Without any faction loyalty muddying the waters, Kanbaru had bared her soul to Yui and expected to be met in kind. She expected to win yet held the tiniest hope that Yui may prove herself to be Touka's sister in truth by standing against her.
So the Casino shook with the wrath of Kanbaru as she returned, her open heart spurned by Yui flight from the duel. All around her slot machines set to win and rouse the gambling spirit of customers all failed to match. Dealers who knew the card the player needed was just waiting to be drawn then skimmed past it. Kanbaru's coat and blade fell apart, Serei cards returning to her pocket as she ran a trembling hand down her brow, shielding her eyes from the flashing as she truly savored the sheer vitriol roiling inside her gut.
It was the closest she'd feel to Touka's own and she wanted to ingrain it deep for when she finally confronted Touka and told her that she had no sister.
The moment passed and the patrons fortunes returned to their rigged states, Kanbaru's hand falling away wet with tears she couldn't allow to stain her cheeks even in friendly territory. Mastephos was at her side and returning Apia, something she nodded in gratitude for. "Tell any Troops that see her they'll have their wildest whims made real should they remove that thorn from my side. Your welcome to try as well."
The whale's hand closed around Apia's elbow and the two fell through reality, falling out of phase and coming upon the staging area for Riku's auction. Before it had fallen beneath her notice and she'd left it to the JSTR without much interest, but now there was a pit in her stomach that needed to be vented. An immortal adversary of the Great Game was perfect for that and she raised her hand with a barked declaration, "I will have that bunny for all the plunder on this card!"
Holding up her loaded chit, the stolen wealth of an entire air ship and all that it could carry crushed the opposing bids with a wave of dismay and anger radiating from the crowd. The spoils of Umbra Academy would be well worth the flesh she'd have beneath her, Kanbaru's eyes glimmering darkly all the while.
Like Olivia, Suzuya had opted to come in her transformed state, and for once it wasn't for the mental girding she was so reliant upon to keep herself from crushed by the heaps of misery in jolly old England. No, it was the simple fact that nine fluffy, self warming tails were very comfortable to sleep with. Especially once she got her pajamas magically refit with a tail hole and cover flap.
Coming up behind Xolys' shrouded bulk had her arriving somewhat seperate from her roommate due to not wanting to step on the occasional tendril trailing behind the bedsheet, though with someone as dazzling as Olivia it was easy to go undetected in her more contemporary flannel. The irony of the fair lady dressing in eastern sleep wear wasn't lost and roused a soft smile as Suzuya entered to find a castle in place of a music room.
"Eh, I've seen bigger and in far worse condition. Needs more fire and splintered wood." Suzuya slipped in and out of her Grimoire's influence, letting the surprise roll off her back like water upon a mallard as she walked in to see the group was fairly split between introverts and extroverts, with someone Suzuya had hoped not to see again asking pointed questions that Tesni was deflecting lest they sour the fun.
"Chinami, we can't exclude people if they want to join the sleepover. So long as they aren't disruptive, this is school property and open to whatever student wishes to join. It's not like we made a club for late night ghost stories and naps." The foxy Magical Girl dismissively waved her hand side to side, putting the concerns aside when there were others eager to have fun.
She'd heard Bonnie mention her as she was stuck behind Xolys and quirked her head in a manner that had her ears bounce and twitch. "You still wanna explore? I can bring the mood lighting."
And she meant that literally, as she reached into her tail and pulled out an old fashioned torch, the smell of pitch and crackle of flame blooming into existence before her as she held the gnarled wood between them. "And before you ask, no, you can't burn down the school. I'd have thought it was obvious that I can snuff out my flames on command, but some didn't seem to notice that."
“So. That all aside, let’s get to the real question for tonight. How long are you going to pretend your magic isn’t bothering you?"
She... Admittedly, it was hard not to like Charlotte sometimes. She had charisma, a natural capacity for connecting with people that Chinami could only envy. If she just weren't who she was... If she weren't seemingly honor-bound as a creature of the Grand Minister to keep their secrets... Maybe she could have connected with her the way her peers seemed to... Maybe she could have truly trusted her. So, Charlotte's words of sympathy were a cold comfort. It was hard to believe that the Grand Minister truly held all the power in all too many situations, and yet... she couldn't help but wonder at times if Ozma really was in a similar boat as the rest of them.
It was just the two of them and hushed tones that could have been masked by the excitement and battle below. It was probably as close to a private conversation as she could ever dream of having with the Crimson Comet before the latter impulsively made herself scarce again. There were so many things she'd wanted to say then. So many questions that had been brewing inside her for so long. And right then, she just had a feeling, would have been the time to get them answered.
Regardless, it seemed fate had other plans.
She had taken too long. Her parched throat made talking... irritable. She had wanted to choose her words carefully, not just for her throat but for the sake of directing the conversation in a manner that hopefully would forestall any vague redirections on Ozma's part. Even so, she took... too long. Other Magical Girls were now filtering into the area. A new teacher called in from overseas to replace Lucette?! That was news to her! A wolf-girl caused a notable ruckus and seemed to fully take whatever remained of Ozma's attention, as they were both swarmed by other spectators. Her opportunity... was wasted.
Eins -Drossel- was a familiar presence, wielder of the Nutcracker and capable of "Tuning" Grimoires. Honestly, Chinami couldn't help but be wary of that. She'd consulted Eins before on the stagnation she'd begun experiencing a year ago. It had been then that she realized the state of her Grimoire, knew it was overworked. Even so, despite having a potential quick-fix in front of her, she had rejected it. She had taken Eins's words of warning seriously and not pushed her luck. In the end, the only reason she'd have wanted her Grimoire treated was so that she could keep pushing it for more in her training. So, she had decided the better part of valor was to accept the consequences of her actions and allow her Grimoire to recover naturally. Besides which, she couldn't help her skin crawling at the idea of someone else doing something to her Grimoire. There was too much that could go wrong. Even now, burning up from within... she couldn't bring herself to reach out. It was the rational thing to do, right? If nothing else, she could at least have dispelled the mystery of the burning, confirmed or denied what was happening inside her... But she didn't.
What little enthusiasm she had worked up for the day drained out of her, leaving only the nearly unbearable flame within, as Chinami grunted and retrieved her jacket and water bottles, leaving without a word. She wasn't going to find any answers or solutions here... nor in Marrywell as a whole, she suspected. But since when hadn't that been the case?
If only she'd... had more time, had managed to get her questions answered, her concerns addressed...
Maybe if she had... what happened next would not have come to pass.
Chinami did not sleep well. Rather, she did not sleep at all. The fire inside her made the idea of a peaceful slumber a pipe dream. And worse, the Scabbard's healing trickle was working in concert with the burning to eliminate her fatigue chemicals. But not all of them, clearly, just enough to keep her edged out over the flame within, just enough to keep her from feeling rested at all. Eventually, she had given it up as a lost cause and left her and Bonnie's dorm. The least she could do was not turn their sleeping quarters into a sauna... so at least one of them would be sleeping well tonight.
Instead, Chinami found herself almost aimlessly browsing the academy library. She had questions burning into her mind as much as the flame in her chest overheated her body, inquiries that had time and again been foiled from being answered. But... admittedly, it had been a while since she did any investigating, over a year since she last took a long hard look at the state of things. She was a little older now, a little wiser she liked to think. There were terms and context that she was privy to now that she'd not had back then, clues to the puzzle. It wasn't that the pieces simply weren't there (although that certainly contributed); it was that she just didn't know where to look for them. Now was different... at least a little. Book after book came and went, regarding the history of the Magical Girls and their eternal enemies, the Pageless, but Chinami's eyes could barely keep from glazing over the contents. However, a pattern was beginning to rise.
Pageless research was the usual propaganda. They were "the shadows of history and darkness in all stories", but what did that even mean?! Where did they physically come from?! What was the source?! The Pageless were endless and endlessly hungry, and that was seemingly all anyone knew! A never-ending foe that no-one seriously questioned! Why did they exist?! How did they exist?! Why did they seek to consume stories?! What did that provide them?! Sustenance? Pleasure?
The more she explored these questions and their derivatives, the more even her searing-hot Grimoire seemed to curdle in unease from the table beside her. She could understand why. They were not facing an honorable foe. Their enemy did not show their face. They did not lay claim to any lands. There was no castle, no fortress of evil to assault. There was no "Big Bad" to slay. There was no "Final Boss" to overcome to bring peace to all the lands. Hell, there weren't even "general" equivalents! The Apex Pageless just didn't make the cut.
The "victories" against the Pageless that she could count amounted to all of one:
The establishment of Marrywell Academy.
In a time before anyone could remember, existing for centuries, a training ground and safe haven for Magical Girls, an organization pitched as a beacon of morality, light and justice...
And they had done nothing ever since.
Oh sure, they had protected people, saved lives in the short term across the eras. But not once, not ever, had they achieved a great, lasting and consequential victory against the Pageless. Under that light, not even the creation of Marrywell itself was a victory. Magical Girls had been warring with darkness for centuries without any progress whatsoever. They had been doing so solely because it was "right" and "holy" and because the Grand Ministry had pointed them in the "right direction". They were loyal attack dogs... Policing the world, selfishly keeping magic and the knowledge of the danger of the Pageless sequestered from normal folk, quashing dissent and bringing "misguided" Magical Girls across the globe into the fold. It was...
It was pointless.
Where was she going to be in a century's time? In two? Three?
Assuming she didn't fall in battle.
She would live.
And she would still be fighting.
Fighting a battle that couldn't be won.
Chinami slumped back into her chair. This... this changed so much, right? Sure, she had thought the Grand Ministry was stagnating, but this was just too much! There was nothing! No research on what made the Pageless tick! Magical Girl history contained notable figures, grand feats of power, but events regarding the Pageless actually being driven back as a whole? No progress! She hadn't consciously acknowledged it before. Maybe she had just refused to acknowledge it before. Even after only being involved for a handful of years, she didn't want to accept that she had been doing nothing of worth except her own independent hero pursuits! She didn't sign up for endless war! Fucking hell, she didn't even choose to be a Magical Girl to begin with! How could they-?!
She choked back a spurt of smokey coughs, as her emotions flared, quickly fumbling to flood her throat with a gulp of water.
She closed the books and returned them to their proper places, moving to leave the library with barely restrained haste.
She needed... She needed to spread this knowledge, this conclusion... Who could she bring it to? Who else could see -was willing to see- through the facade?
Maybe Tesni? She seemed like the sort that might take it seriously. Even if they didn't always agree. Even if their patrol had been an unmitigated clusterfuck... Chinami needed every sympathetic ear she could get. Olivia was a... maybe. She was powerful but too innocent by half. There was no need to ruin this for her... not yet. Wilhelmina was a similar story, and...
And she suspected the latter was already well aware.
Chinami ran a hand through her hair, grimacing at the beads of sweat. What did it say about her that the only person she felt she could seek for aid in the entirety of Marrywell was someone that she had almost come to violent blows with not more than a day ago? If she could just meet Moonlight Tsubasa again... then she could get some answers. If she could just get Tesni and Tsubasa to coexist peacefully... if she could just dispel that irrational hostility, then surely, she would have a pair of surprisingly reliable allies... right?
Sometimes... she really did regret not having more friends to choose from.
A flicker of light earned a grimace and glance out the hallway window. The sun was rising... and she'd not gotten a wink of sleep. And that reminded her... she needed to go host the Round Table feast, but... That would mean transforming... bringing back the flames that burned her alive... A shiver of fear wracked her body before she could stop herself. How... long was this going to go on? How long was her magic going to fuck with her like this?! She didn't have time for this! Not here! Not now! Why couldn't this have happened some-
The sound of power-walking turned her bleary gaze towards a student with a missive in hand. She knew it was a message for her, because it was shoved with unusual haste into her grasp, and then the deliverer made themselves scarce from her presence. What? Did she look that terrible right now? Well... Probably. Blinking, Chinami glanced down at the missive and blinked to clear her vision, her expression growing more downcast the more she read.
Does... the Grand Minister know what I just realized? Is she trying to distract me? Keep me out of the way? Even if-! Even if that were the case, shouldn't the so-called "All-Seeing Merlin" know what the hell is going on with me right now?! How am I supposed to fight like this?! And my people! I can't just go overseas like this! I-! Maybe the Grand Minister does know. Maybe... she wouldn't, right? She wouldn't send me into a fight she knew she couldn't win, right?
Chinami's teeth ground in fury. She was in no condition to do anything right now, much less fight! But... what choice did she have?
Swallowing, she retrieved her burner phone and made a call to Jonathan. She'd not be able to host feasts for a week. Emergency mission. Overseas. She'd be back as soon as possible...
Hopefully, she'd have found a solution to the burning by then...
Assuming she survived at all.
Folding the missive, she shoved it into her pocket, the words all but scorching into her mind.
Location: Okinawa, Okinawa Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan. Target: Two Apex Pageless. Mission Statement: The local rogue and stationed Magical Girls will face a foe they cannot overcome alone. Handle it.
This was going to suck.
[Three days before the Marrywell incursion]
It had, indeed, sucked. Quite a lot, actually.
It took her two days to get there by plane due to flight delays and multiple stop-offs, and by the time she arrived, she'd not slept in three. Hunger was an afterthought to her unending parched throat. Physically, mentally and emotionally, she was exhausted, and it was only the trickle of the Scabbard's power keeping her on her feet. She was in no state to be presentable to the Magical Girls she needed to ally with, but the mission was too urgent to allow herself to rest. Which, honestly, would have been pointless anyway. The fire within continued unabated. Sleep was a fantasy and nothing more.
The locals -the Magical Girls, that is- had been perhaps less than friendly, which Camelot understood, her being an agent of the Grand Ministry in this situation and all, but she really wished she'd been in a better headspace to not take it personally. Any insistence that the threat they faced was beyond them was ignored or in some cases rebutted out of spite. Which Camelot honestly also understood. That was a common Grand Ministry recruitment tactic. Showing up to save the day and pitch the idea that the Magical Girls they'd aided would be "safer with them". Of course, Chinami had no intention of encouraging any of them to come back with her, but they didn't seem to believe her.
Naturally, this meant that when the Apex Pageless showed their faces after two days of hunting, Camelot was afforded no transportation to them. And unfortunately, she badly needed it. The need to conserve her strength, to avoid transforming until she absolutely had to. It had kept her from her usual methods of pursuit. All she could do was rely on her sensory range and her own two mundane feet to close the distance. And by the time she got there... Frankly, it was a miracle that only two of the involved Magical Girls had been killed.
They were strong. Even if she were at full strength, Camelot would have been pressed to take them on alone. The Apex Pageless took the form of a pair of looming, shadowy samurai, one crackling with fire and the other with lightning. Fire was more destructive, but personally, Camelot thought Lightning was a bigger threat. The speed and precision of master swordsmen that both displayed -in contrast to their beastly nature- was terrifying to behold, especially so in Lightning's case.
More terrifying still, however, was their nature. These two Apex Pageless were more clever than most, maliciously so. For these conglomerations of darkness had gotten the bright idea to continue to slaughter and consume their own kind -other Pageless- in order to gain the strength to slaughter their hated rivals, the Magical Girls, in turn. As such, these monsters... these abominations were almost as to an Apex Pageless what an Apex Pageless was to a normal one. In fact, Camelot would not have been surprised if they had jumped and consumed other Apex Pageless outright... or even deliberately cultivated their creation for just such a purpose. The unnatural calm and reason tempering these two monsters being what it was, she couldn't find herself to put much past their ability to do.
And the local Magical Girls didn't even known what hit them.
She'd been caught off guard. Given the nature of her foes, what they had been doing, she really shouldn't have been surprised. And yet she was. She'd been surprised when the one she'd managed to cleave in half and collapse a building on had risen like a phoenix -quite ironically- when she struck down the flame-wielder. She had focused that one, because the heat it was emitting in combination with the fire in her veins had been utterly excrutiating. She couldn't take it. Nothing had mattered more than destroying that one first. The second one she hadn't even considered "double-tapping", more concerned with simply getting it out of the way of killing the other one. And the second one had -of all things- played dead in the rubble, pretended and waited for the moment Camelot turned her back, for the moment she dared try to use her Scabbard to heal one of the other injured Magical Girls.
And it had cost her an eye and her left fucking arm.
Excalibur collided with a blade screaming with purple lighting, and both rebounding with a boom that shook the buildings around them, shattering windows from the shockwave, a staccato of crashing steel accompanying the frenetic exchange that followed. Camelot roared, as much in desperate fury as all-consuming agony. The fire was her entire world. It was in every pore. It was quite literally leaking from her body! The rents carved in her skin by the enemy's monstrous, lightning-flecked katana bled not blood, thanks to the efforts of her Scabbard. Instead, fire boiled from beneath her skin, what felt like molten steel splattering across the ruined concrete of Okinawa.
She shouldn't have been able to move. It felt like her body was being torn apart, and it was all that her Scabbard could do to keep her a barely functioning puppet. And yet, the fire in her veins seemed to suffice for propulsion where the muscles she almost couldn't feel anymore might not. Her armor was in ruins, cast to the winds; it was only slowing her down at this point, and speed in this clash was everything. Collateral damage was an afterthought by now. It was all she could do to keep herself alive, to even keep the enemy focused on her and not the weaker Magical Girls struggling to keep up. Occassionally, one of them's attacks would irritate the monster enough to give Camelot a brief opening, but it never lasted. The "Lightning Pageless" seemed to have developed some form of regeneration (or maybe, it had always had it) after absorbing the essense of its fallen brother, and nothing they did could seem to keep it disabled for long.
She was running on fumes, Camelot knew. Exhausted and burning, could her Grimoire even keep up this pace for much longer? All it would take is a single mistake on her part. She didn't have the mana to use Excalibur's true power again and break through this unrelenting assault- No, rather, she could push it out perhaps once more, but her enemy was terrifyingly cunning. It knew that when her blade glowed brighter -or rather, when it emitted particular magical emissions- that it was an attack it just needed to dodge, not parry or block. It had learned that from the singular time she had used it to cleave it in half before its empowerment, and it had ardently done everything in its power to force her to waste every successive use. And moreover, she couldn't even blind it. The damn thing was fucking fighting her without being able to see! Like some sort of twisted parody of a blind swordsmaster!
Past a certain point... Camelot had begged the other Magical Girls to focus on evacuation, on getting the civilians out of the way.
She... would hold the Pageless off... for as long as she could.
When it came down to it, she was fighting a loosing battle. The only thing she could do was search for a way to break contact, so she could dive into somewhere -fucking anywhere really- that the Pageless couldn't find her. She had no intention of dying today. She couldn't save anyone if she perished here and now. All she could do was retreat, keep its attention... and take the fight as far away from innocent lives as possible. If she could just break contact, she could have time to retreat, heal and send an urgent message for immediate backup from anyone the Grand Ministry could spare! Her pride wasn't worth lost lives!
Excalibur bellowed, the dragons upon the hilt spewing flames in furious gouts, larger than anything they'd ever done before. It seemed the flame in Camelot's body wasn't content to spill from her wounds and sputter from her mouth with every agonizing breath. It followed her link with her blade, and even now, her own weapon had ignited to clash with her foe's in a dance of fire and lightning far and away from the dance this beast had once performed with its brother. In a sense, she found a strange beauty in it all, in the dance of life and death, of facing an opponent that really could kill her and had every intention of following through. Dancing on this wire... if it weren't at the forefront of her mind at every moment what was currently at stake, she almost could have found a certain enjoyment in it, in the thrill... for the first time since hitting her peak...
Of finally facing a Worthy Opponent.
She couldn't help it. Her Grimoire sang for this battle, for this honorable dual! The fire in her body seemed to burn hardest in her heart. To face an opponent one-on-one, no tricks, no gimmicks. Just two blades, two wielders, evenly matched, giving no quarter and everything they had, till death do them part? This was a battle between knights, european and asian. It was everything her Grimoire could have ever wanted, and its passion and fervor spilled into Camelot. As much as she wanted to say sending away her allies was for their safety and the sake of the civilians (and it was, in part, of course), this was... for her sake as well. A part of her... didn't want to retreat, didn't want to do the smart thing. She knew, if those local Magical Girls had any sense, they would call the Grand Ministry even if she wasn't able to... There was no need for her to walk away from this fight to see it end as it must... as it was destined to.
Thunder rocked the air in time with the sirens of law enforcement and emergency responders, as an explosive trail of flame and lightning rocketed through the streets and spilled out into the docks of Nakagusuku Bay. The combatants' movements were far and away beyond percieving by normal folk, the two mere shadows against the flash of their clashing elements, but the trail of destruction they left was clear as day.
Camelot's tattered boots skidded across the ground, leaving sparks on concrete that quickly transitioned into flames, as she as she and her foe hit the boardwalk. She barely had the presence of mind to watch her surroundings, her blurry visioned all but tunneled on her dance partner, whose thunderous presence and magics sang to her senses. Was this what her enemy saw? She almost felt like she could have fought him blind, like whether she had an eye left or not, it wouldn't have mattered. Excalibur blocked a blow that would have taken her legs off at the knees, allowing herself to be carried by the force of the strike. The samurai's followup left kick subsequently managed to barely pass by her nose instead of taking off her head, as she shifted her own weapon to pursue the overextention. Lightning-quick, the samurai's remaining planted foot launched it into the air, dodging her retaliation, as it's sword began to crackle.
Camelot juked to the side explosively, the fire in her veins seething from the rents in her skin with the motion. Her forceful footfalls tore the boardwalk of the docks asunder from her passage, but the shrieking trail of purple lightning she dodged all but disintegrated everything it touched, carving a path of decimation down the dock that was also now burning from the licks of flame erupting from Camelot. Sea water boiled and popped, roaring up from below from the impact of the purple beam, as the samurai landed far too lightly for a nine foot tall being. The heat from Camelot's own body was more akin to a blast furnace by now and certainly didn't make it any more difficult for a glittering, crackling mist of steam to begin to drift through the air.
The samurai seemed to pause at the sight of the sea, before its stance -an actual stance- changed.
Ah, so that's how this would end, huh? It seemed he had her measure.
The golden-haired knight moved to copy the samurai's prompt.
Both warriors sheathed their swords.
Iaido, the art of killing in the same stroke that one drew their weapon.
Camelot had seen the samurai use it before. She knew that whatever was empowering this Pageless, however it worked, the important bit was that performing this technique made it faster... and she could barely dodge it normally. She couldn't dodge now, only meet it head on. She knew the samurai probably knew it just as well. It was baiting her, but it was a bait she had to take. She'd never get a better chance to use Excalibur's true power, the last use she felt she had in her. It was now or never.
The horizon was warming, the glitter of night on the verge of begetting a new day upon the bay.
The only view scattered onlookers could catch was two shadows in the glittering mist, set against the backdrop of the break of day.
Camelot could feel it. Whatever this Pageless was, it was more than a monster. It... was truly a worthy opponent, that lived and died by the sword, no matter how brutally. Her nonexistent left arm ached in phantom pain, but it was just another senseation by now, as she readusted and firmed her own stance, gripping Excalibur's hilt. She could feel a connection with this foe, feel that they both knew that the sun would rise upon only one of them. There was a mutual respect there, as much as a Magical Girl and Pageless could ever share. She didn't know how there was, but it seemed only natural all the same.
There were words that wanted to leave her tongue, but she stilled them. She couldn't say that the Pageless would even understand them, but she knew he wouldn't appreciate them. No words needed to be spoken. Everything they could possibly hope to say had been said with their blades. Neither had spoken a single word to the other, not even Camelot in her capacity to curse her tenacious foe out. That was how it had been... and that was the only way it should remain.
Putting thought to action, her Scabbard warmed and vibrated, her singular remaining arm gripping Excalibur's hilt with deceptive delicacy, as she pushed what mana should could into the blade. Her Grimoire warmed, and yet, somehow, the heat felt strangely comforting, like she had passed a threshhold of pain into serene acceptence. She had come too far now, procrastinated upon making her escape. It was now her or her rival.
Her opponent's blade thrummed to life in its own sheathe with lightning that she could practically feel in her chest.
It was time.
She blinked. Her arm was extended, Excalibur's light already dying down. She honestly didn't remember moving to the position her foe had once occupied. The fire in her veins had flared to such a point that she might have blacked out briefly. Regardless... Camelot's body trembled with fading adrenaline, as she straightened up. Her body could sense a conclusion. Glancing over her shoulder, she met the gaze of the samurai, who seemed utterly unphased by their exchange... if not for the fact that his sword was severed halfway down the blade.
A fresh bubble of flames began to hiss from a rent Camelot hadn't even felt form across her chest, paper thin, so clean that she couldn't manage to feel the pain of it through the fire within. Her abdomen felt... weak, like the blow had nearly severed her sternum, like any abrupt movement might finish the job... but she was still standing.
The samurai met her gaze silently, as ever, before shifting.
So, this was it...
The samurai lowered himself to his knees in a seiza position, his broken blade lain before him. Camelot sheathed Excalibur.
A thin, golden line slowly bled into existence across the samurai's chest, a mirror of the wound dealt to her own.
I will remember you. She didn't say the words, but she somehow felt her aura conveyed them, if her foe sensed as she thought. To her mild shock, the samurai gave the briefest of nods of his head, the most minute of creases to his spinal posture. A bow of respect, from one worthy opponent to another. She closed her eyes and managed to tremulously return the bow, crossing her remaining arm across her chest, fist over her heart. When she opened her eyes again... only dust remained.
The dregs of her transformation were sputtering out. Darkness was encroaching on the edges of her vision.
As she collapsed, she could have sworn she sensed a familiar presence approaching, and all she could think to husk out in her nigh delierious exhaustion was, "Don't... fer'get... m- my arm."
[Two days before the Marrywell incursion]
Crossing the globe for a conversation might seem an excessive step to take in a modern era where cellphones where common place and Tsubasa would have no issue gaining Camelot's private number from her people but there was something to be said for a face to face dialogue. For one it provided a greater degree of expression and understanding. For another, it meant Roma was the one standing over a downed Chinami and not some stranger looking to take advantage of a foreigner passed out in the open.
"You should perhaps consider refusing such tasks in the future. The Grand Minister is not exactly subtle in her attempts to distance us." The transformed rabbit of the moon sighed, huffing on her pipe as she sat on a bench dotted along a cliffside walking path that offered a tranquil view of the ocean waves striking the rocky Japanese coast. The moon shone brightly overhead, a sickle cleaving the black of space that Tsubasa found captivating for it's sharpness. Beside her sat Camelot, her aches relieve and injuries restored to what they once were. Even the incessant burn was duller, muted by the scent of longing wafting from the rabbit's pipe.
"Had I not the means to return to my homeland so swiftly you might have come across it's more unsavory side, Chinami."
Blearily, Chinami's eyes (Eyes! Plural!) opened, as she found herself only able to muster the energy to stare at the stars. Shifting, the phantom sensation at her left resolved into the form of her reattatched (or perhaps regenerated?) arm rising up to briefly reach for the sky, before flopping back down onto the bench. She sort of felt like she should have had a crick in her neck from awakening this way, but after burning alive, she wasn't sure if the sensation of discomfort would ever be the same for her again. She... was whole... alive. She was a little surprised, but hardly disappointed. That would have been... What a way to go out, that would have been. Some part of her felt it would have been a worthy death, but there was far too much she had left to do, so many centuries ahead of her. As daunting as it as to consider the future, as a Magical Girl, like it or not, she had the promise of a long one. She would be a fool to waste it.
She honestly felt like she should have been... feeling more(?) at that moment. She'd nearly died last she was aware. Shouldn't she have been a lot more emotional? Perhaps. And yet... The fire within her seemed to have been... almost sated, lounging within her like a satisfied beast. She could no longer feel the flames withing consuming her entire existence. It felt like she had finally crossed a threshhold, like she had been broken down and reborn in flame. After even such an objectively short period of constant agony, she now felt she understood true peace. The flaming bulb in her stomach was now only a comforting thrumming warmth, hot as the sun and yet painless all the same. In a sense, if she were to have been reforged by the fire within, would it not be only natural that they threaten her no longer? She felt... satiated as a person in a way she hadn't known she'd so badly needed to be. To fight a worthy opponent, to not have to worry about collateral damage simply because there was no other choice? To be able to go all out and still only just scrape by? Finally, after these last couple years of training, it felt like it was worth it, like her martial talent was finally achieving what it was destined for.
Her head turned, regarding Moonlight Tsubasa with a wry smile. "Yes. I suppose..." she cleared her throat. It hadn't been long, but it felt like forever since she'd been able to speak without a rasp. "I suppose I should learn how to say 'no' when it matters..." She really didn't want to believe the Grand Minister had meant true harm, because what that would imply... for her and those like her, who had come to similar conclusions about the Grand Ministry... She wanted it to be paranoia, but she couldn't help but wonder... "To be honest, if I didn't know any better... I'd have thought the Grand Minister sent me here to die..." She favored the exotically-garbed Magical Girl with a genuine smile of gratitude. "Thank you, by the way... You probably saved my life."
"Think nothing of it. I may not be perceived well, nor do I deserve to be, but I do wish nothing but the best for all my fellow Magical Girls." Tsubasa replied, one ear twitching as she turned to favor Camelot with the fullness of her attention. "In truth I can not say if this was a sincere attempt on your life, or if she merely needs to put forth several high risk opportunities and space them out over the years. Lillian has no need for haste and can endure longer then most can consider raising their guards. Had you met your end here, though, I would imagine your book would have found it's way into the hands of a girl far less cautious then yourself, and they'd be swept away to Merrywell to start anew. No one would question it, for it has been the way of things as long as we have recorded our secret history."
Slowly she lowered her pipe and it dissolved into motes of golden light, the last of her smoke wafting away on a salty breeze that settled the soul. "I wished to tell you that aim to do battle this tyrant, and the war I wage shall not be clean. I have neither the allies, the power, or the time to do this without any harm done. I have roused the Pageless to London, and I intend to put them to use to unmask the hypocrisy of Lillian. I say this to you now, because while I shall surely bring great suffering, I will do everything in my power to ensure no one is devoured by my forces. You have my word...and I hope I can have your support."
Chinami's mood sobered somewhat, but admittedly, the sheer high of relief, of surviving, was keeping her from worrying overmuch on the Grand Minister's intentions. If this had been an indirect assassination attempt, it was nonetheless one she had survived, and she would be -she hoped she would be- more wary in the future. Tsubasa's words of war... of a war with the Grand Ministry further sobered her. As much as she didn't want to believe most of the Magical Girls would side with the Grand Minister even after Tsubasa supposedly pulled back the curtain of her nature, she knew that that would be a false hope. The Magical Girls would fight. It wouldn't be clean. "War is never clean," she couldn't help but utter. She didn't want to choose sides in this. She really didn't. She just wanted to use this power to save as many people as she could. She wanted to protect her fellow Magical Girls, to save them as well, just as she would any civilian.
If she sided with Tsubasa... she might be burning whatever bridges she had, whatever inroads and friendships she might have among the Magical Girl populace. It was unlikely people would understand what Tsubasa aimed to do. Tesni's hostility and Bonnie's blind trust in the former's instincts had proved that well enough. Even open to the possibilites, Chinami had little idea what Tsubasa wanted, not really. She knew she could control Pageless, on a massive scale even, if what the other girl was implying was true. She... needed to know more. Only a fool would agree to an alliance blindly. "I'd tell you to wait... but somehow, I don't get the sense that you have the luxury of time... What exactly is it... that you intend to do?" Chinami inquired quietly, propping her elbows up on the head of the bench.
Seeing that the Once and Future King of England was brimming with concern Roma held her hand aloft, the spine of a heavy book falling into it from thin air. It opened on its own, pages inked in vibrant colors and dark lines of a thick brush breezing past in a flutter before coming to the seeming end. Pages added after the fact, an addendum to the story of her very Grimoire, written with the very being of Pageless as her ink. She showed this to Chinami before closing the book and setting it upon the bench between them.
"You do not need to do a thing as of yet. What I shall do will be heinous, but I see no other way to escape the system of stagnation that Lillian so expertly created. I shall stage an attack upon Merrywell once sufficient number leave the grounds in order to hunt me, and I shall alter as many Grimoire's to be like mine as I can. In doing so I will have struck more Magical Girls in a single moment then the Pageless every have. At that point I shall either surrender to the first Magical Girl of suffucient strength and principle, or disappear into the sky If none are worthy. In doing so I shall create a crisis, and when the Minister is forced to act she shall prove me wrong by being the better person, or she shall condemn those I have afflicted with my gifts."
"To be blunt, I am positing that she will either kill or imprison the girls who hold the power of the Pageless. If she does, then I ask that you follow your consiousness and rise up. For I shall have throw myself upon the mercy of the masses, and shall expect none to be given. Were i to live, it would only be because of Lillian's obsessive need to control all Magical Girls even with my crimes."
There was a sense she got from her Grimoire, as she saw what had happened to Tsubasa's. The thrumming in her chest, the flames that felt only contentedly muted now seemed to hum at the sight... in interest? An addition to the story... written with Pageless essence. It seemed to explain so much and yet so little all the same. The nature of the Pageless was still steeped in mystery... but perhaps finally someone -anyone- was on the cusp of true answers.
She heard Tsubasa's words, and her lips pursed. Using innocents to make a point, especially if the bet was that they might be killed...? That didn't sit right with Chinami, not at all. Even if Tsubasa did have firm enough control to ensure they all survived becoming like her... could she guarantee they would be saved if the Grand Minister truly did act as she predicted? Personally, Chinami didn't think the Grand Minister would take the bait. As old and assumedly cunning as she was, that would be an easy way to turn even her most ardent supporters against her, right? Unless she could successfully demonize the afflicted... All things considered, given the fact that Magical Girls had been fighting a war without end... How understanding could Chinami really expect them to be to what were... Pageless hybrids? They were only human, after all. Still, if the worst came to pass...
"What is it like?" Chinami blurted out. "The Grimoire alteration, I mean..." Her brow furrowed, as she made a vague hadn gesture. "What is the process like? The state of being? The consequences?" She sighed. "I think I believe you that you don't want to kill anyone, or even harm them... but you're still willing to do it. To martyr yourself? For a greater good? Personally... I'm generally of the opinion..." She exhaled and looked to the stars. "If I ever sacrifice anything of anyone for anyone... it will only myself alone." She shook her head. "But, I guess I digress. How..." She glanced at Tsubasa's Grimoire again. "How does that work?"
Neither rejection nor acceptance, but curiosity instead. A reaction Roma could accept held wisdom, as even she did not particularly like what she planned to do. Once more she opened the book, letting it rest between them as she run her finger over the Pageless ink. "By their nature a Pageless consumes stories, just the same as we consume meats, plant, and minerals to sustains ourselves. I considered routes of domesticating Pageless, but first one had to overcome the hostility appearent between us Magical Girls and them. Eventually I came to the discovery and partial symbiosis. Using a Pageless to devour the very edge of an ending in our own narratives, and then inscribing a Pageless into a new one."
Beneath her nail were the words 'I AM RETURNED', and she stroked them with an almost affectionate manner if her transformed state could have ever conveyed such emotion. "My Grimoire ends with an alien leaving the Earth to return home to paradise. Just as easily I could have left the Ministry behind and made a home elsewhere. But I have chosen not to, and used a Pageless to carve that promise into my Grimoire. By overriding the theme and message you can change how the book itself tries to influence you, just a little. For example, if I Revised your book, as I call it, I would not be able to make you abandon holding your Dinners or suddenly decide to rut your own family members. You are still yourself. But the nature of the Pageless has your Grimoire attempt to push you to be more expressive. Less restrained. They have a very low level of group organization so boundaries we find common place make no sense to a pageless. I may not be able to make someone a thief but they may care less about property law and taxation, as it were."
"The process is painful. It can be far lesser should you welcome it, but the pain can't be avoided, nor should it. The Pageless is giving up its existence to be a part of your book and we should acknowledge that sacrifice however briefly we can." Steadily the hand pulled back and the book disappeared with it, Tsubasa rising to her feet with her robes not even ruffled from sitting on the wood of the bench.
"I learned all of this because a Pageless had accidently done the same to my partner, and the ministry had no issue killing what she had become. I saw there was good in her, but Ozma....Ozma saw only a Pageless in need of killing. So I shall be willing to Martyr myself if I must, because I fear I can not live much longer knowing the injustice continues forever onwards while I sit there and watch good Magical Girls bleed. If I must hurt them to excise this tumor, then my soul can rot so there's goes unsullied."
Chinami listened intently. She listened like her life depended on it. No, rather, in a way, wasn't what she was learning for the sake of far more lives? Yes, finally, she was learning. She was progressing her knowledge, moving forward from this crushing stagnation that she'd lived the past year. This... all of this. This information on the Pageless. It was like nothing she'd heard before. "Do they only consume stories for sustenance?" Chinami inquired, a hunger in her ignited anew. This hunger for knowledge, one she had suppressed for so long out of practicality, assuming there was no point in dwelling on questions she'd never have answered, now roared to the surface. "Do you know if they also, I guess... 'taste' things? Are they driven to it for any reason beyond survival?"
The revelation of how Tsubasa had attained her connection with and control over the Pageless provoked a brief worrying of Chinami's lower lip with her teeth. "Is that truly the only way you've found that peace with the Pageless can be attained?" She had to ask the question, honestly. After all, more often than not, there was no single answer to a problem, and those that found the first solution often touted it as the only one. Tsubasa even admitted that her process would almost certainly be incredibly unpleasant. Chinami couldn't help but admit internally that wanted to take the implied offer. Maybe it was because of how clear-headed she felt in this instance, but she felt more in touch with her own desires than she had in a long time. It had been a while since she'd done something for herself... and herself alone. Under normal circumstances, the possibility of being "more emotional" might have been a bad thing... However, to Chinami, it was an answer she'd not known she needed. Becoming Camelot had both helped and exacerbated her issues with connecting with others. She was able to be a pillar, a Hero... but a friend? She struggled with heart to heart connections. If this would counterbalance her Grimoire's influence in the opposite direction... could she achieve an equilibrium of selfhood? More positive to note was that the Grimoire would only "attempt" such influence regardless, which meant it could be managed, noted and resisted for someone with enough self control.
In other words, was this really any different from having any other Grimoire? Chinami couldn't honestly say that it was. And pain? Hah. She was now far too familiar with pain. She wasn't sure how high up this process could possibly rate compared to being incinerated alive, but she didn't feel it was arrogant to think that it couldn't be worse. And for that matter, it would hardly be as long-lasting... Geez, she really was considering this far too seriously. The only real problem here was... "I can't imagine those girls you..." She didn't want to say 'infect', but it was crudely apt. "...subject to this process will be very willing, and by that token, it will be far from painless for them." Chinami frowned. She couldn't in any good consciousness condone that. Moreover, she couldn't condone not giving those girls a choice in the matter. To force change of this nature on others would be blatant hypocrisy coming from her. And yet, she couldn't find it in herself to fight Tsubasa, not even necessarily because she might not win, but because Tsubasa hadn't even done anything yet. She could still possibly change her mind, as unlikely as it might be, or she could be foiled by the Magical Girls she intended to face. Chinami couldn't find real animosity in herself for the elder Magical Girl, not here and now, not after she'd rescued her. She couldn't stop her. She just... didn't have the will. Not yet. And she hoped that she wouldn't be given a reason to develop it. But what could she do? Was she simply to stand by and watch, to simply allow this to occur without resistence? She shouldn't. And yet...
The fact that Pageless could accidentally merge with Magical Girls -never mind deliberately- was a shock. It seemed like something that should be a known threat. In hindsight, in a certain way, it was obvious how it could occur... But far more shocking was... "Ozma did that?" Chinami uttered in something close to disbelief. Sure she didn't know the Crimson Comet especially well, same as most anyone else, but that she would do such a thing... when the only other living example was Tsubasa, who seemed perfectly amiable, sane and just generally capable of rational thought and action? Chinami almost felt she had to assume there was some extra context she wasn't hearing, but this felt too private a matter to pry into at this junture. Perhaps Tsubasa's partner was actually a bad person, irregardless of the Pageless fusion. Maybe the accidental and unguided fusion had resulted in far more egregious effects than Tsubasa's presumably refined process. Outside of questioning Tsubasa further, the only way she could get a hint at the truth... would be to ask Ozma, and so Chinami grimly tabled that inquiry for the next time she manged to corner the Crimson Comet in private.
"For whatever it's worth..." she finally said, "you have my sincerest condolences." She shook her head. "Even so, despite that I'm really not certain that I could stop you... even if I really wanted to fight you to begin with, I can't say you won't regret taking this path. I'm sure you've heard it from plenty of people before me though. You've clearly lived a long life. I'm certain you've heard similar, and you're still committed. Even with kind words and an open heart, I can't turn you off your path. I just hope the one you are paving with those good intentions doesn't lead to hell." Besides which, wasn't Tsubasa hurting her own cause? In seeking to make a point and find acceptence for those like her, wouldn't she only poison the well of the one path to progress she had effectively spearheaded?
Tsubasa had risen to her feet, and Chinami took the moment to shake the remaining lethergy from her mind and join her. It wasn't difficult really. The trickle from the Scabbard already had her bright-eyed and bushy tailed. Glancing around a land cast in night, Chinami couldn't help but marvel at what a clear night it seemed to be. The glitter of the moonlit waves. The crash of the sea. The scents on the wind. She wanted to put it down to having been unable to notice the small stuff while in so much pain, but it felt like everything in the world was... more somehow.
"Chinami, I am but one Magical Girl with one Grimoie to test upon. The nuances you seek require an organized research effort with many subjects. While I do truly believe the Revisions are the key to ending our conflict with the Pageless, they are not my sole focus. Perhaps you will carry on my research should Marrywell be my tomb. Instead I shall them as a flashpoint, for does the world not always resist change till conflict forces it? Where would Europe be if the first World War had not occured and exposed the web of secret allainces and military stockpiles just waiting to be used? My homeland would be far different had the Americans not forced the ports open at the end of a gunboat's broadsides."
Tsubasa's held tilted upwards as the moon's light seemed to swell, a disc lowering without a sound from that hanging crescent till a silver platform stood just over the cliff's edge. Tsubasa stepped onto it and turned, her robes billowing in the seaside wind while her face was as placid as ever.
"I hope I am wrong. That the girls at Marrywell are better then what I say and all of this needless. I have the utmost faith in the Magical Girl spirit and that we should be putting our lives to a greater purpose then dying in the shadows ad infinitum. But that hope will not stay my hand from action, so I shall leave it to others like yourself to nurture in my stead. Should we speak next I imagine you will be upset with me, so as selfish as it may be, please do not think too poorly of me for the collateral damage."
Was it an attempt at humor, or a sincere request? Impossible to tell when the ufo began to rise, drawing clear over Camelot's head before zooming away fast enough to make one head's spin just keeping track of it as it noiselessly broke the sound barrier with nary a ripple to be felt. She had plans to enact and even a trip home would not deter her from them.
Chinami would admit internally to disappointment, but in the same breath, it was a relief. The lack of research done was for as simple a reason as Tsubasa having avoided conducting it on others. That... That was good. Yes, that sounded better than she might have secretly wondered. What Tsubasa planned to do now was a divergence from the pattern. A "flashpoint", as she'd said. This was the time to disrupt the eternal cycle. She didn't think a World War was the best place to draw comparisons from... if for no other reason than to "deescalate" that line of thought on what could be, but all the same, she felt she understood the point that was being made. She didn't like it, but she understood it.
Chinami's mouth opened and then snapped shut at the sight of an all too familiar disk. She gave a short, breathless little laugh of incredulity and amazement at the flying saucer, as it came to retrieve its owner. It seemed Tsubasa's words about her Grimoire being about an alien had been far from hyperbole. Her book really did have a sense of humor, huh? Chinami could far too easily admit that she wanted to bound up the ramp that lowered in a childish fit. Because, fuck her, it was so damn cool. But even "coolness" couldn't keep her from sobering at the rabbit-eared Magical Girl's parting words. She didn't want to be angry with Tsubasa, but she felt the elder girl's words would be all but prophetic. She didn't know how angry she'd be until she witnessed the aftermath with her own eyes, but she hoped it wouldn't be enough to destroy any chance of forgiveness.
As the ufo rose, her breath caught in her throat, words lost on the wind of its passage. There had been one thing... "How am I supposed to carry on a legacy of research... if I don't have the chance to inherit it?" What if the Grand Ministry killed Tsubasa the way they had her partner... If they did that... Her knowledge and legacy... would have died with her! Chinami stiffened. She needed to hurry! The Goth girl took off in a dead sprint, retriving her phone, which had miraculously survived the battle due to being tucked away within her transformation. It was late at night, far too late to catch a plane right now, but she'd book the flight. She was already checking the airports, mapping a course back to London and to Marrywell.
She was rushing into this. She knew that. She knew that she might have normally second guessed herself. And that... was exactly why she was going to act impulsively now. She was going to go with her gut. She was going to do what she wanted to do for once. She was going to choose her own future, for better or worse, and she would take what came and accept it. The most important thing, more than anything else, was that now, for the first time, she had an opportunity... a chance to get out from under destiny's thumb.
She would write her own story.
'Please, Tsubasa, don't die... or do anything ridiculously stupid.'
Truly Roma was blessed to have returned to Merrywell under Valeria's care, for she found nothing more then an affirmation of her beliefs and radiated a dignified as the rabbit eared Magical Girl was led to her cell. Cute though it was to see her captor flirt so shamelessly with the Murderer, what caught her attention more was how Ozma seemed conflicted by the Minister's grand address.
When the door shut she turned to face them, hoping to offer the Murderer a moment of reconsiliation even if atonement was forever beyond Ozma.
"Perhaps you are beginning to see the nature of the beast who holds you all in her thrall. If the blatant example of emotion and consiousness suppression was not enough, she openly admits her desires for all and sundry to hear. I would call it arrogance but it has proven a well founded belief in her untouchable nature."
Her eyes shifted between them before closing, hands reaching to the bars as though physically imploring them with the emotion she couldn't convey. "If I had proven the monster you think me and killed Magical Girls this day, do you believe she would have treated me with any less warmth?"
"No. She'd have embraced me all the same. She...has but one goal. A goal she's already succeeded in, and only cares to keep ahold of. The complete control of all Magical Girls. It matters not who dies so long as those who remain....are hers alone."
Suzuya had never regretted coming to England more then the day she'd just endured, and she'd already seen what they called 'pub fare' food. The idea of striking a teacher had never even occured to her in her old school life, and her Grimoire was sorely tempted to encourage it.
Tempted, but neither were ready to step into the wrong like that. They were being wronged by the teacher, treated like a marauding brute for intervening between an assault on an unarmed person with open hands and firm words, all the while the same teacher was seemingly consoling a girl who attempted to kill an injured Magical Girl just to get an edge over Tsubasa.
So they'd swallowed their revulsion, hugged a bloodthirsty wolf, and left without a word to the counselor.
Suzuya's only relief came from her dorm, the still transformed fox girl finding a ray of sunshine and her reliable paramour relaxed without a care in the world. Letters came, went, and came again with one even for Suzuya. Carefully prying open the envelope so as not to rip it, already planning to keep both parcel and packaging, she found Bonnie's words uplifting. The longing for connection in those words brought a smile of understanding to her lips even if she'd already planned on going.
Her ears perked up, twinned radar dishes directed to Olivia and almost seemed to glow- No, they were clearly glowing even as Suzuya's face remained perfectly relaxed. The joys of emotional control via magic were not to be understated in avoiding typical maidenly embarrassment.
"That sounds lovely. And I presume Xolys shall be our chaperone? I seem to recall one of the other girls talking about Pizza before we left this morning. We should see what the city can offer of it!"
Apia was still the ray of sunshine she remembered from the Detention, that plucky bee that could defang a nightmare with a preciuse thrust and save their pizza night from destruction. Hearing she was a direct affiliate of a Vassal was a sight better then being another Jester affiliate, and truthfully she couldn't have picked a friendlier one to point Apia towards.
She wanted to congratulate her. To commiserate on finding one who would support and actively work to see her grow.
But her eyes were locked on Yui, a tighteness grasping her entire body even as a familiar face took the seaweed head by the shoulder and promised a swift, grisly demise at a word from Kanbaru. A word. A grunt. Even a nod of the head and Yui's journey could end to nothing more then the casual madness of the Casino and it's owner.
"You fought Touka, huh?" But Kanbaru relaxed marginally, the words carrying an almost rye amusement as she quirked her head and tried to look at Yui in a new light. "And you're still alive. She must have seen something to leave you breathing."
"Mastephos, we need an arena. No interruptions and no audience. I require your discretion from the other staff...Apia, you can come along as well. If Yui wants to pursue Touka then she can show me she has what it takes, or I'll retire you far sweeter then she would if she sees you again."
After following the minion that had so recently terrorized the Tower Kanbaru stood across from Yui, her hair still blue with the JSTR seperated from her. The fight before her was personal, and while she fully intended to use everything at her disposal to bring Touka back, this was going to be a measure of her own growth.
"You can use anything you gained by your own strength and actions. That snake is neither but I'll accept it won't leave your side willingly." With a flicker of light the Corpse Collector Serei was absorbed, a billowing coat and hood settling over her. The comforting embrace of a heavy mask secured itself to her face and the visage of Broker of Fortune, Rule Keeper of the Detention Club, loomed before Yui.
The Nephy card shattered and a blade of blackest night fell from sleeve into waiting hand, frost crackling along it's length as a dark vitality surged around Kanbaru in a visible aura of necromantic energy. "If you can't stand to face me here then turn and never let Touka's name grace your lips, for you will never reach her side."