A/N: This is the fourth story in my Vivio-centric continuity, following "The Road Onward," "Shell Game," and "Steel Wings." It actually takes place before "Caramel Milk," in case you're scoring at home. I'd like to thank everyone at AnimeSuki who's been reading the draft of Stahlkonigin up until now, since several of your comments were highly relevant to how this story went, particularly JimmyC (for discussions of Vivio's school path) and Outlaender (for some of the German translations used for Vivio's Belkan spells and attacks herein, so I don't have to only rely on online translations of unknown quality to deal with a language that I don't speak!). I also have to thank my military history professor from way, way back when I was in undergrad (whoa, that's more than half my life ago!) for Vivio's thoughts on the role of the TSAB mage in the military...not to mention further thanks to Seven Arcs for making Vivio the kind of girl who could be thinking such things at thirteen!
~X X X~
Thirteen-year-old Takamachi Vivio found her school life something of a mixed experience. It wasn't that she was bullied or picked on; she was generally popular as suited her vivacious and outgoing personality, and bullying a combat mage cadet who'd recently passed her B-rank examination was kind of a laughable concept.
Nor was it that she found the work difficult. In fact, she'd been at the top of her class since rankings had begun. She wasn't particularly proud of it; since she was an artificial-mage clone with genetically enhanced intelligence and she had the benefit of an extended family of first-class minds who were willing to tutor her on nearly every subject when she needed help good results were almost inevitable. And in truth, she was something of a nerd at heart. She enjoyed learning new things.
No, Vivio's problem was neither social nor educational. It was religious.
Vivio attended the private school of the Belkan Saint Church, a descendant of the culture of the ancient Belkan empire. The empire had been ruled by a kind of deified royalty, the Sankt Kaiser, figures that the church still honored. Vivio didn't follow that line of worship. It would have been kind of ridiculous, given that she was the Sankt Kaiser. Or at least that's whose genetic material mad scientist Jail Scaglietti had used to make her. And there were just too many people, students and teachers alike, who insisted on treating her as an object of veneration. Not a day went by when she didn't have to say, "Please don't call me 'Your Majesty'" at least a half-dozen times. Not that people ever seemed to listen.
"Maybe I should proclaim that calling me 'Your Majesty' constitutes a mortal sin for which no hope of redemption is possible," she muttered under her breath.
"What did you say?" Jenna Scion asked her.
"Nothing. Just wishful thinking."
"More like crabby thinking from the sound of it. Which is completely improper: it's a beautiful day, the sun is shining, and we're spending most of it on a field trip instead of in class. What could be better?"
"Those are good points."
"And you love museums, and the Museum of Ancient Belkan History has the best collection of artifacts from the Empire anywhere, and that generally gets you drooling faster than a cute guy in a swimsuit."
"More good points," Vivio conceded.
"So knock it off with the crabbiness. It doesn't suit royalty," Jenna finished off, making it clear that she'd heard Vivio's grumbling after all.
"Okay, I give up!" Vivio laughed.
They walked up the broad steps to the museum's marble-sheathed facade, following along with the rest of their class.
"Don't take this the wrong way, Vi," Jenna said, a little hesitantly, "but if it bugs you so much, why do you stay here?"
"Huh?" was Vivio's brilliant response.
"It's not that we aren't glad to have you around, but...your family isn't Belkan, and you've wanted to be a TSAB combat mage since you were a little kid. You could attend the public school in your district, or what would make more sense, transfer to the TSAB's Cadet Academy. You've got combat training every morning and OCS courses three days a week after school, right? The academy would help you get a bunch of that in as part of your regular educational program, and no one there would care that you're the Sankt Kaiser. Okay, your moms are big names in the military, but that's got to be easier than being worshipped, right?"
"You sound like Uncle Yuuno."
"He's the cookie-baking ferret, right ?"
"That's one way to put it." Jenna had been her friend since kindergarten, so she was familiar with Vivio's weirdly extended family.
"So why not? I mean, he'd taught you enough scrying magic so you got that job at the Infinity Library when you were nine, so he knows his education."
The shoes of nineteen students clip-clopped off the museum lobby's marble floor, following the crisper click-click of their teacher's heels.
"I could do that," Vivio agreed, "but the Saint Church school is better. Yes, the 'Your Majesties' drive me batty, but the education is way superior. And that's particularly true when it comes to Ancient Belkan matters: history, society, politics. I can learn things here that are university-level courses in any other educational program. And when I enter the military I won't get a chance to go to university, not if I want to serve as a combat mage."
Vivio considered that the major flaw in the TSAB's military operational procedures. Mages got rushed into full-time positions at way too young an age. There were good reasons for it: it took advantage of a mage's prime years, it gave them structure and discipline to help reduce the number of potential rogues entering the population, and it gave them necessary training in a style of combat that was intensely personal. It was no different, really, than the pre-industrial history of many worlds, when warriors would start training in the martial arts at ten or so. They had to start young, because otherwise they couldn't master the necessary skills or properly develop their bodies to prepare for their adult responsibilities.
The TSAB did that, too, with its mages. Even though they were organized along traditional military lines, a Striker or Ace wasn't really a "soldier" in the true meaning of the word, but more accurately an elite "warrior" with the sociocultural baggage that it entailed.
She'd brought it up at a family dinner party once, and while she'd had to go into some detail to explain to most of the others, the Wolkenritter had understood at once. Being Ancient Belkan knights, they intimately knew the difference between that status and being a soldier that happened to use magic instead of a gun.
So from that point of view it was no surprise that Vivio, who soaked up new learning like she was breathing, would seek to get as much of it in before her career choice would cut that path off for her.
"So you put up with worshipful admirers to get access to their library, basically."
"Pretty much. Or it could all be part of Aunt Hayate's plot to take over the dimensions and turn everyone into her personal cosplay models."
"Well, that goes without saying," Jenna chuckled. "So you must be really happy about today's trip."
"Mmn! I love this museum. Uncle Yuuno would bring me at least once a year when I was a kid; it was a real treat!"
She looked up at the dome capping the vaulted foyer and at the elaborate mural decorating it—a dome taken from an ancient Belkan palace excavated sixty years ago, brought here from the ruin and painstakingly restored. The entire construction of the building, in gray marble and rich dark wood, positively breathed antiquity. Vivio wondered if there was something to the idea of genetic memory, or perhaps that she'd picked up something from previous monarchs when Quattro had linked her to the Saint's Cradle as a child, because she always felt as if something about the museum was calling to her, that she belonged in some way. It was a slightly eerie feeling, but she didn't mind it. It wasn't the first time that she'd considered that life as an archaeologist or historian wouldn't be a bad thing.
A giggle from her friend broke into Vivio's mental drift.
"You were like a million miles away, Vi."
"Nah, just a few hundred years," she said, grinning sheepishly.
"Now, class," their teacher called, clapping her hands twice to gather their attention, "if you'll let me have a moment?"
"You're free to explore the museum as you like throughout the day, although you are not to leave the building. Lunch is available at the museum café; it's included as part of the class tour. However, there is a list of particular exhibits included in the trip materials which I want you to make sure to see and study, because they'll be relevant to tomorrow's lesson."
"Sister-speak for 'pop quiz tomorrow,' you think?" Jenna guessed.
"Oh yeah. Want to come over tonight? I'll help you cram."
"Now, if you have any questions or need help of any kind," the nun continued, "just make sure to call me. I'll be available at all times. Now, go on and have fun."
Vivio checked her list of the exhibits they were required to see. Some of them she knew by heart, like the display of Armed Devices and their use in Ancient Belkan magical combat, but some were new, too.
"Hey, this looks neat. They've got a reenactment of an Ancient Belkan court session. It's even interactive! And here's an exhibit on the battle of Armagh, which settled the campaign to-"
"Enough!" Jenna said, laughing. "New rule: you're only allowed to fangirl over the exhibit we're actually looking at."
"And what do I get out of this arrangement?"
"You can pick the order we look at stuff."
"That's a pretty low bid for all the squeeing I'm going to have to hold in."
"Okay, and your choice of plushie at the gift ship."
"Woohoo! I want a Saint's Cradle, then."
"That is so wrong on so many levels."
Vivio patted her friend on the head.
"C'mon, let's get going. If we follow the route I have planned out, we can get through the food exhibit right before lunch."
The next two hours passed...not exactly in a blur, since Vivio kept a close eye on every detail, but at least a steady, quick-moving pace. She scarcely noticed the time passing, since she was having so much fun.
They ended up in the art gallery more or less on schedule. It wasn't Vivio's favorite part of the tour, since she was more interested in the anthropological, economic, and political nature of Belkan society than she was in art. And it was more than a little creepy to see an Old Master's depiction of the royal court and see a teenaged prince that might have been her twin brother.
Even so, she wouldn't have been inclined to set the painting on fire, yet that's exactly what happened. A bolt of flame streaked over Vivio's head, hit the painting, and set it ablaze. Vivio spun and saw a tall man with long red hair and pointed beard waving a three-foot rod—a generic Mid-style Storage Device—and sending bolts of fire zinging at two more paintings. Screams rose from several of the two dozen or so people in the crowd while others dove for cover behind solid objects. The mage cackled, seemingly delighted with the chaos he'd created.
"Parsifal, set u—" Vivio began, but Jenna grabbed her arm.
"Vivio, don't! The museum has security! They can handle this!"
Vivio scowled angrily, but of course Jenna was right. Cadet or not, she wasn't supposed to just fling herself into a magical battle with an unknown foe without authorization. And a moment later, museum security did burst through the gallery door. Since the museum was owned and run by the Church, its guards weren't the ordinary kind but actually magically active students of the Saint Church knights.
"You! Return that device to standby mode and surrender now!" one of the two guards barked while the other pointed his spear-like device.
"Hmmm...no. Dancing Flame!" More spurts of fire sprayed from the tip of Redbeard's device, obviously a shooting-magic spell, and arced towards the guards. One sliced two of the shots out of the way with his spear and charged the mage, while the other guard blocked the attack with a shield spell. That the second guard staggered back from the exchange didn't speak well for their relative power levels, an impression which was borne out when Redbeard blocked the guard's charge with a barrier spell. As the Belkan-user tried to recover from his failed attack, Redbeard blasted him off his feet, then showered his partner with another Dancing Flame.
Vivio was again about to pitch in when a burst of lightning slammed into Redbeard and knocked him tumbling head over heels. Four more guards rushed through the open door.
"Now!" someone yelled from the crowd.
What? thought Vivio.
Then yet another mage, someone who'd looked to be a cowering bystander until that moment, stood up and before anyone could say or do anything raised a barrier spell that shifted the magically active in the immediate area to dimensional space slightly out of step with the world they'd been occupying. Those who weren't magically active didn't make the trip; from Vivio's point of view it was as if half a dozen people just vanished even as an emerald haze settled over everything, like the world was a video broadcast shot through a green filter.
Disaster followed on disaster, as while the guards were trying to cope with the sudden change, a third mage, probably the woman who'd shouted, leveled her device.
An explosion of brilliant gold light detonated in the middle of the guards, knocking them sprawling.
Vivio stepped behind a pillar. Trapped in a barrier, there was no way she could even call for help. At least Jenna wasn't inside with her, she thought, but there were plenty of other innocent bystanders still at risk. She was going to have to help whether she wanted to or not. And let's be honest; I do want to, she admitted.
"Is that all of them?" said Redbeard, getting to his feet. He wobbled a little as he stood, still feeling the effects of the blast he'd taken.
"Yes, that's all six," replied the second man, the one who'd raised the barrier. He had an angry red scar curving from the corner of his left eye to the left side of his mouth. He strode a few steps forward. "Ladies and gentlemen, there is no cause for alarm. After all, you are the lucky survivors. In a few minutes, the delayed-action charge we planted in the basement of this building will go off, triggering several other charges and taking out key load-bearing points. When we return to the 'real' world, you may notice some dramatic changes in architecture. This towering monument to the so-called glories of a brutal and cruel regime will no longer be twisting the minds of Mid-Childans."
Vivio's heart seemed to skip a beat. They weren't doing anything here, but to the people back outside the barrier! Her friends and classmates, her teacher, and everyone else inside. Would the staff realize there was a problem and evacuate them? If so, how much time did they have?
That's why they took out the guards, to keep them from shielding or defusing the bombs! They lured them here and ambushed them!
"Parsifal, Barrier Jacket: Armor Mode. Set up!"
"Jawohl, Meister. Panzer Modus."
In a flash, Vivio's school uniform was displaced by her Barrier Jacket: a charcoal-gray bodysuit under a black dress piped with dark blue, accented by blued-steel gauntlets and boots. Her hair was bound up in a lopsided ponytail off the left side of her head, and Parsifal had assumed his usual vambrace form on her upper right arm. She spun out from around the pillar and launched an attack while she had a moment of surprise.
An orb of rainbow-streaked white light formed and she punched it, sending it rocketing towards Redbeard. She could split the orb to make multiple, smaller projectiles, but there was no point here; Vivio wanted one big hit. The blast slammed into Redbeard's face; since his device wasn't an Intelligent Device it had no autoguard function and he had to rely on his Barrier Jacket to protect him. Already weakened by the lightning hit, it didn't hold up and he went over and down.
"Well, well, another Belkan pup trying to save her precious heritage?" Scarface sneered. "Previa, if you would?"
The woman, a blonde with a pageboy cut and a stylish green outfit, grinned at him.
"Love to." She leveled her staff at Vivio. "Radiant Buster!"
Vivio was more than ready for the attack, though. She raised her hand while Parsifal loaded a cartridge.
"Eisenschild," the device's voice rumbled, and a glowing white triangle sprang up to block the wave of golden light. She'd used her strongest shield since she didn't know what to expect, but Vivio realized belatedly that she hadn't had to. She judged Previa to be about an AA-ranked mage, and Vivio's defensive spells could get up into S on a good day.
As for her offensive magic...well, there was a reason she'd barely squeaked through her B-rank test. Her device didn't appear as a piece of armor for nothing!
Vivio grinned, then sprang towards Previa.
"Divine Shooter!" Scarface snapped, spraying homing missiles at her. Shields weren't as effective against these since the shots could just steer around them
"Eisengeist!" Vivio's Armor Spirit spell reinforced her already-strong Barrier Jacket, letting her absorb the eight strikes without being thrown off her stride. She hurled a magically-enhanced punch at Previa, the same basic technique as other Belkan-style mages used with their weapon devices. Previa blocked it with a Round Shield, easily staving off Vivio's weak attack.
"Flash Burn!" Previa whipped her staff around, its tip alive with gold flame, and crashed it into Vivio's side. The attack wouldn't have done much anyway, but since the Eisengeist was still in effect it basically bounced off, the jarring impact actually doing Previa more harm than Vivio, like she'd hit a metal pole with an aluminum baseball bat. Vivio hit the woman again before she could raise another active defense. If she could keep the pressure on up close—
Three years of combat training under Iron Hammer Knight Vita saved Vivio from taking a major hit then. She twisted her body, her leg hooked behind the off-balance mage, and she pivoted Previa between herself and the blast so that the woman absorbed the entirety of her ally's attack. The punch Vivio delivered to her jaw probably wasn't strictly necessary at that point, but under the circumstances she wasn't going to play games.
Scarface stared at her in surprise, shock mingling with sudden rage that his total control of the situation had vanished. His allies were beaten, and Vivio was standing there facing him, basically unscathed.
Parsifal called up the shield just in time, and Vivio realized why Previa had been taken out by her ally's blast. It jolted her back, some of its force even leaking through the shield. She stumbled away as emerald-hued shooting magic rained down on her from his follow-up attack; Previa had been bad enough, but this rogue was strong. She slipped and went down under the rain of fire, then rolled to the side as he leveled his rod for yet another Meteor Shell.
This time she didn't just raise the shield as a protective wall, but cast it well away from herself, flexing it like a dome to surround Scarface as best she could. His spell went off simultaneously with hers, and the backblast exploded in his face, knocking him back onto his seat.
"Give it up," Vivio ordered. "Lower this barrier and dispel the explosive spells and the Bureau should show leniency."
"Never! You may stop us, but we'll take this monument to the despotic past down with us! Defenser Plus!"
As the barrier dome sprang up around him, Vivio was taken off-guard. A defensive spell? Why? The answer came clear in a moment as he spun his device in his hands and began to incant.
"Beyond time and space, my life is linked to thee—"
It's to give him cover while he tries something big!
"Thou art my creation, the child of my will—"
The rainbow orb struck the protective dome with virtually no effect. Like most powerful mages, Scarface possessed balanced defensive and offensive spells. Defenser Plus wasn't capable of a lot of fancy tricks, but it was a solid wall more than capable of shrugging off Vivio's strikes.
"Now the parent shalt stand aside, let thee act on thy own—"
Vivio's fists crashed harmlessly off the emerald barrier, unable to penetrate it. She just didn't have the offensive force to cope with the mage's defenses. Which means that I'd better be ready for whatever he throws at me, 'cause I can't stop him from doing it!
An enhanced Eisengeist, this classic barrier was much more powerful, but also prevented Vivio from moving while it was in effect, making it best for situations when the incoming attack was unavoidable.
"Be thine own creation!" Scarface slammed the butt of his device against the floor in the center of the circular Mid-style rune. "Barrier Anchor!" The rune flared up brilliantly, a haze passed across his body, and he crumpled to the floor in a faint, the Defenser protection vanishing as he did.
"What the—?" Vivio didn't quite understand what had happened. Had Scarface botched his spell?
A moment later, though, she got it. They were still within the alternate space-time, not in the real world where the programmed destruction would happen. A barrier spell was a constant drain on its creator's Linker Core, and one of the traditional ways to take one down was to take out the mage or mages sustaining it. Believing that Vivio might be able to beat him as she had his friends, Scarface had instead poured everything he had into the barrier so that it would stand without him.
And he was right. Smashing out of a containment barrier is a stunt for super-strong attacks like Nanoha-mama's Starlight Breaker Plus or Vita-sensei's Gigant Crusher.
Vivio didn't have that kind of power. She should have had it—the Sankt Kaiser, after all, was genetically enhanced for ultimate magical power—but when Nanoha had saved her from Jail Scaglietti that had been changed. She'd had to get the Relic linking Vivio to the Saint's Cradle out to keep Vivio's body from being controlled by the battleship's emergency defense program. Since it had happened in the middle of a battle, she'd had to use brute force to get it done. The Relic had fused with Vivio's linker core, enabling the girl to handle the near-limitless mana supply the Cradle was providing to her, and ripping it out had damaged her core. She should have had the potential for SS rank or even higher—indeed, she still had that kind of magic within her; it was just that her damaged Linker Core couldn't process enough of it at once to channel it into that level of power.
Most of the time she was relived that she wasn't so freakishly powerful. Bad enough to be treated like a living god without actually having the power of one!
Most of the time.
Right now, she'd love to have that kind of power. She even knew the spell to use, one she'd been working on to smash through inanimate targets, but even if she had Parsifal run through the six cartridges remaining in his magazine she couldn't channel that power; most would just end up uselessly wasted.
There was really only one solution.
"I hope this works like Mariel said that it would," she murmured. Vivio took a deep breath, then gave the order. "Parsifal, Overdrive."
The magazine feed rose and fell, loading three cartridges.
"Sankt Kaiser Modus."
The power didn't so much flow into her as it slammed, searing pain exploding through her chest. It was the Relic being implanted all over again, and Vivio screamed as the metaphysical side of her biology was directly operated on, this time by her own device. The parallel was exact: she was using the magic of the loaded cartridges to build an artificial, temporary Relic within herself to carry some of the load her damaged Linker Core couldn't handle.
The pain ebbed, though never quite going away, and she found herself on her hands and knees, panting for breath, sweat dripping from her face. But she could feel the difference. It wasn't just the changed Barrier Jacket, the electric-blue lines running through her bodysuit like conduits or the way Parsifal had become a breastplate covering her torso, or the armor plates covering her hips and the back of her legs like a skirt. It was the magic within her, the way it surged up at the slightest brush of her will.
Is this how mamas feel? she wondered. Vivio hadn't even done anything with it, and she felt like she was riding a wave at sea.
Her Limit Break, the ultimate spell that she was working on with Vita, would be worthless in this situation, but just maybe the power itself would be enough while it lasted.
Vivio laced her fingers together into a two-handed fist. She sprang into the air, flying effortlessly as she soared towards the visible edge of the barrier above.
Parsifal loaded two more cartridges, these to charge the spell, and Vivio summoned everything she could pull up, feeling the flow of mana stutter through her jury-rigged, enhanced Linker Core but even so it was a flood compared to what she usually got.
"Lord of destruction that breaks through everything! Graf Eisen!" Vivio roared, and slammed her fists into the barrier. The explosion sent her spinning away, though unharmed, the green haze vanished, and the room was suddenly more crowded. Someone screamed, but Vivio didn't have time for that.
I have to find that explosive spell now! She'd used the magic of one of her teachers, but now it was time to be like Yuuno rather than Vita.
The scrying window popped up as Vivio sent out her power, looking for the planted spells. She found three quickly, then a fourth, but they were all small ones, the secondary detonations to be triggered by the first.
He said it was in the basement when he was bragging. She extended her search down, and there it was, big and angry. She flew as fast as she could, keeping its location in her mind's eye as she flung herself down the utility stairs. Parsifal fired off its last cartridge along the way; Sankt Kaiser Mode demanded regular infusions of power to stay in effect.
Vivio had a feeling that when the effect ended, she was going to crash hard. Just hold on a little longer! she pleaded as she hurtled through the museum basement. Ordinarily she was such a clumsy flier—she had to employ a special device mode just to fly at all!—but now she moved as easily in the air as she did on the ground. It made her understand a little why Nanoha had felt so guilty over Vivio being unable to fly.
There! She spotted it at once, a pulsing cluster of golden and verdant orbs set at a place where multiple utility conduits joined. There was probably a way to defuse the "bomb," but Vivio didn't know it. All she could take was the direct approach.
"Panzerschild!" She'd have liked to use Eisenschild instead, but that was impossible without cartridges, and she didn't carry backup magazines on school days. All she could do was to encase the detonation charge in a basic shield and hope.
Now I just need to set it off while the shield is in place.
But that was easy. She couldn't get full spherical coverage with a shield spell anyway.
"Eisengeist," Parsifal contributed, realizing her intent.
Throwing her body in front of the gap in the shield, she plunged her hand into the nearest spell orb.
~X X X~
"Are you sure you're all right?" asked the healing mage. Response time to the guards' emergency call—no doubt known by the terrorists—had been eleven minutes. Vivio had had no more than two minutes to spare before the bomb would have gone off on its own. The four smaller spells had triggered, but without the key primary blast had only ended up inflicting minor injuries and limited structural and property damage. And of course Scarface, Previa, and Redbeard were in custody. Definitely not a success for the rogue mages.
"Yeah, I'm fine, really." It hadn't hurt when she'd reverted to normal, probably because the artificial enhancement had just dissipated instead of being forcibly extracted, but it had felt like she'd just finished running a marathon. Probably didn't help that she'd eaten what the investigators called a AAA-rank explosion going off with her body as a shield thirty seconds before the mode release.
But hey, that was what she was good at.
And just because she wasn't Her Majesty the Sankt Kaiser didn't mean that she couldn't protect her people with everything she had.
She liked the sound of that.
~X X X~
A/N: First time I've ever had a fic inspired by an old first-edition AD&D spell..."Delayed Blast Fireball," to be specific. For those interested in technical details, I picture that SK Mode upgrades Vivio's baseline magical ability to roughly AAA level, equivalent to Season 1 Nanoha and Fate, except that her defensive spells are SS...or in other words, Overdrive Vivio is the tank equivalent of Hayate. One thing to remember, though, is that just because she can use higher levels of magic doesn't mean that she can suddenly employ types of magic that she doesn't know, so no Starlight Breakers for Vivio...
~X X X~
Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
The crash of china wasn't quite ear-splitting, but the spray of shattered porcelain and steaming hot tea was sufficiently dramatic.
"Sorry," Vita said, sprawled beneath the remains of the tea tray.
"Forget the tea, Vita-chan; are you okay?" Hayate asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Hayate patted her on the head.
"Then it's all okay, isn't it?"
"And hey, what do you expect from someone who's got a spell for smashing stuff named after them?" teased Agito. Vita flushed red at the comment.
"Isn't anyone concerned about my tail?" whined Zafira.
"Don't fall asleep with it sticking out in the doorway and people won't trip on it," Signum told him.
"Wait," Vivio suddenly realized. "You mean the reason I tripped...and broke Mistress Hayate's favorite tea set...and spilled the tea that I'd made specially for her...was because of you, Zafira?"
On the path outside the building, a blue streak blasted past two passerby.
"Uncle Yuuno, are you sure that the wolf isn't the fastest land animal?" Vivio asked.