?” breathed Honoka, distractedly dusting herself off. “That was a Magical Girl, right?” She paused. “Come to think of it, if that's a Magical you use different sets of chassis? There's the ones that look mostly like regular humans, the big ones, and then that really big one...”

“Ironforms.” This time, it was the Warmaster who spoke. “Almost every Magical Girl in the Fourth has two; Light, and Heavy. Light, for everyday casual use; they're the ones that look mostly human. Every Girl is encouraged to customize her own Light Ironform.” Petra gestured at Barbara's slim chassis.

“We have several variants off of the Lights, too, for specialty jobs that don't need much armor or heavy weapons. Like Barbara's: optimized for diplomacy and human social interactions.”

“And the others?” asked Honoka as the trio wove their way past a pack of repair drones.

“The big one that almost squished you?” said Petra. “Dreadnoughts. And the medium-sized ones are called—”

“—Heavy Ironforms,” cut in a harsh voice, a near-masculine baritone underlined by a synthesized growl. “Our usual choice for combat and construction.”

The Ironform before her was much like Felicia's: thick torso, wide at the shoulders and tapering at the hip; a helmet-shaped head nestled in the torso's center; arms that ended in an entire workshop's worth of tools. As the figure turned towards Petra, however, the jagged mess of tools folded inward, like a flower's bloom in reverse, then sets of metal plates slid into place and formed a pair of silvered hands.

“Warsmith, Speaker,” she grunted, giving each of them a nod before turning to Honoka. “So this is the novitiate?” She extended a silver hand outwards and tapped a finger on Honoka's exoskeleton, each tap rocking the Vindicare like a punch. “Where'd you pick up a pile of scrap like this, novitiate?”

“I made it myself,” said Honoka, her voice and gaze steady. “With minimal funding and a handful of low-grade tools, I might add.”

“Hmph. Excuses. Only a poor craftsman blames her tools.” Before Honoka could respond, however, she continued with a sigh. “But, I guess that's why you're here: to learn. The Warmsith tells me you wanted specifically to study with us in the Mechanicus, yeah? By the time I'm done with you, you'll be having cutting-edge tech coming out of your ears.”

She proffered a hand. “Fiona Mac Manus, Fabricator-General of the Mechanicus and the Warmaster's Equerry. I'm in charge of the Ironforms around here.”

Blinking, Honoka stared at the silver hand for a moment, then up at Fiona's helmet-face. The iron visage was impassive.

“Honoka Iwakura, Ninth Officio Vindicare,” she said, taking Fiona's massive hand in hers.

Fiona pumped her hand once—which made Honoka feel like her arm was getting torn off—then ushered the trio towards a Heavy Ironform standing on a pedestal. Unlike Fiona's, this one had weapons where its arms should have been: a machine built for breaking things, rather than making things.

“Heavy Combat Ironform, Variant I, the 'Paladin'. Basic combat Ironform for Officio IV Vindicares, all newly inducted Vindicares start with this exact model,” grunted Fiona. She began rattling off specs: weapons, armor, auxiliary systems, the works. By the end of the five-minute lecture, Honoka caught herself salivating.

Fiona patted the burly Ironform, like a satisfied sculptor who had just finished her work. “If after a year you still want to stay with us, and with a bit of luck, you'll be fitted inside one of these.” Then she jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Alright, Killian, back to work.”

The Ironform purred into motion, like a statue suddenly coming to life. “Yes, Fabricator-General,” it said, nodding a greeting to Petra before plodding off.

'That...that could be me one day,' thought Honoka as she watched the retreating Ironform. She looked down at her own hands: covered in dark padded leather, already growing numb from jet-lagged fatigue. So fleshy and bony weak. So unlike the magnificent works of engineering she was surrounded by.

She clenched her fists tight.

There was a bark of laughter as Fiona clapped a silver hand on Honoka's shoulder. “Ha! I think she's a little starstruck! That's good.” She turned her gaze down to Honoka, who barely came up to her chest. “The next twelve months aren't going to be easy—you'll need your memories of today to get you going through some of the things you'll be facing later. But that's not for a little while yet.” Then she turned to Petra.

“Now how about we show her a real treat?”

Petra met her gaze. “The 'Terminator' armor?”

“Great minds,” said Fiona. If she had a mouth, Honoka suspected, she would have been grinning.


“Here it is,” said Fiona. She was standing in front of the largest suit of armor Honoka had ever seen, ten feet of armored destruction wearable by even an organic human being. “The Tactical Dreadnought 'Terminator' Armor System.”

The red-haired Vindicare gave a distracted nod as she ran her hand down the plasteel vambrace. A pair of eye lenses, each ruby-red and glaring like that of a remorseless iron god, gazed down at her from a helmet deeply inset into a metal hood. Wide pauldrons, placed at about eye level above the shoulders and with each plate paralell to the ground, made the suit seem even bigger than it otherwise looked. In one hand it carried what appeared to be a flamethrower: in the other, a gauntlet the size of Honoka's torso.

Death in one fist, fire in the other.

“It's beautiful...” she muttered, as her eyes ran over the monster.

“Isn't it?” laughed Fiona. “Our Officio demands all Magical Girl personnel be ready for combat whenever possible, so the Warsmith and I designed an armor system that could quickly and easily be put on by a Magical Girl caught off-guard in her Light Ironform.”

Honoka raised an eyebrow. “An entire suit of armor just for that? I'm assuming it takes too long for someone to switch Ironforms, or something?”

Fiona nodded in response. “Good observation, novitiate. The whole process of changing from a Light to Heavy Ironform can take up to twenty minutes, not including start-up diagnostics and equipment checks, so the Warsmith figured that we needed a stopgap measure in case an attack on the Olympia were to occur and everyone was caught with their pants down. It's also more mobile; the 'Terminator' doesn't need extensive infrastructure for safely removing and re-implanting Soul Gems as our Ironforms do.”

“This one is our prototype 'Cataphract' Variant,” said Petra. “We also had an 'Indomitus' Variant prototype, with all the decals added though the software still had to be calibrated.”

“'Had'?” asked Honoka. “What happened to it?”

“That's the thing,” said Petra with a shrug. “It was locked down for storage and all containment and defensive measures were optimal...and one day, it simply wasn't there. No signs of break in—or at least any we could detect.” She leaned in closer to inspect a seam on the Terminator armor, and continued, “Irrational as it sounds, disappearing into thin air was the best explanation we could come up with.”

“...I see...” said Honoka, nonplussed.

“That was the one with all the winged skulls and tusks, right?” said Fiona. “Who did the decals on that one? Deltria? Hrm, she always did have a thing for creepy things...well.” Fiona clapped her silver hands together, making a sharp clank. “That's all I've got for now, duty calls. Need to start prepping for a trip to the Second, got a shipment of 'Templar' armor to oversee.”

“Understood,” nodded Petra. “Message me when you get to England.”

“Aye, Warsmith.” Fiona held up a hand in farewell. “Speaker, novitiate. No doubt I'll see you all again.” And with that she made her leave, though not before giving Honoka another sledgehammer-clap on the shoulder.

Before Fiona could get very far, however, a cry stopped her cold.

“WARSMITH! Warsmith, we have a situation.”

A group of girls dragged and shoved along another one, not unlike a lynch mob and a victim. The dragged girl, her Light chassis painted red and silver, thrashed and bellowed curses and demands to be let go. Magical Girls in the vicinity began stepping back, murmuring, speculating.

One of the mob thrust Red-and-Silver forward. “We just grabbed a saboteur,” she hissed. Behind Petra, Barbara covered her mouth with her hand in dismay.

“Oh dear.”


The hall was silent, save for the commotion of the accused and the background noises of industry.

“You bitch! YOU FUCKING BITCH! Let me the fuck go already—!”

“Oh shut the fuck up already, Luka. We've got proof right here—”

“FUCK YOU!” A clank of metal-on-metal as Luka struck out, hitting one of her tormentors square in the stomach. The other girl let out a curse and raised a steel fist to smash Luka's face in.


Petra's voice was like a bell's, ringing clear over the din of the mob, cutting through the din like a knife. The Warmaster rose a hand to call for silence, and at once the chamber fell silent.

“Fara,” said Petra, “some context, please.”

Like Luka, the girl named Fara was in a Light chassis. Hers had a green-on-red paint scheme, with a mass of metal on the back of her head done up to look like a hair bun. She had been the one ready to punch out the screaming, cursing Luka.

“Warsmith,” said Fara, “we were having a design contest for the new foot-joint actuator. I got second place, Luka got first. Turns out that happened because our little contest winner here,” Fara punctuated her words with a kick to Luka's torso, “only won because she sabotaged her competitors' blueprints.”

“Facts, Fara, not speculation.”

Fara shook her head. “Not speculation, Warsmith. Exloading evidence package to the”

As one, every Magical Girl in the chamber save Honoka turned away, to look at the floor or the ceiling or a wall, some with a finger pressed to their ear as though trying to listen intently on an earbud. Barbara noticed Honoka's confusion and brought her over to a nearby monitor.

A few swipes and presses of the touchscreen, and Honoka was seeing what the Fourth was seeing: video feeds, access logs into the system database, sworn statements from witnesses and their electronic signatures. Fara had tried her best to cover up her tracks, make sure she'd been unnoticed, but Honoka had enough Callidus training to know the saboteur's efforts were at best clumsy.

“Luka Chrom, come forward.” The Warmaster's tone remained steady, yet the room temperature seemed to drop. The girl in question, sprawled upon the chamber floor on her knees, let go of Fara and made to stand.

“Warsmith,” she muttered, “please, I can explain—”

“Luka Chrom,” repeated Petra. “Come forward.” Honoka cast a glance at the Warmaster; the aventail of her helmet seemed to loom over her iron-cast features, like the hood of a cobra ready to strike. Yet her posture itself betrayed no emotion.

Luka Chrom at last rose to her feet and stumbled forwards. Honoka never knew a robot's legs could tremble in fear, but there it was.

“Fabricator Chrom,” said Petra. Her voice remained as steady as always, but Honoka heard a subtle change in the tone that cast a cold, stark edge to her words. “Why did you sabotage the competition?”

“I...I...” Fear drove the Fabricator into fumbling her words, pointlessly buy time against the inevitable.

“Answer the question, Chrom.”


Petra's voice was calm, yet struck like a hammer blow. “Fabricator Chrom.”

“I wanted to win the competition!” wailed Luka as she sank back to her knees. She pointed a finger towards Fara. “She kept winning the other ones! I tried, Warmaster, I tried to beat her fair and square but I couldn't break fifth place! No matter what I did! I just...I just wanted to know what winning felt like...”

For several seconds, silence reigned. The only sounds that could be heard were the clank-clank of the forge-engines and Luka Chrom's terrified sobbing.

At length, Petra spoke again.

“Do you know why we call ourselves the Iron Circle?”

“W-Warsmith?” stammered Luka, lifting her head out of her hands.

“It's because we're one seamless whole, without beginning, middle, or end.” Petra began pacing around the stricken Fabricator, hands held behind her back. “All of us unified by our ideal, all of us equidistant from our most important philosophy held at our center: self-improvement through mastery of the machine.”

She continued to pace, continued to speak. “But when one mote of that Circle begins to rust, that rust spreads and spreads, until the integrity is compromised and the Circle crumbles to dust. The Dodekatheon, and the contests it holds, is the fire through which we are tempered into becoming something better. Not a place to gain glory. Not a place to weaken trust with petty rivalries and egomania. As soon as it becomes such a place...that's when the rust takes hold.”

By now, the Warmaster had stopped pacing, putting herself in front of the Fabricator. “By betraying your fellow Magical Girls, you've made it that much harder for us to trust one another—who else could be planning sabotage the next contest? Who else is a betrayer?” She picked up Luka off the ground and placed an armored hand on her shoulder, as if to dust her off. “There's only four hundred of us, Luka Chrom, Fabricator of the Mechanicus Order. Four hundred of us, crammed into this walking machine, standing alone, hated and feared by the other Officios we're forced to call 'sisters'. When trust dies on Olympia, we die with it.”


“Vigilance,” said Petra with a tone of finality, “is good. Caution sharpens the mind and the sesnses. Paranoia, however, is counterproductive. By your actions, you injected this poison into our Officio. You'll have plenty of time to reflect on that in Containment.”

Honoka would later reflect that she was the only one to let out a shriek at what happened next. The others—even gentle, demure Barbara—simply watched. Their cold silence was their tacit approval.

Grasping Luka's shoulder with one hand, Petra rammed the other through her chest, then tore it back out, a mass of tangled wiring and metal clutched in her fist. The light in the Ironform's eye lenses faded as the lifeless machine fell to the floor, like a puppet with its strings cut.

Petra wasted little time. “Put her in containment for three days,” she said as she tossed Fara the bundle of metal she'd ripped out. “And Castigate her for a week once she gets out. Rest of you, back to work.”

Ignoring the multitudes of “Aye, Warsmith”, Petra beckoned to Honoka and her liaison to follow. “We're done here. Come.”

As the Warmaster and her liaison strode off towards the exit, Honoka stared at the limp pile of wreckage that was now Luka Chrom. It had seemed so lifelike to her only minutes before, but now...

...looks just like a broken doll, she thought. Not even like a corpse.

Her gaze lingered on the mangled Ironform for a moment longer, before hurrying after the Warmaster.


“That girl, Luka...she's not dead, is she? What happened to her Soul Gem?”

The halls in the Guest Quarters were relatively quiet, situated as they were away from the main factories within the Olympia. Only cleaning drones and maintenance drones walked the corridors, lending a certain solitude to the atmosphere, especially compared to the bustling thunder of activity that was the Mechanicus.

Behind the striding Petra, Barbara turned back towards the red-haired Vindicare.

“Dead? Oh goodness, no.” Honoka got the impression that Barbara was rather amused. “What the Warmaster had...removed was Fabricator Chrom's Phylactery—an armored containment unit that both wires the Soul Gem to an Ironform and also protects it from harm. The end result of such a removal is not dissimilar to imprisoning a Magical Girl in a Silent Room.”

Honoka nodded in reply. “I see. It's just...not to be rude, but to me it almost looked like a public execution.”

“The intended effect was something like that, yes,” said Barbara. “The act was designed primarily to publicly humiliate the subject. As the Warsmith said, trust in this Officio is a commodity we can ill afford to lose.”


At last, they reached a door marked “218”. It opened when Petra approached it, unveiling a small, starkly spartan chamber, furnished with a cot, a desk with a chair and a computer, a small closet, and very little else. There were no windows to let in light, or anything on the wall save the cold grey of Olympia's metal bones. Honoka's luggage and the suit of powered armor she'd received earlier sat neatly tucked away in a corner.

“Here are your quarters,” said Barbara, gesturing with her hand like an airline stewardess. “I must apologize for the...sparseness, but it is Officio philosophy that excessively luxurious quarters is a sign of excess...”

Honoka gave her liaison a disarming laugh. “Ha ha! It's alright, really, my apartment back in Mitakihara wasn't much bigger.” She gave the room a once over which, she noted soberly, took almost no time to do.

With the tour finished and her quarters settled, Honoka bade her liaison and the Warmaster good night.

Petra paused before she turned to leave. “Reminder, novitiate Honoka: report to the Armory at 0900 tomorrow for powered armor training.”

As the liaison and the Warmaster left, the door closed with a hiss, leaving Honoka alone in the cool silence of her new room. She began the laborious process of getting out of her precious exoskeleton.

She sat on her cot: tough, with only a thin sheet between her and the rigid canvas. A second look around her room convinced her that it was more akin to a cell. Reclining on her meager pillow, she lay down and reached over to a small plate filled with some sort of ration bar: dinner, she assumed. Munching on the tastless food, she reflected on the strangest day she'd ever had.

Firefights, assassinations, running battles against the incarnated despair of young women enhanced by unfathomable aliens from outer space...somehow, none of that quite compared to today.

She wondered what this would mean for her next twelve months.

Ch. IV: Iron Without[edit]

Chapter IV: Iron Without

Evening in the Sahara.

The cool sands of the desert, their once-blistering heat now sucked dry by the night's chill, left little dust clouds in the dunes as the wind howled and howled and tossed them about.

Atop of one dune on the endless wastes sat a figure. It was vaguely humanoid and hunched over, keeping its eyes transfixed on the two-thousand foot machine looming over the desert. Gusts of wind threw dust in its eyes, but it didn't notice, didn't even flinch, as its eyes were not of flesh but were instead made of plastic and metal.


At once, the figure swiveled its right eye, and only its right eye, towards the source. Two Ironforms were striding across the sands, accompanied by a floating object. The desert wastes muffled the sounds of their heavy tread. Data archives indicated the Ironforms were both Heavy chassis, the floating object a recon drone.

The figure went death-still. <Audio signatures detected. Activating recording systems...>

" that's when Karla gives me the whole 'let's just be friends' spiel, a-and I just had to, to get out of the room, you know? I mean, how could she just say that? After all we did together?"

The second voice grated, its tone rendered harsher by reluctance. "...yeah. Right. Whatever."

Soul Gem signatures and unique markers on the chassis told it who the pair was. Two Magical Girls from the Toxotes Order, no one on registered as anyone particularly important. Nonetheless, protocol demanded that it keep its recording devices active in case it picked up anything of interest, and so the directional microphone stayed on.

The pair spoke of nothings to stave off boredom. Every step carried them closer and closer to the dune upon which sat the figure.

"Anyway,' said the first, her voice taking on a coy tone. Data archives identified her as Hekate Ervin. "So how about that new girl, hmm?"

"The one from the Ninth?" grunted the other one. Pala Greut, leader of Squad Alpha-Five. "What about her?"

A giggle. "A Japanese girl! Redhead, too! She's my type and everything! Ooh, I wonder what sort Ironform she's gonna end up with."

Twenty feet. Ten feet. Five feet. Any closer, and the patrolling girls would run straight into the figure. They had turned their gaze towards it several times, yet never once did they notice it was there.

"--you saw her too, right? She's got this really tight little--"

Two feet...

Bafflers rendered the figure invisible to the Ironforms' scanners, but all the stealth technology in the world would mean nothing if they simply bumped into it. As they drew closer, programmed contingencies within the figure began to go active.

<Proximity alert. Proximity alert. Arming anti-pursuit countermeasures.>

One foot...

"--shit, now I really want to see her wearing one of those things they have in Japan, that--"

<Priming self-destruct device. Engage evasive maneuvers in 3...2...>


There was a *clang* of metal on metal. The other girl had kicked Hekate in the back of her leg.

"Hekate," she said, "I swear to god: if you signed up to be my patrol buddy just to tell me about your fucking sex life and how fucking cute the new girl is, I'm going to shoot you. I don't care if I end up in Containment for an entire fucking year, and I don't care if I'm Castigated for the rest of my entire fucking life." She punctuated her rant with jabs from her gun-arm.

"So if you say one more goddamn word about the novitiate's butt, face, or boobs, or start bitching about your empty 'receiver jack', I -will- shoot you. And I will shoot you until I fucking run out ammo." One last jab. "Got it?"

"Ok, fine..." grumbled Hekate. "But seriously, I'm not the only one, am I? She's--"

The sound of a high-caliber round cycling rendered her silent.

"Alright, alright! Geez..."

"Also, patrol route's this way," said the other girl, waving a gun-arm off in another direction. "Come on, let's finish this up. Tonight's the season finale for 'Solium Ludi' and I'll be fucked if I miss it."

"Ooh, you've got Webflick, right? Can I watch it with you?"


"What?! Why noooot?!"

And so the pair continued their patrol, squabbling as they went. The rounded, disc-shaped recon drone hovered silently ahead of them.

The figure waited, stock still, as the sounds of the quarreling duo faded into the moaning of the desert wind. Only when the pair was out of sight did it relax its countermeasures and begin its most important duty.

<Proximity warning canceled. Returning to standby mode. Preparing to transmit recorded data...>


Far, far away, in the cold gloom of the underground, she smiled at the streams of data flickering across her eyes. Beneath her the man moaned as he lay on a metal surgical table, restraints creaking as he struggled, futilely, for his freedom.

The sounds of his misery brought out of her stupor, though she continued to digest the information even as she brought out another tool. 'A new lamb brought into the fold?' she mused, as she lowered the whining, spinning buzzsaw through the man's leg, just below the knee. 'Curious. I wonder what she is like...'

The man's choking screams brought her out of her pensive mood. Already her eye-lenses were smeared with his splattered life-fluids.

"Hush now," she cooed, stroking his trembling, sweating, face. She ignored the spittle that sprayed from his lips, his whimpered pleas for mercy. "Hush, for you will be reborn into a body far more glorious than this one of stinking flesh and blood. A beautiful form, a sublime form..."

She lowered the buzzsaw again, this time on the man's other leg. Screaming filled the gloom once more, and to her ears it was a grating, unpleasant noise. How sweeter the voice would be when disgusting meat and bone would be supplanted by wondrous machine. Agony was the fire through which this wretched creature would be forged, and she was the hammer--in this way did she honor the Omnissiah.

As her arm changed from a circular saw to a scalpel, she let out a whisper that reeked of devotion.

"...a form holy in the eyes of the Blessed Lady of Machines."

And there, in the cool gloom of the underground, the sound of screaming mingled and mixed with the shriek of cutting tools, until they all became one.


'Well, this isn't the worst situation I've ever been in, but it's up there.'

Honoka Iwakura found herself crouched behind a low brick wall. She was in a quiet little town--somewhere in Europe, judging from the architecture--whose name she was too distracted to bother remembering. There was dust around her feet, sun in her eyes, and a blocky battle rifle in her fists.

She was also wearing state-of-the-art powered armor--courtesy of the Fourth--and surrounded by more firepower than she'd ever been.

The Vindicare started to slide the magazine out of her rifle to check its load, before realizing her visor's HUD already displayed the information. Crunching the box of bullets back home, she brought up a map of the local area, reviewing the local layout and the marked heat signatures showing her were the enemies lay.

Fifteen signatures, plus the heat-wash of a heavy engine--an IFV, from the looks of it. All of them arrayed in a semi-circle around the lone low wall that served as her cover, nestled in a scattering of brick houses two or three stories tall or hiding in the alleyways between them. Images from her recon drone told her she was up against trained, well-equipped professionals. Not Magical Girls, or else she would have been cut to pieces already, but nor were they the undisciplined yakuza muscleheads with peashooters she was used to; they had military-grade body armor, assault rifles, iron discipline, and a goddamn armored vehicle. All she had on her was a battle rifle, six magazines of ammunition, a sidearm, two of each of smoke grenades and frag grenades, and her armor. Those were the tools she'd been given to kill fifteen soldiers and an IFV. No magic allowed either, according to mission parameters.

Again, not the worst situation she'd ever been in--taking out a Witch with just a pistol won that one--but not the best, either.

A part of her wondered why she was even here. Back in Japan, her job was to provide long-range fire support or overwatch. None of this run 'n gun Rambo business. That sort of thing was nutcases like the new Warmaster or Eversor wannabes--hers was the methodical elegance of the marksman's rifle. Long range, preferably somewhere up high with a nice view, one shot one kill.

Alas, she thought, as she viciously racked the slide of her sidearm.

Putting the discouraging thoughts aside, Honoka's mind worked to formulate a plan. Her objective was to neutralize all hostiles in the mission area; given that she was outnumbered, she opted to divide and conquer.

'Smoke grenade it is,' she thought to herself. She unhooked the tube-shaped munition from her belt and tossed it up and down once, twice, trying to get a feel for the weight of the device while wearing her suit.

'Here goes.'

She tossed the grenade. It spun end over end through the air and landed with a *clink* in the dirt in front of the IFV. Honoka crouched back down before someone could draw a bead on her, and tensed, ready to sprint.

There was a distinct pop as the smoke grenade went off. She waited a few seconds for the smoke to spread, and then it was time to move.

She dashed out of cover, hurtling towards a ruin of a shack, her feet and the bullets of enemy fire kicking up dust as she went. Her own speed, enhanced as it was by her 'Maximus' armor, almost made her stumble and pause in shock--her magical nature meant she was already faster than most Olympic athletes, but this...she felt like she'd reached the shack in a blink of an eye. She'd moved so fast she almost crashed into the building's wall, just barely managing to come to a skidding halt in time. Before she could reflect on this, though, shouts from the opposing soldiers kept her focused on the situation.

Her recon drone drifted momentarily out of cover. It sent its sensor feed back to her visor, rebuilding the tactical map she'd been looking at before.

Already the soldiers were displacing, waving to one another with hand-signs. She'd have to move soon, she realized, or they were going to flank her. Noting a weakness in their deployment on the tactical map, she dashed out of cover once more, towards the blasted remains of a two-story house.

A window shattered, demolished, as Honoka dove through it. Even as a Magical Girl such a maneuver would have left her with deep albeit inconsequential scratches, but her new armor could easily resist several hits from a rifle. The only thing she felt was the light impact of the floor as she rolled into a prone position, aiming with her rifle as she did.

Target, fifteen feet to the right: a tall, muscular man with a red crosshair painted over his face by her visor. A targeting laser on her weapon told her where to aim, and Honoka complied without hesitation.

She squeezed the trigger. A burst of fire from her rifle smashed through the soldier's helmet and face, throwing him to the floor. Another man landed in her sights and she dropped him, too. A third appeared, his assault rifle roaring, and Honoka rolled to her left avoid the oncoming hail of death, the weather-beaten lamp table behind her shredding into splinters. A stray bullet smacked into her right shoulder guard--grunting at what felt like hard punch into her flesh--and it sparked as it left a dent in her armor.

Honoka had dove into a small hallway, one that connected a set of stairs to the living room on the first floor. There was no cover to be found, nothing to put between herself and the third soldier save backing further away towards the stairway. Rolling into a sitting position with her rifle readied, she scrambled backwards while laying down shots of her own, hoping to keep her foe's head down and buy her space to get into cover. As it turned out, however, what was meant to be a potshot became a kill shot, as she instinctively followed her armor's aiming systems and landed a clean hit on the man's neck. He crumpled to the floor in a boneless heap.

Silence. Silence punctuated only by the growl of her armor's servos.

As quickly as it had begun, it had ended. Honoka sat still, recovering from the unfamiliar rush of power-armored combat. Though the sounds of boots stamping and an engine roaring started to cut their way into the dusty little house, the red-haired Vindicare only noticed the sound of her beating, thumping heart.

She let out the breath she'd been holding.

Her recon drone blipped and alerted her of twelve humanoid heat-signatures and one vehicle signature moving towards her position. Groaning, Honoka stood up, the dust that had layered the floor wafting from her armor, and as she walked up the stairway to the second floor she considered her next move.

Outnumbered as she was thirteen to one, none of the options she could think of made her particularly happy.


In the end, she chose to get a little creative.

The twelve remaining soldiers had closed in. Dividing themselves into three squads of four, each man covered another as they'd moved in lock-step discipline, building to building and cover to cover. One squad in particular had already reached the house she was in, and Honoka had no desire to be on the receiving end of a professional breach-and-entry.

Letting her visor's targeting systems do the heavy lifting--she was already starting to rely on its aiming systems--Honoka popped off a shot that badly winged a soldier from the other squads, sending the rest his squadmates scurrying for cover. Then she sprinted away from the window to another one, one she knew was directly above the back door the breaching squad was about to use, and leapt, getting the drop on them.


The four had stacked up along the wall near the door, all of them to the door's right: the classic pattern for a safe, methodical breach. As she fell, she landed on the rearmost soldier, then slung out her rifle and emptied her magazine into the trio before her.

Bodies jerked and twitched as rifle rounds smashed into them. One managed to let off a wild burst, a reflex twitch from a dying finger. A glance under her told Honoka the fourth soldier didn't survive having a heavily armored Magical Girl crash on top of him.

Nine more to go.

There was no time to waste--she could already hear the sound of eight pairs of boots trampling the earth. Sending her recon drone out to scout out the incoming enemy, she jammed the spent magazine into a pocket and slammed a new one home. The Vindicare was sliding the charging handle, loading a fresh round into the rifle chamber, when an alert went off in her visor.

<Warning. Enemy detected.>

Crosshairs painted the pair of gunmen that were flanking her. They were leaning around the corner of the house, using the wall as cover, one man crouched and the other man standing. Twin barrels leveled their black gaze, promising a storm of metal that would tear her apart even through her armor, or at least cripple her enough to be easily finished off.

'Shit they're fast--'

Honoka threw herself to the right, back into the house she'd reaved clean of life. Most of the shots went wide, but a few left dents on the armor guarding her ribs.

Her mind raced as she picked herself back off the floor. There had been only two men firing, but she heard much more than just two pairs of boots. No doubt the other six were here; Honoka guessed the rest stayed back to give the first two soldiers a clear shot at her, maybe even left a few on the other side of the building to keep her from escaping.

This, mused Honoka, was why she hated taking on professionals.

She switched to her audio-trackers, trying to pinpoint enemy locations by sound. Vibrations from their footsteps told her they were stacking up on the door. Given their hesitation in entering, she guessed one of them was priming a grenade.

Her mind was racing. Viable options were rapidly decreasing. If she charged out the door, they'd pump her full of lead. If she stayed, the grenade would surely at least stun her at best, armor or no, maybe even blow her to pieces. If she retreated further into the house, she had no doubts the soldiers at the back of the house would move in, cutting her off and bringing her back to square one..

What do I do? She thought. What do I do? What do I do?

What do I do?

Instinct decided for her. Vindicare training, beaten into her over the course of four brutal years of killing gangsters and Witches alike, sent her blurring into action. She tore a frag grenade from her pouch and tossed it out the door. Its pin remained unremoved--the grenade was just a decoy, to get the soldiers to hesitate while she made a run for the stairs.

She got to the very top when the air behind her was torn apart by a swarm of bullets. Armor enhancements meant she was too fast to be in the line of fire for long, but she felt a round glance off the back of her helmet.

There was nothing for it. She couldn't hold the second floor by herself, not with eight heavily-armed veterans coming after her. In yet another bout of window-vandalism, Honoka leapt out of a second-story window.

Haste had diminished her control over her armor. She'd leapt too hard, too far out. Her shock at how far she'd jumped meant she smashed into the ground, driving the breath out of her lungs. She was coughing, gasping, struggling for air when her visor beeped out a warning.

<Alert. Vehicle-class heat signature detected.>

Sputtering, she looked up. She realized she had precisely one second.

One second to realize there was an IFV parked not forty feet away from her. One second to realize its light cannon had been aimed at the two-story house she'd been in, and now it had already drawn a bead on her. One long, painful second to realize that she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do about it.

It was quick, at least. Her shiny new armor, fresh from the forges of the Fourth Officio, could withstand multiple impacts from a rifle at close range, and against sidearms it made her practically invulnerable. It made her faster and stronger, beyond the magical enhancements already bestowed upon her by an alien race beyond human comprehension, and it came with a built-in sensor suite and HUD that was a tactical godsend.

But against an autocannon that could murder armored vehicles, she might as well have been naked.

The first round pulverized her torso, the second her hip. Those wounds alone would have killed her in less than a minute, even with her magically enhanced body, but the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth ensured she wasn't going to survive the next second.

After the seventh, the IFV went still, and a dead calm took hold over the battlefield.


The dust of a corpse-town swirled around Honoka Iwakura's remains.

Her severed hand, laying palm-up on a pile of broken glass, twitched once, twice, then went still as its dying nerves spasmed one last time in a feeble struggle to stay alive. Dry earth drank in the blood spilling from her ruptured corpse until it became wine-dark.

And then the simulation ended.

Ch. V: Murderers[edit]

Chapter V: Murderers

Many found the sounds of machinery to be crude and noisome. Loud, irascible, grating on the ears. Noise pollution, something to block out with a good pair of earmuffs.

For Petra, there was no sound more melodious than the high-pitched whine of a drill-bit.

She carefully guided the bit in a smooth, looping pattern, letting the diamond-tip bite into the polished metal of the rifle barrel. Her work was nearly finished—all that was left was a bit of gilding to apply here and there. She pulled the drill back back and revealed a line of flowing script etched into the weapon, written in Latin:


'The Outcome Justifies The Deed'. The words—and the rifle they were carved onto—seemed appropriate for the intended recipient: a tool of murder for a murderer, who led a pack of murderers.

Like the rest of the Magical Girl world, Petra had heard much but ultimately knew little about the Ninth's new Warmaster. Her most famous epithet fit the rumors, in any case. Already the Amanuros Order's data-sifters had picked up rumors about an incident at the Big Shell facility: how the infamous Murderface butchered some of the Sixteenth's best agents, and took apart a combat robot so advanced it made Fiona grumble with jealousy. How the Shell was a smoking ruin after the Murderers had done their work.

The Sixteenth guarding the Big Shell had been wearing Mk. I 'Cadre' powered armor, too, mused Petra. State-of-the-art stealth-capable powered armor, made right in the Olympia's own factories. Yet the Sixteenth's reinforcements found most of them lying in pieces, their heavy support robot somehow bisected down the middle, and an important asset from the premises stolen. No losses reported from the Ninth, either.

Sobering to think about, these Murderers.

Fiona had questioned the decision to offer the 'Exitus' rifle as a gift. “Makes us look weak, Petra,” she'd said. “Make us look like we're submitting. Offering tribute, like some sort of weaker country buying off a stronger one.”

Her temper and paranoia aside, the Fabricator-General had a point: play the game wrong, and it really would look like Petra was begging favors from one of the most unlikely Warmasters in Officio history. But, reasoned Petra, no doubt Matsuda herself felt vulnerable. She'd need help from the diplomatic corps to spin it right, but Petra decided to strike while the iron was hot; a new Warmaster with a clean slate was a chance for the Fourth to make friends, build alliances.

Fiona had questioned that, too: the strongest are strongest alone, she'd said, and no one was mightier than the Machines. But then, Petra had tired of this debate a long time ago.

At last satisfied with her work, Petra raised the rifle into the workshop's light.

The rifle was a somewhat blocky weapon, taking the form of a long-barreled marksman's gun, complete with a long-range scope. Various modular weapon parts rested on the table nearby. A bulky cylinder that could render the rifle whisper-silent, a shortened barrel and extended magazine that could turn it into an assault weapon, even a slew of specialized rounds designed to deliver anything from a tank-killing anti-armor shot to a localized napalm blast; the tools of the rifle's bloody trade gazed back from where the sat, and were Petra the superstitious sort, she might have felt their anger and their unwholesome desire to be used.

It was one of her better works, felt Petra. She felt that warm, pleasant buzz of satisfaction so familiar to a craftsman after a job well done, and hoped its intended recipient would put it to good use.

Something chimed. A message icon appeared in the corner of her vision.

<New message received. Sender: Fiona Mac Manus. Subject: You're not going to fucking believe this>

Petra paused and set the rifle back down as she read the message.

As Warmaster of an Officio unlike any other, one both unique and isolated from the rest of the world, Petra found that very few things surprised her.

What she found in the message was one of those things.


“Well, I guess it solves that mystery.”

The two of them were walking down the halls of the Olympia: Petra on the left, Fiona on the right. Their pace was hurried, as the curious news they had received could wait for nothing.

“All this time, we were wondering where the hell the 'Indomitus' pattern Tactical Dreadnought suit went,” said Fiona, snorting. “And it turns out the bitches in the Ninth had stolen it.”

Petra remained silent. The gears in her head, both literal and figurative, turned as she mulled over the situation.

Just a few minutes ago, she had received a message from the Ninth Officio Assassinorum. A request, it seemed, to send someone from the Fourth to repair the 'Terminator' armor in question, to be completed as soon as possible. Petra wasn't sure what the Ninth had been doing with the thing—if the pictures they had sent were accurate, it looked as though they had tossed it into an active volcano and fished it back out.

For the Fourth, the normal response was retribution. Demands to have the armor returned, an additional fee penalizing the theft; refusal would beget an arms embargo, perhaps even the threat of force, or threaten to have the Olympia turn their Officio's worthless holdings to glass.

In an earlier age this was precisely what Petra would have done, without hesitation or mercy. You do not simply steal Fourth Officio property, break it, and then have the temerity to ask for help in fixing it—without the hammer of the Fourth breaking your bones.

But, as they say, times have changed.

Fiona let out a growl. “I know I'm due in Britain in a few hours, but give me a squad and I'll get the 'Indomitus' back. With interest. Whether it's paid in cash or blood is up to them.”

Petra answered with silence.

“Warsmith?” said Fiona, nonplussed. “Oi, Warsmith. Petra!”

“I heard you,” said Petra. “And I'm not sending you. I'm sending Speaker Falko.”

That made Fiona come to a dead halt. “What? Did your vox just glitch out, or did you just tell me you're sending that two-faced little snake to get our property back from the Murderers?”

“That wasn't a vox glitch. I'm sending Barbara Falko to get the 'Indomitus' back. If at all.”

It took Fiona a moment for the last part to sink in. “'If at all'?” she said, incredulous. “You can't mean to...” The Fabricator-General grabbed Petra by the upper arm. “Dammit, Petra, we're the Fourth, not a goddamn charity! You know how many months we spent researching and developing that armor? How much money we put into it? Now you're just going to give it all away to the people who stole it? What the hell is wrong with you?”

She leaned her visored head forward. “The more of our secrets you sell off in trying to make 'friends', the less important we are to the rest of the world. You keep forgetting that. We don't have numbers like the Ninth, we don't have local popular support like the Sixth. We don't have the Fourteenth's influence, and we're not low-profile like the Seventeenth. We lose our technology and we're scrap, because technology is what we are.” Her silver arms trembled as spat the words out. “And knowing all that, you want us to just give away the one thing that'll give us back our edge? Are you insane?”

Petra grasped Fiona's offending limb by the forearm. “You're jumping to conclusions, Fiona. First: I'm not necessarily going to give it to them for free, that will depend on how negotiations go. Second: if I do let them keep it, there will be a point to it. It'll be a good way to build relations between us and a fresh Warmaster of the largest and one of the most powerful Officios in existence. Because you're right, we're not a charity. Third: it's just a prototype. All else fails, we can build a new one if we really need to, and the R&D was almost finished anyway. I also doubt the Ninth can reverse-engineer it that quickly. Fourth:”

There was a creak, a groan of metal protest, as Petra's grip tightened. “If you take that tone with me again, Fabricator-General, I will consider that insubordination and I will punish you without mercy. I don't care if we're friends, I don't care if you're one of my Triarchs: I am Warmaster, and my word is law.” With a flick, she threw aside the dented silver arm.

“Insubordination?” said Fiona as she checked over her arm. Her tone was tense, but lacked even a modicum of fear. “Thought you made me a Triarch because I spoke the truth. Even if it hurt.”

“I made you a Triarch to tell me the truth, Fiona, not whine at me like a yappy little dog.”

Fiona glared at Petra for a moment, before letting out a harsh chuckle.

“Ha ha! True. But I'll say it again.” She resumed striding forwards. “Handing out shiny trinkets won't do anything except maybe get you a smile or two. A good way to by gratitude, but not respect.”

Petra hesitated for a moment, before following after the Fabricator-General.

“Hmph. I'll keep that in mind—hmm?”

<New message received. Sender: Fabricator Gamal Jazerant. Subject: Re: Message from the Ninth>

Fiona turned back towards Petra. The Warmaster had come to a full stop, gazing off into nothing as she read the new missive. “Eh? What's wrong?”

“Hmm,” murmured the Warsmith. “Just got a note from Fabricator Jazerant. I think this will make you rethink taking back the 'Indomitus' from the Murderers.”

“That'll be the day,” said Fiona with a snort. “What's it say?”

“Looks like 'Indomitus' was being taken care of by one of their technicians while they were holding onto it. Improved upon it, even.”

“Hnh. Well, with a technician like that, dunno why they're calling us.” Fiona idly checked her dented vambrace again. “Who is it? Think we should throw an invite their way? This one might be more promising than that Iwakura girl.”

Petra made a sound not unlike whisper-purr of a moving servo. It took Fiona a second to realize the Warmaster had chuckled. “Even if we do invite her, I doubt she'll come back.”

That made Fiona pause. 'Come back'? The Fabricator-General couldn't think off the top of her head of anyone the mystery person could be. And did Petra just laugh? This, she thought, was a day of surprises.

Fiona let out a chuckle herself. “Alright, and who's this genius who decided to leave us and never come back?”

Before them, the engraved doors of the Mechanicus facilities groaned open, bringing the Warmaster and her Fabricator-General to the familiar sight of heavy industry. Already, a pair of Fabricators were scurrying about, preparing tools, drones, and supplies for the journey to Japan, while others looked to their own duties.

As she observed her girls at work, Petra answered the Fabricator-General. There was a rare twinge of amusement in her voice.

“Do you remember little Misaka? Russian girl, had a brother—”

“—who was a reedy little shit, kept whining about stuff he found on the internet? I remember them. Why do you...wait.”

Realization struck like a hammer blow.

“ No way,” she muttered, shaking her head. “Really? No jokes? Little Misaka's the one who's been taking care of the 'Indomitus'?”

“Really,” said the Warmaster.




Fiona stared at the hulking silhouette that sat at the back of the chamber. The 'Cataphract' suit gazed back, like a stern, vigilant god made of beaten and hammered metal. Then the Fabricator-General looked back at Petra.

“Well...maybe we could just build another one...”


Barbara Falko had been in her quarters, tending to a bit of her leg where the paint had come off. The thin brush in her hand dripped with blue paint as she read and reread the missive.

'The Warsmith wants me to do what?'

She paused, then reread the message from the beginning.

'Mission objectives: coordinate between Fabricators Feist and Stein, and the Ninth Officio Assassinorum during repairs of 'Indomitus' Tactical Dreadnought armor system; deliver package to Chiaki Matsuda. Whether or not we demand the 'Indomitus' back is left to your discretion.” Oh? So that's where that thing ended up. She hauled herself off of her chair and began putting away her paint supplies. 'And “left to my discretion”...'

Ah, the Ninth, thought Barbara as she packed her things and made her way down to the hangar bays. She had already been assigned to represent the Fourth during the new Warmaster's ratification ceremony, which she figured was just going to be a milk run. This, however, made things a little more interesting.

The diplomacy game with them was never dull. None of the overly-stiff formality of the Second, or the coarse bluntness of the Sixth: professional, subtle, and sharp as knives, those Murderers. She'd never had the chance to meet the great Malal—that infamous Equerry and Culexus Rank leader—which she regretted. She would rather have liked to meet the genius behind the Animus Speculum, but cataclysmic incursions into reality by abominations that had no right to exist had a way of ending one's dreams.

And there, of course, was the infamous “Golden Goddess”. By virtue of not living under the rock, Barbara had heard much about Mami Tomoe and her immaculate qualities. How she was perfect, how she the pinnacle of being a Magical Girl, how legions of girls around the world wanted to be just like her. Barbara wondered if this at last was her chance to see what lay beneath that flawless mask.

Digging through the honeyed words and the posturing and the body language to uncover the hidden agenda lying beneath was a requisite skill for any good diplomat, as it revealed precisely what the other party was trying to do. Any general worth the title had to know the enemy's intentions in order to formulate a plan to defeat it, and the negotiation table was just as much a battlefield as any.

Barbara also refused to believe any human could be so perfect the way Tomoe purportedly was. Not without keeping a skeleton or two locked away. After all, only a machine could be so perfect, and last time she checked, the blonde Vindicare was still only human.

So what was Mami Tomoe's agenda? What secrets was she hiding? Why would a someone, one so unrivaled in all aspects of being a Magical Girl, set aside becoming the Warmaster of the largest and one of the most powerful Officios in the world, letting a surly, sub-optimal drunk take her place? After having been Warmaster-in-training for so long, no less. Yet, when the time came, she obediently stepped down from her seat, and, if rumor were to believed, even openly supported her successor.

Oh yes. The upcoming Ratification ceremony in Japan was going to be interesting.

Barbara let out a sigh as she opened the doors to the Olympia's aircraft hangers. One of the gunships—similar to the one that brought Honoka to the Fourth—was being prepped for takeoff, maintenance crew and repair drones swarming around and atop of it like so many ants. One of the mechanics informed her that they still needed a few minutes before the plane was ready for take off, so Barbara opted to while away the time by reading up on the Ninth Officio.

“Fabricators Stein and Feist are on their way, Barbara,” said one of the mechanics. “Bring me back something cool, alright?”

A polite smile—optimized by human interaction software for maximum politeness—was Barbara's response.

As she skimmed her way through some intel files on the Ninth, nagging little voice gnawed away at her heart. She wondered if she was being too suspicious, too eager to dig up the old, rotting bones lying inside everyone's wardrobe. The Executor Fetial, Djara Crusius, often criticized her for that; a degree of vigilance is always good for a diplomat, she'd said, but paranoia is not. A degree of trust is needed, or communication is impossible.

Perhaps her boss and the head of the Emmeles diplomatic corps had a point. Or, perhaps, Crusius was just naïve. The Executor Fetial liked to say—shout from the rooftops, even—that the Fourth needed to open up to the outside world. Shed its long-standing image of being crazy hermits obsessed with tinkering. No wonder the Warsmith made her one of the Triarchs, what with her new policy of trying to make friends with the outside world.

Heh. Fiona Mac Manus was grouchy for days after that promotion ceremony.

The sound of approaching footsteps broke her out of her reverie.

“Speaker Falko?” It was Fabricator Stein, one of the top members of the Mechanicus. Her ivory-on-red paint scheme reflected the floodlights in the hangar bay. “We're ready to set out.”

Oh well, thought Barbara as she rose and made to follow. Officio politics weren't really to Barbara's tastes. Let the Fabricator-General and the Executor Fetial fight their petty squabbles; her job, as far as she was concerned, was to make sure the Fourth came out ahead in any deal or negotiation, and nothing else.

As she stepped up into the plane's cabin, Barbara idly wondered what sort of festivities the Ninth had planned.

Ch. VI: Skitarii[edit]

The Iron Circle Chapter VI: Skitarii

"Well...I've certainly seen better performances, novitiate, but I guess for your first time you didn't do so bad."

The combat simulator disengaged, bringing Honoka out of the world of cybernetics and back into the world of flesh. Her recliner-chair hissed as it moved back into the upright position.

Honoka found herself back in the rounded training chamber of the Toxotes, the Fourth Officio's Order of Vindicares. A row of simulators lined the walls, while a fully equipped shooting lane dominated half of the room. A training course, mocked up to look like an urban combat zone, occupied the other half; a dozen Magical Girls were busy using it, adding their bellowing guns and stamping iron feet to the general din of the Toxotes hall.

The red-haired Vindicare groaned as she pulled herself out of the simulator. Today, she was out of her exoskeleton and was wearing a sports bra and spats. Several dozen electrodes--designed to simulate concussive impacts and pain inside the VR world--snaked away from her worn and beaten body as she chugged from a water bottle.

"'Better performances'?" she said, breathless. "Strike Leader, I-I'm not really sure what I was supposed to do there! Who were those guys, Spetznaz? SEALs?" She paused to take another drink. "I couldn't use magic, I couldn't leave the designated mission area, and I only had a rifle, a pistol, some ammo, and a suit of armor I barely knew how to use. How was I supposed to take on fifteen spec-ops with armored support?"

A pause.

"Er, ma'am," she added hastily.

Strike Leader Lau loomed over her like an iron effigy. She stood in a Light chassis, a somewhat stocky, bulky form painted blue-on-black and built with a smooth, bald head. Her arms were crossed across her chest while her red eye-lenses steadily regarded Honoka. The red-haired Vindicare had read up on the Vindicare squad leader before the training session had started: three year veteran of the Fourth, promoted to Strike Leader six months ago. Sterling track record, reputation for iron discipline and steely nerves in combat.

"The goal of this test wasn't so much to see if you could kill fifteen elite soldiers and an IFV," said the Strike Leader, "as much as it was a test to see how you'd perform in that armor."

The Strike Leader leaned over and poked Honoka in the shoulder. She had plenty of strong muscle there, along with puckered, ragged marks of tough scar tissue—proud badges earned through years of hard, dangerous service—yet Lau's steel finger easily pressed into her shoulder as though the meat there was just skin and fat.

"Powered armor isn't just a fancy suit that makes you run a little faster and punch a little harder and has some sweet gadgets built into it. When you wear it, you're stepping into a whole new world of tactical possibilities. Wall in your way? Run through it. Need a higher vantage point? Just climb up a building, no need for stairs. Someone shooting you with peashooters? Just walk up to them and punch them out, they can't hurt you."

Lau unhooked a tablet from her belt and started it up. "Which is good, because we're one of the smallest Officios out there, and most of us are too busy with R&D to go out on missions much. That means it's once in a blue moon when we're NOT badly outnumbered. All we've got is marginally bigger guns and an edge in the 'fancy gadgets' department; we better exploit that as much as we can, or we're fucked."

She thrust the tablet towards Honoka for her to see. A tap on the screen showed Honoka a video; it was footage taken from another run on the VR trainer, using the same scenario Honoka had just finished.

It was like watching a summer blockbuster action film. The armored girl bounded up buildings like a simian beast, barely slowing down as she bounded across the closely packed rooftops. She punched people through walls, either sending them crashing through a house or or ramming her mailed fist through a barricade and into a man's head. At one point, the girl seized a downed soldier by the leg and hurled it at the rest of his squad, sending them hurtling back in a heap of broken bones and limbs.

It was the sort of thing, thought Honoka as she watched the girl slowly pry open an IFV's hatch with her armored hands, that the really crazy Magical Girls she knew would try to do., she realized. Not crazy. Crazy would have involved laughing, cackling, drinking the blood of your enemies along with their pain and fear. Crazy would have meant killing for the sake of killing, destroying for the sake of destruction, thirsting for an orgy of death and ruin.

This, she thought, was too measured and precise for crazy. This was simply power granted by ingenuity and engineering. This was the product of an Officio that brooked no weakness and demanded every one of its members be stronger and better than they were. An Officio armed with some of the most cutting-edge technology in the world.

This was the Fourth Officio Assassinorum.

"You see?" asked the Strike Leader. "This is how a Machine fights. This is how we fight. When we pick up our weapons and deploy to kill some poor pack of idiots, the usual rules go out the window, because there's going to be just a few of us against a lot of them, and we'd be stupid if we play the game the usual way." She took the tablet away from Honoka and set it aside. "So...”

Despite Lau's impassive expression, the red-haired Vindicare could hear the smile in her voice. “Now that you've seen what you're actually supposed to do: you up for round 2?"


Hours later, Honoka stumbled out of the training room, panting and utterly spent. Lau walked behind her to ensure she didn't trip and crack her skull open.

Her entire body felt sore. Bruised, even. It was like she was back in Basic again, puking up her breakfast into the dirt as she crawled under barbed wire, trying not to piss or shit herself from the fear and exhaustion. Repeated jolts from the VR simulator left her feeling like a pack of Eversors had worked her over with sticks, but then there was also the mental fatigue. It was difficult to think clearly; forming thoughts through the tired, muddied waters of her mind felt like a herculean task.

"Hurts, doesn't it?" said Lau. "I remember being stuck in one of those for my first test, back when I was a greenhorn. Threw up all over the instructor's feet, had to mop it up afterwards. Ha!" She glanced at the flagging Ninth Vindicare. “Hanging in there, novitiate? You look dead on your feet.”

Honoka managed to wheeze out a weak laugh. “Ha ha, well, I've had worse...”


“Yes. 'Just a 9mm with two magazines against a Witch' worse.”

“Heh. Well, just you sit tight, the fun's just started.”

A cargo drone ambled by, and Honoka had to resist the urge to hitch a ride on it.

By now, it was past evening in the Olympia. Its cool halls were almost quiet, with the majority of the manufactories chugging along at only half-power, rendering the usual dull roar into something more of a sedate rumble. Honoka could hear her and Lau's footsteps clanging against the steel floors, echoing, reverberating through the mobile headquarter's iron bowels.

As she trudged down the long corridors, she mulled on the last several hours of grueling VR training, and felt a pang of disappointment at the memory.

There was no other way to put it—Honoka simply couldn't beat the simulation. It was one thing to realize you had an entire new set of stratagems at your disposal; it was another thing entirely to actually employ them in the heat of battle, even one simulated in a silicon world.

The worst part was that her own instincts were her greatest enemy. Four years of habits and training, hammered into her brain through mission after mission after blood-drenched, sanity-tearing mission, didn't just go away on a whim. She kept hesitating at important junctures, unable to bring herself to go up a building or bust down a wall—the little voice in her head wouldn't stop screaming about how stupid an idea it was, how she wasn't an Eversor and shouldn't act like one, throttling her brain until she stuck to the tried-and-true basics that had kept her alive for four violent years.

One thought in particular made her grimace. Was that disappointment she'd heard in Lau's voice as the Strike Leader adjourned for the day? Honoka wasn't sure: on one hand, Lau did mention she had markedly improved by the time she got up from the VR chair...on the other hand, the Strike Leader hadn't been terribly ecstatic either. Her tone was dry, almost apathetic. Maybe she was being sarcastic But at the same time, Lau wasn't a terribly exictable person—maybe that was just her way of being nice.

That was the trouble with these Ironforms, thought Honoka. So many of them went around with a poker face. At times, it felt like she was in an entire room filled with...well.

With emotionless robots.

Lost in thought, the red-haired Vindicare barely noticed the figure standing in the hall before her.

"Hmm? Oh, didn't see you there, Skitarius,” said Lau. “Back to your duties, bint Dammam.”

A vaguely humanoid shape, swathed in a billowing red robe, the crimson standing out brightly amidst the endless grays of Olympia's iron corridors. It jolted at the sound of Lau's voice, and the quiet whimper coming from the figure told Honoka that it was a girl.

A metal hand erupted from the mass of cloth and parted it, revealing a face.


"Oh. Uh..."

The girl before her was small: petite, even. She had a shock of short, unruly grey hair, while her large, innocent doe-eyes were a warm honey brown, hiding behind a pair of circular eye glasses framing dusky skin. The rest of her was mostly obscured by the voluminous red clothing, with her curious metal limb grasping at the robe's hood.

Unlike the smooth plating of Light Ironforms, the girl's hand was like the inside of a machine; gears, springs, pistons, and a dozen other different mechanisms moved and played their delicate dance inside the limb. Its construction—and the entirely natural constitution of its owner's face—made Honoka suspect that it was an advanced prosthetic, rather than part of an Ironform. The girl seemed to have noticed Honoka's staring, as she hurriedly covered her arm back up and clutched it to her chest. Her doe-eyes were strained, trying to look at anything that wasn't Honoka and Lau, and she seemed eager to do as Lau said and leave.

Honoka offered a hand and, despite her fatigue, managed to put on a smile. "Hello! I don't think we've met? I'm Honoka Iwakura, from the Ninth. I'm new here."

The girl eyed the proffered hand warily, as though it were some sort of trap. At last, she replied with a murmur. “H-h-hello...”

Her voice was soft as a feather, made all the weaker by the burdens of nervousness and anxiety. The dull background thrum of the Olympia's beating heart, quiet as it was from its resting state, still threatened to swallow it. Her metal hand clutched at her robe-like clothes and drew them closer, as a child would a security blanket, leaving Honoka's own hanging awkwardly in the air.



'Well...' thought Honoka. The trembling girl's gaze was frenetic, flickering to Honoka, then to the floor, then to the ceiling, then to Lau, then back to Honoka again. 'Alright, then...'

To Honoka's relief, Lau chose that moment to step in. Her voice was cold and carried the hint of reprimand. “Ahem. As I said, Skitarius bint Dammam, back to your duties.”

Bint Dammam flinched as if struck. “I-I'm sorry, Strike Leader, I was just trying t-to say h—”

Now, Skitarius.”

“Yes!” squeaked the girl. “Right away, I'm s-s-so sorry...” Without another word, the petite girl made a quick bow and scurried off, stumbling every so often over the hem of her long robes.

Honoka threw a glance at Lau. The Strike Leader was as impassive as ever, but something...something in he posture added a hint of tension to the atmosphere. Lau's face-plate was unmoving—customized, as it was, by a pragmatic combat veteran, it wasted little space with the fine facial-expression servos girls like Barbara put on their Ironforms. But from where Honoka was standing, Lau seemed to be glaring.

At last, the red-robed girl finally turned a corner and disappeared from sight. Lau stood for another long moment, watching, until she finally started to move.

“Hmph. Sorry about that, novitiate,” she said. “Let's get going. We're sending you on an outing in a few days and we've got plenty more training to do, so I need you fully rested.” She beckoned as she strode forward. “Back to your quarters, now. Hurry up.”


The rest of their sojourn to Honoka's room was without incident. Honoka rathered that there was; anything would that broke the uncomfortable silence would have been preferable. Alas, nothing was forthcoming, so she broke the awkward quiet with a question.

“I have to ask...” she said, her voice hesitant, “who was that? And what's a 'Skitarius'? I don't think anyone ever explained what that was.”

There was a noticeable pause, a moment's hesitation in her stride, before Strike Leader Lau replied. When she spoke, her voice sounded as though it had to be drawn out, fettered by reluctance and, from what Honoka could puzzle out, a hint of shame.

“Amal bint Dammam, one of our newer members of the Skitarii. The Skitarii are where we put our...hmm.” Lau paused, considering her words before plunging on. “To put it bluntly, it's where we put our rejects and failures.”

She continued, heedless of Honoka's startled expression. “The...transition process of changing your flesh-and-blood body to an Ironform isn't always successful. It's stressful on the Soul Gem to have it go from controlling an organic body to an artificial one, you see,” she said, tapping her metallic head, “since Soul Gems weren't designed to be stuck inside a metal shell. This is why transferees start off by getting augmentations—replace bits of your body with prosthetics, get the Soul Gem used to controlling artificial body parts. But, even after acclimatizing their bodies with augmetics, not all subjects can get through the Ironform process. Simply put; it's traumatizing. It's just how it is, and we can't figure out a way to make it any more pleasant. Not everyone can withstand what their Soul Gems have to go through to take the final step.”

In the hallway, the bulky form of a Heavy Ironform thudded past. The girl nodded in greetings as it passed them, and Lau nodded back.

“Most make it through and fully join our ranks; out of the rest, some either die or start to Witch Out in the middle of the process—though we have failsafes for so the latter doesn't cause a shitstorm right inside the Olympia.” Here, her tone made a turn for the dark.

“Some, though, either quit midway or don't try at all, and to them we give the option to transfer out. Those who elect to stay—those are the ones we put in our Skitarii division.” She all but ground the last words out. “Most choose not to transfer.”

Honoka nodded slowly, digesting all the information. “I'm sorry if I'm prying, Strike Leader, but, you don't seem...very pleased with the Skitarius division.” As always, the Lau's face was a leaden mask, but here, Honoka could easily hear the contempt dripping from her voice.

“They don't pull their weight,” grumbled Lau. “If they'd held out just a little longer, or weren't such useless cowards, then we wouldn't be babying them like we are now. The Warsmith goes out of her way to make them feel relevant, but, urgh...” She growled and rubbed her head, the metal of her hand and cranium squeaking as they rubbed one another. “All that time and money on the Tactical Dreadnought systems, just so the Skitarii can finally get off their asses and be useful in heavy combat? What a waste. They should have all transferred out when we gave them the chance—our Officio would've been better for it. We don't have time for deadweights in the Fourth.”

The remorseless cold of Lau's rant made Honoka shiver. It was like being back in front of the Stradale sisters again, in front of the harsh scorn the Fourth was infamous for but Honoka had hoped wasn't true. She stole a glance at Lau, and from twitching and clenching fists decided that this matter was no longer worth pursuing.


They at last reached the small cell that was Honoka's quarters, and for this the red-haired Vindicare was grateful. The door hissed as it slid aside, and Honoka hurled herself onto her small cot; despite the stiff fabric, to her worn-out body the cot might as well have been a luxury four-poster bed.

“Home, sweet home,” chuckled Lau as Honoka let out a sigh of relief—both at the opportunity for rest, and at Lau's apparently lighter mood. “Sleep tight, novitiate. You've got more armor training tomorrow. After that, we're sending you off on a mission.”

“About that...” Honoka managed to roll herself onto the side, facing Lau. “I've only been here for, like, a day or two. Isn't it a bit early for me to be sent out on a mission?”

Lau let out a grunt. “You're not wrong, and the mission we're sending you on isn't exactly going to be a milk run. But, the Logic Engines are forecasting a Witch not too far away, and you're not exactly new to the Witch-hunting business, yourself, so we figured you'd be able to handle yourself if we bring you along.” The Strike Leader turned to leave. “In any case, rest up. You'll get a proper briefing later.”

Honoka managed a tired, half-hearted salute. “Yes, ma'am.”

The door hissed shut as the Strike Leader left.


Heady stuff, this Skitarii business.

This was what Honoka thought as she lay on her cot, letting the gentle tides of exhaustion carry her into the deep waters of sleep. This was what Honoka continued to think, as days later she found herself sitting in the passenger compartment of a Fourth Officio gunship, surrounded by all manner of equipment and three girls in Heavy Ironforms. One of them was the blue-and-black bulk of Strike Leader Lau.

Something about the Skitarius division rubbed her the wrong way. No one had told her what it was, despite her hours-long initial tour through every inch of the Olympia. Not Petra, not Barbara, not Fiona. It was as though they didn't exist, and in the oblivion of non-existence they would have remained had Honoka had not stumbled upon Amal by chance.

Come to think of it, mused Honoka as she checked her safety straps, she'd caught glimpses of red robes here and there on previous days. She hadn't thought much of them at the time, since she was too busy being awed by all the wonders the Fourth had to offer, but now she realized she'd seen at least a few red-robed girls here and there, in just about every part of the Olympia.

All of them had kept their heads down. All of them had huddled together with other red-clad girls, either staying out of everyone's way on their own volition, or put there by the rest of the Fourth. Suddenly, Honoka wondered if Amal's behavior was simply shyness, or something else entirely.

Was this the price of failure? thought Honoka. Was this what it meant if you just weren't strong enough to score a slick robot body at the end of a year?

She wasn't completely sure if she wanted to leave the Ninth just yet. But it was sobering to think about, whether the Fourth was the right place for her. Honoka had always assumed she'd be a natural fit into the Machines, but after all the failures in the simulation room, after knowing about the Skitarii, after knowing what fate awaited her if the Fourth found her wanting...

Things no longer seemed so certain.

Ch. VII: Siege[edit]

Chapter VII: Siege

Site Secundus-Two-Nine was one of several construction projects the mundane world had contracted the Fourth Officio to complete. It was a fortified summer palace for a local warlord, a castle and pleasure house both, from which the petty tyrant could enjoy his wealth and assert his power.

In its design it exemplified Fourth Officio mastery over both art and war. The outer walls were thick slabs of ferrocrete, bristling with guns and crowned with barbed wire, while the inner courtyard featured 18th century French architecture, mirroring the commissioner's own opulent tastes. The palace at once held enough firepower to lay waste to any rival militia and more wealth than what the warlord's subjects would ever hope to see in their entire lives.

And here, in the land where luxury met death, stood another watcher. Like its brother observing the Olympia amidst the desert sands, this one too watched the girls of the Fourth readying for war.


“What a pain in the ass,” grumbled Andrazia. “They didn't even have the decency to With Out somewhere else.”

Honoka looked up from polishing her rifle, searching the Ironform's faceplate for a hint of irony. “Sorry?”

Andrazia continued. “And it had to be an Alpha-class, too. You know how annoying it is to take one of those down?”

“I do, actually,” said Honoka. “I've only fought one before, and almost half of us died, but Rank Leader Rea A—”

“Fucking renegades.” Honoka opened her mouth, closed it, and opted to just go back to her polishing. “We spend months building this gaudy piece of crap for this local bigwig, then the renegades pop up out of nowhere, try and trash up the place, and now they leave a proverbial shitstain behind for US to clean up.” A sigh. “I was almost done with my painting, too, but nooo. Tell me, novitiate,” she asked Honoka, “Are all meatbags like this?” Honoka decided not to point out that Andrazia herself was a “meatbag” only a few years ago

The Fourth Officio girls were making last-minute preparations, girding themselves before entering the wound in reality that would take them into the Witch's Barrier. There were eight of them: Lau and the two members of her Strike Team, Andrazia and Kora; three girls of the Litholoyos Order who had initially constructed the fortress; one of the Xiphos Order who had been part of the construction site's security; and Honoka herself. The rest of the site's security detail had been rotated back to the Olympia in favor of Lau's fresher and more experienced team.

Honoka threw a glance at the Witch portal, the second time in as many minutes. Like dozens she'd encountered before, it was a swirl of colors and shapes, reflecting light in such a way that it seemed more like an impressionist's view of thoughts and emotions as carved into the real world. The sky seemed to fade into something altogether different—-and horrifying-—in that area of space, no true, distinct border dividing nature and Barrier though the two could not be mistaken for one another.

In contrast were the defenses the Fourth had erected, surrounding where manifest despair bled into reality. The three Litholoyos architects, who had spent the last few months building and perfecting the warlord's “humble” abode, had set up a ring of battlements around the portal—a prison of metal and artificial stone the Fourth girls called “the Cage”. Automated guns pointed inward, ensuring that no familiar or abomination would make it out of the portal alive, while one of Lau's Strike Team kept personal watch in case of any major incursions. Every so often, the bark of gunfire would join the chorus of heavy machinery whirring to life and Ironforms stomping about.

Where the Barrier was indistinct, the Cage stood in sharp contrast to it surroundings. Where the Barrier was a murky pool of emotions and memories, the Cage stood as a brutal symbol of iron might.

Two of the Litholoyos were overseeing the loading of the gunship that Honoka rode in on, while the third was undergoing final maintenance on her hulking Dreadnought Ironform. Lau, Andrazia, and the rest of the Strike Team were busy performing last-minute weapons-checks or calibrating combat drones.

This all seemed less a Witch-hunt, thought Honoka, and much more a siege.

With the Ninth, she mused, Witch-hunts were faster affairs; depending on the mission commander's tastes, slaying Witches with the Ninth had the exhilarating rush of storming a building or, with more aggressive girls, the thrill of a hunt—the primal satiation of bloodlust by tracking dangerous prey and tearing to pieces.

Here, though, everything was slow-paced. Methodical. Measured. Every action planned out and carefully considered. It was as though the Fourth refused to take a single step anywhere without a thorough scan from their recon drones and a heavily armed combat drone on point.

Lau's synthetic voice interrupted her thoughts. “Andrazia, novitiate, get over here. We're about to start final briefings.”

Honoka stopped polishing her weapon and took a moment to gaze at its craftsmanship. It was a heavy marksman's rifle, almost as long as she was tall, blocky in make and mounting a large scope for long-distance shooting. It should have been burdensome in her hands, but her new armor's enhancements let her bear it easily.

She couldn't help but admire it—the skill that went into its craft, the considerations that went into its design, its bold, heavy aesthetics, the surety of the long-ranged death it would doubtlessly bring. Yet, it also felt alien in her grip. Not merely the discomfort of unfamiliarity but a quiet sense that the rifle just wasn't right for her and it never would be. Honoka had asked to bring along her old weapon, but they'd denied her that right—it was too weak, they said, not enough firepower. Too sub-optimal for the Fourth's purposes.

Stinging from the memory, Honoka set her new weapon down and started to trot off to the briefing—

There it is again.

She paused as the nape of her neck prickled. She couldn't tell what, or who, or even why, but this was the second time she'd had this odd feeling since she'd gotten here—an instinctive, almost primal feeling, a sense that things were somehow wrong. An attempt to scan the area with her armor's advanced sensor suite revealed nothing unusual, and pestering the nearby Ironforms to perform their own scans also turned up nothing.

Honoka stared into the wilderness, before heading off to the last briefing.


There. The smaller target. There was heat radiating off its head, at approximately the same temperature as the average human body. That indicated a non-Ironform human.

The watcher searched through its records until it found a profile that matched the target's image—a process made easier by the fact that the target chose that moment to look directly at it. It made no effort to retreat from this, however. At this distance, and with its stealth systems engaged, the target could not possibly detect the watcher.

Somewhere else in the world, swathed in the dank gloom of her hideout, its master watched through the eyes of its slave.


The plan was simple and direct.

“One last review before we execute,” said Strike Leader Lau, standing in front of a holographic projection laying out a rough sketch of the Witch Barrier. The chaotic, ever-shifting nature of such a nightmare-realm, plus the fact that no recon drone could ever hope to survive for long in such a hostile environment, meant that the map was a crude one at best—it was more a visual aid in enforcing mission parameters than a true tactical layout of the battlefield.

“Strike Team Tyche—that's me, Andrazia, and Kora—along with Novitiate Honoka, Mason Chiyo, and Ursarax Diona, will be entering the Barrier Portal of Anomaly W-Alpha-4-6-3F-N, designated 'Griselda'. We'll be taking nine Myrmidon combat drones with us: Beta-Tertius-2 through 11. Redoubt-pattern entry, then Mason Chiyo will take point for Purgation-pattern search-and-destroy. Understood?”

“Compliance, Strike Leader.”

“Aye, Strike Lead.”

“Understood,” barked Honoka.

“One more thing,” continued Lau, turning her faceplate to Honoka. “Novitiate, once we enter the Barrier, you will be guarding the portal entrance along with Beta-Tertius-2 through 5.”

It took the red-haired Vindicare a few seconds to process Lau's order. “I-what? I'm babysitting the combat drones?” she sputtered. “Strike Leader, why—”

“Because this is an Alpha-class Witch and you're not equipped with an Ironform,” said Lau. “You won't be able to handle it. Now—”

“But I've already had experience with Alpha-class Witches,” protested Honoka, “I'm a four-year vet! Did you not read my files?”

Lau's voice was colored by irritation. “I don't care. You didn't rate high enough on the combat simulations—that means you won't be able to keep up with the rest of us, and I'm not about to compromise this operation by babysitting you.”

“Then why did you even bring me here?”

“Because the Warsmith asked me to show you how we conduct operations.” Honoka flinched at the ice in Lau's tone. “And it was either have you actually put your veteran experience to use, or have you sit outside the barrier twiddling your thumbs.” She stomped over to Honoka, towering over the red-haired Vindicare, and leaned downwards as she spoke. “Now, I've already marked you down for insubordination. So if you don't want me to send you back to the Olympia on the gunship, you will shut up, follow my orders, and keep the portal safe.” Servos whined and whirred as the gaping cannon's maw on Lau's shoulder leveled itself at Honoka's face.

“And if you fail any of the things I've just listed, I will personally send you back to your worthless Officio in pieces.”

Honoka looked at the shoulder-cannon, then at Lau's faceplate. It was a stony mask, betraying none of the cold anger its owner exuded through body language and the menacing cannon threatening to blow her to pieces. Honoka swallowed a retort and ground out a reply.

“...understood, Strike Leader.”

Lau strode off, barking further instructions to prepare for Barrier entry. The rest of the Fourth girls followed suit, but not before each gave Honoka an unsubtle, lasting glance.

Honoka found their faceplates emotionless and impassive, just like all the others. Here, though, she still felt the judging sentiment sitting beneath those iron masks. Scorn, mixed with curiosity and wonder.

She ignored them as she shouldered her rifle and marched after Lau's retreating figure.


At last, it was time for war.

They stood arrayed before the entrance to the Cage. Strike Team Tyche, along with three adjunct Magical Girls, two Litholoyos Masons, a phalanx of combat drones, and supplies to erect another Cage inside the Barrier, sat arranged in formation.

“Commence final preparations,” ordered Lau. “Weapons check:”

“All guns green, Strike Leader.”

“Weapons ready, aye.”

“Plasma conductors stable!”

“Munitions check:”

“Munitions full, Strike Lead.”

“Fuel tanks loaded!”

Honoka quickly pulled out the magazine of her rifle one last time, checked that it was full, and slammed it back into her weapon. “Munitions ready.”

“Switch to Noospheric communications.” Lau's voice was one of total calm, total control.



The sensors in Honoka's helmet reacted to her neural impulses, letting her send and receive messages almost at the speed of thought. <Done, Strike Lead.>

<Equipment check:>

<Andrazia here, Ironform nominal.>

<Sensors at full power, thrusters ready.>

<Powered armor diagnostics green.>

<Final prepartions complete. Ready combat log.>

Honoka activated her suit's combat logs with a blink-command, loading a bevy of audio and visual recording software, the fruits of which the Fourth would later review and study. <All combat logs ready.>

<On my command, deploy bomber drones, initiate combat logs, and advance.>

Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out, Honoka tightened her grip on her massive rifle. What was only seconds before Lau's command felt like minutes, hours, eons, each beat of her racing heart feeling infinitesimally small in the eternity between now and Lau's order. Despite having having fought for her Incubator for four years, despite having killed so many Witches she'd lost count, it was the same feeling as always—heart pounding, blood singing in her ears, brain working furiously to keep herself focused—



The first to enter were bomber drones. These were simple payloads of high explosives on a set of treads, maneuvered by remote control and sent as the vanguard against unintelligent enemies such as Witch familiars. Their duty was roll forward and detonate, purging the portal's entrance within the Barrier and allowing the Strike Team a safe toehold within the nightmare-realm, and in this they performed admirably.

The shrapnel-storm had barely stopped ricocheting off the Cage when Lau gave the order. <Advance, weapons ready.>

<Advancing, aye.>

As one, they moved forward. The massive form of Chiyo led the way, the giant claws on her arms sparking with some sort of energy, the pilot-lights on her wrist-mounted flamethrowers burning bright. After taking twenty, thirty steps beyond the walls of the Cage, reality gave way into something altogether different.

It was as if someone reached into Honoka's mind and abruptly changed the channel. One moment, the crisp colors and textures of the real world; the next, the blurred falsehood of the Witch Barrier.

Honoka had left her helmet on 'open', meaning outside air moved freely through her helmet's mouth grille. That meant the stinking reek of formaldehyde almost overwhelmed her.

<Something wrong, novitiate?>

She coughed once and swallowed to clear the bile from her throat. <Nothing, I'm fine. Just kinda smelly in here, that's all.>

<Don't drag behind.>

Biting back a retort, Honoka turned her attention to the world she had stepped into.

It was the laboratory of a mad collector of specimens. Rows upon rows upon rows, shelves upon shelves teeming with glass jars, jars filled with indistinct, jagged shapes floating in cloudy fluid. On each container were labels—once white, now caked in grimy filth, with the distinct Witch runes scrawled on them. Nor were the walls bare, for they were covered by numberless specimen boxes, smudged glass covering cork backings where impaled creatures lay in repose. Where there were no beasts held captive, either in jars or on the wall, there were scientific instruments of all kinds strewn about. Above, swinging fluorescent ceiling lights strobed on and off in a maddening rhythm. The entire world was seemed faded and grainy, like a photograph from a time when such a thing was a novelty.

As a final touch on this realm of insanity, everything was scaled up in size, such that the Witch hunters were as small as insects compared to the rest of the laboratory—either that, or the world had shrunk them down.

The crackling *tink* of fracturing glass drew Honoka's attention.

<Lau, some of those jars are breaking open.> As if on command, something long and spindly broke out from one of the specimen containers, like a creature bursting forth from an egg. Scores more followed suit, until a literal swarm of vermin spewed out of their prisons and converged upon the hunters.

Honoka raised her rifle to fire, peering through the scope for precision. The scope's magnification revealed the incoming Witch familiars for what they were. <They're...they're insects?>

Beetles, ants, centipedes, mantises, spiders—every bug, every many-legged vermin within imagination and without, surged towards the hunters, ranging from the size of large dogs to fully-grown elephants. Most were chimeric mish-mashes of multiple species, some even entirely collections of limbs and mandibles, nothing more.

There was no time to simply sit and behold the abominations. Lau's message came in over the Noosphere. <Masons, deploy bulwarks. Strike Team, prepare to give covering fire, Wrack Pattern.>

The combatants fanned out, creating a wall of metal even as the Masons behind them began hurriedly erecting another Cage. Ironforms braced for fire, and a smell of ozone filled the air as exotic energy weapons charged to maximum output. Using Chiyo as cover, Honoka knelt and set her rifle to her shoulder.

She sighted down the scope, letting her new helmet's targeting systems feed her ballistic data. Her finger rested gently on the trigger.

Her breathing slowed.

She heard nothing but the beating of her heart and the blood in her veins.

Her finger tightened.

<Fire at will.>