Chapter 15:

"Mahou Shoujo Melody Tsuzuki"


Tsuzuki’s familiar - the gray cat with the patch of blue fur named Nemea - sits lazily on the wall, licking the top of a paw, then gestures with his head. He pads along the top of the wall; I follow on the street below. With all the commotion at the konbini behind us, we don’t pass by a single soul on these backstreets. The night is quiet, only broken by the hum of the streetlamps.

Nemea leaps down from the wall onto a staircase carved by stone. It’s designed to look centuries old, but it can’t be older than thirty. The same goes for the ‘weathered’ red Torii gate stretching over the entrance to the shrine.

I’m not the most knowledgeable when it comes to spirits. “Nemea, won’t the local kami be upset with you crossing into its territory?”

Nemea lets out a human-sounding laugh in his deep voice. “Child, the kami on Shikishima are few and far between. This island is not a natural construct - it is the city of dreams. Energy from another world powers it. Only ghosts and Nightmares dwell on this island.”

“And familiars,” I point out.

Nemea scoffs. “Not by choice. I wish Tsuzuki had decided to protect Hawaii or Aruba rather than Shikishima. The tiki dances and island martinis produced by your species…how I yearn for them.”

I chuckle. “You and me both.”

We pass by the wooden shrine and arrive in a small patch of grass surrounded by bushes and covered by the heavy foliage of dark oak trees. The park is filled with a ghostly silence; a slight sea breeze sends rustles through the bushes. I can hear the muffled gurgle of a man-made stream somewhere at the edge of the park.

Nemea bounds over to the middle of the patch and kneels before me. “I now pronounce the presence of Tsuzuki-sama.”

His tail points upward and dissolves into a mixture of blue smoke and black shadow. The mist swirls and coalesces; I’m still a novice when it comes to magic, so I can’t help but take a step back.

The fog and mist finally take on human form, and I come face to face with a seemingly normal high school girl - Tsuzuki, Mahou Shoujo, Sworn Shield of Shikishima. I tap my fingers along my hip, eager to hear her speak about last night at the reactor, but the air takes on a cold chill. Or maybe it’s just me.

Tsuzuki isn’t her usual pretty, boisterous self. In her secret hideout of Swer Smod somewhere on the island, she’s hooked up to tubes and wires, a respirator over her mouth. Her crimson hair looks burnt and bandages cover half of her body. Her face - the parts that are still visible, at least - grimace with every word.

“Kato Ryoko,” she greets. Even her voice has lost its usual bubbliness. “How goes it?”

“I should be asking you that,” I answer. Before I can follow up with a laundry list of questions, Tsuzuki lets out a hoarse cough. A splotch of red briefly appears in the respirator until a puff of magic wipes it clean.

“The mission did not succeed in full,” Tsuzuki admits. She sees the look on my face. “Don’t worry. It wasn’t you. The security systems were completely shut down for four minutes. That was enough time for me to arrive at the heart of the reactor and retrieve the Jade Magatama.”

My eyes widen. “You mean…the Jade Magatama really exists?”

Tsuzuki tilts her head. “You signed up for this while not believing in its existence?”

I run a hand through my hair. “Well, you know…an entire city being powered by a gem filled with dreams…it’s kind of far-fetched, you know?”

“And yet you talk with a magic girl with the aid of a spirit cat,” Tsuzuki retorts. “In any case, the issue lies with the Jade Magatama itself. The magic it emits…even the powers possessed by mahou shoujo pale in comparison. As Nemea knows - the Jade Magatama must not be of this world. How the Nakashima conglomerate got their hands on it, I haven’t the faintest clue.”

From the tone of her voice, it sounds like it’s no longer in her possession. “What happened to it?” 

Tsuzuki gives me a wry grin. “It tempted me with its magic. The power it offered…I tried to use it for a spell. But the improper use of the Jade Magatama can lead to utter catastrophe. And you now see the consequences.”

To emphasize, she holds up one of her loafers, which looks burnt to a crisp.

“Sorry about your shoes,” I say.

“It wasn’t just the shoes.” Tsuzuki holds the loafer higher, revealing the charred leg detached from the rest of her body. I place a hand over my mouth while even Nemea grimaces.

Tsuzuki puts her leg back down. “Fortunately, I’ve been keeping reserve banks of magic for situations like these. I should recover enough to walk and perhaps even fight with the strength of a muscular toddler in four days hence.”

“The last day of the culture festival,” I realize. “But doesn’t your client want the Jade Magatama by the first day?”

“Indeed.” Tsuzuki gets into another coughing fit, then gives me a sidelong gaze. “My client is powerful. They may have deposited your advance into your bank account, but they also own that bank in general. You won’t see a single yen until we deliver the Jade Magatama to my client’s safe possession.”

My heart skips a beat. “I was gonna renovate the orphanage with that!”

“And I intended to retire,” Nemea answers. His whiskers bounce as he shakes his head in dismay. “Unfortunately, we are beholden to the almighty yen.”

“The money is not yours to take,” Tsuzuki chides her familiar. She then turns her gaze back to me. “After escaping the reactor facility, my accident took place near the Minami Port District on the way to the safehouse. I laid there in a daze for at least an hour. While I was incapacitated, a group of local ne-er-do-wells came across me. My injuries made them take a wide berth, all except one, a high schooler with a giant black pompadour. He took an interest in the object in my hand.”

“The Jade Magatama,” I say.

“Indeed. It takes on the appearance of a crown jewel. Even to those unaware of its true nature, it’s still worth a fortune.”

“We must find this delinquent,” Nemea concludes. “Only then will we receive our keep. Three equal shares, as promised.”

Tsuzuki wheezes as she waves her hand. There’s a sharp BONK sound as something invisible that sounds like a frying pan hits the back of Nemea’s head.

“I receive 49%,” Tsuzuki reminds Nemea. “Ryoko receives 33%, and you receive 18%. Originally, it would’ve been split between us equally, but you sold half your share to me because-”

Nemea rubs the sore spot on his head with a frown. He wants to protest, but he can only let out a sigh. “Because I purchased the rights to any sort of Tsuzuki-related animated character or podcast.”

Tsuzuki lets out a pained laugh while Nemea frowns. “I went to college, you know.”

This just makes Tsuzuki laugh harder.

All the while, an idea forms in my head. Well, it’s an idea I’ve had for a long time - but an opportunity for it has finally arisen.

“Say, Tsuzuki," I begin. "Delinquents are tough, you know? I don’t think I could get the Jade Magatama back while you’re…a cripple, you know? Therefore, I think it really makes sense for me to become a mahou shoujo-”

“Enough,” Tsuzushima cuts in.

“C’mon! I’ve been studying some of the texts, learning the lore, everything-”

“You are useful to me as a thief and nothing more,” Tsuzuki interrupts. Her words hurt more than she realizes. “Access to the Forbidden Knowledge of the Bicameral Mind is not to be taken nor granted lightly, for it is a path filled with longing and corpses. To be awake while asleep, to be asleep while awake, you lose sight of what is the living and what is the living dream.”

“I can handle…” I pause and ponder on what her words exactly mean. I don’t got a clue. “...that!”

“You cannot. And I would not be there to protect you while you learned.”

“But Nemea will protect me!”

I look to the cat for support, but he stays quiet, pretending to see something off in the distance.

“Nemea, you must stay with Ryoko while I’m incapacitated. Nakayoshi is here.”

Tsuzuki snaps her fingers; a chill breeze blows through the park to deliberately emphasize her point. Even Nemea snaps to attention when that name is mentioned.

I raise an eyebrow. “Who’s Nakayoshi?”

Tsuzuki leans forward and tilts her head, revealing a long scar coiling around her ear. “This scar is not from last night. It’s from years ago, when Nakayoshi, who was not content with being just the magic girl of her hometown, challenged me for the right to protect Shikishima.”

Steward McOy