"Firstly, I'm glad to say we didn't lose anyone. It was touch and go for a bit, but the medics are saying everyone is going to make it."
Lindy paused to let the cramped room release a collective sigh. Quint and most of the earthside teams were still confined to the medical wing. The faces of the less-injured of them floated around the table on viewscreens. Gil Graham sat opposite her, having teleported over from the nearby fleet to attend the meeting along with a few of his higher-ranking subordinates.
A scattering of other officers filled the chairs between them, including Zest, Chrono, Yuuno and Rizu. Lindy shot the young healer a concerned glance. Tiida's interruption had spared her the worst of the Wolkenritter's draining, but if anything she seemed to be taking that worse than being hospitalised. Still, she was upright, and while she was pale, she was paying attention. Lindy made a mental note to check on her progress in a few days before continuing.
"Casualties, on the other hand, are grim. Worst off are Lanster and Ferth from our planetside detachments and Xanth, Mirrad and Leque from the Durga. The strongest mages in each group; I note. All at least A-rank. AA, on the Durga. Apparently the Wolkenritter squeezed every last drop out of them that they could without killing them - and that only barely. We didn't see any cases of core haemorrhage, but Medical say it was a close thing."
She looked around the ring of unhappy faces. Some much more so than others. She addressed the deepest scowl first.
"Grangeitz. Your preliminary report mentioned anomalous behaviour from the Blade?"
Pulling himself from whatever internal tirade had been occupying his attention, Zest nodded curtly. "Yes, ma'am. We have records of the Wolkenritter speaking to opponents and justifying their actions; it's documented behaviour," he said. "But when challenged or accused, they've never responded. There's no emotional investment there that's been recorded in the past."
He shook his head, and began to recount the precise details of the Blade's behaviour that had led to his conclusions. "But when I lost composure and argued back; she – it – reacted. Violently, and inefficiently. If it were a human, I'd say I struck a nerve," he concluded.
"That struck nerve lost us the Durga," Chrono pointed out, his tone artificially neutral and almost flirting with insubordination. Lindy was worried about him. Her son was simmering below his façade, but she couldn't afford to lose one of her precious few AAA-rankers. "It was already damaged, but your brawl gutted it. Repairing it now would cost more than just replacing it."
"Which is a conversation – and a lot of meetings, and," Gil sighed, "a great deal of paperwork – for later. But right now, I'm interested in this strange behaviour. Have any of the others acted in anomalous ways?" He glanced down at a screen he brought up before him, running a hand through his grey hair. "No fatalities," he mused. "Not just in this engagement, but overall. As far as I know, that's unprecedented."
Rizu half raised her hand. It was a small motion, aborted before it made it level with her shoulder, but enough to get Lindy's attention. "Lieutenant Jhanashdi?" she asked, drawing the attention of the rest of the table.
"She, um," Rizu said softly. The young woman steeled herself, summoning the courage to speak before all these people who significantly outranked her. "She was being kind. The Healer. No... the Wraith. They're the same, I think. But she was careful to spare us, she was... compassionate. Regretful. Even after her draining had been... had b-been broken b-by Ti- by Lieutenant Lanster. She sh-should have disregarded me once I was no longer a t-target, but she... she apologised."
The table considered that for a moment with murmured discussion.
"Rizu..." Mei said quietly, speaking from her bed in the infirmary. "It wasn't your fault. It's a good thing you didn't get drained. Tiida will be happy about it when he wakes up."
"Yes," Gil agreed more firmly. "It wasn't your fault, lieutenant." Rizu blushed at that. "And while the Blade's actions could be disregarded; your report confirms this as a trend. So. We have an interesting, and worrying, situation. The Wolkenritter appear to be holding back. Why?"
"Last time, the Book was destroyed by a full-scale assault," Chrono put in, his eyes narrowing. "It's possible they're intentionally acting more human to try and raise sympathy and prevent us from attacking with full force." He scowled. "It certainly doesn't seem to have stopped them gathering Linker Cores."
"It could also have something to do with their ally," Zest suggested. "This man in the mask."
"Familiar," said Yuuno, frowning thoughtfully.
All conversation froze.
"... excuse me?" Lindy said, as he started to shift uncomfortably under the weight of a dozen stares.
"Uh. The Masked Man. Is a familiar," he said. "I... sent you a message about it."
Wordlessly, and without looking away, Lindy sent several quick commands to her Device. She glanced at the screen that opened; eyes flickering over the text, before turning back to him.
"Um. Okay. I ran into... uh, Nanoha, on one of the nearby worlds. The Mariage attacked; they were after a power source she had with her – I think she was trying to lure them into a trap. While we were fighting them, we got separated, and I noticed a Masked Man observing from nearby. I tried to apprehend it with her familiar and Testarossa's, and... it turned out to be one too. But its war form was..." He shook his head. "Look, familiars aren't meant to be like… that. There should be image files from my Device in the message."
Lindy tapped the screen twice, and a window opened over the table, showing the hulking monster. More than one person gasped, though Lindy's steady, focused stare kept anyone from interrupting her interrogation.
"What is that?" Zest asked, leaning in with his face locked in a scowl. "Some kind of… some kind of familiar made from a gene-spliced creature?"
"That kind of tech isn't common out here," one of Gil's subordinates said, frowning. The woman adjusted her glasses. "Could it be an alt-form of the Hound? We have observed destabilisation of their forms under certain-"
"And why you didn't see fit to inform anyone of this?"
Yuuno flushed. "I sent you the message!" he protested. "I marked it urgent! Immediate priority! And you were in meetings with important people!"
Lindy had the grace to look faintly embarrassed. "It was buried under everything else I've been dealing with," she admitted, even as several of the military observers at the table began a discussion of possible rogue scientists who could be behind the peculiar familiar. "But really, you should have made sure I knew about something this important in person."
"I just-" Yuuno began. She sighed and held up a hand.
"Though... I suppose you're not used to military reports. Well, at least we know now. Though I don't think you explained why you were there to run into Miss Takamachi in the first place?" Delicate inquiry hovered fairy-like around her words, backed up by pointed disapproval.
"I… uh," he mumbled. "I was…" The rest of his sentence tapered off into incoherency. Lindy raised an eyebrow at him.
"I was looking for her," he repeated, sighing. "Look, I know the ship we caught on our sensors beat a quick retreat, but I know Nanoha. This is her home, her family. There's no way they'd be able to get her to leave, especially with Testarossa weak from a draining. So I assumed she was still around. Without the ship, that meant she needed somewhere to stay, and Nanoha goes stir-crazy if she can't practice magic. I guessed that she'd go somewhere with a high mage population to hide her signature, looked up the biggest population centres in the area, and… uh… started looking into them during my free time."
"... Yuuno..." Quint began, looking pained.
But Chrono got there first. "You realise she's made her choice, Scrya?" Yuuno shot him a glare, but there was surprisingly little acrimony on the other boy's face. If anything, he looked concerned. "She had a chance – she's had multiple chances – to side with the Bureau. If you keep chasing her when she doesn't want to come back..."
"I don't care!" Yuuno snapped. "I don't care. I'm still not giving up on her. I can't. I won't. Because… because she hasn't given up on me. She talked back. She reached out. She asked for help. And I refuse to betray that."
Gil cleared his throat. "I understand that you may have some other things to discuss," he said, "However, I think we really need to focus on the matter at hand. A familiar, you say? Hmm. The Hound, perhaps? I agree with you, Lessner," he said to the woman who had raised the possibility. earlier. "That would fit with it aiding the Wolkenritter, and... well." He motioned at the image of the monstrous beast. "It certainly looks the part."
"The Hound was at the confrontation in the city, though," Yuuno pointed out. "And I'm sure this familiar was operating elsewhere during that- Chrono?"
Chrono was gripping Yuuno's wrist like a vice, sitting bolt upright. "Operating elsewhere... Scrya," he snapped, "the timestamps. When exactly did you see the familiar, and where?"
"... um, Akkamar. On logs are on my..."
Snatching the Device, Chrono pulled up a screen, leaving Yuuno to finish "... Device" in a disgruntled tone. It only took a few seconds before the Enforcer made a noise of triumph.
"I thought so!" he declared. "Look at these. The Masked Man who interfered on the Durga couldn't have been the one Scrya fought. The turbulence in the Sea at the moment..." Pulling out S2U, he sped through a series of rapid calculations. "Even assuming a specialty in rapid teleportation, they'd have to go around the major turbulence spots – not to mention avoiding our fleet by a wide margin, or we'd have picked them up; and we were close to between them on the Redward axis. It would have taken five or six minutes at least; maybe as many as ten or twelve. And they were there..."
"Not quite at the same time..." Yuuno agreed, comparing the timestamps. "... but close. About a minute and a half between confirmed sightings at each point. You're right. There are two of them. At least." He pursed his lips. "The Mariage are using EMCM as well. And there was a masked mage with Nanoha who... who was using Wing Road."
Quint went white. "What?"
"I didn't get a look at their face, but they were small – shorter than Nanoha, I think, though the disguise Jacket made it hard to tell. And they were using something very like your fighting style."
"The girls-" Quint began, even as Lindy and two of the naval officers tried to speak up. The four-way conversation degenerated into incoherent noise for a moment, until Gil raised his voice.
"Quiet!" The room went silent. "Scrya," the admiral said with impressive calm. "Is that everything relevant you can remember from your encounter?"
Yuuno considered. "Testarossa survived," he offered. "Nanoha told me. And they didn't go to Alhazred. They teleported out of the Garden just before it exploded – hid the trail in the chaos. Um... that's it, I think."
Several sighs of relief went around the table at this, and Gil nodded. "So. Let's try and make some sense of the situation. We have ourselves, the Mariage and Testarossa's group. All of these seem to be acting predictably. We have the Wolkenritter, who are holding back for some reason. We have... apparently at least two familiars..."
He paused, humming thoughtfully. "No, we don't, do we? We have at least two anonymous individuals, one of whom we know to be a familiar, who have been helping the Wolkenritter. We have another masked individual with Takamachi who is opposed to at least the Mariage and seems to know Wing Road." He rubbed his face tiredly. "The familiar could be the Hound, I suppose. Or... hmm. Jhanashdi, you're sure the Wraith is in fact the Healer?"
Rizu looked up from her lap. "She didn't actually say so..." she said. "But... yes. I'm sure."
"Nanoha's friend is one of the girls; I'm sure of it," Quint put in. Her lips were a thin line. "From the Combat Cyborg incident. The older one would be around her age, and the way they disappeared..."
"I agree," Gil said. "Which is why I think we have another player here; one we haven't been aware of. I suspect..." He sighed, folding his hands in front of him and leaning heavily on the table. "I suspect the master of the Book may have a backer. Someone with mages and resources in wider Dimensional Space. There's no proof, but the pieces line up."
He began to count points off on his fingers. "The Wolkenritter showing up here; at the site of the Jewel Seed Incident not half a year on, with these masked figures helping them. The attacks in Bellemay – anonymised Jackets, and at just the right place and time to keep our forces tied up and away from here. And now Takamachi – a girl who's already been taken in by one experienced, cunning manipulator – appearing with a combat cyborg who vanished under mysterious circumstances."
He shook his head. "It's not a pretty picture. The question is what they're after, and how much of what's happened has been according to their plan. I doubt they're playing the Mariage and the Wolkenritter against each other – schemes like that sound good in theory, but rarely work in practice. And if they wanted to lure Takamachi back to get their hands on the Jewel Seeds, they'd already have them... hmm. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they're only just now reaching out to her, if she and the Testarossas have parted ways."
Yuuno shook his head. "Arf was with her. She's still with Fate, at least. Chrono, what do you think? Chrono?"
"Hmm?" Chrono was staring at Admiral Graham, his eyes not really seeing what was in front of him. He shook himself slightly. "I think... honestly, I think we don't have enough information. We need more data. Admirals, do I have permission to do some digging into possible backers?"
"Granted," Lindy said, clipped and professional. "Yuuno, please assist him. Meanwhile, the rest of us need to start planning. Things are going to come to a head soon. I can feel it. When they do, we need to be ready."
"Are you ready? One, two, three, go!"
Nanoha hovered anxiously as Fate snapped Bardiche up, her feet automatically shifting to lower her centre of gravity as her Device set up in assault form. The boxy housing of the Jewel Seed stayed unlit as a sphere of electric gold began to form at the business end of her Device. It grew, condensed and brightened as firing rings spread out in front of her; two thin at each end of the barrel, one wide around the ball itself. From the size of her head, it grew first to the size of a beachball and then wider than Nanoha's outstretched arms.
[Thunder Smasher,] intoned Bardiche.
"Abort," Fate said, the syllables tripping over the end of her Device's. The rings vanished, and the gathered magic slowly began to fade; draining back into her Linker Core. Nanoha waited until it was gone before shuffling closer.
"So?" she asked nervously. Fate pursed her lips and held her hand out, quick-casting a set of Plasma Lancers without firing them. Like Nanoha, she'd taken the upgrades to her Device and her enforced downtime during recovery as an opportunity to refine her spell library. She held the shooting spells for a moment, before dispersing them with a wave and a nod.
"I can fully charge a bombardment spell, and my speed is back up to par on shooting spells," she said thoughtfully. "Some mana loss, but no more than normal. Definitely no haemorrhaging." She offered Nanoha a tiny smile. "I think I'm fixed."
"Wonderful!" Nanoha dived for her, hugging her around the neck and sending them both back down onto Fate's bed. "Oh, I'm so glad you're better, I was really worried! Are you up for some sparring later? Just to make sure we haven't got out of shape. Tre can come along too; I bet you'll like her!"
"You've been spending a lot of time with Tre?" Fate asked, levering them both into a sitting position but letting Nanoha maintain her hug.
"Uh huh! She's really good!" Nanoha said, swinging her legs around to dangle over the side of the bed and kicking them idly. "She's almost as fast as you and she's a cyborg! And she likes Vesta!"
"Oh," said Fate, her expression tightening.
"We did an orbital drop together! It was amazing! I can't wait to do it again!"
"Fate! You're all better!" Alicia tore into the room in a swirl of skirts and hair with Arf at her heels, cannoning into her sister and throwing both arms around her midriff. For her part, Fate let out a faint 'oof', but barely swayed. She returned the hug automatically as she checked Alicia over, her tight expression turning into a frown as she found smeared dirt and several scratches on her face and arms.
"What have you been doing?" she demanded, fingering a thin scrape along Alicia's cheek. "Have you been fighting?" She glanced at Arf, who shook her head minutely.
'No fights,' she sent on a quiet narrowband to Fate and Nanoha. 'Almost suspiciously peaceful, actually. From what Linith said about this guy I was expecting worse, but they all seem totally friendly. Well, Uno's been watching us, but I think she's just annoyed about the mess. There… there has been a lot of mess.'
Alicia was more emphatic in her headshake. "Nuh uh! I've been playing with Sein!" There was a slightly brittle edge to her grin. "We've been doing hide and seek and taming her lemur! Uno said she wasn't allowed it, but she really really needed a pet so I told Uno she could have Wormy as a pet if she couldn't have her lemur and she agreed to the lemur and went away!"
'She didn't look happy,' Arf put in. 'Don't think we've made a friend there.' Alicia flapped a dismissive hand at her, unconcerned.
"... uh," said Fate. "The... lemur scratched you, then? Is that safe? Couldn't it get infected?"
"S'okay!" a new voice chirped happily from above them. Four pairs of eyes – two startled, one impatient and one exasperated – turned upwards to the cyan-haired head that was... poking through the ceiling? Nanoha and Fate blinked in shock. There was no hole, no crack or opening in the plaster. The girl – younger than Alicia; perhaps Quattro's age – simply protruded through it like a hologram.
"We wen'ta Uno to get looked at!" the new arrival announced, dropping a little so that her upper body hung through the ceiling. Nanoha was reminded of hanging upside-down from the monkey bars in the playground by her legs. "Only I din't have to! I din't get scratched! 'Licia did!"
"You should've warned me he'd scratch!" Alicia accused. "He almost got away!"
'He did get away,' Arf grumbled. 'I had to catch him again.'
The younger girl hung her head – well, raised her head – in shame.
"Sorry," she said mournfully. This seemed to be sufficient appeasement, as Alicia nodded approvingly and turned back to her sister.
"This is Sein!" she told Fate. "She can go through things! And calls me 'Licia."
"... I got that, yes," Fate said distantly. "... how?"
Alicia paused, considering it as she shifted Fate backward into a chair and sat down in her lap . "Not sure," she admitted. "But not the way Nanoha goes through things. She doesn't make the wall explode first."
"I'm glad you're better, though," she continued over Nanoha's objections, slinging her arms around Fate's neck again. "I was worried about you. You're not... you're not allowed to get hurt like that again, okay?"
Fate's mouth opened wordlessly, and she ducked her head a little as her cheeks flushed. "It's okay, Alicia," she said quietly. "I'm okay. Really. I'm sorry for worrying you."
Alicia nodded, pouting. "Just don't do it again," she ordered. "And... can we see mama? Is Doctor Jail done with his doctoring?"
Fate traded a glance with Nanoha, who shrugged.
"He probably is," she offered. "And Vesta was keeping an eye on her. We might as well go and see."
Jail looked exhausted, and the manic air of energy that normally buoyed up his shoulders was missing. His purple bangs hung limply around his face. From the look of the bags under his eyes, he'd pulled at least one all-nighter, if not more.
"I've done all I can," he said, sitting down heavily in a chair. "Which isn't as much as I'd like, but Precia is too fragile for any of the riskier procedures I could try. I've done my best to stabilise her and stop her spiralling downwards. If it takes, she should wake up stronger and we can see about some proper treatment, but…"
He shrugged, and reached for a mug. His hands trembled faintly as he clutched the peppery-smelling drink. "It's up to her now. The treatment took a lot out of her, so she'll slip back under soon. Whether or not she wakes up again depends on how hard she's willing to fight."
"Can we see her?" asked Fate. Alicia, clinging tightly to her arm, squeezed her fingers and looked up imploringly. Jail nodded, gesturing at the door in mid-yawn.
"Don't overstrain her," he cautioned. "But yes." He eyed Alicia. "If you have anything you dearly want to tell her, now would be a good time," he added. The attempt at delicacy didn't stop the little girl's face from crumpling.
"Fate?" she asked, her voice wobbling. "She will wake up again, right? Right?" It was half-plea, half-demand.
Fate didn't answer, and Nanoha stepped in hurriedly before Alicia glanced up and caught the look on her sister's face. "Of course she will," she said firmly. "Precia was willing to fight the whole TSAB for you! She's not going to give up now that she has a chance to get better, is she?"
Alicia didn't look entirely reassured, but she wasn't caught in achingly vulnerable terror anymore either. Nanoha counted it as a win and followed the pair into Precia's room.
The number of machines around Precia's bed had doubled. One of them seemed to be piping her blood out of her, into a big boxy machine and then back in again, while another held a curved metal plate a few centimetres over her chest on an adjustable arm. Linith was curled up on her ankles with a blanket and a Vesta wrapped around her. The latter was the first to notice their entrance.
'Hi mistress,' she said, more subdued than usual. 'Medicine is icky. And boring. And smells bad.'
Linith was apparently awake, as she huffed a soft laugh at this. Precia's lips twitched, and she opened her eyes.
"Alicia," she greeted her daughter softly. Her voice was a breathy whisper, and her breathing never changed in rate. The glowing sigil on her chest was what drove that constant inhalation and exhalation now, not her lungs. "Nanoha. Fate, Arf. It's good to see you."
"Mama!" Alicia detached herself from Fate's arm and rushed over, making a sound of protest when Fate lunged forward and caught her before she could fling herself at Precia. Nanoha moved around to the other side of the bed so as not to get in their way. "Doctor Jail said you were going to sleep again! Please don't! Please please please! You have to stay awake!"
Precia blinked slowly, tiredly. She shared a look with Fate over Alicia's head, then smiled at her.
"Don't worry, dearest," she soothed. "I'm just tired, so I need to rest. To heal."
"Then promise you'll wake up again!" Alicia demanded. "The Doctor said you might not, so you have to promise you will!"
Precia closed her eyes again, stress lines crinkling around their corners, and Nanoha stepped in again. "Alicia, Jail said not to strain her," she said quietly. "Keep your voice down and don't demand things like that, okay?"
"Come here, Alicia."
Fate looked worried, but a glance from Precia had her letting Alicia go. Carefully, the little girl shuffled over to the bed and leaned down to let her mother kiss her on the forehead.
"My Alicia," Precia murmured, and the warmth and overwhelming fondness in her voice brought tears to Nanoha's eyes. "My daughter. I'll always be with you, darling, whether I'm awake or asleep. Whenever you practice with your Device-engineering, or braid flower crowns, or play with magic…" She smiled wryly. "Or tease your sister, or cause mischief with Arf and Vesta. I spent so long without you, and when I got you back you were everything I'd ever wanted. I'll always love you, Alicia. Always."
Alicia was crying as well; silent tears sliding down her cheeks as her lips wobbled. "I love you too, mama," she said, her voice quavering as she bent her head into the crook of Precia's shoulder, still staying so careful to avoid putting any weight on her as though the woman was made of glass. "I… I… you can't go. You can't. You… you… you have to stay awake! You have to!" She almost lunged forwards in a desperate hug, but Fate's hand on her shoulder held her back.
Precia kissed her again. "Be good for your sister and Nanoha while I'm asleep," she cautioned. "Don't cause too much trouble for them." Alicia nodded, with a choked sob.
"Fate." Precia's voice firmed a little – determined, perhaps, to finish all her goodbyes before falling into a coma again. "Fate, dear. Everything I have asked of you, you have done. From your actions, Alicia is safe. I can never thank you enough for that. For… for putting up with my expectations of you, and for exceeding them. I have one more thing that I want… that I need you to do-"
"You don't have to," Fate assured her. "I'll keep her safe. I promise. I'll look after her, always."
"I believe you. You're a good girl, Fate," Precia smiled, and paused to do nothing but breathe for a frighteningly long moment, her eyes sinking shut. Before the girls could panic, though, she continued. "I'm proud of you, Fate. Never forget that. I know that I can count on you in my absence. Arf and Vesta, you too. You do your mistresses proud. I know I can leave them safe in your care."
"And Nanoha." She chuckled softly, although it sounded more like panting. "My young protégé." She paused for too long. "I wish I had met someone like you years ago. You are a brave, talented and compassionate young woman. I have no doubts that you will exceed me, in time." She managed a weak, wry smile. "Even if I might not see you do it. I believe you can. Don't let me down. Do you promise?"
Tears streaming down her cheeks, utterly beyond words, Nanoha could only nod in silent agreement. Precia's eyes gentled.
"I owe you a debt greater than I can possibly repay, my dear," she said softly. "Thank you from the bottom of my heart. For what you have done for me and my family. Thank you."
As Nanoha let out a choked sob, Precia turned, with an effort, to the girls on the other side of her bed. "Alicia. Fate. Sisters." A wistful smile. "Take care of each other. And forgive me my failings. I... have not been as good a mother to you as I should have been." She raised a thin hand at their protests. "Either of you. If I could turn back the clock..." The machinery bleeped. "I wish I could. But… but I don't think even I can manage that miracle."
The words won a weak giggle from the girls.
Her hand fell limply back down to the bedsheet, and she breathed slowly for a few seconds. "I am... proud of you, my daughters. Both of you. These few months haven't been long enough." She trailed off. "But years wouldn't have been enough either. Stay strong when I am gone. I'll always be with you. Be there for each other." She laid her head back down on the pillows, closing her eyes in exhaustion. "I am proud of you," she repeated, slurring a little as she began to drift away again. "Proud of you all..."
She trailed off, her breathing mechanically constant. Lying there on the bed, she looked old and tired and frail. It was like she was a fragile thing of folded paper, like if someone opened the door to the hospital bedroom she might blow away.
"Mama?" Alicia asked after a moment; real fear seeping into her voice. "Mama? Fate, she… no, she was… she was saying goodbye! Mama! Wake up, you-"
Linith's quiet tone cut through her developing panic, or at least rerouted it to a different target. Arf bared her teeth, her eyes wide.
'No goodbyes!' she ordered desperately, as if enough conviction could stop Linith slipping away even if Precia gave up. Vesta curled tighter around the older cat in tense, mute agreement.
Linith sighed. 'Don't give up hope,' she counselled. 'Precia is just planning for the worst, that's all. She wants to wake up again, and she still might. Besides,' she added, and Nanoha thought she heard a hint of sad amusement in her words. 'Even she doesn't know everything.'
'Just remember this, girls. No matter where you go, no matter what you do. We will always love you. We will always be proud of you. And there is nothing that can stop you as long as you stay together.' She nuzzled Vesta affectionately, and purred as Fate leaned over to stroke her. 'Every good parent hopes to be surpassed by their children. I'm one of the lucky few who's been able to see it happen.'
She sighed, settling her head down again. 'Just… make sure you remember who you are. Above everything else, try to be happy. Don't… don't spend so long being sad… as Precia did. She was sad for too long. Promise me you won't do that. Remember the good times, not… not the bad times. She wouldn't want you to be sad like her.'
Fate squared her jaw, and took a shuddery breath. "I promise," she said, speaking for all of them.
Linith yawned. 'I think I need to rest now, dears. Not for as long as Precia. But for a little while.'
Fate nodded gravely. "We'll give you some quiet," she promised. "And visit you tomorrow." It was difficult to drag Alicia away from the bed, but between them the girls managed it.
"It's okay," Nanoha assured her as they left. Already her mind was whirring. "You heard Linith. She's planning for the worst, just like she did with the Jewel Seeds, and that… that worked out basically okay for everyone, nearly."
Alicia gave her a worried look. "It… it did. Yes," the little girl said weakly.
Nanoha's smile slipped for second as an unpleasant corner of her brain pointed out that she herself hadn't come out of it terribly well off, but she shook it off with a determined smile. "Dr Jail is a genius, remember? And he said it's up to her, and she'll fight for you, Alicia. Like my papa did when he was badly hurt. I was even littler than you, and I… I thought for sure he was going to d- to go away. He was in hospital for months and months and months. But he didn't. He got better and he came back, and we didn't need to use any of those sad plans we'd made for the worst."
She took Alicia's left hand with her right, and Fate's right with the other, and squeezed both firmly. "She'll get better," she declared, her voice unquestionable. "That's a promise."
When you were hurt, it took a while before you were better again. Annoying as that fact was, it was hard to argue with. But that didn't mean Mei had to like it. Enforced bed-rest always sucked, even in a fairly nice recovery room like this one, and even Rizu's best efforts had never kept her away from strenuous activity for as long as the doctors recommended in the past.
This was the first time it had happened since she'd been diagnosed, though, and she was finding – with some surprise – that it was actually easier to stay put now. She was still restless, of course, but there was none of that furious itchy need to be out and doing something that had always plagued her before the meds. One of those unexpected little bonuses that kept cropping up, she supposed.
Sadly, free emotional maturity and a calm acceptance of consequences was not part and parcel of the treatment package, which was why Rizu had had to blackmail her into telling their mother she'd been injured. Again.
Not that she was going to admit that, of course.
"I know you get worried when I, uh, forget to mention stuff like this," she said to the recorder, sitting with her back against the headboard. There was no real reason for her to be here – she was dressed normally and on top of the covers – but Rizu had a fair case of survivor's guilt already and Mei 'risking her health' before Tiida had woken up might actually send her into tears. Which would suck on many levels. Mei hated it when Rizu cried.
"I'm trying to be better about that, so I'm letting you know even though I'm fine," she went on. "Really fine; nothing permanent and I should be back on my feet in a few weeks, I swear. I, uh, can't tell you what happened, but... basically I was in over my head and just charged when I should have run." She sighed. "Like Da- like an idiot. I mean... you don't need to worry about it happening again, I'm better about that now and I wouldn't usually have done it. It was just a kind of stressful situation. Uh, more stressful, I mean. One-off stressful. Like, not the sort of stress I'm gonna have in normal missions. Or ever again, probably. So there's no need to worry, honest. Wait, no, I said that already. Urgh."
She hung her head. "Okay, so this is probably sounding really bad. Just... yeah, I promise – you can ask Rizu too – it's not something that'll ever come up again. Special circumstances made me lose my head, and... I mean, we're not that far off the anniversary of Dad, so... yeah." She made a face. "I shouldn't have let it affect me so much. Stupid of me."
"I don't know about that," came a voice from the door. She jumped and looked up to find Chrono standing there. He wasn't exactly leaning against the doorframe, but there was an absence of the stiff parade rest he normally stood in that made her think he was as relaxed as he was able to get given the current crisis. Her eyes crinkled as she tried to resist the urge to make jokes about the stick in his ass and what might have happened to it.
"It was foolish, yes," he continued. "But Admiral Lindy had to order me to keep my emotions out of the case as well. Twice. And I'm pretty sure I have a reputation for being a... what was it? Stuck-up navy brat?"
Blushing and stammering in embarrassing situations was not in Mei's nature. Her ears heated a little, but that was it. "Yuuno called it 'obnoxious', actually... well, I mean, he sort of also had to tell me that meant 'annoying'. Uh... in... sort of a good way?" She shook her head. "S'not natural, someone who's just nine talking like that. I bet his family locked him in a cellar full of books with really long words in them and used to beat him if he talked normal."
He raised an eyebrow, but she was pretty sure the straight line of his mouth was hiding a smirk. "Fair enough. Don't send that message until you've run it past a censor, by the way. It would be pretty easy for someone familiar with your background to guess what you ran into. Now, do you know which room Nakajima is in? I need her help with something."
"Hah. Haha. No." Mei shuddered, and gestured around at the room she was stuck in; one of the smaller temporary beds near the entrance to the medical wing. "There's a reason I'm in here instead of the main ward where they can keep an eye on all of the patients at once. She kicked out of that meeting not long after you did, and whatever the story with that Wing Road dude Yuuno mentioned is; she is really not happy about it. Like... if you want to live, Chrono, do not go in there. She will murder you just from sheer force of angry. I thought for a minute I'd forgotten who was the crazy one with berserker great great great whatever grandparents."
Okay, she was exaggerating a little there. But she'd still prefer to be fighting the blonde Testarossa kid with the scythe again than sitting in a room with Quint looking that quietly, terrifyingly furious. The other woman had looked about one wrong word away from forgetting that she was done up in casts and breaking everything and everyone in the room.
Chrono frowned, and seemed to consider her seriously for a moment. "Hmm. Well maybe you can help me instead. I need you to do some research into possible backing the master might have in wider D-Space."
Mei cocked her head. "Uh, isn't that what you're supposed to be doing?"
"Yes. But I'm not going to be doing it, so I need someone to feed Lindy some drafted notes from me if she asks for an update. Scrya is looking into things as well, so you don't need to worry about missing vital information. Just make sure it looks like I'm working on it."
"You… like, have read my reports? Like, ever?" she pointed out. "The good bits? They're the bits I manage to fob off on my sis."
"Yes. I had guessed. But I don't have a choice."
A slow smile was spreading across Mei's face. "You... you're asking me to cover for you," she said incredulously; half-question and half-statement. "I don't... I'm not sure I believe this. You, what? Asked to go research this stuff so she'd let you off the ship, only you're going to do something else instead?"
Her smile slid a little as he nodded; dead serious. "I think I have a lead. I need to investigate it, but I can't let the admiral…"
"You mean your mother? Or the other one?"
"… either admiral know about it. So I need someone to cover for me." He paused. "And send me an emergency call once I've left, too. I can set a general filter to block it, then turn it off and receive the 'come back' message if I need an excuse to leave in a hurry. No," he added sharply as her eyes started to narrow. "Don't try and guess. It's better if you don't know."
He paused, shifting uncomfortably. "We don't know each other that well, so... I'll understand if you don't feel comfortable helping me with this. I'd ask that you don't inform Lindy of-"
"Nah," she cut him off. "It's whatever you worked out during the meeting, isn't it?" She shrugged at his surprised expression. "I saw something hit you. That expression people get when they suddenly realise something obvious." She grinned. "I'm waiting for it on Tiida when he works out Rizu likes him. Not sure anyone else noticed, but I was looking your way when it happened. You're sure about whatever it is? That you've got a good lead on the case?"
Chrono opened his mouth to answer automatically, paused, and seemed to consider it. After a moment's thought, he gave a sharp nod. "At the absolute least, it's something that needs checking out. Quietly."
"Then I'll trust you on it. And won't snitch on you to your mum." He looked at her disbelievingly, and she grinned. "Hey, like you said. You have a reputation. You wouldn't do something like this just to slack off. Though... I guess you don't have such a big stick up your ass after all, do you?" Ooops. The stick joke slipped out.
At least it bought a smirk from him.
"That's classified information," he cautioned. "Don't tell anyone." With a wink, he turned and left. A moment later, his head dipped round the door again. "Oh," he added. "And you should probably turn that recorder off. And wipe it of the last few minutes."
"Huh?" She glanced at the holowindow she'd been speaking into, where... yeah, the recording light was still on. "Dammit, why didn't you say so sooner? Harlaown!"
He was gone.
"Rasser' sassin' stupid asshole," she mumbled to herself. Man, why were the cute ones always such jerks?
Minutes ticked by in the quiet room, the hum of the machinery forming a hushed choir anchoring their patient to the land of the living.
Slowly, and with great effort, Linith opened her eyes again. She waited for a moment with her ears alert, perfectly still, making sure there was nobody nearby.
Then she slid off the bed and transformed. The change to her human form came slower than usual, as if she was pulling it to her from a great and terrible distance. Even after she completed it, she had to kneel for a few seconds on the floor, catching her breath. Her hands were glitching, the mana unable to perfectly hold a coherent form. It was fuzzy around the edges.
Gritting her teeth, she pulled herself together, pushed herself to her feet and moved over to the bed. She sat down heavily on the edge, breathing deeply. For a second or two, she looked down tenderly at Precia's face, drinking it in. Then she gently took the Device from the once-great mage's hands, and made a complicated motion over it. A pale tan light sank into it.
One by one, gleaming with their own inner light, the thirteen Jewel Seeds stored within emerged from storage. They formed a ring above the sceptre, spinning in a slow and graceful orbit. Despite the seals containing their power, their mere presence seemed to charge the air and crackle through the atmosphere of the room. Ominous they were, but safe.
She sighed wearily. "I'm sorry, girls," she whispered, breathing slowly and laboriously. "So very... very sorry. But he's just... too dangerous to trust. Too... too many risks." She rose, and woke a spell she'd been carefully building for the past few days, hidden in the signatures of the medical machinery. Light gleamed around the corners of the room, hiding what was about to happen.
Linith paused where she lay, whining faintly from the effort. It hurt. Oh it hurt to push herself like this. It was like trying to breathe in low pressure. She could feel the weight of her own mind, gasping for every last drip of mana it could get from Precia and not getting what it needed. The intricate structure of her uplifted mind was slowly crumbling. She was forgetting things, a sad slow tragic reversal of the burst of purple brilliance that had seen her awakening to consciousness.
Gathering the Jewel Seeds to her, she mustered the effort to stand again and slowly began to build power. In fits and starts, line-by-line, a Midchildan casting circle traced itself on the floor around her. It was dim and muted, and it flickered uncertainly, but she bore down past the awful ache within, forcing it to her exhausted will.
Tan light built. Gathered.
She appeared again in darkness. She didn't know where, exactly. Two, maybe three dimensions away. And far from any planet. Off to one side, the sun was small and dim, still outshining other stars but less than half as bright as it had been on Earth.
That meant she was further out from it. Light-minutes away from her starting point. She couldn't say where, exactly, but she wouldn't be surprised if she were close to the edge of the inner system.
And not knowing was the point.
Slowly, achingly, she brought out the Jewel Seeds again. For what felt like a long, long time, she stared at them, etching their light into her mind, burning it through the haze that was filling her head.
Then, with a flick of her wrist and a tiny shunt of magic, she sent them shooting off into the void.
The violet lanterns quickly receded to dots, and then specks, and then mere pinpricks against the infinite dark. Within a minute, they were gone completely. They might be pulled into orbit around a planet in the outer system, but she doubted it. More likely they would keep going forever, spreading out as they went. Sailing away from the system, away from humanity and those that might misuse their power.
They would never be found in the vast emptiness of space, sealed and secured as they were from releasing the tiniest trace of mana. Locked down as they were, their own output caging their attempts to activate, even a dimensional quake wouldn't disturb them. Centred back in the inner system, even a fairly powerful one would be hard-pressed to reach the outermost planets, and in a few months they would be further even than that.
"There," Linith sighed in relief. "My part is done. Fate, Nanoha... it's up to you now..."
Her arms were going numb, but she managed to twitch her decohering fingers in a jerky motion. The command was crude and clumsy, but it was enough for her Barrier Jacket to respond.
A picture formed in front of her. It showed a warm room, lit by gentle light from a pair of sun lamps in the corners. Fate and Nanoha stood with happy smiles, holding hands, with Alicia beaming up at the camera in front of them. Vesta and Arf sat in their six-year old forms at their mistresses' feet; Vesta hugging Nanoha's legs, Arf leaning back against Fate's. The little catgirl was sticking her tongue out playfully, and Arf was laughing.
And behind them all, Precia sat with a blissful smile, her eyes on Alicia, and Linith beside her as ever. Her skin had more colour in it than Linith had seen in months, and her eyes had no bags beneath them. She looked... happy.
They all did.
They all had been.
Kaisers willing, they would be.
But not all of them together. Not anymore.
"My girls," Linith whispered. A tear trickled down her cheek, then another. "My brave, wonderful girls. Forgive me. I sh-shouldn't have told you to go to Scagletti. I just w-wanted to s-save her. But now I… I have to do this. Because I… I didn't want her to die. Even though she told me that… I'm so sorry. Forgive me for this. Forgive me for... for not letting you know to say goodbye."
Her vision was growing dark, and she could feel her body starting to drift away, the mana construct that had held her for five long years finally beginning to break down. Maybe... maybe without the strain of supporting her, Precia might have a chance now. She would die, but her sacrifice might give her mistress the strength to pull through. She could live with that. And die with it.
The picture stayed there, in her blurring vision and then in her mind's sight as her eyes closed for the last time. She clung to it as she fell away, drifting in the void, drifting apart, drifting into darkness. The colours, the laughter, the joy of that remembered day seemed so vivid that she could almost reach out and step into it again, a haven where she and all her loved ones were safe and happy and together.
"Be happy..." she breathed, in the merest ghost of a whisper.
And as the break-up of her form reached her face, she was smiling still.
Silent and tranquil, curled into a ball, a sandy-furred forest cat floated through space. If one could see its face, they might have seen the frozen tear tracks glinting on the tan-brown fur. Onwards and outwards it drifted, following the secrets it had taken to the grave.
Gil Graham's ship was with the slowly-assembling fleet, a light-minute or so from Earth. Chrono stopped off on a nearby world instead of teleporting to it straight from the Asura, and went through the standard handshake protocols to be allowed through. He was met in the teleport room by a young officer whose sallow skin and baggy eyes spoke of more than a few sleepless nights. Given the reason the fleet was assembling, Chrono didn't blame the man.
"Enforcer Harlaown," he greeted Chrono. "I'm Ensign Altima. What's your reason for your visit?"
Chrono 's expression didn't flicker. He'd considered how to handle this on his stopover. He preferred having a better plan than the one he'd put together, but it was all he had. If his hunch was wrong, it wouldn't matter.
If it was right...
"Aria and Lotte," he answered smoothly. "They were my teachers when I was younger, and we stayed friendly even after we parted ways."
The ensign hesitated, his eyes flickering up and to the left for a second. Chrono watched him carefully. "Uh, the Admiral's familiars are on a scouting mission at the moment," he said, and Chrono felt a stab of triumph and fear. Had that pause been nervousness, or just a moment's recollection? He wasn't committed yet; he could still back out of this plan. Shrug, go back to the Asura – even if Lindy asked later, he could just say he wanted to get their advice on his research.
He clenched his hand hard; nails biting into his palm. No. If he was wrong, he'd be embarrassed. He'd look stupid or paranoid, and possibly get a reprimand for rash action. But if he explained himself, Lindy and Gil would understand. That was a minor cost, compared to the consequences if he was right and backed out now. And he wasn't going to let fear of being wrong stop him now.
"I didn't say I was here to see them now," he said, projecting confidence and hoping his pause hadn't been noticed through Altima's own nervousness. "They've asked for my help on a mission from the Admiral." There. A tiny widening of the eyes. Chrono nodded. "Yes, the classified one. It's crucial, so they need all the help they can get. And they can't trust many people with something this sensitive."
Tension sang through him like a taut wire. He was basing his entire cover on an assumption and a bluff; a series of 'if's that was far longer than he liked to rely on. If Gil really did know more about the case than he was letting on, he'd probably be acting on it somehow. If he was acting on it, he'd probably use Aria and Lotte, as the most loyal of his powerful subordinates. If they were acting on covert orders, they'd presumably have to explain their absences somehow. And he was willing to bet that their professionalism would keep them from giving many, if any details about a mission to anyone who didn't absolutely need to know them.
That gave him an opening. If he could act the part.
Altima looked at him uncertainly, and Chrono's hand tightened on his Device, hovering over the mental command that would allow it to receive Mei's waiting message. But then – thankfully – his expression cleared into understanding as some internal realisation slotted into place. Never had Chrono been more thankful for his reputation as a rules-bound tight-arse. The fact that nobody would expect a scheme like this from him was his biggest asset right now.
"Oh..." Altima said. "Oh, right. Yeah, I guess... I guess I can see why they'd ask you to help. Uh, if you're not here to see them, what are you here for?"
Some of the humming tension in Chrono's spine seeped out. Okay. He had one foot through the door. And the ensign didn't seem inclined to check his story with the Aria, Lotte or the Admiral – which was why he'd come now, while Gil was still busy with the conference.
"I'd like to look at the ship records and bring myself fully up to speed," he said. "Aria and Lotte didn't want to say too much in a message. Op-sec; you know the score." He tried a smile, which seemed to relax Altima a notch further. He nodded and gestured for Chrono to follow him.
"Yeah, obviously," he agreed. "Standard procedure for a leak. Uh... FM 36-40, chapter 2. Right?" He looked back hopefully, eager to impress the younger, higher-ranking officer.
It took considerable willpower not to freeze rigid. "That's right," Chrono said, aware that his voice sounded a little strained. He smiled again and tipped his head. "Good memory."
Altima seemed happy with that and turned back to where he was leading them, which let Chrono very quietly freak out behind him. A leak. A TSAB leak; standard procedure on what to do in the case of suspected corruption or an otherwise compromised incident. Exactly what he'd been thinking when Gil had slipped. Whoever was helping the Book's master, they were within the Bureau. And Gil knew, or at least suspected, who they were.
No wonder Altima had believed him about Aria and Lotte recruiting him. Given Chrono's reputation for following the rules to the letter, he'd have asked himself to help with something like this in their position. Except they hadn't, which meant they were seriously worried; unable to trust anyone but Gil's personal crew with even as much as the suspicion of a leak.
This was very, very bad.
"Enforcer Harlaown? We're here. Archival." Altima gestured awkwardly at the cramped office space they'd arrived at. Computer banks lined the walls and stood in; rows through the middle of the room; crystal memory substrate stacked in dull geometric shapes inside them. It was empty, with nobody sitting at the terminals dotted here and there among the banks.
Chrono glanced over at his escort. "I'll understand if you can't leave me in here unsupervised," he said agreeably. "But would you mind waiting on the other side of the room? Some of these materials are sensitive."
"Of course, of course." The ensign hurried over to sit down across from him, and Chrono settled himself down in front of a terminal, pulled up a holo-window from his Device and starting to sort through ingoing and outgoing personnel timestamps. After a few minutes, he frowned slightly and leaned in, pulling up more windows from the terminal. A high-priority inbound courier report led him to a materiel transfer receipt, which in turn led to the requisition form that had prompted it. He checked the date, frown deepening, and backed out of the system before burrowing back in to check the ship's armoury. It denied him access to any of the specifications or details, but he was able to claw out a name to go with the high-priority delivery. A name that sent chills up his spine.
After an instructive half-hour or so, he stood, jaw tightly clenched. Altima looked up quickly with the guilty expression of someone who had definitely not been playing games on his Device to pass the time.
"You're done? Uh, I think Aria and Lotte are due back sometime soon. Would -"
[Impact Cannon. Ring Bind.]
Ensign Altima's eyes barely had time to widen before he hit the floor. Chrono bent automatically to check his breathing and pulse, nodded in satisfaction and dragged him over to the desk, arranging him so he looked like he'd fallen asleep. The Device, he pocketed. It might get him through a few doors.
Then he set off for Admiral Gil's Graham's office.
"First decoy, mark. And go."
It was early afternoon back on Earth. The twenty fourth of December. Christmas Eve.
None of the Wolkenritter were feeling very festive.
It was late evening here, on a hilltop outside the city that was their target. One of the only three sizeable mage populations in the nearby dimensional neighbourhood, outside Earth itself. The few trees clinging to the ground beneath their smothering layers of snow were stunted conifers, huddled around the shore of a frozen lake as though leaning into each other for warmth. On the other side of the flat expanse was the city proper. The ice hung back from the far shore; heat from the city and the passage of fishing boats keeping it from freezing over. From a distance, the soot falling from industrial chimneys churned it black and murky to match the snow that fell and mingled with rising columns of smoke.
Three figures stood on the empty hillside. One, tall and angular, watched the city impassively. The second; short and bright red against the stark monochrome surroundings, paced in frustration and looked everywhere other than their target. The third simply sat on a tree stump, her eyes on her hands.
"Can-" began Vita after a few more rounds of pacing.
"No," Shamal replied, almost before the syllable was out. "Another ten minutes. We want to be third."
The Breaker clenched her teeth and growled. Zafira had successfully argued that he should be the one to stay back and guard Hayate. Shamal could do little for her at this point, and he was a better defender should the worst happen. Right now, Vita almost wished she'd been the one to stay behind.
But while that might free her of the nagging sense of personal dishonour, it would mean not knowing what was happening at all. Having no hand in events. Waiting, helpless, for news of success... or of failure.
"Second decoy, mark," said Shamal. "And... go. Third decoy pending for after we go."
Vita glanced over at the city for a brief instant before her eyes skittered away again. There were people in that city. Children in hospitals – or the closest local equivalents. Mothers and sisters. Kind people, who would help strangers out of nothing but the goodness of their hearts. Who had families that cared for them, and would be devastated if they were hurt.
But they weren't Hayate.
"Five minutes," said Signum, her eyes not wavering from the soot-stained buildings. "Get ready. Try to stay non-lethal."
Vita caught a very slight wince from Shamal. 'Try'. That was what they were left with, now. Not even absolute obedience to the letter of Hayate's wishes. And any pretence at following the spirit had long since died.
'Try to stay non-lethal'. What right had they to call themselves her knights?
"Standby," Signum ordered. "Make ready to go."
Vita gritted her teeth and set up Graf Eisen with a practiced swing. If a Belkan lord thought it better to die than pay the cost of survival, honour forbade their servants from going against their wishes.
The wind picked up, swirling the soot and snow around them.
But Hayate wasn't a Belkan lord. She hadn't been raised with that code. She was nothing like the proud, arrogant, ancient men and women who dimly lingered in Vita's memory.
She didn't deserve to die for their ideals of right and wrong.
Signum's sword rose. And fell.
Linith was gone.
It was impossible to wrap her head around. Linith was gone. Linith was gone. Warm, calm, maternal, empathetic Linith. The closest thing to a replacement for her own mother that Nanoha had had for the past six months. The pillar of normality and dependability in a scary, chaotic, confusing, frustrating universe.
It just refused to make sense. Nanoha half-expected her to walk into the canteen where they had congregated after the emotionally exhausting ordeal of Precia's goodbyes, ask what was wrong in that concerned way she had and then usher them all around one table for hot chocolate.
But she wasn't. Linith was gone. Nanoha's mind ran in circles, spiralling the drain of this one incontrovertible fact.
And if she was feeling numb and shocked and heartbroken, she couldn't imagine what Alicia and Fate must be going through. Whatever mental preparations Fate had been exercising in case... in case the worst happened with Precia, which it wouldn't; they'd never accounted for this. She had been gazing blankly at the far wall for the past five minutes or so, and Nanoha was afraid that something inside her friend had shut down completely. Reaching out, she gave Fate a one-armed cuddle. But Fate wasn't crying. Wasn't even responding. She had just shut down entirely.
Alicia had cried herself to sleep about an hour ago after a screaming fit that Nanoha was trying not to think about. There would be another one when the little girl woke up and remembered, she knew. It was not something she was looking forward to.
They weren't even sure exactly when it had happened. The machines hadn't registered any change in Precia's condition. If it hadn't been for Uno checking the room twenty minutes or so after they'd left, they might still not know – and Nanoha thanked every higher power she could think of that it hadn't been Fate who'd walked in and made that discovery.
"They should have told us," she murmured out loud. "If Precia had... had got that bad. That Linith... the machines should have told us."
'... maybe there wasn't anything to tell,' suggested Arf. Vesta shot her a warning look and a hiss, but she soldiered on. 'No, really. Maybe... maybe they didn't tell us because... because Precia hadn't got that bad.'
"... what are you saying?" said Nanoha. Something ugly twisted in her gut. She could feel understanding on the edge of her mind, and shied away from it instinctively.
Arf looked up at Fate from her unresponsive mistress's lap, and licked her lips nervously. 'Maybe...' she said slowly, forcing every word out. 'Um. Maybe she... didn't just... fade. There should have been a... a body. If she had. A cat body.' She closed her eyes, and went for broke. 'So maybe she knew it was coming and thought that Precia might have a chance without her and-'
"No!" Nanoha's hand slammed down on the table so hard that it made Jail, head pillowed on his arms on the next table over, jerk up for a moment to see what the noise had been. He stared at them from bleary owl-golden eyes, then lowered his head again. "No," she repeated in a lower voice than the shrill shriek of her first exclamation. "That isn't... it doesn't... she wouldn't."
Horrible silence was broken by an awkwardly cleared throat. Blankly, Nanoha looked down at the grey and black kitten on the table in front of her.
'... she would, mistress,' Vesta said quietly. Gently. No tone could make it gentle enough, though. All hints of anger fled from Nanoha's face, leaving behind naked horror. She shook her head slowly, lips forming into a soundless 'no' as tears filled her eyes.
'She would,' Vesta repeated, stepping closer and putting a paw on Nanoha's hand. 'If it meant Precia might have a chance, where both of them wouldn't have any. She would.'
Nanoha was saved from having to answer that by the sound of shouting.
There was real alarm in Uno's voice as she ran – actually ran – into the canteen. Her yellow eyes were wide and her hair was dishevelled and wet. She was wearing a Number-style jumpsuit and it wouldn't have surprised Nanoha to find out that she had been in the shower and loaded the first clothes to hand. It was the first time Nanoha had heard Uno be so expressive, and from the stunned looks around them, it wasn't common. Sein actually fell off her seat in surprise. Fate jolted out of whatever inner world she'd been in, hand immediately going for Bardiche.
"Uno?" Tired as he looked, Jail was instantly on his feet and moving towards her to see what the problem was. He needn't have bothered. With a sweeping motion, her collection of screens expanded out to fill the entire wall of the canteen. They shared a disturbing commonality of theme.
'... why are they all red?' Vesta asked, cocking her head with a worried look. "Is it... is someone, uh..."
She trailed off, unable to think of a lighthearted guess to relieve the tension.
"The Wolkenritter are attacking," Uno said bluntly, ignoring her. "Not a minor attack on an isolated target. Not even a covert strike on a few mages caught in a dimensional barrier. They launched an outright assault on four magic-heavy cities approximately thirty minutes ago, holding nothing back. Uminari City on UA-97 is among them."
Nanoha went dead white for the second time in as many minutes, this time from an entirely different sense of horror. "That's... that's twenty light-minutes away," she whispered. "We have to go! We have to go now!"
"Four worlds," said Fate, drawing all eyes to her. It was the first she'd said in the hour or so since Alicia had fallen asleep, and her words were precisely enunciated – almost mechanical. "That means they've left the master unguarded?"
Uno hesitated. Her eyes flickered rapidly for a moment, and she grimaced, bringing a hand up to cradle her temple. "No," she said. "It's probable that one or more of the attacks are decoys. Most likely, all but one are false – that would get them maximum concentration of force and require the greatest dispersal of opposing assets to be sure of stopping them."
"Three fakes and one real attack, then." Fate's face was still drawn, and there was still that aching sadness in her eyes that Nanoha longed to reach out and fix. But she was responding again as she got to her feet; thinking, planning. "It's already been going on for at least twenty minutes. We'll exhaust ourselves if we push to get there as fast as possible, so..."
"You might not, actually," Jail interrupted. "I do have a teleport boosting station here. We could supply the power. But you'd have to be sure of getting the right one – if you chose wrong, you'd waste time and mana hopping to the next site. And we can't be sure they aren't all decoys, and that they might not wait for Bureau forces to arrive, dismiss their true target as a false alarm and leave again before starting their attack."
Vesta worked through this sneakiness for a moment, and gave him a deeply impressed look.
"Uno?" Fate asked. "Can you bring up a map?" The teenager nodded, wincing a little as she did, and summoned a simplified node-map of the dimensional neighbourhood. Four planets glowed white among the cyan dots, bright against the dark blue background. Their own location was marked in green, and numbers hovered next to each node showing the time-distance to them. Earth was the closest at twenty one light-minutes away. UA-104 and UA-115 were next; equidistant at about twenty four light-minutes each, while UA-218 was a lonely point of cyan a shade less than half an hour away. Fate pursed her lips.
"Nanoha. You're going to Earth?" Nanoha nodded firmly. "I can't talk you out of it?" Fate asked hopefully. "You haven't been drained yet. If they get you..."
"I'm going." There was absolutely no room for argument in Nanoha's tone. Uno rolled her eyes, turning back to the screens and scowling at them through a fast-developing migraine. Fate nodded.
"So that leaves one of three for me." She bit her lip. Although the closer planets were about equidistant from Jail's base, there was still a good five or six light-minutes between them. The wrong choice could add another ten minutes to her journey – a potentially fatal delay for who knew how many people.
"I'll go to UA-115", she decided. It was the closer only by ten light-seconds or so, but she needed to make a choice. "If that's the wrong one, I can move onto UA-104 and then either keep going to 218 or circle back to help Nanoha on Earth."
"No, hold on..." Uno was typing rapidly. "218 is a decoy. A very good decoy, but I think they must have miscast whatever's generating it." Her eyes flitted across the streams of data – readouts that the girls couldn't even begin to make sense of. "It could just be signal distortion, but the likelihood is higher that it's one of the fakes."
"... understood." Fate nodded. "In that case... I'll go to UA-104 first, then. Doctor? The teleport booster?"
Nanoha left first. Perhaps inefficient given her nearer destination, but the fear in her eyes for her family was such that nobody even tried to suggest otherwise. The greasy feeling of mana gathering built up to oppressive levels in the small rune-lined room as Jail, Fate, Arf and Uno waited in the control booth next door. Vesta sat a silent vigil in Nanoha's hood; her tail and neck ruff fluffed out. Nanoha herself was pale with dread, but determined. She clutched Raising Heart like a lifeline, the Jewel Seed casing already deployed and ready to fuel her spells.
With a flash of light and an outright painful backlash, she was gone. Fate flinched and Uno actually cried out, clutching her forehead. She waved Jail off when he went to help.
"It's fine, I'm fine. My implants are overtaxed, I need to... lie down. Somewhere cool. But not now. Testarossa; in. You can't aim a twenty-four light-minute jump any more than Takamachi; just stay relaxed and don't fight it."
Fate nodded seriously and transformed. Her new Barrier Jacket assembled itself around her, a familiar feeling made novel again by Alicia's alterations. It wasn't as strange as the first time, but-
... no. If she thought about the first time now, she'd think of... of other things. Things that would get in the way. Mother had taught her better than to let her feelings interfere with what needed to be done. She beckoned Arf up into her backpack, imagining a pinpoint in her abdomen and pushing the surging grief into it.
Don't think of what had just happened. Think of what was about to. She was safer than Nanoha, in some ways. There was no chance of the Wolkenritter draining her again. They couldn't, now.
She just hoped that didn't lead them to kill her instead.
There was no sense of time passing in mid-teleport. It took however long it took on the outside. Within, it was an eyeblink of stretched experience. But Fate was very aware as the world dissolved and reformed around her that another twenty four minutes had passed, on top of the half-hour or so it had taken for news of the attack to reach them. Fifty minutes; perhaps a little more. How quickly could the Wolkenritter bring down a city? The cold bit at her cheeks as she appeared above Akkamar – the city Nanoha had visited so very recently, she recalled. Smoke and snowflakes filled the air. The snowflakes were hard and stinging; whipped by the wind into near-hail.
The smoke, though, wasn't coming from the chimneys and factories below. It was coming from the fire. It seemed like half the city was ruined; half of the remainder seemed mostly untouched so far. Below her, in the last quarter, Fate could hear the sounds of battle. Buildings were broken open or burning. Civilians lay slumped prone on the ground – either unconscious or dead, there was no way to tell. Some of them wore TSAB uniforms, she noticed. Apparently the Bureau forces had been closer, and quicker to respond.
It hadn't helped them. And she could see why.
In the skies across the city from her, a red blur moved in jagged bursts against a brown one, clashing with great booms that shook the city. The Breaker, battling the huge Bureau mage who had fought her mother on the Garden of Time.
And there below her, casually batting aside the desperate attempts at a massed assault by some of the natives, was the long pink hair and blurring sword of the Blade. Above one hand the dark shape of one of the Book floated, and even as she fought it pulled glowing cores out of the chests of the fallen.
They weren't taking it slow and careful. Not anymore. Fate swallowed and clutched Bardiche tighter.
'This time, I've got your back,' Arf reminded her. 'And they can't drain you twice.'
Fate nodded once. Set her jaw. And dived.
Freshly returned from an exhausting conference, Gil Graham had barely sat down at his desk when the sound of a scuffle drew his attention away from the many, many screens floating above it. The desk itself was wooden; an antique he'd brought from his childhood home. The projectors and crystalline computer racks that had been seamlessly integrated into it weren't part of the original design, but they did nothing to spoil the pleasant lines of the old mahogany.
Admittedly, standard holowindows looked a little incongruous when paired with it, but he'd long since fixed that with a custom template that matched the varnish and gave them an almost Victorian air. It was usually a refreshing breath of classical styles among the steel and glass and crystal of his workspaces, which was let down a little at the moment by the fact that most of them were showing him reports on the catastrophe that had brought him back here earlier than planned.
The raised voices outside his office resolved into something more audible. "I said stop!" his secretary was shouting. "The admiral... Admiral Graham! There-"
The doors slid sharply open, and Chrono Harlaown marched in, more or less ignoring the harassed-looking man who was trying to pull him back. Despite the fact that he had almost a foot of height on the boy, he seemed unwilling to resort to physical force to get him to stop. He was also cradling a rather tender-looking wrist. Gil sighed and collapsed his windows. Whatever this was about, it was probably going to take valuable time to deal with.
Chrono came to attention in front of his desk, and Gil fixed him with his third-best unimpressed look. Before he could inquire what the reason for his visit was, though – it certainly wasn't a social call – Chrono spoke.
"A backer," he said.
Gil didn't react outwardly, except to raise an eyebrow and motion his secretary away. "Thank you, Faden," he said. "Enforcer Harlaown seems to have some critical information for me; you can return to your desk."
They waited for the man to leave. As soon as the door hissed closed, Chrono reconfigured his Device and began casting a comprehensive net of anti-scrying, privacy and transmission jamming wards. Gil's eyebrow rose further. It was an impressive feat for a fourteen-year old, although from the activity on his Storage Device he'd clearly come pre-prepared. He waited patiently for Chrono to finish, dropping a hand quietly into a desk drawer while the boy's attention was on his spellcasting.
"A backer," Chrono repeated once he was done, as if he hadn't so much as paused. He seemed agitated, almost vibrating on the spot as his muscles tensed and relaxed repeatedly. "Not 'backers', not 'backing'. 'Backer'. One person. It jumped out at me, in the meeting. Not just the word itself, but something about the way you said it."
Ah. So. Gil glanced down at his watch, feeling suddenly tired. He'd been running far, far too long under stress. A mistake here or there was inevitable, in time. A slip of the tongue could be excused, but Chrono wouldn't be here if that was all he had.
"At ease, Enforcer," he sighed. "Is this leading somewhere? We do have a crisis at hand."
"The Masked Men, too," Chrono continued, pacing. "Exceptional at shielding. Pinpoint accurate rapid teleportation. At least two of them; high-rank. The one Scrya fought was a close-range monster... and a familiar, to boot. So I began to wonder. I thought perhaps you knew more than you were letting on." He laughed; a disbelieving breath that was more scoff than humour. "I had it wrong at first, though. I thought you suspected who the backer was. That you'd set Aria and Lotte to... to infiltrate; get close to the Wolkenritter and identify the master and the backer. One masked man looks just like another, right? And the one Scrya fought was just watching, not acting directly."
His hands curled into fists for a moment. "I didn't want to think it. That's my only excuse for guessing wrong. But then I came here to dig into things. See what you were keeping back. And I saw the timestamps of their absences."
Gil raised a finger, only for Chrono to swing around and glare at him. "And the way you pushed through a requisition for an Eidelon-class sealing device. Before we knew we were dealing with the Book for certain. I recognised the serial code after familiarising myself with them. After all, Takamachi got her hands on a device with that classification."
The finger lowered. A hint of movement behind Chrono caught Gil's attention in his peripheral vision, and he breathed a quiet sigh of relief. Trembling with tightly wound anger, Chrono didn't catch the slight relaxation.
"Admiral Graham," he demanded, "what are you doing?"
"We're saving the world."
Chrono's shoulders hunched and his stance shifted defensively as the Lieze twins stalked past him on either side to flank Gil protectively. Fierce eyes bored into him, alert for any movement.
Gil leaned forward and folded his hands together on the desk.
"I think it's clear you know essentially what I'm doing," he began. "So perhaps instead I should explain why."
The angry glare wavered for a moment before settling into a blank mask that gave away nothing. Or nearly nothing, at least. Talented as he was, Chrono was fourteen years old, and Gil had years of experience for every month of his. What he could make out from the young Enforcer was promising. He seemed willing to listen, at least. Hopefully that willingness wouldn't be pushed too far by what Gil had to say.
"I suppose the story ultimately starts with your father," he said, watching Chrono carefully. His stare got a little more intense, but he didn't move. Gil sighed, feeling the old pang of loss again. "Clyde... Clyde was a skilled officer, and a clever one. You haven't seen the full report of the 0054 Book of Darkness incident – very few people have – but the Estia managed to do quite serious damage to it when it went rampant. Enough that parts of its internal structure began to unfold out into realspace. No witnesses survived, but long-range imaging showed a tumorous mass of some sort that attempted to engulf the ship. Clyde was actually inside the Book as it was destroyed."
He took in the tension slowly ratcheting up in Chrono's frame, and raised his hands in apology. "I'm not telling you this needlessly. Clyde saw something in there. Exactly what, I'm not sure – he was injured by that point, and I'm not sure it was describable. From what I've decoded, the Book of Darkness was trying to physically interface with him using some kind of folded space. But he managed to get a message out. Short-range. One-way. Poor quality, but decipherable with time and effort. My ship was the only one within range, and... I suppose he trusted me to use the information wisely."
Chrono blinked. Then blinked again, his eyes widening. "The master. The... the selection algorithms. He saw who it would choose next."
Gil tilted his head approvingly. "Who it was in the process of choosing, technically. It was heavily damaged by that point, and I suspect it knew it was statistically likely to be destroyed and had already begun selecting its next host. The message, once I'd made sense of it, was a shortlist of three locations – I suppose it somehow scans distant areas for linker cores that can support it in dormancy, somehow. Regardless of how it found them, I had a starting point to follow it from. Then it was just a matter of careful observation until I found the master."
"And decided to help them." Chrono frowned. "Why not tell the Bureau? No, hold on." He pressed his lips together, mind racing. "Even if you had told them, and suppressed the master before the Book's completion, it would recreate itself elsewhere again, and leave you with no lead. Earth would be spared, but the Book would still return to plague Dimensional Space again. But you can't do anything to it! At most… at most you could evacuate the host away from any population centres and that is standing policy." His eyes were almost wild. "Why would you keep it to yourself?"
"Because we have a way to stop it. Permanently," Aria said, her voice flat and level.
"No. That's… that's impossible!"
"It is not," Gil contradicted firmly. "I've known about the master for seven years now. Over that time, I've scanned them as delicately as I've been able to; covertly probing the Book of Darkness program for as much information as I can gather without prompting it to activate. Mostly passive scans, a few very careful active probes that were rigorously engineered to seem like natural mana fluctuations." He cracked his knuckles. "I know more about it than anyone else alive. Perhaps more than anyone since the Dawn States.
"As far as I can tell – and since it activated I've been able to get more data to confirm this – it still hasn't fully repaired all of the damage done in the last incident. I'm not even sure it can. Some of the functions appear to be permanently lost, though I can't be sure while it's still dormant. And, well..." He pursed his lips. "I know Lieutenant Jhanashdi believes the Healer is the Wraith, but I'm not sure the records of there being five Knights in the past should be dismissed out of hand. Perhaps the Healer and the Wraith suffered data corruption and one was used to repair the other."
He tapped the table for emphasis. "In other words, while the Book is in its fully activated state, it is at its most powerful... but also at its most vulnerable. It can be damaged, and damaged permanently. And, relevantly to our situation…"
He held up the white card-form he had quietly taken from his desk drawer. A blue diamond gem sparkled at the centre of the inert Device, flanked by two stylised wings.
"… it can be sealed."
"So that is Durandal," Chrono said tensely.
"Yes. One of the Eidelon-class Devices commissioned after the 0054 Incident. With this, it should be possible to freeze both the Book and its master at the peak of the activation cycle, and seal them together. The master will not die, the Book will not be damaged – and so its reincarnation cycle will not trigger. It can then be stored in an ultrahigh security location."
"It will work," Aria added. "We've found precedent in the records. Other Logia have been neutralised in similar manners throughout history and have never escaped."
"It's the only way to stop it for good!" Lotte urged. "All of the masters before now have been killed, and none of them have stopped it destroying lives!"
"You came here looking for a fight," Aria said, voice softening. "But Chrono, there's no shame in changing your mind. This is for the best. Surely you can see that."
His eyes flickered between them, assessing. He frowned.
"That was another question I had," he said, a hint of doubt playing over his face. "That war form you used when you fought Scrya. That wasn't a natural familiar shape. You should have looked like Takamachi's familiar, instead... what caused that?"
Graham didn't buy the graceless change of subject, but he smiled nonetheless. "Ah, yes. My girls are far from normal familiars. You see, I'm an old man. I don't go in the field at all. I don't really do much magic nowadays. But I needed active agents to monitor the Book. And I have spent the last decade studying the formation and creation of familiars, with an eye to the dangers of the Book of Darkness. I found certain plug-in code functions from Belkan Guardian Beasts that I managed to add to their programmes. Very inefficient, of course, and makes the two of them very power hungry. But... I don't do much heavy magic any more, now do I?"
He grinned. In a way, it was a relief to finally have someone to talk to about this. Someone other than the girls themselves. And if he was honest, it was nice to have a chance to boast a little. "In a very real sense, they're not really cat familiars any more. There's some wolf in them, and more than a little bear. The trick is to compare the end products, the operational familiar, not the raw spell. And then you just have to look at the way the code runs, and try to replicate such things in your own familiars, one teeny tiny step at a time. I did ask Aria and Lotte if they were willing to undergo such experimentation."
"We agreed," Aria put in unnecessarily.
"Of course we did!" Lotte added. "It makes us better!"
"Their bodies are just mana shell constructs." Gil explained, turning to smile at the pair of them. They preened smugly. "Take the code from another programme wholesale... ironically, I got the inspiration for that from how the Book of Darkness absorbs Linker cores... and they can become anything. And incidentally, their own native programming handles mixing forms, once you've added those to their data-bases. I believe the original Alhazredian spell was designed to handle this. I just rediscovered how to re-implement lost functionality."
"And I've helped to refine our own code," Aria added with a quiet smile. "The mistake masters make when experimenting on their familiars is using them purely as test subjects. But… Chrono, you don't understand how it feels. It feels right. I'd always tell Gil if an alteration felt wrong. I've rejected changes before because they didn't feel right."
"The changes feel like things we were always meant to do!" Lotte insisted. "It's not like we've had anything like those barbaric cyborg experiments done to us! It's like it's fixing ways we were broken!"
Gil smiled indulgently at her. "I'm simplifying of course; I had to add transgenic elements to their base forms, but that could be done, and it doesn't show; they still look like cats. I've always been fascinated by Familiar Theory, you know. I've been making incremental improvements for decades. Aria and Lotte are the most refined model yet."
He turned back to Chrono, who was... a lot less appreciative than expected. He was, in fact, gaping in horror.
"What-" he stuttered, "what do you mean, you invented or… or rediscovered or… or something a way of chimerising Familiars? It's... it's an Alhazredian spell! You... you don't tamper with that! That's incredibly amoral! How many of your familiars died in testing! That's... what kind of person would even do that! You can't have done it on your own!"
"But I did," Gil said, softly.
"It was necessary." Aria said in a steely tone, drawing his attention to herself before he could continue accusing Gil. She traded a quick glance with Lotte, who stepped around in front of the desk again, shaking her limbs out with subtle motions. "Be reasonable, Chrono. We taught you all you know, and you don't stand a chance against Lotte in close combat. Even before we bring war forms into it."
"We've already sacrificed TSAB officers to feed the Book," Lotte reminded him, low and lethal. "You could help us with this – your ice affinity would work well with Durandal. But we only have a few minutes after it goes rampant to freeze it. We can't let you interfere in that."
"Help us," Aria implored. "This is the best and only way, Chrono. Help us, or you spend the rest of the conflict locked up here, and we let you do whatever you want once it's all over. It won't be long now. A day, maybe. Less. Then you can take it to the Bureau. We'll be court-martialled. But the threat of the Book will be gone."
Gil hung his head, exhaustion weighing on his soul. The faith they had, his girls; it still stunned him. Faith in the plan. Faith in him. It was painful to hear them speak it so plainly, with no trace of doubt or shame. It was one of the things that reminded him that they weren't human.
Chrono didn't reply. He didn't try to fight. He just stood there, staring with wide, wild eyes at his teachers and the man who had made them. It wasn't that he was hiding his emotions, Gil thought. He honestly wasn't sure about what to do.
Two familiars and two humans waited in silence for him to choose.
Above, the heavy snow clouds reflected the firelight of the burning city below. The skies were painted the cherry-red of cooling iron.
Nearly four years of high-speed combat training had taught Fate to think very, very fast in a fight. She sped through a tactical analysis as she dropped through the snow and smoke towards the soot-blackened city below. Her greatest advantages were speed and agility. The Blade was fast, but she was confident that she was – slightly – faster. Beyond that, their positions were reversed from their last encounter. Now, the Blade was the one with a stationary objective – and Fate the one who could hit and run as she liked. She could strike at the Book copy the Blade carried and force her to defend it, while Fate had Arf on her side, and could ignore her own defence to focus entirely on breaking her opponent's. It was a risk she wouldn't take if not for the fact that the Knights seemed strangely reluctant to kill.
And last but not least; every second and every mote of power the Blade spent fighting her was wasted. Fate had already been drained once. She couldn't be drained again.
Those were her advantages. Against them, she set the Blade's. Greater reach, and a more combat-hardened Device. Power – even with the Jewel Seed providing a counter to the cartridge system, Fate knew the Blade had an edge on her in burst strength. The inhuman endurance of a mana construct, and a near-immunity to pain or debilitation from anything less than catastrophic wounds. A thousand years of experience, and three allies to Fate's one.
And, potentially, the willingness to go lethal if Fate proved herself enough of a threat.
Put like that, Fate sort of wished she had more advantages on her side. And come to think of it, she did have one more. Surprise.
But she only had it for one shot.
Fate took in a deep breath, glad that her filters were keeping the smoke out. She flexed her fingers, testing how well Alicia's new design of undersuit would protect her. It was almost like Alicia was here with her, her cleverness protecting her sister. The two of them were together. Here, she didn't have to think about… about Mother. Here she had an enemy, one that she just had to beat.
It was good. It was reassuring. It made her feel less… wobbly.
She let out her breath, and dropped like a missile. Fate came down like an avenging angel, crackling scythe held high, and blurred the last twenty metres or so in a Blitz Action. The Blade had the natives corralled in the coils of her sword's chain form, and her attention was on the motes of light rising from them. Her attention started to shift as Bardiche came down, but there simply wasn't time for her to move far.
The force of the blow drove the Blade to her knees, and Bardiche's blade carved a burnt scar clean across the back of her shoulders, barely an inch under the base of her neck. Not where Fate had been aiming, but it was good enough. She touched down with one foot, shattering the already-broken road still further and throwing up sparks, and shot off horizontally away from the natives. A barked warning from Arf had her dodge to one side just as the chainsword came down, splitting the street in a long gouge that vomited fire.
Turning a quick left to break line of sight, she glanced back at the Blade. Who hadn't moved from her position. She was turning back to the natives, holding up the Book again. Letting Fate get away. Narrowing her eyes, Fate readied a brace of Plasma Lancers and darted up to rooftop height for another pass. One after another she fired through the gaps between buildings, forcing the Blade to break off her draining again to parry.
Something was wrong. She didn't look angry as she stood there among the shattered stone and flames, even with a painful wound across her back. She looked... familiar somehow. Something about her expression. Or... not her expression, but her attitude. The way she held herself and allowed Fate to distract her so easily. The shots were the first half of a distraction, meant just to occupy half of her attention... and yet she'd broken off draining entirely to stop them.
Memory struck as Fate dropped back behind a row of buildings to avoid the curving arrows that came in response to her shots. She knew that response because she'd experienced it before; personally. It was relief. Relief at someone interrupting a job she didn't want to do, but was doing anyway. Because Alicia needed her to.
'Who are you doing this for?' she sent, not slowing down in the slightest. The Blade had noticed her return and was trying to track her, the Book tucked into a hip pouch. But Fate was small and fast and behind a row of buildings; circling like a predator at least twenty degrees further around from where the knight was looking.
Precia had said that the Wolkenritter were mindless programmes. That they acted like people, but weren't. And yet... they hadn't killed anyone. Even when they had been fighting against Alicia's summoned creature, the Blade had attacked it – and not the summoner.
Could it be?
'Are they hurt?' she tried. 'Is your master trying to save them?'
'Go away, little girl.' The Blade's voice was startlingly human for the monster she was portrayed as – deep for a woman, but not unusual at all. And something in it told Fate she was on the right track. Now, what had Nanoha done when facing her...?
'My name is Fate Testarossa!' she called, and flung an Arc Saber to force the Blade further from her victims. She parried, and a Lightning Bind sprung out to wrap around her sword, but somehow she pulled it free before the yellow rings could close on it. 'Tell me why you're fighting and maybe we won't have to! I won't let you hurt these people like this!'
'No,' the Blade replied bluntly, nocking another set of arrows to the bow her Device had become and taking aim. That... was not what Fate had been hoping for. But on the other hand, she was talking back.
'At least tell me your name,' she demanded. 'I was doing something like this not long ago. Hurting people and fighting to save someone I cared about!'
That seemed to make the Blade hesitate, from the little Fate could see through her blurred surrounding. The arrow was getting a little too accurate in tracking her, though, so she gave up on getting a better look in favour of breaking off her circling and getting some more distance.
'It's Signum,' the low voice replied. 'Did you? Save them?'
'... yes,' Fate admitted reluctantly. 'But only because I explained what I was doing and why!'
'Then we'll manage.' A bolt of fire punched through the building in front of Fate, and she swerved to avoid it, dropping back down until she was barely a foot above the street.
'Fate,' Arf warned as a shimmering orange faceted shield sprung up around her. 'I don't think she's going to listen.'
'You don't want to be doing this!' Fate yelled as doors and windows blurred past her on both sides. She kinked right at a fork in the road, then darted down the right hand side of a split in the road and rose to avoid an improvised barricade. The limp bodies behind it showed how little it had helped against an opponent that could fly with ease. 'I can tell! You-'
A roar of fire. The whistling hiss of air parting before a blade. Fate twisted parallel to the ground, rolling onto her back and bringing her scythe across and down as she pulled her legs up to her chest. The chain-sword barely missed her toes, and she continued the motion into a backward roll. Her feet came down onto the ground, and she braced her Jacket's movement-enhancing underlayer. That high collar was about to come in useful.
Whatever the Blade – Signum – had been expecting, it apparently wasn't for her target to change direction a hundred and eighty degrees inside a single bodylength. Fate grunted at the g-force that the sudden shift in acceleration put on her and her vision dimmed, but with one quick roll and a Blitz Action, she was now headed back the way she'd come. Behind her, she heard the street split as the momentum transfer kicked up a spray of debris from the surface of the street she'd come down on.
'Bardiche.' she ordered. 'Glaive form, and increase cycle to 20%' About equal to a cartridge. Signum had apparently decided that she wasn't going to be able to drain anyone while Fate was harassing her. That was fine. All Fate had to do now was keep her distracted.
[Yes sir,] Bardiche agreed, and the energy blade vanished. The slots in the cylinder below the glaive head opened, and a vivid red light began to glow within. The red bled out into the yellow of her polearm's blade, forming a thunderbolt-like pattern. It was the same colour-shifting as Raising Heart's, Fate thought absently. Though hers had further to go. She let the shaft align naturally with her body as she blew past Signum's position on a rooftop, pointing straight down behind her with her feet on either side of it. Yellow darts began to form in a glowing array behind her, and her lips quirked up in a tiny smile.
She couldn't say she wasn't going to enjoy fighting the Blade on her terms. Just a little bit.
Signum didn't hesitate to leap into pursuit. She was every bit as fast as Fate had expected, and surrounded herself with a glowing purple aura that deflected away the steady stream of Plasma Lancers Fate kept trained on her. The two of them went airborne, Fate trailing a stream of shooting spells like the tail of a comet, which swung and curved to follow Signum as she flew. Her chainsword retracted down into the shorter, faster blade and she began to dodge and swerve, trying to cut Fate off. But this time Fate wasn't trapped. This time, she had full freedom of movement.
'Ready, Arf?' she whispered.
'When you are.'
The looming industrial district rose up around her, and she threw herself from side to side, swerving around smokestacks as purple arrows sought her out. Orange chains snaked out to wrap around the chimneys as she passed them, fading into invisibility even as they sent out links to the others nearby. Fate grinned. Her familiar might not be at Vesta's level with illusions, but that didn't mean she couldn't learn a few tricks.
Swinging round the last column of black smoke, Fate dived back towards her enemy. She'd hit one of the traps and was snarled in it; the chains entangling her and leaving her strung between two towers with her arms spread wide. Fate blitzed past, glaive out to deliver another high-speed blow.
And then Signum wasn't there anymore. Fate didn't see exactly what she did, but the boot that slammed home into her lower back got the message across. Her dive turned into an uncontrolled tumble and she crashed through the roof below her. Silently she thanked her undersuit which turned a stunning impact into a mere slap.
Signum was right behind her as she sought to press her advantage. Her sword came down wrapped in flickering purple light. An orange Round Shield smashed up and through it, snuffing the flames out like a light, and forcing the blow to one side. In the instant before she leapt away, Fate thought she saw shock on the construct's face.
They were on a factory floor now. Not a sleek Myedoan production line, though. No, this was primitive and brutish. Vast machines of grease-smeared metal loomed around her, engraved with carved markings in overlapping pentagons. Presses, shears, lathes and moulds all stood silent in the shadowy light of the huge hall, lit only by the dim light filtering through the window and the hole in the roof. Peeking through a gap in one of the larger belt drives at the Blade, Fate began to panic. Out in the open she had been free to manoeuvre, but here she was trapped in a room full of metal with her enemy.
... on the other hand... she was trapped in a room full of metal with her enemy.
"Plasma Net!" she yelled, and brought Bardiche forward in a hasty thrust to meet the wheel she was hiding behind. Golden lightning haloed in red exploded out from the point of contact, crawling across the surface and arcing out to the machines beside it. And the machines beside them. And the machines beside them.
Within moments, the room was lit up by blinding bolts of lightning pulsing back and forth between the machines; discharging in random showers of sparks and arcs of current. Caught in the centre of it all, Signum knelt with her chainsword coiled around her. The bolts were hitting it, crackling along the metal in actinic zigzagging lines, but none were getting through to touch her.
'If you've really been in my position,' she called, unable to see Fate as she floated unharmed through the chaos; bolts skittering around her harmlessly thanks to a conversion spell. 'Then you should know that you won't stop me by talking. The only outcome that I'll accept...'
'Is her safety!' she finished in a roar, and the room exploded. Fate boosted through a window and across the yard outside, fast-cast shields flaring orange and yellow around her. She got no further before the shockwave caught up to her and tossed her into another building.
This one was hot. Very, very hot. Huge metal vats twice her height practically glowed under furnace lids, and the hellish light that escaped them was orange-red and sulphurous. Fate sniffed the air and winced, her eyes watering. Of course. A whole factory floor full of metal-working equipment. This was a steel foundry.
And she'd just found the steel ladles. There were at least a dozen huge crucibles in the room, each mounted on massive swings that hung from the ceiling and hinged so their contents could be poured. Gears controlled the tipping hinges, with hand cranks to lock them in position and tilt them slowly.
Fate took in the scene in seconds, fully aware of her precious seconds of lead time ticking away. 'Bardiche, reduce to 5%. Arf, barrier on the floor for the steel.'
Arf didn't question. She just cast. The floor under the nearest vat's lip turned orange just as Fate shot the control gear off. Instead of a slow and controlled tilt, the entire crucible tipped wildly sideways, sending what had to be a dozen tonnes of metal out in a torrent. The barrier curved up at the edges to keep it from splashing, and the churning mass of liquid steel washed up the side and turned back towards the wall that Fate had come in through.
'Take this!' yelled Arf, and the barrier jerked forwards like a whipped sheet. A wave of molten steel went airborne just as the Blade's mana signature approached, crashing into the windows and wall like a scalding tsunami.
Silence fell, and Fate reflexively readied a Plasma Barret. The yellow blades hung in their firing rings around her, turning to follow her gaze as she scanned the far wall.
'Did we get her?' Arf panted.
'No.' Signum's signature had been close, but not close enough to be caught by the steel that had spilled through the windows. Now she was hovering just outside. Waiting to see what Fate would do next. 'Get another one ready, though,' Fate added. 'Under the next vat.' She licked her lips nervously. The next move was hers. If she just stayed in here, Signum could simply leave to drain more victims, forcing her to abandon her position here.
Arf sounded worried. 'The Breaker's busy with the big spear guy, right? And I saw a draining sigil that must've been the Healer. I've been scanning the area, and I can pick up both of them. And the Blade's just outside.'
Eleven ladles left, but only four were full. Signum would be expecting her to go through the roof or the back wall; what about the adjacent ones? It would take her five seconds or so to charge up a bombardment spell with the Jewel Seed's help; could Arf manage another steel wave if the Blade charged her halfway through? Fate's mind raced through possibilities. 'Is there a point to this?' she snapped.
'Yeah. Those are the only mages I can sense, bar us. The spear guy from the TSAB and three Cloud Knights.'
Fate was busy juggling the mental load of half a dozen potential plans, tracking the Blade's mana emissions, maintaining a shooting spell on a hair trigger and keeping a wary eye on the draw cycle of her Device. So perhaps she could be forgiven for the wordless sound of confusion she made before Arf spelled it out for her.
'So where's the fourth one?'
"Mama. I'm not sure when you'll get this, but I'm okay as of sending it. We've been looking for the Wolkenritter who attacked you and Arisa and Suzuka. I can't say too much in case this message is intercepted, but I need you to do me a favour..."
Click. Momoko paused the message with a sigh and looked up at the hospital. The weather outside was grey, and although it wasn't snowing right now the slush of the morning's fall was still on the ground. "You're sure you know who she's talking about?" she asked, glancing over at the schoolgirls accompanying her.
Arisa shrugged. "Brown-haired girl in a wheelchair, pink-haired friend. I never actually talked to the wheelchair one, but I spoke to..." She paused, frowning. "Yoshida... Ch-something. Chihiro? No... uh... Chiko? Something like that. I spoke to her once or twice. She's been there for ages, so it totally fits with Nanoha meeting her there last time."
"She deserves a warning," Suzuka put in. "If she's magical, she's at risk. Right?"
Momoko nodded absently, her mind more on her daughter than the girl she'd come to visit. She'd found the message on her Device after the TSAB had returned her home. From the timestamp, it had arrived not long before the battle, so it was no surprise that it offered no clue on where Nanoha had gone or what she was doing.
It still wasn't comfortable; not knowing for sure.
The doctor at the front desk recognised Arisa, and seemed receptive enough to her claims of wanting to visit a friend she'd made during her stay. It was only when the name of that friend came up that a problem arose.
"Relapsed?" Momoko repeated as a cold pricking feeling ran down her spine. "When? How?"
The doctor looked uncomfortable at discussing details of a patient with strangers, but Arisa's sincere surprise and worry won him over. "Yesterday," he said reluctantly. "It may be nothing to worry about; you get ups and downs in treatment. This is probably just a temporary turn for the worse."
"Can I see her, though?" Arisa asked, turning to look at Momoko in worry. The same thought was on both of their minds. A sudden, unexpected downturn in her condition, just as they were coming to warn her about the Wolkenritter? Had they been too late?
"I..." The doctor hesitated for a moment, but gave in to their obvious concern. "I suppose so, if she's awake. Let me just find the room number for you."
A few minutes later, they were on their way up. Chikaze – Arisa had grumbled that she'd been close – had been moved to the emergency ward after her sudden relapse, and visiting hours were nearly over. It wasn't hard to find the right door, and they stepped inside quietly.
And then it all went wrong.
There was a man in the room. Not there for Chikaze, though he was talking to her in a friendly sort of way. The bed he was sitting next to held a brown-haired girl whose sickly pallor promised nothing good in her immediate future – far worse than Chikaze, who seemed weak and trembly but mostly functional. The protective way he hovered over his charge, all but holding her in his arms, was touching.
His identity was not. Because Momoko recognised this man. And so did the girls. Arisa gasped, Suzuka screamed, and his gaze snapped over to them. Recognition struck instantly and he vaulted the bed, putting himself between them and the girl. Momoko responded instinctively, sending out a desperate telepathic shout as she drew on her own power and sank into a more stable-
She was airborne for a second before colliding with the door. Ingrained muscle memory helped her tuck and roll with the impact as she fell to the floor, but her vision was full of stars and she could barely breathe. A high-pitched ringing filled her ears as her head swam muzzily. He must have... hit her. Gently. If the swordswoman was anything to go by; a serious attack would have sent her clean through the door. And probably put her back in a hospital bed to boot, if not a morgue.
Of course, 'gentle' was a relative term. By the time she finished gasping for breath and two pairs of hands helped pull her upright, the man was gone. So was the girl he'd been guarding. Yoshida, though, was still present, and looking terrified.
Why had he fled? He could easily have knocked her out... ah. But it wasn't from her, was it? It was from her cry for help. From the chance that backup was coming. Which meant that her next step should be to make sure it was; as fast as possible. She pulled her Device out and set it to broadcast on the communication frequency Lindy had given her before sending her back to Earth. And, after a brief hesitation, on an open local channel.
If Nanoha was still in the area, she'd hear it.
'This is Momoko Takamachi,' she sent, fast and urgent. She put everything she had into it. She might not be good for much with those things around to – repeatedly – beat her up, but she could at least be good for this! 'I've sighted one of the Wolkenritter in Uminari City, along with...'
A little girl.
'... what might be their master,' she finished. 'Come quickly!'
Dropping the connection, she turned to the pink-haired girl sitting wide-eyed in bed, confused and afraid at the sudden outburst of violence.
"Yoshida-san?" she asked with a slight wheeze, and got a tentative nod. "My name is Momoko. I'm Nanoha's mother – the girl in white who you met six months ago."
Blank confusion. And then, as Chikaze's eyes roamed over her face; a gradual wave of recognition. Momoko sighed in relief and winced, cradling her ribs. Shallow breaths, she reminded herself. Don't try for deep ones while you're still winded.
"There are some things you need to know, and others that I'd like to," she said frankly. "Let's trade."
Silence hung like a guillotine in the comfortable office. Three pairs of eyes bored into one as Chrono stood in thought. Sat placidly behind the desk, Gil Graham showed no signs of concern. He might be the least dangerous person in the room, but Aria and Lotte were AAA-rank individually in their respective long and short range combat styles. The modifications to their war forms made them even more formidable, but with Lotte a bare metre from Chrono's side and no cover between them, the fight would never reach that point. It would be over in seconds.
"The master," Chrono said quietly. "It's a 97er, isn't it? Like Takamachi. That's why the Wolkenritter haven't been killing; they're under orders not to." He cocked his head. "A native-born mage who orders their knights to avoid killing when it gains them nothing... is that the sort of criminal who deserves to be eternally frozen?"
"It's not about who is deserving," Gil replied sadly. Chrono seemed calmer now. The anger he'd walked into the room with was gone, and the horror he'd shown at the truth of Aria and Lotte was absent. He'd come to a decision, more or less. Either he was looking for the last few reassurances that this was the best path, or he was waiting to strike at the best possible moment.
"They don't deserve it," Lotte said. Her voice was low, and utterly neutral. "But the people who will die the next time the Book rampages don't deserve it either. It's not the master's fault. It's the Book's fault. They're just another one of its victims. Better one than one thousand. Or one million. Or one billion."
"If I could take the Book myself," he said, raising his hand to quieten her, "and drain only those who volunteered, and willingly be sealed, I would. But the Bureau would never agree to force a civilian into such a plan. I've done all I can for the master. I've... I've tried to make their life as happy as possible. But in the end... the Book chose them. This was always going to happen, eventually. It was just a matter of how."
Chrono's eyes narrowed, but only for a moment. He dipped his chin in acknowledgement of the point and rubbed S2U's cartridge mechanism thoughtfully with a thumb.
"Your plan is illegal," he said. "And immoral, and unethical." Lotte hissed and Aria bristled, but Gil raised a hand to let Chrono speak his piece. "If those were the only things wrong with it, it would still be wrong," he continued. "But there's another problem with it besides the sacrifice of an innocent. You're talking about a prison impossible to escape from the inside. A perfect trap from which there is no escape."
He took two paces to the edge of Gil's desk and leaned forward, planting his hands and his Device on the aged wood to look the admiral in the eye. "But a spell like that still can't ignore basic rules of magic. Even if it's inescapable from within, releasing the Book from the outside would be possible, if not trivial. You could hide it, but no matter how deeply you bury it and no matter how well you guard it, there will always be people who will want to use it for their own selfish ends. It might lie for a decade or two – perhaps even a century. But it will escape again, and your work will have been in vain."
"You're too pessimistic," Aria countered. "The Book of Dragon's Fall. The Ad Astra. There are multiple high grade Lost Logia that the Saint Church have contained longer than the TSAB has existed."
"And there are plenty that haven't!" Chrono blazed. "There's always some idiot who thinks that they'll be different!"
"Containment works," she insisted.
Chrono let out a bitter sigh. "No! Because let's ignore the fact that you're betraying everything the TSAB stands for…"
"The TSAB exists to keep people safe! I… I thought we taught you that!" Lotte shouted. Gil waved her down, and she sullenly stepped back, eyes glaring at Chrono's throat with hurt betrayal.
"You are betraying everything the TSAB stands for and everything you taught me about that," Chrono repeated. "And you're wrong. Because the Mariage are here now. Your plan didn't account for them, and they will follow the Book to the ends of the universe to get their hands on its power. They are not stupid! They are not mindless. They're smart and not human. They don't think things like 'Oh, maybe we shouldn't release this ancient superweapon'. They think they can use it as a battery. If we seal the Book away, they'll scatter and search for it. We'll never be able to be sure we've killed them all. And they'll never stop looking."
"You're wrong!" Lotte made an angry grab for him that Chrono ducked away from, barely avoiding her hand. She didn't follow him; placing herself protectively in front of the desk and practically spitting at him, hackles raised. "We can keep it secure enough that it will be safe for decades! And every decade means uncountable lives saved that it would have destroyed!"
Chrono didn't flinch. "And you'd keep it where?" he asked rhetorically. "Somewhere secure enough and defended enough to fend off any assault. Nowhere else would be safe." He paused. "The Bureau doesn't have many places like that, and it can't afford to build a new isolated facility. Are you comfortable with keeping the Book of Darkness, in its fully rampant state, trapped at a Lost Logia holding site?"
Gil's eyes narrowed. That didn't sound like the boy who had almost been like a son to him. Chrono had made his point – more than made it. Letting himself be drawn into debate like this, after he'd made his decision, wasn't like him. Not when anyone could see that neither side was willing to be convinced. And he severely doubted Chrono truly believed that the Bureau wouldn't build a facility to contain the Book. In fact, it was nonsense. Of course it would. It had done it for lesser threats than this. Yet he was still talking, dragging out the argument. Letting them speak.
Like Gil had let him speak, safe in the knowledge that his familiars were on their way.
"You're stalling," he accused, and Aria's ears twitched. Her hands came up in a casting position, ready to meet whatever Chrono had planned. "What are you waiting for, Enforcer?"
Chrono held his gaze for a long moment, and Gil could see in his eyes the point at which he reached the end of whatever mental countdown he'd been tracking. With a sudden burst of speed, he swung S2U round and cast a barrier, just as Lotte jumped for him. Her hand came in; piercing claws of light aimed to break through his defence and snap his Device in half.
A flash, a deafening crack, and she was sent tumbling over the desk, barely missing her master.
Gil and Aria stared, stunned.
"Struggle Bind," Chrono said, lowering the barrier and levelling S2U. Not at Lotte as she pulled herself to her feet, or at Aria, whose had a shooting spell ready. At Gil. "A powerful form of restraint magic that dispels any strong magic on the victim. I knew from the teleport logs that Aria and Lotte must be the Masked Men, so I had time to think. How to win against them?"
Aria snarled and fired, but the shot was weak; shattering against Chrono's shield. A wave of his staff, and glowing ropes sprang from the walls and floor to wrap around them, forcing them to their knees. Gil gasped as something in his chest lurched painfully.
"The two of you taught me, after all," Chrono continued. "I knew there was no way I could beat you directly. So as soon as I came in, I cast a set of privacy wards. And in them, I hid a variant of Struggle Bind. A mana-leech binding that would act as a subtle parasite, taking more and more from the victim's Linker Core – but slowly enough that it wouldn't be noticed. My Jacket was warded against it."
He nodded at Gil. "But yours wasn't. And you said it yourself. Aria and Lotte are power-hungry. All I had to do was wait until enough of your power was sapped that you couldn't support them in combat. And keep them distracted and angry so they wouldn't notice."
Gil gritted his teeth. Now that he knew what to look for, he could feel the drain; a river of magic diverted from what normally went to his familiars. Not nearly enough to endanger their lives. But enough to weaken them extensively.
"And..." he grunted, "I suppose... the ward net also hid... a dormant binding?" He gestured at the glowing blue-white ropes holding them down. "Ready to trigger... when they attacked? Or when they were weak enough?"
Chrono dipped his head in acknowledgement. "Admiral Gil Graham, Aria Lieze, Lotte Lieze," he said formally. "I hereby place you all under arrest. Your list of crimes includes, but is not limited to; misappropriation of TSAB funds, noncompliance with procedural rules, withholding critical information from superior officers, unlawful experimentation on familiars, conspiracy to commit murder, aiding an enemy in combat against TSAB officers under your command, deliberate activation of a restricted Lost Logia..."
He appeared to realise he was shouting and broke off, breathing heavily. "And others to be determined at the time of your court martial," he finished.
"I understand, and agree," said Gil. "I would ask only two things."
"I don't negotiate with people like you," Chrono snapped.
Gil laid Durandal down on the desk and pushed it towards Chrono, ignoring the boy's words. He could see the hurt in his familiar's eyes, but the pain in Chrono's was just as strong. "Take this. Use it for whatever purposes you see fit. It's better than your current Device, and... I suspect it might be needed. The Book will go rampant within the next thirty six hours. Nothing can stop it now. The master's name is Hayate Yagami. A..." he closed his eyes and hung his head. "A nine-year old girl located in Uminari City. I know," he added quickly when Chrono's eyes widened. "I know. If I could have spared her this..." He paused. "Lotte and Aria can give you the details – and help you fight when it goes rampant, if you let them. You'll need every mage you can get."
Chrono stared at him for a long moment, his hand curling into a fist again without his notice. Eventually, he stepped forward and picked up Durandal in a quick, clinical motion.
"Contact Admiral Harlaown," he said flatly. "Make a full confession; admit to all your crimes. Ask her if she's comfortable letting your familiars fight beside us."
He turned and walked to the door. "If she thinks they can work with the Bureau and against the Book, we'll see," he tossed over his shoulder, and stepped out.
Aria's ears dropped as she looked at her master. "What do we do now?" she asked, doubt colouring her tone for the first time. Gil sighed.
"Now," he said, "I suppose it's time to come clean."
Sweat dripped down Fate's forehead from the oppressive heat of the smelting room. A faint wobble in the air marked the edge of her Barrier Jacket where it filtered the toxic smoke coming off the spilled steel into breathable air. She couldn't stay here, even if she wanted to. She wasn't foolish enough to think she was safe, despite the Blade's apparent reluctance to enter. And if she did stay, nothing stopped the Cloud Knight from continuing the ravaging of the natives.
'The person you were fighting for,' Signum said from outside. There was a newly thoughtful tone to her mental voice. 'The summoner, yes? From the fight on UA-97. Your sister, at a guess.'
Fate went cold with dread. But Signum continued. 'She's not here. Nor are any of the others you fought with on that day. You have no stake in this battle, beyond principle. Leave now and I won't pursue you.'
'... you don't want to hurt me,' guessed Fate. 'If you can help it.'
Admittedly, there had been some very near misses from that sword. But then, Fate had been fighting all out from the beginning.
'I will if I must,' Signum said, and the flat control to it rung truer than Fate liked to admit. She knew that sentiment. Oh, did she know that sentiment.
But Nanoha had fought her. Not for a precious person. For a belief. Because she'd thought it was the right thing to do.
'I can't just let you hurt these people,' she replied sadly. 'Even if I'm only fighting for principle... it's not a principle I can give up on.' She took a breath. It might not be a principle she could hold as tightly as Nanoha did, but Nanoha believed in it. So Fate believed in it too.
A brief pause. Fate lined up her waiting Plasma Barret and raised Bardiche's draw cycle back to 20%.
'I see,' said Signum eventually, and there was a trace of sorrow in her voice. And perhaps a hint of respect. 'Then as one knight to another-'
Fate knew better than to wait for her to finish, and Arf knew her mistress well enough not to need a command. A wave of molten steel rushed forwards. A barrage of explosive shots went right.
Fate tucked her limbs in tight and sped left. Bringing Bardiche around to lead her way, she let Arf boost the field strength of her Barrier Jacket and expand it into a narrow cone around her. She punched through the wall with a soft 'thunk' and immediately doubled her speed, heading into a railyard adjacent to the steel foundry. The rails crisscrossed and fused together from dozens of berths to two lines leading out towards the edge of the city. Carts stood still and silent at their loading platforms; stacked high with crates.
'Incoming!' warned Arf, and Fate darted to the side to avoid an arrow. She spun and brought Bardiche up to meet the swordblade that followed it, and traded half a dozen ringing blows, wincing with each one. The last deflection gave her some space and she threw herself back into flight, lying parallel to the ground to minimise her profile from behind and sending another stream of Plasma Lancers backward. Glancing down and backward, she caught a quick glimpse of Signum casting something that formed purple falcon-wings of light from her singed and scarred shoulderblades.
Then she was moving. Very, very quickly. Fate squeaked with fright and poured everything she had into speed. A resounding boom echoed out around her as she broke the sound barrier, and the rush of air around her became a roar. She stuck close to the line of the railway. That, at least, she could depend on to be clear of obstacles like buildings or barricades or tunnels...
... wait. Tunnels?
Her eyes widened as she realised what she was coming up on. In the close confines of a tunnel, her mobility would be crippled – Signum could simply fill the entire space with fire. And, she realised, there was someone waiting there for her. The Hound?
No. One of the Masked Men! It held up its hand in a salute as she frantically braked and strove for altitude. She was moving too fast to change her vector with a Blitz Action, but if she could just boost herself upwards enough, she could... well, she might smash into the wall that the tunnel went through. But at least she wouldn't be trapped in a thousand-degree killzone.
'Fate! Behind you!'
But braking had been its own mistake. Fate twisted, swung and cast. An orange shield went up behind the Arc Saber, but Signum cut through it and crashed into her shoulder-first. If not for Arf's shield, she might well have knocked Fate out completely. As it was, every breath of air was forced out of Fate's lungs as she went flying backwards into the tunnel, bouncing along the ground like a stone skipping over water and trailing sparks. She skidded to a halt and lay there for a moment, stunned.
Luckily, Arf wasn't. Wriggling free from the backpack, she took her war form with a roar, standing protectively over her mistress's body and conjuring a barrier around them. Her bent legs and bared fangs dared the Blade to approach.
Around her, the shadows whispered. Dark shapes peeled out of the black to surround them, but their attention wasn't on Fate or Arf. It was on the hellish light approaching them from the end of the tunnel. A wave of fire preceded Signum as she approached; purple wings drawn in to fit within the narrow confines of the tunnel. Steel rails glowed red hot and stonework cracked and charred. Arf braced herself. All she had to do was hold out until Fate recovered.
Like a howling dragon, the Blade bore down on them.
And a volley of grey lances struck her in the back.
She stumbled, but reacted with uncanny speed to the sudden attack, spinning through ninety degrees to bring her assailant into view without exposing herself to an attack from the figures lurking in the gloom. The blank mask of the man who'd followed her in gave her pause only for a second, and she snapped out a bolt of fire towards him.
But there were dozens of them. The figures streamed past Fate and Arf, ignoring her in pursuit of a larger prize. Grey lances flashed out again and again and again, in a constant volley. The Blade's sword spun and blurred to bat them aside, but the strike to the wound Fate had left on her was beginning to tell. As she twisted to blow a charging figure back towards the tunnel entrance, Arf could see through the cracked shell of her construct-body to the brilliant purple within. Her arms were moving slower as the mob moved in, and the same confined space she'd hoped to use against Fate was now working against her.
Three figures pounced. Three figures died; split head to crown in a blurred motion. They burst into chemical flame, and Arf heard her mistress gasp beneath her as she realised what they were. Not the Masked Men after all. Or at least not those masked men, for all that they looked the same now.
"Clever..." Fate breathed as she floated back, keeping her polearm between her and her foes. "Were they helping her all along, waiting for this? Or did they just... see the ones helping her, and disguise themselves the same way?"
Another two Mariage fell. But one of them was close enough to splash the Blade's legs as it fell apart, and she cried out. Whatever it was they turned into in death; it burnt hot enough to be dangerous even through armour. The Blade began to bring her sword around for a burst of fire that would fill the tunnel, but one of her attackers tackled her sword arm to stop the motion. In the time it took for her to kick it off and behead it, another dozen grey lances had struck her, the Mariage firing clean through their comrade as it fell back.
"They're after the Book," Fate whispered. The glowing tome on the Blade's hip; flush with power. "If they get it..."
'She can't win, though,' Arf argued. 'And... Fate. Neither can we. There are too many. And you're hurt.'
Fate closed her eyes. The shadowy figures were still coming past her. More were coming in through the tunnel mouth.
'I'm sorry,' she called to the Blade, squeezing her eyes shut against the sight of them surrounding her. Like a swarm of army ants bringing down a tiger. 'I really am. But I have to be there for my sister.'
There was no response. Not verbally, at least. But as Fate gathered a shrinking Arf into her arms and turned to flee, she thought she felt a breath of understanding.
Tears fell as she left the roar of flame and battle behind.
The world was blurry. It was hard to breathe, and her eyes wouldn't seem to open. Where was she? She'd been... she'd been having breakfast with her family. And then... something, and now she was here.
Where was here?
Soft. Soft was here. Soft sheets and... a familiar smell. Ah. Bed. This was her bedroom, and she was in bed.
Okay then. Unable to summon the energy to nod for real, Hayate gave a mental nod instead. She was at home, in bed, and she could feel a warm thing next to her that was probably one of her knights. Zafira, from the sound of it. Things were good.
Things were good?
No. Things were not good. She'd collapsed. Her family must be worried. Zafira was talking, and sounded scared. What was he saying? She tried to force her ears to listen, aware of a drifty numbness to her lower body that felt concerning. It wasn't like the numbness of her legs just not responding. It felt... it felt more like the numbness of her body shutting down in self defence against how much it hurt.
'-out of there!'
Oh, right. Talking. It was... Vita, talking. Well. Shouting. It was very hard to hear at first – not faint, but garbled, like it was behind a wall that messed the sound up. But something shifted lazily in the back of her head when Hayate strained to hear better; like blocks in her brain lifting up and slotting back into place. And then Vita's voice was as clear as day. It sounded like she'd been crying. No, like she was crying right now.
'The Mariage have one of the simulacra! They've raised reinforcements and they're tracking it back to you; move! Signum's dead and I'm wounded; we're coming as fast as we can, but get Hayate out of there!'
Signum... what? No. That couldn't... what was a 'Mariage', anyway? Why would Signum be dead?
What was happening?
"'fi?" she managed in a whisper. Strong hands stroked her hair as Zafira gathered her into his arms, and she managed to crack an eye open. He was wild-eyed, but his face was completely blank. Like the first time she'd seen him; a machine in the shape of a person.
"Come on, Hayate," he murmured. His voice was still soft, at least. "We need to go."
"B-" But Signum. Signum... who was dead. How? Why?
Movement. And then stillness. Hayate forced her neck to turn and see. They were in the kitchen, and the fuzzy blobs of red and green nearby sounded like Vita and Shamal. Vita was talking heatedly, her voice fading in and out.
"They came out of nowhere, Zaf... mobbed Signum while she was fighting that... barely made it back ahead of them. Didn't see Signum as she went down... after the Book, where is it?"
Something heavy and oblong was gently placed against her chest. Her arms went round it automatically, with strength she hadn't known she possessed. And, from their lack of response as she tried to move them again, probably hadn't. A hand stroked her hair gently. Shamal?
"... be safe..." she was saying, but Hayate couldn't make out much more. "... away from... promise."
Vita again. Hayate levered an eye open. She was looking outside the house...
... where there were shapes. Dark figures clustered in the back yard, heedless of the heavy rain. Surrounding the house. Rustling as they moved in. The door banged open, and the world went white with the painful light of spellfire. She felt Zafira move again, much faster, and several dull impacts travelled up his arms and into her. She bit her lip so as not to cry out as a cold hand closed painfully around her arm and pulled.
And then there was heat and sound and fury.
Squinting against the light, Hayate cracked her eyes open. The entire back wall of the house was gone. The yard burned fiercely, lighting up the night like day, but nowhere did it burn more fiercely than the figure at its centre. She wore the armour of a samurai; lamellar steel and banded mail covering every inch of her. A fearsome war mask hid her face, and the flames burnt so hot around her that the rain hissed into steam a foot above her head. Her sword was incandescent; as bright as a sliver of the sun that spun and struck in blinding blurs to turn back the dark tide.
Signum, Hayate's lips moved soundlessly.
Vita was there as well, an iron knight in plate armour and heavy boots dispensing brutal swings of her hammer. Shamal's heavy robes and thick gloves were in front of them, behind a wall of sea-green light. She was safe in Zafira's arms.
... so why was Zafira turning? Why was he running away?
And then Hayate saw what she'd missed at first glance. The glorious knight of fire and sunlight was wounded. Cracks rent the surface of her armour in a dozen places – deep wounds that bled purple motes of light. A hole went clean through her chest where her heart should be, and her armour was scorched and charred. Vita was wielding her hammer with her one hand, her left arm cradled by her side and ending at the wrist. Shamal was limping, backing away from the wall she'd cast and turning to look at Zafira.
Their features. They were like china dolls. Cracking and peeling, revealing only magic underneath. Magic which was flowing back to Hayate. Back to the book in her arms.
And still there were more dark creatures. They felt no pain. They felt no fear. Where one fell, another used the opening. They threw themselves at her knights, bursting into sour-burning liquid as they died that burnt their killers further.
"Take her! Go!" Shamal shouted. "Get her away from here!"
They fled. Over her shoulder, Hayate saw a figure slash a bladed arm across Vita's throat, heedless of the hammer that had taken two of its other limbs. Signum's sword whirled, felling a dozen of the things in a heartbeat before lashing out with a circle of fire. But they scattered away from her wide-area spells and drew back in like a swarm to take advantage of the gaps it made in her defence. One of the creatures raised an arm like a cannon, and fired at her with an echoing crack. Somehow, impossibly, she turned the projectile back at it.
A dozen grey lances impaled her in the same instant.
Signum toppled backwards. Her arms spasmed, still trying to stab at her countless foes.
Shamal's wall bulged and grew into a green bubble that enveloped the house and hardened opaque. 'Go!' she called again. 'I'll hold them back as long as I can!'
Wide-eyed, sick with horror, Hayate tried to convince herself she was dreaming. But she could feel the cold rain soaking her to the bone. She could hear the wind whistling past as Zafira carried her away.
She could see over Zafira's shoulder as the bubble flickered, cracks spreading through it from top to bottom, and then shattered into nothing. Signum... Vita... Shamal. They were... they couldn't be... this had to be a nightmare, it had to be...
"Do not fear, mistress."
The voice echoed inside her head, and there was power behind it unlike anything Hayate had ever felt. It was warm, and gentle, and achingly sad. It was strong, and reassuring, and fiercely protective. It knew about her pain, and it knew about her fear.
"I will protect you. Against all things that threaten you."
And it was her. Her own voice. Speaking words she hadn't said.
"Rest now, mistress. Your enemies are near. I will destroy them for you."
The last thing Hayate felt was the sensation of falling, and the sight of Zafira dissolving into a cloud of white motes with a look of horror as the dark figures caught up. But she never hit the ground. The girl's body pulsed from within, and the tome she cradled pulsed with it, like a heartbeat. A black dome expanded out from her, pushing back the Mariage inexorably as she floated upright in the air.
The world around her froze, ice flashing out over the surfaces and creeping over the mute blandness of the Mariage. Like animals faced with a glass door, they clawed at the dome.
Hayate's hair lengthened as the colour faded from it, turning as white as the falling snow. Her clothes rippled and changed into a black coat lined with gold over an ancient dress bedecked with embroidered Belkan sigils – both casting glyphs and the cross emblem of the Book itself. Red lines bloomed on her skin, tracing diagonally across her cheeks and down her arms. On her back, a black mass swelled and then burst out into four great wings, whose inky feathers were drawn into the barrier around her.
But her face... ah, her face didn't change. It aged, yes, as she gained in height and stature. But the figure that stood tall on the snow-covered ground, lit by the light of a burning building, was a twin of the woman Hayate would have one day become. Tears trickled down the newly birthed construct's cheeks as she rose, surrounded on all sides by the Mariage as they slashed and shot in vain at her barrier.
Her eyes opened; hurt and hostile and bloody crimson.
And the Book of Darkness began her terrible work