Tobias Caterham gritted his teeth, hands tightly gripping his Storage Device. It looked like a common production-line staff type, but he'd had a fair amount of customization work done over the years. With his square jaw and crew-cut blond hair, he looked like what he was, a soldier. He had twenty years of experience on one kind of battlefield or another, from mass battles to small unit engagements, from wilderness to urban conflict. He didn't need that experience, though, to know that his current orders were bad news.
The prisoner has escaped her cell and gotten by the others. We're cooking up something for her, so hold her off as long as you can.
It was that "as long as you can" part he didn't like. Lucerne had assumed Caterham was going to lose. That wasn't good. It suggested that "escaped" and "gotten by" weren't any reference to clever trickery but the use of brute force. Under an AMF. Had they accidentally snatched one of those combat cyborgs? There were supposed to be a good dozen or so of them under the Bureau's control from what he'd heard on the rumor mill.
At least he had a little bit of lead time to prepare himself, to get his Device and Barrier Jacket ready and set up a few spells for what he expected would be a very unpleasant experience.
The facility's holding cells had been in a separate building apart from the other structures, probably so the AMF didn't interfere with regular operations by its inhabitants. Thus, Caterham knew where the prisoner would emerge from the security building unless she chose to go right through a wall, and he'd planted a trap for her. The instant she emerged, a rune blazed into existence beneath her and chains of magical force snaked up towards her. Even as they did, the weed-grown, buckled tiles of the courtyard crumbled aside as two manlike shapes, nine feet tall and four-armed, formed of rock, erupted from the ground. Figuring the binds and the golems would occupy her for a while, Caterham began incanting, the fire-orange Mid-style rune taking shape beneath his feet to gather mana for something powerful and explosive.
Except that his enemy wasn't cooperating.
~X X X~
Vivio wasn't an experienced combat mage; most of her battles had been on the practice course rather than in the field. Still, while her tactical thinking wasn't anywhere near as developed as her friends and family, she did learn from her mistakes, and in the past she'd been snared by trap spells. She'd only taken one step through the door before flinging herself back, which had been enough to trigger the trap but not enough for her to get caught. The burning orange chains followed her, homing in—then winked out of existence as they hit the threshold, de-linked by the building's AMF. Vivio then rushed outside, even as the golems took shape.
The golems were pretty intimidating, she had to admit, with their size, extra arms, and burning orange eyes above slitlike mouths. Her friend Corona, though, was a much better golem-maker and they'd sparred plenty of times, so the idea was at least familiar. They lunged at her, moving as fast as a person despite being made from rock. Vivio ducked as two stone fists whipped by over her head from both of one golem's right hands, and she hammered her own fist against the creature's leg, sending chips of stone flying.
She'd hoped to shatter the leg, crippling the golem, but the magical construct was tough. Vivio wished she had Burning Glory; in his Revolver Form he could function like a Belkan Armed Device and hit a lot harder than she could manage on her own. The golem mule-kicked, knocking her sprawling; though the blow did not real damage it was a reminder not to waste her time on wishes and woolgathering.
The cannon spell's impact did a lot more than just push her down; in fact it lifted her up and slammed her hard into the wall of the security building, smashing a Vivio-shaped crater into the concrete. She yelped in pain; it had been a solid attack and since no Intelligent Device meant no autoguard, she'd had to eat it with her Barrier Jacket alone.
Stupid, rookie mistake! she all but screamed at herself. She'd totally lost track of the mage, so busy had she been with his trap and his constructs. Indeed, she hadn't even noticed him at all. Vivio pushed herself free of the wall and turned, trying to find him, but the golems were upon her. One's massive lower arms wrapped around her, pinning her arms to her sides, while its upper fists began to rise and fall like triphammers, slamming into her with brutal blows. She had to get free, but raw physical strength wasn't going to do it, and she couldn't get her hands free for a proper blow.
So she did the only thing she could: she used her head.
Head-butting something made of rock is rarely a good idea. Even when delivering a magic-enhanced stroke into which desperation had caused her to pour as much energy as she could. Even when wearing a Barrier Jacket that covered her body, even the apparently uncovered parts, with a field of defensive magic. Vivio's ears rang like a bell, pain exploded through the front of her skull, and she felt something wet and sticky on her forehead where she'd managed to cut it.
The golem's head, on the other hand, exploded.
The damage had been enough to disrupt the construct's cohesion; it startled to crumble apart almost at once, and it dropped Vivio when its arms fell into elemental rock. Vivio stumbled slightly when she hit the ground and almost fell, but managed to keep her balance.
Can't afford to stand around loopy! she told herself, knowing her enemies weren't going to hesitate just because she'd taken one down.
"Protection!" she cast just in time, and the second golem collided with the shimmering rainbow dome, stumbling off to the side before righting itself. Vivio dropped the spell and took to the air, figuring that being able to move in three dimensions was an advantage against a foe who could only move in two. The mage raised his staff towards her.
Four bolts of brilliant orange spat towards her, their courses bending in mid-flight to track her movements. She dropped, cutting her flight power to fall like a stone so that the first one zipped over her head, then she waited until she was within a couple of feet of the ground to spring up and forward again so that the next two shots crashed into the courtyard tiles and sent up showers of dust. A hastily conjured Round Shield caught one that was following too closely, but the one that had initially missed her was far enough behind her that the mage guided it around the shield to take her in the side. Vivio grunted, but didn't hesitate.
A half-dozen rainbow orbs streaked down at him.
His barrier spell stopped them.
"Golem, burn her!"
The golem's lipless mouth opened to reveal a burning well of bright orage, the same hue as its creator's magic. In the next instant it spewed forth a shining ray of fiery energy. Vivio dodged the blast, zipping around it as it cut like a flaming sword across the sky, Unfortunately, it was meant only as a distraction from the next attack.
A blast of fire sprayed from the staff's tip, expanding into a giant, blazing hand as wide across as Vivio was tall. She couldn't avoid it entirely, but was able to pull up out of the way so that the binding spell clamped down on her ankle instead of her whole body. She'd be a sitting duck, but could at least cast spells.
The two of them started casting at once, but the kidnapper had the advantage. His extra years of experience and raw practice balanced Vivio's superior ability when it came to linking mana, but what settled the matter was his possession of a Device, allowing him to process that mana into a spell faster than she could on her own.
Luckily, Vivio realized what was likely to happen. More luckily, she had a natural talent for parallel processing.
The searing orange buster slammed into the girl's shield spell with enough impact to make her shudder, actually jolting her back, but the shield held, keeping the spell from getting through and letting her finish her own attack spell.
A shining bolt of rainbow light cannoned from her outstretched hand. The mage at once raised a shield of his own to block the spell, a mirror of what Vivio was doing, as if they were engaging in some kind of formal duel.
Except that Sacred Cluster wasn't a buster-type spell.
The blast of rainbow light divided into six separate bolts around halfway between the two combatants. Unlike an omnidirectional barrier spell which provided a dome of protection, the kidnapper's shield was, although a tougher defense, a flat wall that defended only one side. The Sacred Cluster bolts curved easily around it and hammered him from all sides.
Gotcha! Vivio thought, grinning, as the binding spell vanished. She dove at him at once, his momentary incapacity letting her close the range. He wasn't knocked out, but as he pushed himself to his feet she was on him, her foot whipping up into his midsection to drive the breath from his body, which she followed up with a punch to the face that broke his nose, his Barrier Jacket obviously no longer able to stand the punishment. He reeled back, and Vivio hit him with a spinning kick that left him sprawled like a rag doll. The second golem fell apart, being deprived of its master's sustaining mana, and Vivio let out her breath with a whoosh. She was definitely not used to fighting this caliber of opposition in genuine battle!
The dull hum of engines, therefore, drew a groan from her as she spun towards the sound and saw a dozen or so stubby, vaguely humanoid robotic drones in sea-green and sky blue colors flying towards her.
~X X X~
"What are those things?" Dante asked.
"Alduin attack drones. They were designed to engage enemy knights on the ground or in the air. There were originally thirty-six, but only fifteen were still functional after all this time inert. I trust they'll be able to subdue our friend."
The robot nearest to the librarian raised its arm and two projectiles spat from a launch port. Miss Pacifica and Dante watched as they streaked towards her; she flew aside and the micromissiles exploded into fiery blasts when they impacted the tiles.
"Those aren't magic-damage attacks!" Dante yelped. "Those drones are using lethal mass weapons!"
Miss Pacifica quickly accessed the computer.
"I don't think they have a non-lethal setting. They're battle machines from the age of the Belkan wars."
"Can't you shut them down?"
"Probably. But why should I?"
"If they had a non-lethal setting we could use them to keep her under control while she works for us. But they don't and there's basically no way we can do it. The two of us and Caterham combined might—might—be able to beat her in a pitched battle without her Device. But we can't keep her secure. We can't force her to work. We haven't any leverage over her, so our only hope if we don't want to abandon this project is to keep her from escaping and make sure she can't be followed back to us. It's going to be noticed when someone this powerful goes missing."
"So what, you want to kill her?"
Her eyes were as hard and cold as chips of ice.
"Do you have any other ideas?"
~X X X~
The Alduin attack drones had a complex series of algorithms by which they determined their combat tactics. New threats such as Vivio were assessed as unknown. When she demonstrated flight capacity they upgraded their threat assessment to moderate. A spray of Radiant Shooters which fended off their initial charge and made them scatter did not change that, but when she deflected an energy beam, a micromissile salvo, and several kinetic shots with a Protection Powered the threat was upgraded to serious.
When she counterattacked with a Sacred Heart that blew through one drone and tore a large chunk out of a second, they upgraded her to critical. One drone swept in towards her, extending a blade on its arm as if to slash at her, its joint seams beginning to pulse in a brilliant aqua color.
Then it exploded.
The concussive blast sent Vivio hurtling through the air to hammer into the side of the largest building in the facility, which she presumed was the command center since that was where she'd scried Burning Glory's location. The explosion had badly damaged her Barrier Jacket; the white jacket was little more than sleeves and there were a number of rips in the bodysuit beneath, the physical damage reflecting the defensive fields' deteriorating condition. Because of that, the impact had hurt a lot more than it otherwise would have; she almost blacked out.
~X X X~
"What was that?" Dante yelped. The treasure hunter had gotten a double dose of the explosion, once on their screen and once when they heard it in real life; the girl had impacted the wall not two floors above.
"According to these schematics," Miss Pacifica said, a little shaken herself, "t-these Alduin combat drones are equipped to be suicide bombers in the face of enemies where victory by conventional weaponry is in doubt."
"Who'd program something stupid like that?" Dante's self-interest was so much a core concept of his life that he'd always been toweringly contemptuous of suicide and self-sacrifice.
"It makes sense, though. These aren't people, after all. They're not even true AIs, which might be considered artificial life. They're just weapons."
On screen, they saw the librarian twitch. Two of the drones swept in at her, firing, but she'd raised a barrier of rainbow light to cover herself. Despite the devastating explosion, the girl was not only still alive, but still functionally fighting.
~X X X~
The information passed rapidly from one Alduin drone to another.
Threat Level: Extreme.
~X X X~
Vivio fought with a desperation that bordered on insanity. She'd barely been able to gather herself to raise the Protection spell to stop the follow-up attack from delivering the coup de grace. She'd then detonated it with a Barrier Burst, blasting the defensive spell's energy outwards to disorient and distract the robots. Flying out from the building, she seized one by the arm and kicked it into another drone, then used another as a shield to keep herself safe from a spray of slugs. That reduced the drone to scrap, cutting the number of enemies to nine. The problem was, she wasn't sure if her Barrier Jacket could take another hit; it was badly compromised and while it probably could hold off a few kinetic slugs—presuming they didn't have the power of a linear rifle—or energy beams, a missile hit was a different story.
This must be how Fate-mama feels like in Sonic Form, she thought, except that she gets to have Bardiche's help and a lot more speed! She staved off a couple of the deadly missiles with a Round Shield and immediately fired back a Sacred Cluster, which destroyed two more drones and badly damaged another three. Maybe I've got a—
She didn't even get a chance to complete her hopeful thought. Two cables snaked around her, tangling her arms and legs, wrapping around her body. She fought against them, even as the two drones that had fired them began to reel her in like a fisherman with a trout. The other drones swept in towards her, but they did not fire. Were they out of ammunition?
Then she noticed the telltale glow from their joints, like she'd seen just before the near-crippling explosion. Only that had been one drone. This was all of them, including the ones that had snared her. Vivio heaved against the cables, feeling them start to give, but there just wasn't enough time. Even if she got loose, she couldn't fly free in time, and even a Protection Powered wouldn't stop seven of the sacrificial blasts.
"Mode Release!" she screamed in desperation. Her Barrier Jacket vanished, leaving herself in her normal library uniform.
Then her world dissolved in sound and fury.
~X X X~
"What by the Holy of Holies is she doing?" Miss Pacifica exclaimed as she watched her prisoner disperse her Barrier Jacket and prepare to take the impact of the titanic blast without defenses. Was she afraid that the explosion would leave her dying but not dead with her protections in place, and so wished to spare herself a slow, lingering end?
There was a kind of pathos about it, she found. As she watched the blast fill the display screen, felt the shaking, Miss Pacifica was surprised to discover herself a little bit sad that it had ended that way. She was human, after all, and rooted for the underdog, the heroic last stand to succeed as much as the next person did when she went to the movies.
When the dust and smoke began to clear, though, and she saw a silhouette within the thinning clouds, which a few more seconds stood revealed as the blonde walking, apparently untouched, out of the blast area, the touch of sympathy vanished. In its place were confusion, shock, and a strong dose of pure, uncomprehending terror.
"She's a monster!" Dante babbled. "Not even a combat cyborg could have lived through that without taking damage!"
Had Vivio been there, she could have explained to them about the Saint's Armor, the genetic legacy from her predecessor, Sankt Kaiser Olivie. It was a series of reflexive, interlocking defensive magics that would activate whenever she was struck by a damaging attack. She had a feeling it had been designed primarily to prevent assassination attempts, since she could shrug off almost anything short of an Arc-en-Ciel blast or its equivalent. It also didn't function at all when she had any kind of defensive magic on her body like a Barrier Jacket. Vivio used one because the Saint's Armor was exhausting; three or four uses would leave her unconscious from mana drain from a perfectly rested state—and the Armor did not discriminate between weak and strong attacks. A single multi-shot shooting spell like Radiant Shooter could hit her multiple times and overwhelm her mana reserves with attacks she'd have been able to shrug off with ordinary magic. That made the Saint's Armor very inefficient for normal magical combat.
For tanking single, massive assaults, though, it worked very well indeed.
Miss Pacifica and Dante didn't know any of that, though. They only knew that their prisoner had, without apparent defense, emerged unhurt from a blast that could have leveled mages with multiple As in their ranking. Emerged, brushed some dust off, and started walking towards the door of the building where they were currently located.
With wide, staring eyes they looked at the screen, then at each other, and wordlessly came to a shared conclusion. The aqueous light of Miss Pacifica's magic swelled around them and they vanished, already executing a series of rapid teleports, designed to confuse any attempts to track them, which would carry them to their escape craft. It hurt to pass on the opportunity of a lifetime, but money didn't spend very well from the inside of a prison cell.
~X X X~
The doors in the ancient Alduin facility irised open as Vivio approached rather than sliding. She found that a little disconcerting, the way small things will take on too much importance when one has less energy for background processing. She was exhausted physically, magically, and mentally from the series of fights, and she had no idea what, if anything, she had left for dealing with whomever had sent the drones after her.
As she moved cautiously through the corridors, though, no alarms went off, no security fields tried to trap her, no drones or guards appeared to challenge her presence. Though everything was active and functioning, lights on, ventilation systems keeping the air fresh, there was no sign of activity. Following the results of her search for Burning Glory, Vivio made her way into what looked to be some kind of operations center. Several holographic and flatpanel display screens were open and showing imagery, including what looked like a surveillance view of the courtyard outside, but Vivio ignored these, rushing to a containment unit sitting on one of the high-backed blue leather chairs. She opened it at once; thankfully it was not locked, and she plucked out the ring inside.
"Burning Glory! Are you all right?"
"It's good to see you, mistress. I don't believe I've suffered any damage, but you appear to be in need of medical attention."
"That's what I get for going into battle without my partner."
"Then this is an escape?"
"Yeah. Do you know what happened to the people who had you?"
"I am sorry, mistress. The containment unit blocked my sensory and communications functions."
That was only to be expected, Vivio supposed.
"That's okay. Maybe there's surveillance video of them on this computer's security system. For now, though, let's just make a call to the local authorities. This is an Administered World, so I should be able to arrange transport back to Midchilda easily enough. I hope nobody's worrying about me back home."
A communication screen opened as Burning Glory dialed into the local network. Vivio's eyes flew to a readout in one corner.
"Oh, good grief, is that Cranagan time?"
~X X X~
Lutecia idly poked at her cutlet with the slender silver fork. Candlelight gleamed off the polished tableware, glittered in the depths of the crystal, and smoldered in the ruby depths of the wine, but she barely noticed. A romantic dinner for two was basically worthless when served to one. Vivio was late, she hadn't called to say why, and she hadn't answered any of Lutecia's own calls. Worried, she'd called Vivio's mothers, but Nanoha had told her that they hadn't been contacted about any medical emergency. While that was reassuring in one way, it was also miserable in an another, since it gave no explanation for why her girlfriend was apparently blowing her off completely on their most important (as yet) anniversary.
She wondered what Avercini's dessert menu had to offer that night. Something decadent and luxurious was definitely called for when being stood up. With chocolate. Definitely with chocolate. And whipped cream. With more chocolate on top.
Maybe Caro's free? Venting over romantic setbacks was definitely better done to sympathetic friends of the same gender. And pigging out on chocolate was best done in a private home. Especially if alcohol became involved and things reached the throwing-up or passing-out stages. And you know your life sucks when you are deliberately making plans which will end in nausea or unconsciousness, she thought ruefully.
Lutecia's head snapped up. As the saying went, she'd know that voice anywhere. The girl was all but sprinting through the restaurant, a flustered maitre'd' flailing after her since she obviously hadn't waited to be shown in. She wasn't dressed for the date, either, still wearing her Infinity Library staff uniform.
"Vivio, what happened? Where have you been?" She rose to greet the younger woman.
"I'm so sorry I'm late. Some stupid relic thieves kidnapped me this morning, and I had to blast my way out of an AMF-equipped concrete holding cell, and fight a couple of guards and a mercenary mage without Burning Glory since they'd stolen him, and then there were these attack drones that tried to kill me. And when I called for a rescue ship first they insisted on running medical magic on me in sick bay, and the whole trip back from Aldu they insisted on debriefing me about the kidnappers and the fight and everything, so I couldn't even call you and tell you I'd be late! And I came here straight from the spaceport since I figured if I took the time to go home and change I'd miss dinner completely."
The words had come tumbling out one after another without, so far as Lutecia would tell, pauses for breath. As a Shadow, she was used to adapting on the fly to new information and rapidly-changing situations. That experience didn't seem to help much. The maitre'd' actually seemed to be adapting better than she was; as soon as Vivio had started mentioning things like "kidnapping" and "attack drones" he had started backing away slowly.
"Wow, you look incredible!" Vivio exclaimed even as she'd caught her breath. "Did you buy that dress especially for tonight?"
Lutecia still was not able to respond coherently.
"Um, do I still have blood on my face or something? I'd better go freshen up. I'll be right back!" She leaned forward, brushed her lips against Lutecia's cheek, and scurried off towards the restrooms. After a couple of minutes, Lutecia's brain finally made the full transition from "upset at being stood up" through "worried that her girlfriend had been through all that" to "relief that everything was okay." At that point she glanced at the time and realized that if Vivio wanted something to eat she'd better order right away if they were going to make it to the opera on time. Which in its way was too bad, because Lutecia was finding that she wanted happy chocolate as much as she'd wanted drown-her-sorrows chocolate. Maybe they could stop for ice cream on their way to Ember later on.
Another couple of minutes passed, and she started to wonder what was taking Vivio. She hadn't really needed "freshening up," so it wasn't like she was spending a lot of time in front of the makeup mirror. Lutecia slipped from her chair and crossed the dining room towards the restrooms. She pushed open the door and slipped into a ladies' room that was absolutely spotless, from the burnt-sienna carpet to the gleaming black tile and brass fixtures.
It was also empty.
"Vivio?" she called, but got no answer. Her heart thudded wildly as she thought of possible scenarios. The stall doors went all the way to the floor for privacy, so she couldn't see if there were any familiar—or unfamiliar—feet showing beneath them. With soft steps she moved forward.
Suddenly, the door to her left flew open and a hand clamped around her wrist, yanking her into the stall. Lutecia was already twisting her arm to break the hold and summoning mana for a counterattack spell when a pair of very familiar lips closed over her own.
"Vivio, what are you doing?" she managed to murmur into the kiss.
"I come back from kidnapping and life-or-death battle to find my girlfriend wearing that dress and you're asking me what I'm doing?" she purred. From behind herself, Lutecia heard the soft click as Vivio's fingers found the door bolt and pushed it into place. Her left hand had already found the slit in the dress's side and in a few moments had discovered the answer to the stockings-or-pantyhose question.
Then she paused for a second and looked searchingly into her girlfriend's eyes.
"Lutecia? Did you not want me to—?" she asked hesitantly.
Lutecia's arms wound around Vivio's neck.
"...before I came in here I was just thinking how I was hungry for dessert."
She pulled the younger woman hard against herself and recaptured her mouth.
Now that I think about it, I wonder if the opera house has storage closets, was her last coherent thought.
~X X X~
A/N: This story was inspired by an exchange between RadiantBeam and deathcurse concerning possible plots to get Vivio involved in Lutecia's Shadow world. One of them mentioned how she definitely didn't want to do the "Vivio kidnapped by Lutecia's enemies" cliché, and the other noted how most likely Vivio would just break out on her own if that happened. Then deathcurse mentioned the scenario of Vivio showing up late for their date with a spiel of excuses about the kidnapping...and I made the mistake of mentioning that I thought it would make a good fic. They both turned on me and intimated that the person who thinks up such ideas ought to be willing to answer the request. ^_^
And hey, I've been itching for the chance to show off the Shadowverse-version Saint's Armor for a while, so that was a bonus for me, too!
The title for the opera they plan to attend was actually the label on the base of my Alter Sankt Kaiser Vivio figure. Or in other words, yes, Lutecia is taking Vivio to see an opera about her original. Bonus points if you noticed that!
As a technological note, I observe that despite the entire area being under AMF, Jail Scaglietti's base had functional communication screens (including the big one where he foolishly allowed Erio and Caro to do the cheer-up speech for Fate), so that is my inspiration for letting a screen pop up in Vivio's jail cell.
~X X X~
Vivio's Magical Omake Theater!
The security door at the end of the corridor opened with a clang, and the sound of footsteps echoed down the hall. They stopped about halfway up the row of cells, revealing themselves as belonging to a uniformed Cranagan Metropolitan Security officer and a thin, not unhandsome man with dirty blond hair pulled back in a rattail.
"Takamachi, Alphine, you're out," the policeman said. Vivio and Lutecia sat up and approached the door. Five other women watched them sullenly, envying the two who would not have to spend the night in the cell.
"Hey, ladies," Victor Stormhawk said with a huge grin. "So, I hear it was a hot date."
The guard lowered the barrier and opened the cell door to let them out, then resecured it behind them.
"Storm, I appreciate that you came down to bail us out at one-thirty in the morning," Lutecia began.
"As well you should. It's a good friend who rises from his bed to get his coworker and her girlfriend released from durance vile on...what was it, again? Oh, yes, charges of public lewdness, commission of an indecent act in a public place, destruction of a security camera, public intoxication—no, that one was dropped after the test results came back under the legal limit, meaning that you were doing it all sober."
She glared at him.
"I'm sure the entertainment value more than made up for the inconvenience, given that I know the only time you've ever gone to sleep before four a.m. in your life is when someone's blasted you unconscious."
"I never said I was sleeping," he said, his grin widening.
The officer let them out of the holding section.
"You can pick up your possessions at the booking desk," he said with a gesture in the right direction, then went back to his post.
"I thought you just said you rose from your bed to bail us out?" Vivio asked. She was, in some ways, still quite innocent.
"Ask me how I know that Celica is busy expunging this little incident from the database," he said.
Vivio blushed. Lutecia didn't, but gently touched his forearm.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin your evening."
He waved it off.
"You'd do the same for me, Alphine. Don't sweat it. And besides, I got all this great material for giving you grief. For example, didn't your covert operations training suggest that loud screaming in an alley behind a nightclub will attract attention?"
"I said I was sorry," muttered Vivio.