"... I don't understand," Alicia whispered, wide-eyed and fearful. Nanoha shook her head, the cool summer air stirring her hair.
"I know what it's doing," she said, though her voice wavered uncertainly. "Vesta - the real Vesta; my Vesta – she wouldn't just leave me like that when something was wrong. It wants me alone with you, so I don't want to... to hurt you by saying things it doesn't want to hear. So I'll pretend everything's okay, because the whole point of all of this was to protect you."
"Protect me from what?"
"The truth." Nanoha squeezed her eyes shut. "It's okay," she said. It was easier if she didn't look at Alicia. This way, she didn't have to see the hurt in her eyes. "You don't really need to understand. But I do. I need to... to face it. Say it out loud. Or I really will just sink back into believing again, and that would be wrong. That would be the easy way, not the right one."
She took a deep breath. "After we saved you, I thought that we could do anything," she said sadly.
"But you can!" Alicia protested. "You saved me and you tricked the TSAB and you beat the Book and-"
"I thought that was proof, you know?" Nanoha continued, staring at the inside of her eyeballs. She could feel tears welling up. "That all you had to do was try, and things would work out. That there'd always be a happy ending, as long as you did everything you could."
She sighed, opening her eyes. "But... I was wrong. Sometimes things just happen. Sometimes there are things you can't fight." Swallowing, Nanoha sat down. "When I was very little – even littler than you- my Papa got hurt very badly. We didn't know for sure that it would all turn out okay. Mama and Kyouya and Miyuki all had important things to do, but I... I couldn't help. All I could do was... not be in the way. Not be a burden."
Alicia's eyes were wide as she stared up at her. Nanoha avoided them.
"He got better," she said. "And maybe I took that as meaning that he'd worked really hard and just... made himself get better. But it doesn't work like that. Precia..." Nanoha stuttered. "I think... I don't think Precia is going to get better, Alicia. I don't think Linith saved her. I don't... I don't think she can win against it. She's just too sick." She sniffed. "I think we just lost, this time. We tried as hard as we could, and... and we still lost."
She hung her head, feeling empty. Where there was normally certainty and determination, now there was just hollowness, leaving her floating in a void. She couldn't find her footing. She had nothing to push against.
"We lost, and I don't know what to do. I'm alone here, just like I was then, and I can't do anything to help, and... and it's not going to end happily this time." She sniffed. "I'm sorry, Alicia. I'm sorry I... I failed."
The hunk of concrete was covered in splatters of slowly cooling metal, but it was the best cover he had right now. Chrono tried to ignore the heat bleeding through his barrier jacket and focused on assessing the situation.
The Plan was still good. In theory.
It was just that things weren't quite going as he'd wanted.
… and okay, he hadn't really expected it to be as easy as his ideal plan, but he'd hoped anyway. Which had been a mistake; he saw that now. Of course Takamachi wouldn't manage to take out the Book in one shot. Of course it would absorb her and start rampaging even more out of control.
Also there was a berserk catgirl trying to claw his arm off at the shoulder, but he'd probably have expected that if he'd had time to think about it.
All in all, things were not going Chrono's way. But the Plan. The Plan was still good.
If only he could get the familiar to listen to it.
"You left her!" Vesta screamed at him over the awful wails that filled the air, swiping ineffectually at his Barrier Jacket. "She might be dying! I might be dying! You left her!"
Chrono wasn't sure which one she thought was more important, and was fairly sure that neither did she. She was too far gone even to remember her mana-claws in her rage. Not that he was complaining about that. It was saving him having to lock her up in a bind. Regardless, there was no getting through to her, so he focused on more immediate priorities.
Like the Book.
He'd thought it was formidable before. But that had been nothing compared to what it had become. The white-haired woman that it had started as was still visible, but the black material of her dress was seeping off her in a thick black fog that engulfed everything nearby. Surfaces churned under it; skin and metal and chitinous plate. Barb-tipped wires had sprung from deep in the dark mist, and he was fairly sure that it was pulling material from within the Book's extradimensional spaces.
She hovered at the centre of the devastation; just over the spot Takamachi had fired from. The wailing sound was coming from her – or possibly from the fog, he couldn't tell. It was almost like song, but it made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. He caught a few distorted words of Ancient Belkan here and there as the fog twisted and coiled like a living thing.
Not even a familiar could survive what they'd done to the Book, yet it was still upright. Even now, it wasn't noticing the rain of rubble that was bouncing off it. Though that might be because a few bits of falling rubble paled in comparison to the beating it had already taken. Takamachi's spell hadn't initiated properly before it had eaten her, but the gathered power had still detonated in an uncontrolled explosion that had hit the Book point blank. Most of the already-battered city was just… gone. What little was left had been melted and warped by the Starlight Breaker. Swathes were still glowing red-hot. It had been all he could do to stay ahead of the worst of it with the familiar over one shoulder, and he'd still had to use a mostly-slagged building and his best shield to handle the rest.
Chrono was becoming increasingly convinced that something was wrong with that girl. Who used spells like that? Was it some kind of barbarian 97er tolerance of mass weapons that led to complete apathy towards collateral damage? And what kind of nine-year old mind came up with them in less than a month of study?
He risked another glance around the side of his hiding spot at the blasted wasteland that had been a city district a minute ago. Cracks had opened in the air; fractures in the barrier that Takamachi hadn't managed to dislocate entirely. Violet plumes of high-energy radiation, mana and whatever else the Sea was made up of were surging through and Chrono made a mental note to avoid those open wounds in the world. He wasn't sure exactly what a breach directly into the Sea would spit out, but it wasn't worth testing his shielding against.
The Book still hadn't moved. Maybe it was stunned. If Testarossa had survived the explosion, he could…
"You're not listening to me!" the catgirl shrieked, and finally remembered she had magic. Bloody claws came out as she lunged, murder in her eyes.
Chrono had her bound and trapped in a sound-muffler before she got halfway, dropping her prone to the floor with blue wire wrapped around her limbs and pure venom written all over her face. She tried to shift into her war form, but the bonds held her tight. Her yells were hushed by the silencer in his spell. He put her to the back of his mind. He had bigger things to worry about.
The tome hovered in front of the Book's chest. Magnified by his visor, Chrono could see the text in it squirming; the pages flickering madly. It was humming; a loud, low drone that lay under the wails of the fog, and occasionally it flickered for a second into a jet-black outline.
Something bulged outward from the pages and fell to the ground. It was covered in black oil; malformed and too big and a mishmash of hundreds of shifting features with burning eyes. Somewhere in the half-fluid shape of the thing, Chrono caught a flash of pink hair and a gleaming sword.
Ducking back down, he drew on the more practical side of his Navy brat education for a string of curses A flash of motion caught his attention. Testarossa's familiar beckoned from a few dozen metres away, behind the remains of a building that had survived rather better than his own. Hoisting the catgirl over his shoulder, he checked the Book wasn't looking his way and darted across. Her thrashing almost overbalanced him halfway there, but he managed to just about avoid dropping her, and got a vicious bite on the arm for his trouble.
"You," he gritted out once he was safely behind cover again, "Testarossa's familiar."
"Arf." Her gaze was flat and unfriendly.
"Arf, fine. Can you snap her out of this state and get her to listen to me?"
She glanced at the other familiar's distress, then levelled an unimpressed stare at him. "I'm trying to decide whether I should help her gut you, actually."
"Look," he said impatiently. "The Book was coming down on us. It was a race to see who struck first. I had a split-second to act just before it hit. My attack programs held just long enough. She," he gestured at the catgirl, "was only there to protect her mistress. There wasn't much she could do against the Book except get hit along with her. The only one who absolutely had to be there right up until the end was Takamachi. If she'd got her shot off before the Book reached her, we'd have won. I chose to trust her to pull off a miracle but plan a fallback in case she didn't."
"And she didn't."
Chrono sighed. "No, she didn't. The explosion hurt it; not enough, but it hurt it. And it absorbed her, which means she's inside it like my father was last time this happened. And the damage he did still hasn't repaired itself." He gritted his jaw and slammed his staff's butt into the ground. "That means it's vulnerable if we can get a message to her, and we have her familiar right here."
Arf blinked. Then blinked again.
"Oh," she said, sounding a lot less hostile. "Okay, yeah, I get it. So you were..."
"Planning for both, yes. I underestimated how fast it would crack Takamachi's Device and start drawing power from the Jewel Seed some maniac put in it," he confirmed in a terse rush of words. Inwardly, he was very glad that Testarossa's familiar seemed saner than her mistress. "Which means we have less time than I'd thought and we need to act fast, so snap her out of it!"
"Right," Arf tapped her counterpart on the head, and Chrono shifted the silencer away from her ears to let her listen. "Vesta? Nanoha needs you right now, and you're not being helpful. Quit thrashing, listen to his plan and I'll help you beat him up later. Once she's safe."
The words seemed to cut through Vesta's rage, though her blue eyes remained feral slits and her ears flat against her head. Then, reluctantly, she stopped thrashing. Chrono didn't release her, but he let the bind slacken a little for comfort.
"So, Mr Bureau kid," Arf said, punching her left palm with her right fist. "Time for your plan. What do we do?"
The staring match was intense and furious. Hayate did her level best to force authority out of her eyes and into the Book's head and make her stand down. Sitting up, she glared it down with all the power and fury of her nine years of life.
It didn't work.
"No," said the Book with a terribly final feeling. "I have released the Guardian Knight programs, but I cannot allow you to be harmed, Lady Hayate. And if you will endanger yourself..." She sagged for a moment, before her shoulders firmed. "Then I must treat even you as an adversary."
Ah, thought Hayate.
The Book turned away and... and that hurt. That disregard. Hayate was used to many behaviours from her Knights, not all of them ones she liked, but ignoring her was one thing they never did. She was taken aback enough that all she could do was gape as the Book spread her arms, lifting the darkness that surrounded them like a veil.
And for the first time, Hayate saw the heart of the Book of Darkness.
It was big. She'd thought that the black space was big, but it had been empty, and there was only so much big that emptiness could get across. And it wasn't empty anymore. The sparkling diamonds sprinkled across the sky were still there, but she could see them more clearly now; see the pulse and beat of light as it ran through them in patterns. And seven shapes loomed nearby.
They were like skyscrapers, sort of. If a skyscraper were built by someone with no regard for gravity, a fixation on crystal and shiny black glass and a thing for connecting everything they built with bridge-cable-chain things made of light, then it might look a bit like these. Glowing white rain fell from the sky, curving as it went to orbit them in giant interwoven streams that were drawn into the crystalline shapes.
She couldn't tell how far away they were, exactly. They loomed in a way that made it hard to judge. There were smaller shapes around them, all made of the same crystalline stuff that light moved through like blood. Some of them – zippy little bits and larger chunks that moved with the ponderous gait of really big stuff – were moving between the towers and the other smaller structures that hung around them. She beckoned one of the nearest cubes closer, and watched as it moved smoothly through the air.
About twenty metres away from her, it hit a shimmer in the air and passed through with what would have been a 'plop' if it had been a sound. Wobbling a little, it floated over to her and dropped into her hands. It felt like smooth glass, cool to the touch and slightly staticy. This close, she could see the light-rain inside it –coruscating chains of things that she thought were probably numbers, doing things she couldn't begin to understand. It hummed gently in her hands and she let it go, watching as it plopped out of the shimmer in the air again.
Her eyes narrowed. That shimmer looked quite a lot like the edge of a barrier. Which would mean that most of this space wasn't... real, exactly. There was a little bit that she was in, and then the rest was like a... a simulation. In fact, she realised as she squinted, she could see a faint smudge in the distance, beyond the towers, which looked a lot like... well, her.
So. How did that help her? Well, if this space was actually smaller than it looked, that meant... that she was probably closer to the outside than she'd thought. If she could just get to that shimmer-barrier, maybe she could get out and fix things herself!
Hayate frowned, and looked at the nearest tower again with a more critical eye. Now that she was over her first impression, she realised that it wasn't a single structure. It was four; arranged so close as to almost interlock and turning in a slow orbit.
Her Knights, she realised. Which meant... these big tower-things were parts of the Book! Big parts! And some of them looked... wrong. Two of them were darker than the others; covered in black ooze that she could see squirming even from this distance. The gunk was spreading from one of them along the light-bridge-cables to the one that housed her Knights. Of the other four, three seemed more or less fine, and the last...
... the last was glowing, she realised. Glowing in a way that couldn't come just from the light-rain that was swarming around it so densely that it blocked most of her view. The light came from within; a furious pink colour that was flowing down pulsing light-bridge-cables into the other towers and brightening the background darkness to a charcoal grey. The falling light-rain was starting to take on a definite reddish tinge.
The girl from the hospital, Hayate realised. The one who wore white. Her magic was pink. And she was in here, like Hayate. And the Book was... paying a lot of attention to where it had her.
That sounded bad. And even worse was the way that the gunky squirming stuff was trying to take over her Knights. She clenched her fists. For the supposed 'master' of the Book, she certainly didn't seem to have much authority in here. The Book's avatar wasn't listening to her orders, and she was willing to bet the black gunk wouldn't either.
... so... maybe orders were the wrong way to go about it?
"Are you happy?" she asked hesitantly. The Book's avatar turned from where she'd been looking at the glowing building with a confused look.
"... Lady Hayate?" she asked.
"Are you happy?" Hayate repeated, more firmly now, challenging her to answer.
"I have told you, Lady Hayate," the construct said, sagging. "I grieve for the harm I am doing you, but I cannot..."
"Are," Hayate cut her off, "you happy? Right now? Yes or no?"
"... no." It was a whisper. "I am not."
Hayate smiled beatifically. She knew how to do this. After all, she'd done it before.
"Then I'll help you."
The Book gaped at her. Well, her mouth opened a little and her eyes widened, which by her standards was speechless gaping. Hayate kept smiling, and held out her hand.
"I'd forgotten, with all the bad things and scariness and worry," she said. "How all this started. I just wanted to give you all a home. To make you food and give you a place to live, instead of making you do things or giving you orders."
She winked and wiggled her fingers. Slowly, hesitantly, the Book took her hand; cool fingers wrapping around Hayate's.
"So that's what I'll do. I'll help you. And that means I better make up for lost time because I've been helping the others for months and you haven't even got to taste my cooking yet!" Hayate told her. "Now. Tell me what's wrong, and we'll see if we can think of something to do about it. And that is..."
She paused, biting her lip, and made a decision.
"... and that," she finished carefully, "is an promise."
She looked up at the sound of Precia's voice; sharp with disapproval. The wheelchair had snuck up on her without her noticing; Vesta a scared-looking shadow next to it. Further back, Fate and Arf watched nervously.
"Your familiar tells me you've been upsetting Alicia," Precia said, scowling. "Even if you have been having..." she waved a hand, "bad dreams, or something similar, it is not fair to frighten her like this, Nanoha. More than that; it is cruel."
Nanoha flinched, and Precia sighed. "Perhaps the fight with the Book left more than just physical wounds," she suggested, rather more gently. "I can find someone you can talk to about this, as long as you promise not to be so thoughtless in the future."
Huddling on her herself, curled up into a ball, Nanoha stared at the ground. Her insides felt like lead. There was a painful lump in her throat, her eyes stung, and the corners of her mouth kept curling downward miserably. She wanted to hit something. She wanted to cry. But when she reached for something solid, there was only the faintest suggestion of solid ground.
"Nanoha?" Precia prompted, softening a little further. "If it is losing Linith that prompted this... we all miss her, my dear. But we must accept that she is gone."
... the faintest suggestion of solid ground. The vaguest suggestion of certainty. But it was there. She was alone and outmanoeuvred and a failure at what she'd promised to do. But there were still a few truths left that she could cling to.
And more importantly, a lie she could reject.
"... I beg your pardon?"
Nanoha's head rose, and her back straightened. Her eyes were bright with tears, but her voice was steady. "I said no. No more talking."
A flash of light, and her staff was in her hand. "Raising Heart. You're with me, aren't you?"
[That's right, my master!]
Nanoha swung the Device once, testing the weight. The Jewel Seed still sat in its box behind the head – a box that wasn't tucked away like it should have been. Another strike against this world. Surely the TSAB wouldn't have let her keep it. They were nice, but not that nice. And if it was out instead of folded away, maybe that was because it was being used. Just not in a way she could see.
She pointed her partner straight upwards. "Then let's test it! Starlight Breaker!"
Fate, Vesta and Precia all spoke with alarm, but Nanoha was only looking at one of them. "See," she said softly, sniffing, "if I'm wrong, then this won't matter. I'll just be firing it into the air. But if I'm right, and I'm in the Book of Darkness, I need to get out."
"Nanoha, listen to me." There was definite panic in Precia's voice now, and Nanoha flinched a little as the woman wheeled towards her. Pink light began to gather above them as the vast rings of her best spell slowly wrote themselves through the air. "Nanoha, you're not thinking straight. Stop this foolishness-"
"Or what? You'll stop it?" Nanoha took a deep breath and jutted her chin out. "No. If you were the real Precia - if that was the real Fate - they'd already have stopped me." Her lips twitched. "And you know, I learned something from that fight. The draining spell the Book used when me and Chrono bound it; I got a pretty good look at it. I think I figured out how it worked. It was pretty neat, so I'm taking it! Raising Heart? Let's get to it!"
[As you say, my master! Deploying Enhanced Drain!]
The spell rings pulsed. Once, then twice. On the third pulse, they changed. The space between the pink lines that bordered each ribbon of glyphs darkened to solid black bands; vivid pink light outlining the edges and carving symbols into them. And they began to pull.
Suspecting it had been one thing. Seeing it was another. Nanoha couldn't help a gasp as - slowly at first, then with increasing speed - the landscape began to dissolve. It started far away. Trees and hills blurred by distance began to lose colour and definition as her spell ripped magic out of the simulation in streaks of coloured light that spiralled into the growing pink sphere at its centre. As the dissolution got closer, she could see it better. Objects just... disintegrated, like a sugar cube in hot water, breaking up into coloured motes of light that were pulled up into the hungry condensation spell.
She could already feel the draw on her own magic that powering the pump took. The mana wanted to be spread out evenly. Forcing it all into a tight little ball took power. The more mana you were cramming into a space, the more power it took.
From the amount of power this was demanding, there was already more magic in the proto-Starlight Breaker than anything Nanoha had seen since the Garden of Time. And it was still growing.
Vesta's cry almost broke her. If it hadn't been for Raising Heart, her focus would have faltered - fatally. Even as it was, the growing sphere of light wavered dangerously as she watched the copy of her familiar dissolve into light along with Arf, to be drawn up into the spell. Fate was next, watching her with betrayed red eyes, and then Alicia, vanishing with a sob and a cry of "Nano-" that was cut off halfway through.
"This world isn't real," she ground out through gritted teeth. "It isn't real, it isn't real, it isn't real!"
"Then why not stay here?" Precia alone remained, though the colour was seeping from her dress and her wheelchair was gone; leaving her floating in midair. She held out a hand, ignoring the way her fingers were blurred and indistinct. "Why not accept this dream? Here, you have everything. Everything you wanted. Your life is happy, your friends are content. I am alive. Perhaps even Linith survived somehow - would you like that? The world outside is cruel, Nanoha. You know that to be true.
She stared at Nanoha, her eyes losing their colour and her hair fading to white. "Your ideals mean nothing there. Determination and good intentions will not save the day, the people you love will not get along as though they didn't hate each other. You will be split between two worlds, grieving those you lose, fighting a universe that is cold and callous and cruel. Forever."
"I know," said Nanoha. Precia smiled, and Nanoha couldn't tell if it was sympathetic or cruel as she spread her arms wide. She could see through the woman's palms, she realised, and winced.
"Then isn't this a happier place?" Precia asked. "Weren't you content here, before you tore at its foundations, before you began to destroy it. Isn't this a better world?
"Yes," Nanoha admitted. "It is. But... it's not a real world. And you know what?"
Precia raised a scornful eyebrow, and Nanoha jutted her chin out stubbornly.
"I'd rather have the real one. Because I might not always be able to save the day by trying hard, but I won't always fail!" Precia flinched backwards in surprise, and Nanoha pressed her advantage for all it was worth. "We lost this time! We lost Linith! We lost you! But we can still save the Earth! We can still save Hayate and Chikaze and the Wolkenritter! We saved Alicia back with the Jewel Seeds! I saved Yuuno and Fate, and they saved me! I was wrong, but I wasn't all wrong! That little bit of right is worth holding onto! Sometimes I'll lose, but sometimes I'll win, and that makes it always worth trying! I can help people! I can make a difference, even if it's not as big of one as I thought! And I'll suffer all those losses and take all those failures myself if it means someone else won't have to!"
[Target lock cannot be acquired, my master,] Raising Heart put in. [Where should I fire?]
"Out!" Nanoha shouted. "Straight up into the sky! We'll shoot this dream world with all our power and break through! We'll shatter the sky to help our friends! We haven't lost this yet! And as long as we keep fighting, the Book'll never win!"
"So you'll abandon us, then." Despite the colour draining out of the world and the streams of matter pouring into the growing sphere, Precia remained where she was. Her quiet voice reached Nanoha even through the howl of the growing Starlight Breaker; arriving directly in her brain without going via her ears. "You'll choose a world where Alicia is alone. Where her mother is dead and she'll forever be in danger. You'll condemn her to the pain you so narrowly avoided when you were young."
Nanoha met her eyes. And how, how had she not realised before? The real Precia wore a mask of calm, but it masked a pain more profound than Nanoha had ever seen. Even regaining Alicia hadn't fully healed so many years of grief. But this woman's now-colourless eyes weren't sad. They weren't even cruel. They were empty.
"She won't be alone," Nanoha told her. "I'll... I'll probably never get to say this to the real you. But she won't be alone. She'll have Arf and Fate. She'll have Vesta. She'll have me. And... and I'm sorry.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't save you," she went on, and let it all spill out; everything she wanted to tell her older woman. "I'm grateful for everything you taught me, and I'll keep getting better with magic until I'm as good as you were. And then I'll get even better than that! You showed me a world full of magic and space and amazing things, and I promise to make the most of it!" Tears were trickling down her cheeks now, and she was surprised that the heat of the pink star above didn't turn them to steam. "I don't... I don't think you were perfect. You were sad and you closed yourself up too much and hid away from your feelings instead of facing them. But you tried your best, and I'll remember that. I'll remember you."
She shook her head quickly and blinked to clear her vision. "But if I stay in here forever then the Book will win, and Alicia really will be alone. And you wouldn't want that, ever. So I need to go set things right."
She turned her gaze upward, squinting her eyes shut against the painful brilliance of her spell. It was even eating the land under her feet now, and when she glanced across at where Precia had been, the woman was gone. She was alone, except for Raising Heart. Really alone, like after Papa had nearly...
... but she was never alone these days. Not really. There was one person who'd always be with her, no matter how far apart they were. And who she could always, always rely on.
'Vesta!' she shouted, as loudly as she could, pouring all the focus she could spare from the terrifying mass of power spinning at the end of her staff. 'Vesta! Can you hear me? I need your help!l
'Hello? Can anyone hear me? This is Hayate Yagami!'
Chrono almost dropped his Device. The mental voice was coming from within the monstrosity that the Book had become. For a moment he didn't know how to respond.
Then training kicked in.
'This is Enforcer Chrono Harlaown from the TSAB,' he sent back; scattering the tight-beam message to have it approach the Book from another direction. 'Repeat that, please?'
There was a brief pause. '... uh, my name is Hayate!' the voice said again, sounding confused. 'I'm not sure what... listen, the Book of Darkness is mine! I'm inside it at the moment and something's wrong with it; that's why it's attacking! The Master Control Program has agreed to help me fix it! Is everyone outside okay?'
Training only went so far. Chrono gaped. Of all the things he'd expected to hear... that one wasn't even on the list of rejects. He wasn't even sure which part to tackle first.
Wait, yes he was.
'How are you sending this?' he demanded, making frantic gestures at Testarossa's familiar and opening his side of the channel up to her. The girl speaking from the Book was broadcasting; completely unsecured. 'What do you mean, you're inside the Book?'
"Find Testarossa," he hissed as the wolf-woman quirked an eyebrow. "Get her here as fast as possible. If you can round up Scrya as well; all the better." She pursed her lips, but nodded and took off.
The response from the Book took a few more seconds to arrive. 'The Book took me into its core when it went bad! I got the part in here to listen to me, but she says the defence program is in charge at the moment. I can't get full access; just… just the stuff the defence program has nothing to do with, like talking!'
'There's no record of any previous masters talking during a rampage,'
Chrono pointed out; instantly suspicious.
'Well maybe they didn't try talking to her!' Yagami snapped back. 'She tried to send me to sleep in an illusion before she tried talking to me; I just fought it off! I'm the master and I'm not going to lie around being all sleepy now! I did that enough when it was making me sick! So she's going to help me fix her!'
She. Her. This native girl was speaking as if the Book were a person – an ally, even. Chrono glanced around his cover again at the Book. Another half-formed shape was flowing out from it; spiked maces and hammers and swirling orbital metal spheres protruding from the mass of forms. He thinned his lips. It would be best to attack now, before it managed to summon the rest of these twisted Knights. But if Yagami was telling the truth…
Chrono's jaw tensed. He couldn't let emotion and hunches get in the way of this. He had to work with the facts. The facts were safe, clear and constant. He could trust the facts, in a way he couldn't trust himself right now.
Fact: The Book was a recurrent disaster. The death toll it had reaped across space was too high to count – estimates put it at tens of thousands to millions every single rampage, and it had been around since the early Warring States.
Fact: It had killed his father. Mei's father. Who knew how many other loved ones; how much grief and pain and suffering from one Lost Logia… no. He shook his head. Stay calm. Stick to the facts.
Fact: In all the time it had been rampaging, it had never been stopped. Never been put down permanently. Nobody had ever come up with a lasting way to prevent it from reappearing, or even diagnose how it worked. Not even its masters – and there had been so many; almost all better mages than this girl. None had ever claimed to know a way to stop the thing they hosted.
Conclusion: Given the balance of probabilities, then, this was probably a trick. An attempt by the Book to deflect its attackers, to push them off guard.
Conclusion: He should give it no thought; attack with everything that he had and concentrate on destroying this manifestation of the Book before it could carve a bloody path across the continent. Yagami's loss was regrettable, but she had been doomed from the moment it latched onto her.
… fact. That was Gil Graham's logic. And Chrono had seen one UA-97 mage pull off the impossible before. He'd already been planning to use that fact.
'I'm not risking everything on the chance that you're right,' he sent back. 'But if you really can stop the Book for good; that's huge. I'll give you what help I can. Is Takamachi in there with you?'
'I think so!'
Yagami replied after a moment. 'One of the big structures is glowing pink, and there's lots of power coming out of it.' She paused. 'Not as much as there was, though. The Book says she's doing something in there, I'm not sure… wait, she`s trying to get a message out!'
Chrono just about refrained from punching the air in triumph. 'Put it through!' he ordered.
'Vesta!' Takamachi's voice was a desperate shout, and next to him her catgirl went rigid and stopped straining against her bonds. 'Can you hear me? I need your help!'
Chrono dispersed the bind with a wave and opened his channel to Vesta before she'd made up her mind about what to do. 'Takamachi; this is Chrono Harlaown. What's your status? Are you inside the Book?'
Apparently answering Takamachi rated higher than disembowelling him. That was nice to hear. 'He grabbed me off you! He abandoned you!'
… that was less nice. 'I was-' Chrono started defensively, but surprisingly Takamachi cut him off before he could get any further.
'That doesn't matter! We can argue about it later! I'm about to fire a Starlight Breaker from inside the Book! I ripped all the mana out of the simulation it was trying to keep me in! There's quite a lot here! I mean, really really a lot!'
"You did wh-" Chrono began out-loud, and then bit his tongue. Now was not the time.
'Vesta, can you get me an outside view of it? I don't know where this blast is going to go! And I really want to know, because this is the biggest spell I've ever cast! But I've got it under control, I promise!'
Yagami put in, sounding rather alarmed at this. 'Fire a what? Is that what all that pink light is?'
'It was taking lots of power from me. I took it all back, and then some! This new draining spell I copied from it and attached to Starlight Breaker is way better than my old one! But there's really no time to explain! Vesta, quick! Chrono, what are you planning to do?'
Despite the stakes and his misgivings about the size of the spell Takamachi was pulling out, he couldn't help but grin as the grey-black kitten leapt out to get eyes on the Book. Two allies within the Book's structure, and open communications with both of them. Suddenly things were going better than he'd been hoping for.
'Exactly what you're doing,' he said. 'Here's what I know….'
Hayate listened quietly - and with a little concern - to the conversation the two young mages were having. It was a little rude to eavesdrop, but she couldn't really help it - they were having it through her. Data streamed in as she and Chrono traded a quick flurry of plans.
Neither of them had thought to ask Hayate about said plans, which was a bit worrying, because she wasn't sure she was comfortable with Nanoha firing a powerful bombardment spell from inside the same warped space Hayate was sitting in. But just looking at the blinding pink glow from inside the superstructure was enough to tell her that it was too far gone to stop now. There would be no chance of gradually powering down a spell like this. It was fire or have it explode. And she had to admit, she didn't have any better plans for stopping the corrupted parts of the Book from running rampant.
'Excuse me!' she called, interrupting them. 'What's the Defence Program doing? Has it hurt anyone?'
Chrono replied curtly. 'No fatalities yet, but one of our mages is down. He took its arm off.' Hayate's gasp went unheeded as he kept going. 'At the moment it's stopped moving. It's regenerating its Knights, or... corrupted versions of them. Here.'
The image file he sent chilled Hayate's blood. Three monstrous... things, around a wounded Book. And it was in the process of making another. "What's it doing?" she demanded of the Book's avatar. "Why are they all..."
"By your order, Lady Hayate, the curse is resurrecting your Guardian Knights," the Book replied distractedly. She was standing at the edge of the little bubble of space they occupied, her narrowed eyes fixed on the glowing pink superstructure that held Nanoha. "It cannot raise them properly. That would require action from you. But it has corrupted and claimed my archives, and is piecing together facsimiles of them from tainted memories and the records of the spells of other foes of the Book."
"My ord... my order? I didn't... order..." Hayate trailed off as memory made itself known. "I... tried to order you... to restore them and stop fighting."
"Yes, Lady Hayate." The Book didn't turn. "I could not follow the latter request, but sent a general notification about the former."
"... um," said Hayate quietly. "So. You mean. The Defence Program is making them... because I told it to?"
"Indeed, Lady Hayate."
Hayate winced. She was pretty sure "whoops" wasn't going to cut it, and she didn't actually know any words bad enough to fit the situation.
"I'll... tell them that later," she said nervously. "I, um... what are you staring at that so hard for?"
The white-haired woman turned. Her face was back to the hard, dispassionate mask she'd worn when she first appeared. "It is a threat to you, Lady Hayate," she said; curt and clipped. "It must be eliminated."
"... w-wait, what?" Hayate blinked. "Elim- that's Nanoha; we've got a plan to beat the Defence Program! She's helping!" She paused. "By... shooting you just when I've got through to you. Like how she's apparently been shooting at my Knights over the last few weeks. And how she shot up the hospital the first time I met her. And never really apologised."
"… but I'm pretty sure she means well, and... you must have heard her and Chrono talking, they have a plan!"
She might as well have been talking to a wall. "It is a threat to you, Lady Hayate," the Book repeated. "The curse is a threat, but a known one. I have tried time and again, and my cursed name and destiny bring all my masters to ruin, no matter my efforts. But this. This threat from within. This is a threat from which I can protect you. Must protect you."
Turning her back, the Book reached out a hand towards the pink mass. "Swift knife of censure," she whispered, "reach into my archives / and take that particular soul / who comprises the greatest-"
Hayate pushed as hard as she could on her wheels to shoot forward and grab the woman around the waist. Well, legs. "Wait," she pleaded again. "Just... wait a moment and listen to me, okay? Just... listen."
She gulped air desperately as the Book turned to face her, tears pricking at her eyes. The Defence Program was bringing some sort of monster versions of her family back online, and it was her fault. She'd just wanted them to protect her, and now they were being used to hurt people. And now even in the name of protecting her, the Book was trying to harm her... well, not her friend, but her ally. And if they hadn't tried to protect her in the first place, they might not have... might not have...
Why couldn't they see that she'd never wanted this? Any of this! She'd only ever wanted them to be safe, and happy, and a family together. She hadn't wanted them to fight to protect her. She'd wanted to give them a home where they wouldn't have to fight.
Oh, Hayate realised. Oh. Of course.
"I was wrong before," she said. "I promised you wouldn't have to fight, back when we first met." The Book tried to object, but Hayate motioned for silence. "No, listen." She nodded firmly. "That's what I promised. So that means I was wrong before. Just helping you isn't enough. Just making you food and giving you hugs and caring isn't enough. It's important – really important - but it's not all. I'm meant to protect you. I'm meant to be in charge. And with everything they've been doing, and everything you are doing, I've obviously not been doing my job."
"My lady. Hayate. This curse that ravages your flesh is my fault. It is my hunger that is killing you. I must keep you safe from everything, but I cannot keep you safe from me. But I can keep you safe from this and so-"
"Hush. You're wrong," she said softly. "You don't need to protect me from this. You don't need to hate yourself for a curse that wasn't your fault. You don't need to sacrifice yourself for me."
The Book twitched. Hayate felt it from where she was hugging the woman; a convulsive ripple of surprise. She kept going, stubbornly clinging tighter as the Book tried to flinch away. "It's not your job to protect me," she repeated. "Yours or my Knights'. It's my job to look after you. If your name is cursed, I'll give you a new one. If your life is wrapped in a cruel destiny, I'll help you change it. That's what we had wrong all this time. If I'm your mistress, that means I'm your protector! So that's what I'll do! The Book of Darkness, the Cursed Tome... I won't let anyone call you such horrible things!"
She looked up fiercely, eyes blazing. "I'll help you start over, no matter what! Give me full access! If I'm the lady of the Book, it's time I started using that properly! Better than the Defence Program can! It's not doing its job, so I will! Help me get control and I promise I'll keep you all safe!"
The Book stared at her for a long, long moment. She twitched a couple of times; flickers of emotion crossing her face, and half-turned to look outward. Not at the glowing mass that was Nanoha, but at the corrupted superstructure that was the Defence Program.
"So be it," she whispered, and her next words boomed and echoed so loudly that Hayate thought they must be shaking the very ground.
"A demand for access has been made. An accusation has been levelled. My master challenges the defender of the Tome, whose duty goes unfulfilled. She claims her rights as master of the Book of Darkness, and all that comes with them!"
An instant of deliberation passed, and then knowledge struck like a thunderbolt.
Hayate grabbed at her head, feeling like it was spinning and exploding at the same time. She felt crammed to bursting. Suddenly lonely years all by herself and six happy months with her knights were sharing space with words she didn't understand in a language she didn't speak.
And yet it made sense. It filled her with a solid, fierce glee that felt just as good as the way she could now breathe freely and could feel her legs. This was how she should have felt all along! This is what being the Lady of the Book should have felt like!
Slowly, she rose up from her chair. Four crow-black wings burst from her back.
"I understand," she breathed. "I understand now. You're just like my other Knights. You've been suffering for so long under this curse. But no-one was kind to you. You've just been locked away in here."
Embracing the taller woman, Hayate beamed up at her. "Well, that's going to change. You're as much a part of my family as they are. And as your mistress I'll give you a new name. A name that isn't cursed. A name that isn't soaked in blood or sadness or misery. A name you'll always have, just for you."
The Book's twitches had become a continuous tremble now, and her attempts to pull free were forgotten. She looked down at Hayate with something vulnerable and fragile and newborn in her eyes; something that was part hope, part fear and part awe.
"The curse..." she objected half-heartedly. Hayate shushed her.
"We'll deal with that later," she promised. "Together." Pushing down gently on the Book's shoulders, she nudged her down until she knelt at Hayate's feet. "In the name of Hayate Yagami," she said, "Mistress and administrator of the Tome of the Night Sky, I grant you a new name. A name that means strength and loving support, starlight and cool night air, blessed fortune and calm guidance."
Dark wings beat once, growing to envelop both figures as Hayate touched the kneeling woman's forehead.
"'Reinforce'. I grant this name to you in place of all others. Use it well."
And as light built around the newly-named Reinforce, another gathering of power reached a critical point, and another young voice cried out.
UPDATE component_names cn SET _name EQUALS 'Reinforce', _name EQUALS 'Yagami' WHERE EQUALS 'master';
For the fourth time – and hopefully the last time - the black pages of the Book's tome bulged with the shape of a monster.
"We shouldn't be waiting," Fate murmured. "It's vulnerable; and it won't stay that way for long."
"I know." Chrono's lips thinned as he examined the reflection in a shopfront. 'Takamachi, how close are you to firing?'
Mental silence and the wailing of the Book were his only answer. He traded a worried look with Fate, whose face had paled. Her hands went white-knuckled around Bardiche.
"Maybe something happened to Hayate?" Arf whispered hopefully. "If she's not there to channel messages…"
"If that's the case, we've lost our help on the inside," Chrono said bluntly. "And we can't trust that Takamachi will pull through without the master on her side. Change of plans, then. It locks up for a second or so after disconnecting from one of those corrupted Knights. Arf, Vesta, if Testarossa and I fast-charge bombardment spells, can you keep the three it's got out off us until we can fire? If we can hit it just as it's frozen, we can probably do some real damage."
Arf looked at the three circling things that surrounded their enemy. "I can try," she said dubiously. "Just… don't take too long. The most we can do is slow them down."
All eyes swung to Vesta. Her eyes were screwed shut, her fists clenched, and she was swaying dangerously. "Give her… a few seconds more…" she murmured. "She feels… I think…"
For a split second she froze, and then her eyes snapped open and every line of her body shifted to radiate absolute terror.
"She's firing!" she screamed. 'Get down!'
Arf practically tackled Fate to the ground. Chrono threw himself down, curling up to give his shield as little area as possible to protect. In the reflection, he saw the Book jerk sideways and draw away from the tome, its hand going to its side. He could hear a growing whine right at the top of his hearing range, slowing descending in pitch even as it grew in volume.
The Book jerked again, the forming Knight still only halfway out, and looked down at its midsection. Its expression, as far as Chrono could make out from the smeared reflection of the window, mingled resignation with homicidal rage.
Light grew and built in the spot under its hand, shining through its clothes, through the dark mist and shadow that clung to it, through the oily substance of the last Knight; all deadly wires and female faces. The Healer, Chrono thought. And the Wraith. Good. He'd concluded that of all of them, that was the most dangerous. The other three were 'just' superlative combatants. But the assassin of the Wolkenritter put all that skill into blindsiding its foes.
Three Knights launched themselves into the air at an unspoken command, unable to defend their source against a threat from within. The Healer-Wraith couldn't; still tethered to its source. The light grew and spread until half the Book's midsection was shining pink, so bright as to look incandescent white in the centre.
And then it erupted.
Chrono's jacket flashed to nearly opaque, so what little he saw before the light consumed everything was through dark glass. But that split second was etched on his vision as he listened, even through the mufflers, to the sound of a city being scoured clean. Structures vanished under the wave of light, roads and cars swallowed up in an instant. Behind his eyelids, Chrono watched the first row of half-slagged buildings became black silhouettes in a blinding tide before disintegrating. The brunt of it was pointed away from him. Had it not been, Chrono knew their shields would never have held. He wondered if that was skill and intent, or just luck.
It seemed to go on forever, but it could only have been ten seconds or so of huddling tight and praying for the onslaught to be over. As the blast died away and the echoes settled, it was almost a struggle to open his eyes again. Surely, he thought. Nothing could have survived that.
But something had.
The Book's upper body hung in the air. There was no sign of anything below the waist – Takamachi had blown it clean in half and dispersed the dark fog that had clung to it. The tome and the corrupted Healer were nowhere to be found. From the horrific wound where the Book's hips had been poured a solid stream of black inky ichor; far more than its torso could possibly have held. It pooled on the ground, bulging and growing upwards into strange, monstrous shapes. Huge worm-like shapes, plated armour and gnashing mouths – already the tumorous mass was the size of a bus, and it was quickly growing.
But the torso looked different. Its missing arm was back, and its face was healed. The dress was still black where the the stream of ichor stained it, but above that the Book was clad in white, and there was something new in its eyes.
Clarity. And purpose.
Nanoha gasped, letting out the breath she'd been holding. She'd done it! She'd gotten the shot off! And she was pretty sure it hadn't hit anyone, though her link to Vesta had been interrupted by the sheer amount of power she'd been using.
Now… where was she?
In front of her was the ripple of a translucent barrier, and beyond it lay a vast dark space. Two huge structures in the corners of her vision; towering things made of glowing geometry and pipelines of light.
There had probably been a third structure right in front of her. Nanoha was guessing on that point, because if so there wasn't much left of it. Still, the empty chasm between the two huge shapes was filled with thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of the glowing shapes that made the structures up. They were rising; falling upwards like rain in. Far, far up above, she could see a bright rent in the sky that they were being drawn towards, tumbling end over end and colliding with one another as they went.
An annoyed-sounding cough came from behind her. Nanoha wheeled around to face a girl about her age and the Book of Darkness. The red-eyed woman was glaring back at Nanoha. She squeaked, and Raising Heart came up with an Axel Shooter forming.
"Don't you dare!" snapped the girl, stepping into the line of fire. "You've already shot up enough of my book without asking!"
Nanoha blinked at her, belatedly filling in the details. The Book was wearing a simple black dress instead of a complex one, and had none of the tattoos or wild rage of the version Nanoha had been fighting. The four black wings belonged to the girl, not the Book, and now that Nanoha looked at her…
"Yagami Hayate! You're alright!"
"… yes," said the girl, slightly mollified by Nanoha's obvious relief. "And this is Reinforce; the master program of the Book. I renamed her and now we're working together to stop the defence program. And you're Takamachi Nanoha; the girl who just blew up one of my Book's major components. And also my hospital six months ago."
Nanoha blinked again, and lowered Raising Heart. "… uh… yes, that's me. You mean the dream thing? I'm very sorry about shooting it; but I had to get free. Um, sorry about the hospital too. Again. And what's the defence program?" She paused. "Also, just to check; you mean you two had a talk and now she's on our side, right?"
Hayate glared. "Do you have a problem with that?"
"No, no!" Nanoha held her hands up defensively. "I believe you! I've done that too! From both sides, even! I just want to be sure of what's going on!"
"Oh." Hayate looked faintly embarrassed. "Then yes, more or less. I mean, it was a bit more complicated than that, but…"
"I get you," Nanoha reassured her. "Okay, so where are we and what's this defence program thing?"
"When you destroyed the Absorption program along with its holding pocket, you were relocated to the only other active dimensional space available by emergency protocols," the woman called Reinforce said, which Nanoha recognised from half a year of experience with Linith and Precia as quite an informative way of answering the question without actually giving any details. "As to the defence program, you might begin by looking to your right."
Nanoha glanced over and yelped. The cloud of rubble and the two giant structures weren't the only ones around, it seemed. There were more that had been behind her; points of a hexagon she'd been facing away from. And the one Reinforce had just pointed her to was...
... wrong. Black tar covered it, leaking from every surface and smothering the light and glow under a stifling crust. Alone of the five structures, it had no pipes or bridges connecting it to the others, and white casting rings surrounded it like prison binds. But the structure next to it; behind Reinforce and Hayate, was almost as covered in the dark gunk. Already the stuff was flowing down the lines and bridges connecting it to the next one over, and the bound structure was extending tar-tendrils towards the binds keeping it contained. The corrupted pipes near them were starting to spread out and link together into a wall – or a cage.
"The defence program of the Tome of the Night Sky," Reinforce said. "Corrupted long ago into a monster that sees nothing but threats all around. It will run rampant if allowed any freedom; attacking endlessly as long as it has power. That," she motioned at Raising Heart, "could give it enough power to rage for all eternity."
"I took control of the Book as an administrator," Hayate explained, "and cut off its control, but it's infected my Archival system as well, and it's trying to take over my Knights. And you blew up my Absorption, which was one of the uninfected parts." She glared. "It's generated some sort of horrible copies of my Knights, too."
Reinforce winced. "It is also trying to regain control of the system, Lady Hayate. I have partial control over the outer form, but it is struggling and… attempting to inject commands into the core."
Nanoha's lips tightened as she saw the black, barbed tendrils stabbing towards them. They still hadn't got through the containment, but the white rings were fracturing. "Which one is your Knights?" she asked. Hayate waved towards the one next to Archival. Nanoha studied it for a moment, then nodded.
"Okay. What do we do, and how can I help?"
Hayate narrowed her eyes, then nodded decisively. "Right!" she said. "I'm going to tell the people outside to hold off the fake knights the Defence Program has made. Then Reinforce and me need to start the reinsti... resur... the bringing-them-back process and get the real ones back. You need to keep it off them and us until we're ready. Which..." She hesitated for a moment, glancing at Reinforce. "Uh. You're sure this is a good idea?"
Nanoha felt vaguely insulted at that. It sounded like a great idea to her! But the woman nodded slowly, and Hayate turned back to her with a grimace.
"Fine. In that case, Takamachi Nanoha, I temporarily grant you limited system privileges, in my name and by my will." She pointed at the black-soaked towers. "Reinforce will send you some attack programs. You're good at shooting and blowing things up. Keep that stuff off my Knights and don't destroy anything you're not meant to."
She caught Nanoha's eye for the last sentence, a flicker of vulnerability making itself known. "I mean it," she added, her voice trembling a little. "I wasn't really using the dream, but my Knights are my family. Don't hurt them. Please."
Staff held in her left arm, Nanoha reached out with her right and pumped her fist, a gesture of quiet determination. "I promise," she said softly. "Now don't be afraid. We'll solve this together. Even if I wasn't here, you've got friends outside. Like Chikaze."
"Chikaze!" Hayate gasped. "Is she-"
Nanoha grinned, a moment of levity. "Her and my mama kept on sending messages to the defence program and distracting it in the fight," she half-boasted. "So that means you have to get out of here so you can say thank you." Bringing Raising Heart around, she bent at the knees, preparing to kick off. "And that means that I'm going to save your friends! Are you ready, Raising Heart?"
[Let's go, mistress! We'll save them all!]
"You got it!"
'Chrono Harlaown!' she heard Hayate call as she rose to the top of the dimensional space. 'Everyone outside! I don't have control of the three things out there! But I'm trying to bring my Knights back online! If I can do it they'll help fight the defence program! Hold them off until then!'
The bloated mass of the thing that had been the Book bulged and writhed with inward horrors. The Defence tumour lay on the ground like a beached whale, tapering up in a thinning protuberance until it met the waist of a struggling woman. No longer did she scream or howl at the world; now her efforts were focused on what trapped her. One arm was bare to the shoulder, covered in blooming bruises showed that it had none of the resilience or strength of its twin. Her other arm was engaged with fending off the tendrils and oozing slime from below that was trying to engulf her.
Overhead, an orange-gold comet left a glowing trail as it both chased and was chased. Arf hunkered down in her backpack as Fate cut through the air like a knife. Orange shields meshed around her in an aerodynamic cloak of armour against the monstrous False Knights.
'Hold them off', it turned out, was not a very helpful set of orders. For a start, it assumed she was far, far more capable of fighting a Wolkenritter than experience told her she was. And that wasn't even counting the fact that they were trying to kill her, while the real ones had been holding back.
'Again!' she ordered. Arf's chains lashed out towards the gleaming shape of the False Blade ahead of her. It was as much sharp knife as skin; an amalgamation of faces and forms that sometimes drifted apart or overlapped unnaturally. Arf's chain wrapped around its neck and jerked it back for a second. The bind snapped almost immediately, cut through by a blade edge protruding from its throat.
Something red-hot and roughly spherical whistled past her ear and she jinked away from it, turning her attention backwards again. Twelve Plasma Lancer firing rings hovered around her legs. The air hummed and Bardiche was growing uncomfortably warm, sustaining the relentless hail of golden blade after golden blade. Fate trailed a rapid staccato rhythm of fire that swung back and forth to stay on-target as the False Breaker corkscrewed after her
It wasn't noticably slowing the monster down.
'The Blade's too sharp!' Arf yelled. 'I can't get a proper hold on it! Where's it even going?'
Fate didn't answer for a second, busy shifting Bardiche to his scythe form and throwing a pair of Crescent Sabers back at the Breaker. It fell back a little and she turned her attention to the area they were flying over, and the Blade's path. A gutted building caught her eye as they flew over it, and her blood ran cold.
'That's the hospital!' she realised with a chill of panic. 'It's going after Nanoha's family!'
She didn't have time to stop, and was too busy trying to line up a shot on the Blade to pay much attention. But she managed a glance to her side, and almost dropped out of the sky in surprise. He looked terrible; sallow-faced and favouring his ribs. But the TSAB spearman who'd taken the Book's arm off was still clearly combat-ready as he fell in alongside her. Fate was so shocked that it took her a second or two to notice the ferret on his shoulder.
"Shouldn't you be with a medic?" she asked incredulously. The spearman shrugged laconically.
"Scrya got me upright," he grunted. "And this is more important than my health. I'll handle the Blade."
'We can keep it away from the civilians if I help,' Scrya added quickly. 'Chrono and, uh, Vesta are already fighting the Hound. And Captain Grangeitz, please remember what I said about overstraining yourself; I'm not that good a medic and we're probably going to need you later.'
Arf put in, alarmed. 'And Chrono? She'll kill him!'
Scyra said. 'Not when Nanoha would be in danger if she did. Now hurry and lead the Breaker away!'
Fate made a rapid decision and nodded, peeling off at an angle and doubling the Plasma Lancers she was firing at the Breaker. It took the bait, swinging out after her as Grangeitz started gaining on the Blade, and she poured on the speed to pull away from it. Not enough that she'd lose it, but enough to gain some distance and thinking time. Her job was to keep it distracted, or ideally put it down. Unfortunately, that wasn't as easy a task as it sounded. One hit from the Breaker would shatter Arf's barriers and do enough damage to cripple her speed, and that was an optimistic guess. It wouldn't be holding back now like the redheaded girl had been.
It wasn't a comfortable thought, and it sat so heavily on the mind that she hadn't come up with anything by the time the flickering shape of the Breaker started to catch up with her again. It wasn't a completely amorphous blob anymore, and had managed to shape itself into a roughly humanoid shape. But its features flickered like a stuttering hologram, and it was drenched in the black ichor-fog of the Book's lower body, which dripped from it as it flew and wreathed the enormous head of its hammer. It was bigger than it had been, and from the way it hadn't even noticed her or Arf's binds, finesse obviously wasn't going to work.
Well then. The Nanoha approach it was.
"Bardiche," she murmured. "Cycle to 40%"
She greeted the False Knight with a Plasma Barret; a dozen golden bolts curving in to strike it from all side at once in an explosion of lightning. The blast blew the dark mist off its body and made it spasm and shriek, but didn't down it. Chains sprung from Arf's casting circles to keep it locked in place, and Ring Binds slammed home around its limbs. Fate circled at a wary distance, training the machine-gun barrage of shooting spells from her firing rings on its body as she gathered power for a bombardment spell. The golden bolts scorched deep circles into the thing's flesh, painted burnt lines along its sides and punched holes through the black mist as it began to form again.
But even corrupted and cut off from its source, her foe was still a Wolkenritter.
The False Breaker roared; its flesh billowing out into a grey-skinned giant of a man; taller even than the TSAB spearman. Its muscles bulged as it ripped its way free from the trap and launched into the air after her with shifting features set in an utterly blank mask. Teeth gritted, Fate turned and sprung into flight again, Arf's barriers rising around her.
Yagami had better get the real Knights back soon, she thought grimly. Because sooner or later, she was going to leave an opening that Arf couldn't cover in time.
Resurrection was not as simple as flipping a switch.
"Oh Buch der Dunkelheit, erwecke deine Dienerin 'Wiederherstellung'!"
"Oh Buch der Dunkelheit, dir befehle ich deiner Dienerin 'Wiederherstellung' die Autorität zu verleihen, ihre Pflichten an den Wolkenrittern des Buches der Dunkelheit auszuüben!"
"'Wiederherstellung', mit der Autorität die dir verliehen worden ist, befehle ich dir, die Gesundheit der Wolkenritter des Buches der Dunkelheit vollständig wiederherzustellen!"
Hayate's mind whirled as she slammed authorisation after authorisation into place. In a language she knew but had never learned, she opened power transfers between the Tome's systems. With codes both familiar and alien, she commanded dormant programs to come online and assigned them duties. Above her, pink attack routines lanced out to quarantine regions, purge cancerous code and sometimes burn whole areas.
It was interfering with what she was trying to do. Twice already she'd had to hastily reconfigure the lines that were pumping extra power into Restoral, as the shooting spells tore through rotting conduit-lines and brought down entire routing points. But she had no choice but to adapt and work around the damage that Nanoha was doing. After all, the girl was doing it on Hayate's own orders.
Reinforce wasn't any help. Though her avatar still stood in the core-bubble, Hayate could feel her perspective; like another set of eyes in her head – a whole other face, even - that was seeing a completely different view. The Reinforce outside was caught on some enormous mass of flesh and ichor that was attacking her; trying to wrap her up and take over from the outside even as its barbed tendrils tried to infect the core within.
Yes, there would be no help from Reinforce. She was busy.
The problem was, basically, that her Knights were too destroyed for Restoral to fix them, but she wanted them as they were rather than as new instantiations of the template. One or the other she could do easily – repairing them if they were still alive or creating them anew. Restoring them from death as they had been...
... well, that was harder. And was going to take some creative thinking. Luckily, she'd come up with a pretty good plan that she was fairly certain might more or less work. And she didn't have enough time to come up with another one, so she could just get on with trying instead of worrying whether there was a better way.
"Oh Buch der Dunkelheit, ich befehle dir den Wiederherstellungsprozess deiner Wolkenritter einzuleiten, auf daß sie mir dienen mögen!"
The four-part structure that held her Knights lit up like it was New Year. Across the empty gap from it, Restoral was just as bright; a dim glow from deep inside building and building until it filled every rippling surface and curving arch. Code flowed in streams so dense they looked like solid lines, from Restoral to Guardian and from Guardian towards her.
She smiled, or at least bared her teeth. She was drawing vast amounts of power from the Book to do this. The magic that went into remaking her knights was magic that the Defence tumour couldn't use to fight her!
"Lady Hayate," Reinforce said, alarmed enough to switch her focus inward. "What are you doing?"
Hayate didn't spare the attention to reply. She stared up unblinking, her breath caught in her chest, as four Belkan sigils appeared before her spinning lazily in the air. Four shapes flowed up from them; hazy and indistinct. They were grey outlines in the air, nothing more, but Hayate could name each ghostly figure by an instinct that went beyond sight. Something touched her mind; a probing, questioning feeling. It wanted her to make a decision, wanted her to give it something, and to prompt her it sent a sense of strength and skill, pride and honour, fire and...
"Now!" she called. "Oh Buch der Dunkelheit, beende den Wiederherstellungsprozess deiner Wolkenritter! Verwirf was du früher getan hast! Höre meine Befehle und nimm stattdessen das Werk deiner Dienerin 'Wiederherstellung' und akzeptiere es als dein Eigenes! Wenn du das getan hast, führe den Wiederherstellungsprozess deiner Wolkenrittern fort!"
The graceful shining tower that was Restoral let out a chime that shook the ground. The grey figures were engulfed in jagged flares of coloured light that burst from the sigils they stood in. Hayate bit her lip until it bled, her eyes hazing over as she forced her kludged-together spell to work.
Generation and repair. One or the other wouldn't get her what she wanted. Doing neither was unacceptable. But doing both... generating a new set of knights and overwriting them with restoral data before the templates were filled...
"Signum," she whispered, screwing her eyes shut to focus as hard as she could on her Knights, her friends, her family. Reinforce's hand was a firm support on her shoulder, and she could feel the Tome's power throughout her body; enhancing her body enough that she could stand. "Vita. Shamal. Zafira. Please."
The light died down. Four figures stood before her.
Four figures she recognised.
"Lady Hayate!" Reinforce was definitely alarmed now. "That is not how the functions are meant to be used! Such repurposing is... I fear it was part of how the Defence Programme was corrupted in the first place! You should never carry out such—"
The rebuke fell on deaf ears as Hayate stared, still unable to blink or breathe. They were so stiff. So blank. Like they had been so long ago, when they'd first appeared in front of her. Had it not worked? They looked the same, but had they forgotten everything? Anything? Was it really them?
And then, with the slightest tilt of his head and settling of his shoulders, Zafira's posture eased down from impassive to quietly impressed. Most people couldn't have read the difference, but she could! Because they were her knights!
"You know," he said. "In all the plans we made, all the wild scenarios... we never even considered that you could do something like this."
He smiled. "But I'm really glad you did."
Hayate couldn't wait any longer. She threw herself at him with a sob, and he swept her up in his arms and swung her round into a five-way crush of congratulations, babbled joy and tearful apologies. She was engulfed in the warm softness of Shamal, then struggling to breath as Vita all but crushed her ribcage, then forehead-to-forehead with Signum; loving every second of it...
A pink beam drilled over their heads and reduced something to ash behind them. Hayate didn't actually see the Wolkenritter move; one second she was sandwiched between and the next there were three bodies between her and the source of the beam, two weapons drawn and a double-layered shield up that she couldn't even see through.
"Wow," said Nanoha's voice from the other side of it. "How did you do that so- okay, never mind. Look, I know about the whole happy-to-see-you-again thing in fights, and I was trying to give you space and keep my shooting down so I didn't interrupt, but that goo-tendril was getting really close! Sorry! I waited as long as I could!"
Hayate grumbled, but put a hand on Zafira's arm and nudged Shamal. "It's okay," she said wearily. "She's on our side. The Book absorbed her, she got out of it and now she's helping fight the Defence Program."
Her Knights relaxed. Slowly. As Nanoha spun to clear out a few more creeping barbs that were trying to pierce the bubble's edge they seemed to accept Hayate's assurance at face value and disregard her, though Hayate could tell they were still tracking her every motion.
Instead, their attention was on Reinforce, who was staring back at them with reproach, surprise and wonder.
"And this is Reinforce," Hayate added. "The master program of the Tome of the Night Sky. I renamed her to set her free." She smiled. "I'm protecting you now. All of you. But I'm still going to need your help."
"Whatever you say, Hayate," Vita beamed, saluting. The other Knights followed suit. "What do you need us to do?"
Hayate frowned. "I'm not ordering you. But there are three fakes copying you out there! They're fighting the TSAB and Nanoha's friends. And the defence program has sort of half taken over Reinforce's outside-body. I'm not going to tell you what to do, but if you want to help, I can send you out properly. Once the fake Knights are gone, I'm going to purge the corrupted sections of the Tome and force them out through the rift." She gestured up to the line of light far above that the floating depress was still leaking through. "Then we can separate them from the Tome and destroy them for good."
A whoosh of air proceeded Nanoha landing beside them. Clouds of coolant vented from her Device as the slats closed over the Jewel Seed once more. "Woosh," she managed, waving her staff around trying to help it cool down. "Sorry, Raising Heart! You were getting a bit hot out there!"
[My master, coolant levels are down to 19%. A refill will be required soon.]
"I know, I'll try my best to find you some!" She swept a glare over Signum, Vita and Shamal before settling on Hayate. "We're onto step two?"
Signum made a quiet sound of recognition. "That jawline," she murmured. "You are your mother's daughter, little girl."
Nanoha's eyes narrowed further. "I might be on your side for now, but I don't have to like you!" she snapped. "You hurt my mother! More than once! And you attacked Arisa! And you hurt Fate! By hitting her in the back! You put her in hospital!" Her glare swept from Signum to Vita to Shamal, and petered out when it got to Zafira. "And... um... you're okay, I guess. I don't think you've hurt any of my friends."
Her rant didn't get much of a reaction, save a carefully impassive face from Zafira and a roll of the eyes from Signum. "Most people have the good sense to not pick a fight with me a second time when they're self-taught and can barely generate a barrier jacket," she said, her sword still held ready between Nanoha and Hayate. "Considering that you are using mana-collation bombardment spells against the Book of Darkness from the inside, you share your mother's sense. That is good."
"Huh?" Nanoha blinked at her. For that matter, Hayate blinked at her. She wasn't aware of how Nanoha blowing up her Tome was a good thing. Necessary, maybe, but...
"We are all mad for trying this," Signum said bluntly. "You speak of putting a permanent end to the curse of the Book of Darkness. It is madness."
Hayate shrunk a little. "... you... think so? That we can't win this?"
Signum hesitated. Or perhaps just paused in thought; giving the question real consideration. She looked around at her fellow Knights, at Nanoha. At Reinforce.
"Mistress," she said at last. "Your warmth has quelled the curse of the Book for the first time in centuries. We are, if your words are true, aided by some of the strongest and most talented mages I have seen in a dozen manifestations. We, the Wolkenritter, are your loyal knights, and have walked a thousand battlefields in our time. If ever there was a group that could do this, or a time it was possible, it is here and now. It is madness. But it is not, I think, impossible."
Hayate smiled. "Then I put us in your hands, my Flame General. Lead us well."
Fighting the Mariage in the skies over Akkamar had been a horrible experience. The Galean bioweapons were unnaturally fast and strong; unconstrained by the limitations of muscle and bone. Their limbs could morph into lethal blades, and even when killed they burst into burning chemical sludge.
Yuuno really really wished he was fighting Mariage right now.
The False Blade's flesh was in a constant ebb and flow of motion. Sharp edges jutted from its skin all over its body; piercing out from its limbs and protruding like spines from its back. Every other movement saw them cut into it, triggering sprays of blood and flame. Zest's every effort to reach melee range had been fended off by innumerable blades, gouts of fire or both.
It didn't stop the Blade. It blurred from point to point with bursts of speed, attacking with blasts and cutting arcs of plasma from a flame-wreathed sword. The weapons that protruded from its flesh rocketed out like arrows that tracked Zest unerringly; forcing him to keep his spear moving in a constant guard, and every so often it would switch its sword to a snake-like bladed chain and fill the air around it with whirring, razor-edged metal. Yuuno did what he could with binds and shields, but whatever the deep purple flame bolts it fired at his efforts were; they ate through all the quick-cast shield-structures he knew. They seemed expensive – it only used them when it had to – but if it was running out of energy it was doing so slowly.
And Zest was tiring. He could tell from his position on the man's shoulder. Oh, he was holding up as well as could be expected, but the clash that had taken the Book's arm off had not ended well for him. Yuuno had done what he could with Physical Heal, but he was getting more and more worried that there might have been some internal damage he had missed. If they survived this, he was going to personally tie the man to a hospital bed if that was what it took to get him checked over properly.
Right now, though, he had other priorities.
'How close are you?' he called back as Zest and the Blade circled warily. Yuuno wasn't sure it was sapient, but it seemed smart enough to have picked up a healthy respect for Zest's spear.
'Nearly there, but Kyouya can't move very fast.' Momoko's voice sounded worried. If she could see the thing that was trying to get to her and her family, Yuuno couldn't blame her. There wasn't much left of the city below – Nanoha's spell had burnt buildings to nothing and melted the ground. But there were still a few underground parts of the city left in the barrier; parts of the subway hadn't collapsed yet. One crucial entry was nearby.
'You need to move faster,' Yuuno broke off for a moment to flinch as Zest rocketed forward, slashing up and across to stop the Blade from moving down. It retaliated by spitting a cloud of fire at him, which Yuuno reflected back. It didn't seem to hurt it much, but it blinded it long enough for Zest to lodge a pair of orange javelins in its torso and detonate them. They barely avoided the plume of blood as it sprayed out and caught light, and the wave of heat that rolled off the ignition was palpable.
'It's going to make it to the ground sooner or later,' he continued. 'And it's hyper-focused on you for some reason. You need to be underground where it can't easily follow. Can you move any- stop it!
He threw up a shield just in time to see it riddled full of metal as every blade in the creature's body tore free and launched outward at once. As the bleeding, burning body dropped like a comet towards the Takamachi family, the sphere of sharpened steel turned in midair and closed in on the pair of them. Zest swore.
"Hold on," he ordered, and loaded two cartridges. Yuuno squirmed under his ripped and singed greatcoat; the battered fields of the Barrier Jacket expanding to cover him, as Zest concentrated for a moment a shell of deep orange light formed around him. It detonated outward in a shockwave that blew the oncoming arrow-blades away, and Zest dropped after their enemy.
But they were too slow. Yuuno could tell, even before they hit the ground, that they weren't going to be fast enough. It would reach the Takamachis before they would reach it, and in the few seconds it would take to catch up...
... something bright and swift and shining came flashing in from the side and struck it before it reached the ground.
The impact blew it off-course, sending it hurtling down with enough force to send fragments skittering away from the crater across the glassed surface of the ground. Another projectile hit it before it managed to rise, throwing it back further, and two more homed in from either side to catch it in a dual explosion. As it was blown forwards towards Zest's landing spot, Yuuno caught a glimpse of the first two missiles, still sticking out of its skin.
Gleaming metal arrows, fletched with purple.
"Stop trying to fight it up close," advised a woman's voice; deep and accented. "It's a rabid dog. Put it down from a distance."
Zest turned and tensed. Yuuno followed suit. It was the Blade – the real Blade; human-shaped and pink-haired and wearing her white coat and purple tabard; holding a formidable metal recurve bow. She stared down at her false, malformed facsimile with a mixture of disgust and disappointment. "To fight a mage who presents a challenge is a rare chance," she said, lip curling. "I've often dreamt of fighting an equal; a true peer. This, though... this is just a mad beast. The blade, and not the general."
A casting sigil formed above her hand, and another arrow dropped out of it. She strung it and drew. "Still, disappointment or no, destroying it is necessary. I won't have that woman's daughter blame my mistress for her death. She would be… volatile." She glanced at them, blue eyes narrowed. "You did receive the broadcast? We fight together now, against the Book's corruption."
"I heard," Zest said. There was a bubbling rasp to his voice that set Yuuno's fur on edge. "But the last time we met, you tried to kill me in defence of that corruption."
"I assure you," the Blade retorted. "I was not trying to kill you. It would have ended differently if I hadn't been holding back."
The false Blade shrieked, staggering upright and oozing burning blood. They put their conversation on hold in favour of bombarding it with a volley of arrows and javelins. Zest was moving carefully, doing most of his casting through circles rather than throwing the orange lances, but the true Blade moved with the fluid efficiency of a trained soldier. There were no wasted movements that Yuuno could see. She nocked, aimed and fired in a chained set of motions so natural that they blended into one.
Under the battery of projectiles, the half-formed thing first tried to shield itself, then dodge, then take cover. None of its attempts worked. The Blade seemed to be able to generate an endless supply of arrows that curved around obstacles and homed in on their target; knocking her counterpart's own projectiles aside. Zest's javelins expanded into tight binds or detonated where they struck; sending glassy shrapnel up. The world was coming apart around it as the Dimensional Sea broke through. The False Blade lost a limb when a well-placed shockwave from Zest sent it through a plume of violet exotic radiation.
Desperately, the monster gathered its strength and broke for the Takamachi family, gathering a hellish glow about itself as it flew. Yuuno squinted, concentrated and focused. If he was right about what it was trying to do...
He was. As it went down, screaming, with a dozen shafts of steel through its body and orange clamps crushing every limb, it spat one last hellish fireball at its prey that grew as it flew.
Yuuno cast, and the glowing ball of star-bright fire came apart in the air; a faint green field pulling and stretching it out into nothing more than heat haze. He breathed a sigh of relief. It was down. They were safe.
"... what was that?" The Blade seemed mildly surprised, looking at Yuuno rather than Zest for the first time since she'd arrived.
'A thermo-mana conversion field,' he explained, panting. 'To turn the heat back into mana. I was trying to set one up earlier, but I couldn't focus for long enough while it was moving.'
"Hmm." She seemed to accept that, turning her attention back to Zest and frowning. "You fought well, knight of the Bureau, but you should sit the rest of the fight out. You're gravely injured. Had that truly been me, it would have killed you."
Zest rumbled menacingly. "I'm not so easy to kill. And it's Grangeitz. Captain Zest Grangeitz."
The Blade looked him up and down, and gave the faintest of smiles. For some reason, it made Yuuno's fur prickle far more than her sudden appearance or her hail of arrows.
"I am Signum," she murmured, "and perhaps you are not." Her eyes turned back to the huge, bloated mass that loomed back the way they had come from. It was the size of a small building now, and still growing. Two shapes buzzed around the tiny woman protruding from its top, slashing away the pseudopods grasping at her with white spikes and green wire.
"Unfortunately," she added, "neither will that be."
The spearman – Grangeitz – was obviously in bad shape. Signum could hear the damage in his breathing and see it in the way he bobbed in midair; his flight spell wavering unsteadily. What had hurt him, she couldn't be sure of. Perhaps the cursed Book, perhaps one of the cursed effigies of the Wolkenritter.
Whatever it had been, she hoped he wasn't going to be stubborn about it. For all that he had some overly romanticised notions of Belkan honour, his heart was that of a true knight. Which unfortunately tended to correlate with being an utter nightmare of a patient who would outright refuse medical treatment while there was still a fight to be won. She and Vita were the same.
"Ferret," she ordered.
'Scrya,' he corrected. 'Yuuno Scrya.'
Signum didn't care. "Give him another shot of magic to the ribs and get him to the ground." She switched her attention to Grangeitz. "You can stay with that girl's family for security. You're in no condition for serious combat, but you should be enough to dispatch any Mariage units still on the battlefield."
"Fair," he agreed. Well, that was a nice surprise. "But I'll want a sparring match with you when all this is over." He coughed, letting a little of the pain he'd been hiding show. "I'll provide what support I can, though I'm not a great shooter."
Signum felt his eyes linger on her as they parted ways. She and Scrya flew towards the behemoth-tumour that had bled from the wound Takamachi had blasted in the side of the Book. Vita, the Testarossa girl and her familiar fell in beside them. Vita's dismissive expression hid the same unsettled discomfort that Signum herself felt after seeing her doppelgänger, and Testarossa was favouring her right shoulder, but neither seemed seriously injured.
"The false Breaker?" she asked, just in case.
"Dead," Vita reported. "Sparky here wore it halfway down before I got there. And that thing it was swinging around wasn't much against the real Graf Eisen. Still didn't go down easily, though."
Signum nodded. "The false Blade is dead too, and the Healer was destroyed before it could form." One small mercy there, she thought. Fighting a monstrous version of Shamal would have been a nightmare. 'Harlaown. The false Blade and Breaker are down. Grangeitz is stable, but out of the fight. The Hound?'
the boy replied. Signum traded a worried look with Vita. 'But it's wounded badly. We managed to herd it into a trap spell and blow it nearly in half. Even if it survived, it's half-frozen and barely in one piece - no condition to fight. We're returning to assault the Book proper now.'
"It's not dead," Vita said. It wasn't an opinion. They both knew Zafira. "What's it doing?"
"Biding its time," Signum said firmly. Zafira wasn't as subtle as Shamal, but he was wolf-shaped for a reason. He had the instincts of a hunter.
'Going after the Takamachis, maybe?' guessed Testarossa's familiar. 'If it's too injured to win a fight and it knows it; it might be planning to help its master out by sending power instead.'
Her mistress slowed a little, looking back uncertainly. Signum motioned her forward.
"Grangeitz will take care of it if it does," she said. "We deal with the greater threat. This vile tumour that has killed our masters and subverted our honour." She pursed her lips, forcing the rage, the violation at the sight of the False Blade back down inside. She had four strikers capable of bombardment – herself, Vita, Harlaown and Testarossa. Fire, force, ice and lightning.
That was enough for a plan. With a moment's thought, it was enough for a good plan. One that stood a fairly good chance of working.
"What is the black ooze?" Harlaown asked her, eyes narrowed as he cast a custom cooling spell on his dented Device. "What are its capabilities and weaknesses?"
'The tar-like substance is the Ink System of the Book. It is an amorphous computational substrate. The Defence programme is trying to emulate lost functionality with it and so rebuild itself in realspace,' she explained. 'It can do almost anything, but each configuration comes with its own weaknesses.'
The boy nodded, bringing up additional sensor windows.
'I'll take lead on the assault,' she ordered. 'Vita, we're starting with a spread and burn. We know how Ink adapts. We can guide its adaptations. Testarossa, Harlaown; follow my directions.'
"Hah!" Vita pulled up. "I get what you have in mind," she called as they pulled ahead of her. "I'll start off, then. Be ready for it!"
Signum flashed her a wave of acknowledgement and sped up. Testarossa matched her speed effortlessly. 'You two be ready with bombardment spells,' she told the two children. 'Harlaown, lock it down with ice. Testarossa; you'll be using lightning. As much as you can.' Laevatein was still in its bow form, and she let off a couple of probing arrows as she flew over the Book. Testarossa followed suit, peppering it with a rapid-fire chain of crackling bolts.
Neither had much effect on the tumour.
What had started out with the mass of a car and grown to the height of a house was now the size of a hill. Had any buildings survived Takamachi's second blast, it would have towered over them, and the tendrils it had extruded were wide enough to fill a street at the base. It seemed blind to the open dimensional rifts around it; cracks in the sky and rents in the air that spewed purple fire and exotic radiation plumes. Plumes which Signum's threat detector marked as dangerous even to the likes of her.
Shamal and Zafira had their hands full protecting the human torso attached perilously to the uppermost part of the central tendril; tiny and frail against the enormity of what was below. The master pro- no, she corrected herself. Reinforce. Her fellow Knights were fighting flat out to protect the newly named construct. They ducked, weaved, slashed, cut, shot and shielded as the tendrils lashed in. Tarry ichor rained down with each rent or severed limb, becoming thick liquid that seemed to reach for them even as it fell.
Belkan casting sigils covered the blob's surface; each one casting a different spell. It was as well that they seemed to be on automatic, Signum realised, because if the creature could concentrate and aim the destruction being discharged from its flanks; nothing within range would stand a chance. The Defence program was too damaged to be the threat it should have been. When everything was a threat, it couldn't prioritise targets properly.
The spells of the Wolkenritter were absent from its repertoire, at least. That truly would have been challenging.
'Um,' said Scrya from her shoulder. 'When the Breaker said she'd go first…'
Signum took one look upwards and sped up to her maximum. Testarossa matched her speed; confused at first until she glanced up and saw the red triangle covering the sky above the corrupted Book. They pulled out to circle the huge form at a safe distance, and Signum saw Harlaown and the cat-familiar doing the same opposite them.
She could also see Vita in the distance; a casting triangle hovering in front of her with its face parallel to the ground. A triangle linked to the enormous one in the sky.
A triangle she brought her hammer down on with a mighty shout.
The enormous triangle above the Book erupted. A pillar of red force punched down; the bone-shattering force of Vita's swing magnified a thousandfold and dropped from the heavens. Shamal and Zafira leapt to the tiny human figure at the Book's highest point; wreathing her in green-white shields that cut a tiny channel of calm into the heart of the spell.
The rest of the Book's tendrils weren't so lucky. They were punched down under the column of force like paper under a piston; bursting as they were driven into the ground. The half-liquid mass of the creature bulged and flattened; spreading out like a balloon filled with water as it desperately grew armour and internal reinforcement to cope with the pressure. So great was the force of the blow that the ground splintered and cracked; pushed down into a depression a hundred metres across.
Tarry ink sprayed everywhere. It burst from the sides of the Book; the firing sigils on its flanks rupturing explosively. It sprayed out from the remains of the vast tendrils. A huge bulge of material surged up the central tendril and ran into a wall of white spikes. For a moment Signum's heart leapt as it popped. But no. Within the ichor was a slender stem of metal wire that still engulfed the true Book's lower body.
Oh, and popping that bulge added even more to the grasping, animate mass of black tar that was spraying out in every direction.
'Shields!' Signum roared. Green sprang up around her and she widened her circle to avoid the worst of the deluge. Orange light flickered up around Testarossa, and blue around Harlaown. Vita was still far enough out to be safe.
'Bombardment spells after me!' she continued. 'Testarossa; use electricity and wait for it to break the crust. Harlaown; take your time charging up and then freeze it solid.'
Testarossa nodded fiercely, falling back to take the third point of a triangle around the Book. Signum gave it a few more seconds to adapt, and loosed her arrow.
One arrow became a hundred droplets of fire. And then two hundred, and then four, and then eight. The cone of fiery rain fell upon the Book before it could pull its mass back together from the flattened state Vita had left it in; leaving it thinly spread and rich in surface area. The half-formed plates of chitin and metal it had created to protect itself glowed red and then white under the heat; melting and charring as it scrabbled to adapt. There was more metal inside it, Signum realised; metal that was glowing just as hot as the outer sections, burning the creature from the inside. She watched dispassionately as it hammered on the inside of its own armour; the protective plates having turned into lethal insulators. Cracks appeared throughout the crust of slag and it spat out glowing wires to its surroundings, shedding heat through superconductors. Perfect.
It also spat them at its attackers. Less perfect.
'Incoming!' shouted Harlaown as the wires homed in like striking snakes. Scrya threw up a barrier that stopped the first three, but it glowed red-hot and failed as the fourth slammed into it. Signum cursed.
'No barriers!' Harlaown yelled before she could. 'It's trying to dump heat!' Testarossa was dodging, as far as she could see, but she was bigger and slower. She snapped Laevatein out to parry and hissed as it cut through the superheated wire. Even fractions of a second were enough to heat her sword red-hot, and she gritted her teeth as she felt her palm burn.
'Testarossa!' she ordered, just as the distant whine of the girl's Device reached its peak. 'Now!'
Electric gold engulfed them all. Testarossa's spell started as a solid beam, but it split and forked like a tree as it travelled; every branch a charged bolt. Signum pulled her sword back, but she needn't have bothered. The superconductive wires drew the lightning like iron filings to a magnet. They ignored Signum completely, and the tumour screamed. Signum caught a snapshot view of Shamal holding a green barrier over Reinforce, insulating her from the electricity. And this time, she was ready for the Book's retaliation.
'Go high!' she shouted. 'Barriers! Now!
The Book reacted to the current ripping through its body the only way it could. It reverted its body to tar and expelled every bit of metal and conductive wire within it. The air around it became a storm of shrapnel as the circling mages rocketed upwards. Whirring metal support braces, razor-sharp wire nets, red-hot flecks of molten metal and rods still sparking with electric charge all shot out like bullets. Scrya raised a barrier, but he couldn't absorb the force of everything coming at them, and Signum's sword skills were put to the test as she parried and dodged for her life. She heard Testarossa cry out and Harlaown swear, but there was no attention to spare for anything except her defence.
'Harlaown! Ice!' she called as the air started to clear, and prayed he was still in a fit state to fire.
Chrono swooped low to sweep a wide blast of blue light over the tar as it lunged for them. Where it touched, black tar calcified. Amorphous computing substrate collapsed into its groundstate. Tendrils crackled to a stop in midair. The sigils reforming on the flanks were trapped and incomplete. The central stem, Signum saw, had discharged all its metal, and from the looks of things Reinforce had almost pulled free. There was only a slender limb of tar still wrapped around her legs; not yet frozen, that Shamal and Zafira were hacking at. The ice reached the bottom of the stem and started to crawl up its length, and Vita came in like a missile; hammer cocked to deliver the final blow.
The scream came from Testarossa; always so quick to react to sudden changes. To her credit; Vita tried to brake, and pulled up sharply. But she couldn't pull the same level of high-speed turn as the young mage.
A rippling crack echoed out across the shattered city as the Book broke its own back; spitting out hundreds of frozen chunks to scatter uselessly over the landscape and free up a hinge across its breadth.
And like the jaws of a titanic beast, it swung shut on Vita and engulfed her.
Within the folded space of the Book, things were developing about as might be expected.
"Axel Shooter! Axel Shooter! Round Shield! Axel Beam! Raising Heart, cycle to 65%! Divine Barret! Sunrise Flash! Axel Shooter!"
Which would be more encouraging if Nanoha had expected something other than chaos and screaming.
The young girl was pushed to her limits. She flew through the dark space, and circled the shrinking, leaking confines of their core-bubble in a constant spiral. Rising and falling and pulling in and out, she flew in programmed evasive patterns to dodge the defence program's extrusions. Again and again she cast, sending shot after shot and lance after lance of pink light into the black barbed tendrils that pierced the thin shell of the core. She cast until her voice was hoarse. Until her hands were numb. Until the shapes and forms and numbers of her spells were so etched into her mind that she thought she'd dream of them.
She really missed Vesta.
It was actually a little frightening to realise how much she'd come to rely on her familiar. Without a second pair of eyes at her back, without a close-range bodyguard and illusionary support to hide her shots and blur her true location, she was having to do a lot more work to stay in the fight. Raising Heart was running far too hot, and she was using an experimental spell to dump heat without using any of her perilously low supplies of coolant. Her own reserves were running perilously close to dry – if not for the Jewel Seed in her Device, she'd be close to exhaustion. As it was, she had magic enough for days, but the ache behind her eyes and burning feeling in her fingers was taking no small effort to push through.
Still. As far as she could tell, they were very expensively winning. The bubble that defined the core was tattered and torn in a hundred different places, surrounded by a brittle black spiderweb lattice that formed a spherical cage. It stemmed from Defence and Archival, but both were taking a pounding of their own. The lattice-cage was splintering; not just from Nanoha's shots but from simple lack of material. The two corrupted superstructures were similarly cracked, and suffering for their separation. Every time they tried to reconnect, Hayate would slam down a buffer between them and reduce their efforts to ash.
And speaking of Hayate…
'How long?' Nanoha called, clenching her teeth as she sent a spreading flower of Axel Shooters to detonate along three crucial support beams in the lattice. A chunk as large as the front wall of her house was sent tumbling upwards towards the rift in the sky. It had grown a lot bigger. Ice crystallised around it now, where fire and lightning had lit the darkened skies before.
'Working on it!' Hayate shouted back. She hovered at the centre of the ragged space; glowing white with dark wings spread wide. Code surrounded her; a pillar of white glyphs rotating lazily around her as her hands moved across it with the hesitant haste of a novice in a crisis situation. 'It's got so many backdoors that some of them are backdoors for each other! I can't purge it till all its hooks are out of the system!'
'Well work faster!'
Nanoha urged her. 'I'll hold out for as long it takes, but this bubble is getting very full of holes, and I don't know what happens when it pops!' She yelped as another questing tendril shot towards her like an arrow; lengthening and thinning behind a wickedly sharp tip. It barely missed her leg before she tagged it with a purge routine that turned it to grey vapour. That was what she got for not paying attention.
Something shifted. A rumbling crack echoed around them as the rift expanded; jagged lines cutting deeper into the dark sky as it almost doubled in length and width. Hayate cried out in pain, and Nanoha sent a surge of power to strengthen the bubble wall. But the lattice didn't attack. In fact, the tendrils seemed to be turning upwards, to where a red star was falling from the rift.
… wait. That wasn't a star.
The Breaker tumbled down and smashed through a dense chunk of lattice before catching herself. She was covered in crushed ice, badly bruised and her jaw looked broken, but for all that she still seemed ready and willing to fight. A flick of her wrist had her hammer expand into the enormous block of metal Nanoha had seen before, and she eyed the lattice up like a wolf eyeing up a steak.
'Vita, wait!' Hayate called; real fright colouring her voice. 'It's dangerous! Be careful!'
Vita scoffed, dropped and swung, shattering a car-sized chunk of lattice into fragments. 'It's fine,' she spat scornfully. 'It can't attack me any more than it can Absorb me. Its systems don't recognise me as being any different to it. And if it broke them to target me, it'd- whoa!'
Only Nanoha's Axel Beam saved her from getting skewered as a dozen sharp-tipped tendrils lunged for her. She dispatched those that survived with a few brutal swings, and tossed half a dozen metal balls up to orbit around her.
Nanoha and Hayate glanced around worriedly. Something was changing in the way the defence program's extrusions were acting. They were squirming more. Bloating and losing the sense of united purpose they'd had. Turning on each other.
'… then it would be even dumber than I thought it was!' Vita finished, half-angry and half-triumphant. 'Because now it has one hell of an autoimmune problem to deal with! Hayate, this'll make it even meaner - it'll attack itself and anything else wherever there's activity! Watch out!'
She spun to smash another extrusion from the lattice, which was now a shrieking web of barbs stabbing at one another; hungry mouths and gnashing blades forming from the mass to bite at itself. Loading a cartridge, Vita shot towards the looming superstructure of the Defence Program like a furious pinball as her hammer began to glow red-hot.
Hayate squeezed her eyes shut and ignored the fresh wave of chaos that had broken out around her. In this state, submerged in the veins and arteries of the Tome's core code, her senses were expanded far beyond the normal human ones. The hum of Nanoha's Jewel Seed was a scream; setting off alarms that she only half-understood. The damage the defence program was taking both outside and in was a caterwauling wail, and this fresh mutilation of its systems echoed in her ears like a shrieking whistle inside her skull.
She had the mother of all headaches already. Only the joyful feeling of finally understanding how everything worked was keeping her going.
But the new layer of warnings brought salvation. The labyrinthine network of backdoors and contingencies and undocumented blackboxes connected to Defence was turning on itself like a feral animal. Huge regions of her white sector map were turning into red bloodbaths of compromised code. Outside, she could feel the mass that was trapping Reinforce tearing itself apart; forming fangs and cannons to tear chunks out of its own organs and sending others into hypergrowth that crushed everything around them.
Reinforce was getting closer and closer in her head. Hayate knew, with instinct that was half hers and half granted, that they were on the verge of something that was meant to happen. All she had to do…
All she had to do…
… was wait…
… and aim…
… and act.
A white wire sprang out from her hand in a casting that Shamal would have been proud of, flashing upwards through the debris and ongoing battlefield. It sought, struck, and coiled around a single, specific bridge in the cracked and crumbling structure; exposed by the violent growth and war of those around it.
It wrenched. Outside, the last coil of tar around Reinforce's legs dissolved. Shamal and Zafira sprang back as a vast casting triangle appeared beneath her, blocking her off from the hulking form of the defence program. White light ran over her, and her appearance shifted as Hayate's body dropped down into the core proper.
Unison. And with it, the last thing she needed to do.
"Buch des Nachthimmels!" she shouted. "Deine Diener 'Verteidigung' und 'Archiv' sind verräterisch! Entziehe ihnen ihre Autorität, leere ihre Kassen und wirf sie für immer aus!"
The core-structure whose summit she'd been standing on glowed blinding white in response, and the shifted space collapsed like an imploding star.
The world bent in on itself and dissolved like an oil wash painting drenched in solvent. And then it rebuilt itself, folding out around Nanoha as though she were at the centre of a complicated origami piece that was spreading out to form the sky, the ground, her friends…
"Vesta!" she called happily as her familiar came into view. "Fate, Yuun-urk!"
Vesta cut her off from any further greetings by cannoning into her and wrapping her up in a bone-creaking hug.
"You're okay," she whispered, pulling back long enough to run a rapid scan over Nanoha for any sign of injury before crushing her in a tight embrace again. "You're okay, you're okay, you're okay, don't ever do that again, I don't care if it wasn't your fault, you're okay, you're okay…"
Nanoha wormed an arm out to hug her back. "I'm okay," she agreed. "And we won. I think. Have we won?"
"We… haven't exactly won," Hayate's voice came from behind her. "Well, I mean. Not quite yet."
Pulling back from Vesta, Nanoha looked around. Fate and Arf had dropped in beside her, and Fate offered her a small smile as Nanoha saw her. It didn't look like much on the surface, but Nanoha could see the relief it was hiding, and she held out a hand to squeeze Fate's. Fate squeezed back gratefully.
To her other side, Yuuno and Chrono were watching her warily. She offered Yuuno a reassuring grin and he nodded back; though tension still haunted his face.
And in front of them, Hayate stood on a white casting triangle; backed by the Wolkenritter. She'd changed again – she still had the black wings, but her hair had turned golden and one of her eyes was a pale crystal blue. The black dress of her Barrier Jacket had gained a white overcoat, though it was missing an arm. Frowning on a sudden suspicion, Nanoha checked the field strength in her HUD, and… yes, it was weaker there. The same arm that the Book had lost against Zest. And the eye that hadn't changed colour was the same one the Book had lost. Though hadn't that been in the illusion? It was hard to pinpoint exactly what had been real and what had been false.
"What exactly did you do?" Chrono asked. "We heard that last command, and…" he gestured downward, where what Nanoha had initially taken to be some sort of hill was crumbling. Tar and chitin and metal and glowing blocks fell off its disintegrating slopes and dissolved into mana as it shrunk. Around it, the city was a blasted plain.
She winced. 'Mama?'
'Nanoha! Are you alright? Captain Grangeitz says the Book ate you!'
'I'm fine! It tried to suck me into an illusion, but I realised it wasn't real and got out. Are you all okay?'
She glared at Chrono, and heard Vesta snarl from just behind her. He glared right back. "Did you even hear what Yagami said? We still have a fight to win. Talk later." He pointed downwards. "Look."
The hill-monster was still falling apart, but it was starting to reveal two shapes inside it that weren't. One of them was stationary; a mound of ichor-soaked books that was bleeding oil onto the ground around it and reshuffling itself with a desperate sort of futility.
But the other was moving, thrashing, struggling against the crumbling mass that confined it and clearing a space for itself. It was a horribly distorted parody of the human form - of Reinforce's form; silver-haired and black-robed. It had grotesquely long, thin limbs that it crawled on, spider-like and a body two or three times the size of a man; stretched out unnaturally and covered in armour, casting sigils and lashing tentacles of wire and tar. Its head stretched forward on a long and flexible neck; hungry eyes sweeping back and forth in search of something.
And it was sick. It was wrong. Black ooze seeped from countless sores on its face and limbs. The limbs were asymmetrical, one of them so thin and stick-like that it could barely put weight on it. Half-formed legs and arms sprouted from its side, like it wasn't quite sure how many limbs a human should had or possibly hadn't made its mind up about which ones to grow to full size.
It was a child's drawing of Reinforce, seen only from a distance.
"I purged Archival and Defence," Hayate said quietly. "Cut all of their links and threw them out entirely. It was the only way to stop the corruption from taking over the Tome again. I thought they'd break if I did that." She bit her lip. "But they didn't."
"Um," said Yuuno. "When you say 'Archival'… do you mean the records of everything the Book knows? That big black mass that's sitting still down there next to the corrupted defence program? That Archival?"
All eyes turned to the thrashing shape of Defence. Looked at with that in mind, it did seem to be thrashing towards its partner.
"Isolate Defence! Keep it away from Archival!" Signum snapped, her words edging out Chrono's. "Zafira, Vita, hit Defence now while it's stunned! Shamal, cordon Archival!" These words seemed almost a reflex, and it was only after she gave the orders to her fellow Knights that she seemed to pause to consider her other assets. "We'll focus on the Defence program. I need Archival sealed!"
"The library of the Book of Darkness is supposed to be where it stores the spells and the mana drained from mages," Yuuno said quickly, looking to Hayate for confirmation.
She shook her head. "Not exactly. Spells go to Archival, but the mana is spread around a lot more. There's a lot of mana in Archival, though, because it's where spells were built."
"Right! Well, the Defence program is probably mana-hungry, if it works like similar Old Belkan tomes. Cut away from everything else, it has limited reserves."
"I blew up Absorption inside the Book," Nanoha contributed, "and that bit didn't have any gloop on it. That means it probably can't drain mages on its own, since it doesn't know how."
Yuuno nodded, even as an explosion shook the world. Down below, Vita was laying into the Defence programme. It hadn't fully restarted yet, and its movements were still slow and clumsy. "Then it's going to need mana, and badly!"
Signum inclined her head. "Harlaown, you bear a sealing Device. Lead these children and my lady, and seal the Archival program. I will join my fellow Knights in keeping the Defence program away. We owe it centuries of suffering." She turned and saluted Hayate with her blade. "My lady, it has been an honour." And with that said, she fell like a comet, fires trailing as she slammed into the oversized monstrous female.
Fate stared at Chrono. "Orders?" she said softly.
"Scrya, Arf, set up a secondary defensive perimeter behind the Healer's efforts! Takamachi, do as much damage as possible to Archival! Testarossa, Vesta, help her, but be ready to counter-attack if the Defence program gets past the Knights." He took a breath, and turned to Hayate. "You. Did you purge Archival in full, or do you still have access to the spells within the Tome?"
Hayate frowned. "Reinforce says… we lost about four in ten spells forever," she reported after a moment. "But about half of the rest can be recovered with a bit of work, and I have access to the other half right now." She paused. "And she says yes, there are sealing spells in the ones I have access too."
Chrono looked grim. "Good. Then we'll seal it."
Hanging back, Nanoha squeezed Raising Heart. The vents were open, but there was no coolant venting and the central gem was cracked. She brought her up to kiss the ruby-red core. It was hot enough that it burnt her lips a little even through her Jacket, and she could feel her fingers blistering. One of the tines was warped along its length, and the very tip was broken off. "Raising Heart, status report," she ordered.
[My master. System warning. Primary coolant levels at 0%. Secondary coolant levels at 0%. Emergency coolant levels at 4%. Emergency heat management mode activated. Custom Emergency Mode 'Really Emergency Mode 2' activated. Primary processor in state Orange. Backup processor in state Green,] the gem stated, the light of the Jewel Seed pulsing along with its words.
"Just a little longer," she promised the Device. "Then we'll get you all fixed up and polished and get you all the coolant you want. But we need to finish this."
[I understand, my master.]
"So cycle as high as you can still manage, okay? We'll hit this monster with everything we've got!"
[Got it! Cycle to 68%!]
There was something pure and simple about this fight, Zafira felt. For once, their foe was unquestionably evil. It was not a matter of honour, where a knight might have to follow orders that he would rather not. It was not a matter of survival, the bloody conflicts when foes were closing in where every blow was struck to win another moment of life. It was not their unpleasant self-appointed duty to save Hayate, struggling with unexpected sentiments of guilt and shame as they went against their master's orders to try to save her life.
No, this time they were fighting the corruption of the very Book they served. They were fighting the manifestation of the system that had wiped their memories and left them unaware of what would happen when they completed the Book. They were fighting the thing that had rampaged across dimensional space countless times. They were fighting the reason the four of them were viewed as monsters. They were fighting the thing that had been killing Hayate.
Today was absolution, of sorts.
He kept low, darting between half-melted lumps of rubble as he flanked the Defence program in wolf form. Plumes of violet flame and washes of exotic radiation made this unsafe, but allowed him to hide himself in the backwash from the Dimensional Sea.
Up above, Vita held the skies. Whenever the tumour tried to launch itself up to gain speed and height, she was there. Her hammer fell time and time again, pulping its limbs and smashing it down into the ground. Glass shattered under its bulk as time and time again as Vita denied it its advance. It could not approach the Archives without coming under a rain of hammer blows and so it wasted time, swatting with bombardment spells at the red comet above.
If given time to deal with her, it could have. But in front of it stood Signum, interposing herself between the tumour and Archival. Burning steel scourged her foe as she goaded it with her whip-sword. Leaping back, she dodged an overhead smash only to coil her blade around one of its legs. The wounds bit deep, oozing tar-blood, and the tumour screamed out in agony. Falling forwards, it pulled off a peculiar cartwheel that ended with one of its arms becoming a new leg and its malformed head migrating up its body. It lunged for the Flame General, only to be met by a perfect leaping stop-thrust that speared it through the throat. White-hot heat flowed through Laevatein and a plume of flame burst out its back, burning away some of the mass of stubby arms and chains.
And then there was Shamal. The tumour could not see her, but it must have known she was there. Who else could litter the glassy ruins with traps? Razor-wires severed flesh and limbs, binds locked it down just when it most needed to avoid Vita or Signum, and perhaps worse, Shamal wielded an AMF as a surgeon might a scalpel. It needed mana more than anything and that was the air she denied it.
Every time it had to heal, every time it had to cast a spell, every second it spent in Shamal's killing fields, the tumour was using mana it could ill afford.
But those were the other knights. They were not him. He had his own role to play in their intricate dance. They had centuries of experience on their side and needed little more than a few telepathic words to know what to do.
And so as Vita smashed the tumour down, breaking its leg, Zafira broke from his cover. Half way through his charge he shifted to human form. Two cartridges left. Enough for his purposes. All he really needed.
"Riesenkraft!" he roared, steam venting from both of his Device-gauntlets. White light swelled around his arms and chest. With a pounce he wrapped his arms around the staggered monster, so much bigger than him, and started to squeeze as he barrelled it to the ground.
Above him, Vita fell, hammer held high. "That's it!" she yelled. "Hey, you! Tödlichschlag!"
Zafira felt the impact through the tumour's body like a blow to the gut. He grinned despite that. "Ready?" he roared.
"Ready!" Signum snapped back.
Twisting and lifting from underneath its bulk, still boosted by Riesenkraft, he got his feet under him. The cool green magic from Shamal swelled up through him. The monster was stunned from Vita's impact, and didn't realise what he was doing until too late.
And then he threw it.
Razor-wires and burning arrows from Shamal and Signum punched through the body and propelling it further. It hit the husk of a shattered building and smashed through, bouncing as it went, and was caught in a jet of purple-white fire beyond. The sizzling scent of cooking meat and burning metal filled the air as it jackknifed back from the D-Space breach. Wincing, Zafira flipped to his feet and set chase. He was the Hound. He came from unexpected angles and flanked foes, hitting them where they least expected it then crippling their ability to run. That had got them a good five hundred metres. And distance here was time.
Time for his master to win this war.
The barrier-copy of Uminari City was a wasteland. Open rifts crisscrossed the sky. Flaring vents of violet fire opened and closed intermittently from random points in the air; cooking the ground still further and leaving drifting mana-hazes visible even to the naked eye. Parts of the landscape were simply disintegrating, leaving ominous-looking deep-violet panes of something in their place.
Once again, pink and yellow punched into the bulk of the archive, blowing chunks out of it. It tried to reconfigure itself around the damage, but this system was far less active than the Defence program. Slowly it was trying to heal, but the constant impacts were doing progressively more and more damage.
There was a bit of Nanoha that felt like a bully, hammering away at the Archival program like this. Not a very big bit. It was a pile of strange brick-like books that kept on trying to reconfigure itself into some kind of structure, only to collapse again. But she was still shooting something that couldn't fight back with her bombardment spells. Now she had to go and draw off the heat from Raising Heart, so she could fire again.
She'd just seen the Defence tumour go flying backwards through a building and into a radiation Cloud Knights seemed to be having a lot more f… a much more interesting fight.
"Hold up!" Yuuno ordered from down below. "I can see an opening." Green chains lashed out. "Arf, if you help me, I think we can pull this section off entirely!"
"Fine," Nanoha replied. "I'm still cooling down."
"I see it too," Arf agreed. Her orange chains reinforced his green.
'Fate, mistress, I'm going to mark the locations for your next shots. It's trying to regrow, but you're damaging it more and more!' Vesta contributed. 'Smash it to bits!'
Next to her, Fate nodded, face determined. "We're doing it," she said to Nanoha softly.
"Yeah! We are!"
Fate took a deep breath, running her free hand through her singed hair. "You're having problems with Raising Heart, aren't you?" she said.
"She's out of coolant," Nanoha admitted. "I'm having to use a spell I stole from Chrono to make the heat go away. I sort of used most of it up in that Starlight Breaker. And then the rest of it up shooting things inside the Book. And all my secondary coolant too. And some of my emergency coolant. Almost all of it, actually."
"Nanoha!" Fate said, scandalised. "You should have told me! That's really dangerous! Bardiche, how much coolant do you have left?"
[Primary coolant at 31%, sir]
"Prepare to transfer half of that to Raising Heart."
[Yes, sir!] Fate touched the gems together. [Transfer in progress.]
[Thank you, ma'am,] Raising Heart contributed. [I do not like to operate with insufficient coolant. It is outside my technical specifications. Field resupply is advised.]
"You have to treat your Device better," Fate chided Nanoha.
"Fine! I'll know about that next time!"
"Next time? Nanoha, you are forbidden from being eaten by a Lost Logia again!"
'That's what I said!' Vesta agreed. 'I found the weak spots. They're the glowing red dots. Blow them up!'
"Ready when you are," Fate said.
The beams punched through. At the same time the light of Arf and Yuuno's chains intensified as they pulled. With a noise like shattering stone an entire car-sized section of Archival came away. Under the layers of brick-like books there was mounds of white paper over which black ooze crawled like strange living writing.
"Good one!" Yuuno called out. "Chrono, we've exposed the interior structure under the shell! Nanoha, Testarossa, focus on keeping it open!"
"Well done," Chrono said. "Everyone, maintain a safe distance."
"Um, yes, please do," Hayate agreed wholeheartedly. "I've never cast a spell like this before!"
Fate backed away, and then had to come back to prod Nanoha meaningfully. The two of them retreated, while down below Yuuno and the familiars pulled back.
The three-pointed staff rose high, and Hayate brought it down to point at the records she'd purged from the Tome. Five white triangles appeared around her line of sight, circling the tip and spiralling inward. One by one, they overlapped and were absorbed; drawing closer and closer to the middle, until only one was left. It moved away from her, growing as it did, and further glyphs appeared around it. Not Belkan triangles; though. No, these were free-floating blocks that ran along the sides of the triangle, building outward in paragraphs like the petals of a flower with the sigil at its centre.
"Approach from beyond, mistletoe branches," Hayate intoned. "Become spears of the silver moon, shoot and pierce! Petrifying spears, Mistilteinn!"
A ray of… something, lanced out and struck Archival. Something pale grey and sparkling with glimmering flecks. Something that moved a little wrong through the air, strangely slow to the eye yet faster than it could follow. Where it struck, the dripping black surface of the book-mound turned slate grey, like fossilising wood sped up ten thousandfold. The greyness spread like a cancer, crawling across the surface until only a statue was left where the archive had been.
… except no, Nanoha realised with a strange certainty as she stared at the grey form and her HUD's readouts. This wasn't stone. All the light shining on the frozen mass was being reflected back as white noise.
"What was that and how did you do it?" she asked Hayate, eyes wide.
"Um. I'm not exactly sure," the other girl said, "but Reinforce told me that it..." She frowned. "... I don't understand the words," she admitted. "But it's locking it up in a magic prison."
"My turn, then," said Chrono. "Hope that this works. If it does, we win."
He levelled Durandal at the stone-grey bulk of the Archival program. Deep within his Device, programs designed over the course of years with this day in mind span into action. Frost crystallised in the air around him, and a blue glow built along the long, thin barrel. Angled circles along it gave it an almost barbed look; like the shaft of a harpoon pointed down at a monstrous whale.
"Eternal Coffin," he murmured. "Exec—"
And something slammed into the spell matrix. The uncast spell shattered, and what should have been a precise masterwork spell instead became an incoherent plume of mana. Ice layered the stone-coloured surface of the Archival system.
But it wasn't sealed. And the half-frozen monster made of black tar and white cloth that had ruined the spell wore Nanoha Takamachi's face.
The frozen chunks of tar that had gone flying off when the Book broke its back to get at Vita had gone unnoticed and unmonitored in the chaos and confusion. Now, thawed and reactivated by a frantic defence program, they stood. Rising up from the pools and puddles they'd formed, they took shape. Human shape. Recognisable shape. Mockeries of the mages above. Mockeries of other mages. Shambling figures that resembled countless figures from all over this sector of space.
Their blank gazes found a single common point. Hayate. Their master. The greatest threat to the Book. The Defence program's way to reintegrate itself.
"Oh no," whispered Nanoha, raising what shields she could. There were too many of them to shoot down, and she wasn't sure she could bring herself to anyway. There were Momokos down there. Fates. Arisas and Suzukas. She could see her own face, and countless others. But they'd got through! Chrono's jacket was half locked up in ice, and his Device… well, it might have been damaged! Could he even cast that spell again?
At least he was alive. Nanoha was fairly sure he was swearing, because she didn't understand the words he was using.
[Sonic Form,] Bardiche announced beside her, and she turned to look at Fate.
At the echoing thunderclap where Fate had been.
Her friend looked like a streak of actual lightning as she flew. She fell on the attackers; her Barrier Jacket stripped to almost nothing, Bardiche a scythe in her hands that was more deadly golden light than black metal. For the first time, Nanoha almost understood why people from Midchilda feared that colour; as her own Earth did radioactive green.
The mockeries fell like burning rain. Weak chunks of the Book cast off from its self-mutilation, they couldn't defend themselves or even evade their attacker. All they were capable of was dying – explosively and in sprays of chemical fire. But none got close enough to threaten their target. Not with Fate spiralling down, cutting through head and torsos and limbs like butter, chaining speed moves from victim to victim and never for an instant slowing down enough to be seen. Nanoha's breath was caught in her throat as she watched. She should help! She really should! But… but they looked like her friends and her mother and herself!
Caught in a dilemma, she chose to avoid it and instead headed straight to Chrono, trying to unravel the binding spells. If he could shoot back – well, he'd probably happily shoot someone who looked just like her. Which wasn't usually a happy thought, but was right now.
'Report!' Signum's telepathic voice was sharp and terse.
'We're being attacked by… by weaker fakes of everyone the Book absorbed,' Nanoha replied. 'Lots of them. One managed to interrupt Chrono's binding spell and—'
'Were you watching the light show rather than keeping guard?'
Signum said disapprovingly. 'The Defence program is trying hard to get back. It knows what's happening. We're out of cartridges. We'll hold it as long as we can, but you need to disable Archival.'
That chiding hurt more than Nanoha felt was fair. No one who beat up your mother twice was allowed to make you feel guilty! 'They came out of nowhere' she protested, 'and…'
Something howled. '… and what was that?' she finished nervously.
'Prepare for hard impact! Don't let it get near Archival!' Shamal screamed into the same communications link.
That was the only warning they got. Something navy-white erupted from one of the service tunnels towards the stony-locked form of Archival, leaving a trail of blood behind it. It was so fast moving that Nanoha couldn't see any details; only a mashed-up blend of man and beast whose hind legs were all but detached. They dangled behind it as it bounded towards the face of the half-sealed systems at terrible speed.
A plume of violet fire from one of the vents scorched its face, but it didn't stop. It slammed into Yuuno and Arf's barriers and shattered them like glass. The impact splashed the False Hound's tarry blood all over the ground, but it didn't care. Vesta threw herself into its way in full war form, mouth full of scarlet glowing teeth, but with another chilling howl it backhanded her out the way.
"Chain Bind!" "Lightning Bind!" "Struggle Bind!" "Chain Bind!" Nanoha couldn't hear the full number of binding spells that were thrown out in that moment. They merged into one. Either way, the False Hound was trussed up like a Christmas present in an instant.
But its momentum kept it going forwards. No longer in control, it slammed into the form of Archival and came apart, covering the surfaces in black tar.
For a surging heartbeat, Nanoha let herself hope that the spell had held.
And then there was a cracking sound. And another crack. And another. Without Chrono's reinforcement, the binding couldn't hold. And as the strange grey coating broke, underneath Archival began to twist and reform. It was still locked down, but it didn't look much like books any more.
It looked like… wolves.
Knuckles white, hands shaking, Nanoha levelled Raising Heart. She had to burn it off! Get the blood off before it could infect Archival again! Oh no, she now knew exactly what it had been doing, keeping the False Hound back just so it had a trump weapon made out of the tumour-tar of the Defence program.
[Wide Area Divine Buster,] pealed her Device.
"Stop!" Hayate shouted. "It won't work! It's already infected! And you'll break the seal!"
'The Defence program is headed your way!' Zafira reported. 'It's putting everything it has into this!'
"I know what to do," Yuuno said, leaping up to join the girls. Magic was already gathering around his hands.
"If you can buy me thirty seconds, I can try to—" began Chrono.
"The Garden of Time," Yuuno said quickly. "The Book spells that can tear holes into i-space."
"I don't have those spells anymore!" Hayate shouted.
"No! But we do have those holes!" Nanoha said, eyes glinting. She levelled her Device, pink rings already forming. "This barrier is falling apart! And it's nearly surrounded by the purple glow!"
"Yes," Fate agreed, levelling her polearm. "If we shoot it with barrier breaker spells…"
"Mad. You're all mad," Chrono groused. Despite his words and the painful-looking frost-burns on his face, he already had Durandal levelled.
"I'm ready!" Yuuno reported. "I'll attack the barrier directly! And we need to do it quickly!" he added, as a wave of fire denoted the desperate last stand of the Cloud Knights.
Hayate closed her eyes. "Yes," she said. Around her, a giant white Belkan triangle sprung up. She gestured with her crozier, wings spread wide. "Resound, horn of the end! Ragnarök!"
The light was blinding. Five barrier-breaker spells struck as one, and the world shattered like so much glass. The ground beneath Archival opened up like huge jaws into a void that Nanoha well remembered. Sometimes she still had nightmares about it.
The last she saw of Archival was it beginning a fall that would never end. Then, purple-white radiance flared from every edge of the i-space rift and the barrier – the burnt, battered, brutalised barrier that they'd fought so hard in for what seemed like an age – rumbled and shook more violently than any earthquake she'd ever felt in her life. Her magic sputtered and misfired, dropping her a hundred feet before she caught herself and managed to crash-land on a fairly rubble-free patch of ground. Above, the sky boiled and bulged, becoming bright enough that it looked like noon in summertime.
And the Defence program stopped moving. The monstrous figure, burned and mutilated and pierced and broken simply stopped moving. It was eternally frozen; not by ice magic or sealing spells but through simple lack of motive power. It had cannibalised everything it had for one last dash to Archival, and now there was nothing left. No magic left for any reconfigurations. No magic left for any last tricks. No magic left at all.
Silently, imploringly the statue stood there, reaching out to the scar left by the i-space rift. There was no understanding at all in its monstrous eyes.
Picking herself up near where Nanoha had fallen, Hayate looked up at it sadly. "I'm sorry," she whispered, clutching her crozier tight. "I'm so sorry. It wasn't your fault. I… I wish we could have fixed you." She let out a slow, sad sigh.
"It's over," she said softly. "It's finally… over."