Author's Note: Okay daaaaaaamn I didn't finish this in time, I underestimated again how long it would take to complete the story. Sorry guys, next chapter would hopefully be the true end... hopefully.
"You baaastaaaaaarddd! Haaaaaaaaaaaahhh!"
Vita charged like a madman towards Fate Testarossa with a burning hammer in her arms, and without a second thought she swung downwards in a vertical arc with full intentions to smash her head open like a watermelon. Perhaps if given the time to think it through she would've realized that it wasn't exactly the best thing to do, but at that moment red hot anger had clouded her eyes completely. The supposed fake pulled out her energy blade and dodged quickly out of the way, but clad in silver flames with eyes cold enough to kill, Signum immediately crashed into the blonde with the strength of the meteor, and they both fell out of view. It did not matter. Zafira had already leaped immediately after the crash for Hayate's side, and Vita yelled rudely at the still-shocked Yuuno and Shamal; she wasn't in the mood to be civil, "What the fuck are you waiting there for!? Come and heal her already!"
As if waking up from a dream, the trip immediately rushed forwards and dropped down to their knees right beside Hayate. Yuuno immediately chanted a number of defensive barriers and healing spells at once, while Shamal focused all of her efforts into salvaging whatever's left of their Mistress' heart. They had no way of knowing whether Rein survived the blow, and Vita couldn't even bear to think of the worst outcome. How? Vita thought angrily to herself, Even if we were caught by surprise, we've secured this area with five fucking S class barriers. How did she get in?
But this was not the time to brood over past mistakes. With visible effort, the red knight turned her attention away from Hayate and glared hatefully at the other enemy. At her. Her entire body shook with terror and revulsion the moment she set her eyes on the imposter hovering well above them, looking exactly the same as Nanoha. The warrior felt her own grip weakened slightly with hesitation: What if she wasn't an imposter? What if Nanoha and Fate were being controlled by an invisible force? They looked too alike. Too similar. And it wasn't just the brunette's look; there was also the way she carried herself, the way she held her staff, that slightly misty but still recognizable glow in her eyes…
Vita shook off her hesitation, and gripped Graff Eisen tightly. It did not matter whether the Nanoha before her was a fake or not. If her friend was real, then Vita would beat the living hell out of her until she regained her senses. Otherwise, she would just murder this devil spawn of Grey Christmas. She looked up, and –
Nanoha was smiling. It was a gentle smile that Vita has seen for countless of times, but this time she only felt a horrible chill coursing throughout every one of her nerves. Then the brunette slowly lowered Raising Heart and raised her free left arm. Her thin fingers beckoned once, twice.
Something snapped inside Vita.
"Heeh, so you want a fight, huh? Then I'll grant your fucking wish! Eisen, GigantForm! Let's see how you like it when I bash your face in!"
It was all too convenient. All too timely. She could see it clearly now. To strike at the very moment when everyone's guards were relaxed, to attack their Mistress at the exact moment they were sweeping around that area once more… To hit Hayate where it hurts most, and worse. She no longer believed that Reunion's magic was absolute and impenetrable, and she was a fool to even believe it for such a long time. Everything that had happened thus far went exactly as whoever's behind this wanted. The moment they stepped foot in here they had already lost –they were like food being served into the demon's belly, and right now the digestion process was occurring rapidly.
But she will not admit defeat.
"Taaaahhh!" Leviathan stabbed upwards and fell straight down from the sky like a bloody guillotine of death. Once again Fate Testarossa has managed to evade the attack by the tiniest of distance. If she had been a millimeter closer the attack would've drew blood, but she was not, and that was that. As long as the lightning warrior continues to go all out defensive, she was bound to go down sooner or later. But Signum was getting both irritated and impatient. There were several reasons for that, but first and foremost would be that Testarossa had been fighting her all these time with a Scythe Form Bardiche. She had switched her energy blades into that form ever since Signum had crashed into the blonde like a truck from the sky, and for some reason it had irked her to no end. Then there was the weird hand gesture – it had taken her a full minute before noticing – that the blonde was making with her hands whenever they're free, counting numbers seemingly at random fashion,
"1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 0, 2, 9 –"
"Stop looking at her hands, it's just there to distract you!"
Another blow, another miss. Suddenly, like some wild beast born of a fairy tale, her friend began leaping and bouncing all over the streets with the grace of a dancer, forcing Signum to halt her own blows as she fell into a guarding stance and watched with careful concentration. The blonde bounced off buildings, street lamps, dead trees, or anything that's close enough in every possible direction, seeking for a chance to throw in an attack.
That alone would not have fazed the former war general, except that Testarossa's movements were so jarringly wrong that for the first in a very long time, Signum felt cold sweat accumulating from underneath her palms. How could you predict the timing of the strike or even direction she was jumping to, when her foe had stuck out her leg seemingly to leap to the right, but became propelled to the left instead? Just what in the hell was going on? The absolute contradiction of body movements and battle physics that the knight was accustomed to gradually ate away at her confidence: What if she had struck from the top, but the blow actually came from behind instead? Could she block it? Could she dodge it? Could she even see it coming?
"Signum, don't get confused by her movements. Just treat her now the same as any other illusionary user and we would be fine."
"… Yes. Thank you for the advice."
But she was not alone. Agito had an uncouth mouth when they were out of duty, but in a fight she became transformed into a serious, sharp-eyed tactician who had saved her hide for countless of times. Signum took in a small breath, and watched. It did not matter if Testarossa was slippery. It did not matter if she couldn't predict her movements. All she needed was a single slip-up, to size that slim but sure chance and deliver the killing blow. To cleave this sword from shoulder down and incapacitate her friend from doing anything else, just in case if she was not an imposter, and even that could be optimistic. No matter. One blow was all she needed, and –
The blonde stopped abruptly a good ten meters away from her, staring back at Signum with no expression at all. Now what? With Bardiche lowered, Testarossa slowly lifted her right hand into clear view, and showed Signum a fist. Zero, Signum thought instinctively. Then an index finger popped out, and despite her attempts to stay focused, the warrior could not help but counted one. The numbers went by slowly at first, in ascending order, zero to nine, until gradually the blonde began to pick up speed, and the number went by faster and faster and faster –
Abruptly, Signum understood with terrifying clarity the true meaning behind the useless hand gesture.
She wasn't counting at a random order… she was just too fast I can't even see – !?
The blonde floated a smile. She disappeared.
" "Guuaaaaaaaaaaaaagghhhh!?" "
"Vita, let me –"
"No," the red warrior glared at Zafira with burning eyes, "Stay here. This is not a matter of discussion. We must not make the same mistake as before."
Zafira personally think that it was pointless now, but there was no arguing with the angered warrior. It did not change the fact that the fight was overwhelmingly disadvantageous for her, and for the first time in a long while Zafira seethed with frustration at his own helplessness to aid against the falling tides. All of them knew the full extent of Nanoha's capabilities, and he understood clearly – even Vita herself – could not defeat Nanoha in an all-out brawl. However, the red knight's greatest attributes lies not at her monstrous strength, but her seemingly infinite endurance against any sort of punishment. The plan had been simple enough: Stall the fight as long as possible until Signum arrives to help them. Even though Vita may have appeared to be provoked easily, she had been battling the Ace of Aces with utmost carefulness and had successfully slipped way from most of the brunette's counterattacks. The plan should've been a success. Was a success, except that neither of them could overlook a certain, obvious fact blotting against their faces with the pain of a wasp's sting.
Nanoha could've killed Vita a hundred times over if she really wanted to. Nanoha could've killed them, the sitting ducks a million times over.
"Seeeeeiii!" The war hammer rammed downwards in a deadly arc to destroy their friend's neck, but a Round Shield easily blocked the full-powered blow with the simplest flick of a finger. A silent pink orb emerged out of nowhere from behind Vita and dove straight for her neck, but the small knight had already perceived the attack and slipped out of the way barely. Zafira watched as the small, insignificant ball of magic streaked towards a random skyscraper a few miles away, and gritted his teeth. He already knew what was going to happen, but he couldn't for life pulled his eyes away from the accursed pink dot.
There was annihilation. It was a horrendous understatement, he knew. One that shook the very ground he stood with a tremendous bang, rumbling everything on sight and his own heart to the core. TSAB buildings were built to be able to withstand both magical and physical bombardments, and that particular skyscraper Nanoha just disintegrated was one of the twelve pillars that supported all the shields and barriers that protected the Mid-Childan Office. This wasn't even a matter of Mage Rank anymore, it was simply fucking impossible for anything to have destroyed it so easily. And yet Nanoha was defying the very foundation of logic right before their eyes.
But the light in Vita's eyes was still there. She did not give up even with numerous wounds all over her body; the products of a cruel foe purposely missing and cutting her up with the most intricate of controls.
"Yuuno," Zafira asked with a throat far dryer than he would've thought possible, "Is it possible for you to block or deflect it if that mons… she decides to hit here?"
"… It may be possible to deflect it."
He didn't need to ask the rest of the questions. It was absolutely infuriating to see the imposter, or the controlled Nanoha, or whatever that thing was toying around with them, but it was also the only reason that they're still alive. He suspected that it was not due to any negligence or arrogance of sort, and the familiar did not wish to find out what the brunette was stalling for.
They need to get out. Now.
[Reunion. How much longer do we have to wait?]
[You mean, the ongoing negotiation with a bunch of idiots whether to do things the easy way that is to blast all of you and Cranagan into smithereens; or getting you guys out alive with two insanely powerful rogue mages at hand?]
[I am not in the mood to be funny.]
[Then don't ask the obvious question! Chrono would ram his warship into the Shroud if he has to, but right now no one has the authority to act without being labeled as a traitor and blasted to oblivion!]
Zafira's nature was that of a calm, mindful guardian who always placed duty above personal feelings, but at the moment he felt like ripping a few officer heads off just to get the rescue moving.
[How is Signum and Agito faring against Fate Testarossa?]
[Not good. She's weaker than Nanoha, but when our Ace of Aces could fire nuclear bombs out of the tip of her fingers the comparison seemed mute.]
[Can she win?]
Reunion did not answer, and Zafira understood. He made up his decision and rose from his position. Shamal noticed the look in his eyes and asked worriedly, "Zafira, what are you doing?"
"You've heard Reunion; I'm going to help Signum. It is the only chance we have of getting Mistress Hayate out of here safely."
"No," Yuuno said abruptly, "Don't go. I know what you're going to do. Hayate wouldn't want you to do this –"
"And Hayate would be alive to be mad at me… I'm sorry. I must go. I'm counting on you both to protect our Mistress."
Shamal screamed for him to stop, but Zafira forced his heart and mind into steel and ignored her. He did not expect to make it out alive when so many of others have perished, but if it meant protecting his Mistress and family from mortal danger, he would part with his life gladly.
The blue wolf leaped to the handrails of the building, and looked up towards Vita once. Then he was gone.
The great wolf was gone from view just like that, diving head first into incredible danger with eyes determined to die with its enemies. She had never seen Zafira so angry before, and she had never felt more helpless than she was right now. Hayate glanced downwards at Hayate's wounds, and she felt her eyes blurring up with tears again for the hundredth time. For all of her healing magic, all of her skills honed by thousands of years of training, and the most she could do were to create a magical pocket that acted as substitute for Hayate's ruptured heart, barely keeping her alive. It was absolutely impossible to regenerate the organ; they would need the science facilities to grow a new heart and replace it before Hayate could ever wake up again, and that's assuming that they could get out of this hopeless situation. She felt like despairing. She felt like giving up. But if she couldn't be strong, then Hayate would not survive. And so Shamal persevered and held in her tears. She persevered.
Yuuno checked on Hayate's wounds again, wiping another layer of cold sweat off his forehead with shivering hands, "Is it working? Is there anything else I should do?"
Shamal's answer was as transient as a ghost, "I think so."
"… How about Rein? Is she… there?"
Shamal visibly shuddered, and Yuuno wisely kept his mouth shut. That was another thing that the healer was trying hard not to worry about. The only reason their Mistress managed to survive a fatal wound this long was not due to her skills or even Yuuno's, but because she was in Unison Mode. Her body became stronger, faster, healed faster than normal men, in addition of having their Unison Device as a separate consciousness to aid greatly in many things such as mana and spell processing. But out of all these, opened only to the most compatible Unison partners, there was one greatest benefit that outweighed all of them in terms of value and importance. It was a simple wish that either one of the partners could make, as long as they willed it truly with all of their heart and soul.
Shamal hoped fervently that neither Rein nor Hayate had chosen to use it. Especially Rein.
"The mass teleportation spell is ready."
"Huh?" Yuuno's voice had rung from beside her as she stared blankly at the fight above her, and she turned around after some time to look at him.
"I could get us all out of here as long as there's a path to the outside world. With Reunion's Rare Skill, we don't even need to gather all at one place."
Finally Shamal broke out of her reverie and stared at Yuuno with disbelief, "Are you sure? Are you absolutely sure?"
Yuuno answered seriously, "There are no absolutes, but I'm positive that it would work. All we need is for someone from the outside to fire a strong enough cannon blast to puncture the shroud."
"But then…" Shamal thought back to Zafira's conversation with Reunion before, and her face darkened almost instantly, "We don't know whether they would even help us, and Admiral Harlaown would be in great danger if he tries to act against orders."
And so Shamal was very surprised when Yuuno laughed aloud refreshingly, "You should get to know him more. While the bastard might seem like a hardheaded man, he would fight against the Headquarters himself if it meant saving our lives, especially Nanoha's and Fate's – well I'm not so sure about my own though. So I need you to learn the spell too in case I got blew up by Nanoha; so you could be there to save Hayate and everyone. Okay?"
Yuuno winked at her once, and suddenly the healer understood that he was just trying to encourage her. Shamal the medic and psychiatrist had a long list of experience when consulting patients, but when the matter happened to be her own wellbeing she was never too perceptive. Of course there was a chance that his plan could fail. Of course there was a chance he might die before the path was even opened. But he believed in Chrono, and he believed in her, and his conviction that they would all survive this was firm as diamonds.
And he was right. It was way too early to give up.
"… So this is the man you've come to love, Hayate?" Shamal whispered.
"Nothing," The healer shook her head, "Just talking to myself… Thank you."
Yuuno grinned sheepishly, "You're welcome."
Shamal smiled a little, and stood up from her kneeling spot. Her legs felt cramped, but her fighting spirit was finally refreshed. Shamal glanced upwards to look once more at the battling duo. She may not be able to fight, but she was a healer, and a healer's first and only job was to ensure their patient's good health. She would learn the spell. She would wait for her chance. And when help came, they would finally be –
"Eh?" A pink orb dropped slowly before her eyes, glowing with a soft and gentle aura. It was so beautiful.
She reached out.
She heard a sound. A most peculiar shatter that caught her attention. Faint, but there. Insignificant, and yet for some unknown reason, she felt her interest piqued. What is it? What is it?
She ran towards it.
He wasn't exactly sure what he was seeing.
A few second ago, standing in front of him was the naughty nurse who used to chase him around with a god forsaken needle because he was wooing her Mistress. An amazing healer whom he knew when filled with determination was capable of producing medical miracles he could only dream to achieve.
"Ah – Ah –"
He was drenched. He was completely drenched. The liquid still sprayed strongly into his face as if mocking his disbelief, and he could feel bits of slimy thing clinging all over his body. He tried wiping his face; his eyes felt completely dyed by the world's horrendous color. It did not work, she was still there. The half blown torso of a most gentle, dearest friend still stood as if it was alive and well and he could've sworn that she was smiling, spraying impossible amounts of blood to the heavens and his face.
Yuuno cocked his head slightly to the right, and saw the husk of a warrior whose vitality had seemed endless. Since when was she there? Time seemed to have lost its meaning. Her eyes were hollow, the corner of her lips quivered as if it would break. Her presence brought back some semblance of his self, and perhaps a little bit too much of his own mind's presence, but the young man was back. He needed to be there.
He began to go through his usual thought routine, and the first thing that came to mind was to console Vita. However, it would serve no useful purposes except perhaps setting her off like a bomb and have her punch him out cold as a favor. Worse, Yuuno himself had no words to offer to Vita, for his current feelings was one closer to the wretched beings in hell.
And so he turned his attention upwards. Yuuno saw in his eyes a figure of his former friend. The human that was once Nanoha now turned into something different. Something unspeakable. He knew that this godlike Nanoha staring down on him was not an imposter. He didn't know why he know; perhaps it was because he was her first magical friend, perhaps it was because he shared an intimate relationship with Hayate and hence grew to be have more affinity with Heart Seeker. One thing was certain: This beautiful woman staring down on them with eyes colder than black and an expressionless befitting of the gods was none other than Nanoha Takamichi.
Somehow, he felt like chuckling a little. So his dear friend – friends, he must not forget that there's Fate, and even Hayate, the Living Lost Logia – had the qualities to become a god. It was a wonder why that he'd never thought about it, because supposed that they were born a couple hundreds of years earlier, then every one of them would definitely carry an epic legend of their own. No wait; they were already living legends now. It was a wondrous thought. A wondrous dream.
He clenched his fists.
"Vita… stay here and recuperate. I'll need your help later on."
The grey blue eyes stirred a little, and the little knight responded numbly without thought, "What are you talking about? Shamal is… you can't…"
"Shamal is gone, and we are alive. If we don't survive this, then her death would mean nothing… We must save Hayate, remember?"
"Shamal died… Hayate…" Vita's mind was still not there, but she was a little more aware than before, "Shouldn't you stay… And heal?"
"We have done all we can. The fastest way to get out of here now would be to stop her," Yuuno glared at Nanoha as the woman floated yet another smile, "I will buy ten minutes of time. In the meanwhile, stay inside the healing circle and recuperate. You must get a hold of yourself, or else more people will die. Get it, Vita Yagami!?"
The shout at the end shook Vita out of the nightmare, and she finally started to realize that Yuuno was going to fight. The sheer incredulity on her face told Yuuno enough that her confidence level at his fighting abilities was… not very high, "What the hell are you talking about!? You're a defender, you can't win against –"
Without waiting for her to finish, Yuuno jumped to the skies and began chanting. His hands began to glow bright green with magic when the brunette responded by raising the tip of Raising Heart towards his head and began charging a football-sized magical bomb. It seemed that his former friend gave quite the high credit for his defensive capabilities, considering that the fist-sized ones had obliterated nearly all of the skyscrapers as far as he could see. Yuuno gave himself a bitter smile and increased his speed, charging headfirst towards Nanoha without even the slightest hesitation. He could hear Vita shouting, "Stop it you idiot! You're going to –"
The pink orb exploded towards his head with the speed of a bullet. With barely a hundred meters between him and her, even with his greatest reflexes the most he could do was to either block it with a shield or barely dodge out of the way. But Yuuno had been watching Vita's battle closely from the beginning, and he had learned that the once-Nanoha could easily change the trajectory of her spells at any time, any angle and any speed. There was no point in dodging; he did not have Vita's tough strength and would very likely fall the instant he failed to escape or block any of her shots.
But he didn't need to.
"Round Shield," Yuuno whispered to himself. Two football-sized magical shields – coincidentally the same size as Nanoha's shot – appeared at both ends of his palm, and without hesitation he swung the first one directly at the incoming blow like a chakram. The two spells came into contact, and the Yuuno's shield cut right through it.
"What!?" Vita exclaimed.
The brunette too seemed to be shocked by the unexpected outcome, and her reaction was slow by a fraction of a second. The cleverly improvised Round Shield clashed against Nanoha's automatic shielding, and it actually managed to cut through an inch deep where Vita's full power had failed. Yuuno immediately seized on the chance and threw two more Round Shields at where the first had struck, and when the brunette tried to respond she found both her hands chained and bounded by a Bind that had come completely out of nowhere.
"The real Nanoha who fights with skill and caution is someone I could never defeat, but for a fool like you who relies solely on power?"
The second Round Shield clashed into the first one that's stuck with perfect aim, sinking it deep into Nanoha's shield and just an inch away from her nose. When the third did the same, her seemingly impregnable defenses finally broke down, and it took the once-Nanoha a panicked swerve to the right to avoid having her head completely cleaved. Yuuno glanced coldly at his former friend, "That is a totally different story. You better fight seriously, or I might just accidentally kill you."
The Ace of Aces slowly turned to stare at Yuuno, and for the first time she grabbed Raising Heart with both her hands and assumed a proper stance. The atmosphere seemed to freeze literally with the goddess' unspoken anger, and the young man sighed deep in his heart.
Now then. Only nine minutes left.
Signum stood by the charred remains that was once the Guardian Beast Zafira, completely unmoving.
Why is he here?
She couldn't understand. The wolf was supposed to be protecting Hayate. He should be high, high up the tallest skyscraper of the Mid-Childan Office.
"Signum! Signum! Get a hold of yourself, she's coming! Signum!"
The knight jumped sluggishly for the left, and she accidentally tripped on a nearby foot hole, falling head first to the ground. The mistake actually saved her life, because the scythe of death cut right through the space she was before, leaving strands of pink hair fluttering helplessly against thin air. She looked up from where she sat, and there was terror and death staring right down at her with the form of a friend she loved dearly, smiling as bright as the sun.
[Ten minutes ago]
Signum opened her eyes to find herself pinned underneath a rubble of rock and steel. The very essence of the world to distort before her eyes as she blinked rapidly to clear her vision. Her body burned with mind numbing pain, and she knew that she had broken no less than twenty bones throughout her body. The only reason she was alive was thanks to Unison Mode, and a reaction of pure instinct on her part. Confused as she was, Signum could remember all too clearly how she had been defeated – no, destroyed – by her rival, and she swore aloud angrily at her own stupid mistake.
"Keep quiet! If she notices us before you heal up then we'll really be dead!"
"I can move."
"What's the point if your so-called 'movement' is slower than a snail's? Just, shut up!"
Signum wondered how long did she black out. She cocked her head sideways and tried to listen for the sound of anything out of the ordinary, but could discern none. That was a relief to say the least, and she could not help but take the time recall the horrendous defeat earlier. Fate Testarossa had took advantage of her surprise completely and rammed into her belly like a bullet, knocking all of the wind out of her. She had understood immediately after that they would be dead if she did not respond to the following blow, and through pure luck alone she somehow blocked the fatal scythe as Signum swung Leviathan to the right. However, the strength behind the blow far exceeded what Signum could ever imagine, and before they knew it they had crashed through a god damn building and landed themselves in this heap of mess.
"How much longer until I can fight?"
"I can't say. It'll take five minutes of healing at least for you to move without limping."
"That's too long. Two minutes. Just get my feet and right arm moving, and we'll do the rest later in battle."
"Are you crazy?! That's impossib – argh fine, have it your way. Just don't. Move during these two minutes."
"Thanks. Anyway, what do you about Testorossa's current fighting style?" Signum inquired. Agito's advices have always been invaluable in duels like these.
"Other that she's sneaky, creepy, and scaring the living hell out of me? No idea. But what I really don't understand is why she doesn't just swarm us with her speed," Agito said doubtfully.
Signum agreed with most of the statement, except that she actually understood the why to Agito's question. She added some more, "Have you also noticed that all of her attacks have thus far aimed at my neck or the heart?"
"… No. What are you trying to say?"
"I believe that she's playing the Grim Reaper. It is a death god that apparently claims the souls of the living by cutting either the neck or the heart. I remember Nanoha joking to Fate once that she looked like one of those grim reapers in the books with Scythe Form, and since then she rarely uses it ever again."
"I'm sorry, so let's say you're right: what is the point? Why even do such a stupid thing?"
"I have no idea. However, with that I know that her fatal blows would only come for the neck or the heart. She is also mostly defensive, because the moment she attacks would be the death of her enemies. We have dodged one. All we have to do is to kill her before the next fatal blow."
"Aren't you putting a little too much confidence in this theory? She did fucking kick us in the stomach just now, you know, and I count that as an attack."
"Well, even a Grim Reaper can improvise, right?" Signum said aloud this time, and she moved her sword wielding wrist around to get a good feel on her palm, "It's just that I've been noticing it for quite some time now, and I can't help but think that if she wasn't trying to imitate one we would've dead a hundred times already."
"Huh? What are you talking about –"
And then she noticed it as well. There was a tiny, totally insignificant crack to the right of the crumbling ceiling, and what made it peculiar was that, while every other cracks or holes had shone with the same depressing blood red color, this tiny little crack had shown a different color. It was of a darker red mixed with a bit of black, and for some reason it seemed to be holding a gleam that one should not see from any sky. It's almost as if –
Every bloody in Agito's veins turned ice at once. It wasn't the fucking sky that she was seeing through that hole, it was an eye. A human eye. Fate fucking Testarossa peeking down at them for god knows how fucking long –
"Shiden, Issen!" Signum slashed her sword directly at the eye, and as the view exploded into a clear, red sky once more, the knight knew that her assumptions were dead right. Testarossa's figure soared through the air as gracefully as a bird as she landed nine feet away from them, and when she finally looked up with that smile again even Signum could not suppress a shudder.
"I'm sorry, Signum. Can we just kill her and be done with it?"
"No can do. Also, we must capture her now without any delay. I fear for Hayate and the others above; Nanoha is an even stronger monster than Testarossa."
Signum readied her sword and stared intently at her foe. Once again the blonde began counting numbers with her hand, but this time the knight simply ignored her completely and got ready to charge. Her left feet was mending even as she thinks, and as soon as it was adequately mended, she would –
It's as if she realized that Signum wasn't going to look at her hand gestures any longer. Testarossa began moving her mouth slowly, and suddenly they realized that she was speaking without voice. Again Signum picked up the words almost instinctively,
"Signum…" Agito started.
"I'm on it already!" Signum dashed towards the blonde with her blade brimming with fire. This time she was not going to make the same mistake before and allow Testarossa to escape by a hair's breadth, "Karyu –"
Suddenly the woman vanished, and Signum stopped abruptly with her eyes wide open. Where is she!? Agito yelled, and she swung around to see her friend mouthing just in time,
Suddenly she felt a weird twinge in her heart ringing like a thousand alarm bells. What? What just happened? But the slight hesitation gave room for her opponent to maneuver, and just as the blonde looked to be moving again, she slashed out,
The fire dragon sung, and the land before her erupted like the roar of a volcano, and the resulting dust and debris more or less prevented her from seeing anything. Almost immediately Signum began to regret her decision; what if she had accidentally killed Testarossa? Even if she had tried to lower the strength of the attack, her impatience just now might have cost her control. And the blonde might be an imposter, she might not. But what worried her even more would be what if she did not at least incapacitate her foe. Then she had just placed herself in a far worse situation.
"Let's fly up and get clear –"
"No. It is too risky. We'll wait for the debris to clear."
Almost as if hearing her call, an unnatural wind began to blow at the view blocking dust until everything became clear again within the matter of seconds. Signum did not dare move an inch as she opened up all of her senses to the max and tried to detect exactly where Testarossa was.
"… To your four o'clock!"
The knight spun around, half expecting another explosive dash for Testarossa as she held up Leviathan defensively in a sturdy full guard. The blonde came to view with that eerie smile still hanging on her face, and slowly she opened her mouth again and began to spell,
"Z E R O"
Abruptly her foe held up her hand and pointed to the right. Before Signum could comprehend what was happening, a tremendous burst of electrical energy exploded from Testarossa's arm and headed straight towards nowhere. Thunder Rage? What is she doing? The fire general turned to look at where the woman was aiming.
She saw Zafira.
The desperate shout finally pierced through the fog clouding her mind, and she swung out Leviathan just in time to block the incoming blow.
"Mm!" Her feet slid backwards, and Signum felt her arm wobbled against the tremendous pressure. The ice cold face that was Testarossa continued to smile like a broken doll, but Signum's only response was to simply stare at the distorted face. She was angry. She was very angry. Why, did Zafira have to die? Why, did Fate have to kill him? What, she thought so angrily until her view seemed to dyed red with fire, happened to have changed their entire world so drastically without any reason?
Abruptly her thoughts were interrupted by a certain voice.
[… Signum? Signum? Can you hear me?]
The general glanced downwards at Fate's wide open stomach, and responded with a solid kick that separated them both at least six feet away. She took a few step backwards and muttered, "Yes, I hear you. What is it?"
[No, it's just that the connection was just fine when I spoke to Zafira before – Oh.]
Signum took note of the boy's stunned exclamation, and her mind seemed to clear up a little. She asked with a twinge of worry, "Are you okay? It's… not something you should see too long."
[I – I know. It's just that he… said he wanted to help, so I thought that he wouldn't… fall this easily.]
"He was at the wrong place at the wrong time," Signum glared at the blonde before her who didn't seem to show any inclination to attack. She would be damned if she let her guard down though, "How fares the others? I'll end this as soon as I can."
[They're still fine, but… Shamal…]
So that's explained the weird feeling in her heart before. Both Signum and Agito accepted the news with great sadness, but to her surprise she neither felt any anger, nor despair. Whatever resentment that seemed to burn away the very fabric of sound judgment was just… gone. Instead, they were replaced with love and concern for the boy, worried that his mind might be scarred by the ghastly deaths of her allies. And it wasn't just our Zafira and Shamal too, Signum recalled sadly. There were others. So many others. Even she, who's to say that she'll survive this fight?
And just like that, a sudden revelation hit her. It came out of nowhere and was completely unexpected, but… suddenly, Signum felt like she understood what she needed to do.
"Reunion," Signum nodded a mental sorry towards Agito before continuing, "I would like you to watch my battle to the end."
"I am sorry, but to be honest, I do not think that I will survive this," Signum noted the various broken bones all over her body, and the pain that she had just come to realize was assaulting her with utmost ferocity. Unison Mode was unfortunately not invincible; she was almost at her limit, "I will put my all onto the next attack. It is the only chance."
[Signum, don't say it like you're already lost, you're –]
"I know when I'm at a disadvantage, Reunion," Signum stated flatly, and even Agito did not try to contradict here, "I especially know when my enemies are toying with me. But that is not the point. All you have to do is to watch… Not my end, not Testarossa's end, but just… watch me."
She said nothing else to the boy, and he wisely kept quiet. Perhaps he even knew what she was thinking, since they were now connected in the heart. Signum turned her focus towards Agito, and apologized, "I am sorry, Agito."
"For what?" Agito replied bullishly, "Are you giving up already? Are you admitting defeat? Is that the extent of determination as a knight? Because if that's what you're saying, you know that I'll kill you first before Testarossa will."
"No," Signum shook her head, "I am not giving up. I am not admitting defeat. As long as I have a single breath left in me, I would use it to perform my duty. To protect Hayate. But you already know," the knight said with mild amusement, "that I am simply giving an accurate assessment of the situation."
"I do know it," Agito nodded firmly, "I just don't like it when you always start off with an apology, then tell me something that I don't like to hear. I am not running away."
"Our bond isn't so cheap, Signum," Agito said fiercely, "I am your Unison Device. I will live and die for you. I am sorry, but your Mistress is not my highest priority. You are."
Those were the last words Signum never wanted to hear, because she would not be able to refuse Agito then. But even so, warm tears nearly fell from her eyes and she struggled very hard not to show it. A pointless effort, she knew, but she tried.
"Thank you. You... you are… my one and only partner. Forever," Signum said with feeling.
"Yeah. That's all I need to hear. Now let's burn that lousy bitch all the way to hell!"
The fire general dropped into a stance, and in response to her challenge Testarossa lifted her scythe pointed it right at her. Despite the fact that her sword wrist wasn't moving quite right, not to mind the screeching pain that burned at various places such as her hip, her knees and so much more, Signum had never felt more powerful than she was now. She had never felt more convinced. This is her determination, her oath, this is everything that made up Signum Yagami. Whether or not this strength could defeat Testarossa no longer even mattered in her heart. Could you see, Reunion? Signum thought to herself, This is my soul. Grey Christmas may be able to take my life, but it will never, ever change me of what I am. And so you too must stay true to yourself, and never allow your own will to be corrupted. Remember me. Remember Agito. We are the knights of honor, and we did not give in.
Her foe – no. Friend – leaped forwards like a bolt of lightning.
She swung her sword with conviction and strength, the flames of heart never ceasing until the very last moment.
The last remnants of the silver flames winked out of existence.
She came across something interesting, and stopped to take a look. They were two dead bodies of the people she knew, and a pair of names floated into her mind, "Teana Lannister" "Subaru Nakajima". Why are they here, she wondered. She was so very curious. Suddenly a sparkling note popped into her hands, and like the good girl she was, she began reading,
"Teana Lannister. Cause of death: crushed cranium. Bashed to death by her best friend, Subaru Nakajima."
"Subaru Nakajima. Cause of death: excessive bleeding. Shot at multiple non-fatal parts of her body by Teana Lannister, and she died at the end crying like a baby."
Vita could scarcely believe her own eyes as she watched Yuuno duking it out with Nanoha in one of the most spectacular aerial mage battle she has ever seen.
"Hmph! That all you got? Chain Bind!" Yuuno dodged past yet another set of Axel Shooters, and extended his hand towards Nanoha. Immediately the brunette flew out of the way expecting numerous amounts of magical chains to burst out and restrict her movements, but once again Yuuno had defied her expectations. Instead he had already teleported on top of the brunette's head and apologized jokingly, "Oops, sorry I lied. Shield Break!"
The young man smashed both his fists directly against Nanoha's Sphere Protection, and they shattered into fragments like broken pieces of glass. But the brunette was also capable of melee combat, and immediately she swung Raising Heart upwards and began jabbing repeatedly as if she was wielding a spear. Meanwhile the hundreds of Axel Shooters began closing in rapidly onto Yuuno from all directions again, effectively shutting off any escape routes except by teleportation. That was what Vita expected him to do, that was what Nanoha expected him to do, and as the brunette responded honestly with a vicious jab to his nose the genius defender calmly dodged out of the way and grabbed a hand onto Raising Heart. They had not for a moment expected that.
"I'm not exactly fond of being blown to death. You on the other hand –" This time the Chain Binds did erupt from his hand, and they quickly slither all over Nanoha's body to trap her in an inescapable hold, "seems to have a date with a number of lovely pink bombs. Don't be rude, go and say hello!"
With a single flick of his wrist, he flung the brunette bodily towards the incoming Axel Shooters, and as she crashed into them like a rag doll the resulting booms reminded Vita about lots of fireworks. She had only fought Yuuno once in the past, when he was just a nine years old kid who had showcased extraordinary talents in defending and multitasking. She remembered failing to break through any of the boy's barriers and when things looked dangerous, he always managed to pull out a clutch bind and buy enough time for himself to safety. However, at that time they were both still immature, and the notion of tactics hadn't even begun to bud on Vita's brain except for the most basics of basics. Now she was a full-fledged combat mage with a decent amount of battle experience and knowledge, and even though she tried to disregard her own personal feelings, in truth the red knight felt absolutely mortified that the freaking librarian was fighting far better than she ever did against Nanoha.
One minute left. My wrists… they're moving reasonably well. Feet fine, slight discomfort on the heels but… I can do this.
But this obviously wasn't the time to feel rivalry against Yuuno. If anything, she had an apology to make for belittling his abilities. Vita tightened her grasp over Graf Eisen and stared at the sleeping figure beside her. Hayate's face was pale white as a ghost, and her lips were tightly clenched as if trapped in an unforgiving nightmare. Weak. Defeated. Dying. She could not bear to look at Shamal; that would not be the look she wanted to be remembered anyway. But Vita dug nails into her palm's flesh and forced herself to look at Shamal. It did not matter if she was a headless corpse. It did no matter if her death had been ghastly and terrible. Shamal was her family, and that was all that mattered. She will never forget what had transcended today, and she would make out of this place with Hayate… alive.
[Vita, Chrono is prepared to ram Claudia into the Shroud. You just need to hold out for three more minutes.]
[Ram it into the Shroud then fire the cannons. The TSAB fucking Admirals can go fuck themselves, he said. You should've seen it.]
Reunion popped into her head just as sudden as it has always been. At first she had thought the boy intruding and even dangerous, but over time she came to realize that he about as dangerous the nine years old Hayate, owner of the Book of Darkness. In the end, no matter how wise or age old his mind was, he was still just a nine years old kid. Now that her life was in mortal danger, the little knight regretted not spending more time with him.
[Vita, I… need to tell you something.]
"I already know," Vita whispered quietly. They are the Wolkenritters, and they shared a bond with each other that no one could break. Even if the magical connection between them linked by the Book had subsided over the years, there was no way she couldn't feel her family member's death. Signum had failed, and that stupid Zafira was gone as well. The one time he exhibited true emotion to protect what's important to him, he was gone as quick as the wind. Still, Vita was proud of him. Still, Vita was proud of her. Fate may be coming, but she would not be in time. Signum would never allow her enemies to leave the battlefield unscathed.
[I… I think I loved them as well.]
[That had better be shyness talking, or otherwise Hayate would slap you until your cheeks are swollen.]
Vita stood up. One minute's up, and while she still felt a little more battered than usual, ferret boy had said to buy only ten minutes of time, and so she better joined in the battle or he would get his ass whooped. She lifted her sworn partner onto her shoulders, and took a little bit of time to enjoy the soothing coolness that permeated from Graf Eisen's metal.
[Hey… I've only told Signum about it, but… you knew, didn't you?]
"Huh? Ah, you mean my friends? Well… I guess I did. They would not have been so late otherwise."
[I'm sorry… for keeping it quiet. I just – Hayate's not –]
"Reunion," She cut him off sternly, "You don't need to apologize. I would've done the same thing, though with a more formal reason… But I guess there is something I should tell you before I go."
"Have faith in Hayate, and support her always. She's always trying to be strong for someone else, and yet never doing enough for herself. So stand with her. Smile with her. That's the least we can do for someone who gave our lives meaning again. That's the least we can do for our mother… get it?"
Vita looked up to the fight again and her mouth formed into a small O, "Oookay, looks like I've dallied a little bit too long. Would you look at that trail of fireworks chasing after ferret boy like a horde of angry hornets."
"If you have time to enjoy a scene then come and help me Whoa – please!?"
"Yeah, yeah. Guess we have to cut our chat short, little one. I'll see you later," Vita grabbed Graf Eisen with both hands, and watched for the perfect timing to dive for Nanoha's flank.
[Er, sorry, little one?]
"Oh yeah. I never did introduce myself properly to you, did I?" Vita smiled from ear to ear, and said from the bottom of her heart, "Nice to meet you, little brother. My name is Vita Yagami, and I am your elder sister… Welcome to our family."
Yuuno threw yet another Round Shield at the brunette, to which the latter had ignored it completely as it became lodged against her Sphere Protection and simply dived for his person. It would be difficult to get a good aim in at such a speed, and if she kept up the pressure and dogged on his tails he would have no time to make clever tricks. Great, she's catching on to my weakness, Yuuno thought blankly to himself. His breath felt ragged, and his limbs felt so heavy that he might as well be flying with four sacks of steel. But finally he sensed that a certain red warrior was inching to get behind the brunette, and abruptly he decided to take a risk. Yuuno stood his ground and as he closed his eyes, pure strands of slender green erupted from his core like a blooming sunflower as they danced and swayed and circled around the blonde warrior as if alive. He may be lacking in terms of magic quantity – a major reason why he did not pursue a more combative career – but if there was one thing he did better than anyone, it would be technique and processing. It was also the only reason why he never needed a Device: he was doing better without them.
But maybe this time his fatal weakness would be his downfall. Without even slowing down Nanoha silently activated the A.C.S Driver as energy wings erupted from Raising Heart to give her an even bigger boost of speed, and the tip of the energy blade at the center of it all seemed to be gleaming in anticipation of its prey's flesh. Strike Flame. Oh I am so honored, even if I do take Starlight Breakers to the face often enough to feel numb about it. By now was calling upon every dredge of magic from his Linker Core and with some quick makeshift version of spell to collect mana from the surroundings, Yuuno supposed that he was about a quarter ready to test the strength of his greatest barrier against Nanoha's shield piercing technique. There was no way in hell or heaven he's going to block this. The young man regretted deeply not asking Nanoha or Teana beforehand about the black secrets behind Starlight Breaker.
"Do get this one right, will you? I'm dead if you missed her."
"That's actually a pretty good idea now that I think about it. Maybe I'll just slow down a little –"
With the ritual of cracking-a-joke-right-before-you-die done, Yuuno's eyes flared up completely with power as he stretched his hands forwards. Abruptly, all the energy swirling around him bent sharply to his will and gathered at the center of his palm as a single, almost tiny core. Within it hid the strength and soul that made up Yuuno Scrya. Within it hid a power strong enough to rival Nanoha's Starlight Breaker. But he was no good at offensive spells, and so he was only going to do the one thing Yuuno Scrya does best in a brawl. To defend. He would probably have no strength to fly after this, and whether he lived or die depended entirely on the outcome of the battle and Vita's benevolence. It was the latter possibility that made him winced and smiled at the same time.
He would not doubt their own victory.
The determined defender whispered, "Cone Protection." At once the magical core extended outwards from his palm, and as the title of the spell said it began transforming rapidly like wild flower into a condensed, cone-shaped forcefield. The spell covered just enough to negate any damage from Strike Flame's offensive field, and at the center of his palm where its magical power was the strongest bloomed a sharp tip of green, capable of piercing through even the strongest of defenses. After all, to Yuuno Scrya the greatest offense is the greatest defense. The young man was now prepared to bet his life and limb to secure this one, single victory against one of the greatest mages he had known and taught.
"You've become better, Nanoha," Yuuno smiled a little as Strike Flame dove straight for his face, "But I am still your teacher."
Yuuno focused his eyes, and instantly the world slowed down to a crawl as he could see with impressive clarity exactly where the energy blade of Strike Flame was headed. The young man's eyes wasn't particularly special, and on most occasions he have had worn a pair of glasses because his work involved a lot of eye strain. But Yuuno had realized since he was a child that the ability to catch the barest movements with his eyes, to be able to see what was too fast or invisible to most people was not a talent, but an invaluable skill that could be honed. And so he had trained eyes over many years to the point that not even a mosquito could escape his view (P.S: It is hard to keep up with a mosquito especially across different backgrounds; you could try). The skill would once again prove its worth as Yuuno stared and waited and stared at the incoming death as it sliced air into vacuum with searing heat and terror, not daring to blink while praying to every god in the world not for a droplet of sweat to hinder his vision –
"Haaahhhh!" The young man shouted in a battle cry of both hope and despair, and slammed the tip of his own magic directly at the point forming the energy blade. Sparks of magic cut leaped dangerously close to his face as his eyes became completely blinded by white, pink, and a struggling green trying hard not to be destroyed. Yuuno felt the tendons in his right arm ripping into pieces, and he had to clamp his remaining left arm onto the right and hold the damn thing there. He would kill whoever that tries to ask about the pain.
"Vita, where the hell are you?" Yuuno thought telepathically to his friend desperately, "You have less than two seconds to make your move, I'm – !"
He guessed wrong. Abruptly the magic burned out, and as Yuuno rolled to the side desperately by pure instinct his right arm detonated with impossible pain. The young man didn't even need to see to know that he had just lost his right hand forever, and the only thing that's left on his shoulder was a broken, ugly stump. Kaiser, Yunno thought dimly as his consciousness faded in and out, I'm never going to fucking duel Nanoha in a match ever again.
But the sacrifice paid off. Out of nowhere Vita flashed into existence, and she zipped like a bolt of furious lightning straight for Nanoha's belly. The brunette didn't even seem to notice, and even if she did it was too late, "Good job, ferret! Taaaaaaaaahhhhhhh!"
Graf Eisen rammed bodily into soft flesh, and Yuuno could practically feel the feral satisfaction leaking from the corners of Vita's lips. But the wild lady was far from being done. As Nanoha found herself propelled helplessly upwards to the sky, Vita had already reappeared at the perfect spot where the brunette would come to a complete stop, a giant warhammer clutched tightly in her hands.
"Nanoha… I'm sorry."
The red knight slammed downwards. The resulting noises was one that Yuuno wished that he would never have to hear ever again for the rest his life. His former friend exploded upon impact into a mess of flesh and bones and blood, and whatever remained of the sack of flesh crashed down to the ground below with the strength of a meteor. Then there was heavy silence.
"Is it over?" Vita asked as she breathed heavily like a dying person, a slight hint of hysteria creeping up on her voice. Yuuno took a glance, and with Graf Eisen drenched in blood and her own clothing dirtied by bits of meat; the red knight certainly did not look okay. But what else did he expect when they've just murdered their best friend with worst ways possible? He probably looked like shit himself.
"Well, probably not. Is Fate still alive?"
"Ha, hahaha, do you know how crazy your question sound? Ahahahaha!"
Yuuno would've chuckled along if his bleeding stump wasn't threatening to kill his consciousness with just pain alone. Then suddenly he began to feel better, and he heard Reunion's voice speaking into his head,
[Well, I wouldn't say good job, but you get what I mean. I'll take away some of the pain, and you focus on getting the teleportation spell working. Chrono's about to ram his ship in at any moment now.]
Yuuno's mouth fell slightly open, "What? I know the guy's crazy, but ramming Claudia in here? What if Grey Christmas somehow, I don't know, swallow the damn thing up?"
Vita snickered at his loss of verbal control, but at the moment he definitely didn't feel like being conservative with the explicit, [There was no other way since the other warships refused to help. Anyway we're officially traitors of TSAB now, so who cares? If worse comes to worst, he'll just push the self-destruct button; all the other personnel has left the ship anyway. See? Everything's fine!]
Now he really couldn't control his stomach. As he chuckled weakly while waves of agonizing laughter swayed the young man left and right, he began making his way back towards Hayate's still form, "Okay, I shall not panic when giant laser beams drilled into the ship. Anyway, I'm going to get Hayate now. How many seconds until you make your entry?"
[Twenty. And do make absolutely sure that you do not get yourself squashed if the ship proves too heavy or something, okay? That would be hilarious.]
Yuuno smiled bitterly, "Right. Anyway, Vita, can you take watch while I get Hayate? Don't really feel like getting stabbed in the back right now. It'll be quick."
"Vita? Are you lis –"
He turned around, and all breath left his lungs at once. He saw a golden figure that was Fate Testarossa floating in the air, and she looked both divine and beautiful and without a single scratch on her skin. Even her Barrier Jacket looked unblemished. On one hand she held the collar of a certain red knight's body, her head missing from its torso and spurting occasional streams of blood. On the other hand held a long black scythe brimming with golden electricity at its blade, and at the end of the blade's tip was a certain knight's missing head, her face still floating the remnants of a gentle smile that seemed to sink right down into his soul.
"Hahaha… I must be dreaming…"
[… Yuuno. Stop looking, and listen to me. Get Hayate now. Ten seconds left. Yuuno, listen to me!]
But it was no use. The young man was completely shocked silly, and it was a wonder he hadn't wet his pants or anything of that sort. He had been optimistic. He had let his guard down even though he knew there was yet the missing Fate Testarossa was a potential danger. He didn't watch Vita's back and was too engrossed in the afterglow of victory. It was his fault that Vita died – he should be the one at the end of that scythe. The world distorted. He couldn't seem to hear Reunion's voice. Everything seemed to be warping in red, but even then the only thing that stayed clear and true was Fate. His best friend. She smiled at him gently, and looked towards the ground where she had fallen. He couldn't resist. He turned to look.
What happened next could scarcely be described with words. Broken bits of flesh crawled across dirty gravel and into that thing. Bones of all shape and sizes straightened upwards as if they have life as they jumped unsteadily at the same direction. Blood so crimson he could barely make out with his magically enhanced eyes was being absorbed from the splatter pool and into the wriggling flesh. Fabrics became joined, pieces were sewed. The popping sounds he never wanted to hear again popped. A lot more sounds that he could delete permanently for his memories became stuck forever in his mind. And there she was standing perfectly whole again, complete with her trademark well-tied ponytail fluttering against the wind. Then she turned to look at him, and smiled.
He did not move as she flew slowly to his front.
He did not respond when she whispered a gentle kiss to his cheek.
He felt hands pressing against his neck, then tightening. They felt cold. So, so cold.
She continued her journey towards the shattering sounds. She counted six, and they were all unique with its own ethereal quality. She was curious, oh so curious. But as she made her ways towards them, she began to see more and more bodies. She counted them, and there were She didn't like them, for although they were all interesting, they made many weird twinges inside her heart. Still the note popped into her hand. Still she had to read.
"Ginga Nakajima. Committed suicide by digging out her own heart."
"Nove Nakajima. Death by car accident as a bone stabbed up her heart. She died not knowing that she sacrificed her life to save an illusion."
"Wendi Nakajima. Beaten to death. Her sisters ripped her apart as she was drowned by guilt towards ghosts of the past."
"Caro Ru Lushe. Raped to death. She broke halfway through the ordeal, but machines have no feelings."
Erio Mondel. Death by fire, before he was gobbled up whole by a certain very mad dragon. If only he could have heard the Voltaire's satisfied burp..."