The Old War
Chapter 7: Barad-dûr
V1.00, initial publication, 3/17/2010 5:11 AM
The cave wasn't all that deep or treacherous; it went back into the rock and down, branched off once or twice, and stopped. Shamal's initial sonar-esque pings with Klarerwind revealed that much. So, without fanfare, she stepped into the final chamber and saw a large blackish-blue crystal floating back near the farthest wall. It was about the size of Arf in her child form, slowly spinning and gently pulsing with the indigo light. Unlike the previous specimen, it was energized, and ready to do . . . whatever it did. Assumedly sealing it would tip off the target, as it did with the last one. Shamal readied another scanning spell, and began analysis.
Vita looked at it a bit, and shrugged. "I could break it." She lost interest and joined Rein in looking at some odd cave bugs crawling around. Arf finished sniffing around the previous chamber and entered.
"That would be the new scent. It's vaguely familiar, but . . . no. Have you called it in yet?"
Shamal shook her head. "I was just about to –"
Yang 1 has visual contact! Engaging! echoed Signum's mental voice.
"Well, looks like the excitement is about to start. I'll let Hayate know about this and we'll probably join the chase." She closed her eyes. Yin 1 to Taijitu, we have found another crystalline object in a cave at the end of this trail. It is much larger and more charged with energy than the previous one. We are ready for securing it or destroying it. Orders?
Signum took this opportunity to get a good look at the one who had been stirring up so much trouble this past week. He stood roughly six feet tall, or would have if he wasn't semi-crouched like a coiled spring. His armor (and it was certainly to be called such, as this was no barrier jacket) was an incredibly well articulated set of full plate, with either an armet or a close helm on top. The whole set was obviously magically generated because at first glance she noticed no way to unstrap or disengage it. The color scheme, in theme with the color of his power and the crystal, was a deep polished black (almost like stone rather than metal) with rich navy blue trim. In the light of the burning trees and setting sun, it looked positively sinister.
Superficialities aside, she focused on the most important detail: four of those small crystals were orbiting his head slowly. Each was glowing, and they were definitely not harmless or passive in nature. She noted he had no obvious weapon. His stance looked like he was ready for melee combat- not unique in Signum's experience, but certainly rare. It was at least the first time she had been challenged in this manner while unisoned with Agito.
They held their positions for long enough to first hear the echoes of, the feel the cool breeze from the avalanche in the distance. The black knight (With armor like that, he has to be a knight, right?) suddenly dropped his stance, stood up straight, and folded his arms behind his back. A few more seconds passed, and Signum didn't move. This is either a feint, or he is honestly not going to fight. If I guess wrong, it will be disastrous. If I guess wrong AND he is a dishonorable wretch, I might get knocked out.
Boss, one of the thingies is spinning real fast.
Sure enough, Signum had been so intently focused on the potential first strike that she failed to notice that one of the four crystals was spinning during its orbit. She had no idea what was about to happen, but it was against her code to strike out at an enemy with her blade no intentions of fighting back. When the suspect crystal started flaring with blue light and letting out a high pitched whining noise, she decided it was better to err on the side of caution, and move. In a fraction of a second, she had seared a path 120 degrees around him, maintaining her distance. Assuming he was lining up a shot of some sort, his readjustment would give her time to decide if she was being attacked . . .
The chuckle, she wasn't exactly surprised by. The flash of energy and spell sigil that appeared at his feet for a second, she was actually anticipating. The whole of his body vanishing into blue mist and evaporating into nothing? Less so. She had sat there like a fool, and let him teleport away. No, wait. She wasn't a fool. Teleports take much longer than that, and require a lot more channeling; enough that the base would have picked it up- her enhanced senses then revealed that the air currents had, in fact responded as if a mass had vanished with only vacuum to replace it. That was a teleport. An insanely, impossibly fast teleport.
The base. She was vaguely aware that someone had said something via telepathy during the intense moment, but she hadn't listened. Yang 1 to all units! Target is capable of high-speed teleportation magic! I have lost him! Repeat, I've lost him!
Yin 1 to Taijitu, we have found another crystalline object in a cave at the end of this trail. It is much larger and more charged with energy than the previous one. We are ready for securing it or destroying it. Orders?
Yang 1 to all units! Target is capable of high-speed teleportation magic! I have lost him! Repeat, I've lost him!
Hayate's next few seconds passed by very slowly. She had displays up of everyone's devices' points of view, and was watching Signum's when the target vanished. She then glanced at the general sensor readouts, and got nothing in the way of interdimensional waves. That's funny, she thought. And with that, the whole world ground to a halt as she single-mindedly refused to think about anything else with this unwelcome puzzle in front of her.
Teleportation spells take relatively huge amounts of energy, incredible focus, and a bit of sheer luck. How would I cast one that fast? I'd . . . prepare it in advance and pull it out of the Book. How would Nanoha or Fate do it? They . . . they wouldn't. Unless they had planned to do so ahead of time too. But that's impossible, even if they used a cartridge, they'd still have to concentrate to lock on to their destination . . . unless they had a beacon . . . oh, oh no!
SHAMAL! BE CAREFUL! She mentally yelled. And for two heartbeats, nothing happened.
Why hasn't he arrived? I shouldn't be wrong. What haven't I thought of? The vibrations! Why hasn't he shaken the dimensional readings? Because he hasn't disturbed them. Why hasn't he appeared? Because he hasn't broken the bounds of relativity in a single space-time!
Sure enough, the large crystal on her Klarerwind screen began to glow. He travelled in a straight line at near lightspeed, but since he did it without dimension hopping, his time passes almost instantly while ours keeps ticking for a few seconds! Ha! There's a reason why people don't use this style of teleportation normally! Now he'll take a moment to re-form and we'll have him!
She glanced over at Nanoha to see what she was thinking, but her friend was already gone.
SHAMAL! BE CAREFUL!
The Knight of the Lake snapped open her eyes and took a half step backwards. The crystal she had enquired about had started pulsing faintly, and Klarerwind detected an influx of power. "Everyone! We have incoming!"
Vita hefted Graf Eisen and grunted. Rein floated between then and asked "Should I unison with someone?" Arf simply growled. The crystal began to glow in earnest while a faint blue mist surrounded them all. It gathered in front of the crystal, and with a screeEEE-WHOOMP noise, the armored man appeared in a flash of light. He was facing the crystal, and only three of the smaller crystals were still orbiting his head.
He dropped his stoic posture, slumped a bit, and let out a sigh. "That bluff cost me a couple years off my li-" and stopped his sentence short as he turned around. Arf dashed forward and lunged for his left leg. "How in the- ah!" She snapped her jaws down on his armored calf. "Dogs. Of course, you used dogs!" He managed to maintain his footing and take notice of his assailants.
Shamal began to cast. The Belkan triangle appeared at her feet with a chiming sound. Vita let loose a battle cry and charged forward. Rein managed to sputter a "Heywaitform- oh, never mind!" and started her own spell. Arf kept her grip as best she could, but her jaw was built for throat-tearing and hamstringing, not metal-clamping. As such, her victim managed one desperate lunge diagonally forward to dodge Vita's swing and land haphazardly at Shamal's feet. He managed to barely prop himself up on his one free leg and a hand (The force of his dodge actually caused Arf to flip on her side to keep her grip), bringing his face to face with a dangling Klarerwind.
In the space of a second, Shamal began to step backwards again away from him, Vita was recovering from her spinning-wiff and was lining up another shot, and Arf was trying to decide how much good she was going to be able to do in wolf form as opposed to human form. He one look at the hanging ring-pendant, and said "Wait, if you're all Smiths . . . " and snatched it.
Shamal blinked, and got out "Use the Book on m-!" before the flash happened and she went down. Rein's spell caught in her throat for fear of hitting Shamal, and Graf Eisen began to glow red.
"You. Hurt. Shamal." Another spell circle appeared beneath Vita's feet.
"Wait,what just- all I did was- why is she-" he stopped sputtering and realized his impending doom. "This is not going to end well for me!" Two of his remaining crystals flashed, and he was gone.
Before Hayate could ask Nanoha where she went, an alert beeped. She looked back at her display and saw the unexpected-yet-not-unwelcome reading of an extremely short range conventional teleport, from inside the cave to right outside and above. He seems to be running through his tricks from best to worse, and if I had to guess I'd say he's running out.
He's just outside the cave! Signum, Vita, pursue!
Hayate! Shamal is down! He got her!
Hayate frowned for a moment. Yin 3, recover Yin 1 and return. Yin 2, Yin 4, unison and pursue. Target is . . . she watched the holotable for a couple more seconds . . . heading directly north towards the mountains at high speed, likely flying outright. She watched the rate of his progress and did a bit of mental math. Signum, try to cut him off. Vita, go as fast as you can, but I don't think you'll catch up to him- She stopped, and considered Vita's current mental state –belay that,Yin 2. Return to base immediately. Escort Yin 3. She waited for acknowledgement. Yin 2, do you copy?
I copy, Taijitu. Heading in.
Vita+Rein was the only one left in the cave at this point. Arf had switched to human form, grabbed Shamal (who had been awake, but completely limp) and moved the moment Hayate had issued her orders. Vita took a step out of the chamber to leave, but tossed a glance back at the large crystal that was still serenely floating. She gritted her teeth, clenched a fist, and . . .
The armored man had thrown caution to the wind at this point. He had apparently already lethally enraged at least two of his pursuers, blown through three of the four reserve crystals he had managed to scrape together this last week, and all he had to show for it all was a new language and a slightly twisted ankle. He had no idea where he was, let alone the very name of the world he was standing on, or even the date. The language barrier was an extra-unwelcome surprise, because it vaguely implied a huge problem with the local Emissary.
The fact that he was still unable to hail the aforementioned strongly implied a smaller problem. For the time being, he was reduced to the most basic interpretation of his singular goal since he awoke in that dreary smoke-filled room: ditch his pursuers and take some time to seriously rest and gain his bearings. A full set of crystals would probably net him the energy he needed to contact a different world, and –
His thoughts were jumbled by another wall of sound. This one was less all-consuming, but more ominous in that it had . . . he stopped for a second and turned around. Sure enough, the cave he had just hastily exited was no more. Oh, he couldn't see it from here, but he could see the cloud of dust and debris above it, and he felt his single pylon fade from his awareness. The four tiny red rising stars kept climbing into the sky above the cloud before they winked out among the first few visible members of their more stable cousins. For what seemed like the thousandth time today, he shuddered. He then turned and shot off northward again, hoping beyond hope that he might be able to hide in the mountains.
Nanoha Takamachi did not consider herself reckless. Now, she wasn't an idiot; she was aware that if she actually expressed this opinion of herself within audible range of anyone who knew her, they would immediately commence with physical violence followed by an impromptu pysch eval. Even Fate would probably disagree, vehemently at that. Still, the fact stood.
That said, once again, Nanoha was not an idiot. She just merely weighed her own personal well being very lightly on her internal scale of costs/benefits when compared to the well being of anyone she loved. Only after the Scaglietti incident was she made aware just how much her own pain and suffering echoed on all those people at once; she finally had a workable counterbalance to her frankly suicidal tendencies in high power magical combat.
Suicidal being the most brutal interpretation, of course. The Blaster system was a semi-ramshackle way of increasing her raw output. The costs and benefits could be most aptly described with a gun metaphor: by adding the Blaster bits to her normal arsenal, it was like strapping on an extra set of barrels and firing mechanisms to a handgun. One pull of the trigger would fire all of them at once. To keep with this metaphor, Nanoha's particular brand of magic after the Excelion System upgrade was comparable to a Desert Eagle. Firing one of those one handed enough, over time, would wear down one's arm. Firing five at once would rapidly and inevitably destroy it.
That is, if one was still firing the standard rounds.
After saving Vivio (and the final Section 6 mock battle), her limiters had been put back in place. This did not prevent her from thinking about the Blaster system, however. Every serious combat she saw (and they were relatively few and far between) would prompt her to ask herself What could I do if my limiters were off that I can't do right now? It was typical Nanoha training thought-exercise; just because she was technically cut off from that particular mental muscle didn't mean she would forget to use it often, lest it atrophy when she really needed it.
After the initial teleport of the target to the cave, Nanoha had run through some logic. The mage was, above everything else, trying not to be caught. He had displayed a surprising affinity for teleportation magic and the unconventional application thereof; this presented a new and unique challenge. Nanoha had never really considered the implications of rapid short-range teleportation before, but as soon as the possibility was displayed, she had mentally set out to defeat it.
His initial behavior was, with the exception of the assaults on Fate and the commander, extremely cautious. He laid low for a few days, then tried to sneak towards the mountains without giving away what he was about. This meant he was unaware that they had predicted that move from the onset. He didn't know they were already aware of common anti-scrying tactics. He was ignorant of the limits of their procedures, technology, and magic. He had underestimated them drastically, and was now paying the price. The mad dash north was what he should have gone for in the first place. It would take a very long time to comb such an area, even if they watched him run to it. He may not have understood that at the right time, but he was about to be at the same tactical advantage now.
Unless . . .
Nanoha did some math in her head, frowned, and did some more. After she had walked out of the command tent she had set-up to her full combat dress and taken off towards the cave. This had only lasted for a moment before the change in situation, at which point she shot straight up. She had just about reached the first clouds when she opened a channel to the ship in orbit to request a downlink to Raising Heart. Once she confirmed that the full image analysis power of the scout's not-unimpressive sensor array was at her beck and call, she pointed Raising Heart at the target's last known vector.
"BLASTER TWO! SEALING MODE!"
Nanoha- NANOHA! What the hell are you doing? Hayate's panicked thoughts came through.
Nothing reckless. Just trust me.
Hayate didn't know how to respond to that. No matter what she said, or how harshly she threatened, she knew that tone when she heard it. Nanoha thought she had a trump card. She intended to use it. The worst part was, those trump cards tended to be paid for in blood. Activating Blaster Two was not doing anything to quell those fears.
She looked at her field map, and realized that they didn't have a lock on the target. What is she doing, anyway? Then she heard Signum's voice.
"What, in all the worlds, is that?" breathed Signum.
She had been using her Afterburner to intercept the target. Right as projected, she had made visual contact. As she had approached, he had slowed, stopped, and floated stationary. She had cut off her propulsion spell and flown up almost to melee range to see him simply staring, listlessly. Before she said a word he had turned to her, turned back to the southwest, and pointed a finger. She looked, and was stupefied. She didn't even notice Hayate's comm window open next to her.
"The Eye: that horrible growing sense of a hostile will that strove with great power to pierce all shadows of cloud, and earth, and flesh, and to see you: to pin you under its deadly gaze, naked, immovable."
Signum snapped back to life, memories of her time reading books in Hayate's home coming back to her. "Tolkien?"
"Can you think of anything more appropriate?" replied her former master.
Back some miles, probably above the base camp, up in the clouds, was a giant pink . . . eye. It had to be nearly a quarter mile wide. In the sky, from where they floated, it was a big as Earth's moon would have been. Signum turned north and noticed an ever-shrinking and ever-brightening 'spotlight' of pink fade into view over the mountains as more and more of the light fell directly on its intended recipient. She could almost feel the sheer power of the scrying magic washing over her- or at least she hoped she did. It was that, or simply the regular old feeling of being watched.
The armored man floated for a few more seconds, then raised his hands slowly.
"We've been at this game all week. I've apparently sorely misunderstood just how badly you all want me. Badly enough to cast scrying magic powerful enough to vibrate dimensions, it seems. I don't know who you all are, but I definitely do not want to fight whoever is willing to toss around power like that. I surrender. Take me to the Emissary, and I'll give my oath that I will plague your world no more."
Signum was about to respond, then clenched a fist and frowned. She did it again. Her wings of fire flared from orange, to blue, to white.
"Hey, wait- I surrendered. What are you doing? What did I say?" He held up his palms and started to float backwards slowly.
Ok, that took longer than I thought. One day after the previous chapter I typed up this to the point that Shamal casts a spell . . . and stopped for 6 days. Came back, finally figured out how to frame that scene, and plowed on forward. Boom, rest of this chapter up. Then I try to upload it and run into problems again. Fun fact: this chapter's climax was the silly scene that popped into my head that inspired me to start this thing up in the first place. Part of why I stopped where I did was because I couldn't move on to the next step without having a general idea of where I wanted to be a few more steps down the road, so I outlined the end of the story. Now that I have a direction to move again I can make progress.