AN: Hey everyone - been a while, huh? All I can do is apologize for the delay, however. Work and real life will always have to come first, regrettably, so my opportunities to write are what they are. On the flip side, I've gotten my laptop back, so maybe that'll get me to work faster! In fact, the LoU chapter I've simultaneously uploaded was mostly written on it!

In any case, I foresee the German conflict involving maybe...two more, or three more chapters. Immediately following the conclusion of the German conflict, there will be the Imperial coronation, and another time skip, before finally reaching the story's endgame - the war against Russia.

Cheers, and thanks for sticking with me all this time!

-MB


Linz, Austria, March 21, 2019…

To say the Germans had a fighting chance would've been a cruel joke.

The Northern Sun's reaction to the invasion of Austria was swift, brutal, and an entirely unexpected and unpleasant surprise for the German leadership. After all, the ETO had formally cut ties with the German-speaking nations after it voted to leave the organization. There was nothing keeping the ETO and Austria together other than nostalgia.

Right up until the German army took Linz, when the Austrian government requested aid.

Any casual political observer would've dismissed the chances of ETO cooperation outright. After all, thousands of Austrian soldiers were effectively being held hostage within ETO territories, following a surprise attack on the then-Austrian ETO contingent. In fact, many attributed Germany's attempt to take over Austria as a natural consequence of the sudden lack of military force.

However, the moment the German army cleared Linz, they had unknowingly signed their death warrants.

The Northern Sun reacted to the Austrian government's request like a coiled viper. Within hours, every single Austrian captive in the ETO was released, armed, and directed towards the German border.

Near Linz, much to the shock of the German army, thousands of Northern and Austrian troopers appeared almost literally out of thin air. As it turned out, despite clearing the city, they had failed to locate the VANGUARD platform installed in the forest to the city's south.

It took nearly nothing to surround the German army in Linz, while Northern and ETO forces pushed along the German border.

In fact, the moment the world realized what was going on, it seemed as though the Northern Sun already had Germany by the throat.

Yet, to the consternation of many, the ETO forces stopped their advance at the border. In Austria, the advanced stopped even farther, at Linz. No one could understand why, and many a political programme on the evening newscasts speculated to their hearts' content regarding the mysterious lack of military advance.

To make the situation even more peculiar, the ETO steadfastly refused to give any sort of explanation beyond the usual platitudes about operational delays or logistical issues. The latter, in fact, managed to upset the industrial sector, who rejected the idea that lack of delivery or production of supplies was, in some way, at fault for the sudden halt.

Yet, while the world asked why the advance had stopped, only those present at Linz, and along the Northern-German border, knew.

"Christ, it smells like the devil's arse!"

Ford wrinkled his nose, but declined to add to his subordinate's estimation as he gazed at the rotting corpse on the table. As far as Alice had been able to tell, the corpse was about a week old, dating from just after the third attempt to take Linz.

"Is this him?"

Ford nodded as the grey-coated individual next to him stepped up to inspect the corpse. Predictably, the man's first instinct was to observe the victim's frayed clothing, partly destroyed by the war, partly by whatever had offed him.

"It's a Military Mage, alright," the man confirmed what everyone else in the room already knew.

Ford heard King snort derisively and shot the younger man a glare. It was extraordinarily unwise, if not staggeringly stupid, to antagonize an Intelligence Mage. The horror stories that spread like wildfire throughout the Armed Forces regarding the work these men did were the stuff of nightmares.

"Where did you find him?" the mage asked Ford, either ignoring or having not heard King's reaction to his initial statement.

Ford pulled out a map and unfolded it, pointing right at the place they'd been not an hour ago. "Sector Five. We were withdrawing after another failed assault when he found the poor bastard," he related.

The mage gave him a sympathetic wince. "Sector Five. Not a pretty fight," he commiserated. It took titanic effort for Ford not to glare, though. What did the mage know? Sector Five had seen some of the most brutal fighting between the Northern Sun and the German Army.

Despite their advanced technology, the Northern Sun had waited far too long to deal with Germany. With years of rapid reconstruction boosting their economic recovery, the German government had managed to rebuild their armed forces into a respectable force. That meant tanks, advanced firearms, and a functional Air Force. The same ease with which the Northern Sun had been able to displace and crush a decent chunk of the French Army could not be easily replicated now.

"This is just like the other five corpses we found, and Earthshaker," he said, adding his deceased friend's name with great reluctance. "This is the work of Jaegers."

The Intelligence Mage frowned, then ran a thumb along his jaw pensively. "While I'm inclined to agree with you, First Sergeant, there is still no material proof of their existence," he stated. "And without material proof, we cannot exactly do anything but keep looking."

Ford wanted to strangle the man, and the higher ups who refused to see what seemed patently obvious to him. No material proof?! How about Meteor's witness statement?! How about the — now — five corpses they'd found, bearing the same type of wounds as Earthshaker? Did they all think it was a coincidence?!

Ford was too good a soldier to lash out, however. Instead, he just nodded and, soon enough, the Intelligence Mage excused himself and left the room with the body in tow, leaving Ford and King fuming at the government's stubbornness.

"Meteor's not going to like this," King noted disapprovingly. The man said nothing as Ford suddenly kicked the table over. He knew his CO had a lot of stress to vent, ever since his audience at the Royal Court had failed to convince the Cabinet of the existence of the Jaegers.

"Fucking idiots," Ford swore, before turning around and stomping over to the door. "Let's go," he snapped.

His subordinate nodded and followed him out into the brisk evening air. Guardian and the rest of the SSI had set up shop at a deserted Austrian village, a little out of the way from the rest of the Army, in order to enforce their security measures, with regards to their advanced equipment. The entire village had been locked down from the moment they'd entered it, so there was little chance of any spy just waltzing in and taking some of their highly advanced wargear.

Ford and King stopped momentarily to see the Intelligence Mage vanish into thin air, the body gone with him. Ford spat on the ground in derision, knowing he could scarcely do more without risking his job, his team, and his life. If the SIS, through this mage, had resolved to sweep the Military Mage's death under the carpet, then they would ensure it stayed that way, by any means necessary.

He was painfully aware that the only reason he hadn't been similarly silenced was because he was a war hero.

Ford robotically returned the salute of a pair of sentries, and led his subordinate back to their appropriated barracks, dead in the center of their village. Opening the door, he took note of the SSI servicemen relaxing in the Town Hall's reception hall. Almost immediately, the troopers shot to their feet and saluted their First Sergeant, even if official protocol didn't demand it, given his NCO status. As far the SSI was concerned, Ford was practically God, given his and his team's exploits, and they showed that respect appropriately.

"Where's Fireteam Guardian?" he asked simply.

One of the more helpful troopers pointed towards the Mayor's office, which he would have guessed anyway. He had appropriated the room for himself, and the rest of his Fireteam had simply decided to move in with him. There was little he could ever do to get them to change their minds, so he just let it happen.

Marching past the crowd of troopers, who were now beginning to relax, seeing as how he didn't seem pissed at any of them, he briefly heard King ask for food from another trooper before he was out of the room and out of earshot.

He sighed as he ran a hand through his hair, already growing back into a rug of hair, despite having put it through a buzzcut not a week ago. He had no idea how he would break this to Meteor, who was the one person most affected by this spate of Military Mage murders. By denying the existence of these Jaegers, they had officially put a huge asterisk on the way her partner had died in combat.

Not surprisingly, it made Meteor into a somewhat irritable person right now.

So irritable, in fact, that he had used his one good favor with the Royal Court to have her transferred to Fireteam Guardian and the SSI. Why? Well, the way she had looked at several of her Military Mage colleagues following her rescue, when they had insinuated Earthshaker had been done in by some run-of-the-mill German troopers, had effectively warned him that any longer exposure to that environment and she would start a rather lethal confrontation.

On the plus side, he now had a mage on staff, and that meant more protection for his men.

Getting to the top of the staircase, he looked up at the village mayor's portrait and shook his head despondently. He was really wishing the Germans would just give up, and sweep this whole thing aside. That way, when his tour inevitably ended, this time he would just quit when the going was good, rather than stupidly sticking around.

That was a lie.

Ford knew he would never quit, no matter how frustrated he got with his higher ups and the war effort. What the military had done for him, to him, was irreversible and ingrained into him. There was no going back, no matter how much he wished otherwise. He would probably die on some nameless battlefield, kicking ass and carving his name into legend.

Or so he liked to brag. King had a different version of his own demise; one where he died from a heart attack after sexing up all the ladies who were itching for a bit of the King meat.

The rest of the team had a fun time ripping that dream to shreds.

He opened the door to his office, and the first thing he noticed was how quiet it was, despite the presence of his entire Fireteam, sans King. Bear and Snap were in a corner, idly playing cards — though what game it was, Ford couldn't tell — while Doc was on her bedroll, reading another comic. Petrovsky was sitting crosslegged underneath the windowsill, while Liam was checking his gear. Meteor, for her part, seemed content reading a book she'd apparently found in the Mayor's bookcase.

All of them looked up when he entered.

"No go," he told them simply. Scowls welcomed his statement, but nothing more. They knew the fault lay not with him. They knew he had pushed for recognition of the Jaeger threat. If the higher-ups decided the word of a hero wasn't good enough, that wasn't on him.

Didn't make Meteor any less mad, however.

Throwing down her book, she stormed out of the room, managing not to shove him out of the way. Liam made to go after her, but Ford raised his hand.

"Let her vent," he said. "She's got reason enough to feel pissed."

Liam looked at him questioningly, but nodded and sat back down with his gear. Walking through the room, Ford reached the Mayor's desk and sat down in his chair, putting up his feet on the absent government official's desk.

He needed a fucking nap.

"That's seven Mages dead," Liam noted innocently. "And the brass doesn't think someone's purposely knocking them off?"

Ford said nothing, preferring to put the whole ugly episode out of his mind.

"If so, they've got their fucking heads up their arses," Snap growled. "Ain't just any prick with good aim that takes down a fucking Military Mage."

Ford didn't disagree, but wasn't exactly willing to say so at the moment, either. He just wanted to rest a bit, then get ready for the next inevitable combat drop they would be sent in. Maybe this time they'd have more luck breaking through the German lines.

He snorted.

As if.


Vienna, Austria, March 20, 2019…

"Seven mages."

Josefina scowled as she dropped the tarp on the newest deceased member of the Military Mages Corps. Already, she could imagine how Xeno would react. The Director of the SIS had spent considerable time and resources in killing any rumors of a mage killing unit within the German forces to keep morale high, yet these killings were becoming increasingly effective in sowing uncertainty amongst the magic users.

"These Jaegers are becoming a menace."

Josefina turned to face the Commander in Chief of the Austrian Front, and kept her displeasure in check. Neville Longbottom might be the White Knight of the Royal Court, but he was a man worthy of respect and manners. Considered the second most powerful wandless mage in the Kingdom, after the King, he was widely beloved by the people and the troops.

And like most of the military's upper brass, he didn't believe a word of the government's official line about the Jaegers.

"I know Xeno is circumspect about most of the things he knows and does, but this lack of information is seriously hampering our ability to operate, Agent Smith," he remarked as he shuffled some papers and then handed a couple to an aide.

"Finding volunteers for solo missions is becoming quite difficult," Oliver Wood, via holographic projection on Neville's desk, added. While Longbottom held the front at Austria, Wood was busy pushing in from the west, via the BENELUX front. "The troops consider the Great Forest a death trap, unsurprisingly."

"The SIS has not changed its mind, gentlemen," she stated firmly. "Revealing the existence of the Jaegers would serve no purpose other than diminish morale at home and amongst your men."

"As opposed to dying by ignorance?" Humboldt growled via his hologram.

"We understand the value of keeping morale high, Agent Smith, but the Director has to know that ignoring a clear and present threat is not the answer," Swift stated measuredly, also in hologram form. Of all the detracting voices, Swift's had been the most surprising to Josefina. The bloodthirsty general usually went along with whatever schemes the SIS cooked up, but had decided to dissent on this one matter.

Josefina raised an eyebrow at the four fifths of the military brass in this campaign. Save for Gabrielle Delacour's conspicuous absence — which she couldn't begrudge, given her assigned mission — and Field Marshal Speirs, all of the most powerful military officials directly involved in the campaign were, in one way or another, facing her right now.

"The Jaegers are more than a military threat, Generals," she reminded the assembled group. "They are a threat to our nation's spirit. The Northern Sun rose on the stories of mage invincibility, or close to it. Our greatest heroes," she nodded to Neville at this to punctuate her statement, "have almost all been mages. The people's faith in our great national project depends upon this story being perpetuated."

"With all due respect," Wood spoke up, looking quite miffed at her words, "if the stability of our nation is based on lies, then it's not a very stable nation to begin with."

"General Wood is correct," Humboldt said sternly. "Our nation is not based on the invincibility of the few, but rather the strength of the many."

Finally, Longbottom nodded, and Josefina knew what he would say before his mouth even opened. Military types were all the same — blood, guts, honor, and glory. Not a big picture bone in their bodies.

"We respectfully request that the SIS lift the gag order on the existence of these Jaegers."

And, of course, Josefina already knew they knew what she had to say.

"Respectfully, Generals, the answer is still no," she answered. She didn't need to confer with Xeno about this, or with the government. Xeno had given her wide, discretionary powers when he sent her to meet with the brass; despite that, however, he had still made the SIS' stance on the issue quite clear.

Longbottom was naturally annoyed at her immediate reply, but didn't seem surprised by it. If so, he was cleverer than she'd given him credit for.

"A regrettable decision," he said, before sweeping his gaze over his colleagues. "Gentlemen, we will have to speak on this at a later time."

A series of nods answered him, before the holograms disappeared into thin air.

She watched as the General turned to the last projection lens. "Bones, you may lift level nine security protocols at this moment."

"Understood, sir. Lifting protocols."

Josefina knew she wasn't dismissed just yet, so she waited until the man's gaze returned to her. When it did, she found it full of the usual disapproval the military types — save one — held for her.

"The SIS is making a mistake," he told her firmly. She shrugged.

"Perhaps," she conceded. "However, until we know more about how these Jaegers operate, I...we will not risk the media blowing their abilities out of proportion," she corrected herself quickly. Despite how much Xeno was saddling her with these days, she had to often remind herself that she was still just the errand girl.

"But you'll allow dozens of body bags to be paraded before the media?" he asked her calmly.

Josefina grimaced internally, while keeping a cool facade. There was no good answer to that, really; the SIS couldn't afford to have the bodies destroyed, as the military would likely revolt. However, that also meant that the Opposition and the media now had unexplainable bodies to use to needle the government.

A fact the Prime Minister never hesitated to remind her of when he got irritated with the SIS...which was more often than anyone liked to admit.

"Media blowback isn't that uncommon, especially in war," she said by way of explanation. "It's all a matter of keeping the flow of information controllable."

The general held her gaze for a while before looking away and sitting down. "You may go," he said dismissively. "Bones, I want an update on the situation in Sector Thirteen…"

She was already out the door before the AI responded.


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun, March 21, 2019….

Harry had to admit: there was little in this world he enjoyed more than spending time with his wife and daughter.

Unlike most of his days recently, Harry had managed to delegate a substantial amount of his work to other people, in order to take some desperately needed vacations. Of course, said vacations were informal, meaning he couldn't actually leave the capital, in case something came up, but it did mean freedom from the press and the cameras and the public scrutiny.

However, said vacation was also rigorously enforced by his threat to vaporize whoever dared intrude on this much-needed family time.

Today, he had decided that they needed to get out a bit and enjoy the sun. Brisk temperatures notwithstanding.

As a result, Elicia, Katerina, and he had packed a nice picnic, then headed to the city's park, where Astoria's Royal Guards basically squared off a rather significant perimeter to prevent the Royal Family from being disturbed.

It was ridiculous, of course, as the entire point was for his daughter to enjoy herself with other children her age, so he had them simply watch from nearby. Fortunately, despite his position and fame, most people failed to recognize him out of his military clothes. Of course, the sunglasses helped, as did the fact that he and his family were in civilian clothing, thereby appearing as just another family.

If one overlooked the intimidating looking men and women who were "picnicking" nearby. Even dressed in civilian clothing, there was no way for the Royal Guard not to appear like tensed up predators.

"You couldn't leave them at home?" his darling wife asked him wryly, noting that another child had come too close to one of the Royal Guards and been spooked by the man's unpersonable attitude.

Harry chuckled. "You make them sound like a spare set of keys."

Elicia smiled at him and rested her head on his shoulder, while Katerina ran around nearby chasing butterflies. Under the watchful eye of her minders, of course.

"We needed this," she said. "No fighting, no government, no duties…just us."

Harry nodded. "That was sort of the point, luv," he observed.

Elicia sighed happily.

Harry turned his attention to his daughter, who had transitioned from butterfly chasing to exchanging snowball fire with other children, laughing giddily as her clothes got dirty. He supposed it might have been a problem if he had been one of those appearance-aware parents, but considering how reclusive his daughter's lifestyle had been — in no small part because of him — he was just happy to see that she was enjoying herself. He recalled doing the same at her age anyway.

"How're Katie's violin lessons going?" he asked quite suddenly, just remembering that his wife had once mentioned his daughter's interest.

His wife eyed him strangely. "She stopped taking violin classes four months ago, Harry," his wife reminded him. "She got bored, remember?"

Harry frowned. Had his wife mentioned this? He couldn't recall. Still, it was a shame. His daughter's interest in music had been a nice turn of events for him — it distanced her even farther from his own bloodthirsty nature, which was a great comfort.

"I...must've forgotten," he said.

Elicia frowned at him. "She's also taking dance classes now. Do you remember that?" she asked pointedly.

Actually, he did know that, because he had once caught his daughter dancing in his office while waiting for him. "Of course. Ballet, right?"

Elicia nodded slowly, a little mollified by his answer. "Well, at least you're somewhat up to date on things," she noted idly as she reached down for one of the wrapped sandwiches.

Harry winced, but let it go — he deserved that for the violin question.

"Ellie, I am trying, you know," he said.

Elicia sighed and stopped in the middle of unwrapping her sandwich. "I know," she replied, resuming her unpacking. "It's just...hard, Harry. Sometimes, it just feels like it's just me and Katie...and Ceecee."

Well, if that wasn't a kick to the nuts, he didn't know what was. Being told that the former Death Eater nanny to his daughter was more present in her life than him was quite the low blow...but a deserved one.

Which is why his wife had deliberately brought her up, no doubt.

"Once this is all over, once everything is set, I won't have to ever leave your side ever again," he told her, grasping her hand.

Elicia looked at him for a moment and seemed about to say something when Katerina came bounding up. "Mama! Papa! The other kids want to build a snowman! Can I help?" she asked excitedly. Harry eyed his daughter a bit warily, then glanced at his wife, then back at Katerina, and slowly nodded.

"Sounds fine by me," he told her with a smile. "Luv?"

His wife nodded as well, glad to see he was giving his daughter some leeway, at least. "Of course, darling," she said, getting up onto her knees and dusting some of the snow piled up on her daughter off. "Just remember not to wander too far, okay?"

Katerina beamed at her parents, then ran away excitedly towards a group of children who had already begun rolling up balls of snow.

"Aren't you worried about her abilities?" his wife asked.

Harry shook his head. "Keeping her away would be worse," he told her. "I've been talking to my mother, and isolation causes accidental magic to become much more volatile. Katie's psychological well-being is just as important as her self-control."

Elicia smiled at him and leaned her head on his shoulder again, her sandwich forgotten for now. "I love you," she said.

Harry smiled down at his wife and kissed her head. "I love you, too."

They sat in companionable silence for a while, before an idea struck Harry.

"So, where should we go for dinner tonight?" he asked, much to her surprise.

"We're not going to the palace after this?"

"Why? Katie's having fun, and this is meant to be time off so we can be together, for once," he reminded her. "Now, I know Katie loves pasta, and there's this new place about two blocks from here that William told me about…"

Elicia chuckled and patted him on the chest. "Sounds wonderful, luv."

Harry grinned. Heaven knew he'd needed this time off. Between the war councils and actual governance, he had basically come close to completely disconnecting himself from his family, even if he made the occasional time to be with his wife and daughter. He made a mental note to ask for more vacation time in the future. Sirius already handled most of the day-to-day government business, and Harry did rather miss spending time with his family.

Unfortunately, however, this was a proposal he would have to put off for a later date, as he knew something was coming up that would require his direct oversight. The war with Germany was reaching critical mass, and he was hardly going to ignore it at this stage. Not when so much was on the line.

So while he was here, he would enjoy every moment he could with his family.


Linz, Austria, March 28, 2019….

"Clear."

Ford advanced as Liam spoke to his left, quickly moving down the ruined hallway as they tried to circumvent yet another German checkpoint. The city of Linz had suffered much during the hostilities thus far, and the German forces had managed to quickly seal off many access routes back towards the border, keeping control of just a handful.

As a result, the Northern forces were being forced to funnel their troops into their enemies' sights, and it was the SSI's job to clear new routes.

The problem was, there was only so much they could do. Whenever they detonated a new route, the Germans would quickly rally and plug it back up. Without Mage support, the SSI lacked the manpower to keep a route open long enough for the rest of the army to reinforce them. Sending larger squads was all but impossible, as the groups were quickly spotted by German sentries and then bombed out of existence by long range artillery.

Air support was also incredibly limited. Despite ruling the air, the Germans had deployed substantial anti-air defences, and given that they still had access to electronics, and the guided missiles that entailed, it made little sense for the Northern Sun to risk its aerial assets at this juncture.

Ford stepped up to the frame of another door and quickly stepped into view, rifle ready to fire. "Clear," he announced, seeing no one inside the ruined apartment. A shell had blasted the entire back wall apart, leaving only a ghoulish hole. He felt his stomach churn as he saw faded splatters of blood close by. Apparently, someone had been unlucky enough to stand by the wall as it'd been blasted away.

"Clear," spoke up Alice. Ford kept his sights on the gap in the wall as he heard the rest of his team jog by behind him. Once he heard Liam's footsteps pass by, he gave the hole a last look before moving back into formation, behind his second in command.

"Anyone else get the horrible, horrible feeling this place is too lightly defended?" asked King, about four teammates in front of him.

"Maybe the Krauts haven't picked up on this route yet," Liam suggested.

"Clear," Petrovsky announced shortly, and the column moved on.

"What are the fucking odds of that?" Snap groused, hefting her LMG, its magnetic coils giving off a soft humming sound.

"Bad," Ford conceded as he moved up the column and raised a fist as they reached the end of the hallway. According to fly-over data, this door would lead back into the outdoors as a result of the building they were in having collapsed into a neighbouring street. He moved his jaw and activated his helmet com. "Meteor, we're at the door. How're things looking outside?" he asked.

"Empty as fuck."

Ford snorted at the pithy reply; the Military Mage was quite irritated at having been ordered to sit out of SSI operations for the time being. Allegedly, because Military Mage operations in Austria were being re-evaluated, vis a vis other war front needs. As far as Ford was concerned, it meant that the threat of the Jaegers was perhaps finally gaining some deserved attention.

Turning to his fireteam, Ford nodded at them, cracking a grin behind his polarized visor. "You heard the lady, lads" he said. "Let's dig the army out of another hole, aye?"

The fireteam's iconic "Ura!" answered him, prompting him to turn the handle and push outwards.

Only for part of the door to be blasted away, surprising him into diving aside, just before the rest of the door was vaporized by a steady stream of bullets.

"CONTACT!" he roared.

"INTO COVER!" Liam added as the fireteam scrambled to get out of the firing line.

"EMPTY MY FUCKING ARSE!" Snap shouted.

Ford ignored her. "Meteor, we have enemy contacts! No visual, but zeroed in on our position! We need backup!"

"Understood! On it!" she replied. "Is everyone alright?!"

"We won't be if that backup doesn't do something about whoever it is ruining our day, Meteor!" Ford snapped.

"Yeah, yeah…" Meteor mumbled, just before Ford heard her give a rather impressive series of swear words. "Those fucking…! Ford, there's no backup. HQ says the Krauts are pushing along the line, so every asset is tied down!"

"Well, that's just fucking typical!" King complained from across the hallway. "Oh, send Guardian to scout the fucking death traps out! They can handle it! What's that? No backup? Well, they can shit out rainbows and unicorns and get out of anything alive, so no fucking problem!"

Ford had to admit, King had a point. Even so, such thinking was not particularly conducive to their well being right now. "Can it, King," he ordered. "We need to find a way out of this bloody mess. Meteor, going back the way we came is probably no-go. If they know we're in here, they're likely going to keep us pinned until they can flank our rear. Any other ways out?"

There was a brief moment of silence over the comms — punctuated by King and Snap swearing like pissed off, drunken sailors whenever a bullet strayed too close — before Meteor answered his query.

"Door on the right," she said. "Leads down the building's hallway and towards a dead end. Blow out that wall, and you're out."

"Great," he said quickly before looking to his team. "Guardian, on my mark!" he ordered. "Snap, you're point. Once we're in the hall, blow that fucking wall down!"

"Be my fucking pleasure, sarge!"

"MARK!" he called out, and immediately, the smallest member of their team burst into action, tackling the offending door off its hinges thanks to her battle armor and improved genetics, and barrelling down into the hallway. Immediately, Alice followed her in, then Bear, King, Liam, Petrovsky, and finally, Ford himself, who only hesitated long enough to fire off a few "fuck you" rounds at their invisible attackers before ducking into their new path of escape.

The hum of magnets powering up and then discharging continuously greeted his ears as he did so, just as Snap turned the wall at the other end into dust thanks to her LMG.

"Knock, knock, motherfuckers!" she shouted gleefully, before racing out through the hole she created.

The rest of Guardian wasted no time in following suit. One by one, the commandoes ran through the hole, until Ford was the only man left within the ruined building. Turning, he unclasped a couple of grenades, fired a few rounds at the ceiling to weaken it, and tossed the explosives inside, moving away in time before the devices detonated and caved in their hastily created exit.

Sweeping his gaze over their new exit route, Ford couldn't help but notice they'd basically come out into what seemed like a small plaza, nestled amongst buildings. Against all odds, it had survived the bombing, with minimal rubble littering the tiled floor.

"Okay, Meteor, we're out. Now where?" he asked as he watched his team fan out into cover.

"Now you let me help you guys out of here."

Ford snapped his head to his left, instinct making him bring up his combat rifle, only to just as quickly stop himself from gutting his comrade. There, standing in her blue Military Mage uniform, was Meteor, looking as pleased as could be.

"What the fuck?!" King yelped as the entire squad spun on their heels and trained their weapons on their friend.

"Jesus, Meteor, what the hell?!" Liam reproached her.

Ford, however, was more worried about something else entirely. Namely, how she'd gotten here. As far as the Northern forces knew, the Germans had set up Anti-Apparation and Anti-Portkey wards throughout the entire city to prevent this very situation from happening. It allowed them to force Military Mages to deploy to very specific areas, where there usually lay some form of…

"Ambush," he said softly.

Meteor had just enough time to look at him quizzically before he tackled her out of the way, right before a slug rammed itself into the nearby debris.

"AMBUSH!" he shouted, as enemy fire opened up in earnest.

"Oh, fuck our luck in the fucking eye!" Snap swore as she swivelled her LMG towards the building on her left and opened fire. The magnetically accelerated rounds tore the building's facade like a knife through hot butter, but all that did was cause the building behind her to open fire.

"CONTACT RIGHT!" Ford roared as he opened fire, battle rifle in one hand, as Meteor was kept down with the other. "BEAR, I WANT THOSE GUNS SILENT!"

Without hesitation, the heavy weapons specialist unclasped his RPG from his back, shouldered it, and fired the already-loaded round. Ford had always thought the move to be borderline suicidal, since a stray round in the wrong place could just detonate the round within the launcher, but for once, Bear's forethought had paid off.

The projectile streaked through the air and impacted the facade of the offending building neatly, blasting away the concrete and brick wall and silencing the guns from that side. That they'd gotten them all, Ford had no such illusions, but it would at least keep their heads down for the precious seconds he needed to formulate a plan.

The enemy was better than he'd given them credit for. They had purposely left the area Guardian was meant to scout out empty in order to give the illusion of retreat, then had ambushed them into entering another ambush kill zone. If he wasn't trying to so hard to kill them first, he might've admired the move.

"We need to get out of here," he spoke over TEAMCOM. "And we need to get Meteor out of here right the fuck now!"

He felt his arm jerk back, and saw Meteor glaring up at him. "No! I am not leaving you behind!" she snapped.

Ford had no time for this, so he silently asked for forgiveness and slapped her. With his battle armor enhancing the blow, it left the woman a bit dazed, but otherwise alright. He grabbed at her uniform and pointed at the plaza, where the rest of his team was desperately trying to hold their ground.

"This ambush was for you," he told her, activating his speakers. "They wanted you to come here and try and be a hero! They wanted you to tell us to come here! And as long as you stay here, we're all fucked!"

Meteor blinked away the pain and looked up at his polarized visor, for once undoubtedly seeing in him the same terrifying warrior the enemy saw when their last moments in life were spent looking up into the faceless masks of the SSI.

Slowly, she nodded.

Nodding back, Ford turned his attention back to his team, wincing a bit as he felt a bullet slam into his armor ineffectively and ricochet off. The armor might keep them safe for now, but a lucky shot could still find its way into the non-bullet-resistant bodysuits, particularly at the joints.

"Can anyone use their emergency Portkeys?" he asked, already knowing the answer.

Five red lights answered him almost immediately. Of course not. As with other Mage ambushes, Apparation and Portkey wards were likely activated the moment the ambush was sprung. That way, the Military Mage could not use their superior mobility to counteract their killers.

Unfortunately for the enemy, his SSI had been through similar situations before.

"Guardian, we're moving out!" he said. "The target is the building on the right! Turtle up on the LT!"

Immediately, his team began to move with the fluid precision of combat veterans, with Bear and Liam, the two tallest members of the squad, pulling Meteor behind them while they covered her retreat into the building. Ford provided point, kicking open the double glass doors to the apartment building and clearing the lobby.

Movement on the right caused him to snap his gun in that direction and fire, killing some luckless German soldier who'd been attempting to sneak up on the team.

"Clear," he called out before turning to his team. "Getting the LT out of here is priority one, Guardian," he reminded them before pointing down the hall that ran parallel to the plaza outside. "We're going to use the building for cover, and blow our way into the next one beyond. Got that?"

He could practically hear the grin on Buchanan's face.

Fortunately, no one seemed to have any objections, so he placed Buchanan on point and brought up the rear himself as the team moved through the hall. Occasionally, they would see an open door, which brought the column to a halt as they cleared the place, but for the most part, the apartments seemed locked shut.

"Spearhead, Spearhead, this is Guardian," Ford reported in as they moved down the hall. "We have been ambushed by German troops carrying out an Anti-Mage operation. Lieutenant Farrell, callsign Meteor, is with us, and we are currently attempting to exfiltrate her to a safe evac zone. Copy?"

"Copy, Guardian," a very familiar voice answered him. A very familiar, female voice.

"Holy shite, is that Smith?!" King squawked, bringing the column to a sudden halt. No one had expected to hear the cagey, beautiful SIS agent on their frequency, especially given the fact that they were in the middle of a war zone.

Of course, to Ford, it meant something entirely different. It meant that whatever bullshite the higher-ups had been feeding him about their utter lack of concern for the Jaeger problem was just that: bullshite.

What other reason was there for an SIS agent to be suddenly involved in what was supposed to be a routine scouting operation?

"Agent Smith," he greeted stoically. "A pleasant surprise," he added, before gesturing to his team to move out once more. As the group renewed their trek, he turned his attention back to the spy on the other end of the communicator. "I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that your presence means this clusterfuck isn't as surprising to you as it is to us?"

There was an amused chuckle over the comm before he noticed that the transmission had switched to his private channel. Clearly, whatever Smith had to say, she didn't want anyone but him to know.

Shows what she knew.

"Sergeant Ford, have you ever known the SIS to ignore an enemy?" Smith asked, amused.

Never, of course.

"So what's the plan?" he asked, all business. Up ahead, Buchanan gave an all clear as she exited a nearby room.

"Our A.I.s have determined a pattern of behaviour for these so-called Jaegers, Sergeant," Smith informed him. "They've been drawing out mages since the beginning of the war by providing impossible scenarios for the regular army."

"And we're supposed to change that?" he asked, keeping a steady eye on their rear flank.

"Correct," Smith said. "Specifically, we want you to lure them out, and then we'll send in the cavalry."

So they were bait. Wonderful. Well, he supposed there were worse assignments, even if none came to mind presently.

"Understood. We'll try to get them to crawl out of their hidey holes while we exfiltrate Lieutenant Meteor."

There was a very worrisome pause then, which Ford knew preluded something he would definitely not like.

"Negative, Sergeant," Smith said at length. "If Lieutenant Meteor leaves the battlefield, we have reason to suspect that the enemy Jaegers will, too. We need her visible and fighting, or else they will never believe the ruse."

Ford hated being right.

He held up a fist, which brought the column to a halt. "With all due respect, Agent Smith, Lieutenant Meteor is the least armored person in this unit. My lads and I can take care of this by ourselves. There's no need to endanger another mage!"

"We understand that, Sergeant, but our field analysis has concluded that without Meteor's presence, the plan will fail."

Well, fuck that analysis! It was asking him to endanger the life of a friend, unnecessarily so, just so the SIS could come out as the big damn heroes by dealing with an anti-mage threat that Ford and his team had warned them about months ago!

Unfortunately, he had no way to actually disobey that order. If he did, then it wouldn't matter that he was a several-times-decorated war hero with an impeccable service record: the SIS would see to it he lost his command and spent the rest of his days in some dark, dank, forgotten prison, while his team went on to serve under someone else. Someone more...reliable.

"Understood," he said grudgingly. "We'll draw them out."

There was a moment of silence on the other end, before Smith spoke again.

"I know you will, Sergeant."


Liverpool, Kingdom of the Northern Sun…

"And done."

Harry handed the last piece of official documentation that needed his signature to his uncle before settling in comfortably in his chair, as the Prime Minister got his stack in order.

"Good," the man said approvingly. "With this, we should be able to begin setting up the local governments throughout the French territories," he added.

"Whatever helps the country develop, Sirius," Harry said easily, enjoying the feeling of being done with work.

There was a moment of silence between the two, before Sirius broke it.

"Harry, are you sure about this?"

Harry restrained a smirk. He'd had a feeling that there was a hidden agenda to his uncle's presence; usually, he sent such documentation with a clerk. That he had opted to personally deliver these had been a rather extraordinary situation.

"I am."

Sirius sighed. "Harry, I've done nearly everything in my power to keep you off the battlefields," he remarked. "You belong here. Working with the government at home. Staying with your family."

"I belong wherever I'm needed to finish this fighting as soon as possible," Harry stated.

Sirius looked uneasy. "I'll admit, that would be a boon to the economy," he conceded. "But surely Neville would be a suitable replacement. You keep singing his praises, after all."

"Any other assignment, and perhaps that would be true," Harry agreed. "However, this situation requires my….personal intercession."

From the look of him, Sirius doubted that intensely.

"Is this really about making a point to our enemies, or about running from your crown?" Sirius asked bluntly.

Harry opened his eyes and gazed at his uncle with a neutral expression. Anyone else — particularly a member of the press — would've been evicted from the premises as fast and as rudely as possible. Sirius, however, was both a member of his family, and the Prime Minister of his country. More importantly, he had hit closest to home.

"Ruling...gets tiresome," Harry admitted.

Sirius snorted. "If ruling was easy, everyone would do it," he remarked. "However, seeking simplicity on the battlefield isn't the answer."

"Then what is?"

"Your family," Sirius said seriously. "I can't imagine Ellie is thrilled about this decision of yours, and I know Katie would love to have you around more often. Going away to fight this war is...unnecessary."

Sirius made a good point, but Harry also knew that the man was forgetting something.

"Unfortunately, it isn't," he said, before standing up and moving over to the window and looking out towards the gardens. "Sirius, who am I?"

Sirius blinked. "Harry Potter."

"And?"

Sirius grew more confused now. "King of the Northern Sun?"

"And?" Harry pressed, turning back to his uncle. "Before I was King?"

Sirius looked stumped, until he spied the lapel pin on his nephew's clothing. A crossed wand and rifle, overlayed on a crown.

"Hellfire, the first Military Mage," he said.

Harry nodded. "The first," he repeated. "I am the founder of our numbers, and, according to them, their most powerful member," he knew he didn't sound too convinced, but ploughed on. "These Jaegers, whether fictional or real, are hammering our morale, particularly those of our mages. They need to be reminded that we can overcome these enemies, and prevail in battle."

"So get another mage to do it," Sirius observed reasonably.

"No one has the battlefield experience I do, Sirius, and we both know that," Harry pointed out. "And doing it myself would make such a statement much more final than if it came from a random mage."

"That's...true," Sirius conceded, narrowing his eyes. "Yet a much more simpler solution would just be to deploy the SSI every time there's a sighting of these Jaegers."

"Perhaps for the normal troops," Harry riposted. "But this is about restoring mage confidence. Not just on the field, but back here, Sirius," he pointed out. "I want our mage population to feel as though we're not just throwing their relatives into the meat grinder. Or that they're helpless in the face of these Jaegers. We need to remind them that they can fight back."

"Even if sending in the SSI is a guaranteed win?"

"Mages who don't have confidence in their own survival will fare worse in battle," Harry reminded him. "And those who have too much confidence will also die. We've seen this in Spain."

Sirius nodded.

"That's why I haven't said anything about Xeno's current plan to sweep everything under the carpet until the Jaegers are cut down to size. It would shatter our mages' confidence and cripple their abilities on the battlefield. However, once we...I," he corrected himself, "manage to defeat some Jaegers, we will open up about the truth and show that these enemies are not invincible."

Sirius stared at him hard for a moment before slowly nodding. "I hate to admit it, but that actually makes sense," he conceded, just before Harry's desk started beeping. Rolling his eyes, Harry pressed the intercom button.

"Yes?" he asked. "I'm in a meeting."

"Apologies, Your Majesty. Director Lovegood is on the line. He says it's time."

Both men exchanged a look before Harry nodded to himself. "Thank you, Rose. Please tell Director Lovegood that I'll be along shortly."

"Very well, Your Majesty."

As the line went dead, Harry spied Sirius eyeing his intercom system.

"Why don't you just get an AI, like the rest of us?" he asked amusedly, clearly trying to change the subject and not talk about his nephew's impending return to the battlefield.

Harry shrugged. "I like humans more," he said. "They may be fallible, but they're still human."

Sirius nodded, then stood up and walked around his nephew's desk. Staring into his nephew's eyes, Sirius smiled and held out a hand, which Harry took. "I wish you luck, my King," he said with a smile.

Harry smiled back. "Thank you, Prime Minister," he replied. It was a strange change of pace, calling each other by their official titles, but he supposed the gravity of the situation warranted it.

This was how Astoria found them moments later, as she entered the room and knelt.

"Your Majesty, we're ready," she announced, fist to her chest.

Harry nodded and looked back at Sirius, understanding the anxiety lurking behind those smiling eyes. "I'll see you later, then, uncle."

Sirius nodded. "We'll try not to burn down the kingdom while you're gone," he joked.

Harry chuckled and let go of his uncle's hand, walking towards Astoria. With an extended hand, he summoned his blue, Military Mage greatcoat to him and smoothly put it on.

"Astoria, let's go."


Linz, Austria…

The ambush was not going well for the Germans.

Despite having had a solid moment of advantage over the Northern forces, Ford and his team of crack SSI troopers had been through their share of fucked up situations before, and had quickly rebounded. First, the team managed to clear out an entire building by themselves, even if in the process, they had effectively rendered it uninhabitable thanks to Buchanan's trigger happy personality and Bergstein's overenthusiastic use of explosives.

Then, they had proceeded to carry out an offensive against the other building that had participated in the ambush. Instead of doing the sane thing and attacking by the much harder to defend flanks, however, Ford had decided to surprise the enemy and staged a frontal assault.

A frontal assault.

The sheer ballsiness of the move actually managed to stun the German defenders for a split moment before they returned to their original firing positions and opened up on Guardian; which would have been effective, if not for the fact that Bear had somehow procured a large slab of metal and was using it as a shield to protect the rest of the team and Meteor.

Said mage, in turn, happily channeled her backed up frustration and anger at the way her kind had been murdered by the Jaegers to lay waste to the building facade. Entire chunks of the building would split apart, as though put through a jackhammer, while other parts simply exploded.

Even over the din of battle, Ford could hear the cries of surprise and fear as the German ambushers realized they were basically fucked.

"Forward, lads!" he encouraged his men. "The krauts are falling back!"

A bullet whizzed right by him, prompting him to duck behind one of the many slabs of concrete that Meteor had Transfigurated to cover their advance. Moments later, that particular section of the building exploded into a sea of fire as Bear maneuvered into position and allowed Snap to fire the RPG on his back.

"Another one bites the fucking dust!" she called out gleefully. "Suck it, krauts!"

Ford chuckled at the comment, but couldn't help but feel some of his subordinate's elation. They had been on a winning streak ever since the ambush began, and he was sure the German defenders now regretted ever trying to go up against an SSI team.

"So much for Jaegers, eh?" Liam noted as he joined Ford by the slab of concrete. Ford spied a few dents in his friend's armor, but nothing too serious. Even so, having been on the business end of a bullet impact, even while wearing armor, he knew the bruises would remind Liam to duck next time.

On the other hand, Liam's comment had him worried. He was right: these ambushers, if they had been Jaegers, were remarkably subpar. The Jaegers he remembered from the Great Forest had been quiet, methodical, and remarkably more lethal. Petrovsky had been in the hospital for weeks after his encounter with the business end of one of the Jaeger blades.

Even as the din of the firefight went down, then, Ford couldn't help but feel as though the ambush wasn't over yet. To that end, he turned towards Alice and King and pointed at them.

"Doc, King, I want you two to check on the bodies inside," he gestured towards the building in front of them. "The rest of Guardian, I want us to provide backup for Doc and King. Understood?"

Six blinking green lights on his HUD confirmed his order, along with one "Understood," from Meteor.

"Good. Move out!"

As one, the fireteam got out of cover, weapons aimed at the building, in case any German soldier had lagged behind for one more lucky shot. Methodically, they went into the building and began clearing the first floor of any stragglers, with Ford noting that most of the enemy concentrations had apparently been on the higher floors.

It wasn't until they reached the third floor, in fact, that they had come across a dead German soldier. At that point, Ford ordered the rest of Guardian to clear the floor, while Alice checked the corpse, with King guarding her.

"Looks like one of Snap's kills," Alice remarked over TEAMCOM. "Multiple gunshots to the torso, consistent with MA weaponry...cause of death, shock."

"What about his uniform? Is he like the man we met in the Great Forest?" Ford asked while clearing another room, not really caring why or how the German man had died.

"Clothing is consistent with Heer uniforms. Lack of distinctive insignia denotes rank of Private," Alice reported. "Nothing else appears different than normal. No blades, no special items. Looks like a run of the mill soldier to me, Sarge."

Then where were the Jaegers?

That sinking feeling he'd been harbouring since the end of the firefight returned in full force now. There was no reason for the Jaegers not to be in this ambush, especially if their target was a Military Mage like Meteor. Had his team scared them off? Had they retreated from the onset?

"Anyone else got eyes on the bastards?" he asked the rest of his squad as he stood by Alice and King. A series of red blinks on his HUD, plus Meteor's "Nope," told him enough. There were no Jaegers in this fight.

"Headquarters, this is Guardian Lead," he said, switching frequencies. "We have beaten back the ambush, but there are no signs of...Jaegers."

There was silence over the communications system, making him wonder whether Smith was cussing people out on the other side. Eventually, however, the woman did come back online.

"That's worrisome," Smith admitted. "Our intelligence was specifically clear that the Jaegers would be present here."

"Why?" he asked, curious.

"Your run-in with them at the Great Forest left quite the impression...Sergeant, can you check the area again? There should be no way the Jaegers passed up on this engagement."

He really hated the fact that Smith sounded so worried, because it meant his team had likely glossed over something or some place they shouldn't have. In other words, they were still ass-deep in a trap.

He switched comm frequencies in a flash. "Head's up, lads," he said, scanning the room for any possible, hidden enemies. "HQ isn't as convinced as we are about these Jaegers missing, so everyone pair up and go through every room again!"

He made a quick mental calculation before continuing. "Meteor, you come here with Alice and I. King, you help the others," he ordered. A blink and a grunt answered him.

Fifteen minutes passed before Buchanan lost her temper, which he supposed was a minor miracle by itself.

"Ugh! This is fucking pointless, sarge! There's no one here!"

"Sarge, she's not wrong. We've been through almost every floor again, and there's no signs of life other than us," Liam added in.

Even so, Ford couldn't help the sinking feeling in his gut that they were missing something. Was it even here? Perhaps it was in the other building? No...they had checked that one already, prior to launching their attack on this one.

So where was it? Where was the missing link?

"This is King. We're about to hit the last floor," his subordinate informed the group then. "So far, it's like Snap says, sarge: nothing but empty."

Well, he'd feel a lot calmer once that was wholly confirmed. That way, the SIS would start trying to get them the hell out of here, away from this eery battlefield.

"Inserting in three...two...one…"

Ford called up the cam feed from King's helmet onto his HUD and watched as Liam kicked in the door. King quickly took his place behind Liam as the two men charged into the apartment, clearing the place room by room. Like King had mentioned, there didn't seem to be anyone here.

He let out a breath of relief he'd been holding in.

"Alright, all clear," Liam reported. "Moving onto the next apartment."

"Fuck, man. Got my blood pumping for nothing…wait. What the fu—"

An explosion ripped through the building, almost causing Ford to lose his balance. Meteor, however, did lose her balance, while Alice managed to hold her ground.

"What the fuck was that?!"

"What the hell happened? Where was that?!"

"What's the situation?!"

Ford tuned out the questions from his fireteam and narrowed his comm frequency to that of King and Liam. King had been the last man to speak before the detonation, after all.

"King, Liam, respond!" he ordered.

Nothing over comms, but the sudden sound of gunfire told him everything he needed to know.

"CONTACT!" he snapped, turning to Meteor and Alice. "Fireteam Guardian, rally on my position!"

"Sarge! Behind you!" Alice called out through her helmet speakers.

Heightened reflexes, honed by war and the HAVOC program, saved his life. Turning on his heel and jumping back, he narrowly avoided a familiar looking blade skewering him, while quickly drawing his sidearm and firing twice, both times impacting his attacker squarely in the head.

The person's head was blown apart as the magnetically accelerated projectiles tore through it like it was papermaché. He couldn't rest on his laurels long, however, as another figure gave out an angry cry and threw themself at him, blades up and ready to finish his partner's job. There was no time to react this time.

Fortunately, Meteor was quick on the uptake, and blew the attacker apart with a well place spell.

Alice then opened fire, as another appeared, and dropped her target as well. "Jaegers!" she exclaimed in surprise.

Ford eyed the shattered window in front of him. All three individuals had blindsided him by attacking him from the one place hadn't expected this sort of strike. "Guardian! Defend yourselves!" he ordered as he holstered his sidearm and brought up his assault rifle.

"King and Mac are still AWOL, sarge!" Bear broke in, then. "Permission to go find them!"

"Granted," Ford answered quickly. "Doc, the LT, and I will meet you there. Spectre, relocate to the last floor! All of you, watch the windows!"

Green blinks from everyone but King and Liam. For some reason, their icons remained stubbornly off. He refused to believe they were dead, however. Much like the situation with Petrovsky and Bergstein before him, all of them had faced off with much worse and come out alright. Liam was a seasoned warrior and King was no slouch himself, despite all the drama he liked to cause. Neither of them would fall to a bunch of sword wielding freaks.

As he sprinted down the halls, he was forced to jump forward and roll as a door exploded right behind him. Another Jaeger charged out, ostensibly to kill Meteor, when Alice put a round through the man's torso, severing his spine. Neither of his subordinates gave the dead Jaeger much thought and continued their trek upwards.

"Fucking hell!" Snap spoke up, the din of an intense firefight almost managing to drown out her voice, despite the helmet audio usually being protected from such interference. "They're crawling out of everywhere, fucking damnit!"

"Behind you."

Ford turned, and saw a Jaeger frozen in pain, caught in the act of trying to kill Alice. As the German soldier fell, the three-man team saw Petrovsky standing there, a bloody Kukri knife in hand. "Five," the taciturn soldier said simply, before vanishing into another room.

Unconcerned at his subordinate's rather strange ways — Petrovsky always got the mission done — Ford continued leading his two female subordinates up the building, finally reaching the area of greatest noise.

Almost predictably, the causer of said noise was one Patricia Buchanan and Douglas Bergstein. The two-man heavy weapons team had taken position in the middle of the floor's hallway, and dousing the surrounding apartments with a constant stream of fire, punctuated by Buchanan's incredibly foul mouth. At her and Bear's feet lay about seven Jaeger corpses.

"Snap!" he called out. The LMG trooper perked up and looked over at him, momentarily ceasing fire. "Group up! We're headed for Mac and King!"

The petite woman nodded and elbowed her teammate, who looked back and nodded, following her towards Ford and the others while covering their retreat with his assault rifle. A few unlucky Jaegers who attempted to poke their heads out thus received an ignoble end at his hands.

Now together, the majority of Guardian trooped up the stairs, still aware of the sound of a gunfight above them. That served to raise their spirits, as they knew the only reason such a thing would happen was if King and Liam were still alive, despite the explosion.

"Mac! King!" Ford called out again as they reached the last floor. The whole place seemed to be full of smoke and ash, and his visibility was almost nil. He considered activating his IR filter, but realized that despite the blockage, there was still enough sunlight pouring in that it would just blind him. "Answer me, damnit!"

"Can't see shit, sarge!" Snap warned him. "Got zero visibility!"

"Ditto," Alice added.

"I've got this," Meteor then said, raising her wand. "Expulsio!"

A sudden gale of invisible energy blew out in front of them then, blowing away the smoke and ash, and revealing a nightmarish scenario. Almost the entire floor had been blown away. Most of the apartments just bled into each other, and Ford could now clearly see a few Jaeger bodies littering the floor.

So where were King and Liam?

Gunfire erupted again, coming from the very back of the floor. Ford took a step forward, and almost dearly regretted it as a nearby, collapsed Jaeger suddenly sprung up, ready to open fire with a firearm at his torso, point blank. Even with his armor, there would be no walking away from such a wound.

Fortunately, he didn't have to suffer through it, as Meteor sprang into action, grabbing the pistol in her hands, and with a grunt, crushing it and the man's hand with it. Turning to her, he nodded in thanks before leading his team down the hallway. Splitting up would be suicide now, with the Jaegers almost literally popping up at every corner.

As they charged down the hall, Ford realized that the gunfire was coming from behind the last door, which based on its position relative to the rest of the floor, he imagined led to some form of terrace, given that the entire floor seemed rather...short, compared to the others.

Without a second thought, his men's safety foremost in his mind, he speartackled the door off its hinges, activating his suit's inbuilt, short-term invincibility as he crashed through. If there was someone waiting for him on the other side, they'd be in for an unwelcome surprise.

"King! Mac!" he shouted again, just as Guardian filtered out onto the terrace. He was sure he'd find them there, waging battle against their foes with the dedication only an SSI could muster.

Instead, he was the one in for an unpleasant surprise.

Laying on the floor, about twenty meters ahead of him, were the inert bodies of King and Liam, their helmets off and weapons missing. Standing above them was a person Ford remembered all too well; as did Meteor, judging from the instinctive breath sucking noise coming from behind him.

"Gütentag, Herr Sergeant," that same, calm voice greeted him. Just like at the Great Forest.

Except this time, the man had him over a barrel twice over.

"Jaeger," Ford greeted in turn.

"You remember. I am honored," the man said nonchalantly. He lifted an arm to show off the MAC rifle he had undoubtedly appropriated from either of Ford's men, its barrel smoking from use. "Please surrender your weapons, Herr Sergeant. I would hate to have to perpetuate this violence."

"FUCK YOU!" Snap shouted. "Can't you count, shit for brains?! We've got you five to one!"

"Snap," Alice quickly interrupted her before her friend went any further. "Around us."

Turning his head to observe his flanks, Ford confirmed what he'd already expected. Above the entrance to the terrace were four Jaegers, while half a dozen more lined up the railings on either side of them. Unlike the Jaegers inside, however, these ones wielded assault rifles.

So much for being a blade-only unit.

"So this was a trap," Ford noted with sour humor.

The man nodded. "A rather poor one, I think, but then a few of our comrades got a little prematurely excited," he replied, actually sounding a bit irritated towards the end. "Güt help is so hard to find sometimes, don't you agree?"

"Those would be the initial ambushers, then," Meteor opined softly, undoubtedly scanning the enemy ambushers to see which one would try to kill her off.

"But that's neither here nor there," the man went on, before raising a hand. Promptly, the rest of the Jaegers raised their sights to target Guardian. "As I said, Herr Sergeant, please drop your weapons. You are surrounded and outgunned."

Ford hesitated for a moment. "Are they dead?" he asked, nodding towards King and Liam.

The Jaeger commander glanced down for a split second before once again drawing his gaze to his trapped opponents. "Not yet," he said. "Surprisingly, they managed to survive the initial blast."

He then edged his acquired weapon towards Liam. "A situation quickly amended if you don't surrender promptly, Herr Sergeant."

"Sarge, we can take them," Snap affirmed doggedly via TEAMCOM. "Don't listen to these fuckers!"

"In what universe, Pat?" Alice protested. "They'll gun us or King and Mac down before we get a shot off!"

"Better than doing fucking nothing or worse, surrendering!"

"Why not just kill us, Jaeger?" Ford asked instead, trying to ignore his team's bickering. The last thing Jaeger had to see what his team breaking down. "Why capture us?"

The man smiled amusedly. "Why kill a great prey when you can study it?" he answered rhetorically. "You have caused us no end of headaches, Herr Sergeant; you and your SSI. My superiors would love to see what makes you...tick."

"And Meteor?" he asked.

The man made a theatrical show of craning his neck and finally noticing the Military Mage in the midst of Guardian. "Ach, so! I apologize, fraülein. I hadn't noticed you there!" He chuckled at Meteor's glower, and moved on. "Like yourselves, she will be spared and kept for observation. We are unfortunately lacking in mages such as herself, as you may have noticed, and would greatly appreciate study material."

Ford said nothing, glancing back at Meteor before switching comm frequencies. He heard a soft whine in the radio, and realized they were attempting to jam his transmissions. Unfortunately for them, the SSI helmet radios were designed to punch right through.

"HQ, this is Guardian Lead," he said as steadily as he could. "We have been ambushed by Jaegers. I say again: confirmed sighting of Jaegers and Jaeger commander, Erwin Jaeger," he said. "We are in no position to defend ourselves and on the verge of capture. Recommend you track our suits to enemy base for future strike."

Thus, even if he and his men were caught, they could still do one last great service to their country: give away the enemy base.

For some reason, however, a strange sense of déja vu struck him then. He couldn't quite place it, but he felt as though he and his team had been through something like this once before.

"Don't count yourselves out just yet, First Sergeant..." a distinctly male voice spoke up.

Then, from virtually out of nowhere, something exploded above them, like a sonic boom.

All eyes turned upwards, only to see the sky seemingly break.

More accurately, a pale barrier shimmered in the sky, before breaking like glass, with small partitions and chunks falling and disintegrating slowly. For a moment, Ford was struck by the beauty of the scene, before his more rational side realized what had just happened.

The wards were down.

Then, just as suddenly, he felt himself nearly blown down as something behind him exploded again, and even the Jaeger commander seemed stunned by this turn of events. Turning on instinct, Ford was stunned to see the four Jaegers atop the terrace entrance gone, replaced by one very recognizable figure dressed in Military Mage uniform, a small storm of flames billowing about him. Two more Military Mages flanked him, each looking about ready to blast the structure away.

Henry I, née Harry James Potter, King of the Northern Sun and Head of the European Treaty Organization, grinned viciously at his assembled audience, his raised hand producing a batch of hellish fire.

"...after all, the fight's just getting started."