In the deepest heart of the Yagami household, behind fearsome wards and layers of security that would make NATO feel a crushing sense of inadequacy, a council of war crucial to the very survival of humanity was taking place presided over by the greatest minds of a generation.
Or at least, that's how Hayate Yagami, nine-year old master of the Book of Darkness, liked to think of it. Actually, they had just drawn the curtains and taken the duvet off her bed so that they could use it as a table. But however much more... well, dignified other war-rooms might possibly have been, they didn't possess vital and secret information on the magical threat to the entire world.
They didn't have magical guardian warriors, either. Which was really, really cool. Her super-special magical guardian warriors had appeared from nowhere about six months ago, and everything had got so much better with them around. She was still ill, but first she had met Chikaze in the really scary incident in the hospital with the zombies, and then just about when the two of them had been scared out of their minds, why, she had turned out to have four magical people whose job it was to protect her.
This was evidence, in Hayate's mind, that the world was a fundamentally fair and just place. Of course there were special protector-people to protect people from magical zombies. Why wouldn't there be?
And so the last six months had been some of the happiest she could remember. She had a friend – indeed, she had two, because Vita, one of her protectors, was her friend and looked about her age too. Zafira, who was kind of a werewolf, but the good kind because he could just turn into a strange-looking wolf whenever he wanted rather than being controlled by the moon, was both helpful and was a pet, and she had wanted a pet – a proper one, not just like her hamsters – for as long as she had remembered. Shamal and Signum, meanwhile, the first kind and motherly, the other calm and really cool, both did nice things for her and... and it was like she had a family. A real one, not just a distant uncle; something she only barely recalled from the charcoal-sketched memories of her early childhood.
She still cooked for them, though, because all of them apart from Zafira were utterly terrible at cooking. And she really liked how they always seemed to be so grateful that she did nice things for them too.
But the current planning session she was having with her friend was not a nice thing. No, it was a council of war to talk about the defences they would prepare to a most deadly threat to all of Japan! And it would remain a top-secret war meeting, even if it was taking place next to an elderly teddy bear – who they had sworn to secrecy – and the latest volume of Fruits Basket.
Which, she realised belatedly, her co-conspirator was quietly tugging towards her bag.
"Hey! Chikaze! Stop that!"
"Spoilsport," Chikaze grumbled. "You've already read it, anyway." But she put the manga down and focused back on the scattered pieces of paper that littered the bed, its duvet and pillows having been exiled to the corner of the room in a crumpled heap. "Okay, fine. So what have we got?" She shuffled through the sheets of paper.
There were quite a lot of them to shuffle through, and this was because some parts of the heap dated back almost six months. Nobody could accuse the two Hayate Yagami and Chikaze Yoshida of not being women of independence or action, and after that horrible day in the hospital where the dead had walked and the sky had burned, they had taken steps against it happening again.
As they were respectively nine and eight years old, they were admittedly somewhat limited in their choice of steps, and so they had mostly opted to tackle the research side of things so far.
"Well..." Hayate said, drawing the word out, "most of our research was useless – and also really scary – because we can't get our hands on guns. Or fire them properly even if we could. But we do know what their weakpoints are! So we can tell Signum and everyone about that, and the other things we discovered! They're my super magical guardians, and so to protect them from the ever-present threat of zombies we must now record all the information we have painstakingly – and scarily – gathered!"
"Right," nodded Chikaze, grabbing a blank page and scribbling 'zombie defence plan stuff' at the top. "Go for the head, or sometimes the heart, right?" she checked. "Head is safer, though." Hayate nodded, and she noted it down. "Right. Okay, what else?"
"Umm... ah, there was that one English film; that was really useful!" Hayate grabbed one of the pieces of paper, covered in painstakingly-taken notes. "Okay, ready? First off, the most important thing is to notice that there are zombies. That's really crucial. Underline that."
Nodding solemnly, Chikaze did so. She, too, had noticed how it normally took people about ten to twenty minutes of an hour-and-a-half long film to come to that conclusion. So they were already ahead of the curve!
Hayate's new friends were useful in more ways than one. Hayate and Chikaze couldn't get the important research films themselves, because silly adults thought that children their age shouldn't be watching them. But her knights could get films for her, they had discovered. And yes, they were scary films. But they weren't as scary as knowing that zombies were really real, for real, and could come and attack you at any time.
"Second... yeah, second is that if you're bitten, you have to tell someone. Even if you really don't want to! Because they don't have to kill you right away, and you can keep helping and everything, but they should know that when you do fall over and die, you'll come back as a zombie!"
Chikaze frowned. "Why do people ever try to hide that, anyway? It's stupid. If they're going to die anyway, they should at least..." Her expression faltered for a moment, before she continued, "... they should at least... plan for it. You know?" She ran a pale hand across the short pink fuzz of her hair, and brought it down again to stare pensively at the veins she could pick out individually.
Hayate gave her a sympathetic look. An understanding one. "Yeah," she agreed. "Yeah, I know."
"I've..." Chikaze started, and then cut off, glancing up almost fearfully. But Hayate's look was compassionate, and she hesitantly continued. "I told my mum and dad that if... you know, then I want my organs donated to someone else, and the rest of me recycled. So a tree can feed off me or something. Th-they cried a lot, but... but I think that's better than just being c-cremated, don't you? To help other people, and plants, and stuff? It'll be like... like the leukaemia hasn't won completely. And, I mean, I won't be there anymore. It won't be me. I'll be..."
Hayate leaned over and squeezed her hand. "You'll be fine," she promised. "Just fine. The doctors said you'd been improving, right? That weird stuff Shamal's been doing to help you, it's been helping?"
"Well... not with the sickness itself, just with feeling better and less tired all the time," Chikaze corrected. "But yeah. And they did say that the more you feel like you can beat it, the more likely you are to." She smiled shyly at her friend, feeling a little more optimistic.
"Hey, you two?" came a voice from outside the door. "Hungry? I have cookies and juice for you, if you want them."
The two conspirators traded interested glances. "Just a minute!" called Hayate as they hastily swept their papers into Chikaze's bag and hid it under the bed. Plans secure, they attempted to adopt innocent-looking expressions. "Okay," Hayate called, "you can come in now!"
The door swung open, nudged by Vita's foot, and the short knight came in bearing a tray loaded down with snacks. She took in the studiously innocuous poses and the duvet piled against the far wall, and dryly raised an eyebrow at Hayate. "Do I even want to know what you've been up to?" she asked, with a hint of amusement.
"Wow," Chikaze said, eyes widening as she took in Vita's appearance. "What happened to you?" Her surprise was understandable – the whole left-hand side of the redhead's jaw was an ugly bruise-purple, and her words were ever-so-slightly slurred from the swelling. At Chikaze's blunt query, she scowled in irritation, and Hayate giggled, though she mollified Vita with a sympathetic look as well.
"It was an accident with a croquet mallet," Hayate explained. "Apparently she was too close and not paying attention when one of the people at her club swung, and... well, you can see the result. Shamal said that she should be fine in a few days, but that it was a really unlucky hit that got her in just the wrong place." She held her sympathetic look for a few more seconds before a teasing grin forced its way to the fore. "Years of fighting experience, useless before the power of a croquet mallet! Hee! They must be really powerful weapons! Is that why Graf Eisen looks like one?"
Vita tried to sulk disdainfully, but a smile tugged at her lips despite her best efforts. "It was a stupid, rookie mistake," she muttered. "I just wasn't paying attention, that was all. And I'll have you know I have centuries of combat experience, not just years. Heck, I've probably spent more time fighting than you have alive."
Hayate's face fell at the reminder of her knights' pasts, and Vita hastily changed the subject. "Anyway, come over here. Whatever you two have been carting your duvet around the room for, it's made your hair a mess again. Let me brush it out for you."
This suited Hayate perfectly, and she rolled over to her bedside cabinet to locate a hairbrush. While she rooted around in the drawers, Chikaze tilted her head, taking a seat on the bed and leaning back against the headboard. "Really centuries?" she asked curiously. "And you remember all of it?" She knew that the Wolkenritter were magical, of course – even had she not been Hayate's best and only friend, there hadn't really been any way to explain away the sudden appearance of four 'relatives' who Hayate had never spoken of before. But she didn't know much, and was always interested in new details about them.
"Ah ha!" crowed Hayate, before Vita could respond. She came up with the hairbrush and presented it to Vita, then expertly spun her wheelchair around to face away from the bed. Putting the tray to one side, Vita sat down on it, legs dangling off the side, and pulled her a little closer before starting to brush her master's hair in smooth, even strokes.
"Yes, centuries, but not all of it," she corrected. "I mean, we remember a lot, but I bet you don't remember stuff from when you were two." She frowned, carefully teasing at a knot until it untangled itself. "It's not quite the same, I guess, but we do forget stuff. Anything too far back just... fogs over. It all blends together after a while. I couldn't tell you much more about Ancient Belka than anyone else could, even though we were active back then. I think. I do remember fighting a Sankt Kaiser - the great uncle of the last one, I think. I lost. Though... that probably doesn't mean much to either of you. Huh. Well, you'd both be totally awed if you knew who I was talking about."
"You were fighting someone?" asked Chikaze, taking in Vita's short stature. "You? I'm almost as tall as you are, and I'm only eight! And poorly, to boot!"
Vita stared down her nose at the young cancer patient. "I was bigger back then," she said in a flat tone, which shifted to haughtiness as she went on, "and I assure you, I'm more than capable even like this. Don't ever judge a mage by her size."
The sound of the front door opening filtered up from downstairs, and Hayate took the opportunity to divert the conversation back to its original course. "So you can't remember everything, but you still remember lots?" she asked, tipping her head back to allow the redhead better access and drumming her fingers idly. "How far back does it start getting foggy? I can remember back to... I dunno, six or so, maybe."
"About a century is when things get really hazy," Vita replied casually.
Hayate jerked around with a strangled sound and stared at her. Chikaze just stared, eyes wide. Vita glanced at them both and shrugged.
"What? I told you we were old. Though... uh..." her eyes found something else to look at, avoiding Hayate's eyes. "You're the best master I remember having. Ever. The others would agree."
That drew a blush from Hayate and an "aww" from Chikaze, and the young master of the Book eased back into her chair to allow Vita to go back to what she had been doing. The brush moving smoothly through her hair made her feel drowsy and carefree, and her eyes started to droop closed. "Do you know other languages, then?" she heard Chikaze ask. "I mean, I bet they don't speak Japanese in your Dimension Space. Did that come from Hayate, or are you just super-fast learners or something?"
Vita chuckled. "No, we're not that quick at learning. I think we sort of absorb the language from whoever has the Book, even when we don't activate. Well, it might be that the Book learns anything the master does, and we just get the language as a sort of side effect. They don't seem to fade, though. I know at least forty." She paused. "Course, most of those are dead now. So there's that."
Hayate woke up considerably at this revelation. "That's still cool!" she squealed, bouncing in excitement and then wincing as the movement pulled her hair painfully against the brush halfway through a stroke. She stayed still to let Vita smooth it out again, and then resumed. "Say something to me in another language!"
"Not just something like 'something', either!" put in Chikaze eagerly. "Say something the people who spoke it would have said! Like, something magical-alien-y!"
"Hmm..." Vita thought for a minute, and scowled playfully when Hayate felt out behind the wheelchair to nudge her on the leg. "I'm thinking, I'm thinking! It's hard to come up with something, alright? Let's see... oh, I know." She cleared her throat, pausing briefly to wince and rub her jaw, and began to speak in a melodic, flowing tone that made Hayate think of falling water and the pictures of ancient temples she'd seen from Greece and Italy. Whatever her knight was saying, it was fairly short, and she was done within four or five brush-strokes.
"Huh," Chikaze breathed. "That was really pretty. What was it?"
"Ah... Galean High Court." Craning round to see what had caused the hesitation, and why Vita had stopped brushing her hair, Hayate raised an eyebrow when she found the girl blushing faintly. Before she could interrogate her, though, a white-haired head poked around the doorframe.
"What's this?" Zafira asked lightly, amused. "Do my ears detect the strains of poetry? From you, Vita? I thought you hated that sort of thing."
"Be quiet!" snapped Vita, blushing harder. Chikaze and Hayate both leaned forward, eager eyes following this promising new development. Zafira's smile widened, and he slipped into the room with a wink at Hayate.
"And Royal pronouns, too? You could be executed for addressing someone not of the royal line like that. Which I'm pretty sure our master isn't, no offence intended." He nodded at Hayate, who was beginning to grin herself.
"Were you calling me a princess, Vita? That's really sweet of you! But you shouldn't have broken the rules like that. In punishment, you have to translate the rest for me! What else did you say?"
Vita mumbled something unintelligible, and shot Zafira a glare of pure poison. He didn't notice, as he was holding a hand over his mouth and trying to disguise his snickering. Given the way his shoulders were shaking slightly, it wasn't working very well.
"Come on, Vita!" pleaded Chikaze, "What was it? Tell us! Come on! Please? Please? Please?" Joining in on the chorus, Hayate spun around and grabbed her hand, forcing her Knight to look into big, pleading eyes. Her cheeks were by now as red as her hair, but she couldn't refuse her master anything, not when she looked like that.
"I was... complimenting your eyes," she muttered, "and your looks in general, and how kind you are."
In the brief silence that followed, Zafira appeared to undergo a sudden and severe coughing fit, and Chikaze could faintly be heard gleefully muttering something that sounded like "so adorable".
But Hayate beamed at her, and for a moment the mortification lifted. "That's really sweet of you!" she repeated, and pulled Vita into a hug with deceptive strength. "I have the best Knights ever. And you're really pretty too, Vita! And nice, when you let yourself be."
Leaning on the wall briefly for balance, Zafira regained his composure from the abrupt and inexplicable coughing fit with only minor difficulty. Off-handedly, and with an air of studious innocence that was far more successful than those the girls had attempted only a few minutes earlier, he remarked, "What she's not telling you, incidentally, is that the lines she quoted are originally from one of the more famous love poems of the era."
The look of mischievous glee on both young faces was entirely worth the silent promise of an agonising death that Vita threw him as he hastily retreated.
'Enforcer Harlaown! We've got something!'
Those words broke two frustrating, aggravating days. Three days of paranoia and uncertainty, slowly sweeping the empty facility. Three tense, demanding days, dealing with the automated base defences which had managed to injure one of the team. Three days of fielding questions from Suionetheod and beyond for which they didn't have the answers. Admiral Harlaown was still a day's travel out, though at least the ping on the communications with her was getting less and less as she approached.
So far, they had confirmed that the Ravi had been present. That was about all the information they had. The main computer networks had been expertly subverted, wiped and then smashed; anything useful lost irretrievably by whatever the attackers had done to them. It had shown a scary knowledge of TSAB databases, and was a decidedly ominous portent for the case, not to mention their chances of finding the missing garrison.
'The sunk-cache?' he sent back.
'No. Contact request... standard protocols. Triangulating it to on-planet... okay, let me just... yeah, okay, the map has an icon for a weather station there. Checking it... yes, it notes that there's a small agricultural set-up there.'
'Prepare a connection,' Chrono ordered. 'I'll talk to them; see if they know anything.'
A thought was enough to have his barrier jacket return to its normal Enforcer black, the barriers flicking away from the blotchy tan-grey he had been using on this dusty hellhole of a world – Kaisers, he hated this place, though of course he tried not to show it in front of the others – and he took a moment to check his hair. Well, he couldn't do anything about that.
He opened the communications window, and waited while S2U handled the connection protocols.
[Secure link established,] his Device stated.
"Good," he said, settling his face in a professional expression. "Begin conversation."
The window flashed to colour, before resolve into the face of a man who looked to be in his fifties. His salt and pepper beard was braided with bronze ties; his head was shaved. He was wearing a loose, light-coloured top, and sitting in front of a bookshelf. "Uh, hello?" the man asked. "Is the sound working?"
"Yes, I can hear you. Enforcer Chrono Harlaown, Bureau Navy," Chrono introduced himself.
"An enforcer?" the man said, eyes widening slightly. "Oh, yes! I remember you! You were in that briefing packet we got... what was it, a year or so ago? I'm Vaan Maklecorgh... well, well, yes. I'm the one who's technically in charge of... we're an environmental monitoring station, but we do try to run things fairly. I guess I just count as the person who sends in the reports when we have to. It's good to hear that they called you in so quickly! I just hope you can find out who's behind the attacks!"
Chrono paused. Blinked. "Excuse me," he said, after a moment's thought. "The... attacks?"
The man, too, in turn blinked. "You're not here about them?" he asked, face falling. "Why are you here?"
Chrono resisted the urge to massage his temples. "We're responding to a failed security verification from the training facility," he said, picking his words carefully. He didn't want to give away information accidentally. "There have been attacks?"
"The people at Livitus base didn't tell you?" Vaan asked. "They said they were going to be sending word back to Runcorn about them! Oh, when I get my hands on..."
"It's rather more serious than that," Chrono said. He pursed his lips. "I'll come explain in person; if there have been other attacks, we should look into this. Send your coordinates; in the meantime, please can you collect together all and any information on them, so we can take a look at it."
It was the work of a few minutes to come to an agreement with the leader of his backup squad; he would take three mages with him, in case this was some trap, and they'd teleport in at a safe distance and fly the rest of the way. If there had already been attacks on mages on this world... well, at the very least, there might be evidence. Something which was sorely lacking in this abandoned base.
"I want a nice, clean deployment here," he told the three who would be coming with him. "If this proves to be an ambush, we break off immediately, disengage, and fall back to the designated rally point. We teleport in aerial formation, and make sure your barrier jackets are set up for a hot entry."
None of them even rolled their eyes at the way he was going over basic protocol. This abandoned base, with no traces left by the vanished inhabitants or whatever had made them disappear was disconcerting enough as it stood. As they prepared for the teleport, there were prayers on multiple lips.
It was earlier in the day above the environmental monitoring facility, the large yellow sun of Type-3 worlds not having reached its zenith yet. Heat haze hung over the parched land, and the native plants were dry and scrubby. A sparkling river could be seen from the aerial position of the mages, but when magnified the water was far below the maximum of the banks.
The facility was rather larger than Chrono had expected from the first mention of it. It was in the middle of a section of cleared fields and small copses, the faintly visible haze of a low-level barrier marking the divide between the local environment and the Type-1 ecology the human colonists had brought with them. Crops grew in neat circles, their irrigation systems puffing out faint white clouds in the heat. Around the standardised Bureau designs of the main structures were an assortment of civilian houses, many of the made of local woods.
"Hmm," Chrono observed, taking in the sights. "Maybe... a hundred, a hundred and fifty inhabitants, looking at the size? Looks like a moderately-sized village from up here."
"Population data says one-twenty two inhabitants as of last census," one of the female mages said.
"Bigger than you'd think," the other woman said, "but then again, I guess in backwaters like this they just clump together. It's probably worth it just for the stable power supply."
"Let's take a look," Chrono ordered. "And stay alert, in case it's a trap."
If it was a trap, it was a particularly well-disguised one. Landing on a grassy patch close to the central compound, the Bureau mages were greeted by Dr Vaan Maklecorgh, the man Chrono had talked to earlier, who in person was revealed to be a somewhat overweight bear of a man, towering over all of them. He took them to his cluttered office, moving books and disassembled Device-circuitry off seats to open somewhere for them to sit. They waited while he brewed some coffee in the noisy machine which sat on his desk.
"This is an environmental monitoring station," he explained, looking out the window. "We've got... oh, a few thousand people scattered up and down the coast here, and so one of the things we do is keep an eye on how the local Type-3 ecosystem is handling any introductions of Type-1 stuff. There's some Dark Age ruins over up North, in a protein-contaminated zone, and 'bout fifty years back, a team dug up most of them. I was just a lad at the time, but they gave a talk on how this was right at the border of Alhazredian space and so the Fall happened before they really got set-up. Looks they abandoned this place, or maybe all died, but the local environment's still damaged from the failed terraforming they did, even after thousands of years. You should see the satellites' views of some areas. What a mess!"
"You have satellites up?" Chrono asked, perking up. "What kind?"
Oh, we have a few up, for weather purposes," the older man said. "We tracked the Ravi's approach in on them. It's kind of important, you know," he said, shrugging in a self-effacing manner, "given that's how we get the stuff we can't make here."
"What ground-resolution do they have?" Chrono said, intently.
The man winced. "Not too good," he admitted. "They're weather sats, and... well, clouds are hard to miss. You've got a big grey mass, by the way. Not surprising, really; the rainy season's a local year late all over South Chaken, but it had to show up."
"Oh?" Chrono said, mildly surprised. There had only been a few wisps of cloud in the deep blue sky last time he had checked.
"Yeah, it's a biggie, rolling in off the Paenech. A storm's heading your way." The coffee machine chimed, and he poured himself a black coffee. Chipped mug in hand, he started to explain.
"When it began," he started, after the formalities were over, "we didn't realise what was going on. Why would we? First Acexi fell ill... she's the local doctor. She was listless, tired, sick in the morning. Well, you know how flus can be. And when more people came down with the same thing, it was just a bug going through. It happens sometimes, you know, especially since we'd had a TSAB training squad stop by in the week before and we often pick up sniffles."
Chrono nodded. It was sadly true that diseases jumped so easily from world to world. There were vast vaccination programmes in the Core Worlds trying to keep the teeming masses of mankind from infecting each other and Bureau Health Agency tried its best to keep backwater worlds vaccinated against major diseases, but it was never enough.
"So more people came down with the same thing. Hell of a thing, it was; like the worst flu ever. No nausea, but you just didn't have the energy for anything. Wiped you out for a few days, and then you were back on your feet. Everyone took ill in the night, but... well, that happens. Nothing was triggering any break-in alarms or anything like that and there wasn't any signs of... you know, violence or anything. But eventually enough people fell ill that we had to call in Livitus base, and their doctor came over here. By then, quite a few people had recovered, but he couldn't find anything wrong. And he was just running some tests and that's... well, he found out that it wasn't a disease. Something, someone was draining our cores."
Chrono's mouth felt as dry as the dusty lands outside. "Are... you sure?" he asked, warily.
"That's what he said, and we got the reports from her. And then he came down with it, too, and that was proof that something was going on, because he'd been keeping a biohazard jacket up all the time. So it wasn't a disease. And he said his Device had been tampered with, because it just had..." the man spread his hands, "missing time. No records, no monitoring, nothing."
"How long ago was this?" Chrono asked. The killer question.
"Almost... two weeks ago. Let me just..."
Linker core draining. Capacity to subvert TSAB systems. Oh dear. Oh dear. "I need everything you have," Chrono ordered. "Security footage, the doctor's reports, everything. I'll need to interview the people who have been attacked and..."
His Device chimed, and Chrono answered. 'What is it? I'm in the middle of something.'
'We've uncovered the sunk-cache for the base,' the lieutenant said, promptly. 'We're going to need you back as mission lead for this and to secure the evidence.'
Chrono massaged his temples. 'Any sign of tampering?' he sent back.
'Not as far as we can tell!'
The Enforcer clambered up to his feet, brushing off the dust that got everywhere in this forsaken backwater. 'All units, reinforce the perimeter around the sunk cache,' he instructed. 'Chu,' he sent to the silver-white-haired technical expert, 'make sure we're ready to send everything from it back. I don't want anyone getting their hands on it before it gets to the Asura. We're headed straight back!' He nodded at the scientist. "We're going to have to delay the interviews, but I'll take all the data you have right now!"
The man blinked.
"At the double!"
Because if they were facing what he feared they were, they were going to need all the information they could get.
"The Book of Darkness," Precia began, "is what we may be facing, in a worst-case scenario." With a wave of her hand, she called up an image of the thing to hover above the table. It was a menacing, ominous tome, hardbound in dark brown and bearing a pointed golden cross on its cover.
"It is unlikely that we stand opposed to the true Lost Logia," she continued. "In the hopeful and more likely case that we do not, however, our foes will still likely be imitating it in an attempt to capitalise on its formidable reputation. Therefore, we will assume the worst, and plan to face the Book itself. There is little information about it that is certain, but what there is, I will share."
She looked at the people seated around the table. There were seven of them, though with the familiars in their animal forms, the small room was not as cramped as it might have been. To her left, Arf and Fate watched attentively, one sitting on the lap of the other. Vesta lounged on the table surface beside them, though to her credit the little grey kitten was being remarkably quiet and well-behaved by her standards, either out of worry for Nanoha or intimidation.
One possible source of that intimidation sat to Precia's right, the low hum of machinery audible even when she was still. Precia wasn't sure what had happened to the... well, she was probably a girl; or had been. She was relatively sure Ićeoak was a female name, at least. It was hard to tell under the bulky, brassy suit that covered about half her body – a life support system, if Precia was any judge, and from what she had seen of the body underneath, it was no normal affliction it was compensating for. She sat still as a stone, with only the movement of her breathing to tell that she was alive.
And finally, across the table from Precia, sat the first mate and the engineer. Benedict and Wilhelm, both of whom Precia knew from previous association with Hektor. Benedict was the larger man, and could have been handsome in a sort of rugged way were it not for an old burn mark twisting the skin around his jaw. His long coat and tough, practical clothes were a contrast to the industrial Jacket of his partner, whose shorter messy hair was mostly covered by a hard-tech facemask pulled up out of the way. They sat flanking a window to the bridge. Hektor, naturally, had refused to leave the ship's controls, regardless of the fact that their course was set and he wasn't strictly needed there.
The old smuggler-pirate glared at her through the link, gimlet eyes sharp in a pockmarked face. "I'd have been decidedly less enthusiastic about accepting this job," he grumbled, "if you'd come clean with all the details ahead of time."
Precia waved him off irritably. "I like this no more than you, Hektor," she snapped. "But you and yours will be perfectly safe. Alicia and I will not be entering affairs directly, and indeed will be staying as far from the conflict as possible. Your ship and your crew will go nowhere near any potential combat. Merely act as a staging post for us, four or five dimensions out."
It was clear he still wasn't pleased with the idea. But he sat back with a noise that was half grunt, half scoff, and let her continue. She did so, bringing up four vague silhouettes. Three were human, of average height and indeterminate gender. The fourth was some kind of wolf or large dog.
"The Book itself is only a threat towards the final stages of its cycle, which we will be taking great pains to avoid. Therefore, the primary danger comes from its guardians, the so-called Wolkenritter. There are four templates; the Blade, the Breaker, the Healer and the Hound. They are released with the Book's activation, and begin to core-rip mages to feed the Book itself. It seems they are only able to do this to a given mage once – though I would not recommend allowing them to – and once they reach some critical amount, the Book seems to go berserk and generally devastates the region. On its last activation, almost ten years ago, it took a TSAB warship to bring it down. The ship itself was lost in the process, along with all hands."
Silence rang out from her audience as she concluded. "It is these, or imitators of the same, that have apparently chosen to target Nanoha's homeworld."
She turned to pin Fate, Arf and Vesta with a hard gaze. "Let me make this perfectly clear. If this is, in fact, the Book of Darkness itself, our best course by far would be to anonymously alert the Bureau and retreat. The Cloud Knights of the Book are ancient and powerful combatants, highly experienced in their respective roles and entirely willing to kill, unlike the TSAB. They are not opponents to take lightly."
'If Nanoha's in trouble, they better not take us lightly!' Vesta put in, her tail puffing up and her fur standing on end angrily. Violet eyes flickered down to pin her, and she abruptly became rather smaller again.
"So noted," replied Precia calmly, "but I will remind you that Alicia's safety is a factor I am loathe to risk." The little girl in question had been carefully excluded from the discussion, and sequestered in the rather poky room she shared with Arf and Vesta.
"I'll admit, I've heard rumours, and I was a kid when it turned up last, but beyond the basics I don't know much about the thing, and nothing beyond the horror stories about these guardians," Benedict spoke up. He leaned forward, propping his chin on his hands. "I'm guessing they got their little nicknames for a reason?"
Precia nodded curtly. "The guardians have been observed to look different with every incarnation of the Book, so physical descriptions are meaningless – hence the relative ease of imitation. Their weapons and methodology, however, stay roughly the same." She twitched her fingers, and one of the figures expanded, the others vanishing. "The Blade is the greatest threat in direct combat. Primarily a sword-user, though it has been recorded with a number of bladed weapons as well as the bow, and possessed of a strong fire-affinity. Its estimated rank is S+, and I will not bother to list off its recorded kills, because we would be here for hours. It will suffice to say that it includes a Sankt Kaiser." She looked at Fate and the familiars again, with a hint of what might have been concern in her eyes. "I trust I will only need to state this once. If you find yourself facing this Knight, run. Even you, Fate, have very little hope of anything but survival. I would estimate that you are faster than it is, which gives you a good chance of escape, but attempting to actually engage it will only end one way."
Fate nodded solemnly, while Vesta mewled quietly in distress.
"I will emphasise again that the Wolkenritter are the defensive system of a Class 1 Lost Logia," Precia went on. "They were programmed with the code of honour of the Belkan Knights, but do not mistake that for anything more human. They are attack programmes slaved to the will of the Book's master. They may try to fool you into believing they are people. They have done so before, in previous incarnations. It is merely a ruse to get closer to you to harvest your linker core. Every action they take is designed to maximise their efficiency in harvesting. Mages that have trusted them in the past have discovered this the hard way. I would very much appreciate it if you did not follow their example."
Another nod, and resolve crystallised in Fate's eyes. "I understand," she said, already focused on her unspoken new objective.
"Good. Next, the Breaker." Another small wave, and the anonymous figure's weapon shifted to a warhammer. "It has been recorded with hammers, maces and various other blunt weapons, and is known to use projectile ranged weapon systems. Unlike the Blade, its area is not combat specifically, though it still holds an estimated AAA+ rank in battle. Rather, it is a barrier-breaker, and an extremely good one."
'Damn,' growled Arf. 'I'm going to want to avoid them, then.'
'Huh?' Vesta blinked up and looked around in confusion. 'Wait, what's a barrier-breaker? I mean, other than something that... uh... breaks barriers.'
'It means someone who specialises in smashing through barriers, shields, walls... any kind of defence, magic or not. They're basically the counter for defensive casters like me,' Arf explained sullenly, still growling. 'Well, Fate should be able to out-manoeuvre it, if it comes to that. Just make sure Nanoha doesn't try to block it head on, and stay at range where it can't hit you.'
Vesta nodded rapidly, committing this to memory.
"There is less data on the other two, as they take a less active role." The third and fourth figures, unarmed human and canine, grew to hover above the table. "However, from what has been observed, the Healer is predominantly a support mage, and the Hound is some kind of familiar-derived bodyguard, focusing on unarmed combat such as Strike Arts and defensive magic. Of the two, I would actually rate the Healer as proportionally more dangerous to us, as it almost certainly has detection magic and thus the greatest chance of finding us. We will have to be careful and take measures to avoid its notice."
"Hold on." It was Wilhlem who spoke now, frowning. "There's another one, isn't there? The Wraith?"
Precia frowned minutely. "Yes... well, perhaps. Certain older records do indeed indicate a fifth guardian, generally agreed to be some kind of assassin focused on stealth and espionage. The Wraith, or Killer." She nodded at Vesta, whose ears had perked up with interest. "Indeed, not dissimilar to your talents, my dear. Though of a decidedly more lethal bent. However, no such Knight has been seen and verified in any of the past four incarnations of the Book, which are the only ones the Bureau has records of. It may be that they were not utilised, or alternatively that the function has somehow been excised from the Book entirely. Or, given the older records only note its presence at the end of an instantiation, it may be something unlocked when the Book has been completed."
"This all seems a little beside the point." The voice of the armoured figure was oddly pitched and slightly slurred, with the tell-tale lag of a translation program in effect. "Surely, the best course would be to target the Master of the thing and avoid fighting the guardians entirely? Kill them, and the Book will leave, no?"
Precia's eyes narrowed sharply at that, and she heard a squeak and a sharp intake of breath from across the table. A quick glance showed Fate looking pale and considerably less focused than she had been. Arf was trading worried glances between her mistress, Precia and the woman opposite them, and Vesta had drawn back slightly to the table's edge.
"That is true," Precia said smoothly, before the situation could deteriorate any further, "but I'm afraid such a plan would be difficult to the point of impossibility. Attempts have been made along such lines before, and have never met with success unless the Master was making no attempt to hide. The Book is extremely well concealed until the final stages of its activation cycle, and the Wolkenritter will not be so foolish as to leave its host unguarded. If we can locate the Book itself, then we can consider options – alerting the TSAB or, perhaps, a targeted strike to avoid unnecessary death." Fate relaxed somewhat at this, though she still looked uncomfortable. "Still, it is unlikely we will be able to track it down at all. And if there is no Book, there will be no master to find."
"I can't say that I like the idea of getting the Bureau involved," Benedict put in. "All of us here have plenty of reason to avoid them."
"Indeed." Pale lips curled up in a smile. "Well, we shall have to hope it does not come to that. And in the meantime, we can discuss where we will orbit so as to avoid detection while staying within operational range..."
Half an hour of discussion later, a decision had been more or less agreed on, and the various occupants of the room began to file out. Fate hung back and waited for Precia, who hadn't moved from her seat.
"Mother?" she asked, and moved quickly to help the older woman up. She shivered as she felt how light Precia was now, and how heavily she had to lean on Fate. True, she wasn't supporting the majority of Precia's weight. But if her condition continued to worsen like it had been in the week or so since Linith had left, it wouldn't be long before she was. Fate hadn't realised just how much the familiar did for her mother until they had been separated. Now she looked at the paleness to Precia's skin, the way her hands trembled minutely and the sense of ephemerality to her body, as if one strong wind could carry her away, and felt like crying.
What made it worse was that she was pretty sure Precia had known how much she needed Linith. And she'd let her – told her – to go with Nanoha and check up on the Takamachi family anyway. Fate had been one of the ones demanding that she do that – partly out of compassion for Nanoha, yes, but had she given any thought to how it would affect her mother? Even for a moment?
She hadn't, and the guilt from that gnawed at her, even as she crammed it down behind her mask of composure. Settling Precia's arm almost casually on her shoulder, in a way that concealed how much support it was providing unless you looked quite closely, the two of them manoeuvred out into the corridor and turned in the direction of the Testarossas' quarters.
They were almost there when a distant shout distracted Fate, coming from somewhere below them. She turned, and deprived of her support, Precia coughed and stumbled. Fate reacted quickly, but the older woman was already falling by the time she moved. Her fingers closed around Precia's arm, hard – too hard – and jerked her to a halt as Fate shouldered her weight again.
"Mother," she gasped, horrified. Precia shifted quickly, letting her sleeve fall to hide it, but just a glimpse was enough to see that she was already starting to bruise. An ugly purple band was forming where Fate had grabbed her – hard, yes, but not so hard that it should have had that kind of effect. She was like a china doll these days, Fate thought helplessly, so easily damaged. Fate was meant to be protecting her from harm. Instead, she was the one hurting her. She raised anguished eyes to Precia's for a moment, then squeezed them tightly shut. No. No, she was meant to be composed, controlled. Something stable for Alicia, after... after. And that meant that if she kept falling apart all the time, she was useless, and then what was the point to her?
"I... I'm sorry, mother," she stammered, helping Precia into her room. "I didn't... your arm, I was trying to..." She couldn't heal it, either, not like Linith could. She had been doing her best in the evenings, progressing through the regime of healing spells that the motherly familiar usually handled. She couldn't do them nearly as well as Linith, though. It was a horrible, helpless feeling, watching her mother's condition deteriorate without being able to do anything about it.
"It is nothing," Precia sighed, sitting down heavily on the bed. "Though do try to be more careful, Fate. It might not matter overmuch in my case, but Alicia could be hurt if you manhandle her like that. And speaking of Alicia, I have little doubt that she was at the centre of that cacophony. Please go and attend to her – I need to rest, and I believe the familiars have returned to their own room, rather than wherever Alicia has got to." She glanced at the time. "In fact, it's about time for her to go to bed anyway. Fetch her back here, please."
Fate hesitated for a moment. But only a moment. Habit and obedience won over concern, and she did as she was told, slipping out of the room as Precia settled herself on the bed with a sigh and going in search of the noise. The ship wasn't large, with only two levels and a dozen rooms. She located the source of the noise at the same time as the armoured woman, and they met at the door to the impromptu workshop that led into the engine room.
From the sounds of it, a scuffle was going on within. A few words were audible through the door and the general incoherent fury they were being shouted with. "Get her... my tools... workbench... out!"
"Okay, what's going on here?" Ićeoak slid the door back with a rattle, interrupting the argument brewing behind it. Alicia stood at one of the workbenches in the long, cluttered room, her blue-haired doll beside her. It lay on the table next to a large, blocky device, whose lights were blinking on and off in a regular pattern. Wilhelm and Benedict were between her and the door, the former being held back by the latter and fuming.
The sole visible eye behind the half-faceplate flickered over the tableau. "Ah. Fine. Wil, stop shouting. Bene, calm your boyfriend down. You, little girl, come on out of there before Wil blows his top."
The little girl pouted, picking up her doll and hugging it. "Aww! But I was having fun!" She turned to Wilhem. "Did you know the connection-thingie in that thing is wonky, by the way? I fixed it for you, it's lighting up like it's meant to now."
Wilhelm twitched. "It's not a thing, it's a... wait, what do you even mean, you fixed it? It's been broken as long as I've been working on it! You probably don't even know what it does!"
Alicia scowled at this. "I do so! And I asked it to fix itself and it did! Well, actually, the first thing I did was take the red thingie apart like it said in the book which I read ahead in when Mama wasn't looking. But then it turned out to be different, and the device thingie in it actually was the one from near the end! And there was a lot of stuff I didn't really understand in there, but there was one thing that looked all wrong, so I checked it and it was! Did you mean to put a different circuit thingie in the shell? It had a different number to the thingie that was meant to be there, so I put the right bit in and the pretty lights came on! Woosh! Oh, and also you were storing stuff in your tools that wasn't meant to be there! And that was getting gunk in them, so I took the little brush and cleaned them all out!"
Silence followed this explanation. Benedict quirked an eyebrow.
"Girl seems to know what she's talking about," he joked. "Maybe we should hire her, instea- hey!"
He was interrupted as Ićeoak shouldered the men out of the way, and curtly pulled the girl from the room. "Keep your workshop better locked in future," she called over her shoulder as the door swung shut, ignoring the cut-off objection from within. Then she turned her attention to Alicia, who had taken the opportunity to happily bounce over to Fate and grab her hand.
"And you, little girl..."
But Alicia cut her off in mid-sentence, looking up at her curiously. "You're funny," she commented. "And like me. Are you a boy or a girl?"
"I think you're probably a girl," Alicia continued thoughtfully. "But you don't sound like one, and Dollie," she held up the little doll to her ear, moving it slightly as if it were whispering to her, "... Dollie thinks you're neither, which sounds a bit weird to me." She said this last in a doubtful tone, with a reproachful glance at the doll. Then she looked back up brightly. "Oh! And you're part Lost Logia too, aren't you? Like I am!"
The armoured woman went very still for a moment, eye fixed on Alicia intently, who smiled cheerfully back up. Fate could sense rapid calculation going on behind the impassive expression, and subtly shifted Alicia a little behind her, ready for what might be a violent reaction.
But no explosion came. After a moment, Ićeoak shrugged, a wry smile twisting the half of her mouth that was visible. "Pretty much," she agreed. "You ever heard of Polyam-Ladradun Syndrome?" Two blank looks answered her. "No? It's nasty stuff. An old Dawn States techno-bioweapon, I think. Takes human beings and reshapes them into weapons. I got infected by an outbreak two years ago. Converted about half of me before it burnt out. Too old, too broken to do the job properly. Don't worry, I'm not infectious," she hastened to add. "Now... male hormones, female hormones; both would get in the way of the synthetic stuff the converted bits're pumping around me. And with rejection issues on top of that, this suit's all that keeps me alive." She rapped the faintly humming chest plate with her knuckles and her grin twisted somewhat. "Word of advice; when they tell you not to touch the thing which looks like a Device, don't."
"That's horrible," said Fate softly, sympathy welling up in her. Ićeoak shrugged dismissively.
"It's happened. No use complaining about it. With as much of me as it's replaced, trying to undo it now would kill me." The bitterness in the words was old and worn, accepted but still burning. "Why do you think I'm here? You think anyone else will have me, like this?" She gestured at the brassy exoskeleton, with its sealed sections and life support systems. "Fat chance. Even with the syndrome burnt out, I'm a TSAB 'hazard'. They'd want me somewhere they could keep an eye on me. At best."
"That sounds really sad!" Alicia put in. Taking both of them by surprise, she stepped forward and hugged the older woman, adjusting her position awkwardly to avoid discomfort from the suit's hard surfaces. "If I think of a way to make you feel better, I will! Maybe I could make your suit work better!" She yawned, then blinked, and looked at Fate. "Oh. But I think I have to go to bed now, because I'm sleepy, and mama always makes me go to bed when I get sleepy. Which I don't think is very fair, but I have to do it. Come on, big-little sis! Dollie won't go to bed unless you help tuck her in!"
With an apologetic glance at Ićeoak, Fate followed her back to the two passenger rooms their family were sharing.
Her mind, though, lingered on the woman's words. On the repercussions of what Lost Logia could do to flesh and blood.
And on what that might mean for Alicia.
Chrono found his mother in her quarters on the Asura, slumped over her desk next to a mound of empty cups of tea. In acknowledgement of the fact that she was also his superior, he snuck back out, and knocked loudly. And then knocked again, after a while.
Twenty seconds later, she answered the door. Chrono repressed any smile he may or may not have been inclined to give, and saluted sharply.
"How are you so awake?" Lindy asked, shaking her head sadly.
"I'm mostly in synch with Pihroea time," he said, with a shrug. "I've been out in natural light for days, and that helps." He paused. "I've come with the summary of the decoded reports from the sunk-cache. You requested them as soon as it was done."
Lindy rubbed her eyes. "I'm sorry, I just dozed off because I was up most of last ship-night reading the reports from this bit of the sector, trying to see if there was anything else odd," she apologised. "Can you give me... five minutes or so?"
"I'll see if Meeting Room 1 is free," Chrono said. He looked his mother up and down. "And get the kitchens to bring some refreshments. You look half-dead."
"You could have said I never looked better," Lindy grumbled, heading in the direction of the small sink in her quarters.
"Yes ma'am," Chrono said, saluting smartly again.
It was a considerably fresher-looking Flotilla Admiral who entered the meeting room to receive the summary from the Enforcer. Chrono stood, grim-faced, in front of a timeline floating in mid-air.
"From what we have gathered from the sunk-cache, at ten-oh-three DST – the middle of the night, local time – there was a power fluctuation in the aerial coverage, for a period of thirty seven seconds. We can confirm that the Ravi was landed there, at the time. An operator alarm was raised, and was responded to. An inspection was ordered by the on-site maintenance manager, as per protocol; there is no record logging its successful completion.
"At ten-oh-eleven, the last operator-directed action in the control centre is recorded; the operator logs their ten o'clock all clear." Chrono sniffed. "Late, I should add. No further manual operator activity is raised. An automated warning is raised at ten twenty-three, and is not responded to; we must conclude that the control centre was taken out at some point in those twelve minutes."
Lindy sighed. "Not even anything from the kill-switch?" she asked. "What was the warning?"
"No, ma'am," Chrono said. "When we investigated the control centre, we found the dead man's handle had been bent by the application of a blunt object, such that it was locked in the 'safe' position. As for the warning... it's a fire in the barracks. The one we discovered burned out. No operator action is logged, as I noted before, but the system none-the-less sends the 'fire contained' message within one second. There are several such reports recorded, matching up with the locations of the other major fires we found, and each time they are locked down. From this, we must accept that the hostiles had majority control of the base's systems by that point, but were not operating from the main control console."
Lindy pursed her lips. This was very, very alarming news indeed. "Was the operator still logged in?" she asked, on a whim.
Chrono nodded. "Yes. I didn't understand that, either; the hostiles chose to directly control the systems rather than use the user interface. It didn't make any sense. The subversion shows an intimate understanding of the hardware, but... why would you not use the software if you could? I suspect that they had bypassed the control centre entirely, which would explain the way that the data received by the cache falls in quality and quantity rapidly."
The admiral nodded. "Ah. That sounds like... well, I've encountered records of some things that can do that. Certain specialised forms of subversion support Devices, some summoner lineages... actually, I believe that annoying woman, Alpine, is one of those families with her bugs. You need something dedicated for the role, but it is possible if you have direct access to the hardware."
The enforcer sighed. "Well, at least that narrows down the range of potential culprits somewhat," he observed. "Of course, if we're going to be talking about groups known to have dedicated support Devices and expertise with Bureau data systems..." he added, meaningfully.
"Chrono." Lindy sighed. "Continue with your report."
The boy almost went to shrug, but stopped himself. "There's not much more we can say. The last message sent to the cache was at eleven-eleven DST. The entire site was subjected to a magical wash, so we're probably not going to get any characteristic markers from mana decay patterns, and there's microscopic burnt residue consistent with an organic scrub."
"That tells us that they..."
"... are professionals and very aware of the mechanisms we use to track things," Chrono agreed. A note which could almost be described as 'pleading' entered his voice. "Professional, organised, powerful, and we know that core draining has been taking place on Pihroea and that the base had been alerted of it shortly before the attack! What else could destroy a base so quickly and so silently, and all but cover up the attack?"
"I will not work on the assumption that the Book of Darkness has shown up in my district," Lindy said sharply. "Not when there are other things which it could be."
"Six months after the Jewel Seed Incident? When we know it needs vast amounts of magic?" Chrono took a deep breath. "It's been eleven years," he said, trying to keep his voice controlled. "It was always going to show up again. It always does. And all it would take is for its current master to hear about the Jewel Seeds and think we might have missed one and..."
"Chrono! Enough," Lindy said, raising her voice. Under the desk, her fingers were locked together, knuckles white. "It is something I am taking account of, but it is too early to know. And... though I would be loath to do it, I will have you reassigned if I can't trust you to be objective... well, as objective as possible. I don't want to do it; it would leave me without the best mage I have access to and if you're right I'll need that, but I will!"
The enforcer screwed his eyes shut, biting back anything he was about to say. "Yes, ma'am," he said.
"Rest assured, I am treating this with all seriousness," his mother said. "I have told Gil, and he's promised me all the help he can get me; I've also logged everything I have so far with Central. This is a serious incident; a missing ship and its crew, a destroyed base, and the base staff are missing too?" She breathed out. "The priority is finding the ship. That's key. We're working under the assumption that the crew of the Ravi and the base staff are hostages. It's a transport ship; there's plenty of space to hold that number of people, and supplies too.
The woman massaged her temples. "However," she said, "privately... well, although I haven't seen enough to believe it's the Book, I do agree that it's likely related to the Jewel Seed Incident. Maybe whoever did this thinks we missed a Jewel Seed; maybe they think they've found an Alhazredian ruin like the Garden of Time... which is another reason they might want a supply ship. In case it's the former, I think we should be ready. Which is why... you remember Zest's team?"
Chrono's eyes widened. "You've called them in?" he asked. "The weather got worse, so we have a ward to stop the rain from disrupting the evidence scene and..."
"Well, no," Lindy admitted. "I don't have the authority; far outside my jurisdiction. But I have notified them of the missing-ship details – after all, they're a specialist investigation team, and given the evidence you have here, I'm going to try to request aid from their superiors. The best I can manage is trying to get them in the area, in case your suspicions are right... and if they're not, at least we'll have the two of them trying to find our men. And luckily Alpine should still be on maternity leave," she added, forcing a smile.
"That's something," Chrono said, nodding. "I would feel much better knowing they were in the area."
"And... well, at the very least, as per standard protocol I was authorised to call in a team with experience on UA97, as it's an Unadministered World. They'll certainly be useful in setting up an on-site base of operations in case the unknown hostiles are looking for the Jewel Seeds, even if only the squad leader is really suitable for frontline combat. Better that we're ready and waiting for them if they do show up."
Chrono blinked. "We have a team of experts on UA97 culture with actual field experience there? Where were they during the Jewel Seed Incident?"
Lindy gave him a look.
The boy blinked. And his face fell. "Wait," he said. "You didn't say 'experts'. When you say 'a team with experience on UA97'..."
It was still early morning in the Lanster household when the hungover young woman in the spare bedroom woke up. Air Cadet training installed early rising as a habit, one that was hard to break even when it wasn't strictly necessary. Muttering various oaths to herself and searching vaguely around for her shoes, she blearily went through the memories of the previous evening.
It had been a celebratory date with her sort-of-not-quite-official-yet-boyfriend, since they were both on short-term leave after officer training exams. They'd had dinner at a very nice restaurant, and afterwards decided to go flying briefly in one of the larger parks. They'd... somehow gone from skimming treetops to making out, and then made their way back into the city in search of a pub...
She winced as a beam of sunlight through the cracked-open curtain added a mild spike of pain to her headache, and then winced again as her stomach growled. Right, yeah, they hadn't eaten that much in the restaurant, and they'd done quite a bit of exercise flying afterwards. Plus the... uh... other exercise they'd got.
Food, then, was the name of the game. Tiida was... well, she wasn't entirely sure where he was, though she'd been over at the house before, and was reasonably sure this was the spare room two doors down from his. She vaguely recalled helping each other up the stairs, and being pointed to a door as he stumbled off down the corridor as quietly as he could. Regardless, at the moment she was more interested in some form of food that wouldn't upset her stomach than she was in his whereabouts.
Operating on the fairly sound logic that she would mostly likely find such in the kitchen, she limped downstairs, searching her pockets grumpily. After a few seconds of groping, she came up with a small can, which she cracked open and downed the contents of with a grimace.
Ahhh. That was much better.
Granted, her mouth still tasted like something had been roosting in it, but the pounding headache began to subside, and the queasy nausea retreated somewhat. She could think clearly again about things.
Things like last night. She and Tiida had been dancing around each other in a sort-of-but-not-quite-officially-dating way for a month or so now, and this might be enough to solidify that into a definite relationship. He'd certainly been a lot more interesting since he'd got back from whatever had happened on the training mission he'd been on; more mature and confident in himself. There were rumours he'd seen some real action, too, though of course he refused to talk about it. The list of recommendations from high-ranking members of the navy in his file – and the classification on why they were there and what he had done to impress two fleet Admirals and an Investigation team leader – certainly seemed to bear out that whatever had happened, it had probably been impressive.
So absorbed was she in her thoughts that she almost missed the fact that the kitchen was occupied as she pushed the door open. It was only a flash of bright orange movement in the corner of her eye that drew her attention to the little girl standing on tiptoe to more easily reach the countertop as she poured some sort of brightly coloured cereal into a bowl. She was dressed in what looked like a school uniform, with her hair tied into neat beribboned pigtails, and was humming to herself cheerfully. At the sound of the door opening, she spun around, still holding the box.
A short pause followed as young woman and young child took each other in. The little girl broke it.
"I know you," she accused. "You're the girl Tiida was with last night. Ke... Keva..."
"Just Kevvy will do. And you're his little sister, right? Teana."
"Uh huh," agreed Tea, nodding agreeably. Then she stopped, and glared. "But you're not allowed my cereal!" She hugged the box protectively. "It's mine! The last girl who came around here with Tiida took some of mine, and I'm only allowed a new box every three weeks, so I had to eat Tiida's boring yucky cereal for three whole days. So you're not allowed to steal this one! It's mine, see!"
And indeed, the front of the box had been scribbled over with the words 'Belongs to Tea, dont touch' in big capital letters. Kevvy, however, was more interested in the other thing Tea had said. "Last girl? When was that?" Tiida had never mentioned a girlfriend. Then again, it could just be a study partner or something.
"Months ago," said Tea, scowling. Evidently, she still hadn't forgiven the trespass. "She had green hair and she came around with Miss Rizu when I had to go stay with their mummy, and she was really cool at first, but then she took my cereal! But Miss Rizu told her off for it and said that it was mine and she shouldn't have done that without me even having to say so! I like Miss Rizu, she's nice. Tiida likes her too. Oh, and you're not allowed my milk either! It's the one with the purple top, and it's just right for me, and if you take it I'll be really mad! It's blackcurrant!"
Kevvy was just beginning to parse this when the kitchen door opened again, and a rumple-haired, Tiida entered the room, rubbing his eyes tiredly. His shirt was noticeably absent, and Kevvy's eyes made a quick circuit of his bare chest with definite interest. Yum.
When her eyes drifted up to his expression, though, her good mood vanished. The young lieutenant's face was grim, and he looked even more exhausted than most of a night's missed sleep should have made him. It was a combination that usually followed bad news, in her experience. He nodded to her in greeting, and started to say something that was interrupted before he got the first word out.
Both adults winced at the volume and pitch of Tea's indignant shout. She finished stowing her cereal in one of the lower cupboards and rounded on him, stomping her foot angrily. "I told you you're meant to wear clothes around the house, you look all yucky and half-dressed and weird-haired!" She sighed dramatically. "Honestly, do I have to look after you all by myself? And another thing! You came back late last night! Do you know what time it was when you came in the door? Do you? It wasn't even night-time anymore! It was so late it was early again! You woke me up!"
Tiida pinched the bridge of his nose and closed his eyes. "Tea..." A vague motion with his other hand summoned a Jacket and he walked over to the sink to pour himself a glass of water, which he drained with evident relief.
Then he turned back to his little sister and knelt down in front of her, taking her hands. She finally seemed to catch onto his mood, and fell silent.
"I'm sorry, Tea," he started, and the nervous weight in Kevvy's gut intensified. That was never a good start to a serious talk.
Tea blinked up at him for a moment, as a cast of... something, slid across her face. It seemed to mingle comprehension, a strange sort of maturity and resignation. She nodded slowly, the corners of her mouth turning down as her shoulders fell.
"You have to go away again, don't you?" she asked sadly. Tiida winced and opened his mouth to reply, but she carried on over him. "And it's going to be for a while, because you always get sad and sorry when you have to go away for more than a week." She spoke with no anger or resentment, just a sad kind of understanding, as if it were merely a fact of life to her that sometimes her brother left her alone; one she'd long ago accepted.
Tiida sighed, and bowed his head in assent. "Yes, I'm afraid so. And... and they said they had no idea how long it was going to be this time, and I just can't move you again. Not when it might only be for a few weeks."
"I'm going to have to stay in the care place again?" Tea asked, looking down. She forced herself to smile. "Well, at... at least I'll get to stay at the same school with my friends. That's... that's a good thing. And since you're the big hero, that... that means it's important, right?"
He sighed, rubbing his eyes. "A situation's come up on Pihroea, one that's probably connected to... to UA-97. They're calling in everyone who has experience there." He shot a warning glance at Kevvy, cutting off the questions she was brimming to ask with a wordless 'later.'
"J... just promise me you'll be okay?" Tea asked, vulnerability creeping into her voice. "You... you have to pr-promise me really, really hard you won't get hurt like... like last time. You have to!"
Tiida engulfed her in a hug. "I promise," he swore, drawing back, "that I will be as careful as I can be, and that I will absolutely come back. In time for your birthday, even. I'll bring Rizu and Mei around and you can play with them again, does that sound good?" Tea nodded slowly, though she still looked frightened. Her birthday wouldn't be for another four and a half months, though, so it was a promise he was almost certain he could keep.
"And Rizu will be there as well, and she's a healer, remember?" he prompted, hoping to get her mind off the thought of him being injured. "She already healed me the first time, and I bet she's got better since then. So I'll be perfectly safe, and you don't have to worry. Okay?"
She nodded again tremulously, and then hugged him, wrapping her arms round his chest and squeezing as hard as she could, eyes tight shut and buried in his shoulder. "You'd better," she muttered quietly. "I don't wanna lose my big brother too."
He held her a moment longer, before she squirmed out of his grip, dried her eyes off on her sleeve, and picked up her discarded and forgotten bowl of cereal. "I have to get to school soon," she said, trying to control her voice and doing – in Tiida's opinion – a pretty good job of it. "I should have breakfast before it's too late and I have to go."
He nodded, and stood aside as she went about retrieving milk and a spoon for herself, moving quietly over to where Kevvy was hovering halfway through the doorframe, embarrassed and attempting to give them some privacy. 'I can't tell you any details,' he pre-empted her 'I don't know many myself, other than the location and the reason I'm being called in.'
Pursing her lips, she nodded, and glancing over at him. He wasn't looking at her, focused instead on Tea. 'She's usually a handful, but she can be so responsible at times like this... it still startles me occasionally,' he admitted ruefully. 'It's not fair.'
'Not fair that she has to be, or not fair that you're not around enough to know her better?' she asked. She didn't have any siblings, so she couldn't really understand how it must feel, but she could certainly sympathise with the guilt he was clearly feeling.
'Both,' he shrugged, sighing. Then he turned to her, something else rising to the front of his mind. 'Kevvy, about last night...'
Way ahead of you, she was tempted to say. But he was trying to be kind about it, and she at least owed him politeness, so she just nodded. 'It was fun,' she said instead. 'I enjoyed myself. A lot, actually.' A faint chuckle broke through, despite herself. 'You know how to show a girl a good time, I'll give you that.'
They stood there a moment longer, in awkward silence. Then, she sucked in a breath and took the plunge, knowing what was coming. 'When will you be leaving?'
'Within the next day or two. Probably on a sprinter flight headed towards Suionetheod, or the next sector capital in from it. Then a few hard days of teleporting to get to Pihroea.' He sighed. 'Kevvy... I enjoyed last night as well, I really did. But I don't... I think it should be a one-time thing.' He looked over, apologetically. 'With Tea to handle, and this mission coming up now, I just don't think I can...'
'Yeah. I understand.'
Breakfast in the Lanster household that day was a quiet one, each member absorbed in their thoughts and fears on what was coming.
Bored bored bored.
Bored bored bored bored bored.
There was, Nanoha had discovered, actually very little for a person to do when recovering from a broken hand and injured ribs. Well, no. That wasn't strictly true. There was plenty to do. It was just that... well, it was all boring.
For instance, she could resort to her usual pastime when she had little better to do; running simulations and reading on Raising Heart. Except she couldn't, because it was damaged, and Linith had sneakily secreted the Device away somewhere – that wasn't in her room – while it repaired itself. And trying to run a search spell for it had earned a ten-minute lecture on not overstraining herself. Again. Nanoha privately suspected the reason it had failed was that the little ruby gem was on Linith's person somewhere, and that's why she wasn't concerned about leaving Nanoha to her own devices. Because she had Nanoha's own Device! Vesta would have been outraged at the sneakiness of it. Well, outraged or impressed.
She shook her head, trying to put aside that thought. She kept expecting Vesta to come in – that was another thing she usually filled her time with. There wasn't much better for killing a few hours than playing with her familiar. But Vesta wasn't here either. She was still a week away, and couldn't even send messages while she was en route. There was no help coming from that quarter.
Other things to do... she could read! Reading was always a possibility. Sadly, all of her interesting reading material was on Raising Heart. What was left around the apartment were books and magazines that were either dry, dull or both dry and dull.
She had read them all anyway. They lasted about a day and a half.
That had left her with even less to do, as well as a headache. Another thorough scouring of the room turned up a slightly battered Go set. Unfortunately, by the time she discovered it, Linith had left on some sort of super-secret cat business, so she had nobody to play with except herself. And that was slightly hindered by the fact that she... uh... wasn't very good at it.
It should really be illegal for this much boredom to happen to one person, she decided.
She had counted how many tiles there were on the ceilings of each room. Twice. As well as how many pictures and pieces of furniture there were. She'd spent long hours staring out of the windows, wondering if the red knight she'd fought was going after other innocent people out there in the city. She'd picked apart the spells that Linith had placed on her arm – both paralysis and healing, though she didn't think she could manage either without Raising Heart to help – and she'd started to phone Suzuka or home at least a dozen times each, though Linith's admonishment to keep her head down had so far prevented her from actually making the calls.
Linith had said that when she got back from whatever it was she was doing, she would let Nanoha go out and meet mama and Suzuka and Arisa again. But she had been away for hours already, and Nanoha didn't think she'd be back anytime soon. Which meant she still had hours. And hours. And hours. Of being bored.
She wasn't angry about being hurt, or looking for revenge. She wasn't 'raring to go and get herself hurt again', no matter what Linith said. And she wasn't... that creeped out about the week-long silence, with no sign of their enemy or messages from Precia and the others.
She just... she just wished that something would happen.
Out on a barren plain, sand roared upwards through fire and fell again as a rain of molten glass. Huge, carapaced coils thrashed and flailed, and a death rattle came from a ridge of blade-like plates that lined the back of the enormous serpentine creature that was locked in combat with a tiny, implacable foe.
A deafening screech echoed out over the landscape.
The beast was awake, injured and angry. These facts were connected. It was not a terribly intelligent creature, despite the size of its brain, and knew only that it had been slumbering, and then had come heat and pain and something that was not-prey not-mate not-rival.
The sand-wyrms of Pihroea were apex predators in the desert that was their natural environment. The concept of 'predator' held no meaning to them. But this one was beginning to learn it nonetheless.
It struggled on anyway. Rearing up, its serrated tongue-tendrils lashed out to snare its tiny foe and pull them back into its jaws. A moment later it reared back, screaming, as they were severed near the tips and cauterised by the burning sword the figure wielded.
Signum's face was impassive as she avoided another enormous clash of the wyrm's jaws, save for a faint frown. This level of fighting wasn't difficult – to be honest, it was more a chore than anything. What it was was time consuming. The wyrms weren't much of a threat to her – they were so huge that they moved comparatively slowly, and telegraphed their motions so far in advance that they might as well have been shouting them out for the world to hear. But the same size that made them slow and cumbersome when not beneath the sand also made them incredibly tough, and it took a while even for her to wear one down to exhaustion.
They also had an annoying habit of trying to get away when first roused, but Zafira was quite adept at stopping that. Generally by punctuating its path through the sand with bright white spikes whenever it tried to dive. It had only taken one or two attempts for it to scream in rage and rise up to attack the two of them full-on, which was just as they wanted it.
Still, despite her seeming stoicism, Signum couldn't help but feel a little distaste at what she was doing as she ducked and dived around its wild snaps. This was no way to fight, attacking a defenceless animal – well, a dumb animal, at least – in its sleep, then harassing it until it fell. This was not honourable, or worthy of a Cloud Knight's sword.
It was, however, an efficient way of gathering Linker Cores for Hayate. And that took precedence, no matter what her personal feelings on the matter were. She sighed, avoided another crash of the huge, beak-like jaws, and counted the glowing anchor points Zafira was littering its hide with while it spent its attention on her. Thirteen. Three more would probably suffice, and he would have those in a few more seconds. She ducked lazily under a serrated tongue – every inch of the creature was armoured in rough scales that probably felt like a wood rasp to bare flesh, if not worse – and struck again with Laevatein. The sword broke apart into its chain-linked Schlangeform, extending out to catch the wyrm a vicious cut across the head that left a scorched score-mark down the angled carapace. It roared again and bit at her, but she slipped in easily under it and made for the throat, pulling the sword back into its base form and sheathing it. Mana pulsed as the sheath compressed it, the power shooting up to oppressive levels as she loaded a cartridge.
'Zafira,' she ordered.
'Ready,' came the reply, and she brought her sword round into the familiar stance as she closed in.
Flames exploded from the sheath in impossible volume as she drew and swung in a smooth and practiced motion, the attack slamming home into a weakness between plates under the creature's jaw with the force of a point-blank bombardment spell. The impact was literally bone-shaking, sending the wyrm reeling backwards to crash down upon the sand as Signum kicked upwards to gain height. Its massive body slammed into the desert surface, sending gouts of sand up to be caught by the wind and cloud the air. Zafira was there immediately, wreathing it in chains and tying the anchors on its hide to those he'd placed on the ground. Interlocking spikes formed a collar beneath its head, and though it thrashed and writhed furiously, it couldn't get free.
It could, however, still resist enough that extracting its Linker Core would be difficult. Her face a mask of dispassion, Signum flipped her sword around, and brought together the hilt and its scabbard.
[Bogenform!] Laevatein announced, and the two halves fused, their centre of mass shifting backward as the Armed Device rotated into its archery configuration.
Conjuring a shaft of fire between her fingers, Signum notched it on the mighty recurve and drew, sighting down the flickering length to the struggling creature below. Zafira, knowing what was coming, had long since vacated the line of fire.
Or rather, the cone of fire. Which was a rather appropriate term, really.
The arrow left the bow... and fractured, into hundreds of tiny pieces. And then, somehow, it kept on fracturing, every droplet of flame budding, multiplying, generating more and more siblings for itself until the sky beneath her was a conical inferno. And every bolt of fire streaked down, slamming into thick, chitinous armour or loose desert sand, scorching or melting whatever they hit. Unlike all of her jousting with the enormous creature so far, this wasn't a single attack, or even a flurry of attacks. It was nothing less than a sustained bombardment, hammering it into the ground with flame and magic, every impact another heated brand upon its flesh, another blow to the spine. Sand hissed and fused into glass, desert scrubs caught light and burned merrily, tiny pockets of moisture hissed into steam. It seemed to go on forever.
And then, finally, it was over. The wyrm wasn't dead – she could see that it was still breathing, albeit slowly and unevenly, the toughness of its hide and its adaptation to the desert meant that fire posed little threat to its life. But it was still and silent, no longer moving. The flames and heat may not have put it down on their own, but the magical bombardment that had accompanied them had definitely knocked the fight out of the groaning leviathan.
All that was left now was to finish the job, and already, Zafira was moving in with the Book's gathering-simulacra, like a carrion-beast closing in on a corpse. The glowing light of the wyrm's Linker Core began to leech out of it like lifeblood flowing from a mortal wound...
Signum paused for a moment and shook her head, rejecting that analogy. The unpleasantness of this work was starting to get to her, in a way that it wouldn't have done a few cycles ago. Hayate's influence, no doubt. But it was still necessary, no matter how distasteful. Hayate's health came first. Before anything else.
No matter what.
And with that thought in mind, she swooped down to help her comrade.
Some considerable distance away, a woman with hair a few shades darker than the sand around her lowered a pair of perfectly mundane, non-magical binoculars and edged further down behind the dune she lay on. Indeed, she wasn't just on it, but partially buried in it, the sand covering most of her body below the neck. With eyes narrowed against the sun's glare, she surveyed the melted sand, the still-burning bushes and scrub, and the sluggish form of the great wyrm itself. Its residual twitches were dying away as it gave in to exhaustion and trauma and began to slowly retreat deep beneath the sands to recover.
She raised the binoculars again, staring at the pink-haired woman and the white-haired man as they conferred briefly over an object the latter carried. Then they vanished, with a teleport signature so faint that she could barely detect it even when she was looking at it. That drew a scowl. It had been hard enough to find them once, and only possible due to the mana their battle was giving off. Even then, it had been mostly luck that she was looking in roughly the right place at the right time. Tracking them back to their base would be nigh-impossible, if they were this good.
A few more minutes passed. Then, cautiously, Linith emerged from her hiding place and took stock of the battlefield once more. She approached the area the monsters and mages – or perhaps just monsters of different ilks – had been fighting in, with a wary eye for traps. She sniffed the air experimentally, then called up the grainy, expanded image of the object the two had been conferring over and spent some time examining it again in minute detail.
Eventually, she reached a conclusion and spoke, more to herself than the depleted wildlife around her.
A typhoon howled on Pihroea. The storm had rolled in off the ocean, quenching the heat and drowning the dry earth. The dried out rivers ran with water for the first time in months. The wind picked the water off the surface of the saturated ground, carrying mud and grime with it to paint whatever it touched.
Warrant Officer Quint Nakajima sighed, and looked back over the ruined TSAB training facility. Within the safety of the interdiction barrier, the weather was prevented from contaminating the crime scene, but the howl of the wind and the thrumming patter of the rain against the heat haze of the ward was disheartening.
"Nothing," she said. "Not a wretched, miserable thing. Zero, zip, nothing, nulla, nope, negative."
"That was to be expected," Zest said beside her, huddled up in his cloak. "I didn't think the people before us would really have missed anything obvious, and it's been more than a fortnight. But we still had to look. And I have my own thoughts, having seen it from the ground.
The woman slumped down on a folding chair, arms crossed. "What do you have?" she asked, "because... I got nothing of use from this place."
Zest squatted down, spreading his hands to bring up a hologram of the facility. "Well, for one, having seen it in person I'm now almost certain that the entire attacking force began inside the grounds," he said. "There was no assault. Which means... I strongly suspect that we are specifically dealing with a small, elite team here who was responsible for it. Possibly stowaways on the Ravi. They can't have teleported in, because that would have been caught on the cache." He paused, cocking his head. "Well, unless they back-ended a pre-existing access request," he corrected himself. "We'd need to check for that."
"They wiped the main computer banks. Just smashed them to pieces, and then fried them," Quint said sullenly. "What's the point? The cache won't have enough to tell that."
"It might," Zest said with a shrug. "Either way, I strongly suspect they went for the Ravi first. Sensible tactic. If you didn't lock down the ship first, you'd risk it escaping and you'd need to damage it to stop that. Not to mention that cargo ships like that have basic point defence; enough to keep them safe when landed. We'll have to wait until the forensic reports come back, but I suspect we'll find out that the Ravi was one of the things shooting at the base. Likewise, from the way that there's no sign of an engagement beyond the perimeter, I think it's likely that the attackers had a powerful support mage who could shunt the entire area into a barrier. The thing which doesn't fit with that is the lack of a record of a barrier, but... hmm, we do know they had control of the sensor systems by that point."
"There's just not enough evidence to say anything," the woman said, slumped down. "We're out at the back-end of nowhere, the scene was already contaminated by the time we got here, and..."
A junior Ground Forces officer, wrapped up in a warm Jacket, approached the two of them with a hint of nervousness in her manner. "Captain Ladislao is just having a ten minute status update over in the main tent on the hour, before we turn in for the night," the olive-skinned woman said, her dark eyes gleaming in the light, "and requests that you join him. He welcomes any contributions."
Zest inclined his head. "We'll be there," he said, glancing at Quint and her scowl. He waited until the younger woman had left before stepping to stand in front of Quint, hands on hips. "Quint," he said, warningly.
"Yes?" she replied, not meeting his eyes.
"Quint," the man said, dropping his voice. "Are you going to be able to keep your mind on the mission?"
"I'm fine," she said, grimacing, eyes drifting over to the storm outside. "It's just I'm exhausted from the teleporting here, and... and I'll be better when I get a proper rest."
"Don't lie to my face," Zest said. He sighed, and leant back against the wall. "You're not fine, and if you were fine, there would be something wrong with you. I know how much it meant to you, and I know you didn't want to end up all the way over here when you bl... when it's linked to bad memories." He paused. The man was not entirely at home with situations like this. It was not a problem which could be solved with appropriate amounts of violence. "Do you want to... say anything?" he asked, uneasily.
Quint looked at him, her lips in a thin line. "I'll be fine," she insisted, her expression putting a lie to her words. "Really. I... it's not like I have any other children who can be kidnapped, that they can... can just vanish with nothing on the security and no one seeing anything odd and... and zero evidence of who did it. It's like they melted into the walls, the way they could vanish on a perfectly normal trip to the hospital. And it happens just when I'm away, like... like whatever was responsible was just waiting for me to be out of the picture, off in this wretched dead-end district, so it's my fault for not being able to protect those little girls, that I couldn't be their mother, show them that they were more than just experiments and... and..."
The man awkwardly wrapped his arms around her, and let her choke out words into his Jacket.
"I'm not crying," Quint managed, after a while. "It's just the rain. The rain which... which is getting through the wards." She frowned, some trace of a professional demeanour returning along with a frown.
"We'll have to point out at the meeting that the barrier is leaking," Zest said, neutrally. "Or rather, I will. You should go; get some rest. You're clearly just exhausted from the travel, nothing more. As you said, it's not like we have much evidence. Tomorrow we can go interview the groups which have suffered the linker core draining attacks, all right?"
She nodded tiredly, and turned to trudge off. Zest frowned as he watched her go, and shook his head with a muttered curse.
Outside the barrier, the rain hammered down, raging on into the night. Monsoon season was well and truly started.
The real brunt of the storm, though, had yet to strike.