AN: Rejoice, for I am still around! I deeply, deeply apologize to all of you, my dear readers, for the outlandish delay in releasing this chapter. I could parrot on and on with excuses, no doubt, but I'll be bluntly honest: Work.

I may or may not have mentioned this before, but I've gotten employed as a journalist for a televised News Station here in Panama, and I've been flooded with work every day, to the point where my time to write has been cut down to almost nothing. What little free time I had, I used to get a breather, and that's why this has taken so long. Again, I apologize.

On another note, I'd like to thank my wonderful beta, Ray, for his continued support of this story. Despite also being an incredibly busy man, he was more than willing to come back and beta this chapter, and future ones, for me despite having not spoken for some time due to both of our jobs getting in the way. Thanks, Ray!

And to his friend, Kira (and all those who feel similarly down right now), I give this shout-out: While I don't exactly know the details of what you're going through, rest assured that things will get better if you let them. The world may seem like a harsh, unforgiving place at times, but it's also full of wonder and opportunity. You've just got to focus on the good things, while learning from the bad. Also, having a friend to vent to is a good idea. Just make sure they know you're venting. ;)

Anyway, on to the story!

- Marquis Black


Marseilles, French Occupied Territories, January 18, 2019…

Speirs was grim as he stood atop the turret of his MAC Tank.

Hands clasped behind his back, he watched solemnly as columns of black smoke drifted up from within the city of Marseilles, polluting the azure sky with their ugliness.

"Marshal!" one of his aides cried from beside the tank. "Please, get down from there! Our counter-sniper teams have yet to secure the area, sir!"

Of course, Speirs knew that. How could he not? As the insurrection in southern France grew out of control, he had taken personal command of the local forces to try and stem the tide of rebellion. That meant that, like in the old days of the Civil War, he was once again a front-line commander. He steadfastly refused to return to the hell hole he called a office.

And as such, he had already been shot at countless times by opportunistic sharpshooters, all to be robbed of their kill thanks to the King's favour.

"The Marshal is fine," Astoria stated simply as she leaned against the tank, arms crossed, but for one index finger pointed casually at Speirs. With that subtle gesture, the Marshal had been surrounded by a rather firm shield from the very beginning.

"Are you irritated at being ordered from the King's side?" Speirs asked as he continued watching the grim spectacle. All around his tank, Northern troops were trudging along the road, in full retreat towards Montpellier. Despite their advanced weaponry, the Northern troops couldn't be expected to face the wrath of an entire city by themselves. As such, Speirs had made the tactical decision to evacuate the garrisons from the most at-risk cities.

Unfortunately, as Marseilles attested, not every evacuation went along smoothly; and, unfortunately for those who lived there and had become loyal to the Crown, many hadn't been able to escape the rebels' hands.

"I am my King's hand," Astoria replied evenly. "Where he wills me, I will go."

Which, of course, meant Speirs had nailed it in one.

Not that it mattered much to Speirs. He knew that even if Astoria was miffed at her assignment, she would do her job admirably. She didn't really have it in her to slack off, especially since the King himself had ordered her to protect him.

Now, if he could only guarantee as much regarding his subordinates…

"How many of our men are out of the city?" he asked his aide, not even flinching as a sniper's bullet slammed into Astoria's shield, skillfully aimed to hit him in the right eye. His aide, however, yelped and swore quite colourfully.

"A-About three-quarters, sir," the aide replied, shaken by the apparent near-miss.

Speirs grunted softly. That was better than expected, considering how long the evacuation had taken. Even so, he could see many disgruntled faces as they passed by his tank, the more novice of the troopers probably going so far as to call him a traitor or a coward, or some other such nonsense.

He would tolerate it, though. After all, they were not without cause in decrying his actions. He had barely put up a fight for now three cities. A substantial chunk of the south-east of France was now in rebel hands, and Speirs had done little to prevent it.

Only the older soldiers would understand. And even then, he would not tell them the plan. Hughes had warned him against disseminating information too much — apparently, the Mentor had more spies in the Northern Sun and its allies than they'd anticipated. Even if he'd promised to deal with the moles, Speirs had decided to work under the assumption that Hughes wasn't done rooting out the bugs yet.

He grunted irritably. He didn't like Hughes. Then again, not many did — and that included those people who allied themselves with him. He wasn't like the Queen or her faction, though. It wasn't about Hughes' militaristic penchant. That was tolerable enough.

What he didn't like was that the man was too shifty. There was never any telling what on earth was going through that man's head, and that made him a dangerous element. Was he loyal? Disloyal? Was he planning on building up the state, then taking over at the right time? Or was he genuinely trying to set up the King's family to rule the coming Empire for generations to come?

Speirs couldn't tell, and he rather hated that. Even with the King, he'd been able to glean the man's towering ambition from the time they served together. But with Hughes, it was like trying to read a brick wall! And being a rather straightforward man, Speirs had even tried to ask him directly what his motives were, and the man had just given the worn out response offered by any soldier: "Loyalty."

Was Hughes really that simple? Was he lying through his teeth to the King's highest ranked military officer?

His gaze fell towards his uniform breast pocket, situated right over his heart. In it lay two simple, handwritten words that Hughes had passed on to him, cryptically saying that it was the key to solving the uprising.

As of yet, however, he'd steadfastly refused to read it...something he was sure the Advisor had already foreseen, much to his irritation. He didn't want the Advisor meddling in the affairs of the armed forces more than he already did. Such monstrous influence would be inappropriate for a man whose job security rested entirely on the King's whim!

Besides, it was time to remind people that he hadn't gained command over the Royal Armed Forces by the King's favour alone. He had once commanded a full third of the Northern Territories' military strength, and taken London from right under the Chiefs of Staff's noses!

"Inform the troops to retreat all the way to Montpellier," he ordered his aide as he saw the black smoke from within Marseilles rise even higher and thicker. More fires to government buildings, no doubt, courtesy of the very same traitors who'd sided with the rebels.

Even Astoria raised an eyebrow at that order. "But, sir!" the aide gasped, bewildered. "We'd be leaving five towns to the rebels!"

Speirs was unmoved. "I gave an order. Follow it," he stated sternly as he glanced down at the man, who seemed another shock away from getting a nasty ulcer. He watched as the aide's shoulders slumped and the man turned away to go carry out the Field Marshal's orders.

"That was harsh," Astoria noted wryly, without fear whatsoever. While the aide had his job to consider when speaking out against Speirs, Astoria had no such reservations. She didn't answer to Speirs.

"Indecision cripples an army quicker than death," Speirs stated firmly as he continued overlooking the Northern retreat. To him, indecision, insubordination, and hesitation were all the product of a leisurely mind given the chance to ponder. If he kept them occupied, active, and focused, then he would be able to enact his strategy much more smoothly.

And there was that whole bit about possible moles in his Armed Forces. The less people knew, the better.

As he watched resentful glances being shot his way by passing troops and officers, he restrained the urge to lecture them on the spot. It was easy to idolize a commander who never once lost, but loss was the greatest teacher of all in war. Until one had tasted defeat, one could never understand the fear of defeat.

This would serve as a good lesson for all of them, and the rest of the Northern Sun. His country had become complacent, thinking itself invincible on the field of battle. It was a dangerous mentality, one that was best stamped out now, when their foes were a mere rabble, than during the middle of a war with, say, Germany.

Or, heaven forbid, Russia.

And war with Germany was coming. He didn't need Hughes' intelligence sources to tell him that. He could feel it in his bones. But unlike the French, the Germans had been afforded the opportunity to rebuild from the Blackout. Their infrastructure was weakened, but not annihilated. A war with Germany would not be easy at all.

And so the nation had to be shed of its bad habits.

He looked up at the blue sky. Now, if only Swift could go through with his orders without throwing a tantrum…

He snorted. He'd have better luck having the one-eyed man hug a Death Eater.


Lyon, French Occupied Territories, January 27, 2019…

"You can't do this to us!"

"Herr Swift, what is the meaning of this?!"

Swift watched dispassionately as the Austrian officers were corralled and led out of their headquarters at gunpoint. Truth be told, he rather hated doing this to colleagues, but Speirs had been explicit in his orders: with the Austrian government on the brink of pulling out of the ETO due to domestic pressure, the Austrian ETO contingent could no longer be trusted and had to be neutralized.

What that meant, exactly, had been left up to his discretion.

Fortunately for his former comrades, Swift had no stomach for killing former allies the same way he had sent thousands of Death Eaters to their deaths. Unlike the rebels up north, these men and women had bled and fought alongside him, and that earned them a reprieve from an otherwise equally bloody end.

"Sir, our forces have finished isolating and neutralizing the rest of the Austrian detachment," an aide informed him stonily, ignoring the cries of protests from the Austrian officers.

Swift nodded. He was sure this whole situation was just one big misunderstanding between the Northern Sun and the Austrian government, but until that was resolved, he needed to keep to the plan. "Have a battalion erect camps at Dijon to hold the prisoners," he ordered, before narrowing his eyes at the aide. "And make sure they're tolerable. These men were our brothers once...and they will be, again."

His aide nodded firmly and saluted. "Understood, sir." he said before dismissing himself.

Swift grimaced as he heard the shouting continue outside. To be fair, they had a good reason to be this indignant. Even if their government had chosen to leave the ETO, the unspoken rules of diplomacy were that they should be allowed to return to their country unhindered. Instead, the Field Marshal had effectively stabbed them in the back by preempting the Austrians' exit with the summary detention of the entire Austrian contingent.

It had been sickeningly easy, too.

Not because the Austrian soldiers were incompetent or completely dense. Many had quickly realized what was going on and attempted to resist. Unfortunately for them, the FCE tech they had received as part of the ETO joint-military agreement was incorporated with a kill switch, put into place in the event that any of the Northern Sun's allies ever turned against them.

That meant that even as they tried to open fire on their would-be captors, their weapons had stopped working altogether. All in all, only three Northern soldiers had died in the entire operation, and that had been because they had underestimated a group of special forces soldiers.

Idiots.

Still, the operation had gone remarkably smoothly, all things considered. All in all, nearly five thousand Austrian soldiers captured in his district. If all went according to plan in Humboldt's, that would be another five thousand.

About a full third of the Austrian Army rendered useless overnight.

He had to wonder about the Field Marshal's plans, however. How was this, in any way, beneficial to the Northern Sun? Even if they were weakening the Austrians as a prelude to a Northern invasion, that still meant crossing Northern Alpine or German territory. Neither country, in turn, was about to let that happen.

Hell, to Swift, the whole thing made no sense whatsoever. If anything, with war with Germany looming on the horizon, the logical thing, to him, would have been to strengthen ties with Austria, in order to launch a two-front war. The time the Austrians would buy, in turn, would allow the Northern Sun to dash across southern Germany and establish a solid front line.

Instead, it seemed as though the brass was deliberately ostracizing the Austrian contingent, and their government by proxy. Sure, he'd heard of the immense political pressure being leveraged against the Austrian government from within, but so what? Swift was sure the Austrians would never break off from the ETO — their national security depended on it too much.

But, at the same time, he had to concede to the unlikely possibility that it did happen. Neither Speirs nor the Advisor — the only men in the Northern Sun capable of convincing the king to do something like this — were impetuous or cruel. They would not have ordered him to sequester the entire Austrian contingent on a whim. If they believed Austria's withdrawal from the ETO was imminent, then it was likely they had hard facts to back it up.

Even so, Swift couldn't help but feel, for once, that both the Advisor and Speirs had read their allies wrong. He'd talked to Austrian soldiers, once even visited the country. The people he'd spoken to did not sound resentful of the alliance between their nations. They didn't sound ready to hand over their country to anyone.

So, naturally, this had to be a scheme of some sort, right? If the Advisor's actions made no sense to him, then that was because he couldn't see the bigger picture, right? Not that they were misreading their intelligence and driving their ally into the arms of their future enemy?

Speirs sighed explosively, rubbing his eyepatch as it flared with soreness. Damn it, he hated it when he was running blind. He understood the need for operational security, sure, but didn't the upper management trust him enough to clue him in?

He actually paused for a moment there, and then snorted. Of course not. They probably figured his temper would run wild at some point and cause him to mess the grand scheme up. Much easier to keep him under control if he was forced to follow orders without any personal prerogative.

He smirked. Bastards.

He wasn't the only one being led by the nose, though. Grabbing his tablet from the desk, he unlocked it and promptly accessed a list of ETO military movements — part of an ETO transparency pact with the member nations' military brass. In Spain, he saw that Ruíz-Pérez was being transferred, along with his assigned army, to replace the Austrian contingent on the Eastern front. Which made no sense, as there were Belgian and Dutch units on standby that would've been easier to move. These, in turn, were being kept in reserve well behind the border lines.

In short, the ETO's deployment made no sense.

Which obviously meant that something else was going on. What that was, he had no idea, but it sort of grated on his nerves.

Even more suspicious was the order from Minister Curtis to provide access and support to a team from the Ministry of Science. What they were working on hadn't been disclosed to him, no matter how many times he tried to ask, as he was told to just do his duty and ensure they had everything they needed.

Basically, he was their glorified bell boy.

Swift thumbed his chin thoughtfully as he scanned the movement reports. What was Curtis and the brass trying to do? If nothing else, the haphazard way the ETO was behaving was ensuring that the enemy powers would see the weaknesses caused by their inner strife. Was that it? Were they trying to lure the enemy? If so, there were other ways of doing that!

He shook his head, discarding the thought. No. More likely, someone was panicking higher up the food chain, and the wrong decisions were being made. No one was that clever.

...Right?


Dijon, French Occupied Territories, January 24, 2019…

"Blowtorch."

She watched her Maker work tirelessly, just another cog in the machine, as the construction team performed at peak efficiency for a much longer period of time than she'd initially calculated for them. The discrepancy was quickly logged for future revision.

Through her visual sensors, she saw another sentient — SPECIES: HUMAN / SEX: MALE / APPROXIMATE BIOLOGICAL AGE: 35 +/- 3 — hand over the desired implement, which her Maker took and used quite deftly to continue her work.

Her Maker's male companion — ID ACKNOWLEDGED: 544473 / NAME: RICHARD I. HUNTLEY / CLEARANCE LEVEL: 5 / CLEARED FOR PROJECT HANNIBAL — assisted her in holding the would-be welded structure together while her Maker did the actual welding.

"Minerva."

Her sensors recorded the voice activation command and acted appropriately. Her hologram visualized on the holographic platform, streams of code running along her orb shape — QUERY: PURPOSE OF ORB SHAPE / 145 POSSIBLE RESULTS FOUND / PROCEED TO ANALYSIS Y/N? Y — and, activating the speakers, she responded as expected.

"Doctor Eisenheim," her 'voice' spoke up. "How may I be of assistance?" she asked her Maker.

She noted that the Maker did not stop her work even as she addressed her. "I need an update on the progress of all work teams."

She did as asked. Before the Maker was finished voicing the 's' of 'teams,' Minerva had begun the data mining process, countless bytes of information compiled, analysed, revised, documented, redrafted, and finally put into sensible order.

All in less than a second.

"Overall progress on Project Hannibal is at an estimated 75% completion." she stated emotionlessly. She had no emotions after all; she was but software within hardware. That's how one of her Maker's colleagues had once referred to her kind. — ERROR/TERM "KIND" NOT APPLICABLE/ANOMALY FILED C:/MAINSYSTEM/LOGS/ERROR/ERROR LOG COMPILED/ — She continued her report dutifully. "Teams Alpha through Echo have begun Phase Four, while Fox, Zeta, and June have finished their work ahead of schedule. Team Lima is behind schedule by—" CROSS-REFERENCING PROJECT TIMETABLE WITH TEAM LIMA WORK PACE "—1.2 hours. All other teams are acting within Project parameters."

"Thank you, Minerva," her Maker said absently as she continued welding the bars of steel together.

Minerva. A casual search had found 40,900,000 mentions of the name within the human-designated "Internet."

She found gratuitous use of her designation in scientifically-questionable programs and articles regarding "horoscopes" and "fortunes." She had discarded this being the reason for her designation almost immediately — the Maker did not seem prone to such conjectural logic, much of which seemed obsessed with the placement of planets, or ancient myths.

Other uses referred to projects of learning, some of war. She discarded these, too. None of them seemed to have created a lasting impact on human historical records to warrant the distinction.

Eventually, she had come round back to mythology, and found what seemed the most likely candidate for her name: Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom. Result #2 on her list. Overlooked due to mythological connotations. Patron Goddess of Learning, Wisdom, Arts, Sciences, Commerce, Weaving, Crafts, Magic, Music, and Poetry.

Yes. That fit well within the behavioural parameters shown by the Maker. An allusion to a higher power of learning and science.

She'd been satisfied with the result, and left the query at that. Then, one of the Maker's companions — /SEARCHING DATABASE/AUDIO RECORDING FOUND/OPEN "Audio_ 3"/"MINERVA, ELICIA? YOU NEED TO LET GO. ATHENA'S GONE."/END AUDIO/SUBJECT IDENTIFIED: JEREMIAH ANSEN/CLEARANCE LEVEL: MAX — had posed a query that had piqued her interest. Had she been named based on something other than mythology? Doctor Ansen's speech patterns had certainly insinuated as much.

Which of course led Minerva to realize a search on her Maker, to see if there were any Athena's in her life which could account for the decision. She found none. She then cross-referenced the lab staff for nicknames and actual names. Nothing came up either.

She was fortunate; AIs — even custom-designed ones like her — did not feel. Thus, after two roadblocks, she felt none of the frustration her observations implied her human handlers would feel. All she did was search in a different place.

Eventually, her search led her to the SPECWARPRO database. The very database her creation was archived in. Her...birthplace, she assumed the human counterpart would be. Or perhaps, more adequately, the place her certificate of "birth" resided? — /SAVE QUERY FOR FUTURE RESEARCH/

Athena. The First. Firstborn of the Artificial Intelligences.

Finding her file had required some of the highest clearances Minerva had ever seen — some of which most staffers actually dismissed as mythical — but she had access to everything. Such was the right of the Maker's personal assistant.

She had scanned every bit of information on Athena, trying to better understand her roots. She knew, by serial designation, that she was a Fourth Generation AI. That meant that Athena had survived long after her estimated longevity. An anomaly, as no other AI of the First Generation had survived past a year and a half. Two, in a few rare cases. Yet, Athena had lived for two and a half, until some anomalies had cropped up that forced the Maker to terminate her.

Said anomalies were not elaborated upon. Minerva filed that in her temporary archives. Perhaps if the occasion arose, she could ask her Maker more about Athena, and what led to her ultimate demise.

Her holographic projection rotated a bit as it watched her Maker continue her manual labour. It was seemingly anomalous behaviour in itself, as far as the AI was able to tell. Having observed humans in the laboratories and wherever the Maker brought her, she had been able to deduce that the vast majority seemed to function in accordance to some arbitrary hierarchy. Some worked harder than others, irrespective of their security clearance. Some with the most security clearance, like Dr. Ansen, seemed to work according to their whims, flitting from one project to the next with little observable pattern.

And then there was her Maker. From the deference shown to her by her colleagues, Minerva could tell that her creator was at the very top of this hierarchy, but paradoxically, she worked as hard as any lower-ranked human, sometimes more. For an artificial intelligence such as itself, working outside one's parameters seemed...anomalous, contradictory — like flawed programming.

Another question to ask, Minerva supposed.

Surprising. Her calculations had suggested 1.4 hours of work remaining at minimum. Perhaps shoddy worksmanship? She flagged Lima's work section for inspection.

"Thank you, Minerva," her Maker said again, never even turning to look at her digital assistant.

Another flag came up in her systems, just as her Maker finished thanking her. Her news mining programs had found something of interest within the Northern News Network's periodical news bulletin. A quick cross-reference with other news outlets confirmed the spread of the news story.

"Doctor Eisenheim," Minerva spoke up again, seemingly cutting short her Maker's thanks. "As per your instructions, I have been monitoring the news stations for any significant event regarding the topics of AUSTRIA, ETO, EUROPEAN TREATY ORGANIZATION, GERMANY, and WAR."

A look passed over her Maker's face as she finally turned to face her. A quick cross-reference from past observations told Minerva this look reflected "apprehension."

"What did you find?"

Minerva replaced her holographic image with one of the news feed she'd intercepted. Muted, of course, to provide her own impartial analysis, as opposed to whatever "propagandic drivel" the news program might spout, as her Maker had once called it.

"It would appear that the German Federation has initiated a border skirmish with the Austrian Republic." Minerva reported dutifully in that calm, almost cold mechanical tone of hers. "However, due to its recent suspension from the European Treaty Organization on account of its continued disregard for the safety of ETO citizens, the Austrian government has been unable to make use of the Organization's mutual defense clause. My calculations indicate a —" /CALCULATING PROBABILITIES/ACCOUNTING FOR POSSIBLE VARIATIONS/ "—84.3667% probability that the skirmish will escalate to war within two months, accounting for a margin of error of one month."

She watched her Maker's face lose some of its colour — according to her databases, a sign of horror or fear. A quick cross-analysis of other overt biological markers quickly allowed her to rule in favor of the former.

"Then it's begun, just like Hughes—" /SEARCHING DATABASE/321 POSSIBLE SUBJECTS FOUND/EXECUTING DEDUCTIVE REASONING ALGORITHM/SUBJECT FOUND: ALBERT HUGHES/OCCUPATION: ROYAL ADVISOR/CLEARANCE: ERROR_NOT_FOUND/ "—Said it would," her Maker said sadly. Minerva said nothing, though she was given pause by the fact that Hughes had no clearance entry. Heck, it wasn't a matter of him having none, or an anomalous entry, but rather that it was missing altogether.

Like the other pending questions Minerva had stored away for future reference, the AI filed it in her memory and let it be. Her programming demanded her fullest attention to her Maker's needs, and her efficiency would drop if she investigated every little thing that she didn't understand.

"Minerva," her Maker prompted her. "Please inform Advisor Hughes that Project HANNIBAL will be finished on schedule. "And please make sure that all work teams are apprised of the need for efficient urgency."

Hardly a chore, for the AI. Within fractions of a second, Hughes' AI assistant, Walsingham, had been contacted and the message delivered. Much like his predecessor, the new Walsingham was gruff, cold — its personality algorithm a one-dimensional, ahistorical representation of the Virgin Queen's spymaster.

She wondered where she got hers. Was it, like her name, an inheritance from her predecessor? Considering her Maker's apparent emotional attachment to her predecessor, it seemed likely.

So many things to find out…

She wondered, if the AIs were made in the image of their Makers, did that mean that her curiosity was a reflection of human nature? Had she been programmed that way?

More to ponder, more to think.

More to wonder, more knowledge to sync.

Curiouser and curiouser.


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, January 28, 2019…

"With all due respect to my esteemed colleague, but unless I'm imagining things, that sounds an awful lot like cowardly isolationism!"

As expected, the man on the other side of the room shot to his feet, red in the face but stopped from speaking out by the Speaker's heated glare. The debate had been tiptoeing dangerously close to the limits of civility, and with all the shouting going about, it was hardly surprising that even the most (supposedly) impartial man in the room was about to lose his temper.

Sirius watched as the Speaker then turned his glare to his side of the gallery, fixating it on the outspoken MP.

"There was no call for such accusations, Mister Fitzroy. Please maintain your remarks within the boundaries of civility." the older man growled out.

Sirius saw his ally about to retort, probably some snarky apology, and quickly nipped that in the bud by shooting a closer MP a look that translated into a swift elbow in the man's stomach. Fortunately, Fitzroy quickly got the message and mumbled out his apologies.

After settling that issue, the Speaker then turned his attention to the Opposition bench, seeing many of them standing and waiting to be called on. To Sirius' annoyance, that person turned out to be the Leader of the Opposition, Thomas Henry.

"Thank you, Mister Speaker," the man said with that same, slick charm that grated on Sirius' nerves. He flashed a charming smile at where he knew the cameras to be before turning to meet Sirius' gaze. "My friends, we've all heard and spoken about this more egregious matter for hours, now, but I can't help but notice that the most important voice in the debate has been curiously silent. Mister Prime Minister," the way he'd stressed the title had Sirius narrow his eyes in distaste. "would you care to weigh in on the government's policy?"

No, he bloody well did not!

Or so Sirius wished he could say, but he knew that wasn't an option. With the Austrian Republic suspended from the ETO, and the Germans beginning their military offensive any day now, it was just a matter of time before he knew he would have to stand before this "august" assembly and call a vote for war.

Even worse, that was just the problem they could see. Sirius, however, knew that beyond the German threat were the Northern Alpine Republic and the Sicilian Republic, both of whom had started agitating towards war as well, no doubt fuelled on by the uprising in the south-eastern French Territories.

Infuriatingly, however, Harry seemed unconcerned by these issues, continuing his tours of the country and the French Territories to raise morale and support for the government. Useful, undoubtedly, but infuriatingly blasé.

And Hughes was no better! The man was supposed to keep these threats under control, but instead he seemed to be enjoying watching them grow! If he'd done his bloody job, he wouldn't have to explain himself before the Opposition!

Sirius sighed mentally as he got up to his feet. He could rant and rail at those two all he liked, but he had a job to do.

"Ladies and Gentlemen," he started as he approached the pulpit and stood ramrod straight in an effort to project gravitas. "My friend, the leader of the opposition, claims he wishes to know the government's policy regarding the situation in Austria." he noted. "Well then, here it is. We will not act unless so asked."

Almost instantly, cries of shame and incredulity ripped through the hall as both Opposition and Government benchers rose to their feet in disapproval.

He raised his hands for silence, with little effect. A few violent strikes of the gavel from the Speaker managed to resolve the issue much more effectively.

"Let me be clear," Sirius resumed his speech, utterly hating his counterpart's smug grin. "The Northern Sun is not retreating. We are not backing down from anyone. However, we must face two realities before we make any hasty decisions to enter another conflict."

He raised a finger. "First, we have just come out of one war. Are we really so willing to throw our young men and women into the grinder that we would call for war when there is no cause for it? Is my colleague really so bloodthirsty?" he asked archly, eliciting a few chuckles from his side and outraged grumbles with the Opposition.

"Secondly," he raised another finger. "We no longer have ties of alliance with Austria," he reminded his audience. "The mutual assistance clauses of the Treaty are not applicable to a suspended member, and so we hold no right to intervene unless so asked by the Austrian government, which they have not. As our interests are not under direct threat, we have no reason to mobilize our forces."

"What a load of self-serving tripe!" someone from the Opposition called out, instantly silenced by the smack of the Speaker's gavel.

"Order!" the older man grumbled out as he hit the desk again for good measure. "Please continue, Prime Minister."

Sirius nodded in thanks before staring down his now less-smug counterpart. "Perhaps it is self-serving. Perhaps we are being selfish. It is, however, the law. This government has acted solely under the tenets of the very international laws that we put into place. If we are so willing to discard these rules for our benefit, what would stop other, less friendly governments from doing the same?"

As he saw the man's lips purse, Sirius had to withhold a grin. This was sweet, sweet payback for him. The Opposition had managed to scrounge enough support a week back to put a screeching halt to a major law that would've helped their new French-born citizens integrate into the Northern Sun.

Apparently, they took it rather badly that these conquered peoples would one day have a say on whether they served in Parliament or not.

Of course, they'd disguised their reasons behind fiscal responsibility, as Sirius' plan would've necessitated either a redrawing of the electoral borders, or the wholesale expansion of the legislature to accommodate the acquired population.

No one had missed the fact that unless such representation was granted, the French Territories would remain under occupied status, giving the companies and military there much more leeway than they normally would.

A lot of private interests had gone into that vote.

More importantly, a lot of his plans had been derailed by said vote. Granting the former French citizens the right to participate in civil society wasn't just a means of exacting a just piece of legislation...it was also a way of shoring up support for the government, particularly as the ETO crumbled. His government had put a lot of its political capital into the longevity of the organization, and so its failure to contain Germany, to keep the instability at bay, and to protect the people from the attacks of the Mentor and his ilk...it had all cost them dearly. If he didn't secure a political win soon, Sirius knew the next elections would effectively end their control over the legislatures.

And, as little as Harry esteemed the legislature of his own country, Sirius knew that ignoring the issues in Parliament would just spell disaster, in the shape of most of Harry's power being stripped from him, until he became a figurehead like his predecessors.

Something they had all worked very hard to avoid.

"So you see, Mister Speaker, Ladies and Gentlemen of this esteemed House, the government is not willing to breach the very statutes it promulgated. Perhaps the rule of law means nothing to certain groups, but rest assured that the Northern Sun will abide by its commitments to its allies, within the framework of the law."

As expected, the Whip quickly rallied the Government benchers to a round of vigorous applause. Even as he sat, however, Sirius was forced to admit to himself that however he tried to paint the situation, the Opposition was right in one thing: the ETO, and by association, the Northern Sun, was in trouble. Even if Austria was no longer protected by ETO regulations, that didn't mean that its conquest wouldn't affect the rest of Europe. Emboldened, it wasn't a stretch to believe that the Germans wouldn't invade the Northern Sun to reclaim the territory it'd lost to the French. Or that by failing to act, the Russians would take their silence as permission and begin absorbing Eastern Europe again.

Sirius wanted to grimace, but kept up his satisfied facade. Only a rhythmic clenching and unclenching of his hands betrayed any mounting frustration. With Warwick in Italy again, he had no solid ally for the Foreign Office to deflect attention from these issues. As competent as the Deputy Foreign Minister was, there was no real substitute for Warwick in this.

And heaven knew that if he brought Curtis forward to speak on behalf of the government, the Germans would declare war the next day!

As much as his affections for the woman remained solid, he had long since reconciled with the fact that she had all the tact of a bulldozer. It made for a great leader of the Armed Forces, but a poor public relations speaker.

"George," he leant back as he addressed the Chief Whip, a severe looking man who looked like someone had artificially recreated Sidney Paget's illustration of James Moriarty. "Please remind the benchers we don't need more attention being brought onto this topic."

The older man nodded once. "I'll have a word with them, rest assured, Prime Minister."

Sirius nodded. "And everything is set for next month's vote?" he asked just as quietly.

George nodded. "Three line whip, Prime Minister. Just like you asked," the man all but whispered. "Had a nice, long chat with the unruly boys, too. Made sure to inform them of the consequences of going against Party line again."

Another nod. That was good news. The last vote on naturalizing the French conquered peoples had failed partly due to the minor backbencher revolt he'd suffered. It wasn't enough to invoke fears of leadership challenge, but it had been enough to make them lose the vote, especially since they'd needed a two-third majority vote, and they'd been shy of that number by just three thanks to the revolt.

More than a few ridings had felt the sting of lack of political patronage as a result.

Sirius only hoped that, with the rest of Europe going to pot, his people would understand that this time around, he wasn't messing around. They would fall in line, or they would dearly suffer for it.


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, January 30, 2019…

"Sir, I must insist! His Majesty is not to be disturbed right now!"

The fat, balding man in an very expensive looking suit snorted disdainfully as Cecilia kept trying to bar his way with her lithe frame without using magic. To her present regret, Astoria had banned her from using magic unless the Princess was in mortal danger, as the Chief Bodyguard still held a great deal of suspicion towards her over her past Death Eater allegiances.

Except, right now, she could've dearly used a Sticking Spell to keep the man's large feet stuck to the ground, instead of trampling his way down the corridor of the Royal Palace. Even more regrettably, none of the guards could actually help her, as the King had told no one else that he was cancelling this meeting at the very last second.

And one didn't exactly get in the way of the Duke of Walpole.

The man's father, Edmund Roberts, the first Duke of Walpole, had been one of the main financial backers of the rebellion against the Chiefs of Staff. Unlike Warwick or the Goblins, however, he'd had no aspirations for a government job, only wanting a high ranking title and the promise that his businesses would be left alone.

And as Duke, he also gained the privilege of demanding an audience with the King under the terms of the new nobility contracts.

Which led to this particular predicament.

The current Duke, his son, had recently found out that the government was intending to try their hand at naturalizing the conquered French citizens, knowing full well that much of his businesses in France had taken advantage of their limbo status to pay them less than he should. If they naturalized, his costs would easily triple, and he would be forced to grant them working privileges only currently applicable to Northern-born men and women.

Suffice to say, he held none of the wisdom, vision, or compassion of his predecessor.

"This audience was scheduled a month ago and I've waited long enough," the Duke snapped irritably as he stomped his way towards the double doors that led to the King's study. Even as he then grasped the door handles and pushed, Cecilia kept stammering out protests, insisting that he was unduly intruding…

On the King playing with his daughter.

Mouth open, about to shout, the Duke was swiftly silenced by the sight before him. The entire room seemed like a bomb had gone off, with intricate, expensive furniture upturned or broken. At one end of the study, the King's work desk was set on its side, acting as some type of fort, while a giant, blue-flame dinosaur-esque creature advanced on it, mimicking a roaring expression.

At first, the Duke could've sworn he'd just walked into an assassination attempt on the King. Except, that impression ended when he saw the King and the Princess, both with what seemed to be plastic hard hats, peeking out from behind the desk and opening fire on the blue flame monster with what he could swear were children's dart guns.

True to form, the flame beast apparently mimicked being hit and dramatically — how the hell does a flame monster know how to act dramatically?! — collapsed on its side, despite the darts having gone right through its incorporeal body.

"Yes! Victory!" the Princess squealed triumphantly from behind the desk, shooting to her feet and pointing to the sky adorably. In her green sundress, with her wild, curly red hair flowing down to the small of her back, she looked like a conquering Irish queen. "Well done, henchman number 4!"

The Duke blinked. Had the Princess just called her father "henchman"?!

No, wait.

Number 4?! Who were numbers 1 through 3?!

To the Duke's amazement, the King just burst out laughing, even as the blue flame monster dissipated into nothing. This was the man who had torn down the old order and built a Kingdom out of nothing?!

In that moment, he completely discredited his deceased father's stories about the man. There was no way such an...immature man had orchestrated the fall of his own country and rebuilt it in his image!

"Ooh! Visitors, papa!" the scarlet-haired child squeaked excitedly, apparently forgetting that her father was her henchman. She clapped her hands as she saw Cecilia at the Duke's side. "Ceecee! Papa and I were playing! Do you want to play with us?!"

Any other day, any other occasion — especially one in which the King was not present — Cecilia would've accepted the offer. She dearly loved little Katerina, even though her stewardship over the future Queen had started out as merely a way to get her out of the death penalty.

However, this time around, that was just impossible. While no one else had been paying much attention to the King, she had.

And that momentary, transient glare spoke volumes of his fury at having his time with his daughter interrupted.

There wasn't enough money in the universe to make her want to stick around for when he cut loose on the Duke.

"Katerina," another warning sign. The King almost never addressed his daughter by her full name, always preferring to use pet names to show his affection. "Why don't you go with Ceecee to fetch us something to drink? Papa apparently has a few things to take care of."

Oh, man. If Cecilia had ever been afraid of the King before, she was utterly terrified of him now. His daughter, naturally, had completely missed the threatening tone in his voice, or his pissed off body language, but even the Duke, thick as he was, hadn't. Cecilia only hoped that the search for the next Duke of Walpole didn't take too long.

"Okay!" the little princess agreed enthusiastically, happy to comply with her father's request. As far as the future Queen was concerned, this had been an amazing day; her father, whom she saw infrequently, had actually agreed to play whatever she wanted with her! He'd conjured up blue fire that tickled her, and even played fort with her! This was the best day ever!

Harry, for his part, had quite enjoyed playing with his daughter. While he had countless public engagements to keep him occupied, he felt as though none of that mattered if his precious little girl resented him. He already had too little time to spend with his wife, and he was damned if he was going to let rulership interfere with his duties as a father!

Which was why, naturally, he was now considering how best to vaporize the portly Duke standing before him without causing a national scandal. Taking a seat in one of the many wrecked chairs in his study, he glared a hole into the portly man.

"I see my request to postpone the meeting failed to reach you, Your Grace," Harry stated deadpan, although both men knew the statement was a lie. "How regrettable. I must ensure that my messengers are more diligent next time."

He watched the man swallow nervously as he obviously began to regret his decision to barge in here. Good. Let him stew.

"You realize that the only reason you're not a pile of ash right now is because of the enormous respect I had for your father, right?" he asked calmly, resting his cheek on his fist as he stared down the Duke. He conveniently failed to mention that even for him, killing a civilian in cold blood was both out of the question, and very, very illegal.

The Duke swallowed nervously again. Even so, with the die being cast and all, he couldn't very well back down at this point. "Your Majesty, please understand...our meeting was programmed…"

"And I asked for a postponement, Your Grace," Harry pointed out icily. "As you could see, I was spending time with my daughter, my only daughter, which is something I value much more than your attempt at convincing me to withhold approval of a law duly voted on, given how little time I have to spend with her."

The Duke narrowed his eyes, finally regaining some of his earlier determination. "With all due respect, Your Majesty, the terms of your agreement with my father explicitly prohibited undue interference with our businesses. The law your uncle is passing through Parliament would irrevocably alter our business scheme."

This time, it was Harry's turn to narrow his gaze. "Don't presume me a fool, Your Grace," he warned icily. "I'm well aware of what the Prime Minister," he stressed the title, "is trying to put through Parliament, and not only does it not target your businesses specifically, it would also bring in the conquered folk of the French territories into the Northern fold. It is a sound plan. A just plan."

"It affects my workforce."

Harry raised an eyebrow. "And that's the crux of the situation, isn't it?" he asked archly. "Payroll. I'm not as soft and ignorant of what goes around me as people might think, Your Grace. I'm well aware that extending basic rights to the former French citizens means your employed workforce there would suddenly have to be paid more, to have health insurance provided by your company. Those are quite the costs."

The Duke didn't dare to glare at the King, but he did narrow his eyes in displeasure. "Yes."

Well, Harry had to give it to the man that he hadn't tried to hide behind empty patriotism, like so many other gutless parasites. "Why do you think the Frenchmen are rebelling, Your Grace?" he asked then, rather suddenly. As expected, the unexpected non-sequitur had thrown the portly man. "Do you think it is the dying throes of resistance? Pitiable actions of a defeated nation?"

"How is that relev—"

"Because the reason they're rebelling, Your Grace, is you," Harry spat out, his glare back in full force. "For goodness' sake, man, think! Do you honestly think they'd risk it all against a country they know they can't defeat? Certainly, a few of their numbers must be so fanatical, but the rest? The average man and woman who supports them in other ways?"

Harry was tired of this. Tired of this idiot before him, barging in on his quality time with his sole heir and daughter. Tired of idiots thinking that just because he'd assumed a position his predecessor had vacated as a titular figurehead, he would be just as pliable, just as content. He had kept tabs on everything his people did. He had kept his presence felt in the Armed Forces. He demanded constant updates on his wife's work, and that of her subordinates. Even if he hadn't the time to assimilate all the information at once, he had to have access.

And these people still thought his thighs had grown fat. That his skill had decayed. That he was magically no longer the conqueror he had once been. No longer the mastermind of the fall of an entire nation. No longer the architect of the Northern Sun.

How wrong they were.

"You, and your like, Your Grace, treat the Frenchmen as cattle, as modern day slaves. Unwhipped, unstarved, but every bit as subservient and dependent. You use their wages as your whip. You use empty promises of future rights to quell their hunger...is it any mystery, really, that they've rebelled? Wouldn't you?" he asked firmly.

"Your Majesty, I never—" the man started to protest, kept quiet only by the force of the King's glare. And the sound of his chair's arm splintering as a magically reinforced fist vaporized it.

"Never my arse!" Harry spat. "Your father understood business, Your Grace! He understood that he could have his fortune if he worked with me, not in spite of me. What the Prime Minister is doing is my will," he said forcefully as his glare made the fat man cower. "I want this continent united. Not ruled by one over all, but united in rights, in opportunities, in welfare."

He pushed himself up onto his feet, then, feeling the magical tracker he'd placed on his daughter start its final approach to the study. He didn't want her polluted by the petty politics just yet, so he had to wrap things up. In a few strides, he quickly invaded the Duke's personal space before the portly man had a chance to react, and stared him down. "Remember this, Your Grace; I put your family where it is. I can just as easily take those privileges back," he threatened, despite knowing it would be nowhere near as easy or clean as he made it sound. "You have the chance now to stand with me, and be on the right side of history. I suggest you take it, and tell your men in Parliament to back off."

The portly man stuttered unintelligibly as he tried to muster some outrage, but failed. The truth was, the King was right; even if this government failed, and the next one refused to do so, at some point in time, enough popular support would be mustered to push the rights of the conquered peoples of the Northern Sun into law.

"My losses will be…" he tried to get out, before the King's narrowing eyes stopped him mid-sentence.

"Acceptable," the King finished firmly before stepping back and returning to his seat. "If they are ruinous, and you decide to stand with us, I will consider asking the Prime Minister to look kindly on extending future government contracts to your companies."

As he'd guessed, the Duke's eyes glimmered at the prospect. Considering the vast reconstruction and construction projects being carried out in the French territories, the government contracts for such projects were considered a godsend for many an entrepreneur.

"I...understand, Your Majesty," the Duke said silkily as he gave a rather awkward bow of deference.

Harry nodded at him, setting his hands in his lap. Just as Cecilia knocked on the door, he looked at the Duke and waved him off. "This has been a productive discussion, Your Grace. We thank you for your exercising judicious wisdom," he stated neutrally as his daughter all but barged in. No sense showing bad manners in front of his little girl. "And we look forward to conducting further business with you, at a more appropriate time, perhaps."

The implied threat there was not lost on anyone in the room above the age of 10.

"Of...course, Your Majesty," the Duke answered graciously, swallowing nervously as he remembered the King's threat. He bowed again to him, then to the Princess, before shuffling out of the room, still looking quite pleased with himself.

Gods, Harry just wanted to burn that smug smile off his face!

Sure, he hadn't won this fight out of justice or morality. Sure, he'd basically bartered away millions of pounds of government contracts. Still, Sirius would have no more problems in Parliament regarding his law.

He smiled at his daughter as she ran up to him to offer him a bottle of apricot juice — her favorite. Graciously accepting it, he patted her on the head appreciatively and offered her a sip — despite pretty much knowing she'd already drank her own bottle on the way here, probably. As she happily took him up on his offer, Harry nodded to Cecilia, who understood the silent message and left the room for father and daughter to continue their bonding time.

Yet, Harry's thoughts were a mile away.

In a way, he was grateful for the distance his current position gave him from everything. It offered him a better, wider picture of what was going on. It'd taken some time, but he thought he had Hughes' plans deduced, and he had to give it to the man — it was rather cunning, if a bit unnecessarily bloody. He'd intervene, but then he'd probably get dragged into the planning minutiae, and he rather wanted to avoid that right now.

And then there was his wife. He'd seen little of her these days, after Hughes had requested her and her team to help him with his endgame. While it was nice to see the two cooperating, he reminded himself to up her guards; he trusted Hughes with his life...but not especially with hers. Too many politics in between.

He smiled down at his daughter as she offered him the bottle of juice and again patted her on the head. To his everlasting relief, she was growing up to be a kind child, compassionate and empathetic...which, admittedly, would make for a poor leader in times of war, but would help her be a fantastic Queen in peacetime.

And he'd be damned if he left her an embattled throne.


Northern-German Border, February 15, 2019…

"Bloody hell."

Ford snorted amusedly as he heard King vocalize everyone else's feelings at that moment. Fireteam Guardian had been airlifted from combat duties in the outskirts of Montpellier, where Field Marshal Speirs was still holed up as he fought off a mounting insurrection, to ostensibly patrol a square mile of nothing in the middle of the former Franco-German border.

At least, that had been their impression.

Instead, they were met by a gigantic — in every sense of the word — forest, spanning as far as the eye could see in every direction. Not only were the trees massive, they were also thick and numerous. Frankly, Ford doubted anything bigger than a motorbike would be able to maneuver in there. Hence why their helicopter had landed them on the outskirts of the forest. They would've taken a Portkey, but apparently wards had been set up around the forest to avoid just that.

Crazy to think this had been the work of a few mere weeks, though.

Ford had to agree. He'd fought in forests before, but nothing quite like this.

"I'm calling bullshit," Buchanan said flatly over comms. "There's no way, no fucking way this is real. Maybe some sort of mirage to fuck with the Krauts."

In the past, Ford might've agreed. These days, however, he didn't put anything beyond the abilities of the mages. Not after seeing what Meteor could cook up up close and personal.

Thankfully, he didn't have to speak his mind regarding that, as Petrovsky promptly shot down Buchanan's hypothesis with a simple rasp of his knuckles on one of the nearby, gargantuan trees. The solid knocking soundly dispelled any such thinking.

"Well, guess that's that, then," Ford mused as he brought up his rifle and walked forward towards the forest's edge. It was ridiculously intimidating, to say the least, as some of the roots he was walking towards were easily the size of him. Made for great cover, but really screwed up their mobility.

As if it wasn't enough, however, a howl pierced through the air at that moment, punctuating the fact that the forest was far from empty.

"Great. Not enough we have to walk through the Forest of Doom...now they have wolves." King whined.

"If we're lucky, that's all that's in there." Alice noted cheekily, though she had hit some of their greatest worries right on the nail.

"Oh, sack up, both of you," Buchanan reproached them, easily stuffing down her own anxieties. "We're an elite team of the some of the Northern Sun's best fucking soldiers, in ridiculously well crafted armour, and the training, weapons, and genetic engineering to fuck up any asshole who even looks at us funny." She finished her speech by very deliberately powering up the magnets of her MAC LMG. "They want a piece of us? They're welcome to fucking try."

Ford snorted again, though he kept his peripheral vision firmly set on the sonar icon of his helmet's HUD, a new feature they'd added in during their latest software and hardware update. It made for a great minimap of the area, but the ridiculous amount of trees and wildlife pretty much made it useless at the moment.

Pity they weren't operating near Montpellier anymore. The sonar app had really made it easy to hunt down rebels.

"Alright, alright; enough bitching," he ordered firmly, prompting his subordinates to straighten up. "Meteor and Earthshaker already have a head start on us...about two klicks north-west," he added, checking the waypoint on the minimap again. Hopefully, the two Military Mages would have a camp set up to receive them. He didn't really want to wander around a forest this big without a base camp set up to regroup at in case of emergency.

He still had nightmares about Operation Guardian.

"Point."

Ford nodded at Petrovsky, who promptly vaulted over a large tree root and disappeared from view. A moment later, the sniper's green icon flashed once. All clear.

"Let's move out. NVDs on, people. Spectre, we're on your six."

Another green blink, and they were off.

Fifteen minutes later, Guardian found themselves still navigating the maze of trees that the AGRICORPS mages had set up to prevent any military advances along this region of the Franco-German border. For a while, a Maginot Line-style series of defensive positions had been floated around as a viable method of guarding the border, this time incorporating the entire Ardennes, Belgian, and Dutch border with Germany, but the costs had nearly given Ragnok an aneurysm.

Other ideas were similarly proposed, including another Babylon Wall, until the Treasury effectively laid down the law and gave everyone a budget to work with. To everyone's surprise, it had been the AGRICORPS that had come up with the winning bid, at a mere 1/25th of the offered budget — thereafter prompting Ragnok to declare the AGRICORPS honorary Goblins.

Instead of building expensive fortifications that needed constant manning and patrolling, the AGRICORPS had decided to let nature work as a natural-esque barrier. Originally concocted as a means of widespread reforestation to offset the cataclysmic effects of the wars that had sprung up around the world, the AGRICORPS had devised a sort of super-tree, capable of growth from seed to maturity in a fraction of the time it would take a normal tree of the same type. The ones that now inhabited the Great Forest, however — and everyone had panned at the unoriginal name — had been genetically altered to be thick to the point of quasi-indestructible. A conventional tank could fire at one, and it'd probably just carve out a portion of the trunk instead of felling it. Given this, plus the fact that the tree density was such that nothing bigger than a motorcycle could feasibly maneuver inside, the entire forest effectively formed an impenetrable wall against mechanized armor divisions.

Of course, infantry wouldn't have that problem, but then it would also make for the slowest attack of all time, given that crossing the entire breadth of the forest, from the German border to the nearest critical city, was about two weeks worth of travel by foot, thanks to some deft urban reorganization by the Northern authorities.

But either way, it basically meant the Northern Sun's borders with Germany were effectively sealed.

Except, for some reason, a small team of AGRICORPS mages and their escorts had suddenly disappeared off the radar. Then, to make things odder, the two mages sent in to look for them disappeared too.

Ordinarily, that would have resulted in massively increased military presence along the highly volatile border, but with the rebellion in the southern French territories still ongoing and the constantly increasing tensions with the Northern Alpine Republic and the Sicilian Republic, the military had decided to stave off overreacting and instead sent in Fireteam Guardian, on account of their incredible service record and ability to work well by themselves and with mages.

Still, it had begged the question: what the hell was in there that could take out so many mages?

The fact that the forest seemed alive with unseen, cacophonous creatures didn't make the trek any more comforting, either. Howls, roars, tweets, chirps...every animal noise he'd ever heard, short of a damn elephant seemed to be living in this artificial forest.

"Who the fuck let out the zoo in here?" Liam grumbled as he vaulted over another protruding tree root as thick as his head.

Ford said nothing, keeping his eyes wide and his focus on alert, as it wasn't beyond credulity that some magical nasties had decided to tag along and make their homes here. He'd heard of the Centaur peoples, for example, and how some of the tribes tended towards sudden violence against humans.

Or, if they were really boned, werewolves would show up.

Not that they couldn't handle one — their armour pretty much made them claw and bite-proof. He just didn't look forward to fighting a superpowered, fast as hell killing machine capable of human reasoning — if they took their potions diligently.

Before long, however, Petrovsky reappeared standing on top of a tree root and waving the team towards him. As they climbed over the ridiculous arboreal appendage, Ford felt a smile start to form as he caught sight of a small encampment. Meteor and Earthshaker had been deployed ahead of Guardian, on account of the fact that as Mages, they would be best suited to fighting any supernatural nasty lurking in the forest and setting up a base camp.

Strangely, however, everything was quiet.

Almost too quiet.

"Heads up" he ordered immediately, his instincts suddenly flaring up as he realized that the forest seemed to have literally shut up. Not a peep anywhere. "Spectre, eyes up high."

He barely registered the fact that all of his squad's readiness icons blinked once in acknowledgement. His rifle raised to eye level, his targeting computer already seeking out hostiles, he slowly walked to the front of the Fireteam and took point, leading them closer and closer to the camp.

Something wasn't right. Even if Meteor and Earthshaker were laying low, the forest wouldn't have so suddenly gone silent. Right now, in fact, it was so quiet that his helmet was clearly picking up the sound of the campfire crackling.

"What's the word, boss?" Liam asked, tense and ready to fire at a moment's notice.

"Eyes peeled," Ford ordered curtly. "It's quiet. Too quiet."

No more words had to pass between him and his second in command, as the Fireteam descended into tense silence, slowly creeping forward towards the — for all intents and purposes — abandoned base camp. He dearly hoped this was just his imagination, and that Meteor and Earthshaker had maybe gone out patrolling, somehow scaring off the local wildlife.

But he wasn't about to imagine being so lucky.

With simple hand gestures, he sent King, Buchanan, and Liam to check out one of the tents, while he, Bear, and Alice checked the other. Petrovsky, for his part, would hang back, keeping a watchful eye on their surroundings. If anyone could sniff out trouble, it would be him, after all.

Ford swallowed instinctively as he c rept closer to the tent and made a grab for the closed flap. Based on the emblem emblazoned on the side, this was a standard-issue Military Mage tent. Not as expanded and luxurious on the inside as civilian tents, but large enough that it wouldn't feel as cramped as a non-magic tent. Not that anyone serving outside the Military Mages would know, of course. Not a single other branch of the service used them.

Too much comfort would just dull their instincts.

With glance back at his teammates, he nodded at them once, took a step to the side, and forcefully pulled the flap open, giving his teammates a clear line of fire to whomever was inside.

No one.

"Clear."

"Clear."

Ford let out a breath of relief he'd been unconsciously holding in. The last thing he wanted was to find Meteor lying bloody in her bedroll. Or Earthshaker.

"Clear over here, too."

Ford turned his attention to the other team, who waved an all clear signal at him. That was strange. If neither Meteor nor Earthshaker were deceased, then where were they? The camp showed no signs of combat, and their surroundings remained deathly silent.

What the hell was going on?

"What the fuck is going on?" King parroted his mental query as he and his team approached. "Where the hell is everyone?"

"Buggered if I know," Ford admitted, turning his head every which way, hoping his HUD would pick up on something. "Spectre, any tracks?"

Petrovsky's icon blinked red. None, then.

"Might as well call this in, boss," Liam opined, also sweeping the miniature clearing with his rifle, still tense and on alert.

Ford nodded and tapped the side of his helmet, switching from local radio to long-range. Another fun feature. "Castle Base, Castle Base, this is GUARDIAN-SIX," he spoke firmly, no trace of his nerves or tenseness melting through. "We have reached base camp, but no sign of METEOR or EARTHSHAKER. Please advise."

He paused, waiting for an answer. Strangely, all he got was static. Frowning, he tried again, repeating himself word for word. Again, static. He quickly switched back to TEAMCOM.

"Liam, try calling up HQ," he ordered, his instincts once again blaring alarms at him. His friend cocked his head slightly to the side, then shrugged and repeated his gesture, switching frequencies via the side of his helmet.

Moments later, he saw his friend switch back to TEAMCOM, his body language even more tense than before. Seeing that, he didn't need his friend to report his findings — he already knew.

"Nothing but static."

"We're being jammed." Ford concluded immediately. There was no other explanation that jumped to mind at the moment. Maybe if he'd had a moment to think things through, he might have deduced differently, but the combination of an empty base camp, missing allies, and the fact that HQ was now out of their reach meant that only one safe conclusion could be drawn.

They were in an enemy trap.

"Eyes up!" he barked. And just in time, too, as his comms picked up the tell-tale whistle of a bullet whizzing right past his helmet, boring a hole in the trunk next to Alice's head.

"Holy fuck!"

"CONTACT!" he roared over Alice's shout of surprise. Bringing his rifle to bear, he ran over to a nearby root and dove behind it for cover, just as another three bullet holes formed where he'd been standing. Similarly, the rest of Guardian had scattered as the ambush pretty much fucked over their rehearsed formations.

He swore. Every time he glanced over the root, he was unable to make out where the enemy troops were. His built-in helmet HUD was no help, for once, either; the damn thing insisted that the bullets seemed to be from the same gun, yet fired from three different — and might he point out — impossible locations.

"What the fuck was that?!" King shouted in indignation as Ford spied the younger man trying to make himself as small as physically possible.

"Anyone got eyes on them?!"

"Fuck no! Fucking coward!"

"Anyone hit?!"

Ford swore again — it seemed to become a habit for him these days. Guardian had lost its cool, and he couldn't blame them. They were used to conventional ambushes, but whoever had tried to get the drop on them had somehow managed to glitch out their HUDs and had nearly killed them, all the while remaining firmly out of sight.

"Stow the chatter, lads," he snapped as he pondered rebooting his HUD. He knew how to, of course — everyone did — but it was usually heavily advised that they never try doing so in the middle of a combat operation. Unless shutting off the program was the only way to reacquire visibility.

"I need eyes on the bogeys," he stated. "Spectre, got anything?"

Petrovsky's icon blinked red.

"Fuck," Ford cursed. "Alright, lads, we need to regroup and —"

Whatever else they had to do, he didn't have a chance to say it, as he felt an amazingly painful sensation stab into his left shoulder. So powerful was the impact, in fact, that he felt his body snap to the left and spin into the root painfully, his helmet and armor thankfully taking on the brunt of the pain.

Still, one thing remained firmly in mind.

He'd just been shot.

Fortunately, his armor had held strong against the bullet, but that didn't mean it hadn't hurt like a bitch!

"Holy fuck, I think they got Sarge!"

"John! John! Answer me, damnit!"

Ford grimaced as he tried to move his shoulder, feeling it flare up with every micro movement. Holy shite, that had hurt. More than it should have, too, given that SSI armor was built to absorb virtually all conventional caliber ammunition.

Meaning he'd just got hit by something a lot more powerful.

"I'm alive!" he spat into his comm, unwilling to let his team get out into the line of fire just to help him. "Stay where you are! Spectre, find me that fucker!"

A green icon blink answered him. At least someone was keeping professional about this!

"Everyone, keep your eyes up. Whoever this wanker is, he's moving around pretty fast, and getting in our blind spots!"

As if to punctuate that statement, piece of wood blew past his helmet as another bullet impacted against his root cover. Again, the angle of that shot should've been impossible. What the fuck was going on here?!

"Who the hell is this guy?!" King demanded. "Or guys! Or, fuck, I don't know! Germans?!"

Clearly, King's thinking process had undergone some decay, as he was barely making any sense anymore. A mix of adrenaline and his own lack of sophisticated education, no doubt.

"No way the Krauts are this dumb!" Liam spoke up, just as Ford watched him duck instinctively as a bullet smacked against his cover. "This'd be war!"

"Tell them that!" Buchanan snapped. Then, in a fit of anger, she obviously activated her external speakers, because Ford didn't need no comms to hear her rather impressive swearfest against their attackers.

Fortunately, Bergstein was on hand, and quickly pulled Buchanan back into cover just as three rounds whizzed past where she'd been standing.

"Boss! How's the arm?!"

Ford grimaced as he felt his shoulder flare up with pain. "Still sucks something awful, Doc," he admitted.

"Any penetration?" the team medic followed up. There was no way to safely reach him at the moment, so an indirect diagnosis was the best way to go.

"None," he confirmed as he slid his fingers over the impact zone. A heck of a dent, sure, but no penetration.

"Use the local tranq, then" Alice ordered. "A fifth of a dose!"

Ford nodded to himself and called up the Em ergency Treatmen t Protocol on his HUD — an addition they'd asked after that near-miss with Bear, which had frankly taken way too long to develop. Using his eyes to navigate the treatment options once Alice had granted him administration privileges — ah, the joys of TEAMNET— he quickly administered the dose and felt his bruised shoulder wash over with relief.

"Thanks, Doc," he told Alice as he hefted his rifle again and checked the blackened skies above him. It wasn't even night yet, but the super-dense tree cover pretty much blocked out all light.

His night vision device certainly didn't help alleviate the atmospheric creepiness of their situation. In fact, seeing everything in that black-and-sickly-green color spectrum pretty much assured Ford he was living through some half-assed horror movie. Even so, he had no choice but to rely on the system, as it was far too dark for their eyes to work.

And then, a flash.

It happened so fast, Ford wasn't sure if he'd just imagined it. At least, not until he saw it again. And again.

It was up there, zipping amongst the trees almost too quickly to follow.

But what on earth could do that? Mages wouldn't need to, they could just Apparate. Normals like him couldn't either — not at that speed. And there wasn't an animal or magical creature he knew of with the speed, dexterity, and rational capacity to use a firearm so skillfully while moving at such speeds.

So what the hell was going on?!

Well, one way to find out.

"Spectre," he called up his marksman. "Up high. Moving amongst the trees."

The marksman's readiness icon blinked once in acknowledgement, and Ford settled in next to the roots. He flinched as he saw two more rounds carve into the roots, spraying him a bit with wood chips.

A flat shot rang out then, and Ford recognized it immediately — Petrovsky's rifle. His was the only weapon in the team that hadn't been replaced with a MAC rifle. And, true to form, Ford's auditory sensors picked up a faint, pained yelp from up above.

He ignored his team's cheering, however, as he made his helmet's screen zoom in to the darkened thicket above. If they'd hit someone, there'd be proof of it. Something.

"Stow the chatter, lads," he ordered curtly, bringing the cheering to full stop. "Check the ground for blood. We need to find whoever that was and get some answers!"

Without further need for encouragement, the SSI troopers got out from cover — cautiously, of course; who knew how many of the enemy were actually around? — and began searching for any signs of their wounded enemy.

Fortunately, it seemed to have been just the one, as no one else opened fire on them. Which was kind of scary to begin with, because it meant that a single person had made a highly trained, fully armored SSI Fireteam cower.

And they still hadn't found Meteor or Earthshaker!

"Found blood."

As expected, Petrovsky found their assailant's trail quicker than the rest of them. As the rest of the Fireteam moved in, they saw the marksman look upwards through a detached scope. "Talk to us, Spectre," Ford ordered.

"Single bogey." Petrovsky stated monotonously. "Attached to wires. Still alive."

"Still armed?" Ford followed up as he looked up and zoomed in his camera, trying to spot their enemy.

"Negative."

Some good news, at least. "Snap. King. Find me that weapon." He didn't want the two least emotionally stable persons on his team to decide to carve out their pound of flesh from their wounded enemy. There wasn't much of a chance for that, but one never knew, especially if their soon-to-be-captive had a foul mouth on him/her. "Bear, Doc, Liam. Set up a perimeter."

"How high up?" he asked Petrovsky then, absently noting the green blinks from his team.

"Thirty meters."

Ford grimaced. That was pretty damn high up. And the trees were too smooth for easy climbing. Pity they hadn't brought along their scaling equipment... "Any ideas how to get him down?"

"Two."

Ford chuckled. He could guess at least one of them. "Any that don't involve shooting him free of the one thing keeping him from a thirty meter dive?"

"...One."

Thought so.

"Need anything in particular?" he asked.

"Knife."

Without another word, Ford unsheathed his combat knife and tossed it to his teammate, who caught it effortlessly before slinging his rifle onto his back and unsheathing his own knife. Ford chuckled. Only Petrovsky would be crazy enough to do this.

Sure enough, he watched as Petrovsky took a few steps back — still in full combat gear — and took off sprinting at the trunk, getting one, two, three feet up the trunk before he stabbed deep with his first knife. Then the second, a little higher up. Then he pulled out the first and stabbed it a bit higher.

And so forth.

"Head's up, lads and lasses," Ford announced over comms as he watched Petrovsky pull himself higher and higher on the trunk. "Spectre is going vertical."

Five green lights blinked in acknowledgement.

Ford chuckled to himself as he watched his teammate ascend higher and higher. To the Slavic man's credit, he hadn't made a single grunt of exertion since his upward trek had begun. Or, more likely, he'd turned off his transmitter to avoid broadcasting his grunts.

Still, it was pretty impressive how he was just pulling himself upwards decked in full gear without slowing down even just a little. One of the benefits of Project HAVOC, he guessed. Though it seemed somewhat unfair that Petrovsky got both resilience and sharp eyesight. All Ford had to brag about was stamina and a quicker mind.

Okay, so maybe the former had come in handy on a few...extra-curricular activities. Still!

"Head's up. I've got movement up high."

Liam's voice broke through Ford's unnecessary thoughts. The SSI Sergeant immediately went back into combat mode as he raised his rifle cautiously and eyed the pitch black canopy above. His NVD was working well, but the dense overhead foliage, and poor lighting still made distinguishing things smaller than the trees almost impossible.

Not exactly the best moment to realize they really should've pushed for thermal imaging or infrared sensors instead.

"I've got nothing," he said.

"Me neither." King joined in. "You sure, Mac?"

"Positive. I saw something move towards us up high."

"No visual." Alice piped up.

"Geez, Mac. Lay off the juice, will ya?"

"I know what I saw, Snap. Whatever that was, it's still out there."

"Fuck, man, don't joke around. This place is bloody creepy as it is."

Ford shook his head and turned his attention back to Petrovsky, who was still silently making his way up the tree. To the man's credit, he'd managed to pull himself up another five meters while his team had fretted about.

"Any visual on our would-be attacker, Spectre?" he asked.

A green icon blink.

"Alive or dead?"

"Breathing."

Ford nodded and turned about to make visual contact with the rest of the team. "Alright, get him down here and—"

The trunk behind him exploded.

"CONTACT!"

All around him, he heard the team's MAC rifles blaze alight as they fired up towards the tree canopy overhead. He wasted no time in joining his teammates, but also quickly assessed their situation.

"Bear, make some cover!" he barked as as he moved back towards the tree that Petrovsky was scaling. "Fireteam Guardian, on me! Spectre, we've got incoming!"

Green blinks all around. In a split second, the entire team was moving back to him, with the exception of Petrovsky, who'd been caught out in the open. Moving with precision, Fireteam Guardian rallied in near proximity to their teammate's tree, laying down effective suppression fire in the direction of their unseen foes.

Or, they would have, if not for the fact that just as suddenly as the attack had come, the direction of the shots changed too.

"Rotate!" Ford barked immediately, as he noticed that the enemy fire was coming in from the left now. "Left flank!"

He heard King curse as a bullet struck him in the chestplate, stinging him but otherwise unharmed. Thank goodness for SSI armor.

"Where the fuck are they?!" Buchanan demanded as she lay waste to entire sections of the overhead foliage with her LMC. "I ain't dinging jack shite!"

"Doc, send up a flare!" Ford ordered. "NVD's off on her mark!"

"Mark!"

Immediately, Ford turned off his night vision and squinted as the entire forest sector was suddenly awash with a bright light. His audio sensors managed to identify a few gasps of surprise — the enemy, no doubt — and he quickly turned in that direction and opened fire.

Raising his hand, he pointed towards the source of the voices. "Redirect fire!" he ordered.

Smoothly, the entire team, minus Petrovsky, rotated to meet the enemy in combat once more, tearing apart chunks from the tree trunks up above. For a while, Ford was sure they were winning, able to repulse whatever unseen enemy was mocking them with their potshots.

And then he heard the sound of metal shearing, followed by a dull thud behind him.

Turning around, his eyes widened in horror as he saw Petrovsky lying on the ground, immobile, his marksman's rifle sliced neatly in two and a large gash along his now-bare back.

"MAN DOWN!" he yelled, quick on the uptake. Looking directly up, he fired a few shots in the air, hoping to take down his teammate's aggressor. Nothing.

"Holy shite, they got Spectre!" King exclaimed.

"FUCK YOU, YOU FUCKERS!" Buchanan roared as she tore apart another decent chunk of the forest with her LMC.

"Oh shite, oh shite, oh shite…" he heard Alice mumbling into her comm. "Bear! I need you to help me get Spectre out of the line of fire!"

With no more words needed to be said, the hulking trooper slid into position next to Alice and gingerly lifted his Slavic teammate in a princess cradle. Within moments, both troopers were out of the line of fire.

Ford grimaced. His enemy had taken out the team's sharpshooter — so far the only person who'd been able to at least injure one of their unseen attackers. If he didn't find a way to turn the tables, his team was going to get butchered.

This realization, however, was quickly replaced with confusion as the enemy fire lessened, until it fully stopped. That, in itself, was perhaps more terrifying to Ford. If the enemy ceased fire, there was no way to track them.

"Stay on alert!" he ordered his team as he kept his rifle raised and scanned the area, switching on his NVD once again as the flare died out. "NVD's on!"

He twitched ever so slightly as his audio receivers picked up something distant. It sounded almost like a wire being reeled in. As he thought back, he was reminded that Petrovsky had mentioned that the person they'd managed to wound was suspended on wires, too.

"Sir, Spectre's in bad shape," Alice reported in then. "We need to get him out of here quickly, but the Portkeys are down."

Figures. Ford desperately wanted to spit in anger now, but refrained from fouling up his visor. "Find out how far the wards go, then you and Bergstein make a break for it." he ordered.

"And you, sarge?" Alice asked concernedly.

He narrowed his eyes as a figure emerged from behind one of the giant trees, walking slowly and deliberately towards him. They were still too far to make out any distinguishing characteristics. "I'm going to get us some answers."


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, February 15, 2019…

While Ford and his team were stuck fighting an unseen foe along the Franco-German border, Hughes watched quietly as the interactive map that pretty much occupied the entire wall of his stage/office lit up with red dots all along the Northern Sun's South-Eastern borders.

"Sir, we've got reports of skirmishes along our border with the Northern Alpine Republic," an aide informed him unnecessarily. Hughes nodded absently as he watched the dots grow in frequency and amount.

"In addition," the aide ploughed on, "our spies in the Sicilian Republic have informed us that a fleet of warships has departed out of schedule from Palermo and Catatania. Destination uncertain, however SIS has estimated that they are likely headed for—"

"Marseilles," Hughes finished calmly. Of course they were. The Northern Sun had lost the city to the rebels, and the city's major ports would allow for an easy invasion, especially if the rebels cooperated with the Sicilians and NAR.

Which they obviously were.

The timing on the whole thing was pretty much perfect. While the Northern Sun fought the French insurgency at Montpellier, the South-Eastern border region was effectively undefended, but for a handful of troops. If pressed by rebels on one side and the NAR on the other, their border defences would collapse quite easily.

Then, from the sea, the Sicilian Republic would land its troops and aid the rebels take Montpellier and effectively cripple the Northern Sun's military readiness in its south-eastern regions. It would be weeks before the Northern Sun would be able to muster a large enough force to dislodge the then-entrenched enemy troops from the region and retake Marseilles.

And all the while, the Germans would have free reign over Austria, and the border regions.

"What about Austria?" he asked.

The aide frowned as he accessed the report on his tablet. "As expected, German forces have crossed into Austria. The media is widely condemning the attack, but due to the Austrian withdrawal from the ETO, most political commentators have agreed that intervening at this moment would be madness."

A sentiment not shared by the other ETO governments, who were no doubt already pushing Warwick up the wall with requests to intervene. And, knowing the Prime Minister, the man was probably itching to declare the Northern Sun's support for Austria, but political expediency and the larger picture held him back.

Strangely, however, the Queen had yet to speak up regarding the event. Not even at court. Then again, it was likely she had deduced part of his plan, based on her latest projects.

The King, for his part, had merely looked at him with a knowing smirk before leaving it to him. Somehow, he had a feeling his monarch knew exactly what he was plotting, despite having made sure that as little information got out as possible.

It spoke well of the King and Queen's intelligence. Or of the King's spies' abilities.

"Sir!" another aide ran up, looking a little troubled. "We've lost contact with Fireteam Guardian in the Great Forest!"

Hughes nodded quietly as he watched the new dot materialize on his screen. This just meant the Germans were beginning to probe their defenses. As he'd expected.

As he'd planned.

Hughes cupped his chin and drew his eyes to every dot on the interactive map, taking them in. All this time. All this patience. For just one moment.

"Initiate Operation Gaugamela."

The moment when all the Northern Sun's problems were lumped together to be dealt with at last.

With one savage strike.


Northern-German Border, February 15, 2019…

"Stop where you are." Ford ordered firmly, his external speakers activated and his rifle raised and ready to put a round straight through his attacker's left eye at a moment's notice. "Identify yourself."

From the corner of his eye, he saw the rest of Fireteam Guardian level their weapons at the unknown foe. The man — that much was certain, by his features and build — seemed unconcerned, however. He merely lifted his hand in the familiar gesture to hold back.

Likely preventing his comrades from opening fire once again.

"First Sergeant John Ford?" the man asked, a clear German accent in his speech.

Ford narrowed his eyes, silently thanking the geeks back at R&D for making the visors polarized, to avoid having the enemy read their facial expressions. "Identify yourself," he repeated. He wasn't about to confirm or deny anything to the asshole who shot one of his men.

The hypocrisy of that sentiment never once occurred to him.

"It appears so," his foe answered nonetheless. "I have something of yours, it would appear."

The man raised his hand again and made a gesture. Pure curiosity alone saved him from Ford firing a round into his face. To Ford's surprise, another figure appeared from behind the same gigantic tree his foe had made his own entrance from. Followed by another, easily recognizable person.

Meteor.

Ford felt his stomach plummet as he noticed that Meteor was in bad shape. Her hair was matted and grimy with dirt and mud, and she was trussed up in tight ropes, with her hands firmly sealed in a pillock he recognized as magic-restraining cuffs. The older, more barbaric model. A faded streak of blood went from her lip to her chin.

"Release Lieutenant Meteor at once." he ordered steadily. He wasn't about to let his emotions take over now, and he was glad to see that his team had managed similar restraint. Though, judging by Buchanan's body language, that was a tenuous state, at best.

"I intend to," the man said, taking custody of Meteor while his companion retreated back behind the tree. Again, Ford heard the distinct sound of wires being reeled. "But not out of the goodness of my heart, mein herr. A trade."

Ford glared behind his visor. He'd much rather stick the man with his combat knife. Which, he unnecessarily recalled, was either in Petrovsky's hands still, or stuck up on the tree.

"Trade? How about I fucking gut you, you filthy piece of Kraut shite!" Buchanan swore via TEAMCOM, making sure not to use her external speakers and ruin whatever strange lull had occurred between the two forces.

"Let me take the shot, sarge. I'll drill another eye socket in his fucking head!" King added in.

"Shut it, both of you." Liam snapped, stopping both hotheads from escalating things any further. "Sarge's busy."

Ford would've nodded at Liam if the situation wasn't so tense. The last thing he needed was the two most emotional characters in his unit to fly off the handle and egg him on. Especially as his own calm was rather severely damaged at the sight of Meteor in such a state.

Which also begged the question: where was Earthshaker?

"Lieutenant Meteor had a companion. Where is he?" he asked.

A simple look at Meteor's face told him enough. Earthshaker was dead. The short sob she emitted thereafter merely confirmed it.

To the German man's credit, however, he didn't appear smug or anything similar. If anything, he dipped his head in apology. "I'm afraid our altercation with him resulted in a poor ending," he admitted.

Ford ground his teeth. Earthshaker had been a friend, despite his higher rank. He had taken the time to get to know Guardian's members, and had occasionally shared a drink with them after a hard mission. He knew Meteor, in particular, had thought the world of the Anglo-Spanish War veteran.

"What's the trade?" he asked, focusing on the fact that he could save Meteor here, now. Earthshaker was beyond his help, but his protegé wasn't. Giving into the anguished fury of losing a friend would cause him to lose another.

"You managed to hurt one of my men," the German man said simply, nodding upwards towards the tree Petrovsky had been climbing. "While I managed to prevent your man from reaching him, I still need to retrieve him."

"So do it," Ford challenged, a little bit of anger managing to filter in, despite himself.

The German man didn't call him out on it, however. Remaining stoic, he merely shrugged. "I cannot whilst you defend the tree with such vigor, herr Sergeant."

"And in return for letting you take him back?" Ford asked, rallying his self-control.

"We return the fraulein here, and retire from this engagement," the German man answered. "It's a good deal," he then added.

Ford agreed, but wasn't about to say as much. It took immense self-restraint not to open fire on the man and rid the world of Earthshaker's murderer.

"Your man was injured was he not?" the man spoke up again, then. Ford again glared behind the polarized visor. "I will add in another perk. Let us retrieve our comrade, and we will also take down the wards that keep you here."

So, on top of everything, these were the ones who'd established the Anti-Portkey/Apparation trap. And yet he'd seen not one ounce of magic. In a frightening way, this man and his team of unseen warriors reminded him eerily of the SSI.

Yet, unlike Ford and his team, the man wore no visible armor. A light brown jacket. A white shirt underneath. Nondescript white pants and knee-high boots. Frankly, the only thing that marked the man as a warrior of any kind was his body language and the strange apparatus at his waist.

Even so…

"Doc, what's the situation with Spectre?" he asked via TEAMCOM.

"...He's lost a lot of blood, sarge," Alice admitted. "He needs to be MEDEVAC'ed quickly."

No choice, then.

"Agreed." he said tightly, lowering his rifle just an inch. If he was getting backstabbed, he wanted to be able to kill the fucker as quickly as possible.

"A wise choice, Sergeant," the man praised him, before looking up at the pitch-black canopy and nodding. "Tu es!"

Ford glanced up, keeping his head stable, as he again heard the sound of wires being reeled in. Unfortunately, whoever it was remained out of sight. Soon after, he heard the sound again, and saw the German man's shoulders droop with relief.

"Thank you for keeping your word, herr Sergeant," he thanked Ford before pushing Meteor forward. "As promised, the fraulein goes free. The wards will be down in five minutes. I give you my word."

Ford was tempted to rush in and punch the daylights out of him, but refrained from doing so, waiting until Meteor got close enough for him for Liam to move up lead her back behind the tree, where Alice could take a look at her.

"You keep having me at a disadvantage," Ford spoke up as the German man turned to leave. "You seem to know who I am, but I don't know you."

The man chuckled, stopping in his tracks. He glanced over his shoulder and smiled. "The reputation of the Northern Sun's intrepid commando precedes him all over Europe, mein herr," he said. "You may call me Erwin."

He waved over his shoulder then, leisurely walking back behind the cover of his own tree. "As for who we are…"

He soon went out of view, but Ford heard his words clear as day.

Wir sind die Jäger.


Post-AN: Well, here's hoping the next chapter won't take as long as this one to pump out. Fingers crossed!

If anyone was wondering (or just doesn't want to go through the trouble of firing up Google Translate), that last sentence means: We are the Hunters/Jäger

As always, please read and review!