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~ zweiundzwanzig ~

 

 

            Mother.

 

            I love you.

            Truly— truly.

 

            Before. And always.

            — I’ll love you.

 

 

            I’m sorry.

 

            And.

 

 

            — Thank you.

 

 

            zweiundzwanzig (Mutter)

 

 

            “Let’s go. Together.”

 

            Taking the hand extended to me, I stood up to follow her, who was standing.

 

            Maybe because I had been sitting longer than I thought, or because of all the blood that had coursed its way out of me, I felt a slight numbness hit my body.

 

            But— I could no longer feel even a bit of the pain that had been so sharp. I was again impressed by Shamal-sensei, who had treated me.

 

            When I opened my mouth to thank her again, at that moment,

 

            “..., They’ve come already?”

 

            As if she had noticed something, Hayate glared into the distant sky.

 

            Off in that direction there was an enormous magical energy reaction. ... And it continued to increase. — As if, it was to keep us from going forward. The knights that had likely been heading out to the front line, seemed to be returning rapidly.

 

            “... Looks like we’ve been noticed.”

            “Shooting so flashily. ... It was just a matter of time.”

 

            “Are you alright now, Fate-chan?” To that question, I nodded. I readied my Device, but as I prepared to spread a circle to attack, I was interrupted.

 

            “Hold it, Fate-chan. We’ll take care of things here!”

            “—... But, Hayate...”

            “Just listen. — Don’t make light of us, okay? Who do you think we are?”

 

 

            “— Got it. Thank you, everyone.”

 

            There was uncertainty. Because the number of people here was a fraction of even half the enemy’s numbers. — But strangely, I felt no anxiety.

 

            That was probably because— I believed.

 

            “— Nanoha, will you... come with me?”

            “Yes. Of course, Fate-chan!”

 

            In Hayate, and in the Guardian Knights.

 

 

            “... Agito, I’m sorry. Could you give them a hand?”

            “— Got it. But! Don’t overdo it!”

 

            Agito, who had released our Unison, turned toward the Guardian Knights. After a few moments, departing red hair was reflected at the edge of my field of vision.

 

            “All right! I’m taking you all on myself!”

            “You heard her. Your opponents are right here!”

 

 

 

            The sky which the full moon must have been floating in, — had now cleared up into a deep blue. That cloudless sky, was dyed with an abundance of magical light.

 

            A roar that nearly cut the atmosphere, resounded.

 

 

            Signum, who had Unisoned with Agito, cut through incoming light bullets, and behind them Hayate was spreading a large magic circle. The repelled bullets scattered, evaporating the pure-white snow that had accumulated on the ground. Steam rose. In the opportunity given while the enemy recoiled from it, Vita and Zafira counter-attacked.

 

            “Fate-chan.”

 

            Hayate was readying an incantation, and as she closed her eyelids. Slowly, her lips moved.

 

            “... Good luck, Fate-chan. ... Take care of Nanoha-chan, okay?”

            “Of course. — Thank you, Hayate.”

 

            “Hayate-chan, all of you... be careful too. Don’t let yourselves get hurt.”

            “Naturally!”

 

            In a single burst we dashed into the sky. The cold air was a little painful on my skin.

 

            At our rear, the magical energy of Hayate’s group and the enemy mage knights continued to crisscross. — And from behind, increasing, I began to feel a familiar magical energy.

 

            “... This, — Could it be...!?”

 

 

            “Honestly. — Don’t worry us so much, you guys.”

 

 

            A voice that never should have been there spoke.

 

            Turning my head instinctively, there were the members of my unit. And breathing an exasperated sigh, was Chrono.

 

            “— Chrono-kun, why are all of you...”

            “... By order of the king. Reinforcements are coming soon too. — Their surrender is probably just a matter of time as well.”

            “That’s all there is to it! Don’t worry about us, just finish things quickly! Captain!”

 

            “... Everyone...”

 

            I tightly held back tears that threatened to spill out. I couldn’t cry here. — Because it still wasn’t over.

 

            “... Fate-chan.”

 

 

            I’ll stop Mother.

 

            I didn’t want to add any more sins, than this.

            I didn’t want to be tormented any more by ties to the past, than this.

 

            — Even if I’m not her real daughter.

 

            I—.

 

 

            “— Yeah. Let’s go. Nanoha.”

 

 

 

            In the sky that the two of us raced through as fast as possible, there was nothing to stop us.

 

            I didn’t sense any sign of pursuit. Relieved by this, I opened the rusted castle gate. The outside of the castle was, as ever, wrapped in a silent and oppressive atmosphere.

 

            Although it was still just before noon, the cold, and the dampness almost made me want to shiver. — Is it because I’m nervous? For the first time, I felt afraid of this place.

 

            When I meet Mother, — what should I do then?

 

            Not knowing, I was simply scared. I felt my hand tremble. My fingertips grew cold. Receiving those vibrations, Bardiche, which I held, made a clattering noise.

 

            “... Eh?”

 

            — Suddenly, that hand was wrapped in a soft warmth. Startled by it, I looked to my side, and solemn blue eyes were reflected there.

 

            “It’s alright. Fate-chan.”

            “—... Yeah.”

 

            I took several deep breaths. The cold air calmed me. When we set foot within the castle, as though reacting to that there was a great magical energy reaction.

 

            “... It looks like we won’t be able to pass without resistance after all.”

 

            Nevertheless, to hasten ahead as much as possible, we ran down the unlit corridor. As I noticed the presence of a figure at the far end, I heard a thunderous roar, and saw a stream of light heading toward us.

 

            Faster than I could think, my right arm reacted, and spread a shield to repel it.

 

            “—, ku!”

 

            Pushed by my opponent’s magical energy, my outstretched right hand trembled. Though completely different in appearance, the knight possessed magical energy of the same quality as I had felt before.

 

            — However, the quantity of magical energy did not match that which I had been confronted with so far. It was a full-strength bombardment of ridiculous simplicity, like they were pushing as hard as they could.

 

            My outspread shield, little by little began to erode away.

 

 

            “Nanoha, run..., Nano, ha?”

 

            Looking back while keeping my shield spread, I saw Nanoha focusing on the enemy. The Device she held was set straight ahead, and a magic circle was spread at her feet. — Her body was wrapped in a great cherry-blossom-colored light.

 

            “... Fate-chan, can you hold on, just a little more?”

            “Eh? — Na, Nanoha? What are you...”

 

 

            Gashu, gashu.

 

            The sound of cartridges loading resounded in the quiet corridor. The ejected, empty cartridges tumbled down, radiating a dull light.

 

            — The corridor that had been dark reflected her cherry-blossom-colored magical aura, and shed a dim light.

 

            “Nanoha!”

 

            The increasing magical energy, radiated greater and greater light. The white that covered her body, little by little, was gradually being dyed with specks of red.

 

            “— That’s enough, Nanoha! You’re going to overload!”

 

            Nanoha’s body, her arm, her Device. Were dyed with overflowing red.

 

            Many small drops formed and spilled off, falling to the area at her feet. “I’m fine. It’s alright.” Between the sounds of focusing I heard her small voice.

 

            At the outspread circle that faced her target, great light began to gather.

 

            “Fate-chan!”

            “—,”

 

            At her voice, I released my shield as I flew upward to avoid our opponent’s bombardment. In the next instant. The area was filled with a sensational flash, and a deafening roar.

 

            “Starlight Breaker!”

 

            It was a bombardment with an amount of magical energy more vast than I had ever seen, yet it still cast a beautiful light.

 

            It seemed to erase the shield of her opponent, who possessed such strong magical energy that my shield had been about to be destroyed. — Or rather, it seemed as if there wasn’t a shield there to begin with.

 

            Cherry-blossom-colored light simply plunged forward to its target, effortlessly smashed through the opponent’s outspread shield, and swallowed a wide area containing the opposing knight, and even the surrounding walls.

 

            What remained was. The sparking, collapsing knight, and a cloud of dust rising from a mass of rubble.

 

 

            “...... Wow...”

            “... Fate-chan, are you alright?”

 

 

            The hand opposite to the one held out to me, who was struck dumb. On white skin peeking out of torn cuffs, I saw that countless lacerations had been made. — Like her body was plainly showing, that it hadn’t been able to keep up with her strong magical energy.

 

            “— Nanoha...”

 

            I took that arm as gently as possible. With just that pain appeared to run through it, and Nanoha grimaced a little. I wish I could use healing magic. If I could, this—

 

            “Fate-chan.”

 

            The hand I was touching Nanoha with, was softly removed. I felt another magical energy reaction.

 

            At this foreign response that I had never felt before, a chill ran down my back. I had a bad feeling. — So much so that I would have left right then if I could.

 

            “— What... is this...?”

 

            “Why...? Even though, the key still isn’t—”

            “Nano, ha?”

 

            Nanoha’s voice seemed as if it were coming from a crushed throat. In proportion to the growing magical energy reaction, her face contorted, and she clutched her chest in pain. Her exhaled breaths were uneven, and she gasped painfully.

 

            “Nanoha...! What’s wrong, Nanoha!?”

 

            Said as though she didn’t want to say them, didn’t want to believe them.

 

            “... I’m, resonating... with, Erbsünde.”

 

            Small, hoarse words were spoken.

 

            “— What? How!?”

            “... It looks like it’s not complete yet. Probably... trying to, activate it, by, force...”

 

            Even during this time, a magical energy reaction that made me want to turn my eyes away continued to increase explosively. A high-pitched wave of sound that seemed like it was crushing my head resounded. — My head, ached. Like it would split open.

 

            Struck by the strong magical energy, my eyes became dim and hazy. The situation worsened as another mage knight appeared.

 

            “... Fate-chan. Leave, this, to me, and, go on... ahead.”

            “— I can’t do that! It’s too dangerous for you alone!”

 

            “I’m, fine. Besides, if it reaches, me, it will activate com... pletely-! If, it does, I don’t... know, what, will happen! ... It isn’t just, a stone that... grants wishes.”

 

            Nanoha doubled over as she tried to endure the intense pain. She grasped her chest tightly. Despite this she gazed straight ahead. Not away, just straight ahead.

 

            “Be, sides. I’m, no longer, ... a princess who, just needs... pro, tecting.”

            “— Nanoha...”

 

            “— Fa... te, chan, this isn’t... where, you need, to fight.”

 

            “So.” Her softly smiling face turned toward me.

 

            “So— go... on? You’ll, stop... her, right? Your, mother.”

            “—... Yes.”

 

            Seeing me nod, Nanoha’s strained cheeks relaxed, and she smiled happily. Though she must have been in pain. Though she must have been in agony.

 

            With that trembling, injured left arm, she softly stroked my cheek. That hand was, so much so that it made me want to cry, warm. And gentle.

 

            “Good luck, Fate-chan.”

            “... I’ll definitely come back for you. So...!”

 

            “I’ll be fine.” Nodding several times at my words, Nanoha pushed my back as I still hesitated, and then, spread another large magic circle.

 

            “Okay. Now... that that’s settled! — I’m going full strength, full power!”

 

 

            With my back turned to her. I heard Nanoha’s bold voice.

 

 

***

 

 

            As I approached the door at the end of the hall, my head grew tighter and tighter. As though a knife was being held at my throat, it was painful to breathe.

 

            “—,”

 

            Beyond the opened door.

 

            “—... Why have you come?”

 

            Was Mother. Exposed cheeks were slightly hollow, and vacant, empty eyes cast no light. Spoken from thinly open lips were.

 

            “— What a useless child.”

 

            Words filled with unconcealed cold. The inside of my chest throbbed with pain. Just, pain.

 

            “... This place will be surrounded soon. ... So please!”

            “— ‘Please.’ What are you talking about?”

 

            Unable to meet our eyes, my head remained downturned. My fingernails bit into my tightly clenched fists. I felt a slight wetness.

 

            “... Please stop.”

 

            “Hehehehehe, heh, ahahahahahahahahahaha!”

 

 

            Shrill laughter, tore through the silence. At that voice I suddenly raised my head, and noticed.

 

            — Where is Erbsünde?

 

 

            That which was always at Mother’s side, was gone. Nanoha said it was being activated. ... But where? What about the key?

 

            “—, ku, uh”

 

            As magical energy pushed against me, I strained my eyes that had begun to blur and surveyed the room. It must be somewhere in this room. There’s no way she’d part from it.

 

            “..., is, that!?”

 

            At the edge of my field of vision. On top of the desk right behind Mother. — I saw a small bottle. Within a flickering red liquid, casting a great light, blue floated.

 

            The red-filled bottle appeared to be under great strain, like it would break at any moment.

 

 

            Tink. A single long crack ran down it. That which gradually began to spill forth, did not leak away, but enwrapped the stone.

 

            “— It isn’t Nanoha’s blood, it isn’t the key! Why...?”

            “What a stupid child. If I can’t obtain it directly, I can just make it.”

 

 

            Make it? The key? — Nanoha’s magical energy?

 

            Could it be? How? The corners of my head were filled with questions. The magical energy I sensed nearby, was a little familiar.

 

            — I see, it was. On that day— when they were on reconnaissance...

 

            “You really... The commanding officer... who went missing...!?”

            “— Was useful. Despite being such a frail human.”

 

 

            Click. The piece that wouldn’t fit, came into place. In case she couldn’t obtain Nanoha’s blood. She would capture a human who carried blood of the same kingdom.

 

            It wouldn’t hurt to try. — She could combine the extracted blood and linker core.

 

            “— You made... a substitute key...?”

            “It’s taken a long time... But, soon... soon...”

 

            “Even so! That doesn’t mean it will activate correctly with such a thing... h, gu-

 

            Taking the bottle in her hand and drawing it close to her, Mother smiled in ecstasy.

 

 

            “... Ahh, soon. Soon, I’ll see you again! My darling Alicia.”

 

 

            As she said this, she grasped my neck with one hand. The temperature of the cool palm. Her gaze blended with murderous intent. Her distorted mouth.

 

            “— Won’t you come back, Alicia? Won’t you talk with your mother again?”

 

            As though it was going grant that wish, the stone cast a great light.

 

            “Hey, Alicia.”

 

            — I felt my consciousness, being sucked away.

 

            “Mo, ... th, er— I’m, Fa— te”

 

 

            I don’t want to die.

            Can I really leave Nanoha behind— and die?

 

 

            That moment.

 

            The light it cast went out.

 

            The stone that had until now been casting a dull blue light. — Was now stained red, like clotted blood.

 

            “— Wh-!”

 

            Like it was refusing. It discharged the enormous amount of magical energy it had been saving up until now. The concentrated energy appeared to burn strongly, and swallowed the area near it in an explosion.

 

            “Aaaaaaaah!”

            “—! Mother, get away from the stone right now!”

 

            Her hand separated from me in pain. Struck by the explosion, cracks formed in the main pillar supporting the room. With the terrible shaking I was unable to remain standing, but. Nevertheless I reached out my hand toward Mother. Small pieces of rubble tumbled from the crumbling ceiling. My field of vision was blocked.

 

            “Mother!”

 

 

            I had indeed wanted to be loved by Mother.

 

 

            But.

 

            The young me, did not know how. I just earnestly wanted to be praised. To be appreciated.

 

            “... Alicia... Alicia...”

 

            I wanted to be smiled at. If it was for that. I— thought it was fine even if it was empty.

 

            “Mother!”

 

 

            But.

 

            I met Nanoha. I fell in love. I didn’t want to let her die. I wanted to protect her.

 

            So. — Even though it meant defying my precious mother, I tried to destroy the stone.

 

            “Mother-!”

 

            But.

 

            “— I may not be your real daughter! That’s still true! But! It doesn’t have to be! If you ask it of me, I will absolutely protect you!”

 

 

            I didn’t want to let her die.

            I didn’t want it to end like this at all.

 

            I wanted to stop this war. Even if it was just a little, I wanted to heal the pain that would probably always linger. No matter how long it took.

 

 

            For me, she was my one and only, precious,

 

            “Mother!”

            “— Don’t make me laugh.”

 

 

            The ceiling, made a great noise as it collapsed. I sensed rubble falling from overhead.

 

 

            As I thought, It’s too late, at that moment.

 

            “Stay away from me.”

 

 

            I was thrust away by that hand with all its strength.

 

            “—!”

 

 

 

 

            Rubble filled my field of vision.

 

 

            “—, Moth, er”

 

 

 

            In the room that was peaceful again, a mountain of rubble and.

 

 

            — The blue stone that had now regained its former color, were all I could see.

 

 

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