About a month ago, I managed to write up about one and five-sixths chapters in rough draft. So, you may be wondering 'why was there no August update'?
Computer troubles. Then university started up again.
Anyway, it's here now, so while I'm not even going to pretend to promise consistent updates, this story is continuing. And hey, I know some stories that will only update once a year, if that! But enough about that.
Chapter 15: Unjust Destiny
September 3, 0065
There comes a time in a person's life when they must decide what sort of person they want to be. There is no hard and fast rule for what this choice is or when it will occur (if there was, one would hope the world would be a much nicer place) and as the world is far from simple a person might be forced to make any number of such decisions over the course of their lives, so saying 'a time' is perhaps a little misleading. Still, there are… generalities. Assumptions. Such as, for example, the idea that such things are for adults, or at the very least teenagers, to worry about.
Thus, Hayate felt she was quite justified in being ever-so-slightly miffed about the current situation. Not only was she the current focus of a life-or-death scenario, it was her life that was on the line. Worse, she has to be the one to make the decision. She's nine, she's not qualified to make big choices like this, why on Earth is she in charge anyway?!
Hayate took a deep breath to calm herself before she became hysterical.
By all rights, Hayate ought to have the opportunity to freak out a little, maybe have some time to herself to cry about the unfairness of the world. But she isn't alone, and for the first time since her family emerged from the Book this isn't a good thing. Because as long as the Wolkenritter are with her, she can't break down and cry, because she is absolutely certain that if she does, Signum will pressure her into letting her family save her life. Which incidentally, is the worst part of this whole situation:
She's on the wrong side of this argument.
But sometimes, Hayate knows, has known since her parents died, has had it drilled into her every day of loneliness, every doctor's appointment, every moment of crushing responsibility as the master of the Wolkenritter, the world isn't fair. And so, no matter how much she would prefer it to be otherwise, no matter how much her family begged, no matter how desperately she wanted to live, she was going to say:
"Hayate," Signum, Signum of all people, pleaded. "You will die if we don't do something."
"I want to live." Hayate said forcefully, silencing the Wolkenritter. "But," she said softly, affixing each of them in turn with her gaze, "if I allowed you to do this, to hunt down and absorb the meager linker cores that exist on this world, how many people would you hurt?"
The knights flinched. Vita, voice trembling, eyes teary, answered through her sobs. "We could probably keep it under a thousand."
"And I am not willing to go through with that." Hayate's fingers tapped out a staccato beat on the Book of Darkness. "I know that there isn't always a way to avoid hurting people, and I accept that. But there have to be limits. And I have mine. If I let you go through with this, I would never be able to look myself in the mirror again."
"But you would be alive," Zafira tried to persuade her insistently. "And no one would be permanently harmed. Please, let us do this!"
Shamal grasped Hayate's hands. "Hayate, if we don't do this, you will be horrifically sick by November. You will be dead before the year is out. Please, let us save you!"
Hayate smiled sadly. "Thank you for caring so much. It means a lot to me. But I will not. The life I want to lead is one without regrets, however short it might be. Perhaps, in the end, I'm just a silly idealistic little girl with too many principles and not enough common sense to fill a thimble, but that's how I feel. I don't expect you to like my decision. Honestly, I don't much like having to make it. If you find another way, a better way, then I would love nothing more than to live a long, happy life. But if there is no other way to save my life, then I will settle for short and happy over long and haunted by guilt."
"Thank you." Hayate reached out and wiped away Vita's tears, fighting back her own. "Really. I had never hoped to have even a single person care about me half as much as the four of you do. Thank you for everything you've given me these past few months. It means the world to me, and all the stars besides."
"If it weren't for us and the Book, you wouldn't be in this situation!" Shamal cried out.
"You are worth it." Hayate said with unshakable conviction, and placed a gentle kiss on Shamal's forehead. "Power? Authority? My health? I couldn't care less. The Book of Darkness granted me the only wish I would ever have made on it the instant it gave me you. If my life is the price I have to pay for these happy times with you, then I am getting the better end of the deal. I'm just sorry these happy days couldn't last forever."
Looking away from them, Hayate pulled out her phone and started to type up a text. "We should meet up with the Takamachi's and tell them what's happening."
Normally Signum would be leery of the idea, but under the circumstances there just wasn't any point in arguing. Their situation could hardly be made worse.
Molecules sparked and shimmered in her mind's eye as she slowly, crawlingly, haltingly shaped and applied her power to the disk in her hands. Golden light, emitted, reflected, refracted, illuminated the room as Fate strained to form a microscopic tendril of power which she ever-so-carefully shipped forward to impact the disc, leaving an imperceptibly small ding on the CD-ROM. Relaxing slightly, she scrutinized her work as best she could. It seemed to be right, but her visualization was still decidedly subpar. There was only one way to be sure.
Fate walked over to Miyuki's laptop, carefully aligned the disk with the entry portal, and gently pushed in the CD until the internal mechanisms grasped it and moved it the rest of the way inside. As the computer spun the disk, Fate patiently waited, twitching at unexpected background noises from the rest of the house. With a final whir, the computer finished its work and acknowledged the existence of the CD. Double-clicking the helpful pop-up window to view the files on the CD, Fate smiled upon seeing a txt file. Another pair of clicks successfully opened the document, but sadly the simple sentence she had attempted to engrave into the disk turned to gibberish partway through, indicating that she had made a significant error at that point which had thrown off the rest of her efforts. With a sigh, she closed the window and ejected the disk in order to begin the painstaking process of tracking down her mistake and fixing it. It would probably be both easier and faster to wipe the disk and start anew, but if she did that she would not learn from her error.
So intent on scanning was she that the arrival of Nanoha's mother completely escaped Fate's notice until the woman spoke.
"You didn't go to spar with Nanoha and Yuuno today?" Momoko asked curiously.
Upon hearing Momoko speak, Fate jerked backward in shock, losing her grasp on the CD. Fate spun around clasping at her palpitating heart, and the disk clattered to the ground, momentarily forgotten.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you." Momoko reached down and picked up the disk, brushed off both sides and returned it. "Did you not feel like fighting today?"
Fate set the disk down on the table, and looked down, scuffing her feet. "Shamal and I were talking during out last session, and I realized that the three of us are always together. Which… isn't necessarily a bad thing, but…" She shrugged helplessly.
Momoko nodded in understanding. "Sometimes you want a little time to yourself, right?"
"I guess," Fate frowned. "But I'm really jumpy for some reason and… I don't know." She shook her head. "I wish I had gone with them."
"They didn't leave all that long ago," Momoko pointed out, "and they won't be back for a few hours. You could go join them."
Fate was tempted, so very tempted, but she ultimately decided against it. "I wouldn't be doing much of anything if I went." She didn't want to be clingy, and it didn't get much clingier than that. She could last a couple more hours, right? Right.
"What do you mean?"
Fate blinked, and had to take a moment to get her thoughts back on track. "Ah, I suppose it hasn't really come up… I don't join in the spars very often. It's usually just Nanoha and Yuuno, though Arf sometimes joins in. I do practice my spells on my own, and I can practice with Arf, but since she's my familiar we can't spar effectively – we can predict each other to well and we always end up pulling our punches. And I can't break through Yuuno's defences…"
That was something of an understatement, Fate admitted to herself. Yuuno had once taken Thunder Smasher, then Thunder Rage, then sat there and let her go through the whole ceremony for Thunder Fall and he hadn't even been strained – though he at least put a little bit of effort into blocking Photon Lancer Phalanx Shift when she had merged twenty or thirty of the plasma balls together and thrown the resulting Spark End at him like a javelin. It was utterly ridiculous. Maybe he was the humanoid offspring of a castle and a tank?
"…And I'm always too worried to hit Nanoha." Fate concluded.
"My attacks are all electrified," Fate explained. "I'm always afraid that I'll cause another heart failure, and when I hesitate Nanoha takes the opportunity to obliterate me. She's pragmatic like that. The odds of something going wrong are really low, but I can't bring myself to risk it." Fate averted her eyes, fiddling with the CD distractedly.
Momoko observed this thoughtfully.
"We've never thanked you, have we?" She asked somewhat rhetorically.
And she slowly, gently pulled Fate into a hug.
Fate stiffened ever so slightly, but to Momoko's relief she almost immediately relaxed. She didn't hug back, but she didn't push Momoko away either.
"Thank you," Momoko murmured in Fate's ear. "Thank you for protecting this world. Thank you for saving Nanoha's life."
Fate flushed red. "I- I didn't do anything special. Arf and Yuuno saved me, Nanoha fought Mother, Yuuno planned everything out, and Arf was the one who saved Nanoha. I only helped a little at the end."
"You don't have to do something special to make a difference, Fate." Momoko released Fate and stepped back, smiling. "And I have no doubt that if I asked any of the others about those events they would think your contributions important. I'll leave you to your practice, but let me know if you want some company."
"Okay," Fate smiled back shyly.
Momoko left the room and wound her way out to the dojo where Arf awaited her.
"Thanks for that," the familiar said. "She's feeling a lot better now."
"It was no problem. Fate's a sweetheart, really." Momoko paused. "Would you be offended if I asked you why you never ripped that monster's throat out?"
Arf barked out a sharp laugh. "Fate would never have forgiven me for that, and worse, she would have blamed herself for that thing's death. She loves her 'mother', even if it was never reciprocated. Sometimes… sometimes you can't save someone until they realize that they need to be saved."
Momoko nodded, knowing what she meant. For several long moments, the Takamachi matriarch stared searchingly at the wolf.
"…Arf, why did you ask me to help Fate just now?"
"Because she needed to talk to someone," Arf said with a 'duh' look on her face, but Momoko was having none of it, and stared down the familiar until she caved.
"Tch. You and that husband of yours really are just way too perceptive." Arf grumbled. "Before I came here I would just be able to deflect the question without answering."
"Before you came here you spent all of your time with a nine-year-old with the social skills of a mushroom, if that." Momoko said bluntly, then her gaze softened. "Arf, talk to me. This is far from the first time you've done things like this. What is going on?"
Arf sighed, giving in. "I'm… safe. Expected. I could easily have comforted her, yes, but… that wouldn't really do anything for Fate. But… if it's, say, Nanoha who helps her instead… then Fate starts to trust Nanoha a little more. Or maybe if it's your husband who gives her good advice, Fate will go to him for more advice in the future. And if Miyuki listens to her problems with a kind ear, perhaps Fate will talk to her more often. And eventually, maybe Fate will just want me, rather than actually need me."
Momoko's eyes widened. "Arf, you…"
Arf turned away, face flushing. "I love her. And I would do anything for her. But I know that she needs more than just me in her life. Someday, I'm just going to be one of many people in her life, and probably not the most important one. But if all of those people look out for her and try to make her happy, I'll be satisfied."
"I'm honored that you place so much trust in our family," Momoko said honestly. "But don't distance yourself too much. Fate loves you too after all."
Arf smiled wryly. "I know. I do have an empathic link with her after all. And I do spend time with her. But the bonds she is making now will last a lifetime, and Fate deserves that more than anyone. I won't be here forever."
Momoko blinked. "You won't? I guess I kind of assumed you would live for as long as Fate."
Arf shrugged. "Well, it isn't like I'm dying. I've probably got at least another twenty or thirty years in me, probably more. Fate did a really good job for a little kid when she made me, but I'm not designed as well as a Belkan Guardian Beast. Shamal was quite offended at my 'shoddy construction' as she put it, but from where I'm standing I'm going to live decades beyond the natural lifespan of a wolf. Still, Fate's going to outlive me by a significant margin. Nanoha and Yuuno will look after her though, so I'm not too worried."
Momoko raised an eyebrow. "They're pretty young. I can't imagine they'll stop being friends, but there's a good chance they'll eventually go their separate ways."
But Arf just chuckled. "Trust me on this one. Wherever their lives may take them, they'll be there together. Some things do last a lifetime."
"Flash Impact," intoned Raising Heart, the staff accelerating towards Yuuno's back. A shield appeared in its path, easily absorbing the shockwave of mana Raising Heart released on contact.
But the shield's work was not yet done. Green chains shot out from it, ensnaring Nanoha in their grasp.
Yuuno smirked. "Looks like my win this time."
Nanoha smirked back. "Raising Heart!"
Pink light exploded outwards, shattering the chains. Nanoha blurred forward to melee range, striking out with Raising Heart.
Yuuno lazily reached out, grabbed Nanoha's outstretched arm, and sunk down in order to facilitate a mid-air throw. As Nanoha uncontrollably spun head-over-heels through the air above him, Yuuno slapped a good half a dozen binds on her. Then he blinked.
"Did you seriously detonate your barrier jacket and try to club me with Raising Heart?"
Nanoha had the decency to look embarrassed. "I keep forgetting you can do hand-to-hand combat." Then she brightened. "But at least I know Reactor Purge works now."
"Nanoha, why would you ever want to destroy your barrier jacket in combat?"
"It's like reactive armor," Nanoha explained. "I figure that if I'm hit with an attack that is going to destroy my barrier jacket anyway, I might as well detonate it in order to blunt the attack as much as possible. I can always make a new barrier jacket, but actual wounds are another story entirely."
"Then why didn't you reform your barrier jacket?"
"Well, I can't do it quickly," Nanoha admitted. "And I figured I could end the fight quickly if I attacked."
Yuuno sighed and released his sparring partner. "Nanoha, you have absolutely no training whatsoever in melee combat. Either stick to shooting range or get someone to teach you how to fight with a staff. I just know some basic Strike Arts and I'm still easily able to take you out when you get too close. I dread to think of what someone on the level of the Wolkenritter would do to you."
"You're probably right," Nanoha said grudgingly. "And in a real battle I wouldn't take a chance like that unless I had to. But right now I don't want to take time away from my other training to learn staff fighting. Maybe if you let me run more simulations again…" She looked at Yuuno hopefully, but he shot that idea down.
"Not a chance. There isn't a desperate need to teach you the basics anymore, and while it did a lot of good, training that strenuous can easily hurt more than help if you do it over a long period of time." As Nanoha still looked mutinous, he tried another tack. "Look, if Precia comes back again, would you rather be well-rested and at the top of your game, or sleep-deprived, low on mana, and under significant mental strain?"
Nanoha huffed. "Fine. But you have to help me with compressing Starlight Breaker then."
Yuuno flew some distance away and readied himself.
Pink motes of light swirled in towards Nanoha, forming a sphere at a much faster rate than two months ago. As it grew, two ribbons wrapped themselves around the sphere. The sphere's growth slowed, though the amount of starlight streaming towards it kept up the same pace.
"Density increasing." Raising Heart announced. "105%... 110%... … 115%"
At 15% compression, the sphere was clearly becoming unstable. Quickly, Nanoha struck it, her chosen trigger launching the energy towards Yuuno in a coherent beam.
The incredibly dense pattern of lines and script folded out in front of Yuuno and expanded. Aegis was really the only spell in Yuuno's repertoire that he considered to be specifically his. He had, when he was younger, thought it would be 'cool' to create the strongest defensive spell in existence. Whether or not he had succeeded was up for debate, but it was so stupidly over engineered it might as well be useless in most situations.
Not only could Aegis take more than a magnitude greater power than Round Shield without overloading, not only did it create an actual physical barrier and a counterforce, he had 'brilliantly' made it to be massively customizable. While it sounded good in theory to be able to change the size, shape, shield strength at every point, counterforce direction at every point, etc., etc., it was really just a whole lot of unwanted complications.
A normal Mid-Childan circle had perhaps two layers of script. Aegis had seven. That was not a good thing.
In his (admittedly abbreviated) career as an archeologist, Yuuno had never needed or wanted to use Aegis. Why use all of that mana and give himself a pounding headache when he could just use Round Shield or Sphere protection to block basically anything?
He'd used Aegis in the Garden of Time because he wanted to be absolutely certain that nothing short of Precia herself would have any hope of breaking through that doorway.
It was telling that Aegis was now his default response to Starlight Breaker.
When the light faded, Yuuno was breathing heavily and had produced a fair amount of perspiration, but he was otherwise unharmed.
"I think you're trying to do too many things at once," he said once he had caught his breath. "The mana compression is too volatile and dangerous for you to give it less than your full attention. Well, knowing you you'll manage to do that eventually, but this is still relatively new for you. More so than everything else, at any rate."
"Maybe," Nanoha said. "But if I charged it up first… Well, I'm kind of afraid of what would happen if I lost control of a full sized Starlight Breaker."
"You can practice with a smaller one and work your way up." Yuuno pointed out. "But I really think you need to do two steps: mana collection and mana compression."
"Alright, I can try that."
Once more, pink motes began to gather.
"How was your practice?" Fate asked.
"Great!" chirped Nanoha. "I've made good progress on Starlight Breaker."
Yuuno, who looked much less chipper and rather more battered, smiled wanly.
"I still think it has a ways to go," Nanoha admitted. "Well, putting it that way makes it sound like there's a definite limit to how far I can improve it. I'll probably be improving the speed and compression for years to come."
Yuuno twitched, suddenly gaining a thousand yard stare.
"Oh, by the way, I got a text from Hayate. She wants to meet up with us sometime soon to talk about something."
"Us as in the whole family?" Momoko asked, and got a nod in return. "Well, I'll give her a call and set things up."
"Okay, tomorrow at five then. Thank you." Hayate ended the call.
"Giant squid is no good."
"Blue whale is hardly worth anything."
"Giant redwood is worthless, but I guess that was kind of a long shot anyway."
"I think I can get like one word per elephant. Maybe."
Hayate sighed and spoke into the mental network. "Listen, I'm more or less sure that there isn't anything magical on this whole planet."
"We have to try," argued Vita.
Hayate sighed, and looked around their apartment. It was a rather cramped fit for five people, she supposed, especially with her in a wheelchair, though it had never bothered any of them during their time here. But now, with her family out scouring the globe for any source of linker cores that Hayate might not object to, the apartment felt terribly empty. Hayate's house was more or less fixed, and it wouldn't be too much longer before they would move back there, and Hayate thought it was a pity that her fond memories of her time here were being tainted by sadness and loneliness.
As much as she wanted to call her knights back to her, she refused to hurt them like that. They were trying their hardest to help her, and she would not insult their efforts and desires by commanding them to do what she wanted.
"I've scheduled the meeting for five pm tomorrow at the Takamachi household." Hayate sent.
"We'll be there," Signum promised.
With that Hayate shut down her access to the network. Hearing them fail to find anything was rather depressing and the last thing she needed at the moment was more bad news. Sitting alone in her wheelchair, Hayate felt utterly spent, too emotionally exhausted to even cry.
A nudge to her side drew her attention to the Book of Darkness, hovering next to her. With a sigh, Hayate reached out and hugged it to her.
"It's fine. I don't blame you, not really. This isn't anybody's fault. In your own way, you're just trying to do the best you can. If I was strong enough, then I could fill all of your pages and everything would work out for the best. It isn't your fault my body isn't up to the challenge."
Hayate's eyes wandered aimlessly, looking for something to distract herself with. Eventually, they ground to a halt at the sight of a camera that had seen good use over the past few months. Hayate smiled and turned to the Book.
"We're going to need some arts and crafts supplies."
"I think I need to spend more time working on binds or find more ways to limit my opponent's movements," Nanoha concluded between bites. "It doesn't matter how strong my attacks are if I can't hit anything. What did you work on, Fate?"
"I can manually create a text file on a CD, but it takes a long time. I'm not getting very good visualization from my scanning spell either."
"I can give you some pointers on the scanner, but speed only comes with practice." Yuuno said. "It'll come eventually if you keep working at it."
Fate nodded as she passed the rice to Arf.
Nanoha was strong and getting stronger. Fate suspected that she was much weaker than Nanoha at this point. But that was alright. She could rely on the strength of others after all, could she not?
Hayate affixed the last of the pictures and wrote the caption in colored ink. Once everything was dried, she closed the scrapbook and set it on the counter, out of the way.
No one came home that night.
Hayate cried herself to sleep.
September 4, 0065
By 5:00 pm the next day, Hayate had hidden all signs of her breakdown. Internally, however, she remained quite stressed as she rolled along towards the Takamachi homestead.
Truthfully, there wasn't even a particularly good reason to tell the Takamachi's and their… friends?... allies?... permanent guests?... anything. There wasn't a good reason not to, either, but that didn't really justify this. Hayate supposed that the reason she was doing this was that other than Dr. Ishida, who doesn't know about magic, and Uncle Graham and his nieces, who had seemingly vanished off of the face of the Earth, the Takamachi and… affiliates?... were basically the only people she knew as more than passing acquaintances.
Come to think of it, that was rather pathetic.
Zafira knocked on the door and after a moment Kyouya opened it.
"Come on through," he said. "Since there are so many of us, we figured it would be best to use the dojo."
Which was fair enough, Hayate thought, as thirteen people was a lot to cram into a room in a Japanese house.
Looking around the wooden structure, Hayate swept her eyes over the Takamachi clan, suddenly nervous. Once everyone was inside the dojo, she licked her lips and spoke up.
"I know you are wondering what I wanted to tell you, but since I'm not really sure how to go about this I suppose the best way is to tell the story from the beginning."
Talking to so many people at once wasn't something Hayate was comfortable with, so she decided to try not to look at her audience and keep everything as simple as possible.
"A couple of months ago, during the dislocation, an artifact in my possession activated. The Book of Darkness," she held the Book before her, "designated me as its owner and materialized the four guardian knights, the Wolkenritter." She gestured to her companions. "At that time, Vita saved my life, and they took me to the hospital. When I woke up, they introduced themselves and explained things.
"The Wolkenritter protect and serve the owner of the Book and, traditionally, seek to fill the pages of the Book. The Book of Darkness collects both spells and mana in one go by absorbing linker cores – well, technically, scanning linker cores and draining mana from them. The mana absorbed is shown by way of the number of pages the Book has filled. The Book can expend both mana and pages to cast any spell it contains. If all 666 pages are filled, the Book recognizes its owner as its true master and grants them full administrative powers. Given the power and knowledge contained within the Book of Darknes, they could do nearly anything they wanted.
"While it would be nice to be able to walk again, I didn't want anyone to get hurt so I asked them to not try to fill the Book. After that the… hospital incident occurred, and we all know what that involved. A little while later, maybe a couple of days, I can't quite remember, the Book of Darkness began to fill itself.
"Looking back, I can see that we were just rationalizing thoughtlessly, but at the time we assumed that the Book was reallocating mana from the Wolkenritter. However, in reality the Book has been draining me in addition to the stress of maintaining the Book's functions. Unfortunately, my linker core can't handle it, and my body is paying the price. The paralysis that affects my legs is spreading, and will reach my vital organs a few months from now, though I'll probably die before my diaphragm is immobilized, as my organs will lose their functionality as the paralysis reaches them, and I can only survive without so many of them."
Before anyone else could really react, Yuuno nodded thoughtfully. "Alright, I'll do what I can."
"…Huh?" Vita said eloquently.
Yuuno blinked. "Um, you were going to ask me to help, right? I kind of assumed."
"I think we are all somewhat confused as to what help you are trying to offer," Shamal said diplomatically.
"I'm an archeologist." Yuuno said slowly. "The Book of Darkness is a Lost Logia. This sort of situation is something people in my line of work deal with on a regular basis."
"Do you think you can help?" Hayate asked, almost afraid of the answer.
"I can't promise anything," Yuuno cautioned. "For one, I'm working alone rather than with a team. Also, I have none of the specialized equipment I would normally use. And just by looking at it I can tell that the Book of Darkness is easily the most powerful and complex artifact I've ever studied. But this is something I am trained to do, and with your permission I'll do everything in my power to help."
And with that, there was hope, however slight.
I wonder how many people saw that coming? If you decide to review, let me know. I'm interested in finding out. It seemed logical to me, but on the other hand I can't recall ever reading a story where Yuuno actually got the opportunity to do this. But I basically cut the majority of the conflict of A's out after the fight at the hospital, so the doorway was opened for a peaceful attempt to solve the problem.
I think this chapter is one of the smaller ones, comprised of a comparatively small number of larger sections. I got some stuff I needed to have done completed, and I've set up the next stage of events. The last section, which has Hayate basically telling everyone what the audience already knows, was unavoidable because the plot can't progress without it. It's too important a scene to have occur off screen. It could probably be better, but it serves its purpose.
The Wolkenritter are not in a good place right now. Their master is dying, they can't heal her, and in fact the Book (and by extension them) is directly responsible for what is happening to Hayate. And they are utterly powerless to stop it. They aren't really acting up to their usual impossibly high standards of awesome – if they were thinking clearly they 1) wouldn't have left Hayate alone and 2) might have realized the possibility of Yuuno being useful. Or maybe not – while to everyone else the Book is a Lost Logia, to the Wolkenritter it is a constant fact of life. It's quite possible that the idea of an archeologist being able to help with it would never have occurred to them.
Power levels in fiction are somewhat nebulous at best, but while I'm thinking about it let me try to give you an idea of where everyone is right now. When it comes to melee skill, the Wolkenritter are on the top, followed by Shirou, Kyouya, Miyuki, Fate, Arf, Yuuno, and Nanoha in that order. Everyone else isn't even worth mentioning, Nanoha only making the list because she's a main character. Flying skill, the Wolkenritter are on top, followed closely by Nanoha, and not so closely be Fate, Yuuno, and Arf. Shooting skill and bombardment magic, Nanoha is by now the clear winner, followed by Precia, Fate, then Arf and the Wolkenritter. Yuuno scores negative for hilarity. Defensive skill, Yuuno is flying high in the sky, followed far below by the Wolkenritter, then Nanoha, Arf and Fate, with Precia getting honorary mention at the bottom for creative and effective use of offensive spells. In terms of power levels, Precia and Hayate (who finally gets a mention) are at the top, followed by the Wolkenritter, Nanoha, Fate, Yuuno, and Arf.
How does this translate to combat? Well, that depends on a lot of things, but what it really translates to is that the Wolkenritter rule the roost at the moment, and everyone knows it.
Nanoha has a lot of potential, but their skill set is a good counter for hers and their stats are through the roof – Precia on the other hand, she is likely able to squash like a bug at this point which may or may not have something to do with Hundreds of Hours of Obsessive Training to specifically defeat her. She can basically beat anyone no matter how strong they are if they consent to stand still, let her charge Starlight Breaker for long enough, and don't dodge – sadly, battle doesn't really work that way. Fortunately, she isn't a one trick pony – her faster shooting magics are very dangerous as well, just not the one hit kill everyone knows and loves.
Yuuno is an odd case – the only one who can actually beat him in any reasonable length of time is Nanoha (though Signum and Vita could probably get through after an hour or so of smashing), but he's utterly incapable of defeating anyone unless they make a really big mistake. Someone said on the tvtropes page for this fic that Yuuno is a stone wall. This is absolutely correct! In truth he's not a fighter – he's a survivor. His skill set makes him great for raiding booby trapped temples, but not so much for pitched battle. He's just nigh-impossible to kill. Admittedly, he could telefrag people using his theoretically absurdly broken Forced Teleportation – but fortunately for the show having a plot, he has about as much killer instinct as the average marshmallow.
Fate and Arf are the weakest of the bunch, which is utterly misleading considering that by any reasonable standards they are extremely powerful and capable. But of all of them, Fate and Arf are perhaps the ones who would benefit the most from the Cartridge System – without it Fate doesn't quite play the fragile speedster card well enough to take down any of the others, and her shooting and bombardment magics are overshadowed by Nanoha's – to put it another way, she's a very real threat, but Starlight Breaker beats Phalanx Shift any day of the week. Arf, on the other hand, fights like Zafira, only occasionally using shooting magic. Unfortunately, she's a lot weaker than Zafira and frankly the weakest of the lot except Hayate, who really is about as dangerous as Vita's hat (in other words, very, but only because of what the Wolkenritter will do to you if you hurt her). Still, they are both a force to be reckoned with – unlike, say, Miyuki, who is 'only' competent by the standards of the vast majority of the world's population.