Disclaimer: I don't own Megaman Zero, or any of its characters. I do however own any other characters in this fic unless specifically stated otherwise. If I owned Ciel, she would be older, if I owned Leviathan, she would be sexier, and if I owned Omega, he would be a stuffed toy.

Author: Hey, I'm finally back! Rejoice readers, for ye know that Jim'Van hath not forgotten thee. I've just been really busy here in Vietnam! If any of my readers are fellow expatriates, you'd know what I mean. Had to laugh. Apparently the other day in the city street, my friend asked the locals in Vietnamese 'where's the street?' but she mispronounced it and instead asked for a bowl of noodle soup! Heh, between work, appeasing my students, and visa runs, I'm lucky I still have time for this. My visa run to Bangkok was a killer. I mean how many times to do I have to shout 'Mai Ow' to scare them off? But I'm back home now. I could make excuses, but I think my readers know me well enough to know I want to please, so I'll keep my fingers crossed and hope you enjoy this.

Zero: Heart of a Hunter

Chapter 4: Dark Field

Perhaps Fairy Leviathan was lucky. Perhaps the blast had missed its target entirely, or maybe for some darned reason the enemy had thought they would not shoot directly at her. Perhaps some higher being had decided it wasn't her time to die. In any case, the outcome was the same. Leviathan cursed as she hit the ground after her leap, crashing into an undignified tumble down the slope created by the rubble to slam headfirst into the ground. Stars erupted into her vision behind her eyelids and she groaned and struggled to her feet.

I wasn't built for this kind of battlefield. Just what are we dealing with here?

She swayed on her feet and pounded her head with the heel of her hand to clear out the dizziness before opening her eyes. Her eyes widened as she looked up and saw the burning scar left in the outer city wall by the weapon, whatever it was, that the mavericks had fired.

She suddenly heard a loud battle-cry and turned to see Zero, standing with his Z-saber drawn and a look of pure rage on his face.

Zero dashed forward to meet the oncoming maverick forces jetting towards them. Leviathan's eyes widened as she saw Zero was taking on a whole legion by himself.

Crazy! Even I couldn't…

Leviathan stopped thinking as she heard Fefnir, bellowing with fury, charging past her after Zero. He was covered with dust from the blast, but his eyes were fierier than ever. "No fair! Leave some of them for me, Zero!"

Oh, brother. Leviathan, in spite of the situation, rolled her eyes before hefting her spear and running after him. No turning back now. They were engaging the enemy. An enemy, however, that she was justifiably nervous about. Everyone knew the reploids of yesterday were much stronger than the present models. No doubt about it; this would be a bloody battle.

A few feet more and they would crash headlong into them. Leviathan slowly felt her cardio-pump start to pound with the anticipation as her artificial hormones fed energy to her muscles and filled her with cold strength.

She leaped high into the air, spinning her spear around her head. She heard the hum of rushing air as her spear flung its signal and gathered all the moisture in the air, and then, on the last spin, she flung her spear far into the enemy ranks. The spear glowed dully as it left her hand, and then erupted into a brilliant whirlwind of blue ice that spun with the spear to the enemies, some of whom watched it with wide eyes.

There was the howl of icicles screaming through the air, the shouts of pain from the mavericks as there were stuck full of the icy projectiles and immobilized, and finally screams as the ice whirlwind shredded them to bits. The first rank broke, and the mavericks halted in their tracks as Fefnir and Zero bore down on them.

Fefnir turned to Levi and grinned, giving her the thumbs-up.

Leviathan's spear phased back into her hand as she landed. She inwardly smiled. I hoped my first test subject for that new weapon would be Zero…but I guess the ancient mavericks wasn't too bad.

One large, elephant-faced reploid survived long enough to pull an icicle out of his leg before the Z-saber came screaming down onto his head, cleaving him into asymmetrical halves. Zero was there, and the ferocity of the counter-attack had momentarily stunned the approaching maverick ranks. After the reality set in, many of the mavericks roared and screamed, coming straight for Zero, who waited for them, his jaw set hard and teeth bared in a snarl.

But the other ranks were still advancing, making for the walls. Fefnir had joined Zero now, body-slamming an approaching rank of humanoids and dragging them all down into a thirty-on-one wrestling match on the ground. As he proceeded to toss the mavericks into the air, Leviathan could see his forehead gem glowing as he gathered his energy.

There was suddenly a shimmer in the air, and Fairy jerked her head back just in time to avoid the laser blast which screamed over her shoulder.

One of them has picked me up for a target…

She swiveled her head to see where the blast had come from, and, not wasting a moment, shot a blast of ice in that direction. The mavericks had arrived, and the two guardians and Zero were now in the thick of it. The Jin'en were still either pulling themselves out of the rubble or advancing behind to meet the other maverick ranks. Leviathan knew she would have to be good to push back all these mavericks with both Zero and Fefnir occupied.

Spinning her spear around her head again, Leviathan gathered her strength for a great leap. She knew she didn't stand a chance in a slugging match on the ground, and she needed to keep her distance and wear out her opponents. The shots came as a rank of mavericks charged towards her. Keeping her cool, she used the head of her spear to bat away the shots that came too close. The mavericks drew closer, and Leviathan promptly stuck out her tongue at them before leaping into the air. Twisting over backwards, she yelled and thrusted herself towards the ground, spear extended.

Sage Harpuia was annoyed. There was still no contact from the ground and who knew if he was ever going to get support from there. But it would apparently be a while before he found out as he still had enough to deal with at the present altitude.

Reaching out, he tore out a sizeable number of the eagle reploid's remaining wing feathers and kicked him away down to the burning wall below. This was not too good. The airborne assault had moved far ahead of the ground forces and most of the Rekku were all occupied up in the air, and Harpuia knew there would be no help from the walls until the Rekku either cleared the area…or were pushed out of it. The slam had come fast and hard, and Harpuia had no time to pull a formation together, but, luckily enough, the approaching mavericks had not seemed to have any particular formation either, and so the airborne armies were locked in a number of semi-private combats. But, more often than not, that ended up being the situation anyway in the enormous sky. He knew that it would be a different matter on the ground though, and that they would have a hard time winning without air support and mines, and that could not be done with the coms down.

The sight of a bird-shaped bot flying towards him broke him out of his thoughts. The creature flew full-pelt towards him. Harpuia inwardly sighed before lifting a saber and, with one vertical slash, cutting the bot into perfect halves on its own momentum.

Not too smart are they? he thought, pulling away from the falling debris. Stymphian was stronger than that. Maybe this isn't as serious as I th… "Ugghh!"

Yet again, his thoughts were broken by the unpleasant sensation of a plasma blast hitting him in the side. Harpuia didn't feel much through his armor, but the force was enough to knock him head over heels in mid-air. Turning vengefully, he spotted his assailant: a large, bat-like reploid with two long brown ears on either side of a long, thin face sporting red eyes and fangs in a long, crooked jaw.

"Sage Harpuia, I presume…" the thing screeched at him in a high, whining voice. "Face your final battle! And death at the hands of Vanumin Battce!" The monstrosity unfurled it's large, clawed bat wings, revealing long, thin black arms folded over a thick, armored torso and short, stubby legs.

Harpuia snorted. "Better reploids have said that before, demon!" He lifted both his sabers in a fighting pose and flew straight at Battce.

Zero growled with frustration as he jumped atop yet another fallen maverick to slash down at the next rank. They just kept coming. A large humanoid reploid stumbled towards him, raising a buster cannon. Dashing head-on into the reploid's attack, Zero pulled out the new Recoil Rod Cerveau had given him.

Time to see how well this thing works.

Zero had never used such a weapon before, but the technique and tactics involved in doing so seemed to come to him naturally. He flung his forearm forward, the charged rod tip extended, and a great beam of plasma shot from its end, ramming neatly into the reploid's gut.

The maverick stiffened, repli-blood spurting from the slots in its helmet, but even though mortally wounded, he managed to train his buster on Zero's face. Somehow knowing what to do, Zero threw down the tip of his other charged rod and released the energy…

…And sailed about thirty metres into the air. "Whooooaaah!"

I've got to talk with Cerveau about this. Something a little less airborne would be better.

Chancing a quick glance around as he charged the weapon again, Zero magnified his vision and processed the information as quickly as he could. He became even more dismayed.

He could just see Fefnir, in an even worse situation than his own. The Red Guardian was completely surrounded by enemy mavericks that had broken ranks and advanced toward him. He seemed to be holding his own, incinerating any that got too close, but Zero knew it would only be a matter of time before he was forced to pull away, or eventually someone would hit him…

Zero shrugged inwardly and refocused his gaze on the horizon as he felt gravity catch hold of him. The mavericks were practically upon them now. Zero knew the Jin'en were still behind and would take longer to pull themselves together. It appeared it was up to him and Fefnir to hold them back and prevent them from pouncing on the dazed Jin'en likes wolves onto a dying elk. Zero noticed, just for a moment, that the gigantic black siege engines the mavericks had built were lumbering closer.

Zero recognized the large juggernaut that had thrown that fireball that destroyed the Jin'en fortifications. It was larger than all the other engines. Large treads bore it slowly over the ground. Its enormous bulk seemed to carry long tubes that Zero suspected were cannons. The top, however, shot the sunlight back into Zero's eyes. Glass. Behind this cockpit, there was a large metallic arm, folded back on itself in a shape that reminded the crimson hunter of one of Chow's chicken wings. He could just see the great translucent pipes spiraling along the arm, feeding the fire into the great weapon.

He groaned. That thing would reduce the walls to rubbish in a matter of minutes. He had to do something. Zero flipped and spun in a barrel roll to slow his descent before pulling his legs under him. He landed neatly on top of another maverick, casually thrusting the charged recoil rod through his metallo-skull as he did so. The reploid twitched and lay still without even letting out a death cry. Casting his gaze up again, Zero crouched and pulled out and ignited his enhanced shield boomerang. Inputting commands quickly, he slid the boomerang out over the field to cut the feet out from under the unsuspecting mavericks before straightening up and charging the rods again. The mavericks were aware of him now and turned in their ranks to face him.

Sensing a dog pile not unlike the one Fefnir was embroiled in was imminent, Zero readied himself. He had to find a way to push them all back, but keep them on him. The first lupine maverick leapt for him, snarling, only to be met clean in the chest by the charged rod. The funny thing was, the maverick just hung there in mid-air for a moment before being slammed backwards as if struck by a high-speeding boulder. Crashing noisily back into the ranks behind him, the enormous werewolf reduced a fair number of smaller reploids to scrap as he tore a trench through the ground.

Zero grinned inwardly. Yet another hidden capability. Cerveau might just be a genius after all.

But his grin was short-lived as the other mavericks lunged for him. Zero charged the rod quickly, but it still was not fast enough to push them all off at once.

One…two…three trenched. But the fourth managed to catch Zero's arm and give it a painful twist before he could bring it to bear on him. Zero grunted but held onto the rod as the reploid shoved him down. The other mavericks howled with delight and leaped for the fallen red reploid. Big mistake.

Zero smirked as he saw the mavericks pouncing. Using his bracelet, he summoned the shield boomerang, which promptly whipped out of the scrimmage, drawing howls of pain from hamstrung enemies. Catching the shield boomerang in his free hand, Zero swung it through the air, neatly severing the arm of the large reploid twisting his wrist and sending it spinning around him to slash at the drawing ring of leaping enemies. Bloodied and wounded bodies crashed down onto Zero, who gradually fell under a groaning pile of mavericks. Zero quickly clasped his forearms to his thighs, feeling the magnets slap the recoil rods to them, and then drew his Z saber, charging it almost immediately. Zero was suddenly aware of a face inches from his own, leering at him though also twisted in pain. The upper half of it was humanoid, but the lower half was a gross steel imitation of a human jaw with a row of grey shark's teeth gracing the upper rim.

Sickened by the sight, Zero pulled back his head before the creature could snap at him, and, not wasting a second, swung up his charged saber.

CRRRAAACCKK! The resulting geyser of energy threw the mavericks piled on the crimson hunter sky-high.

Not waiting for the rain of burning metal to follow, Zero kicked up onto his feet and ran for the juggernaut, cutting through random mavericks in his dash. He had to disable the great metal monstrosity now before it could fire again. If it broke down the walls, the defenders would have no chance. He could only hope Fefnir and Leviathan succeeded in holding off the front ranks…

Fefnir growled as he swiveled around in a stupid kind of twirl to blast a ring of fire at the mavericks around him, trying to back off to the front to cut off their advance. He was breathless and bleeding in several places from lucky scrapes and stabs which had caught him, but he had yet to take a serious injury.

Dang it! I'm supposed to be leading troops to push them back, not throwing a ballet dance to push them forward. We're bang in the thick of it now! Just where did Zero get to? That clown better not have gotten himself licked!

No enemies were daring to come closer to Fefnir while Sodom and Gomorrah were torching anything that moved, but they were breaking ranks and running for the walls and the Jin'en. Fefnir cursed himself for ever charging into their heart of numbers. Turning slightly and looking up, he saw something that made him grin.

Leviathan, her jaw set and sweat pouring down her face, was vaulting backwards and throwing down ice beams at the front ranks of the maverick army, slowing them down by freezing the ground out from under their feet. Fefnir couldn't be sure, but by the shouts of surprise and rage he was hearing from behind him, he guessed the mavericks were slipping up and tripping over each other.

Not too bright, are they? Except for this one…He thought dryly as he turned another foolhardy attacker into a screaming torch. I know the ancient maverick virus infections were supposed to have reduced their smarts quite a bit, but if they were all this bad then Master X should never have had any problem taking them down.

Oh, who the heck am I trying to kid? These guys are just grunts. There've gotta be more powerful mavericks than this lot. That Banshii sure fooled me, and whoever built those weapons and disabled our coms sure knows his stuff…

Fefnir growled in irritation as he heard still only dry static emanating from his helmet as he tried to contact Harpuia. This was bad. If they didn't get their links working, they couldn't do any 'buddy-lasing' for the Rekku Jethawk aircraft, meaning the troops couldn't illuminate their ground targets, and there wouldn't be any airstrikes against the enemy…or mine detonations. Without those, they would never push the enemy back, even if the Jin'en did pull themselves together in time. And if that siege engine fired again…

Fefnir suddenly felt an enormous explosion of energy ripple through his body and sensed his Giga unit was fully charged. The gem in his helmet was glowing bright red. Sensing his chance, Fefnir activated his Blazing Fury and set Sodom and Gomorrah against the ground, pounding their barrels like jackhammers into the turf. Enormous, sandy-yellow, pointed stalagmites erupted from the earth and tore the enemy apart, ripping through all the platoons in a thirty-metre radiusas if they were made of paper.

Fefnir grunted within his Fury, and, clenching his jaw and squeezing his eyes tightly shut, pushed harder, throwing out even more of the lethal spikes from the earth and impaling dozens more. Shrieks erupted from every direction, but, one by one, the stalagmites disintegrated and fell back to the earth.

Sensing his Giga unit emptying back to zero, Fefnir took a deep breath and withdrew his gun barrels from the ground. Sweating and scowling, he straightened and swiveled round.

It was like standing in the middle of something like a cross between a scrap yard and a mountain avalanche. There wasn't an enemy standing for quite a ways in any direction, but the mavericks just ahead were howling with fury and charging forward towards Fefnir.

The Red Guardian cursed and dashed across the broken landscape for the front. He could see the engines and tanks drawing closer now, and they were almost in firing position. No doubt about it, this was going to get ugly. Or uglier.

Leviathan suddenly leaped in from out of nowhere and stood in front of him. Her breastplate was cracked again, and a long gash graced her right thigh.

"About time you got back, you moron!" she spat, stamping her foot petulantly. "What took you so long! I had to hold them off all by myself! And where's Zero? They'll start blasting at the walls any minute!"

But Fefnir didn't answer her. He was looking over her head, grinning at the sight of the Jin'en, finally upright and alert, marching towards them with Pantheon reinforcements, greeting their general with a loud cheer as they saw his Giga handiwork.

"FORM UP TROOPS!" Fefnir roared at the top of his respiration chambers, startling Leviathan. "Move to intercept enemy movement! Defensive gridline! Let's show these mavericks what the Jin'en are made of!"

Another loud cheer erupted from the remaining Jin'en, only to be drowned out by a sudden horrible crunch and a loud bang as a cannon shell exploded behind the two Guardians.

Fefnir saw a flash of color behind his eyelids as he and Leviathan were catapulted through the air. Then darkness.

I hate to say this…

"REKKU! RETREAT!" Harpuia bellowed, swooping through the air after sending yet another reploid corpse spiraling down to the ground. "RETREAT!" How humiliating. After this is over, I've got to work on restoring multi-frequency communications.

It was no good. There were large, buzzing bots in all directions, and Harpuia could make out, faintly, one of his soldiers nearby getting pecked to death by one of the bird-bots' razor-sharp beaks while two others held him in place.

Lifting his saber, Harpuia swung a sonic crescent at the bots, flicking his wrist to angle to beam at the bots, but to miss the soldier. The three avian monstrosities blew into pieces on impact, and the soldier swayed and began to fall. Harpuia quickly dived and caught the wounded reploid.

Harpuia gnawed his lower lip in frustration as he glanced around. The Rekku who had caught his order were falling back, trying to beat off the persistent bird-bots that harried them. The wounded soldier looked up at Harpuia, his eyes unfocused with pain.

"Sir," he rasped. "Sir, they've killed me…"

Harpuia shook his head. "Keep your wits about you, soldier. We'll get you to a medic."

The reploid gagged and coughed up a mouthful of repli-blood onto Harpuia. "Sir…do me a favor…drop me."

Harpuia glared down at him.

The reploid coughed again, a louder, tearing cough. "Sir…I can't survive this. My systems are shutting down. Please sir, I don't want to slow you down. You must survive…and I'm dead anyway. Drop me…please!"

Harpuia grimaced, and then slowly nodded. Brave boy. "So be it, loyal soldier. You were an example to all the Rekku…" And with that, Harpuia slowly let go of him.

Not waiting to see what happened to the soldier, Harpuia turned and dived back towards the ground at full speed. No need to get to the walls. The gunners know what to do now even if the coms are down. Once they see all these bots, they'll blast away. I've got to see what's happening down there. There must be something that's blocking our transmissions. If only I could get rid of it, we could get my Jethawks in the air…

Squinting, Harpuia could just make out a large battlefield below.

Jin'en…so they engaged the mavericks after all. But where's…

Just then, Harpuia saw something that twisted his synthoguts in a knot.

Fefnir was lying, motionless, in the middle of a circle of Jin'en medics. Harpuia didn't know if he was alive or not. Leviathan, still alive but obviously out of action for the moment, was sitting beside him as the medics worked on her legs.

The green reploid arced and landed on his feet beside them, startling the medics. Leviathan looked up at him, her face unreadable. Harpuia's eyes widened as he caught sight of long, blackened burns gracing her legs and lower body, and a large crack in her breastplate. He caught sight, briefly, of some of Leviathan's vital circuitry exposed beneath the torn armor and ripped synthetic flesh and repli-blood on her right leg. Leviathan, though it must have caused her pain, immediately twitched her thigh away from him so he couldn't see it any longer.

Harpuia raised one eyebrow at her, before glancing down at Fefnir, who was even more badly burned than she was. However, Harpuia knew that meant almost nothing to him. Fefnir's condition was obvious enough from the fact that his eyes were rolled up into his head, and repli-blood was pouring from his nose, mouth and ears. He had been hit by something big…and loud.

"What happened?" Harpuia asked Leviathan urgently.

She squinted at him for a second in confusion, and then shook her head, pointing to the side of her helmet.

"Er…she can't hear, sir…" one of the medics said hesitantly as he applied a synthoflesh graft to her thigh. "Her tympanic sensors were overloaded by the explosion…"

Harpuia glanced at him sharply. "What explosion!"

BOOOM! The ground shook from, an explosive impact a few metres away. Harpuia grimaced at the sound and put his hands to his tympanics as a rain of dirt fell on them from the explosion.

"That explosion, sir…" supplied one of the other medics in a deadpan tone of voice that made Harpuia glare at him.

Sage turned and glanced back over at the field. The Jin'en were standing in a defensive crescent formation, trying to front the approaching mavericks. Stupid. There's nowhere near enough Jin'en for that.

Though he could see that for the moment, the Jin'en did not seem in serious trouble. The tanks were still too far away to get clear shots at them, and the wave of mavericks seemed to be breaking against them instead of flowing over them. Harpuia could dimly see his own ground officer, Flauclaws, and the cat reploid, Fealikks, fighting alongside them at the front.

Sage straightened and addressed the medics. "Get Leviathan back into battle as soon as possible. Provide her with a vibro-sensor to compensate for her tympanics. Take Fefnir back behind the lines until he comes to. Also, deliver my order to the troops stationed at the walls to prepare for a retreat back behind them. We won't last much longer out here with our coms down."

"Yes, sir." The medic officer nodded and saluted. Indeed, Sage was their commanding officer with Fefnir down.

Harpuia took to the air. No matter what, that fire-missile weapon must be destroyed before we go anywhere. I guess I'll have to do it alone, even if it means my death…

Zero rushed up to the juggernaut's tread, Z-saber in hand. The mavericks, it seemed, had enough sense to get out of his way now. Zero grinned. Just like the old days.

The Crimson Hunter intimidated the mavericks to no end. Slashing, pouncing, and clawing, and then reaching out to tear what was left apart, Zero had a trail of dismembered mavericks following him, and the remaining enemies ahead were scattering, howling in terror.

The great steel juggernaut was in front of him now. He could see a large series of letters welded into the broad side of its hull. Hellspitter…how original, Zero thought dryly.

Cranking his EAS, Zero vaulted high, landing on top of one of its treads. The guard saw him, but was not quick enough to bring the barrel of his rifle to bear on Zero before a fist shot out and neatly crushed his skull. The Crimson Hunter glanced up at the cockpit of the Hellspitter, wondering if it was possible to capture the thing and turn it against the mavericks rather than destroy it. That possibility however, was virtually non-existent. Zero shook his head to himself. He wouldn't know how to drive this thing, and vehicles, minus chasers, had never been his style anyway. Zero trusted only the skills he was comfortable with in the thick of battle, for which some hunters had applauded and others had called Zero a complete idiot.

Meaningless now, Zero thought as he shook his head again. He looked at the cannon mounted behind the cockpit, frowning as he saw the pipes beginning to feed liquid fire into the nozzle. One quick saber thrust into the main ducts and…

BOOOOM! The crimson hunter jumped backward just in time to avoid a plasma blast hitting the hull underneath him. He threw up his gaze in time to catch a stubby, double-barreled nozzle vanish into the cockpit through a closing hatch.

Driver…he's seen me, so…

Zero looked up again, and sure enough, the driver had decided to try another blast before he could interfere. The great catapult-shooter was unfolding itself, and some thick liquid substance, probably condensed napalm or something, Zero reasoned, was rushing through the translucent pipes even faster.

Not wanting to waste another second, despite the many shouts from hostiles climbing after him, Zero kicked in his EAS again and darted across the tank hull towards the cannon's base platform.

It was turning slightly, obviously as the gunner, wherever he was, was trying to decide where to line up the shot. Not pausing to think and trusting his intuition, Zero made straight for the base of one of the pipes upon the unfolding arm, pulling out and igniting his Z Saber.

Zero grit his teeth and cranked his EAS frantically. One…two…

He sprang off the hull of the Hellspitter, plunging the tip of his saber into the pipe and drawing it up on his own momentum, and in the next moment Zero's feet planted and he was running almost vertically up the side of the unfolding arm, his arms braced, dragging the Z Saber up through the pipe as he ran.

Great, steaming spurts of the rushing liquid burst through the long rent in the pipe, gushing out to land on the ground and the mavericks below. They shouted in surprise and pain as the boiling chemical burned them. One large, mammoth-like reploid screamed in surprise and accidentally let go of a blast from the flame thrower in its arm as it fell. Next thing, there was a brilliant roar and a blast of smoke, and many mavericks screamed as they were burned alive.

The great rush of black smoke from the ground stung Zero's sensitive optic camera membranes and irritated his respiratory chambers as he ran further. Sensing gravity starting to catch hold, the crimson hunter threw all his energy into a kick on the hull and a twist of his saber, and then he was sailing through the air to the top of the cannon, the pipe below him severed and slowly unfolding and spiraling down from the arm to tumble over the hull onto the ground, drenching more mavericks in the deadly napalm mix.

Feeling a rush of adrenaline and triumph as he saw his tactic working, Zero flipped over in his jump and landed neatly on top of the cannon's large circular nozzle, face-to-face with the shocked gunner.

Zero's hand flashed up his Z saber, but the gunner, knowing he was doomed, faced the wall quickly. His headset shot out an illumination laser and he slammed his fist immediately down on a large button on the console in front of him. The nozzle started to shake violently as the remaining pipes let out a large hiss and their flow quickened.

Not wasting a second, Zero slashed at the reploid and the momentum of the badly-aimed swipe threw him bodily off the top of the cannon.

Dang it! He targeted the walls again…got to shut it off before it fires…

Casting his gaze around the top of the gun, which was starting to shake violently and hum, Zero spotted the pipes converging into the cannon nozzle structure a ways further down the arm. Hefting the Z saber again, Zero started to edge down the cannon arm. One foot down, next one, hold onto the edge, another foot…

Zero could hear the howls of triumph from the mavericks below as they saw Hellspitter preparing to fire. The mavericks were all around from the sounds he heard. They must've pushed out the Jin'en. Now we're in trouble. Zero scrambled down the arm with greater urgency.

He finally reached the pipes, and lifted his saber high…

CRACK! There was a sudden thunderclap, and Zero gazed in amazement at the smoking, scorched steel just beneath his right foot. There was a high-pitched nasal laugh in the air, and Zero looked up again.

The maverick, Urbalos Banshii, was hovering in the air before him. Her wide, mad eyes glittered evilly as she screeched with laughter.

"Nice try, little reploid, but did you really think I would let you do that!"

There was a sudden shudder in the cannon arm, and a massive jolt as the arm kicked back. Then there was an ear-splitting roar that blew stars into Zero's vision and bruised his tympanics.

Zero, his balance upset by the kickback, swayed and lost his footing and slipped over the side of the arm, left dangling precariously from one hand while the other gripped his saber in case Banshii made a move. Twisting his head towards the walls, Zero saw the great flaring mass speeding towards the city.

No! The walls won't take that one! Zero growled in frustration. There was an enormous crash as the fireball hit the eastern wall…and then it slowly began to crumble. The rumble of it disintegrating was suddenly drowned out by maverick cheers.

Zero glared up in rage at the green-grey maverick above him, who was grinning maliciously down at him.

"Hard luck, 'legendary hero'! Of course you know that those pesky Neo Arcadians will never win now…" she left out a high screech. "Go ahead, little Zero. I love seeing the despair and defeat in my opponents' faces. Yeeheeheehee!"

Zero said nothing. It was true the defenders could not hope to hold out now with the walls breached. But he, the crimson hunter, would never give up. As long as he was there, Neo Arcadia could still take down many of the mavericks with it. He braced himself and began to haul himself back onto the arm, slamming one foot up into the side for more leverage.

But he was suddenly aware of the deep whoosh of wings and the clatter of clawed feet on the arm above him, and looked up to see the hag grinning down at him.

"I think not…" she said simply, and smiled a greenish, many-fanged smile at him before kicking out with one foot.

Zero grimaced as the foot connected painfully with his left shoulder, scraping the armour and jolting his collarbone. His neck began to ache as he felt the syntholigaments anchoring his shoulder rip open. Zero wavered and hung by his left hand again. He could feel excruciating pain in his shoulder, but he did not let go. Gritting his teeth, he reached up and swung his saber at Banshii's legs.

There was a high squawk and Banshii was in the air again, not having seen Zero was armed. Screeching loudly, the maverick flew up high, glaring down at the crimson hunter. All six of her fanged jaws clacked menacingly as thin wisps of greenish energy circulated her body. She snapped her wings close to herself in a spiral, and, with one more high screech, dived down and shot at Zero with all fangs and claws bared.

Zero braced himself for a leap to avoid her. He didn't know how he would manage to survive the fall, but being caught in her dive was certain death. He slipped his saber into his palm and clamped his other arm on the steel, lifting up his legs for a kick off the cannon. Banshii came closer, one, two…

Then there was a loud, surprised squawk and a puff of grey feathers as a speeding green bullet shot out of nowhere and slammed into Banshii's side, sending her tumbling over in mid-air.

Zero had seen and felt that impact before.

"You took your time, Harpuia!" Zero bellowed up to the Guardian above him, who was standing upright in mid-air with his arms crossed.

"Why don't you try taking on the whole air force yourself, Zero?" Harpuia growled as Zero hauled himself over and onto the cannon.

Banshii screeched in rage, searing Zero and Harpuia's tympanics. "So be it! Die together, reploids!" She shot back at them. Harpuia and Zero dodged aside, Zero taking a courtesy swipe at her side as she passed. He felt the blade scrape her armor, but not penetrate.

Harpuia spun on his toes in flight and threw a sonic crescent at Banshii, who turned, and without pausing at the sight, swung her arms together into a cross, blasting a similar sonic beam. The two crashed together with a loud thunderclap.

Zero grimaced and clutched his ears. If this goes on, I'll go deaf…

"Harpuia…" he hissed at him. "Forget the sonics and lightning. She has the same power. We'll have to take her down the other way…"

Zero clicked the second button on the hilt of his Z saber. The belt catch on the lower end of the hilt turned…to the ice symbol. The thrumming blade of Zero's saber turned white-blue and began to radiate an extreme cold. Harpuia grimaced and looked away at Banshii.

The hag glared balefully at them before screeching and clapping her claws together, sending a ring of lightning arcing for them both. Harpuia did not move, the attack would not harm him and was not meant for him. Zero however, was not so protected, and leaped up into the air to avoid it.

Right on cue, Banshii braced her body and blasted forward at Zero. Charging his saber, Zero waited in his fall…

CRACK! With a blast of ice, Banshii sailed backwards, slamming painfully against the cannon with ice clinging to her armor and jaws. Coughing and swearing through the ice embedded in all her six mouths, Banshii struggled out of the arm and glared at the crimson hunter with mixed fear and hatred.

She's afraid. Zero thought with satisfaction. That's nothing new. The mavericks always needed roughing up a little before they understood what they were dealing with.

Harpuia, without changing expression, bent and flew straight at Banshii, igniting his sabers. Not having a short-range weapon, Harpuia probably figured she would be easy to take down if trapped and forced to slug it out.

Not quite. Banshii suddenly screeched again loudly. Harpuia's face twisted in pain at the noise, but he didn't stop and bore down on her. The hag barely managed to twist away before Harpuia's left saber stabbed into the hull where her stomach-mouth had been a split-second ago. Banshii twisted over again to punch at Harpuia with her other claws, but he was ready, lifting his right arm to catch it.

Banshii screeched in pain as her claws were cut off, before twisting away and taking flight. Harpuia paused, pulling his saber out of the cannon.

Zero was surprised, briefly, that he had never before noticed that Harpuia was left-handed. Brushing aside the thought for another time, Zero cranked his EAS and leaped for Banshii, landing neatly on her back to slow her down.

She screamed in rage and twisted madly as Zero wrapped his arms around her neck, being careful to avoid her mouths. No such luck. She twisted around in the air and Zero found himself staring into the hideous greenish-grey face. She snapped her fangs menacingly at his face.

Zero jerked his head back, only to be greeted suddenly by a terrible pain in his stomach.

Banshii had obviously expected him to pull away from her, and when his stomach jerked forward to pull his head away, she had bit with her stomach-mouth, penetrating the armor and sinking her fangs into his synthoflesh. Screeching with glee, Banshii bit deeply into Zero's stomach.

Zero's vision clouded over and blood spurted from his savaged belly, but he wasn't going to fall. Not yet. He could hear Harpuia shouting, jumping off the cannon and taking to the air.

Twisting again, Zero shoved himself behind Banshii, ignoring the tear in his stomach as he pulled his flesh from her fangs. As she screeched, her took her by her lank, sparse hair and jerked her head back, wrapping his other arm round her neck in a headlock and his legs round her upper thighs to jerk her body taut.

Banshii screeched and twisted madly in the air, trying to loosen Zero's grip as he struggled to hold her straight.

"Harpuia!" Zero shouted. "Do it now!"

Understanding immediately, the Guardian flew straight for the pair of them with his saber ready to plunge into Banshii's exposed chest. Banshii screeched her loudest yet. Her scream sent tongues of fire through Zero's brain. He grimaced, gritted his teeth and banged his head repeatedly against Banshii's, partly to distract himself and partly to attempt to shut her up. His stomach was burning, his shoulder aching, and a splitting headache was the last thing he wanted now.

Her scream grew louder and louder…

And then suddenly it was over. Harpuia's hilt protruded from Banshii's ribcage.

Harpuia, his jaw set and eyes cold, glared at Banshii as she raised her face and looked at him, a faintly confused look in her bulbous eyes, before she sighed from all of her six mouths and began to fall.

Harpuia reached out and grabbed Zero neatly by the shoulder as the maverick's body fell to the carnage below. He grimaced. "That shoulder is a little sensitive, Harpuia…"

The Green Guardian tightened his grip, rather deliberately, Zero thought. "Maybe I should just let go of you then, Zero? I do hate carrying passengers you know. It slows me down…"

The crimson hunter shook his head. "Not yet. Got to deal with that thing once and for all." He pointed his ignited saber at the Hellspitter again. "Set me down there, Harpuia."

Not bothering to argue, the Guardian swooped down to the cannon and dropped Zero into the gunner platform again. Zero sprinted over to the main pipe insertion again, charging his Giga unit…

Zero's aura flared brightly. Harpuia, sensing what was about to happen, flew upwards for several metres, watching.

Zero grinned. "Get ready…"

His ignited Z-saber turned bright white and blazed spirit fire as Zero lifted it overhead. "SHIROIYUHII!" Zero roared, bringing down the burning blade.

There was a great flash of light tearing out across the sands like a blazing white sun. The pipes ruptured and burst apart, spraying liquid fire everywhere. The liquid immediately ignited and exploded, throwing the White Sunset explosion even further and setting the whole Hellspitter ablaze. The cannon head shook and groaned, then there were loud cracks from the head and the sound of tearing metal. The whole cannon head splintered and broke off the arm in a blazing white mass.

Mavericks howled in fear and scattered as the lump of burning white fire landed with a loud crash on the rock below, crushing and incinerating the mavericks who weren't quite quick enough.

The burning white sun then slowly vanished, like a candle that ran out of wax.

Harpuia lowered his arms from his eyes and gazed, stunned, at Zero's handiwork.

The whole Hellspitter was burned and blackened, the arm torn and twisted and the cannon lying in big pieces on the turf below. The glass cockpit at the front was shattered and the driver nowhere to be seen. The ground around the ruined engine was broken and black, littered with charred maverick corpses. Large sand beds were now little more than piles of steaming glass.

Harpuia suddenly, and to his own amazement, felt a twist in his stomach. Zero…

Harpuia gazed down. So this was how much power the legendary hero truly had. Harpuia had once in the past seen Zero greatly weakened by his loss of purpose and destiny in the year following his defeat of Copy X. At that time, Harpuia had wondered just how much power Zero's heart and sense of purpose had strengthened him in the battle against Copy X, and later, against Elpizo. Harpuia had known that in terms of raw power, both those foes should have defeated Zero easily.

But now, as he hovered over this field of destruction, he realized that Zero's inner power was far greater than any other he possessed. Driven by his passion and sense of self, Zero had done more than any other arrior Harpuia had ever known.

Be that as it may though, Harpuia felt faintly ruffled. If Zero had always had this much power at his disposal and used it against him, or Fefnir ,or Leviathan, he would have destroyed them easily. Then why had he not? Mercy perhaps? Or pity? Or lack of interest? Whichever way, Harpuia, for reasons understood only by warriors, felt sulky and faintly insulted that Zero had never unleashed the power he saw now in all their duels.

But where was Zero? He could not see him anywhere in all the smoking ruin…

Suddenly, Harpuia was aware of his wrist-com crackling and he flipped it open. My com! It's working again!

Harpuia suddenly had a flash of realization. Banshii…her sonic powers must have been what was interfering with their com link.

But then a movement in the rubble caught his eye. A thin, red and black arm poked out from under a steel slab and pushed it up. Zero stood up in the midst of the rubble, his armor scratched, cracked, and blackened by fire. Harpuia swooped down and landed neatly in front of him. He looked at him, and saw that despite the enormous effort his Giga attack must have taken him, and the damage to his armor and battle wounds, his face was stoic as ever.

"Interesting Giga unit, Zero. I wish you'd let me know about this sooner though…"

Zero's face actually split into a broad grin, much to the Guardian's surprise. But Zero's mirth vanished as quickly as it came as he turned his head to look at the broken walls of the city in the distance. "Well…that's enough fooling around, Harpuia. Let's get back to the walls, shall we?"

Harpuia eyed him coolly. "You don't honestly expect me to carry you all that way, do you, Zero?"

Zero shrugged. "It's the fastest way, isn't it?"

Harpuia nodded slowly. He knew as well as Zero did that dignity came last in these situations. In the blink of an eye he was in the air behind Zero, wrapping his arms under Zero's armpits. "Hold on then, 'legendary hero'…but I swear I'll get you for this one of these days…"

Harpuia could not see Zero's face, but he was sure he was smirking. "Big talk, big mouth. But I hear it all the time…"

"Oh shut up! This is no time for jokes."

"You started it…"

And the Green Guardian and his awkward passenger were flying through the air.

Leviathan stumbled to her feet awkwardly, leaning on her spear for support to avoid putting weight on her injured thigh. The pressure bandages would compensate for the weak metallo-bone, but it still hurt to shift the synthomuscles. Her helmet was gone now, and her long blue hair cascaded down her back in a sparkling blue sheet. She was very proud of her sparkling hair, which ran in a perfectly straight wave, and she hated the idea of it being tousled in the battle, but now that she was wearing a vibro-sensor headset, she could not wear her helmet.

The grey headset fitted over her head like a pair of earphones, but extended cups with vibro-probes into her ears to attach to her tympanic integrator circuits. It was very uncomfortable, but it was better than being deaf. She could now derive sound from the vibrations in the air around her until her auto-repair systems could fix her tympanic sensors.

The Jin'en had been pushed back into the city walls to defend the breach the fire-cannon weapon had made. Luckily enough, most of the rubble from the explosion missed the emergency fortifications they build on the other side of the walls, and after a long fight, the Pantheons had then been successful in pushing back the maverick ranks from the breach. However, Leviathan and the other commanders knew it was only a matter of time before the enemy would manage to squeeze their artillery into gap. But so far it was a static defense and the enemy had pulled back to regroup. Parked chasers for a speed attack were parked nearby.

Fefnir had been stretchered into a nearby repair facility (by four large reploid carriers), and Leviathan was attempting to reorganize the frenzied Jin'en to a better defensive position. But many of them were driven by battle anger now and merely wanted to go out and fight again. Leviathan muttered curses to herself under her breath. Her own Meikai forces were much better disciplined than this…

There was suddenly a crackle from her wrist-com, which echoed hollowly through her vibro-sensor. She immediately flicked it open in surprise. "Sage?" Her own voice sounded hollow to her.

"Leviathan! Our communications are working again! Order the artillery to detonate the mines immediately! Let's take out what we can! I'm calling for a bombardment by Jethawk also! Do it!"

"Understood!" Almost jumping for joy, Leviathan cut him off and immediately signaled the detonator troops.

"Detonate all mines, Captain! Right now!"

"Yes, ma'am!"

The ground shook and Leviathan was aware of a large gasp of air and vibrations of bursting explosion traveling through the air, amongst what she was sure were screams. She covered her ears at that, even though she knew it wouldn't do anything to stop her sensors. War. Such a horrible business. I think I liked the war with the Resistance better. At least they had the sense not to die…so much.

There was a hum in the air, and Leviathan opened her eyes to see Sage, and, her stomach jolted, Zero landing before her.

Leviathan's face twisted as she tried not to laugh. The sight of Harpuia carrying Zero in mid-air was ridiculous.

Harpuia looked at her frostily. "Yeah, Leviathan, I know what you're thinking. It was just the fastest way back for us. End of story."

Leviathan merely smirked at Sage in a way that told him that if they ever got out of this battle alive, she would never let him forget it. She then lowered her eyes and looked at Zero. He was looking worse for wear. His armor was blackened and bloodstained, cracked in several places.

"Quite a battle eh, hero?" she asked him cockily. "I thought a siege would be no problem for the great Zero…"

Zero looked at her before shrugging and jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "Not really. I only just destroyed the weapon that would've sealed the doom of Neo Arcadia and everyone in it, Leviathan…"

Harpuia jerked as though he were about to argue with that, but his eyes rolled off to one side as though he decided against it and he addressed her instead.

"Leviathan, did any mavericks get into the city?"

She shook her head. "None yet, Sage. The forces we have here are holding them back for now. But once they bring in their tanks and missiles, we're toast!"

Harpuia lifted his arm and tapped his wrist-com. "Maybe not. With my Jethawks ordered to take them apart, we should be able to hold them off at least a while longer. Probably a whole day or so if we need to with the forces we have."

Zero looked up. "I'll be here. You just hold position and let me do the rest."

Harpuia glared at him. "Zero, don't try to fool me. I can already tell you're tired. And believe me, while I wouldn't mind if you got shot down through your own stupidity, I hardly believe that's the way to win this battle!"

Zero glared back. "Don't give me that 'commanding' treatment, Harpuia. You forget what you saw outside."

Leviathan stood back, enjoying the sight of Harpuia and Zero about to go at it, but then the Jin'en cat reploid, Fealikks, loped up to them, fixing Zero with an accusing stare. "I trust, Master Harpuia, that now you see that this maverick will not win this battle for us. We have been pushed back behind our own walls and Master Fefnir is down. Now will you get rid of Zero?"

Leviathan groaned. This cat reploid was impudent, stupid, and very ignorant of true power. She wanted to pick up her spear and thrash the feline, not the least because he was convinced he knew zero better than she or Sage.

Obviously, that was Sage's thought also, as he grit his teeth and stared sideways at the reploid. "Shut up." He said shortly.

Fealikks twitched, probably in anger, but he could not resist speaking. "Master Harpuia, I implore you-" He began in a not-so-imploring tone. "I believe Zero is working with them. For all we know, he could be planning to carve a path into the city for these mavericks. He might plan to allow them a victory to ensure the Resistance's victory over us! Please, Master…"

WHAM! Zero's fist connected sharply with the side of Fealikks' helmet with a vibro-shock that almost made Leviathan's teeth rattle in sympathy for the cat as he sprawled in the mud.

Cursing, Fealikks leapt to his feet with feline agility and reached for his weapon, but he was greeted by the glowing tip of the Z-saber pointed straight at his throat.

Harpuia placed his hand on Zero's wrist and pushed down the saber, but Zero let him. He was just glaring and not saying a word. Sage stepped between them, squared his hands on his hips and glared at Fealikks.

"That will be two more weeks of garbage collection, Fealikks. And immediately after your four weeks is over, you will leave immediately to take command of our guard-post down in the Red Dust plains south-east of here. The scorpions and cactuses might need someone to watch over them for a few years…"

Again, Fealikks did not turn a hair at this. He merely glared at Zero before turning and loping away.

Harpuia turned, jaw set. "As for you, Zero…"

Zero put up his hand. "Save it for your troops, Harpuia! I don't care what you have to say. I'm here for a job."

Silence. And a staring contest. Leviathan swore she could see little flickers of lightning passing between the locked pairs of eyes. She decided to head it off before she went nuts.

"Now, boys…" she said, stepping between them. "…there are enough enemies outside to worry about."

Sage immediately looked away and began speaking into his wrist-com. The Blue Guardian chuckled to herself. She always knew the right way to get Sage off was to dangle duty in front of him. She turned to look at Zero, who was following her wave of sparkling hair as it whipped out of his sight.

She stuck out her tongue at him. "What would you do without me, Zero?"

"……Plenty, probably."

She pouted at him. "You don't mean that…"

Zero glanced briefly down at her leg as he saw her leaning on her spear for support. "Are you hurt?"

She looked at him levelly. "Why do you think I'm wearing this stupid headset? I was taken out by a cannon shell!"

"Can you still fight?"

"That's all you're worried about, Zero?"

He looked up at her, one eyebrow raised. "You're no good here if you can't fight…"

She gritted her teeth. "You know, Zero, you can be absolutely infuriating sometimes. Well, of course I can fight!"

He shrugged. "Good."

Leviathan cursed under her breath. Why wouldn't he ever be friendly?

Just then, a humanoid soldier ran over, panting and out of breath. "Master Harpuia! Master Harpuia!"

Sage looked up from his com, annoyed. "Stand to attention, soldier!"

The exhausted reploid blinked, and then stood up and saluted, still breathing hard. Harpuia strode over to him. "Why are you interrupting me now, soldier? This had better be good!"

"I-I do have good news, sir! B-but…there's also bad news…"

Staring at him, the Jade Hawk seemed to soften slightly. "At ease. Report."

The soldier relaxed and began to speak hurriedly. "The good news is we just received a transmission from the southern walls, sir, now that our coms are working again. It seems the Resistance arrived an hour ago, and they wish to contact 'Commander Zero'…"

Harpuia smiled slightly, turning his head. "So they did come then, Zero. Very good. Continue, soldier."

The reploid fidgeted a little before continuing, as if deciding on his words. "…But the bad news, sir…is that the mavericks arrived sooner than we anticipated. It seems they were picked up by land transport and are attacking in vehicles as we speak. The Resistance are fighting with us, but they are suffering heavily. Mostly because so many of them want to protect their leader and will not take the offensive…"

Leviathan saw Zero twitch sharply. He strode over to the soldier and seized him by the shoulders. "Who's leading the Resistance at the front!"

Zero's voice sounded panicked. Leviathan sensed that he probably already knew the answer from the look on his face, but he needed to hear it outright. Sage was also gaping at the messenger in horror.

Then it dawned on Leviathan just as the words slipped out of the frightened soldier…

"M-miss Ciel, sir…"

Zero looked up and snapped his gaze sharply to a parked chaser.

Harpuia nodded in understanding, looking worried. "Go. We'll hold them here, Zero."

Kicking in his EAS and bowling the poor soldier over, Zero leapt up into the seat of the chaser, leaned down into the screen, and threw the ignition catch. With a low hum and a rush of air, the chaser hovered off the ground and blades of plasma arced from the suspensor pads. Zero kicked the accelerator, blasting energy through the jets and disengaging the immobilizer. The chaser shot forward towards the broken wall.

Leviathan, not quite sure why she was doing it, acted on an impulse and vaulted through the air as the chaser passed her. Ignoring the shouts from Sage, she landed neatly on the back seat of the chaser behind Zero.

Evening was coming and the sky began to darken as the chaser sped through the gap…

Author: There. After almost a year, it's done. Flame away. Call me 'lazy git' or 'slacking moron' all you like. Next chapter: Zero on the southern front, Battle Commander Ciel, Leviathan's flirting antics ruffling Ciel's feathers, and a startling revelation about the enemy…and a betrayal.

As always, please R and R. Love you all readers.