Chapter 21:

No Rest for the Weary

Half-Paid Heroes

"It's seven am, what do you-" Chris moaned, her hair an unkempt ball on her head with the exception of a few wayward strands that framed her face. The dark-haired girl wore a bubblegum pink tank top and pyjama pants, both emblazoned multiple times with a half-awake cartoon owl mumbling the words "I Need Sleep". A tartan sleeping mask sat on her temples, waiting at attention. (However, judging by how Chris was yawning, yes, she did need sleep.)

"Morning!" Heart Despair gave her a little wave and the cheeriest of smiles, which functioned as the perfect wake-up call.

The dark-haired girl transformed - even though she retained her bedhead - and unruly shadows snaked out from around her feet. Before she could even use one of those shadows to strike at the magical girl in the guise of her friend, someone barred her way.

It was her brother, who had used the confusion to perform his own transformation.

He lowered the holding part of the scythe to around Chris's midsection so that she couldn't get out the door, but she ducked, getting a lock of her long hair chopped off as she narrowly missed the cutting edge of the weapon. Her hat fell off her head, dissolving into motes of ash-like magic that bounced off the front carpet once before fading.

Heart Despair, whose face was now in a mad rictus, tried to aim an orb of her power - brilliant light which nibbled at Heart Hope's darkness - at the dark-type magical girl, but the attempt ended in a fizzling of white-hot sparks. Meanwhile, the soulless husk - who Chris, in the heat of battle, refused to acknowledge as the flesh and blood of her brother - slammed his scythe close to Heart Hope's booted feet, and she narrowly got away by drawing them in.

The silver-haired psychopomp thrust his scythe forward like a lance, prodding Chris in the midsection and cutting a diagonal slash through her dress before she could slip away again.

"Hey, don't do that!" the younger sister protested, glancing over lines of her own blood on the concrete around her as rogue shadows gathered around her feet flung themselves at her opponent.

Chris's shadows hadn't even made contact with the psychopomp when they tried to touch the blade of his scythe and dissipated like vampires in sunlight. It seemed that for a moment there, Martin had created some aura that had negated her ability to control shadows. 

"Why not, Christina?!" he mocked loudly, his mouth suddenly becoming as twisted as Heart Despair's as he lunged in the same direction he'd thrust his weapon, his silver hair leaving a comet streak behind him. This declaration caused Heart Despair to be caught off guard, enough to give Ella control again, so the white-clad magical girl tried to detransform.

Unfortunately, she was failing.

Odagaki, who was watching all this unfold with a serene look on his face, turned to Ella as he heard her attempts. "Don't try detransforming, only my company knows what the right phrase is."

As much as Ella didn't want to disrespect her elders, she didn't want to be stuck as a magical girl forever, especially a psychopathic one she couldn't control. Therefore, she got on her feet and begged him for the phrase.

"The only way I'll give you the phrase is if you resign from the Kirikagura Company," the wheelchair-bound man gazed upon her kneeling body and gave her the ultimatum firmly, as if he were reprimanding a grandchild.

"B-But that's blackmail!" Ella cried, her arms falling to her sides in resignation.

"The correct term is 'extortion'," Odagaki corrected, "blackmail requires one side of the transaction to be money. So, what will you do about it, Heart Despair?"

Leaving Ella speechless, the old man's wheels squeaked once again as he made a snail's-pace getaway.

As time slowly crept forward and the sun rose higher into the cloudless sky, the two combatants continued to defy the sluggish rotations of the earth. Meanwhile, Ella kept glancing at where they were going, then down at the Heart Despair form Odagaki had bestowed upon her, a look of worry and powerlessness etched on to her face all the while.
---- Author's Note ----
Man, I haven't had that much fun writing a battle scene in a while. By the way, Chris's real first name is "Chris" - Martin's just mocking her because that's what brothers do. After a comment from Joel (Bedulla), I was considering using that moment to admit Chris's name was "Christina" all along, but she's so tomboyish, feminine names like "Christina" don't suit her...

Unfortunately, the owl pyjamas are mostly a fabrication of an outfit I've seen before.

Gerry Hines