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The War Chronicles of a Little Demon (Youjo Senki alt)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by Sunshine Temple, Dec 25, 2021.

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  1. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    I'm sure it's just the stress that has Tanya being a bit more expressive. And LoveBlood does have a bit of battle-lust. And yah, it is a fun arc with just how things go.

    Hehe. Well... maybe Tanya's just lucky. I'm sure that's it. Nothing to worry about.
    Thanks! Really happy you've been enjoying the story! And I think you'll get a real kick out of the next parts.

    Hahah. That is the optimistic take.
     
    Metaldragon, NHO and RogueInquisitor like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 26: Inclement Weather
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Diyu Demons verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic.
    By Sunshine Temple

    Naturally, I do not own Youjo Senki. So here's the disclaimer:

    Saga of Tanya the Evil its characters and settings belong Carlo Zen, Shinobu Shinotsuki, and NUT Co., Ltd.

    Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
    http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 26: Inclement Weather

    The Onyx Institute was on fire; that was entirely our fault. The hail pelting Second and Fourth Squadrons and threatening to put our fires out was not. Despite our efforts, the SilverHold was active.

    As my diminished Squadron raced to the north, I split my attention, arranging my forces as I studied the tactical plot. Soon, I expected that we would be tasked with our first attack runs, perhaps sooner than my pilots thought, if they expected everything to go per the briefing. While we were engaged with sinking those mercenary sailors, and as the Fleet girls had bombed that Elenese air base, the Broadcast Recon team had become the first of the Imperatrix’s forces to make hooffall on Harp’s World.

    Complicating their arrival had been the presence of Jammers in all of the Institute's critical locations, including Building 37, the presumed location of our target. The plan called for Broadcast Recon to teleport to a location just outside of the Jammers' range and then infiltrate the facility from there. I was not sure how they would disguise the magical signature, but given the elder demoness JadeJavelin was presumably on the same VTOLs that the raiders had teleported from, I had my suspicions.

    Broadcast Recon’s target had not been Building 37 nor any other similarly flashy location. In this early phase of the operation, they had studiously avoided the SilverHold or any of the other experimental facilities, remaining laser focused on their preliminary objectives. Their designated target was the Institute's auxiliary control room for its physical plant. Places like the main scrying arrays and antennae farms would be more heavily guarded, but the mission’s planners had hypothesized that security would be lighter around a redundant location like the backup control room.

    Their goal had been more than simple sabotage: from that control room, they had hopefully learned all that the Institute possessed that required such large amounts of power. Any power, be it electrical, steam, or arcane, was after all traceable through its distribution network.

    Based on the information Broadcast Recon had unearthed, our targeting information would be updated, and soon afterward, the main landing would then commence.

    We would arrive too late to take part in all of that. I did not know if the bombardment came from the Tarantula Hawk's small but secretive magazine or the Desert Strix but by the time we arrived, the Institute’s scrying systems, air defense installations, the Sixth River Detachment's likely barracks, and hangars for the base's golem complement were all engulfed in flames. Under the protective cover of Quirinus's First Squadron, two dozen Sarpedona ground attack RP were running constant sorties on anything that offended the Tribune's sensibilities.

    Somehow, CSR's audacious madcap plan was actually working.

    As the defenders reeled, the other Squadrons punching a hole in their defense, our landing craft swooped low, getting as close as possible before delivering our Forward Recon scouts, the grenadier teams, Lares and his boys, and our combat mages to the operation zone. Despite the unseasonable sleet, the small air-defense golems we brought with us were coming online.

    And Building 37 itself was assaulted.

    Observing from miles and miles to the south, my Squadron's channel erupted in cheers. "We better not be late!" Millie said with what I hoped was a mock pout.

    I did share her desire to not be tardy, but as fast as our Polyxo were there was only so fast we could go, and while an option that could guarantee our timely arrival existed, I was not ready to use that contingency, not yet at least.

    "There will be plenty of the two-faced curs left to face our wrath," Lavish declared with a haughty sniff as if tonight were not the first time she had killed anyone in anger.

    I could understand my pilots’ exuberance: their blood was still up after destroying an enemy flotilla, they'd seen the enemy driven away from our might, they wanted to avenge our wounded, and the SilverHold was tantalizingly within our grasp, and the call for vengeance sung in their veins. But House Elena was our greatest rival for a reason.

    "Hopefully there will be some Elenese armor left by the time we get there," Melisande laughed. "I'd hate to go all that way and not be needed."

    "We've gotta make it up to Pulivia's absence," RoseTalon smugly cheered. "And we brought plenty of ordnance. Be a shame to return to base with full flasks."

    Just as I was about to temper their exuberance with a few carefully chosen words, another voice beat me to the punch.

    "You thin-tailed, soft-horned braggarts," VioletBlood growled over the channel, her tone full of scorn. "A treed broodling who followed her sisters has more sense than you lot. One only has to look at the weather overlay to know the enemy isn't out of this fight."

    "Thank you Primus Centurion," I stated.

    "Prefect Countess," my betrothed acknowledged.

    "VioletBlood is right," I said as I highlighted some items on the Squadron-level tactical plot. "Note that Building 37 is still in enemy hands. We have not confirmed that all enemy armor has been destroyed. More tellingly, despite the power being cut, the SilverHold has been activated, and despite our Tempestarii's best efforts, our friends are fighting in a gale right now. Taken together, what does all of that tell you?"

    "That the SilverHold can be used as a weapon against ground troops?" Visha asked.

    "They want to deny the sky to us," GreyDawn remarked.

    "Elena is only doing this because they have a counter-attack planned," Lucia stated.

    "Correct, all of you." I smiled. "They are buying space and time. If I were tasked with defending this facility I would secret away as much of my equipment as I could."

    "Ahhh... that explains these vectors," VioletBlood purred as she went over the attack runs I had proposed.

    "And why my Flight is running anti-air suppression," Lucia noted.

    "Indeed, while Elena is not above attritional spoiling attacks, their preparations and these crack troops mean they'll only launch their counter-attack once they think they can take us out, and that includes getting enough launchers to clear us from the sky."

    "Great..." Lucia crawled, "So you think we could still be facing a full battery of Loew anti-air golems?"

    "Correct. Quirinus shares my concerns," I stated. Admittedly, she also thought that I was being pessimistic, paranoid, and cynical, but that was her prerogative. Besides, skepticism aside, the Tribune could not discount my worries and was an experienced enough Legion Flier to know to always prepare for the worst case scenario.

    And of course, for a sky-to-land assault, heavy concentrations of anti-air tended to feature prominently in any scenario ranging from "worst case" to "abort immediately".

    In an airborne raid, getting your troops down was only half of the mission. The easy half. We still had to get this DarkStar-cursed whatever it was, which had just been made more difficult by the holed-up researchers activating it, load the possibly still-functioning device onto a VTOL, and get it out of here. Not to mention extracting everyone else who set foot on this cursed colony. All of which fell under the umbrella of "the harder half".

    "Our Occultia haven't detected any enemy preparations?" Lucia tepidly asked.

    "It's a giant facility with over a dozen arcane test cells, many of which are built out of massive concrete blocks. And much of it is on fire, freezing or both," GreyDawn stated. "I pity the Fleet Ops boffins obliged to try to separate a smoldering alchemical plant in a reinforced bunker from a lurking golem ready to strike."

    "I suppose that's why we're redlining our Zephyr," Lucia noted, her tone indicating she found tossing aside Veiling to be disquieting.

    "Our time for stealth is over," I stated with more confidence than I felt. I would have preferred to keep our approach more low-profile. But all the stealth in the world wouldn’t help if we arrived after the battle was already lost.

    "And if we get jumped by survivors from Air Station Dola Gorod?" Lavish asked.

    "Then they won't be able to interfere with the ground team or our mission objectives," I said with a cold calculation. "Volantes Centurion RoseTalon, you are a Legion Flier; you get the privileges of flaunting dashing silver flashes on your uniform, hoarding enough glory to make your mother Senator's sycophants jealous, and donning armor that costs more than the average hoof-slogger will see in her lifetime. In exchange, the Imperatrix demands that you run the risk of being blown out of the sky so those same hoof-sluggers have a chance to get back home. Such is the compact; such are your oaths."

    "I know that!" Lavish tried not to bristle.

    "You've done well tonight," I softened my tone and shifted to the whole Squadron. "I know some of you are new to this, and we're all new to each other, but you wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in you and would trust you at my wing."

    "Yes Countess!" Lavish said, along with several other transmissions of agreement.

    "Okay, now tighten up the excess chatter,” I ordered. “We'll be in the thick of it soon enough."

    My Squadron continued to fly on in silence for a few more beats as I studied the map display. The Institute had a massive footprint with many of the test cells in isolated parts of their grounds. That made sense from a practical standpoint, certainly some arcana experiments were quite energetic. Unfortunately it also made our job quite a bit harder.

    It seemed that the meteorological conditions in the operation’s zone had begun to stabilize, relatively speaking. Freezing precipitation was still causing havoc with the relatively warmer ground. Leafy tree branches had already broken, and roads had slicked up. Horrible weather would hurt the defenders as well, but if they had expected and trained for it, then that might give them the edge. The cloud ceiling was ominously low, blotting out the sky over the Institute with the thick curtain of the roiling storm the Elenese had summoned. The surprised complaints from my Zephyr preceded my instruments warning me of the pressure drop as we flew across the weather front.

    "Flight Ops, Flight Ops. This is Diamond Actual, we are approaching from the south east," I said before adding in our precise heading.

    "Confirm Diamond. Good work handling the Catalan Company. First Squadron is escorting a VTOL landing mission and Fourth Squadron is relieving Second Squadron for another assault on Building 37. Maiden Two is positioned to provide for those ops while Maiden One is supporting the Fleet Harmonia."

    "Understood," I stated. I already knew much of that but having Flight Ops confirm that my map was not simply displaying nonsense was well worth it. "What of the Corvettes?"

    Other than my pilots, those two Kolibris were the "big guns" of this operation. If nothing else, that little fact amply demonstrated the laughably shoe-string nature of CSR’s scheme. DarkStar's Blood, it's not like I was asking for a Kanabo class battlecruiser. A cruiser, or even a destroyer would be enough to give us a decisive advantage.

    "After the strikes on the Air Station and the Institute, Desert Strix is husbanding her munitions. But Nightjar is already enroute."

    "Understood; we just came from there," I added the bit as a minor way to express my pique. While the Kolibri class was quite fast, that was by airship standards. By Ritual Plate standards, my Polyxo was easily seven times faster.

    "Their supersonic aerial Torpedoes will be in firing range shortly," the dispatcher replied.

    And that was true. While the Kolibri class was slower, the large missiles they carried had far greater range than my Squadron's lances. A Torpedo bomber would combine higher speed and longer range munitions, but Operation Epimetheus had not brought along any Hastas or the rumored-to-be even faster Manta Ray.

    "Which means their subsonics are already in range," I noted. Those missiles could be a help, but due to their slower propulsion, it would take them longer to arrive.

    "The few there are," the dispatcher agreed. "You're updated into the tactical network. You'll be alerted when a firing solution is ready."

    I kept in a chuckle. Apparently, we have moved past any pretense that my pilots were necessary for this phase. We all knew that someone was going to be at the receiving end of a Lance Strike, whether or not I was on station to rubber-stamp the launch. "Confirm," I stated. Even with both Corvettes able to help, the problem was that the small airships had correspondingly small magazines.

    "Flight Ops, out," the dispatcher said, seemingly eager to be rid of me and onto the next task in her queue. I did not begrudge her. While the Tarantula Hawk was by far the largest ship in the operation, and had been modified for operations like this, it still had a limited number of dispatchers, tactical officers, arcane analysts, and other boffins to help run operations.

    "The Shippies and the VTOL jockeys are fixing to help the hoof-sloggers with another push and my pride will not stand for us to be late to the party," I said to a chorus of enthusiastic agreement from my pilots.

    As the celebratory mood once again spread through the Squadron, although this time sufficiently muted to not rouse VioletBlood’s ire, I settled into the laborious task of watching our relative positions inch up the map display while keeping an eye on the Scrying feed. It would not do to be jumped by the enemy before we arrived at the Institute.

    The tiny part of me that had grown comfortable with the idea of being the pious Countess of Larium held out a bit of hope that the bulk of the Elenese forces had perhaps already been routed and this fresh assault by our forces would brush off the determined, but isolated, defenders of Building 37 and the SilverHold would be ours.

    The rest of me laughed at that deluded noblewoman's naiveté.

    The analytical part of me noted that the fire missions of our Sarpedona squadrons had kept the enemy down, but had avoided simply leveling the building. If destroying Building 37 and sifting through the ruins was not an option, that meant that the SilverHold was apparently fragile. Perhaps not fragile like a piece of glass; perhaps fragile like an undetonated bomb. A sufficiently strong and fully empowered magical artifact might just explode if a building fell on top of it. Such an outcome would present both a risk to any friendlies unfortunate enough to be in the blast radius and, perhaps worse, a clear failure of our mission.

    My tension grew as the minutes passed. The closer we got to the Institute, the more my stomach churned. House Elena was not stupid. They valued the SilverHold and had erected a multi-layered defense to protect it, and while our assault had destroyed many of their assets, it could not have taken out all of them.

    That Building 37 was still being contested was proof enough of that. The Institute's grounds were far too large for us to get a full idea of everything that the enemy had hidden here.

    The naive countess in me thrilled with a slight bit of hope when our arcane sappers took out the wards on a secondary door on the low-slung concrete blockhouse. That hope almost bloomed when our grenadiers began their breakthrough.

    The Elenese counter-attack followed shortly after that.

    It started slowly. A burst of concerned chatter here or there, a couple unconfirmed reports of increased activity in, a few queries about new hostile targets. It quickly exploded into something much worse, confused chaos soon consumed the communications channels in a hungry conflagration. The comms channels became a twisted mess of conflicting, unconfirmed reports and sightings, making it all but impossible to discern what had happened beyond Elena finally throwing their shit at the fan.

    Soon, however, the professionals in the Fleet Ops separated the signal from the noise, and the tactical display began to organize itself. From redoubts in the western part of the base a number of golems emerged. The majority were the smaller Loew anti-aircraft platforms, but there was a troop of Baalshem combat golems and a couple of Vilna golem tanks. The scrying data also indicated there was at least a century's worth of infantry scrambling about. At least the charge did not seem to be full at strength, so our initial bombardments had thinned their numbers.

    "Flight Leaders, this is Diamond," I called over the command channel. "The two-faced brainwashers have made their move."

    "We're still too far out," Lucia noted, though her tone was more thoughtful than dour.

    "For now, but we still have a couple tricks," I assured.

    "That is if Fabia's Fourth Squadron leaves us anything leftover," VioletBlood groused. "Oh, and now JadeTalon's girls are moving to reinforce."

    "Careful what you wish for, LoveBlood. And you were just being critical to the Squadron for bravado." I frowned. Before all this, Second Squadron was being rotated off the line to rearm and top off their fuel.

    "That was to the rank and file, who were engaging in false bravado," the baroness clarified as if that made all the difference.

    "Keep it in the command channel, then," I stated while we watched the scrying intake as the tactical markers resolved. The Elenese armored advance organized and, after a false start in the heavy precipitation, launched into an assault.

    First Squadron's Harmonia were still escorting a pair of VTOLs but had split with half their forces moving to give overwatch. Second Squadron arced around and, joining with the two Svalinna, moved in to take out the enemy air defense golem. Fourth Squadron then took position to slice between the armored Elenese armored thrust and our ground elements.

    And Third Squadron, my squadron, was still too far out.

    While the six-legged Loew were built with their own wards, their primary defense was the racks of Kresnik missiles they carried. With a comparable range to the Vel and a somewhat larger warhead, the Kresnik was a capable munition: far more than the aging Broadheads the Catalan Company used. The Loew typically only carried that one type of missile, which was unusual for a larger platform. Despite the potential weight of fire, Lady Primus IvoryQuiver and her wingwoman of Maiden Two would be capable of running interception to allow Second Squadron to take out the scuttling battery. Everyone's performance would be degraded, given the maelstrom's horrid weather state, but Sarpedona pilots were specialists in air to ground fire in all conditions.

    That was, at least, the plan.

    Shockingly, the Loew golems withstood the intense Pilum fire, enduring the withering projectile hail as if it was just more sleet pouring down from the sky. Improbably, most of their wards countered the arcane blasts with the same resilience as they did the hail. Two unlucky Loew blew apart when the Squadron switched their tactics to concentrate their fire, but that still left the bulk of the battery functional and more than willing to fire back.

    "Perfidious swine," VioletBlood groused.

    "So they do have a Stone Coat with them," Lucia dryly noted. The "damn her eyes" part of that comment was left tactfully unspoken.

    "It looks that way," I sighed. "And instead of enhancing their armored golem, their golem wrangler is enhancing their anti-air assets."

    Forgoing the increased range of a larger missile, the Loews simply invested in cavernous magazines supported by a capable scrying suite and solid warding, and that was before their protections were enhanced by a specialist arcanist. A veritable swarm of Kresnik missiles burned through the air, angling at Second Squadron. It was only due to the intervention of Maiden Two's Svalinna that the Sarpedona force escaped instant destruction.

    Over on the Squadron Commander channel, I heard Quirinus bark orders to JadeTalon. "Julia! Pull back. You're already down two pilots. You started out on fumes and you don't even have enough Pilum to go around for another try."

    "Confirm," JadeTalon acknowledged through gritted teeth, growling out an order for her remaining forces to cede the airspace. While the intense storm hurt the maneuverability of both Ritual Plate and missiles, the latter were expendable, and each Loew had considerable magazines.

    The display updated, the overlay changing color as Flight Ops grudgingly bowed to reality and admitted that part of the airspace over the Institute was contested. For the moment, the Elenese defenders had, by combining weather-conditions, arcane enhancement, and a local air-defense network, created a small region of hostile airspace.

    "We have other assets that'll take them out," the Tribune growled out as if chewing nails.

    Fabius's Fourth Squadron had ground down the counterattack’s momentum to near nothing, or at least their fire had forced the Elenese forces to remain cowering directly under the anti-air umbrella provided by the Loewes. The shoulder mounts of the Baalshem combat walkers were firing up arcane beams; they did not hit, but they did keep Fourth Squadron on their toes. Icons representing Sixth River Detachment commandos advanced with their armored support.

    My stomach churned when I caught a flickering icon on my display that indicated a Sightless Specter assaulted the ground team's flank, one met with a symbol indicating Auxilia Scouts. I wished Lares and his boys the best as they faced their Elenese rivals.

    The Sarpedona had slowed the Elenese assault and bought time for the ground team to reposition in the process. Much of the heavy guns of the Baalshem and cannons of the Vilna were intercepted by Maiden Two as the Svalinna pilots dove down low to project their wards.

    The action helped keep the hoof-sloggers largely alive as they retreated to an adjacent facility across from Building 37. However, while it may have bought some time, the Svalinna only had a limited number of charges on their ward projectors. Our Marius Mule-mounted launchers lobbing their own missiles purchased more, but ultimately both were stopgaps, not solutions. The VTOLs on approach were waved off, with half of First Squadron sticking with them. Unfortunately, speedy solutions were something we were in short supply of. Fortunately, I had a way to provide a more timely one of my own, though it came at a bit of a risk.

    "Tribune, this is Diamond Actual," I transmitted. "I have a request."

    Quirinus's voice was a bit harried. "Countess, I'm trying to convince these Shippies that they can either have their reserve Torpedoes for a later disaster or they can watch the mission fail right now and that bloody Lady Legate is being cryptic about emergency assets. Which as much as we all trust our CSR friends, I doubt they have anyone who can arrive in time. So Unless you have a way to get your pilots here even faster... ah."

    "Yes, Ma'am that's exactly what I'm asking for." I had looked at the map, checked and rechecked the calculations myself, and found that it could work. It would be costly, and had its own dangers, but given our tight time constraints, it was a rational decision. It was not like anyone else was coming to save us.

    "We are going to get a Torpedo strike. Even if the corvettes complain their cupboard is bare, the Lady Legate is not stupid; there are contingencies-" my commander caught herself. "That is to say the Tarantula Hawk has..." she sighed. "You'll be gambling with your pilots' lives."

    "We’re flying headfirst into life-threatening danger either way, Ma’am, that's part of the oath we took to the Imperatrix. Besides, what if that Stone Coat has some Fire Talkers to help her or they pull out some other trick and manage to shoot down the Torpedoes?" I shrugged, "I'd much rather my girls arrive while we still had friends to lean on, than after we’d already burned the last card in our hand."

    Quirinus pondered for a moment. "Do it. But tell your girls they must drop back if their systems start to overload."

    "Confirm, Tribune." I clicked the channel off and exhaled a heavy breath. And went back to the Flight Leader channel and added GreyDawn. I wanted my Signifier to provide a sanity check. "You've all seen the disaster unfolding. Our firepower is urgently required. Which means we'll be bending the rules, the Tribune has authorized this."

    "We're pushing Zephyr beyond redline then?" Visha asked.

    "My remaining pilots' suits are to spec," Lucia offered.

    I took a moment to weigh the risks and, more importantly, to be seen weighing the risks. I’d already thought the matter over well beforehand, it was a foregone conclusion in my mind, no matter how distasteful. However, showing such clear consideration on the part of officers conveyed the message that their soldiers’ welfare was of great concern, boosting morale at the expense of a few seconds.

    That wasn’t to say that the dangers were at all imaginary. The extra fuel burn, increased stress on power distribution networks, greater wear to propulsion enchantments, and near certainty of Centurion Gibbs yelling at me when this was all over were all notable downsides. Ritual Plate models had a max thrust rating for a very good reason. However, that was the governed “max rating” that MuArc Amalgamated included as a way of maximizing a suit’s lifespan and minimizing the odds of malfunction. It was the highest thrust the manufacturer was confident the suit could do safely under most conditions, but it also meant there was a little bit of a margin for someone willing to push the envelope if it meant wearing out their suit faster or risking an arcane or mechanical failure.

    And I did have every confidence in the skills of the Ritualista in my command when it came to handling the increased wear and tear.

    "We can go fifteen percent over, but only until we cross into the Institute's airspace. That shouldn't be too long to stress our systems or have us go bingo on fuel, while leaving us plenty of time to throttle back and let our suits cool off," I said, concluding that the exchange of extra wear for increased speed would be worth it. Adding in all the increased velocity relative to our current rate we'd arrive in about three-quarters of the time. "Besides, by the time we get that close we'll be worrying about firing solutions."

    "The Squadron can just go through a cloud bank. That'll be plenty cold," VioletBlood joked. Or at least I hoped my baroness was joking. Not that we would have a choice...

    Shoving my curiosity aside, I turned back to the topic at hand. "Clouds aside, I want all of you to make it very clear to your pilots that they are ordered to cut back power immediately if their systems or spirits can't handle the extra strain. I swear by DarkStar that if anyone gets themselves killed thanks to an overclocking failure, I will personally drag their souls from the afterlife and bind them to heat my coffee pot."

    "Our Veils should be powered off," GreyDawn added after a beat's pause. "Pushing our power systems to that level will be enough of a strain."

    "Do it," I agreed, confirming the order. It was a sensible call; right now, with us at the nominal maximum speed, our Veils were at a low setting that did provide some chromatic camouflage. Once we overclocked, that camouflage would cease to provide any real utility. "That's why I want time to get them rekindled once we arrive." I looked over the Squadron status indicators on my display. "By my read everyone's suits can handle this; does anyone know otherwise?"

    After this stunt, all our suits would need a full examination and testing to recertify our power systems. In addition to earning Gibbs's ire, each suit would likely require replacing dozens of components, their fragile internals weakened by the power they were forced to conduct.

    I waited until all three of my Flight Leaders gave their assent. I felt a small pang of the isolation of command as I heard them sound off one by one, but I pushed it away; practicality far outweighed sentimentality in warfare, and if my Primus Centurions knew their pilots and the condition of their suits better than I did, that was simply part of their organizational purpose. The resulting distance was the unavoidable price of being an officer.

    "Good," I said, acknowledging the confirmation. "Go and pass the orders to the girls with my compliments."

    In many ways, an RP pilot was much like her Zephyr, most critically in how both hungered endlessly for speed. Even my own spirits burbled with excitement. It was not since the sky over Narvos two years ago that I had pushed my suit this hard in combat. Though there were times over the Crocelli jungles that came close, dipping above the officially rated power was a handy trick, but one that a pilot could only do so often before the odds caught up to her.

    And it was due to my spirit's influence that I flicked the safeties and let my Zephyr loose. The distant roar of the thrust that had long since faded into the background surged again as my Zephyr all but howled with glee. I pressed yet further into the cushioning of the suit, feeling the strain across every inch of my body as the Polyxo shot past the redline and raced ahead of the formation.

    I was sure Visha would chastise me for my showboating, and GreyDawn might even have a quiet word in private, but for the moment, I luxuriated in the thrill of acceleration. To my Squadron's credit, they did not lollygag about in shock but instead copied and rocketed to catch-up.

    Knowing it would not be long before Flight Ops chimed in my ear to demand an explanation, I preemptively called in to make my order to exceed the redline on my squadron’s suits official. A Volantes Tribune's approval would cover many sins and dropping Quirinus’s name was more than enough to smother any complaints. Besides, if there ever was a time to profligately burn fuel and risk our suits, it would be in responding to an emergency just like this.

    It did not take long for the excitement to wane and slowly be replaced by mounting dread as every instrument tasked with monitoring the arcane energies flowing through me slowly climbed higher and higher over the listed do not exceed values, some of the dials had literal red lines which the indicator needles had moved past. I did have to give MuArc credit: Other than the tooth-rattling vibrations, a fluttering from my Zephyr that bedeviled the auto-pilot, the ward projectors frizzing once we entered the SilverHold summoned storm clouds, and a slowly growing number of alerts in my power system, my Polyxo held up magnificently.

    Which is to say it entirely failed to detonate under the pressure of the overclocked forces throbbing through its conduits.

    The strain on my wings grew to a dull ache as the spells and my Zephyr fought to keep them from being ripped off. If not for those spirits shaping the airflow around me, the drag would have torn my suit and body apart. The slipstream also started to chill my tail beyond the capacity of the suit’s heating elements, an increasingly distracting detail. I could feel the growing toll it was taking on me, body, mind and spirits, and the discomfort was starting to bleed into genuine pain.

    "Aren't you all thankful for the endurance training now?" I transmitted to the rest of my Squadron, momentarily distracting myself from the misery blooming within me.

    They gave pained laughs, but each one of them was keeping up.

    "Keep it up and the drinks will be on me when we get back to the Tarantula Hawk!" I encouraged while scanning the abbreviated status alerts. Our suits were not in great shape, but neither was the situation truly bad. There was a variety of small warnings, but there was nothing that made me order anyone to drop out. Instead, all ten of us continued our profligate fuel-burn.

    On top of considering my own survival, and on top of keeping an eye on the Elenese armored-assault, dread over what I was missing began to fill me. The forces defending the Institute had assembled and launched a strong counter-offensive, but it was incomplete, lacking… A diversion?

    Where was the Elenese air power? Surely we couldn’t have taken it all out in our initial assault. If any of their air-assets had survived the attack on Air Station Dola Gorod, this was the moment they would appear, ready to exploit the localized disputed air control.

    Perhaps I was being needlessly pessimistic; perhaps we truly had managed to take out all of the Elenese planes and Ritual Plate… But no, not even my internal optimistic countess could find it in herself to truly believe that much. House Elena had prepared well in advance for hostile actions and had exhibited an unflinching willingness to stand in defense of the Institute. Whoever was commanding them wouldn’t have been so foolish as to keep every air asset tucked away into the same hangers. There had to be some other reason to explain the delay. That they were playing for time before Elenese Fleet assets arrived was a nightmare scenario.

    I sipped some water and ordered my Squadron to hydrate and keep a close eye on their fuel burn and aetheric pressure gauges. A sudden surge in burn, above the already high rates, or a spike in pressure in the fuel or munitions flasks would be signs to immediately drop speed.

    "Flight Ops, Flight Ops, this is Diamond Actual," I transmitted.

    "Diamond you are..." the dispatcher paused, seeming a bit distracted. "Ah yes, that explains your velocity."

    "Correct, Flight Ops. Requesting firing vectors for my Strike-Suits."

    "You're still well outside of Lance Range and haven't even entered the Institute's air space."

    "Given our velocity is closer to twice the speed of sound than not, I want to ensure we are lined up on the correct heading and get this on the first pass. I am reading the enemy anti-air battery at the following location." I managed to keep my voice controlled as I read off the coordinates.

    "That is correct Diamond Actual, but the Strix has already launched a quartet of Georgius Light Torpedoes," she explained, seeming a bit harried. My anxiety spiked, a nervous dispatcher was a bad sign.

    Like the Hordwulf, the Georgius was another supersonic member of the Konoe Light Torpedo family. Unlike the Hordwulf, the Georgius did not have submunitions; instead, its warhead was a single hundred and twenty pound charge. The Georgius was intended to be used against heavily-warded targets that were too large or too well-protected for normal submunitions, but too small to be worth a Fujiwara Heavy Torpedo-sized ship-killer missile. Under normal cases, a Georgius would be overkill against a target the size of a Loew, but with a Stone Coat increasing their warding efficiency, I could see the logic.

    "Ah, then if all goes well, I'll need to be given the data feed on the survivors of that bombardment or secondary locations. There are plenty of enemy targets worthy of DarkStar's wrath."

    There was another pause. "Understood, Diamond Actual, transferring targeting data to you."

    I blinked as my display updated. The current assignments straight from the Strix's fire control team were an admittedly passable bombardment pattern. The defenders had dispersed pairs of Loews fairly far apart, which indicated a strong Stone Coat and was a defense against an attack just like this. That Flight Ops was only sending four Georgius Torpedoes indicated that they were worried about running low. Still, they had aimed the missiles where they could do the most good and should be able to cripple the battery's strength which would allow for a follow-up force such as that slower group of Light Torpedoes they had launched to mop them up or strike at the other golems.

    "I see the targeting locations, Flight Ops. I'm sending you my Squadron's planned strike vectors," I explained after modifying the flight-paths a bit. It would be nice to take out more of the Elenese armor fighting for control of Building 37, but there were two Squadrons of Sarpedona who could do as much, once that anti-air battery was destroyed.

    "We have your vectors, Diamond, and intercept times," the dispatcher said with a bit of renewed confidence. "Vectors confirmed. We are giving you the live telemetry on the Georgius strike and the follow-up bombardment."

    "Will Maiden Two be available?" I asked.

    "Maiden Two is running low on ward charges," said the dispatcher, before trailing off for a moment, hissing through her teeth, before adding that, "Maiden One has been rotated in to relieve them."

    "Thank you. Diamond Actual, out." I swapped back to my Flight Leaders' channel and walked them through the updated plan.

    "Understood," Lucia promised with a slight chatter clipping her words. "We'll clear the path for you."

    "Anything Maiden One misses," I assured.

    "Of course. And we're not easing off on the thrust?"

    "No," I said, explaining that, "even if the Torpedoes hit, I want to give the enemy as little react time as possible."

    "Even if?" VioletBlood asked, catching the caveat.

    "Have any of you fought a Stone Coat?" I asked, knowing the answer.

    "No but we have been briefed..." VioletBlood growled. "You think they're hiding their true capabilities? That would just be like those false-faced betrayers."

    "I'm saying that there wasn’t even supposed to be one here at all," I replied levelly. "Who knows what other tricks they have lying in the shadows?"

    "The Stone Coats are one of House Elena's most secretive Arcane Sisterhoods," Visha noted.

    "See, they are secretive by Elenese standards. I want you to be ready." I glanced over the color-coded indicators of my status board. "How are your pilots taking this?"

    "Oh, they're thrilled with the extra speed," Lucia replied.

    "They're puffed up with unearned noble pride," VioletBlood grumbled.

    There might have been some light chuckling at that.

    "Keep an eye on them, unless you want to help me explain to the Senior Senator of Belum how we let her daughter blow herself up."

    "Well, mine are worried about their Ritualista yelling at them afterwards," Visha said.

    There was some more tension easing laughter at that.

    "Good," I said, relieved that morale in the leadership cohort at least remained high. "Now go brief your pilots and check on their suit status; we're two-thirds through this and will be able to drop below the redline soon enough."

    Letting my Flight Leaders go about my work, I checked back in on the overall tactical picture. The Elenese armored assault had finally bogged down, and they had lost a couple more golems.

    The Baalshem, for all its weapon, armor, and warding, was still vulnerable to enough concentrated firepower. Unfortunately, as our Sarpedona were limited to providing fire support in a way that was not suicidal, that left the Elenese ground forces a freer hand. As a fast, implacable combat walker the Baalshem was designed as a breakthrough asset; one that was ultimately expendable. Worse, the Elenese commandos practically had the Legionary ground team by their tunic belts and were fighting over the various support structures surrounding Building 37.

    If not for the anti-air battery, our Sarpedona could have closed in to provide some extra close fire support, but that was impossible with the Stone Coat on the field. One upside was that with the Stone Coat busy keeping her Loews operational and the Sightless Specters seemingly driven off by Lares and his boys, the ground team was facing only Sixth River Detachment commandos.

    Said commandos were still supported by armor. Even with that advantage though, they were fighting relatively conservatively. This could indicate they had sustained heavy losses in our initial assaults and that they were husbanding their resources. Alternatively, perhaps they were simply pinning our forces to buy time for reinforcements.

    Which was why I was more than fine to let the fleet try and bombard the anti-air battery. If it worked, it would free my Squadron to take out the rest of the defender's heavy assets. If it worked.

    As the four Light Torpedoes began to approach their targets, I switched over to the channel used by the Strix's Telum officers.

    "Flight Ops. Flight Ops. Torpedo Package Seven is accelerating on terminal sprint. Systems are solid, targets are locked in, veils are up. Package Eight is in the air," the Torpedo wrangler said in a crisp, familiar counter-tenor.

    "Confirm," the Flight Ops dispatcher replied. "We have you on-

    "Missile launch! Missile Launch!" another dispatcher cut in. "Kresniks are in the air. All Loew platforms are launching."

    "Torpedoes Evading! I don't think they've got our heading yet."

    "Active Scrying sweep! Lock down that location! Send something to hit that emitter!" the second dispatcher cried.

    "Kresnik missiles adjusting course," the missileer stated, her voice tight. "Torpedoes evading. Miss. Miss. First group overshot the torpedoes!"

    "We've got another sweep! New location. Send Fourth Squadron, at least knock out that Scrying platform," Flight Ops cried.

    "Oh, Hallowed Lady..." the missileer gasped. "Second and third missile groups have bracketed our Torpedoes. Intercept! Intercept! Intercept!

    The channel went silent for a moment.

    "Final Gregorius is headed in. Course correcting... correcting. Evading... We have Detonation!"

    "What is your assessment, Telum Prefect Calmius?" Flight Ops asked.

    "Collating feed. We have a hit! Single. One Loew destroyed. Its partner is intact but their ward emitters seem damaged," the Prefect Centurion stated.

    Being finally close enough to watch with my own suit's Gorgon Rig, I felt my blood pressure spike. I felt a slight apprehension. I knew this Centurion; we had both been tutored by the same prissy etiquette and elocution instructor at the capital last year.

    "Flight Ops, this is Diamond Actual. Our feed confirms. One, repeat, one platform destroyed."

    Sometimes, I loathed being right. I could at least take some solace in the fact that my worst case scenario hadn’t come to pass; as far as I could tell, there weren't any Fire Talkers helping this Stone Coat. That was something, I supposed. We all knew a Stone Coat could enhance the performance and capabilities of a direct combat golem, including their wards. Using that ability to protect anti-air platforms was an unpleasant trick, but not entirely unexpected.

    That they could apparently also enhance the guidance of their anti-missile counter fire was a new and unpleasant surprise. I did not know if the Stone Coat was directly guiding the missiles or merely improving their native interception capabilities. Perhaps those extra scrying pulses were her doing. Personally, I doubted that was the case. So far, the Stone Coat had sensibly kept her head down, so her throwing up such a large arcane flag would be a major break from her operating style to date.

    Still, as unpleasant as this development was, there were counters. Even with magical help, that barrage had still cost those Loews a lot of their stockpiled missiles, and they had still managed to only intercept three out of the four Light Torpedoes launched. A massed barrage would get several more through, or maybe a Fujiwara Heavy Torpedo with more countermeasures could obliterate the area, though for redundancy multiple would have to be fired.

    The only problem with these supposed "counters" was that none of them were actual solutions for us. Either option would almost certainly require more munitions than the Corvettes had on hand, especially if they wanted to retain anything for fleet defense. This was the cost of CSR's hubris in trying to run such a risky operation with relatively small Fleet assets. The margin for error was almost nonexistent, and we had just about hit that limit.

    I saw the flashing status light and the slowing suit on my display just as VioletBlood called. "Diamond Actual, Flight Two Actual here. Centurion RoseTalon is throttling back," she stated all business.

    "Confirm. Does she have to turn back?"

    "Her Plate's stabilizers are having an overheat issue; she reported it before it got too bad," VioletBlood explained, a bit of wonder at her rookie's prudence clearly audible in her voice. “I'll monitor her status in case it doesn't stabilize once she's no longer overloading."

    "Good work, keep me up to date."

    "Understood," VioletBlood said with pride. "Flight Two Out."

    I switched channels. "Flight Ops, Diamond Squadron is still on approach; we are down to five Strike-RP."

    "Ah," the dispatcher coughed. "Good. I'll see about routing some Harmonia to run interference for you after they refuel and rearm."

    I doubted they would all be available. Flight Ops would only indulge in exposing their Combat Air Patrol for so long. Also left unspoken was that while anti-air missiles could not intercept a Lance's massive arcane energy beam, those missiles could take out Ritual Plate. Perhaps the Stone Coat had a limited capability to enhance her golems, but I was loath to put my hopes on the theoretical limitations of the enemy.

    "Appreciate it," I stated, forcing my tone into the easy, confident Imperial Heroine. "I will hold you to Maiden One's help. I also require one other thing."

    "Yes, Diamond Actual?"

    Taking in the map, I ran a couple of calculations and nodded to myself. "Telum Prefect Centurion Landgrave Camilus, I'll need you to delay that Torpedo Package Eight and synchronize it to my Squadron," I added, mustering all my noble hauteur.

    +++++

    Trailing contrails of melting hail, Third Squadron of the 78th Infantry Legion's Epsilon Demi-Wing slashed down into the airspace of the Onyx Institute. On my order, the unit began to throttle down, holding our formation as we gave our Zephyrs a moment to catch their second winds.

    The storm also seemed, if anything, a bit lower in intensity now that we had arrived. With our own instruments reading the temperature and pressure, things seemed marginally improved. Either the SilverHold had limitations that the defenders were not willing to push, or the Lady Legate and her Tempestarii were finally able to counter the weather magic.

    Alas, we couldn't stay on the same heading, not with wakes that practically lit up the storming night sky as we cut through the heavy clouds on howling Zephyr. As one, ten Polyxo kindled our Veils and shifted into a sharp turn. It cost time, speed, and distance, but the evasive actions were vital.

    I would not have my Squadron approaching on such a predictable, obvious, direct line attack vector. Such would be little better than flying my girls straight into the enemy guns. Diving and bleeding altitude made up some of it, and we still had much of the extra speed from our mad-dash to the North.

    "Welcome to the Institute, Diamond Squadron," Quirinus transmitted.

    "Apologies for the delay, Tribune. We had to help a few lost sailors find their way!" I said, my reply brimming with false cheer as my suit's environmental systems finally had a chance to stabilize the internal temperature. Between the weather, the lack of Veils, and the excess thrust, the last part of the dash had been marked by hellish temperature swings.

    "Well, now's your chance to make up for lost time. Since everyone is here. First Squadron?"

    "Aye, First is in position," Caenis said, politely omitting the Flight she had set aside to baby-sit the luckless VTOLs that were patrolling out to the east. Her Harmonias would be the beaters to try and spook the air defense battery so they would flush their missiles. They had been conducting harassing sorties that, while dangerous, had kept the Loew golems and the Stone Coat mistress on their toes. It wasn't much, but in times like these, every little bit helped.

    "Maiden One?"

    "We shall protect," came the reply in the cultured tones of Lady Primus GoldLeaf, one of the Svalinna pilots.

    "Second Squadron?" Quirinus inquired.

    "Yeah, we're back and full to the brim," JadeTalon confirmed. Her Squadron had been able to slip out and managed to get to Desert Strix before they fully ran out of fuel or munitions. I was almost jealous; the Strix was close enough to the Institute that their time spent on that evolution was fairly low. My Squadron, meanwhile, had been forced to refuel over the sea and then immediately fly hundreds of miles up north to be present and accounted for in the next operational phase. Their better warded suits would be the Wall of the formation, breaking the enemy’s wards with their heavier Pilum projects in a torrent of arcane fire. Unfortunately, for all that firepower and shielding they weren’t quite so quick on their wings, and the reduced high-speed agility could increase their odds of further losses.

    "Third Squadron?"

    "Our suits are a bit worn and low on fuel, but we've got five Polyxo Strike suits and four more to guard us in," I stated with more certainty than I felt. Even with our suits having a bit of time to recover, our systems had taken some damage, including our ward projectors not being at their full strength.

    "Fourth?"

    "We'll keep the Hoof Sloggers alive," Fabia promised grimly, as if that was all they could do. A glance at the display showed the truth of it. The green Legionary Fliers of the Fourth Squadron had proven their worth by managing to keep the Elenese armored forces at bay, despite having to, in turn, keep their distance from the enhanced anti-air assets. Yet, at the same time, they were being pushed to their limit just managing that much against fierce resistance.

    "Telum Centurion Camilus?"

    "Four Dagda Light Torpedoes are moving in; approach has been adjusted to account for simultaneous arrival in the target area," the missileer announced in his resonant voice. "Telemetry is solid and we are fed good scrying data."

    Each Dagda carried a trio of Plumbata anti-armor submunitions. Normally that would be more than enough to penetrate a Loew's wards, but with the Stone Coat lurking and the Dagda’s slower engines, those munitions used on their own would just be wasted. The solution we’d come to, however blunt, was to use more firepower, if more coordinated this time. With all these attack vectors combined at once, we had a solid chance to pry open a crack for the guided munitions to lever the Institute’s anti-air shell wide open.

    "Flight Ops, all elements are ready," Quirinus said.

    "Confirm, Epsilon Actual," the dispatcher acknowledged dispassionately. "Commence attack run."

    "You heard the lady, Epsilon Wing. Execute. Execute. Execute."

    Sensing the intensifying focus, my air spirits rallied. Lucia's Flight Three accelerated ahead of us and dropped a bit lower in a guarding position to Visha and VioletBlood's abbreviated Flights. The Lantian Primus, and her Flight, would run interception on anything that slipped past Maiden One.

    The simple pleasure my Zephyr felt when flying with purpose helped raise my own spirits. It was heartening to see the flexibility and discipline of Legionary Fliers with, Fleet support in reaction to enemy action.

    However, despite relishing the sight of dozens of pilots moving in sync with the demands of an intricate plan, I remained burdened with a single remaining concern. Namely, that this was yet another excellent opportunity for Elenese air assets to appear and absolutely wreck our lovely, oh-so-delicate scheme. If things went according to our plan, it would be about their last opportunity to push us back. If they realized that, and they were half as competent as I thought they were, that meant they had every reason to commit all their reserves to this critical moment.

    The map display blurred and refocused, zooming to the mere extent of the Institute's expansive grounds. There, represented with glowing icons, four Ritual Plate formations raced into the teeth of the enemy air-defense battery. Alone and forlorn, Lavish's suit lagged behind the rest of my Squadron. Her suit’s status was currently functional; the green-horn Pilot would catch up to us, but not before this attack run.

    Glancing at the map, I could see the defensive battle the Legionaries were waging against the Sixth River Detachment and their armored support across the battered structures around Building 37. From the readouts, the Broadcast Recon team and our Scout Auxilia were putting the distraction the battle provided to good use. Brief reports and flickers across the tactical display sketched the shadow-war that danced and wove around the bonfire of the intense fighting at Building 37 as the Auxilia used their superior stealth and mobility to harass the Elenese commandos and even score the occasional mobility kill on the golems.

    Of the air components, first to arrive were Caenis and JadeTalon's First and Second Squadrons. The Loews shifted on their thick legs and a brilliant cloud of Kresnik missiles rose into the air on burning motors.

    As the air filled with munitions, the Harmonia shifted and, along with Maiden One, started thinning out Kresniks from the sky. With the guidance provided by the Stone Coat, those missiles were just as much of a threat to my Squadron as any other.

    "Increase forward wards, veil up and start evading," I transmitted. "Flight Three, clear the road. Flights One and Two, charge Lances." The heavy precipitation was making a hash out of our scrying intake, but thankfully the Occultia flying overwatch helped reduce the interference. Reconnaissance and battlefield intelligence were major force multipliers, and losing either pillar entirely at this crucial moment would be disastrous.

    "Dagda are on final approach," Telum Prefect Camilus stated. "Kresniks are altering course. The Stone Coat knows something is up."

    "Intercepting," Primus Centurion GoldLeaf, lead pilot of Maiden On, chimed in.

    "Thank you. Submunition separation in. Three... two... one! Good separation!" The missileer's satisfaction was justified, as the sky went from having four Light Torpedoes to crowding with a dozen Plumbata anti-armor penetrators.

    "Battery launching... missiles...?" Camilus's confusion was also justified, as for a moment the enemy ground-to-air fire seemed... uncertain. Then she yelled, "The battery is splitting their missiles in three parts!"

    "Highlighted Kresniks vectoring in our direction," Lucia stated, implacably calm. "Intercepting." Ballista projected arcane energy picking off the missiles that started to get close. The four Polyxo were making good work of it, but the numbers started to tell.

    I set my teeth as I checked the display. What did the Stone Coat fear more? A dozen air-to-ground anti-armor missiles or half a dozen Strike RP?

    "Confirm targets," VioletBlood ordered her pilots. "I will personally flog any one of you who strays and leaves one of those hard-shells intact."

    "Plumbata in terminal targeting," Telum Prefect Camilus stated. "Enemy missiles are intercepting."

    Smiling, I chuckled. It was a natural reaction to focus on the nearer, more immediate threat, and right now anti-armor rockets were closer. "Maiden One?"

    "We are crossing your path Diamond. Be ready and keep your wards up," the Svalinna pilot stated.

    Light filled the night sky as, once again, the Svalinna pilot and her wingwoman activated their potentia ward projectors and plowed through dozens of the Kresnik missiles.

    "Adriana, mind your sector!" Lucia ordered as Melisande got ahead of the others. It looked like a bout of target fixation as she went off, chasing missiles to intercept. A group of Kresniks that had gotten past Maiden One bracketed the pilot and blew up.

    Unfortunately, I had to delegate that for the moment. Though Melisande's continued screaming and forward velocity likely meant she was still alive. "Targets will be in range in Three. Two. One! Weapons Free. Weapons Free!" I ordered.

    There was no time to get fixed identification from our own Gorgon Rigs, which was all the more reason our heading took us parallel to the Legionary ground team so that any Lance fire that fell short or went long wouldn't hit friendlies.

    A dozen lances shot out. Even with most of the Loews only getting a single beam, it was still gross overkill. The wards flared and for an instant, dread filled the pit of my stomach. A few missiles vectored to intercept, but the Kresniks simply blew apart when they hit the beams of evocative energy.

    But the BlackSkyvian Evocation Lances turned out to be stronger than some Stone Coat's will. The massive beams of bright arcane energy shot out and gutted a wide frontage. It was one thing to disperse your forces to avoid conventional counter-battery fire, it was another when dealing with ship-killer grade munitions. The ground lit up with massive explosions, and for a moment, the hail east of Building 37 ceased.

    When it resumed, the storm seemed to be sullen and sapped. I had seen enough combat climatology to know that this was Tempestarii taking advantage of a sudden shift in air pressure to get their metaphysical claws dug in deeper.

    "Hits confirmed!" the Telum Landgrave cheered. "Directing Plumbata submunitions to anything still moving."

    "Clearing remaining Kresniks," Maiden One transmitted.

    And then my Squadron shot past the burning wreckage of the anti-aircraft battery, my heart pounding in my chest. "That's a clean sweep, girls. Move to Rally Point Two. Status check?"

    "Adriana has lost a hand," Lucia said on the command channel, unstated was that her weakened wards would have contributed to said appendage's loss.

    I kept in the string of obscenities I wanted to blurt out. Third Flight was having bad luck tonight, though Second Flight was a close runner up. At least Lavish had nearly arrived, which softened the blow somewhat. "Understood. Figure out how critical the situation is, get an honest appraisal. If needs be, order her back to the nearest airship, but..."

    I left unspoken that we were already down two pilots, three including Lavish's damaged suit. We were edging to the point where each loss would build on the preceding, the point when a Squadron ceased existing as a collection of distinct tactical elements.

    "Confirm," Lucia said, with a bit of trepidation, as our Squadron bled off some speed to wheel around and rendezvous with Second Squadron.

    JadeTalon's mob was moving to intercept Fabia's Fourth Squadron, and between the two Sarpedona Squadrons were the remaining Baalshem walkers and Vilna tanks. And without their enhanced anti-air protection, the golems were about to face the full wrath of upset Legionary Fliers.

    "Good work Diamond Squadron," Quirinus said. "Fabia, Julia don't hesitate to use the Third to take out any hard points. We're on the clock and I want these golems destroyed. After that-"

    "HFV Tamora has detected Elenese air assets!" Flight Ops called on the override channel as a collection of new returns appeared on our scrying input. I only had the vaguest ideas where the smallest of our Fleet assets was lurking, but doubtless, that scout airship was hiding somewhere and quietly watching our northern flank.

    "Ah," Quirinus sighed. "Two squadrons of Marzanna RP and a flight of Kupala light bombers. Could be worse."

    That all our pre-mission recon had missed these bolt-holes indicated they must have been dug out weeks ago and left untouched until tonight. Which, given the ground assets they’d hid on the Institute's grounds, was not too hard to believe. Especially since, while costly, it was not too hard to hide some extra Ritual Plate suits.

    "I wonder what their delay was," Prefect Caenis mused, absurdly calm for the circumstances.

    "We did just destroy their airbase," I answered, eyes dancing over the crowded tac board. "I imagine it would be hard to coordinate a response."

    I had my own questions about the timing, but this was likely the best that Elena had managed to scrape together. The distances between the Institute and their supporting elements worked against both us and the enemy.

    "Caenis, I want you to take First Squadron, Maiden One and one of the Fleet Squadrons and intercept this force," Quirinus ordered. "Tauria, you continue to help the other Squadrons, I'd bet a Legate's baton that our Stone Coat friend survived and that means those cobble-heads and their tank friends are about to get a lot tougher."

    "Confirm, Tribune," I replied before going to my Flight Leader channel. "Okay girls, we've taken out the anti-air threat and now can help the hoof-sloggers get that damn SilverHold out of here."

    "And once Legion Fliers are cleaning up Fleet Pilot's slipshod work," VioletBlood grumbled.

    "Baroness!" I chided.

    "Hmm... She does have a point," Lucia not-so reluctantly admitted. "Yes, the earlier fleet strikes destroyed that Elenese air base or at least much of the facilities and hardware there. However, it’s clear to see that the pilots and their ground crew survived. The job’s only half-done."

    "And for this delayed response, it must have taken them time to relocate to their secondary, distributed launch locations," Visha added. "Hopefully this is all they've managed to scrape together."

    "If it wasn't, they would have waited and launched a single strike against us," VioletBlood countered, then her channel went momentarily silent. "Ah... good news, Countess! Centurion RoseTalon has caught up and is in formation."

    "That is good news! But about that strike, let's not get too optimistic," I cautioned. The attack our Harmonia Squadrons were racing off to blunt should account for all of the Air Station's Marzanna RP and most of their Kupala missile bombers, but what if our estimates were wrong? Ritual Plate's small footprint yielded many advantages, including manifold tactics for concealing a suit’s true strength.

    Glancing at the map, I saw that the poor VTOLs who had been caught in the sky when this mess had started were now moving back towards us. One moved with a speed and purpose that made it obvious without even looking at its icons to confirm that it had been drafted into a medivac pickup run. It was a bit reassuring that, shoe-string as this entire operation was, the Lady Legate had still set aside some VTOLs for critical tasks like evacuating the wounded and search and rescue. To do otherwise would have been a betrayal to every hoof-slogger down there.

    "Look alive Flight Leaders, it looks like we've got some dropships coming in for a landing."

    "We're burning the candle at both ends," Visha stated rather bluntly. Which, I suppose, was a tactful way to mention that our casualties were starting to mount. "Our Fleet assets are also exposed. There's hardly any CAP watching the airships."

    "Agreed. The Brass Horns are pushing us to finish up, recover some lost time, get the SilverHold, and get out of here," I gave a slight chuckle. "Though Flight Ops may have cleaned up those orders."

    "Diamond Actual," my comms squawked, "this is HarrowFang Actual: I've got a golem I want you to kill for me."

    "Eager to help," I transmitted in reply as the coordinates were updated.

    The last two of the Baalshem were trying to back their way toward Building 37, attempting to consolidate their position. Despite the rime of ice on the ground, the pair moved with a surprising nimbleness for twenty-ton war machines. The ice was far from the only factor complicating their footing; the Elenese forces were firmly pinned between the bulk of Building 37 to one side, and the harrowed terrain that had been ravaged by over a dozen Lance strikes on the other. Brutalized buildings that were little more than shattered concrete foundations and the twisted stumps of skeletal steel frames had their insides scattered into flaming wreckage. The remains of the Loew battery's munitions and alchemical fuels had been scattered, and what had not gone up with the initial strikes were strewn about feeding into a massed conflagration. An entire wooded grove had been flattened to matchsticks.

    In the desolate no-man's land there was cover, of a sort, but nothing for anything larger than infantry. Not that the Sixth River Detachment were trying to flee. They might have lost their anti-air battery, but they still had some armored elements. And while the Baalshem's shoulder mounts had some capacity to fire in a counter RP role, it was very much a secondary purpose.

    Much of the terrain had also been covered in debris, forming an impassable scree that was scattered with boulder-sized concrete chunks. A few of the Vilna golems had been knocked to their side or gotten stuck in the newly formed obstacles. Even golems getting themselves unstuck were opportunistically targeted by Second Squadron. In the shock of the anti-air collapse, the Elenese armor force and defensive cordon were whittled down.

    "This is a bit much for half a dozen Strike-suits," Fabia said with a mock apology. "But both the Tribune and the Lady Legate are sick of seeing armored golems in their Institute."

    “Their Institute”? I nearly rolled my eyes at the sheer chutzpah of the comment. Talk about counting your chickens…especially when they aren’t the ones bleeding for it. Well… hopefully they’re not doing some foolhardy thing like leading from the front. But I do have my concerns, what with JadeJavelin helping our weather mages.

    "Confirm. Mind introducing my Flight Leaders through with the Centurions on the ground?" I asked. When in doubt, Sarpedona pilots had the best rapport with ground elements.

    "I can do that," the gruff Squadron Commander said approvingly.

    Having more capacity to move on mixed terrain, the Baalshem fared somewhat better. One even managed to almost get back up after being knocked onto its back, but not before being cored by Pilum fire. All those luckless reinforcements, however, were not what concerned Fabia.

    Instead, the two golems worrying her had already closed with Building 37 and were busy putting their heavier firepower to good use. Dragging a lamed left foot, one lugged a heavy mortar which would have made life miserable and short for the Legionaries, save for a somewhat low rate of fire, maybe due to a depleting magazine. Honestly, that cobble-head seemed to be more interested in using its arm-mounted rotary cannons to keep the Elenese commandos from being flanked. I had seen more wasteful methods of achieving suppressive fire, but not many.

    Its partner was a slightly more heavily armored Baalshem that bore the twisted wreckage of a back-mounted Kresnik launcher cell that still hung from its left shoulder pylon by a single warped bracket and which flopped with every thudding step. I suppose one of the explosive bolts failed due to all the hail. Instead of a mortar, its heavy weapon mount was a crystalline-cored anti-armor projector.

    "Visha, VioletBlood we've got another run. Lucia, watch our backs; the threat level for this run is lower, but Elena has proved that they've still got airborne assets in this fight," I said, glancing at the map icons showing First Squadron and the Fleet Harmonia racing to intercept those Marzanna RP and their missile bomber support.

    My subordinates keyed their acknowledgment. "We're cutting it pretty close," Visha noted.

    "That Stone Coat knows we won't bomb Building 37 or our own troops, so she's pressing in close," I explained. "She's also smart. She survived that lance strike by not making herself a target and instead puppeteering those golems from someplace protected."

    "Meanwhile, the cobble-heads can use anti-tank guns against our Legionaries," Lucia growled.

    She was correct; that Baalshem's heavy evocation projector would have been a devastating weapon if we had landed any armor. That wasn’t to say that the weapon didn't cleave through any poor hoof-slogger who got caught in it, but compared to the rotary cannons in each arm that could do the job just as well, it was even more of a waste. Like using a warhammer to kill an ant. At least the mortar its partner had was an indirect fire tool.

    With wards that burned with a greasy iridescence, both golems were standing up to a fair degree of Pilum fire. Clearly, the Stone Coat had survived. And unfortunately, they were rather close to both the SilverHold and the Legionary ground teams.

    The few Marius Mules that had survived were still lobbing the occasional Vel Missile; though instead of going after the Elenese armored targets they were being used in an anti-personnel role. Between them, the grenadiers, and the anti-infantry Falx fire from the Sarpedona, the Elenese infantry were not in the best of situations even with their armored support. There was also a renewed attack on Building 37 itself by the combat mages and Lares and his team, who were using their heavier weapons in an attempt to assault a side entrance to the fortified structure.

    "The key part will be the angle of attack," I stated as I called out courses of fire. "The steeper we fire down, the less overshoot there will be, but the V formed between our forces and Building 37 will determine our attack vector-"

    And then, an alert came in on the override channel. "This is Flight Ops to all available Ritual Plate."

    My stomach tensed as the map updated.

    "Occultia elements have detected four Zoyra heavy fighters taking off. They are rendezvousing with a Yarla recon bird. There is an unconfirmed but high probability they are supported by a Squadron of Volos high-veiled air-superiority suits," the dispatcher said, her voice utterly flat.

    I barely managed not to swear as I took in the map. The Zoyra had taken off from hidden one-plane hangars that were adjacent to roads that could act as improvised rough runways. They were far to the south of the Elenese air station, which put them much closer to the Institute. Perhaps the delays were deliberate to try and draw away our force. Or maybe the Elenese were having trouble coordinating simultaneous counter-assaults while their bases were being blown up. Maybe it took them longer than expected to get to those hangars and warm up those planes.

    Elena's newest air-superiority RP, the Volos, was derived from the Marzana, so it was even possible that some recon boffin had confused the suits captured by aerial imagery, maybe they were kept completely hidden as an ace-in-the hole, or maybe they just arrived today.

    I couldn’t know, and it didn’t matter, not now. Not when some of the most dangerous Elenese predators of the skies had taken wing, and my girls were practically exposed to their fangs.

    I swore through my teeth, but the map refused to change. How many air assets had Elena hidden here? We were exposed. Even if they didn't have their own airborne threat, First Squadron was out of position to intercept, and if we withdrew, we’d leave the Institute just as exposed as if we did nothing. Meanwhile, there were a couple of Flights of Fleet Harmonia and the Svalinna Flight, but they were all that stood between the enemy and our venerable legionaries or airships.

    "VioletBlood. It's just going to be your Flight doing fire-support." I ordered. "Try to be precise."

    "Confirm, I have the coordinates," the baroness replied. "Good hunting, my countess."

    "Good hunting, my baroness," I said, feeling my stomach flutter with nerves as I switched channels. I knew exactly what I had to do, I just hated every moment of it. "This is Diamond Actual, I have two Light Flights over Building 37 that can respond."

    End Chapter 26

    Well.... that escalated...

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, @Readhead, ScarletFox , afforess, metaldragon868 ,Wyrme and Larc for checking and reading over this chapter.

    Thanks to StarletFox and MetalDragon for their help with the chapter titles for this arc.

    Chapter 27 is being edited and Ch 28 stands at over 3,500 words.
     
  3. Simonbob

    Simonbob Really? You don't say.

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    I really hope she kicks the spies in the crotch a few times.


    They keep missing things.
     
  4. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Something tells me that it's something more like butterflies than nerves.

    Also man has this siege become a slog.
     
  5. Gremlin Jack

    Gremlin Jack I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    All sieges are slogs. If they aren't a slog, it's because the enemy is trying to be clever. The trick is to avoid it becoming a siege in the first place, but alas, that ship has sailed.
     
  6. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    Somewhere, a wizard sneezes.

    But seriously, I love that Dresden Files caĺl-back.
     
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  7. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Yeah, there's a lot of stuff that was rushed for the mission. It also doesn't help that they're going up against House Elena who is quite paranoid and willing to put into place backup plans.


    She has gotten to care very much for her Vs. And yeah, Elena may not have expected quite so heavy of a response, and they may not have gotten their air assets up in a fully coordinated fashion, especially with their ground troops, but they did have contingencies, and their main goals were to keep the item secured and to delay House BlackSky.

    Yeah CSR had hoped they could strike enough elements to knock out all strong defense. And while they did take out a lot of Elenese assets, there was still enough hidden and backup to get them stuck in.

    Which raises the question of... what is House Elena buying time for?

    Hehe, eventually BlackStone will crossover. And thanks! I thought it was a fun change in character POV.
     
  8. Extras: Images: Long Flight 2, Legionary Armor, Lucia, and fancy dress.
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Here's another art update!
    But First, a story status update: Little Demon chapter 27 is written and is being edited right now. But more than that chapter 28 stands at 10k and once gain I'm working on the the last scene. As a further bonus the Omake crossover with AYGGW, Peer Rivals has Part 2 posted here with Part 3 being edited as well.





    From FishTheTaco232 we have this piece of a familiar subject were Tauria is recovering after a long flight while her Chief Ritualista Gibbs has complaints about hte wear she's put on her Polyxo.

    [​IMG]
    Fullsize




    Next from PlayerError404 we have an Invidia showing off her BlackSkyvian Imperial Legionary kit, sans helmet.



    [​IMG]
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    Scitty-Kitty gives us this cute headshot of Primus Lucia Hood, Flight Leader of Third Flight.

    [​IMG]
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    And Lexi Kimble made this great piece of more Ritual Plate models used by two more Great Houses
    Left is the Rochefort a Trossic air superiority suit. Right is the Tjardu a Zioxan air superiority suit.


    [​IMG]
    Fullsize

    Version with both wearing helmets.




    Also from PlayerError404 we have a continuation of the themes: Duchess SilverFlight insists her daughter put on fancy dress and Tauria meets DarkStar. Which is a way to show off them all dressed up, doubtless for some formal event.

    [​IMG]
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    And finally from Scitty-Kitty we've got another take on Invidia's Legionary kit.

    [​IMG]
    Fullsize
     
    Last edited: Nov 7, 2023
  9. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    First, what are the red highlights on the Legionary armor? Second, what is that long cloth-like bit on the Tjardu? Loose fabric is going to flap in the windsteam, and generate a lot of drag.
     
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  10. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    I do rather like this batch of art a bit more than most of the rest, as there's much less latexy feeling to everything.
     
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  11. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    1) Initially they were greebles. My guess is they're the projectors for the armor's wards. They're lower power and have very limited uses, but they add a bit more protection, but that does raise questions of why there's so much on the greaves and boots.

    2) That's decorative, think of it like a parade decoration. Much like the plumes on the Rochefort's helmet

    Yah, I do like the latex style myself, but I do think some other materials do fit the setting better. And I do like how the RP designs have evolved.
     
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  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 27: Tempest's Roar
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Diyu Demons verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic.
    By Sunshine Temple

    Naturally, I do not own Youjo Senki. So here's the disclaimer:

    Saga of Tanya the Evil its characters and settings belong Carlo Zen, Shinobu Shinotsuki, and NUT Co., Ltd.

    Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
    http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 27: Tempest's Roar
    "Confirm, Diamond Actual. We can get you some backup."

    I heard the hint of guilt buried under the dispatcher's relief, the latter emotion so clear in her voice that it almost drizzled into my ear over the comm link. But I couldn't blame her for her reaction to the news that somebody, anybody, was in a position to intercept the newly revealed threat.

    House Elena had managed to conceal a fair amount of air assets, and with all of our Ritual Plate fully committed to the raid on the Institute, our Fleet units were dangerously exposed. It had been a risk anticipated back during the planning stages, but the raid’s success had ultimately been deemed important enough to outweigh that risk entirely. And now, as a number of Elenese Lance-equipped heavy fighters supported by Ritual Plate and a recon bird bore down on the fleet assets stripped of a combat air patrol or dedicated interceptors, we were paying the price for those calculations.

    "Visha, Lucia, with me," I ordered, giving First and Third Flights their heading. I debated commanding them to go above the redline, but our suits were already stressed from our last jaunt, and this time the distances were a bit in our favor.

    "Ah.... more mask-wearing duplicity," Lucia said with what sounded like a begrudging respect. "I suppose it's for the best that I still have four pilots," she wearily noted.

    For what it was worth, Adriana had stabilized. It sounded like she still had much of the "meat" of her hand, if not any functionality at the moment. The analgesics her suit had dispensed were within limits and her flying remained sharp, though she was wisely allowing her wingwoman Cardino take the lead.

    "We're in the Legions. We'll take good news in whatever form we can," I joked.

    "They really want to protect the SilverHold," Visha noted with an audible frown. "Are we getting any backup?"

    "I’ve asked for some Svalinna, but Flight Ops will almost certainly hold them back for a fleet defense role," I admitted. "Perhaps for the first time tonight, the Elenese have finally presented an actual threat to our fleet units."

    "I've fought Zoyra before," Lucia said in apparent agreement with my opinion. "It's easy to get focused on the Lances they carry, but I highly encourage keeping in mind that each carries over a dozen Kresnik missiles. Those make for a nasty surprise."

    "And with escort by Volos RP and guidance from those missing Yarla recon birds," I grimly concurred, "they might even be able to find and hit the Tarantula Hawk or other fleet elements."

    "Wouldn't that be suicide?" Visha inquired as we accelerated and went to an intercept course. "Elena takes risks when the odds of success make it worth it."

    "Perhaps." I switched to address the full complement of both Flights, such as it was. "Girls, we've got a big one. You can see on your screens that Elena has finally woken up enough to throw together a pretty lethal strike package."

    "Primus Shadow is right. Yes," I continued, well aware that this line of discussion was doing little to boost morale, "it could be a suicide for the Elenese to run the gauntlet of the Fleet flotilla's defenses. If they act with decisiveness and skill, the Volos could stealthily destroy a lot of defenses, clearing a path for the Zoyra to strike. Meanwhile the scrying capabilities of the Yarla would reveal all of our positions to them.

    "Collectively, this formation poses an extreme risk to our Ritualista and hundreds of shippies. This will not stand. Our comrades will do their part and fight the ship; it is up to us to take out the Elenese force multipliers and buy the rest of the task force time to rally."

    I forced a note of optimism I didn’t fully feel, so my miniature briefing would end on something of a high note. I was dubious of its efficacy. The fleet elements, with their small magazines and having put almost all their RP assets into this raid, were exposed, a fact command knew just as well as I did. CSR had taken a gamble, and it might end up costing us all. It would certainly cost these Elenese fliers. The numbers were ruthless in their cold calculation: sacrifice a whole strike package, but take out a corvette or a spy ship like the Tarantula Hawk? That was a trade any commander would happily accept. And turning combat into a set of cold equations was integral to Elenese doctrine.

    "But it's not just our ship-bound comrades who are at risk," I continued. "The enemy could be headed for the hoof-sloggers. Once the flotilla is damaged, dispersed, or driven back, there will be little to force back any air-to-ground assaults the Elenese would be inclined to attempt. Unchecked… Well, I’m sure we all know what precise Lance Fire, guided by dedicated recon support, can do."

    I had us power up our Veils as we vectored onto an intercept course. The Yarla's presence made our attempts to reduce our emissions a bit moot, but there was no excuse for sloppiness.

    "You've had time to look over the threat we're up against," I said over the Flight Leader channel. VioletBlood's absence left me with a strange melancholy. Besides, she was in the safer position, lending fire support to the Sarpedona Squadrons. "Your thoughts, ladies?"

    "We take out that Recon Bird and they’ll lose most of their stream of updating tactical information," Lucia stated.

    "Though, the Zoyra heavy fighters are the main threat to our assets, both to the ground team and the fleet ships," Visha countered.

    "Not their Volos escorts?" I inquired, scanning my map as we flew to the northwest. We were still well within the bounds of the Institute's sprawling grounds.

    "While the Volos may be a real threat to our squadron, our primary mission is to protect our fleet assets, and the Volos lack the heavy ordinance to truly threaten those," Lucia cooly replied. "Those Zoyra have Lances and a considerable missile complement. Their destruction should be our priority."

    "Yes, as a threat to the Fleet you are right," I chuckled. "The Zoyra are the sharpest tail-blade. But one advantage we have is that we know those heavy fighters will keep most of their Lances in reserve for their attack runs on their main targets among the fleet elements. They won't have enough to spare for use against us."

    "That's rather... confident, Ma'am," Lucia said, carefully diplomatic in her skepticism.

    "Oh, I’m quite sure they can afford to take a couple shots at us," I acknowledged, "but nothing more. Elena didn't deploy their hidden fighters to target a mere half-Squadron. Those Volos suits may be about their most expensive Ritual Plate, but right now they're just running interference on us."

    "And you've fought them before," Lucia noted.

    "Fight is an exaggeration," I demurred, "Though the encounter did allow me to collect some very insightful data on them with my Gorgon Rig." I felt an unbidden smile tug at my lips as the beginnings of a plan clicked together in my mind. "Data that will be especially useful given that, while they may have to reserve their lances for more valuable prey, we have no such restrictions."

    +++++

    Taking in some broth to soothe my growling stomach, I rolled my shoulders a bit, feeling some of the tension knotting my muscles subside. It was a relief, though not nearly as much as the news that Lady Primus Felicity IvoryQuiver was willing to support me. With her help, we would have some hope and time to coordinate our forces. There was still the matter of getting Fleet Ops fully on-board with my plan. Fortunately, one of the elements of said plan had already crystallized in my favor, as it turned out that as the Tarantula Hawk had a small Torpedo magazine, the contents of which were an unusually closely-guarded secret.

    However, in the extremis of the situation, the magazine’s mysteries had been revealed to me. To my great relief, the contents were not some strategic scorched-earth cache or other grandiose loadout of munitions destined to erase the entire Institute should every twig break against us. No, fortunately enough, the Lady Legate's ace in the hole was quite practical.

    "Countess," VioletBlood transmitted. "About this mission we're supporting... you need to see this."

    I quashed my instinctive irritation at the distraction. VioletBlood was no broodling who needed hand-holding, nor was she a shrinking violet who quailed at getting her claws dirty. Besides, her Flight had already helped destroy the last of the Elenese armored units. "What's the situation?"

    "Let me just show you…" VioletBlood said, her voice fading distractedly away as she entered a command into her comms, and then with a few chirps and clicks, my feed switched to the combined take of the Fourth Squadron’s channel.

    I immediately focused on the area around Building 37. VioletBlood's Flight Three was in overwatch position, but had begun descending along a steady trajectory, stooping down almost to the same altitude as the rest of Fabia's Fourth Squadron. Wait... no, one of the Sarpedona Flights was moving out of position..

    "Oh Darkstar's blood, she's updated the timeline," the baroness swore, clearly not just addressing me but also the rest of her Flight.

    "HarrowFang Actual! Your First Flight is dropping in altitude!" Flight Ops cut in on Fourth Squadron's channel.

    "Confirm, First is the only one at full strength," Fabia stated tetchily, as if annoyed by the imposition.

    The renewed tension between my wings grew as I saw where the vectors were going to lead.

    Flight Ops had made the same realization. "But you're-"

    "This is JadeJavelin: the Primus is doing what those with the honor name Firmitas do," the Lady Legate cut in. "Attack run is authorized."

    "Thank you, my Legate," Fabia replied, her voice tight with concentration. "Flight One inbound. All ground units on entrance South-Two, clear the path."

    "Confirm," came Lares's gravelly voice as rotary cannons and grenades went off in the background. "We've got the door held open for you!"

    "I guess we're not the only ones bending the rules tonight!" VioletBlood said to me, sharing her gallows humor over a private sub-channel, as she directed her pilots to help with some covering fire. And then the night over Building 37 lit up in a small physics-bending sun as Lavish, exercising her stress at being late to the party, dropped a Lance strike in the middle of a group of Elenese infantry.

    As suppressing fire went, it was overkill, but given Fabia's rank lunacy it felt curiously appropriate. We all held our breaths as the four Sarpedona reduced altitude and speed and rocketed right into Building 37.

    In Ritual Plate combat, there were a few key rules. They were, in short, "never get into a melee fight" and "never fight on the ground". Both were hammered into the skulls of all recruits bearing allegiance to any House because either scenario negated the Ritual Plate's key advantages of speed and mobility.

    On my display, icons started to flare along Building 37’s image and the ground team charged inside hot on the heels of Fabia's Flight. The other Ritual Plate around the building dropped to a low, though still sane, altitude and started laying down suppressive fire to keep the Elenese from reinforcing or counter-attacking.

    "It's madness... I mean... yeah she's got wards and plenty of Falx-fire to kill infantry but… the Legion has better equipment for this," VioletBlood said, chuckling once and then sobering. "I guess Imperial Heroines are like that. Probably for the best that Reinhild didn't pack your sword."

    I ignored her thinly-veiled commentary towards me. She had a point. While a Sarpedona could, in theory, act in ground clearance options, there were far less expensive and risky aspects. A Magnus Engineering team could generate and move wards, and as for mobile offensive power, Auxiliary Scouts like Lares and his men or Legion Grenadiers could do the job with far less cost.

    "Desperate times," I remarked. Another risk factor was the alarming capacity of RP to explode when damaged sufficiently, which in the close environs of ground combat and against a dug-in enemy, represented a significant danger to friend and foe alike. Sending in four Sarpedona all but reeked of rank desperation on Lady JadeJavalin's part, as she could easily have blown up the SilverHold in the process of breaching the building.

    "Though, I must admit, the Legate's in quite a rush," VioletBlood observed before pausing to give SkySpear an order. Looking at the telemetry, smoke had begun curling out of the roof of Building 37 and the hail had finally started to taper off. Maybe they had managed to shut off that cursed magical artifact at last.

    "We are facing two incoming Elenese air assaults. I wouldn't be shocked if the Brass Horns thinks we're running out of time," I pointedly reminded her. First Squadron seemed to be doing well enough, but they would be kept busy for too long to provide any assistance with the force I was throwing two of my depleted Flights at.

    VioletBlood hesitated. "Good luck Countess."

    "Don't feel guilty," I reassured her. "You're doing the important job of making sure the spooks can get their SilverHold out of here. Once it's loaded aboard the VOTL and off the ground, can start pulling out of this DarkStar-forsaken world."

    "Understood, just make sure you and the Islander Girl get back." VioletBlood paused, as if a second thought had struck her. "Oh, and as many of the rest as possible, I suppose."

    I sighed. "You're all heart, LoveBlood,"

    "I know! Second Flight Out," she laughed before closing the channel.

    I looked at my display and saw that the two Svalinna coming in at a closing angle were almost caught up with us. "Maiden Two, it's good to see you," I transmitted.

    "Diamond Actual. I am pleased to say that my commander has released myself and my wingwoman to your operational command," Lady Primus IvoryQuiver greeted, just as prim and proper as if we had run into each other at a bacchanalia.

    "Excellent. We've got quite the threat and not much in the way of resources to meet it, though Flight Ops has given me more than I feared they would," I said, speaking as I quickly queried her suit and transferred my tactical concepts to her.

    "Indeed, normally even four Zorya wouldn't be a true threat, but with our squadrons being committed and our Fleet ships running low. Ah..." the woman trailed off as she digested my proposal. "That's a bold strategy," she said in a very carefully neutral tone.

    "The heavy fighters' Lances are their long range-threat, but it's the combination of veiled escort, reconnaissance, and heavy strike that makes the formation a true danger. But you and your wingwoman have unique capabilities that, if used right, our enemy wouldn't expect," I explained.

    The Lady chuckled. "I'll admit your idea is bold, and it is nice for once not to have us Svalinna pilots forced into the passive role of missile sponge."

    "Well, if things go right, you may have to deflect a few Lance Strikes," I half-warned, half-promised.

    Like most things with combat, it would all come down to timing and range.

    The Tarantula Hawk's magazine held a total of six Hrodwulf Light Torpedoes, each with 5 Vel sprints, two Georgius Light Torpedoes, each of which was tipped with a single monolithic warhead, and three Hrunting ship-killer Heavy Torpedoes. The Hrunting was a particularly nasty and expensive bit of kit, as it had a one-shot teleport system that allowed it on terminal approach to avoid most of a target's defenses by suddenly appearing right next to the target; literally giving next to no time to intercept the missile.

    It was those three ship-killers that CSR was keeping on the down-low. Their presence indicated that Invidia and her associates were concerned that Elena might have their own fleet assets in the area and wanted something on hand just in case of any such rainy day scenarios.

    For the moment, I couldn’t care less about the ship-killers. It was the Light Torpedoes that had my interest, a bare handful of which Flight Ops had released into my custody with reluctance. They had a limited stock and their fear was if they used them now, they wouldn't have them later on when the Elenese strike was closer. The fault in that logic was that if we could blunt the strike right now, that would be ordnance well spent.

    As I took in the tactical plots, I could not shake the feeling that this sudden thrust was part of an Elenese delaying action. If they wanted to hold us in place, this was a good moment to force the issue. We were, after all, dangerously strung out. To the east Quirinus, First Squadron, and the Shippies were engaging two Squadrons of Marzanna air superiority Ritual Plate, supported by a trio of Kupala bombers laden with missiles. And between those forces, the ground team, thanks to Fabia's insanity, had broken Building 37's defenses. In this moment, and with the new threat vectoring into the mobile fleet assets, an orderly retreat would be effectively impossible.

    While the air was still a tumult of hail and thunder, the weather gauges showed the storm was easing; between that and a call for a third wave of VTOLs to come to the operation area indicated that the SilverHold might just be in Invidia and JadeJavalin's claws. If the Lady Legate had risked her high-borne hide by setting hooves on this DarkStar-cursed colony, I hoped it was for something critical like shutting down this secretive, but so important, artifact.

    And Elena had to know this. They had to know that we were a hair away from accomplishing our objective, but simultaneously incapable of removing our hand from the cookie jar should the need arise. We were caught in a beam sea, and every minor rill could swell into a ship-killing wave in a moment. It was all contributing to my mounting concern that these air attacks were, at least in part, a way to buy time for yet more reinforcements.

    I sipped a bit of water and allowed myself a tiny bit of pride at having spotted the probable gambit. It was a nice reprieve from the choking dread closing around my throat.

    I switched to the Squadron channel and addressed my diminished forces. "Third Squadron of Epsilon Wing. I hope you've enjoyed your sojourn to Harp's World. You've seen their lovely seas, enjoyed their picturesque weather, and I'm sure we all agree that Elena's reputation as hosts is unrivaled on the Dimensional Spine, but alas, all things must end.

    "Despite our Squadron having sent the Catalan Company flotilla on their way to Neptune's Court, the work of a Legion Flier is never done! Before we leave the wonderful Harp's World, both us and First Squadron have to help the Shippies put down the dregs from Air Station Dola Gorod. Just one more strike!" I cheered, rallying my worn and battered pilots.

    It was also not a fair comparison, but I let Flights One and Three have their moment. The Catalan Company, for all their aggression and attempts to bring us down with them, had been mercenary forces saddled with old export equipment. Dola Gorod was staffed by Elenese regulars, and they had spent months preparing for just such a raid with a series of contingencies, backups, and bolt-holes.

    "Now, your Flight Leaders have explained your parts in the plan, and I have every confidence in you."

    Of my forces, only Flight Three was at full strength, and that was only because I had swapped Octavia for Charity. And even then, my use of the term was generous, given Adriana's injury. Not that a Ritual Pilot should technically have much need for her hands in combat. But I had other assets, and not just the two Svalinna. “Everyone, get something to eat and hydrate: this will be your last chance for a while."

    +++++

    The map projected before me refused to change. That is, the constantly moving estimated disposition of enemy and friendly units did not yield a new tactical situation. Around Building 37 the ground situation was proceeding well enough, and VTOLs were starting to run recovery missions. Though evacuating the salient left when egressing a landing zone was always a dicey proposition. At least I had left VioletBlood's Flight to give Squadrons Two and Four some extra fire support.

    First Squadron, with their help from Harmonia Fleet Pilots, had met the enemy force of Elenese air-superiority RP. That fight had quickly grown into a long and drawn out affair, with the enemy missile bombers helping to cover a series of their tactical retreats while the Marzanna tried to flank our forces to get to Building 37.

    I was acutely regretting this operation's lack of friendly bombers. A Flight of Hastas, or the faster but early production Manta Rays, could have done much to blunt this enemy strike. The good news was that it looked like Caenis and her Squadron would be able to grind down the enemy, but at the cost of rendering them unable to help my forces.

    Though I was not without reinforcements. "Maiden Two? Torpedo Ops?" I inquired, only now patching in the two Fleet Pilots and the Telum Centurion that Flight Ops had provided us. Reassuringly, we had gotten Prefect Centurion Landgrave Camilus again. Presumably, his unit had been roped into CSR via similar machinations to mine. At least I knew the people on this cursed operation were talented.

    "We are ready," Lady Primus IvoryQuiver stated.

    "Telemetry is good, Notus spirits have a good thaumaturgical link with the munitions. And while I had hoped to meet you and your betrothed under more friendly circumstances, it is a pleasure to work with you, Countess," Camilus smoothly said.

    For the moment, we were in a textbook BlackSkyvian formation. Air superiority was in the lead, supplemented by Svalinna and a trio of light torpedoes on a rendezvous course. All these assets were screening and protecting three meager strike-suits.

    Which was intentional. With a Yaryla using its advanced scrying suite, it was not like we could hide our force composition as we closed in on the enemy.

    "Thoughts?" I asked GreyDawn on a private channel.

    "It would be great if we had some real Fleet assets for this mission, and not just a handful of CSR's shiny new toys," my senior pilot stated.

    I gave a bitter laugh. "Those shiny new toys were the only ones with enough veiling to be able to sneak around without getting detected."

    "The Tarantula Hawk is twice the size of a destroyer so it's obvious that highly-Veiled destroyers exist even if only a handful," GreyDawn sighed. "But we got corvettes instead, enough wishing for fire support we'll never get."

    "The eternal Legionnaire's lament," I added before asking. "What about the enemy?"

    "They're forming up by putting their Volos ahead. No missile launch yet. I think they'll wait until we're committed," Signifier GreyDawn said.

    "Oh? They don't think this is a real strike?"

    GreyDawn chucked. "With our threadbare team? If I were in the enemy's Plate, I'd be anticipating harassment rather than a strike. I’d be warning my fliers not to waste too many munitions as we swooped by."

    "That was my backup plan," I admitted with an exhale.

    "It might work, but First Squadron is indisposed at the moment and by the time they can support us..."

    "Those Zorya will be far too close to Building 37."

    "Or the Fleet ships."
    "Good thing we're not going to annoy the enemy to death." Eyeing the display, I switched back to the previous channel. "All forces, prepare to execute a new course heading in on my mark." The tension pressed on my shoulders as my wings ached from fatigue. If I concentrated, I could hear little pings and rattles of my Plate; Gibbs was going to be quite upset with the wear I had put my suit through tonight.

    The moment came. "Mark! Execute! Execute! Execute!"

    One second we were in a standard BlackSkyvian formation. One that had good mutual support and would make even a superior force, such as the one we were fighting, approach us with caution.

    But in an instant, we threw all that away. The trio of Konoe Light Torpedoes adjusted their heading and with a snap acceleration broke away from our formation. Maiden Two also dashed ahead, proving once again that the Svalinna were fast suits. It was one of the many capabilities they had that were overshadowed by their impressive wards. They were still below their redline, there was no way I would risk those suits over-powering their systems.

    When facing an enemy with dedicated scrying assets, concealing the location of one's assets was a fool's game. In light of our own Occultia, the Elenese had prepared the ground ahead of time, secreting forces in case of a raid. They then attacked relatively openly, knowing we would see them but forcing a response. In setting a counter-attack under the gaze of a Yaryla recon bird, I decided to take inspiration from the Elenese playbook.

    The two formations split and went after separate targets. The Torpedoes targeted the Yarla. The crew knew what was coming, and dutifully a Flight of Volos moved to intercept and protect the aircraft. It was obvious that we were willing to commit a relatively strong anti-air package to take out their high value target.

    Meanwhile, the Svalinna's attack run gave the whole formation pause. Maiden Two, at max thrust, was charging right at the lead pair of Zorya heavy fighters.

    My abbreviated Squadron followed in their wake. I was curious how the other two Zoyras and two Flights of Volos would react, especially after what happened to their sisters.

    Doubtless receiving telemetry, a Flight of Volos had moved to shoot down the three Konoe Lights rocketing towards the Yarla. Typically, there were two approaches to overcome enemy interceptors. One could spread out the strikes on multiple vectors that would force the enemy to spread their forces out, but that risked being defeated in detail. Or they could concentrate their forces in the hopes of having a stronger attack that could get through.

    On my display, I saw the Torpedo Package try to do the latter while also trying to evade interception by twisting around and up, but the Elenese Ritual Plate ascended to keep between them and the Yarla.

    From the attention I could spare, it seemed these Volos pilots knew their craft and were not spooked by flying into the teeth of BlackSkyvian ordnance that had slammed into their terminal acceleration. The Flight had split into two pairs in a spread out rectangular formation that maximized the coverage from their own weapons, forming a veritable net to focus their fire and kill the Torpedoes as they passed.

    The Volos pilots had positioned themselves well, close enough that the faster Torpedoes could not out-maneuver the RP by simply flying around them, but far enough that a Hrodwulf could not release its payload of Vel Sprints. Thus, they only had to defeat three incoming missiles instead of fifteen.

    It was a solid tactical plan.

    Then, in an instant, it was all undone.

    Contrary to their expectations only two of the three Torpedoes on the tactical plot disappeared, the Hrodwulfs expending their payload of Vel Sprints right in the face of their would-be interceptors, instead of going past them to the Yarla they were protecting. At the same moment, the last Torpedo hooked a high-G turn that sent sympathetic aches through my bones just by looking at its new trajectory.

    The enemy Flight Leader proved she had good discipline: as she watched the jaws of the trap close, she quickly ordered her forces to concentrate their efforts on killing the remaining Torpedo, ignoring the hail of anti-air missiles entirely in her single-minded focus. Despite the detour, its course was still on track to Yarla. But now, each pair of Elenese pilots had to deal with five anti-air missiles in their way.

    This skill proved why these Pilots had been chosen for Elena’s rainy-day reserve. They were quick to adapt and immediately committed to a plan of attack. Between their suit's performance, superior Veiling, and expertise, they could have taken out all the Vels with minimal losses. Alternatively, if the Flight commander was willing to destroy her Flight, she could have taken out that last Torpedo.

    Unfortunately for them, despite her earlier responsiveness, she tried to be clever. Now, the leading wingwoman took on the incoming Vels while her second split off to intercept the remaining Konoe Light. Our Telum Centurion and his coterie of Notus spirits were feeling vicious and were able to split their attention, helping guide the Vels for maximum harassment.

    In that mad dash, one Volos was marked crippled, and another wiped clear off the plot, but two managed to get close to their target. Not content to merely be helpless prey, the enemy Yarla poured on the throttles, racing away at best speed with wards charged to max, point defense system activated, and an impressive amount of chaff flying off its frame.

    The final approach was a supersonic chase unfolding over dozens of miles and ending in mere heartbeats. The only remaining Volos standing in the way vanished from the display along with the last Vels, clearing the way for the final Torpedo. In the last moments, there was no separation, no more clouds of anti-air missiles to confuse with decoy or destroy with evocation projectors. Only a single Konoe, guided with all the predatory instinct of its Noctus spirit, fed telemetry from half a dozen Gorgon Rigs, wreathed in Gregorius protective wards, screaming through the air towards the Yarla.

    In a brief spark of hope, the Yarla’s point defense system managed to cut through the Torpedo’s wards and slice into the casing itself. Had it been carrying the standard five-part warhead, it might have even saved them.

    Instead, the almighty thunderclap of the one hundred and twenty pound unitary alchemical explosive overwhelmed the recon bird’s wards, sheared off nearly half Yarla’s hull in an instant, and sent the remains of the burning fuselage spiraling down to to the ground. A moment later, the distant shockwave finally hit me like a punch to the lungs that echoed through my Wards and armor.

    "Splash one Recon Bird," Telum Prefect Camilus stated, pride edging into his voice.

    I let the Fleet Officer have his moment: the Yarla’s death represented one less threat to his ships. My girls had to focus on the remaining pair of Elenese pilots still in the air. I would have preferred to have that whole Flight wiped out. That two Volos pilots survived having a barrage of anti-air missiles suddenly thrown in their faces was no small thing. That still left two Flights of enemy RP and four heavy fighters.

    As the Yarla was shot out of the sky, Maiden Two raced to meet the leading two Zoryas.

    Despite not normally being used in an offensive role, Svalinna warding suits had advantages. They were fast, nimble, had the same air-to-air armaments as a Harmonia, and their protective systems were second to none. If not for the monumental expense or the rarity of capable pilots, this might be a more common role.

    Unfortunately, the Zoryas’ pilots met my expectations with their prudent use of Kresniks. After the first few missiles were destroyed they slowed the rate of fire into steady but spaced out launches. Given the limited uses a Svalinna pilot had on her heavy wards, it was a sensible way to attempt to erode the protections swaddling that rare and invaluable suit.

    But it wasn’t just a matter of the Zoryas’ hammering unchallenged on the Svalinna; rather, those pilots had to strike a balance. Fire too few missiles and the two Svalinna pilots of Maiden Two could use their Ballista projectors and conventional wards to intercept; fire too many, and the heavy fighter's magazine would run dry.

    Fortunately, however, another one of my expectations proved true. As I’d predicted from the start, the Zoyra heavy fighters had held their Lance fire. While those long-range evocation weapons, longer ranged than the Lances I was equipped with, could deplete the Svalinna's wards, doing so would run counter to this formation's entire goal.

    "Diamond Actual to Shadow Actual, you may commence supporting fire," I transmitted to Visha.

    Flight One had been reduced, amounting to Visha, myself, and GreyDawn, but it was still her formation. Delegating to subordinate officers and teaching them leadership was a vital part of command. It was something I had much experience in, particularly with Visha, and that served to reduce my temptation to step on her toes.

    "Confirm, Diamond Actual," Visha stated on the Flight channel, all business. "Flight, you are cleared to bypass range warning alpha, but only after you clear your two targets with myself. You've got Gorgon Rigs, Occultia, and Maiden Two helping your scrying output. Failure is not an option."

    I repeated the command request to Flight Three. "Hood Actual, we have two Volos Flights coming to us and I would bet my coffee stash that they'll get fire support from the two heavy fighters hanging back."

    "I agree, Diamond Actual," Lucia stated. "I have orders for my Flight to move to an intercept formation after Flight One fires."

    "Excellent work. Standby for Lance Strike," I said before giving Maiden Two their orders and confirming my targeting with Visha. My systems did flash the out-of-range warning, but allowed me to make the selection as I rolled my shoulders.

    After a certain range, Lances started to rapidly lose their cohesion as the spells keeping the pulses corralled into a coherent beam faded. Despite the minor diffusive factor, though, a Ritual Plate was a far less protected target than an enemy capital ship. For that reason, when all the tactical balancing was stripped away, that was why I prioritized the Volos over the Zorya. The heavy fighter’s stronger wards might give them enough of an edge to survive what their RP escorts couldn’t. It was a gamble, but the Lances would suffice, should they find their targets.

    Complicating matters was that after our Torpedo strike, the enemy pilots had been expecting something unusual and had upped their Veils and their evasive maneuvering. It was a wrinkle, but expecting our foes to be brain dead drones rushing into slaughter was a fool’s dream.

    "Targeting information is in. Ready for Lance Fire on Mark," Visha stated over the common channel for this particular sortie. Comms momentarily went dead as she gauged the distances. "Mark! Fire!" Visha ordered.

    For at least the fourth time in these pre-dawn early morning skies, the air rippled with an arcane dawn. Half a dozen eye-searing beams of concentrated ravenous energy snapped out towards six of the eight Volos RP that were escorting the heavy fighters. The cataclysmic impact of capital grade weapons used to swat hornets briefly overwhelmed our scrying arrays, washing out my eyes and ears with light and thunder.

    The display cleared as our scrying systems recovered from the brief over flash and various other sources of data fed in.

    In the aftermath of the strike, I had to admit, I was honestly impressed with the Elenese pilots. Two suits had been obliterated entirely, having taken the core of the Lance fire dead center. One was a charred, twitching cinder tumbling away towards the north west corner of the Institute's grounds. Two had partially evaded and were still mobile, but their suits were now leaking magical energy, lighting them up like a feast day bonfire.

    And one pilot, despite everything, had managed to survive the barrage of arcane artillery utterly unscathed.

    I hissed through my teeth. The results were, by most objective measures, perfectly good. The problem was that we had little room to afford merely good. Even with the heavy damage incurred, the enemy still had Flight's worth of pilots that were functional, plus two more with heavy damage but might be able to fire.

    As I'd feared, the surviving enemies reorganized and reoriented with irritatingly commendable speed, with the remaining pilots angling right toward my Squadron. The distances closed, and then my alerts screamed as all four of the heavy fighters launched their missiles at us.

    "The Countess and her mistress just gave us quite the dazzling fireworks show! Now it’s time for the pilots of the Lantian Anchorage to take the stage!" Lucia said over her channel, showing quite the dramatic flair. "Lets not disappoint them, girls!"

    At least the Volos were focused on us and not Maiden Two. The two Svalinna closed ranks, with Lady Primus IvoryQuiver and her wingwoman swapping being the leading element as they dove into the leading heavy fighters.

    "Secondary targets if you please," Visha ordered as Flight One went to the trailing pair of Zoryas while Flight Three engaged the remaining Volos.

    My eyes tracked the vectors on the display. We were cutting our timing a bit finer than I would have liked here. Unlike the earlier carefully measured pot-shots against Maiden Two, the heavy fighters released a saturating cloud of Kresnik missiles at my abbreviated Squadron.

    With Maiden Two, the pair concentrated their Ballistas, allowing them to pierce through the lead fighter's wards. The Zoyra's wingtip blew off as it spun, recovering enough to start limping back to regroup with its comrades under the cover of the fighter's undamaged partner. I had hoped for a kill, but the odds sadly hadn’t borne out in my favor.

    "Maiden Two. Break," I ordered an instant after the two Svalinnas had already changed their heading. The nimble RP had far greater agility than the much larger Zoryas, and with their new course, they were positioned to cross vectors on a nearly perfect intercept of incoming Kresniks.

    With their direct guidance from the remaining Volos, many escaped, but the bulk were taken out by Maiden Two's heavy shields.

    "Signifier, that damaged fighter displeases me," Visha ordered. It was ruthless, but with an injured wing, it should be an easier target.

    "Confirm, Primus Shadow," GreyDawn acknowledged as she fired at the wounded and, for the moment, exposed Zorya. At this extreme range, the fighter's random evasions were almost sufficient to save it, but not quite. The heavy fighter's nose ripped off as it went into a spin. I barely registered the ejection of its two aircrew as the remaining three Zoryas regrouped and Lucia's pilots killed two of the Volos, one a crippled RP from an earlier strike, the other one whose luck had run out.

    Elenese air doctrine was calculating. True to our inter-House rivalry, they tried to outdo the BlackSkyvian way of war.

    Over Lacus Superum last year, Pukovnik Emilia Armin was able to make the rational call and withdraw her forces. But that was before blood had shed. That was when her Vanguard Strike had been observing a training exercise. Here? We were the invaders, and we had already killed many of these pilots' comrades and sisters. I knew they would not simply slink away. I also suspected what would happen when they turned.

    "Power spike!" Lucia screamed an instant before me.

    "Zoyra Lances are active! Contingency Red!" I ordered as I flipped my own suit to line up on the remaining two heavy fighters

    By the standards of a fixed-wing asset, the Zoyra was a large fighter, and for its size, it was agile, even if it was more built for speed and capacity. Our real advantage was the pilot and her evocation systems operator were fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. They had held back their limited number of Lance shots, saving them for their ultimate mission.

    For nearly this entire operation, my Flight had outranged and out maneuvered our opponents. Sniping at them with our Lance batteries before darting in for a kill on wounded prey.

    No more.

    Now we were locked in a supersonic joust armed with capital grade ordinance. In but a few wingbeats, carnage unfolded.

    My suit's eyes dimmed as beams brighter than my own Lances struck across the night sky. The three fighters converged their fire, all aiming to take vengeance upon Flight One, but Lady Primus IvoryQuiver intercepted. Time moved like treacle as her potentia ward projectors flickered and momentarily held against the onslaught before collapsing in a burst of arcane overflash. For a moment, a new sun roared its way into existence in these stormy skies, the rippling air hitting my lungs with the physical impact of IvoryQuiver’s final act of defense.

    I didn’t even have time to breathe, taking the barest sliver of an opening to fire my last Lance aimed at the lead Zoyra that I knew had just killed the Fleet Pilot, but suddenly a Volos flew into its place taking the hit.

    Time slid into a strobing series of flashes. Visual systems cut in and out, arcane leakage hashed scrying intake, and the adrenaline flooding into my veins warped my perception of events. IvoryQuiver was dead, and she would not be the last. The Volos that had put herself in front of my beam had been blasted apart, with the twisted wreckage of her suit, body, and the remains of my Lance beam slamming into the lead Zorya's wards.

    As Volos pilots tried to carve apart Lucia's formation, one of her fliers, ever so slightly out of position, was tagged by a Kresnik detonating just off her port wing. Her wingwoman flew in to cover her as she tried to wobble back to safety, only for the wingwoman’s Polyxo to be quickly obliterated by a Zoyra's strafing Lance fire. A light on my display flicked red, the cold system of the machine factually informing me that someone I had known and trained for months or years was simply gone.

    The remaining Svalinna pilot was gamely keeping up her roles of missile interception platform and flying counter-fire battery, but she was among the highest priority of targets. My own heavy munitions expended, I fell back into the role of supporting the rest of my Flight and trying to command this maelstrom.

    "Lucia, get the remaining Volos and cover Maiden Two! Maiden Two, keep interception fire but watch if they concentrate Lance Fire! Visha, any fire you have should take out those Zoryas," I forced out. I practically had to shout over the weight of my own acceleration squeezing my lungs. I could feel my body chill as adrenaline spiked. We were already executing Contingency Red, but reaffirming orders was part of my job. At least Caenis and First Squadron had completed their task and were now able to help with the pull-out. Though, I didn't even look at their losses.

    "I've still got two shots and GreyDawn has one," Visha stated, her voice clipped and strained from the high-Gs we were all enduring as we raced over the north western reaches of the Institute's grounds.

    "Understood. Form up, protective screens," I ordered as I had the remaining Svalinna protecting GreyDawn while I flew close escort to Visha. The cold calculus of war would have had me reverse that order, save for a critical difference. Visha was my wingwoman, and I was already in position to watch her, while GreyDawn was to the southern angle where the Svalinna was already in place to neatly protect her and support Lucia's formation. And there was no time to swap up.

    Another two Volos were damaged, but their pilots were moving the pair of lighter air-superiority variants with a deft maneuvering that let them stay in the fight with frustrating tenacity. Another light on my display flashed to orange. I spared a quick glance at the names and saw that Octavia's suit had been hit. A strange mix of guilt and relief swelled in me that she was not the one who had died.

    Still being screened by the Volos Flight, the three Zoyra were still out of Ballista range, and conversely, we were still out of the range of their own non-Lance evocation emitters.

    Visha and GreyDawn had lined up to fire, and I frowned at the positioning of the three heavy fighters. They were moving into us, but not at the maximum closing rate, as if they were not fully committed to their vengeance strike. Maybe these Elenese Pilots were acting more rationally than I had assumed. Though that would mean...

    "Watch for them to break off!" I warned over the comm channel as the three fighters seemingly flushed all of the missiles remaining in their ammunition magazines as a full twenty Kresniks launched. At the reduced range, the missiles immediately shot to hard acceleration and fired out in sprint mode, all aimed at Visha and Greydawn.

    Time slowed to a crawl. My heart hammered in my chest. My focus narrowed to my Ballista. It was far from ideal but suitable for a counter-fire role. Missiles blew apart as they flashed closer and closer. Sweat seeped into my eyes. Muscles in my wings ached. Warnings trilled piercingly in my ears. Despite all the irritants clawing at my mind, I followed Visha on her twisting course, stooping to descend and line up a shot at the two tailing Zoyra. We had fought together long enough that I knew her plan was to take out both remaining heavy fighters, one after the other, and that she was going to come at a higher offset angle.

    That left the forward one to Signifier GreyDawn. And protected by the Svalinna's wards, my GreyDawn fired her last Lance. It was a clean hit that blew the doomed Zorya apart.

    It only came a moment too late.

    An instant before GreyDawn’s fateful strike, the lead fighter fired its own Lance. Ill-aimed from the corkscrewing maneuvers, the beam was a blind dart throw, but an educated one tossed by a skilled foe with everything on the line. Why target the better protected Strike-Suit? Destructive energy raced across my auto-blinded vision and a wall of noise drowned out the world.

    Blood pounded in my ears. I felt like my chest was hit by a tank. Coughing, I saw that the beam's path had grazed past Visha. My breath caught. I wanted to curl into a ball. Something sharp and dreadful stabbed deep into my chest. A graze could simply mean a lingering death instead of instantly being extinguished.

    My gaze drifting, I saw small objects falling from Visha's suit. Just before my heart could stop, she suddenly snapped to a new vector and shot into a steep climb. Watching as her ejected and damaged Lance Flasks exploded beneath her, I heard her sweet voice dance along my ears. My head ached as I tried to look out and orient myself, but the eye lenses were cracked. A series of off-tempo notes trilled in my ears, making discordant music. I smelled something like burning metal. The cloying taste of blood filled my mouth.

    Despite my speed, there seemed to be something wrong with my suit's navigation system. It said I was in a flat spin, but I could see the two Zorya covered by a trio of battered Volos breaking away from us. I tried to give orders, but my tongue felt like it was stuck to the roof of my mouth.

    There was a sharp jab in the back of my neck and my vision and hearing cleared. I was hit by a cacophony of suit alarms; the status screen was full of angry warnings of failing suit systems.

    "Diamond Actual, what is your status! Tauria, can you recover?" Visha cried, her voice strangely distant.

    My mouth felt phlegmy, or maybe bloody, and I spit. Endless training exercises took over as I quickly took in the shattered systems. There was now a sharp whistling, somewhere my faceplate had jarred loose, forming a crack. Freezing water droplets splashed onto my face. I felt lucky to have comms at all. "Negative," I coughed. "Negative. I'm going to have to ditch."

    "We can follow you-"

    "No," I cut her off as I started to bleed altitude... and other things. "Those two Zoyra must be handled. If they take out the Tarantula Hawk, none of us will return back home."

    My head pounded. My wings screamed. A fog of dull agony clouded my thoughts. That seemed like the right call. It was long odds that they could reach the assault carrier, but those Elenese pilots had shown luck in getting past us; sure they had taken horrific casualties to do it, but now they were very motivated.

    "Tell Flight Ops..." I trailed off as my tail started to ache. There were more perforations in my suit, and my Zephyr were trying to soothe me.

    "We are. We'll have an Occultia watching where you go down. A SAR team is on the way," Visha assured, her voice brittle.

    "I'll... I'll land fine; we've all been trained for this," I quietly assured her. The main warning light went from amber to flashing red as a series of gauges for my power system flashed into the danger zone. That was that.

    If not for the mad dash to satiate my pilots’ bloodlust, I probably would have gotten to the ground in my suit, maybe it would have survived the glancing near-miss of a Lance. Three years of memories and melancholy filled me as I keyed in the ejection system. My Polyxo had protected me since my twelfth birthday. From the skies over Ortov and the jungles of House Crocelli it kept me alive, and now I had to throw it aside as so much scrap.

    Verifying my altitude and that the scuttling charges for the critical parts of the communications and scrying systems were set, I closed my eyes, rain freezing on my cheeks, and went to some of the first words my mother Clementia had taught me.

    "DarkStar give us the grace to return safely to our homes," I recited, unwittingly over the Squadron channel, and triggered the emergency release.

    End Chapter 27

    Poor Tauria.

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, ScarletFox , afforess, metaldragon868 , Ahuva and Larc for checking and reading over this chapter.

    Special Thanks MetalDragon for really polishing the air to air combat, and for blaming me for the association of Abba and air to air combat.

    Ch 28's last scene is being written and the chapter is shaping up well.
     
    Last edited: Oct 3, 2023
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  13. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Well this is an eventful phase of the battle. Methinks there'll be a cuddle pile with Tauria and her betrothed/mistress after the hits they've collectively taken.
     
  14. RogueInquisitor

    RogueInquisitor Getting sticky.

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    Shit, it looks like Tauria is badly hurt, and she doesn't have a convenient War Mistress to snack on. On the other hand, she does seem to still have all her limbs attached. I wonder how long recovery is going to take this time?
     
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  15. NHO

    NHO I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    This goes closer and closer to Tauria being the one to take over McGuffin of the whole operation, incidentally.
     
  16. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It was a very stressfull mission, and for Tauria it's not quite over. But yeah there's some key fallout from it.

    It depends on how bad she's hurt when she gets a chance to check herself over, and if she can get to her emergency kit, or... forage for some more supplies.

    Heh. Well.... she'd have to get to Building 37, or the VTOL lifting it off, first. Which might be a bit of a challenge.
     
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  17. NHO

    NHO I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    VTOL just needs to be shot down in the right place. Problem solved!
     
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  18. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    That is.... technically true. Though things may not go quite that way.
     
  19. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Fallout sounds like a euphemism for something. Which is either Tauria finally doing something properly physical to someone getting preggers.
     
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  20. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It's a bit early for the latter. But yeah.... the next chapter will have Tauria without her suit.
     
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  21. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Tanya getting someone preggers when it's probably a bit early for whatever potential reasons does feel like an interesting challenge to toss her way though.
     
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  22. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    It could be a challenge for her, but not exactly how it'll go for her.
     
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  23. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Yeah there's probably a bit too much keeping this Tanya from having that problem.
     
  24. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Yeah, for now Tauria will have her nieces to deal with. The plotline is that in time she will get married and then there will be maternity leave, but that is in the future. Right now she's having enough trouble dealing with her engagement and her family.
     
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  25. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Yeah I expect that Tauria would be placed on leave when she reproduces, for everything that the society seems to be about I got the feeling that both partners getting to be on leave for a kid was expected. Only question I'm wondering about is if she's just getting her main line in order with her soon to be wife or if both Vs will be preggers. Which just feels like it'd be fun to subject Tauria to as panicking "dad" mode would be a fun look on her.

    Guess we'll find out.
     
  26. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Yah, you're right that maternity leave is normally scheduled in such a way. And heh, yeah there are a lot of ways to stress Tauria out in the future when she's in this situation.
     
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  27. Extras: Omake: A Gastly Reflection
    Metaldragon

    Metaldragon Making the rounds.

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    A Gastly Reflection


    /-|-\
    \/-\_|_/-\/
    /\-/_|_\-/\​
    Sunshine Temple , here is that Spoopy Halloween omake, as promised.

    Thanks for your help getting it out the door.

    Tauria

    "Did it really have to be so dreadfully far out in these woods?" VioletBlood complained behind me.

    "You didn't have to come with me." I pointed out as I swept aside another branch in our path.

    I also wasn't sure why she was complaining. LoveBlood may have been a noble, but it's not like she was some delicate flower, she was Legion like the rest of us.

    "I wasn't leaving you alone out in these creepy woods!" She shot back. "What kind of fiancee would I be if I left my betrothed to ward off a plague of ghosts by herself?"

    I rolled my eyes while she couldn't see me. Visha caught the gesture, though, and her lips twitched into a smile.

    "Then why are you complaining?" I replied. "I know the Legion prepared you for a little hike out in the woods And I've overseen your evasion training."

    "Normal woods, yes." She nodded. "Not haunted woods plagued by rowdy spirits at night."

    "That…" I paused, considering the matter. There was much a sufficiently motivated spirit could do, and the reports I'd received indicated the local haunts were very rowdy. "...Is fair enough. Running into an angry spirit out here could certainly be a… problem."

    There was a deep grunt beside me. It took more effort than I would like to admit for me to suppress my instinct to jump at the sudden presence. VioletBlood wasn't quite as fortunate, my eye catching the twitch of her tail as Lares practically melted out of the dark forest.

    "If you don't want to run into an angry spirit, then why did the three of you bother stomping your way out here?" Lares grumbled.

    "I have a duty to my county, Lares." I said, firmly. "I'll not be caught slouching while my citizens suffer. If there's trouble in the forest, it's my job to fix it."

    "The forest has always been dangerous." He grunted. "We've always made do before."

    "The routine risks of life on the frontier of civilization is one thing, but the reports I've received are something else. Strange lights and noises at night. Nightmares from locals, growing in intensity enough to hamper sleep, but no one able to recall what any of them were about. A sense that the forest is watching them at all times." I explained. "Even reports of missing things, missing people, my people."

    Lares shrugged. "Like I said, we've always made do before."

    I narrowed my eyes at him, but the towering forest person didn't so much as budge. "...be that as it may, that was before you all became my responsibility. I'll not sit idly by while me and mine are under threat."

    "Besides," this time it was my turn to shrug, "This is just a little recon mission to see what we're working with. I've been trained in the Sisterly arts, so I know a thing or two about dealing with restless spirits, but I still need more information before I can even begin a diagnosis."

    Lares let out a deep rumbling sound that melted into a familiar sigh as he shook his head. "Stupid nosy demons… always poking your horns into trouble. Don't blame me if you get yourselves killed."

    Despite his words, Lares didn't voice any more protest.

    "How much further do we have to go?" Visha asked. "I doubt any of us would want to spend all night out here."

    "Well…" I consulted my guides again.

    Just wandering into the forest hoping to find something to jump out at me would have been the height of foolishness. My lands were not grand, but they were certainly sizable, far more than any person could reasonably cover in a day's hike, unaided. Lares was the best guide through the forest I could ever ask for, but I couldn't expect him to hunt down a spiritual disturbance in so large an area without any formal training. So, like any self-respecting demoness, I cheated.

    "According to the Compass…" I held out the golden instrument.

    The arcane needle spun and spun, the wheel it turned on shook and shook, putting thorns of disquiet in my heart every second it took to stop moving.

    "...Is that supposed to happen?" Visha asked.

    "It…is supposed to show the way to the strongest source of spiritual unrest nearby. It has also already been attuned to our natural harmonics." I explained. "Which means it should, theoretically, merely point to whatever spirit is haunting this forest. The closer we are to said source, the more the wheel should shake."

    We all stared at the golden aetheric compass twisting wildly and trembling furiously in the middle of these dark woods.

    "...Was it doing that before?" VioletBlood asked beside me.

    "No." I said simply.

    Before now the needle had pointed unerringly in one direction, and the tremors had been faint. That it had so suddenly changed now that we were making our way through the depths of the forest…

    I became acutely aware of the sensation of someone's eyes on the back of my neck.

    "...Perhaps we should return later." I ventured.

    The moment the words escaped my lips, the needle snapped still on a vector and the tremors died back down. Our horns tingled for a few more seconds.

    We stared at the compass for another moment.

    "Well…that's not ominous at all." Visha supplied.

    "Clearly, it's a sign you should turn back." Lares grunted.

    "I think it's an invitation!" VioletBlood declared, clenching her fist. "We can't show an ounce of fear to this damned forest!"

    I sighed, but didn't disagree. "We came out here to do a job. It would be poor form to turn back at the first sign of results."

    Visha just nodded and gave us that amiable smile, but I saw the way she fingered the rifle slung over her shoulder. "As you say, ladies."

    Lares sighed again, shaking his head in that way of his, but he didn't rescind his guidance.

    And so we walked.

    I took point again, letting the aetheric compass lead the way while VioletBlood followed along and Visha pulled up the rear. Consulting Lares, along with a slightly more mundane compass and map helped chart our progress, but ultimately they could only do so much as we found ourselves drawn deeper and deeper into the forest, and further and further up the mountain.

    Then, finally, when the golden compass was shaking so much I thought it might jump out of my hand, we found it.

    The once claustrophobic canopy of trees parted, revealing a pristine lake, with a layer of mist curling around the shores. The lake was so perfectly still it flawlessly reflected the night sky above us, like a mirror, to the point where staring at it from our vantage point it almost seemed as if the moon itself was resting in the lake.

    And on the opposite shore from us, sitting on the end of this water-bound moon, was a small island with a shrine. It was… somewhat confusing in its appearance, featuring wooden totems and stone statues that reminded me much of something I would have seen in small islands on the Curae Sea east of House Trosier, or smaller pacific island nations on earth, but the building itself strongly resembled a Shinto shrine. That was to say nothing of the large red tori gate before the entrance.

    "That…isn't supposed to be here, is it?" Visha guessed.

    I consulted the map again, but I already knew the answer. "No… no it isn't."

    "Is the lake at least supposed to be here?" Visha inquired.

    I sighed.

    "So… maybe some unwanted guests?" VioletBlood ventured, an eager edge in her voice.

    "But look at the age of the building. It looks… worn." Visha pointed out.

    She was right. Even from here I could see faded paint, weathered stone, and curling vines. It was clear to see that the shrine itself couldn't be new, yet there was no record of it on the map. That was to say nothing of the strangeness of finding cultural relics associated with Earth's Pacific islands, Japan included, in the middle of densely wooded mountains far from any sea.

    Although, given the nature of Diyu, there was something of an obvious answer. I could even feel it when I expanded my senses out to the breadth of my surroundings.

    "I think the definition of 'here' is far more… malleable in this location." I said. Looking at the moon sitting in the lake, and thinking about who, exactly, DarkStar's lover was.

    I have a terrible feeling about this.

    Turning to our resident guide, I hoped he had good news for me. "Lares?"

    "...Shit." He grunted.

    "...Lares?" I repeated, concern rising.

    "It's the damn moon shrine."

    "...Ah" I said with a kind of detached calm. Internally, all manner of alarms were blaring. "And what, exactly, is this moon shrine? And why isn't it on any of our maps?"

    "It ain't always here, for starters." Lares explained. "Don't know why it's here, what it's for, or how it gets here, but the island pops in and out of the forest every other century or so, seemingly at random."

    "...Well, that really only raises more questions than it answers, doesn't it?" Visha frowned.

    "Indeed." I grimaced.

    "Well, there's only one way to find those answers!" VioletBlood chirped, jabbing a conquering finger at the shrine that radiated all the confidence I wasn't feeling. "We must venture forth, for the Empire!"

    She was probably just hamming things up to inject some cheer into the otherwise gloomy atmosphere, and I privately admitted I was grateful for it, but that didn't mean she didn't have a point.

    "Is that even safe?" I asked Lares.

    He gave me a very unsatisfying shrug. "Kinda."

    "Kinda?" I repeated with an incredulous brow. "I'd prefer a little more than kinda."

    "My people have visited the shrine before. It's how we know it's moon related and such." He elaborated. "But, if you don't come back before the shrine disappears…well you probably aren't coming back at all, even as a corpse."

    "Awww, my barony doesn't have anything cool like that," VioletBlood pouted.

    The rest of us ignored her with well practiced ease.

    "...Probably?" I prodded, despite my every instinct telling me it was a terrible idea.

    "You demons aren't the first nosy things to go sniffing around here, stirring up trouble." He grumbled, shooting a dark look towards the shrine. "The last time someone tried to mess with the shrine…well let's just say the forest fed well that day."

    "But people have returned safely?" Visha asked.

    "Yeah, but only so long as they didn't piss off whatever lives there." Lares gave us all a dry look. "Please, don't piss it off. I'd hate to have to get a new Countess already."

    By reflex, the three of us gave VioletBlood a pointed look.

    "...What?" She frowned, mildly indignant.

    "Hmm…should probably get started on the paperwork for your replacement, then." Lares deadpanned.

    "Don't worry, Lares, we'll make sure VioletBlood behaves." Visha smiled, sidling up to Baroness.

    LoveBlood shot her a look, "What's that supposed to mean?"

    "Very well…" I sighed, unfurling my wings and resigning myself to this fate. "Unfortunately, we can't turn back now that we've finally gotten an actual lead. The job still remains undone, ladies. Lares, we will be back before you know it."

    We took wing and flew across the immaculate surface of the lake before landing on the far shores of the island, where a rolling blanket of fog clung to the ground. Walking towards the torii gate at the entrance to the shrine, I could see tendrils of mist curling up and around the various structures dotting the area, like fingers of some creature lying just beneath the bounds of reality grasping at these totems of civilization. When we finally stepped through the gate, I could feel something was… off, but not what.

    Something was different now, like the faint static from an old radio I could feel at the edges of my empathic sense. Yet the needle didn't so much as twitch away from its unerring position, aimed straight at the small shrine before me. It shuttered and shook in my hand, a clear indication the source of the spiritual unrest lay directly before me, yet it's point never veered from the shrine.

    Stepping inside, it was much like what I would expect from a modest shinto temple, at least until I noticed the far more tribal relics of wooden tiki masks and stone carvings. Finally, the center of the room was dominated by a clear depiction of the moon transitioning through its phases, with each phase placed in an arc along a wall. On a plinth at the center of it, with rays of moonlight, both real and depicted falling down upon it, was a book.

    Opening the book revealed that it was written in an utterly alien language to me. Although, the way each letter seemed to depict a cartoonish eye staring back at me did little to help my nerves. Nor did the sense that the book was reading me as much as I was reading it.

    "Lovely," Visha said, glancing over my shoulder.

    "I think they're kind of cute." VioletBlood commented.

    I shot her a look.

    She shrugged.

    Sighing, I clapped the book shut. "However 'cute' you think it might be, I am absolutely not dealing with its brand of nonsense tonight."

    LoveBlood made a mildly disappointed noise while Visha nodded in agreement.

    "I have to admit, I'm surprised you're not burning it." She pointed out.

    "Oh, I'm tempted." I admitted as I put the book to the side. "But I'm fairly certain that doing so would constitute 'pissing It off', and whatever 'It' is, this shrine is clearly connected to the moon. All things considered, the last thing I want to do is earn the ire of DarkStar's lover."

    The two girls traded looks. "...Do you think this is connected to her?"

    I shrugged, "I have no idea, but it's clear to see this is no normal haunting. Best not to risk it, don't you think?"

    Even VioletBlood grimaced at that. "A… fair point, Countess."

    "Now then," I unlimbered the pack from my back and let it thud onto the floor. "Who's going to help me set up the Seance?"

    A few minutes later, the jasmine incense was burning, the circle of rabbit's blood was written, the offering was prepared, and I was wearing my sisterly raiment. The particular blend in question was one meant to soothe, rather than bind or exorcize. Diplomacy was likely our best bet, at least until we knew more, no sense antagonizing angry ghosts until I had some idea what we were dealing with.

    Hopefully the offering of chocolate cake would be appealing in that regard.

    "Alright, I'll need the two of you to stay back and be ready in case anything goes wrong." I said while I put the last touch on my thurible and opened my book of prayers to the proper incantation.

    "What will you want us to do?" Visha asked, shouldering her rifle and looking quite warily at the chocolate cake surrounded by blood.

    Which… fair enough.

    "...Still figuring that part out." I muttered, letting a burst of magic carry into the thurible and ignite the incense. Blue flames flickered out from the silver cage, and the soft scent of jasmine wafted out.

    "We could try to kill it?" LoveBlood offered.

    "That… would likely just end with the two of you getting dragged into senseless deaths." I stood up, thurible slowly swinging in one hand, book of sisterly prayers in the other. Dressed as I was in the sisterhood's attire, with all the underlying spiritual protections that came with it, I was as ready as I ever could be. "At least if it's as bad as I'm thinking."

    "The logical thing to do would be to pull me out of the ritual before it's too late and run to get reinforcements." I concluded. I gave my two Vs a smile I wasn't feeling. "Hopefully it won't come to that."

    And with that tiny measure of optimism, I began the Seance.

    As I chanted the incantation to summon the spirit of this shrine before us, I walked slowly around the perimeter of the circle, making sure to swing the thurible in a precise cadence in rhythm with my words. Each step of my feet, each turn of the incense, each word from my lips was another piece in an elaborate magical formula designed by DarkStar's order to get deep in contact with the spiritual realm. Sometimes to harm, sometimes to heal, and in this case, just to talk.

    After nearly a minute of performing the ritual, the candles flickered. The wind twisted in the wrong direction. I felt a chill go through my horns and crawl down my spine.

    Something was here.

    "Please, spirit, reveal yourself." I finished the incantation, raising the thurible between me and the center of the circle, where the spirit was manifesting.

    Then, all the candles were snuffed out. The book I had discarded at the back of the room flew open. Letters ripped themselves off the pages, twirling through the air with staring eyes and inky forms. The wind whipped around me, a childish laughter buried within it, drowning out any attempt to voice protest. The letters swirled around the summoning circle. Unnatural all consuming darkness darkness fell across the room. Then, a beam of moonlight fell from the ceiling, revealing in the center of the summoning circle…

    …Me?

    An ethereal girl with my face stood in the center of the circle. A white dress hung from her shoulders, a wide brimmed hat of alabaster hung over her head, her feet didn't seem to quite touch the ground, and her flesh seemed so pale as to be translucent in the moonlight. Blonde locks fell from her head, though in oddly geometric clumps, like they were made of golden bands instead of individual strands. Her eyes flashed open, revealing glittering emerald eyes.

    Eyes that met mine.

    Eyes that saw what I was wearing, and where she was.

    Then the other me snarled in Japanese.

    "Being X, you dare?"

    Oh Fuck. I thought. Lares is not going to like this.

    Her shadow twisted on the floor, growing grasping tendrils and toothy maw pulled into a hungry smile.

    "I'm not with Being X!" I quickly denied, backing away from the ghastly reflection of myself radiating pure malice.

    "So you say wearing His attire! Holding His book! Speaking His words!" She snarled. The whites of her eyes were consumed by darkness, leaving only burning emeralds.

    "It's not what it looks like!" I protested.

    "Tanya?"

    I glanced back, breath caught in my throat to see Visha staring between us, stunned.

    My doppelganger looked equally shocked.

    "Tanya, do you remember me?" Visha asked in Germanian, hope in her eyes.

    Recognition flickered in my other self's gaze. For a moment, the fury faded from her form as she stared at Visha.

    Then it returned tenfold.

    "Being X. First you try and take my mother. Now you defile the dead?" My doppelganger hissed. "Do you know no shame?"

    "Wait, we're not-!" I tried to reply.

    "Enough!" She boomed, voice resounding with the thunder of a thousand echoes. "Though you may have dishonored their name time and time again, the Dead have a Voice, and I Am Their Speaker!"

    Her shadow exploded outward, consuming the entire confines of the room in darkness. Glaring eyes and grinning mouths crawled out from the dark, followed by monsters of all different shapes and sizes. A cackling monster made of smoke and malice, a beautiful figure in white trailing ice and despair, a tiny puppet stitched together with shadow and pain.

    I knew I only had one last chance.

    "Being X is dead!" I cried out. "And I'm you! I'm just a demon!"

    I pointed to my horns and tail, hoping that would help. "See?"

    That, somehow, drew my doppleganger to pause.

    "...Dead? Wait, demon?" She frowned, dark eyes pinched in thought. "That…doesn't really sound like something Being X would say."

    "Being X can go rot in hell, like he belongs." I spat. "I put the sword bayonet in the rat bastard myself."

    My other self rose a brow at that, and traded looks with the puppet.

    "Mimic." The puppet shrugged, somehow. I got the sense, though, it was an agreement.

    "...Alright." She sent wary looks between the three of us, but her shadows retreated, and most of her monsters with them. All save the puppet, which remained by her side. "If you are who you say you are, then we both know Being X is too much of an arrogant self-righteous bastard to do anything but sing his own praises."

    "He is. Or, at least, was." I nodded, heart rate finally crawling back down to something reasonable.

    "So… despite your… unfortunate attire-"

    I cringed.

    "I'm willing to… extend some trust your way." She finished, giving me an uncertain look up and down. "Although, really, a demon nun? That's what you decided to be?"

    "It's…" I sighed, not even sure where to begin. "Complicated. You became a ghost? How did that happen?"

    "I'm not a ghost." My other self sighed. "I just speak for them."

    "You speak for ghosts?" I raised a brow.

    "And fairies." She casually dropped the bombshell like it wasn't a big deal.

    My gut sank.

    Oh no.

    "So… are we fighting your ghost sister or not?" VioletBlood asked, awkwardly holding her sword.

    "She's not a ghost." I muttered to VioletBlood horror. "She's one of the fair folk."

    "...Well shit." VioletBlood blinked.

    My doppelganger, having no tongue for Silvan latin, merely looked at her puppet.

    The puppet gestured back and my other self looked up. "Ah, I'm not a fairy either, I just work for them as the Kahuna of Aether Island."

    I opened my mouth, tried to come up with a response, found nothing, and promptly closed it again.

    "Although my Partner, Mimikyu, is both a Ghost and a Fairy. So there is that." My other self oh so helpfully pointed out.

    VioletBlood gave her a confused look. "What did she say in moonspeak?"

    Oh how I wanted to scream.

    "...Why are you here?" I settled for, instead.

    My doppelganger gave me a puzzled look. "...Because you summoned me? I'll admit, this is a bit of an usual method to call me, but bonded as I am to Mimikyu and Lunala, I heard the call clear as day and answered it, as is my duty."

    "No, I mean, why is this whole Shrine in my County?" I pressed.

    My doppelganger just looked, if anything, more confused. "Shrine? County? Wha-"

    Then her puppet perked up, and her eyes widened. "...oh." She said simply.

    I raised a brow. "Oh?"

    "If you hope to find any answers, follow me," she said, and promptly marched past me and towards the shrine's door.

    VioletBlood frowned, "What's that about?"

    "Answers, maybe." I sighed, already resigning myself to how utterly bizarre today would be. "Come on, ladies," I said, following my doppelganger out the door.

    She led us out to the shoreline again, where the blanket of fog rose from the lake and lapped against sand. Wisps of mist curled up from the surface of the water as we approached, rising up and coalescing into some greater form. Eventually they parted revealing a…

    "...Is that a wooden fish?" VioletBlood stage whispered to me.

    "It…appears so?" I guessed, trying to wrap my head around exactly what I was seeing rising from the lake. "Whatever it is, it's powerful, that's for sure. Perhaps some kind of spirit bound to a totem." I guessed.

    My other self, however, seemed to know exactly what it was. To my surprise, she even bowed to it.

    "Greetings, Tapu Fini. How might I serve you on this auspicious night?" My doppelganger said, words dripping with the utmost respect.

    Then, like a clamshell, the fish-like totem split open and revealed the truth of the being inside.

    I sucked in a sharp breath. Even VioletBlood stiffened beside me.

    "That… is one of the Fair Folk, isn't it." Visha asked, fingers tense around her rifle. Not that it would do us any good.

    I could only nod stiffly. Unveiled as the Fae was now, I could feel its power radiating through these hallowed grounds. Whatever manner of Fair Folk this being was, it utterly outclassed us, and we had strolled right into its Domain. If we were lucky, that invitation it had given us earlier wasn't meant to keep us here forever. If we weren't…well, I suppose Lares did warn us.

    The Fairy, Tapu Fini as my other self had called it, Her, my mind insisted looked somewhat like a mermaid enclosed within a clamshell. An otherworldly intellect swam behind sapphire eyes, and though she had no mouth, a melodic tone swam out from her shell.

    My doppelganger nodded along to the tune, before suddenly paling. "Are…are you sure? That's…drastic, isn't it? And what if something goes wrong?"

    The fairy nodded and sang another melody.

    This one caused my other self to sigh, sagging in a familiar resignation. "Yes… yes, I understand Tapu Fini. That… does make sense."

    The fairy nodded, then closed her clamshell once more and returned back to the lake without another word.

    When she was finally gone from my sight, I felt like I could breathe again. Looking up, I saw my doppelganger return to us.

    "So, assuming you are my other self, as you claim," My doppelganger started, "Then I'm sure you are familiar with the idea that the reward for good work is more work?"

    "...Yes?" I answered hesitantly, my tail drooping.

    "Well, as it turns out, the Winter Court believes you did a splendid job on your work returning their mirror." She paused. "Whatever that means."

    A hole in my gut opened up and swallowed what was left of my naive hope.

    "And, as it happens, my Alolan Court believes that I did a splendid job on my work banishing a star-eating god from another dimension." the other me gave me a resigned shrug with an all too familiar helpless smile. "And, well, it seems our respective courts like to gossip. One thing leads to another, and…"

    "This Shrine is a 'Gift', isn't it?" I asked, voice hollow as my heart.

    My other self winced. "Of… sorts, yes."

    "Of sorts?" I didn't like the sound of that.

    "Yes…although we should probably take this conversation elsewhere." She said, giving the three of us a nervous look.

    "Why's that?" I prodded. "Here seems as good a place as any."

    "Well 'here' is currently something of a grey zone between the realms of the living and the dead." She replied, gesturing towards the mists circling the shore, "That's part of what Tapu Fini does. Her fog can bridge that boundary. But, if you stick around there for too long… you don't come back."

    Well that explains some things.

    "...Ah. Well, best not to linger at the train station between worlds"

    Visha and LoveBlood both gave me strange looks.

    My other self just scowled. "Don't joke about that."

    "Who says I'm joking?" I said with a humorless smile.

    /-|-\
    \/-\_|_/-\/
    /\-/_|_\-/\
    \-|-/​

    A crossover with my little pokemon-Tanya snip series I've been working on in my snippet thread. Technically cutting ahead to future events on the pokemon side, but meh.

    Came up with this idea as fun little thing to do for Halloween, as well as something neat to do for Sunny given how much help they give me on my projects.

    May or may not continue this, I do have plans for it but I have plans for a lot of stuff and precious little time to get to it all.

    Still, enjoyed writing this up, hope ya'll enjoy it, and a happy All Hallow's Eve to all of you.
     
    slagar, Kyryst, Blehdg1 and 7 others like this.
  28. Rymu

    Rymu Connoisseur.

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    Well that was an interesting omake. Tanya meeting Tanya was unexpected and fun.
     
  29. Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    Yah, this one has a lot of great moments between the two and how they can get a bit... prickly with each other.
     
  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 28: Landfall
    Sunshine Temple

    Sunshine Temple Not too sore, are you?

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    The War Chronicles of a Little Demon

    Set in the Diyu Demons verse
    A Saga of Tanya the Evil fic.
    By Sunshine Temple

    Naturally, I do not own Youjo Senki. So here's the disclaimer:

    Saga of Tanya the Evil its characters and settings belong Carlo Zen, Shinobu Shinotsuki, and NUT Co., Ltd.

    Previous chapters and other works can be found at my fanfiction website.
    http://www.fukufics.com/fic/

    C&C as always is wanted.

    Chapter 28: Landfall

    The combusting collection of engraved metal plates and fried arcane constructs burst apart unevenly as the fuel and overloaded power systems ripped free, spinning away before exploding.

    The forested ground below shot towards me rapidly as my helmet rattled, freezing, moist air whistling shrilly in my ears through the widening cracks. The green sea sharpened with terrible clarity into a multitude of reaching trees, their leafy branches heavy with ice. Desperately, I tried to direct my fall between them, aiming for the clearest crash site I could spy. My battered wings strained to bleed away speed, fighting to force my tumble towards a survivable trajectory.

    Technically, it wasn’t all bad.

    Yes, I had been shot down and was falling not too far from the grounds of the sprawling Obsidian Institute. Yes, my formation had failed to stop the Elenese strike. And, yes, I had left a comet of burning debris in my wake, giving the enemy an obvious trail to follow. But despite all of these admittedly unfortunate developments, I could still feel the reassuring weight of my emergency kit where it hung, strapped to my flight suit. My Zephyr also spun around me, seemingly dismayed by the lack of my suit, but they were alive.

    That was at least something.

    Hitting the ground in a flurry of curses directed at the Office of Cultural and Strategic Reconnaissance, I immediately forced myself back to my feet to start moving, despite the hot, tingling pain radiating through my body. No sense letting myself be an easy target, after all. My aching wings were limp at my sides, dead weights whose only motion was the slight ruffling of my feathers, as if my Zephyr were trying to cling to me.

    After days of being cooped up on one airship after another, after hours spent in the snug confines of a Ritual Plate, and after the final horrible seconds of cacophonous alerts and screaming automated warnings, the forest stillness and the quiet susurration of wind through ice-laden trees was disorienting in its broad, endless calm. Solid ground, or at least ice over mud, felt wrong.

    Bits of flaming debris were scattered around me. Most of my once ever-present suit now littered the area, all of the fine arcane engineering and mighty promising power reduced to burning wreckage. Cold rain drizzled onto my battered helmet and shoulders, but though the wet was rapidly wiping the air clean, I could still smell the tang of smoke and the harsh discordant stink of burned metal.

    I disconnect my crooked faceplate with its crazed eye-lenses. After slipping the death-mask into my inner flight suit, I took in the improved view. I debated removing the helmet. My Gorgon rig was heavily damaged, not that I could get any real scrying accomplished without any power to feed into the array. But the helmet itself still had some protection, given its internal padding and exterior armor.

    The momentary anger, frustration, and loss passed... or at least I forced it all down and focused on my training. All RP Pilots were put through Survival and Evasion courses in preparation for such situations. Never one to be satisfied by accomplishing the minimum, I had opted to take the advanced course and insisted my subordinate pilots likewise train beyond the Legion minimum.

    Now, honed by my training and my experience, I knew the objectives of my new mission. They were simple, free of the frippery and ostentation of more formal commands conveyed through official messaging and written instructions.

    My goal was reduced to its simplest form: survive. To survive long enough for my Search and Recovery comrades to find me. To survive long enough to return to my V’s, to my home in the Legions, and to my family.

    Everything else, from evading the enemy or, failing that, to resisting capture by them, to maintaining comms discipline, were all sacrifices burnt upon the altar of that goal. Everything I was and everything I did until I once more sheltered under BlackSky’s fell wings would be in service to that goal.

    I opened my survival kit, slipped on the holstered sidearm, checked the telltales that the backup comms system and locator beacon hadn't broken, secured it onto my flight suit, did the same with a small compass, and then sealed the kit back up. My earrings were another resource, but I would have to be careful spending their stored arcane capacity.

    So far, despite my unplanned landing, Harp's World was pleasant enough, if utterly lacking ambiance. Somehow, the sounds of distant battle did little to aid my appreciation of the snowy landscape stretching all around me. Ambiance or not, I needed to vanish into that tree-haunted hell and get as far away from my crash site as possible, ideally also putting some distance between me and the Institute, where who knew how many Elenese remained, continuing their stubborn last stand despite my comrades' best efforts.

    My survival kit had other tools and survival supplies, but they weren’t immediately helpful and so could wait. Some could probably wait forever – the micro-fishing kit, for example, I doubted I would ever need – but sometimes forever proved distressingly short. As I took out the compass, I felt like I might have missed something; the pressure from my air spirits was a bit distracting, but it was better to move than standing here gormlessly scratching my tail until the Elenese arrived.

    After taking a heading, I concentrated and drew upon the well of hoarded power concealed in my earrings to cast a Veil. Obscuring my movements was, I considered, well worth the smidge of power, and light obligingly bent around me like a mother's arms as I spread my wings wide and beat my way back up into the air and out of the clearing. Thankfully, a Veil that only had to stretch as far as to a single demon moving at a wing’s pace was considerably less costly then Veiling a fully-powered suit, but without that suit's emitters it would similarly be much less robust. Keeping low and slow, and with my Zephyr lifting my wings, memories of my survival instructors came unbidden to the fore. I knew Lares would be patiently critical with my woodcraft, and I knew that Reinhild would have that characteristically playful expression as she corrected me. Flying prevented any errant footprints, so easily tracked, from betraying me, but I had to take care to keep my wings from disturbing the ground below me in a manner that would leave a trail for hunters to follow all the same.

    VioletBlood was right; my maid was inordinately skillful and a surprisingly good teacher. It was not that I was ignorant in terms of orienteering, but my kitsune's harsh training had been a good preparatory for the advanced course the Legions had me go through back when I was stationed in the capital.

    Periodic checks every few minutes kept me on the same heading. Like the vast majority of colonies, Harp's World had a geomagnetic field. After ensuring I was still on course, I would roll over and glance up at the bits of the dark sky I could see through the trees. There were distant explosions, and to the south, the clouds reflected fires and blasts.

    Pausing on a branch, I checked the comm device to make sure it was still functional. Transmitting would be a risk, but the boffins assured me that our systems were both functionally unbreakable and undetectable. I had heard those assurances before.

    Feeling some odd pressures on my body, I slowly continued on my way uphill, feeling the air shift below my wings as the icy ground below my feet increasingly shifted towards exposed stone. In addition to the fatigue, my progress was further slowed by the cold ache spreading through my wings and my right hip, and by my forestry skills. This last wasn’t an unmitigated loss, though; I was trading speed for stealth, taking care to minimize my trail with every single one of Reinhild’s tricks. Without the assistance of my suit’s systems, I had to put more mental effort into maintaining my Veil while minding my course between the looming evergreen trees. The mental focus was the most exhausting part, though it was also a royal pain to slowly, painstakingly fly under the dense canopy without disturbing so much as a single betraying needle.

    Even with all of my effort, I still couldn’t rest easy; what I had done so far might be enough to throw off general infantry doing a patrol, but dedicated trackers would still be able to smell me out.

    Further up the hill, I could spy some sort of indentation, a rocky alcove that could conceal a cave. A cave would be a mixed blessing. It would offer welcome protection from wind and from the searching eyes of my enemies, but on the other wing, it would keep me from seeing someone sneaking up on me.

    But between my aching wings and my growing thirst, the prospect of a short break was… very welcome. Just enough to recover myself and warm up for a while, out of the wind and ice. As I landed on the rocks, my feet wobbled, the heels of my suit transformed by circumstance from a mere bother to an active hindrance, but I easily got my balance. I chalked my quick recovery up to my ballet training, yielding surprisingly practical results once again. Flexing my gloved hands, I exhaled. On the inhale, I smelled blood, the unmistakable stench worryingly intense. There was also the smell of smoke and fire on the wind, but that was more distant.

    Cursing, I realized I had forgotten to check myself for wounds.

    Upon closer examination, trembling as the survival spike of energy began to seep away, I found that my legs, right hip, and left shoulder had all been lacerated when I was shot down. Adrenaline had masked most of the pain I should have been feeling, though that overdue pain was intensifying with each breath. Thankfully, none of the cuts appeared to be cripplingly deep or presented a risk of bleeding out, but traveling overland with them was out of the question, as was flying over any real distance. Sighing, I took out the medical portion of my survival kit and set to work. As I tried to ignore the sting of the needle and the unpleasant tugging of the sutures, I realized why I had been feeling that odd pressure and why my bleeding was far less catastrophic than could reasonably be expected considering how ground-up my legs and sides were. My Zephyr were trying to help.

    The air spirits did not seem to understand what the fluids inside me were, but had nevertheless intuited that they were best being kept inside. After I put away the sealant tube and the remaining clean bandages, I opened one of the sucrose tablets from the survival kit and crushed it. The powder swirled a bit as the spirits explored the offering. Concentrating, I set off a tiny spark, and the powdery cloud combusted in a quick burst that was absorbed by the spirits. Even if the Zephyr's medical help was marginal, they had kept me from leaving a blood trail. That was worthy of thanks; besides, I would be loath to hurt their feelings.

    Sipping some water, I retrieved the communications device from my survival kit and plugged its cable into a recessed port in my helmet. There was a chime in my ear as I hit transmit, confirming the connection. "Flight Ops, Flight Ops. This is Diamond Actual," I whispered into the microphone. "I am stable. No enemy contact. I need pickup," I stated, before giving my best estimate of my coordinates.

    A rough location would have to do for now. Once the rescue VTOL neared the area, I would signal them, hopefully by simply turning on the beacon, and they could come to take me back to the Tarantula Hawk.

    The recovery team could already be on their way, I told myself. Surely my absence has been noticed by now.

    Of course, they could be delayed by operational demands. The complex task of evacuating a hundred Legionaries from a combat zone must be well underway by now. There was also that those two Zorya fighters had to be stopped, and taking out the Tarantula Hawk's VTOLs could be a nice consolation prize. With all of that, I was probably a lower priority…

    But surely still a priority.

    "Diamond Actual, this is Flight Ops," a relieved voice said in my ear.

    "Looking forward to pickup," I stated plainly and steeled myself. Just as the smallest spark of hope arose within me; I strangled it in its cradle before it could fail me too.

    There were a couple seconds of dead air. "There... may be a bit of a delay, Diamond," the dispatcher admitted reluctantly.

    "I see," I replied, tone leaden. Even halfway-expecting something like this, it still hurt.

    "The other VTOLs are busy extracting the ground team, and the SAR bird is recovering another downed pilot,” the dispatcher explained apologetically. “They've got another stop on the way. Your condition is stable?"

    Guilt blossoming in my chest, I exhaled through my nose and checked myself over. "Yes. A few minor injuries, but I can move. I'm... fine waiting my turn." I cursed this spendthrift operation and my own ego. Rescue operations came with a clear priority, and I was not it.

    "Diamond Actual," the dispatcher's voice cleared. "Tauria, we are not leaving you behind. I have a Flight vectoring into your position. They'll provide overwatch and if they have to, they'll pull you out themselves."

    "Understood. I know from personal experience how hard it is to use an RP to evacuate downed personnel. And that was with far balmier weather," I whispered the lame joke, flicking a bit of the semi-freezing precipitation off my feathers. Me being carried out would be a last option: speed and altitude would be greatly reduced, but at least I still had my inner flight suit that provided some insulation.

    "The SAR team isn't going to leave anyone behind," the dispatcher stressed.

    "That would ruin the operation's secrecy," I replied, forcing a laugh. While my statement had been more than half gallows humor, it had a core of truth to it. Yes, we had left plenty of BlackSkyvian equipment scattered over the Institute's grounds, but the wreckage of an RP suit was one thing; a live prisoner was an entirely different level of diplomatic incident.

    "We can keep talking if it will help, Diamond Actual," the dispatcher offered. "Things have quieted down a bit," she added, her voice suddenly sounding a lot younger.

    "Thanks for the offer, and I will call the second if... when anything happens." I exhaled. "But I'm going to find a quiet place to hunker down in and wait for that air support."

    "Good luck then, Diamond. Flight Ops, out."

    The sudden silence came with a chill breeze that snuck knifelike through the cracks in the surrounding stone, infiltrating my rocky redoubt. My wings curled over my shoulders, and more guilt curdled inside me. I hadn’t asked about what had happened to the rest of my Squadron. I hadn’t inquired who the wounded pilot ahead of me in the queue was. DarkStar's blood, I didn't even ask if the Tarantula Hawk was okay! That Elenese air strike had been defeated. Right? I took a quick look at the sky, but any remnant of the air battle had moved out of sight or behind the clouds.

    I saw nothing, and returned to my cave.

    Idly chewing a ration bar from my kit, I tried to focus on my surroundings, but introspection gnawed at me, the unfortunate consequence of being alone with my thoughts. Out here, I felt more alone than I ever had.

    When did that change? I wondered. I had been all alone once, and I’d told myself I was content in my solitude. Now that so-called contentment felt so distant I could scarcely remember it. One could even say it was a lifetime ago.

    I allowed myself a chuckle at the poor joke, hollow as it was. Anything to hold the grim thoughts at bay.

    I resisted calling Flight Ops; they had far more important tasks to busy themselves with than listening to me chatter. I also resisted prayer. DarkStar, even if she had returned to us, would likewise be far too busy to intercede on my behalf. It wasn't like DarkStar was going to ride to my rescue with a battleship at her command.

    However, the thing I resisted the most as I curled up in my chink between the rocks was wishing for the waiting to be less boring. I embraced the dullness of being adrift, out in a prematurely snowed-in forest of Harp's World. After all, as a soldier, I knew all too well that excitement would surely come sooner or later, whether I wanted it to or not, and that wishing for it was an enormously foolish thing to do, because my wish could very easily be permanently granted. Bored hands were safe hands. Or, at least, blissfully ignorant.

    It was with dread that noted the slowly intensifying scent of burning fuel drifting out of the west on the easterly wind. Even with my kind’s natural night vision, it was hard to see through all the trees and precipitation, but I didn’t need eyes to hear that something was happening west of my position buried in the hillside. As I strained my ears to hear, the indistinct sounds sharpened into the noises of a vehicle driving over rough terrain.

    "Flight Ops. Flight Ops," I whispered into my microphone. "Diamond Actual here. Picking up activity west of my position at about 290 degrees. Unknown distance, possibly a couple miles. About where that Zorya went down. I think it's an Elenese reco-"

    Cut off by the soft buzz of an incoming transmission, I activated it.

    "Diamond Actual, an Elenese Recovery Team has been spotted."

    I managed to bite off my acerbic reply as the dispatcher continued.

    "Most of the team are still securing the fighter's crash site, but a vehicle was diverted to where you crashed."

    "Numbers?" I asked, keeping my voice steady. The enemy would soon stumble across the scattered debris of my Ritual Plate, and in minutes would realize that there was no body. Then the hunt would be on.

    +++++

    I could have hunkered down, hidden, and hoped the Elenese troops overlooked me where I crouched in my burrow. That option was a massive gamble, to say the least, and even if they didn’t find me in their first sweep, remaining in place was still risky. For one, the extraction team would be forced to fight or sneak their way through the searchers to find me. In the far more likely event that my attempt to hide was unsuccessful, the enemy might overwhelm me, either with their current strength or after they withdrew and called in reinforcements. Stuck as I would be in a hole, I would be unable to retreat, my mobility traded for momentary shelter. That they possessed adequate force to pry me up out of the ground, possibly in pieces, I had no doubt. While we had destroyed most of Elena's heavy equipment, something as simple as a mortar crew or a heavy machine gun team could still ruin my day.

    A far better option was to take the initiative and choose the time and place of what was all too likely to be an inescapable engagement. This was not a decision born of some blood-thirsty desire for revenge or delusions of glory. This was the product of doctrine, of logic, and of my ardent desire to maximize my chances of survival.

    Thus, it was entirely rational for me to be concealed in the bough of a large deciduous tree, hidden by the bending branches full of ice-laden leaves. Below me, the rough track that led from the crash site of the Zoyra heavy-fighter to where I had gone down wended its way between the trees, a long brown wound in the rich darkness of the leaf litter and glistening white of the snow.

    My stomach grumbled, and my body ached as a chill ran through me, my ice-shod perch swaying in the bitter wind. I shut the numbness spreading up from my toes, fingers, and tail away, slamming the door on that corner of my mind, and continued my watch over the empty track. Focusing on the enemy I knew would be coming helped push aside the intrusive thoughts. I had a mission, a target. I could stay on task under the worst pressures; a few moments waiting for an enemy to present themselves was nothing to me, nothing I couldn’t master, couldn’t control.

    After a couple of minutes, a rumbling noise shook the pillars of the still-cold night air.

    A truck, dappled dark green and grey with an enclosed, possibly armored, cargo or troop compartment slowly grumbled down the trail, the wheels of its four axles propelling it forward inexorably over the brutal terrain. The vehicle’s heavy suspension throbbed and jolted, but ground on nonetheless, carried upon large knobby tires that churned up ice and mud like the great paddles of a steamer thrusting into a river’s breast.

    Escorting the truck were a half dozen Elenese soldiers, to a woman cold and soaked from the mid-thigh down. Two ranged out to the front, one kept pace at either side paralleling the running boards, and a matched pair trailed at the end of the small procession. As I followed their progress I exhaled slowly, carefully, running through an internal checklist to keep myself centered.

    As they approached, I tensed. All it would take was a momentary failure in my Veil, or an overlooked trail, perhaps a scent I had not thought to cover, to betray me. Even a dropped feather could be my undoing. If that cargo hold contained an arcanist capable of sensing my magics, I might already be doomed. Other things could go wrong; perhaps the truck was better protected than it looked and my strength would not be sufficient for the task that lay ahead. Perhaps I would succeed, only for cruel chance to bring down her hand. All of these doubts battered my mind like storm surges, but I wiped them away with methodical assurance, letting the waves bash themselves against the unsympathetic geometry of my mental levees. Hesitation is defeat, after all, and I refused to be swamped.

    As I lifted my pistol and sighted down its barrel, my heart slowed, its beat smoothing as the cloying tension slipped away, unimportant now that the moment to act had come. My sidearm pressed back into my hand, the recoil welcomed like an old friend, the trigger unsubstantial below my finger. The gun and the windshield cracked as one. The flash of blood as the driver’s uniform blouse acquired a scarlet bib was bright against the dark and the drab.

    The truck continued on past, swerving to one side as dead weight heaved at its wheel, and I was already in motion, dropping down out of the tree. Beneath me, a soldier looked up just in time to catch the flash of movement as I plummeted from the boughs. Something about the angle of her blank mask conveyed surprise as I fell upon her with claws out, landing squarely on her back between her wings.

    I had no difficulty in reading the Elenese soldier’s emotions as I clung to her with legs and tail, sawing through her neck with my left hand and shooting the guard to her left with my pistol.

    The blood warmed my hand and my stomach growled as the rich scent filled my nostrils. Ahead of me, a third soldier raised her rifle. I concentrated, and the loose snow and mud whipped up as my Zephyr pounced on her. The unfortunate demon tore at her mask, weapon dropping to the ground as blood poured from her ruptured ears. She followed her rifle to the ground, tumbling to the snow gasping with agony and disorienting vertigo. Her face was a rictus of silent terror, jaws wide as she tried to scream but, lacking the breath, failed as the life-giving air itself turned against her.

    The fourth guard suffered a fatal moment of indecision, caught between helping her partner and shooting the little monster clinging to her comrade. Feeling energy flowing into me as the guard below me writhed, her life’s blood frothy and scalding on my cold-numbed hands, I waved and with a flick, my other Zephyr sprayed ice over her mask. Her hand twitched up, a choked gasp of agony scratching out from her suddenly frozen face as she fell to the ground.

    In the seconds all of this had elapsed, the truck had not remained idle. The guard riding shotgun had climbed over the perforated guard to take control of the wheel just in time to haul the truck away from a crash-course into a shaggy-barked conifer Snarling, I released my oh-so-eager, oh-so-playful air spirits from their targets, directing them to pin the vehicle’s doors firmly shut.

    The two vanguards chose that unfortunate moment to round the front of the truck and enter the fray. Using the hood for concealment, they began to fire, their rounds slashing holes through the bitter wind blowing past my ears. With remarkably cold pragmatism, they shot through the barely standing woman to whom I clung.

    Pain lanced through me as I collapsed to the ground atop the cooling meat. Fighting through the urge to scream my pain and frustration, I aimed my gun towards the two survivors crouched behind the truck and tried to kindle a ward while spurring some of my Zephyr to attack them.

    I fired my pistol at the mask of one, and my spirits lunged at the other. Yes, her torso was a larger target, but Elenese body armor was rather good, and while my survival kit's pistol was loaded with cartridges enchanted to penetrate better than standard issue, they were still just pistol rounds. My choice of targets had been correct as the bullets cut through whatever protection her mask gave, and then the small alchemical charges in the tips were detonated by the enchantments activated by the bullet's spin. The damage to her head was so immediately visible that I felt quite certain she would not heal from it.

    My target died quicker than her partner, who shook with agony as the spirits ravaged her body. Her spine arched and she started to vomit up blood as my Zephyr made merry hell of her organs. After an interminable fifteen seconds, a disquietingly wet crunch at last heralded their boredom as the Zephyr decided to finally end their fun with an implosive vacuum, crushing her diaphragm and evacuating her lungs, and churned slurry poured out her lips.

    If only I had my sword, I absently thought and giggled a bit, blood frothing up through my lips. My body twitched as pain and power twined through my limbs. I was wounded, but I was also feeding, supping upon the fallen and claiming the victor’s truest reward. Sadly, it couldn’t last forever, and though my stomach still growled, business came first. Taking grenades from the nearest two corpses, I armed them and then lobbed the live ordnance up onto the top of the vehicle. My vision swam with the effort but at my urging, my Zephyr lifted the hatches open just long enough for two of the grenades to get in before slamming them shut again.

    The one grenade that got loose bounced back towards me. The cylindrical green Elenese munition loomed large in my vision until it was casually batted away by a giddy air spirit. Then came a series of dull cracks I could feel deep in my chest, metallic clangs as the fragmentation grenades violently reorganized the contents of the Elenese steel coffin, and the sleeting night grew silent once more: no more screaming, no more people trying to call for help.

    Coughing a bit more blood, I raided the cooling troops for supplies. The Elenese Model 427B Rifle was a bit long for me but was otherwise a serviceable enough weapon. I found a medical bag in the back of the truck, whose outer container was thankfully robust enough that the contents were undamaged by my grenades, as well as a set of manacles, fetters, straps, and a thick hood. These latter objects I left behind.

    I would, after all, have no capacity for the transport of prisoners.

    Realizing that, even if this patrol had not managed to call for help before their violent extinguishments, they would nevertheless be expected to check back in. Estimating their check-in schedule, I guess I had just enough time for a quick meal and an even quicker patch-job to mend the worst of my damage. Between my claws and the combat knife in my survival kit, I was able to scrounge off the best of the… field rations from the enemy troops and pack them away in a liberated tarp. Some of the food was already packaged, which made things easier. The fourth guard, whose mask I had iced over, was whimpering as I worked.

    Licking my lips and feeling the weight of my knife, I studied the haggard, pale woman who had pulled off her mask and helmet, gasping like a landed fish. Her eyes looked up and were wide and fearful. My stomach gurgled, and blood seeped out of my flight suit. I smiled and slammed the butt of my purloined rifle on her forehead, right between the horns.

    She slumped down. With the Elenese rifle over my shoulder, magazines and grenades crammed in my flight suit next to a medical bag, another canteen clipped to my belt, and a bindle of fresh vittles, I went back into the forest.

    +++++

    It took time for me to make my way back to my hidey-hole. Hungry and cold I certainly was, but not daft enough to leave a blatant trail straight to my door for the enemy to follow. Thus the lengthy detours and other, more preventative, time-sucking measures, made all the more annoying by the heavy and, for lack of a better term wet, load I teetered under. I was thankful that I had used a waterproof tarp to construct my bindle.

    Back in my hole and once more alone with my own thoughts, I felt weary and drained as the fatigue crested back over my head. It was easy to second guess my choices, now that the moment of action had passed, especially as I dressed my bullet wound. Medical supplies, training, and the supply of "field rations" helped take the edge away from the spirit of the stairs, and other regrets thankfully. Full bellies smothered regrets. Though, I had only taken the latter because I was injured, so that was that. Before I set to work in earnest, though, I laid out more sweet offerings for my Zephyr, who had most certainly earned their tokens of gratitude today and would likely deserve more before tomorrow’s sun set. The minute offerings weren’t purely expressions of gratitude, admittedly; I couldn't have my little helpers tiring themselves out, either, not until Harp’s World was far below my heels once more.

    There were more distant explosions, their reverberations echoing through the stone bones of the crag, and with the wind changing direction, I could smell more of the fires coming off of the Onyx Institute's buildings. It was easy to see this whole mission as a giant waste of material and lives, especially given my precarious position.

    Powering up my communicator, I wanted to check in with Flight Ops to give them a status update and maybe talk to someone who could make a decision.

    Unfortunately, I got my wish.

    "Countess, we are doing everything we can to get you out," Invidia promised. The spy's voice actually sounded sincere, which only deepened my initial instinctive skepticism.

    "I realize there are other downed pilots. Ones more injured than I am," I quietly stated as I finished a quick meal. Mouth full, I tried not to cough. At least breathing was getting a bit easier.

    "Maybe not given your recent escapade," Invidia chuckled, a bit of her usual cold smarmy cadence returning. "But you are in danger."
    "Do tell," I dryly noted.

    "That was not the only capture team searching for you. We just had to pull one of Caenis's girls out of a hot LZ."

    "Can you give me a location fix?"

    "Yes, two trucks three miles north-north east of you, on the logging trail. Another has stopped two miles south-west of you. Hm... it looks like they ran into the little friend you left behind to mind the counter at your impromptu delicatessen. That group has all decided to wait for backup, it seems."

    My anxiety spiked at that. Hunkering down was not what I would do if I were the Elenese commander who had found one of my patrols slaughtered save for one trooper. "Or they're coordinating something."

    "Likely. We have eyes on them, though." Invidia exhaled, and I could hear the droning of engines in the background. "Countess, help is on the way. We've called in... well... help is coming. Please just hold out, we're going to get you."
    Which translated to: don't go attacking more Elenese patrols. "Why the pep talk?" I asked.

    Invidia gave a dry chuckle. "Because this mission has been a rush job from beginning to end. Because maybe I don't want a valuable Legion Flier to be wasted when we can do something to help her. Because Elena is-" The CSR officer stopped. "The southern patrol is on the move! DarkStar's Blood! That was a Veil, they're already gone."

    Tail going limp, I exhaled. "I suspected as much."

    "Countess..." Invidia stated in a vaguely scolding tone that reminded me of the sterner sisters from the orphanage.

    There were two distant explosions to my west. They were closer than the previous ones, but much smaller. Each was about the size of a grenade that had been wired to an improvised trip-line. Reinhild was a very capable instructor, and she had shown me how much of the standard pilot's survival kit could be used. For example, a fishing line strong enough for use as animal snares could be employed in many other roles.

    However, the real challenge lay in leaving a trail that the enemy would follow, but not one so obvious that they would suspect it was a trap.

    "Explosions made a momentary hash of their Veils," Invidia said, all business-like, with only traces of her aloof tone. "One killed, one wounded. Two troopers are pulling the casualty back. That leaves eight left."

    "Understood," I said as I took up my purloined rifle and supplies. I would have liked to have taken more grenades, but done was done.

    "Prefect, they've regrouped with speed and are pressing forward on a new axis. Institute guards would have just pulled back, even an Elenese Recovery Team would have waited."

    "Sightless Specters?" I asked.

    Her bitter laugh returned. "Doubt your trap would have worked on their lot, but Sixth River Detachment is looking to even the score."

    "Lovely." I slipped forward, away from the rock and into the snow-haunted forest. I could imagine that the Elenese commandos would want to have something to present to their mistresses to lessen the sting of losing the SilverHold, and a BlackSkyvian noble and heroine pilot would do nicely. "ETA on pickup?"

    "We are focusing everything we have on getting you out there," the spy promised.

    I gritted my teeth. Invidia’s words were as empty and useless as ever, worse now that I had no recourse but to rely upon them. Instead of the hard numbers and facts I needed, I was handed nothing but hollow assurances to “trust” the manifestly untrustworthy. After such assurances had gotten me to where I was today, under an alien sun in a dimension not my own, as far from native sod as a demon could be.

    Goat-footed, I picked my way down the shingles of the slope and quietly scrambled up a shaggy-barked tree. Between foliage incarcerated in frozen rain and boughs bending under the false winter’s cracking strain, the sightlines were utterly abysmal, but... there was a spot where the game trail and the trail I had left bent, right at the foot of a rocky outcrop I had used as a signpost and a ladder back up to my hiding spot. Unslinging my rifle, I let my senses spread as I put the scope’s rubberized eyepiece up to my eye and peered out between the glimmering needles; I was far closer to my intended ambush site than I really wanted, but for this to work I had little other option.

    Rocks were a natural place to try to lose one's trail. But a couple spots of blood, the kind that may have leaked from an ill-secured bindle or a shot-up flight suit, all but screamed the unsubtle passage of weary feet.

    My heart slowed as I saw the blurred forms creep to the edge of the clearing and stop to study the place where the trees halted. Sixth River had good equipment, and their uniform's camouflage blended well with the background.

    In truth, it was less that I could see the Elenese hunters and more that I could see the ripples in the wood left by the imperfections in their tradecraft. If I hadn’t known they were coming and if I hadn’t known where to look, I would have missed them. That was disquieting, as I could only make out a handful of enemy troopers studying the clearing. Were the others behind them? Had they split their forces and sent a group wheeling about to flank me?

    My waiting was rewarded when a couple of the Elenese commandos sprinted through the clearing, moving fast and low to minimize their exposure. They knew an enemy pilot was out there, one that had booby trapped her trail.

    They would be looking for more trip-lines. Which was why I didn't use any this time. This time I had placed a minute mote of blood to the underside of a couple of thin flat shards of shale and then used each to hold down a couple grenades. I had hoped that the miniscule scent trace would be worth the risk. It was crude work, but among the rocky debris of the field, they were easy to miss.

    My air spirits went to the familiar scent and tossed the rocks I had bled on, and the explosives went off. The timing was bad, with only one commando caught in the blast, but that was what the rifle was for. As the grenades detonated, I opened up, sending a couple of rounds flying at every figure I could see and into every gap between the trees I suspected an enemy could crouch in. At least I knew that these bullets could go through Elenese personal armor.

    Jumping, I glided over to the next tree, wincing as the wind filled my feathers. Wings still aching, I glided past another trunk before alighting on a bough, then scrambling back down to the litter and winter-stripped undergrowth of the forest floor.

    "There's a team to your south," Invidia warned from my earpiece.

    Pushing my Veil up, I withdrew. My goal was to avoid being caught between two groups of Elenese commandos. Thankfully, Invidia was not a backseat driver, and she kept her peace as I rucked over snowdrifts and past beds of frost-blackened ferns.

    Pausing to catch my breath and reorient myself, I popped open one of my looted canteens. I nearly retched as the contents hit my lips – instead of water, it was filled with a thick astringent liquor. Well, I thought, that explained a few things about that patrol and gave me a ready supply of disinfectant to boot.

    My heartbeat slowed as I settled in between the forks of a tree and drew energy from my earrings. Between my Zephyr, my magic talents, and my innate demonic abilities, I had another ambush in me. It was the combat afterward that I was less sure of my odds.

    "The western group has taken care of their wounded, and they're now moving with the other group," Invidia stated, passing on an update with all the passion of a weather service prognosticator passing on next Saturni’s forecast. "Scrying is vague, but I think the western one will pass by your right."

    Frowning, I quietly checked my rifle and swapped out a fresh magazine. Invidia's scrying intake was getting better, which either meant that she had detached an Occultia to watch over me, or more mundane aerial assets were right over my head.

    "ETA on that air support?" I asked, my voice a bare whisper as I focused on my spell.

    The spy's response was cut off by the Elenese commandos opening fire.

    Aiming down the sights, I returned fire. After a few bursts at likely blurs, I took my right hand off the grip and, with a focus of will and power, released a brilliant blue stream of fire that banished the darkness with a roar and, with the help of my spirits, arced through the forest, sublimating ice straight into billowing clouds of thick steam. The staccato thumps of my Elenese rifle punching supersonic holes in the air combined with the howling, luminous azure flames of my magic worked to create a true spectacle of fury in the dim woods. I didn’t recall my flames having a silvery kind of glow before, but I didn’t have time to think about that now. Besides, it could just be my infernal flames refracting on the hissing clouds of roiling vapor. In the chaos of the forest, who was I to draw conclusions?

    Retreating, I continued to lay down as much suppressive fire as I could to keep the enemy hunkered down. I nearly managed to reach the next fallback position I’d identified, itself little more than a natural hollow indenting the ground behind a ridge of stone and dirt.

    Pain exploded through my side and head as something detonated only a wingspan behind me. It was that distance, and that I was still wearing the remnants of my helmet, that saved my life. Tumbling to the ground, I could feel, more than hear, Elenese rifle grenades going off and distantly... Invidia screaming something into my ear.

    The Elenese fire intensified, but instead of riddling my body with bullets, they seemed to be firing at something else. Then the screaming started, and the whine of familiar rotary cannons. Rolling onto my back, I could see a bit of the dark sky. Through the heavy branches overhead and the blood dribbling into my eye, I could see that the cloud cover had broken. I guess our own boffins had got the SilverHold shut down.

    After what felt like an eternity staring into the uncaring alien stars, just letting my aching chest suck in one greedy breath after another, I managed to force my screaming body to flop over and crawl back to my makeshift trench. Grabbing the rifle still slung over my chest, I took aim and saw a group of Elenese troops advancing.

    I wiped at my eyes and sniffed. No... the armored forms of the commandos are retreating.

    They were moving in good order, but they were less concerned about stumbling into my position than they were about fleeing... whatever was after them. I sighed as I reloaded, wishing I was not alone and feeling a strange familiarity.

    Smiling at the chance of getting a good crossfire going, I took aim and started shooting. The Elenese troops reacted with aplomb and, with an instant of deliberation, decided to push through my meager ambush. As their fire increased, I wondered if that third Elenese patrol had managed to join up with them. They had some sort of evocation caster with them as arcs of lightning shot through the forest.

    It was then that I was pushed prone by a large hand the size of a dinner-plate. "Please stay down, Countess," a deep voice rumbled as a giant form appeared at my side. The hulking figure was carrying a smoking Minerva rotary cannon.

    "Lares?" I asked blearily.

    "I can't have my landlady die on my watch. That would get both the bloody baroness and CSR upset at me," the Forest Person rumbled as he opened fire with his cannon. "Besides… getting a new Countess would be far too much trouble." I could barely parse out his words behind the sounds of the spinning cannon.

    "Oh... gooood...." I blinked as I shook my head and tried to rise up with my rifle.

    "Centurion Nihilus, I have the Prefect. I need a medico and extraction," Lares paused to gingerly push my head back down. "Understood. Countess... brace for close air support."

    I had a moment's bleary confusion before a barrage of arcane stars rained down across the forest. I felt the light sear through my eyelids as ground and rocks blew up, tree limbs burst apart, and groups of Elenese soldiers were blown apart under the demonic thunder of House BlackSky. For a moment, the bright blasts sliced through the forest in a devastating wave that was as gone as quickly as it had arrived.

    Steam rose up all around us from the flash-melted snow, and a haze of fog, dust, and sparking debris blew up. "Check fire! Fire mission is over!" a cold voice shouted over the small battlefield, and I watched as another Auxilia trooper supported by Legionaries cleared out any enemy survivors. My tail twitched as my ears rang, and I spit out a bit of dirt from my mouth. Shaking the spots from my vision and trying to keep my head up... I knew Legionary Fliers could get close but...
    However, my attention refocused on a figure in Legionary armor with a medical bag rushing to my position. She had a familiar stern expression and black feathered wings. Thankfully, I only passed out after Invidia reached me.

    +++++

    Emergency blanket over my shoulders, I brooded in the back of the Spatha. I really should not complain; the SAR team had done their job admirably, even if they had to fight Elenese commandos to do it. They had been quite brusque with the whole process, utterly lacking in bedside manner as they focused on securing me and falling back to the VTOL as I passed in and out of consciousness.

    The only reason Lares hadn't picked me up by the scruff of my neck like an ill-tempered kitten, I had been told, was because Invidia had been too busy patching me up.

    Being a capable medico, the spy was busy monitoring me and one of the other pilots she had picked up before retrieving me. An ashen-blonde-haired woman in a shredded Harmonia suit and missing most of a wing leaned on one of the jump seats across from me in the cramped cabin. Sweat beaded her forehead, and her eyes were glassy with analgesics.

    To my left was the hulking form of Lares, and across from him another Forest Person and two Legionary Forward Recon scouts. Secured to the decking between our feet was a rubberized body bag carrying the remains of Volantes Centurion IronTalon Cardino. I couldn't help but notice how the bag looked nearly empty.

    "It doesn't get easier," Lares tried to sound sympathetic, even though he had to raise his voice over the background noise.

    "You lose anyone, um, tonight, that is?" I asked as Invidia handed me a couple of pills from a pale green bottle. I took them without comment.

    Lares shook his shaggy head.

    Invidia turned her attention back to me and shined a light in my eye before doing a series of invasive feeling checks on my wounds. Thankfully, she was wearing gloves. "I didn't expect you to be a medic," I noted as I rolled my tongue, which felt oddly dry.

    Invidia offered me a canteen that had a straw stoppered in the mouth. "Cross-training is standard in CSR," she glanced to my right, where the Ventus Centurion was flying the Spatha from the cockpit controls.

    I lacked the energy to glare and simply drank. Based on the fresh battering her armor had taken, she’d had a busy night herself. I wondered if the mission plan involved her supplementing the SAR teams or if she had thrown together a second VTOL and recovery crew when the operation had started to fall apart and had slotted herself in as the team medic.

    "We're under escort by a Flight of RP. We just have to get back to the Tarantula Hawk, and you can be with your Vs and I can help the Lady Legate-"

    A trilling alarm came out of the cockpit, and we turned to face it.

    "Bowels of the Prophet! That's what I get for being optimistic," Invidia swore, then snapped her fingers.

    Wordlessly, the VTOL Pilot passed back a display panel that was plugged into the avionics. Giving the display a bare glance, Invidia's black feathered wings sagged, and she tossed it towards me.

    "Flight Ops. Flight Ops, this is Spatha Two," the pilot drawled. "Requesting confirmation of enemy contacts."

    "Confirm Spatha Two, scouting elements and our Occultia have detected Elenese Fleet assets," the dispatcher's voice was leaden.

    Studying the map, I understood her concern. Coming in from the north and already passing Air Station Dola Gorod, the feared enemy quick reaction force was vectoring right in our direction.

    "I guess I should feel insulted. They only sent a Serpent destroyer squadron and a single Kotys class cruiser," Invidia dryly said, her tone full of gallows humor.

    As it was not their primary service branch, House Elena's air fleet was smaller than our Household Fleet. That meant Elenese-designed airship designs were built around different priorities. Unable to have total numerical parity with House BlackSky, Elena worked to maintain local superiority whenever possible.

    Thus, the Serpent class Destroyer carried more munitions and boasted a slightly greater top speed than our equivalent Mace class. The Serpent achieved this via greater displacement, crew, and cost. It was a bit weaker in Ritual Plate coverage with only a light Squadron and, as another cost of that greater cruising speed, a shorter operational endurance. While each Serpent carried eight Thraci heavy Torpedoes, the bulk of its armament were the lighter Pelte anti-air light Torpedo. Between the Vel and Hrodwulf in range and capability, each destroyer had something like a few dozen Peltes. Like its namesake in Elenese culture, the Serpent was more of a protector of the hearth or, specifically, a mobile air-defense, air-denial platform.

    "At least they sent the cruiser," I offered. "It's not a capital ship, but the Kotys indicates that they're taking us seriously."

    "It's a weak-tailed hybrid design that doesn't know if it wants to carry Torpedoes or Ritual Plate," Invidia snorted, which caused some chuckling amongst the rest of us in the VTOL.

    With a smaller fleet, Elena could not afford to have a massive number of airship classes. That would both make construction harder and result in many classes of one or two ships, which would cause all sorts of logistical problems. The Kotys class was something of a blend of the Maul Cruiser and the Mellona Medium carrier, but despite being bigger than both, it sacrificed too much trying to multitask to match either specialty. However, that was cold comfort when it still outclassed the Tarantula Hawk's meager capacity of Ritual Plate and heavy Torpedoes.

    "I guess we'll see how good the boffins' Veiling designs really are," Lares grumbled.

    Hunching over the display, I could only nod. The six Elenese airships were still a ways off, but they were already launching Ritual Plate. Between nearly half a dozen destroyers and that cruiser, they had roughly a hundred pilots.

    "That will buy us time, but a heavy Wing's worth of RP can search a fair bit of sky, especially with their destroyers splitting into pairs for their own search support," Invidia sighed. "And once they find the BlackSkyvian interlopers..."

    I knew Quirinus would be leading her forces, and Visha would ably lead my Squadron, but getting just this far into the operation had worked our forces hard, and now there wasn’t much left in our tanks to get us clear of this latest complication. Meanwhile, the Elenese RP would be supported by about fifty Thraci Heavy Torpedoes and at least a couple hundred Pelte anti-air light Torpedoes.

    "The Lady Legate should withdraw," I stated, idly noting that the engines had gone a bit quieter. The mood in the VTOL got even more somber. Everyone here, even Invidia, had risked their lives to keep pilots from being left behind, and I was suggesting that our mothership should cut and run.

    "Obviously. That Elenese destroyer squadron has four times the displacement of our little flotilla. We can't all take four-to-one odds, Countess," Invidia said with a frosty smile.

    "It's a bit moot, as they'll run into us far sooner than they'll run into the Tarantula Hawk or our corvettes." I held in a bitter laugh with difficulty; despite it all, even after the events of the last day and night, it wasn’t hard to appreciate the cruel joke of it all.

    The best our mission planners had managed to scrounge up for “big guns” to support the Tarantula Hawk were a pair of Kolibri class Corvettes, which the Elenese Destroyers easily out-massed and out-numbered. That was nothing to say about our pitiful Venture class scout that was likely doing its best impression of an unimportant cloud under full Veil somewhere and hoping no one noticed and turned it into an all-too-real one. The Tarantula Hawk had a handful of Hruting heavy Torpedoes, but nowhere near enough to handle the enemy fleet that had just arrived. At the very least, she could make the enemy sweat before House Elena finally struck her from the sky.

    "We can either try to dash out and get to the Tarantula Hawk and hope we can teleport out, or throttle everything down pretend we're a hole in the sky and hope the Elenese miss us, or..." Glancing at her watch, Invidia's posture seemed to slump some imperceptible degree. "Or we can pray."

    "We could ditch," the ashen Harmonia pilot offered. "Put down somewhere before we get shot down, take what supplies we can, scuttle the rest, make for the Free City of Keli, and from there find passage off-world."

    I studied her face. I was sure she was part of the Second Flight of Caenis's First Squadron, but that I could not place a name to her face worried me more than her suggestion.

    "That is... possible." Invidia allowed with a vague nod. "Some of us even have covert training, others may have a bit more trouble keeping a low profile," she said, glancing over at the two Forest People... and me.

    I decided to ignore the iron scent of barely-cold Elenese blood still staining my uniform.

    Instead of responding to the slight, I found my gaze drawn back to the display and the inexorable advance of the Elenese ships. Running ahead were dozens of Ritual Plate, flying in an intricate search pattern.

    "Composition?" Invidia asked. She gave her watch a look and seemed disgusted with the time.

    "Estimates from our sources but... mostly Perun strike suits with Marzanna air superiority protecting them, and a handful of what are probably Mokosh recon suits," I sighed.

    "The most dangerous of the lot," Lares grunted.

    I gave a dull nod. Those reconnaissance Ritual Plate suits would be collating and sifting all the data being collected and the active searches of the rest of the Elenese RP Wing. They were the ones who were going to find us, the Tarantula Hawk, and the rest of our formation.

    Shoulders hunched, I bent my head and could only hope that Visha, VioletBlood, the rest of my Squadron, and everyone else would be able to escape. I would beseech DarkStar to give the Tarantula Hawk enough time to cycle its teleport runes if I thought that would make a difference.

    I clasped my hands and waited. We had gotten close; the SilverHold was no longer in Elenese hands, but it wasn't enough.

    "DarkStar preserve us in the perilous skies," I said, words slipping through my lips unbidden. They would do no good here, but the familiarity gave me some small comfort in this dark hour. At best, I could hope they would do the same for the others. "May you embrace us with your protection and keep us safe from all dangers. Bless us and enable us to do our duty. DarkStar give us the grace to return safely to our homes."

    "HFV Tamora has activated a beacon!" our VTOL Pilot exclaimed.

    Opening my eyes, I saw the blip flashing on the map. The tiny Venture Scout was to our east and a bit to the south of us. Still, over a hundred miles away, were they drawing enemy attention? Maybe the crew had volunteered to serve as a distraction, to allow the rest of us to escape.

    If so, a simple glance at the map told me it was a forlorn hope. At best, they would serve as a nice appetizer for the Elenese fleet before they moved to hunting the rest of us down as the main course.

    I uttered another brief prayer for those doomed souls, out of respect for their mad bravery, if nothing else.

    Then the sky trembled.

    A flash of purple, like a second violet sun, burst forth in the dim pre-morning air. Secondary starbursts popped around it, glittering like amethysts from the radiant mana bursting out with their sudden emergence back into reality. For a moment, the Harp’s World held its breath as thirteen hundred feet of twin hulled majesty settled into the skies between us and the Elenese formation, escorted by four sleek pilot fish and at least as many tiny scout ships. Emblazoned upon its flank was the gleaming sigil of DarkStar herself.

    "The HFV DarkStar is now on station." A clear, commanding voice rang out over the Open Channel in Thokavian and Silvan Latin. Her voice was elegant and composed, yet thinly veiled over a core of tempered violence, like a luxurious sheath hiding a silvered blade. "To all parties, I find my fangs quite hungry on this dark morning. To anyone who would like to sate them, please, I invite you to fire the first shot. I promise you, a mere trinket won’t be the only thing House Elena loses tonight.

    "To anyone who would like to live to see the dawn, however, hold your fire."

    Three times the displacement of the Tarantula Hawk, the DarkStar was a Kanabo class Battlecruiser. Carrying over a hundred Heavy Torpedoes, hundreds of Light Torpedoes, and capital ship grade wards, it was one of the Household Fleet's "big sticks".

    The HVF DarkStar alone had more tonnage than the entire Elenese formation. It additionally carried a squadron of Torpedo Bombers and supported by its own escorts of two destroyers, two light carriers, and a handful of tiny scouts. Respectable warships in their own right, they were utterly dwarfed by the Battlecruiser's immense tonnage.

    Everyone in the compartment laughed with palatable relief and gave me broad grins while Lares slapped me on the shoulder. "Prayed for a miracle, eh?" he laughed.

    Even Invida gave me a smug smile.

    "BlackSkyvian ship you are in restricted airspace," the Elenese commander replied over the Open Channel in prim Silvan Latin.

    "Yes, we are," the HVF DarkStar agreed casually, as if discussing lunch options at a cafe. "And unless you are volunteering to sacrifice yourselves on DarkStar’s altar, then I suggest you be somewhere else."

    I eyed Invidia. Her composure had slid back into place, and she gave me a smug smile. This must have been the extra support Invidia was talking about earlier. A battlecruiser Singularium was quite the asset to have in one's back pocket, something to pull out when there was no other choice, when plausible deniability was no longer an option. It was just a coincidence that the DarkStar was the ship available for this operation. No wonder she was so edgy about the timing. This whole operation had been cut far, far too close.

    "One of the DarkStar's RP Squadrons is adding to our escort," our Spatha pilot said with palatable relief in her voice. "We're lucky they appeared right over us."

    Invidia's thin smile grew a few fangs wider.

    "That Elenese commander might still make a go. Taking out our most infamously-named battlecruiser would be quite the jewel to her mask," I cautioned.

    "True… but first she'd have to go through the trouble of actually fighting our most infamously-named battlecruiser," Invidia countered. "One carrying our latest generation of Torpedo Bombers, not to mention all your Legionary Flier friends will be the ones with a capital ship providing fire-support."

    My eyes went to the map on the display in my lap. The Elenese had not pulled back, but they were not advancing. Meanwhile, the DarkStar had deployed her RP Squadrons, eight Torpedo bombers, and her escorts had fanned out.

    From personal experience, I knew some Elenese officers were capable of seeing reason, of backing down, but Emilia Armin was merely a Pukovnik in charge of a Vanguard Strike unit.

    Tonight proved that House Elena would risk multiple strike packages of aircraft and RP on a risky attempt to destroy an enemy airship. However... a cruiser and a destroyer squadron were a far greater cost to their House. That cruiser skipper would be weighing the loss of an irreplaceable artifact and a ravaged research base versus a facing battlecruiser three times her displacement. Would she be dispassionate and logical in weighing the costs? Or would she be motivated by honor and revenge? Had any of her friends or family been killed tonight?

    Strike formations obliquely lined up, including the Manta Ray Bombers who could slash across the sky at a speed that most Ritual Plate would not be able to match. They would take out the destroyers on the wings of the Elenese formation.

    Meanwhile, the Kotys class cruiser and the Serpents near it would be pounded by dozens of Torpedoes launched by the DarkStar herself. It would come down to a brutal match of who had more defensive missiles to block and intercept and more offensive ship-killer missiles. Outclassed but not catastrophically so, the Elenese formation would take heavy losses, but they could focus on a single target.

    An aggressive skipper, one who fought for glory and would charge in to rectify the honor of her House, might just take the gamble.

    However... I thought, wrestling a mix of optimism, paranoia, and hard won logic. However, a commander who was trained in a House that saw war as a calculation, was part of an air service that had limited resources, and would only risk them to get a tangible result of strategic value would know that we had nearly two dozen Kanabo class battlecruisers.

    My shoulders relaxed as the Elenese airships changed their heading and started to move to the north. Their Ritual Plate elements pulled back to cover their retreat. The DarkStar kept its position and slowly tracked as if to lay claim to all that lay before it before slowly pulling to the south.

    "Thank the Hallowed Lady for sensible enemies," Invidia stated as she leaned her head back on the wall of the compartment. Instead of falling asleep, she continued to watch me and the Harmonia pilot. I suppose it was good that she took her medico training seriously.


    End Chapter 28


    At least Tauria got rescued! And her prayers were answered. That's good right?

    Thanks to DCG , ellfangor8 , Green Sea, Readhead, ScarletFox , afforess, metaldragon868 , Ahuva and Larc for checking and reading over this chapter. They all put in extra work to go through this and make the chapter so much better.


    Chapter 29 has been written and is being edited, while chapter 30 has about 3k words written.

    I'd also like to wish those that celebrate a good Thanksgiving with food, family, and friends. And to those that do not I wish you a good day regardless. Either way enjoy the chapter! Oh, and I'll shortly put up some new art for the story to continue the feast.
     
    Last edited: Nov 25, 2023
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