AUTHOR'S NOTES: Whew! Sorry about the wait, but as I was trying to finish this in time for Anime Central, a storm brewed up and did some damage to my house. By the time I was able to fix that up, it was time to go on vacation, and I was gone to ACen for a week. I didn't think I'd have the energy for awhile to finish this, with summer semester cranking up, but strangely enough, two viewings of the new Star Trek movie inspired me to hit the keyboard again in my rapidly diminishing spare time. (BTW, if you haven't seen the new Star Trek, go NOW. It is really excellent.) Now it's really late and I feel like I've run a marathon…and I still need to move some furniture…

So this is the last chapter of the Battle of Toriyama. Finally! I hope it was worth the wait and the now book-length of this story arc. Just one more chapter to finish out the arc, and we're done with this one…and then it's on to the very last (sort of) chapter of the whole Snowbird saga, Snowbird Triumphant. I hope, anyway.

I couldn't help but borrow a bit from Star Wars' trench sequence and once more from David Bellavia's House to House.


SulliMike: What's that? Leave? Not gonna happen! (It's not called a "last stand" for nothing, y'know.)

FraserMage: Mmm…could be! (Why should Michael Stackpole have all the fun?) I hope that's not too crazy…

Rogue: Thanks. I was definitely hauling out the Bon Jovi for this story.

Texray: That's my intention. If it's reading like a movie, I'm doing my job.

Mosin: Hopefully this chapter is as good as the last. Though it's Peter Nicholas in the Marauder; Moore's got a Pegasus.

Bien: No problem. Hope you're feeling better now. I'd be interested what you think about Felisanna, and the fate of "your" character.

Jayson: Thanks for the really long review! I'm glad you like the story, though I'm sorry I deprived you of sleep (though that's one of the highest praises an author can get, IMHO). Maysa is indeed in for some thought, if she survives this; the decision to marry Dan was made in the heat of the moment, but they're both young people in an impossible situation. We'll see how it works out. As for Sheila, it's okay if you disagree with her. Sheila's not perfect. I've tried to make her as little Mary Sue-ish as possible. She's made mistakes, but that's how people grow, and really this whole story/saga is about Sheila growing from a snot-nosed teenage MechWarrior into an adult commander in every sense of the word. I won't guarantee a happy ending for Maysa and Dan, and the person who killed Mary Scott (it wasn't an Elemental; it was Dougray) will indeed get his. I wish Catalyst could make this a campaign, but I doubt that'll ever happen. Still, one can hope…

MUSIC CORNER: "The Battle of Yavin" from Star Wars, "The Battle of Hoth" from The Empire Strikes Back (of course), "Warriors of Faith" by Hammerfall, and "Kingslayer" by Nightwish. (I think this chapter deserves four songs!)


Kagoshima, Pesht District, Draconis Combine

2 January 3052

"Fighters coming down! Here we go!"

Terrence d'Sotra would never know which of his nine pilots said it, but the air battle now began to complement the hell on the ground. The Clan fighters were nearly on top of him, gaining the precious advantage of altitude, and there was nothing he could do about it—normally he would've grabbed for altitude the moment he took off, but he had to cover the Mechbusters.

The thirteen Clan Omnifighters peeled off and dove in sections like hawks onto prey. He was outnumbered and outgunned, but he had to climb into them now. Almost instantly, lasers and blue PPC fire lanced around him. D'Sotra gritted his teeth and prayed his forward armor would hold against any hits. Two precious seconds went by before he could return the fire with his own weapons, once they were in range.

The two groups of fighters reached each other in seconds at a combined speed of twice that of sound. This was what fighter pilots called the merge, when ranges closed to within mere meters. The pilots of both sides began to twist and turn, to get on each other's tails, and the killing soon began.

Ibuki saw the merge and knew some of the Clan fighters would break through. "Eagles from Lead. Defensive split, Ohka formation—go now!"

The dozen Mechbusters split into four sections of three: Red, Blue, Green, and Orange. Each would make their approach from a different point of the compass at varying intervals, their formation resembling that of an ohka—a falling cherry blossom. While the three-aircraft vee was unwieldy compared to the four-aircraft fighting wing, it meant that at least some of the Mechbusters might live long enough to make their weapon runs. The three pilots of Eagle Green section figured they were the luckiest: led by the oldest man in the squadron, Kentaro Miho, they began their attack immediately, aiming for where the smoke was thickest.

Sheila had heard David Moore give the order for his tanks to fall back. In her mind she saw a map of Toriyama: the loss of the village meant that the north wall was flanked, and Moore's tanks would be hard pressed to hold off the Elementals, much less any 'Mechs that might have broken through. Maysa's and Marrion's lances could be taken from behind and the line rolled up west to east, assuming that Furey didn't find a way to break the line in the very center. It was time to play her last card, the Snowbirds' last stand.

"Falcon and Wolf Lances, fall back to the middle wall! Tiger Lance, hold fast—you're the hinge! Box Lance, move up and support!"

At that moment, Furey's two Stars finally surged through the north wall, and Rally's Star broke through between Maysa and Marrion.

Star Captain Kikki held back her throttle and didn't bother dodging the LRM fire that peppered her Rapier from a passing Lucifer. Out of the corner of one eye, she spotted another of her Trinary's Hellcats drive off the Inner Sphere fighter, and so continued her dive. She ignored a call from Star Captain Michaels asking where she was going, because she had realized that the Inner Sphere aerofighters were merely a diversion: the real threat lay in the lowly Mechbusters. No fighter aircraft could turn and climb like the Snowbird fighters were doing, which meant they were running clean: the Mechbusters, then, were the main threat to the Clan MechWarriors. While Kikki didn't think very highly of the ground-pounders, the battle would be won or lost by them, and her duty was to help.

She pulled out of the dive and ended up behind the rear section of the Mechbusters. Kikki lined up the gigantic autocannon that lay along the Rapier's spine and opened fire, hammering the leftmost Mechbuster's right wing. The aircraft shuddered, dipped slightly, then the entire wing disappeared as the bombs were touched off. The Mechbuster disintegrated and fell into Toriyama Bay. Kikki then rolled the Rapier to kill some of her airspeed—she was faster than the Mechbusters, despite being much heavier—and opened fire again, the AC/20 sawing off the tail section of the next aircraft. The pilot tried vainly for altitude, but the Mechbuster stalled, pitched end over end, and followed its wingmate into the water. Kikki slammed her throttle forward and nosed down, picking up airspeed, although it meant that the lead Mechbuster would get away. "Bobcat Two, take him!" she ordered her wingman, who had gotten separated in the merge, but was now coming down in his own Rapier.

Yet Kentaro Miho was a veteran, unlike his two wingmen had been. He waited until the Rapier had settled into the kill position, then suddenly dropped his flaps and raised his nose. The Clan fighter pilot saw the flaps drop and instinctively did the same, chopping his throttle back. He had miscalculated: the Mechbuster was designed for fighting in atmosphere, but the Rapier was intended for space combat. The Clan fighter stalled, fell out of the air, and Bobcat Two was unable to recover before the Rapier crashed into the sea with a hiss of foam.

Miho forced his nose back down and the throttle forward, now close enough to Toriyama to see 'Mechs advancing up the west slope—they had to be Clan. He began to position himself for a run, then saw the other Rapier drop in behind him; Kikki had climbed, rolled in a high-speed yo-yo, and dropped behind him again. He knew to break off was to die, but staying on his attack run was equally suicidal. He shrugged and keyed his radio. "Eagle Lead from Eagle Seven. Lost Takiro, lost Hoshi. Got a Clanner on me tight. Banzai!"

Ibuki closed his eyes a moment as he swept around Toriyama in a wide arc from the south. He saw the Mechbuster get hit and flame, but Miho never deviated from his run, aiming for a Clan 'Mech. The nose of the pursuing Rapier disappeared in smoke as its pilot fired everything she had. The Mechbuster of Kentaro Miho vanished in a towering explosion, and the remains of the aircraft crashed into the side of the mesa, just short of his intended target, the crowd of Elementals still trying to break out of Rainbow's village.

"Eagle Lead, break right!"

Ibuki's feet and hands were moving before his brain completely processed the order. It saved his life: the Mechbuster was buffeted by autocannon shells so huge Ibuki could actually see them. A quick glance behind him revealed his attacker: a Hammerhead heavy fighter. It had only one weapon, but that one weapon was an AC/20 that could destroy his aircraft with one hit. Ibuki climbed, but the Hammerhead easily kept pace, its pilot intent on lining him up for the kill shot.

The Smoke Jaguar was too intent, in fact. He never saw Cinda Scampton's Stuka come up behind the twin-tailed Clan fighter's blind spot. Smoke streamed from the Stuka's nose as Scampton fired all 20 tubes of her LRM-20, then her wings sparkled with fire from all four large lasers. The Hammerhead somersaulted end over end as it was hit, then flew into pieces as the airframe was stressed beyond the breaking point.

The Elementals on Gateway Rock came in two waves, screaming and hissing like their Clan's namesake. Kinosh wiped away the tears from her eyes and fired into them, even as bullets chewed up the karst around her. Two Elementals got over the loose wall in front of her positions and leapt into a foxhole with one of her two machine guns. Knives flashed in the early dawn as they killed the crew, but as one Clansman reared up, Kinosh raised her Rorynex, aimed, and killed the man with a single shot between the eyes. Someone else threw a grenade and killed the other one. A third Elemental burst from her left side, rolling over the wall, then rolled to his feet and actually ran past her, cradling his assault rifle like a baby. Kinosh fired and missed, but three militia behind her didn't. The Elemental screamed in pain as bullets perforated him, then fell off the sheer north face of the rock to impact far below.

Kinosh spotted Elementals moving now to her right side, pouring through the gap left by the dead machine gun crew, but like the other one, they didn't stop—merely charged down the slope behind her. Kinosh cursed, knowing she hadn't defended in depth, but had thrown what troops she had at the top of the Rock, assuming that no one would be crazy enough to try the east face, and if they were, she'd hear the clank of their battlearmor long before they got close enough. Now the Jaguars had done the unexpected, and while the Elementals would be a lot easier to kill outside their armor, they would also be a lot more mobile. "Snowbird Actual from Claw Six! My right flank is gone—Elementals are heading for the DropShips! Heads up!"

She never knew if Sheila heard her, for Kinosh felt a sharp pain in her left elbow and a crack sounded in her right ear like a whip. She fell, clutching the side of her head, remembering that she had taken her helmet off when she and Soryu had decided to make hurried love in her foxhole. A huge shape loomed over her for a moment, but was just as quickly gone into the darkness. Kinosh shook her head. Everything felt fuzzy and every sound was muzzled, as if from far away.

She spit dust from her lips, cursed herself, then raised up again. There was blood on her sleeve, but the elbow only throbbed a little. She was still in the fight, and she was a Snowbird, dammit. She raised the Rorynex again, fired a stream of tracers at more shadows coming over the wall, then the magazine fell from the submachine gun—it was empty. She fished in her pouches for another, pulled it out, and loaded it quickly, her fingers and mind telling her it was her last.

The wall fell inward under the weight of Char Furey's and Thom's eight 'Mechs. Unable to get over the wall because of the fierce return fire, Furey had simply ordered his warriors to fire at the wall itself. It finally fell apart, though not all at once: openings appeared, allowing the Jaguars to surge through in small groups.

Max heard someone yell out that the north wall was in trouble, but he was having enough problems where he was: though impossibly Felisanna was apparently still alive and fighting in the defile, enough had gotten past to reinforce the initial attackers, and now they too broke through the gaps.

A Guillotine and a Flashman came straight at Max. He lunged at the Guillotine, bringing his PPC to bear, but the Clansman fired first, his large laser shearing off a length of armor. Max's PPC spluttered and died, and now the Flashman was positioning to attack: obviously honor rules had gone out the window, and now the Jaguars simply wanted to put blood on the walls. He ducked under the Flashman's concentrated laserfire, raked it with medium lasers, then winced as a thin ruby beam from the Fenris etched a scar down the Battlemaster's left cheek. One more hit like that would breach his head armor and probably kill him.

Max shouted a horrible oath and smashed the Fenris in the face, using the wrecked PPC as a mace. The Smoke Jaguar MechWarrior, stunned by the sudden hit, stumbled backwards into Charles Badaxe's Atlas. He turned and blew it in half with the last of his autocannon rounds without much apparent effort.

The Flashman was still on him, though. Deciding that one good tactic deserved another try, Max feinted left at the Flashman, dodged right as three large lasers turned the ground where he had once stood to glass, and hit the Jaguar with the PPC, which finally fell apart, but not before it crushed chest armor plate. Max then held down both triggers, sending medium lasers tearing into the bulbous 'Mech's chest, and following it with a flight of missiles. The Flashman now was the one to fall back, smoke streaming from holes in its middle, glowing with heat.

Eagle Blue Section was next to make its attack, from the north. It was the toughest approach, and Blue Section's leader, Takuya Hyakuri, knew he would only have a split-second to fire as he came over Gateway Rock. "Snowbird Actual from Eagle Four. Can you mark your lines?"

Sheila was too busy trying to stay alive to answer, but Maysa Bari had a better view in any case. "Eagles, hit everything north of the wall!" she yelled.

"Roger that, making our run now."

The three Mechbusters shifted slightly and sped in, hoping their thin armor would at least protect them from stray fire from below. "Eagle Three, watch it, two Clanners behind you!" someone yelled, but it was too late to worry about that now: Hyakuri had to keep it level if his bombs were to hit anything. He heard another shout and scream; in the corner of one eye he saw Eagle Five explode under the fire of yet another Clan Rapier. Then the Rapier itself came under attack from Karl Baum's Lucifer, and climbed hard, the Inner Sphere fighter right behind him. The Rapier started to smoke from the impact of missiles.

Eagle Four dropped his bombs and broke away, too soon: the bombs showered the gully where Felisanna still fought her lonely battle with broken rock and dust, but did no damage. Hyakuri growled at no one in particular and held steady, lining up his target: a Flashman BattleMech advancing on the north wall. A Clan Zero now dropped in behind him, and Hyakuri cursed, knowing he was a dead man.

Laserfire flurried past him—from the front. Hyakuri instinctively ducked as a Stingray suddenly appeared directly in front of him, firing its lasers and nose-mounted PPC. Vincent dal-Windas had been stalking the Zero from low-level, and now showed why his nickname was Nut. He flashed over the Mechbuster barely two meters above Hyakuri's canopy, sent the Zero spiralling downwards with a shattered nose, and climbed hard, dal-Windas howling in triumph and throwing in a victory roll.

Hyakuri didn't question his sudden salvation. In a split-second, he fired the Mechbuster's cannon and released his bombs. The Flashman twisted around with the impact, then disintegrated under the impact of all four bombs.

Kinosh heard a yell to her right and twisted in that direction, firing off a quick three-shot burst. She couldn't tell if she hit anything or not.

A grenade suddenly spun out of the darkness and landed at her feet. Oh shit, her mind screamed, and Kinosh scooped it up and threw it back. It detonated while still in the air, far enough away to miss her with its shrapnel, but still enough to nearly blind her with the flash. Kinosh blinked, trying to get back her vision, when a shadow came at her, rifle raised. She fired from the hip, knowing the shot would miss. To her surprise, the shadow spun around and dropped only a pace away. It stirred weakly, so Kinosh stepped forward to smash the stock of her Rorynex into the Elemental's head—someone that size had to be an Elemental, she thought.

Without warning, the Elemental rocketed a ham-sized fist into her jaw. Stars exploded in Kinosh's eyes and she felt a tooth shatter under the impact, then was sent flying backwards by another punch. Woozily, she looked up and saw the Elemental drop his rifle and raise a wicked, blood-slicked knife. Desperately, she scrabbled for her Rorynex, but it was gone. Her fingers closed around a rock and she threw that, catching the Elemental in the side of the head.

A red haze of fury settled around her. Screaming obscenties, Kinosh leapt to her feet, snatched off her helmet, and smashed the Elemental in the face, causing him to drop the knife. She then grabbed his face and buried it in her chest, trapping him, and began beating the shaved head of the Smoke Jaguar viciously with her helmet. Absently, she noticed rank tabs on the man's shoulders; whoever this person was, he was a high-ranking officer, maybe a Star Captain, and from the nametape on his tunic, his name was Optimai. That somehow only fed her rage, and she continued to smash the Elemental in the head, even as blood flew upwards, and slammed her knee into his groin.

With a burst of desperate energy, Optimai got an arm loose and punched her in the cheek. "Let go, freebirth!" he shouted.

"Shut the fuck up and die!" Kinosh shouted back.

His next punch struck her in the jaw, sending a jet of blinding pain into her brain. She staggered and nearly fell, and the Elemental broke free. He seized a handful of Kinosh's hair and tried to punch her again, but she reached up and fastened her hands around his thick throat. Kinosh screamed in his face in several languages, her throat raw, though she could barely hear herself or his answering curses.

Optimai's arms snaked up and broke the choke hold, knocking her arms aside and then shoving her to the ground. He reached down to grab his fallen rifle, but Kinosh, with an inhuman snarl, leapt to her feet, punched him in the stomach. As he folded up from the unexpected blow, she seized him by the ear with one hand and drove her fingers into his eyes with the other. Optimai howled in pain, and slammed a fist into Kinosh's chest. Her collarbone splintered under the blow, and he landed another shot to her jaw, sending fresh blood spraying across the stones.

Optimai reached up and smeared blood away from his eyes. His teeth were bared, and all he cared about now was killing this diminutive fury at his feet. A rifle was too easy, too quick. Kinosh groaned and gathered her hands underneath her, so he kicked her in the side, hearing a rib crack even over the din of battle. He searched for his knife, couldn't see it, and so bent down, chest heaving with exertion, every nerve ending screaming with pain. He grabbed her skinny throat with his hands and rolled her over, wanting nothing more than to watch her eyes bulge as he squeezed the life from her.

A sharp pain erupted in his chest, and Optimai looked down in surprise. A knife, his knife, was buried in his chest. Kinosh hissed, "For my Soryu," pulled the knife free, and rammed it home beneath his jaw. Optimai was dead before he hit the ground, the death he had wanted for so long finally his.

Sheila waited as Furey's command Star came through the wall. On either side of her Shruiken stood Kahvi's Dragon, Fred Matria's Chameleon, and Marcus Drax's Phoenix Hawk; Sheila had no idea where Drax had come from, but he had already been hit several times. A Fenris charged him. Drax got in a good shot to the Clan 'Mech's side, but the return PPC fire sheared off his Phoenix Hawk's left leg at the ankle. Drax jammed the stump of the leg into the ground and threw out his left arm for balance, but then the Fenris blew off his right arm, taking the large laser with it, then sent more lasers into the 'Mech's chest. Armor bubbled and sloughed off. Thinking him finished, the Fenris turned, but with a primal howl, Drax threw his crippled Phoenix Hawk forward and tackled the Clan OmniMech. Both 'Mechs went through the shattered wall and disappeared down the north slope, which buckled and broke underneath them.

"Marcus!" Kahvi shouted. A Champion was trying to run past her, but she swung her Dragon's right arm like a baseball bat and dropped it to its knees. She held down the triggers on both control sticks, sending autocannon shells and missiles into the fallen Jaguar although both were too close to arm. Sheer impact crushed armor plates, and then she delivered a solid kick to its side. The Champion shivered and then its left side exploded as the SRM magazine went off. Kahvi stepped back to finish it off, slapping the heat overrides off with a muttered Japanese curse, though her cockpit felt like a sauna and sweat ran down the control sticks. A Thorn came at her from over the wall, but was then blasted back into it and fell unmoving to the ground. As she delivered a coup de grace to the fallen Champion, Kahvi noticed that a Sniper artillery piece had trundled up to the edge of the old runway: William Griffon was using the 105 millimeter howitzer as a direct fire weapon. She raised her autocannon in salute, but then it felt as if someone had kicked her hard in the back. The Dragon went over, but Kahvi rolled with the impact and saw her attacker: a Thug. She kicked out, knowing it was useless, but the PPC bolts sailed over her head. She got the Dragon back to its feet, and saw that the bolts had not been meant for her at all: the Sniper was now a burning wreck.

"Bakayaro!" Kahvi screamed, and fired her autocannon into the Thug. The assault 'Mech barely moved, and turned its attention to her. Kahvi stood her ground, determined to get in a few more shots before the Thug got her, and fired a flight of LRMs into it. Again, it barely seemed to register the hits, peppered her with SRMs, then readied the PPCs for the killing blow.

From out of nowhere, a Crusader landed hard on the Thug's huge shoulders, driving its legs into the other 'Mech. As the Thug toppled, the Crusader brought its elbow down directly on the Clan 'Mech's head. The Snowbird 'Mech got to unsteady feet as Kahvi, her mouth open in amazement, watched its weapon ports open. Two fusillades of missiles later, and the Thug's head was a crushed ruin.

The Crusader threw Kahvi a thumbs-up. "See? Hire the handicapped!" Mimi Stykkis laughed, and despite the death and destruction around them, Kahvi couldn't help but laugh madly right alongside her.

Kikki had intended to finish off the section of three Mechbusters she saw curving around to attack from the south, but a Snowbird Sparrowhawk had overoptimistically attacked her. Knowing that the light fighter could easily outmanuever her, she had dived, then suddenly climbed, catching her opponent by surprise. A quick vertical slashing attack, and the Sparrowhawk marked her fourth kill of the day. The pilot ejected cleanly, and though her orders were to shoot the Snowbird and Kurita pilots in their parachutes, Kikki let him go; she knew that it could easily be her in that parachute. She hauled the stick back and climbed again, looking for her fifth kill: it would make her an ace in a day, which very few fighter pilots achieved. Spotting a Mechbuster coming off a bombing run, she made a lazy turn, allowing the Kurita pilot to fly into her targeting reticle. Out of instinct, she glanced behind her, and instantly counted herself fortunate to do so: a Snowbird Stingray had followed her into the turn, and was now positioned squarely between her Rapier's twin tails. She broke right, a milisecond before a PPC beam would have blown her head off.

D'Sotra rolled right, staying with the Rapier; Kikki's problems doubled as Guy Honington's Riever appeared and took up position on d'Sotra's wing. The Clanswoman cheated the turn tighter, but d'Sotra's Stingray, with its forward-swept wing, could easily hold the turn and began cutting inside. Laserfire reached out for her and flicked away wing armor, and Kikki snapped her stick hard left into another gut-wrenching turn. She cursed herself for a fool, knowing she was playing right into her opponent's strengths: the Stingray excelled at exactly this kind of turning fight, while the heavy Rapier was better in the vertical. She couldn't climb away, however, not with the Riever waiting for just such an opportunity. Kikki suddenly knew how the Mechbuster pilots she had killed that day felt.

Honington spotted two Clan fighters suddenly tumble from a thin cloud, heading for Ibuki's section of Mechbusters. "Sultry, I got me an Ironsides and a Zero, two o'clock low. I think I'll take 'em out."

"Take 'em, Dude. I got this one." I hope, d'Sotra added mentally. The Rapier was proving a damn tough target.

Honington needed no further encouragement. He fell away on one wing and accelerated, flinging himself at both Clan machines as if intent on ramming them. Star Captain Michaels, who had shot down a Snowbird Stingray and a Stuka, had seen the Mechbusters and decided they were easy meat. The Riever was a much worthier opponent, though, aside from the fact that the Inner Sphere pilot apparently was bent on a collision. "Cougar Two, break now." Michaels was calm and unafraid: he and his wingman would split to either side, then come back around and sandwich the Inner Sphere pilot.

Cougar Two, however, panicked: he was in his first battle and so far had just managed to stay on his commander's wing all battle, freeing Michaels to concentrate on his targets. Seeing the massive flying wing coming right at him, he pulled the stick left, then right, not doing much more than causing the Zero to waddle drunkenly. Michaels screamed at Cougar Two to break, to use the Zero's superior manueverability, but instead the Clan pilot accelerated in level flight, making Honington's job that much easier. 24 missiles reached out from the Riever's wings, causing the Zero to sparkle with hits, then Honington blasted the Clan fighter with his AC/20. The Zero shuddered, one wing broke free, and the fighter went down, trailing a long, greasy trail of smoke.

"Sheila Arla-Vlata!"

Sheila left off firing at a Vulture that was menacing Maysa's lance, which was falling back in good order. None of the Clan warriors wanted to close with the murderous Rifleman, but neither could they get close to Marion Rhialla's assaults, who were holding the line as the pivot. Nonetheless, the Jaguars wouldn't have to if they could overrun Sheila's Command Lance or Max's heavies in the northeast corner.

"Who's that?" she radioed back, though she had a feeling she knew.

"Char Furey."

Sheila saw the Masakari step through the breach, and turned to face him. "It's a bit late to surrender, Char."

"I agree. I am here to kill you."

Sheila just resisted the urge to give Furey a 'come get me' gesture with the Shruiken's hand. "What's stopping you?"

"It did not have to be this way," Furey told her. "We could have been comrades. We could have been more."

Sheila snorted in disgust. "As if. Up yours, Clanner prick." She fired two PPC shots at the assault 'Mech to punctuate the statement. Neither hit, and the Masakari let fly with all four PPCs from its double-barreled arms. Sheila dodged them, but the blue bolts got progressively closer.

Four PPCs? Furey's lost it, Sheila thought with a fey smile. He must really want to kill me. A quick glance at a secondary monitor confirmed what she already suspected: the Masakari was overheating. Sheila pushed down on the pedals and charged Furey head on. If he's running a standard config, I don't want to fight him at range—

Furey wasn't. A flight of SRMs boiled from the center torso of the Masakari, peppering her already damaged armor with missile hits. A warble from her instrument panel told her that the Shruiken had just lost a heat sink. Nonetheless, Sheila opened fire with all five medium lasers, scoring hits in the Masakari's chest. Furey staggered back, trying to get room to fire his PPCs again, but Sheila simply moved closer, to the point that the two 'Mechs nearly touched, and her quintuple medium lasers once more cut deep.

Furey, with an inhuman growl of frustration and rage, did something Sheila didn't expect: he slammed into her Shruiken, knocking Sheila to the ground, then stepped back and fired three PPCs into her. Leg armor shattered and myomer muscles dissolved in the man-made lightning. Sheila, fighting a wave of dizziness from the fall, rolled back and blasted his arms with the lasers, but once more the Masakari's thick armor held. She struggled up to her feet, but once more Furey sent her down again with more PPC blasts. Sheila shook her head free of the blackness that threatened to overwhelm her and blinked, looking at her damage monitor. Upper left leg actuator gone, right leg stripped, torso armor down to almost nothing. One more shot there and he'll either get the gyro or the engine, and either way, I'm done!

"It is over!" Furey shouted at her over the open net. "Eject and I will spare you!"

"Like you spared Mary Scott?" Sheila lashed out with her damaged left leg, which groaned under the impact but somehow didn't break when it hit the Masakari's right leg. "Go to hell, Furey!"

"So be it!" Furey leveled his PPCs and centered his targeting reticle on the Shruiken's head. "Die!" He held down both triggers. Alarms screamed at him, but he ignored them, even as he saw his first two shots go wide. The other two would not. One shot would be all it would take now to destroy Arla-Vlata's engine. Even if it exploded, he could survive it.

Suddenly Sheila brought up both the Shruiken's arms and crossed them. Armor was turned to steel dust by the impact of the PPCs, but the tough 'Mech absorbed the shots. Bringing them back down, Sheila triggered first her own PPCs, then the shruiken launcher that gave her 'Mech it's name. The PPCs turned one PPC to twisted metal and destroyed the SRM launcher—then the stars stuck in the Masakari's armor and ruptured, spilling white-hot inferno fluid across the Clan 'Mech. Furey instinctively stepped backward as flames licked at the canopy. He reached for his own ejection handles, faced with every MechWarrior's worst fear, the fear of burning alive. He relaxed when he remembered there were no breaches in the head armor; though the flames would burn terribly for several minutes, they could not seep into the cockpit. He was safe, and Arla-Vlata was still down—

Then Furey realized two things in quick succession: one, Sheila had gotten her 'Mech to its feet. Second, as the cockpit lights dimmed and his monitors winked out, that his Masakari had finally been pushed beyond its limit. Heat levels had risen to the point where the computer sensed that both the pilot and the missile magazine were in mortal danger, and therefore it initiated an automatic shutdown. The 'Mech's arms drooped and the burning chassis sagged.

Sheila saw it and smiled a savage grin. She fired her last flight of shruikens, adding to her enemy's heat burden for good measure, then placed her 'Mech's hand around the cockpit of the Masakari. "Deguello," she whispered, then closed her hand slowly around the canopy frame. Plexiglass shattered and metal screamed in protest, but if Furey screamed as well or cursed her, she never heard it.

With only the Stingray to deal with, Kikki figured she had a chance at survival. She climbed, hoping to throw off her opponent, but d'Sotra had anticipated the move, and landed a solid hit on the Rapier's fuselage, though the fighter's armor held.

With a flash of inspiration from the Mechbuster she had shot down earlier, Kikki dropped her flaps and cut her throttle nearly to idle. "Holy shit!" d'Sotra shouted, and pulled the stick back into his lap. Somehow he cleared the Rapier. Kikki closed her flaps, let the Rapier fall onto its back, and shoved the throttle forward. The fighter's engine banged into full life. Now d'Sotra was the hunted. He looked into the mirrors set into the canopy bow and saw the Rapier closing in. He shoved the stick down and dived.

It was a mistake that nearly cost him his life. The Rapier was heavier and now he was playing to its strengths. Worse, d'Sotra realized he was trapped between the Clan fighter and the ground. He slammed the stick over hard and a scream burst from his lips as ten times his own weight was pressed down on him, a punishing turn that would tear the wings from a lesser craft. The Stingray skidded hard, but d'Sotra knew it was still a fraction too slow. If the Rapier hit now, it would be all over—even a glancing blow from the Clan fighter's massive AC/20 would send his fighter out of control only five thousand meters above Toriyama's unyielding mass.

To his surprise, however, the Rapier was turning away from him, clawing for altitude. He reversed his turn, wondering why the Clan pilot—who had to be a damn fine fighter jock—had made such a stupid mistake. His question was answered a second later, when a Slayer heavy fighter flashed by him. "Where the hell did he come from?" d'Sotra wondered aloud. The mystery was compounded a second later when he remembered the Snowbirds didn't have any Slayers in Fitron Six.

Mimi Stykkis staggered forward, her Crusader's battered legs threatening to fail at any moment, reached out, and grabbed Glynnis Griffin's Panther by its free hand. "Come on, you! Time to fall back to the Alamo!" Even as she dragged the legless light 'Mech under the cover of Marion Rhialla's Palladium—now out of Gauss shells, but still standing tall—Griffin continued to fire her PPC, though the dust and smoke from the battle had reduced visibility considerably. Stykkis let go when they reached the middle wall, though at this point it was little more than a speedbump, because the militia hadn't had the time to build it up here.

Mimi noticed Sheila's Shruiken limp up next to her, and on the other side of Sheila, Maysa's Rifleman still shifted left and right, engaging targets where they could be seen. Beyond Maysa, Tooriu's Awesome stepped into line, swinging its arms like baseball bats. A Point of five Elementals had tried to attack the ponderous assault 'Mech, but after two of them were swatted out of the sky like flies, they fell back into the murk. Tooriu gave a war whoop and opened the Awesome's arms wide, inviting the Clans to take their best shot. Few large-caliber shots came out of the smoke now.

"Sheila!" Mimi called out. "Think they've had enough?"

Sheila had wondered that herself; with Furey dead, she wondered if the Jaguars would indeed break off the fight. She switched to infrared, which was useless with all the waste heat from overheated 'Mechs, then to magnetic scan. It showed at least ten 'Mechs gathered around the promontory. "Max," she called out, not bothering with callsigns now. "Are you still with us?"

"I'm here, Sheila." Max had finally dispatched the Flashman, though it had cost him his Battlemaster's other arm and it had taken out a Sun Zhang Chameleon before it died. "Somehow."

"Have the Jags pulled back in your sector?"

"Just a little bit." He had also switched to magscan. The Clan 'Mechs had withdrawn into the narrow slot between the defile and Gateway Rock, but they had at least six 'Mechs still active, one of them being the massive King Crab. He hadn't seen the Mad Cat that they knew was probably Furey's second in command, but from the lasers curving up from the defile, it might still be there. How Felisanna was still alive, Max could only wonder at.

Sheila spit a curse. The Smoke Jaguars hadn't given up at all. Whoever was commanding them now had simply pulled them back, and were now massing for one last attack. The problem was, that one last attack might roll over the Snowbirds. Sheila could count nearly fourteen of her own 'Mechs left on the line, but all of them were damaged to one extent or another, or with empty ammunition bins; for missile-heavy 'Mechs like Jinjiro Gramakov's Catapult, that left them with very little to fight with. Some, like Griffin's Panther, were barely operational. Sheila knew her own Shruiken couldn't survive another pitched fight: her armor was nearly gone. I'd be better off turning my back and firing over my shoulder, she groused.

"Snowbird Actual, come in! Come in!"

Sheila recognized Fred Matria's voice. "For God's sake, what is it, Fred?"

"We've got to mark the lines, right now!"


"Strafing runs! Incoming aircraft!"

Sheila hadn't seen the Mechbusters make more than a few runs, and from she had heard and stolen glances of the air battle, the Kagoshima militia fighters had suffered badly. It was unlikely a handful of aircraft could turn the tide, but battles had been decided by less. "All Snowbird 'Mechs and tanks! Mark the lines! Repeat, mark the lines! Pop smoke!"

Every BattleMech and tank carried smoke dischargers, though with infrared and magscan, they were basically worthless and rarely used—except for this purpose. Before the battle, Sheila had ordered every machine loaded with purple smoke, which could easily be seen even through the grayish dust of Toriyama. Now everyone that had heard Sheila's order fired their dischargers, causing purple smoke to drift along the lines with the wind, fitfully at first, then stronger as the sea wind blew it north.

Sheila heard Matria's voice on the open channel. "Do you have my smoke?"

"Roger, I have purple smoke." Sheila didn't recognize the voice; it was Japanese accented, but it wasn't Usagi or Ibuki. "Where do you want us?"

"Hit everything north and west of the smoke! Buster! Buster!" Matria used the fighter pilot euphemism for pouring on the speed.

"Roger that." The voice was calm and authoriative. "Here we come."

"Here they come!" Mimi shouted. Lasers and Gauss shells began to reach out from the smoke. Sheila ducked under one laser bolt, though she had been seized with the wild desire to stand and take it, like her ancestors might have stood in the ancient lines of Gettysburg or Waterloo. She raised her PPCs and leveled them at a Black Knight that loomed out of the smoke.

Then the 'Mech seemed to dissolve.

Missiles boiled out of the sky, so thick Sheila couldn't begin to count how many. It was followed by mass laserfire, until the very air seemed supercharged. The Clan charge died before it even got started. The Snowbirds fired nonetheless, but instead of crashing into Sheila's thin line, the Jaguars fell back in confusion. More lasers and missiles joined the fusillade, until finally a quartet of fighters shot past, kicking up curlicues in the dust cloud as they came at low level. One, which Sheila recognized easily by its shape as a Shilone, let loose a flight of LRMs, then turned to give her a planform view of the fighter. She could easily see the rampant dragons of House Kurita on either wing. "Who the hell…"

"Snowbird Actual, come in please." Again, it was a new voice.

Sheila keyed her mike slowly, as if in a dream. "This is Snowbird Actual. Who is this?"

"Snowbird, this is Dragon Alpha Actual. I would be honored if you would use my name, however—Masayoshi Kitakyushu."

"Say again?"

"Kitakyushu, Commander Arla-Vlata. Tai-sa. Commanding, 1st Battalion, Ryuken-ni Regiment. Hold your current position, please. We're on our way down. I wouldn't want to land on you."

"Sheila!" Maysa shouted. "Look! Look up in the sky!"

Sheila did, out the scarred and cracked canopy of her Shruiken. Above the dust and smoke, in the flawless blue sky of Kagoshima, stars were falling to earth. Except that Sheila knew that those stars were BattleMechs, in a combat drop, a full battalion's worth.

"The Kanrei sends his greetings," Kitakyusho added, his voice full of mirth. "Unfortunately, he had a prior engagement on Luthien, but he thought we might prove worthy enough."

Sheila felt tears running down her cheeks, and it was with effort she controlled her voice. "I think…I think you'll do, Tai-sa."

"Merry Christmas, Commander. We will see you in a few minutes. Please save some Jaguars for us."