'This is Momoko Takamachi! I've sighted one of the Wolkenritter in Uminari City, along with... what might be their master. Come quickly!'
Hovering over Unimari City's grey skyline, Nanoha gasped. On arriving it hadn't taken her long to realise that the Wolkenritter were not attacking her home city. That had left the question of what to do next. Should she move onto another planet, or wait here in case they were just delaying their strike?
Now she didn't have to worry about that anymore. Her mother was calling for help! And she'd found the Book's master? Oh, this was bad; very bad.
'Mama!' she called. Her stomach felt like it was sinking faster than the slushy rain falling all around her. 'Where are you? Are you alright?'
'Nanoha? I'm... I'm fine, dear.'
That was a lie. Nanoha knew that tone inside out – literally; she'd heard it before in her own voice more than enough times to recognise it. Her mother sounded strained. Hurt.
'I'm at the hospital – come quickly! I think... there's someone here you need to talk to. You and the Bureau.'
Nanoha scowled as she dived. Whatever had hurt her mother was going to regret it. "Vesta," she ordered, and felt herself ripple into invisibility as she came down on the hospital and homed in on the source of her mother's messages, Raising Heart levelled through the window at the...
... small, pink-haired girl in bed, who was looking wide-eyed and decidedly tousled. Her bedgown was crumpled and creased and her short hair stuck up in fuzzy clumps. Arisa and Suzuka were supporting Momoko, who was sitting on a second bed that had an empty wheelchair parked next to it. Her mother's face was smudged and her hair hung down in front of her eyes. One hand was hovering around her chest in a way that spelt "winded" and possibly "bruised ribs". Nanoha knew that feeling, too. Intimately.
She sheepishly lowered Raising Heart and knocked on the window. Vesta dropped the illusion down to a half-sheath, keeping them cloaked from outside observers but visible to the room's occupants. Four heads turned to her; two of them startled. The pink-haired girl didn't seem too surprised, for some reason.
... wait. Nanoha recognised that hair. And that face.
Arisa recovered first, and hurried over to open the window, which took quite a bit of tugging and eventually a covert underlayer-boosted yank from Nanoha, since the hospital windows weren't designed to open wide enough to fit a person through.
Oh well. They'd probably be able to fix it.
Once inside, Vesta leapt out and things became a cacophony of voices for a moment.
"Mama! Are you okay, did the master..."
"... have you been, Nanoha? What are you doing here; what are you-"
"... and is that Vesta? I thought you said..."
'... because if he was here we can track him down and Mistress can...'
"Enough!" shouted Momoko, and wheezed for a moment in the sudden quiet. The cold air blew in through the damaged window, carrying sleet. "En... thank you. No, dear, I'm alright, really." She coughed a couple of times, wincing. "I think... for now... our questions to you should probably wait." She threw a severe look at Arisa and Suzuka, who were brimming with mutinous tension and clearly set on an interrogation. "We need to... to... I'm sorry about this... to tell you. What we've found."
She motioned towards the pink-haired girl, who was looking at Nanoha fiercely.
"... I know you," the girl said slowly. "You were... you were one of the girls fighting. You healed me." She paused, considering this. "You weren't very good at it," she added. "Shamal is better. Also, you broke the hospital."
Nanoha had the good grace to look sheepish. "I'm sorry. Uh. So... wait. Did the master attack you? I told Mama about you and that you were at risk..." She glanced at Momoko, worried. "Was I too late?"
Awkward silence fell. The pink-haired girl looked confused. "What's going on?" she demanded. "You showed up, and Zafira ran off with Hayate, and you know about the knights somehow, and then she showed up again... who are you all?" She paused again. "Except you," she nodded at Arisa. "I know you. Vaguely."
Momoko nodded. "I think... I think at the moment I know more than anyone else. So." She turned to the bedridden girl. "Your friend. Hayate? Is she the master of the Wolkenritter? And you are?"
Nanoha drew a sharp breath, and paled. On her shoulder, Vesta's ears flattened against her skull. A girl? Not some... some terrible person who had set monsters on her friends and family, but someone her own age? And... wait, she realised, glancing at the wheelchair beside the empty bed. Did she mean the wheelchair girl? But... why would she... how would she...?
"... I'm Chikaze Yoshida. And yes..." Chikaze said cautiously, drawing the word out. "I mean, she doesn't like them calling her that, but... why? How do you know that, anyway?"
Nanoha winced. Oh, this was not going to be easy. "They've..." she began.
"They've been attacking people," Arisa said bluntly. "Me. And Suzuka. And Momoko-san." She nodded at the older woman. "They want a lot of magic for something. Nanoha's been fighting them."
Nanoha stared at her, and she bristled. "What?" she snapped. "I'm not stupid, it's obvious!"
Chikaze ignored the bickering. "I don't believe you!" she said heatedly, her voice rising. "You're lying, you..."
"Raising Heart; play Wolkenritter logs."
[Alright, my master. Selecting files.]
A window formed above Raising Heart and began to play, cutting off the rest of Chikaze's objections.
[Tödlicher Schlag!] barked Vita's Device as she shot forward, pulsing an angry red.
"If you find yourself in facing a woman with pink hair who uses a sword..." said Momoko, her face drawn and pale, faint burn marks on her arms, "don't try to fight her. Just run. Please." A brief flicker. "... she came out of nowhere, while I was closing up the bakery... her sword caught fire and she cut my broom in half."
enough!" shouted Vita, bringing her hammer round to strike a ball of red-white light and engulf the screen in a blinding roar of sound and fury.
In the distance, the tiny figure of Momoko sent half dozen shooting spells at Signum, only for the swordswoman to blur past them and bring her down with a single, brutal punch.
On a street far below the camera, Zafira advanced on Fate as she hung immobile in a trap of white magic...
"Stop it!" shouted Chikaze. "Stop it stop it stop it! Hayate would never! Never ever ever! She told them they didn't have to fight anymore, she told them they weren't going to hurt anyone, I was there!" There were tears in her eyes, and Nanoha quickly shut the screen down, feeling guilty.
"... well," said Suzuka, folding her hands in her lap to stop them from shaking. "It looks like they didn't listen. Why not?"
Momoko frowned. "That is a good question, yes. Why are they doing this? Arisa, you said they wanted magic – and I suppose that's what they've been taking from people – but what for?"
"Precia-" Nanoha started, and cut off abruptly. After a moment she swallowed and started again. "Precia said... they weren't people, just... like machines. They gather mana for the Book..."
She trailed off, looking at Chikaze uncertainly. "I... thought she was right," she added. "At first. She usually is, so... I didn't think she might be wrong. But you..."
"They're not machines, they're people," Chikaze insisted fiercely, dragging a sleeve across her eyes. "I've known them for months! Hayate lives with them, they were all weird at the start but now they're... they're my friends and they... they..."
Her eyes widened, her mouth fell open a little and Nanoha could almost see the chill go up her spine. "They said... she was getting worse," she said in a small voice. "They thought I couldn't hear but Shamal was worried and they said she's been..." She gulped. "Her legs are... paralysed, sort of, and she's ill and the doctors don't know why and it's... it's been getting worse."
'You think they decided to do it on their own,' Vesta said. 'To save her.'
Nanoha flinched. Visibly.
"... Nanoha?" Momoko asked softly. "Is something..."
"We need to help her!" Nanoha said loudly, talking over her mother. "If she's ill and it's not her fault and they're just trying to save her life – if they're not just evil robot things, then we can talk to them. We need to talk to them, before this ends in a horrible fight and people get hurt for no reason. Where are they, where will she be?"
'Mistress,' Vesta repeated, more urgently. 'Do you feel that?' The lights in the room flickered as she spoke.
"... feel what?"
'That magic output. From that way.'
All heads turned to the direction Vesta was looking; off at an angle that went narrowly past the window. Nanoha half-closed her eyes. Yes. There was magic being used in that direction. Quite... quite a lot of magic, actually. Enough to be a battle. Oh no, had the Wolkenritter started their attack here after all?
"They... there," Chikaze stuttered.
"Huh?" Nanoha looked at her, confused.
"Where... where Hayate lives. Where they'll be." Chikaze's face was pale. "It's there. It's that way. That's... what is that?!"
The power died – not just to the hospital, but to the entire street visible outside. Nanoha barely had time to turn and see what she was pointing at through the window.
Then the wall of solid darkness engulfed them all.
The humid heat of Jail's jungle base. The bitter cold of Akkamar. The rain-soaked streets of Uminari. Two severe climate transitions within an hour was a dizzying experience and the mana expenditure left her with a headache. Right now, though, Fate had more important things to worry about.
The teleport trace that the Wolkenritter had left wasn't up to their usual standards of stealth. Not surprising, given how damaged they'd been. The hordes of Mariage going the same way had only made it easier to follow. She emerged on a rooftop in Uminari City. Unfortunately, the ease of following the trace came at the price of precision. There were no obvious signs of a fight going on anywhere near her. She must have come out away from the exact destination the Wolkenritter had been aiming for.
"Bardiche," she began. The rain pattered down against her barrier jacket, running off it like glass. "Scan the area for-"
Arf's warning came only an instant before a looming presence filled the space at her side. She didn't even have to look up – and up, and up – to see who it was.
"Testarossa," rumbled the TSAB spearman. The gravel on the roof shifted under his weight. Fate tensed. He didn't look too worse for wear from his fight with the Breaker, and at this range she was doomed if he attacked.
"The Book and the Mariage are the biggest threats here," he said instead. "You should evacuate."
"No." The refusal was instinctive. She might have abandoned Signum rather than fight a hopeless battle, but this was Nanoha's home.
The spearman nodded as if he'd expected that. "Truce, then. For now."
Fate narrowed her eyes, but nodded cautiously. Attacking him wouldn't gain her anything, and he was right. They had bigger problems. "Truce," she agreed.
'Captain Grangeitz! Testarossa!'
... and then brought Bardiche up again, wheeling around to face the incoming signatures. Two figures her own size were approaching; one the Enforcer boy with what looked like a new Device, the other...
'No no no no no! Fate! We're outnumbered three to two, don't!'
Her Plasma Lancer slammed home into a barrier that appeared in front of her, separating Fate from the blonde-haired boy in the green-tan Barrier Jacket. The orange pane fractured at the force behind the shot; splinters spreading through for a moment, and she prepared another pair. The first would punch through, and the second...
Something in her Barrier Jacket shifted, and a pair of hands clamped over her eyes and wrist, pulling her backwards into a generously endowed chest and pinning her there.
"Nooooo trying to kill the ferret kid when big scary spearman is right here!" Arf sang. "None! Not at all! I forbid it! You're gonna get us killed if you try, Fate, you know that!"
"He hurt Alicia!"
Fate thrashed, struggled and managed to land a glancing backward kick on Arf's shin, but the wolf-familiar was wise to her moves and had a firm grip on her. 'If you keep trying to fight they'll arrest us!' she hissed in desperation. 'We can't beat all three of them, how will you help Alicia then?'
It was a dirty move. But an effective one. Fate froze for a moment before going begrudgingly limp. Arf held on a moment longer to be sure it wasn't a ploy, then released her. The three TSAB mages were watching intently, ready for any hint of movement. It galled her to let the attack on Alicia go, but she collapsed Bardiche regardless and settled for training a poisonous glare on Scrya.
"... right," said Chrono after meeting Grangeitz's eyes for a long moment. "Look, if you're not intending to help, just leave. Now. The Book will start rampaging soon – very soon – and we might, if we all work together, just barely manage to stop it. I know who the master is, and I think I have the outline of a plan. But it won't work if we're fighting on two fronts. You're angry, but I don't think you want to sacrifice a city for whatever grudge you have. Especially not this city."
Fate's glare didn't waver. Yuuno met it squarely, and spread his hands towards the city around them.
She broke first.
"... fine," she muttered, looking away. "Nanoha is here too. We should find her first. And then you need to explain this 'outline of a plan'."
Yuuno interrupted before Chrono could reply. "I think we have bigger problems than finding Nanoha," he said urgently, pointing past Fate and Grangeitz, over the rooftops at the end of the street. "We're too late."
Six or seven blocks away, an inky dome was rising over the city; expanding out with the speed and implacable force of a starship blast. There was no point trying to run. Even as they registered it, the leading edge engulfed half the distance between them.
"Barrier," managed Yuuno.
"Brace for field impact!" called Zest. A shimmering network of green formed in front of them, and Fate drew Bardiche again. Her knuckles whitened around its grip.
And for the second time in as many minutes, the world went black.
Within a normal barrier, the world was a muted reflection of realspace. Colour was dimmed. Weather was absent. Fine detail was blurred and distorted. The rain hung in the air, unmoving. The sky had a purplish tinge from the proximity to the Dimensional Sea, and an eerie silence dominated the area as the usual sounds of the environment ceased.
This was no normal barrier.
The sky was pitch black, and glistened like liquid ink. Some sourceless illumination cast the world in stark edges and washed-out shadows, but the light it offered was a cold one that sucked the pallor from the cheeks of Nanoha's friends and tinted them in ghostly shades. She couldn't tell where the heavy weight to the air was coming from until she took her mother by the hand and tried to teleport out through the barrier wall.
The sharp lance of pain she got back drew a scream from her. Anti-teleport countermeasures, then. Woven right into the fabric of the barrier. It wasn't just hardened, it would attack anything that tried to breach it.
'Mistress! Are you okay?'
"No," she groaned. "Ow, ow, ow. Ow. Ow." Clutching at her head, she waited for the daggers that were stabbing through her temples to subside to a level she could think through. "Okay. Not... not going to be able to teleport you out, Mama."
Momoko hugged her. "That's fine. That doesn't matter, Nanoha, are you alright? Are you hurt?" She stroked her daughter's hair gently; careful not to jar her. Nanoha nodded.
"I'm... fine. But... you're not. You're all in danger. You need to get out of here!"
"Get out of what? What is this?" Momoko looked around, taking in the night-drenched world. "Has... has the Book of Darkness activated?"
'... yes,' Vesta admitted, when Nanoha didn't seem willing to answer. 'Dunno why it's not tearing the city up yet, but this can't be from anything else.'
Momoko was silent for an agonisingly long time. She squeezed her eyes shut, and her face flickered through fear, anger and naked pain.
"Then go," she said quietly.
A beat of uncomprehending silence filled the room.
"What?" asked Arisa incredulously. "Go? Go where?"
"To fight it," Momoko answered. Her voice was calm, but Nanoha could read the lines of impossible tension in her jaw and the way her hands fisted in her dress. "That's what you're intending once we're safe, isn't it? But I don't think you have time for that. If it's active, it's active now. We'll be fine here. It doesn't seem to be close by. So that means you need to go now."
"But..." Nanoha stuttered. "What about..."
"You want her to... to go out there and fight?" Suzuka said, her eyes wide. "To put herself in danger?"
"Of course I don't!" Momoko snapped, glaring at her. Her face softened as she turned back to Nanoha. "Of course I don't. Oh, darling. I wish... I wish I could wrap you up and keep you safe from this. But I can't. If I was better at magic than you, I could be the one fighting it and you could stay here and keep people safe – but I'm not. And you're going to fight it whatever I say." She smiled sadly. "If we could get out of here, right now, could you look me in the eye and say you would come with us, to safety?"
Nanoha hesitated. And hung her head.
"We have to go," she explained miserably. Vesta's tail lashed as she floated herself back up onto her mistress's shoulder for support. "If the Book is going to rampage, we need to stop it. The TSAB won't be able to handle it on their own; we're a big chunk of firepower that can help..."
Momoko pulled them both into an embrace. "I know," she said, her voice cracking. "I know that, and I still want to stop you from going. But I can't." She sniffed, and ran a hand through Nanoha's hair. "You've grown up so fast. Already too headstrong for your poor mother to... to be able to ground you." She placed a gentle kiss on Nanoha's forehead, and then on Vesta's. "We'll be safe," she promised. "I'll call your father; he's probably in here as well. But Nanoha – you be safe too. Understand?"
Nanoha nodded. "I promise, Mama. I'll try."
Arisa pulled her into a rough hug as soon as Momoko let go of her. "Don't do anything stupid out there," she muttered fiercely. "And you haven't got out of explaining what you've been doing for the last six months, either." She drew back enough to look Nanoha in the eye. "Good luck. Take care."
Suzuka was next, clasping her hand and petting Vesta gently, who licked her fingers in return. "Both of you be safe," she ordered. "If the fight starts coming this way, tell us with telepathy and we'll get out of here. Otherwise, focus on what you're doing and... and not getting hurt."
'Nanoha! Nanoha, where are you? Can you hear me?'
"Fate's calling me," Nanoha said, trembling a little. "I... all of you, I promise, I'll come back. We'll win this. I promise."
"Not just you!"
It was the pink-haired girl. Chikaze. She stared at Nanoha; half angry and half imploring. "Hayate... she wouldn't hurt anyone. Ever. If the Book is making her hurt people, that's not her fault! You have to help her! Bring her back safe too!"
"Don't worry. If the Book is making her hurt people, I'll just make it shut up and listen to her instead. You said she made the Wolkenritter good. I'm sure she can do the same to the Book! And if she doesn't want to, I'll make her!"
'Coming! I'm at the hospital, where are you?'
She slipped out of the window, shooting up into the cold, still air. Frozen rain droplets scattered off her, and Vesta huddled further into her hood with a disgruntled hiss.
'We're heading your way. We're...' Fate's voice sounded slightly disgruntled, '... on the same side as the TSAB for the moment. This is bigger than any of us.'
'Right! How close are you?'
A whisper in the air behind her, and an arm folded around her shoulders.
"Here," said Fate. "Are you alright? We know who the Book's master is."
"A girl called Hayate, right?" Nanoha asked, and took no small pleasure in Fate's surprise. "Mama met one of her friends, they're down in the hospital. Where... ah."
Four shapes approached through the rain and gloom. Fate must have drawn ahead of them to reach Nanoha first. Arf was in her human form, along with the huge spearman, the Harlaown boy, and...
"Yuuno!" Nanoha exclaimed.
"Not now, Takamachi," Harlaown cut her off curtly. "We don't have much time, so here's the plan. A few more of our mages managed to get here before the barrier went up. I don't know what we're doing on the outside, because it's shut down telepathy as well as escape. Most of our boots on the ground are A- to B-rank, so I've ordered them to gather up any civilians who got caught and extract them as far as the barrier will allow."
He held up his Device. It wasn't the same one he'd had last time they'd fought. This one was a white and blue spear, and from what little Nanoha knew about Devices, it looked... advanced. Very advanced, in fact. A peer to Raising Heart.
"This is Durandal. Admiral Graham gave it to me," Chrono explained. "It's an incredibly powerful sealing device; one that's been tuned and prepared as a weapon against the Book. If you can pin it down, I can suppress it. Captain Grangeitz, will you lead the assault?"
Nanoha looked up at the huge man, who nodded as Chrono finished. "I thought I recognised the Device," he said. "I don't like our chances against a rampant Book, but I like our chances of breaking this barrier even less, and it's a sound plan otherwise. Testarossa, Takamachi, if you'll follow orders, you'll back me up as I engage it. Scyra, run defence and see if you can boost the sealing spell. Harlaown, you're the most critical part of this; engage only as far as you'll be safe from counterattack."
"Speaking of attacks, why haven't we had any yet?" Arf spoke up. "The Book's active, so where is it? We're the only things in here, right? What's distracting it from us?"
There was a long, sick pause before she and Fate locked gazes and spoke as one. "The Mariage!"
They were gone in an instant, Zest following swiftly after them. Nanoha wasted no time in following. The magical battle she and her friends had felt in the hospital was petering out at the edge of her senses, and she bore down on it as fast as she could. Despite her speed, it was fading fast enough that she almost missed it. It was only spotting Fate and Zest hanging motionless in the air; Arf clinging to Fate in puppy form, that stopped her in time to see what they'd come across.
Burning ichor covered the street. It had sprayed across the walls, and the guttering chemical light threw eerie shadows at every corner. Here and there, isolated body parts lay frozen in dark-tinted ice; prevented from breaking down by the spells that had severed them. A foot. An arm.
A head, its visor still glowing a faint green.
In the centre of the carnage stood a white-haired woman, wearing a black dress. Four great wings of dark mana extended out behind her, and a white casting triangle of chilling size spun lazily around her feet. In her right hand she held a staff, with three spearheads forming a cross at its head. In her left, she held a tome that none of them failed to recognise. Both arms were soaked up to the elbows with burning gore, dripping off her in thick droplets that gave off acrid smoke where they landed. She paid it no more attention than a mountain did the rain.
There was no sign of the Wolkenritter. As she turned to look at them with crimson eyes, Nanoha could see clear tracks of tears tracing down her cheeks.
... she couldn't see any wounds, though. And as she watched, the grief on the woman's face twisted into all-consuming rage.
'Aww no,' said Vesta quietly. 'This is gonna suck.'
That was odd.
Hayate Yagami slowly came back to herself, blinking around in confusion. She had been…
… she didn't remember where she had been. Or what had happened, exactly. Only that it had been very bad, and very scary, and she hadn't known what was happening or why or how.
And it had hurt. It had hurt so, so much. Not just in her legs and hips and arms and skin; long-dulled sensation flaring after months of almost nothing. It had hurt inside, too. And that pain had been worse by far, though she couldn't place why…
And now she was here. Wherever 'here' was. She had her wheelchair, even though… even though something told her she shouldn't for some reason, and she sat in a vast dark place with nothing in sight. She couldn't see any ground under her wheels, and the only light came from the black sky above; speckled with stars.
It wasn't a bad dark, though. In fact, she felt quite good. Better than she had in ages. The air was cool and fresh, and the stars were beautiful. She could see them so clearly – like a school trip she remembered from years ago. Her whole class had gone out on a weekend trip, far away from the city, and she had seen the night sky away from any light pollution or cloud cover. It had looked like someone had sprinkled diamonds across a witch's cloak, and she'd been able to pick out every single constellation and planet the teachers had talked about - even the lacy glittering scarf of the Milky Way, laid out across the void.
… come to think of it, she couldn't see any of them here. Not because they weren't clear. Just because… the patterns weren't there.
"What is this place?" she whispered. "What happened? Something was… something was wrong. I was scared…" Her breath sped up a little at the memory – and it came easily. She didn't have to struggle for it at all; it felt almost like it was rushing to fill her lungs of its own accord.
Had she really been that sick? It had crept up on her so slowly. It was only now that she realised how bad it had been.
"Hello?" she tried. "Is anyone there? Where am I?"
"You are safe."
A vaguely familiar-looking woman with white hair and red eyes stepped out of absolutely nowhere a metre or two in front of her. And then knelt, which was a really annoying habit that had taken Hayate weeks to train her Knights out o-
The sound Hayate made next, with lungs that were obeying her unhindered for the first time in months and a volume she hadn't been capable of in years, was half wail, half scream and a heartbroken mixture of wild grief, furious denial and utter devastation. She thrashed and shook her head and pounded at the armrests of her chair as it all came flooding back. Slipping out of the wheelchair, she fell to the ground and tailed off into gut-wrenching sobs that wracked her whole body.
Tears streamed from her eyes as she curled into a ball, hugging herself, clawing at her arms and chest to try and get at the pain in her heart. It felt like her ribs were buckling inward one by one, like a crushing black weight had replaced all her organs, like a spiky ball was growing inside her and pushing spines out through her stomach and spine.
Her Knights were dead.
Those things had come, and her Knights had tried to protect her, and now they were dead.
They were dead, and she was alone again.
Except she wasn't. Cool arms wrapped around her and lifted her back into her chair, smoothing her tears away and resting on her shoulders until her wails tailed off into sobbing and the sobbing died down into whimpers and the whimpers, eventually, faded into silence. Hayate clung to the figure; the strange woman whose kindness was her last anchor, and trembled with sorrow and misery.
"You are safe," the woman repeated. Her voice was a gentle monotone. It reminded Hayate a little bit of Signum in how deep it was and a little of how Shamal in its inflictions, but it wasn't really either. She couldn't place the accent, or the style of the black dress the woman wore.
"I am your servant, mistress, and I will protect you." Shifting back, the woman went back to kneeling, and tears prickled at Hayate's eyes.
"My Knights…" she sniffed.
"Are not lost, mistress," the woman reassured her. Or... tried to reassure her. There was an artificial air to her – in the way her expression never changed from calm neutrality, and her voice stayed at the same soft tone no matter what she said. "They were struck down, but they were recovered. They lie safe within me now, as I punish those who slew them."
A tiny seed of hope bloomed. "They're… alive?" She let out a soft breath of wonder. "They're alive. And… who are you, anyway? What… what do you mean, 'within you'? Stop kneeling at me!"
The woman rose. "I am the Master Program of the Book of Darkness," she said without missing a beat. "I serve you, my mistress, and enact your will. I punish those who have hurt you, and keep you safe. When your enemies massed around you and a cruel destiny threatened your health, I sent out the Guardian Knights to defend you from your foes and slow the curse's grip. Now that your enemies move against you, I have woken to protect you in person."
Curling up as much as she could in the wheelchair, Hayate shook her head. "I don't... I don't know what you're talking about... I don't... I want my Knights." Tears stung at her eyes. She wanted Signum's firm and stoic presence, Vita's loud brash vows of protection, Zafira's quiet, philosophical observations, Shamal's warmth and gentle care. She wanted them here to see and hug and to keep her safe. They'd sworn to never leave her, even if she'd had to convince them they needn't fight. "I want..."
She trailed off.
"What do you mean," she said slowly, her head rising with sudden strength, "by 'slow its grip'?"
The Book blinked, hesitating for a moment. Insofar as Hayate could tell, she seemed confused. "I sent out the Knights to gather Linker Cores and feed the curse's hunger, to lighten its grip on you. Surely they told you this?"
"They said their old masters made them... but I told them they didn't have to fight. I promised they wouldn't have to hurt anyone anymore!" The Book actually took a step back at her ferocity, though that might have been more because she'd wheeled half a pace forward as her voice rose.
"No. If I don't know this, I should. Tell me everything," Hayate demanded. "Where are my Knights? What have they been doing? What is going on?"
A wind picked up, in the still air of the barrier. Sloughing off burning Mariage-blood, the Book raised one hand. Its red eyes were devoid of human emotion – save, perhaps, a cold clinical contempt.
"Bring forth spears and infuse them with blood," it said. It spoke in the same archaic tongue as Signum's Device, but its voice was strange; resonating as though it were echoing out of some deep inner cavern. "Drill through, Bloody Dagger!"
Fate was already moving as a hail of red dagger-lights shot out. Orange shields wrapped around her, enclosing her limbs and torso in a mockery of plate armour, and she shot sideways. Just outmanoeuvring them wasn't enough, though - they tracked her as she flew. Nanoha had vanished, but a dozen crimson streaks were moving with unerring purpose towards an unseen target, and the Book had fired in such volume that even Scrya and Harlaown were being assaulted. Five grouped volleys, each tracking independently - even through stealth measures.
And this with one spell! Even if the Book had to chant like that before each casting, this kind of power made it terrifying. She couldn't afford to let it get another shot off. Four precisely aimed Plasma Lancers took out the clustered spells tracking her; each shot colliding with a dagger and disrupting those around it as it exploded. Grangeitz had gone straight through the daggers aimed at him, dispersing them with a twirl of his spear and charging the Book with a speed move. The point of his Device shone sun-bright as it bore down on the Book's heart.
With a blurred, distorted motion, the staff came up and stopped him cold.
Fate's eyes widened. That movement! It had been... wrong. The Book's arm hadn't moved, it had stuttered. For a moment it had been in two places at once - and even as she watched it hold back the force behind Grangeitz's attack, the whole limb flickered and distorted. The Lost Logia was malfunctioning somehow; damaged on the inside.
Damaged, but still functional. The other hand came up, the glowing tome hovering above it. It snapped open, pages fluttering, and dark orange motes of light began to spill from them - the same colour as Grangeitz's magic. They swarmed towards him...
A cartridge shell clinked against the street.
Both figures vanished in the thunderous detonation. Grangeitz shot back from the cloud of smoke and debris, crouched low and wary. Barely had he come to a stop when something long and thin whipped out of the cloud after him. Like a serpent, flame-wreathed metal darted forth.
The Blade's sword!
But it wasn't the Blade who held it. Advancing out of the smoke was the Book of Darkness, unmarred by the blast and wielding the sword in place of her staff with practiced skill. Its stance, its speed, its familiarity with the weapon... they were Signum's. Fate could tell.
"Bardiche. Cycle to 25%."
Her Device shifted as the slats opened, and the black metal took on a dull red glow as the Seed's mana mingled with hers. Red casting circles formed around her and began to shoot a steady stream of Plasma Lancers down at the Book, punching into the black wings it spread behind it and distracting it from Grangeitz.
"Testarossa! What the-"
The rest of Harlaown's sentence was drowned out by a roar of wind. The Book's wings doubled and then trebled in size; increasing its wingspan to a solid two metres. With an explosive rush of air, it took to the skies, the white casting triangle following it. Grangeitz swore and launched into pursuit as a thin beam of burning pink seared across her shields, but to no avail.
'Is this really the time?' she yelled back, shooting after the Book herself. Bardiche snapped out into its scythe form with a thought; the blade crackling like ruby lightning.
'You stuck a Class One Lost Logia in your Device and you're trying to hit the Book of Darkness in the face with it! Yes, this is the time! I'd expect this from Takamachi, not from the one who's meant to know how Dimensional Space works! Do you have any idea what could happen if...'
Fate tuned him out. The Book was retaliating against Nanoha with huge swarms of arrow-like shooting spells, though it seemed to have lost track of her exact position. White chains shot from the casting triangle at its back, tangling around Grangeitz and hurling him towards the ground. Fate tried her own advance, leaving Harlaown behind as she closed the distance, but had to retreat as the chains came after her instead. Without letting up her assault on Nanoha, the Book left the tome hovering for a moment to fire four black bolts at the compass points of the barrier that had them trapped.
'Arf, Testarossa.' Her eyes narrowed. It was Scrya. 'I can restrain the Book if Arf handles those chains. Then you and Zest can hit it at the same time. Nanoha's going to try to- watch out!'
Hanging in the air, the weapons of the Wolkenritter dismissed, the Book of Darkness raised its tome high above its head.
"I-in an ancient land, s-s-sink to the d-darkness," it incanted. It was distorting again - its torso was flickering and twisting like a glitching hologram, and its voice rose and fell unpredictably. Still, the boiling mass of black-purple mana that rose from the tome's pages and began to gather into a sphere looked all too functional. "D-Diabolic..."
Burning pink mana met boiling black-purple in an expanding cone even wider than the gathering sphere - and that was easily twice Fate's height. Nanoha's bombardment spell was even brighter than usual; blinding in its intensity, and Fate flinched away as Arf slammed up shields.
But the blast wave never hit. The detonation went off at an angle, streaking upwards into the clouds with a shrieking roar. The Book evaded; wings furling to drop like a stooping falcon, and another beam - thinner, dimmer, but still moving just as fast - hit it as she fell. Its staff came up to block it...
... and it was forced back?
Fate gasped as she realised the trick. The parry had sent the outer layers of the Divine Buster sloughing away, but an incandescent inner core had pushed the Book back anyway. Nanoha was altering the energy density of her spells! That first shot must have been almost hollow - all the power in the edges of the cone, to direct the Book's attack up into the clouds. And the second... it had only looked weak on the outside. The core had been focused force.
Still not enough, though. The Book's retreat under the beam slowed before it broke free completely, and Fate saw its lips move as it gained height once more and pointed towards the source of the beams. The aria wasn't long. Six, maybe seven words.
Black lightning split the sky in two, two jagged forks narrowing in like claws closing in on hapless prey. Nanoha screamed.
Green bands locked in place around the Book's arms, legs and wings, spreading along them until its whole body was enveloped in a thickening carapace. Orange chains wrapped around the white ones that hovered protectively around it, jerking them together and tying them down.
"Don't let her get her arms free!"
"I'm trying, but she's-"
Fate saw her chance and took it, flashing in at top speed from below as Grangeitz came in from above.
Light flared, and an impact jarred Fate's arms from her fingers all the way down to her elbows. It wasn't the meeting of weapon and flesh, though. This was the retort of metal on metal.
The Book's right hand held the Breaker's hammer, locked against Grangeitz's spear. Its left held the Blade's sword, holding Bardiche off with no visible sign of effort. A purple casting triangle turned like a lazy cuff at each wrist, and...
... and there were tears trickling from its eyes. Despite the emotionless mask, the white-haired woman was crying.
Fate had just enough time to process that before a blue blade hit the Book in the throat, and it vanished.
... that... that was her Blitz Action! Fate hissed in anger. If the Book was building on the spells it had stolen, the situation was worse than she'd thought.
Thank the Kaisers it hadn't drained Nanoha, she thought with a sudden chill.
"This isn't working," she panted to Grangeitz, scanning for where the Book had gone. "We need better tactics."
"The arias," he said. "Takamachi hit it in mid-sentence."
Fate nodded. A flash of light drew her attention. "There!"
The Book hadn't gone far. It was struggling with the blue wires that had wrapped themselves around its throat. One by one they fell away, and then it was chanting again, reciting another aria, bringing its staff around to track the moving form of Harlaown. Fate threw power into her own speed move - the new and improved version. Her Blitz Rush took her around behind her enemy and she threw an Arc Saber with all the force she could muster.
Time crawled like molasses as she realised. It wasn't going to make it in time.
It all but froze as she realised what else was in the Book's line of fire.
'Nanoha!' she screamed, summoning another Blitz Rush and throwing herself at the Book; outpacing her Arc Saber as the world turned to blurred lines and fear. 'The hospital!'
She hit the Book feet first just as the bombardment spell fired. Her Arc Saber struck the staff a moment later, and that was perhaps the only thing that saved Harlaown; jerking the beam off-course and down. Grangeitz had dived as she did; not at the Book but into the path of the spell. He blazed like a small sun as he split the attack in half, but the shockwave and the plume of mana carried on, crashing down on the buildings in the city below. Roofs, walls and streets were ripped up and sent hurtling along like bullets ahead of the cloud of debris.
It struck the hospital dead on, and carved a hole the size of a house through the heart of it.
The dust settled. Green light died.
"... that was too close," breathed the girl in the white dress, looking up at the hole - Nanoha, Chikaze reminded herself; her name was Nanoha. "Way, way too close."
The outer walls of the hospital groaned, and began to crumble like a wet sandcastle. The crash of falling masonry was a reminder of how close that had been. Nanoha glanced back at them as if she had to check they were really there. Chikaze wasn't surprised. Her own heart was a hammering drum in her chest. She was suddenly very, very glad she hadn't made a fuss about grabbing her things. Or getting dressed. Or anything that would have delayed them getting out of the building. The cat woman cradling Chikaze in her arms had her teeth bared and her ears flat against her head; probably thinking along the same lines.
Standing in the centre of the fading green dome, the boy who had saved them was panting. He waved Nanoha off as she approached.
"It's fine," he assured her. "The building took the bulk of it."
Chikaze eyed the collapsing building dubiously. The light had just gone straight through. How had that boy managed to stop it, even if the hospital getting in the way had helped?
"Where-" Nanoha began, and what was left of the hospital exploded as something came crashing through it, ploughing into the courtyard and throwing up broken tiles and a shower of dirt that punched straight through the clustered group and hurled them to the ground. Chikaze cried out as she hit the hard concrete and rolled to a stop, squinting with swimming vision at whatever had hit them.
It rose, glowing with black-violet power, and looked down at her like a goddess. The face that took her in was one of cool, calm, implacable resolve. It reminded her of old statues she'd seen on school trips. Human shapes without any of the warmth or feeling.
And yet for all its brutal apathy, tears still spilled down its cheeks. And Chikaze knew it.
"... Hayate..." she whispered, eyes wide with fear, horror and grief.
The figure twitched. For a second her features distorted, like running wax or the image on a flickering television. She half-split, pulling apart into two reflections joined at the hip, then snapped back together again as if nothing had changed. The staff in her hand gleamed in the dim light.
And she turned away.
"Wha-" Nanoha gasped, and then lit up. "Hayate-chan! Fight it! I know y- ahh!" She dived aside, the bladed tip of the staff barely missing her. There was no hesitation in the not-Hayate's movements now, no pausing or hesitation. She was trying to kill them. And while she was focused on Nanoha, the green boy and the cat woman for the moment, Chikaze could see what would happen if she got within range of Momoko and the girls. Momoko's son and daughter had their swords up, but they looked scared – even her husband looked scared. And Chikaze knew that simple steel wouldn't be enough to stop a powerful magic construct. Especially not one that had Signum as part of her.
"Hhh-" she tried to shout, but her voice wasn't working. Her body felt like lead, and her stomach hurt - the deep, sick ache that was halfway between pain and nausea. 'Hayate!' she tried instead, broadcasting with all the strength she could. 'Hayate, please, stop! Don't do this!'
'I am not Hayate,'
came the answer, surprising perhaps nobody more than Chikaze. The voice was Hayate's, and at the same time it wasn't. It was deeper, resonating oddly and stuttering as if it were having trouble with some of the words. 'I must do this. It is my p-purpose.'
'If... if you're not Hayate, who are you?'
Chikaze asked desperately. The woman let go of the tome to draw a sword from thin air and lash out at Nanoha with two weapons, sending her skidding backwards with a jagged crack through her protective barrier. The cat woman lunged, her hands wreathed in red claws, and barely avoided a retaliatory strike that would have removed a limb. 'Please, please stop!'
'I am the Book of D-Darkness.'
The woman's mental voice gave no impression of effort or distraction. It was a controlled monotone, devoid of expression. And yet, Chikaze couldn't forget the tears. 'Identify yourself.'
'It... it's Chikaze. I'm Hayate's friend!'
Just for a moment she thought the Book began to turn towards her. Then green light wrapped around the figure like a cage and yanked her upwards so fast that Chikaze barely saw her leave. Nanoha and the tigress followed. The paving stones cracked with the force of their take-off.
She lay there for a while as her heart settled and the thunder receded. The wet ground under her back was cold and seemed much more real than everything else around her. This was even worse than that night she first met Hayate. Maybe she could pretend it was just fireworks. Just for a little bit. After a moment or two, Momoko scrambled over to help her sit upright with an arm around her back. Chikaze leaned into her warmth.
"Chikaze-chan! Are you alright? That was a nasty fall; are you hurt?"
"I'm... fine," Chikaze said faintly. She was trembling all over, but Momoko was a warm, soft presence. She wasn't her mother, but she was still a mother – and she seemed to know more than Chikaze did about what was going on. "... why am I fine?"
She looked up into Momoko's face and gestured weakly at the destruction around them. "She attacked everyone," she said. "Even you, and you didn't do anything. But she didn't attack me and I tried to talk to her. She knew I was there. She d-didn't do anything." She swallowed, unable to control the shakes "Why not?" she managed to force out.
Momoko gave this a few seconds thought before shaking her head. She tried to lift Chikaze into a half-walking, half-carried position. "Dear, I don't think that's-"
"It is important!" Chikaze insisted heatedly, and lapsed into a coughing fit. "She... she was i-in there, a-and something's broken with the Book, but she didn't attack me and when I talked to her, she talked back!"
Momoko's eyes widened, but Chikaze had no time or patience to argue with her about it. Grabbing the older woman's hand, she squinted upwards at the multicoloured light show and reopened the channel, extending a sideband to Momoko so that she could hear.
'Why are you doing this? Why are you hurting people? Please stop! You're talking to me, listen to them too!'
The response took a moment. But it came.
'I must protect my mistress.'
Momoko gasped; a quiet indrawn breath. Chikaze saw her reach for her own Device out of the corner of her eye, and dimly felt her open another channel. She shook her head.
"Don't distract me," she whispered. "I think I can talk her out of it, but I can't pay attention to two conversations at once."
The awareness of the second channel faded with Momoko's nod, and Chikaze closed her eyes and tried to ignore the pounding of her head. The Book was still talking.
'They are threats,' she was saying. 'All are threats. Everywhere; enemies. I will grant my mistress's wish of p-p-peace. I will destroy those who would hurt my mistress before they can harm her. I will avenge my knights who died in her service.'
Stabbing her would have been kinder. Chikaze's lips shaped a soundless 'no' as she gasped with pain.
The Wolkenritter. Signum. Vita. Shamal. Zafira.
It... it couldn't be! She'd seen Zafira less than half an hour ago! He'd been fine; unharmed, tending to...
... to Hayate.
Who was now the Book of Darkness.
"They can't..." she said in a small voice. "They... they can't be..."
"... I'm so sorry, darling," Momoko said. In the distance, Chikaze could hear deafening crashes; a series of them that shook the earth with every impact. The ground was trembling beneath her like an earthquake, and she could hear the roar of flames from somewhere nearby. Light flashed; too bright to make out the colour, reflecting off the buildings and painting the gloom a blinding white for a second before fading just as quickly.
Chikaze ignored all of it. She turned into Momoko's embrace and felt the older woman shift her into her lap, surrounding her with warmth and comfort. Someone touched her shoulder sympathetically, and a hand slipped into hers.
"Nanoha... hold on," Momoko murmured. "Nanoha says... the Book reabsorbed them, she thinks. It's using their weapons and fighting styles. They may not be... she says they were wounded, but they haven't seen any proof they were killed."
From the sound of it, she was aware it was scant comfort. But Chikaze couldn't mourn. She couldn't cry, not now, not while everyone was in danger. And if they were part of the Book again, maybe they weren't really dead. She clung to that hope desperately, winding it round clenched fists and girding herself with it. Hope wasn't always enough to cure someone, but having it was far better than lacking it.
'What... what about me?' Chikaze asked tentatively. 'A-am I a threat?'
There was, for a moment, a deep and echoing silence through the link - more than just a lack of words; an emptiness of thought.
'You are n-not recognised,' the Book said eventually. The last word was almost drowned out by a howling explosion, and Chikaze flinched as a wall of dust-choked wind slammed into them, yanking at her hair and clothes and almost tipping Momoko over. She felt the two girls huddle closer to her and Momoko; safeguarding her in the middle and stabilising all four of them. They all looked like ghosts now, covered in pale dust.
'You are threat-ally-knight-undefined what-wh-what are you?' There was, for the first time, a trace of agitation to the Book's voice. 'You-y-you...'
The link cut off.
Chikaze blinked, yelped, and scrambled to re-establish it. 'Hey!' she projected. 'Why did you do that?'
Another searing light flashed and the ground jolted like a kick from a horse. All four of them tipped over, Chikaze landing safely on Momoko as the girls fell to either side. She squeezed her eyes shut and focused on the link.
'My mistress is in danger. I am protecting her. Identify yourself.' It was back to the echoing, emotionless monotone, and Chikaze got the feeling she'd missed something.
'No, why did you cut the link? And what... what do you mean I'm not recognised? I'm Chikaze, I told you that! And then you said I was undefined or... or something.'
This earned her another deep silence. 'You-you are threat/not-threat,' the Book said after a moment, the confusion coming back. 'Knight/not-knight ally-threat what are y-you? My se-senses...'
And again, without warning, the link cut off. If anything, it was harsher this time. Like a window being slammed down on Chikaze's fingers. She flinched, and Momoko squeezed her arm gently before she could try again.
"I think it's you, dear," she murmured. "Nanoha is saying it hesitated when you asked. Not by much, but enough to notice. It can't answer your question for some reason."
Chikaze frowned. "You said she was broken..." she whispered. "Maybe..."
Her eyes widened. "Maybe she can't tell she's broken," she breathed. "Maybe the bits that tell her whether she's broken or not are broken. Like..." She gulped, thinking back to long days spent in hospital, to doctors trying to explain was wrong with her body in words she could understand. "... like when the bits... the bits in your body that are meant to kill your cells when they break... when those bits break... and the cell can go crazy. Because it doesn't know it's gone wrong. So it doesn't stop."
"... sorry, I don't think I..." began Momoko, but Chikaze was already reopening the link, bolstered by the new knowledge. She was tiring fast, and copying the channel to Momoko was too much for her, but she kept up her assault as fiercely as she could.
'Something's wrong with you!' she called out. 'That's why you're fighting; you're... you're not seeing things right! You think everyone is a threat but they're not! You're crying! I saw you! What are you crying about? Is it the knights?'
shouted... someone. Chikaze wasn't really up to distinguishing voices at this point. She felt something go up around them; some sort of protection spell, and then...
Heat. Baking, stifling, acrid heat. She forced her eyes open to find pink-green light fading around them, marking a tiny clear area among scorched-black paving stones. The remains of the hospital were charred black, and a tower block on the other side of the street was just gone; collapsing into red-hot molten metal and piles of glowing slag.
'It's okay!' Nanoha called down, her voice strained but trying for cheerful. 'She missed us! Sorry for that; Fate and Mr Grangeitz are trying to keep her up high, but she's really fast! We'll try harder to keep her away next time – just keep low and stay safe!'
'These are Hayate's tears,'
the Book responded. 'I feel no sorrow. I am simply a tool of my mistress's wishes.'
Chikaze closed her eyes again, huddling into Momoko and frowning. There was, she was pretty sure, a bit more emotion than there had been before in the Book's voice. Was that uncertainty?
'You're lying,' she guessed. 'You're sad about the Wolkenritter, aren't you? Well I am too! I cared about them as well! You can admit it to me even if you don't to anyone else!'
'I am a ma-magical tome,'
the Book responded, and yes, that was definitely a hesitation in her voice. The echoing underlayer intensified and then faded with each word. 'I-I-I feel no sadness-ness. I grant I-I grant my mistress wish f-for peace.'
Chikaze shook her head, tears coming to her eyes. 'You are sad! And angry! I understand that! But they wouldn't want you to do this!'
This seemed to put the Book back on firmer ground. Thunder cracked and boomed, and a low thrumming note pealed out that Chikaze felt resonate through her ribcage. 'My mistress is threatened,' she stated.
'She's not!' Chikaze projected the words with all the strength she had. 'Just... just think! Signum didn't think everything was an enemy! Vita got on fine with other people! Shamal a-and Zafira didn't... didn't go around attacking everyone! Hayate, please! I know you're in there, remember! Come back! Stop hurting people!'
She felt Momoko stiffen under her, but ignored it in favour of the Book's response. 'The knights...' it said slowly. 'My m-m-my knights d-defend... protect my... all are...'
The link cut off again, a pang of pain echoing back down it, but this time Chikaze was ready. 'Remember your knights!' she threw at it. 'If they're part of you now then you should remember what they did! They weren't broken! They could see not everything wasn't a threat! So one of you is wrong, and they were here longer!'
"Chikaze," Momoko said urgently. "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it."
"Huh?" Chikaze blinked, breathing hard; barely able to keep telepathy and speech separate. "Why?" she croaked.
"Because Nanoha says it's working."
The world was dark and calm and peaceful. Aside from the two of them, there was only the soft velvet blackness all around.
Hayate shook her head slowly as the Book's explanation wound to an end. "You-" she started, and had to break off. "That can't..."
Only it could. Looking back, she could see the signs. Her Knights... her Knights had been lying to her. For weeks – maybe even months! And she hadn't known. She hadn't noticed what they were doing as they went out and... and attacked people to help her.
She hadn't seen.
"How many..." she croaked. "How... how many people did they hurt? For me? Wait, no." She looked down, biting her lip. "I don't want to know." Though she would be having a long and loud talk about what they'd done i- when; when she saw them again.
It had to be a 'when'.
She held her silence for only a few seconds before breaking. "Just... did they kill anyone?" she blurted out. "Or... or cripple anyone? In ways that won't get better?"
"... no, mistress," said the Book after an uncomfortably long pause.
"Don't lie to me!"
The Book didn't flinch. "I would not and could not, mistress-
"Hayate!" The word was a scream. "My name is Hayate! I'm not a mistress or a conqueror or a… a Belkan noble or even a princess! I don't ride around on a horse! I don't have a castle! My name is Hayate Yagami and I'm from Earth and I don't care about your titles! Use my name!"
"... understood, Lady Hayate." That seemed to be as far as she would relent, and Hayate had more important things to get from her right now. The title argument would be a thing for later – and there was going to be a later! "As I said, I would not and cannot lie to you. The Knights destroyed a number of Mariage units, but killed no-one else." She paused. "My records of their activities indicate that they were quite deliberate in avoiding fatalities."
"Then where are they? Where am I? What is this place?"
Hesitating for a moment in what Hayate guessed was her 'working out what the question is' state, the Book shook her head. "The Guardian Knights are not available at this time. They have been reintegrated into the Book of Darkness, which is currently active according to defence protocols. The protocols dictate that to maximise peak throughput, all external assets including the authorised user should be-"
"No, you stupid…!" Hayate felt like screaming. Then remembered that her lungs didn't hurt anymore and there was nobody else around, and did. It made her feel better. Slightly.
"Lady Hayate?" the Book said neutrally, in a way which somehow implied that she was being childish.
"I don't understand… I thought you were the Book?" she demanded, wincing as her now-sore throat complained. "Are you saying they're part of you? Give them back!"
The Book's expression shuttered for another long pause, and Hayate gritted her teeth, frustration boiling through her veins. Though… thinking back… something about the way the white-haired woman stood jogged at her memory.
… yes, that was it. The way she held herself… her face was still relatively placid, but there was a sort of stiff rigidity to her limbs that hadn't been there a moment before. It sort of put Hayate in mind of the way Zafira went all still and loose and relaxed at sudden loud noises or bad news from the doctors, just in the opposite direction.
Maybe she wasn't the only one getting frustrated here.
"When your enemies attacked," the Book began slowly, though Hayate couldn't tell if it was working out what to say as it went or just thought she needed time to understand, "the compound system known as the Book of Darkness took its mistress; Hayate Yagami, inside itself to ensure she was protected. This place is the heart of the tome; a virtual dimensional space at its innermost core. The exterior programs are engaged with ambient threats, and as such this is the safest place for you. I am, and am not, the Book. I am the Master Program; the watcher and weaver of spells who binds the rest together. The Guardian Knights, the Tome, the Defence Programs, the Master Core… all of these together are the 'Book of Darkness', and were once the Tome of the Night Sky."
She paused again, this time only for a moment. "Does this help you understand, Lady Hayate?"
"… no. I mean, yes." Hayate made a face, her temper stuttering out as tiredness started to creep up on her. "I still don't understand, and I'm not sure I can. But I… sort of understand what I'm not understanding a bit better now?"
The Book bowed her head, and Hayate didn't think she was imagining the faintest trace of relief on her face. "All is well, then. Rest now, Lady Hayate. I will defend you against your foes and wake you when you are safe again."
She blinked. For a moment there had been… what? An echo of her friend's voice? Or just a vivid memory? Hayate looked around at the featureless expanse around her and the glittering sky above. She and the Book – the Master Program – were alone. And yet...
"No 'Chikaze' is present, Lady Hayate," the Book pointed out calmly. "It would be best for you to sleep-"
There it was again. Hayate pinned the Book with a fierce stare. "That is Chikaze! Why can I hear her? What's going on?"
Something flickered in the woman's eyes. "My defence programs are engaged in combat. Something is... is interfering. Lady Hayate, you must sleep." She moved closer – just half a step – and held her palm out as if pressing against something. A sudden exhaustion came over Hayate. She felt... drowsy. Sleepy. Her vision blurred, and a yawn snuck up on her. Maybe the Book was right. Maybe she should just...
Hayate bit her lip as hard as she could and pounded the wheelchair's arm in pain. The cloak of tiredness disintegrated like mist under sunlight. Then she squeezed her eyes shut and listened, as hard as she could. Chikaze's voice was faint – so, so faint that it was barely there. But she could make out bits and pieces.
'-ease, stop... hurting peop... listen-'
"What are you doing?" she said. It wasn't really a question. Hollow dread filled her as she saw the answer looming up in front of her. "What do you mean, engaged in combat? Who are you fighting? Show me!" The last command was a snap, and for the first time, the Book showed a hint of an expression. It wasn't a happy one. But after a momentary frown, she dipped her head in acknowledgement and gestured with an arm at...
... grey-suited figures with blades and guns for arms, swarming towards her and burning and falling and dying...
... a huge man with a whirling spear, rocketing towards her in a crackling nimbus of lightning...
... a girl dressed all in white, throwing up pink shields left and right while she shouted something desperately...
... a blonde girl with a scythe, weaving around bloody daggers so fast that she blurred...
... two teenagers wearing ripped and dusty clothing, backing away in fright with raised swords in hand...
... a pair of young girls, purple and blonde, holding hands tightly as they hid behind an older woman with dirt and soot smeared on her face...
The images flickered past, frozen snapshots like frames pulled from a fight. Hayate felt ice pour down her spine.
"Those... those aren't enemies!" she said, her voice rising high and shrill. "Apart from the zombies! The zombies are still enemies! But all the rest are people! Why are you fighting them?"
"They are threats," the Book replied calmly. "They show hostile intent."
"Because you're fighting them!" Hayate started to hyperventilate. If... if the Book was fighting, outside, if it was as deadly as her Knights were...
If anyone else got hurt...
"You have to stop!" she shouted. "You have to stop, you can't hurt them! If you just stop then they won't attack, they're not threats! Those first two girls protected me; the last ones aren't even proper mages!"
She might as well have been talking to a stone. "They are threats," the Book repeated. "Hayate, you cannot give an order that would result in your death. Worry not. I will protect you from those who would kill you."
"They don't want to kill me! Those last few weren't even mages! They're not even... not even..." Hayate shook her head as her eyes widened. "You said... is there anything around me that isn't a threat?"
The pause was agonising. And then...
"Chikaze..." Her friend looked terrible. Weak and pale and drawn, covered in dust and tiny bits of brick and soil, lying down with her head and torso supported against something the image didn't show. There was no flickering of images this time. No rapid scrolling through a list.
"Just Chikaze? That's... that's it?"
Uncertainty. That was definitely uncertainty she saw in the Book's eyes, and her face twitched to match it. "She is an anomaly," the construct admitted. "I cannot classify her. I will not engage her until I have verified her status."
"... but you think everything else is a threat," Hayate said numbly as the pieces slotted together into a new and altogether horrifying picture. "You... you won't let me back out because you think I won't be in danger. And you saved my Knights, but you won't send them back out because you're busy fighting the things you think are threats. But if you think everything is a threat..."
The Book watched her calmly. Placidly, even. It was a very peaceful expression for something that was going to attack everything in sight until something stopped it.
This wasn't just about saving her family anymore.
This was about saving the world.
It was working.
It was working slowly and painfully, in fits and starts. For every five steps forward they managed, the Book pushed them back by four. Nanoha was bruised and battered and more tired than she'd been in her life. Her ribs ached, her lungs burned, her fingers felt like they were on fire and she was pretty sure there was blood dripping in her eye. When this was over, she was probably going to collapse and have to spend weeks in bed.
But it was working.
Nanoha spared half a second to mentally bless Chikaze as she dropped under an arrow and returned fire with a wave of binding shots. Raising Heart was at 50% cycle, and shifted fluidly between its spear and sealing modes as she parried and riposted. She could afford to, now. Chikaze's last unsecured broadcast must have struck a nerve, because the Book's attacks were getting less lethal.
… well, a bit less lethal. One of Vita's metal balls herded her into a trap, and she had to shift her thought train for a moment to frantically break a bind on her leg before the follow-up arrived. Vesta proved up to the task, clawing it apart and slicing the shooting spell in two with a grunt.
'Is it me, or is her aim getting worse?' she asked, frowning over at where the Book was pursuing Fate with a swirling field of hovering debris.
Nanoha thought back. Yes, she realised. It was. About a third of the Book's attacks were missing entirely now; sailing past their targets to wreck who knew what kind of damage without even forcing them to dodge. 'Maybe Chikaze's getting through to her?' she panted, moving into a level circling flight that took her round to flank the Book from her left. If she could get a good shot at that tome… 'Where's Chrono?'
Pacing her at her side, Vesta looked around, ears and whiskers twitching. 'Up high,' she said after a moment. 'There, see? Oh, and look down there!'
Nanoha looked. Far below them, three tiny dots were approaching the faint glimmer of green in the remains of the hospital. She magnified the image with her visor and smiled at the sight of her father and siblings. Their swords were sheathed, but she was willing to bet they were carrying live steel.
Good. That would keep Mama safe.
It was Zest, drawing up alongside her on the right. He'd discarded the coat, and several green and blue shimmers marked dormant spells hosted on him, waiting to activate when he got them close enough. Nanoha nodded and held out a hand, gripping his offered wrist.
"Energy Share," she whispered, and let the power flow. This was the third time she'd done it so far. Going after her for using the Jewel Seeds in her Device, he seemed to have decided, could wait. For now, the virtually unlimited stamina it gave them was all that was letting them keep up with the Book.
'Tune into Chikaze's broadcasts,' she advised as he peeled away with a nod of thanks. 'She hasn't secured them, and the Book gets confused when she tries to tell whether Chikaze's a threat or not. Or when Chikaze tells her she's broken. You can see her flinch if you watch, even if she's firing.' He didn't respond, but at least he knew now if he hadn't before.
Advice given, she headed upwards. Fate had broken away from the Book's pursuit and was firing a steady stream of Plasma Lancers into the whirling field of debris, which Yuuno seemed to be wrestling with the Book for control of. The flying chunks of broken building - some spanning two or three floors - were tumbling towards her as often as anyone else, and though she was shattering them with casual swings of the Breaker's hammer, she didn't seem to be leaving or just ceasing the spell. Was Chikaze distracting her so much she couldn't even dodge? No, Nanoha saw, it wasn't just that. Arf was binding her there; a feed from Fate's Jewel Seed tinting her magic a darker orange as she renewed each chain as soon as it broke.
"Chrono!" she called as she drew up to him. "I want to try something. If I shoot at the tome and she blocks, do you think you can hide a spell inside my spell that'll get through?"
The TSAB prodigy stared at her. "That wouldn't..." he began. Then he paused. "I don't have any spells that can do that," was what he settled on instead. "Hide inside someone else's attack, that is. I could shadow one of yours, but I don't know how effective that would be." He frowned, turning back to survey the battle thoughtfully. "If I fired a binding spell..." he said slowly. "Could you... construct a shooting spell around the outside? Instead of me trying to hide a spell inside one of yours."
Nanoha gave it a few seconds thought. "I'll give it a go," she said brightly, trying to sound confident. They were almost there! They just had to work a little bit harder and they could do this, so they couldn't start giving up now! "Vesta, can you cloak us so we can get closer? Then make the beam look like a normal attack?"
"Right. Let's go!"
Up close, the noise of the debris field was deafening. The Book had created an aerial death course, with everything from dust to ten-tonne pillars spinning and ricocheting as if in null gravity. No wonder Fate had got out as quickly as she could. Fast as she was, she couldn't dodge everything, and one unlucky collision in this mess could put her out of the fight instantly. Zest was in the thick of it, using some sort of bubble spell around his spear to send chunks of rubble hurtling at the Book, and for a moment Nanoha missed Linith so hard it hurt. She would be perfect for this sort of thing.
Heck, she wouldn't have let things get this far in the first place.
Chrono's voice snapped her out of it. Nanoha nodded. "Uh... I should probably be right in front of you," she said. "We're going to need our spells to be really close together. Can you sort of... cast it from just here?"
She blushed as he awkwardly moved behind her, nudging his Device under her right arm to aim it from just underneath Raising Heart, and mentally promised Vesta the stroking of her life when they got out of this. They'd have probably looked really, really stupid doing this while visible.
'It looks pretty stupid doing it invisible, too,' Vesta agreed happily. Nanoha mentally crossed out the petting and replaced it with shooting practice, then hurriedly focused on what she was doing.
It was harder than she'd expected. She'd played around with ideas like this before - as something else Arf could do for Fate - but her theories and calculations for that were all the other way around; hiding a spell inside an attack instead of firing an attack around a spell. Doing it like this was... clunky. Awkward. She did her best, warping the structure of two Axel Beams to look like a single spell, but she couldn't help but wince at how sloppy it was. Precia would be really disappointed if she saw something so inefficient!
"We don't need it to be effective, we just need it to look threatening," Chrono snapped, apparently divining her train of thought. "Ready? Fire!"
Nanoha snapped a targeting lock onto the tome, and the pink beam shot out. The wastage at least made it look a lot more powerful than it was, she thought as they held their breath.
'Chikaze, distract her!' she sent in a rapid burst, and perhaps the girl had been gathering strength to do just that, because her shout resounded out loud enough to cross the battlefield.
For the briefest of seconds, the Book hesitated.
The pink beam hit the tome dead on. It didn't blow it out of the Book's hand, but it was a near thing - and the failure didn't matter, because then blue wire was wrapping around it like a net; tightening around the covers and lashing it shut.
[Struggle Bind successful,] Chrono's Device reported. And for the first time in the battle, the Book genuinely fell. Her wings dissolved. The field of rubble dropped like... well, rocks. Even the barrier flickered. It held... but only barely, and the oppressive weight within lightened somewhat. Nanoha could almost have hugged the young Enforcer, if he hadn't moved away as soon as the spell had struck.
'Harlaown to all forces; teleport interdict is down - evac all civilians!' Chrono sent on a wide band. 'Duration of lapse unknown; get them out of here stat!' He frowned. "What's it doing now...?"
The Book's fall had taken her to the top of a still-standing tower block. Now the tiny figure was surrounded by a white casting triangle again.
"I think... you only shut down the magic she was using through that tome," Nanoha guessed. "Look, she's still got the Blade's sword. Uh, bow. Come on!" Fate and Zest were already diving in, and Nanoha's heart leapt. With its wide-scale magic crippled like this... they were getting somewhere! They had this fight all but won now!
Spear and scythe were only a stone's throw away from the Book when she finished her aria and loosed an arrow straight down into the casting sigil at her feet. A white ring rose from it to hover at head height for a moment.
And then it turned into a thousand black arrows aimed outward.
Zest went high. Fate went low. He got the worst of it, as the arrows curved upwards; several slamming into his spear guard and pushing him back. But it was only ten or twelve out of a hundred times that number. The rest fanned out, and Nanoha squeaked as several came her way. But just before they reached her they turned; tied back to their caster by glimmering strings, and began to turn in a huge wheel that covered half the battlefield.
It took only a second or two for her to realise what they were doing. As the nearest one passed by, her Flier Fin wavered for a moment, dipping her lower in the air to be caught on Vesta's back.
"... mana drain," she stuttered numbly. A mana pump powerful enough to leech power from active spells, no less, which meant... 'Everyone! It's a draining spell! She's going to break free! Stop her!'
Unblocked by the building, Zest lunged. The strings flared searingly bright as they transferred their gathered energy; blinding spokes of a thousand-point mandala. The uppermost floor of the building vanished in an explosion.
Something came spinning out of the cloud. The Blade's bow. Nanoha's visor automatically magnified the view, and she immediately wished it hadn't.
There was still most of an arm holding onto it.
But the blow hadn't come without cost. Zest fell from the building as the Book rose; his spear slipping out of bloodied fingers. Fate darted in to catch him, but his eyes were rolled back in his head and blood was oozing from one corner of his mouth.
"Yuuno knows Physical Heal," Nanoha said, looking upward as Chrono said several words that Raising Heart refused to translate. "Get him to help Zest. I'll keep her occupied."
'I'll peel off, here' Vesta said as she rose. 'Keep her facing you. I'll take her wings out.'
Nanoha gave her a sharp nod, and her familiar faded from sight. "Raising Heart?" She murmured, and cracked her knuckles. "Are you ready?"
[We can do it!]
The Book was preparing another spell. Left-handed only now, she'd left the tome hovering in front of her as she traced glyphs in the air in front of her with... were those the Healer's rings?
"... veil of night," Nanoha heard. "Blanket the world and snuff out the stars..."
"Oh no you don't," Nanoha muttered, charging up a Divine Buster.
A black window formed in front of her enemy. Nanoha hardened her Barrier Jacket instinctively; a jolt of fear running through her. But nothing assailed her as the Book plunged her hand through it. Was she trying to drain Zest? Or Chrono?
The world darkened. The oppressive weight of the barrier returned. And there was something new to it now. Not just a weight, but a sickening feeling; a tearing and rending and shredding that attacked her spells and ate away at her Barrier Jacket.
[AMF detected, my master. Orders?]
"... cycle to 70%," Nanoha said, scowling. Oh, she was going to make this stupid book see that what it was doing was wrong! "Come on, Raising Heart. Let's get her."
The collective mind of the Mariage was largely emotionless; unmarred by anger or fear. Nevertheless, the current situation was highly negative. The vast majority of its active units had been destroyed. Worse yet, they had been destroyed without achieving any of their objectives. Bar the skeleton guard stationed with the Queen, the scant handful that had escaped the Book's attentions were all that remained of the once-powerful outbreak.
Five units. Two of them were crippled, and even the mobile ones had suffered serious damage. All five turned to watch the cacophonous battle above as they thought.
At such low strength, the chances of survival were greatly reduced. Projections gave a high likelihood of Bureau forces surviving the Book's rampage in great enough numbers to conduct a thorough search of nearby worlds for remaining units. Even with the skeleton guard taking stealth measures, this would probably result in the Queen being located and destroyed.
This was unacceptable.
It could be resolved by tilting the balance of the fight further in the Book's favour. With sufficient losses, the Bureau would be below strength, and the Queen could be hidden again before she was found. The Mariage units would succumb to decay, but so long as the Queen remained safe, their eventual re-emergence would be secure. But the collective mind had nowhere near enough units to make a difference in this fight, even if it could reach it.
At least, not the physical fight.
Five heads turned towards the source of the unencrypted broadcasts directed at the Book. The telepath was interfering with the Book's actions somehow. Elimination would remove this as a factor, potentially tilting the balance.
Two quick mana-sharing spells drained all usable resources from the crippled bodies, which broke down into burning chemical sludge. Without a second glance at the decomposing corpses, the remaining three Mariage rose.
And moved to attack.
Momoko focused on breathing. In. Out. In. Out. It was easier than thinking at the moment. Whatever had just happened; whatever spell had been cast over the area, it felt like something reaching inside her and flensing her magic like a little ball of razors. Like what the swordswoman had done to her. From the way Chikaze was acting, she felt the same. The young girl was curled up in Momoko's lap, her breathing shallow and her face deathly pale. The telepathic channel she'd been holding open on sheer willpower had snapped closed as soon as the magic-razor field had come down.
That... was a problem.
'Nanoha,' Momoko tried. She could, she found, force a message through. It was hard, but possible. 'What's happening? What is this?'
came the rather terse reply, and the mental presence of her daughter receded so quickly that for a moment Momoko thought the connection had been broken. She was proven wrong as another voice continued in slightly less stressed tones.
'It's an Anti-Magilink Field,' explained Vesta, tense and hurried but not in any apparent distress. 'Rips apart your spells. We've seen them before. This one's really nasty. We're kinda busy right now stay safe bye!'
The link closed.
Over in the direction Momoko had last seen the fight going, thunder rumbled. A pink glow appeared somewhere near the top of the barrier and for a moment the city was lit as if by dim sunlight, before the light split into a thousand pieces and started swarming after something. Black lightning crackled through the mass, which was fading a lot faster than Momoko liked.
No help coming from that quarter, then. Pushing the fear for her daughter down, feeling it bubbling under her hands like the lid of a boiling pot that the pressure was mounting within, Momoko turned to her next option.
'Yuuno?' she sent, focusing on the young blond mage. 'Yuuno, there's... there's a...'
She trailed off uncertainly. Something was wrong. There was an echo in the channel and it felt dead; unresponsive. 'Yuuno?' she tried again, and sent out a ping.
It bounced instantly. Alert and listening for it, she could feel the shape of whatever it rebounded from. Some sort of suppression ward - an echo chamber boxing them in. Telepathy interdict.
... telepathy interdict that had not been there a moment ago.
"Shiro!" she shouted. "We're cut off; our communications just went down." The ring of steel answered her as her husband and children drew their swords, and she bent over Chikaze carefully. "Chikaze? How do you feel? Can you get up?"
Chikaze forced her eyes open, one lagging slightly behind the other. She tried to speak, but managed only a raspy breath. She was still trying, though. Despite her condition, Momoko could feel her struggling to sit upright; pale-faced and blurry-eyed, fighting for every breath. Her face slowly shifted into a frown of concentration, and Momoko felt a flutter of telepathy brush against her mind. She shook her head.
"Don't," she ordered. "You're too weak, and the anti-magic field already hurt you." She pursed her lips, looking around. Kyouya, Miyuki and Shiro were standing at triangle points around her and the girls, but they were still exposed. "I'm going to try and pick you up, alright? Blink twice if it hurts too much."
She slid her arms under her legs and back and lifted slowly. Intent on watching the girl's eyes, she didn't see the incoming threat until a clash of metal-on-metal rang out through the ruined hospital and she spun to see what had caused it.
And blanched. There were three... things, watching them in a loose pack. They looked human, with visors set into their faces and wearing strange, identical uniforms. But they weren't. One of them was missing an arm at the shoulder; black ooze dripping slowly out of the torn stump. Another seemed to have had some horrible force scorch most of its face off. It had no visor, no eyes, no features at all - just a horrible charred ruin that somehow didn't stop it looking at them.
The last one was intact, except for two holes that went clean through its chest. Ooze dripped out of them slowly, but Momoko could see clean through it to the rubble beyond. One hole in its chest was big enough to fit her fist through, and a strange white glow emanated from the cavity. The other, further down, was twice as wide and went through what would have been its guts, had it had any.
It was the last one that had attacked. Its arm was still outstretched, and from the angle of Shiro's sword, he had parried whatever it had fired. Arisa and Suzuka wordlessly put themselves behind him, and Miyuki started to circle round to join him between the figures and Momoko. Kyouya hung back on the other side of the circle; wary of an ambush from behind.
Very slowly, Momoko lifted Chikaze up, testing her weight. "Shiro," she said quietly. "We're going to back away. Can you-"
She stopped. The things were spreading out, splitting up to surround them. They moved with eerie synergy; Blind and Armless going to their sides while Hole approached. Shiro let out a slow whistling breath as he began to give ground, prompting Momoko to start backing away.
"Dad…" Miyuki said hesitantly. "I… don't think they're looking at us."
"They're not," he agreed, skipping back closer to Momoko and the girls as Armless tried to dart in and get between them. As soon as he did, Hole and Blind fired – not at him or Momoko, but at the exposed Miyuki. Grey spells slashed out at her and she yelped, ducking one and leaping back to avoid the other. Her sword was up as soon as she touched down again, and a slash and another jump took her back to the relative safety of Shiro's side.
"Predators," he said grimly. "They're after you, Momoko. Or the girls. They're stalking us, trying to separate us and strike while we're isolated. Stay together."
A deep, bitter part of Momoko coiled in her gut and snarled. Here she was, being stalked by some… some magical horror monsters, and she felt useless. She'd been told by three or four different people that she had a huge potential, but all she had was six months of self-taught magic that she couldn't even use with her hands busy holding Chikaze. While her daughter, who'd only had a few months more training than her, was up in the sky fighting some… some weapon of mass destruction that Momoko couldn't protect her from or even fully understand!
It had been stewing inside her for months; that helplessness. It was getting harder and harder to keep from lashing out at something. Well, to hell with being passive and useless here. She wanted to use one of those combat spells she'd practiced!
She could hear the girls holding an urgent conversation behind her; something about Chikaze, bad guys and friends. "Suzuka," she murmured a little louder. "My Device, in my pocket. Could you hand it to me?"
The girls broke off their muttering for a moment, and she felt a small hand dig into her pocket. Then the hard form of the Device met her fingers, and she nodded gratefully. So, to start with… she didn't exactly have any spells for making things hover beside her, but she knew plenty for moving them around. All she had to do was make a steady upward force holding Chikaze up, and direct the moving-around bits to just keep the girl beside her.
The AMF made it harder – a lot harder, in fact - than she'd expected. But on her third try, she managed to produce a casting circle formed at her feet and gently lift Chikaze out of her arms to float behind her. She kept a mental eye on the spell as she transformed the Device to its staff form. She'd have to be quick if it started to falter.
"I don't think they're going to let us just walk away, dear," she said. "We need to put them down."
"We're coming up on the road," Kyouya said behind her. "Dad, remember when we were testing Mum's armour?"
A pause. Then Momoko realised what he meant. "I remember," she said. "Arisa, Suzuka. Closer, please."
They shuffled closer as she thought quickly, staring down the… magic… golem… things. Holes made another lunge, but this time Shiro was wise to the other two. His foot blurred as he kicked a chunk of brick and concrete at it without dropping his guard, and it broke off its attack in what could almost have been panic to cover the hole in its chest.
If she flared her proto-Barrier Jacket, Momoko decided, she could surround herself and all three children in a protective bubble that would keep them safe from any other lurking enemies. That would give Miyuki, Kyouya and Shiro the freedom to go on the attack - but were the three of them enough to take these things on? The creatures were damaged, true, but…
A whispered "Ready?" "Now!" behind her was all it took to realise she should really have been paying more attention to the girls. The telepathic shout that followed it was loud. Surprisingly loud, in fact - and a fair approximation of Chikaze's mental voice. It said just one thing.
The monsters lunged, and Momoko's world became a blistering stop-motion of terror and violence.
Her Barrier Jacket flaring; the deep pinkish-red hue flooding the air around her and engulfing the girls.
Kyouya flying past her, his overhead block intercepting Armless's remaining sword-arm. The blade flowed like honey around his sword; wrenching it out of his grip as it kneed him in the stomach and turned to stab at Miyuki.
Shiro parrying another spell from Holes, then driving it back with a furious assault that filled the area with the crash of metal.
Blind coming straight for her, unerring despite its ruined face, and a shield somehow blooming from her outstretched hand despite the fear locking up all conscious thought.
Kyouya surging upright as Miyuki blocked his stolen sword and grappling Armless from behind. Its leg came up at her, a wickedly barbed thing where its foot should have been, and drops of blood stained the ground as she accepted a hit to the thigh to take its head off.
A cry from Shiro as he went down; a bind around his legs as Holes blurred past him. Blind stabbing through her shield, and the shooting spell that sprang fully formed to mind as if it wanted to be used.
Kyouya screaming as Armless went up in flames and came apart into goo. She caught a shimmer in the air around him as he dropped to the ground and rolled away, but then she was firing, bullet after bullet of mana flashing out. Impossibly, Blind dodged, leaning out of the way of first one, then another, and then…
Shiro, stripping off his shirt in one economical motion and lashing out with it shirt like a whip, coiling around Holes' head and yanking it back onto his sword, stabbing up through the hole through its chest and into the glow within.
Blind faltered, and four shots hit it in the face and chest like sledgehammers. It lost cohesion as it fell, and hit the ground as a puddle of burning sludge even as Shiro twisted out of the way of Holes' decomposition.
Silence fell for a second, broken only by a crack of thunder and a brilliant red-gold beam from above. Chemical fumes rose up from the swiftly decomposing corpse-things. The Takamachis caught their breath, then hurried over to Kyouya, who was curled up, screaming faintly. Shiro was first to reach him, and hissed through his teeth. Momoko gasped as she saw what had happened.
"Armour stopped most of it," her son gritted out, sitting up gingerly. "Slid off without touching. But the heat…"
Miyuki swore colourfully; language that would normally earn her a reprimand. Right now Momoko didn't have it in her. Most of the front of Kyouya's shirt was gone, and he sported angry red burns down half his chest and most of his right arm. Shiro inspected them with an experienced eye, and frowned.
"Second degree, I think. We need to clean and wrap them. And you two…" he turned on Arisa and Suzuka, scowling, "can explain what you were thinking."
"It was Chikaze!" Arisa blurted, looking very nearly more intimidated than she had been by the monsters. "Suzuka wanted... I mean, realised they wanted... I mean..."
"The first thing they did was stop our telepathy," Suzuka offered, sounding only a little calmer. "And I thought... if they just wanted to kill us they could have done that before anyone could have gotten here to help. But they stopped us talking instead."
"And Chikaze was talking to Hayate!" Arisa cut in. "So they were probably... something the thing in Hayate sent to stop her. And we thought that if we sounded like Chikaze they might panic and try to stop us and then be off-guard for you to..."
"Enough," Shiro said, sheathing his sword and bringing a hand up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "Just... enough. That was reckless and impulsive of you, but..." A sigh. "I suppose it worked. For now, let's get somewhere defensible." He glanced up as black rain began to fall from the periodic flashes of light. It was hard to tell from a distance, but the buildings under it looked like they were melting.
"Somewhere defensible and away from that fight," he corrected himself. "And then hope that there aren't any more of those things."
Chrono was fighting defensively, which rankled. But he didn't have much of a choice in the matter.
It wasn't that he lacked a near-infinite and horrifyingly illegal power source like Takamachi and Testarossa, both of whom were filling the sky with glowing bullets and beams. He was no ridiculous powerhouse like Takamachi, but his stamina was still impressive. Nor was it that he lacked the sheer juggernaut-like stopping power of mages like Zest or Quint. If he chose to go on the attack, he could still output a fair amount of damage. The problem wasn't even that Durandal, while an incredible piece of technology, wasn't tuned to him and optimised for his spell arsenal the way his trusty S2U was.
No, he was fighting defensively because unlike certain people, he remembered that the only realistic shot they had at winning this fight was a high-level binding spell from an Eidelon-class Device. And the only other one on the battlefield had a Jewel Seed wired into it and was being used to shoot a Triple Divine Buster at an anti-fortification area bombardment spell.
Chrono dipped low to avoid the explosion as pink beams met black cloud. A brief deluge of fading black motes rained down, and he heard a couple of buildings give way beneath them; their supports eaten away by the magical acid. The cloud was fading, though, so he counted that as a win.
Now, if he had the Book's timing right, it should be starting a new chant about...
[Stinger Blade: Execution Shift]
... now. Dozens of sparkling blue swords appeared around him and fired, launching themselves at the sigil that was already forming as the Book began to chant. A translucent wave of air pulsed out to stop them, which he'd expected, and the sigil doubled in size, which he hadn't. Still, he'd planned for defences.
One of the swords that had missed both Book and shield curved round behind her; a guided missile whistling towards the back of her head. Its red eyes were focused forward, staring hatefully at... either him or Takamachi, he wasn't sure. Either way, it was wide-open for...
... the spell to burst against the reinforced Barrier Jacket, knocking the Book's head forward with the force of the impact but not doing more damage than singeing its hair.
But oh well. The intention had never been to hurt it. The Book twisted around, pausing its chant and bringing a hand up to ward away any further shots. And that gave Testarossa enough time to dart in, Familiar in tow, to slash through the sigil and start hammering the Book from behind with her scythe.
That would keep it occupied for a while.
He threw himself forward, already running through new bind permutations. Eternal Coffin took too much time to set up; he needed a stationary target to cast it on. The problem was getting the Book to stay stationary. Because however much time he could buy with clever tactics, the fact was that they were losing.
Takamachi swooped up to join him, panting. She was missing a sleeve, which was slowly reforming, and her cape was more char-mark than mana-fabric. "Nice one," she said, matching his speed. "I think it's slowing down!"
He shook his head. "It's not. We are." She frowned as they dipped to dodge an errant spell, and he glanced over at the fight. It looked like Scrya was moving in to support Testarossa, so he motioned them both down. Landing behind a crumbling and half-melted building, he leaned heavily on the wall. "Let's take a quick breather. A building won't stop it, but it'll make it harder for it to get sensory acquisition, and I think it's busy. So we have some time to think about things."
"What's there to think about?" Vesta said, landing near Takamachi and letting the girl half-fall into her arms. She'd lost her scarf somewhere, and there were several deep gashes in her torso that showed the blood-red mana substrate within. "We keep hitting her until she goes down, right?" Takamachi glared at her, and she hastily corrected herself. "I mean the evil bit! We keep hammering her until it frizzes out and Hayate comes back."
Chrono shook his head again. "We're losing this fight. We lost the initiative when Zest went down. Before that, we were stopping it getting any long arias off. With him gone and the AMF up, we can only interrupt two in three, and each big spell it manages makes it harder for us to stop the next." He shot a hard look at Takamachi. "How many more black rains can you take?"
Her jawline became a solid, stubborn line. "As many as I need to."
With a great effort of will, Chrono suppressed the urge to thump her over the head with Durandal. It probably wouldn't knock any sense into her, considering everything else that had clearly failed.
"You can't and you know it," he snapped instead, ignoring how his tone made Vesta bristle. "Look, I hate to admit it, but you're good at doing the impossible. We need to end this. Soon. I don't think we can pin it down long enough for my Eternal Coffin as we are, and at this rate it's going to beat us and..."
He glanced around at the melted, shattered buildings. It was enough to make his point. Takamachi followed his gaze, paling as her familiar wrapped her in a tighter hug, and Chrono quietly pressed his thumb and middle finger together for luck.
Her scared look turned thoughtful. Then evaluative. Then excited.
Chrono smirked triumphantly. "What do you have?"
"The barrier," she said slowly. "It's stopping us from getting more people... it's like a photocopy, right?"
He blinked, not sure where this was going, and she gestured with her hands to explain. "Like... there's the real world," she held one hand out flat, palm to the ground, "and then the Dimensional Sea above it, and a barrier is like a sort of... copy of a bit of the world that's shunted upwards a bit. Between realspace and the Sea. That's why there are copies of buildings and things, but they don't get broken when you cancel the barrier." She frowned. "And why cars don't work, I guess. Not enough detail."
"... yes," Chrono said guardedly. "How does this help us with the Book?"
Takamachi nodded. "The bottom of this barrier is reinforced, right? That's why we can't get out. But I think... I think the reason it's so dark and weird is we're closer to the Dimensional Sea. So if we can't beat the Book we can push away from Earth!"
Chrono considered this for a moment. "You're talking about, what, breaking through the top of the barrier?" he asked. "The Sea would wash in and..."
She bit her lip. "No. Why not break the bottom of the barrier? Just above the reinforcement. Then the whole barrier will float up into the Sea - like the Garden of Time! And that gets it away from Earth..."
"And into the fleet's range," Chrono finished, a surge of adrenaline hitting him as he saw where she was going. "That might work. How would we break it?"
This seemed to momentarily stump Takamachi, but her familiar raised a hand. "You said that thing was a binding and sealing Device, right?" she said, nodding at Durandal. "So lock down the bottom edge of the Barrier, then have Nanoha shoot it really hard."
Takamachi had the grace to look faintly embarrassed. Still, absurd as the plan sounded, it was simple enough that it might work. Durandal could lock down the barrier and make it vulnerable, then it was just a matter of hitting it hard enough to break it loose. Not that different in principle from a dimensional quake.
"Fine," Chrono decided. "We'll try this. Tell everyone to brace for the impact and make sure the Book doesn't hear. I'm guessing you'll be using that mana-condensing spell from the Jewel Seed Incident?"
She nodded. "Starlight Breaker. I'm going to give it everything I've got! Full power!"
"Aim away from any civilians," he ordered. "The Sea isn't literally above us, so you'd be best off pointing it straight upwards. If you can catch the Book in the blast cone, all the better. I'll make sure the most brittle part of the barrier is the Earthward one. Now warn the others."
He spun Durandal round and pointed it at the ground, and closed his eyes. "Barb Penetrator," he whispered, firing a blue dart downward. It winked out of sight before it hit the ground, shifting to hit the teleport interdict, and he gritted his teeth as his intrusion programs got to work. A sealing spell on a barrier that was actively fighting him, tuned so that the interference was greatest along one dimensional axis. This was going to be tricky.
He was vaguely aware of Takamachi sending out a wide-band message, but he was too busy juggling equations and counter-countermeasures to really listen to it. He caught a determined 'everyone!' and a 'keep it distracted' before having to focus all his attention on the interference pattern. Durandal was really showing its strength; smoothly and quickly doing whatever he asked of it. He almost couldn't finish forming the spells before it completed them for him. Complexity, apparently, was its speciality.
Beside him, he felt Takamachi back a considerable distance away and start to gather a terrifying amount of power above her. "Countdown," he spared a flicker of attention to grunt. "Let me know how long."
"Guys," Vesta said, a trace of alarm in her voice. "I think we have a problem."
Chrono didn't swear, but only because he was trying to wrestle tensors into submission. "Book noticed us?"
'Hard not to!' From the sounds of it, she'd switched to her war form. 'Fate's stalling it but she can't buy us forever! Hurry up!'
"Give me... just a minute..." Come on, come on... there! An interference pattern that forced the barrier to harden, leaving it brittle against enough force. "Takamachi! Now!"
"Ten more seconds!" she yelled. This time Chrono did swear. He couldn't break off his assault on the barrier to fight a holding action. The spell was already trying to adapt. He cracked an eye open and glanced up to see a dark-winged monstrosity descending; wreathed in green chains and lightning. He pushed all his feelings, all his hatred for that thing away. The best revenge was beating it and he couldn't make a single mistake.
"Five!" Takamachi yelled. The Book was screaming, he realised; motes of light pouring from it like a swarm of fireflies.
"Four!" The pink light of the mass above her was blinding; a sphere of turbulent mana that burned like it was drenched in oil and must have been a dozen metres across at least. The nine year old was nearly invisible amidst the light of her magic. Unlike her casting six months ago, the edges of this spell dissolved into a fuzzy mist of mana so dense Chrono could taste it in the air and feel it against his skin. He could see the Jewel Seed in her Device; hear the whine of the ancient Lost Logia as it fed her an endless supply of mana to counteract what she was losing to the AMF.
"Three!" The Book was diving straight towards them, attack spells blazing in its wake, the cloud of light-motes rushing down ahead of it. There was nothing he could do now; it was just a matter of who reached their goal first.
"Two!" His programs would last less than a second without his upkeep. At best, if he acted as fast as he could and pulled it off perfectly, he could manage one spell.
"One!" It would have to be the right one, then.
And light struck like a tidal wave.
Thought returned. So did sensation. She was cradled in someone's arms, and they were crying.
"... stupid stupid dumb! Reckless idiot stupid stupid bad!"
Ah. Vesta. That would explain the crying. Nanoha cracked an eye open. Buildings loomed above her – they must still be down at street level – and her familiar was looking down at her, tears trickling down her cheeks. Her hair was singed, and she was missing both sleeves and much of her skirt, but she seemed mostly unharmed by... whatever had happened.
"Idiot!" she repeated emphatically, and hugged Nanoha hard enough to make her ribs creak. "It nearly got you! I barely broke the illusion! Don't ever do that again!"
"What..." Nanoha coughed. "What happened?"
Vesta growled deep in her throat, then sniffed and blinked the tears away. "Chrono's gone. The Book sort of... ate him, I think. But you got the spell off. The whole barrier wrenched loose. It was like a dimensional quake."
"Ate him?" Nanoha asked, voice quavering. Her hands shook, and she only belatedly realised she had them wrapped around Raising Heart. It was missing a cooling vent, and one of the tines was partly melted. The metal of her gloves was charred and the mana-fabric had been seared away entirely. She could feel blisters all along her fingers against the cool metal of the shaft.
Weakly, Vesta shifted her into one arm and held up another Device. It was Chrono's. "He... he threw it to me," she said softly, trembling. If she had been in her kitten form, her fur would have been fluffed out. "He pulled us away with one of his cables. He was shouting that we couldn't let it eat the Jewel Seed and then it w-went for him and… and then he… he threw it to me just as it touched him and then he just... he just dissolved. Into light."
A lump formed in Nanoha's throat. She didn't like the young Enforcer very much, but he was a good person. They fought well together, complementing each other's strengths, and he hadn't hesitated to make sure the civilians were safe before anything else when the interdict had gone down.
That he'd sacrificed himself for her...
She rubbed a sleeve across her eyes and shifted out of Vesta's grip to stand on her own two feet.
"If it ate him, he's still in there," she said, willing it to be true. "So we'll just beat the Book up twice as hard and get him back!"
"Right," nodded Vesta fiercely. "Uh. How?"
"We'll find a way," Nanoha declared. She squared her jaw. "Let's find the Book and beat it!"
This did not prove difficult. There were several buildings missing from around Nanoha's firing point, and the street was still glowing and half-molten from the backlash. The Book was trying to get to her feet, hindered by her missing arm. Two of her four wings were broken beyond repair, dissolving back into mana even as Nanoha watched. Her skin was flaking away in places and regrowing in a charred black colour, and something that looked an awful lot like blood was dripping from the burns that covered half of her face.
Staring at the damage she'd done, Nanoha felt sick. She hadn't... she hadn't meant to hurt her. Not like this. Not... not with crippling burns or... or whatever had happened to the Book's poor face. She'd just wanted her to stop. To... to be caught higher up and knocked out. A choked sob of horror forced its way up and out of her throat.
The slumped and bleeding figure changed in an instant. The exhausted kneeling posture of someone unable to force themselves up onto both feet became a tense three-point crouch, and the hanging head whipped towards the source of the sound. From under a veil of white hair, a single blood-red eye glared out at Nanoha with mad fury. Blood dripped from the Book's fingers as her hand rose.
"Shatter, world, and cast out the enemy," she rasped. Paralysed, Nanoha could only stare as Vesta tried to drag her away. When that failed, the cat-familiar snarled in frustration and put herself solidly in front of her mistress. The Book didn't seem to notice as she continued, growing louder and wilder as she chanted. "Banish them to a realm of eternal oblivion and grant them no respite! Li-"
Green light slammed down like a hammer, cutting off the last few words and forcing her hand down to the ground. The surface of the street buckled beneath it, light refracting oddly as if through splintered glass. A colour that wasn't blossomed in the warped space as the tarmac warped. The details faded as the cracks devoured light, hurting the eyes with impossible hues.
Nanoha had seen that un-colour before. Six months ago. Leaking out of the rifts into Imaginary Space.
And then it was gone. With an audible crack, the breach closed, and there was a car-sized chunk missing from the ground just beyond the Book's outstretched finger. The things forcing her down weren't chains, they were blocks; huge solid structures of mana that would have weighed tonnes if they'd been metal; punching into the ground and trapping her limbs and torso inside stocks that outmassed her three times over. A Midchildan binding circle dropped down around her and Nanoha's knees buckled. Even right at the fringes, it felt like gravity had suddenly tripled. Another smaller one dropped from the sky to hover a few inches above it – and then another within that, and another within that. It wasn't until five circles had formed around her, each smaller and brighter than the last, that the assault stopped.
Somehow, incredibly, the Book was still struggling. She managed to raise her head a few inches – enough for Nanoha to see the emerald gag that had covered her mouth. But no further.
Grunting with the effort, Vesta hefted Nanoha into her arms and backed out of the widest circle. Stepping outside it felt like suddenly launching into flight, and Nanoha's eyes naturally tracked upwards.
Yuuno Scrya, Fate Testarossa and Arf hung in the air above her, the former panting with effort. Nanoha could see the light of Bardiche's Jewel Seed through the casing as Fate funnelled it through a mana-sharing spell. It had shifted colour, she realised. It had been a reddish shade earlier; halfway between its original purple and Fate's electric gold. Now it was almost as close to Fate's colour as Nanoha's Seed was to hers.
The trio landed, and Arf split off from the other two to hurry over to Nanoha. From the looks of things, both Yuuno and Fate wanted to follow, but instead they stayed put, pacing around the edge of the binding circle until they were out of the Book's sightline.
"Nanoha! Vesta!" Arf gasped as she reached them. "Are you alright? Did it hurt you?"
"We're fine," Nanoha reassured her, ignoring the sceptical look she got in return. "Now! Time to save Chrono and Hayate! How do we get them out?"
Arf looked at her strangely. "Why are you asking me that?" she asked. "I'm not the one with the plan."
"Does it matter whose plan it is?" Nanoha snapped, frustrated. "Just tell me what it is!"
Now Arf was looking confused. After a moment, comprehension seemed to dawn. "Wait a minute," she said slowly. "She... she didn't tell you yet?"
"Who didn't tell me what?"
And a new voice intruded.
'That, my dear,' it said, 'would be me.'
Nanoha's mouth fell open. Heck, Nanoha almost fell over. Because that voice. She knew that voice. She'd said goodbye to that voice, in tears... was it only the day before? If that?
'... Precia?' she breathed.
'I apologise for waiting to contact you, Nanoha.' Precia's voice sounded tired, but... well, she was awake to be tired. Had... had Jail managed to save her? 'I didn't want to distract you at a crucial moment, not when you were so close to the Book of Darkness. Now, however, we have time to talk freely.'
'How... where are... when did you...'
Nanoha stammered, questions falling out so fast they tripped over her tongue. 'You're... but Linith...'
She looked down, her heart sinking, and Vesta embraced her from behind. 'She... she's really gone, isn't she?'
Precia's tone was as gentle as she could make it, but she said it solemnly and without hesitation. 'Yes, I'm afraid so. She sacrificed herself to ease the burden on my Linker Core, and our mutual friend managed to bolster my system. I had to force him to give me the medicine I wanted, but I can be persuasive when I have to.' She paused. 'I have a day or so before I fall into another coma – but it looks like I may wake up from that one, in time.'
'But... how did you get here? Where are you?'
Nanoha paled, looking around. 'You're not in here, are you? It's dangerous!'
Precia laughed. 'No, child. No, I am...' She paused. 'You managed to disconnect the barrier from Earth – well done, by the way. That brought the interdict down to a level that can be breached by scrying and amplified telepathy. I am onboard a ship just outside the realspace bubble.'
Another, longer pause.
'... a Bureau ship.'
Nanoha turned sheet white and brought Raising Heart up protectively. 'They caught you? Alicia! Is she-'
Nanoha shut up. 'Alicia is safe with... our mutual friend. I came to the Bureau willingly – they're helping me because they need me. They cannot afford to refuse when the Book is here.' She chuckled mirthlessly. 'If all goes to plan, they might even give me a medal. Though I doubt it. Regardless, Alicia will be safe until I can convince them that she is no threat – and that they need not take action against her. The suppression of the Jewel Seed is sound; as long as I can actually make my case, I can force them to accept that much. And they will let me make my case.'
'How do you know, though?'
Nanoha looked over at Yuuno and Fate, who... well, Fate in particular seemed overjoyed. She was beaming. Well, alright, she was smiling very slightly as she paced around the edge of the binding circle and spoke to Yuuno. But for fight-mode Fate, that was like beaming. Still, there was no guarantee that she wasn't so happy about her mother being alive that she'd forgotten to think about... about the long-term stuff. And things. 'What if they don't give you a chance; what if they just lock you up and then follow us when we go to pick Alicia up at... at our friend's place?'
'Some will say they should,'
Precia agreed. 'But they won't. They will have to listen to my claims of suppressing a Lost Logia, you see. Because I will have demonstrated it in front of them, in terms they cannot deny.'
'... you're going to use the Jewel Seeds in Raising Heart and Bardiche?'
Nanoha asked, confused. 'But... they'd still have to listen for you to-'
'No, my dear,'
Precia cut her off. And suddenly Nanoha felt a lot better about this, because she could hear the triumphant smirk in Precia's voice. It was the same note of triumph that she'd had when she'd explained how she'd revived Alicia in the first place. 'Not the Jewel Seeds.'
'I will present them with the Book of Darkness. Sealed, suppressed – and harmless.'
"You have to stop, please, they're harmless!"
The virtual space at the heart of the Book of Darkness was no longer calm and contented. The starry sky was rent by wide swathes of sucking blackness that seemed to pulse like veins, and there was a chill to the air. Hayate spun her wheels again in a desperate attempt to get closer to the Book, but the construct stepped back with every roll forward to maintain the space between them. "Please!" she begged. "They won't hurt you if you stop fighting, just stop! I'm not in danger!"
"... but you are." The Book looked very old, suddenly. And still strangely familiar in a way that was niggling at Hayate like a puzzle she ought to know the answer to. "Once, I was harmless," she said. "Then, I was the Tome of the Night Sky. Now I am cursed; wrapped in a mantle of darkness and suffering that suits this fallen era. I apologise, Lady Hayate. I have brought only pain upon you."
"I don't..." Hayate stuttered, "I don't understand."
"The curse I carry is born by each of my masters in turn," the Book said. She was wavering. Her arm was fading in and out of view like it was barely there. "It saps at their strength like a hungry worm until I am woken. It has been eating into your body for years." Tears gathered in her eyes and spilled down her cheeks, and her eyes creased in grief. "My heart is bound to those of my Knights, and so I cannot forgive myself... for being the one who is killing you."
"That..." Hayate's breathing sped up again and her hands went to her wheels instinctively. "So… so wait a minute, you're saying you paralysed me? That's why I'm like this? You knew?" She sat straighter, eyes wide, staring down at her legs. "I figured… we figured it was… but you knew, and… and why didn't you stop it, or tell me, or… or something!"
"… Lady Hayate…"
Startled, she looked up. There were tears glinting against the Book's cheeks, and she suddenly realised why they seemed so familiar.
"You look like me," she whispered.
The Book didn't seem to hear her. She was either heartbroken or doing a very good impression of it, because her eyes and tears spoke volumes that her face couldn't hide. "Lady Hayate, I am sorry. So sorry. So shamed. This era… it is so dark. So lightless. I have lost the stars, and it is only now in waking that I remember they once were." She swayed forward, her tears spilling down to her chin and falling in tiny droplets that burst against Hayate's hands. "The curse cannot be broken. The world cannot be saved. Darkness will fall. I have tried… I have tried. So many times. I am sorry, Lady Hayate, that you were born in such a cruel time. But though your foes are doomed, though they cannot stop the me without... you will not..."
"No... no, listen to me!" Hayate reached up and grabbed her, pulling her down to her knees. "Listen, just... they're not foes, okay? And the illness... the illness is bad. But... but maybe we can find a way round it now we know what it is! You just... they can help us, they're trying to help us, you just have to listen! Think of Shamal and Signum and Vita and Zafira! You said they're close to your heart - they knew not everything was trying to hurt us!"
For a moment - just a moment - she thought the Book was wavering. But then bleak despair poured down on her again.
"They try to kill us as we speak," she said, her voice hollow. "The me without can sense it. The hatred and hostility from every angle. There is no escape. There is no aid. There will be no more listening. They cannot escape, and they cannot prevail." Scars bloomed on her face, her eye fading into a matte black abyss as well. The pulsing veins of blackness were crawling closer; dropping down from the sky, crawling across the expanse towards them. Something was wrong here - horribly, unnaturally wrong - but Hayate didn't know what it was and she lacked the time to work out how to fix it.
"... fine." Hayate hadn't wanted to resort to her last idea. But she was desperate. "Fine then! You called me mistress! Right now, I am your mistress. So you have to listen to what I say. You can't ignore me! And I'm telling you to stop fighting them! Stop fighting and bring back my knights and let me out of here!"
The Book reared back. "That would cause your death, Lady Hayate. I cannot follow such a command." She paused. "I will not."
"Well I'm not giving you a choice!" Hayate met her gaze full on. The air between them solidified as a silent battle of wills erupted.
"I said," Hayate gritted out. "To bring back my knights. And to let me out." Her eyes flashed blue fire. "And that was an order, Book of Darkness."
'I realised early on that we might be dealing with the true Book of Darkness, and began to plan for that eventuality,' Precia explained. 'My work on a binding spell that could seal it was nearly complete when... well, when I succumbed. My experience with the Jewel Seeds served me well in that regard, and when I found out that the Wolkenritter had launched a major attack, I contacted the Bureau.'
'And it will work?'
Nanoha asked, glancing over at where the Book still struggled against her restraints. 'You're sure about that?'
Precia sniffed. 'The spell is inefficient, slow, prohibitively expensive to cast and will need maintenance once applied, if not an entirely new seal put in place under better conditions by the Bureau. I was rushed for time in making it, so it's abominably sloppy work by any standards. But I know spellcrafting, and I know Lost Logia at least as well as anyone else alive. It will work, Nanoha, as long as you can cast it.'
She continued before Nanoha could celebrate. 'That, however, will be difficult. The inefficiencies in the spell mean it will take a great deal of power to cast. If only I was well… but I am not. The Book will need to be reduced to a passive state in which it cannot resist the seal, and even then you shouldn't try casting without at least three Eidelon-class or equivalent Devices.'
Precia sighed. 'You need to shoot it until it passes out first. Then you, Fate and the Harlaown boy need to seal it in unison.'
The bottom dropped out of Nanoha's stomach.
'Chrono… Chrono is g-gone, though,' she whispered. 'The… the Book ate him. He saved me.'
A long, horrible silence descended. Then Nanoha's jaw firmed, and she closed her hand around the card in Vesta's fist. 'It didn't get his Device, though,' she said. 'Send me the spell. I'll work it out.'
Precia sounded alarmed. 'You cannot cast two components of the spell at once! It will either fail or kill you – or both!'
'Don't worry, I'm not going to,'
Nanoha reassured her. 'Send me the spell.' She jutted out her chin. 'I have a plan.'
Three minutes later, she was hovering above the old hospital, scanning for heat signatures. She found Arisa, Suzuka and Chikaze's quickly and swooped down to where they were hiding, landing beside the remains of a house that had lost most of its walls but still had an intact cellar.
"Suzuka," she called as she dropped down past the ladder, "Aris- ahhh!"
The sword stopped a few centimetres away from… well, bouncing off her Barrier Jacket, probably, but it had been aimed to take her head off. She waited for her heart rate and breathing to settle, then gave her father a reproachful look. "Papa, it's me! And… and how are you even down here? I didn't see you on my thermal scan!"
Shiro looked like he was waiting for his own heartbeat to slow down from the near miss, but he managed a faint smirk. "Nice to see you still have a few things yet to learn," he teased. "I'll show you some other time. Is it over?"
"Ah?" Nanoha perked up with interest. So there was some sort of… heat signature-shielding thing in Fuwa style? How did that work? Maybe a simple illusion… wait, wait, no, that wasn't what she was here for! Later!
"Ah, no!" she said. "Not quite. That's why I'm here. We need Mama's help."
"Me?" Momoko spoke up, rising from where she was huddled with Miyuki, Kyouya and the girls. "How could I help in all of this?"
Nanoha took a deep breath, drawing on all her certainty that this would work, and stuck a hand in her pocket. "With this," she said.
And held out the gleaming white-and-blue form of Durandal.
Momoko's eyes widened. Then narrowed. And then, slowly, she smiled. "I think I would like that very much, darling,' she said. "What do I need to do?"
Five minutes and a hurried explanation later, they were back at the binding circle. Which wasn't looking so good. Nanoha frowned at the tiny shape amidst the huge green blocks.
"Yuuno," she said slowly. "Is it me, or… are there cracks in the block holding its arm down?"
"It's not just you." Slumped on a bench that had miraculously survived the destruction all around them, Yuuno wasn't looking well. "It's eating away at my barriers from the inside. And once you start casting and Fate stops feeding me mana, I'm not going to be able to repair them as fast as it can break them down. You'll have maybe ten seconds before it rips its way free."
Fate's lips pursed. "Enough time to charge a bombardment spell. We need to knock it out in one shot, then. That means all firing at the same time; maximum power."
Yuuno nodded tiredly. "I'll try to… I don't know, hook it in another bind once it goes down." He paused. "If it goes down."
"When it goes down," Nanoha corrected. "Mama? Can you manage the spells?"
"Hmm?" Momoko looked up from where she was, apparently, deep in communion with Durandal. She'd donned a proper Barrier Jacket with the Device's help; a simple blue coat with an empty sword belt slung around her hips and a fair approximation of her favourite walking boots. "I… think so. The bombardment, definitely – I can see why you love this so much, Nanoha, the equations are… are beautiful." She grinned, and Nanoha's heart leapt at the sight. Flushed with adrenaline and enthusiastic over newfound knowledge, her mother's familiar face looked radiant. Like a guardian angel. Or, Nanoha thought with some amusement, a Belkan saint.
"It's this second part; the sealing, that I'm worried about," she added, frowning. "The spellwork is far more complex."
Nanoha nodded. The sealing spell was a gorgeous piece of work – for all Precia's claims that it was sloppy and rushed, there was still an elegance in every line that Nanoha couldn't help but envy, and large elements that she could only fumble at understanding. But it was inefficient. And it would be difficult to cast, especially for a relative beginner like her mother.
"Don't worry," she promised, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. "We'll make it work. Raising Heart, help explain it to Mama! You were good with me when I was a beginner, so you'll be good with her."
[Yes, my master.]
Despite her conviction, it took time to read through the sealing spell; precious minutes slipping away as Yuuno fought a silent battle to keep the Book contained. By the time they were ready, he was sheet white and his hands were trembling. The stench of ozone hung heavy in the air beneath the baleful golden glow of Fate's Jewel Seed, and a heat haze seemed to cling to them from the energy losses. Fate hadn't said a word and held Bardiche as firmly as ever, but Nanoha was fairly sure that the metal around the Jewel Seed's housing was glowing a dull red.
"Are we ready?" Arf asked briskly, to a round of short nods. "Right. If things go wrong and it does get free; Yuuno'll try and seal it while we tackle it in war form. That should buy you at least a little time."
"And mistress, let's pretend we've already had this argument and I won," Vesta added before Nanoha could object. "It's weaker than it was, and you three won't be able to raise a shield. We're the best shot at stopping it."
"Agreed," said Fate. Nanoha shot her a betrayed look, which she returned with implacable calm. "Positions."
Grumbling, Nanoha took point to the Book's left. Fate and Yuuno stood at its right, and Momoko completed the triangle directly behind it.
'Mother,' she sent. 'We're ready.'
Precia's voice was little more than a whisper.
Inside the circle, the blocks holding the Book down were disintegrating faster and faster. Her head was free, and she stared at Nanoha with manic hatred, ignoring the others entirely. Four of Yuuno's gravity seals were gone, and wide cracks were spreading through the block that trapped her one arm. Black rot glowed within them, pushing back against his attempts to patch the holes.
Now that Nanoha could see her closer, the Book's face was a ruin. Her right eye and half her face was simply gone. The black under-structure of a mana construct boiling where once had been skin. She didn't scream, but somehow the low stream of muttering she kept up was worse. Nanoha didn't know what she was saying, and didn't want to. Curses, perhaps, in languages so old that nobody remembered they had ever been, and sounds no human voicebox could ever produce. Or nasty old spells from worlds that the Book of Darkness had destroyed.
"Raising Heart," Nanoha whispered. "You're hurt. How much output can you take?"
[Safe limit is 77% of standard, my master.]
She nodded. "Then cycle to 80%. I'll get you the best maintenance and repair I can find right after we're done."
[Alright, my master. Let's do it!]
Behind the terrible spectacle the Lost Logia made, Momoko raised a hand and counted down on her fingers. Five. Four. Three. Two.
Fate shifted the power away from Yuuno, and the reaction was instant. He stumbled backward, crying out as a wave of black tendrils exploded out from the Book, piercing the last few blocks holding it down, the gravity seals and slamming into the outer dome with a crash. The green wall fractured – but held.
Stymied, the tendrils retreated. But they didn't disappear. They coiled and compressed into a tight ball around the Book; like a nest of writhing snakes with barbed tips protruding in every direction. Looking at it, Nanoha couldn't help but think of… building pressure. Like taking a deep breath before pushing hard.
"Full power, everyone!" she shouted. "Let's go!"
Two Jewel Seeds spun, filling the air with mana. Three auras flared. Three Devices levelled.
Yuuno dropped the dome.
The black mass of tendrils rushing out met three bombardment spells rushing in. For a split second they were visible as dark outlines in the light; then they were gone. The Book rose like a demon out of hell, her tome rising above her upheld hand, but even the defences of a Lost Logia weren't fast enough to stop the assault. The three beams – one pink, one red, one gold – struck her in unison, and she vanished in the explosion. Uncontained by any barrier or shield, fed and gorged on mana, the ball of energy grew – and grew, and grew. It was all Nanoha could do to reinforce her Barrier Jacket and hunker down as the edge swept closer, trusting in the beam she was firing to turn the worst of it aside. She felt something light hit her in the back – Vesta's kitten form, holding on and using her as a shield against the storm. Yuuno had been near Fate, hadn't he? Arf... where had Arf been? Guarding her mother?
'Ready on the seal!'
Fate's voice pierced the maelstrom and Nanoha nodded. There was no time to spare for worrying. If the Book hadn't gone down yet, it wasn't going to – and they needed to seal it while they still had the strength.
It began as an almost floral bloom in front of her. Though her bombardment spell was over, the noise and light hadn't abated. The energies she, Fate and Momoko had unleashed were feeding off each other, clashing and rebounding and setting the mana-saturated air ablaze in a mana-storm that had swallowed half the city block.
But where before the heat had been scorching her eyebrows and the wind had been whipping her hair back; prevented from hurting her only by her Barrier Jacket and the outpouring of power going in the opposite direction, now the air was calm and still. Traced out in front of her in pink light was something utterly unlike her usual casting circles. Oh, there were Midchildan elements in it, yes. But the outer edge of the central circle was broken, radiating out in curving lines and chains of glyphs. It grew as it drew in power, both from her and from around it. The shape it took was asymmetrical; growing further up and to the right, and she didn't even recognise the script in parts of it.
Nanoha chanted the words that Raising Heart prompted her with, ran through the calculations and fed the growing magic where it needed to go. But despite how smoothly and easily it came, she knew she wasn't doing anything special here. Not compared to the person who'd written it. Nanoha could piece together perhaps a fifth of the sealing spell's workings, and recognised less than a third of the languages it was written in; blended together by a master's hand.
Despite the roar of the storm, the power running through her Device, the adrenaline singing in her veins and the aches and pains of the fight... all she could feel was humbled.
The blooming shapes spread out further, folding out from one another like the petals of a flower. Out of the corners of her eyes, Nanoha saw her bright pink meet Momoko's cherry-pink hue to the right and Fate's electric gold on her left. A ring – no, a dome, capped by the tri-colour casting circle that spread out across the ground in front of her. It began to contract...
... and met resistance.
The Book's will was furious. Through the half-completed binding, Nanoha felt her rage and scream, throwing herself against the closing chains. It felt like every muscle in her body cramping at the same time as someone punched her in the stomach, and she screamed in shock and pain as it hit.
'Don't stop!' Fate's voice lashed out. Nanoha could feel her will as well, and Momoko's. 'Keep going! Don't... don't let it break free!'
Gritting her teeth, Nanoha drew upon reserves of will she hadn't even known she had, and began to force their binding inward, one step at a time. Memories and sensations flickered through her mind and time took on an abstract, distant quality as they struggled for every inch. It was hard. But she knew where to look for what she needed.
The long months her papa had taken to recover from his wounds when she was just a child. Optimism and the patience to see things through.
Her mother's fierce willingness to help, even in the face of a strange and dangerous new world. Determination, and a refusal to be cowed.
Precia's brilliance and love for her daughter, fighting her illness to spend time with Alicia. Compassion, and hope for the future.
Fate's laser focus and skill, the way she'd forgiven Yuuno and helped him when it really mattered. Friendship, and the knowledge of things worth fighting for.
Vesta's weight on her back; her familiar refusing to leave her even in a struggle that risked their lives. Loyalty, and the responsibility to protect and care for others.
There was one more thing they needed, though. Just one – but one she couldn't supply on her own.
But she didn't need to. It came from another source.
'Hayate,' Chikaze's voice whispered; a zephyr in the middle of a hurricane. It shouldn't have been audible at all through all the noise and chaos, but somehow it reached them nonetheless. 'Hayate, please. Come back.'
And the Book's resistance... stopped.
The flower-like dome rushed in to fill the gap, compressing the last energies of the mana-storm that had been caught within it down until they formed a sphere too bright to look at. The layer of the seal darkened; layered and folded and twisted in on itself until the delicate lines and patterns were a solid mass of glyph upon symbol upon number upon shape. For a second Nanoha thought she could pick out every last one; backlit by the light within and overlaid on top of each other into a new pattern, the final meta-spell formed from the completed union of all the others.
And then it dissolved, piece by piece, fading inward and leaving nothing but the scorched and melted circle on which the struggle had ended. Nanoha fell to her knees as the force she'd been pushing against vanished, Raising Heart falling from a burnt and blistered hand. She was barely aware of Vesta catching her, or of Momoko's own collapse off to one side.
Six bodies were left where the sealing spell had been. Four knights, armed and armoured, their terrible wounds healed and their faces calm in well-earned rest.
A young boy, younger in sleep than awake, his hand sleepily curled around a Device that wasn't there.
And a girl. Her legs shifted as she yawned, her eyes open for a moment before fluttering closed. She rolled over and met the bulk of one of her knights; clustered around her protectively even in sleep. The movement was enough to turn her face towards Nanoha as consciousness began to fade.
She was smiling.
THE EPILOGUE OF POWER GAMES
WILL BE POSTED IN ONE WEEK
TO CONCLUDE THE FINALE