CHAPTER 4: Why Can't I Do Anything?
"Minegeshi!" Kagami's cry of horror was drowned out; a terrible noise was coming from the cube, a deafening moan that sounded just human enough to chill the blood of whoever heard it. Once again, she pushed against Homura's arm. She had to do something, get that thing away from Ayano and Misao…
"No," said Homura, barely audible over the sound. "You must stay here, Hiiragi-san. I'll stop it… and I'll do everything I can to save your friends. Kyubey, stay with her."
I understand, came the reply. The catlike creature was now sitting at Kagami's feet.
With that, Homura thrust her arm out into the black clouds that were rapidly engulfing the roof. The amethyst set into the silver ring on her finger began to glow, brighter and brighter, straining against the crushing dark. It sparked like a tiny violet star and moved itself into her outstretched palm, resolving itself into a new and larger shape, a gem stone accented with gold, looking for all the world like a Fabergé egg…
The gem lit itself from within like a lantern, casting its violet light over Homura as she moved… and Kagami watched in awe as she spun in midair, graceful as a ballet dancer, her school uniform falling away piece by piece to be replaced with the costume she had been wearing on the train. The silver shield appeared in a flash on her left arm as she floated gently back to the ground, her transformation complete.
Kagami was almost expecting her to say something, one of those corny pre-battle speeches that were a staple in all the magical girl anime that she knew. Homura said nothing; she went straight to her mission, waving a hand over her shield and pulling a handgun from nowhere. She only looked away from the center of the darkness for a split second… that was all it took to set a three-foot circle of glowing light at Kagami's feet. Then she was simply gone… she blinked out of existence without a sound.
Completely overwhelmed, Kagami sank to her knees inside the circle, wondering if the world would ever make sense again… she barely felt it when Kyubey hopped into her lap.
The space outside the circle was changing, warping and twisting on itself, stretching in some places, tearing in others. What little could be seen of the school's roof was melting away, and something new and frightening was taking its place…
The death scream went on and on and on, long past the point where a normal voice would have faded. It screamed and screamed and screamed as its enormous body began to buckle under its own weight… the main body was falling, flattening the rubble of what had once been the downtown area. The multiple trunk-like legs, as big around as entire city blocks, were splintering and collapsing in its death throes, retracting the countless thin, branching tendrils they had plunged deep into the earth's mantle. One by one, its twelve terrible burning eyes were darkening, flickering out like candles.
"Dammit, Akemi, get back behind the barrier!" Kyoko Sakura shouted up at the winged figure hovering far above their heads. She was so high in the sky that only her wings could be seen, jagged and spread to their full width, swirling with the patterns of stars and nebulae. Her voice was lost in the ongoing screaming; she doubted Akemi would be able to hear even if she were standing next to her.
Kyoko gritted her teeth, pouring all of her remaining energy into maintaining the walls of crystalline chain link, the walls that were all that shielded them from the energies being unleashed by the winged figure and the dying Demon. One of the thing's eyes was still burning… she swore it glared right at her just before it spewed forth a ray of white-hot light. That light clashed hard against the barrier, instantly incinerating the outer layers, melting the middle ones away. That was fine; the inner layers were the strongest. They would hold. They had to hold, at least until the Demon finally fell. After that… Come on, thought Kyoko, her hands gripping the shaft of her spear so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Come on, you stubborn bastard, it's over now… just give up and die already! Beads of sweat ran down her forehead. The heat was beginning to leak through the barrier, but she had to keep it up. Had to keep the others safe until the job was finished…
A wooden floor replaced the hard concrete underneath them, scratched and pitted in a thousand places. It was as if they had shrunken to the size of ants, for the one plank of the floor that they sat on was at least three meters across, and so long that its other end disappeared into the black behind them. Ten meters in either direction from them, the lower hems of enormous red curtains hung down from the sky… looking up, there was a rusting metal catwalk impossibly far above their heads, and from it hung a series of brilliant, glaring spotlights that had replaced the afternoon sun. In front of them, past the point where the floor ended, were hundreds of giant chairs with folding seats, stuffed with fraying red cushions. There were indistinct whispers coming from those chairs, but no one to speak them, no one was there at all… Misao, Ayano, and Homura were nowhere to be seen.
"What is this place?" said Kagami. She was fighting the urge to hug Kyubey to her chest like a stuffed animal, just to provide some measure of comfort. "It looks like… a theater…"
We're inside the Demon's Lair, said Kyubey, as calm and placid as Kagami was frightened and confused. The Lair is a space that the Demon generates that exists outside of the real world. You could call it another dimension. You're lucky that Homura's protecting you… Only Puellae Magi can freely enter and exit the Lair. If she weren't here, you and your friends would be trapped here... at least until the Demon killed you.
Kagami glared down at him. Hugging this thing was seeming like less and less of a comforting prospect. "What's the matter with you? Aren't you worried at all?"
No, said Kyubey, tilting his head. Why should I be? Homura's here. As long as she can still move, she won't give up the fight… not until the Demon is dead.
"She's done this before?"
Hundreds of times.
More often than not.
Kagami stared off into the blackness. For some reason, the thought of fighting alone scared her more than anything else at the moment. She had only seen two Demons and had been terrified out of her wits each time. Just these things existing was bad enough, but having to fight them to the death without any help…
"Kyubey?" she whispered. "Why do people like Homura become Puellae Magi?"
It's a contract, said Kyubey. A Puella Magi receives the power of magic in exchange for a single wish… in return for that wish, they must fight the Demons and help to stave off the process of entropy.
Kagami frowned, remembering that term from her science classes. "That's the universe running out of energy, isn't it?"
Yes. Puellae Magi defy the laws of physics and thermodynamics, so their actions can slow down or even reverse entropy. Each contract buys the universe a little more time.
"And they do this for a wish… what kind of wish?"
It can be for anything at all. Some girls wish for health, or for power… Others fulfill their hearts' desires.
She wrinkled her nose. "That sounds like a Disney movie," she said flatly. "So what did Homura wish for?"
I don't know.
Kagami stared at the little creature, and he stared back at her with that same frozen smile. "But if you made a contract with her, how-"
For the first time, she heard a small note of uncertainty in Kyubey's words. Homura is… an irregularity. She must have made a contract with me at some point, but I can't remember her ever doing so. I've asked her about it, but she won't tell me.
Beyond the edge of the stage, the whispering from the giant seats was growing louder. Feeling the hairs rising on the back of her neck, Kagami shuddered. Maybe hugging Kyubey wasn't such a bad idea after all… "I don't like this," she said. "The voices are getting louder. What does that mean?"
Before Kyubey could answer, a shot rang out, the blast echoing from one end of the stage to the other. It was followed shortly thereafter by a lancing beam of green light that left a streak across Kagami's vision in its wake. The stage began to tremble as more shots and light beams were exchanged, growing closer to each other…
And then Kagami screamed, for the Demon inexplicably appeared out of thin air not a meter from the edge of the circle. Looming tall over her, its white, featureless head swirling with random shapes, its hand emerged from the folds of its cloak… "Ani voraon nardac itt uteell etsel ar ucso," it said, in a voice completely unlike the one of the Demon on the train. Instead of a metallic screech, this Demon spoke in a low groan that sounded of branches creaking in a windstorm, and its words were punctuated with horrible snapping noises, like bones breaking…
At last, blessedly, it was fading. Pieces of its body broke away and dissolved, the fragments floating up like ashes, up to the sky where the clouds had hung unnaturally low and heavy ever since the weather stopped changing. Many of the ashes were swallowed up by the dozens of ghastly wounds the Demon had torn in the sky, wounds which still burned hot and red as blood.
Kyoko groaned and let herself topple to the ground. Her spear dropped from her numb hands and dissolved into crimson particles. The barrier, or what was left of it, fell to pieces around her, the crystals shattering to dust as they hit the poisoned soil. They had done it. Finally, they had done it. Vittoria was really dead…
"Onee-chan!" The small voice rang out somewhere behind her. Small footsteps slapped against the broken pavement as she ran, already pulling out her wand. "Onee-chan, hold on! Yuma's coming!"
Kyoko smiled. "Oi, brat," she said, not bothering to look up. She was so tired… "I thought I told you not to call me that."
Now Yuma Chitose was standing over her, her blue eyes wide with concern. Poor little thing, she had had to grow up so much in the past year… "Just hold still, onee-chan," she said, "Yuma's right here. Yuma will fix you."
"It's Kyoko," grumbled the red-haired girl as she felt the healing magic wash over her, cool as an ocean wave. "Kyoko. Not onee-chan. Geez, dumbass, don't you know anything?"
Yuma sniffled and grinned as tears streamed from her eyes, cutting tracks in the dirt and dust on her cheeks. "It's going to be all right now, onee-cha… Kyoko-chan."
"There ya go," said Kyoko. "It's about time."
A shadow descended over them. Slowly Homura floated down, her feet touching the ground without a sound as her strange, great wings folded and shrank into her back. The ebony bow she carried vanished in a flash of violet light. "Kyoko, Yuma," she said, as stoic as ever. "Are the others…"
"I am still here," said a voice from behind the smoldering wreck of a bus. An elegant young lady stood up, clad all in white, with deep green eyes and hair that was almost colorless. She walked toward them with a dignity that belied the devastation that surrounded her… Oriko Mikuni had proven that she could even look graceful in the midst of an apocalypse. "I believe Nico is still regenerating." She looked at Homura, hardly daring to hope as she asked the question on everyone's mind. "The Demon is dead? You're absolutely sure of it?"
Homura nodded and stretched out her hand. Clenched tightly in her fingers was a translucent black cube with a spindle rammed through the center. "Where's Kyubey?"
Right here. The voice echoed through the minds of the four girls as the Incubator appeared, having formed a new body for itself from the very air. Well done, girls. It's finally over.
"For all the good it did," Homura shut her eyes tight and tossed the Curse Seed to Kyubey without looking. "The world is still dying..."
Kyoko wrinkled her nose. It was just like Homura to be gloomy and pessimistic during their victory celebration. She opened her mouth to admonish her, but before she could speak, she felt her heart lurch in her chest and saw a flash before her eyes…
She bit her tongue, forcing herself not to scream again. It's okay. The barrier's still in place. It can't hurt us.
The Demon moaned in that awful voice, spouting its nonsense syllables and spreading its fingers wide as it reached for them.
It's okay. We're going to be fine. It's safe inside the barrier.
There was a terrible sizzling noise… its fingertips began to smoke as they pressed against the barrier's surface. Its flesh was burning, but it didn't care. Slowly it began to squeeze.
And then its head burst like a melon to the accompaniment of the deafening chatter of an assault rifle… a sound that Kagami had heard in a thousand movies and TV shows, but she had never imagined she would hear in real life. Homura was there in front of the barrier, mercilessly unloading an entire clip of ammo into the monster, riddling its body with bullet holes.
"Homura!" Her voice was lost in the din, but she could have sworn that the Puella Magi looked back for a moment and gave her the briefest of smiles.
You see? said Kyubey from down on the floor, with just the vaguest hint of smugness. I told you she would be all right.
An impossibly large shape was tearing itself out of the remnants of the Demon's body. What Kagami initially took for multiple heads atop long necks were fingers, five of them along with a thumb, attached to an immense wooden hand with ratcheted ball joints like a doll's. Each fingertip had crude eyes and a mouth carved in it, like a haniwa figure, but they were moving… they cycled through expressions every second: happy, sad, angry, confused, screaming as if in pain… They all began to moan, chorusing in that awful voice, "Ani voraon nardac itt ute-"
A tremendous explosion in its palm interrupted the rest. Kagami's jaw dropped open in shock, for Homura had just pulled a rocket launcher out of her shield, as easily as a stage magician pulling a rabbit from a hat. Smoke billowed over the stage in great grey clouds as Homura put the weapon down, its ammunition expended.
"Don't tell me it's still not dead…!" Kagami clutched at her chest, trying to calm her racing heart. She didn't expect Homura to be able to hear, but damn it, it felt good to say something…
"I'll be able to tell when the smoke clears," said Homura, scanning the cloud for any signs of movement.
It happened before either of them could react. The fingers loomed out of the cloud, all six faces twisted in anger, and snatched Homura up into the Demon's grip. She let out the smallest gasp of surprise as her feet left the ground…
Kyoko's transformation came undone, her battle costume dissolved away. She hurt… she felt a kind of pain she had almost forgotten about, deep within her. Puellae Magi could block out pain, suppress it with their magic. After a while, doing so became almost second nature. But this was an entirely different kind of pain, a lurching, growing, acidic darkness. She groaned, uncomprehending, unable to lift herself off the ground. "Wh-what…"
Then she felt the weight in the palm of her hand, managed to turn her head to look at it… and she understood. Her Soul Gem sat there, no longer bright and shining. Its interior swirled with black clouds, drowning out its normal ruby color. Her face turned pale.
At once, the others were beside her, Yuma clutching at her other hand almost hard enough to break it, pouring more and more healing magic into her body as she screamed her name. Oriko fell to her knees, shaking her head in denial, unable to speak. And Homura just stood there, her stoic face finally cracking… she was crying. Kyoko couldn't remember the last time she had- No, wait. She remembered. She remembered all too well. Two years ago, before the nightmare that was Vittoria, when they had lost Sayaka… the night when Mami had told her the truth.
"H-hey," she said, forcing a smile. "Knock it off, guys. You're gonna ruin the moment."
"Sakura, you fool!" Oriko's voice was raised in sorrow and anger. That was another first… usually she was almost as unflappable as Homura… "Why didn't you tell us you were low on power? We could have done something, we could have-"
"D-didn't know myself until just now," she admitted, smiling genuinely. "Pretty stupid, huh…?"
Homura went cold. She knew without a shadow of a doubt that had just given their last Curse Seed to Kyubey. Now it was too late…
"Just hold on, onee-chan, please hold on!" Yuma could barely speak through her tears. Her hands trembled around Kyoko's as she cast another wave of power, but it did nothing.
"C'mon, brat…" Kyoko laughed weakly. "Don't wear… yourself out. It's just my time, is all… nothing you can do."
"That's not true! Yuma can fix you, Yuma can-" She broke off in mid-sentence as Oriko laid a hand on her shoulder.
"Hey, Homura." The red-haired girl shuddered, feeling strangely light… that feeling of acid inside her was still there, but far away somehow. "Don't worry about it. You didn't know… so it's fine. I did… what I had to do. That's enough."
"Kyoko…" Homura whispered. This couldn't be happening again. Not now, when they had finally won… Memories flashed unbidden into her mind, of another person lying there, inexplicably smiling while their Soul Gem darkened. "No…"
"Yuma-chan?" With the little strength she had left, Kyoko squeezed the younger girl's hands. "You're gonna have to… be strong now. Homura and Oriko and Nico… each of them will be your onee-chan now, so be a good girl and… listen to them, okay?"
Yuma nodded, holding on to Kyoko for dear life. "I… I will."
Grinning, Kyoko closed her eyes. "Thanks, Yuma-chan… you were a great little sister, you know…?" Then she looked back and smiled at Oriko, at Homura, at-
She blinked. There was another girl standing there beside Homura. Not Nico, Nico never dressed in pink… This was a Puella Magi Kyoko had never seen before. Her costume was pink and red and white, very frilly, like something from one of those old fairy tales, spotless despite the ruin all around them. She had short pink hair tied up in pigtails, and her smile was so kind and gentle that Kyoko felt a warmer just looking at it. "Who…?" she whispered, confused. There couldn't be a new Puella Magi here, that wasn't possible. And why didn't the others seem to notice her?
The new girl stepped forward and knelt down next to Kyoko. She was still smiling at her as if she was an old friend. Her hand extended, clad in a dainty little white glove, and hovered over Kyoko's Soul Gem. The black clouds inside of the jewel gathered up and escaped from it, restoring it to its former glory… and then the Soul Gem itself simply faded away like a dream. The new girl leaned over her, took Kyoko's face in her hands, and placed a soft, feather-light kiss on her forehead…
Ah, thought Kyoko. So that's it.
Yuma let out an anguished wail as Kyoko's body grew thin and transparent, then vanished altogether.
Homura shivered uncontrollably, feeling tears fall down her cheeks. She had seen the look on the other girl's face as Kyoko had looked over her shoulder. She had been there, right beside them, giving Kyoko an act of mercy and comfort in her last moments, as she did with every Puella Magi. Everything seemed to fall away from Homura, disconnecting her from the reality of Kyoko's passing, from the sound of Yuma's crying… She had seen so much death and destruction, more than anyone knew. At times, she felt as if it shouldn't affect her at all, that she should have grown numb to the pain… but seeing that look on Kyoko's face brought everything back. The loss, the hardship, and the bittersweet memory of her closest, dearest friend: the one who could walk next to them without being seen, the greatest of them all, the Puella Magi who had given herself to bring just a little bit of light into the darkness. Something broke inside Homura, and she wept in silence.
"No!" Kagami pressed her hands helplessly against the barrier. It flexed under her weight, but wouldn't give… With a cry of frustration she beat against it with her fist. "No, no, no, no! Homura!"
The giant wooden fingers creaked ominously as they constricted around Homura's small body. Only her head protruded from the Demon's fist. She attempted to smile, but it came out as a grimace of pain. "H-Hiiragi-san, stay back… I'll be fine…" She couldn't stop herself from gasping as its grip tightened.
"The hell you will!" Kagami looked around frantically. There had to be something she could use, some kind of weapon. Her eyes fell on Kyubey… "You!"
He tilted his head. Yes? The tone of his voice was appallingly unconcerned.
Kagami snatched him up off the floor and stared him right in his beady red eyes. "Make me a Puella Magi. I've got to do something to help her!"
I'm sorry, said Kyubey. I can't do that.
"What the hell do you mean, you can't?" she shouted, fighting the urge to shake him by the neck. "I don't care what I have to do, just let me fight that thing!"
That's not possible, said Kyubey. You must not become a Puella Magi, Kagami Hiiragi, not under any circumstances.
"Why not?" This time she did shake him, her voice rising in her state of frenzy. "Why can't I do anything?"
Our entire mission depends on your remaining as a normal human being. It's imperative that you stay the way you are.
"Screw your mission!" Kagami dropped him and grabbed her school bag by its strap. "If you're just gonna sit there and let Homura die, that's your problem! I'm doing what's right!"
With that, she charged at the barrier wall, expecting to slam into it head-on. Instead the field of violet energy rippled like water and let her pass through harmlessly. Picking up speed, she ran across the stage, gripping the strap of her bag so tight that her knuckles whitened. I've got to help somehow. Her pigtails streamed behind her like banners as the wind whipped at her face. Got to do something… Three meters away from the Demon, and closing fast. It had all its attention focused on squeezing Homura to death, so it took no notice of the tiny human making a reckless dash in its direction. Two meters… No matter what Kyubey said, she had to do this. For Ayano, for Misao, and for Homura… they were all counting on her, all counting on this one desperate strike. One meter, and she held the bag out to her side, letting it build momentum as she took the last few strides. Finally, she skidded to a stop on her heel, and swung with all her might at the Demon's wooden body as she shouted, "Let her GO!"
A great shudder passed through the thing's body as a great splintering crack rung out across the stage. The heavy bag had scored a mark beneath one of its knuckles, and orange blood began to well up in the wound. Kagami braced herself and prepared to swing again, but before she could react, the two smallest of its six fingers flicked out, petulantly swatting her aside like a gnat.
Homura screamed. "Hiiragi!"
Kagami sailed backwards through the air, over the edge of the stage, and slamming into the back of one of the enormous chairs in the front row. The frayed velvet cushion only absorbed some of the impact… it forced the air from her lungs, making her see stars as she slid down into the seat, dazed and unable to move.
Loud whispering filled her ears. Wooden arms grew out of the seat cushion in a circle all around her, dozens of them. They pounced before she could pick herself up, seizing her wrists and ankles and holding her spread-eagled. More hands emerged, grabbing at her waist, her shoulders, her neck, even her pigtails. Each hand began to glow…
Kagami let out a howl of pain. They were leeching something from her body, forcing it out through her skin, something warm and precious that she couldn't identify, but that she somehow knew she could not live without… and what was left behind was cold, so cold that it burned her from within like frostbite. She strained and struggled with every ounce of resistance she could muster, but the hands would not release her. Not until she was drained dry… No, thought Kagami in a blind panic. Have to do something. Her muscles screamed at her in protest as she fought uselessly to break free, her back arching with the effort. More hands were piling onto her; the drain was increasing. I have to-
"Akemi-san, you need to look at this."
Homura didn't answer. She sat on a piece of upturned concrete, her head in her hands. She had stopped crying some minutes ago, but now she simply felt empty, hollowed out.
That feeling, she knew, was all too familiar to Nico Kanna, the platinum-haired girl now approaching her with Kyubey on her shoulder. Nico had always been the coolest and calmest of her group of friends; much like Homura, she had a reputation as "the quiet one". Now that description fit her more than ever… since the other Pleiades Saints had fallen in battle, she never spoke an unnecessary word, and never stopped wearing that tiny, wounded little smile, which was much like Kyubey's in an extraordinarily unsettling way. Her body was unmarred by any scratches or battle scars; due to her unique abilities, she could regenerate herself from injuries that would kill any normal Puella Magi twice over.
"Not now," said Homura without looking up. She was in no mood for regrouping plans, or whatever Nico wanted to talk about. She was so tired, she just wanted to rest…
I'm sorry, Homura, but you really do need to see this, said Kyubey from his perch on the girl's shoulder.
Homura drew herself up to her full height and stared right into Nico's icy blue eyes. "We just lost Kyoko," she said, trying to keep her voice even. "I'll look at whatever it is later. Do you understand?"
As always, Nico was unmoved. She tapped a few panels on her favorite old smart phone, now so weather-beaten that not even her magic could restore its appearance for long. Between the two girls a shimmering holographic globe appeared, a model of the Earth. "I was just trying to reach Valencia-san in Ecuador, to confirm that all of Vittoria's tendrils were destroyed," she said. "I didn't get a response."
"She may not have made it," said Homura flatly, now numb to the possibility of yet another death. "Ramos was her partner, wasn't she? Did you try her?"
"Yes, no answer. So then I tried to reach Nyota-san in Kiambu, then Robard-san in Cannes-"
"Get to the point," snapped Homura. Weren't there more important things happening than a communications blackout?
Look at the globe, Homura, said Kyubey.
She looked, and saw nothing of interest… the Earth was still the Earth, apart from the pockmarked scars of Vittoria's presence marring the continents. "I'm looking. What am I seeing?"
"Do you see the red marker positioned in Japan?" Nico tapped the screen and zoomed in on the Japanese islands. After some time, the marker separated into four distinct red beacons amid the field of blue.
"Yes. What about it?"
Nico's face was bathed in the blue light of her phone's projector. It threw odd patterns of shadows across her pale face. "I thought we might be having problems with our comm network, so I wrote a program to bounce a signal off the remaining satellites in orbit," she said. "That signal was configured to search for Soul Gems. What you're looking at are the results."
Homura's veins filled with ice.
Nico tapped the screen one last time, and markers written in kanji appeared under each of the red lights: Akemi. Chitose. Kanna. Mikuni.
"All the others are gone," said Nico, without a trace of emotion. "We're all that's left."
Kagami slowly came back to her senses to the sensation of someone shaking her shoulders.
"Hiiragi-san, please wake up… Hiiragi-san! Please…" It was Homura.
Kagami opened her eyes and immediately shut them again, feeling a stabbing pain from the brightness of the summer sun. Her whole body ached as if she had just run a marathon, and her skin was prickling weirdly. She swallowed, licked her dry lips, and tried to speak. "H… Homura…?"
A relieved breath was let out above her. "Thank God," she whispered. "Hiiragi-san, that was-"
"R-Really stupid, I know…" said Kagami, with a levity she didn't in any way feel. "Are… we all okay…? Did you… kill the Demon?"
Homura's fingers dug into her shoulders. There was a long pause before she answered. "The… the Demon is dead. Minegeshi-san and Kusakabe-san are all right, just unconscious. But Hiiragi-san… you shouldn't have done that…"
"H-Had to help," said Kagami, cracking open one of her eyes again. "You're my friend, and I needed to… return the favor, you know?"
To her surprise, Homura's normally stoic fast was aghast with concern. "Hiiragi-san, there's something you need to know. I didn't kill that Demon," she said.
"Huh?" Kagami blinked and tried to sit up, but her body wouldn't move. "Did Kyubey-"
The other girl shook her head. "No. Neither of us killed it… You did."
END OF CHAPTER 4