Twenty kilograms of distraught, tearful, six-year old catgirl hit Nanoha full in the chest, sending her back onto her pillows with an "oof!" as Vesta began frantically patting her down for any injuries other than the obvious cast on her arm and babbling at her so fast that Nanoha could barely understand her.

"Mistress mistress mistress! I was really worried it's been ages since I've seen you and look you got a broken arm because I wasn't with you and I said this was a bad idea and look I was right and I told you so and I was lonely without you and we've never been apart that long and I never want to be again because look you got hurt without me and..."

"Vesta... Vesta! Hush!" Fending off the assault, Nanoha finally managed to cradle Vesta's face with her functional hand and put a thumb over her lips. "I'm happy to see you too. And I'm sorry I got hurt." She smiled sheepishly. "I guess I should have brought you with me after all, huh?"

Vesta didn't smile along with the joke, though. She just looked up at Nanoha through big, tear-stained eyes, her lips trembling. "I was really scared," she admitted, her voice catching, and Nanoha winced. Gathering the smaller girl to her, she awkwardly turned her around so that she had her back to Nanoha and then put both arms around her, hugging her tight. It wasn't the most comfortable position, with her right forearm still in a rigid magical cast. But Vesta's trembling slowed down nonetheless, and she huddled her face into the crook of Nanoha's neck, muttering something completely inaudible but apparently heartfelt.

"I'm sorry, sweetie," Nanoha whispered, stroking her hair. It was easy to forget sometimes that Vesta wasn't even a year old, chronologically. Normally she acted like a sister to Nanoha – how much younger, she couldn't say, but not too much. Alicia had certainly adopted her as an older sister figure, and Vesta looked after her with complete seriousness and surprising responsibility, for all that they played around. But underneath that, she was still very young and not very experienced, and had never been apart from Nanoha for more than a day. No wonder she had taken the long separation badly.

Nanoha blinked, as she realised she was drifting off again – daydreams and idle thoughts had been a necessity just to survive almost a solid fortnight of crushing boredom, but now probably wasn't the time. Absently fiddling with Vesta's silken scarf, she looked up at the door to her room and greeted her other, more restrained visitors with a smile.

"Arf, Fate. Um... hi."

The other familiar snorted. "'Hi'? That's all you have to say for yourself?" She motioned to Nanoha's arm, scowling in a way that was only half-playful. "What's this meant to be?! Don't just 'hi' us, explain yourself!"


Fate saved her from having to justify her actions by walking over and perching on the side of the bed. "Alicia will be through once she's done hugging Linith," she explained quietly. "And I think Mother wanted to talk to her after that, so she'll be a little while. Are you alright?"

"I'm... okay, I guess," Nanoha replied after a moment's thought. Without thinking, she rubbed her cast. "My arm is nearly better, and I got to see my family before Linith shut me in here and told me to rest. And mama got the Device back from Arisa – it's still broken, but it works for comms – so we've been talking every so often." Fate smiled, happy for her, and reached over to squeeze her hand lightly.

"They're doing well?"

Nanoha hesitated slightly at that, because being hospitalised couldn't really be called 'well', and Arisa still wasn't out of hospital. "They're... not any worse," she temporised. "Mama is feeling a lot better, and she sent me a new phone – just the same as my old one, too! – so that I could talk to Suzuka and Arisa a couple of times. Arisa, uh. Shouted at me. A lot." She grinned sheepishly. "I guess I need practice on my brilliant rescues?"

Fate patted her hand. "A bit more practice would be good, yes," she agreed. "Especially if it stops you from breaking anything else." She gave Nanoha a tiny smile. "We were all very worried on the way here. It's good to see you're alright."

Nanoha looked down, and tried not to squirm with guilt.

Arf had shifted forms and approached the bed as they spoke. Settling herself by the side of the bed and allowing Fate to shift her feet up onto her back, she sniffed at Nanoha's arm, muzzle wrinkling slightly as she gave the canine equivalent of a frown. 'Well, it smells alright.' she remarked. 'When will the cast come off?'

"Ah... Linith said that if my check-up shows it's healed properly, I can take it off tomorrow."

"Good!" a new voice interrupted. "Because once you're better, we need to find the meanie-heads who did it and tell them off!"

Alicia stamped into the room, blonde hair flowing after her in a state of disarray that clearly hadn't seen a comb recently. She pointed an accusing finger at Nanoha. "You're not allowed to get hurt anymore!" she mandated. "So don't! Or I'll tell you off! And then I'll... I'll get Linith to tell you off even worse! Understand?"

Nanoha raised a finger to point out that Linith had, in fact, already told her off exhaustively and at length, before shutting her in a dreary little room for almost a fortnight without anything to do except be soul-crushingly bored, but Alicia continued talking over her before she could even get a word out.

"And Vesta was really worried about you as well! Really really worried! She cried at night! I had to cuddle her to sleep!"

"D-did not!" objected Vesta, from just below Nanoha's chin. Her ears quivered, tickling her mistress' nose. The denial was somewhat spoiled by the sniff that followed it, though. "And... and you were b-being just as worried!" she added defensively, apparently aware of this lapse.

"Was not!" Alicia shot back. "I was comforting you!"

"Were so!"

"Was not!"

"Were- Linith!"

"Huh?" Alicia blinked. "What about Linith?" She shook her head without giving Vesta a chance to answer, and returned to her original topic. "And I was not! You were the one being all sad and kitten-y!" She paused and tilted her head, her expression one of serious thought. "Though I guess kittens aren't always sad," she added. "I mean, I don't see why they would be. I wouldn't be sad, if I was a kitten. Having a tail and ears would be really cool. I could waggle them and hear stuff really well! And turn invisible!"

A maternal hand ruffled her hair from behind, making her jump. "And look adorable, I have no doubt," Linith smiled, and rolled her eyes indulgently at Alicia's squawk of protest. "But debates about what species you are will have to wait for now. I've told Precia everything we've gathered so far. And we have the beginnings of a plan."


It took about half an hour for all of the possibilities, probabilities and potentials to be explored.

"Okay, so we're basically pretty sure it's the Book of Darkness," Arf eventually summed up, once the various theories and counter-arguments began to repeat themselves. "So we'll assume that for now. That means the Wolkenritter, and that means we need to try and catch one alone if we want to have any chance of winning."

She sat hunched forward at the small table, staring at the sketchy map of the local region of Dimensional Space that hovered over it, courtesy of Linith. Fate fidgeted next to her familiar, leaning into her and resting her head on Arf's shoulder. Nanoha, by constrast, was sitting awkwardly with a still-cast arm and had Vesta occupying her lap. Alicia had been allowed to attend, on the basis that the hotel suite only had two rooms and the door wasn't thin enough to stop her eavesdropping, but had been consigned to the sofa with a puzzle to try and occupy her attention. It wasn't working.

"We know they hunt," offered Nanoha, raising her broken arm as evidence. "And they do it alone, if the one I met was any judge. We could catch them while they're doing that."

"How?" Arf scratched her head. "That's the thing, they probably hunt all over the world. All over multiple worlds. How do we pin them down?" She stared off into space for a moment, thinking hard. "Well... there are three ways to hunt. You either go to where you know your prey will be and ambush them, or you lay out bait and wait for them to come get it, or," she smirked, "you find somewhere they've been and track them from there to wherever they are now."

"The latter, I am afraid, will not be feasible," Precia pointed out, deflating Arf's smirk abruptly. "The Wolkenritter are far too apt at concealing their presence for tracking them to be a simple matter. Linith has already attempted to trail them back to their home base. If she has had no success in two weeks, I very much doubt it will be possible for us to do at all."

Nanoha glanced across at Linith, surprised. "So that's where you were going when you left me on my own!" she accused. "And after you told me it was too dangerous to! You... that's not fair! You can't do that! That's like the thingie where you say not to do something and then do it anyway!"

"I think you mean 'hypocrisy', dear," Linith corrected her. "And it was not, because I kept my distance, took full precautions to avoid notice, did not try to follow them until they had left, and had absolutely no intention of doing anything other than passively observing. You, I am sure, had rather different goals in mind, did you not?"

Nanoha suddenly became very interested in the spikey mess of Vesta's hair, and set herself to busily attempting to comb it down. If anyone heard a faint mumble of "still hypocrisy," as she attacked the grey-black tangle, they had enough tact not to comment on it.

"I like the waiting and pouncing option," Vesta offered into the brief silence. "We just figure out where there's lots of magic for them, then wait there, and then graargh! Pounce, and get them! Right?"

Linith shook her head. "Wrong, I'm afraid," she said. Vesta's ears wilted, flattening back against her skull. "I'm sorry, sweetie, but there's just too much space to cover. We could wait by the same spot for weeks without any guarantee they would go there. By the same token, there's no certainty they'd detect any bait we laid, unless it was powerful enough that it would probably catch the attention of the TSAB as well."

Fate tilted her head and raised a hand tentatively. "We could do both," she suggested. "Find somewhere they're likely to frequent, and lay bait there. Something like magical flares, as if someone was practicing. And... that means they're less likely to be suspicious, because... it'll be somewhere they've found magic before?" She tailed off at the end, almost more questioning than qualifying, and looked nervously at Precia for approval.

The older woman was resting her chin on a pale, thin hand, her lips pursed. Slowly, she nodded. "It... has potential," she said slowly. "Though still a relatively low chance of success. However, a combination of activity analysis and bait should grant better odds on a successful encounter." She drummed her fingers on the table, mind racing. "We should also consider the fact that they are likely looking for us, or at least for Nanoha and Linith. Opposition, this far out in the backwaters, will not be something they are used to in this incarnation. Successful opposition much less so."

"I wasn't..." began Nanoha, but Precia cut her off with a sharp wave of her free hand.

"You fought one of the Cloud Knights in a confined area, damaged it and escaped alive and undrained," she interrupted flatly. "You were successful, far more so than most mages they fight. Additionally, you revealed that you have a connection with the girl they attacked." She held up her hand again in a calming gesture as Nanoha's eyes went wide and she shot to her feet. Vesta squawked as she fell off her comfortable lap-seat. "Calm, be calm, Nanoha. They have drained her already, and she is no threat to them. They will have no further interest in her for her own sake, they are efficient beyond all else. But they may well realise, that she is a potential vector they can use to find you." She pursed her lips again. "We may be able to use that against them. Hmm. It certainly couldn't hurt to spread some false information."

"I'm not sure I like the idea of lying to Arisa..." said Nanoha dubiously as she sat back down and allowed Vesta to grumpily reclaim her seat. "Or using her at all like this, really. It feels like... I don't know, like not playing fair." She frowned. "I don't like lying to people. And I don't like using people, either. We should be better than that."

Glances were exchanged around the table. Fate squeezed Nanoha's hand and opened her mouth to say something, but Vesta beat her to it.

"Oh no you don't, mistress!" Extracting herself from Nanoha's arms, the apparent six-year old clambered around until she was sitting on the table facing Nanoha, right in front of her. She scowled theatrically, hands on her hips. "This is sneaky stuff, and that's what I'm here for! I'm really good at sneaky stuff, and you're not, so I have to do sneaky-thinking for you! That's what a familiar is for! And as your familiar, I'm saying this is a good plan! It's like when I growl and wiggle my tail at the squeaky toy so it thinks I'm going to pounce straight at it, but then ha! I jump round to the side and pounce on it from there, and it can't get away from me, because I'm not where it thinks I'll be! This is basic sneakiness... ness! So you have to listen to people who know it better than you do, like me!"

There was a brief, rather confused pause as Nanoha digested this, broken only by Arf's quiet grumble of "I don't think your squeaky toys are S-ranked Belkan knights, Vesta," which earned her a glare and a stuck-out tongue from the catgirl. But eventually, Nanoha nodded slowly, and sighed.

"I guess," she admitted. "As long as you promise Arisa won't get hurt or anything." She looked to Linith as she said this, and was rewarded with a confident smile.

"We don't even know for sure that they'll be listening in on her," Linith pointed out. "They drain a lot of people, after all, and they drove us both off with relative ease. They may not have bothered tagging her, though I'd like you to try and remember what you told her in the conversations you have had since then." She paused, considering. "Well, if they'd traced us back here, we'd have been attacked already, so I suppose they haven't done that much, at least. Anyway, if they have bugged her, all they'll be doing is listening. And that means all you need to do is drop the right idle comment."

She leaned forward, spinning the hovering map of the region on its axis and looking over it. "So. First, we need to work out where we're going to lay our little trap. And then we need to decide exactly what we want them to overhear, and what we're going to use as bait in case they don't."

Quietly, Fate reached out and tapped the hologram, zooming in on a smaller patch of the region, closer to TSAB-controlled space than Earth. A slight smile hovered around her lips, and she raised a finger to draw attention.

"I think," she said carefully, "I have an idea about that."


Hayate knocked softly on the door, waited for the "c'min", and pushed it open. She wheeled in, Shamal drifting a step and a half behind her, and gave Chikaze a smile. The cancer patient was propped up in bed on a pile of pillows that was, Hayate was fairly sure, rather larger than what she was meant to be allocated. She was a little pale and had bags under her eyes, but other than that she looked well enough.

"How'd it go?" she asked in a raspy voice. "Results good?"

"Uuuuurgh," groaned Hayate, exasperation heavy in her voice. "Don't talk to me about the check-up, please. I just spent half an hour getting poked and prodded everywhere. I don't even want to think about medical equipment right now." She paused. "But... yeah. Well, kind of. It's not sped up again, and the rate of progression is steady, even if it is still advancing. So it's kind of like 'no news is bad news , but it's the same bad news we already gave you like six months ago, nothing's changed since then'."

She wheeled a little closer, eying Chikaze. "What about you?"

Chikaze wrinkled her nose. "I feel horrid," she said bluntly. "And nauseous and wobbly and my hair's going to fall out again, and I really, really hate these bits." She jerked her head at the intravenous drip beside her bed, threaded into her arm. "Them especially. It's basically poison they're pumping into me, you know. There's just more of me than there is the cancer, so I survive and it doesn't." She sighed. "But the doctors say that it's working well, and this might be one of the last rounds of chemo I need. S'just that it screws up my immune system as well, so while I'm on it I can't come round to your place anymore."

Hayate gave her a sympathetic look. "Too bad," she said. "I was looking forward to next time. Want me to bake some cookies or something and bring them in next time?"

Chikaze shook her head immediately. "Eugh, no. Mum and Dad already bring me all the sweets I want, and I'm not allowed sugar so it's all fake sweetener that tastes horrible." She pouted. "What I really miss is dairy stuff. And meat. Man, I'd kill for a beef bowl. Or... like, some kind of pasty thing just packed with cheese and beef and pork and chicken and... sorry. I'm not keeping food down too well, so I'm hungry."

Glancing back to Shamal beseechingly, Hayate found her already moving forwards, the door mysteriously shut behind her. A quick glance around confirmed that there was nobody outside, and then Shamal's hands were wreathed in green, gently resting on Chikaze's forehead and breastbone. Chikaze sighed happily as the nausea and other side effects diminished, relaxing as the healing magic soothed her belaboured system.

"Hmm," murmured Shamal, clicking the rings of Klarwind together thoughtfully. "Well, your condition obviously isn't healthy, given the drugs in your system, but as far as I can tell, they don't seem to be doing too much damage."

Hayate had asked, soon after finding out that Shamal could heal, if she could cure Chikaze's cancer. Both girls had been disappointed at the answer. The Knight of the Lake was a brilliant medic, but magic was not a miracle-worker. Leukaemia couldn't be simply waved away even by the best of healing mages, and she could do little that wasn't already being done by the chemotherapy. Without the authority to set the dosages, her hands were tied further. The best she could give Chikaze was relief from the side effects of the treatment, and something to take her mind off what she was going through.

To that end, she tapped the girl on the brow to get her attention, and switched to telepathy to address her. 'So,' she inquired, 'have you been keeping up with your practice?'

Chikaze jumped.'Ah, yes!' she replied hastily, her telepathic voice a little faint and shaky, but audible. Raising her hands carefully so as not to get in Shamal's way and cut off the flow of healing, she concentrated. Sea-green light built around her fingers, and snaked out in a thin wire towards the window latch, wrapping itself around the small metal bar. Chikaze crooked her fingers, and with a faint 'click' the latch slid back, pulled by the faint wire from across the width of the room.

Shamal raised an impressed eyebrow. 'Very well done,' she remarked. 'I am impressed. Hayate hasn't been able to get nearly so far yet. Signum might decide you're ready for that training Device soon.'

"Shama-!" Hayate began, and cut herself off halfway. Switching to telepathy, she finished her objection. 'Shamal!' she whined. 'That's not my fault! You said my magic was all wonky because of the Book! And that it was still draining me, so I don't even have much magic to work with! That's the only reason I'm behind her!'

Shamal chuckled. "If you say so, mistress, then I'm sure it must be true." She cut the flow of magic and rose gracefully. "That's about enough for now, I think. You feel better?"

"Yeah, I guess," Chikaze sighed. She did feel better, but losing the healing magic still wasn't nice. As soon as it stopped, the myriad aches and pains came back – lessened and reduced to a background hum for now, but unmistakably there and waiting to build back up once again.

"Anything fun happen?" she asked, to take her mind off it. Hayate grinned and nodded cheerfully, and a small smile twitched at Shamal's lips despite herself.

"Vita still hasn't forgiven Zafira," Hayate explained with amused fondness, "even if she stopped trying to hammer him when I told her off. So now he keeps finding wood chips and stuff in his bed, and she switched out the sugar for his cereal with salt this morning." She sighed theatrically, though she was still grinning as she did so. "And he's taken to quoting poetry to me when she can hear. Honestly, if they go any further with this silly grudge match, I'm going to have to step in and tell them to cut it out."

"And tarnish a knight's honour? Surely not," Shamal put in. But she was smirking as she said it. "I'm sure they'll settle down eventually," she went on. "Honestly, I think part of the reason Zafira at least is taking part is that it's making you laugh more. We like to see you happy."

"Huh?" Hayate blinked, confused. "I am happy, though. I like taking care of you, you're my family. I love having you around. The last few months have been some of the happiest I remember."

Shamal ducked her head, flattered. "I know, and we appreciate it more than I can say. But even if you smile a lot, you don't laugh very often. It's mostly just with Chikaze that you take the time to... hmm... let yourself be a child. It's nice for us to watch you having fun like that."

Hayate nodded slowly, absorbing this. She opened her mouth once or twice to start a question or a comment, but hesitated before saying them. Eventually, she dismissed her train of thought with a quick shake of her head and turned to Chikaze to change the subject. "What about you?" she asked. "Has anything been happening here since we last saw each other?"

"Ha. No, nothing, as usual," Chikaze griped, but paused. "... actually no, come to mention it, there was something weird. You know you came here with Signum last time?"

"Uh huh..." Hayate scooted a little closer, intrigued. The swordswoman was fairly reticent on most matters, and any gossip about her was more than enough to rouse her interest.

Chikaze nodded, eyes grave. "When she was gone, one of the new nurses came in, and he asked if she was my mum!"

"What?" Hayate recoiled backwards, raising her hands in a warding gesture. "Eww! No! Signum? Signum can't be your mum! Signum isn't anyone's mum! Signum as a mother is, like... ultra-weird universe-gone-wrong stuff!" She glowered. "That nurse must have been crazy!"

"See, you say that, but..." Chikaze bit her lip. "... he kind of had a point. I do look a lot like her. She's got the same skin and hair colour as me and even her face looks a little bit similar. But she's... like, a magical alien or something. Why does she look like me? Why does she even look Japanese?"

Hayate folded her arms. "Well, they could be from space Japan," she rationalised.

Behind Hayate, Shamal – almost forgotten by the pair – made a small, thoughtful noise. Two pairs of eyes swung around to land on her as she gave Chikaze a contemplative look and nodded to herself. "That would make sense, I suppose..." she mused, more to herself than either of the girls. "And possibly explain... hmm. Though..." She lapsed into thought again for a moment, frowning slightly, and was brought back out of it by Hayate impatiently clearing her throat.

"Shamal!" she whined. "You can't just hint that you know about it like that and then not tell us! C'mon, give us an answer!"

"Hmm?" Shamal blinked and looked up at them. "Oh, yes, sorry. It's... not enormously surprising that Signum resembles your friend in this incarnation, especially given how the two of you met. You said she saved your life?"

Twin nods were her reply, along with a shared glance and shiver between the girls at the memory of that awful day. Hayate had never explained the entire sequence of events that night to her Wolkenritter, only the rough outline – partly because she hadn't really been fully conscious for much of it, and mostly because she didn't really like thinking about it. But the general outline had been sketched out, interspersed by the occasional ultra-serious order regarding the living dead and the necessity that should any reveal themselves, they should be sought out and destroyed.

Shamal waited for them to look back to her before continuing. "We are your knights," she said, calmly, "and you give us our forms as well as our armour. Your mind shaped our looks to whatever your subconscious thought would best serve our roles." She smiled teasingly. "So when it went to create Signum, it gave you her role as a knight, a Blade, a powerful right hand to cut down your enemies and destroy those who threaten you."

She nodded towards Chikaze, the teasing smile becoming a warm one. "Apparently, Hayate thinks very highly of you. You saved her, and so you were the strongest association that leapt to her mind when given that role. So Signum ended up with pink hair, and looks a little like you."

Chikaze looked uncertain over whether to blush, be flattered or tease. Hayate had no such dilemma, and was turning a bright shade of red, resolutely looking anywhere in the room other than her friend. Shamal covered her smile with a hand and continued, giving them something else to focus on. "Myself I can understand – I think you may have thought of some of your nurses, and maybe your mother. My hair looks similar to hers, in the pictures you still have. And Zafira... well, he's a bodyguard and a defender, it's far from the first time he's been fairly big and strong. But Vita... now, she's a bit of a mystery. She's normally male, and the largest of us; I honestly can't remember a time she was quite so small."

She shrugged. "Well, we've never been able to work out exactly how this works, and what our Master wants also plays a role beyond our function. And very few of our masters are quite as young as you when we instantiate. Perhaps... hmm. Perhaps you just wanted another friend your own age. A defence against loneliness, so to speak."

Hayate and Chikaze traded poker-faced looks. But they didn't get a chance to reply, for a barrage of distant shouting from down the hall distracted them. Hayate raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and Chikaze grinned.

"Heh. That's the new girl," she explained. "Some English name, starts with A. She goes off like that every so often. I think when she's on the phone or something, because she didn't have anyone else in there the last time. Though she also complained about being stuck in bed, which," she grimaced, "I can definitely identify with."

Hayate shook her head sadly. "Poor girl," she sympathised. "Maybe we could go visit her and cheer her up?"

Shamal laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. "It's a thoughtful idea," she put in, "but I'm afraid we should be getting back home. Visiting hours are nearly over, and Hayate needs to get started on dinner." She winced. "Or else Signum might start preparing steak again."

"Awww." The mistress of the Book of Darkness looked up pleadingly at her loyal servant. "I want to stay just a bit longer?" It was probably meant to be an order, but came out as a question, which withered against Shamal's placid expression. Hayate heaved a weary sigh, and pouted. "Fiiiiine," she grouched, dragging the word out sulkily. "Bye, Chikaze. See you next time."

"Assuming I haven't got fed up of the food and escaped, yeah!" Chikaze called after her. "Promise you'll shelter me if I go on the run from evil nurses!"

Already being rolled away by Shamal's gentle urgings, Hayate waved over her shoulder with a giggle. "I promise!" she called back, as the door shut behind them.


A new star flared into brief life in the sky of Pihroea. To those who watched with the right eyes, however, it was clearly no stellar body, nor a satellite reflecting the sunlight. The wide-spectrum white noise was characteristic and unmistakeable. A stubby, almost-spherical spaceship now hung in the void. Its conventional engines glowed as it adjusted its orbit, and then shut down as it extended sail-like boons which glowed in the infrared.

"Right on schedule," Admiral Harlaown said from her position at the bridge of the Asura. "Begin communications with the sprinter."

"Aye aye, ma'am," reported the on-duty comms officer. "Handshaking now. Please wait a moment... okay, reading green."

"Just as well," Lindy said, shaking her head. "Losing an obsolete transport is one thing, but losing a sprinter would be... I don't even want to think." She pressed the panel in front of her. "BN-RTV Kalrow, this is Flotilla Admiral Harlaown on the BN-DV Asura."

"Asura, this is the Kalrow," said the uniformed man on the other side of the link. "We are carrying one mobile personnel and equipment cargo hold; requesting transfer connection permission to move it to your hold."

"Permission granted," Lindy said. "Operations, prepare the transfer connection to the prepared area in Hold Two. Chrono, go greet our guests."

There would be more than enough space; for all that a sprint ship such as this one was almost the size of a dimensional cruiser, almost all of that bulk was engine and reactors. The vessel itself was unarmed and unarmoured, built for a minimum mass and surface area to volume ratio. They existed for moving elite mages and high value objects – such as Lost Logia – around quickly and safely, not comfortably, without exhausting a mage with repeated teleports. They averaged a better speed than even elite mages over long distances; partly because the vessel didn't tire in the same way that a human did, and partly because the enormous power generation capacity of those ships was enough to support microjump teleportation circuits.

Chrono made his way down to the hold. His black uniform was neatly pressed - even if he would prefer to be in his Barrier Jacket – and as he waited for the deck team to allow him in, he brushed some unseen lint off his collar. He still did not fully agree with his mother's decision to call in the team of – well, it wasn't quite fair to call them 'misfits', even if it was his personal opinion – the team of mages who had been the first backup he had received on the Jewel Seed Incident. In his opinion, the extra time they had spent locally was not going to make much of a difference; it was not as if they were real specialists on UA-97 and its inhabitants. And this could well be the Book of Darkness. If it was... a bunch of B- and C-rankers would be worse than useless, because they'd just be more linker cores to feed to the book.

But she had ordered it, and so he wouldn't let it show.

The light on the hatch flicked to green, and his ears popped as the pressure between the hold and the surrounding corridors normalised. Transfers of something as large as a modular cargo hold always shifted the pressure around.

Hands in his pockets, Chrono watched as the umbilical power cables were connected up to the power sockets on the large bright orange building-sized module, and the deck team made sure the container was talking to the Asura's systems. Just before they finished, his hands were withdrawn, and a quick-cast spell adjusted his hair. Standing to attention, he inclined his head to the weary mages who made their way out of the newly opened hatch.

"Welcome on board again," he said. "We're going to have to bring your team and you up to speed quickly."

The older man blinked at Chrono. "They're not my team anymore," he said, after saluting. "But yes, Enforcer. Lieutenant Tiida Lanster reporting." He suppressed a yawn. "Sorry, none of us have been sleeping well on the sprinter."

The very tall blonde girl next to him worked her neck. "You can say that again," Heidi Zwischenfall said, glowering. "The sleeping pods in those things are not made for people who aren't shorties. Not one bit. We're stacked like sardines in there. Where can we drop off our kit and will there be food in the briefing? They want us to get that thing emptied out quick."

Chrono swept his eyes over the others, noting with surprise that the green-silvery haired one – Mei, that had been her name – was wearing a Ground Forces uniform, rather than the Air Forces one she had last time. And that they were not alone. There was another group of mages with them, older and looking no less worse for wear. "Ah, yes," he said. "You would be the scanning specialists?"

"Warrant Officer Balani," said the blond man in the lead, "and yes. Do you know where we should have our equipment stowed? It's rather delicate and needs to not be bumped. I can't emphasise this enough. We also have something from Admiral Graham to give to Flotilla Admiral Harlaown."

"Talk with the deck staff; they'll be handling the unloading," Chrono said. "And..." his eyes widened in surprise. "You?" he asked. "What are you doing here?"

Yuuno Scrya rolled his eyes. "Oh, great," he said. "I spend a week in a cramped sprint-ship, and this is all the welcome I get. Your mother contacted me and asked me to come; I wasn't doing anything better and..." he swallowed, "well, I do know the place."

Chrono heard the muttered, "It wasn't cramped for you; ferrets fit fine in the sleeping pods," from Heidi, and ruthlessly suppressed his grin. "Well, I'll check where your quarters are," he said, with a straight face, "and then we can go to the briefing room. The Admiral wants everyone to know what we're dealing with and the roles we'll be playing."


The briefing room smelt noticeably of coffee and bitter chocolate, as tired mages looked for wakefulness wherever they could get it. Lindy sipped from her mug of tea, the teabag still seeping, and put it down. "Thank you all for attending," she said, by way of greeting. "Some of you I recognise from the Jewel Seed Incident six months ago; others are new. However, we have another issue on our hands – hopefully not as bad the last one – which seems to be linked to Unadministered World #97.

"Around six months ago, multiple Class 1 Lost Logia were accidentally released on UA-97. The wanted criminal, Precia Testarossa, appears to have been the one who engineered this incident, and she sent a magically-boosted clone of her deceased daughter to recover them for her. The containment and cleanup... could have gone better," Lindy admitted, to winces from a fair amount of the audience, "and as a result the Jewel Seed Incident ended with the death of M. Testarossa and her accomplices and the destruction of her Alhazredian-era base of operations in a suicidal attempt to use the Lost Logias to reach Alhazred.

"Given that multiple dimensional quakes – of a fairly small magnitude in relative terms, thankfully – were induced during the course of the incident, there was no way that it could have been hushed up entirely, though naturally attempts were made to prevent the unauthorised release of information. Sadly, I fear there was probably a leak, because recently there have been multiple attacks on TSAB citizens and members of Aligned and Unadministered worlds in this area, culminating in an assault on a TSAB training facility on Pihroea which saw the destruction of the base and the theft of a cargo ship landed at the time. All the personnel present at the base, in addition to the crew of the ship, are currently missing; we have to hope that they are still alive."

She watched the backup team exchange worried glances with one another. They were at that facility when she had called them in for the Jewel Seed Incident; they would – probably – have moved on by now, but that was a concerning thing to contemplate.

"To be blunt," she continued, "this area is a backwater. Runcorn is the nearest Administered world with any population worth speaking of, and it is almost six hundred lisecs from here. But the actions of Precia Testarossa revealed that there was at least one intact Alhazredian space station in the area, as well as Lost Logia." She saw Yuuno Scrya's hand go up. "Yes?" she asked.

"I'd just like to say that we found the Jewel Seeds out beyond UA97," he said, lips thin, "in the tomb of... well, without going into more detail, it'll suffice to say it was the leader of a breakaway faction of the Shutran Hegemons. The histories say he – it was a man – went crazy towards the end and took his armies out beyond the edge of known space... perhaps we'll never know where he found them, but the Hegemony was located towards this side of the core worlds."

Lindy nodded. "Yes. As I was just about to say, we do have evidence to suggest that there are unknown Warring States and Alhazredian-era ruins out here, and all it would take is a leak of this from anywhere in the Bureau for word to get out to criminal elements. We also cannot assume that whoever we're up against won't head for UA-97. For all we know, they might think there are some Jewel Seeds still remaining there, and even if they don't, they'll need to go there to try to backtrack the course that the Seeds took to get there.

She took another sip of tea, then folded her hands in front of her. "As a result, we will be using a two-pronged approach," she said. "While most of our forces search for the missing ship, a small covert team will establish a base of operations on UA-97, with the monitoring experts watching for the Mithra and any unauthorised teleports to the vicinity of where the Jewel Seed incident occurred. Lieutenant Lanster will be the one in charge of that team, as they have on-world experience on UA97, though Warrant Officer Balani will have full operational control of the monitoring. We do recognise the risk that whoever did this may have already moved on having already investigated the world and finding no Jewel Seeds, but we can hope that they can be caught in our net. This team will be under strict order to avoid combat and blend into the local population; if hostiles engage them their standing orders are to retreat, protecting the technical specialists, and call for emergency assistance."

"Well, I was sort of wondering why you were responding to the same mission," the older man told Tiida, "and now I know. Pleased to be working with you."

"And you," Tiida said, smiling. His face went more serious. "Admiral Harlaown? Do you have any clues as to what assaulted and captured the transport? What might we be up against?"

The admiral took a deep breath. She was not sure what the reaction to this news would be. "As it stands, we do not know who our opponents are. However, from evidence gathered on Pihroea, as well as the investigative work of Major Grangeitz over the past week, has produced some disturbing suggestions." She ceded the floor to the man, picking her mug up in both hands.

Zest was not wearing a uniform; he was still in his barrier jacket, as was the somewhat windblown Quint. They had been transferring from world to world, doing what – much as Lindy did not want to admit it – Chrono lacked the stamina for, and checking disparate population centres. They were the first representatives of the Bureau some of the worlds they were visiting had seen in decades; on a few, they had merely been placing teleport sensors on entirely uncontacted worlds. Nevertheless, compared to the fatigued travellers, he looked far too awake for anyone carrying out a punishing teleport schedule.

"Over the past four months," the investigator said bluntly, "there have been assaults and vanishings across the area. Now that our attention has been drawn to this, there have even been mysterious linker core drainings as far away as Runcorn. No one had put it together before now – whoever's doing this knows enough to pick them off during the night, using the same tactics we first discovered on Pihroea. We have no idea how many instances of this might have gone entirely unnoticed; the symptoms of core draining are similar to influenza, and no doubt many victims will have taken a week of bed rest and never reported it."

"You have to understand," Quint interjected, running her fingers through her hair, "this is really the backend of nowhere. That means that there just aren't proper healthcare facilities like you might get in the central worlds. Over half the places we checked don't do routine core checks on in-patients. You know, I looked up some population stats. If you discount UA97, Suionetheod has a larger population than everywhere within three hundred-odd lisecs of us right now. Combined. And UA97 has a larger population than everywhere within... like, a kilolisec combined, including Runcorn."

"That we know of," Lindy corrected. "The entire area is barely mapped; some of the maps we're using date back to before a sizeable quake. The problem is, if they've taken the Ravi and gone to ground, powered it down... well, they could be hiding it anywhere on a habitable world, they could have loaded up on food and supplies and gone quiet on a moon, they could even be drifting in deep space. We just don't know."

Zest cleared his throat. "Returning to the topic at hand," he said, to nods from the two women, "there have also been disappearances similar, though not identical, to the attack on the Ravi. We have no hard evidence, but conferring with local authorities has revealed that some small population centres have just entirely vanished. A few remote villages, some missing farmsteads... it could be anything, but it's suspicious. We have no obvious pattern for the vanishings, though. The assault on the Pihroea facility had two clear objectives – to capture the Ravi and blind our sensors in the area; we lack a similar motive for any of the other suspicious occurrences.

"However," he continued, face grave, "it is felt that there is enough evidence to confirm that there is a Harvester-type Lost Logia in use in this area. Given whoever controls it was able to take down a TSAB facility, that sets a minimum classification of Class 2, with a chance that it is Class 1." He paused. "Harvester-type Lost Logia are dangerous because they can often be subtle, at least until they have gathered sufficient mana to activate fully or their master feels they have gained enough power. This is not to be treated lightly, given the limited number of high-grade Harvesters known about, such as..."

"The Book of Darkness." The words came out as a hiss, and the source surprised Lindy. Mei Ereignis, from the backup team was staring at the start chart with her eyes narrowed into slits. Beside her, her half-sister had turned the colour of milky chocolate.

"That's the most infamous one, yes," Zest said, eyes locking on the green-silver haired girl, "but by no means the only one. There are still other Harvester Lost Logia based off the Book of Darkness out there, even though they – unlike the original – can be sealed, and that's before we get into the other types of Harvester out there. We will not be assuming that whatever we are up against is the Book unless we have more concrete evidence."

"False assumptions could come back to bite us," Quint added, "so we're not ruling anything out just yet. Don't let it get personal." She gave Mei a warning look, and after a moment's thought expanded it to Chrono as well. "I mean it. Taking this case personally will lead to you getting emotional and sloppy. And that will lead to you getting killed. We would all prefer to avoid that. Understood?"


A few hours later in the mess hall on the Asura, the newcomers were digging into food. They were doing so with relative enthusiasm, as it was of considerably better quality than what they had been getting on the sprinter. Despite that, the air was gloomy.

"So," Heidi said, sarcastic cheerfulness in her voice, "we're doomed. Again. I'm going to die with the A-ranking on my record still in current memory." She stabbed her fork into her meal. "You know they almost stationed us on Sveren instead of Pihroea, for that training? We'd have avoided getting into two cases full of certain doom if we'd gone there."

"We're not... doomed," Tiida said, somewhat more weakly than he would have liked. "I mean, we're simply there to be support."

"Oh, that's just wonderful," Heidi drawled. "You mean like how we were meant to just be on the Garden of Time for support? I'm sure nothing at all will go wrong when we're protecting some sensor specialists from a Class-2 Harvester, minimum, which may be the Book of Darkness itself!"

"You know," the voice came from behind them, "talking like that is a pretty big breach of OpSec."

Heidi winced, and spun, saluting Quint. "Uh... um..."

"Oh, relax," the older woman said, bringing her own stacked tray down to their shared table. "I was just here to eat, not get on your backs about it. You won't believe what all these transfers are doing to my energy intake; I'm in double food and I'm still losing weight."

"Th-that's certainly something," Rizu said, from where she had been staring at her meal. "I don't think it'll have much popularity as a diet."

Quint laughed. "Well, probably not," she admitted, scratching her cheek and sitting down. "I thought I might as well try catching up with you lot, as well as... uh, perhaps reassuring you a little about your role in this."

"I could use some reassuring," Tiida admitted. "I didn't think it would be good if I was being called all the way from Mid to here, but I didn't... well, I didn't know what to think. I really hope it isn't the Book of Darkness for real, though."

"I think we all do," Quint agreed.

"It killed my dad," Mei whispered, her hands balled into fists on her lap.


Rizu winced, and cleared her throat. She patted her sister on the arm, who glanced at her, and nodded. "H-her dad," she began, nervously, "n-not mine, just hers... uh. Well, y-you know how last time it escaped when they tr-tried to destroy it? Uh."

"It was a massive search, across lots of planets to try to find it in the first place," Mei said, still staring at her food. "Lots and lots of people; a big, massive sweeping effort. My dad was Ground Forces; he was in a platoon which found where the master was hiding out. Just stumbled across it; they weren't expecting it." She looked up, mismatched eyes narrowed. "Well, of course they got cut to shreds. They were a Ground Forces formation; most of them were just B-rank at best, and the lowest ranked one of those things it has is a double-A. They... they said he threw himself at one of them trying to give the rest of his squad time to get away." She laughed, bitterly. "Well, he's the one I get it from. It didn't even work. The Book got away cleanly. It took them months to track the master down again. So it was just... pointless."

"I'm sorry," Quint offered sadly.

"I don't even remember it," Mei said, with an affected half-shrug. "Rizu remembers more of him than I do." She took a deep breath. "But with the new meds, I now get scared and... and I don't know if how I feel is worse, or... or what would probably happen if I didn't have them and... and how it would affect everyone."

"Well, firstly," the older woman said, "Admiral Harlaown meant it when she said this is purely an observational posting. Your job is to help the monitoring team blend in, keep stuff working on-world, and there's a few other minor things that need to be done, but me and Zest and Chrono are going to be the hard-hitters. If you catch something, you call us in." She cocked her head. "Though I'd rather have Megane here," she admitted, "but... eh. She'd totally have shown up with the baby, and that's not good for morale."

A weak giggle escaped from Mei and Rizu, and even Tiida smirked.

"So, how have you lot been? I have had an awful past six months," Quint said, nursing her cup of soup, "so, please, humour me. Mei, you said something about meds?" She peered at the girl. "So something did come out of those checks that me and Megane told you to get?"

Mei nodded, obviously forcing her darker thoughts to the back of her head. "Yeah. They took me in for checks, took blood, and then two weeks later, I found out I'm a princess."

"... oh my," Quint said, raising an eyebrow.

Heidi snorted, nostrils flaring. "You are not a princess."

"Am too! I'm totally packed with Hegemon gene-markers from my father's side!"

"That doesn't make you a princess! I'm sorry," Heidi apologised, "but she was far too smug about that on the way here."

Mei folded her arms. "Look, the Shutran Hegemony isn't around anymore, I've got the gene markers and the hair colour and the mismatched eyes, and I've got the mucked-up head which can't properly tell when to be scared. So I'm allowed to do at least that." She shrugged. "But yeah, Quint. You can check my file if you want the full details – 'cause I don't understand them – but basically, my dad's side traces back to the Shutran Hegemons, and I've got just enough of the genes to make me not quite right in the head. Though I've got a drug implant which helps with it now, and they went through my entire file and tagged 'mitigating circumstances – undiagnosed Berserker lineage' to a bunch of the black marks." She forced herself to grin. "It means it's basically spotless when it's adjusted for that," she said, gloating. "Better than Heidi's."

"Hush, you!"

"Anyway, yeah." Mei massaged the back of her neck. "See, uh... I wanted to thank you for that, actually, and also for that advice you gave me about looking into specialist training programmes. I... see, this is kind of hard. Basically, I kind of only went for the Air Force because I wanted to be with Rizu, you know? Like, I knew I needed to have her around, because Mum and her both knew I wasn't quite right. And Rizu's off at a proper medical school now with a scholarship and everything, so there was nothing really keeping me in the Air Force."

"Which one?" Quint asked.

"Uh..." Rizu bit her lip. "B-Belhausen. It's on Laroche."

"That's one of the really big ones, isn't it? Like, the famous ones?"

Rizu nodded, blushing. "The... the recommendations for the Jewel Seed Incident... uh, they were enough to get me onto the v-very limited TSAB intake they do each year. Or... uh, maybe next year, because of... of this thing."

"Good on you," Quint said cheerfully. "But... Mei, you said you looked at specialist training courses?"

"Yeah, and then I looked at you and the way you talked about how I should look for what I wanted to do, and in the end, I met someone and he recommended that I look into the Outrider specialist thing." She grinned. "I couldn't meet the power requirements to get into the CQC thing you did," she told Quint.

"Outriders?" Quint said. "Scouting and recon on low density worlds? I have to say, I didn't think you'd go for that."

"I aced the entrance exam," Mei said, beaming. "And the fact my file had two recommendations from admirals and one from Captain Grangeitz. It's been amazing. Tough as hell, and they spent all morning chasing us around and all afternoon making us study technical stuff and tracking and wildlife and living off the land and stuff, but at least it's not the Air Forces and the way they make you feel inadequate because you can't hit A-rank, no matter how hard you try. And I have my board with me, so I can fly with it." She looked at Quint, a trace of moistness around her eyes. "I wouldn't have managed it if you hadn't told me to get checked up," she said.

Quint smiled. "You know what? That's the best thing I've heard since the damn Jewel Seed Incident started," she said. "I'm just glad I could help." She took a sip of soup, and half-turned to the other members of the former squad. "And you?"

"Nothing so fancy," Tiida said, with a self-effacing grin. "I spent a few months getting over almost dying, and then they put me on a desk job back on Mid while I got back into shape. I was just waiting for my new placement when this whole thing came up. But I do have," he fished a blued-steel Device out of his pocket, "this. Commendations from admirals really help when you're on the waiting list for an upgrade. It's an ED-104A series; way better throughput, enhanced buffer for refire casing, Semi-Intelligent autoguard, and integrated cartridge system." He lowered his voice. "Someone said to me," he said, "that the Jewel Seed Incident is one of the reasons they're looking to roll them out more – we're the ones with the supply lines, not the rogues. Of course, others say it's the military-industrial complex just looking for some nice fat contracts to reequip the Bureau."

"Personally, I'd say it's the latter," Heidi said, drily. "But I've benefitted from it, too. Scraped my A-rank exam... raw power's my problem, but managed to make it onto the Designated Aerial Marksman programme. We all got issued shiny new Cartridge-loaded Devices there, too. Though bombardment mages have always used them more, because we need as much speed and power as possible."

"Oh, and my little sister decided that you're really cool after you met her," Tiida told Quint, his face dead serious. "I want you to know what you've done. She's been putting low-friction barriers on the floor and skating around in her socks. This is entirely your fault." His mouth twitched.

Quint bit her lip. "However will I be able to apologise?" she asked, trying not to laugh.

"I feel there can be no forgiveness for such a sin," Tiida told her. "At least until she gets bored with it, which may take as long as... uh, maybe a month at most."

"Hey! I'm not boring!" Quint managed, cracking up. She wiped her eyes on a napkin, smiling, and caught the eyes of the last member of the table. He wasn't smiling. "What's the matter?" she asked.

"I'm... regretting coming for this," Yuuno said, in a small voice. "Not just eating here with you – though you're all older and talking about things that... well, not just here. But here. Back to Earth. It was fine when travelling but... I didn't think you'd want me to go back there."

"Oh," Quint said, shuffling along the bench so she was facing the boy. "Yes, that... like, I know why she – Lindy – couldn't tell you for OpSec, but she should have said something. You can probably still bow out or something."

"I could," Yuuno said, hands on his lap. He avoided her eyes. "But... if there's a Harvester out there, if it's coming for Earth..." he trailed off. "Nanoha would have helped no matter what," he managed eventually.

There was an awkward silence, broken only by the sound of cutlery on plates.

"If... if she'd been here, if she'd turned back, she could have been here," Yuuno said. "And she'd be here, and she'd know how to fit in on UA97, and I wouldn't be having to help you when most of my time there was as a ferret."

"You d-don't have to help us," Rizu said firmly.

"I do. She... she would have wanted it. And, well, I guess I was just sort of... drifting," Yuuno said, with a helpless shrug. "I haven't been able to focus, or... I got credit for that ship you recovered, and I can't even bring myself to look at it because it's got her face on it. Sometimes it feels like I see her wherever I go. I... I just don't know what I want to do with my life now."

Rizu patted his hand. "W-well," she suggested. "You are... um. Nine years old. It's sort of allowed."

"Ten, now," he said, without a trace of rancour.

"Well, when I was ten, I was still j-just running around, playing," the older girl said. She tilted her head. "Uh, f-fine, I was running around, trying to keep Mei out of trouble but still."

Mei patted her on the hand. "And you did a really good job of it," she said seriously. "Really, I don't thank you enough. Like, you know, when they diagnosed me, they were totally amazed at how clean my record was, relatively speaking. Most of the people with stuff wrong like this end up in jail or worse – if Dad'd been diagnosed, maybe he'd have survived." She sighed, stretched, and rose to get seconds, but paused a few steps away. "Look," she told Yuuno over her shoulder, "you're being really brave, even if you're scared of stuff. Not knowing what fear is isn't bravery; that's just being an idiot."

"Like you," Heidi muttered.

"Right! Like me!" Mei said, nodding. "I'm an expert at doing stupid things which aren't actually that brave! I have life-long experience at it! Trust me when I said that it's really easy to do things other people say are brave when your brain isn't feeling scared. But you're going to be helping us even though you're feeling all bad about her – and I'm feeling kinda bad about her, too, because she did save all our lives from a giant horrible robot monster thing! Well, you know, if we can find this ship of people or catch whoever did it to them, this'll make a big difference, right? And that's all that matters."

Yuuno looked up, a watery smile on his face. "I'll need to think about that," he said, "but thank you. I think... yes. Thank you."


Forty miles from the nearest settlement and in the middle of the deep winter season, the stretch of land off the coast of an inland sea on Unadministered World #105 saw little life or movement. A light snowstorm was adding to the white blankets that covered everything in sight, and any animals that made it their home were deep in hibernation underground, safely away from cold bitter enough to kill within minutes. The water was frozen over in these dark, cold months, and the snow lay heavy enough on it that it was impossible to tell where the land ended and the sea began. Bleak, barren and inhospitable even during the summer months, it had seen no human life in years.

But it saw some now. With a flash of pink light that briefly lit the swirling snowflakes, a young girl occurred, grey-clad and with a small grey shape huddled in the hood of her Barrier Jacket. A hood which was somewhat superfluous, given the helmet she wore, but which was there nonetheless. The curled-up form occupying it shivered immediately and stuck out a small pink tongue.

'Eurgh. Snow. Can't we set our super-special trouble trap somewhere else? Like somewhere warm, or sunny, or with rabbits?'

Nanoha shook her head. 'Too late for that now.' She shot a glare back over her shoulder. 'And don't think you're off the hook about that, either. A welcome-back present was a nice thought to have, but a dead rabbit is not the right kind of thing to give people. Even Linith.'

She turned back to surveying the area, ignoring the quiet grumbling from behind her neck suggesting that she didn't understand feline customs and was being cruel and oppressive in stifling their native rituals.

Only a moment later, a softer yellow flash announced another arrival a few hundred metres away, and Fate flew up to join them. Arf was just visible peeking over her shoulder from her backpack seat, and her Barrier Jacket was back to the grey-white it had been in Schzenais, to better blend in with the elements. Like Nanoha, she was helmeted – they weren't risking the loss of processing power that disguising their magic would take, but hiding their faces was a step that both Linith and Precia had insisted on.

"It worked," she greeted softly. "Did you pump extra juice into the teleport or something? I felt it from a world away."

"... ah heh. Yes? Yes, I was... deliberately a bit sloppy," agreed Nanoha hastily, blushing faintly. "And that'll make them think I'm not very good, right? And easy prey."

Fate made an unconvinced sound, but nodded anyway. "Me, too," she reminded. "Assuming they know we're supposed to be meeting here. What exactly did you tell Arisa, anyway? You left it late."

"Precia said to. So that they wouldn't have long to think about it, if they picked it up. So I asked how she was doing and stuff, and then told her I was meeting my friend who was coming in to help, and that I had to wrap up warm and go."

"Hmm." Behind the mirrored plate that covered her face, Fate pursed her lips. "Well, let's hope they buy it. If they're looking for it, or just around this planet, they'll have sensed you coming in." She glanced around at the driving snow coming down all around them. "Visibility isn't good, but we should probably get some distance from where we came in, just in case. Up or down?"

Arf nudged her in the back. 'Up,' she offered. 'You'll blend in better against the clouds with the falling snow below you. And mask your heat signatures or you'll stand out like a Nanoha.'


Arf grinned and corrected herself. 'Okay, sorry. You'll stand out like a Nanoha when she's reading a maths textbook in history class.'

One among their number pouting at the unfairness of her friends and the way that Fate tattled on her, the quartet ascended higher. Visors slid across their eyes, and heat readouts superimposed themselves over everything in sight. The general trend was one of large amounts of blue.

And on the horizon, a line of grey, fast approaching. She felt Fate tense beside her.

'Here we go...' Arf murmured.

From the distance in front of them, a reddish-grey wall approached, engulfing the landscape. It washed over the quartet, tinting the sky a deep violet and dulling the colours around them to monochrome – though in light of the heavy layer of cloud above and the colours around them being mostly white, this wasn't especially noticeable.

What was noticeable, however, was the way the snow shuddered and froze in the air as their imprints were shifted into the barrier-space. Suspended motionless halfway between ground and sky, the flakes looked like a million flecks of chaff littering the battlefield-to-be. Wonderingly, Nanoha reached out to brush one nearby. It was cold, but not as cold as she expected of a snowflake. More like a sort of artificial chill, a holdover from its properties back on the other side of the barrier, now lost as it dissolved under her touch.

'Nanoha! Incoming!'

Her attention snapped back to the business at hand, and the streaks of heat coming in from their left. There were four of them, all small and moving at high speed, and she brought Raising Heart up hastily to counter them before they got too close.

[Divine Shooter]

Four streaks of pink light shot forth, carving thin paths through the frozen snow as they each curved out to meet the reddish projectiles head on. Four explosions resounded a second later, as they detonated on contact. The echoes reflected strangely off the barren landscape below, distorted by the snow and ice powder filling the air.

"Where..." began Nanoha, glancing around warily. But she was interrupted by Raising Heart and Bardiche both. The two Intelligent Devices blared a warning, and Nanoha's attention followed it upwards to the scarlet missile falling on them from out of the heavy clouds above.

In perfect synchronicity, Nanoha and Fate split apart, darting in opposite directions. Nanoha rippled and vanished as she did so, while Fate departed in a yellow blur of speed. Inwardly, though, Nanoha was smiling grimly. Red clothing and... yes, that dratted hammer. It was the same knight she had fought at Arisa's house. She'd been both hoping and dreading it would be, and not just because of the injury's she'd taken last time. On the one hand, her last attempt at fighting this knight had gone poorly indeed. But on the other, knowing their opponent's skillset through first-hand experience gave them a distinct advantage.

'It's her,' she confirmed shortly. 'Lucky us. Remember the plan.'

'I remember.' Fate's voice, steely with confidence, soothed Nanoha's trepidations. 'Whenever you're ready.'

The knight had altered her course in response to them splitting up, heading after Fate in the absence of a Nanoha to track. Taking aim at her back, Nanoha let loose a flurry of shooting spells as flew sideways, zigzagging her course to stay undetected.

The half-dozen pink bolts cut towards the Breaker, homing in on her from both sides to box her in. They struck sparks from the triangular shield she conjured to guard her back as Fate darted in from her other side, flanked by another half-dozen golden blades.

Bardiche shifted just as Fate swung, switching from its axe formation to the blazing golden scythe. The change was sudden and unexpected, and one that Fate had used in the past to take Nanoha off-guard with stunning success. But against the knight, it got her nothing but a faint widening of the eyes. The girl's grip on her hammer shifted even as she brought it up to block, and the shafts of the two polearms clashed together. The angle of the parry sent Bardiche off to the side and forced Fate to hastily duck the hammerhead as it swung towards her face. Her shooting spells hit home, half a dozen in quick succession, but had little effect besides drawing a grimace from their target.

Even that small victory was lost when she swung the mallet out again, and the head shifted form into the same intimidating rocket that had broken Raising Heart. It loaded no cartridge, but spoke in an angry, harsh-sounding tone.

[Panzergeist! Pferde!]

Just as before, whirlwinds of light encircled her feet and a red aura sprung to life around her, strongest and darkest over her left hip where the dark tome Nanoha had seen her use at Arisa's house rested in a holster. Nanoha bit her lip. 'Fate,' she sent quickly. 'That's the defence spell she used on me. And I think the speed one. Be careful.'

Fate didn't answer with words, only a brief feeling of affirmation. It was all she had time for, as the rocket on the hammer ignited with a roar and the knight exploded towards her, leaving a trail of grey-white smoke behind her. The snow sizzled and hissed into steam around the pair as they whirled and flung themselves through the sky like dogfighters. Fate kept up a steady stream of Photon Lancers as she ducked and dodged, but barely one in ten connected. The knight snuffed them out with crisp, efficient blows, batting them aside with hammer and fist alike and responding with glowing metal bullets that screamed through the air and left a trail of detonations along Fate's flight path.

Nanoha's efforts were scarcely more effective. Pink bullets cut trails of mist through the frozen snow as Nanoha moved ghost-like around the fight. But the range she was shooting from meant that her shots took precious seconds to reach their target – seconds the Breaker used to roll out of their path, not even bothering to turn around or acknowledge them. The few that did get through broke harmlessly against the scarlet aura wreathing her. Fate had more success when she risked melee to deliver punishing scythe slashes to the arms or torso, but the hammer was there every time, viciously swiping at Bardiche's core or the centre of her barrier jacket. Binds in both orange and pink hampered the Breaker's movements. But it still wasn't enough.

Left without Fate's speed or the rocket-powered boost of the hammer, Nanoha would have been left behind quickly had Fate not limited her movements to keep the battle within her range. But it was a limitation that worked against her. Red and yellow swerved closer and closer together as Fate tried to keep the fight from straying too far, and Nanoha bit her lip as flashes of orange began to appear, turning aside grazing blows that came closer and closer to landing.

Worse yet, despite Fate's greater speed, the knight seemed uncannily able to predict where she would attack or dodge to. Fate was faster, but sheer experience was tilting the fight in the knight's favour. Nanoha threw her weight behind Arf's in a bind that held the hammer still for a full second, saving Fate from a blow to the shoulder and allowing her to get in a slash to the sternum. Judging her friend safe for the moment as she disengaged, Nanoha thought furiously.

Melee was too dangerous. Despite Fate's speed, the knight was simply too good – feints and surprise meant nothing to her. Shooting spells were nearly useless against the combination of hammer and defensive field, and at the range Nanoha was firing from, she was able to dodge most of them.

So she needed something bigger. Something faster. Something with more of a kick.

'Fate,' she sent. 'I have an idea. Can you lead her into position?' Raising Heart chimed as it sent coordinates, and a casting circle spun into being beneath Nanoha's feet. She lowered herself onto it as she gathered power, aiming carefully at a patch of sky close to the two darting forms. The casting rings extended out from Raising Heart's tip, forming a barrel longer than Nanoha was tall, and she sighted along it carefully.

'Ready?' Fate's mental voice was terse and tense, the touch of her mind felt like metal wire, pulled taut with stress and effort.

'Ready,' Nanoha confirmed, and Fate broke off from the dogfight and sped right, through the projected path of the beam and out again to safety, with the Breaker hot on her tail. Adrenaline rippled up Nanoha's spine as she waited until the Breaker was a few short metres from the line of fire.

And fired.

[Divine Buster]

The shooting spells had taken seconds to reach the knight. But bombardment spells travelled much, much faster. The beam lanced out faster than the eye could follow, and a juggernaut of light smashed into the Cloud Knight with all the force and fury of a train collision. The beam split as it met its target, pink streamers coming off in all directions like a water stream parting as it met a boulder. Huge clouds of steam boiled off the sides of the bombardment as it vaporised the snow, wreathing caster, target and the line between them in a scalding fog lit brilliantly from within.

When it petered out, the red defensive aura was gone. The knight, however, was not. And she looked very, very unhappy.

"Eep!" Nanoha squeaked, as the rocket lit up again and the knight shot towards her.

'Don't worry mistress! We're still cloaked!' Vesta reminded her. 'And I'm here to protect you this time!' She paused for a beat before adding, 'but you should still get out of the way so I don't have to!'

Nanoha nodded and cast a Flash Move, blurring away from the steam cloud that marked her previous position. She kicked up, gaining altitude to put more distance between her and her attacker, and looked down to see where the knight was.


Something kicked her hard in the upper back, and a bone-shaking roar split the air. She rippled into visibility as she tumbled forward and turned, feeling the lightness in her hood. A frighteningly short distance away, Vesta was in her war form, locked in combat with the very knight she'd been looking for. The girl must have been bare metres behind her when Vesta had kicked off to intercept her, if that! How had she found them? They were hidden, invisible, not just by Vesta's cloak but by the...

... the snow. The frozen snow, which they left channels in whenever they moved. Of course she'd been able to find them, they were announcing their presence with a giant arrow of clear air pointing to where they were! She lifted Raising Heart, the equations of a Divine Shooter flurry slamming into place.

But Vesta was attacking furiously enough that Nanoha couldn't get a clear shot at her opponent. Bloody, bladed light extended from her claws as she swiped and bit at the knight, ducking the hammer with feline grace and lunging for the throat, ten-centimetre fangs bared. Once, twice, three times and more the spiked point of the hammer tore through her head, torso or limbs, only to meet no resistance besides a dissolving illusion. Claws and fangs tore long rents in the gothic red dress, and slashed long, shallow gashes in the skin below as the knight sacrificed defence on her right side to protect her left, and the book holster that hung there. She tightened her defence and lengthened her swings, but still caught only glancing impacts with the shaft on a quick, agile opponent whose image was never where her body was.

And, finally, lost patience. "Rrrgh... enough!" she shouted. A fist-sized ball of pulsing red-white light grew in her hand, and grew to the size of her head as she tossed it in the air and brought her hammer around to...

The explosion of light, sound and force tore Vesta's illusion apart and flung her backwards into Nanoha hard enough to knock both of them out of the sky. Despite her surge protectors, despite the protection of her Barrier Jacket, her ears rung and her eyes stung as she blinked frantically, unable to see or hear anything more than a blur. She could feel Vesta writhing and yowling in pain as they fell, and the dazed fog filling her head clogged her attempts at a flight spell. Squeezing her aching eyes shut, she braced for impact and hoped for the best.


Fate watched helplessly as Nanoha fell, blinking the spots out of her own eyes and nursing the multitude of livid bruises that stood out all over her arms and legs. The white-grey tangle of shapes, too far away to reach in time, vanished into a snowdrift which hopefully broke their fall. Pinging Nanoha telepathically got a response, albeit one that was mostly pained groaning, so Fate marked her down as 'safe for now' and turned her attention back to the knight.

Who was glaring at her. And Fate could guess why. Her and Nanoha's shots were little more than bruises, their binds were ineffective, but the simple fact of the matter was that there were four of them and only one knight. The scorch marks from Bardiche's scythe-blade and the rents from Vesta's claws stood out starkly on her red dress, and she was panting from the exertion of the flashbang spell.

They were winning.

It was slow, painful and gruelling, but they were winning. Nanoha was down, but she would be back up again in a few moments. Between Fate's speed and Nanoha's cloaking, she couldn't reliably land a blow on either, and the combination of speed and long-range bombardment was enough that she couldn't escape, either. Cartridges would give her more power, but if she couldn't land a hit they would be useless. Unless she had something special in reserve, she was effectively done for. It might take them hours, but they could win this.

And she knew it.

Vivid blue eyes narrowed hatefully in Fate's direction, and the knight scowled. She looked down, and for a moment she seemed to be struggling with something. One hand dropped to the Book at her hip, but hesitated, and then slowly returned to the hammer. Fate waited, tense and wary for any reignition of hostilities. She was perfectly happy to wait until Nanoha got back up, since taking the knight on singlehandedly wasn't an attractive-sounding prospect, but she wasn't about to let the Breaker try anything. This was one of the Wolkenritter, after all. The chances were good that she did have something in reserve, somewhere. Fate would just have to stop her from using it.

Finally, her enemy looked up at her. Resolve was writ large across her face, and there was a certain look of grim satisfaction in her eyes that Fate was less than comfortable with.

"You forced this," she said, conversationally. The hammer shifted forms again. The spike retracted, the rocket withdrew. And as it restructured, it got bigger. Considerably bigger. The sleek, slender cylinders of its base form were replaced with two heavy octagonal blocks, each bigger than the girls' head. It seemed to radiate blunt force and trauma. "So you have only yourselves to blame."

She twirled the massive weapon effortlessly. It should probably, Fate guessed, have weighed almost half a tonne. In the knight's hands, it moved like a child's toy.

A casting triangle appeared in front of her, flat edge parallel to the ground, a surface pointing straight down. It spun for a moment before stabilising, one point directed towards her, the flat edge oriented away. Fate readied half a dozen Photon Lancers, taking the time to layer a detonation effect and bind into their sub-structure. Still, she couldn't help but give the knight a confused look. What kind of spell was this?

And then she caught the flicker above her head, and looked up. At the scarlet casting sigil the size of a city block which had spread across the sky above them. Her eyes widened in fear as the sound of a cartridge loading pulled her gaze back down, and she fired off the Photon Lancers. Hoping they would distract the knight long enough for her to disrupt the control sigil, she flung herself forwards...

[Sagitta Luminis]

A smoky-grey arrow smashed into the knight's hip, and it was only through a miracle of reaction that she managed to catch the book as it was dislodged. The sigil above them dissolved along with its control node, and Fate pulled up short in confusion. That... hadn't been Nanoha, who was just floating up to join her. It had come from...

The figure it had come from burst into view from within the static snowstorm, arrowing towards the knight single-mindedly. Fate caught only a glimpse – an adult, masked and wearing an anonymous grey Jacket like Nanoha's. The knight brought her hammer around in a vicious swing that nearly took the figure's head off, but it was undeterred. It pursued her as she rose away, her hammer shifting back into its smaller form as she struggled to fend it off one-handed. It didn't attack, nor did it try to defend itself apart from dodging. Every effort, every motion it made was oriented towards one goal: the book.

Nanoha and Fate traded glances, honestly unsure of what to do. To help the knight would be madness, given their goal, but the masked figure's silent, single-minded assault for the book was hardly any more encouraging. Fate shook her head in response to Nanoha's questioning look.

'They're ignoring us,' she decided. 'Bombardment spells on three. Aim for where they're drifting.'

Nanoha nodded resolutely, and they rose together, gaining height until they were above the close-quarters brawl. The masked figure was moving with unnatural flexibility and feline grace, Fate noted – more than most mages could hope to achieve, even with an inertial Barrier Jacket helping. She winced as it bent backwards almost ninety degrees to dodge a cartridge-boosted swing, and began charging her Thunder Smasher.

But even as she watched, the knight spun, bringing the hammer round in an arc, never ceasing its motion. It came back around with a whirring sound – far faster, far stronger – and the masked figure was still off-balance and bent awkwardly from the previous stroke. It tried its best, but the hammer grazed its arm nonetheless.

The crack of breaking bone was audible even from a hundred metres away. Nanoha winced in sympathy.

That seemed to drain the fight out of the figure, and it turned on its heel and fled. The knight pursued it for a short distance, but broke off, apparently deciding that it wasn't worth it. She stowed the book back on her hip and looked around, frowning, trying to find the girls.

Her expression when she saw the bombardment spells pointed at her was one that Fate would remember for a long time, with no small amount of satisfaction.

[Divine Buster]
[Thunder Smasher]

Pink and gold destruction hammered down on the injured knight.

And stopped cold, scattered into component motes.

"Wh... what?" Nanoha gaped. Fate stared. Another masked figure had appeared, teleporting right into the path of the beam in the instant before they fired. This one was dressed very similarly to the first one; perhaps it was dressed in a lighter shade, but in the gloom of the barrier and the snow she wasn't sure. Certainly, it gave no more clues to its identity as the previous one had. She tried to zoom in with Raising Heart and get a closer view of it, but a heat-haze wavered around it, and lines of static filled her scope.

[Hostile EMCM detected,] Raising Heart reported. [Attempting EMCCM.]

The figure, as far as she could determine intent from behind the mask, was staring at her. A whirling dark blue shield hung in the air before it, dimmed from the strain of holding off two bombardment spells. It half-turned to the knight behind it, without taking its eyes off them or moving from its guarding stance.

She glared at it distrustfully. But red light built around her in a teleport spell, as the masked figure covered her. Nanoha lifted Raising Heart, but Fate stopped her.

"It stopped two bombardment spells almost point blank," she murmured. "We're not getting past it before the Breaker's gone. There's no point in trying."

Nanoha grimaced, but relented, settling into a ready stance as the red-clad knight disappeared.

"Now," Fate continued, "what will this one do?" She tensed, her hands tightening around Bardiche.

But the masked figure didn't attack. With a short, mocking bow towards the two, it sketched a blue veil around itself. As the barrier around them collapsed, and shunted them back into the real world, it faded to leave nothing but the falling snow.

'What the heck was that about?' asked Arf, bewildered. 'Who were those two? What did they want?' Fate could only shake her head in mystification and trepedition.

"I don't know," she admitted. "But I think Mother needs to hear about this."