AN: So wow. That took a long time to write up. Sorry about that. A couple of things:
1. Story isn't dead. Obviously.
2. I'm going to be cutting down on main cast from here on out. I know it may not seem so, but other than a few cameos here and there, I will be cutting down on POV characters in order to streamline the plot. It's getting pretty damn out of hand.
3. Please have patience with me. I just started teaching (in addition to my two other jobs), so updates will be slow. I can't really help that beyond quitting, and financial necessity obliges me to discount that.
4. I have rewritten the prologue. Please go check it out, and let me know if it's a better fit than the old one. Anyone seeking to compare the two can request a copy from me, but please vote in the poll, or via reviews/PMs.
As always, any comments or questions, I will gladly field them via the review system or PM. However, no signed review, no possibility of answering, unless you drop off an e-mail. Don't be a troll. :)
Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, February 16, 2019...
"There is no such thing as a Jaeger."
Harry fought down an amused smirk as he saw the SSI First Sergeant clench his jaw in irritation at Xeno's statement.
"With all due respect, sir, that's what he called himself," the man who saved his wife stated stubbornly as he shifted his stance, still trying to get comfortable as he stood in front of the King's throne for the second time in his entire life. "Whether or not he lied, the fact of the matter is that's what he called himself and his unit."
Looking down at his ministers, who sat at the middle stage of the elevated dais, he saw Curtis shift uneasily on her chair, next to Speirs' empty one. The Northern Field Marshal was still at Montpellier, ostensibly fighting off insurmountable odds with a handful of Northern troops.
Xeno turned to look at him, and Harry drew his attention back to the debate. "Our reports are quite clear, sire. There are no units with that designation within the entire German military forces."
"If memory serves, they use the word jaeger simply to denote a common infantryman," Curtis spoke up. Out of his entire cabinet, she seemed the most distressed by the idea of Mage-killing specialists running loose. He supposed that made some sense, given her informal relationship with Sirius.
Again, he saw Ford tense up. Harry couldn't blame him for feeling irritated. The after-action report hadn't been pretty. After negotiating for the release of Meteor, Fireteam Guardian had gone looking for Earthshaker's body, so it could receive a proper burial with full military honors. Apparently, they had found him in a three foot crater, still impaled with the broken blades of two swords. Post-battle analysis concluded that these were made of tempered Goblin steel.
No one had been more furious than Ragnok himself, though Harry himself had been damned close. After all, having enemy armies kitted out with Goblin steel meant one of the Northern Sun's advantages was effectively neutralized.
Fortunately, they still had MAC technology to fall back on. Even Goblin steel armour couldn't withstand a MAC round.
"With all due respect, General," Ford addressed Curtis, "the implication was quite clear. This Erwin character called himself and his men Jaegers, as though it were a unit name."
"Yet no such unit exists," Xeno countered again. "I don't wish to call anyone here a liar, First Sergeant, but it may be that your prey lied to you to throw you off his trail."
Ford's angry body language lessened a bit at that, having apparently been forced to concede the point. "Perhaps, sir."
"Or it may be a heretofore unknown unit," James spoke up. Harry looked at his father curiously. He'd entertained the thought himself, but wanted to see his dad's train of thought. "It's not like we publicized the existence of the SSI until after they made a scene."
"A fair point," grunted the Lord Judge from his seat nearest the steps leading up to his throne.
"Our spies have infiltrated every level of the German government and High Command," Xeno defended, leaning forward to frown at James. "No such project could have been formulated and put into practice without our knowledge."
"And yet here we are," James pointed out.
"Minister Potter makes a valid point," spoke up the Minister for Health then, nodding and causing her blonde curls to bob. "As good as your spies are, Director, there's no reason not to consider the possibility that they may have missed something."
Harry bit back a chuckle. If Josefina had ever heard that, he'd be short one MInister. His former ward so hated having her people's abilities questioned…
"Regardless of whether or not they exist, perhaps the most salient point is that they managed to take down one of our most veteran mages without incurring casualties of their own," Warwick spoke up, sounding a little annoyed by the debate. Harry had to agree — he wasn't too worried about whether or not a Mage-killing unit had been organized somewhere. Rather, he was far more worried about how good they were at it.
He watched as Ford tensed, his grip on his beret tightening considerably. Obviously, still a sore point.
"According to Mage Lieutenant Meteor, the enemy unit was extraordinarily well coordinated," Curtis noted as she read from the incident report. "And until the moment Mage Captain Earthshaker was killed, little to no visual contact was ever established with these so-called Jaegers."
And here the discussion finally came round to the real reason why a full Cabinet Council was called for, despite the operation being purely military.
"As I've said before, I believe this unit to have been specially prepared by the German military for the targeted killing of Military Mages," Ford spoke up. Predictably, Harry heard his entire Cabinet murmur in dissent.
Okay, maybe not murmur.
"Preposterous," Curtis stated bluntly. "I've already conferred with Director Lovegood, and we're in agreement: these appear to be mercenaries who just got lucky."
"With respect, Minister, is there no ground for the First Sergeant's assertions?" James countered. "It isn't unfeasible that our advantage may have been countered. It's been a long time coming, in fact."
"All current intelligence reports are in agreement, Minister Potter," Xeno insisted. "The only feasible way to counter a Military Mage is with long range weaponry or another Military Mage. Give Mage Lieutenant Meteor's description of the attack, the enemy always remained within less than a hundred yards of them."
"Our intelligence analysts are working based on outdated perceptions," James said flatly. "Mages are not so indestructible as we make them out to be. Is it not feasible that the enemy may have deduced a way to kill a mage at a short distance?"
Harry privately agreed with his father; he remembered when he was still just a secret weapon for the United Kingdom in Spain. When his forces had been ambushed, he'd snuck about and personally stabbed a Spanish witch to death to keep his cover. True, there were differing circumstances, but the point stood — you didn't need to be far away or have magic powers to kill a mage. You just had to be patient, and clever.
But the discussion was in danger of being derailed again. So focused on the idea of feasibility were his Ministers that they were forgetting the salient point — did the enemy possess an anti-mage unit?
In his opinion? Yes. Unfortunately, there was no evidence to back that up. Call it a gut feeling.
"For the moment," he interrupted his father's debate with the Director of the SIS, "we will operate under the assumption that these mage hunters do work for our enemies. Whether they are of a mercenary nature or career soldiers is irrelevant."
Ford's gaze softened, he noted, though his Ministers seemed uncomfortable with the decision. "As a result, we must reorganize our military to best counter this rising threat to our dominance," he added sternly. "Minister Curtis, I leave that to you, though I expect to be kept informed throughout the planning and implementing processes."
Curtis stood, turned, and bowed to him. "Understood, sire," she said reluctantly. How amusing. Years ago, she'd been the one barking orders at him.
Harry then turned his attention to Xeno. "Director, I will require a word with you after the meeting regarding our intelligence operations."
And finally, to Ford. "First Sergeant," the man snapped to attention. "As always, your service to the Crown has been exemplary. Thanks to you, we may have identified a critical flaw in our military planning and uncovered an enemy secret weapon." Harry smiled as he saw Ford blush a bit at the praise. "Such dedication merits a reward. Ask within reason, and it is yours."
Ford stared at him, a little uncomfortable at being placed in the spot like that, no doubt. After all, every high-ranking Minister of the realm was present at this ad-hoc meeting of the Royal Government. Whatever his decision was, these men and women, the most powerful people in Europe, would stand judge of his decision.
Harry almost pitied him.
Ford was silent for a moment, and just as Harry was about to ask the Minister for Health to check if he was still conscious, he opened his mouth.
Montpellier, Occupied French Territories, February 20, 2019…
Speirs knew of the whispering behind his back.
Nicknames abounded for him, all unflattering. He supposed it was inevitable, when the person they compared him to happened to sit on a throne. It was hard not to make the comparison, too, considering how closely linked their careers had been.
He remembered meeting the King for the first time vividly, almost like it happened a mere hour ago. They'd both been part of the British Expeditionary Force sent to reinforce Gibraltar during the initial stages of the Anglo-Spanish War. The King, then a mere Captain, had asked him for information on the siege. They'd traded pleasantries, commiserated in their mutual dislike for the Spanish at that point, and then parted ways.
Then, at Sagunto, Speirs remembered having to make the most important decision in his life.
He'd never paid much attention to the King's rise through the ranks, until it stared at him right in the face. As far as he cared, the man was just another up-and-coming officer who did his duty and got repaid adequately for it.
When had that changed? Well, he supposed it was when the Death Eater attacks hit London, almost collapsing the entire British state. While others were worrying about mages and their role, Speirs had noticed how effortlessly his once-colleague ascended through the ranks, until he managed to reach a rank just beneath his own.
It got him thinking — where would Harry Potter stop?
For the first time in his life, Speirs had felt some fear. Potter had risen through the ranks upon the deaths of his superiors. While Speirs knew how to defend himself, he knew he was far outmatched against a mage — especially one as battle hardened as Potter.
And then Sagunto came, and to his relief, Potter was put under General Stevens' command. But then came another question — Potter's rise would probably divide the army at some point. Sullivan and Stevens' attitudes towards the mages proved that. The Chiefs of Staff's attitudes towards him made it inevitable. So what side was he going to choose?
Speirs had wrestled with the question for days, before making his final decision at the Sagunto briefing, just as they were about to face a tidal wave of enemy forces. He'd figured that if Potter was really meant to change things, he would survive. If not, then they'd all die.
So why not throw his hat in with the man with the plan?
It'd proven a good, and bad decision. Good, because his career became linked with Potter's, and the two rose meteorically after Sagunto. Potter had even been nice enough to make him part of the ruling military triumvirate in the Northern Territories, despite everyone knowing where the real power lay.
But at the same time, it'd been a bad decision for the same reasons. His own abilities had been sidelined in favor of the King's. Despite having risen on his own merits, few remembered his exploits during the Anglo-Spanish War, and many considered him merely a relic of a bygone time. They saw him as a friend of the King who used said friendship to maintain political power.
If the King had no trust in his abilities, why had he not yet been replaced? Why had the King himself appointed him in command of dealing with the French rebellion?
Well it was time to remind people why he remained in charge of the Northern military. That he had earned his place at the King's side, fair and square.
He eyed the digital render of the city's status. While his forces controlled all of the city's perimeter, they were beset on every front by enemy forces. Worse still, reports had arrived that the Northern Alpine Republic and the Sicilian Republic — treacherous worms, both of them — had sided with the rebels and were sending reinforcements by sea and land.
To their south, the town of Pérols was firmly in rebel hands, offering the invaders a safe harbour to land at. The roads up to Northern lands to his east, west, and north were all under enemy control as well. Neither invading nation would have much of an issue making his life much harder.
Time to change that.
Looking up, he saw his staff waiting on his orders nervously. Clearly, they had all heard the reports of Italian reinforcements as well, and didn't seem to trust him to keep things manageable.
"Gentlemen," he addressed them. "The time has come for us to make our stand. As you all know, the Northern Alpine Republic and the Sicilians have both declared war on the Northern Sun, and we will show them how terrible a mistake that is."
He saw incredulity in their faces, and stifled a glare. Granted, he supposed they had reason to doubt him, having seen him do nothing but retreat during the insurrection. How surprised they would be if they knew the truth.
Months ago, he and his most trusted circle — Longbottom, Humboldt, Wood — had deduced that in the event of a rebellion, there were only about a handful of credible threat scenarios whereby the Northern Sun would be in legitimately dire straits. Much of their shared opinion was justified — in their eyes — by the increasing arrogance of the Northern populace, who seemed to think their country was unstoppable. If allowed to proceed beyond an acceptable point, any minor defeat would become a catastrophic morale crisis.
So naturally, these scenarios had to be avoided at all costs.
Following that line of thinking, the four men drew up hundreds of pre-planned scenarios which would allow them to portray very real issues within the Northern Sun while keeping the bulk of their forces intact.
Nothing flushed out weakness more than a sinking ship, after all.
And so Speirs had restrained himself. He gave the rebels territory after territory, his side of the plan left mostly to his discretion and kept fully secret. Everything was going according to plan, but for a simple, two-word note Hughes had given him with a knowing smile.
He'd opened it this morning, and felt a little annoyed that the Advisor had guessed it right.
He didn't know how Hughes had found out about OPERATION COASTAL DAWN, but he supposed it'd been one of his three compatriots. Or his office was far more bugged than he thought — despite his best efforts to keep it clean of surveillance equipment.
Either way, it didn't matter. Because if Hughes knew his plan, then he knew how best to integrate it into the overall play. Especially now that the Germans had tipped their hands.
"Horatius," he said simply, ignoring the looks of his staff. Beside him, a holographic port blazed to life, projecting a silver-tinged orb. "Please inform Admiral West we may proceed with Operation Coastal Dawn."
"Understood, Field Marshal."
Speirs eyed his staff with some contempt. They had allowed their emotional states override their professionalism far too many times during this mere...training exercise. "Gentlemen, let this be a lesson."
A distant, thunderous blast rocked the building. Though Speirs remained unaffected, he watched as nearly everyone in his staff jumped from the sudden sound.
"Just because we appear weak, does not mean we are weak."
"Just because we appear tired, does not mean we are tired."
And yet another.
"And just because we appear without plan, does not mean we are without plan."
The orb flashed once softly. "Field Marshal, Admiral West reports that all enemy artillery at Pérols have been eliminated. She is currently moving to engage the Sicilian Fleet."
Speirs allowed him to enjoy, for a brief five seconds, the looks of stunned disbelief adorning his staffers. Then it was time to get back to work.
"Horatius. Please let Air Marshal Dalton know I expect him to not be outdone by the Royal Navy."
"There's more?" breathed one of his officers. As the orb got to work, Speirs fixed the man with a glare.
"Despite popular perception to the contrary, Colonel, Northern High Command is not staffed by incompetent officers," he chastised. "Each one of us earned our rank by blood, sweat, and tears. You would do well to remember that. All of you," he said sternly before eyeing the digital render again. Progressively, the icons representing enemy artillery began to bleep out of existence as the group heard the roar of jet engines coming from outside.
"Why, is irrelevant," Speirs said gruffly. "All that matters is that the plan has worked. Our enemy followed us deep into our territory. They believed us to be weak and inept, after a lifetime of war. We have now proven them wrong, and it is time to capitalize on their mistake."
He swept out a hand. "Gentlemen. What the Northern military requires are thinkers, strategists, and brave leaders of men and women. Those who follow orders without question put their lives in the hands of others, and the lives of their men as well. Think for yourselves, question orders, but do not be insubordinate. Once you begin to question, you begin to think. And when you think, you see connections. Had you done so, you would have realized this was but a trap."
"Horatius," he turned to his orb. "Please broadcast the following on all of our unit channels."
Speirs nodded grimly. "Soldiers of the Northern Sun. As you may have seen, we do not, and have not, been standing alone in this fight. Our brothers and sisters in the Navy and Air Force have been with us all this time, and they have now broken the backs of the enemy."
He clenched a fist. "Now is the time when we show the world the might of the Northern Sun. That in spite of defeats, we will rise time and time again, like the rising sun. That even at the bleakest hour, we will always prevail."
"I know much of what has been said of me these past weeks. The near-mutinous comments, the insubordination. All of it. But none of it matters now. For we stand now at a critical juncture. We stand ready to usher in the Northern Sun's destiny! The question I have for you now, my brothers and sisters is...are you willing to seize it?"
The next roar they heard did not come jet engines.
Milan, Northern Alpine Republic, February 20, 2019...
Pietro Mazzini was a businessman.
There was no other way to describe him, really. Practically from the moment he'd been born, he had a glint in his eyes that told of a hunger for wealth. His pedigree helped, too. His father had been a businessman. His grandfather had been a businessman as well. And his father before him. And so on, and so on.
When the Great Reveal happened, so many years ago, he'd been a nobody on the commercial scene, however. When he said his family had been businessmen, he hadn't been fibbing; but their business, so to speak, was owning a bakery and a minor wheat field.
But then the Great Reveal happened, and things went — as the British used to say — all cocked up.
He knew much of the world's attention hadn't been on Italy during the time — there was, after all, a war going on in Spain, French repression against the Mages, a Civil War in the United Kingdom, and so forth — but his country had been severely affected as well.
Not two years after the Great Reveal, Italy tore itself apart at the hands of secessionists, religious fundamentalists, and struggling moderates, and Pietro had been at the forefront of that. As the movement for an independent Cisalpine Italy gained force, he realized that either he joined the winning side, or stayed loyal to a government in Rome who would likely draft him into some ill-fated attempt at putting down the rebellion, when it inevitably happened.
So Pietro switched sides, just like that. Generations of (somewhat) loyal Mazzini businessmen disregarded.
His ancestors would've been proud.
But it wasn't his political acumen that made him powerful. It was his bakery.
With chaos came crippling inflation, and his self-sustaining bakery was perfectly placed to produce much-needed bread and other products that his customers might need, to the point where he could practically dictate his price in his little village. Sure enough, that allowed him to leverage finer products, which he sold in turn at a profit. Then he used that profit to fund other schemes, bought out land from debtors, and slowly built up his empire.
The chaos was a perfect opportunity to rise to the top, and he rode the wave all the way. By the time the Northern Alpine Republic seceded from the Italian Republic, he'd been poised to fund his candidate of choice for the Presidency.
One might have wondered, why not take it for himself? Pietro hated the limelight. Being the center of attention also meant being the focus of a lot of anger. Much easier on one's health to remain the power broker in the shadows. Heck, the President owed him so many favors, and he had so much dirt on him, he could demand the man's wife and he was sure the President would comply!
Not that he would, of course. The woman was ghastly.
It was the principle of thing.
And in any case, he'd begun to question his loyalty to the relatively new nation.
Thirty seconds ago, in fact, when a rather vicious looking man and a beautiful young woman led a team into his mansion, killed his guards, and now held him prisoner in his own bedroom.
"Pietro Mazzini?" asked the man as he held him down by the throat. Pietro could've sworn he felt claws digging into his skin. But that was crazy, right?
"AKA Ronaldo Vieri, AKA Gustavo Perez, AKA John Smith, AKA Enrique de la Cueva?" supplied the woman.
Pietro sweated profusely. On the face of it, the woman might've picked some of the most common names in Anglo-Ibero-Italian cultures. However, the last one was the real game changer. Enrique de la Cueva was the alias he used for his more...personal transactions. The ones he needed off, off the books to ensure that no one ever had leverage over him.
The man sniffed, then made a strange face — somewhat of a mix between an amused grin and a sneer of disgust.
"From the pungent body odor he's started to give off, I'd say that's a yes, Nightshade," the man growled.
"Glad I don't have a werewolf's nose, then."
Pietro's sweating problem only increased. Though the Great Reveal had brought to light many, many disturbing facts about the real number of sentient species on Earth, none had caused more panic than the existence of werewolves. In practically no culture on Earth were they considered positive beings, and the fact that you needed a special potion to not lose your mind whenever one turned merely made the reality of their existence all the worse.
And Pietro rather liked his humanity. He was kind of proud of it, too.
Absence of conventional morality notwithstanding.
The man's upper lip curled in disgust. "Merlin's sake, woman!" he chastised his partner. "Get on with it before he drowns us both in his sweat!"
The beautiful young woman merely raised an eyebrow at her partner before slowly turning her gaze onto him. He was thankful for the distraction — he could've sworn the man was growing longer incisors.
"Mister Mazzini, by now, you've undoubtedly realized the precariousness of your situation," the woman stated almost regally, looking at him with so much repressed disdain that, were he a more moral man, he might've felt bad about himself. "Cooperate, and you live. Don't...well…" she glanced at her partner, whose smile widened toothily.
It was not pleasant to look at.
"Pretty bleak terms, signorina." he managed out.
The woman smiled coldly as she crossed her arms under her chest, looking for all the world relaxed as ever. "Pretty bleak situation for you, is it not?"
Mazzini struggled to nod, desperately attempting to convey nothing but calm. Fortunately, he'd been in enough dangerous spots to be able to fake it pretty well. "Your terms?"
The man let out what sounded like a disappointed growl. Obviously, he'd expected to use force to get his consent. Pietro almost smiled at that. How simple-minded. This was a business transaction. Like everything else. They provided demand, he provided supply.
Pietro frowned. That was somewhat unexpected. He'd rather thought they would ask him to sabotage the NAR's supply lines, or deprive defenders of ammunition, or some such.
But to ask for the capital itself? That would be…
"Madness," he blurted out inadvertently. His eyes widened. Had he really just said that out loud? He wanted to smack himself for making such an amateur move. "I mean to say…"
The woman's grin somehow grew colder. "I know exactly what you meant to say, Mister Mazzini. Wolfsbane?"
Pietro gasped for air as the man called Wolfsbane grinned savagely and closed his grip on his neck, the man's nails digging into his skin like their were knives.
The woman, Nightshade, just stood there, inspecting her nails like it was more important than getting his consent. As though her partner choking him to death was a mere annoyance.
How humiliating for a man who'd practically run the government from the shadows at one point!
"Stop!" he wanted to cry out, though it came out as a desperate gargle, while his hands futilely smacked against his attacker's powerful arms.
Mercifully, however, the woman raised a hand. "That's enough, Wolfsbane."
Pietro gasped and breathed in deeply as he felt the man's grip loosen, though his hand remained firmly wedged against his throat. He absently noted that parts of his neck seemed wet. He didn't need to see it. Just the coppery smell told him he was bleeding. Not seriously, but it was enough to rattle him.
Nightshade moved closer and smiled down at him, her raven hair cascading down on either side, forming a dark tunnel where his only coherent view was her cold smile and disdainful stare.
"I believe you understand now that we're not joking around, Mister Mazzini," she said smoothly. "Another outburst like the last, and my friend here will be introducing you to his pack….one way or another."
Pietro rather didn't want to know what either way was.
"Your terms are steep, signorina," he managed to say as he rubbed his aching throat. "Not unreasonable, of course," he added quickly as he saw the man called Wolfsbane twitch. "But steep, and involving a great deal of personal danger."
Nightshade's cold smile grew. "You want compensation."
Pietro managed a small shrug. "Compensation, payment...this is, after all, a business deal, yes?"
Wolfsbane growled, making Pietro twitch, but the woman raised a halting hand, looking quite amused.
"You're everything our sources said you were, Mister Mazzini," she said. "You're quite right. This is a business deal. We get Milan, and the King is willing to let you retain your business interests, intact, and legal immunity for all past transgressions."
It was a good deal. An amazing deal, in fact. The Northern courts were notorious for tracking down formerly foreign enemies and nailing them to a cross, figuratively speaking, for past offences...even if the crimes weren't committed under Northern laws. And given the way Pietro had bribed, corrupted, and killed his way into power, he was a prime candidate for said figurative crucifixion.
"Deal, signorina." he said quickly, already making a mental list of assets to get out of Milan before the Northern hammer struck. "How long do I have?"
The woman smiled at her colleague, who seemed put out by his decision. Obviously, he'd wanted to torture Pietro a lot more. Well, too bad for him, the miserable flea bag!
"Next week, mister Mazzini," the woman told him then, nearly giving him a stroke.
"Next week?!" he almost bolted out the chair. It was unreasonable! He had to find a way to smuggle out his third of the standing troops in Milan, then convince another third to defect, and have the remaining third killed! All in a week?!
"Next week," the woman repeated herself, leaning forward with a vicious glare that made him cower. He was quickly reminded that he was in no real negotiating position right now. He either did as instructed, or everything was lost.
"U-Understood," he conceded, still internally screaming in protest. How on earth was he supposed to pull that off? There was so many people he had to see, and coordinate! One slip-up, and it wouldn't be the werewolf who killed him, but rather his former allies in Milan!
One look at the pair, however, told him all he needed to know. They didn't care at all what happened to him. Whether he succeeded or failed, they probably had contingency plans set up in case anything went awry. Hell, he was pretty certain the Northern forces alone could easily take down Milan, which was hardly a fortified bastion. Drop a single Military Mage in the middle of the city, and Pietro was sure the entire NAR leadership would die within minutes.
Which meant they were just doing this to save a couple of Northern lives and spare themselves the expense of organizing a full fledged invasion. Meaning they had another, juicier target in the wings.
It was honestly a bit humiliating. When the Northern Sun had brought the French Republic to its knees, they had dedicated everything to doing so. With the Northern Alpine Republic, however, they weren't even giving it a fraction of that attention to detail. They just wanted them out of the way as quickly and cheaply as possible. He was sure Sicily would get the same treatment. No one attacked the Northern Sun and walked away with impunity.
But such matters of politics and scheming were now beyond him, and he cared little for them. He had a good deal in his hands, with the ability to retire filthy rich into obscurity, away from the prying claws of his enemies.
And Pietro was a businessman, and deals were his domain.
Palermo, Sicilian Republic, February 28, 2019…
Palermo was in ruins.
Eight days of consecutive shelling by the fleet under the command of Admiral of the Fleet Amalia West had turned the once proud capital of the Sicilian Republic into a pile of rubble.
There had been no warning. No attempt at negotiation. West's fleet had merely sailed into range, having sunk the Republic's ships hours ago, and begun shelling with vicious abandon. The first building to collapse, naturally, was the President's Home. A direct hit from the Forward Unto Dawn's main MAC gun leveled the building in a single shot, taking with it much of the nearby government buildings as well.
With careful, systematic attention to detail, the Northern ships then began to sweep their cannonade up from the ports and into the city proper, driving away the civilian population — or what little remained of it, after a mass exodus occurred following the defeat of the Sicilian navy near the French coast — into the island's rural areas.
The order had been clear: there was to be nothing left taller than three feet. No considerations were to be made for historic landmarks or infrastructure. Everything had to be leveled. But in spite of the horror Amalia's staff felt at such an order, she had her reasons: magic.
She'd often wondered why the Army was so finicky about collateral damage when they'd invaded France. It made little sense to her, given the existence of Military Mages. With a sweep of their wands, or hands, they could put back together anything. What need was there for restraint when one could pull that off? Not to mention the amount of lives saved by turning every city encountered into a wasteland.
The Admiral shivered as she stood on the starboard deck of her catamaran carrier, the flagship and jewel of the Navy. The three-barreled MAC gun nestled in between the two decks was firing off round after round, as quickly as physically possible without overloading its circuits, and each one made her shiver pleasurably.
She was aware that a few crewmen had edged away from her because of this.
"Ma'am, the Italians want to know when we're going to invade."
Amalia sighed as she turned to face her liaison to the Italian Republic's detachment. As part of an agreement to integrate the Italian Republic into the ever-expanding borders of the Northern Sun, the Italian government had gained the right to be the ones to invade and recover their lost territories. In exchange, the Italian Republic agreed to submit to the Northern Sun as a Constituent State.
"Tell Luciano he'll go when we're damn well ready," Amalia said firmly, before returning to her loving observation of the ruins of Palermo. Little else had to be said. Despite their deal, the Italians were now theirs, and so they would only be able to do anything if she so ordered it first.
She tapped her earpiece. "Iris," she was a sucker for sentimentality, she supposed. The original Iris was long since decommissioned. As was her successor. Even so, Amalia insisted on calling every subsequent AI assigned to the Dawn as Iris. "What's the status on the bombardment?"
"88.764 percent of the city is in ruins, Admiral."
Gods, she loved these AIs. Another staffer would've taken the opportunity to question the morality of destroying such a historic city, questioned the sanity of the order...but the AI didn't. It just did as told. Oh, she was still questioned by nearby staffers, but her orders were carried out regardless.
"Continue to 90 percent, then give the green light for the amphibious invasion," she ordered.
She squinted and raised a hand to block out the sun. There, near the beach, was a good site for a statue replica of the Dawn, she thought. Or maybe near the old Presidential House? It had to be a central spot, however. Somewhere a lot of people would pass by every day, to remind them of the crushing might of the Northern Sun. She didn't just want the city. Or the country. She wanted to remind them of their utter idiocy in challenging her country.
Hmm...maybe a statue of the Dawn would be too gaudy, though. Perhaps that of a Northern soldier heroically holding up a Northern flag?
Marseilles, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, February 28, 2019...
Gabrielle groaned in satisfaction as she rolled off her lover's body. She'd definitely needed this.
And judging from the shallow, swallowed breaths her partner was doing, she wasn't the only one left pleasantly exhausted. She had to give it to him, though, he was quite the stamina buff. Between last night and this morning, lesser men would've buckled under the intensity of their time together.
Not that it ever stopped him from ruining the moment, of course.
"What brought this on?"
Gabrielle sighed and palmed her eyes, really wishing her partner wasn't so intuitive about her state of mind. Why couldn't he just take the sex and leave it at that?
"What? Girl can't have sex without an agenda?" she asked wryly, hoping to deflect the incoming psychoanalytical barrage.
"Other birds? Yes. You? No." her lover replied flatly, with a knowing look. "Let's face it, Gabby. It wasn't out of love, and you've never initiated sex unless you were stressed out of your mind."
Gabrielle was silent for a moment, before turning to face her lover and frowning. "Maybe I do love you."
The man barked out a laugh, prompting a scowl from Gabrielle. Did he really think her so distant, so cold? So…
Okay, maybe he had her pegged.
"Yeah, because you stumbling into the barracks, belting out offensive French drinking songs and demanding sex is the most loving gesture a woman can do for a man," he reminded her, amused.
Gabrielle actually winced at that. She hadn't realized she'd made such a scene. Her people would undoubtedly make fun of her for months after this. Yet, she knew that at the time, it'd probably seemed completely logical — a product of the severe depression she'd had yesterday afternoon, which led to the insane drinking binge that landed her in this situation.
"It's about Coastal Dawn, isn't it?"
Yeah, he definitely had her pegged.
She turned away without a word, finding some empty comfort in hugging the covers to her body. She heard him sigh, then sit up and get off the bed, probably headed for the bathroom.
She honestly couldn't find it in her to blame him for his exasperation towards her. Despite operational security rules, he'd been kind enough to let her know in advance what was coming, and she'd managed to get as many innocents out as possible. But even so, the entire thing had left a horrible taste in her mouth. The Northern Sun had again resorted to underhand trickery to push people into deciding a side, and then butchered the ones who chose "badly."
She supposed, however, that there was an arguable point to be made in favor of Coastal Dawn. The people who'd chosen to rebel were hardly saints — in fact, she was rather sure that, had the Northern Sun lost the war against France, she would've been fighting them as part of Redemption. Even so, she would've preferred to spare Marseilles from the fighting. To spare the innocents from yet another war.
No wonder she'd gotten drunk.
She barely blinked when she heard an explosion in the distance, and that made her even more depressed. She'd gotten so used to warfare that a life threatening thing like an explosion no longer fazed her.
"Sounds like the boys are getting at it early today," her companion said as he came out of the bathroom, a towel over his shoulders as he went for the window. Silently, he leaned against the frame, watching the cloud of smoke slowly rise up in the distance.
The two were silent for a moment, even as another explosion ripped through the air.
Gabrielle blinked. What did he say?
"What?" she asked, turning around. Her lover was staring right at her, but not with any of the usual lust or affection.
"Quit," he repeated clearly. "Gabby, if you can't handle this sort of situation, you need to quit. Things aren't going to get any better for a while," he told her seriously. "Forcing yourself to be a part of this...if it's doing this to you now, it's only going to get worse as time goes on."
Gabby felt twin emotional forces tearing at her from within. On the one hand, she desperately wanted to take his suggestion and just quit while she was ahead. She was sure that, with a few decades of therapy, she would eventually be able to maybe deal with everything that had happened through her life. However, another side of her couldn't face the idea of deserting her people and leaving them at the mercy of the Northern military. Her Redemption colleagues needed her as a buffer to avoid being completely subsumed into the SSI or SIS Black Ops.
She considered getting them to quit, like her, but just as easily dismissed the idea. There was no way they would abandon Redemption; many of them had bought into the Northern cause, even if they were blissfully ignorant of how their lives would be irrevocably changed if she left them at the mercy of Hughes and his ilk.
She had saved them from a life of pointless hatred and misery at the hands of the French government. She was responsible for their lives. She couldn't very well just abandon them.
Even if that meant her sanity.
He sighed and shook his head sadly. "I figured you'd say that."
Gabby gave him a sad smile and extended her hand to him. "How about helping me push these thoughts away, then?" she offered, slowly shifting into her playful mode.
He stared at her for a second before chuckling and shaking his head, but still coming towards her, a grin forming on his face. "Gods, woman, you're insatiable."
She laughed as he crawled on top of her. "Look who's talking, Nev."
Neither had anything else to say.
Milan, Northern Alpine Republic, March 1, 2019…
General Alejandro Pérez-Ruiz, General of the Spanish ETO Expeditionary Army, looked up at the man hanging from the Presidential balcony with cool detachment.
"Was this really necessary?" he asked his companion, the woman he only knew as Agent Smith.
The beautiful young woman just gave him a cryptic smile.
Sighing in defeat, he made his way into the Presidential Palace, taking note of the light damage within. It matched with the little amounts of collateral damage seen throughout the city.
Honestly, despite years of fighting the Military Mages in his home country, he was still shocked at how frighteningly lethal they were. Either they lay waste to everything with reckless abandon, or they kept everything eerily tidy, despite the piles of bodies on the floor. Some of their victims had no wounds at all. It was like they had just dropped dead.
Perhaps that was valid reason enough to have agreed to surrender his forces to the Northern King. Had he insisted on fighting to the bitter end, he wondered if Spain's fate might have been the same as France's.
At least now, the two countries held an unbreakable alliance in the marriage of Princess Isabella and the Crown Prince. Not even the Northern King would strike at family.
He stopped near a painting, and snorted. Not even one of Italy's many historical masterpieces. Just some hack painting the "glorious" moment when the NAR declared its independence. Little had the artist probably known how quickly the new republic would fall.
As he went up the staircase that led to the second floor, his final destination, he took note that the Northern soldiers hadn't been as kind to the NAR flags that were draped along the walls. Most of them were torn and shredded. A few had been burnt to ashes.
It was truly fortunate that they had been the minority in the expeditionary force, instead of the bulk of it. He supposed he had the Germans to thank for that.
He arrived at the President's Office and quickly took note of the situation within. His target, President...his name escaped him. Alejandro supposed it had to do with the fact that he'd never really taken the country seriously, and the President was really just some normal diminutive politician with an ego far exceeding his abilities.
"Señor Presidente," he greeted calmly as he walked into the office, nodding to the Northern soldiers who stood at attention. "I believe you know where we're going with this, yes?"
To the smaller man's credit, he puffed up with rage. "This is an outrage!" he yelled shrilly. "A clear violation of international law!"
Alejandro smiled and shrugged. "Whose laws, Presidente?" he asked. "Yours? The Northern Sun's? The ETO's?" he spread his hands before him. "None more valid than the next, but for one's power to enforce them."
He snapped his fingers, and the soldiers moved to grab the NAR President. The man struggled, as well he should have, but was unable to break free of the iron grasp of his captors. "The Northern King has the power, therefore his laws rule the land, Señor. Therefore, by the ETO's charter, you have waged an unlawful war against a founding member, which carries the penalty of total annihilation. Take him away."
Still yelling, the NAR President was dragged off unceremoniously by the two Northern soldiers, giving Alejandro free reign of the room. With only a moment's hesitation, he went over to the man's liquor cabinet and poured himself a glass of the man's finest wine.
"Enjoying the spoils of war, general?"
Alejandro glanced over at Agent Smith and shrugged. "We have such little pleasures as men of war. We would do well to take a respite when we can."
The woman smiled at him. "I agree." she said, before walking over and taking away the bottle of wine from him to pour out another glass.
"Such a refined pallet for a spy," Alejandro noted with amusement. "You should be careful not to become a walking Northern cliché."
Nightshade chuckled as she sat opposite him, raising her glass in toast. "I may speak another tongue and carry their citizenship, pero soy española para siempre, general," she said.
Alejandro stared at her in surprised silence for a moment, before chuckling. "Españoles para siempre. A good toast, my dear."
Both Spanish servants of the ETO clinked their glasses then, their thoughts turning melancholic as they considered their homeland's fate in this brave new world, and drank in companionable silence.
Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, March 3, 2019…
The moment Ginny saw the future Northern Queen running down the Royal Palace halls, she finally realized how alone she felt in Albion.
The past few months had not been kind to her. Despite her on-and-off again prominence within Albion's governance, her incessant crusade to track down and kill Voldemort, once Hermione had given her the possibility that he had survived his encounter with the Potters, had finally lost her most of her political capital. Only Colin and a handful of her most loyal followers and friends remained at her side. Hermione still came to visit her at the Spitfire Ranch. Charlie and Bill still wrote to her, as did her parents. Ron and Percy, however, were supposedly too busy with their government jobs to bother.
Even Flamel had all but abandoned her.
The multi-centenarian wizard had become exasperated with Ginny's "sudden" obsession with killing the supposedly defunct Dark Lord. He knew why she bore the evil wizard such hatred, of course, but like most of their society, he was confident Riddle was dead. No amount of proof — arguably all circumstantial, as she had sworn to Hermione to keep the Horcrux hunt under wraps — had managed to change his mind. And without Flamel's support, she was effectively left out in the cold.
She had given Flamel, Albion...every single one of those ungrateful witches and wizards everything she had. She had thrown away countless chances at retiring and settling down with family, or making her own. She had dedicated her every waking moment to the welfare of Albion, and even gone as far as detonated magical weapons of mass destruction in the nascent Northern Sun in an attempt at crippling it to the point where Albion would be able to sweep in and take over.
Any court in the world would've burned her for what she'd done for her country and her people. Yet the moment she needed their support to track down her brothers' murderer? Nothing. Not a shred of trust in her convictions.
All she had left now were her lands, and the not-insubstantial wealth she'd accumulated through dedicated years of service, without anyone to spend it on or and years ago, she had pondered on her loneliness, but even then she had Flamel's support.
But seeing Katerina, the future Queen of the Northern Sun, her future foe, truly rammed it home how much she'd given up.
And how this was the right choice.
"Hello!" the little girl greeted her enthusiastically as she all but skidded to a stop in front of Ginny. "I'm Katie. What's your name?"
Ginny eyed the little girl amusedly. Further up the hall, she could see the girl's nanny running their way, clearly used to these antics but no less exasperated.
She crouched down to the girl's eye level and smiled. "Hi, Katie. I'm Ginny."
The little girl grinned, obviously pleased that someone had answered her. "Are you waiting for my daddy, too?" she asked.
Ginny cocked her head to one side, curious about that statement. As far as she knew, she was the King's only appointment for this time slot. At least, according to the protocol guy she'd managed to convince to go check on things a few minutes ago. No one else should've been waiting for an audience with the King.
Ginny felt a pang of sympathy for the girl. Clearly, despite the perks, being the daughter of a King meant some hefty sacrifices as well, especially when it came to bonding time.
"I am," she confirmed, glancing up as the girl's nanny came up and put a hand on the girl's right shoulder.
"Your Highness!" the young woman exclaimed. "Please stop running around the palace!" she chided the girl, who grinned unapologetically. Ginny restrained herself from smiling at the sight as she straightened up. The girl reminded her a lot of Fred and George.
The nanny turned to her and gave a small dip of her head in apology. "I apologize for this, miss," she said quickly.
Ginny waved off the apology with a smile. "It's alright. I don't mind."
"Are you a mage?"
It was surprising to see the nanny freeze so fast, her pleasant and apologetic countenance turning suspicious the moment Katie asked her question. Ginny even noticed she had subtly put herself in between her and the princess, as though she was a clear and present threat.
"I am," Ginny answered politely. Slowly, she pulled back her sleeve to show her holstered wand. While Katie squealed in delight, her nanny seemed much less impressed. Ginny frowned imperceptibly. Funny...hadn't she heard of the princess being in the care of a mage?
"So am I!" the little girl exclaimed, before looking a little down. "But I'm not supposed to use it without Daddy…"
Ginny had a feeling she wasn't supposed to know that, because the look of alarm her nanny had for a moment was something else.
"Your father is only looking out for you, Your Highness," the nanny said, before her grip turned to steel and she turned the little girl away. She shot Ginny another suspicious look before nodding. "Miss."
Ginny nodded at the woman's dismissive tone, watching as the Princess was led away by her nanny. What an odd encounter. Still, seeing her had confirmed many of her recent thoughts. She had always imagined the Northern Sun as a place where magic would only be treated with respect with military service, but she had grown to see that as peacetime descended upon the realm, the magic-users led pretty free lives, within reason.
And seeing the way the future Queen spoke of her father, she doubted the King would force his precious daughter into a battlefield. Nor would the current Queen. She chuckled and shook her head. She'd recently begun thinking what might have happened if, back at that old bombed out school in Spain, she'd had sworn to follow Potter, instead of gone back to Dumbledore and Flamel. Would she be at his side now? A general in his court? A shopkeeper somewhere in Liverpool, carrying out a peaceful, fulfilling life? Maybe even a Quidditch player for the Northern Eagles! — she'd heard the Prime Minister had pushed for the forming of a league for the ETO. It had proved quite a hit with the Muggles, too.
But those were thoughts of another life.
She had done unforgivable things, and such acts couldn't be casually tossed aside. She either made amends by her acts, or at the tip of a blade. That's all she had left.
"Miss Weasley," the cold, inscrutable voice she had been waiting to hear called out to her.
Turning her focus back to reality, she turned to see the two men she'd most worked to bring down. The King, Harry Potter.
And Albert Hughes.
"Your Majesty," she dipped her head in greeting.
The King was obviously not impressed. "I don't have much time for the mages of Albion, Miss Weasley. What does that insufferable Minister of yours want now?"
Ginny took a deep breath and straightened up, feeling her heartbeat race a mile an hour as she reached the point of no return.
"I'm not here for Albion, Your Majesty," she managed to say evenly. She looked down at the book in her hands and slowly offered it to the duo. Hughes had yet to say a word, yet she felt the man already seemed to know why she was here. To think she had once deemed herself worthy of taking down either man.
Pure hubris, she knew now. She wasn't in either of their leagues. Not because they were smarter; because they were willing to sacrifice so much more than she was to get their way.
"I'm here for me," she said, hoping she sounded firm. After all, she was toying with treason. If Scrimgeour knew she was doing this, her lifeless corpse would be dangling from Hogwarts Castle's main gate this time next week.
Harry eyed the book, then turned his gaze to Hughes, who just stared silently at her. A moment of uncomfortable silence passed, before the Advisor finally reached out and took the book from her hands. She waited silently as he scrutinized it, no doubt seeking any runic writing that might indicate it was a trap. A snap of the King's fingers made the book glow a soft green, a spell revealer. Nothing.
Satisfied, Hughes opened the book, and read the first page. "This appears to be a journal by Albus Dumbledore," he remarked as he flipped the pages and scanned the writing. "A rather detailed journal, at that."
"What about?" the King asked, as though Ginny wasn't there. She didn't blame him. Anything she said would've had to be taken as dubious information.
Hughes frowned. "Most of it seems to be reflections on old magical fairy tales, from what I gather. A few about prominent mage artifacts…" he rolled his eyes and used one hand to shut the book at its spine. "Honestly, it reads like a bad adventure novel."
"It's all real," Ginny interrupted then, managing to regain their attention. Hughes raised an eyebrow, while the King frowned at her.
Ginny nodded. "I acquired that journal a little under seven years ago," she told the duo. "When Dumbledore was having one of his worst days, health-wise. My...friend," she avoided naming Hermione, for fear the two men would use that as leverage. Potter might already know, if he remembered their interaction in Spain all those years ago, but why risk it? "feared the worst, and confided in me that Dumbledore had formed a task force to deal with what he believed was a possible way in which Voldemort may have survived his confrontation with your parents."
"The horcruxes," Hughes recalled. The topic of these Dark artifacts had come up two years ago, when Riddle's continued survival was confirmed by one such horcrux being delivered into their hands. By this very same Weasley, in fact.
Ginny nodded. "Right. When we delivered the ring."
Potter rolled his eyes. "We're well aware that Riddle remains alive, Miss Weasley. And if I recall correctly, we entrusted you and your organization with tracking down these...horcruxes and him."
Ginny eyed both men before taking a deep, calming breath. This was it. The point of no return. "And we have. Or rather, my men and I have."
She saw Hughes frown at the turn of phrase, but mercifully kept quiet. Instead, he allowed his King to seize on her words.
"You've found Riddle? Or the Horcruxes?"
"Both," Ginny told him. "The Horcruxes have been dealt with, but for one. A locket. We believe he keeps it on his person, which is why it's taken so long to track it, and him, down."
"Did he find out about your activities?" Hughes asked shrewdly.
Ginny shook her head. "We don't think so. We kept all of our Horcrux operations strictly confidential. Even my...superiors were unaware of my activities."
For once, she thought she saw something approaching respect in the King's eyes as he stared at her. Yet, it was just as quickly gone, replaced with the same contempt he always showed her people. "And yet, you've found it now?"
Ginny nodded, feeling some anticipation growing inside her. She wondered if they would believe her? "We have, and so have you, it seems."
She restrained a grin as both the King and his Advisor looked at her quizzically.
"What on earth is that supposed to mean?" the Advisor asked.
Slowly — still very aware she was probably being watched by Daphne's wayward little sister — she brought out a piece of parchment and handed it over to Hughes. "We've been scouring Europe for Riddle and his Horcrux. Imagine our surprise when we saw this on your...television thingies."
Hughes narrowed his eyes, then widened them, and finally scrambled to unroll the parchment. Ginny watched his expression go from stunned, to elated, in less than two seconds.
"Albert?" the King asked, a little surprised by the sudden mood shift.
Hughes was starting to laugh now, one hand to his head as he held the parchment. Then, without another word, he pushed the parchment into his liege's hands, gave a few steps forward, grabbed Ginny by the head, and planted a full-on kiss on her lips.
Of all the scenarios she had imagined this would go, this had not been one of them. Before she could react, however, he had pulled back, and the King had gotten around to reading the parchment.
"Any other day, Albert, and I would've had you sent to the asylum," the King said as his grin grew. "Today, though, I think we can let this inappropriate show of affection slide."
Ginny barely listened to him as she reeled from the sudden kiss. There was no affection there, of course; the Advisor had just been expressing the enormous elation he'd felt at being handed what she guessed was the final remaining nail he needed.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and belatedly realized it was the King's. Blinking away the shock, she looked at him warily as he smiled.
"Miss Weasley, you have been a thorn in my side for so long, I actually can't remember a time when I didn't wish you dead," he admitted, much to her lack of surprise. She'd felt the same way for just as long. "Until now. Albert," he turned to his still-giddy Advisor. "I believe you have work to do."
Hughes quickly sobered up and nodded, mumbling a quick farewell before striding away, clearly restraining himself from running. This left Ginny alone with the King...and the unseen Royal Guards.
"Follow me," the King told her, as he retracted his hand and led her into his study.
She found it surprisingly homey. Nothing like Dumbledore's office, or Scrimgeour. There were no ostentatious portraits or objects of weird design. No exotic animals or golden busts of himself or anyone else. Just a desk, a large globe of the world, what appeared to be a tea table set for two, and lots, and lots of bookshelves.
Far less than she'd imagined for a budding Emperor.
"You've done us a great service, Miss Weasley," the King told her as he sat down behind his desk. She took her time emulating him; despite the pleasantries, she was very aware that they were still, nominally speaking, enemies. "Yet, while your gift has apparently pleased my Advisor into a fit of inappropriate behaviour, I am not so easily befuddled."
She idly wondered if the Queen would agree with that statement.
The King leaned back into his chair, narrowing his eyes at her. "You said you were here for yourself," he recalled, prompting Ginny to restrain a grimace. "So clearly you didn't do this out of the goodness of your heart. A reward, perhaps?"
Ginny felt a denial on the tip of her tongue and had to stop herself from following through. She sighed. Years of habitual lying to the enemy had ingrained her with an instinctive need to keep covering up her plans. A need to deceive the Northern Sun and Albion's enemies.
Except she needed them to believe her now.
"You're...that's right," she conceded, bowing her head.
The King seemed unsurprised. She wouldn't have been, either. "And? What do you want? For a gift this large, I may be very generous."
She didn't doubt that. If she asked for it, the King could probably make her rich beyond measure. Give her the sweet life in Liverpool, tax free, for the rest of her life. Whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted, until the end of her days.
But that's not what she wanted.
"I want asylum." she said.
The King nodded. "Of course."
"But not for me," she quickly added, managing to surprise the King, by the widening of his eyes. The man narrowed his eyes then, and leaned forward.
"You surprise me, Miss Weasley," he admitted. "But this is a reward justly earned, so I will not probe deeper. All I will ask is, if not for you, then who?"
Ginny stared into the King's jade colored eyes and, for a moment, had second thoughts about her decision. Years ago, she had looked into those very same eyes and seen nothing but ruthlessness and towering ambition. Years later, she still saw that in his eyes. If she gave the name, would he use that person then to leverage her into doing his bidding? Would he stoop so low?
Yes. Yes he would.
"I want your word," she said, digging up some of the old fire she had in her soul. "I want your word that you will give this person asylum, and leave them alone. No politics. No tricks. Let them live out their days in peace."
The King looked unamused by the turn of events, and leaned back into his chair. For a moment, she thought he would deny her outright, and dismiss her. All of her efforts, gone.
Then, he slowly nodded, and she felt a surge of relief within her.
"Agreed," he voiced his consent. "Whoever this person is, they're quite lucky to have a loyal friend such as yourself, Miss Weasley," he noted, eyeing her. "It is a shame you chose the wrong side."
Yes, it was. But Ginny had made her bed, and she was determined to lay in it, even while it burned to the ground.
"The name?" the King asked again.
Ginny took a deep breath. She reminded herself that this was for the best. Even if she couldn't have a peaceful life, her friend would.
"Hermione. Hermione Granger."
Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, March 4, 2019…
"Well, he's not wrong."
Xeno frowned at Hughes. He was sure he'd heard wrong. "I beg your pardon?"
The Advisor sighed as he swiveled his chair to meet him, interrupting his typing session. "I said, he's not wrong," he repeated, a little irritably.
"That man Ford is still claiming there's a mage hunter unit running around somewhere that the SIS completely missed!" Xeno reminded him. "It's actuallly spreading, for goodness' sake! And it's utterly preposterous! Josefina nearly ripped my bloody head off when I suggested it!"
Hughes rolled his eyes. He really wished Xeno would just accept the miss and move on; with the Weasley woman's newest information, Operation Gaugamela needed to be reworked, and this was cutting into his precious time. "For spies, you're being surprisingly inflexible, Xeno," he noted, snapping up a halting hand to a man who'd been about to enter his office. "Wait until the German army clears Linz, then inform Swift of his role in Operation Gaugamela."
The man nodded and scurried off.
Xeno eyed the empty doorway. "Everything working fine, then?" he asked.
Hughes smiled viciously. "Of course," he said easily. "But that's not why you came. As I was saying, First Sergeant Ford isn't wrong, per se."
"How do you mean?"
Hughes eyed Xeno irritably. "Let me finish," he said. "I've been looking into these Jaegers ever since the good sergeant spoke of them. Like your intelligence suggests, there is no German military unit called by that designation," he added as he reached for a report on his desk and handed it over to Xeno. The Director of the SIS frowned at the TOP SECRET label on it and opened it, scanning its contents.
"How did you get this?" Xeno asked, a little afraid to know.
Hughes chuckled. "I have people."
"People better than my spies?"
Hughes grinned. "People who believe things like the law, morality, and restraint are more like...guidelines."
"Fair point." Xeno said after a pause, shutting the file. "So, since we both know that you're just going to tell me what's in here, how about skipping over the pleasantries and telling me what the bloody hell is going on?"
Hughes smirked. "As it turns out, you and little Josie were right," he informed the Director. "There's no such thing as a Jaeger unit. But there is a man called Erwin Jaeger."
"The 304th most common name in Germany and 75th most common family name. Hardly surprising."
Hughes whistled under his breath. That was impressive. But then, he supposed Xeno had ordered a full in depth research of the sole identified attacker from the incident.
"How many did you find?"
Hughes nodded. "Yet, I bet your analysts went nowhere further, right?"
Xeno shifted uncomfortably. "It was deemed a fool's errand. We'd been tricked."
"Fool's errand? No. Tricked? Yes," Hughes said with a cunning smile. "It turns out, your man isn't a soldier, Xeno. He's a prisoner."
Xeno frowned, glancing at the file in his hands. "I beg your pardon?"
Hughes shrugged and got up, headed for his wet bar. If he had to deal with this right now, he wanted to get a little buzz going at least. "Are you familiar with Strafbattalions?" he asked, somewhat butchering the pronunciation. Still it got the message through.
"Penal battalions, right?" Xeno responded, frowning. "I've been reading up on World War II, what with everything going on. Are you saying this man is part of one? I thought the units were made extinct. Volunteer armies and all that."
"Precisely," Hughes said as he poured himself a drink. "But the current socio-political situation in Germany has gotten out of hand, and crime is on the rise. Now, with ordinary criminals, there's no problem. A court, a sentence, prison. Done." he gesticulated to make his point.
"But soldiers and political opponents are trickier to deal with," Xeno finished for him, catching on. "So they've reconstituted the penal battalions?"
Hughes smiled toothily, though there was no warmth in it. "Exactly. Using the draft, they rig it for political opponents and military dissenters to be sent to these informal penal battalions, and then they die on the field. Very elegant, if I may say so."
Xeno grimaced. Of course Hughes would think so; for his part, Xeno felt a little disgusted by the idea. It demeaned the military, demoting it to some form of prolonged execution service.
"And this Jaeger is one of these unfortunate souls?" he asked.
Hughes smiled at him and raised his glass. "Walsingham. On screen please."
Xeno practically jumped as the AI's synthesized voice emanated from Hughes' workstation. Almost instantly, the LCD monitor on the wall lit up, showing a very detailed profile of a man called Jaeger, Erwin. Based on Fireteam Guardian's description, this was the man they had encountered.
"He's a little more than that, Xeno," Hughes said, grinning. "Not only is he his battalion's longest lived inmate…"
The profile picture of Jaeger zoomed in. Xeno could tell there was enormous discontent lurking behind those proud eyes and dutiful smile.
"He's our solution."
Post-AN: So we've cleared something up:
1. Not an AoT crossover. There will be elements inspired by them, but the Jaegers work differently from any unit established in that series.
2. Albion is still falling apart in the background. Keep that in mind.
3. Not really something cleared up, but more of a general notice: I've gone back and changed a few things in previous chapters that either conflicted with story "canon," had spelling errors, or grammar mistakes. If you find any such glaring mistakes, please be sure to let me know.