The Riddle of Witch Flesh: Part 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With love, Umika

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