AN: HOLY CRAP WHAT AM I DOING?

Just kidding. Anyway, this chapter took a full day to write - and i mean FULL DAY - during which I think I might've left my comfy recliner only to eat and bathroom breaks. And for it? FORTY PAGES. Nearly FIFTEEN THOUSAND WORDS.

I think I might've lost a few years off my lifespan thanks to that.

Anyway, before the spam-fest begins regarding the rather major revelations in this chapter, please, PLEASE remember to read the Post-AN notes. If you don't...well, more silly you. Flames will continue to be deleted. And do try to leave signed reviews, so we can chat things out, eh?

Cheers,

MB

PS: New flags to be up in a few. PLEASE VOTE!


December 16, 2012...

Le Matin (Geneva) - Face à une série de questions sur les raisons de l'enlisement des combats dans le centre-ville de Stuttgart, le ministre de la Défense Pierre-Yves Martenson a présenté comme cause les partisans allemands frappant de manière indiscriminée les convois de ravitaillement, de transport et de secours de l'Armée de Terre, en violation des lois de la guerre. Nos correspondants sur le terrain présentent toutefois une image différente de la situation, la résistance des forces allemandes se montrant de plus en plus acharnée alors que les combats redoublent d'intensité dans les décombres de la ville pourtant isolée depuis plus d'un mois. Si les informations ne sortent que de façon très sporadique, elles n'en demeurent pas moins cohérente dans le portrait qu'elles tracent d'une force à présent rompue au combat asymétrique et exploitant sans vergogne sa connaissance de la ville.

Si la victoire française semble à présent inéluctable, l'Allemagne aura sans doute préservé son honneur au travers de ses défenseurs.


Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Kingdom of the Netherlands...

"Minister! How very pleasant to see you this evening!"

Joshua had a practiced smile ready when he heard the exuberant greeting of his Dutch counterpart. "Pieter! Lovely reception you've thrown together!" he greeted the smaller man with welcoming ease. "Really, you've quite outdone yourself!"

Pieter Klerks, Minister of Foreign Affairs for the Kingdom fo the Netherlands, as well as one of the main representatives of the Northern-Benelux alliance, waved off the compliment with a grin — no doubt aided in part by the half-drunk glass of whiskey in the man's hand. From the looks of it, it wasn't the first one he'd had, either.

"Oh, come now, my dear friend," the Dutch minister said humbly, "it's nothing quite like that reception you hosted after we signed the treaty!"

Joshua smiled noncommittally at the comment, though he knew it to be true. Harry had pulled out all the stops for the negotiations, at Joshua's behest, and had welcomed the Benelux representatives with open arms and a grand reception. A few members of Parliament had grumbled about the expenses rung up, but for the most part Sirius had managed to keep it out of major public scrutiny by pushing for the people to be just as excited for the alliance as the government was.

"But you know, I had no idea you would be in the country," the Minister then noted, sounding as confused as his facial expression seemed to suggest. Still, experience had taught Joshua that if anyone knew how to act, it was professional Ministers. "I would've thought that with the Swiss declaring the German resistance dead in the water, you'd be back in Liverpool doing damage control!"

A thin smile graced Joshua's face at the reminder. Calmly, he took a sip of wine before deigning his counterpart with an answer. "The Swiss press is merely speculating, Pieter," Joshua stated calmly. "There's never any real way to know these things. One day the resistance may be faltering, the next it manages to strike a coup de grace against the enemy. Really, time will tell..."

"Your optimism truly assuages my fears, my friend," the Dutch diplomat said with a smile that Joshua never once believed. While the Benelux seemed rather at ease with the alliance, Klerks had been one of the sceptical voices within the arrangement, questioning why a nation such as the Northern Sun would seek to ally itself with someone else, particularly in these troubled and anarchic times.

Of course, a thorough investigation had also found that Klerks had anti-mage leanings and, while not a bigot, he was rather suspicious of them as a whole; after all, why wouldn't these overpowered pseudo-humans abuse their powers for wealth and power?

It was all rather stark and pessimistic, in Joshua's opinion, but then there would always be this sort of person running around. It dearly calmed him to know that at least Klerk was the minority voice within the Benelux delegation.

The sound of laughter coming from nearby distracted them both, then, though Joshua was quicker to recover and, seizing upon this opportunity, managed to politely dismiss himself from Pieter's company.

He hadn't taken a fifth step away before someone far more familiar came to his side.

"That looked like it went well," Xeno murmured as he fell into step with the Minister.

Fantastic. If there was anything Joshua was more wary about than actual politicians, it was spooks. Moreso the spooks who worked for Harry; unlike normal spies, Xeno approached the intelligence game not only with remarkable wit and intelligence, but also with a near-fanatical devotion to the King.

"Klerks was just being his charming self," Joshua stated dismissively. "He seems to think there's merit in that Swiss op-ed on the German resistance."

Xeno shrugged. "There is, but not for long," he stated simply.

"I don't want to know."

"Good, because I'm not going to tell you," Xeno answered calmly before taking a sip of his wine. "Anyway, we're getting to be shorthanded on manpower, so you-know-who sent me to relay new orders."

A chill went down Joshua's spine. What hair-brained scheme did Harry have in mind that he thought he'd needed not just a personal delivery, but also one given by the Director of the Special Intelligence Service himself?

"There's a new project being started in her labs — order from you-know-who — and we're going to need the Benelux's cooperation to implement its results in their territory. You know, for Operation Sunrise."

In other words, for the invasion of Europe.

"Do I get to tell them the details of what they're letting us build here?"

"No."

"What it is, generally?"

"No."

"Then how, pray tell, do you expect me to sell to them the idea that they should blindly agree to us building highly-secret things on their turf, without so much as a hint as to what said things are!"

Xeno shrugged. "That's your business, milord. Mine's to make sure the details never get heard until the time is right."

"Klerks will never allow this to happen!" Joshua pointed out in an angry hiss, feeling a migraine coming on as the head spy of the Northern Sun shrugged without care. "The man's already sceptical about our motives! And with all this shite you're piling on, I'm starting to feel sympathetic!"

Cold, hard eyes met his. Xeno never flinched nor made any move to insinuate he'd been intimidated or moved by Joshua's rant, which admittedly scared the diplomat a bit. After all, a man who could not be intimidated nor budged was a dangerous man to deal with, no matter what arena you did it in. "I've already said it, milord," Xeno stated neutrally. "My job is to relay orders. Yours is to make sure they're carried out and that the locals don't ask too many questions. If that's all, I think I'll be heading off now; my daughter's waiting for me back home."

Joshua envied that, even if he didn't say anything as the spymaster of the Northern Sun walked away, having saddled a colleague with an almost impossible task without even batting an eyelash.

Sighing in frustration, Joshua brought up his glass and gulped down the entire contents of it in one fell swoop. He'd need the liquid courage if he was going to broach a known alliance sceptic about the new terms of their arrangement.


February 15, 2013...

LE MONDE, Editorial — L'attentat ayant frappé le siège du Parti Communiste, place du Colonel Fabien, vient de faire sa vingt-deuxième victime alors qu'un officier de police vient de succomber aux blessures qu'il a subi en tentant de porter secours aux blessés peu après la déflagration. Les autorités de la préfecture de Paris ont confirmé que l'origine de son traumatisme était d'origine para-psychique -ou "magique"-, citant comme suspect principal le groupe terroriste Rédemption. Celui-ci, supposé regrouper de nombreux Mages non enregistrés, est recherché pour actes de terrorisme et crimes de trahison en temps de guerre.

Cependant, si la rédaction du Monde ne peut que se joindre à toute la population dans une condamnation ferme d'un acte qui vient frapper une fois de plus une démocratie de plus en plus fragile, la question du groupe Rédemption ne peut être évitée. Ses actions polarisent en effet chaque jour un peu plus une société qui subit les effets de relations internationales toujours plus tendues et d'une guerre qui s'enlise à vue d'œil. La précipitation des autorités à accuser ce groupe de terrorisme là où ses seules actions confirmées ont été limitées à de la propagande et du soutien aux Mages non-enregistrés a attiré de nombreux parallèles avec les heures sombres de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale, attirant une sympathie inattendue de la part d'une frange de la population française voyant ce groupe comme une incarnation moderne de la Résistance. A ceci il est impossible d'ignorer l'effet de son chef, ou porte-parole, la structure interne du groupe restant évidemment inconnue des médias, dont seule la voix est connue au travers de ses multiples interventions diffusées illégalement. Le charisme et la conviction de cette jeune voix féminine, associés au rapprochement fait par certains, lui ont valu un surnom désormais ancré dans le collectif : la Pucelle de Paris.

Nous ignorons ici si cette "Pucelle" est responsable ou non des actes desquels elle est accusée. En revanche, ce qui nous apparait comme une certitude est que son influence grandit de jour en jour, pour la simple raison qu'elle est désormais l'une des seules à présenter l'autre point de vue d'une question de société qui risque, à l'instar de la Résistance et de la Collaboration, de garder sa marque sur la société française au cours des décennies à venir.


Albi, France...

"One hundred rifles."

"Check."

"Two hundred crates of ammunition," droned on Price as he introduced his French counterparts to the newest covert weapons shipment the Northern military had decided they were worthy of. Not that he thought they did, after managing to bomb the Communist Party's HQ on their own pretty well. "Two crates of explosives. One case of electronic sabotage equipment..."

"All check, sir," Ghost stated as he checked off the items on his datapad.

Price sighed in relief, tossing the clipboard over to his French colleague, who was still gawking at the shipment in awe. "There ya go, Jean," he said with a mischievous smile that promised nothing good. "Enough party favours to ruin the government's day."

"Indeed, monsieur Price," Jean agreed as he watched his men pilfer the rifle shipment in particular, vocally showing their awe at the first-rate weaponry. "But, if I might ask, is this not too obvious of your support for our cause? Surely, the salôts in Paris will realize there is no way we could've acquired this sort of weaponry on our own, or from the Germans!"

Price snorted. "Good luck with that, lad," he said dismissively. "Tons of equipment went missing during our little tiff up north," he euphemistically referred to the Civil War. "Not all of it logged. So who's to say these rifles weren't lost then? Maybe some enterprising piece of scum decided to abscond with His Majesty's property and sell it on the side for a quick quid, yeah?"

Jean blinked for a moment before oh-ing in realization and then joining Price for a laugh. Pity he didn't realize that Price was more laughing at him than with him.

Fortunately for the North, however, Jean wasn't in charge.

"Once again, your King proves to be a friend to the cause of liberty, equality, and justice for all Frenchmen, Sergeant Price," a beautifully melodic voice stated calmly from behind the men.

Turning, Price ignored the fumbling Jean as the man tried to babble away an explanation for his idleness, instead preferring to drink in as much of the beautiful voice's equally radiant owner.

Tall and willowy, but with an amazingly fit and petite frame and gloriously radiant blue eyes that shone against her silvery-blonde hair, the leader of the French group known as Redemption never ceased to charm the breath out of the lungs of the Northern commandos.

With good reason — as word had it, she wasn't fully human.

"His Majesty sends his regards, miss," Despite his instinctual reaction to the woman, Price had enough self-control to quickly rally — a trait he was glad to see echoed in his men, who also managed to remain at full attention, although with some visual strain. "And hopes you achieve your goal."

The woman smiled, somehow managing to pull off looking even more beautiful. By Price's side, Jean had practically devolved into a babbling ape. "Please send our regards back to your King, Sergeant Price. We are glad for his support." She glanced over to the crates of weaponry and supplies before waving Jean off to leave them, which the man did extremely willingly. "Though we wonder why he sends us guns, but not the men to wield them."

Price had been warned about this. Veelas, the spooks back home had called them, and their halfblood progeny, had the uncanny ability to literally seduce the answer out of any member of the opposite sex. That meant that unless one had a will of pure steel, there was a very good chance one could willingly reveal one's secrets despite logical reservations.

It was torture, in his opinion.

Though not in pain, he felt his logical mind get overridden with lust, his baser impulses demanding he cave in to this enchanting creature's demands. How utterly senseless! Had he not fought through several wars, more than his fair amount of black ops, and several near-misses with death? And now he was just going to cave in because this woman had some inexplicable power over men?

Fortunately, he did not have to find out, as a wash of some sort of energy suddenly permeated the tunnels, breaking the temptress' hold over them. Instinctively, his weapon and that of his men rose up to aim at her. Whatever justification she might have had for doing this, she'd attacked them.

"Hands in the air!" he shouted, a cry repeated angrily by his fellow soldiers. "Hands in the fucking air!"

The woman, however, seemed shaken by something, Her head snapped to and fro, looking for some unseen enemy as her entire body posture hunched over, ready to duck and cover or strike as needed.

"You deaf, woman?!" Price shouted at her. "Hands in the air!"

"Now, now, sergeant," a voice unfamiliar to Price crooned to him from further down the tunnels. He turned to aim at this new intruder when he heard then saw two soldiers of the resistance flying backwards, crumpling in a corner as footsteps sounded out in the damp cavern. "A gentleman should never raise his voice to a lady."

"Identify yourself!" he ordered, as one of his men peeled off his aim from the Veela to give supporting fire to his CO.

As it turned out, there was no need to. Slowly, from out of the corner, the sight of a familiar blue greatcoat appear, followed by its well known, equally blue ensemble.

Military Mage.

Slowly, lowering his weapon, Price squinted as he tried to make out the wearer's identity, their face covered in the shadows the dim lights cast.

"Identify yourself, sir!" he repeated, though his companion, too, started to lower his weapon.

From out the darkness, the Military Mage stepped out with a calm gait, his posture and body language telling of his great confidence in his own safety and skill. As the shadows peeled off his face, the Military Mage snapped a salute to Price, though his eyes never left the twitchy Veela female.

"Sergeant Price," he greeted. "General Wenshi, Military Mages," he introduced himself. "I'm here for her."

The woman, already reacting instinctively to the man's great power, became even more frazzled at the pronouncement. Turning, she quickly shouted, "Au secours! On nous attaque!" in the hopes of summoning reinforcements. Hopes that were quickly dashed by Neville wagging his finger at her.

"Unfortunately, you'll find that this entire area's surrounded in a silencing ward. No one's going to hear you."

Price and his subordinate turned on a dime to let Neville walk past them, ramrod at attention. Nevermind Neville's rank — his reputation as a Military Mage was well known amongst Special Ops, due in no small part to his daring raid on the Spanish presidential convoy at Sagunto. While some of his standing had eroded due to the disaster that was the initial Death Eater expedition, he had nonetheless maintained both his high rank and the confidence of the King.

It also helped that since then, he had distinguished himself in Northern Ireland, where a three-way battle between the Order of the Phoenix, Death Eaters, and former British Army had raged since the fall of the British Crown. Neville, at the head of a Northern Army, had done well in putting down all three warring factions and reasserting control over the region, despite the protests of the Irish Republic, who had hoped to do so themselves once the three factions had worn each other down sufficiently.

A curse flew from the witch's wand, which he easily deflected to one side with a flick of his wrist. Another tried to strike him, only to meet with the same fate. Another, then another, until as he walked nearer to her, she found herself cornered, looking at this imposing mage with defiance mingled with fear.

"So this is the true face of the Northern King!" she spat. "I ask questions, so he sends one of his dogs to silence me?!"

To her credit, she did not flinch when Neville's hand slammed the brick wall right beside her head — not an accident, merely an act of intimidation, which failed. Drawing near, Neville fixed her with a hard stare.

"You're quite mistaken," he told her calmly before drawing back and straightening up his ruffled uniform, then proceeding to tug at his gloves to make sure they were tightly fixed. "I am merely here to answer your questions, so I believe you owe us an apology. Were I here to take your life, it would've already been mine."

"Sir, why weren't told you were coming?" Price piped up then, having allowed the Military Mage to take the witch down a few pegs. "Could've saved everyone a lot of headaches!"

"A fair assessment, sergeant," Neville acceded. "Unfortunately, this was decided at the last minute. His Majesty realized from your debriefs that the little lady here was trying to dig up some information on our plans, so he decided to send me here to smooth things over."

In truth, a rather large show of faith, considering Neville was one of the most well known war heroes of the North.

"You attacked my men!" the woman pointed out as she motioned towards the crumpled men Neville had dispatched upon his appearance. "Why should I believe anything you say?!"

"Unfortunate, but they seemed fixated on the belief that I was the enemy," Neville stated evenly with a shrug. "Don't worry, though; they're not dead."

The witch glared at him fiercely before lowering her wand. However much she wanted to hex him for his actions, she wanted answers more. As the leader of Redemption, she had a duty to her followers and the thousands of mages still being persecuted to ensure their safety both from the French and the foreign powers who might use their plight as a chess piece on some bigger political game. "You said you'd answer my questions, right?" she asked. He nodded. "You swear to be completely honest with me?"

"As long as what you ask doesn't infringe on our secrecy laws," he conditioned. A fair enough reservation, though it didn't help to settle her suspicion.

She nodded reluctantly in agreement to the condition, but then glanced at Price and his men. Fortunately, Neville understood and turned to the veteran warriors. "You can go ahead and exfil, sergeant. I'm my own ride out."

Price dithered for a moment, unsure whether to allow this high-ranking Military Mage war hero to remain alone with a witch who had a proven genetic ability to seduce men out of the information they guarded jealously.

"I got you out of your entrancement, sergeant; I can handle myself," Neville reassured the man, having discerned the cause of uncertainty within the soldier.

Price finally nodded in acquiescence, saluted (along with the rest of his squad), then barked orders for them to leave. Within moments, Neville and the woman were left alone in the damp tunnels.

Conjuring up a stool, Neville sat down and waited for her to do the same before motioning for her to begin.

She needed no prompting. "Who are you, really?" she asked simply. "I've heard of Wenshi, but that's obviously a codename. So who are you?" Neville raised an eyebrow. He'd been expecting hardball questions right off the bat, but she wanted to know more about him personally? What a letdown!

Then there was the fact that she should know who he was. "You don't remember?" he asked her with a smirk. "Believe it or not, you do know me."

The witch frowned. She doubted it; after all, the man was not unappealing in looks, skill, or personality, from what little she'd seen — certainly a man to hold her attention. Still, it did bother her that despite the European global community being rather tight-knit as far as gossip went, she'd never heard of someone who verbally matched the description or skill of the man before her. It was as though he had popped out of nowhere!

Grasping this apparent memory-related blank, Neville chuckled to himself. "I have to say, I'm somewhat disappointed. Think back to 1994. What happened that year?"

The witch thought back to that time. She'd been in school back then. Her family was all together, and her sister was still very much alive, radiant with her beauty and charm. She recalled Beauxbatons! She remembered how wonderful Madame Maxime and the teachers had been!

And then, that wonderful moment when she heard they'd be going to England to compete in the...

"Triwizard Tournament..." she whispered, unaware she'd been speaking aloud. Looking up, she saw Neville nod, a self-satisfied look on his face. "The Triwizard Tournament? You participated in that?"

Neville chuckled again. "Merlin, no! I was 14 back then! But I did get to meet you. Think back to the Second Task. What happened after the lake?"

She complied, realizing that there was something about this unfamiliar man which nonetheless tugged at her memory. The Second Task, was it? She remembered how her sister had been involved. Those miserable moments in the middle of the lake. She remembered feeling uncomfortably wet and cold afterwards, until someone had kindly put a blanket on her shoulders...

Wait.

Her eyes widened slowly as she fixed Neville with an incredulous look. "Neville?" she whispered.

Neville smiled. "Hello Gabrielle."


April 30, 2014...

MONTH OF SCANDAL INTENSIFIES

LIVERPOOL TIMES, LIVERPOOL — An already rocky month for French public relations following a crackdown on political dissidents and a failed assassination of Field Marshal Jacques Rousseau has apparently found greater room to expand as a new shocking development in Germany rocks the civilized world.

General Francois de la Roche, in charge of maintaining peace and order in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia, has been accused of executing two hundred German prisoners of war in what has been described as one of the most insidious massacres in recent European history.

The accusation has come to light following numerous eyewitnesses to this horrible war crime stepping forward to denounce the general, who has issued a statement denying all accusations and claiming the whole affair political persecution. Nonetheless, with the accusations issued, the new President Pro Tempore of the French Republic has announced that General de la Roche has been relieved of command and has been placed in custody pending a thorough investigation.

The news hits the French public at a particularly awkward time, as the former French President's recent resignation over the deaths of numerous civilian supporters of the anti-government group Redemption during a crackdown on a peaceful rally has galvanized much of the population into rioting against what they deem as heavy-handed tactics by the government to limit their rights to free speech.


"Mommy, mommy! Look!"

Elicia smiled as little Katerina rushed up to her with what seemed like a hastily collected bouquet of flowers. No doubt her gardener would freak out tomorrow when she noticed the missing plants. Still, it was just adorable to see her daughter smiling up at her with that toothy little smile of hers, her sundress covered in splotches of dirt as the restless Royal Princess of the Northern Sun exerted all of her seemingly inexhaustible energy into discovering more about the world around her.

"Your Majesty, I'm so sorry!" her nanny apologized fervently as she rushed in right behind Katerina, looking haggard and worn out from having to chase the terrible two-year old all around the gardens, no doubt. "I tried to tell her not to, but..."

She was quieted by Elicia raising a hand. The Queen merely smiled down at her exuberant daughter and lifted her up from the ground in a tight embrace. "They're very pretty, Katie!" she praised her daughter warmly. "Where did you get them?"

Obviously, Elicia already had a fair idea of that, but it always helped to let children take the spotlight in these early years. Already, Katerina was a bright, bubbly child, eager to learn and discover — much like her mother and father. There was no real need to stunt that growth.

"Garden!" Katerina exclaimed happily, hugging her mother. Elicia blushed and had to restrain herself from hugging her daughter just as hard. Instead, she settled for a gentle hug and then touched her forehead with her own.

"I see...and are these for me?" she asked kindly.

To her surprise, Katerina shook her head. "Papa!" she exclaimed instead, making Elicia blink once before giggling.

Of course. Of her two parents, the one she saw the least was her own father, though admittedly not for lack of trying on both parties' ends. As the hands-on King of his nation, Harry spent most of his time travelling around the nation, giving speeches or overseeing construction projects designed to revitalize his nation from the disaster of the Civil War. For the most part, it had worked, and the people loved him for it, but it also unfortunately meant that the time he spent at home was few and far between.

So naturally, he was the parent Katerina wanted to see the most, especially since every time they did get to be together as a family Harry was an incredibly doting father.

She could already imagine the faces of Katerina's future boyfriends once they had to unfortunately meet one of the most dangerous men on the planet. Needless to say, it made her giggle every time she thought about it, much to her husband's consternation.

"I'm sure he'll love them, sweetie," she said with a sincere smile. Harry always loved his daughter's presents. She could give him a particularly shiny rock and he'd treasure it like it was solid platinum.

Not that he didn't appreciate his wife, of course. While their daughter provided a much needed anchor for both of their humanity, they were also both high-ranking members of a nascent nation that had a lot to prove to the world at large. Elicia had already given her husband the tech he needed to make a mechanized army relevant once again, and had effectively reduced the costs of producing electrical energy to near-nothing. With Project VANGUARD, Project MJOLNIR and Project HAVOC, she was sure he'd be in her debt for the rest of his life.

Both were game changers for the Northern Sun. While the nascent nation projected an outward image of strength and stability, everyone with a high enough pay grade knew that about half of what was being said was baseless propaganda. Yes, the Northern Sun could defend itself. Yes, it could give many a nation a run for its money in a war.

But could it face down First World armies while on an offensive? No.

Even with Military Mages, the sheer manpower and technological power brought to bear by the powerhouse nations of the world, such as the United States, China, Russia, or France, was overwhelming, and the brass of the Northern military knew while there was a remote chance they could defend their lands against these countries, there was no way they could ever take to the offensive.

Of course, to prevent an invasion, propaganda was rolled out to assure the rest of the world that if threatened, the Northern Sun would reduce their attackers to ash. To ensure as little leakage as possible so that the nations of the world wouldn't call them on their bluff, extreme security measures were undertaken to shield the military from unwanted scrutiny regarding their battlefield readiness.

As Chief Scientist, however, Elicia was tasked with making the propaganda into reality. Since the coronation of her husband, in fact, levelling the odds had been her only task, with all the deviations that implied.

Thirty projects had been enacted since then, and over half had failed. Attempts at supercharging armored vehicles with magic had caused them to explode. Trying to charm armor provided short-term protection, but shorted out anything electrical in the vicinity, whether it used the new magical batteries or not. Magic-enhanced ammunition tended to explode within the weapon barrels themselves, with simulations predicting that 75% of users would've ended up killed by their own weapons after firing a single such bullet.

And the list went on.

It'd been easy for Harry and his military commanders to demand that she provide new weaponry and technology based on hybridization of magic and technology, given her success with Fuel Crystals and the new magical batteries that allowed their electronic equipment work again in the presence of magic. However, they hadn't realized that such successes had been the byproduct of a litany of failures that occurred while developing the technology.

Fortunately, however, her teams had stumbled upon two new great breakthroughs, after many months of relentless toil and research. These new breakthroughs were now codenamed Projects VANGUARD, MJOLNIR and HAVOC.

"Mommy, where's papa?" Katerina asked, still in the arms of her mother, despite her nanny fretting over the fact that the Royal Heir was getting the Queen's clothes dirty.

Elicia blinked as she broke her train of thought, pausing momentarily to regain her wits and then smiled at her daughter. "Papa's helping people," she told her truthfully.

Katerina pouted, another thing that seemed to make the nanny fret. "When's he coming home?"

Elicia sighed. Sometimes, she asked herself the same thing. "Soon, sweetie," she comforted her daughter. "Soon."


France, May 1st, 2013...

ENCYCLOPEDIA GALLICA

— Les émeutes qui ont entouré le défilé du premier mai 2013 ont une fois de plus attiré l'attention sur la scission du Front National et, par là-même, sur sa cause profonde. Depuis la révélation de l'existence des Mages, le parti ultra-nationaliste est dans ce qui ne peut qu'être appelé une guerre civile ayant mis à jour ses deux principaux courants, frappant jusqu'au sein de la famille régnante du parti, les Delacroix. Marion Delacroix, fille du fondateur historique du parti d'extrême droite, a réagi aux violences qui ont touché le défilé en regrettant "des excès de patriotes bien intentionnés mais trop excessifs face à leurs compatriotes".

Ayant rapidement adapté la ligne politique de son parti pour inclure les Mages dans les dangers menaçant le mode de vie et les traditions françaises, la dauphine de Jean-François Delacroix s'est retrouvée confrontée non seulement à son ancien camarade politique, mais à son père, qui, peu avant de mourir de causes naturelles, a comparé les Mages à Jeanne d'Arc, en affirmant qu'ils étaient "le rempart du peuple contre une élite manipulée par les intérêts étrangers". Philippe Lachal, numéro deux du parti après la mort de son fondateur, s'est rallié à la bannière de celui-ci, regroupant autour de lui la frange ultra-nationaliste des soutiens du Front National dans un noyau dur, tandis que Marion Delacroix a continué sa doctrine populiste, ajoutant les Mages à une longue liste contenant banquiers, religions non-chrétiennes, autres puissances européennes...


Paris, France, May 2, 2013...

"Wait, hold up. Joan of Arc?"

Josefina looked up from her morning paper to see her latest amorous conquest — and coincidentally (not) the accountant of her next target — come out of the bathroom in a towel, looking bemused.

Not for the first time since she'd gotten this assignment, she was glad the man turned out to be a British ex-pat. Granted, he also had one particular trait she wasn't quite fond of...

"Dear god, the lunacy of some people!" the man ranted, throwing up his arms in disgust. "Eulogizing mages! Really! As though those freaks needed further encouragement to screw up our world!"

He was a total bigot.

It was a trait Josefina — known to him only as Emily Lake, naturally — despised, and every time he opened his mouth, it was a chore not to simply run her stiletto blade, handily disguised as a hair pin, through his carotid. Unfortunately, he had the access she needed to her target's accounts, and so he got a pass on death...for now.

Suffice to say, framing him for a murder-suicide of her target was sounding pretty darn appealing with every passing day. Hell, just the thought that she even let him touch her was enough to make her silently ill.

The things she endured for King and Country...

Well, mostly King, but she supposed she was somewhat fond of the Northern Sun as a nation...

"Quite right, dear," she said with a simpering smile that made her internally gag. Gods, she dearly hoped none of her colleagues back home ever found out about this façade she had to endure. With all the bluster she gave about being a strong woman, the last thing she needed was this cover identity hung over her head — fictional or not.

"And the media! Giving these idiots their five minutes of fame!" her lover (soon to be victim #56 if he didn't shut up soon) continued, apparently getting a second wind the moment he heard her agree with him. Josefina discreetly rolled her eyes — why didn't she learn not to encourage buffoons like him?! "Honestly, it's like they want the freaks to get a pass!"

"Apparently Delacroix' daughter disagrees with her late father, darling, so maybe there's hope yet," she offered up, hoping it would shut him up.

No such luck.

"Well, there's a sensible woman! Can't say I much like what she wants to do to us foreigners, but it's still good to see sensible politics regarding the mages getting out there to the public!"

Oh for crying out...! Josefina had to restrain herself from pointing out that much of the destruction that had hit France since the Reveal was non-magical, mostly caused by rioting normals and terrorists. What damage the mages had done to France was mostly in self-defense, not that this idiot would be able to discern that.

Smiling as genuinely as she could muster the effort of doing so, she folded the paper and got up, her loose robe's front apparently all she'd needed to flash for the moron to shut up. Why hadn't she thought of that before?

"As much as I love to hear you talk politics, darling, I do need to get ready; we've got that big meeting to get to, remember?" she purred into his ear as she neared him. Despite how misogynist the idiot was, she'd somehow managed to convince him that a big-time American company was very interested in selling weapons to the French, if it was kept utterly discreet.

Naturally, he was slack-jawed at the act, the feel of her soft skin against his almost enough to make his head explode from excitement. Silently, she prayed dearly that he wouldn't ask for another round of sex — a Casanova, he was not; in any department.

"O-Of course, my dear!" he stammered out, obviously feeling very uncomfortable — likely due to...rising problems. "H-How thoughtless of me!"

She winked and grinned at him before going into the bathroom and slowly shutting the door behind her, giving him one last good look at her rear. He had better of enjoyed it, considering that if all went well, it'd be the last time he had such a good look at it.

Glaring at her reflection — and feeling slightly nauseated by the lengths she'd had to go to get this sort of access to the man's boss — she quickly disrobed and climbed into the shower, doing an efficient job of cleaning herself thoroughly before stepping out while still leaving the shower running.

The man, as she'd discovered upon her first meeting with him a few days ago, had a very set image about women, and one of them was that they were all prone to ridiculous amounts of time showering and getting ready.

Preposterous.

From her time in military encampments under Harry's care, she'd seen female soldiers go through their routines ten times faster than he'd assumed, and when off-duty, they could get fully ready in a quarter of the time.

Still, it helped to play to the man's fantasies. Doing so made him pliable and manipulatable. So while she allowed the shower to continue running, she got dressed, made-up, and then opened the medicine cabinet and took out the back of it.

Good, her kit was still there and untouched.

Oh, call her paranoid if you must, but life as a field agent was all about the little things. Was the room the way she'd left it exactly? Was that throw-pillow a millimeter to the right or left? Was the oven the tiniest bit warm, despite not having used it?

Being able to discern such things were what kept her alive and out of a jail cell, and she wasn't about to rest on her laurels when it came to her own safety.

Opening her bag, she brought out each item inside and checked it and re-checked it. Her pistol, its silencer, her tight suit, her PDA, passports, money reserves...everything was exactly as she'd left them. Good.

Silently, she put everything back in its place, sat on the toilet for a couple more minutes, then reached into the shower and turned it off. Then, humming aloud, she waited another fifteen minutes before deftly touching up her makeup — to make it look recent — and then walked out of the bathroom, smiling coyly at her future coffin-stuff-ee, whose jaw practically fell off.

"Ready to go, darling?" she asked. "We wouldn't want your boss waiting on us, would we?"

The man stammered so much she privately wondered if perhaps she'd broken him. Regardless, it was true that being late would probably end up biting her on the ass, so she laughed cutely, grabbed him by the arm, and then led him out of the apartment.

Not for the first time, she hoped this was all worth it.

...As it turned out, it was.

Hours later, Josefina hummed a little ditty to herself as she eyed the scene of her handiwork.

Her lover, fool that he was, was sitting slack-jawed and with a permanently shocked look on his face on the couch of his boss' living room, a smoldering bullet hole in his left temple. A nice touch, she thought, considering that the gunpowder burns would just feed the whole murder-suicide thing she was planning to frame him for.

And naturally, her target — some wealthy industrialist or another who'd managed to dig a little too close to the truth regarding the group smuggling out persecuted mages from France — who was face down on his luxurious Indian-weaved carpet, fourteen bullet holes allowing blood to stain said carpet in copious amounts.

Still humming, she went over to her former lover and carefully put the gun in his hand, sans the silencer of course, and carefully made sure that his fingerprints would be all over the relevant areas for an open-and-shut case.

The soft chime of the nearby grandfather clock drew her attention to the majestic object. Whatever her target's sins against the Northern Sun, he'd had excellent taste. Pity he'd had to die this way; if only he'd just looked the other way, she wouldn't have had to put fourteen rounds into his body.

Then again, she doubted any man who hired bigots to work for them would be so easily swayed.

Thankfully, the clock also reminded her she was on a time table. While the mansion was devoid of much of its staff for now — due to the rather sensitive nature of the business they were supposed to be talking about — that wouldn't always be the case, and she knew that if the man's guards didn't hear from their boss in the next ten minutes, they'd barge into the room, guns ablaze.

Not that this was much of a problem for her. Rather, it was an excellent way for someone else to discover the scene and make the needed connections.

And then, her cell phone rang.

Well, more like it vibrated. She wasn't about to make the rookie mistake of leaving the ringtone activated mid-assassination. It'd gotten plenty of newbies caught in the act, and it sure as hell wouldn't get her.

Frowning as she recognized the caller ID, she tapped the touch screen's accept button and activated her headset before tucking it back into her suit.

"This is Nightshade," she stated succinctly as she returned to her work.

"Nightshade, we have a situation. Intel suggests Marion Delacroix, leader of the anti-mage faction of the Front Nationale, may be making a move towards a deal with the government in exchange for her support on anti-mage laws."

"I know; read the paper this morning," she stated simply. "Not our problem, though. Delacroix may not like mages, but she's way too hardcore for there to be any other common ground with the government for a sustainable alliance to form."

There was silence on the line for a moment as her contact digested this information. "We will take your observations under notice, Agent Nightshade, however, Spymaster wants to make sure any possible cooperation is and will always be impossible."

Josefina rolled her eyes as she finished up the crime scene and walked towards the bullet-resistant full-length windows that led out to the gardens. Another show of damned good taste by the man. "With all due respect, HQ, isn't Wolfsbane able to do that? My kill list isn't getting any shorter with all these side gigs."

The answer came in the form of another voice, this one male and very recognizable. "Nightshade," Xeno's voice clearly called to her through the headset. She had to restrain a wince, having not known Xeno would be listening in on the call. "Wolfsbane is heading up the Operation Ares. You know we don't have anyone else in the field with enough experience."

Josefina sighed, her shoulders slumping, as she reached the balustrade and leaned on it, gazing down at the exquisite yet darkened gardens for a moment. "Understood," she finally said. "Don't worry; Marion'll keep barking, but she'll never bite. Nightshade out."

With that, she clicked off her headset, took a deep breath, then jumped over the railing and disappeared into the gardens, seconds before the door to her target's office burst open, his bodyguards having finally lost their patience after failing to raise their boss long enough.

Another job well done.


May 17, 2014...

AUSTRIA DECLARES WAR!

AUSTRIAN FORCES MARCH AGAINST FRANCE!

NORTHERN BROADCASTING CORPORATION (NBC), LONDON — In a rather remarkable turn of events, the Republic of Austria has declared war on the French Republic. In a televised announcement, President Friedrich Junker announced that this heavy decision was made following reports that the court-martial of war criminal General Henri de la Roche ended with a sentence of fifteen years rather than the expected death penalty.

The surprise turn of events comes at a dark time for the German forces, as French troops begin to consolidate their hold over Bavaria. Nonetheless, with reports already flooding in regarding skirmishes between the Bavarian French forces and the incoming Austrian Army, German spokesmen and sympathizers have begun to express hope once more that the tide may be yet turned.

Remarkably, little word has arrived from overseas, as the United States and China — the two major superpowers of the world — remain quiet as this European war continues to rage and escalate. Diplomats from both countries have declined to comment on the situation, but have issued statements that indicate their wish for the conflict to be concluded soon and through mediation, not force.

Analysts suggest that the reticence shown from both countries to interfere are a sign of deteriorating conditions within these two, as reports filter in regarding conflict between the Central American Union and the United States, and the South Asian Muslim Federation and China. Neither embassy has yet to release statements regarding the recent independence of Sicily, or the growing secession movement within the northern Italian provinces.

In other news, worldwide economies continue to falter as the price for basic goods and fuels continue to soar, with the basic food basket in some regions averaging out now at around seven hundred U.S. dollars, and fuel prices shooting up to well above seven dollars per gallon. Analysts report that the deteriorating situation in the Middle East and Venezuela, particularly, are to blame for the sudden inflation, though there have been reports to suggest that a secular victory within the Middle Eastern nations would go a long way to stabilize the world economy.


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun...

Joshua honestly wished he was somewhere else today.

As he smiled and shook the hand of the new Sicilian diplomat — a man he swore he'd once seen on the news being arrested for ties to the Mafia — Joshua cursed Harry for pushing this duty onto him. Bad enough that he'd been forced to explain to Klerks why the Northern Sun was building top secret facilities within the Benelux — something he'd only just managed to get them to retroactively approve of, though it didn't earn him brownie points with Klerks or the hard right — but now he was forced to receive the diplomatic delegations from both Sicily and the Northern Alpine Republic — both wannabe nations, if he'd ever heard of one.

In fact, he could barely understand why Harry was adamant on receiving them. The Sicilian Republic was little more than a mafia paradise; its entire economy seemed to run on protection rackets, for goodness' sakes! Even Nightshade, who'd had to travel there to report on their viability as a nation, had returned with nothing but scepticism regarding their shelf life as a country.

And everyone knew she was usually only too happy to back up anything the King said.

The Northern Alpine Republic, for its part, was more adequate as a country, but still Joshua looked down his nose at them. More than a country, its ruling government seemed full of whack jobs who, to him, seemed so far to the right that the right looked like the left. Not to mention that their kind tended to hate mages, so why on earth were they here? Why hadn't Harry just refused recognition?

Joshua felt a little disgruntled. Usually, he was the foreign affairs expert. He knew what shots to call regarding diplomacy and international relations. This time, however, Harry had insisted on receiving the two delegations, even if it meant associating with criminals and far-right bigots.

He wondered. Was this part of some long-term strategy? Did Harry really expect these countries to follow his lead? Just from the brief talk he'd had with both Ambassadors, he knew these men were not to be trusted — hell, he was sure they'd have mounted their own invasion on the Northern Sun if it wasn't for the fact that they needed heavyweight diplomatic recognition right now. Within a year or so, he wouldn't be surprised if both countries sided with their enemies!

Still, maybe there was something going on that Harry wasn't telling him. Wouldn't have been the first time, anyway. Harry liked to screw with people's heads like that.

But even this diplomatic affair was minuscule compared to the shit storm he'd had to deal with earlier today — the Austrian declaration of war. He knew Harry or Xeno was behind that — no doubt the work of the master inciter, Wolfsbane — but neither man seemed to appreciate the sort of diplomatic nightmare it caused him!

After all, the Northern Sun had friendly relations with the Austrian Republic, and now that these friends of theirs had declared war, Joshua had to scramble to assure the European powers that the Northern Sun and its allies (Spain and the Benelux) would remain neutral.

And that wasn't even the worst part of his day.

No, that particularly dubious honor fell to the diplomatic F-U Xeno had dropped on his office in a simple manila folder — Operation RECONQUISTA. The Annexation of Portugal by Spain.

Now how the hell was he supposed to deal with that?

There were few ways, if any, in which a modern country could justify the annexation of anything. Hell, just moving borders by a couple of miles usually required years of diplomatic battles and third-party mediation! Some disputes never even got solved! And now they wanted him to smooth over the conquest of an entire country with the diplomatic community?!

Even worse was the fact that he couldn't exactly convince Harry and Xeno not to go through with it — green-lighting RECONQUISTA had been a promise made to their Spanish allies in return with their agreement to join the Northern Sun in a pan-European Imperial Federation when the time came.

Joshua sighed mentally as he continued to smile for the cameras. He just hoped the Spanish would at least be subtle about it.


June 30, 2014...

PATRIOTS HONORED!

MAGES GIVEN HIGHEST CIVILIAN HONORS BY PRESIDENT OF THE FEDERATION!

MOSCOW — Mages, once again, have taken the spotlight, as the President of the Federation presided over a lavish ceremony designed to honor the achievements of these gifted individuals in the reconstruction efforts of our country.

Fifteen particularly distinguished recipients were lined up on the stage as the President spoke of the altruism and patriotism these same had shown in their selfless acts of goodwill towards their fellow countrymen.

"It is rare enough to find normal men who sacrifice so much of their time and effort for their fellow man," the President spoke, "that it is remarkable when one finds amongst our midst those who, by the simple accident of their birth, have taken upon themselves to use their gifts not for the goal of conquest, but for the benefit of mankind."

Once again, Russia appears to be one of the few nations in the world who has not rejected its Mage population, as refugees continue to flow through our borders seeking respite from the Franco-German conflict. A conflict that, with the Butcher of Dusseldorf's recent suspected retaliatory assassination by the fringe group Redemption, has managed to strike further home against these incredible human beings.


Dresden, Germany...

"What?! Redemption killed that asshat?! What a load of bull!"

"Stow it, Ghost, you know we can't take credit for crap like that," Price chided his subordinate as he rested against the wall next to the only window in the dingy hotel room his team had appropriated. Dresden was firmly in French hands right now, so there was little chance of bombing, though that could change any minute.

In fact, more dangerous was the idea of being found out by the French forces, which was why they'd deliberately picked one of the hotels deepest within French control, where the occupiers assumed they'd already swept through everything.

"Even so, why's Redemption getting the credit for that hit?!" Ghost protested as he threw down the Russian newspaper. "Eagle's the one who put a round through the bastard's head!"

Price shrugged. "Butcher of Dusseldorf, killed by a persecuted mage sympathizer group? Sounds like the perfect story, if you ask me," he noted idly as he continued his surveillance of the streets below. "Who else would've killed him? In Dresden of all places?"

"German Resistance?" offered up Eagle, who really didn't care one way or another about getting credit for the hit.

"They'd never get past the Dresden checkpoints. Makes more sense if Frenchies did it than Germans."

Ghost grumbled as he was forced to concede the point. Still, it pissed him off that the Pucelle would get any credit for this, especially considering the immensely dick move she'd pulled on them by trying to seduce state secrets out of the team.

"I don't like her any more than you do, but she needs the morale victory," Price pointed out, having correctly guessed Ghost's real gripe about the whole thing. "Redemption's been hit hard these past few months. Heard even with our equipment they've been getting cracked down on."

"Serves her right for fucking with our minds, if you ask me."

"She was desperate," Eagle interceded then. "I could understand doing the same, were I in her shoes."

"That's because you're fucking bonked in the head."

"Takes one to know one, Ghost."

Price chuckled. "He's got you there, Ghost."

Again, the SpecOps operative grumbled as he picked up the newspaper and renewed his reading.

"Why do you still read that piece of garbage anyway?" Price asked. "You know it's full of propaganda bullshite."

"Lets me know what the Russkies are thinking," Ghost answered curtly. "Even if it's shite, a good portion who read it will still believe it."

Price snorted. "Ain't that the cold truth," he agreed.

The three-man team was silent for a moment, interrupted only by the sound of Eagle cleaning and checking his rifle, before Ghost began grumbling audibly again.

"What now?" Price sighed.

"When's our next op?" Ghost asked impatiently.

"When Command's damn well ready to tell us!" Price snapped.

"The fucker's been dead for three days! How much more time do they need?!"

"Better not let Nightshade or Wolfsbane hear you're dissing the rate they find targets for us, Ghost," Eagle cautioned. "I hear they don't really appreciate being hurried."

Price laughed as Ghost paled. Their team, Kilo-One, was one of the few people who all knew the identities of both Nightshade and Wolfsbane, the former of which had been an informal pupil of theirs while they'd still been members of the SAS on tour in Spain. Wolfsbane's contact with Kilo-One, by contrast, had been much more recent, and suffice to say that when Ghost had questioned Wolfsbane's methods to his face, the man had not appreciated the uneducated criticism.

Thinking of Nightshade actually got Price to remember those days when he knew her as still just a young girl, trying to survive the horrifying war in Spain. He recalled how she'd been known to simply shut herself in within the confines of her caretaker's tent. Some of the men had actually believed for a while that she was nothing but a camp legend — something the army boys had cooked up to gossip about and relieve the boredom of besieging a city. When she'd actually shown up, Price had been as surprised as everyone else at the sight of this traumatized girl essentially walking around unchecked throughout the camp.

Hell, he was even more surprised when she'd asked them to train her. Naturally, he'd refused, but hinted at the idea that she could perhaps watch them train, and in so doing know what she ought to be doing.

A part of him regretted having taught her anything. She was young enough to be his daughter, and he'd put her in the line of fire permanently by telling her how to get strong enough to warrant catching the future King's eye. She should've been able to enjoy a life of peace after the trauma she went through, but instead she was now one of the Northern Sun's deadliest spies.

"Can't believe that little waif is all grown up now," Ghost spoke aloud then, apparently having mirrored his thoughts. "Remember when she was this tiny little thing, all scared?" he asked, raising his hand to where he estimated her height had been at the time.

Eagle shrugged. "She made her choice," he stated simply.

"Some choice," Price snorted. "Could've sent her to see a doc, maybe shipped her off to Canada or something. Instead, we taught her how to fight...how to kill..."

"Ever regret it, boss?" Ghost asked calmly, raising his eyes to the roof as he thought back to those days.

"No," Price lied. "She wanted to do her duty; we merely gave her the tools to do it."

It was pure rationalizing, and he knew it, and so did his team. Yet, that small little lie helped them all sleep better that night.


September 10, 2014...

THE RUSSIAN HAMMER RISES!

HEROIC MAGES TAKE THE PLEDGE OF SERVICE FOR THE MOTHERLAND!

MOSCOW — After decades of second-rate status, Russians can once again feel pride in their nation as the persecuted of Europe that were welcomed in our embrace now repay that kindness by taking the oath to serve and defend our country!

Today, even as French attempts to goad the Germans into surrender fail, five hundred of the vilified magic users welcomed in almost none of Europe were inducted into our Armed Forces by none other than the President himself, in a show of wholesale support for these beleaguered people.

The new unit, named Hammer, will never be used for anything but the defense of the nation, the President assured in a subsequent conference. "While the Northern Sun flung their mages into a costly war for the sake of revenge and the Germans used them as cannon fodder, let our mages be assured that the only duty we require of them is the duty of any patriot — the defense of the homeland."

Already, the people of Russia have had much to be thankful for to our newly discovered brethren. Unlike the shameful persecution of mages throughout Europe, the discovery of magic here in Russia has brought nothing but a boon to our nation, wracked as it was with conflict and economic disaster. Like heroes from legends past, these fellow patriots quickly put themselves to the service of the nation, helping with reconstruction, economic development, and security. However, this is the first time the mages have been inducted into our Armed Forces as a group.


Fort Drake, Kingdom of the Northern Sun...

Escalation.

It was the eternal history of conflict.

When one side created bullets, the other created anti-ballistic vests. The other then produced armor-piercing rounds, and then were countered with armor-piercing proof materials. And so on.

And in the spirit of that eternal tug-of-war contest, the Russians had upped the ante with their newest unit: the Mage Special Forces, codenamed HAMMER.

For a brief moment, Hughes wondered if perhaps said designation was a callback to the Soviet Union's glory days, before an unsustainable economic system had plunged the country into economic, and subsequently political, ruin.

More than likely.

If nothing else, the propaganda machine the Kremlin had geared up for the event was certainly spouting thinly-veiled threats and insults at the Northern Sun, reminding them that while they recognized the Northern Sun's ambition to ascend as a major player, they weren't about to let them take the Russian's supposed birthright.

A shame, since Hughes had planned to push for closer diplomatic ties with Russia. Now, however, any such deal would be obviously for show while the two nations began an arms race to see who would pick up the pieces of Europe, once the French and Germans were done with their manufactured squabble.

Of course, that being said, Hughes was banking on the Northern Sun's ability to put its money where its mouth was. That was the reason for his presence at Fort Drake, in fact.

Unlike most military facilities under media blackout, Fort Drake was unique in that the security measures employed here made all others look merely cautious. Redefining paranoia, Fort Drake was one of the most top secret military installations the Northern military had built since its inception, and its sole mandate was the development of weapons and military technology designed to tip the scales firmly towards the Northern Sun.

Naturally, the Queen had been assigned as the de jure head of the compound, though control of it remained firmly within military hands. And while the Queen devoted herself to pushing the boundaries of civilian technology for the benefit of the Northern people, her research was promptly coopted by the other research teams at Fort Drake for use in military applications.

Only three military projects had the Queen's direct involvement, and all three were projects he had a huge stake in: VANGUARD, MJOLNIR, and HAVOC.

But of all three, HAVOC was the one he was here to see.

Horribly aware that their military lacked raw manpower to compete with any of the European powers, especially following the devastating Civil War and all previous and subsequent conflicts, the military had turned desperate for an answer to balance the scales. The answer was found in HAVOC.

A theory postulated by a biochemist and genetics expert colleague of the Queen, one Doctor Jeremiah Ansen, Project HAVOC was innovative in the sense that where some of their colleagues had suggested cloning as a form of quickly bringing up numbers, Ansen and the Queen had rejected that by pointing out that Northern supremacy wouldn't be assured by quantity, but by quality.

HAVOC intended to deliver on the latter.

While the term "super-soldier" had been freely used to describe the program, neither Ansen nor the Queen approved of it, remarking simply that at best, the program was basically genetic manipulation of adults — a remarkably dangerous thing to do on a large scale, due in no small part to the dangers of cascading genetic failure and rejection due to unknown inter-genetic dynamics.

A problem magic had helped solve, albeit conditionally.

Not for the first time, Hughes was amazed at the radically new options that arose once magic was applied to a problem.

With the use of magic and some chemical solutions created with the use of magical flora, it was possible not just to put a patient in complete stasis, but also keep them alive in the event of a localized genetic failure. In such a situation, magic would keep the patient alive and well while the eggheads basically undid their work and tried again in another fashion.

Hughes couldn't even remember how many lives were saved from a gruesome death thanks to this method.

And now, thanks to all the money and effort poured into Project HAVOC, he would get to be one of the first people in the world to see an actual success.

Waiting patiently behind the several-centimetres thick bullet-proof glass that separated the observation room from the test area, Hughes ignored his fellow observers — all proxy observers for his colleagues at the very top of the military food chain — as he waited for the tests to begin.

Five minutes later, the chatter died down as a side door to the test area slid open and the very recognizable figures of the Queen and Doctor Ansen walked in, donned in their lab coats. Both had headsets on, designed to transmit only to the observation room.

"Good morning," she greeted her unknown watchers, given that, as Hughes expected, the glass was polarized on the outside to prevent anyone in the test area recognizing observers. "As you all know, Project HAVOC is a military-funded program designed to bridge the gap of military capability that our nation suffers vis-a-vis the other powers of the world. To that end, HAVOC has striven to not simply place a bandage on the problem by increasing numbers, but rather give our troops, current and future, the ability to single-handedly increase their battlefield capabilities and in so doing even the odds. Doctor Ansen?" she prompted.

The older man nodded gratefully, reaching up to tap his transmitter on. "Thank you, Your Majesty. As my colleague has explained, the question of the path the Northern Sun ought to take in bridging this gap has been fundamentally reduced to a simple question: quality or quantity?" he summed up. "It is the belief of HAVOC that a single man, given the right tools, training, and physical abilities, can cause as much or more damage than an entire squad. Typically, this has been the result of individual examples of incredibly resourceful people within our ranks, but Project HAVOC poses this question: what if the individual examples could be turned routine? And what if the new routine gave birth to a whole new level of individual achievement?"

Hughes nodded along with the explanation. So far, everything panned out with what he expected of the program. Like Ansen and the Queen, in a rare moment of joint agreement between the two leaders of the opposing political factions in the Royal Court, Hughes rejected the premise of quantity over quality. The Northern Sun, in his opinion, had been the dream of the few, and the triumph of the few over the uneducated majority. When the Civil War broke out, the Northern forces had never held the numerical advantage, instead relying on individual heroism and ingenuity to balance the odds. HAVOC would simply be one more step in that philosophical direction.

"And so, with this question in mind, we posed another: what could we improve that would yield the greatest results?" Ansen posed. "Weapons? Technology never ceases to evolve, so in the long term, such a focus would be inadequate. Training? While certain dogmatic beliefs in physical conditioning could be reworked for better yields, the limits of the human body would not shift. So naturally, when we eliminated the impractical, the remaining option, no matter how ludicrously unethical or dangerous, was the most logical: the human body."

The Queen did well to hide a barely noticeable grimace, but Hughes caught it. As with the FCE plants being coopted to develop the new electrical batteries she'd produced for military gain first and foremost, she obviously had ethical qualms about her work in HAVOC. Still, to her credit, she remained in charge of it, having probably realized that a world in which her infant daughter was safe from foreign enemies would undoubtedly require her to make sure the Northern Sun became effectively untouchable.

"And to do so," she took over. "Doctor Ansen and I looked into the genetic makeup of humanity. We are, as you all know, the sum of our genes, plus our experiences. While we cannot change the latter, we could change the former, and the precedent has been established in historical moments of genetic screening and selective breeding."

Just saying those words seemed to sicken her, by the looks of it. No doubt because in a different time, her daughter would've been labeled a freak for being the offspring of a mage and a non-mage. Only in the Northern Sun and few other places would she be given anywhere near the sort of respect and adoration she received now. "The problem was mitigating the dangers of genetic manipulation within adults. This was a problem solved by the insertion of magic into the equation."

"With the help of a stasis charm, we were able to keep patients indefinitely under the knife, with every genetic permutation we caused logged into computer simulations and observed, both in real time. With this, we were able to observe any sort of problems immediately, and were able to mitigate any sort of negative repercussions."

"The cost of it is, however, the large amounts of specialists needed for a single alteration procedure," Ansen cut in. "Approximately thirty-five staff members are required on hand at all times to monitor and alter the genetic makeup of the patient, and the entire procedure takes more than fourteen hours, requiring seven two-hour shifts at minimumto handle the one operation."

Hughes felt a little disappointment with that. This meant that while HAVOC could be applied to the entire armed forces, it was unlikely that such a thing would happen quickly due to the exhaustive needs of each procedure. More than likely, it would take numerous years to get through every soldier.

"However, the results are wildly successful in their aim," the Queen cut in then, realizing that perhaps this wasn't what the observers wanted to hear. "Test subjects that have undergone this regimen have been recorded as having greater muscle density, increased aerobic capacity, lower heart rest rates, increased performance in mental chronometry, slight improvement in memorization and reasoning skills, and highly improved physical coordination."

Hughes whistled softly. If that was true, then it meant the soldiers under Project HAVOC would be the ultimate endurance athletes, coupled with the potential of making great field officers and excellent marksmen. Exactly the sort of men and women they would need in the coming conflict. Especially if VANGUARD and MJOLNIR panned out.

However, while he did expect VANGUARD and MJOLNIR to give the Northern Sun an edge, he was very much aware that it would be a temporary one, at best. Both projects could, in theory, be replicated, and if history was anything to go by, there was a greater than not likelihood that their enemies would eventually develop the same technologies over the course of the war.

HAVOC, however, was different. This was not a project one could just duplicate willy-nilly. Even if their enemies did manage to deduce its workings, it would take years for it to be remotely viable in a form that could hurt the Northern Sun to the point where it was game changing.

That's why it was, to his mind, the most important of the three main projects on his list.

By the time he was finished musing, however, the Queen and Ansen had finished with their explanation of the procedure, and were now motioning for someone just beyond his line of sight to come into the room. The test subject, no doubt.

When said person showed up, Hughes felt his spirits soar and his mouth turn into a feral grin. This was it. One of those moments where he could feel their fortunes changing.

This would determine Northern supremacy for ages to come!


December 4, 2014...

MUNICH FALLS!

PEACE TALKS BREAK DOWN AS AUSTRO-GERMAN FORCES LOSE METROPOLIS

NBC, LONDON — Shocking news today, as recent peace talks to end the two-year war between Germany and France broke down amidst reports that the German metropolis of Munich has fallen to its French besiegers, finally costing the Austro-German alliance an important bastion in conquered Bavaria and dealing a costly blow to morale.

Deemed a more decisive defeat than even the famed Battles of Hohenzollern, the Siege of Munich, the last Austro-German bastion in Bavaria has had the eyes of the world riveted upon it, with analysts on both sides predicting victory for their own factions. People will remember that Munich was the site of the defiant Oktoberfest celebrations by the Austro-German defenders earlier this year, when defending forces taunted the French forces with the celebration of their traditional October festival.

Since the fall of Munich, Alliance spokesmen have levelled charges of deception and betrayal towards the French, who had concluded a tentative truce with the allied forces following months of heavy fighting caused by the sudden entry of the Republic of Austria into the fray earlier this year. As a result, peace talks have now been called off, and hostilities have resumed all across the German country.

In other news, reports from our correspondents in Moscow reveal that Russian military capability has seen dramatic improvement over the past year, with analysts declaring the Russian Armed Forces to be at about Soviet-era strength. The news has caused market prices to fluctuate due to speculation of a possible Russian entry into the French-Allied conflict.

Here in the Northern Sun, diplomatic envoys from the newly formed Northern Alpine Republic have officially broken ground in Liverpool today at the site of their new embassy along Embassy Row. The site is located next to that of its strategic ally, the Sicilian Republic. While public opinion remains divided regarding the official recognition of these two states, a recent poll indicates a majority opinion of "wait and see."

In American news, President Rockwell has formalized a declaration of war against the Central American Union following repeated attacks against mage communities on United States soil across the Rio Grande. The Kingdom of Canada, as a result, has declared itself neutral in the conflict, refusing to aid either side citing the lack of attempt for diplomatic reconciliation.

In Asia, Premier Zhang Jin Tao has issued a state of emergency following numerous attacks from the South Asian Muslim Federation against its coastline. Following the edict, Premier Zhang ordered the granting of aid to all SAMF-based rebels who seek to bring down the theocratic government of the Federation and has mobilized the entire People's Liberation Army for war.

In economic news, markets went through a moderately good day as news arrived of secular victories throughout the Middle East. Correspondents report that the youth movements in countries like Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt have had a tremendous effect on secular successes in toppling the dominant theocratic factions and in liberating captured mages. The news served to buoy global markets, though analysts report that traders will remain cautious until these successes are firmly established.


Fort Independence, Kingdom of the Northern Sun...

The war was ending.

Harry could feel it in his bones. Just like at Sagunto, he could feel the world changing. Munich might have galvanized the Allied forces to resist the French a little longer, but there was no denying it — the French would win that war.

Well, that suited him just fine.

While the French may have thought that the fall of Munich would give them greater leverage for the inevitable peace talks, they still failed to realize that their current boon was a future mistake of cataclysmic proportions. For every day they wasted fighting the Germans, it gave the Northern Sun that much more time to prepare for its own war, and progress had been kind to the nascent nation.

Flitting to and fro throughout his country, Harry had supervised, yelled at, and overseen the massive construction projects his government had ordered. While much of it was financed through loans, they'd been able to repay a decent chunk of it already with the money that taxes were bringing in, especially since people now had a decent chunk of their income given back to them following the nationalization of the FCE power plants, which cost ridiculously low to run, courtesy of streamlining efforts by the eggheads at Fort Drake.

No, if anything worried him, it was the Russians.

Having been the victims of one of his plots to destabilize Europe, Harry was surprised to see how quickly the Russians had rallied and stabilized themselves — even going so far as to integrate the mages with as much speed and diligence as the Northern Sun had!

He remembered feeling a chill when he read about the Mage Special Forces being established, and the recent news regarding their military capabilities worried him. The French, he could take. Germans and Italians too. But the Russians? That was a wildcard.

On the one hand, Project HAVOC was coming along nicely, and a decent chunk of his army was now benefitting from the procedure. VANGUARD and MJOLNIR, too, were finally being implemented, though their effects would have to be observed in live combat, rather than through simulations.

Even so, he felt doubt consume him regarding the viability of his army vis-a-vis the Russians. Many just dismissed them as cold weather hicks, but Harry knew from his education in history that Russians were capable of incredible insight and tactical ingenuity. Where the rest of the Allied forces during World War II had been slow to reach Berlin, it had been the Russians who'd essentially launched a vengeful Blitzkrieg of their own to conquer their hated enemy's capital. The lesson was simple: don't underestimate the Russians. No matter how haggard they might seem.

Nonetheless, Harry felt a measure of self-confidence as he walked down the files of troopers who stood at attention before him, there for an official inspection. His troopers were almost to a man veterans of several wars, and now had the added benefit of enjoying the boons of Project HAVOC. On the outside, Harry could see little difference in these men, but their test scores had been through the roof. Each man was the equal of twelve French soldiers, and they still had the Military Mages to count on for heavy duty support.

Oh, how he wished he could be there to lead them to victory on the field!

It was a point of never ending contention between him and his advisors. Harry was born for combat, for battlefield leadership. Yet he knew that as the King, and with an underage heir, he could not rationally be put in the line of fire. Speirs and Curtis had nearly shit a brick upon finding out his desire, and had recruited his entire family and former colleagues to dissuade him. In the end, they won that argument, though it did nothing to ease his primal urge to fight alongside his men once more.

"Very impressive, Colonel," he praised as he reached the end of this particular group of soldiers and went on to the next. The man next to him saluted crisply.

"Thank you, Your Majesty!"

Harry nodded once and put the man out of his thoughts. He didn't know the Colonel personally, which somehow bothered him. Back when the Northern Sun was still just a dream, he'd known every officer who served under him. Now, they were just strangers he was entrusting his men to, and that didn't sit well with him. The only thing keeping him from taking action, however, was the knowledge that the Generals in charge of every army he had ready was someone he knew personally — a point he'd insisted on. While he couldn't very well micromanage the army to the level of personnel changes, he could impose his will regarding the highest-ranked officers in each detachment.

None of his detachments would leave the Northern Sun unless it was placed under the command of a man or woman he implicitly trusted.

To that end, he had Neville brought back from liaising with Redemption, recalled Humboldt and Swift from operations in Northern Ireland, and had Wood transferred back down to the Northern Sun from the Occupied Territories. In short, his finest generals would spearhead the attack on France. Only one army remained leaderless, though more as a result of lack of candidates than anything. This one army he kept in reserve for now, as already the very thought of deploying four armies against the French was considered overkill, especially once the Spanish-led offensive began.

He smiled as he thought of his Spanish allies. For the first time since they'd first met in person in the ruins of Sagunto, he and General Ruíz-Perez, the bane of his existence, would be cooperating in a simultaneous attack on the French Republic. Even better, within France itself, Redemption had managed to organize the various rebel factions under its banner and were ready to launch a massive uprising.

In short, everything was going according to plan.


March 20, 1015...

PEACE!

Treaty of Hohenzollern Signed! Germany Surrenders!

NBC, LONDON — Three years, one month, and four days after the French Republic first declared war on the German Federation and over two hundred thousand total dead including civilians), Europe knows peace once more as both parties announced today that the final version of the Treaty of Hohenzollern has been signed.

Reactions, differ, however, regarding the contents of the Treaty. As per its provisions, French military occupation will continue indefinitely within Saarland and parts of Baden-Württemberg, all German Military Mages will be discharged and placed under arrest, and compulsory Mage registration, to be overseen by French authorities, will take place immediately. Along with this are French demands for reparations, which the German Federation must comply with within fifteen years.

Austria, for its part, is being let off relatively scot-free. According to analysts, the French Republic, not wanting to potentially instigate another phase to the war following threats from the Northern Alpine Republic to intervene (known in Germany and Austria as the Miracle of Augsburg), has decided to merely demand minor reparations, to be paid over a period of twenty years.

The news of peace between these European nations arrives at a critical time for global relations, as reports continue to come in of rapid Russian militarization and economic stabilization, and of the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Central American Union, and the Sino-SAMF War.

In Southern Europe, Spanish-Portuguese talks at unification have also reached their final stretch, as both nations agree to a political union following years of instability in the smaller Iberian nation. The Writ of Union signed by these two sovereign states is to take full effect beginning a month from now, with full integration expected to be finalized by this time next year. Analysts have voiced some scepticism at this target date, however, claiming that the language barrier will likely push back full integration until 2017.


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun...

Katerina giggled as her father twirled her around in the air. The rambunctious two year old was thoroughly enjoying her father's return to the capital by effectively hounding him every minute of every day so he'd spend time with her — something Harry suspected Elicia had not just approved of, but possibly instigated.

Not that he complained — Katerina was just adorable!

"Again, papa, again!" she exclaimed, taking no notice that Harry was actually getting a little tired from doing it so many times. Well, dizzy too.

Off to the side in the living room, Harry spied Elicia muffling a giggle as she watched her husband try to muster the energy to keep up with Katerina's demands.

"You know, you could take over," he mentioned as he took a deep breath to restore some of his vitality. All the while, Katerina kept tugging at his pants, keeping up her demands for "again, again!"

Elicia smiled knowingly. "And what do you think I do when you're on your trips? Turnaround is fair play, love," she told him without any bite.

Sighing, Harry straightened up, stretched his muscles, and then picked up his squealing daughter, ready for another round of "helicopter."

Good grief, had he really gotten this soft over the years?

Well, okay, maybe that was unfair. Harry knew he was still in top form, thanks to a regular routine of exercise, a healthy diet, and continuous practice of his magical skills. Hell, he could still wipe the floor with Neville, who although more magically powerful, still couldn't hope to broach the substantial experience gap that existed between the two of them. And if he could beat Neville, he knew he could beat any other Military Mage under his command.

Probably could've given Dumbledore a run for his money, too.

However, he knew this wouldn't last. As the new war loomed in the none-too-far distance, Harry knew he'd probably be overcome by the newest generations of Military Mages by the time the conflict was over. Such was the fate of a modern Warrior-King. Politics forbade him from setting foot in an active war zone, so the most he could do for his men this time around was coordinate with the generals in real time from a bunker underneath Liverpool and dictate overall strategy. Everything else would depend on their own efforts.

"Papa! Did you like the flowers I give you?" Katerina asked as they finished the latest round of "helicopter."

Harry smiled at his daughter as he squatted down so he could level his gaze with hers. "I did, sweetheart, I loved the flowers you gave me" he assured her, correcting her grammar. "I have them in my office all the time!"

Katerina squealed with joy and hugged her father, melting the ruthless leader's heart instantly. As much as he sent Josefina and Wolfsbane across the continent to tear things apart, he always felt that ruthless steel give way to compassion and love whenever he was with his family.

"Your Majesties, Lady Isabella is here," Cecilia announced softly, still more than a little intimidated by the King, after he'd nearly sentenced her to death two years ago.

"Auntie Izzie!" Katerina exclaimed before rushing out as fast as her tiny legs allowed her to.

Harry laughed softly as he simply plopped down on his arse, relieved to finally get a break from all the playing his daughter had asked for.

On her couch, Elicia giggled at the sight of her husband being so drained. "Fought three wars, toppled a nation, and created a new country, and yet you still can't handle that little bundle of energy," she teased as she bookmarked the page she was on and closed her book.

"I'm getting old," Harry mock complained. "Good grief, was I ever that hyper as a child?"

"I have it on good authority that you were, big brother," Isabella answered as she walked into the living room, her niece in her arms, giggling madly. "My, you have grown big, haven't you?"

"Just like Mama!"

That elicited a burst of giggling from Elicia and Isabella, who both knew that Harry was pretty much screwed on that end. Despite all his power and ability, he never managed to grow taller than 1.6 meters, making him about as tall as his mother had been.

Elicia, however, held a few inches over her husband, so naturally Katerina would use her as a measuring stick.

"Yeah, yeah," Harry grouched, having heard this particular joke more than a few times since Katerina had first learned to talk. "Make fun of the short guy..."

Elicia shook her head with a smile before getting up from the couch and kneeling next to him to give him a light kiss on the temple. "We still love you, dearie, no matter how short you are."

Harry smiled at his wife before standing up and helping her up in turn. "Well, as fun as it ought to be with you here, Izzie, duty calls, I'm afraid," he stated. He turned to Elicia. "Ready to go?"

Elicia nodded before going to her daughter and hugging her tightly. "You be good with Auntie Izzie, alright?" she told her. "Mama and papa need to go out for bit, but we'll be right back."

Katerina's face scrunched in a pout, and already both parents could see the tearworks beginning to rev up as their daughter got ready to protest their leave.

Harry quickly tried to preempt it by coming over and also hugging his daughter. "Tell you what, sweetie," he coaxed her. "When we get back, how about we invite over grandda and grandma and have a big dinner with all of us?"

Katerina, however, was not so easily deceived. Still a little upset at her parents leaving, she nonetheless nodded quietly at the offer and turned to give her aunt a big hug, her face buried in Izzie's clothes.

Exchanging disappointed glances of their own, Elicia and Harry moved back and gave Isabella their silent thanks for babysitting Katerina while they were away. While the nanny could've done just fine, they knew that unless family was present, Katerina would be inconsolable.

Offering his arm to Elicia, Harry mouthed a silent thank you to his sister before closing his eyes, concentrating, and Disapparating with his wife, leaving Isabella alone with Katerina.

The only daughter of the Potters sighed as she felt her niece tremble ever so slightly in her arms. Sometimes she wondered if maybe they should've all just moved to Canada and let the world go its own way.


Fort Drake, Kingdom of the Northern Sun...

A soft, almost imperceptible popping sound heralded the arrival of the two sovereigns of the Northern Sun at the arrival zone within Fort Drake. Already, guards and their liaison were waiting for them, but suddenly found themselves greatly uncomfortable once they realized the two were already in a rather personal conversation.

"I just really hate leaving her alone all the time!" Elicia told her husband, who merely nodded with a sigh.

"I know, and I do too, Ellie, but we have to be here," he assured his wife, taking little notice of the people present. "It's for her future. We'll make it up to her, I swear."

"It's not about making it up to her, Harry, it's about never having to in the first place!" she chided him. "When was the last time we had a vacation as a family? Huh?"

Harry sighed as they walked out of the arrival area, followed by the silently uncomfortable guards and liaison, still engrossed in their conversation. "I'll talk to Sirius about it, I promise. We'll go to Brighton Beach. How about that?"

"You know your daughter likes the countryside more than the beach, Harry."

"Then Wales."

Elicia frowned at her husband. Was he just trying to offer up places to make her shut up about this? She doubted it, personally. She could see the concern behind his cool expression, so she let it slide.

The two monarchs walked the rest of the way in silence before Elicia excused herself and went through a door that said "PROJECT ATHENA — WARNING: TECHNICIANS ONLY."

Silently, Harry looked at the door for a moment before sighing and continuing his trek down the metal hallways, deep beneath the ground, as security demanded. His escort, too, was completely silent, not really sure what to make of the marital squabble they'd just seen, but preferring to remain quiet over it rather than tempt the infamous Hellfire's wrath.

Eventually, however, they reached a small observation room, where Harry softly greeted Hughes, Speirs, Sirius, and Curtis, who were already all waiting and seated.

"Sirius," he addressed his adopted uncle, "remind me to talk to you about giving Ellie and I a vacation after this is over."

The Prime Minister of the Northern Sun widened his eyes in surprise at the request, but then smiled and nodded. "Of course, Harry," he agreed without question.

Hughes, for his part, had that insufferable knowing smirk on his face, though Harry could discern more than a hint of irritation in his eyes.

"Still mad over MJOLNIR, Albert?" he asked.

The Chief Strategist of the Northern Sun harrumphed in response, answering his King's query.

Project MJOLNIR had been hard to categorize, following its demonstration and results. In simulations, it was a resounding success, but once attempted in real life, the device tended to malfunction and break down. As his wife explained it, the MJOLNIR weapon simply demanded too many simultaneous calculations for even a highly trained team to handle. Even when the idea of automating the process via computers came up and was indeed tried out, the computers tended to overheat and crash. Simply put, the perfect coordination and extraordinary creative calibration needs of the weapon system required such linked coordination between all moving parts that not a single computer or person in the world could provide.

Meaning it was useless.

To say Hughes had been disappointed was the mildest of understatements. As ecstatic as the man had been at the results of Project HAVOC, he had been hoping to combine the results of the two projects to make the Northern Sun's military forces virtually invincible.

Yet, like the rest of those present in the observation room, they had been called here by the Queen as a result of an apparent breakthrough in one of the minor projects, Project ATHENA, named after the Greek Goddess of Just War, Wisdom, and Innovation, among others, who was said to have sprung from the head of her father Zeus fully formed.

He didn't quite know why — that project had never really drawn his attention. Mostly due to the fact that unlike MJOLNIR and HAVOC, much of the required parts for ATHENA depended on magic. Sure, VANGUARD was in the same boat, but at least VANGUARD had direct military uses.

The sound of a door sliding across the observation window caught the attention of the attendees, and into the room walked not the Queen, first, but rather what seemed to be a witch in white, custom-made laboratory robes. In fact, as the scientists walked in, the Queen was last in arriving, and given the custom of Fort Drake, that meant her contribution to the project had been the smallest.

"Welcome, ladies and gentlemen!" the witch announced with a happy smile. "Allow me to introduce myself — I am Project Director Padma Patil," she introduced herself. "And this is my team, Scientists Dawlish, Avery, Barrymore, Neilson, and of course, our chief consultant and advisor, Her Majesty Queen Elicia."

"She seems perky," Curtis noted. "Wish I had that sort of energy at her age."

"Who're you kidding, Elizabeth?" Speirs snorted. "At her age, you were already kicking ass and taking names for years!"

"Touché."

Harry, Sirius, and Hughes chuckled at the comment, but their presenter was blissfully unaware of the events happening behind the polarized glass. All she could do was carry on with the hopes that they were paying attention.

The Indian woman, still going through mostly unnecessary details regarding the team's qualifications, finally arrived at the summary of the Project.

"Project ATHENA arose from a memory that I, and others in the team, share of our time amongst Wizarding society," she explained as she paced in a ovoid path. "That is to say, magical portraits. How did they work? What made these painted images...alive, for lack of a better word? They remembered things, reasoned, and had what seemed to be emotion, yet there was no brain to fire off the synapses needed for any of that to happen!"

"Not only that, but any painting could, with the knowledge of another such painting, travel between frames! How?" she pressed, while her team nodded sagely. Elicia, poor her, merely kept quiet as Patil spoke of matters she truly could only observe, not actually experience. "It was inconceivable, and yet, these intelligences existed, so there had to be a way!"

"And so my colleagues and I began an amateur research project into the question while still at Hogwarts," she recalled. "We studied the paintings, attempted to coax the truth out of them, and even applied different stimuli to elicit different reactions!"

"She does realize she's talking about studying paintings, right?" Speirs asked sceptically.

"Don't worry, she's not crazy. Those things really do exist," Sirius assured the military man.

Still unaware of the running commentary, Patil continued. "And then, when the Ministry fell and the Northern Sun gave us a chance to continue our work, it took another dimension!" she stated, before halting before the glass and widening her arms. "What if we could replicate it in machines?"

That got her audience's full attention.

"Whoa, hold on," Curtis spoke up quickly. "Is she implying what I think she's implying?"

"A.I." Patil smiled widely. "Artificial Intelligence. Ever since we crossed over to the Northern Sun, we knew that we had in our hands what could very well be the key to achieving this holy grail of technology!"

"Holy shite!" Speirs breathed.

"She is!" Curtis added in.

Harry, for his part, managed to keep his cool, though there was a savage smirk forming on his face. So that was it. That's what had been so important Elicia and he had been forced to cancel their day together with Katerina. As much as he loved his daughter, he had to admit that perhaps it'd been worth it.

Hughes, for his part, looked like he could cry of joy. Without realizing it, these eggheads had perhaps delivered unto him the very means of not only revolutionizing technology forever, but also making MJOLNIR viable!

Of the group, however, Sirius was the most cautious regarding the news. As much as he could understand the huge leap forward this would mean, there was a damn good reason why so much literary fiction dealt with the issue of rampant A.I.s. Mostly, they seemed to want to kill all humans after a while.

Before their eyes, Patil motioned for Dawlish to move to the door and press a big red button. Almost immediately, a hissing noise permeated the room as a small, cubic pillar rose from the ground, its head dominated by what seemed to be a projector.

And, out of Patil's coat, came a small, transparently metallic cube.

"It took exactly seven hundred, sixty-two trials, but eventually our team was able to create a container made of a Fuel Crystal alloy specifically designed to store information the same way a hard drive would!" she announced proudly as she held it up for her observers to see. "And into this container, which we know is capable of withstanding magical energy, we poured in the magic needed to animate a painting."

Dropping the cube to the level of the projector, she casually inserted it on the backside of the pillar. "Six hundred, fifty-seven trials later, we found the perfect balance between magic and machine, giving us the following result."

The projector blared to life then, shortly before a small, yet definitely egg-like shape materialized, data streams racing along its surface.

"Activating...powering up creative algorithms...Boot complete," a distinctly synthetic female voice announced within the testing chamber. "Greetings. I am Artificial Intelligence Construct Nevada Sierra Dash Zero, Zero, Zero, One, Codenamed ATHENA."

"Magnificent," Hughes breathed as he watched the birth of the first actual A.I. in human history.

"Athena, as we call her, is not just a massively intelligent construct, capable of basic tasks like multitasking numerous weapon systems," she stated, unaware that this almost made Hughes squeal like an excited schoolgirl as his dream project, MJOLNIR, was being breathed new life into. "She is intuitive and adaptive, and capable of creative thinking on a limited basis."

With that, she turned and another projector, this one on the roof, provided a detailed statistical report on her performance. "Of seventy five chess games we provided her, Athena was able to maintain a win-defeat record of 46-10-24, usually utilizing her defeats to change her strategy algorithms and adapt to the changing game styles. In addition, when given a word problem, she is quick to identify key factors and rationalize an answer."

As the observers nodded along with the information being replicated in the individual data pads they were each provided with, Patil continued.

"However, this incredible cognitive ability comes at a price," she stated somberly, unknowingly perking the attention of her audience. "Despite the compatibility of the storage cube and the magic involved, extended use will wear down both quickly. Our estimates show that constant, heavy-duty use would burn out an A.I. core within two years."

She was about to move on when Elicia coughed softly, catching Patil's eye. The observers watched as Elicia mouthed "heavy duty" to her, causing Patil to blush. "Err...right. And by heavy duty, we mean sustained use in controlling multi-system weapon platforms or entire vehicles, such as tanks and the like," she elaborated. "As of right now, the construct cannot even sustain the total workload of maintaining and directing the smallest frigate in our navy, nor a single airplane. At best, these A.I.s should be used only for mission-critical purposes or for data processing and analysis."

Just like that, Hughes deflated quite a bit, causing Harry to give a brief smile as he watched his friend's hopes get lowered back to reality.

"In addition," Dawlish then spoke up, having sighed already at the fact that Patil was so excited about the results that she continued to gloss over other findings. "These constructs are, as of yet, unable to perform any electronic warfare. The sheer data load of the A.I., in addition to its magical nature, will simply result in the mutual destruction of the target system and the construct."

"A flaw we hope to fix in the future!" Patil assured her unknown viewers. She was understandably worried. If the people who were invited to these viewings did not like what they heard, all funding to the project could be cut to nothing in a matter of seconds.

There was a moment of silence in both rooms before Elicia, sighing, took centre stage. While Patil and Dawlish had done well, she knew there was one way of effectively sealing the deal. Standing behind the pillar, she put her hands in her pockets and looked down at the A.I. construct being projected.

"Athena," she spoke calmly. "Identify your priorities."

The oval that was the construct spun around, though all that meant was that the data streams seemed different than before. Otherwise, no one would've been the wiser that it had even moved. "Request acknowledged. Artifical Intelligence Construct Nevada Sierra Dash Zero, Zero, Zero, One Priority List as follows: First, to defend and uphold the integrity and peoples of the Kingdom of the Northern Sun from enemies without and within. Second, to prioritize the safety of military personnel of the Northern Sun during combat engagements against hostile forces. Third, to respect the laws of the Northern Sun during the provision of analyses regarding domestic strife. Fourth, to advise, not act, unless ordered otherwise. Priority list complete." Athena announced before rolling back to the way she'd been before.

Elicia nodded and kept her gaze on the polarized window, while Patil and her team glowed with pride. "These protocols have been hardwired. The A.I. cannot interface with any electronic equipment compatible with it without authorization of a ranking member of the military or Parliament." she announced.

Then, to clinch the deal, she looked down at the orb. "Athena. What is your purpose?"

This time, the construct remained still, while its data streams glowed softly. "I am the shield of the Northern Sun, and all its people. I am its spear."

A brief five seconds later, a green light turned on over the polarized glass, indicating the unanimous approval of the observers.


Post-AN: Okay. Here's the down-low.

1. MJOLNIR: NOT Power Armor. Let's get that one straight. If you haven't picked up from the hints already, it's a multi-system weapon platform that while capable of causing lots of damage, is next to impossible to deploy without the use of an A.I. Construct. Which brings me to...

2. ATHENA: NOT Cortana from Halo. While I admit to reading a few Halo fics recently, I'd like to reiterate the severe drawbacks of the Athena-class A.I.s. First, they have a lifespan of 2 years if under heavy duty use. Secondly, they are incapable of coordinating and directing anything bigger than a tank, and even a tank is pushing it. Third, they are unable to hack enemy systems due to the fact that as mix of magic and technology, there's no system in the world outside of the Northern Sun and its allies that could handle that mix. Fourth, it is still an infant-stage A.I. This is basically what our own real society would hope to achieve at its most basic level. Cortana-level A.I.s would take decades, if not centuries of constant research to develop. And let's face it, by using the animation spells for magical paintings, Patil and her team cheated.

3. OMIGODWHY Overpowered Northern Sun: No. I don't think they're overpowered. What HAVOC, MJOLNIR, ATHENA, and VANGUARD all provide are edges for the Northern Sun against the French. HAVOC gives them better individual troops. MJOLNIR brings the fire. ATHENA analyzes patterns. VANGUARD deploys everything. However, other than HAVOC, none of the other advantages they gain are Northern Sun exclusive. Given captured tech or espionage, MJOLNIR, ATHENA, and VANGUARD could all be reproduced by their enemies. What these projects are for is to show how this new nation fights - high tech, overwhelming power, magical/technological innovation, and subterfuge. Eventually, other nations will begin copying them, because that's what we humans do.

Anyway, one more Time Skip chapter to go, and then the war begins! Woo! *cries*

My fingers are going to huuuurt.