Finding out was like a breath of fresh air after time spent too long in some underground place, all confined and stuffy. Not that she herself had ever stopped believing in wishes, or the fact that they could come true. It was just that she hadn’t known anyone else believed such things, too.
The magic and what-have-you was still a bit unusual, though; she was adjusting, but it had taken some getting used to. Kyubey had been kind enough to explain most of the facts to her, since she had no magical girl nearby to serve as a mentor.
She hadn’t quite known what to think, the first time Kyubey had started talking to her. Two weeks ago she had saved him from the middle of a busy intersection. It had been instinctive, really; while walking from the supermarket back to her apartment she’d spotted a glimpse of white in the middle of the road and rushed for it in the hopes that even if the cars hit her, the animal would be safe. No cars had hit her or the animal, but it had been a close call. Plenty had honked at her as she dropped her groceries and hit the asphalt, scooping the thing into her arms. She’d run off with it despite the angry shouts behind her, ignoring the scrapes along her arms. At the time she’d believed that the creature must have been a cat or a rabbit, badly injured. It wasn’t until she got home that she discovered that it looked a bit…deformed from either of those things, or that the people in the street hadn’t even been able to see the poor thing running about between cars.
The first thing he spoke to her was her own name, and she was so shocked that she dropped the bowl of hot water she had been carrying over to him to mop up his wounds with. More shocking still was the fact that the wounds by and large seemed to be healing of their own accord, and at quite the astounding rate, too, no less. The little white creature she’d thought so helpless had been sitting up on her bed, far more alert than when she’d set it down there in the first place (she probably should have thought things through more when it came to getting blood all over her clean sheets, though). She’d wondered if she simply imagined it all until he kept speaking to her.
He’d given her the full run-down from then on, explained to her about wishes and contracts and the existence of other magical girls and the witches they fought. When she’d asked how it was all kept so tightly under-wraps, he had then explained about barriers and other such illusory effects put into play on both sides. Nao had needed a few moments to take it all in, so she’d locked herself in the bathroom and curled up in a corner, her arms wrapped tightly around her knees. That is, until she began to speculate on the full possibilities about wishes.
“I—I mean, this is just a what-if, but, say someone has an illness…?” she’d asked. “A really serious illness. Terminal. I mean, surely that’s outside the realm of possibilities…”
“Not at all!” he’d told her. “I can heal anything and anyone! I contracted a girl whose mother had terminal cancer, in fact!”
That had sealed the decision in Nao’s mind. Of course, he hadn’t told her the full story about Charlotte: her mother had had terminal cancer and he’d contracted her, sure, but Charlotte’s wish hadn’t been to cure her mother. In fact, Kyubey had left the language of his offer purposely vague and so Charlotte had jumped to the conclusion that she couldn’t wish for her mother’s illness to be cured. She’d wished for the chance to share one last cheesecake between the two of them instead, and her mother had passed away the second the dessert was finished, thus completing the terms of the wish. It was only then that Kyubey had revealed the truth about the extent of wishes to poor Charlotte, causing her soul gem to blacken and crack within the hour.
He’d only pushed her to such limits to try and contract all the sooner, though. They’d both been visiting that very same hospital at the time, and what better way to get them to contract than by having a witch’s barrier conveniently arise at the hospital before they could leave?
She’d made her wish that very same day, curing her father’s illness that had left him incapacitated in a bed for months, stuck in a hospice care facility. Nao knew better than to wish for something silly for him like immortality—it wasn’t that she didn’t doubt that Kyubey could grant it, but who would want to live forever? She just hadn’t wanted him to live out the remainder of his life in pain. He was always telling her frequently how much he missed their house, where she knew he kept the reminders of her mother, even if she herself didn’t remember her. If he could live his days out there, no longer in pain or incapable of moving around and enjoying the world he had loved so much—the world he’d taught her how to enjoy—then she was happy to dedicate herself to fighting witches.
A month later, the package from the Liar Game arrived.
She berated herself for opening that stupid package. It hadn’t completely been her fault—she’d only just arrived back to her apartment after a full day of classes and a long, sleepless night of witch-hunting the day before. The witch had nearly gotten her too; its long claw-like appendages had raked at her every which-way, and if she hadn’t whipped her staff in front of her (much to her chagrin, her weapons took after all the typical ideas of magical girl pretty things, which as Kyubey had explained to her, was thanks in part to her own imagination and a childhood spent watching Sailor Moon and Card Captor Sakura) a handful of times, she most likely would never have made it back home at all. Thankfully, her wish was one of healing itself, and so she healed quickly—quickly enough that nobody felt the need to ask her any awkward questions.
Exhausted to the bone, she’d thanked the mailman for the package and opened it without thinking, only to discover yet one more problem on top of her already too-complicated daily life.
After affirming that the package’s contents and message both couldn’t possibly be fake, she sat down in the middle of her floor and cried. It didn’t matter who her opponent turned out to be, since she wasn’t cut out for lying or fooling anyone. The hardest part about the whole magical girl business had been not telling anyone, even if it was for their own good. Her soul gem rolled a little ways away from her. Ordinarily it was a deep, clear shade of green: the color of leaves on an oak, the color of hope itself. But it darkened even as she cried, despite the fact that she’d purified it with the grief seed she’d obtained only just last night.
Her tears lasted her all through the night, and if her neighbors heard her, they said nothing to her regardless.
The next day, she attended classes without really listening to anything. She hadn’t slept, despite her body’s needs. Her face felt wan and pinched, her eyes red. Still, she couldn’t just miss the classes that she’d saved up so long in advance to pay for. Nao tried not to think of how she had no hope at all of attending any classes whatsoever were she to lose this Liar Game, as she knew she inevitably would. What hope did someone like her have of winning a game based on lies and deception?
She never bought lunches at her college’s cafeteria, but she ate her bento there nonetheless, too strained to walk all the way back to her apartment. Every mouthful she ate was automatic, the taste lost on her as she fretted over the near future. She had considered asking someone at school for help, a professor or a close friend…until the realization came to her that she wasn’t close friends with any of these people. She knew only some of them, and even then for little over a month. None of them would probably know what to do about a game involving a hundred million yen, anyway. Even if they did, it’s not like they would believe her. The friends from high school who she’d texted last night certainly hadn’t.
As she ate her meal alone and in silence, she was completely oblivious to the stares across the room from three girls sitting together at one table. Kyubey had mentioned the fact that magical girls could often detect other magical girls in an area, but he had been vague as to how it was done, and he wasn’t around to ask in any case.
She was too stressed to notice that he too was sitting at the table with the other three girls. His tail flicked side to side, matching the pace of their whispers.
With her classes done for the day, she left to try and seek out the only other person she knew to ask for advice. Before becoming a magical girl, before her wish made any impact on the world, she would never have considered asking her father even in a situation as dire as this; she didn’t want to worsen his condition, after all, nor did she want him to fret away the short time he would have had left for her sake. But now that he was hale and hearty again, surely it would be okay to seek his counsel. He was her father, the only person to have looked out for her all these years. He had taught her so many things already. Surely he would know what to do.
But she arrived at the house to find that she couldn’t ask her father after all. A new crisis awaited her there: bills, bills of all kinds, from medical centers and the hospice care facility and so many more. Her father’s sudden and miraculous recovery had allowed him a discharge from the hospice facility where no such discharge had been anticipated. Naturally, they’d been happy to let him go—but the sudden changes had made a marked change in the fees for his care, and every medical facility seemed to want the payments expedited now that he was no longer under care nor relying on any insurance to speak of.
“Nao?” He set down the pile of bills he’d been sorting through at the sound of her footsteps as she entered. She noticed how weary he seemed, when the only reason she’d wanted to heal him in the first place was so he could relax more easily. “Is something wrong? You look troubled. Don’t worry about all this—” Her father gestured to the stacks of papers, forcing a smile. “—because I’ll take care of it.”
He’d been the one to name her for honesty’s sake itself, the one to emphasize the importance of truth, and he was a horrible liar himself for all that. She shook her head, forcing a smile of her own in return. “N-No, it’s not that,” she said. It was only a half-truth.
“Ah, good. Was there anything else troubling you, Nao?”
She retracted a few steps, one hand now resting on the doorknob. “It’s nothing. I just wanted to drop by and see how you were.”
She made up an excuse about a paper that needed finishing by tomorrow and hurried back outside, well aware that she was still not cut out for lying.
Later that night, she shuddered awake to the pulse of a witch’s heartbeat. Two witches in two nights was unusual, not to mention entirely unhealthy. Her body was healed from the previous night’s battle, but not her mind, and her magic was sure to be unreliable under so much sudden stress. She stayed in bed for the next few minutes, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. The witch was close enough to feel without even consulting her soul gem; its curse and malice must’ve been affecting any nearby ordinary people already.
Nao got up and left, still in her pajamas (it wasn’t like she’d actually wind up fighting in her pajamas, after all). She couldn’t leave the witch out there without at least trying to fight it first. She became a magical girl to save her father—and to save other people as well. According to Kyubey, the price for her wish was fighting those witches that were a threat to all humankind, even when she was scared, even when she felt weak down in her knees and heavy in her heart.
She traced the witch rather easily, and as she walked down streets empty of their usual commuters all she could think was how lucky she was that there was no one around to see her in her night-wear.
The witch had chosen to set up its barrier in some dank back alley, a place Nao had avoided on her way to and from classes even on the best of days. Scary people of all kinds were well-known to frequent it, and the place had always reeked of rotting garbage and cat pee (and probably some not-so-cat pee). She took a deep breath as she stood at the edge of the alley—and promptly wished she hadn’t—and held out her soul gem to open up the barrier. In the split second it took to reveal itself, her transformation was already over, all green frills and pale yellow lace.
She stepped forward into the abyss, staff in hand. She was so tired, drop-dead tired, but what choice did she have but to fight?
Minutes later, she lay curled and bleeding against the wall of the barrier, sucking in breath as her wounds healed quickly—though not quickly enough. She was crying: just a trickle of tears, really. She didn’t have the energy for nerve-wracking sobs, and she thought the witch had broken a few of her ribs besides. Sobs would make it hurt worse.
Mostly she cried because she knew she’d failed. So many people were going to die because she wasn’t strong enough. She cried also for the fact that the witch tonight was so much stronger than the one from the day before. That witch had been a cakewalk by comparison, some calm stroll along the beach. The beach. She’d miss the beach, and the sand between her toes. She and her father had gone on vacation to the beach several times, and he’d always told her that her mother had loved the ocean, too.
Nao struggled to push herself upright against the wall out of some base instinct. The witch was shrieking, incomprehensible words at a pitch that made her head feel like it was about to split open. The barrier all around them twitched and jumped, the paper-like skyscrapers all around waving like trees in a powerful gust of wind. So much white was in this world: white witch, white buildings, white snakes that must’ve been the witch’s minions. They were miserable, horrible little things that feasted on the living and the dead alike.
And suddenly the horde of white was coming back at her, still screaming fit to wake the dead, and her staff lay beyond her reach, just one more useless children’s plaything.
Not here, she thought desperately, not like this. Please, no, I’m so lonely. But the white came on inexorably, tore her to pieces, and turned to darkness.
Two days later, Mami Tomoe located the same witch just a few blocks away from its original location. Madoka Kaname came with her as her fellow partner and protégé; Homura Akemi accompanied as an observer, new still to so much magic but eager to please her newfound friends and afraid of being left on her own. The two girls worked in tandem, their soul gems bright, their experience greater than Nao Kanzaki’s. They took the witch down easily—almost in textbook form, really.
They all agreed after the fight that this must’ve been the cause of that Nao girl’s disappearance. Mami had known she was a fellow magical girl at first sight, of course, the way any predator knows its own kind in a world full of prey. It was a shame that they hadn’t teamed up with Kanzaki, but there was hardly any telling if a fellow magical girl was like to support you through and through or stab you in the back for a grief seed without getting to know them first. You just couldn’t trust anybody these days.
After a few more sad words on the dangers of being a magical girl, they all departed the barrier and went out for tea in celebration of a victory well-done. They couldn’t stay too late, of course, as they all had class the following day.
The following month saw the arrival of death and devastation such as the world had never seen before. Curses had fallen from the mouth of that wretched horde of witches where rain had once fallen from the sky, and buildings crumbled as though made out of sand. The foe now lay slain, but at the cost of two more young lives. Of countless young lives. And Homura turned to Kyubey and screamed her wish as she gave up her soul, and time itself flew past in a meaningless swirl of color.